CONDEMNED? – Big Time Game Hunting
Travelling through the United States in 1987 for a four-week period, Markus Staiger witnessed a concert by Santa Cruz, California band BL’AST! The name would form the basis of Staiger’s Donzdorf, Germany-based record label, the name being extended from Blast to Nuclear Blast. The vinyl compilation Senseless Death (NB 001) became their inaugural release, featuring American hardcore outfits like Attitude and Dehumanizers. Using the catalogue number NB 002 would be San Francisco punk metal outfit Condemned?, the album in question being Humanoid Or Biomechanoid? Winding the clock forward roughly 23 years later to 6th December, 2010, it was reported Condemned? had re-signed with Nuclear Blast Records.
“In general, we signed with Nuclear Blast because they did our earlier record when he first started his label,” confirms bassist / mainman Keith Chatham. “The first Condemned? album was released as his first album ever, so to say ‘Let’s re-release this’ was more of a nostalgic thing for him. He wasn’t really aware that we were playing together and had a bunch of songs that we were working on, so it was just good timing. I think to be honest, we just reconnected over the internet (laughs). As far as me and Markus from Nuclear Blast, we’re glad we reconnected after all these years. It was just more about our friendship in the beginning, and then he realised that we’re playing music, to which he said ‘Why don’t we put out the new album as well?’ That’s how it all came together. It was all just good timing, and we’re all playing actively now. We’re really excited to start touring as well.”
Condemned? can trace its origins back to Condemned To Death, which formed in the spring of 1983. “Yeah, 1983,” Keith confirms. “I remember it being during the spring time. Basically, I was in San Francisco growing up there, and the band was looking for a bass player at the time when they were in what’s called ‘The Vats’. ‘The Vats’ were an old Hamms Brewery that was no longer running, and the bands were practicing inside the beer vats – that’s why they called it ‘The Vats’. A lot of bands were playing there – D. R. I. and MDC, and a whole bunch of other bands. A friend of mine called me, and said he needed a bass player. I came down. I was I think 16 to 17 years old, and I was so excited that I just joined the band right away. We started playing, went on tour, and put out a couple of little records. Yeah, it was a great beginning. That’s where we started, in San Francisco among all the other bands that were going on at the same time that I can mention. It was a good scene then.”
Back then Keith, what musically influenced you? “Back then, I was more of a metalhead actually (laughs)… Of course that was when Metallica and Exodus and all the other bands were just getting started, and we were all local people hanging out. I’d actually go back and forth between what they called The Stone, which was the metal club – it was across the street from the punk club. To be honest, back then I was wearing Angel Witch shirts while I was playing punk shows, so there was a lot of New Wave of British Heavy Metal on my part. It didn’t really show up ’til a little bit more into my next record though, but there was definitely that influence. Punk rock was always making fun of things too, so we’d have a few songs that were meant as spoof songs – like we had a song called ‘Hair Spray Randy’ that was about the hair bands that were coming out at the time like Poison (laughs). Those kinds of metal bands we used to think were funny.”
Was Condemned To Death more influenced by American or British punk? “When I was in Condemned To Death, I was much younger than everyone else in the band so I was just starting to write songs. In the beginning it was a collective influence, but not as much as when I moved to Australia. I moved over there when I was about 19 and put out this first Condemned? record, and that was much more metal influenced, much more mathcore almost. It was very complex but yet with short songs, and that was a whole different era for my songwriting. I’d say in terms of my influences, there were a lot of metal and punk but a lot of European punk because when I was over there, I was listening to a lot of English punk. It was much more of a different influence, and that changed the sound for me a lot. When I then came back to America, I was playing with Attitude when our guitar player was from Germany, so we actually had a European influence too at the time.”
Dwelling with Condemned To Death in the stomping grounds of San Francisco during that period would inevitably bring Keith face-to-face with future metal behemoths Metallica. “Back then, we had a friend named Ron Quintana who used to have a radio show, and that’s basically what supported all the local bands back then. I distinctly remember James and Cliff coming over to the house that I had when I was in Condemned To Death and just rocking out to Sweet one night and drinking beers – that’s how local it was back then. We’d go over to Ruthie’s Inn, and they’d be hanging out there too. Exodus and all those guys were all in the same scene, and that’s also how I met Andy Anderson who was eventually a part of our other line-up when we were in Attitude. Basically, I was a part of that whole metal / punk crossover era, so that was a huge influence. Of course another influence was growing up in the Bay Area with all the San Francisco music though. There were so many influences, and the early punk stuff was much less fast and there were a lot more artistic stretches there (laughs)… in the early punk scene in San Francisco which I first grew up around. At the same time though, Santana and all those bands and all this Latin music was being played too.”
