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Noise Records - Karl-Ulrich Walterbach

Het zal de meesten onder jullie niet ontgaan zijn dat na jaren van inactiviteit het aloude kwaliteitslabel Noise Records opnieuw leven in is geblazen door BMG. Niet door middel van het tekenen en uitbrengen van nieuwe bands op het Noise label, maar via het re-releasen van allerlei juweeltjes uit de aloude schatkamer die al jaren stof lagen te verzamelen. Het eerste wapenfeit was recentelijk de release van een aantal verzamel CD's gevuld met antiek Noise materiaal van onder ander Kreator, Helloween, Kamelot, Tankard en Skyclad. In september dit jaar zullen er diverse fraaie re-releases van nu klassieke albums volgen. Om het één en ander luister bij te zetten leek het mij een leuk idee om de oprichter en jarenlange eigenaar van Noise Records, Karl-Ulrich Walterbach, te benaderen voor een interview het bedrijf wat hij jarenlang leidde. Het werd een interview waaruit bleek dat Karl een geheel eigen kijk op de muziekindustrie heeft, niet altijd bands op kwaliteit tekende, en dat we binnenkort kunnen genieten van Noise Records in boekvorm.

Door: Horst | Archiveer onder various

band imageOne thing I always want to know from kindred spirits: what was it that triggered the love for hard music in you when you were a kid?
My musical socialisation was rather odd. In my later teens and early 20s, in those post APO and student rebellion years, I was not interested in music at all. I was a political radical anarchist. Things changed gradually when I moved to Berlin in 1972 and lived in squatted lofts in Kreuzberg. In all those communities music played a central role and the turntables where always rotating vinyl discs of the diverse styles popular than: Post Woodstock, Hippie Rock, Pro Rock, Krautrock.... My interest began in earnest when punk came up in the later 70s when I was already 25.

That is indeed an bit odd, for most people discover their favourite music in their teens. But what was it in punk that really got you hooked? The non-compromising attitude? The simple rawness and aggression? The lyrical content?
The rebellious attitude of punk met our outsider lifestyle and anti-society political leanings. Many of the UK Punk bands like The Clash, The Ruts, Crass, Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys etc. took a political stance and bands like the Sex Pistol had the attitude and the raw energy we could relate to. Remember: the 70's where much different from today. Youth culture was not just an empty word driven by marketed consumerism.

Was this the same drive you felt when you decided to start putting out punk records? Some way of making a difference in an indifferent world?
Definitely. In 1979 I had to redefine myself after I came out of prison in 1977 after a fifteen month stint for a Molotov cocktail. I was disillusioned about the radical left and started to question our visions. I was not alone in this. A whole movement had started earlier in the 70's questioning the traditionalism of the left ideals. This was about putting us the people into the centre of change. No revolution without the revolution of your conditioning. Freud and Wilhelm Reich and the French Situationists gave us guidance. the cultural rebelliousness of punk fit right in there.

It's obvious you had some strong political beliefs and ideas. Now did you expect the same form the punkbands you signed for your label Aggressive Rockproduktionen? I mean, sharing the same sort beliefs as you did? And if so, what other things you considered to be important for a potential asset to the label's roster?
All the German punk bands did indeed sing in German with strong radical left leanings. The most popular and most outspoken being Slime from Hamburg. They sold big numbers: in excess of 50.000 vinyl on each album. I always support identity in A&R, regardless of the style. Germany's airwaves, especially in the cultural arena, where strongly leaning towards English language culture (remember we lost the war!) and the BBC and AFN had an unhealthy impact here, destroying our cultural traditions and replacing them with Anglo-American tastes. I wanted to set a counterpoint to the forced re-education by the occupiers (to this day there are more than 260 allied military bases in Germany, financed by the German government and totaling over 100.000 US/British soldiers!). So I defined a niche and was very successful here. Same applies to metal: I tried to stir my bands into a metal style which was distinct European. Two of my most successful Noise bands, Helloween and Celtic Frost are a case in point. And it worked again !

