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Interviews : “Steve Hughes – comedian, drummer, philanthropist!” (An interview with Steve Hughes)

By on April 23, 2013

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Steve Hughes

Steve Hughes, formally of Naxzul, Mortal Sin and Slaughter Lord fame brings his hard hitting political and social commentary to Australia and New Zealand. Metal Obsession had the pleasure to speak with Steve Hughes at his hotel room after his Thursday, April 18th appearance in Melbourne.  What went down was an insightful, funny and down to earth conversation.

Metal Obsession: Having spent many years as part of the Aussie music scene and also quite a few years now living away from Australia, do you follow the Aussie music scene at all? Do you have any thoughts on the Australian music scene from your perspective?

Steve Hughes: There are a lot of metal bands in Australia now, a LOT of great bands in Australia but we have a double-edged sword here. A lot of bands from other places will go overseas but Australian bands won’t bring themselves to become professional (move overseas) because they think it’s a little bit “wanky” and because we’re so isolated we seem to have this idea in our head where all that matters is playing live and playing well. Then you go overseas and realise all these other bands that are part of this bigger scene are all a bit posey really…..Australian bands would kick their fucking asses live! Because Australians would go “well you’re supposed to be able to play like that aren’t ya? Triggers, what are triggers?” Lots of great Aussie bands in that sense but isolation here is a factor in everything.

It’s hard to make it here because of the market and the country being so big and the market. Even if you’re the biggest band in the country, once you’ve played 5 fucking cities your done, there’s nothing more. Even a band like Powderfinger they’ll go out and do like a 5 day tour!

MO: How did you make the transition from dedicating your life to your bands and moving into comedy? What was the catalyst there?

SH: I was always interested in comedy. In the 80’s we used to always watch Richard Pryor and I was always kind of “funny” and I was in bands for so many years and then I just started to go “I’ve put so much effort into my band, I’ve got to get off the dole, I can’t get a job, maybe I’ll go and do comedy”. I started doing comedy when I was in Naxzul. We made the first 2 records, and were going to start the third one and a mate who was living with me was from Ireland said “you should come to Europe with me and do comedy”. I almost thought I should stay with the band but then I thought “you know, 15 years I’ve been 150% into all of my bands but I can’t put my life into a band…..a supremely fucking violent black metal band in Australia anymore…that’s not gonna get me off the dole is it!”, so I thought I’d just go to Europe and try out the comedy thing. The worst possible thing that could happen is I’d go over there, not be funny enough, and have to return home. So I got off the dole in Australia and got on the dole in Ireland! That’s the most Australian thing to do.

MO: So you leave Australia because you’re sick of being on the dole and head over to Ireland to go on the dole!

SH: Me and my Irish mate were in small town in Ireland staying there for a bit and just thought “wonder if we can get on the dole here”. It was such a tiny little town some bloke just went “fill out this form” and next thing we knew we were on the dole!

Someday I’m going to do a gig in Ireland and do it all for free and any money we make I’m gonna donate to an Irish charity and call it “Steve Hughes pays back his dole gig”…Steve Hughes comedian, drummer, philanthropist!

MO: You touched a bit on Richard Pryor. Who were your main comic influences when you were growing up or getting into comedy?

SH: Richard Pryor easily. Back in the 80’s we used to listen to him all the time so he’d be the one. I had that record that everyone else had. Just that great show he does with the snake and the white man…and the white man voice. Him, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks are all legends.

MO: I remember I saw him in Melbourne just before he died so where going back 20 years or so now. Not even half way through his set I’d say almost half the crowd walked out because they were so offended at the stuff he was saying on stage.

SH: I only heard of Bill Hicks after he died. The keyboardist in Naxzul’s dad had a copy of the video so we watched it and I remember a review I read from his Melbourne shows just before he died where they said “This man should be killed for what he was saying”…(laughs)

MO: I remember in his show he was doing a whole bit about the world becoming too politically correct and how everyone was too afraid to speak their mind for the risk of “offending” someone else. That got me thinking (and this is something you touched on in your shows), not much has changed in the 20 years since.

