Strap yourself in, as it's a bit of a rollercoaster ride.
I was now preparing for my D.I.Y annual festival Poser Holocaust. This was the fourth year of the fest and was without a doubt the hardest gig I was ever involved in. I tried to secure Extreme Noise Terror as the headliners but after negotiating with them back and forth they eventually stopped replying. However, I had 10 great bands lined up including the lads from Insurgency (see Part 1) and Irish death/grind legends Abbadon Incarnate, so I figured I would ask Scruff if Hellbastard would close the night and he agreed.
March 17th (yes St Patrick's Day) 2018
The day had arrived. I was stressed as hell running after everyone, trying to see to it that all the bands were comfortable, the bands that crossed the water were fed and such. I was also trying to sort out the setlist for Acid Age whilst seeing to it that Hellbastard was well prepared.
John McKechnie has always been one of my favourite local drummers and he did a stellar job of learning the setlist in about 3 days. We were perhaps a little loose due to lack of rehearsals but through no fault of anyone's. That was just the deck we were dealt.
Later that night the whole event turned into some sort of drugs party. Punters and bands were getting wankered, rows broke out. And in Lisburn! This was without a doubt the last time I will ever run Poser Holocaust. Sorry to all of you who have supported my vision over the past 4 years but there will defiantly not be a Poser Holocaust 5. Or at least not one run by me. Thank you to all the bands, friends, punters, the staff at Alexander's Bar and everyone involved. I am very grateful. For the future though I want to just focus on being a musician.
A few days later, we were booked to play the Warzone Centre in Belfast. This was without a doubt one of the absolute best memories I had during my time with Hellbastard. Let me explain the events as they happened.
I could not see the opening bands of the event because I had a kickboxing match which I really should have pulled out of because I was suffering chest infection. I remember climbing between the ropes of the ring wheezing my guts out. Fortunately I didn't get fucking murdered! Despite my stubbornness (or stupidity) I decided to go ahead and fight and I was beaten on a points decision which given the fact that I could hardly see at the end of the fight, I was more than happy with. Anyway straight after the fight in Dungannon we jumped into the van and headed for the Warzone. Upon arrival Scruff asked a member of the Warzone collective if he could fire breathe and received permission from said collective member (due to the following events I will not include this individuals name).
Our intro track sounded and we kicked into the set and Scruff started spitting fire, it looked fantastic. One problem. The fire alarm went off and the Warzone members had lost the key to switch it off. The whole building (including the band) were escorted outside where we all stood in amusement.
Darzo, one of the volunteers and one of the longest serving guys in the Warzone, later informed us that he thought the fire breathing looked class and had there not been a fuck-up with someone losing the alarm key, we could have continued playing.
The funny thing is, people make assumptions, that's human nature. A couple of stupid twats that were not even present at the event took the liberty of slabbering about the band on Facebook and of course the old Rebellion incident was raised and compared. There was one vast difference: since Rebellion, Scruff has asked permission to fire breath every single time and the Warzone was no different. Permission was asked and granted so he did it. That is the one thing people ignored when they asked "Didn't Scruff learn anything from Rebellion?"
Anyway, we got a lot of interviews out of it and as they say, even bad publicity is good publicity. Artists like Ozzy and Marilyn Manson have built whole careers from bad publicity. Back at Hellbastard H.Q Scruff was getting emails by the bucket load of European venues asking for a Hellbastard show and sometimes the email title topic would say "You Can Fire Breathe In Our Venue" - it was hilarious. We decided to forge ahead with it and book a European tour with our friends Insurgency (whom we met at the Glasgow show Cactus Jack "promoted").
We were scheduled to set off on the 10th of October and in order to go I had to renew my passport which was a massive inconvenience as the only interview appointment I could get was on the day we were set to depart. Scruff came over for three days the week before we left so we could rehearse. I could tell he was visibly stressed and didn't bother telling him about my passport crisis. Fortunately I managed to phone and stress the urgency of my departure and the passport office kindly agreed to do the best they could to see to it that I was able to tour and they did get it done with literally hours to spare.
Me, John and Jake drove onto the ferry and made our way to Lancaster.
Lancaster is easily the nicest city in England, it's an old medieval city with lots of old historical buildings. We were met by one of the most genuine and awesome musicians I have ever had the pleasure of being in the prescience of, Malek the drummer from Insurgency. He fed us and we went exploring around Lancaster.
