With only one album, Sacramento’s female fronted SENTINEL BEAST managed to establish themselves in the 80s Speed / Thrash Metal scene… Original vocalist Debbie Gunn recently returned to the scene with a completely new incarnation of the band, while the whereabouts of the other original members always remained a bit unclear… until now! Cause here’s an in-depth interview with Barry Fischel, one of the guitarists that played on "Depths Of Death"… Read on to find out about the whole story of the band!
So Barry, how and when did you get in touch with Metal music and at which point did you start showing interest in music and Metal in particular?
"I was 11 years old and saw "The Rose" (Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristoferson). There’s a scene where Kris’ character is being helicoptered in to an outdoor music festival and the band was playing a ‘bluesy rock number’ and the crowd was going crazy. It was the energy of that scene that let me know I wanted to be involved in music. It was my first year in high school when Scott Awes’ (who became SENTINEL BEAST’s drummer) interest in IRON MAIDEN led me to Metal."
Was it clear for you to be a guitarist? How did you pick up that instrument?
"Around the same time that I saw "The Rose" – my sister had gotten a nylon string classical guitar from my grandmother…she wasn’t interested in it, so I started ‘investigating it’… the very first time I picked it up – I wrote my own song using nothing but the open strings."
What were your influences to become a guitarist?
"When I was about 13 years old – I went to see Jimmy Messina (without Kenny Loggins) and he became one of my first influences; the influences grew from there and include Cat Stevens, The Eagles and then Jimmy Page. As I got older I started getting more into the ‘Metal’ heroes such as Yngwie Malmsteen."
By the way, did you know them earlier?
"Actually, Scott Awes and I were the founding members (we had formed many together during our high school years). I had just gotten out of high school (Scott was a senior) and we decided we wanted to start a HEAVY band in the vein of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden (up to this point we were doing more blues based rock). I met Mike Spencer at a party – he had just moved to Sacramento, CA (from Phoenix, AZ), we started out playing some cover tunes – everything from MÖtley CrÜe to Iron Maiden. Scott and I liked Mike’s playing and brought him into our band (this may be different from Debbie’s version – but it’s how it happened). Scott, Mike and I had been playing for a while when Mike tells us that Debbie Gunn (his girlfriend at the time) is a vocalist. We had Debbie came down – and we all really liked her… it was at THAT POINT that SENTINEL BEAST was formed. One of the first songs we ever wrote together was ‘Mourir’ which ended up being on the "Depths Of Death" album."
During this time, the axes were played by Greg Williams and Jerry Fraiser, later to be replaced by you and Mark Koyasako… How did you get into the picture exactly? What about Mark’s musical background?
"After playing with Scott, Mike and Debbie for a few months (we even did a couple of shows as SENTINEL BEAST) I left to attend GIT (I had already made plans to do this before the group was formed). It was AFTER I LEFT that Greg Williams and Jerry Frazier were brought into the picture. Mark Kiyasako came in much later when Greg Williams left the band (right before we started recording our album). At that time we were in our early twenties and Mark in his thirties, but had already made a name for himself and was quite an accomplished player."
Did the band audition other guitarists as well or were you the band’s choice off the cuff?
"As I mentioned – I was founding member – and when I left for GIT – they did auditions and picked Greg and Jerry (that line-up recorded the "Kill The Witch" demo when I returned from GIT for a visit (after 6 months) – Jerry decided to leave – Mike asks me to rejoin the group… I had refused, saying that I was going back to GIT to finish on the 8 hour drive back – I listened to the "Kill The Witch" demo MANY times, so I DID return to L.A – but NOT to finish classes at GIT – I got my guitars and my Marshall and I headed back to Sacramento."
Who came up with the name SENTINEL BEAST and why did you actually choose this name?
"Debbie Gunn was heavily into Greek mythology. Alot of her lyrics dealt with that subject matter (‘Sentinel Beast’, ‘Beyond The Walls’) The Sentinel Beast in mythology is ‘Cerberus’ which is a three headed dog that guards the gates of hell… if that isn’t Metal – what is??"
How was the Sacramento scene at this point? What were the bands that started popping up besides SENTINEL BEAST and REDRUM?
"As for Metal that I recall SENTINEL BEAST and Redrum were the main bands (some others came and went), Tesla (at that time called City Kid) was making the scene also. We were a bit heavier than them (starting to touch on Thrash) and they were actually doing a lot of cover gigs."
Were you close to REDRUM?
"We did know them pretty well – and we would play together on many occasions. In fact Vonni and I are still friends and in contact to this day."
Because you weren’t so far from the Bay Area scene, what were your views on that highly talented and influential scene with bands, such as EXODUS, POSSESSED, DEATH ANGEL etc.?
"In our opinion – Exodus’ "Bonded By Blood" set the mark for what Thrash was to become. We played a lot of shows with them in the Bay Area as well as Sacramento."
Tell us about your rehearsals… How often did you rehearse? Were you jamming mostly on covers or did you start writing originals?
"Scott Awes mother gave us (Scott and I) use of ‘family room’ when we started playing together at the beginning of high school. This space was then used for 5 years before SENTINEL BEAST ever formed and was used for the entire span of SENTINEL BEAST as SENTINEL BEAST – we’d rehearse 3-4 days a week (and we were loud! but, nobody complained!!) once we were OFFICIALLY SENTINEL BEAST – our focus was writing originals. The only cover we still did was ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ by Iron Maiden (which made it to the "Depths Of Death" album)."
Your first demo was ‘Kill The Witch" (July 1984) featuring ‘Tonite’, ‘Full Treatment’ and ‘Kill The Witch’… What do you remember about the recordings of the demo, which was probably your first experience?
"Well, I don’t remember too much about it since it was recorded while I was away at GIT. However, the recording was good enough to make me leave school to rejoin the band. The songs ‘Tonite’ and ‘Full Treatment’ made it on to the CD reissue of "Depths Of Death"."
