Kreator's Mille Petrozza: "Metal was always about human rights, and the common sense of not tolerating stupidity and government bullsh*t"

Kreator mainman Mille Petrozza reflects on four decades of thrashing, growing up in a divided Germany, and the relationship between heavy metal and politics…

Kreator's Mille Petrozza: "Metal was always about human rights, and the common sense of not tolerating stupidity and government bullsh*t"
Nick Ruskell
Kreator archive

Mille Petrozza was literally still a schoolboy when he made his first album. Having formed Kreator at age 14 in Essen, Germany under the name Metal Militia, by March 1985 the young guitarist found himself at 17, in a recording studio in Berlin, with a record contract and just enough material to make his band’s debut album, Endless Pain.

He also had, he admits today, very little idea what he was doing. But that didn’t matter. Charged with the chaotic energy of youth, and realising they had an opportunity not afforded to many bands in their homeland of any age – there was, he says, not really a scene to speak of in the very early days – Kreator’s debut set them up as a genuinely ferocious new benchmark for thrash, itself outstripped by its quick follow-up, the essential Pleasure To Kill from 1986. Along with Sodom, Destruction and Tankard, Mille’s band were part of Germany’s answer to American thrash’s ‘Big Four’ of Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer; a harder, faster, more aggressive version of their U.S. counterparts, with Mille’s harsh vocal bark a particularly effective and distinctive feature. Within this circle, Kreator were not only the biggest, but also the best, with albums like 1989’s Extreme Aggression and the unimpeachable Coma Of Souls from 1990 pushing the skill and aggro of the music into a razor-sharp attack that remains deadly today. Their influence, meanwhile, has been enormous on thrash, and crucial to the black metal and death metal scenes that would follow.

They matched this with a feeling that they were always on the right side of things. Though not expressly political, Mille has nevertheless been outspoken on kicking racism out of the metal scene, while his lyrical focus has often taken in themes of injustice, human rights, and observing the increasing madness of the world.

During lockdown, in the absence of being able to hit the road with Lamb Of God through Europe and the UK as intended, he’s been busy working on what will become Kreator’s 15th album, the follow up to 2017’s superb Gods Of Violence. Before that, however, they release Under The Guillotine, a vinyl boxset taking in their first six albums, a live DVD and massive hardback book in a fittingly guillotine-shaped box. As he looks back, although it’s been a very, very long shift at the thrash factory, Mille also admits that, “I still feel like that same teenager when we play…”

How did you get into music?
“I grew up in the ’70s, so I think it was basically the music that was around the house. My father was a big fan of Italian opera and Italian music in general. We would have these shows in Germany, TV shows like Top Of The Pops, where you would have bands coming on, so I would listen to everything that was on TV. I got into the disco stuff that was around at the time like The Village People, Rod Stewart, the Bee Gees, stuff like that. And soon after that I discovered the heavy side of music through KISS. When you’re a kid I guess that gets you into it, because I was a big fan of comic books and KISS looked like they came straight out of a comic book.”

What made you want to pick up a guitar?
“Basically the fact that there was this guitar store that had a sale. I bought a guitar for 200 Deutschmarks, which was maybe £70. Five or six of my friends also bought the same guitar, so we started the band. Once I got into KISS and hard rock and the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, we wanted to start our own band. We started with five guitarists! That was because all my friends had the same cheap guitar. And every rehearsal there would be one less person showing up – in the end there were three of us left. We kept rehearsing every week, two or three times, and when somewhere wouldn’t let us rehearse, we would move around – we started in the basement of our then-bass player’s house, and then we moved into a school. In the beginning we would play cover tunes of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, KISS, and we went from there. Never stopped!”

What was it like growing up as a young metal fan in Germany in the early ’80s?
“I saw my first concert when I was 12 – KISS with Iron Maiden opening up. The scene was kind of… not really there yet. There were these pop magazines where you could read about KISS and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and there would be one photo with the article and you’d be like, ‘Oh man, this is so mysterious, I wanna see these bands live.’ There was a big myth around all these bands because of that. But we were fortunate because in Essen there was the Grugahalle, which is a famous place where The Beatles had played their first show in Germany, and a lot of the old school rock bands from the ’70s would always play there. So we would go to see, like, Whitesnake, at least five times, because they would always play. I saw Judas Priest on the Point Of Entry tour, with Accept opening. There was one show that was very important. It was Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Ozzy Osbourne, Michael Schenker, everyone played it. ’83 or ’84. It was like a festival in an arena with two stages. Iron Maiden opened on one stage, then at the other stage Scorpions would play.

