The year was 1979 and the masters of New York Metal were about to sell out to disco with their release "Dynasty", the saviors of Overkill and Anthrax were yet to be unleashed. L.A. began to be rocked by the sound of an emerging scene known as hardcore punk, heavy metal was in shambles and many a headbanger began to look towards the Sunset, Blvd that is, for answers.
Those in seek of heavy metal were looking towards England, where Maiden, Priest and Venom were stirring, preparing their hordes for a cross Atlantic assault.
But, deep within the heart of America, in a land seemingly far removed from the great capitals of heavy metal, a wild land whose grasses were once trampled by vast herds of bison and populated by the people of the Comanche, Kiowa, Osage, Arapaho, Pawnee, Otoe and Kansa nations...a land which would become a state of another nation moving westward in its incessant expansion, a state which would see bloody civil war skirmishes and be the proud home of families who worked the land....a new sound would emerge; the sound of Manilla Road.
So, before the bay awoke and Ruthie's Inn would be the stomping grounds of the new thrash metal elite, before Orange County would Rain Blood, Before New York would be Caught in the Mosh, there was Manilla Road making a brand of metal which is very much like a fine wine from a small vineyard, perhaps an acquired taste to some, perhaps too "sophisticated" for others, while being only the best vintage to most.
Here, I present to you, my interview with Manilla Road frontman Mark "The Shark" Shelton; of course, I could sing his praises, for his humor, his artistic outlook on life and his music but, I think the following is vastly more illuminating than any words I could write.
ThrashHead: Manilla Road is the band which put Wichita, Kansas on the metal map. At a time when the most epic of bands were coming from England, New York or the West Coast, you guys came together in the heart of America.Tell me a bit about your life before Manilla Road; what directed you towards the life of a rock n roller?
Shark: When I was young I knew I wanted to be a performer of music but wanting to be a rocker came a little later. There was a local band called "Crank" that rehearsed in the basement of the house next door to my grandparents house. The kids in the neighborhood, along with myself, always listened to this band by hanging out by one of the basement windows while they were practicing. They did a lot of Deep Purple cover tunes and were really good. I started thinking it would be really cool to play music like that.
But, the real point in time that I totally decided to be into heavy rock music as a writer and performer was when I went to my very first big rock show. It was Black Sabbath on their Paranoid tour. Man, that did the job right there; Sabbath was so powerful and heavy and by the gods after seeing and hearing them I had to sign up. I remember thinking at the show "Man I want to do that!". And that is where it all started.
ThrashHead: How did you get the nickname "Shark"? Did you win fellow Marine's cash at the pool table?
Shark: I was pretty good at pool. My grandfather owned a full size slate pool table that I still have to this day and I did win some money from other Marines and especially the Navy boys in San Diego. But the nickname "Shark" actually came later. In 1983 I was working as producer for a heavy rock band called Stygian Shore. This was right after we had done our Crystal Logic album. The boys in Stygian Shore are the ones that gave me the name "Shark". They had a little game they played where they took the first letter of your first and last name and inverted them. So my name Mark Shelton became Shark Melton. For some reason the nickname stuck and everyone started calling me Shark at that point. Before too long nobody called me Mark anymore. I'm just glad it was a cool name and not a stupid one like tubby or bubba.
ThrashHead: Tell our readers about the "Manilla Road Underground" master tape; Do you remember where you last saw it? Any leads or think it will ever be found?
Shark: Yes I last saw it in 1920....oh wait that was a different thing...It would have been in 1978 or 79. We only made about 50 of those cassettes and the original master tape is somewhere amongst a hundred other tapes that are not supported by any machines in the industry anymore. We have found a few unmarked tapes that we suspect one might be the master. We have to find a machine that it can be played on and then hope the tape does not fall to pieces when we play it. It is a process that could take a lot of hours and money and I would rather spend that time on new material right now. Someday when I don't so many irons in the fire I will most likely try to do something about this lost tape.
