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Bitter End

Bitter End was a thrash band that was around in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Metal-On-Metal recently a new cd by the band that contains 6 unreleased tracks that were going to appear on their 2nd release, a demo and some live stuff as well. Metal-On-Metal Records hooked me up with Chris, Matt, and Russ for an interview and here is what was said to my questions that I posed to them:

MC: Tell me a little about yourself. What are you doing these days and what sort of kid were you?

Chris: I’m a college professor, and my field is philosophy. I now live in the state of Kansas, teach a lot, write some, have a wife and two sons, and play music on the side. I think where I’ve ended up makes sense because I was nerdy and awkward as a kid. I read a lot, liked music. Between me and my brother Matt, I was the more dreamy, creative one. Matt was the oldest, and more assertive. I had a lot of musical ability right from the get-go, and pretty much as soon as I pickup up the cello, I was able to play it.

MC: Did you come from a big or small family? Did you grow up in the Seattle, WA area pretty much all your life?

Chris: We came from a divorced family with two sons and a daughter. We started out in Seattle, moved to LA/Southern California in the late 1970s, and then came back to Seattle in 1983. Harry has one brother and one sister, while Russ was an only child.

MC: At what point did you discover music and what were some of the early bands that you listened to when you were young? Are you still a fan of any of those bands now?

Chris: Our parents were a huge influence on our musical tastes. They were a bit older than the hippies, but they both had expansive tastes in popular music, and Dad had a fucking awesome stereo - still does, in fact. He’s an organist and an audiophile. Beatles, Beach Boys, Cream, Mountain, the Who - those were all big artists for us in our childhood. Dad also liked Led Zeppelin a lot. Later, in junior high school and onward, Matt got interested in rock music, and when Iron Maiden hit Southern California radio hard in 1982, we became members of the metal subculture. As for who I still like, well, Black Sabbath, of course, and I’m still a fan of classic 70’s hard rock / blues metal: Rainbow and its various incarnations, Priest, MSG, as well as NWOBHM artists like Maiden, Saxon, Diamond Head - still love Diamond Head. Add Voivod to that list. And over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate Bon Scott-era AC/DC more and more.

MC: When did you happen to discover the wonderful world of underground metal? Was it via a fanzine, a friend, the radio, or by some other means? What did you think of this style of music when you heard it?

Matt: Our family was into heavy rock, but I started getting really into metal when the "Heaven and Hell" album came out - which led to a huge Sabbath phase for me as I was just starting to learn how to play guitar in junior high school. A friend wanted me to play bass with their band pretty early on, which led to me hearing “Unleashed in the East” and “Strangers in the Night” for the first time. Then "Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden came out and was a huge influence, and I got very curious indeed about the other NWOBHM stuff. A friend of mine named Duane hooked me up with my first copy of Kerrang, and from there I was off to the races. My friend Mike Herman from my German class had a job and could afford to buy records when they came out (I was always broke!), so I’d tell him what to get. He also went to Germany with his family and brought back a bunch of great import stuff (and to this day I still like the European mix of Michael Schenker’s “Built to Destroy” a whole lot more than the US one). I also picked up a copy of “Live and Heavy”, which led to me picking up Gillan’s “Glory Road” album. My pal Mike also got the original Neat Records “60 Minutes Plus Metal” compilation, which had a lot of great early stuff on it like Raven and Angel Witch as well. Chris and I used to listen to the “Mighty Metal Hour” on KLOS or KMET when we lived in California, which played a lot of underground metal long before anyone else did in the US.

MC: Now when you started to get into the underground more and more, was it like a drug that you wanted more and more of?

Matt: For me, definitely yes. I wanted to hear it all, and I wanted each new band to be faster, louder and heavier and better than the last thing I heard. In fact, when I picked up a copy of BAM Magazine in August 1982 with an ad for Metallica that had a quote from Ron Quintana that they were “The best, heaviest, and fastest of all US metal bands” I knew I had to get on my bike and ride to that show!

