When Irish Eyes Are Smiling: An Interview with Gama Bomb’s Philly Byrne

Gama Bomb
The Terror Tapes

A band with a wacky sense of humour and a love for thrash metal, classic horror films and ’80s pop-culture, Northern Irish thrash metallers Gama Bomb have been a vibrant part of the thrash metal scene for over ten years now. On 7 May, Gama Bomb will release their fourth album, The Terror Tapes, in North America; the band’s first for AFM Records after leaving Earache. With The Terror Tapes, Gama Bomb have finally delivered the modern thrash classic that their fans always knew they had in them. Often, foolishly, overlooked because of their off-the-wall japes, the frenetic thrash riffs and high-speed punk rhythms of album highlights “The Wrong Stuff”, “Backwards Bible” and “Terrorscope” should spin the naysayers’ heads right round. The musicianship is tighter than ever before, the band meshing the break-neck speed of crossover legends D.R.I, Nuclear Assault and Suicidal Tendencies with the riff precision of early-Megadeth, Overkill and Exodus. While vocalist Philly Byrne, who recently underwent vocal surgery, just so happens to be at his idiosyncratic best: freestylin’ and freewheelin’ his way through each song and increasing the pace at which hit delivers his often hilarious lines, to the point that on “Metal Idiot” he becomes a blur of syllables and spittle.

Ahead of the release of The Terror Tapes, PopMatters caught up with Gama Bomb’s affable mouth-mouth comedian to discuss the struggles around creating the new album, singing fast, the band’s recent departure from Earache, being a geek and his hopes for The Terror Tapes

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Can you tell us about the recording process for The Terror Tapes? Was it plain sailing or did you encounter struggles — especially after your vocal surgery?

Philly Byrne: From start to finish it took over two years to write and record The Terror Tapes so yeah, we had a lot of struggles. I think African elephants gestate their calves quicker than it takes us to make a record.

My surgery, the change of label and Luke [Graham, original guitarist and founding member] leaving the band were the worst obstacles of course: one left me unable to speak or sing, the others left us unsupported and unsure of the future. When someone who’s been down with the whole plan since the start steps out, it does make you wonder if things are going anywhere good. And if your label gets to the point where you’re no longer a priority, well that just compounds the fear, you know? Are we bucked? Is this the end of the band? That kinda thing. It was scary, because I think we felt like we might just disappear if we didn’t fight it. There was no big schedule, no upcoming great thing, nobody but our fans asking where we’d gone. We had about five incidents that would kill another band, but somehow, maybe because we’re not smart enough to know when to quit, we kept on.

The music and vocals on The Terror Tapes hit the perfect balance between speed, aggression and humour. Is this something you guys were focused on nailing when writing this time round?

PB: A lot of that just comes with, dare I say it, a bit of maturity that we’ve picked up. For my own part, my surgery and my injury changed my voice a bit, so a lot of the over the top, cartoonish stuff I used to do with my voice wasn’t really on the menu anymore. I had a whole different voice to use and I think it helped that balance. So did the song-writing of course: we’re definitely nodding more toward classic metal and hard rock with this album. More Thin Lizzy, more Overkill going in our ears. The goal as always was just to write cool music, but this time we were thinking of denim and leather rather than spandex and hi-tops.

Your vocals are delivered faster than ever on The Terror Tapes, especially “Metal Idiot”. How do you sing so fast? Would I be right in hearing an underlying love for Scatman John at the end of “Backwards Bible”?

PB: I’m a motor-mouth. I never stop talking and I talk fast. It’s something I’ve had to become aware of in life, especially as I come from the north of Ireland where people speak faster than nearly anywhere on Earth. When we travel, our accents tend to baffle people, and the speed we talk at makes it even worse. So I suppose singing fast makes sense to me — and it’s a fun challenge, too. Something like “Metal Idiot” probably comes from listening to Suicidal Tendencies and hip hop like MC Abdominal, the dude who rapped for DJ Format. Vocal gymnastics, you know? Fit as many words into ten seconds as you can and then laugh as people try to decipher them. Also, Scatman John is a legend, yes. We’re all big fans. I hear he died while doing a 24-hour scat for charity. What a hero!

