Tom G Warrior: “We put so much fanaticism into Hellhammer, it’s nice to know it wasn’t wasted”

Hellhammer were one of the most important, if short-lived, bands in metal history. Having never played live, frontman Tom G Warrior has begun performing their music as Triumph Of Death, to honour their work. As they release a live album of the concerts, he talks us through the history, pain, rejection and resurrection of this deeply personal band who helped shape an entire movement by accident…

Tom G Warrior: “We put so much fanaticism into Hellhammer, it’s nice to know it wasn’t wasted”
Nick Ruskell
Roland Moeck

The day Kerrang! meets up with Tom G Warrior in London is part of a full-circle coincidence. In the early-’80s, as a teenager he saved what money he had and made the trip from Switzerland to the UK. It was something of a pilgrimage, to the buzzing hub of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, on which he would avail himself of seven-inch singles and records from the most exciting musical movement on the planet at the time.

On said trip, he also picked up two early issues of Kerrang! – like the records, unlike anything easily obtainable at home at the time. Excitedly, he took them back to his hotel near Paddington railway station, thrilled with his haul.

Four decades and change later, now 60, Tom is sat in more or less the same postcode, now reflecting on the earliest part of his career to that very outlet, from the offices of BMG records, by proxy linked to many NWOBHM bands. By complete accident, his manager has booked him into the exact same hotel.

“It’s a very strange coincidence,” he smiles. “All these things – the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, Kerrang!, then and through the ’80s, that trip to London – it was all so important when I think about it. Getting those records, those magazines, being somewhere with a music scene, was very, very important and inspiring.”

Tom today stands as one of underground metal’s most celebrated and important figures, and rightly so. With Celtic Frost, he and his bandmates pioneered so much of what would become foundational for the whole of extreme metal to follow, bringing a sense of truly rule-breaking ambition to a scene that had yet to truly embrace such hard sounds. With his current band Triptykon, he remains a singular talent, both in his musical ideas, and the depths of morbid darkness with which he is able to imbue it.

It is Hellhammer whom Tom is here to talk about today, and their excellent new live album, Resurrection Of The Flesh, played under the banner of Triumph Of Death. Existing from 1982 to 1984, the band – eventually comprising Tom, late bassist Martin Eric Ain and drummer Steve Warrior – were like nothing on Earth at the time. With the frenzied roar of Motörhead and UK punk bands like Discharge, a touch of the NWOBHM thrill of Iron Maiden and Venom, and the darkness of Black Sabbath, plus a visual image that had the appearance of Lovecraft characters, they were instantly recognisable as extreme. This reflected their surroundings – “problematic” is a word Tom uses to describe their young lives at the time – and the music on their Satanic Rites demo and utterly essential Apocalyptic Raids EP is harsh, dark and morbidly thrilling.

The shows Triumph Of Death have played over the past few years represent the first live performances of much of this music. Before they morphed into Celtic Frost in 1984, Hellhammer were so shunned that gigs were impossible. Indeed, the shift to Frost as they became more proficient was to begin a new chapter away from their roots. In the years since, they have found a place as one of the most important bands in metal history, and in recent times have been asked, as Triumph Of Death, to revisit and honour this music live for the first time.

“It’s hard to believe that a record company has brought me to London to talk about Hellhammer’s music for a record they are putting out,” he reflects, “because at the time none of us would have believed it if you told us.”

But it’s happening. And with it, one of the slowest-blooming bands in metal history are getting the respect, recognition and good treatment they deserve.

How has it been, looking back at Hellhammer and reconnecting with this music?
“It's been an endless, very personal path, not just for me, but also for Martin Eric Ain, rest in peace. And also for Steve Warrior, who co-founded Hellhammer together with me in 1982. Hellhammer was a very authentic band, it wasn't just created to look extreme. The three of us who were the main members of Hellhammer, at various points we encountered very problematic circumstances in our private lives individually. And we pooled that pain, and that extremity and frustration and that anger in that band. We created our own little world in our own little rehearsal room. We didn't know there was going to be something like extreme metal. We weren't blessed with some foresight or something. It was simply a very authentic expression of where we were as young people, and the things we encountered in our private lives. That really connected us.

“And because of the realities of our lives at the time, which also manifested themselves in some of the early works of Hellhammer, it was very difficult for ourselves to think back to the Hellhammer times. We were very glad to leave it behind, all three of us. I think we needed to become adults and have a different life and not be confronted with the youth we suffered through. Hellhammer, for people outside, was just music, but for us, it was a lot of other things, a lot of pain. So we distanced ourselves for years. And each of us in their own ways have had to kind of make their own deal with that time.

