Keegan Donovan from Heavy Metal Ninjas
It’s not often that you can confidently say a band upholds the standards of the scene it belongs to. It’s even less often that you get to meet a member of one of those bands, and talk to them about their life both inside and outside music. It’s easy to get jaded about success and skill in the internet age, now that we can find a video of an incredible musical performance faster than we can boil a kettle, but seeing such a performance in the flesh is a magic no computer can recreate. I witnessed such a performance from Heavy Metal Ninjas earlier this year, when they opened for Animals As Leaders and Periphery at the Kings Arms.
Keegan Donovan is currently the bass player for Heavy Metal Ninjas, though he was playing ‘stunt guitar’ when I saw them perform earlier in the year. He’d known Richie Allan (HMN composer/guitarist) long before joining the band, and used to learn HMN material ‘for fun’. He’s also had a life outside of New Zealand; he lived in Japan for awhile, teaching English and remaining involved with music in a number of ways (including guitar clinics). When asked about the prospect of it, he seemed keen to spend more time overseas... so hopefully HMN’s European tour with Euroblast won’t be their last.
Keegan was gracious enough to let me sit down with him and discuss his recent life with Heavy Metal Ninjas, music trends, and his personal interests, amongst other things. Without a doubt, it was one of the most interesting discussions I've had with any musician for a long time. I had much respect for his musical talents already, but after our discussion I’d developed a deep respect for him as a human being. We talked about far too many things to include in one article, but here’s how some of the conversation went…
A: Who or what inspired you to pick up the guitar and become a musician?
K: Well, my dad’s a guitarist as well, and when I was young [my parents] always wanted me to get into it. I think I was about 4 years old when I got my first guitar… this Samick thing. I didn't know what I was doing with it, I’d just hit it and stuff, haha. My mum and dad actually used to be in a band, and they’d use me as a stage gimmick. My brother also took up guitar and… I always thought he was cool, haha. I’d kinda always wanted to do it, and I dabbled when I was about 10…
A: So it was pretty earlier that you were starting to get into it?
K: Yea. Then what made me actually take it seriously was in high school, when I started [at Auckland Grammar], there was one kid who was like, “Man, it’d be so awesome if you could play guitar in my band!”, and I couldn't play guitar, but I just said “I can play guitar!”
A: So you wanted to get ‘in’, sort of thing?
K: Yea, and I just wanted to do it, and within a year I was showing him how to do things.
A: So you picked it up that quickly then?
K: Yea, I quickly learned what I liked about it and what I wanted to get out of it.
A: So regarding styles, was heavy metal always your calling, or you did you get into other styles at the start and veer off into other things later?
K: I’ve always been kind of eclectic with my music tastes I guess. I used to listen to heaps of rap…. like, while I was learning guitar, I’d be right into Wu Tang, that kind of thing. So it’s always been pretty broad, but when it came to guitar, I like the strong approach of metal, and the confidence and control that lots of those guitar players had. I didn't know I was trying to imitate that back then, I wasn't able to analyse that because I didn't know what I didn't know, but looking back on it, [lots of] things came from all the metal guys I listened to, and then the guitar guys, Steve Vai, Jason Becker… Marty Friedman was a huge one….
A: Were you getting into those virtuosos pretty early on?
K: Yea, again, my older brother loved to show me music that he was into, and even before that I used to go into his room, when we lived together, and pinch his CDs and listen to them to see what he was up to. I remember taking some Metallica CDs and being like, “What is this?! This shit is so heavy!”, and from there progressing to Megadeth, then Pantera… so my tastes just got heavier and heavier as far as that stuff goes.
A: Everyone gets into Metallica at some point, don’t they?
K: Not everyone, but lots of people, especially in New Zealand I think, maybe more than lots of other places. But yea, they’re a kind of a gateway band because of all the catchy riffs, and they’re heavy enough to have an impact.
A: Now they’re quite popular as well… they sell out stadiums all around the world. I think it’s quite different being a Metallica fan if you’re getting into it now than it would've been 10 or 15 years ago because it’s almost ‘cool’.
