Matt Harvey is a guy who needs no introduction. His projects are known far and wide, all the way back to the early days of Exhumed when he helped to define a sub-genre. In his other projects—like Gruesome and the exciting thrash project, Pounder—he pays homage to legends and helps make sure old-school torches never fully extinguish. Gruesome is an unapologetic homage to the greatest death metal band of all time—Death—with their former guitarist, James Murphy, even agreeing to rip a few solos on the new record. With a fresh Gruesome LP released on June 1st of this year and with Matt Harvey being one of my absolute favorite people to talk to (aka brains to pick), I decided to call him up and let him school me on a number of subjects relating to death metal, which also happens to be my favorite genre.
Can you talk a bit about what Chuck meant to metal and what his legacy is?
Chuck means a lot of different things, honestly. Even though his life was tragically cut short and we’ll always have that lamentation that his story ended in the middle, he was everything from an underground death metal maniac—before most metal fans even knew that the genre existed—to genre torch-bearer to trail-blazing iconoclast. In his short time with us, he accomplished more in metal than most bands do in twenty years. And I’m not talking in terms of record sales or arena-slaying tours; I’m talking about the creative work of helping define and advance an entire sub-genre. Certainly, Chuck and the early incarnations of the band were standing on the shoulders of bands like Possessed and Slayer, but Chuck had a certain sense of tonality and certain chord progressions and intervals that were uniquely his and could be heard from the garage days of Mantas through the undeniably slick and sophisticated later Death material. I think that, ultimately, he was an intensely dedicated musician who, in struggling to transcend the genre his name will always be associated with, helped push its boundaries and expand its sonic palette. It was clear from Leprosy forward that Chuck was determined to be taken seriously as a composer and musician and not just be another gross-out noise-merchant. His relentless drive to find something new and something that differentiated Death from other extreme metal bands ended up opening up the genre to so many different musical innovations. I have no idea if he felt it was his duty to expand the art form, or if it was simply a personal quest to out-do himself, but his position as a torch-bearer for death metal meant that to the outside listener, the result of his work was that it accomplished both aims.
Lyrically, particularly later in his career, Death lyrics were aimed full-barrel at the listener, whereas earlier in the process they were more esoteric and general. What’s your lyrical process for Gruesome?
It wasn’t until Human that Chuck started to delve into completely personal lyrics. The previous records had a succession of themes—Scream Bloody Gore was about translating the celluloid nightmares of 70s and 80s schlock horror into music. “Evil Dead,” “Regurgitated Guts,” “Land Of No Return,” and “Torn To Pieces” are each clearly inspired by specific horror movies. Leprosy took the same affinity for all things rotting and morbid, but brought it into a reality-based aesthetic. Chuck steadfastly avowed that real life was heavier and darker than the fantasy-based stuff early on. Spiritual Healing took the same outward-looking reality-based approach, but found horror in the everyday world of what Terry Butler described to me as the album’s main lyrical influence: the six o’clock news. Finally, with Human, Chuck ventured inward and explored the darker side of human psychology and interaction.
We’ve tried to mirror that approach for the most part. For this record, it was very easy to look around at current events and find ample death, darkness and horror. I’ve certainly tried to take on Chuck’s sense of cadence and mimic the turns of phrase that he favored without simply repeating what he did. I felt it would be a little dishonest to try to give what I thought “his take” on current events would be though. I can’t speak for anyone else, certainly not someone who is deceased, so I tried to find topics that made sense in the context of the genre and in Death’s oeuvre, and then write about them from my perspective. For example, “Inhumane” is an anti-death penalty song; “Twisted Prayers” is about women being denied health care because of religion and having their lives endangered; “Fatal Illusions” is about the culture of gun violence and mass shootings in America, and so forth. I’m sure my take on these issues is going to skew further towards the “California mamby-pamby limp-wristed pinko left-wing” side of things than a typical Floridian’s, but like I said, I didn’t want to assume I could speak for someone else when it comes to this sort of thing.
Death clearly progressed a lot over their career. How important is the idea of “progression” in metal? How important is it for death metal? Is it all just a cycle in the end?