Did you shop the demo around to get label interests? Did the demo spread your name in the underground scene?
"No – we didn’t do much with the demo at that time. The demo did help spread our name around but only within the California area."
Your second demo "Depths Of Death" was released July 1985, featuring ‘Depths Of Death’, ‘Sacred Line’, ‘Fight For Your Life’, ‘Hell Affair’ and ‘Beyond The Walls’. How would you characterize this demo compared to the first one?
"I think the "Depths Of Death" was the first thing to show our direction leaning towards Thrash. Jerry Frazier wrote the main part of the song ‘Depths Of Death’ – which was the only real THRASH tune on the demo you can hear these songs on my www.myspace.com/SentinelBeastNYC site"
The third demo was released in November 1985, featuring the IRON MAIDEN cover ‘Phantom Of The Opera’, ‘Sentinel Beast’, ‘Dogs Of War’, ‘Sentinel Beast’ and ‘The Phoenix’. Was this demo recorded for Metal Blade?
"The third demo was actually only TWO SONGS; ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ and ‘Sentinel Beast’. The two songs were recorded for Brian Slagle (of Metal Blade). He had heard the "Depths Of Death" demo and wanted to use ‘Fight For Your Life’ for the Metal Masacre VII album. We recorded the third demo – sent it to him and he decided to switch his choice to the song ‘Sentinel Beast’."
Would you say, that it succeeded to assure the label to sign you?
"Yes, once he heard the third demo and included us on the Metal Massacre album – he said he wanted to sign the band."
Was there other label interest in the band by the way?
"We can’t really say – because we were fortunate enough to meet Brian and be offered a deal from him without having to search around elsewhere."
Did you cover ‘Phantom Of The Opera’, because Paul Di’ Anno was Debbie’s main influence?
"We ALL liked Iron Maiden. Steve Harris was one of Mike Spencer’s biggest influences. it seemed a perfect choice – so we could ALL ‘pay our respect’ to Iron Maiden and we put our own spin on it by speeding it up ‘just a little’."
As far as the track ‘Sentinel Beast’, it was recorded twice. On the first version Greg Williams played, on the second one Mark Koyasako played… Was there a difference between the two versions? Why did you record the song twice?
"In my opinion, the version with Greg Williams is the better of the two and represents SENTINEL BEAST ‘at it’s finest’ (that is is the version that is on the myspace page). The 2nd version – which was actually the album version was ‘rushed and less dynamic’ (everyone in the band – except for Mark probably – felt the same way). It wasn’t that Greg was better than Mark, but without him some of the ‘chemistry’ of the group was missing. After Greg left we did the second version because that was the version that was going on the record – and we wanted to use the band line-up at that time – which included Mark."
Were you famliar with the music of SLAYER and OMEN? How did you get in touch with Kerry and Kenny at all?
"Vonni of Redrum was friends with Kerry King of Slayer. Kerry King came to see the band one night – the next morning he calls Brian Slagel from Vonni’s kitchen and says "you gotta sign these guys". Brian Slagel was already familiar with us since we were in dicussions with him about being included on the Metal Massacre album. Kenny Powell and Omen had already done a couple of albums for Metal Blade while recording our album – we became friends with them during the sessions – Debbie Gunn and Mike Spencer (who were boyfriend and girlfriend) were ‘not getting along so well as a couple’ and Debbie started becoming "friendly" with one of the guys from Omen. We started doing shows with them and they’d even come to some of our rehearsals."
You landed on several compilations, such as "Metal Massacre VII" (with ‘Sentinel Beast’) or ‘The Eastern Front’ (with a live version of ‘Dogs Of War’)… What about these records? Which bands were on these records besides SENTINEL BEAST?
"As for Metal Massacre the most well known bands are Detente and Flotsam and Jetsam. The other bands on the album were Heretic, Krank, Mad Man, Commander, Juggernaut, Cryptic Slaughter, Have Mercy, Titanic and Lost Horizon. As for The Eastern Front, I don’t recall that one as much – in fact we didn’t even know that the album was being made until after the recording was done. I’m sure a Google search could let you know what groups were on it."
Was it a good opportunity for you to make a name for the band worldwide? Did these compilations help to draw more fans attentions to the band?
"ABSOLUTELY – Brian Slagel had worldwide disctribution – Canada, South America and throughout Europe, heck I got letters from Isreal! Brian used to ‘brag’ that he could sell 10,000 albums of any band he signed IMMEDIATELY. Appearantly the ‘buyers’ had put a lot of trust in Brian Slagel because many times they’d be buying releases from unknown, just signed bands."
‘The Eastern Front’ was recorded at the legendary "Ruthies Inn"… How did the recording sessions go? What about that gig?
"There was no fuss of the recording session – it was a ‘board mix’ from the PA that was being used for the show. They recorded ALL the bands that night. We played Ruthie’s sooo many times that it seemed like a ‘regular Ruthie’s’ gig – especially since Mike and Debbie were the only ones that knew that the show was being recorded. It wasn’t until a month or so later that they told us that the show was recorded and would be a compilation album."
Was "Ruthies Inn" the best club in San Francisco at that time?
"I would say yes. Every town had their BIG Metal club (NY at the time had L’Amours) that always drew a good crowd regardless of who was playing there – you just knew if you went there – you’d hear some great Metal."
‘Dogs Of War’ was also on the “The Best Of Metal Blade” sampler. Is it such a special song for you or do you have other favorite tracks from your SENTINEL BEAST time?
"It wasn’t that ‘Dogs…’ was such a special song – I would probably say it was one of our most ‘thrashy and catchy songs’ – similar to ‘Evil Is The Night’, ‘Dogs Of War’ was written by Greg Williams. My FAVORITE material was actually the material we wrote AFTER the release of the album. In fact I liked it so much – it stayed with me for 20 YEARS – and the songs are what make up the debut CD of my new project FISCHEL’S BEAST (www.myspace.com/fischelsbeast). More on this later."
