With deep roots planted in the Orange County hardcore punk scene, Death by Stereo have been doing their thing since the late '90s. To date, the California outfit has had a great run of both recording and touring, working with some of the scene's most respected figures along the way. Death by Stereo's most recent release came out in 2016 via the Just Like You’d Leave Us, We’ve Left You for Dead EP:
In 2019, Death by Stereo celebrated the 20-year Anniversary since the release of their debut album, If Looks Could Kill, I'd Watch You Die. So, with that milestone in mind, I spoke with vocalist Efrem Schulz about the band's album discography up to now. They're still out there touring and will have a new full-length coming soon, but more on that further below!
If Looks Could Kill, I'd Watch You Die (1999)
If Looks Could Kill, I'd Watch You Die celebrated its 20th Anniversary last year. That came out on Indecision Records, a label also known for releasing stuff from the likes of Unbroken, Outspoken, and Throwdown through the years. Were you guys close with the label’s owner, Dave Mandel, before the album? Tell me a bit about that period and the feeling within the band during the making of the album.
Some of us were close to him. I met him slightly before that time. Dave helped me get a job at Revelation Records. That was at the end of the '90s and I didn’t even know how to turn a computer on. We both lied about my computer skills and I got the job [laughs]. Dave is a great human being and has always been there for us. Total family. That has never changed. He’s still someone I trust with my life to this day. We will do anything for Dave.
When we released If Looks Could Kill I'd Watch You Die, we had no idea it would take us around the world. It’s so crazy when we look back at it all. We are 22 years old now! Dave Mandel is the one of the best dudes I have even been so lucky to know. A true friend and with Dave friends, and music always came first. Not any trends or anything like that. Just friendship and hardcore.
What was the reaction like once the album hit stores? I remember it got a ton of attention on the metal side of the press spectrum. Maybe you remember it differently?
It’s funny, I remember a lot of people being mad about it at the time. Not a lot of people were mixing the influences we were at the time. We got a lot of bad reviews and people saying we would be good if we left out the “Queensrÿche” parts [laughs]. After a little time, it seemed to catch on though and people seemed pretty excited about the record. We definitely toured that one. We just started touring on that thing and never looked back.
If you had to pick, which track would be your favorite on If Looks Could Kill I'd Watch You Die and why?
I guess “Looking Out for #1," That’s the song that brought us to the international stage for sure. It was featured on the Epitaph comp, Punk-O-Rama. Back then, those compilations were so popular that if you had a song in one it was like having a single. We would be in places we had never been to all over the planet and the crowd would just explode when we played that song. It’s still one of our most popular songs to this day. People might not know that album at all but they know that song.
Day of the Death (2001)
Day of the Death came out on Epitaph Records, a huge move for the band in terms of profile and reach. How did that deal come to be? Was Mr. Brett the person who pursued the group?
Mr. Brett kept calling our former bass player Paul Miner’s house and we thought it was our friend, Ryan Clarke, making a joke [laughs]. He left some messages until his assistant called one day and we were like, “oh shit, this is real." We talked a bit back and forth, and he came to see us play at the Key Club in Hollywood on the Vans California Invasion tour with Ignite and Straight Faced. Not many of our friends showed up really, and we played first to like 10 people. I remember we still played our asses off that night. We gave it.
After the set he walked up to the stage, Mr. Brett climbed up on it and asked us if we wanted to make a record on Epitaph. We said yes and then we started our new journey. That was a crazy time for us. Such a wild time of discovery for the band.
With the album, it seemed like Death by Stereo toured relentlessly during that era of the band. Was that a byproduct of having Epitaph giving you guys a lot of tour support, or were you mostly DIY-ing it at that point?
We were already touring a lot at that point DIY style. What a lot of people don’t know if that we got a lot of those early big tours cause we were friends with the bands before they were all popular. It really didn’t have as much to do with big agents or managers or all that. Just a lot of personal history between us and the other bands. The Epitaph thing most definitely helped and they did support us a lot in so many huge ways. They opened bigger doors for us and we did get on some huge shit we would have never been a part of without them.
