Keeping a band intact is not an easy task. Having multiple clashing personalities, musical interests and financial stress can cause a band to call it quits. Such a thing happened to New York's brutal death metal legends Suffocation in 1998. Six years later, they pulled together and decided to join the new elite that had moved in. 2004 marked the return with Souls To Deny, and a new business sense that enabled them do Suffocation full-time. Metal Update had a chat with drummer Mike Smith about his return to the drumkit after 8 years, the band's reunion and their place in the new wave of death metal that is happening now.
Interview with Mike Smith of Suffocation on June 3, 2004.
METAL UPDATE: So how does it feel to be back?
MIKE SMITH: Truthfully, it feels great because we are all rejuvenated from the break that we had. So we all had the intentions we had when we were younger kids, and now that the scene is more receptive and actually know who we are, to whatever degree that may be, it's making the whole road seem a bit easier than we remembered it. So, it's fresh and new to us again.
MU: What made Suffocation come back to the death metal world?
MS: It's just an idea that Frank had come up with at a time when all of us were in the right position to do that. In the back of our mind we all knew that we still had unfinished business to do with Suffocation. There was a lot of internal things that needed to be ironed out and we all needed to reflect, to remember what it is that we had and remember that's exactly where we want to be. If we got back into it, we felt we had the strength to do it with full intentions and not half ass it.
MU: How was the comeback lineup determined?
MS: We started by first calling everybody who was the main majority of Suffocation. That worked out fine by me, Frank and Terrance. But when it got to Doug, at the time our idea wasn't in his cards. He had a different route that he was taking at that time and he chose not to do it. Chris was up in the air because he wasn't original to begin with, so we called Josh and Chris as well. The outcome of that turned out to be today neither one of them. At the time we wanted to go to original members first to see who was with it and if that wasn't the case then to go with the next step, with those who were more familiar with us coming up from when we were younger to this date, which is Guy Marchais. He was originally in Internal Bleeding and Pyrexia and very familiar with us from the very beginning. He was in the band when we were all deciding if Suffocation was something that was ever gonna be. So, it was only the right decision. And then after getting rid of Josh, we just dug to look to the new breed to see who was a fan from the beginning. So we gave Derek Boyer a shot, and that's the lineup we have today and it's pretty much the strongest lineup we've had mentally and physically.
MU: What led to the band's breakup in '98?
MS: In ‘98, I wasn't in the band at that time, but knowing the band as I do, I know there was internal conflicts between members. The scene was dying out. At that time, it wasn't like you could live off of Suffocation. You'd always have to have the 9 to 5, which prevented full impact on touring and the things that most bands do. At that time, you had to make a decision. Do you have it in you to keep pushing full strength, which the band wasn't full strength at that time because of all the member changes and internal conflicts. Or do you set it down at a high note and go back to normal living and make some real money. At that time, that was just the decision that needed to be. And as you can see, things change because now we're back full strength. Who cares about the past anymore?
MU: What made you leave after Breeding the Spawn?
MS: The fact that one, the album that needed to follow up Effigy, the album that needed to be the heaviest thing ever, came out to be so much less at the time, production-wise and just the whole vibe of recording it. That turned me off. I didn't think the label was really backing us or the scene to where it was in the future where you can see, "OK, maybe I actually can do this and survive." But the key thing to doing it is to be able to survive while doing it. It may not be for some, who can just float throughout the majority of their life, but for myself and the most of us, we have to have real things to get through and be successful. At that time it wasn't happening. I wasn't really happy with the way the label was pushing us. I didn't think it was going to do what we needed it to do. I had bills and I had to do other things. At that time, I don't know that me and the band were in any turmoil. I know we had just gotten off of tour around that time and we may not have seen each other for a few weeks where that just helped the decision. You know, whatever. I'll let it slide now, and if I'm supposed to be in it, I'll be in it later on. And that's just the way it turned out. Karma works fully in my life, and I knew that if I left it then, eventually Suffocation would end up in my life one way or another. It just wound up being 10 years later. To me it doesn't really matter because after leaving that and getting into normal life, that's when I became healthier than I was when I was 17, doing drugs and thinking death metal was life. After all that, I got stronger, got better, wiser. Now my business sense of the music is 100% and that's why we can be successful today. It was just the right thing to do at that time. I may not have known it, and I may not have felt that at that time, but the karma worked out right where it made complete sense.
MU: What did you do personally and musically within that 10-year span?
