ATHEIST!During the last 20 years or so, a good number of amazing Metal bands have suffered from public indifference and support from their labels. Some weren't leaders but had enough originality and talent to bring on the market great releases such as SACRIFICE, ATTACKER, ANGEL DUST, BLASPHEME.... while those who were way ahead of their time, the only recognition they finally receive is only when they have broken up for a good deal of years like INSANITY, WATCH TOWER, KINETIC DISSENT, ANACRUSIS, REALM... and the unluckiest of all, the mighty ATHEIST! I'm sure that anybody into Metal for a long time have heard this unique sounding bunch at least one time and how can you forget such a band?! Call it Brain, Death, Jazz, Thrash or whatever Metal, that doesn't matter, these guys have created through their three albums something which will never be reproduced by anybody, because these guys had developed unique songwriting. Since all their albums have been re-released recently, there's no better time than now to investigate about the whole ATHEIST story with Kelly Shaefer and Steve Flynn. This feature is also my tribute to the great late Roger Patterson... we miss you!
How and when did you discover Heavy Metal? What are some of the records that you grew up listening to that you really have enjoyed to the bone?
Kelly: "Well me personally, I enjoy alot of different kinds of music, depending on what mood I may be in. It could be Jazz, "good" Hip Hop- drum beats mostly. Early on I loved "Sad Wings Of Destiny"(JUDAS PRIEST), early IRON MAIDEN and RUSH had a major impact, and then MERCYFUL FATE for me was amazing, I just really loved the way their songs had so many cool parts, tons of mood, I am a big fan of mood music, that's the reason I listen to so many different kinds of music, because each genre takes me to a different place." Steve: "I discovered Metal when I was probably 12 years old. It started with some of the early RUSH and IRON MAIDEN. I grew up listening to IRON MAIDEN, METALLICA, RUSH, SLAYER, DARK ANGEL."
As a guitar player/ singer, Kelly what were your main influences also? If I'm right you started playing guitar as fully self taught but then you've studied Latin and Jazz to add more diversity and become better as a musician...
Kelly: "Well actually, I have never studied Latin or Jazz in the sense of knowing the theory, I studied it in a more hands on approach, by listening to great Jazz players, and not just Jazz players, there are other genres of music that have complex song structures, KING CRIMSON twenty years ago was fucking laying out "21st Century Schizoid Man" that was some tech shit man! I think we were all just into music that was played well...Steve actually studied Jazz drumming, and Latin drumming for a while with a guy called Louie from here in our town, it was at that point that we were able to approach songs from a whole different perspective that most Death Metal people had never experienced, so it sounded very fresh, but sometimes back then I think it confused alot of people."
Also what can you tell us about the musical past from Roger Patterson...
Kelly: "Well Roger was just a prodigy, totally self taught, he had incredible dexterity in his hands, and his riffs were just mind blowing, I have said before in interviews that we used to spend all night trying to play his shit! We just started playing different things over the top of his madness underneath and out sprouted this new crazy sounding brutality, and then when Steve picked up all the knowledge from the Jazz schooling, he was able to write his own madness underneath of it all... But believe it or not Roger was really into Gene Simmons, not for his playing but for his sick stage presence, which if anyone ever saw Roger on stage, they know he was a sick fucker on stage!" (Sure he was!- Laurent)
Why have you decided to form a band to start with?
Kelly: "I have always been an artist, and I attended a high school for the arts, and while outside sketching or painting, I would always hear this guy Taylor playing his guitar in the hallway of the school, and my sister's boyfriend also played, and I just felt it you know man, I needed to play guitar, so I did! And of course the next step was to put a band together, it was a blast, jamming in mom's garage, and in the living room of her house, we had alot of fun!"
OBLIVION was formed by you and a drummer in '84- did you play shows as OBLIVION?
Kelly: "No we did not, I had a drummer named Mark who was a friend of mine from just hanging out, and we played together and sort of learned the basics together, then there was Steve Flynn, he was so much more powerful, and I was into really heavy shit, and back then it was not popular to like MERCYFUL FATE, VENOM etc, at least not in our town."
So what went wrong with the first drummer and how did you hook up exactly with Steve? Did he enjoy like you early Thrash bands such as DARK ANGEL, EXODUS, SLAYER.....?
Kelly: "We had gone to school together, and knew of each other, and when we met back up I had OBLIVION, so I asked him to join and we used to jam old TROUBLE songs and SLAYER, METALLICA etc. he was a great drummer even back then and yes he was a huge fan of DARK ANGEL, and as it turns out we met with Gene (Hoglan) in California, he came to our show out in Oakland, and he was a big fan of Steve's(laughs) and the band, we were very flattered by that."
Steve, what were your main influences to start with as a drummer and do you remember your first band experience? Was it with OBLIVION?
Steve: "My main influence, and one of the things that motivated me to play the drums, was Neil Peart from RUSH. I also have influences from Lars Ulrich, Dave Lombardo, Gene Hoglan, Clive Burr, Nicko McBrain, Dave Weckel. Kelly Shaefer and I started OBLIVION. It was my first real band experience."
Why did you change the name for R.A.V.A.G.E. (Raging Atheists Vowing A Gory End)? Did you change it because there was another band around in Florida called OBLIVION without counting the other OBLIVION from New Jersey etc....?
Kelly: "I cannot remember why... I think we just wanted something a little more menacing sounding and OBLIVION just did not do it for us, so we decided on R.A.V.A.G.E.."
You also had a full part singer during the early days of R.A.V.A.G.E., tell us more about him... Did you play lots of originals back then like "State Of Oblivion"... or did you play covers mainly?
Kelly: "Holy shit man, you got some serious knowledge about the band huh?! Well we had a singer early on called Scrappy...at that point we were just jamming a few originals, and we would play "Panic" from ANTHRAX, and "Psalm 9" from TROUBLE, "Piranha" from EXODUS, "Wrathchild" from IRON MAIDEN, "Die By The Sword" from SLAYER, shit like that and we had no bass player, cause it was hard to find people who were into this new heavy sort of sound..."
Roger joined R.A.V.A.G.E. a short while after, he was playing before with the Florida based band AGGRESSOR- how did you get him joining R.A.V.A.G.E.? Did you use in the early R.A.V.A.G.E. material some AGGRESSOR riffs or arrangements from songs like "Party Of The Dead" and stuff?
Kelly: "I had known Roger as we used to sell newspapers together when we were like 12 years old, and then he went to school in the town next to me and we did not hook up again until 1985 I think when he came with his twin brother to a R.A.V.A.G.E. show, he saw that we had no bass player and said he wanted to jam, he told us of his band AGGRESSOR, we hooked up and it was amazing right from the start, Patrick the singer from AGGRESSOR was not very happy, but we were. We never used any of their riffs though."
I think at the time you tried out some second guitar players- before you got Mark Sczwartzberg in the band, tell us more about the guys you tried out...
Kelly: "No one worth mentioning, there was one guy who appeared on the "Raging Death" album photo with us named Gary, he was in the band one day and that was the day we shot those photos."
The first official R.A.V.A.G.E. recording was "Rotting In Hell", a five track demo tape featuring four live songs and a studio song done around August '85 at Progressive Studios, can you tell us how that tape was recorded exactly, how the songs on this demo were written, what kind of response you got from all over the world back then due to the coverage you had in the fanzine and the tape trading network ect...
Kelly: "Well that tape was done just as a board recording...we did not have the money at the time to record a proper demo, we did however have enough money to record the song "Kill Or Be Killed" at Progressive. The songs were written just like the rest, only we were very immature songwriters at the time, so they sound very elementary compared to the latter albums. We did send it out to several fanzines and writers, one of which was Don Kaye, he said he did not find anything enticing about it, but that I should send it to this other writer called Borivoj Krgin to see what he thinks, and we did, he did find some things he liked about it, but it was when we recorded the "On They Slay" demo that he really stepped up and helped us get a recording deal, tape trading coincided with all of this, and next thing you know we were the #1 demo in Metal Forces for a whole year, we were really blown away by that, and very flattered." Steve: "If I remember correctly, "Rotting In Hell" was recorded by sticking some microphones haphazardly throughout our warehouse and recording what we played using a cheap recorder. The songs for that demo were written the same way all our songs were written. We each made contributions and argued a lot. For example, I would write some guitar riffs, Kelly would have some drum ideas and we would just sort of sit and brainstorm. Actually, that demo, as bad as it sounds, received a good response from all over. However, our first real recording "On They Slay", garnered a far better reception. It was featured on the compilation "Raging Death"."
Was it hard to play shows back then in the Sarasota/ Tampa area? There were not so many bands around except DEATH, SAVATAGE, NASTY SAVAGE, SIREN, EXECUTIONER, B.P., CRIMSOM GLORY, HAVOC, MORBID ANGEL, MASSACRE and a few others but it seems there was a good relationship between all the bands at that time especially with N. SAVAGE who tried to help out as much as they could the smallest bands right?!
