Kreator are a metal institution. They were among the first wave of German thrash bands, along with Destruction and Sodom. Their debut, 1985’s Endless Pain, offered a rougher, grimier sound than their American peers, and that raw aggression has stayed with them over the course of 13 more releases, including the brand new Gods of Violence. Even when they experimented with industrial- and groove metal-tinged ’90s albums like Renewal, Cause for Conflict, Outcast and Endorama, they never truly abandoned their street-fighting roots — the 1:47 “Bomb Threat” from Cause for Conflict is basically a beatdown hardcore song.

Since 2001’s Violent Revolution, though, Kreator have been on a universally acknowledged hot streak, pumping out one thunderous thrash album after another. And, as has been the case since the beginning of their career, frontman Mille Petrozza’s lyrics display a deep engagement with the world, ignoring violent fantasy in favor of tackling political and social issues. As early as 1990’s Coma of Souls, Petrozza was singing about environmental issues on “When the Sun Burns Red” and confronting Germany’s Nazi past on “People of the Lie.” A song title like “Satan Is Real,” from Gods of Violence, may seem like goofy metal bullshit, but as you’ll see, it’s anything but.

Petrozza has also been a vegan and an outspoken animal rights activist for decades. In the interview below, he discusses Gods of Violence, how to find healthy food on the road and how to play with bands you disagree with politically.

The orchestral intro and additions to the first few tracks on Gods of Violence are something new for you. What inspired that?
Basically, it was a coincidence. We had this intro where we were working with the band Fleshgod Apocalypse, and when we heard what they did to the intro, “Apocalypticon,” we were discussing whether or not it would fit in some other parts [of the album]; we felt like it would be a good idea to have them try something there as well. And they did. So, everything that you hear regarding the orchestral parts just kind of fell into place, really.

There’s a lot of melody — and a lot of guitar shredding — on this album, and the last song, “Death Becomes My Light,” is quite an epic. Was it your intention to go this big, and why?
That last song that you mentioned is kind of like a storytelling thing, because the story of the song is, there’s somebody that has a near-death experience and comes back from that, and tries to explain to all of his friends and family what he saw, and nobody’s really listening, nobody’s really paying attention — everyone’s just continuing with their lives, and he’s trying to explain that they shouldn’t be afraid of dying, because it’s a circle, you know? So, that’s where this song came from, and of course, it took a little while, because I wanted this song to really tell the story, and in order to do that, we needed time. So, it just turned out to be a seven-minute, epic Kreator song, just because of the fact that I needed something different, musically, in order to tell the story.

Are you someone who writes songs constantly and has a bunch of material in the tank when it’s time to make a new album, or do you sit down and say, “Time to write a new album”?
I collect ideas, but going into songwriting — yeah, a year after Phantom Antichrist came out [in 2012], I started writing new songs. You know, when the first bunch of touring was done, I went back into the studio, trying some new ideas. So, maybe you could say that, because the first song, the title track, was written in 2013. So, yeah, I’m kind of constantly working on music — let me put it that way. I’m not the kind of songwriter who has, like, 200 unreleased songs, because I think songs ... there’s a certain time when it’s time to record an idea and turn it into a song. And that’s a process, you know; it’s something you really need to pay attention to, in order to make it great. That always takes inspiration and spare time and no distractions.

Can you tell when a song’s just not working and it’s time to give up on it?
Oh yeah, I do. But I still keep the idea. Maybe sometimes I’ll need a middle part, or I’ll need a chorus or something, you know? There’s a song on the record called “Army of Storms,” and the chorus has been there for many, many years, from the days when we did the [2009] album Hordes of Chaos — it didn’t turn into a song then, but it turned into a song now.

Many of your songs are political and serious in nature, but then there are songs like “Satan Is Real.” Do you worry that the more fantasy-oriented stuff may make it more difficult for people to take your political songs seriously?
Ah, no. The lyrics of “Satan Is Real” don’t talk about fantasy — it’s about the relevance of religion in this day and age. See, when I was a kid, I was growing up in an environment, in the ’80s, where I thought, man, the next generation — we are a part of the generation where religion will lose its relevance, and people will not take it seriously anymore, and we can leave it behind us and evolve into something new and something exciting. And then I find myself in the year 2016, and all of a sudden I figure out that, you know, Satan is still real, so to speak. You know? The song is not about Satan — of course not. I left that behind. Of course, it’s not a fantasy song. There’s one song on the record called “Lion With Eagle’s Wings,” which would maybe be a fantasy song, because I was referring to a Mesopotamian sculpture that I’d seen, that was a lion with eagle’s wings, and I was imagining myself flying over ancient Babylon and taking a different perspective from what I see on Earth. Sometimes it takes a different perspective to look at life and change things. But even the songs that seem like fantasy songs are not really fantasy songs.

