Interview: Old-School Dutch Death Metallers Thanatos at 35 Years, with New Compilation, New Label, and New Album in 2020

Photo courtesy of Thanatos Facebook page

Formed in 1984, Thanatos stands out in the necronomicon of old school death metal as the first Dutch extreme metal band, and the duo of Emerging from the Netherworlds (1990) and Realm of Ecstasy (1992) are two essentials of the early ’90s. This post isn’t about yesteryear though; in recent months the band played a 35th anniversary show, announced a signing with Listenable Records for a new album in 2020, and announced the upcoming release of the 2CD collection Thanatology: Terror from the Vault, which includes all four of the band’s studio demos, rarities, and the previously unreleased Live at the Lede, and will be available via Memento Mori on April 22nd.

That’s quite a lot of “new” for an old school band, so we caught up with founding member and vocalist/guitarist Stephan Gebédi to discuss the past, present, and future for the reinvigorated Dutch death thrashers.

There’s lots of great stuff going on with the band right now. Are you feeling very positive about that?

Yeah definitely. The past couple of years there seemed to be a little dip; we made the last album Global Purification, in 2014, then our drummer left two years later, so that looked like it was going to be maybe the last album we were going to make. But then we got a new guy in, Martin, and we started writing new songs again. We thought we should do something new, so we started writing new material, and then we had the anniversary thing coming up. Meanwhile we were writing new songs as well, and just recently we hooked up with a new label, so there will be another album, probably early next year, because it will take us some new time to get the new songs finished, but it looks pretty bright. We just had the anniversary show, which was a big success. So yeah, we’re in a positive flow right now.

How’d the anniversary show go?

Great. The Baroeg is not a very big club, but at the moment its the only metal club we have in Roterdam. We used to have bigger venues that 1,000 or 1,200 people would fit in, but right now its the only thing we have. Like 400 people fit in, and it was almost sold out. It was almost too crowded, but it was a huge success. We had two great bands [Soulburn and Graceless] as support acts, so I think the moment people came in it was a really great vibe and positive atmosphere. It was just freaking hot, like a sauna, and all the guests coming by, and all the former band members, so it was a great thing. Everyone seemed to like it. It went better than expected!

Who were the old members that played at the show?

We started off with the current lineup, we did three songs, and then we went back in time with a little step every time. First off we got our former drummer, Yuri Rinkel, who was on the latest album. He played two songs with us. Then we went back a little bit further; Theo van Eekelen, who was with me and Paul in Hail of Bullets as well, and he played a couple of songs with us. I think then we switched back to the early 90s with the debut album and the second one, Realm of Ecstasy and Emerging from the Netherworlds, we had almost the complete lineup of that era. We had almost all the guys on stage. We had the bass player, Ed Boeser, and the guitar player Erwin de Brouwer, and me. The only guy missing was the drummer from that time, because he wasn’t able to make it, or he wasn’t really in the mood to start practicing again.

And then finally we brought in the guy who I formed the band with in 1984, Remco [de Maaijer] is his name. We were the two guys who formed the band in high school, when he was 14 and I just turned 16. That was actually th

e first time we really worked together on stage performing a real show, because we did some little thing back in 1985 but then the band broke up with that lineup, so it was the first time we were together on stage. We played two songs from 1984, which was a really cool thing to do. Then we switched back to the current lineup and played a few more songs.

In the photos you sent, one of the recent ones has Remco with the new lineup.

We were in touch every five or ten years, a quick “Hello” or “How’s it going?”, but yeah when we got the idea to do the show with former band members we got together a little more often, and it turned out he had been following the band all the time, all those years. And he was still very much interested in doing this. That’s why it turned out he would also be on the compilation album, where we would record two very old songs. So it went very well! Its a renewed friendship you know? We maybe saw each other three or four times in the past 30 years, and in the last couple of months we saw each other quite often. He rehearsed with the band quite a bit. Its great to see the guy again, he’s still a great guy, and its cool to hook up again.

Why the collection specifically at this time? Why 35 specifically, as opposed to 30 or 25 or 20?

