Bay Area Guitarist Ted Aguilar: "Death Angel Fulfilled A Lot Of My Dreams"
Death Angel is one of the great underdog stories of American metal. Arguably the "baby band" of the San Francisco Bay Area thrash explosion, their initial late '80s lineup formed even before some members could legally vote or purchase a Hustler. After three cult classic studio albums, an early '90s breakup threatened to consign Death Angel to footnote status in rock history - if not for the resurgence in popularity of old school thrash over a decade later.
With a reinforced lineup and a youthful energy undiminished by time, the band firmly planted itself back on the metal map in the 21st century, via indie giant Nuclear Blast Records. Death Angel then faced perhaps their toughest challenge to date when founding members Andy Galeon (drums) and Dennis Pepa (bass) departed, leaving a gaping wound that providence would see healed by the recruitment of newcomers Will Carroll and Damien Sisson. "The two white boys in the band," frontman Mark Osegueda has joked, referencing the group's collective Filipino heritage. The resulting studio album, 2010's "Relentless Retribution," is a defiant roar of triumph that led to a furious worldwide touring campaign - all leading up to a coveted opening slot on one of the most anticipated American metal tours of 2011 with New York legends Anthrax and fellow Bay Area crushers Testament.
On Veteran's Day - or so-dubbed "National Metal Day" - I sat down in Worcester, Massachusetts with guitarist Ted Aguilar, who joined the band upon its initial 21st century reunion and has since proven an integral member.
Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): This tour is a pretty big deal, and everyone in the press seems to want a piece of you guys. How’s everything stacking up so far against your other recent tours?
Ted Aguilar: This would be the best tour we’ve been on since I’ve been in the band. Mark and Rob [Cavestany, lead guitar] have been comparing it to the ‘80s. I wasn’t in the band then, but they said this is the best tour ever. You’ve got three great heavy hitters – Anthrax, Testament, and us. It’s a great package, only three bands, and it’s making everyone come out and see the whole show. It’s also good for all these thrash fans that want to see us all together. So it’s probably the best tour that’s come around in quite a while, other than the Big Four.
Mike: With relatively fewer bands on the bill, do you get to play longer?
Ted: Actually no, we’re doing a half hour, because Anthrax and Testament are co-headlining and we’re supporting. But it’s OK, man. A half hour’s fine; we’ll take it. We’re just excited to be here. We played a few shows with Anthrax on some festival dates out in Europe, same with Testament, but we’ve never actually done a full tour with either of them. So we’re knocking off two birds with one stone. We’re excited!
Mike: What excites you more in general these days – opening in bigger venues for some classic heavy hitters, or headlining the smaller tours?
Ted: They both do, but speaking for myself, I’m more excited about this one. We get to play for more people who don’t normally come out and see us when we venture off and do a headlining show. I like them both, but I want to do more of this type of touring to build a following, rather than branch off and do some headliners. And yeah, there are pros and cons. On this one, sure, we get to play for a lot of people, but we’re first on the bill and play less. Headlining, we’re the top dog and get to play a little longer, and all that cool stuff, but there are cons too. I prefer to do this one, but when it’s time to headline, sure!
Mike: Since you’ve been in the band, have you fulfilled a lot of your personal goals as a musician – especially when it comes to meeting some of your favorite bands, and touring and playing with them?
Ted: Actually, yeah. It exceeded my expectations. I mean, before joining, I’d been playing in a lot of local bands in the Bay Area, and my first small “stepping stone” goal was to put out a record on a label, whether it be my own band or another. That was my first step. And then comes the touring and everything else, but being in this band fulfilled a lot of my dreams, and there’s more to come. If it ended today – [Knocks on wood paneling, laughs] – I’d be happy, but I think this band has a lot of life left in it, where we can fulfill even more dreams.
Mike: The first version of Death Angel lived in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and now you’re in “phase two,” as it were. In my experience, some metal fans tend to argue over your proper place and expect you to remain a legacy act, the proverbial “‘80s band” that only plays old material. What’s your take on that? Do you guys want to be seen as a modern metal band?
Ted: Well, we want to be seen as Death Angel, past and present. From a fan’s perspective, I understand – they just want to hear the classics and don’t want it to be ruined. But from a musician’s standpoint on the inside? It’s cool to play those songs; I love them, I grew up on them, and we’re still proud of them – but we’re musicians. We need to create. We need to move forward. And you can’t really please everyone. I’d rather be crucified and criticized for trying to create, progress, and move forward than just be nostalgic. But from a fan’s perspective, I understand. There are some bands that I’d like – I’m not gonna mention any names [Laughs] – to just play the old stuff, and who come up with new stuff I’m not into. But then I have to give them respect because they’re musicians. They want to write, create, and move forward. So I totally get that.
Mike: The Bay Area is the birthplace of thrash metal, but what personally got you into that music?
