Story by Leonard Pierce
One of the founding groups of the rich Florida death metal scene, Obituary has left a lasting impact on the genre. Despite their name, it’s never wise to count them out of the picture; they signed with Roadrunner way back in 1989, and despite long hiatuses, temporary layoffs, and a plethora of side projects, they’ve always managed to come roaring back. This past Sunday, April 22, marked the 15th anniversary of 1997’s Back from the Dead – the band’s final studio album for the label, and one which marked the beginning of a long hiatus, but nonetheless a death metal classic. One of the group’s founding members (along with his vocalist brother John), drummer Donald Tardy, e-mailed us from Brazil, where the band was on tour, to talk to us about Back from the Dead’s anniversary and how Obituary has developed over the years.
It’s the 15th anniversary of Back from the Dead. Looking back, how do you think it fits into your catalog?
It’s hard to believe that 15 years have passed since the recording of Back from the Dead. It was a very memorable time for us, because it was the album where we stepped out of our comfort zone and decided to record at a different studio, with an outsider as an engineer – at the legendary Criteria Studios in Miami, with producer Jamie Locke. It was totally exciting, and quite nerve-wracking, trying something new like that. We were always very comfortable recording in our home town of Tampa at Morrisound Studios, but we had a blast at Criteria. Jamie was a super-cool dude and made things pretty simple for us with his professional approach and vision of what he wanted as well as what we expected, and I think that shows in the overall sound and feel of the production. Today, still, when listening back to the album, I am very proud not only of the production but the songwriting and performance.
Did you feel like you needed to change your sound at all for Back from the Dead, or was it a continuation of what you’d already been doing?
Obituary has never been a band that tries to focus on what we think fans would want from a new album, nor did we ever try too hard to change things just to change things. Back from the Dead had enough changes in what we did before, because of the approach we took to recording with a different producer in a new studio setting; that alone was the big change we agreed to and focused on. Other than that, we stuck to our game plan when it came to writing songs and recording them – which was, write songs we will be proud of and ones we want to play for ourselves. We always kept the mindset that if we liked them, we believed our fans would like them. We never allowed outside influences to creep into our brains while creating new material. We have always been that way as individuals and as a band in full – Obituary took on a life of its own, and is bigger than any one member. So as soldiers, we go with the flow and write songs we love that truly represent the Obituary style.
How many songs from Back from the Dead do you still play live, and which are your favorites?
From the minute that album was released, there have been very few shows where we do not play “Threatening Skies” and “By the Light.” They are both great live songs, and the crowd reaction is always a positive one. We used to play “Back from the Dead,” but after this many albums and songs under our belt, the real challenge when selecting our live set list is simply trying to play something off each album. Talk about an easy way to get band members arguing!
After Back from the Dead, Obituary had a long layoff, and you all pursued different projects. What did you learn during your hiatus? Do you think it made you a better band?
During the hiatus, I spent three years touring the planet, drumming for Andrew W.K., performing to a click track live, so that taught me a lot. Mainly, it taught me to be calm and relaxed no matter how pumped up I was for the magnitude of the show. It was very easy to get overexcited and get ahead of the cowbell when performing on such huge stages, on massive performances like Saturday Night Live, Conan O’Brien, and the big tours we were invited on with Aerosmith and at Ozzfest. I learned how to be patient and control my nerves as a drummer during those years, and I think that really helps me nowadays with Obituary, both live and in the studio.
How has your drumming technique changed over the years?
Like I said, the main thing I have learned as a drummer over a 25-year performing career is to keep your nerves and excitement in check and understand how to stay inside your box no matter the magnitude of the performance you’re about to do. Staying calm and not overplaying or pushing too hard is the key to better performance overall. It only took me 20 years to figure that out, and I still have to constantly remind myself of it before and during shows and studio sessions.
What’s the best and the worst shows you’ve ever played?
Wow, tough question. Probably the Dynamo Festival in 1991 I would consider the best, because it was the first huge open-air festival we ever played – 33,000 people – and I remember that we had a great performance. It was my first experience playing outside in the middle of the day in the sunshine. I’ll never forget that day. As for the worst, I’m proud to say Obituary has been very lucky with our shows, and have always been known to throw down onstage – although there have been a few forgettable performances by a couple of ex-guitarists. I’ll leave it at that.
You come from an incredibly rich Florida death metal scene that’s now over 20 years old. How do you feel about your place in that scene, and who were some of your favorite bands from that period?
Favorite bands – Savatage, Nasty Savage, Massacre, Deicide, and of course Death. The early days of the Florida metal scene were amazing, with killer bands constantly playing the Tampa Bay area. Nasty Savage and Savatage were the two main bands early on that truly influenced me and really gave me the drive to become a better drummer and focus on writing original music. Soon, the death metal scene began to take form, and bands like Death, Morbid Angel, and Atheist were right there with us, kicking ass and making names for ourselves. There was some serious music being created, and we were right in the mix, becoming one of the original Florida bands to find their sound and style and help mold the death metal scene into what it is today. Even though there was some serious competition, we never really focused on anyone but ourselves and the style we believed in. Many bands were discovering speed as the way of trying to become heavier than others, but we knew that our style was more simple, and that’s what made us stand out. Long live Slow Groove!
Back from the Dead is available now on iTunes.