Darke Future- An Interview with Atonement Records


Here at Corehammer we know what we like. We like big meals and Floorpunch and taking the piss out of everything. But we also have a lot of time for creative, hard working people. We like to support folk who roll up their sleeves and get involved to make things better instead of sitting on their arse and whining about it. Michael Darke is one such individual. A bold Welshman with plenty to say, and the courage to still rock a curtains hairstyle in 2013. If you’ve been around the UKHC scene for even a short while you’re bound to have encountered some of Darke’s handiwork. Whether it be inciting dancefloor ruin with now defunct Ark Of The Covenant or switching the new generation onto fresh hardcore via his involvement with Purgatory Records and his new label Atonement Records. There’s no doubt the lad works hard and is neck deep in this shit. He’s also got a few dirty gamer secrets lurking at the back of that stylish wardrobe. This interview is a biggie so get comfy son, you’re gonna be here a while……

Standard 90’s zine opening question, introduce yourself and pop off some hardcore credentials.

I’m just a 31yr old straight edge kid, with a dubious pedigree of bands behind me and working on my third record label. In recent memory, I sang for Carrion of Vigrid, Wiretap! & Ark of The Covenant whilst currently running Atonement Records, having been involved in Purgatory and prior to that, Staunch Records.

I could be wrong ( and I was!) but reflecting upon our first meeting I can vaguely recall you knocking around in London in the early 2000‘s in the company of a lot of those London club heads. How did a fresh faced young Welshman come to be in London in the first place and with such company? What was your introduction to HC?

I remember it a little different; first time we met was Canaan supporting Lost Prophets in Cardiff, not too long after they released the Fake Sound Of Progress record but the first time we really chatted being Beachfest with you nerding out over my Red Roses For A Blue Lady tee. The day after Beachfest, MattyBar put on Realfest2 at the Swan in Tottenham, I went to that too and despite being a pretty forgettable show I met so many people and just thought ‘Right then, London it is’.image-2

A few months later I made the move and lived in London for just under a year I think. I already knew some faces there and was keen to always be doing something so it made it fairly easy to get involved, get to a lot of shows and keep busy.

I’d been steadily moving toward hardcore for a number of years from the punk scene having become aware of punk circa 94/95 when Green Day put out Dookie – my Dad bought it as comparing them to the Clash was very popular back then and he passed it to me. Pretty standard story for someone may age I think; I liked the record and started checking thanks lists for recommendations on bands to check out and eventually you arrive at a Victory Style CD or the Revelation Records In-Flight Sampler and the floodgates just open. Bands like As Friends Rust, Grade and Snapcase helped me transition whilst the idea of really metallic hardcore had been on the radar for a while but it all just seemed a bit hard to relate to for me at first but then a friend leant me Martyr by Morning Again and something just clicked, never looked back.

Would happily talk about this for hours, and actually have a full piece written about my evolution from a 13yr kid discovering Green Day to a 30yr old man listening to Devourment that will be on the Atonement blog at some point so will save that story for another day.

The ‘club kids’ thing is probably unheard of outside London but those guys seemed to make a living from just going from a show to a meal to a metal club night to a house party to whatever so I spent a lot of time with them, always friendly dudes and with encyclopaedic knowledge of music. I learnt a lot from those dudes about music amongst what I was picking up from hanging out with regular hardcore dudes at shows and socially.

Am I right in thinking Of Noble Blood was your first band? What kicked that project off and made you want to be a frontman?

ONB was technically my second band, having done a band called Spilling Blood (Without Reason) first. We thought we sounded like What Happens Next with bits of Snapcase. We didn’t. Just an unfeasibly low standard of hardcore punk that you just really get anymore, thankfully. Think we played 4 shows? The first one was with Sunshine, who had a split with At The Drive in, made it out to Hereford for a show, played Newport with Knuckledust & BDF which was the start of my relationship with London in a lot of ways and the last one was with DS13 & ETA in Bristol. Not a bad little run for a band that should never have come out of the practice room.

I think a distinct lack of musical ability and just wanting to do things lead me to being a vocalist. Being constantly angry over nothing helped too.

ONB felt like a requirement for me at the time, there were hardcore shows in South Wales but no hardcore bands, I felt like something needed to happen so I did it. Very few found memories of playing in that band really but I’m grateful for the friendships outside the band that it cemented.image-5

Once Of Noble Blood packed it in you seemed to disappear off the scene for a few years? I heard rumours that you’d returned to your metal roots and were playing in a death metal band. What prompted the sabbatical?

I think it’s important to note at this point metal very much isn’t my roots. I got into metal through hardcore and my interest just grew and grew, and that became pretty much my go to for hardcore too, which was fine to begin with but in a post American Nightmare world and huge amount of revisionism began to happen. The 90s hardcore sounds where basically brushed under the carpet and people began to publicly renounce their involvement in metallic hardcore.

