Q&A with Terrance Hobbs of Suffocation
The Suffocation piece running in this week's paper was culled from Phil Freeman's recent conversation with Terrance Hobbs of Suffocation. As with many of our other Rough Mixes features, there's far more to the story of this stalwart New York-based death metal band than there was space. As such, after the jump, we've posted Freeman and Hobbs's exchange in its entirety.
Terrance Hobbs: It's a co-headliner with Necrophagist, so either they'll be the last band or we will. We'll be flip-flopping, or something like that. So it's considered to be headlining.
WW: Will you be alternating nights, or flipping a coin, or something?
TH: That's what I've been told, but who knows what'll happen. It's metal, you know how it goes. Everything's always up in the air till the last minute.
WW: Can you just run through a general history of the band, for those who aren't familiar with you?
TH: We came out with our first CD at the end of 1989, beginning of 1990, the Human Waste EP. We did that on Relapse. Then in 1991, we came out with Effigy Of The Forgotten on Roadrunner Records; pretty much everybody who was into death metal and stuff like that knows about that record. In 1993, we put out Breeding The Spawn, pretty much our worst-produced record ever. But every now and then we'll re-record a song from it on a new record, just to make sure we can get the production value out, 'cause the music was good, it was just the production was terrible.
Then in '96, we came out with Pierced From Within, with a little bit different lineup; [drummer] Mike Smith wasn't in the band at the time. Then in 1998, we made another EP, after getting dropped from Roadrunner, which wasn't the greatest thing in the world for us. And pretty much after that, because the scene was in such shambles and we were having a hard time doing what we wanted to do as musicians, the band kinda disbanded after the Despise The Sun EP.
Then around 2004, our singer, who had moved away from New York, married, had kids, blah blah blah, turned around and decided he wanted to still play, so he called me up and the other guys and we've been back together pretty much ever since. We put out our first comeback album, which was Souls To Deny, and right after that, maybe two years later, we came out with our self-titled album. And the newest one, which'll be being sold when we come out there, is Blood Oath.
WW: You also did a self-released live album, right?
TH: Yeah, we probably won't have that at our shows this time, but it'll be distributed by Relapse and Sony, which is good. That one was recorded up in Quebec, in Canada.
WW: It was called The Close Of A Chapter - can you explain the title?
TH: We had never done a live album ever, so it was the close of a chapter for us -- other than the DVD, which'll be coming out soon, we've pretty much covered the majority of the bases from recording for a decade to turning around and making a live record. Also, we had been playing so many shows, playing that set so often, and coming out with a new record, that was the other reason for that.
WW: I thought it might have had something to do with the end of your Relapse deal.
TH: No, Relapse is still pretty cool. We put that out ourselves, and the Nuclear Blast contract had nothing to do with the live record, so Relapse offered to put it out, so we said 'That's great, you guys go right ahead.' It keeps the availability, which is great, because it's hard to even get the Roadrunner albums out there to the fans, you know? It's something to help keep us rolling along. Relapse was a decent label, I can't ever really say anything bad about them. They really pushed us to a certain degree. I think Nuclear Blast is doing a better job of it, but we'll see. That comes with time.
WW: The band's sound has always combined really skilled lead guitar playing and complex time signatures with extremely heavy breakdowns that sound influenced by New York hardcore. Can you explain how that blend came together?
TH: Absolutely. I've been here in New York my whole life, living maybe forty minutes outside New York, and a lot of the hardcore bands you might know of, like, let's say Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, Sick Of It All, Merauder, Madball, Biohazard and so on, all those bands are very much part of the scene out here in New York. Us being death metal, it's a little bit different, but I guess it kinda rubbed off on us, or maybe it rubbed off on them, I can't really say, but there's common ground among all the bands out here with the breakdowns and stuff. I mean, most people can make that connection, because it's all based on us being part of the same scene out here in New York. Cause you know, you still hear serious metal riffs in some of the hardcore bands today, and vice versa. A lot of that had to do with the fact that we all grew up in the same scene. If I went to see a Cro-Mags show, there would be Destruction playin' along with 'em, and there was a big congregation of metalheads and skinheads and hardcore kids, and that really rubbed off on everybody's writing styles and the way we portray ourselves live.
