Magazine: Guitar World / USA
Article: At Death's Door

Written by: Jeff Kitts
Published: April 1995


Chuck Schuldiner chooses life
as his beloved death metal
heads straight to hell
in a hand-basket


CHUCK SCHULDINER, DEATH metal pioneer, stands at a crossroads. More than a decade has passed since the Orlando, Florida native founded Death, the seminal death metal outfit that went on to become one of the genre's most influential groups. In that time Schuldiner has reigned as champion-- and, ultimately, lone survivor-- of the brash style of music he helped establish while still in high school. But while the 27-year-old extreme metal visionary looks back on his career with great pride and satisfaction, Chuck Schuldiner now wants to distance himself, and his band, from the trappings traditionally associated with death metal-- the very trappings he played a significant role in creating.
"Don't get me wrong-- I know where our roots are, and they're in death metal," acknowledges Schuldiner. "But that was ten years ago. I don't get the same inspiration from the death metal of today. Some people say that we've wimped out and that we're not the same band we started out as. But we'd better not be the same band we started out as, or we'd be ripping people off. If people don't consider us to be what today's death metal is, then I guess we're not. And that's fine."

It's obvious that Schuldiner's feelings toward his music have changed considerably since he first slung a beat-up old Mockingbird-clone over his shoulder a decade ago. Back then, his top priority was to portray himself, and be recognized as, the sonsummate death metal riffgod. Today, however, he'd prefer to be known simply as an accomplished and caring musician-- one who progresses from year to year and improves with each new album release.
"There will always be some similarities in our music from album to album," says Schuldiner, "But it's important for me to keep moving forward and not pay too close attention to what I've done in the past or what's going on around me."
Schuldiner brings that philosophy to the boiling point with Symbolic (Roadrunner), Death's sixth and most challenging record to date. Unlike his band's earlier efforts, which thrived on primitive musicianship and blood-soaked lyrics, Symbolic is the ultimate marriage of melody and brutality-- a showcase of disciplined musicianship and thoughtful songwriting that more resembles the complexity of Dream Theater than the murderous rage of traditional death metal.
"I wanted to push the limits of what this band is capable of doing," says Schuldiner. "We wanted to make a record that would stick out like a sore thumb to anyone who hears it. Like stepping on a nail-- people will have no choice but to notice it."
Whether or not Symbolic finally lifts Death from the narrow trenches of death metal and establishes the group in the world of mainstream rock, one thing is certain: after spending more than a decade battling for every ounce of respect and recognition he's earned, Chuck Schuldiner isn't about to end his fight now.
"I don't concern myself with the future," he says, "I just know that I'm gonna try my hardest, work my ass off and pour my heart and soul into this music and see what happens. If you believe in what you do, something will happen. And I believe in this band."

