"Epic’s in my nature," says Mark "the Shark" Shelton. "That’s all there is to it. It’s all about the telling of a good story." He's talking about his writing style and ethos for Manilla Road and new side-project with Manilla Road bassist Ernie Cunningham Hellwell, but such a declaration applies equally to Shelton's expansive conversation style. He loves a good story, and he tells it well. Since forming Manilla Road in 1977, he's banked plenty of war stories, but crackling down the line from his home in Kansas, Shelton has plenty to talk about in the here and now. We were calling to ask him about Hellwell and how it came about, but seeing as he'd just finished mixing the new Manilla Road album, Mysterium two days prior to our call, he was good enough to expand on what we can expect.
It's weird that Manilla Road have been undersold through the years; while they've never gone short on love—1983's Crystal Logicis widely and rightly considered a solid-gold classic—they have gone wanting for widespread appeal. Maybe that's as much down to Shelton's choices, too, (as he explains below) in choosing to stay in Kansas and resolutely do his own thing for the band. Even now, speaking about a new European distribution deal with German label Golden Core/XYZ, he sounds kinda guilty, like he's selling out the underground because there's someone willing to put his record in stores across Europe. But he shouldn't worry: Manilla Road will always belong to the underground, just as the underground will always belong to them.
You can stream Hellwell's Beyond the Boundaries of Sin at Shadow Kingdom's BandCamp page. Here's "The Shark" on how the project got together and what's coming up for Manilla Road ... How did this Hellwell side-project come about? Mark “The Shark” Shelton: Well, what happened was that we were on a roll with our Playground of the Damned project that we were doing, our drummer at the time had run into personal difficulties and that was continually delaying our recording; there were other things that got in the way, too, we were doing a lot of touring off and on. But during that time I was given the story Acheronomicon by Ernie [Ernie Hellwell, Manilla Road bassist, Hellwell bassist/keyboardist], I read it and was totally blown over by the storyline. I felt like I had to do something about it with music. I thought it was way too dark a concept for Manilla Road to to take on, and ever since the Circus Maximus debacle way back in the ‘90s I always dreamed of doing a side-project that wouldn’t be tagged as a Manilla Road album. I put together the ideas, started working on it, and during the time that we started working and trying to find a drummer to work with my bass player developed a physical problem with his left hand and it got to the point where he couldn’t even play bass any more—that was Vince Golman, by the way— and we weren’t sure if he was going to recuperate quickly or not, and he actually decided that he needed to bow out for a while and let us continue. That’s when I asked Ernie if he’d come in and finish off the bass parts on the Playground... album. He and I started working on all the solo stuff at the same time.
It was a dark time for the band. We just really didn’t know what was going on with Manilla Road at that point, how things were going to come out, so all of that chaos came through on the music on the Playground of the Damned album. That Playground... album really was a crossing point for Hellwell and Manilla Road, because the song “Deadly Nightshade”, that is on the Hellwell album, was actually written for the Playground of the Damned, and Cory [Christner] could never really come up for a suitable part for it, and things got worse in his life before we even got to the point of finishing that song. That song got put on the shelf until we got our drummer, Johnny Benson, for Hellwell; he heard the song and said, “Oh man, I’ve got something for that … “ And so he came up with a great drum part for it, Ernie came up with a great keyboard part, and we turned it into a Hellwell song. “Deadly Nightshade” is the intersection of Manilla Road and Hellwell, where they came together and then split off.
So Hellwell is the stuff that's too dark for Manilla Road? The Shark: The Hellwell thing, to me, is like the evil twin of Manilla Road. It’s like Manilla Road is the alpha and Hellwell’s the omega. The stuff we’re dealing with on the Hellwell stuff is brutal and gruesome, and I have always been into the horror aspect of stuff anyways, and we just decided that we’ve got this Hellwell stuff going on and this would be a good place, an outlet for this really dark narrative stuff. That lets Manilla Road be the fantasy band that it set out to be; we always dabbled with the macabre in Manilla Road but generally there is a positive undertone to the moral attitude of the music and the concepts. Hellwell is the total opposite of that. In this band we are not really concerned with being morally appropriate or anything like that, we’re just out there having a good time and trying to expose a genre of music that’s usually portrayed in a very, extremely super-heavy thrash, almost non-understandable style of music and approach to vocals. We decided to try do that but with more of an artistic, classic style, and especially with Ernie’s keys; I mean, he’s such a talent, and so much of what he does on keyboards is retro, and it just helps the band have that classic feel. More than anything, it’s just us having a good time and putting together a side-project that we thought was going to be a fun one-off project. But, the thing is, we’ve all enjoyed doing it so much and it’s turned out so well that we are already writing songs for another album.
