Sunday, March 5, 2017

Life through Death: Obituary's John Tardy Celebrates 30 Years of Brutality

They actually scared me.

It was barely the '90s, and I was barely in my teens. There I was, standing in a mass of people that was getting tighter and tighter. Before I knew it, my feet were off the ground as the crowd swayed back and forth to the dark sounds coming from the stage. I was too trapped to escape. As the force of the crowd pushed me back, Obituary singer John Tardy lunged forward – all blonde hair and screams.

“Turned inside ooooouuuuut!”

To John’s right stared the sunken eyes of guitarist Trevor Peres. I could feel the bodies around me close in even more. I was getting crushed… That's it... I was going to die... Somehow, I got out of there, but I'll never forget that moment when my life flashed before my eyes to the sounds of one of the most incendiary tracks on the Cause of Death album.

- Joel Gausten, 2013 

A lot has happened in the underground music world in the quarter century since the events described above took place, but Obituary is still here – dutifully delivering some of the most vicious Metal you’ll hear on this planet. Out on Relapse Records on March 17, Obituary’s eponymous 10th album is easily the heaviest thing to hit my desk so far in 2017. From the charge of album opener “Brave” to album highlights “Kneel Before Me” and “End It Now” to the punishing conclusion of “Ten Thousand Ways To Die,” this 10-track onslaught doesn’t let up for a second. In fact, it is not a stretch to place the album alongside the band’s first three albums – 1989’s Slowly We Rot, 1990’s Cause of Death and 1992’s The End Complete – a trio of releases as important to the development of American Death Metal as the first three Ramones albums were to the development of American Punk. Some groups mellow with age, but that doesn’t appear to be an issue for Obituary in the slightest.

Along with original members John Tardy, Trevor Peres and drummer Donald Tardy, the current incarnation of Obituary is completed by guitarist Kenny Andrews and veteran bassist Terry Butler (Death/Massacre/Six Feet Under). In 2013, Obituary made headlines when they launched a Kickstarter campaign for what eventually become their ninth album, 2014Inked in Blood. Although the band initially asked for $10,000, fans around the world helped them raise nearly $61,000.

The band’s huge success with crowdfunding – and their surprising subsequent decision to return to working with a label  – is one of the many topics I brought up with the extremely affable John Tardy when I recently phoned him for an update on all things Obituary.  

Why did you guys wait until your 10th release to do a self-titled album?

I don’t know; we really didn’t think that much about it. We don’t overthink things, and we don’t over-complicate things; we just kind to go with what we feel. I don’t know if there was any one reason in particular. We saw the artwork and we just liked the plain logo against the black background, and I guess we just really didn’t want to include an album title on that. Also, there were so many good songs on the record that it was kind of hard for everybody to agree and pinpoint one down and call the album after that. I didn’t even realize it was our 10th album until we started doing some of these interviews and people started pointing it out. With that in there also, it’s kind of fitting and it feels right at this point in time just to go ahead and roll with a self-titled album.

This is your second album now with Terry and Kenny in the band. How has having them involved ultimately impacted what Obituary is able to do at this point in time?

It is awesome. We do a lot of touring with a lot of bands, and there’s nothing worse than when you have a band that maybe has a couple of members who can’t be dependable. Right now, we just feel like everything is just rolling for us really good, and we’re just firing on all cylinders, we’re sounding great live and we’ve just been having a ball with it. I’ve know Terry since before I was even in Obituary and before he was in Massacre. I’ve known him for so long that it almost feels like he’s been in the band that long, to be honest with you. We’ve known Kenny for a long time, and he did some guitar teching for us and he filled in on bass for one tour with us. We’ve had a long history with Kenny. When things kind of ended with [former guitarist] Ralph [Santolla], I don’t even remember having a conversation on what we were going to do about a guitar player. It was almost just like, ‘Hey, Kenny, come on over and let’s just do this.’ It just kind of fell right in place. It’s awesome to have a band as tight as we are. We can be on a six-week tour piled on a bus, and we might have a rare day off and we’ll all call each other and say, ‘Hey, what time do you guys want to go meet for dinner?’ We’re just that kind of band; we all hook up and go out for dinner even though we’ve been on tour with each other for six weeks. That’s just kind of how we roll; it’s been really tight. It’s a great lineup for us right now. We’re really, really happy with the way things are going.

A lot of bands just come out of the gate with rage, speed and heaviness, but there’s always been an element of groove in Obituary’s music. Where did that come from? What was the inspiration for that in the band’s development?

