Interview with vocalist and guitarist Matt Harvey
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: August 23, 2015
Gruesome consists of four people who all love Death Metal, listening to and playing it like it was the only thing that matters. Gruesome's music is an homage to Chuck Schuldiner's musical legacy, something you can hear loud and clear on the band's debut album, Savage Land, released by Relapse Records in April 2015. The phrase "only DEATH is real" fits Gruesome better than any other band with the exception of Death to All, a Death cover band with a rotating line-up.
The main songwriter for Gruesome is Matt Harvey (who is also in Dekapitator, Exhumed, etc.) and he recently took some time to explain how it all started, their fixation with all things Death and how the future is looking. Read on...
Luxi: How's life in California? Already tired of answering the same interview questions over and over again?
Matt: Life is good man! Plenty busy, but basically good. I'm lucky that with Gruesome our drummer Gus answers a lot of interview question so it's not like an Exhumed interview cycle where I repeat myself ad nauseam, ha ha!
Luxi: There are probably thousands of metalheads out there have no clue what Gruesome is all about so would you mind enlightening them as to how it all got started?
Matt: Well, the band started when Exhumed supported Death To All a couple of years ago. I met Gus in Maryland and he was working with the tour and came out and performed "Baptized in Blood" with the guys. That was my favorite part of the whole gig and we got to talking afterward and ended up staying in touch. He wanted to put together another incarnation of DTA that only did stuff from the first three albums, possibly with Terry (Butler) and Rick (Rozz), or possibly with James (Murphy). Anyway, that never quite materialized but we sort of joked about doing a band in the same vein as a goof. I was hanging out at my fiancee's house while she was at work and came up with what would eventually become "Gangrene" and sent Gus a really goofy midi demo of it. A couple weeks later I came up with "Savage Land" and sent him another midi demo. This time, he got back to me with a live drum demo of the song and I started to hear something happening. That kick my ass to keep writing in California while in Florida Gus tapped our mutual friends Dan (Gonzalez, guitar) and Robin (Mazen, bass) to actually make this happen. Gus and Dan are both audio engineers so they recorded four songs for a demo, the two mentioned above and "Closed Casket" and "Psychic Twin", in Florida. I just did my vocals for the demo in California and we released two songs ("Savage Land" and "Closed Casket", which featured a solo by James Murphy that definitely helped get the band some attention), got an offer from Relapse and then started work on the album.
Luxi: Gruesome is something that you came up with and people can hear right away that you must be a big fan of early Death. I am guessing that's the whole reason Gruesome exists; you wanted to pay tribute to one of the greatest Death Metal bands ever which is Death of course! Chuck's work is a big reason why there are so many Death Metal bands out there nowadays. He's been an undeniable influence on so many of them, decade after decade.
Matt: Yeah the idea wasn't to hide the influence at all but to proclaim it as loudly and proudly as possible at every turn. When I wrote the music I was literally trying to write a Death song, not "express myself" or anything like that, ha ha! I wanted to continue writing in the Leprosy vein but come up with our own tunes rather than just be a cover band or whatever. The band is essentially an homage band and I have a hard time at this point imagining it being anything else. Luckily, Chuck had a wealth of material for us to work from, ha ha!
Luxi: In my sincere opinion Gruesome continues Death's early legacy nearly perfectly on Savage Land. That's not surprising knowing your histories and considering when albums such as Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy were originally released you were all probably among the first to grab a vinyl copy, correct?
Matt: I got Scream Bloody Gore in 1988 when I was twelve or thirteen years old. I didn't quite "get it" until the following year when a buddy of mine showed me Leprosy at one of his hockey games. Keep in mind we were all 13-15 at the time. Then I re-discovered Scream... and totally fell in love with it. That was around the time I was learning a lot of guitar riffs from Celtic Frost and stuff and the first Death album was a good challenge to improve my technique a bit and play faster. Back then I bought everything on cassette. I still have about a third of my old tape collection these days which is kind of a bummer but it's still about 350 tapes.
Luxi: What makes Death albums like Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy so special for you besides being some of the ultimate Death Metal classic albums ever released?
Matt: Scream... and Leprosy were the beginning of a musical change for me. There are a few pivotal albums that I'll always remember, albums that were like personal revolutions for me. Scream... and Leprosy fit in that category along with stuff like Master of Puppets (that's the one that started it all for me), Hell Awaits, the Napalm Death Peel Sessions, Morbid Tales, Black Metal, and stuff like that. For me personally, by the time I was deep into Leprosy, other Death Metal bands and more extreme bands were just starting to have albums out like Slowly We Rot and From Enslavement To Obliteration and things like that. That was when I started realizing that my Testament and Overkill albums weren't getting a lot of listens but stuff like Kreator, Bathory, Cryptic Slaughter, and of course Death was getting played nonstop. I was making that transition from being a thrasher to a Death metaller and Death was the first "heavier" band that I really fell for. I mean there was Pleasure to Kill before that but I still kind of thought of that as Thrash along with Slayer and the faster stuff like Sodom.
