Interview: Phil Denton (Elixir)

When I moved to the UK in the mid-2000s, music suddenly became exponentially more accessible to me. In India, CDs were not affordable (if you even had the technology to play them), and most tapes were sold in gift shops alongside cheesy Hallmark cards. Once in South Wales, I began scouring the second-hand shops and bargain bins for any and all things heavy metal.

Now equipped with my own CD player (and Discman!), I ended up bingeing on NWOBHM compilations and box sets. They were like history books; hugely enjoyable, but as far as I knew, a closed chapter I could never be part of. That all completely changed in 2007 when I discovered the British Steel Festival, with the most incredible line up – Elixir, Jaguar, Tygers of Pan Tang, Chariot and Cloven Hoof – and all for the lofty sum of £10. Armed with printed directions (and no friends to accompany me!), I headed to Milton Keynes and had my first real experience of underground metal – a door I had thought locked forever suddenly allowed me a little peek in…

Hi Phil, thanks for taking the time to do this! While most know you from your long service in the much-beloved band Elixir, I hold you as the man perhaps single-handedly responsible for bringing NWOBHM back to the live setting in the UK. How did that come about?

During Elixir’s second active spell, we were invited to play at Germany’s Keep It True Festival in 2004. This was our second European festival appearance, and we made good friends with a couple of bands on the bill. The following day, we were talking to Lee and (then vocalist) Russ from Cloven Hoof. I asked why we didn’t have such great festivals for bands such as ours in the UK and none of us knew the answer. 

When we got back home, I started thinking about the idea. I knew of a venue, The Pitz in Milton Keynes, from a gig Elixir had played with Angel Witch back in the late 1980s. It had great facilities, a big stage and a great in-house sound man there. (I am told that many top bands who had played there had tried to poach him, but he didn’t like to tour, preferring to stay at The Pitz).

I spoke to Paul Rivers, the guy who put the bands on at The Pitz, and pitched the idea to him of putting on a NWOBHM festival. He invited me to a W.A.S.P. gig at the venue so I could see the facilities in a gig situation and have a chat, and we agreed to give it a try. 

I contacted a few bands and put the idea to them. We were all taking a risk, because we had to hire the venue. Once the venue hire had been paid out of the ticket sales, we agreed to split any profit five ways equally between the bands. That was always the arrangement, there were no higher fees for “headliners”, no reserved stage space for headliners either, we all had the same stage space and we were all in it together. Under this agreement, some bands didn’t want to play, which is understandable. Some were located a big distance away and wanted a guaranteed fee to at least cover their expenses. I said that I couldn’t guarantee a fee. Others insisted on having their gear set up at soundcheck and left up, with other bands playing around it, so again I refused.

There were bands that were willing to take a risk for the sake of playing a decent gig in our own country. For the first edition, Elixir was joined by Demon, The Handsome Beasts, Hammerhead and Overdrive.

We made a very small profit which was split between the bands. The main point though was that we had played to an appreciative audience in our own country, sold some merchandise, had a good time and met some great people, musicians and fans alike. I cannot speak for all bands, but Elixir enjoyed the experience, and I believe the other bands did too.

After the first event, I was contacted by other bands from abroad, saying that they were traditional Heavy Metal bands and would like to play. However, the point of the festival was to try to give British bands a decent gig in their homeland, and keep the bands’ travel expenses as low as possible for the economic reasons. The festival was named The British Steel Festival because the idea was to highlight British bands in their own country. Therefore, I stuck to the idea of having a British line-up exclusively. The only exception, in 2009, was a fantastic band called Celtic Legacy, who were Irish and technically not British, but they were so good and fitted the bill so well, that it was a pleasure to have them. They covered their own travel costs over and really wanted to play. As it happened, the bass player’s guitar had got lost at the airport when they landed, so they borrowed our bass player Kev’s guitar. They played a great set, and just as they came off stage, the courier arrived with the missing guitar!

Europe has always seemed to have had a fondness for the lesser known NWOBHM treasures, and labels like High Roller and Cult Metal Classics have worked tirelessly over the decades to bring these to light. In the mid 2000s the British label Majestic Rock reissued several albums, including Elixir’s The Son of Odin. I certainly obtained several of them during that time, including the Majestic Metal box sets, which opened up an entire world of British music for me. Do you think these contributed to a rise in popularity for the genre here at home?

I suppose that any releases help to spread the word, and I believe that Majestic Rock had a decent distribution set-up, which is the main reason that we signed to them.

