Someone told me a theory that the Chinese apparently have: you are born with a certain amount of life-energy to see you through your lifetime and that amount is inflexible. Therefore a particularly energetic and frenetic person born with a medium amount of life-energy can use it all up in time for their mid-life crisis, and die at a relatively young age as a result. There are so many holes in this theory and it was told to me by another paleface white-ghost so I don’t particularly believe it. I’m also hoping it isn’t true, because I probably used up all my life-energy in ten days in Florida when we achieved an impossible feat: finding and training a drummer for a headline European tour with “the world’s fastest band”, to play a one-hour set in a mask. We accomplished this with no money, no transport, and no place to stay.
I honestly truly don’t want to type this story out. All the other stories, even the bad ones….well, ESPECIALLY the bad ones….hold a grotty pleasure in the retelling. This story is just miserable and difficult, and reliving that time is stressful. The only reason I’m doing it is I’ve blasted my workload for the next few days, but I’m trapped in the office and this story has been a monkey on my back for ages. I KNOW I have to type it at some point if Berzerker is to be truly explained, and it also stands as testament to what can be achieved if you really put your mind to it. Replacing band members after tours have been booked is a necessity for professional bands but we really took it to an extreme here.
This will also be a big story, one of the longer ones I’ve put down, and it’s not as action-packed as the others. We’re talking over four thousand words of unrelenting grimness here, so be warned.
If you’ve read the stories I’ve been putting up , then you’re aware that we were on a big US tour in 2003 when our drummer Gary got pushed down a staircase in Poughkeepsie by a Nazi bouncer and broke his foot. As a result, he could no longer drum. This posed multiple problems. There was the problem of looking after an injured band mate and getting him back to Australia. There was also the problem that we were still on tour, and if we weren’t playing shows then we couldn’t afford gas or food…so we HAD to somehow keep playing shows.
I was all for cancelling the remaining shows, maxing out the credit card on a plane flight home, and returning to Australia immediately. We had been so focused over the last four years on making the show absolutely perfect, as perfect as could possibly be, and I couldn’t fathom the idea that we were now going to cobble together imperfect shows while in the US on our highest-profile tour. Luke didn’t have the credit card option and was painfully aware of how in-hock we were to the record label. For him, there was no quitting. We argued heatedly before deciding to go ahead with the shows. We were perhaps a little manic as well from all the touring so far and were starting to go totally Ahab: no matter how badly the Good Ship Berzerker was starting to sink, the Show Must Go On.
We tried a set with a programmed drum machine accompanying us over the PA but seeing as though it didn’t come with a click track it was a complete mess. It was like trying to play along to someone firing off a machine gun. Playing a crap show is the worst. It honestly makes me want to die. People sometimes walk up going “Great show dude!” after playing a shit show and I want to kill them and then myself. And the only cure is to play a devastatingly awesome show to cleanse all the crap-show off you. It’s the only thing you can think about until you go out and do it and make the world right again. We played that crap show and realised we still had a week of crap shows ahead, and there was nothing we could do about it. It was the worst possible feeling.
Luke made a decision after that disastrous show – he’d play drums AND do vocals for the following gigs. Please consider that he’d never done that before and that a few of the songs are over 300 bpm. All the other bands on that tour – Nile, Napalm Death, Strapping Young Lad – were like “you’re going to do WHAT?!” The idea wasn’t as crazy as it sounds however. Luke used to play drums before he had a car accident and injured his back. I played drums (badly) and we’d all have the ‘Berzerker Grind Challenge’ during and after rehearsals where we’d compete amongst ourselves to see who could do the fastest blastbeats. Our drummer turnover was such that we repeatedly had to teach new drummers the beats and often demonstrated them ourselves, so the hapless tub-thumper-du-jour could see that our songs were actually possible to play.
