Pillars of the 90s: An Interview with Autopsy
[This is the 13th installment of the Pillars interview series. You can check out the rest here]
Album: Mental Funeral
Label: Peaceville Records
Favorite Song: "In the Grip of Winter"
The Bare Bones: Mental Funeral is the sophomore album from Californian death metal band Autopsy.
The Beating Heart: Autopsy might be rightfully considered to be something of the bastard child of the great American death metal explosion of the late 80s and early 90s. They weren't as heady as Death nor as complex as Morbid Angel. They weren't terrifyingly groovy like Obituary, or just plain terrifying like Deicide. But it was precisely that awkward, vagabond quality that made Autopsy perhaps the most compelling of those bands. Combining an otherworldly ear for doom and gloom with an almost rollicking sense of pure fun and loose abandon, their very ability to evade easy categorization and to paint outside the lines is what proved to be their magic sauce. They grooved, they attacked, all while making some very strange, very inspiring and idiosyncratic choices. And while there ins't a bad Autopsy album, there was little doubt in my mind that if there was one album I'd like to talk to the band about it would be their unhinged 1991 masterpiece, Mental Funeral. And so that's precisely what I did in this brand-new conversation with Autopsy drummer/vocalist Chris Reifert, one that took place almost exactly six years after our previous conversation (which you can read here).
Before that, however, a few words about what this all is, and what I hope to achieve in an investigation of the great albums of the 1990s. I feel like what happened, inadvertently with the Albums of the Decade project was a documentation and to an extent consolidation of what it is that I have loved an admired about the music of the past 10 years or so. I began writing this blog as a way back into music and heavy music after something of a hiatus from metal in the early 2000s and it was for me an investigation not only of what I love but also why I love it. And those interviews were instrumental in my own understanding of my appreciation of music and, really of art more generally. However, having gone through that series as long as I have has also pitted me face to face with the understanding that the wellspring of my own musical inspiration as well as that of many of the artists I admire today – that weird, unique confluence of inspirations that made up the musical scene of the 1990s – had to be tackled in some way.
So, now that that's out of the way, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify (now also on Twitter) and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, and check out our kinda-sorta podcast, MATEKHET (YouTube, Spotify and all that). On to my conversation with Chris.
So, basically what happened is that I did this The Albums of the Decade interview project about the 2010s, and what happened was that a lot of people were looking back to the 90s as very influential. And I got that, because that was my experience. But I didn’t really want to go there since it felt kind of like a trip down memory lane – something like: “The 90s were so cool, everything is dead now.” Mostly because I don’t believe that, I think that whatever’s happening now is as good as it was back then.
Oh yeah, for sure.
So I thought I’d talk about those albums, and in your case talk about Mental Funeral, and maybe try and figure out what it is about them that made them so important for a lot of artists. And once you ask that then you get a unique mix of bands, some of which, like Autopsy, were pretty known at the time, and some, like Winter for instance, got their due much later.
And so I actually want to start with a question that usually comes only later on. So, like I said, some bands in this project were big at the time and some only got recognized later and I was wondering where you felt Autopsy fit in that scheme?
I think we felt pretty appreciated at the time, depending on where we went. Actually, by the time Mental Funeral came out we had already done some European tours. I think we felt pretty good where we sat, I don’t think we really thought about it very much. We were just a bunch of dumb stoners making metal just to do it, you know? [laughs] We didn’t know what else to do. I don’t remember feeling any kind of hate toward us from parts of the scene or anything like that.
I wouldn’t necessarily say hatred, more like if people came to the shows, being thought of as a top-billing band, that kind of thing.
You know what, around that time we didn’t really play that many shows, to be honest to you. We had been to Europe and back twice, we had not done the U.S. tour yet – that would have been two years later. So we didn’t play that much, kind of just made records and dicked around listening to records in each other’s houses or whatever. We weren’t setting out to conquer the world. I think in 1991 we mostly played local shows, and not many. We didn’t pack clubs at that point. We had a couple of pretty good shows, but nothing that you would think “Oh, it was the peak of death metal!” It was not like that. In the Bay Area death metal was catching on, but it was very underground and not entirely acceptable in the metal world. In the mid to late 80s death metal was considered a joke, at least from a local standpoint. Everyone was all about the thrash and all that. Like I said before, the attitude to death metal was more like: “Oh, you can’t understand the lyrics! It’s stupid!” and stuff like that. That kind of faded in the early 90s, but still we would play local shows for maybe, maybe 100 people. And we had probably played only two or three shows at that point, we weren’t trying very hard [laughs]. We were just happy to make a record and then listen to it, that was our goal.
