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Cloven Hoof’s Lee Payne: “The truth is I stopped buying albums in 1982 after the “Opening Ritual” came out. I knew right back then that if I was to keep Cloven Hoof music true and uncontaminated by fashion trends...”

Interview with Lee Payne from Cloven Hoof
by Lior "Steinmetal" Stein at 20 May 2020, 11:21 PM

For most artists, it is tough to stay away from trends. No doubt about it that to remain isolated from the scene, to be sterile, is more than tough, it is nearly impossible, in particular in the age of the fast lane information. However, if passion has a way with it, and a true sense of purpose, even this impeccable task can be done. Lee Payne, founder of Cloven Hoof, has been isolating himself musically, not because of Covid-19, yet due to the fact that he wanted to be natural, to sound like his guiding brain waves, and not like others. With the release of “Age Of Steel”, Cloven Hoof made yet another important step with a profound result. Steinmetal had the honors to talk to Lee about the new album, virus matters, a little bit of Maiden, purpose and more…

Hello Lee, I am very proud to have you for this interview for Metal Temple online Magazine, how have you been doing sir, especially with the Covid-19 outbreak going on?

Hello my friend it is an honour and a privilege to talk to you and the wonderful Metal Temple Magazine. We are all safe and isolated here in England. My wife, step daughter and myself are fine, although I am driving them crazy writing songs all day, I do tend to play rather loud around the house (or just about anywhere lol).

Speaking of the Covid-19, how is the local Metal scene in the UK influenced by this outbreak? Are there answers to maintain some sort of strong vibe from the English Metal community to keep things a little alive while slowly a lockdown is taking place?

Yes, everyone is very supportive of each other in these troubled times. Metal is a mood, a movement and a state of mind. We are an unbreakable brotherhood and our music keeps us united around the world. It is important to stay positive and keep posting messages online to keep our spirits up until this virus is defeated. It seems like a siege mentality is needed in a war against an invisible killer. Lockdown is essential because too many precious lives have been lost. My heart goes out to the people who have lost loved ones, we will all mourn their loss.

The National Health Service are heroes who deserve our utmost respect, they are saving lives and putting themselves on the front line day after day. The doctors and nurses are showing out of this hell there are angels of mercy who risk all for the common good. They make me proud to be a human being.

Let’s try to brighten up things a bit. Cloven Hoof certainly came a long way in its long term career, and soon enough your new album, “Age Of Steel”, will see the light of day. After being a band of High Roller Records, you signed with Pure Steel Records, which is also a notable label group. What made you choose this course of action? Was it a natural step to do?

We were perfectly happy with High Roller Records; they are a fantastic label with wonderful true metal people. But Bob Mitchell approached me and said would it be possible for Cloven Hoof to sign with Pure Steel? I had known Bob for many years and he is a close personal friend. I said let me think about it. Then we headlined the Sword Brothers festival in Germany and the label boss Andreas came to see us. We really blew the place apart and Andreas was such a cool guy that we couldn’t refuse him. Because we were playing an extensive tour in the USA, Pure Steel were ideally placed to help push the band over there so it seemed a logical step to take. I still have a good relationship with High Roller, I love those guys too.

The way I see it, “Age Of Steel” is a sort of a story of survival in times of peril, a sort of an inevitable Sci-Fi driven apocalypse upon mankind, yet without any answer of how to come out of it. Other than the current Covid-19 events, what made you come up with such a concept, especially when it seems that there is no good end in sight?

Yes, you are totally correct, the “Age of Steel” is about trying to triumph over adversity. Mankind is facing extinction and the only thing it has is its courage and unbreakable spirit. It seems strangely apt in the current virus situation. Mankind has to hide away or be destroyed by killer cyborgs, waiting for the chance to regroup and fight back. The metaphor is striking. Will the human race emerge triumphant? They will have to see on the next album.

As mentioned, the role of the steel Dominator returns to the Cloven Hoof universe. While re-implementing the character into full form in the album, what influenced you to resurface it?

The fans did totally. Meeting the fans after the show and signing autographs is something we always do no matter how tired we are. They turn out to the show, they show you their love and loyalty and the very least you can do is thank them for their dedication. As well as posing for photographs you get to hear what they love about the band, and what they expect from you. It is the best market research in the world. So while most bands lock themselves away pretending they are big stars after a performance, we would rather hang out with the people who deserve our time and respect. Ask anyone who has come to a Cloven Hoof show… we always meet the fans afterwards always! So with so many fans saying how much they love the conceptual nature of the “Dominator” album, how could I refuse to bring it back for them. I wanted to please all our supporters and do an album packed with the things they love us for.

