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Some of the best metal is forged under adverse conditions. Many a struggling metal band has demonstrated that frustration fueled passion translates directly to a punishing slab of molten metal. Vital Remains is no stranger to struggle. Being forever true, forever black and forever underground isn't all it's cracked up to be when you can't get your product properly distributed to the underground you are true to. But that hasn't stopped rhythm guitarist / riffmeister / sole survivor Tony Lazaro and lead guitarist / drummer / lyricist Dave Suzuki. They learned long ago that nothing was being handed to them. Success for Vital Remains has been secured through a series of small victories won through crushing persistence. The Metal Update called Tony to discuss the band's efforts and how they have recently paid off in the form of a new deal with Olympic / Century Media and the groundbreaking new release 'Dechristianize' featuring Deicide's Glen Benton on vocals.

METAL UPDATE: What's up, Tony?

TONY LAZARO: Fuckin' I was online, right, and I got a shitload of emails. One of them's from George over at Century and he's telling me my schedule for tomorrow which is all booked. And it starts at like nine in the morning for Unrestrained!, which is major, so I gotta do it. It's like nine in the morning! I'm like, this guy's insane. He's got this crazy ass schedule, so I had to email him back and say, "You're killin' me, man."

MU: You are doing a lot of interviews.

TL: Bro, it's been insane - absolutely the sickest. This is all new. I was just always the guy who wrote the music. Joe did all the interviews from 'Let Us Pray' on. I'm crazy to the point that I think even he would be goin' insane. I know we didn't get this much press with Osmose and all the other stuff. He would have been flippin' out, like, "All day your going to be doing interviews?!?"

MU: So, it's a world of difference. . .

TL: It is a world of difference and the response is sick. I want to thank you and the guys who reviewed 'Dechristianize' for Metal Judgment - five fuckin' skulls across the board. I was like, "Awesome!" The response has been insane. Me and Dave are like, "Well I guess it did pay off, bro. Finally something to show for all our fuckin' work." But we worked so damn hard on this record and now it's like, "Whhheeewww."

Vital Remains - Tony

MU: You guys have been at it for a very long time.

TL: I know. I know. Fourteen years for me with Vital.

MU: Have you been in the band since the beginning?

TL: I wasn't the guy that started the band. I came in right at the beginning and pretty much just took over and started writing music. The stuff they were writing at the time was more. . . um. . . like Anthrax style. . . thrashy with some hardcore influence.

MU: That was back in the olden days. There wasn't even much death metal around at the time.

TL: Yeah. Right. Right. And I was a big Mercyful Fate fan and Venom fan. I liked stuff that was heavier, so I brought a different element into the band right from the start. I just tried to write heavy - heavier than what they were doing. So they pretty much said, "Well, you write all the music 'cuz we can't match your riffs." I always wanted people to help out, but I never had help until Dave came along. (laughs) And then he became a great asset - a person that can help me out and knows where I'm coming from. He kind of makes my riffs sound ten times better with his accents. They work off each other, the riffs and harmonies, the leads that he brings in. . .

MU: How did you hook up with Dave in the first place?

TL: Vital Remains did a tour with Autopsy back in '94. We went through Vegas and Dave came to the show. He liked what he saw and I just met him very briefly. Our guitar player at the time, Paul Flynn, actually talked to him for a while. Dave had a demo that he made that was produced by Mitch Harris of Napalm Death. He was circulating it through the underground. Then a year or two later, we were looking for a drummer. A friend of mine was like, "Well, I have this demo from this guy out in Vegas." He wouldn't let me hear it at first. He was like, "He doesn't really play blast beats." I'm like, "I don't give a shit, let me hear the thing. It doesn't mean anything. The guy could be super killer and he just didn't write any blast beats." Before I could hear it, Mitch came through town and I asked him about Dave. He was like, "That dude's incredible. He played all the drum parts on his demo and then laid all the music over it," and he goes, "and he was in perfect timing." I had to get in touch with this guy. And then I finally got to listen to the tape and I was blown away. He did everything - all the instruments. We got in touch with him and had him come out. He drove his car with a trailer all the way from Vegas. He came out and busted everything out from 'Let Us Pray' on drums and I said, "This is the guy for us." The rest is history.

MU: And you've never looked back.

TL: We've never looked back, just kept goin'. We've actually done more together than any other band members. We've done three records since '96, so he's been with me longer than any of the other guys.

