Guitarist Chris Mittleburn recalls the early days of Death Strike
When it comes to Death Metal, Death/Mantas, Possessed, Massacre, Hellhammer/Celtic Frost are mentioned as the originators of this genre. But there was the Chicago-based Death Strike who are also the forerunners of Death Metal. Their 1985 demo Fuckin’ Death made a huge impact on the underground scene back in the day. Guitarist Chris Mittleburn answered my questions.
Chris, do you still remember, when you discovered hard rock/metal? What did you find so exciting in that music?
I guess it was about the time that I was in 7th grade. At that time, I was listening to Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings album along with Ted Nugents self titled album, Foghat, Bad Company, Montrose, and stuff like that. Back then I thought that stuff was super heavy stuff. Until I met my friend’s older brother Larry Jayco. The first time that I walked into their house I thought the fucking place was under a nuclear attack! The floor felt like it was ready to cave in, shit was falling off the walls, kids were screaming and hiding under the furniture.
This guy had the latest version of a stereo system…you know what I’m talking about, big fucking 5 foot speakers, a Sansoui million watt receiver or it sure sounded like a million watts! The latest cassette player…fuck…I wish I had this thing. I was just standing there thinking…Holy fucking shit! What the fuck is this music? Who is this? This is what I call aggressive. I guess I could say, this music is fucking heavy as hell!! Turns out it was nothing other then Black Sabbath’s Children of the Grave and then Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. I was in the state of shock! And they just kept on coming. I never heard anything like it. The whole feeling of this ’METAL’ music would stay with me forever and carve out my entire path in life.
How did you end up becoming a musician, and how did your choice fall on the guitar?
A couple of my friends started messing around with the guitar. They were more into the old rock and roll stuff like the Beatles the Stones s*** like that. I used to pick up one of their guitars every now and then and just mess around with it. Before I knew it I had picked up a bunch of chords you know the old open chord stuff then I started figuring out power chords and messing around with some major and minor scales. I finally decided that I should buy myself a guitar so I scraped up some money went over to the local music store and pick myself up a univox guitar and a very small amplifier. After about a half year or so I figured out that this s*** just wasn’t cutting it. I needed a better guitar and an amplifier with some distortion after all. Distortion it’s what makes the metal world go around. I really couldn’t afford any kind of good guitar. Nevertheless, I went to the local music store looking for one.
When I walked in the place was empty but I could see in the back room that there was someone in there sitting on a chair watching television because I saw his hand reaching into a bag of potato chips. He had his TV on pretty loud so he wasn’t going to hear any f* thing. I looked at his guitar wall and spotted a Gibson Les Paul Custom. I walked out the door and jumped on the bus. A couple of months later I picked up a couple of orange bottoms from this guy who used to be in Jamestown Massacre which eventually became a band called Survivor. Then it was off to DJ’s music down on Laramie and 31st Street where I picked up the 2 Marshall 800s that I use still today.
Did you take regularly lessons or were you self-taught?
I took one guitar lesson where the teacher started teaching me Swanee fucking River and that was that!!!
When did you decide to be in a band?
I guess it was when I couldn’t find a band to listen to that was heavy enough. I figured if I was going to find any music that was heavy enough for me I was going to have to f****** write it myself and perform it with my own band. That band turned out to be Transgressor. Let me start at the beginning because this is one hell of a story! I knew this punk rock girl named Julie. She had a friend who was in a band looking for a new guitar player. They practice down on Fulton Market, the old slaughterhouse District of Chicago. I figured what the hell I’ll give it a try. When I got there it seems normal enough other than a few dozen rats running around the streets. But when I walked in the door things started changing very quickly. The stairs were very steep and everything was painted black. When we had gotten up about 3 flights of stairs there was as thick as a bank vault. And on that door was a pentagram with a goat’s head and it said welcome to hell in blood red paint at least I think it was paint! The door opened and the stench that came out was horrific. It smells like rotting flesh. And it was! Not human flesh but dead rats hanging on the walls. How lovely I thought. Just like my bedroom. Just kidding.
