INTERVIEW: DENIS GULBEY (SENTINEL STEEL)
The following is an interview I conducted during August of 2006 with Denis Gulbey, founder/owner of the great Sentinel Steel and long-time metal friend.
My goal with this interview was not only to give you (readers) a glimpse of Sentinel Steel the record label and online-order shop, but also an in-depth look at the man behind it all. Though I already knew what some of his answers would be going into this, I still wanted to make sure and ask them all so those who are unfamiliar with Denis and Sentinel Steel would get the full scoop.
Thanks for your interest!
First off, I know you currently live (and Sentinel Steel is established) in New Jersey, but where did you grow up?
I call Massachusetts my true "home" but I lived all over the place because of my Dad's job. Places like California, Florida, Egypt (Alexandria and Cairo), Turkey, and The Philippines. I came to New Jersey for art school in 1991 and have been here ever since. I guess I got tired of moving when I was a kid. :)
What were some of your first experiences with metal?
In 2nd grade, for show-n-tell, a kid named Greg brought in a copy of an AC/DC LP with cannons on the cover. The teacher played it for 30 seconds before turning it off and moving on to the next item. AC/DC sounded like noise to all the kids, including me. :)
What were some of your favorite bands during these early metal years?
DEF LEPPARD's Pyromania was the gateway CD for me... things snowballed from there, i.e. MOTLEY CRUE's Shout At the Devil, VAN HALEN's 1984, DEF LEPPARD's High N Dry and On Through the Night, DEEP PURPLE's Perfect Strangers, RATT's Out of the Cellar, DIO's Last In Line, SCORPIONS, and so on. I also picked up IRON MAIDEN releases like Powerslave, Killers, Number of the Beast, etc., but my ears were too green in 1983 and 1984 for that style. I was 10 years old at the time and still listening to other forms of music, like pop, rock, new wave, etc. But it was clearly becoming apparent that bands like DIO, IRON MAIDEN, ACCEPT, etc., had a special appeal to me. An interesting tidbit: I didn't get into metal in the U.S., but in Egypt, while attending an international school in Cairo. Heavy metal was widely available in Egyptian music stores, and all tapes were a flat (when converted) $3.00 each. Few people know today that the Middle East has many heavy metal fans.
Why did you start the Sentinel Steel fanzine, which ended up having 3 issues?
When I did Sentinel Steel #1, in 1993, our kind of power metal, true metal, etc., was considered a "dated" form of heavy music and all the trendy people latched on to grunge or industrial music. I knew there were "real" metal fans out there, and creating Sentinel Steel was my way of reaching out to my fellow true metal fans and keeping the flame of heavy metal alive (in my small way).
Did selling CDs (your mail-order) begin with the 3 fanzineís?
It started in my first issue, when I created a classified advertisement selling a part of my collection (to pay off the printing costs, haha). The list had dozens of CDs and LPs that I wasn't listening to. As soon as the zine hit the streets, I received what felt like a ton of inquiries and quickly sold out of everything, which was amazing. Marco Barbieri, now head of Century Media's U.S. office, was one of my very first customers. Knowing there was such a demand, I immediately sought out more product, buying up store stock, seeking out distributors. And it grew from there, first as a one page list, then a paper catalog with pictures, before being a website.
Why did you decide to convert Sentinel Steel to an online website?
Printing and mailing the catalogs was a burden, and my inventory had grown too massive. I also knew that an online site would reach many more people and allow me to grow without stress. So many of my customers were demanding online service so it had to be done....
Was it after Sentinel Steel was online that you added the record label aspect and began acquiring bands?
No, the label started in 1995 I think, and coincided with the 2nd issue (if I recall) of the Sentinel Steel zine. My first release, the self-titled GOTHIC KNIGHTS debut, was in 1996, which was around the time the 3rd issue came out. My 2nd CD release, NEW EDEN's Through the Make Believe, was ready to come out shortly thereafter, in 1997.
What were some of your first experiences with Sentinel Steel as the record label?
I sort of backed into the record label business. I had no intention of being a label, but I did it for the same reason I did the zine: because no one else would stand up and support these amazing true metal, power metal bands. GOTHIC KNIGHTS was a band I supported because their demo was classic U.S. metal at its best; when a proper label deal didn't materialize (not to mention the recording troubles they had, long story), I stepped in and used all of my savings from my young mail order operation and put it into re-recording the GOTHIC KNIGHTS debut. It was a wonderful experience and I was hooked. And the band was great to work with, for which I was lucky. It was like working with a bunch of friends.
