Interview with Hank Veggian of Revenant 2010
By Bradley Smith
Hells Henry, to me Revenant was perhaps a little underrated; can you reflect back on the “Storied” career of Revenant? What stands out to you in regards to this death/thrash entity? What was it like when you signed to Nuclear Blast and had your debut album released?
I appreciate that you thought we were under-rated. I would disagree, however, even if it may be true in retrospect. We always had the feeling that good fanzines with smart editors helped us a great deal. Basically, the underground was built by fanzine editors, tape traders, and bands. Often, they were one and the same. Of course, it helped that some of the writers on bigger magazines had open minds. I’ll never forget the day I saw the Kerrang! Review of the “Prophecies..” CD. I was expecting them to destroy the record (I was projecting my own feelings about it), but instead they gave us one of the best reviews possible. If we were under-rated it was not the fault of the metal press. And I always thought we had great fans. I think it was really due to the fact that we had a short career, we released one poorly written and recorded record, and our post-Prophecies recordings between 1991-1995 had very little circulation. But I never felt we were under-rated. Most of the bands we played with – and in particular Revenant and Ripping Corpse – knew we would never have a large following simply because we were dedicated to making original music. And that is not always what people want to hear.
Signing to Nuclear Blast was like walking into a real-life version of a Franz Kafka novel. We simply had no idea what we were getting into. I will try and recall the sequence. We played a ‘Day of Death” concert in Milwaukee with Cynic, Atheist, Broken Hope, and a few other bands. I think that show was in September of 1990. When we returned, I received a phone call from Germany. It was the label’s owner offering us a deal. I thought “Okay, but we are not ready for this.” Our songs were good but the newer material was not finished. You can hear it on the record – “The Unearthly” is a complete song, but the title track and “In the Dark of the Psychic Unknown” seem half finished. But being young and anxious, we grabbed our pens and signed the contract without thinking it through, rushed into the studio, and made a rather mediocre record. It was a mess, but we were all 18-19 years old and it happened so quickly that we barely had time to realize it had happened. I don’t even think the label bothered to have the record mastered, because it sounds awful. We tried to put it behind us but then the record appeared with that ridiculous cover art. At that point, I knew we were in trouble, but then we received on offer to tour in Europe with Gorefest. The tour was amazing, and we put on a great show every night. By the time we returned things with the label had turned sour, and we were finished with Nuclear Blast within 18 months of signing with them. It wasn’t all the label’s fault – we had some very bad advice from some people on our end. It was a mixed experience – it resulted in a rather messy record, a strange MTV video, and an excellent tour.
In the not too distant past Revenant released a Demos collection on CD for Xtreem Records called The Burning Ground. Can you look back on those demos and tell me about the material on the compilation? What are some of your most prevalent memories surrounding each of them? What caused you to finally release them and why did you leave some songs off of it?
Dave Rotten approached us with the idea after the limited edition “Overman” ep circulated in 2002. He happened to be in New York City, I was living there at the time, and we met for lunch in mid town one day. We talked it over and I told him the material was scattered on the four winds but I would do what I could to find the best possible source material. I was impressed by Dave. He was the opposite of what I had experienced with other record labels, and I thought his idea of issuing a series of “historic” CD’s from classic bands was a great idea to preserve the history of our metal scene. So I went to work.
After searching the venomous dungeons of several New Jersey basements, I finally located the majority of the material. But we could not find the single master copy of the 1992 demo, which contained a great unreleased track entitled “Infinite Reality.” It’s a slow, epic song with a mood of complete doom. The lyrics are cosmological and I remember writing the entire song around the drum beats that Will invented one day at practice. It was a special track, and we wanted to include at all costs. The master tape finally turned up in an old box of t-shirts in Tim’s mother’s house. Finding it felt like I had discovered the Holy Grail and the Missing Link at the same time. That tape’s survival is a mystery to me. So I sat down with the recordings and listened to them, and I realized that three songs from our first demo and 2 songs from the second demo were of terrible, terrible sound quality. The master tapes were simply ruined. So I talked to the other guys and we decided that because “Descent into Decadence” was re-written as “Ancestral Shadows” for the Prophecies CD (and also an early version of Asphyxiated Time), we would not include those two songs. As for the 3 tracks from the first demo, they were of very poor quality, and I figured that if people wanted them then they could get them from traders. The songs we finally chose from the early demos were songs that represented the best of those early years when John McEntee was in the band.