Kelly: "Yes NASTY SAVAGE was really the first Florida band to draw killer crowds! They had a great live show, and we would all go up to Tampa and see them play, and that's where the Florida network got started, but the only good shows early on were with NASTY SAVAGE, other shows were hard to put together cause club owners were in to the Glam shit." Steve: "Well, we knew the guys in NASTY SAVAGE, but they never helped us out regarding getting signed to a label. We played with them once.(More than once in fact!-Laurent) They were very nice guys. We got along with them very well. The guys in HAVOC were very good friends. We lived in the same town...we grew up together. We went to the same schools, etc. It wasn’t hard to find gigs in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Before that, however, it was."
Not much was heard from the band during 1986 except that in November Mark Sczwartzberg joined as a second guitar player...
Kelly: "Well I will do my best to remember... We were just jamming, getting used to a second guitar player, and trying to write, utilizing the second guitar, and we're finding early on that it created endless possibilities, so Mark worked out for a while, but in the end his solos were not all that great, Rand came back into the picture as a possibility for us, and after that we started working with Rand, and the rest was history, we spent the rest of that time up to the release of "Piece Of Time" working on those tunes."
But one month later you recorded your first proper demo tape "On They Slay", what do you remember from the recording sessions of that tape? Did Mark contribute to the songwriting of that three song affair? What was the response for this one? I think it was even bigger than for "Rotting In Hell" correct?!
Kelly: "Yes it was the more popular, mainly cause it was easier to listen to due to the better production. Mark did not contribute anything but solos to the process."
With that demo you had the opportunity to appear on the "Raging Death Vol. 1" compilation issued on Godly Records during mid '87, on a newly based California/ New York label, did you remix the two tracks which appeared on it or did you use the original demo recordings? How much do you think that compilation appearance helped R.A.V.A.G.E. since your tracks received critical acclaim all over the world from the underground Metallers?
Kelly: "Well that was the first step in introducing ATHEIST to the world, and it was very positive for us, we were able to get much needed press and reviews, so when the album did come out things were going along quite well, as far as the buzz on the band goes. We did not remix those tracks, but we did re-master them, which is an eq balance, so they sound tons better than the original release. But that was really an important happening for us." Steve: "We didn’t remix any of the songs. "Raging Death" used the original "On They Slay" demo recordings. The appearance helped us out quite a bit. Though I would have to say that EXECUTIONER and John Tardy probably stole the show. Out of the bands on that album, I think that it helped them out the best. However, I will say that it provided us with enough exposure to finally get a record deal."
Following that compilation thing, Borivoj Krgin (from the awesome Violent Noize 'zine/ Metal Forces mag and co founder of Godly Records) became your manager...
Kelly: "Well he was a big part of ATHEIST, he was instrumental in getting us all of the press we received, his opinion as you know is golden in the underground. He became our manager after he got us the deal with Godly Records which was his label- that was an offshoot of a label called Three Cherries, so he was able to start a management company and he signed us and SEPULTURA right before "Beneath..." came out. He also hooked myself and Max up from SEPULTURA to do the song "Stronger Than Hate"."
Mark left the band during 1987 after the deal for the "Raging Death" compilation was finalized and you did some shows as a three piece band following his departure but your sound definitely lacked a second guitarist from what I remember... Also your live set back then featured unknown songs, songs which never appeared on your early demos, do you remember any titles of those unreleased songs?
Kelly: "Yes the three piece thing did not work out so good. As I said it is much better having the second guitar scenario. As far as unknown songs, all of them will be on the up coming re-releases, I dug up everything I could find, so they should all be on there, "Undefiled Wisdom" etc. that's the only ones I can think of that you may be speaking of." Steve: "In fact, one song that was never released but was broken up into several parts and put into other songs was "Brain Damage". The ending part of the song "Piece Of Time"- where Kelly says “Piece Of Time”…etc., was from "Brain Damage". Also, on "Incarnations Dream" one section of that song came from "Brain Damage". Further, some of the songs we had were rewritten for release. For example, "Unholy War" was totally different before we released "Piece Of Time"."
By December 1987 you had recorded another three song demo entitled "Hell Halth No Fury" but it was never released officially though it still made its way into the tape trading lists, so tell us the reasons why it never was officially released besides the fact that apparently you weren't satisfied at all by the production. Did Mark contribute to the writing of the "Hell..." and "Beyond" songs? Even if that demo was not properly released, do you think you gained some popularity with it since it was traded quite heavily?
Kelly: "Well it will be included on the re-issue as well, but at the time it was just not very good sounding and we were really wanting to get into Morrisound Studios and do a really good sounding demo... I really do not even know how that made it to trading lists, I never sent one out, but you know how that goes... Mark as I said only contributed solos to all of the ATHEIST works. I don't know whether or not it added to the popularity of ATHEIST, but I guess it all helps right??" Steve: "Wow… you got me on that one. I don’t even remember what demo that was. We made a lot of recordings that were never “official”. I would have to hear it to be able to provide any insight..."
Also that tape featured a new version of "On They Slay", faster and heavier I would say, does that mean that you were influenced by what was going on in the underground at the time, I mean it was the "in" thing back then to play everything faster and heavier for almost every Thrash band around...
Kelly: "Honestly it just became that fast by playing it every night, it needed to be faster and we felt that while playing it, so gradually it got faster, and by the time it was recorded on the album it was way faster than the original that's for sure! But it was due mainly to us getting tighter and more confident in using speed in our songs, but I also would not doubt that at that time it was great to be fast, as Phil from MALEVOLENT CREATION always said, "Dude if it don't blast, it won't last" (laughs) I love that!!" Steve: "Actually, "On They Slay" never changed significantly from recording to recording. It sounded heavier and faster because the recordings were just better. Plus, if you listen to our songs over time, they all get faster. I have live recordings of ATHEIST as late as 1994 and we were playing ALL our songs fast… Too fast for some of the really technical parts."
When did you change the name R.A.V.A.G.E. for ATHEIST exactly? The fact that there was a Hard Rock band with almost the same moniker from Illinois was really the only reason why you changed the band's name or do you think the name ATHEIST fit much better with the band's vision?
Kelly: "Well we changed it right after the "Raging Death" compil, and yeah it had alot to do with that band from Illinois, they were very DOKKEN sounding, and surely we did not want to be confused with that kind of music, so we changed it, but when it became ATHEIST, I must say I love that name for the band, it was just perfect for the music we were putting out, and the lyrics, it was a powerful name..."
Following the great response you received from "Raging Death", there were talks about doing an album on Godly Records, Beta Records were also interested...
Kelly: "Well Godly Records actually paid for the recording of "Piece Of Time" but after it started doing well as an import, we started getting label interest for a world wide deal, from Active Records, as well as Roadrunner, and they started a sort of bidding war against each other, and in the end we felt that going with Active Records we would be top priority, and since they had a great staff of people at the label, we thought it was the right decision, and in the end it was the wrong decision, if we had come out as a Roadrunner band we would have had a much different career that's for sure. They are and were the best indy label for this kind of music, in my opinion."
Around early 1988, you were joined by Randy Burkey, how did you find him? What can you tell us concerning his musical background? Were you impressed personally when you saw him play guitar with a right handed guitar upside down Flying V?
Kelly: "Well we knew Rand way before that, he came from California...we were amazed at his playing style, and the fact that he was playing backwards, I mean this shit is hard enough to play forward you know?! But he lived with us and was just running sound for us in the beginning. He turned us on to alot of cool music from the West coast, and his soloing was just what we needed, cause my solos were very basic, I am much more of a rhythm player, so we got rid of Mark and Rand was in, and right after that we did the "Beyond" demo and then Bori got us a deal." Steve: "We didn’t know anything about his musical background. All we cared about is that he had the talent to play the type of music we wanted to play, which was a very commodity in Sarasota, FL in 1986. Rand was actually in the band in 1986 we kicked him out, he went to California for a year or so and came back."
So with him, you went to the Morrisound studios for the first time to record a brand new five song effort "Beyond", and as far as I'm concerned I think the band's songwriting was different from the old stuff and the songs were more distinctive from each other and more involved I would say... what would you say about that period of time? What was your feelings as a band when you saw that this demo was voted as best demo in Metal Forces in ' 90 and ATHEIST voted as best new band?
Kelly: "Well it had alot to do with the sounds that were now available to me and Steve, Rands playing enabled us to construct these elaborate musical phrases, that were not possible before, so the songwriting matured as a result of that, as well as the rest of us practicing alot, we were never into the blood and guts bullshit that went along with Death Metal, we wanted to be able to play as well as anyone, technically. We were very flattered to know that anyone liked our music, much less to win the best demo in Metal Forces, we were stoked! We actually thought they made a mistake (laughs)." Steve: "Well we were extremely flattered. With so many good bands coming out of Florida, it was a real honor to be given that distinction by one of the leading publications of that time. Our songwriting just matured along with our musical skills. We never said, “This is the type of music we will write.”, we just wrote whatever came out naturally. The music became more distinctive because we were learning how to better write, and arrange music. Plus we were developing the chops to be able to pull off live what we were thinking in our heads."
At that time there was a New Jersey based band who were around with the same moniker, but they changed it later in '88 for CREMATION, ever heard about that particularly bad uninspired trendy Metal outfit?
