If you hadn’t heard Penance music yet, you know nothing about the doom metal! If you hadn’t heard the classic doom metal album CATHEDRAL's ”Forest of equilibrium”, stay silent and read this fine chat with Penance’s key figure, Mike! Let’s start the doom metal history! Doom shall rise!!
Hello Mike! Greetings from Hungary! How are you? What did you do before you answering my questions?
Hello to you too. It seems as if I’m quite busy. I’ve been working on my computer doing stuff for the band, my freelancing art stuff etc. After I’ve already got up at 4:30am to go to my regular day job where I work 10 hours days. It’s like my days are split in half. One half is the ’real’ world that I have to live in with a ’real’ job and then I come home from that and the second half of my day begins. Does that mean I have twice a lifetime?......oh yea, and I also smoked some pot as well...
You are one of the most respected persons in the doom scene so I have thought about an in depth, interesting interview. Primarily I want to ask you about PENANCE and about the doom scene all right?
Ok.. , then...........here we go!
You have begun your career under the name of DREAM DEATH. Was it the forefather of PENANCE? Who played still in the band? Which bands have had an effect on you? Tell us please about this period?
Yes it was. Seems as if I get asked this question a lot. A lot- if not most- look at this whole thing as 2 – very different bands, and even then- Penance gets split up into a before/after thing too. I’ll agree that it was 2 different names, (just as Brian Lawrence/Goodbread was 2 different names, but was still the same person), but still like one big long progression to me. Dream Death was a mix of things as well from before it’s advent and for the people who like DD that didn’t seem to matter as long as it ’sounded” like DD to them. But after a while the present starts to catch up to what you’re writing as a band as well as more current influences and Penance was a mix of Dream Death as well as things that influenced us at that time which progressed and changed along with the band in a current time.
How do you remember about the underground scene of at that time? The thrash scene was very popular in the middle of the ’80-s, wasn’t it? How could the doom bands succeed at that time? Which doom bands were active at that time?
It was a bit more hands on. You could send in your demo tape (even if it was self recorded, etc. And –production wise- wounded like shit) to zines etc. And they would still review it even though it didn’t come from a record label and it wasn’t really held against you. People were more interested in hearing the music and overlooked if the production was shitty. It’s kinda like record scratch noise is to a record when listening to it..............shitty production came along with the territory and actually made it a bit more raw in that respect. Tape trading was really big , so you’d get a 30th generation copy of what was a shitty production in the first place and still be flipping out over the music. Yea, at that time thrash metal was at it’s inception/peak starting to break off into speed metal / death metal. The doom bands really couldn’t, but that scene never got the credit it deserved. Anyone with half a brain knew that if you wanted to make some money......playing that type (let alone Metal in general) was like picking Gus the Wonder Mule to win the Kentucky Derby...........just not going to happen. Candlemass had a good run there for a while as well as Trouble. It’s hard to make a living at anything that you love. Most painters that people love now, died penniless, but still they painted- why?..........it’s just what you do.Van Gogh is turning over in his grave just itching to spend what he’s worth now!!!!
When and why did you change your name into PENANCE? Did you continue the music of DREAM DEATH?
Well, it’s the whole same linage thing again. Penace became the revolving door as it seems now which still continued to churn out music over the years dispite the black cloud of Doom hanging over it. Penance still played the last written DD songs like The Unseen, Born To Suffer etc. Which old school Penance fans love that and don’t like newer Penance such as A&O or Spiritualnatural etc.....it’s always something. Penance didn’t have a permanant singer for a long time, and Brian Goodbread (Lawrence) sang for us even though he didn’t want to be in the band officially. We were still all friends and he was helping us out until we could find one. Some people didn’t even realize that since his name was Goodbread, that it was the same singer and really DD lineup with a different name. Later on throughout Penance, Brian came back again and played bass for us in the Bridges to Burn Demo since we didn’t have a bass player at that point. As Dream Death, we were going to change our name after the first record, but decided against it since building up some speed with that name. Dream Death was a song before we named the band that. We never really decided on a name and Dream Death stuck. After DD split, it seemed like the most natural time to make the change if you were going to do so........we did and that’s about it.
„The living truth” demo (1990) was released by PENANCE. Didn’t you record any demos with DREAM DEATH? In what kind of receprion was the demo participated by the fans and by the underground press? Did the demo draw the fans attention to the band? Tell us please a little bit about this demo!
