US-Thrash Metal band VERMIN was a band with a short career between 1982-85. They recorded two demos, which aren’t too wellknown, but they are also on legendary „Metal Massacre Compilation”. Interesting fact, that the singer of theirs in 1984 was John Cyriis (Agent Steel). Maybe some of you allready meet their profile on MySpace, where you can check out their demo’84. Our questions were answered by John Cochran guitarist.
So John, do you still recall, how did you get in touch with metal music and what was so amazing in this music for you?
When I was 12 years old a friend of mine had a few tapes his older brother had given him, one was the first Black Sabbath album. We listened to that tape over and over, we’d never heard anything else like it before. That was in 1973. After that, I really got into Deep Purple after seeing them on TV for the California Jam concert, which was in 1974. When I saw Ritchie Blackmore with that Strat, I knew that was what I wanted to do! After that I got into UFO, Thin Lizzy and the old Scorpions stuff with Uli Roth.
Would you call yourself a metal freak or rather a hard rock one?
I would say that first and foremost I am a hard rock guy; I didn’t discover real metal until I went to see Judas Priest in 1979. Shortly after that I saw Iron Maiden open for UFO, and I was hooked on metal. My favorite bands of all time are Deep Purple and UFO.
At which point did you start playing guitar and how did your choice fall on this instrument? Do you perhaps play other instruments as well?
I wanted to play guitar after seeing Blackmore on TV in 1974. I got my first guitar the next year in 1975, it was a cheap $30 Japanese guitar my mom bought me at a swap meet. I play bass and a bit of keyboards now, as well.
What were your influences to become musician?
My mom played guitar, she was a folk singer in the 1960’s, she played at little coffee houses and small clubs in Los Angeles when I was a kid. She also played bass in a country band, so there were guitars around the house all the time when I was little. My biggest influence was seeing Blackmore on TV.
Were self taught or did you take lessons as well?
My dad bought me a small Fender amp when I was 14. The condition was that I had to learn properly and take some lessons, which he paid for. I took lessons once a week for about 1 year. My teacher taught me to play Led Zeppelin and UFO songs, no real music theory to speak of.
Before you being involved with Vermin, what were the acts that you’ve played with or was Vermin your very first group?
I had a little band in High School, we didn’t have a name, just me and my friends Ralph Oshiro on drums, and Chuck Greene on bass. We played at a lot of parties, things like that. If someone’s parents were going to be out of town and they had the house to themselves, we’d have a jam party. We played lots of UFO, Van Halen, Rush, stuff like that. The year before I formed Vermin, I played with a band called Hanz Krypt, who later turned into a doom rock band more like Black Sabbath or St. Vitus. We never did any gigs when I was playing with them.
Vermin was founded in 1982 by original members you guitar, Dean Coffey, bass, Craig Hall, drums, Greg Cekalovich, guitar, and Vince Sollami, vocals, how did you hook up together and what about the musical background of the other guys? Did you know them earlier or…?
I met Craig Hall and Dean Coffey when I replied to an ad in a local paper called The Recycler. That paper had a large section for musicians seeking bands, etc. Craig had run an ad looking for a guitar player who was into ’NWOBHM’, or New Wave of British Heavy Metal. I knew what that meant, since I was already into Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. I gave him a call and we had a jam. We played Maiden and Priest stuff the first time. We all got along very well and decided to get to work writing some original music. Dean and Craig had been jamming together for a couple of years already, they both lived on the same street and went to school together. The last guitar player to jam with them before me was Gilby Clarke, who later went on to play with Guns n’ Roses. He wasn’t metal enough for them!
What about the L. A. scene at this point? How about the first generation of the US thrash, such as Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth, Shellshock, Abattoir etc.?
The scene at that time was dominated by bands like Motley Crue, Ratt, stuff like that. Thrash was just starting, Metallica was still playing weeknights at small clubs. Mustaine was still with them, so Megadeth did not exist yet. Slayer was basically a Judas Priest cover band at that point. Abbatoir was around then, I think. The scene really took off when Brian Slagel, president of Metal Blade Records, started pushing the clubs to have more real metal bands.
Were you famliar with those acts? Did you build up a strong friendship with them?
There were very few true thrash metal bands around at that time, so we all knew each other. Our first vocalist, Vince Sollami, was good friends with Lars Ulrich. We met Slayer when we played with them at the Troubadour in Hollywood, so we used to hang out and party together a lot with Tom and Jeff. We were friends with Overkill. When we didn’t have gig to play, we would go to all the shows in LA to see what was happening.
As far as the LA scene, in my opinion, it existed two different ones: there were the speed/thrash acts and the glam/hair ones, such as W.A.S.P., DOKKEN, MÖTLEY CRÜE, RATT, do you agree with me? Were these commercial acts more popular and known than the speed/thrash ones?