Ted: Oh, man. The unity, the aggression of a bunch of kids growing up. I grew up with an older brother who listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and his friends were listening to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Great stuff, the core from where it all stemmed. And I started hanging out with friends who were getting into all the underground stuff, and tape trading, and getting exposed to the music. That’s how I got exposed to a lot of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, like Venom and Mercyful Fate, and all that. And then came the Bay Area thrash. It was just something new, y’know? It was something refreshing, but aggressive, which we young kids were yearning for. Our older brothers and sisters had their thing, which they discovered first, and you kind of want to discover things on your own, so when you discover it, it’s like, “It’s mine!” And it was killer. And just the music, not only the Bay Area stuff, but also the East Coast thrash, like your Overkills and Anthraxes. And then you had Southern California, which is Slayer, Megadeth, Dark Angel, and whatnot. They were all thrash, but they all sounded different from each other. They were grouped together as thrash bands, but when you hear Megadeth, you know it’s Megadeth. When you hear Slayer, you know it’s Slayer. They all had distinct sounds, from the guitars to the drums to the vocals. Nowadays, it’s kind of hard to tell who’s who. I mean, I try to keep up with bands and what’s going on today, because metal’s big, and the newer bands now all stem from thrash. So I try to keep up with it. But for me, it’s hard to listen and say, “That’s so-and-so, and that’s so-and-so.” They just sound the same to me, whereas back then, they all sounded different, but were just lumped up as “thrash.” Which is good.
Mike: Are there any newer bands that do stand out for you, or that you may just enjoy listening to?
Ted: Well, when thrash kind of went underground in the ‘90s, death metal was really popular, so I got into a couple of death metal bands that I still like today, because they stand out. Obituary would be one of them. Then I remember Machine Head coming out, and to this day, I think they still sound unique. If I put on a record by Machine Head or Fear Factory, I’d know it’s them. Those would probably be the three bands. In the 2000s, the only recent one that the whole band discovered, where we all went “Whoa, that is SO cool!” would be Ghost.
Mike: [Laughs] Eric Peterson [Testament] told me the exact same thing recently.
Ted: Yeah, the whole band discovered them. I think it was Will and Damien and Mark who discovered them first, and brought them to us, and it was like a breath of fresh air. It felt like being a young kid again, discovering a band, and going “Holy shit!” We haven’t heard something sound like that in a long, long time. The production reminded us of the ‘80s, the style of writing… It’s incredible. That’s the band that did it for me in this new millennium. It kind of sounds like Blue Oyster Cult meets Mercyful Fate. And a lot of black metal bands come out trying to sound evil and scary, but when you hear Ghost, they sound scarier than any band I’ve heard in a LONG time. They’re just taking these old influences and writing good music, and I think people out there should check them out. It’s really a breath of fresh air in metal.
Mike: How about some of the new thrash bands?
Ted: Bonded By Blood would be a good one I really enjoy. We had them on tour, and they kind of reminded me of old Death Angel, with how they look and how they come up on stage. Lazarus A.D. is another one, and Warbringer. But those are probably the only three that I know of. There are so many, it’s hard to keep up! But those three stick out. Oh, and Holy Grail! I recently saw them in Oakland, and they do it pretty well. They have a really good singer and they write really good songs.
Mike: Speaking of Will and Damien, they’re the latest additions to Death Angel, and the new lineup is still pretty fresh. How’s that been working out?
Ted: You know what? It’s been working out great. I mean, yeah, we had our struggles with the older lineup. But life happens. Things happen, people grow up, and want to take another direction in life and can’t be in a band anymore. It does happen. And when Will and Damien got in the band, it was a little bit of a rebirth. They brought in all this energy and fire and excitement, which shows in the music. With this lineup on this album, we were able to go places we haven’t gone. We were able to tour a lot, which bands nowadays have to do. You can’t just put out a record, stay home, and play a few shows. You have to tour constantly. And we were able to do that with this record and this lineup. We were able to go to South America for the first time, and to Southeast Asia for the first time, and we did a few rounds of the States, a few rounds of Europe. And all that touring led us to this big tour with Anthrax and Testament. It’s been going great, probably the best it’s ever been since the reunion, I think.
Mike: On the record, what new contributions may have made a real difference that you might attribute to Will and Damien?
Ted: Well, Den and Andy, the old rhythm section, that’s a whole different style. What they brought to the band back then will never be forgotten. They put their stamps on the albums and were part of that sound that all the fans love and appreciate. But Rob, Mark, and I were stoked about the thrashier element that Will and Damien brought. That was somewhat missing in “The Art Of Dying”  and “Killing Season.”  I’m not putting those albums down; we love them and we’re proud of them. But on the new one, we were able to bring the fastness, more double bass, more of a thrash element. More excitement. That’s the direction we wanted to take with “Relentless.” Before we started, we wanted to pick up the pace, and it just happened that Will and Damien wanted to do that as well. So it all worked out.
