Mike Exley talks to Mark Osegueda and Dennis Pepa of Death Angel.

If my live review has not driven the point home to you as to how amazed I was that this band had even stepped on to a London stage again post a huge European No Mercy Festival ‘winning gamble’ with Testament last year, then I find myself no less amazed at the relaxed and very laid back approach that meets me backstage at this bands second only London show since their reunification. I mean, I don’t think I’ve seen Mark particularly, this relaxed since the band were at the forefront of the second wave of San Franciscan thrash acts that burst out of the States back in the 80’s, (post classic debut ‘The Ultra Violence’ of 1987) neatly sidestepping the whole shroud of Metallica then dominant. Then, it’s been quite a dodgem ride for the Death Angel team. The whole team isn’t quite present, Dennis’ brother Gus Pepa returned to the Philippines whilst the band was dissolving during the 90’s, but with the very talented Ted Aguilar on guitar, Mark and the boys know that there’s never been a better moment than now to strike for more of the fame that many would agree had eluded them unfairly first time around. They haven’t been entirely idle in the meantime, of course; Mark, Rob Cavestany (g) and Andy Galeon (d) toured as Swarm with Jerry Cantrell in 2001 and Rob and associated members released two albums as The Organization prior, but as Death Angel, the curtains were only really flung open again recently when they released the brilliant ‘The Art Of Dying’ album and proved that those early dates with Testament were no fluke. So, how will the year of 2004 be remembered in the house of the Angel?

Dennis. ‘Really, as a finale on a long road. I feel that the reason this has all happened; our reformation, the deal with Nuclear Blast, the shows with Testament and the Chuck Billy tribute concert that really started it all; was largely down to the amount of time that has passed since we broke up. Time can be a great healer, and it definitely was for us.’

It could all have been for nothing though? Wasn’t Chuck’s cancer benefit show just agreed as a one off?

Dennis. ‘Yes, it was but the response was so strong that night that the feeling just never left us after that. Someone would contact someone else, and it’d be like, ‘That feeling was so cool!’

Mark. ‘It’s amazing. We all did the Chuck show for him, not for us. I think we were one of the last bands to agree to do it; Chuck really wanted us to do it. I think we rehearsed just twice before; the first time was just listening back to the songs and laughing……….’


Mark. ‘Yeah, sure! I mean, I’ve said this before many times, but I really couldn’t believe just how fast we were back then. And that was studio time, not live? We sat down and got to really appreciate just how much we’d achieved. It may sound amazing, but I would have to say quite categorically, that no one within the band had listened to our songs for over twelve years. When we closed the book on Death Angel, both emotionally and physically, the music went with it – there was no point going back. Right there, at that first rehearsal, we went back, listened and just freaked! I look at the reformation like this. Firstly, we had to learn how to respect each other again, and then we had to relearn our own songs, ha! ha!.’

There’s a wonderful quote on your website from a San Franciscan weekly about you which says simply – “Death Angel – The Art Of Reuniting!” You could write the book on the subject, couldn’t you?

Dennis. ‘No, not really, but what we do have in our favour is the power of the family. As you know, we’re pretty much all related, so while we grew apart in the down time, we never actually drifted apart. There’s a subtle difference. I don’t think there’s any other band out there with quite the same chemistry.’

Mark. ‘And musically, it’s the same. What made us stronger was that no one had been shackled to the old Death Angel – everyone had expressed themselves through different bands, different musical styles, and each individual had had the chance to get it out of their system. When we stepped on stage, that rush returned and we realized at that point how much we’d missed it. We’d played live with other people, but nothing felt quite like that Death Angel rush, as it happened, right there at Thrash Of The Titans – that was something!’

Age was a key factor for you. Most bands reforming after fifteen years, would be Zimmer frame bound?

Mark. ‘Yes, age was a key factor. We used to complain about it in the beginning – we were so young and we felt people snubbed us because we were so young - but now it’s in our favour because, how many bands that have been away for twelve and a half or so years do you know that still get on a stage for two hours and jump around like possessed baboons, Ha! Ha?’

Getting past the initial burst of emotion, it then presumably hit you that the business side, (a new album, a new deal) would have to be crossed. How did you square that with the effervescence that was around after the live shows?

