Dechristianization: An Interview with Vital Remains’ Tony Lazaro

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Those of you who’ve seen my interview with Bathory’s Quorthon (here) may remember that I used to write for a website in the early 2000s that has long since disappeared, my interviews disappearing from public view with it. Another such interview I’m going to exhume for your reading pleasure is one with Vital Remains’ Tony Lazaro, which took place by phone shortly after the release of 2003’s “Dechristianize.” At this point, I was brand new to the band, and had only heard “Dechristianize.” I was very impressed with it but, looking back, I would’ve appreciated this opportunity a lot more if I had been familiar with the rest of their albums the way I am now. While “Dechristianize” still seems to get the lion’s share of praise in their discography, monsters like “Let Us Pray” and “Into Cold Darkness” (my favourite) helped forge the sound of American death metal and belong to the ages.

A gentle reminder that I was still an idiot teenager at the time of this interview, so my question selection isn’t exactly the most astute. Nevertheless, here it is in its unaltered glory save for the correction of a few grammatical errors, and I’m sure any fan of Vital Remains will enjoy the read.

Voidhanger: For those who aren’t too familiar with Vital Remains, could you give us a description and a brief history of the band?

Tony Lazaro: Well, we started out in ’89, put out a demo, “Reduced to Ashes,” then in 1990 we put out another demo, “Excruciating Pain.” To which we got a 7-inch deal with Thrash Records from France, put out a 7-inch called “The Black Mass,” it did really well. Led to a deal with Peaceville, which we put out “Let Us Pray” and “Into Cold Darkness,” in ’92 and ’94. Then we signed with Osmose, put out two records for them, “Forever Underground,” and “Dawn of the Apocalypse,” then we decided to part with them and we signed with Olympic, which they got bought out by Century Media, and here we are! That’s pretty much the history as far as the music and everything else in between.

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V: How did you choose your band name, and what does it stand for?

TL: Vital Remains was actually… the name came from the original guitar player Paul’s brother, Paul Flynn the other guitar player at the time, original guitarist’s brother came up with it, and he came up with it and it just stuck with the band over the years. In the beginning we thought about it, what does it mean, because some people would think it was Vital Remains, like almost a gore thing? Gore band kinda thing, or like remains of a body or something… that were vital or whatever? But, we had thought about it, and to me… some people maybe they took it like that, but to me, I thought about it and I presented this to the band one day that to me, Vital Remains if you think about it is about existence. Vital that we remain, you know what I mean? It’s more of a satanic thing to me if you look, if you take one of the satanic statements from the satanic bible, it is important, vital existence, you know what I mean? So to me, that’s what it means, it means our existence is vital. It’s important, and it’s vital that we leave our mark and our music behind, leave our mark in the metal world and that’s how I look at it when people ask me what’s the meaning of the name. So that’s what it is for me.

V: What would be your most memorable gig as Vital Remains, and why?

TL: Oh, there’s so many. Oh man… I mean, early on I’d have to say like ’89, opening for like, Morbid Angel, when they were totally fresh and new. I actually booked them, so- because it was hard for them to get shows, because it was still a glam thing in the late eighties, and it was hard for us to play shows because they didn’t want anything to do with satanic death metal bands, you know? So I didn’t want to stand around and just be angry and not do anything, so I just took the goat by the horns and just kinda said, “Well, fuck it, I’ll go to a club and start being a promoter and bring bands in and we’ll just open for them to get exposure,” and that’s exactly what we did and we ended up bringing Death, and Carcass, and Deicide, and a whole bunch of other bands, and that’s how we started doing our shows early on, so those were some of the memorable gigs. I’d say touring with Autopsy in ’94 was very memorable, that whole tour was just killer. It was very new, fresh and stuff and just touring around the country and playing the music and the shows were all killer and those guys from Autopsy were super killer. And you know, going to Europe for the first time in ’97, and actually getting to meet the fans that had waited years and years to see us, and shit like that you know? Absolutely, you don’t forget, and then in 2000 we played Russia and Poland, and it was overwhelming, some of the things that you don’t forget, they were just memorable and killer shows.

V: Vital Remains has had quite a few lineup changes in its history, with you being the only remaining original member. How do you feel this has affected the evolution of the band?

