After achieving wide critical acclaim and releasing Oblivion Beckons in January 2008, Charleston metal band Byzantine abruptly disbanded. After being on hiatus for over two years, the band is reuniting for a string of in-state shows March 5-7. We caught up with singer-guitarist Chris Ojeda, bassist Skip Cromer and drummer Matt Wolfe about what happened with the band, where they are now, and what the future may hold...
WVRS: How has life been treating Byzantine since we last heard from you guys?
Chris “OJ” Ojeda: All is great, I suppose. We are alive! We have all kind of done our own thing over the last two and a half years. Three of us entered the world of fatherhood. Skip moved back to Pennsylvania and Tony moved down to North Carolina. I started my own home renovation company. All of the guys beside me have also continued playing in various other bands as well. I haven’t stepped on stage since the last Byzantine concert.
WVRS: So you guys recently got back together for practice, what was it like to be back as a unit after so long?
Michael “Skip” Cromer: After the initial shock of all of us being in the same room together after two and a half years, it felt more like we just hadn’t practiced for a month or two. After a few jams it was like being back in the saddle.
Matt Wolfe: Honestly, it felt like we never really stopped playing together. I was very nervous until about 20 seconds into the first song.
WVRS: OJ, have you and Matt been getting together in the mean time?
Ojeda: Yes, Wolfe and I started knocking rust off about three months ago by ourselves; trying to relearn the songs and get some sort of grasp of what we used to do. Sad to say, we have only had one full band practice in preparation for these shows! We are fucking retarded!!! We have all been working on the songs separately. The winter storms we keep having have restricted Tony and Skip from getting into town. It happens almost every weekend. We are hoping to God that we can get at least two more full band practices in before the shows get here.
WVRS: Getting back together, is there any new material you’re working on?
Cromer: We are working up songs that are from Oblivion Beckons that we never played live, but as far as new material that isn’t happening.
WVRS: Byzantine disbanded shortly after Oblivion Beckons was released. Now you’re back together for these shows; was this all part of a plan or did you guys really not know if the band would ever play again?
Ojeda: This was definitely NOT part of a grand scheme or plan. There never really was a lot of arguing in Byzantine but we did have a very bitter divorce at the end. But, mutual respect has always been an integral part of Byzantine and if you can respect each other, anything is possible. Every once in a while one member would bring up a reunion idea and another would immediately say “fuck that.” It took three of us getting together for drinks in Scottdale, Pennsylvania a couple months ago to really kick start this process. I had been one of the main roadblocks for this reunion. Once I knew that Tony was actually down for it, I was 100% in.
WVRS: And just to confirm, you guys disbanded due to what you felt was lack of label support; not infighting, drama in the band, or Skip being a diva?
Ojeda: No, it was Skip being a diva! But, we were willing to put up with his divaness simply because he made the band legendary! HAHA! The bottom line is that we did not disband because of lack of label support. We fell apart because of lack of label support. They are very different things. Being hungry, cold, sick, tired and broke is tolerable if you are 18. At 28, not so much!
WVRS: What about a label; is that something you can talk about or have thought about, getting on another label, or maybe starting your own?
Wolfe: Judging from our past experiences with record labels, I think that would be very much out of the question. Doing it on our own would be the only option.
Cromer: No talk of labels, we hate labels.
WVRS: OJ you mentioned to me over the phone around the time Oblivion came out that you could foresee Byzantine being a band without a label, touring regionally. Is that how things seem to be working out, a more DIY approach to booking/touring, and maybe even recording?
Ojeda: Right now, our focus is three shows in March. Getting these put together was hard enough. We are in no way at a comfortable enough position to think about anything further than that. All four band members know that the record industry and the mandatory touring regimen was the downfall of this band. Hypothetically speaking, if Byzantine exists after March 7th, it will be a complete DIY project. The fan base is already there. It is much too small a fan base for us to ever see any profits as a label band, but a large enough fan base for a DIY band to be extremely fruitful and happy.
"Cradle Song" by Byzantine (Salvation DVD by Donnie Searls/Every Second Pictures)
WVRS: Do/did you guys feel any bitterness about the level of support you may or may not have received; that if things had been different you could have been more successful, commercially speaking? Or are you just happy to have got out the releases you did out and gained the fans?
Cromer: Can’t speak for the other guys on this but I will say that Byzantine could’ve been the biggest metal act out there had we gotten the right push. For some reason the label didn’t really want to get behind this band and it was a disservice to us, and in the long run, the label as well.