I don’t really know how important it is for me, personally. I’m completely happy listening to Horrified and Seven Churches for the rest of my life. I’m frankly surprised that Death Metal is still a thing in 2018. When I was getting into it in ‘89, I never really thought about its longevity or its legacy—I just wanted to hear some fast, brutal shit. In order for a genre to continue for decades, it has to evolve. It would be weird if the Death Metal of 2018 sounded like the Death Metal of 1988. So on one hand, it’s great that people have come along and put their own stamp on it and kept it fresh and new for newer generations to come along, but I’ve always been a big believer in seeking the source material and focusing on that. It’s hard to imagine that a record that comes out today will be as important in 20 years as Apocalyptic Raids, you know? There’s also a push and pull between progression and conservation. The further afield things get—“Death Metal” with cellos or clean vocals or whatever—the more push-back will arise. So many new bands doing this kind of music sound like their records could have been released in ‘92, like Necrot, Skeletal Remains, etc. So there’s a cyclical aspect to it, as well as a linear one.
How has your perspective on Death changed after working through this process?
My perspective on Death has changed many times throughout the years. When Human came out, I was really angry about it—I felt like the band turned their back on the Death Metal genre. The logo change really upset me and felt like a personal betrayal. After doing my own stuff with my own band, I stopped having the feeling that I needed someone else to “represent” me musically, and I could appreciate Death (and the stylistic experimentation of many of my other favorite bands) on their own terms. It’s a weird thing because, on one hand, once you’ve released a piece of art into the world, it becomes different things to different people, and when the audience and the creator have different ideas about how to develop the art-form, it creates an interesting kind of tension. I’ve learned over the years to abandon those kinds of expectations—but they’re also important, because records that I was initially dissatisfied with as a fan like Human, Necroticism, Fear, Emptiness, Despair and Coma Of Souls really pushed me to find my own voice and create the music that I wanted to hear. But my insistence that I should be allowed to define someone else’s art kept me from appreciating a lot of killer records because I wasn’t able to judge them on their own merit.
Death has been a favorite band of mine since ‘89, and a major influence. I learned how to play Death Metal from jamming along with my Leprosy and Scream Bloody Gore tapes as a kid, so that style has always stuck with me. My appreciation has deepened for the entire Death catalog as time has gone on, though. Chuck was able to drastically shift direction with each record but still retain a coherent core sound, and bring in a pretty diverse fan-base, even though he pissed off me and some of my pimply-faced Death Metal purist teenage buddies along the way. When I went out with Death to All and performed some of the later songs, I was blown away seeing people’s reaction to them—how much the music meant to them and how seeing the songs performed live by the members of Death was something they had never thought would be possible. It was pretty humbling to be a part of something like that.
Even so, I felt like one of the goals in forming Gruesome was to reclaim the legacy of Death as an old-school Death Metal band. I felt like so many people were praising the later, more sophisticated records and not enough folks were talking about how great “Sacrificial” was. Now that I think we’ve achieved that, my perspective has changed once again as I look toward the future of what we can do with Gruesome. Now that we’ve been able to find an audience and have helped celebrate the Death catalog, I take it as a personal musical challenge to continue moving forward and paying homage to the more mature and technical stuff as well. Chuck is still inspiring me to push myself as a player and musician, 30 years after I started stumbling through the riffs for “Infernal Death” in my bedroom as a 13 year-old.
What is so damn special about old school death metal?
Well, I think that what makes the early Death Metal stuff special is similar to what makes a lot musical movements special. Whether it’s ‘77 Punk, NWOBHM, or Thrash Metal, the story is usually kind of the same—a small group of inter-connected weirdos start making music that most people think is shit, and then things slowly snowball. Eventually people start to like it, and then the other weirdos come out of the woodwork and a ton of records come out. Then everyone sees what’s happening and a bunch of people that don’t have the same dedication and passion for the music start forming bands and making records, the labels get complacent, and there starts to be a formula—the old “have Scott Burns produce it, throw a Dan Seagrave painting of some weird landscape on it, and BOOM, instant Death Metal record.” And then it goes away because people’s attention wanes, and the music gets generic and shitty.
For me personally, I came of age as the 80s were ending and it was the perfect time for me to get into extreme metal. In 7th grade I moved to a new school where I didn’t know anyone; my parents divorced; and I was discovering Metallica and Slayer. Growing up in the Bay Area, Thrash Metal was huge, so Death Metal became “my” thing. It was too heavy and scary for metal fans in my age group, and it became something that fascinated and defined me. There was an exciting sense of something new taking hold that eschewed most of the cliches of metal and was breaking boundaries. That was very empowering to me as a kid and as a musician.
