The story of east coast thrash metal titans OVERKILL is an amazing one filled with all the drama and hard work that goes into any good band’s “making it” tale. That said, there is no one better to tell it than band founder/drummer Lee Kundrat a.k.a Rat Skates (he was a semi-pro skateboarder, hence the “skates”). Rat and his girlfriend, (and later, wife) Lori were essentially the heartbeat of the band, driving the van, self printing T-shirts and stickers and along with bassist D.D. Verni, determining the fate of the future thrash ICONS. The story of the band is told in a quite heartfelt manner in Rat’s first documentary DVD, “Born In the Basement” which set the stage for future great productions from Rat and Co., including the AMAZING movie “Get Thrashed” (an overview of the thrash genre in general) and his upcoming film, “Welcome to the Dream- The Rude Awakening of Rock Stardom”. We talked with Rat about his movies, his music and of course his “Do It Yourself” ethic. Read on…..
Legendary Rock Interviews: You are a pretty well-rounded guy, you write, you make movies but you are of course known as the drummer for Overkill. What got you into music or what is your earliest musical memory?
Rat Skates: My earliest memories PERIOD are about music (laughs). That’s really the earliest things burned into my memory as far as my childhood goes just things I heard or playing things I had heard. I am a pretty hyperactive guy (laughs) so when I started out on guitar it was just difficult for me. I didn’t have the patience, I didn’t have the longest fingers in the world so my hands wouldn’t really reach around to the frets. I was always running around like a little psycho tapping on everything so drumming just seemed to be the right fit. I really didn’t have to CHOSE drums as much as drums chose ME. That’s the best way to describe it.
LRI: You were also a student of music which probably surprises some people who still hold dumb stereotypes about Thrash metal.
RS: Oh yeah, definitely. I picked up as much as I could as a kid from listening to KISS and Aerosmith which was sorta easy but were my biggies but I DID study. My teacher was a really advanced jazz cat and he told me a couple years after I had been playing “You know, I’ve never really had anyone pick up on lessons as fast as you did” and that was because I really LOVED what I was learning. I was a kid who was just obsessed with drumming and drawing pictures of Peter Criss and his kit inside my drum book and I was happy to learn. In fact, that background was what made me want to get into songwriting because I just developed this LOVE for music., there’s a lot more kinds of music that I love than music I hate. I did study jazz, I tried to use every style of music that was available to me because I loved the drums. It wasn’t just about one style of music. I am still so thankful that I took those lessons seriously and did that. It’s kind of like “Do you wanna be a thrash metal guitar player? or “Do you wanna be a GUITAR player?” , there’s a big difference.
LRI: In your amazing movie “Born In the Basement” you talk about how Overkill actually had its beginnings in the punk scene out on the east coast. What was it like playing in those classic, old school punk clubs in those days with the LubriCunts?
RS: Yeah, for a bunch of guys who were still learning and trying to get started all that Ramones, Dead Boys, Vibrators, The Damned and these kind of bands and it was like “Wow, this is great.” It was in your face and really snotty and best of all we could PLAY it, it wasn’t that hard, we latched onto it for a LOT of reasons including the fact that it was fairly simple to be able to play well. When you get that satisfaction of pulling it off it led us to do more. So here I was learning a lot of really rudimentary jazz drumming and at the same time playing punk rock….it was really different but really cool. Even, in the OVERKILL days I continued to study. When I got off the road I studied again for years and gave lessons for eight years after Overkill. I appreciate that and I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t studied.
LRI: Do you think that some of that time spent in the punk clubs gave Overkill something special that made it stand out a little from some of the other thrash bands?
RS: Yeah, absolutely John. D.D. Verni (Overkill bassist) were both outcasts in high school and spent a lot of time in that punk rock scene. It wasn’t until we were able to get into clubs to see bands like Twisted Sister that we started to change a little bit. The punk stuff was definitely a big part of it from the get go. It was HUGE. We were trying to establish ourselves as musicians right as this whole weird crossover/crisis thing was happening between punk and metal. I’m gonna date myself here (laughs) but you had disco (laughs) fading and punk taking hold but at the same time punk was getting watered down into new wave crap and meanwhile the new wave of metal was really taking hold. There was a WHOLE lot going on at that time the band started and it’s all important to the history of the band and how we sounded and looked. Punk guys as a rule don’t give a crap and metal guys, all we know is we LOVE metal (laughs). More than anything it was the ATTITUDE of the punk stuff that really, really drove what we did in those days.
