INTERVIEW WITH SEAN KILLIAN OF VIO-LENCE
The Bay Area thrash metal titans Vio-lence returned to the limelight in 2019 after being on a hiatus for a few decades. The newest output LET THE WORLD BURN shows the old school thrash metal by Vio-lence is still pure, vital and raging. Metal-Rules.Com sat down with the legendary frontman Sean Killian of Vio-lence to talk about the EP and other interesting subjects.
Interview and pic by Arto Lehtinen
When old classic bands get together and start writing new songs, people are always a little bit skeptical of what’s going to happen now. Did you have any kind of pressure when you started writing new stuff?
Well, the pressure was put on by ourselves because we knew there was going to be a high expectation of, what are these guys going to sound like? Because our last record was Nothing to Gain. So if that’s what you had to go on, your perspective would probably be like, well, maybe they’re not going to be as heavy or as thrash metal. And so when Phil and I started talking about writing, it was important to take off from ETERNAL, OPPRESSING, Let the World Burn. So we wanted it to be thrash, the original kind of style of thrash and intense guitar picking and notes and riffs and shit like that that Phil does. That’s kind of how we approached it. But we knew there was going to be high expectations, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves.
Phil wrote most of the riffs for this album, right?
He used to give some teasers on his Instagram sometimes.
Yeah. Yeah, he was. I had to tell him, “Dude, what’s up? You going to fucking play the whole record for everybody?”
Otherwise, that was one way of getting attention for the upcoming EP.
He would come in with the riffs, and then it would be kind of he and I just trying to structure the songs and find little ways to make them more unique.I don’t play guitar, but I know notes, so I would just hum shit to him because he had a riff, and then I would hum something going, “Oh, yeah. We’ll add this,” and shit like that. That’s just kind of how we worked. That break in Screaming Always, and the bridge–where it’s like, “Jump, jump, jump.” I put that in there because, I don’t know, my brain thinks offbeat for some reason. I’m not like a one, two, three, four kind of a– my brain doesn’t operate that way.
When you released the Dead Kennedys cover song, “California Uber Alles” , Did you test the people’s reaction ? I read some kind of positive and negative opinions.
Oh, yeah. People were pissed. Yeah, they wanted to hear Vio-lence, and we did that. But we had a show booked in Oakland, and then the COVID hit, so we were going to play the song at the show. And then it was like, well, we started writing the EP. We got through Flesh from Bone and Screaming Always. And then, that’s when Phil was like, “Well, we should do something. Maybe we should record California Uber Alles and throw it out there. So we approach the label. They supported us on it, and it’s got more of a metal edge to it than anything. But when we put it out, we didn’t tell anybody what we were doing. We just put it out. And then people were like, “Oh, what the fuck? We want Vio-lence music.” And some people are like, “Oh, man, that’s fucking heavy.” But we just kind of did it as something to get back in the studio, do some recording. And Christian produced the whole thing. He would bring his Pro Tools up. Everything was recorded in our rehearsal studio.
It was more of a do-it-yourself thing.
Yeah, like a garage band. And then he took it home and on his Pro Tools and mixed everything and got all the drum sounds and everything. Yeah, he’s really good. Christian is a fucking pro at Protools. He’s good at it. So we’re fortunate that he’s in the band to do that.
You have a really great team working on this album. So did you want these guys to work with you in the first place?
Well, Phil and I wrote them. We were the only ones writing. Perry was in the room to play drunk beats with us and do what he could to contribute. But it had to be the two of us. It couldn’t be anyone else adding to it because that would change the sound. Because Christian has a distinct writing style and so does Bobby. But to release it and say this is Vio-lence, it could only be Phil and I.
When Bobby joined Vio-lence, did he bring something?
No, this is all Phil and I.
What about this front cover, impaled bodies on it? It was made by a guy from Turkey, right?
