PARAGON – Forging Metal Beyond Hell
Even when trends come and go in the metal field, there are always going to be people standing up for the ideals and traditions that have made the genre long-lasting. Real riffs, catchy melodies, solid hooks – and a true passion no matter what directions others make take. Germany’s Paragon embody that spirit through their speedy brand of traditional metal that has power and thrash nuances, together since the early 1990’s and arriving at their 11th studio album in "Hell Beyond Hell".
Feeling the time was ripe for a feature on the band, I reached out to bassist Jan Bunning on Skype and we had a very entertaining hour long talk. His sense of humor comes through as well as a love for heavy metal – and his honesty about a lot of the moves Paragon made is refreshing, because not every band maintains the same level of popularity this deep into their career. Prepare to feel his passion for the underground and invest in the Paragon catalog – there are many killer records to treasure ("Steelbound", "Law of the Blade", and "Force of Destruction" three safe to start with beyond the new record).
Describe your musical journey in childhood – what were some of your first memories related to bands, albums, and how you discovered heavy metal? And at what point did you make the move from being a fan to picking an instrument and start forming/ joining bands?
"Personally? Oh, good question. The first bands I was really into were Kiss and AC/DC, and after a few weeks I preferred AC/DC. My first band was in 1983, a punk band with my friends and nobody wanted to play bass so I had to do it! (laughs) We made some demo tapes that we recorded in the rehearsal room, my first real metal band was in Hamburg, a band called Black Laws, that was classic metal with epic songs. First Black Laws became Erosion. Than I joined Asmodis. Totally different band!. We did demos and an album in 1988 "Mortal Agony", we did a European tour, a crossover thing with metal and hardcore. We were into bands like Agnostic Front, Carnivore, Slayer, Post-Mortem, doom like Candlemass. We did a tour with Ludichrist, that was my first real band. I split for personal reasons and the next band was a thrash band in 1992. Martin from Paragon called me to see if I wanted to join them, and here we go from 1996 I’ve been in the band. I was out for 2 years for personal differences but everything is fine again."
"Hell Beyond Hell" is the 11th Paragon studio album, and over the course of the last three studio records the gaps are getting a touch longer as you’ve established longevity as a group. What circumstances develop into four year breaks between records – is it a combination of real life situations and day jobs that delay outcomes?
"Yes, it’s really a combination. When I rejoined Paragon Martin was in the band, Andreas Babuschkin was in the band, we had to look for another guitar player. When I was back we wanted to rehearse for a longer time. We had a contract with Massacre Records back then, and here we are with only a bassist, drummer, and singer- no guitar player. The first thing we did was look for guitar players again, which is when Jan Bertram was found, who is still in the band. That lasted a while, then we had to write songs and find another label because Massacre’s offer wasn’t great for us. So the time between "Screenslaves" and "Force of Destruction" was a long time because of that. And we had this happen again – we were on Napalm Records and they told us in the middle of 2014 that they didn’t want to release our next album because they wanted to concentrate on their bigger bands which were willing to tour more. We cannot do this, we are older and have families with kids, most of us have day jobs or are self-employed, it’s not possible for us to go on tour for months. We had to then look again for another record company, we decided to do the album ourselves and then sell it to a record company, or release it ourselves. By the end of 2014 we took every song we recorded as a demo and we re-worked everything, we questioned everything, different tempos, changing up the riffs. It was like a puzzle, we tore everything apart and put things back together. Some songs stayed the same, some songs changed a lot. In the end it paid off, the album has a little bit more energy and personal stuff than our previous ones. Maybe we will be faster next time."
Are you the type of band who write separately and then hash stuff out in rehearsals or do you need that face to face interaction in order to feel comfortable with songwriting? Which song(s) do you think changed the most from their initial development to final outcome on the new record?
"With the last answer I told you a little bit. We need the best riff possible as a song idea – if you have a good riff everything else will come in easily. The guitar players or myself will gather stuff with the iPhones and computers, I will arrange it, we have done things like this for years. We will work out everything from there in the rehearsal room. Bushy surprises us sometimes when the music is already okay where we can play it front to back, he already has some lines to it lyrically- there will be some polishing from there.
I think the song we changed the most from start to finish is "Heart of the Black". We had it as a long song- eight or nine minutes – but we had no intro for it and a different pre-chorus, or none at all. The verses are totally different, Piet helped us with that so of course he got some songwriting credits for that. When you go to the studio as a band, you are very into it. You can’t see from the outside if it’s a really good song, it’s not possible to be objective."