Then I met the leader of the band Paul Bradlow was a punk rock version of Charles Manson only more psychotic! He handed me a piece of paper with a few songs on it and asked me if I could play them. One was Virgin Killer by the Scorps another was Fast as a Shark by Accept and another was Phantom of the Opera by Iron Maiden. He stood there smiling and snickering and asked if I ever heard of these songs. I said not only have I heard of them but I can play all of them including the solos. He grinned and said I’ll have somebody bring up your Marshalls and put your money where your mouth is. I set up my amps put on my guitar and played all three songs with them flawlessly. You’re a good cover guitar player he said but can you write? I told him that he would never ask me that question again! In the weeks to come I had learned most of their originals. Such as Devil’s Prey, Transgressor, Boadicea, Hillside Strangler, Vesuvius, and 16th Century Burial. and now it was my turn. The first song that I brought to the table was 6:6 Crucifix. We opened every show with this song. Next it was Torture Chamber followed by Blood and Dishonor, Postmortem, The Penitent, and last but not least, Die by the Axe.
What can you tell us about your very first experiences and footsteps as a musician?
I had joined a band called Presence when I was still a sophomore in high school. We did mostly Priest, Zeppelin, Bad Company, Scorpions, band stuff like that. It was a learning experience for me it taught me how to play with other musicians, learn to do backup vocals, learned a little bit about sound mixing and engineering, when to drink and do drugs and when not to, and how to look at a girl when you’re on stage and have them all over you for the rest of the night and then say goodbye. It’s a lot harder than you would think, believe me.
Did you play in any bands prior to Death Strike?
Yes. Presence, Transgressor, and Master. Death Strike was a more primitive form of Master. The drums were more hardcore punk, the vocals were just so f****** brutal and the guitars were raw as hell. We did it because we knew we could without Schmidt. He was just such a f****** a****** but a true Thrash Metal innovator.
At which point did you join Death Strike?
I didn’t join Death Strike. Speckmann and I formed Death Strike when Schmidt decided to join Mayhem. He never got accepted into the band but Speckmann and I had already formed Death Strike and decided to keep it going.
Did guitarist Kirk Miller and drummer John Leprich get in the band at the same time as you?
No, Speckmann got Kirk. He was his girlfriend’s brother and he was just what we were looking for. I had jammed with John before. I met him when he was the vocalist in a band as a lead vocalist. I think that we spent more time getting him out of jail. You know that 3 foot axe handle in the Death Strike photos. Well John used to carry that blood covered thing around everywhere he went. He would always be busting some poor fucks brains out or wrapping a chain around someone’s waist and dragging them down the gravel alley with his Harley custom chopper! God, we had some fucked up fun times.
Were they involved in any local bands before Death Strike already?
I know that John was in quite a few one being assassin in which he was the lead vocalist. I used to go over to his house and bring all of my Marshalls and guitars and we would play Chemical Warfare and Haunting the Chapel and a few others. He had a lot of parties in his basement where a lot of up-and-coming metal bands used to hang out. It was f****** crazy tag after tag but disappear everybody was so f***** up there were more girls there than you could count I have some great memories with that f****** guy and some I’d like to forget. If there is a God I hope he forgives me for all the horrible things we did. LOL
How long did it take you to come up with originals?
That’s hard to say all of them were written differently. Sometimes we wrote them sitting around drinking some beers at the rehearsal spot in Mt. Prospectors. Speckmann and I would put together some pieces that we’ve come up with. At least that’s how they were written musically. The lyrics were written by Speckmann. Except for Re-Entry and Destruction that were written by Kirk and I. We wrote them just before we recorded the song. We were sitting at this table outside at the studio and the lyrics just started coming together. It was pretty much about the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union and what would happen during and after the nuclear war.
How were the songs penned?