We'll come to talk about their success later on, but what I think is quite remarkable that you in the beginning of the 80s somewhere, somehow shifted your interest from punk to heavy metal. Now I have seen a few heavy metal fans turn over to punk and hardcore in those days when I was still a school kid, but never the other way around. Punk and metal where two different worlds back then, musicwise as well as lyrical. Who or what caused this counterpoint in your life?
Black Flag's Greg Ginn, while on tour in Germany, had many discussions with me about metal. He liked the Scorpions and metal in general. He even invited me to shows in LA when Black Flag played mixed shows with metal bands. Among others he introduced me to St. Vitus. I hated stadium rock and I had many reservations about metal, but when I searched Tower Records in LA I stumbled across the very first thrash releases from Metal Blade and Megaforce and that hooked me. The rawness, the aggression, the energy in Metallica's and Slayer's debut's I could relate to. And Californian punk, which I collected on 7" and vinyl, had a metal edge. Just listen to TSOL (True Sounds of Libery) or Black Flag. The switch from punk to thrash retrospectively was very organic for me....

Now this is a bit contradictive. I mean, during your punk days you kinda fought the Anglo-American taste, yet now you fell for a kind of metal that could not be more American, for they invented thrash metal....
I fought the American cultural domination and I still do. But this does not mean that certain musical styles cannot be embraced. You got something totally wrong here. Thrash and many other musical styles where bred in the underground and not by American mainstream.

Anyway, it seems that you quite missed out on the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and bands like Saxon, Iron Maiden, Venom, Motörhead, Raven (to name but a few), who in their turn inspired the likes of Metallica and Slayer to start making music themselves.
At the time I got involved in metal in early 1983 the NWOBH was already history! So it's quite useless to contemplate on styles I missed prior to getting involved in metal. As I explained I came from punk and could relate to thrash due to the edge it had. The more I got involved in metal the more I learned about its history and if I would have to pick two band's which started prior to the thrash boom, I would pick Raven and Motörhead as my favorites.

Alright, let's go to 1983 then. Now becoming interested in metal is one thing, but actually putting out metal albums is an entirely different ballgame. Or was it just a logical thing to do for you since you had gained enough experience with putting out punk records?
You're right: I continued to do the same when releasing punk. I even used some of the same studios and engineers (Harris Johns from the Musiclab). The early thrash releases where not as polished as they are today, again a certain similarity to punk was there. Thrash without punk would have been impossible. The Westcoast breeding ground for the first thrash bands was also a hotbed for the most influential US punk bands like Black Flag and The Dead Kennedys and many others.

Fun fact (correct me if I am wrong): the first release on Noise Records wasn't any European band, but in fact the American outfit Bitch with 'Be My Slave', originally out on Metal Blade. How did this deal come about?
I just got in touch with Brian Slagel after I had stumbled across his new label. I recognized early on that there were virtually no bands in Germany to be signed for immediate release. All the demo's which came in after I contacted some fanzines sounded rough and not ready for production. I had to bridge the time it needed to develop song material with the band's I selected for Noise. As a consequence I had to do licensing deals (Bitch, Metal Massacre Comp., Overkill) and compilations ('Rock From Hell', 'Death Metal Comp.').

Your first all European (in fact German) release was the compilation 'Rock From Hell - German Metal Attack', with on it Running Wild, Grave Digger, Iron Force, Railway, Rated X and S.A.D.O. On what grounds did you decide that these band where fit to feature on this release?
There was not a bunch of bands to choose from. Again: the scene here was virtually non-existent! I put out what was on my table. I know it sounds odd from today's viewpoint and the oversaturation of the metal scene with bands but in those days it was different. I made a similar experience with the retro rock scene most recently, before I signed Wucan for my publishing and management company. I wanted a young unique retro band from Germany with an average age below 25. I just found one talented band! But this challenge excites my about A&R, picking talent at an early stage of an embryonic market.

