EXUMER – Waking The Fire
Thrash metal outfit Exumer formed in 1985, Tartaros being where the group can trace its roots. Founding members consisted of vocalist Mem von Stein as well as guitarist Ray Mensh. Hawaiian native Paul Arakaki occupied bass, living in Germany at the time due to the fact that his parents were a part of the military. Drummer Syke Bornetto and guitarist Bernie Siedler completed the line-up, though the inaugural line-up soon changed and would continue to do so.
“We were pretty much influenced by the US thrash metal scene with bands like Slayer coming up, early Metallica, early Exodus,” remembers Mem von Stein, vocalist and co-founder of Exumer. “We also obviously had our European roots though with bands like Venom, Mercyful Fate, and all that other stuff, and the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. We were mainly influenced by US bands, but we were also rooted in the other stuff. We got together, started putting together a line-up, and then we started writing original material. We never bothered playing any covers or what not, and then we put together a little demo, a three-track demo called A Mortal In Black. We recorded that in late ’85, and then shopped it around a little while.
“In mid ’86 we then started playing live a lot, and invited some labels to the shows. We then eventually got picked up after a live show in the summer of ’86, and subsequently went on to record our first album Possessed By Fire in 1986. That got released, and it went down really well. Critics liked it, fans liked it. Everybody really liked it. We then got into a few arguments so I decided to leave my own band, but our disputes lasted for like two weeks and then we were all friends again. In the meantime though, he thought he would ask Paul – who had left the band previously as a guitarist – to come back and play bass and sing, to substitute.
“I tried to do some other more hardcore kind of influenced style of thrash at the time, so we parted ways and the band recorded another record – Rising From The Sea in 1987. A lot of touring followed; they toured with Suicidal Tendencies, and at the same time the records got released in Brazil and Poland which were kind of like very exotic markets at the time. The band went out to those places, played a bunch of shows, and then in ’88 after all that was done Paul decided to go back to his native Hawaii. He left the band for the second time, so at that point the band was pretty much in a dire place.
“Then they got another line-up, but that was not really a line-up that had anything to do with the original line-up. The band recorded one more demo, and that was it. Over time, over the years, after the band split up in 1991 I received a lot of fanmail. People always asked me ‘Hey man, why don’t you get the band back together?’ That materialised at Wacken in 2001 where we did a one-off reunion show for the fans, and then we put the band back to rest because I had moved to the United States for a second time and everybody else was in Germany.
“I had an old school thrash metal band here in New York and Ray was involved in a rock project, so we let sleeping dogs lie until 2007 when Paul came to New York from Hawaii and visited with me. We connected really, really profoundly in a deep kind of fashion, and then when he left I was kind of sad. We were thinking ‘How could we arrange that we see each other – Ray, Paul, and myself – on a regular basis?’ We said ‘You know what? Let’s get the band back together,’ and I said ‘Well, if we’re gonna do it this time it’s gonna be a real working band.’ That meant we record albums, we go on tours, and we don’t play reunion shows. We got back together, started working on new material in 2008, and did our first tour which was the Five Nights Of Fire tour in 2009.
“Me and Paul were singing, and Paul was playing guitar as well. After that tour though it kind of became evident that it was a lot to demand from Paul to do all of the logistics, juggling a band out of Hawaii, being a band member, and then travelling extensively. He wanted to get married, and have a family. I don’t know if you know, but Hawaii is actually kind of far away from everything. It’s closer to Japan and Australia than to anywhere else really, so it was really strenuous for him. I actually went to his wedding last year in Hawaii. He’s very happy, he’s got a wife, and he just kind of realised that he didn’t wanna be doing this. A lot of intense time travelling, it does take its toll on you. We love it, we do it, and that’s what we’re into. His head wasn’t in there though, and it was cool that he let us know rather than dragging it out. He left the band for the third time, but Ray and I said ‘That doesn’t matter; we’re gonna continue the band.’ We then continued touring, and last year we finally recorded the third album.”
