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Saturday 6 June 2020

The Spotlight: Interview With Phil Denton Of Elixir By Paul Hutchings

Interview with Phil Denton Of Elixir

Elixir formed in London in 1983, and were one of the last bands to be labelled NWOBHM. The original line-up of Paul Taylor [vocals], Phil Denton [guitar], Norman Gordon [guitar], Nigel Dobbs [drums] and brother Kevin Dobbs [bass] released two albums before splitting in 1990. Their debut record, Son of Odin, is still heralded as one of the top power metal albums of all time and a listen to it will confirm its potency. The band reformed in 2001, releasing three more albums before splitting again in 2012. Their sixth album Voyage of the Eagle was released in March this year and is probably their best record since their debut. I was pleased to spend a pleasant 80 minutes on a Friday morning discussing all things Elixir with founding guitarist Phil.

Starting any interview, it’s always good to confirm who you are and who you write for. Chatting easily with Phil, we covered the Musipedia site and he mentioned that he’d come across our review of Midnight Messiah at Hard Rock Hell in 2014. “You gave us 8/10” he said. “We started the whole event off, as a new band”. I remembered talking to Paul Taylor on the stairs in his leathers after their set, Paul looking slightly warm after a great show. “It was a bit of a rush job” Phil recalled, “the headliners were taking forever, Lizzy Borden, I think, so we had no sound check and then had to get on stage without even tuning the guitars. We just got out and got on with it”.

Elixir were formed in 1983 and there is plenty of information on the web about how the band got together. Phil is a great guitar player, so I was interested to find out how he got into music in the first place. Having tried playing acoustic guitar with little success in junior school, at 14 Phil was given a copy of Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd. “It’s still my favourite album of all time” he explained. “I put it on, and it was so different to things I’d heard before. The seventies had loads of great bands in the charts, so I was aware of Top of the Pops. I loved Sweet, Mud, Slade and then Floyd was a totally different experience”. From there Phil got records by Black Sabbath, and then starting to expand his music tastes. Starting work at 16, Phil then found he had money and each month would add to his burgeoning record collection. “I used to commute to London from Luton where I am from, and there was a guy who I’d bumped into a couple of times at Hammersmith Odeon at gigs. We started swapping records and I remember listening to UFO’s Strangers in the Night and being knocked out by Michael Schenker’s playing. He is my favourite guitarist of all time”.

Although Schenker left UFO after that live album, Phil followed his career and was about 18 when The Michael Schenker Group came out. “1980 was such a great year for music. I saw Motörhead with Saxon supporting, so I bought Wheels Of Steel, Overkill, and being a Hawkwind fan I’d bought the first Motörhead album which I didn’t think was that good, but when Overkill came out, well, it’s still my favourite record by them”. Further big records included British Steel by Judas Priest, and suddenly, everything had started to get a bit faster.

In 1982 Phil got married and moved to London with his wife. A couple of years before he’d been working at Nat West Bank in the centre of London where one of his early jobs was to frank and take the post to the post office. One day he set the wrong date on the franking machine, resulting in two bags of post being rendered useless. Sent to the main sorting office at the top of Tottenham Court Road, Phil trudged past a music shop where a gleaming Fender Stratocaster copy was in the window. Having saved his money, Phil returned a few days later with £85 and said guitar was his! His dad was less than impressed but having begun to teach himself, Phil continued to progress. “It took over my life; it was an obsession. I was going to gigs and studying what the guitarist was doing.”

Having arrived in London, Phil decided to get a band together. His first band included the current bassist of Sacrilege. “We were young and learning”. Having seen an advert for a guitarist in Walthamstow, Phil decided that would be much easier as it was the area he lived in. Answering the advertisement, he met Nigel and Kevin Dobbs who were starting with Elixir. “We were all young. They didn’t write their own stuff, but we jammed, and it sounded awesome, just the music I wanted to play. They showed me the riffs and I began to play it [it later turned out to be The Idol]”. Not content with that, Phil had taken a folder full of songs he had written which impressed them. They joined forces and began rehearsing. Then Paul joined and Norman Gordon replaced the original guitarist. “That was pretty much the line-up from there on, apart from the odd hiccup”.

Phil cites Tony Iommi as his other major influence. Interestingly, Elixir have a dual guitar sound which echoes bands like Thin Lizzy more than Sabbath. “Paul and I write most of the material. We’d work through it and the others would add bits and make suggestions. Norman is the biggest Thin Lizzy fan; he loves Scott Gorham and he would suggest how we could add harmonies in the playing”. By the mid-80s the music had got a bit faster, with Nigel Dobbs adding a double bass drum kick, and faster drum rhythms. This dictated the type of song the band could play. “We were trying to write heavy songs like Sabbath, maybe faster like Priest and with Norm adding the harmonies in a bit, that was brought into our songs. After we did Son of Odin, which was reasonably popular at the time, the album has grown over the years and every time we make an album it is compared to Son of Odin. That gave us the blueprint which we developed; we don’t stray too much from that sound. That’s what our fans expect so we keep that although we obviously vary it according to how we feel”.

