About Me

Interview with Witches Hammer

The witches rose and came back from the distant past in the rawest, fastest, brutal and darkest way possible. Witches Hammer are a Canadian black/thrash metal band that formed in the early 80's. Due to the many demos that came out in that decade, they became a cult band but never took the next step. In 2021, they released their (only) second full-length, Devourer of the Dead. We spoke with founder and guitarist Marco Banco, who took us to the epic era of thrash, clarified the band's history and even recited a sonnet!

M.I. – First of all, thanks for the interview! It's always good to have some words from those who lived and shaped metal – whatever style – from the beginning and who still make real music today. I welcome your return!

Thanks for the good words of support. 

M.I. – Okay, starting at the beginning… Tell your story. You formed the band in 1985, released a series of demos and disappeared. Then came back at the beginning of the 21st century with some compilations and disappeared again. And in 2020, you finally released your first full-length. What happened during all those years??

Sure. The idea for Witches Hammer began around 1982 in junior high school. The music we grew up with, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin and groups like that, influenced us and inspired us to play heavy riffs. 
However, as our generation became teenagers, of course, we sought out our own style, our sound… We were very much drawn to what was coming out of England in the late 1970s, early 1980s, Iron maiden, Saxon, Motörhead, the Rods, Riot, Venom and groups like this. Something a bit more raw, faster and heavier.
Once Exciter heavy metal maniac, Kill ‘Em All, Show No Mercy, Metal on Metal hit the ground, everything changed.
So, this was the catalyst for us to become something different, which was great because it caused a great rift between the old guard and us. It really pissed off the classic heads. I think they hated this because it was stealing their Led Zeppelin and Nazareth cool and they were afraid they wouldn’t be getting laid anymore... Good.
We created this thing and called it Death, then Oblivion, then Witches Hammer.
We completed the lineup in 1984 and immediately recorded a demo that got us, being the only speed/ thrash metal band in our province, shows with Exciter, Sacred Blade, Exodus, Metal Church, Verbal Abuse, The Accused , D.O.A, S.N.F.U. etc, etc. 
It went off very well in the early days. 
Big crowds and a lot of enthusiasm because it was so new.
This continued on until 1990 when I joined Blasphemy, Mike Death joined Procreation, John went to Armoros.
We didn’t come back together until 2018. 
At the beginning of 21st century NWNPROD, put out compilations of our old material, but we hadn’t actually got together as a working group until 2018.
We released these 2 albums because NWN let us know they would like to put out all the unrecorded music we had demos of between 83-89. After about a year of digging it all up, we went into our studio and did this.

M.I. – I think your name comes from Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of the Witches, a 15th century book which was considered a compendium on demonology. It was even banned during the Inquisition because it could lead to illegal practices. Did/do you have many demons to exorcise? Or was it a way of being “against” something instituted at the time?

It was simply a book I had stumbled upon in the occult/religious section of my high school.I thought it sounded cool. So, I brought it to practice and the rest of the band thought it was good because it was different.

M.I. - I don't think I've congratulated you on your new album yet. Sick album! As good as the previous one, but it seems to me with a slightly clearer sound, where the bass and guitars, in some parts, stand out more. Explain the production of Devourer of the Dead.

Thanks very much. We recorded Devourer of the Dead in the same studio with the same producer. We took a bit more time in production than on the first album.Just because we wanted the drums and bass guitar to have more clarity since they are both playing excellent nuances that we wanted to hear a bit more.

M.I. – Both Damnation Is My Salvation and Devourer of the Dead have reissues of songs from the demos and compilations. Did the production of those songs go as you wanted, the way they were initially thought or was there still room for improvement?

There’s always room for improvement, but we pretty much play live off the floor. Get as best of a take of the first run though and go from there. I personally like my music to sound as natural as possible, so that’s what you hear. A live band. Not over produced. Some of the demo music needed to be recorded properly we thought. So that’s what we did. Once it’s recorded, I let it go, or I’ll stay there forever. 

M.I. – As in Damnation Is My Salvation, also in Devourer of the Dead you choose to put the Speed Metal sun wheel on the cover. Why?