Kelly: "No I am afraid not, after our name change we never looked back!"
The "Beyond" demo received lots of acclaim with coverage in plenty of big magazines- did you get the Mean Machine deal instantly since Borivoj was working at that time for this company?
Kelly: "At that point that was the only interest that we knew of or that made there interest known to us, we knew Bori would do a great job, so we felt safe working with him in any capacity."
During 1988, you played a good amount of shows including opening slots for TESTAMENT, DEATH ANGEL (replacing RIGOR MORTIS at the last minute), NASTY SAVAGE and DEATH, what kind of memories do you have from those shows? Do you think those opening slots gave you the opportunity to increase your fan base even if those shows took place in the Tampa/ St. Petersburg area?
Kelly: "Sure! I think it really helped alot cause Death Metal was infesting the area, so the shows here were being talked about in the rest of the world, and that was right before we all got signed (OBITUARY, MALEVOLENT, MORBID etc.). Well I remember the guys in DEATH ANGEL being pretty fucking uncool (laughs) but other than that they were great shows, lots of crazy people, we were lucky to get shows like that." Steve: "In fact, I would have to say that the only really good shows from that list were with TESTAMENT and NASTY SAVAGE. The guys in DEATH ANGEL were complete dicks and we sounded like shit because they screwed us on the sound. Scott Burns ran sound for us at TESTAMENT and he did a great job. The guys from NASTY SAVAGE were really cool, and our shows with them were good."
At one time you had serious conflict with the DEATH guys, what happened exactly back then?
Kelly: "Well the arguments stemmed from our mutual relationship with Borivoj. We played a show with them and Bori had never seen us live, so the day after the show he (Chuck) called up Bori and told him that everyone hated us, and they all got up and left for our performance, and that was not the case at all, keep in mind that no one had the careers they have today, so things were very competitive, press, gigs etc. so this is where it started, cause I could not believe he would say that, we had a great show that night, Chuck had said that we sounded like a trainwreck, and as everyone knows we were proficient musicians, so we knew how to fucking play man, so we figured that he must just want Bori to not like us, cause at the time Bori was really into our shit, and he and Chuck had been roommates early on, and I think that at the time Chuck wanted him to like "DEATH" only. As the next two years went on, they said shit, we said shit etc, but after he hooked up with the CYNIC boys, I think he had a different impressionfor what us and CYNIC were doing, we went up to the studio during the recording of "Human" and we hung out and smoked out with Chuck and his girl, it seems that all is well with that situation now, and I am VERY sad to hear about his current health problems, we all wish him well."
Still during 1988, the Florida scene became stronger than ever with tons of new Death Metal bands- at a time when Death Metal wasn't trendy yet, popping up from everywhere, MORBID ANGEL had also relocated in Florida, Scott Burns had started to make a name for himself and more clubs were open for Metal so the whole world had their eyes focused on what was going on in Florida, how did you feel about all that stuff?
Kelly: "Well it was really great, but at the time we did not realize that it was going down like that, Scott was doing well, doing alot of projects, but it was not until we went to Europe that we realized that Florida Death Metal was unique, and innovative, we were very honored to be a part of it that's for sure, we had alot of great times back then, as well as some killer shows." Steve: "That really made the whole scene exciting. I mean with so much activity in one place. We really felt like we were in the middle of a movement, and we were. The only down side is that around every corner there was another Death Metal band popping up."
I could hear lots of RUSH influences on the new songs, more than on the earlier material and also lots of M. FATE sort of arrangements... Is the fact Rand had joined the band increased that as he was also a big RUSH fan too?
Kelly: "Steve was actually the biggest RUSH fan, Rand was into stuff like KING CRIMSON, WATCHTOWER...we were all of fans of IRON MAIDEN and shit like that, as well as M. FATE...that was a huge influence on my arranging of the earlier ATHEIST material." Steve: "We were all RUSH fans. I think that RUSH had a bigger influence on my playing and the types of guitar riffs and drum riffs I wrote than anybody else in the band. Rand was a RUSH fan but not to the same extent that I was. It was RUSH, in fact, that influenced me to start playing drums in the first place. In fact, it was the first time I heard "La Villa Strangiato" from "Hemispheres" that I knew I just had to be able to play like that."
Also Jazzy influences started to become obvious on the new material, why did you decide to incorporate something that was mostly unknown in Metal until that day RUSH/ WATCHTOWER being exceptions?
Kelly: "As I said we were very into being the best musicians we could be, rather than entertaining the gore elements of the scene, so we listened to alot of Jazz, and found that if you were to put distortion into the mix, with those types of arrangements, that it would be very interesting. Roger was a big riff writer, he would write these hard ass riffs all the time, then myself and Steve would construct his drums underneath it all, and at the end of the day we all ideally wanted to be playing different parts that were orchestrated, but melted together, in a brutal piece of music." Steve: "That was just a natural progression of our style and influences. I studied Latin percussion and Jazz-style drumming from some local teachers in Florida. I loved those styles and thought it would be great to incorporate them into Death Metal songs. For example, in "Incarnations Dream" on "Unquestionable Presence" there is a Bosa Nova beat, totally Latin."
Your first album "Piece Of Time" was completed late '88 at Morrisound Studios with Scott Burns as producer, what made you want to work with him at the time as he wasn't so well known yet? I mean were you impressed by some of the previous stuff he has done for OBITUARY, WHIPLASH, AGENT STEEL or...?
Kelly: "Well we worked with him right after hearing the OBITUARY demos for the "Raging Death" compil, the sound he got was clear and heavy as hell, so we pursued him, and he really dug what we were doing, and he understood it, which was really important, cause at the time, most engineers scoffed at the sight of a band like us. He had not yet worked with WHIPLASH or AGENT STEEL at that point. He is and always has been a great friend to ATHEIST, and we still keep in touch, he just had a baby actually, we are very happy for him, he's a great guy!"
The album featured a mix of old tracks like "Beyond", "Why Bother?" (known before as "Choose Your Death"), "On They Slay" and a couple others mixed with three relatively new ones "Room With A View", "Piece Of Time" (featuring a part of "Brain Damage") and "I Deny" and as far as I'm concerned I always found that there was a big hole between the older and newer tracks, I mean the newer tracks were just incredibly more complicated especially "I Deny", so don't you think you could have replaced some older/ less technical stuff like "Why Bother?" or "Life" with some new tracks such as "Enthralled In Essence" or "The Formative Years" since you were already performing them more or less live...
Kelly: "Well I see what you mean about the gap of adventurism as far as the technicality goes, but we could not have put those songs on there that you mentioned, cause they were not written yet, we wrote those songs just after recording the "Piece..." album, otherwise yes they would have blended alot more. All I can say is that we grew as musicians alot in about two years, prior to that we had only played our instruments for a short time."
So the album was ready to be released in early '89- but if I'm correct, even if the album was released on Active in Europe around early '90, there was still hope for the band to see it released through Mean Machine in U.S. at that time which finally never happened...
Kelly: "Well when we signed with Active Records in Europe, we thought they would secure a deal for an American release, it took them that entire time to do so, finally Metal Blade came forward...you see Mean Machine was not gonna happen for much longer, the guys who were actually funding it, were from Pop music backgrounds, so they bailed out early, so Bori knew this and told us to plan on looking for an American label. We owe Bori a great deal of gratitude for making our career with ATHEIST possible. Metal Blade struck a deal finally, and two years later it was on the shelves here, before that it was only available as an import, and we sort of missed the first wave of press on the whole Death Metal craze here in the States, even though we were there on the ground floor of the movement."
So like you said earlier Roadrunner/ Roadracer was interested at one time to buy out the contract from Mean Machine like they did for EXHORDER... tell us more about all that and tell us more about how you ended up exactly being licensed on Metal Blade for the States.
Kelly: "Well Monte (Conner from Roadracer) actually flew down while we were doing the "Unquestionable..." album, prior to that he was bidding against Active to get the rights to a worldwide deal with ATHEIST, but like I said we fucked up and chose Active Records...but he almost licensed it in the States, but he could not make it happen, I think Metal Blade did a great job, I have fond memories of Brian Slagel, and Mike Faley. I asked them to put our albums through Warner Brothers and they did...they ran ads, and gave us tour support, problem was, they did not have all the sort of "hip" Death Metal bands, like Roadrunner had, so we toured with CANNIBAL CORPSE which was totally wrong for us, I love those guys they are my friends, but we should not have been on that sort of tour, we were supposed to get the SEPULTURA/ OBITUARY tour, that would have been a little more appropriate."
What was your state of mind in '89 when you saw that the album was still unreleased- I remember that at every show you played in '89 you told the people that the album was on the point to be issued when in fact it was only released in early '90 at least in Europe and took even more time for the States to be issued, I guess discouragement started to appear in the band....
Kelly: "Well yes a bit, but we felt that it would do well if it ever came out, and plus after telling people it was coming out, and then there was this long period of time where nothing was happening, we could not understand why an American label would not pick it up, but when it did finally come out, it was very nice, because it's no fun to have an album that is not released in your own home country." Steve: "We were really pissed and worried. A significant buzz had been built up and we needed to release "Piece.." to catch the wave. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. It came out in Europe first, which was fine, but it took so damn long to come out here. I think it hurt our domestic sales."
