Iron Fist Magazine

SAINT VITUS INTERVIEW: “WE ALL AGREED THAT WE HAD TO LEAVE THE SCENE WITH A BANG”

Scott ‘Wino’ Weinrich and SAINT VITUS… ubiquitous, right? Wrong! According to Iron Fist’s resident doom archivist OLIVIER ‘ZOLTAR’ BADIN the sole album with CHRITUS LINDERSON and the final album from original singer SCOTT REAGERS deserve a place in the hallowed halls of metal just as much as ‘Born Too Late’…

There’s a black hole in Saint Vitus’ story. No, not the early days when spat on by punks and metalheads alike in the mid-’80s at low-key shows in shitty clubs, where they still delivered the goods and released all-time classics like ‘Saint Vitus’ or ‘Born Too Late’. Nor during that 12 years silence when their legend kept growing, despite the band’s lack of activity. We’re actually talking here about the first half of the ’90s when everybody seemed to be against them, including their core fanbase and even of some their own former members. Sitting in the accusation chair is 1992’s ‘C.O.D.’ and 1995’s ‘Die Healing’: while the first has gained the rare status of being their less-revered album, right next to ‘Mournful Cries’, the second split opinions with the return of their melodramatic original singer Scott Reagers and it’s very-metal production. The fact that the latter would turn out to be one of the last ever releases by legendary doom label Hellhound, who basically put out every single classic doom rock album during that first half of the decade (Wretched, Unorthodox, Iron Man, Count Raven etc) made it even more special… and collectable! As both are, at long last, being officially reissued for the first time – apart from the LP-only limited version of ‘Die Healing’ that Buried By Time And Dust Records did in 2010 – the time has come to reassess those too often overlooked gems. Or at least, put things back in perspective with the ever-troubled story of the doom gods…

By the spring of 1991, Vitus was riding on an all time-high. After three albums, Scott ‘Wino’ Weinrich had been well accepted as their frontman and their most recent album ‘V’ was acclaimed as one of their finest work. Alas, right around the time they released their first proper live album and were back home in Los Angeles busy writing their next opus, things started to derail. And it got ignited by a bit of jealousy when “Wino started his little thing with The Obsessed on the side,” as guitarist Dave Chandler puts it. He’s referring to Wino’s agreement to put his first band The Obsessed back together, after Hellhound Records had a surprise hit the previous year with the reissue of their self-titled debut, initially recorded in 1985. If that little friction wasn’t enough, he was also letting everybody know that he didn’t like the new Vitus material that much and soon disaffection reared its ugly head. Now, according to who you’re talking to, Wino either left or was fired, but soon enough Vitus was out of a singer, again. The remaining members vowed out to carry on and put out ads saying they were looking for a replacement. After only a handful candidates showed up (“we were still quite unknown in the States and nobody had a clue what doom was all about over here”), they chose a guy originally from Switzerland called Marshall Stacks and even did a two-track rough demo with him. But their label didn’t like what they heard and suggested another, surprising musician who happened to band-less. “I knew the guys from Hellhound because they had released the first Count Raven album I sang on,” remembers Christian ‘Chritus’ Linderson on the phone from Stockholm. “The label boss, Michael, called me one day and asked me for Messiah Marcolin’s phone number who had just been let go from Candlemass. Messiah and me were friends and we happened to be maybe the two biggest Vitus fans in Sweden. Sadly, for various reasons, he turned them down and I had to break the news to them. I knew the guys already since Count Raven had supported Vitus on the 1990 European tour but still, I almost fell off my chair when they say that I could try out instead. I only realised what was happening when my plane landed in California. The craziest part of the story is that around that time, I was also in touch with Mike Smail from Dream Death and was saving money to go to the States. They had just changed their name to Penance and were interested in trying me out too. But I joined Vitus instead.” Chritus remembers trying out first with ‘Prayer For The Masses’, but “that was easy, since I knew all the lyrics by heart, being such a big fan”. On the other hand, by the time they flew him in, he only had time to contribute to lyrics for the song ‘Planet Of Judgement’, as the whole record was pretty much done by then, with a clear goal in mind: “That was the first time I ever tried to write music in a specific direction to attract a broader type of audience,” confesses Dave. “All the other albums have either Scotty or Wino singing on them and this is the only one we did with Chritus on vocals, so that alone makes it special to the fans nowadays. Still, it kinda puzzles me that some might think this is an oddity in our back catalogue. I mean, even if the production didn’t come out quite like I wanted to, I think it doesn’t enough low end for instance, I thought the music wasn’t that different.”

SaintVitusandchritusIn retrospect, Chritus also feels that all the hurry didn’t do him any service: “Try to picture me, a 23-year-old Swede, who had never set foot in the US before, arriving in sunny California to join his favourite band. I actually became roommates with their drummer Armando Costa for the next two years! And one day at rehearsal, Scott Reagers came down to say hello and I convinced him to sing few songs with the band while I was watching, ecstatic. But they were very anxious to get into the studio as soon as possible and I think overall I didn’t have enough time to find my own niche, especially since I’m totally self-taught and never had more than two half hours singing lessons in my life. And I knew it during the recording, so it was pretty rough for me.”

