If you're into death metal, you surely know who Jeff Becerra is. This father of death metal started an avalanche in the music world by releasing a Possessed classic, Seven Churches back in 1985. However, his tragic fate didn't allow him to become as big as other bands like Death or Morbid Angel, but he is the one who deserves it the most. In this long interview, Jeff Becerra discusses his musical influences, Bay Area Thrash, Seven Churches, his struggle with PMRC, his relation with Chuck Schuldiner, new album and more!
Photo credits: Hector Salayerria
Agoraphobic News: What are your biggest metal/non-metal influences ?
Jeff Becerra: To be honest I listen to all types of music and have always been open to just about anything. And I think that there can be super heavy parts in all genres i.e. classical, blues, rock, jazz, metal. And while I do my very best NOT to be influenced by or derivative of any bands other than Possessed it really is impossible not to be influenced by one’s past. But since I know you are asking for specific band names I would have to give a shout out to bands like, Motorhead or even more to the point Lemmy Kilmister,Black Sabbath, Led Zepplin,Judas Priest,Iron Maiden, AC/DC,Muddy Waters,Bach,Edgar Allen Poe, H.P.Lovecraft,Ray Bradbury,Dante Alighieri, and Anton LaVeyjust to name a few of the bands/people that have influenced me.
Agoraphobic News: Your first demo sounds heavy, even now. Who exactly named it "Death metal" ?
Jeff Becerra: We used to have band-discussions after rehearsals and towards the very beginning days we as a group decided that we wanted to be thought of as “different” . In actuality we really were playing something completely different than any of the other bands out there. And since there were already bands calling themselves, “Thrash”, “Black”, and “Speed” we decided make a conscious and political decision to call Possessed a “Death Metal” band. Soon after I wrote the song “Death Metal” during my High School English class. I was supposed to be taking an exam but since I didn’t know any of the answers I used the quiet- time to write the lyrics to Death Metal. Death Metal was to be a sort of anthem for us and just to let the public know that Possessed was a “Death Metal” band. Mike T. had the music written already so I wrote the lyrics
Agoraphobic News: Do you feel like Possessed are the founders of death metal as a genre?
Jeff Becerra: I know for a fact that Possessed are the founders of Death Metal. I was there and most definitely aware of the underground scene back then. There were most-definitely no other bands out there calling themselves “Death Metal” or claiming to be “Death Metal”. And we started calling Possessed “Death Metal” for that exact reason. We were intentionally trying to be our own kind of music. Anybody saying anything else is a fucking liar and trying to take credit for something that we did as Possessed. As ridiculous as it sounds, there are so many unoriginal people out there that they would try to steal that one thing that makes Possessed different and unique away rather than have minds of their own or really do something original themselves.
Agoraphobic News: Do you see yourself as the "Father of Death metal" or do you perhaps consider Chuck Schuldiner to bear that title?
Jeff Becerra: First let me start out by saying that me and Chuck were good friends. Chuck came out from Florida just so that he could be around Possessed and the Bay Area scene as we were his biggest influence back then. And Chuck has said this in quite a lot of his past magazine interviews and has said on many occasions that Possessed were the band that inspired him to start playing Death Metal. Chuck even went so far as to use Randy Burnswho was the producer of our album Seven Churches(1985) to produce on Scream Bloody Gore two years later. Also Chuck played our song The Exorcist as an out-take on his 93 Individual Thought Patterns. If Chuck were alive today he would tell you this, just as he said it all the time back in the day. We were good friends and I am very proud of his accomplishments and to be honest Chuck doesn’t need to claim my accomplishments or the accomplishments of Possessed (nor do his supporters) because we ALL know that Chuck was a fucking AMAZING guitarist/singer/song-writer and holds up to time all on his own. Chuck was a monster musician and I wish he were still here today. And while I think that Chuck’s old record company would love to claim this untruth as something relevant, it is simply not true at all. Fiction.
Agoraphobic News: What are your thoughts on Death/Mantas demo Death by Metal?
Jeff Becerra: As soon as you asked me this I went and listened to it on YouTube for the first time. I like it. This came out in 84. While you can hear the beginnings of Death on this demo; at the same time it is really primitive. This would definitely be something for the collectors out there and it is most-definitely a part of Death Metal History. Just as a side-note this demo is referenced as coming out in 1984 which is a year after the Possessed 1983 Death Metal demo tape.
Agoraphobic News: Who were your main vocal influences?
Jeff Becerra: Lemmy Kilmister, Hard Core Punk.
Agoraphobic News: Did Lemmy have something to do with your growling approach to singing?
Jeff Becerra: Of course he did! I have always really been into Motorhead and just their sense of Outlaw/Rebelliousness. And while my vocals are nothing more than just my own voice yelling, still they are much like a punk/Motorhead mix….lol.. Also, we both play bass and for a time I used to keep my microphone way up high just like Lemmy. And while I maintain the fact that, “Possessed was/is my biggest influence in reality” at the same time Lemmy is as close to being one of my “heroes” as possible.
Agoraphobic News: It's kinda ironic to see that Possessed emerged from Bay Area, the epicenter of Thrash metal, while the death metal scene was tied to Tampa Florida. Who were your biggest rivals back in San Francisco?
Jeff Becerra: The way I see it is that back then and now all us Bay Area bands have always been more like brothers in the same scene more than “rivals”. Back then it was common to see members from one band at another’s concert. So whenever Metallica,Exodus,Possessed,Legacy,Testament or Death Angel would play you could usually see at least one person from these bands also attending the show. And of course there are a shit-ton of other Bay Area bands that I know I haven’t mentioned but my meaning is just that we all supported one another and still do.
Agoraphobic News: Was your ultimate goal to be more brutal than Slayer and more satanic than Venom back in the day?
Jeff Becerra: LOL. That may be an oversimplification. Of course we did want to be the “heaviest most Satanic” band out there. But at the same time we very much took pride in our music and the skills of being good musicians. And I don’t feel wrong in saying that we put our lives and love as well as our blood, sweat and tears into our music. I can only speak for myself but Possessed was and always will be a huge part of my life. Also I think that it’s worth mentioning, back whenever we first started there were just so many Glam-Rock/Hair bands and posers out there. A band like Possessed had to be the “Anti-Glam” band as well as the metal that was born from punk and hatred. It was just our time to be born. And as just as long as there is blood, death and Satan there will be a place for us here hopefully… But I have to be honest in saying that I am still not 100% sure of what really drives us even today. Because now that there are so many Death Metal bands and so many super-heavy bands, still I really feel like we have much more to add to the genre.
Agoraphobic News: Seven Churches was banned in all of the major record stores because of a huge upside down cross. Did that shocking "satanic image" boost your popularity or did it eventually lead Possessed to a downfall?
Jeff Becerra: Being “banned” is never a good thing..lol. We could have and really should have been much more “known” but because of Tipper Gore and the PMRC we became “banned” and our music went even more underground. Who knows though really. My logic is that there will always be a certain group of people that love Possessed while everybody else just doesn’t understand us or what we do. There will always be those that even hate me for not giving up and quitting. But the original “downfall” of Possessed didn’t have anything to do with upside-down crosses or being banned at all. It had to do with the other members quitting and me not having a band to go on with… Later on after that I got shot and it literally took me years to get back into the head-space before I could continue on with my band-interrupted. And I still feel like even today I am still making up for that first “downfall” and I just want to do my best to make some really great music and to bring Possessed into the 21st Century like we should be.
Agoraphobic News: Were people afraid of your music?
Jeff Becerra: Yes, many people were afraid of our lyrical content. Also some of our supporters were even more afraid of their parents. I have heard so many of our supporters tell stories of how they had to hide their Possessed albums from their parents. Or how they got sent to Catholic school after mom or dad finding their Seven Churches album hidden under their mattress. Of course now-a-days Death Metal is a well-known genre, but back then it did really seem to scare some people. Of course what started out as “shock value” became an actual way of life for me. To be honest I owe a lot to Possessed and do my best to encourage everybody to have the courage in themselves to push boundaries and to always question certain dogmatic principles, philosophies. And to find their own “truths” in relationship to the world around them.
Agoraphobic News: What were your aims for Beyond the Gates & The Eyes of Horror? Both albums have more of a thrashy approach and music itself is lighter than Seven Churches...
Jeff Becerra: We started to worry that we would become limited in the type of music and lyrics that people expected from us. We wanted to keep our possibilities open to what we could and couldn’t do. That being said we did our very best to make all three releases as different from each other (without totally losing our audience/supporters) as possible. That way, later on (now) we have the capability to grow In several different directions.
Agoraphobic News: The Eyes of Horror EP was produced by Joe Satriani. How in the hell that happened?
Jeff Becerra: Larry was friends with Joe. Larry was taking guitar lessons from Joe back then and simply asked Joe if he would produce our EP for us. Joe was super cool about it all and did the whole thing for a very good price. Towards the end days of Possessed Larry wrote more and more of the songs and even had Joe to help him with some of his solos/writing which was very cool for us.
Agoraphobic News: Larry LaLonde was the original guitarist of Possessed. It's cool to see that both him and Les Claypool played in a thrash metal band before making their own bands . Do you like Primus?
Jeff Becerra : Not sure if you know this but Larry and I were in a band together since we were like 12 years old. Our first band was called “Marauder”. We had Mike Miner (ex-Bland Illusion) on drums, later on we changed our name to “Blizzard” which became a Thrash band and opened up for bands like Mercyful Fate & Exodus later. Little known fact is that I wrote part of the lyrics for Possessed’s “Burning In Hell” back in Blizzard. Whenever I first met Mike & Mike and joined Possessed they only had three songs completed and had never even played a gig as Possessed. So after I joined up I wrote all of the rest of the lyrics & bass-lines for Possessed (all but 3 songs), went back and got Larry from my old band (along with our Manager Debbie Abono from Blizzard), we made our first demo and got signed to Combat. Thinking back it was so damned crazy how quickly it all happened. Me, Larry (Blizzard), Primus,Blind Illusion,Exodus & Outrage were all from the same small town (El Sobrante) I had also jammed with Mark B (Blind Illusion) and was friends with him and Les through my older cousins. Not sure if you remembered that Les and Mark were in Blind Illusion together before Primus? Kirk Hammett (Metallica) used to live right around the corner from me and I would ride my skateboard over to his house for parties and to hang out every so often. So, in short, yes we all knew each other back then. Back then we were all “metal” bands and the world was much smaller it seemed.
Agoraphobic News: You were shot by two junkies who tried to rob you back in 1989.These bastards paralyzed you forever. How much time did you need in order to accept things for what they are? What helped you to go on with life?
Jeff Becerra: I usually don’t tell people this, but the truth is is that it took me a very long time to get over being shot and paralyzed. It was an extremely rough time for me and I almost didn’t make it. Literally overnight I lost everything. I spent like six months in the hospital and whenever I came out I couldn’t even take care of myself. I ended up losing everything, my girl, my friends, my band, and because I just couldn’t’ handle the sadness of it all I ended up turning to alcohol and drugs to the point that I was just trying to kill myself. Shortly after coming out of the hospital I ended up living at the homeless shelter until I got on disability and was able to rent a small house on my own. I lived alone for four years and took that time to blow off some steam and regroup until I at least started to get my head together again. I quit drinking and drugs all together and started Junior College where I got straight A’s and graduated Alpha Gamma Sigma Honor Society for my AA. After that I attended San Francisco State University Majoring in Labor Studies which is basically the study of worker’s rights, Unionism, Civil Rights, labor law & economics. Towards the end of my college days I met a beautiful girl, got married and had my two kids with here. Because I was a new father and had to support my young children and wife I ended up going to work at a Hospital for 10 years and working for the Union. Finally late 2006/2007 I felt like I was ready, stable and able to get Possessed back together again. But to be honest the desire to finish what I started in Possessed had always been a driving force in everything that I did up to that point. I had also jammed with various friends here and there through the many difficult years and that also helped out a great deal.
Agoraphobic News: Did music help you fight depression ?
Jeff Becerra: Yes it did. In fact over the years I have often received letters and correspondence from the fans & supporters of Possessed. They really helped me get through some very dark days and I am forever grateful to them always.
Agoraphobic News: Do you listen to technical death metal bands ??
Jeff Becerra: Honestly I listen to everything. If it is heavy and sounds good I will listen to it.
Agoraphobic News: Can you share some details concerning the new Possessed album???
Jeff Becerra: We are currently writing and experimenting with some new material. Currently we have a total of six (6) brand-new songs and today I will start working on #7. We plan on taking the necessary time just to make these new ones right. My hopes are that we can start playing at least some of these live soon. And we do have plans on doing a sort of “pre-album-demo” four our supporters as soon as we get these last few songs in order. Of course I continue to write all the lyrics and even some of the music which is something I have always wanted to do and a long time coming. Really I just look forward to bringing some new music from our band as soon as I can. Currently we have an offer from a major label, but we are not completely ruling out releasing it ourselves either. I really hope that people will like it.
Agoraphobic News: And the last one.... when was the last time you went to church?
Jeff Becerra: To be 100% honest I can’t even remember the last time I went inside an actual church