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Interview: Q & A With Obituary’s John Tardy

Obituary has been writing and recording death metal for almost a quarter century. They emerged from the Florida underground in 1989 with the genre defining Slowly We Rot, survived the metal slump of the ’90s, and showed the new century what death metal is all about in 2005 with Frozen In Time. Obituary is now bringing their decidedly old-school death metal sound to the social networking generation; the band streamed a New York City show live for free in November with the help of Unation, and recently redesigned their web site to strengthen their relationship with fans. But music continues to be what matters most. The band’s latest lineup includes guitar-whiz-for-hire Ralph Santolla (Iced Earth, Deicide) and longtime Obituary friend Terry Butler (Massacre, Six Feet Under). A new record could arrive this summer. Vocalist John Tardy talked to us about the family business and power of simplicity.

— Justin M. Norton

. . .

You’ve spent decades playing death metal. Why do you keep making music? Where does the passion come from?

We’re still having fun with it and enjoying what we do. And not to sound corny, but we get a lot of good e-mails from fans that have seen us. You show up in places and keep seeing people that have supported you for a long time. It’s always good to see them and feel their energy and hear people say thanks. The feedback we get is positive and that just makes it worth it.

Is Obituary sort of like the family business? Some brothers work in a store together, others bale hay together, you wake up and shred together.

It’s just what we do. For the longest time I kept a job. But for the past five years I’ve been able to do nothing but Obituary. Donald (Tardy, drummer) will come over to my house studio about five or six days a week. We’re always doing something. We also just get along really well. We enjoy hanging out; we enjoy writing together, the whole nine yards. After all these years we still get along really well. Trevor [Peres, guitarist] isn’t much different. He’s like part of the family. We’ve known Trevor since we were in seventh grade. We’ve been together, on the same page, for a long time.

I know you’ve done the Tardy Brothers project. Have you ever thought of doing something besides death metal?

Not really. I’ve been locked in to this thing for so long. I listen to lots of other things – I like blues and country a lot. But as far as what I feel like writing, this is what comes out of us. The Tardy Brothers had a small directional change but since Donald and I put it together it doesn’t sound completely different. But we were able to change up the guitar sounds and do leads that would be weird for Obituary. I feel like that’s the most distance I need from what we’ve played.

What makes a good death metal song?

I can only speak to what’s worked for us. When the three of us got together and started jamming we didn’t start learning other songs. We started by learning our own. We didn’t even have any equipment so we’d go over to someone’s house and borrow drums and some guitars. Instead of picking out songs we immediately tried to write songs. There was just something that clicked early on; you can’t plan it, and you don’t know when it’s going to happen. We kind of came up with a bit of an original sound and tried to dress it up and improve it over the years. We try to make things a little different but not so far removed from what we like.

Obituary is also just simple. There’s nothing fancy in it. “Intoxicated” has a bunch of rhythms on it but songs like “Stand Alone” only have two rhythms. We don’t overthink or overproduce what we do. It’s simple and straightforward. If you listen to our albums and then walked in our garage what you hear wouldn’t change much.

You mentioned the word simple. That word gets lobbed around a lot with AC/DC. But if another band took AC/DC songs and tried to play them it wouldn’t sound good. I think the same is true with Obituary.

That’s a great point and a great example. There are a handful of bands you can point to like that in history. I won’t put us in this conversation. But when Led Zeppelin plays, when AC/DC plays, when Van Halen plays, there’s no mistaking who is playing. You know who is playing right out of the gate. People can shuffle around band members and bands and never have that. AC/DC, yeah they are straightforward and simple but they have so much awesome music.

Was AC/DC an inspiration in the sense that you could own a sound even if there wasn’t a lot of technical complexity?

I don’t know if I thought about it when we were starting out. But they were an influence just because of how they did things and how they stand the test of time. We’ve always looked up to them. I just don’t know if it’s something I thought about during our first few albums.

You started in a garage and borrowed instruments. Was not knowing a lot about music a benefit in the sense that there were no limits?

We never tried to do demo tapes or spent lots of time getting to know people. A lot of bands like to run the circuit, play all the clubs, and we never did that. We were just writing music for no reason. We happened to have a few songs on cassette and Borivoj (Krgin), who now runs Blabbermouth, wanted to do a Raging Death compilation. A few of our songs were on that. That’s the first time we thought of doing an album and then Roadrunner came calling. But it wasn’t something we planned or tried to do. It just came to us.