Despite sporting the moniker Mem von Stein, the singer isn’t actually German. “I was born in Turkey, but I grew up speaking English, Turkish, and German at the same time,” he clarifies. “I have dual citizenship with Turkey and America; I have a Turkish and American passport. My parents moved to Germany when I was a kid from Turkey, and I grew up there. My father worked for the United States military in the beginning when they first moved to Germany. He was working as a translator in the Turkish army prior to that, so he was able to speak English but not German. I grew up listening to heavy metal, punk, hardcore, hard rock. I started listening to metal music very early, any kind of guitar music really. That’s how I formed the band over there.”
Issued in 1986, Mem found writing and recording inaugural full-length Possessed By Fire to be a joyous experience overall. “We were really young guys, 17 to 18-years-old,” he recalls. “It was the best time for metal in my opinion – it was the 80s (laughs). It was very exciting. You were kind of feeling you were part of something much bigger than yourself. You couldn’t point your finger at it really because bands were getting a lot of attention, and in Europe we were part of a scene that was kind of breaking out and getting bigger. Bands were getting signed to major labels but with music that was still kind of extreme, and it was a really exciting time.
“Recording that record for us was a big deal because we were a small band from Frankfurt, and then now here we are recording in Berlin with Harris Johns who had recorded Kreator, Helloween, and all these other bands. We were a bunch of teenagers who could barely play our instruments in retrospect but had some good ideas and good songs, and then we did what we needed to do. It was a very interesting time, and a very exciting time at the same time. It was very special; it felt bigger than you could say in words, and provingly so after all this time passed. A lot of people like Possessed By Fire still after all this time, so it still holds up.”
Exumer initially disliked working with producer Harris Johns. “We went to the studio, and he barely talked to us,” the frontman reveals. “He just said ‘Do this, do that,’ and we thought ‘Man, this guy doesn’t like us. What’s wrong with this guy? What can we do? What’s going on?’ What he actually did though was the smartest thing, which was he guided us without nonsense through the recording process. When we had then tracked all the songs and everything was finished recording, he opened up and was really friendly. He said ‘Alright, now we’re gonna do the mixing.’ Everybody took a day off, and then with the mixing of the album everybody was a lot more involved. We were very, very young, very inexperienced, so in retrospect he did the best thing that he could by not wasting a lot of time with friendly chatter. We had 14 days to record and mix that record, and that’s not a whole lot of time.”
The term ‘thrash metal’ essentially describes Possessed By Fire. “It’s quite a mix of all the music that was happening at the time,” Mem reckons. “I think you can definitely hear a lot of Exodus from my vocal style, a lot of Slayer type of stuff, and a lot of even Metallica, but we kind of mixed everything together into a thrash metal soup. I think what happened then was that the band kind of developed its own style out of that. Sure you can hear all the influences, but you can hear those influences if you listen to a Destruction record as well. I think the band utilised all the music around and all those influences, but then came up with its own formula really. It’s energetic, and very, very aggressive music.”
Citing Exodus as a vocal influence, the Exumer member is specifically referring to the late Paul Baloff. “And only Paul Baloff,” he stresses. “He was my favourite singer back then, and he’s still my favourite now. He’s truly legendary, that guy. I met him on the first tour he came to Germany. We hung out for three shows. They were opening up for Venom in ’85 when we first met, and then I met him many years later when they came back in ’97 with that same line-up except for having Jack (Gibson) on bass. He was a fun guy. I mean, he was rowdy. He was a lot older than everybody else in Exodus, and myself (laughs). He was fun to hang around, partying, and always into something. He was really nice at the same time, and was not a star whatsoever. He was a people’s man; he would hang out, have drinks, and was all about the fans. He didn’t look at himself like some rock star whatsoever. It was really nice meeting them back then, and him especially. But yes, definitely very cult, very awesome.”
