There are few figures as directly and personally responsible for the growth and progression of American doom metal as Dave Chandler. The guitarist and founding songwriter of Saint Vitus, Chandler‘s primordial riffing and unmistakable tone have endured for the better part of 30 years, and where fads and trends have come and gone around them, Vitus‘ music has existed almost in a vacuum of its own making. No one since has been able to capture the same kind of magic, and plenty have tried.
A European tour in 2009 that included a Roadburn stop brought back together the Vitus lineup that in 1986 released one of doom’s all-time most pivotal anthems, Born too Late. Alongside Chandler once more were bassist Mark Adams, vocalist Scott “Wino” Weinrich and drummer Armando Acosta, and though this same group had reunited in 2003 for a show in Chicago that subsequently was released on DVD, it was clear from the outset that in the intervening six years, something in the climate of the heavy metal underground had changed. It seemed right away that this time it might stick.
Certainly the interest was there on the part of fans and the band. Acosta bowed out following the 2009 touring on account of ailing health that would eventually take his life in November 2010. He was replaced by Henry Vasquez, who’d played with Chandler in Debris Inc., and as a major draw on earlier 2010’s inaugural Metalliance tour with Helmet, Crowbar, Kylesa, Red Fang and others, Saint Vitus not only proved that their doom had not diminished with age, but that it was perhaps the most vital and relevant it had ever been. Fueled by live performances of a song called “Blessed Night,” rumors began to swirl of a new studio album, and with the forthcoming May 22 release of Lillie: F-65 (review here) on new label Season of Mist, Saint Vitus will have their first set of new material since 1995’s Die Healing, long thought of as the swansong of one of metal’s most criminally underappreciated bands.
Recorded by Stone Axe, Mos Generator and HeavyPink multi-instrumentalist Tony Reed — who spoke about the studio process back in December — Lillie: F-65 plays out like a half-hour lesson in uncompromising. The seven component tracks are a pastiche of miseries that capture not only the classic Vitus tones, but also the mindset that drove the music in the first place. It’s a triumph for the band and the genre alike — just having Vitus back qualifies as such, let alone the fact that the record’s actually good — and Chandler excellently taps the vein of what made his earliest work so landmark without sounding like he’s trying to rehash former glories or doing an impression of someone he used to be.
In the interview that follows, Chandler discusses writing for Saint Vitus for the first time in more than a decade, what went into making the album, the band’s era on Greg Ginn of Black Flag‘s SST imprint in the ’80s, getting back into the touring lifestyle, living in New Orleans as he has for several years now, and much, much more. As he ended our last interview by exploring the possibility of a new record and saying, “I wouldn’t want to be one of those bands who has 50 retirement tours,” in Spring 2012, it seems like Saint Vitus are just getting started.
The complete 3,800-word Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
Was it weird for you to pick up and start writing for Vitus again after so long?
Yeah, it was kind of strange. “Blessed Night” we wrote on the road. It was kind of like a soundcheck song that we ended up making into a song. It was weird because things are different now, being older, living somewhere else, so I didn’t know if I was going to be able to catch the old vibe or not. I was a little nervous about that, but once I started doing it, it just flowed without any problem, really, which I was glad of, because man, I hate it when bands reform and put out a new album and it doesn’t sound like them. I was like, “Eh, I don’t want to do that.” We’re really happy with the way it came out. I think it sounds pretty cool.
Did you have a backlog off riffs that you worked from, or had you had song ideas in the past that you were able to use, or was it all brand new?
It’s pretty much brand new. There was just a couple little things that me and a couple friends were just messing around on the weekend, but no real songs or anything. Just getting drunk and jamming. So I had a couple little things here and there, but other than that, it’s pretty much brand new. The only thing that was done before was on the first song, “Let The Fall,” me and Henry were working on that when we were in Debris [Inc.], just the very beginning, the first verse, but then I just stopped doing that. So that one I guess you could say was an old riff that I turned into a new song.
When did the rest of the material come together? It seemed awfully quick that you guys were doing Metalliance and Europe, and then all of a sudden the news came down that you finished recording.
It probably took – not counting doing “Blessed Night” on the road – it took obviously less than a year to get it all done. Once I got it done, I just sent the riffs to the guys so they could write their own stuff and practice to it or whatever. So when we got into the rehearsals for the album, everybody knew what they were gonna do. We didn’t have to worry about older songs for a set or anything, so we just concentrated on getting them together. When we went into the studio, it only took about a week to do the whole thing, and most of that was mixing, because everybody knew their parts and everything. That’s how it came out that quick.
I spoke to Tony about recording you guys and he said it was a smooth, quick process, that you guys were only tracking for three days.
