For fans of the classic Texas underground metal scene, Militia really needs no introduction. Displaying great musicianship and an original approach to songwriting, the band burst onto the burgeoning early-Eighties scene and quickly staked its claim atop the metal heap alongside such local heavyweights WatchTower, S.A Slayer, and Wyzard.
The original unit of Militia was formed by bassist Robert Willingham and drummer Phil Achee in 1984 in Austin, Texas. Local drummer Mike Soliz (whose amazing vocal talents were 'discovered' by Jason McMaster at a WatchTower rehearsal) was soon brought on board as the singer, while guitarists Tony Smith and Jesse Villegas completed the lineup. Much to the surprise of the band themselves (who at times were baffled by the overwhelming positive response) their earliest shows were widely attended and a rabid local fan base soon emerged. After the early departure of Villegas, a 3-song demo titled Regiments Of Death in 1985 established a secure toehold in the rapidly blossoming Texas metal scene and preceded the release of the now-legendary vinyl EP by about a year. Of note to collectors, Militia is responsible for producing one of the rarest and most sought after pieces of heavy metal vinyl on the planet. On the infrequent occasion that a copy becomes available, their self-released 1985 EP The Sybling regularly sells for upwards of $1000 on the collector market. The EP has become the holy-grail for heavy metal vinyl aficionados worldwide, due at least partially to an insanely small press run of only 100 copies. A second guitarist-related lineup change came about in 1986 with the departure of Smith and the recruitment of Phillip Patterson from local Austin upstarts Matrix. A slight change in musical direction accompanied the membership shakeup with the band slowing things down a bit on their excellent 1986 demo release No Submission. Unsatisfied with the newer material vocalist Soliz decided to take his leave from the band in 1987. Soliz would resurface later that year in the amazing Assalant and would further go on to front WatchTower after the departure of McMaster for Dangerous Toys.
In September of 2007 TexasMetalUnderground.com had the honor of conducting an interview with Militia founding member Robert Willingham. Robert not only provided us with a great interview, he shared some amazing, never before seen photos from his personal collection. Read below for an in-depth look at the 1980's Texas Metal scene with a man who experienced it from the inside. Willingham fills us in on his time spent in the Texas metal trenches, his personal recollections of the classic Texas scene and the people in it, and his current musical endeavors. Read on...
(click image for an exclusive Militia gallery)
Texas Metal Underground: When did you first pick up an instrument and decide you wanted to play in a band? Do you play any other instruments besides bass guitar?
Thatís a funny question. I decided I wanted to play in a band long
before I ever picked up an instrument! I finally bought a cheap bass around
January of 1984 and tried to teach myself to play. It took everything I had just
to be able to play by the time we started doing shows, so I never really learned
other instruments. I guess I could play rhythm guitar if I had to, but
man, those string are tiny!
What originally drew you to heavy metal?
Were there any bands in particular that you would consider influences?
What originally drew you to heavy metal? Were there any bands in particular that you would consider influences?
Willingham: I really got into the powerful sound of metal. I
was pretty much a geek in school, and I was picked on a lot until I grew out my
hair, then people left me alone. So I guess I carried around a lot of
aggression, and metal had a way of making me feel happy! I was mostly into Iron
Maiden, and Rush, but when I saw the Metallica/Raven show in
1983 (Kill Ďem All For One tour), I felt like Iíd finally found the style of
music Iíd been trying to find for so long. Then I got into bands like Anthrax,
LA Slayer and Exciter. When we started doing shows with WatchTower
and Karian, I found that I was really drawn to the technical stuff,
especially if thereís some good bass playing!
TMU: What was it about the Rickenbacker bass that made it such a staple of the Texas metal scene? It seemed like everyone played one: you, Doug from WatchTower, Julio from Syrus, Mark Zamarron from Wicked Angel, Steve Murphy from Rotting Corpse, etcÖWas it the Lemmy and Geddy influence?
Willingham: I guess there was
lots of Geddy Lee and Lemmy influence. I was totally influenced by Geddy Lee. I
loved the sound of his Rickenbacker. Then when I saw Cliff Burton assaulting his
Rick at that 1983 show, it was a done deal - there was no other bass option for
me. In fact, the Rickenbacker I played belonged Doug from WatchTower, and he sold it to me about 3 months after Militia
started doing shows.