I still remember the first gig Luke did behind the kit. It was just me and Matt standing up front on the stage in some theatre in Philadelphia. I felt exposed. Watching Luke adjust the microphones and drum stool as he sat behind the kit made me want to shit myself and hide, that first-gig-ever feeling. Just before we started I looked side-stage and could see the guys from Nile, Napalm, and SYL all standing there to watch the show…Jon Vesano, Karl, Mitch, Devin. No pressure, thanks guys. I had the following thought: three of my top ten all-time favourite bands are standing there watching us and we are going to fuck this gig up worse than any gig I’ve ever played. They were probably standing there either to lend support or to actually see if someone could both drum our songs and do vocals at the same time. I sure know I didn’t believe it.
Luke actually managed to do it, and the gig was alright. The feat itself was superhuman. I could feel the confusion of the crowd during the show with only two of us running about the stage and half the vocals coming from the drummer, but the other bands were impressed. I think the only fuck-up was when playing Massacred. I remember agreeing with Luke beforehand that trying to play that song would be a mistake, but he was so pumped up after smashing the other songs that he stuck it on near the end of the set and accidentally extended one of the verses.
We managed to scrape through the remaining gigs. We were assisted by Tony Laureano in New York during the BB Kings Blues Club gig. I could have just said “the New York” gig but I’m still stoked to have played at BB Kings Blues Club in Times Square. It’s something I mention whenever I’m trying to impress upon my parents that I didn’t waste years of my life playing in a band. Tony learned the Carcass cover ‘Corporeal Jigsore Quandary’ by tapping it out on a seat with us backstage. He climbed on for our last song and bashed it out perfectly, did not miss a beat. We went to play Jaxx in Virginia again and were banned from even parking in the parking lot. If I get the access codes and the red button tomorrow, I guarantee you there will be a massive radioactive crater in Springfield Virginia where Jaxx used to be. We played at some wonderful venue in Norfolk which seemed to be staffed by hobgoblins, and had a gloriously comfortable backstage…the catering was sensational, and there were steam rooms and a jacuzzi to relax in. I asked one of the staff if the venue was owned by a touring musician who’d won the lottery. He smiled enigmatically and said “something like that”.
We were on our way to our last two shows in Florida when we found out that our tour manager Akim intended to ditch us after our last gig, despite there being ten days between that show and our flight to England. “I don’t know what you guys are doing, but I’m going to hang out down at the beach” he cheerfully told us when we fronted him. Naturally, he hadn’t warned us of this plan. He was like, I’ve been responsible for you during the tour…no-one said anything about when the tour finished. We had a bout of harsh words with Akim until he finally organised for us to stay with a friend of his called Scott, who lived in a shack on a swamp out the back of Orlando. At that point, the strippers were still travelling with us so they’d stay for a day or two before jumping aboard the local Spearmint Rhino.
We’d also had words with the label. They said there was no way we could back out of the European tour, they’d spent way too much on promotion for it. I keep thinking retrospectively that I should have said to them “What would Morbid Angel do if their drummer broke his foot ten days out from tour, hmmm? What would Napalm Death do? Nile? We’re not playing fucking 4/4 rock and roll here, you know”. Gary had got a lot of press for his inhuman drumming performance on our second album Dissimulate, and was backing it up live. Earlier the label was making claims that the drumming was being considered by the Guinness Book of Records for the fastest drumming ever. And now these fools thought we’d just find another drummer in some foreign country and train him up in ten days for a headline Europe tour? Fucking Earache Records.
I guess in a perverse sort of way, the sheer Mission Impossibleness of it all appealed to me and Luke. We had got fully pumped on Tony Robbins between making the debut album and Dissimulate and had got ourselves to a state where ANYTHING could be done. We heard one of the tasks Tony would put special clients through would be training them in all his self-mastery stuff for the first week….then dropping them one hundred miles away in a town they didn’t know, without credit card, phone, money, anything and they’d be picked up a week later. It sounded fucked-up but a little bit of you wondered how you’d fare. I guess this was the closest we’d come to it.
