Journalist David E. Gehlke Explores the History of Noise Records
During metal’s ’80s commercial heyday, Scorpions were the most popular mainstream genre export from Germany, with Accept and Doro Pesch also making an impressive dent in the United States. However, Germany also provided America with a slate of more intense European musical acts — like Hellhammer, Voivod, Coroner and Sabbat — courtesy of Berlin’s Noise Records, the indie label that Karl-Ulrich Walterbach founded in April 1983.
Walterbach is known for breaking such other unsigned talents as power act Helloween and extreme metal outfit Celtic Frost. He also has a reputation for not having the best of relationships with said talent. Before getting involved in the punk scene, Walterbach was a squatter and socialist rebel, who did jail time after someone snitched on a plot of his to protest state terrorism by tossing Molotov cocktails at a government building. Little wonder, then, that a man willing to fire-bomb West German authorities wasn’t intimidated by his rock stars -- no matter how legit their gripes may have been -- and that Walterbach’s business-first attitude contributed to the bad blood with some of his bands.
This clash of wills, along with a love of the label’s influential roster, sparked metal journalist David E. Gehlke’s curiosity. After interviewing Walterbach several years ago about his Sonic Attack artist management company, Gehlke felt the time was right for a book that explored Noise’s history. The 500-page Damn the Machine: The Story of Noise Records (Deliberation Press/Iron Pages Books, March 24) is born of 70-plus interviews with former Noise employees and bands, as well as two years of Gehlke regularly Skyping with Walterbach for his input — impressive, considering that Walterbach initially turned down Gehlke’s proposal.
“I think it was because I’m an American journalist, to start. He didn’t know me from the next guy on the street, so it took a little time for him to warm up to me,” explains Gehlke. “I’m interested in Karl’s past, but I’m also interested in what his bands had to say. I think it was a combination of those two things and that I was coming at it from a genuine place. Once he realized that I was, he agreed to do it.”
Gehlke details Noise’s history from beginning to end and every major event in between, be it the “shark-jumping” moment that was Cold Lake, Celtic Frost’s disastrous glam-metal turn, to the nightmarish Helloween lawsuit that ensued after the band, fed up with Walterbach, signed to EMI while it was still on Noise, igniting an 18-month-long court battle that iced Helloween in the ’90s. Disillusionment from such dramas (and awareness that digital distribution was about to radicalize the music business) led to Walterbach selling the label to Sanctuary Records in 2001. Universal Music Group absorbed in Sanctuary in 2007, and Noise was kaput.
Gehlke notes that while doing his research, “everyone told me along the way that no one’s going to do anything with the Noise catalog,” so he was stunned when BMG announced in April 2016 that it was relaunching the imprint, having acquired Sanctuary’s catalog in 2013. The resuscitation of the roster of groundbreaking material underscores his observation that “those bands are bigger today than they were back when they were on Noise. So Karl clearly was doing something right.” Billboard chatted with Gehlke over the phone about how people reacted when they learned he was writing the story and how Noise broke the mold for women when it came to employment opportunities.
Your research involved Skyping with Walterbach once a week for two years. What was it like to work with him?
It was a tremendous, fun experience, cliché as that sounds. Karl has just a wealth of knowledge and experience from being in the music industry. He was on the front lines [of the European metal scene], so all those experiences he collected over the years, he was more than willing to share with me. In all honesty, it was a listening session. I’d give Karl a topic on a given day, and he would just expand upon it. He’s a tremendous storyteller. He has a sharp memory about most bands and personalities that he worked with.
How did people react when they learned that you were writing the book?
At first, most people’s first impressions were that this was a Karl-Ulrich Walterbach project, and a lot of bands were very skeptical, because they thought this was Karl’s autobiography. In some sense, the book begins like that. You go through Karl’s early days into the punk days. But they were a sequence of events that if none of them happened, he wouldn’t have launched Noise. It was critical to the book.
Lots of hard feelings still persist between Karl and his old bands. When I would approach them, I would always have to put in some type of disclaimer, saying, “This book is being written independent of Karl Walterbach. Karl’s not getting any of the book’s royalties. He’s not part of the editorial process. This is my project and my project alone.” After telling these bands that and giving them the idea that this book was written independently, I think there was only two people I couldn’t get [former Noise Records artist Tairrie B and Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood, who once managed Helloween]. But all the key bands you think of — Celtic Frost, Helloween, Running Wild — they all agreed to do it.
Because the book shows both Walterbach’s side and the bands’ side, I didn’t come away feeling like his behavior was worse than any other label owner.