MU: You guys are the core, and for the rest there's been a revolving door.

TL: Well, with Jeff Gruslin there was. I never wanted Jeff to leave, but things happen. He got sick of the whole music business and just got out. Now he's a plumber. (laughs) And Joe Lewis had some personal problems and just had to deal with them. I hear he is doing better and that's cool for him. Shit happens, bro, you know what I mean? Sometimes people can start out giving 100% and things happen and they start to slack off. When you get to the point where you end up carrying people, you end up weighing down the band. You can't be productive when you're carrying other people's weight, I think. So, it's a tough thing, but like I tell all the fans and people that ask me, "Why don't you give up?" 'Cuz I am not a person who gives up. I am a person who keeps pushing and keeps going. It'll never be a thing where I just fold, unless I absolutely don't want to do it anymore. But I've kept it going and people that know me know that I'm not going anywhere. I've been the main force as far as writing, so I look at it like, whoever is with me is with me. You look at people like King Diamond and Lemmy from Motorhead and people like that that keep going. They just kept it going. That's the philosophy: don't give up. Sometimes it's stressful. The way we look at it now, Dave and I have discussed it, we're going to pretty much just hire people - just a couple of hired guns. Dave wants to play leads for touring this record which is gonna be great.

MU: You've never really had that opportunity.

TL: We've only had it once, when we did the New Jersey Fest. We had Kyle Severn from Incantation on drums and Dave got to play lead guitar and we actually had Jeff come back and sing. But it all just didn't work out. It sucked because I wanted that lineup to work.

Vital Remains -  Dechristianize

MU: But as far a recording lineup, you are all set.

TL: Well, yeah, between Dave and I, we can do everything as far as the music. (laughs) It is just the vocal duties and Dave almost decided to that at one point.

MU: Would you say Dave is a guitarist or a drummer.

TL: Guitarist first. He's actually been playing guitar since he was four. He was playing Malmsteen by 10. (laughs) He's a prodigy, man. He's just an amazing musician. When you think about it, in death metal, there's not too many people like him who can play the drums that well and also play the guitar. I am very fortunate to be able to work with him. We have a good friendship and as far as our musical relationship, we're on the same page and we believe in the same things. So when we get together, we can put some shit together that's brutal and he can add some other shit on top that just completes it.

MU: How did it wind up being just you and Dave prior to 'Dechristianize'?

TL: We had been working with our friend Jake on vocals and then that didn't work out. And then our guitar player, Ron, pretty much admitted he couldn't do the leads. He offered to play bass, but at the time it just wasn't working out. He wasn't showing up to rehearsal so we pretty much just let him go. And we were getting pressure from the record company. We had to make a business decision and it wasn't easy. We had to realize that the singer we had just wasn't ready to go into the studio. So, we let him go.

MU: When you got signed to Olympic, did you have a full band?

TL: Yeah.

MU: Did you have any demos of new material?

TL: No. They went strictly on the reputation of the band and the records we already had out - our portfolio, so to speak - our satanic death metal portfolio. (laughs) Martti Payne was a big fan of ours. He liked the band anyway. And I wasn't going to sign with a European label again. I think throughout the years that hurt us a lot. It would always hurt us right here in our own backyard. We never got the promotion and distribution we wanted. Maybe on the first album because it was on Peaceville and went through Caroline Distribution - 'Let Us Pray' actually did real well for sales in the States. That's why we actually went out and toured after that. People knew who we were when we toured with Autopsy in '94. Since then, like, 'Into Cold Darkness' never got the push it needed and the distro it needed. That's why we ended up signing to Osmose and that only helped for Europe. So, I wanted to have good distribution and build up our following in the United States. That's the way it should be 'cuz this is where we're from. I wanted a US distributor and a US label and Martti was one of several that were interested. There was actually one that was bigger - Spitfire - but I was a little wary about signing with them because they are so big. I mean, they have Alice Cooper and Black Label Society and stuff, so I was thinking we wouldn't be that important. I ended up talking to a few people and they all had good things to say about Martti, so we ended up signing to Olympic. And it just so happened that Martti sold the business to Century, so we got lucky there, too. They bought out the whole label, so our stuff goes through Century Media.

MU: I heard a rumor that the new Vital Remains was a catalyst for that deal.

