Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Well, at least you can when the band is NunSlaughter. The first time you hear that name, you can kinda guess what these dudes are all about: down-and-dirty metal custom made to piss off Christians the world over. There’s really no middle ground between the road of angels and the Left Hand Path when you name your band after massacring a pack of Christ’s wives. Luckily, NunSlaughter is not a band that’s interested in middle grounds or equivocation.
Formed 35 years ago, NunSlaughter has been consistently wreaking havoc in the death metal underground with more releases than your average ten bands put together could manage in a full career. Throughout it all, NunSlaughter and vocalist Don of the Dead has weathered the storm through a multitude of band members and a music landscape that is constantly shifting and changing. For death metal fans, it doesn’t matter what is going on in the wider world at large, NunSlaughter is and has been a constant in our lives. Ahead of a packed summer that includes a set at the returned Maryland Deathfest, I caught up with one of my favorite death metal vocalists to discuss NunSlaughter’s epic career, pissing off the masses, and what has kept the band alive throughout one hell of a wild ride.
First off, for those that might not be in the know, how did NunSlaughter originally come about? Who came up with the name?
Don: NunSlaughter was born from the ashes of Death Sentence that lasted 1985-1986. We started the band in 1987 with a release sometime in mid 1987. The band came about because there simply were no death metal bands in Pittsburgh, PA at that time. I have talked to the original members and none of us can remember who first said “NunSlaughter.” I do remember we were at a show at the Electric Banana going over possible names and we just started saying a bunch of suggestions. One of us yelled out NunSlaughter and we all stopped and agreed that was the name.
You’ve been at the helm of NunSlaughter here for 35 years, does that feel wild to you at all? It’s hard to keep anything going for even a fraction of that time, what has kept your passion for the band blazing all these years?
Don: It does seem a bit wild and if you would have told my 16 year old self that I would still be doing this I would have thought you were crazy but here I am. I really liked creating music. Even though I am not a good musician, I know what I like and in the early years I was able to show the band members what I wanted to hear. All of us worked together to make it an actual collaboration and it worked and was fun. Over the years the writing process has changed, but I am staunch in my idea of what NunSlaughter is and will be. I’d like to think that helped with continuity throughout the decades. At this point in my life I am able to put my entire focus on making music and performing, I don’t have many years left so I just want the band to have some fun and tell some weird stories.
NunSlaughter has been a huge part of the extreme metal underground for forever. What was the scene like when you were starting out and how do you feel it has changed from then till now?
Don: There were a lot less bands, for sure. The way of promoting a band has changed drastically and the scope of what death metal is has grown. We are one of the last stalwarts of the first wave of American death metal. A moniker I wear with pride.
You guys have been steadfast in your commitment to pure death metal without compromising or switching your sound up. What drew you to that style of extreme metal initially and who were some of your influences early on?
Don: It’s the same for most people/bands at our age. Venom, Slayer, Hellhammer, Slaughter, Bathory, Mantas/Death/Massacre, and Morbid Angel. These were the bands that took heavy metal and made it into DEATH METAL.
Staying with influences, are there any newer bands that you enjoy in the genre specifically? It’s wild to think of how huge the genre has grown to the point where there are so many different subgenres and niche corners within death metal as opposed to when you guys were starting out and there wasn’t this huge sea of bands that we have now. What’s your view of the state of death metal in 2022?
Don: Death Metal is strong at this time and I believe it will continue to grow and evolve. People are still finding out about older styles and what was old is new again. Many upcoming bands use older styles to make a name for themselves and if you have never heard it then it’s new to you. I hope they continue to make music but only a few people/bands will make it past the five year mark and even fewer to 35 years.
Death metal is such an extreme genre of metal that just feels tailor-made to piss off all the right people. I remember getting accosted in a Target a few years back by an old dude with a giant cross necklace because I had on a (relatively mild) Cannibal Corpse T-shirt, so I cannot imagine what the reaction was when you started out to a band named NunSlaughter playing that style of music with song titles like “Guts of Christ,” “Killed by the Cross,” and “Impale the Soul of Christ on the Inverted Cross of Death.” What kind of pushback have you guys dealt with from more socially conservative or religious groups during your career?