I talked with the label and told them what had happened. They were disappointed but they understood the situation. I had already wondered that if “The Burning Ground” would not represent the “Complete” recordings, then what would it be? I contacted our old engineer, Rick Dierdorf, and we met in a studio and transferred the old tapes to digital format. Rick had recorded both our 1993 demo and the Overman ep, and he knew the band well. So after talking with him I realized that “The Burning Ground” would simply be what it is: a sonic history of the band. Not a complete history, not a “best of,” and not a nostalgic piece of trash. It would be what we always conceived of as a Revenant – something that refuses to die. And the songs on that CD certainly refuse to die. So far as me and my old band mates are concerned, several of those tracks - The Faithless, The Burning Ground, Infinite Reality, and Exalted Being – can hold their own with any of the underground metal made during the early 1990’s. They are completely original, completely crazy songs.
There was quite a break (11 years) in between Prophecies of a Dying World and the Overman EP. It seems to me that you had slowed down, gotten groovier and less technical. Can you tell me about the progression between the two releases? How had changes in your life affected the way you wrote songs?
In the first place, “Overman was recorded in 1995, so it was actually 4 years. I will explain that delayed release later. I will first address the songs. If you listen to early Revenant songs like “Fear” from the 1988 demo, or “Infinite Reality” from the 1992 demo (or even “Distant Eyes” and “Valedictions” on the Prophecies CD), you will hear that we had three speeds as a band: slow, mid-tempo, and light speed. The songs I just mentioned represent some of the slowest material. When we went into the studio to record in 1994, we had plans to record 6 songs. Three of them were fast – “Land of Ruin,” “The Masks of God,” and “The Long Red Sleep.” And we had three fast songs – “The Burning Ground,” The Faithless III,” and “Exalted Being.” We recorded the basic tracks but then we realized we were running out of money. So we only completed four of the songs. In the end, we were pleased by it, even if we did not complete two good tracks.
Anyhow, back in the 1980’s, most of the bands we admired would release very fast records, but in between them they would release more mid-tempo eps. Take Celtic Frost’s “Tragic Serenades” ep, for example. Once we finished the four tracks we thought of the ep in those terms. At that point, after three consecutive years of financing our own recordings, we knew our way around a studio, and we felt that our songwriting was greatly improved. So we let them stand on their own. Unfortunately, the band split up in early 1995, so the material was not released when we were in our prime. As for being less technical, I would agree, but you have to remember we listened to a great deal of Black Sabbath and Celtic Frost ( I was also a Candlemass fan), and their music always inspired us. But there is one exception – the track “Exalted Being.” That is as fast and technical as a metal band would play at that time.
You also ask about changes in our life. I have to admit that most of the band members had other projects underway when we recorded “Overman.” I was attending graduate school and devoting more time to University studies. Dave was building motorcycles and working in a shop. Tim was already talking about “Hateplow” with Phil from Malevolent Creation. And Will was angry about the fact we could not find a label to support us (we all were, really). But we all have
great memories of playing the Overman material at some of the band’s last shows (with Napalm Death, with Brutal Truth, with Overkill, with Type O Negative, etc). And the recording itself was great. Rick, our engineer, was excellent, the studio was comfortable, and it was winter, so we were completely focused on the mood of the season.
Six years later, Dave Jengo and I were out drinking one night (in 2001) and we listened to the unmixed tapes of the ep. We were drunk and the songs sounded great. We decided to ask Erik Rutan to mix them, and Dave and I financed the pressing of 300 copies. People say that you shouldn’t make important decisions when you are drunk, but that wasn’t an important decision. Nonetheless, it was the right decision.
There was a huge explosion of death and black metal occurring in the late 80s and early 90s. How do you feel it affected Revenant’s recognition? Did it help or hamper Revenant becoming more popular? The reason I ask this is because to me there was a lot of thrash in Revenant’s style and a lot of bands incorporating thrash in their music at the time died a premature death.