It is so much darker but it has that Manilla Road DNA right through it, especially in that you manage to tell a story through a song, which I guess has always been important to you … The Shark: Absolutely, and I am never going to get away from that; that’s just the nature of the beast with me. As long as I am involved in the writing and the choice of the topics and the concepts of what I am working on it’s obviously going to have that Mark Shelton touch to it. I can’t do music where the storyline is just your typical, average stuff. I just feel like music is the one last great communication source that everyone in the world has in common, and it speaks to everybody no matter what their culture is, their religion is, anything … And, yeah, there’s no way I am going to put out music or lyrics that don’t have some sort of a storyline to it because that’s what it’s all about for me, the telling of a good tale. And, of course, when you get to the music side of it, too, as long as I am playing guitar and writing some of the riffs, the vocal melodies, then of course it’s gonna have my signature on it. I dabble in a lot of different genres of music but, no matter how far, how distant I get from metal, there’s still that bit of me in everything that I do; whether it’s mellow, basic stuff or the stuff I do with Hellwell and Manilla Road; it’s all gonna have a little bit of me in there. It doesn’t surprise me that people see this, the similarities between Manilla Road and Hellwell, because I didn’t try to make it a totally different thing, I actually don’t mind because that’s all part of the appeal for Manilla Road fans to come over and listen to Hellwell stuff. Oh man, I just can’t get away from epic. Epic’s in my nature. That’s all there is to it: it’s all about the telling of a good story.
What can you tell us about some of these stories? I hear “The Devil’s Inn” is about the Bloody Benders—who are the Bloody Benders? The Shark: Well they’re a familiar who—as far as I can tell from all my research—weren’t [necessarily] related but there was a mother and father figure, and a son and a daughter figure, and they ran an inn out by Cherryvale, Kansas, on one of the old trails out there. It was a very small place, just a place for travelers to stop and resupply, maybe grab a bite to eat, and the thing was, this family were pretty ruthless: any time they’d run on to somebody that came through the inn who they thought wouldn’t be missed and had money, or provisions, they would entertain the person, get them into a situation where they’d murder them, bury the body and then take all of their stuff. They did that to an awful lot of people, and seemingly they didn’t care what age, whether you were male or female, or a little kid, whatever: if you had what they wanted they’d take it and they’d butcher you for it. This is a tale we grew up with here in Kansas. It’s not widely spread around the world but it was a pretty big thing back in those days here when they finally found out what was going one. Quite a few respectable people from Kansas City area ended up being killed by these people, and it was very atrocious. I think the thing that made it really compelling to me, story-wise, was the fact that there was no resolve to the case. They never caught them. They just all of a sudden disappeared and were never seen again. It’s just things like that, unfinished stories that always interest me. I think sometimes we overlook and ignore a lot of stuff that happens in our backyard. “Keepers of the Devils Inn” was just us letting everybody know that it’s not just a simple famer’s life out here in Kansas all the time—the state had the name “Bloody Kansas” for a reason.
How important has Kansas been to your music? The Shark: Well I think it is pretty important to me as far as being isolated from the rest of the music market. I sort of tread my own path out here in the middle of nowhere, especially back in the days before the Internet—trends and fads in the music industry were really slow to get to us out here. The only outside source we had for knowing what was popular in the States or in Europe was the radio. It seemed we only found out what was trending a year or so later; I swear, when I was growing up here in Kansas the hippie movement held on forever here while everyone else in the world had moved on. Kansas was a weird place to grow up in because there is not a huge metropolis where we are—nowadays it’s a little different because Wichita, the city I grew up in, is almost half-a-million strong now, and it’s a lot bigger place than when I was growing up. I think the isolation from the rest of the music industry helped developed a sense of my own style. The other thing is, my mother was a music professor, so I had this really strong classical music training background, and the stuff I learned musically in the education system, I learned to combine that with the way I looked at the rock and metal industry. It helped culminate in the style that I have. I have a feeling Kansas plays a big, important part in the things that I write and how I approach music just because of my environment when I was learning how to be a composer and a musician. The other thing that Kansas did for me is that we are all really land-orientated here in Kansas; this is the place where there used to be loads of cowboys, and we all sort of grew up with that atmosphere around here—at least I did. I grew up with my family having ranches, wearing cowboy boots, actually some of that played a big part in our musical ideas, too, ‘cos most of what you grew up with around here was country and western music or country rock music, and I am pretty certain that had an influence on my music taste as well. I wouldn’t want to change any of it because I wouldn’t be the person I am without it.