GUITAR WORLD: With death metal apparently on the decline, what do you feel is the key saving it?
SCHULDINER: Progression. Not falling into a safe pattern where you keep rehashing the same things over and over.
GW: Do you make a conscious effort to progress with each release?
SCHULDINER: Not really. It's a natural evolution. I don't force it-- it just sort of rolls out that way. I've been this way ever since recording our raw demos back in the early Eighties. I always wanted to get better and better, and it's been that way for every record.
GW: Can you look back at your first five albums and the early demos and see the improvements you've made?
SCHULDINER: Definitely. You can easily hear when I started concentrating more on my guitar tone and when I started learning more about guitar playing. You can also hear when I started to realize that heaviness does not mean playing all-out, full speed ahead and noisy with full distortion. To me, if you have a killer producer behind you and you play clean, those elements will come out naturally. With each record we've learned that the tighter and cleaner we play, the heavier we'll sound. It's a good balance, and it's defenitely the direction I'd like to see us continue in.
I came into this whole thing totally blind, and I think being oblivious to the technical side of playing has helped me to not pay attention to the "rules" of music. I never learned to play proper scales or modes, and I still don't want to. I was never interested in learning music from books because paper is very limited-- but your mind isn't. I taught myself how to play by ear, and to me, if it sounds good and is sincere, that's all that matters.
GW: Is coming up with new ideas easier fo you now than it was 10 years ago?
SCHULDINER: Yeah, probably because I feel more comfortable as a guitar player and as a songwriter. I always feel compelled to write-- I never feel pressured. I love writing songs because it's like therapy. I can forget about everything in the world when I write. It's a way for me to express a part of myself that I might not be able to express with words.
GW: Do you listen to any current death metal for inspiration?
SCHULDINER: Not really, I listen more to old Kiss and Iron Maiden albums for inspiration. Death metal today is just too limited and safe. But I still try to keep up with current music. I like the new Dream Theater [Awake] and Mercyful Fate [Time] records. It's important to remain a fan, to still go out and buy records and pay for concert tickets-- I don't expect to get these things for free.
GW: Does the glut of mediocre death metal ever inspire you to create something superior?
SCHULDINER: Definitely. I would hope that someone could pick up Symbolic and feel that they got every penny's worth. Money's tight nowadays, and I know what it's like to be angry at a band when you spend money on an album and it's not worth it. I think bands should quit before they put out a record that's not as good as it could be. When people are counting on you to put out something of quality, you have to deliver.
GW: What were you trying to accomplish with Symbolic?
SCHULDINER: We really wanted to make an album that sounded natural. There aren't really a lot of natural tones being used in music today, and we wanted to bring back that natural approach. I want someone to listen to this album and go, "Wow, that sounds like a real drum set-- it sounds big... That's a real guitar sound with warmth and different textures."
Right now, bands are all falling into using safe production values and safe riffing values-- and that's not what made music great. The greatest bands in the world were totally unsafe. I look back at the albums I grew up with and think, "Why can't that happen today?" And it's because so many bands are only looking at what everyone else around them is doing. We know what sound we want, and that's our sound.
GW: Death can be considered a musician's death metal band. With Symbolic, it sounds like you're more comfortable mixing intricate playing with sheer aggression.
SCHULDINER: It's never really anything I focus on, but with each record it feels more natural. On Symbolic, I think the heaviness and the melody intertwine better. I worked on an eight-track before we went into the studio, which opened up a new door for me as a songwriter and helped me learn more about layering guitars. The guitars on this record are all doing different things, which adds variety to our music. And I think it's all because of the eight-track. Instead of sitting there with two portable box radios to work out overdubs-- a very crude methoud that I even used on our last album, Individual Thought Patterns-- with the eight-track I could lay down a chord progression, then lay a melody on top of it, then another on top of that. And if it sucked, I could erase it. I could experiment with all these things, and it really gave me a sense of freedom while I was writing.
But you have to be careful not to become too complex. Music has to have a foundation-- something that will stick in your ear. Hopefully, someone can listen to Symbolic and walk away whistling a tune, no matter how weird that may sound. You have to know where that limit is. Like Dream Theater; their music is very complex, but they definitely have hooks, which is crucial to making music listenable-- and it's something that will always be a part of this band.
GW: Are there restricitons to being in a death metal band?
SCHULDINER: Only if you allow them. Doing things in a sincere way, from the heart, is really all that matters.
GW: Still, there must be musical lines that you won't cross.
SCHULDINER: Sure. There are things we can't do. But there are even a lot of things on this record that we've never done before.
GW: Like the keyboards on "Empty Words."
