Before the Slovenian date of the thrash metal tour with Testament, Annihilator and Death Angel, we had the chance for a long and pleasant chat with Rob Cavestany, guitar player and founding member of Death Angel: after a short delay, he’s been very kind and told us something about the new album and the writing process, as well as some history and anecdotes. Enjoy!
So let’s begin with your last album, “The Evil Divide”, which came out about one year and a half ago: it was another album in a series of solid and consistent releases.
I’m not going to ask you about the making process, but in retrospect do you have any particular thoughts on the album or on the whole promotion you’ve been doing?
Yeah, now it’s over a year old and we had time to look back on the music, the experience… I still love it as much as I did when we first created it, and it feels still fresh to me ‘cause we really didn’t tour too much for this album. For some of the albums in the past we did insane touring, to the point we wore out songs already, you know. So yeah, we’re really excited playing the songs live: even when you hear it they still sound fresh to me. Great experience, I loved the album and I love playing the songs live.
You and Mark are the main songwriters in the band. How does your writing process work?
Uhm, typically I’d write the music, compile it wherever I’m at, in whatever recording device I have, which is many different portable things you can record everything on: from a phone, to a portable Pro-Tools rig, to anything. Then, when I get home, I start arranging and making it more into song structures. Then I’ll get with our drummer, Will, and we go to a rehearsal studio so we can play live together with guitar, drums, to get more of a live feel, work more on arrangements and make some recordings. We give to the rest of the guys CDs, files, emails… we jam on songs some more, we get a more solid structure and make a recording of that. Then, we give that to Mark, he checks that out and starts getting ideas for lyrics and usually gets together with me, in my studio, and we work on vocal patterns, get some recordings, jam it live with the band and then we get pretty close to how the song goes: we make then the actual recording and we go for more changes and ajudstments, anything that we feel. In the studio anything can change when you start hearing and record back, any ideas that we collaborate on with our producer, Jason Suecof, who did our last three albums. That’s typically how it works, but then again other songs come differently: sometimes, when we are in the studio, Mark writes some of the lyrics right there, sometimes I write a whole song including lyrics and vocal melody and I just make a recording of myself singing, show it to Mark and then he hears it and does his version of it. Those are basically the ways we come up with.
Are you already in the process of writing material for the new album?
To be honest, I wouldn’t even say that we are. I mean, there’s ideas, concepts, riffs… I mean, I’m always recordings riffs and stuff like that, but to me, in my eyes, I don’t call “riffs and ideas” actual writing. That’s just capturing ideas. I just wanna get through this touring cycle and then, when I get home, recharge for a minute, step away from music, from metal, clear my mind from stuff and then get excited for writing. Sometimes I would write on the road, but this tour I just want to enjoy it more, hang out with people, because when you’re in the bus writing and you try to remember, you remember barely the shows. We haven’t been coming to Europe enough in the last couple years, so I wanna just enjoy the vibe of Europe. To me, doing that is important because that’s where I’m getting ideas for writing, experiences and stuff like that. These days, to me, inspiration is not really like “musical inspiration”, it’s a lot more like “experience inspiration”, live experiences that are triggering music to come out. So, if I’m just sitting in the back of the bus all day long I’m not getting enough stimuli.
Talking about tours: you’re halfway through a pretty packed month of touring, almost everyday. A few shows have gone sold out, like this one. What do you think about this audience response, which has been kinda overwhelming?
It’s amazing. It makes me so happy, it’s just great to see this style of music is still selling out concerts… I mean, I kinda expected that is should be, because this lineup of three bands is really nice, but still you never know until you actually get there and see what’s gonna happen. The energy is fantastic, it really got us pumped up.
All the three bands are not properly underground anymore, but still, you’re pretty down-to-earth guys. So I imagine this tour to be like a bunch of good friends hanging around and playing. Is that the feeling behind the stage?
There’s an incredible vibe between all the people. We’re like halfway through the tour right now and Will, our drummer, he made a post on Facebook where he summed it up and said: “Halfway on this tour and nobody even wants to kill each other” (laughs). You know, usually there’s at least a couple people that are boney-heads or something. With so many people and personalities, of course. But actually, this party is great: we all have our different weird sense of humour, but it seems to be working. Everyone’s really respectful to each other’s space and things. I guess through experience you realise you need to make things flow like that.
I guess with 30+ years of experience on your shoulders you’ve learnt that.
Yeah, we’d better learn by now! We grew up a little bit.
Does anyone of you have any peculiar habit on stage, or before concerts? Like Mark, he always comes on stage with a blue bottle of gin, is that part of your endorsements?