I have no idea how many copies of our records Majestic Rock sold, as they never paid us! It was the same for other bands too. We signed a deal with them to release our 2006 album ‘Mindcreeper’ and our back catalogue, which they did. However, they soon disappeared. The bands weren’t getting paid, and when people were showing up at their business premises, locals were saying that other people had come looking for them too but they had gone. We were ripped off by them, as were others.

We have released several CDs on our own CTR label, and have licensed our material for release, mainly on vinyl, through some of the great labels such as High Roller (Germany), Night Of The Vinyl Dead (Italy) and Cult Metal Classics (Greece), and that, of course, helps to raise our profile.

For our latest album ‘Voyage Of The Eagle’, we signed to a respectable label, Dissonance Productions, which also pressed our albums on vinyl through their Back On Black label. 

In recent years I have attended the HRH NWOBHM festivals in Sheffield and couldn’t believe the scale of these events. They certainly lacked the intimacy of the early British Steel festivals, and I can fondly recall being blown away by one of the earlier line-ups (Jaguar/Cloven Hoof/Tygers of Pan Tang/Elixir/Chariot) at the Milton Keynes Pitz. Do you think these larger festivals have, in a way, hastened the demise of the humble rock-venue gig?

Ah, the second British Steel Festival! I really enjoyed that day!

We have played at HRH a couple of times, and it is very different from the British Steel Festival. At British Steel, we kept things intimate, and all the bands were accessible to the fans. We appreciated the fact that most of the fans had come a long way to see us (one guy travelled over from Japan for several editions!), and so we all made an effort to meet them, have pictures taken with them, sign merch, etc. before and after our sets. There was always a great, friendly atmosphere, which to me is what a festival is all about. It is supposed to be a day of celebration for our music. I have a big respect for the bands that played British Steel because there were no ego issues. We all played an equal 45 minutes, got paid equally and all egos were put aside for the sake of promoting our NWOBHM movement.

HRH is very corporate. They have big sponsorship, ticket prices are a lot more expensive, and it is a much larger event. It was great for Elixir to play there a couple of times, as we reached a larger audience. The downside is that they have bands playing on two separate stages at a time, so the audience gets split. If a bigger band is playing on the other stage, you lose some of your audience who go to watch the other band on the other stage. 

These days, it appears that the only way we can get on the HRH bill is to pay. For a couple of grand, the promoters sell you airplay on their HRH radio station and HRH TV, and give you space in the HRH magazine and then give you a slot at their festival. Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of money to pay out to play. So, for underground bands like us, unfortunately, it kind of shuts the door in our face.

I don’t know if I could blame them for hastening the decline of humble rock club gigs, but their current policy certainly doesn’t help the smaller underground bands such as us, who are struggling to play decent gigs in the UK.

During our first period of activity, from 1983 – 1989, there were plenty of great rock clubs in London and around the country that we could play. Venues such as The Marquee, The Royal Standard and The Ruskin Arms in London, to name a few, had regular gigs on and were well attended. A lot of other towns and cities had similar venues with a regular crowd.

By the time we came back for our second period of activity, in 2001, we found that a lot of those venues had closed, or were closing, and so we found ourselves playing mostly abroad at festivals, where there was still an audience for us. Which again, was why I decided to put on The British Steel Festival. To have a decent gig for Elixir to play in the UK!

I seem to recall that the above gig at The Pitz was not especially well attended, and most of the audience had come from much further afield (including a small but fierce Spanish contingent who remain very active supporters of the underground scene). Many might have called it a day at this point, but you chose to move the festival to London! What was the thinking behind this brave decision, which I believe ultimately reaped good returns in the end?

I think we got around 180 people at the second festival at The Pitz, which you attended. The venue holds 400, so it was just under half full.

I spoke to the Spanish contingent that you mentioned and they told me how they had flown to Stansted, hired a car and driven to Milton Keynes. They had got a bit lost in Milton Keynes, which is understandable, as most British people also get lost in MK! I was also made aware, from the Japanese guy who was there for the second year running, that Milton Keynes was rather difficult to get to for an international traveller. 

As you mentioned, a large percentage of the audience were from abroad, so I felt that I had to take their journeys seriously. From the first event, I had advertised the bus/coach timetables from Luton Airport to Milton Keynes, but it was becoming apparent that, although Luton was the nearest, people were flying in to other airports too.

So, for the third year’s event, I thought that I would try London instead. I made the decision with a heavy heart, because The Pitz, as a venue, had been great, and Paul Rivers at The Pitz had been so supportive.

