SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A major player on the San Francisco Bay Area metal scene since the mid-1980s, guitarist Phil Demmel has put in significant time in not one but two of the region’s best metal bands. Demmel was one of the founding members of second-wave thrash band Vio-Lence, anchoring the group as it established a reputation as one of the Bay Area’s most ferocious metal acts of the mid-to-late 1980s alongside such contemporaries as Death Angel, Testament and Forbidden.
The classic line-up of the group with Demmel, singer Sean Killian and guitarist Robb Flynn (ex-Forbidden and future Machine Head mainstay) released the classic 1988 MCA/Mechanic debut Eternal Nightmares to solid underground acclaim. The group would sign a new deal with Megaforce Records for its sophomore effort Oppressing the Masses, but issues major label distributor Atlantic had with the violent lyrics of the song “Torture Tactics” led to the disc being repressed without the tune, delaying the album’s release until the summer of 1990.
Despite the delays, the album further solidified Vio-Lence as a leading light of the Bay Area’s still thriving thrash scene. Unfortunately, internal dissension would lead to Flynn’s eventual departure, though he contributed to the band’s final effort Nothing To Gain (recorded in 1990, but not released until 1993) before Vio-lence split up in 1994.
Demmel moved on to start new band Torque — which released one album before dissolving — and the more industrial/metal outfit Technocracy, but Vio-lence would be one of a number of notable thrash bands to reunite for the 2001 Thrash of the Titans benefit concert for Testament singer Chuck Billy and Death founder Chuck Schuldiner, who were both battling cancer.
While the reunion only lasted a couple of years, it did give the band a chance to reissue Oppressing the Masses. Vio-lence would also be the subject of the documentary/concert film DVD Blood and Dirt that was released in 2006 via Megaforce. By that time, Demmel had reunited with Flynn, having joined Machine Head as second guitarist after the Vio-lence reunion ended in 2003.
Machine Head would enjoy a renaissance with the addition of Demmel to the line-up, recording a string of celebrated albums — the sprawling epic The Blackening, Unto the Locust and Bloodstone & Diamonds — that mark career high points for the band. Demmel would depart the band in 2018 after a final farewell tour featuring that long-running line-up of the band.
Demmel has turned his attention to Vio-Lence in recent years, first by helping organize the benefit concert Killian on Command: An Evening of Vio-Lence in early 2018 at the Midway in San Francisco that raised funds a benefit to raise funds for the band’s frontman who was diagnosed with fourth-stage cirrhosis of the liver and needed an organ transplant. Demmel and other members of Vio-Lence would perform the band’s music with members of Testament, Exodus, Forbidden, Death Angel, Annihilation, DRI and other thrash luminaries.
Killian has since recovered and rejoined the band playing sold-out shows in the Bay Area and on both coasts in addition to making a festival appearance at Psycho Las Vegas last year. While Demmel is currently working on new Vio-Lence songs for what will be the band’s first album in nearly three decades, he also recently added his talents to the all-star ’70s rock tribute band BPMD.
Featuring Demmel, Overkill singer Bobby Blitz, monster drummer Mike Portnoy (ex Dream Theater and Avenged Sevenfold, currently playing with the Winery Dogs and Sons of Apollo among others) and Metal Alliance bassist Mark Menghi, BPMD is set to release it’s first album American Made via Napalm Records on June 12. A high-octane collection of ’70s rock classics and deep album cuts by such iconic U.S. acts as Aerosmith, ZZ Top, the James Gang and Mountain, the album finds BPMD injecting a dose of hefty crunch into its creative recasting of these gems. CBS SF recently spoke with Demmel about the making of the album, his future plans for Vio-Lence and more.
CBS SF: Ordinarily, my first question would be about how the group got together, but I guess we’ve got to preface everything given this current state we’re in with how you’re holding up in the quarantine?
Phil Demmel: I live in Dublin and my wife and I own a bar. So we’ve been shut down for a couple months; over a couple of months now, taking advantage of the time to do some renovations there and putting in a huge retaining wall and fence in my backyard. So a lot of digging going on. And I’ve also been doing a lot of these collaboration quarantine jams with a bunch of other people. So I’ve really never been busier.
