FeaturesTrauma – Another Awakening

Trauma – Another Awakening

Best known for Metallica plucking their bass player Cliff Burton to join their group, Trauma would go on to release a debut album Scratch and Scream on Shrapnel Records plus get the chance to play on bills with Slayer, Exodus, Saxon, Loudness, and Girlschool among others. Although disbanding in the mid-80’s, they’ve been back since 2013, recording new albums plus gaining the opportunity to play shows here and abroad. Awakening as the newest album features ex-Vicious Rumors singer Brian Allen, representing another strong slice of power/speed metal with thrash nuances.

We reached out to drummer Kris Gustofson to provide insight on the work behind this first album without singer Donnie Hillier who passed away in late 2020, thoughts on the Bay Area scene then versus now, signing with Massacre Records, the importance of videos even in today’s marketplace, concerns over politicians money lining schemes versus countries getting along with one another, plus future road work plans.

Dead Rhetoric: Awakening is the latest Trauma album – and first with vocalist Brian Allen taking over for the late Donnie Hillier who died in the fall of 2020 due to lung disease. Did you have any fears or worries over moving forward with Trauma – and how did the process take shape with the songwriting and recording sessions for this set of material, especially working around the pandemic/lockdown restrictions?

Kris Gustofson: That was a really rough time for the band, for sure. We just kind of moved forward with it. At one point in time, we almost pulled the plug on it because we weren’t sure of who we could get as a vocalist at that time. It could have gone on for lord knows how long if we didn’t find someone. Luckily, our producer we were working with at the time Juan Urteaga knew of Brian Allen and thought he might be a good candidate. So, we sent Brian a tape with a couple of songs on it and asked him to put vocal tracks to it, he sent it back to us, we liked what we heard. We had him come down, rehearse with the band, and it really clicked, we liked him and he liked us.

As far as the material, a lot of the material was written while Donnie was still alive, as he wrote a lot of the words for this. We made some adjustments to some of the material to fit Brian’s voice a little bit better, that’s about it really. He came in and nailed it, we were super happy with how it all turned out. So far so good. The pandemic had a role in this – everything was closed, we couldn’t play gigs. We had a couple of tours at the beginning of 2020 that got cancelled – we played a show at the House of Blues opening up for Metal Allegiance, and that was the last show that Donnie did. Everything went to hell between 2020-21. It was a good time to write an album, there was so much uncertainty going on in the world. It definitely had a hindering factor as to how we were able to get together as a band, which was extremely limited.

Dead Rhetoric: You said you worked on this album with producer Juan Urteaga – he’s very experienced in the Bay Area working with a lot of metal bands over the years. What was your experience like working with him and what he brings to the table for Trauma?

Gustofson: Juan is a great guy. He’s got a really good ear on trying different ideas. He actually helped produce the last album As the World Dies also. We have a history of working with him. I hope we can work with him again in the future. We are very happy with what he did.

Dead Rhetoric: You shot videos for “Walk Away” and “Death of an Angel” with Mike Sloat. How did the process work with Mike – and where do you see the importance of the visual medium in today’s social media platform driven formats versus the early days of video appearing on local cable channels plus music specialty shows during the 80’s and 90’s?

Gustofson: Mike is a great guy. He’s done a lot of videos for a lot of different people. We did the live shots at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, California, which is a real historic place. We were really happy with how he put it all together. It was really fun doing it. He’s got a good eye for different things. I think it’s important for a band to put video content out. The problem is these days, everybody’s attention span is limited. It’s the I gotta have it now kind of theory. It isn’t like the old days, not even close. I wish there was a format like MTV, everybody liked watching Headbangers Ball and all that but obviously that doesn’t exist anymore. I do think as a band it’s important to have videos out there, even if you can only do a lyric video that’s better than nothing. You just have to get it out there and let people know what you’re doing.

Dead Rhetoric: Where did Donnie want to come across with some of the lyrics on this record – did he end up writing all the lyrics, or other members contribute too?

Gustofson: He did most of the lyrics on these songs. “Death of An Angel”, “Walk Away”, there is probably three he didn’t write the lyrics to, because his illness caught up with him pretty quick. He did what he could when he was here. Some of the lyrics were written by (guitarist) Steve Robello and his wife believe it or not. The songs we come up with are ideas of what we are going through and seeing at the particular moment in time. It’s got to come from somewhere. We knew of the pandemic towards the end of 2019, didn’t really hit until April of 2020, and that’s when we were getting ready to record and come up with this material. The lyrics Donnie wrote were all about the crappy times that we were all going through. When the world’s going in chaos, it’s an interesting time to come up with another metal album.

Dead Rhetoric: You are a part of the Massacre Records roster – how did you gain interest from their staff, and where do you see the difference between labels and their responsibilities today compared to when you were on Shrapnel back in the early 80’s with your debut album Scratch and Scream?

Gustofson: Our manager was the one that got us the deal with Massacre. The heads of Massacre knew of the band because of the history of the band, and what not. They were interested to offer us a pretty decent deal for this day and age. They were interested in the band; they’ve been doing a really good job for us. To get any label in this day and age to literally put a little bit of money behind it, doesn’t really exist anymore. So far, so good with that label.