Yes. We did 2 demos before the Journey Into Mystery lp and 1 after it. PsycheDoomelic just released all 3 of these demos which I put together called ’Back From The Dead”. Penance’s LT demo went over rather well. This was one of the better productions that we were able to get for the band where it sounded pretty close to what we actually sounded like. Yea, it gained some fans for the band. Lee Dorrian liked it and put us on the first Dark Passages.
At that time you have contributed to CATHEDRALs debut „Forest of equilibrium”. How did you get in touch with Lee Dorrian? How was the work with the guys? Did you take part in the songcomposing?
Lee wrote me a letter one day introducing himself and saying that they needed a drummer because they had some studio time booked for a record and they’re drummer broke his arm or something. He said that he was a fan of the band and he asked me if I’d fill in for the record. Of course, I said yes. I hade something like 12 days to learn it all and record it. It was a great experience. Overall it was good. No- they had everything laid out and I just put some drums to them.
In my opinion „Forest of equilibrium” is one of the greatest doom albums of all time, a milestone in the doom scene, I love it very much. How do you remember about this record? What’s your opinion about it? Would you speak detailed about this awesome album?
It’s definately a marker and I’m proud to have been lucky enough to have been a part of it. We had a space rented in Birmingham where we would ride the train to from Coventry which is where we stayed. Every day for a week or so we would go there and rehearse for the record. Black Sabbath was in the next room rehearsing for Dehumanizer. That’s where I got the chance to meet Tony and Geezer. We ate lunch with them in the little shop they have there. It was cool.! The one thing I remember is that with some of the drums that I actually had worked out- halfway though the record, they called me in and wanted me to tone down the drums a bit. A flipped out a little because no one said anything before when we were rehearsing so I had to change some stuff in the studio. I was a bit of a bitch about the whole thing probably, but it all worked out in the end because it’s a killer release.
I think you were only session member, weren’t you? Didn’t you think about to remain in the band as permamnent member? Did respectively do PENANCE play an important role in your life?
Yea, There was some talk about me joining and I probably could have if I pushed it, but my heart was with Penance. Terry and I were like brothers and on the same plane.
How would you charakterize Lee Dorrian personally? Did you know that he was earlier the singer of NAPALM DEATH?
Lee is a very cool- hospitable person with a good sense of humor. He liked to get fucked up too! We’ve have some bingers!!!!! Yes, I knew he used to sing with them.
As far as PENANCE, did Lee like your music? Did he immediately offer you a contract?
I don’t know, you’d have to ask Lee that question. I think so, as I’ve said before- he offered us a spot on DP. I’m not sure, but we talked about things I’m sure.
He is the owner of Rise Above Records and the label has released a compilation „Dark Passages” at the early ’90-s. Why weren’t you featured on this album? In your opinion, is it important for a band to be on several compilations?
Not sure I understand this question...........We were on the first Rise Above release of Dark Passages. We actually had an extra track on the cd version.
Under the aegis of Rise Above was released your debut album „The road less traveled” in 1992. I ask you to speak detailed about this record! By whom were the songs and the lyrics written, what were it all about the lyrics, what do you think about the songs, about the cover, are you satisfied with the sound etc.? Tell us everything what it occurs to you!
Well, here we go full circle #1. On the first release of Penance (Living Truth demo) Brian was singing, but not a member of the band- which at that point was DD without him. He joined the band again with the release of RLT and was a member, which would have brought back the DD lineup......now called Penance.etc.......circles, circles everywhere.....help..........We even did The Unseen etc.....which were officially released as Penance songs now, but were the last – unreleased DD songs since the label split etc. In the interem between Brian being in and out of the band.....Terry and I continued to write and play keeping somewhat of a continuity to the band. I took over the lyrics when Brian left , so on most of the early Penance – I’d write the lyrics as well as some of the riffs, but I did that with DD too. We were never really happy with the sound of the RLT and it was our fault, because we just didn’t really know what we were doing in the studio at that point or how to achieve it ourselves and relied on studios knowing or understanding what you were trying to do etc...........We actually recorded that album twice. The first one which is just released on PsycheDOOMelic records called The Road Revisited. We started this at a studio where they guy was a big pothead and sat upstairs smoking pot and left us running the board .........it came out like a good sounding demo, but certainly not an lp............so we went to another studio, (more professional) and tried it again. I can hear it in the performances too. They just don’t have the jump that the first one did, but it sounded like a studio lp anyway. I was recently going through all the Dream Death stuff for the latest release Back From The Dead and came across the original masters from the first recording. I had to bake the tapes to even try and get them to play to even try and see if I could at least remix the original tracks – which I was able to do thanks to Chris Kozlowski and the ever homey- Polar Bear Lair. Thanks Koz! This is now a good representation of what the band sounded like at that time. It’s funny because at this point of the interview- The Road Revisited has been out for a couple of weeks now and I’ve been getting some opinions on it and people have said to me that it sounds like Dream Death. Go figger!!! And the last demo on BFTD sounds like this early Penance...........It all boils down to good music and hopefully I’ve helped create some good music on a multitude of levels- be it-Heavy...Doom.....StonerRock....Sabbathy.......Deathy...etc etc. That diversity comes back to Penance and why there is this question of differences etc. Because I’ve never tried to limit myself or pidgeon-hole myself into being just any 1 thing.