CBS SF: Well, that’s good. Good to keep your your your hand in a lot of pots.
Phil Demmel: Yeah, it is. It’d be nice if we could start to open up a little bit of stuff here, but the bars…We’re just a sports bar. We’re all about everything that we can’t be right now. No being social or playing pool you know?
CBS SF: Or actually having sports to watch that aren’t just random replays…
Phil Demmel: Yeah, exactly. We’re just waiting it out and trying to stretch it out as much as we can. We’re able to weather the storm; we’re a pretty successful business and we’ve been able to weather it for a bit. But we’re gonna be getting into scrambling mode here in the next couple months.
CBS SF: I figured you were out in the East Bay somewhere. There are certainly a lot of thrash roots in that part of the East Bay between you and the guys in Testament. I know there are a lot of people with connections to Dublin.
Phil Demmel: Well, Chuck was raised in Dublin. And Zet [Steve “Zetro” Souza] from Exodus. We all know each other from high school era, but I think Chuck and Zett know each other from when they were really young. Chuck still lives in the East Bay and Zet is still in Dublin. My cousin Troy Luccketta, who plays drums for Tesla, was from Dublin. There are a lot of us from this area.
CBS SF: I guess the first question I had about BPMD was how you got together with this group of musicians? You’re here in the Bay Area while Bobby, Portnoy and Menghi are all from back East. My guess would be that it might be through Metal Allegiance, but I also was figuring that you and Bobby already knew each other being the thrash vets that you are…
Phil Demmel: Metal Allegiance is the brainchild of Mark Menghi, and that’s where I met him from. He was doing this Metal Masters series [a series of all-star concerts in New York City and Los Angeles featuring a who’s who of metal talent] with a bunch of people before and it just spawned into doing original music. So I recorded on the first record, did some solos on that and played a lot of the tours, did a lot of the shows with them. That’s where Bobby and Mike got involved.
So Mark’s son, I think he might be eight years old, had an idea when they were listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, he said, “Hey dad, you should cover this tune.” And that got Mark’s wheels turning, thinking about, “Well, it’s not a Metal Allegiance, but let me call some dudes and maybe we can do something else.
It turned into, “All right, let’s just do ’70s tunes. Let’s just do classic rock.” You know? We’d just make them heavier. Well that turned into “Let’s just do American bands. It has to be released in the ’70s songs.” We split it up and everybody got to choose two songs each and you couldn’t argue with anybody’s choices. If somebody wanted do a song, you had to do the song. And then we had two wild, you know, kind of group choices that we all agreed on and all voted on and wanted to do. So it was pretty fun. A real quick and fun process.
CBS SF: Which two songs did you did you bring in the table for the recording?
Phil Demmel: My choices were the Van Halen tune, “Dead or Alive.” And then probably the deepest cut on the record, the Blue Oyster Cult song “Tattoo Vampire.“
CBS SF: I was really impressed you did “Tattoo Vampire.” I love that BOC album and love that song. It is such a weird tune. And that song probably got the biggest revamp of anything on the album. It’s distinctly different.
Phil Demmel: That was the idea. When I was in my present band — but also my previous band — Vio-lence, I proposed covering that with them way back in 1990. Because I knew it could be made into a heavier tune and have somebody kind of soup it up. Mike had the idea to put that Ramones drumbeat in the beginning.
So Mike souped it up with the Ramones intro. and we kind of played with the structure a little bit. We actually got Buck Dharma to play a quick solo on that track. I think he was really surprised. He said, “Man, I’ve never heard this song like that. It’s really kind of mind blowing.” So he was pretty stoked.
CBS SF: Oh that’s right, I forgot from the notes that he guested on it as well.
Phil Demmel: Yeah, it was really rad.
CBS SF: I was impressed at how deep you dug for songs as far as mixing in album cuts with a just a few big hits. I do have to say, does anybody need another cover of “We’re An American Band” at this point? But least you guys are taking it back from Lenny Kravitz. I always thought his version was the worst version ever.
Phil Demmel: Oh, for sure. But there are some rockers out there. I remember Machine Head was on the Mayhem Festival that Rob Zombie headlined and he was playing it. And it’s just a song that’s always really resonated with me. And it was kind of the theme and the banner tune [for the album], so we just had to cover it.
