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January 5, 2000
Perserverence is an attribute that shouldn't be taken lightly in the metal world. This is a tough business, and even signed metal acts generally have to work other jobs to support themselves. While at least the better known acts have passionate and loyal fans the world over, particularly in the death metal arena, very few are getting rich. These bands are serving for the love of the art, for the love of metal. And that's why nine times out of ten, when there is a serious setback like a label problem or a departing member, when the pressures of the business or the stresses of the relationship between band members make it no fun anymore, the band usually just folds up and calls it a day. Not Vital Remains. Ask bassist Joe Lewis a thing or two about perservence -- his band has been nothing if not the epitomy of the word for over a decade. Now, with the release of the critically acclaimed 'Dawn of the Apocalypse,' all of the label problems and lineup changes may have actually paid off. Vital Remains now seems poised to ascend to the ranks of the death metal elite. The Metal Update caught up with Vital Joe recently for a frank discussion of what his band has endured and where it hopes to be heading.
Metal Update: New album: 'Dawn of the Apocalypse.' It's getting you guys some new attention and critical praise. You are, of course, pleased with the reaction I'd assume.
Joe Lewis: So far the reaction has been totally overwhelming to me. More so than I ever expected. We didn't expect this much of a great response to the album. It's only been released since, damn, since the end of October. And so far I've been getting flooded with interviews from all over the world. And now America's even starting to pick up on it with Osmose here in the United States. They've been doing a really good job here. More than I thought they would. It's actually getting a lot of press in the United States. Osmose has always had a problem with distribution here, but now they have their own camp set up in California. And the distribution has been really, really good, and it's just starting to grow into something big. So I'm very, very happy and very satisfied so far - with everything.
MU: Do you see this album breaking you guys to a wider audience?
JL: I certainly hope it will bring us some kind of success as far as our status in the scene. We've been here for ten years now. This new album and our past album with Osmose is kinda like a new beginning for us. It's been good ever since we released 'Forever Underground. With that album and this album just being released, we've gotten so much better and so much more complex and creative with the music it's just bringing us to another level of musicianship.
MU: How much success can you have, doing what you do? How big a band do you think Vital Remains could be?
JL: Well, as far as the death metal scene goes, I think we could be sitting right up there with the elite, you know, the best of them. With Hypocrisy and Deicide and Morbid Angel. Cannibal Corpse. If you put out a great record, people are gonna listen to it and buy it and support you. Then there's touring. The selling of records will bring us tours. The more we tour, the more people will hear our music and will listen to us and find out what's going on with this band, Vital Remains.
MU: Do bands like Megadeth and Metallica exist in a different universe from you?
JL: It is definitely a different genre of music. But it's not that much further away from what goes on -- there's a death metal scene and a mainstream metal scene. Both scenes have their respective fans. Mostly, they both generate the same kind of situations. These bands release great albums. Death metal bands release great albums. People go to see them played live. Both scenes have bands that sell records. Maybe the bands from the death metal scene don't sell as many records as the mainstream bands. Because the mainstream bands have these big corporations that totally dump cash into the promotion and stuff. Whereas the death metal scene, we really have some good record labels that are supporting these bands as far as putting money into promotion and all. But most of it is all based on word of mouth and people liking the bands. I don't think that the status of death metal -- I don't think it's that much farther away. The death metal scene could be just as big as the mainstream. I mean, it's coming around as we grow older in our time, as the universe goes on. Now is a time where brutal music and extreme music have their place in this brutallic world.
MU: Does Vital Remains, as an entity, identify more with arena-level acts or garage acts? While you are neither, which group is closer to your peer?
JL: We definitely like to view ourselves, in that sense, where we would love to be able to play big arenas. That would be great. But we have to face reality. It's gonna be a long time before any of these bands can achieve something like that.
MU: What death metal band has had the biggest impact on the mainstream music scene thus far?
JL: I would have to say Morbid Angel.
