Interview with bassist and vocalist Paul Speckmann
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: October 1, 2021
Death Strike were one of the most important extreme metal bands in the Chicago underground metal scene in the mid-eighties, although a very short-lived act. When they released their now-legendary 4-track Fuckin' Death demo back in 1985, it sounded like they were a tad ahead of their time, combining raw punky sounds with more metallic elements that formed a pretty unique and original whole that made it one of the most traded demos among the tape traders back in the days when there was no Internet.
Death Strike split up in 1985 after the demo but continued with a new lineup under the Master name. As many of you already know, there's also the Fuckin' Death album released by Death Strike with extra songs on Nuclear Blast from 1991, but not everyone knows the REAL story behind that one and whether Death Strike has taken its last gasp of air and in its final resting place six feet under.
Well, if you want to know about those topics and much more, then read the following "chat" that we here at The Metal Crypt had with Mr. Speckmann at the end of September 2021. We talked about the past Chicago underground punk and metal scenes, the tape-trading scene, bands that influenced and/or inspired Paul back in the day, a little bit about War Cry and Master and much more...
MOVING FROM THE STATES TO CZECHIA
How's life in Uherské Hradiště, Moravia, Czechia? When did you relocate from the States to your current location? Was it a spontaneous decision to move from your home turf to Europe and what was the main reason to move to Europe?
Paul: Life is good in the Czech Republic. I live in Moravia, or Uherské Hradiště, as you said in the question. I left America, Arizona is where I was living at the time, and I moved here in 1999/2000, roughly. It wasn't a spontaneous move to Europe; it was actually when I got an offer to play in a band called Krabathor. I met the fellas in this band in 1999 while on tour with Malevolent Creation, Master and they were the opening act.
Fortunately for us, and in some ways for me, Vader cancelled their tour. They were supposed to be the co-headliner. In the end, Master became the co-headliner and Krabathor was the support band. During the soundchecks, I sometimes jammed with those guys while checking instruments. The drummer ("Skull" aka Libor Lebánek) and I were getting along really well and jamming all the time. The guys sometimes yelled at us to shut up, but we were having fun and getting to know each other and playing. I realized it was fun to jam with the guys.
Anyway, after Bruno left and decided to start his own band, Hypnos, the opportunity came up for me to join Krabathor. Christopher called me in Arizona, where I was living at the time, and asked me if I'd like to join. He said, "You could come over and check it out for a while and see if you like it and make your decision." They had an opportunity for their first tour in Japan right away.
Anyway, I went to the Czech Republic and we did some rehearsing. I was jamming and in time, I just decided that I wanted to stay there. After that summer in Europe, I went back home and worked for a while and sold all my stuff. Then, in 2000, I moved to Europe, and I've been here ever since.
COMING FROM THE CHICAGO UNDERGROUND SCENE
When you started Death Strike back in 1984, what were some of the bands and/or artists that you looked for inspiration? How much of the prior Chicago hardcore-punk scene and bands like Naked Raygun, Big Black, The Effigies, etc. offer you a nice stepping-stone to create extreme music with Death Strike?
Paul: Bands like Motörhead, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and like you were saying in the question, a lot of punk bands but more like GBH, Minor Threat, MDC, The Exploited, Discharge were the kinds of bands that were big influences on us. Yes, I was going to see some great bands like Naked Raygun, for sure. Janet Reef and Mary Burns, I used to ride along with them to go to these punk shows.
I remember seeing The Exploited in some little club and everyone was spitting on the singer and shit, and he had loogers hanging from his fucking mohawk. It was crazy times. There were a lot of good bands back in Chicago at that time, for sure. Yes, it was a stepping stone to create Death Strike. Obviously, punk rock at that time was an influence on the band, but we had just discovered Venom as well. It was a good time back then, believe me.