Staying put in Kansas might have limited your business opportunities moreso than if you moved to New York, but it seems it’s given you that breathing space to do your own thing, which is why Manilla Road is so respected. The Shark: Yeah, we actually had chances. I remember way back when, when we were about to put out our Crystal Logic album, I had an offer from Mike Varney to do stuff with him on Shrapnel records out there in California, and he actually wanted us to put out a whole album of songs … But I was so stuck in my own head in terms of what direction I wanted to do, and we had already finished Crystal Logic by that time, and he didn’t like it at all; he thought it was way too artsy. I turned down that offer. At the same time, I was offered a chance by John Zazula of Megaforce Records. They were just getting started. He talked to me on the phone and asked me if we wanted to pack up all our stuff and move out to New York, and he had a warehouse where we could hang out and we could jam there. So I said, “You want us to come out there and see what’s going on, no contract,” and he said, “Yeah, we’ll see what we can do for you guys!” It sounded like such a flaky deal! Ha ha! It was like … We all had jobs and family here in Kansas. I turned that offer down, too, and that was probably the one offer that if I ever did have the chance to change then maybe that would be the one I’d think about taking. But in the long run I am still happy. I put out just as many albums if not more than the bands who were on Megaforce. I measure success in a little different way to a lot of people do. Most people in the music industry measure success in how much money you make, how many videos you have, and how high up the Billboard charts you are and stuff like that. And I measure major success as being, am I really happy with what I’ve accomplished? And I am very happy, just the fact that we have such a hardcore fanbase, and that undying faith they all have in Manilla Road is amazing; I would rather have that as a fanbase than have a bunch of people spending money on us just because we’re a fad or whatever. I know that the people who buy our music and listen to our tapes are really people who strive to understand the concepts that we’re talking about and are willing to have their mind opened to new ideas, and that’s what we’re all about. I would rather have my fans' love than their money.
Manilla Road feels very much like a fans’ band; it’s very much an interactive experience given the way you create these fantasy stories for listeners to get lost in and interpret in their own way. The Shark: We’ve got new fans everywhere we go, even here in the States. You see an age group of fans that is not what you’d typically expect to see in a Manilla Road audience. We’re seeing really young audiences. When we were in Finland last year, I noticed that almost the whole audience was from an age group of 18 to 25 … And shit, I’m 54, I’m going to be 55 this year, y’know! And for me to be able to look out there and see young people that age getting into my music, man, that’s just totally freakin’ awesome for me. It means there’s still a future for metal, there’s still a future for epic classic metal like what we play: it means we get to stick around for another 10 years and put a shitload of albums out. That’s just excellent news to me.
Underground metal has a very healthy scene at the moment. The Shark: I really think there is so many great bands out there in the underground that a lot of people don’t know about because the only place you hear about them is on the Internet; they’re not being force-fed this stuff like pop music. There’s still a lot of growth potential for the underground.
I hear you’ve just finished the next Manilla Road album, what can you tell us about it? The Shark: We’ve just finished our new album, we’ve just finished mixing it; it’s called Mysterium. I can tell you quite a bit about it actually. I did a bit of traveling through England and Scotland in the last few years, and I took my daughter out with me. We investigated some of our family background and heritage over there and I ended up getting some ideas for some songs. Part of my family has to do with Shelton Hall up north of London, but the other side of my lineage was related to the Elliot Reiver clans who stalked the Border regions of Scotland, and had to do with Hermitage Castle: so there’s a trilogy of songs that aren’t intertwined but they all sort of relate to one another that are about some of the things I saw and did, just storylines that came to me when I was over there on my travels. I wasn’t touring; I was on vacation with my daughter. Some of those songs have a Scottish and Irish flavor to them, especially topically. I did another song about a Robert E. Howard story. This one is not one of his typical horror or Conan stories, it’s actually about the Battle of Clontarf. And that’s Side One, all of Side One is all straightforward Manilla Road stuff that reminds me in style of what we were doing around Open the Gates to Mystification, it really reminds me of that era. The music is not nearly as dark as Playground..., as that was an experimental album—as all of them are—but this is us drifting back to our roots. I think this has got to do with our drummer because he’s such a great classic metal drummer and he knows our style so perfectly well. It was really easy to construct a bunch of music that was more like what we used to do with Randy Foxe on board.
Side Two is the more artistic side, and it has more to do with my family stuff. We did a song, it’s a big final epic and the title track, and it’s about my great, great, great uncle, Ludwig Leichhardt … I guess you’d just have to read the lyrics—no, you can just Google him; he’s really famous and did a lot for Australia. It’s sort of a family heritage album for me! Ha ha! But there’s just a lot of great Manilla Road music on it, so much more different to Playground of the Damned. The biggest thing that I can say about this one is that I’ve finally let loose the reins a little bit on the mixing. We recorded it at my studios, Midgard Studios in Wichita, but we took it to Cornerstone Studios where Steve Falke mixed it. It’s a great studio and he’s a great technician. We’ve come up with the best-sounding Manilla Road album yet. If there’s ever one album that could do great things for the band this is the one. I’m more pleased with this than anything we’ve ever achieved.
**Hellwell's Beyond the Boundaries of Sin is out now on Shadow Kingdom/High Roller and you can buy it HERE**