MU: Have you ever done a show with Morbid Angel?
JL: Yeah we played with them a few times. Back in the day.
MU: Are they rock stars?
JL: Every time I've met them -- even when they played shows in New York, Boston, or our hometown, Providence, we've always supported them, always gone to see them. We actually booked their very first show, in Providence. This was on the 'Altars of Madness' tour. And since the first time we met them, to us they've never acted like rock stars. They're doing the same thing everybody else wants to do. They're in their band, they have great musicians playing the music, and they just have this gift of creating great death metal. And they're just doing what everyone else wants to do. They want to create albums. They want to tour. They were fortunate enough to come out with a great album at the beginning with 'Altars of Madness', and from there they just took it to the next extreme with each album. They've gotten a lot of success. A few bands have gained a lot of success like that.
MU: You spoke before of two different genres: mainstream metal and death metal. But don't you think that we're really all just one big metal family? We are all flying the flag of metal.
JL: Oh yes, of course. I think it's basically all one big metal scene.
MU: Like you guys played the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival -- there was a big mix of folks at that one.
JL: Pretty much all of the big festivals, when they happen, bring in all types and styles of bands. It's just a big gathering of all styles of metal. It's just great because people get to see their favorite bands and also get to witness bands that they've never heard of before - something new that they might find interesting. Maybe they're into mainstream metal like Overkill or GWAR or something. They see Morbid Angel, they see Vital Remains or Deicide, and they've never heard of them, and they like 'em and they get turned on to 'em. I like it. I think it's great.
MU: What does Vital Remains have to offer those mainstream metal kids? Are you playin' for them?
JL: We're playing for anyone who wants to come and see us. If there are people out there at a show and we are playin', we're not just playin' for our fans, we're playin' for everyone who is in that room. If we can achieve three or four more fans at a show, we've done our job. Maybe those four new fans will go out and tell their friends, "you should have seen these guys -- they we're great, they we're awesome live," or whatever, maybe they will go out and buy the album.
MU: Is the satanic imagery a show or a reality for you guys?
JL: In reality, we all have our own beliefs. Our own personal beliefs. We're not into any organized cults or organized religions. Our lives are all based around satanic themes. And not the satanic themes that the Christians created. They created their anti-christ, their Satan, their Lucifer, their devil. That's something they have actually given us as a gift. Something to write about. (laughs) To us, it is a way of life and a way of thinking. We happen to call it satanism because it's our own personal lifestyle - not necessarily a religion. It's like, we are god. We are our own creators. We control our own destiny. We don't follow anybody. We don't pray to imaginary idols or imaginary gods. We don't believe in that kinda stuff. Satan to us has kinda been our way of life. It's what we believe in. And it's been that way for a long time now. We're really happy with the way we are and the way we go on with everyday life.
MU: Do you hate Christians?
JL: No I don't. I really don't hate anybody. My door is open to anybody who wants to be my friend. If you respect me, I'm gonna respect you. If you stab me in the back, I'm gonna kill you. It's a very simple philosophy. I'm not gonna go out and make friends with people, just for the sake of making friends. I keep to myself. I go to work every day; I do the band at night. The band is a very important part of my life. But if you have a certain religion -- you believe in god, you believe in the devil, you believe in Allah, you believe in whoever -- I don't care. It's irrelevant to me. I don't judge people based on their religion, or their race, or what have you. I'm just a person in this world, doin' what I like to do. And that's that.
MU: Is it fair to say then that Vital Remains is more about the music than it is the lyrical content?
JL: Most definitely. We are a band. We grew up with ambitions of being musicians. Playing in a band, playing live, selling records. That's what we started doin', that's what we're doin' now. You know, fulfilling our dream, our childhood dream.
MU: You guys have been around a long time. Give us a bit of the history of Vital Remains, what you guys have gone through.
JL: The band formed in late 1988. The two original members that stayed together are Paul Flynn and Jeff Gruslin who started the band. Tony Lezzaro joined them, and they recorded their first demo 'Reduced to Ashes,' which is very, very scarce to find right now. There were only 200 cassettes made.