Lyrically you hit familiar themes of zombies, ’80s action films etc. that connect the inner nerd inside all of us. What draws you to these topics still? Were they, along with metal, a form of escapism for you while growing up in Northern Ireland?

PB: Actually, stop the presses, this is the first time we’ve ever had an album without a song about zombies on it. How’s that for musical progression!? We’re very imaginative lads in all, none of us has ever had a shortage of love for fantasy and fiction and escapism like that. When I was a kid visiting comic shops in these wee back alleys in Belfast and Dublin with my Da or with Joe [McGuigan, bassist and founding member of Gama Bomb], it was still a very underground and un-cool thing to do. It was all greasy fat lads playing Magic: The Gathering giving you a dirty look for coming into their hallowed shop, not a woman in sight. I’m just grateful that being a “geek” in the reclaimed sense of the word has become socially acceptable, even desirable now. How mad is that? Topshop sell fake glasses and Gremlins t-shirts, and suddenly all the years we spent discussing the expanded Star Wars universe and the production cycle of B-movies are paying off. Well, I mean paying off in the loosest sense of the phrase, of course…

The artwork was created by legendary horror movie poster artist Graham Humphreys. How did you end up working with him?

PB: Joe found Graham online, simple as that. We just asked nicely, sold ourselves well, said please and thank you, made sure we had enough in the piggy bank, and that was it. Ask and ye shall receive and all that. Be cheeky and cool people will say yes. We went to London not long ago and met Graham for the first time in the basement of a tiny pub off the Tottenham Court road. I’d never seen him before, but I knew him immediately. He was this impish little guy with a Mohawk and a Freddy Krueger jumper on. Who else could he be? He’s a total legend actually, Graham. We’re hoping to work with him from now on. The cover he made for us is definitely one of the best pieces of metal art I’ve ever seen. Sorry everyone else, your derivative Ed Repka cartoon and your photo-shopped skulls won’t match up to this, I’m afraid.

You guys recently left Earache and landed on AFM Records. Why did you choose to go with this label specifically?

PB: There are only two things you need for a happy band-label marriage, and that’s an agreeable business deal, where it’s fair and equal and above board, and a decent, basic working relationship where nobody is taking the piss out of anybody. Our introduction to AFM was such that both things were transparently available from the off, so it’s working out really well so far.

Can you share the reason behind your departure from Earache? What is a tough decision to make?

PB: Leaving Earache wasn’t a hard decision — it was absolutely necessary for us to survive! It [was an] absolute relief in the end, because it was so protracted and stressful for everybody involved. While I could go into tiresome specifics about what happened, I think there’s no point really. Suffice it to say that things happened that shattered trust, muddied the water and left everyone feeling very hard done-by in the end. We were stuck in a position where we would be indefinitely frozen, not recording or doing anything cool, if we didn’t get free. We were determined to get a clean slate and we did, so the best thing we can do now is continue having a class time and being cool. That’s how you come out on top — continuing to just be cool and have a good time, not by mouthing off about old record labels.

Did you guys feel a kinship with the rest the thrash/NWOBHM bands on the Earache roster, or was it starting to feel a bit overcrowded?

PB: I suppose back in 2007/8, yeah, there was a great buzz with bands like Bonded By Blood, SSS and Evile, who were all on the roster. Those guys have been firm friends of ours ever since and we’ve toured with them all. The difficulty with being part of a crop of bands that are signed because of a perception of your genre coming back into vogue is that, unless you sell a shitload of records, you’re going to be relegated in terms of label support pretty quickly.

In 2009, Gama Bomb broke new ground by becoming the first metal band to release a record for free while signed to large label. What was your thinking behind doing this?

PB: The free album thing came about because we saw we were on a treadmill: repeatedly making albums with more or less the same kind of budget, the same press coverage, the same people working on it, the same impact every time, which really means less impact every time. Giving it away made the album a story, and everybody loves a story.

