Fans and critics often trace the savage roar of Florida death metal to the music of Death, whose 1984 demo Death by Metal (recorded under the name Mantas) upped the destructive ante on the extreme thrash of bands like Slayer, Dark Angel and Kreator. At the same time Death was spreading its pestilence through the underground tape trading community, however, another Tampa Bay band, Xecutioner were recording the first death metal demo at the legendary Morrisound Studios. A copy of the tape, Demo 1986, found its way to an A&R man at Roadrunner Records, who offered to sign them. After a quick name change, Obituary were born.
Hardly as self-promotional as Death, Morbid Angel or Deicide, Obituary (vocalist John Tardy, drummer Donald Tardy, guitarists Trevor Peres and Allen West and bassist Daniel Tucker) were nonetheless a formidable and influential presence, recording nine albums, including their latest, Inked in Blood, which they produced themselves in John’s garage with funding from Kickstarter; the album has since been picked up by Relapse, and the band recently launched a tour with Carcass.
Though Obituary have taken long breaks between albums on more than one occasion, endured frustrating lineup shifts and suffered the financial damage of a one-sided contract they signed in their teens, the band has persevered. Moreover, they’ve retained the raw, visceral groove and pulverizing heaviness that first got them noticed, even if John Tardy’s vocals are now screamed rather than regurgitated.
Jon Wiederhorn talked to the Tardy Brothers about prioritizing groove over speed, recording without air conditioning, rocking with Andrew W.K. and caring for cute little kittens between ripping listener’s faces off, metaphorically.
Six years have passed since you released Darkest Day. Did the band break up for a while?
Donald: No, we just spent a long time — like three years — on the new record. Before that, we had the idea to do a tour in Europe and play only material from our first three albums. People shit themselves, and for the next year and a half we were touring those songs. Then we went back to Morrisound Studios and played it all live and recorded and filmed our performance.
John: It took us so long to get this record done, only because that’s just us. There were times we’d set aside a month or two to do some writing and next thing you know, we’d be out fishing every day and not doing the writing we were supposed to do. We just didn’t feel like doing it. So rather than sitting there looking at each other and not wanting to do it, we just didn’t bother.
The songs on Inked in Blood are generally mid-paced. Are you tired of death metal blast beats?
John: The really slow stuff is cool and the really fast stuff is cool. And they’re both needed for this kind of music. But it’s all that mid-tone, that groovy rhythm stuff that you can really grab ahold of that’s most important to us.
Donald: A lot of that comes from our roots. When I learned to play, I was freaking out to rock beats by Black Sabbath. That stays with you. On a daily basis, when I’m driving around in my truck I’m listening to the stuff I’ve always loved, Sabbath, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Led Zeppelin and Ronnie James Dio.
Was there anything in particular you wanted to achieve with Inked in Blood that you didn’t achieve on Darkest Day?
Donald: Making sure the world knew it was out, because Lord knows no one really knew our last two albums [2007’s Xecutioner’s Return and 2009’s Darkest Day] came out.
You raised the money for Inked in Blood yourself using Kickstarter.
Donald: Before we hooked up with Relapse we wanted to do it entirely ourselves. I’d never heard of Kickstarter until we did it, and the fan response was great. But it was an awful lot of work. I don’t think I would do it again, but thanks to that campaign we funded the documentary we did in Morrisound Studios, and we were able to purchase some new equipment to really give ourselves a fair shot at putting together and producing a good album on our own.
You produced Inked in Blood in your garage?
Donald: It’s a glorified jam room. It’s literally a pool table and a Yamaha drum kit. We threw expensive microphones and a ProTools rig around it and just went for it. We had to turn off the AC unit during the takes or you’d have heard it in the recording. That’s how redneck we are.
You tracked in the heart of the Tampa summer without an air conditioner running?
Donald: We learned the songs really well so when we turned the AC unit off we could be done with that track in about 12 minutes or the garage started getting hot.
How did a death metal scene develop in Tampa of all places?
John: I can’t speak for other bands, but for us, we met the dudes in Nasty Savage, who were jamming in our neighborhood. And the guys from Savatage were playing much heavier stuff than what we had been listening to. Those were the bands that got us wanting to pick up stuff and trying to make music ourselves.
Donald: And then entered Slayer. Them, Metallica and Celtic Frost came around, and all of a sudden all these musicians in area bands started getting ideas from them and taking things a step further. You could tell it was evolution right in front of you.
You did your first death metal recordings in Morrisound Studios in 1986 when you still called yourself Xecutioner. What was that first session like?
