Guitarist Tim Piispanen about the early days of Chemikill – Part I
Cleveland’s metal scene wasn’t always as big and influential as the Bay Area’s, New York’s or Los Angeles’ one, but there were a couple of bands that managed to achieve a cult status in the eyes of the metal fans such as Purgatory, Black Death or Breaker. This is the case with Chemikill as well – not to be confused with the Maryland based bunch –, that was a very talented outfit back in the day. In their time they released only two demos, but 21 years after their formation they released their debut album this year. To my questions the answers were given by founding member, guitarist Tim Piispanen.
Tim, before you started with Chemikill, were you involved in any other bands? Did you have any experiences as a musician?
I started playing in cover bands at around 17. It got me into bars before I was of age. Thought that was cool. Before that I took piano lessons for 2 years and played saxophone in the high school jazz band. Chemikill was my first real band only a few years later.
Do you still remember how did you get together? Was the line-up you on guitars, Fred Flory on vocals, Calvin Burgess on bass and Mike Seleman on drums right from the start or did you go through on several line-up changes?
I remember it like it was yesterday. Mike and I were already friends and had been jamming off and on for a time. I thought he was the best drummer I ever heard. I wanted to start a band with him right away but he was always busy. Then Mike and Fred were in rival bands who shared a rehearsal hall. Mike thought Fred was the best singer he ever heard and wanted to start a band with him right away. So they did! I think they tried a guitarist or two before Mike asked me to come down and meet Fred. Mike and I already had a tune worked out called Screaming for More and Fred just jumped all over it and screamed his head off. It was awesome! So we found a new rehearsal spot fittingly right next to a nuclear power plant and started to look for bass players. I think Calvin was the only one to show up. Actually Mike wanted Calvin from the start and show up he did. We played Screaming for More and a new tune I just wrote called (Fear) The Warrior. This was the first practice for Chemikill.
Was it hard to find committed, enthusiastic musicians for a metal band in Cleveland back in those days?
Not at all. Anyone who wasn’t in a band was lookin’ for a band. Everyone was all about the music back then. You really had to poach players if you wanted to put something together. It was good times and one could afford to be picky.
Were you aware of the existence of the Maryland thrash band that called Chemikill, too?
Not at that time but I was aware that Chemikill was a take on a popular Exodus song title. I wasn’t thrilled about that but because we practiced on the edge of town with a nuke plant on one side and a landfill on the other, the name stuck. It wasn’t until the internet became a thing in the mid-nineties that we discovered there were others like us out there. Have to admit it’s a killer band name.
What about the Cleveland metal scene of those times as a whole? Were you familiar with acts such as Breaker, Black Death, Destructor, Sacred Few, Cerberus, Jagged Edge, Mistreater, Shok Paris, Purgatory or Sorcerer?
Very familiar. Most of those groups you mention were first generation Cleveland metal bands who inspired the rest of us. We all aspired to be them and they set the bar high. Our first real shows were opening for Breaker and then Purgatory. But Destructor blew everyone away.
How much of a support did get these bands back in the day?
Everyone supported each other. Everyone went to shows as often as they could. There was no shortage of venues or fans to fill them. It was good times.
From the first few practices you knew right away that something special was brewing, does it mean that you aspired after writing originals? Were you toying with covers, too?
We wanted to write originals from the start. We wanted to be like Breaker, Purgatory and Destructor. And why not? In just the first 3-4 practices we produced (Fear) The Warrior, City Night to Roam, and Deadline among others. That being said, we did toy with a cover of Aerosmith’s Round and Round, one of their heavier B-sides from the classic Toys in the Attic album. But we Chemikill-ed it.
Was your sound classic US power metal with searing vocals, catchy guitar hooks and a pounding rhythm section?
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
How would you define the notion of classic USPM, by the way?
Vocals define classic power metal to me. Heavy melodic guitars, too. Over-the-top, epic arrangements where the riffs carry the song as much as the vocal chorus. Hard hitting drums and bass lines that resonate like guitar hooks round out the power part of the equation.