MS: Personally I bought a house, got married, raced a lot of motocross, my first love. I dibbled and dabbled with music here and there, and all aspects of music from jazz, and I did a hip-hop rock type of mixture just to throw it in the face of these hip-hoppers that thought they knew anything about the rock and mixing it at that time. Just kept myself busy. I wasn't practicing death metal drumming or worrying about writing, because if I wasn't in Suffocation, I wasn't interested in being in a death metal band. I was just doing the things that responsible people do.
MU: Was it easy to get the death metal chops back?
MS: Yeah, I think so. It took me about 2 weeks to get my feel together again. Then all I had to do was listen to what the newest progression in death metal is out right now, which at first was a little overwhelming, being the wave of grindcore that had turned up. I had taken 8 years off without touching the drums, so I'm not worried about what I could do or what I will be able to do as time progresses. I don't think that death metal has left me behind by any stretch of the imagination. After the two weeks that I had gotten back in it, and being that we had to write a new album that had to be at the caliber of what's out immediately after reuniting, I really didn't have a choice not get my skills back up. So it all worked out. The pressure that the label gave us to get it done definitely helped to get myself back to the level that I needed to be in order to stay with the new breed.
MU: Your new album, Souls to Deny is out now. What did you set out to accomplish musically with this album?
MS: We weren't trying to overtake the grindcore. Our intention was to make sure that we grab an aspect from every single album we have out and every style that Suffocation had. We want the fans to know that there's nothing we are lacking that we had in the past, and that there's nothing that we can't do that is new and updated in the death metal scene. It was pretty much destruction across the whole board. Let them have it. Those who have known us for 15 years, let them have a feel of Effigy in it. Those who are just getting to know it, let them know that we still have the speed of Despise the Sun in it and blend all of those together so that on the follow-up album our point was already proven. Now we can put it on any direction we want to put it.
MU: Did the lyrics take the same path generally?
MS: The lyrics? That's all Frank's brainchild. I know he's still angry of course, like most of us are, but I think his lyrics are more realistic things that could go on in his life or have gone on in his life that make him think in a death metal vein. You're better off asking Frank if you want to get to the details of that.
MU: Tell me about your video. What did it entail and how long did it take?
MS: We shot the video at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. One of the coldest days, I must say, in creation. You wouldn't see it in the video. And we did it in about one workday, 7 hours. It was taken in multiple spots of the prison. We played the song like 16 or 17 times and just took different pieces from each time of playing it. And tried to capture the feel of a historic prison, supposedly haunted, and let the fans see us in our element because they've never seen us. Especially on TV, where they're showing Suffocation how we feel we are, aggressive and deep into the music. We made this more of a live, closed-captioned kind of video so fans could see us in our element and get a good feel as to what we want to come out as. It was a fun time. Everybody knew why they were there, and there was no time wasted. We just kept it moving and it turned out to be a good one.
MU: What do you think is your best album so far?
MS: It's tough to say because I truly love all of them for what they are. I'm gonna say Souls because there's more to it than just the music. It's the mentality that the band needed for 15 years that we are just reaching now. Everything that had to do with the creation and putting out of that album was positive. There were no negatives involved. On an overall consensus, I would say Souls is. For nostalgia and impact wise, I would have to say Effigy of the Forgotten.
MU: Yeah, most people would agree. You're playing was so amazing on that.
MS: Thank you. Yeah, but like I've said, we've been through so much in the band that if the music was good, we mentally weren't. We were in there fighting and business was shot. It's really a whole picture thing with us, as to how an album reflects on us.
MU: I'd have to say your most disliked album would be Breeding the Spawn, right?
MS: Yeah, I dislike it because of the time period. The quality that it came out. But, the intention that was in the music, the music on there, if it was represented right it may have beat all the albums. It's one album that we don't play because of it. We left it behind, which we shouldn't have of course. We should be playing all of those songs for the fans too. But I definitely don't hate it. I think that we put more work in the writing process than any album we've put in. We don't expect any more out of the fans because we reacted to it the same exact way.
MU: When did you start playing the drums and what kind of training got you to the level you are at today?
MS: I started in 1983. I was 13 years old when I started and at that time of course death metal wasn't there. That wasn't my drive to get into drums. I was pretty much Zeppelin, Ozzy, Black Sabbath, Maiden, and of course, started coming into the heavier time of life when it started with Anthrax, Exodus, beginning Metallica, beginning Slayer. Those were the ones that got me. Thinking of how music is supposed to be first off, diversity wise, texture and layering things so that the drums make an instrument in the band. Those are the bands that I contribute that to. After I got a taste of what Slayer and Venom and early Metallica were bringing, that's at that time which direction I was meant to be in. From there I just took it, grabbed a piece from all of those, blended my style and before you know it, my own style came out of that. Because we started forming bands at that time. If you were to listen to music that me, Terrance and Doug were playing when we were 15 years old, pre-Suffocation, today you could play those rhythms and it would be sick, insane stuff. It was something that after I got a taste of what could be, what the options are, it was easy to fall into my own style for death metal.
