Death, Metal: A Q&A With Autopsy’s Chris Reifert
In the world of gore-festooned death metal, few pollute the same rarefied air as Chris Reifert.
Here, after all, is a man who drummed on the elemental Death classic SCREAM BLOODY GORE (1987) before breaking off to found Autopsy, an extreme music behemoth which in short order released two instant classics of its own—SEVERED SURVIVAL (1989) and MENTAL FUNERAL (1991).
When Autopsy called it quits after the gross out apotheosis SHITFUN (1995) the drummer/vocalist formed yet another boundary-obliterating band. Abscess quickly set about the business of proving age and experience could not tame Reifert’s penchant for florid deviancy via a string of vicious splatter platters boasting crusty death cacophonies and twisted titles like SEMINAL VAMPIRES AND MAGGOT MEN (1996), THROBBING BLACK WEREBEAST (1997), DAMNED AND MUMMIFIED (2004), and HORRORHAMMER (2007).
After Abscess disbanded in 2010, Autopsy reformed and, defying the curse befalling untold numbers of reunited bands, released a trio of uncompromising, unrelenting albums—MACABRE ETERNAL (2011), THE HEADLESS RITUAL (2013), and TOURNIQUETS, HACKSAWS, & GRAVES (2014)—that manage to both pay homage to and build upon the band’s unfuckwithable early work.
Reifert was kind enough to recently submit himself to the following extensive deposition on his past, present, and future in the sonic goreatorium…
FANGORIA: TOURNIQUETS, HACKSAWS & GRAVES is probably the bluntest, least poetic Autopsy album title since SHITFUN. Is that a reflection of the vibe in the band during the writing/recording process?
REIFERT: It was already a song title and it was Danny [Coralles, guitar] who suggested it as the calling card for the album. His logic—and I must agree!—was “sounds like a party, eh?.” Uh, yeah, a horrific party…where the favors are your very own limbs [laughs]. What else could any self respecting human freak of nature ask for besides tourniquets, hacksaws and graves? It just doesn’t get any better than that.
FANG: The imagery you explore in Autopsy is obviously quite visceral —and relentlessly so! Do you recall when you got bit by the morbidity bug and how that interest, uh…festered?
REIFERT: I’ve been attracted to the dark side of entertainment ever since I can remember. When I was a little kid—before VHS, DVD, or even pay cable channels—my parents would show the old Universal monster movies around Halloween on our home projector…That’s right—with the little movie screen rolled down in the living room and a bowl of popcorn in hand! That made a big impact and they really got into the Halloween thing with the house being all decked out and everything. I loved the imagery and they had no problem with me being into monster movies, as long as I wasn’t acting like a psycho—which I wasn’t. I discovered CREEPY and HOUSE OF MYSTERY comics and that was huge as well. A bit later, I got into horror novels and splatter films. For some reason I just always thought scary and gory stuff was cool, and still do.
FANG: Now talk to me a little bit about how that intersected with music.
REIFERT: Getting into metal allowed me to interject my fascination into a musical format. What a great fit, eh? In earlier bands I was in, there was a bit of horror going on lyrically, but when I joined Death, the doors were opened wide and kicked down to boot. [Death guitarist/vocalist] Chuck Schuldiner was way into horror and brutal subject matter in the early days, as was I. We’d watch splatter movies over and over and there was plenty of inspiration for death metal lyrics to be found in that world. That style of writing carried over into Autopsy, only I got to write songs instead of simply playing Chuck’s stuff. Not that there was anything wrong with that, of course. My time in Death really got me going in the right direction and it had a massive impact on me personally and musically.
FANG: Were you drawn to death metal because it offered a ambience and forum for splatter indulgence or did heavy music draw you further into the gore-atorium?
REIFERT: Death metal was the heaviest stuff there was when it came out and that was why I was drawn to it. I got into music in the ‘70s, so of course there was no such thing as any type of brutal metal yet. I liked Kiss, Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith and stuff like that. Shortly after, I found Black Sabbath PARANOID, which I got for twenty-five cents at a flea market and it was definitely the heaviest thing I had heard at the time.
It had a real sense of darkness and menace about it and I loved that. After that, bands like Iron Maiden and Motorhead got my attention and things snowballed from there. I actually got a Motorhead pin with a band photo on it and knew I was a fan before I even heard them because they looked so cool [laughs]. Anyway, every time I heard of something heavier or faster or more aggressive, that’s what I wanted to check out. So it was a natural progression and here I am, still into this noisy mayhem.
FANG: When you started releasing records with Death and then Autopsy, were friends and family surprised by the material you were coming up with?