Sadly, bassist Cliff Burton would meet his demise on September 27th, 1986 at the age of 24 in Ljungby Municipality, Sweden as the result of a bus accident. For those who never had a chance to know Cliff, what was he like? “In a certain way, Cliff was… especially with me being a bass player. I wouldn’t say he was the heart and soul, but we really miss him a lot. On that level, he had a strong influence. He really liked bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, bands you would never think of really, and that would influence the band I remember. I don’t think I’ve heard a bass player that stood out on vinyl as much as he did. The new bass player is great, but you don’t hear him on the vinyl so much. We miss him because he was an authentic musician, and the rest are too. It’s just he was somebody that we all got along with.”
The advent of the internet means that nowadays, access to a musician’s history is usually at one’s fingertips. Strangely though, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Keith Chatham – therefore, it’s up to the man himself to fill in the blanks. “The reason I put together the compilation for this was because there wasn’t just one band which carried the name. What happened was I ended up in all these different bands over the years, so there was a little bit more obscure history here and there. When I moved to Australia I played with Death Sentence for the first part of the time I was there, so I put a song that was just a practice song to just document that on the compilation. Then I was in Vicious Circle, and this was all right after Condemned To Death broke up. Condemned To Death was together for about a year and a half and then I moved to Australia and as I said, I played in Death Sentence and then in Vicious Circle. I then came back to America and we released the Attitude record, but before that we did a couple of demo tapes as Condemned Attitude. We were playing around with this Condemned name, re-introducing it with a different band, but of course it just confuses people I’m sure. That’s why we’ve gone back to just trying to explain the foundation name was Condemned To Death, because that’s where it all started for me. Basically, my whole solo project was Condemned with a question mark, and that’s what we’re doing again – Condemned? all over again, taking everything we ever did from every Condemned project we had (laughs). I’m playing with a lot of the old members from Attitude, so that brings it together as well. We’re very much old friends, and I’m very excited to play with them.”
Rounding out Condemned? are erstwhile Condemned Attitude members Rick Strahl (guitars) and Slade Anderson (drums), not to mention Black Mackerel’s B. Scott Clayton (guitars) and ‘Rotten’ Scotty Gardner (lead vocals). “We’ve all been playing all these years, but under different projects,” Keith reveals. “That’s why I put this compilation together, to show that after we did this one band we did this next project, and now we’re all coming back together with the focus of doing basically a little bit of everything, and the new music too. It’s a best of everything we’ve done in our history. We’ve all been continuously playing, but just under different names. It gets a little confusing, so that’s why we decided to go back to just Condemned? – the the root foundation – and just stick with that, and stick with what we really got excited about in the beginning of our careers, which was basically progressive punk type music where anything goes.”
The culmination of Condemned?’s relationship with Nuclear Blast is Condemned2Death, a two-disc affair issued in late January 2011 in Europe. The initial disc is a fresh, brand-new studio effort, so ultimately, what spawned this new collection of tracks? “To be honest, a lot of the songs were songs that we were all working on individually or that we restructured from the past. With some songs that we had never recorded, we thought ‘Wow, we’d really like to reuse some of those riffs’, so we’d take some of the best riffs from the older songs or basically redo some of the older songs that we liked. The new stuff we’d already written individually, and then we just showed each other some of them. There was basically already a record made in our heads, so once we got together we were just so excited to play these songs again.
“To be honest though, we have so much new material already. We’re already excited to do a new record because now we’ve really been playing together, we have all this new music falling out of us as well. These are things that we are so familiar with though that we also said ‘Hey, let’s start with these particular songs.’ Three of the songs are actually from the first Condemned To Death seven-inch. We really wanted to go back to the roots, the hardcore stuff, just to say hello to our roots and introduce that. I don’t know if we’re always gonna keep writing every song that way – we’ll see how that goes. What’s really nice is that I like every song on the record and I realised how short it was, but it didn’t really feel that way when we were writing it.”
So Condemned2Death is short and sweet in terms of impact then? “Yeah, it’s got a lot of power in it. To be honest, this was the first time that we introduced another lead singer. I used to do a lot of the singing but we’re both singing on this one, so it’s exciting to see what we can come up with with this line-up.”
