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Dream Death are easily one of my favorite doom/death metal bands as I was a fan of them back in 1986 when they released their “Journey into Mystery” release. Well the band is back with an amazing new release called “ Somnium Excessum” and here is a nice long chat with original band members Mike Smail and Brian Lawrence
CF: Did you think in a million years that in 2016 the band would still be around and that you would be answering interviews like these?
Brian: Not a chance in hell. Particularly as I, myself, had no interest in getting back into this business.
Mike: Not really. I’ve always kept playing throughout the years when everyone else either quit or at least took a break, but I’m not sure I thought it would be this many years!
CF: Now I know the band was based in Pittsburgh, now is that where you grew up? Did you come from a big or small family? What sort of kid were you growing up?
Brian: All of us are from Pittsburgh or the surrounding area. Mike and I grew up in a small town outside of the city with fairly small families. We never had family issues growing up but I think we wanted to break out of the town that we grew up in. We were fairly typical metal teens in the sense that we couldn't stand the conformity and the herd mentality of other groups of people. This led to metal and then to Dream Death.
Mike: Yea, Brian pretty much sums it up here. Both Brian & I are the babies of the family and have other siblings. Brian has 2 older brothers and I have 1. They were rather older than us so we were more like each other’s brother for sure.
CF: Now I am not who is doing this interview, but I am sure it is Mike or Brian and if this is Mike, do you remember the days of us writing letters back and forth and our interview in issue # 2 of Metal Core zine?
Mike: Yes, I certainly do! That’s been more years than I care to remember. (same on this end my friend-chris)
CF: Now what led to you picking up an instrument and did you take lessons and if so how long did you take them for and did at the time think you were a good player?
Brian: Mike and I both took lessons when we were younger but he stuck with them longer than I did. I was never a good player and Mike still thinks I suck. Haha.
Mike: I took lessons off and on, but was never really a good student. I didn’t really practice much of what my instructor wanted me to, but I was always playing (mostly with Brian) I was more concerned with us learning whatever covers we were trying to play (Sabbath, Judas Priest, Alice Cooper etc.) and more so us coming up with and writing our own material.
CF: Now what were some of the first bands that you listened to and liked a lot? Do you remember the 1st record that you brought?
Brian: When I was very young I was into The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Elvis. I was drawn to their more "rock" oriented songs. In the late seventies I found KISS and it was like the same attraction but turned up louder and that was very appealing. Around 1980, Mike and I discovered Judas Priest which took it to an entire other level. This led to UFO, Scorpions and the entire NWOBHM. That stuff is the soundtrack to my youth and I still think there was some really high quality stuff produced around that time.
Mike: Yea the Beach Boys were really the first band I was listening to. Then we really got on to KISS like most people I suppose. When we wanted to listen to something else, it really wasn’t another band, but a different KISS record. Brian’s older brother Jeff had an old reel to reel player with a bunch of tapes in the basement. Brian and I would look through them. America, Alice Cooper, Bread, Black Sabbath…………wait a minute?......what’s that? We put on the Sabs and then everything changed.
CF: Now how did you first find out about the wonderful world of heavy metal? Was it something that you took too right away or did it take a few listens to get into that style of music? What were some of the first bands that you heard metalwise?
Brian: I kind of touched on it previously but it was an instant attraction. The sound and the album covers just took me to another level. After my KISS stage and before Judas Priest, my oldest brother heard me listening to KISS all of the time and said you have to hear "this". Well, "this" was the song Black Sabbath cranked to full volume in in our parent's basement with the lights turned off. Love at first listen. Priest came next and it was chaos from there.
Mike: Yea, those were the days! Priest, Scorpions, AC/DC, Van Halen, UFO all the classic stuff which led us right up to the NWOBHM days. 1980……..the best year of all!
CF: Now how did come to discover underground music? Who was the lovely person who did this and what were some of the 1st bands that you heard? As with metal did it take a few listens to get into underground metal or did you like it right away?
Brian: I guess I answered this previously but there was absolutely no hesitation. I just always loved the heavy aesthetic. And there was no other reason for liking it. It wasn't popular (at that time), girls didn't really like it for the most part. It was just a love of the music and the viewpoint on life that it represented.
CF: What was it like going down to Eide’s Record store for the 1st time? Who told you about that store and did you spend a lot of time there over the years in the early days?
Brian: We found a store called B&D records that was not so far from where Mike took drum lessons. Mike's mom or dad would take us there after the lesson and I would patiently sit in the music store waiting to go. This place was like dreamland when we first went there. All of the groups that we had heard about like Saxon, Motorhead, The Rods, Iron Maiden, etc were there. But we also found many new things like Angel Witch, Venom, Raven, Tank and on and on. Later, I started to go to college and met Dan Klasnick there (of Doomwatch fame) and we would go to B&D between classes. He asked if I ever heard of Eide's and that it was like B&D but with even more. He wasn't lying. It was great!
CF: Now was Dream Death your 1st band? How did you find the other band members? If Dream Death was not your 1st band, what band or bands were you in before Dream Death?
Brian: Mike and I grew up together and started playing together at the same time. We went thru various stages of development with some pretty juvenile band names along the way. When we became (somewhat) competent and settled on what style of music that we wanted to play then we became serious and sought out a bass player, who was Ted Williams, and that was the start of DD.
Mike: HA! Yea the first name I remember was Alloy Hex!
CF: Now did you go through many early line-ups before you came to the core line-up? Now how long was the band together before you started to write songs? How easy was it to come up with songs at the time?
Brian: We had always written songs from the first time that we started playing. None of them were any good but you have to start somewhere. When we got serious about writing, and when we formed the three piece band with Ted, then the songs just started to flow out. Sealed in Blood was the first real DD song and all of the songs on the first demo came together fairly quickly. Mike and I would play all of the time, working out arrangements and practicing.
Mike: Yea, it seemed pretty easy because you were so into what you were doing at that time. Everything was fresh and new………both playing-wise and trying to expand yourself as well as the music. Thrash hadn’t started yet etc…..and all the other “genres” yet. We were just focused on HEAVY! Whatever that entailed in whatever form. We were all about just being heavy.
CF: Now I read where you played just one show before you recorded your demo. Is that true? Where was this show at and what was the turn out like and what was your set list like, was it all originals and how did you go over with the crowd?
Brian: I'm not sure if that's true. I think we put the first demo out before we attempted to play live. The first show was at the Electric Banana with a punk band whose name escapes me now. The turnout was not bad and I think that we went over pretty well. I don't remember if the crowd was there to see us or the other band but we did have a small buzz going in Pittsburgh after we released our first recording. We probably played the entire first demo with a couple of covers thrown in. Possibly Angel Witch's Angel of Death because we played that a few times in our early days.
CF: Now tell me about your 1st demo. Where did you record it at and how many songs were on it? Was it easy for you guys going into the studio and record or was it a pain in the ass at the time?
Brian: Ted had read an article about how to multitrack and we rented a 4-track Tascam recorder from a local music store called Pianos and Stuff. We recorded the drums to 3 tracks but I don't remember how many mics we used on them. It may have been more than 3 because we had this archaic mixing box that we possibly plugged more mics into and mixed to the three tracks. While Mike laid down the drum part, he wore a pair of powered headphones that were plugged into my guitar so that I could play along with him. They sounded like distorted crap to him and I couldn't hear one thing that I was playing but that's how we got thru it. This was all in Mike's parent's spare room. They were very patient with us playing all of the time. I then laid my rhythm guitar track down and we bounced these tracks out to a cassette tape and bounced them back to 2 on the Tascam. Then we put down bass and lead guitar and possibly bounced it all one more time. Then it was time for vocals and we didn't have a singer. Since I wrote the lyrics, I was volunteered to sing. We plugged a mic into Ted's bass cabinet and did them pretty much in one take.
CF: Now when you released this demo, did you know all about the underground and tape trading and fanzines and stuff? If so did you send many demos out to be reviewed? Was this 1st demo done on a blank tape that you had to go and record each and every copy? I assume you sold a lot at Edie’s Record store, but around how many copies of this demo did you sell do you think and what was the response to the demo like at the time?
Brian: We were totally aware of the underground tape trading scene. We bought many tapes ourselves from the reviews in magazines. So we sent our demo out to everything that we had been reading. Like you said, we had to record every copy ourselves. Mike had a dual cassette deck and we would just run them all the time. Locally, we sold them at Eides for sure and they were very supportive of local bands. I don't remember how many we sold. Probably a few hundred.
Mike: Yea, those were the days where you could just send in your demo tape to bigger mags like Metal Forces etc. and you had a decent chance that they would review it. You’d never be able to do that now. We were big tape traders as that’s how you could get a hold of even more new music that you never heard of. Sometimes you’d just get a mixed tape with 10-15 different bands and then if you liked the one or two songs that you heard, of course you’d hunt them down and buy it.
CF: Now prior to the 2nd demo you got band member Terry Weston in the band who used to be in Doomwatch. How easy was it to get him to join the band and why did you feel to need to add a 2nd guitar player to the band?
Mike: We met Terry in line waiting for a Trouble show on The Skull tour. We became friends and he was a guitar player. We never really thought about him joining us right away for whatever reason, but he wanted to join a band. We told him that Doomwatch was needing a bass player so he started jamming with them. There soon after, he really wanted to play guitar and he joined up with us.