It was like the universe telling you to be in a death metal band.

(Laughs) It was probably more luck than anything.

Is it difficult that so many of your fans have such an emotional connection to your early albums, Slowly We Rot and Cause of Death?

I’m the same way. When I listen to my Slayer albums, the further I go back the more I enjoy them. When I listen to my Frost albums the further I go back, the more I enjoy them. When you hear a band for the first time it locks in an impression and it sticks with you. As much as I like to think our newer albums are better, sound better and are better written it’s the way it goes. I love Slayer’s Show No Mercy and Hell Awaits. I go back in time; it’s like I’m stuck there.

What’s your favorite Obituary song?

Oh, jeez. I instantly get all kinds of thoughts because different songs take me to different points in my life. I remember getting my first copy of Slowly We Rot and just being proud of it. Like I said, I do think we are better at putting things together now. It takes a long time. When you look at early albums you are often like, “I wish we would have done this” or “this snare should have sounded different”. It’s almost like looking at the high school photograph and saying, “look at that hairdo”. It’s almost the same with music. You feel like you are showing someone your family portrait when you were 15. It’s nearly impossible for me to say.

How have you kept your voice up?

I don’t think I’ve done anything particular. I’ve done this for a long time and I’ve learned to give myself long breaks at home and not do any singing. When it’s time to fire it up I take it slow. I literally sing at about one-quarter of the volume and do a few songs, then do several songs the next day. Then I’ll kick up the volume. Usually the first show of a tour will be the first time I sing a set at full volume. That’s how I conditioned myself. On the road all you can do is be as quiet as you can all day.

Martin Van Drunen of Asphyx is apparently able to do it despite smoking cigarettes and drinking a lot of beer.

I look at some of these guys and I hang out with them and I don’t know how they do it. I like to drink a lot of cool ones when I’m home. But when I’m on the road I feel like I can’t add that. It’s a lot on me physically the older I get. I have to rest and get lots of water. I don’t know how guys do it; I have a hard time partying like that on a long tour. If we are doing 40 shows in 45 days all I can do is try to take care of myself.

But you still aren’t doing anything like breathing exercises or gargling salt water.

In the middle of a long tour sometimes I’ll gargle with salt water at night. I don’t know if it helps but I’ll do it anyway. I heard it can fight off some germs and when you are on the road you have 15 people with you. And one of those people is getting sick and then those germs are everywhere. A guitar player can go onstage feeling like shit but I have a hard time with phlegm and a full head.

Last year Morbid Angel, another Florida institution, came out with perhaps the most divisive album of 2011 (Illud Divinum Insanus). Have you heard it?

I haven’t heard the whole thing. A good friend has an Internet radio shows and he played a few songs. I know Dave [Vincent, bass and vocals] and he’s done a lot of different stuff with the Genitorturers and his music. If they like doing it I have no problem with it. I think it’s great they are confident enough to put that out there knowing some fans might not like it. We don’t try to write music to make out fans happy, either. We write what we want to and put it out.

Were you surprised that long-term fans attacked them?

I commend Morbid Angel. They are doing what they like. But I didn’t hear much about it. I’m usually a little behind the times. But the (attacks) wouldn’t surprise me. The song I heard was a bit weird. If you put it on and compare it to old Morbid Angel I’m not sure you would know it’s the same band.

We did one song called “Bullitary” on our Back From The Dead record. Frank [Watkins, former bassist] had a few buddies who were rappers and they came in. We put that song out and I thought it was kind of cool.

Have you worked on the new record?

We have but we aren’t in a hurry. We hope to have it out by May. We have riffs and ideas happening now. There are a handful of songs that are 75 percent done that we need to finish.

In addition to your long-term members you’ve now been playing with (lead guitarist) Ralph (Santolla) for a few years. Is that like a winning football team adding a Randy Moss for some extra firepower?

I like the football analogy (laughs). It is like that. It’s like having stability at quarterback and the offensive line, things we know are going to be there, and adding something. We also have Terry [Butler, bassist] in the band now. He’s been a friend since the early ’80s. We’ve known Terry since he was in Massacre. It’s so awesome after being such close friends for years to have Terry in the band. It feels so right. It feels like he’s been with us the whole time.