Why did you decide to re-release some of the true/traditional metal classics?
Because I loved these particular albums and wasn't going to wait around for them to get released (if they ever did get released). It the mid-90s it was doubtful anyone would respect these CDs enough to reissue them. My first reissue was my 3rd release overall, BURNING STARR's No Turning Back CD. I somehow got in touch with Jack Starr and journeyed way out to the Hamptons in Long Island to meet with him. Another good experience and great things resulted from it.
Why did you start focusing on selling power metal CDs?
Because it's the genre of metal that I know and love. My customers know that when they ask me a question about a release, or when they read my site's descriptions, they'll have confidence in my descriptions.
When youíre not dealing with Sentinel Steel, what are some of your hobbies?
Because we moved around a lot (an average of every 16 months) when I was growing up, I never got to watch as many movies as I would have liked, and we didnĻt have a VCR until I was finishing high school. Cable TV was rare as well. So I've been making up for those lost years and buying/viewing DVDs on a regular basis. Between you and me, I started dealing (selling and accepting trade-ins) in DVDs on my site just to feed my DVD habit. :) I'm also a heavy reader (mainly non-fiction), an NHL fan (especially with the new rules in place), I like to travel (as long as no moving is involved), enjoy cooking, walking, and other boring things. :)
What are some of your favorite books?
When I was a kid, I'd read tons of fantasy (Terry Brooks, etc.), science fiction (Asimov), horror (King), adventure, and so on. But as I got older, I preferred non-fiction, like biographies, history books, art books, etc.
What are some of your favorite movies?
Here's a few just to give a general idea of what I've enjoyed:
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Ginger and Cinnamon
Last of the Mohicans
Shakespeare in Love
Tomorrow Never Dies
Keep in mind that I have hundreds of movies still to watch....
Do you have any instrumental talents and/or band experience, or are you just a major listener like myself?
A major listener....but I did take guitar lessons back in the 8th grade, wrote "songs" (cough) and actually produced some homemade demos. For fun I transferred the tapes to CDR and made a cover; I made three copies for my family. Hopefully the recordings won't leak onto the internet. Watch out world! :)
Where is your favorite place to listen to music?
Originally it was my walkman, because we traveled a lot. My home/office system delivers the best sound when I need it. But there's nothing like listening to metal in my car, cruising along, be it in local streets or highways.
What are your thoughts on the main metal genres?
Not a fan of modern (90s to today) bands, but some of these groups can be very melodic so I can get into the music but not the vocals.
Again, the melodic variety is fine, as is death metal that borders on thrash metal. Some of my favorite death metal CDs include NOCTURNUS' The Key and CANCER's Sins of Mankind.
Not something I listen to all the time, but melodic doom or uptempo epic doom metal are very good to my ears. Some favorites include CANDLEMASS, early SOLITUDE AETURNUS, and DOOMSWORD.
A fine genre of metal, as long as it's more "metal" than folk. One of the bands I like is SKYCLAD (first two CDs mainly).
Hit or miss with me... works better with female vocals and uptempo songs with cool melodies.
I like some CDs while others may be too soft, too bluesy, and so on. Very selective. Prefer the early 80s bands for this style.
My favorite style, incorporating great melodies, some speed and power.
Not a huge fan, unless the band writes catchy songs. I have no tolerance for music with a ton of time changes, odd structures, etc. One of my favorite prog metal CDs is DREAM THEATER's When Dream and Day Unite.
A metal style I love but strong songs are a must. RHAPSODY paved the way with their first two CDs but recycled ideas with the rest of their output. Not much in the way of competition for them at the moment.
This was a very important genre for me in the 80s. Songs like ACCEPT's Fast as a Shark made me desire something faster and heavier, and METALLICA soon entered the picture. This led me to bands like EXODUS, METAL CHURCH, MEGADETH and many others, including the entire underground metal scene. These days I don't listen to much thrash, but some favorite CDs include HEATHEN's Breaking the Silence, METALLICA's Ride the Lightning, WHIPLASH Insult to Injury, and others.
I know you and I share a taste for female fronted bands. What bands got you into female vocals?
Been listening to female fronted metal bands since the 80s... I had records by DETENTE, BITCH, SENTINEL BEAST, MEANSTREAK, ZED YAGO, WARLOCK, etc., on regular rotation. So it was no problem to shift into classier fare like NIGHTWISH, WITHIN TEMPTATION, etc. I never differentiated between male and female lead singers. It was all good.