REIFERT: Death was tough for some friends to get their heads wrapped around since it was so extreme at the time. Same goes with plenty of locals in the scene in the Bay area. It wasn’t taken seriously at first since we weren’t singing about politics or banging our heads in the pit. It was almost perceived as a joke to some, but ultimately we stuck to our guns and showed ‘em in the end. By the time Autopsy got going, it was still a bizarre thing to do—to play that stuff in the bay area, which was thrash dominated. Over time that changed, but for years we were definitely sore thumbs without a doubt. Now if we play a local gig, we can pack the place, which is a welcome change and also feels like validation. Not that we ever cared what people thought [laughs]. As far as family members went, they were happy that I was making music and actually working hard at it…having something constructive to focus on I guess. They were very tolerant to say the least.
FANG: The material on HEADLESS RITUAL, MACABRE ETERNAL, and TOURNIQUETS… almost feels like a throwback to MENTAL FUNERAL—more sinister than the pure outrageous provocations of SHITFUN. Is that just a matter of having taken the latter as far as it could conceivably go, or has there perhaps been a maturation in your approach to gore?
REIFERT: As with any album, you have to come up with lyrics that fit the music and atmosphere. If it’s an all out sleaze fest, we can do that. If a more dark and horrific approach is called for, we can do that too[laughs], We’ve certainly tackled both themes and then some. That’s one thing about death metal that I like—it doesn’t have to be about gore strictly. Much like horror films, there are many roads you can take depending on the ultimate goal. You can take the blood spattered route, the subliminally menacing one, the trashy and depraved one, the psychologically fucked up way, or the just plain weird way. Whether you write songs or screenplays or novels, there’s always plenty of paths you can take that keep you and your audience on their toes. So to answer your question a bit more directly, you never know where this stuff is gonna take you. Anything goes, as long as it feels right for the occasion. I offer absolutely no apologies for anything Autopsy has ever done, regardless!
FANG: Do you think it’s important to push the limits—either for yourself or society at-large?
REIFERT: Well, shock value means almost nothing these days. Everyone has pretty much seen everything at this point. Having said that, one thing you need to watch out for when pushing the limits is ending up as a parody of yourself. Maybe we’ve done that before, maybe not—it depends on who you ask. Anyway, to me it’s more about achieving the right fit for the atmosphere of the album that we’re working on and what sort of mood we’re in, rather than consciously trying to outrage or incite. If that does happen, we’re not bothered of course. And believe me, it has [laughs]!
FANG: Autopsy is also a super technical, tight-as-hell band. Even though the subject matter is what you’ve chosen, does it bother you at all that lyrical content might sometimes overshadow musical accomplishments?
REIFERT: Nah, we do what we do and are comfortable with it. And honestly, compared to some bands we can come across as simplistic, though that view can be misleading. We have plenty of weird tempo and timing changes and our music can be trickier to play than what first meets the ear. The thing is, though, we put a lot of emphasis on the actual songwriting itself rather than showing off and putting thirty riffs in each song. It’s more important for the song to flow and seem like it’s meant to be the way it is instead of sounding forced in order to flaunt our technical prowess. Besides, we like to drink booze and have a good time while making this racket, and it comes across in the music I think. It’s all rock ‘n roll at the end of the day, ya know?
FANG: Do you still take inspiration from horror cinema?
REIFERT: Not so much these days, but once in awhile something will come along that really makes a mark. The last time that happened was when I saw the first HUMAN CENTIPEDE movie. Autopsy has a song called “Sewn into One,” which is based on that film. In the early days, there was much more of that going on. Death had songs about horror films like EVIL DEAD, THE GATES OF HELL, RE-ANIMATOR, and MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY, and Autopsy followed that path as well, especially on our first album. We had songs based on RAWHEAD REX, CREEPSHOW, TRUTH OR DARE: A CRITICAL MADNESS, as well as SURVIVOR TYPE, which was actually a short story by Stephen King.
FANG: Can you let us in on the origin stories behind a few of the TOURNIQUET…tracks?
REIFERT: Absolutely. The opening cut, “Savagery” is based on the novel CASTAWAYS by Brian Keene—a fantastic contemporary horror writer. It’s basically about a reality show like SURVIVOR set on a tropical island, only there are “people” hiding on the island, like Richard Laymon’s cryptids who have their gruesome way with the unsuspecting show contestants. Good stuff and definitely recommended reading.
