Longtime metal scribe David E. Gehlke has written books about Noise Records, Paradise Lost and Obituary. His latest is The Scott Burns Sessions: A Life In Death Metal 1987-1997, where the legendary death metal producer talks about all the albums he recorded. Gehlke fills us in on the book and a few other topics.
Chad Bowar: How did the Scott Burns Sessions book come about?
David E. Gehlke: The idea originated from Tim Hubbard, who is a long-time friend of Scott’s and is a Tampa-based photographer who shot many of the legendary death metal bands in the area. Tim had assembled a massive photo archive and thought it would be a good idea to pair it with some of Scott’s stories from the studio. Since I became very well acquainted with Scott during the making of Obituary’s 2021 biography, Turned Inside Out, he was kind enough to ask me. Scott’s only requirement was that I try to interview as many of his bands as possible. We ended up with 69, but no doubt there are several more.
How long did it take to put together?
About 18 months, give or take. We started in December 2021 and then wrapped this past summer. Decibel, our publisher, gave us a rough timeline for completion, which helped.
How did you decide to organize it chronologically?
Scott’s progression as a producer is why the book is organized chronologically. He started at Morrisound in 1983 as an assistant engineer and gradually started getting more responsibility. The book begins with the albums where he was an assistant (i.e., Agent Steel, Whiplash), then moves into when he was asked to produce and engineer by himself. We also organized it this way to show how much work Scott did in the early 1990s. He was working around the clock. There were days when he slept at the studio since he lived an hour away. There were weeks when he’d only see his wife when it was time to go to sleep, so a lot of that is captured in the book. It’s incredible the amount of albums he did from 1990 to 1992.
Did you have difficulty locating some of the musicians to interview?
The “bigger” bands were all relatively easy to get since most were still active. Social media, especially Facebook, came in handy for the bands with smaller discographies. A good chunk of those musicians could be found, but some digging was required. Thankfully, most were eager to cooperate out of their fondness for Scott. Scott did a lot of work for unsigned and demo-stage bands, work that they likely would not have gotten had they gone to a different studio. That was one of the big takeaways: Scott didn’t care about the size of the band. He put the same effort into every project that was assigned to him.
Were there people you weren’t able to find or who didn’t want to participate?
Yes. There were nearly a dozen bands that I couldn’t track down or declined participation. I made every effort (I think I even got a Yellow Pages subscription to get phone numbers), but some proved too elusive. The most notable person to decline was Chris Barnes of Cannibal Corpse and Six Feet Under, although he doesn’t do much press these days. There were a few interviews with members of prominent bands that proved to be unusable due to a very different take on reality. (laughs) In some cases, I had to cite quotes from previous interviews. There isn’t too much of that, thankfully. The book is nearly all original interviews.
Burns relates some very minute details of sessions from decades ago. Did he keep a journal, or is his memory just that good?
Scott didn’t keep a journal, but he has a good memory. He could, with ease, recall some of the finer details of the sessions, which people will see in the book. His recollections of guitar setup and amp selection always impressed me. He could also go into detail about tape cutting and tuning drums, both of which he’d be considered an expert. (Lots of musicians marveled at how well Scott could do both.) He
How would you describe Burns’ producing style? What made his recordings so distinctive?
Scott was big on performances. Morrisound was one of the first studios to put extreme metal musicians under a microscope. Scott could tell almost immediately whether a musician was up to snuff. So, the musical ability and tightness of a band often dictated how a session could go since Scott couldn’t cut corners. Pro Tools and computer editing software didn’t exist, so he had to coax the best performances possible from his bands. Scott also wasn’t the type of producer to meddle with the songs. He provided the occasional suggestion, but he always deferred to the bands when it came to their compositions. Granted, there were times when he wanted to have more input on that side, but Scott understood his role.
Ultimately, what made Scott’s recordings so distinctive was his kick-drum sound and guitar tone. The Morris brothers (Tom and Jim) developed the technology for Scott and other Morrisound engineers to make such professional and crisp recordings under a tight budget. Scott became known for having the “typewriter” click drum sound, which provided drummers the ability to have their kicks completely audible. That was a big game-changer in death metal in the ’90s. Now, it’s commonplace.
What were some of the most difficult album recording sessions Burns had?