I don’t know, man, but we do thrive on that. There’s definitely that thing. We like to go fast, but we like to really slow things down. I call it the ‘meat and potatoes’ rhythms that we come up with that just make the songs and make Obituary Obituary. I don’t know if I can exactly explain it; we don’t sit and fret all day long [and think], ‘We’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do that.’ We just kind of write songs, and the way they come out is the way they come out. Fortunately, those ‘meat and potatoes’ groove rhythms that just kind of get things going are what we thrive on and what make things fun... When we come across those cool groove rhythms, we just know right off the bat. We’re just like, ‘Man, we can’t wait to play that thing live!’ We can image 80,000 people in some festival or something kicking to that rhythm and going crazy. It’s definitely what makes Obituary Obituary, for sure.

Left to right: Kenny Andrews, Donald Tardy, John Tardy, Trevor Peres, Terry Butler (Photo by Ester Segarra)

You crowdfunded your last record and did extremely well doing it that way, but when that album came out, it was released on Relapse. Because the crowdfunding campaign was successful for you guys, why did you ultimately continue on a more traditional path and go with a label to do these last two records?

It’s an interesting thing. First of all, we’re the type of band that likes to do almost everything we can ourselves. We handle all of our business; we handle booking all of our own flights, hotel rooms and travel. We literally build our own websites; we handle all of our stuff. We do so much of everything ourselves; we make our own decisions and like to do all that we can. It started several albums ago; we were like, ‘Man, let’s just try to do this thing ourselves.’ Trevor and I would sit down and take notes and make phone calls and do things, and then we would tap out at the end of the day and say, ‘You know what? This is getting to be too much and we’re running out of time.’ We really got close with the last album to doing it… You’ve got two huge problems here with trying to do something on your own. The biggest one, I think, is distribution. You just can’t pull up with your car and a box of CDs and say, ‘Hey, will you guys distribute these CDs for us?’ It just doesn’t work that way. They want catalogs and catalogs of music; they make all these deals with these big record companies. Distribution is just a tough situation. No matter what you do, you’re going to need to get help from somebody on distribution at some point in time.

The other hard thing is marketing. It’s doable; the world’s much smaller than it used to be, and you can get away with a lot of things and kind of do that on your own. With a few phone calls, you can kind of do it, but if you really want to do a really professional, upfront thing and really be able to contact the people, you’re probably going to need some help. When we met the guys from Relapse, they were so cool about wanting to do whatever it is we wanted to do. They were like, ‘Hey, you guys just tell us what you want us to do, and we’re in. We’ll help you guys any which way we can.’ That was really important for us, because you’re looking at a band that, hell, we signed some contracts [when] we were with Roadrunner back when we were in high school, and they were just terrible. It’s music that we still don’t own today and music that I still can’t do anything with - all those early Roadrunner albums. It’s a painful lesson. It hurts to go back and look at those albums; it’s like, ‘God, I’d just like to have those back so I could do whatever I wanted with them.’ But it’s just not going to happen. What we were able to do with Relapse is maintain all that. We own all the music…That control and ownership of your music is so just awesome and such a good feeling to have. Working with Relapse has just been an absolute dream. It’s a collaboration with them that makes it so nice. It’s by no means a traditional record label. We get a lot more flexibility and a lot more ownership with the agreement we have and being able to own all that music.

The crowdfunding thing was great. Those Obituary fans who showed up and pre-ordered the thing… It was pretty touching to see that amount of support come out from them. We learned a lot, because we just wound up offering so many things... All we really wanted to do was to get people to pre-order the album, and then we offered bundles of a bunch of other cool stuff that you could get for a fraction of the price if you were to buy it. We really wound up offering way too much; it was a major project. We did it all ourselves; we all sat back here in this garage and we wrapped up and sent almost 1,000 packages out to people, and it was a ton of work and probably something I would not do again. But the fan support was quite cool to see.

The first time I saw you guys live was in 1992 on the Complete Control Tour with Agnostic Front. That was such a cool tour because it was so eclectic. What stands out in your mind from particular tour and era?

