KILL DEVIL HILL – “The Band Didn’t Have Anything…It Was Just Us”

September 20, 2023, 3 months ago

By Aaron Small

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KILL DEVIL HILL – “The Band Didn’t Have Anything…It Was Just Us”

To say a lot has happened since the release of the second Kill Devil Hill album, Revolution Rise, in 2013 is a massive understatement! Ten years have passed, and in that decade, half the band has changed. Drummer Johnny Kelly (Type O Negative, Quiet Riot) replaced Vinny Appice (Black Sabbath, Dio), and bassist Matt Snell (Five Finger Death Punch) replaced Rex Brown (Pantera, Down) – that’s a whole new rhythm section. Still leading the charge are vocalist Dewey Bragg (Pissing Razors), and guitarist Mark Zavon.

This revamped, and completely invigorated version of Kill Devil Hill releases their new album, Seas Of Oblivion, on September 20, 2023 via Legend Recordings. “To me, Kill Devil Hill is very identifiable by Dewey, and Mark’s riffs. So, to me, the identifying characters are still there,” begins Johnny Kelly. “Even though the band had a lot of star power with Vinny Appice and Rex Brown – those two together are incredible. But to me, Kill Devil Hill is Dewey. He’s such a great singer! That, to me, is what really stands out with Kill Devil Hill. Obviously, it’s going to be different when you change the entire rhythm section. Our approaches are going to be different. I don’t want to say better or worse, but it’s different. And that’s going to come across in any music.”

“We had recorded a couple of songs when Rex was still in the band, and that sounded different from the two records they did. You change one ingredient… it’s going to be different. You put me in place of Vinny Appice – that’s going to be completely different. Even though I was very influenced by Vinny when I was younger, when I first started playing; it’s still going to be different. Then when Matt came in, a totally different approach as well. I still think that it does sound like Kill Devil Hill though. To me, the identifying markers of the band are Mark and Dewey. And obviously, when you’re talking about ten years between records – everybody’s different. Put ten years between you, me, your Mom, your kids. So, there is going to be a difference. Hopefully, people who were fans of the band previously will dig what the band is bringing out. But that was the cool thing about it too, when we got together and started working on the record… we didn’t have an agenda. The band didn’t have anything – no label, no management, no booking agent; it was just us. We were just getting together, writing songs and seeing where it went.”

Prior to the release of their new album, Seas Of Obivion, Kill Devil Hill issued a handful of videos, causing anticipation and excitement to build. “Yeah, it’s kind of strange in the sense that things are moving pretty quickly now, because for a while, there really wasn’t anything going on,” admits Johnny. “It was one of those things where we got together, we did a couple of shows… next thing you know, Mark started writing songs, and we’re in the studio with Chris Collier recording a record. It seemed like there was a big period of inactivity, and then all of a sudden, this flurry. I did the drum tracks two or three years ago. During the pandemic, I went out to California, and we did the drum tracks… then it seemed a little slow-going to get the record finished after that. I was only there for a few days, and I recorded, like, 17 songs in two and a half days.” That’s a ferocious pace. “Yeah, at the time I really wasn’t thinking much about it, just trying to make the most of the time while I was in California, and while we had the studio. We did a bunch of covers, and all the original material; we were just trying to do as much as we could with the time we had. Then, out of nowhere, it just seemed like everything – the record was done.”

Seas Of Oblivion is comprised of 15 songs – 14 originals and one cover tune. That’s a lot of material. Was there ever any consideration given to separating this into two releases – an album and an EP? “There were conversations about what to do, because we’re not really sure… we weren’t planning so to speak. We were just speaking about what may be the best thing to do to get the music out in the current climate. ‘Maybe we should do an EP.’ Just release some of it sporadically, spread it out over a longer period of time. Or, put everything out all at once. For a lot of bands, everybody’s still trying to find their way in this current environment of releasing new music. We were trying to figure out what would be the best thing for Kill Devil Hill. You know, where does Kill Devil Hill fit into all this stuff? The final decision was to put it all out.”

