We caught up with Kenny Andrews and Terry Butler, who are respectively the lead guitarist and bass player of legendary Tampa, FL-based death metal pioneers Obituary, on a summer afternoon. We wanted to talk to them about their approaches to choosing and playing instruments, but we also really wanted to ask about the killer animated videos they’d done. All goals were met.
Ken, do you recall your first experience with ESP Guitars?
KA: Yeah, I do. It was back in 2001. I was doing my first gig as a guitar tech, working for Andrew W.K.
What? You were Andrew W.K.’s guitar tech?
KA: I was. A bunch of my friends were in the band. I’d never done it before but they called me to come down there, and I was like, “Let’s see what happens?”
I went down and worked on the guitars. I wanted the gig really bad. One of the first things I did was when they wanted EMGs put in their guitars. That’s the first time I remember having direct experience with ESPs. I was working with guitarist Erik Payne and tried out some of his LTDs. They played like butter. They played great.
A year and a half after that, I ended up being in the band. I’ve been with ESP ever since.
How about you, Terry?
TB: I think the first time I heard of ESP was from watching the band Loudness and seeing Akira Takasaki. It was early on. I’ve been aware of the ESP name for a long time.
What models are you playing now?
KA: Early on, I started with a couple of LTD MH-250s. I used those for a long time, and played the shit outta them. They were just regular LTDs, but they were great guitars. Next, I went on to LTD Deluxe, and had a couple of Eclipses.
Where things really started happening was when I got the MH-1000 in See Thru Black. I will put that guitar up against anything else out there.
How did you get into the MH-1000?
KA: I had a bunch of friends in hardcore bands. A lot of them had that model. I always thought it sounded great and played great. It’s got everything you need.
As time went on, I got my regular ESPs. I’m playing the M-II. I’ve used those ever since.
Terry, what bass are you using?
TB: Right now, I’m playing the Stream. It’s a killer bass.
What do you like about it?
TB: I love the Steam because when you put a strap on it, it’s perfectly level. It’s right there. It’s got a good balance. It’s a solid bass with killer playing feel. It plays well, nice and smooth. Mine has active pickups. I think the Stream is perfect for me and how I play.
Any secrets to your bass tone?
TB: I use some distortion, which helps boost it. Early on, I started using a RAT distortion pedal. It sucks the tone out of your bass somewhat. That’s why I like the active pickups. Makes it hot, like a turbo boost. On the Stream, I have two knobs, a volume and tone. I keep both cranked wide open. It’s a setup that a jazz player or traditional rock player might frown on, but it works for me. One other thing: playing live, I mix a clean tone blended with a dirty tone.
Ken, what attracts you to a new guitar?
KA: I’ve never been a fan of the pointy guitars and crazy extreme shapes. With the M-II, the shape is really comfortable for me. Another big thing on the M-II is the the unfinished neck. It is so nice! I never want to play a painted neck again. Also, just having one knob. I don’t want to be fucking around with tone knobs. In Obituary, I’m kind of that dude. I handle the high tones, so just give me one volume knob. That’s the best.
You guys do a lot of live shows, and a lot of touring where your instruments are traveling with you around the world. Does the reliability of a guitar or bass matter a lot to you?
KA: Oh yeah. Those guitars have never left me hanging. They go through some abuse. Just the traveling alone. They get beat up and thrown around, they’re in and out of the cases.
You know how some people detune guitars before putting them on the plane?
KA: We don’t do nothing. We put them on and go.
KA: I throw and go. When we arrive and I get them out of the case, wherever I’m at, nine times out of ten they’re still perfectly in tune.
How about you, Terry? Does your bass stand up to the rigors of road travel?
TB: Absolutely. It’s a very durable bass. It takes a beating. It travels a lot. It flies a lot of planes. I’ve never had any issues at all. It’s very reliable.
Both of you guys are experienced players, but both of you had the challenge of joining Obituary after it had already been an established and respected band for decades. Is that as much of a high-pressure situation as it sounds it would be?
KA: I will admit, there was a lot of nervousness at first. Then again, I’ve known the guys for many years, since the ‘90s. Donald (Tardy, Obituary drummer) had played drums with Andrew W.K., so I knew him well from there.
TB: For me, it was a little different. Not so much any kind of playing pressure, but being accepted by the fans. I’d been in Death, Massacre, and Six Feet Under, which are all killer bands. I don’t get nervous playing live, but stepping into Obituary, the guys have a certain style and a certain sound. I wanted to make sure that I fit in.
KA: The main thing for me was learning the songs, and making sure that I was doing justice with the guys who I’m taking the place of. Each guy in Obituary had their own feel. An example was learning the Cause of Death stuff. James Murphy is one of my favorite players, but in terms of how I play guitar, it’s really not my style. I’m a thrash dude, a rock dude. My influences run from Ace Frehley to Angus Young to Dimebag. As much as possible, I stuck with what I knew.
But getting into Obituary was actually really comfortable. The guys were really nice, and once they called me in, they weren’t taking no for an answer.
