Well, I promised you two Musings posts this week and I aim to please. This one is truly special. Chris Cannella is the front man, lead singer and guitarist for Valley death metal band Autumn’s End. More important to this writer is the fact he has been a friend for over 15 years now. I have seen him play in three different bands since I have known him, sat down for drinks with the guy and have talked about about genres of music from all parts of the musical spectrum. Best of all, there is not even a hint of any type of bullshit rockstar attitude with the guy.
October 22, 2012 I had an opportunity to talk with Chris at his office. We have talked for a couple of years about doing a Musings interview, a first for this blog since let’s face it, I do not talk about metal all that often. I did not realize he was inviting me to Disneyland! Chris is a product manager for Fender Musical Instruments and the direct conduit between Eddie Van Halen and Fender. Try and tell me that is not one of the coolest jobs in the world! Fender’s headquarters out in Scottsdale was a ball to visit, what a trip checking out the guitars and pictures of some of the classiest artists in rock and roll. After a tour of the facility, introductions to some of the people Chris works with (no I will not be doing any name dropping) and a bite to eat, we sat down in Mr. Cannella’s office for a one-on-one about Chris’s musical journey and philosophy.
This interview was awesome, what a privilege it was to spend some time in this setting with my friend. Chris not only has a vast knowledge of music and the industry, he is an incredibly intelligent and articulate man. That makes my job pathetically easy. Enjoy!
FRANK: I am interviewing Chris Cannella, long-time friend of mine from … jeez, we’re talking back in ‘95!
CHRIS: ’95 … the beginning of 1995 is when I began working at Hot Topic, right down the hall from the Hat Club. (Chris and I used to work at Metrocenter Mall back in the nineties. Oh my!)
FRANK: I’m not really into talking about old bands when interviewing someone. Both occasions in the past (interviews with Michael Cornelius, Robert Lerma and Tom Reardon from The Father Figures and Brendan Murphy from Source Victoria) those people had also performed in other bands known around the Valley. However, in this case I think it is a little unique, at least from my perspective, in terms of philosophy and style that I feel has changed and progressed over the years. Therefore, going back to when you first started playing whom would you consider at this point in your life to be your main musical influences?
CHRIS: Black Sabbath and the first two Ozzy records with Randy Rhoads. Those are the two things that I can tie myself to. Of course, that has branched off in many directions over the years between different punk rock, indie rock and metal influences as it has gotten heavier and more aggressive. However, those two – Black Sabbath and I emphasize all three stages of Black Sabbath: Ozzy; Dio and Ian Gillan. That was my peak. Those were my three Black Sabbath influences and then anything with Randy Rhoads. I wanted to be him, except he was small, tiny, skinny, handsome and really good and I wasn’t. (laughter from both of us)
FRANK: When was the first time you picked up a guitar and started to play?
CHRIS: I tried playing a little bit when I was younger but we were very broke so I couldn’t afford a guitar of my own. I would go over to my Uncle Alex’s house and my Uncle Joe’s house and play on their Gretsches and their Gibsons, their jazz and acoustic guitars. I was never able to pick one of my own until I saved up and got my first electric guitar and amplifier from a Sears catalog. Including shipping and everything it was $186 and it was a Rhoads copy guitar from Sears. The guitar was $169 and it came with a free 15 watt amp. I got it and was so excited! I remember the day that I got it because it was delivered the next day, so July 15, 1986 at 11:41pm is the day I started playing guitar for myself. Very crucial to me! I got home from my friend’s house after my mom called me and told me the package had arrived. It was a long walk across town so I got home late. I get home, opened the box and tried to tune it as best as I could from memory from playing at my uncle’s house. I looked at the microwave oven which I could see from the living room and saw that the time said 11:41pm. I hit my first chord and said “this is my moment!” That was when I started, July 15, 1986 at 11:41pm.
FRANK: Did you ever take lessons or did you just play?
CHRIS: I just played. I studied a lot. I took four technical lessons at a music store that I won in a Christmas drawing. I never actually went after that. I found more benefit from playing with other guitar players that were much better than me. I always tried to find the best guitar player in town, bring my guitar over to his house and say “Show me something. Teach me something.” Two guys that were very big influences on me in terms of music theory were Rick Heins who currently works here …”
FRANK: I didn’t know that Rick also works here!