Mark. ‘Well, of course, it was very important but it certainly wasn’t a pressure situation. Back in the 80’s, we’d made a lot of naive decisions… How many sixteen year olds do you know that can understand a record contract? We rushed a whole load of things. So, this time we just took our time and let the snowball catch us up. We went out to do Dynamo with the full intention of recording that and signing off there and then with a live album. That didn’t happen – the recording studio mobile broke down, but the reviews were superb. Then we came out on the No Mercy festivals and the reviews were even better. The chemistry between us just got better and we hadn’t even written one new note yet?’

‘Then, of course, the labels started to come around, and the questions started to fly. The four core members all sat down, back in SF. and basically said; with respect for the past and the name, do we go through with this, look for a label, write some songs, or do we lay it to rest now, as had been the initial plan?’

‘Personal sacrifices had to be made, of course, but ‘The Art Of Dying’ started out of that meeting, the deal started out of that meeting, and, you know, we’ve only just scratched the surface. I’m very proud of the record, but you never know where it’s going to go!’

Let’s just close one elusive part of that chapter at this point; Ted Aguilar, the ‘new’ guy and, obviously the face fewer people know? There’s a wonderful story about how he came to be involved?

Mark. ‘Yes, there is. When the Chuck Billy thing was first discussed, we did ask Gus of course. We knew that he wouldn’t do it, but there were no hard feelings. Ted was a fan from the ‘Kill As One’ demo days – he’d be at every Death Angel show in SF., every Organization show, every Swarm show, and he knew the stuff better than we did. When we did the rehearsals, he was teaching us!! We never had to audition him or anything like that, he brought a freshness to the whole thing and he’s a cool guy.’

OK, the album now. Could you ever have imagined that the chemistry would be as strong as to result in such a powerful album?

Mark. ‘You know, I can’t really answer that. We wrote this album so fast, that I don’t really know quite how it happened. I remember going to the studio, still writing – ‘Thrown To The Wolves’ the first track, that was the last track written, right there in the studio!’

Nuclear Blast, having signed you, clearly expected something ‘dramatic’ – how did they react to the result and how do they view the future?

Mark. ‘Well, we were really surprised actually. They had few if any expectations at all. They’d pursued us relentlessly, but when it came to hearing the stuff, they really only wanted us to record what we thought would be a realistic album for Death Angel to record, again paying respect to the past, ‘Act III’, ‘Frolic Through The Park’ and the rest. They’re all metal fans there, they know how to reach the audience, and I think they knew that any recording by this band would be right for the metal scene, irrespective. We’ve had, as you know, major label time – ‘Act III’ was on a major – but, now those labels seem to be stuck in the past – they don’t seem to dabble with this stuff anymore, so Nuclear Blast seems to be the perfect home. We were careful that they didn’t actually get to hear it until it was ready, but when they did, they were real happy. They seem happy for us to go on like that too, so that’s cool!’

Dennis. ‘The really cool thing for me, is that we still have so much respect from labels, press, fans, even bands that may well nowadays sell more units than we do. When Death Angel’s spirit died in us, we truly thought that it had died for everyone? That just isn’t the case. Fans say so many nice things to us, we get mentioned in interviews by newer bands and the label give us the freedom to express ourselves our way, into the bargain. How good is that?’

Mark. ‘The one thing I’m really proud of, apart from our song-writing, is that this band has never given up it’s strength as a live band. Now, going out there, on these festivals, on this tour, we know that we have to have the same intensity as this band always had. We’ll give you a concert in your bedroom, if we have to.’

Something I thought very evident on ‘The Art Of Dying’, was the return of a dark angry element that had deserted you somewhat, after ‘Frolic….’? Cover artwork from Rob, lyrics, etc?

Mark. ‘Yeah, but I think that’s inevitable. We went through so much, right up ‘til ‘Act III’, with the litigation, the break up, the personal stuff, that that gave us the fuel for this. Writing for Death Angel is a release; it’s not a trip in the park. I think the whole major label thing had a lot to do with that too. Now, we can express ourselves as we intended and, yeah, there is anger, frustration and some pain there. I actually feel that the best is yet to come. We know that we’ve got not only a team that is more mature, this band, that can deal with how we feel now, but we also have a label that will give us the freedom and fans who understand. I make a point of trying to mix with the fans as much as possible – I think that’s such an important part of being in a band – and the feedback we get from them is as important as the feedback we get from each other.’

