'I never actually smoked with a purple dragon'
Interview Marek Steven
Photography Sanna Charles
“Every time I’m on the street
People laugh and point at me
They talk about my length of hair
And the out of date clothes I wear
I know I don’t belong
And there’s nothing I can do
I was born too late
And I’ll never be like you”
—Saint Vitus, “Born too Late”, 1986
Saint Vitus are without question one of the most important bands in the metal world. These doom metal pioneers formed in 1979, coincidentally at the same time as Ozzy was fired from Sabbath. As the ’80s started, many of the heavy metal giants of the previous decade had either broken up (Deep Purple), gone out of fashion (Rush) or been beset by tragedy (Uriah Heep, Lynyrd Skynrd). Punk and glam metal dominated, and the early ’80s were not welcoming for bands taking the heavy metal blueprint to the next level of heaviness. And so Saint Vitus – alongside Trouble, Pentagram and Candlemass – made some amazing music but didn’t enjoy any commercial success.
Saint Vitus released two albums with founding vocalist Scott Reagers before he left to be replaced by the now legendary Wino Weinrich. They have had three singers in total but thankfully their eight albums from 1984 to 1995 barely developed their sound. This is next-level Black Sabbath; slow, mournful songs about growing up in the wrong era, being an alcoholic and generally being broke and pissed off. More importantly, the musicianship, attitude and atmosphere are incredible.
In the metal scene right now, everyone seems to be talking about “true” doom, thrash, black metal and some of the lesser known New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). Old, classic stuff, basically. This is possibly because every genre of hardcore-influenced metal has been done to death in the last 10 years. It may also be because a lot of it is bloody good music. And Saint Vitus are the very best.
Vitus recently played a series of shows and ‘SUP was lucky enough to get an interview backstage before their packed London gig in Islington. The band arrived in London after huge problems with their flights from Greece, and to top it off, main man and guitarist Dave Chandler had a nasty cold. The interviews were delayed, and standing outside the dressing room with another writer, it seemed like it was too rude to bother them. The manager came back out of the dressing room one more time and asked if anyone had any weed, as it might help persuade Dave to have a chat. I said I did and in I went. Sadly, my pre-rolled joint had tobacco in it so he couldn’t smoke it. Ultimately I sat down next to the still very ’70s looking Chandler as his bandmates quietly chatted. He initially stayed out of the interview. In a way it seemed fitting that the interview could focus on founding member Chandler.
The quickest way to describe talking to Chandler is that he has a similar mellow Californian drawl and as Jeff Bridge’s character the Dude in The Big Lebowski. He’s very personable, humble and quick. And he’s still very enthusiastic about hearing and playing good music. In the past, Saint Vitus haven’t necessarily had the success they deserved, but it seemed the band quietly agreed with me that weirdly, maybe their time was coming now. David asked me the first question.
Is that a Budgie T-shirt man?
Yeah, I’m half Welsh. Great band.
That’s a really great band, yeah.
You’ve had a kind of stressful journey from Greece?
Yeah, plus I’m catching a cold or something so I don’t feel that great. But it’s okay.
I’m a big fan. I got a Hellhound Records compilation when I was teenager in 1994. The two Vitus tracks, “Ice Monkey” and “I Bleed Black” were my favorites then. I still listen to your albums constantly.
[Founding bass player comes back in and is talking to their new drummer. Dave tells them to ‘Shh!’ and they do]
First off, I’m interested in the old days – your influences and the early scene. I grew up in the ’90s so I missed a lot of that stuff.
