by Phil Freeman
Suffocation are one of the most important American death metal bands; it’s impossible to really embrace the genre without exploring their discography. Their debut album, 1991′s Effigy of the Forgotten, and its two follow-ups, 1993′s Breeding the Spawn and 1995′s Pierced from Within, demonstrated a unique ability to combine rhythmic aggression and complex, technically skilled guitar work. Their sound blended the post-thrash assault of peers like Cannibal Corpse and Deicide, breakdowns lifted from New York hardcore acts like Agnostic Front, Sick Of It All and Breakdown, and wild displays of chops that were uniquely their own, and vocalist Frank Mullen‘s guttural growls were paradigmatic—dozens, if not hundreds, of extreme metal frontmen have stolen his sound (if not his weirdo stage persona) over the last twenty-plus years.
After the 1998 EP Despise the Sun, though, Suffocation broke up. They returned in 2004 with Souls to Deny, and have released three more studio albums since—2006′s self-titled disc, 2009′s Blood Oath, and the brand-new Pinnacle of Bedlam, which might just be their best album to date. They’ve been through their share of lineup changes over the years, but the departure of drummer Mike Smith after Blood Oath was seen as a major one. He’d left once before, though, in 1994, and was replaced, then as now, by Dave Culross, who’d played on Despise the Sun and was also a member of Malevolent Creation and Incantation.
Suffocation are masters of their style, but death metal is a pretty restrictive genre; radical change isn’t rewarded, by fans or those few critics who pay serious attention. Pinnacle of Bedlam offers the more-or-less simple pleasures their albums have always possessed in abundance, but there are some unique touches that vault it out of the pack. For one thing, the mix, by producer Zeuss, is extraordinarily clear. Every element is clearly audible, which wasn’t the case on the blurry, bludgeoning Blood Oath. For another, Pinnacle finds lead guitarist Terrance Hobbs…frankly, showing off. He throws in jazz chords, lets all the other instruments drop out leaving his guitar naked in the spotlight, and plays some killer solos. Plus, as the interview below the jump reveals, he wrote most of the album himself. As one of Suffocation‘s two remaining founding members (along with Mullen), Hobbs has found himself more and more responsible for keeping the band alive and artistically valid. Pinnacle of Bedlam reveals that their artistic legacy is safe in his hands.
After the jump, an interview with Terrance Hobbs.
What do you think sets the new album apart from Suffocation’s previous work?
Well, we’ve got Dave playing in the band now—and basically, because I did a lot of the writing on the record, for the most part I tried to just keep to the same standards that Suffocation has always had in the past, and really just try a lot more…I would say a lot of extra feeling in the guitar playing, as well as kinda taking it back more old school. I kinda always write in the same general vein most of the time, and so do the other guys in the band, so for all of us, getting together and coordinating this record and doing the pre-production for it and everything else like that was a little bit of a chore. But to tell you the truth, I think it really came out awesome. So I’m very happy with it. As far as the writing process and stuff like that is concerned, it happened piece by piece. Some songs were written in the studio, but also I get kinda pissed off sometimes [laughs], so I take it out in my music.
I feel like the guitar is more prominent this time—the solos jump out more, and there’s more spots where the guitar is playing all alone. Why did you decide to take a little more spotlight time on this one?
On Blood Oath, it was the band at the time, with Mike Smith, and everybody was writing their own pieces. On this record, I did a lot of the writing, so I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but I’m just saying—that kind of vibe is the one I mainly write in. So we never use all the techniques and things I want to put in music…because everybody else has their influences and they have songs and they have parts, everything gets incorporated. But on this one, because I spent so much time actually writing the majority of it, I guess it comes across as a little bit more of a guitar-oriented record. As opposed to the past ones.
This album is the fourth in a row to feature a re-recorded track from Breeding the Spawn…do you think eventually you’ll have alternate versions of all eight tracks out there?
That’s right! You nailed it. [laughs] Basically, every time we do a record we try to get another Breeding the Spawn song, because that record sounds terrible. The music was great, but the sound on it, and because the band was in so much turmoil and we were using an engineer that really didn’t know much about the style of music—especially back then, because back then, the only good people was like Scott Burns. You might be able to get a Jason Suecof or a Colin Richardson or something to that effect now, but at that point it was really bad, so we decided that if we’re gonna do a new record, we can always take one of the old Breeding the Spawn songs, and eventually if there’s a diehard Suffo fan out there that has all of our records, they’ll be able to piece together Breeding the Spawn and it’ll have some type of decent production. Even though they’ll all sound different, it’ll all sound better than that record.
What are your memories of Breeding the Spawn and that whole era of Suffocation? That album turns 20 this year—tell me a little bit about the making of it.
