King Diamond: "If there is a hell and I go there who cares? I've already faced it"

Talking Metallica, the occult, nearly dying and creating scene classics with Danish icon King Diamond…

King Diamond: "If there is a hell and I go there who cares? I've already faced it"
Paul Travers

Long before there was Ghost, there was King Diamond: a face-painted ghoul with a taste for the macabre and more than a passing acquaintance with the Devil. Born Kim Bendix Petersen in a suburb of Copenhagen, he was active in a number of bands in the mid to late ‘70s, but it was Danish Satanic metallers Mercyful Fate with whom he really made his name.

Despite releasing just two albums during their initial stint in the early ‘80s, Mercyful Fate were hugely influential. Their occult-obsessed lyrics and the singer’s theatrical aesthetic had a massive impact on the Scandinavian black metal scene to come. There aren’t many frontmen, after all, who take to the stage holding a genuine human skull, with a microphone stand made out of leg bones. Metallica were also huge fans and remain so to this day – the thrash kings covered Mercyful Fate on their Garage Inc. album and invited the band to reform for their 30th anniversary celebrations at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 2011.

As well as his distinctive image, the Danish singer has an equally recognisable voice. He can growl and gnash like a fiend from the bowels of Hell, but it’s the extraordinary falsetto that really sets him apart from other metal vocalists. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, but it is both remarkable and peerless in the metal sphere. Even Rob Halford’s most stratospheric screams fail to reach quite the same heights.

When Mercyful Fate disbanded due to time-honoured ‘musical differences’, King Diamond put together a new band bearing his own name and explored ever-more grandiose and theatrical avenues. 1987’s second album Abigail was a concept record filled with ghosts and dark family secrets, which still stands as an all-time classic today. In the ‘90s, Mercyful Fate were brought back from the dead and the two outfits ran concurrently for a while, but it was the eponymous King Diamond that made it into the new millennium.

It could all have ended back in 2010, however. The former heavy smoker suffered a series of heart attacks and underwent a triple heart bypass that, he says, nearly killed him. The recovery process also derailed King Diamond the band, but when they did return to live action it was more spectacular than ever, as new DVD Songs For The Dead Live emphatically proves. A new, multipart studio album is also in the pipeline, which will be King Diamond’s first since 2007. There is, it seems, still plenty of life in the old Devil yet…

When did you first discover that you had a talent for singing?
“I played guitar in a band called Brainstorm and when they broke up I saw an ad in a grocery store for another band looking for a vocalist. I tried to sneak in as a singer-guitarist, but they didn’t need another guitarist. That was the start of Black Rose. One night a fan came up and said, ‘Hey man, you should really use your falsetto more, it sounds pretty good.’ I had no idea what he meant so I asked him to clarify and he said, ‘Oh, it’s when you hit the high notes.’ Because of that guy I actually started working on it. I got more of an idea of the technique of singing, how you control the air flow and all of that.”

Where did the idea for the make-up come from?
“It started with Peter Gabriel. I’d seen photos of Alice Cooper, but it was when I saw Genesis live that I thought, ‘If I do something, I have to have a show to go with the music.’ I saw Alice the next year, in 1975, and that blew my mind.”

Didn’t KISS once threaten to sue you over it?
“They said, ‘Your make-up is getting too close, you know,’ which I never thought it was. I don’t think they were ever threatened by anything we did. I think it was a business move because they could get some good publicity out of saying, ‘Hey, this is copyrighted.’ And it was, I saw the patents, but I still didn’t think what I was doing looked anything like what they were doing. Gene Simmons is very smart when it comes to business, and I think it was a business decision.”

Did Mercyful Fate deliberately resort to shock tactics? On 1982’s self-titled debut EP there’s a splendidly offensive song called Nuns Have No Fun…
“Well, we wanted to shock a priest in Denmark because he had gone after us. He thought we were corrupting the youth in Denmark, so he tried to have us banned from the radio. One station invited us in for a debate and we talked about religion. It’s hard for a priest to talk about religion when you bring up things like the Inquisition. He was up in arms about the cover with the burning nun and we were like, ‘It’s a drawing, man. The church did this for real.’ He got up and left.”

