“I realized just how much competition there was and came to the conclusion that the only way I had any shot at even being heard (especially without having much money) was to learn what to do to promote the band nationally and basically out-work other musicians at promoting myself and the band.” – Joe Sims
ANOTHER BALLBUSTER EXCLUSIVE! Recently, we hooked up with the Axe Master himself JOE SIMS to discuss the past, present, and future of his legendary Metal band AXEMASTER! Enjoy!
- BALLBUSTER – Thanks for talking to us, Joe! Where did you grow up and what first influenced you to play guitar?
JOE – Hey! My pleasure! I have been featured in the Axe-bangers section of Ballbuster more than 10 years ago which meant a lot to me, so it’s great to be in the zine again! I was born and raised in Kent, Ohio, which in the NE part of the state, not far from Akron and an hour south of Cleveland. Growing up I always liked messing around with musical instruments, hell, when I was 3 or 4 my grandparents had an old tabletop organ that I actually made up my own riffs on hahaha! Anyway, not long after I was first introduced to Kiss in the mid/late 70’s (which led me to start loving hard rock/metal), I decided that if I started playing bass, I could team up with a couple friends in my neighborhood who played drums and bass and “make a band like Kiss”. So my mom and grandma bought me a cheap bass and amp from JC Penny’s and I immediately became obsessed with it. Surprisingly enough, we didn’t make a band like Kiss (lol), but I stuck with it and even though I didn’t even know how to tune the bass, I started writing my own songs. After a couple years I wanted to do more different things than what I thought the bass allowed me to do, so I bought a cheap guitar, my buddy showed me the main chords, and I haven’t stopped being addicted to it ever since!
- BB – What other bands were instrumental in you growing to be such an “AxeMaster”?
JOE – Well first, thanks for the kind words! I was mainly into Kiss until I got to junior high school and was introduced to bands like Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, and then was majorly into AC/DC for a while. Once I got a little older, I graduated to bands like Sabbath, Dio, Ozzy, Maiden, and Priest. It took me a while to start digging the thrash scene, but by the late 80’s I was totally psyched on Metallica, then Slayer. You can even see that progression in the old Axemaster releases. If you listen to first “Blessing in the Skies”, then “Death Before Dishonor”, then “5 Demons”, you can see my writing overall get gradually heavier and heavier.
- BB -Axemaster first started in ’82, right? Was this your first band?
JOE – I believe that late 83 was the first time I used the name Axemaster on a self-made release of my stuff where I played everything but drums, an actual band by that name came probably in 84. I was in a couple high school bands before Axemaster though where (in most) we played a few covers, but mainly my originals. My first show was with “Destiny” in like 82, a private party at a bar my grandpa owned. I actually played at my own high school graduation party in 84 with a cover band I was in right before I started Axemaster as a band. So I was in a couple things before the Axe, but no band that did any more than playing a small show here and there. Definitely nothing pro.
- BB -Your first few demos were independently released then your first full-length was put out on Azra in ’86. How did all that come about?
JOE – The first REAL Axemaster release, one that was studio recorded with a real band, was a packaged cassette of 5 songs called “Slave to the Blade” in like 85. Around that time I discovered this totally kick ass underground record store in Cleveland that I drove over an hour to go to whenever I could. That was my first major introduction to that scene and my first education on just how many smaller metal bands there actually were worldwide. It was then that I realized just how much competition there was and came to the conclusion that the only way I had any shot at even being heard (especially without having much money) was to learn what to do to promote the band nationally and basically out-work other musicians at promoting myself and the band. So I bought a book that had the contact info for every indie label in the US and sent the tape out to all the metal ones that I thought sounded interesting. Azra was one of those I sent the tape to and they immediately offered us a deal, signed with them soon after, and recorded “Blessing in the Skies”, which was our first real introduction to the international scene, what got that all happening. It’s funny, I sent the tape to the main metal label in Cleveland, Auburn Records, and never heard back from them, not even a rejection letter. So we couldn’t even get a sniff from the local label, but got signed to one out of LA.
