Interview: J.T. Corpse (Gravehill)
Gravehill have been a comfortable presence during my time as a fan of death metal. Their inclusion on show bills has always felt welcome: no-nonsense, kinda thrashy, kinda blackened death metal with a fair heaping of rock 'n' roll attitude pairs well with any number of great bands. For nearly a decade, the core Gravehill lineup of Mike Abominator on vocals, J.T. Corpse on bass and Rhett “Thorgrimm” Davis on drums (along with a rotating cast of guitar players) held it down as SoCal’s reliable suppliers of quality OSDM.
And then the unthinkable happened. Abominator stepped down from the mic and J.T. Corpse stepped up. A former guitarist returned as a bass player and a seasoned veteran was brought in to replace a freshly departed axeman. This wasn’t an average lineup change, and it took a confident and ripping set at Los Globos in Los Angeles last June to convince me of their ability. I chatted with Corpse via Skype in the weeks following that show to gain some insight on these big changes, and to try and gain a new view on a band that hadn’t changed so much in my years of being a fan.
What precipitated all of the lineup changes in Gravehill? Was it Christian LaRocca [former guitarist] leaving that caused it?
Christian left a few months after we did our last show in August 2014 when he told us he was moving back up north to work at his parents' brewery. Since Chris was leaving, the rest of us figured maybe we needed to take a little hiatus anyway to recharge our batteries. We'd been doing a lot of stuff up to that point plus there were side projects galore so we said let’s rest for a bit. When we started looking for another guitarist early in the New Year, which was a chore in and of itself, Mike [Abominator, former vocalist] got back to us and told us that his heart wasn’t really in the band anymore. There's no hard feelings at all, he wasn’t feeling the excitement that he used to and he wasn't having fun with it and when that happens, we don't wanna force anybody to stay and continue. When Mike left we discussed procuring another vocalist from outside but in the end we said, “Fuck it” and I took over. Replacing Chris was probably the hardest thing to do. Trying to find a new guitarist at his level of professionalism was a real chore. That’s not to say Mike wasn’t a pro and isn’t hard to replace! He most definitely is a pro and irreplaceable but with me taking over, it was less of a burden to the band as a whole.
You used to do backing vocals with the band, but this is the first time you've done lead vocals in any kind of capacity.
Yeah, this is my first time being a full-on frontman. That was my first show, the one with Ghoul. It went off pretty well, I received some positive feedback and I even got constructive criticism from some good friends and peers, so I was actually pleased to hear that. "You should loosen up, you could probably do this or that," etc. They had good points. For a guy with no experience doing this, I really appreciated it.
Mike was very outspoken about his views on metal. You can reference his chat with Invisible Oranges a few years ago to see that. Are you looking to be the public projection for the band in a similar sense? Is that something you're ready for?
I don't think there's any kind of ambition to being the figurehead for the band, and I don't think Mike had that ambition either. He was such a bombastic personality onstage that it naturally moved in that direction. His love for heavy metal is true and he loved to express it. I'm into it just as much as he is, but I'm not as outspoken. [Laughs] He had a lot of cool writing gigs, he wrote for Metal Maniacs when they went online, several other zines, he wrote an intro to an art book... He was pretty prolific when it came to that and he has the name recognition. I've done my share of writing too, both blogs and articles, but I've stayed under the radar. It's going to be an experience. I'm going to do my own thing, I won't copy Mike but if people ask me for my opinions I'm certainly going to give them. And if that thrusts me into the limelight, then I’m okay with that.
When I saw you play with the band, I really couldn't help but notice that the onstage vibe was totally different. With your long hair, leather jacket and bullet belt, it was like seeing a NWOBHM singer play for an OSDM band.
I remember discussing with Rhett [Davis, drummer], "What look are we gonna go for?" because these are things that you really do have to think about, not just the music but the image too. That may sound stupid to some people but look at every aspect of heavy metal and the image always resides in harmony alongside the music. From early Metallica’s stripped down, no-nonsense look to Slayer’s over the top Satanic imagery. So we thought about it, "Should I be covered in blood? Should I put spikes all over me like Mike?" We ultimately decided to go with a more stripped-down version. I was actually even thinking about going to the Watain-esque, Impiety thing of using “real” blood, but I chickened out at the last second. [Laughs] I also didn’t think it would fit into the vibe of that show anyway.
