South Africa Metal: DAMNATIA

(Exhumation/Death Metal/Whiplash/Technical)

Thank you for taking some time out of your busy schedules to do this e-mail interview! Damnatia has been on the SA metal scene for a very long time under various names with different sounds. It was only in 1998 that the band took on the current name and began personifying a darker death sound. How has the longer standing band members evolved since then in terms of character and musician?

Max: Well, we started out together during high school (Stephen and Julian were from a high school over the other side of Lions Head which is part of Table Mountain) and Adrian and I were at a high school right in the middle of the city centre) and playing together evolved over a few years from around 1996-1997 until 1999. We went through several names and styles: originally Toxic Psychosis (grindcore/punk) became Oblitorator (think early Sepultura) which then finally settled on Damnatia when we really started to get good. We rehearsed nearly everyday! We played most of the clubs with Cape metal legends such as Ravenwolf, Pothole, Sacraphyx, Gramlich, Neshamah and even punk kings Scoff and Hog Hoggidy Hog. We also had some success with the battle of the bands in Bellville (in the Northern Suburbs of Cape Town), we won and got given free studio time – this was when we got to record our recently online (finally) released EP (the original recordings from circa 1998) recorded with sound engineer Dirk van Straten (RIP). We also recorded at Spaced Out Studios thanks to Stephen’s uncle the well-known South African musician David Kramer. So we were pretty much cutting our teeth with quite a mature sound for the style of metal we were playing, twin lead guitar attacks, with a very dark, intense Death/Thrash element and a touch of Black/Doom metal added into the since non-recorded tunes. We learnt a lot by being in great studios from such an early age. We even brought in our buddy Sean Pregnalato on synths to expand the sound and sonic effect of the music. During the past decade we all have been working in many diverse musical and creative projects (too many to mention!) in many different musical styles. In 2009 I had the opportunity to go to a 10 year high school reunion, but I decided to reunite DAMNATIA instead. We have all grown and developed in marvelous ways and each had many amazing musical experiences. Re-forming Damnatia I personally found that we were all way more professional and far better at playing the material, it was very exciting. We only needed one rehearsal to nail about 10 songs perfectly, it’s like we never stopped playing together. But we all now have new responsibilities, families, jobs, etc. In fact, our drummer Adrian has been contracted to a hard rock band and sadly is not allowed to play with Damnatia so we have been on the prowl for a possible deputy-drummer to fill his shoes when he can’t make it which will be most of the time. We have invited our buddy Byron R. Howell to have a go and are very excited to hear a fresh, energetic take on the Damnatia tracks live! Byron is an excellent drummer and percussionist excelling in a variety of genres.

Julian: After high school a lot of the rage and angst that fed me as a metal musician dissipated. But as I got disillusioned with the idealism of society the need for creating metal returned into my life. The music is less about image, or sticking to a specific metal genre, and more about the sheer power and beauty of metal music. None of us have ever stopped playing music, and Damnatia is ingrained into our muscle memory. Combine that with musical maturity and focus and you have a tight, technically proficient and brutal output.

Stephen : Julian, pretty much hit the nail on the head , we were angry young punks trying to play the fastest heaviest metal possible ! Although we were trying to emulate the heavy technical death metal of the day
(mid 90’s) but it always came out closer to the rage of speed metal bands like Slayer. After high school as Julian said , a lot of the angst was gone and I discovered melodic lush sounds and became obsessed with that for a while as opposed to heaviness and funk rhythms replaced a fascination of raw speed raw speed…I pretty much went from discovering music with Metallica , Sabbath and Iron Maiden at age 12 to the Grindcore of early Napalm Death and Brutal Truth by age 16 in ’97. I was involved in Metal type music for about two years after Damnatia with Dirty Locals but by then I was completely burnt out on the crunchy guitar sound , which I’ve only recently started to enjoy again. For the record Julian and I also had very strong hardcore and Punk influences !

In 1998 Damnatia went into the studio and put out three demo releases. After decent promotion and playing in the Cape Town scene, the band went quiet the following year. What happened in 1999?

