German singer Udo Dirkschneider formed Band X in 1968; by the mid-70s, he’d pulled together a steady lineup and the band’s name had changed to Accept. Their self-titled debut was released in 1979, but it wasn’t until their third album, 1981’s Breaker, that they found their sound, a blend of Judas Priest-style riffs, melodic hooks, classical allusions courtesy of guitarist Wolf Hoffman, and Dirkschneider’s hoarse, screeching vocals—and began to achieve some commercial success. The four albums that followed—1982’s Restless and Wild, 1983’s Balls to the Wall, 1985’s Metal Heart, and 1986’s Russian Roulette—marked the group’s artistic and commercial peak, and the end of Dirkschneider’s initial tenure fronting the band he’d founded. He left, taking with him a collection of songs written by his now ex-bandmates; they became 1987’s Animal House, the first album by his solo band, U.D.O.
Between 1987 and 1991, Dirkschneider released four studio albums with U.D.O.: Animal House, 1988’s Mean Machine, 1990’s Faceless World and 1991’s Timebomb. He then returned to Accept for three albums—1993’s Objection Overruled, 1994’s Death Row and 1996’s Predator—but when that reunion soured, U.D.O. reappeared, with an almost entirely new lineup (only drummer Stefan Schwarzmann remained from the 1991 version of the band). Since restarting U.D.O. with 1997’s Solid, Dirkschneider has released an album roughly every two years, with compilations and live discs in between.
On February 3, the 15th U.D.O. studio album, Decadent, will be released. (Pre-order it from Amazon.) It’s a muscular disc full of the kind of fist-pumping, anthemic songs that go over huge at outdoor metal festivals in Europe, but are largely cast adrift in the U.S. market. (In fact, Dirkschneider and band hadn’t toured the States in years before returning for a few shows in 2013. The response, possibly bolstered by his label, AFM, releasing deluxe anniversary editions of much of the band’s back catalog, has led to the band deciding to make a serious go of it—they’ll be doing a full North American tour between September and December of this year.)
The video for the title track, built atop a pulsing, Rammstein-ish riff, is decidedly grim and dark, but shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Accept‘s songs, which were always grittier and more socially conscious than a lot of ’80s metal. Indeed, between their lyrical themes and Dirkschneider’s throat-tearing vocals, they laid the groundwork for much of the German thrash that followed, particularly bands like Destruction, Kreator and Running Wild.
Udo sat for an in-person interview in New York.
This is your 15th solo album. How do you stay inspired?
Yeah! I mean, in one way I’m lucky, in that I’ve still got enough ideas, and also I’m not the only one with ideas, so. For a lot of albums I was writing together with Stefan Kaufmann, and from the last album, Steelhammer, on I was writing the songs together with Fitty Wienhold, the bass player. And now on the new album, the whole band was involved in songwriting instead of [just] the drummer, so yeah—of course, I have some melodies in my mind, some stories for lyrics, and then I wait for music to come in and I can see everything is working together, you know? I need input—I’m not doing everything alone.
You’ve been making music for 40 years. What has been the biggest change for you in that time—how were the 1970s and 1980s different from today?
Oh, yeah. Let’s put it this way—in the ’80s, the record companies were spending more money, were more behind the bands, and of course another change is that we have all this download stuff, internet stuff, so you don’t sell that many records anymore. You make more money on touring and merchandising. But to make a living off of selling CDs is really hard, and I think especially for new bands it’s a really hard time to survive in this business. So the record companies, they don’t support a band for five years or something like that. That was much better in the ’80s. And also in the ’80s, there were not so many bands around, but now it’s like, I don’t know, thousands of them [laughs]. So yeah, there’s a big change going on, but still I can only say something about Europe—this kind of music that we are doing is still big and getting bigger. So of course we have all these new markets in Eastern countries—Russia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, the Baltic states, all those places have made the live market much bigger.
You have recorded live albums in both Russia and Bulgaria—do you have a lot of fans in Eastern Europe?
