Interview with Epitaph
Hello, guys! First of all, let's start with your reunion. Back in 2015, more than 20 years since your split-up, you decided to come back. Tell us, how did it happen? What was the main motivation for you?
Nicke: Hey Dima! We decided to divide the questions between myself, Johann and Manne.
Yes, surely a lot of time had passed since the recording of “Seeming Salvation” back in ‘91/’92. The three of us have continued playing ever since, and I remember several times during the years when we considered getting together again. Death Metal seemed to be reserved for after parties, though, where all the great acts from the late 80’s and early 90’s blasted our apartments apart. When me and Manne did some music projects together in the early 2000’s we discussed a reunion, and in 2006 when we went to see Death Breath (who put together many of the parts of the genre that we liked the most back then) we were also talking about putting the band back together. In 2008 we were contacted by Andy Tan from Konqueror Records, who wanted to reissue “Seeming Salvation”. Then we got the original trio of me, Manne and Johann together in a room and signed the agreement and the discussions continued… The years went by and more reissues were made, including the great MCMXC-MCMXCII vinyl box reissued by Ted Tringo and The Crypt. But the reunion still didn’t materialize, since other things in our lives always seemed to get in the way.
But back in 2014 we found the lost demo of our 1991 side project Fleshcrawl (that included the same members, but with me on vocals, gorier lyric themes and a more brutal approach) and we could hear some really great riffs and songs there that inspired us. Me and Manne had an all-night Death Metal/binge drinking session at the end of which it was sealed in blood: we were going to record a new full length album together… This time around it worked with everyone’s schedule, and all of us felt the timing was right. The main motivation was to create an Epitaph album that combined the best of the raw, brutal stuff from our Split-LP “Disorientation” and the Fleshcrawl demo with the songwriting of “Seeming Salvation”. We felt that we had some great stuff to write.
Actually, shortly after your reunion, you posted a flyer of your last gig, together with Edge of Sanity, on April 4, 1992. Could you share some of the details of that show? What do you remember about it? After the show, did you really feel that that was it?
Nicke: It was in a suburb quite far away from Stockholm and I remember talking to the other bands before the show. I recall thinking during the gig that things had really fallen into place musically. The songs were playing by themselves and we could focus on delivering the feeling to the audience. We didn’t know at the time that this was going to be our last show.
Manne: I remember that I did a stand-in gig as a guitarist in Internal Decay that night – this was when their singer Kim Blomqvist played bass with us – and to my recollection the Epitaph show was the best we ever did.
Johann: Yeah, I agree, it felt like the best gig and also like we were the true support act to Edge Of Sanity which were going to release their “Unorthodox” album later that year.
Internal Decay and their drummer Tobias (?) actually supplied the entire backline including a gigantic double-bass kit which I particularly enjoyed beating the hell out of.
It was also my first (and probably last) gig using a headset; it felt a little awkward but it was really cool to be able to growl straight at the audience, haha.
And finally I remember that both me and the drummer of Obscurity played the drum intro to Carcass’ “Corporal Jigsore Quandary” (a pretty famous tune back then) in between songs, kind of like a drum battle or something!
All this time, did you follow the metal scene? In your opinion, how did it change? What can you say about today metal bands or latest releases of some veterans, such as Obituary, Asphyx, Cannibal Corpse etc? Do you have any favourites so far?
Johann: I think the answer differs depending on who you ask but personally I held on to the old Death Metal monstrosity for a couple years at least. The general impression though was that the bands of old either repeated the same tired formula (Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, Deicide etc) or tried branching out into other genres (Carcass); usually with less than favorable results.
An extreme genre like Death Metal is somehow bound to run out of steam after a while and I think that we all felt that it was time to move on to something different (albeit after quite a short "career").
However, the last ten years or so have seen a resurgence in extreme bands and the comeback of many a great artist, like Autopsy for example. The musical climate is also quite different; it is now commonplace to mix genres and styles and metal music in general is no longer seen as a mere underground movement. Bands like Arch Enemy or Meshuggah are downright superstars with sold-out tours and huge endorsements, while not straying THAT far from the extreme metal formula.
As far as favorites go, we still regard the classic albums as timeless masterpieces but personally I think newer acts such as Avatar, Aeon and Bloodbath are really good.
I haven't really checked out the latest releases from the "old" bands, but I consider albums like "Hammer Battalion" by Unleashed to be of a high standard and quite true to form.
Alright, so, how did your first rehearsals go? After such a hiatus, did you feel a bit rusty?) Did you have any problems to remember how to play certain songs? How did it feel in general to play those tunes all together once again?