CF: Now back in 1987 you released your 2nd demo called “More Graveyard Delving”, which I got a copy to review back in the day. Did you go to the same studio to record this demo? At the time were you pretty happy with this demo? I think when I got my copy it was on a blank Maxell tape. Am I right and did you have to dub each and copy that you sold and sent out? How many copies of this did you sell around?
Mike: That was our first time in a “real” studio. We had no idea what we were doing for sure and it was new territory for us. I’m not sure the guy working there knew what to really do with us either. I think we were his first really heavy/metal band so it was rather a feeling out kinda thing. At the time it was definitely a step up from our home brew 1st demo. Yep, we dubbed them all ourselves and Xeroxed the covers. Not sure about numbers.
CF: Did you end up sending this demo out to many record companies? Did you get much interest from any besides New Renaissance Records? How did they end up contacting you and looking back how was it working with them? Do you feel they promoted the band well?
Mike: I think we sent it to the regulars at the time………probably Roadrunner, Metal Blade, MegaForce and such. Everyone knows how they treated us……….it’s bullshit and she’s still ripping us off till this day!
CF: Where did you end up recording your debut release? Who came up with the title for the album and also who did the incredible artwork for it? Did you feel much pressure going into the studio to record this time since this was a debut release for the band?
Mike: A place called Gammut Studios. I can’t remember who came up with the title, I believe it was Brian but I’m not 100% sure about that. Ted’s girlfriend did the artwork. No, not a lot of pressure other than the normal stuff about getting good takes and the whole time=money stuff.
CF: Now when this came out how was the response to it? Were you pretty much happy with it overall? Did you get to do any type of touring at all?
Mike: Overall, it was rather lackluster. I’ve never really been happy with it, recording wise. It was only our 2nd time in a “real” studio and we were just kids. We had no idea of how/what to do in order to get a good recording. That’s always been an x factor and has taken me years of messing up/figuring out what works and what doesn’t in the studio. It’s like trying to learn another instrument really. We really didn’t tour and just played around Pgh.
CF: Speaking of playing live, how do you feel you were as a live band back then? Did Pittsburgh have a good solid underground metal scene back then? When I say Electric Banana what flows through your mind? Are there any live clips floating around on sites like You Tube of the band?
Mike: Live was where we really came across-relating back to not knowing what to do in studio. Seeing us live, you really got a sense of what we were trying to do. We were definitely a wall of sound. The EB was our home base so to speak. A real dive bar where everyone in the scene (both in and out of Pgh) played. It was our CBGB. Yep.
CF: Now as far as playing live, what was the farthest live you got to play as a band at that time? What were some of the bands that you played with and what was your biggest show that you played at that time?
Mike: Either Cleveland or Salamanca NY. The biggest show was Halloween night opening for Megadeth on the Peace Sells tour. Nuclear Assault was pretty big as well and Zoetrope too. Oh yea, Dr.Know was rather big too, but mostly punkers at that one.
Brian: Baltimore and some West Virginia college towns were other places we played too.
CF: Now the next year you released a demo so what happened with New Renaissance Records? Was it a bad break-up with the label? Looking back was it a bad mistake on the bands part to sign with this label and that maybe you should have held out for another label?
Mike: We had enough and just threw in the towel. Yep.
CF: Now in 1988 you released a demo called “Ode to Sorrow”. Was this an industry only demo or did you sell this to the public too? What was the response to this demo like?
Mike: No, we sold some copies of that one too. We had a local guy who had a studio in his basement. It was a 2 or 4 track reel to reel or something of the like. Revelation recorded some stuff there for their 1st record too. Our fans liked it, but ………it was just a demo.
CF: Did you send this demo out to all the indie labels? What was the response like if you did?
Mike: I don’t really remember honestly. We broke up soon after.
Brian: I don’t think we put much effort into selling it if I remember. Didn’t really shop it around as before. I think the wind was coming out of the sails at that point.
CF: How did you come up with the band name Dream Death and do you feel you were at the time an original band and how long do you think it took to find the Dream Death sound so to speak?
Mike: It was a song before a band name. We were having a hard time coming up with a name and we just kinda went to that until we came up with something better, but once we started-it just stuck. We always wanted to change the name, especially since it lumped us more in with Death Metal which we never really were. Our sound was our sound pretty much from the get go. It wasn’t something that we “tried” to get or anything. It’s just what comes out when we pick up our instruments.
CF: So what led to the band breaking up/changing its name to Penance? Is Penance still active these days?
Mike: Once DD ended, it was the perfect time to change the name like we always wanted to. No.
CF: While in Penance did you do any Dream Death songs live at all and did many people still ask for Dream Death at all?