I wasn’t down with that and not to bad mouth the great work Dead & Gone did for hardcore in this country, the huge surge of fruitbat ‘traditional hardcore’ edge kids appearing over night at that time really just bummed me out. The vanguard of metallic hardcore to the time went pretty guff didn’t help, it’s hard to defend the mediocrity of later Unearth etc and even the phrase ‘metalcore’ became the forerunner for ‘emo’ and scene metal but I just couldn’t get down with backwards mesh caps and Break It Up. I mean, 50 on Red… Really?

Also The Black Dahlia Murder happened, which got a lot of hardcore kids into Melodic Death Metal due to their proximity to the hardcore scene and maybe for me more than others with bands like Ten Fold Truth, along with Raiden & Downtrodden go me looking into more and more metal bands just through the tees they wore. This was all much more interesting to me and the seeds of Black Metal started to grow as well so rather than suffer another poser in a Bold or Insted tee I got gone.

A local metalcore band needed a fill in as they were gearing up to kick their singer out and had some cool shows booked so I said I’d do it, played the shows and the band evolved into Carrion of Vigrid which ultimately had a very good run and probably produced the best music I ever will put my name to.

You returned from your time in the wilderness fully recharged and inspired with Wiretap and shortly after Ark Of The Covenant which i personally felt was a better fit for you vocally and aesthetically. What/who dragged the prodigal son back from the metal wilderness and into HC?

I’m not really sure how I heard it but the Make Move ep. Hearing that made me excited to check out hardcore again because despite keeping my ears to the ground, nothing had grabbed me from that scene in a long time, then Cold World & Dirty Money happened and those bands really got me pumped. Living in the middle of Newport at that point really helped counteract my burnout being able to come and go from shows as I pleased. Towards the end of Vigrid the CCHC thing was really getting going and we played a lot of similar shows especially with Ironclad, plus had a considerable Holy Terror influence by this point although I’d stress this was still prior to the (thirs? Forth? Fifth?) resurgence in Integrity’s popularity and conversations were afoot to do Ark, although that took considerable time to orchestrate.

Where do we even start ? Ford/Stocks/Darke/Nate

Where do we even start ?

The slew of bands referencing Metallica seemed to mark a shift within hardcore, and despite still having very little time for Metallica or Thrash Metal in general, the resurgence of that sound in the hardcore scene via bands like Bitter End is almost certainly responsible for the more open minded (at least in terms of sound) hardcore scene we can currently enjoy – there is a lot to be said for the mantra ‘if it’s hardcore kids doing a band then it is a hardcore band’

CCHC seemed to blow up out of nowhere with a strong sense of regional scene pride, a steady slew of solid bands and wild shows. I’d been down there a lot over the years and enjoyed a good relationship with Public Disturbance and their crew in the 90’s but this seemed like something new. What happened?

CCHC was an interesting thing and best divided into a number of epochs. I think in the simplest terms the Dead & Gone years took hold in South Wales and young people started doing new things. Band wise nothing that stands up to scrutiny but the guys involved quickly built a reputation of doing good shows. As this progressed bands started to really step to the plate, with Ironclad in the forefront and that issued in a new era with people identifying as part of CCHC, probably best characterised by the collective response of outrage to some muppet from Mob Rules mouthing off, but all good things come to an end and the people who had been the driving force walked away from hardcore, other people had other things on their plates and as a concept CCHC just dwindled.

Outrage stayed the course with and very much still identify with CCHC but I don’t see new bands or even kids coming up and flying that flag. Things do have a habit of bouncing back though and whilst finding an appropriate gig space and someone willing to put the miserable work in of booking shows is a relatively tall order, I don’t see it as particularly unlikely both will be found.

Every doghead has his day

Every doghead has his day

You were always up front at Canaan shows and were one of the true few that stuck to your guns with Straight edge when everyone else was dropping like flies and acting like they were never down. Most of the die hards I know have some dark history in the closet that help keep them on the straight and narrow. What keeps your edge strong?

Just don’t think about it and haven’t in a very long time.

Long story short, I was a drunken mess as a kid but it took a few really stupid incidents to really stop me in my tracks most of which just wouldn’t have happened if I was sober. It dawned on me pretty quickly that I didn’t need to be drunk to have a good time, I’m more than willing act up regardless and have never been particular timid so speaking to girls was never really an issue and let’s face it, that’s why people get weak. Plus I really don’t earn enough to consider fine dining with a few bottles of wine on top.

Why straight edge and not just ‘I don’t drink’? My girlfriend asked me this back when, and I didn’t really have a great response then and that’s not changed now but if telling someone who has doubts about their own life choices that you are straight edge and the community aspect draws them in, that sense of community may be all it takes to put them at ease and on the right track. It may do fuck all and they end up worse than they started but people need something to believe in, so why not offer something positive.

