Guitarist Bobby Koelble Recounts His Time in Death and Knowing Chuck Schuldiner
Dynamic jazz-metal fusion guitarist Bobby Koelble understands the highs and lows of a life defined via music..
The mid-90s found Death a band on the rise. Anointed the proverbial kings of the death metal genre, the band’s enigmatic leader, Chuck Schuldiner, wanted more. As was often the case, Death’s lineup turned over once more, and as the sessions for 1995’s watershed opus Symbolic were underway, it was apparent that the group needed a new axe-slinger.
It was then that Schuldiner sought out and handpicked a young Bobby Koelble, a guitarist known for his fearless blending of jazz and metal and one who could ably aid in supplementing Death’s ever-shifting sound. And though Koelble only ultimately appeared on a few of the Symbolic’s tracks, his impact is everlasting.
As he navigated a wave of euphoria, things turned sour quickly. Schuldiner shuttered Death’s doors in the wake of personal and business-related issues, leading Koelble to pick up the pieces and move onward toward his next venture.
Though his moment in the spotlight with Death was all too brief, the record he was a part of and the ensuing tour proved to be integral to heavy metal history. More so, many feel the lineup Koelbel bookended may well have been Death’s best, leaving many fans to lament what might have been.
Koelbel recently took the time to sit and recount his origins in music, his early interactions with Chuck Schuldiner, joining Death, his foray into teaching, his love for jazz, and what’s next as he moves forward.
As a young musician, what was the moment which first sparked your interest in music?
When I was 7, my dad went to the mall to get a CB radio. In the late ’70s, they were trendy because of Smokey And The Bandit, etc. He came home with a Yamaha organ instead, so I took organ lessons for the next six years. I’m very grateful for that because I learned to read at a young age and started to develop an ear. It also helped me develop an appreciation of classical music and jazz because I eventually learned to play some standards, although I didn’t know them then. Once I started getting into rock, I realized there was no organ in Black Sabbath, so it was time to switch instruments. [Laughs].
How did you develop your uniquely blended guitar style?
Angus Young was the main guy who made me want to pick up a guitar. I used to impersonate him in my living room with a tennis racket for my friends. [Laughs]. I was into most of the expected stuff for the early ’80s: Van Halen, AC/DC, Zeppelin, Rush, etc. That eventually merged into Maiden and Priest, and then Metallica, Anthrax, and so forth.
Do you feel jazz and metal are interconnected in ways that some fans might not realize?
Oh, yeah. For sure, they are. The guy that moved me towards jazz and Berklee was Al Di Meola, and then once I found jazz, that was what I primarily focused on until this day. I think that most musicians are a cumulative result of what they have deeply delved into, so in my case, you may hear rock with an influence of jazz or vice versa. It’s a constant, ongoing process of development, or at least I hope it is.
Do you remember your first gig?
My first gig with a band was at a party in high school with some friends. We were awful, and everyone went outside, so they didn’t have to hear us. [Laughs]. In high school, I played with some older guys in a casual band called Free Drinks because we thought the name would make people come to see us. We were wrong. [Laughs]. We only played a couple of gigs, but I learned a lot from them, mostly what not to do.
The performance opportunities I had at Berklee were valuable because jazz is process-based music; the best way to learn what to do and what not to do is by just doing it as much as possible with people who are better than you. I played in a band called Azrael in the early ’90s, and we played some fantastic gigs. We opened for Exodus, Danzig, an all-day gig in Orlando headlined by Pantera, Deicide, and others. Again, all valuable learning experiences.
Take me through how you first met Chuck Schuldiner.
We met for the first time in high school, although we went to different schools. We had a mutual friend with whom I went to school, and he invited us to his house on the same day. We both showed up with an armful of albums, and he was wearing his early Mantas denim. We listened to music and hung out for several hours that day. I remember him being a funny, likable guy, and we got along very well.
How did you end up joining Death?
I got a call from a mutual friend who worked at a music store in Orlando, saying that Chuck was looking for me. I guess he remembered me and heard that I could play. I think he and Gene [Hoglan] tried going to the Danzig gig I played but couldn’t find the venue in time because there was no sign out front of the place. [Laughs]. Anyway, I got Chuck’s number, called him, and we set up an audition. I learned three or four songs, then waited for a week or so while he auditioned one or two other guys, but I eventually got the gig.
Was it daunting joining Chuck’s ever-revolving ensemble cast?
I’m not sure if daunting is the right word, but I initially felt a little insignificant, coming into the band so late. Brian Benson and I figured out that I was the seventh guitarist to come through, so we started calling me “Old No. 7” after Jack Daniels as a joke.