No, there’s no endorsement there, those are just our vices! (laughs) Everyone has their own thing, you develop your own ritual to get yourself to feel comfortable. You know, it’s like a security blanket or something like that: you follow your pattern, you need certain things. You develop your way that gets you get through it and be your best, I guess. So yes, definitely, everyone has it. The entire days are a ritual: whatever we’re doing, by now we know each other so well that you know, at a point of the day, what someone is doing in that moment. Right now, Will’s taking a nap, Mark’s working out, after that I’m gonna work out and Damien had worked out early because he’s an early bird, now he’s checking all the equipment. People then have their little drink or what they do before they go on stage… I mean, I need to brush my teeth before I go on stage all the time, even if I brushed my teeth two hours ago, because when I go on stage I don’t want that strange taste in my mouth! (laughs)
You have been playing Jackson from before I was even born. Can you tell us something about the origins of this collaboration with the brand?
Initially, because of Randy Rhoads, who’s my original guitar hero from the ’80s. I just thought Randy was awesome and of course, when you’re a kid and you look at your heroes, you look at what do they use, what are they wearing, what are they doing… that’s the way you do it, the same way! I saw that Jackson and I thought “What is that?”, it was unusual and found out what it was about. I was so fortunate, because our manager at the time knew Grover Jackson somehow, I didn’t know how but he did. He introduced me to Grover and we hit it off pretty well! Grover said that he would build me my custom guitar, because I said I was trying to design my own model. I literally drew it on a napkin, the best drawing I could, and gave it to him. They modified it, corrected the shape and everything, and that was it. Next thing I knew, Grover and Mike Shannon at Jackson built me that guitar. I was just amazed, it played awesome and that, to me, became my guitar, my shape, I’ve played it ever since. They made me many of them, I think I have six of them now, all custom, all amazing. I’m just really proud, because as far as I know, Randy Rhoads and me are the only two guys who have an actual signature shape they invented. Even in the Jackson catalogue, there are all the artists and I’m in the same row with Randy Rhoads: when I look at that, I can’t believe it. That’s one of the main spirits that keep me pushing forward with guitar.
You were only 19 when your first full length came out, and a really remarkable one. What were the key elements, in that period, that helped putting out such a strong record at such young age?
I think we were just so into it. We had just so much excitement and love for music and wanted so badly to have our great band and play concerts, like what we do right now. It was just our dream so much that we relentlessy attacked what we were doing: we went out and we’ve done everything we got. We practised a lot, got to promote ourselves, get out to people and do our shows. Mainly, we just tried, tried, tried to write songs and play with all the spirit we could, emulating the bands that we worshipped. I mean, the story is of course that we went to see KISS for the first time, that was the original thing that made us want to play music and be in a band. We saw KISS in 1979, San Francisco, on the Dinasty Tour: the original lineup, I think I was 10 or 11 years old at the time, our parents brought us, we were so young. We painted our faces like KISS and that was our first concert for us, we all felt that same thing: “That is it, that looks so fun!” We didn’t know how to play instruments at that time, we had to learn how to play so we could do that and everything we could to be like that. We were just having lots of fun doing it, too. Just the energy we got together, at the right place and the right time, in the Bay Area scene that was coming on: we happened to be in there. It’s not like any of us are that virtuoso musician-type band. We’re just trying to do our best but we’re like raw, rock’n’roll, punk rock inspired, kinda more about the energy and the overall song than the crazy, amazing musicianship which, I mean, is awesome! But for us it was more about the energy, that was kind of our thing. I guess it worked!
In the early ’90s, Mark left the band and you formed a kinda different one, The Organization. Was that a tough period for you or did you enjoy that by doing something different?
