Having first recorded a demo tape in 1991 which got both public and press buzzing, 15 years later the Italian power metallers White Skull are back with their seventh studio album, 'The Ring Of The Ancients'. I spoke with Tony 'Mad' Fontò, guitarist and one of the founding members of the band, about why he is so pleased with this latest effort and their plans for touring.
You had a demo tape out in 1991 and 'The Ring Of The Ancients' is your seventh full-length album. How does it feel to have come so far and to have continued for so long?
Tony: Yeah, it's fifteen years. It's a long time and there have been a lot of line-up changes in the band, but the spirit of heavy metal is still in my life. And I think that this album is a demonstration that the band is still 'alive'. In the past, in 2000 or 1997, when we were younger than now, we had good motivation to play in different directions, but I think the band is still of the same status now as it was in the past. There are fresh members but all the members believe in the band.
You actually produced the album as well. How did you enjoy that?
Tony: Four years ago, I built a recording studio with former White Skull member Nick Savio (the guitarist on 'The Dark Age', 'Public Glory Secret Agony' and 'Tales From The North'). I started a career as a producer, working with bands such as Athenora Raising Fear, and for example we produced the demo tape from Hellrage and other bands from Italy. So it's a new kind of work and I like it because I am still in contact with the band and I like to work in that way. I am a sound engineer and a producer, and I say, 'why not do that for White Skull?' Who better than me would know the sound that White Skull could have? And that is the reason I produced the album. But it was really hard because when you produce another band, it's simpler because you listen to the sound of the band and you have to work with the musicians, but when you have to work with your music a lot of the time you are not 100% satisfied.
You have to reach the connection to arrive at the place where you can say 'Okay, now I am at the maximum'. I tried to produce another album from White Skull, it was a co-production but it was really by me. But it left me feeling that there was something wrong, sometimes I was not satisfied. Like in 'The XIII Skull', some people asked me what I wanted to change in my music career. I always say the mixing of 'The XIII Skull'. For me it was unprofessional. And because the production is not professional. But for this album I am totally happy now.
You have quite high expectations of yourself and because you're producing it as well as making the music yourself that makes it more difficult for you?
Tony: It's really difficult. But not when you write the song. Not in the first part. But it's really difficult when you start to do the sound after that. It's really important to have clear ideas and start to work towards them and not worry about losing time but to work towards the idea that you have in your mind. When you are finished all the recording you are satisfied but you start the mixing and you have a fight because you have recorded a good song but you have to think 'I have to push the drums more' or 'I push the guitars more' and how many effects I want to use on the voice for the different parts. It's always a take by take, song by song process. Normally I take two or three days to mix one song, because I listen a lot of times and maybe I work over four or five hours to reach a good mix, I stop for half a day, and I start to work on it for another half day to listen to it with fresh ears.
You often write albums that are based on a historical theme, such as the Vikings and ancient Romans. With 'Ring Of The Ancients' you've gone for Celtic material. What made you decide on that subject?
Tony: In the past it's been Vikings, Romans, after we change with Medieval, the Church, the Inquisition, and it was my idea to think about Celtic people. It started during the summer two years ago. I was in a library and I was looking in a book about Celtic people. And I didn't know the culture of Celtic people very well. I know of some Celtic tradition and other things like that from normal culture from people and I wanted to read something about these fantastic people. And I discovered that originally Celtic people were born and moved step by step to the North, pushed by the Romans.
And I started to read something mystic about the Druids, something mystic about the people - there are a lot of tales about the Celtic people but nothing is really true because there are two mystic peoples and they don't tell a lot about their history because they move country by country. For example Stonehenge which is in England, even now people don't know the true meanings of Stonehenge. There are a lot of theories about it but no-one can be certain of it's true purpose, that Stonehenge was a calendar or was for sacrifice or was for other things. Because there is not a lot of true material about Celts. And I was captured by that and I spoke with Steve (Balocco, bass) who is a real historian and has studied a lot of stories. And he said 'Yeah, it's fantastic, I want to check this', and he started to buy a lot of books about Celtic people and we came up with the lyrics. Do you like the lyrics?
