Hello Mark, thank you very much for the opportunity to make this interview with you. Would you ever thought that after 35 years still both metal press and audience would show such an interest for the band?
Answer: It is great that whether it was five, ten, thirty years that fans still like and appreciate the Band, and the album. When we recorded the record we had no idea that it would have that impact, but we are glad that it did and we appreciate those that keep Salem’s Wych, Betrayer of Kings, and metal in general alive. We are very proud of the album.
Do you feel like Salem’s Wych is considered to be something like an obscure/cult band or a well-kept secret for metal masses?
I guess we consider it more of a cult metal thing. It would have been great during the 80’s to have continued on and done more music, so that we could have been a continued part of the metal scene, but life and changes in where we lived, families, and the rise of hair metal sort of changed a lot of things for metal in general for that time. It’s funny because when I talk with a lot of people from the 80’s whether they are metal fans or in bands from that era, they all seem to know who we are and at least a song or two, so I take that as a great compliment.
How would you describe the genre you play?
Well at the time it was just metal. Whether you were Black Sabbath, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Motorhead or Dio it was just metal. The subcategories came much later. But I would say we ran a bit more along the early 80’s sound before there was a Metallica. But we were probably more in league with Black Sabbath (Dio era), Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Savatage, and Accept. I guess they refer to that now as power metal, but with things like our song Furor’s Reign they sometimes lumped us in with the early thrash metal bands. But to us we were just a metal band. I guess we didn’t really overthink it much.
I know that you have influenced many teenagers but tell which ones are your influences when you started as young musicians?
Thank you, it still makes me feel a little weird when someone comes up and says they were influenced by my playing, humbling actually. When I was young, back when dinosaurs roamed the stages, it was Michel Schenker, Ritchie Blackmore, Gary Moore, Tom Scholtz, Fast Eddie Clark, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Marino, Randy Rhodes, and Scott Gorham. Then as time went on it included all of them, but added people like John Sykes, Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, and many others. There were some monster guitar players in the 80’s.
Tell me more about the early years of the band.
Well I had written a few of the songs that appeared on Betrayer of Kings while I was still in high school, and worked out the arrangements with a few friends that played drums and bass. Then I demoed I think four songs including Sweet Revenge and All Hail to the Queen in a friend’s studio over in Michigan City, Indiana. I then began going to college at Southwestern Michigan, where I met a guy that played guitar, named Randy Tucker, which was in the original beginning of what would become Salem’s Wych, and through him, I met Bill Neff (Drums). Bill and I went through a lot of different configurations of the band, with about four or five guitarist, three bass players, and a few singers, before finally finding Keith Jann, and Tom Bronicki. We then went into the studio and laid down the tracks for the Betrayer of Kings album, and at the same time kept searching for a singer, until we found Ron Johnson, which was the perfect fit.
We played shows now and again ranging from bars to parties in the beginning, and even some all age clubs. We were defiantly the heavy band around our area at the time. There were a few other bands that were cover bands, or that did a few originals in their set, one who was the sort of popier metal band named Stiff, went on to merge with another band, and became Lillian Axe, that had a good run on MCA.
First of all why this name?
I was in school and we drew names for subjects out of a hat that we had to write reports on. By pure luck I drew Salem’s Witches. In researching my paper, I learned that the name wych was spelled a few different ways, including Wych. And with that being the 80’s and weird era band name spellings, like Def Leppard and the like Salem’s Wych it was. We all liked it.
Is it as you are from Michigan something like an origin shouts out?
Yes I grew up along with everyone else in the band in Southwest Michigan. There were and are a lot of metal heads back in Michigan, and just some good hard working people. Defiantly a big shout out to all our friends and fans from back there. I now and have lived in Los Angeles, California for a few decades, but Bill, Tom and Keith still live back in Michigan, and we stay in close touch and have over the years.
In which age did you started the band?
Well the band that was officially Salem’s Wych was started in 1983, when I began playing with Bill Neff, but as I said some of the songs and a few parts that later became other songs started as early as 1981. So I was 17 when I first began the songs, and I was 19 when Salem’s Wych as the band most grew to know started.
