Interview: Gatekeeper

Exactly two years ago, on 26 January 2021, we published for the last time an interview with Jeff Black from Gatekeeper – this article was released as a part of our big Manilla Road Special. Since we always enjoy chatting with Jeff and the new Gatekeeper album From Western Shores will be out on 1 March, there were enough reasons to talk again for a longer time. We hope you enjoy reading!

André: Hi Jeff, I’m glad you took the time to talk to us again. How are you doing? I guess it’s very stressful at the moment, so close to the release of your second album?

Jeff: I’m not bad! Things are always hectic when you’re trying to promote your new music while trying to live your normal life but I like to think that I’m starting to get used to it. This album has been easier because we’ve had more time to prepare and think about the plan.

André: Even though we already wrote this, I’ll repeat it here: Gatekeeper – and especially your masterpiece East of Sun – was one of the reasons to start the Epic Metal Blog. You can imagine that the upcoming release of From Western Shores is something very special for us. At this point, I would like to take a brief look into the past with you: How has the feedback for East of Sun been in general? In my opinion, the album is already a modern classic against which all epic heavy metal bands have to measure themselves. 

Jeff: I really appreciate that. It’s wild to know that I got to be a part of an album that touched some people out there. I’m glad to know that you folks hold it in such high regard. I feel like we’ve always been somewhat of an underdog in the Epic Metal scene compared to bands like Visigoth and Eternal Champion but every once in a while someone mentions our record and it’s a great feeling. People still ask me about “Blade of Cimmeria“ and people still contact me about festivals or designing new patches and whatnot. So that’s really cool.

André: Let’s move on to From Western Shores: One topic that can’t be ignored is your change of vocalist. How long have you known Tyler? And can you still remember the first Gatekeeper song he sang? 

Jeff: It’s funny, I’ve known Tyler longer than I’ve known the rest of the guys in the band! But we mainly knew each other from playing together in previous bands and playing in each other’s towns and stuff. Tyler has a band called Odinfist with a very good friend of mine from school so that’s where we first met. When we made the call for singers to audition we sent everyone “Blade of Cimmeria” first. If you can’t sing that song, you can’t be in the band. Tyler was the guy who understood how that song was supposed to sound compared to everyone else so we sent him other songs to try and eventually started workshopping parts for some of the new songs and it became clear that he was the guy for the job.

André: When did you write the first songs for From Western Shores?

Jeff: A couple of the song ideas are very old. “Keepers of the Gate” was written… I don’t even know when. Maybe 7 or 8 years ago and I just never got around to using it until this record. “Exiled King”, “Twisted Towers” and “From Western Shores” were also written pretty early, around 2015 or 2016 when David Messier and I first started jamming together. Some of them are more recent and came together pretty quickly.

André: Personnel issues aside: What do you think distinguishes From Western Shores most from its predecessor East of Sun

Jeff: I think it takes all the elements of East of Sun and doubles down on them. The heavy metal songs are pure, straight-forward heavy metal. The wandering epics are more ambitious, the slow-burners are really introspective. Each song sounds more focused and tight to me. There are more sing-along moments too.

André: Is there a song that is particularly close to your heart? At the moment I’m very fond of “Nomads”, besides “Exiled King” of course… 

Jeff: “Exiled King” is one of my favorites for sure. That song feels like a quintessential Gatekeeper song – it has a bit of everything we do well within it. “Nomads” is cool, I’m glad you like that one. We almost didn’t record it because I felt a little uncertain about a few things but I like how it turned out in the end. “Shadow And Stone” has some of my favorite moments in the whole album. 

André: My colleague Aidan, who is a huge Dark Forest fan, was very excited when he saw the new artwork by Duncan Storr. I also think it’s outstanding! How did this artwork come about? Did you give Duncan Storr precise instructions? 

Jeff: Nah, we almost never give Duncan specific directions. We usually show him lyrics, song demos and give him some descriptions of the themes and general imagery behind the songs and he’ll come back with the most amazing and creative sketches you’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever sent him any notes or revisions. He’s the best.

André: Can we see you live with Gatekeeper in Europe in the foreseeable future? Can you already tell us something about this? 

Jeff: I can’t confirm or deny anything at this time! I’m sure it goes without saying that we would love to be back in Europe very soon.

André: When I interviewed Cam Mesmer from Spell at the end of 2022, he revealed to us that you would be in the Spell live line-up. Have you actually been friends for a long time?

Jeff: Yes, that’s correct. Cam and the Spell guys were some of the first people I met when I moved to the west coast and they were very friendly and hospitable and introduced me to a lot of people in the scene. It’s great to finally play some music with them. 

André: Let’s take a look at the Canadian metal scene: Which bands from your home country should we definitely keep an eye on? Do you have any insider tips for us?

Jeff: Iron Kingdom put out their best album ever last year and people should definitely check them out. They have a great and loyal fanbase but I think some people in our niche miss out on them because they are very strictly DIY and independent and don’t get the same sort of label press as other bands. I’ve been listening to Freeways a lot lately and I think they’re pretty cool too.

André: Which albums released in 2022 did you particularly like? And what was your best live experience? Which concert or festival did you enjoy the most? 

Jeff: I was really into Ancient Light by Eliminator. I think they have one of the coolest singers right now and musically they bridge the gap between early Maiden and early Queensrÿche. I know that I play for Spell now but I didn’t have anything to do with Tragic Magic – it’s such a great record. They’ve tightened up everything in a big way and it’s a powerhouse record. The songs are so much fun to play. I also really enjoyed the newest Blind Guardian record and at the risk of outing myself as an extreme poseur, I’ve been having a lot of fun with Powerwolf. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t see very many live shows in 2022. Maybe I’m still getting used to the post-pandemic world, but I’m also trying to make changes to my personal health which doesn’t really coincide with late-night activity. However, I did get to see some fun gigs when I spent the summer in Seattle. I saw a few shows by Greyhawk, Sölicitör and Skelator who are my favorite bands in the Pacific Northwest area. Gatekeeper also got to play with Into Eternity at a festival in Vancouver (Hyperspace) so it was cool to hear some of those songs again. I was a big fan as a teenager. We also played with Ironflame at Stormbringer festival and they were a real standout from that gig. And of course Riot City are some of the better live performers in recent years. 

André: Last question: Are there currently developments in the metal underground that you don’t like so much?

Jeff: I had a lot of trouble answering this one because I don’t want to go out on a bleak note here. All I will say is that there are so many social and economic factors that play into the state of art and culture that I find it hard to make comments about streaming, lyric videos, festival line-ups, Discogs resellers or whatever bullshit I see people complain about. The system by which bands operate is largely unsustainable and most countries don’t provide environments that artists can thrive and succeed. Bands put their music on Spotify because the listening ecosystem forces them to. Bands make lyric videos because an increasingly-algorithmic culture demands more content. Festivals book repeat bands because many other bands can’t afford to travel to play gigs. Discogs resellers exist thanks to a selfish collectors culture. It’s tough out there and I hope that people can step away from their myopic view of “the scene” and understand that there are more important, bigger-picture things that should be dealt with. A better world is possible!

André: I am also convinced of this – and we end on a confident note. Jeff, thank you for your very interesting answers! I wish you and your band all the best for 2023. For me, From Western Shores is a grower that gets better with every playthrough. Therefore, my final advice to our readers: If you haven’t pre-ordered the album yet, do it – you won’t regret it!

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