Manolis Karazeris is the organizer of Up the Hammers, Greece’s premiere traditional metal festival since 2006, and one of the main driving forces in Greece’s metal scene. Not only has he been responsible for organizing Up the Hammers, but he has also been involved in some of the scene’s best bands. Manolis had an established international career before founding Dexter Ward. He also played guitars for Finger of Scorn and Heathens from the North, Cirith Ungol and Heavy Load cover bands respectively, which played a role in helping reunite the old school legends.
Panos chatted with Manolis about Up the Hammers (past, present, and future), the Greek metal scene, his bands, and the first bands booked for next year’s fest! The following interview was transcribed from a conversation and the formatting reflects this.
At the moment of this interview we are 40 days before the 14th Up the Hammers Festival. Let’s go back to 14 April 2006, 40 days before Up The Hammers #1, What were your plans for the festival back then?
There wasn’t any plan – it was a decision driven by passion. It was a spontaneous thought that came to me while I was touring with Battleroar abroad in various metal festivals, so when I came back I thought “why not starting something in Greece, since it didn’t exist”. So I decided to invite some underground bands like Powervice, Desperation, and Metal Inquisitor that I have seen and I liked very much. But back then the festival mentality was a bit different, I wanted to enlist and suggest the upcoming foreign bands in Greece instead of having the already established bands. So I started inviting all those bands that we have played together previously to come in Greece and have a good time playing music together.
So when was the moment that you said “OK we are moving forward from the point we are having a good time playing music to becoming one of the largest traditional metal festivals in Europe”?
I can recall 2 moments. The first one was at Up the Hammers #3, when I started the collaboration with Music Box Production. Due to the fact that festivals weren’t my day job, I had no idea about things like how to make contracts with bands in order to drive the festival forward. Another thing that I was lacking was the money to make this happen so Music box helped to increase the budget so at that point the organization became more professional and this was when the festival exploded.
The second moment was the (10th) Anniversary Up the Hammers. It was at the difficult moment during the Greek economic crisis, and we were hesitant to invest more money and the progress was stalled as a result. So after 10 years I decided to take a risk and create a line up as I initially had it in mind, at any cost and it worked. It was our first sold out and from that point onwards we started to get bigger and bigger.
This is evident in the venues as well. If we see the venues that UTH uses every year we notice its getting bigger and bigger, so the question becomes do you have plans for even an even bigger venue? Something like an open air festival?
At this point there are no plans of changing the venue, the only place that could possible host UTH is Gagarin, since most of the venues cannot due to noise restriction laws that would force us to start later. So at this point we are not thinking about changing the venue, we are extremely happy where we are and step by step we are moving to the next sold out.
I certainly wish that you will keep up the good work. So, from all the bands that you have invited to UTH, what would you say was most difficult to get?
I would have to say Cirith Ungol and Heavy Load. Regarding Cirith Ungol there were many things we need to work in order to make them reunite, which was something that was mostly handled by Oliver from Keep it True with the help of Jarvis (interviewer note: Leatherby, Night Demon) who acted as the liaison and he managed to pull this through. I was always close to the procedures and I knew how things were going on, and I was ready for when Oliver would persuade them to reunite and play to do my part.
Regarding Heavy Load, it was a process that took years to fulfill, which required a lot of things to happen to finally persuade them to reunite.
The other thing I recall that I tried for years to happen was the reunion of Warlord, which wasn’t a part of UTH, however resulted to this legendary Live in Athens. So I would say these three situations were the toughest to accomplish.
So do you feel that Up the Hammers is becoming part of the history of these great veteran bands? Something like an extra incentive to come out of retirement and get to the stage once again?
I think that it’s the bands that are saying that. I also feel the same because I developed a close personal relationship with most of the bands, and also, if you know that due being unhappy that these Cirith Ungol and Heavy Load were inactive I created two tribute bands (interviewer note: Finger of Scorn and Heathens from the North respectively), which I think that also played a role, especially in the case of Heavy Load who came to the audience and saw us playing. So yeah, I think we played our small part in the things that followed, which is a great honor to me personally as well as the festival.
So regarding the tribute bands, considering the fact that you have received wide recognition, what are your thoughts and plans now?
So it’s done?
Yeah absolutely, though I retain the best memories of that time. We adore both the projects that we had and we have an amazing time. With Heathens from the North especially, we had some really powerful shows. We headlined an international festival ( interviewer note: Muskelrock 2016), a night I will never forget, when we played in Heavy Load’s country as a secret band that nobody knew we were playing – though rumors were flying around – so when I was about to enter the stage I had no idea who will be there, could be 5 people, and we suddenly see a packed venue as far as my eyes could see, and people sung wholeheartedly, and overwhelmed us. Truly a night to remember, probably the best music related night of my life.