How easy was to gather the members of the line up?
No, it took a long time, as with many bands we changed players for different reasons. Some got married, some just wanted to work, some quit music, or wanted to play in cover bands to make music, or had different interests in the kinds of music or style, you know, the usual stuff. Once the nucleus of Bill Neff (Drums), Keith Jann (Bass), and myself (Guitar) got together it really began to gel. Then once got Tom Bronicki (Guitar) and Ron Johnson (Vocals) it was the final pieces in the puzzle that made it click.
Who was the main composer?
I was the main composer for music and lyrics. But we did jam stuff out to put the icing on the cake so to speak.
How difficult was to share the role in the band?
Not difficult really, we all had the same motivation and goal when we started. Though after the first album, there were some differences of opinion on where we should go. You have to remember 87, 88, It was a weird time, because you saw the likes of Van Hagar, Poison, and a bunch of other hair bands selling half a million, a million records, really changing the landscape. It was hard when you talked to record people of that era, promoters, and managers, and trying not to get pulled in that direction. I mean we heard it all, you need a keyboard player, a radio single, a ballad about love. But we always held our ground, and I am very proud of that above everything else.
Give us more information about the writing procedure. Was there any other bands from your area that had strong relationships and either you helped them or them during the first period of the band?
As I said I had two finished songs from when I was in high school, the rest were written over the next two years or so. We were defiantly more into the kings and queens than pop type things. Basically we would have a song structure, then jam it out and tweak it a bit, then I would write the vocal melodies and lyrics and it would come together over days, weeks, and months or longer. It’s funny we just put up lyric videos a few months back, and two of the guys from the band checked them out, and said is that what the lyrics were. I laughed about that a lot. But Ron Johnson sang and lived the lyrics and made them his own. He did a great job. Yeah we knew and liked a few bands, many weren’t like us though, as like I say the hair or pop metal was more the thing, the Motley Crue Theater of Pain era, the Poisons, the Bon Jovi’s, we were defiantly more that outside Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath element. But bands like Stiff (later Lillian Axe), Lethal (Michigan Version), Snow White (Michigan Version), Halloween, Atlantis, Jagged Edge (Indiana version), Fred Kissel Band, and many more I’m sure I’m forgetting . But it was a great scene for live music.
What about the lyrics on “Betrayer of Kings”, who wrote them and is there any special messages through them?
I wrote all the lyrics and melodies. There are lyric videos up on Youtube and most major sites that are up so that people can see them, or check them out. The lyrics were very much clocked meaning, in that it touched on power, greed, evil, but in a medieval sense. Within the king and queens, and devils and revenge and furor, there are tales that fits any time or age. I always liked the way Rush, Black Sabbath, Dio, Thin Lizzy, and ,later on bands like Iron Maiden told stories, revealed the past history with it being cool, and leaving it open for you to delve deeper into without beating you over the head. That was what I aspired to do. I think on some it was what I wanted. I am very proud of the lyrics.
Tell us more about the cover artwork of “Betrayer of Kings”, was it based on your lyrics?
Yes it was. Off the song Betrayer of Kings. The artist Muriel Wilcox is someone I met through Duncan Briggs, the brother of Darwin Briggs, the co-producer on the Betrayer of Kings album. She did these really cool fantasy paintings and did motorcycle tanks and after speaking with her, she agreed to do the album cover. I thought she did a great job. She came up with the gargoyle in the boat and the mountains and moon, along with bringing the idea of the castle to life. For the time it was just the right fit for what we were doing.
How did you end up on choosing it?
Like I said we were introduced through Darwin’s brother, we set down and I sketched a crude drawing of what I saw in my head, and showed her the lyrics to Betrayer of Kings. She took that and ran with it, and told me to come back in a week, and she just nailed it, it was the cover art of the album we all know. As a matter of fact I still have the original painting.
Why was it so hard to find a decent label to sign you?
