With the arrival of their sophomore album Hamilton metallers Devilskin stand on the cusp of huge-ness. Their 2014 debut ‘We Rise’ proved a sensation, with Platinum sales driven not by radio but their compelling high-energy live performances. Hard to credit but the four members span four decades in age. Bassist Paul Martin and guitarist Nail, the band’s red-bearded ‘evil twins’, along with drummer Nic Martin talked with NZM’s Richard Thorne. Jennie Skulander, who combines melodic vocals with the power of a spectacular death growl, was justifiably absent.
It’d be a big call to argue that Shihad didn’t fully deserve to win the Tui for Best Rock Album Tui at the 2015 NZ Music Awards for their ninth studio album. The band are, after all, Kiwi rock royalty, and ‘FVEY’ was both a political statement and return-to-form of an album. But still, especially in retrospect, fellow finalists Devilskin could well argue they were hard done by in missing out.
The numbers all support Devilskin’s case. Their ‘We Rise’ album topped the local album chart for double the number weeks that ‘FVEY’ did. Devilskin’s debut remained a fixture in the local album Top 20 for more than 90 weeks, while Shihad tipped out after 31 – about the same week ‘We Rise’ was accredited with achieving platinum sales. ‘FVEY’ sold Gold.
‘We Rise’ had reached Gold status within a fortnight of its release on 21 July 2014, quite remarkably keeping Ed Sheeran’s ‘X’ from the top of the main album charts for three weeks. Retailer JB HiFi reported it being the fastest selling album of the year, eager fans queuing out the door to meet and greet the band in their Hamilton hometown on release day.
It was a phenomenon, or at least so it seemed. Speaking with the band’s three male members, bassist Paul Martin, guitarist Nail (Tony Vincent) and drummer Nic Martin, it’s evident they’d agree with that sentiment, but it was one they’d seen coming.
A sensation maybe, but Devilskin was certainly no overnight sensation – they can point to years of determined slog before the release of ‘We Rise’. Four years of driving the country in a sign-written van, slowly building a fan base in the traditional way – winning them over with live performances.
“We always worked really hard and did a lot of smaller gigs. We spent a lot of time dressing up the stage and making the shows really good,” Paul relates. “As we got more people coming along we invested more in the PA and after that the lights, so everything sort of built from the ground up. But people that saw us in those early days just kept coming back and bringing more people, so it just sort grew exponentially from there.”
It was at the niche indie Wagstock event in Christchurch in 2013 that they all first got an inkling of the success that lay ahead.
“That was the stage when we found out that Jennie can’t walk through the crowd anymore. She can’t be seen in the pub before, and just hop up from a table and get on the stage – people were just all over her. It was like an open air party gig and we parked our van in the field. As soon as the crowd saw the band it was like something out of a zombie movie, people just walking over calling ‘Jennie, Jennie…’ People were jumping in the van wanting to meet her and touch her – it was kind’a weird.”
Devilskin’s ‘We Rise’ tour started three days after the album’s official release. They’d just ordered pizzas before the Dunedin gig when they found out it was the nation’s top selling record for the second week running.
“We’d had a week’s worth of sold out gigs in the South Island and we’d really only done Christchurch before that,” reflects Nic. “All of a sudden this album that was really just a collection of songs we’d been playing for four years was the biggest album in the country. I think we just sat there going, ‘This is way more than any of us anticipated!’”
“It was totally surreal,” Nail laughs. “We were still pulling up to venues and seeing a big crowd going around the corner and going, ‘Oh man, there must be something on in town tonight! What’s happening?!’ It was a pretty humbling sort of shock really. We were just holding on tight and along for the ride, it was awesome.”
Paul maintains their collective work ethic hasn’t changed, that Devilskin are still doing what they were back in the early days. With those chunky black boots, the heavy tatts, his shaven head and that fire-red goatee I’m not inclined to argue the point. But the guy behind radio’s long running Axe Attack metal show is no hard man at heart.
“We still gig hard, we still work hard and we still want to bring in our own stuff. We’re struggling to let the boys unload the truck sometimes!”
“Yeah,” says Nail as they laugh in almost embarrassed agreement. “We’ve all had the lecture about, ‘If you ruin your fingers loading gear is one of the crew going to play your guitar that night?’ ‘Ohh, but…’”
Things had changed though. They were suddenly getting pushed into lots more promo for one thing.
