In this first part of our exclusive Virgin Steele interview, founding member and frontman David DeFeis talks about the band’s early beginnings, as well as some of the more esoteric concepts running through the band’s new album, Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation. This was an absolutely profound interview for me, being a studier of the occult and a self-proclaimed magician of sorts, so I do hope that you’ll enjoy it.
First off, for those who aren’t aware of you, tell us a little bit about the band and how you got together. What would you consider some of the influences that made you the kind of band you are today?
We came together via the musical trade papers of the day. I was going to college with a guy named Joe O, who eventually became the bass player on the first few albums. I answered an advert in the local paper Good Times which said something like, “Musicians seek singer for an upcoming tour planned….” (There actually WASN’T!) But naturally, I was very intrigued. Upon phoning the number in the ad, I spoke with a guitarist named Jack and we arranged to meet at a nearby rehearsal studio the next day. I arrived on time, but there was nothing scheduled for us as Jack had forgotten to book the time! It was the typical musician first meeting chaos. I suggested that he and the drummer, Joey Ayvazian come back to my place where I had all my gear set up, to afford them the opportunity to hear my singing and keyboard playing. I played three songs for them, Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”, Deep Purple’s “Child In Time” and Rainbow’s “Catch The Rainbow” (One of my personal favorite songs of all time, by the way.) They liked what they heard and asked me to join the band on the spot. While I was interested, I had yet to hear them play. I suggested that we jam together first, which we did a day or so later. I thought that Jack and Joey were great, but the same could not be said of their bass player (in all fairness he had only been playing for about eight months at the time) and therefore I suggested my friend, Joe O. They agreed that Joe was better than the guy that they were working with, ergo, he was in – their guy was out. And it was from these small beginnings that Virgin Steele was born.
After rehearsing for about three weeks, we entered the studio to record what we thought would be only a demo. But it was, in actuality, Virgin Steel One. The album was recorded mostly live in the studio, with very few overdubs. The entire thing cost about a thousand dollars and took about a week to record and mix. As I mentioned earlier, we thought that we were only recording demos, but as we began sending our “demo” out to all of the various metal/rock magazines and fanzines, we discovered that they all liked it, and interest began to build. The fan mail started pouring in and then Shrapnel Records president, Mike Varney called to inform us of his wish to include us in his US Metal, Volume II compilation album. The featured track was “Children Of The Storm” from Virgin Steele One. After the release of that compilation record, the floodgates opened. More people knew about us and more fans were writing, so we felt that we should press up the demo/album ourselves to see what would happen. The first pressing of five-thousand copies sold out in a matter of weeks. I sold many of them from the trunk of my car. I drove boxes of Virgin Steele One records to distributors all over the east coast of the states (This was a great way to learn how the music business actually works!). Before the second pressing of five-thousand sold out, we had already had several label offers. Things looked great as we were sparking interest in record companies, and our fan mail was becoming more interesting. Two letters in particular stood out, one was from a young band in Seattle that went by the name of Queensryche and the other was from a band in California who went by the name of Metallica.
The best offer from a record company came from an English label called Music For Nations. We signed with them and were their very first release, “MFN 1.” Metallica, Wasp, Manowar and Mercyful Fate later joined us on the label. It was a very exciting time as it was the New Wave of American and British Heavy Metal and magazines like Kerrang and Metal Forces in England were giving us great reviews. In the US we began supporting many great bands like Motorhead, Krokus and Manowar, with whom we later did a very enjoyable German tour with in ‘87. And so it went for a couple of years. In ‘84 we changed our guitar player and brought in my longtime friend Edward Pursino. He has been performing and recording with me ever since. In ‘94 we brought in drummer Frank Gilchriest and he has remained with us since then. In ‘00 after a few other bass player changes we brought in Josh Block who has also remained in the band up to now. This line up has weathered many storms together and still remains.
The new record is called Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation. While it’s not a concept album, you note that some of the songs are connected to each other and I can see that. They all seem very pagan in origin, which is something I happen to know a great deal about.
There is a fair amount of Paganism. If you study ancient history as I like to do, you can’t avoid Paganism. The more you get into Paganism, the more you get into ancient history. But to be brief, the album mainly concerns itself with relationship issues and what happens when one person comes into contact with another person’s emotional trip, orbit, chemistry, sphere, etc. It also concerns our connection with ourselves – our loves and hates, our various passions, desires and obsessions. In addition to that, the album is also about the connections between entities like Gods & Goddesses in tracks like “Persephone” (with its cycle of rape and the birth of the Seasons. Her mother Demeter was also raped by Hades’ brother Poseidon) and in “Devilhead” (with the struggle between Cassandra & Apollo. That relationship didn’t work out too well for Cassandra.) But to be brief, the album is mainly about connections between people. People and their belief systems, life philosophies and the various substances we partake of or inject into our daily and nightly rituals. It is basically about all of the complexities of what drives us, makes us who we are and takes us where we may…or may not be going. To sum it up, this album is about the dark night of the soul and all of the various ways in which we humans entangle and/or destroy ourselves.
So tell us a little bit about the lyrical and moreover, the magical or occult nature behind Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation. Despite its title, the record doesn’t detail a great deal of the pain and suffering that you might expect… rather, it sounds quite ominous and quite passionate. As a secondary, what would you consider to be your lyrical muses?
