A Conversation with Obituary and Gatecreeper On Death Metal’s Constant Evolution

Terry Butler and Chase Mason talk killer riffs and the genre's “race to get more extreme.”

Terry Butler is the bassist of Obituary and has also played in Death, Massacre, and Six Feet Under; Chase Mason is the singer of Gatecreeper. Here, they discuss preferring “killer riffs” to blast beats and the history and future of death metal.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Terry Butler: Metal still doesn’t get much respect, though it’s a lot better than when I first went on tour with Death in ‘87. It was way underground then, and obviously the evolution it’s gone through, there’s a bunch of different genres now, and it’s more widely accepted now than it was then, which is awesome. I don’t know how death metal is going to evolve in the future, but it’s like a virus that won’t go away. 

Chase Mason: It’s funny that you mention going on tour for the first time in ‘87, because that’s actually when I was born. 

Terry: [Laughs] Awesome.

Chase: But I definitely agree. When I was younger and getting into extreme music it was at a time when it was already pretty mainstream — it was the post-Pantera world. I’ve only been able to experience it firsthand when it’s become maybe too mainstream, where it was almost the norm as far as rock music was, and then it kind of died down and went back underground in the past 10 years. 

Terry: It’s all a cycle. What was extreme when you were 15 would have been really extreme when I was 15. But it’s that evolution. When I was first getting into underground stuff it was Motörhead, Venom, Angel Witch, Raven, that kind of stuff. Then it graduated to something a little heavier, like Hellhammer and Celtic Frost and Slayer and so forth, and from there it was Napalm Death and Morbid Angel. That’s just the way all music evolves. But it’s cool to go back and listen to what started that whole thing. Some kids are kind of snobbish and only want to listen to Necrophagist and don’t want to go back and listen to Autopsy, but that’s what started everything. 

In ‘87, it felt like we were kind of blazing a trail for future bands to go on tour. There weren’t very many death metal bands on the road at that time, so to be part of that, and to create music in [Death] and have people enjoy it, I loved that feeling. And to this day I still love that feeling. The version of Death I was in, that was the blue-collar version. We did all the work, did all the touring, we rode in vans together and all that. We did all the work for the prettier version of Death. 

Chase: Like you mentioned, my generation — and I’m 32 now, so I may be a little older than that younger generation — but when I started getting into heavy music, I’ve always been the person to look back. I’m the type of person who’s like, Oh, I like this band. I want to go back and find out who influenced this band. I had to trace everything back through the backwards pattern of what you just talked about. For you, hearing Motörhead and then it getting heavier and heavier, for me it was about going back to the roots. 

Terry: That’s what I did, too. I’m a child of the ‘70s, so a lot of the metal and hard rock from the ‘70s I didn’t get to experience, so I went back and found out about Uriah Heep and Thin Lizzy and UFO, and those bands influenced me. Those are the building blocks that helped create what we all listen to.  

Chase: I had to trace it back since I wasn’t there to experience the beginning of death metal. But as far as starting Gatecreeper, it’s very obvious what the influences are, it’s all late-’80s and early-’90s bands. Instead of having a band with the intention of trying to make things even more extreme, I wanted it to be traditional. I wanted to draw on the bands we liked and kind of make a melting pot of all these influences, but they are very specific influences. 

Terry: I love extreme music, but it’s hard for me to go to a concert and sit and watch three hours of blast beats, but I respect it and appreciate it. For myself, I want to hear riffs. I want to go home and remember the song and that killer riff. 

Chase: That’s pretty much the basis of our band. We try to write riffs and just make memorable songs. I think that’s something in modern death metal, that race to get more extreme, and the songwriting got lost. People forget that the classic death metal albums all had catchy parts and these little hooks in it. It can still be extreme and heavy, but there have to be memorable songs, and I think that got lost for a little bit. 

Terry: It definitely did for a while. Even us back in the day, when I was in Massacre, it was like, “Let’s try to play as fast as we can play and then write some songs.” Nowadays, you listen to it and it’s not that fast at all, but, at the time, it was. It’s natural to want to go faster and heavier, but where’s it going to go from here? Unless it’s like death metal and blast beats with polka music or something, what’s the next extreme thing? So for me, I want to enjoy music. I don’t want to sit there and listen to eight hours of black metal — and nothing against black metal — but I want some riffs. Our backstage ritual starts a couple hours before we hit stage, and you’ll hear anything from Willie Nelson, a heavy dose of Dio, Iron Maiden, maybe some Bad Company, or even Michael Jackson. 

