INTERVIEW WITH JEFF BECERRA BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY HANNAH VERBEUREN
For the band and the man who put a name to the sound, it’s been a long, hard road for death metal O.G.’s Possessed, in which near insurmountable hurdles have been traversed. They may have been done with all the grace of a herd of meth-ed up elephants, but what’s important is that those obstacles have been leapt over at all, and the result is Revelations of Oblivion, the first album from the band that invented the term death metal in 33 years.
After the original lineup dissolved in the chaos that was the release of The Eyes of Horror EP in 1987, bassist/vocalist Jeff Becerra was shot trying to intervene during a robbery, becoming a paraplegic in the process and having as good excuse as any for the band going on a long-term hiatus. A lengthy recovery with many more lows than highs followed, and come the late 2000s, Becerra was joined by backing musicians to play the hits on the festival circuit. However, the bug to write new material with a new lineup caught. More hurdles were stumbled over, and here we are in 2019 with the band’s third album ready to trample and immolate all in its path. We called Becerra at the home he shares with his parents to discuss death metal as an end goal, how screaming is good for the vocal chords, and how two bullets couldn’t kill him but a bedsore almost did.
In the course of doing all the press and interviews in the lead up to the new album, Revelations of Oblivion, what haven’t you been asked that you thought should have been asked, or what have you thought people would be more interested in?
I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and people have been pretty creative, but I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that one (laughs). I guess people have gone into the process and the technical aspects and finding my guys and what the future holds and about the past. We’ve covered a lot of ground. I think people were mostly excited to hear I was writing music and lyrics again. There have been those random, goofy questions like, “What do you prefer: Pop Tarts or peanut butter and jelly?” I don’t know. Like I said, a lot of ground has been covered. I love talking about myself (laughs). It does get a little rote and mechanical at times, but to be honest, what’s the alternative? Possessed has been such an underground band for so many years, and still today 99.999 percent of people I meet on the street have never heard of Possessed or even death metal. I never get recognized. I go anywhere. I got recognized once at a Walmart (laughs).
On that note, is there a weird balance between the mainstream not knowing who you are on the one hand and being an icon to an entire subgenre of music on the other?
That’s one of the more enjoyable aspects of death metal. You’ll never get rich, which is fine because rich people are fucking miserable brutes anyway. I’ve never met a happy rich person, and I’ve met a lot of rich people. Actually, I should say rich people that aren’t musicians. Musicians are different, because they actually work for a living, so if they get rich, they’re not butts. I had to make that clarification for my rich friends in Metallica (laughs). Did you know James Hetfield has a jumbo jet with a hot tub on it?
Yup. I’m serious. I think he was on the cover of Fortune magazine [we think he means Forbes magazine, of which he wasn’t on the cover, though Metallica has been featured in its pages at various times]. But anyway, I enjoy the luxury of being able to go out and not get recognized and have my other life where I go on the road and deal with the amount of fame and popularity that goes along with being in an underground death metal band like Possessed. It’s fun, and I really enjoy it. There’s a weird dichotomy in death metal where people want to be famous and popular to whatever extent, but people are completely unwilling to sell out. Instead, I’d rather push the genre and have it become more popular naturally.
“THERE WERE SOME REALLY DARK TIMES IN THERE AND SOME SOUL CRUSHING AGONY THAT COMES WITH ANY SORT OF CATASTROPHIC INJURY THAT LEADS TO A PSYCHOLOGICAL BREAK.”
Since the time of the shooting and your paralysis, has death metal always been there as a motivation, or was there a time you wanted to say, “Fuck it all?”
At one time I’d completely given up on life. The first five years after the shooting I was trying to kill myself with drugs and alcohol. But there was that pinpoint of light in the darkness, and that was Possessed and that kept me alive. That small light at the end of the tunnel is what stopped me from blowing my brains out or overloading a needle or whatever. There were some really dark times in there and some soul crushing agony that comes with any sort of catastrophic injury that leads to a psychological break. I think that’s PTSD in a nutshell. But in a way, the break led to a new will to live and a rebuilding, but to do it in a much smarter and grounded way. I think we all give up. You don’t have to get shot or paralyzed or have a catastrophic injury to hit rock bottom. Everyone has their bottom and if you live on this planet, something is going to break you at some point. So, I think a lot of people can relate, and that says a lot about humans as a species. Nobody takes care of yourself better than yourself, and that says a lot. It gives you a better understanding of people as individuals, how strong they are and how you can’t underestimate anyone no matter what. So, what I did with my music was instead of dumbing it down, I tried to smarten it up.
