Obituary: “People listen to us and think of swamp water and alligators, but we’re just good kids with positive attitudes”

Drummer Donald Tardy looks back over a decades-spanning career on the cutting edge of extreme metal with Floridian legends Obituary…

Obituary: “People listen to us and think of swamp water and alligators, but we’re just good kids with positive attitudes”
Sam Law

Donald Tardy remembers the time before death metal. Growing up in central Florida’s heat and humidity, the easy cool of ’70s rock captivated the Obituary drummer as a kid. As soon as the more serrated sounds of bands like Venom, Slayer and Celtic Frost began to hit home, though, there was no going back. Alongside vocalist brother John and six-stringer local buddy Trevor Peres, he would become a key figure in shaping much of the extreme music we know and love today.

More than three decades sown the line, everything – and nothing – seems to have changed.

Bludgeoning 11th album Dying Of Everything might be the product of ever-evolving legends, featuring some of the highest tempos and heaviest riffs in the Obituary catalogue, but it’s still the product of a collective (currently completed by bassist Terry Butler and lead guitarist Ken Andrews) more interested in fathomless grooves and chaotic good times than sterile technicality. Relentless live performance remains at the heart of all they do. And, as many of the next generation of heavy artists refer back to the sound they pioneered all those decades ago, they’re still pushing to take sonic brutality to bigger audiences than ever before...

2017’s self-titled 10th LP was a benchmark for Obituary. Did Dying Of Everything feel like the difficult 11th album?
“We’re just having a blast right now. We don’t allow pressure to enter our brains. Maybe that’s just because we’re simple guys. You could add that pressure by thinking about the career that we’ve had and how many people might be anticipating the album, but we try to keep the writing process simple: me and Trevor in a room; crack a cold beer; whatever comes out comes out. And if nothing happens that day? Big deal. Tomorrow will be another. As long as we can have that kind of positive, feel-good attitude, good things tend to happen. They definitely did on this album.”

How much of the last six years did that writing process span?
“Some of the ideas came from as far back as the [2018] Slayer tour. Then, when we came home, it felt like we were handcuffed by the pandemic. Having that luxury of the time to really put these songs under the microscope allowed us to make them the best they could be.”

You were hitting higher BPMs on some of these tracks than you ever have before…
“I think that was just a natural progression. After 40 years of sitting behind a kit, my feet finally decided to go ahead and get quicker. Of course, I’m sure there are guys out there looking at 200-plus BPM and thinking, ‘I could do that with one foot!’ But, because we had so many months to write, there is real variety in there. It wasn’t a matter of trying to make super-fast or super-slow songs; it just kinda happened. There’s a blazing-fast beginning and a lot of mid-tempo, but also probably one of the slowest, doomiest songs, in Be Warned, that we’ve ever written.”

What were you guys into before you discovered heavy metal?
“As kids, John and I were super active. We played every sport there is – all at the same time. My poor mom was driving around in her station wagon, taking me from a baseball game to a football game to a soccer game, changing uniforms in the back of the car. But music entered our lives at a really early age. My father was a music-lover, and we have an older brother who was into bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws and Molly Hatchet. He would go to work and say, ‘Don’t touch my albums!’ As soon as he was out the door, I’d have that vinyl spinning (laughs).”

When you first picked up instruments, was it a case of jumping in at that really heavy deep end?
“I knew I wanted to be a drummer long before death metal entered the equation. Before we moved to Tampa, Florida, we lived in Miami and had a neighbour who had this gigantic 1970s drum set. I used to go over there and watch him practicing on this massive kit. I had one snare drum when I was a kid, but all I wanted to do was to mess around with it. It kinda drove me crazy. I guess all that noise probably drove my family crazy, too!”

Did you set out to push the boundaries of extreme metal in the way that you eventually did?
“Not necessarily. But once Slayer and Venom and Celtic Frost were on our radar, we knew that was the direction we were going to go in. And we were really lucky early on. We had no idea what was going to happen when we were going to the studio to record an album. Then we came out with Slowly We Rot. We weren’t even thinking of our second album at that point, let alone our 11th! We were just so proud to be holding this vinyl that we could call our own. At the same time, we did take things seriously. We were building stages and drum-risers and smoke machines out of whatever we could find – or steal – to be as big as we could be. We always went balls-out. We were always trying our best to make it a show.”

Why do you think Florida became the death metal hotbed that it did?
“You can’t imagine how many times we’ve been asked that question, let alone how many times I’ve tried to understand it myself. I don’t know, man! It could be pure coincidence. It could be luck. We were in a beautiful part of the country finding our way around a bunch of other great musicians who were finding theirs. How in the world Obituary and Deicide and Atheist and Death and Morbid Angel were all in this same area together? I don’t know. The sheer amount of talent on show made it so that you had to up your game if you wanted to be a respected band in the scene.”

Is there something geographically specific about it? It wouldn’t be a massive push to say that Obituary sounds like a swamp full of alligators…
“(Laughs) I mean, sunny days, palm trees, blue skies and alligators just become part of your everyday life. It’s like asking someone who lives in Arizona whether cacti factor into their songwriting. Of course, people like to listen to us and think of swamp water and alligators and snakes, but we’re just good kids with positive attitudes having fun with what we were doing.”