From these six bands two are still active: Grave Digger and Running Wild. Now 30+ years careers in the music bizz are rare, and back then, when it comes to metal, there wasn't even a band that reached the 20 years mark yet. Could you ever have imagined that from these amateurs you signed these two would have the talent and stamina to last as long as they now do?
This type of thinking never crossed my mind. I'm a practical person and always lived in the here and now.

1984 was the year I personally got acquainted with Noise Records. Firstly because of the 'Death Metal' compilation with on it Helloween, Hellhammer, Running Wild and Dark Avenger. It seems you where the first to coin the term 'Death Metal' (earlier than Possessed and Death anyway). Was this just something that popped up while your where looking for an appropriate title for the compilation?
I was looking for something extreme and Thomas Fischer from Hellhammer suggested this title.

Dark Avenger soon vanished into obscurity, but with Helloween, Running Wild and Hellhammer you had three - each in their own way - unique bands on your roster. Did you recognize their potential right away, and in what ways did they stand out from everything else emerging from the underground?
As I said earlier I had not much choice. The scene was very embryonic and so where the three bands at the 'Death Metal' compilation stage. If you look ahead a few years later you can clearly see that they all had to go a long way musically. Helloween needed a better singer and worked on the Wagnerian choruses, Running Wild came up with the pirate image and Hellhammer mutated into Celtic Frost's avantgarde death metal. My A&R input and the band's strong visions came together here.

When the Hellhammer EP made its way to the metal scene in my hometown it was obvious that there was something special about this band. Especially when we played side two for the first time. "What the fuck is this song then? 'Triumph Of Death'? Damn, this is pretty slow. What do you mean it's played to fast? Ow, the b-side should be played on 33 1/3 RPM instead of 45 RPM like the a-side. Shit, this gets even slower..." Well, you get the point I guess. Anyway, this was something no band ever pulled off before, but on the other hand also something that would have been an enormous gamble from a commercial point of view. What was it with Hellhammer that pushed the right buttons?
Hellhammer as Thomas Fisher saw it was dead on arrival when the very negative reviews came in. They did not stop the fan's from buying, as the band achieved a certain level of notoriety. But Thomas always had a strong ego and he wanted to be admired so he canned Hellhammer. Their musical style, which evolved under Celtic Frost, was the almost logical next step, due to Thomas limitations with the guitar and his voice. The experimentation and avantgarde ideas he came up with compensated for these limitations and I supported it from the very beginning. I was open for some radical new approaches as I did not give a damn about the NWOBHM and the 70's hard rock traditions.

From1985 it really took off for Noise Records, as the metal scene in Europe literary exploded. Over the whole continent and in America bands came from everywhere. Noise did a lot of new signings and a lot or releases, with quite some that later on reached the 'classic' status. Titles like 'Pleasure To Kill', 'To Mega Therion', 'Walls Of Jericho', 'Zombie Attack', 'Under Jolly Roger', 'Keeper Of The Seven Keys' and 'Into The Pandemonium' are etched in our collective metal memory, and that's something not every label has achieved, Now the exploding of the scene most have put you in some kind of luxury position: instead of signing what was available you must have had an abundance in choice. I mean, I can imagine a lot of beginning band where sending their demos to you. How where you able to choose which band was getting offered a deal and which not?
Honestly the German scene was not as vital as one might think. The only band I regretted not having signed was Doro's Warlock. I approached them in 1984 but they already had a deal going with Charlie Rinne, the editor of Metalhammer.

We are all familiar with the story of the A&R guy at Decca in 1962 who didn't sign The Beatles. Do you yourself have any regrets in that respect? Where there bands you denied a deal that later on proved to be very good sellers?
Again there was nothing out there in Germany I missed on. The signings of my only competitor, Steamhammer, did not impress me too much, bands like Sodom and Destruction. Their songwriting was lacking in my opinion and the rest? Not much to worry about.

