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Mourning The Southern Sky: An Exclusive Interview With KYLE THOMAS & VINNE LA BELLA Of EXHORDER

By Brian Davis, Contributor
Wednesday, October 23, 2019 @ 10:03 AM


"All that ever taught me was: You can do whatever you want to Christ on an album cover, just don’t do anything to the Pope!"

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All Band Photos Credit: Dante Torrieri

If there was a Metal Hall of Fame for bands that have made a lasting, innovative and inspirational impact on the Metal masses then EXHORDER is your guaranteed first ballot inductee as the rightful Godfathers of Groove Metal. Hailing from the hallowed fertile musical ground of New Orleans, Louisiana EXHORDER made a semi-controversial and fully impactful appearance on the then-erupting global Thrash Metal scene with 1990’s iconic Slaughter In The Vatican, followed just two years later by the even more prolific The Law, only to seemingly suffer an untimely demise in the commercially unforgiving world of underground Metal. Nevertheless that was more than enough time and material to permanently affix them as true pioneers of the Groove Metal sound while also evolving the melodically-limited vocal approach of early Thrash by striking a balance of tonal aggression, both contributions which helped pave the way for countless other bands, not the least of which being the one and only PANTERA.

And now, after nearly thirty years of patient uncertainty the band has finally mounted a full comeback with Mourn The Southern Skies, a monolithic Metal masterpiece that is likely to become their best album to date and is hopefully just the first step on EXHORDER’s long-delayed ascent to their rightful place among Metal’s most elite bands. Vocalist Kyle Thomas and founding guitarist Vinnie La Bella sat down with KNAC.COM during their recent show in Seattle, Washington to walk us through the history of the band and the enduring will & determination that carried them through nearly three decades of growth to the release of the greatest Metal album of 2019 and potentially beyond.

KNAC.COM: EXHORDER is finally back, I can still hardly believe it. Let’s just go back to the beginning and how you guys hooked up; you’re the two core members still around after all these years.

LA BELLA: I met [Kyle] loitering – you could tell he was loitering cuz he was literally with no one. (Laughs) So our bass player at the time Andy [Villafarra] comes over and says, “Hey, there’s this guy standing outside who says he can sing.” So I said, “Well give him the address!” And as soon as he came in it was a no-brainer, the dude could sing and that was it.

KNAC.COM: And how long was it after that before the band solidified and you started recording?

THOMAS: That occurred just after I jumped in right around the spring of 1986, that whole summer we worked on writing enough songs to have a show and enough songs to release a demo; we did a three song demo on a home system at a friend’s house, which I don’t think anybody has a copy of anymore – I think it’s just gone.

LA BELLA: Yeah, that’s shit’s gone forever.

THOMAS: It was nameless, but it had “Legions of Death”, “Ripping Flesh” and “Anal Lust” on that one. And really at that point we were just trying to decide on a name, it really wasn’t until we were about to record the first demo that we decided to go with EXHORDER, which was something that Vinnie & [original drummer] Chris [Nail] came up with one day; I think Chris brought the word ‘exhort’ in and it was a really powerful word so then we thought, “Well what about EXHORTER?” and he was like, “Why don’t we take the ‘T’ out, put the ‘D’ in and make it look like ‘order’?” If remember correctly that’s how it went.

LA BELLA: Yeah, and it was also kind of a move also to not have any copyright infringements on down the line. You know, ‘exhort’ you’ll find it in the dictionary, but you won’t find it the way we spell it.

KNAC.COM: And you also have the double entendre when you spell it that way as you explained it.

LA BELLA: Right; makes it a little more proprietary to us.

THOMAS: Then we recorded that demo, started playing gigs and started out opening for Punk Rock bands that were friends of ours and took mercy on us because the Metal scene didn’t want us (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Why do you think that was?

THOMAS: I think they just didn’t know what to do with it. Hair Metal & Glam in New Orleans were the big thing and I think we frightened them and I think we repulsed them (laughs).

KNAC.COM: And there’s the notoriety of the cover [for Slaughter in the Vatican], that was something a lot of people talked about and was a pretty bold visual statement for a band at that time; it’s rather common to see that these days but not back then.

LA BELLA: Yeah, it was weird to us that they would balk at our cover but then CANNIBAL CORPSE would have these crazy covers with all kinds of weird shit, but for some reason when we did it people were like, “Whoa wait a minute, that’s a little too much now…”. Kinda freaked us out.

THOMAS: All that ever taught me was: You can do whatever you want to Christ on an album cover, just don’t do anything to the Pope!

KNAC.COM: (All laughing) Wow, that’s pretty poignant. So one of the main things I’ve always wanted to know was the origin of the guitar tone. To this day it’s so unique, how did you develop that sound?

