Venerated British stoner doom rockers Orange Goblin may be riding high on the buzz around their upcoming new album, The Wolf Bites Back, right now, but their future hasn’t always been so rosy. Back in 2013, after the London quartet had already been in existence for 18 years and had seven albums and countless live performances to their credit, they decided it was finally time to jump into doing music full-time. The members were in their late 30s and early 40s, on the hook for mortgages, and with kids to support and long-term relationships to maintain, but at that point, it felt right..
Vocalist Ben Ward, guitarist Joe Hoare, bassist Martyn Millard, and drummer Chris Turner did their due diligence before taking the leap, too. They sat down and studied their finances, taking the time to work out salaries, projected costs, and expenses versus how much they’d be pulling in via gig guarantees, merchandise sales, and royalties from album sales, streaming revenue and publishing income from each of their previous albums (to which they wisely and thankfully never sold the rights).
When all was said and done, it looked like being a full-time recording and touring outfit was actually doable. Once the promotional and touring cycle for their 2012 album, A Eulogy for the Damned began, they handed in notices at their day jobs, issued a press release about their plans (as one does in this modern age) and dove headfirst into living the dream.
The realization of that dream included 163 shows in their first year of being exclusively employed as musicians. Orange Goblin went around the world; they ran through two full US tours, on one of which they supported god-sized rockers Clutch. They went to Australia, spent three months in continental Europe, and toured their home nation restlessly—but still, it wasn’t enough.
“We gave it a good go,” says Ward, the band’s worryingly tall front man. “It was a lot of hard work, but we soon found out that it wasn’t financially viable to do it full time. Supporting a family, being away for that amount of time and not seeing the children was very testing. We tried different things; we tried different management companies, different booking agents, but no matter what we did, it didn’t help us break even.”
After the conclusion of the A Eulogy for the Damned cycle, the quartet spent most of 2014 writing, recording, and releasing their next album, Back From the Abyss, which was then followed by a European tour with St. Vitus and an American tour with Down. “By the end of that,” Ward laments, “we realized it wasn’t working out.”
It was during the midst of their run with Down that Orange Goblin concluded that the only real way to exist playing music full-time would involve spending even more time away from home. After that last traipse around America, the band waved its white flag at the notion of music as a profession. In spite of their expansive discography, a solid reputation for reliability and a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, and strong label and booking agent support, the money just wasn’t rolling in quickly or substantially enough to keep heads above water.
“With the age that we’re all at, we’ve all got mortgages to pay and children to support,” Ward explains. “The finances just didn’t support that. It’s a shame that these sorts of things are dictated by money, but at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing when you’re trying to live. So, we’ve found ourselves going back to day jobs and that’s where we are now: doing the band as a hobby, something we enjoy and doing it when we can.”
In addition to the amount of road dogging the band put in that, ironically, kept them away from the homes they were paying for, the real difficulty came once the album cycle for A Eulogy for the Damned was complete. Being off the road and not playing shows—and therefore not bringing in reliable income—while trying to focus on writing Back From the Abyss proved financially trying; as Ward reports, most of the band attempted to skate by on merchandise sales and twice-yearly publishing checks.
As vocalist, Ward’s presence wasn’t always necessary during the writing process, so he also ended up taking a couple of tour manager gigs for bands doing European runs and trying his hand at band management. A chance meeting with an old friend, Paul Ryan from booking consortium The Agency Group, ended up to be quite lucky indeed—Ward began working there as a booking agent in June 2015, which he describes as “a natural step.” When his bandmates aren’t not sweating it out on stage or in the practice space, they stay busy with their own 9-5 hustles: Hoare is a guitar teacher, Millard is a delivery driver, and Turner works in the technical department at the Brighton Music College.
In light of Orange Goblin’s being unable to crack the beer-stained glass ceiling and make a living entirely as working musicians, the irony of Ward now working for one of the biggest booking agencies in the world is not lost on him. He reports that the roster of bands under his purview are mostly seasoned veterans (“I look after 20 or so bands; I not only do Orange Goblin but I do the Sword, Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons, Crowbar, Karma to Burn, Voivod and others), but another aspect of his job involves trying to find “the next big thing” and being on the ground level when it comes to dealing with young bands with stars in their eyes. The frontman ends up serving as not only a guiding light getting bands to their next gig, but also as a harsh slap of reality for those who think that scoring a little bit of hype is going to translate directly into packed houses and stuffed wallets.
