Friday, August 21, 2015

Interview with Michael Smith of HAZMAT by Dave Wolff

Interview with Michael Smith of HAZMAT

Hazmat is described as being influenced by horror rock, metal, Goth, hardcore, punk, and hard rock. What led to the band encompassing so many different influences to develop their own sound and doing something original?
It all comes simply from every member in the band having different influences. Our guitarist was a thrash metal head. He was heavily influenced by the thrash bands that came out of the 80s: Exodus, Testament, Metallica, and so forth. Our drummer is straight out of the 80s hair metal bands like Poison, GnR, Faster Pussycat, Jackyl, etc. I grew up on bands like Kiss, Alice Cooper, Tesla and always had my eye on the spectacle if you will. I'm actually probably the most diverse member. I go to hundreds of shows from national acts to local unsigned bands. I really find a way to appreciate the art of different genres and I love being entertained. Give me a show and I'm your fan. We have had what seems to be a revolving door on bassists, but with each bass player we have just added a uniqueness to our sound. Dave (guitar), Bill (drums) and I (vocals) are truly like brothers; we have spent seventeen years making noise together no matter what our taste in music, no matter what life events have happened through it all we have been there together and we just mix our lives, musical tastes, and what have you into our music and stories to share with whoever cares to listen. We are all also very big movie fans and yes we differ in movie tastes also but we all have a great fondness of horror and the macabre so it shows in our stage show and our music. We have been fortunate over the years to meet a lot of great people in the industries of film and music and have worked on movie soundtracks and worked with several people in the industry on their movie projects. Our favorite shows to play are the conventions those shows are a blast not only because you look out and see a [Star Wars] stormtrooper moshing in the crowd but those guys are the most dedicated and genuine fans you could ever have.

What is the band’s complete lineup at the time of this writing, and does each members’ input vary from song to song when the band is composing material?
Our current lineup today is me, Michael Smith the lead vocalist, David Tomlinson on lead guitar, Bill Beck on drums, and on bass we are going through a transition with Jeremy McCary stepping in as our permanent bassist; as he gets his show legs ready a great friend of ours a guitarist/vocalist from the band, Dallas Hollow, has been filling in on bass for us. As far as the writing of each song, it can be a thought that comes to mind or some earth shaking world event. They could be something we saw in a movie and wanted to write about or something that happens in our lives. I guess we all have scars no matter big or small; we choose to write about ours as well as our laughs. Every member has input into each song and each song can have a different meaning for each of us as well as the listener. An example is our song I Wanna Believe. I wrote the lyrics about a past relationship but I've had people say they have related to it for a passing of a loved one, a song about friendship, about religion, and even about aliens. I guess a song is yours to use how you need it to. There has never been just one writer in this band; every song starts with an idea and it goes through the Hazmatic meat grinder. By the end it may turn out to be a completely different thought. Each of us have come in with ideas. Bill may come in to our band room and say ‘hey I've got this idea’ and he wrote this verse or even a complete song. By the time it is finished half the lyrics may be changed and Dave may have written a rhythm that is far from the idea.

Describe the process by which the band fused all your different influences together in the beginning.
In the beginning Hazmat was a straight thrash band period. I joined and we had a guitarist and drummer that wanted the vocals pretty much just screamed and spoken loudly. No harmony, no actual singing. Dave and I got along so well and both had a different vision and the drummer at the time had to quit the band for personal reasons so in stepped Bill. The three of us became like brothers and we shared our musical taste with each other and decided to part ways with the other guitarist. The music taste hasn't always came easy but we learned to compromise and share then we all started to grow and appreciate each other's style and taste. I personally probably have the largest playlist as far as liking the most diverse music. I can easily enjoy going to see a band like Testament or Whitechapel then a week later see bands like Tesla or The Pretty Reckless. My all-time favorite band probably is Social Distortion who are punk mixed with rock and country so I guess they helped my taste grow.

