Death To All - Interview with Max Phelps (vocals, guitars)
After having seen Death To All live in Bochum this June (read my review here) I wanted to know about the band and the intention behind this project. Live they were absolutely mind-blowing and who knows – maybe there will follow some more than just some touring? I talked all about this with their amazing guitarist / vocalist Max Phelps who has a heavy legacy with taking over the part of Chuck Schuldiner. Thanks again, Max for this very cool chat!
Hey Max, first of all congratulations for the great show you did in Bochum. How does it feel to be able to do shows again?
Really good. I mean I had a relatively good pandemic time personally. I know that's obviously not the case for everybody. It gave me some time to kind of stretch out and work more on the writing and recording side of things. There were some things that worked a little bit favorably for me. Initially it was nice that everything slowed down for a minute and there was this little chance to breathe, but by the beginning of this year I was very ready to get out again. With Death To All specifically, we hadn't done it in 6 years. We did a Tampa tribute that was sort of in that vein but we hadn't really done Death To All with Gene on drums… it's been a long time. I think everybody was excited to do that again.
I have to confess that I wasn't really aware of DTA until I got to know from that show. I haven't read any interviews with you and didn't see any live review stuff. So maybe you can tell me a little bit about how you came up with the idea to form a tribute to Death band?
It wasn't my idea at all. I'm just somebody who was brought along for the ride. I've heard different stories about the origins of it (laughs). I know Gene was kind of wanting to do something like that a long time ago. But basically what happened is they got talking with these guys from "Sick Drummer Magazine" back in 2012 and they ended up putting together this initial tour with Death To All which was only five shows in the States. I was not a part of this, they had a few different vocalists and 7 or 8 different musicians who had played in the band. They had Paul Masvidal from Cynic, Steve DiGiorgio, Shannon Hamm, Bobby Koeble, Gene Hoglan, Scott Clendenin. Richard Christy actually also sat at a show that I saw, but he didn't do the whole tour. They had two different vocalists and did this tour with many ex-musicians. The guy who was managing the brand at that time, Eric Greif, who used to manage Death – he and the Cynic guys kinda kept it going afterwards. I was playing in Cynic at that time so when they did a second tour a year later focused on the "Human" line-up they invited me to be involved. We did a lot of tours back then between 2013 and 2016 and then we stopped for a long time. Honestly it's not something that I thought I'd still be doing ten years later but I think it's pretty cool! I think it's just people's love for the band that has driven it to keep going the way that it is right now. There's also great comradery between the band members.
Do you still remember your first encounter with the music of Death?
Yeah, I do. I was in high-school and I was jamming with some guys. I guess it was the second band I was in, I think I was like 16 years old. It was some guys that were a little more serious than the first band of friends that I played with in the basement. One of the guys in the band wanted to cover 'Lack Of Comprehension' and that was my introduction to it, although I think "Symbolic" was the first full album that I really got into. But it was covering 'Lack Of Comprehension', then learning the song, discovering the band through that and just going through the discography. I think a lot of people my age started like this – I started with the later albums and then worked my way back.
How do you feel to follow in these huge footsteps that Chuck left with his heritage?
Yes, they are pretty huge footsteps. There's a lot of responsibility that comes with that. I just want to do a good job and make people who come to the shows happy. It's not a project that is in some ways self-serving in the same way that a lot of my artistic endeavors are. The songs are really something that's sacred to a lot of people so I kind of look at it like that. At the same time I think there's a danger to think that anything is too consequential in a way and I think it's important to remember that you can't really be somebody else. I'm trying to get as close as I can to imitate that experience but at the same time it's an impossible task. You just do the best you can (laughs) and it's important to a lot of people in the immediate moment but I don't really see it as having a long-term-imprint necessarily. The band was the band, the discography is the discography and those things are a lot more permanent. I just try to do a good job and try not to overthink the big shoe thing. The musicians seem to wanna play with me (laughs) so I just give it my best.
Is it a great challenge for you to perform the technical songs that started with "Human" up to "The Sound Of Perseverance"?
