Interview With Phil Demmel On Recent BPMD Album

BPMD: Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth. Mike Portnoy, Phil Demmel, Mark Menghi.

Recent “American Made” by BPMD sounds like a blast of emotions cultivated by four different musicians, four different individuals. Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, Phil Dammel, Mike Portnoy and Mark Menghi not just founded probably the most exciting cover-band of the last few decades. But also, made an ideal musical reference through the era of the 70’s.

In the interview for Metal Addicts we spoke with Phil Demmel about his times in Machine Head and upcoming Vio-Lence record, about BPMD and musical freedom. About songwriting and ideas.

BPMD was founded as a cover-project. But the choice of your songs is very specific. It’s all well-known American classics, obviously. But what was your idea behind this record ?

Its actually Mark Menghi had the idea! With his son, they were listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Near the bonfire, drinking beer…Not a son, of course…His son had suggested: “Hey, you should cover this song, dad!”. Probably not for Metal Allegiance he has founded but get some other guys and do some covers. He got Bobby Blitz who was down and they had up [Mike] Portnoy and they had up me! We all picked two songs each. And voted for two other songs. We wanted to be 70’s-related. And then we were down to: “Hey! Let’s have American releases in the 70’s – to challenge ourselves more!”. And here we go! There was a lot of fun!

But isn’t it hard actually to work on something well-known ? I mean, while working on your version of a well-known song you definitely should take into account notes and melodies and chords. And a certain structure that’s already there.

Yeah! We don’t want to straight too much away from the structures and keep melodies and keep the core together. But we also wanted to give them our own takes on it. Kind of mellow them up and change a little bit. Some down-picking here, some triplets and galping here. And some vocal things…Bobby has a very distinct voice. Doing iconic Ted Nugent\Aerosmith songs you have to stick to what they’re doing. And Van Halen too! You can’t fake your way through Van Halen song. We wanted to pay tribute as much as put our own spin on a songs.  

You grew up in the 70’s while all these artists like Aerosmith and Kiss just exploded. What memories you have about that time in your life and the effects these artists provided on your artistic personality ?

I was born in 67’. So in mid-70’s I was getting into my own music. My first record was Elton John’s “Greatest Hits”. I still love Elton John. But my cousin lived next door. He was older by four-five years. And he was really into music. He had all these bands I was getting into. He had Kiss “Alive” – and I love all the theatrics of that. But I love the rawness of AC\DC. I loved Journey at that time. We always got back to his house cause he had the vinyl! “Hey! Do you have any Rush\ Foreigner   ?” – “Yeah! Check this out!” – all that exciting music. All these cool bands. So my cousin Ron was definitely an avenue for myself getting into music.

Was there a point in your career – early on, when you realized that you don’t have an interest of just playing and copying something ?

I started writing music when I was 15. And writing lyrics, writing songs. It was pretty early! I was learning covers, I was learning Judas Priest, Iron Maiden. That turned me into my and my bodies’ bringing those songs. We had a place for jam. Our parents were very supportive. Having a place for jam turned into writing original music. So…15 years old, writing lyrics… “I don’t know what I’m writing about…”(laughs). Most of my songs in the early days were…I love “Hallowed By The Name” by Iron Maiden so much so everything was about “the gallows pole” – I thought that was the coolest thing! So I started writing these tunes. And In 1985…I grew up in Bay Area and saw Metallica – early on, Exodus-early on, Megadeth – early on. But when I went to go and see Slayer in 1984 – right after “Show No Mercy” came out – it made me want to play heavy-music. Play trash[metal]. I started Vio-Lence the year after that. Slayer was the band. Seeing them playing so fast and so aggressive…I was brought up from not a straight Christian home. But a pretty Christian family. And playing “I’m the antichrist…”(laughs )…It took a lot for me to broke through all that satanism to really enjoy the band. So that tells you a lot about how powerful they were.

When you started playing as a member of Vio-Lence, you used to combine various influences. To a certain degree, “Eternal Nightmare” sounds like a hardcore record. You combined everything was happening in East Bay at that point. When you started, was it hard for you to find your sound ?  

I don’t think so! Zetro from Exodus sang for my first band when I was 15 years old. We just brought him into singing. We told: “You’re gonna sing for us!” – he went from our band to Legacy – he wrote a bulk of the songs for “The Legacy” – Testament-record. Chuck replaced him. And I grew up with Zet. He took me to Dead Kennedys shows and kind of introduced me to that scene. So yeah, there’s a hardcore influence. And I think, Sean’s voice does that too. But being introduced to all of that – I worked as roadie for Legacy when they opened for Slayer and watching Testament grow seeing all these bands and your pears grow in this successful scene…You see what they do and see where it takes them. So it was really helpful growing up in that time. There would never be a time like that for music and the scene. We were SO LUCKY to be a part of that and have it, as a part of our DNA. So many years later, it’s still so important…

After joining Machine Head, you started moving the band towards more extreme direction. With more technical riffs and guitar-parts. What were your goals with “Through The Ashes Of Empires” ?