CHRIS: Yeah, Rick Heins also works here on the other side of me, he is a product specialist for Fender Applications.
FRANK: From Source (Victoria) and Kings of Last Call! Holy mackerel!
CHRIS: Rick and I have been great friends for many, many years. He and another guitar player by the name of Sean Szafaran, we spent a lot of time practicing guitar together. They showed me a lot about music theory. People like that and other classical and jazz guitarists that I sat with taught me a lot. I found that was better than going into a place and taking lessons. I would rather sit with people that were superior and learn their techniques and ideas. I never learned cover songs. I may know ten songs to this day, I can’t remember. I never was in a cover band. I just learned techniques and styles. What did Rhoads do to get that sound? What did Hendrix do to get that sound? The technique, the style, the feel … that’s all I wanted to know because I just wanted to be creative. I didn’t want to copy, I just wanted to learn. I bought my first Charvel Model 6 from Rick Heins in 1991 and I sold it in 1992. Right before I sold it I met this girl at my rehearsal studio. She came down and I was playing on this guitar. She was really sweet and super hot and I was showing her this chord on the guitar and how to play on my guitar, this red Charvel Model 6. I sold it a year later. The guy I sold it to still had it. He contacted me just four months ago and said, “I still have it man. You want to trade back for it?” I said, “I do!” because it happened to be right before my wedding anniversary and that girl I met and showed it to is now my wife! Twenty years later even though we weren’t together for twenty years, we have been together for eight, but twenty years, the cycle of things to be able to get the only part of my past from the nineties back. And Randy got it from Rick Heins! Small world!
FRANK: Wow that is crazy! Rick is good.
CHRIS: He is one of the best guitar players I have ever seen. Rick, Ray Goodwin, Sean Szafaran … these are guys that make me feel inadequate often and I love it because it keeps me on my toes. We feel we are each other’s peers. I actually give private lessons to some celebrities on the side that I don’t mention publicly because it would be kind of annoying for them. “You’re taking lessons but you’re super uber-famous?!” I don’t think I would be able to give lessons if it wasn’t for the fact that all four or five of us back in the day used to jam, practice and study together and learn from better people all the time.
FRANK: Your style has always intrigued me because I personally felt it never fit just one genre where it was limited to just one precise spectrum. I have seen that in regards to different bands you have played with over the years. I have seen you go from playing in a heavy industrial band to a band that still had elements of the industrial in it but generally more driven toward …
CHRIS: The musical side maybe?
FRANK: Yes, the musical side, but just the evolution of going from industrial to metal with some elements of the industrial to today this incredible barrage of metal at all times. With your current band Autumn’s End I cannot really pigeonhole things where it sounds generic. Stormtroopers of Death was kind of like the first “crossover” band per se and it’s curious we were talking about Scott Ian earlier. I had always grown up listening to punk rock and kind of dismissed a lot of metal, so when I heard those guys they inspired me to check out Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica and some of the punk bands like Discharge. I’m curious about the evolution for you and that process over the years in regards to your style.
CHRIS: When I was doing the industrial metal side of things it was really difficult for me because I started off playing guitar. My first garage bands were kind of always progressive rock, progressive metal or progressive death metal. N17 was very simplistic, basically four chords and a sampler. After a while for me it started getting annoying. I remember that the sequencing side of things started getting so heavy towards the end. I remember at a show that I swept arpeggios for 16 measures and nobody in the band knows to this day that it even happened. There was so much going onstage and I did the guitar solo. I trained my whole life to play guitar and I loved my time, what I did with that band. However, I had a lot of buildup and I can remember being on tour and I was only one in that band that was listening to Venom and Celtic Frost. When you think of the eighties a lot of people think of the Motley Crues and the Poisons. That wasn’t the eighties for me! The eighties for me were Slayer, Megadeth, Celtic Frost, Bathrory, Mercyful Fate … that to me was the eighties. That other stuff was just horseshit. This was the real deal and I wanted to be a part of something real. As much as my previous band was very real for the style of music they were doing, I still always had something hurting me that I wanted to play more musically. I wanted to play more styles. I love Eric Johnson. I love Stevie Ray Vaughn and Hendrix. I also love Andres Segovia and I love the band Death. There are so many things that I am little bipolar I guess, or tripolar or quadpolar. With the stuff we are doing now with Autumn’s End I write most of the riffs but when we get together we change them drastically as a team. The riffs I bring to the table are almost entirely written on the acoustic guitar first. The reason is I think that an acoustic guitar can sound more evil than the electric guitar. I am playing really dark stuff on it and baroque sounds. I can bring it in and say, “this is going to be a really dark song.” It is emotionally driven and I feel I have a freedom now that I didn’t have previously. I don’t know if this properly answers your question but it definitely comes down to having the freedom to express myself fully. All the guys are contributing more which still gives me the freedom I never had before. I have never regretted a thing I have ever done but as time keeps going who knows how long this is going to last before I am too old and am only writing acoustic music. It is always going to go back to a certain sound and I will never be happy until I personally write my own “Diary of a Madman”. To me the greatest song ever written is “Diary of a Madman”. Until I write my version, my accomplishment song like Randy did with that song I will never stop trying.