TMU: Were you in any other bands before forming Militia?
Robert Willingham: No, Militia was my first band.
TMU: How did you hook up with drummer Phil Achee? What made you guys want to start a metal band together?
Robert Willingham: I met Phil through his sister, who was in one of my classes in school. I knew he was a drummer in a band, which fascinated me. I bugged his sister, asking all kinds of questions, so she finally introduced us and we talked about music and stuff and found out we were in to a lot of the same style of music. We just connected really well. He was playing with some older guys in a traditional rock band that he really didnít like, but he was playing regularly and making a little money. I remember him saying, 'Man, weíd be great in a band together, too bad you donít know how to play!' So thatís when I bought that first bass and tried to teach myself how to play. Phil called me in April of 1984 and told me to come to practice and see if I could play. I could hardly keep up, but I just kept watching Jesseís (Villegas - guitar) index finger on his fretboard and memorized the positioning of all the songs, since I didnít know any notes and didnít have much of an ear yet. Every so often, Iíd be off by a half step and couldnít tell, but the guys usually straightened me out! Once I started recognizing the notes, it got a lot easier!
TMU: Did Militia try any other singers before Mike Soliz joined the band? Had you guys heard Mike sing before he auditioned for Militia? What was your reaction the first time you heard one of Mikeís eardrum-piercing high notes?
Willingham: There were a couple of guys
that tried to do vocals, but it didnít work out too well. I remember meeting
Mike at a Motley Crue show. Tommy Lee tossed out a drumstick and we both caught
it and Mike and I played tug-of-war for it, but Mike was a really metal-looking
dude who could probably clobber me, so I let it go! I met him again at a WatchTower
show and found out he was a drummer. When Jason McMaster recommended we
audition Mike as a vocalist, I didnít think much of it. He was known as
drummer, not a singer. Jason could have given some kind of warning that he was
this outrageous shrieking singer that sounded exactly like Rob Halford! I
remember that first rehearsal, thinking, wow, we might really be a band now!
Those extremely shrill screams were pretty cool in the mid 1980ís!
TMU: Tell us about the earliest days of Militia once the initial lineup was together. How often did you guys practice? Where was your rehearsal space?
Robert Willingham: Phil and I actually started the band before I even learned how to play. We were sure of what kind of sound we were looking for, so I was nothing more than a consultant or something in those early months. We recruited guitar players and found Jesse Villegas first. He introduced us to another guy named Gordon Lurch. Phil, Gordon and Jesse had a couple of practices. I think Gordon and Jesse collaborated on a couple of tunes, but Gordon left before things really got going. Iím not really sure how we discovered Tony Smith, but after Phil and Jesse practiced with Tony a couple of times, they decided to call me and see if I was ready to try and practice with them.
TMU: Was there a principal songwriter in the band or were the songs put together as a group effort?
Willingham: Most of the music was
written by Tony and Jesse, although I started writing more music parts later,
especially when Phil Patterson was with us. Phil Achee, Jesse, Tony and
Mike wrote all the lyrics.
TMU: Who came up with the killer Militia logos?
Robert Willingham: Mike Soliz is the master artist that created all the Militia logos. He airbrushed the logo on a huge black sheet that we put behind the drums at our shows, and I was so impressed with his work. I do remember Phil Achee being a little uncomfortable with the 6-6-6 dotting the 3 "i's" on that very first logo!
live performance was
Willingham: Oh man, that was
something! We must have rehearsed that set 40 times! Then when it was time to
play the show, I remember my knees were trembling uncontrollably! They didnít
stop shaking until the third song. Also, even though we practiced so much, we
goofed up a lot of parts. We were really disgusted and depressed over our
performance, but then everyone there was all telling us how much we ruled! We
were all really confused, because we knew we completely sucked! It just didnít
make any sense!
TMU: How many gigs did Militia play as a five piece before Jesse Villegas left the band? Did you guys consider finding another guitar player to replace him or were you content to let Tony Smith handle all the guitar duties at that point?
Willingham: I think we did about
6 or 7 shows with Jesse. We were pretty intense about taking the band seriously
Ė Phil and I especially didnít have much patience. Jesse showed up at the
very last minute to a gig in San Antonio, which really irritated Phil and I.
After the show, we told him he was done. Looking back, we were probably too hard
on Jesse. We didnít want to have to start
over with a replacement, so we just decided to just stick with Tony. By this
time, I didnít suck so bad on bass, so I was able to carry the rhythm during
TMU: The Ritz Theater in Austin, The Cameo Theater and La Villa Fontana in San Antonio are now legendary venues in Texas metal history. What are some of your memories of playing at these venues?
Willingham: These places were
great because they were more like mini-arenas instead of clubs. Back then, clubs
like the Back Room (legendary Austin metal club - now defunct) wouldnít touch
us because we were too heavy. The Ritz, Cameo and Villa Fontana gave more of a
concert feel anyway. A ton of fun memories, but I also remember the Ritz being
probably the hottest environment Iíve ever been in! No AC in August and that
alcohol-laden vomit smell in the back nobody could ever forget!
TMU: Militia was on the bill for two of the most pivotal shows in Texas metal history: the ĎUnholy Book Showí and the infamous ĎSlayer vs. Slayerí gig. The audience was huge at both shows and the crowd reaction to Militia was over the top. Do you have any particularly vivid memories from these gigs? Were you shocked at the time over the intense reaction Militia was greeted with at these shows?
Willingham: Yeah, the 'Unholy
Book' show was the one the video clips came from. That one was a lot of fun
Ė the crowd that night was insane! Mike hesitantly let me borrow his Corrosion
Of Conformity shirt and warned me to be careful with it. I remember
laughing at him and thinking, 'What could happen?'. But for whatever reason, at
the end of the show, the crowd ripped that shirt to shreds! I handed one of the
shreds to Mike and said 'Hereís your shirt, safe and sound!'. He was pretty
The 'Slayer vs. Slayer' show was the best. Iíve never seen so many people crammed into the Villa Fontana. There must have been over 2000 people in there! I think Jesse mentioned hearing this intense roar of people standing outside during our sound check, and this was about 3 hours before the start of the show! I also remember a circuit breaker tripped and knocked out a lot of the power during S.A. Slayerís set, but Steve Cooper just kept singing like nothing was wrong!
were constantly amazed at how positively received Militia was. The fansí
reactions at our shows was something that always humbled us, especially when we
performed especially badly.
TMU: What are some of your memories of playing with bands like WatchTower, S.A.Slayer, Wyzard, Karian, Matrix, Final Assault, Scythian Oath, Ritual, and Syrus?
Robert Willingham: We must have done 80% of our shows with WatchTower, which was a real treat. When we got done with our set, I went from being up on stage to being one of the guys in the pit. Iíve always been completely blown away by Dougís bass playing and Rickís drum insanity. Iíd just sit and stare at those two defy physics! Karian was great too. We did our second-ever show with them, and I remember how cool they all were, especially Pete Perez. He not only let me play through his rig, he let me play his bass. This was before I bought Dougís Rickenbacker, and Pete must have seen the piece of junk I was playing and felt sorry for me! We were also real good friends with the guys from Syrus. We did several shows with them. It was cool because they were so friendly and we had mutual respect for each otherís music. Plus those guys were hilarious. They always had us laughing. All of the bands were very cool to play with.
TMU: The ĎRegiments Of Deathí demo was recorded in late 1985 at First Star Studios. Was it self-financed by the band? How much did you pay for session? Do you remember how long it took to finish the recording?
Robert Willingham: Man, that whole project was started in 1984. It was intended to be a 4-song EP, not a demo. Phil was the 'businessman' of the band and he was ready to produce something that could help us shop for a label. The 4 songs were going to be 'Regiments of Death', 'Salem Square', 'Metal Axe', and 'Thrash To Destroy'. We started recording at a studio called Austin Trax. We got off to a good start, but then the progress slowed to a crawl and we ran out of money. We only finished one song there ('Regiments of Death'), which is why it doesnít sound like the other 2 songs on that demo. Plus Jesse was still with us when we were at Austin Trax. After nearly a year and spending close to $1000, we decided to pull the project. First Star was the studio where Philís old band Ground Zero used to practice, and the guy there had a 4-track. We were desperate to get something out there, so we downgraded the project to a demo. We recorded 'Metal Axe' and 'Search for Steel' pretty much live in the studio. Mike did use a few extra tracks for his harmony vocals. This part of the project cost around $250.
