Drummer Donald Tardy
Interviewed by Alan Gilkeson
One of the genre’s great originators, Floridian Death Metal band Obituary still just keep it simple with groovy rhythms and catchy riffs. Their latest album DARKEST DAY does what it’s predecessors did, make you bang you head in metal fury. Very humble and down to earth, they don’t wear the legend label well, but with a simplistic approach to song writing, reverence of other legends, and a strong work ethic, they continue to bring their unique brand of metal to a wanting fan base. Here’s our interview with drummer Donald Tardy.
You guys say on your website that you haven’t been as excited about a new album since SLOWLY WE ROT. Why’s that?
During the writing process there’s usually one song off an album that you know instantly within five minutes of writing it that’s it’s going to be a really cool song. It just seemed like song after song, while Trevor and I were writing it, we would give each other that look like wow that’s gonna be a great song. When it comes together in such a natural way it makes it a good song. I’ve learned over the years that working on one song for days or weeks, thinking that one part could have been different, trying to make changes here and there doesn’t really work. A lot of these songs we put together really quickly, like ‘Evil Ways’ off the last record, we knew instantly it would be good. Just like the song ‘Blood to Give’ on this album, and the first song on the album… I don’t even know all the song names yet, they both just pulled together so quickly that I knew there would be something about it. And people who have heard the record love it and say it reminds them of old Obituary and SLOWLY WE ROT. It’s an instant classic sounding record to me.
Is song writing something that comes really natural to you guys or is it something you’re always working at?
You would think that after so many years and hundreds of songs that me and Trevor would be scratching our heads like a couple of monkeys wondering how we’re going to come up with the next riff. We don’t try to hard. We don’t think,’oh this song sounds like one of our other songs’ from twelve years ago. It is natural and it is a fun and easy process for Trevor and myself right now. It used to be a process that just makes you so nervous and so anxious, when we were in our twenties, trying to write songs and finishing up the ninth and tenth songs on album. Nowadays, on this album I think there’s thirteen songs and we could have kept going. It is a process where we can use the word fun nowadays where it used to be more stressful.
So it’s fair to say there really isn’t any pressure for you anymore when it comes to song writing.
If you allow pressure it could be on you forever because you end up wondering if you can write a song that can sell us more records, or wonder how can I win over Metallica fans or Slipknot fans, how can we top the next record. We know what we have. We have a chemistry and when we write together it’s just Obituary. It definitely doesn’t bring pressure anymore, it’s a cool exciting process, recording and writing songs. It’s fun now.
You guys seem to come up with some groovier and catchier riffs than your typical Death Metal band. How are you able to do that?
I think it’s because we keep it simple. We’ve always been that type of band that has it’s roots, the music we grew up listening too. A lot of that has to do with the southern Rock music of the seventies, like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet. I think that rolled over into our variety of Metal. We have those roots where it’s about a nice catchy, good guitar riff, and a groovy beat rather than playing a million miles an hour and putting a million riffs in one song. Keeping it simple is like our magic weapon that a lot of bands forget. You don’t need a thousand different things in one song. You need a song that people can instantly tap their foot too and nod their head too the first time they hear it. That’s what we try to deliver and once again it’s a natural thing for us. It’s not a hard process for us to come up with those type songs anymore.
Is there anything on this album you tried to differently from the past?
I don’t think so. We don’t think that way. We never think of what we haven’t accomplished yet or what should we try this time. It’s really about playing what we want to play and playing what we want to hear. When people go buy an album, they buy Obituary because they want to hear Obituary. All we did was focus on what we thought were cool grooves and pieced some songs together, keeping it true to the Obituary style, which is simple and mid tempo. That’s really all we focus on. We never really look back at the past or worry about what’s going on in the world of Metal. We focus on what Obituary wants to do right now.
So are you more true to yourselves or true to your fans when it comes to making music?
I think it’s a little bit of both. We always want Obituary fans to know that we’re happy with the way we are. We made our name and our style a long time ago. That’s why people follow Obituary. Just as importantly, we stay true to ourselves because we’re fans of this style of music and we also want to prove that people who haven’t heard us before will enjoy it whether they hear the first album or the most recent album. We stay true to ourselves and never worry about what other bands are doing on the planet right now.