As far as all those years ago with Shrapnel, that was a label that Mike Varney was just beginning to run. Him and Brian Slagel from Metal Blade, were kind of competitors in a sense, really both just starting out. They did what they could for those days. It was just a different time, and all the metal music in the early 80’s was just slowly getting a grip. There were a lot of bands, but the labels didn’t know what to do with this type of music at the time. Everybody wanted to see what this label was going to do with it before they threw any type of money at it. Who is the guinea pig today type of thing. It was a little bit screwy but look what happened with Metal Blade – they are a really big label now. Varney sold his whole catalog to Sony for a sizeable amount of money – they succeeded! They fared well, put it that way.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel the resurrection of the band has been since 2013 – do you believe that you’ve received your just due this second time around compared to how things played out in the 80’s on your first run?

Gustofson: It’s a really good question. Donnie and I over the years, we had often thought about putting Trauma back together. We really needed a reason, some sort of catalyst to do it, and that happened in 2013 when Varney wanted to do a re-release on Scratch and Scream. He said there should be a band in case there are any opportunities to go play live. That’s what we did. We had a revolving door of how many people have been in and out of (the band). We have the lineup that we have now, which took a lot of time, energy, and effort to get to this point. I personally am not looking for any kind of just due reward or anything like that. I do this because I enjoy playing the music, I really like the fans that are involved. We just played the Alcatraz Festival about a month ago, and we met some really cool people, it was nice to get out and play in front of a large crowd. We hope people like what we are doing and like the new album, because there was a lot of work that went into it.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you define success when it comes to Trauma today? I’d imagine that what you focus on has changed over the many decades you’ve been involved as a musician…

Gustofson: You have to look at it as being happy with what you get. You can’t assume something is going to happen, the business has changed so much over the years. I think you are better off expecting a lot less, than expecting anything at all. Then when something positive happens, it’s exciting. You have to be able to adjust what you’re thinking may or may not happen. Or just being happy doing things at all. That’s where I’m at right now.

Dead Rhetoric: Having the opportunity to play overseas live beyond doing shows stateside, where do you see the major differences in terms of reception and response to Trauma for the different audiences?

Gustofson: Europe has more of a metal scene than the United States does. Twenty, thirty years ago, there was a huge scene for this. It was going on seven nights a week in many parts of the country. I’m not saying it’s like that in Europe, but that’s where all the huge festivals are: Wacken, Alcatraz, Download, the Sweden Rock Festival, the list goes on and on. The fans really appreciate all these bands from many years ago that are still going over there to play, make the fans have a great time. It’s fortunate that there are only so many little pockets left in the United States to even do that. The scene has completely changed. I live close to San Francisco, and there used to be a huge metal scene, thirty years ago. I don’t think you would get arrested playing over there now.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your strengths as a drummer – and who are some of your major inspirations and influences, have you tried your best to pay attention to a mixture of drummers from within the metal genre as well as outside influences?

Gustofson: I’ve been playing drums for a really long time. I started playing jazz music at first, and I still do play jazz music. There are only so many places to play with that style of music too. My father was a jazz drummer, he did it for many years. I was influenced by big band drummers. I started listening to Bill Ward from Black Sabbath, Vinny Appice, a lot of guys like that, Cozy Powell. We could be on this quite a while about it. Gene Hoglan is another, there are so many really great drummers now. They play so fast and tight, it’s like these kids that have come up with a whole other style of doing things, that’s really cool. I just hope that there is a business left for these guys to actually do something for the amount of time I’ve been able to do this. The business part of it is just in shambles, unfortunately.

Dead Rhetoric: What are some of your most vivid memories regarding the Bay Area scene of the 80’s as far as bands, venues, live shows, and the fans in general?

Gustofson: Oh god! All those years ago, it was seven nights a week. Trauma, we played with Slayer at the Keystone Berkeley, we played with Exodus at the Stone in San Francisco. We did some gigs with Loudness, Girlschool, Saxon. Those are all memories in my archives. I remember when I was 16-17, I saw Metallica play at the Old Waldorf when they were just starting out. That band was going to be something, the energy they had was unreal. I was playing in a punk rock band at the time, but when I saw those guys – that was really cool.

Dead Rhetoric: So, it didn’t really surprise you that Cliff Burton got the chance to join Metallica after being with Trauma?

Gustofson: They had their eye on him. I don’t know how many times they came to see the band live and check out Cliff, but I assure you it was more than once. All those years ago, they were just starting out. A lot of people don’t realize they were in the same position we were. Trying to get your feet wet with the whole thing. Cliff thought it was a better opportunity and he just went for it.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you view the state of the world today? Where do you think the focus needs to be from the leaders of the world to make things better?

Gustofson: Ugh. I don’t know. I just hope personally that the countries, everyone could just get along and pull together. Not be so greedy, but then again, we are talking about governments here. The politicians love lining their pockets with money, at people’s expense. It’s a sad state of affairs. When you get older, you see how things were thirty or forty years ago compared to now, and I really feel sorry for kids that are teenagers or in their twenties, it’s a lot different then than now. They have to worry now about gun violence, you can go to a movie theater and that may be the last thing you ever do in your life. Really strange times we are in. I hope it gets better.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for Trauma over the next twelve months when it comes to promoting this album? Has work already begun behind the scenes on the follow-up – and if so, how do you see this material shaping up against Awakening?

Gustofson: Right now, our management is working on getting us some dates in the states, and in Europe. Hopefully we should have something to announce in the next couple of months as far as touring. We have to get out and play. There is only so much you can do on social media. As far as new material, we’ve been throwing some riffs around. Trying different stuff, if you like this new album, the next one will be probably a contender to blow that one away. Up the ante a little bit. We have to wait and see, it’s not quite there yet.

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