TB: They’re an awesome group of guys. We all grew up with each other. I couldn’t have landed in a better spot.
Ken, you actually started with Obituary as their touring bass player, right?
KA: Yes. I’d been on bass for them for a couple tours, in 2008 and 2010.
It’s a funny story. At the time, I was a guitar tech. That was my main gig. I really didn’t know at the time if I wanted to play guitar again.
How did you get ready?
KA: I just watched a bunch of videos and listened endlessly to the songs. I wanted to get as close as possible. It wasn’t always easy because with former players like Allan West, it was a different approach than what I was used to.
And you have the expectations from longterm fans, who want to hear the songs like they’re used to hearing them.
KA: You have to have those little things that everybody familiarizes themselves with. They expect the riff. I like to try and copy the whole thing, but if you do that too much, you get people saying, “What, you can’t do your own shit?”
So I try to do a little of both now. Doing stuff live and trying out new things, it’s like holding on by the skin of your teeth. It’s exciting too, in that way.
I have to ask you guys about the animated videos you did, first for “Violence” in 2015 and then “Ten Thousand Ways To Die” this year in 2017. We get new songs and videos sent to us by ESP bands every day, so it’s hard to stand out from the rest, but the minute that Chris Cannella and I saw those, we couldn’t wait to share them. What’s the story behind them? How did they even happen?
KA: What’s funny, man… we’re all approaching 50, but everyone in the band is eternally 15. When we’re together, the jokes are about tits and dicks. We’re just old young dudes.
TB: We’re funny dudes who crack each other up on tour. We like to have a good time too. We wanted the videos to reflect that.
KA: The guy that does the cartoons had been a fan of the band since 1990. He approached us with the idea of an animated video and showed us a sample. We started goofing off about it, talking about it. There are enough performance videos the band had done where they’re looking tough and mean. We don’t want to do that again. So how about a cartoon?
TB: Yeah, we’ve all done the “dress up and walk around the woods with fog and scary evil shit”.
KA: We started brainstorming and putting together storylines. One of the first things we wanted was for the band to be in a Scooby Doo van. We then came up with all that other shit with the zombies, adding and adding to the story.
TB: After the first one, we knew the second one would be even better.
KA: We said, “Alright, we’ll come up with some other stuff.” The second one has all these cameo appearances. There’s such a history in this band with Tampa. I can’t think of any other city where, holy smokes, everybody knows everybody. Anyway, we added all that stuff, things like the toilet scene, where I’m on the shitter. I always had stomach issues, and for years, everyone made fun of me not wanting to be far from the bathroom at any time. So, we threw that in there. I was getting calls from people I hadn’t heard from in years, saying, “It figures you’re on the shitter.”
One more question for both of you. As musicians, we’ve all been through the experience of hitting a plateau where it doesn’t seem like you’re progressing at all, and you're stuck in a rut. Any advice for moving past that?
KA: That's a real good question. I know, because I hit a wall. I was in a local Orlando band in early ‘90s, and I had hit a wall. My playing stopped right there. I liked what I was doing, but it was the same stuff over and over.
Years later, I was doing pretty well as a guitar tech, and had opportunities to be in bands, so I needed to decide whether I was going to keep playing guitar. The best thing that happened was when I called my dad. I don’t know, man. There were so many kids out there playing, to the point where I started being uncomfortable, like I was a relic. My dad just ripped into me. “Listen, all your life you been bitching about wanting to be a guitar player, and now this opportunity is here and you don’t know if you wanna to do it?”
So, the thing is with guitar, you’re always learning. I listened to records over and over. I’d watch YouTube. It’s not a matter of copying anyone directly, but you learn one tiny smidgen of something, and you can add it to what you do. It just builds.
TB: I think I’m a far better bass player now than I ever was before. I was a late bloomer.
When I was 17 or 18, Bill Andrews (drummer of Death) was my best friend. He called me up. “We need a new bass player.” I’d just recently bought a bass, purely out of curiosity. For years, I thought that metal bass players just follow the guitar player. That’s what I did for years. I didn’t begin to develop my own style until I was in Six Feet Under.
I’d imagine joining Obituary was another good opportunity to get some new chops.
KA: Working on these two records, I’ve done stuff that I’d never even thought of playing. It didn’t click until a few years ago, when I started on Inked in Blood. I said, “I’m not gonna play the same old shit.”
Right now, I’m so happy with my playing. I wish I took the time to learn modes and shit that other people learn off the bat. I couldn’t read sheet music, and I thought tablature was a pain in the balls. Just play it for me, and I’ll learn it. Today, with the Internet and YouTube and all that, you’re gonna learn a lot easier. Even today, I’m never gonna be an Yngwie, but I do now understand what he does and why he does it.
So, no matter what level of guitar player you are, you can always grab one little thing and add it to your repertoire.
TB: The bass players I admired were guys like Phil Lynott, Geddy Lee, and Steve Harris. While I’m never going to play like Geddy, now I’m more open to picking my spots and throwing runs in here and there. I love all forms of playing bass. Even if I’m not going to be a Geddy, there’s no reason I can’t try and learn something from him.