Is it correct that first you were discovered by Bill Peters of Auburn Records, when he started to play your rehearsal tapes on his popular indie metal radio show Metal on Metal?
That is absolutely true. We would record every practice on to a cassette tape. After only a few weeks into rehearsals someone leaked a practice tape to him. He played it on his radio show that Friday night and we all sat around and listened to our first exposure on radio. I wished it wasn’t a practice tape but it sounded pretty good! I think it was City Night to Roam and (Fear) The Warrior and he got a very good response from his listeners. He soon approached us to be a part of his upcoming project, Heavy Artillery for Auburn Records.
Was he in Cleveland, like Brian Slagel in Los Angeles or Jon Zazula in New York was? I mean, a kind of pioneer of the US metal scene…
Definitely. He was the driver for the entire scene. He had a radio show to expose the bands. He had a record label to record and distribute the bands. He was a promoter to book the bands. Without him, the Cleveland scene would not be what it was. And still is! Today he is very active in the scene. He still does his radio show only now it streams globally and he continues to promote and sponsor bands. He is the true metal warrior.
Did his compilations (Cleveland Metal, Heavy Artillery) help a lot to introduce the Cleveland-based bands for the fans?
I believe so. I don’t think his radio show was global yet. When he released Heavy Artillery it exposed the Cleveland scene to a much wider audience.
You were released two demos, in 1989 and in 1990. Could you share us everything regarding on those materials?
This is fascinating to me. We never released any demos, officially anyway. I’ve seen the Metal Archives website stating otherwise. The songs on those demos are actually pre-production and outtakes for the Heavy Artillery album. We had started a recording project on our own with a very low budget. Bill Peters then attempted to bring in his producer to mix the tracks to use on his record, but they just didn’t cut it. I think this is what’s on the first “demo” from 1989. The second “demo” from 1990 was the result of Bill taking us into a bigger, more professional studio where we recorded Fate Worse than Death at first. It just didn’t capture that studio magic so we recorded a second song. The second song we recorded with Bill was Deadline and that was the best and final cut for the Heavy Artillery album. I think these outtakes were leaked and became known as our demos because we had so little to share with the fans.
The only official releases from Chemikill were the single Deadline from the Heavy Artillery album and our current full-length release Edge of Wasteland. I actually knew of a bootlegged live show tape that circulated via tape-trading that sounded better than some of the songs on those demos.
Around the second demo joined second guitarist Mike Wheatley the band. How did he get in the picture exactly?
We felt the momentum building and thought we needed a second guitar to help fill the sound in bigger arenas. I believe he even played on Deadline on the Heavy Artillery release.
What about his musical background?
He was a part of the local metal scene and played lead guitar for another up and coming band.
Was he your first choice or were there other guitarists auditioned as well?
I didn’t know him until he came down to audition. I think Calvin and Fred knew him and thought he would be a good fit with my style and invited him to try out. After I met him I liked his tone and playing a lot. He knew every riff by heart on his first audition.
Was the second demo a better representation of the band?
It probably was a better representation if it was the from the pro studio sessions as I suspect. I’ve never actually heard the second demo. I’m going by the song titles on it and what I know about how they got there.
Were words spread quickly as your reputation grew from word of mouth and bootlegged tapes of your live shows that circulated via underground tape-trading?
Because we had only officially released one song fans were hungry for more. I know of at least one bootlegged live cassette tape that we all listened to and had multiple copies of that became our best messenger. It wasn’t until much later in the mid-nineties did I discover this tape founded its way around the world.
You were featured with the song Deadline on the aforementioned Heavy Artillery compilation and suddenly everyone knew the name Chemikill. The song has been referred to as “one of the best US Power Metal songs of all time”, right?
That’s what I recently read somewhere. That is a very high honor. There were many really good bands on the Heavy Artillery album but Deadline seemed to stand out. We started getting commercial radio airplay (because back then metal WAS played on commercial radio) and connections all around the world. Fred’s voice really shines on that track and resonated with a large audience.
(to be continued)