It was a disaster. There was no stage monitors and I had to keep glancing at John's snare hand to ensure I was playing in time. Insurgency played an absolutely fantastic set just before us and the Varukers played a sublime and intense set of crushing sped up versions of spanning their back catalogue. I enjoyed all the bands' sets apart from ours. No worries though, there's always tomorrow.
True story, we paid a booking agent 500 euro to book some gigs for the tour and despite the fact that he had played in one of my favourite bands and had done a lot of touring on a global level, he booked the European tour as if he were a drunk monkey throwing darts at a map.
The next gig was in Belgium. The bar was small but lovely and the locals were very friendly, the beer was nuclear and Insurgency and ourselves played great sets. After we went to stay with a guy called John Berry who had something of a fixation with Irish history and folklore. He sang a bunch of rebel songs which we found funny and he kept giving me bottles of Belgian beer and stout.
He's also a fantastic musician and gave us all CDs of his thrash band "Gae Bolga" named after the spear of Cú Chulainn. They're an awesome band, for fans of Deathhammer and Aura Noir. At 6 o'clock in the morning myself and Malek were the last two standing (but barely) we had a fantastic night bonding and chatting about everything, life, music, art, culture. I really had a great time. Thank you Belgium!
After Belgium we returned to France (I know, the booking agent is a moron, this happened a lot on the tour as you will see). We played The Riveter in Nancy. The Riveter is a boat on a canal in Nancy, one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen in my life. The promoter fed us some nice food and the sound was superb. We played with a band called Suture and they are a new band that makes up for in energy what they lack in experience. Nice guys, awesome musicians and lots of smiles.
It was a great gig.
The next day was a Monday and we had a day off, one of two days off we had on this tour. We did a bit of exploring and then set off in the van for Slovenia on one of the longest and ill planned drives I have ever been involved with.
Our driver Richard is a star, I have no idea how he did it. Richard is a little eccentric but a honourable man. He has a game, where every venue he plays he ensures to climb a tree near by. He must have climbed over 100 trees on this tour. He's good at it too. It was mental!
We made our way to Kranj in Slovenia but on the way our van broke down and we had to exchange it for another, this set us back about 3 hours and stressed everyone out. We didn't make it to Kranj until midnight and we had missed the gig deadline. The venue was a skate park and there was a lady there who took care of us (though I forget her name, sorry) but she saw to it we all had been fed and a place to stay. There was however one wing-nut called Tim who was drunk as fuck on vodka and informed us that he "likes to fuck his bitches" in a strong Slovenian accent. If you've ever seen the Facebook page "Slavs squatting in tracksuits" that's what this guy looked like. He was really intense and in your face and very aggressive. I went to bed early-ish (after 1am) because I couldn't stand listening to anymore abrasive Slovenian rave-grind. Apparently while I was sleeping Tim tried to break Scruffs leg and Malek had to intervene. I have no idea exactly what happened but the next morning we left in a hurry.
The next gig in Slovenia was in Ljubljana and was without a doubt the worst experience of the entire tour. So here's what happened …
We arrived a little early (around noon I think) and discovered we were playing in an autonomous society that harboured refugees, had a skate park and lots of eccentric decor. So we're standing in the main yard which was in a massive gated complex and just chatting amongst ourselves and having a few tins of beer when Scruff asks "Where's the toilet?"
Malek pointed in some direction and said "Over there". So Scruff walked over to what he presumed was a toilet, it was like big black portable box with a door covered in weird artwork. Scruff walks in, pulls out his dick only to hear shouting from the floor below him.
As it turns out, it was not a toilet, it was a prayer booth/mosque and they don't take too kindly to white skinned men going in with their cocks hanging out. The guy that was on the floor praying started screaming and chased Scruff out. He stubbed out a cigarette on the back of our van and pissed on it and started making throat cutting gestures to Scruff.
We were a tad unnerved but figured that he wouldn't be a problem because there was only one of him and 9 of us. But apparently that idea crossed our minds too soon as he fucked off and came back with a gang of men with sticks.
"Fuck this, lets get in the van until the promoter comes" I said, so we jumped in the van and the gang started screaming and smacking the van doors calling us infidels and all kinds of shit. Richard slammed on the breaks as three of the gang were stood in front of the gate so we couldn't escape. We jumped out of the van and fortunately were greeted by the promoters who calmed the nut jobs down.
