Interview: Saint Vitus
Stick to what you feel is right, don't let other people influence you and don't let people walk on you and bully you into something that you don't think is right. Some people say that that's good, that's the reason for the success we've had. Other people say, well that's your downfall. That's why you're not a big star, because you refused to do this and that. And I'm like, well, if I want to be a prostitute, I’ll stand on the fucking corner.
Much like anyone who gets the ‘Godfathers of…’ title routinely attached to their names, Saint Vitus are a band who need little introduction. They are true trailblazers, a motley crew who took Sabbath’s blueprint, married it to punk ethos and grit and created some of the greatest doom albums that the world has ever seen. This should be enough to take most bands cosily into retirement but even after 40 years, the Saints keep marching on. Following the (re)departure of Wino from vocal duties, a few chance opportunities and the willingness to keep pushing on has reunited them with original frontman Scott Reagers and led to the recording of a new, self-titled and utterly essential album. We spoke to band founder Dave Chandler prior to their European tour to dredge up ancient history and to peer into the future of the band.
E&D: 40 fuckin’ years, man! So how do you feel about it? You have the 40th anniversary shows, the album’s out – how’s that looking for you?
Dave: Everything is falling into place. It’s been 40 years since we did our very first live show so yeah, it’s going to be interesting. Unfortunately the new record won’t be available to have in your hand until after the tour but we’re going to be playing a lot of songs off of it.
E&D: What do you remember from that very first show?
Dave: That was actually very interesting because we got added onto this show as our original drummer, Armando (Acosta), was friends with Don Dokken. He was doing a Dokken show way before he was famous at a small club where we lived and we wanted to do a show because we were friends. He put us on the bill and we opened up the show.
E&D: It seems to have been a pattern for you playing quite strange shows because, being on SST, you mainly played to punk crowds for a while. Does that help thicken your skin a little?
Dave: Oh yeah, it definitely does. At the beginning, the people who liked heavy metal did not like us at all and then when we got with Black Flag, of course, the punks hated us, but they put us out in front of them to do what you just said, to toughen our skin. And it worked very well because now, if we get a hostile crowd here or there, we’ve had worse than they’re gonna do now.
E&D: Do you consider yourselves a punk band?
Dave: I wouldn’t exactly say that. I would call us a metal band but we do have more of a punk rock ethic than mostly everybody else out there because we grew up in that little environment. We have a more, not really ‘do it yourself’ thing, but a more ‘don’t screw with me’ thing.
E&D: I think the main thing about the new album for many people is that it’s the first thing you’ve done with Scotty for a long time, at least recording-wise. How did that come about?
Dave: It was right around when Wino got arrested, which was like five years ago, so it would’ve been 2014. We had some stuff lined up for big festivals lined up and we needed to do something. That’s when we asked Scotty to do it, but we weren’t really sure if he was going to stick around or not ‘cause he’s got a big family and kids to support and stuff. So that’s actually when he came back and yet he wanted to do more. At that time we weren’t even sure if we were going to do a record with him or not, because it was basically just to get through this stuff but he stuck around, so that’s good.
E&D: How was it working with him again? The last thing was Die Healing, and it was a different line-up as well for that, so does it feel like a different atmosphere or dynamic now?
Dave: Not really, not between him and myself because we worked together for so long. It is a different feeling and dynamic as compared to Wino because they’re completely different personalities and completely different singing styles. Other than that, it just kind of slipped back in very easy, especially on the older songs that Scotty did, like ‘Burial At Sea’. It feels a lot more comfortable with Scotty singing than with Wino. No offence to Wino, but you know what I mean.
E&D: No, that’s completely understandable. His voice on the new could record is fantastic. It feels to have a lot more power behind it. How did you feel hearing his voice again?
Dave: Yeah, it’s great. ‘12 Years in the Tomb’ is one of his more aggressive songs, but on the actual record itself, he’s got the typical Scotty ones and there’s a real mellow one where he can actually shows he can sing, but Scotty always does good. He’s a phenomenal singer rather than a vocalist – he’s an actual singer.
E&D: Did you feel that he changed much in terms of his actual ability?
Dave: No, not at all. That was the great thing. He didn’t lose anything. The first time right after the Wino thing, when he came back to do the festivals, a lot of people weren’t sure if Wino was going to be there or not because it’d already been booked. When they find out that Scotty was gonna be there they were wondering, did he still have it? And man, on the old songs, he sounds just like the record. So he hasn’t lost anything. He blows people’s minds. It’s effortless to him.
E&D: So how did things work out with the writing for this record? How long have these songs been germinating?
Dave: Well, actually the writing for this record took a long time because I just had writer’s block or something. It just took me a while to get it going. But a lot of the songs, we haven’t been playing very long – a lot of them were learned right before we went to record them. There’s only one that’s ever been played live in front of anybody, even at rehearsal, so it’s going to be interesting when we pop out these new ones. It’s a bit more of an upbeat album too, rather than a slow dirge-y one. I would say Lillie is a slow dirge-y one, this one’s a bit more upbeat, a little bit more like Hallow’s Victim.
