It was 2001 and we were preparing for the first Berzerker tour of the United States.
The lineup was Luke, myself, and three guys from a Melbourne band called Alarum: Matt, Evans, and Palf. They played drums, guitar, and bass respectively. I was on guitar and vocals, Luke was doing vocals and keyboards/samples. The Alarum guys were first-class musicians, and their band is supremely technical. Musically, they were overqualified for our caveman-style brutality.
However we weren’t after the most technical players. We were after the most brutal ones, the people who didn’t recognise limits and wanted to rabidly smash out songs with overwhelming insanity, not finesse. And the drummer Matt definitely fell into the latter category. He’d play drums holding his sticks with a jazz grip which restricted his ability to play blastbeats. He couldn’t blast above 260 bpm and he definitely couldn’t do a gravity blast, at least back then.
Additionally, the Alarum guys were good friends but a bit of a closed shop. If ever there were band issues then they’d step down from being one-for-all-and-all-for-one bandmates in this together, us versus the world, blah blah blah, to being three session musicians who didn’t have a stake in the band’s future. We thought this would work well at first – you can just tell session musicians what to do, and they’ll do it….right? Wrong. These guys took some managing. And fair enough, they were doing us a favour. No-one else was clamouring at that point to jump aboard the Good Ship Berzerker and travel the world with us. We were an unknown factor. They had their own band which would always be a priority and in their view, we were lucky to get them and the commitment that they could spare.
We didn’t have time to waste in those days. So while we were all rehearsing up for the US tour, Luke and I were already sniffing out other drummers for future touring and recording. The idea was that we’d continue trying to assemble a band committed to Berzerker above everything else. We had already burned our way through a lot of the local talent. Some guy called Russell talked about how amazing he was on drums….but could never make a rehearsal. We dubbed him ‘Russell the Love Muscle’. We’d used Matt Rizzo from Blood Duster for our opening gig but he didn’t want to risk losing his job at the four’n’twenty pie factory by touring overseas. Plus he kept on turning up late to rehearsal for stuff like accidentally leaving his wallet on the train. Then there was some crazy guy who played an electronic kit for a band with the tasteful name ‘Sufferkunt’, who turned out to be way too mental to do anything with.
We even had the pleasure of rehearsing with Psycroptic’s Dave Haley. He turned up to rehearsal and seamlessly blasted his way through the set. It was like a dream. It was like going from driving a car with three flat wheels to one with four new tyres and a brand new engine. And he was the nicest, loveliest dude ever, with his head screwed on extremely straight. He wanted so badly to come on tour – we were supporting Dying Fetus back when Kevin Talley played with them, and he loved both the band and Kevin’s drumming. But he couldn’t do it. The tour and the commitment we demanded clashed with Psycroptic’s gigs (*note: I spoke to Luke – he reminded me that Dave’s actual reason was that he was still at university and was committed to finishing it). I tried to change his mind by saying “Kevin Talley Kevin Talley Kevin Talley” over and over again, but much as he wanted the gig, he wouldn’t do it. I was like, your loss. This is your one chance to tour the US, it’s not going to come around again.
We found a potential new drummer about a month out from tour. The guy was called Mick and he played for a band with the excruciating name ‘Cybergrind’. We turned up to rehearsal to check out his fastest blasts, and he absolutely drilled the kit. His feet blurred, and although his hands weren’t perfect they had great potential. We learned one or two songs, had a bit of a chat. It looked like he could commit to gigs, touring, and recording. We were like, damn, if only we’d found you six months ago then we could have taken you out to this US this time around. We gave him a few more songs to learn and organised to rehearse again in a week’s time.
A week went by. We were rehearsing regularly with the Alarum guys and making preparations to head off overseas. Promotion for the US tour had stepped up. I had the new experience of reading about us online. We were anonymous, barely anyone had seen our show, and we had this reputation as the craziest band ever already. Emails were coming in from the label, booking agent, tour managers, magazines. We went and had our second rehearsal with Mick. This time around, he sucked. His feet were all over the place, his hands were uninspiring. It didn’t look like he’d actually learned more material since the last time we’d caught up. He made some excuses, I forget what….it was a busy week at work, or he was out late the night before or something.
I think we gave him our pump-up talk. We said that the drumming he’d done the week before was some of the fastest we’d seen, that there were tours and recording for Earache records at stake, but he was going to have to work at it. He had to become consistent. He reaffirmed he was fully interested. We laid down the iron rule: he wasn’t to tell anyone he was rehearsing with Berzerker. We were anonymous. No-one outside of the band and a small circle of friends knew who we were. No-one was to know if he was drumming for us. And especially now, he wasn’t to say a word to anyone – we didn’t want the label or promoters getting nervy hearing that we were breaking in a new drummer this close to tour. We’d get back to him on when the next rehearsal was. He apologised for his efforts, and that’s how we left it.
