Ross Dolan, the singer and bass player of the legendary death metal band Immolation met us and shed some light on the band’s newest release “Kingdom of Conspiracy” and, a special treat, an inside look into the history of this band.
Get your earplugs out!
Metal Blast: So, Immolation’s been called one of the pioneers of modern death metal, but I’d like to get your own take on your sound. How would you describe Immolation to someone who hasn’t heard you guys before?
Ross Dolan: For someone who’s never heard us, I’d say to get your earplugs out! It’s an acquired taste! [laughter] Well, what we do is, we’re a death metal band, and we’ve always been. And you can’t really sugarcoat it, it is what it is. We’ve always erred on the side of the darker, more haunting type of music, ’cause we were always more about the feeling and capturing that vibe that we’ve tried to capture on every record. It’s very dark, aggressive, and sinister music. At times it can be very fast and dynamic, and at times it can be slow and multi-layered. So we’re kind of all over the place as far as what’s contained in our music, and I think our fans expect that! [laughter] They expect some of the wackiness, some of the straight-forwardness, some of the more heavy and dour stuff, and some of the more intense stuff that really punches you right in the face! [laughter] But it’s all very dark, and it’s all very aggressive. Definitely extreme.
MB: Was there any big moment in your life you can point to that made you want to start playing and performing music for a living?
RD: When it comes to playing specifically, I had a good friend growing up and he played bass. And I remember going to his place one day, and he had the bass out, it was this old Strat-shaped sunburst. And he just started showing me some old [Iron] Maiden licks, and some Quiet Riot stuff, and some Judas Priest stuff from back in the day, we’re talking like early 80s. So there wasn’t an event, it was more a friend of mine. He’d show me how to play these things, and I bought a bass for like $30 from my neighbor shortly after that, and that’s how it started. And I was getting into stuff – well I was already into stuff like Maiden and Judas Priest, and stuff like that. Those were two big ones, in addition to Black Sabbath. But I think Steve Harris from Iron Maiden was the reason why I really became fond of the bass, because let’s face it; you listen to any Maiden record, and the bass is like, more dominant than the rhythm guitars, you know what I’m saying? It was very easy to hear and I loved his licks, and there’s something about his style that I really like. And obviously I don’t emulate his style at all, but he was the guy, you know. So it was really a combination of my love of the Maiden songs and what Steve Harris was doing, and my buddy introducing me to the instrument, and that was it, man. Once I got into it, I just became obsessed with it. I never had lessons, so I always struggled to try and get better and better, and I think once we started this band, back when Rob [Vigna] joined in ’88, it forced me to become a better player. And I never considered myself a phenomenal bass player or anything, I do what I do well, but I always have to push myself, you know what I’m saying? [laughter]
MB: Totally, totally. And can you remember the first metal album you ever bought?
RD: Wow, first metal record? Wow… let me think. I would say it’d probably have to be one of the earlier Maiden records. I don’t know if it’s the first Maiden record or Killers…I mean, they were out already, it’s not like I got it the day it came out, but I think I got Killers first, and then the first one, and then I think Number of the Beast came out in grade school, and that’s when I got that. But I remember one of the older kids in my grade school had the first Maiden album painted on the back of his denim, and it was a REALLY good painting. ‘Cause that was big back then in the 80s, when you had an album cover painted on your denim. That was the thing. I always used to look at that and think “Wow, that’s sick!” and I never knew what the band sounded like. So when I was finally old enough and I had some money, I bought the vinyl and I was like “WOW.” You know? So I’m pretty sure it had to be one of the earlier Maiden records. But prior to that, I was into music, but I was into more classic rock stuff. I got Pink Floyd’s The Wall when it came out early in the 70s. I was young, but I got it, I loved it, I listened the shit out of it. I got some earlier Queen stuff, stuff like that. And I was into movie soundtracks, and I was a big Star Wars nerd and still am, so I had all the soundtracks to that shit, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind….I was a weird kid. [laughter]
MB: Your new album, Kingdom of Conspiracy, is your second release on Nuclear Blast, so I think we can safely assume that things have been going well with the label!
RD: Absolutely, yeah. They’ve been phenomenal, they’ve treated us very well. All the people at the label are very cool. And one of the great things about it is that we knew most of the people, and we had worked with a lot of the people in the US office like Charles Elliot and Loana [Valencia], and Gerardo [Martinez] we’ve known for many years. So when our obligations were completed with Listenable and Century Media, they had approached us and it made the most sense to us, ’cause we really needed a strong presence here in the US. And I used to write to Nuclear Blast back in the late ’80s, when they were primarily a mail order, and I used to write to Markus [Staiger], the owner, back in the day! [laughter] We used to send him packages and now 25 years later we’re on the label, and it’s kinda cool! Kinda like, a full circle thing. We’re really happy, they’ve been really cool with us, and it’s nice to know after all this time that you do have a label that really believes in the band, and they’ve really proven themselves to us just from the first release that we did, the Majesty [and Decay] release. It’s a very good relationship, I have to say.
