By Theron Moore
Damien Thorne has been a mainstay in the Chicago metal scene forever. I first saw the band open for Nuclear Assault at an auditorium in Elgin back in ’87 or ’88, it was a long time ago, but, Damien Thorne is still around proving that true metal never dies, it just gets stronger with age. Writing a book about metal and hard rock in the Midwest, especially in the Chicago scene, would be incomplete with the inclusion of Damien Thorne. As both a writer and a fan, I’m proud to include them in volume II of my book, “All My Friends Are Rock Stars” due to be published Spring 2017.
WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: Please introduce yourself.
KEN MANDAT: I am Ken Mandat, founding member and guitarist of Damien Thorne.
WC: If we discuss the history of Chicago metal, where does the conversation start in terms of bands and clubs? Who needs to be mentioned and what year(s) are we talking about?
KM: Well, I think the most important time for Chicago Metal happened between 1981-1989. There were several clubs catering to metal, most notably The Metro, Medusa’s and the Thirsty Whale. All completely different venues, but you could find capacity crowds at all these clubs on any Friday or Saturday night regardless of which band was playing there. There was no shortage of great metal back then, and different styles of metal as well. Some of the more notable bands would be Zoetrope, Mayhem Inc., Trouble, Witchslayer, Aftermath, Thrust, Slaughter Xtroyes, Warcry, Paradoxx, Diamond Rexx, and of course Damien Thorne, and many more..
WC: Chicago’s south side plays a large role in both the city’s punk and metal scenes. What is it / was it about the south side that is / was so accommodating to punk and metal? Is it still that way now?
KM: I think the south side played such a big role simply because there were so many bars. While a lot of the metal bands were playing the bigger clubs, the punk bands were filling up the smaller neighborhood bars.
WC: I’ve heard a variety of stories that some clubs that hosted metal / punk shows back in the 80’s / 90’s were either owned by the mob or controlled by gangs and were legitimately dangerous places to frequent. Any truth to this or just urban myth? If it is true, any personal stories you can share?
KM: Well, sure there were some clubs owned by the Mafia. In Chicago, a lot of businesses that sold alcohol were tied to the mob. And yes, some clubs were indeed very dangerous places, but it usually was the patrons that you needed to worry about, not the owners. Chicago at that time was a very tough city. Hard working, hard playing people. They loved their metal and they loved their whiskey. When you put those two things together, it can get wild.
WC: Do you think Chicago ever got the proper respect it was due regarding its metal scene of the 80’s / 90’s? Why did it not become as big as L.A. regarding hard rock and metal back then?
KM: I think L.A. became big because that’s where the industry was. You had several major labels, and the film/tv industry. Plus, Chicago metal was much heavier and less commercial than the stuff that was coming from L.A. bands. The labels felt they could make more money from the poser bands.
WC: Follow up question: Do you think Chicago’s punk / alternative / industrial music scenes of the 80’s / 90’s may have overshadowed what was happening with said metal bands and metal scenes back then?
KM: Sure, towards the end of the 80’s bands like Ministry, and Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins were getting a lot of commercial attention, and yes, I think it had a big role in overshadowing some of the metal scene.
WC: Chicago seems to be something of a microcosm unto itself regarding bands and music scenes. By that I mean you hear more about “L.A. bands” than you do “Chicago bands” (regarding national attention) with a few notable exceptions. Is Chicago just so big a city that bands don’t need to “break out,” so to speak?
KM: It’s just always been harder in Chicago for metal because of the lack of quality labels in my opinion. And I think that Chicago metal has a very unique sound, much different than metal from other cities. Chicago metal definitely was much more appealing to fans in Europe, than in the USA. We definitely have a “cult” status.
WC: How does Chicago’s current metal scene differ now from how it was back in the 80’s / 90’s? Is it better, not so good, worse? Has it stood the test of time?
KM: Well, it’s probably unfair for me to answer that because I am biased towards the old music. I’m not that big a fan of new metal, or modern metal. However, I still think some of the best bands in Chicago today are the older bands from the 80’s that are still around. All the newer bands sound the same to me. They don’t seem to have the same character that the 80’s bands had. When you heard a song from a band like Zoetrope, or Trouble, you knew who it was immediately. I can’t tell the difference between the new bands.
WC: Can you give me a few memories / stories about the following clubs?
The Double Door – Iconic club, lots of variety.