We grew up in the ’70s so when we started we were influenced by all the normal, big ’70s bands. Of course Sabbath was a big influence. And when the NWOBHM started with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest we really liked that a lot, too. Certain bands like Judas Priest we really liked a lot. And we still do. But the scene back then, in California, was what we called the ‘hair’ bands. Poison, Mötley Crüe – all those bands. In the metal scene it was just ridiculous for us to try and do anything with somebody like that, so we had to do everything all on our own. That’s sort of how we stumbled into the punk rock scene. Because they were, you know—
Yeah. We got our friends to bring Henry, Greg and Chuck [Black Flag] out to one of our shows and they liked us because we were not the metal that was popular in America. This was like pre-Slayer, pre-Metallica. Those bands weren’t even around. Nobody was. So they liked the aspect that we were totally different from everyone else that was hanging around. So that’s kind of how we got involved with the punk crowd. It’s a lot different now. Back then there was still the big difference between metal and punk, like with hair and stuff. But now it doesn’t make a difference. So it’s a lot better now, yeah. And the metal people certainly are starting to accept us. Which is good, but it’s weird (laughs).
Being accepted still feels weird to you even now?
Yeah, it’s kind of weird. But it’s cool!
I saw doom build up in the ’90s, but the latter part of that decade you weren’t really active.
Kinda yeah, ’cause Wino quit in like, ’91. And then the doom scene started to get really popular right around then, yeah.
In Europe mainly, I guess.
Yeah, ’cause in America even now there’s nothing. You can find some people to play it but there’s no scene. It’s more a sludge, stoner rock scene over there. Stuff like Eye Hate God.
And even that scene isn’t really big.
It is to a point. Down are really big of course. But yeah, if you want to go for the slower type of metal, they would probably be the only band that’s had any real success. Down have really got to a point where they’re not playing little clubs.
I remember hearing in the ’90s that even bands like Kyuss and Sleep were bigger in Europe than in the States.
Yeah, Kyuss were big but they never got up to playing arenas or anything at all.
I grew up listening to decent metal and I used to think, ‘What the fuck is everyone’s problem? Can’t they see how good this is?’
I’ve been saying that for 15 years and it seems like now it’s starting to change. We’re still not quite there. If you came back in a few years I think it would be even better.
Yeah, we’ll see how this goes. It could determine our future, you know. We did a couple of festival dates and the response was really, really good. Our manager will say. ‘You know, you can do a tour and actually make money!’ You know, as opposed to owing money when you finish. So were like ‘Well okay, let’s try it. But we don’t want to do America.’
The European tour makes a lot of sense.
We did five shows in total in America. We did three on the East Coast then we had a space of a month and then we did two shows on the West Coast.
The East Coast shows were with Saviours too. That’s a great band. They’re really, really good, yeah. Their new bass player is really, really good. Real teeny guy but he really jams.
That’s the thing there are some good new bands coming through now. So with Vitus, you wrote all the lyrics, right?
Yeah, I wrote all the lyrics apart from the songs Wino wrote, where he wrote everything. Except “Dragon Time”, which I wrote.
Songs like “I Bleed Black” and “Dying Inside” are heavy tunes. Where did those lyrics come from?
Are lot of my songs are truth, actually. I’m going to be 52 years old next year and I’ve been an alcoholic since I was 14. So “Dying Inside” is pretty much the truth. I feel like that today actually with the cold (laughs). That’s why I’m trying to get back up (points at the bottle of vodka) to ‘dying inside’ so I’ll feel okay. That’s basically just a truth that goes for all people that get involved with alcohol on a consistent basis. It does just rot you from the inside, but you know…
“Born Too Late” is killer.
We always figured that with the time frame we started in we were born too late. We did our first live show in 1979. If we had done our first live show in 1969 and been exactly the same, same people, same age, same music, I think we would have been a lot more broadly accepted. Because of all the stuff in the ’60s they would have liked us a lot better. That’s what “Born too Late” is all about.
Absolutely. I reckon a few people here tonight relate strongly to the song.
And yeah, “Dying Inside” could have been a true story too. I never actually smoked with a purple dragon but I’ve seen things that weren’t there. Like this troll drinking my vodka (points to the bassist), whether or not you’re real?
Mark: I got called a hippie today!
Dave: So did I. Evan called me a hippie.
Mark: Asshole (laughs)!
But maybe you were born too soon?
That’s what people are saying! ‘Born too soon.’ I’m like ‘No! We’re not dead yet!’ We’re still sort of alive. We may look dead, but—
(Laughing) No, I really do feel a resurgence happening. You must have a sense of it? Having seen scenes come and go.
Well yeah, it’s trippy because even when I was doing my brutal punk metal thing, Debris Inc., I’d have people come up – a guy would hold a picture and he’d say, ‘This is me smoking hash with you in 1989.’ We’re like ‘Er, alright.’ ‘And here’s my four-year-old daughter. Hey honey, this is the guy that does “Born Too Late”!’ She’ll be like, (does baby voice) ‘I’m born too late!’ I’m like, ‘Wow, this is weird.’ Yeah, it’s a really cool thing.
You must have so many people coming up to you. So many musicians must say you were influence.
Oh yeah. I’ve seen so many Saint Vitus tattoos that at one point on MySpace I put a bulletin saying, ‘Everyone that has one send it over.’ I wanted to get a coffee table book of these crazy tattoos. You could sell it at shows with the merchandise. People would buy that. I’d buy that. There were like five guys there last night who had them. They’re all mostly in bands, you know?
How do you feel about that? You’re pretty humble guys still.
Oh, it feels great. But we’ve been at it so long. And then we didn’t do it for so long and now we’re trying it again just for fun. We’re not going to get stuck up. I mean if we became millionaires we’d probably say ‘Fuck it’ and not play again, say ‘Fuck you, we made our money, bye!’ (Laughs)
Do you reckon?
Dave: I don’t know about that. I don’t think we would ever become those people. Today I was kinda putting people off the interviews because we had a hell of a day and I’m sick. Normally we just have our dressing room door open. Bands can party with us. There are some things you have to try and regulate. Like you can’t have 50 people on your bus.
Mark: We had no down time today.
Dave: Yeah, that was the thing. We didn’t have any time to rest. That’s why everyone is kinda ragged up.
Yeah, I appreciate you taking the time out to do this.
Do you think though, that you would stop if you made a load of money?
Mark: No, because we don’t do this for money.
Dave: For the 3,000 bucks that I earned in my life!
Mark: No, it’s not about that. I don’t think that if we got rich we’d say, ‘Okay, we’ve made it. We’ve made a lot of money we’re gonna quit.’ That wouldn’t be the decisive factor.
Maybe it would change a few things?
Dave: It would change the way we toured and stuff. Let’s say if we made a lot of money we sure as fuck wouldn’t do what we did yesterday. And then today we would have had a day off. You could pick when you play.
Mark: It would probably help. Because like he said you could take days off between shows.
Dave: Like when Pantera were doing the Ozzfest tours. They don’t play every day. They just don’t, because it’s better for the bands to not play every single day. And they can do that. They can tell people ‘We want to play on the 17th.’ ‘Oh but we have so-and-so booked.’ So they say ‘Yeah, but this is Ozzfest.’ ‘Okay, we’ve cancelled so-and-so. You guys are good.’ You can pick what you want when you get to a certain point.
Mark: So yeah, it would help with those aspects of it. The money and fame gives you more control over what you can do.
Dave: That would be the main thing. But what I said before, I was kind of half joking. But we might make a whole load. But if that were to happen we might be 70 by the time we made a bunch of money. So then it would be time to hang it up. I’d be a hover van with Tourettes. Screaming at everybody (laughs).
I think the next couple of years are going to be good.
I know, we definitely we want to do some of the bigger festivals this summer. And the job of this tour is to try and open that up.
Lastly, what advice would you give to new bands that are just starting out now?
Mark: Good luck! Don’t do it. It will take over your heart. No, I would say if you get a chance to play somewhere, play. Do the show, do whatever you have to do to make it and just keep trying. Never give up.
I’ve got so much respect for your cataloge and how you stayed consistent.
There’s only one album I’m not proud of and that’s C.O.D. (Hellhound, 1992). But you know, what the hell? I’ve only myself to blame for that. I wrote it.
The track “Fear” still kills me still, though.
(Laughs) “Fear”, yeah man! That’s my favorite on the record, too, by the way. If you think of any more questions. Come back after the show.