By Andrew Bansal
Athens, Ohio’s blackened thrash horde Skeletonwitch have been going from strength to strength with every album release, and their latest studio effort ‘Serpents Unleashed’ is no exception to that trend. Filled to the brim with quintessential Skeletonwitch black thrash goodness but at the same time expanding on what they’ve offered previously, this new album firmly solidifies their reign as one of the finest metal bands to have graced the planet in recent years. Currently they’re on a North American tour as main support act to The Black Dahlia Murder, and 2014 is already shaping up to be a stellar year for them, as they have a North American tour lined up with Amon Amarth and Enslaved, followed by further activity in Europe and Australia. Their tour with The Black Dahlia Murder visited the Glass House in Pomona on November 16th, and before the show I caught up with drummer Dustin Boltjes for a detailed chat about the tour, new album, his outsider’s perspective on Skeletonwitch, drumming influences, hair metal and more. Enjoy the conversation below.
Dustin, how are you doing today?
We’re three weeks into this tour with The Black Dahlia Murder, we spent the first couple of weeks in Canada and making our way through the States this week. I’m doing great! Sold-out show tonight, and stoked that the whole tour has been amazing so far.
This show was sold out in advance, and it’s going to be insane! Have you played here at the Glass House before?
I have. The first time I played here was with the old band I used to play in called Demiricous. We played here with Himsa. Since then, I have played here one other time with the ‘Witch. I believe that was on the Chimaira-Unearth tour. So it’s been two years since I’ve been back here and I love this place.
One of your recent dates on this tour that particularly caught my eye was South Lake Tahoe. What is it like? Do they even have people there who listen to metal?
We didn’t even know what to expect going into that, because it was originally supposed to be a day off on the tour. It was a really small place, probably like 300-capacity but just packed to the max and people were going apeshit. So yes, metal is alive and well in Lake Tahoe, surprisingly (laughs).
Good to know, man. But yeah, I want to talk about the new album Serpents Unleashed, and I’m actually glad I got you for this interview because I had some questions about the drumming. There’s a lot of what you could call punk style of drumming on this album, may be even D-beat. That’s not been a characteristic of Skeletonwitch in past albums, so was that something that came from you or was it a collective decision?
It definitely stems from me. I’ve played in grind bands and hardcore bands for years, so in any band I’ve ever played in, that element has kind of always existed. I love Motörhead, Disfear and stuff like that. So yeah, it comes with me (laughs), and it’s much more present on this record because with the first record I did with them, I had about two weeks to learn everything and go record. It was already written, so it was basically just, ‘Follow the blueprint and get the record done.’ This time I was able to play a much more essential role in the drum side of things. So yeah, I definitely added more of my own touch to it this time around.
I knew that you were on the previous record, so I was wondering why the drumming is so different on this one. But now it make sense because you didn’t write anything on ‘Forever Abomination’.
Right, I wrote nothing on that one at all. Everything was written, so I just went in and played the parts!
Over these last two years, I’m sure you got used to working with these guys, in terms of playing live and writing music. It must have helped that you were already in the band for two years before writing this album.
Absolutely. The chemistry between us now is pretty much flawless. It takes a minute to get used to playing with a bunch of new guys. But I just feel like it’s the ultimate destruction machine now at this point, and we can pretty much do whatever we want. How we did it for this record is, Nate and Scotty would write a lot of things using a drum machine and they would send me those. And then I would listen and learn them, then go, ‘I’m going to do this different and that different.’ I would have them send me just the files without the drum machine and I would play along with that. I would record that and send that back to them. So that’s how it all happened with this record.
So they gave you a prototype to work with.
Yeah, a blueprint. And I just kind of worked it from there, to become the mad scientist, dissect it and turn it into my own beast.
So, the album is the highest charting record that Skeletonwitch has ever had. #62 on the Billboard! That is crazy. Why do you think that is? I don’t know if the album is any catchier than before. May be it is.
You know, the bottom line is, it’s a Skeletonwitch record. So I don’t think it veers too much differently from what the band has done in the past, other than I think there’s a constant evolution in the songwriting with every record, being a fan of the first two records before I was in the band and then the following two. The songwriting just gets better and the meshing of the different styles of metal just becomes more flawless. Beyond that, the band has just been touring relentlessly for ten years, so I think people are starting to get kind of sick of what’s going on in metal right now and they are looking for other options. We’re hoping we’re that option! (laughs) Obviously #62 on the Billboard is pretty fucking amazing for a band like us.
Exactly, man. I don’t think even Carcass was too much higher than that. Probably #41 or something.
Yeah! Fuck, look how long that band has been doing it. Their new record is amazing, by the way. I love it, and it’s killer.
You mentioned that during the early period of the band you were a fan of them yourself. 2007 and ’09 was I think when they put out those first two albums. When did you actually first see them live?
