Photo: Matt Ware Photography
Aussie hard rock band Heaven The Axe’s album Sex, Chugs & Rock N’ Roll is like lightning in a bottle; a weapons-grade walk through the fiery furnace of hard rock and metal. It’s full to brimming with songs that are fueled by a very particular searing emotional intensity, but that do not sacrifice stunning melodies along the way. Indeed we’ve previously put in writing that Heaven The Axe are “…a rock n’ roll flame firing so hot and heavy that it will wipe you out and leave nought but your shadow plastered to the nearest wall.”
So earlier this year, following the band’s triumphant turn at the Hammersonic International Metal Festival in Jakarta and support slots for the likes of Butcher Babies at Australia’s very own Soundwave festival, and as they prepare a new album for your listening pleasure, we fired questions at HTA frontwoman Phoebe Pinnock and guitarist Steve Watts with the aim of finding out what makes Heaven The Axe tick, and how they generate their very own brand of heavy metal energy sufficient enough “…to power a sizeable township for a week.”
SBA: So for the poms and poseurs who have yet to hear of Heaven The Axe (shame on them!) tell us a bit about the band and how it came to be!
Phoebe Pinnock (vocals): Hello poms! We are a hard rock band from Melbourne, Australia. I wrote a bunch of simple, almost pop-like songs on my acoustic guitar and my best person in the world/guitarist, Steve Watts, takes the songs and plays them through his metal filter. Azza Bok is our other legend on the axe, Tommy “Knocker” Rossell slays the skins and sometimes fellow hard hitter Matt “Skitz” Sanders likes to get amongst it with us too. At present we are jamming with Reiki Barbosa and Tim Miedecke on bass while we write a new album which is coming together now, so that makes me happy!
What have been the highlights of Heaven The Axe’s career so far?
So far, playing Hammersonic International Metal Festival alongside bands such as Lamb Of God was really great. It was thrilling to get out of Australia and play to a different culture who still understand and love the language of metal music. The main highlight is having such great friends in the band, like Azza, Skitz, Tommy, Reiki and Tim, and talking incessantly about every detail on the phone to Steve and Azza every day.
You recorded the theme tune for the 7mate TV show Bogan Hunters. What the hell is a bogan?!
Haha. A bogan is a term for a working class or lower class Aussie who likes to run amok and is generally considered to have poor taste. But bogans are pretty popular and now have their own bogan haute couture style… myself included. I think all Aussies have a bit of bogan in them. The not-all-knowing Wikipedia describes a bogan as someone who “…consists of a lack of pretence and a willingness to be very honest.” I guess it means you don’t feel the need to refine your true thoughts in any way, or be reserved! Bogans are pretty loud and don’t care what people think. But I’m not a spokesperson for bogans, we just wrote a song about it for the TV show.
How did the collaboration with 7mate come about?
The producers got hold of our music and apparently they couldn’t get it out of the director’s car, which was nice to know. They contacted us and have used our music in all their TV shows and movies ever since. As an independent band, we’ve really appreciated the exposure and enjoyed being part of the shows.
Enough boganising! When HTA started coming together, did you know what you wanted to sound like? What were you and Steve hearing in your heads?
To be honest it took a bit of experimentation. Melding metal riffs from Steve and the boys with my more popular structured melodies and clean singing… a lot of songs are really quite hard to translate to the sound if they are more of a ballad. The more upbeat ones come together the easiest in the jam room, and they feel great to perform so they get the go-ahead quicker than any of the ballads which need more complex tones and getting the guys to hold back. They are brutal full pelt musicians, so it’s a massive compromise between me and them. But this time around we have learnt a lot more about songwriting and about letting the vocals do what they need to do to tell a story rather than have fifty thousand riffs going at the same time.
We’re in a stage now of experimenting with the softer stuff. That’s what takes the most work at this stage. Just figuring out how the music sounds when it’s being a sensitive prick. They all do an outstanding job. But at the start, when we did our first demo of “So Nirvana” we just couldn’t believe it. We were stoked to have taken both our styles and put them together and hearing it for the first time was so rewarding.
To these ears your music has all the ingredients of solid hard rock, but has very metal overtones too. In your softer moments, your voice also has a very pop edge. Are those fair observations?
Yes, for sure. I use a pop style in some vocals. We call it the “Britney voice.” But then I rip into a metal vocal style or “mad woman.” I’m exploring a lot of emotional singing at present, and just generally in life too, while we write our new album. The new music will have a lot more of an emphasis on emotion, rather than perfection, ‘cos I really am singing my heart out. It’s my way of healing, letting out how I feel and how others feel, and quite an internal process.
