Every week we introduce you to a new or up-and-coming artist. This week, it’s the Australian group Valhalla Lights. After releasing the album in their native country a while back, they are now unveiling it to North American audiences. Vocalist Ange Saul, guitarist George Christie, bassist Brent “Badger” Crysell and drummer Deon Driver introduce us to their band.
Chad Bowar: Give us a brief history of Valhalla Lights.
Valhalla Lights is from Byron Bay, which is a small surfing community on the east coast of Australia. The backbone of Valhalla Lights (guitarist George Christie, bassist Brent “Badger” Crysell and drummer Deon Driver) has been playing together for around 17 years. We were in Fort that did national Australian tours with Clutch (two tours), Kyuss Lives (now Vista Chino), Fu Manchu, Brant Bjork, Nebula and shows with Monster Magnet, Helmet and the Black Keys. Fronting the band is Ange Saul on vocals. We are all about quality vintage instruments played at high volume through tube driven amps. We are fans of big riffs to create a wall of sound, and then Ange cuts through with her vocals to take the edge off.
Our first album Krypton (2015) was a tribute to our first vocalist, Phoebe Black. Phoebe Black is to Valhalla Lights what Bon Scott is to AC/DC. She was our founding vocalist and the events surrounding her death are brutal. She joined the band, wrote a bunch of songs with cryptic lyrics, and then went and killed herself. We should have seen the hidden messages about what she was singing, but we didn’t. We had no idea. She used us as a way to send her last message to the world before leaving it. She totally used us, and it is unbelievable that we did not see it. She obviously planned doing it because the lyrics were created over a period of months. We should have seen it, but we didn’t, and that is something that we have to live with. The lyrics were so cryptic beforehand, but so obvious after. She totally blindsided us. We were numb when we realized. It was so fucking heavy.
We took her vocals and created the first Valhalla Lights album called Krypton which is available only on our website. Here we are now a few years later with a new vocalist Ange Saul, delivered to us by the rock gods. We have a new vibe and a new album, My Gracious Highway, which is just now being released in North America.
Describe the songwriting and recording process for My Gracious Highway.
From the second rehearsal after Ange joined the band we were writhing pretty much a song every couple of weeks. George comes to the band with a riff we shape that into a structure we all agree on and Ange then goes away and writes the melodies. Recording can be a difficult process when you have four headstrong band members. We had to find a balance between raw and really produced. But we got through it and are all extremely proud of the final product.
How did your sound progress from your debut?
Our first album, Krypton, was recorded after the vocalist’s death. Krypton was created in a totally unique way because Phoebe only left us with a jam room vocal recording. We had to take those vocals into a proper studio to record the music in time to the vocals in order to create the album. We have never heard of an album being recorded after a singer’s death. We think it is a world first.
The new album, My Gracious Highway, has been approached in a totally different way and is exactly the album that we wanted to produce. We have had a very traumatic few years, and this album is like, “yes, we made it… we persevered as a band and pushed through all of the difficult times… and this is it!” It has all of our energy, all of our pent up frustration, all of the things that we want to express. It is the complete sum of everything for us. We pooled all of our experiences and we in to the best studio we could find and smashed out the best album we could. My Gracious Highway is exactly how we envisaged it and we are proud of it.
What was the response when it was initially released?
It has been really satisfying to be receiving airplay throughout Australia and also in the USA. The Valhalla Lights fans have been super supportive, our live show crowds have been growing and the feedback has been great. We have also done music videos for almost all of the songs on My Gracious Highway and they have been really well supported also.
What led you to release it in North America now?
We can see in our social media that the response in North America to the album has been really solid, and that was without any official release or promotion. A North America tour is on our radar for this year, there are so many amazing venues to play. It would be a dream to jump in a van and travel across the states playing our music to the people. So we thought it would be a good idea to do an official North America release to push the album out there further.
What are your goals and expectations for this release?
