Sal Abruscato of A Pale Horse Named Death / Type O Negative / Life of Agony
“I’m such an asshole to myself… I’m my worst critic” – interview with Sal Abruscato of A Pale Horse Named Death/Type O Negative/Life of Agony
Prior to A Pale Horse Named Death taking the stage in Manchester on 23rd March 2019, Sarah was privileged to meet the Lord of Doom himself, Mr Sal Abruscato, to discuss musical influences, mental health, the joys of the Premier League and the much missed Peter Steele. Here’s what he had to say.
“How did London go last night?”
It was great. It was a beautiful night. I was really impressed with the reception, the fans were so happy to see us come back and they were screaming things like “We missed you” and “We love you” and it was emotional. It’s great to be back. We played London three times in the past; I didn’t know what to expect. We’ve had a bit of hiatus and things going on in life, but it was awesome. It was great. I am expecting the same tonight because we’ve had a lot of fans in Manchester telling us they are looking forward to this gig too.
“There has been a lot of hype about it online”
Yeah, the reception of the new album has been very impressive for me and I am very happy that people are liking it. I didn’t know what folks would make of it, I didn’t know what to expect.
“If you had to describe your music to someone who had never heard it before, how would you do that?”
Well… I would say that it’s music that comes from the core root of where we are from as people, how I grew up and of course my involvement with Peter from an early age… it’s dark, depressing with a beautiful overtone. I like combining pretty melodies with heavy heavy music. That’s why you hear the lush stuff going on on the album. It’s hard to describe it, but I’d say it’s doom and gloom but with a happy ending. You can hear my roots, you can hear where I am from in it, you can hear what I like. We’re all cut from the same cloth and I love dark sounding stuff. I don’t even know what words to use. Its an emotional presentation I do when I sit and create music in my head or on guitar or piano… It’s a tough sell, but I just do it and go ‘Hey, here’s this, listen!’ You be the judge. I think the bio really nails it “Where Beauty Meets Sadness”.
“When The World Becomes Undone is an incredibly dark album, but for me, I can hear a lot of grunge in there too”
I was there in the 90s. When grunge started I was 19, 20 years old and it influenced me a lot because I saw bands like Soundgarden in 1987 in a little club like the one we’re in tonight, and I was an instant fan, I thought they were awesome. They could emulate that kind of Black Sabbathy sound tone, and Chris Cornell was an amazing singer. Believe it or not, a lot of people associate me with Alice in Chains but I never really owned an Alice in Chain record, other than a best of. Don’t get me wrong, I think they are great, I love them. I love their harmonies, I enjoy the harmony stuff because I think it’s beautiful to embellish and I don’t think a lot of bands do that anymore. Not everybody is doing that, and I think it sounds really cool in heavy music, but again I am from that generation where I grew up in the 70s, I was a teenager in the 80s and that stuff really hit me, I was right there when that Seattle stuff came to New York. Even Nirvanas earlier stuff, it was just dirty sounding and I like that dirty gritty sound with good singing.
“What has the fan response to the new album been like? Have you had fans telling you what their favourite tracks are yet?”
We haven’t been out there enough yet to hear it all, but some of the responses to the new songs last night have been really good. I think people tend to be blown away by songs like When The World Becomes Undone, which is a very contrasting song, with the piano and the vocals to the heavy, and back and forth, it’s got a very Type O vibe. We played last night Love The Ones You Hate and the whole place went crazy. I know back in America Vultures is doing really good on radio, and that was my least favourite song on the record. When we finished the record I was like ‘Man, I don’t know’ I mean I like everything on the record, but Vultures was my least favourite as far as my personal opinion goes. All the songs are very personal to me, this is a very personal record for me, more than the other two. The other two were personal, but this one, it gets into some deep stuff.
“Is that to do with the length of time it took to make and the other issues personally and professionally you experienced whilst making this album?”
There were a number of reasons it took so long. When Lay My Soul To Waste came out in 2013 my second daughter was born, and she was born disabled, she was born blind, she has chromosomal deletion. She was a one in a million kid. There was only 83 kids in the world who had her condition. It was insane. And it was hard. Very hard for the family and very hard for me, because all of a sudden with Lay My Soul Waste that year I had to do this touring. We went on tour with Danzig, we went to Europe, on tour for 7 weeks. All of sudden it changed me as a man, as a father. It hurts. Anyone who has the type of situation in the family will know how hard it is to have a normal life, because it affects the whole family.