Luxi: You have quite an experienced line-up in Gruesome but how you react when people talk about Gruesome as some sort of "super-group"? At the end of the day it's the music only that should count no matter how badly people would like to decorate it with useless and even annoying terminology like "super-group."
Matt: Yeah, the whole "super-group" thing is a bit weird. I mean, I'm a musician in a signed, touring Death Metal band and it's only natural that a lot of my peers and colleagues would be the people that are my friends. I just think of it as a band with my friends, you know? It's a term that I don't relate to but I can see how people on the outside might think of it that way. I guess it's a compliment? I don't really know. I don't want people to judge Gruesome based on what I or anyone else in the band has done, though. It's really its own separate entity. The only bar we set for ourselves is being compared to Death which is kind of stupid really. It's setting the bar impossibly high.
Luxi: Did you have a clear picture in your head from the beginning of who would fill the Gruesome line-up? How long did it take to find and hire the right musicians to form the final line-up? Was the chemistry there from the first rehearsal session?
Matt: Gus really spearheaded the whole process which has been so cool. With Exhumed, I've always kind of been the prime-mover or at least the co-pilot so it was so great to be able to sit back and let him and Dan really take the reins as far as making everything happen. There was so much less pressure for me. I just got to hang out in my room and write my riffs, you know? That's my favorite part anyhow so it was just so easy and fun.
Luxi: When you first started demoing songs for Gruesome did you know right away what you wanted the band to sound like or did you modify or refine the sound later on to have the feeling and spirit of early Death?
Matt: The whole goal from the first riff was to write Death songs. Not to be influenced by Death but to literally write Death songs. There was no other goal from the beginning and when I'm writing stuff for the band now that's still the exact same goal. I think I've gotten better as far as zeroing in on particular sections of the catalog and stuff but I just wanted to write my own Death album from the era that means the most to me.
Luxi: Was it easy for you to emulate Chuck's vocals especially the ones he had on Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy?
Matt: Honestly, the vocals have been the biggest hurdle. Chuck's range and timbre are pretty difficult for me to match. I feel like my vocals were a little more versatile in the late ‘90s before I totally thrashed my throat on numerous tours. I think I got pretty close to his timbre on the album but at a lower pitch. When I matched his pitch the timbre of my voice didn't really sound like Chuck so I had to go a bit lower. I'm hoping to develop that range of my voice a bit more in the future.
Luxi: Have you heard any comments from Terry Butler or Rick Rozz or even Chris Reifert and Bill Andrews about what they have thought of Savage Land?
Matt: Terry has been really supportive and into it which has been extremely flattering. He re-posts Gruesome stuff on Facebook which is just surreal and so kind. I hung out with him a bit when Exhumed was on tour with Obituary (and Carcass) last year and he was just such a sweet guy. He shared some cool thoughts on the original Death and Massacre days, which was really awesome for me as a giant nerd for both of those bands.
Luxi: What do you think "Evil" Chuck's reaction would be if he heard Savage Land? Do you believe he would get tears in his eyes realizing there are a bunch of people out there who adore and love his work with Death?
Matt: Honestly, if he was alive the band wouldn't exist. It would be pointless. I honestly don't know what he'd think. I think he'd be a bit bummed that a band was so slavishly unoriginal and aping his style. Hopefully he'd get a laugh out of it, I dunno. I truly hope that his family see what we're doing as a respectful homage, not trying to exploit his style for our own gain or anything. I would feel awful if they saw it this way. We spoke to Eric, DTA's manager and he has been super supportive of the band as well. The official Death channels have been very kind to us, which we really appreciate.
Luxi: As all the response has more or less been flattering regarding Savage Land do you believe Gruesome will have new stuff coming out within next year or so?
Matt: We already have new stuff in the works. I'm always writing and the great response this album has gotten has definitely lit a fire under my ass to keep churning out my best Schuldiner-isms, ha ha! We signed a three-album deal so there will be more stuff coming up.
Luxi: How important is Gruesome for each of you as you also have other bands you're involved with?
