JAM Magazine Main Features


Obituary: JAM Magazine Speaks With American Death Metal Drummer Don Tardy

By Mike DiQunizio
Photos Courtesy of Obituary's Facebook

Obituary is one of the original death metal bands. Their first three albums, Slowly We Rot (1989), Cause of Death (1990), and The End Complete (1992) are genre benchmarks. Their new album, Inked in Blood (2014), is a brutal addition to their stellar catalog and their best in almost a decade. Drummer Donald Tardy spoke with me before their set at Fort Worth's Rail Club about the new album, the band's beginnings, and the reason he plays metal.



JAM: Inked in Blood is a crowd - funded release. Did you have any apprehensions about doing that?

Don Tardy - Actually, we didn't know what the hell Kickstarter was! That was a year - and - a - half ago, and I don't think a lot of people on the planet really knew what it was then. So it wasn't that we were scared or apprehensive, we just had no clue! So we did some research, and we know we have a solid fan base and would raise some money, but we had no idea what to set [the minimum] at. Doing the research, we realized we should set it at a low; set it at the minimum you need to do it. Our goal was if we could raise $10,000, we could record the songs. We ended up making $10,000 the first day! In twenty - four hours we raised $10,000, and we were like "Holy shit!" (laughs).

So it was cool, man. It was monumental... and a hell of a challenge for the band once it was done when we realized we had 900 orders [to fulfill]. And we weren't allowed to send them out because we couldn't put the album in the mail too early because the first person that gets it drops it on the internet. So the record label was like "you guys have to wait, man. You gotta wait ‘til nine days before [the release date]..." So we had nine days to do 900 orders. It was CRAZY!

JAM: I read that it generated six times the amount you asked for.

It's funny, man. Kickstarter told everybody it raised $60,669 - and it did. We almost wanted to give $3 back just to keep the 666 (laughs). But what they don't tell you is that close to 200 people's credit cards didn't go through, people backed out... that kind of shit. So it only raised $40,000 - which is still incredible! It allowed us to record the album, mix it, produce it, master it, we bought the amazing artwork from our artist with the money... So we had a final product before we even had to ask for the record label's help.

JAM: Given the state of the music industry today, with artists seeing less returns for their recorded output, do you foresee this becoming the way to go?

Yeah, I would have to guess that this opened people's eyes. We didn't know any better, so we put together... it was like Disneyland for those dudes, with so many tiers: buy this drumstick, get this poster and this signed and... It was a nightmare for us, honestly, to finish it (laughs). But with that said, we realize for next time to keep it simple; don't put so many varieties of things so it drives the band members crazy but is still cool shit for the backers.

I can see us doing the next album this way. We've been a band for a long time. We're not ready for a typical contract with any record label. Relapse knew that and they really put it out there to us and made us a partner in that company. It's a good feeling because, like you said, the return for each band member that thinks you're gonna sell records and pay your rent... it just ain't gonna happen.

JAM: Inked in Blood sounds a lot grittier than most of Obituary's classic albums... there's a rawness to it. Did you consciously go in that direction?

I don't know about rawness, but it's a perfect word, now that you say that. We went in with the mindset of, you know, a lot of bands right now, especially the young ones and all the technical ones, use that modern technology. They use triggered kick drums and triggered snares and afterwards they have someone edit it perfectly together so that the drummer sounds like a machine. We said, let's go in like old school, like we did on Cause of Death (1990) and Slowly We Rot (1989). Let's go in with the confidence of knowing the songs. That's why it took as long as it did, because when we were done with the recording, we just practiced them and rehearsed them until we were 100% happy with them, and that was it! We used microphones on the drum kit and the sound of that drum room, and that's it. There's not one sound replacement on that album. And that might not be the most proper way to record, but it's Obituary, man! I mean, it's death metal!

JAM: The drums are way up in the mix on this one, too. Very up - front and in - your - face.

I guess so, but when you listen to it on a couple of different systems or headphones or someone else's car, you'll see that the guitars are definitely not buried. But I think drums on Obituary albums are always pretty loud because it's always me in the studio for the 15 - hour days. I'm in there every second because I love it. A lot of guitar players, after two hours of listening to the same one minute of a song will get tired of it and are ready to go home. So maybe that's why. And Mark Prater, who is our engineer, is also a killer drummer, so having two drummers in the room, you're gonna get a drum mix.

It's a weird production, I'll admit. It's killer, but it's just different. It's different sounding than what people are putting out there because again, if you listen to all these new Cannibal [Corpse]s and new Lamb of Gods, it's all so processed - it sounds perfect. But to me it just loses fuckin' heartbeat and vibe and bloodflow, you know?

JAM: How do you feel Inked in Blood stands up next to your classic releases?