Quite frankly, I don’t think it affected us at all so far as our music was concerned or how other people in the underground perceived us. There were always bands who were heavier than we were in our scene (Mortician, for example), and we all got along fine, drank beer, and everything else. We respected what they did and we played great shows with them. If you listen to Ripping Corpse closely, for example, you hear many hardcore influence sin their music, vocals, and lyrics. We had thrash influences, but we were not a thrash band, and Ripping Corpse was not a hardcore band. We were Revenant and they were Ripping Corpse. I always thought it pointless to categorize bands and styles. It’s like doing taxonomy with art. And that’s a bad idea. Do people admire Pablo Picasso because he was a “Cubist” or because he was Pablo Picasso?
I will add one thing about the premature death of thrash metal. It never really died. My favorite thrash metal band of all time is Whiplash. I have mentioned it before in other places, but I feel like they never get the respect they deserve. We grew up Whiplash fans. They were from our area, in Passaic, New Jersey, and their first two records were simply perfect. In 1986, I saw them play in Brooklyn with Voivod and Celtic Frost. It will always be my favorite concert – those three bands and that concert inspired us to form Revenant - period. And in 1993, when the guys in Whiplash asked Dave Jengo and I to rehearse with them as a five piece, I thought it was the greatest day of my life. We had a stage and a PA system in a bar in Clifton, NJ all to ourselves, and we would drink and jam there during the week, after work but before the crowds came in. And people used to ask me “Why are you jamming with them, they are old, their music is from the ‘80’s.” And I would say “Fuck you” and walk away. They weren’t just a “thrash band” to us – they were Whiplash. Those months I spent jamming with those guys were one of the best musical experiences of my life. I was honored. So yes, thrash was dying out, but not because people were not still making great thrash metal. It died out because record labels dropped bands like Whiplash to make room for some young idiots. Yes, metal was evolving, but change can never, ever tarnish a band like Whiplash. They were always unique and great at what they did. I can only say that for very few bands, but the fact that many of them were from New Jersey – Human Remains is a good example – speaks volumes. Bands from New Jersey did not care what anyone else was doing. We didn’t care if the guys across the river were “heavier” or what some dork with an inverted cross was doing in Norway. We did our own thing. That’s New Jersey.
In the end what caused the demise of Revenant? What did you do in the intervening years between then and now? Are you still involved in the metal underground?
Like I said earlier, we all devoted more time to other things. It was a pretty amicable parting and we all stayed very close friends. I played in the band for nine years, and six of those years were with Dave, Will, and Tim. Our families were close, we shared friends, and we were brothers. We were just tired of the grind of rehearsing, writing, and playing shows. We must have played between 150-200 shows during that time. It was exhausting.
As for music, I played with some friends in another band for a few years. We used drum machines and sounded a bit like a cross between Ministry and the launch of a space shuttle rocket. It was good material, we recorded some of it, but we never played a show. That ended in 1996. At that point, Tim was playing and recording with Hateplow, and Dave was playing in a Southern rock band. I still went to shows and jammed with friends during the late 1990’s, but I also moved to Pittsburgh to attend graduate school and earn my Ph.D. While living in Pittsburgh I hung out with all my old friends from the scene, and in particular Sharon and Terri from Derketa and Scott from Brutal Truth (Terri and Scott married). And on a reference from Revenant’s old drum tech, Steve Truglio, I landed a gig working as guitar tech and stage manager for Clutch during that time. I worked about 40 or 50 shows with them and it was a fantastic experience. They may not be a “metal” band but they are heavier than most of the metal bands I know. I also contributed some articles to a local metal zine in Pittsburgh, and interviewed Sepultura and Cannibal Corpse during that time. And then in 2003 I received a research fellowship, and we moved to New York City, where I finished my Ph.D. And while I was there I started hanging out with old friends again. Will from Mortician was always a good friend, and I would talk to him a lot at the local horror film convention and bars, and I tried to help when he landed in that jail in Poland. I also did a lot of fishing with Brandon, who played drums in Ripping Corpse. And then when the Dim Mak guys heard I was fishing with Brandon they asked me to sing on their last record, “Knives of Ice.” So I stay in touch with the scene in every way I can, even if I don’t have as much time as I used to. Underground metal will always be a part of my life in some way, and why not? I don’t see it as a conflict of interest with whatever I do in my career as an English professor. And after all, the music is still great.
You recently moonlighted as a sort of proofer for the Glorious Times book as well as contributing to the book. Can you tell me what all this involved and what sort of emotions did you dredge up when writing your tale from that period in your life? Do you miss those days?
