by R.S. Frost
After almost a decade spent with THE BERZERKER, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Sam Bean decided to leave “the fastest band in the world” for greener, but not necessarily slower, pastures. This new venture would come to be called THE SENSELESS and would act not only as a cathartic release for Sam but also as a springboard, propelling him forward through both life and artistic expression.
Given the profuse activity that you have seen within extreme metal over the years, let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Where did your formative years take place and how did music come to be a part of your life?
- This is actually a tougher question than it seems. I was born in Portland, down the Victorian coast, lived there seven years. Moved to Geelong for school, was there for ten. Moved to Melbourne, was there for about another ten. Lived around the world a bit, ended up in the UK for about seven years, moved to Adelaide. So it doesn’t really feel like I’m from anywhere, at this point.
I moved to Melbourne in 1993 which was the era of CHRISTBAIT, DAMAGED, NECROTOMY, BLOOD DUSTER, and all those bands. I was out two or three nights a week seeing those guys in their prime. It sort of set my internal creative thermostat. I mean, those bands were world-class and more original than most that I’ve seen since, but I’d see them in a pub down the road and think that was the bare minimum you’d need to offer when you’re in a band.
The proper entry to the music world came around 1998. I played guitar at home and lived with a couple of friends, and they suggested that I join a band. I think they just wanted to get me out of the place whenever I was battering my guitar, give themselves a bit of peace and quiet. That led to me joining Berzerker on guitar, bass, and vocals.
I’ve come to understand that there are certain pre-requisites for joining The Berzerker; mainly relinquishing your grip on what most would call sanity, and accepting the fact that you will be injured at some stage; whether it be during torturous recording sessions or in the live arena which, more often than not, would resemble a combination of mosh pit pugilism and Coliseum-esque gladiatorial events, both on and off the stage.
- I was out of my mind at that time. I had finished university and lived in Japan for a year, finished my degree, and went to apply for jobs specific to my skills – namely, speaking Japanese and politics – but the Asian financial crisis happened. All relevant work in my field disappeared. I had studied through uni, worked insanely hard when I was overseas, and now there was no work for me.
Nowhere would hire me. I couldn’t even get a full-time job as a waiter, I ended up being a contract waiter and working in housekeeping. I did this for over two years. I’d get sent into places when the normal staff were sick and they needed an extra set of hands. These places would treat you like shit, the staff would treat you like shit, the customers would treat you like shit. And they’re all thick as pigshit. I’m sitting there, speaking multiple languages, having managed bars overseas, degree in hand, more experiences by the age of 21 than most people have in a lifetime, and these fucking primates who can barely write their own names are keeping me out of full-time work, because of that stupid Australian/Melbourne thing where people only employ mates.
Everything I had been told about being successful as an adult was turning out to be bullshit, the study-hard work-hard thing. I was constantly livid. I had to do something with the hate. That probably got me more into the music industry than anything else. Raging misanthropy is a bit of a negative everywhere else but it works in your favour when you play death metal.
It would seem that your state of mind at the time was quite well aligned, perhaps even tributary, to the events that would unfold over the next few years on the road.
- Every tour was tumultuous. Everything we did was chaotic. I remember our drummer getting shoved down a staircase by a Nazi bouncer in Poughkeepsie and breaking his ankle and the label wouldn’t let us cancel the upcoming headline tour in Europe. We had ten days when that US tour ended to find and train a drummer for “the fastest band in the world” while crashed out in a shack on a swamp in Florida. The vibe was like, make it happen or get stranded in a foreign country with no money.
We talked about “The Berzerker Curse”, where everything we did seemed to be doomed. It really felt like trying to swim upstream against mud. We spent all our good fortune getting signed in the first place, and subsequently everything else we attempted would end up in one disaster or another. I still can’t tell if it was because EARACHE RECORDS were so dodgy, or because Luke (Kenny) was trying to manage everything himself instead of delegating to a manager. Probably both.
Having spent time with a number of musicians involved with The Berzerker over the years, I have been privy to numerous tales of terror that accompany a typical touring cycle with the band.