Don't you think the fact that "Piece.." took so much time to be released- it was issued after the OBITUARY, M. ANGEL.. albums when in fact it was recorded at the same time, made some people think that you were followers of that Death Metal wave?
Kelly: "For sure!! That was the most frustrating thing about it, there is nothing worse than being deemed a follower, and to be writing the kind of material we were at the time getting ready for the "Unquestionable.." album, that really sucked, cause we would come out of rehearsal, playing/ writing songs like "Brains" and "Mother Man" and thinking shit man, we are not fucking followers, we have a very strange thing going on here, but luckily the press was very kind to ATHEIST, and alot of times cleared up that misconception." Steve: "That is certainly a possibility. However, our music was so different that it was obvious we weren’t just another scream, gargle, blast-beat band."
Were you happy with the way Active promoted the album in Europe- by putting a sticker on the cover saying "Death Metal with a difference, you better believe it!", when at the same time you wanted to distance yourselves from the other usual Death/ Thrash Metal bands and you labeled your music as Brain Metal...
Kelly: "Well at the time I think it was better for them in a marketing standpoint to call us Death Metal, after all, at the time we were the only Brain Metal band so it was not yet a trendy or popular thing to play technical music, so I understand why they did that, but I was not convinced that it was fair to call it just Death Metal. Although we were just as proud to be in that genre, due to the brutality of our technicality."
You said the album sold 15.000 copies in the first week of it's release, do you know how many were sold exactly at the end? Did you get problems with Active at one time to know the sales figures like labelmates OBLIVEON had got with their first release...
Kelly: "I cannot begin to tell you how badly they breached contract, lets just say they basically stole our music, we had to go and get it back, from some company in Europe that had bought the Euro rights from Active. We never got proper statements, publishing, fucking nothing, until we contacted this company that purchased the rights, they were very cool ,and paid us our back royalties since they took over. They also recouped an extra 14,000 dollars on our first record, and never paid us that, and we should have sued them, but at the time we had no bucks to do so. Now it is all straight, and we are happy to have our music back in our hands."
During 1990, you played again some nice local shows like one in May with NAPALM DEATH- their first U.S. show ever as they were recording "Harmony.." in Tampa, one in June with MORBID ANGEL and OBITUARY, another one in August as support for two of the most talented Bay Area acts at the time, DEATH ANGEL and FORBIDDEN and in September you headlined the "Day Of Death" festival in Waukesha, Wisconsin which turned out to be a poor festival with almost nobody standing in the hall, any memories of all those shows?
Kelly: "Yes of course! I remember them all for different reasons though, some good, some bad, but let's start with NAPALM, those guys are the coolest fuckers on the planet, we always had a great respect for what they do, they are very pro minded, and we love them, also Roger was a huge fan of NAPALM, we have alot of love for those guys, and of course that show was a blast, Mick (Harris) fucked up Steve's kit really good that night (laughs)...broke some cymbals...he was an animal! The MORBID/ OBITUARY show was amazing, people came from all over the world for that show that night, and it would be the one and only time we would all three play together, most who know me know that I am very honest, and I must say the guys in MORBID ANGEL were most unpleasant to us and OBITUARY at the time. They took the entire stage and left us all with very little room, and the fact was we were all co-headlining should have meant that we all share the stage, so we had some words with Mr. Dave (laughs)...OBITUARY had just finished recoring "Cause Of Death"- one of my fave Death Metal albums, and those guys fucking rule, we have always had a great relationship with those boys, they were so cool when Roger died, very respectful and sincerely saddened by it, which meant alot to us. The DEATH ANGEL show...well let's just say those guys were very ego orientated, the Bay Area scene could be stuffy at times to the East coast Death Metal bands, they thought cause they were friends with METALLICA, that they were hot shit, we of course were not impressed(laughs)...FORBIDDEN guys were cool. "Day Of Death" was a fond memory cause the CYNIC boys played, as well as 25 others, it's too bad that the turnout was weak, cause there were some great bands playing, we had a great time, the festival folks took really good care of us, and Borivoj Krgin came to the show and got some really great footage on his cam recorder of all of it- I need to get that!" Steve: "The only thing I didn’t like about those shows- except for Waukesha, was the fact that we were opening for those other bands, and we were treated like second-class citizens. I remember the DEATH ANGEL show in particular, it was awful! They really, I mean really, screwed us on the sound. It’s such bullshit. Whenever we headlined we always made sure that the opening bands had the same quality of sound that we did."
In August '90, you also re-entered Morrisound studios with Scott to do a pre-production tape of your second album which featured six brand new songs, did you make that recording to shop it around and maybe get interest from other record labels or was it a recording with another goal in mind?
Kelly: "No we were recording with a new album in mind, we were very happy to have two weeks in the studio instead of one week like on "Piece Of Time", so it was purely for the record." Steve: "We didn’t make it to shop around. We made it so the record company, and us, could hear what we had written since "Piece.."."
It seems you weren't really satisfied from that pre-production tape from what I read later but as far as I'm concerned I think this recording kicked ass because you could hear the bass parts extremely well but also every other instrument as well...
Kelly: "Well I am never happy with anything (laughs)...until I can get some distance from it. It was basically live in the studio so the guitars were not double tracked and sounding fat you know?! But looking back its great to hear Roger's bass lines so clearly, I am excited to have these recordings included on the upcoming re-releases. It will be even clearer cause those tapes were never mastered initially, so they should sound great!"
You finally come over to Europe for the first time in December '90 for one show in Norway and two shows in Sweden supporting CANDLEMASS, but even if the shows themselves went really well with a very good receptive response from the audiences, the other side of things- hotels and stuff was far from good, what kind of memories do you have of that first trip?
Kelly: "Well as I recall, much was made about the way we acted by a writer named Rob Clymo, and basically he used his article about the band in Metal Forces as a sort of attack on us, he was not interested in writing positive things. We went to Sweden, and were left with no bucks for about ten hours in a youth hostile, for starters, and we just felt like they should have at least got us some food, we had been on a plane for about 15 hours, had no cigarettes nothing!! So yeah we were a little pissed, but it was not that big of a deal...Rob Clymo wrote in Metal Forces like we were trying to act like fucking Rock stars, but that was not the case at all. We had a good time, I am not so fond of Sweden cause they confiscated all of our merchandise at the border on my birthday, they were total dicks, but that is another story all together." Steve: "That’s really funny that you mention that. I don’t think we were prepared for the culture shock or the jet lag. The accommodations were awful. I mean, we weren’t looking for a palace, but shit I at least wanted a bathroom and a shower. One night I said fuck it and walked down the street to a hotel to stay the night. It cost a fortune, but I thought it was worth it. GOD Sweden is expensive!!"
Two weeks later you were on the road opening for CANDLEMASS on their first real U.S. tour for about 28 dates all over the States including a date in London, Canada unfortunately everybody came to the same conclusion in a short period of time, that it wasn't the appropriate tour for ATHEIST because the tour had poor turnouts, looking back do you think it helped the band or was it more like having your time lost on the road for nothing?
Kelly: "Well it's easy to say now that I wish we had not done the tour cause then Roger would still be alive, but the fact is, it was really good for us, nothing much was expected of us in the sense that the draws reflected on CANDLEMASS more than us. Some shows were really cool, but I think we all learned alot on that tour, so it was a good learning experience, and that was the way it was supposed to go down, so no I have no regrets there, it helped us sell more records than if we had stayed at home!! Plus we met alot of really great people on that tour!" Steve: "Well, any publicity is good publicity. So, though it wasn’t the best tour for us and they didn’t draw very well, it was great experience. It would have been much better to tour with SEPULTURA, which was in discussion, but we just couldn’t make that happen. So, I don’t regret it at all, except for the fact that Roger got killed."
As everybody knows, tragedy struck the band when Roger was killed outside New Orleans as the band were driving home from California after that tour, looking back what were and what are your feelings towards that whole sad thing?
Kelly: "Shit that's a hard one, cause I could talk for days on how that made me feel, and how that changed my life, and others. I think at the time we were in total shock, I mean Roger was the kind of guy who seemed to go unscathed through life, he never had any stress in his life, he was very care free. I could not understand how he died and we all did not, we were all in basically the same danger, but he was sleeping through the skidding down the road, and he did not have enough time to wake up and brace himself like I did, I woke up to screeching tires, and braced myself just in time before we rolled over six times. He did not and went right out the window, it was so tragic!!! After that we just wanted to blame the driver Carl Hamilton (ATHEIST roadie), I was so mad I could not stand it. I know he did not mean it, but he took a very important person away from us all, and that sucks, his remorse level was not that of a "sorry" person, so it made it harder to forgive him, but over the years I have learned that, itwas the way it was supposed to be or it would not have happened, I think it is amazing how many people pay tribute to Roger, and his bass playing, he was a remarkable player, much better than the recordings let on, I wish he was here today cause I know he would be writing some amazing shit! We still visit him on a regular basis, every time we have a show in Tampa we pass the cemetery and honk our horn, or roll on in and burn a joint with him. He is still a huge part of us!!" Steve: "It was just a terrible tragedy. And it turned out to be probably the beginning of the end. He was an integral part of the ATHEIST sound. Probably more than any of us wanted to admit after he was killed. I think that the moment I found out he was dead was the moment I realized I wouldn’t be in the band forever."