TL: Well I really don’t think it has affected in the sense that is set us back, other than obviously maybe some missed opportunities here when there were some lineup changes, but I’ve always written the music since the beginning, so me, I’ve always progressed and tried to write better each time I came up to writing a new record or whatever I would always put a hundred percent into it and try to progress and get better and keep pushing myself, so… It really hasn’t hurt the band so far as the lineup, I mean it’s definitely been some stressful times, but sometimes people start out one way, a hundred percent and then shit happens all the time and they can’t commit to the band, so you end up losing members or letting people go because it isn’t working out. But I just stay focused and positive. The fans know that I’m not going anywhere, I’ve been in it for the long haul as you can see, fourteen years, I’m the last original member but again, I’ve been the creative force behind the band, writing and everything, so I’ve always tried to have this attitude, like whoever’s with me is with me at the time, and as long as I don’t give up and I keep focused and keep pushing myself to write the best music I can for myself, that’s all that matters. But that’s about it, you know? I haven’t let it bother me. Dave’s been with me since ’96 so we’ve actually kept it going and I’m very grateful to him for sticking with me and being on the same page and focusing together, and it’s been great, so we haven’t let it bother us. That’s how I look at it.

V: What inspires your music?

TL: Well, there’s different things. It could be just- obviously this long hatred for Christianity for since we can remember and I could go on and on, we take some things like that and it could be anything. It could be taken from that, it could be taken from reading something from Lovecraft, or any kind of book can inspire me to write, it’s not one particular thing there are many things than can affect as far as giving you that confidence to sit down and try to write something. It could just be a drive down to Lovecraft’s grave, which I do a lot to kinda influence us or give us that sort of strength, and you come out of it charged, out of the cemetery. And there’s different things that influence us, different music really gets us going and stuff like that, there’s many different elements. You know what I mean? But it’s definitely a tool for me and Dave and myself it’s been for years venting my anger and everything through my music, so there are many different elements though I’d have to say, not just one particular one.

V: How did you come in contact with Glen Benton?

TL: Well I’ve known Glen for like twelve years and just known him for a long time. As far as doing the record, we had asked him to do backing vocals back in ’94 on our second album “Into Cold Darkness,” but it didn’t end up working out, at the time he was busy, so over the years just see him and open up for the guys and just shoot the shit and everything, just always thought it’d be cool to have him do guest vocals so a couple of years ago when I was on the road guitar checking for Eric Hoffman and roadie-ing for them I had asked Glen if he would do backing vocals, and he said “yeah, if it can be worked out I’d do it for you guys,” we’d have to find a part for him and he was like “I’d do it.” So we were working doing a lot of pre-production trying to get ready to do this record and we realized this singer we had, a friend of ours that’d been working with us for a few months wasn’t working out and he wasn’t ready to go in the studio to do the record, it wasn’t there yet, and we were being pressured to do this record from the record company, they really wanted to get us in the studio and get this record out, or done at least. So we had to make a decision, a business decision, whether or not, what we’re going to do and we decided to let the singer go, a friend, it just wasn’t working out, he just wasn’t ready to go in the studio and that’s when we mentioned it go Glen, the dilemma, the problem we had and he just said, “well, you know, I’ll just help you guys out, do the whole record.” And we were just all blown away, like… wow, killer, you know? Awesome. So he pretty much offered his service to help us out and the rest is history.

V: So was he only on “Dechristianize,” or is he a permanent member of the band now?

TL: He did “Dechristianize,” and he’s publicly stated that if the demand is there, and he has time, that he would tour with us. So we’re just kinda taking it day by day, I mean this whole thing is just overwhelming and the response has just been incredible from press and the fans and we’re just taking it one day at a time, and if it happens, we’ll just be that much more excited and you’ll see that when we play, the brutality. If not, then we’ll still go out and support the record, so we just take it one day at a time and see what happens. We’re all going to have to wait and see, that’s how I look at it, you know? Don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. But hopefully the demand is there.

V: I had the privilege of hearing “Dechristianize,” and I’m blown away, honestly. It’s incredible, the drumming, and you’re an excellent guitarist.

TL: Thank you very much. Well I’m glad man, we worked really hard on this record and it’s kinda like we put more effort and energy into the record. Dave and I have talked about it and joked a little bit about it, it was almost like a war for us, it really was, to get through it all, with all the delays and all the technical side of it with Century buying out Olympic and the lawyers and contracts and having to wait before things could actually start to move, you know what I mean? It’s just some technical stuff, and then the studio and recording and just really a lot of stress and just wanting to put out the best and it felt like a war. I mean, we literally for two weeks after the record were drained, mentally, physically. But now we can look back and say it’s all worth it, you know? Because we really wanted it to be a hundred percent, but we did but a lot into it so I’m glad that people are responding well to it and really taking to it, it’s killer.

