Chicago has produced so many musical legends in its storied history that just compiling a list of them would end up looking like a phonebook (remember those, kids?). It doesn’t matter if you are talking about hip hop, blues, punk, rock, singer-songwriter, or metal, Chicago has made its mark on the musical landscape of whatever your preferred genre is. Suffice it to say that the winds off Lakeshore don’t make up the only memorable noise coming out of my favorite city on Earth. For those of us who are fans of the more extreme side of metal, one of the most influential bands to come out of the Chi is without a doubt the death-thrash kings of Master.
Paul Speckmann, who has resided in the Czech Republic for the last several decades, started Master in the Chicagoland area back in 1983. After several starts and stops early on, Speckmann and his crew have racked up an impressive and highly influential discography over the past 30 plus years. Since moving to the Czech Republic, Speckmann and Master have done anything but slow down and have continued to put out high-quality releases at a steady pace. I recently caught up with Speckmann via Zoom to chat about his career and the current state of the world.
What got you into metal in the first place?
Paul: I became a fan of metal just by digging into my brother’s record collection when I was a teenager. It was really more hard rock…Aerosmith, Kiss, Black Sabbath…while he was away at work I’d be in there playing records and checking them out. There was no extreme metal at that time. Extreme metal was much later.
How did you get into playing bass?
Paul: That’s a good question. In high school I was singing in a cover band, doing songs from Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, UFO, and stuff like this. I was in a cover band and just decided that I wanted to play bass so I bought myself a bass at 17 and started teaching myself how to play a bass by playing along with a lot of those same records in my brother’s room. That’s really how it started for me.
How did you get into actually playing in bands?
Paul: I was singing in that band, discovered bass, and taught myself how to play bass. Then I ran into an old friend from the Cub Scouts. He was over working on his Volkswagen Bug and I was walking home from a girlfriend’s at the time and ran into him and just started talking. He was like, oh, I learned how to play guitar and I said that I just started playing bass and maybe we should get together and play something. He and I started doing songs together, just covering Judas Priest, UFO, early Scorpions, and things like that. Before you know it, one thing led to another and we found a guitar player and a drummer and our first band was a band called War Cry and that was really the beginning for me.
How did you go from War Cry then to Master?
Paul: War Cry, we got as far as recording a demo called the Trilogy of Terror demo, I think it was probably in 1982, I’m old [laughs]. The drummer who would end up being in Master with me ended up trying out for the band and we jammed with him for a while with War Cry and got as far as playing one show with the guy then he got in a fight with the guitar player and he got fired or he quit, I’m not really sure. It was a long time ago. Anyway, I discovered this seven-inch from the guitar player from War Cry, this seven-inch from Venom. It was a split seven-inch from the Welcome to Hell album. It was “Live Like an Angel, Die Like a Devil” on one side and “In League with Satan” on the other. I’d already been listening to Motörhead and GBH and all this punk stuff but after I heard that I was like, wow, we’ve gotta get more heavy. The drummer and I got together after he quit the band. I stayed in the band, jamming with War Cry playing with Twisted Sister and Queensrÿche playing some really killer shows, and he was trying to get me to jam with him saying we should get a band together and play heavier stuff and eventually I took his advice, quit War Cry, and started jamming with him. That was the beginning of Master. That was in 1983.
What was the local scene like up in Chicago at that time, if there was one?
Paul: There wasn’t a scene. They weren’t into this kind of stuff at all. For War Cry, yeah sure we were playing big shows and people were into that sludgy, doom kind of metal, like Black Sabbath but our own version of it so those shows were good. We played one gig out as Master before we broke up. There was probably 200 people [there], the local bands were there, guys from Snow White and Trouble, so there was a scene for that one show but the band broke up right after that show and I started doing the next band, which was Funeral Bitch. During Funeral Bitch, same thing, it was small crowds and we were lucky to get 50 people. There wasn’t really a big scene for that stuff at that time. It didn’t come until years later, really.
