HELLWELL  "Undying Faith"

By Dr. Abner Mality

To speak to Mark "The Shark" Shelton is to speak to an American original. A man born in the American heartland of Wichita, Kansas who still stays close to his roots even though his career might be advanced by a move to a "power center".  A self-taught musician who developed his own style by studying the players who inspired him.  A man who doesn't forget the past but keeps looking to the future.

You might just know Mark as the mastermind behind Manilla Road, one of America's great "cult" metal bands. After years and years of tireless slogging and what seemed to be fruitless effort, Manilla Road is starting to get some of the credit they are due. The upcoming Manilla Road album "Mysterium" will be their sixteenth full-length.

But have you heard of Hellwell?

This is Mark's other project which is causing waves amongst fans of epic heavy metal. Named after his childhood friend Ernie Hellwell, who plays keyboards in the band, Hellwell is a path for Shelton to explore some of the darker sides of his nature. The addition of Ernie's massive analog keyboard sound adds a whole new dimension to Shelton's writing, resulting in a sound just as potent as Manilla Road at its best. Hellwell's debut "Beyond the Boundaries of Sin" has gotten huge critical acclaim (including a rave from your humble servant, the Good Doctor himself)

This is the second time I've had the pleasure of talking to The Shark and the following HUGE interview is one of the most thorough and probing I've ever done. The more I talk to Mark, the more I admire what he's accomplished. Read on and you,too, will see what I'm talking about...

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES:  The Hellwell debut is going to be one of my top five records of the year.

MARK SHELTON: Wow, that's killer!

WC: The first time I put it in, I didn't even know you were part of it. I had no idea of the Manilla Road connection at all. How long has Hellwell been in the books? Is it something that's been bubbling underneath the surface for years or is it relatively recent?

MS: Well, I guess it depends on what you call recent. (chuckles) I've been at this for 35 years now so sometimes "recent" means in the last 10 years! I'll tell you what, we actually started working on the Hellwell idea about two years ago. It originally started with me reading the story "Acheronomicon" and thinking it would be a great story to adapt to an epic music format. After talking to Ernie about it and realizing that he was interested in working with me, we immediately started looking for a drummer and lo and behold, we just kind of stumbled onto Johnny Benson. We nicknamed him "Thumper" because his feet are incredibly fast and he loves double kick stuff which we thought would fit very well with the Hellwell stuff. He's more of a modern drummer as far as his style goes, but even though he's a big fan of bands like Lamb of God, Protest The Hero which is a lot more new age metal than what I'm into, he grew up with parents that were into the same type of stuff I grew up with. So he's got a good understanding of the classic structure of heavy rock  because he grew up listening to Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd.  The same genre of stuff I grew up with. He worked out really well and when we started working on the project, Josh and Bryan from Manilla Road were coming in and out of the studio when we were working on it. They were so excited by how it was sounding that they just begging to play on a song or sing on a song.

So we finally just turned it into a big happy family thing. It wasn't really ever designed to be a long term band as much as a project.  It came together so quick and it just felt so right and we're so pleased with how the album turned out that we've decided to pursue this a little further than just one album. We're actually working on another album already for Hellwell and we have three songs created and recorded already. It's like hammers on high for Hellwell at this point. We seemed to have gotten a lot of really good media attention at this point.  I'm not sure if we'll tour because my main concern as always is Manilla Road. We've got a lot of touring coming up for the Road here in 2013, a lot of shows, a lot of opportunities. That's not going to take any kind of back burner to what's going on with Hellwell. Whenever we have time off from the Road, Hellwell is what we work on. It's been a lot of fun and I'm eager to finish up the new stuff we're doing because it's even more heavy and gruesome than "Beyond the Boundaries of Sin". It's still done in the classic horror style but I'm real pleased with the direction we're going with this band. It's kind of the "omega" to Manilla Road's "alpha".

WC: That answered one of my questions. I wasn't sure if Hellwell was a one-off or an ongoing thing.