- BB – Didn’t you release a few picture discs after that? Tell us about them!
JOE – Yeah, Azra liked to specialize in shaped picture discs, I guess while we were with them they set some kind of record for the number of them released by a label. Anyway, right before they released “Blessing”, they put out a compilation hexagon shaped picture disc titled Metalgon that included a tune from “Blessing”. Then after the album, they did a shaped picture disc single of a different tune from the album and a new song recorded live which was called “The Vision”. That was REALLY cool, a pretty unusual shape and totally killer artwork. That was the last thing we did with Azra, at least that we knew about. I say that because they ended up putting out a few more picture discs featuring our song “Crusades” that they didn’t bother to even tell us about. I found out about them more than 10 years later when the band had been inactive for a while and I did an internet search of what was out there about Axemaster. Imagine my shock when I saw releases with songs I wrote that I had no idea even existed!!!!!
- BB – By the time the 90’s had rolled around you did one more demo, album, and compilation. Talk about that time. Were there different members than before?
JOE – Well, after we decided not to work with Azra again, we got a different singer and bass player, and in 88 the band did a cassette-album titled “Death Before Dishonor” that was released by a French management company and a promo company from Belgium. That album was REALLY well received worldwide, but unfortunately, we didn’t have the cash to have it recorded decently, had to do it at our practice spot using a higher end 4 track cassette deck. It was a shame because even with a poor recording, the press and fan response to it was outstanding, actually unbelievable considering the sound, and to this day that material goes over well. I often wonder how far that release would’ve taken us if it had been done professionally to where we were able to shop it to good labels.
Then in 91/92, we did a cassette EP called “5 Demons” with a different singer and drummer. That one is actually my favorite of the older releases, it was recorded decently and the material is more like the kind of stuff I write now: heavier/thrashier and more complex overall than most of our past material. We put that out ourselves with distribution through Wild Rags Records. Just too bad that it was released in the early 90’s, grunge was really killing metal at that time, the market for releases like that had gone WAY down, metal wasn’t seen as “cool” by a majority of people at that time. The bandwagon jumpers who had supported metal because it was the cool music of the 80’s, jumped ship to grunge which hurt all metal bands, labels, and press; ESPECIALLY in the US. This release has gone really unnoticed compared to the others, which I think is really too bad because, to me, those are some killer tunes!!!!!!
- BB – Was Dream Or Nightmare a side project of Axemaster? Did you record or tour with them? How much touring had you done at this point?
JOE – No, DorN came WAY later, like 2001 after The Awakening and Reign, when Axemaster had been inactive for around 7-8 years. DorN recorded one demo and then one CD release in around 2004 or 5. We played some out of state shows but didn’t tour. Unfortunately, I hadn’t toured anywhere near as much as I wanted to, the main reasons being 1) lack of money (I’ve always been a poor musician), and 2) that my bandmates never wanted to take the risk and just hit the road, which you HAVE to do in order to reach the level of success in this business that I always wanted. Thank God that the guys I’m with now are more open to traveling and touring. Hell, since 2014, this version of Axemaster has played more out of state shows where quite a bit of traveling was involved than all the other bands I’ve ever been in played all combined!!!!!!
I’ve played with a lot of different musicians, and not meaning to put anybody down, but I’m FINALLY in a band where all the members are as serious about music as I am!!!!!!
- BB -Then came Awakening – was this just Axemaster with a changed name? How did this project differ from earlier work in Axemaster?
JOE – Exactly right! With the changes in the music business in the early 90’s, grunge taking over, Axemaster was struggling to get decent shows and interest from labels, press, etc. I wanted to stick to my guns and keep Axemaster going even though times were tough, but after almost a year of my bandmates constantly bitching at me to change the name and musical direction, I finally gave in and we changed everything: the name, the writing (not nearly as heavy), and playing a bunch of covers. I was never totally happy about it, but we did write some cool tunes and released a pretty cool CD titled “Invictus”. The album features probably my best guitar work to that time, but the whole project just wasn’t ME, it just didn’t feel right doing more mainstream and mellower music, and I NEVER liked playing covers. So I left after just a couple years.