Cannibal Corpse’s Vile may have been the most difficult because they switched vocalists (Chris Barnes for George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher) halfway through the recording. Deicide’s Legion and Serpents of the Light were hard because Scott and the Hoffman brothers (Brian and Eric) fought with Scott over their guitar tone. Napalm Death’s Harmony Corruption wasn’t easy, either. Mick Harris and Scott had several fights since Mick had a tough time playing his takes cleanly.
Out of the dozens of albums Burns produced, what are a few you think were the most influential?
There are quite a few, but to start: Obituary’s Slowly We Rot, Sepultura’s Beneath the Remains, Terrorizer’s World Downfall, Death’s Human, Suffocation’s Effigy of the Forgotten, Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence, Cynic’s Focus, Cannibal Corpse’s The Bleeding and Vile. Scott’s most influential production would probably be Human since it set the stage for technical death metal, although Death was undoubtedly not the first technical death metal band.
Does he have any regrets or resentment about being put in the box of producing almost only death metal albums?
I don’t think he does. He would have liked to have moved up to the majors and worked with some more prominent bands, but it wasn’t meant to be. The albums Scott recorded mean more to people within the death metal scene than some rock radio record, anyway. Scott is forever part of the death metal canon, so I think he’s comfortable with his place in history.
What led him to walk away from producing?
Scott never made a lot of money producing. He was frustrated by that and the fact he was typecast as a “death metal producer.” He could never get work outside of death metal, even though he tried. By 1996, the death metal scene was on a downward slope. Nu-metal was now the big thing, and black metal was gaining in popularity. He saw the writing on the wall and figured that was a good time to abandon the ship. Scott’s exit wasn’t dramatic; he had to gradually wean himself off projects since many of his core bands kept asking him to produce their albums. The last one he did was Suffocation’s Despise the Sun in 1997. After that, he was retired.
What do you think his legacy is as a producer?
Scott could do more with a minimal budget than most producers during that time. Think about it: Most albums had a budget of $5,000 and needed to be done within a week. Scott worked his magic and gave all of these bands an incredible sound that no one had achieved before. Prior to Scott and Morrisound, no one knew how to get death metal to sound professional. Thanks to the Morris brothers and then Scott’s abilities as a producer, bands could now come away with a strong-sounding production job at an affordable rate. Beyond that, Scott is essential to the 1990s death metal story. He helped turn it into one of metal’s most enduring styles. And let’s not forget Scott was an exceptionally nice guy that was easy to work with. That cannot be understated.
What was the response to your previous book, Turned Inside Out: The Official Story Of Obituary?
It was great! Obituary is a beloved band and has a story worth telling. I put them in the same bucket as Scott: They are some of the nicest human beings on the planet and are deserving of their continued success.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the band’s history in writing the book?
Probably the most surprising thing I learned is how much of a team John Tardy, Donald Tardy and Trevor Peres are. They are always unified in their decision-making. They also think alike musically, although they have different tastes. The three of them are the foundation for Obituary and they’ve never deviated from their path, no matter how difficult things have gotten for them, especially in the mid-;90s and even for a short stretch when they came back in 2003.
Now that you have several books under your belt, does it get easier with each one?
Oh, definitely. I flew by the seat of my pants when I did my first book (on Noise Records) about a decade ago. I underestimated the amount of project management that goes into something like this. There is more to it than writing. Arranging interviews, talking to managers, publicists, record company folk – everyone, frankly, is sometimes more time-consuming than actually sitting in front of the computer and typing. But, you take the lessons learned from each book and apply them to the next. I have a blast doing it, though.
Do you have anything currently in the pipeline?
Yes, but I am not at liberty to say anything yet! I am sworn to secrecy.
You’ve been writing about metal for over 20 years. Besides moving from print to mostly digital, how have you seen metal journalism evolve over that time?
Video reviews are the next phase in metal journalism’s evolution. It has opened the door for those who may not be inclined to write like you or I but still want to share their thoughts. It’s a fascinating medium – some people are more adept at conveying their thoughts in front of a camera instead of committing pen to paper. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way. The nice thing is that there’s a broader scope of opinions and ways to inform listeners. The more people talking about metal, the better.
Are you concerned about the effect of AI on music journalism?
Right now, no, although that could change in a few years. The industry will need to be able to sniff out the AI-generated text versus the human-generated, which may become more challenging to do as the technology progresses. It’s scary to think that a computer can write an album review or conduct an interview without anyone knowing otherwise. I don’t think metal journalists like you, and I will be replaced. It’s far too specialized of a genre, although I hope I didn’t jinx anything!
Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
You can snag the Scott Burns book here.
(interview published November 6, 2023)