Having previously worked for Metal Hammer, Mem has met many heavy metal musicians. “I met Mercyful Fate, I did interviews with King Diamond,” he begins. “I did interviews with Lemmy (Kilmister, Motörhead vocalist) in ’84, I hung out with Metallica in ’85. I was pretty much the only person who exclusively interviewed Lars (Ulrich, Metallica drummer) at the Metal Hammer Festival in ’85 at Loreley in Germany. The Metal Hammer Festival was headlined by Venom. Metallica played, all kinds of bands. It was pretty much the jumping off point, before Master Of Puppets was released. I think they premiered ‘Disposable Heroes’ that night. Even though Venom headlined, Metallica was already kind of secretly headlining.
“So yeah, I’ve met a lot of people. Again, you have to put it in retrospect though. They weren’t superstars at the time, but were on the verge of becoming big stars. It was all just happening; a lot of my friends were either doing fanzines or working at magazines or playing in bands themselves, and were all involved in the scene. It was fairly easy to meet bands. I met Ray at a Slayer show where we both worked as the local road crew; we hung out with the Slayer dudes, who were hanging out back then. Everybody was backstage, so it was fairly easy for us to meet and hang out with people.”
The vocalist hung out backstage with Metallica while the quartet were touring 1984 sophomore outing Ride The Lightning. “They were getting a lot of great press,” he tells. “There’s this picture of them I think on Ride The Lightning backstage where they’re just hanging out after the show, and it was funny because one night when I went to hang out with them it was a very similar situation. I thought ‘Wow, this is like déjà vu. Am I walking into the photoshoot of this record?’ Just moments like that. I remember Lemmy being in a bad mood when I interviewed him in ’84, stuff like that, but it was all good. I was a little kid, 17-18.”
Ride The Lightning was the second of three albums (the others being July 1983’s Kill ’Em All and March 1986’s Master Of Puppets) Metallica recorded with bassist Cliff Burton before his untimely death in September 1986 at the age of 24. “He was great, awesome,” Mem enthuses. “He was phenomenal. That guy was like one of the best people I’ve ever met playing in a band, super nice. He would talk to anyone, and at any time give autographs. He would just stand in the audience, go backstage, get a beer, change into a fresh shirt, come right back out, and hang out with everybody. It didn’t stop even when they got bigger. When they did Loreley the rest of Metallica was not really anywhere, but Cliff… We got there the day before the festival and started, and then Cliff was hanging out with all the fanzine dudes. Talking, smoking pot, whatever. It was an awesome, awesome time with him. He was never a rock star at all; he was the epitomy of a scene dude, really into just living metal.”
The singer’s original stint with Exumer was relatively short, arguments causing him to leave during 1986. “Oh, it was nothing man,” he insists. “We were like little kids. I was like ‘It’s my band,’ and they were like ‘No, it’s our band.’ It was just silly stuff. I mean, we didn’t really argue. We had a lot of energy and big egos, but then we were also good friends. Ray and I first met in 1983, and it’s like family. You talk bullshit. It’s nothing really serious, but it’s serious enough to argue about. At the time it was very easy for me to think ‘Oh, ok, I did Exumer. I’ll do another band, and it’ll be just as popular and just as successful. Not a problem.’ I was getting into a lot of crossover hardcore stuff – Cro-Mags, D.R.I., all that stuff – and I wanted to bring those influences into thrash more.
“Actually, I subsequently formed a band called Phobic Instinct that had those influences. We disbanded in ’89, ’90, and then formed this band called Of Rytes with some members from Phobic Instinct and some other musicians. I did a record (1991’s Without…) as a member of that, and that was influenced by technical metal and technical hardcore. The two guitarists from Exumer – Ray and Bernie – and myself did a crossover black metal type of thing in the 90s. We recorded records for Noise Records and Sony Music. So yeah, I experimented with a lot of stuff but I never lost my love for thrash or for metal. It was always rooted in guitar music, but then you get older and kind of say ‘Alright. I’ve tried everything now I’ve wanted to try.’