SH: It getting worse, they want to “charge” people now for offending others! They said the other day in England that the Manchester Police have decided to include punks, metal heads, and Goths in the realm of “hate crime” which is just bizarre really. So if you’re a guy that mugs someone that’s into metal it’s now considered a hate crime. Imagine the reaction “I didn’t mug him because he was a fucking metal head, I mugged him because I wanted to take his wallet!” (laughs). It’s fucking ridiculous.

MO: We mentioned people walking out in the middle of gigs. Do you get much of that in your shows?

SH: Not really, the only people that walk out are really just going to the toilet or something. If people do walk out, I don’t mention it because the moment you mention it the audience gets distracted and stares and this poor person has just got up to take a piss or catch a bus home. So, yeah I don’t get too many people walking out but even when they do I don’t make a big deal of it.

MO: You’ve done a bit where you say gay is the new straight and straight is the new gay. I’m just wondering if you’ve heard about that law they passed in New Zealand where they’ve legalised gay marriage, so I got to thinking does that push it to a new extreme when you factor in Maoris?

SH: (Laughs) Actually I’m going to New Zealand next week. That’s very funny. I don’t do that joke anymore because everyone has Youtube’d the fuck out of it, but I might have to bring that up again next week! Once were warriors….now are poofters! That’s a keeper.

MO: Being on the road as much as you are, how do you come up with new material? Do you put time aside and work on it or do you wait for inspiration to hit?

SH: You should work, and I should probably work even more but I’m on the road so I use that as an excuse. My agent keeps telling that I should write and all that, and he also tells me he likes it when it’s just inspired. What people need to understand is that all inspiration comes from working really. It’s funny I was just reading a booked “The War On Art” and there’s a guy in there that says many people would like to say that inspiration is the key thing and in fact they once asked Somerset Maugham the great novelist “Do you work or just wait for the inspiration?” and he said “Oh I wait for inspiration….fortunately it starts at 9 o’clock every morning (laughs)”.

Really though, you have to sit down and work and if you do that, then the inspiration will come eventually because all art or anything really needs to be brought into a structure you know? You can’t paint without something to put it on, you can’t have a song without sitting down and doing it. Eventually if you DO put in that work, then you open yourself up to inspiration really. If you sit around and just go “oh I’ll wait to get inspired” no you fucking wont, you have to think, you have to work.

MO: Actually that’s what we were saying on the way over here that you get some comics saying “oh I wrote the show on the train ride over here” or whatever…and you just know “No you didn’t, who are you trying to kid?”

SH: Yeah exactly, but then you may get someone like Greg Fleet who is off the fucking planet and just a force of nature who could just go up there and do it right off the cuff, but not all people are Greg Fleet. It like how Billy Connolly says “I never make anything up”….bullshit. Don’t tell me you’re going out there for 2 hours just off the cuff with nothing prepared. Billy Connolly has got some supreme experience and is the originator of this style of alternative comedy, he’s a great comedian and I love him but I can’t believe that you just go on with nothing!

MO: Henry Rollins is a little like that. A spoken word guy who just goes out there for 3 hours and doesn’t stop.

SH: That’s too much though, I’ve seen him in Birmingham and in Sydney twice but 3 hours is just too long. Even some of my sets I’ll look back on them and think “you can’t go do an hour and fifty minutes!” not every night. Some nights you “might” be able to go out there and do 2 hours because it’s working and nobody notices, but not every night. Especially with my comedy too where you’ve got to think and everything and it’s a bit provocative or whatever. After 2 hours people are just sitting there and are psychologically worn out. Their brains are going “THATS ENOUGH! STOP!”

MO: You got the nice “fuck off” lights tonight to wrap it up though!

SH: Ha-ha…the poor sound guy. Lovely guy from Edinburgh, he was flashing the lights giving me the wind-up on and off and because he couldn’t see me he didn’t know if I’d seen them so he kept on going (laughs). Still, I got to finish the set though. I can’t do a show and not finish the show!

MO: This would be the third or fourth year I’ve seen you in Melbourne. Each time the room and venue has been a little different. Have you got a preference to what kind of room you like working? Do you prefer the bigger venues where you can get more people in there or the smaller more intimate rooms?

