PESTILENCE: The MetalKult Interview
In 1992, Dutch death metal band Pestilence were riding high. The success of a trio of heavy-hitting albums—Malleus Maleficarum (1988), Consuming Impulse (1989) and Testimony of the Ancients (1991)—had secured their position in the European extreme metal underground and they were poised to become one of the major players in the death metal genre. But their success was about to grind to a halt.
When the restlessly creative group, led by vocalist/guitarist Patrick Mameli, added jazz and fusion styles to its sound for 1993’s Spheres, fans of Pestilence’s earlier straightforward death metal were confounded, and accused the band of biting off more than it could chew. A sentiment Mameli has come to appreciate—“We really messed up on that one,” he confesses. “We definitely made a lot of heads turn and I didn’t think it was the right follow-up to Testimony. If we would’ve had Resurrection [Macabre, 2008] after Testimony, I think we would’ve been one of the biggest death metal bands out there right now.”
Instead of breaking out, the band broke up soon after the release of Spheres and the possibility of a reunion was close to nothing. “I’ve always said that there will never be a reunion, and a reunion with the original line-up,” Mameli stated. “It just wouldn’t work.”
However, despite putting his energies into his post-Pestilence band C-187 [featuring Cynic drummer Sean Reinert and Atheist/ex-Pestilence bassist Tony Choy], Mameli just couldn’t shake his past. “When I did interviews for that band, people of course knew me as Patrick Mameli from Pestilence and everyone who was interested in me always asked me about Pestilence and not about C-187—my project.”
Luckily for Pestilence fans, Mameli had a change of heart. When they reformed 15 years later, with Darkane drummer Peter Wildoer, one-time Pestilence bassist Tony Choy and original guitarist Patrick Uterwijk, Mameli refocused Pestilence’s sound for 2008’s hard-hitting Resurrection Macabre. Building on their successful Resurrection, the current band—which now features newcomer Yuma Van Eekelen on drums and Spheres-era bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling—hope to claw their way back to the top with their upcoming album, Doctrine.
MetalKult recently caught up with Mameli during the band’s final tour stop in New York City where he discussed Pestilence’s unexpected rebirth and their latest extreme metal offering, Doctrine, the trials of touring North America, and his ever-present goal to keep growing as a musician. —Henry Yuan
In the late Eighties and early Nineties, the death metal spotlight was mainly focused on Florida and Sweden. However, even though the Netherlands had a smaller scene, the bands left a prominent mark in death metal history. What was the death metal scene like back then?
PATRICK MAMELI You just mentioned the Scandinavian scene and they were very present in the Dutch culture and music. There wasn’t a very big underground scene in Holland so I don’t really understand why Dutch bands made a lot of impact on the market, since everybody was influenced by the Florida scene. Everybody was into tape trading stuff like early Death and Possessed. Everybody tapped from their influence. There were only a few bands that mattered and some bands that weren’t well known, such as Sinister, who are still doing stuff now. And of course Pestilence, who were the biggest band coming from Holland. There were a few other bands, too, but I think they all tapped into the same Floridian scene. Later on, we all started to understand that we needed to put our own stamp on things to change our role. That’s kinda how it happened. When we started to create death metal around ’86, there weren’t many bands at that point in Holland doing the same stuff we were doing.
Prior to this U.S. tour, Pestilence made an appearance at Maryland Deathfest. I take it this year was better than last, where you guys had some trouble getting into the States.
MAMELI Yeah, we just didn’t have our paperwork in order last year. There were some files missing. We came over and got detained for a bunch of hours and then got sent back home. We had a headlining spot on Sunday and we just felt so bad. Our drummer was already there. He called me and I told him we were detained and he was like, “you gotta be joking me.” It was a long flight back and we were all down about it. This time, we made sure everything worked. We went through the proper channels to have it done. So to finally be able to play at Maryland Deathfest was very nice. It was a great beginning to our tour.
Was it a good feeling to be playing with old friends, like Asphyx and Sinister?
MAMELI Well, we played on Sunday and Asphyx played on Saturday and I think they stuck around. But, me and Martin don’t get along very well so we stayed out of each other’s paths.
