By David E. Gehlke
VIO-LENCE quietly, if not unceremoniously, bowed out in 1993 after the less-than-enthusiastic response to "Nothing To Gain". The album was perpetually delayed under a fog of creative squabbles and record company issues — usual roadblocks for the San Francisco Bay Area thrash bands of the time. Even after guitarists Robb Flynn and Phil Demmel found greener pastures in MACHINE HEAD and a celebrated reunion appearance at the 2001 "Thrash Of The Titans" benefit concert, VIO-LENCE hung in the back while their contemporaries in DEATH ANGEL, EXODUS and TESTAMENT enjoyed a second lease on life. The shoe finally dropped when Demmel left MACHINE HEAD in 2018 after a dispute with Flynn, opening the door for a full-fledged VIO-LENCE reunion.
The band returned in March with their first offering of new material in 29 years with "The Let The World Burn" EP. It features Demmel, along with original members vocalist Sean Killian and drummer Perry Strickland, who are joined by former OVERKILL guitarist Bobby Gustafson and ex-FEAR FACTORY bassist Christian Olde-Wolbers. The EP certainly gets its point across via Killian's unorthodox, scattershot delivery and Demmel's endless bag of riffs, recalling the band's most popular album, 1988's "Eternal Nightmare".
Demmel is a busy man, as evidenced by his recent fill-in stints with LAMB OF GOD and OVERKILL, the latter of which will carry on throughout 2022. He also hinted at other projects to BLABBERMOUTH.NET, but mum was the word on those as conversation focused on his budding reputation as metal's most in-demand fill-in guitarist and the new VIO-LENCE EP.
Blabbermouth: Before we jump into the EP, let's talk about your current "hired gun" status. You filled in for SLAYER a few years ago and now you've played with OVERKILL and LAMB OF GOD recently. How did these happen?
Phil: "[Laughs] The SLAYER thing happened within 24 hours of me quitting MACHINE HEAD. I think [SLAYER drummer] Paul Bostaph's girlfriend knew that MACHINE HEAD was done and knew that I was home, so they reached out for that. As the urban legend grows [laughs], I had three hours to learn 19 songs. It was pretty successful; a fill-in trip, one of the higher-profile things you can imagine — SLAYER on their final world tour. I filled in for my buddies in NONPOINT, too. The OVERKILL gig was more about me and Bobby [Ellsworth, vocals] doing the BPMD record together [2020's 'American Made']. We're familiar and I got the rep of being able to learn songs pretty quick. The METAL ALLEGIANCE, guys, too. I'll play 25 songs with them in a night. It's one of those quirky things where I can learn songs pretty quickly and I can pick them up pretty quick."
Blabbermouth: That's a good skill, and all those bands are different.
Phil: "They're all different. NONPOINT, too. It's more down-tuning. I have this memory thing. If I commit to memory — we had these MACHINE HEAD meet-and-greets with about 30 people where they could come in and we'd sign their stuff. You do the same thing every day. You want to exercise not only your body but your brain, too. I would go [to the fans]: 'Hey Bobby!' Or, 'Hey Sue!' or whatever. As they come through, I tried to remember their names, so at the end, when we'd take pictures with them, I could be like, 'Hey, it's Derek and Johnny!' I tried to remember all the names. Sometimes, most of the time, it would be 28 out of 30, but sometimes I hit all 30 names at a clip. I have that memory thing going and being able to hear these weird songs. SLAYER speaks their own language. LAMB OF GOD has a different language. OVERKILL, too. They're all in different tunings. The way they play, it's all different, so you have to immerse yourself in the songs and see how they speak."
Blabbermouth: Are you at a point where you're always in playing shape?
Phil: "[Laughs] I'm playing the best guitar I've played in my entire life. From doing that, but also, leaving MACHINE HEAD left me to think, 'Am I good enough to play? Am I good enough to be in a band?' I went to work on my technique and playing and worked on the weak spots in my playing a lot. We've got a studio at the house. I did a bunch of recordings. I did a bunch of the 'Collab-Jams', the covers and got in tune with the Pro Tools rig. It gave me a lot of experience. I'm in the best shape I've been. I could always be better, but I'm light-years from where I was maybe three or four years ago."
