“Basic, killer, dirty old school death metal”: A conversation with Donald Tardy of Obituary

Photo of Donald Tardy by Tim Hubbard

Obituary w/ Immolation, Blood Incantation & Ingrown | 05.26.23, 7:00 PM | Red Flag, 3040 Locust Street | All ages | $25

This Friday, Florida death metal icons Obituary will bring their headlining summer 2023 tour to Red Flag. This will be their first show in St. Louis since fall 2021, when they opened for Black Label Society (also at Red Flag).

Obituary is currently touring in support of their latest album, Dying of Everything, released in January. Joining them on the current tour are Immolation, another long-lived band also touring in support of a new album (2022’s Acts of God); Blood Incantation, a progressive and highly technical cosmic death metal band from Denver, CO; and Ingrown, a punchy metalcore trio from Boise, ID.

Formed in Brandon, FL in 1988, Obituary was one of the first bands that gained national prominence during the Florida death metal renaissance of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the same scene that give rise to bands like Death, Deicide, and Morbid Angel. Obituary has always consisted of the core trio of drummer Donald Tardy; his brother, vocalist John Tardy; and guitarist Trevor Peres, with guitarist Kenny Andrews and bassist Terry Butler rounding out their modern lineup.

Obituary is known as one of death metal’s most reliable workhorses. Beyond a hiatus in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, they have consistently toured and released albums throughout their thirty-plus years as a band, with Dying of Everything being the band’s first release in roughly six years. The mid-tempo, groove-oriented style of death metal that they pioneered has proven enormously influential, with many of the “old-school revival” bands that have become popular in recent years citing Obituary as a direct influence.

We spoke with Donald Tardy in March, as he was preparing for the upcoming tour at his recording studio in Gibsonton, Florida.

Donald Tardy. Photo by Tim Hubbard.

The Arts STL: You recently wrapped up a European tour with Heaven Shall Burn and Trivium—what was that like for you?

Donald Tardy: The Heaven Shall Burn/Trivium tour was a calculated choice, because we have been waiting for years to finally release the new album. Same with Europe, we hadn’t been to Europe in almost five years. With the new album, we could have put a purely death metal package together with Obituary headlining. But we knew with that tour, once we got the offer, that it was going to put us in front of new people, new eyeballs. People that have never heard Obituary live before; they probably have seen the logo before, but they were not familiar us.

So it was a very smart choice, because again, it put us in front of new people. That’s always a challenge, and Obituary loves challenges. With the new album, it was a smart decision to get in front of new people to really push that new album and let them know that we are Obituary, and you might never have heard us before, but we can guarantee you that within three or four songs you’re going to start digging it, and that’s exactly the reaction we got.

That’s interesting to me that you would be the lesser-known band on a tour like that, given how popular Obituary has always been in the U.S. I know Heaven Shall Burn is a German band, do they have a very large following in Europe?

Oh my God, yes! So [Heaven Shall Burn] considered it a co-headlining tour with Trivium and themselves. Heaven Shall Burn is gigantic in Germany and those surrounding countries. I was not familiar with their music [before the tour], I had seen their logo for a long time, we would run into them at festivals. They couldn’t be any nicer. But yes, they’re gigantic in Europe, I’m talking crowds the size we played in front of with the Slayer tour last time we were in Europe [in 2018].

You’re talking between three and six thousand people showing up for those guys, unbelievable! And again, it was a calculated decision. When our booking agent said, “Look man, these guys are huge in Europe,” Germany and those surrounding countries. And Trivium is doing very well in all those other parts of Europe. Between the two of them, we were probably averaging three and four thousand people a night, and that was fantastic for Obituary with the new album out [Dying of Everything], and really putting the word out.

What do you feel like the reception to the new album has been, especially when you’ve been playing the new material live?