Yeah, especially Russia is a really strong market for U.D.O. So I’ve toured there since ’98. It’s a really strong market for us.
Which half of Germany did you grow up in?
In West Germany.
So you didn’t have that connection to the Eastern side…
No, I had some family, some people living in East Germany, but you couldn’t—I was always going to East Berlin, you know, to meet them. That was not a big problem.
When you embarked on a solo career, with your second album Mean Machine, you had to start writing all your own lyrics—was that a struggle for you early on?
No, it was not a problem. I was also involved in the lyrics on Animal House, because that was planned to be the next [Accept] album after Russian Roulette. So when they decided to fire me [laughs] to be more commercial—I don’t know what they were trying to be, maybe Bon Jovi or whatever—they were not satisfied, they said “With Udo, we cannot break the American market,” but I don’t want to talk about this anymore…
No, I was more curious about lyric writing.
Oh, yeah, in a way for me that was easier on Mean Machine, especially with Mathias Dieth and Andy Susemihl, the two guitar players, it was easy to write lyrics while composing songs. I mean, we’d written together already for over a year and a half, on tour and everything, so it was easy going. It was not a big problem for me.
Do you think you’ve become a better lyricist as time has gone on?
I don’t know. I don’t want to say better, but I always have something in my mind about stories and stuff, so it’s easy going. It was not a big change for me.
What’s your favorite song to perform live?
There are so many of them [laughs]. I still like to play “They Want War” and “In the Darkness” from the Animal House album, they’re really good live songs. We do some songs off the Faceless World album, we play “Heart of Gold,” “Trip to Nowhere,” stuff like that. On the last tour we played the song “Mean Machine” for the first time after a long time…I mean, there are so many songs, I cannot say “This one is the best one.”
Because you have so much material, you can surprise people by playing something you haven’t played in a long time.
Yeah, the most difficult thing is to come up with a set list for a tour. So what I’ve done is, in the past I was playing more Accept songs in the set, but now I only play three, in the encore, that’s it, and the rest is—I try to play songs that maybe we haven’t played for a long time or we’ve never played, but the focus is always on the newest albums. So definitely, when we go on tour now, there will be eight songs off the new album, maybe three or four from the previous album, Steelhammer, and then we’ll mix it up. So it’s not so easy to do this.
I’ve seen this with other artists—like, when I go see Motörhead, it’s maybe five songs from the new record, and they try to not play stuff from the ’80s, so it’s more stuff from the three or four most recent records.
Yeah. But I think it’s always hard, you cannot satisfy everybody, you know? I mean, U.D.O. has fifteen albums, I did ten with Accept, there’s so much material there. I try to always keep it interesting. But then, always, after the tour, people say “Oh, why didn’t you play this song, or this song”…Maybe next time. [laughs]
This is the first album with both of your new guitarists on it—what did Andrey Smirnov and Kasperi Heikkinen bring to the music?
A lot of good ideas, and of course they are thinking a little bit differently. They are just thirty years old, they could be my sons [laughs]. They’re thinking a little differently, but they are big U.D.O. fans, both of them, so in a way they came up to write music for me. It’s not easy to write music that fits together with my voice, you know? My voice is not so normal [laughs]. But they came up with really good stuff, and like I said before, this was the first time since Accept that I was writing the album together with the whole band, instead of the drummer. And I think that’s why also this new album has a lot of different stuff. It was very interesting working in the studio.
Do they bring ideas and influences you might not get from musicians of your own generation?
Yes, that was definitely the point. They came up with, I don’t know if I want to say new stuff, but it definitely makes the album more interesting than the previous one.
At the same time, though, Decadent is more straightforward than Steelhammer, where you had the song in Spanish (“Basta Ya”), the piano ballad “Heavy Rain,” the song with techno keyboards on it—on this record, there aren’t so many of those kinds of things.
