From Death Into New Life
CoC chats to Rob Cavestany of Death Angel
by: Jackie Smit
They say the more things change, the more they stay the same -- a proverb that's proving to be more applicable than ever in the noughties. Case in point: when San Francisco's Death Angel released their last album fourteen years ago, the world watched as George Bush Sr. waged war in Iraq, while Israel and Palestine were engulfed in similar conflict. Fast forward to our present point in time and... well, 'nuff said really. Luckily the proverb doesn't only apply to headline-grabbing world events though, and while the world remains (for lack of a better term) fucked, it just so happens that Death Angel have returned from purgatory to unleash _The Art of Dying_ -- a record that quite easily tops any of the band's previous three releases and is most likely going to be in the upper ranks of many a metalhead's favorite albums of 2004.

A Death Angel reunion wasn't always on the cards though. Indeed, if it weren't for a certain friend falling on hard times and needing a favor, another Death Angel record would most likely never have seen the light of day. Guitarist Rob Cavestany explains his apprehension at reforming the band:

Rob Cavestany: To me it was just the hugest can of worms to open up and however the band had ended back in the day, it had been so long already that by looking back on it we were just going over things that were really terrible when they happened, but that we had gotten over already. Also, everything we had done up until the time we broke up had been, in our minds and in the minds of a lot of people, of the highest quality and I didn't want to ruin that.

CoC: Let's talk first of all about what got the band together. The Chuck Billy benefit was the first show that you played after the break-up; what precipitated the band's participation in that event?

RC: Our band Swarm was together at the time -- a band that consisted of me, Mark, Andy and a friend of ours named Mike Isaiah on bass -- and we were touring the States opening for Jerry Cantrell. We were asked to do the show, and I was not into it -- I was into it for Chuck, but not into it to reform Death Angel for any reason whatsoever, and I was just kind of like: "Unfortunately I don't think we should do it, the band's broken up". Well, Chuck gets me on the phone himself at this point and I just couldn't say no to Chuck -- he's an old bro from back in the day, he's got cancer -- and I was just like: "Man, we've got to do this for Chuck then, but how are we going to do it?" The show was like three days after we would come home off the tour and we hadn't rehearsed or played together for thirteen years, so everyone just started doing their homework. We decided to go for it on this one show, and have a blast. We picked out the songs that we were going to do, and then me and Andy started going through the songs at sound check before the Cantrell shows. I would sit with my walkman when I had the chance, playing the songs, trying to relearn them. We got home, rehearsed two times as a full band and then did the show, and we were like: "Man, how is this going to turn out -- we've had no preparation" -- and there you have it. We did the show, and as soon as we hit the stage, it's like a dream-state came on and we were transported back in time and everything just came back all at once and it was just unbelievable. The show has been filmed, so it's around -- but it was just unbelievable.

CoC: So one of the main reasons you were afraid to reform the band was the danger of somehow tainting the Death Angel legacy?

RC: Exactly. You know, most people try to come back and a lot of people, including myself, always end up thinking: "Why did you guys do that -- you've just ruined everything." And now it was thirteen years later, we had grown apart and we were just not in the same headspace anymore. Plus I knew that it would be a huge amount of work to get it to the level that it needed to be, and if we wanted to do this, we would have to 'marry' each other again and get down to some hard work, with the possibility of no pay-off. After the band broke up we had definitely grown apart, but we had all become good friends again and our relationship wasn't based on Death Angel anymore. So, I just didn't think it was going to be a good idea. Once we got on that stage though, and it felt the way it felt and the crowd responded the way they did, it was just unbelievable and it completely changed the way I felt. At that point, I guess it felt worth it to take the chance.

CoC: Walk me through your thought-process as you guys started rehearsing again and as you started playing your first shows after all those years apart.

RC: It was bizarre. I think we all just sat there cracking up all the time, because of some weird feeling -- it was like dating someone you used to go out with in high school all over again. At the same time, there was this unbelievable chemistry going on again, and at first I tried to deny it because I didn't want to get too excited and end up feeling let down if everyone wasn't going to be into it as much.