Mike: When I first put it on, I thought, “I’m not always sure what Mark is singing about, but he sounds really pissed.”
Ted: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. Well, like I mentioned earlier, toward the end of the “Killing Season” tour, there were a lot of things happening internally with the band, which almost led to the band breaking up at one point. Having to discover who people really are, people who you think are your friends, but they’re not – y’know? And Rob, Mark and I were all bummed when Andy and Den left. We were like, “What the hell’s going on?” And shit happens. But at that point, I thought the band was done, to tell you the truth. I was like, “Okay, we’re losing two founding original members, what are we gonna do?” I think Rob and Mark talked at that point, and the three of us got together, and decided we’d continue. It was Mark who kind of rallied everyone, like, “You know what? We’ve gotten this far; we’ve got to keep going. Let’s keep going.” So we all agreed we could do it. That was a rough time, that period of finding a new bass player and a new drummer and having to jam with them. With Will, it was easy. I’ve known him for a long time. We went to high school together and played in bands together growing up, so that was a no-brainer for me. But for Rob, it was a bit of a transition, because he’d been jamming with Andy and Den since he formed the band. With Mark, it was an easy transition, because he’s played in other bands. He had his other band after Death Angel, Silver Circus. He had Swarm and All Time Highs with different members, so Mark and I are used to that, whereas Rob always jammed with Andy and Den. So that transition period was really hard, and the lyrics are pretty intense and in your face. But that’s why we have music. It’s an outlet for release. Instead of going out there and going apeshit and fighting everyone, we just put pen to paper and start writing.
Mike: Are you playing a lot of those songs on this tour?
Ted: Yes, we are, actually. We’re doing a six-song set, and three are from “Relentless.”
Mike: It’s my favorite Death Angel record, actually.
Ted: Thank you! It’s funny, ‘cause a lot of people like it, but I do run into a few people who don’t. And I ask them why, ‘cause I’m kind of interested. So it’s kind of cool to hear interesting, different things, like “Oh, it sounds too metal,” missing that rock feel that Andy and Den brought, that groove, like on “Act III.”  Which is totally understandable. I get it. But with this record, we intentionally wanted to go “metal,” and put the pedal to the metal.
Mike: Are you working on any new songs?
Ted: We actually have some new songs we’ve started writing on this run. We’ve floated some ideas and jammed a few things at sound check. They’re ideas and skeletons, so we’re trying to work on it. After this tour, we’re gonna take about a week off, and then start writing the record, and keep writing. There are plans to do more touring next year, so we want to be ahead of the game and start the record, because once all our touring’s done, we want to have a batch of songs that we can go record.
Mike: So can we expect something out by the end of next year, then?
Ted: Probably early 2013. The goal is to try to record by the summer of 2012. We’ll maybe extend the touring for this album cycle into the spring and summer, and then record right when it’s over. And that takes a while, so we’re probably looking at about early 2013.
Mike: Tell me a few things about yourself outside music that fans might not know. Any other hobbies or big interests?
Ted: I like to play with my dogs when I’m at home. I have three Labs. I do a lot of stuff, really, though I kind of like to keep low when I’m home. The hobbies I like are mainly on the road. We love bowling, and Will and I like to play billiards every now and then if we find a good billiards table. He and I always go hang out on the road because we have the same interests, like playing old school video games. Galaga is our main game to play.
Mike: Do you ever get your tour mates out and do some bowling or billiards tournaments?
Ted: We haven’t, but we did go out bowling with Chuck Billy [Testament] and his wife! Some of us went out and split into two teams. I think that was in Albany, New York, on this tour. That was fun. Other than that, Will’s a DJ, and collects comic books and plays video games. Rob has a family, Mark bartends at home, and Damien plays in tribute bands, and I just like to lay low and chill until the band gets back together. [Laughs]
Mike: I like asking this question, and you can interpret the word broadly. If Death Angel had a “message,” how would you define that – at least speaking for yourself?
Ted: Wow. If we had a message? Well, we’re just a live band. We’re a live band that wants to come to your town and have a good time. That’s what we’re all about. Just come check us out; you’ll enjoy it. And that’s all it has to be. We’re a bunch of fun dudes who love to laugh, have a good time, and play some intense music. We’re a party band. A lot of bands take themselves pretty seriously, like in the black metal genre, but hey, if that’s their trip, that’s their trip. We do play aggressive music; it’s thrash metal. But we have a good time playing it, and it shows in our performance, and when you hang out with us, we’re just a bunch of dudes who want to play music we grew up loving. That’s all we are.
Mike: Positivity in music can be pretty important these days.
Ted: Oh, totally! You’ve gotta take the negative and turn it positive. Like I said, we want to write music that people can relate to. And here we are.
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