Hal Dunn and Ed Aborn about the early days of Siren – Part I
This Brandon-based outfit belongs to the forerunners of the Florida metal scene. They were formed back in 1980, and after a couple of demos they released two records, No Place like Home (1986) and Financial Suicide (1988). During their active years, they went through a lot of member changes, then in 1990 they disbanded. Siren surprised the metal world when they came back to business in 2016. They performed at the Keep It True XXI. festival and this year they released their comeback album, Back from the Dead. It was enough reason to interview this underrated, obscured act, so guitarist Hal Dunn and drummer Ed Aborn were kind enough to share their views for our magazine.
Hal, Siren was formed back in 1980, by you and Rob Phillips (both of you on guitars), Mike Martinez on bass and Andy Flowers on drums. Do you still remember how you got together?
Hal Dunn: I remember those days fondly. I started to play guitar by plugging into an old 1950’s reel-to-reel tape player my dad gave me. It was huge. And it had a blown speaker. Somehow I made it work. Sounded absolutely terrible, but at least I was getting maximum distortion! I got together to try to make music with two friends I knew from high school, Andy Flowers and Mike Martinez. I knew Andy, not as a drummer, but as a guitarist who also played other instruments. While Andy was a pretty good guitarist, I was just learning to play guitar, and I think Mike was also just learning to play bass guitar. Andy taught me a few things on guitar, and we played some simple rock songs.
I didn’t know Rob Phillips very well, but after we became friends, we hung out all the time, listening to music and partying. He was very confident regarding his musical ambitions. Rob was, and is, one of the most single-minded and determined people you’ll ever meet. At the time he told me he’s going to get a white Flying V, just like Michael Schenker’s, and we’re going to form a band and play Heavy Metal, such as songs by Judas Priest and UFO.
That’s exactly what he did. And Rob learned to play guitar very quickly. He was very determined to play like some of his favorites: Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, and Michael Schenker. Me and Rob and Mike started to learn songs by listening to vinyl records over and over. We played songs by Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, UFO, Van Halen, Ozzy, and Iron Maiden. We practiced in Mike Martinez’s backyard. This was basically the beginning of Siren. No drummer at first. One day Andy shows up at Mike’s house with a drum set, and we jammed. Andy wasn’t really an experienced drummer and he wasn’t really into heavy metal, but it was great to finally have drums. Next door was Mike’s cousin, Lamar, and he had a band called Metal Gods. Their drummer was Ed Aborn. One time when Andy wasn’t able to practice, we asked Ed to fill in, which was great. The next day we asked him if he would join our band, and we were thrilled when he accepted! So he hopped the fence and joined Siren. He also brought his friend Frank Marsh, who was our first singer.
What were your musical influences to establish a band?
Hal Dunn: We were influenced by many popular Hard Rock and Heavy Metal bands of the early 1980’s: Judas Priest, Scorpions, UFO, Iron Maiden, Accept, Ozzy, Van Halen, Kiss, Ted Nugent, Riot, Saxon, etc.
Was Siren the very first outfit for all of you or did you have any musical experiences prior to Siren?
Hal Dunn: Siren was the first band that Mike, Rob, and Hal played in. Ed Aborn was in Metal Gods before he joined Siren. When Frank joined the Navy, we replaced him with Doug Lee on vocals. Doug was originally a guitar player and he had played and sang in a few bands in Brandon before joining Siren. Our bass player, Gregg Culbertson, moved to Tampa from North Florida, and he had played in a few bands before Siren. Guitarist Todd Grubbs was a close friend and amazing guitarist. After Hal left Siren, he and Todd formed a Heavy Metal band in Brandon called Atomic Opera. Todd had previously played in another local band, Gangster along with David Austin (soon-to-be guitarist for Nasty Savage). Todd went on to play in several groups, he attended Berkley School of Music, and has recorded five or ten killer albums, over a few decades. Then in late 2016, Todd joined Siren.
How did you choose the musical style that you wanted to represent?
Hal Dunn: At the time of the early 1980’s there was a lot of excitement about the music that we were hearing from Europe, especially Judas Priest and bands from Germany. And of course NWOBHM bands like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Saxon. In Brandon, Florida there was an explosion of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. We were all fans of metal music. We all bought, collected, and listened to all the bands we could get our hands on. Car stereos and keg parties blasted loud music every weekend. And we all wanted to play music, form a band, and become rock stars. Siren was a cover band for quite a well before we started writing original songs. Our musical style grew out of our love for the bands that were making waves in the Heavy Metal movement at the time. We wanted our style of music to be loud, powerful, energetic, and heavy, but also melodic and catchy. We particularly liked what we heard from two German guitarists: Michael Schenker of UFO and Ulrich Roth of the Scorpions. There was something about that exotic epic, gothic European flavor that we all loved.
