Interview: Death By Stereo

DEATH BY STEREO
interview by skye

As I walk into the Valley of Death, I have no fear, because I know the amazing power that is Death By Stereo. Their reputation of playing savage hardcore music has kids flocking to their shows for a little piece of the action. Death by Stereo live gigs are ruthless as they bring the fans directly into the line of fire, inviting them up to crowd the stage and join in as they tear shit completely apart. It’s a sweaty pit of hardcore destruction as DBS players; bassist, Paul Miner; guitarists, Dan Palmer and Tim Owens; drummer, Tim Bender, and vocalist Efrem Shultz are in your face, and definitely in your ear. Live gigs aren’t the only thing that helped push this band to where they are today. The debut, self-produced album on Epitaph Records, Day of the Death hurled them into a more mainstream scene where they were heard, feared, and ultimately appreciated. Now the band is launching their second assault on the music scene with Into the Valley of Death, which was also produced by Paul Miner.

Before the album even came out, I had it in my car and it hasn’t left that spot since. Listen after listen provoked countless questions – why are these guys so angry? After days of trying to get an interview date nailed down, it finally happened one beautiful Saturday afternoon at the Block at Orange in front of Starbucks. Efrem Shultz walks up wearing a Rancid t-shirt and an ear-to-ear grin. He greets me with a gigantic hug – that’s just his style. For being so angry and screaming so much on his record – he sure is one of the nicest guys I know. We have a lot in common surprisingly, but mostly because we’re from the same OC hometown. Unfortunately conflicting schedules keep the other guys from showing up but it’s okay, because Efrem has a lot to say.

So lets get this thing started shall we?
Efrem: That sounds great.

Starting off with the new album, what sort of things did you learn from doing the first album that you carried into working on in the second?
Uuuum. When people in your band are really stubborn and things don’t come out like they should and you argue and get all crazy and nothing comes out of it – you kinda just give up and let it go. This time around, we didn’t let it go. We kept arguing until it was right.

How do you guys negotiate that?
This time around we took a lot more time writing songs and practicing them. We would nitpick everything in the songs. Someone would bring the guitar to the table and it could be the best guitar part ever written and if it just wasn’t right for the song – we’d be like dude give it up. Before we recorded – we checked our baggage at the door because once we went inside we had to be open to constructive criticisms and try everyone’s idea at least once. It was a lot of compromising. Not so much with each other – but mostly with ourselves.

Was that a much-needed process?
Yes! Totally.

Why did you opt to have Paul produce this album instead of a “higher-end” producer?
All these other bands are getting “producers” now and stuff, and their records sound good, but Paul wanted one more chance. We had a bigger budget so Paul could do a record again with better tools. He was intent on showing us that we could do just as good of a recording as any of these other bands and still do it by ourselves. We just went for it and it worked out! I mean I’m stoked. I think it sounds way better than the last one.

Where was it recorded?
We did the drums in a place called Sound City in Van Nuys; we wanted to do that the most. They have a room that sounds awesome when you do drums in it and it’s where they did Nirvana’s Nevermind. They did Slipknot there and they did Fleetwood Mac Rumors there so the place is like legendary. Plus it was a chance for Paul to work on this massive board and it just made us all feel like we were a part of something. Brett [Epitaph owner/Bad Religion Guitarist] went with us there and helped us learn where everything was. We did all of the rest of the record in Paul’s backyard.

How’d that work out?
We rent a room from our friend Dave and he has this backhouse. Paul tore it down to the studs and rebuilt it to be a studio. We had more tools this time around to put in there. We were stoked! We couldn’t believe we did it in the backyard it was amazing. We didn’t have to pay for some huge, we took the money and bought our own stuff, so now we can keep it forever.

Now, did Epitaph give you a time limit on your recording or a window as to what and when they were expecting?
Originally they wanted us to do a record a year. We’re not that big and we have to keep our name on people’s minds, but we ended up taking two years because we went on tour forever. We just fell behind and a couple of member changes over the years – you know we’d have to show ’em everything all over again – that would set us back a little. We didn’t really have a window.