TL: Yeah, I've heard some of that, but I don't know. It might have been, but either way, it is great for us. They have the resources to push this album. We've put our 150% into this album, now if they do their part, it should be all good. That was the hardest thing, getting our product out to the fans and the underground. So far it's been great. Those guys at The Family are all professional. I like it already. I mean, I've got people emailing me back. You call people and they call you back. I like that. I like communication. I have nothing but the best to say about those guys.

MU: How did Glen Benton get involved?

TL: Well I had asked Glen if he would do backing vocals. I actually had the idea a long time ago. I had asked him back in '94 when we did 'Into Cold Darkness'. He had said he would do guest vocals on "Descent Into Hell", but he was going through a divorce and he didn't have time to come down and do anything. He remembered that. So, down the line, when we were being pressured to do this record we had to make the decision to let our singer go. Dave and I were like, "What do we do now." Dave was like, "Well, maybe I'll sing." It would have changed the whole record because his vocals are black metal. That's when I mentioned it to Glen because he was asking what was going on and wondering how we were going to go about recording his guest vocals. I said, "Well, we had to let our singer go. We're debating whether to have Dave do it." And that's when Glen offered. He said, "I'll do the whole goddamned record." Holy shit! How could we pass that up?

MU: Had he heard any of the new material at that point?

TL: He had only heard a little of the pre-production. He really liked it as soon as he heard the first song, "Dechristianize". He really liked it a lot and he was headbanging to it.

MU: So he stepped in. . .

TL: He stepped in and it was incredible - the professionalism - the guy's amazing. He's been doing it so long that he pretty much walked in there and you would think he's been practicing with us for years. He wanted every line to be perfect.

Vital Remains - Dave

MU: Were all the lyrics ready to go and everything?

TL: Yeah, everything was all done. Dave maybe had to show him the phrases on a few parts, but he came up with his own ideas on some parts - cool effects - like on some of the parts where it sounds like demons screaming back and forth. That was all him, ad lib, just going off.

MU: He really stretched the boundaries of his vocals compared to what he's been doing the last few years with Deicide.

TL: I think he really wanted to prove himself as well - like he wanted an avenue to show people that he can do different ranges and do different things. I think it was a perfect opportunity for him to branch out and show a different side. I think people are going to be shocked to shit to hear him singing our lyrics to our music. We were blown away to hear him singing it. It's not like his phrasings or Deicide's style. It's totally different.

MU: It is not like it is derivative of Deicide at all. This is 100% Vital Remains with Glen Benton on vocals.

TL: And he's told me that he enjoyed that fact. He's used to doing things his way. When he would write his lyrics, it would be more in the groove, in the pocket of the riffs, where Dave is just nuts. Dave will make a phrase go where it doesn't belong and he'll force it in there with a 300 pound sledgehammer. He'll smash it in.

MU: Total chaos.

TL: It is so chaotic. Even Glen was looking at it and he goes to Dave, "You're one sick motherfucker." And Dave just started laughing. It was funny. The best times were when Glen was in the studio. It was like three or four days that he came in and did vocal tracks. Those were the best days because he would bring some humor and we'd have some fun. He really went off, but he brought the stress level down. He's been in there so many times. When it was just me and Dave there, we had so much weight on our shoulders, we thought we were gonna lose it. It was just so stressful.

MU: There are few with as dark a mystique as Glen Benton, and you are saying he entered the studio and lightened the mood.

TL: Yeah. He's a charismatic person. He came in very positive. Like, "We're gonna get shit done and it's gonna be 100% right." He would wait for me to give him the thumbs up on every line. He would look up at me and if he didn't see me going, "Fucking killer, man!" He'd say, "Do it again." He's just a perfectionist. That's killer because I am too and so is Dave. We're real picky when it comes to music. We want it to be the best we can put down. To have another person like that come in there was just awesome.

MU: It sounds like you trimmed the fat and went into the studio with the core of Vital Remains and tore it up.

TL: Absolutely. We wanted a more brutal record than 'Dawn Of The Apocalypse'. To be honest with you, I didn't think we could top that record. It took me over a year to write 'Dechristianize'. I wrote all the music. I would sit here until I had the song down. It took a long time to get the foundation of the music down. Then, finally, Dave was able to throw some harmonies in there and leads. And then we were stuck because we were like "What about the lyrics?" Dave took the reigns and came through with the lyrics, which are totally sick and blasphemous. It just makes you look at Dave in another way. You always got to worry about the quiet ones, bro. (laughs)

MU: And who the hell do you guys think you are writing 10 minute death metal songs?

