Obituary Talk Three-Decade Quest for the Perfect 'Meat-and-Potatoes' Groove

Death-metal godfathers on how they went from high-school heshers to proudly primitive elder statesmen

Brothers and Obituary bandmates Donald (left) and John Tardy (center) discuss their minimal approach to death-metal mastery, still potent after 30-plus years. Credit: Ester Segarra

"We're the cavemen of metal," Obituary drummer Donald Tardy proudly tells Rolling Stone. "There's no two ways around it."

Tardy's older brother John, the band's vocalist, agrees. Although Obituary may be world renowned as pioneers of death metal, he's wary of people who file them under corny, pedantic subgenres.

"It's one of those things that bothers me a little bit, how it just gets so separated," says John in his prominent Florida twang. "For a while, almost every band that came out that maybe sounded a little bit different: 'Oh, that's a different kind of metal.' [Obituary] definitely go into a heavy-metal category, but for me, it can kind of just stop there, and whether you want to call it nine different things, it goes back to the roots, the Black Sabbaths of the world that just go back to basic blues."

For more than 30 years, Obituary have operated as one of the most consistent bands in their scene, while at the same time opting out of the arms race that has consumed so many of their peers. While some death-metal acts have steadily advanced the genre into a highly sanitized and virtuosic style, a sort of new-school prog, Obituary have remained stubbornly committed to their signature pared-down sound.

From their mid-to-late-Eighties days as high-schoolers unwittingly helping to launch an international movement to their current phase as elder statesmen of a broad and thriving community, the band has stuck to the same simple formula. A typical Obituary song combines a few minimal, sinister-sounding riffs, often played at laid-back tempos, with Tardy's agonized howls, which express far more torment and terror than the cold, gruff delivery of most death-metal vocalists. In the band's early days, John often didn't even bother to write lyrics.

"We are simple dudes," says Donald, whose deep-in-the-pocket beats are essential to the band's earthy sense of groove. "We do not try to write the most technical music, because we're good at one thing, and that is just groovy, midtempo, heavy ... and somehow it clicks. The chemistry and the history we've had together, we definitely kind of found what we're good at, and we're proud of that and we'll stick with that, for sure."

Accordingly, the band's new self-titled album embodies the classic Obituary sound, established on early efforts like 1989's Slowly We Rot and 1990's Cause of Death. From the hard-swinging, Sabbath-y "Lesson in Vengeance" to the punchy, hardcore-esque "Straight to Hell," the record showcases the way the band marries underground aggression with old-school rock & roll abandon. (On Friday, the day the LP comes out, the band heads out on a U.S. tour with German thrash-metal veterans Kreator.) Like the nine albums that preceded it, Obituary reflects the deep musical and personal bond shared by the two Tardy brothers and guitarist Trevor Peres, their friend and bandmate of 30-plus years.

The Tardys' earliest musical inspirations had little to do with metal, per se. Both John, 49, and Donald, 47 – who share the same affable, low-key temperament – remember raiding their older brother's vinyl collection as kids and schooling themselves on Southern rock and other sounds of the day. "I was very into Stevie Ray Vaughn and Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Outlaws," Donald says. "And stuff that my oldest brother had vinyls of that I would sneak into his room and listen to, like Pat Travers and Ted Nugent, Elton John, Charlie Daniels, and Blackfoot. That's kind of where it all started with me."

As an aspiring drummer, he also naturally gravitated to Led Zeppelin. "I saw the light with John Bonham," Donald says.

In the early Eighties, following their family's move from Miami to the Tampa suburb of Brandon, the brothers discovered a lively local scene, led by thrash outfit Nasty Savage and epic heavy-metal purveyors Savatage. "It wasn't really until we saw the guys from those bands, who started doing their very first recordings, and we would see them in their garages and stuff like that – that really just kind of got us wanting to jam," John says.

In 1984, Donald and his high-school classmate Peres began playing covers in the Tardys' garage. John took over vocal duties, thinking the position would be temporary. By the following year, the band had expanded to a quintet, taken on the name Executioner and begun writing original songs. Their debut single ("Metal Up Your Ass" b/w "Syco-Pathic Mind") showed a clear early-Metallica influence, but when the band members heard the harsh, forbidding sound of Swiss bands Hellhammer and Celtic Frost, they veered toward a rawer approach. As Peres explained in Albert Mudrian's 2004 death-metal and grindcore history Choosing Death, "When I got Celtic Frost's Morbid Tales album, we literally threw handfuls of songs away and started all over from scratch." 

"I think we just kind of learned really early on that to us, heavier isn't faster," John says. "It opens up a lot of things, because with this kind of music, you've got to get going fast and you've got to slow things way down. But it's those meat-and-potatoes rhythms, those groove rhythms that Obituary comes up with, that just kind of define us."

The last puzzle piece of the classic Obituary sound, Tardy's inimitable vocal style, fell into place on the band's subsequent demos – issued under the name Xecutioner since a Boston thrash band was already using the conventional spelling.