Any chance I can coax a few additions out of you to be added to the tomb of maniacal musings?
- Road insanity… here’s a couple. At the first proper festival I played at, the Asbury Park Metal Fest in New Jersey, the guys from SKINLESS rushed the stage, picked me up by the legs and threw me, my guitar, and microphone off stage… straight over the security barrier into the front row. I’ve no idea how many people I injured. I met CATHEDRAL after the show; we were all completely off our tits. They had disappeared when they landed in New York two days beforehand, which sent Earache into a panic, then reappeared somehow onstage for the gig. Lee (Dorrian) hardly sang, he was just asking the crowd to fetch him beers. We ended up at some hotel across the road where I ended up drinking with Gunter Ford, MORBID ANGEL’s manager. He was their mixer and road manager for their infamous 1992 tour of Australia so I grilled him for stories.
I got completely fucked up with Pete Sandoval in Tampa after our last show on the NILE tour. We shared a bottle of Jack between us. He was recording ‘Heretic’ and they had been trying to get Dave Vincent to rejoin, and the negotiations had fallen apart that day. He was freaking out over that, then he freaked out again over how good Tony Laureano was drumming for Nile. I thought the booze would chill him out. I told him I was on Earache as well and offered to do the bass and vocals – “I already know all your songs, dude”. He ended up falling backwards off a platform onto NAPALM DEATH’s merch table and screeching about his back.
Having come out the other end of this seemingly intact, but surely not unscathed, Sam would go on to cement his involvement within extreme metal with a number of bands, and is still at it to this day.
- I started with The Berzerker, wrote and recorded on the first three albums and toured up until 2008. I began my solo project The Senseless in 2007, firstly through ANTICULTURE RECORDS, then independent. Joined MITHRAS 2008 to 2010 for some more touring. Passed the time doing a project called KIRI KIRI KIRI with a DJ in Liverpool and Frans from Finnish band MEDEIA just for fun. I joined THE ANTICHRIST IMPERIUM in 2014 on APOCALYPTIC WITCHCRAFT RECORDS, and then WEREWOLVES in 2019.
Given that you don’t come across as someone who is a big fan of labels or the music industry in general, I’m curious as to your motivations to keep throwing yourself into the machine time after time.
- It’s not sales, that’s for sure! Just the satisfaction of listening to the music I make. I’m pretty sure everyone listens to some songs and goes “awwww that’d be awesome if they just changed the part in the middle”. When you write, you can tailor-make something to get you off at a deep level.
I’m not going to lie; I hate almost everything and everyone to do with music and bands. Simply recording music and listening to it afterwards is what I enjoy. That’s it. Driving around with my CD on, writing a new song. I don’t enjoy gigs and I don’t like people and the scene doesn’t do anything for me. Maybe that’s my Geelong background, I’m just very much about the music and have no interest in anything else to do with it… the clothes, people, venues, festivals, none of it. Occasionally I’ll have a fine night out or see a band that satisfies me. It doesn’t happen often.
Don’t get me wrong, getting feedback from fans is nice and having bands you’re a fan of become peers is a cool experience. But you can’t buy into it too much. Fan feedback can also include some brutal opinions, and sometimes those band buddies you went and conquered so much with just blank you. You learn to stop basing your satisfaction on people, good or bad. Everyone else’s opinion is subjective. As long as you enjoy the fuck out of what you’re making, that’s enough to keep you going.
I’d like to talk about The Senseless for a bit. The first time I heard the band was when a friend had ‘Vacation’ cued up on a playlist at a house party in late 2007. I couldn’t quite figure out what I was hearing. It was fast, grinding, brutal, and somehow…happy? I enquired as to what this was and was told it was the side project of The Berzerker’s guitarist, and that the album had a body-boarder wiping out on the front cover. My confusion only deepened.
What can you tell me about that album, the “happy”sounding riffs, and the album cover?
