Interview with drummer Kris Gustofson, vocalist Donny Hiller, guitarists Steve Robello and Joe Fraulob and bassist Marcel Eaton
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: April 8, 2017
Out of 15 bands named Trauma (according to Metal-Archives.com), this version, from San Francisco, California, is probably the best known, not only because it was a stepping stone for Cliff Burton (R.I.P.) but also the uncompromising, aggressive Speed/Power Metal that many people privileged to live near Trauma's neighborhood got a chance to witness back in their early days.
Trauma started out in 1981, released just one full-length studio album, Scratch and Scream on Shrapnel Records back in 1984 and disbanded 1985 for almost three decades. In 2013 there was a spark of light at the end of the tunnel for Trauma and the band decided to reform with two original members still in the line-up; Donny Hillier on vocals and Kris Gustofson on drums.
The band recorded their 10-track follow-up album, Rapture and Wrath, at Tanglewood Studios in Sacramento (CA) and it caught the attention of Germany's Pure Steel Records and led to a record contact.
The Metal Crypt met the whole band, with a renewed line-up (Marcell Eaton on bass, Joe Fraulob and Steve Rebello on guitars), on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise on February 3, 2017.
Luxi: First off, I guess I should say welcome on board. Have you enjoyed being here so far?
Joe: Loving it.
Donny: Yes, yes.
Kris: Feels awesome man.
Luxi: Are there some bands that you are looking forward to seeing on this trip?
Kris: Oh yeah...!
Steve: One of the bands that I wanted to see over everybody had to cancel, Gojira. Little disappointed about that but when you got 61 of really the best Metal bands in the world, there's so much music to see and you just can't see everybody. That's the love of Metal we all share. You just can't lose. Just pop in to see a band anywhere. All week long. It's amazing.
Luxi: How did you get invited to be on this cruise? Does the new generation of metal heads really know Trauma? Do you think it might be a bit risky since you have been away from the scene for so long?
Kris: No, I don't think so because of the fact that it came through our booking agent Red Lion Music, in Germany. We actually got approached to do this two years ago as well. At that time, we couldn't do it. This year was the time to do it. It's something that's been in the works for a couple years. We knew about the cruise. We always wanted to do it, you know. But the promoter decided to pull the trigger this year and do it. We're extremely happy. It originated from our booking agent in Germany.
Luxi: You also played in Germany at the Headbangers Open Air festival in 2014, correct?
Donny: Yes, that was the fun one.
Luxi: There's some live footage from your H.O.A. show on YouTube.
Donny: Okay. Were you there? At that one?
Luxi: Unfortunately, no. I didn't have a chance to go there at that time.
Donny: Germany was great. We love being there.
Luxi: Did you do any other shows besides the festival show while in Europe in 2014?
Kris: We actually played a gig where?
Steve: It was Hamburg, I guess.
Donny: In Hamburg.
Kris: I can't remember the name.
Steve: Rock Hard... I guess the place was called Rock Hard.
Kris: Yes [*clears throat*].
Steve: I think it's called Rock Hard.
Kris: We went from farmstead Germany to...
Steve: The Reeperbahn [*laughs*].
Donny: Talk about a clash.
Kris: Night and day [*laughs*].
Donny: A cultural clash [*laughs*]. We're out in the farming country for the festival and next thing we're staying and walking around playing in the Reeperbahn which was very amusing.
Kris: We preferred to second place from the first.
Joe: A little more fun.
Kris: Lots to do [*laughs*].
THE UNHOLY TRINITY
Luxi: I bet you had a great time there. When the band was originally formed back in 1981, what were some of your musical influences? Did the unholy trinity - Sabbath-Maiden-Priest - play an important role for Trauma like for so many other up-and-coming metal bands back then?
Donny: You nailed it. The unholy trinity; Dio, Maiden and Priest. That was it for me. That's when I started loving Heavy Metal.
Luxi: Did you try to emulate these bands in the beginning and find your own style of Metal later on?
Donny: Yeah, I mean you do find your own way. There are so many influences and then it blends. You hear the melodies in your head. Every guitar, every instrumentalist plays a little differently, every vocalist sounds a little different. But yeah, they were definitely the early influences.
Luxi: Trauma's first phase of existence lasted just fours years but you still managed to record an album, Scratch and Scream. How did you end up signing a deal with Shrapnel Records?
Donny: Well, Mike Varney's like a local legend around the San Francisco Bay Area. I'm not really sure when we first met him but it just came together really quickly. Do you remember when we first met Mike? It seems like we've known him forever.
Kris: Yes. We used to do a lot of gigs at a place called The Stone in San Francisco. The Stone/The Keystone Berkeley. The old Waldorf that became Wolfgang's, you know Bill Graham owned that. There were a lot of bands doing Metal there at that time. All these bands, even Metallica, were trying to find their way.