Don: We have had a few shows protested and some complaints here and there. NunSlaughter does not convolute our lyrics so people don’t have to decipher what we are saying. It is right in front of you like “I hate Christians.”
Staying with that theme, what’s your background with religion? I’m also from the midwest and a very Christian community. Growing up believing in a literal hell, when you’re eight or nine and think you could roast for forever for no good reason, that’ll really mess you up and I dealt with the ramifications of that for years until I got to the point where I realized that I really just don’t believe in any of that stuff because it’s totally bonkers if you stop and analyze it for any length of time. I think that’s one of the biggest factors in my eventually seeking out more extremity in music and lyrics. You frequently take on Christianity with glee in your music. Is that a personal target for you or is it just because Satan is a way more interesting and free thinking character to align with than the other side?
Don: You hit the nail on the head with that question/statement. My mom wanted us to have a reference point in life and she was brought up to go to church so that is what she did for us. At 13, I was confirmed by the church and my mom asked if I wanted to continue to go. I said “no” and never went back. She had a falling out with the church when my father passed away so there was no love lost with religion. I really liked the images of Satan and Hell that Dante described. It is just way fucking cooler than some stupid guy being nailed to a cross, healing lepers, and turning water into wine. What an absolute stupid story.
Keeping with lyrics, you guys have some awesome horror themed lyrics. What’s your lyric writing process and what are some of your big horror inspirations? Metal in general, but especially death metal, really goes hand in hand with horror. What draws you to the dark and macabre side of life?
Don: Mostly I grew up liking the Hammer Horror along with Universal Monsters. I did watch lots of gore as a kid but that never really leached into our lyrics. I have no idea why some people, including myself, gravitate towards the macabre stories. Everyone’s taste is different but to keep it simple I like the stories and the depths that humanity can go to satiate a desire.
The first EP, Killed by the Cross, came out in 1990, pretty early on in the band’s career still. What was the process of writing and recording that one like? You had a few demos out at that point but how did it feel for you guys to get that EP done and out there to the fans?
Don: The Killed by the Cross 7″ is the same recording as our ROTTING CHRIST demo minus one song and the intro (that appeared only of the first 50 copies). The label was Whisper in Darkness out of Germany. They did all the work and we just signed off on it. It was thrilling to get our music on vinyl back in 1990. Back then having your recording on vinyl meant something and we were stoked even if there were only 300 copies made. That demo / 7″ was a rough recording and still to this day is very aggressive.
You’ve worked with a ton of talented musicians over the years throughout a lot of different lineups. What do you look for in a new member of NunSlaughter and how has the band managed to keep such a strong level of consistency over such a long time with so many different players?
Don: Years ago we looked for a warm body to fill the position and truth be told that was/is the wrong way to go about it. It was always a buddy or a guy or a dude we knew. It just never really worked out. So many hang-ups with people not knowing if they want to do music for a living. Between jobs, kids, marriage, divorce, drugs and alcohol, I am surprised we got anything accomplished. I was always staunch in the idea for the band and that creates conflict when trying to show people what to play. Eventually when Jim Sadist joined he was more of a band leader when it came to writing and working with other members. His sensibility and creativity was undeniable and we worked at making NunSlaughter exactly what the band started off doing. It is a simple formula. We play punk rock with lyrics about death and Satan. That is what the first wave of DM started off as and we continued it. No guitar solos, no keyboards, no wimpy vocals or long song arrangements. Just full throttle death metal.
My first exposure to the band was through a live record, and you’re the rare band that I actually really dig all the live stuff. Live records don’t usually grab me a lot of the time but NunSlaughter always has great ones because they feel more real and raw than any of the other ones put out and the band has such a great time with the audience. To you, what makes a good live album? Was there an adjustment for you to feel comfortable playing live in front of a crowd? Now, with more than three decades under your belt, what’s it like to go out on stage and play now?
Don: Very glad to hear you dig the live material. We always wanted to keep the live music very raw and unedited. All the mistakes and warts are there for people to hear and sift through. MANY live recording were released with fuck-ups (some huge fuck-ups). Jim was a huge component. His banter is ridiculous and his quick wit undeniable. We had some very loose lineups and at times it was difficult to figure out what the fuck others were playing but now we have a group of solid musicians and they perform well onstage which make me up my performance. Getting on stage is much better now knowing you are getting on stage with people that want to be there and that can handle their own. No egos or bad attitudes. Do I still get excited? Hell yes, that is the rush. I want people to know we left it all out on the stage. We don’t “phone it in” like many bands do.