How did you end up getting Master back together then?
Paul: What happened is we didn’t talk to each other for years. I stopped hanging out with the guys and started a band called Funeral Bitch and then after that I started a band called Abomination and ended up getting a record deal from Nuclear Blast Records in Germany for Abomination and when they found out I was in Master before that, they wanted to reform Master so I did reform Master and we got as far as recording an album’s worth of material after just a few rehearsals and we split up again because the drummer was the same idiot that he had been year’s before and I just wasn’t gonna deal with him anymore. I left him, put together a new lineup of Master, and I’ve never really looked back after that.
What was the process like for recording that first album? Were there a lot of growing pains there?
Paul: Actually, for the first Master we just got together, rehearsed maybe two or three times, the drummer and I, the guitar player was too busy, he just came to the studio. We just ran through the tunes once or twice in the studio and then recorded them right away. It was a really fast thing, done in just a few days. That was a pretty quick recording for an album. When I look back on it now, if you really listen carefully to the album, there’s a couple little parts on there where the riffs are played in two different directions on a couple parts. Nobody probably noticed it but me but it’s very interesting. We didn’t even catch that in the final mixes.
That just happened by accident?
Paul: Yeah, these mistakes weren’t there on purpose. We left them on the album and nobody noticed until years later I go, what the fuck? How did we end up leaving that on there? Anyway, that album went on to influence a whole generation of music so whatever. When they say raw, that album was raw. They weren’t kidding.
What was the process for writing music like for you guys in those days?
Paul: The process for writing the music was the same [then] as it’s always been. The drummer wrote his songs, the guitar player wrote his songs, and I wrote my songs. Nowadays I do all the songwriting but [then] it was a normal process. You came up with your own ideas and brought them to the studio. I’ll give you an example. For the song “The Truth,” which is one of my favorite songs, my dad passed away and I was living in the basement of his house after he died while we were selling the house. Well, it took maybe six months to sell the house and I just wrote the song right there in the basement. Nothing special about it, I just wrote it, and it was a killer song. There’s not really a big process for me. I’ll say that today things are different. Say the last ten or so albums I wrote on the acoustic guitar. I’ll sit around in my room and every once in a while I’ll pick up the acoustic guitar and put it on my cell phone now or a microcassette recorder and come back to it later. Then when it’s time for albums, I have hundreds of riffs and put the songs together, go to the rehearsal studio, rehearse with the guys, figure out how many times we’re gonna play the songs, and prepare and write the lyrics after the recording, usually. I usually record the songs on a cassette player, old school, and then I’ll go home and I’ll write the lyrics. That’s how it’s done these days.
How do you tend to come up with those lyrics?
Paul: The lyrics just kinda come to me. I do a lot of reading and I suppose that may have something to do with it but I don’t really have an answer for you. The lyrics just kind of come to me. When I listen to a song, lyrics just start coming right away, really quickly. It’s not a major process for me, thinking about lyrics. Sometimes I’m looking for a word that might take me a while, a special word or whatever, but the main structure of the songs come automatically. I guess I’m lucky like that. A lot of guys out there run into this writer’s block or whatever. I don’t know what that is, I’ve never had that. Right now, for example, I probably have 13 new songs for the next album and that’s just so far.
I gotta say, On the Seventh Day God Created…Master, is one of my favorites from you. What was the creation behind that one like and was it any easier at that point than those first few recordings had been?
Paul: That was in Florida. We were working with Scott Burns and he wasn’t very easy to work with. I didn’t like him very much. He was just into the money, you know? He got a lot of money from us. That’s the first time I’ve ever told anyone that. You got that out of me. He was just into it for money, man. He was running on his success, he’d had a couple of good albums and I’d never said he didn’t do good albums because he’s done some good albums, but I didn’t like the drum sound on Seventh Day at all. Other than that, over the years we’ve sold at least 50,000 copies of the record so I’m not saying [it’s bad]. It was a good record but I didn’t really care for the production of the record. I didn’t really care for what he did on that record. It was a big seller but whatever, it’s not my favorite album. It still sells today but whatever [laughs].
