A Lesson for VIO-LENCE: Hindsight is Always 20/20
By March Lowe
When I think of the Bay Area thrash metal band, VIO-LENCE, they remind me of an amazing couple that you know and love, but their relationship doesn’t last, and they break up. You feel heartbroken, but you make the best of it. You start hanging out with other people, but it just isn’t the same. The chemistry . . . the fun . . . it’s not there. One day, you get the news that they are back together again, and all’s right with the world again.
Am I being overly dramatic for effect? Not really. VIO-LENCE has some of the most devoted fans in the world. From their beginnings in 1985, to their breakup in 1993, and their reformation in 2019, their fans are still fiercely loyal and the reunion of VIO-LENCE has been one of the most highly anticipated events in the music world.
For you newcomers,VIO-LENCE was and still is, an anchor band in the thrash metal genre. Their sound is brutally heavy, with chunky chords, sinister riffs, fast hardcore-inspired vocals with Killian’s signature cadence, with a sound that is all their own. Hailing from the San Francisco- East Bay Area, the classic line up consisted of Sean Killian(vocals), Phil Demmel(guitar), Robb Flynn(guitar), Deen Dell(bass), and Perry Strickland(drums). They put out three albums: ETERNAL NIGHTMARE(1988), OPPRESSING THE MASSES(1990), and NOTHING TO GAIN(1993).
After the breakup, Killian retired from music entirely, to focus on his career and his young and growing family. Flynn formed the popular, and successful band, MACHINE HEAD. In 2003, Demmel joined Flynn in MACHINE HEAD. In 2017, Killian revealed that he was suffering from Stage 4 Cirrhosis(liver disease) due to a genetic condition, Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency . Killian’s condition was rapidly deteriorating and the call was out for a living liver donor. In March 2018, the call was answered by Sean’s brother-in-law, Kevin Rivero, and the transplant surgery was a success. In January 2018, Demmel organized a benefit show, “Killian On Command: An Evening Of VIO-LENCE”, which featured VIO-LENCE songs covered by members of TESTAMENT, EXODUS, FORBIDDEN, DEATH ANGEL, VIO-LENCE, and more. Also at the end of 2018, after 15 years, Demmel left MACHINE HEAD In 2019, VIO-LENCE announced that they would reunite for an April show in Oakland, which spawned more shows in the U.S. and Europe. The band roster was finalized earlier this year. In addition to Killian, Demmel, and Strickland, rounding out the band are Bobby Gustafson on guitar(formerly of OVERKILL), and Christian Olde Wolbers on bass( formerly of FEAR FACTORY).
Prior to the reunion, the last time I saw you play was in 2001, at the THRASH OF THE TITANS benefit show for Chuck Billy/Testament and Chuck Schuldiner/Death(RIP). It wasn’t until after Phil left MACHINE HEAD, that you got back into performing again. Was it a Phil or bust type of situation for you?
Yes, for me, it was. Phil’s a lifelong musician. He was wearing spandex pants at 16 years old, playing with Zetro(Sean laughs). So when he had the opportunity to join MACHINE HEAD, he got to do some serious stuff, for a long time, which is great. I wasn’t going to stand in his way, so I just went back to being a responsible adult.
You were diagnosed with Stage 4 Cirrhosis of the liver? Tell us about that.
I found out in 2016, and it was through a regular check-up. My blood work came back and my platelet count was really, really, really low and that’s what prompted my doctor to order a scan. That’s what showed that I had stage four cirrhosis.I didn’t have any symptoms at the time but then a few months later, I started getting the symptoms, and it was like one of those things where you wouldn’t wish something like that upon your worst enemy. It’s that bad. All the symptoms for about 20 months, almost two years of dealing with that. So one day, I had the chance to get the transplant through a living donor transplant. My brother-in-law, Kevin Rivero was a match. Actually, a lot of people submitted applications and did the blood work, and there were a few matches. Kevin’s always lived a clean life. He’s retired from the Air Force and he was the obvious choice. We sat down and talked about it and it was important to him that his niece and nephew, my kids have their father around. It was a very selfless thing for him to do, because it’s not a small little thing, like a knee surgery. It’s major surgery.