It was awesome—we kind of knew going on that tour, it was no different than when we opened for those two United States tours for Black Label Society [in 2021]. Zakk Wylde’s got his diehard fans, and they’re awesome, and they’re heavy metal people. And that’s the same with Heaven Shall Burn and Trivium fans, they are absolute metalheads. But they’re not familiar with Obituary. They don’t know Florida death metal, and if they did, what they probably heard was crap. So we just knew—give us a chance, put us on stage in front of people. And it was awesome: the crowd reaction was fantastic, exactly what we thought. First song, their arms are crossed; by the third song, they’re kind of head bobbing a little bit; by the end of the show, they’re standing up and they’re cheering. So it was a win-win for us.

The cover artwork to Dying of Everything by Mariusz Lewandowski (RIP 1960-2022)

So you’re at your studio right now, is that right? You had mentioned that your brother John lived nearby.

I am, I only live about fifteen minutes away from the studio. This is his house [next to the studio]—when we bought it, it was a brand-new piece of property with a separate two-car garage that we turned into a studio, and that was 26 years ago. We’ve done the last five Obituary albums here. It’s our compound, it’s an acre of land with a house and a separate studio, and we run business from here.

In Gibsonton, is that right?

Yeah, Gibsonton—we call it Carnyville. This is where all the carnival people live in Florida, when they come back from doing their little runs in the United States, all the carnies live here in Gibsonton. Perfect atmosphere for Florida death metal!

The Obituary lineup has remained very consistent over the years—you, John, and Trevor [Peres] have all been together since the very beginning. I guess you must be pretty close, both literally and figuratively?

We’re a tight knit family. Terry Butler has been our bassist for going on 16 years now. Ken [Andrews] is the newest member of the band, and he’s going on 11 years. We’ve been a band for quite some time with this lineup, and this is the final lineup. Kenny was the final piece to the puzzle, and he’s been on the last three releases, he’s written songs on the last two albums with us. It’s a very, very awesome feeling—both those dudes could not be better band members and cooler human beings, so we’re right back on track for the last decade of just being a really tight family.

Terry also has a long history in the Florida death metal scene—didn’t he originally play in Death?

Yeah, maybe not the original lineup, but Terry’s history with Chuck [Schuldiner], Massacre, Rick Rozz [guitarist for Death and Massacre], the early stages of Florida death metal, Terry was a part of all of that. He did not record on Scream Bloody Gore [Death’s debut album], but I think he was on the first two albums after Chuck became a Floridian and started his own thing here.

I realize this is almost two decades ago now, but I know Obituary broke up at one point in the late ‘90s. I believe you were playing drums for Andrew W.K.’s band around that time, can you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah, so Obituary took a break—we had no idea what we were doing, it ended up being one month, then one year, and next thing you know it’s three years, and I’m still practicing my drums. My brother and Trevor are having children and raising families, and Andrew [W.K.] wrote me a letter, and he just said, “I love your drumming, Obituary’s one of my favorite death metal bands, and I would love for you to be a part of this record with me.” He was signed to Geffen Records, it was a major record label deal. I liked the music because it was one-hundred percent different from what Obituary was. I wasn’t about to go start another death metal band, for God’s sake, I already have my death metal band, and Andrew’s stuff was really polar opposite, and it grabbed me.

He couldn’t be a nicer human being—he’s an amazing artist, he’s a drummer, he’s a killer piano player, he plays every goddamn instrument on the planet. I watched that project go from zero to a gold album within just a matter of months. Next thing I know, I’m playing Ozzfest, I’m opening for Aerosmith in America, I’m playing Saturday Night Live! It was quite an awesome experience. I was with Andrew for almost five years, and we toured our asses off. I saw many parts of the planet with Andrew and put that band together for him.

I’ve heard that Andrew had a role in encouraging Obituary to reform.