MS: Yeah, we plan on it being an ongoing thing. It all depended on how it was received and it's been received very well. We've had an awful lot of people asking us to please continue so we're going to put at least another album out. They're begging Ernie to put out some more of his short stories, too, because he's got quite a bit of stuff he's written and he's really good.

WC: I did want to get into his background. What's his musical and writing career like?

MS: He's been a writer for an awful long time. I originally met him back in my high school days. I believe we were in the same creative writing class in high school, I think that's where I met him. I got introduced to some of the weird stuff he was into. He was kinda like an early goth type of guy. (laughs) He's sort of a weirdo and a bit of a recluse, but he's never had any of his stuff published before as far as I know and he's been a musician on and off on his own throughout his life. It's sort of strange, I used to run into him from time to time throughout the years. Of course, that's probably because he's stayed living here in Wichita and I did, too. It's not a terribly huge community and if you're in the metal community here at all in Wichita, you pretty much know everybody. (chuckles). He's just one of those strange guys I kept running into. We kept talking and remembering the old days. He was always interested in Manilla Road's career. I told him a long time ago that he had been pretty influential with me, directing me towards certain writers that I came to love. I'm speaking of people like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. I think he actually introduced me to Lovecraft. As far as I  know, I don't think he's played in any bands that have been well-known. He played bass in a couple of bands locally, but there was no recorded work.

When we were talking about doing the Hellwell project,  Vince our bass player from Manilla Road developed a really severe problem with his left hand and actually couldn't play at all for a period of time. It got to the point where Vince wasn't sure how long it would take him to be able to play again so he decided to bow out and let somebody else take the position. We were in the middle of doing the "Playground of the Damned" album and it was at a critical point. That's when I just asked E.C., hey, man, I'm in the middle of this album and I really need to finish it as fast as I can. Would you mind coming and playing bass on it? He was fine with that, but he told me right away, I don't want to tour, though! (laughs) In the meantime, Josh was starting to come into the picture, so it all worked out real good. E.C. helped finish the album and it was always meant for him to just be a guest player on the Manilla Road "Playground of the Damned" album. He wasn't looking to be a permanent bass player, he was looking more towards what we were doing with the Hellwell project. He's been really invovled with it and I'm totally pleased with the partnership between he and Johnny and I, it's worked out really good.

WC: The keyboard work he does is striking. It's got a lot of the Jon Lord Deep Purple feel to it and the way it integrates with your guitar is really slick. In a lot of bands, it seems like the guitar and keyboards play against each other. With Hellwell, they seem to play with each other, would you agree?

MS:  Yeah, I would definitely agree and you hit the nail right on the head when you mentioned Jon Lord.  He's probably Ernie's favorite keyboard player. He went into total seclusion when he found out Jon Lord died, he was locked up in his apartment for a couple of weeks and wouldn't talk to anybody. Some others I 've noted he's into would be a guy named Greg Giuffria, who I think played with Angel...

WC: He played with Angel for sure and then he was in his own solo band and I think he might have done some stuff with House of Lords but I'm not sure.

MS: I'm not sure about House of Lords but I am familiar with his solo stuff. I knew him best for being in the band Angel. Ernie knows all about the guy and he's totally into him. There's other keyboard players he's into as well. I know he's a big Keith Emerson fan, but Jon Lord's the big guy. That's the guy he always talks about and tries to emulate. I appreciate that a lot. I originally started by playing piano so it's easy for me to talk to him and converse with him. We talk the same language when it comes to composition. Our likes and dislikes are really similar when it comes to the themes and topics we write about. We struck up a really good musical partnership but we do argue a lot. (laughs) Sometimes we're almost like exact opposites but other times we're totally in synch with each other. It all works out even when we disagree, we just argue it out. That's where Johnny comes in. We look at him and say, OK, which way is better?

WC: That's the way a lot of bands do it!