How important of a role does Piet play in terms of the production for Paragon? You are obviously very satisfied with his work, going back to 2001’s "Steelbound"…
"When we did "Revenge", that was the best album we had ever done for sound. Piet made us bring out our best in the studio. What could we do from there? We thought we could not achieve more, so we had to find a new producer and a new way of doing things. That is when the problems began because the next album "Forgotten Prophecies" has some good songs but the sound is very bad and the arrangement of many of the songs aren’t as good as well. That is something that Piet has helped us with most in the studio, he’s into music, a big Priest and Accept fan, and knows how to develop an aggressive guitar tone that is clear as well. He pushes Bushy’s vocals to the limit as well. Over the years he’s gotten a bit calmer. When we first were recording in his studio, when you made a mistake he would ‘tell us in a direct way – you had to respect him. These days he’s more into the performance and not so much into perfect playing. Of course we’ve gotten better as musicians than when he first knew us in 2001, he presses the record button and you play the song from front to end, most times it’s okay and we only have to correct small points. It sounds more natural and less artificial."
What have been some of the standout moments in Paragon’s career as far as reaching a deeper level of respect or possibly pinnacle albums and tours/ festival appearances?
"The first was to go on tour with Gamma Ray, we played outside Germany and we played to big crowds, everybody on the tour liked us, the crew and the fans. Really good reviews as well for the "Law of the Blade" album which was a really good feeling, our first good album was "Steelbound" but "Law of the Blade" was much better. The earlier albums are more like demos to us. The next highlight was to be on the Wacken Open Air stage in 2004, that was very good, thousands of people – we were the first band on Friday at 11:30, it was unbelievable. When I came off the stage it was 40 degrees C, one of the hottest days as we were dizzy from the heat as well as the experience. We played Sweden Rock, Summer Breeze, that was a very good year for us."
We all know that evaluating each album is difficult in the sense that they are all your children, but are there certain ones you wish you could go back and possibly re-create due to the time period and events going on around Paragon?
"To be honest, I more or less left the band because of the sound on "Forgotten Prophecies". I had a very big argument with Martin and Bushy back then, when we went into the studio I realized that these guys cannot produce an album for us or anybody. Nice guys but inexperienced, and I knew the sound would suck big time. I’d love to make the album again with Piet, there’s only one song that I would totally throw out as the rest were really good. The diversity on the album with ballads and thrashy stuff, I would love to do this again. I also think "Screenslaves" doesn’t necessarily sound like a Paragon record but the production is much, much better. That would also be an idea… it was a Paragon album for its time."
You’ve done some classic covers through the years… Warrior, Accept, Saxon, Exciter, and so forth. Who’s idea was it to take on the Backstreet Boys "Larger than Life" for "Screenslaves"?
"(laughs) Yeah, that was a funny story. When we started Paragon Mark II, it was a different lineup. They almost split up, Martin had written some new stuff and when we were on the road you can get the Enterprise cars. Most of them never had a CD player in there, in 2001 that song was always playing on the road. Martin thought we could do a good metal kind of arrangement to that song, for fun. Over the years the idea grew and when I was out of the band, they did it. The version is kind of cool, I don’t remember the original Backstreet Boys version to be honest. It’s catchy, it got the most clicks from us on YouTube. My favorite is still the Saxon one "To Hell and Back Again", it could also be from us. I also like "Son of a Bitch" by Accept from the last album, or "The Gods Made Heavy Metal" from Manowar, we’ve played that many times on tour."
Where do you see the state of heavy metal in 2016? Do you worry about its longevity when some of the classic bands finally retire, or more legends unfortunately pass away due to the natural laws of time?
"Good question. I think the heavy metal scene has changed the last few years. In one way it’s become mainstream with many bands entering the charts, still selling records, pop artists only have singles so at least metal people still buy albums. When they buy something they buy albums. There is also a lot of metal stuff which isn’t really metal – it sounds like pop music with distorted guitars, you know. The melodies and attitude is soft- the music and singers have to hurt a little bit (laughs). We are outcasts of society, Running Wild, Helloween, Gamma Ray, every time we met at the train station the police were waiting for us, trying to control us. We had bullet belts, it was not common in those days so people would take them away from us. Today it’s accepted, nobody cares about it anymore. I like my old bands, Priest, Maiden, Saxon, Accept, old thrash stuff like Exodus and Slayer. That is one side of the coin, and there is the underground scene which I still like. I just bought the new Striker album which I think is really good. I prefer the underground bands more than the big bands- I don’t like Sabaton or Powerwolf in comparison to the smaller bands. I prefer to go to clubs where there are hundreds of people- in a big hall, 200 meters away from stage that’s not my cup of tea. The Accept concert in 1981 where I went to, there was 1,000 people and the sweat was dripping from the ceiling, that’s what I like."