LRI: Was it a case of the sound and theatrics of the metal just “Taking Over”?
RS: Really, the punk stuff was just so easy for us all to do and besides being easy there was a charm to it BECAUSE as a punk guy you understood it wasn’t polished, it wasn’t SUPPOSED to be polished. To be honest, we always loved Black Sabbath and Judas Priest and KISS and that sound. To us, those guys were gods. To us, the SOUND of Judas Priest was more important really than the playing was at that time. That’s really where our punk band started breaking up because our guitar player was really a true punk guy who didn’t really “get” that Priest sound that drove us so much. You know John, there’s just so much POWER in heavy metal and there always has been. That power was really what took us to that level. The attitude of punk was king but it was the SOUND of metal that just drove us. That was it and that was what made us turn that corner into that metal direction.
LRI: So the visuals and theatrics stuck at the same time as the metal then? It was really interesting and eye-catching to me.
RS: Yeah, completely and that was of course also one of those things that drew us into that world. The punk guys were getting a lot of attention because they were punks (laughs). They were obnoxious and spitting on people and had ratty clothes and that whole thing but the theatrics of metal were a big thing, Twisted Sister were a big thing. They hadn’t broke mainstream yet but they were really an incredibly huge element in the direction of Overkill in the beginning as far as theatrics and style also, another east coast band that was big in the scene called the Dead End Kids. I talk about that band in my movie Born in the Basement which goes into a LOT about the beginnings of Overkill and our “Do it Yourself” ethic because they Dead End Kids just had this INCREDIBLE theatrical stage show. That was huge to us because it was so inspiring around 1980-81 versus arena rock bands like Boston and Journey that were so huge but were wearing bell bottoms and beards and stuff (laughs). We were kids who grew up on Alice Cooper and KISS so we really appreciated that show element of the music. We wanted that heavy sound of a Sabbath or a Priest mixed with that theatrical show. To this day I can appreciate those bands that try to do a theatrical show. I am NOT a Motley Crue fan at all but I respect them for having the BALLS to try to do a theatrical show. Some people loved it and of course as “metal” guys they were the antithesis, they were our “enemies” (laughs). We were initially very into that whole vampire looking, makeup thing, which ironically SLAYER was doing around the same time as us just on the other side of the country.
LRI: A lot of bands now talk to us and say that they think it’s easier than ever for a band to get attention and market themselves and in a way I sort of agree and disagree. There are avenues that are open now with the internet that were never available when you were spray painting logos and making your own T-shirts and demo tapes. On the other hand, I think it’s so much harder for a band to stand out amongst the sea of other bands.
RS: You made a really good point that I really agree with. I go into a lot of detail about that whole DIY thing in Born in the Basement in regards to us in Overkill but also with Jerry Only and his band the Misfits. He was doing a lot of the same things that I was as far as stapling things onto telephone polls and putting stickers onto tollbooths and all that. First of all we were young and we didn’t care. I just knew that this rock thing was all I wanted to do and I have gotta figure out a way. If I have to use magic markers and rubber stamps and stencils and whatever then so be it. Now, the thing is setting up your bands profile on countless websites and putting your stuff on iTunes and all that, it’s easier for everyone and all the tools of doing it are STANDARDIZED but the main thing is exactly what you are saying John, the playing field is soooo much more crowded. Consequently, everyone is doing that and using those tools so as a result its way, way harder to “get noticed”. There are fantastic points to this new internet age but still to this day my own thinking is still DIY, as in, what can I do myself. Maybe I’m a little bit of a control freak or whatever but I still try to always cover the bases of what can I do hands on. It is crowded but I think the new ways are awfully handy and what else are you gonna do? Sit around on the couch and wait for some label to give you a contract and a record deal? That isn’t going to happen and you’re just going to miss everything entirely so yes I think all new bands should utilize ANYTHING that’s out there really.