The next day I started getting phone calls. The calls were from friends in the metal scene throughout Melbourne. “Who’s your new drummer?” they asked.
Their stories were all the same, and they went like this: there was a gig by a band called Hellspawn at the Arthouse the previous night. A renowned drummer, Matt ‘Skitz’ Sanders, was doing vocals for them. The guy was the number one drummer for metal in Australia at that point. His work with Damaged was groundbreaking, intricate, and extreme. The guy is a nutcase. That night during the performance he was swallowing tattoo ink and vomiting it back up. Mick, the drummer we’d been rehearsing with, attended this gig. It seems that Mick got drunk. Mick loudly told everyone he was the fastest drummer ever. Mick told everyone that he had a new gig. Mick announced that this new gig was with Berzerker, who were faster than everyone else. Mick said he was going on tour with them. Mick nearly got into a punch-on with Skitz when Mick told him that he was a faster drummer than him.
We had a rehearsal with the Alarum guys that night. There was a deliciously uncomfortable moment when Matt straight-out asked us “So, I hear that Mick’s the new drummer, and that he’s going on tour with you?” We were like, what, where’d you hear that? The Alarum guys said EVERYONE knows.
That did it for me. I called Mick that night.
“G’day Mick. Sam from Berzerker here.”
“Hey, how are you doing?”
“I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”
“What? Why -”
“You were at the Arthouse gig last night? The one with Hellspawn?”
“Telling everyone you’re the new Berzerker drummer?”
“No! I haven’t told anyone!”
“Telling everyone you’re the fastest drummer ever?”
“No, I never said that! Someone’s bullshitting you. Who’s telling you that?”
“And you didn’t nearly get into a punch-on with Skitz because you said you were a faster drummer than him?”
“Someone’s pulling your leg”
“So why have I received half a dozen calls from people telling me all this stuff?”
“Well I didn’t say anything”
“Not just one person: HEAPS of people are telling me you said this”
“I…I don’t know why they’re saying….”
“And do you know what I had to do tonight? I had to explain to Matt that you weren’t our new drummer, and that you’re not replacing him on tour!”
“Let me tell you something. You’re a good drummer, but your hands aren’t there. You’re not consistent and you need more practice. You’re not the fastest out there. Not yet. And right now, we have a tour of the US starting in a few weeks. It has taken a day, and all of Melbourne suddenly thinks we have a new drummer. What happens if our label hears this? Or the booking agent? What if they think that we can’t even keep a band together leading up to a tour? Our first overseas tour ever? They’re spending thousands getting us over there, what if they pull the plug because they think we’re about to disintegrate on the eve of our first real chance? Because I tell you right now mate, we’ve worked hard to get this tour, we’d do anything to play it, and if our band got dropped because someone couldn’t keep his mouth shut then I’d fucking kill him. You understand?”
We didn’t rehearse with Mick again.
We played a gig in Manchester in 2003, covered over here.
After the show, I was packing up and I heard Luke scream “SAM!!!” at the top of his voice. I dropped everything and followed him out the front of the venue. There was some middle-aged guy selling bootleg Berzerker Tour t-shirts for 5 pounds out the front, undercutting us by a large margin.
The poor bastard found himself confronted by two demented sweaty running-makeup Australians stinking of metal and hate. Luke was like, what are you selling here? The bootlegger guy’s like, shirts, I’m allowed to do this. Luke’s like oh yeah, where’d you get permission? I was walking in circles around him, waiting for him to make a break for it so I could tackle him and start beating him. He knew it too. I wanted to kill him. Luke talked to him while I muttered at him in a low voice how we were going to do him. He was scared, and we could all smell it.
The guy said, I got permission from your record label. Luke said, who gave you permission at the label? What’s his name? The guy went, Scott. I laughed. There was no Scott at the label. Not in the UK, not in the US. The guy showed Luke a piece of paper that was the supposed ‘permission’ from the label. I stopped uttering death and evil and said, well our label always gives us free merch, so you don’t mind if we take some samples do you? The guy said sure, go ahead. I grabbed all of the shirts and started handing them out to the other bands and crew. The guy went, hold on a second and tried to stop me. There was a tug-of-war with the goods. The guy kept trying to grab the t-shirts back off me, going “this is my living!”
And that was the moment Luke exploded. He got right in the guy’s face and screamed at the top of his voice “THIS IS MY LIFE”. Everyone from the show was out the front watching. I was still handing out the shirts. The fella snatched up his bag and made a run for it. We followed him for ten minutes or so. He eventually got away down an alley, and we realised that if we chased him any further there was no guarantee we’d know how to get back to the venue.