Yeah. So that’s a diorama he made. And he sculpted that and then took me to a photo studio and took pictures of it on a table. And then, my cousin did all the digital artwork behind it. And it’s kind of that Vlad the Impaler, Bram Stoker’s Dracula movie. It’s kind of a scene from there, but it’s original because it’s a sculpture. So when you see the video, Let the World Burn- Flesh from Bone. When you look at it on a big screen, you can see the diorama. You can see its features of it. So it’s like, if you see it on a small screen, you’re not going to pick it up. So I have an 86-inch TV, so it’s huge. And you could see all the detail.
I have to check it out on the big screen because people usually watch all the videos on the iPad or their mobile phone, so they don’t get the real impression of what the video looks like.
Yeah, and when you see it on a big screen, you can see the diorama. You can tell.
All right, you have written all the lyrics, right?
What kind of things inspired you?
It’s just pure anger and angst and hate and everything that metal should be. And so the hardest part for me is sometimes the vocal pattern. But the lyrics for me somehow come out of my brain pretty easy. Once I get on a roll, they come out pretty quick. And I’m good at word salad, mixing words together, and turn that shit out. But Upon their Cross, the line dead feet is pedestal so vile you wept, touch the face of God and feel rejected. I didn’t want to tell people, this is what I wrote about. Because I want the lyrics to speak for themselves and people to have their own perspectives. I didn’t want to tell you what I was thinking and change that perception.
So you let a listener decide how they feel.
And so it’s not always direct. It’s very kind of vague, but direct enough to where you could paint a picture in your mind. When you read a novel and you start reading it and your brain automatically starts picturing the scene. And that’s what I was hoping for with these lyrics.
Did you have more songs written ready for the EP or just these ones?
No. We just wrote the five songs. I have lyrics that I wrote that I want to record on a quick track and let Phil write music to it, because we’ve never done that before. It’s always been the music, and then I write over the music. So next time he and I get a chance to get together, that’s kind of what I wanted to do, to change up stuff a little bit. Not to try to change the band sound, but to go, “Hey, let’s try this different approach and see how that works.”
What kind of approach?
Where I record lyrics, vocals on a click track and then give it to him to write something to. Because it’s always been the music and then I write the lyrics to the music. Now I have the freedom to lengthen or shorten verses and choruses, accounts, and all that, but it’s always been the music and then I write over the music. So I want to flip that, try a different approach and see how it comes out, and challenge him.
When you wrote the lyrics, did you let your anger and anxiety out from the past 20 years on this release ?
Yeah. Well, because I know these days with social media and all that shit that fans are really self-conscious about offending people. I don’t give a fuck because I don’t do this for a living. This is what I do because I love to do it. And so when I write lyrics, there’s offensive shit in there. And it’s like when I get to that point and I write it and then I go back and read it and I never think, “Oh, maybe someone will get offended by that.” I think, “Well, someone might get offended by that. And that’s a good thing.” Because people are too fucking sensitive these days. And like I said, these bands, a lot of these bands, it’s a business and they don’t want to lose business. So I don’t give a fuck, basically.
Everybody wants to cancel everyone.
Yeah, you can’t cancel me because I’m not someone who gives a shit. And I don’t think our fans do either. I think our fans are like, “Yeah, I like it because it’s that bad and that offensive and that intense.” Because of Vio-lence, you have to know the lyrics and the music. And so when you have the lyrics in your head or you’re reading it along with the song, that’s when you get the full picture of who Vio-lence is.
Do you think that all the lyrics that you wrote for ETERNAL NIGHTMARE and OPPRESSING THE MASSES still reflect nowadays?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, for sure. Definitely OPPRESSING THE MASSES. Because OPPRESSING THE MASSES, I wrote that song during the Tiananmen Square thing and so I didn’t point out Tiananmen Square because you date something if you– I didn’t want to date the song. So I never referred specifically to anything other than that dictatorship kind of oppression that happens. It’s happened long before Tiananmen Square.
You are writing on the new EP right now, so you are putting more anxiety and anger on it because what you have seen now, what’s going on through the past three years.
