[Welcome to Part Three of MetalReview‘s interview series featuring artists included in the 100 Most Essential Albums of the 1990s. In this edition, we speak with Immolation guitarist Robert Vigna about the band’s seminal debut, Dawn of Possession.]
MetalReview: So, the MetalReview crew has been to Hell and back in our quest for the absolute Most Essential albums of the 90s. While we were down there, we all agreed that Immolation‘s Dawn of Possession deserved a place amongst the greats. While we are obviously not the first group to go to such depths and come back up with this album, we were curious if you’re at all flattered by the fact that we picked it. That would make us look fabulous.
Bob Vigna: We definitely appreciate it! It’s great to know that after twenty years there is still an interest in our first record! I see a lot of new fans getting into Dawn of Possession now, and it’s really cool that the music has stood the test of time. For a debut record, we thought it was pretty damn good, and if you asked us twenty years ago if we thought we’d still be here in 2011, still together and stronger than ever…we would have never believed it! We never made music to make money, and being here now and still working full-time jobs, I think we’ve proven that ten-fold! Haha! But we’ve always been about the music and it’s cool to see that somebody out there enjoys it!
MR: 1991 was a loooooong time ago. Do you still feel a genuine connection to that album from years of yore? Do you feel that over the course of two decades this recording is still worthy of its praise?
Vigna: We have progressed and matured over the years musically and personally, but overall, I think for the time it came out, and even now, the songs on that record are really strong. The whole album had a very unique sound and feel, especially if you listened to the vinyl version. That to me had the best sound, better than the CD. That record was recorded analog, as opposed to digital, and it really has such a powerful sound on vinyl. The latest technology is amazing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s too bad that the sounds you get now, although great, never compare to that analog sound and power on vinyl.
We had a really big underground following at that time with our two demos circulating throughout the worldwide scene, which was very new back then. So I feel that this record was definitely one in the first of that second wave of death metal after such bands as Possessed, Death, Destruction, etc. Our stuff rarely gets too many mentions in such lists, nor does the band in general. So it’s cool to see now that a lot more people are starting to come around and notice the band and some of the work we’ve done and that we were actually a real part of that history of this genre. It took a few years for people to realize it, but better late than never, haha!
MR: The album was released through Roadrunner Records, when they were still affiliated with such genre-defining classics as Slowly We Rot and Beneath the Remains. How did you end up working with Roadrunner in the first place and why did you leave the label after Dawn of Possession?
Vigna: Well, that’s kind of a funny story. Back in the late 80’s/early 90’s getting an album out was actually something special. Nowadays anyone can record something and put it up on MySpace and promote their music very easily, which is great. But back then it was quite difficult to reach a lot of people. We were just young kids trying to get some music together, having fun, just playing local shows, etc. The fact that our demo cassette tapes got out to so many people around the world amazed us. There was no Internet, no YouTube, etc. People would trade tapes in the mail and spread the music around. It was really cool actually, as you really had to put a lot of effort into finding and obtaining different and new music, so you really appreciated it. So after a couple of years or so of demo tapes, we had gotten a letter from Earache Records. They showed interest, but we knew we weren’t quite ready to do an album yet, and the whole idea seemed unreal to us at that time. There were not many bands that actually got to make a record those days, so it was a little intimidating to us, and if we were going to do something like that we wanted to be ready. So eventually, nothing came of that, and then we got another letter, that one was from Roadrunner. At that point, we were still in a disbelief state. We thought: “These guys can’t be serious, they would never sign us.” So basically, like the Earache letter, we just never followed up. Then Roadrunner sent another letter, and I believe it was Monte Conner who wrote: “Haven’t heard back from you…this is not the best way to go about getting signed.” So it’s then that we thought that we’d better take that more seriously. Before we knew it, we had a record out and were doing our first ever tour…in Europe of all places. This to us was a dream come true, so that was a pretty cool time!
Unfortunately, we didn’t quite realize how things worked with the business end of it all. So we disregarded the label wanting us to do a new record right away and instead wanted to tour the US. So we booked our own tour in the US and did that, which was really great. Then, of course, the label wanted a new record. But for us it was strange to just come up with a new record so quickly. Half of the Dawn of Possession album was demo songs. So unlike our first record, now we had to come up with a full album of songs from scratch, which back then seemed like the most daunting task we could imagine. We thought that things were going to be different once we got signed, that the label would give us some financial support to help in the writing, etc. We thought more should be done in promoting the band….for the most part we were young and didn’t understand how the business works. So due to the lack of interest in staying on the label and finding the writing process harder the second time around, it came down to ourselves and the label parting ways amicably. Looking back, it wasn’t the best move to make, and we don’t have any hard feelings at all towards the label or any of the people there. We actually still run into some of them, like Monte Conner, who is totally cool and someone we’ve known from the earliest days. But we don’t regret it at all, as although business-wise we never made the best decisions, I don’t think we would have such a great lineup and [be] making some of our best music today. We have really developed a strong ambition and passion for our music over the years, and I know as far as what we went through in the years past, we wouldn’t change a thing.
