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Leviathan - Verkanntes Prog-Metal Genie im Interview
Leviathan - Verkanntes Prog-Metal Genie im Interview  
Der Bandname Leivathan ist mittlerweile mehrfach vergeben. Für mich gibt es nach wie vor nur EINE Band, die diesen Namen verdient, nämlich die US-Prog-Metaller. Nachdem man Ende der Neunziger leider von der Bildfläche verschwand, hauchte Gitarrist und Songwriter John Lutzow der Band 2010 wieder neues Leben ein...
Alex Fähnrich
Alex Fähnrich
(9 Interviews)
Der Bandname Leivathan ist mittlerweile mehrfach vergeben. Für mich gibt es nach wie vor nur EINE Band, die diesen Namen verdient, nämlich die US-Prog-Metaller. Nachdem man Ende der Neunziger leider von der Bildfläche verschwand, hauchte Gitarrist und Songwriter John Lutzow der Band 2010 wieder neues Leben ein und ist seither sehr produktiv, sowohl bei der Aufnahme neuer Alben als auch bei der Veröffentlichung von Re-Releases der Band-Klassiker. So nahm ich die Wiederveröffentlichung von "Scoring The Chapters" und das aktuelle Album "Can`t Be Seen By Looking: Blurring The Lines, Clouding The Truth" (check out our review) zum Anlass für dieses ausführliche Interview mit John, in dem die gesamte Geschichte von Leivathan genauso thematisiert wird wie die aktuelle politische Situation in seinem Heimatland.
Dabei zeigt er sich nicht nur sehr intelligent und eloquent, sondern auch äußerst selbstkritisch und reflektiert. Um seine langen Ausführungen möglichst authentisch wiederzugeben, veröffentlichen wir dieses Interview in Englisch. Enjoy!

DarkScene: John, there are two important reasons why I asked you for this interview. The first is the 20th anniversary of your masterpiece "Scoring The Chapters", the second your current album "Can`t Be Seen By Looking: Blurring The Lines, Clouding The Truth". Next year Leivathan will be celebrating its 30th anniversary. If you don`t mind we start in the past and work our way to the presence, perhaps even into the future.
Leivathan started out in 1989 with a self-title Demo-EP which I still cherish as one of the best US-Metal-releases ever. The camouflage-coloured tape and the EP with the black cover are two treasures of my collection. When you look back, how do you see the early days of Leivathan in your personal rearview mirror?

John Lutzow: Thank you so much for your kind words about our early days. I really appreciate it.
I miss those old days. I joined the band in 1990 after Leviathan released the "gold demo" it was a three song cassette tape. The best part of that time period for me, was being in a group of people, all striving to reach the same goal. I really miss the comradeship. Even though I didn't get along that great with some of the older members in the band, we were all tight when it came to playing our music. We started out as a "live" band as opposed to what we are now, a studio band. My first year in Leviathan we played over 100 club shows. And over the next two years we played an additional 250. Those numbers are pretty incredible for an all original power metal band. The music scene in Colorado back then was much better than now for heavy music. The early 90's were a great time for Leviathan, mostly because we were young and motivated. Metal was still thriving. Then Grunge music came and took a lot of our steam.



DarkScene: Unfortunately singer extraordinaire Tom Braden left the band. Later drummer Ty Tammeus and bass player James Escobedo followed. What were the reasons?

John Lutzow: Well, all of those departures really came down to differences of opinion in the direction of Leviathan. Ron Skeen owned everything back then, He was the only songwriter, and he held the trademark to the name Leviathan, which I hold now. He wanted my song writing to be part of the band. The other members didn't agree. There were many other factors and petty conflicts involved in the personnel changes. Ron Skeen and Ty never got along. The three members you mention actually tried to take Ron to court. They thought they could sue him for rights to the name and songs. Their case was understandably thrown out by the judge as a waste of time and for them money. Ron really knew a lot about the music business. This betrayal really burned the bridges between Leviathan and the former members. Drudging up the past for anyone won't really be beneficial so I will conclude the question with that explanation.
I am very happy for Ty and the success he has earned. He still is the most creative drummer I have ever worked with. He approached song writing the same way I do.

DarkScene: Anyways, Ron Skeen and you found a steady line-up which recorded two more excellent albums: "Riddles, Questions, Poetry And Outrage" and "Scoring The Chapters". Why is the latter so special to you? You even call it "the high point of my musical life"...

John Lutzow: "The Scoring the Chapters"-album was so special for us and me specifically because it was the pinnacle of my musical career (if you want to call it that). Our future looked so bright and promising. We felt like the deal with Century Media wasn't a good fit. We established communication with many distributors and took pre-orders for STC before we even recorded the first notes. Our past sales numbers proved confidence that we could go into business for ourselves and be successful. Ron was a good business person and that was the role he was kind of evolving into. He brought the other members and me a business plan that required we go all in and start our own label. We would only have to sell a small fraction of disks compared to what we sold with RTN and Century Media. This had very high risk, which at the time we didn't fully comprehend. Never the less, we agreed as a band that we should take the challenge and invest in ourselves to make our dream album.