Each one of us had notations written down about when certain effects were going to be used. How many guitar tracks were going to be recorded during specific parts and so on. Everything went well except for all of the yelling going on between Speckmann and Johnny Rotten (as we would like to call him). Speckmann and I were used to Schmidt playing some of the songs and he was a force to be reckoned with on the drums. Brutal just fucking brutal! To this day I still believe that he was the one who started using the reverse hardcore thing with his lightning fast double bass. When he was on his game, he was so fucking amazing to watch. I still get the chills just thinking about it. So Speckmann and I wanted nothing less out of John! Well, that wasn’t gonna happen. John was having a little trouble with Pay to Die. After all Schmidt played that at such a high bpm that no one could play it that fast. At least at that time. John got through it at a speed we were all comfortable with, after all. Death Strike was not Master. It was way more primitive and raw.
Did you rehearse a lot, by the way?
No, in fact we only practice a couple of time before going to the studio.
You entered the Open Reel Studios, Lynwood, Illinois in January 1985 to record the demo Fuckin’ Death. How did the recording sessions go?
I think that we got the entire demo done in a matter of about 8 hours including mixing and mastering! Once we were ready we just recorded it all at once live.
Was still Death Metal in its infantile stages back then?
We were right there in the very beginning. And look where it is today. I’ve heard Death Strike on the fucking radio! „A man has an idea and he makes it a reality. After a while his idea becomes popular and normal because of over exposure and then so many people have heard of it that it becomes a part of normal life. Now it’s just another part of society. It becomes so popular that it’s just another part of something. Everybody just loves. Pretty soon they’ll be naming a cereal after the once unacceptable idea or putting it on a Christmas card! The idea has now become an institution.” And that, my friends, is what has happened to hardcore, Death or Thrash Metal. It only took 40 years for it to become acceptable!
Do you think that it’s fast, brutal and utterly primal Death Metal with that huge hardcore influence?
I guess you could call it that. We had no one who we sounded like at the time. I think that so many bands out there at that time started to sound so much alike. Some bands were good with that and then there were those of us who never liked the shit that was out there at that time. When you watched a band you thought you were at the Bozo Circus, what the fuck is going on here? Guitar wise there were a few exceptions (sorry Eddie) but overall they were all part of the growing circus in the US and the UK.
How do you explain that the music here is raw and heavy Thrash Metal with traces of very primitive Death Metal?
This was the 80’s. There was no internet and very few underground magazines. Tape trading through the snail mail took forever. We were all pretty much on our own. It’s a good thing we were all a little touched, if you know what I mean.
In your opinion, Paul Speckmann’s raw, semi-growled vocal style was extremely original given the time period and the relentlessly brutal riffs paired with fast drum patterns and heavily distorted guitar tones made for some of the most extreme metal around in 1985?
There’s a story behind this, too. In about 1983 I was playing with Transgressor. One night a week we would have people come over to the space place, indulge in the drug of the day, have lots of beers and tons of other alcohol, and pretty much perform a live show for them. One Friday night Schmidt and Speckmann showed up. They were looking for a guitar player to complete their band Master and were told that they would find him here. That guitar player was me. After we were finished playing the 3 of us talked about getting together and hammering out some new ideas and see how we sounded together. A few weeks later they rented out this old theater to jam in. After listening to a couple of their songs I was in shock! This stuff was like nothing I’ve ever heard before. This dark hardcore metal that they were doing sounded like a freight train racing out of the pits of hell. This is what I’ve been wanting to do for years but no one could even come close to understanding the stuff I was trying to get them to play and now it has just come together. The music was there but we needed a vocalist. We wanted to get a Dell from Hell from Mayhem but it didn’t happen. So Speckmann filled in as the vocalist. It only took a few rehearsals to realise that Speckmann was perfect. We finally convinced him that his voice was exactly what we were searching for. Thus the legend of Paul Speckmann was born.
Are the guitar solos simple, but furious and very fast and the riffage is even punkish in several parts?
