AN INTERVIEW WITH MERCYFUL FATE
About half an hour before they have to take to the stage at Amsterdam's Melkweg Max venue, 22 March 1997, I run into Hank Shermann who I am supposed to interview. He's quite a big guy with colossal cowboy boots on. He talks to me in a fairly thick Danish/German accent. I start right away. Time is short and there are quite a few questions to ask.
Hank Shermann doesn't sound very Danish to me. Is it an artist's name?
Hank: Yes, it's an artist name, something that came up when we started the band in '78. We thought that we should have some cool names like everyone else in the music business and the theatre business, everybody had an artist name so we just found some names that sounded cool.
What's your real name then?
Hank: That's a secret (laughs). Everybody knows King's real name, but not mine. That is part of the mystique of Mercyful Fate. Everyone is not what they're called. If people think I am Hank Shermann that's fine with me.
Is Mike Denner also a stage name?
Hank: No, no, that's his real name. And Timi Hansen was also his real name, but Kim Ruzz was not, his real name was Kim something-else, and King Diamond is Kim Petersen. It's just silly to give out my real name, I think, because then there is no use in having an artist's name.
Why did you choose for Hank Shermann?
Hank: It just sounded cool, I thought, you know, that sounds cool, you know. That was more an eighties or seventies kind of thing.
What did you do prior to Mercyful Fate?
Hank: I started to play guitar in 1977 and I formed this punk band called Brats. We did one single and then we did an LP and then King Diamond joined and was part of Brat and sang those songs. And then when we were about to do the second record with Brat, on CBS, they kind of fired us, and that was when the first band was split up, and there was only me and King who stayed together and then we started to compose some songs, you know, some songs that we will be playing tonight, Mercyful Fate songs.
Was Brat similar to Mercyful Fate?
Hank: It was a bit more, well, it had more of a punky edge, you know, we played about four to seven concerts with King Diamond as the singer, that was basically in Denmark, in 1980, 1981.
Who thought of the name, Mercyful Fate?
Hank: Actually, at the time, it was the tour manager, the guy who helped us, *his* girlfriend came up with the name. I came up with some names and some other guys came up with some names but then that girlfriend came up with Mercyful Fate, and we thought, wow, that's a cool name. It sounded cool to me, that was in 1981.
I leafed through a lot of CD booklets to prepare for this interview, and I've come up with the following. On the CD "Return of the Vampire", the last song, called "You Asked For It", has an unknown drummer, there's question marks there. Who was he?
Hank: I know why there were question marks, that was because he [King Diamond, who wrote the liner notes] didn't remember the name of the drummer. I think he was called Mouse, that was his nickname. We talked to him when the CD was released, and he was very disappointed that he was only named by a question mark.
Also on "Return of the Vampire", there is mention of a hotel in Hull, England, where you stayed while recording some songs. There's a story of a graveyard opposite the hotel and your nearly getting caught by the police at night because you were on it. Was that true, or all image?
Hank: There *was* a cemetery. And the police really came around, though they didn't catch us. It was a very big cemetery, opposite our hotel in Hull and we just ran around, not doing anything criminal, mind you, but just getting inspiration. And then we saw the police and the police saw us because it was in the middle of the night, you know, kind of, you're not supposed to walk around there, five long-haired guys, and they tried to catch us and we ran away across the graves and stuff. We got safely back to the hotel.
On two of your albums there's an appearance of the Melissa character. Is the based on a real character?
Hank: I am not sure, you'd have to ask King. I think it has something to do with past life and all that stuff, you know, very, um, I am not sure actually. On "In the Shadows" Melissa re-appears and that is pretty different. I am not too much into the meaning of the lyrics. He probably never told me. Sometimes he writes from something he has experiences himself, sometimes he might mean people he knew, but never with names.
What did the Mercyful Fate people do between the split and the reunion, the grey area of Mercyful Fate history?