- BB – Tell us a little about the band’s Reign and Inner Terror, for those unfamiliar with those projects.
JOE – Reign was the band I helped put together after I left The Awakening. Reign was definitely a great band, it’s always been my favorite project behind Axemaster. We had a killer live show, was the best live band I had ever been into that point, and put out a really good CD called “Now and Forever”. Reign was really successful, which was totally amazing since we’re talking 1996-1999 when VERY few metal bands were even keeping their heads above water in this country. We actually had interest from some more major labels which was even more amazing for the time. It wasn’t as thrashy as the later Axemaster but was heavy, kind of like a cross between Maiden and Dio. The disc we did was actually re-mastered and re-released a few years ago by Divebomb Records. If anyone’s interested in checking it out, you can go to http://www.divebombrecords.com/site/bands/reign/. The other interesting thing about that band was that the drummer was a childhood friend of mine named Denny Archer, who is now the drummer of Axemaster!
Inner Terror was solely a studio project that I put together after a failed attempt to reunite the original members of Axemaster and do a reunion. Not only did Inner Terror never play a show, we never even rehearsed. Hell, all 4 guys who were in the “band” were actually together in the same room maybe just once or twice!!!! The album we did (“Behold the Inner Terror”) was done totally by recording and sharing files, then I and our singer produced and mastered it (the first thing I ever did used all my own recording gear). The sound isn’t major label quality or anything, but it definitely isn’t bad. We ended up having to put out the album ourselves but didn’t have the money to get it around very much, so it’s REALLY rare; which REALLY sucks because I think it’s a totally kick ass album. Honestly, not counting the new Axemaster album that we’re working on now, the Inner Terror disc is my second favorite release that I’ve ever been a part of, right behind the last Axemaster album “Overture to Madness”. I’ve slightly looked into getting a label to re-release “Behold”, but I haven’t had time to seriously shop it because I’ve been putting so much time into Axemaster. I really hope it ends up being re-released by some label eventually because the material is so killer overall that it’s a damned shame that it hasn’t been heard more!!!!!!
- BB – So in 2015 you got Axemaster back together and did a new album, right? It’s on a killer label Pure Steel, I believe!
JOE – I actually brought Axemaster back and started writing “Overture” in 2010. It took a while to write the album, find the right band members, then record/mix/master the album. I literally spent thousands of hours over 3 or 4 years to mix and master the album because it was the first label release I had ever produced in my studio, and what I have is FAR from professional. I always joke that if someone like Rick Ruban saw what I was working with and how much I went through to produce “Overture”, he wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry lol! Anyway, we signed a multi-album deal with Pure Steel in 2014 when I was about halfway done with the album. They knew I was producing it in my personal studio and even though I’ve been told that they really don’t like bands doing that (from what I hear, it’s crazy how many bands have submitted self-produced albums to PS that sounded like pure shit!!!), they not only went ahead and did the deal fully understanding the situation, but were totally supportive through the whole thing, which extra motivated me do the job RIGHT! I finished the production in early 2015 and PS release “Overture” a couple months later. That was possibly the most important album I’ve ever been a part of because we needed to show the fans that we were NOT just a bunch of old farts recycling an old band to try to cash in on an already somewhat established fan base. There have been a lot of bands from back in the day that has been brought back after being inactive since the 80’s or 90’s; but to me, a whole lot of the ones that put out new stuff fell flat on their faces. Just my opinion, but I think the new albums by a number of these bands when compared to their old stuff were totally epic fails, they seemed to have really lost an edge and their new stuff was nowhere near as cool to me as their past stuff was. It was my mission to make sure that we didn’t fall into that category so I spent a lot of time writing, and it turned out to be worth it because I believe that “Overture” is the best Axemaster album ever, at least until this new one comes out!!!!!!
- BB – How is this new album different from your classic material that folks are familiar with?