I was listening to Venom in 1981, 1982, and I was still in War Cry. That would go on to influence Master as well as Death Strike, as I said before. Interesting story I never told anyone before is that Steve Albini from Big Black had called me to come and interview for the band, not interview, but come for an audition. Anyway, I had no idea who Big Black was, so that might have been a big mistake for me. That may have been another break that I screwed up, but life goes on. Anyhow, whatever. Shit happens.
When Death Strike became a better-known name in the Chicago underground scene in the mid-eighties, do you believe this outfit was the face for the extreme underground metal scene and what was to come after (Funeral Bitch, Terminal Death, Cianide, Macabre, etc.)?
Paul: I wouldn't want to take credit for any of that stuff. Obviously, all these bands had their own shit going on. Death Strike was a big influence. Bands like Terminal Death, Cyanide, Macabre, they were doing their own thing. I realize Cyanide did a cover of "The Truth" some years later but that doesn't matter. They're good friends of ours and still good friends of mine and that's life, but I wouldn't want to go say that we influenced those Chicago bands so much. Maybe a little bit. I think maybe we were helpful in opening the doors for them, I suppose, with the demos. Maybe.
The 4-track Fuckin' Death demo, which you recorded in 1985, was a groundbreaking thing when it came out due to its uncompromisingly heavy, brutal, and punky style. I remember hearing via the tape trading scene in the second half of the eighties and it blew me away! Did you feel that you had accomplished something unique and special on that demo?
Paul: Yes, for sure. We thought we had done something special. We played the demo for a lot of friends, and everybody loved it. The demo was recorded shortly after my father passed away in late '84. It was recorded in '85 in the spring. Anyway, in all reality, it was the first time I ever sang. The first song on the demo, "The Truth", I wrote by myself and was my first attempt at writing my own lyrics and stuff. It was the first time I ever sang in the studio as well. This was all a new thing for me. Of course, we thought something was special. People liked it. I liked it. I thought it was the heaviest shit around at that time.
Was it easy to work with Chris Mittleburn, Kirk Miller, and John Leprich during those recording sessions? Do you remember the sessions?
Paul: Yes, of course, I remember the recordings. It was a long time ago, but I do remember going to Open Reel Studios. The reason we went to this studio was because War Cry recorded there and I like the sound of the War Cry demo, Trilogy of Terror. That was the only demo I recorded with War Cry. I thought the bass sound in there was like a bulldozer and obviously they captured my sound. Okay, it was ridiculously loud, but anyway, I wanted to go to the studio because I thought it was so heavy and what was interesting is that it was like a Jimi Hendrix type studio.
It was an eight-track studio, quarter track tape and interesting times back then. I went in there with the guys, and we had trouble with Leprich, who couldn't get down "Pay to Die" on the first day. In the end we had to go back and record "Pay to Die" again with him. He finally got it down, which was great. I called (Bill) Schmidt from Master to see if he would come down to record it, but in the end Leprich finished the song.
It was great working with Kirk and Chris as well. Kirk Miller was a young 16-year-old kid who was at the time, my girlfriend's younger brother, so we brought him in to maybe to fill out the sound and have a heavier product. He played some solos which were cool as well. Chris's solos were the best, of course. Mittelburn came in with a song "Re-Entry and Destruction" that was mostly his own and the lyrics weren't quite finished, which ended up being finished by the guys in the band.
I had "The Truth" already finished, I had "Pay to Die" already finished. "Mangled Dehumanization," Chris wrote the music for that and I wrote the lyrics. That was one of our first ones we penned together and that was also cool. That's pretty much all I can remember about that. It was a good time, of course.
Was your musical direction 100% clear from the very beginning or was Death Strike's core sound more like a compromise, in which some of you wanted a more punk-orientated approach while others were more into the sounds of early Metallica, Slayer and such?
Paul: Actually, we knew what we were doing. (Chris) Mittelburn and I knew the direction we wanted to go in. We wanted to be the heaviest band around, the heaviest band in Chicago. Sure, we were listening to other bands, as I said earlier on, but we took a heavier approach. Obviously, our influences came in by listening to other bands that we had heard before. You get influenced whether you like it or not. We had a direct approach. We wanted to be the heaviest band in Chicago, and I think at that time we truly succeeded.