When and why did you leave Rise Above? Were you perhaps dissatisfied with the label?
No, not at all. Lee and I had an agreement and he was just in the beginning stages of his label. We got an offer from CM and we went with it. Lee said it was a wise choice as well since they could probably do more for the band than he could at that point.
At the same time have vocalist/guitarist Brian Lawrence and bassist Richard Freund left the band. What were the reasons of their departure? Have they had enough of playing music, being on tour?
Well, Brian left the band again about 2 weeks before we were slated to go on the UK tour with Cathedral and Sleep. Rich still played bass for the tour though. Terry, Rich and I didn’t want to pass up this oportunity, but were floundering for a singer in just 2 weeks time to go on tour with etc.............Dorrian mentioned to me that he knew a friend of his who was a singer as well as a fan of the band- hence Lee Smith. We were all very nervous about the whole thing because we’d never met him and wouldn’t be able to see/meet/hear the guy until we were over there (and if he sucked-by that time it would be too late). I think we jammed once or twice with him the day before the tour and it was great! He was cool as hell and sounded great. It was an instant fit. That’s how Lee joined the band, bit of a trial by fire I guess. So after the tour ended and with the not so ’logistics’ of a singer in England and a band in the States- Rich soon departed along with Brian being gone. Once again, Terry and I kept jamming and playing etc. Exchanging ideas with each other and kept writing songs together knowing that we’d be playing them sometime- with somebody- Frank joined the band on bass. We knew him from the local Metal scene and it was really cool. He used to play in a local metal band called DeathMass here from Pittsburgh. I worked out a deal with CM which included flying Lee over to sing- which led to Parallel Corners. Smitty came over and we jamed for a couple of weeks and went into the studio, recorded the lp and Lee went back to England. PC was largely improvised. I think that was a letting go of such structure like Dream Death and just jamming a bit more aka. Trouble with one guitar kind of thing.
Instead of them joined singer Lee Smith and bassist Frank Miller the band. How did the get into the picture? In which groups did they play earlier? Did you know them earlier?
With them was your second album „Parallel corners” recorded which was in 1994 released. Did they take part in the songcomposing? In your opinion are there similarities and differences between „The road less traveled” and „Parallel corners”? What would you say about this record?
Yea, it’s a whole vibe thing really. Like I said before it was a loosely structured lp- heavy riffs strung together with improvised- loose jamming...........I really liked the freedom of that. Well it’s obviously the next step of letting go of being or having to be just one thing. Some bands like to put out the same product time and time again. I think our stuff (as a whole) holds together a lot of our influences and musical favs very well, which brings back that diversity to the table. People have a lot to choose from when they listen to us now. Dream Death, Penance..........new Penance, old Penance...various incarnations there of.........etc.....etc....etc. Pick some and hopefully you’ll like one of them.
The album was attended to Century Media. Why did you chose them? How did you come to them? Did they support the band? How did Century Media do their job as far as PENANCE?
They had expressed some interest before RLT, so I contacted them after it to see if they’d still be interested in doing something. I’d like to think that they did and it was us at the end of the day that held ourselves back. Getting stuck in that grey area on still wanting to play in a band, but scared to make the jump full time to something you knew wasn’t going to be able to support you financially so you couldn’t commit to promoting full time via tour etc...............kinda hung ourselves really.
After the releasing of „Parallel corners” you have vanished from sight, we haven’t heard anything about you. What happened with the band? Why did part your ways from Century Media? How could you sum up this period?