Did the extra time end up being beneficial?
It ended up being just right. I don’t know if Epitaph wanted us to have it by a certain time. We end up telling them when we’re gonna have it ready…and then we don’t. So we’re like “aww…oops!” Once we finished this record we went on tour and we’d listen to it in the van and it wasn’t good enough – so we did it over again.

Damn! You guys really are very picky and critical of your stuff!
Oh man you don’t even know! Tiny things! They were so small, but we knew it could be done better. Even looking back I think, “damn, that was ridiculous!” In the end I hope people just see that we really paid attention to detail. Well, somebody will – another music nerd. Kids are smarter now so everyone knows.
[Efrem phone goes off in this funky beat and he wrestles to shut it off – he thinks he did but then it starts making the “coo-coo” bird noise]
Damn thing! I’m just going to shut the whole thing off!

Ha! It’s okay it happens. So, when you heard your album for the first time what thoughts came into your head?
The first time? Uh, we need to re-do it! And we did. The first time, we spent a lot of time on guitars and we wanted it to come through so we kept going back and nitpicking guitars. I was stoked when I heard it though – like hey, all of this came out of us! We did it! I just want everyone else to hear it!

I’ll play it! I’ve been listening to the whole AFI album.
I love that album. Those guys are fucking genius!

Okay, so your vocal range – just varies so much – how do you hit it like that and continue to have a voice at all?
I don’t know! When we started we played a lot and we went on tour, the first few days were the roughest – at least for me, I don’t know how everyone else is – but I build like stamina from screaming so much. When we’re on tour I drink room temperature water, take vitamins, and drink teas – all of that shit – I really don’t know a lot about singing. I just make it through every time. I don’t know, I like to be all over the place. I listen to records and get bored because the guy is singing the same way through the album. I don’t wanna be that guy.

Yeah, let me set this up – you’re listening to this song and it’s a nice little guitar intro and all of a sudden “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” You scare the shit out of the person listening with this deep scary growl into the mic!
Yeah that’s awesome! I want people to get what I’m saying so I make characters. I almost act it out. I can be really sarcastic and people can get the point – I hope.

How was “Wasted Words” selected for the summer Punk O’ Rama disc? Do you think it was a nice little preview to this album?
It was chosen because it was the first song we had ready. We had written all the songs but that was the only one we had down enough to record. We re-recorded it for the album. We ended up liking it a lot so we made a video for it that will be on the CD.

Damnit! I’ve been moated again by the record company! I got the advance copy and there is no video on there!
Yeah that’s funny! Sometimes those albums change from the advance to the real copy. We recorded the record after we went to Europe, but they did press there with the old album and they got shitty versions because we changed our minds. I know kids are getting songs of the Internet because people there are putting it up but they are hearing the version we totally dumped! At least steal the real one!

What is your favorite track on the album?
Right now I like the first track. It’s called…damn, that’s horrible…oh! “The Plague!” It’s about how everyone is becoming a big fashion victim. All the kids have expensive Pat Benetar haircuts now with dye, and super tight jeans and everyone is becoming uniform. I though the scene was for all kinds of bands to be different, so I don’t know when they all decided to get together and be the same. It’s a plague on our scene.

Soon they’ll all be wearing tuxedos.
Serious! It’s just trends! I went to Chain Reaction one day and I realized I was the only one not wearing a super expensive get up.

Uh! You mean you didn’t go to the Gap before you headed over there? What’s wrong with you?
Exactly!! Everyone had new wave hairdos and every guy in there was fresh out of the salon! It was ridiculous! I had to get out of there! They look at me like “ew, you bought those Dickie’s at Wal-Mart!” I was like, yeah I did!

Things change so much! Like Warped Tour and those kids getting all the same tattoo!!
Dude, we went on the whole tour and all these people get in line and get stamped.

They all have those red and black stars.
That’s the new punk thing. These kids are going to get way older and realize, dude why the fuck did I do this to myself. There are some crazy people you meet on Warped Tour. I mean way crazy like, wow, how do you even exist? People that will do anything for a free Yoo-hoo t-shirt from the Yoo-hoo truck! There are more people gathered around a Yoo-hoo trailer for some Yoo-hoo then there are around this super cool new band! We were on the Volcom stage and there’d be a band playing and there would be more people going crazy around a cell phone truck for a cell phone!