The banzai Canadian speed metal logo of the early 1980s represents a time that galvanized what was outcast as mainstream, underground music, as far as heavy metal went, with punk rock and hardcore bands. That scene completely took over and brought together two tons of music that created a brand-new artistic complexion. Great bands, great shows and crossover music that unified a style into something that completely changed the direction and musical landscape. So, we continue to use this as our musical heritage. On damnation the wheel destroys the earth. On Devourer, the wheel is being destroyed.

M.I. – Are there any more old lost songs that we will see on future albums?

There are a few more demo songs we need to record properly and a number of unrecorded cuts that we are putting together currently for the next release, yes.

M.I. – How is the Devourer of the Dead promotion going?

It’s alright but it could be a lot better, in my opinion.
M.I. – Who were your major influences? What bands did you hear in Canada when you got together?

Ah, so many. Of course, being kids that grew up in the 1970s and 80s, our influences and inspiration are a lot of precursor to heavy metal: Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Budgie, Rush, Motörhead. But our inspiration since we came together in 1983, for this style is Venom, Slayer, Metallica, Exciter, Anvil, Culprit and cool bands like this.

M.I. – What was the 1st song you learned and played together?

The first heavy song, thrash, speed metal, whatever you want to call it, played in Vancouver B.C. Was in a basement in North Delta by a local band was Blood lust by venom. That was a great day.

M.I. – And where and how was your first gig?

Our first gig was in 1985 at the York theatre opening up for Exciter, Exodus Metal church and Sacred Blade in Vancouver.

M.I. – Right after the band's reunion, in 2018, you played your 1st live show in Germany. Why did you choose Europe instead of doing it at home?

We didn’t choose that show actually. NWN productions asked us to play the festival. We said yes of course.

M.I. – You got to play with big names like Metal Church or Exodus. How was it? Were you nervous? Any funny stories? What was the atmosphere like in those old “wild west” days?

It was fantastic. I was a big fan of Exodus Bonded by Blood album. They were touring for the album and Paul Baloff was a big influence on us all. So of course, we were very much into being a part of this.
I was very young then, 15 years old, so I didn’t say much back stage. More I observed and just enjoyed being there. I was pretty nervous to perform in front of a large audience as I had never done that before. But what struck me was how fast it went by. So much adrenaline kicked in, that when we hit our last note at the end of the set, I looked around for a second surprised that it was over and done with. However, the rest of the show and after party was excellent. The Exodus guys lived up to their reputation and were really cool. I asked Baloff why he had such pointy finger nails.He said “So, I can tear out the eyes of posers”.Interesting characters.The early era of this speed/thrash movement was very cool. It was our thing. It was dwelling in the shadow, in the east end, in the most underground clubs. What made it cool was that it was so hated by traditional hard rock and metal people. To me that was the best because you knew that you were in the beginning of something. Not to mention, everyone was so young, in fact if you were already 20 you seemed a bit old to us. The gigs got bigger, the crowds got bigger. So. this was all really good.

M.I. – I always saw underground as a great school of life. Knowing how to overcome difficulties, raw and crazy concerts and “sustained” growth. Now, artists appear thanks to TV contests and YouTube channels. Do you think that's why most of them go out of fashion and don't succeed in music? Because they lack “this school of life”?

Well, of course to me, I enjoy the sound and style of my generation. I’m not much of a fan of sterility and over produced music. Personally, I prefer a live natural dirty sound that creates nuance. Music where you can hear the enthusiasm, adrenaline and angst in the riffs.That’s the stuff that raises the hair up in my opinion.When I can hear the sound that creates a vision which puts the listener in the center of the music. You get lost in a dreamscape. I can feel the filthy bloody club, or the darkness of the streets or whatever it creates.To me, that’s Fucken awesome. It’s organic, its mysterious, it’s pure. Hard to create that with an overproduced sanitary sound.
M.I. – Canada launched some big names in metal – Annihilator, Voivod, Devin Townsend… Do you feel that today, in the second decade of the 21st century, is there any band that has followed in these footsteps? Or is there some Canadian metal name that you think is underappreciated?

I don’t hear anything that really interests me in metal right now for new bands.