Things just fell apart again. CM didn’t seem too keep on a second lp, but finally agreed to squeak one out and Lee got detained through customs on his way over to do it. That about sealed the deal and rightly so. Lee got sent home, Frank left and Terry and I were left still writing, jamming, same ol- same ol. Should’ve been getting used to it by then I think. The ever changing door.
As far as the ’90-s, grunge and pop/punk music were popular, it hasn’t got much going for the metal bands. Do you agree with me?
Yea. This type of music has never gotten it’s due. It doesn’t support itself by money and that’s why what you see in it is so cool. It’s because that’s what they want to play for the love of it, not money- because I for one can tell you.........there’s none! Although, I think Metal is kinda on a comeback though. Pull out the first Maiden lp, put it on and hear how great it sounds.....
In 1998 you have recorded a demo „Bridges to burn”. What was this demo used for? What must we know about it?
That got back around to Terry and I still jamming and wanting to record. We finally hooked up with Butch, but still lacked a bass player. We were still friends with Brian Goodbread so he lent his services again ala Living Truth except this time on bass. It was where we were at at that time.
The new singer became Brian Balich. From where did he come into the band? Does his voice fit to the songs? In my opinion, he has higher voice than your previous singers, do you agree with me?
Yes. Butch was more of a singer than Brian was. He sang in some local bands out around Philly where he grew up as a kid for a while.
Your third album has in 1999 came out and it was titled „Proving ground”. What would you say about this album? In your opinion, did you develope compared to the first two records?
This was the culmination of writing with Butch in the band. It was a self release because no one was really interested with us. Didn’t mean we still weren’t jamming and writing, so we recorded Proving Ground. Went back to the guy who engineered Paralled Corners who now had his own studio Dave World.
As far as the line up, on this album has played a new bassist Ron Leard. What would you say about him? When and why did also leave the band? In my opinion you have always had bad luck with the bassplayers.
It’s funny how this all works, but I’ve know Ron since back in the Dream Death days. Both he and Dave Roman used to jam with us which almost ended up being the first Dream Death. Never happened and Ted entered the picture. None the less, we’ve still maintained a friendship throughout the years. He was playing in a local band which ended up splitting up and we needed a bass player so that kinda came around full circle so to speak! He got burned out with the whole „heavieness” end of it and started Humbucker. What’s more is Ron and I are jamming together again right now doing an accoustic duo thing locally.
In 2001 became your line up complete, two new members Matt Tuite on the guitar and Mary Bielich on the bass joined the band. Was it hard to find the suitable members? Why did become PENANCE a five piece band? Was it necessary to admit a second guitarist?
We met Mary out in Ohio at a festival and had known her from her time in Pittsburgh. She was then living in Chicago with her now husband Matt. That festival was going to be Ron’s last gig with us and we were on the (this time) pre search bass hunt. I ran into Mary in the parking lot and needed to catch up with her and she said that they might be moving back to Pittsburgh. I told her that we should jam if they decided to come back to Pgh. They did and the rest is history. With the addition of another guitar came the beauty of another voice and mode of writing. Matt is the master of harmonies.
„Alpha omega” was your fourth album and it was released in 2001. Comment please the record with your own words!
I think it was a good bridge between another „stage” of Penance.
In 2003 was released your fifth album „Supernatural”. My wish is the same, I’m interesting in your comment…
Another bridge. The last stuff with Terry and Matt together and the influx of Roman. We started to record in short bursts since all of our time is limited and we’d commute to Md. We had four songs started when Terry finally had said that he’s had enough and bowed out. I wanted to finish the record as we had some more good songs written so I asked Roman if he’d help us out and play the other lead on the record to fill in for Terry. He agreed and then it ended up becoming permanant and the last tour.
Your last two albums were attended to Martyr Music. Are you satisfied with them? Do they everything for the band? As far as your career in your opinion you are martyrs too ha-ha!
Yes. Maria has always treated us fairly. I’d have to say so it seems.
„Supernatural” became a double album and the second CD is a compilation with songs of the labels bands. Whose idea was to release the album? I think so it was a good idea.
That was Maria’s idea. She asked if we’d mind if she did that and we weren’t oppossed. I think it was a great idea to help promote both her and us.
When will be released a new PENANCE album? Did you write already new songs?