Yeah, in a way you could say it’s a little more back to the roots. So it was very important that I had both guitar players in the studio working, a face to face recording, you know? Not over the Internet, like we did with Dominator and Rev-Raptor. Stefan Kauffman [the band’s guitarist from 1996-2012, and the producer from 1990-2012] at the time was more into computer stuff. So I tried, when he left the band, I didn’t want to work with all the computer stuff. I want to have the guitar player at the studio, so all the musicians can make a face to face recording. And we have our own studio now, in Ibiza, where I live, so it was easy working, easy going. The guitar players were always there, you can talk to each other and say “No, do it this way, like this, or this.” The sessions were easy, relaxing recording.
Your drummer, Francesco Jovino, left the band last month—how is the search for a replacement going?
We nearly—let’s say, in two weeks we can announce the name, but not before. It was a surprise to me; he was doing the drums on this album, and then we had the last show in Germany at the end of November, I think it was, and after that he came up and…again, another one for private reasons. And I asked him, “Why did you become a professional musician?” Of course, I can understand with him becoming a second-time father, but the wife is saying “Ahh, you are always on tour”…Yeah, but—what can I say? [laughs] It was not so funny, you know? But I think we will have a good one to take his place.
The cover art to this album is fairly disturbing. What made you decide to go that route? Talk a little about the message of the album cover, and the video for the song.
Yeah, but when you listen to the song “Decadent,” the lyrics, and we were thinking about the cover—there are all the little details, like when you look at the sunglasses, there’s a little child with open eyes there, and the sign saying “World Hunger.” The whole meaning of Decadent is that we’re living in a decadent world, and so the video, yeah, it’s quite heavy. But what you can see in this video is the same thing you can see on the news. Just in four minutes. That’s the world we are living in. I know it’s really heavy stuff, but maybe people will see it and start thinking about it.
For many years you didn’t have a US label—do you feel like it’s a struggle to rebuild your audience here?
Yeah, that was always a problem, we didn’t have any good offers to come to America for touring, we didn’t have a label to support us. But then in 2013, we came over for 10-12 shows, to see how everything would go, if the record company was behind us, and it worked out quite well, so we said OK, now we want to see how far we can go in the US. So the plan is now to come to America for touring between September and December. They’re working on it already; it will be a longer tour.
A lot of German singers with very harsh voices cam up in the wake of Accept, particularly from the thrash scene—Destruction, Kreator, et cetera. Do you think your vocals have been an inspiration to other German singers?
Yeah, I know it. I know most of them from Germany, and they always come up and say they were really inspired by the Breaker album. And also Restless and Wild, with “Fast as a Shark”—we didn’t know at the time that we were recording it, that it was the first speed metal song ever. So yeah, this is very interesting. I met Mille [Petrozza] from Kreator, and he said “I was standing in the first row when Accept was on the Breaker tour and the Restless and Wild tour.” And also Kai Hansen from Gamma Ray—a lot of bands and singers especially have said they were inspired by Accept.
You guys were inspirational also as being one of the few German bands to break out internationally.
Yeah, at that time it was just the Scorpions and Accept. And then a couple of years later came Helloween, Running Wild, Doro—a lot of bands came up. But the Scorpions opened it up for Accept internationally, and then I think after Scorpions, Accept opened up the international market for a lot of bands. Before that, in Germany we had Krautrock [laughs]. So yeah, I think Scorpions and Accept opened up a big market for German bands. And now Germany is one of the biggest heavy metal markets in the world.
Yeah, everybody comes to play Wacken Open Air…
Yeah, I know [laughs]. Wacken is one of the biggest heavy metal festivals in the world. It’s very important for bands to play there, because the press from all over the world is there. In two or three days you can do everything, you know? We’re doing a show this year at Wacken, headlining with a big orchestra, it will be a big event coming up—U.D.O. and a military orchestra. We did one show like it last year, and that’s coming up as a live CD and DVD. And then the Wacken guys said “Oh, can you do this again?” Yeah, OK…it’s not too easy to do this, you know. The thing we did last year there were just 40 people and now we’ll have nearly 100 people onstage, and we have to do new arrangements for a bigger orchestra. It’s a lot of work, but that will be a big event.