MS: (laughs) Yeah, but it's been a lot of fun with these guys. I don't think I'm gonna give it up, I think we're going to keep rolling with it as long as we can keep putting out stuff that people think is cool. We'll keep doing it,, but like I said, Manilla Road is always going to be my main thing. I'm not saying Hellwell's going to play a total back seat to situation. It's just that we've spent so many years trying to get Manilla Road to the place we're at now. We're in a good place right now and things are moving along quite nicely. Our popularity is still on the climb. The situation with Hellwell is that it gives Manilla Road the chance to do the majestic stuff they're so well known for and then Hellwell gives me an outlet for that really brutal, over the edge stuff that I like to dabble in but which might not be the most appropriate thing for Manilla Road.

WC: It's obvious that one band has a strong relation to the other.

MS: I get asked that quite a bit during interviews and what I usually say is that anytime you have me helping to navigate and give me the wheel, I'm going to steer the ship in the direction I want to go. There's a lot of my composition involved in this and a lot of my guitar playing and voice on almost everything, yeah, there's going to be a lot of similarity to Manilla Road. But I'm sure you can see just as well as anybody else that it's not a picture perfect image of Manilla Road.

WC: It seems to have more of a prog rock feel to me.

MS: Yeah,  yeah, it does have more of a progressive feeling, it's not as classic rock, even though I think Ernie's keyboards give it more of a classic 70's rock feel than Manilla Road. That's that Jon Lord feel, that Deep Purple sound, that winds up in there. Ernie loves that Hammond B3 sound, he uses that a lot.  I remember when Bryan heard some of the Hellwell stuff at first, he kept whispering to me. "Shark! Shark! It sounds like baseball keyboards!" (laughs) So we had this joke going on for a long time that Ernie didn't really appreciate that he needed to apply for a job at the ballpark so he could play that "Da-Da-Da-DAH-Da-DAH"! (laughs). Bryan kept saying that people are gonna think it's gonna sound like the organ player at the baseball game and I said, dude, I don't think we've got anything to worry about. Most of our fans are in Europe and they don't even really know what a baseball game is!

WC: I don't even know how many real organs they have at ballparks anymore.

MS: No doubt. It's becoming amazingly hard to even find an actual Wurlitzer anywhere.

WC: It's all good because it gives the band more of a unique sound. Even the synthesizers and the sound effects remind me more of 70's prog or even old sci-fi movies like "Logan's Run".

MS: Yeah, I'm totally into that type of stuff and so is Ernie and Johnny is, too. Almost everybody in Manilla Road is into that classic horror and science fiction as well. So yeah, it's obvious where our influences come from. (chuckles)

WC:  That's why I'm such a fan, because it touches on a lot of the film and literary stuff that I'm a fan of myself. Along those lines, the first song on Hellwell's "Beyond the Boundaries of Sin" is about the serial killer Harry Holmes, also known as Herman Webster Mudgett. How did you find out about this guy?

MS:  I'd actually heard about him a long time ago. I've done lots of research over the years on serial killers and we had obviously done songs like "Whitechapel"  about Jack the Ripper. When I was doing the Circus Maximus thing, we had a song about Ed Gein. Every once in a while, I'd dabble in this kind of stuff and I'm not sure it was totally appropriate for Manilla Road to be jumping onto those themes. But Hellwell gives me the perfect opportunity to jump into that kind of stuff. I've always been interested in what makes a serial killer tick, you know.  Mudgett was one of those weird ones because he really didn't get his hands dirty blugeoning people or hacking and cutting them up until after they were dead. He was very well planned, his hotel of horrors was very well laid out.

WC: He built his own slaughterhouse!

MS: I know! It was incredibly bizarre and he was doing all these insurance frauds. It was amazing and the thing that drew me to him was the organization and plotting in his head. He pled his case as being posessed when he finally went on trial, but the truth of the matter is this guy was planning things every step of the way. He had everything planned for the World's Fair in Chicago, where Tesla did the first big electrical lighting display in what they called "The White City".

WC: A famous book was written about that, "The Devil in the White City".

MS:  Yeah, that's right. I have not read that book, though.

WC: The thing that always surprised me is why is this guy not the most well-known killer of all time? He's still obscure to a lot of people. In terms of what he did and how he did it, he should be more well known than Jack the Ripper.