Johann: Actually, in a way it was like we never stopped playing together!
Since we've been occupied with various other bands, all of us had developed considerably as far as technical skills and musicianship in general are concerned and it was quite easy to get into the Epitaph vibe again.
We approached the old songs with an awareness of "groove" and also changed the tempos quite a bit, making them a lot heavier in the process.
So, in answer to your question, we didn't really have any problems playing the old material at all.
The overall feeling we got from playing again was one of unadulterated joy; I think the timing was just right for us to work on the follow-up to “Seeming Salvation”.
Let's move on to your newest release, your second full-length "Sinner Waketh". When did you first start working on that material? And what was your main goal to achieve with it?
Manne: As Nicke mentioned, it started with the discovery of the Fleshcrawl tapes. The plan evolved into compiling a few songs from each demo we did ‘90–’92 (the pre-Epitaph demo under the name of Dark Abbey from 1990, the “Disorientation” demo from 1991 and the Fleshcrawl demo from 1992) along with 3-4 new songs. In the end we just grabbed some riffs here and there from the Fleshcrawl tapes, so “Sinner Waketh” consists of 3 old demo songs, 3 songs based on riffs from the Fleshcrawl demo, and 4 completely new songs. I definitely think the new songs turned out to be the best, which is visible in the track order. Our goal with the album was just to bang out some awesome riffs and rhythms for the old school death fanatics and, most of all, for our own satisfaction. When Ted from The Crypt/Dark Symphonies let us know he was interested in releasing new stuff, it all came to us in a natural flow. We booked 10 nights for rehearsal during winter/spring 2015 and put the 10 songs together and got in contact with a few studios and producers before we booked Bohus for recording in June/July.
The whole album sounds really cool and fresh, but still representing the old school Swedish Death Metal. Tell us about the recording sessions. This time you recorded at Bohus Sound Recording. How did you like working there? How much time did you have?
Manne: Yes, to make it sound fresh and old school at the same time was the plan already from the start. We did consider getting in touch with Tomas Skogsberg, since he is up and running with Sunlight again, and we would probably have managed to get some cool and authentic OSSDM out of it (like I heard he did with other old school bands recently) but we felt that we didn’t want to go all the way with the nostalgia. We knew we would have to live with this project for 7-8 months, and for me personally, I knew that I would have gotten tired of the limitations involved in trying to copy stuff I did as a teenager. (And of all the people who are into “Seeming Salvation” I’m probably the least nostalgic.) We decided to record in Ghostward Studios with David Castillo as a producer, since we liked his work with Bloodbath etc. We even got that far to book the actual dates in June with him. In the end, there was difficulty with the time schedules, though, so we opted for Bohus instead. I think the awesome thing with Bohus was the combination of being one of the best studios in Sweden and having an old school death metal guy as in-house producer (Stefan Karlsson, ex-Soul Reaper and the producer of “Sinner Waketh”).
The main reason why we were attracted to Bohus was that we knew that we would have to make a really fast recording. We only had about two weeks on our hands to record everything, so we needed a studio were we wouldn’t get stuck in endless tweaking of compromised tracking chains etc. In Bohus they had top notch outboards and consoles, so we could set the sounds exactly as we wanted them before recording. Part of the plan was also to arrange the songs in a way that the same sounds worked all the way through the album – something that would go without saying in the early 90’s, but seldom is the way to do it nowadays. Furthermore, we wanted to keep everything quite natural – playing without click tracks, a minimum of editing, keeping full takes etc. – and I think that worked great at Bohus. (Sadly Bohus Sound closed down after 40 years of recording, just a few months after “Sinner Waketh” was finished.)
Being already at the studio, did it happen that you suddenly decided to changed some riffs or add some parts that were not planned during the rehearsals? Did you have any special final touch?
Nicke: Yeah, since we only had 10 rehearsing sessions before, we made a few changes during the recording. The three of us were really present and open, so it felt easy to come up with suggestions and changes. You can watch a live recording from the studio sessions on our Facebook page to get a feeling for the atmosphere. In a “Seeming Salvation” vein we laid down the acoustic parts last, adding that final touch of doom...
The cover was done by legendary Necrolord, who, by the way, did the art for your debut album too. Was it for an obvious and kinda symbolic choice of the artist? Whom does the concept belong to? Did you discuss any details with Kristian?
