INTERVIEW: Mike Abominator from Gravehill is going to crawl out the speaker and choke you to death

Gravehill rule for a whole bunch of reasons. The Californian alpha-headbangers just have this anything goes attitude to playing gory ol’ school death metal and would just as soon mix in a little hardcore punk and crust feel as they are to bring it down slow and low and meditate upon a doom riff for a little minute before getting back to the blast and pummel. And they play songs, actual songs. But maybe the most persuasive aspect of their whole approach is their frontman, the incomparable Mr Mike Abominator.
Some vocalists just pass you buy, their performances sinking into the mix, lurking around with the percussion. Mike Abominator is front and center. He is the ice titan on Gravehill’s unholy cake. Sure, maybe live you could say he is in your face; YouTube footage would suggest that is the case. But when you experience him through headphones on the morning commute, he’s in your head, and that’s probably more disquieting, more intimidating. Intimidating is just a part of it, though, Abominator is more of a rabble-rouser, a fallen evangelist for extreme metal. If underground metal required a recruiting sergeant it could do worse than him.

A couple of weeks ago we premiered this awesome track from Death Curse. You can order that nasty piece o’ work here

It’s time you got to know Mike Abominator a little better, but be warned; this is the man who considers performance to be a form of intimidation . . .

Let’s go back, way back: what was your first musical memory?
“My family was always really into rock ’n’ roll music so there were always records playing, constantly, at the house. I distinctly remember the song “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath, playing it over and over again, and that album being played all the time. And, of course, Paranoid. Sabbath was always playing, and I was always really intrigued by it. My brother told me that I gravitated towards the heavy metal records, some of the heavier stuff. My dad used to laugh; he tried to put on Deep Purple and stuff, and that was cool, but I always seemed to calm down when Black Sabbath or Judas Priest, or KISS were playing. Those were my first three loves, I guess. KISS Destroyer, I was just intrigued by the makeup and the whole thing with them. Then Judas Priest, when “The Ripper” would come on it was like I’d stop being a pain in the ass and start behaving myself a little bit better and calming down. I guess that was my early memories; to get me back in line, they just put on one of those records and I would calm down.”

…And what was the first record you bought?
“At that point, a lot of those records from The Scorpions and Thin Lizzy, Ted Nugent and Montrose, all that stuff was just hand-me-downs, all the way up to the early ‘80s when I started getting old enough to go down to the local shopping mall by myself. We had this record store in there called Licorice Pizza—that was big in the Los Angeles area. Basically it was at the mall on the second floor. I think the first—I’d bought two albums that day, and I think it was Judas Priest Screaming for Vengeance and Def Leppard High ‘n’ Dry. Those were the first two records that I bought. And then from there, I just loved AC/DC and all that kind of stuff, but I already had that in my collection from my brother and my dad. Luckily, my brother was really into the underground stuff; he was the one that got me into the British heavy metal scene, with Iron Maiden, Venom and Motörhead, and all that good stuff. Saxon!”

Was your big brother responsible for leading you down the Left Hand Path?
“It started with my dad, but after a while he wasn’t in the picture—that’s a whole long story but him and my mom ended up getting divorced, then I was hanging out with my brother all the time. My brother, even though he moved out of the house and started working early on when he was just 16, we remained in contact and he would take me to concerts all the time. He would take me to the record stores. He was involved in the whole fanzine, old-school network in the ‘80s, and that’s how I found out about the whole British heavy metal thing. He was able to get import magazines, like from Tower Records. He’d get Metal Forces and stuff like that. He would keep in contact with what was going on over there and obviously a lot of these bands were not coming over here yet.”

To complete the triumvirate of formative experiences, what was the first gig you attended?
“The first concert we went to was AC/DC on the For Those About to Rock tour, so that was cool! I was this little tiny kid and he was taking me to these shows. We got to see Metallica early on, in ’85 opening for Armored Saint, saw them in ’86 opening for Ozzy. We saw Slayer early on, because there was a real buzz about them of course in the L.A. area. We saw a lot of the old thrash bands, started going to a lot of these concerts. He basically met his future wife and moved on with his life at that point and I just got deeper and deeper into the music. He was the gatekeeper. He got me going. And as he was getting older he’d be getting rid of his old records and CDs and he’d just give them to me, everything from Rush to Slayer and Metallica. He was more of a smart kid. He was one of those self-made business men. He was always focused on work; I was the kid who was just focused on spending my money on records and shirts and stuff. My passion was always finding the next band and his passion was always about getting his business off the ground.”