How long have the members of the band been working together? Who was your former bassist and why did he leave the band?
Dave, Bill and I have been working together for seventeen years and bassists have been a struggle. Our last bassist Glen who was actually our original drummer left last year over personal reasons. We have always had a good relationship with all our bassists; it just seems for us that they seem to grow in different directions. Most bass players we have had come from different instruments; mostly guitar and drums; maybe they were called to go back to their instruments of choice or life just sometimes causes them to leave. Currently Zach has done incredible filling in, but again his love is the guitar and he has his own band. Still he has been a trooper and helped us get through this past year as Jeremy gets ready to take that step. Jeremy should fit in awesomely with us and he is a true bass player. Plus he was a fan of the band and friend for many years.

Did you approach Dallas Hollow to fill in on bass or did he offer? How did you find Jeremy McCary as your new bassist?
We approached Zach last year when we made the finals in the Hard Rock Cafe battle of the bands and we had to perform in Pigeon Forge at the Hard Rock Cafe. He stepped in and we got second place after only one practice with him. Zach has been a friend for a very long time and has come to our band room just to listen several times. He is one of those guys who just loves to play and we appreciate that about him.

What accounts for the band having worked together for so long? How much of your personal lives reflected in your material?
I'd say the way we have survived in the music world for so long just comes down to friendship, understanding, forgiving, desire. I've heard people say being in a band is like being in a marriage with four other people and it is hard for a couple to stay married so imagine a four way marriage. I look at it not as a marriage but as a family a brotherhood. Yeah your brother can piss you off as can your family but you love em and family don't go away. Blood for blood. Each member’s families have also stayed tight as well the wives are sisters, the kids call me Uncle Mike. My son learned drums from Bill, he learned bass from Dave. My son is great friends with Dave's daughter. It is one extremely tight music family. Our personal lives can have an influence on a song for sure. Some great songs have been and will be written from sorrow and happiness. For the most part Hazmat tell stories and our songs are fiction if you will, but there are exceptions. Believe was written from life as I mentioned and our title track from our last CD Tired Of Being Pretty was a little of both written about a real life stalker I had but the title came from a little joke I made one night when I told someone I was tired of being pretty I just wanna be cute.

What horror movies does the band like and what speaks to the band members about said movies? Which era or eras in horror cinema is most favored among the band?
Well we love em all. At least a lot of them. It can be anything from old black and white, modern remakes and cheesy splatter slasher films. We all love the Friday The 13th series, Halloween, etc. I love a good story but I can easily sit back and have a good laugh with a Troma splatter film. Long before it was a popular genre I was a zombie fan. I'm a huge Romero and Savini fan and have been fortunate to spend time with both guys. I also live what I call Boo films; something that makes me jump. 1408 was a great boo film and creepy as Hell.

What do you like most about the Friday The 13th and Halloween movies? Do you prefer the originals or the remakes?
As far as the Friday The 13th and Halloween films, I believe we all prefer the originals although Rob Zombie I think did an excellent job doing his remakes. Zombie has a unique way of storytelling and I love it. House Of 1000 Corpses and The Devils Rejects are instant classics. As far as what I like most about Friday and Halloween are not only the boo factors but the fact that it can really happen. OK maybe the not coming back to life aspect but there can be those deranged serial killers out there and that is scary as Hell. Everybody loves being scared I do believe. Plus who doesn't love it when the villain kills the preppy jerk in the films?

What are some of the other horror movies you and the band grew up on? Would you rather see organic special effects or CGI in a horror movie?
I remember going to the video stores as a teen renting movies like Puppet Master, Wishmaster, Hellraiser, I Spit On Your Grave, Pumpkinhead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Boogens, Creepers, Evil Dead and the list goes on. All the splatter films were fun. I remember sneaking into the theater to see Pieces with some friends because I was underage. I love it when a movie is used without CGI but I'm not opposed to someone using CGI; if it makes the film look more authentic then go for it.

What magazines do you and the band read to stay updated on movies and keep up with the horror genre?
I still read Fangoria; it's always been a great mag. Mostly though I see things on the internet and at conventions. There are certain actors that I follow and I don't miss anything they do. You can find almost anything on the internet. It's a blessing and a curse.