After Collection of Souls the band went on another hiatus. What happened with that one?
Paul: Nuclear Blast didn’t like Collection of Souls so they didn’t do a good job with promotion on it and they didn’t really want to work together anymore so the band just fell apart. Then, from Collection of Souls, that next three or four years, I struggled to get new members and put a band back together. Then, in ’98, we recorded Faith is in Season and I’ve had success ever since then. I’ve never had to look back. I’ve been busy ever since.
Yeah, since you did come back there you’ve been at a pretty quick pace for putting out records. What’s been fueling that creative fire for you over these last few decades?
Paul: The world, man. Look at the shitty world we’re living in, man [laughs]. Seriously, we are living in a crazy world and it’s food for thought and I just like to stay busy. The last record was in 2018, at least for Master, and then obviously the pandemic came and the band split up again. Now I’ve got a new lineup together [and] one of the original guitar players came back and a drummer that I’d had ten years ago, he’s also returned. Now we’ve been out touring and doing shows and stuff and festivals. We’ll start working on a new album again but the world around you keeps you busy or at least gives you food for thought. I like putting out records every two years if possible. This is the longest it’s been between records but that’s only because of the pandemic. We are gonna record a new album in September so we’ll have a new album out in 2023 and hopefully it won’t be such a long hiatus again. Don’t plan on it for me!
I was gonna ask how badly the pandemic hit the band but it sounds like it hit you guys pretty hard then.
Paul: Yeah because two members of the band are Americans and they have this crap with the airlines where if you don’t get vaccinated, you don’t fly to Europe and that’s how it was for two years. I don’t know if that’s how it still is, if it’s a problem coming from America to Europe, but I think it still may be. I had no choice but to carry on. All of a sudden I’ve got all these shows this year coming across. I talked to some of the previous members that were here in Europe and that made it easier on me. The American guys at the time weren’t interested in getting vaccinated so they couldn’t come so what was I gonna do, cancel my life? No way. It’s like, you get an opportunity for festivals or concerts and you gotta continue. That’s life. I’m a musician and this is what I do for a living. It’s not a hobby. For a lot of guys, it’s a hobby and they only do this on the weekend or whatever. This is my full-time world. I do music for a living and I have for years, for the last maybe 15 years I’ve had success to live from the music. For me, I can’t say to the guys that I’ve waited two years, let’s wait another year and see if something changes. No way, not with all the concerts that are coming and the opportunities that are happening.
How nice is it to finally have live shows back consistently? I assume the pandemic was the longest break from shows in your career.
Paul: Yeah this was the longest break I ever had, two years of nothing, it was terrible. They were doing shows in Czech and stuff but I didn’t have a lineup at the time so I couldn’t do any. This is fucking heaven. I went to Germany and played the Heidelberg Deathfest. We had ten shows in Spain and Portugal, just went to France last week…it’s great to be back on stage and fucking living again. It was like not living any more. I’m glad now. I’m back and I’m happy, you know?
It’s great. I’ve been to a bunch of shows since they’ve been back and it feels like everyone is way more into it and maybe took them for granted almost before the pandemic.
Paul: You’re right, I agree with you there. One of the coolest [things] is there’s so much energy. It’s like the old days when everyone was hungry for metal. Like you said, I think maybe at some point everybody got spoiled and then it got taken away, now it’s back and everyone is more appreciative. It’s better for all of us.
You’ve talked a bit about lineup changes. What do you look for in a new member when those openings come up and has that criteria changed over the years?