LA BELLA: Well, actually back in the day we were never able to capture our real guitar tone and transfer it onto tape; back then it cost a lot of money and took the right producers – we never had it; so to be honest, as good as the old albums were they weren’t exactly as they were supposed to be. The true representation of what our guitar tone was and always will be is what you hear on the new album; it’s just so much easier to do it now than it was back in the old days. So yeah, we developed our own kind of thing in the way of pumping the front end of our rigs, but it would have been more signature if we had been able to better capture it back in the day.

KNAC.COM: Of course “Desecrator” to this day stands as your most commercially noteworthy song. It was on Nuclear Blast’s At Death’s Door II VHS & CD which is a legendary historical release; but with the subject matter and the response that Slaughter In The Vatican received…I wouldn’t say ‘do you have any regrets or not?’ but is there maybe anything you would have done differently looking back now?

LA BELLA: In what terms?

KNAC.COM: Well I guess in the choice of the cover, knowing the reaction the cover received and the subject matter of the album?

THOMAS: If we could go back and give advice to our young selves there would be a lot bigger things than that! (group laughs)

KNAC.COM: Not even on the list, right?

LA BELLA: (still laughing) Yeah, absolutely! I mean look, we were an extreme band – we were extreme people; that’s the thing – a lot of bands keep their music lives separate from our personal lives; ours were always connected. So some of those things we wrote about on those songs we enjoyed, you know? Drinkin’, fightin’, fuckin’ – we were kids; obviously some of the shit you can’t do because you’d go to fuckin’ jail. Nowadays we’re older and the idea was not so much to clean it up but we just don’t…we’re not that pissed off anymore, you know? We don’t drink every night and we’re not out looking for ass – we’re not trying to do that anymore so of course [the new material] is going to be a bit of a stray from that. So I don’t know if we would have changed anything but I think it would have been more accessible if we did.

THOMAS: Right. The music that we write has always been a reflection, its art imitating life that’s how it’s always been. So now that we’re older and we’re not running around like we did when we were younger it’s still angry it’s just an evolved angry.

KNAC.COM: That leads us into my personal favorite, which is The Law; that’s the one that I could never get out of my stereo. I really love the lyrical approach on that because it was a little more of an evolved approach from Slaughter In The Vatican with the theme of Aleister Crowley and his philosophy in The Book Of The Law. That was inspirational for a lot of Metalheads at the time because that’s when that kind of outside thinking started to become acceptable to talk about with other people; did that have a notable influence on you long term, again as far as not having such an aggressive perspective [as the first album]?

THOMAS: Yeah that’s kind of a lyrical evolution for me, I would think. A lot of what we wrote in the early days – and still write – was almost like horror music, almost like you’d read in a book by Edgar Allen Poe or Clive Barker or somebody. I was creating ideas for songs and I used a lot of his [writing as] lyrics in the early days, and the second time I think we were just so…so far removed from when we started writing those songs - I mean we probably started writing those first songs four or five years earlier and we were just getting around to writing [The Law]. So I was reading a lot of philosophy and I was wanting to be someone profound – I think I probably thought I was more profound than I really was – but as far as where it ends up today it’s similar I think, but maybe I’m less concerned with trying to enlighten anybody; I more or less just feel like giving somebody something they can relate to in their day to day life: the stress of work, the stress of finances, the stress of family life, parenting – it’s all real stuff and that’s scary enough for anybody.

KNAC.COM: And that’s a shared perspective across a lot of different lifestyles.

LA BELLA: It’s the same thing musically, we all got better – [Kyle] got better at his craft. That’s why I looked at him and I was like, “Dude you’re so good at this I’m not gonna write anymore lyrics.” (Laughs) When he showed up for Slaughter In The Vatican I had already written a few more things and just looking at [what he did on] that he was so much better at it; but he got better at his craft and we got better at ours as players and we wanted to incorporate that into [The Law] as well. So yeah, I think we just matured on that record and I think you can hear that moving forward musically and lyrically. And it’s the same thing here [with Mourn The Southern Skies]; it’s a 27 year gap you know? You’re going to hear a lot of progression there also.

KNAC.COM: Speaking of that, do you feel like you have to take into account the time that you’ve grown, your personal and shared experiences after all this time between now and then, but more or less looking back do you feel like this is the logical next step album that could have come right after The Law?

LA BELLA: Actually man a ton of these riffs that are on this record were written in ’92, ’93, ’98 and into the 00’s, so we were making this move anyway. So it wasn’t a conscious effort like, “Ok, we need to clean this up and we need to do this and we need to do that” – we just write what’s in our hearts to write. So "Mourn The Southern Skies" – that song was written in 1998-99, somewhere in there, so these are not new concepts.

KNAC.COM: So it’s more of a historical album in a way.

LA BELLA: Yes.

THOMAS: It does chronicle a lot along the way.