“In my case, it took quite a long time. The reunion of Celtic Frost gave me the chance to talk a lot about this with Martin, and it helped a lot, both Martin and me, to make peace with the time. And it gave us the chance to acknowledge the musical side, which was of course of crucial importance for everything we did afterwards. So yes, this album, lying here on this table like a normal album, there's just so much personal history in it. And without wanting to be overly dramatic, for anybody connected to Hellhammer, everybody will understand what this means. For a long time, this was impossible. It wasn't just music.”

What was it that started the idea to do a live band honouring Hellhammer as Triumph Of Death?
“Well, the roots of Triumph Of Death are really the reunion of Celtic Frost in 2001. As I said, Martin and I didn't just reform the band for some cheque that the record company dangled in front of us, we actually took the reunion as something very sacred. And we spent five-and-a-half years discussing where the band should go and putting together [Celtic Frost’s] comeback album. And during that time, we spent uncounted nights discussing our entire path, and our motivation, and where we came from, and our musical history. And of course, Hellhammer was a crucial part of that. And when we started rehearsing with the newly-reassembled Celtic Frost, we also tried to play some of the Hellhammer songs, because we wanted to play them onstage as we did in the early Celtic Frost. As it happened, they never sounded quite right, because the drummer we had at the time, he just couldn't get himself into this music. The songs just sounded contrived. So we didn't play them on the tour. But some years later I thought, ‘You know, I'm not ready to give up on this. Helhammer’s music has never been played live. And I would like to experience this before I die.’ So I thought, if it doesn't work in the reformed Celtic Frost, and I didn’t want the successor band Triptykon to be a tribute, I considered doing a project just to play the music. And that was really when the idea of Triumph Of Death arose in 2014, when we did the second Triptykon album. There were some people involved with the production of the album that I asked, ‘Would you be a part of Triumph Of Death if I do this?’ Everybody was very much into the idea, which also confirmed to me that this is really something that could work.”

Hellhammer never toured, and were indeed shunned during their existence. Now you’ve done shows as Triumph Of Death in Texas and London amongst others, how does it feel that this music has become an in-demand thing?
“These are quite big questions, because it's not just a band. It's a very mixed bag of emotions. On one hand, it blows my mind that music that was laughed at from 1982 to 1984 now gets me to play as a headliner in Las Vegas, when nobody wanted to touch us even with a stick at the time. We would have loved to play a concert – we would have played a concert for Coca-Cola. You could have had us for a pound. And now people are flying us across the globe to Australia, and everywhere, to play as a headliner, with the exact same music. It blows my mind. And of course, it's an honour that there's audiences nowadays that actually accept this music.

“But on the other hand, there's also a sad component to it, because when I go onstage, it reminds me immediately, every time, of the rehearsal sessions that we had in the two years that Hellhammer existed. We did private concerts, we played in the rehearsal rooms for friends that used to gather on weekends. That was in spite of the difficulties we encountered, because we had created our own world, it was a very magical time. We all have the same struggle, and that really tied us together, which made it very magical, very unique.

“I know that this can never be resurrected. And that makes me very sad. Martin is dead, Steve Warrior lived a life that left him in a position where he can no longer really play an instrument and now he is still in a problematic situation in his private life. So I could never resurrect Hellhammer the way it was, and that makes me sad.”

Tom G Warrior and Martin Eric Ain in 1984

What was the feeling like between the three of you back then?
“We had the feeling we belonged to something very special, very unique. And we had to fight against everybody. Everybody ridiculed us. Nobody gave us a chance. Which is both difficult and magical. You're part of a little sworn unit that has some ideals that nobody else shares and makes you feel like, ‘Well, nobody understands me but my friends.’ When I'm onstage, certain songs, certain moments bring you right to that time. We have a great time doing this, but I also miss standing in that stinky rehearsal room in 1983, with these people who could look in their eyes, and we have this understanding between us. It's a very, very mixed bag of emotions.”

How did you approach what the shows would actually look like, having nothing to go on from the past?
“Well, I know exactly how Hellhammer would have gone onstage. And I wasn't going to change that. It's very minimalist, with the focus on the music and the energy and the exchange between the band and the audience. I know maybe some other protagonists in our scene would have done a huge show with fireworks and the Hellhammer mascot walking across the stage, as big as a house, but that's not my thing. I wanted to be true to the spirit of Hellhammer. Hellhammer was first and foremost a total, authentic, underground band. It wasn't underground for an image, it was really underground, we could hardly pay for guitar strings or guitar picks. And we lived for this music. We practiced every day just to be together and play this music. We practiced more than any other band at the time. Because this was not just music, it was our world. So it wasn't good to pervert it and do some commercial show. It was just going onstage and letting the music speak, for better or for worse. And that's what we're doing.”

