Witches. Vampires. Crystal spiders crawling through your brain. These are just a few of the lyrical topics haunting Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats' elusive debut album, Vol. 1. Self-funded, self-recorded and initially self-released in a ridiculously small edition of 30 completely unmastered CD-Rs, Vol. 1 almost solely existed in internet infamy while Kevin Starrs, the man behind Uncle Acid's deliriously psychedelic oeuvre, and a revolving cast of backing musicians went on to conquer the globe with three gloriously bleary slabs of Sabbathian riffs, maleficent lyrics and murderous melodies.
Starrs started writing Vol. 1 while depressed, unemployed and living with his parents in Cambridge, England, at the tail end of the last decade. While many bands need two or even three records before truly nailing their sound, Vol. 1 shows Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats as a fully formed musical force. "The harmonies, the heaviness —that's always gonna be in Uncle Acid's music," Starrs tells Revolver from London, where he moved a couple of years ago.
Though Vol. 1 was first unveiled to deafening silence back in 2010 (coincidentally 40 years to the day after the release of Black Sabbath's debut) it's become a cult artifact in the intervening years, with Uncle Acid fans clamoring for an official release. Luckily, Starrs finally found the time to remix and officially master it for mass consumption via Rise Above, the renowned English label responsible for releasing the band's subsequent albums. "I wanted to work on it properly, and I just haven't had the time for the past few years," he explains. "I didn't want to just re-release it to make some money — I wanted to be happy with it. I knew we weren't gonna do any touring this year, so it was the perfect opportunity to get it mastered and released."
WHAT WAS THE INITIAL CONCEPT BEHIND UNCLE ACID?
KEVIN STARRS I just wanted to mix heavy music with harmonies and good melodies. I wanted to write songs that I wanted to hear. I wasn't trying to chase anything or be part of any scene or make money from doing it. I just wanted to be in a situation where I was writing songs that I really loved. If anybody else liked it, that would be great, but if not, it didn't really matter. There was no real ambition to be successful or have a record deal or anything like that.
YOU'D BEEN PLAYING GUITAR IN A METAL BAND IN CAMBRIDGE BEFORE THAT, RIGHT?
Yeah, and I was kinda happy to take the backseat and just be the guitar player — but I realized that wasn't really going anywhere. It was the kind of band where we'd meet up once a week and just turn up our amps and go nuts. We'd do a couple of Maiden covers and stuff like that. It was guys getting together and playing covers. We'd never really do our own stuff. I didn't feel comfortable contributing my own songs in that situation, so I thought I'd just go my own way and start writing for myself.
YOU WERE UNEMPLOYED AT THE TIME YOU STARTED UNCLE ACID. DO YOU THINK THAT CONTRIBUTED TO THE ATMOSPHERE OF VOL. 1, OR DID NOT HAVING A JOB JUST GIVE YOU THE TIME YOU NEEDED TO WORK ON IT?
A little bit of both. I was pretty downbeat I guess because I wanted to work. I wanted to earn a living. But at the same time it helped because I had so much free time on my hands I could really focus on doing something I really wanted to do, which was to write music. So it was a perfect opportunity to start going for it. I was 22 or so at the time, and by that time I'd gone back to living with my parents. Obviously, that's not great because you wanna go off and do your own thing, but it worked out for the best.
DID YOU ALREADY HAVE THE BAND NAME IN MIND WHEN YOU STARTED WRITING SONGS?
That kinda came later. Rusty Day, the singer of Cactus, was putting together a project just before he died [in 1982], and the band was called Uncle Acid and the Permanent Damage Band. That name sounded really cool to me, but then I sort of grew to dislike it a little bit. I thought, "This is a terrible name." But I thought this thing would never go anywhere, so it didn't really matter.
WHAT'S THE FIRST UNCLE ACID SONG YOU WROTE?
I'm pretty sure "Vampire Circus" was the first one.
THAT SONG REALLY STANDS OUT ON THE ALBUM. IT'S GOT A SIXTIES GO-GO VIBE, BUT DARKER.
Yeah! At the time I was doing Vol. 1, I was listening to a lot of early Who. I don't think that song has much of a Who feel to it, but it's definitely got that Sixties vibe. And I like the idea of having that darkness even when all the melodies and harmonies are upbeat.
WHERE WERE YOU DRAWING YOUR LYRICAL INSPIRATION FROM AT THIS POINT?
Just watching movies, really. I mean, "Vampire Circus" is about the film Vampire Circus. I'd watch it and write a song about it, basically. Same thing with the song "Dead Eyes of London." Lyrically, it's just describing the film.
WHAT'S THE STORY BEHIND THE LEADOFF TRACK, "CRYSTAL SPIDERS"?
That was the idea of feeling like an outcast because you can't even get a fucking job anywhere, so you have all this self-doubt and paranoia in your head. So I came up with this idea of having little spiders crawling around in my brain. Again, it goes back to the situation I was in at the time.
ON VOL. 1, NOT ALL THE SONGS ARE ABOUT MURDER AND DEATH, BUT SOME ARE. YOU'RE SORT OF BUILDING UP TO THE THEME OF THE NEXT RECORD, BLOOD LUST.
Yeah. Vol. 1 is just kind of a collection of songs. They don't link in any way. It wasn't until Blood Lust where I started thinking of it as a concept, where I wanted to tell a story throughout the whole album. I started thinking about each song as being a scene from a film.
I THINK OF "MELODY AND MURDER" AS BEING THE UNCLE ACID FORMULA. WRITING CATCHY SONGS SEEMS TO BE VERY IMPORTANT TO YOU.
