Plenty of family members start bands together. The Abbott brothers in Pantera, the Hoffman brothers with Deicide, the Cavalera brothers with Sepultura…I could list brothers in bands for quite some time and only scratch the surface of successful sibling pairings. Less common but still not unheard of are the bands that feature father and son pairings such as Defeated Sanity. It might seem unusual to sort through band dynamics and father-son relationships at the same time, but it was a large part of the recipe for success for Pagan Altar.
Formed in 1978, Pagan Altar played their own unique brand of doom-infused New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NOWBHM) tunes that set them apart from their scene cohorts. The band, which was formed by vocalist Terry Jones and his guitarist son, Alan Jones. I recently caught up with Alan over email to discuss the band, his relationship with his father, and what the future holds for Pagan Altar.
First off, what got you into music in the first place and then how did you end up a fan of heavy metal? Who were some of your early inspirations?
Alan: Apparently at a very early age, like about three or four, I would stand in front of the TV if any music came on and bob up and down on the spot, much to my parent’s annoyance because once I got in front of the TV there was no budging me.
The only records we had were my dad’s Everly brothers singles and a few Elvis records, so a lot of what I was hearing was country and rock ‘n’ roll. Also around the early seventies there was a rock ‘n’ roll revival so most of my influence was coming from that. Also, at that time, bands like Slade and the Sweet were getting popular so all us kids were starting to listen to that as well.
My dad started to listen to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, and Emerson Lake and Palmer so that was also starting to seep into my bones as well, so to speak.
What got you into playing guitar? What is it that you like about the instrument that has kept you with it for most of your life?
Alan: Well to start with I never wanted to play the guitar at all; I was only interested in the drums. There used to be a music shop in Lewisham with a few sets of drums in the window and my mum would dread having to go past it because she would literally have to drag me away from the window.
When I said I wanted a drum kit for my birthday, all I got was a horrified look and a flat no. Living in flats, I don’t think the neighbors would have been very tolerant either. My dad tried a slightly different approach and pointed out that the drummer is at the back and no one sees them at all where the guitarist is at the front and gets all the attention, which I think swung it for me. The guitar I got for my 11th birthday is the guitar I used on Volume one and still have today. I do really love the guitar, but I am still a closet drummer at heart.
How did the band initially get started? How did you guys decide on the name? What sound were you guys going for in the beginning?
Alan: It started at the age of eleven after my dad had bought my first guitar. He brought down a few of his workmates’ sons who were about fourteen at the time so [they] were a lot older than me. Luckily enough they were as bad as I was and we all were at the same level. We came up with the dubious and very ’70s name of Liquid Gas.
Being beginners, my dad was teaching us songs he knew how to play on guitar so we started off playing covers, but after about a year or so we wanted to try and write our own material and our first try was Narcissus Complex. The name Pagan Altar first came to being after the band with the name we were using at the time, Hydra, split up. After about six months, we decided to start again and pick a new name. Several names were mentioned including “Festered Stump,” which got a laugh but in the end we both liked Pagan Altar.
There are a few bands out there that have father and son pairings. What was it like being in a band with your dad for so many years?
Alan: I think like all things there are pluses and minuses, but on the whole I loved being in a band with my dad. He was not really that much older than me and was 16 when I was born so although he was my dad, he was sort of like a bigger bother as well.
What was the local music scene like in those early days? How receptive was it to what you guys were doing?
Alan: I think you mean the late ’70s and early ’80s. The new wave of heavy metal was starting to become popular after punk was dying out and people were looking for something else but still with that high energy. All my mates and school friends were really into it but I just didn’t get it and much preferred the more melodic traditional bands that came out of the ’70s like Journey, Boston, and Styx, and Thin Lizzy, to name a few. We did make a couple of attempts to go a bit more new wave and I suppose “The Witches Pathway” would fall into that category but on the whole we just stuck to what we knew and did best.
What was the music writing process like in the early days of the band? How much has that changed over the years?
Alan: In the early days, when my dad still lived at home, we would sit down together and write. My dad preferred to have the riffs first and then he could write how it made him feel. Once he had a subject, he would write a lot of lyrics and then we would put the music in some sort of order together. In later years, after my dad moved out, I would get the whole music ready first and record a demo with a drum machine and then we would put the vocals on for the rest of the band.
How do the lyrics come about? Who is your primary lyricist? What, to you, makes an effective theme for a Pagan Altar song?
Alan: This one is really a question for my dad, not me. Up to now my dad wrote all the lyrics and I wrote all the music. My dad would go to Nunhead Cemetery in South London quite a lot to get inspiration and a few of the songs came out of that cemetery. I think the most important ingredient in our songs at least is a strong melody. There are a lot of really good musicians out there now who are brilliant but have forgotten how to write songs. The song should come first, you can be the best musician in the world but if your songs have no melody, it just sounds like a free-for-all and people will soon get fed up of that on a record.
The band leans very heavily on the occult and fantasy for lyrics and themes. What appeals to you about those subjects?
