Frozen in Time (Roadrunner)
An interview with bassist Frank Watkins
By Tim Den
Like the title states, the mighty machine that is Obituary has awakened out of its frozen slumber, ready to (redneck) stomp the latest fashion metal into the sewers where they belong. Frozen in Time is a no-surprises, straight-ahead Obituary album: Awkward yet strangely attractive half-step riffing, fast (but not too fast) parts bookended with mosh breakdowns, stacked lower fifths in every power chord (a trademark of the band’s), that unique guitar sound that triggers memories of glories past, but most of all, Donald Tardy’s driving rhythmic thunder. Any other band with as bare-bones of an approach to death metal would surely sound Neanderthal and knuckle-dragging, but leave it to D.T. to elevate the sum of Obituary’s parts to a whole new plane. The pistons in these songs, as big as fucking wooly mammoths, leave you no choice but to stare in awe and await your crushing death.
And, of course, who could forget John Tardy’s vocals. I’ve heard ’em compared to everything from Satanic kittens (“MMMMMEEEEEoooooWWWW!!!”) to ghoulish cries, but there’s no mistaking ’em for anything but John Tardy’s gurglings. And though there are more “real lyrics” on Frozen in Time than ever, the cascading roar remains the same: Intimidating, flesh-ripping, abominable.
When the band released their last full-length, Back From the Dead, in ’97, metal was at its lowest point both creatively and popularity-wise. The album was poorly received, a reaction not wholly undeserved by the shallow material, but could Obituary possibly bounce back from such a head dive? While not a complete revitalization, Frozen in Time is nonetheless a punchy old school death metal album that satisfies. It resembles The End Complete in its pacing, with one terrible track (“Back Inside,” a repetitive one-riffer that’s brain numbing) countered by a steaming hot pounder (“Slow Death”: jump for joy, World Demise fans!) and everything in between. Will “the kids” like it? Maybe. Or maybe they’ll think it dim-witted and lurching compared to the ADD generation’s affinity for lightning-fast bands such as The Dillinger Escape Plan. But me? I’d like to believe that Obituary’s unique qualities, however simple they may come across, hold a certain magic that only their disciples understand. And although Frozen in Time isn’t the magic of Cause of Death or World Demise, it casts a spell deadly enough to slam my hands against the steering wheel with every beat.
Excuse the waxing of nostalgia in this piece, but having grown up in Florida during the death metal explosion of the early ’90s, Frank and I had a lot to catch up on on our home state. The two of us have met several times over the years, though hardly under any memorable circumstances: I was in my early teens and he was in one of the biggest death metal bands in the world. Still, there’s a common bond: We were both obsessed with the movement and loved it with all our hearts.
Are you still living in Miami? Last time I ran into you was in ’96, and you had just moved there.
I’m in Boca Raton. It’s pretty much been my base since I was 10. I moved to Miami for a little bit, but came back up here when I got married and bought a house.
When was this?
What’ve you been up to all these years? Last time I saw the band live was when you played Boston in ’97 and recorded the live album.
We put out Back From the Dead in ’97, and I think the live album (Dead) came out in ’99. We came home from that tour and took a look at our situation, and – financially, from a business point of view – it just wasn’t making much sense. I thought we either had to really make a push for the band, or I was gonna have to start thinking about my life and future. But none of us really wanted to keep “pushing” Obituary. The whole time I was in Obituary, I was very content, but all my friends were driving nice cars and I couldn’t pay rent. I was driving a shitty truck. By this point, I realized I had to have a plan. So I became a stockbroker! (laughs)
What!? How did that happen!?
After the band “broke up,” we all took time off and did our own thing and didn’t really keep in touch. I ran into a friend who played in a Chicago band – he was living in Boca at the time – and he was driving a Porsche. I was like “how the hell did this guy get a Porsche?” He told me “yeah dude, I’m a stockbroker now.” After Obituary played our last European festival, I came home and my brother told me that a high school friend of ours had become a stockbroker too, and that he was the manager of a firm. I was like “sweet, do you think he can get me in?” And he did. So I spent the next few years learning everything about the trade: Phone sales, trading stocks, etc. I ended up at Wells Fargo Bank for three years, handling their mortgage department. I thought, you know, we are handling people’s money and future. And what’s one of the biggest investments someone can make? Their house. So I went into that area, and eventually started my own mortgage company in November of 2003. But then all this Obituary stuff started happening again. At first, I thought “oh, I just started my own business, should I do this?” But I realized that it’s where my heart is, and that – if the other guys are as into it as I am – we should take it as far as it can go. So we got together and jammed and it felt very natural.
That’s quite an amazing story!
