SHOCK sits down with MERCYFUL FATE guitar legend Hank Shermann to discuss his new project, DENNER/SHERMANN.
Hailing from arguably the single most influential metal band of the classic 80’s era, MERCYFUL FATE, the work of guitarist/composer Hank Shermann has had a profound impact on a multitude of bands such as METALLICA, EXODUS, SLAYER, CARCASS, THE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER, and GHOST.
His epic arrangements and penchant for incredibly deft tempo and key changes, added grace to the outwardly evil imagery of MERCYFUL FATE’s frontman KING DIAMOND (currently on tour now with his solo band), and crushingly heavy musical style. The duo of Shermann and co-guitarist Michael Denner defined the twin axe attack, their styles and harmonies pointing back to other classic duos from bands such as THIN LIZZY, and WISHBONE ASH , while pushing things forward into newer, darker territory.
Now Shermann and Denner are back together, with longtime Shermann collaborator Marc Grabowski on bass, Sean peck on vox, and ex-MF skinsman Snowy Shaw on drums, in the aptly named DENNER/SHERMANN. The bands new EP Satan’s Tomb is a true slice of classic metal, and worth any self respecting headbanger’s hard earned cash.
Hank Shermannn was kind enough to sit with us at SHOCK for a precious few moments, to talk about his history, as well as the new band, and the future.
SHOCK: So, Mr. Shermann, it’s a total honor to sit with you for a bit. To jump right in, how did the new EP come about?
HANK: Well, basically it comes from our endeavors with early MERCYFUL FATE. Back in 2013, Michael and I decided to celebrate the 30th anniversary on our own. Nobody had any plans of doing anything special, so we decided to do it ourselves, for our own fun and for the fans of the band. We sat down and did a couple of YouTube videos of us just jamming through some of the stuff, sitting on a couch together. Luckily, those were very well received, a little bit to our surprise actually. From there the ideas started forming in our minds, and we were having so much fun, it soon became pretty clear that the time was now to form another group. We are very relaxed, and have balance in our lives as human beings now that we are older, and we still love to play classic style heavy metal. So why not re-join forces, and start over? And here we are!
SHOCK: How did you and Michael go about the writing? Are you two in the same town these days?
HANK: No. Actually, I’ve done most of the writing, going all the way back to 1980 with MF, until King (Diamond) started contributing as well, on Don’t Break The Oath. I really like the process, inventing, finding cool riffs, and then putting them all together in an interesting way. So, Satan’s Tomb is the same. I do most of the writing, and Michael contributes his amazingly tasteful signature lead-guitar work, which is more “seam” (ie: flowing) oriented than my own. I have a different approach, yet our styles remain very complimentary of each other.
SHOCK: So, basically you’re the guy behind all the crazy arrangements?
HANK: I would say so, yes (laughter).
SHOCK: Wow. Well there really aren’t the words to say how influential that has been. Now, as far as the current DENNER/SHERMANN, and the Satanic imagery: is this merely a nod to the MF history you and Michael share, or is it something that actually interests you, even as far as a in a “horror movie” kind of way?
HANK: Well, Michael and I didn’t put too much deep thinking into the layers of the Satanic, or evil stuff. I think the mood and atmosphere, the structure of the songs, and the album cover is kind of our “brand”. It’s also the same artist, Thomas Holm, who painted the Melissa and Don’t Break The Oath covers. I had also already bought that piece of art, because I knew at some point it would come in handy. I guess that time is now (laughs). We wanted that 80’s classic cover art style, and Thomas has a very unique style, that is easily recognizable, especially within the context of our brand.
SHOCK: A cool, funny thing about that brand you speak of, is underneath all the occult trappings, the riffs have a lot more to do with old stuff that people wouldn’t necessarily compare to what you guys do. THE SWEET, THIN LIZZY, even old DEF LEPPARD which, in their early days was actually super heavy, their debut On Through The Night in particular..