Chase: For me, I like a lot of rap, and there’s some stuff that I’ve dug into almost the same way I did extreme music. There was this circle of artists that came up in the early-‘90s that had a similar push to the death metal tape-trading scene. They put out a bunch of different tapes, and that’s something I’ve just been digging into and nerding out about. But other guys in my band like country. We all take a break from what we do. 

Terry: For me, I’m always wanting to know more, and one of my favorite genres is the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. There are thousands of bands who only put out one album and an EP, maybe. And I’m still discovering those bands. It’s just about wanting to know more and wanting to hear more. 

Chase: There’s never enough, you know? I’m from the generation where, right around the time I was a teenager, and I was getting into music that wasn’t on the radio or whatever, the internet became a household thing. And I think there are still the same avenues in how you find new bands, like hearing a band and then trying to find out what bands they like. Or even just looking at the pictures of the bands and looking at what shirts they’re wearing, or the thank you list on their records. 

Terry: When I used to get a record I’d read every part of the lyric sheet. Like, Who are these people? Back when we started touring there was no internet and no cellphones, you had to find a payphone to call your booking agent.

Chase: I do think it’s a phenomenon in underground music to have that craving to find all this new music. People who like death metal, you can find a bunch of different bands that, to the untrained ear, they all kind of sound the same. But for me, it’s like, I like Obituary, and any band that sounds like Obituary I’m probably going to like. In other genres with a more casual listenership, they find a sort of mainstream band, they just kind of grab onto that one.

Terry: There’s just not as much of a need to research it. It’s not hard to find it, so it’s easy not to care. But that’s the way that metal has always been, it’s always been a community. It’s part of my blood and part of my soul. When I was 14 or 15 and we’d go see Nasty Savage and Savatage here, all your friends were there. We’d all be there hanging out watching this killer band play, and it felt like you were part of something. That’s just stayed with all of us, and I see that in people all over the world. They stick with it, because it’s not a fad. We stick together. 

Chase: I feel the same way. The time period that I came up, and where I lived in Arizona, the underground music worlds are all combined. I came up through metal, but also through punk and hardcore. There was not enough going on in Arizona that they could all exist on their own, so there was a mash-up of all that. As far as metal and my own personal preferences, I felt like I was always searching and always hungry for new music. By the time I heard death metal, like you said, I just wanted to hear riffs. As soon as I found that I was like, OK, this is what I like. I can’t see myself ever growing out of that. Because there are a lot of people who think they’ve grown out of it or have moved on, but I can’t see that happening to me. If I’m touring for six weeks, I get burned out and don’t want to go to a metal show, but as soon as I hear a riff that I like, I’m back in. 

Terry: When I first heard “Turn Up The Night” from Mob Rules it punched me in the face. It was brutal. To this day, it still does the same thing. I’ll never be too old for this. When I like something, I’m passionate about it. This kind of music, especially today, is more of a live thing. You don’t really sell many records or CDs, so it’s more of a live thing, and I love to see bands still touring. Back then, all the information came from fanzines, and now there are a hundred different metal sites on the internet, so it’s easy to get lost. 

Chase: Being of the new generation, I think for Gatecreeper, we’re part of a class of bands that’s this newer generation of bands playing this old-school death metal style. There’s a lot going on, but they’re my contemporaries or my peers, but even with that, there’s a lot. There are a lot of bands doing it. That’s why the stuff I’ll pay attention to is the stuff that’s done right, even down to the artwork, because they pay attention to every little detail. It’s easy to get lost in this crowd of a million bands, and there doesn’t even need to be a whole lot of thought to be able to release music now. To separate yourself and get noticed, you have to pay attention to all the details. 

Terry: I know what you mean. There are so many bands, and it’s impossible to know them all, or even if you’ve heard them all, there are so many genres and subgenres now you can get lost in it. When we were just starting out, it was just death metal. Sometimes it gets too compartmentalized. You can’t put a screamo band on tour with a doom metal band because it gets all muddied. Being in Obituary, we can write slower songs, write some fast songs, and it’s not going to take away from what we’re doing. On the other side, you take someone like Cannibal Corpse, and if they slowed down for two or three songs on an album, people would be like, “What is going on?” But for us, it’s natural to create something that might sound like another band.

Chase: I feel like sometimes with compartmentalizing, of putting these semi-rigid rules on your own music, it can help you be more creative. It’s almost like making a collage, because these are the things you have and it’s about how many different ways you can put them together. It makes you think more instead of just throwing stuff in there. With Gatecreeper, just like with Obituary, we’re not going to be a super technical band. We’ll do fast parts, but we don’t ever get into blasts, we’re pretty mid-tempo. There are those kind of rules 

Terry: It’s like any other recipe. You have 10 ingredients, but with those 10 ingredients, you can make 20 different dishes. You just have to combine it a certain way where each one’s a little bit different. When you hear Obituary, you know it’s us, but we don’t have to limit ourselves with our sound. 