Hank: King Diamond, of course, did the King Diamond band, together with Mike Denner. What I did was to form this thing called Fate, a kind of melodic heavy rock band, American style, and they did four albums, I appeared on two of them, and that was within two weeks after Mercyful Fate split, in 1985. It was released on EMI and was very successful actually. Mike Denner left King Diamond and, also, Mercyful Fate during the first week, and then he re-joined the King Diamond band, because he was supposed to play on the Fate album, he actually appears on that first album.
I saw Fate once, supporting Yngwie Malmsteen in 1988.
Hank: That was after I'd left, but the drummer you saw then was the drummer we have in Mercyful Fate now, Bjarne T. Holm.
What has become of Kim Ruzz and Timi Hansen?
Hank: Timi played on "In the Shadows" and "Time" but then left. We knew he'd leave, he has four or five children with different girls and he has a good job, so he's really tied up there, with family and job, and it's very unstable to be in the music business, that doesn't give you any money and he has to support his children and be there for them. So we already knew he was not going to do any tours and stuff, though he did play the Dynamo Open Air reunion show. Kim Ruzz was never even invited for the reunion because we know we couldn't get along with him on a social level, so we just didn't invite him. He was a postman back then and he's still a postman, and sometimes we see him. He came to the concert we did in Kopenhagen in 1984 or 1985, and just said "hi", looked the same as always.
You are probably aware that Black Sabbath, at a certain instant, reunited with Ronnie James Dio. At that time, Tony Iommi told Dio that he had to quit writing about evil and dragons and stuff like that. When Mercyful Fate came back together, did something similar happen, did someone tell King that he should not write about Satan all the time?
Hank: No, not at all. Everything we do is done together, definitely King has changed his words a bit but the subjects are still the same. Maybe he is a little bit milder with his words now, writing in a little different way, but it's about the same subjects, about occult things. It's kind of toned down, all the Satan, because it gave him too many problems. Back in the eighties it was a good thing because it gave us a lot of attention because nobody knew what Satanism was all about so it was a big challenge to the reporters. King, Christianity, Satan, all the focus was on King, more on the image than on the music. We care about the lyrics but I'm into the music.
If you'd have to typify Mercyful Fate's music, in brief, how would you?
Hank: First it's...I mean, we're doing seventies-inspired heavy metal. We used to get our inspiration from Judas Priest, which you can hear on some of the tracks on the "Melissa" and "Donít Break the Oath" albums. Nowadays it just comes from whatever comes out on the guitar.
Is there a specific approach to your writing? I sometimes try to play along and I notice the riffs are more mathematical, geometric figures for your left hand. How do you approach it?
Hank: There is no specific approach. I just keep on going until I'm satisfied. There is this inner barometer and when I feel something is good then it's good. I never set out to write a song in a certain key, it's more abstract, I even, you know, some riffs are major or minor but it's how you perceive it that's important. There is no serious thought behind it; when you think too much about musical theory then some songs tend to become predictable. You know which notes will come. This way of writing is probably part of the thing that is Mercyful Fate.
What about Mike Denner? I hear he isnít with you right now?
Hank: Mike Denner is not playing tonight, he decided to be back with his child, in Kopenhagen, which was something that also happened with the US tour last year. He wants to take care of his new-born child. We have a new guitar player which is called Mike Wead, who's been in Memento Mori and Abstract Algebra, so he's a really, really good guitar player. And his playing style is very similar to Mike's style, so that is the perfect fill-in.
Are you or others involved in any side projects?
Hank: When me and Bjarne, the drummer, are not doing Mercyful Fate we're doing a side project called Gutrix, which will release an album on Dzynamite Records. We have a CD ready and a video ready. King Diamond lives in Dallas and we live in Kopenhagen, the bass player lives in Gothenburg, so we don't see each other on a daily basis. We have a lot of time off, so we have time to do other things to keep ourselves occupied.
What would your reaction be if some MTV bigshot walked up to you, hypothetically, and asked you to do an MTV Unplugged thing?
Hank: No, no. Because that would be silly, that was not how the music was written, it would not be the right move, it would be too trendy. And King's voice is not suited for unplugged stuff. "Satan's Fall" unplugged? Nah. I compose most of the tracks on acoustic guitar, actually, so I think it could be done, but it doesn't have the right sound.