MR: The decisions you made with producers and studios back then are fairly interesting. Instead of making the obvious choice, i.e. Morrisound and Scott Burns, you went with Harris Johns, known for his work with the likes of Kreator and Sodom at that time. In addition, you needed to travel to Germany for the recording. Can you elaborate on what was the motive behind this maneuver?
Vigna: We really did want to go to Morrisound in the beginning, even got in touch with Scott Burns. But by the time we were ready to record Dawn of Possession, so many other bands had went down there that it just didn’t make sense to us anymore. We wanted to try something different and go with Harris Johns at Music Lab Berlin. Some of our favorite bands at that time had recorded there, like Voivod, Kreator and Sodom, as you mentioned. So to us this was a more interesting choice, for sure. We thought Harris could really give us that sound we were looking for. It’s a good thing, because it turned out to be one of the coolest experiences! It was our first time ever in Germany…and we had only been to Europe once before that on vacation. So to go and record our first album in a place we had never been, it was pretty wild! The Wall had just come down a year or two before, so most of it was still standing throughout Berlin. Seeing all that graffiti artwork that told its own story endlessly around the city, seeing some of the famous areas like Checkpoint Charlie, it was something we’ll never forget. Even the roof of the studio was destroyed during WWII, so you could see how they just made the top floor the new roof years before, but a lot of the brick was still up around the perimeter where walls used to be. Between all these little things around us throughout the city, as well as seeing all those albums up on the wall in the studio we had listened to so many times, it all created a real unique vibe for us.
Harris Johns, the studio owner and producer, was great to us. We stayed at the studio in an apartment and would work day after day tracking. Then Harris would work even later hours on all his studio magic. He also would take us out to clubs and restaurants and show us around town. It was awesome!
So we were really glad we made that decision to do the record at MusicLab. The end result definitely seemed to work out extremely well for us and left us with some of the greatest memories from our early days!
MR: You’ve stated that the Immolation sound wasn’t perfected until Close to a World Below and that on Dawn of Possession your influences are more noticeable than on any other Immolation album. What do you mean by this and what exactly were those main influences on your debut full-length? How do you feel that many people still hold it as the crown jewel of your discography, although you clearly don’t?
Vigna: Well, I wouldn’t say anything we’ve done sounds perfect, that’s for sure, haha! We have quite an array of productions and each album sounds very unique. I think this is us constantly trying to do better each time. As for a crown jewel…I think we are still digging deep for that one…but that’s what keeps us going and keeps our ambition so strong! We are always striving to be more creative and come up with something different, something we haven’t done before.
As for influences, I guess we just feel that our later material has that much more identity. We have really defined ourselves over the years and have kind of molded a very different approach to this style of music that is that much more unique now more than ever. That’s not to take away from what we did back then, but we feel that we have really expanded our music over the years without neglecting our roots and keeping the integrity of the band intact.
MR: During the course of years, Immolation has established a reputation for being a hard-working, hard-touring, tight-as-hell live band. Nowadays, embarking on a tour must be a bit different because of regular jobs and families, when compared to the early Nineties. We know that you must have some great stories dating back to that mythical era, so could you share one of those with us? The more moronic the better, of course.
Vigna: Oh, so many moronic stories, such little time, haha! I can’t remember any specifics from our first Euro and US tours off the top of my head. However, I can tell you that they were both really great in the sense that it was all so new. All new experiences, from seeing all the different countries throughout Europe and being on a tour bus for the first time, to driving a van for miles throughout the US for the first time, seeing our own country like never before. It was awesome! The funny thing is we still get pretty excited every time we go out even now! To us, it’s our favorite part. Getting out there and playing the music and connecting with people who are into the same kind of stuff, it’s great!
MR: The 90’s saw a shifty metal scene. There was a very evident push-and-pull that I think every one of us felt, and still that era produced some gems that are diamonds to this day. So my question to you is, how do you remember the 1990’s, having been a musician in the middle of that haze?
Vigna: Metal was just running rampant at that point. Especially in the early 90’s. So much new music was coming out in the extreme scene. Late 80’s into early 90’s was just unstoppable! I think it definitely brought in some great acts, and metal in general really reached all new highs and exposure. All music has its ups and downs though, so when it’s on that upswing you have to just enjoy it! I think now it has definitely started to pick up a lot of momentum for sure. We just played the Scion Rock Fest recently in California. For a company like Scion/Toyota to get involved with extreme music and hold these free festivals to bring the music to the fans, it’s really a great thing! It shows you how far this style of music has come!
MR: To tie it all up, what do feel was the eternal legacy left for metal by those ten years?
Vigna: It was just a great time where all kinds of metal and rock really ruled the land. There was so much new music going on, a lot of rock on the radio, a lot of metal up and coming. It was really an explosive era!