Did the option ever come up for you to do bass and vocals together?
Yeah, that's what we were going to do originally. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I can be a pretty lazy son of a bitch and it was taking some extra work on my part to get it right. I’m listening to the music, trying to play along and do the vocals, and it was just stressing me out. Even if I got one song down, it took two weeks to do it and we only had a certain amount of time to learn the set. Rhett was kind enough to mention that Bodybag [Bob Babcock, former guitarist/current bassist] wanted to come back and play bass. He said, “Why don’t you just do vocals?” and I said, “That’s a beautiful idea, let’s do it!” [Laughs] He didn’t have to twist my arm on that.
Coming from a role in the band that sometimes takes a backseat for the others to shine, I can imagine stepping into the lead vocal role might have been a little scary, yeah? What were the last thoughts going through your head before you jumped onstage?
Well you know, I actually got most nervous the day before the show. I had some trouble at the very beginning when I first started doing vocals because I hadn’t found my voice. I was trying to imitate Mike to a certain extent and I told Rhett, “I don’t think I can do this.” I was freaking out a bit and I told my fiancée too, but she kicked me in the ass and Rhett kicked me in the ass and both of them told me to stop being a pussy. The next time I went in to practice, I made sure I had my lyrics down and I had my voice ready to go. When I realized that I shouldn’t try to imitate Mike but do my own thing, that’s when it clicked, “This is gonna fuckin’ work.” After I finally found that voice and started practicing and gearing up for the show, I wasn’t nervous except for the day before as I mentioned earlier. I had some butterflies in the belly then. When the day came and it was our turn to go up, I wasn’t nervous at all. I actually wanted to ham it up more on stage but time was severely limited so we pushed through the songs pretty fast. It’s all about practice and repetition though. When the time comes to perform the feeling is second nature and natural. On a side note, I’ve never been nervous going onstage except for Maryland Deathfest 2011 and seeing a thousand or so people in the middle of the day and realizing. “Oh shit, we’re on this major stage in front of all these people and we gotta put on a show.” Yeah, I remember my hands were shaking a bit that day.
Barring Rhett, you’re probably the most senior member of Gravehill by now. The band’s had so many lineup changes and two full overhauls by now. Was there ever a point where you thought “This is it- this is final lineup of Gravehill. These are the dudes.”
When we found Chris and Nelson, it was amazing. They were a cohesive unit. When they came in… We asked them, “Can you learn maybe four songs before you guys come in?” When they came in to practice, they had everything just totally down. Rhett asked them, “Are you good with blood?” They said yes. “Spikes? Touring?” They said yes. We started writing Death Curse and booking shows… I remember talking with Rhett and Mike, saying how we were hoping that the lineup would stay that way forever because these were two talented guitarists that were completely into what we were doing. Of course nothing lasts forever! But at the time it was solid. In time I believe the current incarnation of Gravehill will prove itself as a force to be reckoned with. It will be different but the spirit, anger and attitude will never change.
I remember you telling me that you live actually a long ways off from Los Angeles, in Redlands, California. You have an interesting perspective on the city, a kind of outside view while still being directly involved.
I always thought Southern California was kind of privileged when it came to heavy metal and Los Angeles has become a second home. There is a shitload of talent and personally, I wish I lived within the city limits. Circumstances have me out in Redlands with a good job, benefits, and it’s relatively cheap to live but if I was given a spectacular opportunity to work in LA that paid the same as I am now, I’d live there in a heartbeat. When I first moved to California near the end of 2001, I went to shows regularly. At least three to four a week all over SoCal and they would be local shows or big name bands. I didn’t care. I wanted to immerse myself within the scene and experience it firsthand because I was out of it for so long when I was in the military. Like anything new and exciting the exhausting trek to make it to almost every show took its toll and I burned out a little. I’ve always had to travel at least an hour to get to any show in L.A. so nowadays when I go to a show, I have to really want to go. Weekday shows are a rarity for me as well. I attribute all of that to getting fuckin’ old.