E&D: I think one of the most striking ones on it is ‘Useless’. It really comes out of nowhere at the end.
Dave: I think that’s mine and my wife’s favourite song. I wanted to do that because that’s our roots and there’s a lot of things over here that I see on TV all the time, people protesting over the stupidest fucking shit ever. Come on, there’s all this fucked up shit going on and you’re going to cry about that? You’re useless. And so I started thinking about it and that’s kinda how that song came about.
E&D: So what prompted you to close the album with it? Was it just a final ‘Fuck You’?
Dave: Kind of… I always try to do a concept. This one really isn’t a direct concept but the songs kind of tie together a little bit. I’ve always been the one who says that if you bitch and scream at people, it’s like talking to the fucking wall. It’s useless. So when I was placing the songs, I thought, “Useless is going to be last of course, of course it’d be last!” People are gonna think the album’s done after the slow one and all of a sudden that comes in and they’re like, “What the fuck was that?”
E&D: Yeah, I hope you close the shows with it as well, that would screw with a few people.
Dave: I think people would dig it though as everybody likes when we play the song ‘Hallow’s Victim’ and that’s super-fast, so those are going to be like cohorts in crime on the tour.
E&D: I’ve heard you say a few times that back when things had fallen through in ‘95 after Die Healing, you felt that no one really give much of a shit with what was happening. So how do you feel about the amount of hype and love that you’ve gotten since you came back?
Dave: When that happened in ‘95 no one cared. It was like pissing in the ocean. Literally. No press, no nothing. But apparently during all that lapse in time, the doom metal genre came to light. And so when we decided to do a couple of things, we were like, whoa! It makes you feel really good because people are saying that we helped start it. It makes me feel uncomfortable when people say I’m a legend – no, a real legend is Tony Iommi, not me, dumb ass. It does give you kind of a nice feeling to know that you actually did something that you wanted to do rather than feeling that we didn’t do fucking shit. We actually did do something, so that’s really fucking cool. And I like seeing young kids, parents bring their kids to the show. I really like that a lot. I think that’s nice.
Dave: Yeah, and I think that’s like a really cool thing. If I was a parent, I would like my kids to listen to what I listen to, let them make the choice if they liked it or not. Then if they wanted to go see somebody, I would take them if it was an all-ages show. We try to do all ages shows kind of for that very reason.
E&D: With the time that you’ve been going, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
Dave: Hmm. That’s a tough question. I guess the most important thing that I’ve learned is that you really need to like stick to what you believe because once you start compromising, that’s when you get fucked. Because I broke my rule of sticking to what I believe a couple of times over the 40 years and those couple of times I did, it turned out very bad. So just stick to what you feel is right, don’t let other people influence you and don’t let people walk on you and bully you into something that you don’t think is right. Some people say that that’s good, that’s the reason for the success we’ve had. Other people say, well that’s your downfall. That’s why you’re not a big star because you refused to do this and that. And I’m like, well, if I want to be a prostitute, I’ll stand on the fucking corner.
E&D: You’ve lived in New Orleans now for a good while, right?
Dave: Yeah, since 2005.
E&D: Yeah, that was just before Katrina. So how has New Orleans changed?
Dave: I can’t really say too much about how it was before Katrina because I was only here a few months, but just since Katrina, it’s kind of gotten a lot worse. We’ve got a lot more violence and I don’t think the music scene is nearly what it was like, especially pre-Katrina it was way better than it is now. It’s kind of weird out here now. All a lot of the people who have lived here a long time are saying the same kind of thing – it’s still great, but there’s something wrong about it, you know? Like, this year at Mardi Gras, everybody stayed home. All the people I know, no one went out. Everyone stayed home. They were like, “no, it’s too weird. We’re just going to stay home.” I think for music and stuff, I don’t think the scene has changed very much. I think the metal scene is not what it was. It seems to not be as popular as it was in 2005.
E&D: I think over here we’ve always viewed New Orleans as being doom heaven, essentially.
Dave: It’s like any other places that’s like a famous place. You hear one thing, but when you live here it’s completely different. You know, it is really cool. Depending on where you live, it’s really nice and because it’s New Orleans, there’s all kinds of weird stuff to do. But once you live here for a long time it becomes like any other place that you live and you start noticing the cracks in shining armour.
E&D There are so many great musicians in NOLA, like Patrick (Bruders) is from around there. Do you get a chance to jam much with anyone?
Dave: Not really. When I’m writing a record or getting ready to tour, I put everything into it and then when I’m done I don’t even listen to music. I don’t even bother with it. What I’ll do is go out to see some friends play, but I won’t really jam with anybody or anything like that, though there was a friend of mine who had a birthday party that we resurrected a pseudo version of Debris Inc. for. Now that was a lot of fun, but we haven’t really done much stuff like that. The other guys do – like, Pat plays with 10 different people – but I’m the guy who comes over and watches wrestling on TV and waits for the next time that I got to do the music.