Hey, who told you that? Those guys were supposed to keep it a secret! Well, I don’t remember exactly what happened, but when Alan contacted me I was very happy to hear from him because I remembered him from when we played shows with Morbid Angel in 1990. So I talked to Alan a bit, then Brian, and soon enough Brian and I were corresponding every day. We talked about lots of things, including how to promote the book, how to deal with publishers, and, most of all, how to organize the material. I asked him if I could see the drafts, and when I did I noticed a lot of spelling errors. Being a pointy headed English professor, I asked Brian if he wanted me to fix them. He told me to go ahead, but as I kept reading I realized that many of the book’s stories were great because people wrote them in the same way that they talk. So I only edited or corrected material when I felt that the changes would not affect the tone of the story. Thankfully, I knew many of the people who contributed, so I could hear them speaking in my head while I was reading the drafts. For example, King Fowley from Deceased has a very unique way of telling stories, so I wanted to make sure that style would not be lost. And if you know King and you read that story, it’s like he is in the room with you. So I did my best to sharpen that effect without changing the content of the stories. And I simply left some of the stories alone, though. The Lethal Aggression story is just amazing, and I was afraid to screw it up. That guy can tell a great story.
As for dredging up emotion, let me just say that “dredge” is a good word for it. Imagine a large steam boat dragging a huge metal plate along the muck at the bottom of a polluted harbor – that is what it was like. I never know what will come to the surface when I start thinking about old times. But as I said earlier, it’s always a part of my life, so I don’t feel the need for nostalgia. Generally speaking, I dislike nostalgia. That is where I drew the line when I gave my story to Brian and Alan. I didn’t want to give them a story that began with “ I remember when….” So I gave them something different, and far more convincing that a simple anecdote.
The title of your section of Glorious Times “Pay your Dues” made me think of the vast difference of getting started and signed to a record deal compared to modern times. What differences do you see? Do you think it is a lot easier and how does that make you feel since you had to come up through the underground and PAY YOUR DUES?
I used that phrase for the title because it’s a common one in show business. But literally, it comes from the working class, where paying your dues meant paying your union dues. I was born and raised in a union family so it affected my attitude. Playing in Revenant was like a job. I gave it all of my energy, I depended on my band mates to do the same, and we were never late for practice (well, almost). And in a sense, all of the underground bands were like a dispersed, unshaven, and filthy union of metal musicians. So when I wrote the story I thought: who did we pay our dues to? And then it dawned on me that there was something sinister in the notion of paying our dues, because we didn’t have money and we used our souls as collateral. And then I thought – perfect, that’s exactly how I want to remember it: we were locked in a mortal struggle with horrible forces we did not understand. And then it came together, like a Revenant song, and all the Lovecraftian trappings and mythology that go with it.
As for the music business, it seems to me that it is much easier for a band to succeed on its own these days without the help of a record label. It seems that major labels only sign people from reality shows any longer, but alternative music scenes like the underground have always developed their own talent. I don’t even think it’s necessary for a metal band to sign to a major label – but if you look back at the deals that the big labels offered to groups like Anthrax back in the late 1980’s, it seemed like the wave of the future. To be perfectly honest, I won’t say more because I never really did care for the “business” side of things, and I don’t really know what I am talking about with respect to it.
Aside from the lyrics of Revenant, reading your writing style in Glorious Times it is evident by your word choice and references to forgotten eras, etc. that you are quite a fan of HP Lovecraft. What makes his writing so special to you? When did you first discover his work and what are some of your favorite of his tales?
Strangely enough, I first discovered HP Lovecraft in my high school’s library. I was writing an essay on Edgar Allan Poe for my English class, and I came across a copy of HPL’s short book “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” I thought “Let’s have a look.” That night I ran out to a local bookstore – an independent bookstore at one of the area shopping malls (back then shopping malls were not all identical, and some still housed small independently owned businesses). I found some of HPL’s books and bought them all. They were the Del Rey paperback editions, with the cover art by Michael Whelan (who later did album covers for Sepultura). Anyhow, I read “At the Mountains of Madness” when I got home, and it was a bit like Poe’s “Tale of Arthur Gordon Pym,” but there was something more to it. Poe never ventured into mythology, but Lovecraft had invented a mythology of his own. Poe is a pretty intimate writer, and a better one in most ways, but Lovecraft’s work contained a cosmic element. For example, Poe’s characters are redeemed, even when they die, or go crazy, by the way Poe tells a story. Lovecraft did not tell stories to redeem anyone or anything, not even the art of story telling. It was clever, but it was more bleak. Anyhow, my young teenage mind was terribly impressed, John Pratscher and I (John founded the band) started reading more about HPL, and I have been collecting HPL’s books ever since. Today, I don’t care for much of Lovecraft’s writing any longer, but I still read some of it. I recently read “The Horror at Red Hook,” and it is one of his better works. If I admire anything about him these days, it is his sense of local history (such as the Dutch family in the story I mentioned), and not any mythological nonsense.
