IT HAS BEEN MORE THAN 20 YEARS SINCE the debut of Death Angel’s first studio album, The Ultra-Violence. At the time, the San Francisco Bay Area was restless with up-and-coming thrash and metal bands. In fact, Death Angel released its first demo in 1982, when the band members—all cousins who grew up together— weren’t even old enough to get into the clubs they were playing.
“When we were little kids we all went to see Kiss,” says guitarist Rob Cavestany. “It was our first concert, we were all in full Kiss makeup, and our parents had to take us. When we got home, we decided to start a band. Many years later, we did a festival in Spain with Kiss, and we became 15-year-old fans all over again. I still get a kick out of that star-struck feeling, because it fuels the fire of your quest to make great music, so you can have that effect on other people.”
Your latest album, Killing Season [Nuclear Blast], delivers an iconic metal vibe along the lines of Iron Maiden’s Killers.
You’ve hit it right on the head. That album is one of our biggest influences, but people don’t seem to go for that kind of sound anymore. I guess it’s the age of the metal players these days, because you tend to reflect what infatuated you when you were growing up and getting obsessed with music.
And yet, you also manage to bring in a lot of seemingly non-metal riffs, tones, and grooves.
We secretly like to think of ourselves as “The Groovy Sounds of Death Angel.” By interjecting other styles of music into ours, we’ve sort of become the bastard child of the metal scene, and the purists don’t like us. They want straight-up metal, and we may go too left field for them. We don’t want to be restricted to stiff metal riffs. Actually, I don’t really listen to metal so much anymore. I kind of burned out on it—my ears just seemed to break. So I often go back to my old favorites such as the Scorpions, Heart, Bob Marley, old Stevie Wonder, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
So who would you identify as your main guitar influences?
I would say Randy Rhoads is my hero, and one of the main reasons I became a guitar player, but I also love Akira Takasaki from Loudness. He’s totally badass and blistering, but he also has so much melody and taste. Japanese musicians have this insane raw energy, and they immerse themselves fully into their bands. His ESP “star” guitar was one of the reasons I started out playing that body shape.
How has your approach to metal evolved over the years?
We did our first full-length studio album when I was 15 years old, and, back then, it was all about playing the biggest, fastest fireworks explosion that made you sound something like Eddie Van Halen. I still love playing live shows where the heaviness comes from our energy and the audience yelling at us to play faster and faster. But the difference in our approach now is that there is more emphasis on the song structure. I’m the main songwriter in the band, and I definitely want to grow. So I try to view the song as a complete creation, where the solos are relevant to the storytelling and vibe, rather than just being there to show off chops.
One of the band’s sonic staples has been acoustic guitar, but it seems you’ve changed their tonal space on Killing Season.
We deliberately kept the acoustic guitars in a darker place for this album. We wanted them to sound more brutal, as opposed to the almost pleasant sound we typically went for on our acoustic ballads.
Do you have a favorite acoustic guitar?
It’s an early-’90s Martin D-1. I love acoustic players like Pepe Romero and Django Reinhardt, and I even recorded an acoustic album before we did Killing Season. That allowed me to channel my Elton John and Fleetwood Mac influences. I even did the singing.
Can you detail your new Jackson Signature Series guitar?
I have two that I’m playing now—the Orange Dragon and the Red Dragon. I’ve played Jacksons ever since I was a kid. I first met Grover Jackson in 1988, when Death Angel was young, and I had already designed a body shape for the guitar I wanted him to build me. Jackson actually made my first signature models at that time, but when Grover left the company, it got sort of lost. Twenty years later, I needed my old metal guitars again, and, coincidentally, Grover was back with the Jackson company. I drew the whole design up myself. It’s based on the Jackson star bodies, but I wanted a horn-shaped cutaway like a Gibson SG so I could reach the high notes easily. That’s what bugged me about the star bodies—your hand would knock against the wing every time you went for the high notes.
It’s funny—I hadn’t purchased a new guitar for years, and I didn’t realize that they build guitars a little differently these days. For example, the tremolo bridges are recessed into the body so that the strings are really flat. On my old Jacksons, the Floyd Rose is not recessed. It’s bolted onto the top, and it sticks up about a half inch off the body. As a result, the strings are at an angle to the fretboard. But I just couldn’t get used to the recessed bridge. I have a really heavy right hand, and whenever I would do some palm muting, I’d smash the strings right against the pickups. I couldn’t play. So on my new signature guitar, I have an original Floyd Rose tremolo, and the bridge is not recessed. I know that would be freaky for some players, but it’s the old-school way, baby! The guitars also have 24 frets, a 3-way toggle switch, one Volume control, no Tone controls, red “blood drop” inlays, and something very unique called a “butt plug.”
I’m afraid to ask, but what is that?
It was Grover’s invention, but the actual thing came from a complaint I had about my original prototype. I loved the guitar, but the balance was a little neck heavy. At the same time, I wanted more sustain. So Grover routed a hole through the butt of the guitar, and inserted a three-inch long metal cylinder inside—right underneath the bridge. It totally gave the guitar more sustain, and the body balanced absolutely perfectly. Grover really believed in the modification, and he tried to market the thing a while back, but the butt plug never caught on. It worked for me, though, so I really wanted it to be a part of my guitar, and it’s now the first mass-marketed Jackson with the feature.
What about the rest of your gear?
For recording—and when I’m not playing live with Death Angel—I love my Gibsons. I have a 1973 Les Paul Standard, an early-’90s Gibson SG, and my first “real” guitar—a 1982 Flying V that I actually used to lay down some rhythm tracks on Killing Season. I run two amps, both through Marshall cabinets. One is a 100-watt Marshall Triple Super Lead. That’s my workhorse— it goes everywhere with me. I also use a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier to drive my second cabinet, and rock my tone. Most of my stompboxes have stayed the same throughout the years—a Dunlop 535 Q Wah, an MXR Phase 90, an MXR M-159 Stereo Tremolo, and an MXR MC-401 Boost/Line Driver for driving screaming leads. I’ve been using Dunlop Tortex picks forever. We usually play in standard tuning, but we tuned down to Eb for Killing Season, and the strings were moving around too much from the loss of tension, so I went with heavier-gauge Dean Markley strings—a .010-.052 set.
I heard the band has a comic book coming out later this year.
In a strange turn of events, Joshua Emerick— who is a Death Angel fan—contacted us about doing a comic book. We each got to choose our superpowers. So now we really get to be like Kiss!