So considering the fact that you have 100% success with every tribute band you make, do you take orders? Can I pick a band? What about Randy?
*Laughter* Haha well I like Randy a lot, and I have to say we tried to bring a Danish tribute band to UTH along with the original singer, but for some reason that deal fell through.
How easy is working with people who were following the metal mentality and lifestyle around 40 years ago and then decided to have a regular day job and lead a normal life? Are the bands even aware that there are people who follow their music so many years after?
Some bands are aware, some others aren’t so we need to remind and persuade them that. Surely, the whole process isn’t easy, and when you are becoming part of the process you see quirks and oddities and you have to preserve the balance. There is a very thin line that you have to follow to make these bands open up and trust you in order to reconsider their status, so it’s not something that you can learn – it comes with experience through trial and error. Take Cirith Ungol for example, they have been disappointed by managers and festival promoters and the music industry in general so many years ago, so they didn’t even want to hear about this.
Was there ever a “band that got away” that you have given up trying?
No I think that whatever we tried to do we end up doing it. However, there is a band that we’ve been trying to get for a long time, that they keep denying following that road, and that band is Heavens Gate. But you know what? Never say never. Of course there are things that probably would never happen, but I developed a mentality that I will never give up on anyone and each year I will try and get back to try and ask again and again. Also at one point we were very close to have Viper with Andre Matos at Up the Hammers…
Haha. Wow that would be so amazing…
Indeed, I managed to get to the point getting the confirmation from the band that everything is set, but at some point they band contacted me and said that Andre was unable to join so, I stopped perusing them since I wanted to have the “original” line up.
So all the Up the Hammers festival have been a great success according to the crowd, the bands and the press, to the point that immediately after the end of a festival we long for the next. Was there any point that you felt that things are not going the way they are supposed to or the process is as smooth as we understand it as fans?
*Laughter* Far from it. Something unexpected can always happen, sometimes it’s bad, some other times a little more manageable. There is always great stress about the band coming here and getting on the stage. I have so many almost surreal memories and also there are things like airline strikes which is what happened to Doomsword and we ended up calling the airlines late at night and begging them to let them let them board their plane in order to come here and play. There are musicians who don’t even get in airplanes and similar things, so a lot of things can end up ruining the festival, but so far we somehow always manage to deliver.
So I guess these situations are bound to make you a very stressed person or have you always had a positive mentality that every situation will sort itself?
To be honest I don’t have an optimistic mentality, and I am always stressed as a person in general due to the many things I have to do each day. I consider myself hyperactive and that results to stress, so I tend to get disappointed easily, but I guess since everything is going well each time we must be doing something right. *laughs*
How important is Up the Hammers Festival for the emerging Greek traditional metal scene? Do you think it provides and extra incentive to keep playing so they can someday end up in an UTH festival?
I think that you have to ask the bands themselves, but given the number of applications that we get each year trying to get to the festival, it seems that there are people who are definitely interested to play here, and what our festival has accomplished I think it that have given prominence to many bands. That means that the bands are proud to “put in their resume” that they have participated in Up the Hammers, end eventually that gives them a necessary boost to try and play to other festivals as well, and this is something that I take under consideration as well. When I receive an application and see that a band has played to similar level festivals it is bound to draw extra attention.
So you think that we got to the point of saying that Greece exports metal?
Definitely, I thing that we have a lot of Greek bands playing abroad. Nowadays its easier to travel and “access” venues abroad, communication is easier as well. As long as they are endeavoring to do this even if they have to pay for travel costs themselves, they manage to play. However, what is harder is to get to a festival line up so this is where the resume we talked about before helps. For example, we brought here bands like Enforcer and In Solitude at the beginning of their careers which helped them during those early stages. Of course I am not saying that we made them who they are, but this exposure has helped them a bit, and we enjoy when we are the first festival that sort of “discovers” these bands, and we take great pleasure seeing them succeed.
You talked about the applications that you receive each year. Who ends up making the decision about what band plays and under what conditions?
It’s something that it’s up to me, which actually at this point it’s the only thing I do for the festival, and it’s a combination of personal taste and popularity. So basically I follow the scene and try to keep my eyes open for new bands and get the “hype” of the era, on what’s hot. So I can say it’s a combination of what people are looking forward to see and what my personal taste is. If there is a band I don’t enjoy at all, there isn’t any point having them play.
