In a comeback for the ages, death metal pioneers Possessed are back with their first new album in more than 30 years. After releasing a couple of albums in the mid-’80s including the seminal Seven Churches, things went downhill. Frontman Jeff Becerra was shot during a robbery in 1989 and paralyzed from the waist down. In 2007 he returned to music, playing live shows, and after some lineup changes began writing new music. The result is Revelations Of Oblivion. I spoke with Becerra about his comeback, the new album, the band’s influence on death metal and other subjects.
Chad Bowar: Possessed restarted about 12 years ago, culminating in your new album. After all the things that you went through, did you ever think there would be a second act for Possessed?
Jeff Becerra: I knew there would. There had to be. When the first initial big guys left me, they wanted to live either normal lives or move on to another band. Larry (LaLonde, guitar) moved onto Blind Illusion and Primus. I don’t want to talk too much about them because they want to live normal lives and I respect everybody’s journey. I love the guys, I owe them a lot, but it was time to move on. As a band leader, the show must go on. But before I could do that, I got shot. That was right in our prime, too. Our first two US tours were with Slayer on the Show No Mercy/Seven Churches tour. And then we did The Haunting Of The Chapel/Beyond The Gates tour. Our tour started out with Venom, Slayer and Possessed.
That was at the height of everybody and we were giving everybody a run for their money. We were holding our own out there. For a bunch of kids that was good, being 16, 17 years old. It was really crazy. So when the guys quit, I goofed around. I actually jammed with some other bands for a while. Before I could get my shit together, I got shot a couple times. The only thing that kept me going in those initial dark years was the hope of getting my band back and playing music again and getting my life back in order. It was either going to happen or I was going to die trying.
Once you started playing shows again in 2007, were you surprised at the reception or how glad people were to have you back?
Possessed was very much a cult band. Possessed is more well known now, but back then, even at our height, metal was nowhere as big. The Internet wasn’t around in the beginning. Nowadays it’s easier for a band to blow up. We never played a European festival until this round of Possessed. Our biggest shows were our headlining shows, which were maybe a few thousand. Possessed was relativity big back then, but to play these monster festivals like Wacken with 120, 130, 150,000 people, that was monumental. I had no idea underground extreme death metal would get that big.
Initially we just dipped our toe in the water. We did the tribute album and the guys from Sadistic Intent said hey, it’d be really cool if the real Jeff Becerra did a Possessed song with Sadistic. That went off pretty good. We went out there and partied and recorded that and that went over pretty well. They asked me to do a cameo at the end of their set, three songs for a few shows. We went out and did the Gathering Of The Bestial Legions in Hollywood.
The crowd went nuts. It was insane, the reaction was crazy as fuck. So I was like, whoa, maybe this will work. I was worried about being in a chair and all that and what the image would be. I didn’t want to hurt the legacy of Possessed. But half of me thought, being kind of outlaw by nature, fuck it. If people like me, they like me. If they hate me, they hate me. With the first round of Possessed people either loved us or hated us, despised us. In that respect death metal is much the same. People either like it or they hate it, but now there’s a new category where people are impartial. They know it exists, but they, they just don’t think about it.
It was new back then. It’s a different, now that death metal is established as a genre thanks to all of these great bands. Long story short is, we got a phenomenal reaction. Then when Wacken came, that was just insane. Looking back, that’s one of the first times it really hit me that I needed to get a real band back behind me. Sadistic is an amazing band, but you can’t serve two masters. It’s okay to have a side project, but to have a full time second band, there’s no way. So after a while we both came to the conclusion that Possessed was taking away from Sadistic and Sadistic was taking away from Possessed. It was good as a promotional tool, but we decided to amicably split and that way I could just focus on putting together the real Possessed. I wanted to have all the bells and whistles and everybody be able to hold their own. And I was lucky enough to find that.
And at what point did you have the guys that you wanted to write new music with?