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V: Glen sounded right at home on the record, was it easy to adjust to Glen being a part of the band, and for Glen to adjust being part of Vital Remains?

TL: Actually he’s just such a pro, in the studio he just took to the music really quickly and like a real professional as far as he really wanted to show people his range and to some of the critics that may be out there that like to kinda bust his chops about things. He wanted to show people like that that he has the range, and he could sing, with just pure power with highs and lows and this was his thing of just showing people that he’s still here and he’s still got it, and he blew us away it was like fast, it’s so professional that he pretty much just came in here in three or four days and busted out all the vocal tracks and he made sure every line was perfect so it was an honour to watch him and just total respect for Glen as far as watching him and the way he is, the way he approaches. I mean I’ve gotten people saying that it was almost like he’d been working with us for years, you know? That’s how it just fit and people think we did rehearse a lot, and we didn’t rehearse at all. You know with Glen, Glen pretty much just came in and with his professionalism and determination, he just went off and it was just pure evil, man, it was just incredible to watch him perform, and it was just amazing.

V: How did the process of writing the songs and lyrics occur for [“Dechristianize”]?

TL: Basically I’ve written all the music like I always do, which is I write the music beforehand like all of it, from one riff from beginning to end, and once that I feel the song is done, and as you know our songs are long, I’ve never really looked at a clock when I write, I just write until I feel it’s done. And when I feel a song is done, if it’s a month and a half, two months later then I present it to Dave and usually when I write a riff, I usually have the drum tempos in my head, the drum beats in my head so I usually will tell Dave exactly what the beats he should play to them, to the riffs, and then he lays all the harmony and the leads, he’ll lay that in there. He may leave a few spots open for some improv, and some maybe spontaneous thing he might come up with some ideas in the studio. But once we have all the music, just the foundation of the music, we’ll lay it down on anything from a four-track, but usually for the last couple of albums we’ve done it on an eight-track, reel to reel that Dave has, and we’ll lay all the music down and basically, on this album, Dave just wrote all the lyrics. So we literally once we got the music down, then we had the phrasing and actually phrase all the lyrics into the music, all the verses and everything and that was Dave so Dave did all that. So we had all the pre-production done that way, so it was like music first, then lyrics, then once that was all done that’s when we presented that to Glen to listen to, because like I said originally he was going to do some backing vocals. He got familiar with it that way, and that’s how he got used to it just hearing Dave singing his phrases, you know what I mean? So it was easier for him to kinda know exactly how he wanted it phrased, and he suggested some stuff too, and it worked out really killer. That’s pretty much how the writing goes and how it came about.

V: How do you feel “Dechristianize” compares to previous Vital Remains albums?

TL: Well, I definitely think it’s our best work. Hands down, man. I mean, I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass, I really think we worked our asses off for this album, and it shows, and after “Dawn,” because I think “Dawn” was our best up until this album, and I was like how can I top “Dawn?” I mean it came out so killer and I really liked it a lot. But we wanted to take it up a few notches with the brutality and the speed, so we pretty much worked our asses off for like a year and a half with Dave on drums and just getting his drum speed up. But again, we wanted to have it dynamic, so I think this record has some elements of “Dawn” but yet we’ve taken it up ten notches with the speed and brutality, and all the harmonies and leads we just put so much more into it that I think it’s just a more well-rounded album, all the way around more than “Dawn.” It just has so much more with everything, with all the elements we put in and the texture and everything. Me and Dave we’re just totally psyched and proud and blown away. We just listen to it and we shake our heads sometimes too, you know? Like holy shit, did we do this? It’s insane to think that we pulled it off and everything, but it’s definitely our best work and we’re getting a lot of feedback and they’re all saying the same thing. You know, it’s overwhelming, you get people saying best album of the year, and I’m like, “Already? How can you say that?” It’s incredible, putting us in comparison with all these other albums, they were saying it’s up there with “Altars of Madness” and “Legion” and “Hell Awaits” and I’m like… just to be mentioned in the sentence with those guys, it’s just overwhelming, you don’t know how to react. One minute you’re excited, like “Wow, holy shit,” and the next you’re like “Nah, that can’t be! Those albums are killer!” But it’s just overwhelming and we’re just proud of all the positive feedback and just overwhelmed, it’s just incredible, you know? We’re very excited; it’s killer, man.

V: Is there any song on “Dechristianize” that you are particularly proud of?

