SUFFOCATION – Interview with guitarist Terrance Hobbs
By Peter Atkinson
Promo and live photos from Facebook.com/suffocation
Last year certainly had its share of ups and down for New York death metal legends Suffocation. But that’s really nothing new for a band that were one of scene’s pioneering and most revered acts in the early 1990s but were seemingly finished by 1998, when they split up and death metal appeared headed the way of the dinosaur.
Five years later, though, Suffocation were back and since then they have helped lead a death metal resurgence that continues to this day. Along the way, the band have unleashed some of their finest work, from 2004’s comeback Souls To Deny, to 2006’s self-titled behemoth and 2009’s Blood Oath, which marked their first entry into the Billboard Top 200.
2012, however, began on a sour note. Drummer Mike Smith left for a second time, and had some rather unkind words for his former mates on the way out the door (which can be found easily enough with a quick Google search, if you’re interested). But former drummer and long-time Malevolent Creation member Dave Culross came back onboard and Suffocation kept rolling.
Then frontman Frank Mullen had to bow out of a series of shows in Europe due to work-related conflicts, so Decrepit Birth’s Bill Robinson was recruited to fill in. Later, Mullen said he would continue to sit out a portion of the band’s shows going forward because of such conflicts — though he remains committed to Suffocation and will record with them, as well as tour as much as his schedule allows, an arrangement the rest of the band seem to have accepted.
In October, the band – rounded out by guitarists Terrance Hobbs and Guy Marchais and bassist Derek Boyer – were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, becoming easily the most brutal of the institution’s honorees, which include the likes of Connie Stevens, Perry Como, Harry Chapin and Billy Joel. A couple weeks later, though, they, along with just about everyone else along the Eastern Seaboard, got blasted back into the 19th century for a stretch by Hurricane Sandy.
Amid it all, Suffocation managed to record their seventh studio album, Pinnacle of Bedlam, which has just been released. And despite the turmoil, the band sound as ferocious and focused as ever. On the phone from Long Island, Hobbs offered the following status report on the band, as well as some of his other projects.
So how are things?
Terrance Hobbs: Great. Great, man. I’m just hanging here doing Suffo interviews and I’m in the middle of doing a record with Criminal Element, which will out around the same time as the Suffo record, which is pretty cool. It’s some aggressive stuff, a little bit more of a thrashy hardcore band, but it’s pretty cool, man.
I’ve heard of the band, but don’t think I’ve ever heard them.
Terrance: Back in the day, I used to go down to Washington, D.C., and it’s got one of the singers from Dying Fetus from back in the day as the actual vocalist [Vince Matthews]. It’s really funny, it’s all about running away from the cops and shit. It’s great (laughs). If you’re in D.C. you would probably know the guys from Mucus Membrane and Eternal Ruin [Wayne Jones, Chris Yaustella, Chris Park, all former Criminal Element members]. And the Dying Fetus guys [notably bassist Derek Boyer, who's been playing with Suffocation since 2004] and Misery Index guys [guitarist Darin Morris] who are on this product that we’re doing over here right now.
Have you all recovered completely from Hurricane Sandy, or are you still picking up some of the pieces?
Terrance: For the most part, everything is back to normal over here. There’s still tons of damage. All the home improvement people are super fucking busy, they have tons and tons of work. Shoreline work, places that got flooded. Places close to me, man, had like two or three feet of water, people were canoeing down the block. It was kinda crazy. But, for the most part, now it’s just basic winter stuff. It was snowing this afternoon, nothing too extreme, which is a good thing. We don’t need anymore of that [which, of course, they got two weeks later with the blizzard known as Nemo].
Did you lose anything as a result of the storm – equipment, studio stuff, stuff like that?
Terrance: Me, personally, no. For the most part, we didn’t lose any gear or anything, so we were pretty fortunate with that. Derek was out of power for 12 days, which was kinda miserable because it was fucking cold. I was out of power for five days and Guy was out of power for maybe about nine days. I know Frank was out of power for about eight days, so each of us kinda got hit with a different deal.
I was the most fortunate, I got power back after the fifth day, and it sucks when you lose power for five days and consider yourself lucky (laughs). The gas station lines and everything like that, it was fucked up around here. But none of us got flooded out or had their homes washed away like some people did around here.
Are you guys doing much to launch Pinnacle of Bedlam. I know you have a show or two around here [Washington, D.C.], but are there any big album release plans?
Terrance: Not really anything big. We have about three shows in February cutting through the D.C.-Baltimore area. We’ll probably play a song or three from the new album, we’re not gonna be playing the whole record or anything. We’ll play a few shows before the actual touring starts, which isn’t going to be for a while. We want to make sure we build up enough anticipation that the fans will come out and hang out with us, catch the new material live. For the most part, it’s going to be the run of the mill stuff, getting things ready for when we really get down to business.
What is the status of Frank’s touring availability?
