Q&A: Grave Digger’s Chris Boltendahl on Crusaders, Falsettos, and “Honest Heavy Metal”

In 2015 the German metal institution Grave Digger rerecorded their early 80s staple song “Heavy Metal Breakdown.” The accompanying animated video (see below) was brilliant and hilarious: it showed all the band members hooked to IVs in a care facility before they break out and proceed to fuck shit up. While tongue in cheek there were some truths to it: Grave Digger has been an active band for all but the first decade of metal’s half-century existence. Over the course of 42 years and counting, they’ve released a staggering number of albums, including their upcoming 21st record Symbol Of Eternity (due in late August). Vocalist and band founder Chris Boltendahl has led the charge through a number of lineups and a history department’s worth of topics. The heavy metal lifer talked to Decibel about the new album and the graves of the 80s.

What has life been like for you the past two years and how did you adjust to the pandemic, especially in Germany where there were even lockdowns this year?

I made the best of it. I worked on writing albums and last year I built my studio. I started doing some productions here in March 2021. I did all the Grave Digger production, mixing, mastering, and vocal recording in this studio. After almost 60 years I keep trying to express myself in new ways.

Had you always wanted to build your own studio?

No, it was a spontaneous idea. I had a new record deal and started thinking about things I could do to keep some money in the house. Production nowadays is really expensive. I used to record stuff in these big principal studios where all the German bands record. I talked to a friend who said he could help me build a home studio and give me some tips. He even let me practice in his home studio. (After it was built) I started working on some smaller productions and then started working on the Grave Digger album.

Were the other band members in your bubble or were you just sharing files and recordings?

Axel (Ritt, guitarist) and I always try to prepare some stuff and then meet in Axel’s studio. We do pre-production with computers and then we record everything. Our drummer recorded in his studio and I did my vocals in my studio and we put it all together for mixing mastering. All of us were in our home studios when we made this record.

It’s so interesting to live in a world where not only do you collaborate remotely but every band member seems to have their own studio.

It’s great to be able to keep some money by not renting a big studio.

Why did you want to go back and tell more stories about The Crusaders and The Knights Templar on Symbol Of Eternity?

The idea was developed during the pandemic. As you know we made the Knights Of The Cross album about the Templars (in 1998). But you can’t cover history this deep in one album. I asked the band how they felt about another album on the Templars. I thought we had so many stories left to tell and could easily do another 10-12 songs on the topic.

Do you do any research when you develop these historical albums or are they a product of what you read anyway?

I’m interested in a lot of historical things but I do need to refresh my memory. I read about the Holy Grail and mystical things and keep reading about it. (I’m interested) in both the true stories of the Crusades and the mystical side and the legends. Legends are always good for metal albums.

I always think about what I wasn’t taught about the Crusades like sending children out to fight wars when there are no able-bodied men. The Crusades were cultural imperialism.

Well, a lot of the same things are happening now if you look at what’s happening in Ukraine. They are sending unprepared soldiers into war just like in the Crusades. Many similar things happen throughout history.

Did you have the story arc and lyrics written before the music?

It always starts with a concept and some lyrics. Then we decide what kind of lyrics will fit into a song. For example “Symbol Of Eternity ” needed to be heavy and a little doom-y to match the lyrics. The first thing is always the written stuff – not the music.

Your voice has changed. Can you still hit those high notes and that falsetto?

I handle my vocals completely differently now. When I was younger I had one tone higher. Throughout my life, I think my voice just kept going deeper. I think my deeper voice sounds more complete and more like a voice – not a scream. From The Reaper (1993) on you can see my voice getting deeper and deeper. It’s not easy to sing some of the (old) songs the way I did – I can’t do it. It’s much harder than it was 20 years ago.

I think it’s worked. The material you’ve produced from your middle period on works with the lower range. Those high-pitched vocals in the early 80s were part of that time.

I feel comfortable with the style I use now and I think it might even be more commercial. It’s easier to listen to. When I listen to the old stuff it almost reminds me of an ugly, angry dwarf (loud laughter).

That’s funny because I love all those records.

I love them too – it’s just different.

Could you break out that falsetto for one song if needed?

If I were to use it again it would need to sound authentic. I need to stretch myself to hit those high notes. It’s easier to sing the way I do now. Two weeks ago we played in Italy and did “Headbanging Man,” and “Witch Hunter.” I did the verse in the lower octave and then switched to the high voice for the bridge. That’s more comfortable than screaming all the stuff again.

When you rerecorded “Heavy Metal Breakdown” you dropped an octave.

Yes, but if you listen carefully I will do some higher notes in the background. I like showing these old songs in new ways.

I was not expecting a collaboration with a Greek pop star Vasilis Papakonstantinou on a Grave Digger album. Where did that idea of recording “Hellas Hellas” come from?

In 1994 I was in Greece on a small island watching a show in a little stadium. I saw Papakonstantinou and he played the song “Hellas Hellas.” I loved it and thought it would be a great metal song. When we played our first shows in Greece in 1997 we played this song. Now we have a Greek label and I asked if they knew him. I wanted to do the song with the original singer. The label brought us together and we recorded a new version.

Did you tell Papakonstantinou you first heard the songs decades ago?

It was unreal. He’s a cool guy. He’s 74 and his voice is a little crispy now but our voices fit very well together.

David Gehlke’s book on Noise Records Damn The Machine came out in 2017. We’ve talked to both Tom Warrior and Mille Petrozza about their bad experiences with Noise. Do you own the Grave Digger albums released on Noise?

Noise was one person – Karl Walterbach. We were all young and drank and smoked a lot of shit. We were almost like fast food for this guy. He betrayed a lot of people in the scene. It was like signing a record deal in a prison. He (Walterbach) sold his stuff to Sanctuary and then Sanctuary sold it to Universal and they sold it to BMG. BMG contacted me and we had a good exchange. We’re in a good place with that music – much better than with Walterbach in 1984.

Are you finally seeing royalties from the early albums?

Yes, and I’m very happy about that. BMG is a huge company. They can’t not pay artists. I have an account there and I can see how much I’m selling and how much we’ve made. It’s very open and that’s good.

So you don’t get paid for all this stuff done in an underground spirit until the music is owned by a big corporation?

It (signing with Noise) was a mistake. But in the end, those mistakes make us the people were are today. It’s part of history. Walterbach did give us a chance to make music. He just got a lot of money and we didn’t.

Grave Digger has enormously loyal fans. What about your music commands that loyalty?

I think we played honest heavy metal. We always try to keep the quality high. We never want to leave fans disappointed. The only song people have ever been mad about is “Zombie Dance.” People said it was shit and we were betrayers of heavy metal. But we did it as a joke. The funny thing is that the song is now our second most played song on Spotify. I’ve loved this music since I was 12 years old. I decided then that I wanted to be on stage. It’s the greatest gift of my life that I’ve been able to create my own music and play it around the world.