- I’d contribute songs to the Berzerker and Luke would either reject them for not being grim enough or hack them up so they would resemble something else entirely. I learned some basic programming and recording and demoed all the material up into a bunch of songs and would give those to friends or people I toured with... a full CD of me and nothing else. I had no desire really to release it. I gave it to a French band called HAPPY FACE and their tour manager heard it and signed me to Anticulture Records.
The cover was a picture I remembered from a bodyboarding magazine back in the ‘90s. It’s totally brutal, a guy having a wipeout at a big Waimea Shorebreak and about half a second away from getting crushed. I thought it represented the project perfectly: brutal, but in a totally different, healthy way, none of all the skulls and death and black magic bullshit that’s normally used for metal albums. I felt the music is the same, undeniably extreme but without any – ANY – of the usual metal tropes. I spent a year pulling strings and searching for the photographer, and it turned out that two world-class surf photographers shot the same guy on the same wave .01 second apart. I negotiated a bidding war between them to get a decent price.
How did you feel about “going solo” and how was it all received?
- There was good and bad to going solo. Musically, I could do whatever I wanted which was refreshing because I always questioned how my guitar lines were used in Berzerker. I could control everything about the image and feel of the project. No normal band would have let me use that cover, for instance! The bad side of it was having to deal with the label all by myself. Anticulture were starting a download slide after I signed, losing their US distribution and just their hunger to promote the band any which way possible. One guy versus a label never works out well.
The reception to The Senseless has always been weird. Barely anyone’s into it, the few that are… well, they’re crazy for it. When I play any of the albums for another metalhead they’re like “holy fuck, this is amazing, why isn’t this bigger?” I simply don’t care anymore about pushing it to a big audience, and no other label has gone for it. I don’t have the charisma or personal story to draw a crowd and just having some kickass tunes isn’t enough, you need the full package.
With this new project underway, album out and a label backing… it was all happening, and then everything went silent. It wasn’t until five years later that Sam would release another album under this moniker; 2012’s ‘The Floating World’.
This release would follow on from the first album in style, maintaining a cheerful and upbeat atmosphere whilst smashing the listener into the ground with an enormous battering ram. ‘The Floating World’ also featured live drums, a first for the band, thanks to fellow Mithras cohort Leon Macey.
Why the long gap between albums? Where did the songs on this new offering come from, and what was behind the decision to release another Senseless album in the first place, given your seeming lack of enthusiasm after the previous experience?
- I split with Anticulture Records on April Fool’s Day, 2009. Pretty much everything that was promised before signing with them – full costs transparency, how many album sales required to break even, distribution in the US etc. – wasn’t delivered. So I had to negotiate my way out of the contract, particularly as they weren’t interested in paying an advance or mechanicals on a second album and they hadn’t fixed their distribution issues.
The album took a while to write and a long time to learn how to play. You realise when you’re doing something totally original like this how often a normal band leans back on what the rest of metal does. Almost everyone fills in sections of their songs with a METALLICA-style gallop, a SLAYER-style skank beat, or some monotone MESHUGGAH polyrhythm. I didn’t give myself that option. It all had to be totally new, unless I was being purposefully derivative like in ‘Death to Metal’.
The cover art for this album is a complete turn-around from the coastal surf featured on the debut. Fronted by a bustling metropolis, this release seems to carry stark urban notions.
- This is going to give you an idea of the level that I approach any of the Senseless stuff at. The first album was largely written as a beach-going Aussie dude. The second album was written while I was living in England. These albums are always personal so the cover art had to reflect that change.
‘The Floating World’ comes from ukiyo, the Japanese woodcut prints from the Edo period. They basically showed people at leisure enjoying entertainment. That fit for so many reasons… it acknowledges that the album is part of a long line of people trying to entertain others, but also the everyman kind of approach, instead of being the usual death metal ‘preach from the mountain’ sort of guy.