I think we went through like 25 members from the ’80s until now. I thought I had it, and it wasn’t like I fired anybody. We had a wonderful guitarist in Kelly Mclauchlin, but he bowed out for personal reasons and family reasons. And then we had Mike Pardi and he had a beautiful little girl and he wanted to be a dad. I could totally see that. I have a little girl. So I can understand that even though we missed him. Finally I found Claudeous Creamer, and that was the bolt that bolted the iron box and welded it shut. That is the final lineup as far as I’m concerned. People are going to have to either die or quit. I don’t want them to go. I wish I could write a contract for their soul so they were unable to quit or go. (laughs) Can you do that? Is there a ritual you can try?
When you started writing, did you have to teach them the Possessed vibe or did they pick it on their own?
I have a meticulous nature, but they were there really quick. These guys are all veterans. Everybody deserves to be here just as much as I do. They’ve all put in years with the exception of Dan (Gonzalez). He’s the youngest. He went to college. He’s like a cool nerd, a guitar geek, but he’s a freak. He’s another Larry LaLonde. And Claudeous is every bit as good as him. Those guys have completely different styles, but they complement each other. But yeah, I went through everything piece by piece. Luckily they respect me enough to listen to me and we were able to get that vibe back. But these guys have been touring the old songs for years now. It’s part of their skin now. It’s like second nature to them. It’s hard to explain what makes Possessed Possessed. Of course there’s the weird timing, the riffing, the patterns. But there’s also something else that you can’t get just by learning the songs. It’s more than the notes. It’s something more spiritual in nature.
When you write lyrics, do you keep an ongoing notebook or wait until you hear the music before you start writing lyrics?
I do it both ways. I have countless binders, spiral notebooks. I like the tactile experience of pen and ink. If I think of something cool or get an idea, I will jot it down or I’ll put my laptop. Sometimes I will dream. I have these crazy, beautiful hellish nightmares. I love these things. I’ve had so many demons, real and otherwise. Whenever I have these hellish nightmares, I wake up and just jot them down. Sometimes I’ll be reading or re-reading something and some epiphany will come and I’ll write that down. The mind is really powerful, man. You can really freak yourself out if you’re not careful. And that’s fun, too.
What led you to come up with the title Revelations Of Oblivion?
I wanted to just call it Revelations, and then I wanted to call it Oblivion. I’m more of a one word title guy. I think that the lyrics are to explain it. Dan was like, Revelations, it’s been done and Oblivion is too simple. So we came to a compromise between Dan and I, Revelations Of Oblivion. It says it all.
Did you record any other tracks that didn’t make it on the album?
By the time we got to the studio, we had our songs. But in getting to the studio, we certainly scrapped a lot of what we were doing. Whole songs, whole albums didn’t make it because everything goes through me. If it doesn’t sound like I need it to sound, then I’m going to scrap it. It hurts me because whenever you tell somebody their work’s not good enough, it’s devastating. But it works both ways. I write riffs, they go over my riffs and a lot of the stuff I write myself doesn’t make it either. That’s what it is. It’s hit and miss. Five heads are better than one, but at the same time the final say comes through me.
A lot of what we write will be experimental. We’re just trying to bounce ideas off of each other. Not every idea makes it, but the ones that do make it, we hope the people enjoy. The end product is to entertain. You want people to like what you’re doing. I don’t care what any band says. That’s the end goal, to entertain people and have them enjoy your music. That’s a lot of pressure because in the end, as long as it makes people happy and rock out, that’s what you’re looking for. But it’s an intense process. It’s work.
Once you had your 12 songs for the album, how much difficulty did you have in deciding the track order?
Knowing the songs as well as we do, you can see a natural ebb and flow. You don’t want to just put all the fast ones together and burn people out. You want to have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that’s how we organize them so that it would have a natural ebb and flow. It’s almost like it does it itself because it just makes sense the way you do it. It has to go that way.
30 plus years after the last record, with how much the music industry has changed, how do you go about setting goals and expectations for an album?