LRI: For those unaware…. how much of a hand did you have in the actual day-to-day goings on with the band? How much did things go according to plan?
RS: Really everything that happened in Overkill right up until I left the band in 1987 was exactly as D.D and I had envisioned. The other guys that joined the band kind of joined into what we were doing and what we were going for. We knew we had a mission, it was clear-cut and we were the directors. We weren’t DICTATORS because a dictatorship implies that there was resistance or a lot of the group doesn’t LIKE what you were doing , which wasn’t the case. Danny Spitz did leave the band because he didn’t wanna do the horror show and the makeup and theatrics and all that to be honest, so he split. It was our thing, D.D. and mine, and having he and I doing it together really WAS a blessing I gotta say. It’s a very rare thing that two people can be that compatible for so many years and work together and share the same vision. We didn’t even have to open our mouths to know that we were on the same page and doing things the way we wanted it was just magic. We did have a hand in all of that and we did control a lot of our own destiny but the farther along you go in your career and the more you start dealing with management and record companies the more you LOSE that control. All of a sudden you get other knuckleheads in there who you’re paying money to and they’re making bad decisions and don’t understand the color GREEN you want used in your logo (laughs). It was really simple and yet unbelievable things that you would start to lose control over. Really frustrating.
LRI: How much did it help though to LOSE some of that do it yourself angle and hook up with a Johnny Z ( Megaforce Records) or a Brian Slagel (Metal Blade) type of person?
RS: (laughs). Again, the farther you go into that realm of allowing other people to help you the more you get involved in questionable situations and the more the best decisions aren’t always made. If you have a band and it was YOUR vision and you allow other people to come in suddenly it’s a situation of them INTERPRETING your vision and doing not even things they think we would LIKE but things they think would WORK with the resources they have. The first record deal we had with Metal Storm records for the OVERKILL ep was beyond a joke, it was just such a bad deal and experience and a horrible experience with a label but at least we finally had something out as far as an actual record. I understand that Metal Blade or Megaforce themselves didn’t have a big infrastructure or a big pool of resources themselves because the whole thrash metal SCENE was very embryonic but to answer your question it was STILL hard. John, things just got diffused and confused by the time I left the group. I don’t wanna go into too much detail or do too much mudslinging but for instance, the production on Taking Over or Feel The Fire was not what it could’ve been. By the time we got to the EP it still was clear that it had to improve. The thing was EVERY single band, every thrash band wanted to sound like Metallica, no matter what SLAYER tells you, no matter what Dave Mustaine or those guys tell you everyone wanted their record to sound like the CRUNCH on “Kill Em All”, EVERY BAND. So, that was our guideposts to follow and all the engineers and producers were all busy trying to figure out how to do THAT and not figure out the band they’re working with. The result is you have two OVERKILL records that have no continuity and sound totally different or two SLAYER records that sound totally different. All of those early records from ALL of us bands were really just the sound of a bunch of bands that didn’t know what to do with themselves yet. Anyway….I’m getting carried away (laughs).
LRI: No, I think you’re on to something for sure. Those first few Overkill, Testament or Slayer records all have good songs but could have had more sonic clarification production-wise. After the FUCK YOU Ep the band moved to Atlantic which corrected some of the poor production but I have a feeling gave away even MORE control and would have frustrated someone like yourself EVEN more.