When Finch was playing in LA the Yoo-hoo truck was pelting people with t-shirt’s using one of those t-shirt cannons.
That is fucking ridiculous! It’s like one big commercial! Yoo-hoo is like the worst drink at Warped Tour.

Yeah it’s 150 degrees and some ice cold chocolate milk sure sounds good – especially when it’s that hot and it’s boiling into cottage cheese in your stomach!
Why can’t it be like Gatorade?! Yoo-hoo and dirt in your mouth all day. That is torture!

I don’t even want to think about it! So, away from Yoo-hoo, what are some of your strengths and weaknesses as a band?
Our strength is in our live show. We have a blast when we play and we do give 100 percent. A lot of people settle for less now. I was at a concert last night and “a band” was playing and he was standing there looking at his shoes and people were going crazy. People are paying a lot of money and taking in less. Maybe people will see that they don’t have to pay $30 to see some guy stand there, they can pay $8 bucks and see this band just go off!

And weaknesses?
Maybe we don’t always make the best choices as for our career. Business wise I mean, because we always want to do the fun thing. I don’t think it’s a weakness, necessarily – we’d rather go hang out with the kids than be in the corporate world.

What holds you guys together as a band?
Paul Miner is the glue of this band – he holds us together. He is the sanest person in our band and the brains behind the outfit. So Paul, and friendship holds out ban together. That’s the thing with our band, members may come or go, but it’s always stayed friends. We never went out and said “hey, we’re trying out dudes for our band.” No, it’s always been between friends.

How long has Death By Stereo been together?
Since 1998, so not very long.

15 years!
No, like 25 years now? I started when I was one and here I am now! Seems like it!

What is the message of your album?
I think the underlying message to the whole thing is individuality and speaking for yourself. I’d like that to be what people get out of it.

What do you think about mainstream music today and it changing – I use the expression “From Britney to Brody” because it’s turned from this pop-princess crap to this grungy punk rock chick type music – you know what I mean?
Yeah I know what you mean.

Well a year ago you wouldn’t hear like The Distillers on the radio, or even AFI.
A few bands like that have slipped through the cracks which is rad, but these so called “crazy” bands on the radio are just NSYNC after shopping at Hot Topic. It’s mall metal. Nothing that’s really gotten big that’s just kicked everyone in the ass. No one’s been able to break through in a long time.

Well there’s always Avril Lavigne!
Oh yeah! I don’t think she’s even written one song yet! She has a writing team and they said in this interview I read that they were writing some R&B stuff for this young new artist, but then decided to go with a more punk feel. What?!

How do you sing something you can’t feel?
It’s not art. She is evil.

What are your thoughts on the current state of our nation?
Oh God, it’s in shambles! Since we’ve gone to Europe several times, I don’t think we realize how much we are a joke with our government and the way we all think. We think we are this great country and we’re liberated but we aren’t. We live in a place where you’re encouraged to live in a shitty neighborhood and pay a high rent, eat shitty food every day just so you can drive some fancy SUV. You see people like that every day. It’s not like that overseas, people walk and ride bikes. Their train of thought is opposite – I feel like we are behind.

Or maybe we are just way too far ahead and shouldn’t be there.
Yeah, or that. Our President is obviously and idiot, and having us fight this war for nothing and everyone is buying into it as our country shifts to the right – it’s scary. A small business can get a tax write off for the entire amount of the vehicle if they buy an SUV. It’s like this war is to take the attention away from everything else. All of a sudden it’s going to be like “oh my God, I can’t do anything now?” We are totally sinking and it’s really bad. Some people are really ignorant. I don’t know what’s going to save us. This is a scary time and we’re not invincible. We went to Europe 15 days after 9-11 and those people understood our pain, but at the same time thought nothing because it happens to them every day. We are spoiled because elsewhere this stuff goes on every single day.