Was it hard to find committed, enthusiastic musicians for a metal band at this point?
Hal Dunn: It wasn’t really hard to find musicians in Brandon and Tampa in the early 80’s. It seemed like everyone was a musician! We went through a lot of drummers and bass players over the years. Playing keg parties and small clubs didn’t pay too much, so there were a lot of line-up changes due to various reasons. For example Ed left the band at one point because he was still in high school, while the rest of us were already 21 or 22 and out of school, and we rehearsed 6 or 7 nights a week till late at night. As we got more serious about the band and performing around the area, Siren needed someone who could play the local rock clubs until two or three in the morning – or later – sometimes several days a week. So Ed decided to step aside and not hold the band back. At one point, I had to leave the band before a week-long gig at the Upstairs/Downstairs bottle club gig because my day job made it impossible for me to do both. Bottle club hours were generally from 3:00 to 7:00 a.m. Before too long, though, the band re-assembled and I was back in the group.
What do you recall of your early rehearsals? Did you start writing originals or were you jamming mostly on covers?
Hal Dunn: For our early rehearsals, we started out in Mike’s backyard. Then we progressed to a rented warehouse. The complex was in the middle of Brandon and it was affordable. We practiced in the evenings so there wasn’t much trouble with the police or nearby businesses, although I think we eventually did contribute to their “No Bands Whatsoever” policy somewhere down the line. I do have to admit that it was pretty loud. Two guitarists, a bass player, drums, and a singer screaming over a full P.A. system is hardly inconspicuous. Oh, and naturally we had decked the space out with a drum riser, some lights, posters, and the occasional pyrotechnics.
In 1982 the band had rented a house; the living room of which then became the de facto practice space. When singer Frank Marsh decided to join the Navy, Doug Lee joined the band. Doug already had a full P.A. system. At this point, Siren’s musical repertoire was greatly expanded and included a lot of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Accept, UFO, Scorpions, and the occasional Angel Witch, old Def Leppard, Riot, and other young bands at the time. A few covers that I remember playing during the early days: You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’, Hell Bent for Leather, Green Manalishi, Delivering the Goods, Beyond the Realms of Death, Breaking the Law, Hallowed Be Thy Name, Number of the Beast, Killers, Fast as a Shark, Princess of the Dawn, Neon Nights, Lights Out, Doctor Doctor, Shoot Shoot, Rock Bottom, Road Racing, Wasted, Ain’t Talking About Love, and Gorgon.
We also started to work on some originals like Metro Mercenary. Ed wrote the lyrics to Metro in his high school Social Studies class. I can remember that we had worked in three original songs in combination with those now classic and legendary influences whose music we covered. Metro plus Terrible Swift Sword and Over the Rainbow.
As 1982 transitioned into 1983, the band moved to a different rental house that was only a mile or so from the first one. This house eventually became more like a club than a house and rehearsal space. Ed actually ran lights at the house for the band’s rehearsals. Actual stage lighting! Doug Lee and Rob Phillips lived in the house along with Craig Miller who also doubled as the in-house sound engineer for the band’s near nightly shows. Craig was also very artistic and created some cool flyers for the band. All kinds of people streamed in and out of that house during that year. Needless to say there were several crazy, fun, frightening, and unexplainable times there.
Soon after the band moved out (were kicked out) of the party house and the guys dispersed around the area. Rob and I moved into a mobile home that was adjacent to some cow pastures. It was at this time that Rob wrote the music for what would become the song Terrible Swift Sword. Doug wrote the American Civil War-themed lyrics on that one while mowing the lawn one summer day. Also at this time, Rob wrote the entire song Over the Rainbow – both music and lyrics.
During this early period of the band, it seems you had a lot of line-up changes. What were the reasons for it?
Hal Dunn: Ah yes, so many changes in personnel. A few I already mentioned, but there were many more. At one point, bassist Mike Martinez was replaced by Del Webber. I’m not sure I remember why. When vocalist Frank left to join the Navy, it seemed like in no time at all, we got Doug in the band, and he’s been the one constant ever since that point, which was about 38 years ago. When Ed left, Brian Law, a friend of Doug’s was recruited to take his place.