Mike: Yea, we did most of the songs from the 3rd demo.
Brian: Those songs all became Penance songs anyway. We would also do Sealed in Blood and I think the song Dream Death now and then. For some reason I think I had more fun playing live when we were Penance. Not sure why………
CF: So now we fast forward to 2005 and a release called ‘Back from the Dead” by Psyche doomelic Records. What led to this happening and what is on this release and is it still for sale? What was the response to this like and did this contain pretty much all your material that was not on your debut release?
Mike: That came about from the last Penance tour. I met Mark from that tour and we talked about it. I’m not sure if it still is or not. It was everything from all 3 demos.
CF; Now in 2009 a live release came out that Nunslaughter Records put out. Was this from one show or a bunch of shows and from what year or years were these live songs from and what led to this live release coming out? What about the 2 covers on this release and is this release still for sale?
Mike: Don put that out as he had a tape with an old live show on it. It wasn’t our first show as he marketed it and the quality and performance was terrible. As far as I know, it only had 1 cover.
Brian: I have a pile of these at my house but no interest in selling them.
CF: Now we go to 2013 and the band is back with a new independent release. What led to the band getting back together and what was the line-up for this release? How was it going into the studio as Dream Death after all this time? Did you have any kind of expectations at all as a band and how easy was it to come up with material for this release? What was the response to it when it came out?
Mike: Rich and I started jamming again just for the fun of it. After a while, we called Brian to see if he wanted to blow the dust off his guitar and he did and it progressed from there. The studio was better as I knew the ins and outs of the studio from all my time there throughout the years. We just wanted to put out a good, heavy record that didn’t sound like old washed up 40 somethings. Our fans seemed to really like it. Not sure that it was a big thing to garner new fans per say.
CF: Now we fast forward 3 years to 2016 and a brand new full length on Rise Above Records called “Dissemination”. How did you end up hooking up with Rise Above Records? How easy was it to write songs for this new release and where did you go and record this at?
Mike: Lee and I have been in touch throughout the years, especially when I flew over to record their live anniversary lp. When this one came around, I emailed Lee to see if he’d be interested in putting it out. This record came together rather quickly. Brian & I just started jamming again and fleshing stuff out just like the old days. Mr.Smalls studio here in Pittsburgh-the same studio as Somnium.
CF: What is the current line-up of the band and is the band back as a full time thing with this release? What are some of the songs about and who writes the lyrics in the band these days?
Mike: Brian on Guitar/Vocs, Terry Weston-Guitar, Rich Freund-Bass and yours truly. Dystopian themes, overall distrust of the state of the world etc. Brian pretty much did all the lyrics.
Brian: I don’t think DD will ever be a full time thing. It’s just too much of a cultish type thing, for lack of a better word. It’s just a small group of fanatics that are into the band.
CF: Is it amazing to you in some ways the way the world is now with cell phones, the internet, Facebook, emails, etc? Do you miss sending out actual letters and putting up flyers and sharing ads in the mail and stuff like it was back in the 80’s?
Mike: Yes, things are quite different now. I miss the more simplistic way of how things were then.
Brian: Things are easier in some respects but at the same time there’s a lot of “cut and pasted” info that gets passed around. We’re always laughing about some error that shows up in a hundred articles. Well….maybe not always laughing. Haha.
CF: Now a lot of kids these days don’t like buying physical cds and just want to download stuff for free. What do you think of someone posting like your full albums on You Tube or file sharing places where they can download it for free?
Mike: It’s the modern day form of tape trading so…………….
Brian: Personally I never steal stuff because I don’t agree with it. Maybe it’s just an understanding of what’s involved from a musician’s standpoint. I’m trying to embrace legal streaming because it’s probably the future of music, for better or worse. It’s got a lot of problems but you have to start somewhere.
CF: Do you plan on doing any type of touring at all? Do you plan on playing overseas at all? Now Rise Above is an overseas label, is your album available over here not as an import, in other words, who is distributing it here in the US?
Mike: Not as of yet and I doubt it. We all have regular day jobs so it wouldn’t be practical. If something comes around that’s cool and we’re able to do it, then we probably would. I’m not totally sure of that, but it’s all over Amazon and everywhere so I don’t think it’s priced as an import.
CF: To someone who has not heard the band what would you say you sound like?
Mike: Metal…………..good and heavy.
CF: Mike please plug any websites or merchandise that you might have.
Brian: We really just have the DD facebook page and Somnium Excessum is available thru CDBaby.
CF; Mike and Brian horns up for doing this long interview and it has only been 29 years since our last chat ha ha so any last words to wrap this up?
Mike: Thank you and let’s hope it’s a while again as my fingers hurt! HA!
Brian: Thanks man!