Prepare yourself for the understatement of the century: Heavy metal wouldn’t be the same without Mercyful Fate. Screaming out of Denmark in the early ’80s, the band delivered a satanized maelstrom of heavy metal, prog, and ’70s hard rock led by the impossibly high-pitched vocals of corpse-painted frontman King Diamond. They helped lay the foundation for black metal with their blasphemous self-titled 1982 EP (also known as Nuns Have No Fun), 1983’s Melissa, and 1984’s Don’t Break The Oath. The Norwegian leaders of black metal’s violent second wave—Mayhem, Darkthrone, Immortal, Emperor, etc.—took part of their sound and most of their look from Mercyful Fate. That, and as a bona fide member of the Church Of Satan and a personal friend of late Church founder Anton LaVey, King Diamond also has the do-what-thou-wilt credentials that those young Nordics aspired to—and still do to this day.
But forget all that for a minute and consider this: King Diamond and his early Fate bandmates—guitarists Hank Shermann and Michael Denner, bassist Timi Hansen, and drummer Kim Ruzz—also inspired two of the biggest bands in metal history. You can draw a straight line from Fate’s first three releases to Slayer and Metallica. Neither band has been shy about Fate’s impact. Slayer guitarist Kerry King has gone on record repeatedly about Mercyful Fate’s influence (satanic themes, dueling guitars, longer, more progressive song) on their 1985 breakout album, Hell Awaits. Metallica went as far as to play a Fate medley on their 1998 covers album, Garage Inc., appropriately titled “Mercyful Fate,” and that was after fellow Dane Lars Ulrich played drums on “Return of the Vampire” from Fate’s 1993 album, In The Shadows.
And yet, Mercyful Fate haven’t released an album since 1999’s appropriately titled 9—and essentially split up shortly thereafter. (Diamond, meanwhile, has been regularly releasing King Diamond records since 1986.) Part of Fate’s classic lineup—King Diamond, Shermann and Hansen—reunited in 2019 to play shows with 9-era members Bjarne T. Holm (drums) and Mike Wead (guitar). Sadly, Hansen succumbed to cancer later that year. King Diamond enlisted Armored Saint and Fates Warning bassist Joey Vera to take up the spot, but then COVID-19 hit and fucked everything up for everyone.
Fast forward to… right about now, and Mercyful Fate are back in action. After demolishing festival stages across Europe with a set of songs from their first three releases plus a new track called “The Jackal Of Salzburg,” they’ll play their first U.S. show in nearly 25 years at Psycho Las Vegas.
CREEM caught up with King Diamond over Skype from his pad in the Dallas suburbs to get an update on everything Mercyful Fate, his eponymous solo band, and beyond.
CREEM: How does it feel to be back on stage with Mercyful Fate?
KING DIAMOND: It's very cool and a lot of fun, but people have misunderstood what we are doing now. This is not a reunion. We are just picking it up again because the stars are aligned correctly now. And that’s been the thing all the time. Before when people asked, “Do you think you’re going to play with Mercy again?” I would never say never. But it’s got to be completely right. I don’t want to go out there and try to milk a cow and do a show with the backdrop and then collect and say, “That was that.” That’s not right. And Hank [Shermann] has the same philosophy. Either we do it 200%, or we don’t do it.
Tell us about the production for the Fate shows you’ve been doing.
It’s very inspired by old Genesis with Peter Gabriel back in the ’70s, when they were doing The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. That was ’74—it started in the U.S., and they didn't get to Europe til ’75, but in early ’75 I saw them in Denmark. Then I saw Alice Cooper for the first time later that year, [the] Welcome to My Nightmare tour. So they were close to each other, same year, and hugely inspirational.
We will go out and do all the real stuff and try to show what Mercyful Fate could have been back then. But there’s been some changes in the sequence of songs. It's a matter of changing the ram’s head I have on in the beginning, and into a crown and from a red coat to a black coat. The girl who made them is in L.A. Her name is Macy, and she makes amazing stuff. The coats are actual patterns from an old 17th century bishop coat. But the ram’s head, I can tell you, is really uncomfortable to wear. It gets so hot, man. I have a cooling cloth on my head when I play live, the kind that workers that build houses use. When I take off that ram’s head after one and a half songs, my head is steaming.
But it's worth it. It looks really menacing… It's a very different impression than when you saw us playing a little club back in the old days, often not even with a backdrop. And now, to come out and give the songs a life that they've never had before is fantastic.
Bassist Timi Hansen was playing with you, but sadly he got sick and passed away.
Yes. Timi was invited back in, too. At the time he had been sick, but he was getting much better and everything was going in the right direction. Then he started getting sick again. We used to be roommates when we toured in the early, early days of Mercy—also with King Diamond. We talked a lot in that time period when he got really sick. I know how much it meant to him that he was given the spot. I told him, “It’s definitely your spot. If you can do it—if you can do five songs or one song—it's yours. And we'll find someone together that can be your stand-in or whatever we want to call it.” And that was how it ended up. We both had one person that we suggested, and that was Joey Vera. After talking to Timi about him and Timi saying, "I know the style he has, the finger playing, the whole thing," I went down to see Joey play with Fates Warning in Dallas, and it was amazing. The way he plays, his finger work, and the sound he has on stage, too—it was so Timi Hansen, it was eerie.