I think what the worst part, from my perspective of this whole pandemic bullshit was how easily people are persuaded. I was so shocked that people are that easily manipulated in large groups. And it’s kind of sad. It’s a sad statement on humanity and the human mind and how it’s so easily altered because people want to be part of the group, and to be an individual is to take a risk and people are just too afraid. Hell, I almost fucking died. I’m not afraid of shit. So it changes your perspective for sure, but OPPRESSING THE MASSES, and then those songs too, like “Calling in the Coroner”, like fun specific songs that have that protest perspective– and Kill on Command. But this record is a lot less specific and more, I’m trying to draw your brain into my world and we’ll see what you come out with. That was my goal with these lyrics.
About the lyrics on the NOTHING TO GAIN albums, what do you think about them?
There’s some good songs on there. I mean, there’s some really good songs. It was a shitty recording session, a shitty mix. We were being pressured by Mega Force, and Johnny Z and those guys wanted us because the grunge scene was coming out strong and, “Oh, you have to change.” And it’s just like I don’t think he fucking really ever liked us anyway. When we did OPPRESSING THE MASSES, he called the studio after he heard the cut and, “You need to rerecord the vocals.” I was like, “Why would I do that?” Well, “Because it needs to be more clear and I need to understand the words.” I was like, “Well if I rerecord, it’s going to fucking sound the same, dude. So we’re not going to waste money and rerecord what something that is not going to change is.” And you’ve never been here. You never came to the fucking studio. So I’m not a big fan of Johnny’s at all.
He recently passed away.
People will go, “Oh, well, Johnny Z, Johnny Z.” And I’m just like, “Yeah, he’s not my cup of tea.” Because he tried to manipulate what I was doing and I was like, “Okay, whatever dude. I don’t really give a fuck.” And that will always stick in my mind.
My favorite song is “Screaming Always”. There’s really good riffing and picking and stuff like that. What’s your favorite song from this album?
I like Gato Negro a lot. Yeah.
So I was listening to Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cat, and that’s where I kind of got inspired. And it was a spoken word on YouTube. And I kept listening to it thinking, this is like way fucking [inaudible]. This is like really cool shit. So then I was kind of inspired to write the song, and then it was like, I told Phil, “I’m going to call it Gato Negro.” And he’s all, “Well, why?” And I go, “Because it sounds cooler than Black Cat.” I just like the riffs and I like the lyrics. And the lyrics are really kind of cool because I tried to present Edgar Allan Poe’s story through music, but not get too specific. But if you listen to the Black Cat on YouTube, the spoken word, and then you read the lyrics, you’ll see the connection.
People hardly know that fact.
Yeah, no. A lot of people don’t. And then “Screaming Always” is kind of like somewhere in the world at all times, someone is screaming.
And “Flesh from Bone”.
“Flesh from Bone” is kind of like that ancient Vlad the Impaler, cut your flesh right off your bone, impale you for the smallest shit. I watched a lot of documentaries on Vlad and read some books about him, and his approach to ruling Wallochia and his battles with the Ottoman Empire, and using fear to win against a larger army because he was outnumbered. His armies were always outnumbered. But it was the fact that he was impaling 20,000 people, and then you see that as just an individual. It doesn’t matter if you’re part of this big group of the Ottoman Empire’s military, it fucks with your head. And that’s kind of what I liked about Vlad.
Do you think that making a full-length album is pointless nowadays because everybody is streaming the stuff like that? I guess people don’t have time to listen to full-length albums nowadays. Is it your idea that you are putting out EPs now?
Not only that, but then you get the new product sooner to the people that want to hear it? I don’t call them fans. I mean, it’s kind of a lame statement. It’s kind of weird because people listen to what they want to listen to. And it may not be the same genre. I don’t listen to metal hardly at all. I listen to all kinds of different music, minus country music. So I’m just a guy that likes music. And so I hear creativity in music, and that’s what excites me about music. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a diehard fan of that band. It’s like, I’m just someone who appreciates good talent and good music writing.
So the next EP is coming out on Metal Blade as well?
We just do one-deal contracts. Phil didn’t want to commit to anything, but yeah, Metal Blade is a great label. They really take care of us. And if we do something, definitely that’s who I would like to work with for sure.
Metal Blade is a very good label.
They are. They’ve been there since the beginning.
