While nowadays seeing a female metal musician is not at all shocking, there was a time when the idea of women fronting heavy metal bands was simply unthinkable. From the idea that metal was “too rough” for women, to suggestions that only “the wrong kind of people” would be involved with this genre, there were many obstacles facing any woman who wanted to succeed in this genre.
Breaking all boundaries and challenging all preconceptions, Doro first burst into the scene as the singer of Warlock. Although she had already tried her luck with bands like Snakebite, it wasn’t until Warlock’s debut, Burning the Witches, that Doro really started to revolutionize the metal scene.
A survivor of all the ups and downs that heavy metal has undergone since the 80’s, Doro Pesch has earned the title of Queen of Metal through blood, sweat, and tears. Her musical output is enormous, whether considering just Warlock and her solo band, or the many collaborations she has participated in.
Knowing that she has plenty to tell, and that we only had a limited amount of time to cover it all, Doro and I wasted no time and jumped right into it.
That’s what I call metal. It’s about being there for each other.
Metal Blast: Doro, it’s great to speak with you again. Last year I was fortunate enough to see and photograph your show at Wacken. As always, it was great!
Doro: Oh thank you thank! It was such a special day, with so many great guests… and then getting inducted into the Hall of Heavy Metal History…which I didn’t know was going to happen!
MB: It’s always great to witness the great relationship that you have with Wacken, both with the festival itself as well as with the Wacken fans. When you perform there the energy is always palpable.
Doro: Absolutely! What I like so much about Wacken is that they started at a time when things weren’t so great for the genre at all. In 1993, a time when grunge was HUGE everywhere, I suddenly got this phone call with someone telling me that they’d like to have us as their headliners! I was really like “A metal festival in this day and age?! That’s AWESOME!“. These two metal fans, Thomas Jensen and Holger Hübner, had just started this metal festival. I remember that when we got there… it was so metal! People from all over the world were there! It was smaller, but it was awesome.
In 1993 there must have been about 1,000 or 1,500 people in the audience. When we were going to play there in 98, since they were still small, I thought that maybe they’d have like 2 or 3 thousand… but it was 30 thousand! It grew and grew, and then couple of years later it was already 50 and 60 thousand… and now they’re at around 80,000, which I think is the maximum capacity.
It’s always a big honor to play there. Nowadays it feels like coming home; meeting my best friends, and seeing bands and fans from all over the world. It is awesome. I think that I’ve played there at least 15 times already.
MB: As you pointed out; Wacken started in the early 90’s, a time when a heavy metal festival really seemed like a bad idea. The genre seemed to be dying out, obliterated by grunge… and now grunge is almost completely gone, while metal is stronger than ever. What do you think explains this ability of the genre to stay popular, to evolve when necessary, and to grow stronger?
Doro: This music is really honest; it’s straight from the heart. You can tell when something has the power to stay forever, when it’s not just the flavor of the month. I think for all the metal bands and for the metalheads it’s definitely way of life.
When I was about 24 I made the decision that I wanted to completely dedicate myself to metal and to the metal fans. And that was it; I live it every day. This is about more than just having a certain sound; heavy metal will always shine through. Sure, our heads were hanging low for 10 years in the 90s, when it was difficult to even release a record in the States because of how big grunge was.
It was only in 2000 when I felt that things were changing. It was the time of my first big tour with Ronnie James Dio. He was supporting his Magica album, and we were promoting Calling the Wild. People were hungry for good metal, great songs, and artists on stage that give their all. In metal shows people simply go crazy, and it’s great to see them do it. It’s a high-energy environment.
MB: I think that it’s precisely the behavior the heavy metal audiences that makes all the difference; the kind of brotherhood that exists between metal fans.
Doro: In Wacken they have this t-shirt that says “the bands were great but the fans were brilliant!” and it’s true! It’s all about the fans, especially in Wacken. They are the real headliners of the festival. I think that metal fans have a different way of thinking and feeling. They’re really passionate about this!
I remember that when we went to do the Dio tour, and people thought that we were crazy because these were huge venues, at a time when metal wasn’t really popular and grunge was everywhere. I really wanted to do the tour because it was a really big deal for us, plus Dio and I were great friends. We had toured together before in ’87, but to fund this tour I even had to cash out my life insurance in order to pay for the tour bus, etc. People thought I was crazy! They thought that nobody would come see us… and then it ended up being the best tour I’ve ever done in my entire life. Dio and I became even closer friends, and we saw that all venues were packed, with almost all of them selling out! It was absolutely worth it.
When I told “normal people” that I wanted to do this, and that I’d even cash out my life insurance… they just told me “you’re totally out of your fucking mind!” I wanted to do it, and I knew that it would be great, but even if we hadn’t sold out most venues, I would have still been very happy with it. It felt like the 80’s all over again. And then in 2000 the first phone calls started to come in asking metal bands to play at festivals or to go on tours. You could tell that heavy metal was making a comeback. It was awesome, and I was so glad that I had been hanging in there. I mean, true, in Europe the 90s weren’t so bad for metal, and bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were always big anyway, and it never seemed to matter what year it was or what other bands were doing. But in America… it was tough!