TL: 'Entwined By Vengence' (laughs) It's funny, man. I wrote that beginning riff one morning and then played it on Dave's answering machine. He called me back and was like, "Oh, that's killer. I like that riff." It took me a month or a month and a half to write the rest of it. When I presented it to Dave, I was like, "This song's awesome and it's really not that long. It goes real smooth." And he's like, "Well, how long is it?" And I'm like, "Maybe five minutes." (laughs) The thing is, I didn't realize that I had repeated certain parts. He looked at the clock when we were done playing it 'cuz he was tired, and he's like, "Dude, it's ten minutes long!" (laughs) It is actually the longest song, but we thought it was just right. That's actually his favorite song on the record. It just worked out like that. You know, I never look at the clock when I write. I wish I could write short songs. I like the way Hate Eternal can write short songs, but right to the point of brutality. But I write in a selfish way. I write for me first and then just hope that the fans will like it. That's the bonus. You know, "Killer, I'm glad you like it because I really worked hard." If I want to play this riff twice or three times, I'll do it. I am not sittin' there lookin' at the clock. When I feel it's done, then it's done.

MU: There's no rules.

TL: There's no rules. I throw the rules of traditional writing out the window. I never approached it from that way.

MU: And it makes it big, epic.

TL: Epic. That's become my style. It has actually made us different, I think. There's no one else out there putting these really long songs together in the manner that we're doing it with all the harmonies and texture. You've got the brutality, but you've got some other hooks and different grooves and tempos.

MU: There's a lot of traditional heavy metal injected into the brutality, too.

TL: There's some Randy Rhoades type stuff in there. I think Dave wanted to pay respect to a lot of the players that he respected. Dave's such an open-minded musician. I mean, he listens to everything. I like more brutal death metal and black metal, but Dave is into everything from classical all the way to noise. That's killer because he can come from different angles. He wanted to pay respect to Malmsteen, Randy Rhoades and, like, Paul Gilbert and these guys from the past - these shredders - Macalpine and Marty Friedman and all these guys that he grew up listening to. He wanted to incorporate that and it worked. You've got the brutality with the blast beats for the people who like it full tilt, but then you've got the stuff with more feeling. We were trying some stuff that we'd never tried before and it worked. We're still blown away and in shock about it.

MU: We're doing a lot of talking about what a great musician Dave is, but you deserve much credit for sick riffage.

TL: (laughs) Thanks, man. I don't mind sitting in the shadows. As long as once in awhile there's someone who gets it, it's cool. I've always been the rhythm player - not just the rhythm player - the composer. I've composed all the music since the first demo.

MU: You lay it out there for him to just. . .

TL: . . . go off.

Vital Remains - Glen

MU: But you can write a 10 minute song that isn't boring.

TL: It's hard because you want to keep making it interesting and reinventing the song almost. So you have to put some interesting stuff in there. Just when you think it might get boring we hit you with another riff or brutality - something that's like 200 beats per minute - something that wakes you the fuck up. We try to make it interesting because we're fans of it, too. We wanted to hear what we wanted to hear. Just like when we tour, we're going to want to see what we want to see, so we're going to put a lot into the stage show. We're definitely going to go out there strong with the visual and everything.

MU: That begs the question: When is Vital Remains going to tour?

TL: Well, we've got offers now. We've been auditioning drummers and bass players. It's not easy to pull those drums off. It takes a real pro to be able to step in and pull it off. So, once we get that, we're looking to go out and support the record. [Since the interview was conducted, Tony reported to the Metal Update that Tim Yeung (Hate Eternal) has been enlisted to play drums.

MU: And Glen is going to be involved?

TL: Well, Glen said that if the demand is there, he will tour. That's up to Glen. If the record does real well and the demand is there, he'll do it. It gives more incentive for people to go out and support the record. We hope everything works out. We take things step by step, but that would be sick. It would be killer. Deicide's been working on new material, so there might be time in there where he could do it. We're grateful that he did the record. There have been people who have said that the success of the album is because of Glen, and I can't agree with that. We've been busting our ass for 14 years and I think our last album was a really killer record. I think the music stands for itself, as well. If you took away Glen's vocals and just listened to the music, I think the music would stand by itself. I have to support the music as well as Glen. I think Glen did a killer job. People have said it's some of his best work in years. And for the music, people are saying it's our best record and I'll take that all day. We're just overwhelmed. We've definitely worked our asses off for it.

