By Justin M. Norton
Paul Speckmann has been playing death metal longer than many fans of the genre have been walking the planet. The Chicago native started his long-running project Master in 1983. He’s also played with other bands including War Cry, Abomination and the Czech death metal band Krabathor. Dark Descent Records recently reissued his early band Death Strike’s demo Fuckin’ Death. The reissue includes eight tracks from the 1991 Nuclear Blast edition and four never-heard rehearsal tracks. Speckmann talked to Hellbound about the early days of Chicago death metal and his new life in Eastern Europe from his home in the Czech Republic. He’s in the final stages of writing his autobiography “Speckmann: Surviving The Underground.”
Hellbound: Where was your life when you started working on the Death Strike material?
Paul Speckmann: I was playing bass in my Dad’s basement and depressed, thinking a lot about what was going on in society and my life. I was still living with my father at 21 and arguing with him about getting a job and getting out on my own. He’d just gotten married and I didn’t get along with his new wife so there was a lot of tension in the house. I had a younger brother. He was 14 and didn’t get along with that bitch either so there was a lot of stress. I felt like an old guy at 21 living at home with kids.
Then my father died. I was in the basement and I started working on a song called “The Truth.” It was part of Death Strike’s first demo. After I wrote the song I started looking for band members because Master was going nowhere. I had to try to do something. I was looking through the Illinois Entertainer, a local magazine that supports everything musical. It’s a trade paper.
I came across a guitar player Kirk Miller. I smiled when it said he was into Slayer and Venom and Motorhead. He was a guy we auditioned six months earlier for Master. So I called him and he came over to the house. He brought along this drummer from the South Side of Chicago, John Leprich. We started with names like Rabid Anger and finally came up with Death Strike. After about four weeks of rehearsals we got to the studio in January 1985. We recorded the demo in two days and the rest is history, I suppose?
Did you have a hard time finding people to play with in the scene’s formative years?
There weren’t many people into the style. Obviously, it wasn’t called death metal back then, it was just metal. It was our own version of metal, very aggressive. I was in a band called War Cry before Master and Death Strike and we were playing cover songs of Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. A friend brought over Venom’s “In League with Satan” seven-inch. He turned me on to that and it changed our lives.
Tom Warrior of Celtic Frost has said on multiple occasions that the same record changed his life.
I never knew that but I feel the same way, exactly. It had such a heavy sound, a heavy bass sound. It was so angry. We were also listening to a lot of punk like GBH, Millions Of Dead Cops and Discharge. So this stuff was a big influence on the Death Strike demos. You can definitely hear that on the album.
The last show I played with War Cry was opening up for Twisted Sister. After that last show I wanted to get really heavy. This was about a year before Twisted Sister got big. There will be a whole story about it in my autobiography. I met Dee Snider and he changed my life; he told me some things that just changed my life. He might be one of the big reasons I still play metal today.
Have there been any reissues since the 1991 repressing of Fuckin’ Death?
No, and people were paying like 50 Euros to get the CD. It was disgusting. I can’t understand how people can rip off people like that. When we first made tapes of Fuckin’ Death there were only six copies and they somehow they got all over the world. Unfortunately, when we released those copies we were never offered a record deal and the band broke up after that.
Who did you hear back from in the tape trading network?
I heard from Bill Steer from Carcass and Napalm Death. He wrote me on a few occasions. I also heard from Chuck (Schuldiner) from Death. A lot of famous people now were kids back then and trading tapes. It was a really good network. My tape was spread by copies of copies of copies. It got to England and Sweden and some people told me it was very influential. We had no idea it would help the genre so it’s cool just to be a part of it.
What is it like to listen to your earliest material now?
I smile. It’s still angry and aggressive. The only thing is that when we did the second part, the part recorded in 1991, we didn’t capture the same energy and feeling. I tried but it didn’t come out like I wanted. I know something people like some of the material from the second part. But the first part is the best. I’m also glad we found rehearsal tracks because they capture the intensity of what we were doing.
It would also be hard for a band like Venom to recapture what they did on Welcome To Hell or Black Metal.
Exactly. Those are my favorite Venom records. I stopped listening to Venom after that. That’s where it all ended for me. I still listen to them today. I still like those records.
As a twentysomething kid did you ever imagine you’d be talking about this record decades later and living in Eastern Europe?
That’s a great question. I’m certainly happy this music brought me to where I am in my life. Back then I was broke, didn’t have a job, got kicked out of the house when it was sold. In some ways my father’s passing was a good thing because I became my own person. I pushed on, Master got back together and we recorded the record in 1989. In 1990 I came to Europe for the first time and I realized I could lead the troops myself. I’ve been leading and touring since then, playing concerts and festivals around the world. It’s all because of what happened then.
Why did you reform Master after Death Strike?
We thought Death Strike was where it was at. The drummer from Master had a falling out with his new band and came back and auditioned for Death Strike. It was a mistake but I took the guy back and we became Master again. We played one or two shows and it never worked. We split up right away. Then I went on to do the Funeral Bitch project and Abomination and have also been with Master ever since.
Death Strike could have been something big if we didn’t take him (the drummer) back. All he did was drag me down. It was a horrible situation so I just had to say goodbye. In every band someone wants to be the leader. Sure, I’m the leader, but my band is a democracy. A democracy works better. I found that out years ago. I’m the frontman and spokesman but I still ask for opinions and ideas. Back then we were young and the power struggle was too serious. When you are in your 20s you have an ego or an attitude. You think you have all the answers and then you realize you don’t know shit.