MC: Did you do any tape trading at all, and if you did, around how many people did you trade with back then?

Matt: I didn’t tape trade so much before Bitter End did the “Meet Your Maker” demo, but I did send a lot out to fanzines and radio folks through that network. Once we got active, I definitely got a whole lot of stuff from other bands. I still have my copy of Forced Entry’s “All Fucked Up” demo somewhere in my collection, among a lot of other stuff, I have literally thousands of demos from various bands.

MC: Did you ever read or collect any fanzines back in the day? Were there any good or cool record stores in Seattle that you could find a good dose of metal? Were you ever into any hardcore or punk bands at all?

Chris: in Seattle, the University Tower Records was a legendary destination for metal! Bret Hartman developed the metal section, and the records he made available were a real catalyst for the growth of the metal scene. As for hardcore and punk, when we lived in Southern California, not so much. This was a few years before metal and punk came together, and there was a lot of antagonism. In fact, I remember a gang of punk rockers attacking Matt while we were still in junior high school! We did have some really good friends who were Orange County punks, though, people like the late Bill Coyne, who starred in Penelope Spheeris’ movie Suburbia, and we went to school with the guys in The Offspring - Bryan Holland, Greg Kriesel, and James Lilja, the original singer. Once we got to Seattle, the scene was different, and metal/punk cross-pollination was happening in a big way. In fact, the first drummer we jammed with in Seattle was a punk, the late Ric Bilotti, of The Derelicts, and Donny Hales, who drums for the punk band Zeke, sang with us for a few practices and one set of promo shots. Speaking only for myself, I’ve just never gotten punk rock/hardcore. I think it’s a feel I just don’t have. Too white.

MC: What were some early shows that you saw and were there many clubs where metal bands played? What were some of the local bands that you got to see on a regular basis? What were some of your favorite shows that you saw back in the day? Do you still go to many shows now?

Chris: Oh God, we saw EVERYBODY. In Orange County, at the Woodstock Concert Club and at Radio City, here are some of the bands we saw: Metallica with Dave Mustaine and Ron McGovney; Armored Saint; Malice; Exodus; Leatherwolf; Slayer; Ratt; Great White; Black and Blue, and a million other forgotten bands. I never saw Slayer, but when Matt first saw them, he reported they were something like a Judas Priest cover band. After we got to Seattle, things were harder because the liquor laws were different and minors weren’t allowed at club gigs. Still, we managed to attend Northwest Metalfest in 1984, where Metal Church headlined, and Mace and SATO (featuring a young Mike Starr) were on the bill. We attended lots of gigs at places like VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Halls and grange halls out in the country: bands like Culprit, Rail, Wild Dogs.

MC: Now for those who don't know give me a history of the band. Why did it take so long to find a singer for the band?

Chris: Well, we never really did find a “singer”, now did we! It’s a long story, and it goes something like this: after moving back to Seattle in 1983, Matt and I played with a few different drummers, but we totally wanted to play with Harry, who was the best drummer around. His double-kick mastery was just awesome. Eventually, in 1985, we all started playing together, with a somewhat older singer who conned his way into the band by using a demo tape that actually was of a well-known Seattle singer. After figuring out that he wasn’t what he claimed to be and then kindly giving him the boot, Matt, Chris and Harry spent the next two years woodshedding material in Harry’s basement studio. During that time they went through a number of prospective vocalists, none of whom were a good fit. This went on and on. In 1987 Matt and Chris moved into “The House of Deth,” a dirt-cheap huge, multi-story, multi-room apartment in Seattle’s University District. This became the band’s center of operations and a major landmark in the Seattle metal scene in the 80s and into the 90s. Every Sunday night, Metal DJ / writer / industry extraordinaire Jeff Gilbert would host a four-hour metal show, “Brain Pain,” on the college radio station, and the House of Deth would fill with beer-swilling metalheads from suburban metal centers like the Northend (Forced Entry, Coven, Saber), the Kent Valley (Panic, Myramainz), and members of more established bands like Heir Apparent, Sanctuary, Upper Echelon, Fifth Angel, Alice in Chains, and lots and lots of others. This led to the band’s first official gig in 1987, at the Clearview Grange Hall opening for Forced Entry, a gig that Bitter End played as an instrumental act. Not long after this, Tony Benjamins and Brad Hull of Forced Entry challenged Matt and me to get off our asses and sing. Which we did on the “Meet Your Maker” demo of 1988. Matt, though, was more comfortable singing and his voice was better suited for our music, so he became the voice of Bitter End.