MU: But for people that are old fans of Vital Remains, it may be the best album, but it is no great departure. It fits right in with the Vital Remains catalogue.

TL: I think so. And if you listen to the records, everything's progressed. Every record has progressed. If you listen to them back to back, they sound totally different, but they all intertwine. They all kind of fit with each other.

MU: If someone goes out and buys 'Dechristianize' because Glen Benton is singing on it and they like it, then they are a Vital Remains fan. They can go back and buy 'Dawn Of The Apocalypse' or 'Forever Underground' and be into that too.

TL: Yeah and that's cool. It's not like this is our best record and everything else is shit. I think we've put out some really good records. I think those albums have stood the test of time. People still come up to me today and say, "'Let Us Pray' is the all-time favorite classic cult death album and that's what got me into this music." And they still shout out and want to hear old stuff. Usually we only have 30 or 40 minutes to play. How do you fit that many songs in?

MU: And seven, eight, 10 minute songs. You're in trouble, dude. (laughs)

TL: (laughs) We've laughed about it. It's pretty funny. I'm like, "Dave, we're going to have to do a two and a half hour headlining tour." There's been talk about that. I think if we put together a killer package, we might be able to pull it off. You see other underground bands going out and doing it.

MU: Tell me about this guitar that you designed.

TL: It's called The Crucifire. I designed it with this guy, Ken Patin from Massachussetts. I've had this idea - I used to tell Jeff about it, actually. I used to go, "I'm gonna make this upside down cross guitar if it kills me, man." So I got together with Ken Patin and I already had the ideas down on paper and he had some ideas. We pretty much came up with this pattern for an upside down cross guitar. And then he had suggested putting horns on it. They are kind of like the horns on the B.C. Rich Beast, but better, longer and sharper. Then I'm like, "I also want the guitar to light up '666' with laser lights." And he's like, "What the hell, are you insane?" (laughs) I'm like, "I want it so I can light up '666' when I come on stage." So, he was going crazy, going to Radio Shack and talking to all these different people to try to make these lights stay on - all these different batteries - trying to come up with the right voltage. It ended up with a battery pack. It'll light up for like three days straight! It's gonna be black with a red pinstripe bevel all the way around and then the inlays are all upside down crosses. It's just a sick looking guitar.

MU: So you are going to play that and it's going to be available for the public to buy?

TL: Yeah. There's going to be two models. There'll be one that's like the top end that has the lights like mine and then there's another one that's not gonna have the lights. It's still gonna be the same quality - hand made and neck through. I'm excited, man. I've never had my own guitar. I've always played my Jackson - written and recorded - since '89. So, I wanted something unique and that would also go with 'Dechristianize'. There's not a guitar out there that looks like that. Fuckin' Crucifire!

MU: What are your thoughts on the state of death metal in 2003?

TL: I think it's getting better. It's getting heavier and more brutal and I think it's actually starting to pick up. A few year's ago it was more underground. Now it seems like it is coming back again. Everybody's pushing the boundaries with the brutality. I think the music is getting sicker. People are grinding out more with the blasts. It's kind of stepped up. I think people are looking for more extreme music because a lot of this new metal shit sucks. It's good that it sucks 'cuz maybe kids will go searching for something else and realize that this music has been here all along. It hasn't gone anywhere, it's just underground.

MU: I know that Vital Remains is forever true and forever black. Is Vital Remains a black metal band or a death metal band?

TL: I think we're 100% death metal. Obviously we've got some black metal influence here and there. When I first heard Venom in '81, that changed my life. We went from playing Black Sabbath and Judas Priest covers to, "OK, this is what we're gonna be. We're gonna play Venom." It was the biggest influence to play heavier, more satanic music. We wanted to be like that. Whatever you want to label us, as long as people know that we are Vital Remains. We're true to our music and true to our belief in what we do. That's all that matters.


interview with Vital Remains' Joe Lewis - January 5, 2000

review of Vital Remains 'Dechristianize'

review of Vital Remains' 'Dawn Of The Apocalypse'

classic review of Vital Remains 'Forever Underground'










Interview: Brant Wintersteen [ ]
Editor: Brant Wintersteen [ ]
Webmaster: Sean Jennings [ ]

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