How much experience have you had in the film industry, and how many horror movies have you contributed to the soundtracks for? Are these mostly independent horror films?
Most of the movies we have worked on have been independent films. We have made some lifelong friends doing so and the independents still have the imagination to tell a good story. We met a great filmmaker by the name of George Bonilla at a convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee called ConNooga and have done some work with him. We have written songs for the legendary filmmaker Jeff Burr on a film called Devils Den; he left the production and our song went with him. We wrote a title track for another film for him called Monster Man which has to this date never been released. It can be hit or miss but it's always fun and an honor to work with these great guys. Some of George's films with Hazmat’s music can be found on shelves at major retailers and internet movie channels. Bunker Of Blood is in rotation now on some of those movie sites and can be found in stores. We are currently working with Eric Cain on a new horror flick that should be a really fun in your face movie. We have a close relationship with so many great producers and directors in the film industry. A lot of up and comers that will definitely be seen for many years. Jason Buterin of Mad One Films is a good friend and making some really good films. Jason is also a very talented drummer. To be honest I don't know the exact number of independent films we have done but most are independent. Our music seems to fit right with them.

I have heard of ConNooga from a few friends of mine who are based in Tennessee and Georgia. Do you attend this convention frequently? Did you happen to meet George Romero and/or Tom Savini at one of those shows?
ConNooga is a great time. I go every year whether we perform or not. Todd Patton has put together a great event in ConNooga and everyone in the ConNooga family are some of the best people you could ever meet. We have created some great life long bonds with those guys. The guys Fear Connection who are part of ConNooga are some of the most genuine people you could ever meet and build these incredible horror props. Wrigley FX is also part of the family owned by a great couple who do amazing makeup and special effects for film. The band Radio Cult who play every year are not amazing musicians but some of the best most fun friends you could ever ask for. The list goes on. As far as Savini and Romero I met them several times mostly in Atlanta, Ga. Romero I met first at Dragoncon and got to spend hours with him talking about his movies and just silly stuff. Romero has a great sense of humor as well. Savini I have also been around several times at Dragoncon as well as other conventions. I spent a weekend as his errand boy while he made the movie the Dead Matter. I ran promo stuff between him and Midnight Syndicate.

How often do you attend Dragoncon shows when they come to Chattanooga? Any tales you remember from going to one of them?
I have gone for the past twenty years. Never miss it. It is actually only once a year, on Labor Day weekend only in Atlanta. There are several different conventions all over the world that are similar but Dragoncon and ConNooga are the two I attend the most. I'm sure I have a thousand convention stories but the one I'll share is from a Dragoncon in Atlanta several years back. A few friends and I were staying at a hotel close to the convention and it was the first year that the SEC had the opening college football game at the Georgia Dome and Alabama was playing. Our hotel was half full of congoers and half full of Alabama football fans. A lot of people at conventions like to cosplay and dress as some of their favorite characters. Dragoncon is their Super Bowl and it's their time to go out and show off these great costumes and escape from everyday life. Now all these Alabama fans liked to dress all in their red shirts and painted faces and stand in the lobby and on the balconies and yell making fun of the cosplayers calling them all kinds of names and laughing. Now myself, I don't normally wear costumes but I understand and appreciate those who do. I remember going into the lobby and a very drunk Alabama fan walking over to me and saying "can you believe all these fags" and I looked at him in his red shirt and hat and said "we all wear our colors theirs are just brighter", then that stuck with me. I'm a fan of football also but how can you be so obsessed with your team or anything for that Mayer and not understand how someone else can be just as obsessed with something of their choice? So later that night I went back to my room and wrote a song called "Colors". Wouldn't life be so much better if we all learned to appreciate each other's colors and see life as art and expression?

Cosplay has been misjudged by closed-minded people for a long time. Having gone to conventions since the 90s and met many cosplayers I am not quick to label or ridicule them. Does your song Colors suggest talking to people who don’t fit in, and getting to know them?
Some people love sports while others love music and some love comics, movies or games and like to have fun. I'm the type of person who embraces it all. To be honest the cosplay community and the metal community have some of the most genuine people. They form close bonds and stay true to each other. There are exceptions as with anything but it's a good community to be in. Plus not every football fan is closed minded and not necessarily all Alabama fans either. It just happened to be the Alabama fans at my hotel that year. Colors does hint to give everyone a chance get to know them before you judge them.

