Wednesday, January 23, 2019

A World Undone: Sal Abruscato on Life with Peter Steele and A Pale Horse Named Death

Sal Abruscato (second from right) with A Pale Horse Named Death (Photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions)

A great album should always be more than just a collection of songs. It should be an experience that needs to be heard in full (and in several subsequent plays) to completely understand and appreciate.

In 1993, Brooklyn-born drummer Sal Abruscato was part of the creation of such a release, Type O Negatives immortal Bloody Kisses. Now, 25-plus years later, he has unleashed a new masterpiece.

Released on January 18, When the World Becomes Undone is the long-awaited third album by Abruscatos band, A Pale Horse Named Death (APHND). Again assuming vocal/guitar duties for the group, he is joined on the 13-track collection by fellow Type O Negative veteran Johnny Kelly on drums, bassist Eric Morgan and guitarists Joe Taylor (Lita Ford/Doro) and Eddie Heedles. With When the World Becomes Undone, those who have dearly missed Type Os unmistakable sonic stamp since the 2010 death of vocalist/bassist Peter Steele will feel that bands familiar vibe as they also hear where Abruscatos musical explorations have taken him since his early days with his former group (which many of us from the old NY/NJ scene of the late 80s/early 90s still fondly remember by their earlier monikers Repulsion and Subzero).

I recently had the honor of connecting to Abruscato (also formerly of Life of Agony) to discuss When the World Becomes Undone, his experiences as a drummer-turned-the-guitarist and the enduring legacy of his departed friend Peter. 

I’ve had the new record here for a few days, and I’m still digesting it, man.

It’s not a typical album that people just throw out there. We wanted to make this record a very cinematic, conceptual experience. I think it’s going to take a few times for some people to kind of get every part and get through it all, you know? It’s a very long record – 63 minutes, I believe.

Yeah, it’s not a record where you can listen to a couple of songs and walk away. Once you start it, you kind of have to finish it.

That was the intention. Nobody does enough of that anymore. This was like what the anthem bands used to do back in the day, like Floyd and The Beatles. You put [The Beatles] Sgt. Peppers on and you listen from the beginning to the end. Or [Pink Floyd’s] The Wall or Wish You Were Here. I think between the artwork and the conceptual stuff, that’s one of the things that’s maybe missing today in music. It’s one of the things that people are lacking. I think maybe that’s why there’s a good reception to this [record]. As ancient as the technique is, it’s very fresh in today’s environment, I think.

You’ve obviously got other guys in the band, and this is a band. When you went about doing this record in particular, how collaborative was it with the other musicians? Did you go into this knowing where it would go and let them know what you were thinking and guide them, or was there a lot of give and take?

The concept and a lot of the sketches of these tracks already began in 2014. I was going to do this album sooner. One of the reasons why I started this band was to have a musical direction of what I hear in my head to accomplish that. Basically, I would give them freedom to write their solos, but at the end of the day, it would be required that it worked with the song and things like that. I write all the lyrics. The orchestration was already happening in a way, but then I let everybody salt and pepper and add their little things in there. But I’m basically handing [them] the meat and potatoes, and then I let them add their little nuances. The reason why is because to retain the conceptual feel, I feel it’s kind of important that lyrics, music and melody somewhat start from the same source to have it all be cohesive and feel like it was born together. I’ve done so many records now in my life from various bands…There were times when there was a collaborative moment in other bands, but then it just sounded like a song that was pieced together by a bunch of parts and it made no sense. So I’m basically the map designer, and then I let everybody poke their little cities on there.

Johnny’s on the record, and you’ve got a hell of a history with him. What makes Johnny the right fit for you to kind of add those cities to the map?

It’s pretty obvious. I did the first three Type O Negative albums. I pretty much have a history of being like one of the slowest drummers out there back then. Johnny was actually my drum tech back then. When I left the band, Johnny kind of jumped in; it was like a natural thing because he was always like watching what was going on. He had to basically learn the previous material. He was also trained under the structure and guidance of Peter and [Type O Negative keyboardist] Josh [Silver]. He learned how to play slow because of what Peter wanted to do [with] replicating the older albums. He already had that kind of training in him. At the same time, we’ve known each other over 30 years. I’ve played with other drummers at various times – jammed with other guys while I’m on the guitar – and I’ll ask someone to play at a certain BPM, and they just can’t pull it off; technically, it is harder to play slower than it is to play really fast Metal. Because this has more open space and air for timing variation, it’s easy to fall out of it and lose the grip. When you’re going really fast, you’re filling up those notes so much that it’s easier to stay on point. Johnny was already basically trained by Type O.

When I did the first APHND record, the pre-production stuff, Johnny had a barbecue at his house. He heard it and was like, ‘Dude, this is really good.’ He was really impressed. Then, when we were talking on the phone, he was like, ‘You know what? Honestly, if you wanted to take this out live, I would love to play this stuff.’ It was right up his alley as well. That’s how the fit worked. He was trained by Type O’s vibe of playing slow and playing these kind of mid-tempo beats, and he likes these kinds of big orchestrations as well, because that’s how Peter wrote. So honestly, it’s a natural fit; it’s a no-brainer for him to play the songs. It’s like him stepping back into old shoes in a way. He’s going back to the same roots.

If I have your history right, you started playing guitar during the Type O era, and it was actually Peter who got you into that.