Of course, when Death Strike was formed, there was no Internet, so promoting your band took lots of time and effort. How much time did you have to put in to try and make Death Strike a household name in the Chicago underground metal scene back in the day? I suppose you mailed out "a few" packages during the craziest days of the band?
Paul: First of all, there was no Internet like you said. We made a couple of cassettes and sent them out and apparently many bands around the world still to this day, at least the ones that are true to themselves, say that Death Strike was a big influence on them including Napalm Death, Carcass, and Entombed. A lot of these bands will let you know that they were influenced as well and that's cool.
Back in the tape-trading days, you sent out a cassette and you received cassettes from other bands and that's how we heard each other. People made hundreds of dubbed versions of these cassettes and they would go around the world. Before you knew it, everybody knew who Death Strike was, at least in the underground scene. Honestly, Death Strike never played any concerts and was short-lived. The band was together a few months, just long enough to record a demo and then split up before we became Master. It was really a short-lived project.
Obviously, today I didn't realize how much of an influence it was on the scene. Just by reading interviews and bands covering the Death Strike songs, that was really an eye-opener to me, of course.
ACTIVE PERIODS: 1984-85 AND 1991-92
The band's history had two active periods; 1984-85 and 1991-92. Did it all have to do with personal chemistries within the band or were there more profound reasons behind why it was better to put the band on the ice both in the mid-eighties and again in the early nineties?
Paul: We became Master again so there was no reason to put the band back together. In 1991, I put it together because Nuclear Blast had decided they wanted to release the demo and that was after the first Master and the Abomination albums were released so they said, "Oh, let's release the demo on vinyl." Then they suggested that we should record some more songs, so I put together that quick lineup and we recorded more tunes, and that should be a good enough answer for you there, my friend.
Death Strike's debut album, Fuckin' Death, released originally on Nuclear Blast in 1991, which contains the original 4-song demo from 1985, is a legendary album in many ways. What was the original reason why the album's release was delayed for six years? I read from some other source that the four remaining songs were recorded during another session and by the Master lineup at that time. Is that accurate?
Paul: Well, no, the argument doesn't hold any water. I mean, yes, as I said earlier, we recorded another demo in 1991 and no, it wasn't members from Master. It was the drummer from Abomination, Aaron Nickeas, who played drums. Another friend of mine just came in, Jeff Cailo, to do the Death Strike demo. Originally it was going to be a four piece for the demo. As I said, as that session was canceled—I didn't mention that. The other guitar player forgot how to play the songs by the time we recorded the second demo in '91.
Do you think that Death Strike's approach in metal was perhaps a tad noncommercial and untrendy for the metal labels back in the day and that is why the band did not get signed by some label because they were all hunting for the next Metallica, Slayer, and Manowar, etc. in 1985? Or didn't you promote the band enough to the record companies (like Music for Nations, New Renaissance Records, Combat, etc.) to bring a recording deal to the band?
Paul: We sent the demos out to a few people and nobody seemed to be interested. Like I said, maybe we were too heavy, but nobody was interested in a band like Death Strike. And the band broke up so quickly. We were Master again by July of '85. By the fall we were recording the Master demos. Death Strike was a short-lived band, period.
RECAPTURING THE OLD TIMES IS IMPOSSIBLE
When talking about Death Strike, have ever you considered recording a follow-up album to Fuckin' Death?
Paul: Speaking of Death Strike, no, there's no way there's going to ever be a follow-up for Fuckin' Death. There's no chance of recapturing what we did. Even in 1991, I would say that we didn't capture what I wanted. I wanted to go to the original studio and record, Open Reel Studios and someone in the family of the owner had passed and our studio recording was canceled for that day. We drove all the way out there, which was a couple of hours from where I was living, and the guy told us when we got there that the studio was canceled for the day because he was going to a funeral. I never got the message.