Alan: Once again this question is very much for my dad. My dad would just really write on subjects he was interested in and in the late ’70s early ’80s there were a lot of books and horror films out about devil worship like The Devil Rides Out and The Omen, and I think he wanted to get that horror film quality to the sort of riffs I had started writing.
What was the recording/writing process like for the self-titled demo? I know it was a bit of a highly bootlegged, highly sought-after underground item back in the day. Were you surprised by its cult status?
Alan: When we recorded the demo we never ever thought of it as an album. It was made purely to get gigs. The way we had recorded most of our music before was to stick a tape recorder in the middle of the room and play live. This was not a lot different. We did the drums, rhythm, and bass live then put the lead and vocal on after. We got all the rhythms down in one go on both occasions because the first two songs we recorded a couple of months before the last four.
Why did the band initially split up and, in 2004, how did you guys know that it was time to come back?
Alan: There were several reasons why the band split in 1984. The main reason, I think, was we had given it our best try and it had not worked. People had moved on from our style of rock and it must have seemed dated to the media and fans of that time. We never planned to play live again as Pagan Altar, we only wanted to bring out the original demo on a CD because we found out through a friend that the demo had been turned into a vinyl and was being sold for a ridiculous price. After we brought out the demo, people wanted more and then they wanted us to play live as well so that’s why we decided to have another go but just for fun this time.
During the years, there have obviously been some lineup changes. What do you look for in a prospective Pagan Altar member and has those criteria changed over the years?
Alan: Well for starters someone who isn’t mental (and there are a lot of musicals that are). Before anything you have to be able to get on. If you don’t get on, the band isn’t going to last five minutes, no matter how good they are, unless you are making silly money, which is what happens to some big bands.
Also, my dad would do everything for nothing and expected everybody else to as well. If we weren’t getting paid, why should anyone else? If we did get anything for a show, it would go straight back into the band. This would cause a bit of friction in some cases and was the reason for some exits but there were plenty of other reasons as well.
What was the recording process like for the first few recordings back, the EP, The Time Lord, and the LP, Lords of Hypocrisy? Was it an adjustment being back in Pagan Altar and recording music or was it a natural return?
Alan: South London and was the only time we went into a proper studio to do it. The Lords of Hypocrisy was done on my Roland VS1680 workstation, which was a mobile and state-of-the-art at that time. We did the drums, bass, and vocals at my dad’s studio that we had built at the bottom of his garden and the guitars I did at home.
The fan response to those albums was, rightfully, highly enthusiastic. Were you at all surprised with how welcoming a return people gave the band? I imagine it had to be incredibly gratifying!
Alan: I know this is a bit of a cliché but everybody that has loved the band, bought the CDs, T-shirts and that have come up to us and told how the music has affected them has given us the drive to keep going. It is amazing that the music we did at the back of our house 40 years ago started something that has gone around the world and I feel very lucky to be a part of that.
After coming back, you released those two records and then another two all within the span of about two years. What was fueling the creative fire at that point? Was there an element of making up for lost time there?
Alan: It was not a case of writing new songs; we did everything in the wrong order. A lot of the songs from Mythical and Magical and Lords were written well before the original demo. The first new material was written for the Room of Shadows while we were recording Lords of Hypocrisy and Mythical and Magical.
My favorite album from the band is 2006’s Mythical & Magical. What was the recording process like for that one?
Alan: For Lords and Mythical, we recorded them at roughly the same time but had them mastered a few years apart. We did get a better mixer in when we started on Mythical and I had learnt a lot more about how to record the drums, which has always been a nightmare to do.
What was the recording process like for The Room of Shadows? I read that initially neither you nor your father was happy with the final product and that you had re-recorded it. Are you happier with the album now?
Alan: It was not the studio or the sound engineer that was the problem. It was more a case of an impossible situation which involved family and having someone in the band that was a complete novice and out of his depth in a proper studio. You can get away with pretty much anything except for drums and as hard as we tried, it just sounded awful. It took five years to do that album and most of that was fighting a losing battle that I knew from the start wasn’t going to work. We shelved the whole album and when my dad passed away I couldn’t even listen to it for two years. It was only when my friend Diccon [Harper], our old bass player, and I went down to visit our old drummer, Andy [Green], for a jam we discussed the possibility of redoing the whole album. It took about three or four sessions to record the whole thing and I am more than pleased with how it finished up. It was just a shame my dad never heard the finished result.
Lastly, are there any future plans for Pagan Altar?
Alan: Yes, we are hoping to get a new album out this year with our extremely talented and versatile singer Brendan Radigan. There is also talk of a show in Texas in 2023 which may lead to some other shows in the USA if we are lucky and maybe Canada but at the moment these things are up in the air so I don’t really [want] to put the Pagan Altar curse on it all and nothing happens, but if there [are] any promoters in the USA out there for next year reading this we are available for weddings, funerals, and Bar Mitzvahs.
Photo at top: The Room of Shadows album cover.