Yeah, that’s probably about right, because there really wasn’t much stuff that we had to do over. A couple people had a couple problems on certain songs that we had to repeat until we got it right, but most of the time a lot of the stuff was one take. I’m a firm believer in, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” You hit it right the first time, good, let’s move on.
One of the things I think the record does best is keep it simple, and that plays into that too, right? It’s gotta be easier to get that live feel when you’re not tracking 10 layers of guitar.
Exactly. That’s another thing. When I was younger, there’d be bands that would come around and their records would have this certain sound, and then live, they’d play the song and there was no way they could duplicate it. No one’s gonna sound exactly the same, but we always try to keep it simple anyway, because that’s the way we’ve always been. It’s just easier that way, I guess (laughs). I don’t know.
You guys had done a demo of “Blessed Night” with Tony before doing the album.
Yeah, we did that in the middle of Metalliance, when we were up in the middle of Washington anyway. We wanted to get it down so that after the tour and everything we could rehearse to it and keep the riffs up and everything. Also, we wanted to check out the studio, because we were pretty much gonna do it there, but you want to go in and see what it sounds like and everything too, so it was a perfect opportunity to do that.
I wanted to ask you about that song, because that’s the only thing apart from Wino’s interlude that’s not credited, vocals and lyrics, to you. I know you mentioned it came together over soundchecks, but can you talk a bit about how everyone fit into making it?
What happened was I was doing the initial riff, the very beginning part, as my guitar check, and Wino was like, “Is that a song?” and I was like, “Well, it could be. You wanna write the words to something like that?” and he goes, “Yeah, see if you can get another riff together,” and right there, I showed Mark where that initial riff was, and since we had time, we just worked out the beginning right there, the way we used to do it at practice. Everybody from the initial start of the very first riff was writing their own rhythm to it and stuff, and Wino was getting into his head certain words that he wanted. I forget where it was – there was another place where we did the same thing with the riff where he’s singing. We had it built together like 90 percent by the time the tour was done, so when we went out on the next tour, we had it finished. Almost every night, we were working on bits and pieces of it at soundcheck and stuff.
So it was before Metalliance it was written.
For you, how is that process compared to writing on your own and sending things out to people?
Sending things out to people is really hard, because we can’t just get together on a practice day, and get together and play. That’s the real difficult thing. We all are in agreement with that. We live so far apart, there’s really nothing we can do right now. The way we used to do it — when we all lived near each other, we had a specific practice time – was similar to how we did “Blessed Night.” I would sit at home and write the riff by myself, bring it into rehearsal, and be like, “Okay, Mark, here’s the notes, and Armando, I want it fast, or slow, whatever,” and we would work it out. That process, for that particular one, was the same. The others, doing that stuff through the mail is really difficult, but it worked out good because we could just play against it, the way the CDs are now and stuff. But that’s the thing that we would like to correct if we could. Just practice all the time. It’s much easier to walk in where everybody’s set up and start playing a new song.
How do you correct that if everyone’s living so far apart?
Well, right now we can’t correct it (laughs). The ideal thing would be if we could all basically just live off of music and kind of relocate into a central position, or at least a little bit closer to each other. But that’s difficult because nobody wants to leave where they’re at. I don’t want to leave New Orleans and go back to California, and those guys don’t want to come here. Henry really doesn’t want to leave Texas – I think he would probably go wherever, because he’s a cool dude, he goes with the flow – but for now, it’s alright. What we do is, we get together and we rehearse three or four days in a row before we go do something. It kind of makes up for it a little bit. And we also practice with the old records and stuff at home, against it, so we keep our licks up that way and learn the old songs again, which is kind of a pain in the ass sometimes (laughs).
How long have you been living in New Orleans?
I moved here a couple months before Katrina hit.
Yeah, I know.
Are you familiar with the scene down there? The doom and sludge?
Yeah. It’s really cool down here. It’s a lot better. If I had my way, I would have all the guys move here, just because of the scene. It’s a very music-oriented town anyway. And there’s a lot of bands that live here, or people that used to be in bands that live here. I wouldn’t want to live anyplace else, really, for being a musician. It’s really super-cool, and it’s easy to assimilate. When I first moved here, there were some people that were fans that didn’t know. They’d see me at a bar and go, “What in the hell are you doing here?” “Well I live here now.” I used to work downtown in the middle of the French Quarter. I made a lot of friends doing that, because I worked in a head shop, so tourists would stop in and they’d be like, “Are you the dude from Saint Vitus?” and I’d be like, “Yeah.” It’s really easy to flow, and there’s a lot of local bands who are into the sludge and doom thing. That’s really cool too. And there’s a good punk rock scene also.
What was the timing on deciding to work with Season of Mist and the album being done?
