New Dawn Over Donington: How Bullet For My Valentine got their fire back
To explain how far Bullet For My Valentine have come, you’ve got to start at the beginning. Well, near enough.
Drive to a certain corner of Cardiff and you’ll see a row of shops, wine merchants and tool retailers mainly. Behind these is an industrial estate, populated by lorries and some incredibly well-fed seagulls. What looks like a fairly unremarkable bit of concrete jungle, however, is where some big beasts of the British metal scene have rehearsed for the past decade. And so it is, on a Saturday afternoon, K! walks down a corridor thrumming with the sound of young bands unfazed by the attempted decimation of the live music scene, turns left and pushes open a heavy door, to be greeted by the sight and sound of Bullet For My Valentine.
The most striking thing to note – aside from the blistering form the four men are on – is what close confines they’re in. Despite warming up for an appearance on an expansive main stage in a little over 24 hours’ time, singer/guitarist Matt Tuck and guitarist Michael ‘Padge’ Paget practically stand shoulder to shoulder, the kind of proximity the duo will be accustomed to from playing together in their teens, the band having initially formed as Jeff Killed John in 1998, while studying music at Bridgend College, some 20 miles away.
Twenty-three years later and the line-up is now completed by bassist Jamie Mathias and drummer Jason Bowld, a unit of four markedly different men whose undeniable musical chemistry has resulted in a self-titled seventh album that will startle anyone who thought they had BFMV pegged or written off. Knives, the first taste of this new opus, released the day before this rehearsal, is a molten outpouring of maliciousness which the band runs through to bruising effect. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. Opening track Parasite is a relentless assault of hatred and hooks; Bastards is a scrappy, boisterous chant-along; Shatter is a slower, Parkway Drive-esque colossus featuring the addictive refrain, ‘I don’t exist, I was never alive / But now I know I’m ready to die.’ And while this new album explores different styles – a trademark of BFMV’s career for good and for ill, depending on who you ask – it’s governed by a sense of wild abandon.
Back in the practice room, so too is Jason, who’s thundering through a three-minute drum solo, which Padge takes as an excuse for a cigarette break. The guitarist isn’t just the resident maniac, but a figure of fascinating contradictions. A man who’ll boast his band “ripped the c**t” out of their new album when the interview isn’t being recorded, but shyly deem it “gorgeous” once the tape is running the next day. A smoking shaman who’ll regale you with talk of his Himalayan Salt Pipe and its restorative effects on his airways while buying three packs of fags he’ll blaze through like a prisoner just out of solitary confinement.
Listen to Matt Tuck discuss two of the new album’s key tracks, Knives and Bastards
“It’s a force of nature being in a band with someone for so long, as I have with Padge, because it pushes and pulls and rips and tears,” says Matt of a dynamic that’s needed some restoration in recent years. “It’s a complicated journey when you’re on it with someone else for so long. But having our world taken away from us, like everyone else did, really brought us back together, without sounding all weird. It was a good period of reconnection.”
The source of some of that friction, Matt suggests, was 2018 album Gravity, with its departure from their more traditional sound into nu-metal revivalry, much like Machine Head did with 1999’s The Burning Red. “Padge was very anti-Gravity,” Matt admits.
“I can’t wait to put out this record,” says Padge of the difference between their forthcoming seventh album and its divisive predecessor. “Not just because I prefer it, but because it’s the right time for an album like this. Everyone is really pissed off and has an energy they want to release.”
Are you pissed off and angry, Padge?
“Of course,” he blares. “I thought last year this was all over – the band, the music industry, everything – which terrified me and sent me to a really dark and horrible place. Even when we went into the studio I was wondering if it was all in vain, but gradually realised that things were happening. But I still want to kill motherfuckers, I do.”
None of his bandmates, though, thankfully.
“We’re adults now,” Padge says of his relationship with Matt, who he describes as “a weird wizard” because of his mysterious way with a tune. “We’ve been to war together. We’ve lived together and seen each other go through amazing times and terrible times. We know each other inside out.”
He frowns. “Well not inside out, but you know what I mean.”
Jamie is similarly cemented within the ranks, having been in them since 2015, his first gig with the band an intimate engagement at the Electric Ballroom as part of Camden Rocks. The first gig he saw Bullet play, however, was in Orlando, when the teenage Jamie was on a family holiday and happened upon the city’s House Of Blues venue where the band featured on the bill with Eighteen Visions. Afterwards he went to get a picture with Matt, boldly telling the fellow Welshman abroad that he’d be doing what he’s doing one day.