TL: Well yeah, I mean the title song “Dechristianize” I really just think it’s amazing, it’s got everything in it. It opens up and just gives you an idea of what we’re trying to get across right from the get-go, right from the gate. And also “Entwined by Vengence,” just sheer brutality and again, the dynamics of that song. I mean I can’t single out- those two definitely stick out but to me all the songs have a uniqueness and their own kinda thing that you can pull from, you know what I mean? I tried to put something different in every song so it wouldn’t just be repetitive and would keep people and just myself interested, just try to put as much into each song. They’re not all the same, and it’s interesting to listen to and it still had the brutality of course. But those two, you know, again they’re definitely powerful songs that I’m proud of. Wicked proud of, Dave and I both.

V: Are there any chances for Canadian tour dates?

TL: We’d love to play Canada! We haven’t played Canada since ’95. The only thing that’s stopping us is the whole border thing. The last time we tried to go over to do some shows was I think it might’ve been ’97… Yeah, it was like ’97 and we tried to go over and we were denied access and we were told in a rude manner that it wasn’t a right to come to Canada, that it was a privilege. They were very rude to us and we were just like, “Well we just want to come and play for the fans,” But because we’ve all had records, nothing major, but yet they looked upon us almost like we were murderers. We’ve had stuff that was like when we were seventeen some of us at the time, and you know, things that were taken care of a long time ago and were forgotten here, but I guess in Canada they threw it right in our face and weren’t going to let us through and they denied us access. It’s too bad because there are a lot of fans we’d like to play for in Canada, and we’d even looked into how much and we’d heard that now they want like twenty-five hundred dollars that you have to put up and that doesn’t guarantee you access, that just means you’re putting up the money and we’ve been told that they could take the money and deny you access on top of it, and that’s not refundable. So it’s too bad about that, you know? Because we’re going over there as musicians. You go over there to do your job and perform for people, it’s actually good relations between Canada and the United States. If a Canadian band were to come here it’s the same thing, and I don’t see why they would deny you access to go in there just to go do what you gotta do, your job and everything and know that you’re not a threat or nothing, but I guess they have their strict laws and I guess United States pretty much does the same. It’s like politics, they do things their way and the United States kinda does things their way towards the Canadians. It’s kinda stupid, but hopefully we can work something out, hopefully things will change and they’ll be a little more accepting and you can put some sort of bond up that you could receive back, I think that would be the smartest thing that if you didn’t go over there and get into some sort of bar fight, they’d be like, “Hey that’s cool, you just went over, you did your thing, you left, everything’s cool,” you know? I’d like to see that. But we’ll have to wait and see; again, I’d like to perform. I get a lot of emails and mail from Canada, people asking about it and we haven’t been over there in like eight years. It would be cool, we’ll have to wait and see.

V: Your website shows “Extreme Metal” by Tony McIver as the last book you read. Having checked out this book myself, how do you think extreme metal is viewed in the mainstream, and do you think that opinion is a valid one?

TL: By the mainstream? Well, some of the mainstream they think it’s, the music’s whatever, I can’t really speak for the mainstream because I’m not really the mainstream. I’ve always been an underground band, proud of it, proud to be part of this whole underground and have pride in the underground and being an underground extreme death metal band, I’ve never really thought like these people. But I think things are changing because if you notice you see like Pantera bringing out Morbid Angel and some of these acts, now Ozzfest’s going to have Cradle of Filth and if anything you see the mainstream being a little more open, accepting to the more extreme bands which is cool because I think we’ve deserved it, we’ve worked all these years and everything that for them to just kinda look down upon, I mean that’s just not right. There’s a lot of killer bands that play death metal and black metal and just extreme music, that they don’t have really, in my opinion, have the right to kinda look down and just say negative things, and if you notice the music has been going heavier. If anything, a lot of the mainstream bands seem to be borrowing stuff that’s like heavy, tuned down stuff that’s kinda borrowed from death metal and more heavier music. So I think it’s something that’s changing, whether or not I like it, I mean I dunno, I’m kinda in the middle I guess, you know what I mean? We all like to have our music heard without sacrificing anything, so I couldn’t tell you how the extreme people think, I mean, what I see. And that’s about it.

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V: What is your view on the metal scene today, and are there any recent bands that you particularly like?