HANK: Totally man! I was really lucky I got to see them when that album came out in 1980, supporting SCORPIONS. It was such a killer show man. Also, JUDAS PRIEST and Screaming For Vengeance in 1982, man. I wasn’t so much into Point Of Entry though (laughs). There were so many cool releases were coming out back then. I mean, like IRON MAIDEN with the self titled debut; amazing stuff, with such a high skill level of song writing, in that type of metal from the 80’s there was a really high standard. And the 70’s stuff, like BLACK SABBATH, URIAH HEEP, UFO, SLADE, as you mentioned earlier, THE SWEET, and DEEP PURPLE. That’s very much our core inspiration.
SHOCK: Back to the current DENNER/SHERMAN project, and knowing that from your very early bands like THE BRATS, you sometimes bring back older songs and re-work the material. Is DENNER/SHERMANN playing stuff from old demos, or stockpiles we may have not heard yet, from years back? Are we hearing stuff that didn’t get onto Melissa or Oath?
HANK: Actually, you know, I have a tape right here that was kind of demo of material that was going to be on the follow up to Don’t Break The Oath, from when I got a Fostex tape recorder, and was so excited that I could record layers, that I kind of ran amok (laughs). But getting back to your question, the riffs on Satan’s Tomb are all very fresh. I mean, there are maybe a couple of instances where I crept back into the vault, but mostly yeah, brand new. As for the title track, I was asked to write a song for a very famous American heavy metal band that was reminiscent of MF, but there were internal problems that came up with that band, so I ended up keeping the song. It came in really handy, because that’s the style we want to be in. I sent it off to our singer Sean, and a couple days later it was pretty much done.
The other songs though, are all freshly composed. I have a tendency, for good or for bad, to really want to compose brand new stuff for each album, rather than mine the past too much, even if the riffs were never used. It’s partially because of my own progression too. I mean I started writing riffs at 15 years old, I could easily do four albums that were all up to the standard I try to put out there. But for some reason I always want to do brand new things. That said, yes, I actually do go back and listen to old idea tapes now and then, and am starting to think about using some of that, so it’s not a waste of the creativity. Get an idea, record it, then never use it is something I do need stop doing, because I do feel, humbly, that I have some tremendous stuff there.
SHOCK: I’m also a huge believer in what I call the “cosmic radio”. An idea many times will perpetuate itself, if allowed to.
In your case, with these incredibly dense arrangements, and a sometimes baroque approach, I’ve always wondered about your process. Are you meticulous, sitting there with music sheets, are you just jamming away, or is it both?
HANK: No, no. I memorize everything. The funny thing is, I’m pretty loose. I’ll get up in the morning, pick up the guitar with no preconceived idea, and many times that’s just the thing that ends up being cool. So the way it works for me is just jamming and then improving on that idea. It’s very loose, and sometimes I’ll use my iPhone to record an idea, or if I have more time I’ll go to Garage Band, or Pro Tools. I try to compose for each song in particular too, without cherry picking riffs. If I did that I’d have three new albums done (laughs). I don’t compose with drum loops either, because I like to throw in so many tempo changes, and you can’t do that with a drum loop going. So I compose all by myself, without anything else kind of distracting me.
SHOCK: What about the energy level, the inner aggressive nature it takes to write this kind of music. Has age mellowed you out in that regard?
HANK: No, not at all. I still feel the fire, and that aggression you speak of, when I write, or play live. As long as I possess that I will keep going.
SHOCK: Is this DENNER/SHERMANN EP a one off, or are you and Michael going further?
HANK: We are indeed going further. I am already seven songs into the next album, and we have been working with those since April. Right after Metal Blade got the EP, we started in on this, Michael and I going back and forth. Now after doing the EP, I have a better idea of what our vocalist Sean does, and Im gearing the writing to that a little. It’s going to be even darker this time out, more metal, more plotted, and intriguing, hopefully. The first release was also done very quickly, and now there is more examination. Maybe Michael and I need to do longer solos, get more intricate harmonies happening, just more of everything. We’ll see you soon out there, when we get on tour!
You can check out the title track from DENNER/SHERMANN’s Satan’s Tomb at Metal Blade, just click HERE.