ThrashHead: Do you think that being away from the epicenter of the music industry gave you a certain level of freedom to explore for and find your sound?
Shark: Absolutely. Back in the day, we always thought we were having to catch up to the industry because of our location. But in the long run I think it was crucial to the unique aspect of Manilla Road's sound. The market here was mostly country rock at its heaviest and so when we came along with our own version of what we thought heavy was it made a bit of a stir. My classical musical upbringing has a little to do with the unique sound as well but also was a result, in some ways, of my environment.
ThrashHead: Manilla Road is one of those bands which either people just don't get, or are hailed as musical genius, there simply is no in-between, what influenced you as a musician...are you a self-taught guitarist?
Shark: You are correct. It seems that you either really love us or you just don't care for us at all. Not real sure why that is except for maybe the lyrics and concepts are just a little too far from the mainstream to ignite everybody's fire. I do know, that the ones that get it get it big. There is a lot of great music and philosophy to be found in the catalog of Manilla Road over the last 3 decades. That's what it is all about for me anyway, philosophy in music and the philosophy of music. Music is the only communication that we have that does not have to be translated or deciphered. It is universal the whole world over and it speaks emotionally to all of us. That is what music means to me and when it comes to the lyrics it has always been about the telling of a good tale whether it be fact or fiction.
As for my musical education: My mother is a Professor of Music and I was started on piano and vocal lessons at the age of five years. I studied several instruments during my early school years, piano, trumpet, baritone percussion and I even spent a period of time working on the flute. By the time I reached High School I was primarily playing drums and percussion. It was then that I ended up in my first Rock and Country Rock bands. I started to teach myself bass guitar during this time and also started picking up on guitar stuff a bit from the axe men in the bands that I was playing in. I did not have any official training on guitar until 1983 at Wichita State University while I was attending college. This after I had already recorded the album Crystal Logic. I took one semester of Advanced Guitar 101 but that is the extent of my official training on the axe.
So, to answer the question I am an educated musician that taught himself to play guitar with the help of friends.
ThrashHead: Rick Fisher left the band after the masterpiece "Crystal Logic" and Randy "Thrasher" Foxe comes on board and you guys continue on with yet another metal classic 85's "Open The Gates"; why do you think Rick couldn't get into the concept of a "heavier" Manilla Road and what did Randy bring to the table?
Shark: Rick and us never had any bad blood. We were all about what was going to be best for the band. I was convinced that we needed to have a heavier and faster approach to the music and Rick really wanted to work more on the Mark of the Beast type stuff. Scott was on my side and it was a mutual choice that we went for a different drummer. Rick actually stayed working with the band for the next couple of years and to this day we are still very close and keep in contact with each other.
As for Randy it was almost like it was all planned by the muse for things to happen the way they did. We found and brought Randy into the band within a week of Rick telling us we should find a different drummer. What Randy brought to the table for the band was the opportunity for us to expand into the many worlds of heavy metal music. We could approach the music at a level of experimentation that allowed us to cover many different genres and styles of music; he helped bring the band into the era of thrash and speed.
ThrashHead: A few years later with the legendary "The Courts of Chaos" your long time partner in crime Scott decides to leave; what caused so much strife in the band, right when it seemed you guys were really taking off?
Shark: Well actually at the time it did not seem like we were taking off to us. Our sales were down. The label we were on had lost the really good distribution they had at first. We were suspicious that the label had been ripping us off. And to top all of that Randy and Scott were not getting along at all anymore. During the recording of that album they would make sure that the other one was not going to be in the studio when they would come in to do their parts. It was exhausting for me. I think we all knew that Courts of Chaos was going to be our last effort with that lineup.
At the time we, were totally unaware of the impact the band had made in several European countries. We did not truly start to realize that until the year 2000. The strife between Randy and Scott were just personal life differences. They just got to the point that they really did not like each other anymore. And you just can't have a good working musical outfit when there is that kind of shit going on.