One of the challenges that I have found myself encountering when talking to death metal musicians is that it seems like a lot of the motivation in death metal is just playing.
It’s not a very cerebral experience. You don’t hear a lot of death metal bands going: “I wanted to do this and that to challenge the way people think about music,” or whatever. And a lot of times in death metal it’s people who want to do cool shit and then do it.
You just hit the nail on the head.
So that was your experience too?
You know what, without overthinking it, yeah, pretty much. It was just a culmination of us listening to things that we liked and thinking: “Oh, it would be fun to play that stuff, but our own version.” And it all turned into what we ended up playing. And we were 22 or 21 year old, at that age what do you care about? Unless you have a career path or that you know exactly what it is you want to do with your life. I don’t know how many 21 year olds know that stuff, but that was not us [laughs]. We were just have a job so you have some pocket money and play music. We weren’t trying to revolutionize anything or change people’s worlds. It was just “Oh, we like this stuff, let’s play it! Maybe some people will like it too!” That’s it, that’s as far as we thought about it.
I mean, I know this is going to be an impolite question.
Go right ahead!
I assume you’re not 20 years old anymore, is that correct?
Ah, let me look at my driver’s license [laughs]. Yeah, I think I’m pretty past that.
So, as a mature man in his late 30s
You’ve had a full life since then. You’ve been a musician, you’ve had a family. Do you have a better sense now about what it was that drove you then? Obviously all the cerebral stuff didn’t really play out when you were 20, because you were just doing it, but do you have a better appreciation now of what it was it was doing for you? Maybe what kind of release it was?
I just feel the same as ever when it comes to thinking about music and playing it. It’s just something you do. Ever since I was a little kid and discovering KISS. Everyone in my age group would probably say the same things: KISS, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Aerosmith, and Cheap Trick, the hard rock stuff that I could find at the time. And then it was just: “Oh, that’d be fun to do that!” And then you learn how to play music a little bit. There was no real thought process, it was just something like an urge. That’s probably the best way to put it – don’t think about it, it’s just an urge. Fortunately it was a good outlet, instead of going around and breaking windshields with rocks or something. It was a good urge [laughs]. It still feels like that now. There’s a part of me sometimes that goes: “Ah, but that means I need to get off the couch and play drums!” [laughs] I probably felt like that back then too sometimes [laughs]. But then when you play it just feels good, and fortunately that’s something I still enjoy and I don’t have to think too much about why. Just “This makes my brain feel good!”
I remember in our previous conversation you talking about that significant moment you had with KISS and that commercial you saw, and also you mentioning you taking lessons from a jazz drummer.
Yeah, a teacher I had for a few months. I never learned any of that stuff, but watching him play it…. And he was probably 16 or 17 but he seemed like a man of the world to me, because I was 12 or whatever. I was like: “Whoa, I want to learn to do that!”
Yeah, but it just seems like…. I mean, one of the things that mystifies me about Autopsy…
[Laughs] I’m glad we can supply some mystique.
For sure! But one of the things that’s mystifying to me about the band is that… Well, death metal has many faces, and it can take on this almost competitive angle: Who can do it faster? Who can make it more complex? Or even this caveman competition of who can make it the most brutal or ritual or reverby? But no one really occupies the Autopsy space. And I think that has to do with the fact, and this is related to the mystifying part, is that it always feels so loose. Everything feels free and open. A lot of it is in how you play the drums, which is half “I don’t give a fuck” half “I’m going to kill you.”
That’s how I thought about it, not sure it’s accurate.
No man, I love that.
But also in Mental Funeral specifically the drum sound is wide open too, you can hear the room with every hit. Which isn’t necessarily the case even with other Autopsy albums. So, everything feels loose and open, to me. And so, does that come from the hard rock influences? Because obviously hard rock is very groove-oriented. So, where is that coming from, that unique style of playing?
