interview: Dawid Krosnia
‘One evening before one of the shows in Montreal, Glen approached me in the dressing room and asked me to hide my crosses. I told him that I would never, ever pretend to be someone I’m not.’
photo: Ralph Santolla by Chris Slack
For every devoted death metal fan, Ralph Santolla should be a familiar persona. Having played with bands like Obituary or Deicide the guy surely knows a lot about American death metal scene. Being an active guitarist, best known for his incredible shredding, Ralph is a perfect character to tell us some stories from his time with some biggest death metal bands on this planet. Dawid has called Florida to speak to the man himself and here is the result of the conversation.
The Goat Tavern: Hi Ralph, how are you?
Ralph: Dude, I’m doing really well actually! I’m engaged and I’m going to get married soon. I’m working on the Devil’s Highway album and it’s coming out really special, like magic. It’s beautiful weather right now in Florida and things are going really well in my life so thank you!
That’s good to hear Ralph! Since your departure from Deicide a few years ago, it seems like you have disappeared. I was expecting that you would be snatched by other bands and we will see you back on the road very soon. Do you get many propositions to join other bands on the full time basis?
[interrupted by a passing neighbour saying hello]
By the way Dawid, are you Welsh?
I’m actually Polish but I live in Wales so I have an ‘exotic‘ accent [laughs].
When I looked at the spelling of your name I thought you were Welsh. I must say, you speak fantastic English as for a not native English speaker.
Thanks man. Much appreciated.
To answer your question – well there will be lot of answers with regards to that. Firstly, couple of things and they’ll be equally important. When I moved back from Sweden five years ago and moved to Florida. I broke up with my girlfriend and I’ve been fired from Obituary. I lost my entire my social structure. I’ve been on the road for some fifteen years, it wasn’t easy. Obituary, my girlfriend and my Swedish friends, they were family to me and all of the sudden it was all gone. It was traumatic. It took me a long time to get my head around it but I’m still not over the Obituary thing. I have a woman so I don’t to rush off to Australia or Japan on tour and try to meet chicks [laughs]. My goals in my life are different to what they used to be. One of my goals now is to do the great job. I’m not a careerist, I’m more of an artist and I want to do something of note, something that matters and if it’s going to take a few years to achieve this, that’s the only thing I’m concerned about. I did disappear for a while because all the things that happened to me and I was devastated a bit but now it’s all coming together.
Another thing is that I don’t need to have everybody looking at me like a famous person. For me it’s all about art and do things that are important to me and I’ve been like since I was a little kid. The other stuff is just tiring and unnecessary. So I hope this answers your question, Dawid…
Yes, it does. Cheers! Ralph, what keeps you occupied when you’re not playing metal? Do you have any other hobbies besides playing musical instruments?
Yes, of course, I actually like to write music more than play the guitar. One of my best friends is Per Nilsson from Scar Symmetry, he is one of the best fucking guitarists in the whole world. I’m never going to be as good as him but I have a voice on the guitar and that’s kind of rare. I can play two notes and my mother can hear it on a TV commercial and she would say: ‘oh that’s you!‘ [laughs]. So my thing is more about writing music. I’ll still continue to improve on my guitar skills. I like reading, I like history, I like Christianity. I’m a Christian but I don’t mean to practice it. I like the Christian history and finding out why this was written Hebrew and why this was written Aramaic. I like wine and food and cooking. I like to learn about all different stuff. I have very broad interests. I love the Italian, Spanish and Dutch masters of paintings. I’m absolutely fascinated by that.
photo: Ralph Santolla
There is many fans and journalists that when they meet me, they’re surprised that I’m not that serious metal guy. Some of them are even offended by it, which is weird because I’m not who they think I am. I love people and making new relationships. This is my treasure, it’s my friends and family. There is so many things and we could just talk about that all day [laughs].
