How Bullet For My Valentine became the biggest British metal band since Iron Maiden

Bullet For My Valentine 2021
(Image credit: Jake Owens)

On Saturday, June 5, 2004, Bullet For My Valentine played Download Festival for the first time. It was lunchtime, and the young Welsh band were fourth from the bottom of the bill on the Barfly Stage, sandwiched between cult alt-rockers Yourcodenameis:milo and long-forgotten East London pop-punks The Holiday Plan.

Few people there knew who they were – Bullet’s self-titled debut EP was still five months away from being released. But that didn’t matter. After six years of trying and failing to catch a break, they were finally on their way.

“The night before, we played the Camden Barfly with 36 Crazyfists,” says singer and guitarist Matt Tuck now. “We packed up the van, drove to Download, got there at four or five in the morning, no sleep, excited, then got up and played at one o’clock in the afternoon.”

Bullet had been putting in the hard yards since they’d formed in Bridgend as Jeff Killed John in 1998. They’d played every tiny club, beer-sodden back room and leaky shithole going, but this was something else. “We hadn’t been on a stage that big before,” says Matt. “The experience of it was challenging and demanding, but it felt like such a big moment.”

It was, but it wouldn’t be the last. Bullet were back at Download the next year and the year after that, jumping up a stage each time. Over the next decade and a half they became Download’s unofficial house band, making eight more appearances. They were main support on the big stage more than once, and even closed the second stage in 2010. But the holy grail – an actual, bona fide Main Stage headlining spot – eluded them. 

That finally changed in June 2021. Download Pilot was the first major British music festival to take place since the pandemic hit, and Bullet topped the bill on the third and final night. It was a reduced-capacity gig, and a mainly British line-up, but that didn’t matter. “We were aware of the situation, aware of what it meant for live music and aware of what it meant to us,” says Matt. 

He was excited and nervous beforehand, “which I hadn’t felt for a long time,” he says. “It was very familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like the past 18 months hadn’t happened. Very weird.”

But things really hit home towards the end of their electrifying set. “It had gone so well, everyone’s vibing and having a good show,” he says. “That’s when the emotion kicked in. It was a joyous moment, for the crowd and for us.”

Matt Tuck has had a good pandemic, if anything defined by widespread tragedy, untold misery and spiralling anxiety can be called ‘good’.

The unexpected pause allowed him to do the kind of regular-person things successful working musicians don’t normally get to do: cooking, cleaning, spending more time than usual with his family. He helped home-school his son and did Joe Wicks’ online workouts. He was running 10K a day until he got a stress fracture in his shin, which put him out of action for 10 weeks. “I didn’t get too caught up in it emotionally or get stressed out about it,” he says of the Covid situation. “That’s all you can do.”

He also managed to make the best Bullet For My Valentine record of the last decade in the shape of their self-titled seventh album. A 10-track, 45-minute assault of ferocity and intent, it dispenses with the stylistic wriggles that defined the last three albums and goes straight for the throat. The party line is that this is the sound of Bullet For My Valentine V2.0, though it doesn’t sound radically different to Bullet For My Valentine V1.0 – just meaner, leaner and in no mood to mess around.

“It’s not that different really. It’s still myself leading the charge and writing stuff. It’s just that transitional period is over,” he says, referring to the line-up changes that saw bassist Jamie Mathias and drummer Jason Bowld brought in to replace original members Jay James and ‘Moose’ Thomas between Venom and Gravity (a reluctance to talk about the latter pair today suggests there’s still tension between the various camps). 

It’s lunchtime and we’re sitting in a cosy pub in the backstreets of the well-heeled part of West London where Matt lives. He looks healthy, even a little tanned, like a man who has enjoyed a surprise holiday. But he’s a cautious interviewee – not unfriendly, but not given to big, dramatic statements or revealing too much of himself. At one point he says, “Do we have to talk about money?” in response to a question about how much his first, presumably measly royalty cheque was for. 

He’s understandably more enthusiastic on the subject of his band’s new album. For Bullet, he says, the pandemic was more of a help than a hindrance. They had always planned to take 2020 off, but suddenly all deadlines went out of the window. “It took the pressure off,” he says. “It meant we could focus on really working on these songs, getting them right.”

One of the album’s standout tracks is Bastards, a song that’s as anthemically blunt as its title. ‘Lies, denial, corruption, criminals,’ Matt roars, seemingly channelling the ire of a nation at the venality and incompetence of the ruling elite over the past 18 months. It’s about Boris Johnson and his cronies, right?

“It was kind of wrapped up in that moment,” he says cautiously. “I tried not to make it a political song, because that’s not what the band are about. But we’re living through a really mad time now, so I tried to capture that without being too political about it.”

Where Gravity was an auto-biographical album, written as he was going through the process of divorcing his wife (they’ve since reconciled), this time around the likes of Parasite (‘I hate you / I hope you choke’) and Rainbow Veins (‘Diving head first into a black hole/Becoming unstable mentally’) come with a degree of distance.