When Del Webber left the band, original Siren bassist Mike Martinez returned to the fold. I’m not sure why Del left, but it was probably not voluntary. Del was a great guy and a very interesting cat, but he was a bit unstable at times, possibly due to excessive alcohol and other substances. Seemingly as soon as he had arrived, drummer Brian was also out of the picture and Mike Furney stepped in to replace him. By the end of 1983 Siren had broken up completely.
During the summer of 1984, Ed returned from college on break and had the idea of creating and promoting a Siren single. With Doug, Ed, and Rob Phillips on board, the band just needed a bass player, so Ben Parrish was recruited to play bass on the two songs. We selected the songs Metro Mercenary and Terrible Swift Sword to be the debut release. Bass player Ben Parrish had recorded the single with Siren, but he wasn’t really into playing live or being in a band full-time. So the bass slot was filled by a friend of Doug’s named Ed Hauser. Ed was a top-notch player and also a good vocalist. During this time with this line-up, Siren recorded the 4-song demo Iron Coffins.
Eventually, disagreements in the band’s direction let to Rob’s departure in late 1985 which is when young guitarist Eddie “Faxon” Kotz joined the band along with awesome bassist Gregg Culbertson. This revitalized line-up was responsible for the Dead of Night demo which was Siren’s strongest material to-date. Some miscommunications in the band led to Ed Aborn and Faxon Kotz’s departures in mid-1986 just prior to the recording of the No Place like Home album. Original guitarist Rob Phillips and former drummer Brian Law were brought in to perform on the album.
You came from Brandon, how about other Florida scenes, such as Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Miami etc.?
Hal Dunn: Yeah, Brandon is a suburban community about 10-12 miles East of Tampa. And so many metal musicians and bands came from Brandon, including Nasty Savage, Oblivion, Massacre, Obituary, Vengeance Inc. and others. We were part of the local music scene in Tampa and Brandon, playing parties, clubs, and bars, but we didn’t venture much beyond the local Tampa Bay area. We did a few shows in St. Pete and Clearwater, which is just west of Tampa. One show I remember was at a club called the Redeye. This is going back about 30 years. It was one of our earliest gigs. The Redeye venue building had been many restaurants and bars that went out of business. Soon after the gig, the Redeye became Hooters, the first original Hooters, and it’s still there today. When Siren played there, it was a dive with no stage, so we had to build a crappy makeshift stage out of milk crates and plywood. It nearly collapsed underneath us! Not even a good idea. Also we were so loud that the neighbors near the bar called the cops. So we turned down the volume … until the police left, then we turned it right back up.
However we finally made it to perform at a show in Miami, in November 2019, which was a great gig we played with a young band from the Miami area, Midnight Spell … who, by the way, is an awesome traditional Heavy Metal band.
By the way, were all of you involved in the underground scene that started taking shape at that time?
Hal Dunn: We had the pleasure of being part of an amazing scene in Florida. From our vantage point, ground zero for the underground metal scene was in our home town, Brandon. Everything was happening and growing right around us. We’re good friends with all the guys in Nasty Savage and we played some shows with them over the years. Nasty Ronnie helped Ed and Doug get the promotional ball rolling for our band. We also got to see Avatar many times in the old days, which was before they changed their name to Savatage. Siren also played shows with Savatage. Obituary was originally known as Executioner and Xecutioner. These guys were a bit younger, and we watched them go from being a novice band to becoming one of the most influential Death Metal bands in the world. We also did shows with Vengeance Inc. and Oblivion, both also from Brandon. Another huge band that was part of the Tampa scene was Iced Earth, and at the time they were known as Purgatory, which I can remember seeing play in local bars and clubs.
Was the whole metal scene in Florida still in its infancy? Siren, Savatage, Nasty Savage, Mantas/Death, Powersurge etc.
Hal Dunn: Yes, the scene was born and growing during this same timeframe. In our area there were so many rock bands, and metal bands in particular. Siren was formed in Brandon. During the next year or so, there was Nasty Savage, also from Brandon. And Avatar/Savatage formed in 1979 in Tarpon Springs; they were both groundbreaking pioneers in underground metal. Death was from Orlando and they were probably the very first Death Metal band. Over the years Tampa grew to be known as the Death Metal capital of the world. I saw Morbid Angel play in clubs, as well as Nocturnus. Powersurge was an excellent band that we knew. Their singer Jimbo Marra had auditioned for Siren back before we even had a singer. Crimson Glory is another amazing band. They were based out of Sarasota. There were so many metal bands in our area, I can’t even remember or name them all. Atheist, Deicide, Six Feet Under, Massacre, Roxx Gang, Brat, Intice, etc.
(to be continued)