“I think we all still want to be just as invested as we always were, because that’s what kind of lifted us,” says Nic. “This underground kind of swell and the black T-shirt community support just grew, and that was all around us being hands-on, so we still have the urge to do that.”
“Hanging around after the gig to meet people that’s really important,” Paul expands. “We’re all the same when we go to concerts and see our heroes, we hang around trying to get a guitar pick or whatever. So I think it sort of comes from us all having a love and passion for music that this is the way we’ve always done things, and the band has gone up a rung every time we’ve done anything. Like Nail says, it’s weird cos it feels like we are still doing exactly the same thing, the same work ethic.”
‘We Rise’ proved a perfect choice of album title, though the song to which it belonged didn’t make the cut for their debut recording.
Paul explains it was one of their most powerful live songs and remains in their live set, but the demo just didn’t translate. Needing to come up with a name for the album they all felt that it fit the kind of ascendancy Devilskin were on. Interestingly it’s a pattern repeated with their new album.
“We took a step back after the album was done and looked at it and thought it was totally an ascension. We were blown away with the production quality as well,” says Nic explaining the name choice.
Aside from Little Pills which had been completed earlier in a Hamilton studio session, ‘We Rise’ was recorded at York St – the last full album to be recorded there – with Clint Murphy engineering and producing. Murphy was also at the helm of their new sophomore album, ‘Be Like A River’, only these days he lives in England and plies his trade from Modern World Studios in Tetbury, a small town in the Cotswold area.
Agreeing that they wanted to record with Murphy again the band booked a European tour in February this year, structuring the trip around spending a fortnight at the studio.
“He’d done a great job with the first record and we decided to roll with it again,” explains Paul. “His strengths suit the music that we had written, and he was keen to work with us again.
“I guess we are a kind of ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it kind of band as well,” adds Nic. “‘We Rise’ had played out so well and we were so happy with the result that it would have been a gamble to look elsewhere.”
Actually Devilskin had undertaken an earlier UK trip during which they’d recorded three songs with Murphy – all on the new album. Mountain was released as a single last year to tide fans over, but didn’t move radio.
“It was a year after we’d been there the first time that that we went back to record – and everyone in Tetbury remembered us!” smiles Paul. “This tiny little village in Gloucestershire. ‘The rockers are back!’”
“Yeah well, we’re pretty hard to miss,” Nail, stroking his matching red goatee, admits.
They clearly loved the experience.
“There’s a really old church in Tetbury, it goes back to the 1700s and it’s got a big high steeple on it. A studio hand organised for us to go in there one day and record the bells, so they are on one of the tracks.
“Walking home one night from the pub with the assistant engineer it was all foggy and gloomy and very English and ‘boom’ this church bell started ringing. ‘Oh, we have to get that!”
The three all laugh as they recall swinging on the bells for more than two hours in the middle of an afternoon. “We were in the bakery later and the girl says, ‘Oh man, the bells have been going crazy today!’, recalls Nic.
With accommodation nearby the Modern World recording experience is an immersive one. Nail enjoyed being able to spend 12 hours in the studio then keep working on things back in their rooms.
“With ‘We Rise’ we would go back to our lives at home then head back up to York St. I really enjoyed working over there. I liked the idea of getting up in the morning and going into the studio, having a cup of coffee and start playing my guitar. I liked having the time to spend on it.”
The recording came at the end of their six week-long trip away, they’d already spent almost a month living, gigging and travelling with each other in a 6-seater van. It was a tour none of the band are likely to forget as Skulander was in that nauseous early stage of pregnancy, added to which she got a flu and so was messily unwell the whole time. Her partner is Paul’s wife’s brother, which makes her Paul’s sister-in-law and Nic’s auntie.
“Bigger balls than any male vocalist I’ve ever worked with,” Paul says admiringly, joking about it being their first tour as a five-piece. “She’d be spewing all day, snotty as, couldn’t sleep, just a mess, then gets on stage and just owns it. She was outstanding!”
“Throwing up between songs,” Nic adds helpfully.