Absolutely. I love catchy music. All the stuff I grew up with, the hard rock of the Seventies and Eighties, it's all catchy. People can say whatever they want about it, but it's catchy stuff. I think that's missing in a lot of heavy music today — the big choruses and good melodies. When I listen to Iron Maiden, I notice how good the melodies are and how catchy the songs are. But I think metal lost its way a bit in terms of that.
IT SEEMS LIKE MANY MODERN METAL BANDS STARTED FAVORING EXTREMITY OVER SONGWRITING.
Yeah. The extreme thing can be good as well, but for my personal taste — and that's what Uncle Acid is all about — I have to have some good melodies in there.
VOL.1 WAS THE FIRST TIME YOU WROTE LYRICS. DID YOU STRUGGLE WITH THAT AT FIRST?
I did struggle at first, and that's actually why I wanted to do a concept record for the next album. I thought it'd be easier if I had a big picture and was writing toward a larger goal rather than coming up with 10 different subjects. It was easier for me to have a huge story in front of me and then start filling in the gaps that way.
YOU RECORDED VOL. 1 PIECEMEAL AT A FEW DIFFERENT PLACES, DIDN'T YOU?
Yeah — partly at home, partly at a friend's garage and partly in a rehearsal room. The recording took seven or eight months, but it wasn't really structured. Whenever I had a song, we'd learn it for a couple of weeks and then go in and record it. It was a long, drawn-out process, but it kinda worked.
WHO ELSE PLAYED ON THE ALBUM BESIDES YOU?
It was session players — just friends — pretty much. We agreed to use three names —Uncle Acid, Red and Kat. Anybody that played bass would be called Kat and anybody that played drums would be called Red. I tried to get a real band together to do the whole record, but it was just taking months. I couldn't find anybody. Then there were other musicians who would come in and want a session fee or something. I didn't have money for that, so it just became whomever I could get to play.
YOU DIDN'T WANT TO BE THE SINGER, EITHER.
No, that was the other thing — I tried to get a singer in as well. I must've tried out three or four different guys, and they were all just terrible. Nobody wanted to sing the melodies that I'd written for them. It was a nightmare.
FOUR ALBUMS IN, IT'S CRAZY TO THINK ABOUT UNCLE ACID WITH A DIFFERENT SINGER BECAUSE PART OF WHAT MAKES THE BAND SO UNIQUE IS YOUR VOICE.
I think you're right. I'm not a fan of my own voice, and I hate having to sing. I'd much rather be the guitar player, but it definitely wouldn't sound the same. It wouldn't be as good. I think part of the appeal is how terrible and weird my voice is. [Laughs] There's something strange about it, but it works. I remember seeing the early reviews, and people were convinced that it was a woman singing!
DID YOU KNOW FROM THE BEGINNING THAT YOU WANTED TO USE A PSEUDONYM RATHER THAN YOUR OWN NAME?
I knew from the start that we weren't gonna use our real names and we weren't gonna put any pictures on the album. We didn't want any information on there. But if people wanted to buy it, they could get it straight from us. I only pressed like 30 copies of the CD, and there were times I thought I'd made a terrible mistake because nobody was buying it and I wasn't getting any feedback. I'd put all this money that I didn't have into making it and it was going nowhere. But eventually we sold out all the copies and started getting feedback from people who really liked it.
IT TOOK SIX MONTHS TO SELL ALL 30 CDS, RIGHT?
Yeah, and we just put that money into the next album.
SO IT WAS FUNDED WITH DOLE MONEY BECAUSE YOU WERE UNEMPLOYED…
It really was! [Laugh] And you're not allowed to have a job if you're on benefits, so in some ways it was maybe illegal as well, but who knows?
DID YOU SEND ANY OF THOSE ORIGINAL CDS TO ANY RECORD LABELS?
No. I wasn't interested in any of that. I thought there was no point. I didn't want to chase any sort of record deal.
IT'S BEEN SAID THAT VOL. 1 WAS ORIGINALLY RELEASED ON FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 13TH, 2010 — 40 YEARS TO THE DAY AFTER THE FIRST BLACK SABBATH ALBUM. IS THAT TRUE?
That is totally true. Around the time we were finishing the record, I was reading about the first Black Sabbath album and realized the anniversary was coming up. So we just released it on the anniversary.
AND THE SILENCE WAS DEAFENING AT FIRST.
Yeah, but I don't know what I was expecting. I didn't promote it. I didn't do anything to give it a chance. We had a MySpace page at the time that I put a couple tracks on with a link to buy the CD. That was the extent of the promotion I did for it. Obviously it was gonna take a while to get any feedback, but eventually it did come in.
WHAT DID YOUR RECENT REMIX OF VOL. 1 ENTAIL?
A lot of it was going back and removing the horrible digital distortion that was on the original. There was one song where the bass drum cuts out for a couple of measures, too, and I didn't realize it until a couple of years later. So I went back to the original file to sort that out. There were a lot of little technical mistakes like that I wanted to go back and fix.
WAS VOL. 1 THE FIRST TIME YOU'D RECORDED ANYTHING YOURSELF?
Yeah, so I was learning that as well. I didn't really know what I was doing, so I made a lot of mistakes. But some of that adds to the charm of it, I guess.
WHEN YOU THINK BACK TO THE SITUATION YOU WERE IN AT THE TIME OF VOL. 1 AND THEN TO WHAT UNCLE ACID HAS BECOME TODAY, IT MUST SEEM MIRACULOUS.
Yeah, it does. [Laughs] It's fucking crazy. I still don't understand it. But maybe a lot of people have the same taste in music that I have. Maybe they want to hear a bit of melody.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST, IS THERE A NEW UNCLE ACID RECORD IN THE WORKS?
I'm writing one right now, so hopefully we'll have it out by the end of next year.