Something about Hellhammer that I think gets forgotten or under-appreciated is that you didn’t really have anyone to follow. Apart from Motörhead, the more noisy punk bands like Discharge, and a few awkward artists like Killing Joke or Lou Reed, musically there wasn’t much that had anything in common with you, and certainly not in the visuals and the image…
“Well, I'm speaking to you as a 60-year-old with 42 years as a musician. But back then I didn't know anything. So every step, we had to define ourselves, and also given that we were in Switzerland without any connections, and not in one of the major cities but in a rural area, there were really no peers we could have spoken to. We saw the occasional concert, of course, but you know, not every New Wave Of British Heavy Metal band played in Zurich! So we were left to our own devices. And we had to forge our own idea of what this should look like. Some of it worked, some of it was very awkward. But if Hellhammer would have existed in New York or London, it would have been very different, but probably more average. But since we had to figure out how things worked on our own, that gave us also a measure of originality. We would have preferred to be in London, we worshipped those centres of heavy metal at the time. But we weren't given that opportunity. So we had to make it up ourselves. And that turned out to be an advantage. We just didn’t know it.”

Did you have the idea in your heads that you would stay as an underground band, that success was not on the cards?
“Very much so. We were led to believe by the reactions of everybody around us, including the fragments of what you could call a metal scene in Switzerland, that we weren't going to go anywhere, and that the music was simply noise and untalented bullshit. And we heard that so often that we started thinking, ‘Yeah, well, that's the way it is.’ And of course, they were right, the bands at the time were all very high quality, you had singers like Ronnie James Dio, and phenomenal guitar players. We couldn't match that, so we knew we were the odd thing out in the contemporary metal scene. And that was fine. But we had the urge, of course, to have something to preserve what we were doing. So we thought, 'Nobody's ever going to give us a record deal, so let's make our own album' – which is how the first demos happened. We just simply asked a friend to record everything we had. We didn't know it was going to take off and that these demos, one day, many years later, would become legendary. I mean, even the friends we played the demos to, they were like, ‘Oh my God, it's terrible music, terribly recorded!’ There was no indication that they would go anywhere. We did this for ourselves. As I said, this was a very authentic little world. Nothing was contrived. It was full of actual pain, actual aggression, actual frustration. We didn't want to look 'cool' – we were the people that are in the photos. Those were authentic photos.”

Tell me about the DIY shows in your rehearsal room…
“Well, since we couldn't get proper gigs here, we treated them as real shows. We had one or two people who you could call a road crew, even though we didn't play any concerts, but some friends came so frequently and became so involved and helped us pay for things that they became a road crew. One of them said, ‘You guys need some kind of a light show.’ So he went to his father's workshop, and built a light show from wooden planks and coloured lightbulbs. He figured out the light show that went with all the songs, so when our friends came on the weekends, they would actually see a Hellhammer live show in the rehearsal room with lights. For all intents and purposes, he was like underground concerts. I mean, punk bands at the time played in occupied houses, this was a similar thing.”

Did you ever think about trying to join up with the punk bands?
“No. Strangely enough, now when I listen to Hellhammer’s music I realise how much punk is in there. Back then, even though we listened to punk, we were really a metal band, we saw ourselves as a metal band. The scenes were very much apart, and I don't think punk bands would have accepted this. And I think we probably wouldn't have accepted playing in a punk venue. It's very strange. Nowadays, I can really see the parallels, but back then, everybody was very keen to separate everything. I don't know why.”

What was it like being a metal kid in Switzerland back then?
“There was quite a lot of metal audience as far as the bands were concerned. Krokus were the big thing in the early ’80s. I think they really deserved that, too. But the result was that every other band were trying to emulate Krokus, which basically was a double-copy of AC/DC. But there were a lot of dedicated heavy metal fans and there was something called a heavy metal disco in a village, maybe two miles away from where we grew up. We would all meet there, talk about heavy metal, exchange records, exchange fanzines, and there was a room where they played really loud heavy metal where everybody would play air-guitar and headbang. That was really a manifestation of how manic and dedicated the heavy metal fans were at the time. And one had to fight to be a metal fan, as absurd as it sounds. There used to be bikers or punks, or also pop fans who would beat up heavy metal fans on their way to that heavy metal disco. It's completely absurd to think about that. But it was really territorial.”

You’ve said previously that in general, as a young metal fan with long hair, you would take a lot of shit…
“Absolutely, you cannot imagine. People in my village hated me for it. They already shunned my mother and I. She was divorced, and we lived in very bad conditions. My home life was a living hell. She would go away smuggling watches and leave me on my own in the house for weeks at a time. She decided as well that we should have many, many cats in our house, when we couldn’t even feed ourselves. Our bread would be mouldy, I would drink just water for months because we could not afford soda. I cannot exaggerate this.

