Blood Oath: live by it, die by it. Suffocation talks to Metal as Fuck.

Suffocation's drummer Mike Smith talks to Metal as Fuck about Blood Oath, being twenty years into their career, how the industry needs to change, and, of course, their current Aussie tour with Arch Enemy

 

Suffocation are co-headlining with Arch Enemy right now. Unfortunately, I missed these guys' last sojourn to the land of Oz, but everybody I spoke to who went to those shows has always talked about how Suffocation absolutely slays live. When I ran this past drummer Mike and asked what his take was on whether the band does its best work when people are banging their heads in front of them, he laughed gently.

'Definitely,' he said. 'From day one, we've been a live performance band first then a studio band second, you know? That was the most important thing to us from the start, that no matter what goes on, on the albums, whether it's good or bad the fans have to know when they see that everything we do is legit, unique, and is worthy of when they leave they're saying that Suffocation is no joke. And we've kept that title for as long as I can remember, that in the live shows is always a good time.'

Although the Suffocation albums that are considered classics came out on Roadrunner, it's easy to always think of these guys as a Relapse band, which is why it's now sometimes weird to think of these guys as being a Nuclear Blast band. At the point at which these guys are now, Mike told me that they can definitely see a difference between the labels, and that this was the case from the very beginning of their relationship with Nuclear Blast.

'Nuclear Blast is definitely number one,' Mike emphasised. 'First, they're Suffocation fans wholeheartedly; two, they're the biggest underground extreme label out there, so they really are putting their full time and their efforts into the success of Suffocation at this point, and you can see it and feel that daily,' he explained. 'Which is a breath of fresh air for us,' he added, 'because it's been a long time since we actually could say that.'

And, as a realist, Mike pointed out that whether or not the band is with Nuclear Blast in the long-term isn't really the point.

'It's gonna be up to the industry and the rights we should have at this point, you know, with the opportunities to keep us writing and touring and doing what we want to do at this point, which is twenty years deep,' he said. 'The Blood Oath album just came out and this is a test to see if the kids are going to catch it, if the industry's gonna finally give us the opportunities due, and, if so, then we'll continue writing more albums. And if we do, then we definitely want to be with Nuclear Blast if that's the case.'

What Mike was very clear about is that if Suffocation is, in a sense, at a crossroads of existence; that the ways in which Blood Oath is picked up, and the opportunities the band gets as a result of that release, might determine whether or not the band calls it a day.

'I don't wanna say we are,' he clarified. 'But if we are gonna call it quits at all then this would be the time. After this we can go out and still have face; and if we wanna go forward then it should be a completely whole new leaf of higher level opportunities.'

As Mike pointed out, Suffocation have been doing their thing for a long time, and a lot of the blame for gaining or missing major opportunities, he feels, lies deep in the machinery of the music industry. This is an industry, which, as Mike puts it, should allow the bands that have done the yards to be up front, with the younger kids further back, putting their time in first.

'We've been in it a long time and have always kept our end of the bargain, the deal of what death metal should be, what we're gonna add to it and we've seen a lot of tours come and go. And a lot of bands come and go. And a lot of these bands have gotten opportunities that you work your whole life to get, and wind up sizzling out the year after. So, of course, anyone who is responsible and focused and paying attention to what they're doing is going to see these decisions being made. Myself, at least, I pay attention to everything that goes on. You know. I could be bitter,' he told me. 'But that doesn't change how Suffocation is going to write or portray themselves on stage. But the business itself, the industry, can definitely shape up a little bit. A lot actually,' he corrected himself. 'Not even a little bit, a lot, in my opinion.'

Interestingly, Suffocation's latest release hit #2 on the New Artists Chart. Although this chart is, in a sense, a between-charts style of ranking, and isn't a true reflection of whether or not an artist is actually a new artist, I wondered whether Mike felt that in some sense you do need chart success to be considered to have landed on your feet.

'Well, yeah,' he agreed. 'I definitely think that it helps. It helps to be able to document it, and it shows that you've made it to that level of notoriety. Does it necessarily get you any further?' he asked. 'You know, we'll see. This remains to be seen. We won't complain about the Billboard charting or the New Artists, whatever they want to call it they can call it. Brand New if they want, as long as they give us some brand new opportunities, we're all for it.'

The opportunities that Mike was talking about involves, primarily, being able to get out of the clubs they've been playing all these years, and take their shows to arena-style venues. Suffocation want to be able to get out there with bands that they know personally, to be able to go out on major tours.