How did the band meet George Bonita and what led to the band corresponding and working with him?
We met George Bonilla at a ConNooga show. After we performed we went to the room parties but ended up back in the Hazmat hotel room. It was Hazmat, George, and John Dugan who played the Grandpa in Texas Chainsaw Massacre just hanging out all night talking about music, movies, and just life. From that night on we have kept a friendship it's a great bond that ConNooga folks have. Just gotta thank Todd for creating this monsters that has brought so many of us together. It's almost like this secret society that you want to share with the world.

How much has horror cinema been an influence on the band’s lyrics? What is your view of bands who make statements about society through horror based themes?
I'd say that horror cinema has been just somewhat of an influence on us. We don't necessarily say it's an influence though we have had songs influenced by them or at least the genre. Our song Fear we wanted to write through the eyes of a serial killer. What's going on in his head or at least what we would perceive as going on inside his mind. Our song Unknown has the feel of a stalker; it’s the feel we wanted for the song though it is actually a sweet song just worded to sound creepy. Of course Monster Man is directly about the characters and killer in the movie Monster Man. Most of our songs are just about life though. We may use metaphors or hide the true meaning behind some crazy line but if it isn't about life then at least we are telling a good story. I love the fact that bands are just dedicated enough to make statements by any means. At least they are voicing their opinions. Whether or not I agree with them or anyone, at least they are bold enough to speak out and create art. If they use horror references then that is a way they relate to life. It's the ones who keep it in you gotta worry about.

Did you study serial killers and stalkers while writing the lyrics to Fear and Unknown? There are many lyricists who write such songs with certain people in mind.
We didn't necessarily study serial killers for the songs. I think the entire band has a fascination with them. I not only watch movies about them but also documentaries on them quite often. Manson, Gein, Bundy, Dahmer, on down the line. It amazes me how they have so much charisma and charm and people have no idea of the demons in their heads. Look at the BTK killer Dennis Rader; he was just an everyday dog catcher but he had crazy obsessions inside his head. There are a lot of bands in metal who write about serial killers. Whitechapel did an entire album based on Jack the Ripper. I think it is fun to tell stories which can be a little scary. People love being scared. Plus most people have a little or a lot of hate inside and it is so much better to voice it through song then to act on it.

Is Hazmat currently working on any material? Where and with who does the band usually record their full lengths?
Hazmat are currently working on our seventh full release. We have the songs written and have tried them out live over the past couple months and are now taking a short break to record them before we begin playing shows again in September. The new CD should be released by the end of this year and it will be turtles "Broken Carousel" which is from a line in our new song Nightmare. When I sang that line it just hit me that through seventeen years of ups and downs and losing bass players and crazy life games Hazmat has been on this crazy Carousel ride and yes it may be broken from time to time but damn it we still hold on and ride this bitch. We normally record with Roger Gordon who owns a studio close to Dayton, Tennessee.

Discuss the band’s six previous releases and how Hazmat has progressed over the course of all of them. Were they released on an independent label or did the band release them independently?
Our first release in 1998 which we recorded with Roger Gordon was a straightforward thrash EP. Only two songs from that album have survived the Hazmatic meat grinder through the years. Both of them have been changed: Greatest Hate and Under The Influence. It was our first so we did our own independent thing with it. Printing, burning, selling only at shows.
Our second CD was self-titled and we pretty much went the same route with it. It was still thrash and we still had the two guitars. We recorded it with Gene Norman in Chattanooga. Greatest Hate was redone on that CD and it was later picked up by an independent label called New Day Records.
The third CD we recorded with VJ Maxwell from the band Needles and was called Unknown. It took Hazmat into a punk direction. This was our first release as a four piece as well. That CD did pretty well for us and got us into some larger audiences performing at Dragoncon and The Riverbend Festival and more festivals around the south.
Our fourth CD was Hazmat 3 2004. It was our third full length hence the title. It was a fun CD and I think it was our first release to really show us maturing as a band. We did go back to Roger for this one. We went back to self-printing and distributing and it was only available at shows.
For our fifth CD we actually went to Roger to record just a couple of songs. Jeff Burr was about to start a new movie project which was a sequel to Monster Man, and we went in to record the title track for the film and another track. The movie didn't get made so we had these two songs and wanted to sell them. We decided to do not quite a greatest hits but release a couple songs from each CD and add the new songs. We packaged it and called it Greatest Hates. We then found ways of distributing our music digitally and found a few popular internet music pages like Spotify.
Our sixth release we recorded with Roger again we have really got the mileage out of this one was called Tired of Being Pretty and we released it through CD Baby. They package, distribute, promote and put us on every place you can get music. That CD definitely shows growth as well as diversity that this band is and will always be.

