Rock Out Stand Out’s Martin White recently sat down with TOOTHDRINKER’s Sam Khaneka to talk about their debut album Last Escape, music, video games and all things Resident Evil.
Hi Sam, thanks for taking the time to speak to Rock Out Stand Out today, first of all how are things for you?
Yeah I am doing well thanks, and thank you so much for having me. Really excited to be here.
It’s an absolute pleasure. Let’s get some background on TOOTHDRINKER as a name. Can you tell our readers where the name TOOTHDRINKER comes from and the meaning behind it?
Sure, so TOOTHDRINKER is allegedly a translation of the word Dhampir, which is a word that refers to a half vampire, but according to the internet, in ancient Balkan it means Toothdrinker. I am not sure how reliable that is but to be completely honest, I was pulling at a thread from watching a lot of vampire Anime like the cool kid that I am!
Aren’t we all?
Exactly! So I just wanted a name for a band that was kind of a bit silly and a bit creepy and that is why I went with Toothdrinker.
Awesome, thank you for that insight. Your debut album, Last Escape came out, how has it been received so far?
Yeah, so far so good! Obviously, this is our first release under the Toothdrinker banner so getting any coverage whatsoever has been amazing for us. We have had a few reviews, and all have been positive, I think. Some people are slightly taken aback by the entire concept and that it is a grandiose heavy metal rock opera kind of thing. For the most part, everyone has been positive and yeah, we are just trying to get as many people as possible to listen to it and hopefully enjoy it. Because I know, speaking from personal experience that there is a lot of people with questionable tastes in music.
This is the joys of music, it’s so versatile and what one person might like varies to another and then one thing you can meet in the middle on. Some people will listen to classical, other 80’s cheesy pop and then it all meets somewhere. Anyone can appreciate a well written song and good music.
Welcome To Raccoon City initially feels like it could have been part of the original Resident Evil 3 game soundtrack. I was thinking back to when I originally played it, I am sure some of these elements are influenced from the score and I cannot comment on the remake as I have not gotten round to playing it yet.
Well firstly I would recommend the remakes to 1, 2 and 3 they are all awesome, but I might be a bit of a fanboy at this point. But musically with that intro Welcome to Raccoon City, I was trying to get across that ambient vibe and the soundtracks to those games are quite spooky and synth heavy with lots of floating discordant chords that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch film, maybe a bit lower budget but I was attempted to get that vibe across and chuck in a lot of rock and heavy metal.
Which seems to have worked from what I have heard so far! The album is based on the renowned video game Resident Evil 3; can you tell us where the initial idea came from to make an album based on this?
So, there are a couple of different things all at once. So, at the beginning of 2020 I was in another band called Dangerous Cactus. We were getting to a really good point where we were just about gig ready and on the side of Dangerous Cactus, I was writing a few songs that I quite hadn’t figured out what I was going to use them for and at the same time I had rediscovered a couple of films that I had always loved, which were South Park: The Movie, which is a very ridiculous musical. Fundamentally a musical and its hilarious and aged much better than I expected it to!
Then I also rewatched Little Shop of Horrors again that I hadn’t seen for years. Again, another cult musical. And at the same time, well not literally the same time of course, I was working my way through several Resident Evil games. So, I had been on a bit of a Resident Evil kick and somewhere around then I had the thought “wouldn’t it be pretty hilarious if someone had written a rock opera about Resident Evil?” I looked into it, and no one had done it, so I thought to myself, well the Resident Evil 3 remake is coming out soon and I love Resident Evil 3. Maybe it would be fun to just on the side of my main band to record a couple of songs as a proof of concept and it will be a good bit of fun. I wrote Welcome to Raccoon City, and Valentine’s Day which are the first two songs on the album. Then the pandemic happened.
