Canada’s traditional metal scene has been burgeoning as of late and epic heavy metal band Gatekeeper are right at the forefront of it all. Looking to keep their momentum from last year’s debut album, East of Sun, they’ve just put out a killer EP titled Grey Maiden. I caught up with founding member Jeff Black to discuss the band’s recent success and the new EP.
Gatekeeper’s Grey Maiden EP:
You can find my review of it here at this link.
Hi Jeff, thank you for joining us! How are you doing?
– Not bad man, busy as hell getting all the final details for our EU tour straightened out but feeling groovy overall.
It’s been a little under a year since the release of Gatekeeper’s debut album, East of Sun. How did it feel for you to finally release an album after all these years and have it received as warmly as it was?
– It’s been a trip! I never thought for a second that my little bedroom passion project would get off the ground in such an active way. Getting to release our album on Cruz Del Sur Music (a label whose bands I’ve admired for many years) was an honour. Being in a band with Jean-Pierre, getting to do a full month-long trek of Europe and selling over three thousand copies of our album are all doors I didn’t expect to open when I started this band. I figured our album would be OK. We’d sell some copies, play a few gigs, maybe scrape our pennies together and appear on the bottom of a boutique festival poster. But we’ve been covering so much new territory that I barely have time to stop and reflect on everything we’ve done in the past year alone.
It’s certainly been awesome to see you guys grow! Given what you know now, what would you have liked to do differently if given the opportunity?
– I like to look at all these experiences as chances to learn and grow so I try not to dwell on things like that too much. That being said, I might have recorded the album at a different studio. Harbourside Studios were good but it’s primarily a school, which means that our album sessions were often pushed aside in favour of student projects and class schedules. We didn’t pay very much and we worked with some talented assistants which was very cool but I prefer to work in a tighter schedule with a clear “finish” date. We did this with the Grey Maiden sessions and the recordings turned out much better. The window to record the songs was small so we were super focused and got a lot done in that time. The more open-ended sessions for the album led to a lot of over-thinking and fussing over tiny details that didn’t always turn out the way we wanted anyways.
East of Sun featured Norse folk tales as its central lyrical theme. What types of themes does Grey Maiden explore?
– I don’t think we’ve moved too far away from the full length in terms of lyrical stylings. The fantasy elements are still up front with as little apology and irony as possible. “Tale of Twins” directly references the story of Sigmund and Signy from the Saga of the Völsungs. The songs that JP writes lyrics for tend to be fantasy imagery used as metaphors for things going on in his personal life. I think his approach is closer to Ronnie James Dio in that way.
Unapologetically in your face fantasy is exactly what we expect from Gatekeeper, and if you ask me, I think metal could always use more fantasy dorks anyways. Since you and JP tend to approach lyrics differently, how do you divide lyric writing amongst yourselves? Some bands write songs then retrofit lyrics on top of them while others tend to write lyrics first and then write a song to match their lyrical vision – when do lyrics come into the songwriting process for Gatekeeper?
– The music comes first almost all the time. There are some exceptions though. Sometimes a cool song title will inspire a riff-writing session (“Warrior Without Fear”) or I’ll come up with a chorus idea first. “Oncoming Ice” started as a vocal melody with some lyrics and grew into the full song from there. The lyrics weren’t used, but I kept the melody line, which is the slow, harmonized lead at the beginning of the song.
How did you approach the songwriting process for the songs on Grey Maiden as opposed to East of Sun?
– I dunno if there was much of an actual process to the full length or the EP. Both “Grey Maiden” and “Moss” are songs that I had written around the time we started recording East Of Sun. Since the recording sessions for the album were booked so far apart from each other we had quite a bit of extra time to play gigs and start working on newer material. So musically I wrote both those songs from scratch (plus “Tale Of Twins”) with a bit of feedback from the other guys. I also worked out the instrumental arrangement for “Richard III”. JP wrote and arranged most of his own vocals with some input from myself and our bassist David.
Despite its short run time, Grey Maiden cycles through several different sounds and styles with each of the four songs being very distinct from one another. Was the EP set up this way intentionally?
– I love it when people tell me this, haha! The older I get, the more value I place in songs being distinct and unique from each other. I won’t say that we pre-planned for that, but I’m glad it worked out that way. We weren’t initially going to release these songs as an EP. We were going to part them out for compilations and splits and stuff but when we started working on the promo for our upcoming tour we decided that the best move would be to bring something a little more serious to the table. So while it was kind of an accident this time around, we’ll be thinking more about this as we work on the 2nd album.
“Tale of Twins” is a re-recorded song from your first EP, Prophecy and Judgment. “North Wolves” and “Swan Road Saga” from Prophecy and Judgment were also re-recorded for East of Sun. What are you trying to achieve with the new recordings?
When we restarted the band in Vancouver we had gig offers right away and didn’t have a lot of time to write all-new material, so we started touring on the older stuff while bringing in newer material bit by bit. After gigging for about a year like this, we agreed it was time to shit or get off the pot. The current members of the band elevate those older songs to a much higher level, in my opinion. Since our setlist was a mixture of older stuff plus brand new material, it made the most sense to us to showcase the band exactly as we sounded at that point in time.
As for “Tale Of Twins”, we decided to play that song at Keep It True since it was the first song that a lot of our OG fans in Europe would have heard. It was sounding quite good so we figured why not do a fresh take on that one, too.
The new EP also features a cover of Tredegar’s “King Richard III” that Gatekeeper performed for Granbretan Invasion – A Tribute To NWOBHM on Skol Records. You mentioned that you guys “had exactly three yelling matches and one fist-fight over this selection” – what made you finally settle on Tredegar over other much better known bands?
– Yeah we basically sealed ourselves in a YouTube rabbit hole for five hours. We wanted to stay away from the more well-known bands like Angel Witch, Diamond Head and Raven because we figured other bands would pick them anyways. So we dove headfirst and came out with a short and bloody list of tunes. Some other potential picks were “Crusader” by Saracen, “Land Of The Living Dead” by Hell and “Why Don’t You Kill Me” by Legend. If we were to cover a more popular band I probably would have picked a song by Saxon. In the end, Tredegar won out because “Richard III” already sounded like a song we might have written ourselves.
That’s quite the selection – that Saracen album is a personal favorite of mine! “Richard III” ended up being a great fit for Gatekeeper in my opinion. Are there any plans to try your hands at the other songs listed here in the future?
– Never say never! Saracen are performing that song at their reunion gigs so we might stay away from that one for a while. Out of all of those I’d probably want to do the Legend song next. The vocal melodies are really awesome in that one. Hearing JP do a song by Hell would be great though. Back when he was in Borrowed Time I got serious David Halliday vibes from their “Black Olympia” single and I send him a Facebook message about it. That was one of the first conversations we ever had I think!
What’s up next for Gatekeeper?
– We’ll be in Europe with Sahedrin for a month following the release of “Grey Maiden” so that’s been occupying our minds right now! I’m insanely excited about it. We’re playing Hell of Hammaburg, Swordbrothers and Up The Hammers festivals, plus a slew of club gigs around the EU and UK. When we get home (assuming we actually make it home) we’ll do a couple festival dates in Canada and dig ourselves in a writing hole for the 2nd album. We’ve already got five songs in the demo stage and lots of other drafts and ideas kicking around. The next album will be all-new stuff with songs written by all the band members so I think it’ll be dynamic, fun but ultimately EPIC METAL.