Our goals for this release is that enough people hear it and want to see us live so we can book some good shows in North America and go on an adventure meeting new people and seeing new places and getting to rock! Playing live is what Valhalla Lights does best, and we would like to do that in as many places in North America as possible.
Have you begun working on the follow-up?
Yeah, we have started writing and have a few songs in the works. Writing for us never stops. Riffs just seem to appear in our guitarist George’s head. George was born on the day that Jimi Hendrix died and we think that sometimes he just channels Jimi. Some days George just walks in to the jam room and says “check this out” and lays down the most epic riffs you have ever heard. It seems to be the case that it is not really active writing that happens, it is more just allowing the songs to reveal themselves.
What has been your most memorable Valhalla Lights live show?
We supported Sebastian Bach in Brisbane last year and played to around 1500 people there. That man has a set of pipes on him! Was pretty special to share the stage with and Sebastian and his band, Brent Woods (guitar), Rob De Luca (bass) and Bobby Jarzombek (drums). What a great bunch of dudes!
What are your upcoming show/tour plans?
We have a few gigs booked in Australia but we are really focusing on playing the U.S. this year.
Has the band ever played outside Australia?
Only virtually on our YouTube channel!
How did you get started in music?
Ange grew up surrounded by a musical family and her mother had always been in bands even when pregnant. Ange’s mother said that she was on stage singing and Ange would be would kick like crazy. She was definitely trying to get out to get her hands on that mic!
Who were your early influences and inspirations?
We have been lucky enough to play with many of our musical influences. Clutch, Kyuss, Fu Manchu, Helmet etc. There are also plenty of awesome Australian bands that have influenced us as well. AC/DC, The Angels, The Screaming Jets and many others!
When did you know you wanted to pursue music as a career, and was your family supportive?
For Ange, traveling around with her mother while she played gigs every weekend made her feel like music is a part of her. So from a young age she knew she wanted to play every day, career or not. Her family have always encouraged her to do whatever made her heart sing.
We are what you would call “lifers.” Playing music is what we do. Just like the band that went down on the Titanic playing even when the water was up to their neck, we will keep on playing until the end. Even in nursing homes if we have to!
What was the first concert you attended?
Ange: The first ever concert I went to was The Village People at the age of 10 and at Age 16 I saw the Violent Femmes.
George: When I was about 12 I did a paper run for my local newsagent. Part of the circuit was selling newspapers at the local bar. There was always a band playing whilst I was selling there. That’s where I got most of my tips, too! I’d spend more time watching the band than trying to sell newspapers. The locals would buy me a soft drink, chips, lollies, but some would sneak me beer now and then. (laughs) My first real concert was AC/DC at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in 1988. That set a path I’m still travelling on.
Brent: Growing up in rural New Zealand rock was very hard to come by. I went with a friend and checked out a great NZ band called Split Enz when I was 13, and I was blown away!
Deon: One of my first gigs was Ratcat in Byron Bay, After the show I got talking to a girl and told her I was Simon Days (the singer) brother. I french kissed her in the car park. I was 15.
What are your all-time top 5 favorite Australian hard rock/metal bands?
There are too many to to name! AC/DC will always be number one. The Baby Animals, Mantissa, Hoodoo Gurus, Judge Mercy, The Screaming Jets, The Angels, Midnight Oil, The Mark of Cain, Cog, Hammers. Oops, that’s more than 5!
What’s currently in your heavy musical rotation?
Clutch is always not far away from the playlist, and we hear that there is a new album out soon!
Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
We are super proud of My Gracious Highway. We hope it takes people on a journey as it has for us. For us, that journey is about always taking the high road to remain true to yourself. It is about always making the best decisions possible, and doing the hard work to get the best out of ourselves. We put everything into the music that we create, and we push each other to be the best we can be.
My Gracious Highway is us in an album. When you listen to it, if you like it, send us a message. If you come to a show make sure that you come up and say hello. We love hearing from and meeting fans at shows! An make sure you check out our documentary Shades of Black – the Valhalla Lights Story.
(interview published April 6, 2018)