Do you know what happened to Carl when he had to go to court in Louisiana in '91?
Kelly: "His charges were dismissed as I recall... I think he is now a roadie for CRIMSON GLORY."
When Roger died and you decided to carry on with the band, did you get the feeling that it will be extremely hard for you to find another extremely talented bass player like Roger was?
Kelly: "It was nearly impossible to find someone as perfect for ATHEIST as Roger, but we did the best we could. We oddly enough had a discussion the night before the accident about what we would do if something happened to one of us, and Roger said in no uncertain terms, that he would want us to continue writing the freakiest shit we could, and we were all like "Yeah right, where are we ever gonna find someone whose fingers do that shit Rog? (laughs)" but Tony Choy did a fine job. We initially asked Doug Keyser to do it since he was Rogers favorite, but he declined cause he said it was not his style." Steve: "It was impossible. Roger was one of those rare talents that no one could ever replace. Not just for his technical ability but for his whole style and creativity. He was responsible for writing some of what I think were our best riffs. The opening to "Piece Of Time", the opening to "I Deny" and so many other integral parts of our songs. I forced me to become a better drummer. I had to invent stuff to go along with his unbelievable riffs."
How much of the newer songs weren't completed when the accident happened- I mean most of the songs were completed judging by the six songs pre production tape recorded in August '90, only "Mother Man" and "And The Psychic Saw" didn't appear on that demo...
Kelly: "And The Psychic Saw" was the only one I recall not being completed, we had started it, but never got the chance to finish it, but everything else involved Roger. Can you imagine how that shit would have sounded with him playing the bass lines????!!!" (HELL YES!- Laurent)
So like you said there was talks to enlist Doug Keyser from WATCHTOWER/ RETARDED ELF to do the bass tracks for "Unquestionable.." but he refused to do it- have you sent him a copy of the album when it was finished and did he give you his thoughts on it?
Kelly: "Like I said his only comment was that it was not his style, and I told him "So what?!" this shit is very technical, and challenging, but I guess he just thought we were another Death Metal, blast beat type band, so he declined. His loss in my opinion (laughs)! Those bass lines are crushing!!"
The album was recorded around June '91 if I'm correct with Tony Choy (CYNIC) doing the bass tracks, how did you hook up with him at first exactly- was it following a show you had done a year before in Miami with CYNIC? How long did it take to him to learn the new material?
Kelly: "Well yes it was as a result of seeing CYNIC first while out with Lee Harrison (MONSTROSITY) (At a show in Hallendale on February 3rd '90 with Lee and Ron Patterson- Roger twin brother, as guest drummers since Steve Flynn was ill that day- Laurent) and then we played with them at the Thrash Can in Miami (August '90), he and Roger hit it off really well, so it was the obvious choice after Doug turned it down, we knew he had skills but we were not sure if could attack the bass the way Roger did. We got an apartment together and started working on teaching him the shit, all we had was the demos with Roger, Scott burns made us a copy of the bass/ drums only- which ended up on many trading lists somehow (laughs), and he did the best he could at picking it apart, some things we were not able to decipher, like on "The Formative Years" he does this bass line that is fucking inhuman, and we just could not figure out how he was playing it, so Tony wrote another, but on the re-releases there will be a version of the pr-production track that Roger played on, and you will hear the difference in the way he played it, compared to Tony. It took him eight weeks to learn it all to be ready to record it."
Did he contribute to write some material as he's mentioned on the credits of "Mother Man" and "And The Psychic Saw" or did he contributed to the arrangements only?
Kelly: "No he had riffs in all the songs, we were just not yet done with "And The Psychic Saw" yet, I think a few parts changed but we tried to really stick to Rogers lines cause they were very killer of course!"
Honestly, do you think Tony was the perfect replacement for Roger- no offense to Tony as he's an incredible bass player but on the album you can't hear his fingers popping like Roger's fingers. I mean, like you mentioned one time, Roger liked to beat the shit out of his bass something neither Tony or Darren have succeeded at and personally I always thought that most of his bass parts on "Unquestionable.." sounds weak in terms of power despite the technical aspect compared to the August '90 demo and the same could be said in live situations for both players, Tony and Darren....
Kelly: "Well I agree 100% and for someone who does not play music, that's very observant of you, truth is Roger attacked like no one I have ever seen, his fingers were so strong, like I was saying in an earlier question, that was my biggest worry, cause that was part of why he was so good, he played with total confidence and attack. it came with very little effort, and when guys like Tony, and Darren tried to pull that off, they did not have the same attack, Tony was a Jazz type player, very smooth but not powerful, but that was an impossibility to find someone who could play the most technical type Jazz lines, with the power that Roger had. So we had to sort of settle, I am not sure that Doug Keyser would have had any more attack than Tony Choy on that material, but Roger was irreplaceable in my eyes." Steve: "You hit it perfectly Laurent. ATTACK... Nobody had the attack that Roger did. Sure, Tony is a great bass player, and he was about as close a replacement that we could have had at the time. But most bass players lack that attack, especially when it comes to extremely technical riffs."
How long did it take for you to write every song on "Unquestionable.."?
Kelly: "We started just after completing "Piece.." and finished in April/ May of 1991 I think so about two years at least, we spent way too much time on arrangements and riffs, and not enough time recording them, we were always pressed for time, so those recordings were all done in one take, and because of that they are not nearly as tight as we would have liked, some writers have stated that we are not as tight as CYNIC, but truth is they had way more time to do there record. We were great friends with those boys, and we had alot of respect for each other, so I do not mean that in a bad way, I love those guys, and they are hands down the most talented, technical Metal band ever!!!! But we were not bad either (laughs)....we were just broke (laughs)!"
I still don't understand ten years after this album was written how you could remember all the parts in live situations, thousands of different riffs, thousands of drums fills, thousands of time signatures and so on, honestly it still sounds inhuman to me after all those years....
Steve: "Good question, people often ask how we remember so much without writing it down. We were able to do that for several reasons. First, we just played the shit out of those songs. I mean we practiced and practiced. But you also have to remember we wrote the songs. We constructed a whole song out of many parts. The individual parts are easy to memorize. You then just have to put them together. I remembered all the drum stuff in phrases or small groups of riffs that led to the next riff and so on. You just internalize it. Like learning a language or how to drive. You have to do many things just to start and drive a car, but you do it unconsciously. You have done it enough that you don’t even have to think about it. Am I making sense?!"
When you wrote that material for "U.P."- and even before when you wrote stuff like "I Deny", you were never scared that people could/ would not appreciate your complex material since you need to listen carefully more than a couple of times the music before starting to understand and appreciate fully what's going on, something bands like WATCHTOWER for example had experienced earlier with people who didn't want to take time to listen to real complex music...
Kelly: "Well I would love to say that we knew this was going to happen, but truth is we did not really know what we were doing, we just knew that we enjoyed bands like RUSH, WATCHTOWER, and bands like SLAYER, MERCYFUL FATE etc. so we just did what we would want to hear, and we came up with some crazy stuff, and we liked it. "I Deny" is what set us off, we loved the orchestration of the instruments, all doing something different, that was our big thing, we wanted to write three or four different parts that went together not in succession, but at the same time (laughs), it sounded so fucking bizarre, and that's how we ended up with that sound, and then we became aware of what was setting us apart, and just elaborated on all of those things. In the beginning we were a pretty average Death Metal band, as the reissued "Piece Of Time" will show, it has all of the demo tracks from before we were really into technicality, so you can hear how the band really progressed quickly!"
Don't you think that the real technical bands just had (have) no chance to made it in such a fucked up musical world?
Kelly: "Well it will never have the kind of success that a Pop band would have, but that's good, it keeps it from being tainted! Imagine if everyone wanted to be technical, the quality of technicality would be compromised I think!!! I think all bands are involved in the struggle of a fucked up music industry." Steve: "Well, unfortunately the listening public doesn’t really go for technical. They tend to go for simplistic music. I mean look at how successful bands like MOTLEY CRUE were or VAN HALEN, etc. They played extremely simple music. Versus a band like RUSH who played extremely complex music could never reach that level of success. Frankly, it stinks."
So how were the recording sessions for "Unquestionable.." with Scott Burns as producer for the second time?
Kelly: "Scott has always been like family to us, so this time around we had a little more time, but still not enough, so it was still rushed, but he would always arrive early, and stay late, first to arrive, and last to leave. he knew what was up, you know what I mean, he knew what were doing was special before most did, he and a small handful of people like Borivoj Krgin, Don Kaye, they knew it was really weird and Progressive, so it was worth going the extra mile to try to help us get our music to the world, and those aforementioned names are the reason you hear ATHEIST today, cause they had balls to take a chance with something different!" Steve: "In fact, I just wrote Scott an e-mail recently. I told him that the time we spent in the studio recording with him were some of my favorite times during the entire decade of being in the band."