SH: Last year I did the big room at the Town Hall but tonight’s show (at the Forum) was a much better room. Last year the stage was just too far from the audience and the roof’s too high so you can’t really hear if you’re getting the reaction from the crowd as much. It really comes down to the venue. The roof’s a little high even in the room we did tonight because I couldn’t properly hear the laughter in the room so I’m thinking “Am I getting the laughs out of these jokes….these are killer jokes…is it the crowd” but I don’t think it is the crowd I think it’s that (the room /roof) where some of the sound all goes.

It really depends on how the room is built. Then you get these rooms where it’s up to 10,000 people like Madison Square garden and you spend all show looking at a fucking screen! I mean, where’s the closeness, the face nuance, and interaction there? If you’re doing a show or joke that requires a facial expression or lifting an eyebrow it’s lost.

MO: One thing I was thinking is that, since the first time I’ve seen you a few years ago and up until now, the crowd used to be full of “metal heads”. Then you look at the crowd tonight and you see more and more “corporate” people or students in the crowd.

SH: What I used to realise you see is, that when you’re a metal head you think that anyone that isn’t a metal head and walks around in a plain shirt and jeans is “mainstream”. Then I realised these people are coming to see me or some other acts that they don’t know at the festival so then you start to realise that these people aren’t as “mainstream” as you think….these are the “Super Mainstream”. My mates are big in England, super famous and one of them was talking to me one day saying “the crowds are shit now” and I said “of course they are for you because you’re super massive.

Once your massive, those people come out….the people that don’t go anywhere they’re not told!” (laughs). These people don’t understand that comedy is surreal or violent or controversial. Now, he’s not controversial or violent but can be a little surreal, eccentric and strange and he’s going “but if I could just get the jerks not to come”…and I told him “you have families coming to your shows now and you’re being surreal and weird. These people might be nice people, and generous and intelligent and wise in other ways but they’re not surreal / weird…..they’re the super main stream!.” Surely 10,000 people don’t like Beyonce, they go because they want to be part of the event to say “I was there”. It’s a natural fucking thing for all humans to want to be part of a group.

Metal heads began their group because they were rejected from the other group.

MO: Then they reject the group they were rejected from and you get this whole “Metallica are shit” thing and all these other little sub metal groups!

SH: Poor Metallica….It’s hard to fucking like them. I saw them in 2009. Metallica in Manchester and I remember standing there and thinking “you know what, there’s two audiences here…the “real” audience which I’m a part of that are all standing around like dogs waiting for scraps at a table (laughs)…give me SOMETHING… I don’t want to hear For Whom The Bell Tolls again…play Disposable Heroes it’s not that hard, well actually it IS quite hard but you used to be able to play…when you were 22 (laughs)”. They are so amazing though, those records they wrote when they were 22 years old, fucking unbelievable.

MO: A few weeks ago at Soundwave I was speaking to Kerry King and he said he had no idea that what they were doing as 20 year olds with Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, etc would become as big as it did. They were just doing what they liked and really just learning to play at the same time and making it up as they went along.

SH: Well a lot of thrash was all really made up by people that couldn’t play wasn’t it, because it was an “invented” form of music and you just did it. Nowadays I see interviews and photos of all these new “thrash” bands in Terrorizer and they’re all standing around in their mum’s house in bloody Huddersfield or somewhere and I think to myself, “that’s not how these type of bands began”. They were dysfunctional people who made aggressive music because they were like that as people and I was of that era. That’s what I find funny.

Sometimes I sit there and I think I’ve seen Slayer through their whole life because they were like 2 or 3 years older than us when we were here in Australia doing our stuff and tape trading and all that kind of thing. So I’ve seen Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax their WHOLE life and I look at them and think “you don’t know me, but I know you!.” I’ve met a few of them now, but yeah, that’s why that music was off the edge because they were all playing to the limits so it sounded like it was about fall off the fucking cliff.

MO: See, and that’s the difference in my opinion, and I love Paul Bostaph’s drumming, but that’s the difference between Paul Bostaph and Dave Lombardo. Dave Lombardo is the train that’s about to come off the tracks and your just waiting for it, whereas Bostaph is technically a better drummer.