MU: What does that tape sound like?
JL: It's death metal. But back then, a lot of the lyrics . . . When Tony first joined the band, when Tony and Jeff joined in with Paul, they had already had lyrics and music written. It pretty much kinda had an evil overtone to it, a satanic overtone almost. But it more or less had to do with a lot of gory themes. And after that they made the decision that they wanted to start writing about some more mystical, meaningful topics. And they came up with -- Tony wrote all the music and Jeff wrote all the lyrics to the next demo, which was the 'Excrutiating Pain' demo which came out in 1990. That was released on about 500 cassette tapes, and was re-released on CD format by Wild Rags years ago. And again it's gonna be re-released by Osmose by the springtime on CD along with our 1991 'Black Mass' 7" that we released on Thrash Records out of France. It had two songs that we had recorded. That EP right there was the one that landed the interest from the record labels. One of the labels that contacted us was Peaceville. That is when I joined the band, right after the recording of the 7". Late 1991. The end of the summer in '91.
MU: What did the band sound like in '91?
JL: The 'Excruciating Pain' demo is kinda like that old, traditional, "death metal roots" sound.
MU: What other bands that were out at that time were you guys sounding like?
JL: It's really hard to say. Maybe towards a Celtic Frost, or a Destruction. It's really hard to explain, because there weren't really all that many death metal bands at that time that were really pumping out stuff like that. You had your popular bands like Slayer, Destruction and Kreator, and then you more obscure bands. Then Morbid Angel popped up with 'Altars of Madness.' Carcass. Carcass was pretty similar toward the same style, not necessarily the same sound. Just going toward that more heavier, more diverse style of metal. I'm not saying that we created anything. I'm just saying we were in there at the time. Doin' what we wanted to do.
MU: Well what happened with Peaceville?
JL: So the 7" gained us a lot of underground interest from record labels. And we got an offer from Peaceville to do three records and decided we wanted to take it. At the time it was a great deal. We were a young band, gettin' signed for three albums. So we went for it. And we did the first album 'Let Us Prey' and that was out in 1992. From there we did an American tour with Autopsy and Incantation and a band from Chicago called Morgue, I don't know if you remember them. But anyway, we didn't get any kind of support for European tours or anything like that. We didn't really get that much support at all from Peaceville. Actually, when we were ready to record the second album 'Into Code Darkness' Peaceville was going through some changes. I guess the record company was actually losing a lot of money and was gonna go bankrupt. So the owner of the company decided he was gonna merge with a bigger company and be like a sub-label of that bigger company, Music For Nations. They decided to make the deal. It took almost two years for this deal to go through, and we were bound by this contract and we couldn't really do anything about it. It was just like a total disaster for us, 'cause we were being held back. We wanted to release our music. So our second album didn't get released until two years after the first. And after that album was released we didn't get any kind of support whatsoever - we didn't get any promotion in any of the magazines. They didn't have a publicist for us to set up our interviews and get us to sell records. Obviously, they didn't really care too much to support us. So we decided that we were gonna break it off right then. We came to an agreement and we terminated the contract. And then we went shopping around. I made phone calls to many record labels around the world...
MU: And you do this stuff yourself?