MB: Do you have anything special planned for the album’s release? Any new T-shirts, vinyl pressings, box sets, collector shit like that?
RD: Yeah, I know the label’s doing a buncha stuff. They’re putting out the vinyl, there’s going to be a gatefold version of that, different colors of vinyl. We’re gonna have merch available on the tour, obviously new stuff, and we’re gonna have the Providence EP available again, we’re gonna have some merch for that. And the label’s definitely doing some unique things. It’s what you would expect, they’re gonna do some cool things for a new release!
MB: And as far as the title goes, what made you decide to call the album Kingdom of Conspiracy? Aside from the fact that it sounds completely badass, of course.
RD: Well, thanks. [laughter] It really took us a couple months to come up with the title. We had the song title, that was the title of the song, but we had a lot of different ideas – I mean literally, I must have had about thirty different ideas for the title of this record, and none of them seemed to fit. We all really liked “Kingdom of Conspiracy,” but it wasn’t until we did that 70,000 Tons of Metal back in January, where we were there finally together as a band, and we hadn’t been together since the October tour with Marduk in Europe. So when we were together at that point, we were like “Guys, let’s put our heads together. Let’s really try to come up with something.” And Steve [Shalaty] just said “Why not Kingdom of Conspiracy?” I was like, “I love it!” And he was like, “Ok, done.” And that was it! [laughter] Bob and I were like “Yeah, great.” It was that easy, it was right under our noses the whole time, but it just took Steve suggesting that for the title, and we were like “Wow, that was stupid!” [laughter] But it definitely works, because conceptually, it’s our first time really doing something of a concept album, where there’s a common thread to all the songs. And Kingdom of Conspiracy was a very powerful title, and it really nailed what we were going for with the record. So yeah, we’re happy with it for sure.
MB: Par Oloffson, the artist behind the cover of the album. mentioned that you and Bob wanted to portray “the end result of an overly oppressive totalitarian state.” Up until Unholy Cult a big part of your lyrics dealt with criticism of organized religion, and since then you have branched out more often, touching on subjects such as politics and societal issues. I’m curious specifically about some of the lyrics on the title track and “Indoctrinate,” which go far beyond any standard heavy metal criticism of organized religion. Was there anything in particular that made you want to tackle something bigger in your lyrics this time around?
RD: It’s just something that’s kinda been building for a while. We touched on a lot of the themes on this record – well not a lot, but we touched on some of the themes on the [Providence] EP. “Swallow the Fear” specifically was written about the rise of the security state here, and all over the world, really. There’s cameras everywhere, they’re tracking our emails, and all the stuff that’s happening now in the name of security. And that’s great and all, but what about our privacies? What about our freedoms? I feel very strongly about that, and that’s kinda what “Swallow the Fear” was about. It’s about using fear to get people to give in, give away some of their liberties for this false sense of being secure and safe. But when you live in a free society you’re never completely safe, and that’s the reality of the world today. So I think it’s kind of silly to think that we could be in this bubble, I mean look at what happened just a couple weeks ago [in Boston]! You’re never gonna be free of people who wanna do crazy things like that. I don’t think we should have to give up any of our rights or any of our freedoms to achieve that. And that’s what that song was about.
So we kind of blended some of what’s happening now and some historical stuff, i.e. World War II, because the rise of the Nazi regime back in 1930s Germany was a very, very dark part in world history in a lot of ways. To look at what’s happening now around the world, and not just on the governmental side, but also economically, in general I think people today have lost our way in a big sense. We’re so distracted by a lot of things today that we fail to see a lot of the nonsense that happens under the radar, because there is a lot of corruption in the world, and it’s there. And people ask me “Kingdom of Conspiracy, what is this about? What kind of conspiracies?” It’s not about a specific conspiracy, and I think Steve said it very well when he said that it’s not a “Who shot JFK?” kinda thing, you know what I mean. [laughter] It’s about real conspiracies, it’s about people conspiring every day to do very bad things, evil things in the name of greed and self-preservation and power. And that’s a fact. We’re not talking about anything here that people aren’t aware of, just what I think people choose not to be aware of. It’s easier to look the other way and not have to confront these things head-on. I think that’s what makes it a very dark album.