Well, it just got me thinking that a lot of what makes Mental Funeral what it is is the sound. The sound is strictly ignorance on our part, since we didn’t know any better. It’s funny because that album sounds so deep and foreboding and all that, but it was kind of just a party. We had a whole bunch of our friends there – we weren't treating the studio environment like professionals [laughs], that’s for damn sure. I think at some point we counted, including ourselves and the engineer and our buddies, there were eighteen of us in there. Just running around, drinking beer and liquor and getting high. The music was just something that we had to do when we hit the record button, we were just in the moment partying it up. Hammy from Peaceville was there with us and was partaking in the party. I just remember putting on the headphones when it was time to start recording and that was my first time being drunk and having to record and just going: “Oh shot, I’m drunk. I’ve got to make a record” [laughs]. On Severed Survival we had something like a beer or two but [with Mental Funeral] we were just kind of going for it.
But then, I don’t know, it was weird, when we started playing it just worked. Not in that “You have to be hammered in order to play well” way, but for some reasons my fears melted away. Everything just clicked and it felt good and sounded good. And then we didn’t really mix the album very much. We kind of just liked what we sounded, the raw tones, which isn’t what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to hack away at the mix and make it perfect. We didn’t want it to be perfect, we were like: “This sounds good just like this!” I’m sure Hammy tweaked it a little bit, but not very much. We were hearing a slightly glorified version of the starting tones, and so you just hear, like you said, a lot of the room in the drums and all that. It was a cool studio that’s gone now, which is a shame. That was a weird story in itself because we went there because I found out that The Residents had made a record there. I just thought: “Whoa, that’s just weird enough for it to work, let’s go make the record where The Residents recorded!”
That’s a very unusual reason to choose a studio for a death metal album.
Yeah. Actually there’s a funny bit…. I’ve told this story a few times, but most people don’t seem to get it. Have you ever heard The Residents album Eskimo?
So there’s a riff in there – if you want to call it a riff – that I totally stole. I just changed two notes and that’s the quiet part of “In the Grip of Winter.” I don’t remember which track it is off of Eskimo, but it’s the same [It’s from the intro to “The Walrus Hunt.” MM]. So there’s a weird The Residents connection with that studio in that way too. I mean, to be honest with you, that album kind of fakes me out, Mental Funeral. Because everyone keeps talking about how it’s doomy and slow and sludgy, and I feel that way too. But every now and again I put it on, when I have to relearn stuff, and I always forget that there’s a lot of really fast stuff on there, and pretty intricate stuff too. It’s a weird album in that way, it feels slow and doomy, and at times it is, but there’s a lot of speedy, strange stuff in there too. I don’t know. I don’t know what the hell we were thinking.
[Laughs] Well, thank god for that.
I mean, I think to me, as a person who has very little significance in the world and whose opinion does not matter, the magic of that album and the magic of you as a band, is your ability to always stay in that loose, “I don’t give a fuck” pocket. I would assume that would become harder to sustain as you grow older – that you become more aware of what you’re good at and what you’re less good at and that you settle into habits, and it never really felt like that happened with you guys. It sounds like you’re always having fun. That’s such a rare thing. For me Mental Funeral is that place where it feels maybe something like “professional fun.” Because it’s heavy and has all that doom and gloom you referred to, but it also feels fun. I don’t listen to that album and feel scared. I just feel like I’m listening to people having a blast. So the magic is really in that it has all those things, the slow and fast parts, the quiet parts, the weird parts. Like the album where you guys hit the dynamics button to the max and made a point to switch things up – pace, tone, loudness. Was that something that you even noticed was happening? This variety?
Well, going back to the beginning of your comment – we’re all just dumb insignificant humans together [laughs], so let’s get that straight.
That is correct, I apologize for that.
But, I don’t know. I think that might be the product of things that we were listening to. I mean, I don’t think we got into this at the time, but by the time we were doing Acts of the Unspeakable we were discovering things like Universe Zero, that band out of Belgium. They have some weird time changes and we decided to put those into death metal and that it would work well. But, especially on the first couple of albums, we were kind of just discovering what it was that we liked to do. We were listening to a lot of Frank Zappa, always. A lot of the odd, technical – at least for us – parts were probably inspired by that, as a little challenge to ourselves.
The intro to “Hole in the Head” is kind of Zappa-esque, I guess.