Have you been working with Roger Gordon since the release of your first full length? How has your working relationship with him developed over the years?
Since the release of the last CD we recorded two more songs with Roger. We did the theme song for G.H.O.S.T. Paranormal show Hunting The Unknown Truth. We recorded a song called I Roam which they used for the opening credits. We will be recording it again for our upcoming CD.

Does Roger Gordon worked with other bands in his studio besides Hazmat?
Roger Gordon works with several bands. He runs his studio full time. He actually is an incredible musician. He played in a touring band through the 70s and 80s and opened his studio up after coming off the road. He still records his original music.

Does the band often write lyrics about paranormal subjects or was I Roam a one shot deal?
I Roam was really the first time we wrote about the paranormal though each of us are very interested in paranormal activity. We have actually participated on several investigations with G.H.O.S.T. Paranormal, Deepsouth Paranormal, and other groups. I have met all the guys from SI-FI Ghost Hunters, The Haunted Collectors, Destination Truth, etc. and have formed a few friendships with several of them. There are metal heads everywhere and yep some of them are ghost hunters and a few are Hazmat fans ha ha. I wouldn't be surprised if we write more about the paranormal in the future.

Describe some of the investigations you have taken with G.H.O.S.T. Paranormal and Deepsouth Paranormal? Any local legends you and they looked into?
We actually went on a ghost investigation with Deepsouth Paranormal and G.H.O.S.T. Paranormal at the Walking Horse hotel and saloon in Wartrace, Tennessee a couple years ago. It is one of the most active locations in the south. They have restored some of the rooms but for the most part it is still original. During that investigation we had several very unique experiences. In one room I personally had what felt like a small hand hold onto my hand. Our drummer Bill got sick at the same moment; we were standing side by side. Something appeared in the basement; we made contact with a little boy that had burned in a fire there. I know there are skeptics, to a point I have been also but at any rate we have had some strange things happen. We did another investigation at an old factory in Chattanooga and had a bolt thrown at us. That was a little freaky to say the least.

Describe the recording studio Gordon owns and the equipment he records with there.
I couldn't begin to tell you what he uses. To be honest I don't have knowledge to tell you, but you walk in and you just know you are in a studio. It has professional hardwood floors, soundproof walls, and a big mixing board in front of a big glass window. Also separate rooms for vocals and guitars. It is just as you see in the bigger recording studios. Plus I've known Roger forever. I'd worked with him before I joined Hazmat with other bands. It just feels like home to us.

Which songs from each of your releases have been performed live most often and remain live staples to this day?
The songs that we've played the most through the years have to be Under The Influence, Greatest Hate, Silent Hell, Tired of Being Pretty, I Wanna Believe, Ride, Burn, and a silly song we did called Redneck Heaven. With the new songs added over the past few months really the only older songs we have been doing are Silent Hell, Greatest Hate, I Roam and Tired Of Being Pretty, but things change and sometimes we just throw in an older tune or two and a cover song here and there.

Discuss the lyrics of the songs you listed as live staples. What influenced them and what are the lyrics meant to say?
I won't list the lyrics for our sings because that would take a book, but I can tell you about a few of our staple songs. Our newest song Nightmare I wrote the lyrics after a crazy relationship where a girl went back to an abusive relationship after leaving. The lyrics were written through the eyes of an asshole plain and simple, the man of your nightmares. Greatest Hate has always been my favorite lyric-wise. It is about being right at the point of anger and fear about the deepest hurt and sadness and seeing that same hate inside of someone else and neither say a word. Let It Ride another new song. Bill actually wrote the first verse and chorus after seeing a news story about the Middle East. I wrote the second verse with not only that in mind but everything else in this crazy world. From school shootings to rioting in Flint and other areas. Soon after writing this song the Chattanooga shootings gave the song a whole new meaning. It is a song basically telling us to wake up and question why hate people you don't even know? Silent Hell is written in the mindset of the guy who is really paranoid and schizophrenic. At the point of going crazy. A fun little tale.

