Early Psycroptic


by R.S. Frost

Matthew “Chalky” Chalk has been actively involved in the Australian extreme metal community for 25 years. Having performed with some of the biggest names in the genre, as well as running a booking agency and promotions company, SOUTHERN EXTREMETIES PRODUCTIONS, bringing bands from all over the world to the island nation at the bottom of the globe.

This is the first of two excerpts, taken from a much longer interview, which looks at the formation and early years of PSYCROPTIC.

- Hard to believe it’s been 20 years since we formed the band! There are a lot of circumstances that lead to it forming, but this is the basic story:

The Haley brothers were previously playing in a band called DISSEMINATE, which was formed whilst Dave (drums) was at Hobart College, and Joe (guitars) was still in high school. They had a small but loyal local following. I attended their first ever pub show in ’98 at the Doghouse (R.I.P) after having recently moved from the NW coast of Tassie. Disseminate had extra interest locally because of vocalist Delta, as her brother was Den of WARSORE/DISGORGE (Tas)/ EGROGSID fame, and the bassist was a local scene legend, Leigh Ritson (who ended up in RUINS and THRALL).

So, I saw this band, Disseminate, and I was blown away. Generally, I preferred my death metal mean, heavy and nasty, but I was also really into European death metal which was fairly melodic at times, and Aussie bands like ABRAMELIN, MISERY etc. who, whilst heavy, were diverse. And Disseminate were playing this really interesting death metal with a strong black metal influence, which was something I really hadn’t heard much of previously, and definitely not the way they were doing it. I dug it, a lot. So I introduced myself after the show, and I used to be very pushy in terms of making allies, and like me and so many of my old mates used to do, suggested that I “bring some cool music around to listen to” (fuck I miss that stuff tbh). So within a week or two I brought a bunch of my favourite albums around, and we sat around all day (mostly Dave and myself) listening to metal, him sharing stuff I hadn’t heard, and vice versa. Turns out whilst they were more US DM and Euro BM, and I was big on Euro DM (loved US DM too, but they weren’t huge on the Euro stuff at the time), we had a whole bunch of stuff we both loved, including the Aussie bands I mentioned earlier, plus DAMAGED and some others, plus stuff like EMPEROR (who it turns out was a big influence on Disseminate), MAYHEM, DEICIDE and more. So this used to be all it took to “make friends” back in the day – a shared love of certain bands, that verged on worship, and not hating the person and BOOM = instant mates.

I have heard a story about the first time you introduced yourself to the Haley brothers in a not-so-humble fashion. Would you care to clear the rumour-dust on this one?

- Now, Dave tells a story about the way I introduced myself that first time, or something I said in an early convo, and I think it was at the second gig I saw them do, but he might be right – and this is kinda where maybe Psycroptic’s sperm/egg moment was. I said something like “Good show, cool riffs. Vocalist is ok… you haven’t heard me though!” with some sly arrogant wink or some shit. Ugh, makes me shudder, but probably would be something I would have said back then. Anyway, they had this one particular song I loved, and it was the opening track on their demo (which they released maybe even at that first show, or maybe it was their demo release and not their first ever pub gig… I don’t fuckin’ know, it was a long time ago, but my details would be pretty close) and it was called ‘Zero Tolerance’ (I think it was that one *laughs*, I know I really liked about four), and I just got really wild whenever they played this live.

I used to hang out and watch them rehearse, as all local metal bands used to do back in the day, and one time Delta didn’t show, and I asked if I could jam on that song with them. They seemed impressed afterwards, and nothing much was spoken beyond “I should get up sometime and do it live with you guys”. So then, Delta and I worked on sharing the parts in a rehearsal, and from that moment, nearly every time they gigged, I would get up and sing that track with them (I think there’s an old clip somewhere of it even…), and sometimes one or two of the others.