Then in 2014, I was called by Life of Agony to get back together. We had some great offers. So when it was first presented to me I thought it was going to be I’d be doing two weeks that year and then I’d be done, and then maybe another two weeks the next year.. but it started to become more and more. It turned into “Yeah, we’re going to make a record” and I ended up getting heavily involved in the record and the writing music to 9 of the songs, and I brought in Matt Brown to produce it. It became such a big project and I knew it would, that’s why I was hesitant to get involved. It just sucked my time up. So then I’m busy with that, I’m trying to appease them, and then there’s more money involved, and we’re doing what we need to do to support our families. I’m dealing with that, I’m also trying to be at home, and I also have a lot of property. It’s a lot of work all the time, it’s nonstop and I always worry. I worry all the time. I’m a dad. I worry about my family; I worry about them being ok whilst I am gone.
I needed to finish the cycle. Their (Life of Agony) record came out in 2017, and there was some touring to do. I was going through a lot that year. My daughter had 25 procedures. I was diagnosed with a precancerous condition, and then I was officially diagnosed as manic depressive. I’ve known that all my life, but now the doctor decides to put me on some medicine, and it fucked me up a little bit. I ended up coming off that. It bred this toxic situation between me and the band (Life of Agony) and these guys (APHND) visited me at a show and said “When are we going to get back together” and I’d have fans writing me saying “Dude when are you making another record! Pale Horse! Pale Horse!” and I started feeling guilty, because I had a lot of Pale Horse stuff done already.
The title was already there, since about 2015. We had to let things evolve and finish out, and then we had all the stuff with the members changing. Matt Brown didn’t want to be involved. Ok. I understand. I just had to do what I had to do. We went to work, we made the record last year, we had Joe Taylor replace him. Eric Morgan produced it with me. We did it together. I didn’t know what to expect, I felt like I’d let a lot of people down at first. When Lay My Soul To Waste was happening, I could tell there was a little bit of ascension, the band was getting more and more talked about, there was more curiosity, people wanted to know what this band was about with these guys from these other bands. I knew I had to get to this album eventually. It was my bucket list. I was thinking, I didn’t know, what if I got diagnosed with another condition or something full blown and I’ve got no time. I thought I had to get to work and do it, and we did it!
I handed the record over to the label and I was a little bit nervous. I am my worst critic! I was like “I hope you like it” and all I got back from the label was one word in big letters… “WOW” They were saying it was the most diverse record I’ve ever done out of the three. I was worried about it falling short compared to the other two records. I was worried people were going to be like “yeah… it’s alright… but the first ones better…. The second ones better”. Fans are tough critics.
One thing leads to another though, and we started releasing the songs one by one, and then folks such as you started hearing it. Sam (Shearon aka Mister Sam) who is here tonight, he is the artist of A Pale Horse Named Death, he’s here in Manchester. He said to me “Sal, this is the best record I’ve ever heard”. People, like the fans last night, they’ve got me signing stuff, they are hugging me and telling me this record saved their life, it’s the best one so far. I’m such an asshole to myself. I am worse critic. I think that’s why it comes out the way it does.
“Sal, it’s an amazing record though and you should be incredibly proud of it. I think End of Days is possibly my favourite track on there. I love the part at 2 mins 50 where the instruments drop right out for a moment and slowly come back in”
You like the bridge! ‘Everything you believed in is gone forever’; it’s very emotional.
“The first time I heard A Pale Horse Named Death, I remember feeling awestruck and needing to know more about your band. I heard ‘Die Alone’ first actually”
And that is our biggest song YouTube as well, everyone loves that one. I didn’t even know what I was on to when I wrote that song. I was like ‘Ok… here’s my song…’ in a way that was very shy. I didn’t think I was going to have a band and go live with it, or that I was going to have to sing in front of people . I was scared in the beginning, 10 years ago. It was nerve-wracking. I was putting my heart on my sleeve for the audience and I was so vulnerable. All it can take is for some horrible things to be said to you from a heckler in the audience and that can crush you… ‘YOU SUCK!!!’…
But I am really glad that you feel that way and you got that exposure to our music and that you fell in love with that song. That song is very dear to me. That song was influenced by Peter. We were talking two weeks before he died, and talking about him doing a guest appearance on the record, and it was a studio record that I was inviting people to be on with me. It kind of struck a chord, it related to anybody who has lost somebody or feels like they are suicidal.