“That’s why when I moved to New York I said ‘You know what? I’m gonna do a thrash metal band, really old school.’ That’s when I started coming to my senses. I was like ‘I just wanna do what I like the best from all the music that I’ve tried in my life.’ When we decided to do Exumer, at that point I was just into old school thrash metal again, so it felt very natural for me to relaunch the band.”
Musical differences were a determining factor at the time of Mem’s initial departure from Exumer. “Musical differences, and just silly stuff,” he adds. “It wasn’t like ‘Oh, everybody make millions of dollars, and then figure out who gets what writing credit.’ It was never about that.”
On August 3rd, 2001 at the Wacken Open Air in Germany, Exumer reunited for a one-off performance. “I was invited to go to Wacken in 2000, and hung out with the Rock Hard guys and the Metal Blade people from Europe,” the frontman discloses. “At the time a lot of bands were coming and playing these one-off shows, these reunion shows, and Wacken was very popular too. When I was visiting in 2000, all these guys approached me from Metal Blade and from Rock Hard. Everybody was like ‘Hey man, we really loved Possessed By Fire and we love Exumer. Would you consider playing a show at Wacken? How about next year?’ At that time I was already living in the United States. I was going to college, and I was like ‘I don’t know.’ I then said ‘You know what? I can do it.’ We got it together, and to be honest a lot of fans wanted us back. I mean, people were writing to us all the time, and especially me. I was like ‘You know what? Maybe it is a good time to do this one-off thing’.”
However, this wouldn’t materialise into a fully fledged reunion. “Everybody was doing other stuff,” Mem explains. “We had some big offers from big labels to do full tours and reunion records and stuff, but it didn’t feel right. I think partly the reason why this new album has been received so well is we wanted the band to be active. We wanted this very badly to be a good record and to play good live shows, and I think that’s why this last record turned out to be so good. The timing was right. I think we did the right thing. It’s nice to be offered a lot of money, but you know what? Nobody’s head or heart was really into it, whereas now that’s all we do.
“When we do Exumer, nobody does anything else. Nobody works on any other job; when we do Exumer that’s all we do, and when we don’t do Exumer everybody else does other stuff. Since 2008 that’s all we do. When we get together for tours there are no wives, no girlfriends, no jobs, no nothing. Exumer, Exumer, Exumer, and that’s I think the right way to have this band working. That’s the best approach that we could have to push the band forward.”
Seven years later in 2008, Exumer permanently reformed. “Ray wasn’t in a band anymore, and I wanted the band to be back together,” the vocalist divulges. “Timing wise it was perfect because Paul also works at Apple, so with the internet we could just bounce back ideas. Everybody could practice by themselves until we would get together in a rehearsal space, and then work as a whole band. Those are all things that were different, and again, it’s all about passion. If your heart is in it the thing is gonna be good, but if your heart isn’t in it then it’s not gonna be good. We wanted to do a one-off at Wacken and that’s what we did, but we didn’t wanna do a whole tour and a new record. Now the time is right. It’s all about timing, but in any relationship… If you’re with a woman or whatever you’re into, sometimes things don’t work out because they have other ideas. It’s just all about timing.”
On December 5th, 2011, it was revealed that Exumer had inked a record contract with Metal Blade Records. “We recorded the album, and financed the record,” Mem informs. “We didn’t wanna have any input from labels or anybody who would finance the record, and then would have a say in how the album should sound. We financed the record, and then we started shopping the record around. We got interest rather quickly, but I’ve always been to the Wacken show since 2000 from a year prior to the Wacken show we did. I had become friends with the guys in Europe, and obviously I was like ‘Yay.’ I let them hear it too obviously, and heard what they said. They then got really interested, and pursued us very aggressively. It kind of all fell into place because it’s much better to do business with people you trust, where you know they can push your product in a way where it makes a lot of sense.