Max: We played a lot of club shows from 1997-1999 and finally when we were about to really start getting somewhere the band disintegrated live onstage during a raw version of Metallica’s “The Four Horsemen” at the Purple Turtle (a punk, goth, metal bar on the famous Long Street) in early 1999. Since then we all went our separate ways, playing in different bands and projects together in various constellations: Stephen and Julian studied sound engineering and film studies respectively, Adrian was swept up by CT tech-death band Sacraphyx who went on to tour Europe (Wacken Open Air most notably) and I studied music (majoring in composition, classical guitar and ethnomusicology) at the University of Cape Town and I joined a band called Starkravingsane at the time circa 2001. Stephen, Julian and I also had a side-project grindcore band called Morgh which featured Anton Cloete on vocals and Stephen on drums. The three of us were part of a punk/thrash collab with members of Scoff call The Dirty Locals. Years later Stephen and played together in afro-funk-punk outfit Alan Funk, bass and sax respectively.

Julian: There was fighting amongst band members, teenage issues, tales of excess and debauchery. Our music, which ranged from ‘old-school’ to ‘technically progressive’ was at odds with the metal trends of the time. All this has come full circle now, hence Damnatia has been summoned back into this world!

Stephen : Honestly 1999 was a lousey time for the band ….we’d all just finished school and couldn’t rehearse anymore due to conflicting schedules and commitments . As a result we had like two or three rehearsals that year and wrote no new material . The creative side of the band kind of stagnated . Added to that was disillusionment with the metal scene and the fact that at the time our sound was considered “dated” and we were going against the grain of the popular metal of the time which caused a lot of self doubt within the band about direction . Also it’s important to note that the whole Metal and band scene seemed to be on the decline, with bedroom producers dissing guitars , people abandoning rock and metal for trance parties etc ….seems ridiculous in retrospect.

Could you elaborate on the 10 year reunion that took place in Whiplash Fest 2009? How was it being on that stage – grinding the instruments again?

Max: I was thrilled and very happy to be playing heavy music again with such sterling players: really these guys are burning instrumentalists and the music just flows so easily, like we never stopped! You must understand that for a large portion of our live Damnatia was our outlet and our creative spirit manifested and it vanished for a decade and now its back! Amazing. It was a really satisfying and awesome feeling to play the Damnatia set again live, especially with such good sound (thanks to engineer Robin Stole). We recently played another show at Grindfest 2011 and also a special once-off at new live music venue in CT called The Jolly Roger. We have since had quite a few invitations from other well-known and excellent CT death metal bands and event organizers to do gigs with them.

Julian: Our music is far better received than when we first started, as there is a hunger for this kind of style. It’s almost like a spiritual possession, but in a positive sense. Damnatia is like a monster that is bigger than us, it feeds off the energy of the crowd, and in between is us, the vessel.

Stephen: Its good fun now that we are older and better musicians , we can actually appreciate the music we created now , and we are mature enough to put the ego’s and all that nonsense out of the way.

Damnatia was soon “resurrected” early 2011. What are the intentions behind re-forming and going back to the metal scene?

Max: At the time is was an experiment to see what would happen with a more mature Damnatia. I just really wanted to play those songs again with a new idea of approaching them since we were all much more experienced now. I think musically I got way too excited (laughs)… I wanted to get the band seriously happening after that show at Whiplash, but due to our drummer’s other commitments we couldn’t really take it as fast as I would have liked unfortunately. 

Julian: There is so much excitement and good music coming out of the metal scene over the last couple of years. It seemed a waste to condemn Damnatia as just a memory, a ‘pioneer of the South African metal scene’ as one reporter wrote. The climate is right for Damnatia to play music again, not silently festering in the annals of history, in dusty cassettes and blurry VHS videos.

Stephen : Damnatia always had a lot of potential and felt like it ended prematurely…it was fun to get back together and play again , I really enjoyed it , more than I thought I would and it brought me full circle by reawakening my interest in heavier music again

For the readers who don’t know who Damnatia is – could you describe the sound and the major influences in your recordings?

Max: I guess we play a type of death-thrash with a blackened, organic edge that peaks through every now and again. Pretty fast and heavy with epic melody-tinged sections and intense grooves and great lead solos. It’s kind of streamlined yet raw at the same time. My vocal style is more along the lines of a shout rather than a death growl yet I do like to do the death thing from time to time… depends on physical capability in the night (laughs). But one doesn’t really want to categorize it too much. It’s loud. It’s Metal. We specialize in neutralizing the audience with sheer intense and fast death thrash! During the 1990s we were influences a lot by Sepultura (Beneath The Remains era), Slayer, Nailbomb, Emperor, Brutal Truth, Strapping Young Lad, Obituary etc, that kind of thing.

