With all the talk in the last few years of the ‘Big 4’ of thrash metal and their all-conquering tour, it might be easy to forget where it all began. The U.S. heavyweights of the genre have reigned almost uninterrupted for nearly 30 years. But it might not have been that way had it not been for a metal sub-genre created in the UK.
British director Josh Callis-Smith has spent the last few years speaking to everyone involved in the UK thrash scene, from pivotal musicians to young upstarts, collating them for his documentary, A History Of A Time To Come – The Story Of UK Thrash. As a member of the band Pitiful Reign at the turn of the century, he was perfectly placed for the ‘second wave’ of British thrash that we are seeing now.
I caught up with Josh to ask him about his film, the current UK thrash scene, and how British band Venom was pivotal to the entire genre.
Geeks of Doom: What was it about UK thrash that drew you to make a film about it?
Josh Callis-Smith: It’s interesting really because I had a friend that used to roadie for Re-Animator and I remember when I first started getting into metal I went round [to his house] and I was like, Check this out – [Metallica album] Master of Puppets! He was like, You like Master of Puppets? Check this out! and he gave me Deny Reality [EP] by Re-Animator and Moshkinstein by Acid Reign. That got me interested in UK thrash bands; that’s where it came from. [Some time later] I was trying to research these bands and not being able to find much about them made me think, Why don’t I just go out and talk to them, actually find out what happened? That was the idea where the film came from.
Geeks of Doom: Was there a moment when you thought, I want to make a film of this, to show people that there are some good bands out there you’ve probably not heard of?
Josh Callis-Smith: Yeah. It’s weird really, I was at a point when I was trying to research some of the bands, I was trying to basically learn more about Re-Animator, bands from the first wave of the UK thrash scene and I was like if I’m trying to find out this information surely there’s other people trying to find out about these bands as well. As a career I’m a film editor so I have a skill; the idea was to go and interview these bands and find out their stories and make a film about that. So I don’t know if there was a specific moment when I was like, Hey I’m gonna do this! It was something I’d been thinking about for a couple of years but it wasn’t until probably a year and a half ago that I decided to do something about it.
Geeks of Doom: So did you think, Hang on, this could really work?
Josh Callis-Smith: I didn’t expect it to take off, I thought this could be something I could pursue and I sent a couple of emails out and before I knew it quite a lot of people got back in touch with me and were like, Hey this is a great idea, have you contacted so-and-so or spoke to so-and-so? So I gradually started emailing more people and talking to more people about it until it seemed like there might be enough people interested and I was like, Let’s go! Let’s just shoot it and just see what happens. It’s just grown from there; it feels like it’s grown quite organically. The fan base and the interest of people that are into that sort of music have been really supportive and that’s what pushed us.
Geeks of Doom: When you were asking for stories and memorabilia from bands and members of the public, did you have a good response to that?
Josh Callis-Smith: Yeah, we had a lot of people get in touch, especially with photos. Collecting stuff like ticket stubs it’s just cool stuff to look at and with the website we’ve just updated it all and we’re putting all that information on there like the ticket stubs that people sent through and flyers and we just keep adding to it. That sort of stuff that may not feature in the documentary [but] having a website where people can go to look at it, it’s just cool I think, it’s just nice stuff to look at and I find it interesting. It’s good that in a way the documentary’s giving access for people to be able to share those kind of memories.
Geeks of Doom: As well as all the bands you’ve interviewed, you’ve spoken to some of the masters of knowledge on the subject in Malcolm Dome and Joel McIver especially. What sort of perspective did they bring to it?
Josh Callis-Smith: We originally wanted speak to some guys that have been involved in the press just to kind of get an outside perspective, because when you are interviewing bands generally they’ll talk about their band and what happened within their band and that’s really interesting but we really wanted that outside perspective, the people that will talk about the scene as a whole not as individual bands. So it’s interesting to get their opinions and their knowledge about what happened especially during the first wave as I wasn’t even old enough to be going to shows back then!
Geeks of Doom: People like Joel McIver, who’s written books on some of the biggest thrash bands, were they already aware of the bands and the scene you were trying to support to portray?