What are some of your favorite female fronted bands now?
From active bands:
DREAMQUEST Lost Horizons
EPICA Consign to Oblivion
LEAVES EYES Lovelorn and Vinland Saga
NIGHTWISH: Oceanborn, Wishmaster and From Wishes to Eternity DVD
OPERATIKA Dreamworld EP
WITHIN TEMPTATION Mother Earth and Silent Force
XANDRIA Kill the Sun
What are some of your all-time favorite bands/CDs?
AGENT STEEL Unstoppable Force
ATTACKER Second Coming
CRIMSON GLORY Transcendence
DIO Last In Line
HELLOWEEN Keeper of the Seven Keys Part l
ICED EARTH Night of the Stormrider
IRON MAIDEN Powerslave
JUDAS PRIEST Painkiller
LOST HORIZON Awakening the World
MANILLA ROAD Out of the Abyss
METALLICA Ride the Lightning
RHAPSODY Symphony of Enchanted Lands
VIRGIN STEELE Invictus
WILD DOGS Reign of Terror
Plus the female fronted CDs mentioned in the previous question....
Who are some of your favorite musicians?
I'm not a musician oriented guy; I listen for the enjoyment of the songs.
Who are some of your favorite vocalists?
Ronnie James Dio in his prime (mid-70s to mid-80s) is probably my favorite overall. I also like Rob Halford, Eric Adams, Bill Ramp, Bruce Dickinson... see my favorite bands/albums list.
Many donít know that you are an artist. Do you have any professional art experience?
Yes, I worked at/for DC Comics for a couple of years. I also did minor work for Marvel Comics, Valiant Comics, bands (The Misfits) and other odds and ends.
What type of art do you specialize in and what do you like to draw?
My specialty was comic books but I also like doing album covers, book covers, movie posters, and general illustration work.
Are you still able to find time for your artistic skills?
My art skills are currently limited to my work in Sentinel Steel, i.e. CD graphics, website stuff, etc.
What are some of your favorite CD covers?
The IRON MAIDEN covers come immediately to mind.... Michael Whelan's CIRITH UNGOL and SACRED RITE covers were brilliant. I've always preferred fully painted covers (not airbrushed or computer generated) but many times the painters were not professional and the results were less than great. This was a big problem in the 80s. :)
What is your most prized metal possession?
I'm not a collector, so I rarely think about having anything unique or valuable. I guess some of the demo tapes I have, like ICED EARTH's Enter the Realm, or the METAL MERCENARIES compilation tape (first ICED EARTH, first KAMELOT, etc.).
What was your favorite concert?
My favorite was my first, because it was a big experience all around. It was the CELTIC FROST - EXODUS - ANTHRAX show at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, MA, in December of 1987. I was 14 and a high school freshman. We had just moved back to MA so I had no ready-made metal friends. It was inside the week, a school night. We lived out in the suburbs and the concert was in the city. I don't know how I convinced my parents, but they let me go (I guess my Dad figured it would be a good "trial by fire" for his boy), so I took the bus into the city and tried not to make eye contact with the crazy looking thrashers, haha. But I got to my seat and had an amazing time and was never bothered. In fact everyone was very cool and the bands were amazing. I got back at around 2:00 AM, said hello to my Mom (for some reason she was still up) and caught a few hours of sleep before heading to school. :) A few months later I went with some friends to see SANCTUARY, WARLOCK and MEGADETH at the same concert theater and that was great as well. Soon after we moved down to Florida and I caught a lot of bands, like METAL CHURCH, OVERKILL, CORONER, JUDAS PRIEST, and so on. From recent shows, my favorite would be the first NIGHTWISH show in the U.S., at L'amours in Brooklyn, New York. The new no smoking law was into effect, OPERATIKA opened, and NIGHTWISH was stunning. A perfect show.
Are there any bands you havenít seen in concert and would very much like to?
Don't get me started! :) A dream came true when I attended the Keep It True Festival in April 2006 and finally saw AXEHAMMER live. Never thought that would happen. There are so many other bands....
Are there people in the metal world you would like to meet?
I'd like to meet up with guys like Steve Harris and Ronnie James Dio and tell them what I'd like to hear on their next record! Some of these bands lose their focus or become insecure with their songwriting.
What are some of your favorite power metal CDs of the last few years?