Well, I don’t know. When we had the 30th anniversary coming up, we had just signed the deal with Century Media. We were very eager to get a new album out, so we totally focused on that album. Initially we had the same idea for this year, that we wanted to get the album out earlier, but we didn’t hook up with a record label in time. Then this idea came up that “Let’s celebrate 35 years, let’s ripoff the KISS logo for live 35, and let’s get this thing going.”

We were approached by several labels that wanted to release those old demo tapes. I thought “Why?”, because some of them had been released as bonus tracks on previous albums, but they’ve never been all together on one compilation. Some underground labels approached us to do this, and we said “OK, that’s fine,” but especially the first couple of demos, they are really crappy. We recorded those tapes when were 14 or 15, and it sounds like shit to be honest. I’m not ashamed, its part of our history, but it’s not like “Wow let’s get those demos tape out, we’re proud of these albums!” We definitely wanted to re-record a few songs, so they would live up to today’s standards a little bit, like the songs were actually meant to be played, but we couldn’t do it back then. That’s when the idea arose to re-record two songs from 1984, but still try to keep it very old school. That’s why we brought in the original guitarist, and he played the guitar parts on those songs as well, so that turned out pretty well. For us that’s the most important thing on the album, those two re-recorded tracks. But it is nice to have everything together like an anthology.

The fun thing is we also included the semi, or the so-called, “Live” tape from 1984, which was recorded at the attic room of the drummer back then and gained some legendary status in the ’80s. It sounded pretty brutal for the time, and a lot of people thought it was an actual show. This was also mentioned in the liner notes for the CD. Even the guys from Carcass, who we were in contact with, trading tapes, and were also like 14-15 years old, they say said “Oh wow where this played? The crowd is so rowdy, we want to go there! And what did you use? Because its so brutal!” We never said it was recorded in the attic room, we just said “Yeah its a great place, you should go there!” And its a funny thing because we finally releases that tape, and it was never officially released by us, so that’s also a nice thing.

It just us, the band, and five or six people, friends that we invited, and they all just yelled between the songs and during the songs so it sounds, well live of course, but it isn’t a real venue, its just a rehearsal thing with some people shouting in between, making it sound like a live tape. Its funny, we were so young, we just thought we could put on the volume and go for it for awhile, and it turned out pretty good. Definitely better than the original demo tape, which sounds a little bit wimpy.

Could you tell me a bit more about the re-recorded tracks and why they’re significant to you?

We did record some of the old tracks for previous albums, but we never did these tracks, so it was a bit special for us to give these tracks some sort of treatment like the songs should’ve sounded back then, if we would have been able to play properly. We didn’t want it to sound too polished, or give it total 2019 production, but to make it sound good. It should still sound old school, but well played, and well executed, and that’s what happened with those songs. I think it turned out pretty well. Its also a little bit of a thing to fill the gap between the previous studio record and the one that’s coming out next year, a little sign of life that we’re still recording and still doing new stuff. These were also the first recordings with our new drummer, so for him it was a good thing to start off like this and not being thrown in the studio for an entire new record immediately.

So its a link from the old material to the new record.

That’s the same thing we did with the anniversary show. We played the oldest song live, we played the two [re-recorded] songs that are on the compilation, we played those songs from 1984, and we went straight into a song that hasn’t been released yet, that’s going to be on the next record. We made a big jump forward. And the vibe was good, people were in the mosh pit for the old songs and they continued with the new songs.

You’re recording the new record in October, and it will be out on Listenable. What’s your approach on this new album?

We’re written about five to six songs so far, and we’re working on a few more now. We have a couple riffs for the next couple songs, which we’re gonna focus on for the next couple months. We hope to finish all the writing process before the summer, or during the summer, and then go into the studio in October. Hopefully it will be released in March, maybe April next year. That’s the thing we have in mind now. It will be a big departure from the previous albums, Global Purification; we’re trying to incorporate a little more darkness into the sound. It will still be our mixture of death and thrash metal, like with the second album we did, Realm of Ecstasy in the 90s, that one had a really dark atmosphere, and I think we never managed to capture that dark atmosphere [again]. We managed to capture the aggression on the previous album, and I really love that album, but I think the combination of the previous album with the darkness of the old stuff, that’s the goal that we’re aiming for right now, so hopefully we can achieve that.