According to Ken Karnig- a local scene figure who knows what he's talking about when talking about smoking joints, there was lots of smoking sessions during the recording....
Kelly: "Smoking weed was always a HUGE part of our process, I don't mind saying, that's just the way we did it, it created new spaces, new dimensions, in riffing for us. What can I say, it is still that way with all of us."
Looking back do you think Scott was the perfect producer for the band?
Kelly: "Yes I think Scott was the man for the job then, he knew the band, he knew that we needed to sound a clear as possible, and I think he did the best he could with the budget and time he was given."
How much is true concerning the rumor that sometimes, Rand had put his material like amplifiers at pawnbroker shops because he didn't have any money and sometimes you had shows to play and he had to go to those shops to get back his material just in time to be able to play the shows?!
Kelly: "Well yes that is true, but hey man, like I said we were broke, all we did was practice seven nights a week, and it was hard to keep a job due to traveling, so we had very little money, so there were times when he had to pawn it for a day or so, for whatever reason, at the time we were not happy about it, but that's the way it went down, anyone who knows Rand, knows that he is also a one of a kind person, there will never be another like him, and that's probably best (laughs). But we never missed a show as a result."
There was a possibility when the album was on the verge to be issued to have the pre-production demo from August '90 featured on it as a bonus thing, but it didn't happen back then, why?
Kelly: "I don't think Metal Blade ever really appreciated us for what we were, and I think that they did not think it would be all that sought after, and I can see their point, it was not until a few years later that people really started appreciating the ATHEIST music the way they do now, with all of this new technical Metal coming from Europe. So at the time it was not quite as nostalgic as it is today, or appreciated."
Following the recording, you started to be active again on the live front with Tony on bass, you started by doing a show in July '91 in your hometown, Bradenton for the local fans and then you played at the Tampa Bay Metal Awards in September '91 where Roger was voted as best bassist as a posthumous thing- so how was Tony position in the band at this point? I mean I remember that you were confident about having him in the band despite the fact he was still a full CYNIC member at the time? How did you feel when you heard that he wanted to be involved in PESTILENCE and that he was ready to do the U.S. tour with them supporting DEATH when you expected him to be with you to do an upcoming tour at the same time?
Kelly: "I was fucking furious, I mean I told Patrick Mameli (PESTILENCE mainman) "Hey man you fired your bass player asshole, ours was killed, and your bass player is replaceable, ours is not!", we had very few choices for bass players, anyone could have played the PESTILENCE stuff, and I do not mean any disrespect to PESTILENCE, but they did not even know how to spell "technical" much less play that way (I couldn't have told it any better Kelly! You're so fuckin' right!- Laurent), it was as a result of seeing us in the studio the first day...you see they were doing their record at Morrisound at the same time as us, only in another room, so they hear "Mother Man" blaring out of the speakers, hung out with us in our hotel room, and heard us talking about the "U.P." record and how technical and crazy it would be, and he (Mameli) knew it was going to be cutting edge, and he really had very little direction with "Spheres" and suddenly the next day they fire their bass player and asks Tony if he wants to play on their rcord, so Tony spent one evening learning all of their material, and recorded it the next day, while we're doing guitar tracks. but then he asked him to go to Europe, and for us that fucked up everything, cause we did not have as much money to offer him to stay with us, and we would not be able to just go and find someone else you know, so I thought that was really wrong considering what we had just gone through, but Patrick did not give a shit, and Tony did not either, so we were fucked and then we found Darren McFarland, who was capable, but not ideal for the situation, but he did the CANNIBAL CORPSE tour with us, but it make me laugh when PESTILENCE is included on the technical wave of bands such as ATHEIST, CYNIC, SIEGES EVEN etc." Steve: "We felt like we got stabbed in the back by him. He promised that he was going to tour with us and continue to write and record and he went with PESTILENCE. I kind of wrote him off after that. That was really weak. I mean we were friends and he just turned his back. So, I was like FUCK HIM. Going with PESTILENCE didn’t seem to help him much."
So Darren McFarland entered the picture in October '91, he played previously with a local Tampa act called BLACKOUT, tell us how you had him joining the band. The guy was amazing too but looking back were you entirely satisfied by his work?
Kelly: "He was an amazing player, that's for sure, but not the right player for us, he was not good on stage, he was a manic depressive, so he had a very strange personality disorder, and he was very reclusive, and we were missing Roger so bad, it was just a mess, while on tour with C. CORPSE, people were yelling "You suck!" and shit like that, and we were knocked for such a loop it was never gonna be the same, but Darren did the best he could." Steve: "He was an awesome bass player, but he just wasn’t aggressive enough. I mean we talk about a step down in attack from Roger to Tony Choy. There is another step down from Tony to Darren. Not in ability, just in power."
But prior to that tour, the first shows you performed with him was for the record release party and one week later supporting CORONER in November '91, what kind of response did you get from the local audience having Darren in the band?
Kelly: "It was actually quite good, he learned it all in nine days, which is amazing, but he was not nearly as tight as he needed to be, but the response was very positive. I think people around here just wanted to see him try to play that shit (laughs)."
There was talks about you being on the DEATH/PESTILENCE U.S. tour which took place at the same time in November '91, why exactly did it never happen? Darren was already in the band so it wasn't a bass player problem, maybe a lack of support from Active/ Metal Blade?
Kelly: "No the reason was because Chuck (Schuldiner) did not want it to happen simple as that, and the fact that we were not on their agency, they decided to pick a band from their agency as I recall, but, we had resolved our differences between Chuck and I during the recording of "Human" we hung out and smoked out with Paul (Masvidal) and Sean (Reinert), and Chuck at the studio, and then when he kept us from being on that tour, I figured that he was not into having us on the road with them... wonder why (laughs). I do wish Chuck and his family the best right now, I know he is going through some shit, and he has our utmost respect and sympathy, we hope he has a speedy recovery! He is a talented guy!"
The album was this time released simultaneously on Active in Europe and Metal Blade in the States- Active did by the way quite a big mistake in mixing the musicians names in the booklet but other than that, were you happy with the work both companies were doing for you at that particular time?
Kelly: "Yes I think Metal Blade did a better job than Active, the names being messed up was sort of the disrespect we received from labels our whole career, so it was as we say "par for the course". But we did not get to tour as much as we would have liked to, the support was just not there man!"
It seems "Unquestionable..." was a big flop saleswise, do you know any figures concerning that?
Kelly: "No it was not a flop in the end it did more than "Piece Of Time", but it was a strange album, and it was nearly as heavily promoted as "Piece..", so that had alot to do with it, but now it stands as the most popular ATHEIST record."
By January '92, you were on tour in the States and Canada for one month supporting labelmates C. CORPSE and with GORGUTS opening, unfortunately once again it seems it was the wrong tour for you to be part of since you had some big problems to get your music accepted by the audience notably in Toronto and Chicago where you had a part of the crowd yelling at you...
Kelly: "Well like I said earlier it was rough to hear people yell "You suck!" when we felt that the music we played was very hard to play, and I think we played it well, so the C. CORPSE fans were just a bit too shallow at the time to understand what we were doing. It was actually San Antonio that was the worst, not Chicago...we actually had a great show in Chicago, but anyway, we had some really great times on that tour, it was just that there was not really a good tour for us, there was no one that we would be able to match up with, you know except CYNIC and they did not have their record done yet, so we had to do it, we made alot of friends though and have no regrets." Steve: "Actually, Chicago was one of the best show from that tour. It was great, but there were a few shows where the crowd was not receptive to us. All they wanted to hear was Chris (Barnes) mumble into the microphone and blast beats. I mean, I really liked those guys as people. That was a great tour for the most part. GORGUTS were some of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Luc and those guys were just so cool. But it is hard to slot ATHEIST for a tour unless ATHEIST is headlining. There really weren’t too many bands that we could have toured with and been a good fit."
You were supposed to come over in Europe in April '92 with SUFFOCATION and GOREFEST as support bands, but they came over without you, so what went wrong exactly from here? All I know is that you did a few local shows in the Tampa/ Bradenton area with bands such as DECEASED and suddenly by July '92, nothing could be heard from the band...even if Steve was still in the band despite what was written in some mags that you had canceled the European tour because he had left the band...
Kelly: "Things were dissipating, and there was not much I could do about it, the thought of trying to carry on ATHEIST without Steve was not a possibility at that point, and so I was beginning my transformation to NEUROTICA. I started writing a shitload of different types of songs, and started working on my singing skills, and when I was in the studio recording some demos for NEUROTICA is when I got the call to do "Elements" and at that time Rand was not in the band, nor was Steve, he was already in college at FSU so I had to do a record contractually so I would be able to start a new band without any legal trouble. So I started looking for drummers, and a guitar player cause I was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome in my hand so I could not play live without my hand falling asleep so that is what was going on in the period up to the recording of "Elements"." Steve: "Well, I had made my mind up a while before that to take a different path in my life. The tour not happening had nothing to do with me leaving the band. In fact, I don’t know why the tour didn’t happen."