This was a damper on the second demo. We went to another studio and we didn't really capture the sound or the same real feeling. The songs are good on the second demo, don't get me wrong, but I learned that during that situation that you really can't go back and capture what you created in the early days. We were much younger. It was a new form of music. It was the first time I ever screamed in a band. There's no reason to try and recapture the past. You can only go forward. Thank you on that one.
Can you remember the best local venues in the Chicago area where Death Strike got to play? What made these venues so special?
Paul: The best venues at that time were The Iron Rail and The Thirsty Whale but in all honesty Death Strike never played any concerts. We got as far as recording that demo in '85 and then Schmidt came crawling back and we turned the band into Master again in late '85 and recorded the legendary Master demos so Death Strike really never played anywhere. For that matter, Master played two or three shows over 10 or 20 years together. The original lineup played two or three shows only. I never got a chance to play with those guys again. The drummer was afraid of his own shadow.
COVID-19 STRUCK AND DEPRESSION AROSE
It's been impossible for bands to arrange gigs (to say nothing about extensive tours) due to the prevailing Covid-19 situation, which is very unfortunate. How have you been coping with these virus times yourself? I assume you have been creating new music to keep yourself sane over these difficult times, correct?
Paul: In all honesty, it has been impossible. Hopefully, we're going to be touring in March of next year as Master. This Covid-19 situation has been terrible for Master and terrible for me in general. I'm very depressed all the time now. I'm just trying to look to the future and trying to see if there's a bright side. Anyway, in the meantime, I have kept myself busy for the last couple years. I've been recording with Rogga Johansson via the Internet. He sends me the songs. I go to the studio. I actually record my vocals in the studio. He sends me complete songs and then I go in the studio and sing the lyrics that I write for these songs.
I still get to go to the studio several times a year. I was doing maybe two songs a week for each album. That's easily 10 to 12 songs. It keeps me busy for a month or so, a month to six weeks, every time we do a new recording. There'll be a new Speckmann Project album coming out next year in the spring on Emancipation Records from Denmark. At least I'm trying to keep busy. I'm staying as busy as I can.
Of course, I've got new Master songs written. The problem is with Master I want to record with a live band, with a real band. I don't want to record over the Internet. My players, who are Ruston Grosse and Pat Shea, are in the USA. It's a problem right now. I don't know what the future holds for this lineup. We shall see.
CANCELLED GIGS IN FINLAND IN 2019
I remember that Death Strike and Master were supposed to play two gigs in Finland in March 2019, but the shows were canceled. What happened?
Paul: Yes, Master and Death Strike were supposed to play some shows in Finland but the night before, actually the morning, let's get this right. I was going to travel. We were supposed to meet in the morning. I was supposed to pick the guys up, Zdeněk Pradlovský and Ales Nejezchleba and they were playing both shows, Master and Death Strike. They were on different days, it was a weekend of gigs, like you said, in Finland.
What happened is the guys wrote on Facebook that they were quitting, so unfortunately for my friend Alex, the booker, he had to call me in the middle of the night and ask if I had read Facebook. I hadn't, so I did a quick read and I called him back and I had to cancel the concerts. The last two members of 16 years quit that very weekend. Obviously, there was no chance to play the shows.
OF PRESENT AND PAST LINEUP TALK
Just to get the facts straight, is Death Strike's lineup the same as Master's lineup these days, both Ruston Grosse and Pat Shea being members in both bands?
Paul: Whatever band members are in my band are Master, are Death Strike, are Abomination. The only reason I play the shows with Death Strike and Abomination, for example, is just to give a chance to people that never got a chance to see the original lineups or never got a chance to experience these great songs in their live form. This is the reason why I play these shows. Everyone calls it a cash grab. It's not really a cash grab. It's letting people have a chance to enjoy this stuff as much as I do live, okay?
What about John, Kirk, and Chris, the original members who were a part of the recordings of the legendary underground classic demo, Fuckin' Death. Have you been in touch with any of them since they left Death Strike in 1991-92?