We knew from previous experience that recording the album we wanted would require at least three weeks in the studio. That was a bigger budget than we had ever granted ourselves. Contrary to what people might think, every Leviathan album recorded to date was self-financed. Our second disk, "Deepest Secrets Beneath" was already finished and paid for before RTN Records bought it. "RQPO" was already finished and paid for before Century Media bought it. On every album we have lost money. Still, we were optimistic that "STC" would be the first successful project we had done. But inevitably, our gamble didn't pay off. Century Media played hard ball with us and blocked our sales to distributors who had previously agreed to order directly from us. So sales of "STC" were about the worst of any disk we recorded. The drummer and I had financed the bulk of the 30.000 USD budget on credit cards. So trouble with sales really broke the band apart. But before that, the time spent writing, rehearsing and recording for a month down in Morrisound was the best musical experience I have ever had.

I was like a kid in the candy store. I was able to spend the time and experiment with any sound or tone I wanted. All of us were close friends and I think that bond shows through in the music. All of the members minus Ron had seen the direction changing. We thought there was a very good possibility that Ron wouldn't continue as guitarist but more as manager. Even when our relationship with him started to sour, we all planned to move on as a four piece. If you notice, Ron’s writing contributions became less and less with each album. This wasn't planned but because Ron was a few years older than the rest of us, he was already into family mode. He was the only member married at the time and had two kids. It became very difficult for him to find the time to write and rehearse. I will always be grateful for the trust and love that Ron had shown me from the beginning. He stuck behind me when literally everyone else in the band was trying to force me out.



DarkScene: What did you improve on "Scoring The Chapters" sound-wise?

John Lutzow: The biggest improvement to our sound was finally getting to take our time recording. That rare opportunity to relax in the studio yielded a much more open recording. Plus, that was the first time that we actually got to record at Morrisound. Our previous two albums were mixed there but due to budget constraints, were always recorded at our home town studio, Colorado Sound.

DarkScene: Why was there no such anniversary edition of "Riddles, Questions, Poetry And Outrage" which was to me just as magnificent as its successor?

John Lutzow: The main reason I wanted to reissue an anniversary edition of "Scoring the Chapters" was because that disk only had limited production. "RQPO" was distributed in great abundance. I didn't really feel I could reach any new fans with that disk. To me, "STC" never got a chance to be heard. So I just wanted to make sure that I had that album in stock in case someone wanted to buy it but was never able to find it. So to any reader that liked older Leviathan albums, you can now buy the "Scoring the Chapters"-album here: www.leviathanresurrected.com

DarkScene: What were the reasons for the split of Leviathan in 1998 and what brought about its "resurrection" some twenty years later in the very same line-up?

John Lutzow: This question goes back to the "STC"-album's poor sales and financial trouble all the band members went through. Even though Jeff, Trevor, Derek and I had agreed to push forward without Ron, the timing wasn't great. Trevor was very bitter after losing over $9.000. He quit playing drums and sold his kit. Jeff quickly found another band and began touring. Derek and I still played together but mainly acoustic stuff. Our demise was very much a cliché. We were brought down by distrust over finances, overreach of significant others and bad timing.

DarkScene: In the meantime you have lost all your bandmates except for bass player Derek Blake. How come?

John Lutzow: "Life happens while you are busy making plans". Derek and I have been friends from high school. So regardless of music that relationship will never change. In 2006, Trevor Helfer, the drummer, joined the side band that Derek and I formed in 1994 called Braver Since Then. Derek and I were so happy to finally connect with him again after quite a few years apart. I borrowed a drum set from a co-worker and arranged for Trevor, Derek and I to jam just for fun. That eventually led us to writing and recording together again. We played some shows over the next few years and recorded a couple demos. That reconnection with him is what paved the way for the reunion shows in 2010. Trevor was still working with Leviathan until we went to Europe in 2011. He, like the other band members, was married and had children by now. So he bowed out of the band due to conflicts with work and family. As for Jeff Ward, he had moved back to his home in Texas back in 1999. He was hard to find but luckily we tracked him down and continued our relationship up until 2018. He agreed to record the new album with me but just couldn't commit to travelling up to Colorado when I needed him to record. I put the new album on hold for over a year waiting for him. I was grateful to find the singer Raphael Gazal.



DarkScene: Yet you have been able to rally new musicians and to produce three excellent albums in the meantime: "At Long Last Progress, Stopped To Follow", "Beholden To Nothing, Braver Since Then" and now "Can`t Be Seen By Looking: Blurring The Lines, Clouding The Truth". What they all have in common are the rather long titles, intelligent lyrics and extraordinary music which can by all means be called genuinely progressive. Would you please try to describe your own vision as an artist and how you have tried to express it with these albums?

