Iron Cross from Chicago is a Thrash Metal band which was formed back in 1983 and after a longer silence they are active again. They released their debut album in 1987 („Church and State”), and we hope, the new one will come also soon. There were a lot of interesting facts in their career, for example interview on CNN etc. etc… Our questions were answered by Rob Wilhelm, bassist. This band is not confused with other Iron Cross band from the U.S. (from Orlando, album’86 out on Iron Glory Records).
Iron Cross was formed in December of 1982, the founding members were Rick Stang (guitar), Lionel Hubbard (guitar) Dave Martin (bass) and Dennis Green (drums), but what about you? Did you play in some local bands before you joined Iron Cross?
ROB: I joined IRON CROSS in August of 1983, shortly after graduating high school. During most of high school I played in a band called „Explorer” with friends of mine. I have played in bands on and off over the years with some of the same guys.
How did you discover metal by the way?
ROB: My first taste of Metal I guess came when I first listened to Kiss. From there it was a kind of progression to heavier bands. My first concert was Kiss in 1976 for the „Destroyer tour” (I was 10 years old). From then I went on to bands like AC/DC, Aerosmith, Sabbath, Priest, UFO, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, Motorhead, Maiden, etc. I always liked my music with a heavier edge to it. I’m not one for sappy love songs and ballads.
What made you to become musician and what were your influences to become a bass player?
ROB: In grammar school, some friends of mine started a band and played in the school talent show. I remember thinking „that’s what I need to be doing”. Shortly afterwards, I bought my first guitar, an SG copy for $65.00 with a piece of shit little amp and started trying to play. Admittedly, I wasn’t very good at the guitar.
How did your choice fall on this instrument?
ROB: Once high school started, the seeds of Explorer started to take shape. We needed a bass player, so I took the job. I took to the bass a lot better. I bought my first bass in 1980. It was a piece of shit Ibanez that I later ended up smashing on stage during an IRON CROSS performance in 1986. I have always been a big fan of Geezer Butler, his style and booming sound. Steve harris was also a major influence on me.
In March of 1983, Jon Wiegand (vocals) joined the band, in August of 1983 after the departure of Dave Martin, Rob Wilhelm (bass) joined the ranks of Iron Cross, do you still remember, how did you get in the picture exactly and why did Dave leave the band?
ROB: I had left Explorer in early 1983. I had gone to a local club to watch them play and help with equipment. One of the bands playing that night was IRON CROSS. To be honest, I thought they were awful! But, I had found out that their bass player (Dave Martin) was leaving the band after that show and they needed a bass player for a show the very next week. Since I wasn’t in a band and had nothing better going on, I agreed to fill in. I had to learn around 20 songs in a week. Most were covers except for five originals.
What do you recall of the Chicago scene at this point with bands, such as Zoetrope, Trouble, Slauter Xstroyes, Transgressor, War Cry, Infra Red, Witchslayer, Death Strike etc.?
ROB: The Chicago scene then kicked ass! Metal everywhere. The first show I had done with IRON CROSS was a show supporting Zoetrope. We had done shows with Slauter Xtroyes and Witchslayer a couple of times. The first time I had seen Trouble was around 1984 supporting Queesryche. I had seen War Cry a couple of times supporting Twisted Sister/Queensryche and supporting Yngwie and once in a club (after Paul Speckman had left and they became posers).
Were you aware of the existence of two bands called Iron Cross (one from Pittsburh and one from Orlando) that were active at the same time as you?
ROB: When we were about to start recording on the album, we heard rumors that there might be another IRON CROSS band out there. At the time, we couldn’t afford to do anything with trademarking the name so we left it alone and took our chances. So far, no one has bitched about it.
Iron Cross played the Chicago club circuit and recorded various demo’s over the next year, does it mean, that in Chicago was great underground buzz and a healthy club scene?
ROB: The club scene from what I remember was VERY healthy. Lots of places to play. I think all the bands then were considered underground at the time. I don’t think anyone really made it big from Chicago at that time.