We went around the corner of the massive complex to the venue where the promoter expressed that she had, had serious problems with this individual before. His name is Muhammad and apparently some of his offences include:
1. Cutting the heads of goats and presenting them as gifts to his enemies
2. Throwing petrol bombs at the skaters
3. Stabbing the sound engineer earlier that day with a machete
4. Walking around the complex at night with a machete in case he feels like killing someone.
Some of the skaters had told us that they had run into problems with him and that many of the skaters had left and refused to return to the park. Those that remained really love skating and refuse to be terrorized by the twat. Hellbastard always cover Slayer's 'Die By the Sword' at the end of every set but for the rest of the tour we renamed the song "Die For the Board" in honour of those kids.
The venue was fucking massive and absolutely freezing. The food was beyond disgusting and the beer was about the only thing I could tolerate. It's sad really because the folks that run it are trying very hard to get bands in and make the place better for everyone but because of Muhammad they are struggling and because it's an autonomous society, they can't exactly call the police as the whole essence of the place is to live with no involvement from the outside world or government. I genuinely feel sorry for them and it's one of the most beautiful cities on earth but part of me couldn't wait to escape.
No problem though, the next day we had one of the very best experiences on the tour. We played the awesome Black Label in Leipzig. Germany is somewhere I have never been but always wanted to see. The bar staff informed us that if we wanted any drinks that it would be sorted. I must have drank about 1000 Euros worth of alcohol myself. Insurgency played an absolute crushing set as usual (though this one was my favourite performance from them because the sound was perfect and I was able to watch from the balcony whilst eating some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted and if that's not good enough, the desert after which was prepared by the venues chef was even better than the savoury. With a full belly and a few pints in me, I walked to the stage and Hellbastard played without a doubt one of the very best sets of the tour and the place went nuts. I loved it! I will play the Black Label again in a heartbeat! Fun fact: We were informed by the bar staff that we broke the record for most drink consumed by any band in the history of the venue! Great success!!!
The next day we played in Stumpf in Hanover. Again, great food, great treatment, free beer and awesome people! Stumpf is a small but cosy venue that bears resemblance to the old Warzone centre in Belfast.
I got to meet Lisa from Exilent. She's a ferocious guitarist and a beautiful person outside and inside. Us and Insurgency played great and after I did my usual drinking the place dry thing with Malek. And as usual after a few beers needed to piss.
I went to the toilet and went to push the cubicle door open only to find that it wouldn't open because someone was in there. I figured I'd just wait until they were done and then two guys walked out of the cubicle and one of them apologized saying "I'm sorry I vaz just focking my boyfriend in zer."
I turned away from him thinking "that's none of my business" so after they walked out I went into the cubicle only to find a scene from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Blood everywhere, in the toilet on the seat, on the floor. I nearly fainted, it was grim! After the toilet fiasco our party enjoyed socializing with the locals and downing as much beer as we could before we went back to Lisa's place to crash. I can't thank her enough for her kindness. She's a star!
The next gig was in Berlin. The legendary Kopi. If you have never been to the Kopi you need to see it at least once in your life. It was the most sincere yet bizarre place I have ever experienced. It has a strict "No Photography" rule because they claim that the rule is all the memories are to be kept inside the venue. That sounds a tad romanticised to me (chances are they have too many refugees in the place to have pictures going up on social media).
Regardless, it was one of the best gigs of the tour. The place was absolutely packed. Hundreds upon hundreds of punks, metallers, crusties … you name it. The audience was insane! My setlist got covered in blood, most of the stage was covered in blood! I will play there again one day! I'll never forget it! The stage was huge and so was the sound system. One weakness? Food! It was vegan slop. Mushroom goop. I'll eat anything but I hate mushrooms and that's what we were served. Not to worry though, the drinks were free so I had a liquid diet that night!
If you play any kind of crust, hardcore, thrash, power-violence etc … you need to play Kopi. I can't even put into words how awesome a place it is and I can't wait to return!
I also got to met Olivia from Dungeon and Maggot Heart there. Not only is she an absolutely flawless musician but she's also incredibly kind and very funny. She gave me some warm-up tips she received from Chewy, the guitarist from Voivod. Thank you Liv, I've used that wee trick every night since!
The next gig was in Dresden, sadly it wasn't as good as the other 3 cities in Germany. The crowd was far too small for such a massive venue. The stage was huge and the sound system was massive but the sound man didn't have a clue what he was at. That's really all there is to know about our time in Dresden.
Onwards and upwards though: the next venue was in Vienna and the promoter was a guy called Günter who was one of the most awesome promoters we met on the whole tour. Asked us what we wanted to eat and after all those disgusting vegan dishes I was ready for a spicy meaty pizza and that's what he got for me. He kept serving us beers and he was also the sound engineer. It's evident that he has been a sound engineer for years because he is fucking awesome at it, using delays at the right points, the correct amount of reverb on the kit. And then after we stayed in an apartment and it was lovely. Austria is a beautiful country. Another place I'll return to. Thank you Guntar, you're world class!