'We wanna be on the Slipknot tours, we wanna be on Lamb of God tours, we want to be on the Slayer, Rockstar, Mayhem, Megadeth tours. All that is just relevant. And at this point we've just toured with all the death metal bands, and three quarters of them we've taken out for the first times and shown them the ropes and how to do it,' he explained. 'We're over that now. We're tired of just doing the same thing. We're ready to step it up,' Mike emphasised. 'We've played on stages where we're playing in front of ten- to fifty-thousand people and we've completely destroyed that and controlled that whole scene. So if anybody is watching at all, and has the power to make the decisions, I would think they would get on it at about this time, when an album is freshly out, and it just seems... mathematically right, if you're paying attention.'

Hand-in-hand with this is that Suffocation are seeing a huge rise in the numbers of young kids at their shows. And as Mike pointed out, with the older generations of metalheads, who now have families and kids and so on, a show could come and go and those guys wouldn't get to it just out of principle, and because they have something more important to do.

'But these young kids,' he enthused, 'they've been born into death metal. The first day of their lives death metal already exists, it's already here, so it's natural that that should e part of their upbringing. We've always had young fans and older fans bringing their kids with them, and we're two or almost three generations deep now, of kids. They're the most important right now, they're the ones spending the money coming to shows, buying merchandise and all that.'

The thing that Mike is big on is mixing the shows up. In order to give the young fans and metal itself the boost it needs, he believes that bringing different genres together is going to be the way of the future.

'On these tours we need a bunch of different types of bands, and get all different audiences come out, and we'll do our part when we get on stage: let the kids decide what they found to be aggressive, what they found to be unique and maybe they'll leave the building knowing something more than they did when they came in.'

This blend of genres ideal is something that I've heard skating about in the industry for a while, and it appears that it might well be being driven by bands who play shows and know that exposing audiences to broader genres is going to be one of the key methods by which the metal scene as a whole is going to find its longevity.

And yet, while it's all well and good to talk about creating cross-over shows and broader representation of genre at shows, would this go so far as trendcore? No, we don't think so. In fact, could it be the domination of trendcore that has caused such an upsurge in kids wanting more extreme music again?

'Definitely,' Mike agreed. 'You know, the trendcore thing was a bandaid or a patch, if you will, for those who didn't really understand what the kids were tired of. They didn't really know what to do with the most extreme bands, which have been here forever. So they looked to the young kids … and added a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of this and call it, uh, some type of core, whatever core you wanna call it,' he said. 'So it was pieces of what has already existed and that's just the industry and the decision-makers not, one, knowing the pulse or feeling the pulse of what's going on on the streets, and in the underground scene and trying to find a quick fix.

'Now, assuming that extreme metal must be coming by way of young teenagers, which it's not – extreme metal started thirty years ago and those who are the ambassadors of it are now in their older thirties and that doesn't make them unable to come out there and school you. I'm thirty-eight and I know I'll go out there and still school eighteen-year-olds no problem,' he said. 'What it is, is that those who are making decisions need to be changed out of there now. They're too old, they're too out of touch, and at this point, you would want to get musicians who have actually been in the scene and genre from the beginning now running the record labels, now running the booking agents and all of that, you know. Just needing a changing of the guard at this point.'

As Mike pointed out, while we're all waiting for this change to happen, albums come out and fade away, and that this is destructive to the artists who release those albums.

'Like, for instance, our album is only a couple of months old, and it's still getting the press it needs. And this is the time where we need to be out on the most massive tours offered at this point,' he explained. 'But what's going to happen is that whoever's making the decisions is going to keep booking these tours, minus Suffocation, and half a year's gonna pass – a year's gonna pass – those tours would've passed; and now we have to try and hold up the vibe of a new album on our own, you understand,' he said.

As Mike said, when Suffocation headlines, they find themselves bringing out young bands that don't really draw a crowd, who don't really have a foot-hold in the industry yet. And Suffocation finds itself in the position where the touring situation kills the 'steam' of what the band has been trying to achieve.

'It's a vicious circle,' he told me. 'It's hard to really work your way through it to make it positive and help build the genre, but it's been this way so long that you just gotta grin and bear it for now I guess. As long as you keep true to your music, you know.'

Suffocation believes – as do most of the fans who have had the pleasure of Blood Oath – that the production on the album is way up there: that it is, perhaps, the best that the band has ever achieved. While the band has always played the way they do, it's been more a matter of upgrading their tools of trade than anything else.