As I mentioned above I am interested in Paganism, so there are those kinds of references on the album in songs such as “Persephone” and “Devilhead” for example. And there are various occult references in tracks like “To Darkness Eternal” and “Black Sun – Black Mass” which is pretty obvious. But before I go any further, it should be understood that when I make reference to a particular God or Goddess or a figure from the ancient past, I am not necessarily trying to give a History lesson. I use those elements as jumping off points for what I want to say about today. Perhaps in kind of the same way that nineteenth century Romantic poets like Shelley or Byron used references to such things. Yes the album is quite passionate. There is a goodly amount of distress, pain and suffering in there, because I largely dwell on the negative aspects of human relationships. The inspirations behind the lyrics are all the events and chaos that surround my world, my life experiences and what happens to me in the course of a day, a night or a year. Regarding the occult, one song in particular jumps to my mind, which is “Fallen Angels.” That one is music to commit suicide by! The entity in this track can be thought of as either human or in fact His Infernal Majesty, or actually both existing in the same body. I envision a room…perhaps an attic, where a male and a female are together in a kind of belladonic haze…There is sex, sweat and blood. It is the end of all things or the start of something new and dangerous. The sky has opened and the Watchers all descend, cast out of Eden (or Heaven, whatever) or maybe it is all a drug induced dream. That last line…”I’m closer now” is not meant to be comforting for either the entity uttering it or the person or persons hearing it. Was I there? Of course. Musically it is dark, very moody and not really a ballad as some might call it, but a nice closer to the album. Another track regarding Magick is of course “Glamour.” That is about enchantment of course. It is one of those songs that at first glance you think… ”Oh, he’s talking about a woman or some relationship he has or had” and yes, I most certainly am; but if you look a bit closer you might notice that I am actually speaking about my relationship with MUSIC and what She or It has done to me, for me…the good, the bad and the ugly. It is my passion, my obsession…and musically speaking, it is a unique track for me. I don’t think I have ever written something quite like it before. It has several huge riffs and almost thrash-like sections, plus these strange ethereal Gothic type breakdowns. I absolutely love it. During the recording process I never stopped writing, so some of the songs that appear on the album are actually eleventh hour additions that replaced several other songs that were initially set to go on there. Songs like “Delirium”, “Persephone”, “Glamour” and “Fallen Angels” were all just completed in the last phase of the production of the record.
As you’ve said, there are songs about Gods, demons, elementals and other spirits on this record. But I’m going to play the devil’s advocate on this one and simply ask what the atheist or the skeptic might. What is it that would possibly drive a man of your age and life experience to continue the belief in these sorts of ideas? What would you consider to be the real merit or proof behind that of Gods, demons, elementals and other spirits for example? What was it that beyond the shadow of a doubt convinced you that there were great and awesome powers in the universe and they indeed walked amongst man?
I believe in the divine power that lives inside us as humans. I am not suggesting to anyone that they must worship Zeus or Odin or Anu or anything. I am not trying to turn anybody on to any type of religion. I am just drawing attention to the idea that we humans created these deities out of our own desires, needs, etc. and I love how the Greek Gods & Goddesses all behave in such a humanistic fashion. Zeus runs around trying to have sex with every female human or Goddess, which is quite interesting and so real. Again as I study history and Paganism, I have come to draw my own conclusions about the nature of the divine and I don’t believe for example; in a historical Jesus. The conclusion one draws when studying such things is that he is just another version of the eternal dying and resurrecting Godman, like Osiris, Mithra, Adonis & Dionysus whom I personally identify with. A God or Goddess who suffers and dies is very appealing to humans, because we too suffer and must one day return to the dust. Dionysus is particularly interesting to me because he has a dual nature. He can be savage and dangerous but also quite gentle to humanity. There have been experiences in my life where people I have loved dearly died and I have had for lack of a better word…”visitations” or signs from them. What that is or isn’t is probably beyond the scope of this interview, but it has lead me to think of the possibility of an energy that exists beyond the physical plane…something akin to a soul or spirit that is eternal. This has nothing to do with any particular religion or dogma and I am not suggesting that I have empirical proof of any deity living in the sky and stroking a long beard. I am simply saying that we humans are all connected in a particular fashion and we would be better off exploring our common heritage rather than killing each other over whose God or Goddess is stronger, better or whatever.
I’m glad to see that you’ve reissued three of the greatest heavy metal records of all time, The Marriage of Heaven & Hell Pt.1 & 2 and Invictus. A friend of mine had never heard these before, but he now considers The Marriage of Heaven & Hell Pt.1 & 2 to be two of the best heavy metal records that he’s ever heard. How did this process come about, and why did you decide to re-release these two in particular?
Thanks very much for saying such! It is most appreciated! We signed with SPV in 2010 and that is when we began this re-issue campaign. Those back catalogue records were all originally with other labels and once they are sold out, if we didn’t re-issue them, then they would be lost to new fans that might want to have them after getting involved with us through hearing the new album. Every time we release a new album we make new friends and fans and they often want to go back and see what we did before. That was the main impetus to re-issuing everything. But when we do re-issue an album we try to add new bonus material, rare stuff, live stuff or whatever to keep it fresh for us, for the fans and for those people who already have the album. If they want to go out and get it again, then they will receive more value for their money, what with all the extra material.
What is your opinion on the current heavy metal scene that we have today? Would you consider it truly heavy metal?
I don’t hear everything that comes out, because honestly I am usually working on my own tracks. But now and again I come across new acts or new albums and I find some to be really nice, while there are others I don’t care much for. All in all it is quite different to the way it was when we began, but it is still here, still positive and I don’t see any signs yet of it disappearing, so I am happy about that. I have my very own particular thoughts about what makes something heavy metal or not, But that is a topic for another day.
Where can we catch you live? Are there any dates planned?
We just booked the first show for Athens, Greece but more shows will follow. We have been in the studio for ages doing various projects and it will be nice to get out onstage again.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll talk more about the album, the exclusive bonus disc and some very interesting tour stories. One of which I’m not even sure could be printed in a magazine! – The Grim Lord