The surgeries were performed by a renowned husband and wife liver transplant team at UCSF, Dr. Nancy Ascher and Dr. John Roberts
Kevin went through all the tests and on March 26, 2018, the two of us went into an operating room and they removed 63% of his liver in his right lobe, and they removed my liver completely, and put his in. He went into the operating room at 7am and he got out around 11:30am. She(dr. Ascher) removed his liver and her husband, Dr. Roberts pulled my liver out and put that portion into me and hooked up all the veins, blood vessels, bile ducts ,and everything together. I went into the operating room at nine in the morning and got out about eight o’clock at night. They woke me up at eight o’clock the next night.
I woke up a few days later, and I’m looking at the ceiling in my hospital room thinking to myself, “My God. I just got a massive, important organ pulled out of my body and they replaced it with this other thing, and here I am, staring at the ceiling”. It was at that moment, that I started thinking about the benefit show that Phil put on for me. I was thinking, “Somehow and some way, I’ve got to get back up on stage to pay these people back who showed up, and helped me and my family”. My recovery took about six months and I went back to work in September of 2018(Killian is a project manager for a construction company) and Phil left MACHINE HEAD around October 2018.
On getting the band back together . . .
It wasn’t until January of 2019, that I sent Phil a text saying, let’s do a show. He was like, “What do you mean? Like, go to a movie?” I said, no, let’s do a show. I wanna go out and play a show and that’s when we got the guys back together to play The Metro(Oakland) for two nights. From that point on, my whole perspective was, you only live once. You don’t really realize how fragile life is until you’re faced with something like that. Here I am: working, being a dad, being strong, coaching little league, and then the next thing you know, your life is fragile. You are fragile and you have nothing. I was realizing what I thought I was, I’m not, because at any moment, this kind of shit can happen to people. Phil was like, yeah, let’s do it. He was more concerned about my health, more than anything, and whether I could do it or not.
The newly reunited VIO-LENCE played two shows at the Oakland Metro Operahouse in April 2019 with a lineup that included: Killian, Demmel, Ray Vega on guitar, Dell on bass, and Strickland on drums to a packed house.
It was great and successful and it was everything that I hoped for. We got the opportunity and we played the Metro, and then people started contacting Phil, “We have the Alcatraz festival in Belgium, you guys should come and play”, and it just kind of took off and more people contacted us. We never really reached out to anybody to say, “Hey, we’re back, why don’t you, put us on your show”.
How was it for you at the comeback shows at the METRO? Were there any challenges?
It was great. I’m not twenty anymore or thirty something or even forty something (Sean laughs). As far as how we sound, I feel stronger vocally. The cool thing is the younger generation that are there, because of social media, YouTube, and Spotify, and everything else. They’re searching for one band and the algorithm brings us up. So it’s not just the kids of the people that used to see us. They are new fans, a new generation of fans.
The hard part was all of the stage diving and me, not wanting to get run over by people (Sean laughs). We welcome that, and we like to be in contact with our crowd. Playing festivals is cool, because there’s a lot of people and you get to play in front of people that haven’t seen you before, but there’s the barrier, which is 10 or 15 feet away from the stage. We’re a club band. We like to be in people’s faces. We like to be in contact with the crowd. As much as we love festivals, we enjoy club shows a lot more.
Last summer, VIO-LENCE finally played on European soil. They made their debut at the Alcatraz Hard Rock & Metal Festival in Belgium.. This year, they were invited to support SACRED REICH on their tour of New Zealand, and Australia. They were also booked for the Maryland Death Fest, UK’s Bloodstock Festival, Quebec DeathFest, and various headlining club shows. Not too shabby for a band that hasn’t been active for decades. It’s proof how big of an impact VIO-LENCE made on fans, old and new. However, COVID-19 has put a halt on all touring plans for the foreseeable future. Their hometown show in Oakland, which was originally scheduled for April 18th, has been rescheduled for Saturday, April 17, 2021.
Are you friends with Phil Rind from SACRED REICH? I know they were taking you guys on the road with them.