Do you think giving music any for free will become the way of the future given the changes we’ve seen in the record industry over the last few years?

PB: I don’t think the giving of music for free will be a standard part of the industry any time soon. I do think the taking and sharing of it for free is already a part of the game, and that’s who we’re talking to: the sharers and consumers, not the business people. Free content and big data is the future of all entertainment business.

Why do you think some metal fans still have a problem when bands like Gama Bomb inject humour into their music? When you look back over the years, do you think your sense of humour has been a help or a hindrance?

PB: Our sense of humour is what marks us out from other bands. Balancing it with good music has made us memorable, loveable to people who ignored all the bands around us when we first came out. It’s a basic rule of life: If your band has got something, something that, in an individual, makes people want to shag you — like a good sense of humour — you can’t go wrong!

What are Gama Bomb’s plans for the rest of 2013? Is the band going to be touring much?

PB: We’re going to be touring selectively, yeah. We’re hitting Europe in May with Artillery, Torture Squad and Tantara, and then the US and Canada in August/September. We’re also thinking about writing a new album, which we’re going to get stuck into soon. Once you’ve got your mojo back like we have, you tend to want to stay on the horse.

Finally, your last record took Gama Bomb to the US and South America for the first time. What are your hopes for the record? Do you feel like you’ve written something special this time round?

PB: I never saw this coming, and I’d never say it just for the sake of it, but this is the best thing we’ve ever done. It’s one of the best thrash albums I’ve ever heard and I can’t believe we made it, to be honest. We’ve been around the block, so hanging my hopes on The Terror Tapes becoming a classic or a huge commercial success isn’t realistic: you need huge, military-scale investment behind you to make that happen; a whole ecosystem of support and money and man hours. All we want, all we ever wanted, was to make cool music that people would enjoy. That and free beer. Always free beer!

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As we all love lists, PopMatters also asked Philly to give us his Top 5 Thrash Metal Albums and his Top 5 Horror Films. Displaying a keen knowledge of both topics, as expected, here are his picks in all their thrashin’ and gore-sodden awesomeness:

Top 5 Thrash Albums

1. Among The Living by Anthax

Really good fun, excellent riffs, no let-up and very little filler. Made me fall in love with thrash.

2. Agent Orange by Sodom

Vicious, brutal thrash with amazing grooves. A surprisingly good album to get out of bed to.

3. Unstoppable Force by Agent Steel

Theatrical, paranoid, excessive and amazingly composed speed metal. A hidden gem.

4. Game Over by Nuclear Assault

The album that inspired us to form a band. Scuzzy, raw and full of attitude: thrash as it should be.

5. Rust in Peace by Megadeth

I don’t have much time for Dave Mustaine’s outlook on life, but this did a lot to expand the horizons of thrash, and was my favourite album for years.

Top 5 Horror Movies

1. Dawn of the Dead

Dawn is ambitious in every way: a low-budget zombie epic with a lot of brains and an accidentally fantastic cast. We visited the Monroeville Mall in Pittsburgh where it was shot and slid down the actual escalator in JC Penney, just like Scott H. Reineger does in this. Amazing!

2. Bride of Frankenstein

James Whale’s camp excess makes this so loveable, and the final reveal of Elsa Lanchester as The Bride gives genuine chills, turning the knife we didn’t even notice slip between our ribs during all the first-act giggles.

3. Suspiria

I’ll admit it: this scared the living shit out of me when I first saw it about ten years ago. Pin-wheeling constantly between understated chills and eye-popping gore, it makes you woozy with terror — in a good way!

4. The Fog

This John Carpenter at his best: working with the dream team of Dean Cundy as his DP and Debra Hill as his producer. The story is so simple, but he makes a big world where any kind of bad thing can happen. John Houseman’s yarn still gives me chills in the opening scene.

5. Rats: Night of Terror

A classic bit of nonsensical Italian cycle horror that makes very little sense but packs one of the best ‘shock’ endings in cinema history. This movie has a lot of significance for the band, so I had to include it!