Nail remembers holding Jennie up so she could vomit just before their Glasgow gig. “She didn’t ever say, ‘I can’t do it guys.’ I take my hat off to her…”
“And then to record an album to follow up,” Nic takes over.
With ‘We Rise’ they’d just done live guide tracks as pre-production but this time with Skulander pregnant they had to try to make the writing and demoing process more efficient.
“So we bought a computer and we were able to record straight out of our practice room and basically slice up the different sections and put together these songs. It was a pretty different writing process for us. We do still just go into the room and riff off each other, but this time we had the luxury of plugging into a desk and being able to rearrange things.
“That essentially knocked out the demo process so once we got there we just individually tracked, drums first then bass, then guitars and vocals.”
“I think we all probably had the same (gulp) thought when we heard she was pregnant,” admits Paul, a worry doubtless shared by hundreds, if not thousands of fans of Skulander’s stage presence and uniquely powerful vocals.
“But Jennie says that the band is still what she wants to do. As soon as we heard that she wasn’t going to chuck it all in to be a mummy we just planned for it. That’s all she has ever wanted to do, to be an artist and I think she has sung out of her skin on this new album.”
The band demoed almost 30 songs, including several oldies that hadn’t made the cut for the first album. The newest was F.Y.I., written just two days before they flew to Britain. Fortunately vocals were recorded last because after four weeks of touring Jennie desperately needed a rest. Lyric writing is shared by her and Paul.
“I think we are about 60:40 on this. I pretty much write lyrics and Jen might change the odd word to make it fit, but that’s it. She’s just a star. I’ve been writing lyrics in a few different bands and the vocalist would often be a bit sour because he didn’t like the lyrics, but she just loves the way it all comes together. She’s amazing to work with.”
Nail also sings her vocal praises.
“Back in the early days if she didn’t have any lyric ideas for a song we were working on, she’d be sitting in a chair with a Womans Day on her lap and the microphone and she’d start singing a recipe mate! It’s just about the melody that comes out. ‘What’s that? It’s great!’ Just do that!’ ‘I don’t know, what did I do?’’
They all laugh in shared admiration.
“She’s got a real gift for melody, she really has. I still get goosebumps at rehearsal from her singing,” Paul continues.
“There’s a nice difference in our lyrics too. Hers are a bit more visceral and she doesn’t mince words too much. Whereas mine tend to be a bit deeper I guess and could be interpreted a couple of ways.”
Voices is one of Skulander’s, a song in praise of the band’s fans – their ‘Devil Army’.
“It’s about people having your back and the awesome feeling you get having so much support,” says Paul. “You know what any industry is like, as soon as you pop your head up people like to have a go. That’s Jen’s take on everyone having our back.”
Their fans (“Shit they’re good, they’re so good. They’re rabid.”) help out by putting up posters, handing out flyers, using their social media to encourage friends to attend gigs, and buying Devilskin merch and music.
Paul perks up at the mention of their very impressive range of merch.
“What have you heard? (We sell) more than any other Kiwi bands is what I’ve been hearing. It trucks out. I remember meeting a couple of years ago at Homegrown and we met quite a well-known band manager. He was going, ‘Everyone’s talking about how much merch you guys move at gigs – what’s your secret? I was wearing one of our T-shirts and I said, “Well, have you got skulls and pentagrams on yours?!’”
Cue much laughter.
“I really think that’s a big part of it though,” interjects Nic, the youngest of the band at 21 but clearly the sage among them.
“As much as [we in] the black T-shirt community are not into fashion trends, because the trend has always been to wear a band shirt, that’s part of the whole scene I guess. You don’t see as many people with pop artists’ T-shirts. I guess because that’s more of a radio single, digital distribution, internet presence kind of thing – whereas metal doesn’t get a lot of that sort of mainstream love.”
“No, and your average rockers and metallers aren’t concerned with fashion, they’re concerned with loyalty, so they’ll wear your shirt all day long. They’ll get it tattooed on their skin somewhere,” adds Paul.
And there you have it again. Among Kiwi bands Devilskin are famed for the number of their fans prepared to permanently ink their love.
“Yeah, the ‘We Rise’ album cover has been tattooed on a lot of people,” adds Nail. “And lyrics to songs… Did you see that one the other day? Someone had the lyrics from Burning Tree. That’s great man. It’s awesome that they have that connection with us, that blows me away.”