Now, thinking about this is so weird, because it seems like such a long period of time when all this transpired, but it was only about six months. Anyway, very early 1999, bassist Leigh went overseas, as he was the sound guy for amazing Tassie noise rock band THE SEA SCOUTS. In that period, Dave and Joe were messing with these newer tracks that apparently Leigh hadn’t liked much, and thought didn’t really suit the band, and so they asked me to show them “what I’d do over the tracks”. I was always big on improv and could handle stuff even on the spot or after one listen, so I told them to play them through once, then I jumped straight up and had a sing. Instantly there was this musical synchronicity that just felt right, and I remember we all looked at each other straight after, and we were all sharing the same thoughts. So, we decided almost straight away we would work on it, and maybe make a band from it. We needed a bassist, and they knew this ripping bloke from Hobart College, and another local band called PHANTASMAGORIA/a.k.a MAGORIA – who coincidentally also featured Jason Peppiat (current Psycroptic vocalist) as a vocalist, called Cam Grant. He was a guitarist, but was happy to “give bass a go”, and he brought a style and element to the band that was instantly noticeable, and the quartet was complete and full of simmering chemistry.

With the formation and lineup of this new band complete, the task of songwriting would be divided amongst members. Given that both Dave and Joe were actively writing songs for Disseminate, and this new band was geared towards something a bit different, how was the early material put together?

- When we came into the band, Dave and Joe had two songs (I believe they were ‘Carnival of Vulgarity’ and maybe ‘Sword of Uncreation’ – obviously they didn’t have names but those were the riffs), and a third on the way. I played guitar, and wanted to contribute riffs – my playing was kinda sub-par at that stage – but I was determined to get some of my vibes in there. So once Cam and I joined, we were there for songwriting sessions and became involved in each song. Instead of picking up a guitar, I would often “voice” riffs or progressions, or sometimes just say “now it needs a blasting section”, and I became involved in the orchestration and structure of songs. Sometimes it was just a small contribution, and Joe was the main riff writer, with Dave contributing the next largest portion of ideas – but sometimes I really helped shape a song or section, which I think is why the first two albums sound quite different to the rest. Cam contributed riffs, and he had killer ideas, so was encouraged to bring more stuff to the table, and he actually wrote a couple of full songs (‘Psycroptipath’ for example) on each album, or major parts of. But we all contributed to a song’s final form, which I believe led to decent quality control. The first album was very much a “finding our feet” album; less refined, more raw and definitely more old school in sound, whereas ‘Scepter of the Ancients’ was where we finally knew what we were doing, and it flowed out of us with ease, and energy.

Less than a year since forming the band, Psycroptic entered the studio to record what had planned to be a demo. This endeavour would end up resulting in the band’s debut album release, ‘The Isle of Disenchantment’.

- When we formed, we gigged probably within six months. Our first gig, and ensuing three or four, were small turnouts; mostly our mates and some dedicated scene people, but I reckon 30-40 people was our general crowd back then. We decided to do what every band did back in those days and record a demo tape. We actually heard about a grant that was available from the arts department of the state government that helped to support local independent and original acts, called the “Master Tape Grant” or something like that. We applied, and were successful, so we had a bit of money to play with (not a massive amount, but some), and instead of recording in someone’s “basement” or at a school, we felt it might be worth going to a premium studio in Tasmania, Red Planet Studios. I knew that a previous Tassie band, OPEN FESTERING WOUNDS, had recorded their (very cool, at the time at least) album there, so that was already on my radar. I knew it was an “expensive” studio, but we wanted a good sounding demo because those always stood out. The engineer was a bloke who has now been a friend for 20 years, Stew Long, who despite having years and years of studio experience, hadn’t done much metal, and we hadn’t done much recording *laughs*. So I am sure we were full of ideas that he hated but catered to, and the result was a decent first release, but probably, had we listened to Stew more, would have sounded better. Anyhow – we were in the studio, and part way into the recording, and it just… seemed so fuckin’ cool. And we started wondering, as a group, if maybe it was a bit “too good” for a demo – and then the idea came up – why not just release an album as a debut? This was very uncommon, and whilst I’m sure bands have/had done it, back in the day it almost never happened, and I wasn’t aware of it ever happening.