You don’t. You always expect it to flop and then are hopefully pleasantly surprised. There’s nothing guaranteed in death metal because it’s an underground thing. I want it to do great, of course. I want people to really enjoy it. And so far it seems like it has. It’s done really well. The numbers are looking great, they are looking fantastic. So I think that’s cool.
The promotion process for an album today is much different than when you released Seven Churches in 1985.
Most of the time it was word of mouth. There was a lot of underground tape trading. I guess it’s the same now with the Internet. It’s just a matter of getting the word out. Back then it was the underground tape traders that made you. When we put out our demo, we did like 79 copies and it spread like wildfire. It was in Europe a couple weeks later and it was crazy. It’s more easily accessible now and that makes it a lot easier. I know that Possessed is bigger today than it was in the ’80s, but in a different way.
Are you embracing today’s social media world where things are more transparent and fans get a behind the scenes look at things?
Half of me wants to remain mysterious and kind of dark. You decide what you want to show people and not show people. Humans are complex, we’re many different things. All I want to do at this point is to make good music that people like. Of course we spike up for stage, but I’m not trying to be anything but what I am. I just want to keep it real, keep it out there. And hopefully people like the kind of person I am and the kind of people we are as well as they like the music. But you never know. Everybody’s got haters. Possessed is no exception.
When you are in the middle of something, you don’t necessarily realize what impact you’re having. And what point did you realize just how influential Possessed was as a band?
Back in the ’80s it felt revolutionary. We were sneaking out of windows to go see Exodus every weekend. I would get out to San Francisco or Oakland or Berkeley every weekend. I had to. It felt like we were a part of something bigger, and today’s no exception. I have a story to tell and it was cut off. I want to finish doing that. The impact it has on the world I hope is a positive one and that people really just enjoy the experience that is Possessed. I guess I didn’t really realize it then because I was so self absorbed and trying to recover from the gunshots. I didn’t have the Internet. I was getting so many packages, thousands of letters. And then later on when I did get online, literally thousands of people asked me to bring Possessed back. First of all, the fact that death metal became such a strong genre in and of itself was flabbergasting, because it was kind of fledgling when we started. It’s great to see all these tremendously talented and amazing bands out there. As much as I’d like to think I had a part in that, I know that every band is its own animal. But to be the first death metal artist is something that’s near and dear to me and I’m proud of that. But it takes all of us to make a genre.
You had it, you lost it and now you’ve got it back again. Does that give you a different perspective of your life as a musician now?
Sure. It feels good to have it back. But I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. (laughs) But right now it feels really good. The hype and the fanfare around the album is maybe a false perspective, but I’m waiting to see if this album is a lasting one. It is by far some of our best work yet. I know that this is the most talented group of guys and if we have a shot, I think this is it.
You’ve got a bunch of European dates on the calendar. Are there going to be some U.S. dates too?
I had a September tour and we put that on hold. We’re still playing Quebec Deathfest (Sept. 13) but we’re still looking for something that really makes an impact. We have several possible tours lined up, which I can’t talk about, but hopefully we’ll either tour with a bigger band or do a headlining tour in the fall. But we’ll definitely be coming to you. My original intention was to stick around in the US for a year, year and a half. But then we got these amazing festivals in Europe and you gotta do what you gotta do. I can’t just sit around and not tour, so while we’re organizing for fall, I’m going to do this one. I love Europe, but at the same time, I don’t want to neglect our U.S. fans. The U.S. is a lot tougher market. I like those club tours and really grinding it out and fine tuning. That’s really healthy for the band. A lot of people break on tour. These guys thrive on it. There’s no sort of training that you can undergo that’s more intensive than actually touring. So we’re just going to try to get as global as we can and try to reach as many of our supporters as possible and try to find new supporters.
How do you avoid the temptations of the road?
I don’t do drugs anymore. I haven’t done drugs in a long time, in decades. It’s like if you eat pizza every day. Pretty soon you’re going to be like, no more pizza! I have my moments, but it’s not really too much of a temptation these days.
(interview published May 11, 2019)