L.A. has gotten an unfair rap at times I think, the hair metal thing and some people bagged on the whole re-thrash thing.
We have so many great shows in so many genres, you’re bound to have bands that are pompous or lame. It’s like that everywhere in the world, but L.A. gets the rap because the heavy metal scene is so big--along with the infamous Sunset Strip days--that people on the outside tend to generalize. It’s a false front, all of it. It’s kind of like how Hollywood looks starry and spectacular on television or the movies but when you actually walk down Hollywood Boulevard it’s a trash heap of tourist traps, shitty liquor stores, and assholes dressed up like Batman. All I can say is don’t be fooled by false imagery. If you’re going to visit L.A., you definitely need to hit up a local show because, as I’ve said before, the talent here is unbelievable. I say that now, but undoubtedly someone new to L.A. will go see Willow Wisp and call me a fucking liar and asshole. “Thanks for the local show advice you jerk!”
It says a lot when the local Venom cover band is so rad that I want to go out on a weeknight just for them. Between them, Gravehill and Morgion, I’m a huge fan of Rhett’s body of work.
Dude I’ll be honest, back in the late ‘90s, a friend turned me on to Morgion and I listened to them constantly. When I got to L.A.--I didn’t even meet Rhett until about five years after moving here--someone introduced us, ‘Hey, this is Rhett, he played drums in Morgion.” [Gasps] So yeah, I fanboyed out a little bit. [Laughs] We’ve become so close that we’re like brothers now, and he was the one that pulled me into the Gravehill thing in the first place, so I owe him a lot.
So how did that happen?
It was back in 2008. Mike was playing bass and doing vocals and he wanted to just do vocals so Rhett approached me, “Hey I know you play guitar, would you want to be a bass player? You don’t have to be Steve DiGiorgio, just keep up with the beat and the drums,” and I was like, “Nope!” [Laughs] I was getting into making short movies and film and writing scripts so I didn’t have time to get involved with a band. He asked me again a couple months later. I had finished my short film and several other film projects and scripts I was working on crashed and burned horribly so I was at a point where I was looking to do something, anything creative. When he asked me again if I wanted to play bass for Gravehill, I said, “Yeah sure, fuck it.” I learned a few songs on the Metal of Death demo. Half of Rites of the Pentagram hadn’t even been written yet so I wasn’t introduced to that material until I first jammed with the guys. I remember specifically though that I had short hair at the time and Rhett told me, “You gotta grow your hair out.” I had no problem growing it out, but I didn’t want to be the only jackoff on stage with short hair barring Mike who shaved his head. I drew up plans to wear a helmet and stay pretty much undercover until my hair grew long enough to rock out with my cock out. It worked pretty well and added a big cheese factor to the early lineup. People have asked me to bring the helmet back out of retirement but that horse is dead and beaten. It now gathers dust under my bed. The crusty leather is still imbibed with dried sweat, blood, and an odd fish smell that has never left it after all these years. [Laughs]
I’m going to ask you a question that Mike was asked four years ago. Escapism vs. reality: Where do you see Gravehill on that spectrum?
Gravehill is escapism to its fullest. We’re not singing about real world problems, politics, or relationships. We’re flying the flag of heavy metal, Satan, blood, death… You know, the usual. Look at our promo and band pics from Rites of the Pentagram and When All Roads Lead to Hell. Armor, blood, spikes, all over-the-top imagery. If that’s not escapism then I don’t know what is. Death Curse has similar imagery and is toned down slightly but still projects a reality that is slightly separated from the norm. I won’t speak for all Hessians but I like to listen to heavy metal to definitely escape. I do like politically-charged music but for the most part heavy metal is a place where I want to go to get away from all that bullshit. The new material I’m writing lyrically for Gravehill is bizarre and has no place in reality. Lovecraftian worlds, Satanic undead assassins, unholy apocalypses, are only a few of the ideas spewing forth. For anyone who’s just getting into us and are looking for a dose of hardcore realism about life on the streets then they’re going to be severely disappointed. Go listen to Napalm Death or a host of other grind, punk, or whatever bands. Gravehill is about blood, fire, death, and fucking rock and roll.