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How Leader of Down are keeping the memory of Motörhead guitarist Würzel alive on new album

Leader of Down
(Image credit: Cleopatra Records)

After 11 years cranking out riffs at Lemmy’s side, Michael ‘Würzel’ Burston kept an uncharacteristically low profile after leaving Motörhead in 1995. In 2008, though, he formed Leader Of Down with bassist Tim Atkinson and began work on an album, Cascade Into Chaos, that was completed with cameos from Motörhead alumni after Würzel’s death in 2011. 

New album The Screwtape Letters finds Leader Of Down sharpening their signature blend of high-octane riffing and insistent hook lines. Atkinson tells Classic Rock how he’s taking the band forward and keeping Würzel’s memory very much alive. 

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How did you meet Würzel, and where had he been since leaving Motörhead?

We met through a mutual friend. He’d done bits and pieces, and was happily going on with his life. We started doing rock school clinics. He’d get them learning songs, I’d play bass. We got on so well, I said: “We should form a band.” He said: “I’ve been waiting two months for you to ask. I didn’t think you’d want to do it with me.”
That’s how Würzel was, so polite and lovely. He said I got him back into playing, which was unbelievable, because I’d been a massive Motörhead fan since I was nine. We were such close friends. I miss him every day. 

Three songs on The Screwtape Letters have Würzel in the writing credits. How did you integrate his ideas?

Würzel and I recorded ideas [for] about fifty-six songs. There were riffs and choruses that me and Würzel had worked on, and I expanded on them with Alex Ward, our guitarist. Alex is very aware of Würzel’s legacy. I tried to keep to how we originally decided the band was going to sound, with elements of catchier Motörhead songs, like All For You, but without a Lemmy soundalike. 

Dennis Stratton’s appearance on Hitman aside, did you feel that the band needed to prove itself without guests this time?
Yeah, we wanted to make sure that we could get the band standing on its own. Matt Baker is singing every song on this record. He didn’t on the first, we had Whitfield Crane and Lemmy. 

The title track is inspired by a CS Lewis novel.

Yeah, the book is letters from a senior devil to a junior devil. My dad gave it to me when I was thirteen. He was a priest, same as Lemmy’s father. I was heavily into rock. He must have thought: “I’ll get him something more interesting, more sinister.” I thought it was great. Me and Würzel talked about books, and The Screwtape Letters came up. He said: “I’ve read that.” And because it was important to me, and something I’d spoken to Würzel about, I thought: “That’s a good title.” It seemed like a natural fit. 

Leader Of Down toured with Tank in February, and played a sold-out album launch show. Is the live scene recovering after the pandemic?

I think so. [We played] in Blackpool in May with Phil Campbell at a Motörhead day that had sold out, and we’re getting dates for 2023. We’re already starting to talk about the next record. We’ll move forward, it’s our own thing, but Würzel will always be honoured on the records and at the shows. He deserves that.

The Screwtape Letters is out now via Cleopatra Records (opens in new tab).