The Exit – Great place to hang out, very dark, a little scary at times! More punk than metal. This was my place to go late at night after seeing some killer band at another venue.
The Thirsty Whale – In my opinion, the most important club in Chicago back then. I remember going there early in the day to setup and do a sound check for a Damien Thorne gig and seeing several hundred people already standing in line outside to get in about 6 hours before the doors were to open. And it was winter, and snowing, and freezing cold. People were very loyal to that club. I started going to that club when I was about 17 years old. I used to borrow my older brothers ID and sneek my way in to see bands.
The Metro – The Metro was an old theatre turned night club. I saw many great bands there, Slayer, Metallica, Mercyful Fate, etc. Big crowds, lots of thrashing! One of my favorite places to play and watch bands.
Medusa’s – This place was crazy! There would be a few bands playing on any given night, and you could just go from room to room and see them all. Very diverse group of bands as well. Lots of punk girls!
Reggie’s – This is a great venue that caters to a wide variety of bands, nice room to host metal festivals, smaller stage upstairs, great food. We played there a few times recently for the Ragnarokrr Metal Festivals. Not a great area, definitely need to be careful at night.
WC: Is there a metal scene in Chicago to talk about presently, what local bands should we know about?
KM: There is a metal scene. Lots of death metal, lots of old school bands still around from the 80’s. Damien Thorne, Trouble, Slauter Xtroyes, and others still kicking ass! A new band that I like is Misanthropy. Great young players, reminds me of early Slayer.
KM: Damien Thorne was founded in 1983 by myself and Justin Fate (vocalist). Also, one of our first bassists was Rick Browz, who is currently with the band now, along with his brother Mike Browz who was always around with us in the early days. Rick left the band around 1984, and was replaced with Sanders Pate who was introduced to me by Barry Stern of Zoetrope / Trouble.
Sanders Pate died in 2015. He was an amazing player and co-wrote a lot of the songs on our debut album “The Sign of the Jackal.” Sanders is one of 3 members that have died over the years. Michael Monroe died in the early 90’s, and Matt Heuser died in 2003 I believe. In 1984, Jack Starr, from Virgin Steele, saw us play at the Thirsty Whale and recommended us to the label he was on, Cobra Records.
WC: Was there a musical vision you had for the band (thrash, metal, power metal, etc.), or, was it more of a matter of jamming and seeing what kind of sound organically came out of those early rehearsals / jam sessions?
KM: It was both actually. We definitely had our influences, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden mostly. But, we also liked some of the black metal that was coming out of Europe, like Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate. That music influenced us, but when we got together and played, we immediately knew what our strengths were, and focused on that and let that shape our sound. We didn’t want to sound like those other bands, we just wanted the inspiration. And we told ourselves that we would never let anyone or anything tell us what to sound like.
WC: From a metal perspective, was Damien Thorne influenced by any local Chicago bands, or, was it more from what you guys were listening to (radio, records, TV)? What bands were you listening to back then, that influenced you and maybe DT’s sound as well?
KM: The Chicago bands that influenced my song writing was definitely Zoetrope and Trouble. One for the speed, and one for the heaviness. I loved Zoetrope! They were fast, aggressive and uncompromised. And good friends as well. Barry Stern was in a class by himself. Rest in Peace, my brother.
WC: How long after the band is formed did you get signed to a record label and which label was it? Tell me about that, it’s hard to get signed whether it’s the 80’s or present day…
KM: We were signed by Cobra/A&M Records for the US and Roadrunner Records for Europe in 1984. Our debut album was released early 1986. We recorded our 2nd album in 1987, but lost our record deal, so that record ended up sitting on a shelf for about 10 years or more! We lost our original deal because Cobra was stealing money from us, and our lawyer threatened to sue them. Then it seemed nobody wanted to sign us after that.
WC: Eventually the band leaves Chicago and relocates to L.A. Was that in effort to be closer to the industry and the L.A. metal scene at the time?
KM: We went to LA shortly after we lost our record deal with hopes of securing a new deal in California. Unfortunately, the music scene in LA was turning to grunge bands and we didn’t really fit in over there. Unfortunate timing.
WC: Give me some memories, if you will, of being part of the L.A. metal scene. Were there bands or musicians you became good friends with there?
KM: The LA scene was crazy. Lots of glam metal and grunge bands. Nobody had any real identity. It seems like all the bands were constantly changing who they were to match what the labels were looking for at the time. For example, when Guns N Roses became big, all of a sudden every band in LA started sounding like them. Very phony, but a great place to pick up girls! We made friends with many people there, too many to name. Got to see some great bands like Slayer, Suicidal Tendencies, Metallica all play in very small intimate clubs.