As history has taught us no empire lasts forever and change is inevitable.
ThrashHead: You decide to do a side project with Aaron Brown and Andrew Coss, the result of which is the band Circus Maximus but the album you guys do wasn't meant to be a Manilla Road album was it? Had you already decided when you formed Circus Maximus that Manilla Road was a thing of the past?
Shark: My thoughts at the time were that Manilla Road was on hold and not totally over. I thought that after some time I would try and put the band back together in some form. In the meantime though, I was doing this project called Circus Maximus. Another 3 piece band but much more progressive rock than metal. All three of the band members sang and contributed to the lyrics and it did not really sound much like Manilla Road; It was not supposed to sound like Manilla Road.
Well, the label thought we would sell more copies if it was a MR album and so that was my last straw with that label and I never worked with them again.
ThrashHead: After "The Circus Maximus", what caused you to step away for close to a decade? What were you doing in the interim?
Shark: Like I said, as far as we could see from here in Wichita Kansas, MR was a forgotten item. I did put the band back together right after the two years that I spent playing with Circus Maximus. It was myself, Randy Foxe and Harvey Patrick (Bryan Patrick's brother). We played together and wrote new songs for about 2 or 3 years doing a few gigs locally every once in awhile. But eventually Randy and Harvey started butting heads and Harvey left the band. Randy kept on promising to deliver drum tracks for the next album but it just never happened.
After a long enough time of not doing much of anything in the business, Bryan and I started to work on a project that we were going to call the Shark Project. But before we were finished we were contacted by a label in Germany that wished to reissue Crystal Logic. We went for the deal and it was a big success. We got invited to do the Bang Your Head festival in Germany and that is what sent the whole wheel to turning again for the band.
Sort of strange how things work out sometimes.
ThrashHead: You return triumphantly with "Atlantis Rising" and Manilla Road is reborn...but there is more to it, isn't there? Was the band meant to be another incarnation of Manilla Road from the beginning?
Shark: Yep. Atlantis Rising was the project that Bryan and I started working on. We used electronic drums at first but when we realized after giving demos out at the Bang Your Head festival that we were going to be able to find a recording deal for it we decided to add a real drummer and put the band together again with a new lineup. The concept of the project was part 2 of The Deluge anyway, so it only made sense to us that it was meant to be a MR album.
ThrashHead: Ok, I'm sure you've talked about it many times before, but I have to ask, "Dreams of Eschaton (demo '81) which came out in '99 and '02's"Mark of the beast", both had tracks which were intended to be on your second album, but one was a bootleg which was released without you ever knowing it? Why did it take so long to release the material as "Mark of the Beast"? (Note to our readers: "Mark of the Beast" was extremely well received by critics)
Shark: That bootleg was not the fault of the magazine that put it out; they actually thought they had bought the rights to put it out through the label we were on years before. But the fact is that material was never under contract to anyone and we did not intend on releasing it.
Years later I was convinced to finally do an official release of the material because of the demand for it.
ThrashHead: Six albums in the eleven plus years since Manilla Road has returned (if one doesn't include "After Midnight Live" ) culminating with "Playground Of The Damned" which was released last summer and, yet again, critics were stumbling over themselves to see who could give the best review of the album. How is it that Manilla Road has been able to stick to its own formula, not bow to trends and still get better with each release?
I think that really comments on you as a musician and visionary.
Shark: Those are mighty kind words there my friend...I owe you some beers now...hahaha. It has not always been so elegant to be in my shoes. It has been a hard road, not to make a pun,...but I guess I did anyway.
The answer to the question might also be the answer to why I have not been recognized in the major market? Oh, wait!...we were on one of the Rolling Stone charts for a week once with Spiral Castle...that means I hit the big time right?