“It’s hard with lyrics; you try to draw as much realism and emotion, because then it feels like it matters more,” he says. “I don’t shy away from autobiography, but I’ve said everything I need to say over the seven albums.”

June 2006. Bullet are dropping off their bags in their dressing room ahead of their first show opening for Metallica on the latter’s Escape From The Studio tour when the door opens. In the doorway is a figure they all know well, even though none of them have met him previously.

“Hi, I’m Lars,” says the figure.

“Yeah, we know,” chorus a gob-smacked Bullet For My Valentine. “Come in.”

Lars Ulrich steps inside and does what he does best, which is charm the pants off the people he meets. He tells Bullet how much he likes the version of Welcome Home (Sanitarium) they’d recorded for a recent Master Of Puppets covers album and generally makes the younger band feel welcome. Later, Matt bumps into James Hetfield and asks him for a picture.

“Was I cool and composed? Not at all,” says the Bullet singer with a laugh, and for a moment there’s a flash of Matt Tuck: Teenage Heavy Metal Geek. “They were these untouchable, mythical creatures, and suddenly they are here in front of us, flesh and bone.”

Metallica are the reason Matt is here today. Seeing Enter Sandman on TV at the age of 14 inspired him to pick up the guitar and teach himself to play it. That was it: no doubts, no lessons, just plunge straight in and do it. “As soon as you get the basics, off you go,” he says, like it’s the easiest thing in the world. 

Which of course, it isn’t. It takes focus and determination to pick up an instrument and learn it, even at 14 (especially at 14). “It’s just dedication,” he says now, shrugging. “If you want to take something seriously, there’s not really any other option than to do it the best you can.”

He was a county-level rugby player and a national-level basketball player in his teens, before his passion for music sidelined his other interests. “I never strove to be the best at anything, I just strove to be the best I could be at what I was doing, whether it was music or sports,” he says.

That drive is what saved his band from the fate of tens of thousands of long-forgotten groups who came before and have come since. For the first four or five years of their existence as Jeff Killed John, no one was interested.

“It was very hard and demoralising – you dedicate yourself to something, sacrifice a lot of yourself, don’t make any money, and you’re not getting anywhere,” he says. “There were moments when I thought about throwing in the towel and putting my energies elsewhere. Like, ‘Damn, this isn’t going the way we thought.’”

How close did he come to quitting? “Pretty close. I didn’t have a Plan B. I had a job in a record shop, but I wasn’t earning enough to be self-sufficient. I could have stayed in retail or worked in the factories. But then there was no other option. I was so passionate and motivated about music.”

It was, he says, the sheer will to succeed that kept him going. “That and having a belief that if we were given that opportunity we’d be alright. But it was hard work.”

Bullet For My Valentine 2021

(Image credit: Jake Owens)

One of the many unanticipated side effects of the pandemic was the way it forced musicians to find necessary hustles in order to keep the wolf from the door and generally make sure people didn’t forget they existed. This involved people putting themselves out there in any way they could, whether it was Matt Heafy owning Twitch or every single bassist from a C-list metal band appearing on some lockdown cover or other.

Matt Tuck was noticeable by his absence during that whole period. This was mainly down to having an album to record, but also because putting himself out there isn’t a very Matt Tuck thing to do. You won’t find him pushing his brand on TikTok or Twitch. Or onstage for that matter.

“I’m not the most verbal frontman,” he says. “I find it a little bit awkward trying to come up with stuff in between songs. I don’t really like to talk and have banter. I find it… not difficult, but I just don’t see that there’s any point in it.”

This reserve doesn’t come from a lack of confidence. In fact it’s the opposite – if there’s one thing Matt Tuck isn’t short of, it’s confidence. It was unshakeable self-belief that got him through the tough times early in Bullet’s career, after all. “I’ve always believed in myself,” he says. “Like with sport at school – I just wanted to be the best I can.”

There have been times when that self-belief has been tested, most notably around the time of 2013’s ill-starred Temper Temper. While that album is nowhere near the stinker its reputation suggests (though Matt admits it “wasn’t aggressive enough”), the mauling it received must have given even his bulletproof confidence a battering?

“No,” he says firmly. “Because you do stuff in the moment, and that’s what we were doing in that moment. At the time we wanted to get radio play, and that was what was needed. It wasn’t the most well-received record – I’m well aware of that. It’s never nice when you put your heart and soul into something and it’s not well-received. But you learn to deal with it.”

Ten days later, Bullet joined James Hetfield and co onstage at a big outdoor gig in Estonia for their cover of So What?. By that point any awe at being in the presence of their heroes had dissipated. As Matt stepped out in front of several thousand drunken Estonians with the world’s biggest metal band, one thing went through his mind. “Just take it in,” he says with a smile. “Enjoy it.”

From the outside, it seems like there’s been a lot to enjoy about being a member of Bullet For My Valentine. There have been countless bucket-list moments that would have blown away the teenage Matt Tuck – as well as Metallica, they’ve opened for Iron Maiden and a pre-reunion Guns N’ Roses (“I didn’t get to meet Axl Rose,” says Matt, sadly).