I helped writing “In the Presence of My Enemies”, I wrote the beginning of “Seasons Wither” – that’s got things got little faster riffing. I think I influenced the band in that sense. Brough some musicianship in some parts. I don’t want to take anything – I always love him [Robb Fynn]! I took what he did. Maybe not as technical but in different way. His writing is so cool and so different. I think he’s so important to those early days of Machine Head. Because he had that different thing. So that’s I think what I did as well. Bringing different writing style and pulling the band in a different direction that’s what I did. And he saw that mostly on the next record.

Quite a lot of your songs have a very specific structure. There are always some pauses, and bits and pieces of solo-parts. Do you think it’s important for song to have a certain point of break ? Just like when in literature, some of the writers add a certain events that change the plot.

Absolutely. Songs are stories in a sense. They need to flow. And it depends on what the song is. Every song demands or requires or something different. Me and Sean were talking about Vio-Lence stuff and he asked: “Would there be two solos in this one ?” – I said: “There’s a solo here. I don’t know if it needs another solo!” – you give the song what it needs and that’s when they flow the best. You don’t want to lose direction. Even with writing – writing story down. A pointless part of the story. But you also want your story to flow and have meaning. So I do structure similarly a lot of my stuff. That’s why I enjoy writing with people open for changing and working together. Because, Perry [Strickland] and Sean they have all these great little ideas they take down: “Oh yeah! That’s cool idea! I wouldn’t come up with on my own!” – so structuring songs together it’s really cool.     

During your work on “Unto The Locust” you had a certain idea -plot, in the core of what you were writing about – how much this primarily idea influenced the process of writing itself ?

Well, “The Locust” record was probably the one I had the most hand in writing. I wrote a lot of lyrics on that record, I was going through pretty nasty-child-chastity-battle. Having a lot of personal things happening to me a came with the concept of “The Locust”. With so much I had going on I just got writing sessions…A lot of my ideas were taken and used or just moved to different direction. I think that record was the most involved in my time in that band.

And while writing, do you try to develop what you have or there’s also improvisational component ?

Oh, I think it’s starts with an original idea. Or sometimes not so original ( laughs ). But it starts with BASIC idea. And you’re kind of grow off of that. Like I said previously – when you’re writing with anybody else, maybe they’d take it to a different direction. Like, I started a song “I am Hell” – I had this idea about pyromaniac and how he’d be keeping a dairy – with his thoughts and needs. And has he goes deeper committing more crimes reading his dairy. That concept was taken and the character turned to be a female. Because, all the female pyromaniacs mostly do it out of passion – for love. It was taken into that direction. You start with the basic idea and then it goes to a different direction.  

Even though, all of you are metal-musicians at BPMD, we can still say that your style is quite different. Starting with Mike Portnoy – well-known as prog-rock drummer. What, according to your opinion, you, personally brought to these songs being a fan – obviously and musician with certain style ?

I think being a guitar-player I’m dictating a lot of main tones. I had to play aggressive. It was only me tracking so I had to be cohesive in what my ideas were. I double-tracked everything! Some stuff I play the same. And some stuff was played different. Because, Aerosmith song [Metal Addicts note. – “Toys At The Attic”] – there’re two players on it. Ted Nugent song[Metal Addicts note.-“Wang Dang Sweet Poontang”] where within the solo…You’re barely naked! Just you and the drummer. And you have to capture that crazy f****g Ted Nugent ( laughs ). While playing Van Halen[Metal Addicts note. – “D.O.A.” ] – actually Van Halen was the only track I did double track. I wanted to do a single path. Just capturing Eddie’s spirit. Dave McClain has been covering some stuff we’re doing now. Just imagine a couple of sweet malt liquors while that Van Halen buzz is going. So you have to capture the vibe of everybody. Especially when we were tracking. We all were in the control room. And Mike [Portnoy] was in his room. But I was up on the glass. Making eye contact with Mike. Rocking out with him standing up. And trying to capture as much vibe as we could for these tracks.

How long it took for you to put together “American Made” ?

We went to Mikes house. We did it in a day. We tracked his drum-tracks in day. We all went home. I came home and tracked rhythms in a day. And then came back and got songs in a day. And I think we were doing two songs in a day. I think Bobby was doing one song a day. It probably took a couple weeks of recording time. But me and Mike – we’ve done it in three days.

After your last year reunion with Vio-Lence signing to Metal Blade Records there were some rumors about upcoming Vio-Lence record – what can you say about that and when, according to your opinion, we’d hear the new record from you ?

We’re starting pre-production. We’re demoing some songs. There’s gonna be five songs. Two are done. Third is almost finished. It’s fast. It’s grown up “Eternal Nightmare”. Maybe a little more mature. It got some aspects of “Oppressing the Masses” but I prefer the rawness of “Eternal Nightmare”. We’d probably start recording in a couple of months. Probably. Everybody’s releasing next year. Everybody’s gonna tour next year. So it’s hard to say. But we maybe would tease a song by the end of the year. Very excited about it! Very! Very-very exciting! 

You’ve been asked about Vio-Lence a lot after the announcement of your reunion. And even though during the pandemic all the shows were reschedules how do you feel about getting back to this kind of activity with these people ?

Man, I can’t wait to do it! We’ve lost up so much this year! We had so many cool things planned. So there’s a concern I don’t wanna get into – what’s real\what’s not. But as soon as we’ll be able to – we’re gonna get back and play!