Airforce were formed in 1989, by guitarist Chop Pitman, Doug Sampson ex-drummer of Iron Maiden, Doug’s brother Sam on vocals and bassist Tony Hatton. Over the years the band vacillated between periods of frenetic activity and subdued existence while passing through numerous line-up changes. The current incarnation of the band features ¾ of the original line-up in addition to singer Ivan Giannini.
I sat down with all 4 members to discuss all things Airforce and to get to know more about the close links they share with Iron Maiden. Co-incidentally the interview took place at the ‘Cart & Horses’ – in the North East of London – where Iron Maiden did their very first gigs back in 1976 and where Sampson and Steve Harris played with Smiler before Iron Maiden even came into existence. Here is in fact where Airforce are scheduled to perform right after chatting with me.
All this makes the interview quite a special one. So I thought it would be appropriate to start by asking about the memories the place brings for my interviewees…..
Chop: It brings back good memories for me…I was here for the very first Iron Maiden gig. I was good friends with Steve Harris [Iron Maiden founder/bassist] and he had phoned me up and invited me to come and see him play and give his new band a little bit of support. Of course this was before he was known and at the time he used to borrow my gear to play live – although I’m a guitarist and he’s a bass player, he used to use my amps to play.
You and Doug have also played with Steve together, right?
Chop: Yes. Of course Doug played with Steve in Iron Maiden….
Doug: And in Smiler before that…
Chop: And I had jammed with Steve Harris in the studio….me, Doug and Steve.
When was this?
I see. So this was between the formation of Iron Maiden and the formation of Airforce.
Doug, you mentioned Smiler…what do you remember about being asked to audition for Smiler and about the gigs you did with that band?
Doug: Well I was looking for a band at the time….previously I had just played with some mates from school. I saw an ad in a music magazine and they wanted a Rock drummer. I rung up, got an audition and when I turned up for the audition, the bass player was Steve Harris…he had joined them previously. So I did the audition and got the job. Then we auditioned for a singer…when we got a singer, that’s when we then started gigging.
Our first gig with Smiler was here at the ‘Cart & Horses’ where we virtually had a residency…we played most Saturdays and Sundays.
LISTEN TO DOUG SAMPSON TALK ABOUT HIS TIME WITH SMILER:
A couple of years later, you joined Iron Maiden and so reunited with Steve Harris. What were the songs Iron Maiden used to play when you were with the band?
Doug: Basically everything that ended up on the first album. That was the set I was playing on.
So I suppose that by the time you came to record “The Soundhouse Tapes” demo, you knew those songs inside out.
Doug: To be honest I think “The Soundhouse Tapes” came before the gigs. So we put “The Soundhouse Tapes” down and then started gigging. So that recording was done quite early in the day.
Did you ever have any regrets about leaving Iron Maiden?
Doug: Oh yes, of course, but the situation was that my health wasn’t standing up to it and I had no real choice but to leave. I mean who wouldn’t have regrets about having to leaving a band like Iron Maiden? But that’s how things were at the time. And that was it. That was also the time that I met up with Chop and we formed Airforce.
And that was also when Tony Hatton entered the picture, right?
Tony: Me and Chop were previously playing together in a band called EL34. We lost our drummer from there and then disbanded, due also to singer problems. We decided to form a new band and Doug was introduced to Chop by Steve Harris, who knew we were looking for a drummer.
On to something else….Airforce has just returned from a U.S.A. mini-tour….how did that go?
Chop: We were going to do the U.S.A. tour but then decided to do it later next year. However we already had this gig booked up in North Carolina so what we did was honour that one gig. We just flew over, did the gig, had some breakfast and flew back again to England.
Tony: 23 an’ a half hours was how long we were in the States.
Wow, that’s dedication.
Chop: We just didn’t want to let anyone down.
“Judgement Day”, the debut album from Airforce, was released in 2016 but the recording of its songs were done over the period of several years. Why didn’t you record that album with the line-up you had in 2016?
Doug: Well it was more or less a catalogue of our past…it was like a history of Airforce. So we put that out in that way to let people know that we hadn’t just formed Airforce but we’ve been going for many years. We had many line-up changes during those years….different singers.
Airforce was even a 3-piece at one point, right?
Chop: Yes, that’s right.
Doug: Chop was doing Airforce without me and Tony for a while…a couple of songs from that era were also put in the album. Anyway, so that’s why we didn’t re-record them all for the album.