JOE – Style-wise, neither “Overture” or this new album are THAT much different than the last couple old Axemaster releases. Maybe what we’re doing now is just a little more heavy/thrashy, especially the stuff on “Overture”. The BIG differences between the band and what we’re writing now compared with back in the day are mostly a result of both having a lot more experience and the members of this band are all amazing musicians and songwriters. Not meaning to disrespect anyone I’ve worked with in the past, but this is by far the best lineup that I’ve ever been a part of. Honestly, I’ve never seen ANY band that had a better lineup in my 30 years of doing this professionally! Those things have led to our new songs being more interesting, creative, and complex, and having better arrangements. I’d also say that overall the new stuff has more technical and complex rhythm work and timings while still being very listenable (a combination that’s tougher to achieve than it sounds). The 2 other things that have made huge differences are, first, bringing in Geoff McGraw on vocals. I think overall he’s definitely the best singer Axemaster’s ever had; he fits our style PERFECTLY, and his writing is nothing short of OUTSTANDING. He comes up with the most kick ass lyrics and the coolest and most interesting phrasing of any singer I’ve ever known. Another major thing is that ever since I brought the band back, my writing has been the best it’s ever been in my career. Call it coincidence, fate, my being in a better mindset, or a combination of things, but whatever it is, for a number of years now I’ve been easily coming up with the some of the best riffs I’ve ever written. It all just seems to flow in a way that it never has before. Pretty wild that even after having written hundreds of songs/riffs over the last 35 years or so, that in the last few years I’ve come up with the coolest and most creative stuff that I’ve ever done, and that trend is definitely continuing!!!!!
- BB – And what can we expect from the brand new album you are currently recording?
JOE – The first thing that everyone who hears anything from the new album will notice right away is that the sound quality is a WHOLE LOT better than anything Axemaster has ever done. We’ve had a couple albums that were indie label quality (including “Overture”), but this one is gonna be more major label quality, or at least DAMNED close (I’ve heard recent albums from majors that I don’t think sounds as good as what we’re gonna have going on). Another thing that’s a major positive about this album is that last year, for the first time in the history of this band, we added a 2nd lead guitarist (Damin Bennett). He’s a fucking killer player who adds a whole new and different dimension to the music. His style and the extra different guitar parts he’s written for the tunes has given everything an extra vibe and made everything more interesting. And I also think the writing is the best of anything I’ve ever been a part of. On “Overture” I basically wrote and arranged all the music myself, but on this album, everyone took part in all the writing and arranging. All the different ideas gave the songs more diversity as a result of everyone’s different ideas. All in all, to me, all this (and more) is why the new one will hands down overtake “Overture” as the best Axemaster album to date.
- BB – Anything else coming up or in the works you’d like to tell us about?
JOE – One very cool thing is that Pure Steel is planning to do a major re-release of old Axemaster material ON VINYL. I don’t know a whole lot of details about it yet, hell, I don’t even know yet what songs they plan to include, so I can’t say a whole lot about it, except I do know that they plan to master everything so I’m expecting that whatever they use will sound considerably better than the originals. It’ll be totally kick ass to have a vinyl release again after all these years!!!! Other than that, once the album comes out we’re expecting that a lot will be happening, so I hope readers will keep up with us on any of the ton of places we’re at online because I think there will be a lot of news happening before too long!!!!!
- BB – Any last comments? Plug your links here!! Thanks again, Joe!
JOE – Thanks for doing the interview and to everyone who took the time to read my ramblings! I’ve been pretty much MIA from being online for the last 6-8 months because I’ve been spending all my time working on my part of producing the new album. But once I’m finished, I’ll be back promoting the hell out of the band and new album online, so any fans who want to contact me, feel free to go for it. The fans mean everything, you’re the reason we’ve been able to do all we’ve done, without you, we wouldn’t have ever gone further than just recording demos in the basement for our friends! So I always return my mail, it might take me a while because I always have so much going on, but I try to never blow anyone off!!!!! Here are the links to a couple of the places where you can check out more about us and keep up with what we’re doing…..
Website – www.axemasterofficial.com
Facebook – www.facebook.com/axemasterofficial
Twitter – https://twitter.com/Axemastermetal