“I would say from ’82 to ‘85 that was a very essential time – when the first Metallica record came out, that’s when the scene was exploding, because a lot of people came out of the woodwork like, ‘Yeah, I’m a metal fan.’ In Germany, we had these metal clubs [like gangs] that were from the small towns, they would wear the denim vests and fan club stuff, so this is how it worked and how it was back then. We would meet up with these people, and then tape trading started. It was grassroots, I would say. There weren’t really any magazines. There was one from Holland called Aardshock, and of course Kerrang! was around back then. German and Dutch as languages are not so far apart, so we would get Aardshock and try to figure out what they were talking about.”

What was your own first show like?
“We were teenagers. We were like 14. We didn’t even have a name yet. We were just part of this youth culture centre where we would rehearse, and they said, ‘You have to play a show.’ So we came up with this setlist which contained Twisted Sister songs, Judas Priest songs, some originals, and we would play. It was very unprofessional, but it worked! And then we played another show, and another, and that’s when we got signed and recorded the first album. When we recorded the first album we’d played three, maybe four shows.”

How did it feel to be sent to the studio, having not done very much as a band?
“Our then so-called management who was basically a friend, he sent a tape to Noise Records and SPV, and Noise signed us. And when I got the message I went, ‘We are not ready yet.’ That was my first feeling! I thought, ‘We are not professional – how can we go into a studio and record an album?’ But then everyone was so enthusiastic that I went, ‘You know what? Let’s try it.’ You can hear that on Endless Pain – you can hear the sloppiness, which was based on the fact that we hadn’t played much live. So we found ourselves in 1985, still very young, having done four shows, going into a professional recording studio to do an album, and the guy at the studio was making fun of us (laughs). He wasn’t a huge help. The only thing he did was he organised a guitar. The guitar I played back then was always out of tune, so he contacted some professional rock guy from Berlin who brought his guitar in so I could record the album in tune!”

What were your hopes and dreams?
“Like you say, a dream. All of us were still at school when we went to Berlin for the first time. We had to ask my cousin to drive us there because none of us had a driver’s license, so we were like, ‘This is exciting, but where does it lead to?’ There was no such thing as a career plan or organised thing like, ‘This is what we’re gonna do next, and there’s a tour.’ Nothing like that. The only thing that happened after we recorded the album was a call from the record company going, ‘Okay, you’re gonna do another album.’”

Even by thrash’s standards, you were really aggressive, even more so than Slayer. Where did that come from?

“No idea. I think it was just what came out of us at the time. As I say, we were very young, and I guess we had this energy in us that was uncontrollable. Even in the studio, I would go into the vocal booth and just scream without thinking about it. Everything you hear on the first album is pure teenage euphoria – 'Man, this is so great! We’re in Berlin, recording an album! Wow!’ We were fans of Destruction and Helloween and Running Wild, and they were in the studio just before we were, so we felt like we were part of this. So the aggression probably came from the adrenaline we felt, and that’s something I try to keep today as well.”

Was there a point where you realised this thing could be your life?
“That was when I was at school. I went to a business school in Germany and there was this plan, all of a sudden. We had this manager who was working for Noise, and he wanted to start a management company, and things got more organised. We got an invitation from our favourite band at the time, Voivod. They wanted us to open up their U.S. tour and we were like, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe this is happening.’ So the choice had to be made, for me. I said to my teacher, ‘I’m gonna go on tour,’ and he said, ‘You won’t make your exams if you go on this tour.’ So I quit school and did the tour, and from that point onward, I’ve never done anything serious, so to speak. It became my job very naturally. But it’s not a job; it’s a passion. I was very lucky that I had the opportunity to do this.”

What was the Voivod tour like?
“It was all very DIY. Sometimes we would sleep in people’s houses. If not, we’d go to a Motel 6 and have a room for two, and we would sleep four people in there. Everyone in the band but me was a smoker, and every morning would start smoking, even in the van. That was the only negative thing! But for us, being from Essen in Germany, it was a huge dream to ever play the U.S., it seemed unreal. We played anything from pizza places to arenas on that tour, it was really strange. Of course, the arenas weren’t packed, but that’s just how it worked back then. I remember sometimes the turnouts were really bad, only like 70 people would turn up some nights, and Voivod would be like, ‘Ah man, only 70?!’ but I didn’t even think about that, I was just excited to be playing in the U.S. in front of 70 people.”