I love working on the vocals of new songs. There are so many song sketches written and they all are quite personal, and they evolve. I’m really hungry to perform the new songs with the band. It’s very beneficial to sing out your emotions and for me it is therapy and changes how I feel on a vibrational level which affects my health in ways I can’t even describe.
Where the hell does that voice come from?! It’s gigantic!
Thank you. It’s truly an emotional journey. I’ve always been a belter. I love singing in all different ranges but the band is really quite loud and they play a lot, so we’re trying to keep the music quieter in parts so I can express more emotion in my tone to really get the lyrics across. All the songs have to come from a place inside me which needs to get out. If I don’t feel the lyrics I can’t sing it properly. I didn’t know I could really sing metal growls until one day, I was just so angry it came out of me. The boys were actually so shocked they stopped playing. I was glad to be able to channel my negative emotions into that outlet and sing about boundaries and self-preservation.
When did you first have the notion that you could sing? Did you have any lessons or training of any kind?
When I was 5 years old I decided/knew that singing was going to be my life. I didn’t even know I could sing but I started singing and dancing when I was very little. I lived for it from an early age. There has never been a day that I have not thought of myself as a singer or lost ambition to succeed in this as a career. It makes me want to be a better person in every area of my life. I didn’t have a lot of training, but I learnt good technique from performing in the earlier version of Heaven The Axe, which was Steve and I when we were an acoustic duo. We would play gigs all the time for hours on end, singing original songs and covers, so I had to learn to sing and not have any problems.
Which singers and songwriters did you look up to as you embarked on your own musical career?
Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Tracy Bonham, Hole, Nirvana, Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, Chris Cornell; they were the ones that I was obsessed with as a kid. I spent hours every day in my bedroom singing along over and over again with these CDs note for note and playing guitar. Today I would have to say Barney Greenway of Napalm Death is my favourite singer, just because he is so frickin’ fantastic. His message, his humility, everything about him I respect and admire.
People can be cynical and question the power of music in the world, but reading up on your background and the challenges you’ve faced in life, I think it’s possible to say that music literally saved your life?
Well, as I said previously, music has always given me hope and a reason to try and be my best but it’s also a very hard path to follow. Believing in yourself is so important and that comes from being great in all areas of your life, not just music. Everyone has a dream, you’ve just gotta keep listening to that voice inside you that guides you to make choices that suit who you are and what you believe in.
Do you get tired of answering questions about being a frontwoman in a rock band? People still seem to zero in on gender politics in the world of rock and metal. Do you think it’s helpful to discuss it?
To be honest it’s not something I really think about a lot. I have different groups of friends with different interests and those people are where I belong. In the world I feel at home with metal musicians as my friends. It feels like my family. So no, I don’t get tired of being asked about it. Different days, different feelings though. There is a lot of pressure for women to look good no matter what industry they are in. Putting yourself out there is extra challenging as a girl. Men are not judged on their appearance like women are.
Steve – you’ve been very self-deprecating in interviews about your abilities with a guitar, but the riffmongery across Heaven The Axe’s output sounds stellar to us. Why so hard on yourself?!
Steve Watts (guitar): Haha I get in trouble for that all the time but thanks anyway. I guess I’m the sort of bloke that tends not to get caught up in big noting or, even worse, deluding myself. I mean if you want to draw comparisons I am an absolutely shithouse guitar player compared to the likes of, say, The Stanley Knife from Dead Kelly or Richie Poate from Dreadnaught. Spend 5 minutes listening to either of those bands and you’ll completely understand where I’m coming from.
Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and I’m proud as punch of HTA and all it stands for. The music is exactly what Phoebe and me want to create. But when people talk about skill level, well, the music I choose to immerse myself in being extreme metal, a lot of the time it tends to be way above mine. The good news is that it’s not a shredding competition and when I do get my ambitions mixed up with my capabilities I can always call in the big guns such as Richie (he played the solo in “Good Things Come” and the Bogan Hunters theme song) and TSK (aka The Stanley Knife who happens to be my favourite songwriter bar none) into the fold. Now we have Azza too, who besides being one of Phoebz and my closest friends, also happens to be a killer guitarist and songwriter who I’ve admired for many years. Having him with us as a fully-fledged member, especially now in this creative period of time, has really brought the “anything’s possible” to the table.
I’m lucky in the fact that within the community we’re in there is a wealth of talent and support and I’m considered as valid as the next person. Now that is something I’m proud of.
Has Steve’s history and experience in established bands like Manticore helped you in Heaven The Axe, or is HTA a whole new beast?
Phoebe Pinnock: It’s all just having experience and humility really. You know the work involved so you are able to manage it. The main focus is relationships for Steve; he’s just great at that. People respect Steve from his history as who he is as a person and because he is just such an incredible axe-man.