At Prairie Sun Recording Studios in Sonoma County, California, the album was cut with producer Billy Anderson, whose curriculum vitae credits include the likes of Neurosis, Mr. Bungle, Cattle Decapitation, Cathedral, Eyehategod. “It was great,” Keith exclaims in response to being asked what it was like to work with the producer. “I had worked with Billy in my band Something Scaley back in 1992; right before we went and did an Australian tour, we worked with him and did a demo tape so we could go over there. That was at the beginning of his career apparently and then obviously over the years, he’d worked with all these other bands like Sleep and Melvins. The reason also I picked him to be honest is because I’m a bass player, and I write a lot of the music and I always worry about getting lost in the mix. He’s a bass player, and I really knew that he was a musician and an engineer – he goes on tour, and he is also in the studio. He inspired more of a family feeling, very comfortable for everyone in the studio together, and he basically dealt with all of our personalities pretty good (laughs). He really made it a great album; he helped the low end, and then we had it mastered with somebody he recommended to help the low end really well too. We were very pleased with it all round, so we’re definitely gonna work with him again. He would love to go out on tour with us as well he said, so we’ll see how that goes.”
Having worked with Billy Anderson in 1992 as a part of Something Scaley, how would you compare that experience to recording Condemned2Death? “We’ve definitely all grown over the years, and have been through certain experiences. He had a whole lot more tools in his toolbox in the studio, and we were in a much better studio than the first time around which had a very nice, live sound. It was great because he really knows how to speak about what’s necessary and field everything, and hang out with everyone at the same time. It was much better all round. We were just much more experienced.”
Condemned2Death pays tribute to the members’ roots, glancing a keen eye on the hardcore genre. “We like so many different styles of music,” the bassist stresses. “Obviously, we’re using a certain formula right now that was our roots. Actually, a couple of us really love UK Subs but it doesn’t really necessarily always show up because of our faster music. What I listen to and what I play style-wise is sometimes much different. I’m listening to a lot of the records that Nuclear Blast are sending me; I like Meshuggah a lot right now, but I think we have a little bit more melody. Honestly, I just watched a Rush documentary and it really excited me (laughs). On a songwriting level, I really liked Rush when I was younger. I know it’s not heavy music, but the songwriting was really an influence for me and the drummer I think a lot of. At the same time though, I loved the new Motörhead album as well and I also listen to quite a bit of reggae once in awhile to offset the heaviness. Basically, everything influences us; there isn’t really a certain genre of music that we particularly listen to. Soulfly is a good example, something we love and a lot of us listen to. The new Death Angel album is pretty good. I wouldn’t say we sound like those guys, but the guitar tones are great and I think with maybe a lot of the stuff we listen to, certain things influence us and we put them all together.”
The full-length’s second disc contains a host of rarities as has been alluded to throughout this interview, notably including Condemned?’s long out of print Nuclear Blast outing Humanoid Or Biomechanoid? The San Franciscan talks us through the material which appears on this very disc. “As I was saying, people obviously don’t know all of the bands. I did a timeline there just to show where it started and where it ended at the last juncture. It starts with Condemned To Death songs from the first seven-inch and twelve-inch which were released around 1984, so I just chose songs that I thought were really representative of the time. They were from a previous CD that was released a couple of years back on Grand Theft Audio of all the Condemned To Death material we ever put out. I then put on Humanoid Or Biomechanoid? which was the first full-length Nuclear Blast record ever released, so it’s in its entirety there. It’s the second album Markus ever released, but it’s the first full-length band album – the first one was a compilation called Senseless Death that we also appeared on, and Attitude has two live songs on there too.
“Yeah, it’s a re-release of Humanoid Or Biomechanoid? That’s a really low-budget recording, so it’s timeless (laughs). Some of it was very experimental. It’s on there in its full length, so that’s the feature from the Nuclear Blast past. Then it moves onto Condemned Attitude, which was the formation of Condemned when I moved back from Australia; that was drummer Slade Anderson who’s now in the band, and the guy from Attitude Adjustment (Rick Strahl) when they split up following the first album that they put out. Basically, three of those guys came and played with me and the drummer, and we became a five-piece as Condemned Attitude. We recorded a demo, and some of those songs are on the disc as well, and all the live songs from the Senseless Death compilation. The weird thing about that is that I played guitar in that band and Rick Strahl played bass, and then we switched over and recorded an album for We Bite Records that was called No Sleep For Germany. That’s a little bit famous in Europe, and that’s when I switched back to bass (laughs). A couple of the songs that we did for Condemned2Death were re-recorded from that era.