That was great! I thought that was a great mix. If I want to go out and see a show for the night, the last thing I want to see is four or five Death Metal bands right in a row that are just all doing the same thing, you know? To mix it up a little bit, to me, makes the night more fun. It’s good to hear a variety – without getting crazy, obviously. People aren’t going to want to go out and hear a Death Metal band, a Country band and then some Jazz band or something. You can’t get too crazy. We did our first Florida Metal Fest last year, and Madball came and played it. We had Trouble play it, we had C.O.C. play it and Obituary and Deicide played. It was a fun lineup; it was all good bands. That tour in particular with the A.F. guys was just awesome. We were all real young at the time. You’re looking at some of the first touring that we had ever done. To this day, we have a good relationship with those guys. We met Freddie from Madball [on that tour], and he’s a great friend of ours. You can look back at the friendships on every tour that you do, but that’s one in particular that was just cool, and I think it was one of those trendsetting kind of things where you can mix some Hardcore and some Metal at the same time, because those bands aren’t all that different from each other, even though they are somewhat different. Actually, Freddie puts on a festival in New York every year, and he asked us to play it this year. We’re trying to see if we can get that lined up to go and do that. He calls us up and goes, ‘Look, man. I know it’s a Hardcore festival, but these Hardcore fans all love Obituary, man! You guys gotta come play!’ Obituary has enjoyed that small bit of fans [in the Hardcore scene], and I think it goes right back to what you said earlier about those grooves in the music and the rhythms that we can get into. Those Hardcore fans love it when you can really get a crowd moving.

The band’s a couple decades into your career at this point, and you guys obviously play intense music that is physically demanding. I’ve seen young bands go on tour and get burned out after six weeks. What has been the trick to keeping yourselves in a proper space where you’re able to maintain your intensity through not only one tour, but multiple tours over multiple years and keep the ball in the air?

There’s not really any secret to it for us per se, other than when you get along with the people you’re with and just generally enjoy being around them, that’s your first hurdle for any band... The first thing that has to happen is you have to have tight band members who you’re happy to be around; there’s no questioning that. We also do so much of this stuff on our own that we’ve just kind of gotten good at taking care of ourselves, making our lives easy, knowing when not to push too much and knowing when to say, ‘You know what? We’re going to get hotel rooms’ and making the little decisions to make our lives easy so it’s not a frantic rush and everything’s out of control. When everything is nice and organized, you know what’s going on, everybody’s informed and everybody knows what’s happening and things go smoothly, that’s also real helpful.

You’re 30 years and 10 albums into Obituary. What are your big goals moving forward? What has this band yet to accomplish?

Coming from a band that really didn’t plan on doing the first album, to look back and see where we’ve been and what we’ve been through, we’re pretty satisfied. I think if this was our last album, I don’t think any of us would sit and look back 10 years from now and think, ‘God, I wish we would have done it longer.’ I think we’ve been pretty fortunate; we’ve had a great run at what we’ve been doing. We’ve had absolutely life-changing experiences touring around the world to fortysomething countries. It’s been awesome. At this point in time, as long as we’re still having fun and we want to do things – we want to go on a tour and we don’t need to go on a tour, and we want to do an album and we don’t need to do an album – whatever happens from here on out is just kind of gravy. As long as we’re having fun, we’ll continue to do it. If something is not so fun, then it’s something that we’re not going to get into.
*Portions of the above interview were edited for length and clarity. 

Photo by Ester Segarra

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Graham Bonnet Writes (and Sings) "The Book" on Longevity

Graham Bonnet is going to be 70 this year, but you certainly wouldn’t know it by listening to The Book, his new double album with the Graham Bonnet Band. Best known to Hard Rock/Metal fans for his standout work with Rainbow, the Michael Schenker Group (MSG) and Alcatrazz, the British singer still boasts one of the most powerful voices in the business. Joined on The Book by bassist Beth-Ami Heavenstone (Hardly Dangerous), guitarist Conrado Pesinato (Hardly Dangerous), former Alcatrazz keyboardist Jimmy Waldo and drummer Mark Zonder (Fates Warning/Warlord), Bonnet presents a full album of new material plus a second disc (featuring keyboardist Angelo Vafeiadis) of re-recorded classics from various eras of his career.

The Book serves as a fresh reminder of the talent of a man who’s been rocking stages around the world for five decades. Bonnet’s first experience with stardom came when he was one half of the Rock duo The Marbles, who scored UK hits with the Bee Gees-penned tracks “Only One Woman” (1968) and “The Walls Fell Down” (1969). In 1979, Bonnet’s career hit another major milestone when he replaced Ronnie James Dio in the legendary Rainbow. Although his trademark voice and ’50s-influenced, decidedly unHard Rock image were initially a shock to many fans, his version of the band scored hit singles with “Since You’ve Been Gone” (written by Russ Ballard) and “All Night Long.” After one stellar album with Rainbow (Down to Earth), Bonnet moved on to a brief stint with the Michael Schenker Group before forming Alcatrazz with Waldo, former New England bassist Gary Shea, former Alice Cooper drummer Jan Uvena and guitar god Yngwie Malmsteen (later replaced by Steve Vai and Danny Johnson, respectively). Alcatrazz lasted long enough to release three albums (including 1983’s essential No Parole from Rock 'n' Roll) and carve a niche for themselves in the early years of MTV with the videos for “Island in the Sun” and “God Blessed Video” before going their separate ways. (Bonnet has recently started playing some “reunion” gigs with Shea and Waldo under the Alcatrazz banner after doing occasional gigs over the last decade or so under the name with no other original members.) Since the dissolution of Alcatrazz as a full-time recording entity, Bonnet has toured and/or recorded with a vast array of artists including Impellitteri, Forcefield, Blackthorne and Japanese rockers Anthem.