After being shot, was your voice or breathing affected in a way that you thought you wouldn’t be able to sing again?
Yeah, I couldn’t growl for a year and a half. The air tubes they put down your throat fucked up my vocal chords, so if I tried to grunt or growl, it would come out at a higher register. It scared the shit out of me. Essentially what I did was I yelled my ass off for a year straight, literally. I took all the mirrors out of my house and just rolled around doing whatever I was doing and yelling at the same time—working on a Harley, in the shower, doing dishes in the kitchen, whatever. And I just did it until it came back. It was crazy! I had the cops called on me a bunch of times wondering if someone was dying or being killed in my place (laughs). The neighbors would knock on the door asking if I was okay. I was like, “I’m trying to sing, but I can’t!”
At what point were you able to look at seriously putting the band back together. For a while you had the dudes from Sadistic Intent as your backup band.
Yeah. Whenever the Mike’s quit [drummer Mike Sus and guitarist Mike Torrao] and Larry [Lalonde, guitarist] went to Blind Illusion/Primus, I had every intention of restarting things right away. But, of course, I got shot twice, and that fucked me up for 17 and a half years. For the first five years, I wanted to bring Possessed back, but I knew I was a wreck. Once I got through what I call the dark years, I was lacking confidence and self-esteem, so I rolled down to a community college and by the grace of Satan or whatever, they were enrolling that day. I went to their vocational rehab, took a test, and I scored really high even though I was all fucked up. I scored well enough that they waived my tuition, and that was part of the rebuilding process, but everything had Possessed as its end goal, even college. I knew I needed to rebuild and I always wanted to be married and have kids, but I always told everyone about Possessed as the end goal. It’s like when you’re dying of thirst in a desert, you’re not worried about reading novels or books and trying to better yourself, you’re trying to get to water to create a stable vantage point before you can move on and do anything else. Only for a very short time did I say I was never going to come back. I may have said it publicly once or twice, but I quickly changed my mind because I got back so many letters, packages, and demo tapes, then later, emails, phone calls, and people reaching out saying, “Bring back Possessed.” I’m the kind of guy who feels horrible when I’m not in a band, especially with something like Possessed, which has been my life’s work and something I’d never give up on. It’s always been there for me, and I always wanted to come back. It’s all part of the process. I got together with Sadistic Intent in 2006 to 2007. They initially asked me to do an appearance on a Possessed tribute album. They thought it’d be cool to have me on their cover of “The Exorcist.” My fiancée at the time and I went down to LA, we recorded, partied out. It was great and it felt like I was back. That was actually my first mistake—jumping right back into partying (laughs). It took a while to clear that mess up, but I also learned that I was never going to be happy unless I had my own band. We decided it would be best to split amicably and concentrate on our own bands, and then I stole their drummer (laughs). Me and Emilio [Marquez, drums] set out and started holding open band practices and auditions, and all in all it’s been 13 years of jamming the old stuff and we’re ready to play this new stuff. It’s high time, but at the same time you can’t rush it because being in Possessed is more than leaning the notes. It has to be your second skin and a piece of your soul. It’s something you have to grow into.
“UNTIL YOU WRITE THE FUTURE, YOU’RE ALWAYS GOING TO BE A BAND OF THE PAST.”
How far back does the new material go?
Well, one song I wrote back in my [pre-Possessed band] Blizzard days. Not the whole song, but a couple riffs are back from when I was 13-years-old. The rest we just did. They were hard work, just getting down there and hashing it out. The short answer is three years, but the more correct answer involves the guys initially resisting writing a new album or new material because Possessed is such a cult band. But, until you write the future, you’re always going to be a band of the past. We needed to get out there and write. Initially, just to see how it flowed, we wrote “Abandoned,” “Shackled,” and “Crimson Spike,” which was the first one. We were also touring extensively the whole time and we found the audience fairly receptive, but we ended up scrapping “Crimson Spike” and cannibalizing it and turning it into “Graven.” We did a demo and sent it out to see if we could get any bites, and we got a bunch of offers from a number of record companies. That was like, “Holy shit!” and kicked us in the sack and had us thinking that maybe people will accept this. We negotiated for six to eight months and went with Nuclear Blast because they’re the apex predator of metal labels and amazing. In less than a year, we wrote more than half the album. Once we knew we were signed, the process went fast because it lit a fire under our ass and gave us the confidence that this may actually fly.
On the new album, I hear a balance between Seven Churches and Beyond the Gates? Was keeping both original records in mind a deliberate move?
