When the phone rings at 7 am in Perth, Western Australia, I'm only barely functioning; on the other end of the line Frank Watkins, best known as bassist for legendary death metal band Obituary, is bright and cheery at 7 pm at his home in Florida. He’s sympathetic to my bleariness however. ‘I have children and they get up real early, so I'm used to that’, he said.
Obituary have had a real renaissance in the last couple of years. Although re-forming in 2003 to record Frozen In Time, it seems to be only in the last couple of years that the band has started to get some momentum going - with Xecutioner's Return in 2007, the Left To Die EP in 2008, and now Darkest Day in 2009, as well as a whole stack of tours and an upcoming live DVD. Frank agrees.
‘In 2004 we started really discussing the actual fact of us playing shows, and touring and doing festivals and stuff like that... but we had some issues with our guitarist Allen [West], and that just kinda bogged things down for us for a bit. But once he got out of the picture, we felt like a new resurgence had come out.’
I mention that I saw Obituary play in Perth in 2007 without a lead guitarist at all. I assumed it would have been a tough tour, but Frank explains it was to the contrary.
‘Actually, we had a blast. I think those were some of the heaviest shows we've ever done. The whole time we were playing with Allen, from the re-formation, he was messing up on things, he was drunk, I mean he was just a mess. And he couldn't play some of the parts - and these were parts that he wrote - and it was just getting to a point where we were almost embarrassed some of the time when we'd play shows.’
The situation came to a head when just before the (already-booked) Australian tour, Allen West was imprisoned for driving under the influence.
‘We were a little nervous - we didn't want to cancel, we'd never been to Australia at that point, ever, and we just said you know what? Let's get back into the garage and see how we sound as a four-piece.’
The results were surprising – even to the point where the band, amazed at how tight they sounded, and with the freedom to play songs that West had been unable to pull off, considered staying a four piece.
‘I think it turned out amazing. We were a little concerned prior to us practising as a four-piece, but once we did the first show, which I think was in Sydney, it just all trickled off from there, and I think we just kicked ass the whole time. We had a great time.’
After that tour, Obituary headed home and engaged the services of Ralph Santolla of Deicide. Ralph has a very distinctive style, which comes through on all the recordings he as done with the band, but at the same time, he seems to really fit into the classic Obituary sound. Frank has nothing but praise for his fellow Floridian.
‘He's been like really a godsend for us, actually. I mean, when we got back from Australia we were just finished recording Xecutioner's Return. We basically were in the studio thinking “well what are we going to do? The album sounds great, everything's put together, but there's no leads on it”.’
Frank explains that they were trying to get more of an old-school feel, back to their Cause Of Death-era sound.
‘With the last album beforehand, Frozen In Time, Allen was just so messed up he couldn't really do any leads on the record, and we didn't want that kind of record... we were trying to get Allen to push the envelope on it and he just wasn't cutting it.’
The band found Santolla pretty much by accident.
‘We knew Ralph from the area, Tampa, and he just happened to be in the area at the studio we were recording at, and were like “hey, you wanna try some leads on the album, see what it sounds like?” And I mean from the moment he plugged into the system, he just blew us away.’
Live shows were the next step.
‘At the time he was playing with Deicide, but he was like "you know what, I get along with you guys really well, let's try a couple of shows”. We never really said anything, we just kept playing shows, kept playing festivals, we kept doing gigs, and then it was almost like two and a half years later and he's still doing stuff with us. I consider him a full-time member of that band, and he's helped us get to the point where we are today, where I think we're tighter than the band's ever been, we put on way hell of a better show these days because of his lead guitar playing. He adds a lot of melodies to our songs, and we're really happy that he can help us keep the train rolling with Obituary.’
Obituary’s latest album Darkest Day was released very recently, and Soundscan reports show that early sales are good, by death metal standards. I wondered how much importance the band places on album sales, compared to tickets and merchandise. Is it less important than it used to be?