Well, Demiricous did a tour with them and Dying Fetus, so that’s how I originally met all those guys. That was in 2007 or 2008. And then we just stayed in touch. We’re both from the mid-west and so we have a lot of the same work ethics and that whole blue-collar attitude. Ever since that first show Demiricious played with them on that Dying Fetus tour, I was like, ‘This band rules!’ There wasn’t a of American bands doing stuff like that, so I just followed their progression, stayed in touch and then heard through the grapevine that their old drummer Derek had quit. So I just basically hit Scotty up and asked him to let me know if he needed somebody to fill in for a tour or something, because I wasn’t doing much at the time and Demiricous wasn’t really active. He hit me up a few weeks later saying, ‘Well, we actually need somebody to do the record.’ So I did the record and the rest is history, man.
That’s cool. You mentioned the mid-west. Is that something the people from there are bringing into metal, the blue collar attitude? Do you think it’s a common ground with all musicians coming out of there?
You know, I really do! We don’t have the accessibilities that the east coast and west coast has. We just have to build our own empire, if you will. If you want to break out of that area and that scene, you have to work your ass off. So I think that exists in most bands there that don’t fall into the mid-west curse, which happens to a lot of bands where they get some heat and they break up or something. But yeah, for us it’s all about work, work, work.
This is the fourth album for the band. Is it getting harder to pick set lists now? One by one you have more songs to pick from, right?
Yeah, it really is (laughs). One of the things I love about this band is that the lengths of the songs are so short, so we do a headlining show and play 22 songs. You can really touch on everything and pull several songs from each album. To answer your question, yes it is getting harder but when we do a headlining show we play so many that it’s a nice balance now.
On this tour, you’re getting a 45-minute set. I don’t think Skeletonwitch did sets as long as that even as a headliner in the past because the band just didn’t have enough material.
Right, yeah. I think for this 45-minute set we’re cramming 12 songs in. It’s a marathon (laughs).
But after this tour, you’ve got a couple of great things coming up as well, the Amon Amarth-Enslaved tour. I’m stoked that you guys are on it. That’ll be even bigger venues and bigger crowds.
Oh, absolutely. For 2014, it’s just like things keep falling into place one after the other. We’re so excited about the success of the new record and just going into the new year moving forward full steam. We do the Amon Amarth-Enslaved tour, we come home and then go support Overkill in Europe. And then there’s some other exciting new destinations where the band has not been to yet that are in the works for after, so yeah man, it’s exciting.
I was going to mention that Overkill tour as well, because I just saw them in Anaheim last night with Kreator.
Oh, how was it?
Well, I thought Overkill were the best band of the night!
We’re all big fans of Overkill, Chance and Nate in particular. They both have Overkill tattoos, so it’s huge for them. So yeah, we’re really excited about that one.
Before we started this interview you were telling me about how you joined the band and stuff like that. I know it’s been a couple of years now, but was there an audition process at all?
You know, I guess I was one of the first people whose name came up to be contacted. But they didn’t want to step on the Demiricous toes because we both respect each other as bands and friends, so that’s why they kind of put it on pause and ended up getting Tony Laueano to fill in for a tour. For one reason or another that didn’t work out too well, and that led up to them just needing somebody to do the record. With me, it was just a really easy, natural fit because we had already known each other and there wasn’t that weirdness of getting to know a brand new guy who they had never met before. That was already out of the way so we felt comfortable hanging out with each other. I think they were just impressed by the fact that I learnt the fucking record in two weeks and I came to the first audition if you can call it that, and it was just spot on, man. Everything just sounded great right off the bat. So I think they knew in the back of their heads that it was going to work out, but were kind of just testing the waters with the record and were going to take it from there. The record did so well and we went out and did the European festivals, came back and did the Arch Enemy tour here. It’s been a wild ride ever since.
We were talking about the different sound you’ve brought into the drumming on this album. In this style of metal, I don’t think the guitarists or the vocalists have too much scope to do anything super-different. But the drummer is an exception to that and it shows on this record.
Well, thank you for noticing! I love hearing that. I think in a lot of ways me and Derek are similar players, both coming from more of a death/thrash kind of background. But I love that people are noticing that I am putting my own touch on things and that I’m bringing something new to the sound and the evolution. That’s awesome of you to say that. Than you!
I think drummers in general can experiment more, even in metal bands. As long as it still fits with the band, you can widen your range.
Absolutely. It can only go up from here, because with the writing, for some bizarre reason it just gets easier with Nate and Scotty (laughs). They’re just writing great songs. This time we had about four or five months off before we needed to go in and start doing the record. I was starting to get a little nervous because a few months had passed by and I wasn’t getting songs in my email. I was like, ‘What’s going on? Is this going to be another situation where I have two weeks to learn the record?’ And then all of a sudden, the floodgates were opened and all these songs just started flowing at me. I was like, ‘Holy shit man, this is awesome!’ And the songs were killer. It was song after song. I was starting to learn everything and adding blast beats here and there, wherever they didn’t exist in the demos, doing the more D-beat kind of stuff which I love to do. I’m just so excited about this record and I’m so glad it’s finally out, because we waited a long time to put it out (laughs).