TMU: By 1985 the worldwide tape-trading underground was in full swing. Did the band receive mail from fans across the globe like many of the other Texas bands at the time? What about local press?
Robert Willingham: I think we missed out in those early years on the underground tape trading. We were more focused on trying to get labels like Metal Blade or Megaforce Records to notice us. If there was any trading going on, it wasnít initiated by us. We did get a few letters from fans in the USA, but I had no idea there was international interest until about 5 years ago (when I discovered texasmetalunderground.com).
TMU: There were rumblings of record label interest throughout the mid 1980ís Texas metal scene. Several Corpus Christi and Dallas area bands got deals with labels like Combat, Wild Rags, and Azra Records. Did Militia ever see any interest from record labels?
Robert Willingham: Not really. Since thatís what our main focus was, it was pretty discouraging to not hear from any labels.
TMU: Tell us about the recording of 'The Sybling' EP. Was it a financial decision more than an artistic one to only press 100 copies (hence making it one of the rarest and most sought after metal records in the world)?
Robert Willingham: In the Fall of 1985, we did our first self-promoted headline show at the Ritz. We sold a bunch of shirts and demos at this show, so for the first time, we made some significant money. Phil, being the businessman, encouraged us to re-invest the money back into the band, so we set out to do a professional recording for the Sybling EP. It cost about $2500 for studio time, pressing and printing the first 100 copies. The plan was to set aside about half of these records as part of a promotional package designed to target record companies. We figured the fact we already had a 'product' to market would make us more attractive to record labels. Once signed, the label could produce more copies. Problem was, it was 1986 before we finally received the records, and when Mike left the band shortly after that, our 'product' was rendered obsolete.
TMU: Is it mind-blowing to you that the EP now sells for upwards of $1300 on the collector market? Do you still have a personal copy? Iíve still got my mint copy that I got back in the day & Iíve been offered insane amounts of money for it by vinyl collectors.
Robert Willingham: Until I saw that Ebay auction for myself, I didnít believe it! Honestly, I donít get it. I wonder if the person who bought it for $1149 on Ebay actually listened to the record and thought, 'Oh my God, I paid $1149 for THIS?' Hopefully, it was still sealed! I still have my copy, but my kids got into it when they were little, not knowing it was worth anything. They took a couple of markers to the cover, but the record is just fine. The cover needed some color anyway!
TMU: 'The Sybling' has been bootlegged many times over the years in several different formats. Iíve got a couple of different CD boots as well as a 7Ē thatís a mini replica of the 12Ē version right down to the labels on the vinyl. What are your thoughts on bootlegs and the continued interest in these recordings more than 20 years later?
Willingham: I really donít
understand the interest. I guess I felt like there were so many bands way better
than us. I could understand this kind of demand for old WatchTower
stuff, because they were way ahead of their time and even pioneered a whole
genre of metal. I always just looked at us as just another band. While I donít
understand how there can be that much demand for Militia, Iím
definitely humbled by it. Maybe if someone could explain it to me, itíll make
more sense! Having said all that, it would have been nice to get a cut of some
of the sales of the bootlegged stuff!
TMU: At one point several years ago, Monster Records (now Rockadrome) out of San Antonio was slated to officially reissue the 'Regiments Of Death' demo and 'The Sybling' on CD. Do you know anything about that deal or the status of that project?
Robert Willingham: I get the feeling this thing isnít going to happen. Monster Records has a different name. I emailed the guy whoís supposed to be making it happen, but he hasnít returned my messages. I donít know if they even have what they need to make the CDs.
TMU: Militia was seemingly at the top of its game when Tony Smith decided to leave the band. What was behind the split with Tony? Are you still in touch with him today?
Willingham: I think Tony and the
band we were starting to drift apart from a creative standpoint. Tony seemed
really unhappy, so it was pretty mutual when he left. Itís been a couple of
years since Iíve seen Tony. Philís been trying to contact him, but Tonyís
a little tough to track down.
TMU: How did you recruit Phillip Patterson of Matrix to take over guitar duties? Were there other local guitarists who tried out for the slot?