‘You know, it's always important because the more we sell the more money we make, and we're older guys now, we have families and kids, and it’s hard to hold a job and be a musician in a full time working band. So I mean it is important to us, but at the same time we don't get discouraged if we don't sell many tickets at a show or we don't sell a lot of records. It's not really that big of a concern, we still have the music in our hearts, and what we're really trying to do is just make the most brutal music that we possibly can. We don't wanna step back and say "well maybe if we let up a little bit on the vocals, maybe we'd sell more records, maybe if John [Tardy] was a little more legible, we'd sell more records" - that's the last thing we think about. We just pretty much go for as evil and as brutal as possible, and if people buy it, great, but if people don't buy it, then we're still happy, because really the only person we're trying to please is ourselves.’
That’s a thought process I would hate to see carried through - John's vocals are the reason why Obituary sounds different from pretty much every other band out there.
‘Yeah. Definitely, definitely. And I mean we've had record labels tell us in the past, “you know maybe if you lightened up on the vocals, and tried to do just a little bit more sing-along kinda stuff, where people can understand what you're singing” - but then we're like “yeah but then that's not Obituary, that's not gonna be where we're at, and if it takes us to do that to sell more records and make more money then it's just not going to happen”. We basically stick to our same formula, every time we write a record or put something together we just try to make it heavier, and more brutal than the last one. When the record sales come up, they are what they are. I can't really dictate how many sales we're gonna make, and how much tickets we're gonna sell, but we definitely want to be out there and doing what we do, and we're happy, and I think that's the most important thing.’
I mention that I had the pleasure of seeing the band play the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany in 2008, where Frank and John had some wardrobe issues. Frank laughingly recalls the incident.
‘We did a show in Finland the night before, and we didn't get back to our hotel room til like 3 o'clock in the morning and we had to catch a flight at like 6am, so nobody got any sleep. We got on a plane, flew to Hamburg, and as soon as we landed in Hamburg, me and John Tardy, our luggage was missing. It was a big fiasco, we had to drive all the way out to the Wacken festival, which is about a two-hour drive from Hamburg. By the time we showed up at Wacken it was like “ok now you guys gotta go on stage”. We had like nothing, I was wearing flip-flops - you know, we're Florida guys, we dress really casual - we had to stop at a truck store to get like shoes, it was tough! But it was pretty funny.’
The show went well, however...
‘We had a great time, I thought we fucking played amazing, and it sounded really good. It kinda sucked because we were playing identically the same time as Hatebreed were playing, and in between our songs I could hear them playing, and they kinda told us the same thing, when they'd stop a song they'd hear us playing. To me it's kinda like, kids are gonna wanna see both those bands, they're kinda torn between who they're gonna see, and that was a little disappointing. But we always have a good time at Wacken.’
I had that exact problem – I watched Obituary while my partner checked out Hatebreed. I suggest it's a fact of life with big festivals.
‘Yeah, to me if I was a fan, I'd be like “well where am I gonna go?” Cos I love both bands. It was really cool too because at the end of the night we ended up hanging out with Hatebreed and they played us for the first time a cover song they did of Obituary, I'm in Pain. It was pretty cool to hear that, they were like “hey listen to this, we just recorded one of your songs”. We had a great time that night.‘
As I mentioned earlier, Obituary have a live DVD coming out soon. It was recorded at Party.San in Germany - but not for the stated purpose of a live DVD. That happened afterwards.
‘One of the last festivals we did in Europe, the Party.San festival in Germany - we headlined, and I thought we did an amazing show, I was just blown away by the performance that we did. It was even to the point where our crew members that were with us were like "man, this is the best show you guys did on the whole tour” and everyone was really psyched about the show we did, and they just happened to film it. Regain Records were actually the people in charge of putting on that festival and putting everything together, and they were like “you know what? This show came out so good we want to put it to a DVD” - and we immediately agreed. We're totally about showing people what we're about live, as in different situations. We did a DVD before that was like in a club setting, and this one was gonna be like in a big festival. I just saw the final cuts of it a couple of weeks ago and it looked really bad-ass.’
The good news for fans who are itching to see Obituary is that the band’s plans for the rest of the year involve touring. Lots of touring.