Well anyway I think that my own stubbornness has a lot to do with it. I have turned down offers because I thought I would lose too much control of the projects. I have sworn not to use triggers or sampled drums on Manilla Road albums (which makes us have a very different drum sound than most other bands nowadays). We don't use an outside producer when we are working on our recordings and the engineer that works in my studio was trained by me.
I keep telling everyone in the Manilla Road Camp that we are a democracy and everything will be just fine as long as we do it my way. Haha. Ok, it's not quite that brutal... but, my idea of the Road and it's approach to music is just that...my idea. I don't want a label rep to tell me what I should play. My own direction got me this far and I think I will still put my trust in the muse to guide me over the next hurdles.
As for the visionary part...I sometimes don't really feel like it is just me writing the lyrics and sometimes even the music. I can only attribute that to the magik of the muse. It's why I am still playing music after all these years. Throughout most of my life I have gone from one thing to the next when it came to hobbies or sports and I usually was at least good at these things and sometimes (like with golf) I was really good. But I always went on to another thing eventually.
Well, with music there is a whole different type of magik going on there and I can't get away from it. It has me trapped in the blessed curse of the muse. So I still search for the lost chord. If you want practical advice it would have to be stand your ground and don't give up. If you really want it bad enough and work at it with devotion you can achieve your dreams.
ThrashHead: Most folks know that Manilla Road lyrical themes are heavily influenced by mythology, fantasy and literature, but on the last release "Playground Of The Damned" there is a track "Fire of Asshurbanipal"; out of all of Robert E. Howard's literary work, why that one in particular? It seems so appropriate for the times we live in, was its relevance to current events intentional or was it just an homage to the piece itself?
Shark: It has been one of my several favorite Howard tales for many years. Every song that we do based on an authors story is a memorial to that author. But Howard says so much more to me than just good adventure stories. There was an expanded vision of the world and its history within his works. He was truly one of the greatest writers of adventure based historical fantasy to ever wield a pen. I guess in his case a typewriter.
I will most likely do more Howard oriented material in the future. Just love that Robert E..
ThrashHead: Speaking of Howard, who are your favorite authors and books?
Shark: Howard is first along with Poe and Lovecraft. I'm a big fan of Burroughs and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Walter Scott is cool. Robert Graves is maybe the most difficult stuff to read along with Virgil and the Aeneid. Homer is neat and Shakespeare is really awesome when it comes to Macbeth and Hamlet; Clive Barker is a really good writer as well.
My list could just continue on and on; hell, I even like Louis L'Amour western novels.
ThrashHead: When "The Riddle Masters: A Tribute to Manilla Road" was released, were you surprised? How did you feel when you realized that Manilla Road was considered to be not only one of the finest metal bands ever, but also one which had consistently created some of the most highly regarded albums in recent memory?
Shark: Man I was floored when that thing came rolling out. I was so surprised that so many bands were involved from all around the world. It may have been the biggest honor that has ever been bestowed upon Manilla Road; I really thought you had to have already died before something like that would come out...ha,ha.
It was a great big surprise and I still have a hard time grabbing onto the idea that so many bands have thought of MR to be that important. Wow! ...it still gets me feeling all mushy inside.
ThrashHead: Ok, here's the obligatory rock n roll moment questions? When you think back over your career what is the one memory you have, for good or bad, which often comes to mind?
Shark: That time in 1920....oh wait that was a different thing...Ted Nugent telling me that I was going to go far someday if I just stuck with it. I think I will never ever forget those words from that man. Thanks Uncle Ted. You are still my hero.
ThrashHead: Craziest rock moment? Come on be honest, I'm sure the statute of limitation has passed.
Shark: There have been many... and yes, thank god there is a statute of limitations...whew!
