They might not be rich, but they’ve had way more fun than many bands who are. Orange Goblin frontman Ben Ward looks back on the band’s two-decade career fuelled by booze, bongs, boobs and Big Black.
Frontman Ben Ward looks back on the band’s two-decade career fuelled by booze, bongs, boobs and Big Black.
Ben Ward has learned many things in his 23 years as the singer with Orange Goblin. Such as don’t go mini-motorcycle racing on the eve of a major tour, especially if there’s a risk of your drummer breaking his finger and the tour being cancelled (this happened). Or never go on stage pissed at a prestigious club gig in Los Angeles, especially if it means your label back home will give you the bollocking of your life for blowing your big chance to impress an important audience (this happened too).
But, as important as the above are, they are not the most valuable things Ward has learned. The most valuable thing he has picked up in his band’s two decades plus, is that no matter how tough things get, no matter how much your job or life in general grinds you down, never, ever sell your souls.
“The thing I’m proudest about of being in Orange Goblin for twenty-three years is that we’ve always retained our dignity and integrity,” says Ward, six-foot six-inches of hair and denim, currently lounging in the wood-panelled back room of a North London boozer. “We’ve never been fashionable, we’ve never been a hipster band. We’ve never sold out. We’re outsiders. And I love that about us.”
He drains the last of the pint that’s been sitting in front of him for… oh, about two minutes. He’s got a London gargle that’s rougher than a badger’s cludge. “Look, there’s a really simple way of looking at it. If you’re trying to decide on something, you just think: ‘Would fucking
Lemmy do it?’”
Following the Tao Of Lemmy has served
Orange Goblin well over the past quartercentury. They rose from the febrile mid-90s British metal underground to become the standardbearers for modern-day British heavy metal.
While their former peers have either split up (Cathedral, Acrimony) or mutated into new forms (Cradle Of Filth, Anathema), Orange Goblin have remained true to their core values: booze, bongs, bikes and heavy metal.
It hasn’t always been easy. Wheels have wobbled and the juggernaut has threatened to come off the road more than once. Personal circumstances have changed, relationships have crumbled, real-life obstacles have landed in their path. And if you’re measuring success purely in fiscal terms, then, well, Orange Goblin aren’t exactly troubling The Sunday Times Rich List.
But success for Orange Goblin is measured on a different level. The fact is that they’re battling through the Force 12 shitstorm that is the modern music industry, and not just surviving but prospering in their own medium-sized corner of the world. Their latest album, The Wolf Bites Back, is both a celebration of their continued existence and a reminder that one of the finest British heavy metal bands of the past 20 years still has teeth.
And that’s something Lemmy would definitely be proud of.
The band that became Orange Goblin played their first gig at a jam night at the Rising Sun pub in Sudbury Hill, West London, some time in 1995. They were called
Our Haunted Kingdom back then, and they couldn’t make up their mind whether they were a classic rock covers band, a grunge band or callow death metal grunters. So they split the difference, to the bafflement of the punters who’d turned up to see a procession of semi-pro middleaged blues musicians.
“We did a Jimi Hendrix song, an Alice In Chains cover and one of our songs called My Black Widow,” says Ward. “I was doing all this death-metal growling, cos I didn’t have the confidence to sing back then. Everybody was going: ‘What the fuck is this?’ We didn’t even have long hair back then, just those ridiculous curtains you have when you’re growing it out.”
Ward had met future OG bassist Martyn Millard when they were both apprentices at Queens Park Rangers football club. “We did the whole YTS [Youth Training Scheme] thing,” he says. “We had the potential to be professionals, but the second year was when we both discovered a love of heavy metal and beer. Football went out the window.”
By 1997 Our Haunted Kingdom – Ward and Millard plus drummer Chris Turner and guitarists Joe Hoare and Pete O’Malley (who left in 2004) – had changed their name and released their debut album Frequencies From Planet Ten on Rise Above Records, the influential label founded by Cathedral singer Lee Dorrian.
In that pre-social media age, a band like Orange Goblin had to work hard to get a foothold. Ward remembers selling demos in the lines at other bands’ gigs and handing out flyers for his own shows. “A lot of bands these days have it far too easy,” he says. “They can record stuff on their iPhones, stick it up on Bandcamp, say they’ve got an album out and go off on tour. They don’t have to work for it the same as bands back then did.”
He lets out a gurgling, growling chuckle. “Fucking hell, listen to me. Old grandad.”
“We’ve never been fashionable, we’ve never sold out. We’re outsiders. And I love that about us.”
Orange Goblin’s Sabbath-with-builders’-crackson-show spliff-boogie plugged into a mid-90s British underground metal scene that was as vibrant as at any time since the early 80s, and more exciting than it’s been since. It was a riotous assemblage of freaks, geeks, stoners, moaners, jokers, vampires and fuck-ups. Ward reels off the names: Cathedral, Electric Wizard, Cradle Of Filth, Iron Monkey and many more distant memories. And right in the thick of it were Orange Goblin.