Chase: With the compartmentalizing of everything, it’s a little bit about the pretentiousness of death metal. It’s like, “Oh, they do that in their songs, and I don’t like that.” With Gatecreeper, with the scenes being combined in Arizona, we played with hardcore bands, and we like hardcore, but in death metal some people see hardcore as a dirty word.

Terry: They don’t understand the history.

Chase: Yeah, exactly. I understand that there was a time where a certain kind of metalcore put a bad taste in people’s mouths. 

Terry: Death metal has a history with hardcore, because the speed of death metal came from hardcore. D.R.I. and the first Corrossion Of Conformity records, those early hardcore bands, that’s what made death metal. Dave Lombardo is a punk dude, and he was just playing punk beats — the Slayer beat is a punk beat. That’s where it came from, and it’s in every band from Possessed to Dark Angel to Carcass. Hardcore is part of it. 

Now, the metalcore thing, maybe it’s the vocals that people don’t like, but that’s a whole different thing. That took years to mutate into its own creature. But hardcore has a part in death metal. In those early days, if you put a record out, people would call you a sellout. You were cool with the demo, but not when you had a record out. Unfortunately, that kind of thing still does happen, people saying you can’t have a certain kind of vocals over a certain kind of music. You get purists in every kind of music, but especially in metal. 

Chase: I understand why people feel that way about certain things, because people are passionate about it. So I get it, but I don’t agree with a lot of it. Like I mentioned earlier, there are the fundamentals of what a death metal band should be, but whether they mix other things in there or spin new things off of it, that doesn’t bother me. Who they tour with or what label puts out their record or what they look like, those things don’t bother me. But those are the kind of things that people will use to write a band off. That’s just superficial stuff people use to make arguments about. And since I’ve only experienced it all in the internet age, I feel like it’s made it so that everyone’s opinion can be used to call someone out in the comments section. A new Gatecreeper song or new Obituary song comes out, and every bad thing that can be said someone will say. 

Terry: That’s the bad part of it. You’ve got to have thick skin. Not everyone in the world is going to like your band. Not everyone in the world likes Metallica or Pantera or Black Sabbath or The Beatles, they even have their haters. But the way I was raised, and the way I am, why even take the time to voice that?

Chase: I don’t want to fully reroute, but I’ve always found it interesting to talk to people like yourself who lived through these things I’m interested in, these things I’ve only read about in books. You mentioned Pantera, and you were in bands before that, and then Pantera came out and they were this really popular band, how did you and your peers perceive that? Was it not cool to like Pantera?

Terry: It was a mix. I knew Pantera from the first couple albums when they were glam metal. I had those records on vinyl and thought they just sounded like KISS. Then that one album came out that broke them and I was like, “What the hell happened to this band?” They were completely different, and I thought it was OK, but it didn’t blow my mind. But I had friends who loved them and then friends who hated them. And they hated them just because they were glam metal and then went heavy. 

Chase: The death metal history for example, I read that book Choosing Death when I was getting into it, and that era of the Earache bands like Carcass’ Heartwork and Entombed’s Wolverine Blues and Morbid Angel’s Domination, and that era of stuff I really like. But from what I understand, those are kind of a sore spot.  

Terry: I love Heartwork, and all the other Carcass stuff, too. I know people thought they sold out, because it was a little more commercial sounding, but you could really hear the riffs. It was heavy as shit. I didn’t get into Entombed much after the first record, it just changed too much for me, and no disrespect to anyone who likes it. 

Chase: Even Obituary’s World Demise could fall under that. 

Terry: Yeah, exactly. Changed the style a bit, simplified it a hair, it wasn’t so much Slayer riffs as it was Celtic Frost stuff. But I mean, we’ve just gotta get Obituary and Gatecreeper out on tour together, and we can really talk about all that stuff. 

Chase: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s really interesting to be a fan of the history of metal and death metal and all this stuff, not being around for it, it’s always really nice to talk to somebody who was there. Because sometimes the only information I can get is kind of revisionist history because of what we see now. But yeah, if we play together, I’ll definitely pick your brain. 

(Photo Credit: left, Kevin RC Wilson)

Obituary is a death metal band from Tampa, Florida. Their most recent album, Obituary, was released in 2017.

(Photo Credit: Ester Segarra)