Yeah, for sure. Just whatever we were listening to, whether directly or just something that made us think about it. Going back to something you said, we did have fun playing that stuff. Not in a party metal kind of way, but it’s just enjoyable to play. And it kind of has to be, because most of our time in the rehearsal room is spent just hanging around before we even play. We just sit there and have a beer and talk about whatever for most of the night, and then we’re like: “Oh shit, we better play!” [Laughs]. So it’s got to be enjoyable. If we decided to be like Dream Theater, trying to prove that we can do something, then that wouldn’t be fun. We have to actually like what we’re playing. Not trying to summon the elder gods [laughs] or trying to be the most grim band on the planet. I mean, we are kind of goofy as people, and we can definitely laugh at ourselves, we’re human. We do take the music very seriously, but while we’re having fun doing it. It’s why we play music, I guess.
So, I have a few things in my mind right now, one of them is a return to what I said is my frustration in talking about death metal albums, that more often than not the answers tend to be: “It’s what we felt like doing.” Which is completely understandable, but it’s difficult when you want to talk about more than just that. So I’m going to latch on to something you said and use it against you.
Yes. What you describe as just your natural impulse, whether it’s the partying during the recording of Mental Funeral or the way you guys just hang out when you rehearse, so in both cases the act of actually playing and recording music seems almost incidental to you guys meeting. It’s almost like a side effect of the band meeting. And in a way, that’s a method. It’s a very unique method, but it’s a creative process, right? It’s not like you plan it out, right? It’s not like you went to Eric or Danny and said: “So, look. We’re going to hang out from 12:00 to 17:00, drink beer from 17:00 to 18:00 and then record some.”
So, it isn’t planned that way, but it’s still a kind of method.
Well, yeah. I mean, in the early stages of the band we never had a practice room, we were just teenagers waiting for someone’s parents to leave their house for the weekend so we could have a house to practice/house-party in. So we spent a lot of time just talking about it. Talking about not only other people’s records that we liked but also about Autopsy – write lyrics, write riffs – all the stuff we could do without having a practice room. So, maybe not having a rehearsal room early on had something to do with that. We were forced to just hang out and talk about stuff [laughs] and fantasize about the whole thing. And we’d also have to move quickly because someone’s parents are out of town, you set up in their house – it’s not going to be forever [laughs]. So, we got good at doing a lot in a short amount of time and under unusual circumstances, and that all fed into the fun part of it, somehow.
And maybe also into the “loose” part of it. I mean, it’s not like you don’t take your music seriously, it’s obvious that you take it very seriously, but being serious about something doesn’t mean you need to be professional to the point of it not being fun anymore. You know, I just taught a course and one of the quotes that kept coming up is this thing a philosophy professor said in response to a lecture that he felt was too personal: “This may all be great fun, but is it real professional work?” And I find that quote terrifying, becauseI think fun can be very professional work and that fun can be a very serious thing. And people who can’t understand that are, in a way, tone deaf to my frequency. Do you know what I’m saying?
So people who are looking for things to be perfect are looking for something that I am just not looking for. And I think Autopsy is a great example of that. And this might tie into the other thing that I was thinking of, that not that many bands followed the Autopsy blueprint and I guess I can better understand why now, since doing that – serious fun – is a very tricky thing. What you guys did, and still do, is a very difficult thing to emulate.
Yeah. We didn’t do, and did do, a lot of things that weren't in the norm. We never aimed for perfection, we wanted to play the songs and play them right. I mean, the thing is that our budgets are never that big when we’re ready for the studio, and contrary to what some might think, we’re extremely prepared and extremely rehearsed, just because we don’t have time to go: “Oh no, how does that song go?” We can’t have that. We’re more like: “Oh man, we’ve got five hours left and we’ve got to finish this record. So, we bypass a lot of things. Like, we don’t do scratch tracks, we don’t play along to a click. So, if the drumming doesn’t sound machine-like, that’s why – it’s played by a human. I don’t play with a metronome or anything like that. I mean, my timing is pretty good but I’m not a robot, which is something I like because sometimes I hear albums that are too robotic. I’ve always liked that description that we’re like a train going down a track, and sometimes it kind of wobbles – “Oh no, is it going off the tracks?” but it never does. It creates this suspense of: “Are they going to pull this off?” I don’t know, it’s just how we play. We all came from that rock n’ roll background, and all the things we talked about. You take a band like The Rolling Stones – they’re loose, free-flowing, and not robotic in any way. And we like that attitude. Just play the songs, don’t try to be something you’re not.