When not spending time fronting legendary acts, Graham maintains an active solo career that began with an eponymous album in 1977. Other titles released under his own steam include 1981’s Line-Up, 1991’s Here Comes the Night and 1999’s The Day I Went Mad.

Talkative and often brutally frank, Bonnet recently gave me a few minutes of his time to discuss The Book and reflect on some key topics from his past.

It’s clear that this album is being promoted as a band release as opposed to a Graham Bonnet solo project. Why go in that direction with this particular combination of players and put it out under a band umbrella?

When this band first got together, I was playing with Alcatrazz and going out and doing all the Alcatrazz music, Rainbow music or whatever. One night, I went to jam with Conrado and Beth-Ami at the Whisky; they were playing with their band at the time. I went up just to do a couple of songs, and I really enjoyed it because we did something that was a little bit different. We played a Beatles song and a Badfinger song…We did like three tunes, and I just looked across the stage and thought, ‘I like this! This is much more fun that doing the same thing over and over again.’ I actually fired myself from Alcatrazz – the 12th version of Alcatrazz, that is. Basically, we went out and just played Alcatrazz music; it wasn’t [with] any of the [other] original members. I always feel comfortable within a band situation; it’s always nice to have other people’s opinions about music I may come up with – good, bad or indifferent. It’s nice to work with a band, and these guys have made life a lot easier for me because we’ve become very close and they help me a lot musically. They have some ideas I would never think about.

Mark Zonder’s a great player, and he’s all over the place on this record. How would you say his style compares to Cozy Powell (RIP) from Rainbow and some of the other big-league drummers you’ve had behind you over the years?

It’s totally different. Mark is one of those guys who can play something exactly the same every time. He’s done a lot of sessions in the past as well. He’s a very, very on it. He’s a great drummer – no doubt about it – and he’s a great asset to the band. When he came in, he helped with the arrangements and stuff like that – editing songs, putting different rhythms in here and there – whereas Cozy was a guy who had a very different kind of feel. He was very laid-back with a Bluesy feel to his style of drumming… Cozy played and interpreted songs totally different than the way Mark does, I think. Mark is very on the 1-2-3-4, dead on the click, whereas Cozy would try to pull it back. That’s the difference between the two of them. I think Cozy was a very sexy drummer. There’s a difference between being really good and very kind of sleazy and sexy. The music we do kind of involves sexiness or being dead on and really musically correct. It’s hard to sort of compare the two guys because they’re just totally different.

Your experiences with Jimmy Waldo date back decades now. What makes that musical relationship continue to work so well?

Jimmy’s been my friend for a long, long time. He came in much later when we almost finished all the tracks… God, I don’t know how many years it had been since I’d seen him. Thirty years, maybe? A long time, anyway... I’m very happy to have him back; he reminds me of the days when we used to put tracks down together, and we still have got that Alcatrazz-y, Rainbow-y sound we had back then, which is a very comfortable feeling. He’s done a good job.

You’ve certainly had a history with great guitar players. What does Conrado bring to the Graham Bonnet Band?

A little bit of individuality and youth, I think. Like I said, it’s nice to have people’s input musically, because sometimes I drift off into my own little world of whatever it may be. It’s nice to have an opinion and someone to sort of steer me the right way. I think Conrado has brought a more modern sound… He’s a guy who’s developing very well; just about every day, he comes up with new ideas. He was someone who was a little nervous [and] intimidated by the players I’ve played with before, like Yngwie and Steve Vai. He’s been a fan of both those guys; he wants to develop his own style, but at the same time when we play [an old] song, he has that same feel that Yngwie or Steve put into those songs that we still play live. He’s come a long way; he’s very inventive and a really good guy. He’s so easy to get along with; it’s a pleasure to have him around.

How would you say Beth-Ami completes the picture of the Graham Bonnet Band?