JL: I do all this stuff myself. That's my job in the band as well as being the bass player. I do all the talking. I'm like the manager of the band. So, after we did the second album, we terminated that contract and I called up different record companies. Osmose seemed to be the most interested, and the most promising record label that was really into promoting us. So we ended up signing a two-record deal with Osmose. Right at that our vocalist quit the band for his own personal reasons... I really still don't know why. And Paul, our guitar player, he quit the band because I believe he was getting married at the time and he was going to go school to become some sort of pharmacist, or nursing school, or I don't know. And our drummer had gotten up and quit. So now it was only Tony and myself. Then when we were on tour in '94, in Las Vegas, we met up with a drummer. His name was Dave Suzuki. And we've kept in contact with him throughout the years, writing mail to each other. When the time came for us to look for a drummer, we decided we wanted to ask him. He came down and he tried out for the band. He was really happy with it, and we were really happy with his style and his playing. Two weeks later he came back with all his stuff and moved here to Rhode Island. Joined the band. And he settled down and got married to a girl here in Rhode Island. And at the time we still needed a vocalist. So what happened was, we recorded our new album for Osmose. And soon after the recording, we had a tour that was being all set up for us by Osmose, for Europe. And before we went to Europe we did an entire North American tour. Now, with all that was happening, we were still stuck without a vocalist or a lead guitar player. So we decided I would do the vocals and play bass on the album. And indeed I did. I wrote all of the lyrics for 'Forever Underground,' and I did all the vocals in the recording studio for the album. I did all the touring as vocalist. And we got a lead guitar player- friend of ours to do the tours with us, a friend of ours named Aaron. But he's not with us; he just did the tour.
MU: Let's focus for a minute on 'Forever Underground'. You wrote the lyrics -- what does 'Forever Underground' mean to you?
JL: 'Forever Underground' is basically a statement. At the time 'Into Cold Darkness' was released, Jeff had quit the band, Paul quit, and Rick our old drummer quit. It was just Tony and I left. And we were really frustrated. It just gave us this extra vengeance feeling that we wanted to -- what the hell, what the fuck, what do we do now? It just made us drive that much harder to succeed in creating a great record, and just accomplishing what we wanted to do. With all of those feelings stuck inside us, we released them by releasing 'Forever Underground'. What came out -- we wanted to give something to the underground that gave us the opportunity to release our artistic abilities into the world through this metal scene. We wanted to give something back to the scene that gave to us. I wrote the lyrics according to all of that. 'Forever Underground' -- it's just an anthem for the underground. "Forever true, forever black!" This underground, the metal, the music -- this is what drives us, this is what makes us feel great and we want to share it with you. "Forever true," you know?
MU: Were you consciously trying to do something anthemic with the music there as well?
JL: We were almost trying to create and an anthem for the underground. A song for all of the fans to say, "when you think of the underground, what do you think of? Maybe 'Forever Underground'." Maybe that's what pops into their heads, 'Forever Underground.' It's just kind of a fist-banging thing. And you can sing the lyrics along with the song and it will give you a feeling of satisfaction knowing that this song was written for me. I'm a fan of underground death metal, this song was written for me.
MU: The new album is a lot different.
JL: The ideas came after we were done touring for 'Forever Underground'. We decided to come up with a concept to write the new album about. Tony actually came up with the idea of 'Dawn of the Apocalypse'. It was 1998, and the end of the century was near. The new millenium was gonna start. Crazy talk about the end of the world -- why don't we write about that. We realize that so many other bands have written about stuff like that. But no one has ever put it in this perspective. At the end of 1999 with the idea of the oncoming apocalypse - the whole theme.
MU: What did you think of all the Y2K stuff?
JL: I was disappointed.
MU: It was almost anti-climactic in some ways.
MU: What did you expect?
JL: I was expecting to see some kind of chaos happening somewhere across the world. But I never really believed that it was going to be any kind of significant end or destruction. 'Cause when you look at the calendar and see "December 31, 1999," where did that come from? Somebody made that up just to call a day a day.
MU: That doesn't discount terrorism.
JL: Yeah, I figured there'd be some of that stuff going on. But I think that everyone really just wanted to enjoy the fact that they were alive at the turn of the new millennium. So really, things were calm. I don't know . . . I was expecting a lot more, but . . . we're only five or six days into the new millennium!
MU: So we still might see the dawn of the apocalypse.
JL: Yeah. Sure, man. (laughs)
MU: Take us back to the Vital Remains history.