K: But they’re not as hard as metal cats now. In their day they were the shit, but there’s lots of super heavy bands out now that are way less digestible than Metallica.
A: I remember reading somewhere that you taught yourself to speak Japanese out of personal interest. Between that, and your impressive chops on both the guitar and bass, you seem like a guy who really enjoys learning new skills.
K: I do, yea.
A: Can you see yourself ever venturing into other areas of the music world, like record production, sound engineering…?
K: Yea, well, I already do that for myself, and I've had an interest in that for a long time. It’s definitely an interest of mine, but I feel like I've got a lot to learn at the moment so I'm happier doing it for myself than for any sort of ‘business’ thing.
A: Say you had a mate who ran a studio; would you ever do production for other bands or anything like that?
K: Sure, yea. I mean, if it was my input that they wanted or if I felt like they could really do with a helping hand then yea, of course. But at this point anyway, I'm more interested in just doing it for myself. Like you were saying, with the self-learning thing, I love that shit, I do live for it. I didn't really do that well… well, I didn't do badly at school because I was sort of ‘middle of the road’… but I hated being at school, I hated someone trying to school me, I found that I learned way quicker once that I knew what I wanted, and went after it, and I think music production is one of those things.
A: It does seem to happen to a lot of people that, it’s not that they’re stupid or can’t learn or anything, it’s just that they don’t get on so well with school, and they get written off by the education system. I think it’s quite shit because you get all these people, like you and the guys in HMN, who are so great at what they do, and yet only a really narrow range of those sorts of people get recognised by universities.
K: Yea. I don’t disagree with the idea of university for a lot of people, because for a lot of people that’s how they best learn, but I believe the notion that you can’t be anything without it, without any formal education, that’s bullshit to me, because the knowledge is everywhere, especially with the internet now. The knowledge is fuckin’ everywhere, if you wanna learn something, all you have to invest is time. Anything you wanna learn man, you do not need to go to university for it… you do that if you want the piece of paper at the end that says you can do ‘this’. If the piece of paper doesn't mean shit, you don’t need university.
A: When I saw HMN support Animals As Leaders/Periphery earlier in the year, you guys performed with 4 guitarists. For a while afterwards you seemed to have 3, now it’s down to 2. But you also played guitar before you got into bass, so out of all the guitarists in the band, why was it YOU who switched to bass?
K: Because I opted to do it. Actually, that’s kind of a common question now, but yea, I wanted to do it. There came a point where we were like, “Fuck, what do we do”, because there’s not that many good bass players that would actually fit with us as a group, because we've all got very strong personalities, and that means that in a band situation, when it comes to being businessmen as well as musicians, and hanging out, there’s not that many people that we all love hanging out with, so I think as a group of people we’re pretty lucky to have that. So when we were like, “Man, we need a new bass player”, I just said “I’ll do it”, and that’s how it happened. Keep it in the family.
A: That’s a good way of putting it.
K: I've learned so much man, taking up bass. It’s like it broadened my perspective massively. It helped a lot in other areas or production and stuff, learning how to mix bass.
A: It’s quite hard to mix, isn't it? It can be quite hard to deal with from a production point of view.
K: It can be if you don’t have one of these! [points to Axe FX unit].
A: But not all of us do, haha.
K: That’s one magical thing about Axe FX I think, for recordings… the tones automatically sit pretty well.
A: Do you reckon playing bass in HMN has made your guitar playing better?
K: Not my guitar playing, no. My feel for how music works, I think, has grown, and definitely my knowledge for how it all works together has improved vastly.
A: Can you see yourself playing bass in any other bands in the future?
K: I mean, if the opportunity arises, and it doesn't conflict with what I'm doing at the moment, yea, I don’t know why not. Actually, I always kinda wanted to do, or just be part of, a funk band or a disco band, because those bass lines are the most gangsta.
A: They’re fun, right?