Not sure about that. We do have some new songs written which are really cool, but Penance is sleeping at the moment. All of our differences seem to have finally drawn the band apart instead of pulling it forward.
Mike can I put it to you some other questions? You have played also in the legendary PENTAGRAM. On which PENTAGRAM albums did you play? How could you sum up the period what you have spent in the band? Do you have new informations about Bobby Liebling? As I as know, he had problems with the alcohol and the drugs, hadn’t he?
I played on the last one, Show E’m How. A learning, but overall good experience. It was a lot of work and could have been so much more, but things go the way they’re going to go. He’s still Bobby and yes he had a lot of problems with drugs.
How would you define doom metal? Is it a mainstream, popular music or an underground one? Is doom metal a sad music? Do the emotions play an important role in this genre?
It’s definately not popular really because it’s not like you see or hear about Penance or Internal Void on MTV or anything. We just don’t have the cash it takes to advertise how cool you are on that level and that’s really all that is. Bought glory, the brilliance of clever advertising. Spend enough money on saturating how popular you are and bam..............you are! Git ’R’ Done.............nuff said!
In your opinion which bands and which persons are the pioneers/godfathers of doom metal? Which doom acts do you like?
Here we go. Sabbath were the pioneers of the ’Mega HEAVY’ riff which is now dubbed as Doom or Stoner etc..........but at the end of the day, they were just a real heavy Blues band. And there are tons of influence when it comes to Blues which goes back to the roots of that like Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson etc... all of which I love. So, here go those circles again.
Inside the doom scene we are speaking about stoner rock. What does it mean stoner rock for you? Are you often stoned? Ha-ha!
Lately, yes I am! I never used to when I was a kid though. I was too busy listening to all this music!
Why do wear the members of the most doom bands a cross in their neck? Is religion in connection with this music?
I can’t and won’t speak for other people, but I think it’s become a bit cliche- like anything to look or think or align yourself with on which to identify etc.- Whether or not they believe that Christ is the Saviour or not is a whole other thing. I’d like to think that it’s from that connection when I see that. It’s like reading Ecclesiastes to me. You want to talk about Doom? Try reading that for a bit and see just how gloomy he was. That stuff translates to music rather well.
What do you think about the organized religions and about religion generally? It is important for us to believe in anything? What’s your opinion about the existence of God and evil? Are there heaven, hell and purgatory?
I think it’s an important issue that you need to make up your own mind about. I find it amazing that so many people don’t take the time to even think about the possibilites of such things at all. I think it’s something you need to decide upon because we all have it coming. It’s just a matter of how and when. Overall religion is a great thing, but it’s like anything else- full of human hypocracy. I’d say crack open a Bible and just start reading and decide for yourself. Unless you read it you can never really be sure that you’ve given it any of your own thoughts at all, just things you’ve been told and smothered with your whole life. I believe as best I can. Faith and belief is an ongoing journey, not just a light switch that you can just turn on. Questioning things is part of the process. I believe that Christ died for our sins and is our saviour. What you choose to do with that is the real question. I struggle with the latter part of the question. I think that maybe the absence of God is Hell........I don’t know.
You are coming from Pittsburgh, so I have to ask: are you a fan of Pittsburgh Penguins or Pittsburgh Steelers? Do you know or do you like Mario Lemieux? You know, I’m a big fan of the Penguins, but unfortunately in this year fell out the NHL season.
Both really. I prefer the Penguins though. If I still believed in heros he would be mine.
What would you have been, if you wouldn’t have been a musician? What are your interests or hobbys?
I liked to read. I think it would be cool to be a writer and/or produce movies. Art, just a different medium. I just like to create.
As I mentioned above, I’m from Hungary. Have you ever been in my country? How do you imagine the life in Hungary? What’s our capitol? Do you know something about Hungary? Here are some PENANCE fans.
No. European, I guess. Budapest? I’m not sure. I’m sure it has great castles and places I’d love to visit! With all the history it would have to be awesome.
Tell us please your first ten all time classics of all time!
Records? That’s always changing depending on my moods. HA!
My last question: how would you characterize the developement of the career of PENANCE? Are you proud of it? Did you dreams come true with the band?
Yea, it’s been a big part of my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mike, I hope my questions weren’t boring and you haven’t got tired. It was a honour for me to do this interview. I wish you all the best and good luck. Please close the interview.
It’s been a long one. Thank you for your time and patience. Peace, Mike Smail.
by David Leslie