JL: In late '97 we finished touring in Europe. We came home. The beginning of November of '98. We didn't have a rehearsal spot anymore. We had to look for a place to rehearse. We were on tour all summer long, and we weren't gonna pay for a spot all summer long. We thought we could get a place easy. So to pay while we were gone would be throwing our money away. When we did come back it took us nearly five and a half months to find a new place. So we did nothing for almost five months except that Tony wrote a lot of the riffs at home. Finally, when we did get the place, we started writing in the spring of '98. All summer long and through the winter, Tony wrote all of the music for the album, and we just put it all together. And Dave just had a brainstorm for the lyrics, for the ideas for the songs. He just went to town, dealing with apocalyptic themes. Each song has a little something in it relevant to the title. About the apocalypse. Towards the end of the year, we incorporated the vocalist. We decided that we wanted to bring the band back to a five-piece band. That's what we were. It just so happened we had the problems when 'Forever Underground' came out and we had to limit it to four, where I had to do the vocals and play the bass. So we hired a vocalist. He gave Dave a very little bit of help writing the lyrics. Dave wrote all the lyrics. But he kinda collaborated with him on a few different things, the way he structured the words into the music. This guy's name is -- he calls himself Thorns. He's a young dude. He's like twenty, twenty-one years old. He lives not too far from us. We hired him with the expectations of maybe having him being our permanent vocalist in the band. Unfortunately, he has too many problems. And we don't want to deal with that kinda stuff. He's still very, very immature and very irresponsible. He needs to straighten up and realize that this is where the big boys play. So we fired him. He's gone. And it's really too bad 'cause he could have had a really promising future. So we were stuck without a vocalist. Right after the recording of the album. Right around the end of October, right after it actually got released. And I wondered, do I sing again? Or do we find another vocalist? So me Tony and Dave get to talking, and we're like "what's Jeff doin' these days?" So we call him up and talk to him. Tony talked to him for hours one day. And they straightened things out and discovered that -- hey, let's give this another chance. So we now have Jeff back in the band.
MU: He left for the first time when?
MU: Five years later he rejoins the band. Cool. How is it working out?
JL: So far, so good. Right now, he's not here, he's in Florida for the holiday season, and then he had a death in the family which kept him there a little while longer. But he'll be back soon and ready to go. He's been working really hard with us, and I'm sure he'll do just fine.
MU: Let's talk more about 'Dawn of the Apocalypse'. There's some really cool classical guitar passages on there.
JL: We experimented with that a little on 'Forever Underground' and we decided that we really liked the way it added a new dimension to the music. We wanted to incorporate it more on the new album. Dave just came up with some amazingly interesting and intricate guitar parts.
MU: Is he formally trained?
JL: Dave grew up in Las Vegas. In Vegas, there's really nothing to do if you're not an adult. You can't go into the casinos. It's all a big wonderland for adults over there. So he pretty much grew up in Las Vegas playing his guitar in his bedroom. He pretty much taught himself how to play guitar. This kid is amazing. You can hear for yourself on the album. He's unbelievable. There's so much this kid can play on guitar; it's unbelievable to me. Just to watch him play, and hear it at the same time. If he'sittin' in front of you playing a classical or acoustic guitar. Just hearing him play the music - it sends chills through your entire body. I'm surprised that he wants to play drums. Now he has told us that if we could find a drummer compatible to his stamina, he would step up to guitar and play live with us, but we haven't yet been able to locate a suitable drummer so... We haven't really been looking that hard cause right now we're getting things tied down to get ready to go out on tour. And right now things are pretty tight. We don't want to jeopardize that right before we're about to go out on tour.
MU: Who did the album cover?
JL: We used Joe Petagno. You might know him from doing the Motorhead covers. And I think he did the Angel Corpse covers. But we came up with the idea for the apocalypse. We were trying to think of the most horrific scene we could think of dealing with the apocalypse. So we came up with the idea of having the picture set right in Rome, where the Pope is. Just all hell breaking loose in Vatican City, and having that be our concept of the apocalypse. If this version of the apocalypse were to happen, I'm pretty sure that would be the first place that the battle would target. It would be good vs. evil and where else to start on earth but where the Pope lives? He's supposedly the holiest person on the planet. So that was pretty much the concept. We wanted to use that in the most extreme way we possibly could.