I try to be the suicide antidote, as it’s something I battle. I battle it a little better these days. Recently these months I’ve been a lot better as there has been a lot of good things going on, but I do go through phases where I can sometimes go for months where there isn’t a day that goes by that I wouldn’t think about suicide. I’m very impressionable; I’m very intrigued by it. Everyone says that’s a weak thing for someone to do, but I end up looking at the other way and thinking I don’t know, it’s very courageous too, it takes a lot of pain to go that far and a lot of balls to actually do something like that to yourself. In my manic depression, I battle that.
What keep me going are my kids. I have 3 girls now. My family, that keeps me going. I think they need a dad. They’ll have a miserable life if they don’t have their dad. I’d be in ground, I wouldn’t know what was going on, but they would live their life without a dad. That keeps me trucking.
In the song “Splinters” when you hear the bridge, the lyrics are ‘I wake up, I see the sun, I try to make it one more day’. You wake up and you’re like, ok, here’s another day in life, let’s try to make it better and you try to make the pain go away. The record talks a lot about my personal battles, but I put in a way that anyone could interpret it for their own situation.
“Do you have a personal favourite out of everything that you’ve wrote?”
That’s tough, Splinters is one of them. I don’t know, they are all like children to me. Some are bastard children, some are beautiful children, and some are brutal .I love them all. I’ve always had a thing for Love The Ones You Hate. I had the music for years but I wrote the music and melody last year when there was things going on between me and Life of Agony and I had a very sour departure when I left them. They kind of turned on me really bad because they were really mad at me, or whatever. In the early 90s in New York city there was a lot of goth clubs and I also liked the new wave goth sound, it was a big thing between me and Peter. We used to turn each other onto new stuff like that. It wasn’t necessarily always gothy, but there was a lot of female fronted, lush sounding bands like Curve, My Bloody Valentine, Cruxshadows… I loved that sound.
It was kind of what inspired Shallow Grave on the second record, and then Love The Ones You Hate, it reminds me of the dance moment in the middle of the night in one of these goth clubs, where you’d see all these goth girls dancing. I used to love that, because I used to go to a place called The Bank on Houston, it was an old bank that was then a goth club, they had a goth night. Two nights a week I used to go and I loved it so much I used to go by myself, I wouldn’t even go with friends. I was just intrigued by watching all the dancing and hearing the music. It was cool. Me and Peter liked it, we used to go to Limelight, and all those kind of cool places, and we were loving the sound. All that new- wave. And of course, I was heavily influenced by Black Sabbath and The Beatles, but I liked the combination of having that dance vibe, that faster sound. Love The Ones You Hate is one of my favourites to listen to. It’s different when I am playing it live with the band, because then I’m under a lot of pressure then. But that was always one of my favourites.
End of Days is also one I love; we’re contemplating playing that live eventually. I see now a lot of people are gravitating to Fell In My Hole. That was me in my rut last year where I wasn’t sure where I was going to go in life, I felt like a fish out of water and I felt like I was starting to hate myself more and more, I was thinking was I ever going to be in music, was I ever going to continue, was I going to get the opportunity to do even a small tour?
I like doing the touring now I am happy, and because I am happy I have a lot of fun with these guys. There’s no such thing as animosity. Everybody loves each other. There’s camaraderie. We hang out, we work, we load in. We don’t make a lot of money, but we love the band. You can be in a band that’s more successful and has a bigger history and is making a lot of money, but if you don’t have a connection with anybody and you have anything in common with them anymore it becomes a miserable environment, especially when you are stuck travelling for hours with them in vehicle or stuck in a hotel
This is amazing for me and I do feel blessed that we could come and do this here in the UK. I’ve always had a good time in the UK, I love the fans in the UK and Ireland. And to come over here and see the response from the fans last night, the whole place was like “whhhhhaaaaaa”. I’m just riding the wave and enjoying it. It’s not a cure, because depression is a disease but I’ve been really happy and it’s been making me feel really good. And my family has been really happy to hear me happy here. I was calling them before on tour really down and depressed and not happy with other situations.
I just feel like I’m really lucky, I’m still here and I am still doing it. I knew I owed the fans a record that was for sure. I can’t just let it go. I had to give the fans one more, even if it was the last one! But I don’t think it’s the last one. My minds already starting to turn about the next thing one day!
“You’ve got quite a few dates ahead of you now, a few in the UK but then the rest are across Europe. Are there any cities or venues in particular that you are looking forward to visiting?”