“The second disc then moves into this other band that I had called Something Scaley, which was more like Condemned? but without a fast drummer. We were using a little more tribal drums. I don’t know exactly what it sounds like to other people, but obviously it’s not quite as hardcore as some of the earlier stuff. It had much better production though, and some of the songs we recorded when we were on tour in Australia. We recorded a whole album over there which we never released, so we decided to put some of the Something Scaley songs on this disc. That’s where it ends, with Something Scaley. There was Condemned To Death, Condemned?, Condemned Attitude, Something Scaley, and then we’ve all got back together as just Condemned? which is where it all started. We’re really, really happy to just simplify it that way. The original Condemned? was just about asking questions, and that’s pretty much all we’ve been doing all our lives – that’s why we use that question mark at the end of our name. We still have burning questions, let me tell you.”
Does Condemned2Death’s rarities disc show how the quintet has musically progressed over the years? “To some extent, it shows the different influences. This new album is definitely more representative of how we all play together as a whole, and the new drummer actually has quite a lot of diversity – this album I feel really represents us more. He was in the first line-up of Condemned Attitude but then he quickly left so we don’t really have one song on the compilation with him on drums, so we’re really excited that he really stood out on these new songs.”
With the near demise of vinyl and even the compact disc to a certain extent, as well as the rise of the internet, the music industry is quite different in 2011 to its early 80s state, isn’t it? “That’s the one thing that’s overwhelming. I believe someone told me the other day that every town has at least 1,000 bands now, and I guess it wasn’t quite that way when we first started out. The difference back then was the budget was so low that we were lucky if we got a good recording, and nowadays you can get a lot of good recordings with lower budgets because of some of the technology that’s available. What I’m finding is it seems like now with the good part of the technology you can spread your works more. Whether or not a band can survive financially though? I think you have to really do a lot of merchandising and things like that to really survive. I think it’s changed because there’s more competition, but yet there’s also more ways to spread yourself out internationally. I don’t know – it’s just more complicated (laughs). Also, the old bands have been coming back a lot I’ve noticed, so you’ve got the old bands and the new bands and a lot more genres out there, all these subcategories that are hard to keep up with. If you’ve seen Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey which documents all these subcategories, you’ll know what I’m talking about. That’s very interesting – someone needs to do a punk metal one that documents the history so people understand when it started merging together.”
A record contract has been penned with Nuclear Blast Records, though inevitably, how long Condemned?’s renewed relationship with the label lasts depends on record sales. “To be honest, we haven’t really even talked about exactly how far we’re gonna go with Nuclear Blast,” reveals Keith. “I would love to do another record with them. As I said, we have another one in our heads, but it’s a new beginning and I don’t think anyone really knows where we fit in (laughs). I know that we started from the hardcore crowd. I’m not really sure if people will listen to the record and say they think it’s hardcore since it’s been so long – that’s really up to you folks who listen to it. When I listen to it, it almost sounds like a Motörhead album or something, so I don’t know what people will think as far as what category it fits into. Sometimes it’s real hard to book us, but we’re really working on that.”
Perhaps Condemned? fit into the punk metal category? “We consider this progressive punk metal or metalcore, but I don’t really know if that description fits. I think it would be more fun to play with certain metal bands we grew up with. We opened up for Death Angel when we were younger, and we just so happen to be on the label with them again. Then there’s Exodus or any of those guys that are our friends, or D.R.I.. I start thinking about more established bands that do know who we are, but know that we’re a little different than anyone else. It’s better to play with bands that don’t play and sound just like you; that way, everyone doesn’t get bored.”
Could we possibly see more progressive material coming from the band? “Oh yeah. Right now, our drummer’s about to go to the NAMM show. Him and his father are both drummers, and he does a lot of Latin percussion and things like that. He’s actually been playing in various bands over the years because he’s a session drummer, so we could do just about anything if we wanted to. Every once in awhile, it sounds like the Red Hot Chili Peppers even (laughs), but nothing like that is on record as of yet. Who knows? To answer your question though, I sure hope so.”
Since the dawn of the millennium, many 80s groups have reformed in one shape or another, but an alarming number seem to be merely enjoying a nostalgia trip. “Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” Keith remarks. “I haven’t seen them all and I’m sure some of them sound great, but I’ve heard rumours that some of them sound just like they did back in the day. The one thing that I’m excited about with Condemned? is we actually never really got an opportunity to peak out. That’s why people really didn’t hear us, and in a sense I feel like we’re a new band now because we’re not really going back to anything. The only reason we play the old stuff is to show where we started, but to be honest, our new music is just so powerful and so much more influenced by things that as we go, I think we’re gonna excel where maybe other people have already exhausted their resources (laughs). We’ll see. I’m just so excited to record new music and get on the road – it’s hard to sit here and wait (laughs).”
Condemned2Death was released in Europe on February 11th, 2011 and subsequently on March 8th in North America, all through Nuclear Blast Records.
Interview published in March 2011
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