John: One of the owners of the studio, Tom Morris, actually tried to turn us away from recording because he told us we weren’t good enough and he’d be stealing our money. That only made us want to do it more. But looking back at the music we were doing, I would have done the same thing if I was in his shoes. We didn’t like to play covers, so we made up our own songs right from the start and they were extremely stupid and embarrassing.
Donald: Morrisound was a professional studio that was not used to working with this kind of music. So one very skilled producer gave his opinion to some 14-year-old dude in white socks and sneakers who wouldn’t shut up and was off time and out of key. Tom just gave an honest assessment and we were too stupid to listen. But they were smart. They could see that this kind of music was happening and they figured out how to record it better than anyone else.
John, you’ve said you didn’t have all the lyrics written for your first album Slowly We Rot so you just mouthed noises.
John: We didn’t even plan on doing a record! Roadrunner heard the demo we made and offered us a record deal and they wanted the album right away. I didn’t want to take the time to think up a bunch of lyrics, so I just made sounds that went along with the music.
In no time, there were Satanic bands on the scene, like Morbid Angel and Deicide, and groups that were trying to write gorier songs than their peers. It seems like you relied more or music than hype.
John: Some people were shocked by the horror movie-sounding opening of “Internal Bleeding” from our first album Slowly We Rot, and how shocking it was to them. I don’t know that it was ever our intent. And we didn’t want to be Satanic or super-gory, because that just wasn’t us. So we created this [apocalyptic] fictional setting around our music, as opposed to reality and being way too serious. We obviously are not too serious about what we do.
Were Florida death metal musicians vicious and mean? Were there beatdowns and bloodshed?
Donald: Maybe in the pits at the shows, but we weren’t all angry, we just played brutal music. Really, we were kind-hearted stoners.
Speaking of kind-hearted, you have a cat sanctuary called the Metal Meowitia (named after the Metallica song “Metal Militia.”)
Donald: It’s not exactly a cat sanctuary. I’m have a problem with the homeless outdoor cat population problem. So I started with my own backyard, then I moved to my neighbor’s backyard. Then I moved to the local gas station. Then I moved behind the McDonalds. And now I take care of colonies of homeless cats. I get them all spayed and neutered so they don’t breed anymore. And I provide them with fresh food and water every night before the sun goes down.
It’s kind of funny that lots of extreme musicians in bands like Carcass and Deicide are animal lovers?
Donald: My girlfriend, who is a part of Metal Meowitia, once asked ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, “Do you own any pets?” He didn’t just say he owned a cat. He told us about how he found it injured, sitting on his fence. He took it to the vet, and his words were, “That little shit cost me $700 but I love him.” I’ve had all these guys in brutal bands who have no idea what I do tell me about their fluffy white cats, and it’s the funniest thing.
Donald, how did you end up playing with Andrew W.K.?
Donald: In 1999, he wrote me a letter in pencil and sent it in the mail. It said, “I’m Andrew W.K. I want you to be my drummer because Obituary’s one of my favorite bands and I love your drumming.” At the time, Obituary was on a hiatus. I listened to the demo Andrew sent me and I was like, “Wow, it’s the complete opposite of Obituary. I’m into it.” I knew I didn’t want to be in another death metal band because I already had the best one in the world. I put all those guys in Andrew’s band together and his first album, I Get Wet, went from nothing to becoming a gold record within a year. I did 500 shows in three years with him. We did Saturday Night Live, Conan O’Brien, Top of the Pops. It was amazing.
Obituary returned in 2005 with Frozen in Time. What sparked the comeback?
Donald: Eight years passed and Roadrunner seemed to have lost interest in the band, so we contacted them and asked to get away and they said, “If you want to get away give us one more record.”
John: We tried to tell them that if they didn’t want the record we were okay with that and we’d go somewhere else. But they insisted they wanted to do it, and then of course they didn’t do anything with it.
How was it different recording albums during the glory years of death metal and now?
John: Everyone was crazy back then. We would go in the studio and spend $85,000 to record an album. And then we’d be stuck spending the next however many years trying to get the money paid back. We never made any money from those records. And after the scene dipped with the popularity of grunge and alternative rock, a lot of people lost interest in death metal.
Donald: Nothing’s ever changed. The band still has to go on tour to make a living. Album sales don’t mean shit because nowadays, with the Internet, everybody’s Spotifying and downloading illegally. It is what it is. We’re not crying over spilled milk. I’ll cry over spilled beer, but not milk.