Heart of Steel: Interviews

Steve Stell of Enforsaken

Interview by Lord of the Wasteland

While the “melodic death,” or Gothenburg scene, was huge in the mid 1990’s, by 2004, it has essentially vanished. Bands like In Flames, At The Gates, Arch Enemy and Dark Tranquillity—the original pioneers of that sound—have either disbanded or evolved from the sound that made them famous. The melodic death movement influenced many of today’s metal bands, but none more so than Chicago’s Enforsaken. The five-piece band just released their debut album, entitled THE FOREVER ENDEAVOR, on Olympic Records and it is a throwback to the sounds of Gothenburg circa 1996. The band is by no means stuck in that era, but the influence is certainly there. The death and clean vocal patterns, the layered, dual guitar riffing and solos and excellent songwriting were the ingredients that made the Gothenburg bands so great. Enforsaken has taken all those traits and blended them with traditional heavy metal to create a metalhead’s wet dream.

I recently spoke with Enforsaken guitarist and band founder, Steve Stell, about the new CD, why he hates Marduk and The Offspring, and the status of the melodic death scene circa 2004.

The new CD, THE FOREVER ENDEAVOR, is out March 24th. I was lucky enough to get the promo from George at Century Media a couple weeks ago and it really kicked my ass! I’ve already reviewed it on our website (link), as a matter of fact.

Cool! Thank you, thank you. We saw the review already, actually.

Oh really?

Yeah. Very nice. Thank you.

I actually haven’t seen very many reviews for it yet. How has the early response been to the CD?

So far, only a few reviews have trickled in. It’s been 50/50, I guess. People that are into that style—the whole European sound—are definitely into it. To some people, it’s no big deal. It’s like that with any band I suppose, but so far so good. Most of the reviews have been positive.



I read that the CD was completed in July of 2003. What was the delay in getting out there?

There were a lot of delays. It was supposed to come out in August, I believe, but we ran into some problems. There’s another band on Century Media called The Enforsaken. They were supposed to have an album coming out around that same time so they postponed it and pushed us back. Then we had problems with artwork and mastering.



Niklas Sundin from Dark Tranquillity did the cover of the CD. How did you end up working with him?

As a shot in the dark, I went to his website and asked him if he had anything lying around that he had already done because we were on a pretty limited budget with this first CD. He e-mailed me back and said he had a few things so he sent us about ten samples of things he had lying around. We picked one but the record label didn’t like it. They thought it was a little too dull, so he ended up having to redo it over again. He used the same picture but he just fixed it up a little bit. We got a good deal from him, though. It was supposed to be just a stacked picture that he had already done, so he didn’t charge us the full commission price for it.



You mentioned the mastering problems. James Murphy did the mastering on this correct?


He’s a major name in metal! Testament, Death, Obituary…how did you get him to do the CD for you?

About two years ago, we were supposed to play a benefit show with him in Detroit but something happened and we couldn’t make it. Then I ended up e-mailing the promoter and apologizing to the promoter. I asked him to please e-mail James and tell him how sorry we were. He did that and then about a week later, there was a message in our guestbook from James himself saying something to the effect of “I was looking forward to seeing you guys. Good luck.” He left his e-mail address on there, so I replied back and one thing led to another. The next thing we know, he’s playing a guitar solo on our CD [“All For Nothing”] and mastering it. That was very cool.



That’s a great solo on there, too!

Yeah! We were shocked. He came up with that just off the top of his head in, like, two minutes. Boom, there it is! Beautiful.



There are solos everywhere on this CD, but a couple that really stood were on the title track and “Poison Me.” Four or five years ago, a band wouldn’t be caught dead putting a solo on their record. Now there are bands like Shadows Fall, God Forbid and yourselves who aren’t afraid to lay down a guitar solo. Why do you think solos are making a bit of a comeback?

Lately there have been so many bands that have these chugging, down-tuned riffs with no solos and all that. That gets old after a while. I don’t know if these guys don’t know how to play their instruments or what. Personally, I like hearing guitar solos in metal. It’s one of the most important things to me. I’m not saying that we’re virtuosos or anything, but we try our best to add some flavor to it. That’s what I want to hear so we play it!


Do you and Joe [DeGroot] use six-string guitars or seven-strings?

We both use six-strings.


Who writes most of the riffs? Is it a 50/50 split?

Right now, it’s pretty much split right down the middle. Either he writes a complete song with all the riffs or I write a complete song with all the riffs. It’s 99% Joe and I that are writing it. Eric [Kava, bass] has contributed a few riffs here and there, but it’s mostly Joe and myself in the music department.



Does Steven [Sagala, vocals] write his own lyrics then?

He writes most of the lyrics. On this album, Joe and I wrote two of them. Joe wrote the lyrics to “Vertigo Equilibrium” and I wrote the lyrics for “All For Nothing,” but everything else is Sagala’s.



Why are Enforsaken’s songs so long? There are only two tracks that are under five minutes (laughs)?

(Laughs) I don’t know. That’s just the way it happens. I would like to write a song that’s less than four minutes, but that will be a real challenge. We have a lot of things to say musically within a song, I suppose. It takes time.



I don’t find them to be TOO long, though. I’m never sitting there looking at my watch wishing the song would end! Even “All For Nothing,” which is over eight minutes long isn’t what I would call overly long.

Yeah, that one is weird. We never really timed it before we went into the studio. We knew it was a long song, but when we were in the studio and we finished the first rough tracks on it, we saw on the time meter that it was over eight minutes long. We were like, “I can’t believe this is fuckin’ eight minutes long!” Next time, there should be some songs that are less involved. We’re going to see if we can pull it off.



Steven’s got a great clean vocal as well as the death-style vocal. Which style does the band favor more when recording?

It’s kind of weird because when we’re practicing or writing songs, it’s kind of hard to hear what he’s doing sometimes. It’s usually a surprise once we get into the studio and see what he’s doing once he starts layering vocals and all that. He’s still working on his voice. His harsh voice is great and his clean voice is getting a lot better. We’ve been mixing them in with the rougher tones on our choruses. We’ll continue with that. It’s working out well.



I think that adds a nice sound to the songs, too. “Tales of Bitterness” and “All or Nothing” have that blend of the clean and death vocals.

Yeah, it’s just something we use to stray from the norm. We like to throw a curveball everything once in a while just for good measure. It sounds good to us, so we’ll keep on doing it.



You have some shows coming up: a record release party in Chicago on the 25th of March. Kataklysm and Dying Fetus are playing there as well. Are you playing a full show, or is it just a CD listening party?

No, it’s a full show. We’ll be playing live. That’s just a one-off show. It’s not part of a tour or anything. I know Kataklysm has got a record release thing going on, too.

Kataklysm…good Canadian metal (laughs)!

Yes, absolutely!



You’re also playing the Minnesota Metalfest on April 24th. There is some pretty big names on that bill: Morbid Angel, Satyricon, Suffocation. Have you played with any of these bands in the past?

We’ve played with a few of them before….not Morbid Angel or Satyricon, but others that are there like Fleshgrind. The promoter just told me about two other bands that will be headlining the show but I can’t talk about them yet. I don’t want to get in deep shit.



Enforsaken has opened for some very big names. Krisiun, Vader, Strapping Young Lad to name a few. What have you learned from them in terms of stage presence and playing to a live audience?

It’s great to be at some these shows where the bands are doing their soundcheck and you’re there watching them to pick up whatever you can. You get to chitchat with certain members of bands. We haven’t gone on any full-blown tours forever actually, but we’ve been fortunate enough to open up for a lot of big bands.

Do you have any tours lined up?

We’re working on stuff right now. We were supposed to go out with Marduk and Goatwhore but something happened with Marduk. They can’t get into the country due to grave robbing charges or something?


They have a rather colorful history back in Sweden which limits where they can go. They were supposed to play here in Vancouver right after the whole September 11th thing and they had to cancel the North American tour because they couldn’t get into the country.

Yeah, thanks to whatever assholes in that band who robbed some graves or burned a church, it fucked it for all of us. But whatever, we’ll be out there.


Are there any plans to come to Canada? Have you ever played up here before?

No we haven’t, but hopefully in the future. I’d be curious to check it out. I’ve heard good things about Vancouver.



Getting back to the CD, THE FOREVER ENDEAVOR is getting packaged with a bonus disc of music from other bands on the label. It sounds like a great deal, not only getting a great CD but the opportunity to check out a bunch of other bands, too. It’s kind of a different move, so how did this come to be?

I think the label is going to be doing that with a lot of the new releases that are coming out on Olympic this year just for promotional purposes. It’s to sell more CDs for the label. They sprung that idea on us a few months ago and we were kind of weirded out by it. I just got the final CD from the label yesterday and it’s an awesome compilation. There are a lot of cool bands on there. Since we’re a relatively unknown band, it makes for a nice, full package.



Is there talk about doing a video for any of the tracks on the album?

Yeah, we’ve been talking about doing one for the song “Poison.” We’d like to put something together for that one. I don’t know what our budget will be, but I’m sure we can figure something out. Maybe a college student or something (laughs).

(Laughs) There you go! I understand that you have already written material for the follow-up to THE FOREVER ENDEAVOR. Are these songs that were written during the delay period while you waited for this one to come out, or are they leftovers and older songs?

Every thing that we had…every riff…is on THE FOREVER ENDEAVOR. Since we finished recording in August, we started writing more songs. I think we’ve got three songs completed. We’re going to shoot for eight songs on the next CD. THE FOREVER ENDEAVOR has ten songs and it’s an hour long. We’re going to try to cut it down a little bit for the next one.



I noticed that there are a few songs on THE FOREVER ENDEAVOR that were on the band’s original demo. Did you go in and re-record those tracks for the new album or are they the same versions that were on the demo?

They’re completely re-recorded. We re-recorded “The Acting Parts” and “Dead Light, Dead Night.” They were on our first CD, EMBRACED BY MISERY. They came out all right but we wanted to re-record them and do them justice playing them a little cleaner. Now that we’re on a bigger label, it will expose those songs to a whole crowd of people who would never have heard them before, so we figured why not?


EMBRACED BY MISERY was released on Matt Bachand, the guitarist from Shadows Fall, his label. Did you know him beforehand?

We played a show with them. They were touring with Dismember and Krisiun and we ended up opening a show for them. I guess Matt was watching our set and was into it and gave us his contact information. I think a few months after that show, we ended up recording the CD. We sent him a demo of it and he liked it. It’s more of a licensing or distribution deal. He didn’t put any money into it. We pressed that with all of our own money with the Lifeless Records tag for distribution. Then it got licensed to Lifeforce in Germany and they spread the name throughout Europe. I think he’s pretty much closed down that label at this point.



Going back a bit further into the history of Enforsaken, you were originally the vocalist as well the guitarist. What made you drop the vocal position and bring Steven in?

As soon as I sat down and listened to myself sing, I thought, man there’s somebody that can do this better (laughs)!

(Laughs) Did you destroy the evidence or can we hear you singing somewhere?

(Laughs) No, it’s still out there floating around somewhere. We’re not planning on re-releasing any of that stuff. Steven was in another band at that time and I heard his demo tape and his voice just blew me away. We went to high school together but we weren’t really friends then. We weren’t enemies but we never really hung out or anything. When I heard his demo, I thought fuck this, I’m not singing anymore. We have to get this guy! Then we got him and I threw in the towel in the singing department.



What happened to the original drummer of Enforsaken, Pat O’Keefe?

We had some problems with him after a while. He just wasn’t into the style that we were playing anymore. He wanted to go more into an extreme black metal direction. He was way into black metal and we had kind of a falling out. He left the band and we didn’t talk for a year. We’re all good nowadays but he’s moved on. The last thing I heard, he actually got stabbed in the leg in some club not too long after he left the band. That fucked up his leg and now he can’t play drums ever again.



When was the last time you listened to the original 2-song demo that you did back in 1998?

Oh my God, I haven’t listened to that in a LONG time! It’s another thing with the vocals. I can’t bear to listen to myself sing.

You’re voice is better left in the shower (laughs)?

(Laughs) Exactly. Actually, I think the 2 songs from the demo BETTER on that recording than when we re-did them on EMBRACED BY MISERY! I try not to sit around and listen to it, though (laughs).



Which were the two tracks that showed up on EMBRACED BY MISERY?

“Into The Everblack” and “Standing In The Shadows.” We re-recorded them both for the EMBRACED BY MISERY CD.



I saw on your website that you are going to start selling EMBRACED BY MISERY again?

Yeah. We re-pressed a small amount for web orders and live shows. It’s not being distributed by anyone other than us and on the website.



I also notice don the website that under your own personal dislikes, you have listed one thing and one thing only: The Offspring (laughs). Why do they rub you the wrong way?

That changes from week to week. One week, it’s Celine Dion, the next it’s fucking Evanescence. This week, it’s The Offspring. Dexter Holland is just irritating! His voice…for ten fucking years, this geek…it’s not even punk rock. Just the sound…dude, I just want to go over there and strangle all of them and slit their fucking throats!

(Laughs) Well the fact that they’re 40 years old and write songs about how bad their parents are towards them is a bit of a stretch (laughs)!

Yeah! He’s shy and can’t ask a chick out on a date…COME ON!! He’s 38 years old and got to be rich as hell by now. Quit, retire and fuck off, man! Stop releasing these shitty ass albums! These singles are still being played in heavy rotation everywhere but whatever. Next week it will be someone else.

(Laughs) That rant just made my day, man!

How much input does the band have in the website? Do you just feed the information off to a web designer somewhere?

No, I actually take care of all that. It’s a pretty basic website. There’s nothing flashy on it. We could have someone do it for us but it’s easy to update if we do it ourselves. It’s not all loaded with Flash, not that there’s anything wrong with Flash, but I also understand that not everyone has a cable modem and can wait around for 2 hours for shit to download! It gets the point across.


In your web bio, you have James Murphy listed as one of your main guitar influences. Who else led to what we hear today from you?

I’ve been playing since 1989. Back in the day, the number one guy who got me playing guitar was Zakk Wylde. His solos and the screaming harmonics…just the raging metal that flows from his fingertips. Dave Mustaine is another big one. He’s an awesome riff master. A lot of the old school, late 80s thrash guys, early 90s death metal…people like Chuck Schuldiner and James Murphy, of course. It can even go back to rock stuff like Jimmy Page and blues guitarists here and there. Whatever sounds cool, I’m influenced by it.



I know James Murphy is doing this Death tribute CD. Are you involved with that at all?

He was kind of juggling that when we he was mastering our CD. He would master our CD for a week and then let it sit for a week and then come back to it. It was just in the beginning stages then. He was working on getting this Death tribute together. I was talking to him on the phone three times a week and he was always filling me in on who he’s got and what studio he’s going to, but no, we’re not involved. I’m looking forward to hearing it, though.



He’s got a pretty impressive roster of musicians to play on there so far and it seems like every week, he’s adding someone else to the list!

Yeah, it’s great! That should be a hell of an album. He’s having fun with it, so I’m looking forward to it.



The promo sheet that came with the CD from Olympic is comparing Enforsaken’s sound to that of In Flames, Arch Enemy and At The Gates…the whole Gothenburg sound. Do you agree with those comparisons?

Yeah, I mean, the influence is definitely there. All of those bands have influenced us to a certain degree and I’m sure it sounds that way in the music…and it should. But there’s other things going on in the songs too. It’s not like we’re trying to rip off any of these bands. We’ve been playing like this for 10 years, so if anyone thinks we’re jumping on some sort of bandwagon that’s definitely not the case. That is the sound of music that we like, so we’re going to play it. We’re not changing anything and if people don’t like it, they can fuck off! If they like it, great, because this is who we are! We’re not faking it. People are going to label you. Fans are going to label you. It’s just heavy metal to me!



What do you think of the melodic death scene today, especially how In Flames, for example, have changed their sound so much from what they were originally known for?

When they started wearing these white jumpsuits on the last album…that was just very hard to watch go down. I don’t know what the hell they’re trying to do. The quality of the music went down on that last album, too. I haven’t heard the new record yet myself, but I’ve heard that it’s the melodic death equivalent of Metallica’s ST. ANGER. I don’t think they’ve done anything horrible, but image-wise, I guess you could call it “selling out” with that jumpsuit and synchronized clothing shit. I kind of lost track of what In Flames have been doing. I like the earlier albums. But other bands, like Dark Tranquillity are still kicking some serious ass and that’s great! They’re the best band, in my opinion, for this style that’s out there. You always get genuine stuff from those guys.



What about Arch Enemy? They have the female singer in the band now. Do you still follow them at all?

Yeah, kind of here and there. I’m not as much of a fan of them as I used to be. They’re still a great band, but I actually prefer their first singer, Johan. I think his voice fit better to that sound. Angela, she’s good but if she was a guy, it would be no big deal (laughs)!



When you’re recording, do you try to avoid listening to other bands so that they don’t influence what you’re trying to achieve on record?

When I’m in a writing phase, I try not to listen to anything similar. I’m not listening to At The Gates albums or anything trying to come up with ideas. I’ll be trying to clear my mind of that by listening to classic rock radio and The Rolling Stones, or something like that.



Well that’s all I have to ask you today, Steve. I appreciate the call and the time you took to speak with me today. Good luck with the new album. It’s a killer CD and I wish you and the band great success with it!

Cool! Thanks very much, dude.

Visit Enforsaken’s website at www.enforsaken.com

***Thanks to George at Century Media Records for setting up the interview***