Dave Witte on Cracking Open Black Army Jacket's Casket
We spoke with the legendary drummer about his many, many projects—from Municipal Waste to Melt-Banana—and those new Black Army Jacket reissues
Dave Witte, to put it bluntly, is a legend. His drumming career spans nearly 30 years, and in that time he's blasted his way through countless releases and genres that range from death metal and powerviolence through to sludge, grindcore, and noise rock.
Amazingly, quality has matched quantity throughout, with the his projects ranging from the merely excellent—Human Remains, King Generator and Burnt By The Sun—to those that have shaped or altered whole genres. Think about it: where would modern grind be without Discordance Axis? How would modern thrash be shaping up without Municipal Waste? Who was perfectly placed to provide a percussive foil for Melt-Banana as they toured the world? And who the fuck else might have had the gall to release an extreme jazz record via Relapse Records?
This month, Magic Bullet will exhume two releases from Black Army Jacket, who were yet another pit stop through which the Dave Witte juggernaut passed. Over the course of a brief, blistering lifespan, the grind-inflected hardcore act released a clutch of split releases with underground legends like Spazz, Noothgrush and Corrupted, popped up on Brutal Truth drummer Rich Hoak's record label, and tempered all this punk-friendly mayhem by sharing the stage with metal behemoths like Mercyful Fate, Suffocation and Death.
Witte joined Black Army Jacket mid-way through the band's career, contributing to a split seven-inch, a full-length LP for BAJ guitarist Andrew Orlando's Reservoir Records and an unreleased EP. I called Witte to chat about the life and times of Black Army Jacket and discuss his own considerable legacy of brutality, which you can read below whilst blasting Noisey's exclusive stream of the band's coruscating Closed Casket collection.
Noisey: So, what initially set you on the path you're on?
Dave Witte: My aunt got me into music when I was a kid. She bought me my first cassette, which was by Men At Work, so it all started from there. In terms of metal, I was riding my bike one day and found a cassette with a red rubber band and four dollar bills wrapped around it. On one side was Kill 'Em All and on the other was Mercyful Fate's Don't Break The Oath.
I know Ripping Corpse were a big influence, but what other bands were important to you when you were cutting your teeth back in New Jersey?
There was Revenant, Rorschach, Social Decay, Monster Magnet were just coming up…
That's not a bad way to learn the ropes – finding yourself between Ripping Corpse and Rorschach.
My first Human Remains show was actually with Rorschach and Born Against at a pizza place.
Amazing! Let's jump forward a bit to talk about Black Army Jacket. I think you joined them around 1998, so played on the Agathocles split, the 222 LP and the EP that was supposed to come out on Relapse?
Yeah, that's right. They called me up because they wanted me to fill in for a tour with Noothgrush. I had such a fun time doing it that I joined the band.
Were you aware of them beforehand?
Not really. I'd heard the name but I didn't know those guys that well. I think Rob [Lawi, vocals] called me, because he was really good friends with Keith [Huckins] from Rorschach, who I knew via Henry [Veggian] from Revenant. It was kind of a small world.
How was that Noothgrush tour?
It was a lot of fun, they're great people and the scene was thriving. It was also the first time I'd done a longer tour of California, so it was all new to me.
And you did Fiesta Grande with Black Army Jacket too?
Yeah, and I'd done it a few years before with Discordance Axis – that was wild. We did four songs straight off the bat and I'd never heard a crowd cheer that loud, that was totally new to me at that point in my life. When Discordance Axis played back home no one really cared – there'd be maybe 30 people there.
How did Black Army Jacket develop while you were with them?
I guess I maybe made the band a little more focused. I'm not sure – they were well on their way before me, so I didn't really change the sound of the band or anything. Maybe I made things a little more aggressive, a little faster.
Black Army Jacket straddled worlds that, at the time, seemed pretty far apart: they were part of that whole Fiesta Grande scene, but also played Milwaukee Metalfest with bands like Destruction, Cannibal Corpse and Emperor. What did you learn from working across both scenes?
When I was younger I wanted to be the fastest guy in the world, I was all about musicianship and ability which was more abundant in the metal scene. I just took that and brought it into hardcore and punk.
How did the relationship with Melt-Banana come about?
Discordance Axis helped host Melt-Banana's first trip over here, and we went to Japan a few times. Our last trip out there Melt-Banana sat me down and said 'Hey, we need a drummer for Europe in a few months…'
Was it weird joining a well-established, tightly-knit unit that was operating within its own particular universe?
It was a ton of fun, and I learned so much from that band. I saw the world with them, they taught me to speak Japanese—it was a crash course in world events. I think the most nervous I've ever been was doing a John Peel session with them—it was two weeks after I learned the songs and I was sitting in front of this glass booth with him just watching me.
Let's talk about the sheer number of projects you've been involved with. Is this down to restlessness, ADD or what?
I just love music and I love playing drums. I meet so many people and get inspired by so many different bands that it's just, 'Oh, wow, I've got to do something with them…' I've always been in three or four bands at once, I can't help myself.
What's the most you've been in at one time?
I'm in eight bands right now.
How do you keep all the music in your head ?
It's this weird ability that I have. I don't know how to read music—I'm self-taught—but I can sit down with whichever group of people for whichever project and remember the songs.
Do you have a checklist of people you want to work with?
Yeah. One I just checked off last year is Dälek. I've always wanted to drum for them, so I sent them some tracks last year and I hope they'll use them. There's also this other project we've been talking about for years but the timing's never worked out. It would be me, Keith from Rorschach, Nate [Newton] from Converge, Tomas [Lindberg] from At The Gates and we were going to get Evan Patterson [Young Widows] to play bass. We've been talking about it forever, but the stars never seem to align.
Your projects seem split between people you've been working with for years and shorter-lived opportunities involving folks who don't necessarily stay in your orbit for quite so long. What determines how long-term a project will be?
The older you get, you learn to have more patience and realize that everyone has their own thing going on. It comes together when it comes together, and sometimes it can take a few years to ferment while others just happen. The most recent thing I did was with my friend Jean [Broillet IV] who owns a brewery up in Pennsylvania called Tired Hands and this jazz guitar player Mike Lorenz. We decided to get together and write music to accompany all the beer names that he's released. We went into the studio and recorded five hours of improvised music over a weekend, which was a total blast.
Looking back, is there anything you wish received a bit more recognition?
There was one band that was a lot of fun, but nothing really happened with it. It was called Down With The Ship and we only had one live radio recording, which isn't the best. It was like Jawbreaker meets King Crimson—so fuckin' weird but so much fun. It was me, two guys from Major Burns and Tracy [Wilson] from the band Dahlia Seed. I really wish we'd recorded the songs.
And what's next?
Brain Tentacles hits the road with GWAR in April and has tracks pending for a Fugazi tribute and a Samhain Tribute. Then there's a new Municipal Waste album out this summer, a new River Black album out this summer, we're working on a new Publicist UK album and a No Faith album which I did two years ago is coming out this May.
Typically busy, then. So what kind of itches do all these different bands scratch? Are they just different pieces of the same puzzle?
That's the perfect way to describe it. I have all these ideas that won't necessarily work for one thing, so I just take them and put them in something else. I need variety. I need to be able to freak out, I need to have a good groove, to go fast… I need all that stuff.
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Cover image by Adam Malik