But don’t you feel more creative than you were twenty years ago?
I am. I’m constantly thinking of new stuff, new rhythms. I probably only use half of that in Obituary songs because lets face it, if we were to try and focus a little too much and start writing songs like Cynic or some of the Death songs, then it wouldn’t be Obituary anymore. That’s part of the reason I wrote the Tardy brothers album. I also play guitar and I wrote the whole album on guitar and play guitar and drums on the record. That allowed me to flow some other creative ideas that I could never do with Obituary. Obituary has it’s idea of what Metal is and we keep that true to the Obituary name.
You guys are a classic Death Metal band. What do you think of bands that combine Death Metal with other styles? Is it still Death Metal, taking it in new directions, or is it something else?
You can analyze it so much. If you listen to some people you can analyze every band so much that no one is considered just Death Metal anymore. I don’t think much about it except If it’s heavy and if it’s Metal and the most important thing is if it’s good. Bands that are using different styles, I think it’s just a natural progression where music’s going. it doesn’t make it any better or worse. That’s always going to happen with music. It’s not Obituary’s style but I appreciate some of the stuff that new bands are doing.
But don’t you think that sometimes music gets labeled Death Metal simply because they use a Death Metal vocal?
Yeah, I agree with that. That’s why it’s so hard to classify someone as what type of Metal they are. It doesn’t make sense to try and categorize bands. Just don’t worry about it. Just worry whether you like it or not. It’s Metal! It’s not Rock, it’s not country, it’s Metal! I never categorized what Slayer was or what Metallica was. Nowadays, what do you consider Slayer? Hatebreed? Trivium? or even Obituary? To me it’s just Metal. Slayer’s the best band in the world, but they’re not a Death Metal band. If you like the music than listen to the band.
Ralph (Santollo) definitely proves on the new record that he’s an able replacement for Allen (West). Was there ever any consideration that Allen would re-join the band.
No, not at this point. I think Allen proved in the last couple of years that he was in this band that he was mentally over it. It’s a very tough lifestyle. People think it must be so fun to be on stage for an hour and a half, and that is fun, but if they saw the tour schedule and the itinerary every day, when you have to be on an airplane, or saw how many flights we took last year, or how many nights you can’t sleep cause you’re on a plane, it’s just tough. When you’re mentally not geared for it you don’t have fun anymore. And when you don’t have fun it becomes like baby sitting somebody, and that’s kind of the way it was with Allen over the last few years. It was a real struggle to have him in the band. When you’re as demanding as we are and in demand as we are, it’s a tough lifestyle. Allen I think is ready to call it quits when it comes to the hard part of being in a band, being responsible and waking up when you don’t want to wake up, and getting on an airplane and that kind of thing.
Are you guys still on good terms?
Allen is still a good friend of mine. I have no beef with him. I feel sorry for the dude, that he went through what he went through and that he can’t control himself when it comes to drinking and drugs. He seems to always go back to that, hopefully that changes with his incarceration and him getting out and trying to be normal. I pray that he never has to go back to a state prison cause he’s not the dude for jail, that’s for sure.
I also notice that Ralph does some different things, like put some leads in unusual spots, do you think he’s helped change things up a bit?
I think so. The meat and potatoes of this band is Trevor and myself. We’ve written the last few albums just him and I sitting in a room and writing. It’s all Trevor and myself coming up with the ideas, concepts, rhythms, and riffs. Ralph is just such a good solo player that when we were finished with the songs, and wherever there’s a part where John’s not going to be doing something, we’ll allow Ralph to listen to it and create solos, like you said, they’re not necessarily in spots you’d think they’d be and they’re not even typical Death Metal solos, it seems to blend very well together. He definitely brought us to another level. If you’re a Metalhead totally into solos, you get that now on an Obituary album. Before, Alan was the king of awesome riffs. He wrote a majority of our most popular songs back in the day but to have Ralph putting solos on albums like we have now is just a bonus for everybody, including myself cause I’m a fan of just awesome shredding.
When you guys weren’t doing anything as Obituary for those 7 or 8 years, did you realize that your legend was continuing to grow in Metal circles?