MS: You'd think so. I'm sure Chicago has never been too proud of the fact that they never caught him in Chicago. (laughs)  They finally caught him on the road when he murdered another woman. Anyway, I know that soon after he had been convicted...if I remember right, they hung him...the hotel he had built mysteriously burned down soon afterwards. Nobody was able to turn it into a museum piece.

WC: That happens in many cases. Ed Gein's house got burned down, they tore down where Dahmer did his dirty work.

MS: What it comes down to is that the locals don't want their home to be known as the origin of a serial killer. They try to sweep it all under the rug for years. But you're right,  it was such unfathomable evil that he did, you'd think he'd be a lot more well known. You'd think somebody would have done a movie about him. We kind of figure that's one of our jobs in Hellwell, to expose some of these guys who have been lost to history as opposed to the more well-known killers like Gacy and Gein. Same thing goes with the Benders of Kansas, who we write about in "Keepers of the Devil's Inn."  We know about them here in Kansas pretty well, I grew up with the stories, but it's funny because even here in Wichita we have people who say, is this real or did you make it up? No, it's real, you can check it out in history books.

WC: That's if people even bother to read. I'll tell you another great source of information about serial killers and that's the Chicago band Macabre. They have a song called "The Bloody Benders" which even had banjo music that went into a metal riff. It's very tasteless stuff but very educational!

MS: That's cool! (laughs)

WC: They've had a 30 year career and the only subject they've sung about the entire time has been serial killers.

MS: Wow, my kind of group!

WC: Their research is really good but the way they talk about the subject is very tongue in cheek. I think they actually have several songs about Holmes. Another thing I thought was very striking about that song "Keepers of the Devil's Inn" is how it opens with that cool, laidback blues guitar. Is that a part of your playing that is underexposed?

MS:  Yeah, you can say it is. I'm a huge blues fan from way back when I first started playing. One of my biggest influences was Jimi Hendrix and there were others like Johnny Winter that were also important to me. I'm even a big John Lee Hooker fan! Every once in a while, you can see some of those bluesy riffs in what I do. You know, a couple of other guys I really respect are Jimmy Page and David Gilmour.  David more for his really fluid, melodic stuff and Jimmy for the exquisite composing he did in blues type rock and roll stuff.

WC: You  know, now that you mention it, the opening of "Keepers of the Devil's Inn" does have more of that David Gilmour, Pink Floyd  type of sound.

MS: I'm a huge Pink Floyd fan, have been ever since the old days when they were doing stuff like "Obscured By Clouds" and "Meddle". Even in Manilla Road, you can hear that influence come out every now and then, like in the middle section of  "Merchants of Death", that's got a real bluesy section. Even Johnny is a big Pink Floyd fan. It's easy for us to slip into that kind of mode. My whole style of guitar playing has been adapted to a huge shitload of guitar players I've been exposed to over the years. I've taken bits and pieces of each one I like and culminated it into my own style. It's not like I just mimic one or two players, I tried to take something from anybody I ever listened to and enjoyed.

WC: You definitely have your own distinct style, even to the point where even if I don't hear any vocals, I can still identify your playing. That's not all that common, any more.

MS: Well, you got so many bands out there, for one thing. I think it depends on how you grow up being educated in music. I was an educated musician and composed long before I ever picked up a guitar and when I first started playing guitar, I actually wasn't taught by anybody. I just listened to music and took my own know-how and taught myself the instrument. Because of that, my chord phrasings and my fingerings are a little different than some. My approach is more of "oh, this sounds good, I think I'll do that!" (laughs) That, and the fact that over the years I've taken so many bits and pieces from other players I loved and merged it into my own thing. But I think the reason it's so unique is that I pretty much taught myself, so therefore it's not like Kirk Hammett sat down and taught me guitar. If that happens, you pretty much sound like Kirk Hammett, you know?

WC: People try to learn guitar by playing "Guitar Hero" or some similar video game.

MS: I'll tell you something, I tried that a couple of a times and there are people who DON'T play guitar that are much better at that than I am. (laughs) It's more like a video game than actually playing a guitar.