We were never a pure death metal band, or a pure thrash metal band either. We were too dark and brutal for thrash metal, and sometimes too thrashy for death metal fans. We always maintained that. Look at a band like Necrophobic: there was a very long-term period where nobody seemed to like them; I saw them a couple of times where they performed for like 30, 35 people, and they kept playing the same style of music and now they’re back at the front. Their new album is doing better than ever! And its so well deserved because they’ve always been a band that mixed death and black metal and thrash, and they just kept doing what they did. And now the time is better for them, they have time on their side again, and its really cool to see that. Sometimes you’re in some kind of void because thrash metal is more orientated on lyrics about drinking beer and zombies and skateboards, and we never jumped on that bandwagon. And we also never jumped on the brutal death metal wagon of downtuning the guitars to B or A, just trying to fit in with that, so we always were in the middle. Sometimes that might be a problem, and sometimes that might be a blessing, I don’t know. Its a natural thing for us: we love death metal, we love thrash metal, so the music ends up somewhere between. That’s what we always try to do.

As someone who has participated in metal for so long, how do you feel about metal in 2019? What are some of the positives you see? What are some of the negatives? 

Well, without sounding like a bitter old man? That will be difficult! I’m not saying everything was better back then, but people had to step out of boxes a bit more. I think we were in a period back then that we were creating new styles. Everything has been done now, so its more difficult for bands at this moment to do something new, something exciting, something that hasn’t been done before. We grew up with New Wave of British Heavy Metal, then the thrash wave happened. We were all part of that as teenagers, it was our music that exploded, and we were part of it, trying to add another ingredient to it with the aggression and the speed and the darkness. We traded tapes with the likes of Possessed and Death, we were all in touch with each other, and everyone was trying to create their form of extreme metal. Its difficult for the newer bands because everything has been done before, and obviously a lot of bands these days are musically much better than we were back then. They’re more technical, they have more abilities, they’re faster, and sometimes there’s a lot of semi-new bands that I really like. But in the end you are always drawn to the classic records from the early days. I don’t know about the younger generation, they grew up with different bands, they grew up with different albums, for them its probably the same as it is for me. They go back to the three albums that probably made the biggest impression on their teenage life, I guess.

The current scene, there is a lot of things that are better, the facilities for bands, touring wise, festivals. But on the other hand, its turned into a lot of commercial, business type thing. Everything is well arranged, but there is a lot of money going on. Its become something of a marketing thing, metal. Its not like the dangerous, us-against-the-world thing that it was in our teenage years. That’s the big difference I guess.

On the announcement from the signing to Listenable Records, you said

When Thanatos emerged in 1984, metal was still raw and unpolished and there was a strong ‘us against the world’ feeling amongst both bands and fans. We were at war with the establishment, organised religion and mainstream music.

At that time, you felt like it was a fight in that sense.

Yeah, definitely. Your parents hated what you were doing, people at school were laughing at you. We were some sort of a gang back then. When we were 16, 17, 18 years old, we hung out in the city, there were fights with skinheads and fights with punk rockers, totally different from now. Nowadays, most of the metal people, and that’s not a bad thing, most of the metal people now they are all nice people, they are polite, they have all these little hearts with whatever they’re talking about. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, or we were so tough, or we were such tough guys or anything, but it was just different. It was a totally different approach towards people who were into metal. I think a lot of people hated you, and a lot of people looked at you with a disgusted face.

There was a different attitude towards us, and also a different attitude of the metal people towards the regular people. We didn’t fit in that much, and it showed in your behavior, and the behavior towards you, and it was some sort of a fight. Nobody accepted the music, it was nowhere to be found on the radio or the TV, and that hasn’t changed that much of course, but there were no facilities to do proper shows. You had to go to some house where people break into the house and start living there, empty houses that are not being occupied and people move in there. That’s where they had they had their first shows; people got together and started drinking and smoking pot, and you played there as a band. That’s what the first shows were like. And we didn’t have a proper stage, there was no lighting, there was no PA or anything. It was a punk scene back then, I guess. That’s how we grew up, and that’s the attitude that comes from there. Nowadays of course its better when you play a show you get decent food, you get your drinks, everything is arranged. You have to send in your invoice and you get paid up front. Its all cool you know, I’m not complaining about all things, but the adventurous part has gone.

Sometimes it seems like its more of a money industry.