Am I bitter? No. I got to be in the band I always wanted to be in, and saw more of the world than I ever thought I would with them. But make no mistake about it: we did not get the support we needed or should have gotten to be a successful group from our label.
WVRS: After your experience being on a label, what are your thoughts on the need to be on a label these days?
Ojeda: It was a necessary evil. We had no fan base before Prosthetic Records signed us. Being signed gave us an opportunity to open for some great metal bands across two continents and showcase our music. But, a smart musician nowadays can build that fan base without label support. It just takes time, if you are willing to spend it. A label is a glorified bank. They give you money to record on and tour on. Instead of “interest” your money is “recoupable” through album sales. Basically meaning, you won’t see a dime until they are paid back in full. Can you tell I’m not that fond of labels? HAHA!
WVRS: Speaking of other metal bands that for better or worse may have achieved some level of commercial success with label backing, without the critical acclaim you guys received -- what do you think of how metal has progressed?
Cromer: Metal comes and goes in a cycle. Right now the cycle is going towards the worse. There’s a lot of cookie cutter bands coming out right now, saturating the market because labels are making money on that sound. Sooner than later, the listener will get sick of it and turn to something else. That’s what happened in the 90’s with grunge, and will happen again with the metal scene.
Wolfe: I don’t follow any of the newer groups out there, so I really can’t say for sure what any if them are doing as far as their success.
WVRS: So you guys have this contest where a fan can be Skip’s roadie for a day; what advice or warnings would you give to whoever ends up winning? WHY would anyone want to be his roadie???
Cromer: Apparently no one knows about this contest because not one person has entered. Or maybe no one wants to be my roadie. I don’t know. Listen, being my roadie and setting up my stuff for free should be worn like a badge of honor. You have the chance to hold thunder in your hands when you handle my gear. I am like Thor on bass, okay? Plus you get into the show for free and we will give you free stuff. It is a contest after all.
WVRS: Your song about the Battle of Blair Mountain “Red Neck War” is a great example of an important part of West Virginia history. Do you have any thoughts about the state taking it off the national register of historic sites?
Ojeda: I had no idea that was an issue right now. That site should be hallowed ground in this state. Before I comment further on this subject I will have to do some reading to give an insightful opinion on the matter. I am saddened to hear this news, though.
WVRS: You guys looking forward to these shows coming up in March?
Cromer: I am ready for these shows. There are so many people I can’t wait to see again I hope they come out. I miss my friends in WV and I am really treating this like a celebration. Of what I don’t know but it will be fun regardless.
WVRS: How important are the fans you’ve gained, after the whole label thing, and being disbanded and now coming back? How important is it to you guys to keep Byzantine going?
Cromer: When I play on a stage in West Virginia, it’s a high that I lack the descriptive language to tell you what its like. The fans and friends that come out and see us, I am grateful for in a way that they probably don’t know. It’s like being in a room filled with people that you respect and love, yet they are mostly strangers to me. It’s a bit odd, but it’s good, and I am mostly looking forward to that feeling again.
As far as the Byz is concerned, I don’t really know what will happen to it. I’d like to think that we could continue to work together and do new things but that may not be what we collectively want. I feel sad about it in a way because when we were fighting to be “that band” we were like a well tuned machine.
I can honestly say with no ego that there was not a band that could touch us out on the road. That was the best of times in Byzantine. It’s not like that anymore. We achieved what we wanted to, maybe not to the extent that I wanted but we did achieve our collective goals.
Our responsibility as a band at this point is to play the best show we can for the fans and friends that want to see us again. Once we do that, there really isn’t anything left to do. Being in Byzantine was hands down the most rewarding musical endeavor of my life. I can’t really ever see anything being better.
That being said, that doesn’t mean that we want to work together again. Let me be clear, I don’t want to speak for my band mates but putting together these three shows was a difficult process in itself. To have this band keep on doing things it would involve a level of commitment that I don’t think the four of us have right now. So it is a strong possibility that these three shows will be the last we do with this lineup.
But the old saying, “Never say never” is a popular phrase to this day for a reason: It’s true. Hopefully there will be more shows and a new album. It would be great. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t think of a more glorious thing than for the four of us to write the best Byzantine record totally on our terms. No labels. No B.S. Just great music by a great band. I would love it.
--- Byzantine plays The Sound Factory in Charleston 3.5, The V Club in Huntington 3.6 (w/BRDME) and 123 Pleasant Street in Morgantown 3.7
Photo: Donnie Searls