Both. I actually enjoyed doing something different: by that point, we’ve been doing what we were doing in Death Angel for eight years already, three albums. We were really young of course, it was just happening to us like in a whirlwind, a storm, things one after the other. Tour, studio, being so young, it sucked us away from our friends and family. It was strange but we kept going because we loved what we were doing, but little by little some of the aspects, the business part of what was happening started bothering us. Because it was becoming a more professional situations, we were being forced to be in business meetings, trying to pay attention… I mean, of course you have to do it, but when you’re like twenty years old it’s like a bummer! Like, fuck this, I wanna jam! But you need to grow up and pay attention, and then the demise of Death Angel was because we got into a bus accident: it was a really horrible situation, altogether it was a fucking nightmare. So, when we realised that had come to an end, Mark moving away in New York and everything, we were just totally disillusioned about the whole industry, hated everything about everything except music. In our minds, that was a way to escape all of that shit and just play. Also, we wanted to evolve our sound and not try to go in the direction where metal and thrash were going. At that time, in the ’90s, weird stuff was coming out… well, not weird, but death metal, industrial and whatever fusion in metal was happening with extreme metal in different ways, I just wasn’t really understanding it at that point. I was like “What’s happening to the sound?” That, combined with the bad taste in your mouth because of the accident, it put me in a head space where I just really wanted to get away from that, totally. The Organization was a total escape from all that stuff, so for that part it felt very free and good. But! It was definitely, also, really rough: we soon realised that we weren’t Death Angel and we wanted to separate ourselves from that. We had a new name, we didn’t play any Death Angel songs live. People then found out that we were the guys from Death Angel: Death Angel fans started coming to our shows, they wanted to hear Death Angel songs… it was a weird place to be, because we couldn’t escape ourselves, even though we were trying to. And then, at the same time, we were getting bigger: we were playing bigger shows, like this, except we were the headliners. We wouldn’t allow the promoters to say ‘formerly Death Angel’, we wanted to separate ourselves from that band and start from the bottom. And now we’re in a van, driving ourselves around and playing small clubs, with nobody at the shows: at first we were like “Fucking punk rock, that’s fun!” but then we started having no money, we couldn’t even afford hotels, we were sleeping at people’s couches again, like “Oh man, this is rough!” So yeah, it was a bummer because that band had to end, not because we didn’t like it, but just literally because we couldn’t afford to continue on. No money, no good shows, our music was not the ‘flavour of the month’: it was odd, it wasn’t the trendy sound right there, people weren’t getting it! Later on, that sound started to come into the scene, but we were already done. I like to think we were ahead of our time.
Almost back to the present day, in 2001 you guys reunited for a benefit event for Chuck Billy, from Testament, and another Chuck, the late Chuck Schuldiner. How did you feel at the time and how does it feel to share the stage now with Billy, who was the reason for the reunion?
Well, we go back a long, long way: we’ve been sharing the stage with Chuck back in the ’80s. That part just feels totally normal and cool. I mean, it’s great, it wasn’t a good thing that happened to him, but it’s interesting because that’s why we did get back together. So, in that case, it’s just strange ways life works out. I’m very happy that we did reunite now, because before that happened I would have said that we would never reunite as Death Angel. I try not to say ‘never say never’, but that’s something I would have said never. So that proves that you can really never say never. We’ve been together longer now, since we reunited, than for the first half of our career, it’s fucking amazing.
Slovenia is home of one of the main European festivals, Metaldays. This year you played as the last act of the whole festival, late in the evening. How was the whole experience?
It was fucking insane, it was great! It surprised us, because of course we saw that position there and normally, when you look at that, you’re like “That’s fucked! We’re so bummed!” for the whole obvious reasons: no one’s gonna be there, everyone’s leaving… I wouldn’t be there, I would have been gone! You don’t want to be stuck in the traffic after five fucking days, you’re tired. And whoever will actually be there, will have no energy, dead tired already or they will be so wasted they wouldn’t even know what’s happening. So we were like, we’re gonna have fun for ourselves, that’s our spot, let’s do it and have a good time… and we came on stage, we saw the crowd and it was fucking great! One of our favourite shows, the crowd was with us with their energy. It was a surprise, a very pleasant one.
In a few days, you’ll be playing in our country for two dates, Milan and Bologna. Do you have any particular memory of our country that you want to share?
Overall, we played Italy many times, and every time it’s one of our favourite places to go and play. Fans in Italy are really, really passionate: the soul that they have, the spirit they give into music and life in general is amazing. Even when I was a little kid I always thought Italy was one of my favourite places and I’ve never been there! Now that I have, it is one of my favourite places. In fact, I’m going to take my family on vacation there, for the first time ever next year, so we just booked our planes and we’ll be in Italy for, like, nine days or something. We’re so excited, they’ve never been to Europe before, so this is like the main place I wanted them to see. As far as our shows there, they’re usually killer, the fans are fucking awesome. One memory I do have, kinda funny, is from one of the first times we played there in the ’80s. Not necessarily a good memory, but it is a memory! I can’t remember the venue, but it was the first time I realised all the people that bootleg t-shirts and stuff: I just remember us seeing these people selling our shirts out, in front of the shows, and we were like “Huh!” and went to our manager and said “What’s that?”. He said “That’s normal, they just do that”. “No! That’s not right, we will stop them!”, “No, you can’t stop them”. And we were young, like 19 and 20 years old, we went to the vendor and started getting mad at the dude. I remember the dude pulling out a knife and saying “What are you gonna do about it?” and we were like “Oh! Okay, sorry. Can we have at least one shirt? That’s our band.” And he said no (laughs). That stuck in my mind, we learned something new. That’s how it is in certain places, but still I love the country. I understand that’s part of how it works. Otherwise the country, the food, the culture, everything about it, we’re very excited to be there.
That’s it, thank you very much for your time! Is there anything you want to say to your Italian fans?