I also enlisted the help of a promoter, Arcane Promotions, for the next event on 26th April 2008. They suggested The Underworld in Camden, and helped promote the gig and asked Zero Tolerance Magazine to help sponsor us. I set about approaching the bands, and Elixir were finally joined by Witchfynde, Praying Mantis, Lyadrive and Redline. We also raised the ticket price from £10 to £12.50, as we had to cover the promoter’s percentage and try to make a profit for the bands. I didn’t want to be greedy, and felt that £12.50 for 5 bands was still good value for money.

The Underworld had its pros and cons. Being in the middle of London, there was no convenient parking for bands to park and unload. The changing areas were small, and it was very cramped backstage. On the plus side, the venue was easily accessible for our international travellers, who relished the idea of seeing the city sights before and after attending the festival and making a weekend of it. My records show that we sold just under 200 tickets for that edition, so attendance didn’t go up massively. However, in the more cramped conditions of the venue, it seemed more crowded, and there was a great atmosphere.

If I’m not mistaken, Elixir played every edition of the festival, the last of which was in 2012 – also the year that Elixir called it a day. Did the break-up of the band contribute to the end of these amazing festivals? Is there a band you would have loved to put on but didn’t get a chance to? 

Yes, we did play them all, as The British Steel Festival was really a gig for Elixir and friends. I was worried that, playing every year, we may wear out our welcome with the audiences, but they always seemed to enjoy our set. Here’s a clip from British Steel V at The Underworld, where you can see that the audience is having a good time.

The final edition of British Steel in April 2012 was a tough day for me. After a lifetime of good health, I had been ill from early January, and the doctors couldn’t find what was wrong with me. They sent me for bone cancer tests and other scary things, and eventually, in around October, a rheumatologist diagnosed me with a rare immune disease called relapsing polychondritis and put me on immune-suppressant medication, which I continue to take. Leading up to the festival, I had spent a lot of time sick, not knowing what was wrong with me. On the day, I got out of my sick bed just in time to play the gig. I regret that I didn’t spend the rest of the day with the other bands and fans, like I usually would, and had to rely on the rest of the Elixir guys and the promoter to keep things running smoothly for me.

After we came off stage, Kev (our bass player) said that he wasn’t really feeling the enthusiasm for the band any longer, and didn’t wish to continue. 

With my health issues, the fact that Norm (our lead guitarist) had just moved back to his native Northern Ireland, and Kev’s not wishing to continue, we called time on the second active period of Elixir. With Elixir gone, so was The British Steel Festival, and I spent the next year trying to get well again.

One band that I really wanted to put on, but didn’t get the chance, was Angel Witch. I did speak to Kevin Heybourne about it, but couldn’t convince him to do it. Shame, as I thought they would have been great for British Steel.

Many bands of the time seem to have gone through several, at times acrimonious line-up changes, with only one or two remaining founding members, yet until the retirement of Kevin Dobbs, Elixir have managed a fairly steady line-up, indeed consistently putting out music over the decades. What’s the secret?

 I think it was the fact that we formed the band as young kids and shared the same dreams – to make a record, record a session for Radio 1’s Friday Rock Show and play shows around the world. We grew up together and achieved our aims together, and it was like we had become brothers. We have a lot of love and respect for each other, and enjoy spending time together, even when we are not playing.

A lot of people know that when Kev and Nigel first left in 1987, we replaced them with Mark White on bass and Clive Burr from Iron Maiden on drums. We discovered then that the band just doesn’t work as well with different people, however good their pedigree. 

When we were asked to re-form in 2002 to play a festival in Athens, we all agreed that we would only do it if we had the five original members from our first records. We then had another good run until 2012. When Kev said that he didn’t wish to continue, we didn’t even consider replacing him, we just took it that Elixir was over. Paul and I went on to form another band called Midnight Messiah.

Of course, from time to time, we thought about getting Elixir back together again. We all attended Kev’s wedding and after a few beers, talk turned to re-forming, but Kev was adamant that we had ended on a high with the ‘All Hallows Eve’ album, and should leave it there.

I started writing material that eventually became ‘Voyage Of The Eagle’ in 2018, and felt that it should be recorded by Elixir. I reached out to the guys again, and all were up for making another album, except Kev, who still felt the same way. We recorded the album with my guide bass on it, and eventually got Luke Fabian in to record his bass for the final mixes.