Paul: The lineup that recorded in 2018 on the Vindictive Miscreant record, I’d had those guys for 16 years. They decided that they wanted to go their separate ways so we split up. It’s like a marriage and getting divorced. They decided they were going to do their own thing and, of course, that makes things difficult for me so I found the U.S. musicians and things went great with them, too. We had a great year together. We toured Central and South America and Mexico. We did a 24-city U.S. tour and then I brought them over here to Europe for 12 shows and then the pandemic hit right after our second tour of Mexico and then things had a change and I had to find a way to get good musicians back. I was just looking for new musicians but the point is, it was easier to get guys that I had played with before because they know the songs or some of the songs, they know the feeling. I’m not looking for a new band, these are previous members. I actually just started talking with the drummer again in America. Maybe one day I’ll do a tour in America with him again, we’ll see.
Your lyrics are frequently more along the lines of social commentary and real life situations. What appeals to you about writing about the real world and your take on what’s going on in it?
Paul: It’s been like that since the beginning. All you have to do is listen to a song like “Pledge of Allegiance” or “Unknown Soldier” or, from On the Seventh Day God Created…Master “What Kind of God,” for example. What kind of God would make a situation [like at] my mother’s funeral how the family treated me. I’ve always been singing songs with real life and social commentary. I hate all politicians, all religions, all organized religions are shit. I believe in myself and I think that people should believe in themselves. I’m not out there looking for gods, I’m just out there trying to live my life the best that I can.
I share my thoughts and ideas with people. It doesn’t mean they’re all correct. I have my own beliefs, we all have our own beliefs. Society has a way of interjecting itself into my songs. In every record, for me for example, it’s sort of like a journal of what was going on at that time in the history of mankind and how it affected me. It doesn’t mean it’s always correct. That’s what’s really cool cause people always ask what’s your favorite album. That’s a dumb question because every album is my favorite for me because, again, it’s a certain point in my life and when I go back and listen to a record, I think about the people that were involved in the record, sometimes I think about what was happening in the world out there at that time, where I was living, who was the president or whatever. All that kind of stuff seems to interject itself into my records and I don’t know if it was a conscious thing but it seemed to happen that way and I still write that same way today. For me, it’s the way to write. I know that fantasy and murder and all this kind of crap is really prevalent, and Satan and all this kinda bullshit…I’m not saying I don’t use some of these themes in my songs because sometimes I do, but for me it’s just fantasy in that situation. I don’t take that stuff too seriously so I wanted to write about what’s going on in the world, those are a little more serious efforts. Every once in a while I’ll interject a little fiction in my songs too.
Living in the Czech Republic, do you have a different perspective of America since you’re kind of viewing it from the outside these days?
Paul: I’ve been here for 22 years and I actually got the opportunity to move here 22 years ago to join a band, Krabathor. This was right at the time that [George W.] Bush was coming into his second term, four more years of terror, and so that was the perfect time for me to leave and, honestly, standing on the outside looking in, people have a hard time believing it but I’ve found more freedoms in Europe than America. America used to be free when I was a teenager, I know that. When I was growing up in the ’70s and early ’80s it really was a free country but there’s a lot more control going on over there than there used to be, and I see that on the outside looking in. I found more freedom over here in Europe, I’ve gotta be honest with you, I’m more comfortable here in Europe now. On the other hand, I still do enjoy going to America and touring. I still have a good time. I just have to be more careful when I’m on tour. I have to worry about more things like the police and stuff. I don’t want to get stuck so you have to be careful. Back when I was in my later teenage years or early 20s, I was a fucking maniac…drinking and driving and smoking all kinds of dope. I was just a fucking guy on the loose, insane sometimes. Back then you could get away with that. Today? I don’t think so. I don’t think you can get away with that anymore in America. I doubt it. There’s more control over people today. When I was growing up, society and the USA really was a free country. You could do whatever the hell you wanted, or at least we thought we could [laughs].
For sure. I think a lot of people buy into the narrative that a lot of the control is to keep people safe and they’re propagandized to believe things like that.