MB: You know, it’s great to hear you talk about this whole thing, because it’s not just that your music is really positive and energetic, but also that you yourself are really like that. Was it difficult for someone like you to find a place in heavy metal, a genre so very much associated with aggression or darker messages?
Doro: I wasn’t always like this! When I was a teenager, before Warlock, I was in bands with names like Snakebite, Beast, or Attack. I think that back then I was more like a rebellious teenager. Metallica‘s Kill ‘Em All was a model for me. I loved those “destructive” things. Metal was very “mystical,” and we had lyrics about hell, evil, witches, and things like that. It was really about playing with negative images.
After a couple of years I thought about how the world is actually in such a rough shape, and that things are difficult for everybody…. so I thought that if I created music, I wanted to keep it positive. It’s really difficult to have cool lyrics which are positive and empowering; it’s much easier to write about destroying everything, but I wanted to give out some positive vibrations, great messages, and to just create something hopeful, deep, real, and worth fighting for.
I’ve definitely changed my attitude, as you can see in my lyrics and in my whole vibe. I’m not into demons anymore! [laughs] Even though I love playing songs from Hellbound, in my new records I just try to stay positive. Even sad songs can have positive messages; people can relate to them and not feel so alone.
MB: Just like you, I think I was a bit of an angry teenager, and heavy metal played precisely that cathartic role that you’re talking about. It made me feel better to know that the things I was feeling also affected other people. That, in a way, I wasn’t alone.
Doro: Absolutely! Of course, we didn’t write songs knowing that they would give out such positive feelings or messages. Our song “All We Are” was the first time that I saw people just singing along. Their faces were just red from singing so hard, covered in sweat… Everybody singing like that is such a great thing. Sometimes even before I get on stage people already start singing, and it’s such an uplifting and happy feeling. All these strangers, arm in arm, singing together, hanging out as if they are best friends. It’s something really sacred.
I’ve had the great chance to learn from the greatest. People that I admired like Ronnie James Dio, Rob Halford, or Lemmy, they all had a great connection with the fans. I remember my first tour with Ronnie James Dio back in ’87, and Ronnie would always go hang out with his fans, even when it was pouring rain or snowing, or it was ice-cold… there would always be a tour manager telling him that he would catch a cold, but he’d want to stay to give autographs or take pictures. I always thought that this was cool. There was always love in the air. I know that “love” isn’t really a word that comes to mind with metal, but it’s true. That’s what I call metal. It’s about being there for each other.
MB: That’s something that many people outside of the heavy metal community simply don’t see, because they just hear the aggression of the music, or the growling vocals, and think that it must be negative. Of course, they’re missing the big picture because, in reality, and you’re absolutely right about this, there is a lot of positive stuff contained in heavy metal music.
Doro: I think heavy metal really has the coolest people; people whose heart is in the right place. The loyalty is unbelievable. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I don’t think that fans of other music genres are as die-hard as they are here. I’m really happy to belong to the metal scene because I can live it every day, going all over the world and really feeling right at home whenever I’m among metalheads.
MB: Perhaps a tougher question then… are there things that you don’t like about the metal scene?
Doro: That’s a tough question! Nothing really comes to mind. I love it all… plus I always look on the positive side, so sometimes I don’t even notice the bad.
The music business in general, well, it’s a business, and I think it’s really a shark business, no matter which kind of music it is. There are always people that you have to deal with that you know aren’t fans or metal lovers, so they’re in it for something else. The business side of things is sometimes very tricky, because musicians tend to make decisions just with their heart… In the early days of Warlock we signed a lot of contracts where we thought that people had our best interests in mind. We thought that everybody was our friend… and quickly found out that this was not the case. We signed things that were really terrible for us, and then went to a lawyer who just said “you kids…. why didn’t you bring this before?! You signed you life away!” [laughs]
MB: I’m a lawyer, I work with artists… and yeah, I’ve had that reaction a few times [laughs] Doro: [Laughs] Yes! And in the 80’s it was even worse, because you could sign agreements that lasted a lifetime! I think you can’t even do that anymore! If you love something, you might get be taken advantage of precisely because you love it so much. Now that I’m a little bit older I can really see right through people… You live and learn.
MB: That’s something that I’ve heard from a lot of musicians, namely that at some point they have to be wary of anyone that comes to them, because so many people are just trying to use them to make money. It can be really challenging, particularly as you become more famous. And it’s tough because, at the end of the day, this is your job!
Doro: That’s exactly it. This is all we have. It’s our career. In my case there’s really nothing else, I’m only into music, there’s no other job on the side. In this business you really need to learn to trust your gut when you think that something or someone seems a bit shady… and if they’re not sure, they should get advice from people like you [laughs] Many bands went through this in the 80’s.
MB: Once I was talking with John Oliva, and he mentioned how Savatage was really taken advantage of by managers and labels when they were really young, so they had no idea what they were doing. It really seems to be something that happens to many, many artists.
Doro: I’d say that it happened to 80%-90% of the bands that were around in the 80’s.
MB: Doro, it has been a true pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Doro: It was nice! Thank you very much!