Blabbermouth: So if a Scandinavian black metal band comes calling like 1349 where it's all tremolo picking, you'll be ready, right?
Phil: "[Laughs] Oh man, I don't know about that. SLAYER had a bunch of tremolo picking. The new VIO-LENCE has a bunch of tremolo picking, but it comes down to stuff that I would enjoy doing. I love the LAMB OF GOD tunes. Learning those songs was a treat. It's work in itself. You're doing stuff — I never played some of those riffs before. Learning those songs was new. Learning the OVERKILL stuff was new and different. It makes you a better, more well-rounded player. But nothing against that music, it's not something…I'm not really into it."
Blabbermouth: Were the nerves for the LAMB OF GOD and OVERKILL gigs on a similar level to SLAYER?
Phil: "I was pretty confident with the OVERKILL songs. We had three good rehearsals. I didn't rehearse with SLAYER at all. I played two songs at a soundcheck. [Laughs] 'Okay, we're good!' It's like, 'Fuck!' OVERKILL, we had a couple of days of rehearsal. I had two and a half, three weeks to prepare for that. I felt pretty strong with that. The LAMB OF GOD gig, that was a big deal. They had approached me before their MEGADETH States tour last summer and wanted me to learn both parts, Mark [Morton, guitar] and Willie's [Adler, guitar], just in case one got sick, they didn't want to cancel their tour. That's where I am: I'm their bullpen guy when one of them can't make the shows, I'm ready to go. It's such a high-profile band. I didn't want to go out there and blow it. I wanted the band to sound good. I wanted to keep that pride in what they are and not have a drop-off. Willie and I play differently. There's different vibrato in our left-hand and pinkies. I didn't want there to be a drop-off. I wanted people to be not-bummed that he wasn't there. And that's not a slag on Willie. If I went to see one of my favorite bands, let's say QUEENSRŸCHE. I want to see [Chris] DeGarmo, I want to see Michael Wilton. No slight against the other dudes, but they better fucking bring it if they're not going to be out there."
Blabbermouth: Over to VIO-LENCE. How long did it take for you to get back into "VIO-LENCE mode" after you left MACHINE HEAD?
Phil: "It took a minute. We started doing shows in April of 2019. We were having fun being reunited, the nostalgia part of it. We did some fun one-off shows; we did some festivals overseas. We worked through that, but I didn't know if I wanted to write with these guys. It took a minute to figure that out. By the time January 2020 came around, I needed it to be perfect. I didn't want to half-ass a VIO-LENCE record or songs. I needed it to be where if we're going to do it, it has to be full-in. Writing the material — I love 'Dystopia' by MEGADETH because there are so many of the old elements on that record. He [Dave Mustaine] took back, 'Oh, this is the 'Hangar 18' part,' but those are such inherent parts to their sound where he could rip himself off and not plagiarize himself. That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to take our signature bits and make it where, 'Oh, fuck! This sounds like the late '80s!' But I also wanted to take the 35, 36-plus years of my musicianship and my songwriting experience and performance-wise to kind of update these songs and make them current and make them a blend of the both, take the best of those worlds and skip the '90s [laughs] right to what we're doing now. Working with Perry, the drummer, he and I wrote this record together. It's my material, but he and I were hammering this shit out for hours in a room. He learned my musical language and got him up to speed on tempos; he hadn't played seriously in a long time. I wanted it to feel like 1986 again. The first reunion show we did in April of '19 felt like Ruthie's Inn in Berkley, California. There was no barricade, no production, we just had our half-stacks and there's no backdrop, people flying off the monitors, the fans are going crazy. It had that vibe. I wanted to capture that energy because that's what that music means to me. We were there when METALLICA played to 50 people in a club; we saw EXODUS and those bands coming up. That's how I remember this music."
Blabbermouth: Are these all-new riffs? Or did you have any logged from over the years?