You are correct, there were two very different scenes. On one side, you had Motley Crue, Ratt, Dokken, W.A.S.P., and Quet Riot, and about 100 other bands who all looked and sounded like those bands. Then you had bands like Vermin, Metallica, Slayer, Savage Grace, Abbatoir, Overkill, Bloodlust, etc. The commercial acts were much more popular with the clubs because they would draw a much more diverse audience than the thrash bands. The thrash metal audience was mostly young guys; the glam/hair bands audience was mostly girls. Guys like to hook up with girls, so lots of guys (us included) would go to the glam/hair band’s shows to pick up girls. Guys buy girls drinks, so the clubs made a lot more money selling liquor when they had the glam/hair bands play. Thrash fans were young, too young to drink, so the clubs didn’t make as much profit when thrash bands played. Plus, thrash was a real crossover for hardcore punk rockers, so we attracted those people as well. The big clubs were afraid of punks.
Which clubs did start opening their doors at this point?
The first clubs to start having thrash bands were in Orange County. Radio City and The Woodstock were the first clubs to have thrash bands. Then the Troubadour in Hollywood started a thing called ’Metal Mondays’. The very first one was Witch, Vermin and Slayer. When the thrash bands started packing the clubs, we all began doing headline gigs on the weekends.
Would you say, that in L.A. was a great underground buzz and a healthy club scene?
The buzz was above-ground, not underground at that time. There was a magazine called BAM (Bay Area Music), which was published in San Francisco and Los Angeles. That is where all the bands ran ads for their shows. That was the place to learn about who was doing what. I remember the first big ad Metallica ran, it was in the center fold of the magazine, two pages wide, very impressive. It said they were the loudest, fastest, heaviest band in America. Seeing that ad is what made me curious about them, and I went to their next show at the Troubadour. We had a lot of great clubs, with live music 7 nights a week, so, yes, it was very healthy indeed.
Though heavy metal did of course exist in the seventies, it really came of age in the eighties, both as a popular form of music in the mainstream as well as a booming underground movement, what’s your opinion about it?
I think that MTV had a lot to do with the metal popularity in the ’80’s. Kids who lived in places without good record stores (the ones with great import sections) were not exposed to this type of music until they saw these bands on MTV, like on Headbanger’s Ball. We were lucky in big cities where we had great indpendent record stores, with very good import sections, so we were exposed to all the new metal that was coming out of the UK and Europe at that time. Plus, Kerrang magazine. When metal became less popular in the late ’80’s, it was forced underground. I’d say that 1982 to 1989 were the best years for metal.
Do you think, that some of metal’s genres didn’t really come into being until the mid-late eighties or later, but a basic style of metal (sometimes referred to in the press as Priest/Maiden, named obviously for two of 80's metal's biggest influences) began to take hold during this period?
Again, I think it goes back to exposure. With the advent of MTV, metal was exposed to many more people. Not to mention the concerts. I can remember seeing Priest and Maiden 2 or 3 times in a row, because they would play several nights at a time in LA. The big Preist and Maiden tours of the ’80’s surely contributed to the popularity of the music. They were great shows. During that time, bands like Slayer, Megadeth, Metallica and Anthrax were touring as opening acts for Ozzy, stuff like that. So, the exposure that the big 4 thrash bands got as opening acts on big tours helped them gain popularity. Some kid in Kansas who buys a ticket to see Ozzy suddenly gets exposed to Anthrax, and now he’s an Anthrax fan. Thrash was not getting played on the radio, that is for sure. It was MTV and the tours that did it.
Did you take the band seriously right from the start?
Yes, very seriously. We were determined to play gigs and do all original music.
What about your rehearsals? How often did you rehearse?
We would rehearse 2 or 3 times a week. We rented professional rehearsal studios.
Did you start writing originals or were you jamming on covers?
At first we jammed on covers, then started writing originals. We’d always jam on covers even when we had a good set list. Playing metal is like lifting weights, you have to keep in shape! The more you jam, the better you get. We never played any covers live, only originals.
How about the songcomposing? Did everybody have a great hand into it or was a main songwriter?
I was the main music writer at first, then when Greg Cekalovich came on he started writing both music and lyrics. Whoever was the vocalist at the time wrote most of the lyrics. When Cyriis was in the band, we’d all try to write together when we were in the studio rehearsing.
This lineup played at Southern California’s most legendary clubs, including The Troubadour, Madame Wongs, The Waters, Cathay de Grand, and Radio City, what do you recall from these gigs?
All the clubs were very different. The Troubadour is a very classy place, I mean, everyone from Elton John to Miles Davis has played there. They were not very tolerant of wild behaviour. We were eventually banned from playing there because our crowd was considered to rowdy. Radio City pulled the plug on us once for playing too loud; I told the crowd to show the club how they felt and they tore the shit out of the place. We were banned from Radio City after that. Madame Wongs and Cathay de Grande were both hardcore punk clubs, so they welcomed thrash bands with open arms. The Waters Club used to be a latin music place, like salsa music with dancing, so they were experimenting with rock music. It was a huge club. We had a lot of fun gigs at The Waters Club.