Tonight’s gig is the final show of the tour. How’s touring America as opposed to Europe?
MAMELI To be honest, this was a big wake up call for us. Maybe it was an issue of the routing. But some of the venues were not that great and I think the promotion could’ve been way better. The turnouts have been somewhat bad in some places and, again, it’s because of the routing and promotion. The second half of the tour was really good and the way we expected. If you compare European standards and U.S. standards, U.S. standards are very low. You have some places where the PA systems do not work and there are no monitors…it’s just a big joke. Sometimes I felt like I was in Spinal Tap. It made me think, Why am I doing this? Obviously, this isn’t for the money since there is no money to be made playing death metal. One might think that if Americans put people on the moon, they could have other things together. It was just an eye opener that U.S. standards are not very high.
That’s rough. Did you find the bigger cities had better conditions and crowds?
MAMELI Yes, yes. Definitely. But we wanted to cover all of the States. Who plays in Chattanooga?
I’m not even sure where that is.
MAMELI Exactly. But we did. What about Ramona? I never heard of it before, but we played there. For the people there, it was great because they got to see Pestilence. We put on a good show and we always want to play our best. However, if the turnout isn’t that great, it just makes you depressed. But, the last five or six shows have been awesome. We played Canada and those guys are crazy. It was nice to finally have a good crowd and have people that are actually into the band.
Geographically, Europe is a lot smaller than America and Europeans are more willing to travel because it’s a compact place. Do you think this had some impact on your shows?
MAMELI Definitely. America is huge. If I had to travel for four hours to see a band, I probably wouldn’t do it, either…depending on the band, of course. I mean, we haven’t been here in 20 years so maybe one can say people have forgotten about us. But that’s not the case. But yeah, if you have to travel for a number of hours, you’re probably not going to do it. And when it’s on a work day, those nights are even rougher. It’s difficult for a band to survive. I can tell you a lot of great stories with great turnouts but that’s just not the way it is anymore. This is the state of today’s rock and roll life.
Let’s talk a bit about your band’s history. Pestilence broke up in 1994 and regrouped in 2008. What was the reason for resurrecting the band?
MAMELI At the time I was doing a project called C-187, which was more of a fusion project with a little bit of hardcore vocals here and there. It was really intelligent music played with really intelligent people. I thought that would turn into a big success but it didn’t. I received a lot of e-mails from fans and everyone was just keeping the Pestilence name alive whereas we were like, “Forget about it.” We weren’t going to do anything ever again, but the name kept popping up. Since I had to do another album for Mascot Records, we started brainstorming the idea of doing another Pestilence album. My label boss was super excited about it because he said if we had a decent comeback, it might work. Then I decided that I needed to have very good musicians around me in order to make this and come out with a good album. I contacted Tony Choy [bassist of Atheist] and he was down for it and I contacted Peter Wildoer [drummer of Darkane] and he was for it. I figured I needed to have one original member back so I called up Patrick [Uterwijk, guitar], who I haven’t spoken with in years. He was excited about it and that’s when it started rolling.
The band’s comeback album, Resurrection Macabre, shows the band going with a more primal, back-to-roots sound as opposed to following in the style of Spheres. Can you explain this choice?
MAMELI Well, everybody expects the last album to be a “follow-up” to that album. If you look at the whole discography of Pestilence, every album is different. If you’re an insider, you just know the next album isn’t going to be like Spheres and the next album isn’t going to be like Resurrection. I always want to try and do something else and sometimes that’s difficult for the fans. We’re not Obituary or Slayer, where one can always expect the same style but with different songs. We keep true to our own style but we become better musicians all the time, you know? You get a deeper understanding about your instrument all the time. Within the frame of Pestilence, we can move around a little bit and get better and better. For the next album, Doctrine, we are using Ibanez eight-string guitars. That will allow us to go even deeper within our material with different chords and sound heavier. Every band wants to be heavier and better and that’s what’s going to happen with Pestilence. I have a new line-up now. The line-up I had on Resurrection just didn’t work out. I had to fly people in and out all the time. There was no time to rehearse and when we got together, we’d do something and everyone flew off to do their thing. The band feeling was not really there. It was more like using hired musicians. In the long run, we wanted to have a steady line-up. Now, we have an all-Dutch line up. It’s a lot easier for us to communicate—not that we aren’t good at speaking English—but it’s just a hassle to fly everybody over. We feel like a band now. Are you going to hang around for the show?