In your opinion, is it succeeded drawing some fans attention to the band? I mean, did you have a strong fanbase?
ROB: I think we had an OK fan base. More than some bands, less than others. We never tried to do overkill on playing tons of shows. We may have averaged 1 or 2 a month perhaps.
In late 1984, Lionel Hubbard left the band to pursue other musical directions, what happened with him? Did he loose his interest in playing metal music or…?
ROB: He had wanted to go into another musical direction. As I recall, he had started a band called „Champagne Blonde”. Kind of poser/glam stuff. The rest of us just weren’t into that shit.
Both Jon and Dennis took some time off as well, why?
ROB: I don’t remember specifics to be honest. I do remember them starting a band called „HEAD HUNTER”. Thay played some covers and a few originals a played a few gigs. It didn’t last too long.
During this „hiatus”, both Rick and you started jamming with Bill Schmidt (drums) of Master, can you tell us more about it? Does it mean, that Bill left Master and he did a project or a new band with you?
ROB: From what I recall, Master was between guitarists. Our guitarist Rick had gone to jam with them as a fill in. Rick was a friend of Bills since they were 15. Then there was a period of time that Rick and I had jammed with Bill in our practice place playing both Master and IRON CROSS songs. This was a temporary thing but in my opinion, influential. It opened us up to playing and writing faster and heavier material.
Have this line ever recorded any demos, rehearsals etc.?
Master was also taking a bit of a break at the time, is that correct?
ROB: I’m not exactly sure of the specific stuff that was going on with Master at the time. It wasn’t really my concern.
This temporary union proved to be very influential in the future course of Iron Cross’ musical material, do you agree with it? Would you say, that you gained a lot of new influences, experiences etc.?
ROB: As I had stated above; absolutely, in my opinion.
In August of 1985, both Jon and Dennis re-joined the band, right?
ROB: That is correct.
Also, at the same time, Mike Antablian (guitar) joined the ranks and this was probably the most creative period and line-up for Iron Cross, does it mean that you immediately started writing a lot of new materials?
ROB: Rick and I had started writing material before the re-grouping of the band. It was then that we were able to put it all together. And as a band, we did write a lot of new material in the months following the re-grouping.
Many of the songs for your album „Church and State” were written in the immediate months following this regrouping, can you tell us more about the songcomposing? Who wrote the lyrics and the songs?
ROB: Normally, Jon wrote all of the lyrics and Rick wrote most of the music. I had co-written some of the music with Rick and helped with arrangements. Five songs were written before I had joined the band. The music was co-written by Rick and Lionel. After we had regrouped, we had „heavied-up” and re-arranged some of the original five songs.
In October of 1985, Iron Cross went to Seagrape Studios in Chicago to record another demo tape, which was a live recording, no overdubs and it included the songs „Fallen Angel”, „Tooth and Nail”, „Merciless Knights”, „Wage of Sin”, „Children Must Play” and a cover of the Suicidal Tendencies song „I Shot the Devil”, do you still remember how was the demo recorded?
ROB: I rememer us all in various corners of the studio with Jon in the vocal booth. We all had a headphone mix and played the songs „live”.
„Tooth and nail” was one of your own and not a Dokken cover, wasn’t it? Possessed from Bay Area had also a song titled „Fallen angel”, were you aware of it?
ROB: „Tooth and Nail” is our song, not a cover. I never listened to Possessed, so I had no idea they had a song with the same title.
What made you to cover the Suicidal Tendencies tune? Did it fit to your songs, since ST was a hardcore act at this point?
ROB: We were starting to listen to a little more extreme stuff at the time. I personally loved that first S.T. album. I constantly listened to it. But, we also had a lot of faster, thrashier stuff that we played, so I think it fit right in with the rest of our live set. I think that was my choice as a cover (which I sang on). It was the only cover song we played live from 1985-1989.
„Merciless Knights” was released to local radio station WVVX for airplay and it immediately became a heavily requested song on that station, it mean, the song was a good promotion for the band, which made a name for you in the scene, is that correct?