Yeah, totally. First of all, this goes back to 1983. I met Peter then because I started taking drum lessons from Louie Beato, the drummer in Carnivore. He was nine years older than me, and so was Peter. I was still a little kid when they were like 19 or 21. Louie took me under his wing like I was his little brother. He started taking me to Carnivore rehearsals. At that time, [guitarist] Keith Alexander was in the band, and they were rehearsing in Peter’s basement. Peter took a liking to me, like I was the little guy who hung out with them. I was just like, ‘Wow, man! This guy is amazing!’ He just was already an amazing musician back then. You just saw the theory, the talent. When I was in Type O, he made me such a good musician. He made me such a good drummer just by working with hm. He would write a lot of the Type O songs on guitar. He was originally a guitarist before he was a bassist. Back in the [pre-Carnivore band] Fallout days, he was playing guitar at first, then they needed a bassist and he switched over. It was all unintentional back then. He never wanted to be a singer, and then they couldn’t find a singer and he started singing.

Repulsion (pre-Type O Negative) demo, 1990 

He was a huge influence; I loved the way he played and the way he wrote things, and I kept on absorbing. In like ’90, I bought a bass and started playing on bass first. Then, I bought a guitar and started playing that. Even though I was becoming an accomplished drummer where I had already done [the first Type O Negative album] Slow, Deep and Hard and we were getting ready to do the other stuff, I was at home jamming on my shit – just playing guitar. That’s how it started. In the mid 90s, I got a four-track and started recording. I start pushing myself to learn how to write songs. I knew that one of the most important things aside from knowing the instrument was to develop the ear and learn how to piece together and orchestrate music. In the early days, I would stay through the whole studio session. It wasn’t like I’d do my drums and leave and not come back. I would stay until the record was done, and I would watch how Josh and Peter worked and orchestrated things. I would watch how Peter would come in the next morning with crazy ideas. Not only was he a friend from the neighborhood, but he was a mentor musically to me.

But then I quit the band. I was frustrated; I was also young. I was 23 and a half. When I recorded Bloody Kisses, I was still 22 turning 23. You can imagine when you’re at that age; you’re young, dumb and full of you-know-what. You think you’re a hotshot and you know it all. We would butt heads a lot. I wanted to tour a lot, and [Peter] was very scared to make the jump. I got really frustrated. That same year, I did River Runs Red for Life of Agony. They had a lot of touring ahead of them. At that age, I just wanted to leave town; I wanted to go on the road and get that experience. I did two tours with Type O, but it seemed to put a sour taste in Peter’s mouth. So, I left. But I still came in and out, watched him and watched what he did. I still listened to and absorbed what he was doing. I also started focusing on other writers, like Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi. I just started analyzing and dissecting their stuff in my mind. It was a self-taught kind of thing; aside from reading drum music, I’m not really fluent with sheet music. It’s all in my head; it’s all natural.

Recently, there was a vinyl reissue of Bloody Kisses for the 25th anniversary. A couple of years before that, there was the big vinyl box set. It seems that every time Type O gets something re-released, people get excited. People truly still love that band. Every band wants to write that song or that record that will still mean the world to somebody 25 years later – and Type O did that. When you look back now – particularly during the Bloody Kisses era – why do you think it still resonates? What was that magical formula that you guys had that enabled you to create this stuff to where it’s 2019 and we’re still talking about it?

You know, Peter was a prolific writer and visionary. If you listen to Bloody Kisses, it’s very much arranged just like Sgt. Pepper’s. A very conceptual, deep, Pink Floyd, Beatles kind of mentality and approach. The sitar…We did a lot of hidden nuances, which is something I try to do to this day. Those are the kind of records that, every time you listen to it – even 20 years later – you’re going to hear something that you didn’t hear before if you listen carefully. There are a lot of little things that go on very quietly – little nuances, little whispers and things. Then, the material…There was a lot of the New Wave-type of Goth stuff going on, but there was no one combining that Goth vibe with the Black Sabbath and The Beatles and then having that deep voice. The songwriting was stellar. Peter was just winging it and just doing what he felt, but his vision and cohesiveness were just so great. Keep in mind that Peter was heavily influenced by a lot of ’60s-type of music. He was big fan of all that stuff, and he was excellent at rehashing and recreating those similar amazing feelings you would get from those songs from back then. We did ‘Summer Breeze,’ ‘Hey Joe.’ He loved doing covers, but he also loved taking music and reinventing it. He had such a great knack at it.

There aren’t many great songwriters. I feel bad these days…We’ve lost so many great people. We lost Peter, we lost David Bowie, we lost Prince. I say to myself, ‘Jesus, these amazing songwriters are passing away.’ There’s no one stepping up to the plate who has that kind of talent and is so prolific. There isn’t anyone who is such an amazing songwriter and is so prolific they can do 30 albums and every one is fucking great. Peter had that gift to be able to do that – although I think that after [1996s] October Rust and [1999’sWorld Coming Down, things were starting to sound a little bit the same to me. But he knew what it took; he knew those formulas.

The music industry is not always the easiest place, for a number of reasons –


But for you, what still makes it worth it? What is the most rewarding thing you experience still being in the game this long?

I just like creating; I like hearing a song come together. That brings the most satisfaction. When you’re done, you know you’ve got something pretty good and you listen back to the fruits of your efforts…Honestly, I’m not in it to be a rock star. I’m not a rock star. I’m not into it for the sex and drugs; I’m not into it for anything like that. I’m just into the therapy of feeling like I’ve created and done something productive to justify my existence.

*Portions of the above interview were edited for clarity.

A Pale Horse Named Death Website 

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