RS: Yeah, (laughs) because the other labels were driving me crazy and making me think about leaving it all. The new movie I am working on called “Welcome to the Dream” is to a great extent about all of that. There’s this “dream” bands have about being on a major label VERSUS the reality of what actually happens. It’s really a lot like going into a hardware store. If you go into a small hardware store you’re going to find someone who can help you and get you moving along because they NEED your business in order to stay afloat versus going to HOME DEPOT. If you go into a big retailer, they don’t care and it’s not about you, you’re invisible and they may even be blowing you off because you’re just one customer out of thousands and thousands of similar customers. To a major label, that’s exactly how many of them feel about and treat their acts, you’re the little guy and unless you BECOME a big deal and shift a LOT of records you will continue to be the little guy and that’s a FACT. I really make it a point to tell that whole story of creating and finding a way to make OVERKILL a big band in our first movie “Born in the Basement”, to me it is still SOOO funny and awesome to watch our first MTV video, “In Union We Stand” because it all looks totally legit and cool but I know we created that facade literally out of milk crates and magic, you don’t SEE it, but it’s there (laughs).
LRI: Did you ever second guess your decision to leave the band after they did receive some level of national attention on MTV or touring or whatever?
RS: Oh, yes, of course, in fact, I second guessed for years and I’m just being straight up and honest with you John. Yes, for years I did and it’s taken years for me to understand that I did leave at the right time for me. The band OVERKILL still today flies my green logo and still play some of those songs and still generate some money, I don’t know how much money but…….without trying to sound pompous or arrogant, I know for a fact that without D.D. and myself pushing that band I know for a FACT that much of what has happened for OVERKILL would never have happened. I really don’t want to sound like a jerk but there was some things that really happened for the band as a result of that story of my and D.D.’s stubborn nature that was documented and that you enjoyed so much in my movie “Born in the Basement”. It would have been easy to NOT be stubborn and just listen to what everyone else was telling you but that was not something I ever ALLOWED myself to do. I did second guess leaving for a while because I DID have a lot of fun but on the other hand I’ve realized not to second guess because most of the things that made me want to leave the band STILL haven’t changed. All of the reasons I left it behind are still there and in fact may be worse than they were when I left.
LRI: To me, the band should be out there working as fiercely as ever. I liked the last album and it seems like there’s a renaissance going on with the Big 4 and even Anthrax’s last tour taking out Testament and Death Angel. In my mind, with the following and the respect that OVERKILL had they should be a part of that.
RS: There’s always going to be a market for that music because the thrash fans are fiercely loyal and invested. It’s just a matter of being in it for the right reasons at the right time and knowing what to do and when to do it.
LRI: Do you feel like the band has stayed as active as it should be or made the right decisions all these years?
RS: The thing is that it boils down to something that has happened to not only OVERKILL but other bands as well. Like I said, they’ve continued on and I honestly don’t know how great it’s been or hasn’t been for them because I haven’t been there in these recent years but at some point it DOES become work. You make something of yourself in a certain era and you get a following and people mark you as something they really identify with and are always gonna follow. You’re like a brand to them, and what you do they’re generally going to like but as you get older and you find out the real world about selling records and the BUSINESS of being in a band you start getting away from what it is that made you passionate about doing it to begin with and just start to chase making another record that will help your band continue. You may be struggling financially, again, I’m not only speaking about OVERKILL but many bands, so in order to keep that band and that dream afloat you may find yourself putting out records that become more about the product and less about the songs. In order to always have something out there to keep the whole thing running, like okay maybe we won’t go gold but we’ll sell “X” amount and be able to justify going out on the road for some shows and paying our bills by making some money. Sometimes, for some bands it simply becomes a financial reality of having BILLS to pay and I understand that. It’s not about the original intent. It’s like some of my favorite punk bands like Dead Boys or Sex Pistols, they made a couple of albums and it STOPPED. It stopped for a reason and any of the albums put out by them after that point just aren’t with the same intent and aren’t viewed the same way. What’s better? To have to unbelievably classic albums by those bands or to have a catalog of 10 or 12 where the majority of them are just mediocre. My thing is, for any band or artist…..if you don’t have something INCREDIBLE to say or put out than don’t say it or put it out. Everything you just throw out there that is less than amazing just kind of waters down what value you had when you DID have something valid or powerful to say. People are going to then start picking up on it and going “Well, this one was good or that one was great but the last couple have just been blah” and not follow you or your art anymore.
LRI: So after you left the band in 1987 was it a situation of continuing to play and give lessons before finding out your passion would be filmmaking?
