Interview with Kam Lee of Massacre, Death, Mantas
Photo By Steven Shea (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
March 10, 2017
Interview by: InfamousButcher
Kam Lee is one of the Godfathers of Death Metal , right up there with Chuck Schuldiner. As a member of Mantas, Death, and Massacre, Kam put his stamp on extreme metal by creating the growling Death Metal vocal style that has stood the test of time, influencing legions of bands. Kam and guitarist Rick Rozz have recently re-formed Massacre (as Massacre X) and are planning a tour and new material. I was lucky enough to have a chat with Kam over the phone about Death Metal history, Massacre X, and his plans to create a documentary.
Infamous Butcher: How did you get into music as a kid and how did you become a musician?
Kam Lee: Music has always been part of my life; I’ve been around musicians all my life. My father and my grandfather were both musicians. My father and mother were in entertainment, even though it wasn’t like something that’s popular. Back in the 60s especially my dad was in Hawaiian music performing at luaus. I grew up in South Florida, and believe it or not Miami back in the 60s had a huge Hawaiian music scene. I grew up in Miami but I was sort of an outcast kid even back then. One half of the neighborhood was like the black ghetto, the other half was primarily white. I didn’t really fit in. I was a little rebellious skate punk kid. In the late 70s early 80s I kind of went that way. The first bands I started getting interested in was early punk rock stuff like The Ramones, The Misfits, and the Sex Pistols. It was the first aggressive music I got into other than the 60s rock that my parents liked. Then my parents divorced and my mom moved up to Central Florida which in the 80s was still like farm land to me. So I come up here and there is no punk scene. Back then Rush was pretty popular and Ozzy had just got out on his own but there was no connection for me with the punk music when I first got to the high school up here. I was ironically in art class and I drew whatever cool horror stuff I might find. Vinyl was still around then and you could bring this stuff into school. I would draw Eddie all the time from the Maiden album covers and that is how I met Rick Rozz. He introduced me to bands like Motorhead, Anvil, and stuff like that. I was into more crossover stuff at the time like the Plasmatics. Rick and I knew this other kid who was into stuff like Angel Witch and he introduced us to Mercyful Fate and stuff like that. Rick and I would go to the record store right up the street from my house. Back then what attracted you to the records was looking at the cover art. I remember one week I was in the record store with Rick and I pulled out the old ugly brown record cover of Venom’s WELCOME TO HELL, and I was like, what do you think this is? And it was cool to flip it over and see Venom on the back. First I put it back, and Rick was buying one of the Anvil albums at the time, and then I was like, shit I’ll get it. We went back to Rick’s house and put it on and we were just blown away! We went back to the record store to see if we could get more Venom albums and we bought BLACK METAL. We listened to it and thought this is awesome and that is how it all started. Also at the time I was playing drums in a punk rock band called Invaders From Hell. We were trying to introduce punk rock music to the kids at the high school by playing Misfits covers.
IB: How did you meet Chuck Schuldiner?
KL: Rick and I were working together on music but we were not able to practice at my house. My mother was remarried to a jackass who was just a dick to us and wouldn’t let us practice. One weekend Rick went out to a party and met Chuck. He called me up the very next day and said, hey man I met this cat that likes the same music we like and he’s got a house in Altamonte and says we can practice there.
IB: At what point did Mantas become Death?
KL: We were called Mantas for probably a year. Mantas is the name that Rick came up with because Mantas is the name of the guitar player from Venom. We loved everything about Venom and were heavily influenced by them. Here’s how the change happened. I am not going to bad mouth Chuck because he’s dead. I don’t talk shit, I just talk the truth. At the time we were 16 year old kids and Chuck kind of played a power trip on us. He called me up and told me Rick is out of the band. This is the way it’s gonna be. It’s my house and it’s my garage, so my rules. I am going to recreate the band. We are going to continue if you want to be part of it and I am going to call the band Death now. I agreed of course because my drum set was over there. Not even a week later Chuck says we need Rick back. He called Rick and basically gave him the same power play, and then Rick was back in the band. It was good idea anyways. It was better to go with the name Death. Chuck had some older friends back then that were into tape trading and they were helping him. These guys were in their 20s and they had a fanzine called Guillotine magazine. Any advice Chuck was getting he was taking from Mark and John at Guillotine magazine. I’m pretty sure I can say to this day, 30+ years later, that this was all Mark and John’s idea. They advised Chuck to take control of the situation and on how to do it.