Paul: And that’s what I’m trying to say. When I was in my youth, we ran crazy. We were drinking beer and smoking dope and going to concerts and breaking windows and smashing bottles and doing all kinds of crazy shit that I don’t think is going on anymore today. I don’t know. There were all kinds of long haired hippie freaks in school, maniacs when I was growing up. I don’t know if it’s going on anymore. I think society has changed a bit.
What’s your assessment of where we’re at as a society? Do you think we’re more fucked than ever or do you see rays of hope from your perspective over there?
Paul: That’s a good question and hard for me to answer. I don’t have faith in society as I did before. With all these different movements, we didn’t have that stuff when I was a kid. I’m not anti anything, I’m not a racist at all. I believe in live and let live. Let people do what they want. As long as it’s not bothering me or affecting me, I think that everyone has a right to do whatever they want but I just think it’s strange in society today how there’s all these new groups and all this stuff. It’s strange to watch it on the news and stuff. Sometimes I’m checking the news and there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on over there. I
think [Joe] Biden is a weakling, he’s too old. And it’s not just Biden. What I can’t understand as I get older, I’m 58 years old myself, but what I can’t understand anywhere in the world is why the politicians that are trying to run our lives and run civilization are so old. I can’t understand why geriatric should be running the government or the senate or whatever and that’s not only in America. That’s the same over here. The president is in a wheelchair and is an alcoholic and a chainsmoker and, ok, I realize he’s a puppet. I’m not an idiot. I see Biden as a puppet too, he’s got people behind him telling him what to do. We know this. I’m just saying that I can’t understand why and how these puppets are so old. Why aren’t there young people running the government? I don’t like governments at all, don’t get me wrong, but you’re not going to get away from the government. There has to be some organization to society, I realize that, but I personally think that younger people should be in charge because maybe younger people know what the next generation needs. I don’t think a guy that’s 78 or 80 years old knows what even a 58-year old guy wants. It’s too old, it’s too much of a distance in age. You’ve got the older guys who are trying to make the lives of young people and teenagers . . . You know, these guys are all rich, too. These guys in congress, the senate, etc. are all millionaires. They don’t know what normal people are doing. How can they be making decisions for us? Politics are a strange thing.
You’ve also mentioned your dislike for organized religion. I’m the same way. I grew up in a religious household and that kinda caused me to really develop a distaste for the whole thing. What’s your experience with organized religion and how did you come to be opposed to it?
Paul: My parents were Lutheran or whatever and they used to make me go to church until I was maybe 14 or 15, smoking my weed and telling them fuck you. I never did understand organized religion and I don’t understand it today. I know that people are giving money to the church; I remember them passing the basket around. I always used to tell this story about this pastor that I remember. I just remember watching him growing up and watching the church and I always thought it was interesting how the church took care of him, and I remember that he used to walk around with a white cowboy hat and a white suit and a nice white Cadillac or whatever. He was really styling from the money from the church. Then I remember that he was only in his early 50s and he got cancer and he was struck down and he died. All I could say when that happened, because I was a teenager then, was where’s your god now? All of his preaching, I remember him doing his sermons all the time, I would sit there and listen to it. My dad made me sit there and listen to it and he just died like that. I just remember it was kind of a strange thing for me, kind of an awakening for me. I thought, wow, this guy’s rich, he’s styling, and he got cancer and died just like everybody else. Where was his god then? That was a change for me.
I think that would make anyone that’s more of an independent thinker stop and question the usefulness of their religion.
Paul: All you’ve got to do is look at the Pope. He drives around in the Popemobile or whatever. They’ve got billions of dollars in their coffers over there in Italy. It’s ridiculous. That’s insanity. It’s a strange situation, that whole deal with the Pope.
Getting back to Master, is it ever wild to stop and think about how long you’ve been doing the band?