Terrance: Basically, here’s the thing, Frank can’t tour as much as he used to because, for one, he’s got a full-time job and they won’t have him take off that much time, he doesn’t accumulate enough time to go off and do long tours. But he’s been there for the length of this band, so we’ll work around his schedule as much as possible. The only time we’ll ever do anything and have a fill-in is if we’re literally obligated to do, so if we have 10 shows booked and Frank can’t make three of them, we’ll get a fill-in. And sometimes things come up when he can’t get away. But he’s not quitting touring or semi-retiring, as some people have said.
Frank is still a big part of this band, it’s not like we’re expecting him not to be around. If something happens, something happens. No big deal. And it gives us the chance to work with new musicians, which is pretty cool. I’ve been in the same band for 20 fucking years, so it gets a little stale. It’s kind of like being with the same woman (laughs).
Still, it’s one thing to have a bass player who can’t make some of the shows, when it’s the frontman, the voice and focal point of the band, and someone who’s got the charisma Frank has, that’s a pretty big deal.
Terrance: Yeah, it becomes a whole other issue. And we never come out with someone who’s not heavy enough to fill the fucking bill, you know. We’re not just going to go through the motions with someone who’s not gonna be able to kill it.
For me, it’s not that big of a deal. I guess for a lot of other people it is, but I don’t really see it. I’m more concerned that my band can get out there and play the gigs and still be out there to promote everything we do. That’s the most important thing. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing this, and none of us wants that.
You can’t expect everybody in a band to be exactly on the same page all the time. Because that’s the way life works, and you’ve gotta take it like it is. Sometimes you’ve gotta take it with a grain of salt.
Was the situation with Frank at the root of the reason for Mike leaving?
Terrance: No, the seed of the reason for Mike leaving the band is because Mike was too headstrong toward everybody else in the band. And it just got to a point where it was like, “you know what, this isn’t right.” I’m sure he’s 100 percent better off now than where he was because it was just making everyone else miserable. And after he left and we got Dave, it’s like breath of fresh air. Now everybody’s happy (laughs). I guess Mike just has to run his own ship and be the captain of his own boat and that’s what makes him happy. So be it.
Since Dave was with the band before, was he your first choice?
Terrance: We always kept in touch with Dave anyway. For the most part, most of the old musicians who have been with Suffocation, we’re still friends with. I see [ex-guitarist] Doug Cerrito from time to time, I see [ex-bassist] Chris Richards from time to time. I only see Josh [Barohn, ex-bassist] when I’m on tour because he lives in Australia. I see [ex-drummer] Dougie Bohn all the time, so Dave he was just a natural choice.
During the time Dave was in the band before, the reason Dave fizzled out is because the whole band fizzled out, it wasn’t like some vindictive thing. So it was easy asking him back. And Dave was like, “Yeah, I’ve been dying to do some shit.” And I was like, “great, let’s go.” It couldn’t have been any better.
After Suffocation did come back, are you surprised things have gone as well as they have for the band? Now it seems like you guys are almost victims of your own success, relatively speaking?
Terrance: (Laughs) I hear you. It is a little surprising, but nowadays it’s a lot easier to book and promote and keep in contact with people and arrange things. We finally have management, we didn’t have management back then, so that helps a lot. And for us, coming back, Frank had more time to do a lot more shows when the band reunited, so I guess we utilized that as much as possible because we went out and we played tons and tons and tons of shows, which in turn helps. So for us, right now, it’s a tight spot for Frank where he can’t be there all the time, but we’ll just continue to do shows, do as much as we can and stay out there.
I really have to equate all the stuff basically to the Internet. The communication has gotten so much better, and so much faster, that now you can really plan and contact and do shows and do better, and I think that helps the turnout. There’s still real shabby places that you play and 20 people show up, but that’s the way it is. That’s the scene we’re in. It’s death metal (laughs).
Now everything instant. We used to do everything by mail and mail order, for real. So whenever a show was booked, you got paper flier in the mail and everything mattered about organizing your correspondence, everyone wasn’t on a group list you could just push a button and send to everybody and make sure they know, or post it on Facebook. It’s a lot different these days.
Since this is the second go-round for Suffocation, are there any lessons you took from back in the day or is this such a different time that they really can’t compare?
Terrance: If there were some things I could have done differently back in the old days, of course I guess I would have, but life is an experience, so for me I’ve learned a lot more in the recording aspect, in the playing aspect and the business aspect over these years and I really wouldn’t pass that up for anything. I guess if there’s a lesson to take from the past it’s that if you’re headstrong and into it, be prepared to devote your life and your entirety to it, otherwise it’s not gonna work because, like I said, this is death metal. It’s not gonna make you rich (laughs).
I don’t know how much involvement Mike had in the songwriting, but with Dave back in the band did you approach the music any differently this time?
Terrance: Not really, from the standpoint of putting the songs together. In the studio, it was a lot better. Mike was so headstrong towards everybody else that it wasn’t what it needed to be, which is everybody having their opinion and having something placed into things.
We did write two songs in the studio for this record, and they’re probably the best, most fun songs out of them all. And I think that reflects a lot more on the musicians in the band not having somebody who’s trying to be the overshadowing figure. And them being able to do what they really wanted to do I think helps a lot, and like I said, it’s a breath of fresh air because everybody has their own priorities and they take care of them all on their own. That’s great.
This album seems to have a more streamlined, vicious sound. It’s all business.
Terrance: For the most part, we wanted to do something that was gonna have a couple different elements in it. Suffo is a pretty aggressive band, so we were trying to make sure we could get some of those really aggressive dark tonalities out of it as well as some catchy ones. A lot of the writing was done piece by piece, here and there, influences were bounced off each other. For me, I was like “what is it going to take in order to make this thing sound super aggressive,” and I think it came across well with everything that everybody else interjected into the actual writing from the preproduction on.
It came out fucking pretty cool, man. We’re just trying to keep up to the same standard that we always have, which is be an aggressive, catchy band, have good guitar work, have good bass playing, have good drums, we really want to make our impact in that area.
And from the second the album starts, it’s right in for you face, “Cycles of Suffering” just leaps out at you.
Terrance: Right (laughs) and then on the song “The Sullen Days,” [the acoustic intro and outro] that’s as clean as it’s gonna get, and it still comes across as pretty heavy and has its share of over 200 BPMs in between.
As technical as bands are getting these days, it’s refreshing to hear something that’s this tight.
Terrance: We try to keep it in a medium where it’s still aggressive, it still has some technicality but it’s not overly technical. We’ve had our days really making things complicated and intricate, so for me it’s like been there, done that, I guess. We still like our share of technicality but we want it to be memorable, we want you guys to remember what’s been played, you know what I mean?
We’re trying to keep it to a point where something will stick in your head and you’ll be able to hum it over and over again. Maybe for the real death monger out there they don’t want that, so I guess this is not the record for them but we still do try to be technical and heavy and cutting and aggressive and syncopated. That’s the word I think sums us up, we’re syncopated. Everything works well together with everything else.
And it’s not like real death mongers don’t have plenty of choices. People lament about how the death metal scene got over-saturated in the “old days,” but it seems like there’s way more bands out now than there ever were back then?
Terrance: Oh yeah, and there’s new bands coming out every day. You just go on Facebook, forget it. There’s a million band links. Don’t get me wrong, I love music, but for the average person who will go on my page and send me their band link, unless I really know them I don’t have the time to listen to it because I’m too busy recording and playing and mixing, most of time.
It’s kinda rough, some people probably get offended that I don’t give it the time of day, but I don’t have that amount of time (laughs). I’m trying to produce and make records and get more releases out this year myself. So I hope they bear with me on that.
What else do you have going on besides Suffocation and Criminal Element?
Terrance: Right now, Suffocation takes the majority of my time. Then I have the Criminal Element record, which is going to be called Modus Operandi, which is out around the same time. After that I working on the next Deprecated album, which is our bass player’s band from when he was in California. He’s had a whole album written for God knows how long. The drummer [Torrey Moores] is out here in New York and A.J. Magana used to be the singer with Defeated Sanity, so we’ll be working on that album afterward so that way we can get the third release for this year. It will have [guitarist] Matt Sotelo from Decrepit Birth playing on that as well. So I’ve got my share of recording and work cut out for me, let alone the touring. Should be a good year for metal for me, for sure. And for you guys (laughs)!
The hurricane aside, you had a pretty good end to last year, being named to the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. For a band of your ilk to be in the same company as Billy Joel has got to be a pretty big honor?
Terrance: Yeah, it was a pretty big thing for us. I’ve been living here my whole life so for me to actually get an award for doing music out here was really kinda flattering. It was nice to have all the other members of my band actually walk up on the stage and they all got awards, as well. So Long Island really did us justice, I gotta say thank you to everyone out here who supported us and everyone abroad who supported us for doing this. I never thought I’d get an award for playing death metal, but I’m looking at it right now. It’s awesome.
What I’m trying to do, and what the other guys are trying to do with Suffo, is bring you the heaviest most brutalist music that we can come up with and bring it out to you guys in a fashion that is listenable! We don’t want unlistenable records. We want to spend the time having the records sound good, have the songs be good, have the lyrics be good. We don’t like to cram things anymore, we’re too old for that.
Speaking of that, have you given any thought about how much longer you want to keep this going?
Terrance: People run into their issues, but for me this is part of me. I’m always going to be doing some Suffocation in one way or another. I still enjoy making heavy, brutal music, and I think the other members of the band feel the same way, so you know, at least expect another 15 billion records from us (laughs). Well, at least one every two or three years.