Its become a business now you know. I’m not saying that’s wrong, because everyone has to make a living, and bands have to be promoted, and its just how it works. Sometimes it takes away a bit of the original feeling.

When it becomes focused more on the financial side something is lost. When tickets are hundreds and hundreds of dollars, or say for example a cruise.

I’ve been on the cruise once, and to be honest, I didn’t like it that much. It was OK, but its a bit fake for me. The whole thing is like Wacken Open Air on a boat. The people are enjoying themselves, and obviously that’s a good thing, but its a bit like a big carnival. People are dressed up like crocodiles, chickens, that’s not my kind of metal! [Laughs]. Not my thing. I understand that a lot of people like to party, I like to party, I like to have fun, but when it comes to music and imagery, I like to have it a bit more serious and darker than that kind of stuff. Its not my goal to be playing with 20,000 people, and 1,000 people are dressed up like chickens or crocodiles. Then I’d rather play a club show.

What are the next three steps for the band?

I’m not trying to think too much ahead, you know? I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and a couple times before we said “Well, this is going to be the last record” and I’m not saying that anymore, because I can’t promise that. [Laughs]. If the record turns out well and we get to do a lot of great shows then there might be another one again, so I cannot say that anymore.

I’m pretty sure I won’t be doing this for 10 or 15 more years. I’m not saying that I cannot do it right now, but I’m 52 now and when I look at bands that are going on too long, I get a bad feeling about it. I’m a big KISS fan, and right now the KISS tour, the last KISS tour hopefully, is on its way, but I think they should’ve stopped like 10 years ago. I don’t want to end up a band that’s four old guys on stage, and they are just staring at their guitars, they cannot move their feet anymore, they cannot bang their heads, or they look stupid if they try to bang their heads, I don’t want to end that way. I want to end this band in a proper way, like a band that’s still valid and relevant on stage, that still delivers what we stand for. I’m not going to do this when I’m in my 60s, that’s for sure.

I will probably keep on playing music, and metal obviously, but maybe I’ll start a doom band or something. I’m not trying to think too much ahead. The big thing is we need to write songs for the new record, and we are pretty slow and lazy song writers, so its going to be a thing for us to get five more songs done before the summer, but its going to work. Then recording, and then getting the album out, and then hopefully do a number of cool festivals and great shows. That’s the only thing I’ve trying to think about right now, not any further than that.

We also filmed the [anniversary] show. We have no idea how that will turn out. We used four or five cameras, so its not like its like this big budget thing, but we did record the audio, so I’m really curious to see how that will turn out. It will take awhile before everything is edited, and we will see if there weren’t too many mistakes, and we don’t sound too crappy, and we’re going to give a try. Maybe that will be out as a bonus DVD later on, with the next record. And if its not good enough we’ll probably just put it on YouTube. That’s a big project to get those recordings done and edited and mixed, so that’s another thing that’s going to happen.  We’re trying to get that done in time, and when the recordings are good enough then we’ll definitely try to do that. Of course we have to judge how it turned out, and if its not too amateurish. It can be old school, it can be everything that we are, but it shouldn’t look crappy or too amateurish, that’s the only thing.

Show promotion on big screen outside Rotterdam central station.

The amateurish thing is coming out with the compilation, from now on its back to being semi-professional! [For the compilation] the artwork is really cool, really old school, we’re doing t-shirts of the design, and I think people seem to like the old school vibe that surrounds the album.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the show, the compilation, or the record, or anything else in general?

The original idea with the compilation was to get it out on a 7”, only the two re-recorded songs, it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe we’ll still work to get a 7” EP out later this year.

We’re just thankful for the interest from all over the world. We’ve had a lot of press coverage here in Holland, Belgium, and in Germany for the anniversary thing, so it’s cool that people overseas are also interested. And we definitely hope to be doing maybe Maryland Deathfest next year, we’re working on that. That would be killer to finally play there, because we haven’t made it to the States yet. There were always things with the lineup in the 90s, but the original lineup collapsed just before we were about to start doing bigger tours in Europe and abroad. So hopefully it will work next year. I’m not sure, but we’re working on it, so it’s not concrete or anything yet. The other thing is trying to get the word out on the album, and just keep on doing what we’ve been doing for 35 years.