“We’re not a band that plays 200 shows a year, so we need a lot of backing from the label to make sure that people know that our albums are out. We felt that Metal Blade gave us the best deal, and offered us the best promotion. We have a good connection to them because we’re friends; I’m friends with the guys in Europe, so it all made sense. The band has gotten to be much bigger than just a German band. We have fans all over the world now, so we needed a label that can represent us just as much. I think between Nuclear Blast, Century Media, and Metal Blade, those are the three main metal labels that come to mind that could do such a job. We just decided to sign with Metal Blade.”
Exumer’s 2012 line-up has been stable since 2010. “I am on vocals, and Ray Mensh is on guitars,” the singer elaborates. “We’re the two founding members, and then we got Tony Schiavo playing bass who’s been with us since the Five Nights Of Fire tour in 2009 actually. Tony has been my friend since I almost moved here, and it’s been 12 or 13 years now. He’s a really talented musician who knows about playing bass in a way where he compliments the band. There is bass, but it’s not hidden in somewhere with the guitars. If you listen to that album, you can hear the bass on it actually. He’s a great musician, and has great ideas.
“H.K. is a guitar player who replaced Paul in 2010, and then there’s Matthias Kassner who’s been our drummer since 2010. Matthias is a perfect drummer for Exumer; he’s very on point, his timing is impeccable, everything is perfectly played, and he’s a great guy all round. H.K. plays a lot of guitar solos that Ray doesn’t like to play; a lot of the tremolo stuff you hear guitar solo wise is done by H.K. He’s a good back up to Ray definitely, and Ray still writes all the music. Between Ray and I, we do everything in terms of music and lyrics. Everybody is very important, but in every band you have a couple of members who do the majority of things and everybody else fills in the gaps. It depends on what everybody’s role is though. I think we have a really strong line-up that holds up really well live too.”
Exumer’s reformation culminated in third opus Fire & Damnation, issued in April 2012. “We were writing fairly early,” Mem reports. “We started writing in 2008, and really started getting ideas together. We took off all of last year from playing live. We said ‘What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna take time off from playing live, and just concentrate on the album.’ What we did was we basically went into the rehearsal space, got all these ideas, and put the record together in our rehearsal room. It sounds very organic and it sounds very impulsive, and that’s what we wanted. We wanted to have that energy from when we were kids from the rehearsal space, and project that onto the record. The majority of the material you hear on the new album came to be inside of rehearsing. When we get together we usually block out two or three weeks, and then we just play ten hours a day like going to work. That’s when this record came about, and I think you can feel that the energy and the impulsivity of the music comes from that.”
26 years separate Fire & Damnation and Possessed By Fire. “We can play better, we’re better musicians, and the sound is a lot fatter,” the frontman appraises, comparing the two. “It’s a thick sound, but I think the spirit is still there. Obviously I’m not 18-years-old anymore and I’m not singing exactly that way, but I think that all of the elements one would like from Possessed By Fire you can find on Fire & Damnation.”
Thrash is still very much the central ingredient, however. “Oh, it’s a 100% thrash,” Mem confirms. “It’s very, very fast, very energetic, and very aggressive. It’s got the same ingredients that people like from Possessed By Fire. You can find them on Fire & Damnation, there’s no doubt about it. We did something special too. We re-recorded ‘Fallen Saint’ from Possessed By Fire and we re-recorded ‘I Dare You’ from Rising From The Sea, but we switched singers. I sing on ‘I Dare You’, and Paul sings on ‘Fallen Saint’. We did that for the fans so they could have a special treat, but also to kind of prove to ourselves that the music that we wrote 25 years ago is still good today and those riffs still hold up today. There’s some interesting stuff going on on the record, but definitely it’s 100% thrash. It doesn’t get more thrash than this record. I mean, not for us. It’s up to the fans to decide, but I think people won’t be disappointed.”