Willingham: We auditioned Louis
Beltran and he played with us for a few weeks. He was a really good fit, and Militia
had always been one of his favorite bands, but his buddies in what was soon to
be Assailant werenít too happy to see him playing with Militia.
Theyíd been playing together for quite a while and had written several songs
together. They were pretty much ready to start doing shows, but were having a
tough time finding a singer. The guys talked Louis into coming back and seeing
it through with them. I guess it eventually paid off for them when they finally
found a singer (hmm, who was that guy?)
Louis left, Art Villarreal (S.A. Slayer) was with us. He lived in San
Antonio, so instead of practicing 3-5 times a week, we could only rehearse about
once a week; sometimes weíd miss a week. We really liked Art, in fact, some
songs almost became Militia songs. Although I loved those songs, trying
to play Pete Perez bass parts really ate me up! However, the distance issue
finally took its toll and Art told us to look for someone else.
We knew Phil Patterson pretty well from Matrix, and we werenít really sure if he was into Militiaís heavier style. But he showed us that he was more than suitable. Plus, heís so easy-going that it made for a really smooth transition. It took no time at all for Phil to become 'one of us'.
TMU: The 1986 demo 'No Submission' was a slightly different direction for Militia. Was that primarily Pattersonís influence, or was the whole band ready to broaden its musical palette? Mike Soliz says today that he canít stand that recording, but itís still a personal favorite of mine. What are your thoughts on that release?
Robert Willingham: The 'No Submission' demo was the result of us trying to show a more mature side. It was a weird time, because we were all listening to a lot of different kinds of music other than metal. I think we were a little concerned about sounding like every other metal band. We were really proud of the music Patterson and I were writing during this time, but I wonder if the songs were a little too much of a departure from what people normally expected from Militia. I remember Mike really not liking the song 'No Submission'. It was probably the most commercial-sounding song we ever did. He actually skipped it during one of our shows. I thought that was pretty funny, but I underestimated how unhappy Mike was becoming with this direction we were going in.
TMU: It states prominently on the cover of the 'No Submission' demo that it was recorded in only 3 hours. Why such a short recording session? Anything memorable (good or bad) about the session?
Willingham: The 'No
session was done at Cedar Creek,
where WatchTower recorded the 2nd version of Energetic Disassembly. Their prices
were a lot higher than Music Lane, where we did the Sybling EP. I guess
we were in a time crunch to get it done and we didn't have much cash, and could
only afford 3 hours. We basically recorded it live, rather than doing individual
tracks. Of course Mike did go in and record his multiple harmonies.
I know of only two gigs that
took place after Patterson joined the band: the first was
Willingham: I know we did at
least 3 gigs, if not more, with Patterson. That May 16, 1986 show was Pattersonís
first show with us. Our last-ever show was the King Diamond/Metal Church show at
the Ritz in August of 1986. Patterson played in one of our weirdest shows, which
was at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville playing for a bunch of college
kids that quite frankly had never heard anything like our kind of metal! Syrus
made the trip with us and opened up the show. Definitely no pit at that one! My
sister went to SHSU at the time and I think one of her friends set up the show.
The looks on the faces in the tiny crowd were classic!
I totally forgot about that Killeen opportunity. Man, you have a vast memory, throwing out all these dates and stuff! Anyway, the Killeen show never panned out for us.
TMU: Could you give us a Militia songography?
Willingham: OK, here's the list
of Militia tunes, in the order they were written:
- Music written by Jesse, lyrics by Jesse and possibly Mike/Phil. This is the
first song we ever practiced as a full band, as well as the first song Militia
ever played live. We used to do an intro kinda like Metallica's 'Hit The
Lights', which made it a good show opener. I guess we got kinda sick of it,
because we dropped it from our live sets after about a year. There were never
any plans to record this one. It does appear on the Unholy Book video.
TMU: Changing musical tastes, broken friendships, general fatigue, and combinations thereof are often the triggers that cause bands to split-up. What caused the eventual demise of Militia?
Robert Willingham: As far as Iím concerned, Mike leaving the band is what killed Militia. His vocal style was one of our trademarks, and finding another singer was going to be like totally starting the band over, and I wasnít sure I wanted to pour another 2 years into something so uncertain. My biggest fear was to end up 30+ years old and not really experiencing any significant success. Success to me meant not having to work a 'day job' and be completely devoted to the band without being completely broke. As much as success in the band was my dream, I wasnít willing roll the dice with large chunks of my life. When Mike left, I knew it was over. Whatever Militia became would have been a lame attempt to 'keep it going', and thatís never a good thing.