'We've upgraded our home studio now, we're in the ProTools era. We revamped the whole studio, and what it did was allow us to catch up to what the main industry is doing. Now it's an equal playing field as to how you can record and get that type of quality from home,' Mike explained.

The artwork on Blood Oath is indicative of a band that gives a shit about the artwork. The art was produced by Jon Zig, who has production credits that include such bands as Deeds of Flesh, Disgorge and Gorgasm.

'In extreme metal in general the kids want as much as they can get,' Mike pointed out. 'And from our first album, Effigy of the Forgotten, we helped pave that direction by trying to give a visual – well, if you're not gonna open the album and listen to this CD we want to at least give you a visual of what we think can represent the music by the album art and the album cover. So, for this genre you have to do that, you have to give as much as that is possible to get people's attention, and the artwork is a very important part of that.

'As for the Blood Oath concept and cover, you know, I come up with the title and the concept because just from watching the scene as long as I have, and running the business of Suffocation for the past seven years, I wanted the fans to know, one, that the genre has to be run in more of an all-for-one, gang mentality type of way because we're still fighting the world to try and get notoriety, the whole genre in itself. It's like a gang ritual to do what you say, say what you mean, always speak the truth and stay focused on what it is you're trying to portray to the people. And that's what this whole album is, what the concept is, what the lyrics pertain to, and pretty much what Suffo has been from day one.'

As any gamer knows, metal is really big in gaming right now, and Suffocation is another band that is bringing out a video game. Not having heard a great deal about the game, I asked Mike about the band's decision to jump on that bandwagon. When I asked the question, Mike thanked me because he needed the reminder to follow-up on the game's release.

'At this point you gotta do things like that in order to hit all markets,' he said. 'It's a first person shooter game, where there's going to be different levels for each one of the members of the band, and you'll have to come in there and shoot your way through, and get yourself up out of there and face the demons when you get there,' he explained. 'Each of us have our own separate set of demons and quirks and, uh, strengths, that you're gonna have to be able to fight through. That's the concept of it, and that's what I'm hoping comes to light. Right now we're trying to finish off the DVD we've been promising, and the video game will follow. As to an exact date, I couldn't really say. We won't allow it to come out half-heartedly.'

Given that we're an online mag, we find it relatively easy to put the word out to our readers to see if they have any questions. One of our readers wanted to know at what point Frank decided to change his vocal style and whether it was to make lyrical content more accessible, or whether it was simply a case of his voice getting cashed out. It turns out that this was not so much the case, as it was microphone technique.

'I think he hasn't really changed his style, it really just comes down to how he holds the microphone,' Mike explained. 'Which is the only difference. Since our reunion, his recording style has changed by the fact that he's not cupping the microphone, trying to to be as guttural and just cloudy as he always is. Now he's backed off. He had the windscreen in front of him, he's backed off, and he has to physically just be louder now, and more legible, in order for the mic to catch it. So for all the kids out there who are cuppin' it and making their voice deep and cavernous: Frank isn't doing that now. Now, he's spending more time physically pronouncing the words properly, so we can get something across to the people. We spend a lot of time writing lyrics and to not be able to understand any of them is just, uh, slashing your own throat.'

Suffocation are touring Australia right now with Arch Enemy, which is an interesting combination, and hopefully Suffo will get some new fans out of this interesting tour combination. I asked Mike what they were particularly looking forward to.

'Just the mixture of the fans, because a stage is a stage, doesn't matter who we're playing with, we're always gonna do what bands do. We're more excited, and hope that more tours will turn out this way where we're given a diversity of fans, where the fans are forced to come into one venue together and decide what it is they truly like,' he explained. 'If they're Arch Enemy fans, that is perfect, if they wind up switchin' and saying “wow, Suffocation totally crushes and this is the level I'm goin'”, then that's perfect for us. That's the only thing we could ask for right now,' he added, 'is to be in front of the most diverse audiences we can at this point. So it should be a good mixture.'

In terms of set-list, this is what Mike had to say:

'Well, we always try and play something from every album. Just because it makes for a more complete evening for us, so we'll be up there. We'll be doing about three or four songs off the new album, just for those who only know the new album, and then we'll also be touching on a song or two off of every other album prior, so we can give them a complete history of Suffocation in forty-five to one-hour timeslot we've got.'

Before he had to go, Mike had a message for the fans. It was this:

'Blood Oath. Live by it, die by it, and that's all.'

Suffocation are currently on tour with Arch Enemy throughout Australia.

New Suffocation + back catalogue are also now in-store.