While if ‘V’s winning formula came partially from the bleak environment it was recorded in, as it was done in grim Berlin, the band nevertheless set out to do ‘C.O.D.’ at a quite ‘undoom’ place called Redondo Beach, nearby LA. Mostly for economical reasons and some quite surprising high-school connections: “We wanted to do the album at home and we went to Don Dokken’s studio, of all places,” Dave recalls. “The thing is that we got very cheap prices because him and Armando were together in high school so they knew each other. Plus he owed us some as years before, as before they actually played that kind of mainstream hair metal we played with them at some show, even if we were just one of the four bands opening for them that night. He had an amplifier problem and asked us if he could borrow Mark’s. Sadly, he blew it up during the show and ever since he kept saying that he’d pay us back one day. So, this was his chance and even officially co-produced it, even if in the end we mostly did it and he was just there from time to time to check if everything was all right. The funny thing is that I remember him saying ‘your music is kinda cool, but can’t you guys play a little faster?!’

The title was initially to be ‘Children Of Doom’ (“that’s just how we called our fans back then”) but was shortened to ‘C.O.D., “just to make it look weird,” according to Dave. Clocking in at over 62 minutes, including a re-recording of the title-track of their second album ‘Hallow’s Victim’ as the band didn’t like the first version, this is by far the longest Vitus album ever, almost twice as long as ‘Mournful Cries’. Just like ‘V’, it had the privilege to have the kind of cheesy covers that betrays none of the actual utter bleakness contained: “That was a complete surprise to me! I had told the label that I wanted a creepy skull on the cover and they came up with that. Problem is that I only saw it once it was out…”

Still, everybody was pretty positive when their first US tour with Chritus was launched later that year. They were confident enough to have booked the first date in Maryland, then the headquarters of the US doom/rock scene and home of opening act, Internal Void. And at first, everything ran smoothly, even if Chritus admits that he felt more at ease singing the old classics than the new material he had just recorded with the band! “I don’t remember many fans complaining about Wino not being there on that first tour. But we were still a very underground band in the US then so it was simply because many didn’t care I guess. It’s only in Europe, where we were more popular, that we started to hear some people moan about it, mostly in Germany but no big deal really.” But the apple was rotten from the start, although in hindsight Dave didn’t realise it immediately because he was very busy taking care of his very ill mother. At first, the slightly more accessible edge he had intentionally added to their music didn’t make any difference: “The sales were okay, but nothing spectacular. And even if some thought we could benefit from the fallout of the popularity of grunge, that never happened either.” Worst, Chritus and the rest of the band had yet to really come across as a cohesive unit: “Let’s face it, it just didn’t work at all, on all levels. We never really truly gelled on stage, the songs hadn’t come out as good as I thought they would and so on. And when the US label that was supposed to release ‘C.O.D.’, and for whom we had recorded two extra tracks, eventually refused to do so because they thought it didn’t sound like Vitus enough, I understood the whole thing wasn’t meant to be. We did our best but there was just nothing we could do I guess.”

Not aware of what was happening behind the scene, when the band’s spring ’93 European tour with Cathedral ended in Germany, Chritus decided to go back straight to Stockholm as he only had a tourist visa and couldn’t remain any longer in the States. “Then I didn’t hear back from them for a couple of months until Dave called me up one day and that he was sorry but that things weren’t working out and that they couldn’t keep me any longer in the band. It’s only years later that I understood that they were already thinking about asking Scott to come back but when it all occurred, it was pretty rough for me and for a long time, I was pretty upset about how the whole thing ended. But that’s around the time that former Unleashed guitarist Fredde got in touch and asked me to form a new band with me, Terra Firma. If it hadn’t for him, I would have been much more bitter about the whole thing. To this day, I still have love/hate relationship with that record: I’m very proud of having been part of Saint Vitus’ story, yet I think it could have turned out much better if we’d had more time to know each other and let me progress as a singer. But it is what is.”

saintvituscodIn the meantime, back in Los Angeles, the rest of the band set out to, once again, go through the whole audition process again. But this time, none of the candidates seemed to fit the vibe they were looking for. Dave says that it’s around this time that the idea of making one last album and calling it a day came to be. Having already begun to write new material but unable to locate a proper replacement at the mic, Dave then suggested that he would do the vocals, “to make everybody’s life easier”. Pressured by their US label who said they wanted the new stuff to sound “more like classic Vitus”, he did seek out advice from an old friend that has rarely, if ever talked, to the press since… “Me and Dave never lost touch,” reveals an extremely chatty and friendly Scott Reagers, the band’s legendary original singer who had left in 1986 after two albums and one EP. “See, we both have the same age, come from the same background and share the same love for old horror movies and very undefined, yet ghoulish, voices, like the one Bela Lugosi or Vincent Price had for instance. So around the time, when Chritus was let out they couldn’t get a proper replacement, and every time he would make me listen to some new contestant. And I’d be honest and say to him that what I was hearing didn’t cut it. I think I made fun out of him when he broke the news that he eventually would handle the microphone for that album, to which he replied ‘so why don’t you do it instead?’. I guess it was quite surprised to hear me say ‘yes’! The fact I already knew the plan was do one last album and then split made it easier for me to make my decision.” Determined to make things right, the whole band set out to “rehearse three times a week. But even if it was dead hot in there, I would usually drink like a gallon of water at each rehearsal and then, maybe, one beer once we were done. We were that serious. Dave had just come out of a situation with ‘C.O.D.’ where he wasn’t happy about the result. But with all four of us back together, he kept saying ‘the sound is here’ so we all agreed that we had to leave the scene with a bang.”