Nicke: When we decided to go ahead with the project we immediately started to think about the cover. The first vision that came into our minds was to ask Kristian, since we love his work, but also to make the follow up to “Seeming Salvation” even more true and genuine. We approached him and, to our great joy, he was interested. On a side note, we found during our discussions that the “Seeming Salvation” cover was actually Kristian’s first painting on canvas! (It was done before his early work for Therion and Tiamat, although these albums were released before “Seeming”.) We discussed the concept with him and envisioned the false priest from “Seeming Salvation” re-emerging as a preacher of death out of the burned city of Sodom… Or something like that, hehe.
What are your plans so far to promote the album? Is there any possibility for a tour? Have you already played any shows in Sweden?
Johann: Well, I think we will do everything we can to promote it via the usual social media etc. and of course Ted Tringo does his share of marketing as well.
We haven't planned any gigs this time around, I'm afraid. There is a possibility of a tour, but we have yet to work out the details; we would probably have to get a bass player and so forth. However, the idea itself of playing Epitaph live is awesome and is definitely on our bucket list!
Alright, let's get back in time and talk about your early days. The band was formed in 1989, at that time known as Dark Abbey. Tell us about these days and the only demo you recorded, "Blasphemy".
Johann: That seems like a lifetime ago! The origins of Dark Abbey was just me and Manne fooling around with various riffs in our rehearsal space which, incidentally, was situated in the basement of an old church in Sollentuna, north of Stockholm. Nicke joined by the summer of 1990 and the songwriting started in earnest.
A rather interesting detail was that by the time of the recording session we had not decided who would do the vocals... I was rather insecure about my growling capabilities, strange as it may sound, so in the end we used a weird harmonizer vocal effect during recording. In a twist of fate, the effect was lost during mixing and the result was the eerie, whispering growls heard on this very first demo.
- What do you remember about the local underground of that time? And basically the whole metal movement in Sweden? Did you find it fascinating having so many great bands around you? What were your favourite?
Manne: First of all I would say it didn’t feel THAT special, at the time, hehe. I think the Stockholm death metal scene grew bigger and bigger in hindsight, with the nostalgia and all, but in 1991 all the gigs were still taking place at youth centers. For example, we played our first gig at Runan with Therion, Grave and Crowley (ex-Opeth), and this was a really small place in the northern Stockholm suburb Täby, where Tiamat had their rehearsing place. Basically, a lot of kids into extreme music came there to play since there were few other places who let them. Well, these kids called their bands Entombed, Dismember and the like and actually happened to be in their prime at that particular time, but it didn’t feel THAT big back then.
There were also a few other small go-to venues around Stockholm back then, but I felt some frustration about that the “real” stages were closed to us, since we didn’t play “real” music. The prevailing opinion at the time was that what we did wasn’t real music, just something misadjusted kids did to rebel against their parents (which is also true, of course). It’s kind of hard to visualize the feeling today, when no one would raise an eyebrow if a 45-year-old would bring their kids to a Cannibal Corpse concert, or whatever. Back then it was more like: “this or this guy in that band HAS to be insane right, or HE is for real, isn’t he?”.
Then of course all of this changed in ‘92. Death Metal got some sort of media hype in Sweden and elsewhere, and the bands that were signed already started to play bigger, “real” venues. Unfortunately, already some time before the genre got the attention it deserved, we felt that the Stockholm scene was losing steam, and our attention drifted in other directions.
My favourite Stockholm bands in 1991 – when we were the most active in the scene – had to be Entombed and Therion. They were slightly ahead of the others, to my mind. I was also really into a lot of the bands we were doing gigs with, like Excruciate, Desultory, Dismember and Mastication. And we also watched some awesome shows with Morpheus, Exhumed, Unleashed, Necrophobic, Crematory… The list goes on...
- At what point did you decide to change the name? And who came up with the Epitaph? What can you say about other numerous bands with the same name around the world? Does it bother you a bit?
Manne: I think we decided to change the name in december 1990, at the same time as we were putting together the songs for “Disorientation”. We wanted a name that went together with our heavier sound at that point. We thought Dark Abbey sounded too “thrashy”.
I think the name was my suggestion, but I’m not sure…
At the time, there was no other band that we knew about called Epitaph (and I didn’t know about that German progressive band; this was way before Google, after all) so it doesn’t bother me a bit.
You recorded your "Disorientation" demo in 1991, at Sunlight Studio. What do you remember about the recordings? And do you remember how much did it cost to record a demo? Still being young lads (how old were you?), where did you get money for the studio time? And was it relatively affordable at that time?
Manne: I remember a lot of small things, like exactly where we were standing when we tracked the songs, and how we were hovering above the console and trying to mute channels and go up and down with the faders at the right time while mixing. But I don’t seem to recall anything of importance, hehe.