FRANK: Wow! That’s the quite a goal, that’s awesome. Now part of this evolution then has been taking over the role as the front man, being the lead singer of a band, something you did not do in the previous two projects I had seen you play in. When did you make that determination, “this is what I want to do. I don’t want to just be the guitar player.” And I am not saying “just be the guitar player,” but …
CHRIS: I understand what you’re saying and it’s a really simple answer. The second project I did before I started Autumn’s End, I was at my wits end with people who have a thing called LSD. “Lead Singer Disease.” (Yes, I laughed my ass off at this point.) I can’t take them anymore. I am at the point where I am too laid-back. I don’t deal with trauma and rock star attitudes. Even the rock stars I hang out with don’t have rock star attitudes if that makes any sense! I don’t like … granted, it takes something special to be a great front man and singer like David Lee Roth or Steven Tyler. Those guys have something that I could never have and do. I decided to just start practicing and get back to my vocal training. I am going to do it; that way I want to be able to write everything I want to hear in my head and I was sick of having singers that can’t do stuff. I just said, “I want to do it all. Screw it.” I did it for convenience, not out of arrogance. That is all it was, convenience. We argue a lot less that way. (more laughter)
FRANK: You know that I am objective about music and that metal is not my primary focus of music.
CHRIS: Right! We have had some great conversations about bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and New Model Army, two bands I love to this day.
FRANK: So the fact is I really like this band and the things that Autumn’s End does absolutely intrigues me. You recently released your third full-length album The Siren’s Lament. I have always been curious because there was a period of inactivity between Act of Attrition and this current album. Is that something you would like to talk about?
CHRIS: Sure, may as well. It is something that needs to be answered. I have an old-school loyalty thing in my head, body and heart. When Joey got into his accident shortly after Act of Attrition came out, we lost a year of recovery time. It was six months before he was able to play drums again and it took a while before he was ready to play live again. I would not turn my back on him. Hindsight being 20/20, I don’t regret anything. It was unfortunate that we still had to part ways with him. I had this thing though where I refused to release the album with a fill-in drummer. It did not seem like it would have any authenticity that way on a record. We waited until we had the right line-up and we had a few line-up changes. Every time we had a line-up change when we were about to start the record I said, “Nope. We’re not going to do it. Why? Because that’s not the way this guy, who is an actual member of the band would be playing it. So let’s get this person to put his style into it.” When The Siren’s Lament came out it was that line-up, everybody on that album was in the band. Two days after the release of the record I had to let go of our drummer. But the next stuff we did not even start writing until after we got Dylan in the band. We are starting to write the next record even though this album just came out. We have not even toured on it yet. I am confident I will only have the people on the record that are actually in the band, if that makes any sense.
FRANK: That makes perfect sense.
CHRIS: That way the style is authentic and true. There are going to be definite changes on the next album because Steven is involved with it even more so and same with Dylan. It will be very fun and a little twisted because Steven is such a death metal guy and I am such a musical guy. It will be a strange one, I’ll tell you that.
FRANK: Well, when you say strange I also equate that to unique by not allowing yourself to be categorized as a typical death metal band. If you were an outsider, personally how would you describe the sound of Autumn’s End?