Having Ralph and his ability to write leads adds something else. We had problems with [former guitarist] Allen [West]. We all liked Allen but it’s just been difficult for us for so long and it’s tough to go back there. Ralph has done so well and is obviously an amazing guitar player. We feel settled in.

Do you know what happened between Ralph and Glen Benton?

I heard stories from both of them and also talked to Steve [Asheim] from Deicide. I don’t want to comment much. I think it’s safe to say Ralph and Glen are very different people and look at things in different ways (laughs). I think they were probably destined to not get along.

Have you been in touch with Allen? He was such a major component of the early Obituary records – almost like Eric Cutler of Autopsy, he helped create a sound.

There’s no doubt about that. Allen came into the band early on. His guitar sound and tone just worked so well with Trevor. His leads weren’t super technical but they always fit so nice. He was king of the dive bombs which went really well with the music. It was something we battled with for so long. It got to a point where we couldn’t do it anymore. But we have talked to Al. He was doing some recording and asked if he could borrow some cymbals for a drummer from out of town and we helped him out. I didn’t have a problem with it. We ran into him on tour in Europe with his new band. He came to a few of the shows and hung out.

The wounds are kind of deep. They say time heals but mentally I can’t go back there right now.

You can’t hear a song like “Slowly We Rot” or “Intoxicated” without thinking of his playing.

I don’t remember if it was Trevor or Al who wrote those songs, but he was about half and half with Trevor on all the early albums. They came up with the rhythms. I’m sure there are a few songs that the four of us wrote but usually it was all of us with one of our guitarists. For years, it worked out great. We did a lot of good stuff.

Is he recovering from addiction?

I don’t hang out with him enough to know, but people tell me he is. I’m not even sure what he was hooked on when things came to a head with us. I don’t want to speculate. He got caught in something there – something more than drinking and partying. It was a constant struggle to keep him focused on anything. Then he got thrown in jail and was in jail for more than a year. We were finishing an album and about to tour so when that happened we had no choice but to move on.

How did Frank end up leaving Obituary and Terry end up joining?

I don’t know if we’ve ever said much more than Frank left. We had something that happened between us business-wise. Frank had been around since Slowly We Rot. It wasn’t easy to make the split but it had to happen. Once it happened Terry was just a natural. There wasn’t even a discussion. We played little civic centers with him in Florida when he was in Massacre, right when everything was just kicking off. We’ve always wanted to have Terry.

Terry hasn’t done much writing yet. But when he shows up it’s like Donald or Trevor showing up. It’s that familiar and that comfortable. We don’t have to have long discussions about anything. It feels like he’s been here 20 years.

Did he know all the songs already when he came to jam with you the first time?

Terry has an album collection; it has to be thousand of albums and CDs. It’s literary floor to the ceiling music in his house. He’s a metal fan through and through. He has so much music and so much knowledge. It’s amazing, you can bring up any band and he’ll know the songs and the players. He was well familiar with our music and it didn’t take him very long to learn. Our music is also caveman at the very best (laughs). He was able to fill right in and get going.

Is his collection mostly vinyl?

He has thousands of albums. I don’t know how many CDs. But he’s an avid vinyl collector.

Do you collect records?

I don’t collect much of anything. I do like getting a CD and putting it on my iPad but keeping the CD. The digital stuff seems to be where things are. It’s so easy to download it and there it is.

I imagine the easy access is helpful considering the amount of touring you do.

When you are on tour with a bunch of metal bands at the end of the day and the end of the tour the last thing I want to do is put on another metal album. You want a change of pace. But when I’m home for a while it seems like I start breaking out all my old metal, Slayer and Venom and (Celtic) Frost and all that stuff. If I’ve been home for a few months I will listen to more and more metal.

What’s the unlikeliest record in your collection?

Probably a lot of my Willie Nelson stuff. There’s just something about him I really enjoy. I love the way he writes and sings.

I always thought given the Southern connection that Obituary could do a kickass Lynyrd Skynyd cover . . .

We have a friend that always tells us that. I’m not sure how that would go over. Obviously, we’re all huge Southern rock fans. If I look at my top five favorite bands they are in the conversation. But it would be tough.

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