A lot of people related to the book, and even the bands, will tell you that the deals that they did with Noise was pretty basic for the ’80s as well as the ’90s. I think what rubbed a lot of the bands the wrong way was maybe Karl’s personal treatment of them. Some label owners, like Brian Slagel of Metal Blade, Markus Staiger of Nuclear Blast, [have more of] a friendly atmosphere, and with Karl, he was a business-first guy. He wasn’t buddy-buddy with any of his bands, and some of these bands wanted that. You get signed to the label, you want someone take you under their wing and show you the ropes, and that’s just not Karl’s personality. He would be the first to admit to it that that’s not how he operates. I think that’s where some of that hostility stems from.
He gave all these bands their shot. Some of these bands questioned, would they have gotten anywhere had Noise not picked them up? I don’t know. It’s possible. But Karl gave them their shot, and sure enough, a lot of these bands that started out on Noise are bigger today than they were on the label.
In your opinion, do you think these bands’ attitudes toward him were completely accurate?
Yeah, I would say it was fairly accurate. It all seemed pretty consistent. There were some bands that had a much more wild relationship with Noise. Running Wild, who started out as a pretty basic metal band, turned into a pirate metal band. They were, to me, the quintessential Noise band. They had an image, they had a sound, and they never strayed from it. That’s what Karl wanted out of all his bands. So they were one that I would say, their relationship was on relatively good terms.
Another one would be Voivod, whose time on Noise was pretty short, but [the band] had great artwork, had their sound and were pretty popular while on Noise. A lot of [other] bands sort of said the same things to me that dealing with Karl was tough: “We didn’t agree with the business practices. He didn’t treat us very fairly.” So I could see where they’re coming from.
However, Walterbach was progressive in the sense that he hired a lot of women to run his label.
A lot of the industry back then was filled by men. It was considered the boys' club. From what I was told, and Karl told me, too, he liked working with [women]. It created a loose, relaxed environment. The Berlin office of Noise was just dominated by women. It was basically Karl and another guy there for a stretch, but all the important positions like publicity and marketing, Karl filled with women. He had no problem in trusting them with roles in the company. They had to learn about metal while on the job, but they did, and they were fast learners and they were great at the job. Karl deserved a lot of credit for bringing women into the fold with Noise.
You wrote that he was fine with his employees not knowing metal. He wanted people who could think on their feet. For someone who was allegedly a jerk, one wouldn’t expect him to be open-minded.
No, not at all. They were saying Karl valued their opinions, wanted their insights. He didn’t mind being challenged on things, and a lot of women who worked there did challenge him. They would tell Karl he was out of line on things. Antje Lange, in particular, was Karl’s No. 2 at the time. She was often the voice of reason. Karl is a very impulsive, act-first, think-later kind of guy, and she’s very methodical and thinks things through, very well organized. She was complete opposite to Karl, and Karl really relished that.
Was there anything you learned while researching the book that surprised you?
Karl fully admits to his mistakes while running the label and that comes in terms of the label’s downfall in the ’90s. Karl will tell you that it was the case of the label got too big, too fast, and it just became a runaway train he could not control. When it got to that point, you throw in the Helloween case once the ’90s came around, and Noise simply could not compete with Metal Blades and the Roadrunners of the world. Karl freely admitted to that.
The other thing that surprised me is you think of Noise signing all these great, extreme metal bands, but … Karl never liked death metal. He didn’t like the articulation, or the lack thereof, of the vocals. He didn’t like the technicality, although death metal didn’t get technical until the mid-’90s at least. But Karl’s reluctance to embrace death metal really hurt Noise big time in the ’90s, because once the ’90s rolled around, death metal was the style. Those Scandinavian bands blew up big. Maybe if Karl had taken a chance on some of them, the label’s fortunes may have changed.
I got the sense that Walterbach’s more fulfilled now as an artist manager than he was as a label owner. Did you get the same impression?
Yes, absolutely. He loves the person-to-person interaction with his bands, which is really interesting, because when he was running Noise, he hated dealing with band managers. He saw them as a thorn in his side, a pain in the ass. Now, he only has a small group of bands to work with, and he’s got Die Vorboten, Hammercult and Alpha Tiger. Those three bands he directly works with on a day-to-day basis. He gives them advice because he’s been there before. Sometimes they don’t take his advice, but most of the time they do. To Karl’s credit, he really saw the writing on the wall with the music industry come the turn of the new century. He saw that digital product was going to be the norm and that physical product and TV sales were going to go downhill, and that’s why he got out of the [label] business.
The book notes that few underground labels boast a legendary roster with so much longevity. Why do you think so many of the bands that he signed are still active?
A lot of the bands were original … All these bands are hard workers and had their own unique, identifiable sound, and their Noise releases are legendary; they’re classic. But their current stuff some people will argue is just as good. That goes to show that Karl clearly knew what he was doing. But also, you can’t discount the fact that these bands are simply amazing. Very few bands after they hit their peak in the ’80s are able to enjoy such a renaissance as these bands have. It’s really great to see.