BURNING POINT Feeding the Flames
LOST HORIZON Awakening the World
SPACE ODYSSEY Embrace the Galaxy
STEEL ATTACK Enslaved
... and many others....
What power metal bands have disappointed you the last few years?
Let me say that bands, as artists, are free to do as they choose; they should, or else they will get bored. Having said that, bands who change their musical direction, or simplify their music, etc., disappoint me. But it's no problem, I enjoy their earlier works and move on to other bands.
Some metal fans feel the power metal genre is watered down (or ďover-saturatedĒ). Personally, while I feel there are a lot of bands, it seems like many existing bands are finding ways to get better and new bands have what it takes right from the start. What is your feeling about the genre possibly being ďover-saturatedĒ?
I agree it is over-saturated, but I'd rather have it this way; the early 90s were a wasteland with virtually no good new releases. At least we now have a buffet to pick and choose. Many bands release new material too early, before they've fully developed an identity or skills, which can create problems for future releases. Fans should keep an open mind because bands will always evolve. At the moment we are seeing labels downsize and less bands getting signed. The next year or two will prove interesting.
What do you think the power metal genre will be like in 10 years?
It will exist. Will it get bigger? Could a band like DRAGONFORCE, very popular now, open the floodgates for major labels to start signing our kind of music? It's possible. At the very least the internet has created a level playing field, so power metal (and all its forms) will exist as long as there are musicians who wish to play it.
Iím confident in knowing that one of the things thatís made Sentinel Steel so successful is your professional and friendly attitude/service. Do you receive the same from bands, record labels, customers, etc. or are there times when communications and situations can be unpleasant?
95% of the time everything is great. I'm very fortunate to work in a job where most of the people -- from customers to the bands to the labels -- are a joy to work with.
Did you know that in all the years Iíve been ordering CDs from you there has never been a mistake? Not a CD missing from a package, a wrong CD sent, nothing! Quite remarkable.
Thanks! For the record, there have been a couple of hiccups in the thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of parcels that have been mailed out over the years, but that's a rare occurrence. I have a habit of double and triple checking everything just to make sure it's right. :)
Many other online-order shops now a have a shopping cart system. Although I could see it complicating things because of your Used and Clearance section, do you see Sentinel Steel ever going in this direction?
Yes, absolutely, though the Used and Clearance sections (and other similar pages with 1 or 2 units of an item in stock) would probably remain the same. But the New Arrivals and Main CD pages (stuff that is stocked in quantity) will have a shopping cart system in the near future.
Is there anything about the future of Sentinel Steel you could reveal?
Sentinel Steel is something that will continue to grow, continue to improve; my goal is to move into a bigger office/warehouse, hire more staff, release more CDs through the label, just keep moving forward.
Some say itís impossible to get payed for what you love to do (have the perfect job). Have you proved these people wrong?
I'm very happy with where I'm at; the "perfect" job is one that challenges you and forces you to progress.
Obviously, the internet has been the main key to worldwide power metal popularity/distribution, but do you think easily accessible downloading has hurt or helped bands, record labels and online-order shops like Sentinel Steel?
It helps tremendously in spreading the music of bands, but hurts when it comes to downloaders being content with sub-par mp3 files and not buying the actual product. In the 80s a metal fan would buy a record based on the cover art or the record label name; many sales were accidental and that's how the labels made their profits. Nowadays it's very easy to find out what a band sounds like before buying a CD so spur of the moment purchases are rare. I love the idea of owning something concrete and being able to play it anywhere I like, reading the lyrics, sharing it with others with ease. But the world is changing and these feelings are not shared by our younger generation. Instead people enjoy doing all these things online, in front of their computer.
What can we as metal fans do to help preserve the metal scene and what would you like to see for the future of metal?
Get out and go to more shows. Fans are not doing this anymore.
Many donít know that you had a large part in ideas/establishment of Metal CD Ratings and are a regular visitor. What are some of the things you like most about Metal CD Ratings?
The writing is great, the pages load fast, and it features my favorite kind of music! A lot of times your site gets stuff before I do, so I use it to judge whether I should bring certain releases to stock. I don't want fancy graphics, annoying pop-up adverts, and all that. I want a site of reviews that can be quickly and effectively useful to me.
Finally, thank you for the opportunity to conduct this (lengthy... hehehe) interview. I would not be the same person I am today and the Metal CD Ratings site would not be where it is if it wasnít for you and Sentinel Steel. I look forward to an exciting power metal-filled future!
Likewise, many thanks for the opportunity Clint.
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