Paul: The original lineup, as I said earlier in the interview, only recorded the Fuckin' Death demo. Chris, for example, several times came to see me playing with Master while on tour in America and I asked him to get on stage and play "Pay to Die" with me. Every time, he would leave the venue and, according to his buddy, he would have an asthma attack and had to go to the hospital every time. I don't know if he was just nervous or afraid, I have no idea.
I haven't seen Kirk in years. As for John, the last time in Chicago we did the Master show, we did a short War Cry reunion, just two songs at the end of the show, which was well received by everybody and fun for the War Cry guys as well as me. Apparently, John and Chris were waiting for me at the venue for a few hours before I got there but I was stuck in Chicago traffic. It took me an extra two hours to get to the show and I was scheduled to do an interview for a radio station which I also missed out on.
Anyway, the point is that to get the original members back together will never happen, no way. Chris and I spoke about getting together and writing some songs. I wrote some songs and he flaked on me, it never happened. So be it. I wish the guys the best of luck. They're finished with the music business.
"PLAYING GIGS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN MY LIFE"
Performing in front of crowds and meeting your fans are important things for many musicians. How important is gigging for you personally? Do you think you'd live well without it, just being a studio musician?
Paul: Well, gigs are the most important thing in my life, to be honest with you. I don't want to just be a studio musician. I could concentrate on being just a studio musician and live well without playing live because I sell merchandise nearly every day. People are buying merchandise from my many different bands. It's not a decision about living well, the idea is that I cannot live well without playing because it's part of my sanity. It's part of my makeup. Without playing, I'm going to go insane, of course. The obvious thing for me is to keep playing live. Of course, I like it. The crowds are great. I like taking pictures and signing autographs for fans. These are important things for me. Without it, I don't know how long I'll carry on. Let's just hope I can continue to do this for as long as I shall live.
Which lineup will you do the forthcoming Death Strike gig at Courts of Chaos festival in France, in May 2022?
Paul: No idea. The way things are going, I am not sure who's going to play in any of my shows, to be quite honest with you. I have to make some harsh decisions soon. It seems for Americans to travel to Europe at this point, they need to be vaccinated. Well, the guys aren't vaccinated. If they're not going to be vaccinated, the chances are they're not going to be coming. Ta-dah...
Ok, I have one last question for you before I let you go out to collect some edible mushrooms. What other plans do you have for 2022? A new album from Death Strike possibly (fingers crossed)?
Paul: Obviously, I'm going to record a new Master album if I have a lineup by that time and do a tour, as I said, in March. As for a new Death Strike album, I don't know. You got your fingers crossed, but as I said, you can really never go back. My voice is not the same as it was 30 years ago. I don't think it's possible to sing that way. It was a whole different time and I was a young man. That's maybe 40 years ago, to be honest. Anyway, I'll keep it in mind, since you're interested in it. Thank you very much, of course.
Thanks so much, Paul, for having this "chat" with me, and all the best with your future plans as far as both your present and possible future bands and/or projects are concerned. If you have any closing words to wrap up this conversation properly enough, be my guest... ;o)
Paul: I just want to say thank you very much for the interview, the chat, as you called it so well. We'll see what the future brings. If I think I can put together a good Death Strike album, I will. As I said, capturing the vocals from the past, it may be tricky. Maybe I can bring in a younger singer or something. It's not the most important thing in my mind, even though I realize that you really like Death Strike. Look for another Master album and more future shows.
We're discussing a possible Death Strike show in Finland again next year. If I have some information about it, I'll share it with you. Once again, thank you very much. If you're interested in purchasing merchandise, you can go to speckmetal.net. I've got a wide variety of Death Strike and Master and Abomination, different things like that available. Hats and shirts and you name it. You get free picks with every order. Get 'em while you can. Have a good day, man. Thank you.
|Other information about Death Strike on this site|
|Review: Fuckin' Death|
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