Where did you get the Melissa skull that you used as an early stage prop?
“The skull was something I got from my brother and also the crossbones on the microphone stand. The dad of one of his classmates was a doctor who was teaching medical students with donated cadavers. When they were done they would strip away the skin and put all the bone parts in barrels. I ended up with the leg bones and the skull, but she ended up being stolen at a show.”

When did you first meet Metallica?
“Our very first show in the U.S. was with Slayer, but Motörhead took us on our first tour in ’84. When we played San Francisco someone told us about this band called Metallica who had a Danish drummer. We’d never heard of them, but Lars’ [Ulrich] dad was a famous tennis player in Denmark, so we said, ‘Yeah, bring him in’, and they ended up onstage for the encore. They recorded Ride The Lightning in Copenhagen. We had rehearsal rooms in the same building and Lars and James [Hetfield] came to a party at my place as well.”

Was this in your infamously haunted apartment in Copenhagen?
“Yeah, it was really haunted. There was a girl there one time who freaked out because something locked her in the bathroom and she heard growling, then [former K! photographer] Ray Palmer experienced something similar. He went to the bathroom in the morning, then he came out and abruptly said, ‘I’ve got to leave now, I’m going to the airport.’ Another guy felt hands up and down his back, a girl felt her hair being pulled. There were little kid-sized fingerprints that appeared at the top of a mirror, and items would turn up in the wrong places. So much happened and sometimes it was annoying, sometimes it was a lot of fun.”

Was it ever scary?
“No, I don’t feel that these presences are threatening at all. It’s like I wrote in Welcome Princes Of Hell – which was spelled incorrectly on the album, by the way; it says ‘Welcome Princess Of Hell’! But anyway, there’s the line, ‘Welcome to my house princes of Hell’, and then there’s the line, ‘We raise our glasses’. That happened too one night when a few people were there. A glass rose about two feet in the air and then slowly went down. I have always felt those presences protected us in some way.”

A lot of bands use occult imagery and Satanism purely for entertainment or shock value. Is it something that goes deeper for you?
“Much, much deeper. There’s so much more in King Diamond and Mercyful Fate songs that are taken from my real experiences than you would believe. From living in that apartment I started reading books about the occult, but most of what I read was written from a very specific Christian viewpoint. So it was quite liberating to find a book by Anton LaVey called The Satanic Bible. Which is really not the right title for that book, because it’s a book of philosophy. King Diamond lyrics are full of that philosophical side and that’s largely from looking around, seeing what’s happening and how people interact.”

King Diamond’s 1987 album Abigail is widely considered a metal classic. When you were making it, were you aware that you were summoning something special?
“No, not at all. The first King Diamond album [1986’s Fatal Portrait] had some songs that were written for Mercyful Fate, but there was also a mini-story of five songs. That felt right and I wanted so badly to write a horror concept album. The music developed with it, and became more theatrical. It’s not like we were the first to touch on those themes. Black Sabbath had certainly delved into the dark side, but we were one of the first that were standing on the other side of the fence and looking into all these things from a different viewpoint.”

Didn’t the initial idea come to you in a dream?
“Yeah, I was dreaming that night and I woke up because of a thunderstorm. I was so scared that if I went back to sleep I would forget it all by the morning. So I got up against my will, made a cup of coffee and started getting it all down.”

A lot of ‘90s black metal bands were inspired by you. Did you feel that you had to distance yourself from the church burnings and violence that characterised that scene?
“Of course, but a lot of that stuff was blown out of proportion. It was a very rare thing that something like that happened. Most of the bands weren’t involved, but it became the focus. Not that I’m saying those guys who did that stuff were innocent. I’m not condoning killing, ever. I don’t even kill spiders, I usually capture them and throw them out.”