It was pretty amazing. We ended up with bigger agents and managers and all that. Even DIY tours were better with Epitaph cause the records were just everywhere we went. From the mom and pop shop to the corporate electronics store. They all had a DBS CD displayed on an end cap. It was nuts. Once we started touring with Bad Religion and bands on that level everything really stepped up for us. It was really crazy.
If you had to pick, which track would be your favorite on Day of the Death and why?
“Desperation Train." It’s about my mom. She went through so much in her life and it’s for her. “No Shirt” is up there too. I remember the first time I heard a huge crowd sing along to the “die die” part it was so mind blowing. We literally joked about that at band rehearsal when we wrote it. I was like, “wouldn’t it be cool to get a huge crowd to chant DIE DIE!?”. It really happened [laughs].
Into the Valley of Death (2003)
Death by Stereo’s third album, Into the Valley of Death, came out in 2003. Were you guys firing on all cylinders when it came to writing, or did you find it tough to work on material when you were off the road since you were home less frequently?
We were really going for it. I think at that point when we were home we were still rehearsing like 4-5 days a week until that thing was ready to go! Tour tour tour, rehearse rehearse rehearse, record record record, tour tour tour tour. It was like that non stop.
We definitely fought a lot about that record. There was so much friction between some of the guys that I think it made it better. At least that’s Mike’s theory. Dan’s arrangements really changed everything for us in that record. He really shaped what that record became and who we became as a band. He definitely led us through that record and into the future of our changing sound.
Well, Paul Miner left Death by Stereo after that record came out to concentrate on his producer career. Did you see that coming or were you surprised?
He was actually in the band up until we recorded Death For Life. Paul was there for a lot of the writing and was almost on that record. I think between his recording career and rising tensions between us, it was time. I think we all saw it coming. We were all getting older and finding our own pathways outside the band. I think we were all pretty sick of each other at that point too. Paul made the right choice as he has been very successful with his recording projects and his studio over the years. A lot of the guys went into different interesting things. Some of us just played more music and joined more bands. It worked out for the best. I’m still tight with Paul now. We are roommates.
If you had to pick, which track would be your favorite on Into the Valley of Death and why?
“Let Down and Alone” is my favorite. There’s 80 tracks of vocals on that song! It took forever! I was trying to get this choir sound. Like if that choir was lead by Danny Elfman. I wanted this spooky nightmare before Christmas vibe to it. We even Googled how to build a huge choir. What made a choir up. How many people were in these giant choirs. Me and Paul just chipped away at it until we came up with what you hear on the record.
Death for Life (2005)
2005 saw the release of Death for Life, the band’s 4th studio record. It’s been referred to by many fans as Death by Stereo’s heaviest albums. What are your thoughts on that? Did you guys set out to go in more metal direction?
Yeah we got way heavy on that one. We were always metal influenced and I think we were listening to a lot of really heavy and dark shit at that time. Anything from AFI to Fear Factory. We were also starting to get on a lot of metal tours at that point as well. We had a very dark year personally. Tragedy and heartbreak. It really reflected how we felt at the time. Dan really translated exactly how I felt into guitar riffs. Some of those riffs are straight up murder riffs! Insane! Dan really got to shine on that one. It ushered in a new era for us creatively. We made a completely different record every time after that. This also marked the first recording with a different producer. Well, actually producers. We started the record with Matt Hyde—who did Slayer and a bunch of other crazy shit—and ended up finishing the record with our homie Fred Archambault, who worked with Avenged Sevenfold and bunch of other great bands.
If you had to pick, which track would be your favorite on Death for Life and why?
“Middle Fingers." Dan Palmer wrote the heaviest breakdown I think I’ve ever heard on that song. It’s still one if my favorite things to hear at unreasonable volume levels on stage today. That breakdown makes me feel like Godzilla on stage. I want to fucking smash everything! I love that song, I love that message, I love how much fun it is to play live with my friends.
Death Is My Only Friend (2009)
The next album, Death Is My Only Friend, came out on Serjical Strike Records, a label founded by Serj Tankian from System of a Down. First off, what ended up happening with Epitaph? Did that end amicably? Secondly, how did your relationship with Serj develop?