MU: Which drummers have been influential to you?
MS: In death metal?
MU: No. Anything.
MS: I would pretty much go with the list that I gave. From listening to Ozzy and his whole lineup of drummers that he's always had. I was into Lars when I didn't know anything about death metal, because death metal didn't exist. Lars Ulrich gave an aggressive side to me. Then I realized what the real aggressive side was when I heard Lombardo. That changed everything up for me and I said, "OK, there's no limits to what's going on at all." And then of course the beginning of death metal started and at that time we were already in the basement working on what it was going to be. We just didn't realize it was going to be called death metal at the time. So at the time that death metal started, we already had our feel and our vibe. Take Slayer, take Morbid and take Lars Ulrich, mix em all together and come out with something blistering, which is just natural progression when you listen to that, you know?
MU: What kind of music do you listen to nowadays?
MS: I listen to as little music as possible. I've gone through a phase where I was focused in on so much of the music and so much of how the business was run and so much of how bands that I know are struggling, including myself and this and that. And it was getting me so upset everyday that it was in my best interest to stop following the scene. Stop listening to the music that's fed to us via MTV and all that stuff. It was really starting to physically bring me down. I've always found that for myself, the less music I listen to, the more able I am to write my own original stuff. It just turns out, from the years with Suffocation, I know that what we feel in our music that we write originally has always appealed to the crowd. The fans to the audience to anyone listening. So I learned to trust that, leave all the other music aside and just think internally as to what I feel musically. I think it's the best way in order to keep diverse in this scene, because the death metal scene is the only scene that I know of where you can lay 20 bands in front of you and give it to someone that doesn't know the scene, and all 20 bands sound exactly the same. I'm so against that, that I discontinued listening to death metal just to prove that in can still be done, it can still be fresh and you don't have to have any influence from anything that you've heard.
MU: How has the experience been so far with Relapse vs. Roadrunner?
MS: Night and day. Roadrunner was a big oiled machine when we got into it already, so to add us onto the roster wasn't making or breaking anybody. At Relapse, they really have to focus on their bands because they're still a label that's only pushing the music that doesn't sell. And being that we were the first band on their label, it's a relationship that we have that holds a lot of respect, and we don't have to tell each other what we've done for the past 15 years to get what we need today. It's a good marriage, it's a good relationship, and I think that they do a good job. And where they're not maybe focusing at one time, it's only a phone call away to bring it to their attention. You can't usually do that with most record labels. They don't want to hear from you unless they call you or demand something from you. At least with Relapse, you can call each member in that office at any time of the day and let you concerns be heard and get something done about it.
MU: You've been touring like crazy lately. Is this band your job now?
MS: Yup. Full time. For the record, it's the first time in all of the years that Suffocation is living off of Suffocation at the moment. And that's what the younger kids need to understand, is that it took that much time for us to go through all our problems, focus on the business and come back with enough business sense that we can run it the way it should be run to live. It's not enough that we're buying mansions by no means, but it's enough to where our business sense is right so we can compensate for not having to do the 9 to 5, and in turn you can spend more time on the road touring and being seen and doing what you need to do.
MU: So what tours do you have coming up in the future?
MS: We just got off the Morbid Angel tour. So we are going to Europe. We're leaving on the 8th of June. We're going to be there until the 29th of June. We're going to be headlining over there for a while and do a few major festivals like the Graspop and the Fury fest along with all the tour dates in between. I think Incision, Dementor and Disgorge will be the support acts on that in Europe. Following that, we'll be headlining another US tour that we expect to be out beginning to mid August. And if it's not headlining, then it'll be support, but it'll be for a band that can help us out at that time and do better for us. But either way, we'll be out a majority of the year. July is the only month that we are going to sit home and start focusing on writing new stuff and focus on whatever hasn't been focused on to date and we'll be out again.
MU: So your general future plans for the band would just be doing the touring thing and eventually starting to write the new album?
MS: Yeah, we have to concentrate on the touring now because we weren't able to do it in the past because of having to have home jobs and lives that had to be attended to. Now we have to hit all the places we never hit. We have a whole generation of new fans that have never seen us, so it's a lot before we actually exhaust it.
review of Suffocation Souls to Deny
review of Suffocation Effigy of the Forgotten
review of Suffocation in Concert
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