I stayed busy in the music scene so I wasn’t at home analyzing what people were thinking or seeing if Obituary was still being worshipped by kids that wanted new stuff from us, but when we got together and did some festivals and stuff we instantly knew that this is something that’s not going to go away. With Obituary we know that it’s a trademark stamp thing that people are always going to want to hear it, whether it’s a forty year old guy listening for years or a new kid just trying to figure out what it is. I’m forty now, I can’t imagine in fifteen years still trying to play ‘Chopped in Half’ but knock on wood, I’m still healthy and we’re still having a blast playing this type of music. I hope it goes on as long as we can make it happen.
You guys get mentioned along with a number of bands, including Possessed, as one of the founders of the genre. I remember hearing that you were supposed to do something with Jeff Becerra in the mid 90’s. Why didn’t that happen.
It did happen actually. We flew him to Florida to do some stuff on an album and he was such a mess with alcohol that he was literally incoherent and couldn’t get anything accomplished. Years and years later, within the past couple of years, he actually wrote to us and said he knew he was a wreck back then and apologized, saying he’s a better person now. I feel sorry for the dude. It’s just one of those things where you wish it could have happened because Possessed is one of the first bands to go that extreme and that’s what we worshipped. To answer your question we did attempt to get him to sing on the WORLD DEMISE album. It didn’t happen because he was such a mess.
Who, if anybody, do you consider the originator of Death Metal?
Tom Warrior. But from the Florida bands, I’d say Chuck Schuldiner. He was better than everybody right off the bat, better than Obituary and he was doing it before us, on his own. Those first Death albums are just so awesome. That’s what made us all as good as we were because he set the standard of you’re either going to be good or you’re not going to be a band much longer. I’ll always be a Death fan. Chuck was just awesome. I miss that guy.
Did you know him well?
Yeah, I did know him well. My girlfriend and soon to be wife was best friends with him forever. She was actually one of the last people to see him before he died. When he was in a coma she would still go visit him. He was a very good friend of Obituary and I am a huge Chuck fan.
How do you think your brother’s (John Tardy) vocal style has gotten better over the years?
John’s story is funny. When I was thirteen or fourteen and first heard bands like Slayer, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Trevor was my friend and he went and bought a guitar so that we could start a band. My brother was always around, and he’ll still joke about it today, that we haven’t found our singer yet because we original told John that until we find a singer, why don’t you just try. The beginning of it was really stupid music, fourteen year old kids sounding like Metallica, Savatage, and Nasty Savage, Florida bands along with Metallica and Slayer type music. John’s voice sucked. We were just kids with nothing special. We didn’t know what we were doing. It seemed like in a blink of an eye that John went from this vocalist that didn’t know what he was doing to all of a sudden he had the voice he has now. It went from sucky weird vocals to that voice in an instant. The minute he did it that was right when we started writing SLOWLY WE ROT. Now he’s just better. He’s got range, he’s confident in what he does, and he’s more of an all around package. He’s probably the best live singer when it comes to the power of his voice. He never looses his voice. We’ve been on tours where vocalist have simply been sent home because they lose their voice after doing twelve shows in a row. Other than getting sick a few times, John has never lost his voice. He’s got the most brutal Death Metal voice in the world and every night live, he just destroys all other singers.
What’s the progression of your band, for instance did you listen to Slayer and Venom and say ‘we want to take it to another level’?
Early on probably we were thinking that. We were Slayer fans, Celtic Frost fans, Venom fans. We liked those four or five bands that we really great, but they all sounded so different from each other. We never really tried to write a song that sounded like Slayer or Metallica. We basically went on our own, for me anyway, I just tried to write the coolest drums I could think of and focus on what I was good at, mid tempo and cool double bass. I didn’t necessarily worry about what Dave Lombardo was doing on those early records. He still is the greatest Metal drummer in the world, even at this age. I saw him live last year and got to watch him from the side of the stage, and that guys ridiculous… I don’t know, we knew what we wanted to do, but we never said we should sound like this or that. We were fans of Metal and we started writing Metal. We knew it right off the bat we had something, because when we started writing originals we were still opening for Florida bands, and back then you’d play some Metallica and Slayer, cause that’s just what you would do. Then we started adding our originals people were saying they liked our originals better than the other stuff, so we knew we had a knack for writing songs and we stayed focused on that.