What concerns you most about the world that we live in today?
"War, poverty, everybody seems to hate everybody else. It makes no sense to hate each other and put everybody down, it’s most important to keep the world alive and keep the peace. It’s not about wealth, power, it’s about living together. Leave the world a better place for your children. I try to be positive, but sometimes it’s hard- everybody is getting stupid. It’s more important to enjoy life, and accept different kinds of lifestyles and opinions. At least I try to do it- sometimes people provoke me, but I try to be calm. I talk with my girlfriend about this a few times in the last few weeks, I tell her not to worry about things, because it can drag you down."
Can you tell us your three favorite all-time heavy metal albums, and some of your favorite memories attending concerts through the years?
"One of them is "Killers" from Iron Maiden. I prefer the Di’anno era, I met him and he’s a cool guy. When I was a kid, I had a ghetto blaster- one side was "Killers", and the other side was "Point of Entry" from Judas Priest. For six weeks during the summer I heard those albums every day. I think "Defenders of the Faith" is my favorite Judas Priest album, I like "Painkiller" a lot too. Number three- hard to say, I may have said Accept in the past… but the Accept albums have some good songs, not all great front to back. "Reign in Blood" from Slayer, that’s one of my favorites. No- number three would be "Crimson Idol" from W.A.S.P. I love the concept for that one. Looking back, the first concerts I attended were the best. Last year I saw Judas Priest and they put on an impressive show. A Twisted Sister show in that early 80’s period – the lights went off and the P.A. was turned off, but they still kept on playing. I never saw Priest in the past- the first time they played in Hamburg I was too young, afterwards they played in bigger halls for the "Painkiller" tour- and I didn’t make that. Judas Priest I love Halford, the lead guitar playing, the different kind of songs on every album."
Are you satisfied with Paragon’s place in the heavy metal community, or do you believe there’s more to accomplish in the coming years?
"I hope so. Other people go to soccer and American football, Paragon is a hobby for us. We don’t need to make any compromises, we can do what we want. You can expect a real album from us every time, because we do what we want to do and not what the record company expects us to do. We don’t have to look at the sales numbers, we sell enough to afford a good studio. It could be better of course, we are a good band but record companies are different today, when we had "Hell Beyond Hell" ready, but I don’t think they were interested in our music, they were more interested in if it could sell. I don’t think they were willing to take the risks. There must be more fans that just don’t know us, it’s hard because there are so many bands, so many labels. As long as we can play live and write songs, we will go on. I hope we are more consistent with releases, we would like to put the next album out in two years. Remedy is a cool label, they have a good promotion department, the important thing is they believe in us."
What are some of your favorite activities or hobbies away from music that help you re-charge your collective batteries so to speak?
"I have so many hobbies I need more lives. I am interested in movies, watch a lot of independent movies, horror stuff. It helps me put my brain way. I like photography, I have some ambition with that. I make photos of bands at festivals, if a band asks me I give them pictures to use. Sports like swimming, bicycle riding, if I really want a no brainer I put on my Playstation 3 and play some shoot up games.
What advice would you give your 20-year old self as well as your 30-year old self when it comes to life?
"It’s difficult to say because some people say they never regret anything. Maybe I should have learned more because when I finished with school I just started to work. I had no focus with what I could make a living with. When I was 20 I would have tried to become a photographer. I’m not bad it, maybe I could have made a living for it. 30 years was a very good time, it was a time when I started with Paragon, sex and drugs and rock and roll. I went to a lot of festivals, it was a good time. I had enough money, looking back maybe I would have started thinking about what I wanted to do for a career. I was interested in so many things, I didn’t know what I wanted to become. I got stuck at a newspaper in Hamburg, I made good money but I was stuck there for a few years."
How do you see the rest of 2016 playing out for Paragon in terms of live performances and promotion for the new record?
"The promotion, we are right in it. We have many interviews, I still have to do three more for the end of the week. I can’t wait to read for the first reviews outside of Germany, I know some of the reviews here in Germany. Most of the time the outside ones are better for us than the ones in Germany. We will play on a ship here in Hamburg soon, maybe we will film this. We will do a tour of Italy, and we got asked to play in Portugal and Spain. We will do more shows, we won’t do a big tour but maybe 20-30 shows, some festivals."