Last night and tonight! Being here in Manchester! Listen, I’m a Manchester United fan, I don’t know about you…
“I’m Liverpool FC sorry!!!”
That’s fine too, I love Liverpool as well. I watch the Premier League at home, I pay for the channels. I think Liverpool are amazing and I like them way better than Manchester City and I want them to beat them. I hate city. But I like Man United, one of my favourite players Zlatan Ibrahimović was in Man U for a little while. I got to go to Old Trafford about 2 years ago, that was one of the cool things that I did do. I got to watch the game, it was so electric. We don’t have that in America. MLS is not the on the same level.
“But surely the fans at an NFL would be like our football fans are here?”
I hate NFL. I don’t like baseball, I don’t like football. I like European football, I like soccer. I even played it as a kid, like a midfielder. I was out in the street playing it with friends. Two years I got a big goal net for the back yard and I was out there with my daughter and I ended up breaking my clavicle! I was dribbling the ball and then I got vertigo and I lost my balance on a kind of downhill area. I just fell so hard onto it, it snapped it in half. Happened on the 4th of July and it sucked! But even to this day, we still have 5 or 6 soccer balls in the house, and I love to just fool around with them. It brings me back to being a kid, my parents are from Italy, I’m Italian, so it’s in our blood to play soccer. I love La Liga, I took my daughter to see Real Madrid in an international friendly against Roma.
What else am I looking forward to on the tour? I love playing Germany. Honestly, I love playing anywhere that the fans have a real connection to the music, I like people who are emotional and can come to me and say ‘You helped me’. Any fan who can come and say that to me I will give them a big hug. I had this guy last night come to me in London, this big burly guy and he was practically crying going “You saved my life, I contemplated suicide so many times” and I’m there all sweaty from the stage but I grabbed him and I hugged him and he hugged me.
I had a fan at the release show come to me in January and say “My mother died right before Christmas, my brother died 6 months ago and my best friend has just committed suicide. Your music keeps me from killing myself too” and he was tearing up. I feel such a gratifying feeling that I can help someone avoid such a detrimental end, I feel like I have purpose in some way. I don’t need to be rich, I just feel good that I helped a person get through a day. It makes me feel like I might have a spot in Heaven at the end of the day. I’m a giver, not a taker. I’m generous, I don’t look to take from people, and I don’t believe in bragging or boasting. I like helping people through the music or even just having a conversation. If it’s therapeutic, that’s great! Sometimes I need help; sometimes I need to talk to someone too. It helps me too, I listen to someone’s story and I feel like I’m not the only one.
“If you could go back and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would that be?”
Don’t be so hasty! Don’t be so rash! Keep your mouth shut. When I was in my 20s I was like a bull in a china shop. I had a rough childhood emotionally and I was going to therapy at a very young age. I think I lashed out a lot in my teens and 20s, and every now and then it got me in trouble with people, trouble with my friends and family. I think that’s the advice. Don’t be so fast. Don’t jump the gun.
“What bands are you listening to at the moment?”
I don’t really get a lot of music, but I have in the last year or two got into some stuff that I was telling the guys about in the van before. A band that I really like and I really want to play with is called Windhand . There’s a female vocalist, and their doom! From Virginia. They just came out with their third record. They are bigger than us, I’d love to open for them, and I’m trying to get our agent to get something with them. They are actually coming here to Europe, they are doing some festivals this summer. They are really cool. Heavy as fuck, but the girl has such a low soulful voice, proper singing.
I only heard of Windhand because I had first gotten into Acid King from San Francisco. I was in a venue somewhere in Germany and I heard this music coming out of the kitchen. I went in whilst these guys were cooking up their stuff and I said ‘What is this?!?’ and they said ‘Oh this is Acid King’ . They are the same kind of thing, doom with a female singer. I went home and I started buying some of their stuff, and from doing that Windhand came up as a suggestion for me.
Apart from that I am an old soul, I’m under the rock! I keep myself under the rock on purpose because I don’t like a lot of the new music that is going on out there. I don’t like a lot of the metal, I am not into screaming. I like 70s music, soulful music, proper singing, great musicianship.
I did just pick up on another band but their not heavy in any way, a band called Cherry Glazerr. They are very new too and they sold out a venue in New York City recently. Their record came out in February. They are a 3 piece female band, nothing gothy , not heavy, but it’s good. She’s singing about some twisted stuff like molestation. It’s the kind of band where you can tell right away that she’s working out her shit, getting it out. And I have great respect for that. It takes a lot of guts to tell people what’s going on in your life. Even in an interview, you are putting yourself out there and you know the whole world is going to read it and they might interpret it in the wrong way.