E&D: What with internet culture now, you guys are more in the public eye now, especially compared to in ‘95 when you were getting no press. Do you feel a bit exposed?
Dave: I don’t know if I would call it exposed, but it is weird. The fact that people want to talk like we’re talking now – that never happened back then. But it is nice to know that people are interested and they want to know what’s going on. In New Orleans, every so often I’ll be out somewhere and someone will recognise me and want to take my picture or something. I work in a store that gets a lot of tourist trade, so once in a while a tourist will come in and ask, “Are you…” and I’m like, yeah, why? “Oh my god, can I take a picture?!” Yeah, sure. Whatever. So that’s nice. You know, I like that, everybody likes that. Everyone who tries to be an egotistical maniac, which is every entertainer in the world, likes that stuff.
E&D: On the new album you’re working with Tony Reed again. Was that a very natural decision for you after working with him on Lillie.
Dave: Yeah, we definitely wanted to work with him again because he did such a great job on Lillie. At the time we told him, we don’t know if we’re going to do another record or not, but if we do we want to work with you. He’s been a friend of ours anyway’ cause Mos Generator has toured with Vitus and we’ve known Tony for years so yeah, it was very easy. We’re going to do a record, let’s call Tony! We didn’t really have to even think about it.
E&D: What is his style of working? Does it gel quite well with your own approach?
Dave: He’s in the same vein, so me and him get on great; most people don’t get along with me when I’m working and writing. So yeah, it’s a perfect match. It’s very smooth. There’s very little having to stop and do something again.
E&D: How did you want this album to sound? Like you said, it sounds more upbeat but it feels a more aggressive album than Lillie. Is that just a symbol of the times?
Dave: Well me, I wanted it to be really aggressive because there’s a lot of anger on this record, every song has got some kind of an anger issue in it. I’m not going to nit-pick the songs ‘cause I don’t want to name names and stuff, but a lot of it has a lot of angst. So I was like, these are the feelings that I have and I want this fucking record to be like punching people in the head because if I’m aggressive on it, I want it to sound aggressive, and Tony, he really did that. So when I turn it up really loud in the house, it’s like wow!
E&D: Do you think Scotty a good job in getting that emotion across? You’d always said that Wino was more your go-to guy for the aggressive side, so how do you think Scotty coped?
Dave: One of the exceptional things about him is he does the song the way the song is. If you listen to the song ‘Hourglass’, he’s singing that and if you listen to ‘12 Years in the Tomb’ there’s this kind of double tracking on the vocals where you can hearing him singing it and then doing it the other way, so he knows exactly how to gauge himself on how the song is. I told him, “I want most of these songs to be really fucking pissed off, like I’ve been” and he goes, “no problem.”
E&D: I asked about Scotty developing as a singer, but what about you as a guitarist? How long did it take you to find that sound that was your own?
Dave: Well, the sound that everybody claims to be the ‘Vitus sound’ was just because I wanted to have a real low down sound to the band. So that’s how I set my amps and how I found my distortion pedals but the actual way that I play is all just learning by doing. Before we record an album, I don’t really rehearse an exact lead, I just know it’s to be in a certain key. Other than that, every time we play it’s different. That’s what I do. It kind of drives the guys crazy. That’s kind of the way that I’ve always progressed with writing wise. Like when I was taking guitar lessons as a kid, I showed the guy all these Sabbath songs I knew how to play and he said if that’s the stuff I want to play then I should just keep practising that. So I just took his advice and did that.
E&D: I mean, given that you’re working on most of the writing yourself, how does that make it on the rest of the guys? Are you still giving them enough room for working on their own parts?
Dave: Well, it’s always been because I’m a prick and an asshole and want things my way because I started the whole thing. Pat wrote the music to ‘Wormhole’, Henry wrote all of ‘Hourglass’ – I’m not against that, it’s just that Saint Vitus has always been a certain way and it’s always going to stay a certain way. The only problem that it really comes up with is when people like record companies add pressure and need a new album. This one took a long time to write because I really wasn’t feeling it for a while. It was one song at a time so that you know that put pressure on me, but I’m not going to be lazy and go, okay, I’m just going to write the two songs I have, then let everyone else do it. Because then the album isn’t going to sound like Saint Vitus; not to be egotistical, but that’s actually the truth.
E&D: How did you work through it? Is it just a matter of persevering?
Dave: Yeah. I just would like not do anything for a long time and maybe just run stuff through my head. And sometimes with me, if I’m working on one and something doesn’t work with it, I’ll put that aside and maybe that can become another one, and that actually happened a couple of times on this record because I was recording everything. It was a bit tricky this time but I think it came out not bad.