Smiling Back at Death: An Interview with Grave Digger


In the early to mid 1980’s Germany was a hotbed for power/speed metal, producing such notable acts as Running Wild, Helloween, and Blind Guardian. One of the most revered and longest running bands to emerge from the scene is the mighty Grave Digger. Formed in 1980, Grave Digger had a successful run in the 80’s, sharing the stage with the likes of Celtic Frost and Helloween. After a brief split-up in 1987, the band reformed in 1991, and have been carrying the heavy metal torch high ever since.

Earlier this year, Grave Digger released Return Of The Reaper that saw the band returning to its roots, and has garnered much critical acclaim. Praised by fans and critics alike, Return Of The Reaper displays Grave Digger in top form. We had the chance to speak with long-time vocalist Chris Boltendahl recently. Here’s what he had to say:

“We don’t want to change anybody, we just wanna give people a good time.”

Metal Blast: Very few band are able to do what Grave Digger have accomplished, in the sense of staying relevant and successful for as long as you have. The band started 34 years ago, your debut Heavy Metal Breakdown was released almost 30 years ago, and yet you’re still going strong. When you look back, and especially being the only remaining original member, what do you think has allowed the band to continue going?
Chris BoltendahlTo believe in myself and in heavy metal; this is the kind of music that I wanted to do when I was 12; when I was 18 I wanted to be a metal star, I worked hard for that, and I’ve always believed in the music I make. We’ve always gone our own way through the metal scene, and that’s what has allowed us to be here; we are here, stronger than ever! [laughs]

MB: As the sole original member, do you feel it has been a big weight on your shoulders to keep the band alive?
Chris: I don’t feel it like that; I feel it more like a gift that I got from some bigger force that has guided me through the metal scene. I am really pleased with everything that has happened, because even from the bad things I’ve gained experiences that were useful for the future. I’m a happy and relaxed guy.
When I saw all the reviews for our new album I just said to myself “well, you did the right thing!“.

MB: I agree with you on that; Return of the Reaper is a very good heavy metal album, and you simply can’t tell that it’s a band that has been going for all these years. Speaking of which, are you planning on doing anything to commemorate this anniversary?
Chris: It’s a good question! We had forgotten that next year is the 35th anniversary of the band. We forgot it through all the promotion and the planning. We’ll think about something to celebrate the anniversary; we have some things in mind, but we have to think about it a little bit more.

MB: Over the course of the last few albums you’ve been dealing with a lot of historical subjects, yet Return of the Reaper departs from that and just deals with death, Satan, and more traditional heavy metal topics. What caused this change?
Chris: We did a lot of history stuff before, but after Clash of the Gods we felt exhausted with all of these concept releases. I told the guys that I wanted to do like we did in the 80s, not thinking so much about what we are doing, and just write a lot of songs and then decide. This is also why we called the album Return of the Reaper, because it obviously has nothing to do with the original Reaper album.
Our intention was to do something simple, heavy and aggressive, which are the trademarks of a Grave Digger album. Following a concept can be really interesting, but you have a small space within which you have to work, because you are limited by the concept you’re following. The songs also have to work for that concept, so this time we enjoyed the freedoms we had.

MB: You mention making an album like what you used to make in the 80s, a straightforward type of album. Do you think that the band had moved away from that?
Chris: The original concept idea started with Tunes of War, and nobody believed that the album would be so successful. Then the record company asked us to do another concept album, because people loved it; so we did Knights of the Cross, which was totally the opposite of Tunes of War, and kept going like that. 
We started to believe that we were a “concept metal band”, that we would only have success with concept albums. It’s addictive! Eventually we realized that we needed to stop that for a while. I can’t say that it will never happen again, but at least for a few years we won’t do another concept album, because we really enjoyed writing the lyrics for Return of the Reaper, and we’re already dealing with some ideas for the next one, so we’re totally creative at the moment.

Grave Digger: (L-R) Stefan Arnold, Jens Becker, Axel Ritt, Chris Boltendahl, HP Katzenburg

MB: Since you mention the record label; how much of the decision of writing concept albums came as a result of commercial considerations?
Chris: If you do something really successful, people around you who share on this success want you to continue with it. In the end it was our decision to make these albums, nobody else was deciding for us.
After Clash of the Gods I told the guys that I didn’t want to do it anymore, that I really wanted to write something normal, like we did in the 80s. It was a very fast decision.

MB: Throughout your career you’ve been constantly producing new material. Did it ever become too tiring to continue with the same rhythm?
Chris: We are Germans; we are very hardworking guys! [laughs] We have a very straight kind of thinking, so if we start with something we really want to carry on with it until the end. That’s the magic of Grave Digger; we’re always working hard. Our career goes up and down, we have good times and bad times, but we never think about stopping. We always want to give people the best we can do.

MB: In an interview you mentioned that you decided to stop drinking and smoking in order to preserve your voice; since then, and as you grow older, did you undergo any other changes in lifestyle to maintain your singing?
Chris: Yes, I started to play golf [laughs] When I stopped drinking, back in 2000, I started to play golf! 
The first few months of abstinence were really hard, but I always believed in myself; I knew that if I didn’t stop drinking I would die as a result, so that gave the motivation to continue. I’ve never regretted that I stopped drinking; I enjoy my life, I’m a happy guy.

MB: You were developing a drinking problem?
Chris: Not really, but I had some sort of depression with all the pot smoking and drinking, so I was losing myself. I wanted to find myself again, so I stopped doing all of that shit.

MB: Considering the “backstage environment”, particularly in festivals, has it been very hard for you to stay clean?
Chris: No; I’m German, when I make a decision, I follow it [laughs]. I’ve never had a problem when I see people doing drugs, or when the guys in the band are drinking on stage.

MB: Do you think that it’s difficult for musicians to stay away from drugs and alcohol?
Chris: I think so, because if you’re not strong-willed it can be very hard to say “no”. For me it was never a question to start again. I’m a capricorn, I’m very strong-willed! [laughs] I’ve lived drug and alcohol-free for 14 years, and it feels perfect.

MB: In the last few years I’ve seen a resurgence in “traditional heavy metal”, despite the newer subgrenes of metal; why do you think that, after all these years, people are still going back to the roots and emulating the kind of material that you guys put out?
Chris: I think that this kind of music is perceived as very honest; it has a perfect simplicity, and that’s what people like about it. You don’t have to think when you listen to it, there are no political messages; we don’t want to change anybody, we just wanna give people a good time. People notice this and have fun. If you’re driving your car and listening to “Road Rage Killer” [from Return of the Reaper]… it just rocks!

MB: Accept seem to be a big influence for Grave Digger; like you, they seem to be having big comeback nowadays. As a fan, how do you see their new material?
Chris: I’m not really into their newer stuff, to be honest. I’ve listened to a couple of songs, and they’re good, but I’ve always felt that without Udo there can’t be an Accept. I’ve been fan since their very first album, and I saw them live many times when they were still with Udo, so even though Mark is a great singer, it’s still a bit far from their original sound. Then again, it’s just my opinion, millions of people might have a completely different one.

MB: So, to conclude, what can your fans look forward to now?
Chris: I hope that they’ll stick with us for another couple of years, because we have a lot of plans for the future. We’ll carry on the way we’ve done it the last 34 years, and bring metal to the people… whether they want it or not!

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