Marcell: Vio-lence, Testament, everybody.
Kris: It was the early, early '80s. Varney appeared at clubs checking bands out and he got interested in us and came to a couple of our rehearsals. I remember him coming to rehearsals. It was weird because he would say he was going to come and then we'd start playing and he wasn't there. Then, suddenly, he'd pop in the room and he'd sit there on the floor and plug his ears.
Kris: He would just sit there like this and listen to maybe four or five tunes and then just get up and leave. We're like, "Oh, man we must have freaking choked." Because this dude went running out of the room, you know. Then basically he offered us a contract. I remember personally signing it on the wall at The Stone. I was like 21...
Marcell: Dark alley [*laughs*]
Kris: When we did that nobody read it. I didn't care what it said. I remember signing it on the wall at The Stone and handing it to him. I don't remember what happened with you guys.
Donny: I don't remember actually signing it. You're right, Mike was around. There was a lot going on. Venues and Metal most nights and all of that. He just was available. He was out and about and it clicked with him.
Luxi: Was your deal for only one album? Was there an option for another album?
Donny: There was an option for a second, but we disbanded. We supported that album for about a year, and then various members of the band had various life issues and it fell apart.
Luxi: Did you have a bunch of new songs that you could have recorded for the second album?
Kris: There is a fully written second album.
Donny: A second album that never got recorded.
Kris: It's like in a demo format.
THE CLIFF BURTON YEARS
Luxi: I was reading that this debut of yours was re-released with three bonus tracks. What could you tell us about those bonus tracks because I haven't heard of them yet?
Donny: Cliff Burton's on them so it's really early stuff.
Luxi: It's demo stuff then?
Donny: Exactly. There's a song called "Woman Be Gone", which is a power ballad because that was that was what bands did at that time. There's a jam song that's kind of Zeppelin-ish and Cliff does a bass solo on it; the first known recording of him doing a bass solo with some of the influences of "Anesthesia." Then there's a song called "We're Going Off" and it's so different because it's a Rock/Zep jam. Then there is "Such a Shame", which was on Metal Massacre II, which is also different, you know. The sound really, really changed a lot. In the early '80s, our sound was changing pretty rapidly because it was heavily Rock-influenced; at first with Priest and Maiden and all that, then finding our way into Thrash Metal.
Luxi: Why did Cliff leave Trauma back in the day? Did he want to play faster music?
Donny: Yes. When he told us he was leaving he said he had struggled with it for a year. I think Lars, in particular, had been recruiting him really hard. They'd seen us down in LA and they had a lot going for them at the time. He knew he could hit the road right away. The music was interesting to him and I don't know. He didn't really do a lot of writing in the early days of Trauma and that kind of opened up. There were no visible signs that was going to happen. It happened quickly and he struggled with it. We remained friends though. Two of us went to his first show with Metallica at the Stone. We supported him a lot and saw him when he was home from tours and all that kind of thing. It was all very friendly stuff.
Luxi: How would you describe the first four years of Trauma's existence (1981-85) when you were trying to make an impact? Were those years difficult for Trauma and were there perhaps some inner issues with the band?
Kris: Personally speaking, I wouldn't say there were inner issues with the band at that time. I remember talking in the early, early, early '80s that the problem was a lot of the record labels of that time didn't know what to do with the Metal bands coming out of the Bay Area. They were basically putting records out to see what was going to stick, you know what I mean? For a label at that time to have the clout to be able to put a band on tour and do artist development and all that was like unthinkable. The major labels were starting to pick up on it a little bit but Varney was not a major label. He wasn't like Warner Brothers, or Capitol, or some like that. He didn't have that kind of clout.
What happened with us was we did these tours, a little bit of touring up and down the coast and stuff like that, but he didn't support it. He didn't support it like it should have been supported and like Donny said already, other people had issues continuing with everything. Unfortunately, sad but true, that's kind of what happened.
NEW BEGINNING - NEW ALBUM
Luxi: When you decided to reform the band in 2013 were you any afraid that the Metal scene had changed so much it might be a pretty tough task to impress the current generation of metal heads that weren't even born when you released Scratch and Scream back in 1984?
Kris: Yes. What happened was when Varney wanted to do the re-release in 2013, the first thing he said to me was, "Hey, if we do this, man, you might want to think about putting the band back together". Donny and I had various conversations about it saying, "Man, are we going to do this?" and, "It's either now or never". It's a whole different process when we got involved with coming up with the record and everything.
Just to get ahead of this conversation a little bit, now the line-up that we have with this band right now, it is Trauma. It's back to being Trauma. We got the right guys and it's sounding killer. We're really looking forward to recording brand new material.