Well, during that time, by the time it came out, the only real producer we’d used was Scott Burns, and he was down in Florida and we were all native New Yorkers. So it was quite a haul. But we didn’t know, so we used an engineer out here on Long Island who had his own studio. But during that time, the band was also in turmoil. Everybody was fighting. And it came through in the record that way. All the bullshit we were going through and arguments and everything else came through in that record. For me, it’s a dark spot. I don’t really care for it that much, I think the music was great cause we spent so much time writing the music, but I don’t think the album sounds good, and it deserves its day. It deserves to be heard for what the songs deserve to be heard for.
The mix on Pinnacle of Bedlam seems a lot clearer than on Blood Oath—was that something you were specifically going for, as opposed to the last time?
Yeah, exactly. We always try something new, every time we do a recording. Mainly we do the recordings ourselves with different engineers, and we’ve learned a lot from being able to work with a lot of different live engineers and sound engineers these days. It seems to be paying off. But what happened was, we ended up using Zeuss, who’s done a lot of other productions for a lot of big-name bands, and the guy, he just knows what the hell is going on. So because he had been a fan of our band for quite a while, and Nuclear Blast was like, “You should really use him”—we had sent out the mix to a couple of different people, and it just seemed that he had the knowledge and had the idea of what Suffocation is supposed to sound like. So we ended up using him, and it made a world of difference in the production.
As one of the guys who’s been there since 1990, how do you think your role within the band has changed over the years? Do you have to break new players in, to some degree?
I’ve been there since Day One, man. And that’s the hard part. Most people don’t realize, but honestly, I’m not game for member changes at all. I’ll stick it out as long as possible. Obviously, you can tell—I’ve been in the same band for twenty-some years. But yeah, getting new members like when Dave [Culross] came back, it was fortunate because back in the ’90s, Dave had played with the band, so a lot of the songs, he knew what we were playing, he knew them already. So it was just a matter of getting some of the dust off him. But, like, Derek [Boyer, bassist] after Chris Richards, yeah, I had to break him in, Guy [Marchais, guitarist] after Doug Cerrito, I had to break him in, so yeah, it takes a lot to sit there and retain all this information and be able to be a teacher and be a writer and so on and so forth. It becomes a hassle, but I’m pretty fortunate because over the last decade I’ve pretty much had the same members. With the exception of Mike [Smith], which to me is almost a bonus, because Mike was a very headstrong person in the band. And because of his attitude in that department, he made it really uncomfortable for everybody else in the band to really function as a band. That was the real story behind Mike’s departure. But to give you the whole lowdown in general, having new members come in is almost like life’s blood, because they’re driven to go and do things that normally people of my age wouldn’t do. I’m gonna hit the big 43 this year; it’s not like I’ve been doing this as a hobby for the most part, but now it’s more serious and life-changing, where now it’s like you’re living life as a musician and not as a hobby, you know what I mean? So I take it seriously—I’m in the studio daily, I’m working on different records as well as this Suffocation record…this year I intend on having at least three different releases, so it should be a good year.
How did you initially get involved in playing death metal? What kind of music were you playing before Suffocation formed, and how much of the group’s sound was directly a result of your input?
Well, here’s the thing. When I was young, I got my first guitar I was seven years old, and I didn’t really play it until I was eleven or twelve. And most other styles of music didn’t really have much good guitar. Dance music didn’t have guitars in it, and I was like, “I really like this instrument—I have a guitar, I want to play it,” you know? So starting to listen to heavier things, I started to get into Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Randy Rhoads, things of that nature, and it opened up a whole world to me, so I pretty much just locked myself in my room for about six years [laughs] and just played the guitar. And from that point, heavier music started popping up. I started listening to hardcore music for the guitars in that, and metal music, and death metal music, and so on and so forth, and it just kind of snowballed for me. So once Suffocation really started and I was playing with guys I knew from high school, that was our focal point—we just wanted to make some sick thrashin’-ass music, you know? And from that point, that’s what got me into it and I’ve been doing the same style of music ever since.
Suffocation was one of the first death metal bands—what do you think set you apart from the pack?
For the most part, we tried to differ in that we stayed up north on the East Coast. I mean, all the really crazy, heavy bands, most of them were from up in the East Coast. Now, it’s relatively expensive to live up here, it kinda sucks, it’s pretty harsh and brutal, New York isn’t the nicest place in the world, but for example Cannibal Corpse was originally from Buffalo, New York; they moved to Florida. Glen Benton from Deicide was originally from Buffalo, New York—moved to Florida. A lot of people who were prominent on the Florida scene were actually from up north. We just stayed up here [laughs]. They ended up moving down south. There’s tons of people that are in all those popular Florida bands like Obituary and Deicide and Malevolent Creation that were all really from up here. Even [Cannibal Corpse vocalist] George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher was from Maryland. That’s like—I could spit to Maryland from where I live. But they all moved to Florida. It was cheaper, it was more cost effective, there was a scene down there, Scott Burns was killing it on the productions, and it really worked out for them. We just decided to stay up north and stick it out, stick to our roots and where we were from. And that’s basically why we’re still here today, a New York death metal band.