“King of Flesh Ripped” was written by [guitarist] Eric [Cutler] and it’s inspired by ICHI THE KILLER. I hate to admit it, but I sang the lyrics, and still haven’t seen the movie yet. It’s on my list though.
“Parasitic Eye” is about someone who wakes up one day to find an extra eye growing on his skin, but not on his face [laughs]. He freaks out and stabs it to get rid of it, but that causes new ones to appear. It quickly gets out of hand and there’s no happy ending. “The Howling Dead” is based on the cover art for AWAKENED BY GORE, which is basically an album of our old demos. The artist, Andrei Bouzikov did such a cool piece, I figured there had to be a story in there, so I made one up about the ghoulish creatures in the painting representing Hate, Disease and Despair wreaking havoc on the land of the living. “After the Cutting” is basically an all-out slasher concept. The title popped into my head while recovering from a hernia surgery. I gave it a more violent approach, needless to say.
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And “Teeth of the Shadow Horde” is based on an element in the book DARK CRUSADE by Karl Edward Wagner. Evil shadows are unleashed to basically rip people apart. It’s a Kane story, so there’s plenty of dark magic going on and a badass storyline. I only chose that one part of it with the shadows for lyrical material though.
FANG: Some of the band’s best material has come out of the reunion. In retrospect, do you think Autopsy benefited from those fallow years between 1995 and 2010?
REIFERT: Well, it gave us time to let the whole Autopsy thing ferment and decay further, for one thing. Coming back from the long “break” definitely made us take things very seriously in terms of proving that we weren’t doing this again because we didn’t have any other ideas or were trying to relive our youth or be a part of some reunion trend. We were forced to look at things a different way, but only for a moment. As soon as we were off the ground again, things just flowed naturally.
FANG: As a corollary to that, during those years how unlikely did you believe an Autopsy reunion to be?
REIFERT: We swore up and down the whole time that we’d never do it again. And now here we are, five years after reforming. It’s crazy how things work sometimes and proves that life is full of the unexpected.
FANG: The band has been prolific in these post-reformation years. Were you taken off guard at all by how much Autopsy had left to say, both musically and lyrically?
REIFERT: Nah, we pretty much let Autopsy as an entity do the guiding. If we feel inspired to write, record and play, we’ll do so and wholeheartedly. It’s just that simple. It was kinda crazy how, after being split up for fifteen years or so, we suddenly found ourselves going from zero to one-hundred, but we embraced the potential chaos and it all worked out fine.
FANG: I know that your M.O. is to go into these things without any preconceived notions, but looking at the TOURNIQUETS… in the review mirror is there any particular aspect of it you’re particularly proud of or feel like broke new ground for the band?
REIFERT: I wouldn’t say we broke new ground, really. Our interest mostly lies in keeping up the Autopsy sound and vibe. We do try to keep things interesting of course and there’s usually some extra treats in there in one form or another, but ultimately it’s more Autopsy music. I’d like to think we’re pretty damn reliable and you shouldn’t expect us to throw an “experimental” album at you or anything. There’s nothing wrong with sticking with the vision as long as we don’t end up recycling ourselves, which I don’t think we have.
FANG: I’m curious – because the lyrics are so cinematic if you hadn’t dedicated your life to music, do you think you might have gone into film or perhaps fiction-writing?
REIFERT: There’s no way to tell since this ended up being my lot in life. Writing lyrics is like writing mini stories though, so maybe I can expand on that someday in the future. After all, I ain’t dead yet!
FANG: What’s an average day in the life like at the Reifert household?
REIFERT: I hate to disappoint, but pretty damn normal. I read, listen to music, watch TV, play guitar—there’s no drum kit at home—and go nuts playing Mario Kart [laughs].
FANG: Is there a horizon to this yet or is the band prepared to continue the slaughter indefinitely?
REIFERT: As I’ve grown fond of saying lately—and it’s the truth!—we’re making this up as we go, just as we did in the early days. Sometimes we surprise the hell out of ourselves and as long as we enjoy playing this stuff, Autopsy will continue to spread the blood-soaked, filthy gospel. Just know that whatever we do, we do with full conviction and promise never to execute anything half assed. If we have something in the works, it’s because we mean it and it needs to happen.
FANG: Finally, any touring plans?
REIFERT: One thing about Autopsy, we’re not equipped to be a proper touring band. We have done plenty of crazy one-off and two-off appearances all over the world though, and that’s more of the kind of thing we can do. Just know that if you end up at one of our gigs at any point, standing around being bored will NOT be an option. We will deliver maximum intensity and reckless metal abandon and we will expect the same from you. We want to see bodies fly, blood spray and minds melt!