It’s unlikely he would have got to parachute out of a helicopter 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle while playing his guitar, as Matt did in 2016 for a Jägermeister stunt. “It was great until the wires crossed in the air,” he says now. “You shit your pants and think, ‘This is it.’”

Also in realm of the unlikely was an unexpected namecheck from Suicide Squad star Margot Robbie, who revealed she had been a teenage BFMV fan. “That was pretty wild,” says Matt. “But then she was a normal kid growing up in Australia who loved metal.”

But there have been tough times too. More than once this was down to Matt pushing himself as hard as he could. In 2005, during sessions for their debut album The Poison, he screamed so hard he began having palpitations. “I freaked out. So I popped to the hospital,” he says (it was a panic attack).

More serious were the vocal problems he had a couple of years later. The toll of touring, travelling and never having been taught how to sing properly blew out his tonsils. “I’d be ill for five days, OK for two or three, then dying for a week,” he says. “It was shit.”

He eventually had his tonsils removed, though not before low-level discussions about him taking a step back as singer and focusing on writing the songs and playing guitar. “It was just drama and fear going on, I don’t think there was ever a serious question of that happening: like, ‘What if he doesn’t come back?’” Could he imagine not being the singer in Bullet for My Valentine? “I can definitely imagine it,” he says. “I just don’t think it’s the identity of the band.”

He doesn’t push himself quite as hard now. This is partly due to fatherhood. “It’s definitely made me less full-on in terms of focus,” he says. “It made me more loving.“

What comes first these days: band or family?

“Family, definitely,” he says instantly. “That wasn’t the case before. It wasn’t even the case when this baby was a toddler. I was still riding the wave. And it’s difficult to slow down. But you have to learn to take your foot off the pedal. But as soon as we have with the last couple of albums, it’s like, ‘Oh, nothing happened, nothing went wrong, it’s OK.’”

For all that, he’s still unequivocally at the centre of Bullet For My Valentine. Matt doesn’t just write the songs and sing the songs, he plays a lot of the guitar and all the bass on them too. Isn’t that weird?

“No, it’s something we’ve always done,” he says. “A lot of bands do it. Jamie was given the option: ‘It’s your gig if you want to do it.’ And he was, like, ‘No, man, you’ll be locked in with the songs, it’s quicker if you do it.’ He’d have to learn 16 songs. That takes weeks, potentially. I could do it in a day.”

Does Matt expect the rest of the band to march to his beat?

“Not march to the beat,” he says. “It’s always a democracy – I like to have the band involved as much as possible in everything, but when a decision has to be made, all eyes come to me anyway. I’ve always been the main songwriter, and when it comes down to it, the guys just have to come along for the ride when it comes to the music most of the time. But thankfully they’re into it.”

This has caused issues in the past, not least with Padge. The guitarist was excluded from the recording process for Temper Temper, and both he and Matt have admitted there was friction last time around Gravity too. “He wasn’t really behind where we were going with it,” says the singer. “That was our stickiest patch. But we’ve known each other for a long time. You deal with it. Yes, there’s times when we bicker, but it’s a brotherly thing.”

Matt and Padge are the only two remaining members from the line-up that recorded The Poison. If the guitarist left, would Bullet carry on without him? Matt shakes his head. “I don’t think so, no.”

Bullet For My Valentine 2021

(Image credit: Jake Owens)

The late lunchtime rush is over, and the pub has quietened down. Matt has to head off soon to do the school run. He’s enjoyed this current normality, but then there’s another kind of normality waiting to reassert itself: the new album arrives in November, and there’s a UK tour kicking off a few weeks before its release, Covid permitting.

“I get the feeling people want to get out there and embrace live music, being in a room with 500, 1,000 other people who feel the same,” he says. “They want to feel life again.”

Download was a huge step in that direction – not just for the crowd, but for Bullet too. “I didn’t miss playing in front of an audience until that point,” he says. “We’ve been doing this for so long that you forget how cool it is. Then we got out there and it was, like, ‘This is fucking good.’”

When does he think they’ll be asked back to headline the fully fledged festival? “If the day comes where we get asked back to headline, that’ll be great,” he says, the model of circumspection. “Just being asked to do that one was an amazing experience.”

We talk for a while longer. He mentions the band carried on writing even after they finished the new album. They’re stockpiling songs, potentially for release as one-off singles drops and standalone tracks after Bullet For My Valentine comes out. “We seem to be on a creative roll right now,” he says. “Every time we go in the studio something cool happens.”

He talks about a guest appearance he’s made on an upcoming album by Norwegian singer – and Vikings actor – Per Fredrik Åsly, aka PelleK (“That guy’s voice is amazing.”). And he mentions he’d like to get out of the same old touring circuit they’ve played for the last 15 years. “You end up going to the same places,” he says. “It’s actually boring.” He wants to play places Bullet have never been: India and China. “That might be a while though,” he says wryly.

And then our time is up. There’s a young child to pick up from school. Matt checks his phone, offers a handshake and then he’s off, striding out the door and down the street, into a future even he can’t control. 

Bullet For My Valentine is out on November 5 via Spinefarm. The band tour the UK in October and November

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.