Matt: I didn't really think the record would have the legs it has. I thought it was kind of a novelty album or something, haha! But it seems to be getting taken seriously by lots of folks, more than I ever thought it would, so it's definitely morphing from a "project" into an actual "band." We're playing our first show next month, which is exciting.
Luxi: What's your opinion of the so-called "cookie monster" growling vocal style that's commonly used in Death Metal these days?
Matt: I love low vocals when they're done well and it fits the style of the band. Kam Lee is one of my all-time favorites and I have always loved the lower vocals in the early Carcass and Macabre stuff and the vocals on the first Grave album are some of my absolute favorite Death Metal vocals ever. Exhumed these days seems to have more and more low vocals so I definitely dig them. I don't get into the "pig-squeal" stuff but I guess it's good for the kids.
Luxi: Do you think the main problem for many new Death Metal bands nowadays is that they lack attitude, feeling, true spirit and overall knowledge how real Death Metal should sound?
Matt: I think the main problem is that Death Metal is now 30 years old; Seven Churches came out in 1985. It's all a matter of context. To me, Carnifex isn't a Death Metal band but to a 15 year-old maybe they are. I don't know that there's one "standard" you can apply, because definitions of genres change over time. To me, records like Torment in Fire and None Shall Defy are absolutely Death Metal and so is Pleasure to Kill, but that's because I'm almost 40 years old! For me, it's very personal. I don't want to be one of those "old-school" guys because that's just shitty and turns newer kids off from getting in to some of those old records I love. All I have is my personal perspective and what it all means to me. I'm not the fucking "Supreme Arbiter of What's True" or anything. I'm just a guy that likes to write riffs and drink beer.
Luxi: Do you feel like "death" is missing from today's Death Metal records? I mean, some (kids) want to mix their Death Metal with Hardcore, clean vocals, utterly technical instrumental wankery and shit and that's not Death Metal as some of those people mistakenly think...
Matt: I think that the idea of being "extreme" is too easy. It leads kids into a numbers game where they think that playing more notes or hitting the drums numerically faster is the same thing as being "extreme." A lot of younger guys are just fantastic players but they're just doing stuff for the sake of doing it. Often there's no song-craft, there's no real guts to it. It's all gimmicks and no real substance. Of course, the shocking components of Death Metal are totally gimmicky; unintelligible vocals, blast beats, whammy bar solos, atonal riffs, etc. so it is a logical outgrowth, but it's grown to a point where I just don't find it appealing. And every day I realize that I am far from alone in this feeling. There seems to finally be an exodus of people away from the overly technical stuff or at least a new crop of fans that isn't interested in it at all.
Luxi: Does a term like "Neo-classical Death Metal" make you freak out? If not, do you have any idea what the heck that is all about?
Matt: It just confuses me. Metal is played by drums and guitars, not keyboards, not violins, not oboes, none of that stuff. An eerie symphonic intro or interlude is one thing, but stuff like Fleshgod Apocalypse I just can't get into at all. They have tons of talent and I respect them for doing what feels right to them, but it just does absolutely nothing for me.
Luxi: When Chuck started incorporating more technical and progressive elements into his songs, right after the brilliant Leprosy album, do you feel like he perhaps started losing some of his fans that didn't really like the musical direction of Death's later albums? Do you like everything Chuck released under the Death moniker even the last official album, The Sound of Perseverance?
Matt: Death always seemed to have a solid fan base but for me and my friends it took years to really get into Human, which is weird because I LOVE that album now. Honestly, when I got the call to play the first DTA tour, I listened to Symbolic and The Sound of Perseverance for the first time. I ended up really liking Symbolic a lot. Sound of Perseverance I'm kind of iffy on, but I think there are a lot of really strong songs and cool parts on there. Is it Death Metal? That I don't know. Not really, to me.
Luxi: Undoubtedly you have plans to play a bunch of shows now that Savage Land has officially been released. Have you planned to do any shows outside of your home territory, perhaps coming to Europe?
Matt: We're taking it slow and taking offers as they come in. We'll see what happens. It seems like Gruesome has already gotten a better response in the press in mainland Europe that Exhumed has in years, so we'll see what comes of it, ha ha!! (Full Terror Assault festival in Illinois in September 2015 and Netherlands Death Fest in February 2016 are already coming up for them; see their Facebook page for more details - Luxi adds)
Luxi: Thanks so much for chatting with me about Gruesome and Death Metal in general Matt. Hopefully it was worth your time. I want to wish you all the best with Gruesome and your other bands as well. Let your path be full of positive rewards. Any closing curses/comments perhaps?
Matt: Thanks for the interview and for supporting the band, we appreciate it! Only Death Is Real!
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