I have a cover band called the Merkins made up of all my high school buddies at home. We’ll pack a dive bar, play Journey and Bon Jovi and AC/DC, just have a bunch of fun with the singalongs. And that’s the tune that we play with that band too. So, you know, you’re right; did we have to do it? Hmmmm, probably not [laughs]. We’re selfish. These are the songs we want to do.
CBS SF: So what were the what were the two songs that that you decided on as a group to record?
Phil Demmel: Well, “We’re An American Band” was one of them. And then the James Gang song, “Walk Away.” So we all flew out to Mike’s house in the sticks in Pennsylvania. We were going to track drums. We did it all in a day. I took a red eye, by the afternoon we started tracking, by ten o’clock at night, we were done.
Mike had said, “Hey, listen to Van Halen. Here’s some tapes of them when they’re just playing parties in Pasadena.” And one of the tapes had them covering “Walk Away.” So that’s the version you’re hearing us do. We’re doing the Van Halen version of the James Gang song. So it has some leads added to it, kind of a little more up tempo.
CBS SF: It occurs to me now that I think Van Halen covered Cactus too if I’m not mistaken. So that makes sense.
Phil Demmel: I didn’t know that. You know, Bobby’s picks were the Cactus tune and the Mountain song. I had heard Mountain, but I’d never heard Cactus or heard the song, you know? And I hadn’t heard that particular Mountain song. So his tunes were just like, “Man, I’m going to have to do some homework for these two.” I mean, they’re not overly difficult songs to learn, but it’s hard to capture the feel. There’s so much feel in Leslie’s guitar playing. And then with the Cactus song, we needed to really capture what they were doing.
CBS SF: The album is a great showcase for your playing. I’m going to guess that if you have a favorite guitarist among the bands covered, it’d probably be Eddie, but does anybody else stand out as far as the material you guys covered?
Phil Demmel: Well, They’re all so different, you know? There’s Billy and Joe Perry, and for me in the early ’70s, I was all about Ted Nugent, I love those Ted records Hard As Nails and State of Shock and Weekend Warriors, even up to Scream Dream, the one with “Wango Tango.”
Leslie West, of course. Eddie is definitely the dude, but I wanted to get that Ted solo. It’s such an iconic so and it’s just you and the drums, you’ve got to play it so clean. So yeah, probably Ted. The Joe Perry solo is a pretty quick solo and I didn’t play it too close to what Joe did. I kind of went off on that one.
Same as the ones in “Never In My Life.” I was tracking with my engineer and we’re just looking back and going, “Holy s–t, there’s like 30 solo breaks in this song [laughs]. They just roll and roll. And most of it was kind of first pass, just kind of going through. Most of this record was all about vibe and just hitting record and capturing it.
I started with “DOA.” All these songs are double tracked except “DOA,” because it’s Eddie. You can’t fly in a solo on an Eddie track. I started doing that. I started overdubbing the solo section, and I’m like, “F–k, you can’t do that. Let’s do this all in one pass.” It wasn’t the first pass, but it’s all pretty much one pass coming through. I’m trying to think of, you know, having a couple of Schlitz Malt Liquors and catching the vibe that those guys had at that time [laughs].
CBS SF: There’s definitely a celebratory feeling to the whole album. The material helps add to that, but it is really a good time selection of tunes.
Phil Demmel: Right on. I’m glad you’re feeling that.
CBS SF: This album just about to come out, but I was wondering, do you guys have any future plans with the group? Sounds like you had a good time and everyone gets along. Once we’re able to have concerts again in the post-pandemic world, do you see yourselves touring? Any plans to record another album? Maybe doing a similar “Made in England” themed collection of British hard rock?
Phil Demmel: Look at you go, getting all Nostradamus [laughs]! Yeah, we are. We’ve been talking about doing another record and probably doing the UK. There are so many bands that it would probably have to be a double record. So everybody would want to choose four songs each. Actually, tomorrow [May 30] we were supposed to be playing in New Jersey, having like a release-type thing.
We were thinking about doing something at my bar here in Dublin as a release and coming and just kind of jamming. And so we’ll probably do some some little one off, fun type stuff. We’re looking at maybe doing festivals at some point. But this whole quarantine and shelter in place has got us kind of locked up. It’s so unsure right now. But yeah, we like to hang and we like to jam. Probably no touring, but one-off type stuff and possibly more records down the road.
CBS SF: I did want to ask a little bit about Vio-Lence. You touched on it for a second already, but I know you guys had plans this year as well. If I’m not mistaken, there were at least a couple of festival dates this summer…
Phil Demmel: Yeah, we were. We’re supposed to be doing Bloodstock and the Alcatraz Festival. We were playing every month and we had so many cool things lined up for this year. It’s hard because we had this momentum going and, you know, everybody did. We had a bunch of shows all over the world that we were doing, mostly one offs.
We’re looking at recording here. We’ve got a record, a five-song EP that we’re going to do for Metal Blade Records. So we’ve got about three songs done for that and are super excited about having new material out after all this time. It’s been about 30 years since we’ve recorded new music. It’s an exciting time to be jamming with my dudes again.
CBS SF: I was able to write something up on the Killain on Command benefit in early 2018, but I wasn’t able to make that or the shows you did at the Metro in Oakland. I heard they were all packed…
Phil Demmel: That’s right! Sold out in minutes [laughs]. We were supposed to play there this past April too, but had to move it to August. So it’s set for August right now, but we both know that’s probably not going to happen.
CBS SF: I’ll be happy if there’s things happening on a smaller scale by August.
Phil Demmel: I’m not even sure about early next year being possible, unless everybody has to wear a mask. I don’t know, dude. I don’t even know what to expect. I’m not expecting anything least for a year. As far as a proper rock show, back to being normal? At least a year.
CBS SF: It’s probably best to be conservative, because otherwise you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment if you think, “OK, this is really going to happen!” And then it just gets it gets canceled or postponed again.
Phil Demmel: I’m more concerned about my bar at this point.
CBS SF: I would imagine. I mean, San Francisco just announce that they’re talking about August for bars to reopen, which is just brutal.
Phil Demmel: We’re at the worst point. Nobody knows what’s happening. It’s all been so fluid. We just we just have to wait it out and see what happens.
CBS SF: I also wanted to ask you about your experience filling in for Gary Holt playing with Slayer on a few of their European farewell tour dates after he came home to be with his ailing father. What was that like?
Phil Demmel: It was everything you’d expect it to be filling in for a legendary guitar player who was replacing a legendary songwriting hero of mine for a band that was the reason why I play heavy music. It was a storybook.
In 2007, I had to leave a tour [with Machine Head] and people from the support acts helped fill in for me while I was gone. And I returned for the last day of the tour, which was at the Helsinki Ice Hall. Almost to the day, I was out helping Gary when he went home to be with his dying father. So I was able to give back in that sense. And the last show of that tour was at that same place, the Helsinki Ice Hall, almost exactly 11 years later. Slayer probably saved my musical career. They gave me the confidence to realize my worth in the music industry.
CBS SF: I guess I just had one more question for you. I know the guys who did the Murder in the Front Row book and movie. I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to be talking to you to see if anyone had any possible questions. And Ian Christe, the publisher mentioned that you and co-author Harald Oimoen were in a kind of friendly competition to see who could get the most autographs in their copy of the book and that your copy was getting beat up from all the traveling and toting around. Where does that stand and are you still working on getting more autographs?
Phil Demmel: [Laughs] I do. You know, I do. I can be pretty OCD about some things. It was our yearbook, you know? So I started treating it as a yearbook and having people sign it. I took it on the road with me and we’d be doing festivals, so I was not only getting guys in bands, but also people who were important to the scene back then. To get as many people that I knew and friends to sign it too.
I’d look at festival lineups and go “Oh, John Oliva from Savatage is going to be on this one.” So I got him to sign it. I actually was able to get Lemmy to sign it before he passed away. I got Bruce Dickinson to sign it. I have a list of people now. I used that have to go through all the pages to find out where someone was at. So now I’ve got a list with the page number of where people are I could just go, “Hey, you’re on this page!” and have them sign it there. I’ve got all the Slayer dudes, all the Testament dudes, all the death angel dudes, all the Metallica dudes. It’s pretty cool.