What would you say are the things that make Up the Hammers Festival different than the other festivals?
First, I will say it’s the Up the Hammers crowd is more devoted to listening to music instead of partying. Festivals that have things like camping tents etc, you can see fans that go to the festival but they don’t even get to the stages! I remember being in a festival like that in Germany, skipping a band that I wasn’t a fan and seeing a fan of that specific band with a patch and everything sitting outside drinking beer! *laughs* I was like dude; ok I know why I am here but what about you? *laughter* So I feel that people that come to UTH enjoy their time parting but they are more “excited” seeing the bands on stage.
Do you feel that the bands get the same vibe?
Yes, definitely! and this is what I personally enjoy seeing as well, the fact that people in UTH are more “devoted to the music”. Also, the fact that venues here have very good organization as well as very good sound. Moreover, Greeks tend to be very warm and don’t hesitate to express their love to the bands and the bands reply in same manner. Finally, I think the fact that the festival takes place in the center of a big city that is alive 24/7, which might sound exhausting in a way *laughter* considering that there are people that don’t sleep at all during Up the Hammers. But this is what makes UTH different, you can party, then go to a club with your friends, without missing the live shows.
Up The Hammers features each year many bands of the so called “NWOTHM” do you agree with this acronym or do you think it’s a very broad term to describe a scene?
No I agree with it, and I am glad it exists to be honest, because it keeps the bands active under one scene. It’s happening, there are many quality bands which are a part, and I don’t see anything wrong with having a term that describes those bands. In general, these bands are filling the first slots of our festival but now, they are also co-headlining, as you can see in the case of Eternal Champion. And for this year it’s our greatest risk, to have a new band with only one LP, and this is something we are looking for in the future, as the greater bands slowly departing the scene, and if we don’t support those bands now, when are we going to support them? We have to give them time, space, and slots to go out and prove that they can go and be worthy surrogates of legends.
I wholeheartedly agree and I completely understand the necessity for this vital move.
Yeah and as you know, people are taking videos during live shows right- which I am against but this is a discussion for another time- and you will see, that when those videos of Eternal Champion will be published, that they totally deserve the co headliner’s spot and others will take greater notice of them.
As Dexter Ward, do you feel a part of this movement? Considering the fact that you as a musician predate the NWOTHM.
Haha, we were there during the tough times…*laughter* as a member of Battleroar though. As Dexter Ward yes, we are part of the movement and we are happy about that. We have made a great effort, and we have published two very nice albums in my opinion (interviewer note: mine as well) so we have a very small part in the history of the movement.
Listen to Dexter Ward’s latest release here:
So explain something to me, you have a day job, family, a band, a festival, how easy is to find time without over exhausting yourself?
*laughs* Yeah its extremely difficult, what makes me survive the day is that I cant stand sitting in one place without doing anything, so I try to find balance though a lot of times I find myself neglecting important stuff, but I have to do the things I do at all cost, through trial and error. This is who I am.
And we are glad you are who you are for our own enjoyment.
*Laughs* Thank you very much.
So last question, I know that you are great fan of wine, and couple of years ago, you made your own special Up the Hammers Wine. Has this project stopped or you plan to get involved with it again?
You know what? I would really want to do that this year, though honestly, I don’t have enough time to do it *laughs* . It takes time to work with the winemakers and designing the label, then I will have to assemble them myself, because everything originally was homemade. I went with my friend Giannis Papargiriou to his vineyard up the mountains and I had to press the pestle myself, so its not easy but I would definitely love to do that again, and people are still asking me, “are you making wine again this year” but again, there is not enough time…
So let me guess, there is a hidden underground cellar somewhere where you keep the last bottles of wine so 30 years later you can sell them for loads of money?
*Laughs* Here’s, the thing, wine is something you share with friends. So every time I was hosting dinner or having friends from abroad, I used to open a bottle for them. The last bottle though, was the most important. It was from the first batch I ever made, and it had Mark Shelton’s signature on it, so I had it with my very good friend Mark Dexter (interviewer note: singer of Dexter Ward) while listening to Manilla Road…
Thank you for the wonderful interview Manolis, is there anything you want to add?
You know what? to make the whole interview even better, you can announce exclusively that for UTH 2020 that will be on the 13th and 14th of March, we have already booked Wytch Hazel and Traveler!!
So here is it folks, a very big thank you to Manolis Karazeris, for finding the time in his extremely tight schedule to fit RideIntoGlory into it, and we are glad that he shared all this amazing information with us.