Suffocation’s Frank Mullen: The MetalSucks Interview

Mullen enjoying some downtime during the filming of the “As Grace Descends” music video at Duff’s in Brooklyn. Photo Credit: Damien Mitchell, Almost Famous Photography

Any metal fan with half a brain knows that Frank Mullen is one of the greatest front men in the history of the genre. Mullen practically invented death metal vocals as we know them. But even if he hadn’t, no one has ever experienced the live blitz that is Suffocation can forget his stage presence, from his patented synchronized blast beat hand gestures to his passionate, sincere, and often hilarious banter. There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who worship Frank Mullen, and those who don’t know who Frank Mullen is.

So, needless to say, I lept at the chance to get on the phone with him last week and pick his brain! I can now cross “Ask Frank Mullen About His Stage Banter” off my bucket list.

Below, get Mullen’s thoughts on that banter, Suffocation’s new album, Pinnacle of Bedlam, drummer Mike Smith’s departure, the death of Suicide Silence’s Mitch Lucker, and much more. Enjoy!

Congratulations on the new album, first of all. You guys have been doing this on and off for more than two decades now. How do you maintain inspiration and not just get bored and sleepwalk through it? 

Well, Terrance [Hobbs, guitarist] is always writing music. He always has fresh ideas. He’s definitely one of the driving forces behind keeping the music together. That’s what helps us to continue to be able to put out material that’s worthy of being on an album. It’s not the easiest thing in the world, writing all the music. But he comes with fresh ideas all the time, he’s always writing. That’s definitely what keeps it going.

Do you feel that it’s ever a struggle to keep coming up with awesome death metal lyrics? 

Yeah. I mean, I didn’t write too many of the lyrics on this album. I wrote a few, helped out with some others. Terrance and Derek [Boyer, bassist] did a lot of the writing to give me a different take or perspective maybe. I’ve written about much as I can possibly think of. It definitely gets harder as you keep going and try to come up with new ideas.

So what’s the process for you? They bring you in when they’ve demoed everything and you start working with them? 

Terrance and the other guys will usually write material, Derek adds his input with certain rhythms, things like that, song structures, et cetera. The other guys will write some things as well, and yeah, they’ll put some things together and we’ll come in and sit down and hear it. Usually [Terrance] does a lot of scratch track work with a ddrum, things like that. He’ll put in new drums, kind of like an idea of how he wants it to go. Then we’ll hear it, see if we have to make any adjustments or if there things where we’ll say, “Yeah, that’s good. Maybe we should do this and that.” Then there’s a finished product there. Sometimes he’ll put lyrics to it. Sometimes he won’t have lyrics and I’ll do my best to fill any gaps. That’s pretty much how it goes.

Do you have a favorite cut from the new album?

There’s a lot of good songs on the new album. I think it came out great. “Inversion” is great… I mean, I don’t really have one I would say is my favorite. I think the song for the video [“As Grace Descends”] came our really well. That video should be out shortly. I think fans are going to be very happy with the album.

From your point of view, what happened with Mike? 

He’s got his family. It’s harder as we get older, even with me, I can’t really tour full time. He’s got a good job now. It comes down to things like that. Now he’s still able to do music and stuff, [but he can also]stay home and be with his family. He’s got a great job now. That’s pretty much where it’s at.

He said some not-so-nice things about the band when he left. 

Yeah… I don’t know. I’m not going to get into anything. I’m friends with Mike. I’m definitely not going to get into “Someone said this” or “Someone said that.” I’m great friends with Mike; I’ve been friends with him for a long time. I still consider him a good friend. So, yeah, I’m not going to get into particulars of who said what.

Fair enough. How is it having Dave [Culross, Smith’s replacement] back in the band? 

It’s good. We’ve worked with Dave before [Culross was previously in the band from 1996 to 1998, and appeared on their EP, Despise the Sun. -Ed.], so it’s not something where you have someone come in and you don’t know if they’ll gel with the band. He’s local too, that works out great. He lives here on [Long Island]. It worked out really well. Terrance reached out to him, asked if he was interested, and he said, “Yeah, sure.” It’s been coming along good. He’s definitely got his Dave Culross style going on the album.

As you yourself mentioned, you’re going to sit out some portion of the touring behind this album. That obviously took a lot of Suffocation fans aback. How do you feel when you hear Suffocation fans saying, “Oh, it’s not the same with out you!”?