So we played our last two shows. I remember the final one was at the Masquerade in Tampa and I had an epic drinking session with Pete Sandoval from Morbid Angel afterwards. He got so hammered that he collapsed backwards onto Napalm Death’s merch, and lay there screeching “My back! My back!” Jesse Pintado nudged him with his foot, saying “Get up, fool”. George Corpsegrinder turned up as well and talked about how when he plays Grand Theft Auto and Slayer comes onto the radio, he is compelled to mount the pavement and run over pedestrians. We’d put the word out to all the bands and everyone we met that we needed a drummer quickly, and the famous Florida death metal scene got to work. I met Angel from Genitorturers who offered his services, but the only stuff I’d heard him play was mid-paced industrial rock-metal. Someone said they got in touch with Steve Asheim and recommended him but again we’d only heard him play fast stuff with Deicide…we needed a superfast megablast drummer, a complete freak of nature. We had already contacted John Longstreth from Origin but he had a tour with another band booked. By the time we left the show we had four people to audition: some random guy, a dude called Goat, Ryan from a band called Archer, and an Israeli fellow who played with a band called Salem.
The next morning, Akim left with the motorhome. It had to be returned to the rental place. We were thus stranded. I think the first audition was with ‘some random guy’. The dude had a light moustache, long hair, foetal alcohol syndrome, and coke-bottle glasses. He was like a death-metal Napoleon Dynamite and played in a local band. He was accompanied by a big earnest dude from the same band who told us how good the drummer was. For the audition they drove us to some rehearsal garages that are part of Florida Death Metal Folklore, and that was the only highlight. It became apparent very quickly that foetal-alcohol dude could not play very well. We tried him out on ‘Reality’ which is around 270 bpm or so and he’d scrunch up his mongoloid eyes and strain as hard as he could….and play it in triplets, not 16ths. After twenty minutes or so we went nah, forget it. The big earnest friend kept going “No, no, he can do it, he can…CAN’T YOU” and would make foetal-drummer bash out another attempt. Eventually they took our No for an answer and gave us a lift back to the Swamp Shack. Then they tried to sting us for petrol money.
Luke stared at them speechlessly then stalked inside. I fobbed them off with the sobbiest of sob stories. By the time I got back inside all the sleeping surfaces were occupied. I lay down on the dog blanket which was draped on the concrete floor of the lounge room. I watched the clock hit midnight. I was now twenty-eight years old. I turned twenty-eight years old while sleeping on a dog blanket on a concrete floor in a shack on a swamp. I made a mental note to ditch this musician bullshit for a real job and fell asleep.
I’m trying to remember when we auditioned Ryan. I think it was the following morning, but I’m not sure. He was a nice guy, a sound drummer and pretty quick, and he could get the time away from work to tour. But again, he couldn’t do the blasts. He gave us a lift back to the Shack afterwards.
Later that night, the Salem drummer picked us up. What was his name, Nir? Hmmmm. I think it was Nir. I remember he had to say his name a few times, we kept going “Huh? What?” He set up his kit up in the rehearsal space and I think the first song we auditioned was No-One Wins, which is about 310 bpm or so. He played the most original blast-beat we’d ever seen: the blasts were done as a snare roll, but one hand would hit the hi-hat on the way down to the snare…..and hit it again on the way back up. It was fucking ridiculous. He effortlessly and TIGHTLY played our fastest songs with this innovative cheat method and all the sounds were there: hi-hat, snare, and kicks. We pissed ourselves laughing and he stopped – “What’s the matter?” We told him it was the most brilliant thing we’d seen. He told us he’d invented the technique the previous day when he heard the speed of the songs. This dude just innovated his way past the entire speed-drumming debate. He learned three songs that night and we offered him the tour. He said he had to check with his wife. They had recently moved to Florida and she was either pregnant or had just had a kid, I forget which. He advised us to keep auditioning people, and would let us know over the next day or two if he could do it.
* Note: Holy shit….I went to wikipedia to look up the entry for Salem so I could check this guy’s name. It seems we inadvertently auditioned a legend. Not only do Salem seem to have crazy respect in the scene for their longevity, but they got into some sort of beef with Varg Vikernes, aka Grishnakh the Euronymous-stabbing Church-burning nutcase from Norway. Apparently Varg wasn’t down with them being jews, and sent them a letter bomb!!! I don’t often use exclamation marks, but this occasion suffices.