One of the aforementioned videos is for the song “Pharmaceutical Sunshine” – certainly the most interesting title on Seas Of Oblivion. Johnny reveals what that means to him, personally. “It’s just literally a reflection on – I didn’t write the lyrics, but what I get from it is how medical treatment has become a commodity; something that you purchase. From my own experience with different medications – ‘Let’s put you on this one.’ I take anti-anxiety meds. I had been on them for a while, and then it felt like they really weren’t working. I’m on the lowest dosage that there is. So I go to my doctor, ‘It really feels like it’s not working.’ So they go, ‘Let’s put you on this.’ And I suggested, ‘I’m on the lowest dosage, can’t we just up my dosage on this one?’ They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we could try that.’ Isn’t that a lot easier than me having to wean myself off of this? Who knows how much this prescription cost? Or, if the doctor is sponsored? Do they get something for putting me on that medication?”

The final track on Seas Of Oblivion is a cover of “Solitude” by Black Sabbath, from their 1971 album, Master Of Reality. Kill Devil Hill certainly wasn’t hurting for material, or playtime on the CD. Why that particular cover, and why was it tacked onto the end as the final song? “Honestly, I don’t know,” laughs Johnny. “That cover was done before we started working on Seas Of Oblivion. That was one of the songs they had; it’s just Dewey and Mark. We’re all big Black Sabbath fans so it wasn’t a big stretch to say, let’s put a Sabbath song on the record. Especially where my career has been, and the bands that I played in for years. That really doesn’t take a lot of arm-twisting to say, ‘Let’s put a Sabbath cover on the record.’ I like the way it came out. I didn’t have any objections to it. And it isn’t your usual choice for a Sabbath song; I thought that was pretty cool. It’s pretty interesting. It’s just another thing that showcases the talents of Mark and Dewey.”

The aura and the atmosphere of KDH’s version of “Solitude” is reminiscent of Pantera doing “Planet Caravan”. It evokes the same feeling and emotion. “Well thanks. It’s kind of like the newer school’s approach, that next generation’s approach to that music - with a little bit of a different twist on it. With Type O Negative, we did cover songs, but it was always the approach of, ‘How would this song sound if Type O wrote it?’ There was always a different twist on it, as opposed to just covering a song straight-forward. But with Black Sabbath, the drums in those songs, Bill Ward is such a hero of mine, I don’t want to change it. What he did, I thought was so cool!”

“You Can’t Kill Me California” is the most energetic and upbeat song on Seas Of Oblivion. Yet, if you really pay attention to that lyric video, the words are taking a couple of pot shots at the state of California. After his laughter subsides, Johnny comments, “I really like the song a lot. Without getting too into politics, it’s really just an observation of what’s going on, from where we see it. It’s not criticizing, it’s just commenting on what’s in front of your face when you step out the door. But I’m not a big fan of California. The weather’s amazing, but it’s just not safe. I’d be terrified to raise children there.” And it’s super expensive too. “Yeah, but California’s always been expensive! You can’t say the current state of affairs in California… it’s always had really expensive gasoline. I’ve been going to California now for over 30 years, and it’s always been a place where things are more expensive. The cost of living is much higher; but that hasn’t really changed.”

One surprising element found on the Seas Of Oblivion album is the Alice In Chains vibe that comes through on a couple of these songs, specifically “Playing With Fire” and “Eye Of The Storm”. Those could be grunge songs from Seattle. It’s easy to imagine Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley – or William DuVall – doing those tunes. “When we were done, we knew that was going to come up,” divulges Johnny. “The Alice In Chains comparison is going to be there, we’re going to get asked about this. Then we were like, ‘You know what? F*ck it!’ We like the song. It came out cool. If it sounds like Alice In Chains – fine. I love Alice In Chains, so I don’t really have an issue with that. Alice In Chains is one of my favorite bands of all time; same thing with Soundgarden. It’s what we were into. It’s like saying something sounds like Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. It’s not like they have a patent on it. You’re influenced by it, and it comes out in your songwriting. Using those kind of vocal harmonies in a song, it’s not like they have a copyright on it. They got it from somebody else, and they put their twist on it. The same thing for the bands that will follow the grunge-era bands.”