I must say that the artwork made is stunning. Who made this marvelous piece of art? I guess there is no stopping the Dominator looking like that right?

The Dominator is one evil looking muthaf***er! The cover is just how I always envisaged the character looking. Dimitar Nikolov the artist asked me to send as many examples as I could provide to show what I thought the Tyrant should look like. This I did, but I was blown away when he sent me the artwork. He had nailed it to perfection right down to the throne of human bones that portrayed conquest over the human race. It is indeed a stunning piece of art, very striking and emotive.

Though Cloven Hoof has been one of the landmarks of NWOBHM, the chief signatures, especially the stellar melodic feel, which I sensed across “Age Of Steel”, is of the Iron Maiden variety, in their 80s glory. In regards to musical development of the band, do you feel that Cloven Hoof became even more melodic than ever before? How do you see the band’s progress in comparison to your previous release?

Yes, in a melodic sense we have improved immeasurably, the prime reason for this is because we have more great singers in the band. Ash the guitar player has a fantastic voice so he harmonizes very well with George’s main vocal. I have improved through the years with my backing vocals too and it is strong to give added weight to choruses. We can cut it live vocally so we have this extra new dimension to the records. We love the fans singing along to the songs with anthem-like hooks at the concerts. It is like a cup final where everyone supports the same team.

The truth is I stopped buying albums in 1982 after the “Opening Ritual” came out. I knew right back then that if I was to keep Cloven Hoof music true and uncontaminated by fashion trends, I had to not listen to any other bands at all. The last albums I bought were “Screaming for vengeance” (even though Rob Halford gave me a signed copy when he was at a local radio station) and Rush’s “Signals”. I only wrote what was in my head and played from the heart true to the original spirit of true metal. This is why Cloven Hoof have never lost their musical integrity or strayed away from the path of classic metal. We never followed fashion trends whatsoever and we wrote for ourselves first, the fans second and the critics and internet trolls not at all.

Being compared with Iron Maiden is a huge compliment and I truly admire their success and achievements. They are awesome without a doubt. I have their first two albums with Dianno and think they are incredible. When Bruce joined and my friend gave me the “Number of the beast” album I was even more impressed but I thought they are very close to the direction that I want Cloven Hoof to go in, so I consciously stopped listening to them. This is no disrespect at all, I just felt these guys are too good so better not listen to them in case I lost heart.

I had been aware of the band before they even made their first album because they were on a bill with several bands touring around the country. They were a four piece back then and my old school mate said there is a bass player who plays a kind of lead bass style like yours. I was eager to see if that was right so I followed their early progress with interest. I know what he means because Steve Harris and I compose in a similar bass guitar led way. We both take a melody line then sometimes provide a gallop type of rhythm behind it. The bass guitar is not totally percussive but it provides melodic twists and turns. Steve made the big time with this approach but I also did this from day one back in 1978 /79. I was mainly influenced by Chris Squire / Yes, Geddy Lee / Rush and Geezer Butler / Black Sabbath.

We have similar influences I suspect such as UFO, Wishbone Ash, Thin Lizzy, Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, Rainbow, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest. So that is probably why we have a similar sound. I love American Marvel comic books, Steve likes the old English Victor, Valliant and Lion type of magazines I think. With these points of reference, we are going down a similar furrow but I don’t think that is a bad thing. As long as our work is excellent then the fans have two great bands to like. There is room at the top of the mountain for many metal bands. Maiden are already there so best wishes to them. I met Dave Murray once and he is the nicest guy I ever met. So down to earth and unaffected just my type of person, and what a great player!

It gets on my nerves when some people hear stuff without a musician's ears and say hey you copied this and you ripped off that. It is pure bullshit. When “Brave New World” came out someone phoned me and said “Hey Maiden ripped off your “Gates of Gehenna” riff on a certain track. I replied NO THEY DIDN’T! They probably came up with it jamming away and they probably never heard of our song”. This happens all the time there are only 12 notes on a piano and we all use them. In metal certain rhythms sound great and we all improvise around these so it is perfectly logical that now and again some tracks sound similar to others. In fact, every song in existence sounds similar to another no matter what it is. That is a fact! Take a simple chord progression, change the melody line and you can sing a multitude of hit classic songs all with the same chords behind. All musicians know this but tone deaf internet trolls don’t.