Do you care at all if your messages reach people outside the metal community?
You know, when you’re a musician, you don’t think like that. You just want as many people as possible to listen to what you do. But you cannot force these things. In Germany, we have crossed over to an audience that is not a metal audience — Kreator is one of the few metal bands from Germany that tour internationally and is respected all over the world, and for a certain group of people, that becomes interesting. So, every time I do interviews with these kinds of [mainstream] magazines, it’s interesting, because it’s a different perspective, and makes me see my band in a different light. So, yeah, everybody’s welcome — even the people that are not into metal can listen to Kreator. But do I care? It’s something that I cannot influence.

Jürgen Reil, your drummer, has been on every Kreator album but one. What does having a partner like that give you, creatively?
Oh, it’s great. It’s great to have a stable lineup; it’s great to have people that believe in the band as much as I do. We’re a team, you know? When it comes to playing, we’re a team, and everybody’s equally important.

And creatively, you can write a riff knowing how he’ll approach it from a drumming perspective …
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. But that also works for the rest of the guys — it’s the same with Sami [Yli-Sirniö, guitar] and [bassist] Speesy [Christian Giesler]. When we get into a room, you forget about the struggle to get to where you are. When you’re in the studio, sometimes you can lose your mind, because it’s very hard — the creative process can be very frustrating sometimes. And the traveling life, to go from one place to the next, can sometimes be really hard, but it’s all worth it at the end of the day. It’s still fun; it’s still about the music. And that’s what connects us: the music.

Courtesy of Robert Eikelpoth

Some political commentators have said that with the election of Donald Trump, Angela Merkel is now the leader of the free world. Do you think Germany is in a good position to capitalize on a weakened U.S.?
[Laughs] That’s a tough question for me to answer, because I don’t know too many things about politics to give a precise answer, so I’d rather not. I think politicians — there are some good ones and some bad ones, and there are political opinions and political waves. Right now, it seems like the world is going very right-wing, conservative, populist, and Angela Merkel, she’s from the Christian Democratic Union, which is a very conservative party. So, for her to be leader of the free world, if you would have said that to me 10 years ago, I would have given you a different answer. Nowadays, it’s almost absurd that you would say that, but I know where you’re coming from.

Many people are worried about that resurgence of right-wing parties and activists. Do you think there’s a place for resistance within the music scene?
Absolutely. Music has always been about freedom, and even though there’s a demand for easy solutions in complicated times, some people do not get it — they cannot attach to new technologies and these new times that we are all in. So, everything is getting really confusing. There are terrorist attacks left and right, and there are all kinds of opinions and all kinds of political confusion. Of course, people are looking for new leaders to get them out their confusion, but I doubt it’s going to be one of those people. They’ll wake up one day and the pendulum will swing back to the left side again, and we’ll meet somewhere in the middle, I guess.

Have you played shows with bands with whom you had serious political disagreements? How do you handle situations like that?
You have to be open-minded. The thing is, you can be a conservative — it’s fine with me. You can be right-wing, and maybe I’m not interested in talking to you, but if you can explain your position, that’s a different story. There’s different opinions, and sometimes you have to agree to disagree. Which is something that I had to learn over the years. I used to be very different. Somebody that has different beliefs than I have doesn’t necessarily have to be wrong in this world — there’s different perspectives, different experiences people have that lead them to have a different view on things. So, who am I to judge? My advice is to be as open-minded as possible. If it gets really stupid, of course, fighting back is the only option, but not in a physical way — more with arguments. You know, talking can sometimes help, and being intelligent about things, and reflecting on things, rather than judging, is the best thing you can do. You know, music and politics have always been a bit difficult, because I think music should take you away from that stuff. Why would you think about politics all day? I think music is so beautiful, and such a great form of communication — why would you think about politics while playing music? It doesn’t feel right. But on the other hand, it’s also an expression of freedom, and if there’s people who want to fuck with freedom, I’m the first one to fight for freedom, you know?

You’ve been a vegan for a while now, and I imagine that could be tough on tour. Where’s the worst place to find vegan food? My guess would be Argentina — like, if you don’t want a steak, they’ll throw you out of the restaurant.
[Laughs] Actually, I had a great vegan meal in Argentina, even though it seems like everything has to be about steak. You know, one other place I never thought would be so easy to travel as a vegan was Russia. But I was very lucky. The last time we toured, we did an extensive Russian tour with more than 20 dates; I was in a situation where I was like, "Fuck, this is gonna be tough," and then I found out that they have these orthodox religious holidays where the diet would be a vegan diet. So, it was a great coincidence — everything was vegan, all of Russia turned vegan all of a sudden. That was a cool coincidence. You can find vegan stuff everywhere, because … lately I’ve tried to get away from the term "vegan" a little bit, because I think “plant-based” is the right choice. Because you can also eat vegan and be very unhealthy. I try to not eat processed food at all, so plant-based is the thing to do, in my opinion. Anything that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food, there’s something dodgy about it, you know what I mean? The vegan hype, a couple of years ago, when all of a sudden everything was available in a vegan version, you had to be really careful, because you’d eat as many bad chemicals with some of the processed vegan mock meat as you would do if you were still a carnivore or an omnivore. So, I think the key is to eat fresh, if possible local, and plant-based.