I’m trying to think if we’d okayed to work with them… Yeah, because what happened was we had a couple offers, and we met up with Michael from Season of Mist in Norway when we did Hole in the Sky last summer. We were talking to them, and he seemed generally like they wanted to push Saint Vitus. They weren’t gonna sign us and throw us on the backburner, like some people will do to you. So far, they’ve lived up to everything they’ve said and more, and that’s really cool. Once we decided that we were gonna sign with them – because we were already scheduled to go into the studio anyway because we wanted to have a finished product to immediately give to whoever we signed with – so as soon as we decided we were gonna go with them, we had the lawyers work out all the bullshit with the contracts and all that stuff. When we signed the contracts, the record was basically done already. It really didn’t take that long. The lengthy time was getting the contracts together and making little corrections here and there so that everything would go smooth. As soon as that was done, we just popped the record to them. There’s been a delay with the manufacturing somehow, and then also they changed American distributors, so the American release has been delayed. Other than that it’s gone pretty smooth.
It’s May now, right?
Supposed to be May 22 now, right. They’re telling me that’s definitely. Positively, don’t worry, that’s for sure.
Wider distribution in the US?
Yeah. I forget the name of the company – I’d actually never heard of them – but Season of Mist was saying it’s wider distribution in the US and they’re going to get into countries we’ve never been in before, like in South America and stuff like that. These people have distribution there and I think distribution in Australia and stuff like that too.
Do you feel like Saint Vitus is getting its due when that kind of thing comes together?
I guess. When we broke up in ’95, nobody figured we made an impact at all, because no one gave a shit. I guess you could say we’re getting paid back a little bit for all our hard work, which is kind of cool, because someone like us, who worked so hard for so long, for basically what we thought was nothing, we’re very appreciative of what we’re getting now. It’s not handed to us. Yeah, we worked hard, so screw it, we deserve it (laughs).
Something Tony said when I was talking to him about doing the record with you guys was the idea that one of the things about SST bands and the bands that Greg Ginn wanted to work with was really unique guitar players and guitar sounds, and certainly Saint Vitus fit that bill then, and your tone, you still get people trying to do that same thing and failing. What are your feelings on that? Do you think that was part of what was behind your winding up on SST?
A little bit, yeah, because I think a lot of my leads are kind of disjointed, and people have said, “He plays all the right wrong notes.” I think that kind of caught Greg’s eye too, but the main thing they told us, what they liked about us was the fact that, number one, we did everything ourselves, the way they did and the way all the other punk bands did, but also the fact that, despite what the metal scene was, we were saying “fuck that,” because it sucked and we were doing what we wanted even though people hated us. They liked that. That’s one of the main reasons they said that they signed us, because we were so completely different in the metal scene. When they signed us, all the metalheads hated us, and of course the punks hated us because of our slowness and our hair. So that controversy was really what Black Flag and SST really dug. That’s why they immediately started having us play punk rock shows, because it was just such a fucking disruption to have Saint Vitus at this thing (laughs).
How did Wino’s acoustic interlude come about on the album?
When I started writing it – started writing the record – I didn’t start it to be a concept, but I realized it was working out that way. I wanted a mellow part in the middle, like a false sense of security before it hit you again, type of thing. I’d always dug the riffs he wrote for “When Emotion Dies,” so I was like, Wino, do another acoustic one, but make it a little bit longer, and I told him what I wanted to do. He was like, “Okay, no problem.” It didn’t take him that long and he got it down, and he asked me if I wanted to do weird words again, and I’m like, “No, I want to keep this one instrumental because I want it to be a smooth transition and then all of a sudden they’re gonna get hit in the head before the record ends,” and he was like, “Okay, cool.” He was the one who came up with all the different trippy guitar parts in it. I was expecting maybe like two guitars, and he came up with this wild thing that’s really badass.
It works where it is on the record too, because then you’re slammed back into “Blessed Night” as the fastest track. Can you talk about putting the songs together as an album? The flow is really classic Vitus, as well as keeping the record short.
Once we figured out the timing, we went back and looked at the old records and realized it’s about the same time as the other ones. I think there’s only two albums longer than it. So we’re like, “Okay,” and like I said, when I was writing it, it sort of was going into a concept in my mind with this weird story that I had going on, and I was like, “How can I put this together so it does do the concept?” I can’t really explain it, but I knew that “Let Them Fall” had to be the first one, because that’s an overview of everything, and then I wanted to go so far into corruption you’d almost explode, and then have that mellow thing and you’re like, “Oh man, we got over that fucking shit,” and then all of a sudden, the ride isn’t done, and it ends with the fucking inevitableness of everybody’s dependent on something you’re gonna withdrawal from it, and it ends with the crazy sound in your head when you’re going, “Ah, fuck.”