"We went into the studio in 1985 and recorded an eight-song demo tape, and it was terrible," Donald says. "We didn't know where we were. And then it seemed like overnight, my brother found his voice. We did another demo tape ... and that's where my brother went from not sure what he's doing to a brutal growl, so we're like, 'Now we're on track to being something different.'"

John remembers Peres' playing spurring him on. "I think ''Til Death' was about the first song that when we kicked into that thing, I just kind of remember going for it," he recalls. "It's just such a heavy song, and Trevor's guitar tone was all taking place in there, and my voice just gravitated towards trying to sound more like his guitar, if you will, trying to get in tune with that."

Slowly We Rot, their debut LP and first release to bear the Obituary name, showcased a fully formed band. The material still bore traces of feral thrash, also evident in lead guitarist Allen West's flashy, whammy-bar-driven solos, but songs such as the grimly trudging title track foreshadowed the low-and-slow grooves that would become Obituary's trademark.

Thanks to their ghastly intensity, John Tardy's vocals commanded immediate attention. Lyrics, though, were not a priority for the frontman. "Some of them early songs were, instead of actually singing something, it was maybe just a series of growls or screams that kind of went along with it," he says.

"Hey, just like old blues songs, man," he adds with a laugh.

On later albums, Tardy says, he would take the lyric-writing task more seriously – a recent lyric video for Obituary's "Turned to Stone" marks the first official airing of his words – but he's still just as concerned with sonic effect as verbal meaning. "It's become kind of a personal challenge for me nowadays to come up with more and more lyrics that maybe have some meaning," the frontman says. "Or just something that sounds really cool."

Lamb of God vocalist and longtime Obituary fan Randy Blythe remembers first hearing the band in his early twenties, when he was in the hospital recovering from a botched appendix operation. His brother brought him a tape of Slowly We Rot to help him pass the time. "I was literally rotting inside, and that really spoke to me," he tells RS. John Tardy's vocals made a lasting impression. "He sounds kind of tortured," Blythe says. "There's a sort of visceral thing that comes out that doesn't sound like an act – it sounds like he's ripping it out of his guts."

In the early Nineties, along with fellow Florida bands like Death, Deicide and Morbid Angel, Obituary helped bring death metal to worldwide attention. As speed and technicality overtook the subgenre, Obituary stayed put in their comfortable niche. (Case in point: No Obituary song to date contains the rapid-fire blast-beat rhythm, which has became synonymous with death metal.) They built up an impressive following, selling more than 100,000 copies of 1992's The End Complete. On later records, the band dabbled in new sounds – 1994's World Demise found them experimenting with samples and odd time signatures, and 1997's Back From the Dead even included a collaboration with a pair of local rappers – but for the most part, they continued to play to their time-tested strengths.

After Back From the Dead, Obituary took a break from the road and slipped into a hiatus. During their time off, John worked at an engineering company and contributed guest vocals to an album by Brooklyn horrorcore MC Necro. Donald, meanwhile, answered a fan letter from Andrew W.K. – "Obituary is a band I spent more time listening to than almost any other," the party-rock king said in 2015 – and ended up drumming on his I Get Wet LP and the tours that followed. In 2005, Obituary returned with Frozen in Time, which featured some of their catchiest, most memorable songs to date. As a live band, their profile continued to grow, especially in Europe, where they became a staple at metal fests such as Wacken Open Air, playing to crowds of tens of thousands.

Having recorded at local studios for much of their career – most notably Morrisound, which came to be known as a death-metal mecca after Obituary and many of their contemporaries began recording there in the late Eighties – the band built their own in advance of their seventh LP, 2007's Xecutioner's Return. That album and every Obituary full-length since has been recorded at Redneck Studio, housed in a soundproofed 500-square-foot building on John Tardy's property.

"It's more of a man cave," Donald explains of the facility. "You know: pool table, two TVs, watching sports and jamming. But we've been honing our skills on the Pro Tools rig, and I think we're getting pretty good instrument sounds out of the room. ... It's a blessing, man. We're really self-sufficient, and it's really the future of what we want to do."

If anything, the set-up can get almost too relaxed. "It's literally John's football heaven," Donald says of the studio. "He's got the Dolphins game on ... and Terry [Butler, bassist] and Trevor are Buccaneers fans, so we could be watching both games. You almost sometimes can't get things accomplished because everyone's staring at the game."

"It's more like a sports bar than it is a studio," John says with a chuckle.

Despite the comfy surroundings, the brothers still sound inspired by the primitive but effective approach they first stumbled on more than three decades ago. 

"These days the world has gotten so small where there's lots of band members that might live in California, and another lives in Germany, or wherever, and they can send files back and forth, and write songs like that," John says. "But it doesn't work for us like that. Donald, Trevor and I get there and have a few beers and plow through some songs and just jam and have a good time with it.

"When you get those rhythms that we all look at each other instantly as soon as you hear it, you just picture yourself onstage: 80,000 people," the singer enthuses. "We're like, 'Man, we hit that rhythm right there, this place is gonna go crazy.'"