Agreeing that since he was “more pissed off than ever”, Dave says he had a real rush of inspiration flowing at him; “As if all the anger and frustration I had suffered from until then were just pouring into those songs.” Having flown especially to LA to hear first-hand how the new songs sounded live in the rehearsal place, Hellhound Records boss Michael was very impressed with the result: “He really liked ‘Return Of The Zombie’, that was like a sequel to ‘Zombie Hunger’ from the first album. His only complaint was that he thought that ‘The Sloth’ was dragging for a bit too long!”

Reassured by what they had heard, the label decided to book a studio in Berlin once again for October and November ‘94, but this time with veteran producer Harris Johns, mostly known back then for producing thrash bands, like Voivod or Sodom. “Up until our ‘comeback’ album ‘Lillie: F-65’, I kept saying that if ‘Die Healing’ was one of my favourite of ours, it was because of the incredible production we had. It’s very metal, yet sounds pretty much like our debut, with the raw and live vibe that really makes you feel as if we are playing at your party or something. One of the best memories I have of that session was that they got Armando a drum kit completely made out of metal, except for the skins. They even hired a professional drum tuner! But as soon as he got them, Armando proceeded to take it out of tune to fit his style. I thought it was hilarious!”

Vitus_dieScott too has cheerful souvenirs from that recording session, especially since this was the first time he actually set foot in Europe. “I was pretty excited and really liked the overall laid-back atmosphere. You didn’t have to overdo things it here. And the people living there were just very friendly, you know? Overall, it was a quick and painless process. I seem to remember I arrived on a Sunday. I think we recorded most of basic tracks from Tuesday to Friday, taking the last two days to focus on vocals. One special song to do was ‘Let The End Begin’: earlier that year, Dave had lost his mom from sickness and that song was partially inspired by that event. So, when I did the vocals for this one, I asked for all the lights to be turned off. Harris complained it was too dark so we eventually added some candles but the vibe was just perfect. It allowed us to do the song the way it was supposed to be done, with that special eeriness. But not everything was that solemn: you could count on our bass player Mark Adams for that. While Dave was the business guy and the one cracking the whip, Mark kept pulling pranks on everybody in the studio, including our producer!” At the tail-end of that busy week, they played one low-key and unannounced show at a local club called Huxley’s, mostly because Hellhound had hired some cameras and wanted to shoot some ‘live in the studio’ type of footage for the forthcoming video for ‘One Mind’. Still, some fans caught wind of what was going on and turned up, leaving the band no choice to play some old classics, “just for the fun of it”.

The band also took some time to visit a cemetery nearby where they did some promo shots and ended up using one of the pictures taken that day for the cover, as “those two crosses seemed to symbolise the double meaning of the title. Plus that little rusty door was open, as if inviting those looking in to enter.” Ultimately, Scott stayed there less then ten days, with the rest of the band sticking around a bit longer to assist Harris with the mix, even if according to Dave, it mostly meant “being asked by Harris to get lost or whatever for a couple of hours. So we would usually get drunk for a while, then come back, listen to what he did, go to bed, listen the following morning again but this time sober and then ask for changes.” Still, determined to keep their promise of making it their final stance yet “so damn proud of the result”, the band agreed to do one last tour in Europe, for the first and last time with Scott at the mic. If Vitus finally reformed, as everybody knows with Wino as their vocalist since 2008 with whom they recorded ‘Lillie: F-65’ in 2012, apart from a guest appearance during one of the band’s recent Los Angeles’ gigs in 2011 to perform ‘Burial At Sea’, the proud dad of now six (!) children that is Scott Reagers is still nowhere to be found on the music scene. “I’m a perfectionist. And outside of Vitus, I don’t see myself singing for another band,” he admits. “That’s why I wouldn’t do another project unless I exercised heavily before in order to take it to the next level. Plus, you have to remember that when you get older, you lose the best portions of your voice, like the high-ends. But if you’re smart, you can always replace it with something way more creepy! Look at Vincent Price; at first, he had a crystal clear voice, but as he progressed in age, he would use it in ways that would give you goose bumps. Because he learnt how to use what he had and take it to the next level. And that’s what everybody did on ‘Die Healing’. And who knows? Although there’d be a big hole on stage because Armando isn’t with us anymore [he died in 2010], maybe you’ll get to see us again one day…”

Originally published in Iron Fist #6 available here