I thought “Withdrawal” was the perfect end for the record. Just a bunch of noise and “fuck you.”
The great thing is, because it’s a bunch of different tracks, and the very, very first one, we’d finished a rehearsal, and we’re all standing around smoking and drinking and everything, and I think Mark goes, “Why don’t you do that weird thing you were doin’ last time we were rehearsing?” and I was like, “What, this?” and I started doing it, and I didn’t know Tony was recording it. So if you put headphones on and turn it up at the very, very end, just before the record ends when the last noise fades out of “Withdrawal,” you can hear us talking. It’s really, really low, but you can hear us talking and laughing. I was like, “Oh, that is so weird” (laughs).
Was there ever any temptation to call the record Let Them Fall?
No, not really. Actually, I had the title before I wrote any songs (laughs), so that was a set thing right there.
Henry’s drumming was something specific I wanted to ask about. Obviously he was in Debris Inc. when you were doing that, and Blood of the Sun, but it seems like he really adapted his style of playing to Saint Vitus for the record.
Yeah, and we also adapted ourselves to him too, because he’s more of a ‘70s-style drummer, obviously, which is what we grew up with, me and Mark especially. That’s the kind of drummers that we heard all the time. And he’s so much more powerful, just in sheer volume, the way he hits the damn things. Definitely, he’s added a whole new dimension to the band that we didn’t have before, and he’s made me and Mark do better because we’ve got to keep up with that. And we get to play louder, which I love. Especially on Metalliance, we were running across a lot of old fans, and in Europe too, every single person was going, “Wow. It’s so much more powerful with this drummer. It’s fucking insane.” Chuck Dukowski was at the L.A. show, and he goes, “Man, that’s Saint Vitus!” Because Armando was great, but he would always try to be real technical and he would never play that hard. That’s one thing that Henry adds to it, which is really, really cool. I told him to – because in Debris, we were doing a couple Saint Vitus songs in the encore – I told him when he actually joined the band, I told him, “Don’t try to play like Armando did, play like you do, because this is a whole new direction for us and so I don’t want you to try and do that.” When he does the old songs, he tries it – of course, that’s the thing to do – but that’s why everything adapted well with him. I think he’s really good, and all the guys did a really good job on the album. Everybody really pulled through. I’m real proud of what they did.
I don’t think Mark’s bass has ever sounded better.
I know. I don’t know how Tony got that fucking sound. It was great. I was like, “Damn!”
You mentioned Metalliance. As far as the US goes, it’s the highest profile thing you’ve done since coming back. Was it special for you to be on that bill?
Yeah, it was really cool, because we’d been on it for a long time, and they were trying to find a headliner to do it. It was a brand new tour, and us and Crowbar were in agreement that we didn’t want to be the headliners just in case it wasn’t successful, because that’s not a good thing. And so we were kind of holding out, holding out for a while, so when they got Helmet, we were really excited and we were like, “Okay, this is cool.” That was a blast. That was probably the best American thing and most fun American thing that we had done since the very first tour we ever did, with Black Flag. The exposure was good too, because there was a lot of cities that we played – like Denver, for instance – where a lot of people came up and said, “We came here to see Crowbar” or “We came here to see Helmet,” or Kylesa or whoever, “We’ve never heard of you guys. Man, you were good,” and I was like, “Okay, cool!” That was a blast. We had a really good time doing that. That was fucking cool. And the publicity was really good from what people told me. I don’t really do the Facebook and all that bullshit, but apparently everyone was talking about it, so that’s cool.
Will you guys do another US tour?
Oh yeah. This summer we’re doing a few festivals over in Europe, and we’re also doing Chaos in Tejas and Maryland Deathfest here. Then we have a couple months break, and then in the fall/winter, we’re doing a full US tour and a full European tour, where we’ll play a long time and play pretty much the whole album and stuff like that. So yeah, we definitely are.
How long do you think you’ll keep it going? You’re kind of going back into the album cycle? Is there going to be another another Saint Vitus record?
We’re not really sure right now. We’re kind of taking it day-by-day – baby steps or whatever you want to call it – because obviously we want to see how this sells. There’s a lot of hype on it, and I’ve been doing a lot of press on it, and everything seems to be good, so we’ll see how the people react. It just basically all depends on that, and of course on people’s health, because we’re not young sprouts anymore. We creak around every day. If interest stays, we probably will, because once you start doing it a lot, it’s much easier to come up with new material, because your creative juices are open, rather than not doing anything for so many years. If the interest is still there, I’m sure that we probably could. We have an option with Season of Mist to put out another one.Saint Vitus, Season of Mist