If you are looking for a group that is completely atypical of all that embodies Death Metal, doubtlessly, that band would be Obituary. Singer John Tardy has the most distinct voice in all of death metal, his low end belching being instantly recognizable and brutal without question. Recently, the group debuted a brand new track from their recently completed new record entitled "Insane" that shows exactly why the band has had record sales that are amongst the highest of extreme bands throughout the history of death metal. Erin Fox speaks with Frank Watkins about the recent activities surrounding the group.
The Gauntlet: How are things going with the new record? Have you gotten to the mastering phase yet or are you still mixing?
Frank Watkins: Mixing, we did a preliminary mix about two weeks ago, when we came out of recording the songs and got everything down, we did a preliminary mix to let everybody in the band listen to it, to see what everybody thinks. This one, we basically self produced. We had our engineer, Mark Prater helping us produce it, Scott Burns came in to help produce it and Donald Tardy did a lot of production on it. So he wanted to let everybody listen to the album, pick out what everybody thought was too loud, or wasn't loud enough, going back and forth. That was when we just went back in, this past week, and did the final mix. The final copy that I have of it now just crushes, I think it is amazing.
The Gauntlet: How long were you in the studio altogether?
Frank Watkins: Probably about a little over a month, a month and a half. I couldn't say exactly in days, but probably a little over thirty days.
The Gauntlet: Is there a title for the record as of yet?
Frank Watkins: We haven't actually come up with a title yet, we're thinking of just self-titling it. That's our tentative deal right now, but we have three or four other ideas under our belts. We're not really positively sure yet.
The Gauntlet: So this time around, there was a bit more input from the entire band as to how the songs would be arranged?
Frank Watkins: We had more input as far as like where we felt things should fit. See, in the past when we would record we would write all of the music, we would go in and record the album and John would come in and do all of his vocals behind it. He would have some ideas, he would have some things working, but we never really heard any of it, what he was going to say or what he was going to do until it was done and we actually heard it. This time, he had almost everything done and written out before we even got into the studio, so when we got into the studio, we already had a good idea of how the vocal patterns were going to run on these songs, where there was going to be vocals and where there was not going to be vocals. Like we have one song on the album that has no vocals at all, it's an instrumental. That was something that was pre-deternmined before we went in the studio. We all discussed it, we decided that this song, to us sounds like it doesn't need vocals. It's this brutal, heavy, marching kind of song, so let's just keep it without any vocals. When in the past, if we were going to do any songs with a couple of vocal parts, or no vocal parts, we really wouldn't know that until we got into the studio. So that's definitely something different.
The Gauntlet: So this time around you had everything set before going in.
Frank Watkins: Yeah, we're not into really wasting money by going into the studio and writing while we're in the studio. We've got our own jam room in Tampa. We go and meet up there, get together, exchange ideas. Basically what we had was twelve songs done, where we figured it's time to go into the studio, let's figure out which songs we're going to put on the album.
The Gauntlet: After the time away from recording, it must have been really exciting to go in the studio and work on this record.
Frank Watkins: Yeah it is, because we've really been doing nothing for the last seven years as far as music-wise. A couple of the other guys in the band were doing other projects, but nothing major like what Obituary is for them and just to go back into the studio, or even just to get together and jam, is pretty awesome for me. I've been dying to do it. I play with a couple of other local bands in my area that I just help out and do some shows or something like that, but just getting back into the real swing of things and forming it into a business is really exciting.
The Gauntlet: Since you have reformed, has the band had the opportunity to play any shows?
Frank Watkins: Yeah. Our first show we did, we played in Tampa in March of 2004 at the Sun and Steel festival. We played with Testament, Body Count, a bunch of other bands. Then we did a show a couple weeks after that in New Jersey and then just this past week, this Saturday, April 9th, we played with Slipknot in LA.
The Gauntlet: What was that like?
Frank Watkins: Awesome, it was great. It was kind of this unannounced type of thing. I think that Lamb Of God had a problem with the venue, they didn't like their past name, I don't know all of the details on that, something wack, I don't know what it was. So our agent called us up and said "Hey, I've got a great idea. Do you want to do this show with Slipknot?" and I said "definitely, what do we need to do?" So they basically covered all of our expenses, flew us out there, we did the show, kicked ass. It was awesome. We hung out with the band, they treated us really good, everything was fine. It was real exciting. But at the same time, when you're playing in an arena place like that, and we were the very first band on, you know, you look at the marquee and it says the show starts at seven and we went on a second before seven o' clock. So after we played, a lot of fans that I ran into said they missed us, they weren't sure where we were playing. Some said "Well, I heard you were replacing Lamb Of God, and Lamb Of God was billed right after Slipknot, we figured that's where you guys were gonna be", but that's not how it was. I look at it like it was a short, quick, spur of the moment type deal, a last minute show that we came up with and if people were lucky enough to see it, awesome.
