To Crush Once More
CoC chats with Mike Smith of Suffocation
by: Jackie Smit
As long-time readers of Chronicles Of Chaos may be aware, this interview marks something of a mini-milestone for us. Not only is it the first time that we've had a member of what is arguably one of death metal's most influential creative forces in the hotseat, but back in CoC #1, _Pierced From Within_ was one of the first albums to come under the critical eye of our esteemed founder and editor-in-chief. Most important in the grander scheme of things though is Suffocation's return to the fray after a very lengthy leave of absence. After eighteen months that saw them release a blistering new record and perform more than two hundred shows, I thought that it would be the perfect time to put a call into founding member Mike Smith to get his thoughts on the success of the reunion thus far and his insights into what we can expect from the band in 2006.

CoC: It's been about eighteen months since Suffocation got back together; when you reflect on the time that's passed, how do you feel about the reception that you received?

Mike Smith: I think it's better than we ever could have expected. It had been so long that when we came back, we were really unsure of how things would turn out. We knew what we wanted to do, but we weren't sure how the fans would take to it. But the immediate response was overwhelming. We did over two hundred shows, we travelled all over the world, played in places that we'd never been and it was just absolutely more than we ever expected.

CoC: As far as _Souls to Deny_ is concerned, do you feel like that record was the best that Suffocation was able to offer at the time?

MS: Absolutely not. There's a few things that I think fans need to realise about that album. _Souls to Deny_ came out and we were happy with the results of it. But what people don't realise is that when we got back together there had been no plans for a Suffocation reunion ever. I was off for nine years. Terrence was off for six years and Frank the same. So there had been no music written for all that time, and when we got back together, we had to get into the writing process immediately, which was a short period of time. So you have to figure that we had three original members in this unit, and we had two new members who didn’t know anything about Suffocation or how we wrote. So that was the platform that we were on to begin with, and we really had to rush the album because the response had been so good to the news that we were back together that we had to get something out so that we could go and tour. As long as the fans understand that it was three months between the time that we said we were coming back and bringing out the record and going on tour; that was the only time we spent on the album. That's not how Suffocation works. Usually we take a year or two years to write an album, and that gives us a chance to really reflect on the music -- like it, love it, throw it out, rewrite it, and really get to something that we feel is representative of what who are. So, it was rushed, but I still think it was a good enough example of what we can do in a short period of time, and I think especially when people see us live, they'll know that we haven’t lost anything.

CoC: I normally try not to ask anyone this question, but since you bring it up, I'm curious to know how the writing process in Suffocation works. Is it anything different from the normal group collaboration?

MS: No, I think the way that Suffocation writes could almost be construed as being functional. If we weren't in the game for so long, it would definitely be a dysfunctional way to do things. We don't get together as a group and sit down and try to write songs. What we do is to individually write our own parts, because we all have different styles and we all like different stuff. So I write, Hobbs writes at his leisure and we both put together what we have on our minds. If it's a full song that happens, then we construct it and then we submit it to the others. So the way we've done it especially on this next record is that we've each taken a lot of time to write our own parts and then we've each submitted that and torn it up and rewritten it. And then it goes down to the basement where everyone can add in their own comments and ideas and eventually that's how the final song gets put together. Normally you'd expect that we'd all be sat in a basement and be writing parts together until something came out of that, but that's not how it works with us.

CoC: Suffocation was away from the death metal scene for several years, and in the time that you were away, there were several high profile bands that came up the ranks and very obviously take a lot of influence from the work that you did on _Effigy of the Forgotten_ and _Pierced From Within_. From an insider's perspective, coming back did it feel to you like the death metal scene had changed significantly?

MS: I don't think it's changed that much. It's still an underground movement that we're all trying to bring up. I think that what did happen is that it got populated. When we were coming up, there were far fewer bands being signed and every one of those bands had their own distinct style and sound. So when we came back into this, I think we all realised fairly quickly that there are a lot more bands into this now, and the range of diversity is far less than it was previously. A lot bands sound the same and a lot bands are trying to sound like others before them. That's something that I have never done, and it's not something that I'm accustomed to. I always thought that if, say, Pestilence were sounding like this, then we shouldn't sound like that, we should sound like this. Now it seems that if one band sounds a certain way and is considered to be the extreme, then many bands first adopt that style and go from there. I don't really agree with that, because I think it takes away from the originality of the band, but that's definitely the noticeable difference I saw in the scene when we came back into it.

CoC: From a personal standpoint, what made you decide that Suffocation was something that you wanted to continue with?