Well, fans don't wanna hear it but it's by far the best songwriting we've ever done. I understand that fans love Slowly [We Rot], they love Cause of Death, but a band is only as good as their last song written. We're proud of this album. It's a monster, dude. I could not be more proud. I'm terrified to write another one! (laughs)

JAM: Inked in Blood also marks the debut of Kenny Andrews on guitar and death metal - veteran Terry Butler on bass. How did they come to be part of Obituary?

Terry's been a friend for 30 years. It's unbelievable - we've been friends with him forever. Trevor [Peres], when he first moved to Tampa in like 1979 or '80 as a child, the first person he met when he went to school was [Terry] Butler's sister in homeroom. That's how long he's known - and how long we've known - Butler, so it was an easy transition. He probably would have been in the band back in the day, but he was already doing Massacre and Death and shit.

With Kenny, man, he's just been a friend for a long time. I got him a gig with Andrew W.K. when I was playing with him, so he was playing guitar with Andrew and we just became best of friends. He's just a super - cool dude. He and Terry are both really nice, intelligent, kind people... and professionals.

And that's how it happened.

JAM: How did their additions shape the writing of the new material? Was it already done by the time they joined?

It was pretty much done, but we knew we wanted to go back and tweak the songs. Maybe some were too long, get rid of that last verse, etc. Terry is great at that because he's been in this for a long time. And Ken's imagination and creativity on his solos and harmonies that he brought, he would show Trevor and Trevor would be like "that's killer, dude! Do something like that".

I would usually be the one engineering, sitting behind the computer and the one that did it, so Ken and I worked on his solos a lot and it was really fun. It took the nerves away from him. He was nervous because he knew the boots he was trying to fill, you know. James Murphy - [Cause of Death]'s a classic album - and of course Allen West. He took it seriously and really threw down. He did a great job!

JAM: The deluxe edition of Inked in Blood contains re - recorded versions of "Intoxicated" and "BloodSoaked", both of which originally appear on Slowly We Rot (1989). What was the thinking behind this?

That is an awesome project that's going on right now. We went into Morrissound with a six - camera crew, played songs off the first three albums, and filmed it. So we had Jim Morris, one of the Morris brothers, engineer it for us and we just captured what Morrissound is, what Tampa is... I mean, not just the performance and listening to us play the songs, but it's gonna turn into Obituary's Florida - death metal history of Morrissound Recording. We're working now, just interviewing all our friends from the past, the band members from all the bands that everybody knows from those days, and just getting their take on what their band was like in the 80s and 90s and we're gonna document it. We're not in a hurry - it's a huge project, so sometime next year we'll probably be ready with that thing, so that's where those two songs came from.

Those were never heard before. We pulled two of them. If you can tell, they're very dry - we didn't mix them. They're live. We did it completely improperly in the studio. Usually, you put the Drummer in a booth, hide the guitars, wear headphones... But we knew we were gonna do it improperly. In fact, we invited like 50 people, including Steve from Deicide, Jack Owen from Cannibal Corpse, John Oliva from Savatage... just all our good friends from the past. So they all watched us and sat in the room with us. John Oliva sat in the booth and watched from there. John's been a friend of ours for a long time, but I know he's not an Obituary fan. Like, he's just familiar, so his expressions and comments were so awesome. The first thing he said gave me goosebumps: he said , "That drummer's not paid enough!" (laughs)

JAM: You pretty much answered my next question, I think... With your 30th anniversary not too far away, is this going to commemorate 30 years of Obituary?

It is, it is. And you know, we're having a blast with Ken and Terry in the band. We're best of friends now, solid, professional, organized, and we're just kicking ass on stage, man. Ken really brought a new fire to us because he's so excited about being in a band that means something. He's been in metal bands in Florida for a long time, but nothing ever hit for him. So now he's super - stoked and he brings that energy to us, too.

JAM: Death metal is dark and unapologetic by nature, and by association, so is Obituary. I promise I'm not trying to start any controversy with this question, but when the Inked in Blood cover art was unveiled, ISIS had just beheaded their first American hostage. Was there ever any worry that maybe this might be a little too much?

Oh, yeah! The reality is that Andreas [Marschall] was working on that for half a year or almost a year, so there was none of that in the news yet. I never would have done an album cover like that with what's going on now. In fact, in Germany they put a film over the front cover for when you buy it in the stores, which I'm cool with. We're not evil people. We know it's pretty graphic, but we're also realists. The world is fucked.
This is nothing, in my opinion, because it's an album cover; it's artwork. If it was the cover of a book and it was a great story but it was scary, people would understand. But of course, being a death metal band, they probably take offense to it. But when it comes to writing and creating - like if a book came out that was gory - you'd need a gory cover. People can relate to that. Or if it's a movie, people say "it's just a movie. It's just Dawn of the Dead. They're not really biting people's faces off", you know? Like Walking Dead; it's graphic and killer and awesome, but it's fiction! It's just a piece of artwork.
To answer your question though, yeah it bummed us out a lot. It really bummed us out when we saw what shit was happening because it happened to real people and real families have to deal with it. But again, that was being drawn way before that shit started happening so there's not much we can do about it.