How much of it are you playing on this tour, actually?
On this tour we’re doing three new songs, about a fourth of the set because there’s four records and we’ve got to touch on all of them. Got to please the fans! But on the Amon Amarth tour we only get 30 minutes so I think we’re just going to focus on hitting quite a few of the new ones on that one. It’s only 30 minutes, and we’re going to may be fit 9 or 10 songs in those 30 minutes, and really push the new material.
Lastly, what are some of the drummers that have inspired you the most?
Well, it originally started with me taking interest in drums because my mom is a major classic rock woman. She was born in ’58. She was younger in the ’60s, so the ’70s was when she really started embracing rock n’ roll, and I was born in ’78, so she turned me on at a young age to drummers like John Bonham with Led Zeppelin, Neil Peart with Rush and Keith Moon with The Who. I’ve always been a fan of the old-school bashers, the heavy hitters. And from there I kind of evolved with the whole wave of MTV. I started really getting into a lot of the classic metal from the 80s, like Priest and even more into the ‘hair metal’ if you want to call it that. I don’t like people calling it that, because to me it’s metal, man. It may have been silly and whatever, but it’s fucking metal and it’s killer, and it’s what got me into the more extreme shit. I’m a huge fan of Tommy Lee. From there I started getting into heavier stuff like Slayer and Metallica. And then I finally heard Cannibal Corpse’s ‘Eaten Back To Life’ for the first time, and that’s when I was like, ‘This is how I want to play drums. I want to play fast as shit and I want to beat the hell out of them like Paul Mazurkiewicz. So he is an absolute huge influence of mine.
That’s awesome man. I agree with you on the ‘hair metal’ thing, because that’s a derogatory term. I know those bands looked goofy but it was good music, you know.
Fuck yeah it was good music, man. I tell people all the time, it just sucks that metal will never be that cool again. It was so cool in the 80s, even though some people look at it and think those bands were dressed silly or looked silly, I loved it. I had that shit plastered on my walls and that’s what I wanted to be when I was ten years old. I wanted to be on stage, I wanted to be a big rockstar with all the chicks. So yeah, I don’t like when people call it ‘hair metal’, man. It’s heavy metal!
I know a lot of those so-called ‘hair metal’ bands from the 80s are still active, but they aren’t really doing a good job of it. Motley Crue don’t sound good live now at all.
Yeah, you know it’s funny, I’m going to promote some of the other stuff that I do. I actually have a tribute band back home called Iron Diamond that I sing for. I don’t play drums in it. We do all that shit, man. We play everything from Priest, Crue, Metal Church, Iron Maiden and King Diamond. Look some of that shit up on YouTube sometime. It’s fun. I have a good time with that one and that’s kind of how I make a little extra money when I’m not touring.
Hey, nothing wrong with that. There’s money in tribute bands. There are a lot of them in LA and most of them are successful.
Yeah, look at Steel Panther. They’re huge!
With that genre, there hasn’t been a ‘new wave’ as such, right? With thrash there are so many bands that came up. In my opinion, there is really no good hair metal band anymore.
No there’s none, and I think part of it is because you just had to be in that time period in order to write good music like that. There’s bands trying these days and just failing terribly. So yeah, i think living in that time period played a very important role in being able to write songs like that, and being in this area, the fucking mecca of all that shit.
Remaining tour dates w/ The Black Dahlia Murder, Fallujah & Wolvhammer:
11/23/2013 Blue Moose – Iowa City, IA
11/24/2013 The Castle Theatre – Bloomington, IL
11/25/2013 Mojoes of Joliet – Joliet, IL
11/26/2013 The Intersection – Grand Rapids, MI
11/27/2013 The Machine Shop – Flint, MI
Tour dates w/ Amon Amarth & Enslaved:
1/17/2014 House of Blues – Las Vegas, NV
1/18/2014 Club Red – Phoenix, AZ
1/20/2014 Backstage Live – San Antonio, TX
1/21/2014 House of Blues – Dallas, TX
1/22/2014 House of Blues – Houston, TX
1/24/2014 Center Stage – Atlanta, GA
1/25/2014 The Ritz – Tampa, FL
1/26/2014 Revolution – Ft. Lauderdale, FL
1/29/2014 The Fillmore – Charlotte, NC
1/30/2014 NorVA – Norfolk, VA
1/31/2014 The Fillmore – Silver Springs, MD
2/01/2014 House of Blues – Boston, MA
2/03/2014 TLA – Philadelphia, PA
2/04/2014 Irving Plaza – New York, NY
2/07/2014 House of Blues – Chicago, IL
2/08/2014 Mill City Nights – Minneapolis, MN
2/09/2014 Grenada Theatre – Lawrence, KS
2/11/2014 Summit Theatre – Denver, CO
2/12/2014 Murray Theater – Salt Lake City, UT
2/14/2014 The Regency – San Francisco, CA
2/15/2014 Wiltern – Los Angeles, CA
w/ Amon Amarth
2/16/2014 House of Blues – San Diego, CA