I do, yes. Not that the last song on the album has lyrics but it's interesting that the 'Tuatha De Danaan' are an Irish people and the track on the album has quite a traditional folky sound. Are you interested in folk music as well as traditional metal?
Tony: Folk music? Yeah. In the album there is just one song, but I know the folk music about Celtic people because in Italy there are a lot of Celtic people and we were listening to something before recording the album. But we decided not to put something folk on the album because we didn't want to play like Blind Guardian for example. We prefer to speak only for the Celtic people and don't play folk songs. Like 'Tuatha De Danaan' is a song dedicated to the Celtic people.
You've got quite a lot of different aspects in your lyrics on 'Ring Of The Ancients', and you've got a song called 'Valhalla'.
Tony: Yeah but that's a different story. That is a cover of Black Sabbath from the 'Tyr' album. Celtic people don't have Valhalla. Valhalla is from the Vikings, Celtic people have another paradise. The drummer chose to play a cover of 'Valhalla' because he liked Cozy Powell, the drummer likes very much the way Cozy Powell played in Black Sabbath. He asked me 'Hey Tony, is it a stupid idea to make a cover from 'Tyr' or 'The Headless Cross' for the new album? I want to record a cover of Cozy Powell, as a tribute to him'. And I said 'Yeah, the idea is not stupid, we can do want we want on our album.'
The album is from us. It is for the people, but we can decide everything on the album. And I never spoke to the label, because when we recorded the album we didn't have a contract. We were totally free. When we chose to do the cover, we chose 'Valhalla' because Alex (Maniero, drums) said that or 'Headless Cross' were the best. Maybe 'Headless Cross' would have been more in keeping with the theme of the album, because the Celtic people use the cross with the circle but we decided 'Valhalla' because when we tried it in the rehearsal room it was better than 'Headless Cross'. The sound was nearer to the White Skull sound. So we said 'okay, it doesn't matter that Valhalla is from the Vikings, it's not a problem'. I think the people know that 'Valhalla' is from 'Tyr' from Black Sabbath and it was funny because some people who have interviewed us have said 'It's a nice song, 'Valhalla' and I say you're wrong, it's from Black Sabbath.
So some press get it wrong, but it's not a problem. If I'd written 'Valhalla' in the past maybe I'd be rich, but it's not true. Tony Iommi can keep the money!
I wanted to ask you about the Italian scene. You're part of the 'Italian Metal Alliance'. What's that all about?
Tony: The Italian scene for me is great. There are some difficulties in Italy compared with playing live worldwide. A lot of small clubs sometimes don't want to pay the musicians. It is not our situation but it's the situation for the newcomer bands. They have to pay for free or the owner says 'you play for free and you pay for what you eat and drink', and it's stupid. I think the musician is a beginner but he's working and he's believing in his music. We have a lot of good bands in Italy. And thanks to Rhapsody and to Labyrinth in the past, to Lacuna Coil now, a lot of people now have started to watch Italy now for other bands.
We are all friends in Italy, there is not a lot of competition between the bands. We all play together, at the 'Gods Of Metal' for example. It was really funny day because we saw some bands from the past, like Strana Officina or Pino Scotto with the Fire Trails Pino Scotto was the singer in the eighties with this band, and it was a fantastic day. All the bands that played were totally in synchrony and there was no problem with any band, all to make a party at the back and the drinking, and that makes me happy because I have seen the metal scene in Italy be born, grow up and it really has a good connection.
For example I saw some guys from Novembre, you know the band Novembre from Italy?
There was a pause of two or three years when we didn't play together because it's a different kind of music and it's not really easy to combine the two styles. But it was a little festival that we arranged to tour from Italy - it was Labyrinth, Domine, White Skull, Novembre, Skylark and Centurion. We played a lot of shows together and when we see each other after three years we say 'Yeah, yeah, how are you?' and that makes me really happy, it's like a party every time.