RS: Yeah. When I left the band, or in the year leading up to when I left the band, was when the whole thrash movement started its descent. It was on a MAINSTREAM or COMMERCIAL upswing but honestly to all who were really involved that was when the passion behind the art started to wane. There were SO many bands and ALL of the bands started to look the same and sound the same, they really did. Things got too saturated with wayyy too many guys jumping on that Metallica bandwagon and doing the same stuff. That’s what was so frustrating to me personally. My own band, my baby started going down that same route and it changed. Over the years OVERKILL became exactly like all the other bands, there was really no difference between them and any of the other bands other than the green logo. If you look and listen to things when I left and after I left you can see and hear it. It’s like “Ok, are you doing this because this is really what you’re called to do or because you’re trying to fit in, be popular and make the label happy”. It became a situation where I was just NOT happy and there was no ROOM for individualization amongst thrash bands anymore. Everyone was just like “Well, if we sound and look like ‘MASTER OF PUPPETS’ we will be okay” which I guess worked for a while but eventually we saw what happened with that, by about 1990 it all just fell apart. I just left it all and went back and started over and started taking lessons and got into all kinds of instrumental and fusion stuff which is a lot of fun for us drummers. I really started playing with music again and having fun again doing other things and the last thing I cared about was playing thrash metal because I did that. It’s not that I didn’t want to do it ANYMORE as much as that it stopped being fun. i did a lot of things over the years being so into the DIY ethic and dabbled in things other than music and one of those things I dabbled in was working as an audio guy or a camera guy at some local TV stations around here on the east coast. I really didn’t go headfirst into it all though until things progressed in the computer age to the point of where you could really do it just as well from home. Suddenly, you didn’t have to be holed up in a multimillion dollar studio to make a movie it was just as feasible to do it from your PC which was pretty liberating.
LRI: Did you find the process of film editing and work to be as creative and as fulfilling as music?
RS: John, I cannot tell you the feeling I had when I realized that I could shoot footage from my camera and input it into my computer and edit it and sync music and audio with it. It was so amazing to me that I stopped playing music for a while because I was just so immersed (laughs). I was having so much fun and to this day I am very blessed because if I were retired I would STILL be doing what I’m doing because I love it man.
LRI: Your first movie, “Born in the Basement” is fantastic and really covers Overkill and your story and then you produced and worked on “Get Thrashed” which is just such an amazing and definitive film about the ENTIRE thrash scene. How on earth did you guys go about making a movie like that and contacting every, single band or person that mattered in that era?
RS: Well, thank you first of all. Let me tell you about “Get Thrashed”. I was working on “Born in the Basement” and getting deep into the Overkill thing and doing all those interviews and collecting all this stuff when I said “We should do a movie about thrash metal, like a documentary covering the whole thing”. I said this to one of my old-school friends and he said, “You know what, I saw something on the internet that someone was actually doing one something like what you’re talking about, like a history of thrash metal”. So he found his name and sent it to me and I contacted with director Rick Ernst after finding out that he was indeed working on this movie and had shot some stuff and was really into it. He was dealing with MTV and all these people but that is SOOO not fair to him because Rick is just a complete and total rivethead, totally passionate and dedicated to thrash. I told Rick, “You know, I have a lot of archive stuff and I edit and do production” and after doing a camera interview and stuff he ended up bringing me onto the production team. For one guy to undertake a project like that could be a little intimidating and us working as a team just made things so much easier. Suddenly, I was on the phone calling up guys from Nuclear Assault and Anthrax and guys I hadn’t talked to in YEARS to come in and do this with us. I rounded up some of the bands but to be honest Rick rounded up quite a bit himself. My MAIN contribution to “Get Thrashed” was visually what you see in that movie, the editing and working with Rick on everything else.
LRI: You and Dave Ellefson made a TV show together which was a musician’s talk show called Rock Un-Rolled and I heard that it was turned down by Viacom/MTV/VH1 for being “Too Intelligent”. (laughs).