You’ve recently made a guest appearance on the new Crimson Moon album. You were invited to play the lead guitar on the title track Oneironaut which is an almost twenty-minute long song. How did this collaboration come about?
Three years ago I did a tour as a guitarist for Melechesh. Tony, the bass player, who is the mastermind behind Crimson Moon, and me are both Italian. It had a little bit to do with that. I’m talking to you right now with my phone in one hand and with the right hand I’m expressing myself before I talk like the Italians do with their hands [laughs].
But it wasn’t just that. He’s a fantastic guy and we’ve just hit off immediately. I just love that dude. We share the same sense of humour, we have instantly bonded. He said he was doing an album with Crimson Moon and asked me if I could play on it? I was like: ‘yeah motherfucker, of course I’ll play on it!‘. He sent me the track, and it was a three or four minute guitar solo. I couldn’t play for three minutes and make it sound all good [laughs]. We were talking and I decided that the only way to do it was to do different sections with different sounds. More like Shenker or Gary Moore style of playing. I’ve written some weird shit and it worked. I don’t play guitar or write songs or do anything to impress other people. I do something until I feel it is good enough and I’m happy with it. But it was equally important to me that my friend was happy with what I did for him.
And… I said this on Facebook but I will say it in the interview as well. When I listened to that track first, I heard some strange sounds and I’ve asked Tony: ‘What program did you use to get these strange sounds?‘ and he said: ‘No, that’s my friend from Greece, he is playing the Cretan lyra‘. I was like: ‘Dude, ask him if he could play on Devil’s Highway, my guitar album and the Millennium album‘. I can’t remember his name now but he can play like hell [laughs].
Last December marked the fifteenth anniversary of Chuck’s death. You played live with Death just over two decades ago. Could you skip your memory back to the days when you played with him and can you tell us what was like to work with Chuck Schuldiner at that time?
I think Dawid, I can tell you a story. It’s hard to explain what it was like to someone who never experienced the same thing. It’s like trying to explain green colour to someone, it would be hard, you would have to see it to understand it.
I grew up at Morrisound. Jim Morris started recording me when I was twelve years old. that’s why I was in all those bands because everybody knew me, I was always at Morrisound. I’ve worked there, I was answering the phones and did other stuff as well. I hung out at Morrisound all the time. When Death was recording the Individual Thought Patterns album, me and my band Millennium was in the other studio and Scott Burns was producing that album. Me and Scotty were super tight at that time. We started hanging out together and I started to go out with them at night.
Me and DiGiorgio, I hit it off with him big time! He is one of my favourite human beings in the world! I totally get on with all of the guys really. Andy LaRocque is a fucking cool guitarist, he wasn’t going to do the tour for whatever reason and I’ve never been on the tour before. So Scotty came to me and said that Chuck would come to me and see if I was going to do the tour with them. I didn’t realize how big deal that was. I was still naive, you know. So then, Chuck came to me and asked if I wanted to do the European and American tours with them. Then he told me how much money I was going to make, I didn’t think of that and I was like: ‘Cool, fine, whatever…‘ [laughs].
When Scott was mixing that album, me and Chuck would be in a big room and Chuck would show me the songs and stuff. I’ve never played music like that before, I wasn’t a death metal fan. My thoughts were that this music was super clever, it’s much deeper than I thought.
So the first tour we did was in Europe with Carcass, Cannibal Corpse, Gorguts and someone else. It was a big test for me. Then, after we came back home, my fiancée who I didn’t end up marring was pregnant at the time and she was about have a baby. So then we went on tour in the U.S. and during that time on that tour, my band from Tampa, Eyewitness, got a record deal for Europe and Japan. And I was still naive and inexperienced that I didn’t realize that I could do both. I didn’t realize that I could do my own music and play in another band. I quit the band, there was no animosity or anything like. No drama at all, I was just stupid. I regretted that my whole life.