WC: Every thing's like a video game now.

MS: (laughs) It's the truth! My son is totally hooked on "Call of Duty"! Getting back to the guitar playing, I've strived to be unique musically my entire life. When everybody starts playing rock and roll, your dreams are pretty much the normal dreams of rock n' roll stardom, sex, drugs and rock n roll. After a while, it became more of a quest to put my own stamp on metal music and see if I could actually do something to contribute to the genre and do something that hadn't been done before and that no one had heard yet. I think that's one of the biggest challenges to being a composed nowadays is that since music has been around for so many centuries, there's only 12 notes in a chromatic scale. How many times can you mix those together to do something different? It's actually quite a challenge to come up with something nobody has done before.

WC: I'd say you accomplished that mission. Nobody could ever be confused with Manilla Road or Hellwell.

MS: Yeah, that's something that's been pretty unique about Manilla Road. Even though there are lots of bands who have covered our stuff, I've only heard one band out of all of those that sounded really close to us. That was a band called Jotunheim, who did a cover of "Queen of the Black Coast" and it was remarkably similar to our original cut. I'm not saying that the other bands who have covered us are not good, because they all seem to put their individualistic stamp on them, Rosa Crucis did a really good version of "Fires of Mars" that I was impressed with and Slough Feg did a version of "Street Jammer" that I thought was better than the original. Crystal Viper did a version of "Flaming Metal Systems" that I thought was really good, too. Dalavor from Greece did a good version of "Isle of the Dead" and they covered "Morbid Tabernacle" with their violin player Alex instead of doing all the keyboards and synths that we originally used on the song. It was really incredibly cool. It's quite an honor and extremely flattering that all these other bands have been doing cover songs of Manilla Road. That's the highest form of flattery you can get from another musician, that they like your music enough to play and record it themselves.

WC: In Europe,  Manilla Road is held in very high esteem. In America, there's always a cult following, but it doesn't seem to reach the heights it does in Europe.

MS: Yeah, I don't think we'll ever be as popular here as we are in Europe but I've been given some hope for that recently. In a little while back, we played in Calgary, Canada at the Noctis Festival. Noctis is traditionally a sort of black metal/death metal gathering so I was really sort of surprised that they wanted us to play but they made us such a great offer, we couldn't turn it down. I expected to go up there and see about a hundred people who knew who we were and we ended up playing in front of a packed house and everybody knew our music real well. They were singing along with us just like they do in Europe and I was totally surprised. So it seems like our cult following is growing and getting larger. It's spilling out into areas that are getting closer to home.(laughs) It's kinda weird that you get famous far away from home and it finally cycles back to your homeland.

WC: It's happened that way for other bands. Look at Manowar. They can play to tens of thousands in certain parts of the world. Outside of New York and Chicago, I don't know if they can draw a crowd in the States.

MS: We sort of feel the same way, I think. We don't do a whole hell lot of a shows Stateside but the ones we've been doing in the last year have been really good shows and we've been well received. I remember when we played a power metal festival in Kansas City, there was maybe about a hundred people there. We returned the next year to headline it again and they packed out the bar. I think it's on the rise, I think people in America are sort of tired of the drop-D tuning, grinding, no lead work type of stuff. I think people are realizing there's more to music, you can more than just chug all the way through the song.

WC: I would like to think this is true. I know Chicago is a hotbed for true metal.

MS: We played the Alehorn Festival right around the time we did the "Voyager" album and if I remember rightly, that was about the time Bryan was on hiatus. We were up there as a three piece again and it was really a lot of fun. Of course, any time we get to play with Slough Feg, we always have a blast, those guys are great.
Mike Scalzi's a real crazy dude but he's fun to be with.

WC: Yeah, he's different, that's for sure.

MS: Yeah, he's definitely different, but he's the typical artist/musician type. We're all weirdos in our own right! (laugh)

WC: You mentioned earlier you were coming off some studio work. Is that in connection with the new Manilla record?

