Heavy Metal Commandments Codified: A Q&A With Grave Digger’s Chris Boltendahl

Grave Digger aren’t the most celebrated of groups at Decibel. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know or understand the importance the Germans, who formed 36 years ago, played on (European) heavy metal. From debut, Heavy Metal Breakdown, to new album, Healed by Metal, Grave Digger embodies the spirit of the genre. They are unapologetic banner carriers of anthemic, sing-a-long songs that befit small stages and gargantuan outdoor festivals, that bring close friends closer (over a beer or two) and help make the bonds of new friends stronger (over a beer or two). Really, think about it for a second. Here’s a band on its 19th studio album, and they remain as steadfastly dedicated to their heavy metal craft as they were when they were new to the scene. That Healed by Metal is killer also makes a world of difference. Read on as we jet through 10 questions with Grave Digger founding member and heavy metal healer Chris Boltendahl.

Does it shock you that you’re still here 32 years later? Your debut, Heavy Metal Breakdown, was released in 1984.
Chris Boltendahl: Not really, no. [Laughs] When I was 20, I thought, “OK, I’ll die when I’m 30.” When I was 30, I thought, “OK, I’ll die when I’m 40.” Next month, I’ll be 55. So, I’ve grown up with this music called heavy metal. Heavy metal from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Heavy metal is something I want to do every day. I mean, how many people can say they’ve had their dreams come true? I’m successful and I love it.

Is the writing process now the same as it was back 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and so on?
Chris Boltendahl: It’s pretty much the same. Fans have changed a bit. They’re getting older. Now, they’re coming to the shows with their children, and they’re bringing their friends. So, we have a complete range: from 10 years to 60. It’s pretty cool.

When I read about the album title, I had to chuckle a little. Then, when I heard the track, “Healed by Metal”, I chuckled again, but I got it. It’s a very European concept, but the music is so anthemic and boisterous, it has this inclusionary quality to it.
Chris Boltendahl: Right. Well, I will tell you it’s more about playing live. Anyone can make a studio record, especially nowadays. It’s so easy. So, it’s our goal to write songs that we can play live and that people can sing along with us. I mean, we’re an entertainment band. We’re not political. We don’t have a special message for the people. We just like to go on stage and rock with the crowd. That’s the most important thing, the show.

The title track has that special quality to it. Almost timeliness from a heavy metal viewpoint.
Chris Boltendahl: These types of songs aren’t written in minutes. Rather, hours, like two hours. There’s a little story behind this title, actually. A few years ago, we played in a large amphitheater in Moscow. In Gorky Park. There’s a hospital beside the theater, and about 10 bands played throughout the day. At the end of the day, I was standing there with my tour manager and I said, “Hey, Richard, what do you think? Are these people [in the hospital] completely bored now? They’ve listened to heavy metal all day and they’re all ill. I can’t believe it.” He looked at me and said, “Look, now all the people [in the hospital] are healed by metal.” It was a genius title. So, that’s why we called this album Healed by Metal.

What about the song “Ten Commandments of Metal”? That’s a long time coming, no?
Chris Boltendahl: Absolutely. The “Ten Commandments of Metal” was a funny thing. I said to the guys, “Nobody has written down the 10 Commandments of Metal. Let us be the first!” We sat together and made up the commandments. We’re the Moses of metal. [Laughs] Here they are:

1. The first Commandment is: Thou shall not play the guitar without distortion.
2. The second Commandment is: Thou shall not cut your hair. [Boltendahl jokingly accuses me of not being ‘true’ after learning I cut my hair years ago.—CD]
3. The third Commandment is: Thou shall hit the drums as hard thou can.
4. The fourth Commandment is: Thou shall share your beer with your brothers and sisters in metal.
5. The fifth Commandment is: Thou shall your raise your hands to show the devil horns.
6. The sixth Commandment is: Thou shall play metal music as loud as you can.
7. The seventh Commandment is: Thou shall never wash your metal vest.
8. The eighth Commandment is: Thou shall not praise the day without heavy metal.
9. The ninth Commandment is: Thou shall defy the weather at heavy metal festivals.
10. The tenth Commandment is: Thou shall always stand side-by-side because you are metal.

I think you’re missing one, Chris. Thou shall always headbang to heavy metal.
Chris Boltendahl: [Laughs] There are many more Commandments to be made.

What are “Lawbreaker” and “Free Forever” about? They seem to embody the same rebel spirit.
Chris Boltendahl: “Lawbreaker” is about a gang on their motorcycles. They arrive in town, make a bunch of noise with their motor-bikes and then head out of town. “Free Forever” is about a king who can’t die. He has to live forever. In some ways, it’s similar to Martin Luther King. He will never die. Of course, you can find your own meaning to the lyrics.

What’s it like promoting Grave Digger now compared to the ‘80s? In some ways, it’s still the same—interviews, touring, etc.—but in other ways it’s very different, with online media and dispersion of voice.
Chris Boltendahl: We always have to do new stuff. Sometimes it makes me sad. When I grew up in the ‘80s, there was no Internet, Facebook, or Instagram. Life was much easier back then. Music wasn’t like fast food. Music, nowadays, is fast food. A fast food product. Spotify and things like that make music too easy. Only our most basic of fan is waiting for the CD or LP to come out. Music used to be culture. We’ll see what happens. I have no suggestions for what will happen in the future.

Do you have plans to support Healed by Metal in North America?
Chris Boltendahl: We have some shows planned in Europe. But I don’t think we’ll come next year to the U.S. We were there a year ago [with Blind Guardian]. We have to wait some time before we return again.

OK, one final question. The Healed by Metal cover art. Connected to the title track or is there something else happening?
Chris Boltendahl: Uh, well, no. But it’s something I wanted the artist to do. The reaper is more or less a Frankenstein. He’s healing this girl, who is a mutation. The artist, Gyula Havancsák, has been doing our covers since 2003.

** Grave Digger’s new album, Healed by Metal, is out January 17th on Napalm Records. Pre-orders for CDs, LPs, and other merch is HERE. Are you brave enough to be healed by metal? We thought so.