Dangerous Cactus split apart because we couldn’t practice and life happens and everyone had more important things to deal with, so throughout the year I kept writing and pulling out the thread of okay if I did turn this into a full rock opera album, could I do it if I challenged myself to do that? Could I figure out how to actually do it, as I would record it all myself. So basically, I guess about 6 months later I had written most of the album and desperately trying to find singers to take part in it, because I have gone this far now, I might as well finish it.
To see if through to the end, certainly! As you said you were having a bit of a binge on the Resident Evil games. In particular, what is it about Resident Evil 3 compared to other games that made you decide that the direction was there to create a rock opera as opposed to Resident Evil 1 or 2?
To be honest when I originally had the idea, I thought, how ambitious could I go? Can I write a rock opera that does 2 and 3 at the same because the games chronologically overlap each other? I then realised if I wasn’t already biting off more than I can chew, that would be like the jaws of an alligator trying to chomp off even more, so I decided to pair things down. I stuck with 3 initially because it’s got two of the best characters in the entire franchise.
You have got the amazing protagonist Jill Valentine who is an elite cop, a one-woman army and an absolute badass. Which is such a great focal point for any album or story, I guess. Then you have the best villain in Nemesis, who is just a giant walking bionic weapon tank/man thing who is just such an imposing figure. The two of them opposed to each other is something that was quite fun and something I could play around with and write an album around.
Obviously, there is lots of other characters and a whole pharmaceutical conspiracy as there is in the heart of every Resident Evil game. Trying to bring all that stuff in as well but the main thing is that a dichotomy between Jill and Nemesis which is quite a fun thing to mess about with.
Sure, I can totally understand that. Musically if we go back to yourself, who influences you to do what you do? When listening to the album I thought maybe there is a bit of MEAT LOAF, ALICE COOPER, MURDERDOLLS and THIN LIZZY.
Yeah, I think that’s a pretty fair pick. Weirdly, and this is going to be hard to believe, but bear with me. I hadn’t heard the album Bat Out of Hell, until after I had finished making this record which, it’s surprising and as soon as I listened to it and I picked it up for £4 in the charity shop near me and this is everything I love about music, why have I not listened to this in my entire life? So retroactively of course I knew a few MEAT LOAF songs so maybe they fed into that. But I think for me there are a couple of key bands, that definitely influenced the album.
One would always be Alice Cooper. I am a huge fan and so I think that approach to having some kind of narrative in music is something that Alice has always done really well such as albums like From The Inside is one of my all-time favourites but there is other bands like SAVATAGE who again do something similar in that they have a lot of concept albums that border on a weird in-between of heavy metal, prog metal and Broadway musicals with lots of over the top overwrought ballads. I have always loved anything that Jon Oliva has put his name to and so SAVATAGE and ALICE COOPER definitely quite big ones.
Then there is a third band called THE PROTOMEN who are basically a very 80’s themed rock band that all of their original material is explicitly rock opera concept albums about the Mega man series of games, and it is fantastic! I have been following them since their first album which must have been 2006 or something and they keep getting better and better. I think those three acts probably all fed into it quite a lot but then there is loads of stuff like AVANTASIA, AYREON, anything that had multiple singers and narratives through it and anything as cheesy and as over the top as possible in there too.
So anything grandiose especially, the ALICE COOPER vaudeville element and as well you mentioned Savatage, and anything Jon Oliva does too.
Yeah, anything tasteless and a bit tacky always feeds in for me.
I am still in shock that you have only recently discovered Bat Out of Hell as well.
I know! It is one of those albums that when you hear it that it really fits my tastes, and I can’t believe that I have never heard it before. Again, whilst finishing off the album when most of it had been recorded and I was just getting together some of the last bits and pieces of guest contributors I heard Operation: Mindcrime by QUEENSRYCHE for the first time and it was just like, again how has this album passed me by? It’s incredible and again another sort of over-the-top concept album but amazingly executed with one of the best singers from that period of time Geoff Tate.
For sure, I guess with certain albums I like to think that for any type of music finds you when you need it or there is a reason it appears then in your life.
Yeah, I think that’s a really nice idea and I definitely found that discovering those two albums, Operation Mindcrime and Bat Out of Hell like at the last lap of doing this album was quite motivating as they are both over the top and fun albums. I think your right, they did come to me at the right time as I wasn’t trying to compare myself too much to them as I am just one dude anyway, but they were still inspiring even though the writing had been done.
Just to give you that extra push to get everything over the line then?
As you previously mentioned regarding guest singers and guest musicians. Was there always the desire to include guest musicians as part of the Last Escape album? Did you have in mind specific individuals for certain characters?
Yes, there was always an intention from the get-go, that I would have multiple singers for it. As I have said before I love bands like AVANTASIA and AYREON and what I have always loved about those bands and even what I like about classic musicals is that how multiple voices fit together and how you can have such great trade-offs so that from the get-go and also, I am not much of a singer myself! All these tracks that I started recording with my guide vocals were a case of I cannot do 5 different vocal parts myself as they would all sound a bit flat, so I needed singers.
For Jill, the singer is my partner Elly Lock who sings in a band called HUBERTS FRIEND, she has an incredible voice with a great bluesy tone and a lot of power, and it also helped that we live together so she was a no brainer for Jill Valentine as she has the right level of grit and depth to her voice. From the very beginning a singer I really wanted to get involved was Kyle McNeill, who is the frontman of SEVEN SISTERS who I have known for years but also know he is a super busy dude and he was one of the first people I contacted and he was probably one of the last people to take part just because of how Seven Sisters are doing really well and he was trying to plan for his own album launch which was a fantastic album they just put out actually.
So, I always had Kyle in mind for the part of Nemesis so to get him involved is great and then for the other parts I was a bit more open. I had ideas of the kind of voices I wanted but had no one specific in mind. As a one-man project putting this stuff together, I am grateful for any help and contributions from people whatsoever, so I wasn’t going to push my luck too much. I am really lucky that I got some amazing singers across the board. I got Helgi Jónsson who is in an Icelandic Prog-rock band RING OF GYGES, I got an old friend of mine who is currently not in a band at the moment but has a great metal voice, a guy called Kjetil Walseth and then I got Jay White from OVERTHROW doing a lot of gnarly distorted vocals and then a couple of other old friends on it as well.
It was just great to have other people bring this to life as I could only go so far by myself but to have other singers joining in really made all the difference. I got a couple of other guitarists to help split up some of the guitar lead responsibilities as I realised in a running time of about 52 minutes that I would have used up my entire repertoire of licks in about 3 songs so getting an old friend of mine Blev P to jump in a couple of lead parts and then getting Tim Shaw who is also another one man project/band the mastermind behind UK Black Metal band FYRSDSMAN he came and did solos for a couple of songs. Everyone’s contributions lifted it to a place I just couldn’t have got to otherwise.
That’s great to have the extra insight as to how it all came together. It might be a bit early to ask but is there any future works in the pipeline to do another album based on another Resident Evil game? Or even another video game franchise?
Yeah, I would say its early and I have ideas of what we could do to in terms of another rock opera but I think for now the focus is definitely on Last Escape and just trying to see if anyone likes it and if we can get a little bit of exposure for it then I think until we do another big album again that we probably and I have started work on a small covers EP that will bring in a couple of guests and have some loose ties to games and some not. Yeah, I think in the future if I can muster the energy, I would love to do another one of these, but it probably wouldn’t be Resident Evil. The other ideas are sort of based around other games would be fun to play around with different stories, I guess.
So basically, we can keep an eye out for future updates from yourself regarding that as time moves on. Let’s move onto video games in general then. Resident Evil 6, yes, or no?
Big no! NO!
It was just so long and painful, and I mean admittedly the time that I played plenty were playing it co-op and I was playing it by myself which makes it even harder but its just not what I want from Resident Evil, it’s a bit too actiony, I want a bit of unsettling feelings.
I felt it was a bit too much aimed at the COD audience effectively.
Yeah, but they righted the ship so well with Resident Evil 7 so can’t complain.
Seeing as we just mentioned 7, moving from there onto Village. Have you played RE8 Village yet?
I haven’t no, it is in my never-ending pile of shame backlog of games that I need to get round to but yeah, I will probably get around to it over Christmas.
I have one of those piles as well so don’t worry about it (both laugh) I have got a big stack of games to get through, but it is what it is as there is only so much time in the day so no spoilers from me with regards to Village, I will leave that for you to experience first-hand. So, we have mentioned Resident Evil. What other video games do you like to play?
I mean I am definitely a bit of a retro enthusiast, so I grew up with SEGA consoles in general, like this sounds ridiculous as a guy in his mid-30’s but I love Sonic the Hedgehog.
You are not the only one and I still have my Mega Drive
That’s great, perfect! I love classic Sonic Games, I love classic arcade games, particularly arcade wise, SEGA is a big one, but CAPCOM games like Streetfighter, Darkstalkers, those beautiful 2D art fighters are still close to my heart. But at the moment what have I been playing recently? To be honest the last couple of weeks I have only been playing, I got Ocarina of Time on my Switch through the Nintendo Online Plus expansion thing and somehow, I had never played through all of Ocarina of Time before and it was just amazing, like even though its 23 odd years old and it still holds up brilliantly. I guess I broadly I like adventure games, arcade games, platformers, and fighters but I will play a bit of anything.
It’s nice to have a mix across the board. Do not feel too bad about the Zelda game as I have never actually played a Zelda game.
I would recommend it.
It was just a case of us being a SEGA household and some friends had Nintendo systems but they didn’t have Zelda so it was one of those things and as I have grown up other friends have been saying “I can’t believe you have never played it” so its one of those franchises that I will have to dive into at some point.
I definitely had similar, SEGA household as a kid and then I did have a Gameboy and eventually a GameCube but by that point the boat had passed on Ocarina of Time, so I never really got round to it and I started it a couple of times over the years but always got distracted like a magpie seeing a shiny object.
Which happens to the best of us! Let’s go back to the album, considering Nemesis is such a formidable opponent within RE3, how did you decide to portray him in a more humane manner like that of Frankenstein’s monster if you will as opposed to a big brute with guttural vocals?
Yeah, I like that, I am going to steal that, that’s a great analogy. I mean I am no Mary Shelley, but I will take it! But yeah, I think basically what I was trying to do with Nemesis is that there is sort of two voices to Nemesis in the album so there’s his internal voice which is Kyle who does the much cleaner voice and then there is the voice for the Virus that created Nemesis which is Jay from OVERTHROW who just has a super dark guttural voice.
So firstly, I wanted to get across that duality of well at some point Nemesis was a human being and then gets turned into this hideous beast of a man so it would have been more fun to actually rather than just have a entire album where every Nemesis contribution is him grunting the word STARS it would be more fun to delve into what that inner monologue would be where you are coming to terms with the fact that you were once human, you are no longer human but you are still driven by a weird purpose that you can’t really control. Sure, a purpose might be chasing down and killing Jill Valentine but it’s all you’ve got when you are a 7-foot-tall zombie thing. I thought it would be a more interesting angle to make Nemesis, I wouldn’t say I made him deep as that would probably be taking it too far but to give him a little bit of depth and emotion.
Some level of humanity left.
Exactly, so there is just a little thread of the past person he once was hanging on inside of that big gross 7-foot tank.
That is a good bit of insight I am going to have to ask this. Was the title of the track Reach for the S.T.A.R.S. a bit tongue in cheek? Or did you think, everyone loves a cover and surely S Club 7 are due the rock/metal treatment?
(Laughs) So you are not the first person to ask about that. I don’t think S Club 7 own the phrase “Reach for the Stars,” that existed before S Club came along but yeah, I always thought it was a funny title and yeah Stars and S.T.A.R.S. in the game it was just an obvious pun for making an over-the-top power ballad.
I did think it was probably just a bit tongue in cheek, it is one of those things that made me chuckle when I saw the title anyway and if that was the intention then it works. Any plans to play the material live in the future?
Not at the moment, as I have said before because it has been a bit of a solo project where I have got guests in from across the UK and abroad it would be quite hard to get all of those people together so I would love to play some of it live but I think its not on the cards at the moment but maybe one day. In my head when I hear the songs, I can imagine choreographed dancing zombies which would be the ultimate way to do it and I feel like no one is going to invest money in that, I don’t think it would be very lucrative (laughs). So, we’ll see.
We at ROSO whilst promoting the latest in rock and metal also help promote mental health awareness. What does mental health mean to you?
Wow, big question. So, I think for me mental health is about, well I haven’t got anything profound but for me its about looking after yourself more than anything right? Like especially in the last year and a half to two years. It has been such a weird, unprecedented environment that everyone is going through stuff you wouldn’t necessarily know or expect yourself to go through and it’s been a difficult time for everyone, and some people of course have it harder and some don’t. I think mental health is about just checking in on yourself as much as possible and being willing to talk about it. I think especially and not to over-generalise with men and slightly older men it is harder to be emotionally open and it’s for me I have always found a huge benefit in expressing how I am feeling, and we are not taught to do that very well.
It’s the classic taboo of toxic masculinity.
Exactly that. So, I think mental health is about trying to thwart that as much as possible and just try as you yourself know it’s okay to feel stuff as you are only human.
I am sorry for rambling.
Not at all, it was a big question and if you were not expecting anything like that it can throw you. It’s one of those as society starts to break these walls down, hopefully the next generation of blokes don’t have this mentality that I need to suck it all in and bottle it up.
Yeah, exactly, and that is not something that is just exclusive to guys, it affects everyone. That sort of pushing things down and bottling it up is a little bit of a male trait but everyone can do it and its better for everyone to be more open but it’s very easy for me to say that but it’s much harder to do right? It’s always a challenge.
I agree, I have been guilty of it myself in the past and it is only over time I have stopped holding it in and started opening up and I feel better for it rather than carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. Is there anything you can suggest that works for you, granted it will not always work for other people that may be of benefit to others?
I think kind of building on what I was just saying, the biggest challenge has been willing to admit when I am at a low point. Its quite hard to say to yourself I am not feeling great, or I am feeling pretty anxious, or I am reaching a burn out point. A lot of those feelings come with an association of guilt, shame, or failure and that will often stop you admitting it to other people but also yourself because of feeling like a failure and need to take time out of work because you are burnt out or to avoid a social engagement because you are a bit too anxious that day. None of it is a failure, this is something I am still learning myself, but I guess the best sort of advice I can offer is just be easy on yourself, don’t beat yourself up when you already feel bad.
Thanks for sharing that with us Sam, it is hard to talk about especially when thrown at you directly so thank you for that. Have you anything you would like to say to your fanbase that has built up recently and to our readers?
Well, fanbase is a very generous term for friends and family so far. Hopefully that will continue growing and so if you are enjoying the album do let us know, we are on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and we would love to hear from anyone who has got a giggle out of it or enjoyed the riffs as it has been a real labour of love to me especially. So definitely let us know, feed my burgeoning ego that would be great! And to your audience in general, I think one of the reasons I got in touch with you folks about this album is that I really admire your stance on mental health and that you’re quite open in addressing that and I think that’s the way we need to be right. So, thank you so much for having me on this interview.
It has been an absolute pleasure Sam, so thanks for your time, talking about the new album, TOOTHDRINKER in general, Resident Evil and thanks for sharing and opening up with us too.