When we arrived back at the tourbus, everyone was wearing a bootlegged Berzerker t-shirt.
I was on the phone with Dougie, who was asking me for money.
He had been on tour with us as our soundman with Berzerker in 2006. At least, he had been for a couple of days. We were in Leeds just after the tour started and we were getting ready to go on. I was in the toilet having a pre-gig wee up at the trough when suddenly Dougie came sprinting around the corner. He leaned over the urinal right next to me, whimpered “oh god” in the most pitiful voice, then started violently throwing up.
Well there goes the soundman for this gig, I thought. Dougie crawled over to an empty toilet stall and disappeared in there. I asked through the door if he was alright , if he’d be mixing the show, but didn’t get an answer.
I left the toilets and found Baz the ‘tour manager’. I include the apostrophes because he was the tour manager in name only. He could barely manage dick. Akercocke’s Pete Theobalds was roadying for us that tour and basically ended up being our defacto tour manager. I told Baz that Dougie was sick in a stall and looking in bad shape, and that he might want to go check on him. I forget what we did that night for mixing, but we ended up using support band RSJ’s soundguy for the remainder of the shows. Dougie was destroyed by some vicious bug that laid him out for the rest of the tour. We detoured and dropped Dougie off at his house within twenty-four hours so we didn’t have him festering in the motorhome.
Now the tour was over and he was on the phone asking to be paid soundguy fees for all the shows he was absent for. I was explaining that we’d already paid a soundguy, and that although it was unfortunate that he had become ill, that we couldn’t pay him for not doing his job. We weren’t some corporation with a ‘sick pay’ arrangement, this was the music fucking industry. If you don’t turn up and do your thing, you don’t get paid. That’s why musicians will play with the flu, diarrhea, broken feet. That’s why I had a vomit bin next to my bass cab at Jaxx in 2002. You don’t play, you don’t get paid. And we weren’t about to extend that courtesy to someone who had mixed two shows out of twelve before leaving us high and dry. And how did he get my fucking phone number anyway?!
Dougie explained Baz had given it to him. As soon as I heard that, I started grinding my teeth: Baz had taken us back to Nottingham halfway through the tour to collect some equipment and have a sleep in his flat. At some point, he’d tried driving the motorhome without retracting the stairs and they’d smashed against a light pole. Now they wouldn’t retract. We got under there with spanners and hammers and went at it but they were stuffed. All the local garages wouldn’t be able to fix it for days. We needed to leave within the next twelve hours to make the next show. We couldn’t drive anywhere with these broken stairs hanging out the side. So the decision was made to cut the stairs off. When the motorhome was returned to the hire place, they billed Baz over 600 quid for the stairs. He asked us for money. We were like, you wrecked ’em, you pay for ’em. Baz had been to jail for a previous tour, where an unpaid parking fine bounced from band, to label, to bus company, to Baz, and he’d obviously decided that was going to be the last time he was left holding the can. So now he was forwarding all payment queries directly to us. And he’d taken some pre-tour money Luke had advanced and was supposed to receive back, and used that for the stairs and a two-week holiday. He had long since stopped taking my phone calls.
And now Dougie was begging me for money? I was furious.
“Oh, so you’re speaking to Baz are you? He speaks to YOU, does he? I thought he was unavailable? This fucking guy is holding out on us, taking our money for doing fuck all work on tour, now he sends me another guy who did fuck all work on tour for some more money! Well if you’re talking to him you can fucking tell him, he owes us money and if he doesn’t want to pay us, well fine, but if he comes down to the south of England with another one of his piece of shit tours, then I’m waiting for him and he’s a dead man.”
Baz never paid us that outstanding money.
Threats are an expression of powerlessness made by people who feel either scared, insulted, or that they’re losing control. That requires a measure of cowardice or vanity. I think of that last story with Baz. I was ready to run over him with a bus for the matter of a thousand quid or so. But the funny thing was, we’d absolutely rinsed it that tour. We’d made heaps of money and all in the space of a few weeks. Sure, Baz had been the world’s most hopeless tour manager, but we received both the shows and the majority of the fees we’d been promised. We should have been ecstatic. I couldn’t enjoy it though. I was too vain, thinking ‘who is this guy to fuck us over like that?’
Threats are made by weak and small people, who have let their emotions go to their heads. People who mean business tend not to bother with them. If the matter is out of their control, they ignore their vexation and move on. If someone needs crushing then they don’t forewarn anyone, they get on with it.
Spoken threats take on a life their own. I look back at the ones I made and can only thank god that no-one pushed back, and I didn’t have to choose between cowardice, or pride and its consequences. Not everyone has been so lucky.