K: They’re fuckin’ fun bro, and I just love to jam that stuff, so yea. It’s like a fantasy though…
A: Do you reckon you could do it?
K: Yea, I mean, it’s another stage of learning, but that’s also appealing, so yea man.
A: Maybe like a funk side-project with Brandon or something…
K: Hahahaha... yea, I mean, it could happen, it could happen…
A: The current trend in metal seems to be the use of 8-string guitars, Axe-FX units, and lots of layering and backing tracks, courtesy DAWs. If you had to guess, what would you say lies just around the corner for metal in terms of production values, composition, and style?
K: Well, the 9-string just came out, hahaha, so I dunno man, I think at the moment, there’s lots of people still… when they see an 8-string, it looks confusing to them. Lots of people are still trying to rep the old-school, 6-string guitars, 4-string basses… but it’s a hard one to predict… I feel like probably at some point it is just going to go backwards. There already kind of a movement this way; everyone’s like, “Ahhh, that new stuff is all djent!”, and they write it off if you have an 8-string. It’s happened to us; people have been like, “Ahh, you’re just an Animals As Leaders clone”. If they hear the music man… all you've gotta do is listen to the first track on the album and you know we’re not Animals As Leaders, hahaha. But it’s because like, 8-strings, you know… it’s ‘djent’. Automatically to them, it’s djent. I think yea, at some point it’s probably just going to go backwards, people are going to go, “Oh, that new, long-scale guitar shit is so gay.”
A: Well, that’s the thing I found with… like, it’s not even 8-strings, it’s THAT 8-string [points to Ibanez RG 8-string], it’s THAT headstock shape, THAT one.
K: Because they’re the innovators bro. They’re the dudes who did it first, they’ve got the best rep for it. There are other companies though man…
A: Well, there’s Schecter who make 9’s now as well…
K: Yea, there’s those. In all honesty, I pay more attention to the boutique companies, like Ran, Skervesen, BlacKat… like, all those boutique guys who are making custom instruments. That stuff’s the next step beyond the generic… I wouldn't look at any other super-commercial brand for an 8-string. This is the best stock model one that I've ever played [pointing to Ibanez Prestige RG2228BK].
A: I've gotta be honest though, I played one once, and I found the same thing with 6-string basses… a 5-string bass is just an extension of the standard, so you don’t have to change anything really, and the same with the 7-string guitar versus the 6. Whereas most… well, I've played one 8-string, and it was one of the really cheap ones so it wasn't that good… and I found that most 8-string guitars and most 6-string basses… unless they do something special with the design to cater for the fact that it’s not a ‘normal’ guitar or bass, it doesn't work. It’s at that point that it starts to become a different instrument. Have you tried many 8’s?
A: Have you found that with any of them? That it doesn't work because it feels like someone’s just tried to take a 7 and stretch it?
K: Yep, all the time. As I say, this one is the best stock model that I think there is, except maybe for the Tosin Abasi one… that one’s made so he can walk in and pick it up off the shelf, in any country, and play it. So yea, I think these guys definitely do it best. Not only does it feel just like a natural progression, but these guys do construction better… better neck shapes… it just feels like an RG on steroids.
A: So like, they've ‘converted’ it to an 8, rather than just ‘stretching’ it to an 8?
K: Yea. They thought about “How will this work if we add this extra string”. There’s still a couple of things I might change with a custom model though, small things.
A: I've found that with some basses as well, like, with an incredible number of 5 and 6-string basses, any holes that are in the bridge aren't big enough for the thicker string, and it’s just… like, you kinda wonder how people make a mistake like that, because you’re thinking, “How did you make 10,000 of these…”
K: …and not think of that.
A: As a musician, there’s a certain respect one gets merely for playing a guitar or bass with extra strings. I'm sure you've encountered this, and I know did back in the days when I played a 6-string bass. Do you think this kind of ‘blind respect’ causes people to overlook more important aspects of music, and unwittingly be part of a ‘trend’?