We were touring with Ozzfest. We were playing in Florida, and Andrew said, “Man, even though we only have 30 minutes on stage, how cool would it be if you and Trevor and your brother get on stage and played a couple of songs?” And I asked my brother and Trevor, and it had been years [since we played together], but they were like “Fuck yeah, let’s do it!” That was definitely the spark that lit the flame, so we can definitely thank Mr. Andrew W.K. for pushing us back together. And that was it, once that happened. I think I did a little more touring with Andrew, and the minute Obituary bit and we knew we were going to start writing songs and get back together, I said “thanks and see you later” to Andrew’s band, and the rest is history.

It’s a great comeback story! It seems like you’ve been busy ever since, am I right that you have toured more or less every year since you reformed?

We have been the world’s busiest band, I think! We try to stay busy, if you’re going to call this a career and use it to pay your bills, there is no half-assing. Anyone that knows my brother and myself, when we commit to something we go balls-out, and we put one-hundred percent effort into it. It doesn’t matter if it’s one performance, one t-shirt design, putting together an entire tour, the live streams that we did, everything that we do we really go for it. That’s basically how it was the minute we were back together—the promoters around the world were dying for a little Obituary in their countries, and we haven’t stopped since. Then the pandemic hit, and everyone had to go home, and that really sucked—but we all know how that went.

I know that you had originally broken up due to burnout. Do you feel like taking that break refreshed you, so that it’s less of an issue now?

Sure, and we’ve been asked that question for 15, 18 years now. Hindsight is 20/20—had we not had a break and just kept grinding, we probably would have still been doing what we do. But to get away for a little while, to get away from the world of music, to let the fans not see Obituary for a few years, and to recharge and live life away from the music scene—not myself, because I stuck with the music business while the rest of my band did their thing. But it definitely gave us a recharge, and a second look at how lucky we are to be Obituary, and to be able to do this for a living. We don’t take that for granted—I know that I’m a lucky human being to be able to say I get to play my drums and make a living doing it.

Obituary. Photo by Tim Hubbard.

Let’s talk about your upcoming U.S. tour. You’ll be touring with Immolation, Blood Incantation, and Ingrown. I know Immolation are contemporaries of yours, having formed in the late ‘80s—have you toured with them before?

This will be our first tour together—we’ve done shows with them before, and we’ve joined up at festivals together. Good friends of ours, long-time friends of ours, and finally we get to tour together. As most people know, they are some of the nicest people in the industry, very kind human beings. That goes a long way when it comes to a tour. We’ve done three decades of touring, and a tour will still happen, no matter what band you’re with, either the nicest guys or the biggest dicks in the world. But the memories fade real quick when it’s an unpleasant experience. And someone like Ross [Dolan] and the boys in Immolation, it’s going to be fuckin’ awesome. I know they’re huge fans of the Tardy brothers, and again, they’re just super nice people, and I’m looking forward to that.

Not to mention, man, what a package, finally for death metal fans to get excited about. The last three or four times people have seen Obituary, it was us opening for Black Label Society, or most recently with Amon Amarth [in fall 2022]. And what a great tour! But I know when fans say, “a 35-40 minute set just isn’t fair”, and I agree, but when you get Obituary and Carcass [on the Amon Amarth tour], if you didn’t see that as something special, you’re definitely blind! Because that was awesome. I was a fan of that tour. But yeah, I’m super stoked for this headlining tour!

Do you have any thoughts on Blood Incantation or Ingrown? They’re newer bands, obviously.

I can’t really comment on them yet—without sounding like a schmo, they’re fairly new to me as well. Part of the industry, when you put together packages for a tour – yes, you go with your gut and your heart when selecting bands, but you also listen to your booking agent when they say, “Trust me, this is going to be a great band for the bill.” And the minute we announced it, we saw how excited fans got for Blood Incantation.