MS: Well, Suffocation never left me. I’m a founding member of Suffocation, and when I wasn't in it, I didn't miss it, because the band had at that point become dysfunctional. But around 2004, when the idea came to me, I couldn't see Suffocation coming back without the original members -- the guys who had been there when this was all formed. And I was at the point in my life where I could; I'm in great shape, I could still jump into the scene and play the way I left it. Also, after all these years of being on stage, you miss it. You know that's where you want to be. So it wasn't a hard decision for me to come back. As long as everyone's minds were focused on making this work, rather than being negative the way we were in the past, I was all for it.

CoC: So without giving too much personal details away, since Suffocation has reformed, has any of the old dysfunctions reared their heads again? How has the dynamic changed between yourself, Frank, Terrence and the other members?

MS: In the earlier days of Suffocation we were together a lot more. Friendship-wise, we'd be together most of every day, hanging out, and then we'd be in the basement practicing; which was probably more than we should have. Now, after being together for so long and playing so many tours, when you're at home, you don't have to be in the basement and you don't have to be hanging out together 24/7. This band is definitely a full-time job for us now and we take it very seriously. And like I said, we do a lot of work separately and then bring it down to the basement and put it all together. Me, Frank and Terrence grew up together, so the friendship and the love that we share will always be there. But now we're grown up and we all have families and responsibilities and that means that we have to see this band from a business point of view as well, because we don't have any other jobs. When we were younger it was like we'd do this and have fun with it and if something happened, then hip-hop hooray. Now we have to take it much more seriously. The newer guys, we all get along fine. We've been through a lot of successful tours now and we know what to do not to rub each other the wrong way, so it all works out great.

CoC: As far as these tours are concerned, you played over two hundred dates, which for a death metal band is quite extraordinary. What was the highpoint for you during that time?

MS: I can't honestly say that there was one, because they were all great. The highpoint was the whole touring season in general, because to get through a long tour successfully without any cancellations or bad shows or members dropping out or whatever -- that's a hard thing to do. We've done a bunch of them now across Europe and across the States, and to realise that because we've matured now and our focus is in the right place, we can make this work and make a living off of it, that's the ultimate highpoint for me. Other than that, every show has been phenomenal. The response has been just overwhelming and the feedback we've had at every one has been the same, from London to Romania, to Columbia to Japan. All exactly the same; everybody wanted to see us and because of that we just came out every night and we were able to do our best.

CoC: One of the fruits of your touring labours is the DVD that was rumoured to have been shot at one of your dates in Long Island. Is this still being released?

MS: It is going to be released, but it's still being worked on. It won't just be the Long Island show though. That was a show that we made a point of trying to capture, but we want to try and capture as many as possible like London and Japan. When you record shows like this, you'll always find that it's not ever 100% perfect. Maybe the sound is out or maybe the visuals don't look so good. So we've recorded a bunch of shows, and we're going through a lot of material right now to try and figure out how to best put something together that will really make the fans happy. We definitely want to put it out and we're going to try and have it done by the time that the new album comes out, but whether that's going to happen, I'm not sure. It's a lot of work though and I hope that people will realise that we'd rather take our time and put out something that's high quality than rush for the sake of bringing something out quickly. We're basically doing this alongside writing the new album.

CoC: So, as far as the new album is concerned, how is work faring on that?

MS: I'd say that we have the better half of about seven or eight songs that are about three quarters structured. We're feeling pretty strong on those, and while they're not completed, it is a great start for us because it means we'll have plenty of time to reflect on them and decide what we like and what we don't like.

CoC: Is this record going to be a new creative chapter for the band, or are we looking at an album that's similar in style to your earlier stuff?

MS: It'll be in the same vein as the old stuff. We're not the sort of band to break the mould if it wasn't broken to begin with. You know, we're trying to stay in the range that we've always been in, but at the same time we really want to refine all the points of what it is we do. This record will be in the realm of _Effigy..._, and _Pierced..._ and _Despise the Sun_, with maybe a bit more maturity. We don't want to create something that's completely new unless it happens very naturally. Other than that, we're not striving to do anything greatly different. We just want to bring fans back to why they listen to us in the first place and make every song something that they'll want to hear again and again.

CoC: Stepping aside from Suffocation for a moment, you were also personally involved in the recent Roadrunner All-Stars project. How did that come about?

MS: Well, Monty [Conner] from Roadrunner called me up from out of the blue and told me that he was working on an anniversary project for past and current Roadrunner musicians, and he asked whether I'd be interested in participating. So I said of course, and I flew down to Florida for three days and I laid down my track, had a good time partying with the cats that were on it with me, and I'm pretty happy with the results. I think that Roadrunner didn't really do a good job representing Suffocation, because I don't think that they knew what they had when they had us. With this anniversary project, they're giving us a little more respect than they've done in the past, and hopefully it will mean that a couple more people will be interested in hearing our stuff and maybe picking up a couple of records from the Suffocation catalogue. I couldn't ask for more than that.