Josh Callis-Smith: Yeah, I mean Joel McIver’s obviously been researching about metal and been writing about it for years and he’s got a lot of books under his belt. Malcolm Dome’s been there right from the start – all the bands that were featured in the documentary he had listened to or heard of or may have interviewed in the past, so he was really aware of the scene and what was happening in the UK and how that compared to what was happening abroad, so it was really good to get that.
Geeks of Doom: Yeah, you can’t make a metal documentary and not speak to Malcolm Dome!
Josh Callis-Smith: [Laughs] Nah, he’s a crucial element! There were other journalists that we wanted to speak to as well like Bernard Doe from Metal Forces and Ian Glasper but we ran out of time…there does come a point when you think, I’ve got 30/40 hours of interview here!
Geeks of Doom: Was that the same for bands? Were there bands that you wanted to interview but missed out on?
Josh Callis-Smith: Yeah, I really wanted to interview Sacrilege but the guy we were talking to was in Cornwall and we were in Leeds and we’d try and organise something so we could go to Bristol and interview Hellbastard and then down to Cornwall, but when things like that just don’t fall into plan and travelling down to Cornwall just for the day and back for 20 minute interviews just becomes not the easiest task in the world. I mean there’s a lot of bands I’d have loved to have spoken to like Amnesia or Blood Money. But Gregg Moffitt who is writing the book to coincide with the film [One Foot In The Gravy – The Story Of UK Thrash] has been speaking to a lot of those guys and their perspectives are still going to be brought across even though they aren’t in the film.
Geeks of Doom: How did the book with Greg come about?
Josh Callis-Smith: It was through the internet. We’d announced the film and Greg had posted on our Facebook wall that this was an idea he’d been thinking about in the past, a book version. So I got in touch with him and we met up and had a drink and it actually turned out that he was literally within a mile of where I live. So it’s worked out really well, we’re constantly in touch and talking about what’s happened and there’s a really good vibe around it. There’s only so much we can cover in the film and we’d love to go into the tiniest detail but unless we made the film 5 hours long that’s not really possible, while a book will compliment the film really well and you can go into all that minute detail and can talk about bands we haven’t managed to cover in the film, so I think it’s going to work really well.
Geeks of Doom: Did the title of the film come from the Sabbat album [of the same name – not to be confused with the Japanese band Sabbat]?
Josh Callis-Smith: Yeah it did. The idea behind the title was basically we wanted something that was related to the UK thrash scene, so we were looking through different song titles and albums and History Of A Time To Come just stood out. It’s one of the greatest UK thrash releases, it’s a personal favourite and we felt like the title reflected what had happened. It’s almost like time repeating itself from the first run of UK thrash and now we’re in the second wave of UK thrash…it just felt right.
Geeks of Doom: So would you say we are in the second wave now?
Josh Callis-Smith: Yeah, I’d say that. I mean bands like Evile and Gamma Bomb, Mutant. [Within] UK thrash at the moment there’s a lot of bands coming out.
Geeks of Doom: Do you think there’s a reason why bands like Evile and Savage Messiah are suddenly seeing a resurgence in popularity when there was a time when they wouldn’t have been as popular?
Josh Callis-Smith: I think it’s just things go around in circles. I remember being around Evile and Savage Messiah – when they were known as Headless Cross – back in 2003/2004 and literally no one being at those shows and the bands were continually playing and plugging it until basically an audience started to emerge. I think people were just bored with the metal that was out in the UK at the time. A lot of Pantera-influenced stuff or screaming and image-based [bands] and the idea of thrash to just get back on the stage in a pair of jeans and just playing fast, heavy metal just really appealed to people. I think that’s where we recaptured why people originally got into thrash in the ‘80s, and I think also there’s a lot of the bands out now and a lot of the kids that are going to the shows weren’t around for thrash the first time, so it’s nice that they get a chance to witness that.
Geeks of Doom: During the first wave, that was around the time that the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) bands exploded and became popular all over the world. How much of an impact do you think that had on the thrash bands?
Josh Callis-Smith: I think if you look at thrash, that kind of formed in the UK. It’s a mixture of NWOBHM and the punk that was around at the time and I’d say Venom really utilized that and I’d say Venom probably created the thrash sound. Whether you would say [it is] the thrash that we recognize now it’s hard to say but I definitely say bands from that ilk really inspired the American thrash bands that effectively polished the sound that we know now.
Geeks of Doom: Exactly: Venom brought about that fast and heavy sound.
Josh Callis-Smith: Yeah, I mean I can’t say that for myself because I wasn’t there when [Venom’s 1981 debut album] Welcome To Hell came out but from speaking to people they say Motorhead was pretty much the heaviest thing [around] and then Venom came out and it was just like, What the fuck is this?! It was faster and louder and heavier than anything else. Obviously Metallica and especially Slayer were massively influenced by that. You take the punk bands they listened to at the time and the NWOBHM bands and it’s like we created that genre and then the Americans took it and perfected it.
Geeks of Doom: I was reading an online fanzine that said Xentrix are the best British thrash band ever. Is there one band that stands out for you?
Josh Callis-Smith: There’s a few bands from the UK scene that I really like. Got to mention Toranaga, Sabbat definitely, Xentrix up there as well. But for me I think it’s Re-Animator. There’s something about Deny Reality as a record that I just absolutely love. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s one of the first thrash records I got or one of the first thrash bands I discovered but there’s just something about Re-Animator that I just really like.
Geeks of Doom: I think there’s a lot to be said about that – the first album or band you discover tends to be your favorite and stand the test of time.
Josh Callis-Smith: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to look at it. From speaking to some of the bands, within their fan bases back in the day people definitely had their favorites so you had people who liked Acid Reign who would be at all the Acid Reign shows or a guy who’s favorite was Xentrix they would still be at the Acid Reign shows and at all the Xentrix shows as well. Quite a few of the guys mentioned that there were definitely groups of fans who had their favorites.
Geeks of Doom: Do you think there’s a similar feel to the scene that’s happening now?
Josh Callis-Smith: I think to an extent, yeah. Like I said it’s hard for me to compare what was happening in ’86 to what’s happening now because I was born in ’87! I think there’s a good vibe in the UK at the moment around the thrash bands. There’s definitely bands that are at a significantly higher level than the majority of the scene so bands like Evile and Gamma Bomb and Savage Messiah are really now on the top of what’s happening in the UK thrash scene. Even bands like Onslaught; I think they’re better now than they’ve ever been.
Geeks of Doom: What occurred to me watching the trailer is how popular Lawnmower Deth were. Do you think a band like that, who are obviously very talented musicians with a great sense of humor, would do better in today’s climate where bands like Steel Panther and Tenacious D are doing well?
Josh Callis-Smith: I think Lawnmower Deth are just a great live band, that’s what they’re all about, from crowdsurfing to the sumo rabbit to the dead fly. I’ve seen them live at Bloodstock [Festival] and they’re just such an entertaining band and you can see why so many people like them at festivals. You know, a couple of beers and you can just go and be an idiot for 45 minutes and it’s great!
Geeks of Doom: You said you missed the first wave but was there much of a scene when you were getting out and going to gigs?
Josh Callis-Smith: It was just emerging. I used to sing in Pitiful Reign and I remember it was probably 2003 and we were trying to find shows [to play] and we couldn’t find any other thrash bands from the UK. The only ones we found were Evile and Headless Cross, so when we found each other we’d end up playing gigs up and down the country constantly together. Eventually we found bands like Gamma Bomb over in Ireland and Mutant down in London and the bands almost formed that scene, then more and more bands started to emerge. You’d end up playing more and more gigs with more and more thrash bands and you did get that scene feel. It wasn’t until 2006 that it really started to take off, especially when at the time we were doing the Thrash Til Death Tour which was us, Evile and Headless Cross and all three of us played Bloodstock and that’s where Evile picked up their deal with Earache [Records]. I think that’s really what kick-started it all.
Visit www.ahistoryofatimetocome.co.uk for more info.