IB: Initially you played drums. When did you start singing?
KL: When Rick and I got together and played Venom covers, one of the first songs we wrote was called “Demon’s Flight”. This is the first song we showed Chuck. At the time we had no vocalist so I said let me try it. I think I can sing and play drums at the same time. All those old Mantas demos, all those old Death demos, were pretty much done live in Chuck’s garage. The REIGN OF TERROR and The INFERNAL DEATH demos were done in a studio. I was pretty much trying to emulate higher pitched screaming vocals because that is all there was at the time, that early thrash screaming. Then Chuck stepped up and said, I have this song “Power Of Darkness” and I wrote the lyrics. So then I said, why don’t you sing it? It was so good when he sang it I was like, shit man just keep doing it. The next song he sang was “Baptized in Blood”, and then “Archangel”, and it just went from there. If we were doing the older stuff like “Infernal Death” and “Evil Dead”, I would sing those. After 1985, after we played that New Years Eve show when we opened for Nasty Savage, everything changed. The guy who wrote the book CHOOSING DEATH (Albert Mudrian) told a different story and wrote things that I never said. The only reason that Chuck got angry with me was over a girl. That’s really the truth. I can’t even remember her name. There was a girl Chuck liked and he wasn’t doing anything about it, and I was like dude if you are not gonna ask her anything I will. He got mad at me and kicked me out of the band. Matt Olivo and Scott Carlson from Genocide (later Repulsion) were going to join Death and were there when Chuck fired me. Chuck kind of didn’t want to play with Rick anymore and there was that whole thing with me and the girl.
IB: When did you join Massacre? Who was in Massacre when you joined the band?
KL: After Chuck and I had the fight right in front of Scott and Matt, I was out of Death. I was pretty much homeless because I was living with Chuck. The only place I had to go was my aunt’s and my aunt lives in Tampa about 80 miles away from Altamonte. So I moved to Tampa and there was a bunch of kids that were there the night we played the Nasty Savage show. After a about a week they realized I was living in Tampa, so it was basically Allen West and Bill Andrews that got in touch with me. They found me where I worked at a convenience store. It was Allen West more than anybody else who got me into Massacre. They were explaining to me that they have this singer and he wants to do stuff like early Anthrax, high pitched vocals. I told them right away, I am not gonna do that. They had a song called “Death In Hell”. Allen had some of the lyrics but not all of them. He had pretty much how the chorus was gonna go. We sat down and listened to it a couple of times. It was me, Allen West and Bill Andrews at the time. We went through it a few times with my vocals and they liked what I did with it and that song ended up on the first demo AGGRESSIVE TYRANT. Then I started hanging out at Allen’s house a lot. We wrote “Aggressive Tyrant” together. This is us just hanging out in his living room, him with his guitar and me singing. These songs became the first demo, along with “Mutilated”. This is the same time that I switched my vocals. The stuff I was doing in Mantas and Death was more of the screechy vocals. Initially I was influenced to play drums and do the vocals by the Canadian band Exciter. I thought if the guy (Dan Beehler) from Exciter can do it, I can do it. Plus I was younger then and my balls hadn’t dropped yet. I was a late bloomer. By the time I got to Tampa my balls had dropped and my voice got deeper. By that time Possessed was out with the album SEVEN CHURCHES and they were doing their thing, but there was nobody with really low, deep vocals. And of course I loved what Tom G Warrior was doing. Back when I was tape trading with Chuck, we got a tape from Monte Connor who would later work at Roadrunner Records and on the B side was the Hellhammer demo. I loved it. What I really loved about it was that it was raw, and Tom had a certain way of wording things. He’s trying to sing English but he’s really from Switzerland so there was that cool accent. His nuances were just really cool to me and I really gravitated towards that. So when I went to do Massacre I wanted to emulate some of his style but I wanted to go deeper than that. This was 1985 and I am a big horror movie fan. The biggest horror movie that came out around that time was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. I kept thinking I want to take what Robert Englund is doing on screen and apply that to music. The song “Mutilated” is actually based on Freddy Kruger. If you listen to the early Massacre