Would you say, that these compilations were very important introducing young, talented bands to the fans?
"Yes – for sure. If you look at the Metal Massacre albums 1-6 – there were many bands that went on to become some of the biggest Metal bands of all time: Metallica, Overkill, Armored Saint, Slayer, Lizzy Borden, Metal Church, PoSsessed, Hirax and Fates Warning, just to name a few!"
In 1986 you entered the studio to cut your debut album "Depths Of Death"… What about the recording sessions? Were you preapered to record the album?
"It was about 9 months – 1 year after Greg Williams left that we went in to do the album. I had mentioned earlier that after Greg left (and Mark K joined) that some of the bands ‘chemistry’ seemed to be lacking. It was a trying experience. We drove ourselves and all our gear from Sacramento to Hollywood (an 8 hour drive). We had 2 weeks to record and mix the entire album. We had to do most of the recording during off hours – a lot of late nights – and MANY, MANY early morning sessions. We didn’t ask WHY, we had to work like this – Brian Slagel said we had to and we did. To make matters worse Mike and Debbie (who I mentioned earlier were a ‘couple’ at the time) were fighting quite a bit. All of the songs were recorded faster than their usual tempos and as a result I think a lot of the bands best dynamics were not fully captured on the album. I would say the recording was OK at best – not showing what we were really capable of. We were prepared – but I think the difference is ending up with a ‘good’ album – not a GREAT album."
The tracks ‘Sentinel Beast’, ‘Dogs Of War’, ‘Depths Of Death’ and the IRON MAIDEN cover ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ were known from the demos… Did you re-record these tunes?
"The songs ‘Sentinel Beast’, ‘Dogs Of War’ and ‘Depths Of Death’ WERE IN FACT re-recorded in all three cases – I think that the demo versions are better PERFORMANCE wise – and that’s why those are the ones I posted on the SENTINEL BEAST NYC site (www.myspace.com/sentinelbeastnyc). ‘Phantom…’ was NEVER done on a demo – but was a ‘favorite’ from being played at live shows. The album was the first and only time that we recorded it – and it’s one of the songs from the album I’d say I’m the most happy with."
When did you write the other tracks? Were they brandnew ones?
"The other tracks were ‘Mourir’, ‘Corpse’, ‘Evil Is The Night’, ‘Revenge’ and ‘The Keeper’. All but ‘Evil Is The Night’ and ‘Revenge’ were written by Mike Spencer YEARS before the group was even together (when he wrote these songs – Thrash had not even made the scent yet – and we when we played them – we thought we were just playing ‘Metal). Jerry Frazier wrote ‘Depths Of Death’ and ‘Evil Is The Night’. Greg Wiliams wrote ‘Dogs Of War’. I wrote ‘Revenge’ with Mike. The only Thrash song Mike Spencer wrote for this album was the song ‘Sentinel Beast’. We found it funny that we were making a name for ourselves as a Thrash band LATER – Mike did write some GREAT Thrash material – songs that would have been part of our second album (songs like ‘Commencement’ / ‘Forbidden Territories’ and ‘The Phoenix’ were the pinnacle of Mike’s Thrash writing). I would from time to time listen to rehearsal tapes of these songs and get ‘goosebumps’ (METAL goosebumps!). These songs are part of the material that makes up the Fischel’s Beast CD mentioned above."
How about the song composing as a whole?
"I would say at the time – Mike Spencer wanted to be IN CHARGE and wanted to be the ‘only’ songwriter – which is why so many of the songs from the first album were from his ‘catalog’ of material. That was his plan – use his material for the first album – then we’d all write material for the second album together. The composing as a whole did work well – Mike would come to each of us individually to show us the songs – then when we all had our parts – we’d bring it to Scott Awes – and he always knew the PERFECT thing to play that worked for the song. Scott was a real natural – it made everything we did work!"
Do you agree that "Depths Of Death” provides an interesting dose of old speed Metal from the mid-eighties?
"Yes – there is definitely a lot of that on there. We always felt that ‘Depths…’, ‘Dogs…’, ‘Evil…, and ‘Sentinel Beast’ WERE Speed Metal tunes – but many people wanted to call them Thrash. Bottom line is, they liked the songs – and that’s what really mattered, regardless of what they want to label them as."
Being one of the few bands in the genre with a female vocalist, your sound was little more original and distinctive than in an average band…
"The tonal quality of Debbie’s voice definitely gave us a unique sound. She also always wrote catchy and hooky melodies. Greg Williams also had a distinct writing style that was part of early sound. If you listen to the demos – some of the songs that never made the album – I feel was some of our best material – one of my favorites being ‘Beyond The Walls’ (it’s on the aforementioned SENTINEL BEAST NYC site). That line up and the "Depths Of Death" demo is what I actually wish the first album was."
Would you say, that SENTINEL BEAST’s musical style is something in the vein of the old Nasty Savage, complete with a dark sound where a husky voice fits very well?
"I suppose I could hear a ‘similarity’ in the styles. As I mentioned at the beginning, we didn’t think of ourselves as a Thrash band – and I feel that Nasty Savage was ‘similar’ in that they were playing Metal – but that HINT of Thrash was making itself known and I agree about the husky voice fitting well over the dark sound of the band."
The songs are quite old-fashioned in a good way, the track ‘Sentinel Beast’ being one of the better examples of the band’s dynamic style and there’s something inevitably dated in the music of "Depths Of Death”… the result has some genuine appeal of its own… How do you see it?
"Yes – the track ”Sentinel Beast’ was a good example of our dynamic style. I think that style is best shown on our more epic songs – many of which didn’t make it to the first album – songs like ‘Commencement’ / ‘Forbidden Territories’ and ‘Fate Of Kings’ – which is why I felt the need to record these songs and include them on the Fischel’s Beast CD. We tried to capture as much of the original dynamics as possible when recording them. As far as "Depths Of Death" sounding ‘dated’ – I’m not sure I agree. Of course – if you listen to it TODAY – yeah, it sounds like 80s Speed / Thrash metal – which TODAY would be dated… but back in the 80s – that was ‘the sound’."
SENTINEL BEAST and Détente are like paternal twins, with both groups crying in the same crib, born two months apart in ’86, they’re both bands’ orphan release, the parents to both is Metal Blade Records, and each are female fronted quintets with a kindred Thrash racket, you also share the unfortunate fact that neither band went anywhere… What do you think about it?
"I liked Detente VERY MUCH – and see similarites – but I also see the things that made us different. I’d consider them more Thrash / Speed Metal then we were. I found Debbie’s lyrics and melodies to be a lot more hooky and catchy then Dawn Crosby’s. That was Debbie biggest strength."
If we talk about this comparision, what’s your opinion about, that Dawn Crosby’s (R. I. P.) abrasive vox could rub steel paneling raw faster than Debbie Gunn’s but "Depths Of Death” is just a catchier affair than "Recognize No Authority”?
"Yes – I think that Dawn’s ‘abrasive voice’ may have kept the album from going further – I liked her voice – but there was ‘only so much of it I could take’. Debbie was not only ‘less abbrasive’, but as mentioned above I feel that Debbie was really strong at coming up with great hooks and melodies – the songs ‘One Man’s Cry’ and ‘Where Am I’ – I feel are the best examples of this… HOWEVER – they never made it to the album… but you can hear them… guess where?? On the Fischel’s Beast CD. We got her approval to use these songs – and even invited her to be part of it – which she was unable to do because she was focusing on her new version of SENTINEL BEAST. So we made our singer Anthony Cross (yes – a male singer) step up to the task of capturing Debbie’s parts – and we were pleased with the result. It’s a shame that Dawn Crosby’s life ended so tragically – it would have been interesting to see what direction she would have taken and where she would be now."
The power and the energy of this band are the one could find only back in the 80s, is that correct?
"NO – I think myspace is full of bands with power and energy. I think the tough thing was for a genre to be created – once it’s created it’s then possible for others to play it as well – and the internet has made so much more music accessible to people all over the world. It doesn’t mean that everything out there is GOOD – but I’ve stumbled accross many GREAT bands while ‘surfing around’."
One is immediately caught and destroyed by the fast palm muting riffs, the raging but never screamed vocals and the solos, the mighty guitars solos, the tempo is intense and quite fast but the most important characteristic of this band is the pure vigour of the music; a music that flows perfectly… Do you agree with it?
"We were all very serious about what we were doing. We rehearsed A LOT which gave us the opportunity to add parts and try different things till we made everything work ‘just right’. And naturally when a band plays together that much thay get tighter and tighter."
How do you view, that everything is perfect for the structures, the melodies, the solos and the vocals, the most violent parts are never forgotten to privilege the melodies and vice versa, these mixes are perfect?
"That was the chemisty of SENTINEL BEAST! Again – we worked very hard and rehearsed a lot – but we also worked to make things sound good. AS A BAND it was never ‘hey I’m gonna play this really cool guitar lick here!’."
The various guitar duets and the hidden melodies of the rhythmic riffage, so often on open chords, are perfect for those who are searching for a perfect blend of heaviness and sense of songwriting, right?
"As I mentioned – a lot of the material for the album – came from Mike Spencer’s ‘back catalog’ of material – much of which wasn’t really ‘thrash’ – heavy, yes – but not thrash. A lot of our influences were ‘melodic’ bands, and we did start incorporating those ‘thrash’ feels – but never lost our sense of melody and harmony – and made sure we especially made use of the fact that we had two guitar players."
‘Evil Is The Night’ could easily beat most of the material that came out in that period, the tempo is fast and the drumming is relentless, especially if we talk about the bass drum, what do you think about it?
"That was one of my favorite songs on the album – and it’s not just because I play the solo on it. It’s another good example of a SUPER FAST / THRASH rhythm with Debbie singing very melodically over it – and singing something catchy too! The song actually started out quite a bit slower when we wrote it – and it just kept creeping up til it reached the tempo we recorded it and we never played it any faster than that (not sure that we’d be able to!)."
The dark atmospheres we can find on the whole album are something great and ‘Sentinel Beast’ is a great example for this and a song that sums up everything on this album: dark passages, speed restarts, vicious vocals and an awesome guitar solo
"I think these questions can both be answered together yes – I think ‘Sentinel Beast’ is the song on the album that best gets all the elements that you mention. HOWEVER – the song ‘Commencement’ / ‘Forbidden Territories’ – which never made it to the album (beacause it was written for the second album) – has all those elements as well… but, taken to the next level ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ had a lot of those elements as well – which is probably why we liked it so much and why it worked so well as a cover tune for us. Our second album would have been filled with many epic tunes with lots of those elements – it was some of our strongest material… which is probably why it stayed with me for 20 years til I finally got to form Fischel’s Beast and get this music out."
From the fairly dramatic start of the opening title track to the hectic Euro-fluency bringing ‘The Keeper’ to a close, its clear the true force majeure of the record is the spine of lead guitarists Mark Koyasako and you, bassist Mark Spencer, and stickman Scott Awes… How would you comment it?
"Scott Awes had played drums in his school bands as far back as elementary school and kept doing so all through high school. During the high school years – he played in the jazz band taking part in competitions including even traveling to Europe for one (which I think they won). Through that entire time he was also studying privately – so by the time he joined was a MUSICIAN not just a drummer! On to Mike Spencer – he was one of those ‘quiet ones’ – he spent a lot of his teen years in his bedroom studying and learning his craft – and was very much influenced by Steve Harris of Iron Maiden and the music of Judas Priest. By the time SENTINEL BEAST had formed he had already become quite an accomplished bassist – his playing had all the drive and power of Steve Harris – but he still had his own style. Mike was also writing material – and was the main writer for much of the early SENTINEL BEAST material. Mark Koyasako came into the group after it was already established – we were already signed to do the album when he joined while I would say that Mark was quite a good guitarist – he was never really a creative part of the group – he didn’t contribute to the writing – nor did he have the desire to. You didn’t ask about Greg Williams – but I feel I want to mention him here – had he not left the group – Mark wouldn’t have been part of it. Greg was a great player and in fact he wrote some of the material on the album – ‘Dogs Of War’ for example. To hear some of his other writing you can visit the SENTINEL BEAST NYC myspace page www.myspace.com/sentinelbeastnyc – I recommed the song ‘Beyond The Walls’. After he left the group he went to school and got a Masters Degree in music and is currently teaching at a University in Sacramento, CA. He traded his ‘electric’ guitar for a nylon guitar and is still playing and composing – to hear some of his newest work visit his myspace site (he can be found in the SENTINEL BEAST NYC ‘Top Friends’)."
Did Debbie’s reasonably rabid vox throw its fists up to exemplify the fiery Thrash quality within these tunes?
"I think Debbie had so much heart and feel – and the songs definitely would not have been the same without her voice. I also kept myself aware of what she was doing after the group split up because I felt that of all of the members of the group she was the one I felt would somehow make it to the ‘TOP’. There are videos on YouTube of her with ZnÖwhite and she sounds phenomenal – any fan of Debbie Gunn that hasn’t seen them should check them out. I’m looking forward to hear what she’s going to be releasing with her new SENTINEL BEAST line-up."
Would you say, that "Depths Of Death" became an influential record? Do you consider it a Thrash record?
"At the time I never felt that it was ‘influential’ – I don’t think anyone did. I think the internet helped make the music more accessible to people that would have never heard it otherwise and then ‘people’ started saying it was influential – and maybe at that time it was starting to influence people – but at the time we just thought we put out a good record. While the album is referred to as ‘Thrash’ I felt it was a lot more melodic than alot of the stuff other Thrash bands were doing – I myself always thought of it as more of a ‘Speed Metal’ album."
The period was excellent for such a genre and the only error you did is to put out this album in a damned full year for the Thrash Metal releases… How do you explain this?
"We really had no control of what was going on from the business side of things. We were approached by Brian Slagel to do an album – and we did it – we were just happy to be releasing an album on Metal Blade Records."
Unfortunately, you never received the attention you deserved from the audience
"I don’t know that I’d totally agree with that statement. Anytime the group played – we were always received well and the fans always responded favorably true, we never got to tour as a headline group – which was dissapointing considering how committed everyone was to the group but, we did get to play some major shows opening for some major acts such as King Diamond, Exodus, Megadeth and Slayer (and not only did the fans like us – but we earned the respect of the groups we were playing with – and that meant a lot to us)."
In your opinion, is this one of the most overlooked albums ever and one of the greatest examples of underground Thrash Metal for the U.S.A.?
"I would again say that I felt that "Depths Of Death" was a good album – but at the time there were a lot of groups putting out a lot of good albums and some putting out GREAT albums. The internet has actually given the record a bit of a resurgence – and new people are finding the music that never knew of the group before. Again, the thing I was most disappointed by was the fact that the group never got to release a second album. I felt the material that we had for that album was stronger than the material on the "Depths Of Death" album – we had grown a lot as a band and the material reflected the bands maturity. That’s the main reason I made the first order of business for FISCHEL’S BEAST – the recording of that material; it wasn’t easy, but I found players that I thought could really capture the sound and feel of the music – and they were able to help me realize the completion of this project – I’m real pleased with the results (of course for more info on this and to hear clips visit www.myspace.com/fischelsbeast)."
As far as the year 1986, in my opinion it was the best period in the Metal history, a lot of great Thrash records were released, such as "Master Of Puppets” (METALLICA), "Darkness Descends” (DARK ANGEL), "Reign In Blood” (SLAYER), "Doomsday For The Deceiver” (FLOTSAM & JETSAM), "Pleasure To Kill” (KREATOR), "Infernal Overkill” (DESTRUCTION) etc. How do you remember this period?
"Wow – thanx for including us in such great company. Being a Metal guitarist I was a fan of almost all these groups and albums. Destruction was a favorite of everyone in the group – especially Debbie (she was the one that turned us on to them). We were on the same label, and we would often go see Flotsam and Jetsam – but to be honest I never know why they were as popular as they were. I feel you left out the best band – EXODUS. In my opinion EXODUS and TESTAMENT were my favorite bands from that time – and I still feel strongly about both groups today."
In your opinion, what were the reasons of the popularity of Thrash Metal back then? Would you say that Thrash Metal was on its peak at the time?
"At that time ‘hair Metal’ was still big – so for people that wanted something HEAVIER and DARKER – ‘Thrash’ was the way to go. On the west coast and in middle America – crystal meth was the ‘drug of choice’ and for some reason people that were into meth were into Thrash and rumor has it that ‘meth’ is still associated with the genre. In fact I recall hearing that Ricky – the original guitarist from EXODUS – was ‘asked to leave’ due to his ‘substance (crystal meth) abuse’ problems. I would say it probably was the heyday of Thrash – when we were playing at the time we’d be doing large venues and small arenas – the bands that are still doing it now often need to play ‘clubs’."
You played a lot of shows in support of "Depths Of Death” and shared the stage with EXODUS, SLAYER, KING DIAMOND, MEGADETH, MOTÖRHEAD or EXCITER… What about these shows? Could you tell us detailed about them?
"There were a couple of shows in particular that I remember really well. In fact there was one show that included Slayer, King Diamond and Megadeth as well as us. King Diamond was the headliner – there were about 4,000 – 5,000 people there and at some points we could see at least 4 seperate mosh pits going! There were many shows we did that weren’t in ‘clubs’ or theatres per se – they’d find a large ‘space’ (maybe an old airplane hangar or something) bring in a stage, bring in sound, bring in lights, and bring in the bands… and the Thrashers would come! There was also a show that Brian Slagel attended – we played ‘Commencement’ / ‘Forbidden Territories’ for the first time – so Brian go to hear some of the new material – and it went over very well! (surprising that we can remember since many of us were on crystal meth that night!). An interesting thing was that Flotsam and Jetsam was at that show as well – what we didn’t know at the time is that they were coming to the show to check out Mike Spencer as a possible member for their band."
Have you ever gigged in Europe as well or did you concentrate only on the US market?
"No, the original SENTINEL BEAST never made it to to Europe – it wasn’t that we wouldn’t have wanted to – but the opportunity to do so never happened. However, Debbie Gunn and her new SENTINEL BEAST line-up played the ‘Keep It True’ and other festivals in Europe this past summer (summer of 2008)."
Shortly after the band broke up, because Mike spencer joined FLOTSAM & JETSAM… What happened? Why did he decide to leave SENTINEL BEAST?
"SENTINEL BEAST did not break up because Mike Spencer left (more on this in your next question) while the offer to play with Flotsam & Jetsam was appealing since they seemed to be moving on to that next level – I felt that SENTINEL BEAST was a much stronger band then they were (in fact F&J did a version of ‘Forbidden Territories’ when Mike joined – I don’t think it was ever released – but I heard it and was not impressed). During a recent email conversation I had with Mike he stated that one of his main reasons for leaving the group was that he didn’t approve of the drug habits of many in the group."
Would you say that Mike’s departure led to he demise of the band? Did you try to find a new guitarist instead of him?
"No – it didn’t lead to our demise. At the time – I for one wasn’t really upset that he left because it gave others (myself being one of them!) the chance to write material – something that never really happened when Mike was in the group. We did many bass auditions, we even had one guy that drove from Louisiana (who Debbie wanted because she had a ‘thing’ for him) but he didn’t play at the level we needed, so we passed on him. We finally did find a bassist – Manny (can’t recall his last name). He learned all the material and was getting his gear together and we were writing, we did some shows that went over well – and he was accepted – which was a big goal to accomplish since people regarded Mike highly. We recorded a 2 song demo with him – to show Brian the new sound of SENTINEL BEAST without Mike Spencer. The 2 songs we did were ‘Where Am I’ and ‘One Man’s Cry’ because we needed to do material that Mike had no part in writing. It was actually something that I did that probably ‘started the end’ for the group. The whole band was at a pool party at my father’s house, and he asked the group if they wanted to watch a video of the ‘spiritual leader’ that my father and his wife were devotees of at the time – ‘Guru Mayi’. Everyone in the group was intrigued and gathered round to watch this ‘very spritual’ Indian woman gave a talk on ‘the nature of the Universe. Mark was very interested by it, Manny thought she was ‘from outer space’, Scott with a hostile attitude said "don’t ever make me watch something like that again!!" – I think Debbie fell asleep while watching. I however was totally blown away by it – I found out that she was going to be in Oakland, CA for three weeks – and I went 6 days a week for 3 weeks every day (an hour and a half drive each way) to hear her speak. She was leaving California to spend the rest of the summer at her East Coast Ashram in The Catskill Mountains in New York. I decide I wanted to go… and the only way I could afford to do so was to sell my ‘Metal gear’ – so I did it… I sold my electric guitars and my beloved Marshalls! (I did buy a Guild acoustic guitar though – I was hoping to be the next Cat Stevens!). Scott and Debbie were hurt by my decision to leave and became ‘less friendly’ to me when I announced my plans – but my heart wasn’t in it anymore – and I felt I needed to go before I left – I did find a replacement – and while I can’t give details on what happened – from what I know the group did do a few shows but had totally disbanded in about six months."
Mike replaced Jason Newstead upon his departure to METALLICA, how do you view METALLICA’s career as a whole?
"Who’s better than Metallica? From the start they looked like a band – they could play too – they didn’t make it ‘just by chance. While many people don’t like some of his opinions – I am a big fan of Lars’ playing. I highly recommend their ‘Some Kind of Monster’ video to anyone that hasn’t seen it – they had a lot of guts to let people see that (especially Lars since he’s such a dick in it!). It’s great to see them nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – I’ll be surprised if they don’t get in."
In those times they were the kings of Thrash Metal, but nowadays they are nothing, but commercial shit
"I wouldn’t necesarilly agree with that. I think they still write from the same place they always wrote – they’ve just been many places – and some of those places may not be as intense as their early days, but I don’t think they ever lost their INTEGRITY. I think ‘Some Kind of Monster’ was a good album (??? – Frank)… I haven’t heard the new release yet."
In 1987 you recorded a two tracks demo featuring ‘Where am I’ and ‘Viking Song’… What about these tunes? Was this demo the swansong of SENTINEL BEAST?
"First, I must correct you on the title of one of the songs – while it does have a ‘Viking’ theme – the second song on the demo was called ‘One Man’s Cry’. That demo was the demo we did for Brian Slagel to let him hear the new material we had written after Mike left the band. We were playing them live and they were going over well – and we were excited about them. At the time we recorded the demo I was already starting to think about following Guru Mayi (mentioned earlier) – and I decided to leave shorly after the demo was done – even though Brian Slagel had liked the material and wanted us to do the second album. So yes, that demo was the ‘swan song’ of SENTINEL BEAST."
What was the band’s line up at this point?
"The line up was myself and Mark Koyasako on guitars, Scott Awes on drums, Debbie Gunn on vocals and Manny (damn – still can’t remember his last name!) on bass and our ‘unofficial’ member at the time was Crystal Meth!"
Did Metal Blade ask you for new material before you entered the studio to record the second album? Did you have enough material for a new album or were you in the middle of the songcomposing?
"As I just mentioned – the ‘Where Am I’ demo was done to let Metal Blade hear the writing we were doing after Mike Spencer left the group. We had only six songs ‘done’ at that time – they were all strong and we were still in the process of writing more material. I would say the material was ‘progressive’ Speed Metal. I liked the material so much – I ended up recording it 20 years later (more on this soon)."
Then Debbie joined Chicago based outfit ZNÖWHITE, but what happened with Mark Koyasako, you and Scott Awes? Did you play later in other outfits or did you stop playing music?
"Years later I heard that Mark had become a mailman (my mother told me that when she was trying to give me ‘career advice’! I somehow couldn’t see myself wearing those shorts and delivering mail). Scott had always worked for his step-father who ownd and ran a staging and lighting comapny in Sacramento – I heard that he got married, had a kid and bought a house – on the same street where he was born and rasied – …he built himself a ‘practice room’, put his kit in there – but I heard he hadn’t used it for seven years! I’ve heard he’s playing again – but I’m not sure if he’s anywhere near his old playing level. He had actually tried out for Debbie’s new line-up of SENTINEL BEAST – but she passed on him. It’s really a shame that he didn’t ‘keep it up’ – he was a great drummer and could have inspired many young drummers to think outside the boksz. As for myself – when I left the group (to follow Guru Mayi) all I had was an acoustic guitar so I recorded some ‘acoustic rock’ Metal tunes. Upon my return to California I did get an electric guitar and did some ‘home recording’ – but then ‘things happened’… I ended up in Holland – and eventually New York. There was a period of about seven years that I had ‘no gear’. When I decided I needed to start playing again the first thing I put together was a blues project. Eric Mauriello (my bassist in Fischel’s Beast) was actually the bassist in that project. He heard some of the old SENTINEL BEAST material one day before our blues rehearsal – and asked why we weren’t playing that kind of material instead of blues covers. I had to think of an answer for him – and found I had trouble doing so. I did love Metal – and I did want to be playing Metal again – but I think I was scared. I listened to the SENTINEL BEAST stuff and I wasn’t sure if I could still play like that. It ended up being the kick in the ass that I needed – I pushed myself and started taking it real serious again and practicing like I had ‘back in the day’ – it took a while but I strated feeling that I could play the old material again."
Did you keep in touch with each other at all?
"At first no, because there were some hard feelings about me leaving the group – and then we all ‘drifted apart’. I missed Scott the most because we had been friends for years. At that point I wasn’t sure if we were really friends – or if we had just ‘bonded’ over our many musical projects together over the years. At around the 10 year mark – we all did get in touch with each other (forgot how it happened) and talked about getting together to play – just to see how things felt we were planning to all rehearse the material on our own – Scott was lining up a place for us to play fully equipped with all the best gear. Two or three days before I was scheduled to fly out to California I called Mike to touch base with him (I had spoken with him several times before I bought my ticket). He assured me he was still into it and everything was still ‘a go’. Mike informed me he had a meeting with a preacher (btw – he had become a Born Again Christian a couple of years after he left Flotsam & Jetsam and was very ‘active’ in his church) and he came to the understanding that Metal music sends a ‘wrong message’ and suggested that Mike shouldn’t take part in the rehearsals. That’s what Mike says happened… I think that he waited til the last minute to start reviewing the material and he realized he wasn’t going to be able to play the material (ironically he was the one worried that Scott wouldn’t be able to cut it). What really happened, we’ll never know. 10 years after that – Debbie calls Mike, Scott and Greg Williams and asks them to be part of the new line-up SENTINEL BEAST she is putting together – all decline except Scott – who auditions, but doesn’t get the gig. I wasn’t called for that – Debbie says it’s because I live in New York. She ended up hooking with a local guitarist, Vincent Vidavici – who helped her form the new band. He found the players, set up and ran rehearsals, helped Debbie get back into shape vocally and really helped get the project off the ground. How did she show her thanks for all his hard work? By booting him out of the band and replacing him with an 18 year old! It was because of a stupid argument – not anything to do with his musicianship – I think it was a mistake because Vincent is a great musican and is a really talented writer as well. Vincent went on to form his band Yigael’s Wall – I highly suggest people check them out www.YigaelsWal.com ."
Can you tell us more about your musical involvements after SENTINEL BEAST? What have you done after SENTINEL BEAST?
"As I just mentioned when I first got back into playing ater a seven year hiatus – I started out playing blues covers. With a little ‘inspiration’ I was lured back into the Metal music I had always loved. I started writing some new material, but as I listened to the material that would have been SENTINEL BEAST’s second album I couldn’t help thinking of how it still bothered me (almost 20 years later) that we never got to record that material. We started ‘fooling around’ with a couple of the tunes, and I was really liking how it was sounding. I decided that the first thing I wanted to do was to get these songs recorded. That started the process – it wasn’t easy – and it did take a few years (I wanted to make sure I did it right!) but I’m really happy to say that those songs will now see the light of day!! The debut CD for FISCHEL’S BEAST is called "Commencement" and it basically is what would have been the second SENTINEL BEAST album. The CD is complete and the actual product should be arriving any day. I feel a sense of relief in finally accomplishing this goal, and I’m very proud of how it came out. I think people will really like it. You can get more info on the CD and the group at www.myspace.com/FischelsBeast. I’ll take this opportunity to again mention that we have a ‘special guest’ guitarist on the CD. Mr Chris Caffery from Savatage / Trans-Siberian Orchestra plays solos on two of the songs. It was such a pleasure to meet him and have the chance to work with him! Chris is also an artist /writer outside of his ‘bands’ and has just released his own new CD "House Of Insanity" – BUY IT!! (for more on Chris check out www.ChrisCaffery.com)."
Did you follow the development of the Metal scene after SENTINEL BEAST’s split?
"No, not really – I listend to the bands I was into at that period for a while – but ‘things happened’ and I ended up falling out of music totally for a while."
How did you view the scene of the ’90s? Do you think that it changed radically compared to the ’80s and it became oversaturated?
"Music is always changing – and there are always new genres popping up. I remember a couple of years after the Thrash revoltution, Grunge became the new scene – then Korn came onto the scene and the Hardcore scene changed and there were many new sounds happening. I think things are oversaturated NOW – there are so many bands that sound alike – and it seems there are more than enough ‘cookie monsters’ than we need – and I’m not a big fan of that sound. I do like the much of the Black Metal sound that has started coming on to the scene – I’d like to hear some more things that fuse that with Speed Metal."
How do you view that trends can come and go, but traditional Metal will always be and will never die?
"Trends will always come and go – that is nature and evolution, but I think the sound of an electric guitar – a wah pedal – and a Marshall amplifier is timeless – I think that’s a sound that will never die."
Evil Legend Records has re-released "Depths Of Death” with bonus tracks, how did it happen? Would you say there were still demands for the band from the part of the fans?
"Evil Legend is a subsidiary of Metal Blade – they contacted Mike Spencer about the re-release because he was the one that still had the master recordings of the material. The bonus tracks were ‘Tonite’ and ‘The Full Treatment’. Those were from the demo they did after I left for GIT – the songs are really good, I recommend that any SENTINEL BEAST fan that has not heard these songs check them out – you’ll really enjoy them. Even though I was not part of those two songs I enjoyed them myself – in fact those songs were part of the reason I left GIT and returned to Califonia because of the internet – I think there is still some fan in SENTINEL BEAST – and there must still be some industry interest because when word got out that Debbie had put a new line-up of SENTINEL BEAST together – she was asked to play some European Metal Festivals."
Were you deeply involved in the making of the record at all?
"As for the actual ‘making of the record’, once the recording process started Bill Metoyer was in charge. Everyone in the band was ‘ethusiastic’, but Bill handled everything when it came to recording and mixing."
Do present fans know SENTINEL BEAST? What does the name of the band say for the present, 19-20 year old fans?
"While, I’m sure there are younger fans discovering the band – I think that for the most the people that are SENTINEL BEAST fans now – are people that were fans then."
Are you still as enthusiastic as 20-22 years ago?
"Having to make a living can really put a damper on one’s enthusiasm. It was easier to be entusiastic about music when you don’t have to work to make a living (like 20 years ago) but I push a little harder – and I guess it’s working because I was able to get this CD done."
Debbie regrouped SENTINEL BEAST two years ago, they were performing at the Keep It True festival as well, but why didn’t the original members take part in it? What about Mike Spencer, Scott Awes and Mark Koyasako?
"As I mentioned earlier – Debbie did ask the original members to take part – and all but Scott refused the opportunity."
What are Greg Williams and Jerry Fraiser doing these days? Are they still in the Metal scener…?
"As I mentioned earlier Greg Williams went on to get his Masters Degree in music and is now teaching in California. Greg’s playing can be heard on the song clips on the SENTINEL BEAST NYC page. Jerry Frazier now makes his living as a photographer. If you wanted to hear Jerry Frazier – he is one of the guitarists on the 2 bonus tracks on the re-relase of "Depths Of Death" mentioned earlier (Greg is the other guitarist). Both of them have posted their thoughts and comments on their SENTINEL BEAST days on the SENTINEL BEAST NYC site (www.myspace.com/SentinelBeastNYC)."
How can you sum up the story, the career of SENTINEL BEAST? The best and the worst memories
"I think we covered a lot of ground in the questions leading up to this one but to sum up… some of the best memories were the drugs, and some of the worst memories were the drugs. It’s sad – but it ultimately seems to be what led to the bands demise so kids… DON’T DO DRUGS!"
Would you say that SENTINEL BEAST reached a cult status within the underground Metal scene? Are you still proud of the "Depths Of Death” record or could it have been better?
"I think we had a good following – especially in California and especially in the Sacramento area – but I don’t know that I’d say we reached ‘cult status’. There was no internet back then so it wasn’t as easy for bands to reach as many people as they can today. Debbie’s new line-up did their first show in Sacramento and the next day I was able to see clips from it on YouTube – that just wasn’t possible back then. I think every musician always thinks that things they’ve done can be better. As for "Depths Of Death" – I still say that it was a ‘really good record’ but I think some of the best material SENTINEL BEAST ever recorded was the "Depths Of Death" demo and I think the best material we ever wrote was the material that would have been the second album (which is why that’s the material that I recorded for the first Fischel’s Beast CD)."
So Barry, thanks a lot for the interview, any closing words for our readers?
"I’d just like to say thank you for doing such an in depth interview – and for giving me a chance to let people know what’s going on. For SENTINEL BEAST fans (both old and new) there will be lots of new material to check out. Debbie is releasing the old demos as well as working on new material. Some of her new material – is actually old SENTINEL BEAST material – in fact she’s recording her version of two of the songs that Fischel’s Beast just recorded (‘The Phoenix’ and ‘Forbidden Territories’). The band and I are getting ready to make a video for ‘The Phoenix’ and we’re working on new material and hope to be recording the new Fischel’s Beast CD early next year – and we’re looking forward to getting out and doing some shows too (gee – I guess I am still enthusiastic about Metal!!)."
Interview: László Dávid