As shitty as it might be, I don’t think I’d like to live everywhere else.
Oh yeah, don’t get me wrong, a lot of things here are awesome but once you see other places you just learn all this new stuff. A lot of other places, people value life over money and they don’t care about being rich. Not that everyone here is all fucked, there are beautiful people here, but a lot of things are going down hill. People just need to think for themselves and stop relying on just the Orange County Register for their news. They look and say, “It’s the truth.” The same things happen to kids in school. I don’t think they are asking why!

I questioned everything, and do so every day. If you do that, you get smacked down, you get banned from places, it’s punishment for thought.
Exactly! “Don’t question authority!” It’s like there isn’t a way to focus frustration so people focus on each other. If you speak out against war, people think you don’t support our troops. I have a good friend over there that I’ve known since 2nd grade. I’m worried, I’m scared and I want him to come home. I don’t want anything to happen to that guy, but I don’t think he should be there at all in the first place. It’s sad and pointless and I’m sure he doesn’t even know why he’s there. I write him and he’s bummed because he sees on TV the anti-war protesting and thinks that people are going to hate him. It’s weird, he’s got me, and I care about him, but I think what he’s doing really sucks. All you can do is try to understand as much as you can and then voice your opinion.

I agree, but at the same time I’m not going to go pick up my anti-war sign, because we’re already there – it’s pointless. I don’t want war, but I’m going to support the 300,000 men and women who are over there just doing their job.
I still think war has never been the solution. It’s only triggered other conflicts. There’s a whole lot of people in one part of the world that hate us for a reason.

But of course we want Iraqi’s to have satellite television and SUV’s just like us – we are liberating them after all.
Yeah exactly! Sorry I went off on a little tangent there.

Forgiven. Some of the song titles on Into the Valley of Death, are a little shorter than the titles on your first record. You guys are notorious for rather lengthy titles so was it agreed upon to make an effort to make these shorter?
They are so long. We abbreviate them. We have our own names for them. The two longest titles on this record are “You’re a Bullshit Salesmen with a Mouthful of Samples,” and “I Wouldn’t Piss in Your Ear if your Mouth was on Fire.” Paul’s dad thought of those. He is a fountain of amazing sayings. We heard him say those things in conversations – Tom Miner is a genius.

What would you think about a Death By Stereo, MTV TRL takeover?
I’m ready! I don’t know if it would go too smoothly but I’d be there. I’d be ready to do some damage! “Okay what you do is say this into the screen and then scream!”

What about the show you did do on MTV?
Flipped! It was totally a fluke. They called Epitaph and we were just the fill-in-the blank band. We learned a lot about people in the music television industry and how little they know about music because people that work on the show don’t know anything about the bands. They were doing a show about Racism with Coolio, and he likes punk music now so they decided to call a big punk label and we got there and they thought we were some huge punk band! They thought we were as big as Bad Religion because they were telling us “Thank you for donating your time today.” It was a show against Racism, which was rad, but we went there and had to learn this Coolio song and I had to sing and he rapped. Coolio was rad and we were totally wasted the whole time. The whole time I was there I had no idea what was going on. They bought us some really nice meals and we got Coolio to leave a message on Jim’s phone. He was totally nice. He has a classic from the ghetto to fame story.

He was famous like in 1996.
He does a lot of reality TV and he toured last year all over Europe.

Did you ask him to sing “Gangster’s Paradise?”
Oh that would have been totally cool if he did. But, no.

That’s why we are at war, because we don’t listen to Coolio anymore.
That’s totally why. He’s making a new record. He gave us his phone number and told us to call him when we play in LA. It was a fun couple of days, I’ll tell you that. It was definitely silly.

I saw on your website that it played twice, I missed it both times.
Yeah I have a tape of it. There is this part where they had this stage at Amoeba Records in Hollywood and I’m sitting there looking all wasted. Everyone was laughing at me. We just drank beers with Coolio and shot hoops with him. It was kinda neat.

Everyone has stories like that where they meet someone famous.
You could meet someone at a truck stop! It’s cool and it’s even better when they turn out to be everything you thought they would be.