It was impossible to go to a show in the UK over the last couple of years without witnessing a sea of Purgatory Records shirts in the pit. Purgz was Definitely the label that defined the younger HC scene in the late 00’s in much the same way that Dead & Gone and Rucktion have in different eras/locales. How did you come to be involved with the label? And what inspired you to move on and create Atonement?

My involvement in Purgatory was pretty much down to proximity really and having done a label before. I think the label did a lot that made a significant impact on the current hardcore scene but for me the label was too focused on achieving the zenith of cool for that moment that it wasn’t really doing much for me in the end. I didn’t get involved in hardcore because I was one of the cool kids; the prescribed aesthetic that developed around the label and the pursuit of the next big thing just isn’t for me.

Don’t get me wrong, it was very cool to be a part of the ‘careers’ of Breaking Point, Broken Teeth et al and see them grow into big bands, not to mention the runaway success that is BWP now but I felt a pretty stark disconnect with the label’s audience who seemingly just wanted to consume logo t-shirts and had no interest in the cultural background of the label, our bands, or hardcore as a whole.

Atonement, and Ark before it, was pretty much a kneejerk to that with both intended to be flag in the sand for what interests me in Hardcore. With both I expected to pretty much be met with disdain, giving me an opportunity to join the ranks of elders grumping on the state of hardcore but I’ve been proven wrong twice and the responses has been incredible.

Beyond to aesthetic of Atonement and wanting it to very much reflect my own tastes and aesthetics, I felt I had a way of doing things a little differently to how most other labels operated. The demand for the new cool thing is never going to change, certainly I’m not in a position to affect that but the practices of most labels don’t allow for that – a pre-order goes online, the tracks get mailed out, it’s talked about for a day on Twitter and by the time the band actually have the vinyl in their hands it’s the near enough quarter of a year after they recorded if not six months and old news to the audience, plus the label has only paid back £300 of the grand it spent on the 7”.

It’s been long understood that band’s only make money on merch, so leave that be and get over the current love affair that everything should be released on vinyl when 99.9% of the time it’s going to be listened to on an iPod or via the Internet anyway.

By doing small, limited releases on tape the label makes collectable product available for the kids who are into collecting, the band’s music gets out there as far and wide as they can push it by offering free downloads plus the turn around on it all is 2 weeks rather that a minimum 2 months. Everyone wins this way – more people can hear it and easily, which means bands have a wider audience to sell merch to and the label makes a little profit to put towards the next release without holding old stock.

If you are playing live, would you rather the 100 people in a room could have given your new record a listen before had rather than maybe 1 or 2 luckily enough to get a piece of rare vinyl or whatever? It’s a no brainer.

I’m really glad how it’s going – getting people asking for advice on the bands that influenced the bands on the label is really cool, Grimlock are probably more popular in the UK now than they ever were and kids are digging to find out more about the music that came before instead of trying to pre-empt everyone else by being the first to have the next cool thing or the right tee to fit in.

AOTC in London. UKHC Celebrity moshpit

AOTC in London

To business. I’ll admit you caught me off guard a while back when you dropped some Warhammer knowledge into a conversation. I’ve always had you pegged as a fairly functional and grounded person so to discover you were as tragic as the rest of us was very satisfying. Did you play/paint much? What armies did you collect? You’ve got High elf written all over you havent you..

Fairly functional & grounded. My mum is laughing in your face right now. I think I’ve just as nuts as anyone else involved in Hardcore maybe I just hide it better.

I only had a fairly short spell involved in GW, but like most things I tend to throw myself in head first and absorb everything I can. I was probably about 10 when I became aware of the hobby and picked up a copy of White Dwarf while on a school trip. It had a free elf spearman on the cover and think the art went on to be the first High Elf army book for the then relaunched Warhammer Fantasy Battle. I played a lot for a few years and went to Games Day in I guess 93/94? Which ever year they re-launched Blood Bowl. That was pretty ill – my parents just dropped me off at Cardiff’s GW store in the early hours of the morning and I went off on the coach not knowing anyone. Not unlikely early experiences of discovering punk & hardcore for many I suppose, just have to say hello and start chatting, you are all there for the same reason after all.

I built a pretty large High Elf army as I was totally mesmerised by the mythology and the push GW was giving them at the time, with the format being so new it was only really a decision between them or Orcs & Goblins and that had no appeal. Played some Blood Bowl when that was reissued and took a Dwarf team to give me a bit of a change but when music entered my life I started to lose interest and the people I’d play with lost interest faster leaving me needing to find other avenues for my spare time such as skating.

Plus even back then and at a relatively young age it felt like the hobby was changing, and the sense of imagination was being taken away in favour of large pre-packaged armies a more cartoon aesthetic and taking the imagination element etc

Was WH was your first experience of gaming as a youngster? You mentioned an interest in Battletech and cyberpunk, was that something that came before Warhammer or instead of? What is it about those two games that captured your imagination?