Well, it was her and I who started up this band together. We met up with each other every day because I had some ideas about doing an acoustic-type band, which of course didn’t happen in the end. But we got together just over two years ago. I had songs that I’d already sort of half-written; I played them to her, then she had her input and let me know exactly what direction the thing should go in. Then we brought in Conrado to do the acoustic thing, and we all eventually realized that this wasn’t going to be an acoustic bunch of songs at all. We needed to bring a band sound to the whole thing, even though [the acoustic project] was a good idea. Beth-Ami suggested that; she’s worked very hard on this altogether and has given me the confidence again to be in another band and actually think that something good can come of it… It’s nice to be there, and it’s nice to think that she took me in and encouraged me, really. She’s like that with all the guys in the band. She’s very strong-willed but has some great suggestions sometimes musically. I appreciate that from her very much.

I saw the 360-degree video you put out for “Into The Night.” What did you think when you saw that played back for the first time?

Well, I didn’t get it; I thought, ‘Whoa!’ The way it was filmed was very sort of,’ Okay, do whatever you want.’ The guy put the camera down on the floor – it was a little ball-shaped thing. – and he said, ‘Well, just jump over the camera and just move around wherever you want to go, and the viewer is going to do the 360 thing and watch each individual they want to look at a particular time in the video.’ It was very quickly done… It was very ad lib. I looked at it and I thought, ‘Well, this looks a bit strange.’ I wasn’t very convinced. But then other people saw it and were going, ‘Wow! This is incredible!’ It was a new, gimmicky thing when we did it. It was something completely different… It’s a cool thing. At first, I was a bit iffy about it, but now I can see that it actually works.

How did the idea of doing the re-recordings for the second disc come about?

That was the record company’s idea – much to my chagrin, actually. It’s hard to do those songs again and feel enthusiastic about that after 30, 35 years on some of them. To record them again means you have to put them under a microscope and make sure that everything is kind of living up to as good as the old version or better than the old version, or that it’s good in its own way. I think the band actually reinterpreted the songs pretty much in a really good way; I just was worried about the vocals being sort of like the old ones. It’s a long time ago; it was hard to get through those songs and re-record ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ and ‘All Night Long’ and whatever else because the originals, to me, are still the better versions… To be honest with you, I can’t listen to them again because I like the way it felt to do those songs years ago. To do them now was harder work than the original sessions.

In addition to your voice, you’re known for having one of the more unique images in the scene. How were you able to maintain your identity and image back in a time when the industry was perhaps calling for a much different look for a frontman in your genre?

I really didn’t think I belonged when I joined Rainbow, for instance. I went to sing the audition with a suit and tie on; I looked like a bank manager or whatever. There were a few jokes and snickers around the room when I approached ready to sing my audition piece. But after I had done the song, they all smiled and laughed and made me sing two or three more times over to make sure I wasn’t kidding when I sang it. I got the job not because of my suit or whatever, but because of my voice, I hope. The music comes before the way you look. But I’ve always been into 1950s music and the 1950s look, and I wasn’t going to change just because I was asked to join a so-called ‘hair’ band, a Heavy Rock band or ‘Heavy Metal’ band, if you will. It wasn’t my thing; I never knew who Rainbow was, so it was totally different for me. Eventually, I fit in; they got used to me looking the way I looked. As long as I sang okay, everything was good. With the album I sang on, I sang my heart out because it was something I had never done before; it was all new music to me. I learned along the way from [then-Rainbow bassist] Roger Glover and from [Rainbow founder] Ritchie Blackmore how these songs were written, because I was used to more sort of R&B-type songs… I thank Ritchie and I thank Roger for guiding me through it, but it felt absolutely wrong for me to be there. [After the audition], I went home to my manager in London and said, ‘I don’t think I belong in this band.’ He said, ‘What the hell are you talking about? I heard you sang your balls off on the audition piece.’ I said, ‘But I look wrong. The music they’re playing is sort of classically influenced; it’s not like the stuff I do.’ He said, ‘You’ve gotta do it.’ I went back again to finish off the album… It worked out well, but it was a long procedure because it was something totally new to me. I felt very, very green and pretty much like a baby being introduced to this genre of music.

As far as what you’re doing these days, where does the Graham Bonnet Band go from here? What are your biggest hopes for the group moving forward?

We want to do two more albums. We want to do a Hard Rock album, which we’ve kind of just done, but I’d like to do an album that is a bit of everything – not just one kind of music. My background comes from R&B to Pop and Jazz... That’s how I grew up; when I was 14 years old, I was in a band that played all Jazz. We’ll mix it up as opposed to being put in one little area… I’d like to do something a bit more inventive or off the wall. But first of all, I think we’re going to do another album like the one we’ve only just put out.

*Portions of the above interview were edited for clarity. 

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