Luxi: In other words, you think that the chemistry couldn't be any better within the band at the moment. Do you feel that you're connecting to each other very well?
Steve: Yes, definitely. Joe, I think, is the latest to come into the picture. I've been in and out in the last couple of years and with Joe coming into the picture right now, it's created this new chemistry and it's always that one missing piece in any band. When you finally get that last remaining piece, it all comes together.
That's what we have right now and it's exciting, it's fun. We're writing well together. We're playing really well on stage together. It sounds great. I'm having a great time.
Joe: Yes, I think it's cool because we all grew up in the same era. We're all the same age and grew up in the '80s in the Bay Area. If you know the Thrash stuff that was coming out of that area, what we're doing now is like that sound, but with modern influences too. Like Chris said, it's like Trauma, but for 2017.
Kris: Yes, exactly.
Luxi: Kind of an updated version of Trauma?
Joe: Yes, yes. It's pretty exciting; we are all excited about it. When they asked me to join the band, I was excited because I had Scratch and Scream on cassette and I was into everything on Shrapnel back in the day. He used to put out all the shredder guitarists, Marty Friedman, Jason Becker, and fucking Greg Howe...
Steve: ... Vinnie Moore and everything.
Joe: What was cool was how different Trauma was from that stuff, it was just about the songs. The guitar playing's excellent on that album and I love that. But anyway, the point is when he asked me to join, I was pretty excited, because I remembered that. I haven't listened to it for 15 years probably, but I remember having it in '83 or whatever, and being like, "This is awesome."
Luxi: And all you guys feel like you're on the same page when it comes down to Trauma's songwriting process?
Steve: That's going to be really kind of impossible and there's always going to be that influence because that's how we all grew up. Speaking for myself, I've been into a lot of the new Metal. I can't help but have that influence in my current writing. The newer stuff that we write is going to be influenced by all the classic bands that we love obviously, but also an element of down-tuning and some of the newer sounds that are out there. It's going to have more of a modern feel but keeping true to the classic roots that we all come from. I think you can't change how Donny sings. I think it's going to be a great blend of classic riffs, kind of more modern sounds and tones, with Donny singing on top of that. I'm really excited about it.
ABOUT POST-TRAUMA YEARS
Luxi: Can you tell me about your second album, Rapture and Wrath, which was put out by Pure Steel Records? Were the songs done back in the day or were they are all completely new Trauma material?
Kris: Believe it or not, those were all new songs. This is what happened; when Varney was going to do the re-release, Donnie and I started talking quite a bit. We put a band together and we had a different guitar player at the time and being gone for as long as we were, which is - I don't even want to say how many years.
One thing I want to say in this interview is it was not like any of the musicians sat on their asses. Donny was in other bands, I was in other bands, I went on the road all through the '90s and 2000 and all that. We always thought about putting Trauma back together but it was impossible at that time, you know?
Anyways, I don't want to get away from the subject with this too much. Yes, we're really trying to find the right direction to go in with the music. We were just experimenting and then we went in and recorded and sent it off to some record labels. Pure Steel Records in Germany picked up on it. The owner, Andreas, frigging loved the hell out of it and offered us a deal and that's how that started. At this point now, though, I'm super excited to have this current line-up because at that point, it was only one guitar player band. Steve was in Dublin Death Patrol with Chuck Billy from Testament, Joe here played in Danzig. Those two elements right there have added so much to get to where we are now in 2017.
Luxi: You shot a video for "When I Die" off this new Trauma record which was directed by Tommy Merry. Would you like to talk more about the actual video shootings and how it was to make this video after so many years?
Donny: Yes. "When I Die" was one of our favorite songs on that album and some people had said, "We would like to hear more 'When I Dies'". We close the shows with it right now and everybody enjoys playing it and the audience seems to like it. It is actually a love song, "I will love you till forever", you know. It is like a Heavy Metal love song.
Luxi: How did you find Tommy Merry to direct the video?
Donny: He's a friend of Steve's.
Steve: Tommy Merry is an amazing guitar player in his own right and is currently playing with Dave Pattison's Gamma. He is a good friend and great guy and it was easy. It was easy to get Tommy to come in and do that.
Jeff: That was a good day.
Luxi: When I heard Rapture and Wrath I was really impressed by it. It's a really good album, so you must be satisfied with it, right?
Kris: You know we all really appreciate that. We actually did get a lot of really, really great reviews for...
Luxi: Yeah, I have seen some of them.
Kris: All over the world really, you know.
Steve: I think there has been some internal discussion about the production quality but when you go back to old school it wasn't about the quality it was about recording it real and making it sound raw and rough. That is kind of how that album sounds.
Kris: We did it rough and we did it raw when we recorded it. We didn't use any ProTools, no tricks, nothing. We just went in and played the shit out of it and pressed the record basically.