Weird question time: Suppose you die, hopefully in many years, what music would you want to be played on your funeral?
Hank: I shouldn't care, really, I'll be lying in a coffin or something. I like "The Old Oak" [from "In the Shadows"], so I think it might be that one.
What's the most badly matched band you've ever toured with?
Hank: Hmmm...we didn't have that many bands to your with. We had Exciter in 1984, we had Cathedral and Flotsam & Jetsam, Anacrusis, we had Solitude Aeternus, they were all quite good. Now we've had Original Sin from Los Angeles. We had some problems with Cathedral, so maybe them. It was just some remarks that she singer supposedly made on a concert in New Orleans.
Does King have something special or weird with his grandmother, or with cups of tea?
Hank: I think it's all just made up, nothing autobiographical. On some other songs there's autobiographical stuff, but not on that. He's been wanting to write a book around some of the King Diamond albums, "Them" and "Conspiracy" I believe, he started years ago, but it's not finished yet. I think "Gypsy" was pretty much autobiographical, something with his mother or something, and maybe a few songs on "In the Shadows".
OK. Words to react to. The first one is King Diamond, the band.
Hank: A good band.
Hank: A Danish drummer, a crazy guy.
Hank: I don't like it. Noise.
Hank: To a certain point, interesting, it's a different kind of art. I am not too much into it, unless I do it myself. Video artists are strange guys. You're not in control.
Hank: That's my favourite band. I like the band as a whole, the songwriting is fantastic, Rob Halford is really great, especially on the albums from the seventies. Mostly for the rhythm guitar playing and the songwriting, not for the lead guitars, that's where I like Uli Roth and Michael Schenker more.
Hank: I know King has a copy, and "The Mad Arab" is about it. I read that bit, too, but I'm not too much into it.
Hank: I know a band called Level 42, which I liked at some point.
Are you already working on material for the forthcoming album?
Hank: I know King has some ideas, and I already have a few riffs. But nothing's been planned now. It should be out early next year, maybe Christmas this year. I hope that we can go into the studio in August this year.
How long do you thing Mercyful Fate can continue, what with King's voice and all?
Hank: As long as we feel the quality is there and everyone is performing OK, we'll continue. We might get bored and do other bands, whatever. There is no telling what will happen.
After signing some stuff and handing us promo copies of Gutrix's debut album, "Mushroom Songs", Hank goes off for another quickie interview before having to go on stage. After some time - I was hanging around to try and meet King Diamond himself, in vain - I bump into the next best thing, King's guitarist Andy LaRocque. I take the chance to ask him a few questions as well.
What are the plans, currently, for King Diamond?
Andy: Weíre actually thinking of doing a US tour, after this tour, but I don't think that's going to happen. King and the guys are going back to Dallas, I think, and I'm going back to Sweden. And we're going to start writing new songs for the next album. I wouldn't be able to tell you what it'll be about, but we hope to release it in January or February next year. The band you see live tonight is the band that'll be recording it.
Are you doing side projects?
Andy: Well, I've got my own band, a side thing called Ill Will. It's got a CD that will be released on Dzynamite Records, through Virgin, around April 1997. I don't think we'll be touring for it. It's power metal, nothing like King Diamond, more straightforward power metal, Pantera kind of Fight, Fear Factory. But there are fewer guitar solos on it, I don't believe in freaking out. Yngwie Malmsteen is cool but after a couple of albums it just becomes boring, you know what I'm saying? Like Steve Vai or something, boring, you know.
Andy: I was inspired by Randy Rhoads, back in the early eighties, with Ozzy. And also by Bach, though not now anymore, and by Steve Vai, and also by Yngwie - just a little bit, you know. And Ronnie LeTekro, from TNT, he's the guitar god.
I decide to take my last shot at King's psychology and ask Andy whether he knows something about King and his grandmother?
Andy: I don't know, but he can be a little strange sometimes, that's all I know.
Having run out of questions, we chat a bit more and go down to see the gig.
Written March 1997
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