It is so right with Joey here. It's fantastic. I mean, what he's adding to it and the sound and watching him play is a whole experience, too. He’s such a nice guy, and amazingly talented. So he was very, very right for the project to continue—and otherwise, it's the 9 lineup. That's what it is. These are the guys that have played the most shows with Mercyful Fate ever. And Sharlee [D’Angelo, who played bass on 9] is an amazing bass player. I have not a bad word about him, but he's very busy all the time. He’s involved in more than one band, I think.
Joey sounds great out there, but it must be bittersweet doing this without Timi.
That's what Timi would have wanted. I spoke to Joey at the Fates Warning show in Dallas and asked him if he would do us the honor if Timi could not do it. He was very honored, and we went from there. And then suddenly Timi got real bad. When King Diamond played a place called the K.B. Hallen in Copenhagen, he came to the show because it was very close to where he lived. He didn’t stay the whole night, but he saw part of the show. That was the last time I saw him. I talked to him on the phone just a few days before his last day, and it was really…I still have it on my phone. I can’t erase it. I simply can’t erase it.
As you mentioned earlier, this isn’t a reunion. Still, I think many fans are wondering why guitarist Michael Denner is not involved.
There are reasons Michael Denner and [drummer] Kim Ruzz are simply not here. I know that Michael Denner did an interview recently, and I'm not going to get into it, but he said a lot of things that are absolutely not true. I could go into a lot of details about the reasons that this is not a lineup with him in it, or Kim Ruzz in it. I don’t want to say anything bad about anybody, but you can’t say, “Hey, I should have played there.” Why? Should I throw out a band member that is absolutely perfect for the band, that goes all out for the band all the time, no matter what? And his skill is beyond anything I played with on that spot in the band? There’s no way that he's going to get fired because someone else is suddenly interested in the band. That’s completely wrong. There’s no way I would ever treat anyone like that.
You had a triple bypass in 2010, which I imagine leaves you especially vulnerable to COVID. What kind of safety precautions are you taking on this tour?
I had COVID in December 2019, right after we finished the King Diamond tour. Probably one of the first that got it, when no one knew what it was. On New Year’s Eve, I was so sick. My heart doctor and my normal doctor could not figure out what the hell was wrong. They gave me antibiotics, and nothing worked at all. I could barely get up the stairs to the second floor here in the house. I just sat and stared at nothing because I didn't even want to watch TV. I didn't want to listen to music. I didn't want to eat. I couldn't taste anything, couldn't smell anything. After a while, the heart doctor suggested Mucinex—standard over-the-counter chest relief. I don’t know if it was that or if the virus had run its course, but I started getting better. Then I got slammed again. It kept happening like that for about two months. Every time I lose taste and smell. I can’t describe how bad it was.
I think I got over it because of the triple bypass, actually. When I sang with Metallica at their anniversary show [in 2011], that was the first time I sang after the surgery. It was a year after, and it was so weird. I had to instantaneously change my technique of singing because I had a bigger capacity of airflow and that extra capacity, I think, got me through the COVID. Otherwise, I would’ve clocked off and died, I think. It was very, very nasty. But now we go out on tour, and you do everything in your power, but you can still get it. Going on a plane or in an airport with so many people. And I’ve had four vaccine shots. Because of age and condition, they say I must have this. The rules are so vague these days. And, of course, at shows you want to see your friends. Metallica was at the show in Copenhagen. That was super cool, but there’s other people backstage and you don’t know what they might have. Who are these people? They could have something, and they don’t know it.
What’s the story behind the new Mercyful Fate song you’ve been playing, “The Jackal of Salzburg”? I understand it's inspired by one of the last major witch hunts in Europe.
The last [witch hunt], 1675 to 1690. It’s probably the most infamous one, and I had never heard of it ’til this year. I was looking at old paintings from the era and came across something that was about the Jackal of Salzburg, but it had a different name. I can't remember exactly what phrase they used, but I read about it, and I was shocked because it was, like, 139 people got killed—burned, hanged and decapitated—and something like 109 of them were children, all beggar kids. They would cut hands off. When the church was nice to people, they would actually hang [them] before [they burned them], which must’ve actually been a relief. But obviously it was all entertainment value at the time.
The song is about a 20-year-old man—his mother got burned at the stake in 1675. His dad was an executioner's assistant, and there was something going on where they prosecuted the mom and tortured her and all that stuff. And she gave up her own son under torture, saying he was in league with the devil and doing all these rituals out in the woods. And they started chasing him, but they never caught him. But it’s absolutely top horror. Fifteen years of killing children in Salzburg.
Are we getting a new Mercyful Fate album next year?