The buildings – which were out the front of my favourite pub in Bournemouth – are brutalist architecture, and metal can always do with more brutal. They’re also office blocks, which touched on how I was spending the majority of my life and also keeps with the everyday theme. It references air, which was important. The ukiyo idea is a ‘light’ theme to match the light themes of the first album and to provide a counterpoint to the tone of the final two albums. The billboard contains a tornado, violent air as opposed to violent water. The element is on the billboard as opposed to being the subject of the entire cover, to indicate that you’ve moved one step out of perspective with that of the first album.
And lastly, an alternative translation of ukiyo is “sorrowful world”. All the Senseless stuff has a note of melancholy running through it.
So the second album comes out, and just like that… there were another five years of silence. What happened?
- I moved back to Australia in 2011. I was pretty fucked up. I had a big relationship breakup in 2009 which I was nowhere close to recovering from. My tenure in Mithras ended in a bit of an off way… Leon didn’t want to do the live band and said he wasn’t interested in doing another album. After I told him I was returning to Oz, he announced the return of previous vocalist Rayner and they started work on ‘Time Never Lasts’. I was retrenched from work. So I landed back home and tried a fresh start in Adelaide.
I wanted to forget about my life and try and go normal, I guess. Sleep, get a normal job, try and have some normal relationships and learn how to enjoy things again. I did a bunch of tracks with KIRI KIRI KIRI, which I felt could go somewhere, but the guys lost interest pretty quickly. I did a Berzerker comeback show in 2013, but it was promoted so poorly, it was like, why did we even bother. I’m always writing, so Senseless material was accumulating. By 2015 it was like “shit, guess it’s time to record again.” I approached the next recording more reluctantly than the others. Definitely more jaded.
The band’s most recent offering, ‘The Buried Life’, came in 2017 and boasts a fitting album cover; the image of a doorway, half buried in sand, taken in the Namibian ghost town of Kolmanskop.
In the early 20th century, Kolmanskop was a thriving diamond mining town producing roughly a million carats a year, around 12% of the world’s total diamond production at the time. The town was home to a butcher, baker, post office and ice factory, with stories of one family keeping a pet ostrich that was known to terrorise the general townsfolk and would even pull a sleigh at Christmas time.
Prior to this mining boom, the town was part of the German colonisation of South West Africa and in 1904 saw the rebellion of native Herero people against the German colonisers, resulting in the death of over 60,000 Herero.
In the late 1920s resources had become depleted in the area and along with the discovery of the richest diamond fields known to date, on the beach terraces to the south of the town, the population fled en masse. By the mid-1950s the town was completely abandoned and has since been reclaimed by the African desert.
Funnily enough, the opening track on the album is titled ‘This Town Will Kill Us’.
- I’ve been living in Adelaide on and off from 2011. It was a real struggle for the first few years. The people here are friendly but extremely cliquey. If you’re not from here, or don’t have a friend or partner vouching for you, people tend to avoid you. I was working a job where I was often in a secure centre by myself so I didn’t have work colleagues to hang with. Sometimes I would go for weeks without speaking to anyone. I had this strong feeling of the world passing me by, of having been a king in the rest of the world but now that bit of my life was hidden away. That really defined ‘The Buried Life’, that sense of your best days being in the past, that there is something else you should be doing. The song titles totally give it away!
Given your many years of service within extreme metal, I’m interested in how you view the scene and whether you have noticed any significant changes or shifts within both the music and the community it caters to?
- Yeah. I find it really hard to distinguish between bands these days, and it has been like that for at least the last ten years, maybe longer. Vocalists used to be the easy way you could work out which band was which, but most vocalists sound the same as everyone else in the same genre these days. All deathcore guys sound the same, all the slam guys sound the same, ditto the death metal dudes. And hey, I’m guilty of that as well. The vocals on Werewolves are basically MARDUK trading off against MORTICIAN.
Nowadays metal is incredibly well performed and produced, the standard of musicianship is utterly unreal. I think there’s a bit of the Walmart effect though, of struggling to work out what exactly to do when you’re capable of writing and playing anything and your options are unlimited. I think art works best when it has limitations or restrictions to work with, it keeps things focused on what you’re really wanting to achieve. Despite the brilliant playing, there are few brilliant songs turning up. Just because you stick five great riffs in a song doesn’t make the song great.