How did the heart surgery you underwent in 2010 change your life?
“It has changed the way I live completely. Smoking was certainly not acceptable, so I stopped there and then and I’ve not had a drag of a cigarette since that operation in September 2010. Now I eat healthily and exercise. It’s a big change, but it’s all for the better. I’m not complaining about any of it. I got a second chance in life and I’m very appreciative of it.”

You’d had a series of heart attacks prior to that. Did you come close to dying?
“I think I did, but [that was] during the operation. If there is a Hell and I go there, who cares? I’ve already faced it. I’ve faced the very worst there is to face. That was when I came around too early and I was on a breathing machine and it felt like it was slowly choking me to death. When you can’t breathe at your own pace and you’re aware of it… I panicked and tried to get that fucking tube out of my fucking throat. I had very little power because I’d just been opened up completely on the front, my whole chest was opened up with a saw. There was kind of this metal rod down the chest and I could feel it under the skin, to hold the whole rib cage together. So here I am trying to pull this tube out and I could have damaged all kinds of shit.”

That sounds terrifying…
“There’s no way I can describe to you what it felt like. I’ve had a herniated disc before, which hurt so much it made me want to jump out of a window. And the pain of this was 8,000 times worse than that. When I tried to take a breath it sucked my breath out (does an awful shrieking wheeze in demonstration). Then the doctors came in. I tried to wink at them because they said, ‘If you can signal, you can breathe yourself.’ I didn’t know if I could breathe myself, but
I wanted that tube out immediately. They tied my arms and legs to the bed. In my thoughts I begged them to kill me, I begged them, ‘Please end it, this is fucked enough.’ They gave me a shot after a while and I passed out again. When I came to I didn’t have the tube in my mouth. It was like insanity.”

Was the recovery period difficult?
“The main thing was that I had to learn how to walk again. Just getting up on crutches and staying there was hell. I came home 10 days after the operation and that was only because my wife showed that she could put her finger into the wound where I’d had the drainage pipe going up to my heart, which meant she could clean it out. The doctor said that I had to walk half a mile every day and I thought he was joking. My feet and legs were swollen so much that I couldn’t fit any shoes on, so I walked in socks and slippers in the snow. My whole body except for my hands and face looked like a washed-up corpse. It was brown, blue and yellow-ish. It was really weird. It took a while before it came back to normal. It was like someone had beat the shit out of every part of my body. They’re very scared of depression after major surgery, and some weird thoughts did come with it. For about two months I didn’t feel like I was here. It was weird, but I had to ask my wife if she could hear and see me.”

Did you fear you might never sing again?
“The first time I was at a soundcheck, about six months after the operation, the sound started rattling through the rod in my chest. I got out of there as fast as I could. I genuinely thought that I was going to die. Then another six months after that was when Metallica had their big anniversary thing and invited Mercyful Fate to come and play. We rehearsed on the afternoon of the show and that was a really big moment for me. I hadn’t tried so that was the first practice I had, right before the show. It worked out fine, but I had to breathe completely differently.”

You’ve been playing live for a while now, but it’s been more than a decade since the last King Diamond studio album…
“We really should have recorded something way before now, but the whole music industry has been changing and with streaming it’s been a difficult one to figure out for record labels and bands. We put every penny into designing the live shows and making the stage set. It was more logical to go out and play more shows, which is what we did, but I have to make new music. I love to create, and a new King Diamond album is definitely on the horizon.”

What can you tell us about the new King Diamond material?
“The next King Diamond album is going to be a two-parter. We’re having our show built for the next round of touring and it’s gonna be nuts. Some of it’s using my personal experiences that we’ve just talked about. The concept is to do with when they first discovered how they could help human beings through prolonging life with operations. Then there’s stuff about the crazy side of that with asylums and how they used to try helping people with difficulties by drilling holes through their heads! It’s going to be a lot of fun, and I can’t wait for people to experience it when it all comes together.”

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