Ultimately, all of these factors would only be personal if it wasn’t for the fact that there are truly outstanding tunes on records like Consvming Impvlse, Slowly We Rot, Symphonies of Sickness, Mental Funeral, Chemical Exposure, Mentally Murdered, Into the Grave, etc, etc. Now that the 25-year nostalgia cycle has come around to Death Metal, those albums (and many more) can finally take their rightful place alongside classics like Master of Puppets and Hell Awaits.
Why are later Death records sometimes less accessible than the early stuff?
I can completely understand that take on it. The raw aggression of Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy is so immediate and in-your-face; whether you like those albums or not, you understand where they’re coming from as soon as you hear them. With the later albums, Chuck really wanted to deliver something that was musically sophisticated. When bands are focused on musicianship, often their music has more appeal to musicians than music fans, and Death certainly went that way to some extent. Even as a musician, I sometimes feel that there is a bit of over-playing on certain parts of Individual Thought Patterns and Symbolic. But it’s more forgivable given the time that the records were made—this level of musicianship hadn’t really been heard much in this extreme style of music. Really, only Atheist and Cynic were playing at this level of proficiency. And ultimately, Chuck always managed to insert really catchy, simple stuff into his songs, all the way through his catalog, so if a bass-line is too busy, you just hang out and wait for a massive chorus like in “Overactive Imagination” or “Symbolic.”
There was some hoopla about Ed Repka “stealing” the mummy or zombie people that are on the cover of this album. Does that bother you in any way shape or form?
I don’t really know what Ed’s process is like, because he’s done such a great job on our record covers that I really just try to stay out of his way. Ultimately, artists have always used reference materials. Norman Rockwell used to take photos and trace them. Artists use models all the time and they draw from photographs and use digital tools to create accurate shading. Because of the internet, we all get more access to the same information, which enables people to easily find these reference sources. I fail to see how using reference material is an issue. So much creative work is essentially cutting and pasting different things together to become something new. I mean, “Seek and Destroy” is just “Sucking My Love” with the bridge from “Princess Of The Night,” and it’s awesome. It’s just that with the internet, we all have access to the same reference source (the ever-trusty Google image search) and we always find ways to talk to each other and get riled up about stuff. The other issue is that people think / expect / want to believe that “art” is some magical process by which completely original ideas spontaneously appear through the sheer genius and intuition of the artist. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves and drives me up a wall. Everything comes from somewhere. Nothing exists out of context or without some sort of precedent and for every dazzling “breakthrough,” there are a million tiny, incremental smaller breakthroughs most people never know about that allow the one that you think is original to finally happen.
It’s also ironic that people are calling out a visual artist for leaning on reference material, when the artwork is being created for a band that only exists to blatantly craft work that evokes existing source material.
You are someone who’s VERY connected to the fans and the scene in general. Often, on social media, I’ll see an egalitarian conversation between you and some journalists and some fans. Is that something that’s important to you?
It’s not something I really think about. My take on people is that everyone deserves your respect until they give you a reason to not respect them. So if someone engages me in a conversation about something I’ve done or said, or just a topic that interests me, I have no problem talking to them about it. I also relish talking to people that I don’t necessarily agree with and seeking common ground. As long as the conversation is interesting and respectful, I have no issue talking to whomever. I don’t necessarily seek it out, as it can be exhausting sometimes, but there are a ton of smart, interesting, thoughtful people in this scene (and a lot of knuckle-dragging jackasses) and I don’t want to close myself off from engaging with and learning from people just because I want to maintain some kind of “mystique” or something. I would never put myself above anyone or think that being inaccessible was “cool.” I think it’s chickenshit to hide who you are and what you believe in, and it’s also chickenshit to not engage with people who may not agree with you or may be more knowledgeable.
I also remember being a kid, and it would mean a lot if a musician I was into took the time to at least acknowledge me as a person. If me taking a minute of my time to take a picture or shake someone’s hand means something to them, that’s flattering and I’m happy to give them that minute. In fact, I actually met Chuck in 1990 when I was just an annoying 14 year-old, and he was super nice. I still have my Sadus Swallowed In Black flyer with his signature on the back of it!