How much more has internet sites like Spotify helped the band promote their work? Do you have more creative control over your material since you began streaming it online?
The music sites definitely help promote the band and get you heard by a much larger audience which is great for a band like us. You are a little better known but bands trying to make a living with their music are really being hurt. The music sites for the consumer is great but to the musician it hurts because with mobile devices and these sites people are streaming music for free and not buying near as much. It's kind of a case of Catch 22; you have your music in more places but it's not getting bought. Most bands are relying heavily on merchandise sales to make their living. As far as promotion and getting you heard these sites are incredible. Being independent you do have much more control over your own music. You can record as you want and choose what you want or don't want to be heard. For the most part most metal bands are independent, even the national acts. Unless you are on a major label and have a hired big name producer you still have control. Metal and hard rock, punk, hardcore… any extreme music isn't really getting signed by the major labels anymore. It's the independent labels that are stepping up and doing amazing things for bands today. Century, Metal Blade, Rise and Victory are bringing bands to the masses. Clothing and liquor companies are stepping up and sponsoring metal bands. Coldcock Whiskey are promoting and sponsoring bands and becoming the new voice for independent metal. The major labels consider rock and metal dead, but these companies know it's alive and kicking. Yes it was damaged by lack of music sales but the bands and these great independent labels will figure it out, fix it and make it a giant again. Just look around any mall or any place you walk and see how many pop band shirts you see on people. Maybe a few pop heartthrobs are popular but see how many Slayer shirts, Metallica, AC/DC, new bands like Motionless In White, In This Moment, Hellyeah, still see those Misfit and Ramones shirts and a Hazmat shirt here and there. It's not dead. It still has the biggest fanbase and one day the major labels will wake up and realize but it will be way too late because metal bands are loyal and remember who was there for them.

Perhaps it’s better for underground metal to continue with the support it is receiving now, because I’ve noticed the independent labels and independent metal fests that do it grassroots have lasted without the bands losing their integrity. Whereas thrash bands that changed to be more widely accepted in the late 80s fell apart and with metal’s mainstream acceptance there seems to have been somewhat of a dumbing down of metal culture. In the mid 80s bands gave intelligent interviews and broke the stereotype that all metalheads are airheads, but to a certain extent this stereotype appears to be coming back in vogue.
I think some of the 80s bands did put on a persona of being airheaded, though they were actually intelligent. I've met many artists through the years and trust me with some it was an act and with some it was not. I've met a few that are actually very ditzy but isn't that the way everyday people are? As far as today's artists I wouldn't necessarily say it's an airhead thing as much as a maturity issue. Many more mature artists are seeing a financial challenge to tour and are getting "real" jobs and playing shows locally. Many of the touring acts are younger people out of high school. I wouldn't say they are airheaded as much as inexperienced in life. As before there are exceptions. Some are very mature. Halestorm for example: I know they are not considered heavy to some people but those guys started very young. I've met and talked to them several times and they have great heads on their shoulders. Veil Of Maya, Shattered Sun, The Butcher Babies, all great young people and intelligent. A band that I'm a huge fan of and friends with is One Eyed Doll who are making music for a living and amazing people. There are brains out there and a lot of the other bands will mature over time. It's just a younger breed coming in and thank God for them.

How do you think metal bands and musicians can work to disprove popular stereotypes of metal culture?
I don't think metal bands have to do anything at all. Just be who they are. It's not metal musicians that have to prove themselves to anyone. It's a great community and great true friendships and if the rest of the world doesn't see it then shame on them because they are missing out. It's not for everyone, just like farm life isn't for everyone. I think the metal, hard rock, punk, hardcore, death industries are fine. Sure they need to make changes in order to make a living but as far as acceptance it's not our job. Just stay true and be yourself.

Does Hazmat have any special projects planned for the future, in addition to a new full length?
As far as our upcoming projects we do have another ghost investigation on All Hallows Eve. It's an all day/night event with a meet and greet with top paranormal investigators and dinner followed by a full Hazmat concert. Immediately after our concert an all-night ghost hunt. We are also working on another horror movie with Eric Cain and our new CD. Then it's just off performing and who knows what else will pop up.

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-Dave Wolff

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