And if you follow the way things happened in Germany in the ’30s, people were groomed very slowly back then. And when the chains were finally wrapped around the country, it was too late for a lot of those people to do anything! I think history is very important so that we don’t repeat it; [it’s important] to have knowledge of history. And I bring up 1930s Germany only because it was a significant event, but these things have happened throughout our history. History always kind of repeats itself. So without me having to get on a long-winded rant about it, that’s where the inspiration for this record came from.
And you’re right, we did kind of leave the religious themes alone, because we were very passionate about that for the first number of records. And once Unholy Cult came out, that was where we branched off. That’s where the shift happened, ’cause that was right after 9/11, as you know! I saw it, I went down there, I had family that got killed in the towers, and it was a life-changing event in a lot of ways. And I knew at that point that things would never be the same, in our country or in the world. And that’s where the shift happened, and we started to focus more on the darker side of humanity. Which we did already with the religious themes, of course, because that was a very dark part of our history. I mean not to knock anybody who’s very passionate about their religion, but in my personal point of view, I’ve always thought of it as a very controlling and negative force. It serves as a division in our world, it divides people, just like so many other things! So that’s where we are, and that’s where that shift started, away from religion and into something more socially relevant and looking more deeply at ourselves. At ourselves meaning us, too, because we are all part of what’s happening in our own way.
MB: Did you guys do anything outside of the norm during the recording and writing process for Kingdom of Conspiracy, or do you have a set pattern and grind that you’ve fallen into?
RD: Well, the EP and the Majesty and Decay record, along with this one, were the first time we really utilized the computer to move the process along. We actually had a proper computer production for this record and the last couple records. And one unique part about the process for this record is the fact that a lot of it was written while we were away and on the road. We did two weeks in Brazil and we had a lot of downtime, and in all the downtime at the hotel Bob came up with probably a good portion of the second half of the record down in Brazil, which we’ve NEVER done before, dude! We’ve NEVER been able to write anything on the road, we just haven’t been able to, so that was a first. And I’d say all of his leads were written while we were in Europe during the Marduk run, which is really the great part about computers and all these great recording programs they have now. It allows you to really do stuff on the road, and take your home studio with you! So that was the primary difference, but other than that it was pretty much standard Immolation. Bob writes all the music, he arranges most of it and I sit down with him and we fine-tune the arrangements and we send them to Steve, and Steve adds his two cents, and then he starts coming up with his end, the drumbeats, and he adds his flavor, and that’s it! We head into the studio and hope for the best! [laughter]
MB: And for all the gear heads reading this, what kind of a setup are you running these days?
RD: Well, for all the gear heads, I am not a gear head. [laughter] I am so not! But I’ll tell you what I have. I actually just got a new GK 700RB head, solid state. I have an Ampeg SVT Classic, but one of the newer ones which is a tube [amp]. Unfortunately it’s not that practical for me on the road, because I had tube issues on the last run so I wasn’t able to use it. So since I had the GK 800 since like 1990, and I had it for about 20 years before it eventually took a shit, I decided to stick with GK and I just got the new 700RB and I was just trying it out tonight, actually. It’s exactly what I expected, I love it. I have Mesa cabinets, I’ve got two 15s and two 10s that I’ve also had for about 20+ years, and they still kick ass. And that’s pretty much it, I play Ibanez basses which I’ve always had, I love the Soundgear series and I’ve been playing those since 1990. So you see, I’m a very dedicated consumer. [laughter]
MB: It’s all about brand loyalty.
RD: Totally, totally! But you know, if something works then I stick with it. I enjoy playing with the setup I have. So gear-wise, that’s pretty much all I use. I don’t have any effects or pedals. I do have a Sansamp pedal that I use from time to time, and I have a tuning pedal. So it’s pretty straight forward.
MB: So you’re about to embark on the Decibel Magazine tour with Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death. What can we expect from this tour, aside from a kickass time?
RD: I really think it’s gonna be a phenomenal tour, it’s gonna be a strong one. We’re looking forward to it for so many reasons. I think the main reason is because we’ve toured with Cannibal in the past, we did like four tours with them when they released the Vile album, two here in the States, two in Europe. We’ve known those guys since we met them in 1988, back when our first demo was out. We met them at a show down here, it was a Death show I think, at Lemore back in Brooklyn, back in the day in like 1988. And that’s when we met Alex [Webster], and we exchanged demos, and we’ve been friends ever since! They’re very good guys, man. I can’t say enough positive things about these guys, they’re good people, they’re very passionate about their music and their fans, and I have nothing but respect for them. So to be able to go out with them again at this point in our career is amazing. Same with Napalm Death!