“We’re those kind of passionate and connected people as well. We understand what that means,” says Nic, mentioning the band’s various music-related tattoos.
“We’re on the same page as a lot of people who listen to our music,” his dad continues. “We’re the same sort of people, we’re just lucky enough to be playing music in a band that all these people like.”
So how is it that a 21-year old gets to be liking the same music and playing in the same band as his 53-year old father?
“He was 15 when I basically press-ganged him into the band, he had no choice. He was an awesome player, but he was freaking out and he didn’t really know how to set up his drum kit. After a couple of run throughs we all felt really good. Nic didn’t have an easy run from the start because we were still playing a lot of those small gigs in small venues.”
“Dad had the [Axe Attack] radio show since before I was born, so I grew up with that CD collection – I could always listen to something new. Now I’m open to anything – half my phone [tracks] is not rock or metal at all – but that’s where the most passion is. It’s what I think I’lI always be connected to the most. It’s raw, you can feel it. Not to take away from people producing albums on computers or keyboards, but being able to go to a gig and see someone hit those strings that you are feeling through the PA is a big part of it.”
Nic also plays in another Hamilton band, progressive metal five-piece Seas Of Conflict, mostly guys he grew up with. At 42, guitarist Nail is twice his age, though still a decade younger than Paul. He’s the quiet one, with old school Kiwi rock values evident. It was Nail who bought the band’s bus in the early days and kitted it out for touring, complete with signage and loudspeakers so they could talk to people (or livestock) outside.
“We stuck a wall through it, the gear went in the back with a lounge in the front, a DVD, some sounds and a beer fridge. It was good ’cos we didn’t have to hire vans or trailers. We had it from day dot and it went as far north as Kaitaia and as far south as Invercargill. We had a lot of fun with it.”
Of course, being a band bus it was prone to breaking down. There was a time it was towed into Invercargill and another when the tow rope snapped. “We got towed into Vector Arena when we played ahead of Mötley Crue – the fuel line busted on the motorway!”
That, plus Devilskin’s growing fame meant the bus had to go, as Paul explains.
“It got to the stage where we had to travel incognito. We’d play a gig in Wellington, everyone’s shattered and Jennie’s curled up in a sleeping bag. We’d pull into a gas station and before we can get out there’s a queue of people wanting to get selfies and stuff. We needed to be more discrete.“
Discrete is not a word you’d apply to their stage act or album art. Auckland designer Barney Bewick has done the artwork for both studio albums. ‘Be Like The River’ features a very primal-industrial skull-shaped rock, river water flooding through the cavernous eye sockets.
“Personally I think this album feels a step more focused, as far as the songwriting goes and the messages that Paul’s putting forward,” says Nic. “But I still think it’s easy for anyone to realise what’s going on. ‘We Rise’ was very bold and to the point, and that was exactly what we needed to do, and I think this time we were working with Clint again and were confident about the sound so we could focus on the messages, take the time to craft that within amazing production.”
“It’s more of a complete listening experience this album, I think,” Paul agrees. “More of a journey than a collection of songs.”
Be Like The River is the name of a song, but not one of the 13 on the album.
“It’s a song that we wrote together that never made the record,” Paul laughs in light of We Rise featuring as the closing track on ‘Be Like The River’.
“It’ll be on the next album! It was weird ’cos the song itself is kind of bluesy and doesn’t sound like anything else we’ve done but it was really uplifting. If we were a bit ho hum at rehearsal we’d play Be Like The River and it would perk us all up. But our manager and our producer didn’t get it whatsoever.”
The song was played on their Mountains and Moon tour and audiences liked it, but in the studio it didn’t quite translate according to Nic.
“It’s not an epic song or anything, but for me the lyrics are the big hook in the song. It’s got a perseverance message and to me it seemed relevant to where we are at with this new album.”
“The lyrics are about being like a river, cutting through the stone to get to the sea,“ Paul explains. ”You can wear away at anything, you just got to get to where you are going. Your purpose is your purpose. We’ve all sacrificed a lot, it’s been such an epic journey to get to where we are and we put such a lot of work into this new album – it felt like this is what we wanted to say. Stick to your guns and you’ll break through, it’s about perseverance and self belief.”