Stephen : I was very influenced my Black Sabbath , Slayer , Metallica , Sepultura , Iron maiden , Napalm Death, Obituary of course and a little bit of exodus to name a few . I was also listening to copious amounts of early suicidal tendancies , Dead Kennedy’s and Minor threat!

What can we expect in terms of music from Damnatia in 2012? Will there be any releases, gigs, festival appearances?

Max: As I mentioned earlier, we are checking out the possibility of auditioning drummers to take the throne and fuel this metal monster to the edge of the Earth. We aim to do a show every few months, flow naturally for now and make the gigs hit hard! Organized, tight and effective. Festival dates are a goal for us at this point. I hope to get into the studio at some point but obviously we would need to train up a new drummer as using Adrian may cause contractual issues with his band The Summer Underground… sadly. He really is an awesome metal drummer and we will miss his energy and intensity. I would like to record with Adrian though – at least the old material like our songs Severed Life, Unleashed and Illdisposed which never made it onto the DAT at the time during the 90s. We’ll see what happens.

Julian: We will be doing very special appearances as opposed to constant gigging, so make sure you catch us when you can. We already have a body of work, but writing new material would be cool. It is way easier to record nowadays than when we first began, in the days before home studios.

South Africa is still developing in terms of metal – what have been the challenges that Damnatia has come across over the past few years and how has the band overcome these challenges?

Max: Well, we haven’t been too involved in the metal scene specifically in SA for ages (due to being broken-up until now). This separation possibly adds a freshness to Damnatia’s energy and vantage point (as we have instead been immersed within most of the other music genre scenes). I think it’s been good that we have a very eclectic interest in many different styles of music (from electronica, contemporary jazz, African musical styles to ambient, new music, improvised and experimental music etc), developing our skills, ideas and creative vocabulary, yet when we come together to play metal we neutralize everything in our path, no problem. We are all very well-versed in the concept of music as a whole.

Julian: The scene has always been challenging, but Damnatia is not concerned with the problems. We just play our best, slay, and leave, whether it’s to 5 or 500 people. As far as getting people to gigs: When we first were around in the ’90s we had to design, photostat and cut paper flyers, which were then distributed by hand by ourselves, traipsing around town looking for anyone who looked ‘metal’. Now with social media the whole advertising thing is obviously way easier.

Stephen: we’ve gotten to the point were we are pretty much doing this for ourselves , the music and each other I guess in a way that’s how we always were , but now we are not concerned with how we fit into any scene or current trends or anything.

In a music career spanning since the primes of 1996/7 till 2012, what have been the highlights and equally so the low-lights for Damnatia?

Max: The low-light was probably the spectacular, live skirmish between certain band members onstage in 1999 (though perhaps this was a highlight? Hahaa!) and a highlight was reuniting at Whiplash in 2009 and discovering that we still had the magic (if not more so).

Julian: Another highlight was winning a battle of the bands competition in 1998, against a lot of bands of different genres.

Stephen : Reunion was a definite highlight for me in that we were able to put the past, mainly feelings surrounding the breakup to rest finally after 10 years of uncertainty. I also really enjoyed our surprise 3rd placing in the 1997 battle of the bands in Belville, still as Oblitorator – that was where the band really bonded together and got serious.Worst gig ….that i can remember…definitely the Van Riebeeck High School battle of bands in 1998 …the organising teacher hated us!

So, lastly do you have any words that you would like to add especially to our readers from abroad?

Julian: South African bands have a ‘third-world’ edge that is lacking in other metal bands of the first-world. We have different life experience and face hardships that are made manifest in our music.

Max: There are some really good SA bands out there who are very under-rated, you need to discover them. SA is experiencing a surge in the amount of metal bands being formed and a gradual rise in the quality of music in general is happening, especially in the experimental, Jazz and electronica-based scenes. This country, due to its past and recent healing process, as well as the natural beauty and mystique holds a lot of inspiration for creators of intense music. There is a lot of work to be done!

Stephen : I think South Africa has always had a bigger metal scene/more metal fans than anyone realised!

Awesome band, great vibe and loving the death! Catch more of or about them at Facebook

Brutal thanks to Max, Stephen, Julian for a fantastic interview and all photo’s courtesy of Lisa B.

LINEUP (circa 1997-1999 and 2009-2011)
Stephen Kramer – guitar/extra vocals
Julian Emdon – guitar
Max Starcke – bass/main vocals
Adrian Langeveld – drums


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