That’s cool you mention Montrose, AC/DC, Ted Nugent and all that because Gravehill’s sound, as intense as it is, doesn’t sound out of place in a playlist with classic hard rock. You could put on Under the Blade then Death Curse and it wouldn’t jar.
“We’ll listen to Twisted Sister just as much as we’re gonna listen to Autopsy. It goes hand in hand, because, at the end of the day, heavy metal is supposed to make you bang your head, it’s supposed to rock. It is an extreme form of rock ‘n’ roll so it’s supposed to have some sort of rhythm to it where you can just get into it, go off and forget about that shitty day you just had and have a fucking good time; let off some aggression, some frustration, and just forget about all that shit. Regardless if it’s some old-school Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot—even the old Mötley Crüe stuff—that’s always going to be a big influence on us because that’s the stuff we listen to. We don’t sit around in a basement, drinking blood and listening to Blasphemy all day, as much as we love Blasphemy. Y’know what I mean? It’s like we’re not trying to be super-morbid. We’re going to be honest; some of the regular heavy metal stuff is just as badass as the death metal, black metal and thrash stuff. If it’s good and it’s metal then we are going to be into it and we are going to be influenced by it. The first Bathory record is just as important to us as the first Morbid Angel record, in that sense, and so on and so forth.”

Who has had the biggest influence on your sound?
“At the end of the day,Venom and old Slayer. I mean that stuff just bangs. It rocks! It gets your head banging and your heart pumping, your fist banging. You just want to kill things and that’s the way it should be. To pigeonhole yourself into one simple genre like, ‘I just wanna listen to Napalm Death all day…’ I mean, that’s cool, and classic Napalm Death is phenomenal, definitely one of the best bands of that genre, of any genre, but there is so much great fuckin’ music out there to experience. There is always some great bands coming out whether it’s heavy metal, doom metal, thrash metal, death metal, fuck’n black metal; I mean there are bands like Craft and Darkthrone in the black metal genre who rock. That’s what it’s all about. We’re not afraid to say that old-school Twisted Sister stuff rules—love those guys—and other bands like that. Old Def Leppard rules, I mean that stuff fuckin’ rocks. Old-school AC/DC, we are all big AC/DC fans—the Bon Scott era obviously; Brian Johnson had his good albums but when Bon Scott was in there they were unbelievable. Old Van Halen? That stuff rocked. It kicked your ass and that’s what it’s all about.”