SCHULDINER: [laughs] Actually, that's a guitar effect. I told our producer, Jim Morris, that people were gonna think it was a keyboard. It's an effect on the clean guitar part that takes each movement of the chord progression and lifts it out. There are four chord progressions in that part, and the effect takes the main root of that chord and stretches it.
GW: There's also the acoustic outro on "Crystal Mountain."
SCHULDINER: That was something I've never done before. I worked that out on the eight-track. We had the song pretty much done, but I came up with the idea for the outro and picked up the acoustic and tried it, and it sounded cool. The album that really inspired me to try that is Rock And Roll Over [Kiss, 1977]. There's some acoustic guitar on that album-- subtle things in the background, which serve as a neat contrast to the heavy riffs. I always thought the mix of something heavy and something fragile sounded cool.
GW: Let's talk about your songwriting process. Do you start with one key riff and build from there?
SCHULDINER: If I write something I feel is powerful and that I could put a good vocal pattern over, then I'll probably choose that as the main verse riff. The verse riff is crucial because it usually lasts longer than the chorus. And in our songs, the verses usually appear twice. I write traditional style: verse, chorus, verse, with a lead in the middle. So I make sure that whatever riff is going to be the verse riff is catchy as hell because that's what the listener will hear most. And it has to be pleasing to my ear. I have to put myself in the position of the listener to see if something is strong enough to be a main riff.
GW: Are you satisfied with the recognition you've received as a guitarist?
SCHULDINER: Oh, I'm thrilled. Whenever anyone comes up to me and says anything that's a sort of an acknowledgment of my playing it's the coolest thing ever. If I'm playing a show and some kid asks me for a guitar pick , that's me-- I'm that kid. There are guitar players I'd still like to get a pick from. And it makes me feel awkward because I'm just some guy who plays in a band and buys records and goes to shows. It's a very rewarding thing to just sit here and be interviewed by Guitar World--that's God, man. I work hard, I'm honest and I've hung in there-- and if anyone acknowledges that, it's worth more to me than anything.
GW: Has being in a death metal band held you back at all as a guitarist?
SCHULDINER: Not really. There's really no limit to what this band can do musically, and that goes for me as guitar player too. But my secret dream is to do another project with a different singer. Something full-on melodic. And my first choice for a singer would be Ronnie James Dio. Some of the stuff I write could easily have melodic vocals-- especially some of the material on Symbolic. And it's frustrating because I'd like to hear how some of my material would sound with a melodic singer. But I'm not going to piss people off-- it's just not going to happen in this band. I'd like to leave it open, though, and maybe try to hook up with a singer like Dio one day.
GW: When death metal was still in its early stages and you formed Death, did you ever think the genre had a legitimate shot in the mainstream music world?
SCHULDINER: I never doubted it. But I probably should have because everyone was telling us that we sucked. We were the outcast band from Orlando, and every other high school band at that time talked shit about us. We were known as a hideous band, and at the time we probably were pretty hideous-- but we were hideously sincere. And that makes a big difference.
GW: In recent years, major labels have signed death metal bands and tried to take the genre to a more mainstream level, but for the most part their influence was minimal. Why do you think major labels, so far, haven't been able to deliver what they intended?
SCHULDINER: Because a lot of labels signed the wrong bands. And I don't mean that in a jerky way. I always gave 100 percent on each record that we made for our former label, Relativity, and to see those albums put on the back burner-- to see someone throw your life off to the side-- really made me angry. When we were starting to work on Symbolic, we were still on Relativity, and I remember thinking that it was gonna kill me to give this record to them because I knew they didn't care. It would have shattered me to see this record get thrown away. I don't go around complaining, but I will say that we still haven't gotten the chance that so many other bands that signed to major labels have gotten. We're on Roadrunner now, and I believe we're finally going to get that chance because they're really behind us. I hope from my heart that we get our chance. And if we blow it, then I'll be the first to say the we fucked up. I just want that chance. I'm 27 now, and Symbolic is our sixth album, and I feel like things are just beginning for us. But that's okay. I'm compelled to keep moving ahead and coming up with new material-- I'm more driven and excited than ever.
GW: What aspect of your career are you most proud of?
SCHULDINER: I feel good about a lot of things, but at the same time there have been a lot of bad times, hurtful times, depressing times, times when I didn't know why so many bad things were happening or why I was getting screwed by people who were supposed to be supporting us. And that really applies more to the business of being in a band-- not the band itself.
The main thing is that we're still together. We didn't fade out or get crushed by the people in the industry who were always trying to crush us. I'm proud that I've never had a drug problem or complained that success sucks and shot myself like Kurt Cobain. Sorry, but success is something people like me dream about. Not to see my name in print, but for our music to be acknowledged on a large level. If it ever comes, I won't throw it away. And if it doesn't and our light of inspiration one day starts to die down, then I guess I'll open up a restaurant.


to talks

EmptyWords-Published on May 26 2001