Paul: It’s natural to me cause this is all I do, you know? I look for concerts and festivals and I find them. I look for new record contracts. I have deals with all kinds of different labels. Now I’m signed to Hammerheart Records in Holland. They’re reissuing all the previous stuff in new packaging with remastering and new box sets are coming. This is for the next ten years; it’s a ten year deal. I’m doing three albums with them over the next, let’s say five years or whatever. I’ll give them a new album every two years or so. I just released that Speckmann Project with Emancipation Productions, which I signed before Hammerheart, so I have one more album to do with them in the next year. The point is, that is what I do. I search for record contracts, obviously for money, which is normal, and I also search for concerts and festivals every year and tours. I try out different agencies and people and so, for me, it’s just natural. This is what I do. I’m working on new songs, as I’ve told you. This is how life goes for me. For other people looking at it, for 40 years in the business, it’s insane but for me it’s natural. It’s what I do and it’s part of my everyday life. I try and do stuff for the band all the time. My main thing in life is Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I go to the gym in the morning and I work out and I walk my dog and I live my life. I cook, I vacuum the house, and clean and I just try to stay busy with the music. We are practicing a few days a week and I’m going to festivals and on tours. I ride my bicycle when the weather is good. It’s not a real difficult life anymore, but it used to be. It took me a long time to get to this point.
What do you credit to you getting to this point you’re at now?
Paul: Successful records and support from record companies. That’s why I got to where I’m at now and of course [not] without the fans buying merchandise. I have to go to the post office three days a week because people have been purchasing stuff nearly every single day for the last seven or eight years. Nearly every day, so nearly every day, I’m going to the post office. I may have one crappy week in four or five months but I don’t get upset because I know it’s only one crappy week and the following week, someone is gonna start writing again. Let’s say my biggest work is putting packages together and going to the post office. That’s the biggest job I have every week but it could be a lot worse.
How’s work on that new album going?
Paul: I’ve got 12 or 13 new songs and I’ll start working probably next week. It’s step by step. It’ll be a great album, believe me. I’m still writing cool stuff, that’s no problem.
With being in the business so long, what kind of goals are you still shooting for?
Paul: Yeah, you’re always aiming for bigger festivals. You wanna play the biggest festivals in the world and if that’s still not happening, you’re aiming for that. You’re aiming for a gold record but that’s never gonna happen, we’re underground [laughs] but you fight on and try to do your best. The coolest thing about my life is that I’ve been able to travel all over the world at somebody else’s expense, the record company’s expense, for example. Next year, we’ll do Australia and New Zealand. We’re gonna go to Asia again next year. That was one bad thing about the pandemic too. We had about 18 shows in Australia and Asia in general and they were cancelled. I’m hoping to go back out there and finally get a chance to play all these places. For me, the goals are just to go to more places. I like traveling and seeing the world. I haven’t been to China. There are many countries that I haven’t been to yet that I want to see at least once. Those are my goals, sell more records and go to more places.
How much do you stay up-to-date on what’s going on in metal?
Paul: No, I don’t care [laughs]. I don’t follow the new bands. I know a lot of guys get pissed off when I say that but the reason I don’t follow the new bands is so many of them are copycats of the old bands. I realize they’re trying to carry on and I respect them for that. That’s fine, carry on the tradition, nothing wrong with that but a lot of times the newer stuff is a copy of the older stuff. I would rather listen to Slayer and Motörhead and Saxon and Angel Witch than hear a modern version of it. I’m old school. I listen to Rainbow and Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. I’m an old guy. Then on the other hand, I’m happy to see bands like The Exploited, GBH, MDC, Discharge out touring. Some of the guys never left. They were underground and now they’re having a resurgence of this old punk and metal stuff and it’s good. I’d rather hear them than someone imitating them but that’s just me.
Keep up with Paul Speckmann via his website, Instagram, and Facebook.
Photo at top: Album cover for Vindictive Miscreant by Master.