What is the dynamic like as both husband and wife, and bandmates? Is it something you stop and consider, or does it just work and therefore you don’t give it too much thought?
It’s how we are wired. We are both very driven musicians. We love songwriting and creating and having great experiences in the band. It takes a special kind of understanding for the other guys to work with a married couple in a band situation I think, and we each have individual relationships with every member. You have to know your strengths and the others’ strengths.
We are both very headstrong with our ideas when writing, He’s a Libra, I’m a Capricorn. We are both cardinal so act like the bosses to each other, and so we had to learn to know when to leave our marriage at the door so to speak and not drag our personal grievances, which are rare anyway, into our creative space. I have so much faith in his talent and ability now and have learnt when the times might be to sit back and trust his judgement on a vision, rather than digging my heels in. It’s a mutual respect thing and when it’s my time he extends the same courtesy to me.
You can’t be too selfish in a songwriting partnership and it’s important to let people’s ideas at least be given the opportunity to see some sort of fruition. We can get quite heated in the rehearsal room. We don’t hold back and the band joins in taking sides. This is where taking sides with one of us is allowed and constructive. But it’s all very minor stuff and in the end I’m sure we’re not the only band to go through it. For the most part, the right path is obvious and we all tend to agree on it. We know our style and sound now and share the same vision.
I get so excited when I hear the band move ahead on a song and we’re both really involved and passionate about it. Especially Steve when it comes to our music. I know that whatever he brings to the group has been meticulously thought through in regards to my vocal patterns etc. He’s proven this to me time and time again, even when I couldn’t see it at first.
You come to your music from different angles. Phoebe talks of pop influences and Steve an out-and-out metalhead. Is your approach to life and music now one of “opposites attract”?
No I think inherently we are very similar people in a lot of fundamental ways. We are both loving, open, trusting, people, as are our band mates. We are committed to communicating and not afraid of sharing our ups and downs. We’re not perfect. Everyone is crazy. Not everyone is wired the same though. We just keep swimming and trying to get better.
Your single “Good Things Come To Those Who Hate” is a killer song and it seems to be more consciously ‘metal’ in its tones and textures. Would you say it’s indicative of the songs you’re writing now?
We’re still in the early stages of creating this body of work and frankly it could go anywhere, but I can’t wait to sing more songs like that. There are some on the list, but whether they make the final cut remains to be seen. The songs we are recording at the moment I really love.
Your video for your track “Enemy” plays like a Hollywood movie. What inspired it? You seem to have a healthy mistrust of authority figures?
Yes. I do. I absolutely do not trust governments. I absolutely do not trust all the laws. The monetary system. The food industry. All of it is led by money. It is now more obvious than ever how morally decrepit and spiritually un-compassionate a lot of people are at the top levels of humanity control structures, but that is their path I guess and they are learning their lessons too. But looking at the distrust in these structures has to be seen as a metaphor for the distrust within me. If I didn’t have it existing inside me, inside all of us, it wouldn’t exist. The song is more about being your own worst enemy. You’re in charge of your own state.
Your music covers a range of sounds and styles from heavy metal to softer balladry. In today’s world of pigeon-hole marketing gobbledegook, do you think that your flexibility as a band has worked against you at all, because you can’t be neatly “packaged”?
What do you do with a metal band that thinks they are rock? And a rock band that everyone considers to be metal? We are the last to call us metal, but that’s where everyone else puts us. I’m not so interested in “marketing” our band according to rules. I like making good music and the people we make it with have their signature styles so that’s just our self-expression as a group. I think there’s room in people’s musical appreciation to go from heavy to balladry, as long as it stays within the realm of intensity. Ballads can have the same weight of emotional rawness and shadow much like a riffed up beast of a song. Just a different mood.
You supported Butcher Babies for their Sidewave show at Melbourne’s Cherry Bar. How did that gig come about?
Butcher Babies were here in Australia as part of the Soundwave festival. A number of bands play side shows and we were invited to play in support of them. It was a fun night, a cracker crowd with a bunch of the international bands from the festival coming along and partying with us.
Do you hope to emulate some of the success of Carla, Heidi and the Butcher Babies guys?
We would love the opportunity to tour and get our music to a wider audience. Australia is very isolated but we hope to get the chance to go to more international locations with a new body of music to take with us in future.
Photo: Sabda Renjana
You played 2015 Hammersonic Festival in Jakarta, and you shared the stage with some legendary bands. How did you come to be on the festival bill?
We were invited as one of five Aussie bands on the bill. It was a great experience, almost like you are in an alternate dimension. We couldn’t walk anywhere without being mobbed for a photo! It was cool to do meditations with some of the other bands before going on stage too! I did a chakra meditation on John Kevill from Warbringer right before he walked on and created a circle pit.