That's a good question. I think when I started doing it I thought it was easier, now I don't think it's easy any more (laughs). But I think that's because I'm zooming the microscope in more on things that could be better. I don't know. I spent a lot of time preparing. I try to spend a reasonable amount of time at least cause I'm always working on so many things so there is always that balancing act but I try to prepare a lot for it and I always have the feeling that I could be more prepared and better though. So I don't know if it's difficult (laughs) at this point. I mean, I've been doing this for a long time and of course I'm just coming back into it because it's been six years… like leading up to that Tampa show I had that question mark in my head like "Hey can I still do this?": But I guess it's as difficult as I want it to be in the sense that I'm always zooming on specific things to be better. I want to get the guitar parts to be tighter; I think there's a lot of room to get better with that, vocal timbres – there's a lot you can pay attention to with trying to imitate that. You can't really have somebody else's voice but I'm trying to copy some certain inflections and things. You know, what's difficult is that we do a two-hour-set sometimes and keeping my voice from blowing-out, that's kind of a challenge. Sometimes maybe there are some compromises like tone quality or things like that, maybe that's kind of a challenge just like finding that balancing act of preservation (laughs).
What would you say is the best Death album / song for you personally?
My favorite is probably still "Symbolic". If I had to pick some favorite songs they're not all on "Symbolic" but scattered around their discography. We just did 'Perennial Quest' and I do think that's kind of a favorite of mine. That has always been a song that I really liked and I felt that this was really fun and cool to do live. 'Secret Face' is really cool….I'd like to play 'Empty Words'. We've never done 'Empty Words' with Death To All. They were in the band when they actually did the "Symbolic" tour. I like 'Symbolic' the song, 'The Philosopher' is awesome, 'Trapped In A Corner'. For like old-school stuff, 'Left To Die' is sick. We didn't do it on this tour but that's kind of a favorite. It's kind of hard to pick almost. 'Scavenger Of Human Sorrow', that's one we've never done with Death To All. Richard Christy parts are always a challenge for the drummer, but I would say that's also a favorite of mine.
There are some other bands that are quoting Death like Obscura, Skeletal Remains and especially the guys from Gruesome copy the music quite a lot and dedicate each of their albums to a special Death album. I guess the next one should be "Human". What do you think about such projects?
I think they're cool! I'm not dogmatic about what anybody should or shouldn't do. Personally when it comes to making music, that's not the kind of thing I'm as interested in just because I love Death but it's been done perfectly already. When I write my own music, all of those influences are there but I'm not the kind of person who wants to do something that's just kind of blatantly tribute like that. But I think Gruesome does an amazing job at that. How Matt Harvey can kind of write songs that really sound like they could have been on those albums. Those guys are really passionate about that and I think that's really cool. It's not something I could see myself doing but never say never, I don't know (laughs).
Do you have any plans to record a tribute to Death album with old songs or even record some new songs or even a new album?
There aren't any plans. I don't think it's impossible. I mean we did some covers of the songs and did some YouTube videos and two of them we put up. One of them we finished recording but we didn't edit the video to put it up and now I don't know if we will because we're playing live shows. Probably not a cover album, maybe like a live album? But at the same time for me there are already perfect recordings of those songs with Chuck (laughs) so I don't know why we would need to do that. Playing the live experience is a different thing. Original music, I don't think it's impossible. I wonder if we would call it Death To All, but I think that could happen because we all love playing with each other and working together and we're all genuinely good friends. But everybody is also doing so many different things…who knows…maybe. It's something we've casually talked about before but I have no idea. I think if we did it should be called something else because it's probably not gonna sound like Death.
I was pretty much blown away seeing you in Bochum when Steve Di Giorgio performed on his 3-string-bass….I haven't seen this before!
In metal you have all these technical bass players who are playing six-string and I think he wanted to go in the opposite direction. He always says that he was playing for Obituary and was having trouble remembering the riffs so he just decided to reduce. I think he mostly just uses them for the old-school songs.
With your other band which is listed on Metal Archives, "Wait", you have recently released a full-length album called "The End Of Noise". Do you have some more plans with them?
My main band is actually "Exist" and that's the thing we're doing more right now. That's not listed on Metal Archives by the way, they hate us for some reason (laughs). We just put out the "Wait" album with the other guy (Charlie Eron; M.) who is kind of the main guy in that band. Him and I were working on those songs for a really long time and I'm really proud of how that album turned out. I don't know about future plans with that, I think some of it is up to Charlie since it's his band and he's really the main driving force behind it. I don't know about playing live, we'll see. But with Exist we're working on a new album which Charlie might actually have some involvement with as well and that's something that, as I get back from this tour, I'm going fully back into. I just finished the rhythm guitars before leaving for the tour and now we have to record bass and a lot of layers, vocals and all that. It'll probably be a little while before it's done but the plan is to try to finish that and get out on the road next year when we release the album. We were touring with the band until the pandemic hit and then halted everything.
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