RS: (laughs). Actually, you’re 100% accurate. Dave and I had this really great idea for a real talk show about real topics that affect musicians and it was indeed turned down by Viacom for being too smart. I had known Dave for ages and we’re good friends and we had a really good show put together and good guests but it just wasn’t understood by them as something they could “sell”. Of course, Eddie Trunk’s show came right after that and was NOTHING at all like our show because what our show had was musicians talking to other musicians from a musician’s point of view. We didn’t try to do it from a fan perspective which is what Eddie does and he certainly has a following and that’s fine and understandable but the show Dave and I did was a totally different thing, especially to Viacom. They thought the show was really good but that the audience was limited unless we were willing to talk from a shock value perspective, like “Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll” that would sell to an 18-25 year old market. We were like “No, that’s not what we are trying to do at all. We’re trying to actually HELP other musicians AVOID all that crap you’re talking about and all the other financial and career pitfalls that come with it.” We basically weren’t offering it from a tabloid journalism perspective we wanted to offer some kind of guidance because we’ve walked that tightrope and played those games and been through it all as artists. They basically told us “Maybe A&E would be interested” and instead that whole project has now morphed into my new movie “Welcome to the Dream, The Rude Awakening of Rock Stardom”.
LRI: A TV show from the guys from Megadeth and Overkill should be an easy sell. Did the problems of that experience of trying to sell the show end up influencing the direction of the new movie you’re working on?
RS: Yes, totally. That whole situation really bothered me for a while and made me realize that the guys who could really be a part of the solution are really a part of the problem. They wanna keep feeding everyone this junk myth, this crap about sluts and coke and partying and they don’t really wanna get involved in helping to stop the myth. They want everyone to keep eating the stupid sandwiches on the dumb train. It’s like you can look at it and go “ok, I get it the controversy sells” but the more you look at it the more you realize that it’s getting worse and worse and worse. The reason we are doing “Welcome to the Dream” is simple. We never had any guidance, we never had any wisdom and we survived despite it not because of it. It would have been nice to have some kind of advice career wise other than the clichés, some kind of warning to the roadblocks and setbacks and how to avoid at least some of them. Someone who’s been there to say “This is good, this is bad, the benefit of this is THIS and the cost of THIS is THIS.” The reality is that things don’t have to be that way but musicians are human and make mistakes. It asks in-depth questions about the musician or artist brain, “What is a musician?, How is it that our brains are programmed and wired so differently?, why are there all these other people suggesting all these other career paths but NONE of them make this person happy?”. Things like that are daunting questions to someone who has very few people in their corner and very few helping people within their reach. The music business is examined for what it is and understood that the business BECAME what it is because we as MUSICIANS let it become that. People love to blame the business but it’s the musicians that LET ourselves be preyed upon by these outsiders by not paying attention to our contracts and falling into these same old traps of the game like drugs and alcohol and ego and things used to control or exploit you. We did this and allowed this to happen so it’s time to wise up and get better at playing the game.
LRI: You also get the big picture of the whole concept of “rock stardom” right down to the shrinks and lawyer’s side of things, correct?
RS: In this movie we talked to professionals, lawyers, psychiatrists, musicians have signed on to tell their side of things. It’s really important to hear from the psychological community and the legal community. One of the lawyers we talk to explains WHY the contracts and paperwork is written the way it is to intentionally overwhelm and confuse you so you don’t have a leg up to begin with. The psychology end of it is that you’re always hearing about how “X” musician screwed it all up but you’re never understanding the levels of fear and anxiety intertwined with the addictions that trigger all of these mistakes along the way. To do this fairly and as well-rounded as possible you have to have the perspectives of those OUTSIDE the musicians circle as well, even including some from the business end of the industry. Dave and many of my friends are involved…people like Ted Nugent have signed on which is huge because of the vast amount of experience he has in the industry. It’s going to be really cool and special for aspiring artists to help them see something they probably have NEVER seen or heard from people who can honestly say they’ve been there. It’s shaping up to be a great movie for a lot of different reasons and it’s something I am really passionate about. I can’t wait to talk to you again when it’s ready to be released.