Before the band exploded, have you started to write some newer stuff with Darren, Steve and Rand?
Kelly: "Nope we wrote nothing together, it was over as soon as we came back from that tour with C. CORPSE. We wrote "Elements" from scratch and recorded it in 40 days top to bottom."
So during that pre "Elements" period, you were with NEUROTICA but it was still sort of a side project at the time, what about Rand and Darren -I know Darren joined CYNIC for a very short period of time but it didn't work out...
Kelly: "I was just trying to find my new self in these songs that I was writing for NEUROTICA, trying to reinvent myself, cause I knew it needed to happen, I did not want to be just a Death Metal guy my whole life, I wanted to do some different styles of music, so I was busy working on all of that... Darren played for a short time with CYNIC, and he could not play correctly on the CYNIC record so they fired him."
The band was reformed in '93 around you, so how did the reformation happened exactly?
Kelly: "Well as I said I was in the middle of working on songs for NEUROTICA and I was in a studio in Gainesville, that's where I met River Phoenix, he had a house in Gainesville, and he had a band called ALEKA'S ATTIC and Josh Greenbaum played drums for River's band, and he worked at the studio we were recording at...well I got a call from Dave Constable(Active Records/ Metal Forces) saying "Hey I need an album done by next month!" and at that point I had no band, Steve was in college, me and Rand were not getting along, so I thought shit what the hell am I gonna do, cause I needed to fulfill my contractual obligations with ATHEIST before I could carry on with NEUROTICA, so I had remembered this guitar player who was playing in town with a band called GENTLEMEN DEATH so I called him up cause I knew he was a good player, and he was into it, so I told him I would be home in a few days, and we would use his drummer Mickey who was a fan of ATHEIST, so I thought maybe he could pull it off, and I used his bass player fo a short time- about two days (laughs)...we started writing with me playing guitar, and Frank playing as well, we only had 40 days to write, record, and mix this fucking thing. After about ten days we fired Mickey, and the bass player, called Tony Choy up, and got him in on it, and then we called up Josh to see if he wanted a crack at it, and mind you this kid is a brilliant drummer, but playing like Steve Flynn takes more than brilliance, and I knew it, so I thought we would try to write a really heavy record with no double bass, just because it had not been done effectively ever in my opinion, so that was the focus, and we just dug in for one month, and the results were astounding, I mean I am really proud of that record, it's probably the best lyrics I ever wrote, and if you listen to all the textures on that record man its unbelievable that it was written that quickly! Rand joined in about two weeks into writing, and the first thing we wrote after getting back together was "Air" and from there we just strted steamrolling along, and Tony Choy did an amazing job on the rhythm section- bass/ drums, he wrote most all of the drums and bass, and I think he did a great job of creating this weird Latin feel underneath all of those guitars, it was really cool."
When Frank joined the band, Randy wasn't involved yet, so how did you feel when you discovered that three guitar players would be involved.... I still wonder by the way if "Elements" was really recorded with three guitar players with Rand and Frank doing the harmonies and you doing the rhythm tracks, let us know about that....
Kelly: "Well we were about two weeks into writing so when Rand came in, he just played different parts to what we had already prepared, and that's just the way it continued to go down, in the studio I wanted all three guitar parts to be recorded by each of us, so that we would have all these different tones, plus I mainly played the underneath parts, so that way all of the harmonies could just fly over the top."
From what you said earlier, the songs were written at a much faster pace than previously but personally even if the stuff was (and still is) way ahead of what was going on in Metal, the complexity that could be found in some songs of "Piece..." and on the whole "Unquestionable.." album was kinda gone...
Kelly: "Well Laurent that's your opinion, and I respect that, but if you were to sit down and play guitar you would find that the stuff on Elements is in some places MUCH harder to play, it is slower so it sounds less frantic, and that leads you to believe that it is simpler, plus the drums are significantly less busy than the albums "Piece Of.." and "U.P." but I assure you, it was very complex (laughs)."
Steve, what's your opinion of "Elements"? Give us also your opinion about the work Josh and Marcell did at that time.
Steve: "They were very capable musicians and it shows. It is just something that I had no part of. The songs were written in a fashion that was not typical for the band when we were together with Roger. For example, we used to spend weeks writing little parts of songs. They wrote some of the songs from "Elements" in days. That doesn’t mean they were of any less quality, they were just different."
For this album you used Mark Pinske, well known producer for his work he had done previously with people like Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, Alan Holdsworth and the list is endless, but I found that the production wasn't as adequate for this album unlike it was the case with the previous recordings when you used Scott, does that mean that since people started to slag off Morrisound and Scott because some people were saying that all the recordings sounded the same there that maybe you wanted to distant yourselves from that?
Kelly: "Well Mark was a brilliant guy, he had pioneered alot of new technology in recording, and I had just worked with him on the NEUROTICA stuff, and found him to be really amazing at recognizing sounds and frequencies, and I thought shit this guy would be perfect for ATHEIST, I mean hell he worked with Frank Zappa on many records, but what happened was he had never done a band with such thick layered guitars, and he over did it to the point of digital distortion, and in certain parts it kind of peaks out for a second or two, but other than that the sound is much wider than the other two records, it's his knowledge of stereo phasing that made it sound big, and his lack of knowledge of distorted guitars that made him over load the sound during the mix down, he really should have noticed it before it went out to be mastered, I was really upset about it, but yes I wanted to have a different sound than the usual Morrisound clicky bass drums etc. so we used Pro-media Studios instead."
Who came up with the idea to add short instrumentals like "Displacement"...?
Kelly: "That would be my idea, BUT everyone wrote there own little interludes completely on there own, and you can tell, Rands sounds like Rand (laughs) and Tony's sounds like Tony, very Latin, and Jazzy (laughs)."
If I'm correct, you were not licensed anymore on Metal Blade but fully signed on their label for the first time- do you think since you were fully signed with them, Metal Blade had done much more for this album than for the others which were only licensed?
Kelly: "Well for them they could not justify sinking a bunch of bucks into a band that they were basically "renting" so they let us know that they would be interested in making it a full blown deal, and so they did, but we did not see much difference in the budget, but they did a great job, we were very much an outcast band you know, there was no others like us, so they were torn about what to do with us."
The album was issued in October '93 while you were already touring Europe with CEMETERY and BENEDICTION, were you the headliners for that first European tour?
Kelly: "No we were opening for BENEDICTION and CEMETERY was opening the show."
For the tour, the band used Marcell Dissantos, why did you use him instead of Josh?
Kelly: "We used Marcell because Josh was in the studio with River Phoenix recording their album just before River died, they were really cool, very PINK FLOYD tripped out shit, but we had heard about Marcell through Tony Choy, and he had played with Jon Secada, a Jazz artist so we figured he had skills, he had one week to learn all of the set, and we rehearsed down in Ft Lauderdale, and off to Europe we went, he played his first show with us in Holland, no warm up gig or nothing, and man it was rough, so many kids had waited alot of years to see Steve Flynn, but here was this Marcell guy (laughs)!"
From then, you decided to concentrate only on doing vocals, not doing any guitar playing anymore- why did you make that choice?
Kelly: "It was not by choice, I have developed carpal tunnel syndrome from playing guitar in ATHEIST, it makes my hand go numb when I play live for more than a few songs, I just could not do it anymore, so I took on vocals only. Frank was great so there was no need to play really, he and Rand did a great job of filling the gaps, if there were any. But that's the price I paid for playing that super technical shit (laughs)."
Talking about guitar parts, even if your style complimented Rand's style real well, I am of the opinion that sometimes your playing was maybe the low point in ATHEIST music, so back around '88- '89, have you thought about getting a second guitar player and concentrating on the vocals like you did in '93?
Kelly: "Well my forte has always been in riff writing/ arrangement, sometimes I would write something in a fired up sort of moment, that was really hard to play, and as time went on I would play it worse and worse, so I would agree that my abilities as a guitar player were inferior to Rand and Frank, but we were all inferior to Roger (laughs)...and no I had never considered not playing guitar until I had a problem with my hand. Sorry you felt that way about my playing, I do not know if I would call that a LOW POINT!"
Well that wasn't meant to offend you Kelly, it's just that comparing to the other guys it sounded like that to me, but still your playing was superior to alot of other Metal musicians of course! Anyway once again you were part of a Death Metal bill despite the rejection that you had experienced during your previous U.S. tour with C. CORPSE- so when you were offered to do that tour with BENEDICTION, did you have some reservations about that offer or did you expect that the European audiences would be more open minded?
Kelly: "No we just wanted a chance to go to Europe and meet some of the people that had been so supportive of the band over the years, and we wanted to play live, so we were into it, the CORPSE tour was not that bad, we just had a few shows where people were assholes, yelling CANNIBAL CORPSE, but other than that it was good."
Do you think since "Elements" was somewhat much more accessible than the previous release, more people were interested in your music once again since it seems the European tour went really well for you judging by the fact that you even got encores during some dates...
Kelly: "Fans of Metal in Europe are way smarter than those in America, and I mean no disrespect, it's just that they give a shit more than American kids, cause things are harder for them to obtain. "Elements" went down well cause it was easier to grab the first time you hear it, so that helped."