MU: And the production?
JL: We recorded right here in Providence, Rhode Island at Danger Multitrack Studios. The engineer's name is Joe Moody. We spent about four months recording and about two months on and off mixing the album down. But where we live there aren't any studios experienced with death metal bands. The only ones you can put your trust in are the real professional studios, and just to enter the door you have to empty your pocket. They're so expensive. And with the money we get to record these albums, they're out of our budget. There's not enough money for us to be able to enjoy recording in one of these places. I'm not saying we had to resort to shittier places, these other studios are sufficient, but you have to spend a lot more time there 'cause the engineers aren't really that experienced doing this kind of music. Overall, the production on the new album came out pretty well for the budget we had. I'm sure we could have done a much better job if we had a larger budget to record with and a better studio with more modern equipment.
MU: When will you tour?
JL: Starting the 17th of April we are going to go to Europe with Deicide and Vader. We're doing twenty-eight dates. Twelve of those dates are going to be the fourth No Mercy Festival. It's gonna be Deicide, Vital Remains, Vader, Immortal, Emperor, Obituary and Anorexia Nervoso. Perhaps one more. Eight bands together for twelve shows. Pretty big festivals. They've been doing them once or twice a year in Europe, and they've been turning out really well. A lot of people go to these shows and it is a way to gather a lot more people together rather than just to have a package tour.
MU: When will you tour the U.S.?
JL: Perhaps after we are done with Europe. I don't really know yet with whom, but I've been talking with Vader's management, hopefully maybe we can get to do something with them in the states. We're really good friends with those guys and we've toured together before. We get along very well. I think it would be a great U.S. tour package to have Vader, Vital Remains and maybe Krisiun, or another band of that caliber. I'm working on it now as we speak. I'll definitely keep the Metal Update posted on the status of that whole situation.
MU: What time period are we talking?
JL: Late spring, maybe summer. Maybe towards the Milwaukee time period.
MU: You like playing the festivals?
JL: We're supposed to be playing March Metal Meltdown this year in New Jersey. I don't know about the New England festival this year -- I'm not sure we'll be well prepared enough at that time with Jeff, our singer. Plus, we're working with a lead guitar player right now who was originally in Steve Tucker from Morbid Angel's band, Ceremony. He's coming to do the tours with us. He's a great guitar player, his name is Greg.
MU: If you had major commercial success with Vital Remains, would you stay with Osmose?
JL: If we had commercial success with this record, I'm sure they'd support us even more than they do now. And if they could indeed support us more, then I wouldn't see any problem staying with Osmose. They've been doin' exactly what they told us they'd do. They give us promotion; they put us on tour. They spread our name all over the world.
MU: It seems the word is indeed spreading.
JL: I hope so. I've noticed a lot lately I've been getting tons of email from people across the United States that have found the record. Our previous two records you couldn't get in the U.S., except for one of two mailorders. But now you can walk into most record shops and you will be able to find the new album. That's really great for us, 'cause it's turning on a lot of fans out there. If two kids go in a store and buy our album from a certain city, they'll play it for their friends and they'll want to buy it too. It causes a certain chain reaction. And that's what we want. We want to spread our music to as many people as possible. We want to create metal for the fans.
MU: But you'll always stay forever true and forever black.
JL: Yeah. We've stayed forever true to our music. We'll never give up that dying passion for our music. We want to create extreme music, and that's what we will do.
-- LINKS --
review of Vital Remains' 'Dawn of the Apocalypse'
OSMOSE PRODUCTIONS / VITAL REMAINS
-- CREDITS --
Interview: Eric German [email@example.com]
Editor: Brant Wintersteen [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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