TL: Well, I had just seen Behemoth on Sunday and they just blew me away. Absolutely brutal, flawless live, it was just incredible to watch them come out with brutality, and just flawless playing. That was refreshing, it was like the same feeling I felt when we first opened for Morbid Angel with “Altars of Madness,” the way they just kicked everyone’s ass it kinda reminded me of that, it was like that freshness of a band coming that’s hungry, just crushing everybody in its way, and they really blew my mind the other night. I was talking to the singer afterwards which he was praising the new record and I was like, “We listened to ‘Satanica’ in the studio at Morrisound,” and he said, throughout the tours even in Europe he’s had “Dechristianize” in his CD player, it’s one of his five top discs, and it was like we were complimenting each other, which was killer, you know? But I think the scene’s getting better, I mean, it’s killer. There’s a lot of killer bands, and it seems it’s getting bigger and it’s turning around, locally, even here in Providence, the scene seems like it’s getting bigger, and starting to generate more people again, and even some of my old friends coming out of the woodwork coming back and seeing shows. It’s cool, it’s definitely getting better.

V: The Vital Remains website lists Dark Lord, Equinox, Melek Taus and Somatic Death as other bands you’ve been involved with. Could you tell us a bit about them?

TL: Well, yep… those were bands that I kinda was in over the years. I was in Melek Taus about 1982, ’83, and just local bands that were playing early thrash, and stuff like that and trying to be like Venom, because when we first heard Venom in ’81, we had been playing like Priest and Black Sabbath and you know, your basic metal, and as soon as we heard Venom it was our big influence so we just took it from there. So it was bands like that, and Equinox was more of a technical thrash band, it was influenced by Possessed, and all these real brutal, straightforward- you know, and we played a couple of shows live here, and Dark Lord was like a black metal band that we had in ’87, and it was actually members of Somatic Death. Actually Somatic Death was a band that myself and Jeff, our original singer, we had a band in ’85, ’86 right out of when we were still in high school and we used to practice here in my house and stuff, so… yeah, it was just bands I was in that people like locally knew, you know? Just shows that it wasn’t something like just joined Vital in ’89 and made this band, and that’s all I’ve done, I just wanted to let people know that I’ve done other things. Actually in Dark Lord we made one demo in ’87, and I have the copy… we still have it and stuff, so… [Christ I want to hear that demo. – Voidhanger]

V: So all these bands are defunct now?

TL: Yeah pretty much, Melek Taus ended up years later becoming a band called Ritual Sacrifice. I think they might’ve done an album or something for some independent label or something like that which was technical thrash metal, in the vein of like Slayer meets Terrorizer. And then they kinda dropped out of the whole thing, just kinda just gave up, and I just kept going.

V: How might one be able to get a hold of one of the Crucifire Yavcon guitars that you endorse?

TL: If you contact through Yavcon.com and you talk to Ken there, he’ll give you information. My guitar should be finished by the end of the month, and then they’ll go into mass production by taking orders as far as the guitar and everything. But I’m really proud of it, I had that design for a long time and I finally found someone that stepped up to the plate and […] said, “I could make this happen,” and real proud of it and everything, it’s gonna be one sick-looking guitar when it’s finished. And with the 666 lights that light up it’s insane, it’s got upside-down cross inlays, it was like a first, you know the guy who made it actually had to change his program on his blade machine to make upside-down crosses, because he had only made right-side up crosses, so he’s like “That’s a first!” So it’s killer for me, I had always wanted a guitar that represented me, you know what I mean? Instead of having something that like eight million people have that’s not really you and it’s just… you know, I wanted something unique. To me it’s like a tool, like for a tradesman, you might have a basic tool, but then you might have a major something that works really well for the job, and the me your guitar, your axes, it’s your instrument, it’s your tool, and I always wanted something that represented me and what I’m about. It’s perfect, it’s exactly what I wanted. So yeah, you go through them, he’s got other options too, he’s got like eighty or ninety options on guitar, so he’s got a lot of great ideas, so he’d definitely gonna revolutionize guitar-making.

V: Do you like to hang out with fans after a show?

TL: Absolutely. I hang with fans even before the show! I’m the first guy, man. As soon as we get to the venue people come up, I’m the first guy to talk to people, first guy that if you say, “Let’s go drink a beer,” I’m the first guy to pour the thing, or to buy the beer, or whatever. That’s what it’s always been for me. It’s not like I’m above anybody, it’s like I’m a fan, I’m part of the underground too, I’m the first one to kinda want to hang out with people, and even on the road I don’t really hang with my bandmates, I’m usually the first one to go off with some fan like in Europe and go drink beer at the bar! I take off with people and go… whatever, you know? So yeah, definitely. I’m the type of person to do that.

V: Again, thank you very much for the opportunity and for your time, it’s been a pleasure. Congratulations on the upcoming release of “Dechristianize,” and I shall give the final word on this interview over to you.

TL: Thank you very much. Well, to all the fans in Canada, hails to you, I hope you like the record, “Dechristianize,” and hopefully we see you on the road. Hails!

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