Joe: It is cool because the new stuff is like from the first album and then bridging into Rapture and Wrath, which to me is more Power Metal. Bringing all these styles together and trying to come up with something new.
Steve: I realized that Joe was the right guy when he brought the first new song to the table and said, "Hey, I got this thing." He sent it over and we all listened to it and we were like, "Oh that's magic, that's it right there." We play that song live so we have that in our set. It is called "Disengaged" and that's the first new song off the new album. We are really looking forward. We kind of got sidetracked because of the 70,000 Tons. We started to write and we were getting ready to go in the studio and record some demos and we got the call for this. Then we got into rehearsal mode for a live show. That kind of derailed us a little bit but we are so looking forward to getting back in the studio as soon as we get back to write the new record.
OF WOMEN, CROSSES, (WEIRD) VISIONS AND ROGUES
Luxi: Going back 35 years, Trauma made a video for "The Warlock" way back in 1982. How does it feel to watch that video now, after so many years?
Donny: That video was kind of controversial. We knew that we were going to do a video. Our manager at the time who was quite a character had lined up a film crew and all that. When the band walked in to the sound stage we were pretty surprised by the setting and the crosses and the women and all of that. It was like, you know, to be honest we were a little reluctant to do it.
Luxi: Did you get some money to do this video as well?
Donny: No. We were there and our manager was really sharing his "vision" for this and that. We went along with it but we had mixed feelings to tell you the truth. In fact, some of the band members were kind of pissed off at the manager to tell you the truth. It was the beginning of the end of our relationship with him. He was quite a character and a real mover and a shaker but at the same time a real rogue.
Luxi: Ok, I got it. What about new stuff? Have you been able to demo any new stuff yet for the next album?
Donny: Nothing demoed but we will be doing that quickly. We are working on a batch of songs like Steve said and we are playing one of them in the set. When we get home from this trip we will be concentrating on writing. Like I said, there are a bunch of songs in the works. None of them finished except for one and they will be heavier. They will be heavier than the songs on Rapture and Wrath.
Luxi: Okay, sounds very cool.
Donny: Yes, definitely.
Luxi: The heavier the better works for me...
Donny: Yes, absolutely, absolutely!
Steve: Yes, heavier faster tempos.
Kris: Faster tempos, we have faster tempos.
Steve: Not the mid-tempo stuff like...
Joe: Probably darker, too. Everything I write sounds really evil. It has to sound evil.
Luxi: Being evil is a part of Heavy Metal, and you can never get rid of it, you know.
Joe. Exactly. I completely agree with you.
Steve: Don't forget the parts we are going to put in with the trolls and violin player. We have a Heavy Metal violin player on this too. He sometimes plays flute too.
Luxi: Do you have any other gigs booked for this year after the cruise?
Steve: Nothing scheduled but a lot of things in the works. There are a bunch of European dates that we are working on.
Kris: Some festival shows and stuff...
Joe: But we really want to get our record out so that we can have something new to be promoting, you know. That's the focus right now.
Steve: We want to fast track all these.
Joe: Exactly, get the record out first.
GETTING INSPIRED BY HARD TIMES
Luxi: Alright. One last question and I'll let you go out for a few beers or something. I really wouldn't like to talk about any politics when doing these interviews with artists, but if you were forced to make a song for your new president Donald Trump and even dedicate it to him, what would this particular song be called?
Jeff: Oh shit...!
Luxi: You nailed it!
Steve: It would be called "Exercising My Fifth Amendment Privilege."
Joe: I would call it "American Catastrophe."
Steve: I agree with you man.
Donny: Let's just say there is a lot of material to write about. There is a lot of dissatisfaction everywhere on many, many levels, so it is good for the Metal business.
Joe: I think that is always something in music anyway. It is great to be able to speak out about the government and to talk about anything that bothers you. To me, it seems like all the great music comes when times are hard and governments seem to be against the people and whatever. That's when really great art seems to happen. In a way, it inspires me to write because I like to be really outspoken.
Steve: And I feel writing it in a song, writing it in lyrics, that's one thing but what I really oppose is when artists, musicians or actors and actresses use their fame as a platform. That is one thing I disagree with. Write it in your songs and whatever but don't get on a podium and use your fame...
Joe: And that's what music and art is supposed to do; make you think and come up with your own ideas. It is not like we are saying this is what we believe and you need to believe it. That is why lyrics are great; you can interpret them in different ways. We know what we meant but don't have to tell you, "Here is what it means." Come up with your own understanding, your own meaning for songs. That is why I love music so much and always have, you know.
Luxi: Okay, I'm done. Thanks for your time guys and enjoy this Metal cruise the best you can!
Steve: Thank you.
Kris: Thanks man!
Joe: Thanks for interviewing us. We appreciated it!
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