WW: So you feel separate from, say, Florida bands or California bands?
TH: Yeah, absolutely. Most of the bands that were up here that decided to go down to Florida, like Deicide and Cannibal Corpse, they started here with us around the same time. But I guess for a band, the cheaper cost of living was better, so they all picked up and moved down there and obviously at that point, Florida was the big metal mecca in the United States. So everybody went down to record with Scott Burns and Colin Richardson. But for us, we're New York death metal and we'll always be in New York, that's just part of who we are. But Florida was the big thing, man.
WW: How did you first get into metal? Who inspired you as a fan and as a player?
TH: I started playing guitar when I was fourteen, and as soon as I got a guitar in my hands I was like Wow, this is a whole different world for me. I took to it a lot. In most dance music you don't hear guitar, so it was uninteresting to me unless it got heavy. So I started getting into the heavier stuff like Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne and Yngwie Malmsteen, and of course Slayer and Metallica and the list goes on and on, you know? I could actually hear the guitars and what was going on, so that was like gold. It made me want to just sit down and play even more.
To this day, that stuff's still in my playing, in my style, and I believe everybody else in the band was brought up on that kind of music. In school, we had cliques of metalheads and cliques of punks and hardcore kids, so I was always exposed to all kinds of music, from Minor Threat and Uniform Choice to Slayer and Cryptic Slaughter, Ozzy and Dio to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. It just went across the board. So from what I could hear and decipher, being a young kid, those were the things that really led me into playing this kind of music.
WW: Do you think the racial and ethnic mixing of New York helped as well, and is that something unique to the East Coast, in your mind?
TH: For me, not necessarily. I couldn't really speculate unless I lived [somewhere else], but we always find people of different ethnicities in every city coming to the shows. There'll be some black people and Puerto Rican people and Mexican people and this, that and the other thing. They still come out to the shows and it's kind of refreshing to realize that it's not a one-race genre kind of thing that's going on in this music. I'm pretty fortunate to be able to talk to some of those people when they come out to the shows and they let us know that what we're doing is right.
But being in New York and having all the different races and ethnicities coming together and listening to music, it had a lot to do with me choosing what my style was going to be. I always liked the guitar solos, I always liked the breakdowns and fast grinding stuff, I always listened to thrash metal and things of that nature, and a lot of my friends out here were into it too. We'd all go out to the clubs and see whatever metal band was out there. It's an underground scene and we were very much part of it. Regardless of whether we were playing or not, we would go out and see people and hang out.
WW: The guys who were in the band from the beginning - were you friends from early days, or did you meet up when the band formed?
TH: What happened was, when I was about sixteen or seventeen, Frank Mullen, who is our singer to this day, he had moved from a different school district to the one I was in. And it turned out we had a lot in common 'cause we liked to listen to heavy music. So we had started trying to put together little groups under various names -- there were so many of them I couldn't even begin to tell you. But from that point we started playing battles of the bands at schools on Long Island, so him being from a different school district, we were able to go play there, and that's how I met Mike. Frank had gone to school with Mike and had known Mike, but coming to school with me and knowing me got us to play those battles of the bands and meet each other. And we've known each other since then, and always been friends.
WW: What's your role in songwriting? Do you work on lyrics or just focus on the music?
I stick my nose in a little bit of everything, although on this latest record I tried to ease back a little bit, because I wanted the newer guys to be able to write more. After six albums, I don't expect everybody to want to buy the same record over and over again.