We were picked up after the audition by a guy called Goat. He was the last to audition but he was saving his try for the morning. As it was my birthday, we went out for burgers and milkshakes at a cheap diner then headed back to his flat to crash. He lived with Pete Helmkamp from Angelcorpse and I think Pete was on a night-shift with work. They had a ferret for a pet. I slept on the loungeroom floor in a sleeping bag and remember thinking, mmmmmm, carpet. Pete’s big bass cab was behind my head. The ferret nibbled and licked my ear during the night and on one memorable occasion charged into the sleeping bag and rummaged around my trousers.
We auditioned Goat the next morning, and it became clear that he couldn’t play the speeds we were after. At least he didn’t faff around. He stopped after ten or fifteen minutes of trying and apologised. I remember feeling pretty respectful of him for both giving it a shot and then being straight up when he realised it was past his abilities. He was a good dude, and it’s a shame I didn’t stay in contact. It was a hectic time. He gave us a lift back to the swamp.
At some point over the few days we were at the shack, we got a phone call. I remember being surprised that there was a phone at the place. Scott wasn’t around so I picked it up. It was Sarah the Press Chick from Earache, calling from Nottingham England. I had absolutely no idea how she was able to track down where we were staying, I mean we were totally in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t even know what our phone number was. Without any ado, she completely cracked the shits. A rumour was getting out that we had no drummer and some of the promoters from the European tour had heard that we might not be able to play. Who was leaking?! Didn’t we realise the huge amount of work she’d put into promoting the tour?! So much anger from such a small woman.
Of course I didn’t know. I didn’t care either. I was away from newspapers and TVs, and happened to be living on a swamp with no car, phone, or anything else. At night I could see the fireworks go off over the top of Orlando Disneyland in the distance. No, I didn’t know who was telling them that we didn’t have a drummer. No, it wasn’t me. Thank you for your concern about our predicament. Yes, I’ll put Luke on.
Luke spoke to her, then got off the phone and shouted at everyone. I suspect Gary was on the laptop letting people know what the situation was, he and Luke were the only ones who had contact with the outside world at that point. I picked up an acoustic guitar and went outside to sulk. There was a jetty leading out into the swampy lakey thing, so I walked out onto that, sat down on the end and started playing. I stopped playing when Scott walked up and advised me to keep off the pier. “We’ve got gators here. Big ones. They can get your legs from there”. I stood up and walked back to the shack. I had a jam with Matt, which was extraordinary because it was the first jam we’d ever had. This was after being in a world-touring band together for two years. We’d only ever rehearse together. We jammed and the strippers watched, and I felt extremely unhappy about my place in the world.
It took us two days from the audition with Goat to decide on a drummer. We were holding out for Nir the Israeli SuperDrummer, while keeping Ryan in the mix. On the second day Ryan said he’d have to let work know by the end of day if he was heading out for a month-long tour next week or not. We put the hard word on Nir, and he said he couldn’t do the tour. He couldn’t justify leaving his wife by herself at that point in time which was fair enough. We thanked him for his time and told Ryan he had the job.
There were added benefits with choosing Ryan as the drummer. He was a super-nice guy with a super-nice place of his own, and he fed us. I remember waking up to a bowl of breakfast cereal after the first night’s sleep on a mattress and I almost sobbed with joy. He let us use his phone and internet so I could let people know I was still alive. We set up the mixer box in his lounge room with his kit and rehearsed in there. We had a week before the european tour started.
We rehearsed the first day, and tried to teach Ryan to play the superfast blastbeats. For those who don’t know what blastbeats are, they’re beats played in sixteenths with one hand on a cymbal, another hand on the snare, and kicks interspersed. It was apparent by the end of the day that there was no way he could learn it within the week. The blastbeats were amended into two-handed snare rolls. This was the final straw for Luke, who had a breakdown. He lost his voice, couldn’t speak, and had a full hundred yard stare going on. He got a hotel with some American girl he was seeing and hid out there for the rest of the week. I visited him once to let him know how it was all going, and all he could do was gesticulate and make the odd croaking sound. Gary had already left us and was staying with either Akim or the lighting technician he was smoking weed with when the bouncer bounced him down the staircase. So it was down to Matt, Ryan, and myself.