JAM: I remember hearing Obituary for the first time back in the Z - ROCK days, and I was terrified. Since Death Metal was a relatively new thing at the time, what inspired you guys to create Slowly We Rot (1989)?

We started like anyone, you know... We were just a band that heard our favorite bands. Being in Tampa, we were lucky because I'd be riding my bicycle around the neighborhood and was able to pull into someone's backyard and listen to a band like Savatage practicing in their garage. I would go on a weekly basis and hide at Ben Meyer's house from Nasty Savage and listen to Nasty Savage rehearsals. So immediately I was like, I know I can play drums, and we were already trying to play Metallica covers and stuff, but John [Tardy]'s voice was stupid and we didn't really know what we were doing yet. In fact, John was just a replacement singer. He said "until you guys find someone real, I'll try to sing." 30 years later and we never found another singer! (laughs)

But to answer your question, it just went from stupid music - like Metallica meets typical 80s thrash metal - to an immediate change. John found that crazy voice and Trevor and I just started playing that double - bass fuckin' shredding shit. And of course, hearing Possessed and Venom and Celtic Frost... that didn't hurt things. And when Slayer enters your life... (laughs)

JAM: Speaking of John, how did that voice originate?

Like I said, it started out as just him singing... like, we used to play [Metallica's] "No Remorse" and Slayer's "Die By the Sword" and Nasty Savage tunes, so he had the typical "dude - trying - to - sing - in - a - band" voice. It was terrible! It was awful. It was embarrassingly bad. Then, like, overnight... he just did it. And we never looked back. We never played a cover tune again. We started writing our own shit and our friends were like, "Dude! Fuck Slayer tunes, man! Write another one!"

So it was overnight, man. The minute John found his voice, I was like "dude, this is gonna be sick!"

JAM: There have been some rumors about OBITUARY that I have heard over the years... Is it true that John sometimes didn't actually write any lyrics, but growled incoherently instead?

Oh, yeah! When he was young... Again, he wasn't a singer. He just said "until you guys find someone, I'll try it." So Trevor and I immediately started bustin' out song after song. That Slowly [We Rot] album, man... we wrote "Til Death" and "Internal Bleeding", like... fast. They were immediate. And John's not a lyricist, so he just wanted to go for it and he found this killer voice of his, but he wasn't very confident at all writing full songs. So he did, he had his own language.

It was funny because he would be like "AGGHHGGBRRR..." but he has no idea what he's saying. But when we started touring, even though he did not have lyrics with real words and phrases, he would still do that same exact thing every night, over and over again. It was the same syllables. That's why I started saying "Damn, you've got your own language, dude!"

JAM: I also heard when I was in high school - and I'm sure this isn't true - that John had an operation on his throat to make it sound that way.

Absolutely not. I've never heard that one, but I can tell you absolutely not.

JAM: Are there any crazy rumors you've heard about the band over the years?

Not really, man. But I like rumors. Rumors are good.  Rumors are funny as hell, but nothing, no. We have a back like a duck, man. We let that shit roll right off. Especially nowadays with social networking where every fan has an opinion and they're learning that if you say "oh, I love that band", that's one thing. But if you say something mean and rude, you get like 55 different replies. And people get a big kick out of that, so you do it on purpose. As a band member, you just realize, "you know what? That dude's only intention was to go and raise a stink." That's why we don't worry about rumors and shit like that. But I love when weird shit pops up and people start making up stuff.

JAM: There has been a lot of talk about the Big 4 of thrash metal, but as a veteran of the genre, who would you consider to be the Big 4 of Death Metal? ... and obviously I would include Obituary as one of them.

Yeah, I would too. I mean, it's gotta be all Florida bands. Morbid Angel made a stink early on... Deicide, of course. Glenn [Benton] is still killer live. And I would have said Death because Chuck [Schuldiner] was the originator, you know. But because Chuck's not on the planet anymore - and even though they're not from Tampa - Cannibal Corpse is a monster and if there was a tour that would have to go out, that would be the Big 4. It would be a sick tour.

JAM: OK, last question, and I need you to think long and hard about this: Priest or Maiden?

(without hesitation) God, Priest. I mean, I love Maiden, especially when I was young, but I'm not a Bruce Dickinson dude. I'm a Paul Di'Anno [dude]. I appreciated Bruce, and of course those albums are fuckin' killer, but it's not my shit anymore.

Now, Priest... Rob Halford is fuckin' unbelievable.  When we warm up and get ready for a show, we'll always have the ipod and everyone trades out playing songs and Butler's like "let me play a song", and he'll always grab one of them old Priest songs... maybe an album that I don't own, so I barely ever get to hear ‘em, and I'm always like, "DUDE! That is fuckin'... No wonder we all wanted to play metal!"