The Gauntlet: How did the crowd respond? Obviously, Obituary and Slipknot are very different styles of bands.
Frank Watkins: Some of the crowd were just staring at us and as first, I thought "What, do these people not like us, what's going on, are they not getting into what we are doing", but when we would stop a song, the whole place would go nuts and cheer. So I think that not a lot of kids were really there to go nuts and slam dance and everything until Slipknot played, or a lot of them were Slipknot fans that just wanted to be up at the front of the stage and they were just kind of holding their spot there. But as we got into our set, the crowd definitely warmed up to us. Any band, where you're the first band on at a show, it seems like things take a little bit to start sparking up, you know? By our last song, the place was really going nuts, so that was really cool.
The Gauntlet: For so long, Obituary was one of the major players on the Roadrunner roster, and of course you still are, but with that hiatus, other bands have come up to the forefront as well. Does it seem strange to open for Slipknot, being that they are the big act on Roadrunner right now?
Frank Watkins: Well you know what, it pisses me off, because there are a lot of things that Roadrunner could have done for us that would have brought us to another level. But at the same time, I don't think that Roadrunner had that capability when we were around. By the time we dropped to where we weren't really doing anything, that's about the time that Roadrunner started kicking into full gear. Then, a lot of bands that were around when we were around started to take off, bands like Machine Head and Fear Factory took off and at that point we just stopped and walked away from it. Who knows? They could have pushed us a little bit more
The Gauntlet: Do you envision that Obituary could play more shows that are not necessarily your traditional death metal shows?
Frank Watkins: Yeah, definitely. Obituary is a death metal band true and true, but at the same time, I think fans of bands like Slipknot and fans of Metallica would get into Obituary. As smart businessmen , as Obituary, we're not going to limit ourselves because we want to be old school or true to the underground or true death metal fans, we're death metal. Nothing is going to change that. Nobody could come in and say, "Oh, because you went out on a tour with Linkin Park, you're not a death metal band anymore." That to me, is ridiculous. As long as our music is as brutal and as heavy as it's always been, nothing is changing with it. But by playing with bands like that, it's going to get us out in front of a mass crowd, a mass of people. A perfect example is that when we did the show in LA, a couple of kids came up to me freaking out "I've never heard of you guys, I had no clue who you guys were, this shit is amazing, do you have any records out?" I'm like "Holy shit, these kids have never heard of Obituary?" It's unbelievable. But at the same time, I can't expect the whole world to know who we are. So we want to get in front of these kids that have maybe never even heard of us and spark up a whole new group of people that have never heard of us and maybe it can broaden out death metal and make it accessible to a whole new group of people. Ten years ago, I don't think you could ever imagine that you would ever hear Slipknot on the radio, but that's all I freakin' hear on the radio these days. We have fans that are probably pissed that we played with Slipknot, but by us doing something like that, you're going to see more death metal in big stores, all of the mom and pop record stores, at least where I live, are gone. To go to a record store and get some of the metal that I want, I pretty much have to go on the Internet. But Best Buy is starting to carry crazy stuff, Nuclear Blast stuff, and it's just starting to get a little more accessible. If some bands break the trend and go off with some of these more accessible bands, it's going to bring even more popularity to death metal.
The Gauntlet: It seems like if any band is going to bring pure death metal into the mainstream, it would be Obituary. How big do you really think that the audience for this type of music can get? Do you think that death metal could be the next music genre to go mainstream?
Frank Watkins: I think, to a point, because you know with Slipknot, if you listen to their stuff, they have some songs that are just as brutal as anybody can be, then they have some other stuff where the singing is like "la-la-la" or whatever. That's something that we definitely will never incorporate. But I've noticed, there's some brutal bands out there, but at the same time, they will kick into this harmony kind of vocals and these chorusy, catchy kind of lyrics and I think that is what is pushing a lot of these bands over the top to where they are getting a lot more popularity. I don't think it would work with Obituary if we had someone that was singing this chorusy style. I think it would suck, basically and we wouldn't even get signed to a label.