stuff, the evil laugh is all Freddy Kruger. It was a mixture of Tom G Warrior, Freddy Kruger and really bad ass dogs. Back then I was afraid of pitbulls. They used to scare the shit out of me! And I used to think of pitbulls and rotweilers growling. There was nobody with guttural vocals prior to Massacre. Killjoy (from Necrophagia) was doing the whole horror thing and that SEASONS OF THE DEAD album beat everybody to the punch. It came out before everybody else. So to me that is the first Death Metal album. But even he was still doing those high pitched kind of screechy vocals. You have to remember in the 80s the biggest thing out was shit like Motley Crue, Winger and Poison. God awful shit like that. But I would rather listen to that then the shit that they call metal music now! I would rather listen to Poison than Black Veil Brides. That literally was my whole mindset. I am not gonna follow what everybody else is doing, I am gonna do something different. Believe it or not when I did it back then, everybody said it sucked. Everybody said this isn’t gonna last. They called me Cookie Monster, like that was an insult or something, but I used to love that. They said it would never last and now it is what 33 years later. That Rocky Point Beach resort show. That famous show that is all over YouTube. We played with Morbid Angel and what was Xecutioner (later Obituary) at the time. I remember ripping on everybody and calling them posers because there was a bunch of hair metal bands there.
IB: Massacre had 3 demos and then 3 band members joined Death for the LEPROSY album. What brought this about?
KL: It was a combination of events that happened. Just before all that in ‘87 we did a self financed east coast tour. We went from Florida all the way up to NY. The whole point of doing that tour was to get up to NYC to talk to Roadrunner Records. We even played some shows with Whipash in NY. We met with Monte Connor and another guy whose name I can’t remember, all I know is he pissed me off! The very first thing this guy says to me is, “What are you? I’m like, “What?” He then follows it up with, ”What nationality are you?” I said, I am Filipino, Hawaiian, Chinese and British. He looks at me and says, “You should tell people you are Hispanic.” I’m like WTF why? He says, “We just signed Sepultura, they’re from Brazil, and they are gonna be great. You should tell people you are Hispanic. Because no one is gonna follow a band with an Asian singer backed up by 4 white dudes.” We leave and hang out with Monte and get some NY pizza for the first time and I am pissed but I’ve got to hold it all in. So I find out later that the whole time I was talking to that guy in a room by myself, the rest of the band was in another room talking to somebody else from Roadrunner who was telling them to get rid of me. Get rid of the Chink. Now I am depressed because they got this little insider stuff that I don’t know about and I got this other shit that I am carrying. Now we have to head back down to Florida and you gotta remember we had a second guitar player in the band at that time named Rob Goodwin. So we had Rob, Bill Andrews, Rick Rozz, Terry Butler, and me packed into a car pulling a U-Haul trailer. A couple of the shows on the way back home were cancelled. Hey this was our money. This was how we were making money and we are paying for this tour out of our own pocket. So everybody is getting pissed because we didn’t get signed and no one is letting me in on the reason and I’m holding it in myself. Now we are broke trying to find a way back. We were staying at some chicks’ houses that we could find and some other dudes’ houses that were musicians that we could find. By the time we get home everybody went their separate ways. A couple of weeks went by and I get a phone call from Bill, the band is done, we are split up. I’m still fuming over the other shit. That made me leave Tampa and I come back with my tail between my legs to live with my mom and my miserable step father. Now I am already 18 so I’ve gotta eat a lot of crow. I’ve gotta go back here with this asshole and my mom and basically beg to live back at home. From what I understand, and Rick could tell you more because he keeps apologizing to me to this day, is that it was just a timing thing. Because Chuck had left California after recording SCREAM BLOODY GORE and moved back to FL. He moved back and was living back at his mom’s house and at the same time I left Tampa to live with my mom and Rick moved back in with his mom. Rick started hanging out with Chuck again. So Chuck probably said I still got a contract with Combat Records and I got this thing going and Rick said hey I got a band. And Chuck wasn’t gonna have me come back because he was still mad at me over the chick.