Modern influences arguably do not figure. “The only people that influenced us are ourselves,” the vocalist surmises. “We are our own biggest influence. We do the music that we wanna hear, and there’s no real other influence. I listen to other music, but when we do Exumer then that’s what we do. I love for instance this band Ghost who sound like old Mercyful Fate to me, but that doesn’t have any room in Exumer’s sound. I wouldn’t try to emulate that. I think at this point in the game everybody in the band is rooted enough that we can easily grab into our own toolbox and come up with music that we love, music that we are the biggest influence of.”
Grip Inc. guitarist Waldemar Sorychta (ex-Despair / Enemy Of The Sun / Eyes Of Eden) handled production duties on Fire & Damnation. “When we heard what he did with the last Sodom record (In War And Pieces, November 2010), we really liked the results of that,” Mem judges. “We then said ‘You know what? We’ll talk to Waldemar and see if he’s into it,’ and he was into it. He was immediately like ‘Yeah, sure. I remember Exumer.’ We met with him, and it was very easy. He agreed to it. He was also within the range of the budget we had, so it worked out really well for everybody.”
Lyrically speaking, the singer gets “pretty much influenced by a lot of everyday stuff. There’s one song called ‘The Weakest Limb’, which is about a psychotic disorder where people are uncomfortable with their own limbs. They don’t like having an arm or a leg, and it feels alien to them. That’s fascinating to me, so I wrote a song about it and put a story around it. ‘Vermin Of The Sky’ I wrote after what happened in Japan, after the tsunami and almost the nuclear fallout of that. I tried to use a lot of strong imagery, and I tried to keep the lyrics very metal. I want the music to fit the lyrics and the imagery. Everything has to be one.”
Given his affinity for hardcore music, one might assume that Mem’s lyrics exhibit political leanings. This isn’t the case though. “I don’t write about Satanic stuff, but when I talk about certain imagery it always stands for something,” he speculates. “There’s one song called ‘New Morality’ where it’s a story around an urban setting, but it’s still within the confines of thrash I think. You’ll find the same thing in early Exodus and early Slayer records when you talk about urban environments, crime and what not. Lyrically it’s very rooted in the 80s.”
Stripped of bonus material, Fire & Damnation clocks in at roughly 33 minutes. “It’s very fast, it’s very to the point, and we wanted that,” the frontman notes. “We wanted to write the record that we wanted to hear, and I don’t believe that it’s fitting for Exumer to have eight-minute songs and nor does Ray. We write fast music, aggressive music, and with catchy hooks and good breakdowns. The songwriting approach is very 1980s; if you listen to the tracks, you can listen to them once or twice and you immediately can recognise them. Again, I think that’s something that is very 1980s songwriting.”
Generally speaking, Mem doesn’t listen to lengthier compositions which span seven to eight minutes. “I’ll listen to Rush or something,” he offers. “When I listen to thrash, I wanna hear thrash. Fast, in-your-face, catchy, and aggressive. If I wanna listen to something progressive, then I’ll listen to King Crimson or something. Even Iron Maiden I can listen to who have longer songs, but there are certain genres… I mean, you don’t listen to punk rock for very technical things. You listen for the energy; if you listen to the Bad Brains, you wanna hear that power. If you listen to Motörhead, you wanna have quick songs that are catchy. It’s the same thing when I think about thrash. When I think about thrash and our band, I want it in your face and not eight minutes of intricate guitar playing. You listen to these things for a certain reason. It has to be played well I think and that’s something else, but altogether you listen for certain qualities in different genres.”
Future material is firmly on the horizon. “We gotta tour this record, but we usually start throwing ideas around really early,” the vocalist acknowledges. “We’ll probably start in May just working on new ideas, and then we’ll definitely be back with a new record in 2014.”
Fire & Damnation was released in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland on April 6th, 2012, in the rest of Europe on the 9th and subsequently on the 10th in North America, all through Metal Blade Records.
Interview published in April 2012. 2012 Exumer promotional photographs by Thomas Pullicino.
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