I hear a lot of crossover between your sound and hardcore—the breakdowns, the style of riffing. Is that an East Coast thing?
Well, I think what it came down to was, for us being maybe an hour outside of New York City, the hardcore scene and the thrashers and the metal kids always clashed for a long time. Metalheads and skinheads were always fighting. But of course a lot of bands were billed together, so death metal bands were billed together with hardcore bands, and I think that bleed-through happened more or less during those times, and people like me, who respect Sick Of It All and Agnostic Front—and I happen to know a couple of guys from those bands and they’re very cool people—they’re into the metal just like I was into the hardcore and vice versa. So I think that has a lot to do with the East Coast sound as well. Hardcore and metal did mingle and have touched each other in some way up here. And I think that’s passed along through a lot of different bands, from us doing the breakdown stuff to bands like AF and Sick Of It All and Biohazard and so on and so forth.
Some death metal bands are really defined by their drummers, but Suffocation has had a lot of turnover in the rhythm section. How do you think changing drummers has impacted the music on this album?
Well, for the most part, as I said, the pre-production for this record was mainly done by us writing pieces using drum machines and stuff, for our own creative purposes. Having the change of drummer was a big deal, but Mike and Dave are both excellent drummers. So the changeover wasn’t that hard; the hardest part was actually getting Dave up to par on the newer material. Like, the older stuff, Dave already had full knowledge of. But he actually had to learn the whole new record, and record it and perform it, and he did an amazing job at it. I’m very fortunate to have good musicians to work with. I think people will notice that this album is a little bit faster in certain areas than our older stuff, but I think for the most part it came across correctly and that it still holds to what the Suffo standard always was.
What are the big stylistic differences between Mike and Dave?
Dave’s a little more comfortable playing at high speed. Like, 240 bpm doesn’t scare Dave. For us, it’s not a matter of how fast you go, it’s how comfortable you are. We try to keep everything inside of a pocket, we don’t want it faster than what every musician can syncopate to. So as I said, I’m really fortunate because Dave is really knowledgeable about timing—and, I mean, he smiles playing at 240 bpm. I’m down there sweating it out, and he’s cracking up [laughs]. It’s pretty cool—he’s definitely got a lot of natural ability, that guy. So I’ve gotta give it to him—some people are just cut out to be that way, and he’s definitely cut out to be a drummer.
Can you describe how you work with the other guitar player, Guy Marchais?
Well, for the most part I took on a lot of responsibilities in trying to get Guy up to speed with the old songs—now, this is ten years old now, cause Guy’s been in this band for over ten years at this point. But we work off of each other pretty well [now], to be honest with you. He comes up with ideas, some of which he throws by the wayside, just like me, and when we get a chance we just sit down and start hacking out riffs. It’s the same type of thing me and Cerrito used to do back in the day; we get together, have a couple of beers, maybe make some dinner, plug in our guitars and string together our riffs, throw ideas back and forth at each other, see what we like and what we don’t like, and it just goes from there. It’s not that complicated. But we do definitely bounce ideas off each other quite often.
What do you think is the hardest Suffocation song to play?
Well, that’s a tough question, because a lot of em are based in the same aspect. But if you go to the Despise the Sun record and want to play “Bloodchurn,” that’s probably one of the most demanding right-arm songs out of them all. It’s not as much that it’s complicated left hand-wise as it is grueling on the picking arm. Pretty much all the Suffo songs push it to the limit. There’s some songs that are laid-back, don’t get me wrong, but for the most part, if you’re playin ‘em right, you have to pace yourself to play any of our songs. That’s just the way it is. And for complication, I’d have to go back to some of the Breeding the Spawn songs. Pretty much that whole album is super-technical, when it comes down to note-y riffage and stuff like that. A song like “The Beginning of Sorrow” is a little bit complicated, but not as complicated as “Breeding the Spawn” or “Prelude to Repulsion” for example. Those songs are pretty complicated. There’s tons and tons of riffs, so it’s hard to pick out which ones would be the hardest to play. From one to ten, I would give most of them a six point five to an eight.
There’s some almost jazz chords on the new record—where does that come from?
Well, I just think that especially when we’re writing, we’re always trying to use different techniques here and there. I try to listen to and pick up a lot of different things, especially if they stand out to me, if there’s something really cool about it, so we were just trying to incorporate some different styles into the music to some degree. I mean, we didn’t want to go too overboard with the jazzy stuff, but there’s a little influence there, for sure. I don’t want to become one of those super squirrelly bands; I want people to be able to grasp what’s going on in the music. I think a lot of bands make their name logos too weird, where you can’t read it, or they’ll make their music too squirrelly where you can’t remember it, and I’m trying to avoid both of those.