SH: I don’t think that it’s him being technically better and here’s my theory. I think Dave Lombardo and Igor Cavalera have both got Latin blood in them so they’ve already got a bit of that Latin rhythm where they play slightly behind the beat inbuilt in them, and Bostaph is right on the money whereas Lombardo has got a slight groove in there that no one notices. Same with Igor Cavalera it’s a rickety thing going on that has a bit of a groove to it. You can tell the difference between them and Ventor in Kreator who’s become a great drummer because he is very precise and “German” whereas Igor and Lombardo have this thing that sits underneath and is a little behind which makes it that little bit more edgy.

On that first Cavalera Conspiracy album some of the fucking beats Igor does in that he just knows how to sit that snare so in the pocket that it sounds super fast and it actually isn’t but he’s got it right on that fucking edge there!

I started doing blast beats almost before they were invented in Slaughter Lord because we used to listen to “Hell Awaits” on 45 and pull Sodom out and go “Well, why don’t we play it faster!.” We used to listen to Exodus and that and try to get faster again. My guitarist used to go “Fuck, what are you doing that for?” and then it just got more extreme. So, in a way Australia was so far ahead of the time compared to everybody else inventing blast beats in a sense. Around that time there was only a few bands which I didn’t really get inspired by. I got inspired by bands like Cryptic Slaughter from Canada, Vehement, Napalm Death of course, and then early incantations of Morbid Angel and early Sodom.

I remember the first day we got Sodom “Sepulchral Voice”. I rang up my mate and he goes “you got it?”….I said “yep”….so he asks ”what’s it like?”…..and I said “there’s a song that’s faster than Slayer, come over”….click…(laughs). It was like he was waiting outside…”there’s a song that’s faster than..” (knock on the door)…haha

MO: Have you heard the latest Morbid Angel?

SH: Yes! I think that Morbid Angel is the greatest death metal band that has ever been and their music, and Trey Azagthoth is my favourite extreme guitarist and I think they’re one of those lucky bands where they’ve good a good core with David Vincent, Trey Azagthoth, and Pete Sandoval that creates a good energy and they’ve always had another guitarist that just comes in but it’s that core that’s a fucking clique. In all the bands I’ve been in I know that you can’t get that. Something like that which they’ve got, you can’t get that back again with someone else.

I know because when I broke up with my early bands I realised because I made Slaughter Lord with my mates from the Blue Mountains and the only guy we bought in that actually made the band better was Anton but he wasn’t from the Blue Mountains and when we broke it up with Anton and stuff I tried to make other bands and I realised why I couldn’t make a better metal band in Australia than Slaughter Lord. With the people I’ve got in Australia because your limited plus it was the mid-80’s and I realised that you can’t actually get back what you had when you’ve done it with three blokes that you grew up with. I read Tony Iommi’s book once and he said “I’ve searched for years to find a way to try and get back what we used to have and make it like how it was” and I realised there wasn’t a way. You can’t get back what him, Ozzy, Bill, and Geezer had from the days in Birmingham, you can’t have that with anyone else. They were there 18 years old and playing places like Germany and 10 years later you get a new guy but he’s not THAT guy that you’re trying to replace. He doesn’t have that relationship. You can’t replace that.

MO: I’m seeing Black Sabbath next week and as much as I love Dio, when I listen to them with him and when I listen to them with Ozzy it sounds like two completely different bands. Still awesome, but just different and it’s more than just the vocals. Something is missing from Dio era Sabbath compared to Ozzy era and vice versa the Ozzy era of the band is missing some of what I loved about the Dio era.

SH: It’s still great though, I do love the Dio Sabbath. Those first albums with Dio are great but it’s a different band. I remember Bill Ward got upset when Ozzy left the band because as he said Ozzy never sang in time and he kind of drummed like that (laughs). He goes, he used to drum in time for Ozzy so that’s why it sounds all a bit off because Ozzy’s in time but he’s not “in time” if you know what I mean (laughs). Bill was very upset when Dio came because he was too precise, he was in time, he wasn’t Ozzy. That singing on these early Sabbath albums was fucking great though. You can’t get anyone else to come in and sound like that.

Sorry I got distracted there. We were talking about Morbid Angel (ha-ha).