K: Phew… loaded question…
A: Especially considering who I'm asking it to…
K: Yea, haha. I definitely think that, just by having one of these [points to 8-string guitar], just as there are people who are like, “Na, that’s so whack”, there are also people who are like, “Oh my god!”, and can’t fathom… “How do you use it?!”… because they don’t know how 1 string works. So I think there’s a lot of prejudgement that comes with playing extra strings, and as far as ‘trend’ stuff…
A: Would you call it a trend, the 8-string thing, at the moment?
K: Um… yep. Not to cut it down at all though. I mean, it is a trend, but there are lots of things that are trends that have been great for the music scene. I think the whole idea or notion of the genre that it’s associated with is a trend as well, so…
A: ‘Cause there are a lot of bands out there who just… like I was saying before, they've got an Axe FX, and they've got 8-strings, and there’s that sound they get with production where they've got all the triggers on the drums and everything, and everything is… like it sounds the same. You know what I mean? And you guys don’t do that, which I think is really cool. You guys are actually… like, the gear is almost irrelevant, because you just shred the shit out of it, haha. That’s one of the things I think’s cool about your band, is that it IS musicianship first… it seems to be anyway. Would I be right in saying that?
K: Yea definitely man. I think that’s what we all cared about before we cared about being in the public eye. Like, before I thought about ever playing in front of a bunch of people, it was like, “I just wanna nail this… I wanna be better than the dude on the radio”… by myself! And Richie, I know he was the same… it took awhile for him to want to put himself in the public eye.
A: Obviously instrumental metal isn't a new style, but it’s come in lots of different forms over the years. Guys like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani have been doing it for ages, but bands like Animals As Leaders have taken things in a whole different direction. Where would you say HMN sits on this ‘spectrum’? Closer to Animals As Leaders, or more in line with the old-school guitar virtuosos?
K: Probably more on the side of the old-school. That’s probably where it all comes from because that’s what we all grew up on. I mean, Richie writes all the music, and that’s definitely his thing… that’s where his mind is.
A: So there’s no conscious effort to be part of the new thing at all?
K: Na… well, personally no. I think we love to be thought of as being in the same league as the new people, but it would be BETTER if we were thought of as being the same league as the old-school, because I know that’s where it comes from.
A: You do get the impression that it’s ‘better’ to be like Vai than like Tosin…
K: Yea. Like, a lot of the music you hear on the albums, Richie had written in, like, 2001. So he was doing it before this new shit existed. He was doing it when people were first hearing about Meshuggah and stuff like that… he was already on that buzz. It was 6-strings at the time, but he was already there man. So to be like, “Ah, these guys, they’re that new breed”, it’s like, “Well, only ‘cause you’re hearing it now”, but if you’d have put it out when he did it, like, 10-15 years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to say that. You’d have nothing to compare it to except Steve Vai, and even then it would still have been alien.
A: HMN’s line-up has obviously changed a fair bit over the years, including some changes this year. Are you guys looking to add any more members to the line-up, or will you stick with 2 guitarists for awhile?
K: Na, because we’re kind of a family, and like I said, finding someone extra to add to that… because we don’t already know someone, we’d have to start from scratch, and none of us is willing to compromise the product for that. So na… hahaha… is the short answer.
A: So unless the situation changed and one of the other guys came back… they’re the only guy you’d take back?
K: Possibly, and even then, it depends if it benefitted the product. That’s it… it’s ONLY about the music.
A: Do you think the band would ever consider adding a vocalist?
K: No. No… for us, instrumental guitar is all our roots. All of us, except… well Joe’s a little bit different, he grew up listening to bands with vocalists…
A: He likes Mudvayne doesn’t he?
K: He’s a big Mudvayne fan, yea. But for the other three of us, the guitar-heads, instrumental’s where it’s at man. Like I said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I can imagine some of us, all of us maybe, individually being part of groups that did have singers… like in the past, I’ve been in ‘bands’, you know… for fucking years and years! But not for the Ninjas, no.