The whole idea was to keep it simple. No complicated time changes just straight forward raw metal core. We felt that we were right on the front line. People just didn’t realize how competitive the whole metal scene was and will always be. That’s why there are so many different types of metal. Black Metal, Thrash Metal, Speed Metal, Doom Metal and so on. Metal is just so categorize these days. To me if it’s pissed off and violent it’s metal.
Would you say, that the songs aren’t all too complicated – most only contain a handful of riffs, but the genuine simplicity helps giving them an accessible overtone?
I think that you pretty much hit it right on the head. Like I said, the more complicated it is the fewer people can really feel it.
Did the raw energy from the band just seep out naturally, crushing everything in its path?
If you ask me, Speckmann’s voice at that time was so fucking raw and pissed off that it crushed everything.
Did Fuckin’ Death have a legendary reputation in the old school Death Metal underground and took by storm the scene back in the day?
It was and still is a legendary demo. To this day people ask me what it was like to be a part of Death Strike. Let me tell yah. Being a part of the whole metal scene in Chicago was crazy. There were so many places to play and so many metalheads to play for. We couldn’t even play in our rehearsal place without a crowd of people watching. I remember giving away boxes and boxes of Fuckin’ Death tapes. I think every fucking person in Chicago had one! Death Strike got the word out that Chicago was a metal town.
This material was recorded back in the mid-eighties, that really makes it stand out, correct?
Yes, there wasn’t really to many of us out there playing this new hardcore metal crossover stuff.
Is the Death Strike sound best explained as a cross between Venom, Motörhead, early-Slayer, Dark Angel, Celtic Frost and some more punk influences?
No, it is what it is. It’s Fuckin’ Death written by a couple guys from Chicago. I don’t know how it came to be. It’s just how we felt when we were writing it pissed off at the world for accepting only the people that looked and talked the same, people who could only follow each other. Do everything that the government says is has to be and look like and sound! Fuck that! Open your eyes and clear your fucking mind!
Was the material ahead of its time?
I think so. I mean back then you would never hear anything like that on public radio. Now look at it! Hardcore metal is on the fucking radio!
What were your views on the mid 80’s Chicago scene, when newer bands started popping up, such as Terminal Death, Devastation, Sindrome, Impulse Manslaughter, Inkursion, Generation Waste etc.?
The only band that is even worth mentioning is Sindrome, the others are all just sheep following the pack.
Nuclear Blast released the demo in 1991 and the material contained four other songs. Can you tell us more about them?
I was not involved in that at all so it was not Death Strike or at least the original Death Strike. The only Death Strike member that was involved in those other 4 songs was Speckmann.
By the way, how did you get together at that time to record the album?
We all met up that morning not fully recovered from the night before. I just remember stopping at Red Arrow liquors to get some breakfast. We all needed a little hair of the dog to get us going.
Did you have any tunes written, that never saw the light?
Well, Remorseless Poison, Live for Free, and Rabid Anger were all songs that were written and practiced back in the 80’s. They were just not ready to be be put on vinyl yet.
Were you completely satisfied with the way the album came out?
At that time I loved it. Now I still love it! It’s just so raw and heavy. I don’t think it would be so legendary if it was produced any other way. The analog recording just throws it over the top.
Do you agree with that the band has managed to become legends in their own rights?
We all deserve credit for that recording. We all had a hand in both the recording and the production.
Dark Descent Records reissued the album in 2011. Were all of you involved in that project?
No one but Speckmann. We were not even asked if it could be re-released. In fact none of us knew anything about it. I understand that Speckmann lives a world away from us but come on. We are 20 years into the 20th century. There is no limit what can be done when recording music.
In 1987 you played on Sindrome’s demo Into the Halls of Extermination. What do you recall of that stuff?
Do I recall any of my time with Sindrome? That was one hell of a ride! But that’s another story. Let me know if you ever wanna hear it.
Chris, thank you for your answers! Any closing words?
I am proud of the metal youth of today. I love the pure aggression and speed. Marshall is still the gold standard both live and in the studio. Keep it up you future legends of metal! Thank you László, it’s been a pleasure!