I will add one thing to that. There is lot of hate going when touring, like in a sport team. DiGiorgio could have made my life miserable during that first tour but actually what happened was that he took me under his wing from day one. He was like a touring veteran by that time. I will remember that for the rest of my life. Since the day we met, we always wanted to do something together and finally we’re doing Devil’s Highway. All of them could treat me like a servant on that tour but they helped me and showed me things. I’ve tried to remember that over my career. You can ask any opening band that toured with Obituary or Deicide when I was in the band, everyone of them loved me because I treated them really, really well. It’s important to take what you do seriously, your work but not yourself. It doesn’t make you any better from someone else because you have some gift or talent or you play in some band.
Did anyone offer you to join and play the recent DTA tours?
No, they didn’t and I actually asked Eric about that. I really wanted to that, I think people would fucking love to see me, Steve and Gene Hoglan to play all the songs together. Eric told that I didn’t play on the album and people would want to see musicians who played on the albums and I respect that.
I’ll tell you one thing, couple of years ago, DTA did a tour with the Obituary guys and DiGiorgio knows how much that broke my heart for not being in Obituary. I ended up playing a song or two. I played The Philosopher and I think Overactive Imagination, yes just these two songs. When I got there I went to the ticket office to get my pass and they pushed an envelope to me with the tickets and they told me to wait there. Then, they came back and they gave me one of the tour laminates. Each one of them was numbered and named on the back and this one was with my name, Santolla. Steve did that for me, because he obviously realized that this was going to cause me pain to not be part of. It would really hurt me. He did that so I would feel like a part of it, so this is how amazing person he was but he really is an asshole [laughs].
You mentioned a couple of times about your departure from Obituary. These news came as a shock to many fans around the globe. Could you elaborate a little more on that please?
I got fired from Obituary. This is the only time I got fired from anything in my life. Like I said, it was heart breaking and it still bothers me now. However, it happened when I was living in Sweden. I totally understood it and I grasped it completely. When I was on tour with Melechesh, Donald was watching my cat and I was in Toronto and he took my twenty one year old cat that had cancer in her ear and he went and paid three thousand dollars to have the best cat surgeon in the Central Florida to fix her ear.
Donald, Trevor, Terry and their wives are like family to me. There is no problem between us at all. I fucked some shit up for the greater good. I have to tell you, I get that man and I don’t hold the gauge against them. John is either working with the band or he is with his family and he’s not this type of guy who will hang out with you all the time. Kenny, my replacement, we’ve been friends for years. When I’m going to get fired from Obituary and I’m going to quit Deicide, then somebody else is going to get that gig, the prestige, the travel and that money.
At some point I ended up moving to Bogota, Colombia, [lighting up the cigarette]… And that started like a downward spiral for me because the woman I moved down there with was like incredibly manipulative and I was so lovesick [laughs], I was acting like a thirteen years old again. It started then but it went on for a few years, I’ve had incredible anxiety problems. I would deal with them by drinking and I would get insomnia. I had so many personal problems. It was bad for the other people around me. When they fired me I was actually coming out of it. If they waited couple of more months, all that stuff wouldn’t have happened. That wasn’t their responsibility, I understand that. I was carrying my weight, my personal problems and emotional issues and all those things were effecting what we were doing, so I had to go. Me and Donald still work in some other musical projects together. We’re still friends. The people who are their fans don’t see that, they just see the band and the music, they don’t realize interpersonal relationships.
Deicide. What has really happened? There was a lot of controversy about that whole situation in the media!
Okay… you, the fans and other journalists always want to know about that and it is perfectly understandable. There is no grand secret which I’m keeping away from everyone. Glen didn’t shoot my dog and I didn’t smash his track up or any shit like that [laughs]. I got out of that situation because I didn’t want to be in it. It was very poisonous for me and I didn’t want anything like that in my spirit or my mind. I’ve mentioned before that me and Jack were very close, I didn’t want him to suffer because of me so I got out of it. I got what I wanted. I’ve just left.