‘I mean, in the States, when we were stuck over there after the original break up, the fans from abroad were everything for us; the word ‘metal’ became kinda taboo. All the time here in Europe it was still thriving, surviving grunge and the nu metal thing, but there we had to listen to our old record collections, the punk and stuff like that because crap-pop was all the rage. Only the fans kept us going, via the web, stuff like that.’

You seem to have taken some of those elements (of punk) into the new album, actually? Tracks like ‘Never Me’ and ‘Thicker Than Blood’…?

Mark. ‘Well, OK, but I can’t really explain that. It’s not just because Dennis or anyone is a huge punk fan. We all listen to a lot of punk, actually. But I don’t see too much of a difference between the old influences Death Angel had and the new ones. It’s still the old GBH, Exploited, Discharge; getting together with metal and rock and roll – Motorhead, Sabbath, even early us – we had to go back and listen to ourselves to make this album true. The warmth of guitar, the strong drum tones; you know what I’m saying, right?’

Where from here, then?

Dennis. ‘Well, that’s kinda the same question the record company are asking, and all I can say is, that it’ll be a Death Angel moment. The record will sound like us, be as true to our hearts as we can make it and it’ll be true to Death Angel – the legacy and the present.’

Mark. ‘What I think is important is that Death Angel has never been afraid of showing a certain vulnerability. ‘Thrash’ bands don’t have that – “they’re all the toughest guys in the scene, they want the crowd to go out there and kick everyone’s ass” – but Death Angel is about more than that. Sure, get out and have a good time, we play heavy music, for sure. But don’t be afraid to show your emotions, express them. I think that’s an art and hard to do at the same time because you’re going to cop some shit for it. There are people who want us to give them ‘The Ultra Violence’ all the time – “Evil Priest”, “Mistress Of Pain”, and sure, there’s a place for that, but for us to live off of that all the time would be too much. I think our music transcends that. I think it covers more than just one genre and that it’s a release more than anything. We’d be really unfulfilled if we didn’t continue like that!’

Lyrically, how do you reflect that transcendence?

Mark. ‘Still make the lyrics very personal, yet ambiguous. We write about celebration and hope as much as anger and pain, but still leave the door open so that we don’t get stereotyped?  It’s hard to give you an example – the songs are very individual and I can be into one one day of the week and another the next.’

Dennis. ‘God, man, I really can’t give you a personal favourite. One of the things that was important for this album was that all the band had the chance to have their own personal favourite songs; and you’ll hear that when you get Andy sing on one song, singing his own lyrics, me or Rob and, of course, Mark. Whether that’ll continue I don’t know, but that’s why it’s so hard to be selective.’

OK. And, I guess that really sums up the new face of Death Angel, doesn’t it?

Mark. ‘Yes, for me, it certainly does. What makes all the difference now is the unbreakable respect everyone has for the others. Respect of individual vocal style, individual writing style, musical taste, the whole thing. In the old Death Angel, we’d probably accept now, that that was occasionally lacking. Now, when we come to the table, it’s so different. Things that would break up other bands make this band work. You don’t have the situation here where the singer gets upset if someone else tries to sing his part – shit, I go off the stage and let these guys have their say… I revel in that and, really, it’s not so difficult to do. The first show the four core members of this band ever saw, was Kiss in 1979, the last tour with the make up. Paul, Peter, Gene, they all sang. The voice that fits the vibe should carry the song through. It’s all about open-mindedness and vulnerability. It’s not all about being the tough guy – I’ve seen some of the toughest guys in metal get knocked out, man.’

So, breaking up is the ‘new togetherness’?

Dennis. ‘I wouldn’t say that, but I definitely know that Death Angel would never exist today, were it not for the results of the initial break up, and the developments that have come from it.’

Mark. ‘I think it made us appreciate the band, long after the bad times. I mean, I quit originally, way back, and possibly, most spectacularly, but other people would have done it within two years for certain. It wasn’t an easy time. Breaking up actually helped us, because we knew nothing else. We got to experience other styles, other people’s ideas, and then, when we came back together we were way fresher.’

And long may it continue. If the band can handle the pressure that is certainly exerted by the current financial situation within the music industry, then I think they’ll definitely be there come the judgement day. Mark’s final gesture to me before we concluded this, was to bare his teeth –

Mark. ‘ There’s definitely enough anger there to make it through, Mike. That I can assure you!! We have to shovel the shit again with our bare hands and get dirty doing it, but this band is ready for that. If the fans want us, we’ll go there for them.’

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