Did it sell better than the previous releases?
Kelly: "Well as far as sales go I could not tell you cause the label fucking ripped us off, so we have no way of knowing what actually happened, or how many were really sold... the reviews as I recall were that quote "Grown men caught in our own guitar strings", and another said we were so technical we were up our own ass (laughs) so I do not know Laurent, now they are all saying different!!!"
Following that tour, you did a local show in St Petersburg, FL in October 24th '93 that went really well which was if I'm correct the very last show the band did, right? So what happened exactly after that- I've read that an internal dispute over financial matters led to the split of Tony and Marcell, while Randy who was arrested following a felony charge at around the same time had prevented him from leaving the country in the near future when you had a new European tour planned for November '93 with WARGASM and AGRESSOR...
Kelly: "Well yes Tony and Marcell were all about getting paid, so that made everything difficult cause we had very little budget wise to work with, and then Rand decided to threaten to blow up a police station in a drunken rage, so then we were like two days from going back to Europe, and he blew it for us, the money came through so everyone else was into it, but Rand made a huge mistake, and it was the end of it all, I could not deal with that kind of shit any longer, so I dug into NEUROTICA full time, and that was it until now!"
Like Borivoj has once said, "Some bands just have no luck, and Florida's ATHEIST seem to be one the unluckiest"- what do you think really lacked for ATHEIST to achieve a proper career just like DEATH, MORBID ANGEL, SAVATAGE and some other Florida bands have achieved?
Kelly: "That's simple, if Roger had stayed alive, we would have been great, when he died, we all had this huge piece missing from our music, and in the process of trying to fill it in we, just fell apart slowly, he was our dear friend, and we just were not the same without him. But we had some big things happening at the time of his death." Steve: "Timing, management, strong financial support from the label, marketing, touring, etc. Those other bands that you mentioned had all that. I mean I liked those bands, but they had nothing on ATHEIST. I think whether you liked it or not, we wrote some of the most original music of the day. The proof of that is that ten years later, people are still talking about what we wrote and how we wrote it, and how did we do what we did, etc. Nobody asks John Tardy or Chuck from DEATH how they did it. Do you know what I mean?! I personally, was in ATHEIST to achieve the respect of my peers and the industry. We accomplished that. We were never financially successful though our music continues to live on. As I said on the re-release of "P.O.T.", our music has withstood what is the ultimate tests of a bands talent: TIME."
In the whole ATHEIST career, what's your favorite album and songs?
Kelly: "My favorite album would have to be as a whole "Unquestionable Presence" it was just the pinnacle of what we wanted to accomplish, and I would not change a thing, as far as songs go, my faves in no particular order are "Mother Man", "Brains", "Piece Of Time", "I Deny", "Mineral", "Air", "Unholy War", "Unquestionable Presence", "Water" is a great song as well, hell I love them all because they are like children, we spent so much time with those songs, nurturing them, we sort of grew up together." Steve: "I think that "I Deny", "P.O.T"., "Unholy War", "Retribution", and "Formative Years" are my favorite songs. However, I liked them all. I think that the opening bass and drum riff of "I Deny" is my favorite single part of a song we ever wrote….thanks to Rog."
After the band disbanded, some bands started to acknowledge the fact that your music had an influence on them like AT THE GATES- even if I still wonder where that influence could be found on their weak music, and some other bands, how do you feel about that? Do you meet these bands while you're going out or touring with NEUROTICA people who congratulate you for what you have done with ATHEIST?
Kelly: "Every day, that's what sort of started this whole reissuing thing, I felt like people were just now understanding what ATHEIST was about, and I started to hear alot of bands getting more and more technicality in their music, so it seemed like the right time to reintroduce this music to the old fans, and introduce it for the first time to all of these new kids, I think its important for them to know the entire history of where this music came from, and the fans of NEUROTICA were in most cases fans of ATHEIST early on, and now I get a chance to show people a different side of me, that the NEUROTICA fans never knew existed, and all the new kids who are into bands like GORGUTS and OBLIVION can check out the roots man!"
With NEUROTICA who features Frank Emmi also I believe, you have chosen a different musical style since NEUROTICA has nothing in common with ATHEIST, why such a change?
Kelly: "Well it's like anything man, I love to eat steak, its probably my favorite food, but I do not want to eat it forever, especially if I have other food in the refrigerator (laughs)! So I decided it was time to let out some of this other music stuck inside me, and once I let go of the "don't sell out" bullshit, I started writing things that were easier to listen to, less acrobatic, and with more room to breathe, and to be honest it feels great, NEUROTICA is the coolest bunch of guys I have ever played with, its fucking family, and we are a very productive band, we write a shitload of songs, and I feel have developed a whole new "Rock" sound, much the same way ATHEIST had a whole new "Metal "sound. By the way Frank Emmi is not a member of NEUROTICA though."
When I met you last time in August '94, you told me that there was maybe a possibility to see another ATHEIST album recorded in '95 with Steve and Rand, something closer to "Unquestionable..." but it never happened...
Kelly: "Just could not make it happen, Steve lives about 600 miles away, and Rand and I did not get along, but we have now sort of grown up a bit, and would love to try to get together to see what we would come up with, but it has not yet been confirmed, whether or not we can make it happen."
Are you still in touch with like those guys or even with Tony or Marcell? Are they still involved in some musical projects? I know Rand started during '95/ '96 his own band and I guess he sang also...
Kelly: Just Steve and Rand, I have seen Tony a few times over the years, but I will always be friends with Steve, he is one of the smartest guys I know and I value his friendship. Once I got off the airplane from the last European tour was the last time I saw Marcell. No one has anything musical going on, Rand cannot seem to find a weird enough bunch of guys to play with (laughs)."
So the news is that the three albums are gonna be re-released in the States on K-Tel records completely remastered and featuring bonus tracks- so does that mean that there's a rising interest for ATHEIST music again?
Kelly: "It has shocked me the amount of letters and respect we have received since announcing this re-release project, we are so excited to have these available again, and sounding so much better cause of the remastered sound. It seems that ATHEIST is MUCH bigger now than it EVER was in the days were together, and that's pretty wild... I think like I said it was way ahead of itself, musically, so it just took ten years for people to catch on, now that's "technical" (laughs)!" Steve: "I am excited that they’re re-releasing the albums again. As I said before, it is validation that what we did was good musically."
Tell us more about how that came out and what will be featured on them.
Kelly: "Well I urge all to buy them and see!!! They will have bonus tracks, rare photos, new liner notes about each song by myself , Rand, and Steve...it's gonna be killer, it came out today (March 18th) in the States, it sounds amazing!!! I cannot wait till all three are out, the rest will follow this summer."
Is there any chance now since the records will be available again at least in the States that you'll reform the band at least for one show or maybe an album even if NEUROTICA is your number one priority now and you seem you enjoy a good of success with that band at least in the States...
Kelly: "If the people want it, it will happen...if there is no response, then what is the point?! I hope they dig it and demand to see the band, I know Steve is into it, Rand is into it, and I of course am very into it, but NEUROTICA is my main priority, and I will be quite busy, but we would love to come and play a few festivals, so I encourage all reading this to write your favorite mag/ promoter and tell them you want to see ATHEIST this summer!"
I also heard that you're working on a project with George Lynch...
Kelly: "Yes me and George met while touring together here in the States, NEUROTICA & LYNCH MOB and he liked my voice so we are working on some stuff that is sort of like FILTER/ N.I.N. type material but very catchy!! Right now we are just demoing some things, but it should see the light of the day in a few months."
Have you followed what was going on in the Metal scene during the last six years or so? If so how do you find the actual Metal scene comparing to what you have lived during the early eighties? Do you think the word Metal still has the same impact in people's minds like it had back then?
Kelly: "Oh sure, it has the same impact only its on different people now, and the bands have alot more ability, but there is nothing like the early days of Florida Death Metal, it was so fucking heavy back then man, its hard to touch that era, that's for sure!!" Steve: "I have followed the Metal scene, however as you eluded to, it seems to have lost most of its impact."
Anything that you would like to add that maybe wasn't covered?
Kelly: "Are you kidding me????(laughs) This is the longest interview I have EVER DONE, I am very flattered and impressed with your vast knowledge of ATHEIST, you are truly a great friend to the band, and when I want to remember some shit about ATHEIST, I will be calling you up (laughs)!!! You rule Laurent, check out the reissues, you won't be disappointed, turn on some of the new kids to this shit, and watch them freak out (laughs). Cheers to all!" Steve: "You put together a hell of an interview! Extremely thorough. I will say, Laurent, that I simply miss it. I miss being in the band. I don’t miss the bullshit, the record company, the managers, the tour buses, the rancid smell of the clubs and venues, I miss playing. I miss being around Kelly, Roger, Rand and just getting together like we always and playing in a hot, sticky Florida warehouse. I miss the creative process that we used to go through to write songs. We have been talking about getting together for some shows sine the re-release of "P.O.T.". And yes, after ten years, I still remember every riff, fill and time signature. In fact, I can play them better now then I could then."
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