Eric Greif, Death's longtime manager, on the significance and influence of Death on metal
Ray Ahner Death to All circa 2012
Founded in 1983 by Chuck Schuldiner, Death helped to codify the aesthetic of death metal alongside early pioneers like Possessed. Schuldiner was sixteen when the band formed and twenty by the time the outfit's debut album, 1987's Scream Bloody Gore, was released. The sonic brutality of the first two Death albums was remarkable for the period when only grindcore matched it for the sheer violence of the sound. Influenced by thrash, death metal, as exemplified by the music of Death, took the music into new extreme realms of wild tempos, cutting guitar gyrations and dark subject matter.
With the release of its third record, Spiritual Healing, Death had honed its sound so that the brutality wasn't so savage as much as it was precise, and that approach characterized the band's next handful of subsequent records, including its final release, 1998's The Sound of Perseverance. In 2001, Schuldiner lost his two year battle with cancer, ending one of a brilliant musical career.
But Schuldiner's imaginative use of sound and the surprising diversity of his songwriting in the context of extreme music has proven to be an enduring influence that has continued to grow. In 2012, the first Death to All tour, celebrating the life and legacy of Schuldiner, came together, and the response from fans was so overwhelming, another two tours were organized for this year with the first, DTA1, focusing on the first four Death albums, and the follow-up, DTA2, will focus on the final three.
We recently had the chance to speak with Eric Greif, who was a close friend of Chuck's and the band's manager from Leprosy to the end, about Chuck, the significance of his music, the current tour and Sweet Relief, the charity that aided Chuck in his final years.
Westword: What got you attracted to heavy music early on in life?
Eric Greif: I sort of just fell into a circle of heavy rock/hard rock people at an early age when I first got to Los Angeles. From there, pretty well my whole career has been involved in heavy metal. Even if I don't particularly listen to it on my own all the time.
You worked with Mötley Crüe on Too Fast For Love, and that is one side of hard rock and metal. How did you become familiar with the music of a band like Death?
I was involved in something for a number of years called Milwaukee Metal Fest. It was a pretty big festival in the late '80s. We had Death there for the very first Milwaukee Metal Fest in July of 1987. That's when I met Death, and we kept in touch. I promoted their next show in Milwaukee in the coming January, and that's when we talked about it, and I ended up being their manager.
Why did you want to become their manager?
Well, they were between their first album and their second album and I could see clear potential, especially with Chuck [Schuldiner]. Chuck was a charismatic guy and he seemed to be a forward thinker as far as what he was doing, and I knew the band would be successful. I just had a feeling that I should hook up with this guy and work together.
So it was sort of one of those right place at the right time [things]. We took a drive in my car and talked about what was going on with the band and his need to not have to run things himself. That's exactly what I was looking for -- vehicles I could sort of hook on to and take control of. So it seemed like a good fit managing Death.
Obviously Death met with some controversy with album covers and lyrics, and you were involved in advocating against censorship on the behalf of various bands. How did you defend that sort of thing in the public forum and perhaps even in court?
It was, of course, just post PMRC period. So you had a lot of rallying against, especially by political forces and politicians wives and that kind of thing, the supposed Satanic elements of popular music and all that kind of stuff. For me, it was more or less an intellectual exercise where I believed that the heavy metal I was working with was more or less the musical equivalent of a horror movie. Basically I thought it was nonsensical to point the finger at metal and to say that this was harmful to society. I saw it as an entertainment avenue just like a film, and that's where my advocacy started with that and fighting against censorship.
Did you ever actually have to go to court over anything your bands did for lyrics and album covers?
No. We were lucky that we were spared anyone dying with having listened to it. Although there was a murder somewhere at the time where the Leprosy album cover, like a cassette tape, empty, was left by a body. Whether that was coincidental or whether there as a connection was never proven. But it was a very funny time in America in the '80s.
I think our covers became less controversial by the third cover, which was Spiritual Healing, which was more or less a painting depicting fake faith healers and that kind of thing. But we were really getting rid of the gore element, so we never really ran into any more trouble after that period. You had kids writing notes saying, "I listened to this song and wanted to die as a result" and that kind of thing, so there were some pretty big lawsuits with acts such as Judas Priest.
And Ozzy Osbourne and "Suicide Solution," which is, ironically in this case, an anti-suicide song.
Yep. So we didn't really have to deal with that.
What did you find interesting about Death musically and what its music was about?
For me, even though Chuck denied it, I looked at Death as the creators of a new genre. They had taken metal to a completely different form. Anybody that listens to the first Death album, Scream Bloody Gore, will know that it's different than Slayer. I just knew there was something unique about what Chuck was doing. I mean the very first time I ever saw Death I stood there literally with my jaw wide open, flabbergasted. And everybody did at Metal Fest.
No one did a vocal like him. Nobody on that stage of all the acts, including King Diamond, nobody was heavy like that. When I met Chuck, Scream Bloody Gore had essentially been out eight weeks. So this was a very special record and clearly something that caught my attention.
Continue reading for more from Eric Greif.