CHRIS: I don’t know. Kind of atmospheric death metal maybe? I don’t know, if I heard it as an outsider I would say an American band that tries really hard to be Scandinavian. (laughter from both of us) I would honestly say just a death metal acoustic band.
FRANK: I like that description because there aren’t many metal bands, at least those I listen to that … you put more acoustic guitar into your music than any other metal band I listen to. That to me is a very unique element because usually you just hear the (tries to make that ferocious metal sound), that barrage the whole time which is fun and cool, but as I get older I become less willing to hear the same thing over and over and over. When I was younger I would grow up with a band and you know how it is, you want them to stay the same forever, then when that one album comes out that is different you get pissed off.
CHRIS: Exactly! Look what happened to Government Issue and Fugazi. You want them stay that same band, you wanted them to stay broke and hungry forever (laughter from both of us) because they did it for a reason. It is the same with a lot of stuff we listen to these days. I’ll be honest that as I get older my attention span gets shorter. I want to hear more. I haven’t ever heard the perfect record. I like to say I own some of the perfect records but I want to write the perfect record. I want to write the one album that I always wanted to hear that I can listen to myself. It is probably self-torture because it will probably never happen again, but I think I owe it to my wife and my kids as an influence to be able to say, “I tried. I don’t care how old it was to write the one thing that you could be proud of me as a child, taking over my name or bloodline. I’m going to keep trying!” I don’t want them to think it’s okay to give up.
FRANK: The newest record The Siren’s Lament. What was the inspiration for that record, musically and lyrically?
CHRIS: Anger. Really, it was a hard, hard time for this band. The line-up changes even though it was just the drummer and rhythm guitar player. Two or three drummers and then the switch in the rhythm guitar player. It was hard, a stressful, tense time and sometimes I felt very angry and frustrated but there is a greater sense of depression than ferocity in the record and a little bit of that was El’s influence as well because he was going through some tough times in his personal life. We take our music very, very personal so we definitely portray whatever is happening in our lives into the record. I think it is a perfect snapshot of where we were at that time of our lives, that six-eight months, that ten months before the album came out. You can get a perfect snapshot of where we were. Lyrically, because of the election with the extreme left and the extreme right, plus my absolute loathing and hatred of religion came to a new level, so I was just fuming about it. Lyrically it was just such a brutal record on religious context I think. I don’t know, it is definitely bipolar and it was a rough time, but I think it’s a cool record because of it. I think it’s fun to listen to now because every song starts off one way and ends a different way. No song ends with the same riff it started with and we didn’t realize that when we wrote it. We didn’t realize that until after the record was done when Ryan Butler was playing it back for us. He said, “Do you guys have some kind of attention deficit disorder because every song ends different than it starts. It’s never the same thing from beginning to end. There is never a verse-chorus-verse-chorus.” I didn’t notice that until after it was done.
FRANK: I listened to it in full the day after the release show at Joe’s (Grotto). Being able to listen to it in that type of atmosphere where I could put the ear buds in and just focus allowed me to process things. In a live setting it’s a different atmosphere and you’re into the moment but when you’re actually able to process everything that is what jumped out at me right away. There was no .. which I liked! Every now and then it’s cool to listen to something that does not follow the verse-chorus-verse formula that so many bands think they have to follow. I like the idea of dramatic shifts in tempo and dramatic shifts in power and dramatic shifts in attitude even within the context of just one song. There are very few bands … “I Against I” from Bad Brains is my all-time favorite example of that. It is so dramatic in that one song and power does not have to be all about extreme speed the whole time. That is what I liked about this album because you have that opportunity to take a breath before the barrage hits again. But it kind of sounds like there may be a bit of a shift going into the next album in terms of that kind of formula.
CHRIS: No, I don’t think so. The only thing that you will hear are more fast songs on the next record, but I hate songs that start off fast and end exactly the same way. I don’t like one-dimensional records. You are not going to get that from us. Steve will probably get frustrated by this because he likes to write brutal from start to finish like Rise From Slumber on their records. We will probably have one or two of those but it has to go somewhere. It has to take me somewhere; it has to take all of us somewhere because we all write. We’re all writers but if it doesn’t end up taking us from one direction into something else I guess than to me it is not a good song. It doesn’t tell a story. Now I am not saying it has to tell a story like a pirate ballad (laughter from Frank) or anything like that but it has to take you somewhere emotionally. If you can’t feel it than it is not good.