I’m an old dude, I still listen to my Led Zeppelin, my Ronnie James Dio, my Black Sabbath, my fucking Queen, Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and my brother’s the same way. So I’m the last dude to think that we’re smart enough to put a death metal package together, and that’s why we lean on our booking agents. That’s what their job is, and we trust them. Obituary’s going to bring that fucking old school, mid-tempo groove, so to have bands with a more modern take on it, like Blood Incantation, firing up the crowd, that’s going to be awesome. Same with Ingrown, that’s what my booking agent told me, “I like these guys, they’re new, they’ve got their own feel, and they throw down.” That makes it a diverse death metal package.

Do you have any thoughts about playing in St. Louis specifically? I know that you’ve played venues like Pop’s several times before. You also played Red Flag previously, which is the venue you’ll be playing at for the upcoming St. Louis show.

You can imagine after 33 years on the road, I don’t really remember specific venues and cities and performances, so I’d be lying if I said, “Yeah man it was awesome, I remember the guy with the shirt who screamed our name!” You know, it all kind of flows together. But I know that United States fans, just like in the early ‘90s, they are fucking hungry for heavy metal right now. They love Obituary, they support us, and we are going to bring them a killer show. It’s finally a headlining tour, where we get to go on stage for a little bit longer than we normally do, and really put forth an effort into playing some of those old classic songs, and really push these new songs, because we are super excited about the new album.

Now when was your last headlining tour?

Oh God, I don’t know. Decibel Magazine Tour [in Jan-Feb 2022], they considered that a co-headlining tour with us and Municipal Waste. But Obituary played last every night, so I considered that a headlining tour. So that was probably the official last one, but before that, goddamn, I couldn’t tell you. Besides us doing our Redneck Runs up the East Coast, which are so much fun.

I saw you back in November on your tour with Amon Amarth, and it seemed like your setlist was a good mix of songs throughout your discography, although the new album hadn’t dropped yet. Have you been thinking about what the setlist will look like for the upcoming tour?

Oh God, six weeks away, we haven’t even decided on a setlist yet! But everybody wishes and hopes [we play certain songs], the saying is “wish in one hand, shit in the other, see which one fills up first.” But we have an obligation, and I hate saying it that way, but there are certain songs that have to be on the setlist, or you’re going to have rocks thrown at you. If we don’t play some stuff off Cause of Death, if we don’t play Slowly We Rot, if we don’t play something off of The End Complete, those are musts, and those are definitely going to be on the setlist. Because the fans deserve that, those are three amazing albums. But we’re so excited about this new album, I’m going to push these new songs down their throats, because we’re excited about them and these songs have gotten really, really great responses from the European crowd. They really showed that they love the new album, so you’re going to get a good dose of it.

Do you usually stick with the same setlist throughout a tour, or do you change it night to night?

Nah, changing the setlist every night, that’s really fiction. Believe it or not, we were the only band on the Slayer tour that did that, because it was such a long tour and we only played for 30 minutes. Instead of boring ourselves after 25 shows, we actually changed the set three times throughout that tour. It’s fun, but it’s extremely reckless. Fans wish we would do a different set every night. “Hey, St. Louis we’re playing this set! Minneapolis, we’re playing this set!” That’s all great on paper, but we have a job, and that is to make a setlist of 15-17 songs, practice them until we’re fucking great at them, and then that show, that night, when the doors close and the lights come on, you’ve got to crush that set.

To think you’re going to pull a song out you haven’t played in 15 years, you’re just going to make yourself look like an idiot. And in the world of smartphones, and everybody fucking filming, the last thing I want is to see footage of us 10 years from now, when we tried to get cute and play something different in St. Louis, and we fucked it up. And it’s not fair to us, it’s not fair to the band. A lot of fans complain when we play the same songs—well, it’s Obituary, we’re fifty-fucking-five-year-old guys, give me a goddamn break!

That makes sense—I was looking at some of your recent setlists and was surprised when I saw that, I think those shows were from the Slayer tour.