If you’ve not heard Voyage Of The Eagle, which was released in early March, it is in my opinion as good as Son of Odin. It’s been ten years since the band released All Hallows Eve so how did the latest album come about? Phil explained that in 2012, the band were doing well on their second run, and had completed the British Steel Festival in London when bassist Kevin Hobbs dropped the bomb that he didn’t want to continue. “He said he didn’t feel it anymore. Norman had met his original girlfriend from Belfast and decided to move back home.” Unsurprisingly this made his position a challenge. Meanwhile Paul and Phil had written another album, initially intended for Elixir, but with two members missing, Paul and Phil formed Midnight Messiah, which was a track on their last album. “It didn’t feel natural to carry on with new members. We’d formed the band together and been through so much, it didn’t feel right”.

Midnight Messiah released a couple of albums, both of which were decent, but the band were challenged by a changing line-up and members who played with other bands. “Elixir was always our band and priority. Midnight Messiah seemed more of a session musician line-up”.

So, to get back to Voyage Of The Eagle, Phil explained that he had written new material which he had considered as an EP with Sail On completing the four songs. Phil referred to Dead Man’s Gold on Son Of Odin for the lyrical inspiration and started to think that the recordings should be part of the Elixir heritage. Having emailed all the original members with the suggestion of getting the band back together to record the EP. The response was positive although Paul wanted to extend to an album. The sticking point was Kevin who wasn’t interested. “I started working with the other guys, basically side one of the album. I’d started laying down the click tracks, and guidelines and Paul had made some changes. We recorded the first few songs with guide guitars and bass, vocals were done, and Nigel had added his drums. We then felt we needed a dedicated bass player, but Kevin wasn’t interested. We did auditions and found Luke [Fabian]. Now, he’s playing with modern bands that we’d never heard of, but his style was like Kevin. He did a good job on the album, but I don’t think he’ll be doing anything else with us”.

The album flows nicely and the artwork by Duncan Storr fits the music perfectly. Being from a time when the album cover was vital, the band were on tenterhooks waiting for the finished product to be returned. When it arrived, it wasn’t quite what Phil was expecting but as he explained, it was too good to turn down. “Paul said, sod it, it’s a great piece of art, we’ll use it. We then needed to finish the final song to match the artwork which is how Evermore came about”.

As we discussed the old times when an album included the cover which you’d spend hours pouring over to absorb, Phil said “I feel sorry for the younger generation really. Times change, but you and me, we’d head to the record shop, look through all the sleeves before buying the record, taking it home and study the sleeve in detail. To me, what I learnt from Dark Side Of The Moon, an album isn’t just a collection of ten random songs, there is thought into the running order, how it links and since day one of Voyage, Paul and I always had it as a vinyl album in mind with Sail On closing side one and Onward Through The Storm kicking off side two”.

The reviews I have read of the album have been positive. Phil said that a couple of metal sites had been critical, suggesting that the band were still back in 1985, but as he points out, “that’s where we come from, and I wanted to keep the band’s sound”. For me, there’s a difference between a sound that is from 1985 and one that links the band’s roots but also has a fresh feel. Voyage, like Dark Revolution by Tokyo Blade [another fantastic new release] maintains the link with the past but there is little on the album which is dated. “That’s exactly what we have tried to do, so that’s good to hear” says Phil.

Elixir were one of the latter-day bands under the NWOBHM banner. What did Phil remember of the time? “When we formed Elixir, we didn’t realise we were part of the NWOBHM movement. We just got put in that bracket. We were more influenced by Sabbath, Rainbow and Priest, the pre-1980 bands rather than anything else. We wanted to be more like our heroes, Rainbow, Thin Lizzy, Sabbath. When we did our first single, Treachery in 1985, which was bashed out in about 15 minutes, because it has a two-part harmony on the guitars, people said it sounded like Iron Maiden. We needed every song because we didn’t have enough to fill our live set. I was against doing covers so everything we wrote got included in the setlist. After we’d recorded Treachery, people seemed to love it and we didn’t know why. It quickly became a live favourite. When we recorded it the reviews all said that it sounded like Maiden. I’d never been a huge Maiden fan. I’d seen them supporting Priest at the Rainbow before their first album came out and I thought they were okay, but I preferred Saxon! It was frustrating because we were accused of copying Maiden and I had never even considered them as an influence. I read an interview with Adrian Smith where he said that Michael Schenker was his favourite guitarist, so I think we are just coming from the same influences”. It’s well known that Steve Harris loves UFO, so with Maiden coming from a similar era, it’s logical that the band’s influences and sounds may overlap. “Once we’d brought Son Of Odin” out, which we put out ourselves, I thought that hopefully this would put the Iron Maiden link to bed”.

In February 1986 Elixir had a session on The Friday Rock Show with the legendary ‘TV on the Radio’, Tommy Vance. Unfortunately, the band never met Tommy. “The Friday Rock Show was essential listening” recalls Phil. “When we were first getting the band together, we talked about our ambitions. We wanted to make a record, play at Hammersmith Odeon, and get a session on the Friday Rock Show. We recorded Son Of Odin in January 1986, and we had versions on cassette, and our manager was trying to get us a deal. He went down to London and parked outside the BBC Radio House in Upper Regent Street until Tommy finished his show and then accosted him when he came out with the tape. Tommy kindly listened to the tape there and then and said that he liked it and that he would like us to do a session. A few weeks later we went in to record the session, so we worked with Tony Wilson although we didn’t get to meet Tommy as he was a few miles away at Broadcasting House. I went back to mix the tracks with Tony which was a great experience”.

When the band reformed in 2001, they were invited to play at several European festivals. The European metal scene seems to have a thirst for UK old school metal. Phil explained, “It was like going back in time. In the 1980s, in Walthamstow, there was the Royal Standard, which had a live band every Friday night and the Neal Kaye rock disco on the Saturday night. We used to harass the doorman to get gigs. Our first gig was at the Standard supporting Tokyo Blade. We played the UK, and we played in Bogiez in Cardiff twice. We’d play all these venues which had dedicated nights of music. By the time we reformed in the 2000’s, many of these venues were no longer there and it wasn’t the same. In 2001 a Greek guy contacted me and asked if they could release Son of Odin on their label in Greece. I was a bit shocked when he told me it was a cult album in Greece but that no one could get it. We agreed to the release and they sold all 1000 copies in a month. So, he came back to me and asked if we’d reform and headline a festival in Athens. The band agreed. We even got a feature on Anglia TV about the story! Anyway, we get to the festival, and it’s running on Greek time, about five hours behind, and we ended up going on at 1am and the band before us called Sacred Steel had got a great reception. So, we went out at 1am and the place was packed and there was huge roar and the crowd were chanting along with the riffs”.

Elixir were then approached by Oliver from the German festival Keep It True and played the second festival in 2004. It snowballed and they continued to play festivals all over Europe. Of course, budget airline carriers were in full swing then so the band could fly over on a weekend and then get back for work on the Monday morning! “It was a bit like going back in time” adds Phil. “You get to Germany or Holland and all the fans have denim waistcoats, covered in patches, like it was in the UK in the 1980s. There is a lot of respect for bands from our era. Our audiences lie there these days. Sadly, a lot of the UK venues are no longer here”.

Elixir were on the bill for the 2020 edition of Keep It True which has now been pushed back to 2021. This line-up included a headline set from Cirith Ungol. When the postponement came, was it easy to confirm for the rescheduled date? “It was tricky” explains Phil. “We’d just started Voyage and I got contacted by Andy Holloway who was doing Burrfest in London in memory of Clive Burr [former Maiden drummer who also drummed on Elixir’s second album, Sovereign Remedy]. Apparently, the fans at the previous year’s event had included us in band’s that they wanted to see. He asked if we would reform to play it. I explained that the timing was good as we were recording but that Kevin was the sticking point. I contacted Kevin and persuaded him to join us for this one-off gig. We played that on 7th March, just before the lockdown. Of course, as soon as it was announced we were playing Burrfest we got contacted by Oliver from Keep It True and invited us to play there this year. Kevin said no to it, but the rest of us agreed to do it”.

Rehearsals with Luke didn’t go particularly well, so when the postponement came, the band breathed a sigh of relief as it gave them space to find a new bassist. Keep It True was originally rescheduled for August which the band couldn’t do due to work commitments. Luckily, the festival is now taking place in April 2021 with Elixir still on the bill. It looks a killer line-up and one I’m very interested to get to next year.

Speaking to Phil about the Keep It True line-up, it was clear how much of a fan he is of bands from the era when he was growing up. The inclusion of Geoff Tate on the bill clearly is a big thing. “I loved early Queensryche so having Geoff Tate on the bill is a real bonus”.

Inevitably, the lockdown came back to the topic of conversation. Phil seems to have been enjoying it. Having to shield due to health, he’s taken the time to catch up on music including a revisit to Operation Mindcrime recently. Having commuted to London for years, he now has a more relaxed approach to life, running the local recycling shop at the civic recycling centre. “I’ve been paid, so I’ve done a few jobs, painted everything, played the guitar and listened to music. And the weather helps!”

Like many musicians, Phil focuses his attention on older bands. “I get Classic Rock magazine, but if you look at my vinyl collection, underneath Voyage is Made In Japan, Strangers In The Night, all Led Zeppelin and old Priest. I tend to play the old favourites. I did discover Ghost a few years ago and bought their first three albums. I went to Kentish Town to see them a few years ago and they were brilliant. I also got into the Struts which I really like. They remind me of Queen in the mid-70s. I don’t get inspired by a lot of new stuff unfortunately”.

Now that Elixir are back together again, the lure of live music has returned but the band will only be able to play the occasional gig. “The way the band is distributed, it’s difficult to just play a gig as there is a lot of planning involved. We are exploring social media as a means of performing some of the tracks from Voyage in a different way”.

It was a real honour to chat to Phil. Voyage Of The Eagle is an excellent release, well worth a listen.

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