I don’t remember what the studio cost, but we were 14–15 years old when we recorded there the first time, so for us there was no way that we could afford doing a demo. The reason why we were allowed to record at Sunlight in the first place was because Tomas Skogsberg owed Johann’s dad some money. Funny, but true…
Johann: An amusing detail I remember is about the opening song “Cannibalized” and the double bass pattern in the beginning; my technique wasn’t up to scratch back then so Nicke actually overdubbed the bass drums, giving him his first and only drum credit on a metal album, haha. A bit embarrassing for me back then but pretty funny now.
Tomas Skogsberg tried to show me the right way to do it (heels down on the floor) but of course he was wrong!
By the way, who was that guy Danken, who is credited as the one who created your logo?
Nicke: Danken was the nickname of our friend Daniel Lofthagen. He played bass with Mastication and Unanimated and was actually playing bass in Epitaph for a short period of time. He was supposed to play the bass on “Seeming Salvation”, but decided to quit Epitaph to focus on Unanimated. (The only reason why we were a trio on “Seeming” is because we didn’t have enough time to rehearse with a new bass player.) Anyway, Daniel is a great artist, so we’re really happy that he agreed to do the Epitaph logo.
How involved were you into the tape trading? Did you send your demo to some other bands? Do you remember who were one of your first contacts?
Johann: We hung out at the local record stores in Stockholm, checking out demos and trading tapes at gigs etc
Christofer Johnsson helped us quite a lot in the beginning but as far as sending the demo to other bands I am not sure...
Manne: I think it was mostly me and Nicke who took care of sending demos and stuff. We received a bunch of envelopes in our letter boxes every week, but there was actually not that much tape trading. There were lots of fanzines getting in touch for interviews, and quite a few just getting touch because they were interested in the band. We also received demos now and then, but most of the demos were bought (and sold) in the heavy metal oriented record stores that were quite essential for the Stockholm Death Metal scene (Heavy Sound and House of Kicks).
Nicke: I remember that the way to pay and get paid for cassettes was by International Reply Coupon (IRC), leading to an unproportional amount of Death Metal heads in the post office line at the time.
And already next year, in 1992, you recorded your cult "Seeming Salvation" CD. Working once again with Tomas Skogsberg, how could you describe that experience? What do you remember the most from those sessions? Is there any funny story to tell?
Johann: Actually, the recording started in late 1991, a mere 8 months from when the first Epitaph demo was released.
We had matured quite a bit as a band, so this was bound to be a more serious and ambitious album.
I remember having a lot of headaches due to Tomas' chain smoking in the control room (absolutely unheard of today!) while the studio itself was really tiny.
The drums used in Sunlight Studios was a mix of digital and acoustic instruments (just like previous recordings with Entombed etc.) which presented their fair share of challenges, and I remember that Manne played along with me in the small booth while Nicke sat in the control room.
We worked pretty fast, cutting the drum parts for the album in one weekend and another 5-6 days for the guitars and vocals.
In those days all mixing was done in real time so we had to use all available hands on the mixing console, punching in effects and fading out instruments etc. It was a very exciting time.
A funny detail is that Nicke supplied some very guttural growls on the track “Prey To Dismay” which got credited as “Nicke of FLESHCRAWL” on the album. If I remember correctly he tried to imitate Bill Steer of Carcass, haha!
Manne: I remember how Skogsberg repeatedly sang “How much is that doggie in the window” when he communicated through the control room window with a very long-haired and slightly bearded Christofer Johnsson, who did guest vocals on two of the songs. But again I don’t seem to recall anything of importance, hehe.
- So, why did the band split-up?
Manne: As mentioned earlier, we felt that the whole death metal scene in Stockholm was losing steam. The Stockholm bands were going in a direction that we weren’t very keen on – bands like Unanimated, Internal Decay and Necrophobic started to include more black metal influenced elements in their songs and nobody seemed interested in the “classic” death metal genre, as we consider it today. I also remember how important it was for us to stay original, as we perceived it, and I guess we didn’t feel that we had the input we needed. I remember that we rehearsed a few new songs after “Seeming Salvation”. They were less detuned and more in the direction where Paradise Lost were heading with “Gothic”. But the death scene around Stockholm felt dead from mid ‘92, and already before recording “Seeming” death metal wasn’t our primary source of inspiration. So while rehearsing the new songs for a possible follow-up we just felt like calling it quits.
- Thank you for this interview! Would you like to add anything in the end?
Epitaph: Thank you, Dima, and thanks to everyone who still is involved in the OSDM underground of old. It is really a great pleasure digging into the memory banks from that era. Sorry to say we don’t remember half of it, but it makes for great fun indeed!