What about punk? There is a little bit of that old West Coast hardcore in your sound, bands like Fear and whatnot, in your sound. Were you into those guys?
“Oh most definitely. Growing up in L.A., the crossover scene was really big here. I had years of transitioning from going to normal metal shows over to the underground, going to these crazy, violent, gang-infested shows in Long Beach and some of the shitty parts in L.A. that used to have shows. And when the punk and metal scene was crossing over it was really crazy because a lot of the people did not like each other. It was a very violent time in the mid-‘80s, so it was just crazy. If you were a long-hair you had some problems at some of these shows if you wanted to go see some good hardcore bands. Even the East Coast hardcore, when Agnostic Front and Cro-Mags came out here and they had the hardcore dudes who didn’t like long-hairs and thrashers coming to the shows and vice-versa. At some point it all blended together and I remember meeting a lot of the punkers who turned me onto a lot of the hardcore punk bands. Watching D.R.I. and them being able to hold their own with Death Angel and Slayer, and some of the thrash bands that were coming out and were brilliant, just the best; D.R.I. was able to go out there and just hold their own. Around that time, Overkill were coming out and they were doing punk covers, and Dark Angel was doing Fear covers and stuff like that. It was hand-in-hand, ‘cos at the end of the day, hardcore punk and thrash, and death metal, really don’t have many differences; they have more in common than anything else. You put on a Siege record, you put on a Repulsion record, you put on a Cryptic Slaughter demo; it’s like ‘Wow, this all sounds the same; this is crazy!’ Slaughter from Canada was able to mix both of those genres and create something that was like hardcore punk on steroids and PCP or something; they did death metal that way, and they were one of the bands that were there at the forefront. They were the forefathers. So, as far as the hardcore punk stuff [being an influence], definitely, ‘cos it had the attitude, the speed, the aggression; they were pissed off about a lot of the same things, too. They might not have been talking about death as much as the straight death metal stuff but at the same time the power of the music was very similar. Then you have stuff like Discharge, and Mob 47 from Sweden, the English and Swedish bands, the Japanese hardcore bands like S.O.B. It was a huge influence hearing something that was just so pissed off. Some of the GISM recordings, those guys sounded like death metal and that was like ’83 which was pretty crazy. A lot of these bands were just so ahead of their time. Septic Death, you listen to that and it sounds like the sort of grinding, death-hardcore record you here being recorded these days; they were just way ahead of their time, almost like it was a timewarp. We’re not afraid to admit that the hardcore punk stuff is just huge to us. Extreme Noise Terror, Doom . . . That stuff was just so brutal and aggressive it was like how can you not like it as far as I’m concerned. It has so much in common with underground metal that even if you look at these days, with Maryland Deathfest and some of the festivals in Europe, they have everything—and that’s what it’s all about. Extreme music should all be under one umbrella like that. You should be able to enjoy it so long as it’s good and it kicks ass.”

When did you first want to be in a band?
“Once you’ve seen so many classic shows: you’ve seen Slayer, Dark Angel and Kreator, when the Earache bands came out—Morbid Angel, Napalm Death, Carcass and Bolt Thrower were touring. Pungent Stench were coming out. Entombed were doing their first tour. Unleashed was out here. It was just insane. You were seeing this and [thinking] ‘That’s what I wanna do!’ So, at some point, I think I got a guitar in 1987, like an acoustic for Christmas, and just started taking lessons and tried learning songs; Venom songs, maybe even some Discharge. Stuff like Iron Maiden and Deep Purple too—Black Sabbath. It was whatever catchy song I’d try teaching myself by ear. Then little by little I moved on. I got a summer job, started saving money for a guitar, got the guitar, moved on to a better guitar and started finding friends that played instruments. We just started jamming in the garage, and I think my first [band]—I can’t even remember the name—was probably like Bereavement or something like that, we were just basically playing thrash crossover stuff. And then when the heavy death metal stuff came out, like the Paradise Lost demos came out, we thought, ‘Aww, shit, we gotta do something like that.’ It just started getting heavier and heavier. ‘Carcass!? Fuck yeah! Autopsy! Morbid Angel? Let’s do that; let’s cover those songs.’ And little by little I started getting into the heavier stuff, started playing in heavier bands. That was probably around ’91 when I first started playing music. I started out as a guitar player then started playing locally around the area.
“I was playing in Phobia for a while, the grindcore band from Orange County, then I formed the hardcore band Gasp. We had a record out on Slap-a-Ham back in ’98. I did that for bit. That became a little bit more experimental; we were doing a lot of drugs back then! Haha! It changed the sound a little bit; we started off more of a death metal/grindcore band but got a little bit different. Then I just kinda focused on a working career for a while then got back into music.”

What about Gravehill?
“Gravehill started in 2000, and I just used to go to their practices and hang out. I was just really good friends with those guys. They were going for a couple of years then they stopped and that was a bummer, because that was refreshing at that time to have an old-school death metal band, a really old-school death metal band come out of nowhere. No one was doing that at that time. When the 2000s first hit, black metal was huge, and the slam death metal was getting really popular, and all that technical stuff, like ‘Let’s cram 130 riffs into one song and we’ll have a song that sounds like a lawn sprinkler.’ Chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga! Everything was cookie-cutter. Everything sounded the same. Every album cover was kinda the same, just like the early ‘90s, I guess, when death metal got kinda convoluted. Then Gravehill just comes out of nowhere and starts doing their thing, and that was cool. That was one of the reasons why I asked Thorgrimm to start up Gravehill again in 2006.”