Now the two men are sitting together on the tour bus, on the eve of one of their most momentous shows, eating burritos and watching Germany give Portugal a kicking in the Euros, safe in the knowledge they’ve made a very special album. “It’s awesome,” grins Jamie, retaining a fan’s enthusiasm for the band he’s in and their music, so excited for fellow enthusiasts to hear songs like Shatter because of how different they are. “The slow tempo… the anger… the monstrous riff. That one will be a favourite and in our set for a few years.”
Jamie is diplomatic, too, suggesting that Gravity now serves as a necessary prerequisite for this more brutal offering. “It made room for us to make this album, so it’ll have an even bigger impact.”
He’s noticeably nervous, though, of the prospect of tomorrow’s show, so not quite able to say the word ‘Download’ as he sums up his feelings about the band’s first gig in some 19 months, for which his partner and five-year-old son will be present. “We’ve been through worrying times,” says Jamie. “What we do was taken from us for a while, so it’ll be emotional to walk up those steps.”
“We’ll be fine,” offers Jason. The drummer has a naturally calming effect on the band, having played with Bullet since 2015 before officially joining in late 2017. His reassurance resonates not just because he’s always smiling (even when behind the kit), but because he’s been there and done it, having played with everyone from industrial rockers Pitchshifter to post-punk oddballs Killing Joke. Download isn’t his only gig in the next few days, either. Immediately after the show he’ll head home so he can take his electric kit into a local school to introduce its pupils to rhythms from around the world. “I’m not at all rock’n’roll,” he laughs. “For me it’s about the work, which I take very seriously, and I’m enormously proud of the work on this album.”
“Do you really like it? Honestly…? Genuinely…?”
Matt Tuck is sitting in a portable cabin – something he hasn’t done since 30 November 2018, the day BFMV finished touring Gravity in Mexico City, as part of Knotfest. We’re on site for the Sunday at the Download Pilot event, the government-backed version of the annual Donington bash ‘to help open up live music’ after the coronavirus outbreak’s devastating impact upon the sector. It’s an exciting prospect, not least because with the 10,000 attendees having to show negative tests to get onto the site, this is ostensibly a microcosm of COVID-free moshery.
It would certainly be a stretch to call conditions serene, given that Elvana are noisily bringing their Elvis-fronted Nirvana novelty act to the nearby main stage, but Bullet’s leader certainly has a zen-like calm about him today, as well as the air of inscrutability he’s had for much longer.
“It’s just who I am,” he says by way of explanation, decked out in a pristine black leather jacket and wooly hat, looking like a dapper cat burglar. “I’m not trying to be quiet or shy – I don’t think I’m any of those things.
“If people don’t spend a lot of time with me,” he continues, alluding perhaps to music journalists, “they’ll obviously pick up on certain characteristics and mannerisms, but people who know me know I’m a very calm, easy-going guy. But when I hit the stage, it’s a different thing altogether.”
Listen to Matt Tuck discuss how the sound of the new Bullet album was born
That’s equally true if you tell Matt you’re a fan of his new album, as K! has just done. The admission causes him to lean forward with an inquisitive stare, as if scanning to see if it’s genuine praise he’s receiving or an empty platitude. Satisfied we’re being sincere, he’s warm in his thanks.
Is this sense of distrust a regular thing? Is Matt always suspicious of those he thinks might be trying to blow smoke up his arse?
“That’s what it is,” he nods. “If someone says [they like a record I’ve made] to me, I want to check they’re not Billy Bullshitting, because I don’t like that.”
Back in the salad days of BFMV, Matt considered caring about the opinions of others to be part of the job, just as being on the receiving end of a seemingly unending wave of adulation was too. “It was hard not to get wrapped up in it all,” he recalls, before turning his thoughts to plummeting back to Earth. “When things started to get negative, which they inevitably do when you make more albums, then things started to affect me emotionally, so I just turned it off. Since our third record, Fever, I just don’t care.
“It’s just not nice to read stuff that you’ve put your heart and soul into being ripped apart unnecessarily,” Matt elaborates with a speed and steely tone that suggests he may care more than he’s letting on. “It’s done by people who don’t actually know what it’s like to do what I do: to be in a band, create a record, and do the touring, which I’d done for almost 15 years up to that point [the release of Fever in 2010] just for people to be so nasty. It stings, you know? Well, it used to sting. People can always have an opinion, but it’s only really validated if the person giving the opinion has done it better. I don’t need anyone’s praise or hate – it’s just about whether me and the rest of the boys are pleased with it.”
There’s a clear sense the four members of Bullet For My Valentine: The Band, are more than satisfied with Bullet For My Valentine: The Album, and not just because of its obvious musical qualities. Knives’ lyrical references to shedding skin and laying to rest, coupled with the album’s self-titled status, suggest the drawing of a line under what’s come before, and that this is their definitive statement to date. “We’re moving on from everything now,” explains Matt. “The history we’ve had has been incredible, but with the line-up we have now, and everything much more settled than it was during Gravity, we can really start to showcase Bullet 2.0.”