I never listen to anyone so if we sound like Maiden, Priest whoever then it is by pure coincidence. Any bloody fool can compare this track with that and say this is like such and such but why bother? It boils down to, is the track good or not? If so shut the fuck up and enjoy it you boring little twat! No one is ripping off anyone; it would be pointless.

A first major element on “Age Of Steel” was the vocal deliverance of Geroge Call, which once again proved himself to be a formidable vocalist, along with establishing a Dickinsonian front for Cloven Hoof, making it even more Maiden than the actual Maiden are now. What is your appreciation of Call’s vocal and theatrical abilities within this album? How does Call’s vocals capture the vibe of the album?

George is an integral part of the Cloven Hoof sound. When I started the band I always wrote for a certain type of voice. I had a sound that I wanted that I was never able to capture until now. “Morning Star” was how I wanted Cloven Hoof to sound all along because George had THE perfect voice for me. Russ North the previous singer was a great, great vocalist back in the late 1980s but even he would tell you that George has the voice I always wanted. Wow more Maiden than maiden what a fantastic compliment… I will take it thank you.

A second aspect that makes “Age Of Steel” a tough cracker, is the lead guitar. Last year you brought in the young starlet Ash Baker, certainly sounds like a promise in your local scene. His guitar solos simply made an impact on this album. Where did you find this guy? What do you think about the lead section of the band with Baker in command?

Ash is an absolute star! He runs about like a maniac on stage and went down a storm on our second USA tour. Mr. Baker plays with passion and supreme confidence. His rhythm play is surgically tight. Ash is the ultimate team player, first to unload the van and help sell t-shirts and he goes out of his way to talk to fans and sign autographs.  In fact, anything and everything to help promote Cloven Hoof. His Dad is a fine musician and Ash has totally dedicated his life to music, his vocals are incredible and he plays killer drums too. In many ways he is the final piece of the jigsaw and will be in the band now until the very end.

I met up with Ash and ace drummer Mark Bristow through working on a solo prog rock album project. Over the years I had accumulated many song ideas that suited a prog rock band so I saved them till the opportunity presented itself. For the past few years I had been working in a studio back in England called The Vault Studios. Chris Dando and Ben Fitzharris are the owners of the place and they are fantastic producers and engineers. All the recent Cloven Hoof albums have been recorded there so I had a great working relationship with these guys.

Dando has a great voice and played keyboards like a genius so it got me thinking about the possibility of working on a prog rock band together. Ben played great guitar so we had the nucleus of a band there and then. A superb drummer called Mark Harris Bristow was recruited by Dando to join the band and he was a human metronome. Bristow was so good I also had to get him to join Cloven Hoof, now all we needed was a killer lead guitarist.

Ash Baker came highly recommended so we tried him out and he blew us all away with his soaring lead guitar and crunchy riffing style. Ash also impressed me so much that I knew he had to be in Cloven Hoof full time too. So there you have it… East of Lyra was born and Cloven Hoof had two fantastic new band members ready to go.

Throughout the last two decades, even though there has been a revival in Traditional Metal, in particular when NWOBHM bands have been slowly making a comeback, the market appears to be shifting into the technical side of music. One of the chief elements that has been overshadowed is the song against technical performance. What is your input on this matter? Is the soul of the song simply lost?

The song is the most important by far. Good, well sung hook lines and catchy chorus anthems are what the people want to latch onto, not stupid meaningless musical waffling. It is just the equivalent of guitar wanking, it means nothing in an emotional sense to anyone. These kinds of bands never last, I don’t care what tricky time signature it is or what angry bumble bee guitar warblings are going on. Some bands think they are great by churning out pointless exercises in self-indulgence. I need to be moved by the beauty of the lyrics and have an emotional connection to musical moods and atmospheres. I don’t need some clown showing how fast he can play a load of incoherent notes over a stupid over complicated time signature. Remember how every metal band had to pretend they were a pirate a while back? Stupid fashion trends do not belong in metal. If you want to play a load to stupid incoherent notes… go and play jazz!

How would you describe the songwriting process of “Age Of Steel”? With you being the chief songwriter, was there any involvement by the rest of the band?