The record you were a part of with Death, Symbolic, is often regarded as Death’s finest hour. Going in, what was Chuck’s directive?
I think his directive was always to make the best work possible. He was optimistic because he had a new label, a new engineer, and his biggest budget yet. Of course, whether it’s the best one is very subjective, but I think it’s the most well-produced Death record. But that, too, is subjective.
Symbolic was of less traditional death metal record, moving in a progressive/technical direction. Do you attribute the shift in sound to yourself, Kelly [Conlon], and Gene [Hoglan]?
I think Symbolic is actually a little less technical than Individual Thought Patterns, but it was definitely moving in a more melodic, polished direction. A lot of that had to do with Jim Morris’ production. Of course, Gene Hoglan’s contributions are staggering. I was just glad to be there. [Laughs].
Most of Death’s tracks are attributed to Chuck. This said, how did you most influence the sessions? How integral was your background in jazz to the album’s overall sound?
Of everyone involved, I probably contributed the least to the album. It was already mostly written by the time I joined, and my time in the studio lasted about three hours. The jazz/fusion influence of my playing may have contributed to a slightly more progressive sound; who knows? But I only played on three songs, so I don’t think it had a drastic overall effect. Again, I was just happy to be a part of the whole thing.
Did Chuck write your parts, or were you allowed to experiment freely?
Chuck always gave his musicians the freedom to do whatever they wanted. I think that’s what a great bandleader does; hire people who play how you like and then let them do their thing, so you don’t have to micromanage them. Fortunately, he was stoked with what I did on the songs, which was very encouraging.
When you look back on Symbolic, one of the generation’s greatest metal albums, what are your lasting thoughts?
I was amazingly fortunate to have been a part of it. It was my first legitimate professional opportunity to tour and see the world. Honestly, Symbolic wasn’t well received by everyone in the death metal community at the time because full-on heaviness and brutality were en vogue. It was a bit of a departure. But I think it’s aged very well and still sounds great today. I’m eternally grateful to Chuck for giving me that opportunity.
Can you recount the end of your time with Death and the immediate aftermath?
Toward the end, it became apparent that Chuck’s relationship with Roadrunner Records had deteriorated and that he was tired of singing and didn’t want to do it anymore. So, our last tour of Europe was bittersweet because we knew we were disbanding when it was over. It went from a massive high to a significant low over two years, and it was honestly depressing and hard to deal with for a while. Chuck later asked me if I wanted to play with Control Denied, but my life was moving in a different direction then, and I didn’t feel like I was in the right head space to do so.
These days, you’re with The Jazz Professors. How did the group form?
The Jazz Professors is the name of the performing jazz faculty of the University of Central Florida, one of the colleges where I teach. It’s a world-class faculty that I’m also extremely honored to be a part of. It’s not so much a touring group, but we perform at the school and at various festivals and conventions.
You’re also a teacher. What led you to take your career in that direction rather than continue to pursue a career in metal music?
Honestly, I never really aspired to become a teacher. It started as something I did to supplement my income as a starving musician. [Laughs]. But eventually, the opportunities at Rollins College and UCF presented themselves, and I embraced them. It wasn’t necessarily like I chose it over metal; it’s almost like it chose me. Of course, I still love heavy music and remain involved with it significantly. I’ve done dozens of guest appearances for various bands and artists over the years and will hopefully continue to do so.
Which genre do you identify with most? Jazz or metal?
I think most people identify me more as a metal player, and that’s understandable, but I think of myself as someone who plays music, specifically the guitar. Like many people, I’m fascinated by many different types of music, and just enjoy the process and journey of exploring. I’ve never been super interested in fame, just in my growth as a musician, person, and father. However, jazz and improvised music tend to occupy most of my practice. But in the end, it’s all universal, and these things all relate to one another.
What’s next for you in all lanes?
A long-distance metal project of mine called Lie of Eris will soon be releasing a full-length album exclusively on Bandcamp. It’s something that I’ve worked on over several years with some buddies of mine in Quebec City and Orlando, and one of the tunes features Snake and Chewy from Voivod. You can check out one of the tunes called “Ghosts of Chornobyl” on our Bandcamp page.
The Jazz Professors have a new album called Blues And Cubes which will be released soon on Flying Horse Records, UCF’s own record label. Death To All will probably see some more action of some kind next year. And since the pandemic, I’ve begun a solo electronic-meets-jazz-fusion project that I hope to complete sometime in the upcoming year. Aside from that, I’m very thankful to have a lucrative career as a musician and teacher here in Central Florida.