Back in the day, when we’d go down to Phoenix, and play at the Mason Jar, the SACRED REICH guys were there all the time. Debbie knew their manager, so anytime we were in the area, we had this close, family-like connection with the band. One day, Phil(Demmel) said, “ SACRED REICH asked if we’d play L.A. and Mesa, Arizona and I was like, “Hell yeah!”. When I saw Phil Rind, it was like, no time had passed. It had been 30 years since I last saw him. He’s a really nice guy, along with the rest of the band. And then there’s Dave McClain’s connection with Phil Demmel(McClain and Demmel were bandmates in MACHINE HEAD
Earlier this year, in March, VIO-LENCE signed a deal with METAL BLADE RECORDS for a five song EP
The METAL BLADE deal is great. They are just like us, and they just want good metal. For me, they were METAL MASSACRE, they were SHOW NO MERCY. My first experience with thrash was seeing SLAYER at the Keystone Berkeley in 1984. I didn’t know what the hell a pit was. I’m standing with Dave Dell and his brother, “Yeah, let’s stand here and wait for the show to start. I’m gonna go get a beer”. HOLY SHIT, in the middle of the pit(Sean laughs). Toby Rage, frickin’ Andy “Airborne” Andersen, and those guys. It was like, THIS IS INSANE. You’d go to shows at RUTHIE’S INN and if you went close to the stage, you better have your head on a swivel, because you were gonna get fucked up if you didn’t. Paul Baloff(EXODUS) was always looking out for posers, “ I’m gonna smash that fucking poser”. It wasn’t like he was in the pit. He was hunting the pit. He was always looking for someone to destroy(Sean laughs). I saw SLAYER, SUICIDAL, MEGADETH, METALLICA, EXODUS, POSSESSED . . the list goes on and on and on. It was just a small club and the club owners would serve anyone booze. They didn’t give a shit how old you were. It was like a whole different world back then, and no cops ever came around. They just left them alone.
They have enlisted Juan Urteaga(MACHINE HEAD, TESTAMENT) of Trident Studios, one of the most sought after producers in metal to produce the EP
When we get everything together, and we are ready to record, we are going to work with Juan Urteaga out here, and he just finished Testament’s album. He’s got a studio in the Bay Area and he’s a great guy. I think it’s going to work out great. We plan on going in to do some pre-production, and we are working on some cover tunes and we want to record some stuff right now and put out some covers. It will be mostly punk stuff, not metal.
It’s been going great. We have three songs fully completed. I write the lyrics and Phil comes up with the riffs, then Perry and Phil, and I will go to the studio together and we work on changes, transitions, and whether this is a verse, or that’s the chorus. I record everything while we’re while we’re doing this on my little Zoom 24-track recorder. I’m constantly running the mic and recording while we’re doing this. We take breaks because we don’t want to be in the studio every day, trying to write and trying to create, because we don’t want to force it. We will practice a few weeks in a row, and then we’ll take a couple of weeks off and I use that time to write lyrics, but it’s been going really well. The three songs we have completed are really strong. People are going to shit their pants when they hear them(Sean laughs). We really feel that we’re a unique band, we are not like anyone else, and the expectations are pretty high. It’s important for us that what we put out is exactly what people are expecting, which is the unexpected(Sean laughs).
It will be five new songs, which will be uncensored and toxic, because I could give a shit about what anyone thinks anymore. It’s everything that ETERNAL NIGHTMARE was,
but on steroids. As far as the subject matter, it’s very raw, very brutal and unapologetic.
Due to family obligations, Dell wasn’t able to continue playing bass for VIO-LENCE. Kilian talks about the addition of Ole Wolbers to the band.
He’s done a lot of stuff. He’s played with CYPRESS HILL, SNOOP DOGG, and he’s toured with KORN. He’s one of those guys that’s not afraid to reach out and say, “Hey, I’ll play bass for you”. He played guitar, and when he joined FEAR FACTORY, he was a guitar player but he was like, “OK I’ll play the bass. What the hell!” I think he borrowed someone’s bass to try out, because they needed a bass player at the time. Christian’s a musician. He wants to be out playing. He’s always been a fan of VIO-LENCE, even back when he lived in Belgium. He and Phil crossed paths a few times, when Phil was in MACHINE HEAD. So when Deen couldn’t commit to playing more shows, Phil reached out to Christian, and he was like, oh, HELL YEAH. He lives in Venice(California), so he’s not far.