MS: What we were actually doing this afternoon was rehearsing with Rick Fisher and Bryan and Josh Castillo. Our new album "Mysterium" will be coming out in the first of February and we're doing a special acoustic event on the first of February in a little club in Germany and then we're headlining the Metal Assault Festival in Wurzburg, Germany, which is totally cool because Brocas Helm and Attacker are both going to be there with us. 2013 is the 30th anniversary of the release of "Crystal Logic"  and so we're going to do a special show, we've talked Rick Fisher into coming back and playing the entire "Crystal Logic" album with us at this festival. We're gonna do a three hour show where Rick comes out and we do all of "Crystal Logic" start to finish and then we'll finish the rest of the show doing some more of the classic stuff and some songs from our new album "Mysterium".

WC:  Does it seem like it's been 30 years? Has it gone by quick or does it seem like a millenium ago?

MS: To tell you the truth, the old days when we started back in the late 70's, that seems like an awful long time ago to me now. The time frame that seems that seems to have been happening really quick is the last 10 to 13 years. Once we reformed, everything seemed to go by like a speeding freight train and we seem to still be caught up in that whirlwind. There's always so much to do and so much to take care business-wise. We're also busy writing music and now that we actually get out and tour a lot more, now we're trying to make time to settle down and put things in perspective and take a breather. We have to work to be relaxed and get the vibe and record music the best way we know how.

WC: Even though there were always hardships and ripoffs back then, things seem more soulless now. But it sounds like all the struggles and hard work have paid off for Manilla Road and it looks like Hellwell is doing good right out of the gate.

MS: I sure wish my Manilla Road debut  had been as received as Hellwell's! (laughs) I might have had a better career quicker. But it's all been worth it.  There's been an awful lot of hard work and hard times and disappointments along the way and if anybody was to ask what the key to success for Manilla Road has been, it's been diligence. It's taken a lot of faith, a lot of undying faith. The reason I have a lot of that faith has been because of our fans. The first time I went to Europe and played at the Bang Your Head festival, I had no clue that we were as popular as we were over there. Not only that, but the type of fans we have, they're so devoted, it's incredible. They're really involved in the music, they're really involved in the themes. They understand that we're not just trying to just be a party band. We like to party as much as anybody else, but that's not what we're about.

WC: A non-trendy band gets non-trendy fans. You never deviated from your sound as changes were going on in the music business. There's a certain core of people who appreciate that, even some who might not have been alive when the material first came out.

MS: Oh yeah, yeah! Now that you mention that, it's become obvious to us that there are fans like that out there. When we played in Scandinavia this last year, we were totally surprised when the majority of the audience was in their early 20's and late teens. I was like, oh my goodness, this is great, this means I get to do this for another ten years! (laughs)

WC: Finland is a real metal country. They regularly have metal songs in their top ten, which is a foreign concept here. In America, you're lucky if anybody in the top ten can even play an instrument.

MS: (laughs). I know! I always complain about this drop D tuning stuff that bands do these days, especially in the American metal market. All you have to do is take one finger and put it across a fret and you've got a chord. You never really have to learn how to play guitar the real way. And of course, when you tune it like that, you make it very difficult to play guitar solos. In the key of D, you can rely on open strings to play solos and it's very difficult to play triplets.

WC: I have to say there's more lead soloing bands now than there was towards the end of the 90's.

MS: That's what I was saying earlier. I think it's sort of coming back. I think some of that classic metal approach is coming back and we're seeing it all across the United States with bands like Argus and Orchid. I mean, Orchid sounds so much like old Black Sabbath it's ridiculous.  They're really good, too. There's all sort of bands popping up and I'm loving it, I hope it keeps moving forward like it has been.

WC: I do feel some optimism...and then I look at some Youtube video for somebody doing Gangnam style and it has 80 million views. (laughter) Kind of brings you back down to Earth in a hurry!

MS:  Yeah! Yeah, it does! Oh my God, we saw that in Greece. We were in Athens and our engineer was on tour with us. We happened to catch that video on TV and we all looked at each other and went "what the hell"???