CoC: Do you think that everyone in the band shared your feeling in the beginning? When you played the benefit show for example, did you all come off stage with the idea that Death Angel had been reborn?

RC: No, we didn't decide on it that fast. We just all came off-stage and we were just looking at each other in disbelief and we were hugging each other and just tripping out -- we definitely all felt it in the same way. I also think that everyone had it in the back of their minds that maybe that wasn't going to be the last time we played. But also that night we were seeing all these people from the old scene united -- Exodus played with [Paul] Balloff again -- all these guys were there that night; all the old-school friends and fans just transported us to how it used to be back in the day in the Bay Area when things were at their peak.

CoC: Aside from Mark leaving the band, and Andy's accident -- what were the key factors that led to Death Angel breaking up the first time?

RC: Well, after the accident, we heard that Andy was going to be laid up and that he wasn't going to be able to be back behind the drums for at least a year, and that obviously put a wrinkle on things. Our label at the time [Geffen] was heartlessly just telling us to immediately get another drummer and get right back on it, and we were just in massive shock. I mean, our brother had nearly just been killed and was massively injured, so we were like: "We're not getting another drummer! This is the drummer that we started the band with -- he's Andy on the drums!" And so at that, they dropped us from the label. Also, our manager at the time was trying to manipulate us into getting back into things -- he wasn't as down for the cause as we were, which was causing a negative situation, and so by that point Mark just said that he had had enough and he quit the band and he moved to New York. When that happened, I was just like: "Without Mark, this isn't Death Angel, so that's it." We weren't going to try to replace him and with all that stuff happening we were just totally disgusted at how things had turned out and we felt that this was a sign that the band was not going to go on.

CoC: Considering how young you all were when this was happening, and that Death Angel formed part of your adolescence in many ways, do you think that made the break-up even harder on you?

RC: Oh, yeah... This was not just a band for us. I mean, literally, we're family -- we're related by blood; we're all cousins and we've been close since we were little kids, playing at each other's birthday parties, and so everything was always just so intense for us. Life for us just revolved around Death Angel. We missed out on a lot of things that other people did because we were always on tour and we were always busy, and we started disconnecting with a lot of our other friends. We weren't really independent yet, but we were forced to be and leave everybody behind, which put a lot pressure on us at a very young age. We were handling it somehow, but in retrospect... You never know what would have happened, but we're definitely more in control of ourselves and of our destinies and to know what's happening and understand the whole big picture of it all. Back when we were starting out -- all we were concerned about was just jamming and having fun. And that was a great period of time: all the innocence and all the naivety, you can never get that back. We weren't paying attention to what was happening to us business-wise and we weren't really concerned about our future. We were just concerned with the day-to-day activities of having fun and just being fools. When I look at it now and try to put it into a positive light, I do know that it could not have lasted the way it was up until now, because something would have changed -- something would have happened. There's no way that we would be able to be back together and just so into it the way we are now. We never stopped playing music; we played in a lot of other bands and these were all stepping stones to where we are now. I just try and look at everything as happening for a reason, which makes me comfortable with how things turned out. I just think that there's a reason and you don't always know the reason and what you can learn from the experience you need to use to your benefit in whatever you're doing at the moment.

CoC: Okay, so the Death Angel reunion becomes a permanent arrangement; why sign to Nuclear Blast?

RC: It was a beautiful pairing with us and Nuclear Blast. They were there from the start when we started playing again, showing their support, telling us how into it they were. And we got to know them and know the label and we saw how totally into it they were, and how they're fans of the band -- they're fans of music and of metal. I mean, we've never worked with a label like that; you'd be hard-pressed to get a phone call or have someone answer your calls at some labels. But with Nuclear Blast -- they're a big metal label, they're really into the band and that's huge for us -- the support they show us really means a lot. I mean, they signed us without having heard any of the new stuff that we had done; they were into us from the start and they respected us.

CoC: How many albums have Nuclear Blast signed you for?

RC: Four.

CoC: Given that Death Angel was out of commission for such a long time, does it sometimes feel to you as though you're in a new band, or has it always just been a case of 'business as usual'?

RC: A bit of both. At the same time actually, the good aspects of both is what's happening. The fresh aspects and the 'new' of a new band is there -- we're not sick of stuff. I mean, after a while -- I hope that we retain the freshness -- but sure enough, time passes and when we got to the end of touring for _Act 3_, we had just been going at it non-stop for so long that we were sitting on the road just wishing we could be someplace else. But the experiences and the things that we've gone through, combined with the break we've had from each other and from the whole scene -- nowadays we tap into that and we've learned to appreciate things and to take things as a blessing. We constantly talk to each other about it and keep each other grounded and just stay really thankful for the opportunity that we've been given and for the position that we have been put in. We're just really thankful that this is happening and we know how rare of a thing this is.

CoC: When you started writing music for _The Art of Dying_, did you initially find it difficult to come up with material that you could rightfully call Death Angel songs?

RC: No, it only took a little ice-breaking. It was actually a little bizarre, because we were all wondering like what the new material was going to sound like.

CoC: You had been involved in projects like The Organization and Swarm, which were obviously vastly different from what you were doing in Death Angel...

RC: Absolutely, and that was done on purpose too. When we did The Organization and Swarm, we were trying to explore different types of music; different types of jams that we hadn't done before. Because we had done this intensely fast and aggressive thrash metal for so long, we wanted to expand our musical horizons. When it came down to writing for this album -- I mainly do all the writing for the band and I realized that I would just have to start writing riffs, so I kind of started writing a bunch of riffs and jamming on them with the band, and we sort of let it just hang loose before we put full songs together. So that went on for a while -- weeding out different ideas and vibes here and there, and then we started getting into the groove and we started writing songs. Some of first songs we wrote were "Prophecy" and "Five Steps", and so then we had those and we had other parts for other songs, which we weeded out and jammed on. The bulk of the writing really came in December, after we had done a tour in November and went back home and just really got into it. Touring actually helped a lot, because we played all the live shows, talked to fans and it really got us into this upbeat mood and all of a sudden the juices started flowing, and by the end of it, things just happened really quickly. Now I'm really excited -- I've already started working on the next album, and I want to put out a lot of music in the next couple of years. I also know that we're not immortal and I know that we're not going to be as young as this forever, so I want us to use our time wisely and just deliver as much music as we can while we're still into it and while everything's going well. I think we're really in a good flow right now.

CoC: With Death Angel being back together now, I take it that the side-projects have been laid to rest for the time being?

RC: Yeah, there's just no room for them anymore.

CoC: You wouldn't even consider resurrecting them once you've eased into a pattern with Death Angel?

RC: Well, I'd say that the fact that Death Angel is back together now proves the theory that anything can happen, because this is the last band I ever thought would get back together. It's not the plan right now -- we're totally focused on Death Angel -- but there's no reason why we can't do it in the future. Personally I would love to do another Organization show; I loved doing it, I love singing and I was very proud of those two albums. But right now, there's just no time for any of that. There's also stuff beyond those albums -- beyond Death Angel, Swarm and Organization -- a bunch of stuff; about thirty songs or so that are basically like acoustic kind of stuff that's a whole different vibe. If there was time in the future, I would love to be able to put that out and express that. Right now though, we're all just focusing on this band, but as time permits we'll look into stuff outside of Death Angel. I'd say there's other things to come, for sure.

CoC: There have been a lot of changes in the metal genre since Death Angel bowed out. What's your take on bands like Lamb of God, Chimaira and other bands that are regarded right now as being the future of this style of music?