It was a weird time back then, we were signed to this company Omega Productions, then they went away, then some other deals, and finally we got Metal War, and through our manager at that time Randy Locatis, we got distribution in the states, and some overseas as well. The problem was the album came out in 1986, at the peak of the Poison, Quiet Riot, Bon Jovi, Cinderella, hair metal , MTV era, and by 1986 , 87 if you didn’t have an MTV pop metal hit, a past track record as a metal artist, or selling half a million records, you were not getting those deals with the major labels anymore. Now there were smaller labels, but at the time they were just pumping out bands, not really promoting them or sending them on tour, and it was just a numbers game of, we’ll sign 50 bands, they’ll sell 5,000 to 10,000 albums, the labels makes money, the bands through the recording , marketing budget ends up owing the labels and making no money. And the label owned your masters for a long time. I’m not saying there weren’t good metal labels, I’m sure there were some, but from the ones we were approached by, it was a losing game.
What do you feel about the salty prices people pay for the original first press of the LP ?
I’ve heard stories of $150.00 to $400.00 a record. The band never saw those kind of dollars. That was basically the aftermarket. I am glad people liked the album enough to get it, even at that price, but we made like a buck or two on each album at best.
If there was more material, why you didn’t attempt to release another LP? Was the loss of all of your money the one and only reason the band break up?
Yes we had other stuff in demo or different stages of completion. No money wasn’t the factor; it was more that life happened. I thought we needed to go out to California, some had families by that point, and some wanted to go a different musical direction at the time, just a lot of things. The plan was to do a second album, but as I say the music world was changing quickly and the prospect for a budget and a tour or tour support were not so easy to find back then.
How was your life after the split of Salem’s Wych. Did you stop as a musician?
No, I mean I have always been in and a part of Salem’s Wych. Besides that I was in a band in Los Angeles called Raging Storm, as well as I did session work for metal and many different styles of music for years, and played with bands as a hired gun both live and in studio. I co-wrote music for a few years for an NBC TV show called “Friday Night Videos”, which then became “Friday Night”. And did the NBC New Year’s Eve Countdown show from 1995 turning into 1996. I did jingles, and TV commercials both local and national, co-wrote with some solo artists, and had music placed in Movies and TV shows, including the movie “Teresa’s Tattoo”, with Keifer Sutherland, k d Lang, Nancy McKean, Lou Diamond Philips, Melisa Etheredge, and Thomas C Howell.
What about the other band members. Do you keep in touch with them?
Yes I have kept in touch and talk to Bill Neff, Tom Bronicki and Keith Jann both online and by phone every few weeks, as well as from 2003 to 2007 , and his passing , with Ron Johnson. We still are close, with the remaining Salem’s Wych band members, as well as many of those through the years that left the band prior to Betrayer of Kings.
Are there any plans to re-release your album?
We have been approached by a few labels over the years, and under the right circumstances we would look at that, but our manager would like us to wait until the current situation is over to announce anything.
I know three or four really great labels to do the job here in Greece you know… Salem’s Wych were back in 2000 after a 12 years long split and after almost 20 years still we haven’t got the chance to hear a note from the album “Through Eternity” that was finished somewhere in 2005…?
Yes, we have been approached by several labels from around the world, and hope in the near future to have something to announce through our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. “Through All Eternity”, ok, first there was a label and distribution company that was to release that, we started doing all of the leg work on our end, then they called saying they had filed for bankruptcy. So it was back to step one. There was even a single “Through All Eternity”, that appeared on a compilation CD out of Poland.
The second issue was that as much as I love the album, it just wasn’t a classic Salem’s Wych album. It had more of a more of a vibe along the lines of Metallica, Megadeth, without the harmonies or feel of earlier Salem’s Wych. So I decided to release it under a different band name, or as a solo record, which I still will do at some point, but then other things occurred.