The other thing is that you don’t see me all the time or ever actually having a word wars on the Blabbermouth or anywhere else on the social media with anybody because I don’t like the negativity and there’s no reason to take it around with me. I tend to let things go. I don’t hate Glen Benton, I really don’t. I wish him well. As if I ever wanted to get some word wars with people… I know a lot of words, I would fucking destroy them [laughs]. What good would it do to me or to Glen or anyone else? For me it’s done, it’s over and it’s not important anymore. There’s no secret about it. I’m about art and music and people I love. I want to be happy and I want people to have peace with each other. The people who know me, they know who I actually am.
A lot of people assume that me and Glen have problems about religion. It’s more about some of the successful and talented people being Alfa males. Some Alfa males like to dominate and are not going to be willingly dominated. When I started playing with Deicide I made it clear that I will never pretend to be someone I’m not. One evening before one of the shows in Montreal, Glen approached me in the dressing room and asked me to hide my crosses. I told him that I would never, ever pretend to be someone I’m not.
In Chile one time, I had a few death threats and I had a couple of Chilean marines guard me for four days. We had a gig cancelled because some kid, a Deicide fan, cut some priest’s throat. I was coming down in the elevator and some girl approached me and she asked me for short interview for her metal website, she was lying. One of the things she asked me was about the whole situation about that priest and what I thought about it? I got really mad and I said: ‘Some fucking dude slits a priest’s throat, a guy who lives in poverty and commits a murder because he’s a fan of Deicide music, what do I think about it? What the fuck is wrong you?‘ It turned out that she was from Santiago’s newspaper, similar to New York Times and it was in the next day. I started getting some legitimate death threats. The whole situation was fucked up [laughs].
Just to close this off, Steve is a musical genius and he grew as a musician by learning and playing his music. Jack, as you know, is one of the closest friends I’ve ever had. Kevin is one of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet. Me and Glen are over now. I don’t have any desire to cause him any harm. I’ve moved on.
It seems like most of the American bands, especially from Florida, are keeping together. It almost feels like there is a special bond between all of them. It looks like nobody is jealous of other’s success? Is this true? Are you all friends?
It may seem like that on the outside but that’s not actually true. Some people, not all, are complete fucking assholes. They are very competitive and egocentric. Most of us support the Florida metal scene and Florida musicians in general. We are very supportive of each other. Most of us worship Sabotage for instance. There is just a couple of people that are just poisonous.
Thanks for clearing this up Ralph! Out of all the bands you’ve played with which one was the best to tour with and why?
Definitely Obituary! It was like checking out of the family. For instance, when we played at Wacken, me and Trevor were standing on the side of the stage while they were playing our intro, we were drinking and laughing and some girl from one of the European symphonic metal bands, I forgot which one, she was like: ‘Look there is 80 thousand people out there and you guys are just standing, laughing and behaving like little kids, aren’t you nervous?‘ I was like: ‘Fuck it, we’ll go out and put a gig on!‘. Being with them is the happiest time I’ve ever had when playing live. I really value them as people.
I’d like to ask you about Millenium. It’s been 13 years since the last album, Jericho. Do you have any plans to record again? On Hourglass you worked with Jørn Lande. How did you meet and is there any chance for you to work together again?
When we’ve done Angelfire in 1999, it came out fucking awesome and the singer at that time, Todd, joined other band just after the record was released, before we could do gigs or anything. I was like: ‘What the fuck am I going to do?‘. The main guy from the label told me that there was a Norwegian guy, Jørn Lande and that he might be interested. He was fantastic!. We got on really well and we still do. We have this amazing musical connection, we bring out the best in each other. Jørn is a very rare individual. He actually taught my son to swim when he was a little kid [laughs].
I’m going to do a new Millenium album and Jørn is not going to do it. The reason is that right now Jørn has different goals than I have. Like I told you earlier, I’m not careerist, I’m an artist. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an artist too but sitting with me for four months in the same room with me saying ‘try this and try that‘ would drive him up the walls [laughs]. I’m absolutely positive that in the future we will definitely do something together.