Chop: It was like a ‘Best of…’ release. If we did re-record them, they wouldn’t have been from their respective time.
Then you did the “Black Box” recordings. Why did you split them up into 2 EPs rather than release another album?
Chop: The reason we had done that was because there was quite a demand for us to release something quickly. To do an album, it would have taken us over a year. So we just released the first “Black Box” EP to give people a taste of us.
Were those songs taken from the Airforce ‘archives’ or were they written by the band at the time of recording?
Chop: Not entirely.
Tony: ‘Heroes’ was an archives song but the other two, ‘Fight’ and ‘Life Turns To Dust’, were new songs, written in the last couple of years.
The EPs were produced by Peter Franklin, guitarist/vocalist of Chariot, right?
Tony: He produced the 2nd EP, “Black Box 2”, not the 1st.
As I mentioned earlier, you played as a 3-piece band until not very long ago. What led to Freddie Ball, who was doing both bass and lead vocals, to be replaced by Dilian Arnaudov on vocals and Tony on bass?
Chop: What went on with the band back then was that me, Doug and Tony had parted ways and I carried on Airforce with different musicians. At one time I even had a female singer. But then we decided to go ahead with Freddie Ball playing bass and singing and Kevin Hawkes playing drums. So we did that for a few years and when the album, “Judgement Day”, came out it kind of relit their fire and wanted to return to the band. So that line-up disbanded and Doug and Tony returned.
Tony: Fred was doing other things as well.
Chop: He had his fingers in too many pies. So in the end it kind of all worked out for the better. This is how it should have been in the first place because it’s a better formula with Doug and Tony in the band.
LISTEN TO CHOP PITMAN DISCUSS THE LINE-UP CHANGES OF AIRFORCE:
Would you ever consider drafting in a second guitarist as well in order to beef up your songs’ melodies?
Chop: To be honest we have toyed with the idea.
Doug: It’s all down to finding the right person.
Chop: It’s all about finding the right person who has no ego
Doug: And who’ll fit in with us.
An interviewee recently told me that in terms of importance, 50% is the skill of the band member as a musician and 50% is the character of that person.
Doug: That’s right. Correct.
Ivan, you’ve been with Airforce for barely a month. So can you introduce yourself to fans, say something about yourself?
Chop: I’ll tell you how we crossed paths with him. I came down to see Ivan sing in an Iron Maiden tribute band and they were playing here, in the ‘Cart & Horses’. We had to go to U.S.A. but Dilian couldn’t go….he had visa problems. So when I met Ivan I asked him: “Can you play in America?” And he said “Yes.”
Ivan: I thought he was drunk when he asked me that.
So Ivan Giannini, about yourself….what singers do you look up to?
Ivan: Well I was playing Iron Maiden songs because I am a big fan of Bruce Dickinson. In fact the early years of my career were largely spent playing Iron Maiden songs. Of course I also tried to develop my own style. I used to sing in many Heavy Metal bands in Italy.
I was also part of “The Voice” [sort of Italy’s version of “X-Factor”] in 2015. I had taken part in 3 episodes after which they fired me.
[After a quick online search, I discovered one of the bands Ivan used to sing with was the Power Metal band Derdian, whose albums I remember reviewing in the past.]
In the first “Black Box” EP, Paul Di’Anno sings on the song ‘Sniper’ and also appears in the video of that song. How did Di’Anno involvement with Airforce come about?
Chop: Well, we’ve all known Paul for many years.
Doug: Of course me and Paul played together in Iron Maiden many years ago. And when we were writing these songs someone remarked “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Paul to come and sing a song with us.” So Chop got in touch with him and he told us he was well up for it.
Would Paul Di’Anno’s involvement with Airforce something you’d consider again, both with regards recordings and live performances?
Doug: You know, we’d love to but Paul’s got a few issues at the moment. He’s waiting to have an operation on his leg. But fingers crossed he’ll be able to work again with us in future.
Chop: If Paul does get well, as we hope he will, we’ll definitely be looking to have him make a guest appearance with us.
[The sound technician approaches us – there are some technical issues to sort out so Chop leaves us for a few moments. Ivan and myself take advantage to chat about the Metal scene of Italy.]
Tony: What we didn’t mention earlier is that Ivan had already come to U.S.A. with us last April, when he did 5 shows with us.