Your voice, your sound, it’s not comparable to anyone else. I call it Killianese, and it’s very polarizing. VIO-LENCE is very polarizing. People either love you guys, or they hate you. You guys have some of the most loyal fans in the world. What other band can come back after all these years and sell out shows and merchandise. It’s a testament to how great you guys were and still are.
Thanks March. It wasn’t like when I joined the band with some concept of how I wanted to sound. I just wrote lyrics and that’s the way it came out. That’s kinda what we’re doing now. I hear things in the music and I write the lyrics and that’s how it comes out. It’s not
pre- planned, or “I have to sound like this, or everyone sounds like that and they are successful, so I need to sound like they do too”. If you listen to metal these days, a lot of it does sound similar to each other and, so I don’t really listen to a lot of metal. I listen to a lot of music, but I don’t listen to a whole lot of metal. I’m not influenced by it, because I really don’t care what they’re doing.
I really didn’t have an idea of what I wanted to sound like. It just came out that way. Before I was ever in VIO-LENCE, I would have my mic and amp set up in my shed, singing along with SLAYER, KING DIAMOND, and whatever else I enjoyed. I listened to GBH and a lot of punk, a ton of different genres of music. So I was probably influenced more by punk, than I was by thrash or metal. I never really saw myself as a singer. Admittedly, I can’t carry a note(Sean laughs).
That’s why your story is interesting to me. It’s because you don’t sound like anyone else and it’s really hard to try to even try to sound like you.
That was why it was fun watching the benefit show for me(Sean laughs, referring to the KIllian On Command benefit show). Phil was on Zetro’s Toxic Vault(podcast) the other day, and they were talking about it. Zet was saying(referring to Sean) “nothing he does is normal, so it was kinda weird, trying to do what he does, as far as timing”. It’s because I never really think about timing or any of that. It just comes and it’s what I hear. There’s no “design”. I don’t have parameters and I don’t care about parameters.
It was interesting to watch them up there, doing VIO-LENCE songs and thinking to myself, “Well, that doesn’t really sound like me”(Sean laughs), but they are really trying hard and they’re really putting it out there. I know there are a lot of lyrics, and there’s a lot of words, which is even hard for me sometimes. I could see it was a struggle for them, because it’s not normal and what I do is not normal.
Tell me about the challenges you had with the release of your second album, OPPRESSING THE MASSES, which recently celebrated its 30 year anniversary.
We had challenges with both labels(MECHANIC RECORDS and MEGAFORCE RECORDS). We submitted OPPRESSING THE MASSES to MECHANIC, and Steve Sinclair(A & R) actually rewrote lyrics and then called me at home and said, “ You know, we really would like you to be more grammatically correct and blah blah blah . . . “, and I thought to myself, “this is an odd phone call” and then he said, “I rewrote some stuff and I was wondering if you wanted to hear it”. I was like, “Of course, I want to hear it. Why wouldn’t I?”. So then he proceeds to go through all of these lyrics, and I’m like, “Oh, yeah oh, yeah. I can hear that. Oh, yes. Yes, Steve,I can hear that. Yeah. Okay. Great. Oh, yeah. Yeah”. As soon as we hung up on, I was like, “Debbie(Abono), you’re not going to believe what just fucking happened”.
So we went to MEGAFORCE and we recorded OPPRESSING THE MASSES, and Jonny Z(owner/founder of MEGAFORCE) called me and said, “I need to understand the lyrics.I can’t understand what you’re saying”. I said, “Well, you know, I listen to LED ZEPPELIN and I can’t understand half the shit that Robert Plant sings”(Sean laughs). He wanted me to re-record all the lyrics, so that he could understand them. I was like, “I’m not gonna do that, because it’s not going to change anything”. So we put the album out, but they didn’t support it a whole lot. And then ATLANTIC RECORDS pulling “Torture Tactics” off the album didn’t help either. It was about a month before the release and someone gave the lyrics to one of the executives and he was like, “HELL NO”. They had the product and they were ready to release and then everything got shit canned. They pulled the song off, remade everything and then it got released.