I mean, it’s still me, and that’s just my style. I concentrate on just trying to be me. It’s the way I write and the way I asked my guys to write. My logic is that when you hear Motörhead, you know it’s Motörhead, even if you don’t know the song because they had that sound. I think we have something like that, but consciously we did try and push the boundaries of what is Possessed, but my taste in music is what we play and write. The end goal is to keep pushing and doing newer and trippier stuff and push our own boundaries and the boundaries of what’s acceptable as death metal.
Are you still able to play bass and contribute musically?
Well, my balance is fucked up because I can’t move from the chest down, so sitting in my chair and playing a heavy bass tips me over and it’s hard to get the fingering down. The best place I can play is in my bed—I have an adjustable bed. If I have good stabilization, everything is fine, but there are definitely some balance and reach problems with playing in a chair, so when I write I’m in an electric bed and it sits up. I just bought a new mattress for it that was $15,000, dude! It has air cells that micro-alternate so you don’t have constant pressure in any given point. So, I’ll sit in bed and play, and that’s fine. I play a Fender Destroyer because it has a heavy ass end that keeps it in my lap.
Did the adjustments you had to make impact your writing or prevent you from contributing as much as you wanted to?
No, I wrote almost half the music and all the lyrics. We’re always pushing, and I can tell that people like to get writing credits. I have to fight, just like any other band, to get my shit in there (laughs). We all fight, but luckily they respect me as a bandleader. It’s hard when someone sends me something I don’t like. It’s almost like ripping a Band-Aid off, but I never throw a riff away. I’ll them exactly what I think is wrong, why it doesn’t work, and what needs to be done to make that riff acceptable. Of course, with my riffs, it’s the same way. I’d say a good 75 percent of what I send to Dan [Gonzlaez, guitar] gets scrapped, stored for later, or revamped. Like any band, when something hits, we refine it, everybody adds their own value to it, and there’s a little shift that adds new structure with every person’s input. It’s like a living breathing organism, and five heads are better than one.
How did the illness you suffered from in 2008 slow down the timeline and process of your return?
I spent a lot of time recovering from that. I think I had to take off a year or two at least. I was in the hospital for nine months. Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent the last 10 or 11 years in bed. It took away a couple of years, but once I came back I was even more fired up than ever. I took charge of everything and revamped the band and got even more focused on the fact that time is crucial and we should do this while the doing’s good. I had a huge sore on my back that went four inches deep. A big chunk of meat fell off my back, and you could see six inches of my fucking spine. We were on tour in Finland, and I was partying with Mayhem when I just locked up like a statue. It was crazy. I ended up with a blood infection that got into my bones, and it all started from a deep pressure sore.
Is that essentially a really bad bedsore?
Yeah. It was from sitting down too long. I was working 60 hour weeks, and that fucked me up. I’m really careful about it now. If I start to see any redness, I’ll roll over onto my side or whatever. I don’t just punk stuff off like that anymore. Now that I’m better, I try and take care of myself.
“I FELT REALLY GUILTY AND WANTED TO MAKE THINGS RIGHT, AND THAT’S ONE OF THE REASONS I MOVED BACK HOME, TO RECONNECT.”
You’ve had a lot of family support through all this, but when they see you using Possessed as the ultimate personal goal and means of expression after all these years, do they look at the band differently now, when compared to how they might have when it was a crazy teenage hobby?
Totally. My family has always supported me. I never took my dad on tour with me because he would have never went when I was drinking and using, and I wouldn’t have wanted him with me because it was a large party back in the day. But, 30 some odd years later, my dad comes with me and assists with me on tour, and he’s 76-years-old. A large part of this process was reconnecting with my family. I left home when I was 16, and I didn’t come home or come back around until I was 38. I distanced myself from my family for years. I still loved them and talked to them and would go meet them, but I’d always lived on my own. Whenever I got clean and stopped using, one of the first things I felt was regret, because my family has always been there and always made me realize I was fucking up. I felt really guilty and wanted to make things right, and that’s one of the reasons I moved back home, to reconnect. Here I am 50-years-old and living back with the parents (laughs). With my parents being older, I wouldn’t want them to die with all this regret hanging around. When you’re a teenager, it’s like, “Fuck you, Mom and Dad. I’m going out to play metal.” When you’re older, it’s like, “I hope my parents are okay.” I like to think that my moving back and reconnecting is me helping them as much as them helping me. They’ve always supported and been there for me.
What’s the future plan for Possessed, now that the new album is released?
I do this full-time, or as full-time as I can. So, tour, write, and just enjoy it. I play in a satanic death metal band, what could be better?