So it seemed risky, weird, uncommon ground, and yet it kind of started us on our “how we’re gonna do things differently” path that really led us to the moderate success we achieved in a short time. We released that album, got immediate local interest, with our crowd numbers doubling and then tripling all within a six-month span. We sent out dozens of promos, and some of it went down really well, not everywhere though. But one of the people who did like it was Costa Zouliou, the host of Three Hours of Power (predecessor to The Racket) on Triple J – he either liked it or was just excited that something was coming outta Tassie that he could actually play on the radio (INTENSE HAMMER RAGE weren’t really… radio friendly *laughs*), and he got behind us right from the beginning, and that not only fulfilled a solid dream of mine but set us on the path we were hoping for. I’ll always be immensely grateful for that support from him. When he handed the reins over to Andrew Haug, he (reportedly) instructed Andrew to “keep an eye on us, and play our stuff”, which he did, and we started a relationship with Andrew also. I was interviewed by Costa too, I just remembered, maybe a couple times, and then Andrew picked up that mantle also. That stuff really helped.

Although the band had garnered considerable attention for themselves, the album would remain an independent venture, with no labels wanting to commit to the release.

- We played a heap of shows locally, did a bunch of interviews with international fanzines and a couple of other interstate radio shows, and we sent out “Isle Of Disenchantment” to 13 labels, five of which replied, saying they “liked it”, but gave various reasons why they couldn’t release it (one of them simply saying “you’ve already released it…” *laughs*), but the one that struck home was multiple comments on the sound not being professional enough, and that stuck with us.

With a debut album out and a healthy dose of media attention and exposure, Psycroptic hit the live circuit, hard, to further promote ‘The Isle of Disenchantment’.

- So, we played a whole stack of local shows and then we did a couple of support gigs with interstate acts in late ‘99/early 2000 – including ATOMIZER (which featured Jason Healey, who was involved with legendary label MODERN INVASION MUSIC and some other stuff), and also a show with DREADNAUGHT, and I believe ALARUM came with Dreadnaught, and that’s when we had our first “Tech Death” interstate connection. This was before the days of Facebook, the very early days of Myspace and pre-mobile phones! Well, the latter existed, but younger people didn’t have ‘em/couldn’t afford them… so to keep in contact there was two mediums – emails and landline phones. So we connected/traded with a bunch of Aussie bands, but the main ones were Dreadnaught, FRANKENBOK and Alarum, which lead to our first pub shows in Melbourne… but prior to that, we played a singular Melbourne festival, which was our first interstate appearance. High Voltage Festival was the name of the event. We’d had our first experience of being kinda bullshitted via that event too, which was a good learning curve. We’d been promised “third spot”, and we knew it was an early open – and as it was damn expensive to come up from Tassie back then, we wanted to feel confident of a respectable time on stage so we got maximum benefit out of it. When we arrived, we saw the run sheet, and we were in fact… first! That was fairly frustrating, I tried to argue the point with our person of contact, but it fell on deaf ears, and we went on stage sometime just after 5:00pm, to probably 35 people. As our set wore on, more people came in, and by halfway we had probably 100-150 watching us. The reaction was subdued, from what I could hear. Polite clapping, nothing too overt – and we kinda finished up our set, and weren’t sure how it went down. We had a decent number of people approach us after though, and months later found out the crowd HAD been impressed with what we did, but no one really knew how to react cos they were surprised an opening band had impressed them or some shit *laughs*. A few months later we returned to Melbourne, to play the aforementioned shows with Alarum and Frankenbok, we played (I believe) two shows – at the Punters Club in Richmond, and either an AA as well (at thesame venue) or in Geelong. I can’t be sure, but I know we definitely did a show at Punters Club with those bands, and it went down well. We spent the week with Alarum staying at Palf’s joint, which was great, then the following weekend we made the trip to the amazing Metal for the Brain (R.I.P) and our future was cemented.