Well, you know, I have a wife, a kid, a house. I knew I had to do something. Cuz we (the band) did not want to compromise our sound for money. When the band was going strong in the mid-’90s, people kept telling us “if your singer sang just a little bit, you guys would totally make it. Cuz the music is heavy and the people dig it!” But I never believed it. We knew what we wanted to sound like.
Not to mention John (Tardy, vocalist) is the trademark of the band! No one else sounds like him!
On that last tour, didn’t Keith from Catastrophic fill-in for John for a few shows?
Yeah. Our agent at the time – a complete moron – went and booked a whole tour for us when John was getting married. John said “I’ll do as many as I can,” but obviously he couldn’t do all of them. So Keith filled-in for a few shows. It ended up not being too cool. We only did four or five shows with him.
You were playing in a Miami band called Murder Machine for a while, right?
Yeah, we were just a regular hardcore band that did Cro-Mags, Circle Jerks, and old punk covers. We played a few shows and made two or three demos, but it was nothing major. I had just moved to Miami and wanted to jam, and a bunch of friends were like “come on, let’s do it,” so I said why not? Obituary weren’t doing much at the time.
I saw your name listed a few times, but always wondered why you guys didn’t play out more.
Every time we played, the show would end in a riot.
(laughs) That’s how every Miami show was back then!
We had a pretty big skinhead following.
I remember Sick Of It All playing Kitchen Club in ’94 and asking the crowd “how come every time we come to Miami, someone gets stabbed and a riot breaks out?” Ha ha, the memories. Oh, and how ’bout when you guys, Agnostic Front, Malevolent Creation, and Cannibal Corpse played Cameo Theater in ’93?
That was an awesome show! Oh man, I started going to shows at the Cameo when I was 16: 1985. I’m 37 now. I saw Black Flag there with Henry Rollins singing, The Exploited with GBH. That place was amazing. I don’t think they do anything there anymore.
Yeah, they haven’t done shows in over 10 years. It’s a rave club now or some shit. And I don’t even know what Washington Sq. is these days (it closed in ’93).
I had a band in ’86 called Sacrosaints, kind of like Mercyful Fate with really technical songs. Our first show was supposed to be opening for Slayer at Cameo Theater on the Reign in Blood tour. But a week beforehand, Slayer cancelled. We ended up playing with Nasty Savage! (chuckles)
The singer was this punk rock guy who owned a record store in Ft. Lauderdale called Underground Records. It’s where I got Kill ’em All – my first metal album – and my death metal roots from. We hooked up with a bunch of hardcore kids and thought “why don’t we try something new? Let’s play like Mercyful Fate!” Do you know Cynic?
Do I know Cynic!? Not only did everyone I know worship them, but Sean (Reinert, drummer) and I went to the same high school!
Those guys actually introduced me to the Obituary dudes. I drove up for a show, and Tony (Choy; Cynic bassist at the time) said “you should play bass for these guys. The rumor is they’re looking for someone.” After the show, Paul (Masvidal; Cynic guitarist/vocalist) was hanging out with Chuck (Schuldiner) and John Tardy. I went over there and talked to them, and the next thing I knew, I was in the band.
On a different note, why did you guys decide to stay with Roadrunner? This is your last record for them, right? Fans’ opinions of them are pretty split, between the death metal fallout of the mid-’90s and the Nickleback thing…
Yeah, well, Roadrunner have always kinda been a “flavor of the month” label. When they signed us, death metal was huge. When Nirvana hit it big, they signed bands like Gruntruck. But you know, I’ve never had serious problems with them, although I do feel that they could’ve done more for us when we needed it. It seemed like whenever we were reaching a critical point, they’d sign another band and we’d fall by the wayside.
We talked to our lawyer before this album and asked what it would take to break the contract. He said “Roadrunner really wants to hold onto you guys, so it might take a while.” But then the label approached us and seemed really into it, so we thought why not? And, you know, the entire staff there is different now. I think maybe one or two people are still around, but for the most part, it’s all younger kids saying “we’re so glad you’re with us, we grew up loving your music.” And this is the first time we’ve ever been presented with a marketing plan before an album’s release. We’re also getting regular emails about interviews, what’s going on, etc.
Then again, I went to the label’s site today and there’s nothing about us on the splash page except an mp3…
I’ve been hearing a lot about the new record: The label seems to be pushing you pretty hard.
And it seems like they really push you after the album drops.
I’m super stoked that you guys are touring with Napalm Death. I missed the pairing in ’94 when Machine Head opened: I’m not missing it this time!
Yeah, playing live now is like a vacation for us, because we’ve all set ourselves up so that we’re not dependent on the band for money or stability anymore. And the Napalm Death guys are like brothers to us.
John growled on Harmony Corruption (“Unfit Earth”)!
Yeah! Those guys are the best, and we’re so excited to be hanging out with them. We have the same manager now. He showed us his roster and asked who we’d like to tour with. Of course we were like “Put us with Napalm!”