Was there something specific about the community with those other bands?
“It’s that there was nothing mean or dirty about it. If you look at a band like Deicide: Steve [Asheim] and Glenn [Benton] have been friends of ours for 30 years, and there was never once where we found ourselves trying to ‘beat’ their band or hoping that they wouldn’t succeed. It was the complete opposite. We were always proud of our friends and how good they are at what they do. We really were just nice boys with no malicious intent or mean intentions.”

The harder the music, the nicer the people making it…
“It seems like that (laughs).”

You were notorious early on for John’s apparent lack of defined lyrics. Is it fair to say that that part of your music has evolved substantially over the years?
“The lyrics have definitely progressed. As with any musician, every time you write a new song or head into a studio you hope that you’ll get a little bit better. John is no exception. On those first two albums, like the rest of us, he was just young and learning. He had his vocal style, but he wasn’t the lyricist he is now. Over the last five or six albums he’s had full lyric sheets. He doesn’t care to share them with the world, which is kinda cool, but you can hear everything he is saying. If people wanted to, they could probably study the songs and write those lyrics down.”

Looking back, was the extended hiatus you went on in 1997 a positive experience?
“Hindsight is 20/20. At the time we didn’t know if that break was going to be one year, two years, six years or whatever it was. But, looking back, it was fantastic for us to step away and recharge, to get away from the music industry and that scene at the age that we were. And we were gone for long enough that we were hungry again when we got back onstage. It’s weird to look back at how long ago that was. Our ‘second career’ has lasted longer than a lot of bands’ entire existences.”

How did your time with Andrew W.K. during that break match up to Obituary?
“It was the complete polar opposite of what I was used to. We’d been at home for about a year but I was still practising my drums every day because it was really all that I knew how to do. So when Andrew approached me, I [liked] that it was this different style of music. I wasn’t about to go and start another death metal band, but this was another cool challenge. I was wearing in-ears and playing to a click-track onstage, which was very different to Obituary’s ‘freedom is everything’ approach. But there was also the level of mayhem that you get at Andrew’s shows – often with more people onstage than off it. And I was having to keep time to a cowbell in my ear. Learning to stay calm and just play to the cowbell was a very cool experience for those four or five years.”

With bands like Gatecreeper, Undeath and 200 Stab Wounds bringing the old-school death metal sound to a new generation, is there more of a feeling that you’ve become elder statesmen or that you need to up your game to keep up with the pack right now?
“Kind of all of the above. There couldn’t be a cooler compliment than to see a new generation of bands following in our footsteps. But also it makes you realise how old you are! When you have a career that’s this long, you watch the music industry change. They go from cassettes to this new technology called ‘CD’ and so on. You thought that bands like us and Deicide doing blastbeats was extreme, but then you get to the beyond-technical guys like Psycroptic and you’re like, ‘What the hell is happening here?’ Now, to see 20-year-old guys starting new bands who sound like old-school death metal is just killer. In a sense, it was obvious that things couldn’t just keep getting faster and more technical. But it’s cool that we’re part of things coming full-circle back to basics.”

In 2023, what are Obituary like away from this music?
“We’re just normal people. My brother, Terry and Trevor are die-hard sports fans, just waiting for their Sunday NFL to start. I’m a sports fan, too, but I dedicate a lot of my time when I’m at home helping to rescue homeless cats. We live in a beautiful part of the world, so what are you going to do except enjoy some outdoor stuff? And when we’re off tour, we’re still normally hanging around each other anyway. It shows the camaraderie that even when we’re away from metal we’re still cramming into John’s house to watch sport, drink beer and make dick jokes. It’s just who we are.”

How does your Metal Meowlisha cat charity dovetail with your work in metal?
“It’s really just my personal thing, but if there is any chance to help raise awareness I like to let people know that it’s very simple: in Florida, because there isn’t any hard winter, cats breed year round and the homeless population can become a real issue. So I do a lot of trap-neuter-return. With the adults, I get ’em fixed, then put them back where they were to keep living their lives. With the kittens, we put them into adoption. I want to remind people that the next pet they get should be one that they adopt. Home is not a home without a cat or a dog causing some trouble!”

Are there any milestones you still need to hit?
“We’re happy, we’re healthy and we’re having a blast doing what we do. At the minute, we’re just going to work this album. It’s so important to us because it’s been a long time since Obituary fans got new music and we couldn’t be more excited about how it turned out. So we’re gonna tour every corner of this planet to reach all of those Obituary fans who are hungry, so that they can get a piece of it. Of course we read our socials and see all the Obituary fans [after the last couple of support-runs that we’ve done] asking ‘Why aren’t you headlining?!’ but there’s so much time for that. Of course we could’ve set up a death metal tour of our own immediately, but we wanted to get in front of some new fans first to give them a taste of Florida death metal. We are one of those bands who aren’t afraid to play first or last. we’re also more than happy to help by bringing out smaller bands with us who need that little push. We’re team players!”

Obituary play London’s Electric Ballroom on February 23. Dying Of Everything is out now via Relapse.

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