ROB: Yeah, it really gave us a boost. That was one of the only radio stations that played Metal in Chicago at the time, so a good amount of people listened to it. At one point, „Merciless Knights” had made to #2 on the request list. Not too shabby!
Another demo was recorded in 1986, consisted of the tracks „Tooth and nail”, „Fallen angel” and „Children must play”, why did you re-record these tunes? Was it a better representation of the band?
Rob: Actually, I think that was the same session. I may have stated elsewhere that we did that demo in late 1985, but it was in early 1986.
Iron Cross continued to play the local Chicago club circuit for the next year when you decided it was time to record an album, were you prepared to record the album? Was the stuff ready when you decided to enter the studio and to record it?
ROB: We were absolutely ready to record! The only reason it took us so long was because of a shortage of funds. I recall the first day recording Dennis (drums) and I layed down the rythym tracks and most of it was done on one take.
Did you have a decent budget to record the material?
ROB: As I recall, we spent nearly $20,000 on the entire package (recording, artwork, mastering, pressing, promo, etc.). We had a few thousand dollars to start with and then went into the studio again as we raised more money.
All of the songs –with the exception of „Wage of sin” and „Merciless Knights”- were new penned ones, right?
ROB: Actually, the oldest songs were „Home Sweet Hell” and „Wage of Sin”. „Children Must Play” which was added as a bonus track, was also one of the five early originals. I believe „Minute to Pray” was one of the songs that was written around the time Rick and I were jamming with Bill from Master. The others were written after the re-grouping.
„Church And State” is a classic output that initially saw the light of day in 1988, how do you view it?
ROB: I think it still sounds pretty damn good! And I have heard from many others that seem to agree!
Do you agree with, that when this record was released everyone were into the extreme sound at the time and lived in Chicago?
ROB: Not at all. There was a group of us that played the heavier thrash/gloom stuff but there were also ALOT of hair/glam bands around at the time as well.
A lot of new bands started popping up, such as Master, Devastation, Sindrome, Terminal Death, how do you remember this period?
ROB: Actually, I believe Sindrome came out in the very late 80’s or very early 90’s. But, yeah, there was a good group of us that were among the heavier realm of the metal spectrum in Chicago.
In your opinion can Iron Cross and the record easily gain the interest of those who listen to the traditional Heavy/Thrash Metal?
ROB: ABSOLUTELY! I think if the people out there give it a listen, they will dig it. It has alot of elements from that time period that were popular. Individually, we weren’t the best musicians around but I think collectively, we came up with something pretty damn good!
Those who were interested they have already taken a small clue about this album, but for those who do not know it however, succinctly let’s say that „Church And State” contains all the formal elements that we’ve known from similar bands that existed in ’80s, from the classic thrash riffs up to the familiar Heavy Metal outbreaks and the catchy choruses, how do you explain death?
ROB: How do I explain death? That’s when the lungs stop breathing, all the internal organs cease to function and then the brain stops firing its electrical signals.
The pace is mostly uptempo with only a few exceptions, while the production accomplishes to take us many years backwards, when such bands dominated, right?
ROB: I agree. I think for an independently produced album it sounds fairly typical for the era, especially considering the small budget we had to work with. Most importantly, it sounds GOOD. Even now.
„Under Attack” is exactly what one would expect from an eighties thrash grenade; Jon Wiegand officially roars and screams into the microphone and this new song is extremely listenable, but despite this, the disk has lost none of its eighties flare, how do you view it?
ROB: I think „Under Attack” is a good, no nonsense, in your face thrasher! I think it is a good opening tune.
„Bad Tidings” starts and rolls a little bit slower than the previous song, subsequently, the boys fast and furiously pick up speed, you guys sound like a good mix between Overkill and Venom…
ROB: This is one of my favorites! It has a good, „evil” undertone to it.
I love the line at the end that goes: „behold the crucifix...what does it symbolize? Fallen incompetence, hanging from a tree”. Killer shit!
A huge steamroller of a song is „Game of Fools”, indeed one is moved by the middle-tempo section, but then Jon proceeds to rip the listener’s soul from its body and it also packed on somewhat of a hymn feeling, what do you think about it?