You also played the inaugural Metal Monday at the Troubadour with another bunch of aspiring young upstarts called Slayer and that gig was like a nuclear explosion - the Thrash scene in SoCal was running full throttle, any memories from that particular show?
Yes, it was very exciting. It was our first club gig; prior to that, we had only played a couple of shows at local parks. We didn’t know Slayer at that time; Greg Cekalovich had seen them before when they were playing Priest covers. Nobody knew who Witch was. The club was packed, Brian Slagel from Metal Blade Records was there taping everything. Witch opened the show, then Vermin, and then Slayer. I remember watching Slayer and being completely blown away. After the show I was talking to Brian Slagel, and I described them as being like standing behind the engie of a jumbo jet when it was taking off – they were the heaviest, most kick ass thrash band in LA that I had ever seen. He told me that he was trying to get them recorded, he really liked them. Evidently, they really liked us, too. That’s why they thanked us on the liner notes of Haunting the Chapel. Good lads, those Slayer boys.
A new genre came into being which rooted in the NWOBHM, how do you view it?
I assume you are talking about stuff like Def Leppard? Not hair metal, but not thrash? My view of it is that it sucked.
Thrash metal is generally characterized by a fast pace, a staccato, chunky guitar riffing style, and aggressive vocals, is that correct?
Yes, thrash is based on that fast picked, chugging/machine gun type rhythm, with a double-time beat, and lots of double-bass drumming. It is a cross between hardcore punk rock and hard rock/metal. It has the brutal energy of hardcore punk, and the musicianship of hard rock/metal. Lots of anger and agression.
How do you view, that Metallica’s „Kill 'Em All”, released in 1983, is arguably the first true thrash album, with healthy thrash scenes sprouting in the USA (particularly the San Francisco area), Germany, and elsewhere by the late eighties?
I may be going out on a limb here, but I think that Metallica may have invented thrash metal. They were certainly the first band I had ever seen who played music like that. Seeing them inspired me (and scores of other people) to start writing fast paced, heavy riffs. The did play a lot of covers at first; the first time I saw them, about half of their set was covers. The scene in San Franciso was much more pure in terms of being all thrash and no big hair crap. They were the best crowds to play to. The first German thrash band I had heard was a band called Destruction. I would say that Metallica started it all, and everyone else was inspired by them. However, at that time Anthrax was in New York doing their thing, which sounded nothing like Metallica.
Talking about the L.A. scene, there was a lot of „musician crossed their paths”, I mean Kerry King was playing in Megadeth, Dave Mustaine was the member of Metallica, I mean, a lot of musicians were auditioning for several bands, can you tell us more about it? How did it happen exactly?
Everyone met through The Recycler, or at gigs. Or, a lot of people shared rehearsal studios and met that way. The thrash scene was pretty small back then, and everyone knew each other, or knew someone who knew someone, etc. When you would go to see a show at the Troubadour, everyone who didn’t have a gig that night would be there. You’d see Mustaine, the guys from W.A.S.P. (Chris Holmes used to come to our shows), the guys from Ratt, Jeff and Tom from Slayer, Felice and Ron from Overkill, it goes on and on. Then, a lot of times, we would all party after the shows with the bands that had just played. It was a tight community of musicians. We’d loan each other gear if someone needed an amp or something. We were all cool with each other.
At which point did Craig Hall leave the band and how did Mike Chacon, one of the local scene’s most explosive double-bass drummers enter the picture exactly? What about his musical past?
Craig left the band after about 9 months or so. We auditioned a few drummers, but none of them could play double-bass. Greg Cekalovich had played with Mike Chacon at some point and remembered that he always played way too fast. I said, ’get this guy over here, now!’. Mike was a perfect fit. I don’t think that Mike had played in any gigging bands before that, just party bands in high school. A funny story is that after Jeff and Tom from Slayer heard us play with Mike the first time, they told Dave Lombardo that he needed to learn to play double-bass drums like Mike Chacon, or he was going to be fired... or so the story goes! Mike is Costa Rican, so that Latin rhythm thing is in his blood.
Was he the first choice of the band or…?
Yes, Mike was the only drummer we auditioned who was up to the task.
Vince Sollami was released from vocal duties, to be replaced by none other than John Cyriis, formerly of Abbattoir, and later to lead the progressive speed metal outfit Agent Steel, what went wrong with Vince?
We were advised by our most trusted advisers, Brain Slagel of Metal Blade Records, and Ron Cordy of Overkill, that if we wanted a record deal, we needed a different singer. Vince was raised on Black Sabbath, and he idolized Ozzy, so his style was more like that. He was no Halford or Dickinson, not much range. So, we took the advice and fired Vince after a gig at The Waters club. So, we proceeded to run an ad in The Recycler for a new lead vocalist. Cyriis was the first one to respond. He had just been fired from Abbatoir.