MC: At one point do you think you started to find your own sound and what would you say the band sounded like way back then? Do you think that through the album you released and the demos, that at the time were un-released, the band retained their sound?

Chris: I’m of two minds about this question. On the one hand, yeah, our sound came together once we joined up with Harry and established the rhythmic foundation of double kick unison riffs at extremely high tempos. But on the other hand, I also think our sound was only really starting to come together when we broke up. By then, Russ had been in the band for almost two and one half years, and his thrash rhythms and classical influences were on the verge of becoming fully integrated into our writing as a band. I also think that by 1991 and 1992, our earlier influences were beginning to manifest themselves, and we were bucking the metal trend of the time by consciously slowing down our tempos. One thing that really made our sound, and enables us all to continue playing together to this day, is that all of us like lots of the same sorts of non-metal music - Al DiMiola, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Focus, etc.

MC: How did you come up with the band name and were any other names thrown around at the time?

Chris: Can I be honest here? We stole it.

MC: What were some of the early practices like and how easy or hard was it writing tunes back then? Now when the time came to record your 1st demo, why did you choose the studio you went to and were you happy with the finished product? Did things go smoothly in the studio for you guys?

Chris: Well, given that Matt and I had spent our adolescence learning the entire Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Black Sabbath catalogs and plugging into the same vintage Gretsch amp to play them, we worked together seamlessly as a unit. And Harry and I were able to lock in quickly because my three-finger right hand technique allowed me to parallel his double-kick drumming. Writing in Bitter End began as a democratic process, and ended as a democratic process. All of our songs are composed by Bitter End, and credited to Bitter End. That something I’m very proud of. As for the “Meet Your Maker” demo, we went with Reciprocal Recording, because they were nearby, cheap, and had a great reputation for having produced most of the grunge stuff of that era (Mudhoney, Nirvana, etc). We brought our friend Morris Gattegno in to help co-produce the demo, and we worked with studio owner Chris Hanzsek.

MC: How did you go about promoting the demo? Did you send it out to all fanzines and radio stations that were out there? What were some of the reviews like and did you have a good following in the area? What were some bands that you shared the stage with back then? Did you think you were a good live band? Are any old clips on YouTube?

Matt: We definitely did do all of that stuff for the “Meet Your Maker” demo. We had pretty good reviews for that from zines all over the world, which is why I think “Harsh Reallities” did decently in Europe considering we never had a chance to go there (well, OK, in a cult sort of way!). As I recall, I think I had graduated from college, so I figured I’d better at least try to do something productive with the band along with all of the great times we were having playing and partying, so I spent my days sending out promo packages and following up with various folks.

Bitter End wasn’t the biggest Seattle band by any means, but we did have a good draw, and got a lot of great shows. We played with Forced Entry, Panic, Metal Church, and most of other metal bands in town, as well as with other bands that eventually became much bigger like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. Bitter End also did a lot of gigs in town with cool national acts like Anvil, Heathen, and Scatterbrain. We also did punk gigs with the Derelicts and Coffin Break, too. We didn’t tour as much as I would have liked, but we did play throughout the Pacific Northwest for quite awhile. I believe there are some 3-piece Bitter End clips out there on YouTube as well as a pretty good amount of stuff from when after Russ joined the band.

MC: How did you end up getting the deal with Metal Blade and at the time were any other labels interested? What was it like working with them? I know you only put out one album with them, but do you feel that when you were with them, you were treated fairly? Did they do what they promised they were gonna do?

Chris: We showcased in 1989 for Dyana Kass, who had recently joined Metal Blade, and she became our advocate. Metal Blade paid for a development demo that we recorded with a second guitarist, Melcon Wagner. Dealing with the label was OK. They were business people, of course, and they held all the cards, but they weren’t abusive. I would say on balance that we were treated decently. It was the usual seven-album deal weighted in the label’s favor, but that was the industry standard, and was a better situation than bands currently face in this era of I-Tunes, Amazon, and such, where they’re expected to give away their music for free. Metal Blade advanced us a decent amount of money to make the record and gave us some push. We didn’t feel like we were their top priority, but our expectations weren’t necessarily realistic, either. And to be fair, they did pay for a video to keep the interest going.

MC: Now what was the line-up of the band that recorded this album? Were any of you nervous at all being in the studio, knowing this album was going to be released by one of the biggest indie labels around at the time and that Randy Burns, who was one of the best producers at the time, was going to work with you? How was it working with him? Were any of the tunes hard to record and are there any leftover songs from that session or were all put on the album? Are you still happy with the album today?

Chris: The lineup that recorded “Harsh Realities” was Matt, guitar and vocals; Russ, guitar and backing vocals; Chris, bass and backing vocals; and Harry, drums and backing vocals. As for nerves, well, by then, we’d recorded a self-released demo, and a developmental demo for Metal Blade, so we were fairly comfortable in the studio. Randy came up and stayed with us for a week at the House of Deth to do pre-production. Despite his prominent reputation, he was a pretty chill guy and a bit of an introvert, so I personally never felt intimidated. Once we got into the studio, tracking went pretty well. Not a lot of drama, as we always made a point of being extremely well-rehearsed. I do recall getting a little frustrated doing the standalone bass licks in “Profits of Doom,” because this was all being tracked straight to 2” tape - no Protools in those days, so you had to get it right! But Randy had me step away from the bass, gave a little encouragement, and then I was able to do it. Pretty pro guy. I wasn’t there for the mixing part of things, since I was finishing up my Bachelors degree. As for how it sounds now, I do think that in places I would have liked for my bass sound to be less scooped and to have more low-midrange dialed in, but since I wasn’t there for the mixing, I don’t have any right to bitch. Songwriting-wise, I do think it was very much a first album. Some of it holds up well, some of it holds up rather less well. I think some of the writing is formulaic, and we’re all glad that the rap-metal hybrid is being done by people who are better at it than we are.

MC: How did you come up with the title "Harsh Realities"? Tell me a little bit about the cover art. The album actually got released on vinyl overseas. Did you like that? I imagine not many of them are floating around nowadays.

Chris: I can’t remember whether the decision about the title was on our own or in collaboration with the label. Seemed like the best, most general name. The cover art was actually proposed by Metal Blade. They brought out a number of pieces to which they owned the rights, and this was by far the best one. Personally, I liked that it was ambiguous and surreal, and I still think it’s a great cover. Doesn’t look dated to me. We weren’t as happy about the layout and graphic design, and the guy who did it was sacked from Metal Blade not long after. As for the vinyl, I was THRILLED to see it! My friend, the legendary Herb Burke of Seattle, hand carried a copy back from Britain for me. I love playing the lp - it sounds great.

MC: I also know you did a bunch of touring behind the release. Who did you go out with, what parts of the US did you hit and how were the turnouts for the shows? Did you ever get to make it overseas? I know you also did a video for MTV. How many times did it get played and how was the experience of doing a video?

Chris: Well, we did *some* touring with the release. We did a summer tour with DRI, which took us down the West Coast, to Tijuana, and as far east as the Red Rock Reservation in Gallup, New Mexico. In late Fall we went back out again, this time with Sacred Reich and Atrophy, as well as doing some gigs with Excel. This tour was a bit shorter, and it took us through the mountains of the American Southwest in November - dangerous driving conditions! We spent one memorable night chasing the Sacred Reich bus through snowed-in moutain roads on the old Route 666 high. The shows on both tours were great. I remember seeing a bunch of blood and hair on the floor after the show on the Red Rock Indian Reservation. I also got a memorable case of food poisoning from a breakfast buffet in Las Vegas at 3:00 AM that only hit me the next night while we were playing in Tempe - puking onstage, the whole bit. As for the video, we shot it in and around downtown Seattle and in the Seattle industrial district. It was a lot of fun to make, and I spent a couple of days working the videographer to craft a final edit. Very cool of Metal Blade to have put up the money for us to make it. I have had people tell me they saw it one MTV’s “Headbanger’s Ball.”

MC: Shortly after you parted ways with Metal Blade. What was the cause of the split? I know you recorded some new material at that time. Were no other labels interested and what did you do as the band at that time?

Chris: The ratio of touring to recording was really the bone of contention with Metal Blade. We wanted to tour more in support of Harsh Realities, but they wanted us to commence work on the second record, while we thought the record needed a bigger push. The rep who signed us to Metal Blade, Dyana Kass, had left, and with no one in our corner to advocate for us, we feared getting lost in the label’s roster. So Metal Blade quite amicably released us from the deal, and we started shopping around. I recall talking with Bill Metoyer at Concrete Foundations in either 1990 or 1991, and he seemed enthusiastic about producing our follow-up record. We recorded demo versions of the songs we’d been writing with Russ and shopped them around, but metal’s stock was falling. We did continue gigging, both locally and regionally, but the scene was drying up.

MC: I know the "grunge" thing hit around the early 90's and with you guys being based in the heart of it, how was the morale of the band at this time seeing every "grunge" band being snatched up by big major labels?

Chris: Well, keep in mind that a lot of these folks were our friends, so we were happy for them, but we also saw the writing on the wall for metal bands like ourselves. Speed and thrash were being eclipsed by other kinds of music, and I do think we were pretty comfortable making the change to more mid-tempo, groove-oriented music. But 1992 was not 1987, and we knew this.

MC: You played your final show in 1992. Did you guys know at the time it was your final live show? Where did you play it at and was any of it captured on film? Where did the band members end up going after the band split up? Was it sad to see the band go by the wayside so to speak? Were any of the band members just totally fed up with the music scene at that time?

Chris: Yes, we knew. It was to be our farewell performance, and it was held at the Offramp in Seattle. Bits of it are available on YouTube, and though the audio is pretty overdriven, I believe it is a strong performance. And yes, I, personally was disenchanted by then. After seven years of work as a band, I was ready to move on to other genres and other personal goals, which I did. Within a couple of years I moved to Memphis, TN, to work on my Doctoral degree. Matt and Russ continued to play in Seattle throught the 90s with various bands. Harry stopped playing for a while, but has since picked it back up. In 2000 I moved back to Seattle for a teaching job, and I ended up playing on Geoff Tate’s solo album and touring the U.S.

MC: Tell me a bit about the 5th member of the band, Damon Teras who passed away in 2002.

Chris: Damon was a guy from our neighborhood in Edmonds who originally played drums with another band. He became indispensible as our tech, confidant, travelling companion, and friend. A strong, loyal Viking, who could be chill, or could be the enforcer - whatever was called for. As with so many of our friends in Seattle, his personal demons led him to drugs. His daughter is a lovely young woman and part of the Bitter End family.

MC: Now after the break-up of the band did the 4 of you keep in touch here and there? Did any or all 4 of you miss the band much and were you still getting mail and stuff about the band at that time?

Chris: Matt and Russ have played together on an ongoing basis in other projects and situations, such as a Thin Lizzy tribute band, and all three of us at one time or another have played together in Hartwood, Russ’s outlaw country band. I had seen Harry a few times over the last twenty or so years. Personally, I wouldn’t say that I missed Bitter End as such, since I was moving all around the country and keeping plenty busy. But there was still interest, and sometimes in odd places. Two years ago I was with Matt on a family vacation in Italy, and while we were in Florence, he met up with some metal guys. After mentioning that he had been in Bitter End, one of the guys responded that “Harsh Realities is great fucking record!”

MC: Now in 2011 Russ Stefanovich gave the unreleased recordings from 1991 and 1992 to the label and the label decided to release them. How happy was the band that this stuff was going to finally see the light of day so to speak? What is the line-up of the band today and do you plan on doing any live shows? What has the response been like so far to the stuff Metal On Metal released?

Russ: When Midnight Idols were joining the Metal on Metal roster, Jowita had asked me about the Bitter End days. Once she learned of the unreleased material, she was interested, so I put some up on my server as mp3s and gave her the links. I wasn't thinking anything of it at the time. Just sharing some stuff we never published. As it became clear that the Idols were not on pace to complete the follow up "Sworn to the Night" for the following release year, Jowita approached me about the prospect of putting out the Bitter End material. I couldn't see why not, so I contacted the rest of the band to get a consensus. Seems the time was right to do it, and we all agreed, so what started out as a friendly share wound up resulting in a release and reunion gig. Personally I am thrilled that this material has finally gotten to see daylight. Lineup is complete, and I am unsure whether we will have played by press-time, but we are active.

MC: Is the Metal Blade release still in print? Any chance of any of your early demo tracks being re-issued one day?

Chris: It isn’t “in print” as such, but Metal Blade appear to be selling it as downloads on Amazon and elsewhere. As for the “Meet Your Maker” demo, that is included in as part of “Have a Nice Death!”

MC: Is the band planning on recording some new stuff at all? How much fun was it to see your stuff on CD after recording it all those years ago?

Chris: There are no “plans” for further recording, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. When we got together for the first time last year, two things stood out. First, we still liked playing together. And second, our creative interplay was still there. So, it’s hard, because I live halfway across the United States from the other guys, and we all have busy, adult lives. But with file sharing being what it is, and with Russ’ technical abilities, I’m not ruling anything out. And as for the release of “Have A Nice Death!” I am simply thrilled that Jowita believed in our project and gave us this opportunity. Without her, this would be nowhere.

MC: What was your favorite thing about being in a band and the worst thing?

Chris: Best things are traveling, and playing music for people, and responding to their energy. Worst thing? Load-in and loud-out, having to move Marshall stacks and Ampeg SVT bass amps - especially now that I’m old!

But I’m happy with the standards of musicianship and musicality we achieved in our time. I believe we did justice to our influences and we did our part to keep metal music going forward.

MC: What are some of your favorite memories from back in the day? Do you have any old fanzines, flyers, bios, show flyers, etc. boxed away somewhere?

Chris: oh yes, we have LOTS of memorabilia. Matt has whole storage units crammed with the stuff.. We were blessed with lots of creative people who provided us with lots of merchandise ideas, and access to photocopy machines after hours! It was all so DIY. As for our memories, well, dig around on YouTube, and you’ll see a lot of funny video shot back in the day, of us onstage and off. Other than that, lots of things I can’t mention in print!

MC: Plug any websites for the band. What are the plans for the band going forward now?

Well, there’s the Myspace site, http://www.myspace.com/bitterendmetal, and a Facebook site as well, http://www.facebook.com/bitterendband. This release has given us the impetus for a reunion gig in Seattle, to be held at the Funhouse on July 14. We all are preparing the material, and I’ll be back in town for a number of rehearsals the week before. After that, we’ll see how people responded, and how we want to proceed.

MC: Thanks for doing this interview. Any last words? And any advice for any young bands out there?

Chris: 10,000 hours. That’s the magic number. It takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become expert at it. There are no shortcuts to making yourself better and perfecting your craft. It is lonely work. But now that this band is coming back after twenty years, I can tell you that part of myself created by playing metal never went away. Once the four of us got together in a practice room last year, it was as if we’d never been apart. Even if we couldn’t quite remember all the arrangements!