Third, the person that sang on the album, which is a great singer and guitarist, and just an all-around great nice guy, Darrell Roberts, who had been in W.A.S.P. when we recorded the album, but had just signed on with Five Finger Death Punch as their guitarist, and his schedule was full. Also due to his signing on with that band and a major management agency, they would in no way let us promote the album using the fact Darrell was in either of those bands (W.A.S.P. or Five Finger Death Punch), or legal issues would ensue. Like I say Darrell had nothing to do with that and is an amazing talent and great guy. But going to other labels or distributors at that point, was not good. Because they wanted the band, and especially the singer on the album to perform live. Which was not an option.
Around that time (I had stayed in touch like I said with Bill Neff, Keith Jann, and Tome Bronicki), I received an email from Ron Johnson, asking me to call him, which I did. He had some personal things going on but said if we could wait a bit or so he would be up for doing another album with the original Betrayer of Kings lineup. We moved ahead with that and some things stalled then were back on , until finally I was working on things and had five songs that I thought were worthy of a follow up to Betrayers. We were scheduling the time when I could either go back to the Midwest, as Ron was living in Ohio at the time, I think Tom was in Indiana, and Bill and Keith were still in Michigan, or they could come out to Los Angeles. Ron was working as a traveling nurse at that time, so it was a bit built around what he was able to do. So I continued writing while he did his day to day stuff, waiting for the right time to record. We had talked, and tentatively said in two months from that time, that we would get together and start working on new music. Then, about three weeks later I received a call that Ron had passed, due to a motorcycle accident. At that point it just ended the idea for a while. That is what happened, nothing more, nothing less. If there was a way to have Ron here with us and do that album I would have done it in a heartbeat.
Why isn’t it printed? Will Shadow Kingdom Records rerelease it?
I know I don’t always do the popular thing, but I do what is right I feel for myself and the music. At some point “Through All Eternity” will come out, though under a different band name or as a solo album, so as not to muddy the water or legacy of Salem’s Wych, as there are currently no plans for that to be released through Shadow Kingdom Records or any other label presently. If that changes, we will make that known, as well as what band name it would come out under. Which wer would do through the Salem’s Wych facebook account, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, as well as PR releases.
When was your last live show?
For Salem’s Wych played a few years ago in Chicago, at the Ragnorock Festival, this two day metal fest, with a whole host of 80’s and 80’s inspired bands, ranging from Nuclear Assault, to Attacker, to Liege Lord, to the Rods, Q5 and many, many more. Per the request of the promoter, he requested we get as much of an original band from the 80’s era together for the show, but with Ron Johnson (our singer) passing, and at the time Tom Bronicki(Guitarist) being hurt in a separate motorcycle accident and being unable to perform, Bill Neff ( Drums), Keith Jann ( Bass) and myself, along with Cort Hullinger (a guitarist we had had in the band back in the 80’s) filling in on second guitar, and Jann Mills ( Vocals) who sang with the band for a bit, before Ron Johnson joined the band, we played the festival, with as much of an original 80’s lineup as possible. It was to only be a one off, and we played the “Betrayer of Kings” album end to end, which we had never done before.
Do you plan on touring in the near future? Are there any offers from Europe?
We had plans to go out in 2020, unfortunately due to the pandemic that put those plans on hold. We did not have Europe solidified at that point, but we were to have gone to South America. When this pandemic ends we would be very interested in playing in Europe, as well as South America, and other metal locals around the world.
What does the future hold for Salem’s Wych?
We hope to have some announcements coming in the near future, like I say some things were in place to happen but changed due to the pandemic. We are looking forward to when the opportunity is available, giving the fans and our friends some great surprises, that will hopefully make them very happy.
The closing is yours.
I want to thank the fans and those that love metal, if you hear bands you like spread the word, a lot of great bands that do things for the right reasons get lost because they don’t have the big bucks behind them, don’t fit the what’s hot mold of the moment, or people are too busy bashing bands instead of promoting or spreading the words of the bands that are great. I hope that can change a bit. Salem’s Wych will be back, and look forward to the day soon when we will have some news to tell you. Until then, stay safe and fly the flag of metal proudly, because to the bands behind the music, and that you support, it means everything.