‘Yeah we're doing a few festivals next week, we're leaving to Finland, we're playing Estonia for the first time, we're playing a couple of shows in Germany, then we're gonna end it in Spain, the Lorca Rock festival with Sepultura and Biohazard - so that should be really cool. And then we're gonna come home, and the end of August we're doing one show in Portugal and flying right back home, and then we're starting a US tour with Goatwhore and Krisiun and also an Australian band called The Berzerker, really cool band, and a band called Warbringer. We're gonna do the whole United States and Canada, 40-something shows we're playing. We're definitely psyched for that.’
‘Er, after that we don't really have a lot in mind cos how these festivals and tours and things get worked out it's usually like a three or four month period prior before these things get locked in, but right now we're in negotiations, we're gonna come and do Australia in November. I'm pretty guaranteed that it's definitely going to go ahead.’
Frank has also been involved with Norwegian black metal institution Gorgoroth since 2007. I was curious as to how that came about.
‘I helped Roger - Infernus, the guitar player - out when all this crap kinda went down with his other band members, and he was kinda by himself. He's been a good friend of mine for a long time and I said "whatever you need from me, I'll help you out" and he said "I need you to be my bass player" so I told him "no problem".'
Gorgoroth's new album, Quantos Possunt ad Satanitatem Trahunt - with Frank on bass - is due out later this year. When I spoke with Frank, he'd just recently returned from Stockholm, where the recording was finished.
'The album will come out in October, I believe October 21st it comes out in Europe, and we plan on doing a lot of touring with that as well,' he told me. 'We've got a new line-up with the band, we sound really sick, we've just been rehearsing for two weeks over in Norway, and I dunno - it's bringing like a whole new life in my musical style because Gorgoroth is more technical, more grittier kind of music than Obituary, but still the same kind of aggressiveness. I'm really excited about it.’
As if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Frank also has his own management company, Back From The Dead Productions. I asked Frank if he had always been interested in the business side of the music industry. It turns out that his business roots stood him in good stead.
‘I worked a long time in the banking industry - I was a banker for a while, I was a stock broker for a while, I worked with people in money management and that kind of thing. It always bored the hell out of me because I was dealing with like old people, people who had no common interests with what I had, I was just dealing with their money. I kinda said to myself after a while "if I can incorporate what I'm doing in the business world with music, I might actually have something there.”’
From there, the business gradually grew.
‘People that I knew in the industry were getting signed to record labels, they needed help renegotiating their merchandise contracts, they needed help scheduling tours and stuff like that, and they'd come to me and ask me questions about it. I just slowly helped friends out, and then it just kinda dawned on me after a while. People were like "hey, would you manage our band?" and I was like "well yeah, well actually I guess I could", and it just kinda trickled off from that.'
One of the first bands on the roster were old friends, Merauder.
‘They had an album called Master Killer, a thrash/metalcore band who I've been a huge fan of, and really good friends with, since back in the 90's. They were re-forming and they were like "we really don't know a lot about the music industry, we don't really have any connections with anybody that's out there, can you help us out?" They couldn't work out what record contracts were offering and stuff like that, and I had a really good grasp on that, so I just started helping those guys out.'
Frank explains how he selects the bands he represents:
'I'm trying to work with other bands but I'm real picky in my tastes, I really don't like to work with bands unless I really believe in it from my heart, and I'm really like into what they're doing. I'm not just gonna manage someone for the sake of managing them.’
So are these bands death metal?
‘No, I got a band called The Deliverance that's like, real melodic, almost I would think like a cross between Swedish death metal and Faith No More. I mean, they're really commercial stuff, and we should be getting them a record deal hopefully by the end of this year and I think they're gonna be huge, like another Linkin Park. But again, they have death metal roots, and they have a very heavy aura to them, and that attracted me. I think they're gonna be something totally different, I don't think people are going to be expecting this.’
Although I would have loved to ask more about Gorgoroth and other bands Back From The Dead Productions is managing, our time was already up. So here it is in summary: Frank Watkins - death metal legend, dude with his business head firmly screwed on, and all-round nice guy.
Obituary's Darkest Day is out now on Candlelight Records/Stomp.