After releases on multiple labels, including your own Cold Town Records, Elixir’s latest venture, Voyage of the Eagle (Dissonance Productions) was released last year to much acclaim. How different did it feel with the new bass player Luke Fabian on board? And how have you found the relationship with Dissonance, another home label that has taken on several of the old guard?

Luke came in to record the album, and we did try out a few rehearsal sessions with him. He is a talented young bass player, but not right for Elixir on a permanent basis. He comes from a different musical background, and because of that, he didn’t quite fit in on a personal or musical level. Coming from Midnight Messiah, where we played with great musicians but missed that close camaraderie of Elixir, we really wanted someone like Kev back in the band, which wasn’t easy to find. 

We eventually found the perfect guy in Mark Mulcaster. Mark is a brilliant bass player who can impose his own style, but plays Kev’s parts when he needs to. He seems to instinctively know how to approach the songs and is also a great guy who fits in well with the rest of us. That is important when you have to spend hours together travelling in a van or waiting around at airports! We cannot believe our luck that we have found the perfect replacement for Kev, both on a personal and musical level. When Kev said that he wasn’t going to continue with us this time around but gave us his blessing to carry on, we promised him that we would honour his legacy, and Mark is the guy to help us do that. 

During the easing of lockdown, Norm flew over in September and we had our first full band rehearsal with Mark, and a few songs were filmed. We have the videos on our band website.

Although it is early days, and we haven’t been able to rehearse since, we all feel comfortable playing alongside Mark, and Norm and I commented that it was just like having Kev back!

We were due to film a professional promo video with Mark at the start of November, but then new Covid restrictions came in that have made us postpone. However, Mark had already re-recorded his bass on a couple of the new songs for the video shoot and the songs sound awesome! They sound so good that we are going to release a new 7” limited edition single of the two tracks. Like our debut single ‘Treachery’ that we released in 1985, this record will mark the recording debut of the new line-up and the start of a new era for Elixir. 

After the experience of signing with Majestic Rock and getting ripped off, I was wary about signing to another label. However, whilst it is great to release on our own label and retain control of our music, it does limit us in terms of distribution and the general support of having a bigger label behind us. 

We had done a couple of things with the Cherry Red label, including a couple of NWOBHM box sets and a box set of our second album, and considered them for releasing our new album. Paul then suggested Dissonance, and after looking at their set-up, I was impressed by their stable of bands, their CD arm, their vinyl arm Back On Black, and their distribution arm Plastic Head. I emailed their head guy Steve asking if he would be interested in releasing our new album, and he replied “in a word… YES!” He also said that they would like to re-release our back catalogue. 

So far, I have been very happy with our relationship with Dissonance. We have been getting reports from them and sales seem to be going well. They are a respectable company, and I keep in regular contact with Steve and the guys.

One of my favourite festivals of recent years has been Brofest. The young organisers seem to have a genuine passion for traditional metal, and have put in a huge amount of work to showcase the best of the old-school and the new. I know prior to its cancellation, Elixir were billed to play there later this year. Have you visited the festival before? How does it feel to have a new generation of fans taking up the good fight?

I have been aware of Brofest these past few years and liked the look of it. It appears to be a similar style festival to British Steel. My good friend, writer John Tucker, attends every year and I hear good reports of it from him. I have never been myself, living at the other end of the country, but was thrilled to have been invited to play with Elixir at the 2021 edition. Unfortunately, the festival was cancelled due to coronavirus, so I can only hope that the organisers will one day arrange another one and we get invited to play then. We haven’t played many gigs in the north of England, so it would be a great opportunity for us to put that right, especially for some of our northern fans who were planning to go. That included Duncan Storr, the guy who did the artwork for our last two albums. He has always wanted to see us play live, but lives in County Durham, so Brofest was his chance to finally see us on stage.

Of course, it is always great to see a new generation of fans coming through. We don’t get a lot of exposure through the big corporate avenues such as Hard Rock Hell or Classic Rock Magazine, so potential new fans have to dig a bit deeper to discover us. I hope they think it was worth the effort when they do discover us though!

That’s all from me, thank you so much for your time. Here’s hoping for a speedy return to normality, I know that your European fans will be eagerly anticipating your planned Keep it True appearance with Elixir – cheers, and stay safe!

Thank you ,Thumri. We are very much looking forward to getting out there and playing with our new line-up. I don’t think we will be able to do too much this year, which is frustrating, but we have been planning to do as much as we can in 2022, and it will be great to play at Keep It True Festival again. Until we can all meet again, take care and stay safe!

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