Drummer Mike Smith about Suffocation’s Effigy of the Forgotten
Considering the influential, genre defining masterpieces of death metal such as Seven Churches, Scream Bloody Gore, Slowly We Rot, Altars of Madness and the likes, it isn’t necessary to write any introduction. This is the case with Suffocation’s debut Effigy of the Forgotten as well. Former drummer Mike Smith gave me his answers.
Mike, there was an earlier incarnation of Suffocation existing from 1988 to around 1990 which featured vocalist Frank Mullen, bassist Josh Barohn, guitarists Guy Marchais, Todd German and Josh’ friend on drums. Were you perhaps familiar with them?
I was familiar with all of the players mentioned we all were from the same group of friends at that time prior to the official version of Suffocation being formed. At that time I don’t believe any music was ever created by that line up as at that time. It was more talk than action. I know that Frank and Josh did come up with the name prior to it actually professional band being formed.
By 1990, the band had hired guitarists Terrance Hobbs and Doug Cerrito along with you on the drums, all of you were members in the local band Mortuary which had already disbanded. How did you join forces?
I went to high school with Frank Mullen and Doug Cerrito so I always knew of them and mutual friends. Frank eventually moved to the next town and school where he met up with Terrance and Josh so Frank was kind of the link between the two neighborhoods and crews. Mortuary was one of the bands a few of us were in prior to Suffocation, that at that time was still the sickest basement band around. We just created differently than most, we were always working on original music ahead of its time, but through the music we all eventually crossed paths because of our style of writing it was easy to shift through the local musicians and find who was on the same intensity and who wasn’t. If I remember correctly Mortuary might have played in my high school Battle of the Bands the same year. Terrance and his band played before we actually knew of each other as possible band mates. It’s hard to truly recall now the revolving band members and actual names used. There were alot of us who made up a couple basement bands we mixed and mingled line ups alot before the dead weight was shed and the cream rose to the top.
Does it mean, that neither Frank nor Josh had any experiences as musicians, prior to you got together?
Josh was a musician prior to Suffocation he played on and off with his own crew of people. I didn’t really know his crew or his music history prior to Suffo. Frank was not really into his band thing yet. It was the very beginning stages for Frank, Suffocation was where he became part of the music scene and learned his way.
What type of music did you play with Mortuary? Did you record any materials with this outfit?
The music was sick, alot of slam more of a thrash tempo all originals, and the shit you would definitely want to hear at any party. It was ALL slam worthy. Good shit. Sure we recorded what we could, but it was only on whatever tape deck we could find at that time. If I could find any of that stuff that would be a golden find. I don’t even think CD’s were out at that time so recording for us young teenagers wasn’t the most important.
How deep were you involved in the underground scene, by the way? Did you show an interest in what’s going on in the underground those times?
I was in it as deep as any 15-16 year old would be at that time. Thrash was law. Slayer, Exodus, King Diamond, Venom, S.O.D., Kreator, Destruction, Sodom, Cro-Mags, D.R.I., Testamant were all in rotation for us at the time.
Is it correct, that you commented on meeting Terrance Hobbs for the first time: „That’s where I first noticed, wow, there’s another black guy playing this kind of stuff”?
I saw and met Terrance Hobbs for the first time when he played the Battle of the Bands at my high school the same year my band played. He wasn’t from our school so his band had no business playing there but it happened anyway. That’s where I first saw him in actual metal mode.
Did you name the band after the Morbid Angel song Suffocation?
I didn’t name the band, Frank and Josh did prior. I’d like to think at the time they were just looking for a cool way to die as a name for the band and that it was a coincidence that Morbid Angel had a song out at the same time. I could be wrong, but that’s what I would like to believe.
Would you say, that alongside bands like Immolation, Baphomet, Skinless and Mortician, you created what would become known as the New York Death Metal sound, effectively proto-slam Death Metal?
Those bands all have the rights to a New York style and sound, but I know for certain Suffocation created a style all our own at that time. Fortunately for us there were no other bands approaching the music the same way as us. But at that time every band was purposely different from the others in sound and approach. There was room for Suffocation to pioneer something, so we were fortunate to exist when we did. The basement bands we had prior to Suffocation were the first of its kind as well so. It was meant to be.
The first footsteps of the band were the Reincremated demo, the Breaking Barriers Vol. 5 and the Human Waste EP. How do you remember these stuffs as a whole?
We had played those songs hundreds of times prior to making the demo and Human Waste EP, so it is the absolute beginning and glory days of when the band was brand new and truly a basement band. Human Waste was the first release for Relapse Records as well, so it’s a time in our history, that isn’t easily forgotten, they were the best times. Our intent as a band was lethal.