Phil: "These are all new. I had a couple of songs that I had written in 2001 because we were going to do a record then, but then I joined MACHINE HEAD and was told I couldn't do it. [Laughs] The songs were okay, but I didn't want 'okay.' I wanted fucking one-hundred percent. I wanted a ten-foot boner. I didn't want the three-inch chub; I wanted the full ten-foot boner. But, yes, they are all new. The first came pretty easy, and then after that, it took a second. We weren't rushing anything. They took a while to perfect and put them through the filter and changed a bunch of shit — I changed notes, I changed drumbeats, I changed structures a little bit. I wanted that feeling I'll never forget: [PANTERA's] 'Vulgar Display [Of Power]' is one of my favorite records of all time. I remember reading about Dime [Darrell, guitar] that when it was finished and they were listening to it, I guess he teared up and said, 'It's perfect.' I wanted that feeling. I wanted it to feel like I've done everything I possibly could on these songs. That's why I kept it to just five. I didn't want it to get diluted. I wanted to pound everything into these five songs and leave it with that feeling, 'Fuck. This is perfect. This is exactly the way I wanted it.'"
Blabbermouth: For everything Sean has been through the last few years, he sounds great on the EP. Did his performance surprise you at all? He's always been good at those off-time, crammed vocal lines that should never work but always do.
Phil: "As we were writing and he was coming up with stuff, he's so original and he's not a musician that all his ideas are so out of the box and they're fucking cool. I'm used to writing with people where 'It's got to be this many syllables and follow the same formula.' With Sean, it's like, no, either he'll make them work or make words that rhyme but don't really rhyme, but his pronunciation makes him do that. He did surprise me. I didn't think the way he rehearsed or didn't warm-up that he would lose his voice pretty easily in the studio. When I knew we were onto something special is when I wrote 'Upon Their Cross', which was the mid-paced, grindy song and I remember telling the guys, 'I don't think this is a VIO-LENCE song.' Sean said, 'Give me a few days with it to write some lyrics.' He came back with the vocal pattern and said, 'Fuck. This is my favorite song out of the five.' 'Upon Their Cross' is a VIO-LENCE tune, but the next level of what we're doing."
Blabbermouth: Did Bobby G have much input on these songs?
Phil: "Bobby lives in Florida. It was mostly me and Perry and Sean, to a certain extent hammering the songs out. Bobby had a couple of good ideas for the record, but for the most part, he structured his leads, recorded his leads, recorded some rhythms, but being so remote and being that we were in lockdown [laughs] it was kind of hard for him to be involved in the writing."
Blabbermouth: How do you envision his involvement in the future?
Phil: "Yeah, it's weird. Even Christian lives in Texas right now and we're spread out. I've started writing. I've got a tune or maybe a half again, but it's hard…it's hard enough to even rehearse with everybody. Once we start gigging and get out a little bit, we may be able to throw a song together. I'm not sure how that's going to work. There are no plans for us to record right now. I'd like to do another four or five songs again, maybe by the end of the year, but it's hard right now."
Blabbermouth: You sound old-school. You like to be in the same room when writing songs.
Phil: "I do. It's the vibe. I like the eye contact. I like the physical reciprocation of people jamming together and feeling shit. Christian had come up maybe a couple of times to demo some stuff, but it was me and Perry for the most part. It worked. I'm super-proud of the tunes. If I'm submitting riffs for a band that's cross-country and I'm actually doing that with a couple of guys right now, it's not the same. The riffs are kind of like your creation. If it's going to get changed, you want to be there for that and have some say into how it goes or where it goes."
Blabbermouth: Would you have been okay with "Nothing To Gain" being the last VIO-LENCE album if "Let The World Burn" never came together?
Phil: "Yeah. I mean, I have been. It had been okay. There was no talk of another record. I was okay with that. It's my least favorite and maybe the least involved I was in writing. It was a weird time for us. Megaforce [Records] was really shelving us and they were trying to write the record for us. It gave us a bad taste in our mouth about the whole thing. The guys in the band were…it was a weird time. I remember removing myself, 'Okay, if this is what you guys want to do, then go ahead.'"