The next gig was in Milan in Italy (Yes, I know What A Stupid Route!) it was an incredibly long drive, so we decided to get drunk in the van and the whole van turned into a mosh pit. We got steaming. However, by the time I arrived in Milan I was too drunk to be anywhere near a guitar let alone a stage. It was without a doubt the worst performance from myself. I can't remember playing but the next day I apologized to the guys and they all said it was cool because I wasn't the only one that got drunk. That night we stayed in the Hotel Ibis, with Scruff taught me how to fire breathe and if it wasn't for the gig it would have been a fantastic night. Oh well!
The drive the next day was back to France (another stupid route) and we went through the Alps. It's an absolutely breath-taking landscape, the scenery is unrivalled and it helped me through my hangover. I took as many pictures as I could and best of all it was autumn so the trees on the mountains were every kind of colour you can imagine. I've never been so in awe of any landscape.
Crossing the toll between Italy into France we were stopped by a bunch of hostile, meat-head cops who looked like they were on an all protein diet. Fortunately Malek is fluent in 7 different languages so he was able to interpret their demands. They were positive we had drugs in the van and we genuinely didn't so they ordered us to get out of the ban where we stood in the scorching hot sun for about an hour while they got the sniffer dogs to search the van. Needless to say they didn't find anything and they were pissed off about it. They were positive our driver Richard had some drugs but he was the fucking driver, the straightest guy in the van. These guys were complete knobs. Fuck them!
We made our way to Cavaillon in France but not before stopping at a beach on the way and jumping into the sea for a swim. It's an amazing hangover cure. We arrived at the Iron Bar and at first I wasn't sure what to think, it was a tiny venue but I was proven wrong by literally everything.
Amazing food, amazing accommodation, lovely staff and the place was fucking packed. Insurgency were flawless as usual and after we went on and played one of our best sets of the whole tour. The people were going nuts, mosh pits in a room the size of a large living room. It was really incredible, the next day we went back to the venue for breakfast where we were treated to some French cuisine and the nicest cup of coffee I've ever had. It went down a treat. Thank you Cavaillon!
After Cavaillon we made our way to Toulouse and played another autonomous society. The promoter Julian was absolutely fantastic, he went to all efforts to help us with anything we needed. The gig was nuts, another night full of moshing and stage dives. I loved it. The locals were very nice too. We stayed in Julian's place after and had a great night.
The next day we were to set off for Bilbao for one "Bilbao Deathfest" which is run by one of John's friend Anton from Mutilated Judge. He was awesome but visibly stressed from chasing bands all day. We played a great set and the crowds was immense but in a different way. Less moshing and stage diving but they actually watched each song and then burst into applause after. I loved it. Great place, great fest, great people. Thank you Anton!
After Bilbao it was back to … you guessed it, France! We played Angers in a venue that I have given up trying to spell. It was like a library with lots of unusual but nice art. All the punters were awesome and they seemed to enjoy both Hellbastard and Insurgency. Interestingly enough, before we played, the gig was opened by a guy called "Mohawk" who is a French acoustic folk guitarist. He was fantastic. Make no mistake it wasn't my taste in music at all but his guitar playing was perfect! It was somewhere between French gypsy jazz and English Folk music. Very interesting and unusual. We played to a small but awesome crowd and after we invited them all outside to see a "fire show" which was just me, Scruff and Malek drinking beer and spitting fire. It was awesome! We got videos and they all loved it. We thanked them and got lots of photos with everyone and jumped in the van. What a night.
Sadly this would be my last gig with Hellbastard. The truth of the matter is I love the band and the songs are really fun to play but I have kids back home and I simply could not afford to continue with Hellbastard. I have nothing but respect for Scruff, he is a hard working bastard. He's been the subject of much controversy but I will add no fuel to those flames (pun fully intended). My time as his right hand man was immense, something I will never forget and something no one will ever take away from me. I learned a lot from my time in the band which has helped me drive Acid Age with a more centred focus. I've learned what to do and what not to do.
The truth is, even in a band like Hellbastard that has been going since 1984 and has a cult status name, you're lucky to make £50 a night. The last tour in October 2018 cost me a personal cost of £1500 just to take part, my cut from the tour?
Well the van breaking down before Slovenia didn't help nor did the ridiculous touring route as it cost an absolute bomb on diesel, the tolls in Europe cost a couple of hundred Euro all together and then there were external costs like getting the odd overpriced packet of crisps at truck stops.