FRANK: The show that you have in a couple of weeks; do you anticipate that possibly being your last show in the Valley for a while? The reason I ask is the band’s Facebook page alludes to the possibility of a tour on the horizon.
CHRIS: We are working that out right now actually. With The Siren’s Lament going to #13 nationally (on CMJ) … how did that happen? We couldn’t believe it. We basically did this all on our own with the assistance of Century Media distribution and the Orchard distribution. Everything else we did on our own and we just can’t believe that people like the record! We are getting hit up by different booking agencies and it looks like we are spotting one down. For the first time in many years we may actually just sign a full deal and see what happens. We are not going to tour for long. I don’t like to be away from home for long because I am gone so much already with work and I really love my family. However, I definitely want to give this album a chance and an opportunity for our fans to see us. It may not be all in one stint, a case of doing one week here and one week there. Break it up a little bit more but it will definitely happen.
FRANK: Awesome! Okay, one more question, more of a personal comparison than anything. Both of us went to go see The Big Four concert movie, which I thought was just awesome, that was in the theatres last year since we did not have an opportunity to see it live. I always considered Anthrax to be from the group the most energetic, the one that most reminded me of going to a punk rock show.
CHRIS: They were more of a punk rock band that any of those other bands. In that time of The Big Four when Megadeth first popped up and became a part of The Big Four, which really happened when Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying came out, that was punk rock lyrically with the craziest musical components I ever heard at that time. Nobody ever played jazz parts that fast and did things such as playing with a dotted three. You could not help but think “where the hell are these guys coming up with this stuff?” You don’t realize that they were just experimenting because two of the guys hated metal and were jazz guys and the other two strictly wanted to play metal. Things just happened naturally as a result. Megadeth was so angry and progressive and Metallica was so solid at that time. We’re talking 1986 when The Big Four really happened. Anthrax was from New York, they were from the other side of the country. The other bands were from the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Anthrax hung out with more hardcore and punk rock bands and their sound was somewhat different as a result.
FRANK: And of course Slayer in my opinion was the most intense. “Raining Blood” is still one of my all-time favorite metal songs.
CHRIS: Do no wrong with that song! That song still gives me chills. Reign in Blood is still my favorite Slayer album (Frank agrees). Love the guys to death. I personally think there should have been a Big Five! I think Exodus should have been on there. Kirk Hammett came from Exodus and Kerry King was a part of Megadeth (info Frank did not know!). All these people were switching around and they were all part of that same group. Exodus should have been on there, Gary Holt is one of my favorites. It is what it is. The sounds are so different. Slayer was brutal, the Reign in Blood album just changed everything. Master of Puppets is my favorite Metallica album. Peace Sells is still my favorite Megadeth album even though everyone likes Rust in Peace due to its clarity and precision.
FRANK: The album after Peace Sells was always my favorite. (Chris confirms the album title of So Far, So Good … So What!) I love that record. Peace Sells was just behind that and I will be honest, Rust in Peace did not hit me for years. It was only about five years ago when I played that album and thought to myself, “Why did this not hit me right away? This is amazing!”
CHRIS: That album got me but Peace Sells was so angry and so pissed! The lyrics were so pissy and I have always been a fan of blasphemy since I was a little kid. (laughter from both of us). I will sum that up in a brief statement here. My love of blasphemy started when I was eight years old. My grandfather took me to my first Holy Communion and my family is all Sicilian. When I took the body and blood of Christ the wafer choked me and I threw up on the altar. I tried to wash it down with the wine, which caused me to get sick. My grandfather started laughing and the people in the church gasped. My grandfather took me out of the church and said, “Christopher it’s no big deal. You’re embarrassed but take a look around. This is all bullshit, those people don’t know you and they have no right to judge you. It was all lies.” Think about it, that was a Sicilian man. I went heavy into my love of blasphemy at that time. That’s why I enjoyed what Megadeth and Slayer did. Anthrax never had that but what they have that I love is the fact they write about the lighter side of things. They got into the world of comic books and other things that made a kid feel okay to be a kid. I miss that. I wish Metallica still played like Metallica. (total agreement from Frank)
FRANK: Thanks Chris!