A: Do you think instrumental bands have a harder time appealing to the masses, and if so, why?
K: It’s the difference between reading a book and watching a movie; which is more popular?
A: Well, movie.
K: Exactly. You have someone narrating it to you, it appeals to the lazy person… lots of people think music only exists to complement vocals. I would rather not hear someone singing something that means absolutely nothing, and just listen to the composition. That’s more enjoyable for me. It sets a mood more for me most of the time. So definitely I think taking the voice out of it means you have to listen to the music, and people aren't brought up doing that. Anything they are shown, like, popular music-wise, since the 1940's is mainly vocals... it’s vocal-driven, and everything else is some kind of weird art form…
A: …that you have to make more of an effort to get into, yea. I remember reading about jazz ages ago, people saying that the beauty about jazz that has no vocals is that you can interpret it a huge number of ways…
A: …so it can mean lots of different things to different people. ‘Cause when it’s got vocals it narrows it down a lot, and you’re told how to interpret it almost…
K: …exactly the same as reading a book or watching a movie. Reading a book, you create your own scenery… it can be described to you, but the way your mind constructs it is something else. It’s unique to you, and I think that’s really important with what we do as well.
A: So most people wanna be told how to interpret? You reckon most people aren’t as…
K: I think most people, yea, if it doesn’t have vocals, the relate-able element is removed… cause when they like, hear a screaming guitar it’s like, “Ahhh, what’s that?!”. But I think people are also very easily converted when they hear songs like Melodyk, and they think, “I didn’t know music by itself could be as beautiful and expressive”. A lot of people have said that to me, in the conversations I’ve had with people, who don’t listen to metal or don’t listen to guitar, they’re like, “Oh, ‘Heavy Metal Ninjas’? Do you have any of that screaming stuff?”, and I’m like, “No no no, listen to this, the name’s deceiving.”, and they listen to Melodyk and they’re like, “…is this metal?”. Well, no! Hahaha.
A: It’s not ‘cause it’s more in that virtuoso… Joe Satriani… he was basically using his guitar like a singer uses their voice.
K: Yea. Well, Vai’s like that, but much more eclectic, more flamboyant, and more adventurous. Satch is just a great song-writer; he knows how to write a hit.
A: What plans does HMN have for future album/EP releases?
K: Richie’s probably the better one to speak to about that. But the aim is to have another album out somewhere in the first half of next year, and follow it with some tours.
A: Do you guys have any upcoming gigs?
K: Uh… no. As far as I’m aware, there’s only one possible gig this year, but I can’t say anything about it at the moment.
A: How’d you find your tour over in Europe? How’d you find you guys were received?
K: We were received really, really well. Everything went better than we expected.
A: The crowd really liked you?
K: The crowd was great. We met a lot of guys after that who were like, “Where the fuck are you guys from?! How did you get here?! Why have I never heard of you before?!”. That kind of thing…
A: …and I guess the answer to a lot of those questions was, “We’re from New Zealand!”
K: Yea. Cause it was a mission getting to Cologne; it was 27 hours of travel to get to Frankfurt, and then from Frankfurt there was, like, a transportation muck-up, so we had to get local trains all the way to Cologne, which took about 5 hours… after 5 hours of waiting around at the airport…
A: You had all your gear with you as well. Like, you just took it in the plane with you… you had your Axe FX in your backpacks or something, didn’t you?
K: Just carried them on like this [holding it with one hand], hahaha.
We talked more about various aspects of the music industry, both here and abroad, and all in all I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. Keegan is far from the stereotype of the heavy metal meat-head… he’s a thoughtful, disciplined man, and is definitely one of the more valuable assets in New Zealand’s music scene. He and the rest of the Ninjas are setting the bar very high for New Zealand metal, and indeed New Zealand music in general. As I told him after the interview, they’re one of the few Kiwi bands that actually make me proud to be a Kiwi musician. If you've never seen them perform live before, do yourself a big favour and make sure you don’t miss their next gig.
Check them out online: