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Dexter Ward's Mark Dexter: "… it’s the triumph of decadence and moral corruption, every hint of pureness and humanity has been thrown out of the window. And the worst part is that many people seem to think it’s cool!"

Interview with Mark Dexter from Dexter Ward
by Lior "Steinmetal" Stein at 10 April 2020, 12:24 AM

In the days were everything was true. It must have been a long time ago, as if it feels that in the digital age, being true is rather hard, unless one has convincing methods in order to let others think that he or she are true. However, we have to settle with a world of plastic and social disconnect, maybe even find the advantages and take them in to account. Bringing the wonders of Epic Metal to the table, the Greek / Italian effort Dexter Ward unleash "III", sharing their dedication and appreciation of the old days of Metal music, capitalizing with an exquisite result. Steinmetal had the privilege to have a chat with Mark Dexter, the band's voice, about the new album, Covid-19, philosophies, Metal and more…  

Hello Mark, in these troubled times, I bet that to sink into an interview it is probably a means of distraction, glad to have you with me for this interview for Metal Temple. How have you been doing?

Hi there and thanks! Would be much better to sit in a tavern waiting for the souvlakia to come, but I’ve passed through worst days so all in all I’m content with what I have, except my ass is square like a Rubik Cube from all the hours I’ve been sitting at home. And one month has more hours than I thought …

With the Covid-19 pandemic out there in the streets, everywhere worldwide, all of us cooped up at home, what is your input of the situation, especially when it comes to Italy, if you are still a resident? It appears that all hell broke loose over there.

My input is that I’m pissed like an ant colony after a bear has stomped all over their anthill! My perspective about the events passed through three phases. At first, I thought it was utter bullshit, then the media convinced me the threat was real and I had to act like a good citizen and give up my freedom for the greater good, and now I’m back to square one and I think we’re being played like never before, just like it happened in the US after September 11th. It’s like catching fish, a game of tension and release, but through every cycle the fish (us) gets reeled in more and more, until it’s too late and you’re in the net. I don’t care much about myself, it’s my kid and our youth I’m thinking of, man I dislike this age we’re living in so much, it’s the triumph of decadence and moral corruption, every hint of pureness and humanity has been thrown out of the window. And the worst part is that many people seem to think it’s cool! I was born in the 70s, I watched black and white TV and didn’t have a telephone landline until 1986, I wasn’t born in a connected world so I can feel when the proverbial frog is about to get cooked.

Other than the sheer cancellation of shows, while also many of the Summer festivals are at risk to be postponed or cancelled, how does it look for the Metal scene both in Italy, and both in Greece, where Dexter Ward is practically based? What are you getting from your band members over there in Athens?

To be honest, at the moment this feels so far away that it became almost irrelevant. It’s of course relevant for the promoters and organizers and the bands, but there’s no real impact for the scene in Italy because there’s no scene here. It’s like the universe after the Big Bang, disconnected. Sure there are great bands and dedicated fans, but no real sense of union or events that can work as catalysts for people. In the 80s, the Italian Metalhead was treated like a social “pariah”, but inside he felt like a hero, a survivor, a pure among the mediocre, nowadays society just ignores the Metalhead therefore he feels just like an asshole, the uniqueness of his passion and his dreams live only in his own fantasies, he doesn’t even own the denim and leather and spikes, long hair, earrings or tattoo image anymore because the detestable “cauldron” of today’s fashion made it all available to everyone, so now more than ever heavy metal is just an abstract concept, some virtual thing you can’t touch, more or less like digital music. But that’s another story.

In Greece I think there’s a much bigger impact, at least in Athens which is the reality I know better. There’s an abundance of places and clubs and record shops where fans can meet and bond and live their passion in real life and not behind a computer, so I guess they’re having a hard time today, being used to get out and live the dream and all of a sudden feeling deprived of all kinds of physical social interaction.

On a positive note, Dexter Ward’s new album, “III”, was just released by the Greek No Remorse Records, a kind of mythical escape from all the troubles that all of us have been facing. Listening to the end product, what do you make of it? How do you feel about the final result? Anything that would have changed given the chance to do so?

No, nothing at all. I love the record as it is and it came out exactly as I wanted. I think it’s our finest release so far and it’s the first time in my artistic “career” that I’m totally satisfied about an album I was part of. I wouldn’t touch anything not even at gunpoint.

How has the record been received by the media worldwide? Do you see any chance of attitude towards the band with this record in particular?

We’re having great feedback with this new album and the highest scores/ratings ever, even the ones who don’t like our style are forced to admit the album is well written and well performed. The best thing, though, is that we found out a new generation of young fans who are into our music and, more importantly, can connect to the spirit that animates our efforts. This is especially important since heavy metal is a music for the youth. In a way, it’s an anomaly we’re still here as a band, being in our 40s (some more, some less), after 30 it gets more and more difficult to stay focused and genuine in your writing because dreams get crushed from the harshness of reality and the grind of routine, and the golden sunsets and all the expectations of forthcoming adventures get their wings burned by the bills and the loans and the triviality of adult life. Who knows, perhaps we’re late bloomers!

“III”, as mentioned, takes the listener into a journey through the course of legends and imagination, a proper refuge actually. That step out of reality into the themes described on the album, what is your source fascination that keeps you entangled with these majestic themes?

That would be my childhood. Everything I’ve done and try to do with music is an attempt to re-capture that spark or to see again some images and relive some feelings that belong to my past, when I thought I was destined for something great and important, that there was a higher purpose in store for me, a promise of adventure if you will. That state of mind was fuelled by movies, books and songs, that I re-immersed totally in during the writing of the new music for “III”. I could make a list of “material” but that wouldn’t be the point, since some of it would not even relate to heroic fantasy themes. Of course there’s my small Conan the Barbarian comics collection, the stories and poetry of the masters H.P. Lovecraft, Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, movies like “Krull”, “Conan the Barbarian”, “Dragonslayer” or “Excalibur” but most of the time it’s just a feeling, the light that filters inside from the window at a certain time in the afternoon or the memory of an undefined sound, or places that I can’t really point out the location of. The thing that mostly pushes me onward to write is the quest for something that might not be even real in the end, at least not in the way I remember it. Sometimes memories get mixed up with fantasy and as the years pass, reality slowly fades and the only thing we remember is what we added around it, the little box of marvel we encased it in, to made it look and feel beautiful and worth living.

In general, while trying to find a fine line between each of the songs, what kind of story does this album is aiming to tell? Perhaps, a message to the world’s society that has been missed?

Oh no, not at all. There’s no hidden message to be found. Nothing of “global” interest or magnitude or any kind of advice, because I would be the last person that could give suggestions or philosophical insights. But at the same time it’s not pure escapism either. A castle made of stones, a metal sword, they are symbols of the solidity of matter, a product of craftsmanship, something that lasts, something you can trust. This can’t be said about most of the “centres of interest” our modern society revolves around. The world wide web for example. Of course the infrastructure, the network, is material, but the real value, the information, is not. Movies are digital, music is digital, feelings and relationships are digitized and virtualized and everything’s pushed up into a well-fitting pre-made niche with smooth edges. I sing of heroic fantasy because it is strong, in contrast to the weakness of reality. Just imagine, 500 years from now, assumed that there’s still people around, are they going to write songs about us, about the heroism of our deeds, about the strength of character we showed? Sad mark we will leave to history, there’s no poetry and no beauty in what we build and, even in our vices, we have decayed beyond all boundaries. Just look at the horror movies of today. It’s psychological horror of the worst kind. It’s mostly not supernatural. I can’t watch that bullshit, it’s totally inhuman, it’s just sick. Whereas “extreme” movies like “Cannibal Holocaust” had their own dignity and a message to society, what we have today is just tortures and depravation. So what I tried to do is to create a “bubble” isolated from the greyness of the modern day, and to fill it with all the things I liked most, all the vibrant colours, all the feelings that make the experience to be a young human being worth living, and had it painted with a beautiful drawing and branded with a new Dexter Ward logo. Not to escape from reality, but because the contents of that bubble are, for me, the essence of what’s real in a modern world without soul.

Where does this album find you personally? How do you relate yourself to the songs?

There is an “autobiographical” song in there, named “In the Days of Epic Metal”. The message is not written down in plain sight, but the song relates with the feelings I had when I first went to Greece in early 2002, and got introduced to the local epic metal underground scene. That was a major turning point in my personal and “artistic” life, a golden “era” that I think will never come back as it once was. In 2005-2006 it had already started to fade, but those first 2-3 years were absolutely magical. The song, in a metaphorical way, celebrates those times (there’s also a direct reference to the band Raging Storm) and the whole album was written with the intention to get back to that state of mind, to that euphoria, that filled me in those bright days.

Dexter Ward has always been true to its roots, taking an Iron Maiden approach, while providing an epic edge to its tunes. Along with the powerful mid 80s US Power Metal, back when it was glorious, it is simply a sugar on top. How do you see the band’s musical abilities enhanced through “III”? Would you say that this record is coming a long way since your previous album?

Our goal with each new album is to be able to top the predecessor in terms of songwriting/arrangement, performance and sound/production. The previous record “Rendezvous with Destiny” surely succeeded; the sound was very polished and powerful, arrangements were better and performances improved as well since we had been playing together for some years and got tighter as a band. However, we had somewhat lost the “raw edge” and dynamic excitement that was one of the strongest points of our debut album “Neon Lights”. This factor is back in our music with “III”, and much more. I can say with confidence we are at the top of our game with this new one. Everything has been improved, and performances are now more free, unrestricted, less mechanical and definitely spontaneous, we have pushed everything to the max. The songs are rhythmically more interesting, there are unexpected sections and arrangements for a “straight classic heavy metal” bands as ours, we paid special attention to the effectiveness of melodies and worked a lot on vocal harmonies, not to speak of the killer guitar solos by our lead guitarist Akis Pastras, who almost single-handedly produced the album and crafted the powerful and warm sound that I think it’s the best we ever had.

Concerning being true to one’s roots, do you believe that bands heading back to where they started is actually a good thing, especially in our days where everything is largely modern and ever shifting?

I think it largely depends on the band. Let me explain better. Dexter Ward is our passion, but it doesn’t pay the bills. We all have day jobs and we make time for music, sometimes at a high cost. Therefore, our course of action and our writing are not affected by the fluctuations and trends of the “market” but depend entirely on our taste and what we feel like doing. If you want to make a career, a living out of music and you have your touring band/project going on, you do have to keep not two but three eyes open on what happens on the market, on how the scene and sounds evolve, it’s much more complicated and requires much more compromise. For example, if Judas Priest had gotten huge success with “Jugulator” I think they would have just followed in that direction. There’s no many virgin paths left, waiting to be “opened”, I think we more or less have tried all the possible contaminations and crossovers between genres in the last decades, that’s why I guess many bands today revert back to their roots, because that’s what they wanted to do in the first place when they were kids and when their hand wasn’t forced by the market or the mutating taste of the public. That I really appreciate and that’s a good thing indeed. Of course there’s also many professional musicians who jump back on the “old school” train only because that’s what sells better nowadays. They follow the dollar and I can’t really blame them for that, since it’s their job.

Which elements in the music of “III” were provided with better attention in contrast to your previous works? What do you think that makes this album uncanny in comparison to various albums in closer musical proximity?

I seldom take for reference other bands or albums in the same style, and to be honest I don’t even listen to many new releases. That’s because I don’t want to be influenced by what other people are doing. I just keep on listening to my favourite bands and records of the past (Iron Maiden, Manowar, Judas Priest, Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol, Omen, Steel Assassin, Witchkiller, etc.) , and try to get my influences uniquely from there. So I couldn’t really compare our music with somebody else’s. I’m not an accomplished musician like many others out there. I play guitar and bass but just what I need to compose. I sing, but I’m not a virtuoso or a technician of the voice like many others today. One thing I can say, though, is that you will find a lot of emotion and good melodies in our songs. I’m sure you can find at least one tune that for some minutes will make your day brighter. What I’m saying is a big thing. I wouldn’t speak like this if I wasn’t totally convinced of the quality and sincere heart of our new album.

With “III” being an epic record, certainly living up to its “In The Days Of Epic Metal”, what can you tell about the album’s songwriting process and your methods to achieve such a result?

Well it wasn’t really a matter of method or planning, it’s just happened on its own in a quite unexpected way. Most of the new album, six songs out of eight, have been written and recorded in demo form in quick succession from late March 2019 to early June 2019. In the summer we did pre-production and recordings took place between September and October. By November we had the complete album mixed and mastered. The oldest songs are “In the Days of Epic Metal” and “The Dragon of the Mist” written in the Summer of 2017. I am responsible for the writing of music and lyrics for the original demos but during pre-production the whole band contributed to arrangements and modifications, some parts were changed, other added.

I write in the same way I’ve been doing for the last 20 years, alone in my room, I jam to a drum track until I find a riff that makes me bang my head or a melody that calls for a cool harmony. Sometimes I start from lyrics, like in the case of “In the Days …” or “The Dragon of the Mist” where I wrote music around the lyrics (with some slight modifications), but for the other six songs music came first. And remember: a clean musician is more likely to write cool songs because there’s no better place than the shower to find out killer melodies and ideas! So always remember to bring your phone or portable recording device in the bathroom. Sounds silly (and in fact I wrote it in a funny way) but it’s 100% real.

Were there any dilemmas along the way that made you turn to different approaches than originally planned, perhaps a chance of musical direction or adding additional tunes?

No, not really because there was no stable plan in the first place. But we did have two more new songs we had worked on during pre-production, written in the March-June sessions, that didn’t end up on the album. The main reason was we had to keep the album’s length within a certain amount of minutes to be able to press it on a single 2-sides vinyl. One of those songs that have been left out was not epic in lyrical content, so as much as we liked it, we thought it would be better to have a solid, focused album instead of a collection of songs with different moods and themes. We might record and release those songs in the future but generally we prefer to write new material that sounds fresh to our ears and makes us more excited to record and perform.

I believe that the song “The Eyes Of Merlin” pretty much tells the story of “III”’s musical side. Other than being a strong epic, it is smooth sailing all the way, a constructed tune in its arrangements, yet ending so fast. What is your appreciation of this track? What can you tell about its background and making?

“The Eyes of Merlin” was the first of the new songs written in late March 2019 and the one that got me started with the idea of making a new record. We had “frozen” the band for some months in the second half of 2018 and got back just to play a show in November, but I felt the focus had somewhat been lost and that we needed a fresh start, a “reboot”. I was quite unsatisfied for a number of personal reasons that had nothing to with the band but were related to what was going on around us, I longed for the atmosphere that was there in the early days of my youth and I couldn’t manage to conjure back, and in several occasions after our shows I felt like I didn’t belong in that context, I couldn’t find it in me to enjoy the situation anymore. I was in the club with my beer or whiskey surrounded by people but in a way I was feeling alone, a fish out of the water. So I pulled out my “comfort” books, my old records, my comics and started building the “bubble” I mentioned earlier.

While I was writing “The Eyes of Merlin” I found again the old excitement, the one I had when I joined Battleroar almost 20 years before. In my mind’s eye I could see the AN Club in Athens, the nights at the old Texas Club drinking whiskey and cola with my friends and my idols (Mark Shelton and Kenny Powell), it was like a whirlwind of emotions that took me by storm and I cried like a child. I sent the song to my brothers and bandmates in Dexter Ward and we quickly decided we would make a new album. In the following days, new music and ideas flowed faster than ever and, even if some songs took a little longer (“The Demonslayer” for one) most of them were written at a very quick pace, not because we were pushing it, we didn’t have any deadline, it was just the natural flow of things.

I will be tough on you, as I know that this question always makes folks crazy, what is your songo out of the album? Which of the tracks make you sit down and just listen on and on, making an impact on your soul?

I think that would be “The Eyes of Merlin” for the aforementioned reasons, which is incidentally also my little daughter’s favourite song. My favourite parts are the intro, when the guitars play the harmony on top of the synth arpeggio, and the quiet part in the middle with the guitar solo. Other parts I’m really proud and especially fond of are the ending of “Return of the Blades” and the final choir on “The Demonslayer”. Another song that really speaks to my heart is “In the Days of Epic Metal”.

Being a Metalhead nowadays still has its stigmas, however, it has been said by many, that Metal music is actually a way of life, somewhat of a religion, dictating our every move. Do you believe in such a notion? Do you find yourself in part of this saying? Is Metal really a religion to you?

No, nothing of the sort. Heavy Metal to me is synonym of freedom and historically speaking, religions were not made to set people free, but to give them a set of rules to live their lives upon. That’s why in heavy metal songs you often find expressions like “breaking the chains” or “riding on the wind” or something along that. A “way of life” carries in itself the notion of a standard, in terms of behaviour, taste, dressing code, etc. Thinking along this line brings heavy metal on the same league of other “trends” , the “grunge”, the “emo”, etc. Heavy Metal is nothing of the sort. It’s the last vanguard of backbone in a world devoid of principles and respect for the past, it’s a cry of freedom (as Running Wild would say) in a society that pushes you hard in your little cubicle and steals your colours away because a black and white world is easier to control. Of course we like to wear our leather jackets and the riveted denim and the gloves and the sunglasses, but we don’t do it to conform to a rule, we do it because it makes us feel wild and free. The day it starts feeling like a “rule” then it becomes a big masquerade and I’m no fan of carnival myself

It is no secret that our Metal gods are slowly fading away due to various reasons, and there have been enough proofs of that lately. Does the term Metal gods for band still have a magnitude nowadays in your perspective?

Yes, it does, but in a relative way. One has to take into account what they have done in the past, in their prime, and keep holding that mental image in the mind when he/she approaches the current “version” of such heavy metal giants. Only then it would make sense to consider over 60 years old musicians as “Metal Gods”. In my personal view, there’s no real “new wave” of younger bands of the calibre required to cover that position. The ones that nowadays fill arenas and stadiums don’t play heavy metal (even though many fans and the “press” say otherwise), therefore they’re not even worth mentioning in the context of this question. The importance of bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest nowadays has to be seen in terms of psychological impact on the youth. Even if one doesn’t get excited by their more recent albums (I do, especially by Judas Priest, much less by Iron Maiden), what happens is they act as catalysts and the news of a new album or a new tour by them creates a wave of euphoria and positivity in the underground that makes people wanting to play and write songs and form new bands. It’s like those documentaries where you are shown deserted places, apparently dead, but with heavy rains they live again and trees grow and the animals come back, ect. This is what the “Metal Gods” do, and this is what nowadays hot-shot bands (Ghost and the likes) do not and will never do.

With things really getting busted due to the Covid-19 virus pandemic, it must have ruined your support plans for “III”, any particular ideas that were raised in order to do at least something for now? Perhaps live stream or q&a? Have you re-scheduled or scheduled shows?

Only God knows, really! We hope we can get the ball rolling again in the fall but there’s nothing certain. I hope we’re all safe by then and the conditions are right to promote the album as it deserves. In the meantime, I’m practicing, setting up my gear, the “stage clothes” and I keep on writing music for future releases. No “online shows” or live streams are planned, we are waiting to give you the real thing in person! Now I don’t know if you are a girl or a guy but in any case the last sentence wasn’t meant to be rude!

Mark, I wish to thank you for this interview. I really hope that you will be after this pandemic for you to properly support his great album. All the best!

Thank you for the interest in our band and the chance to express our feelings and thoughts! I really appreciate and I hope we can meet sometime in the future when dust settles and the metal machines start grinding steel once again! All the very best! Mark



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Edited 18 January 2022

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