When we did the third album, NOTHING TO GAIN(recorded in 1990, but released in 1993). We heard stuff like, “We don’t want this anymore because grunge is big . . . blah, blah, blah”. We were not the only band that were subjected to that. You know a lot of grunge bands wore VIO-LENCE shirts, EXODUS shirts, TESTAMENT shirts, and SLAYER shirts. They were influenced by our music, not VIO-LENCE in particular, but thrash metal. That’s when the labels were like, “Well, grunge is big, so you need to be more like that, and less like yourselves” In that era, and not just us, but a lot of bands had to compromise just to keep their deals. Because a seven record deal isn’t like, you’re committed to seven records. It’s up to their discretion, whether they want you or not. It’s got nothing to do with the band. The label can dump you in a heartbeat. You can try to sue them but what does that get you? It gets you three years of nothing being released. It’s three years of being on a shelf. We’ve always ran into that.
I really enjoyed the documentary, VIO-LENCE: BLOOD AND DIRT by Jerry Allen. It doesn’t seem like you guys had too many regrets, aside from, firing your manager, the late Debbie Abono.
That was a bad move. She was having some health issues. We were recording OPPRESSING THE MASSES and Alex Perialas(record producer) was pretty much running everything. She was going through some difficult times. We, as a band, decided, well, let’s see if we can move on, but it wasn’t a good idea, because Maria Ferrero(MEGAFORCE) and Debbie were good friends and they wanted to work together. That was the death knell for us, when we let Debbie go. In retrospect, it probably would have been a better idea for us to say, “Okay Debbie whenever you’re ready to come back. We’re here. We know people care about you, and if we’re involved with you, then they will care about us”. But as young punks, you don’t think that way. We were in our twenties. We didn’t know shit.
Sean talks about the competitive nature of the Bay Area thrash metal scene
For us, that’s who we are. It’s like a family . . . this business., but back then, it was competitive as hell. FORBIDDEN, us, and DEATH ANGEL, “We are the second wave!. We are the baddest motherfuckers around and fuck those guys” and every time we played with those guys, we gotta stomp them(Sean laughs). Before the album came out, we had a good connection with the Nady’s, who owned the Stone and the Omni. Joey Houston would get us shows and we played with GBH, DESTRUCTION, and it was like, “Oh My God! We’re playing with GBH at the Stone”(Sean laughs), and many of the other bands didn’t get those opportunities. But every time we played with DEATH ANGEL or FORBIDDEN, we were always like, “we’re gonna fucking kill everybody because that’s the way it is”. Nowadays it’s like, “Hey, we gotta play together, DEATH ANGEL, EXODUS, and TESTAMENT. That would be insane.
Sean, you said that you don’t listen to a whole lot of metal, but I know that you have two young kids and I have a daughter too. I’m finding myself listening to a lot of hip hop and different stuff that the younger kids like. What are you guys listening to in the Killian household?
Seamus likes a lot of rap. He loves SLAYER. He loves being in the pit. He’s a metalhead, but he likes all kinds of shit. My daughter likes Billie Eilish. I like Billie Eilish. I think she’s a great musician and she’s really creative. She used to like Taylor Swift, but she doesn’t anymore. THANK GOD. If ever a skank there was, it was Taylor Swift(Sean laughs). She dances, so she dances to a lot of different kinds of music, like jazz or swing, depending on the choreography.
For me, I’m really into CULT OF LUNA with Julie Christmas. They have an EP called MARINER. There’s all of these metal chick singers, which is great, but she’s so raw. You have to listen to it to get it. I really dig that about them. I like COMBICHRIST. I like industrial music. I listen to POWER TRIP sometimes, and some other new bands. I’m not really into metal as much as I am into industrial and punk. I like Billie Eilish, Beethoven, Bach, and Hank Williams, I like Hank 3. I’m all over the freaking map(Sean laughs).
Interesting fact about Sean: he and Cliff Burton attended the same high school. Sean talks about watching Cliff Burton perform with TRAUMA at Castro Valley High School.
Yes, I went to Castro Valley High School, and Cliff Burton was there, but he graduated a year or two before me. One day, he played in the courtyard with TRAUMA (the band that Cliff was in before METALLICA, around ‘81-’82) and he did the ANESTHESIA – PULLING TEETH solo. I was sitting right there and it was like “Oh God, what the fuck is this? After they played, I went up to him and said, “hey, man, that was awesome”. So we would have these barbecue parties in Castro Valley with Yaz, Deen and all these other people, and Cliff was always there. It was cool, because eventually everyone would break out the instruments and start to jam. Those were some great times.