No I always write everything alone, I always have. That is why Cloven Hoof always had a strong musical identity and unique sound. The same writer never left so the continuity is always there. I have always been inspired by a steady diet of Greek and Norse mythology, old horror and sci-fi films and Marvel comic books. I suppose this amalgamation of things that fueled my imagination is mixed up and synthesized into our songs. I have pretty vivid nightmares too and many of our riffs are playing as a background track to these. I keep a tape recorder by the bed and I hum song ideas into it sometimes in the middle of the night. This drives my wife crazy. She probably thinks I am insane singing away into a tape machine in the middle of the night

I think of songs as mini film shows that I write music soundtracks to. I want the songs to fit perfectly with the lyrics and reflect the narrative with mood and atmosphere. It has to build and mean something, having a beginning, a middle and an end. Some people call us a thinking man's metal band. Amen to that!

In overall, how does it feel to get back into writing a concept album? I am positive that it is a lot more work, yet once completed there is a stronger sense of satisfaction afterwards right?

Yes, with a long concept piece it gives you time to explore a subject fully. You can focus on different time changes and go through different atmospheres and explore more imaginative musical twists and turns. Take the “Gates of Gehenna”, it was the third song I ever wrote, I think I was 18 years old at the time. I wanted the track to be in three movements and tell the story of a pact being done between the devil and his victim. I didn't want it to be a standard verse chorus etc. In fact, it wasn't to have a hook line chorus as such like virtually every other song. I wrote some verses that rhymed and got a loose melody line that fitted the mood, then the music seemed to write itself. It was amazing really how things gelled in my head so quickly. Once I had that song down I discovered that I was always able to write like that, effortlessly.

Once I first listened to “Alderley Edge”, it felt like a total “Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son” worship. I guess that you are a fan of that awesome Maiden album right? However, you were able to add another dimension of both toughness, complexity and utmost melodic sense. What is your perspective towards this track? Would you say that this approach is how Cloven Hoof to write its next musical pieces?

I had never even heard the Maiden track ‘Seventh Son’ until two weeks ago when a writer thought it sounded like it. Apart from George on the chorus adding 3 extra notes on the chorus part that I never thought of, I don’t see why people think it is so similar at all. I had the notion of an epic plodding “Holy Diver” type track that built up into a series on crescendos.  But as long as we get compared to one of the biggest bands in the history of metal then that is fine. If people want to see it as an homage to them then so be it.

All our albums are different, I try and keep developing and not rest on our laurels. The next album suffices to say Is “Age of Steel” the next generation but with a new twist. Faster, heavier and more epic! Is that good enough for you metal maniacs?

A little tough question to ask, yet I feel that it is a must, which track of this album is the one that you find most impactful? Please elaborate on your pick

I love all the tracks on “Age of Steel” but if I had to pick one then it would have to be ‘Touch the Rainbow’. It is a song all about dealing with adversity and staying true to your music. Never give in and keep fighting, don’t listen to the internet trolls or anyone else. If you surrender an idea, it becomes anodyne and compromised. Nothing beats an original idea so bands should play from the heart and don’t follow fashion. This track is of an autobiographical nature so it is very personal to me. Once again I wrote a melody line and decided to gallop off it. I was inspired to write the song after listening to the band Budgie. “Napoleon Bona” off the “Bandolier” album was the song with the galloping rhythm, and I wanted a song like that. Maybe Maiden in fact were influenced by them too?

With the Covid-19 outbreak spreading, and lockdown issued, preventing you guys from performing live to support the album, have you thought of ways of doing something online? Perhaps a sort of a live stream or anything of a sort?

My music software is down at the moment because my Apple Macbook pro has broken down, so the online thing is impossible. We are in lockdown in England so there is no one to repair my computer either. George has no music software at all in America to record vocals so we are well and truly scuppered. Shame really because we would be killer playing in a live stream, we are one of the tightest bands on the planet.

Lee, I would like to thank you for your time to do this interview. I know that this period of time is tough to bear, yet I am sure that once we are out of it, Cloven Hoof is going to tear some stages with this awesome album. Thank you!

My very best wishes to you and the fabulous Metal Temple. You have always supported us and the cause of true metal and I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart.

It is killing us not being able to play live especially in Greece. But this hellish situation will not last forever and metal will come back stronger than it always does. Until then stay safe and isolated. Cloven Hoof will play when it is safe to do so, I could never live with myself if a single person became ill with this awful disease. I care too much for our fans to ever jeopardize a single one of them.

We love you Greece see you hopefully next year, until then welcome to the Age of Steel!


 



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