Yeah, I am.
MAMELI Then you’ll hear my drummer. He is amazing. And he’s only 22. He’s bringing us up to a new level. I don’t want to look back or go down in levels, I just want to go up. And of course, with Jeroen on the six-string fretless bass…what else can you ask for?
You mentioned using the eight-string guitar. As a guitarist, how do you utilize the extra low string?
MAMELI We’re not using the eight-string as a rhythmical instrument. I mean, that’s what a guitar essentially is. Meshuggah does the rhythmic thing and I don’t really see them using chords. I mean, they have their own thing but it’s more of a polyrhythm thing with the F#. We still leave the guitar in standard E tuning, with the B and the low F as is. But we now play the B and the low F as we would a regular guitar in E. Basically, we’re playing our riffs as we would on a regular six-string. It took a lot of effort because it took me a year before I could make it sound like a guitar that wasn’t so muddy and it was difficult to palm the strings. But yeah, we’re just looking at it as if it was a six-string guitar. You can’t play the chords as if it was a six-string anymore but you can mess around with it to make it sound like a six-string. It’s just deeper and heavier.
The next problem is getting the right equipment. If you play in analog, it will be muddy. Yes, the strings are thicker and the speakers are now using different frequencies where you’ll get a lot of low end and the mids will be gone. You have to crank up the mids, which causes you to lose the low end. It starts to mess with your sounds. I think we’re going to stick with our [Line 6] X3 Live Pods. It’s all digital, you get a very clean sound and we came up with a very good sound for the eight-string. We’re going to record Doctrine with the X3 Pod. I mean, now we go directly into the board, as well.
So when people see you live, they won’t see any amps on-stage?
MAMELI Nope. There are no amps on-stage.
Spheres was an album that caused a lot of heads to turn, as it was a major shift in sound for Pestilence. At that time, there weren’t many death metal bands that explored the futuristic, progressive sounds of fusion and jazz. What was the atmosphere like at the time of writing Spheres?
MAMELI Well, we knew we had to come up with some new stuff. As I said before, I will never make a part two of any album. We wanted to evolve as musicians and try to incorporate different styles into our music, which was bold. It was something we felt we had to do. If you look back at it, it wasn’t such a good idea. There were bands like Cynic and Atheist who did it, but they had it from the beginning—not from their demos but from their first album. Look at Atheist—they were already incorporating jazz parts. But for us, from hanging out with them, we began to listen to that music. We wanted to bring that into our music but we have a whole different history. The combination was not so good. I actually heard some demos from Spheres and they were way heavier. It also had a lot to do with the synth-guitars. Sometimes it sounded like a keyboard and not a guitar, right? It was all guitar and I think that detached a lot of real, true death metal fans from the music. We didn’t have skank beats anymore and it was all groove. The vocals were brutal but different and the guitars sounded MIDI, tiny and small. That also caused a whole bunch of problems for the record company and they wanted to drop us. I was speaking to some people a few months ago and they said they liked the album now. I was like, “Well where were you then?” Now it’s considered a cult album, as it was back then. It’s no use for us to go back and self-criticize, but I felt it was the wrong move. We should’ve done Resurrection then and we would’ve been way up there.
It’s interesting to note bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling’s arrival to Pestilence during Spheres. How did you hook up with him? Did he have a strong musical influence on the band at the time?
MAMELI I knew him from mutual friends. We were always hanging out and have the same musical interests. Me and him had the same ideas about music, what makes a good song and he knows the jazz standards. It was easy to communicate with him on a musical level. He did an awesome job on Spheres but I already knew that since I knew his other projects. He’s a really good musician and really knows how to phrase his instrument.