TMU: I know Mike Soliz, Phillip Patterson, and Phil Achee moved on to other musical projects after Militia split. Did you continue to pursue music after your stint in Militia or were you 'burned out' on the whole scene at that point?
Robert Willingham: When I left Militia, I was more interested in figuring out what I was going to do with my life. Although playing music was a ton of fun, I was pretty depressed and empty. I ended up moving to Colorado, where I met my wife who already had three kids, and a year later we had another. Being a good husband and a father was my top priority, but after a couple of years, I discovered I was pretty awful at both! Faced with even more depression and realizing I was pretty much ruining my life, I was introduced to Jesus Christ. Eventually, I renounced several years of staunch atheism and watched my life become totally transformed. I was fortunate enough to be in a church that played more contemporary and upbeat music, and they needed a bass player. So I got back in to music and Iíve been in a band at church for the last 6 years. Some of the guys in the church band have metal or heavier stuff in their background and weíve talked about doing a side project and writing some heavier tunes. But weíve all got jobs and families and we only practice once a week, so itís pretty tough to do any extra projects like that.
TMU: I still see Phillip Patterson occasionally and I know Mike and Tony are still around. Are you still in touch with any of the guys today?
Willingham: Since Phil Achee
moved back to Austin a couple of years ago, weíre all back in the Central
Texas area. I try to keep in contact every few months, although I havenít seen
Patterson in nearly 10 years. The original line up (Me, Mike, Phil Achee, Tony
& Jesse) all got together at Mikeís house about 2 or 3 years ago when we
were discussing the Monster Records deal. That was pretty weird, all of us being
in the same room! We need to get together again.
TMU: The mid 1980ís Texas metal scene is revered worldwide to this day. I get email from people all over the world who are absolutely fanatical about this music. In your opinion, what made the Texas scene so different and unique?
Robert Willingham: My guess would be that most of the bands had some really good musicians. I guess there was some uniqueness in a lot of the styles of the Texas bands. I remember discussing this with Jason McMaster back in the 80ís, specifically how all the Texas bands at the time had high-pitched vocals. I guess the other thing that set the Texas bands from this era was the fact that the metal was always very powerful, yet melodic, with a lot of technical elements thrown in.
TMU: Are you still involved in metal or the music scene in any capacity?
Willingham: Iíve been pretty
out of touch with the metal scene for most of the last 20 years, but Iíve
realized that Iím still very drawn to this style of music. I didnít keep up
with it much while I was focused on raising my family, and I thought that metal
had pretty much died out. But we got XM Radio a couple of years ago and I
discovered metal is alive and well. Iíve heard some pretty good stuff, but
Iím having a really tough time with all the growling Cookie Monster vocals. If
I had it my way, metal would be all instrumental!
play at church just about every Sunday. In fact, on Easter Sunday, someone came
up to me right after we got done and asked my name and if I used to play for Militia!
I was pretty freaked out, because thatís never happened before! He told me he
saw a bunch of our shows and even worked security at the Ritz.
Although weíre a church band, weíre definitely not into traditional church music. We believe that Christian music doesnít have to be cheesy! The band also does a few outside gigs. Weíve played a couple of times at a club on 6th Street next to Emoís, called 'His Place', which features Christian bands. It was really weird to be playing only a few blocks from the infamous Ritz Theater!
TMU: And finally, what are your thoughts on the metal scene (or lack thereof) of today?
Willingham: The metal scene in
the 80ís was unique, and I donít know if weíll ever see anything like it
again. But I think the internet has made it a lot easier to follow metal,
whether itís keeping up with the new stuff or preserving the memories of the
past, which TMU is doing an awesome job of. It seems like there are way more
bands, genres, and listeners than there were in the 80ís, and bands can be
easily heard on MySpace, so if thereís any interest, itís way easier to make
a connection and build up a base. So while there may not be anything like the Texas
metal scene of the 80ís, I think thereís the potential for something
TMU: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Robert!
Robert Willingham: Thanks Scott! This was a lot of fun!