There are albums which you will always associate with Death Metal. Records which have given the Death Metal scene a face. Albums which I have listened to literally hundreds of times and where each riff is stuck in my memory, but nevertheless just don’t get boring. The debut of ENTOMBED – "Left Hand Path" – is such a record. MORBID ANGEL’s "Altars Of Madness” also. And "Leprosy" – the second DEATH album – certainly belongs to that list as well. “Leprosy” was released exactly twenty-five years ago and is re-released this month with a lot of bonus material. Together with ex – DEATH guitarist Rick Rozz, we travelled back in time.
It’s spring 1987. Chuck Schuldiner just recorded “Scream Bloody Gore” together with drummer Chris Reifert . The album is released in May 1987 and is enthusiastically received by the press and fans. Chris does not want to move to Florida and stays in San Francisco. Chuck goes on his own back to Florida.
“That’s right. Bill Andrews, Terry Butler and I all played in MASSACRE at that time. On the 15th of May 1987, we were supposed to play with MASSACRE, together with MEGADETH, OVERKILL and THE NECROS. When we arrived at the club in Tampa where we had to play that night, we were told that we were thrown off the bill. For me, that was just the final straw, so to speak. I had really had it with MASSACRE at that time. We had no record deal, we just played some local gigs and that was it. I stayed that night, just to watch the shows of MEGADETH and OVERKILL. At a certain point, someone comes up to me that I didn’t know and says that Chuck is back in town. The next day, I went to Chuck’s house and he was very surprised to see me. We talked about all sorts of things. He explained that Chris Reifert was still at school and was not interested in moving to Florida. I already had the feeling that I was no longer a part of MASSACRE, even though I had not told the others that I wanted to leave the band. I told Chuck that I knew a good bassplayer and a good drummer. And that they were also interested to work together with him. Bill and Terry had no idea back then that I was talking with Chuck. Later on, when I phoned them with the news that we could all join DEATH, they almost shit their pants (laughs). We immediately started to rehearse the songs of "Scream Bloody Gore" because there were a lot of gigs already booked."
Your first show together was on the 25th of July 1987 at the Milwaukee Metalfest.
"Indeed. That was the first edition with KING DIAMOND, TROUBLE, DEATH ANGEL and NUCLEAR ASSAULT. That was a very interesting bill. The Milwaukee Metalfest was a very nice festival at that time, we were very well received. We stayed overnight at the promoter who had organized the festival. However, there were not enough beds or mattresses for all of us. Bill and Terry had to sleep on a box spring. When they woke up the next morning, they felt like they had spend the night on a large grill (laughs).”
During the club tour of the U.S. that followed, DEATH already played a lot of new songs – including ‘Left To Die’, ‘Born Dead’, ‘Open Casket’ and ‘Pull The Plug’ – which all ended up on “Leprosy” later on. So, new songs came together quite easily.
"It all went quite smooth, indeed. We were constantly working on new songs when we were in the rehearsal room or when we were on tour. I still remember that we went to the Morrisound in April 1988. And that everything was put on tape in just a few weeks. All the songs were already almost completely worked out in advance, we were very well prepared. It also did not make much sense to really re-arrange them. We knew the new songs already really well by the time we went to the studio, because we had already played them many times live. There was a lot of positive energy in the band. We are all looking forward to it and we really wanted to prove ourselves. When you look at it, MASSACRE was just a local band that sometimes gigged in the clubs in Florida. DEATH played everywhere in the U.S. and had a record out that was distributed by an international record company. That was a huge difference."
The production of “Leprosy” is much better than the debut. The sound is perhaps a little bit more polished, but the album still sounds very heavy and brutal. DEATH also sounds much more focused on that record. And the melodic parts which would be the major point in the music of DEATH later on appeared on “Leprosy” for the first time.
"Yes, I look at it also that way. You just noticed that DEATH had really become a tight band, thanks to the many gigs we had played. The songs of "Scream Bloody Gore" also sounded much tighter when we played them live. “Leprosy" was produced by Dan Johnson. He had previously done the SAVATAGE album “Sirens”. We were all big fans of SAVATAGE, that’s actually the main reason why we chose to work with him. There were simply no typical Death Metal producers at that time. Scott Burns was just making his first steps. Dan Johnson was very easy to deal with and has done a great job to my opinion. He is maybe not so well known, but that’s not so important to me. Because in the end, it all comes down to what kind of sound he gave DEATH in the studio.”
I talked with Terry Butler last month. And he told me that he didn’t play a single note on “Leprosy”.
"That is correct. During the recordings, the pressure to perform was so big for Terry that he was completely blocked. He only had about four hours to record his parts. And we were all looking at his fingers… Chuck, Bill and me. It just did not work. So, Chuck did all the bass parts on “Leprosy”, mainly to gain some time.”
The lyrics of “Leprosy” were a lot more mature than the debut "Scream Bloody Gore". The horror stories had been replaced by songs about disease (‘Leprosy’, ’Born Dead’, ‘Choke On It’), war (‘Born To Die’) and euthanasia (‘Pull The Plug’).
"I have not written any lyrics for “Leprosy” myself. But you can indeed see it that way. The lyrics on “Leprosy” were much more influenced by events of real life."
A few years ago, I interviewed the mother of Chuck Schuldiner, Jane. She said that ‘Open Casket’ was inspired by the death of Chuck’s brother.
"That’s correct. But I found that out much later. If you read the lyrics of ‘Open Casket’, it is quite clear that the passing of his brother must have really haunted Chuck when he wrote that song. But back then, I had no idea. The death of his brother was something that Chuck literally never talked about."
The cover of "Leprosy" was made by Ed Repka and differs enormously from what he usually does.
"I see that as a positive thing. I think the cover of “Leprosy” is still great. The colours turned out slightly different than what we originally had in mind. The original cover had a lot more purple and black colours and shadings, the end result looked mainly pink (laughs). But I think the cover still reflects very well what the band and the record stood for. It was the only design that Ed Repka made for “Leprosy”. We just gave him the title of the album, he had a complete free hand. When we visited the office of our record company Combat just before we were leaving to go on tour, we saw the cover for the first time. But we all thought it was really fine."
Did you have to think about the order of the songs? Because the title track is really a perfect song to open the album with.
"Not really. We all had our saying in that but I can not remember that we really had serious discussions about that.”
Several years ago, I made a very big Chuck Schuldiner special and interviewed many bands for that. A lot of Death Metal bands – for example GOREFEST, GRAVE, ASPHYX and DESASTER – regarded “Leprosy” as the best DEATH album. Why is that, do you think?
"Pure coincidence. And being at the right place at the right time. We never stood still at what we did. All the work we did in the studio was very natural. It was not science what we did. If a song sounded good and it ‘worked’ somehow, we were fine with it. We didn’t analyze things to the smallest detail. We also had no real expectations and we didn’t plan anything ahead . All those things made “Leprosy” a very spontaneous and compact album. “Leprosy” lasts a little bit less than forty minutes. An album does not have to last much longer for me."
During the winter of 1988, you toured in the U.S. to promote “Leprosy”. Four songs of your performance in Philadelphia were filmed for the famous video "Ultimate Revenge". The sound is fine and the band also seems to be in good shape that night. So, why have you never released your full set on video?
"We didn’t have much to say about that. We performed that day with FAITH OR FEAR, DARK ANGEL, RAVEN and FORBIDDEN. We obviously played a lot more songs with DEATH that day. But I actually have no idea why Combat has never released the entire set on video or DVD. It would not surprise me if Combat will still release those recordings one day, since “Leprosy” is now also re-released."
In January 1989, DEATH crossed the Atlantic for the first time for a European tour. You played in Leuven (Belgium) and you also played seven shows in the Netherlands. What are you memories regarding that tour after all these years?
"I had a fantastic time, I was enjoying myself immensely. Until we had to pack our bags suddenly – in the middle of the tour – and returned home. Bill, Terry and I had no idea what was going on. I remember very well that it was gray and rainy weather all the time. And it was the first day that the sun was shining and that there was a blue sky… and DEATH went home. I believe we still had 25 shows scheduled, something like that. That was a very big disappointment because the shows went down great. I don’t want to talk bad about Chuck, but to return home was solely his idea. He wasn’t feeling at ease and wanted to go home. We could not stay behind and continue the tour without him. So we had to join him and fly back to America. I really couldn’t understand that. You’re with your band for the first time in Europe, everything is going as it should. And then you have to pack your bags. We also had no quarrels with each other whatsoever."
Back in the U.S., you still did a tour through America and played some shows in Mexico. By the time that it was time to return to the studio to record “Spiritual Healing”, you were sacked from the band and replaced by James Murphy.
"That’s right. It might sound like a cliché but the reason why I was fired were musical differences. I love SLAYER and I really wanted to play fast and aggressive music. Chuck wanted to play more technical stuff. And Chuck was the leader of DEATH, it was his decision to fire me."
Nowadays, you play again with Terry in MASSACRE. But what is drummer Bill Andrews doing these days?
"I still have regular contact with Bill, he has been living in Japan for several years. He was always fascinated by the East, even when we made music together. And at a certain appoint in his life, he decided to move there. He is married to a Japanese. Bill has a record store in Japan, he always had a soft spot for vinyl. He has made music with a local Japanese band some time ago, but I do not think they have ever recorded something.”
The legacy of Chuck Schuldiner lives on nowadays with the band DEATH TO ALL, recently shortened to DEATH. Do you think this is a good thing?
"I’m probably not really the right person to say something about that. I have nothing against the idea itself, as long as the money which they make from the gigs and the merchandise is flowing to the right people. Because DEATH is clearly very successful again these days."