With the growing success of your label also your business related responsibilities grew. I mean, in the second half of the 80s Noise Records had transformed from an obscure underground label into a million seller company. Obviously that changes your life completely. But coming from a punk background, how did you experience this transformation to being a successful businessman?
I always hated the punk ideology about money. Money was a tool to me, needed to keep the label running. I did not have much time to spent big time, besides the usual little things like a good car and retail property. I had little spare time, my workdays where long. but I could handle it as my heart was behind it. I turned my passion into a business. And the first six years where fun.

The first six years where fun. That kind of implicates that after those years running the label wasn't such fun anymore. Was that because of all the responsibilities that come with the job and legal issues you encountered with bands, like the dispute between you and Helloween?
At a certain point of growth the pressures are immense. I was running a six digit monthly overhead by 1989 in addition to all the production and marketing costs. I had to oversee 43 territories, constantly to travel, manage the German, US, UK offices. That all squeezes your time and then you are faced with a legal challenge like the Helloween litigation, to defend your contracts against sharks. This legal battle alone cost me in excess of 750.000 marks over two years. And I was solely doing all the A&R. This was way too much by the late 80s/early 90s.

You ran the label until 2001, and then you sold it to Sanctuary. Main reason, for as far I am told, was that you didn't want to take on the battle with the digital revolution. When did you realize that the digital revolution would forever alter the music industry?
You know I moved to the States in Aug. 1994 to re-launch our US operation which originally resided in NY. When the Internet buzz started in 1996 it dawned on me that my industry will be in trouble soon. And sure enough the MP3 format got picked up by some smart guy and downloading was getting a hell of attention. I was convinced that you can't compete against free and I proved right. When a call from my European manager Antje Lange came through in 1999, that Sanctuary Records was interested to buy Noise, I jumped on it right away.

I can imagine you where not the only label owner with concerns about how the Internet would be a threat against the way the music industry always had operated. Wasn't this a topic of conversation between people in the industry when the first signs started to show?
John Negroponte from the MIT institute and his book 'Being Digital' woke me up as early as 1996. And the following years I was an avid reader of the magazine Wired. I can't really remember any valid discussions with members of the music industry. They are an ignorant lot. Due to my self-education in the 70s and later I have a deep understanding of political, social and economic issues. I don't watch TV, don't listen to radio (not even in the car), don't read newspapers, don't read music mags, don't watch Hollywood movies. In general: I stay away from all types of mass media, this includes smart phones. This keeps you smart and independent. And based on my urges I react.

I've read a couple of books on this matter, and what clearly shows was that lots of people in the entertainment industry - especially the majors - never thought a nerdy tech toy thing like the internet would ever threaten their business models the way it has done. Nowadays it's easy to say that kind of thinking was quite naive. It seems you where one of the few who early on saw its potential and its destructive effect on physical sales. Was the rest of the labels just being blind and/or stupid?
You only can make money, even with culture, if you don't follow what's being pushed on you. You need to free yourself of the so-called "common" things and opinions. But most people don't have a vision and the "balls" to go for something unique and unpopular... But if you want to have a chance with any enterprise that's what is required.

As you said the company was sold in '01, I take it that it felt like a relief?
A relief - yes. We had a standing bank credit line of 600.000 and especially in the summer doldrums, when business was slow we always had to use this credit line to the max. Yes the strain was always there. It didn't kill me (like others) but it got virtually my blood boiling and the result: high blood pressure, which is still with me.