You signed a contract with Relapse Records in 1990 together with bands like Incantation, Deceased becoming one of the first three bands to sign onto the newly founded label, but what made you to change to Roadrunner later on?
At that time Relapse was great for us and we thank them for being ahaead of the game and rolling with us. Roadrunner was the next level, at least at that time it appeared so, they were signing bands, that were definitely hard hitters and pioneers as well. It just made sense that we were trying to stay with the bands making the most strides and getting the next level of push and opportunity. We felt that we had enough steam behind us to easily be on the Roadrunner roster. Any new band at that time would have wanted the same.
What kind of contract did Roadrunner offer you and did they promise a lot of things such as touring support, advertisements, promotion etc.?
No, no and no. They didn’t promise us anything substantial at that time. Death Metal was too new of a genre and they weren’t sure as to what they could actually do for any of us in terms of contractual promises. For all we knew Death Metal could have been a disposable experiment. Obviously it wasn’t however. For a new band to get signed and have albums out any kind of money advance and the slight hint of touring. That was enough to win most teenagers over at that time. We jumped in and let our music do the talking, we still got screwed ultimately in the end, but not by Roadrunner. The industry wasn’t ready for to take the genre to the big league. It’s still that way today. We will always be an underground movement in comparison to other music genres I suppose.
When did you enter the Morrisound Studios to cut your debut album Effigy of the Forgotten? How did the recording sessions go?
The exact date I can’t recall, but it was 1990-91 and at that time any Death Metal band worth anything wanted to record at Morrisound. Scott Burns was the engineer to work with. At that time it was obvious he understood the genre and what it took to record that level of music intensity. Morrisound is a part of history for the birth of Death Metal. We needed to be there.
Did you release it around the same time where Death Metal bands were starting to get their footing and really creating their own style?
Definitely we were in perfect position to release Effigy. Killer bands were already out, that all had their own intensity, style and sound. Morbid Angel, Deicide, Obituary, Sepultura, Napalm Death, Gorguts etc. We were absolutely a continuation of a scene, that was the most dangerous and promising at that time.
Was 1991 the heyday of Death Metal?
Yes, that was the most important and exciting time ever for the genre. I’d kill to be able to relive even a little bit of that feeling and excitement.
The album’s title is tribute to Atheist’s former bass player, Roger Patterson, who passed away in a car accident…
No, the Effigy of the Forgotten title wasn’t in reference to Roger’s passing, but when he passed, that was a devastating blow to all of us, who knew the absolute bass genius he was. Atheist in general was one of the most underrated bands of all time in my opinion. Piece of Time and Unquestionable Presence were important albums to me. Important indeed.
Did you take the standard sound of Death Metal, took it to a level unseen before and executed it perfectly?
I don’t think anything Suffocation did in the early days was a standard approach, which is why I believe we stood out like we did. I know what we did in particular was unseen, but that’s because it used to be a rule, that if one band had a certain style it was your job to create a different style. Every band at that time had their own sound, that is what made the genre so important at that time.
Did you add a sense of brutality and technicality to the genre?
I believe we did. It wasn’t planned, it was fortunate, that was our natural comfortable approach to our version of writing Death Metal. At that time there was plenty of room to be the first of a kind. Nowadays it is much harder to be that.
Is the album a huge step up from the previous release Human Waste?
EOTF was just a continuation of what was to be. All of those songs on the EP and the full length were written at the same time and practiced hundreds of times in my basement. It just made sense to split it up into 2 releases at that time.
How do you view, that you started or paved the way to the Death Metal scene, but Suffocation had its own sound?
I love the fact, that history documents our start and existence as well as the impact and influence we had at that time moving forward. I take pride in it. I will always represent the genre and Suffocation as the underground representer, that I am. Our diversity in race, style and sound has always made it super important to me to make sure, that the story on how we became is crystal clear whenever I speak of it, anywhere in the world. Anyone who has ever spoken to me knows that. I sacrificed a lot for this as did my parents, who supplied the basements for us to become. This is my life. Whether I’m still playing on stage with the band or not. Suffocation is me.
Scott Burns claimed that Suffocation was the most brutal band, that he ever worked with…
Scott Burns was the most talented engineer we ever worked with. The feeling is mutual. He was the first to see, that Suffocation was a true basement practiced band first. We could have recorded the album in one take if we had to at that time, we just chose to take our time and fine tune. The Morrisound experience in the 90’s was something you never want to forget. That was history.
The album includes re-recorded version of songs Infecting the Crypts, Reincremation, Mass Obliteration, Involuntary Slaughter and Jesus Wept. Didn’t have you enough newer material, didn’t remain enough time to come up with newer tunes or did you want to dispense justice to them, because you were dissatisfied how they sounded like before?
We had no reason to waste any material at that time, we weren’t yet distributed to the masses with just the EP, so it was in our best interest to make the songs we already had reach the fans first.