M.I – Your “return” in 2003 with the Canadian Speed Metal compilation (and all the others to follow) was through Nuclear War Now! How did this come about?

That wasn’t a return of the band. Canadian speed metal was a compilation that NWN put out of our old material from the 1980s. But the group never actually got back together or even talked about it at that time. NWN has contacted us about releasing the old demos and EP, as well as the recordings from 1988. We agreed and so they went ahead and did an excellent job.

M.I – Was there a chance at that time (2003) to release an album of originals through NNW!Productions? Have there been conversations in this regard?

No not at all. Our original drummer John had passed away in 1997. He and I wrote the majority of the music. I didn’t have any desire to resurrect the old sound in 2003. In fact, the thought of it kind of repulsed me for some reason. I didn’t give it a second thought.

M.I. – After such a long absence, you end up releasing your 2 albums in the strangest time of the last 120 years, with a pandemic that blocked the world. Was it a “Fuck it! Let's go!” moment, did you have a deadline to comply, did you consider postponing the albums?...

In 2018 I was having a conversation with Ray (vocals) and Yosuke (NWN) and Yosuke randomly asked how much material we never recorded back in the day. 
I said “We have lots of basement demos, riffs, all kinds of jam sessions we recorded that never saw a proper studio.”.
He said “do you want to record them” I was against it, so was Ray.
But then we just started talking about John and how many songs he wrote with me. That maybe it would be cool to give his legacy since he was one of the guys that started and created our extreme metal scene in Vancouver BC.
I thought about it for a couple weeks, knowing that digging up all those old demos was going to be a huge task.
After I got my head around it, I called the guys and said “ok, I’ll start putting everything together”.
It took me an entire year to find everything.
So, I relearned a ton of riffs from those 1984-88 tapes, brought them to the studio and off we went.
Then the lockdown came, so we decided to do another one since we had more than enough material.
There’s a third one we’re putting together at the moment too.
M.I. – How were the entries of AJ, Steve and Jesse? Did you already know them and invited them or were there auditions?

I had been in a group called Tyrants Blood with Steve Sinned for a while, knew him for quite a while before seeing if he wanted to get on with Witches Hammer. Easy transition for him. Especially since we live right around the corner from one another. Jesse and AJ, I have known for quite a few years. Jesse plays with Steve in a death metal band also, and he likes the kind of music we do, so that was very easy.
We put out an advertisement for bass as our original bass player, Steve Withrow, became very ill from a work place accident and could no longer perform.
As a matter of fact, that’s how Jesse came in on second guitar also. Mike Death, our original second guitar player from 87-89, had fallen very ill. So, we decided to grab Jesse up.
But I digress, the add created a buzz and we narrowed it down to 5 bass players. AJ learned the songs fastest and created cool riffs. Also, he took the initiative to put on some really killer shows and festivals. He fit the band perfectly. So, there you go.

M.I. – Are all members at 100% in Witches Hammer? Or do you have other projects?

Myself and Ray (vocals) are only in Witches Hammer. AJ (bass), Jesse (guitar) and Steve (drums) are all in another project.

M.I. - If we want to listen and buy more of Witches Hammer, especially the first demos, where can we do it?

Ah, the demos. They are hard to find, especially original since there were only about 100 made and sent out for promotion.
The EP from 1987 is just as rare as the storage facility in which they were kept, burned to the ground. So, there are not many original copies at all.
The reissues of course can be found through a quick search on many of the various traders, collectors, distribution companies.

M.I. – Forecasts/plans for live performances?

Some live performances are coming up. Los Angeles sometime in May. Vancouver in May also, with Exciter, Razor and Sacrifice.
August in Victoria BC with Ares Kingdom.

M.I. – Almost finishing... Last words for our readers?

Hmm, perhaps the great sonnet;
“I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said:
“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . 
Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
....................................... ..........Infinite,”
(N.A.: "Ozymandias" is a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, published in 1818)

M.I. – Again, thanks for the answers and sorry for this long interview. But when one is interviewing legends, there is always a lot to ask. Stay safe and keep thrashing!

Excellent, thank you. Farewell .

For Portuguese version, click here

Questions by Ivan Santos