The Gauntlet: Yes, it is a bit hard to imagine John doing that�
Frank Watkins: Exactly, but by having bands that are pushing the envelope on the heavy stuff, it's going to come to a point where it's accessible even without the harmony lyrics. I don't know if it's ever going to happen in my lifetime. Maybe my kids will see it. But it's definitely pointing in the right direction. Metal is way, way beyond what I remember it being eight or nine years ago when we were on top of our game.
The Gauntlet: So tell us a little bit about the style of the new record. Can we expect to hear classic Obituary style songs on this album?
Frank Watkins: Totally, totally. When we first started listening to the new songs and we were demoing the new songs to each other, I was thinking to myself, "What does this sound like, do we have a different edge to us?" The only thing that kept coming back to me is "This is Obituary, classic Obituary style." It's raw, brutal, there's fast stuff, super-slow stuff. To me, I think it's probably one of our best records because we haven't done anything in so long and there's so much building inside of us, that it just explodes out of us. Literally, these ten songs on this record just spewed out of us and the next thing you know its like "OK, this is it, we have a record here." It just flowed together so perfectly. Usually on other Obituary albums, there's been like one or two songs that I could do with or without that song. This record, I think that every song is just pounding, from front to end and hopefully, it will be one of our most popular albums. It reminds me a little bit of "The End Complete" a little bit of "Slowly We Rot", a little bit of "World Demise" and a little bit of "Back From The Dead"." It's kind of like a compilation of everything thrown into one. Definitely very brutal. Also, our sound on this record on the record is way more polished, to me. It's probably our best-produced album yet. I don't know if it is the technology that is around these days compared to what was around ten years ago, but it definitely came out very, very brutal.
The Gauntlet: You had mentioned in an earlier conversation that we had that you went in and brushed up the mix a little bit�
Frank Watkins: One of the signature things about Obituary is that we like to have a really full drum sound. We like to concentrate on hearing every tom and bass hit and we really concentrate on the drum sound. When we went in to do the first mix, I plugged my bass into a SansAmp and it gives a little bit of preamp to your bass amp. I plugged it in and got sound in like ten minutes. Then Donald, on his drumset, Yamaha demoed this thing called a Subkick and it looks like a little teeny kick drum, but it's actually a microphone that you put on the bass drums. It gives a real low sub sound to it. The studio that we were in is this little place called Red Room studios in Tampa. We literally had to break the whole drum set down in order to put my bass rig in there, I've got a big Ampeg bass rig. So we brok3 the whole drum set down and put the bass amp in there and said "You know what? Let's put one of these Subkicks on the bass amp and see what that does." We tried it and it sounded cool, but we really didn't get the gist of it until we went in and we started recording and we took it off, we were like "Holy shit!", and we put it back on and said "That's it, that's perfect" For the guitars, same thing, Trevor and Allen just basically plugged into their old heads. We actually went and bought a brand-new Marshall head, just to see if we needed to come up to the times, the heads we have are from the eighties. We ended up scrapping the brand new head and using our old ones and plugging right in. We've got these RAT distortion pedals that we've used since forever, the same pedals we've had since the eighties. Plugged it all right in, it sounded perfect. It was real easy to get all of the guitar sounds together. We just kept concentrating on the drums because no matter how great of a drummer or how great of a studio you have, you're still going to have to concentrate on all of the little details of the drum set. I think when we did the first mix, we over-drummed a little bit. To the typical person, when I play it for my wife or family members, they would say "It sounds perfect, you don't have to change anything", but I kept thinking the guitars need to come up an ass hair, it just needs a little more bite. When we did it, put the guitars up a little more, that was it. It sounded perfect, this is exactly what we're looking for. What I hear now, is on a lot of our stops, you hear everything. You hear the guitars, the bass, the drums, all at once. Before, we didn't have that total sound that we wanted. But, typically, we spend a lot more time in the studio, on our last records. Sometimes, it would get to the point where I would think we were almost over producing it.
The Gauntlet: Did you feel that you were being perhaps too self-critical?
Frank Watkins: Yeah. It drags on and you hear this and you hear that. Maybe we should turn this down, maybe we should turn that down. That's why we went in, we tried to get it as perfect as possible. We went home and we listened to it and everybody came up with their ideas, fixed everything and it was perfect.