Cyberpunk we played at school, probably because someone had the rulebook for that and not Dungeons & Dragons and that’s what you do when you are a nerdy kid at a boys school. My taste in science fiction really fed into that with the books of William Gibson, cinema hit the genre hard with some (not great in hindsight – End of Days, Jonny Pneumonic, Tank Girl…) films that captured the mood along with early loves like Mad Max, Alien and especially Blade Runner plus this is around the dawn of the internet. Still didn’t know exactly what it really was but we knew it could tell you how to make bombs and that was enough to seem super cool.

With real world advances in terms of medical prosthetics and communication technology that world already feels very obsolete.

Battletech I came to much later, pretty much the same time I stopped drinking really. Time we’d spent getting smashed and messed up suddenly became available and we needed something to fill the void. I think I used to spend a lot of time playing computer games whilst drunk so kinda shelved that by proxy and with sport never being an option turned to ridiculously complicated boardgames instead.

As above, always been a big science fiction fan but Warhammer 40K never really appealed. The mythology was cool but to this day I think Space Marines look bloody stupid (!) and as the platform became more and more cartoony it just interested me less and less.

The idea of giant robots smashing lumps out of each other albeit on a kitchen table with ridiculously complex rules seemed like the perfect escape and solace for someone trying to keep their distance from drink and drugs.

Ark of the Covenant seemed to come out hard from the off, played some great shows, put out an excellent demo then split all in the span of 18 months….personally I think that’s the perfect way to manage a hardcore band but was there anything else you wish you’d accomplished with the band?

Totally agree with you. Things are so much better with a definite life span – I’m not sure Ark out lived it’s life span but the odd show aside I’m glad it was never shit and there was never a question that we’d outstayed our welcome. Death is a fundamental part of life, and this is so true of bands, you need to time your exit even more accurately than your arrival and go out on a high. Dirty Money being a perfect example, while many bands limp on in a sort of limbo – sufficiently popular but going nowhere and bringing nothing to the table. That just isn’t being real.

Great shot of CW at Broomhall. Awesome show

Great shot of CW at Broomhall. Awesome show

We did a bunch of records, played some awesome shows and I feel contributed to the snowball that was the resurgence in 90s & metallic hardcore. The only downside to that is that we somewhat jumped the gun a little – If Ark had happened a few years later maybe we could have played some bigger shows overseas with some of our favourite bands – I understand the likes of Heaven Shall Burn, Caliban and Liar are all doing sets of their classic albums, being a part of that would have been awesome but none of us would cry over spilt milk and I think we can all walk away happy. If any of the others disagree they can pull their fingers out with Natural Order and do more with that!

Many of our readers might be interested to know that AOTC commissioned artwork from Games Workshop legend John Blanche for the intended split with DWI. Sadly It was never used, please tell us the back story there.

At the expense of maybe sounding flippant, we just asked him and he said yes. Both bands wanted to go all out and have aggressively ridiculous artwork so we brainstormed, think we worked out a potential budget for art between us and started asking people that fit the bill, although he was possibly the first person we asked and he said yes. It’s very much a case of if you want something, and good artwork is definitely something you should want if you are investing in a vinyl release,

What do you look for in a band when looking around for that next release? What can we expect from Atonement moving into 2014?

Whilst there is very much a mission statement to what an Atonement band should represent, there isn’t really a sound that needs be adhered to as demonstrated by the Below & Bleak Reality tapes, I just want bands that are down for hardcore and have an appreciation of where their sound comes from.

Don’t really know what the future holds myself, so I can’t say too much. Cement are recording as I type this, that’s likely the next release, and Repentance vinyl should be making it’s way back to me and Pat(the vinyl press being a split between Atonement & Carry the Weight Records). I’ve been really lucky with what has come along and allowed the label, which was really only intended to release the Ark discography and the Natural Order tape as a bonus, to gather quite a lot of momentum in the very short space of time it’s been active.

I think that’s all I’ve got. Throw out some final words/parting shots/wisdom for the youth

If people aren’t checking the Unchecked Aggression blog nearly daily they are missing out, Danny has done a great job over there and made a lot of music that would be otherwise lost available and easily accessible.

Listen to Aftershock and if anyone ever wants to chat music please just hit me up.

Check out the Atonement records rosterCONTROL YOUR MEN . Free downloads for all releases.

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About Nathan Bean

Tyrant/ Editor Nathan is a 'former member of...' numerous mediocre punk bands and internet gobshite and has been involved in the United Kingdom hardcore scene since the mid 90's. Now retired from active duty he spends his time writing about gaming, movies, music and comics, shouting at the television and threatening to start another band.

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