INTERVIEW: Kenny Hickey ( Silvertomb, Type O Negative ) - “There’s always a dark part in my perspective.”

Kenny Hickey
Credit: Steve Prue

Dan Volohov sits down with Kenny Hickey – guitarist and vocalist of Silvertomb, the Seventh Void and co-founder of Type O’ Negative. Kenny Hickey discusses playing at L’Amour and looks back on “Slow, Deep And Hard” and gives the details on the next Silvertomb record and describes the naturality of his songwriting processes.

Kenny Hickey
Credit: Steve Prue

Following your own words, Seventh Void was different within the general approach in comparison with Type O’Negative. With Silvertomb, you put a lot of references – lyrically, musically to the tendencies you’ve been exploring with Type O’ Negative. What made you look back on those things in this particular situation?

I needed to assess all the trauma we had gone through in the band since Peter’s death. Even before the subsequent death of the band, after him changed my life. So I spiralled pretty deep downhill. It was probably 10 years since I just came out of it last year. The band and the record were sort of an exorcism of all those traumas. I tried to assess, balance, recognize and face, all the traumas I went through since the end of Type O’ Negative. And, of course, a lot of it is reminiscent to me. Bringing back string sections, working with a string section and Beatleesque stuff. It brings me back to the good parts and good memories.

Silvertomb basically rose from your activity as Seventh Void. At the same time, your lineup changed after Aaron and Joseph joined Johnny, Henry and you. What, in your opinion, did these guys bring to the chemistry and the sound you already have?"

Oh, a lot. Joe was this phenomenal guitar player. And also the interplay between each other, back and forth. He brings a totally different energy to it. He comes from a more hardcore\trash-metal background. So he brings a lot more aggression into the rhythmic sense of it. There’s more of a classic-rock-kind-of-approach in my playing. It’s a good counterpoint between him and myself. And that’s just for the guitar-work. There’s Aaron Joos, who brings this whole other dimension to any instrument you can think of from string sections and more. There are so many possibilities now that we have keyboards a lot is going on. At certain times, there are three guitar parts and the keyboards. So Joos also switches back and force between the guitars and keyboards. And he’s also very positive. He’s a great guy! He brings a lot of positive energy into the environment. Not like Henry is not positive…He’s Henry. He’s more chaos. Joos is like a focused, positive part of the chemistry.

How did you feel after Type O’ Negative broke up, your role changed, and you started doing lead-vocals in addition to being a guitarist? How did it feel for you to switch from one thing to another?

Oh, it wasn’t just switching on. For years I performed, and I sang a lot of lead-vocals in Type O’ Negative. I switched off for Peter, but it’s different. Here I have the guitar in front of me, singing one piece, then I can hide behind my guitar for the rest of the song. Trying to develop an approach live took time. As usual, I tried to be myself at the mic and trying to be like, “here’s me and my friends” – that’s the approach I’m trying to have. But I realized a lot of what Peter went through. Like screaming at the top of his lungs every night and having to say something to entertain people every freaking night. And make it different every night. Cause now everything you say is on the internet the next day is on YouTube. So you cant repeat yourself over and over…I know I used cranky all the time on the road.

“Black No.1” became the very first vocal experience for you – in addition to the different backing vocals you did over the course of years.

'Hey, Pete' was probably the first!

What pushed you to do the vocal on these songs?

It was just one of those things. As a group of guys, you get together and start playing together and learning each other's strengths. I had a strong voice for the backups and stuff like that. And sometimes, you get bored. So, I just started singing harmonies to whatever Peter was doing. I just like the way it sounded. So, we started incorporating it more and more into the actual recordings…It just happened! Pete was baritone and our voices really combined well. So it was experimental, and it worked, and It sounded good! When in doubt, you do what works. You do what sounds good. That’s how we ended up going that way. Plus, Pete was kind of lazy with singing. And as much as he could, he’d pedal off to me if he would ( laughs ) - “Those parts are too high – you do it!”

You’ve always been saying that “Bloody Kisses” wasn’t much different compared to other records of yours. How much did your approach to work develop in the period after this record and before “October Rust”?

Well, then “Bloody Kisses” was very much a live recording. Done the old-fashioned way - you get the drums first, then we all played to it live. I think we kept a lot of a live-tracks. Most of it was developed in a rehearsal studio. But by the time we got to “October Rust”, we were touring a lot. We were working hard. At that moment in time, we took some time off to develop it. That’s when we started doing a lot of pre-production at Josh’s house.

We spent thousands and thousands of dollars going right to the main studio, to the Systems Two in Brooklyn. Back in the day, everybody had recorded there. He was getting better equipment and stuff like it. A lot was prepared before we went and actually laid down the record. When he started using Pro-Tools, it was definitely “World Coming Down”. I don’t remember hardly sh*t from these times! I’m asked these questions all the time. I have one single memory of recording “Bloody Kisses”, which screams as a collage with my friends all around the mic. Saying stupid stuff – that’s the stuff I remember. I remember myself sitting and eating popcorn for 9-hours when we were getting all the drum sounds. It’s so long ago. 31 years ago was our first show – something like that as Repulsion in 1989. That’s really hard for me to remember. Plus, I was wasted through a lot of it, to be honest ( laughs ).