CoC: Since you mention your experience with Roadrunner, how has it been different being with Relapse Records?

MS: Well, Relapse... We were the first album that Relapse ever had on their label -- the _Human Waste_ record. We have a history with Relapse. We know their history and they know ours. So the way it is this point is great -- anything we need from them, we don't have a problem approaching them and asking for it from them. They know that pretty much all the decisions that we make about the band are going to be better than the one's that they'd make. We know what our fans want, we know how we want to record, we know how we want to tour, we know when we want to tour. Relapse is willing to work with all of that instead of laying down the gameplan for us, and it feels like after seventeen years in death metal, they feel like we are mature enough to know how to handle our own business. And they give us the space to do that. It's a real good working relationship.

CoC: Looking at the Roadrunner All-Stars Project, you can't help but notice so many influential extreme bands that have been through the Roadrunner cycle that aren't there anymore. In your mind does this anniversary, to some extent at least, highlight that Roadrunner turned their back on their roots?

MS: <pauses> Yeah, I think so. I don't think that they knew what they had when they had it, as I said. The Roadrunner All-Stars project was great. I went to the party that they had for it, and what the theme was for that party was to showcase the bands and the music who helped mould the scene for the music that we're into right now. And I found it funny that in death metal we are one of the most influential bands -- which a lot of other bands will admit and have admitted to -- and still Roadrunner doesn't see it that way; at least to the point where they felt like they didn't need to have a Suffocation song played at that show. I mean, this was a huge party and there were people from all across the industry present who had been or are involved in the scene, but they didn't think that they should have Suffocation play. To me, I just couldn't understand and I couldn't fathom it and it just goes along with how they treated us when we were on the label. I was disappointed, but then I was also glad that they thought to call me at all, so I can't really complain. I'm just sharing my opinion and I think that a lot of fans have voiced their opinion and I hope that Roadrunner will realise someday that they dropped the ball with us.

CoC: You quite rightly pointed Suffocation's influence on death metal earlier, and I think in particular with the new generation of bands, that's becoming increasingly apparent. Is that ever something you are aware of when you're doing this, and particularly now that you're back into the thick of things?

MS: It's not something that we go to bed thinking about, that's for sure. We're too grounded that we're going to let something like that make us think that we're on top of the world. You know, the compliments are what keeps us going in many ways and it really helps. When Roadrunner wasn't helping us, it was our fans who told us where we stood. It's a complete honour for anybody to be given that amount of respect for their work and to hear bands say that we influenced them or inspired them to start something is incredible. It's not something that makes us feel like we're on top of the world or above anything though. It just gives us more energy to inject into what we write and into how we perform. And getting back to what we were talking about at the start of the interview, if we take longer with an album than people think we should, that's because we can't afford to put out something that we feel is not an accurate representation of who we are.

CoC: So as far as the new album is concerned, do you have an idea yet of when you want to record and ultimately release it?

MS: Well, we want to be in the studio by the end of February or the beginning of March. It doesn't take us long to record an album -- we can usually get things done in about two weeks or so, so at that point it won't be us holding up the show anymore. We'll have a turnaround time that the label will take before they release it, so all I can say for sure is that we definitely want the album done and record by the mid to end of March. After that, I imagine it will be about a month or so before its release. Guestimation.

CoC: Have you made any decisions on a studio, or producer yet?

MS: No, not really. We have our own studio and we have our own sound guy that's travelled with us and who knows what our sound is like. So for the moment, we're just sticking with that. When the album is ready to be recorded we'll make those decisions, because at the moment there are just so many producers who are asking whether or not they can do it for us. At the moment our studio is being built up more and more every day, so if things work out right we may just decide to record it in our studio at our own comfort and our own leisure. It's hard to think that far ahead at the moment.

CoC: Mike, thanks very much for your time. Is there anything you want to say to close the interview off?

MS: I'm just looking forward to getting the new album done and out and getting back on the road, and I hope we'll get to see all the old faces and a couple of new ones as well.

(article submitted 29/1/2006)

7/5/2009 J Smit 9 Suffocation - Blood Oath
8/31/2006 J Montague 9.5 Suffocation - Suffocation
5/7/2004 J Smit 9 Suffocation - Souls to Deny
7/8/1998 P Schwarz 9 Suffocation - Despise the Sun
8/12/1995 G Filicetti 7 Suffocation - Pierced From Within
6/9/1996 A Gaudrault Suffocation / Fleshgrind / Obscene Crisis / Rotting Gasping For Air
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