“It was a crazy scene,” says Ward. “Drink and drugs were rampant. We’d do ourselves more harm than good turning up for gigs pissed as farts. We went on stage in just our underpants once – the Oval Rock House in Norwich. There was only one person there. We thought, ‘fuck it’. Just thought it was a massive party.”
It was. Their mission statement was summed up on a T-shirt they put out around the time of their 2000 album The Big Black. It read: ‘Booze. Bongs. Birds. Bikes. Boobs. Big Black.’ “That summed us up,” says Ward.
In between the boozing and carousing, the band members held down menial, short-term jobs – delivery drivers, warehousemen, gophers. Nothing permanent, in case the offer of a tour or a gig in a far-flung country came their way and they had to drop everything at a moment’s notice. At one point in the band’s earlyish years, Ward and Joe Hoare were working in the kitchens at Wembley Arena. Within a couple of days they’d had a gutful and went to tell their foreman they were leaving.
“He said: ‘You’ll never amount to anything.’ We just said: ‘Fuck off. We’ll be playing here one day.’”
Twenty four hours later, Orange Goblin were offered the opening slot on a tour by two of their big heroes, Dio and Alice Cooper, including a date at – you’ve got it in one – Wembley Arena.
“It was brilliant,” says Ward. “The money was shit but the experience was second to none.”
The money was shit but the experience was second to none’ could be the story of Orange Goblin’s life. Throughout the 00s they released a string of acclaimed albums and muscled their way to the top of the underground. Their gigs were – and still are – packed and crazily joyous things, one part biker rally, one part heavy metal communion. Like the old lager ads (almost) said, Orange Goblin reached the parts other heavy metal bands couldn’t reach. Riding high on their own buzz, they dared to dream.
“We knew we were never going to be as big as Iron Maiden or Metallica,” says Ward. “But part of you still expects the record label to phone and say: ‘Quit your day jobs, guys, you can afford to live off the band.’”
The call never came. As a band, Orange Goblin were never broke – Ward says proudly that they’ve never been in debt – but nor were they ready to cash in their chips and move to Beverly Hills. He reckons the biggest royalty cheque he’s ever received was for around £3,000. Which was only a few years ago and took into account reissues as well as current albums.
“It’s never been easy,” he says. “You go on these tours and everybody thinks that’s what you do for a living. They’re surprised you have a day job. Well, that’s because we’ve got to eat.”
There have been a few hairy moments. The hairiest came at the start of this decade, after their then-label, Sanctuary, went bust. The band put out a deflated-sounding statement saying they would make another album at some point, but they didn’t know when. It sounded like Orange Goblin had run its course.
“It’s the closest we’ve come to splitting up,” says Ward. We were feeling jaded by everything. It hadn’t really kicked off for us at any point in the preceding ten years, our label had gone kaput and we were, like, ‘You know what? Everything’s against us.’”
Ironically, it was going public with their despondency that galvanised them back into action. “That made a lot of people think that would be the end of it,” he says. “And that’s what made us want to keep going.”
Whether it’s the fear of near-extinction or just a bone-headed refusal to quit, the last decade has found Orange Goblin punchier than ever before. Even though a bold attempt to finally quit their day jobs and focus solely on the band following 2012’s Eulogy For The Damned ultimately failed, it didn’t knock the wind out of their sails.
“Unfortunately, with the music we play we just didn’t make enough money,” says Ward. “We had a shot at it, it was a great adventure, we don’t have any regrets.”
The occasional downs of the past 23 years haven’t had any noticeable negative impact on Orange Goblin’s just-released ninth album, The Wolf Bites Back. As the title suggests, it sounds at least as hungry as anything they’ve made before. Ward cites Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Can as influences this time around. While the Goblin haven’t quite swapped booze, bongs and the rest for art-jazz or avant-garde jams, there is a deviation from the stoner rock blueprint in the likes of gothic country murder ballad The Stranger.
“It was just having the freedom to do what we wanted to do,” says Ward. “I think maybe we’ve felt trapped by being Orange Goblin in the past. We wanted to say: ‘Here we are, this is what we’re all about right now.’ It’s a statement: ‘After everything we’ve been through, we’re still here and fuck everything else.’”
Freedom to do what they want to do after 23 years, without fear of failure or what the future might hold? Lemmy would be proud of that.
“People are surprised you have a day job. Well, that’s because
we’ve got to eat.”
The Wolf Bites Back is out now via Universal/ Candlelight.
Orange Goblin: (l-r) Joe Hoare, Martyn Millard,Ben Ward, Chris Turner.
Ben Ward gives it some oomph.Inset: young Goblins in the mid-90s, dreaming of things to come.