Metal for the Brain was Australia’s premier metal festival throughout the early ‘90s and into the mid-‘00s, which occurred annually in the nation’s capital up until the final edition in 2006. I have previously discussed the impact that this festival had on the national extreme metal community, as well as the concerning levels of debauchery that would accompany such an event. Having attended multiple times myself, I can attest to the sheer abandon with which concertgoers would conduct themselves.

- This will be the last info I’ll give regarding audience reaction because it’s significant and sets the tone for the future of the band. M4TB was the biggest, and best all Aussie (except for that one time) extreme metal fest in the country at the time, and it was something I’d dreamed about since ’92 when I first read about it in Hot Metal (and every year subsequent to that). All my favourite Aussie bands had played it (often all in the same year). It had respect, culture, and a great cause. My first time attending was in 2001, which was also my first time playing it. And man, what an experience! It was more than a metal fest, it was a gathering of metalheads from across the country. Most of them stayed at the Canberra Carotel Motel (until the last couple of M4TB’s when they started bringing in rules), so it was a big weekend of catchups, talking metal, and having fun seeing the best metal bands Australia had to offer. The whole event was organised by the guys from ALCHEMIST - Adam, Rod, John and Roy, and man they did an incredible job. I remember driving up to the main car park (we drove from Melbourne with the Alarum guys), getting out and seeing all the metalheads on the grassy areas before you enter the main portion of the campus – and as we walked up to the gates, all the people lined up, people inside the big fenced out main grounds area… ugh, it was so exhilarating and new and magical. I was really in awe of the moment. Anyway, back to the guts of the story. M4TB was three stages – two “main stages”, in the main refectory room of the Canberra Uni, which was/is huge (1600-2000 could fit in there), which was essentially one massive stage split in half with a curtain covering one side while a band played on the other, and then it was rolled across to cover the band side when they finished, and suddenly BOOM – another band starts from the previously covered side. It was an excellent system, to be honest. Then there was the “bar stage”, in a lower area of the same building.

We were due on mainstage around 2:00pm – with bands kicking off around 10:30am – so we were around the fifth or sixth band on for the day. I wasn’t sure how we’d be received at that time of day, whether we’d have much of a crowd… turns out my fears were unwarranted.

Unwarranted indeed. If I recall, you guys had one of the largest crowds on the day and after your set, Psycroptic was on the tongue of nearly every person in attendance. Given your own personal affinities with this particular festival, and the fact that you were about to play your biggest show to date, I can only imagine what was going through your head. - I watched most of the bands prior to us, on both stages, and there was some cool stuff, but I noticed none of them were particularly “blasty” nor did many bands have weird/guttural vocals, and I was actually worried our stuff might be a bit much at 2:00pm *laughs* (weird the things you worry about when you’re starting out). Anyhow, we had to get to the stage at about 1:30pm – the previous band on our side of the mainstage had just finished and were packing down, and the curtain was in front of where we were setting up – and another band was performing on the stage left side as we got our shit set up/sorted. The crowd reaction to whoever was playing seemed ok, but not incredible, and my nerves were at an all-time high. I was nervous as fucking fuck. I was in one of those moods where I was checking my watch nearly every minute, hoping the minutes would slow down, because I really couldn’t handle the stress in that moment… it’s weird, I haven’t been nervous on stage for years, but just reliving this mentally is making me feel a bit anxious *laughs*. Anyway, as I saw it, this was a make or break moment for the band. I didn’t think many people would know who we were, a fact that was even more at the forefront of my mind, because whilst walking through the grounds wearing my artist pass many people stopped me and excitedly asked “Are you in a band?!”, and I’d reply “Yep!”, and they said “Which one?” and I’d say “Psycroptic!”, and I’d see their faces go blank or their forehead wrinkle up as they tried to figure out if they did indeed know of the band. Most of those who stopped me definitely did not *laughs*. So I thought, as I stood there on the stage, “Is anyone even gonna care? Is my first M4TB gonna be a flaccid experience, are we shit, AM I SHIT? SHOULD WE GIVE UP?!“ *laughs* I mean it might not have been exactly that, but my point is I was full of self-doubt and nerves, and I just… didn’t know what to expect. Anyway, we did our line checks and basic sound check, and suddenly before I knew it, it was two minutes before our performance, and the previous band finished. There was a very brief interlude of house music, then we were given the thumbs up, and the curtain started rolling across…

What was going through your head at that moment, aside from perhaps having to remove the apparent shit from your pants?