MO: I actually wouldn’t mind hearing your thoughts on their latest album “Illud Divinum Insanus”.

SH: I listened it, but I like lots of different types of music anyway. By ’87 I was listening to different music before thrash was even being recognised because I was already getting bored with it. As much as I respect Morbid Angel, I listened to it and the guitars aren’t heavy enough, the drums are too thin and it’s not Pete Sandoval because I can predict when that guy’s going to do a drum roll every time. To me Pete Sandoval is like Trey Azagthoth’s little goblin sidekick because Azagthoth writes those killer licks and Pete know exactly what to put over the top of it. He’s brilliant, he’s a fucking lunatic whereas this new guy he pulls the job off, but he’s no Pete Sandoval no one is!

So the new album I think is too digital, but the songs that everyone is supposed to hate, I quite like. I don’t mind their fucking songs.

After 20 years of technical death metal, the hardest fucking music to play and pull off live they come out with this and you get people going “what a bunch of cunts”, Really, you ungrateful fucking assholes. One, if you understand artists you should let them have a fucking break. Two, so you don’t like the new Morbid Angel album fine, but to go “Morbid Angel fucking suck!” fuck off you fucking cunt! How much shit have they given you? How much good shit have they given you! You know how hard it is to play a Morbid Angel song you cunt! (laughs)

MO: But that’s what happens with a lot of metal heads and bands. You get one bad song or one bad album or a change in direction and it’s like BETRAYED!

SH: You feel like going “get the pole out of your ass for god’s sake. It’s just an album or song.” I understand when a band sells out. Even Priest did it, but they are from a different era so they don’t really fit into that whole thing.

MO: Well that raises another question. How do you define “selling out”?

SH: Well, see its very interesting thing because after “Defenders of the Faith”, Judas Priest did “Turbo”. Why? Because they got big in the States and next thing you know the record company wants to sell them to mid-west America. So next thing you know “Turbo” comes out, it’s the 80’s, and it’s a little bit electronic, KK Downing has got the whole perm and they give him those stupid comet guitars and they’re doing Johnny B. Goode covers because this is an obvious move to sell them to mid-west America.

Then you get someone like Iron Maiden. Everyone loves Iron Maiden, but if some death metal band put out the merch that Iron Maiden got, everyone would hate them. It’s ok for Maiden though because #1 they’ve got a reputation, and #2 they’re from an era where they know it’s a business. They fucking know. Priest go “well we wanna crack mid-west America” and this is how we are going to do it. Sure they may have lost a lost a lot of metal fans especially from Europe where they’re going “no no no that’s not how we do it” but it worked.

MO: Ok but essentially, what is “selling out”?

SH: I think it’s when you make an obvious move to go against your original motivation for your art and doing stuff that your heart is not into to try and project yourself into a fucking demographic. Just basically not from the heart you know?

I was just watching a doco on this artist today and she does this whole thing where she goes “an artist should do this, an artist should never sell out, an artist should always work from the heart, an artist should NEVER work for cash. You can “get” cash but its gotta be the by-product of your complete utter honest art form. You’ve got to have no fear, and be controversial not for the sake of it though”. That reminds me of a great thing Hugh Heffner said where people said he was always controversial and he goes “nothing gets changed without controversy, nothing” (laughs). Well as soon as you change something its obviously controversial isn’t it?

MO: Getting back to the comedy front. What comics are you watching or listening to nowadays?

Bill Burr I like! I like him because he’s real and he’s a bit off the cuff and off the hinge. He’s a popular comic right now. Louis CK is another one I really enjoy. I like his shows where he puts himself in these self-deprecating positions. Comedians should be self deprecating by nature. They need to put themselves into their art.

It gets me thinking that if your life is good and everything is going ok, what is there to “push” against and do art? If I was having a top time and I was in a warehouse with heaps of hot babes what would I write about? I’d have my manager come up to me and say “Steve you need to write a show” I’d be like “What!!” (ha-ha). Seriously if I was one of those guys who women would just die for and do the whole numbers in your pockets thing, and there are guys like that out there…I wouldn’t have got anything done!