Your vocals are awesome. . Who had the biggest influence on your vocal style? You really chew on those lyrics…
Riiight, I like to mix it up a little bit. I’ve always loved Chris Reifert’s vocals. He sounds so demented, especially these days; he sounds crazier than ever. He started off just as normal death metal singer and now he’s just all over the place; he sounds like an insane serial killer now. I wanted to go for that sound where it’s kinda like I’m crawling out of the speaker to come choke you to death. I like to try and be as up front as possible. Kam Lee, with his lows; as far as going low goes, I think he is the master of that. That whole deep growl that he does really influenced me and the death metal scene as a whole . . . And also Cronos and Lemmy; it was their attitude and the way you could understand what they are saying but they are very pissed off and evil sounding. I guess Lemmy’s a little looser and Cronos is definitely evil sounding but they both have that I’m gonna kick your ass!/I’m gonna kill you! . . . Very clear, very upfront with what they are saying but it’s still very aggressive. John Tardy from Obituary; obviously he is awesome. Ross from Immolation always had a really nice growl going on there. Chuck from Death; back in the day, he was good with the mid-paced growls and the screams. I always liked Scott Carlson from Repulsion too; he kinda sounded like Cronos but on steroids or something, some sort of demented Cronos that was even crazier than what Cronos was doing. I was really influenced by those guys. And L.G. from Entombed, he was another one who sounded demented. Those old recordings are just insane, from the Nihilist days right up until Clandestine. [His vocals were] just really extreme and really heavy duty but also haunting.”

The thing all these guys have got in common is that they all have personality.
“I agree, and that’s something that I try to do. I mean, the listener should like it and be into it but also feel some sort of discomfort, like what I felt when I first heard this stuff. Like ‘What the fuck is this? This is crazy, it’s kinda scary.’ It’s a form of intimidation in that sense, but at the same time the kids who really get it really get into it and they become one with the band in that sense, like ‘This is great, this is fuckin’ great. This is gonna make me forget everything.’ They get hooked on that personality and that attitude. That was lacking for a while. Anybody can sit there and do pig squeals and just have a pitchshifter and growl into the mic over and over again, and you can’t understand what the fuck’s going on. I think it is better to actually hear the words of what’s going on, because that’s what Jeff Becerra did with Possessed. You could hear everything that he was saying and it was like, ‘Wow, this sounds like hell! This is insane right here!’ That’s the way it should be. There is no personality if you’re just going up there going ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff over and over again. As far as the cadence and the differences between the pitches and all that, I try change it up a bit. I like to have different ranges; growls, screams, and everything else in between. I take the influences and then put my twist on it but it’s definitely gotta have the attitude ‘cos that’s heavy metal.”

You need the attitude . . .
“If you don’t have that attitude, whatever you do in heavy metal you are not going to be successful. You’re not going to reach as many people as you want to, and that’s the goal, to just basically make sure that you are doing the right thing—enjoying yourself, obviously—and that the people who are getting it, who are supporting you, are with you and they are enjoying it as well. That’s the best, right there. That’s the awesome shit. And although I say fans, we are all in this together. I think we’re all equal; we’re fans too, we’re just lucky enough to do this and to share this sick, twisted hobby with a lot of people. And that’s fuckin’ awesome!”

Okay, finally . . . If you had to choose, Screaming for Vengeance or Defenders of the Faith?
Screaming, everthing from the cover to the songs, to the performances—everything about it. Judas Priest was one of those bands that has put out so many classic albums it is always hard to pin down just one. That’s why we love Sabbath, Priest, Maiden, and Motörhead . . . When a band puts out like six, seven classic albums, that’s when they become iconic. It’s hard to pick your favorite one. You could pick any of those Judas Priest records—Screaming, I’m not going to argue there. It’s an amazing album. It’s up there with all of them. Defenders . . . Sad Wings . . . Rocka Rolla too is a good one to put on and rock out to. But when they started developing the heavy metal sound, I think that’s when we all really, really took notice of that band, and by the time Screaming for Vengeance came out they were in full force.”

And that is the correct answer . . . Ladies and gentleman, give it up for Mike Abominator!

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