We got to work and rehearsed for up to ten hours each day. It was no use rehearsing more than that, everyone became too exhausted and our tired brains would invent ways to forget songs. Ryan found a way to fast-track getting up to speed. He wrote out the drum sections – the patterns and how many repetitions – and kept them in a book that he’d place on a stand next to the kit. Then he’d be guided through each song by both the click track and his notes. This made things easier. I had rare moments of silly optimism. Training up this new drummer in a week was just too easy. Next time we should try walking off the plane, grabbing the first person we saw, and make them the drummer on the way to the first gig. I was so giddy I was even occasionally making fun of Matt as he bonded with Ryan’s housemates over John Petrucci videos: “Neeeeee! I’m now going to play a harmonic minor-major fifth wankatronic scale in twelveteenths! NNNNEEEEEE!!”
Matt ignored me.
We were making decent progress when we hit another snag: Ryan didn’t have a passport. By now, there were only a few days left before we flew off to begin the new tour. I sunk into depression again. The label had managed to get him a flight which sort of amazed me, I was waiting for the moment when they’d tell us he’d have to swim over. However he didn’t have a passport and there was no way in hell he could get a visa to perform in the UK and Europe. I had a horrible not-again feeling in my gut: Gary had lodged his US visa application so late the year before that we nearly missed the start of tour, and only knew we’d make it on-time days beforehand. We hit the phones and managed to get Ryan an appointment with the passport office where – God willing! – he’d become one of the rare Americans to own a passport. The problem was that we were in Tampa and we had to drive down to Miami the day before flying out to interview for it and pick it up. This not only took another day out of rehearsals but left absolutely no room for errors or delays, two things that passport offices worldwide tend to specialise in. I had no fingernails left by this point.
So we drove to Miami on the last day. The set was in order, or as much order as it was going to be in. I think it was just me and Ryan who went, everyone else stayed in Tampa. We talked a fair bit on the way down. Ryan revealed his deep Christian beliefs, his background, and his lifestyle – he was 21 or 22 years old, hadn’t really got drunk before, had only had one girlfriend, never taken drugs, and was helping us out because we were brothers in need and as a Christian he was obliged to help us. I had a fair idea what was waiting for us in Europe, and wondered if it was really such a good idea to take this guy over on tour. Fortunately I’m not particularly christian so the defilement of my fellow-man didn’t concern me.
We made it to Miami and began the process of applying for Ryan’s passport. Making the application took less than an hour, but it was followed by a long wait for them to process it. We hung out in a park down by the waterfront to pass the time. Ryan got on his phone and called a few friends to tell them he was going on tour in Europe. I was wearing shorts. I took my t-shirt off and lay down on the grass, then fell asleep. The sun felt so good. I had been frostbitten and miserable for months. We had started touring at the end of the northern hemisphere spring, and now winter was finally wrapping up and I was far south getting some rays. I fell asleep.
I woke up almost two hours later sunburned from head to toe. I was bright pink and slightly blistered. Ryan was still on his phone. He hadn’t noticed me cooking. We got the call that his application had been successful and went to the government office shortly afterwards to pick up his passport, then made the drive back to Tampa. My skin was crawling and unfortunately I started peeling soon after landing in England so I looked like I had leprosy for the first week of tour. We all gathered back at Ryan’s place – Luke had finished his hotel stay by then – and made plans for the flights the next day. Ryan was catching a separate flight from us and was entering England as a tourist so we had to apportion out his sticks and kick pedals between us, and make plans for him to get to Nottingham. We still had no idea what we’d do for a full month-long tour if he couldn’t make it over.
I managed to sneak away once packing was done and check my emails. I had a death threat waiting for me. The guy somehow knew the address for where I was staying. I don’t know how. He wanted to shoot me. I told him to give it his best shot, and flew out of the country the next morning around 7am. I haven’t been back to America since.