ROB: That song was written about the gang violence problem that unfortunatley still exists in Chicago. Basically it is an „anti-gang” song. Jon lived in an area that had an increasing gang presence so he had first hand inspiration for the lyrics.
At a fast gallop and without compromise, „Fatal Will” roars out of the box, wonderful thrash grenades that one have heard about and leaves other bands paling in comparison, right?
ROB: Again, another no-frills, take no prisoners, thrasher. Gotta love ’em!
With a soft acoustic guitar introduction and clear contemplative vocals, we are lead into „Beware the Innocent” and in the second half of the song, there is more substance, Jon sounds very much like Jon Olivia and Savatage from the good old days, how do you view this?
ROB: Jon does have a cool smokiness to his voice. I guess in a way some stuff can be compared to Jon Oliva. That was another great band that I loved to listen to, then and now. We actually supported them on their stop in Chicago for the „Hall of the Mountain King” tour. THAT was a killer night!
Somewhat faster and raw is the leadoff to the next song „Home Sweet Hell”, racing guitar licks and riffs with galloping drums are here on the menu, is that correct?
ROB: „Home Sweet Hell” was always considered our signature song. those were actually the first lyrics Jon had ever written. Great lyrics, in my opinion!
With noticeable speed, “Wage of Sin” bowls everything over, while „M.I.A.” begins with radio static and a news broadcaster and seconds later you guys thrash for all you are worth, what do you think about it?
ROB: „Wage of Sin” is another of my favorites. Another song with big religious undertones to it. It is a song questioning the Catholic religion and the skewed beliefs that go along with it. Great lyrics and melody! M.I.A. is another in your face thrasher. Nothing fancy or pretty about it. This was also co-written by me.
„Merciless Knights” takes a little bit longer to work and then they were able to accomplish a thrash-and-roll track, „Minute to Pray” is somewhat groovier track, one bolts and shreds with every bit of this song…
ROB: Nice, gloomy tune. Badass!
Has this album been heralded as a "timeless classic" by some and has been highly valued in its original LP format by collectors of this type of metal?
ROB: Yeah, I have had people from all over the world tell me stuff like that. It kinda blows me away. After all these years I had no idea anyone remembered us or even cared. I had heard from people that they had seen our album on e-bay going for like $40-$50. I had put one of my copies of the album on there (I had a few I kept for sentimental value) and it went for $85.00! I was shocked!
Would you say, that you mixed the intensity of Dark Angel & Possessed, with the authenticity of Metal Church & Overkill?
Rob: I have to admit, I have never listened to any of those bands except Metal Church. Love Metal Church! KILLER SHIT!
Iron Cross set the standard for that ominous, morose thrash; borrowing heavily from Venom, Celtic Frost, and Motörhead and other promising cult dwellers from Chicago, like Sindrome, Devastation, & Abomination, took the reins from them, and naturally set the precedent for Usurper, Master, & Death Strike to carry the torch, blazing into the 90's, what’s your opinion about it?
ROB: I’m not sure we set a standard for anything. Maybe I’m being too humble. I don’t know. We just wrote and played what came to us. If there are bands out there that took something positive from what we have done and used it as an influence, EXCELLENT!
What's fascinating about Iron Cross, is you still have a strong, Classic Metal quality to you, right?
ROB: Well, we all had classic Metal influences and I think it has become a part of us. I know it has for me. I like many types of music (almost anything except rap) and can tolerate most stuff for a time. But, it’s the Metal that gets me going.
Although, definitely not in the vein of the Florida Death sound, but that Morrisound vibe; especially for Nasty Savage can be heard, how do you view it?
ROB: We definately do have a gloomier sound than most thrash bands. Thats that Sabbath influence rearing its evil head! I can’t comment on Nasty Savage.... never listened to them.
How do you explain, that the „Metal Knights” own unique „Wage Of Mayhem” (Nasty Savage) inspired the „Merciless Knights”, „Wages Of Sin”?
ROB: I can’t. Never heard the stuff.