When, in your opinion, did this mediocracy seep into the genre?
- I think everyone sort of gave up writing good dynamic songs when Nile and Meshuggah were the leaders back in the early noughties, they thought that being as stop-start and complex and dissonant as possible made for good music. That’s great when there are only a few bands like that, but everyone’s doing it. They’re all ripping each other off, so instead of the surging distinct energies of the ‘90s it sounds like everyone is writing in the same “voice”. I like to think that’s something I do well with The Senseless, when I’m writing an album friends will listen to it and go yeah, that definitely sounds like a Senseless song. And I’m like, “what does that sound like?” and they’ll be all, “I don’t know, Australian? Like death metal made to play at beach parties?” I keep getting that feedback, so I know I’ve got something unique there.
Lastly, there’s the recent trend of policing bands in the genre. This was kind of good when it was keeping blatant Nazis out of the extreme genre and in the cupboard, but some entities have taken to applying a twitter-standard of morality to death metal. I think it’s a noisy minority – namely that Vice and MetalSucks crowd – but it’s always possible for a minority to make large changes in the world. I don’t like the idea of second-guessing yourself or what music you react to, I always thought of metal as the last place for this to happen. I think a lot of people are growing up extremely disconnected to themselves, too self-conscious to be aware of what truly resonates with them… they’re constantly worrying about their image or wondering what other people think.
But yeah, there’s a tussle happening in metal at the moment. We thought the final boss was Tipper Gore and the PMRC. We’re currently having to fight the fight against censorship advocates who are appearing from within the scene itself, which is much more difficult… and disappointing.
What can we expect from you moving forward? As I understand it, you are currently busier than ever before.
- We’ll be releasing the debut album from Werewolves in the next six months on a label. I imagine there’ll be some live shows as well, which I’m excited about. Last show I played was a one-off with Berzerker in 2013. If I could have the Mithras situation again – playing the odd support or festival with some serious guns – I’d be happy. I thought my time in the music industry was done a decade ago so I’m grateful for this extra run I’ve been having. Playing live with Berzerker was always a pain, things were usually disorganised, the equipment was touch and go, and the performance of the tunes… well, you never knew what you were going to get. I like the idea of playing with solid performers like Matt (Wilcock– ex-AKERCOCKE, ABRAMELIN) and Dave (Haley– PSYCROPTIC, RUINS), where you don’t have to worry about anyone else but yourself. Just roll up, plug in, create a ruckus, drool, pack up, piss off.
Matt and I are currently writing the third Antichrist Imperium album which will be rammed full of violence and devil worship. Matt’s on a bit of a writing binge at the moment, and I have a large backlog of songs I can always throw into the mix whatever we’re doing. I imagine everyone’s going to be sick of our faces turning up everywhere over the next 18 months.
This article is an excerpt of the full interview conducted, which is almost twice as long and further explores Sam’s early days in Melbourne, being banned from MTV, a deeper dive into his time with Mithras, and further tales of touring terror.
The full interview is available in the print edition of Inner Missive #3, alongside discussions with ASCENSION FESTIVAL, SLIDHR, VOID REVELATIONS, DAWN OF AZAZEL, PERDITION TEMPLE, WINTERFYLLETH, TEMPLE KOLUDRA, CULT NEVER DIES, TODD HANSEN, BY NORSE MUSIC, MUNT, DEVOURING STAR, THE FUROR, ZAZEN SOUNDS, FUCK I’M DEAD, SUFFERING HOUR, DISENTOMB, DEHN SORA, A MILLION DEAD BIRDS LAUGHING, KARMAZID, ENTHRONED, KRIEG, WEREWOLVES, GRAVEIR, SUNS OF SORATH, KAFIRUN, UMBRA CONSCIENTIA, EARLY PSYCROPTIC, MEPHISTOPHELES, MALAKHIM, BLAZE OF PERDITION, CHALICE OF BLOOD, MANNVEIRA, HAXANDRAOK and ZHRINE.