MO: Yeah but it’s always the kind of guys that we think have had it easy that remind me of that Butch Walker lyric “getting fat in a Laundromat” whereas for those of us that have to work a little harder at it because weren’t good at sports or couldn’t dance and didn’t wear the right clothes we had to learn to communicate to get laid. Neil Strauss wrote that women mature at a younger age because while us guys are out there kicking footy’s, women are learning about politics and how to communicate / negotiate / manipulate and all these kinds of things and meanwhile us guys are taught to mature at an older age because growing up all we’re told is to shut up and kick the footy.

SH: Yeah, especially in this country! It’s a very coveted and sheltered country. I get so many ideas for stuff from this country. I’d love to come here and spend a year living here and put together a show on it. Anzacs…I want to get into that. I’m 46 I grew up in this country. Anzac Day used to be a few old blokes would get together, stand there for one minute have a cup of chocolate milk and a biscuit and then they’d piss off to the pub and get pissed. If anyone wanted to talk about the war they’d say “don’t wanna fucking talk about it”. Now it’s all, go to Gallipoli, Anzac this and Anzac that and the new soldiers are called “Diggers”..well nah they weren’t when I was growing up, what are you talking about.

I think it’s all a part of John Howard’s little fiasco into the American ideology. Now you bring this “spirit”, the Australian “spirit” or identity (which Australia has never really had because were colonialists and we never got fucking told who we are!). So you end up “giving” them this Anzac spirit involved in war. So, now we’re going around with this identity which is really a representation of other peoples wars and if everyone’s a digger and everything’s Anzac (and everything to do with the military is Anzac) if you put shit on soldiers now in modern wars regardless who they are and where they are fighting, what you’re really doing is putting shit on the spirit of Australia (laughs). So what happens now is that you can’t have an opinion against the illegal invasion of the Middle East and Australia being involved in America and Europe’s fucking colonialist ventures into this new age because if you say anything against that you’re with the terrorists and putting shit on the Australian spirit!

MO: Ha-ha on that very cheerful note. It’s been an absolute privilege speaking to you. Thanks for taking the time to have this chat. Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers here at Metal Obsession?

SH: Well we were advertising the show and tickets for the shows….but there all sold out (ha-ha) speaking of selling out! Sorry about that. I wanted to get posters for the show and call it “Steve Hughes Will Never Sell Out” and just have me standing there with these “Sold-out” signs!

MO: Ha-ha, “I haven’t compromised my beliefs…but I have still sold out”.

SH: Well that’s the good thing about it because I haven’t had to. A lot of the shit I talk about is still affecting the normal people out there. If I was still ranting and raving like this, plus I had to leave the country to do it. I had to leave Australia so I could come back and put shit on Australia.

MO: Why is that though? Is it a cultural thing?

SH: Well my personal opinion on that is that we don’t have that fame culture here in Australia. We’re more grounded and down to earth here. I mean all countries have a tall poppy syndrome but in Australia it’s a little different which benefits our art because we do honest art here but we don’t have that fame mentality so once you go overseas, Australians have less faith in themselves which is why you get that “Voice” show where two of the judges have to be from overseas to judge us. Why? Because we wouldn’t trust them if they were all Australians (laughs) “this isn’t real” so we have to drag some B-grade corporate punk to judge good Aussie talent.

Check out Steve Hughes on his remaining Australia and New Zealand 2013 comedy tour

2013 New Zealand – Big Issues
Venue: Q Auckland, 305 Queen Street, Auckland CBD
Date: Wednesday 1st May – Wednesday 8th May
Tickets: $27.50
Time: 10pm
Bookings: www.qtheatre.co.nz/venues/loft

2013 Sydney Comedy Festival
Venue: The Enmore Theatre
Date: Saturday 1st June
Tickets $35
Time: 8:30pm
Bookings: enmoretheatre.com.au or 9550 3666

For more information head to: www.stevehughes.net.au

About

Nick is a dedicated and lifelong metal / rock fan ever since he heard Kiss Alive when it first came out. His tastes extend from anything and everything from AOR, to power metal, to thrash, to death, to progressive rock / metal, to melodic rock. Chances are if the band exists....Nick knows of them! (some might say he's metal obsessed).