But if we write up some lyrics, I'll have something to say about structuring them or how we play them, and so would Derek [Boyer, bass], so would Mike, so would Guy [Marchais, guitar]. All of us stick our noses in where it doesn't belong. Like I would say, 'Hey Mike, can you play the drums like this,' even though I'm not the drummer, and he'll say, 'Terrance, can you play the guitar like this,' even though he's not the guitar player.
The same goes for the lyrics. There's always a little bit of input lyrically from me as well as from the other guys, and musically I'm always sticking my nose in, because that's my job. It's a big process; some of us write songs on our own, some of us write songs together, all of us write as a group as well. We all experiment a lot in the creative process and how to do things. If somebody has a good idea then we usually just roll with it.
WW: How do you see the new album moving your sound forward?
TH: Well, production quality-wise it's the best thing we've ever done, for sure. There was a lot of time spent on the lyrics, a lot of time spent on the actual musicianship, a lot of time spent on the album cover, so I feel it's a really, really tight package. As far as moving us ahead of the game, I'm not so sure. I mean, I would love to be a huge, giant band that everybody recognizes, but it's staying true to the roots of what Suffocation always was, which is a very heavy, aggressive breakdown type of band from New York. That's exactly what you're getting on the new album. Still, you can take it and compare it to every single record we have and you'll hear how much it blows them away. I'm pretty proud of it.
WW: Is there one song from Blood Oath that you would play for a brand-new listener and say, "This is my band"?
TH: Well, out of all the songs my favorite would be 'Images Of Purgatory.' It shows everything of the band; it shows some of the technicality, some of the breakdowns, the guitar work, the rhythmic part of it, and for us, that is really the main thing, just trying to portray ourselves in the correct light. If I was to give any song to somebody to listen to, I would say take 'Images Of Purgatory' first. Not that any of the other songs on the record are bad, but that one gives you a good overall sense of what we are.
WW: In the early days, it seems like death metal bands sounded really different from each other -- Cannibal Corpse didn't sound anything like Obituary, who didn't sound anything like Incantation. Do you think the style has become somewhat uniform?
TH: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of bands are starting to sound the same, especially now that it's a lot easier for bands to record their music at home via Pro Tools or any other type of recording program that's out there for a computer. So a band like Obituary, that was much slower and stood out on their own, or a Cannibal Corpse that stood out on their own, those are the ones that I listen to the most, because they're the most original to me.
A lot of new bands coming out are following that same vibe that everybody else is. The metalcore thing is huge, so you're hearing a lot of metalcore bands that are a dime a dozen. The death metal bands you hear now are all blood and guts and gore and Satan, so that becomes a little bit sterile, for me anyway. Personally, I stick with the old school death metal. I love my old school Pestilence, I love old Morbid Angel, I like Kreator, and all those bands are the ones I pay attention to the most.
WW: At the same time, you tour with a lot of younger bands, so who's impressing you?
TH: Well, I'll be honest with you, I like Whitechapel, and I definitely am liking Veil Of Maya, as far as metalcore-ish bands go. In death metal, I'm gonna go with Krisiun, just because they just rip your ass right the fuck out, and Psycroptic. Amazing band, really love 'em, I think that they're one of those new bands that don't fall into the category of sounding exactly like the next band. They're unbelievable, and they're great people. I can't say anything bad about 'em. I'm looking forward to playing with them again, maybe even hopefully get down to Australia and Tasmania, play some gigs in their home towns.
WW: Finally, you guys performed in a commercial for the History Channel in 2007, for their show on the Dark Ages. How did that happen?
TH: That's really funny. They had put out some type of advertisement, I guess, looking for a metal band in the New York area that would be willing to come out, maybe dress up in a little bit of garb. They wanted the heaviest thing they could find for something called The Dark Ages, which they figured would go hand in hand with the extreme metalness. They called us up, we happened to be free, one thing led to another and the next thing you know, we're in the middle of New York City, filming in front of this crazy camera crew. You know, we're underground, we'd never seen anything like that. It was really cool, and it was a really good learning experience for us, as far as how we really should be portrayed. It gave us a chance, which was really cool.