Staying with live shows, where are some of your favorite places to play live and are there any places where you haven’t really felt welcome or have gotten any kind of negative reaction to a band named NunSlaughter coming to town?
Don: We have had funny and unique spellings of the name but no actual protests.
NunSlaughter really is the king of the split record. How do you guys decide who to do splits with?
Don: I have a list in my head of bands that I’ve wanted to do splits with. Those are the ones that take the time because the other bands might not be able to write and record at the drop of a hat. It took us almost 20 years of asking to finally get a split LP with BLOOD. That is coming out this year. Others it just happens that we have some music recorded and just sitting on the shelf. Another band asks if we want to do a split and we agree. We have a split 7″ coming out next year like that.
I really dug Red is the Color of Ripping Death, the most recent album. You look at bands who are as deep into their career as you guys are and a lot of the times they’re coasting or more of a legacy act than anything else, but that record has the same punch and immediacy to it that you’ve always had. What was the writing/recording process like for that one and how do you feel about the final product?
Don: The new album was fought long and hard for. It turned out stellar and I couldn’t be more proud of the songs and the sound. We had a few riffs sitting on tapes from when Jim Sadist was still alive. We used that as the basis for writing the rest of the music. All in all, it is about 85% new and written with the current lineup. We needed to pay tribute and homage to Sadist and it think we did it. For the sound of the record, that was all Tormentor. He has his own studio and he took the reins and did a fantastic production. Not too polished and a filthy guitar. We will continue down this road.
You guys have had a longstanding relationship with Hell’s Headbangers. How did that relationship come about and what about that label appeals to you? Obviously NunSlaughter has been a strongly independent band as well, what do you see as the pros/cons of working through a label as well as going it on your own?
Don:We met when Hell’s Headbangers was just starting out. They needed some help getting contacts and Jim Sadist helped out. We formed a friendship and that has made it easy to work with them. We license our music and releases to HH and we have found it to be a mutually beneficial relationship. Easy to keep tabs on what is happening with a release and we are able to make changes quickly. If items are running low, we just ask them to print more. It is a unique situation and one I am appreciative of. The drawback is that HH is more of a distributor than a label. Other than pressing our music, HH is a hands-off company. That is both good and bad with the good outweighing the bad. In the end, we are good friends that like putting out music and that is what is most important to me.
Jim Sadist was such an instrumental part of the band and just seemed like a really awesome guy all around. What did he mean to you as a bandmate and as a friend? I know that it was kind of up in the air for you as to whether NunSlaughter would continue after he passed, how did you eventually decide to keep the band going?
Don: There was no real question that NunSlaughter needed to continue, the only question was how long after his death would it take for me to want to start going again. NunSlaughter continued to put out releases but writing new music and performing was difficult at first. Jim and I had a complex relationship to say the least. Other band members did not want to be around because of how toxic things could become. We fought all the time about band stuff but remained friends. We were able to compartmentalize the band persona vs. the friends portion of our relationship. Without meeting Jim it is safe to say I would have given up on the band many years ago. When we needed to, we could write music so easily. He mainly worked with the riffs and arrangements and I worked with arrangements and lyrics. It was like an old married couple finishing each other’s sentences. It took the better part of 15 years for us to begin to appreciate the others’ contributions to writing and recording and there is not a day that goes by that I do not miss him. His fingerprints are all over some of NunSlaughter’s most classic songs and sometimes when performing I recall how Jim’s influence made the song what it now is. I was lucky to have him as a friend and bandmate.
Lastly, what’s the plan for the future of Nunslaughter? What can fans look forward to for the next few years of the band?
Don: Our current line up is strong and eager to continue to write and record. We proved ourselves on the new album and we have some split records coming out with new material. The guitarist, Tormentor, has a firm understanding of the writing style and had been working with NunSlaughter when Jim was alive. I am excited to create and make music with the band. Lets see what we come up with to punish Christ the deceiver.
Logo and all band photos courtesy of Don of the Dead.