Did all of the songs sound evolutionary good and help shape the design of brutal music?
I think they did their part in shaping the genre, but I’ll leave that up to the fans and influenced musicians to say. We just thank god, that our natural approach to songwriting was enough to hold its weight. We always wrote music for ourselves first, it just happened to be that the fans liked it. That’s a win-win.
Most of the tracks on the album follow the same unorthodox song structures whilst maintaining their own unique sound and differentiation including special parts, fills, breaks, doomy parts. How do you explain this?
No explanation unfortunately. Like I said, that is truly, what came natural to us, we knew, what we wanted to feel from our own songs before ever playing it on stage for others. We were lucky to be alive at that time, when that approach had room to even exist. The formula of the Suffocation root members has never be recreated with any addition members, that has joined over the years.
Did they range from purely brutal compositions with lots of blastbeats and chunky riffs like Liege of Inveracity and the title track, to more traditional Death Metal songs with guitar solos and fast thrash beats like Seeds of the Suffering and Mass Obliteration?
Thankfully we did have a good range in our approach. We had thrashy songs, because that was the way we started and we had the brutal, eventually we learned to tastefully blend them both into what was to ultimately become the Suffocation formula. I wish we were able to write slow song ballads like Metallica as well that could make the girls cry. Then we truly would have mastered ourselves. To be able to touch all emotions like that and still be considered one of the most brutal would have been sweet.
Liege of Inveracity also features what’s considered the first breakdown in this genre. Was this ahead of its time for 1991?
Apparently it was ahead of its time and unanimously made the true metal heads at that time want to dance, fly off stages and kill themselves in the pit. It wasn’t planned, it just became. Many fans left with broken bones in Suffo pits in the early days and still to this day they thank us for it.
The end result become brutal, uncompromising and original. Did you manage to capture what you envisaged before/during the sessions?
I think Suffocation definitely reached a respectful level, that withstood the test of time. This is all any musician could ask for. I’m still fit enough to play it and teach it to the youth. History can be searched by generations who need to seek it out. And I believe we are respected in any circle of metal heads, which is all I could ask for.
You left the band in 2012. What kind of reasons did lead to it?
The true formula has been watered down so bad from the original working formula that it couldn’t be saved to the level that I insisted it maintain. You are only as strong as the weakest link in the band. New members didn’t respect the formula and direction of the actual founding members of the band and the last founding member didn’t respect the impact and standards we needed to keep and enforce on the new members to keep the band at a truly strong and functioning band. So the weakest link ultimately wins until it destroys the name and legacy with bad decisions. I couldn’t be a part of that business plan. It could have been so simple to be here for the rest of our lives and just create insane albums, but instead the in fighting and lack of drive and effort made it impossible to be the best.
What are you up to these days? Can you tell us about all of your musical involvements after Suffocation?
I’m a steel welder/metal fabricator by day. I still teach drum lessons to a select few Smith blast students. I’ve done side projects in the past, when the scene was still active and worth doing so. But having a career outside the metal scene as well is definitely the way to go these days. Especially seeing how the entire industry has been shut down for over a year now due to corona. I’m currently working on a podcast called Metal Mentality, which is out now on most streaming platforms. This is where I speak on all the topics regarding Death Metal from my experiences and advice to the younger musicians who may need some direction. Voracious Scourge is the latest release I was involved in 2020. Deformer from the Netherlands I’ve worked with, Inverted Matter from Italy. Synesis Absorption are just a few different projects that I’ve worked on when time permits. I’m always willing to create if it makes sense. I also go under the alius Grimm Real since ’99. Anything I create on my own whether it’s metal, rap or a mixture of the 2 could easily appear under this moniker. So I’m always creating and planning to release, but I’m not under any time restraints or contracts to do so, so it’s when time permits I’m free to do whatever feels right. I’d like the podcast I’m doing to coincide with releases I may put together to just make a solid online presence for the fans and self. That’s my direction for 2021.
You are considered being one of the most technical drummers in the Death Metal scene…
Thank you for appreciating my efforts I appreciate you all who’ve followed me and the band for decades and still care to hear the story.
Mike, thanks a lot for your answers! What are your closing words for the Hungarian readers?
BLEEEEEEED FOR IT! If you’re not willing to bleed for what you’re doing then it’s not worth doing. I miss you guys and gals of Hungary. Cheers to you all! M
Az egyik kedvenc extrém dobosom! Félelmetes húzású, fifikás játéka a Suffocation zenéjének legfőbb vonzereje számomra. Lombardo-k, Sandoval-ok ligája ez a faszi! Köszönöm az interjút! Két napja Suffo-diétán vagyok miatta!
Amúgy meg a honlap is remek ám!