Alright I could come off with many stories from the road here (there goes that damn pun thing again) but the one that comes to mind at this moment was when we were all getting very drunk in the El President a hotel in Athens, Greece. It was myelf, Bryan Patrick, Mark Anderson and Scott Peters that were touring as the Road during one of our early 2000's tours. I think maybe it was the first time we were in Greece. Anyway, we were getting drunk in our hotel room which was about the twelfth floor. We had this really small ledge of a balcony that we could just barely fit onto...I think it was meant for just cleaning the windows; We were all being pretty rowdy and at one point Mark and Scott and myself were all three on this little balcony. Well Bryan was evidently tired of our shit and closed the sliding door on us and locked us out on this little ledge. Would not have meant much usually except for the fact that all three of us were really drunk and could hardly stand up straight as it was. We watched Bryan go back into the room and lay down on a bed and proceed to pass out. He left us out there for some time actually. We were even contemplating jumping to the next rooms balcony! I'm really glad we did not try because we would have never made it haha.
Bryan did finally get up and let us back in but not before we had pretty much finished the bottle of whiskey we had with us out there.
There are so many stories man; equipment van going through the wall right behind the stage during our last song. Missing my flight to Italy and arriving a day after the band just minutes before the show. Packing nine of us, our luggage and band equipment into a van traveling from Germany to Switzerland. Losing my luggage in Chicago. Keeping Bryan from kicking Cory's ass on tour. Me kicking Cory's ass on tour. Bryan kicking my ass on tour. Richard (our personal tour manager) keeping all of our asses out of trouble on tour. It could be a book I am sure. Maybe it will be someday.
ThrashHead: Manilla Road has endured almost 35 years, producing (including the famous 1979 "Demo", live albums and Splits) something like 21 albums! How have you been able to do it?
Shark: Viagra...no wait that was a different thing...I just keep listening to Black Sabbath's Sweet Leaf over and over! In truth, I am blessed with the curse of the muse. It is my lifelong quest to search for the lost chord. And if I never find it I will at least have put my own stamp on the metal music industry in some way or another. It's not as much that I wanted to be a rock star as much as it is that I wanted to try and do something emotionally important with my life. The arts are the only thing in this world that make me feel other than earthly.
ThrashHead: Out of all the songs you've written, which are the ones which make you smile out of artistic satisfaction?
Shark: There are songs from each album that I feel that way about but the three albums that we did that I feel that smile come on through the whole project would be The Deluge, Atlantis Rising and Gates of Fire. As for single songs they are all over the place. Fires of Mars, Flaming Metal Systems, The Books of Skelos, The Prophecy, Grindhouse oh man the list is long I guess. Let's face it I would have put it on an album if I did notlike the song. Well except for Feeling Free Again hahaha. Hey baby? Are you kidding me?
ThrashHead: Tell us about "Beyond the Boundaries of Sin"
Shark: It's the first album from a new band that I am in called Hellwell. It started out as sort of just a studio project with some other musicians and turned into much more. We are all really into the music that has been come up with and I'm really pumped to see what happens with it. Beyond the Boundaries of Sin has a guest appearance by Bryan Patrick and Josh Castillo from MR. Hellwell is sort of like Manilla Road's evil twin. It's still epic in its own way but the topics are consistently darker. It's heavy and weird at times but it also is driving and well played I think.
There are times that I hear a bit of the Road in the band but that is normal since I have helped to write all of the music and lyrics. Let's put it this way...if you like MR then you will most likely like Hellwell. If you ever wished that MR sounded heavier and more evil then you will definitely like Hellwell.
Beyond the Boundaries of Sin should be out on High Roller and Shadow Kingdom by maybe August or September.
ThrashHead: Would you like to say anything to our readers before we let you go?
Shark: I would most certainly like to say to all our supporters around the globe that we are totally indebted to you for allowing us the chance to continue this craft called Manilla Road. If not for your undying devotion to the band we could not go on. Thanks for being there for us and I intend on being there for you as long as you think it sounds good. Blessed Be and Up The Hammers!
Thanks for doing this interview as well. It is an honor to be on your pages.
Down The Nails