When it comes, I don't know, but definitely a new album. There's another song we're working on. I won't say the title right now, but it’s really cool. It’s not nine minutes long like “The Jackal of Salzburg”. We could play it, but we are not doing that. It’s very theatrical. And I have lots of lyrics and lyric pieces done for quite a few other songs. Hank has sent me stuff, and it’s just like the old days. He says, “Use whatever you want. Put your touch on it, and then it’s Mercyful Fate.” Of course, his touch is important, too—together it’s Mercyful Fate.
Do you think the whole album will have a witchcraft theme or is it too early to say?
It could. I mean, the other song we’re working on is pretty much witches on their way to the sabbath. We have the album title and the cover art as well. It’s very Mercyful Fate, but we did not try to fuse Melissa and Don’t Break The Oath into a cover again. We did that with 9, but that’s where it should stop. I think it’s cheesy to keep doing that.
This will be the first Mercyful Fate album since 1999, and fans are really looking forward to it. Are you feeling any pressure?
Not at all. I can't fucking wait because of the style of music that we are doing. We’ve been listening to all the old stuff and trying to recapture more of that style. We’re playing all the old songs, and I can tell you it’s fucking inspiring us. So, it’s very much in that direction. It’s going to be full-on Melissa and Don’t Break The Oath, absolutely. I mean, we’re playing the first song live and it’s not even finished. It’s like, “so fucking what?”
It’s absolutely top horror. Fifteen years of killing children in Salzburg.
Speaking of Melissa, next year will be the album’s 40th anniversary. Do you have anything special planned?
I have not thought about it. Hank is more up on those things. He comes and says, "Man, it's been many years since this one.” I'm not so much up on those things. Because of COVID and all this stuff, we had to push every year’s concerts. More concerts were added to this run with Mercyful Fate because of COVID, and we expanded the European tour as well. So, I don’t know. We’ve been working on a lot of other things.
Anything you can talk about?
I have a Twitch setup here in my studio, almost ready to stream. And that might be a continuation of what we are doing live now where [King Diamond’s wife] Livia films me driving the car on the way to shows or she’ll ask a couple of questions on the tour bus, and I answer them in full makeup and crown. She’ll stream the show live and ask fans, “Do you want to see the encore from the side of the stage or the pit?” So, I will do my autobiography that way, where people can ask questions live. I’ll do it a couple of times a week, three hours maybe, and talk, show old pictures you've never seen before from when I was a kid and all kinds of stuff. I have pictures from the day I was born. I have so much of this stuff to talk about, and people can ask anything. The King Diamond channel on Twitch—that’s where it’s going to be. We can talk about cars or sports or whatever, as long as it's not politics. I don’t want to talk about that shit.
We can talk about cars or sports or whatever, as long as it's not politics. I don’t want to talk about that shit.
Then I want to play some of my collection of all the old compact discs I have and old vinyl [records] and all this, pick out songs, maybe talk about my first concert in 1971, when I saw Grand Funk Railroad. And then maybe play some video games at the end. Or we can watch soccer and you can hear me curse in Danish whenever it goes wrong.
What’s the status of the new King Diamond album?
We’re working on it. Brian Slagel at Metal Blade [Records, Diamond’s label] said he wants the King Diamond album to be released first. We’re not going to change things just because everything has been postponed, and now it’s Mercy playing live. [King Diamond guitarist] Andy [LaRocque] sent me eight songs of his for the King Diamond album, but that’s maybe enough for his share for two albums. The story will be over two albums. I don’t even think “Masquerade of Madness” [the King Diamond single released in 2019] will be on the album. It’ll be all new songs.
The lyrical concept is about a mental institute, isn’t it?
It's going to be totally asylum 1930s, the pioneering of experimenting with human beings, medically, and all this sick shit like that. We want to do some stuff onstage… I don’t want to say it now because it has to be a surprise. But it’s going to be very horror. When this is done with Mercy here, we will focus 150% on King Diamond, getting it all done and recorded.
What can fans expect from Mercyful Fate at Psycho Las Vegas?
This is the first time in 23 years that we are playing in the U.S. The set is being built right now. It’s the first time that you will see Mercyful Fate with an A-class production. And it’s all old songs except for the new one, “The Jackal Of Salzburg.” So, the look, the feel, the mood, is very unique. Lars [Ulrich], James [Hetfield] and Rob [Trujillo] from Metallica were at the last European show, and it was so gratifying to see them headbanging at the side of the stage. Lars sent me a message the next day saying, “It was so cool yesterday. Me and James felt 20 again.” Stuff like that means a lot to me.
But wait ’til you see the production. It’s white; it looks like marble. And it has the feeling of this sacrificial chapel. There’s a two-meter-tall altar, there's a three-and-a-half-meter tall cross hanging above the altar. They're still building the stuff in Poland, so I hope they get it finished to fly the pieces over that need to be fused together in Las Vegas. But the set is all songs from the mini-LP, Melissa, Don’t Break The Oath and then the new song. And I guarantee you, I sound better today than ever in my career. If you’re coming to the show, you won’t forget it.
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