- I remember standing there, staring out as the crowd was revealed to me… and it was PACKED. Easily 1500 people, and that did me NO favours in the nerves department. This was the biggest crowd (by about five-six times) we’d ever played in front of as a band, and it was a blend of people, not all would be death metal fans, surely? Anyway, my (at the time) token opening for us was “Hi, we’re Psycroptic, we’re from Tassie, and we’re gonna play a few songs for ya” – and we kicked into our opening track (possibly ‘Carnival Of Vulgarity’). As I introduced us, I remember there was some crowd noise, nothing huge, but there was a definite energy there, bristling… I couldn’t quite tell if it was for us or what. I was absolutely boiling over with nerves during that first song – they had reached their peak during that moment, and wow, it was almost intolerable, and I just did my best to keep focused on my vocals and performance and staying in time etc. The song seemed to take forever, and I just didn’t really want it to end because I anticipated a fairly quiet reaction, and I wanted the opposite, obviously. But we finished that song, and it was IMMENSE. Like nothing we’d ever experienced. The crowd was cheering insanely loudly and my nerves were overtaken by adrenaline and excitement. I was absolutely beside myself with joy. I probably smiled some of the biggest smiles in my life that day on stage.

From then on the set just went from strength to strength – people were crowd surfing, and SINGING MY LYRICS BACK AT ME (this was a massive highlight), and with the cessation of each song the reaction got louder and louder, and it was just overwhelming by the end. It was a perfect show. No idea if we actually played well *laughs*, but it felt ok. But just the crowd reaction, the volume of people… it was a dream come true. I don’t know if that show has ever been topped for me to be honest, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. As a side note; we played the next two M4TB’s (including the Brisbane experiment), then it had a year off, then one final one in 2006, but I’d left Psycroptic by then and I played that last one with M.S.I. But yeah, after that performance, it kind of established us nationally (for the most part), and we got offers from across the country, opportunities, and crowds nearly everywhere we went. It was also the best event for making new mates, networking – so we met so many people/bands who we eventually worked with, it was excellent. Many of them have remained my friends to this day!

I understand that the lyrics for the first two Psycroptic albums, which were much like reading a classic fantasy novel from the ‘80s (see ‘The Scepter of Jaar-Gilon’), was your doing?

- Yes, I wrote 100% of the lyrics on those albums. I had written lyrics for two bands prior (I was only 19 when we started Psycroptic), one had been mostly gore/insanity type gear, the other was humorous but super sick stuff, and we kind of decided to avoid common lyrical themes, and delve into two realms I was massively into – sci-fi and fantasy. I have always been into sci-fi stuff, especially in movies/TV shows, and was a big fantasy reader, and I just wanted to create a different vibe for this band. We’d abandoned “metal tops” for our band pics, went to nature to do those shoots, avoided a lot of the previous clichés – and not because we didn’t love all that stuff, but to just add a new edge to what we brought forward. So the lyrics seemed integral to that forward-leaning attitude, and that was all I needed; the lyrics just came easily and naturally, my brain is constantly creating, so there were no issues in ink finding its way to paper. There’s also double meanings, “easter eggs” etc. hidden all throughout the lyrics on both albums, which most people have no idea about.

You have reached the end of this installment. The second will be published next week and explores Mattew’s work with MEPHISTOPHELES, M.S.I. and Southern Extremeties Productions (which can now be found HERE).