WC: What happened with L.A. that it didn’t work out and you moved back to Chicago?
KM: Well, as I said earlier, the scene changed, But we also had a tough time financially. LA is a very expensive city to live in. It got to the point where we had to work so much to pay bills, that it was interfering with our efforts to keep the band going. So eventually most of us returned to Chicago where we belong.
WC: Did DT do much touring across the country back in the 80’s / 90’s, if so, can you share a few memories of such?
KM: We did in the mid 80’s. Some of it was great, some of it sucked! We had this old bus that we purchased, and it would break down constantly. One time we were stranded on the side of a highway, and paid some random truck driver to take us and all of our gear to Cleveland to do a gig, and then he waited for us and took us all the way back to Chicago. We were all locked in the back of his trailer, freezing cold, and didn’t know where we were going. He could have easily just took us somewhere and murdered us all! Good times. Most of the funny tour stories have happened recently within the last 10 years or so. We have had some great experiences in Europe. We have met some amazing people while on tour, who we will never forget. We have made some great friends along the way as well.
WC: Unlike a lot of bands that formed in the 80’s, you guys never broke up. What’s your secret, what keeps you going? Was there ever a time that things got too heavy for the band and maybe dissolving DT was discussed?
KM: We have never officially broke up, but we have had our share of turbulence. I have been playing with the Browz brothers for over 30 years. We are able to stay together because we have no drama. We got all that ego stuff out of the way many years ago, and we realize that losing the band over petty differences would be a a stupid thing to do. Plus, after all this time we have learned to understand each other so well, that we almost never argue about anything. We are definitely a band of brothers. We have each other’s back.
WC: You’ve seen first-hand, as a musician, the state of metal both in Chicago as well as nationwide, how has metal changed since the 80’s and if there has been a change, has it been a positive or negative one?
KM: I think the one major change has been the introduction of the internet and social media. Back in the 80’s there was no internet. If you wanted to see a band, you had to go to their show. You had to go to a store and buy a record. You invested both time and money to see and hear your favorite bands, so it was more personal. Now, everything can be accessed electronically.
You can download a band’s new album for free with just a click of a button, you can see bootleg live videos on YouTube, When I see a concert in the US, it seems like people are more interested in the atmosphere of being in a social setting, than watching the band that is performing. Everyone is staring at their cell phone, and checking in to their social media. The band is an afterthought. (You nailed it, that's exactly what it is...Dr. Mality)
In Europe, at the metal festivals like Keep It True in Germany, or Up The Hammers in Athens, the fans have been waiting all year to see these specific bands, and they are committed 100%. The energy at those shows is very electric. I can travel half way across the planet to play one small festival, and have people who stand in line just to have me sign a copy of a demo tape that I recorded in 1983. It’s very humbling, and it makes all the expense, and travel, and effort worth it.
WC: How do you feel about social media and the internet as it relates to music? Do you think it’s helped or hindered metal in particular?
KM: To continue with that, I think the internet is a double-edged sword. The bad part is that people can get your music for free, making it very hard for unestablished bands to stay alive. Record or CD sales is usually pretty terrible for most bands. Most bands barely can break even with the release of a cd. The good thing about the internet is that you can do mass promotion very easily. Also, communication is much better and faster than it was back in the day.
WC: What about streaming or illegal downloads, is this something that DT talks about or has concern for?
KM: I hate it. There would be so much more great music available if bands were actually able to get paid for their music. It costs most small bands thousands of dollars to record, produce and manufacture cd’s and other merchandise. Most bands finance their own recordings as well, because labels don’t have money because they can’t sell cd’s people who steal it from the internet for free. In Damien Thorne, we pay for all of our own recording and travel. It’s very hard to stay afloat. But, we do it because we believe in the music. At all of our live shows, we give many cd’s and other merch out for free. It’s more important to us to have people listening to our music, and wearing our shirts, than it is to make a few dollars.
WC: What does 2017 hold for the band? A new record, maybe more gigs or touring?
KM: In 2016, we released our latest CD “Soul Stealer”, and are currently recording a new CD to be released in 2017. I am also working a re-releasing “The Sign of the Jackal” in 2017 as well. We will be playing shows in the US, and possibly some European dates as well.