“And yeah, having long hair, you would get beaten up. I remember even when I was older and learning to be a mechanic, I would carry a knife to defend myself, because people there would try to cut my hair off. This was on top of the fear of nuclear war in the 1980s. And the Swiss state did not care much for the young people. They spent millions on a new opera house, but would not spend anything on the youth. When we went to protest, they sent armed police with tear gas and rubber bullets. So we were angry, and all this darkness went into our music.”

How did you end up getting signed?
“Well, this is a punk connection. We had that demo and we shipped it out to pretty much every record company that we could find. Most companies turned it down or didn't even answer. But there was one fanzine in Germany called Shock Power, who took note of our demo, and there was a punk label in Germany called Aggressive Rock Produktionen who licensed punk albums from America. And they saw that the extreme scene was growing, so they thought, ‘Let's branch out into metal.’ And they formed the label, Noise Records. Shock Power gave them our demo. The label contacted us from Berlin and we were elated that a new label was interested in us, so we put together a package that included tons of photos. And as the label would tell me years later, it was the photos that convinced them, because they hated the music. But they said that the photos were so extreme, there was nothing else like it. They said if we could do a better demo, they would give us the chance to be on a compilation. And as it turned out, the Satanic Rites demo was good enough that they actually offered us a proper record deal, which led to the Apocalyptic Raids EP.”

How was it going into a professional recording studio for the first time?
“It was hugely intimidating, because we had never been to a proper, international studio. We traveled to what was then West Berlin, in the middle of what was East Germany, which was intimidating in itself, to enter socialist East Germany. There was us with our heavy metal gear seeing border guards with machine guns. There were Russian tanks at the border, literally. And then being in that studio for the first time, with an engineer who's highly experienced and could see right away that we are completely inexperienced, it was very intimidating. But there was also a huge learning experience. And of course, we felt we felt honored and elated to have been given this chance. Finally, somebody who took us seriously and gave us this platform.”

What was your attitude in the studio?
“It was a really mixed experience. Having radicalised ourselves so much in this artificial world of a rehearsal room we came into the studio, on one hand intimidated and knowing that we had a lot to learn. But on the other hand, we came in there totally extreme, and told the highly experienced engineer that we were going to produce the record, and that nobody in the world knows what Hellhammer has to sound like other than us. And the engineer was like, ‘Alright.’ He gave us a lot of ideas. But we turned down a lot of them, because he didn't know that we wanted to be the most extreme band ever.”

And how did it feel to play it on vinyl for the first time?
“When we heard it, it sounded very deficient for the ears of the time. It doesn't anymore to me now. But back then, like I said, given that we existed in a world of Ronnie James Dios and Ritchie Blackmores, when we listened to the record on our own stereo, we immediately heard, ‘Well, it's very deficient.’ And then came the call from Berlin. The record company said, ‘This record sounds like utter shit. What did you do? This cannot be sold. This is a disaster. We're thinking about dissolving the record deal.’ Now, you have to bear in mind that was 10 years before the Norwegian black metal wave that basically made such underground productions a thing. Today, I cannot hear this anymore that it was deficient. So it was a very mixed thing. Here we were, with finally our first record after being ridiculed for years, and after fighting for a record deal, and finally being given the chance, and we came out of the studio with a record that couldn't really compete with the productions of the time. And I had to admit, ‘Well, they have a point.’ But it has aged very well.”

Triumph Of Death, 2023

How did you feel when bands like Mayhem, years later, were wearing Hellhammer shirts and saying you were an influence and trying to capture that style of production for themselves?
“It was a huge surprise, because while Celtic Frost existed, from 1984 to 1993, Hellhammer was still shunned. It was actually a millstone around our neck in the early days of Celtic Frost. When we dissolved in 1993, I lived in America at the time, and I was completely out of that scene. I came back to Europe and I was confronted out of the blue by people coming to me saying, ‘Wow, Hellhammer this and that.’ Journalists would refer to it all the time, and I wasn’t prepared for that, I didn't know what had happened. I had to learn that there was an entirely new black metal scene, and people actually worshipped Hellhammer in that scene. Of course, it was wonderful to hear this, but I had to get used to it as well.”

How do you feel looking at it all now, with a live album in your hands, that has been born of a genuine enthusiasm and passion for Hellhammer’s music, when you spent so long being shunned?
“As I say, it’s many mixed emotions, but it does feel good. Sometimes good things take a while. And I'm the first one to admit not everything about Hellhammer was cool. There was a lot of flaws in Hellhammer. And even I have to say some of the myths around Hellhammer are overblown. Hellhammer exists in a realistic world. A lot of Hellhammer stuff was pioneering and was cool, but a lot wasn't. That's also a part of our existence. I feel very grateful that audiences and metal fans have embraced it eventually. It's not something I have taken for granted. And I'm grateful for the chances that Hellhammer’s music has received decades later. We put so much work and fanaticism into it, and it's very nice to know that it wasn't wasted.”

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