LA BELLA: It’s pretty much the history of me and his life for the last three bricks, you know – 30 years.

THOMAS: We sure didn’t write it in three weeks, you know? (both laugh)

KNAC.COM: And that’s great, that means it organically kind of came into its own and it wasn’t rushed; it has these elements that you can look back and say that it was a work in progress. It’s not like EXHORDER dropped off the map and then just suddenly reappeared out of nowhere almost 30 years later.

LA BELLA: No it wasn’t that, we’ve been writing and building to this for quite a while and we had a couple stumbling blocks in between where we got together and we didn’t finish the job, but we’re here to stay. We’re already five or six [songs] into the next one – at least I am with outlines and ideas.

KNAC.COM: Perfect. I want to go back real quick to The Law – your cover of BLACK SABBATH’s "Into The Void"…that dual guitar, holy shit.

LA BELLA: Thanks man.

KNAC.COM: When I was in High School in 1992 my first car was an AMC Concord, I took out the back seat and put in 10” speakers.

THOMAS: (laughs) Nice.

LA BELLA: (laughs) Hell yeah!

KNAC.COM: I would roll into the parking lot with that song just cranked! Ah God I love it to this day. (laughs) Ok, so now we’re getting to Mourn The Southern Skies. I’ve been able to listen to it for about a week now and so far it’s…if you can manage your expectations as a fan and still be looking forward as much as I have for almost 30 years for this to happen I have to honestly say that it’s even more than anything I would have let myself hope that it would be.

THOMAS/LA BELLA: Good; thanks man!

KNAC.COM: And as you [Kyle] were saying, I wanted to talk about the lyrics. You can totally tell the application to life, there’s less abstract philosophy and more practical…like "My Time", that song is just a great, “Get the fuck out of my way, it’s my turn.”

THOMAS: Anyone who has had a job can relate to that song. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Totally. So what do you do next, the new album drops, you finish the US tour, then what?

LA BELLA: We go to Europe on Oct. 4th for about a week then we come back and do a record release show Oct. 19th in New Orleans – that’s going to be a big moment for me and Kyle because it’s our hometown and man – they have been waiting so long for this moment. They haven’t had a record release since 1992 so that’s the plans for the rest of the year and there’s other stuff in the works for 2020, we’re doing some extensive runs and festival stuff next year.

KNAC.COM: And more North America touring, I’d hope, maybe something headlining?

LA BELLA: Oh yeah, definitely.

THOMAS: We’re just going to bounce back and forth.

LA BELLA: Exactly, if we’re not doing Europe we’ll be doing North America, whether it's fly dates, short runs or long runs like this.

KNAC.COM: And for you [Kyle], one of the things that has always fascinated…I mean I’ve followed you long after EXHORDER – I love PITTS VS PREPS.

THOMAS: Oh cool, man!

KNAC.COM: And FLOODGATE – I fuckin’ love the FLOODGATE album –and you did TROUBLE [The Distortion Field] and also this year you released HEAVY AS TEXAS [with EXHORDER guitarist Marzi Montazeri].

LA BELLA: This guy don’t fuck around! (laughs)

KNAC.COM: (laughing) No he doesn’t, and that’s what I’m saying - the ALABAMA THUNDERPUSSY album [Open Fire], that was amazing.

THOMAS: And there was JONES’S LOUNGE, which was a behind the scenes Easter egg kind of thing.

KNAC.COM: I need to hear that then.

LA BELLA: There’s some good stuff on there, man.

THOMAS: That was me with a High School buddy of mine, Dax Thieler; he got with Jimmy Bower [EYEHATEGOD, SUPERJOINT RITUAL, CROWBAR, DOWN] – Jim played drums and Dax played guitar then brought it to me, then Dave Fortman from UGLY KID JOE actually engineered and recorded it at his studio.

KNAC.COM: Fantastic, I’m all over that.

THOMAS: It was a collaborative effort, very cool.

KNAC.COM: So along those lines, since you put yourself out there so much and applying your talents to these bands like TROUBLE and ALABAMA THUNDERPUSSY that are already established, you can just slide right in there; but now that EXHORDER is fully back is it going to be balls-out EXHORDER as far as touring stuff or do you do much with these other projects as well?

THOMAS: The other ones, HEAVY AS TEXAS is a newer project so we’re at the ground level just trying to build it at this point; we did a short tour and we’re hoping to do some more but we’re kind of on our own so it’s a little tough. TROUBLE is actually in the process of writing a new album. We had a few dates that we were looking at doing this year overseas but I’m not sure if that’s going to happen or not. EXHORDER still has a lot of touring left so I’ll probably just fill in the gaps in between.

KNAC.COM: There are a lot worse ways to pay the bills, huh?

THOMAS: (laughs) Yes there are.


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