It did end amicably. Epitaph was going in a different direction than we were at the moment. Serjical Strike seemed like they got us. Plus, our really great friend and Dan’s former landlord ran the label. I think Serj first heard us from our friend George, who is his manager now. I was invited to come to Serj’s home studio and track vocals on a Buckethead record he was producing. I tripped out cause when I walked in he had Day of the Death chilling on his coffee table.
Serj ended up being the nicest dude. He’s a great guy and still cool with us to this day. We had some great times hangin’ with him and of course our brother George. Dan recently hung out with Serj at a festival he played with his other band in Spain, I believe? I think I George was there, too.
Why did you decide to re-record the track “Forever and a Day” on the album?
I always wanted to try singing with a piano. It was also one of my fav DBS tunes. It is our most popular song internationally as well. I thought, why not rework it with a piano. Also, we had Jason Freese producing and he is one of the best players on the planet. What an opportunity to jam with him! Another amazing friend and musician!
If you had to pick, which track would be your favorite on Death Is My Only Friend and why?
“Fear of a Brown Planet”. It’s one of my favorite albums we’ve ever made but I kind of wish the whole record sounded like that song [laughs].
Black Sheep of the American Dream (2012)
Keeping with the tradition of Death by Stereo doing business with fellow musicians, your most recent studio album, Black Sheep of the American Dream, was released in 2012 by Viking Funeral Records, a label owned by Fletcher Dragge from Pennywise. Tell me about that project.
Yeah, Fletcher has always been really supportive of DBS over the years. Pennywise is family to us. Our great friend Ken Seton and Fletcher started the label. They also became our managers at the time. It was a cool project for sure. That album has some of our best songs on it, I think. Dan really took it back into a more punk/thrash direction on that one. It was kind of the beginning of us leading up to where we are now. We were looking for something new. Some of Dan’s solo’s on that record were insane. It was also the first album with Mike and JP on it.
Mike and JP really helped shape the band into what it is now. The band as it is now is DBS and always will be. It’s been so many years with this line up now. They’ve been in the band longer than OG members. I think the band really pushed it in a cool direction on this record. Paul Miner played bass on this album as well as produced and recorded it.
If you had to pick, which track would be your favorite on Black Sheep of the American Dream and why?
It’s a tie between "Harmonic Divisor" and "Get British." "Harmonic Divisor" is about my father and his trials and tribulations at the US/Mexican border as an illegal immigrant. I’ve written about him a bit. His influence in me as a human being and my writing is massive. "Get British" is about my best friend and the best guitar player I know, Dan Palmer. We have lived 10 lifetimes of adventures together. Both songs are about two of the most important people in my life!
So, what’s on deck for Death by Stereo in 2020? Fans obviously want to know when the next studio record is going to be released.
Well, we didn’t cover our last record, which was our EP, Just Like You’d Leave Us, We’ve Left You for Dead. I wanted to touch on that record as it’s one of our most important.
Go for it!
Since Black Sheep, our sound has been getting more and more dialed in. I think the EP rivals earlier release and is truly a representation of us as people, musicians, and as a family. It was the most well-received record we’ve had in years. I think the writing in that do really led up to what we are doing with the new album.
The new album is titled We’re All Dying Just in Time. It’s an all out attack on this system we are all currently living in. I think it’s got the best elements of everything we’ve done in the past but still moves forward. It’s most definitely really fucking pissed off.
I can’t wait for everyone to hear it. I want to get back on the road and play really fast songs and go fucking nuts with my friends! We are looking at a spring release, if not then summer. But soon! We will be touring like crazy behind it as well. We are looking forward to getting back out to some parts of the world we haven’t been to in some time!
Death by Stereo + Tsunami Bomb tour dates:
Jan. 23 - Fullerton, CA @ Slidebar
Jan. 24 - Hollywood, CA @ Viper Room
Jan. 25 - Tempe, AZ @ Tap Room
Jan. 26 - Las Vegas, NV @ Dive Bar