Pestilence played the Brutal Assault festival with Obscura and I had the chance to talk with Jeroen. I said to him, if you have the chance, it would be awesome if you did Pestilence. He was very excited but he didn’t know if he could combine it with Obscura. He talked about it with them and then he ended up on tour with us. He feels very comfortable in the band. Obscura is a German band and we’re an all-Dutch band so the communication is different. I think he likes that, as well.
Technical and progressive death metal has been on a rise in recent years, and the influence of Cynic, Atheist and Pestilence has finally crept into the newer generations. What are your thoughts on the amount of interest in technical playing in death metal, and do you like any newer bands?
MAMELI I don’t know what you mean by technical playing. Is it a deeper understanding of your instrument or using a lot of notes, scales…well, not even scales since most of those bands don’t even know what a scale is. You know, putting 20 riffs into a song with blast beats and fast shit, pig squeels—bands like Devourment, Brain Drill—that’s considered technical, right?
Well, yeah in some respect but also bands like the Faceless, the Red Chord, Between the Buried and Me…more of a “musicians” death metal.
MAMELI Right. You can only get so far with technicality because you will lose most of your fans in the long run. What they want is to go to a show and not think too much. Now, if you’re a musician’s “musician” band, you’ll be really playing for musicians. That’ll only be a handful of guys that will really get into it. Most fans that like death metal, they want to go to a show for the sheer brutality. What we try to do is find a nice mix between the technicality and the brutality. We want to keep it interesting for us but also our fans. We don’t want them to lose “the one” – we don’t want them to get lost. They want to shake their heads and know what’s going on. I think that super hyper, technical music is going up and up but it will definitely come crashing down and be gone. There’s just so much going on. People get distracted and can’t keep up for a minute because something new constantly comes up. We don’t want to use many notes or get too crazy and just let people enjoy the show – the overall fan. Not just the guy who is looking for the string skipping or the this and that. We want to make music that sounds good. It’s as easy as using a simple chord that works. Look at Metallica or AC/DC. They’re big because of the simplicity.
So do you listen to any new music at all? Or do you just stick with the old?
MAMELI I actually don’t listen to music at all. As a musician, I think you can get distracted and be influenced a lot by listening to certain music styles, unless you listen to music that is totally the opposite and not influence you. Then it’s fine. Of course, I have to know what’s going on. If someone asked me about Hate Eternal, I can easily tell you who’s in the band, the albums they put out… I really like Derek Roddy a lot. I like what he does for music and for extreme drumming. Now everyone does that kind of stuff. Every drummer can go on YouTube and watch and learn. There’s so much information and knowledge out there that the mystique is gone. Everyone is in a band and everyone is doing the hyper blast. There’s only a few guys that can actually do it good. There’s also only a handful of guys that can single-foot blast, which I think is the only true blast there is. Everyone is doing this [mimics motion] where it looks like you’re riding a bicycle and it’s because they can’t do it as fast as the single-foot. The standards have gotten so low and the bands out there are so overwhelming that it’s very difficult to pick out the good ones. But if I had to, I’d say that I really like the old Hate Eternal, which got me back into playing metal. The riffing and the brutality is just so good. That keeps the juices flowing. But, I don’t like to listen to too much music. It can influence me too much and I want to stay true to the Pestilence style.
Finally, what’s next for Pestilence?
MAMELI We have a bunch of shows and festivals over in Europe until September. We’re going to record Doctrine in München, Germany with Victor [Santura], who also plays guitar with Triptykon. He’s a producer and also has his own studio. It’s going to be out next year in February and then the cycle returns. I don’t want to think about a U.S. tour just yet because of the whole recession thing here and it’s not a good time to tour here. Maybe next year we’ll think about it. There will definitely be a European tour. That’ll keep me busy for a bit.
I have to say, though, that I’m a real family man so after three weeks I’m just ready to go home to my wife and kids. They are the most important thing for me, and will always be. If I have to say goodbye to music, I could do so with a smile. I’m just here, really, for the sake of music and Pestilence. I still enjoy playing and that’s what keeps me going.