Napalm Death, we have a long history. We met the old drummer Mick Harris over in the UK when we went over there in 1989. We just decided we were gonna go to Europe, so we met Mick and Barney [Greenway], who was in Benediction at the time. Barney wasn’t even in Napalm Death when we met him, he was just a young guy singing for Benediction and then later on he wound up singing for Napalm! So it was kinda funny the way that happened. And we actually booked one of their first shows in New York. They played CBGB’s in 89, and we booked them the next night here near Charlotte Street, closer to us. So we have a long history with them too, and we just toured with them in 2010 in Europe, and they’re phenomenal guys as well! They treated us great, we had a great time, and nothing but respect for them. Not only for their passion and longevity, but because they’re good solid people, and they’re awesome guys to tour with. So that’s one of my favorite parts about the tour, in addition to the fact that it’s a powerful tour. It’s three bands that have been around for like 25+ years each, and I think it’s really gonna offer a lot to the fans. We’re totally stoked for this one.
MB: The fans are pretty stoked too, let me tell you!
RD: Oh, totally!
MB: So like you said, this tour has three of the most legendary extreme metal bands still active today, and you guys have all this great history between you, AND you’re all sharing the same stage. Do you feel that there was ever a sort of a friendly rivalry or a sense of one-upmanship between Immolation and the other guys? Sort of in a sense of, like, “Oh man, they sound so much faster on this new album! We gotta up the tempo! They sound so much more brutal, we gotta get these new amps in!” Something like that?
RD: [laughter] No, never. We’ve never been competitive in that sense. We all have a lot of history, the three of us, but each band is completely different. We’re all extreme metal, for sure, [but] Napalm Death does their thing, Cannibal Corpse does their thing, and we do our thing. I don’t think we’ve ever, at any point, looked at any other band other than to say like, “WOW, that’s really fucking cool! That’s a really good idea, why didn’t we think of it?” But other than that, we’ve never been competitive with any bands in the scene because I think it’s nonsense to be like that. It’s very difficult to do this, number one. You really have to sacrifice a lot to do this as long as we have. I give anybody credit who can get up there on that stage and do their thing, because it’s not easy. It’s really not easy. There’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of expectation, and for any band who can get up there and get it together and do it, I give them respect and I give them credit to do it. It’s not an easy thing, and we recognize that. There’s a lot that goes into this, so we were always more about supporting our friends. I consider probably 95% of the bands in the scene today close friends of ours, and we would do anything, we go out of our way for any of these guys. We’re tight with the Krisiun guys, they’re in town and playing tomorrow night, but unfortunately we’re not gonna be able to see them because we’re doing interviews tonight and tomorrow night! But those guys have been here, they’re welcome to stay at my place as long as they need. They’re good people, and we treat all of our friends and fellow bands like that. That’s how it’s supposed to be, you’re supposed to help each other out. There’s never been that rivalry thing, I think that’s fuckin’ bullshit. None of that, none of that on this tour!
MB: Right on, right fuckin’ on. And it’s probably way too early to ask at this point, but do you have any plans for a new record in the works?
RD: Oh man, we’re still ready to get THIS one out! We recorded this one back in August, and we just can’t wait for the fuckin’ thing to be out already! It seems like we recorded it ten years ago, it’s already old news to us! [laughter] But I expect you probably won’t hear any new stuff from us for at least another year and a half. We’ll let this one get out, we’re gonna tour for this, we’re gonna tour in Europe in January for this record, and then we’ll probably come back again and hit the States next year and possibly Europe again next year. So that’s really what we’re focused on now, just getting this record out and touring like hell for it.
MB: And we’re coming up on the end here, so you have any last words for your fans?
RD: Just thank you, man, thank you. I said this in the last interview, we can’t thank our fans enough. We truly have good fans, and they’ve always been die-hard, always super supportive, and man, they just…they’ve been with us through thick and thin, man! And I respect our fans, man, because they’re always the ones on the messageboards when someone’s like “Aww, these guys? They suck!” you’ll always have ten of our fans who’ll just totally shut that dude down! [laughter] So they’re very protective of us, and we owe them a lot. They’re the reason why we’re here. And I always enjoy when we’re on the road, meeting our fans and hanging out and talking to people, I just really enjoy that. And they’re good people, man. They’re sharp, they get it, they understand what we’re talking about, they understand what we’re about. And that means a lot [to meet] like-minded people. And that’s what’s great about metal, metal really unites people, it doesn’t divide people! [laughter]