What have you been doing since 2001? I know you own a management company now, but did you already started that in 2001, or did you took a break from it all to get some rest after all those years of hard work?
After I sold Noise I took a year off in 2002. Upon my return I build a music studio in West Berlin, got involved in some real estate business and construction (which lost me some serious money) and tackled with some German language bands. The second half of the first decade I was solely occupied in cleaning up this real estate mess. Some hard thinking led me to believe that the future in music is in services, not rights, the core biz of the labels. So I got involved in management. in 2011, linked to my publishing and studio set-ups, which I use to develop the song writing of my bands. At this moment I manage three young bands which are at the core of my company Sonic Attack Management: Hammercult (neo thrash), Alpha Tiger (melodic metal with 80s influences) and female led retro band Wucan, currently my most dynamic band. Through my publishing company I advise four more bands, with the hope, that later on, they might be interesting for management too. I have a general policy to get only involved with very young musicians, ideally around twenty. I compare the situation with sports: you can't build a career in music if you don't start very early. All my success bands at Noise I signed when they where around eighteen, without exceptions. You can't ignore this hard fact.

In the meantime Sanctuary Music, including Noise Records, was sold to Universal Music in 2007, who did not do much with it's catalogue (according to the Noise Records release overview on The Metal Archives). They in their turn sold Sanctuary to BMG in 2013. Back then BMG already had a plan to put Noise Records back on the map again. Where you in any way involved with this early plans?
No. I would never have issued the Helloween-EMI titles ('Pink Bubbles Go Ape' and 'Chameleon') under the Noise label. They are no original Noise releases. The 'Best Offs' don't make much sense to me either and Sinner? They where mediocre in the 80s and they are still irrelevant.

Releasing 'best off' CD's nowadays is indeed quite redundant, since every band's past is available everywhere on the internet. But how do you feel then about the scheduled re-releases from the ancient Noise roster?
It's ten years since Universal acquired the rights from bankrupt Sanctuary and locked away the rights. Now BMG has gotten involved and start to show some activities. It's a good thing that the key acts all get beefed up re-issues. There are some caveats: Sinner, a hard rock band we originally released out of favor to a publishing friend don't make much sense. And like I already said, I hate to see the Helloween - EMI bombs ('Pink Bubbles Go Ape' and 'Chameleon') now being released under the Noise banner. It's a pity that our bestselling Helloween records ('Keeper Of The Seven Keys 1 + 2' and 'Walls Of Jericho') are not part of the package. There are also quite a few bands like Coroner, Sabbat, Conception etc. who would have deserved some attention. Overall they play it save. Fans who are wondering why Gamma Ray and Stratovarius are not included should be informed that these bands got favorable deals with Noise which stipulated the return of rights after a certain period of time.

Judging by your last answer it seems that you are not that happy with the schedule of re-releases so far. Did you have any influence whatsoever on the re-release roster? I mean, they asked you to do some promotion for this resurrection of Noise Records, so I guess that they asked you for some advice as well. Or am I totally wrong here?
I was not involved at all in their planning and was only asked for promotional help after everything was set. And the latter happened only after one promo agency involved in the marketing campaign suggested to involve myself. For good reasons the upcoming book about Noise is titled 'Damn The Machine'.

That sounds interesting. When can we expect that book to be released, and, even better, what can we expect from this book?
The book will be released in German and English in three territories: UK/US/Germany and is scheduled for October with the English title being 'Damn The Machine'. It's 350 pages plus pics. More info can be found on its Facebook page.

Did you write the book yourself, or did you had any help from other people?
Actually the book is written by David Gehlke, a US journalist. I contributed only two sidebars and the afterward and gave my input in Sunday skype interviews over a period of two years.

I was granted a peak at the table of contents, and it promises to be a very interesting read about Noise Records from the early beginnings to the end. Where you always planning to write a book about your years with Noise Records, and if so, what do you want to achieve with this?
The idea to write a book about Noise came from David who approached me and asked for my cooperation. I found it a good opportunity to counterbalance distorted media images of myself. Up until a few years ago it was only my former label bands who got media coverage and usually put blame for their failures solely on myself. I also thought it's a good tool to promote my continued involvement in the music business, as you are aware I'm now involved in Artist Management via my company Sonic Attack Management.

Whom would you recommend to buy and read this book?
Of course all metal fans who grew up with my bands in the eighties, than all metal collectors and the younger generation curious about the history of metal.

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