Chris Collier produced, engineered, mixed and mastered Seas Of Oblivion. However, Collier is best known for his work with Korn and Prong; neither of those bands sound anything like Kill Devil Hill. What was it like working with Collier? Was it an enjoyable experience? “For me, yeah. I loved working with him. I took it as an opportunity to learn. To get that experience of working with different people. Seeing how they approach songs, songwriting, production. It was certainly different for me, the bands I played in, the people I’ve worked with. This was unique unto itself. I tried to use his experience to make our songs better. It was cool having a different set of ears to hear what we do. It was very interesting, to get that hands-on approach from somebody who was not part of our gang so to speak, our school of doing things.”

It’s a little-known fact, but Johnny Kelly is a master at scheduling! In addition to playing drums in Kill Devil Hill, he sits behind the kit for Quiet Riot, Eye Am, Hookers & Blow, Silvertomb, and Patriarchs In Black. Getting over his giggles, Johnny confesses, “Quiet Riot has been the one that has really been keeping me busy this year, which is great. But there’s a lot of time where I’m home. So, I’ve been able to work on songs… but I cannot function without a calendar. I just look at dates – can I do this here? Can I do that there? My wife’s not impressed. But these bands, it’s not like they’re very time consuming. It’s not like everybody has big tours lined up. There are a lot of things I can do from home. When live performances are being scheduled, then it gets a little tricky trying to make it all work. But I kind of look at it as, it’s a blessing! There are all these different things that want me to be a part of it. That’s awesome! As long as they’ll have me, I’m happy to be a part of it. And I love the things I’m involved in. Obviously, it’s not for a pay cheque, cause there’s literally no money in it. It’s not like I’m just doing it for the money. There really isn’t any money in any of it. It’s cool that people want me to be a part of what they’re doing.”

The album cover, created by Mister Sam Shearon (Slayer, Rob Zombie, Pantera, Iron Maiden), is an incredible piece of artwork. It’s an exclusive piece, created specifically for Kill Devil Hill. “Yeah, Sam pulled a good one out on this one. He seemed to outdo himself. But Sam is very passionate about what he does. He’s not the kind of guy to just phone something in, which is great. It’s admirable. I like working with people like that. Mark gave him a bunch of ideas on what he was trying to portray, and Sam hit it out of the park.”

A lot of these song titles do have visual elements: “Blood In The Water”, “Playing With Fire”, “Eye Of The Storm”, “From The Ashes”. They could all lend themselves to a picture, a graphic representation. How was Seas Of Oblivion decided upon as the album title? “Ah… that would be a Mark question. Mark really takes the forefront when it comes to the visuals, and the direction of the band. But I know that the title was picked out pretty early on. That was one of the things that was given to Sam to come up with the artwork. As far as the song titles and the subject matter – art imitates life. You could take any subject and make a song out of it.”

Kill Devil Hill currently has three live shows booked: September 21, 22, and 23. All are essentially album release shows, seeing as Seas Of Oblivion comes out on September 20. Are there any further dates in the works for the rest of the year? “Right now, there isn’t. We’ve just got to see, with schedules, what’s available. What can we afford to do? The days of bands getting tour support, all that shit’s a thing of the past. Unless you can afford to do it on your own, a lot of times it’s not going to happen. The way the music industry works now… unless you’re already an established, successful band… record labels now, they’re not in the business of developing artists anymore. It’s strange times, cause I’m a dinosaur. We were used to doing things a certain way with our career, and dealing with the record company, and getting the band out. If Type O started this year, it wouldn’t have been anything. To climb that hill, it takes a lot of money. And if you don’t have that money up front, you’re not going to be able to get anything done.”

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