Did growing up in Germany in the ’70s and ’80s when it was still divided into East and West have an effect on the way you look at the world?
“That’s a good question. I have relatives who lived in the Eastern part, and when we recorded the first couple of albums we had to go through the East. There was a way that when you would go through by car, you’d go through a border, with very strict controls and customs, and you would go across and it felt like the whole world became darker. So, yeah, I guess subconsciously there was an influence. We were very aware of why Germany was divided, and we were very aware of the situation – it was weird, I can’t think of many countries where there’s a wall dividing it. We knew it was special, we knew it was wrong. And we were part of history when the wall came down and things changed, and we got to experience East German bands for the first time, like Rammstein, who we wouldn’t have heard about if the wall hadn’t come down. So there was definitely a vibe in the ’80s that came from being divided and having the wall, even though I didn’t really think about it at the time. Obviously, we knew it wasn’t normal, but it’s how things were, and then when it came down, it wasn’t normal anymore. We lived through some historical times there.”

You’ve often spoken onstage about racism. At Wacken in 2008 you were saying how you were concerned that “there are people in metal who think it’s cool to be racist”. Other than Napalm Death, there weren't any other metal bands at the time really talking like that at shows. Where does that importance come in for you?
“It’s just something that I say sometimes when I feel like saying it. I sometimes think it should be common sense and you shouldn’t have to say it. I feel it’s important, though, maybe if I hear something about some stupid racist action happening in the day. I think the metal scene, from what I understood when I started this whole thing, was part of this worldwide community with people coming from everywhere – people who were so different and from so many different backgrounds. We were like a community who supported each other, and all of a sudden there was a time when part of the scene thought it was cool to discriminate against people, use the n-word or whatever, or just coming up with this white supremacy thing. I just thought, ‘No, this is not how I understand metal.’ When I say these things onstage, I just want to make clear what it is that Kreator stands for. We’re coming from a scene that was very political. Even Metallica was political at one time. It was always about human rights, and the common sense of not tolerating stupidity and government bullshit. I think that’s where it comes from. I know it sometimes pisses people off because they get distracted from their entertainment, but I sometimes think it’s necessary.”

Would you say that you’re a political writer?
“It depends on how you define political. To me it feels like I’m writing on a human level. I’m writing about injustice. If writing about injustice makes me political… I don’t support any party, right wing, left wing, whatever, to me it’s all just common sense. I’m like, ‘Okay when you’re a metalhead you get labelled as a dirty weirdo who’s just living in the basement and goes to concerts and listens to loud music, you’re always this weirdo.’ So I think if it’s political to talk about that in my lyrics, that I don’t feel that it’s right that you should judge people by their looks or beliefs or whatever, that’s political, I guess.”

‘Social’ might be a better word, then…

“Absolutely. That’s a nice term. To me a political is, like, Dead Kennedys, and the early hardcore stuff. Those were political bands. I think Kreator have always been on the edge of talking about some political issues, but also escapism, talking about fantasy worlds and horror and stuff. I wouldn’t call us a political band myself, though. There are bands who are way more political than us. I’m writing on more of a human level.”

How did it feel putting the boxset together and having a look back through memories?
“It’s really cool. They found some photos for it that I’ve never seen, or if I did, I’d forgotten about. We also put together a mini documentary which I really enjoyed, and there are so many goodies on it that I’d totally forgotten about. There’s a show on there from 1990, the tour with Death in Germany, with all the Coma Of Souls songs that we haven’t played in a while. There’s a lot of collector’s items in there. I sometimes think that a boxset is for collectors, and for people who might not have the old records because the eBay price for them is beyond acceptable. So I’m happy you can get it all for a cool price!”

Are you surprised that it’s lasted as long as it has, almost 40 years?
“Now we are talking about the past I see the whole picture, but I usually focus on the next album. I finish one, then tour, and then think of how to express myself musically. Thirty-five years later, I’m still doing it. I never look at it as a career or anything. Nowadays I am more organised, I do make strategic steps about how we’re going to tour each album and all that sort of stuff, but it was all step by step when we started. But yeah, it’s been a long time when you stop and look at it – that’s how quick your life passes you by!”

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