Cannibal Corpse has been on Metal Blade since its first album up to now.
Yeah. And they put Metallica on Metal Massacre and sure hell didn’t sound like the record, but they’ve been there since the beginning. Who else would you want to work with? The music that we write they are the people. Because they never came to us and said, “Oh, I don’t know about these lyrics,” where Atlantic Records took Torture Tactics off a fucking record. And it’s just like, we don’t want to deal with people like that. We want to deal with good people that get it.
When doing gigs, do you think that mixing old stuff and the new stuff in the setlist is going to be a challenge for you, because people are screaming for the old stuff and you definitely want to play new stuff?
Well, we know that. We love playing old songs. It gets the crowd fucking juiced up. I don’t know. It’s like, I see metal bands and they have a good crowd and they do well, and the fans dig them. But for some reason, this music that we wrote drives people fucking insane when we start playing it.
We saw that last night.
Yeah. It’s like that pit was huge. And especially during “World in the World”, that change into the verse riff, Rob wrote that riff, and it really kicks it in, man.
I guess the one reason why “World in the World” is very popular is because of the video. The video gets spread out thru social media and secondly because of a guy having a helmet camera in the pit.
Oh, yeah. Yeah. So he’s in the “California Uber Alles” video, too. He’s still a friend of ours, a friend of the band. So it was like when we talked about too, I was like, “Oh, we got to get him over here.” He’s got to be in the video, too. Oh, yeah, my son’s in it. One of his buddies is in it. I was staying at a hotel while we were doing the filming, and the guy running the hotel was like, “Oh, my kid, he loves metal, thrash metal, like that.” And so he called his son his son’s, “Oh. Yeah, I know Vio-lence. I’m a fan of the music. I like the music.” So he’s all, “Oh, yeah. He really likes the music.” I said, “Well, tell him to come to the Back Door Lounge tomorrow at this time, and we’ll put him in the video.” So this kid shows up. He’s like 17, and we put him in a white suit and made him part of it.
Are you kind of surprised that all of a sudden people are talking about Vio-lence? Because, last decade, there was hardly talk about Vio-lence at all. And now that everybody wants to see you in festivals and things like that. So there’s a new renaissance for you right now.
People are like, when we play shows, people are like, “I thought I’d never see you.” People that weren’t alive or weren’t born yet when we released ETERNAL NIGHTMARE and OPPRESSING THE MASSES, and now it just kind of, over time, it just held its ground. So when we play shows, we see 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds, 50-year-olds, 30-year-olds. It’s just really cool to see that and then to see that that record, ETERNAL NIGHTMARE, held its ground for so many years. And the OPPRESSING THE MASSES. But ETERNAL NIGHTMARE, definitely. And then I always hear, “I thought I’d never see you guys. I thought I’d never see you guys.” And we don’t tour big tours. I mean, we try to play on weekends, do some festivals. I mean, that Headbangers Ball thing is probably the biggest tour. We’ll do 13 shows.
That’s quite a lot!
Yeah, but it’s like I tell people on social media, “We’re going to play in Atlanta. So if you’re within 500 miles, you should probably come to see us, because you may not get another chance.”
Actually, when you played in Los Angeles, where Phil had a guy’s hair stuck to his guitar. I watched the whole show and someone wrote there that, “That was Killian’s kid doing the stage diving.” You put him away.
No, I was asking him to get my inhaler. Yeah, because I was running short of breath because I was sick. I have to use an inhaler. And so I was telling him to get my inhaler, so that’s why I told him to get up here. But he’s always in the pit. He’s always stage-side. He’s 18 now. He’s a hockey player. He’s going to Michigan in September. He plays junior hockey.
I read that you don’t have the right to reissue OPPRESSING THE MASSES because of Atlantic.
Atlantic has it.
You have the right for ETERNAL NIGHTMARE, I guess.
We bought those back.
As for TORTURE TACTICS, the same thing. You don’t have rights.
Yes, we do.
You do have.
That’s why you see it out. But OPPRESSING THE MASSESs is on Amazon Music. The album. But it just has a different cover. It’s under the Torture Tactics cover. But it’s the whole record. I don’t know how it got out there, but it’s out there.
It wasn’t on the Spotify at all.
No. No, you have to go to Amazon Music. Yeah.
What about the Nothing to Gain album? Do you have rights for that?
Yeah, I don’t know, because I left the band and then Phil got it on Bleeding Heart Records. So I don’t know what kind of a deal he worked for that.
It has good songs. It just needs to be re-released
It should be re-released again, I guess, because it definitely deserves to come out for the new audience. It’s a good album. We want to release OPPRESSING THE MASSES, and we’ve gone to Atlantic to buy the rights back, but they won’t sell them. They have it shelved. They don’t give a shit. Yeah. They’re still the same assholes they were when they took Torture Tactics off of it.
For example, I saw this kind of bootlegged shirts all over. You can’t have control about this.
Not with Ebay. Because Ebay is a fucking corrupt shit hole, so it’s like–
I saw that T-shirt in Poland.
Yeah. At the Mystic festival.
Yeah. Yeah. And then it’s like Ebay is a joke. So you can’t get anything taken off of there. So bootleggers sell their shit there. We go to South America or Mexico, we don’t even bring merchandise because we’re competing against the bootleggers right outside the venue, because no one cracks down on it. So when we went to Mexico City and played, I wound up selling the majority of our shirts to the bootlegger.
So when Vio-lence was basically on break, there was a lot of DVD glorifying thrash metal, Bay Area thrash, like, get thrashed. Do you feel that the whole [inaudible] put more feedback response to a new audience because social media and DVD and older generation don’t know that was great? They are not, [inaudible], not interested in that. So I guess thrash metal has got entirely new audience.
It does. Definitely. Like I said, when we play shows, there’s kids there. It’s like, “What? Are you with your parents? Or your parents were fans?” They’re like, “No, we just fucking found your music on YouTube,” or whatever format that they found us on. It struck a cord with them. It’s really cool. You see Testament, Exodus, Death Angel touring and writing new music. And Testament, I know, has been at it for a while. Yeah, they’ve been at it long time.
I guess the pinnacle also was the benefits show for Chuck Billy and Chuck Schuldiner over 20 years ago. Then Exodus basically got back; Death Angel definitely got back after that. And you tried but…
Phil joined Machine Head.
It was damn good to see Vio-lence. People have been waiting to see you here in Europe for years, and hopefully you’ll make more shows in Europe.
Oh yeah. We’ll be back next year. Yeah. We want to play [inaudible]. We’ll see how it goes. These three shows are really important for us to set up the next festival season. Because a lot of the shows, like a lot of the festivals, had bands committed and COVID hit, so they’re just trying to get back to the festivals that were supposed to happen in 2020 in 2021 and 2022. Now we’re finally getting back to–So these three shows for us today, or this week, are really important because we’re hoping that it sets up more festivals for us next year.
Phil is now Lamb Of God and Ira Black is playing with you. Does it mean that he’s going to play the whole year with you?
He played last night. He’s playing the Alcatraz Fest, and then Phil is playing with us at Bloodstock. And then we’re going to Chile for two shows and Brazil for a show. Ira will be with us. And then when we come back to tour Europe, Ira will be with us.
Phil is basically committed to Lamb Of God for the rest of the year.
Yeah. Unless Willie decides to come back. So it all depends on Willy. But yeah. Like I said before, I just do this because I like to play music and write music. I mean, this is his dream. When he brought it up to me, I was like, “All right, cool. So you’ll not be playing with us at certain shows.” And I was like, “No. Because I got these tours.” And I was like, “I’d never be the one to tell you you can’t do that,” because I would feel bad myself to put that on someone, especially when this is his lifelong dream. So I’m really proud of him. I’m really happy he’s out doing it. to get Ira in the band to play these shows– we had a few guitar players we were looking at, and then Christian actually brought up Ira. And so, yeah, we got Ira.
I have seen him before with him in Heathen and Lizzy Borden.
And he’s a great guitar player. He picked it up pretty fast.
I appreciate your taking the time to talk and I thank you for doing this interview.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
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