I would also note a great irony in all of this. HP Lovecraft is one of the worst racists in American literary history. He was a perfect WASP in every way – patrician, snobbish, and upset about the fact that immigrants were over running the country. And I always took some satisfaction from the fact that this writer who hated immigrants and the lower classes had such a wild influence on me and my friends – who were all the children of immigrants, and mostly from the lower classes. There is a wonderful irony in that, because we are the ones who kept his work alive despite the fact that he blamed us for calling horrors down from deep space. In a sense, the only horrible thing that the unwashed masses ever called down from deep space was H.P. Lovecraft.
Also of note is the reference and reverence of and towards magic(k) and the occult. Were these just typical metal themes and interests or did you ever actually practice ritual magic(k)? Do you still have dusty tomes on your shelves from any of those hidden bookstores? What sort of energies and emotions stirred within you as your crossed the threshold into one of the forbidden grottos of obscure knowledge? Why do you think metal fans are drawn towards this arcane lore?
Does anyone really practice the crap written in those books and believe it? I’d like to see it, because I could use a good laugh. You know, when I was younger I discovered the Nicholas Roerich Museum on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was a Russian émigré’ and a painter. HP Lovecraft derived many good ideas from his paintings (and even a few story titles, such as “From Beyond”). Anyhow, there is a museum of his paintings on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and I used to go there to see his work. Roerich was a mystic, and like some other painters and writers of his time he invented a religious philosophy (he called it Theosophy), sort of like how L. Ron Hubbard invented Dianetics from his own science fiction writings, or how the Rosicrucians had many poets among their ranks. Anyhow, Roerich was an interesting painter – something of a late Symbolist – but his religious ideas are nonsense. But when you go to the museum, they try to recruit you to Theosophy (or at least they did when I went there). I would just laugh when they asked me for a donation.
As for metal and the occult, I don’t have any idea how that happened. Partly, it has to do it the influence of horror cinema on pop culture during the Cold War (Black Sabbath was, after all, a film by Mario Bava). Part of it has to do with the fact that both music and magic are technical arts – you must practice them, move from apprenticeship to mastery, etc. And finally, modern art has never been very kind toward organized religion and rock music is a modern art form after all.
Back to Revenant, what are you near term plans? Any intentions towards a Revenant reunion or is a band named after an undead being actually dead?
Nice question. No, there aren’t any plans. Me and the other guys would never reunite, simply because we don’t want to. After all, why live in the past? Some bands reunite and they sound great, but the majority are just sad shells, a parody of some former self. That’s not for me. We wrote a few dozen good metal songs, and they have a life of their own now. The band itself is dead. There was some talk recently of a double CD re-release of “Prophecies” with a Live CD from the European tour. Hopefully Xtreem will do it because they did a great job with “The Burning Ground,” and they sold out the CD’s first pressing. In the meantime, I am finishing my first book, fishing, and enjoying family and early middle age.
Thanks Henry, I’ll leave any Final thoughts conjured under a gibbous moon and in the shadows of cyclopean monoliths to you.
Thanks for the good questions. I just want to say that about five years ago I swore I would never do another interview about the band. And I didn’t until now, which meant I had to turn away some good people who came around with good questions. But Brian and Alan’s excellent book made me reconsider. It reminded me that one of my favorite things about the metal underground was the simple fact that two distant people could exchange questions and answers and then one day, if they were lucky, they might meet and sit down and talk about metal over a beer. So I decided hey, why not answer a few more? After all, if the Christian fundamentalists are right and all metalheads are going to hell, then we better meet soon and drink those beers – because they don’t serve beer in hell. Cheers!
For more info on Revenant visit: http://www.revenant.ws