You also played Berlin, was that quite a different experience to playing in Italy?
Tony: To play in Italy and to play outside Italy? Sometimes the difference is in the professionalism of the stage. The crowd is similar and maybe you have one night's show that has a better crowd than another part, maybe it also depends how many album copies you have sold in that place or how many fans you have, but all the people are really warm. It's fantastic when you play in every place and the sound is really good, the sound system and the professionalism from the people from all the entourage of the band. In Italy there are not a lot of places that have professional staff.
For example Transylvania or Milan or other big places in Italy where we play, yes, but outside Italy it is always with professional staff. For example we played in a small club in Munich with Thunderstorm and it was a fantastic show because everything was right. It was a club with 300 people but it was like playing in front of 10,000. The same quality of sound system, the same quality of tradesmen, the same quality of sound engineers, everything was professional. In Italy it is not the same. If you have a small club for 300 people, sometimes you have a bad sound, sometimes you have a good sound.
You've shared a stage with lots of different bands: Overkill; Doro; U.D.O.; Grave Digger. Is there anyone specific that you would like to play with in the future?
Tony: Oh yeah. In the last year or so we've played with lots of important bands like Blind Guardian too, and Rage. We crossed Rage for three shows in the summer and with Saxon and other bands which are all great guys and professional. I like to play with them because I am looking to see what they do to be more professional. It's fantastic because they're people that have no secrets and they have a lot of cordiality and it's really great. I hope to play with the same great bands again in the future. But it's not up to me, it all depends on the invitations of some festivals or some tour or to catch some support.
You contributed a cover of 'Stairway To Heaven' on 'The Metal Zeppelin - The Song Remains The Same'. What was it like to be part of that?
Tony: Why we chose 'Stairway To Heaven'? The real story is that we didn't chose 'Stairway To Heaven'. The people said 'you have to do 'Stairway To Heaven''! That is really true, and we wanted to do some other song, like 'Kashmir' or more with the guitar in a power metal way. But they said 'we looked for a band that could play 'Stairway To Heaven'' so we said 'okay, thank you'. So it's a really good song, it's one of my favourites from Led Zeppelin but it's not really good to change in a power metal way but we tried to do our best with that.
You couldn't play live for a little while due to illness, so I wondered if you've got any plans to start playing live and promoting this album?
Tony: Yeah. We consider that promotion should start from the CD release but there was a problem with Gus (Gabarrò vocalist) and Gus has had a lot of problems in the past with his health. Now again he has health problems with other things and we stopped the tour again. And we said 'Okay, we have to wait'. Now we are waiting for his answer for when we can tour again.
Maybe we can go out and play some shows in February. We want to play in Italy of course because we have a lot of fans here. And we have some fans coming from Belgium, from Germany, from Netherlands and from Spain.
Some people from Greece asked me but to go to Greece is a little bit more difficult than the other places, because there is no direct way, you have to keep the plane and maybe there isn't the funding because when I can reach with my van it's not a problem to travel one or two days, it's cheaper than to travel by plane for one hour. But for the manager, for the venue, for everything for the shows it's much cheaper if I move myself with my van. And we want to tour everywhere.
Maybe if there are some places in England we'll come to play in England too. There is some interest. I was trying to play at the festival in September. Bloodstock. We have been trying for two years, but Gus was sick. He had a heart operation and he had to stop singing for six months. In that time Bloodstock asked me to play but I had to say 'no thank you'. That was the year with Gamma Ray, it was two years ago.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything else you'd like to say to your fans?
Tony: I say thanks to you all and I hope that you buy the new CD from White Skull. Maybe you have no money so download it! Because now it is normal and it is stupid to say you don't download, but if you like it maybe buy it later. And I hope to see you later on the road.
Interview © December 2006 Amanda Hyne
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