As far as I know, it took you three months to do the mixing of “Edge Of Existence”, which I heard you did remotely. Is that true?

Everything wasn’t done on distance. We actually got together – Ali Hassan, our producer, has a buddy in Pennsylvania. He has a nice compound where he works on cars. Above the garage, there’s a huge apartment with wooden floors. We did get together there for a week. And would lay down all the basic tracks, and then we did the rest at my house. I went to an isolation booth to do vocals, and then I got this amp to do the leads and stuff. We were sort of together, as a band, through a lot of it. Not in the same sense of being in a nice, big, open studio. But this is a new way, man! I just built a studio from scratch in my house for my next record - I’m already working on producing my next record.

As a musician now, my whole career, I depended on Josh, and Mike Marciano, for engineering and for producing. I don’t know about pre-amps or a compressor – nothing! I don’t want to know, “Give me my beer, show me the part – all right!” – that’s it! Now it's different. There are no budgets for intermediate rock bands. Or even low-level rock bands. It's just million-dollar budgets or nothing. So you got to make it yourself.

If I depend on an engineer and a producer, I have to pay them 4-5 grand an hour for that. My mission now is to become a self-contained music manufacturer. It should come from me, and it should sound great. As much as possible, in house. It’s just a reality of being a musician now. I Don’t care if you’re playing rock\punk\pop. Before you make it anywhere, you are struggling to get on YouTube, to get followers, and you're struggling to get followers on Spotify. You have got to start, just like Billie Eilish and her brother did in their bedroom. The record companies don't get involved now until you’re already popular. And I guess they come in to take your money. I’ll never get to that. I think it’s a completely different world now, and if you don't adapt, that's it - you will never get anything going.

What are you working on now, and what should fans expect from you in the future?

The stuff I’m working on now takes it to another level. Many of the songs on “Edge of Existence” started without having a keyboard player in mind or having any other sounds. Now some songs are developing from the piano. Some songs are developing, beginning with the string section or sound effects. So much more, taking it to another level, creating a mood and an atmosphere and taking the listener away to a place. Really-really going further with that. It's very dark stuff. But very melodic.

One of the most interesting things about “Edge Of Existence” is the general contrast between songs. “So True” would be a good example of that. As well as “Sleeping On Nails And Wine”. Was it important for you to create a certain catharsis compositionally?

I think, compositionally, it was important to have both light and dark and sweet and bitter. These widen the scope. Instead of always being angry, always being dark, you have to have a counterpoint. Jimmy Page said in the interview once that definitely stuck with me – he said that most of Led Zeppelin songs expose both the light and the dark. And there’s always a dark part in that perspective. So I’m trying a broader perspective in my art. And taking it even further with this upcoming record.

Slow, heavy and doom sounding became the hallmark of your guitar style. I was wondering if it has to deal with a certain spectrum of musical tonalities you’d love to explore, or it’s basically your inner mood?

It’s my inner mood. It’s what comes naturally to me. Like, there's a lot of different styles on this next record too. And I explore them, have my ups and downs, hit the wall, try to work out problems in songwriting in this or that. But when it comes to doom – it comes right out of me, it spills right out of me in two seconds it comes naturally. I’ve always suffered from anxiety. It’s like depression but more anxiety. That really really speaks to my soul. That sound, that choice, that mood. It comes right out of me. I can't deny it, and with a lot of songs, I go: “OH MY GOD! I can't do this again! I keep doing eight doom-songs again!” – but they spill out of me. There’s gonna be a lot of it incorporated on this upcoming record too. But I want it to have its uptime, up-moments. Not just down-moments.

But having such a comfort zone with this doom sound. What helps you to unite dark and light within your writing? Is it challenging?

I don’t think so. There’s a lot on this record. I learnt a lot from Peter where, as he used to say: “It’s all just variations!” That’s what it is! When you think of any Type O’ Negative songs. From “Black No.1” to “Christian Woman”, – each part goes to a different place. And some of them go from minor to major, and then to another. But they are all variations of the initial idea. They are stretched and variated further and further. I naturally do the same thing with my own stuff. What comes to mind next is another variation. Often, the progression of a song or creating a new song comes from me searching for a chorus from another song. Trying to variate on it – “Oh, that sounds great! But it doesn’t fit!” so it becomes another song. So it’s constantly getting an initial idea—a spark. And then you variate and build on it.

“Slow, Deep and Hard" was also quite a furious record, uniting the best qualities of the New York sound formula of that era: it’s fast and furious, loud and almost wall-breaking. What helped you to find your sound and identity at that point?

Just the sound was so broad and so consuming. There are so many styles in it. To me, it’s one of the most brilliant pieces of work, especially from Type O’ Negative. It's groundbreaking. There was never anything like it before or anything like after. People tried to imitate it…I was like: “What the hell this guy is out of his mind ?! It’s brilliant!” – there was so much going on. Josh’s huge sounds, Peter’s huge sounds…Trying to find somewhere to fit in there was a struggle. That’s why I took to the mic whenever I could – to add some identity to it. Not only sonically but visually. It was sort of a race, Like a marathon, like a competition. It was very competitive to try to find a spot. To give it ground and maintain it. This is like in every band. It’s no different than any four-five guys struggling for identity.