That Slayer tour was the first time in our career that we ever did that [changed the setlist]—Ken was new in the band, he was extremely eager. “Well, why do we always have to play this one, why don’t we try this?” And we did, and we did it well, but when we started that new set, I realized what a challenge that was. Especially in front of a Slayer crowd, if you end up messing up and stopping in the middle of a song, you’re just going to look like an idiot. And those Slayer fans, it’s a lot like those other tours that we just did. They knew Obituary, but they don’t know Obituary’s entire catalog. We wanted to pick the meat and potatoes, we wanted to pick the songs we were absolutely crushing, and give it to them, whether it was Dublin, Ireland or fucking London, England. And it’s the same thing with this American tour, we’re going to put together a setlist of 17 songs, and we’re going to try to cover all the bases.

In recent years, there’s been a trend towards modern bands that are reviving the “old-school” death metal sound becoming very popular—I’m thinking of bands like Frozen Soul, Undeath, and 200 Stab Wounds, who I know you’ve also toured with. A lot of them cite Obituary as a major influence. What are your thoughts on that?

To me, it’s a natural progression. I’m super proud of that, I’m fucking overjoyed and honored to know that there’s young dudes out there throwing down some fucking Entombed, Obituary-sounding shit! I think it’s coming full circle, it has to come back. Same reason why all of the technical shit started happening with Lamb of God, and Psycroptic, Meshuggah, fucking Gojira. Everything started getting so technical, drummers doing shit with their feet that I don’t even know how to do with my hands. It’s unbelievable! It was awesome, and I loved it.

But eventually, someone’s got to go, “You know what? You remember how killer it was when Obituary, and Deicide, motherfucking Death, all of these bands were keeping it old school?” It’s an absolute honor to know that dudes are paying attention to the history of death metal. Not honoring it, but following it, and what great footsteps, in my opinion. Because how much more technical, how much faster, how much crazier can heavy metal get? Someone’s got to slow it down, dumb it down a little bit, go back to the basics. I’m proud of that, I’m super excited for the 200 Stab Wounds-type bands.

I definitely second that—I felt that trend towards old-school death metal becoming popular again was kind of a backlash against how extremely technical death metal has gotten in recent years.

And there’s so many bands that are still doing killer shit, fucking million miles an hour, just running circles around a drummer like me. But there’s room for both! And thank God there’s some basic, killer, dirty old school death metal going around right now from dudes that are in their twenties, it’s great. | David Von Nordheim

Obituary 2023 Headlining Tour (w/ Immolation, Blood Incantation, & Ingrown)

04.28.23 | The Underground, Charlotte, NC

04.29.23 | Hooligan’s Music Hall, Jacksonville, NC

05.01.23 | Baltimore Sound Stage, Baltimore, MD

05.02.23 | Brooklyn Bowl, Philadelphia, PA

05.04.23 | Irving Plaza, New York, NY

05.05.23 | The Middle East, Boston, MA

05.06.23 | La Tulipe, Montreal, QC

05.07.23 | Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, ON

05.09.23 | The Metro, Chicago, IL

05.10.23 | Fine Line, Minneapolis, MN

05.11.23 | The Waiting Room, Omaha, NE

05.12.23 | Gothic Theatre, Englewood, CO

05.13.23 | The Complex, Salt Lake City, UT

05.15.23 | El Corazon, Seattle, WA

05.16.23 | Hawthorne Theatre, Portland, OR

05.18.23 | UC Theatre, Berkeley, CA

05.19.23 | The Fonda Theatre, Los Angeles, CA

05.20.23 | Nile Theater, Mesa, AZ

05.22.23 | Mohawk, Austin, TX

05.23.23 | Granada Theater, Dallas, TX

05.24.23 | White Oak Music Hall, Houston, TX

05.26.23 | Red Flag, St. Louis, MO

05.27.23 | Milwaukee Metal Fest, Milwaukee, WI

05.28.23 | The Mercury Ballroom, Louisville, KY

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *