Hate Eternal's Erik Rutan Is Still the Nicest Guy in Death Metal

The lauded death metal producer and Hate Eternal frontman opens up about karma, positivity, and why he'll always love Morbid Angel.

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Sep 8 2015, 5:50pm

All photos courtesy of Season of Mist

The dichotomy between darkness and light that rages within Erik Rutan is a curious thing to bear witness to over the phone. His low, thoughtful voice rumbles down the line from his home in Florida, the faintest trace of his New Jersey origins coloring its timbre. He’s earnest, very earnest, and takes time to think before he speaks. Given the bonhomie that radiates out from the phone, it seems strange to hear him refer to his perceived faults—mentioning his “aggressive” tendencies one moment, calling himself a “stubborn workaholic asshole” the next. Clearly, Rutan is a complicated guy, but his defining characteristic—even after spending multiple decades as death metal royalty and taskmaster-in-chief at his busy Mana Recording Studios—is his unbridled positivity.

He’s a ray of sunshine, even when he’s breaking balls in the studio. He’s produced successful albums for bands like Goatwhore, Cannibal Corpse, Soilent Green, The Mountain Goats, Agnostic Front, Madball, Tombs and Krisiun, and makes sure to emphasize that “every band I have worked with has been an amazing experience for me, of learning and growing as a person and a producer/musician.” There’s a reason so many of the bands he’s worked with turn into repeat customers—when I told John Darnielle (who worked with Rutan on the Mountain Goats’s All Eternals Deck) that I was interviewing Erik, he gushed “Five minutes with Rutan restores my faith in humanity. He is just so positive and full of love!”

Death metal as a rule is negative music. That negativity extends further than surface level stuff like the artwork and the lyrics and its name (interestingly enough, the inverse term “life metal” was coined by black metal bands, death metal’s one-time sworn enemies, to discredit the genre). More than any other genre, death metal is the aural equivalent to grievous bodily harm; bands and writers describe its sound with destructive language, swearing that new records are “crushing,” “eviscerating,” “bloodthirsty,” “brutal.” Despite his sunny disposition, Rutan himself is no stranger to violence; he speaks frankly about his rough childhood, and his own struggles to control his temper. He’s also spent the majority of his life in the death metal trenches, first with Ripping Corpse and Morbid Angel, and now with his own band, Hate Eternal, whose new album, Infernus, just might be their best ever (it out now on Season of Mist).

Like any good Jersey boy, Rutan relishes a good chinwag; we spoke for an hour and a half, and could’ve talked for longer. I came away from our conversation in awe of his resilience and dedication to self-improvement, his love for music, and his willingness to open up about his life as one of the biggest names in death metal. Of course, we talked about his band’s killer new album, too (he’s super excited about it!) which you can listen to below. I also had a personal message to deliver.

Noisey: Hey Erik! So, firstly, I wanted to thank you. The first time I interviewed you, I was only nineteen, and I’ve always remembered how kind and respectful you were to me as an excited, awkward teenage girl.
Erik Rutan:
Aw! I like to think that I’m one of the good guys in a world of a lot of bad ones, so I appreciate that. I try to be as respectful as I can towards everybody, I don’t really know any other way. It’s sad to think that other people aren’t like that, but I guess that’s the world we live in, right?

That always stood out to me, so I was definitely looking forward to interviewing you this time.
That’s awesome. You know, not to get all weird, but I do believe in karma and things of that nature. I believe if you do right by people, it comes back to you tenfold and certainly I have seen proof of that. I’ve been trying to do the right thing by people for many, many years, and it’s all come back to me tenfold, just with all the different successes and all the great things I’ve been able to achieve in my career, and in having great friends and family and things of that nature. But you know, I’ve never been the kind of rockstar mentality. I’ve done a lot in my career. It’s amazing sometimes when I think of the opportunities I’ve had; recently I had to put together my resume, and it took me quite some time to put all the records I’ve produced and all the records I’ve played on. The next thing I’m going to do is my touring history, which that will take as long. Somehow it took me until I hit 40 to realize that I’m always looking ahead and feel like I’m not doing enough, and then when I started putting it all together, I realized wow, okay, I haven’t been fucking around for the last 25 years. Sometimes, I’m just a stubborn perfectionist workaholic. This last year has been a good reflection of things, you know—”Hey, don’t pat yourself on the back, pal, but give yourself a little bit of credit.” It won’t kill me to say, “Hey, dude, you’re doing something alright.” It makes me happy that I made an impact as a respectful human being, I’m all for it.

I’ve seen you called the nicest guy in death metal so many times. In a genre where you’re supposed to strive to be the nastiest or the toughest, it’s nice to come across someone who's only concern is being a good dude.
It is, and believe me, that other guy is in there, I just try to keep him at bay as much as possible. Part of it is just growing up as a Northeast guy in Jersey. Moving to Florida has definitely made me a nicer person in some ways. Just where I live, by the beach, people are happy here all the time. It’s taken me 20 years and still it amazes me. You go to the store and someone’s holding the door for you and asks how you’re doing today. I’m still in shock sometimes at the kindness of people here. I’m from Jersey, where you hold the door for someone and they’re like, ‘What’s your fucking problem?’ Between that and the fact that I’ve been doing everything I’ve wanted to do since I was a teenager for more than twenty years, I don’t have much to be a bitter asshole about. I’ve been playing angry music for 25 years, and it certainly therapeutically helped me become a happier person in my normal life. So I leave it for the music—I leave it for the stage—and I try to assemble a positive, happy life otherwise. So far, it’s worked out pretty good. I have a good system.

So death metal is therapy for you.
It is for sure. It was really my way out of a lot of things I was experiencing as kid and as a teenager. I had a lot of great experiences as a child, but unfortunately I also had a lot of bad experiences, and for me music was the thing that helped me take that negativity and turn it into something positive. I’ve had a lot of loss and deaths in my life; I’ve had two of my best friends pass away tragically, and I pretty recently had my bandmate pass away tragically, and then people in my family. It has totally inspired me to write. That’s my way of facilitating a way to deal with things; before I could process it in any other way, music was that. That’s one of the things in my life I’ve been fortunate in, because before I started playing music, I was an absolute juvenile delinquent of a kid.

Did you ever get arrested?
Oh, yeah. Anybody that knows me from when I was a kid knows that I went through a lot. When I started to play guitar, it was the first thing that I was able to focus on that wasn’t negative. It’s funny—so many parents see their 15-year-old kid trying to learn Slayer riffs and probably think "Oh no, my son is a Satanic little bastard!" but my mom was totally gung-ho. She was just like, "My son is in the bedroom jamming on the guitar for hours a day instead of out on the street doing God knows what." My mom was supportive from day one.

So many kids don’t get that.
They don’t, and you know, for me, music isn’t just a passion or a hobby or even a career. It’s helped me become a healthier person. 25 years ago, I was not a healthy person, emotionally or psychologically. 25 years later, I feel like I’m able to express myself. When I listen to Infernus, so many of those songs were inspired by the things going on in my life over the past few years.

So it’s kind of a diary.
It is. When people listen to my music, I always explain to them, "Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness, or my happiness for lack of other things." Over my whole career, there have been so many songs like that in my life, and that’s just how I’ve been able to survive. It’s gotten to the point where now I just have that direct channel to express it. I went through a lot of tumultuous times in my life, and I went through a lot of things in my life that were very unfortunate, and music was really my only way of kind of getting out of the muck.

Did you have to deal with violence growing up?
Definitely, there’s some violence in my life, and a lot of loss in my life, I’ve had a lot of people die in my life that were very important to me and I feel kind of surrounded by my past, but I’m also always looking towards the future. Music saved me in so many ways, and it can be hard. It’s taken me many years to handle blatant criticism, not just constructive criticism—all it takes is someone to type something online in two seconds, and then it could absolutely ruin your day if you’re not a strong-willed person. Once in awhile, someone still gets to me. You work your ass off writing an album, and then you just can’t win sometimes. I’ve learned to deal with it, and it amazes me about how much of a stronger person I've become. People have high expectations of everything that I do, but I’ve finally realized that the reason they have those high expectations is because they respect me for what I’ve done. Nobody has higher expectations for myself than me, I can promise you that. Once I realized that you can’t control what people think, I don’t get bogged down with it anymore. If they think my stuff sucks, great. Next. A lot of it of it is just growing up. I don’t know if I can use the word "adult," though, because I still don’t feel like an adult.

None of us feel like adults, really, whether we’re in an office or in a big death metal band. I think that’s the secret.
Maybe it’s just all crap. It’s scary too when you realize you’re not a spring chicken—I’m forty-four. But when you feel young and you’re happy doing what you do in your career—I’ve certainly been enjoying the hell out of what I’ve been doing for a long time—I think it really shows in your overall well-being. I’ve been enjoying what I’ve been doing for so long that it just perpetuates this mentality and those positive vibes through expressing all of this negative emotion in music. It’s kind of a fantastic balance.

And of course, when you go to the office you’re going there to help other metal bands perfect their craft.
Yeah, it’s true, and it’s only 3.5 miles from my house. I stop on the beach on the way to work a lot of the time, just for a few minutes; I take a meditative approach, keep the phone in the van, and just breathe. I’ve had to learn so many things about life; I’ve had to figure out owning a business, having a band, having a producing career, having a family life, and the one thing I’ve realized with work in the studio is that when I leave the studio, I have to leave the work in the studio, and that tomorrow is a fresh new day. The thing I like is that I do feel like I’m helping; to me, if you’re not contributing to helping someone in life, then what the hell are you doing? As I get older, the more I think about being in the studio, teaching people from my 25 years of experience, helping let their record come to fruition they way they envisioned it. As a musician, I know that when I’m doing my record it’s the most important thing in my life, as it is for every musician, so I take that responsibility very seriously. I give everything I have until there’s nothing left to do. In my opinion, that’s what it takes to make quality records.

What was it like working with your old bandmates in Morbid Angel on their last album?
I tracked five songs of drums for the last record. I’m actually working on the Warfather record with Steve Tucker, and Trey lives fifteen minutes from me. I talk to Trey pretty regularly, and I speak to David and Pete as well. I’d never have anything bad to say about Morbid Angel. Morbid Angel changed my life. It’s a huge part of my career. I got to tour on four records, and play on three, and playing with Slayer and Pantera at Nassau Coliseum was definitely one of the highlights of my career; I think at that point I realized that that if I died tomorrow, I just did it, man. I did way beyond. I know a lot has been made about their last record and the lineup change, and I always say, "Hey, if you don’t like a certain record, you don’t have to listen to it." Do you think if I listen to Metallica the first record I pop in is Reload? No, I listen to Ride The Lightning, or Master of Puppets. Does Reload alter what I think of Metallica or what I love about their early records? Absolutely not, I could care less. I’ll always be loyal to Morbid Angel until the end.

On the other end of the scale, you’ve also worked with the Mountain Goats.
That was one of the best experiences of my career! They’re great guys, talented musicians, and it really challenged me, because it took me out of my comfort zone. The Mountain Goats are completely different from what I usually do. John was a fan of Hate Eternal and Morbid Angel, and he said he got the idea to contact me and see if I wanted to produce some songs after seeing a video of me working in my studio. I produced four of the sixteen songs on that album, and one of the songs that I did ended up being the single—they played it on the David Letterman show! And I remember seeing articles where they’re talking about working with a death metal producer, and it was this big hoopla, you know—”Are the Mountain Goats Making a Death Metal Record?”—and I think John kinda ran with it. Seeing my name mentioned in any of those kinds of publications was kind of ridiculous, you never expect that, but the whole thing was a great learning experience for me, and I would work with them again in a heartbeat.

Has your work as an engineer influenced the way you make your own music?
Oh, it certainly has. People ask me if I get inspired musically from other bands, and I would say no, but I do get inspired in the sense of how much I learn from doing other people’s records. It’s helped me be able handle situations better, and also made me a much more patient person. So many people will say, “Wow, you’re really patient1" and I’ll just kind of chuckle to myself. Fifteen, twenty years ago I was not this patient. The old adage, “patience is a virtue,” is really true, though, because if you don’t have it, you’re going to lose your shit—and trust me, nobody wants to be around this guy when he loses his shit.

Every record I do, I learn different things, and think, ‘"Wow, I’m going to try that on my record.” Life is such a constant learning cycle. In the studio, as soon as you think you know everything—and in life in general—you really don’t know shit. I always keep open minded and, hey, my shit stinks like everybody else. I just work hard and I’m loyal, and I’m dedicated to my craft. And sometimes I feel like the fact that I’m in the place I am is because somebody is saying to me, “Look man, you’ve endured enough, I’m gonna help you out.” Metaphorically speaking, the tide has turned.

Are you a spiritual kind of dude?
I’m not a religious guy, but I am a spiritual guy for sure. I’ve seen karma first hand. I’m not a saint, I haven’t been perfect in my life, but I’ve learned that what goes around comes around, and I truly believe that. I’ve seen it in several instances. To me, helping others is just an important part of being a decent human being, and it’s amazing that through my music I’ve been able to help people cope with so many things. It’s amazing when you meet people on tour, or you have people sending you messages telling you how this song inspired them; I’ve heard so many things over the years, and in the last few specifically. It makes you realize that what you’re doing isn’t just about writing some songs and cranking out some tunes on stage, it’s so much more than that to so many people, including myself. It matters.

On this last tour I did, I met a few people who had really interesting stories. I had one person who had been struggling with drugs and had got to the point where he felt suicidal reach out to me on Facebook, and I messaged him back with some positive reinforcement. I feel for people like that. Through my music and my words I met this guy, and he told me, “That was the day I decided to kick everything. I’ve been straight for three years. Just you taking some time, and your music, has inspired me to get my shit together.” It hit me right in the heart.

Did you ever hear from him again?
This was only two months ago, so I hope I get to see him on tour. When Jared, my bass player, passed away, I wrote two songs to honor him and I had many people contact me over the years and say that those songs helped them. One person had lost his best friend at 17, and he used the song for the funeral. It hits you hard. I know the pain of something like that, and I certainly know what was behind the song. That kind of thing, you can’t even put a price tag on it. It makes you feel like, wow, I am doing something to help better not just myself, but others. That, to me, is very important.

That’s so huge, and humbling, to think that one of your songs was played at this kid’s funeral. And yet it seems like death metal still gets so little respect outside of the community.
It certainly doesn’t. But I guess there are people like my mom, who’s been my my number one fan and supporter from day one, and she’s realized the effect that this music has had for me. She’s seen all the positive attributes that I’ve been able to acquire by doing this music for a long time now. I kind of enjoy dispelling the myth—people always think, "My god, death metal, you must be a raging drug addict, and god knows what he’s doing." At the same time, it’s always funny when you have a neighbor and they’re like "Oh, you play in a band?" and they ask the name, and I say it kind of quickly, and they’re like "Ah...Hate Eternal? That’s pleasant...okay, have a nice day…”

Still not too bad for a kid from Jersey, though.
Not bad, not too bad. I’m sure not complaining.

Kim Kelly is also from New Jersey, the greatest state on God's green earth. Right now she's on Twitter, though.