John Lutzow: If you have a strong will, you will always find a way. As for my vision as an artist, I’m just trying to create something interesting and original. I know my music isn't for everyone. But I think that with better production, the albums might have found a bigger following. I take full responsibility for my failures and shortcomings. I am striving to improve and earn back the trust and respect that all members of Leviathan had worked so hard to achieve. My impatience has always been my biggest fault. I took music and the art form of making records for granted. I am slowly finding my way back.

DarkScene: What strikes me about the new album are its open political messages. In the first song 'Life Beyond Meaning' you say "Lie, cheat and steal, be president tomorrow". The title of the last song 'Lies Are The New Normal (No Lesser Of Evil)' speaks for itself. You do not seem to be very fond of President Trump, do you?

John Lutzow: That's funny. No, I am not fond of that person at all. I honestly believe that a serious act of treason has been committed by allowing that conman to hold the highest office in our land. I couldn't be more embarrassed to be an American than I am right now. I was never involved in politics before this election. I am deeply involved now and will continue to fight to bring equality and legislation that will improve the lives of workers.
Many factors occurred to open my eyes to the reality of lies we citizens live through. Democracy is very broken. Money in politics has ruined everything and the people in power are OK with that because they believe in some type of manifest destiny. They think they are entitled to have power and hold all the wealth over the 99%. People like Trump really believe that they are smarter and better than everyone else because they were born into wealth.

I was a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Bernie is the only politician that I have ever seen that actually cares about average citizens. Any threat or misery that humans face today, you can find a video of Bernie fighting to right those wrongs going back 30 years as a public servant. Politicians need to return to that fact. They are where they are to serve the will of the people, not the corporations or special interest groups that fund their super PAC’s. Getting money out of politics is the first step to righting this tremendous wrong that has been perpetrated against us. As citizens, we need to all get motivated and vote the criminals out of office. Take our countries back by any means. Otherwise the future of our planet is at stake.

DarkScene: Here in Europe Trump is causing more terror and at the same time mockery than every President of The United States I can remember (and my memory goes back to Nixon). How would you describe the state of your nation from an American citizen`s (and father of a baby son`s) point of view?

John Lutzow: Whew! These are some tough questions. I don't mean to sound so glim or catastrophic but this world scares me. With climate change happening right before our eyes, we need to act now for future generations. I really don't like what America has become. I am in shock every day when I watch the news and hear what further embarrassments have come out of that disgusting man's mouth. I am very fearful for what will happen in the next few months with the investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. This man wants to be a dictator and admires those types of people. He is empowering evil and giving them a platform. Please, anyone reading this, vote like your life depends on it. Don't look the other way. When you see bigotry, stand up for those that are helpless.

DarkScene: Back to the music: Your new singer Rafael Gazal reminds me so much of your former singer Jeff Ward. How did you find him?

John Lutzow: Well, I didn't find him in the USA. I found Raphael through a musician’s web service. I contacted him and sent him some material. He agreed to do the album. He truly is amazing considering English is not his normal language. He lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which has a very similar political climate to the USA now. They just elected a wannabe Hitler. He tells me that the violence in his town is real. It is dangerous to go out in the streets.

DarkScene: Mark Zonder plays drums on the current album. An exclusive and expensive choice. Was it worthwhile?

John Lutzow: In many ways it was very worthwhile. He has been my favourite all time drummer since the Fates Warning “Perfect Symmetry”-record. To get to work with him was a dream. I knew that one of the many shortcomings of my two previously self-produced, Leviathan records was the drum production. Hiring Mark to record at his own studio brought me that much closer to returning to the high level of sound quality that Leviathan set early on with our albums.



DarkScene: Again Martin Schröder, your German connection, contributed the stunning cover artwork. What would you do without him?

John Lutzow: True. Martin is a member of the band. In many cases he is my only impartial opinion. He tells me exactly what he thinks. Mostly that is very damaging to my ego but in the long run, I always appreciate his candor. I will write a new song and record it and be very excited. I send him the audio and he will clip my wings. Without him, I wouldn't be making music any more. He is a great artist and good friend. He really has my best interests at heart. He also handles European distribution for me. This saves me time and money.

DarkScene: You told me that you are already working on a new album. What can we expect?

John Lutzow: Yes. The next Leviathan-album will be released in 2020. The cool thing about this album is that it is a continuation from where Leviathan would have been in 1998. Nine of the ten songs were written right after or during the "Scoring the Chapters"-era. These songs were intended to be the next Leviathan album after Ron departed. So the sound and feel is very much like the songs on "STC". All the songs are much shorter than our newer stuff. Plus, none of them are political or religious. I think the new album will have a much more positive vibe, better production and focus. The drums and bass are already recorded. Raphael has finished the vocals for two songs out of ten so far.

DarkScene: As I said in my introduction, 2019 will mark the 30th band anniversary for Leviathan. How will you celebrate that?

John Lutzow: I am not sure. I will probably leave any celebration until the release of the next record.

DarkScene: Famous last words....

John Lutzow: Thank you so much for remembering Leviathan and letting me shine some light on our music.
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