That’s true! And at that point, you’ve already become a part of the musical scene in New York City. What was it like to become a part of this scene and play in the clubs like L’Amour or CBGB?

It was great! It was a dream come true. We all played in the same rehearsal studio when you think about us – Biohazard, Life Of Agony, all these New York Bands. So we all knew each other…It’s funny. Do you know the movie “Saturday Night Fever”? This is a rock version of that movie!

Obviously the dance club – it was “L’Amour”. And that was the club. That was Friday-Saturday-Sunday night. You went to drink, went on to meet girls, and went on to see bands. Great bands! I saw Metallica when they were nobody…I saw Slayer, I saw Soundgarden when they were nobody…This was a great, amazing club. I think, Biohazard, they were the first ones to grab on and get attention and start packing the house. We were all finding our way to do that; they were kings at the house.

They had all the women. They were the gods of L’Amour – that was really the focus, to become the kings of L’Amour. When you get there, it’s like: “WELL, WE MADE IT!”. Years later, you like: “Yeah…But where did we make it ?...” (laughs) “Was it worth it ?”. That’s how it was. L’Amour was the centre of the universe. For all of us. If you were selling out [at] L’Amour – that was the cup. The next obviously was the rest of the world. But that’s how you started it back then, in 1988 through 1990. The way out of New York was L’Amour. Especially for a Brooklyn-musicians. It was the gate to open.

For all the years before that, Mike and George, the guys who run L’Amour, they fucked you over left and right! You played the opening gigs. They screwed you over and fucked you on money. When Type O’Negative came, they fucked us over…And then, when the band broke, suddenly we sold out three nights in a row. Our manager WHO learnt from them AND WORKED for them but then quit and managed us - Ken Kriete was like: “15 grand\night!” – “ARE YOU CRAZY ?!” – “Fuck you! Pay me!” ( laughs ). Revenge! It was an act of beautiful revenge. Those were great days. Because, back in those days, we didn’t have a corporate rules-bullshit…We just counted the cash in the back of a freaken van! STACKS OF CASH! My then-girlfriend-now-wife was like: “What’s this ?!” – “Stacks of cash!”

As a musician and composer, you’ve always been trying something new. A good example would be “Dead Again” while working on the record; you’ve been improvising a lot. But these days, does improvisation takes an important role in what you’re doing as a musician and as a member of Silvertomb?

It's not! Unfortunately, I mean, it does to some degree. But Joe has a lead-break, we got stuff back – that’s as far as improvisation’s gonna get. We’re not in a room together enough. We’re not rehearsing. Especially these days…We don't get to rehearse and just screw around with shit. I have to come up with the stuff, with the basic outlines of the stuff – send it to the guys, they’d send the ideas back. So it takes time. So there are not any on-a-spot-improvisations. Like I wish it was. Hopefully, in future, we could get together more, jam and make the shit happen. I have got this room now, but I can only have one guy in at a time.

When you’re playing all the time, having a guitar at hands, what pushes you to step into the writing process? 

It can come from anywhere. It can come from an idea that comes to my head. Usually, it’s just a riff-idea. While with influences…I listen to a vast spectrum of music. I even work on music with my 24-year-old daughter. So I do a lot of pop and stuff. And I keep my mind open to all of this. I listen to everything from Aretha Franklin to Slayer. I spent a lot of time listening to blues, listening to the soul, rhythm and blues, and classics. I try to keep the ideas broad. Anything can spark it off! I got a piano intro for one of our songs. But it’s based on Elton John’s  “Yellow Brick Road” – it’s just totally twisted and made dark. It comes from anywhere…Once the first spark is there, it grows, and it variates.

In one of your interviews, you referred to the writing part of “Edge Of Existence”, saying that inspiration came from the people around you. But when you have this musical part that comes naturally for you – dark and doomy, how do you find the right lyrical tonalities to unite with your written music?

I have an idea of what I need to say, what I want to say like – “Sleeping On Nails And Wine”. Most of the time, I’m coming with a melody just by humming gibberish and singing gibberish. And then, a lot of the times, start certain vowels sound good at certain places, and consonants don't. A lot of times, it’s that simple – a lyric will sound good. Sometimes the music itself will spark something in your memory – a  bad memory or dark memory. Sometimes I use my dreams, my nightmares.

Silvertomb
Credit: Steve Prue

After you got back as Silvertomb, you started touring again with all these artists you know for decades – Life of Agony, Biohazard, these two notable Brooklyn bands. How did it feel to reconnect on the road?

It’s like riding a bike. It comes back really, really quick. And now, I feel that’s where I belong. I’m like a fish out of water. Not in my studio. Certainly, not on the road and not on stage. That’s where I feel at home – that's where I feel right. So I can’t wait to get back!

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