My cut when I got home was a grand total of £90 and that is the most money I have ever made from Hellbastard even with our booking agents ridiculously low guarantees. That's not per tour either, that's the grand total of both tours and I was not entitled to any merch earnings.
This is why I could no longer continue with the band. I would have loved to have done an album and a lot more touring, and being in Hellbastard has given me irreplaceable memories, countless friendships and I have seen things and places that people only ever dream of. I can't complain, I've had an incredible time.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank first and foremost Scruff who will always be my friend and is always welcome in my home, then my band mates, Jake, John and Rushie. The drivers Richard and Pat, the merch guys, James, Woz and Dean and all the bands we have played with especially Insurgency.
I'm very sad I had to exit but sometimes life just deals you a tough deck. It's perhaps best for Hellbastard though as Scruff lives in England and it would be handiest for him to find a local guitarist. I find it amazing that my services being offered for one gig ultimately took me around the UK and Europe. It's awesome! I wish Scruff and Hellbastard all the luck in the world and I am so proud that I had the pleasure to be part of the story. That was the Hellbastard chapter of my life, my next chapter will be my own music.
I have been trying to think of distinct differences between touring the UK/Ire and touring Europe and honestly it's difficult. Other than the obvious cultural differences of the punters who attended the Hellbastard tours, as well as the food and language barriers, there is very little differences which strike me as worth mentioning. Sure it's much more expensive to tour Europe but that's a geographical matter.
I like travelling when it involves playing music. I've never been the "holiday resort" type. For me, playing music is significantly more important than sitting on my ass at the beach drinking cocktails. Cities like Vienna and Nancy have lots of old buildings of beautifully eccentric architecture. That's something that I wish my home country had more of.
There are no bad gigs or bad tours. There are bad moments which occur during gigs and tours but the bad moments do not reflect me or my life and in hindsight those are the funny parts that make the best stories.
There are no differences in music venues the world over, they're all the same: toilets covered in various band stickers and graffiti, people wearing black T-shirts out to get away from the work place to share laughs with friends and hear some live music.
Sure, what more could ye want?
Once the lights go down, I'm ready to play. All stages are the same: the smell of a dodgy smoke machine, the steam rising from the amps as the heat of the stage lights beat off the leather covered cabs, the intro music beginning and nothing in the world matters.
For 45 minutes, I'm playing guitar and jumping around like an eejit.
Jazz pianist Kenny Werner refers to this state in his book Effortless Mastery as "The Space" and states that it is a place beyond consciousness where music, joy and love all flow in abundance with ease. The Japanese Zen masters refer to it as "Mushin" - the state of no mind. It is achieved when the mind is free from clouded thoughts of anger, fear, ego and judgement and it can only occur in the absolute absence of discursive thought. This ideology has been incredibly important to music training and my linking it to gigging has taught me that there is a difference between mastering technique and mastering a state of mind through technique. A master of technique is a technician but to master "The Space" is to have no bad gigs. I am still learning.
Christopher Owens jokingly referred to me "romanticizing … touring even when it's all going wrong" the other week and that's absolutely true. Guilty as charged but if you can tolerate me being pretentious for a moment I will try to explain my reasoning.
Life is full of confusion and all kinds of conflicting ideologies from esoteric belief systems to white girls who get their palms read. Like anyone else, I am trying to find my own answers but I have noticed a common thread. In various religious texts, the highest honor is the human birth. In Judeo-Christian doctrines it is said that God made man in his own image and likeness and man would rule over all the beasts of the earth. In various Buddhist doctrines it is said that the greatest gift is to be reincarnated with a human birth and considering they believe that one can be reincarnated as the bacteria which grows on dog shite, it's hard to argue that about the human birth being a blessing thing.
I could go on but my point is; for me to value my entire self worth upon something as trivial as the ability to play guitar well at a gig is beyond egotistical and it's an insult to human life. I think it's important to remember that and considering that I have been able to see lots of beautiful countries, meet thousands of incredible people, eat nice foods, drink free beer and then I get to play guitar for people who enjoy the same kind of music I play, that is the buzz! The music problems along the way don't really matter and even though I have moments where I generally break my own rule (Cactus Jack at Ivory Blacks) I think this is perhaps why I still want to tour and play music. I'd rather lose every penny I have doing something I love than make a fortune doing something I hate.
Life is too short, it's truest cliché.
Thank you for reading and thanks to Chris Owens for letting me rant for a page or 300.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.