But while Padge will declare the new album to be nothing short of “the best”, Matt’s appraisal is more philosophical than hyperbolic, perhaps because of his past experiences.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the Bullet album I’ve always wanted to make,” Matt suggests with valid reasoning. “Every Bullet album is the one I want to make at that time. When you’re in that headspace, you’ve got a record to write and off you go. Every one of them is its own thing. You’ve got to let whatever comes out just come out and go with it, taking it all the way, regardless of what it is.”
The ‘it’ this time around happens to be really fucking angry, though not necessarily for the reasons listeners might assume. “It comes across that way,” acknowledges Matt of its overriding emotion, “but it was fun to write stuff like that – to let the guard down and not be afraid to write heavy music. There’s always that dilemma, when you write heavy songs, that you need to write bigger choruses to make things more palatable. This time around we thought we’d do what we do and not overthink it due to what’s happening.”
What Matt Tuck is referring to needs little explanation, given the context behind this Download Pilot. In truth, Bullet For My Valentine weren’t as inconvenienced by the outbreak of the pandemic as other bands, they’re quick to point out, and were due to take a year off to write new material after that final date in Mexico. “What’s happened in the wider world made the album more focused, as we had so much time to live with it,” Matt says of a writing process that began in October 2019 and lasted exactly a year, before he and Jason got into the studio to begin recording the slow-grown fruits of their labour.
By K!’s calculations, including this Pilot, Bullet have played Download an extraordinary nine times, starting in 2004 when they only had their self-titled EP to their name, and followed by a rapid ascent from 2005 onwards with the release of first album, The Poison.
“It’s natural when you have a debut that kicks off like that to meet peoples’ expectations,” says Matt, returning to the topic of the mixed critical fortunes his band’s discography has enjoyed over the years. “Regardless of how much better [any new Bullet album is] from a songwriting perspective or sonically or from a production point of view, people don’t actually care. As soon as you realise that, you just treat every album as a moment in time and focus on that.”
How has Matt changed, as a man, across his many appearances here, then? “Not a lot, really,” he suggests after a moment’s thought. “My personal life has, of course, as I became a dad during that time [his son, Evann, is now 11] and gone through the many things we all do, but I remain as determined as I’ve ever been.”
Indeed, that laser focus, coupled with a meteoric early rise, led many to think Download headliner status was imminent. Jamie recalls playing the festival with his previous band Revoker in 2010 and being blown away by a BFMV set that surely suggested the keys to the kingdom beckoned. And while Jamie could never have imagined he’d be playing with his heroes now they’ve finally got that chance, surely no-one would have thought it would take 11 years for it to happen.
“We’ve been knocking on the door for a long time and couldn’t get it over the line for whatever reason,” says Matt. “But here we are now, so it’s a celebration. My heart exploded when we were asked to do it. It’s not the all-singing, all-dancing Download we all know and love, but it’s a beautiful thing. We’re picking up from where we left off, continuing as if 2020 never happened.”
Hear Matt Tuck reveal how being in the band’s long-time rehearsal space brought memories flooding back
“The future for us looks like hard work, but that’s what we do,” continues Matt with a smile as he starts limbering up. “We’re in the fortunate position of having a global fanbase, so we can hit pretty much anywhere in the world and people show up, which is incredible and not something we ever thought would be possible when we started the band 20 years ago. We love and appreciate every single fan – whether they’ve been with us since 2004, or they’re just discovering us now because of Knives. They’re part of what we do and we can’t do it without them. We can’t wait to get on the road and see them all. It’ll take a couple of years, but we’ll do it.”
The next live dates in the diary are those seven UK shows in October/November, which is far too long a wait for Padge, who’s itching to keep the momentum going, despite remaining sceptical about the prospect given the incompetence of those in charge. “I don’t trust the government,” he growls after their triumphant set, a post-show cup of red wine in hand. “I’d like to fight Boris Johnson for charity. I’d fucking box him, but I’d make it last the 12 rounds so he’d really suffer. I’d spread his nose like a rhombus.”
And while the guitarist is deadly serious about his suggestion, asking their press agent to make inquiries to make this unlikely clash a reality, the focus remains on another aggressive prospect: Bullet For My Valentine’s forthcoming album and a new dawn for a band that have had their fair share of hard knocks.
“The future is going to be legendary,” promises Padge, taking a break from his fantasy of smashing the prime minister’s face in. “Stick with us and the world will come back – then we can crack on!”
Bullet For My Valentine’s self-titled album is released on October 22 via Spinefarm/Search & Destroy – pre-order your copy now. They tour the UK in October/November.
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