And you headlined at Brisbane’s Metal Heart Festival in April too?
Yes, that was our last show and then we decided no more rehearsing for shows, just writing. We are playing a wicked Melbourne festival called Brewtality on Sat August 8th though. We will play new songs at that and I can’t wait!
You’re an independent band and seem to be doing things very much on your own terms. Do you think it’s harder to do things for yourself than it is when you’ve got the backing of a label?
I just think it’s all about relationships and people. If the label is great and passionate then how cool would that be to have help getting the management side of things done so you can write and focus on the music? Having money to invest in the music and the promotion would make a huge difference. Most of what we have done has been on little to no budget thanks to people who enjoy being part. Or who have had their arm twisted so damn far it will break off if they say no!
Phoebe, you said when setting up this interview that “I’m a singer trying my best, but no media mogul!” Do you think the creative freedom you have outweighs the benefits that might come from a more commercial backing and the associated media savvy?
From an introspected viewpoint, the creative journey is a personal expression for what you want to create in the world. But you can’t be everything. People are super talented at all kinds of things. It’s better when you have a group of people who are all really good at what they do that come together in order to succeed in whatever you are aiming for. There’s not enough hours in the day to do it all yourself and it’s so much more fun doing stuff with your friends.
Many artists seem to be finding a more DIY approach and direct involvement with their fans is the way forward these days. Suze DeMarchi and the Baby Animals guys are working with Social Family Records, but seem to take a very direct approach with their fans now that they’re back together. Is that kind of direct relationship something you guys enjoy?
Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. I don’t like ignoring people. If someone’s going out of their way to write you a message then I will always thank them! Cos it means a lot! But it can get a bit out of hand. It’s also nice to have your distance from lots of people and just share with them your lyrics and art and hope they get something from that. Some of our fans are just awesome and we love being friends with them. We have a lot to thank our fans for.
With bands like Parkway Drive and The Amity Affliction, to name just two, coming to global prominence, and the release of new documentary Metal Down Under, do you feel like there’s a new focus on rock and metal from Australia and New Zealand, or that you’re part of any kind of Aussie scene?
I can’t judge from an international perspective but yes there is a scene here and I’m proud to be part of it. Some of the bands are just incredible. The people we associate with are caring people and I think the musicians in the scene are mostly really humble intense crazy wicked humans.
Do you think that Australian culture has been a strong influence on your music and lyrics? Is there an Australian attitude that informs what you do and how you do it?
I would have to say yes because I am Australian and have lived here my entire life. The boys are real “Aussies”, hehe. Some American bands met Steve and they couldn’t believe what an Aussie bushman he was to them. They thought he was like Croc Dundee with a beard! He and Azza have the real true ocker oz language up their sleeves so it rubs off on me too. I’m just as ocker as them.
Which other Aussie bands should we be keeping an ear out for at the moment?
Azza, Steve and Tim are also members of Frankenbok. Steve just joined them. They are our “sister” band I guess you could say. We share our own private rehearsal space and studio, and if I look into my crystal ball I would predict with accuracy that we will tour together in future. Also some favourites here are Dead Kelly (Look up “Sons of The Southern Cross” on deadkelly.net) and Mustang’s “Hotmanvenom” on iTunes.
How is your own new album coming along? We’re really excited to hear it.
It’s finally starting to have a dent put in it. We are trying different things with some of the songs. Some songs just come together instantly ‘cos they are written in a way that the band just instinctively knows how to play them. There’s over a hundred songs that Steve and I have written that we are sifting through for the best ones. Every week we’re cramming it in at The Lab as much as we can and it’s the most exciting feeling.
What would “success” look like for Heaven The Axe in 2015 do you think? What would you like to be able to do as a band and how do you think you would measure that?
To be honest, all we really care about is writing and recording the new music right now and believing in ourselves. When we finished our first album there was an incredible sense of accomplishment and to this day every time we hear it all those amazing memories we have of creating it, coupled with how proud we are of the end result, all come flooding back every time without fail, and that is what we are chasing again this time around. Anything less than that will be disappointing.
The whole process matters, not just the outcome, which is why we would rather be patient because we know from experience that when the magic happens it’s always worth the wait. It can be hard in those periods where it can feel like it all could fall apart or when we just can’t seem to move forward for whatever reason no matter how hard we try. But then just like our marriage, we’ve stuck at it and will continue to do so no matter what. It’s our life and we choose it with complete gratitude plus as a completely self-sufficient, independent band we only have to answer to ourselves. That is a freedom we do cherish. Our next step is to be able to grasp new musical directions, to be able to communicate as a group and write lyrics that mean something to help people define how they feel. Then, we’ll let you know.
Check out Heaven The Axe’s video for their track “Good Things Come To Those Who Hate” below.
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