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