“You mentioned before about sometimes feeling the pressure when you are performing on stage. Do you feel more natural behind the drums or as a front man?”
I like being a front man, I like talking to the people. I like making them laugh; sometimes I am a bit of a comedian up there. I am a drummer naturally; I was a drummer since I was 10 years old. But I get bored and I have too much to say and I like orchestrating and writing music. In the early 2000s I tried to get a singer to sing my shit and that’s how I came about it… I was always one of those In The Shower kind of guys. I thought to myself “I’m going to give this a shot” because I could hear it in my head and I was working on my ear for years playing guitar.
It’s hard. It’s the hardest job in the band, getting up there and singing. Your throat is a natural instrument. Last night I had a rough night. I haven’t slept since I got out here, terrible jetlag and insomnia. If you don’t get enough rest your voice will go, and if your voice goes then its like ‘Uh oh we can’t do the show”. It’s that kind of pressure. But I enjoy it, as hard as it. When I’m done and I see the reaction, I love it. I guess I am a bit of a natural at it. I’m not one of these Jump Up and Down kind of guys, but I definitely hold my heart out for people and they see that and I think that’s what makes people fall in love with what’s going on. I don’t claim to be some amazing front man, but I wear my heart on my sleeve and I tell you the truth, I give you my point of view, and I’m honest. When you’re honest with your music and you’re honest with yourself, you’re not doing a fake thing to make. I’m just myself and if they don’t like that’s fine too. I know we’re not playing in front of a 1000 people, we’re playing in front of 200, but I’d rather play in front of 200 who love it than 1000 people who don’t get it.
It’s a transition, I started ten years ago and I had a break from it. And yes, maybe one day I’ll jump behind a kit again to do something for a record, if someone cool asks me for some other project, never say never. But this band was really about me getting out my vision. I hear the music like this, I heard the melody like this, these are my lyrics. Nobody else can put it out there but me. I like it, it’s cool! You’ll see, I have a good time up there. Just seeing the smiling faces like I did last night.
I saw someone make a post about us, it said “For such a gloomy depressing band, everybody was grinning from ear to ear”.
“What do you envision will be next for A Pale Horse Named Death?”
We want to be as many as possible of these two or three week tours; again because of my situation at home I am not fond of being away 6 weeks at a time. If I could do it, I would, but I can’t. I’ve got so much going on, I’m like a farmer back home. I’ve got property, tractors…
We go to Canada and North East in May, doing like a two week tour then, and then working on something in August continue in the states. The States are so big we’re doing them in chunks. I’m hoping that we can come back at the end of the year to Europe. A lot of fans have been disappointed about places we’ve missed on this tour. Places like Dublin in Ireland, they are really upset. When we played there years ago it was an amazing show. We’d do Belfast. Last night we had 6 fans who flew from Copenhagen to London just to see us play, because we’re not playing in Copenhagen, but we’ve done Copenhagen many times to many people and for some reason it hasn’t worked out that we can get there this time. People in Austria are upset too. We’ve actually changed agencies, so we are now trying to see what we can do.
As long as the demand is there, but really you know what it boils down to. It’s not the fans or the bands, it’s the promoters. They are going to have to want to take the band, they have to want the band to come to the venue.
Tonight is our second show of the tour, I’m home again April 7th and I’m home for 3 weeks. We’re doing some acoustic performances on radio at home, on three or four radio stations and a bunch of interviews and stuff. May 2nd will be our first show in Teaneck New Jersey and we work our way upto Canada and we do a load of stuff in Canada. Canada has been waiting for us for 10 years, since Die Alone! They have been crazy for us, and now we’re finally going and showing up there and everyone is so excited. And then we’ll take it from there. June and July I’m home, my daughter has a surgery going on, so I have to balance all that and be there for them .
I’ll keep doing what I am doing and keep growing. I want to see the band grow and see a legion of fans that are in the same boat as me and we can all just enjoy the music and the show, and everyone leaves smiling.
“Sal, thank you so much for your time this evening! Looking forward to the show tonight. Thank you again”“I’m such an asshole to myself… I’m my worst critic” – interview with Sal Abruscato of A Pale Horse Named Death/Type O Negative/Life of Agony