That’s very true, but it’s really a weird thing. Because I find that a lot of the artists I love are artists that put in things where they don’t necessarily fit. And rock n’ roll isn’t something I would associate with death metal. I mean, obviously there’s death n’ roll, but more often than not there seems to be a real serious streak about death metal and death metal musicians where that kind of groove or fun isn’t such an automatic fit.
I mean, we grew up on rock n’ roll. If you asked Danny and Eric who their guitar heroes are they’ll mention people like Michael Schenker and Jimmy Page and stuff like that. Keith Richards. We grew up before there was really metal. I mean, there was stuff bubbling under the surface and Black Sabbath and things like that, but we grew up with….the things I just mentioned, or Led Zeppelin and so on. That stuff is deeply ingrained within us. We didn’t grow up on Morbid Angel or anything like that. And that’s why I mentioned the rock n’ roll stuff, because that was our childhood.
There’s something to be said about allowing that rock n’ roll spirit to stay in metal as opposed to banishing it completely. There’s so much life and humanity in there.
Though it must be said, you can’t force it. It has to feel natural.
Completely. And this whole letting things not be forced leads me to another question, which is…. A lot of times when I talk to bands and specifically when I talk about a major shift in their sound or focus then more often than not the reason for that chance is an almost random, technical detail. Technical things that end up making a big difference. Did you ever have something like that happen to you? Something that just happened to take place in the studio that ended up with something you liked?
Hmm, I’d have to think about that. Every once in a while something like that will happen. I think this was on Headless Ritual. For some reason Eric and I both had a riff that was kind of a stray – and this might not have directly to do with your question, because in the studio we’re not very spontaneous. We don’t have time for accidents to turn out to be cool, you know? We’re trying to beat the clock and get everything done in our allotted amount of time without having to ask for more budget money, which we have to pay back [laughs]. Budgets are loans. So, we don’t have time for that. We don’t have time for bonus tracks, extra tracks for singles, any of those things. We get in, we have fun and all that, but we also work very hard once it’s time to get into the studio. We just utilize every minute we have. But the closest thing I can think of is that one of the songs, I think this was on Headless Ritual, we wrote and recorded it in 30 minutes. And that was kind of a cool feeling. Everything just fell together. We just went: “Oh, these riffs can go together, let’s put them together, write the lyrics, hit the record button!” And 30 minutes later we had it. But stuff like that almost never happens.
And was there anytime this happened with the sound? Say how your drums sounded, for instance?
Man, we’re in just a race to get everything done, it’s just so fast. The drums, for instance, are done in one day, or a day and a half. The way we do it is that the guitars, the bass, and the drums are all played live in the studio. And as soon as we get a song where the drums are good, if we don’t have horrible mistakes on the drums then we just move on to the next song. If there’s a guitar mistake, we can fix that later, that’s easy to do. So it’s just a blur – one song with usable drums after another. Vocals are usually done in a couple of hours, those are no pressure. That’s when I can cut loose and not worry about mistakes. Drumming is all about worrying about mistakes [laughs]. Because we don’t really do drum editing ever, so if I fuck up the song, and it’s almost the end of the song, then we stop and we start all over again [laughs], and that can get exhausting and frustrating sometimes. So, it’s just a blur. We’re just happy to get it done. And then we get to the fun stuff like the guitar solos and guitar harmonies or overdubs, vocals. That’s just the icing on the cake, where you can be creative and enjoy it. But you’re still looking at that clock the whole time.
Last question. When you look back at Mental Funeral, when you do, is there anything about that album, 30 years later, you’re still very happy with?
Just the whole album. All the songs work with each other, I think. I don’t listen to it very much. Whenever I make a record I have a cycle – we play it, we record it, and then I’ll listen the hell out of it and then we get the copies printed up and mailed all over here, listen to it a couple of more times, and then file it away. On to the next one. But, really just the whole thing. A lot of it has to do with hearing other people say that they really like it. That’s not why we set out to do it, if everyone hated it we’d still be proud of it, but it’s just makes you feel extra good when other people like your weird ideas. It’s a cool album. I’m just glad it came out the way it did.
Is it surprising to you that people like your weird ideas? Was it surprising to you?
Oh yeah [laughs]. Even more now considering how much time went by and people still enjoy it. So now it’s extra weird. It’s not like: “Oh, this new thing came out like it” it’s “Whoa! Thirty years have gone by and people still like it, oh my god!” That’s great, man. That’s a good feeling.