So you’ve already been to the States twice?
Tony: We did a small tour in April and because that was successful, we were planning to do a 2nd U.S.A. for around this time. But then a lot of things got in the way of that, the Hills Of Rock festival came up, amongst other things. So we thought the sensible thing to do was put it off until next year, around April 2019. But before we made that decision, we had this one show that was already booked so we decided to honour it anyway.
Can you tell me more about the gigs you have planned for next year in U.S.A.?
Tony: We’ll be starting off in New York, in Long Island. Then we’ll be moving up to play a show in Maine. Then we’re playing the Hard Rock in Boston. Then we’ve got a show in Cleveland, Kenton. And then we’ve got a show booked in Indiana. We’re still negotiating for other shows so more might be added.
About those videos we were talking about earlier, the second one was ‘Finest Hour’, released only last week. In it I spotted a lot of connections with Iron Maiden. There’s the very place we are in right now, the ‘Cart & Horses’, there’s the mascot which has a strong resemblance to Eddie, the Maiden shirts you’re wearing, and even the music itself. In fact the song sort of reminds me of ‘Aces High’, the Iron Maiden song about the dog-fights of WW1. Rather than build a distinct entity, it seems Airforce has embraced its historical links with Iron Maiden.
What are your views on these observations?
[Chop then re-joins us but it’s Doug who’s first to offer his views….]
Doug: From the early days I thought that music was brilliant. Iron Maiden progressed on of course and changed somewhat but there was no-one who seemed to be trying to go for that style from that NWOBHM era. So we’ve just resurrected it and are doing the music style from that era. It’s what we really love.
Tony: We were already doing it in the ’80 when we started out and now we’re doing it again.
Doug: I must mention that we don’t just sit down and try to do that music….it just comes naturally to us.
LISTEN TO DOUG SAMPSON AND TONY HATTON DISCUSS THE MUSIC OF IRON MAIDEN AND AIRFORCE:
And after all, I suppose, both you Chop, and Doug, share the same roots of Steve Harris so it’s inevitable that the music of Airforce has some similarities with Iron Maiden.
Chop and Doug: Yes, that’s right.
We talked about the existing releases of Airforce but what about new songs….is Airforce writing new material for another album?
Chop: Yes, we are. In fact we’ve got another album coming out in Spring. So yeah, we’ve got new ideas and are writing new songs.
Tony: We’ll be playing a new song tonight…it’s called ‘The Reaper’. Actually we performed it for the first time in North Carolina last month so tonight will be the second time ever that we’ll be playing it.
Doug, there’s one last thing I’d like to ask you. Before joining Iron Maiden you had seen the band play live in various incarnations, right?
So what were your impressions of Ron Rebel and Thunderstick, the drummers that had preceded you in Iron Maiden? How different were they as drummers?
Doug: They were great drummers. I mean Ron’s a good friend of mine. They both brought out an angle of the band that was good at that time. As for Thunderstick, he just went off and did his own thing….he’s a legend by himself. Brilliant drummer. As you might know, after Iron Maiden he went with Samson.
[Of course Samson were the band Bruce Dickinson was with before he joined Iron Maiden.]
Now Thunderstick has resurrected his own band…
Doug: Yes, that’s right.
Chop: The good thing is that me, Terry Rance and Dave Sullivan, the very first guitarists of Iron Maiden [when Ron Rebel was drummer], are good friends anyway. The last time Airforce played here we had them come up on stage with us as guests to play about 4 songs.
Well, those were the questions I had prepared. Is there anything else you’d like to mention that we haven’t already mentioned?
Chop: On the 24th of November we’ve got a gig in London with Satan as headliners and with Toledo Steel and Primitai also on the bill. However, through the Winter months and up to March 2019, we’re not going to do many gigs so that we can concentrate on the album.
Tony: We’ve actually been very busy this year
Basically you hope to have the album ready before you return to North America, right?
Tony and Chop: Yes, that’s the idea.
Guys, it’s been a pleasure and an honour speaking with all of you.
[Interview & live photography: Chris Galea]
The Black Box Recordings – Volume 2 (EP – 2018)
The Black Box Recordings – Volume 1 (EP - 2017)
Judgement Day (Album - 2016)
Ivan Giannini - guest vocals
Chop Pitman - lead guitar
Tony Hatton - bass guitar
Doug Sampson - drums