In June of 2003 TexasMetalUnderground.com was able to complete part 2 of our in-depth look at San Antonio's Syrus. Original vocalist Michael Vasquez was able to work our interview into his busy schedule and provide us with a great look at the inner workings of both the band and the Texas metal scene as a whole. Previously we had the honor of completing an interview with guitarist Al Berlanga in April of 2003. A big 'thank you' goes out to both Michael and Albert for taking the time to furnish us with a great interview that is both thoughtful and insightful. Read below for an in-depth look at the band and an insider's look at the San Antonio chapter of the Texas Metal Underground.
TMU: When did Syrus get together and what was the average age of band members when you formed?
Al Berlanga: Syrus formed somewhere in 1984 when I met the other guitarist Johnny C. while working together at Brooks AFB. I had only been in San Antonio since 1981 and had not really met any serious players. We ended up at his place and he already had a network of guys he knew. I checked out him and a drummer named Ken who were set up in his mom's garage. Since I was only a few years into the guitar, I really spent a lot of time practicing and working on technique, all while picking up my favorite tunes. We were all out of high school by that time and I was the only one going to college that I remember ( that ought to hint at our ages ). We were all also working full-time. Anyway, I sat in with Ken on some Iron Maiden songs and we blew everyone in the room away. Although Ken didn't dig me at first, I think he recognized the potential the three of us had. Julio, on bass, came in shortly later. He had been jamming on and off with Johnny C. for a while so they were already a team. I thought Julio was a solid bassist with a good ear so I had no problems. We went through a couple of guys on vocals and thought we found a Ronnie James Dio! For tryouts he covered Black Sabbath's "Children of the Sea" and just nailed it! Unfortunately, his mom thought we were satanic and pulled the plug. Mike was a friend of Ken's who came over a lot. He dug the band and I noticed him in the corner mouthing a lot of the words to the songs. As simple as it sounds, I told him" You seem to know all the words why don't you do it!". That was that.
Michael Vasquez: The band had already been practicing for awhile when I first started going to the rehearsals with Kenneth. It was August of 1983 when the fellow Albert mentioned auditioned for the band, not 1984. He did do a great Dio, it was the song "Children of the Sea" by Black Sabbath that nailed it for everybody. Everyone was excited that the band was finally going to start gigging, but as Al mentioned his parents wouldn't let him sing for the band. That's when Al turned to me in anger and said, "Hey, you're always here singing along with band why don't you try out". So, I said to myself it was now or never and never looked back. I got the gig by default seeing as how I was the friends with the drummer. Albert, Kenneth and myself were 18 and Julio and Johnny were a year younger at 17 when the Syrus virus began.
TMU: Who came up with the name Syrus? Does it have any special meaning?
Al Berlanga: I don't know for sure who came up with the name. I know we all had an input on something with an "S". I've lost a few brain cells during my club debauchery days so maybe Mike knows a bit more. I can say that it meant absolutely nothing other than sounding cool. It wasn't until later that we realized "Syrus" was a main character in the movie "Warriors".
Michael Vasquez: I came up with name Syrus after the original name Sacred Prey was passed on. I had just seen the movie, "The Warriors" and we we were sitting around in our practice room tossing out names and when I just said Syrus. everyone kinda looked at each other and said ok. He was the leader of the Riffs gang and was the guy who had the idea to join all the gangs together. I don't think he spelled his name the same way we did and it had no special meaning.
TMU: I saw Syrus play in Austin several times. Where else did you play besides Austin & San Antonio?
Al Berlanga: Besides playing locally in San Antonio and Austin, we did play outside of Dallas once. We never got a chance to play Houston. I think we would have paired well with Helstar. I thought we were similar in style.
Michael Vasquez: We
played in Huntsville
with Militia at
TMU: What are your thoughts on some of the Austin bands you played with (WatchTower, Militia, etc.)?
