OBITUARY with ALABAMA THUNDERPUSSY, FULL BLOWN CHAOS and HEMLOCK at the Reverb (651 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, September 13). $27.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
It all comes together at the last minute, but when I do get on the phone with Frank Watkins, bassist for Florida death metal legends Obituary, it sounds as if he's running around like a chicken with his head cut off preparing to leave for a tour with the band he's been in for more than two decades.
Funny that when we start to chat, it's not about how much whisky he's cramming into his suitcase. He's actually rushing to get everything done by 2 o'clock, when his kid gets out of school, so they can spend time together before he leaves. All of a sudden it sounds like death metal is all grown up.
Well, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but the tumultuous Florida scene, considered by many to be North America's answer to Scandinavia, has birthed plenty of cult figures and bands, and Obituary are right up there with the best of them.
Judging from the level of energy in Watkins's mile-a-minute voice, the band, also featuring long-time vocalist John Tardy, his brother Donald on drums and guitarists Ralph Santolla and Trevor Peres, has managed to mix their brand of punishing, nihilistic metal with domestic familial bliss. Amazingly, on top of that, they've done anything but slow down.
"Obituary is mayhem. It's been a non-stop train that's been just flying, and we're doing everything ourselves these days. We don't have any management, so most of the legwork is being done by the band. It's a good feeling to do that and to have control of it, but it's almost impossible when you gotta play on top of it. You gotta deal with the record label and with the press.
"At the same time, we all have families and wives and kids and all that good stuff."
It's because of their do-or-die ethic that they've managed to sustain the band (minus a temporary late-90s-to-early-00s breakup), although it's pretty obvious that playing death metal isn't exactly a huge cash cow.
"It's a surreal life. We've got fans and people who respect us and look up to us, but it's not like we're multi-millionaires who can enjoy all this other stuff. You have to pinch yourself and go, "I'm a rock star, but what the fuck? I don't have money and I'm still working a day job and I'm still trying to get my life together.' It's kinda weird."
He's got good reason to gripe, though, when you consider that heavy metal bands willing to change up their sound in order to become more bankable can rake in the cash and tour in luxury. Watkins tells me Obituary had the same bum deal offered to them, but compromise didn't seem like a dignified option.
"We've always had record labels tell us, "If you just tone down the vocals a little bit you guys would be such a fuckin' killer band,' or, "If you just took a little of that dirt off your guitar".' But then you'd hear that fakeness in us and it wouldn't be Obituary, it wouldn't have carried."
Judging by their multi-continent tour schedule, people really do still give a shit. But Watkins made some mistakes in his youth, resulting in a criminal record that haunts his current tour plans. He tells me life isn't like that any more, not with family responsibilities and such, but it's easy to understand how being young and in a metal band was a recipe for trouble.
"Years ago when we toured, we were 18, 20 years old. You give a guy a record contract and a tour and you're travelling all around the United States and it's like a free licence to do whatever the fuck you want. We've been to, you know, almost every country and every crooked place in the world."