Did you own the rights to Fuckin’ Death? What took the reissue so long?
I’d been talking about it but at first there wasn’t a lot of interest. Ibex Moon talked a bit about it last year. I finally put something up on the Internet and got in touch with Dark Descent. I thought it was a good chance to give people a chance to hear the record again.
Has it been an issue in your career — that you’ve been involved with so many projects outside of Master?
Not today, but back in the day Nuclear Blast had about six or seven Speckmann releases in one year. They did it to make money; they are one of the biggest metal labels in the world now. For many years I didn’t speak to the folks from Nuclear Blast but just this past winter I got a call from (founder) Markus (Staiger) and we’re on speaking terms again. He made everything correct and better after 20 years. It’s a cool thing and I didn’t think it would ever happen. He’ll be reissuing the first two Abomination albums to coincide with our fall tour in Europe. We’ve been getting a lot of offers. I’ve been playing in Master for the last two decades. People want to hear the classics. To get on the stage and play 20 songs I haven’t played in ages is going to be a lot of fun. It will be like reliving the past but also getting a chance to do something new.
Sort of like when Iommi and Geezer got a chance to play with Dio again…
I’m sure they had a good time with that.
What is life like in the Czech Republic?
Right now I’m sitting in my office looking at the moon and really relaxed. I’m still touring every year, doing maybe 100 shows around the world. I run from busy city to busy city. It’s quiet here and the dogs are running around. It’s a nice life. It’s very comfortable and very free here.
Why did you decide to leave the United States?
I was on tour with a band from the Czech Republic called Krabathor in 1999 and we started sound checking together. We did 44 shows on a broken down school bus with no toilet and three bands. You’d either hate everyone or become friends. I spoke with some of these guys and asked them if they wanted to do a project with me. Later, they asked if I’d be interested in coming to Czech Republic. I went home and moved furniture for six weeks, sold all my stuff and came here. Two weeks after I arrived here I had a tour in Japan. The band broke up but I found new members for Master in 2004 and we’ve been together ever since.
What’s it like to come home to the U.S.?
I like it but I’m always ready to come back here, because this feels like home now. When I go to America I feel like I’m being asked questions all the time. And the last visit I had to go through a full body scanner, put my hands up on a spaceship machine. I didn’t like that at all, man. That’s infringing on my freedom. I think they have my retinas on file and that’s not a comfortable feeling.
It’s like a Philip Dick scenario….
They have this stuff in Amsterdam, too, but in other parts of Europe it’s not the case. They don’t ask any questions, just stamp your passport and off you go. When I go to the U.S. I get asked all these questions and I’m an American!
But a place like the Czech Republic doesn’t have nearly the security concerns that the United States does…
Maybe, but it’s also like creating your own enemy. The U.S. is a bully. Even musicians that come over here from the states act that way, like they are number one. There is no number one. People in the world need to get along. I don’t parade around with a Czech or an American flag on my back. I’m happy to live here but I’m also proud to be an American.
What’s the biggest change that you notice when you tour the U.S.?
More police on the highways. I’ve just seen so many police. I didn’t get pulled over but in Texas I saw about 100 people pulled over. I’m smart and follow the speed limit. We’re driving around with a bunch of hippies and equipment in the car (laughs). But it does make me nervous. I didn’t feel that way when I lived there.
Do things seem more homogenous now? In the past you could go into a town or a local diner and it would be like experiencing a different culture but now every town has a Bed, Bath & Beyond and a Denny’s.
That’s coming here, too. We have McDonalds. A lot of the bigger cities have Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King. I rarely eat in these places although I admit once and a while I get a craving. Everything is mass produced. I was watching a program on Cinemax and they were talking about Tyson Chicken and how the chickens are mass produced and given steroids. They showed fucking thousands of chickens in this little room with no light. They don’t see light, and they get so fat from the chemicals that they can’t stand. Their organs are growing too fast for their body. It doesn’t mean I will stop eating chicken but it’s pretty scary, pretty awful. And it’s all about money.
When you go home to Chicago do you have any rituals or places you visit?
I just like to see all of my crazy friends. A lot of my friends show up at the concerts. There will be 300 people and I’ll know 200 of them. I also want to get a burrito and Tex-Mex food. I like the food here but you can’t get stuff like you can in Chicago and Texas and New Mexico. I love Tex-Mex . I always stop for Mexican food.
You also can’t get a rack of ribs in the Czech Republic like you could in your hometown.
Oh no way. A rack of ribs – cut it out, you are making me hungry (laughs).
Are you comfortable with your place in the history of death metal?
Why shouldn’t I be? I was part of the beginning of the genre. I’ll never be rich and famous but who cares. I know where things started and I was there. It’s cool enough to know I was part of the beginning of the genre. And I keep getting shows and tours.
Back in the day I used to do a lot of cocaine. Maybe one of us would have died if we signed a big contract. They say things happen for a reason and I tend to believe it. I’m healthy today but I was a maniac in 1985. Now, I still drink my whiskey and that’s fine.
Death Strike’s Fuckin’ Death reissue is out now on Dark Descent Records.