It’s an honor, and I understand them being upset that it may not be the same thing. But unfortunately, I really can’t do much about it at this stage of my life. Death metal does not make you millions. You’re not getting rich on Death Metal. It’s not like, “OK I can just do Death Metal full time and that’ll take care of my retirement.” That’s not happening. That said, I enjoy the music. I enjoy playing shows. So it was either one of two choices: a) I’m out completely having had a great run with the band and they move forward with a new singer, or b) I can deal with this amount of touring and I can do the album, but I can’t be in the band full-time like I used to be able to. So it was either one of the two choices. I think the rest of the guys wanted to at least have me around as much as possible, as instead of it being, “Oh, Frank is done as well and we’ll move forward with a new full-time singer.”

Does it feel weird knowing that the band you helped create is out there with a different vocalist? 

No. I look at it like, I would never want to hold back the other four members in the band from being able to go out and play music. I can’t see me saying, “I can’t do it full time, so you guys can’t do it full time.” I wouldn’t put them in that spot. It’s definitely a little different, but I couldn’t say to the guys, “Hey, I can’t do it, therefore you can’t do it.”

Since we’re talking about your live performances: I assume you’re aware of this, but you’re infamous among your fans for your stage banter. Is that something you spend a lot of time thinking about? Or do you just talk when you get up there and whatever comes out comes out? You’re a poet as far as I’m concerned. I love watching you talk in-between songs almost as much as I love watching you actually perform songs. 

[laughs] A lot of that stuff is just… it depends. It’s whatever I’m feeling. No, it’s not rehearsed or anything. A lot of it, when I really get going, is just kind of how I’m feeling that day. Or something has shocked me and I just have to share it with everybody. The stage banter gets crazy and it just rolls sometimes and I can’t stop it.

You did a guest appearance on the song “Smashed” from the last Suicide Silence album. In light of the hard year those guys have had, could you talk about what it was like working with them? 

We’ve run into them plenty of times on the road. We’ve done some shows together. Danny [Kenny, Suicide Silence bassist] is a Cowboys fan, as I am, so we always had that between us. We’d meet up every now and then, for football season and all that. We kept in touch with those guys. He approached me and asked if I’d be interested in doing some guest vocals on a song for them. I said “Yeah, sure. No problem.” Then hearing about the tragedy that happened [with vocalist Mitch Lucker]… it’s just horrible. He was a young kid. You hate to see that happen to somebody who still has a full life ahead of him.

When they did the benefit show, they asked me if I could make it, but unfortunately it was poor timing. I really just couldn’t get out there to California to do it. I’m still a very much friends with those guys. I hope they have continued success.

Are there any young death metal bands besides Suicide Silence that you’re aware of that have impressed you recently? 

I mean, it’s so hard. There are some bands that I’ll see and I’ll like, but I may not totally remember their name. Some kids are pushing hard out there. One of the bands I really like, they’re a band from here on Long Island, Car Bomb.

I love that band. 

Yeah. So, I’m into that stuff. I’m into the off-time, Meshuggah-type bands, things like that. If I see something and I enjoy it, I enjoy it. I’m more of an old school guy; I don’t really know the names of bands. Derek is more in tune with the scene; he knows this band and that band. I’m more or less like, “If I hear it and it sounds great, then cool.”

It still must be weird. You basically created this vocal style and now it’s so prevalent. 

It’s one of those things where I didn’t even know if I was going to sing or not. I was playing guitar and stuff. I just picked up the mic one day and was like, “All right, let me try it out.” [At first] I nearly blew my throat apart and I couldn’t talk for a few days. Then I just kept pushing at it. I always wanted it to be brutal and heavy, and also legible. I didn’t want it to be a fake guttural thing, or something where you can’t really understand what’s going on.  I wanted it to have more power. One of the guys I really enjoyed watching play and watching sing is Barney [Greenway], from Napalm Death. He’s got a great presence and a powerful voice. That’s what I always liked. He’s able to get it across, push it, and it sounds great. He never mumbled words and he never hides things with his voice. He puts it right out there. He’s definitely one of the best.

Suffocation’s Pinnacle of Bedlam comes out February 15 on Nuclear Blast. You can stream the track “As Grace Descends” here and pre-order the album here.

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