IB: I remember buying a copy of LEPROSY in the early 90’s and then getting FROM BEYOND a little later. I originally thought that the 3 guys from Death had formed Massacre with you after leaving Death. I found out later that Massacre had existed with that lineup before LEPROSY was recorded.
KL: That is what a lot of people thought. The FROM BEYOND material that came out in 91 is really material from ‘85, ‘86, and ‘87.
While Rick was in Death doing LEPROSY, I was in another band with Pete Slate called Abhorrent Existence. Unfortunately we never had a demo but we had five originals and we were out playing. So it wasn’t like I was sitting in neutral waiting for Massacre to happen. The bass player was Mark Lavenia who ended up being in the band Incubus. I can’t remember the drummer’s name except to say it was Steve something.
IB: Massacre came back in 1990 / 91 and recorded the legendary FROM BEYOND album. Tell me about how this came together and how it was recorded.
KL: Morbid Angel had just signed with Earache Records and had just finished a European tour with Benediction. During that time Barney Greenway was still singing for Benediction, before he went over to Napalm Death. Benediction was very influenced by Massacre. For example, on the vinyl of the first Benediction album, SUBCONSCIOUS TERROR there was a sticker that said “The U.K.’s answer to Massacre!”. So Morbid Angel comes back from this tour and I am talking to David Vincent and he is saying, you are not going to believe how huge Massacre is over in Europe! He was the one who convinced me that I had to get back in touch with Rick Rozz and do Massacre again. I contact Rick and he just got a gig in the band Genitorturers, how ironic is that? (David Vincent would later marry Gen the singer and play bass in the band!) Rick didn’t believe me that David said Massacre was big in Europe, so I gave him David’s number and he called him. Next thing I know Rick called me a couple of days later and said, yeah we should do this. I said what are we gonna do, Bill and Terry are still in Death? SPIRTUAL HEALING was coming out. Rick said I got a bass player. He brings the bass player from Genitorturers at the time which was Butch Gonzalez. I said what about a drummer? Rick said remember when we went on tour and we played with Whiplash? I have been talking with Joe Cangelosi their drummer and he said he would move down. Rick had already convinced him to move down to be the drummer in Genitorturers so instead he now convinced him to be the drummer in Massacre. This lineup recorded THE SECOND COMING demo. The material on the demo is literally a live in the studio peel session to present those songs to Earache Records. It’s got a lot of funk bass in it because that’s the style Butch played. And Earache hated it. They said no, this is not what we want. So the next thing I know I am on the phone with Digby Pearson at Earache asking him well what exactly do you want? And Digby says I have a heads up for you. Chuck just walked off the Death tour in Europe. Terry and Bill are still touring Europe as Death without Chuck. What if you could get them to come home and join Massacre again? I said are you crazy? They are never going to leave Death to join Massacre! Digby said well if that happened would you do an album of the FROM BEYOND material? I said if you can get that to happen sure I will do it. Two weeks later they came home and they wanted to do it. We recorded FROM BEYOND in a week. We didn’t even rehearse. That’s why if you listen to the album on “Cryptic Realms” and “Succubus” the tempo is off, the songs are slower at the beginning and faster at the end. The album is very raw because we just went into the studio and did it. I was used to that because that was how we did all the old Death stuff anyways. That is where Digby got the idea to say, this album was done with no vocal effects. Here’s the thing though, I didn’t want to leave it raw, just one line, so I went back in and doubled some stuff. It’s obvious there is a layered approach on some songs. But there are no harmonizing effects. Digby wanted to let fans know my voice was not altered. It is my voice. This is how I sound. The drums are raw, the bass is raw, and the first guitar track is raw.
IB: What tours / festivals was Massacre involved with during the Death Metal heyday of the early 90s? As one of the originators of the sound, do you feel Massacre ever got the recognition they deserved?
KL: I feel I get some recognition now. 30 years later. I mean other than the little thank you list on HARMONY CORRUPTION, Barney never came out and gave me recognition until recently. Now he is finally saying it in interviews. David Ingram on the other hand has always said I take influences from Kam Lee, there would not be that Death Metal vocal style if it weren’t for him. So there are some people now who are finally acknowledging it. And it’s not like I was looking for it, I was just doing what I was doing and I was just lucky to be doing it. I wasn’t looking to get idolized or anything. But I do like to poke fun and I like to be an asshole on Facebook. I mean there’s some people who think Kam lee doesn’t deserve any recognition. I don’t really care either way. But I love to be recognized as anybody would for their art.
I loved the first two tours that we did. The first tour we did with Morgoth and Immolation was in Europe. That was an awesome tour! Second tour we did was Grave and Demolition Hammer. The early Grave, I mean still to this day I fucking salivate over it! Great bunch of guys too. Those tours were really good but it was the last tour in ‘93 in Europe when things got really bad. I am not going to get into a whole thing but back in ‘93 in London I walked off stage and I quit. I looked at Rick and I said I am leaving, I am going home. It was our last show of the tour and I had no obligations but I just wanted out. I paid with my own money to get an early ticket to get home because I was so pissed. The whole thing between Rick and me I am not going to get into it. We’ve patched things up and we get along great now. Right now there is so much controversy behind the band name. It’s disgusting. It’s pathetic. And we are in so much legal stuff right now. It’s the same thing that a lot of bands have gone through. Venom and Venom Inc. Entombed and Entombed AD, etc. We are in a similar battle right now. I’ll just tell you this and you can put it on the record. It’s going to come out anyway. They know that Rick and I got back together in November and started talking. On December 12th we announced on Blabbermouth that we are going to do Massacre again. On December 16th, Terry Butler and Bill Andrews put a counter release out saying that they won’t allow us to use the name because it is trademarked. We went to the trademark site to look it up. They applied for the name three days after we did our announcement on Blabbermouth. We’ve had lawyers look into it. They have applied for a trademark, they don’t have it yet. That’s all I can tell you right now. We are calling our band Massacre X.
IB: At what point do you think you’re going to be hitting the road?
KL: It looks like we are hitting the road as Massacre X sooner than we first thought. I can’t tell you too much right now due to the legal issues, but there are some festivals set up for this year. (Protzen Open Air in Germany in June and California DeathFest III in October have been announced). I am not gonna talk bad about anybody but I just want people to see the truth. Back in 2007 I was in a band called Denial Fiend. Terry Butler got into that band. That band could not tour Europe so the European promoters decided if you create Massacre again you’ll be able to tour. In 2007 and 2008 we did that, but I refused to record a new album without Rick. So I do all this, and I was frustrated with a certain person, the same person I was frustrated with back in 93 so I quit and I left. That same person decides to get in touch with Rick and from 2010-2014 they do a version of Massacre. Rick Rozz and Matt (Mazzonetto) go through all that for 4 years and they get the same treatment I got back in 2007. It took them four years to figure it out but they still finally figured it out. On my 50th birthday on Halloween last year Rick contacted me and said we need to talk. We go out drinking on my birthday, his wife is there, my wife is there. We had a great time reconnecting. And we looked at each other and we said what the hell is this all about? And we start comparing notes. I’m like wow this guy said the same things about you! And we found out for 20 years the same motherfucker has been manipulating everything. That is all I am gonna say.
IB: You’ve been working on a book entitled I AM DEATH METAL – The Kam Lee Story. Is the book finished?
KL: I was in the process of the writing the book, I was getting all these things together, my memoirs and I think to myself, is anyone gonna read a fucking book? Or are they gonna watch a movie instead? So I am taking the book idea and making it a movie. I talked to Rick about it and said why don’t we get some kids to play us? There’s an issue because Death is owned by Eric Grief. If we do a movie, we would have to do it without Chuck. Also, Eric wants to do a movie about Death and he wants to leave me and Rick out of it. It sucks that lawyers and greedy people that want money tie this shit up. It’s sad. It’s sad because I want to tell my story and I cannot even tell my story, not the full side of it, because I can’t include somebody and that is the truth about it. But if we do it as a full documentary we can include Chuck so it might have to be done that way. We’ll figure it out and get the movie made.
IB: Sounds great! This has been a great interview and I’ve learned a lot. I’m looking forward to seeing Masscare X live soon! Thanks very much for your time Kam.
KL: No problem bro.