“I’m always honest with them and say that it’s not an easy road,” Ward says. “Nothing is going to happen that’s not going to involve a lot of hard work, and at first they’re going to have to be prepared to do a lot of shows for not a lot of money. As long as bands are realistic and can manage their expectations, they’ll be fine. The touring side of being in a band is probably more important than it’s ever been; there isn’t a lot of money to be made from physical sales, record labels paying out advances and things like that, so more and more bands want to be touring and playing festivals. It’s very competitive out there.”
Even if the younger bands under Ward’s wing view him as a curmudgeonly dream crusher, he’s not afraid to share his own experience, wisdom, oversights and mistakes.
“No amount of preparation can get you ready for the number of things that go wrong,” he says. “Vehicles breaking down, our guitar player broke his ankle in Italy and had to be flown home and that hit the insurance really hard, a couple of shows got cancelled… things like that. You’ve got to factor in for things to go wrong, and I guess we didn’t. We’re in a fortunate position now where after 22 years, Orange Goblin is well-established and still relatively in demand; we still get good festival slots and there’s no reason to stop.”
You’ll still never find Orange Goblin huddled in a corner licking their wounds or complaining about a raw deal. After taking some time to regroup and re-evaluate the place of the band in their lives while their label, Candlelight, was being bought out by with Finnish label Spinefarm, they felt the time was right to come storming back with album number nine, The Wolf Bites Back.
“We put ourselves under added pressure by booking the studio time before it was finished being written,” Ward explains. “We figured that even if we gave ourselves six months, we probably wouldn’t start until the month before. So, it all came together very last minute and spontaneously but I feel that’s how music should be. Normally, the first idea you come up with is the best one. It should be off the cuff, natural and organic.”
Recorded over a succession of weekends at Orgone Studio in the English countryside by producer Jamie Gomez Arellano (Ghost, Cathedral, Paradise Lost), The Wolf Bites Back takes the usual collection of 70s and 80s doom metal and biker rock Orange Goblin has been distilling since the mid-90s, and injects it with a newfound looseness and urgency. Ward may be joking when he says, “we’ve ripped off so many bands that you can’t tell anymore, and as a result have created our own sound!” but there’s some truth to his words. While you can hear the Black Sabbath, Pentagram, Atomic Rooster, Can, Thin Lizzy, and Kyuss, those influences are so blurred that, ultimately, all you hear is Orange Goblin. While it may be disappointing that they can’t do Orange Goblin all the time, there won’t be any letting up during those times they can.
Full-time status or not, Orange Goblin has been the one constant for Ward, Hoare, Millard and Turner for over two decades. Wives and girlfriends have come and gone as quickly as record companies have. Most of the bands they started on the London club scene with no longer exist. Their own influences are calling it careers. The band itself itself has gone through a variety of phases, but still remains.
“Having to go back to the day jobs and everything, I think a lot of people thought that would be the end of us; also, I think the scene has been quite diluted lately and we wanted to say we’re still here after twenty years, but I feel like we still have a point to prove,” Ward tells me.
“The reason we’re still here is that there was never any sort of predilections or expectancies of what we were supposed to achieve,” he continues. “It’s always been fun; we’ve never been disillusioned by the music industry. We take everything with a pinch of salt. We’re the guys you can have a beer with in the bar, but at the same time, we know our worth; there’s a reason we’ve been around for over 20 years, and that’s because we’re a fucking good band.”
The last few years have been a whirlwind for Orange Goblin, but one that has seen the band rise up with a renewed direction and vigor. Over twenty years of carving out a name in the stoner rock/doom metal trenches later, Ward and his mates are still figuring things out and learning on the fly. With all that experience in his back pocket—plus, a sweet day job in the modern music business—what’s the first bit of advice the big man imparts upon anyone asking about a life in music?
“My biggest piece of advice would be to be realistic about what you want to achieve, be prepared to put in a lot of hard work and persevere,” he says. “And make sure that it’s always fun, because the day it stops being fun is the day that you’re in the wrong business. Some bands are really talented and committed and never get that break, but then you get another band that may not be as talented or relevant as they think they are, but they have some overnight success and you think, ‘How the fuck did that happen?’ It’s a strange industry that can be really cruel to some, and really good to others.”
Kevin Stewart-Panko is a Canadian writer who is very much not on Twitter.