RC: Well, quite honestly, I don't really listen to much of it at all, so I couldn't really give you an honest interpretation of it. Now that we're coming back to the scene, and especially now that I'll probably be getting a lot of free music <laughs>, I'll be checking out a lot of the stuff, but ever since we broke up the whole thing just left a bitter taste in my mouth and I just kind of went into different types of music that satisfied me from that time on. Usually the metal I listen to is older stuff -- my old favorites that really meant something to me. I'm not trying to say that one shouldn't be into the new stuff; it just so happened that I didn't really keep a pulse on the scene. And what I did hear, quite honestly, I wasn't very impressed by -- I found it to be not very original, and it just didn't hit me the way the old stuff did. But I really couldn't give you an honest opinion on those bands and that music.

CoC: In the same sense, what is your opinion on bands like Metallica and Anthrax who were your peers in this business when you were starting out?

RC: I'm stoked that these bands are still bringing out albums. A lot of those guys are old friends of ours who we played with back in the day, and I'm pretty sure that in the coming months we'll be playing a lot of shows with guys like Testament, Exodus and Anthrax -- and hopefully all of them will continue to put out some good quality stuff that the newer bands can be inspired by. As far as the last Metallica album, it's kind of hard for me to comprehend, in a way. The production sounds odd to me, the choice that they made to have no guitar solos is odd to me -- especially since I love Kirk's lead playing and since he was a big inspiration to me.

CoC: Kirk did your first demo, if I remember correctly; are you still in touch with him?

RC: Yeah. The last time I saw him, I didn't really feel like asking him why he didn't do any solos on the album. I don't know -- I figure they have their reasons for doing what they did. In their level of the game and in what they're doing, I don't really want to pass judgment on them. They're our friends and I really have nothing but the utmost respect for them. Being in the band, I know how hard it is to maintain and stay in a band for all that time, and the fact that those guys are still making music -- sure, their new album is not _Master of Puppets_ or _Ride the Lightning_ by any means, but it's heavy music and these guys still play it and I respect them for being around as long as they have been. In this business, there's pressure to live up to and outdo yourself and do better than you did on the last album, and there's a lot of different factors that add to that. Besides that, they have a different kind of pressure on them when it comes to making music, which we don't have. We're kind of more free in our music and in what we can do, whereas with Metallica there's just so many people involved in the machine it's quite frightening.

CoC: Say for example then that _The Art of Dying_ were to take off and Death Angel were to find themselves in a similar sort of situation. Is that environment something you'd feel comfortable or even able to work in?

RC: Their level is pretty heavy, man -- their level is pretty wild. I don't even set my sights on something like that, because they are just mega... mega... ultra-mega <laughs>. But I do hope that we will be able to elevate ourselves to the point where we will be able to make our living off of music, so that we can focus on and continue to deliver good music and good shows and be a driving force in music. That's just my main goal. Seeing Metallica -- that's just something that I manage to not even think about. I'll deal with it if we ever got to that point, but I kind of like playing small places and I think that when you get that big, it kind of gets weird -- something gets lost. I guess if we ever got that big, we'd just progress with it. But as for them, I guess they're just their own guys and I respect them for still being together and for still playing and touring heavy music. Their new album is not my favorite Metallica album, but there you have it.

CoC: Particularly when one sees you guys on stage, a lot of your more eclectic musical influences come to the fore: jazz, blues etc.. Where does that all come from?

RC: It has a lot to do with all the different types of music that everyone in this band listens to. We all listen to an unbelievable spectrum of music and naturally it incorporates into what we play. We don't even plan it that way -- it just works out naturally. In fact, we have to try to keep it from not going too far out, because if you let it run free all those different styles just end up sounding crazy.

CoC: So once again for the record, Rob -- are Death Angel back for good?

RC: Absolutely, as long as we can carry on and not sound ridiculous. But our long term goals definitely include trying to keep it up for as long as we can. So far it's been great; this is not a one-off. We want to progress this thing and see how far we can take it.

(article submitted 7/5/2004)


ALBUMS
4/27/2008 J Smit 8.5 Death Angel - Killing Season
5/31/2004 J Smit 8.5 Death Angel - The Art of Dying
GIGS
7/29/2004 J Smit Death Angel / Descent Death Never Sounded This Good
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