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.
How would you characterize Chuck as a person?
Chuck was always thinking one step ahead of his contemporaries, and therefore, all of his records were a progression. And he was quite a complex character on top of that. Chuck mellow a great percentage of the time, but he would then sort of explode in rage over something that could be rather small. So working with him was a joy except for those rare moments when he would blast off. That made working with him very interesting to say the least. But we were essentially friends.
How would you characterize his sense of humor? Some of that seems to come through a bit in the music, too.
We were really always really funny with each other. He always had a wacky, random sense of humor, and that made touring a lot of fun, for example. I was one of these managers -- or I really should say he was one of these artists who needed a manager with him 24/7, so I went out on the road, as well.
What do you feel Chuck brought to heavy metal that hadn't existed before. You mentioned that no one sang quite like him, but is there anything else you would say made what he did unique and special?
On the one hand, he became rather progressive in that every record was a progression from the one before it. But more than that, he had simplicity, really, in the song structure that made it almost pop-like. Paul Masvidal, who played on the Human record, mentioned to me his belief that "Pull the Plug" was death metal's first pop song and that it was very verse-chorus-verse-chorus kind of set-up that makes for a sing-along quality.
So Death were, above all, catchy, among other things. The songs were all very catchy, even if they were complicated. I think that characterizes the Death sound from Scream Bloody Gore to The Sound of Perseverance. There's a catchiness to the material, which is probably why it's just continued to grow after his death, to the point where Death is more popular now than ever.
Barney Greenway of Napalm Death has often said that he feels Napalm Death has essentially catchy songs except that the music is nothing like what you'd hear in a Top 40 hit.
No, of course not. Within the realm of extreme music, Death is very identifiable, and Chuck brought that pop sensibility to extreme music. That's quite interesting to analyze.
Do you have any favorite Death albums?
I think my favorite Death album is probably Spiritual Healing. The reason I like that so much is that it's right dead center in the middle of going from the more brutal to the more progressive. When I look at the entire career, and the fact that I mentioned that each record is a progression from the one before it, I think that Spiritual Healing was right on the cusp of going completely progressive with Human.
So it has the brutality of the first two records, but it also has the more progressive, technical aspect to it, which I think makes it the perfect album. Not to mention that it's the only record I co-produced. But it's more than just that; it's the songs as well and where Chuck was at as an artist. I like that period. I do have favorite songs on each record.
What are a couple of your favorite songs from Human?
I like "Suicide Machine," both lyrically and musically. And I also like "Lack of Comprehension" because we worked on it so closely, as it was the first time we ever did a video for MTV. With "Suicide Machine," I think I liked the lyrics and the whole Kevorkian story and "Lack of Comprehension" because of the way Steve DiGiorgio's bass worked with Chuck's riff. I think right from the opening bar it's an awesome song. Continue reading for more from Eric Greif.
For this current tour, there's a specific line-up in place to play those first four Death albums. What made this line-up important in terms of Death's sound and catalog?
Last June, of course, we tried Death to All for the very first time as a sort of experiment, and we gathered together seven of the former members of the band. It was a lot of fun and it was highly successful, but it was a circus because we had two buses and whole entourage of musicians, and it made it almost a one-off affair that we wouldn't be able to duplicate.
So this time around, the agent and I were brainstorming, and we decided we would pare it down and because of that, we would limit the period of the band, as far as the material that they would play. When we started working with Paul [Masvidal], Sean [Reinert] and Steve [DiGiorgio], who played on the Human, it became obvious that the focus would be on the first four records culminating with Human.
Why Human instead of Spiritual Healing, because that seems like the end of a period in Chuck's songwriting?
Only because of the line-up. Steve, and Sean and Paul played on the Human record, and it seemed logical because they had played those songs live on tour back in the old days that they would be able to focus on those first four records because those were the records that were played on the Human tour. It also gave fans a chance to hear more of the songs from the Human album played by the guys that actually recorded it. So that was where the whole idea of DTA1 was born, just focusing on the first four Death albums with a smaller line-up.
DTA2 is going to be the final few albums?
I think they've rebelled against the idea of just doing the last three and doing some of the early songs, as well. But the idea, at least on paper, that that line-up would focus on the albums that they had played on. Then they pointed out to me that they of course had to play the entire catalog.
So I had to compromise and say, "Of course, when you go out, you can play whatever you want." But I'm actually going on the road with DTA2 immediately following DTA1 and we go to Europe. So as soon as I get home from being on the road with that bunch of guys, then I'm going to hang out with Gene Hoglan and the other bunch. A couple of days later, I fly to the Netherlands so that's going to be quite a bit of fun.
Why was this a good time for the tour and why benefit Sweet Relief?
From the time the proposal was made to me to endorse this kind of thing, which I had originally rejected, because I didn't want anyone to feel I was exploiting Chuck and Chuck's memory and anything, so we were very delicate in the way we were wanting to put it together -- that is the Schuldiner family and me.
When we finally reached the conclusion that it was actually a good thing to do, the question of what charity we would support came up, and my first reaction was Sweet Relief as this was a charity that had helped Chuck back when Chuck was having to spend his fortune on medical bills.
Despite the fact that I'm a Canadian and live in Canada, I thought it was a worthy cause to be supporting American musicians who get sick without the benefit of health insurance. Of course up here you don't have those worries. The idea that there was a charity out there that would benefit musicians who become ill or are stricken with an accident and don't have the money to pay, I thought it was the perfect charity to assist.
We went to them and said, "Look, can you give us posters and banners and handouts so we can raise awareness as much as we can in every avenue." So we advertize for Sweet Relief on our albums and on our websites and social media. Hopefully people will at least learn something about the charity.
What made this a good time for those Death tours to happen?
Purely by happenstance. As soon as it looked like there was an availability of anybody, I'm actually the lawyer for the band Cynic, so I knew what their schedule was like and I knew that Steve DiGiorgio had some free time, so it came together naturally. It wasn't like one of us said, "Hey, let's do DTA! It's time to do it!" or something like that. It was coming together and having casual conversations and that turned into something a little more solid.
I never actually thought there would be another DTA, frankly, after watching and participating last June and seeing how difficult it was to get everybody together. I didn't really think it was possible to even do it again. But the outpouring of love for the thing from fans was just phenomenal. So that really drove it to make it happen again. It'll be fun because I went on the Human tour and this is basically the Human guys, so it'll be sort of a déja vu.