Kyle Thomas is going to sing on the new Millenium album because he loves the music so much. I was going to this dude that was on the American Idol, Curtis Gray. He is one of the greatest singers I’ve ever met. He’s got this ‘Freddy Mercury‘ level of tone, he’s ridiculous. When I told Kyle that I’m interested to get Curtis to sing on that album, he wasn’t very impressed. So it’s going to be him, Jason Bittner from the Shadows Fall on the drums and on the keyboards, there’s going to be Janne from Children of Bodom but I’m not sure who the other guitarist is going to be. DiGiorgio really liked those tunes so probably it will be him but there’s still time to decide. I need to finish my Devil’s Highway album first then there will be Millenium and my guitar solo record after that.
One of your fans asked me to ask you this question. Your first solo album – where did you come up with the title for it [Shaolin Monks in the Temple of Metal]?
It’s a funny story. I mixed that album, well… I didn’t mix it because I can’t mix but I was beside the engineer and feeling him with my vision how things should sound. I don’t have that skill and I’m not that good with the technology. My friend who is a fucking fabulous engineer in Toronto, Murray Daigle, is also a singer and songwriter. So I told everyone that we’ll go to Canada and we will work with Murray, everyone was happy about it.
I don’t know if you know but Canada has one of the hardest borders in the world. For an American to cross the border, they are complete fucking cocksuckers [laughs], I don’t know why! I really don’t! So I’m at the airport in Toronto and the immigration guy asked me, what I was doing over here? I said that I was going to mix an album. I was like: ‘I’m not here to make any money, I’m here to spend lot of money and I don’t need a work permit‘. This jackass had to go and ask his supervisor but I finally got it. But something happened with one of the tapes and I’ve lost a track and I can’t remember what it was. So me and Murray were mixing the album in the studio and I was like: ‘dude we’re a track short man, what we’re going to do?‘ And he had a track from his band that he never finished, it was a ballad, it’s the last song on that album called What Might Have Been. We did it right there in that moment, I thought about some melodies and we’ve recorded it and mixed in two hours. I didn’t even have a guitar with me [laughs]. When he was mixing it, he suddenly stopped, paused for a second and he said I was like a monk of metal on guitar. He said: ‘dude you’re like Shaolin Monk of the metal guitar‘. I didn’t have a title for the album yet and it had to be Shaolin Monks in the Temple of Metal [laughs].
You’ve recorded and appeared as a guest on many records throughout your musical career. Which album was the most fun to record and which was the most satisfying for as a musician?
The most fun album I’ve ever recorded was the Millenium’s Hourglass album because we’ve done it at Morrisound, studio in Norway and in the Manchester studio in England. We had a mind-blowing budget.
The most satisfying album as far as guitar playing is concerned so far has to be Deicide’s The Stench of Redemption.
Which album in the history of music made the biggest impact on you and pushed you to play the guitar?
There’s two answers to that. The most influential album and music in my life ever, is Diary of a Madman by Ozzy Osbourne, that is the big one but very close second is Obsession by UFO. When I was around six year old, I was listening to KISS, I used to play soccer and build model air planes and shit like that. Then, when I was twelve I heard Michael Shenker play and I didn’t realise that it was possible to play the guitar like that. When I was a kid, the plan in my mind was to try to become a marine fighter pilot. My father is a disabled marine. I’ve heard that UFO album and the song Only You Can Rock Me, from the first two notes of that song I decided that was what I was going to do with my life.
Thanks for taking your time to answer these few questions for us. Do you have any last words for your UK followers?
I really appreciate that people are interested in what I do. I already gave the reasons why it took a long time to record anything new. I’m appreciating the patience and I’ll give my absolutely best to make it worth waiting for those albums, so I hope that people will be pleased with the stuff that is going to be coming out soon.