Yeah but sometimes you get to do these really cool things, like now for example. Now, I’m kicking it with you doing this article, but later I have to go back to work at a record store, and tomorrow I have to go sit through a Speech class.
Yeah when reality sets in! We have a couple high up days, then back to real life. When we were doing the Flipped show we had a total front going. We’d be at this fancy restaurant and Tim’s phone would ring and he was like whispering “fuck I have to work tonight what do I tell them?” and the producers looked at him like “you have a job?” He was like “oh, no it was an appointment I have to be at.” We agreed that from then on we wouldn’t say we were late for our “jobs,” but we were late for our “appointments.” They had no idea; they thought we were just this huge band.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever played? Have you played strip clubs?
We’ve played some weird places but we’ve never played strip clubs. We played a tattoo shop once so that was kinda weird but they had moonshine in the back.

Yeah they don’t serve alcohol in strip clubs. They don’t mix alcohol and naked women. So what about DBS tour plans?
We have a couple shows coming up but starting in May for nine weeks we are doing out first headline tour ever. It will be our first time on our own.

Who do you have playing with you?
On the west coast we have a band called Western Waste, in Canada we are playing with a band from Japan called Nicotine and we’re also playing with Down Way. On the east coast we are playing with Non-more Black. So that’s some of ’em. We’re trying to make it so bands from everywhere can play. We wanted to make this a different kind of tour.

Speaking of east coast/west coast, do you think that the environment in which you grow up has influenced your music?
Totally and completely. Especially now, where we live there is so much fuel for my fire.

Yeah, if you live in Fullerton you are full of angst! I live, work, and go to school in this place!
I went to Fullerton College for a while.

Yeah the policies suck. I’d rather fight their system and die than just take it.
Hell yeah! There’s a Transplants song where he says, “you choose to live on your knees, but I’d rather die on my feet!” Fuck yeah!

Yeah some song one-liners are just so awesome. What kind of bands or solo artists kind of influenced you and what you play?
I’m a big fan of Seplatura. Bands like that, that have every odd against them but they say what they believe and never compromise. Anyone who says they aren’t gonna change or compromise themselves – I am all into them. I’m inspired by the anonymous people that do guerilla warfare in LA and sketching on walls in LA. That is inspiring to me.

Are we going to find you spray painting buildings in Fullerton now?
Yeah totally! I have my little Death By Stereo stencil. I spray paint little skulls. Many Denny’s parking lots have the little skull branded on them somewhere.

Speaking of the DBS logo, what do you think about kids that have that tattooed on their bodies?
There is a kid in Idaho who has it branded on the back of his calf! BRANDED! I don’t know what to say!

Do they get into shows free for life if they have one?
We used to say that until we realized that there was a hell of a lot of people showing up with tattoos. I remember Rocket From the Crypt said that once and everyone was getting these little speck tattoos on their bodies.

There should be some sort of rules to it. It should be at least six inches tall and in the middle of your back or on your face or something.
Yeah, I just hope I never let any of those people down. I have one personally on my leg. We had the band for two weeks and it’s when Jim had just started tattooing, and he had to tattoo someone. I didn’t know what to get, and he didn’t know what to tattoo. We had just drawn that and I was like, tattoo it on my leg! Everyone was like, “you are so dumb!” My whole band was like dude; we’ve been in the garage for like only two weeks. Well, I did it and we’re still here, and it was Jim’s very first tattoo.

Does Jim do a lot of them?
Yeah he does a lot now actually. Someone will come up to me and show me their skull tattoo and it’s all-nice, and then they’d be like “dude let me see yours!” I’ll show them, and it’s all-small on my leg.

It’s all about pain. I get hurt just going to shows!
Kids assume the risks, standing on weird things and jumping off stages! You’re gonna get hurt and it’ll be your own fault!

Especially 300 pound guys that jump around forgetting there are smaller people there!
I’ve gotten clobbered I can’t even tell you how many times! We were on tour once and I got hit in the nose and it was all black on my nose. I was walking around like “hey guys!”

Yeah at least it wasn’t from doing something stupid like just tripping and falling down. It’s not like, “yeah, my sister hit me,” or something lame like that.
Yeah you get those big old domestic violence sunglasses goin’ on with a huge ol’ black eye!

Well, I think that about covers it, unless you have anything else to say?
Uh, please buy our new record, and listen to it. Uh, and yeah, come see us play live!