Al Berlanga: Obviously Watchtower was unique and unlike anyone else. I really enjoyed the early Tower. They really were controlled chaos. Technology gone wrong! Brilliant and a testament to Billy's ability and creativeness. And not to take away from the other guys. I don't think Watchtower would sound as unique with any other vocalist other than Jason. A point in contrast would be Eddie / dave Van Halen and Eddie / Sammy Van Halen. Same band, different sound. Ronnie Jarzombek was in 'Slayer' at the time who went on to replace Billy a bit later. Militia were good friends of ours and we had the great pleasure playing with Mike and crew several times. I thought Militia was Texas' answer to early Metallica. They had that same insane driving thump. Awesome. I didn't get to know Syranax that well. They were starting more as the scene started to crap out. San Antonio had it's own group of showcase bands as well. Some of the top billings were Slayer, Karian, Tempest, Rouxlette, and Juggernaut, who had two Metal Blade releases.
Ahead of their time. Watchtower, what can you say? Jason was and is
the McMetalMaster. He was the reason we even got to play in
TMU: What are some of the bands Syrus played shows with in San Antonio?
Al Berlanga: We had the privilege of playing with all the acts mentioned above. We were also fortunate enough to have opened for Paul DiAnno's Battlezone, Fates Warning (which turned into a crazy party in San Antonio), Omen, and others. My personal favorites were all the gigs with Watchtower. We were good friends and drew rabid crowds. All the Watchtower/Syrus shows were moshfests.
Michael Vasquez: We played with everyone and anyone. Juggernaut, Tempest, Prezence and Rouxlette to name a few. The Cameo was a great place to play and the shows were all fun.
TMU: In your opinion, what made the Texas scene so unique?
Al Berlanga: The uniqueness of our scene is that we were heavy yet technical. L.A. was more a style show. But it's sales that drive the majority of the biz. L.A. had sales and marketable bands. Our scene would have been cult level at best. Not musically or technically, just not marketable. There can only be one Metallica or Iron Maiden for every 1000 metal bands. The reason is it's too brutal.
I think the
TMU: The legendary Ritz Theater in Austin was a great place to see shows. What are some of your memories of playing there?
Al Berlanga: Playing the Ritz was like playing the Apollo in NY. They love you or hate you and let you know. We always had fun there. The Cameo was another great place. In the early days the Villa Fontana at the Hemisfair was cool too. We enjoyed playing a lot of local high schools also. This is what helped push our band because a lot of the kids couldn't go to the theaters. We would play to several hundred in auditoriums on Friday nights. Then these same kids would go to the outdoor gigs with lots of bands. There is nothing like playing to a wild crowd of 700-800 chanting your band's name!
Vasquez: The smell of sun dried piss always let me know we had arrived
at the Ritz's alley. God I loved that place. Like I said earlier,
TMU: The overall musicianship in Syrus was great. Did any of the members have any ‘real’ musical training or were they self-taught?
Al Berlanga: Thanks for the compliment on our musicianship considering our ages and the genre style. I felt that the time we spent rehearsing and refining the songs enabled us to really pull it together. We used to actually thrash almost every practice and went over the songs time and time again to get our movements in sync with the music. As far as musical training goes, I studied for my first two years in the instrument and I think Ken was in band during school. I don't believe Mike, Johnny C., or Julio had any.
Michael Vasquez: I don't recall if Albert was taking any music at UTSA, but I took about two weeks of private voice at SAC, the local community college. The inspiration for 'Thru Thine Knights Eyes' came from going to SAC. The houses around the campus were old mansions that had been turned into banquet halls and various student related buildings. I didn't own a piano or a keyboard so I couldn't keep up with the lessons, so I dropped. As far as anyone else in the band I think everyone was pretty much self-taught.
TMU: Who were the main songwriters in the band?
Al Berlanga: I was the primary music writer in the band. That included lyrics as well. I always was able to come up with heavy yet articulate riffs and figure a melody over that. Back then I was also heavily into harmony ala Iron Maiden so I always tried to inject that two guitar harmony feature into our sound.
Michael Vasquez: Albert and I were. Not just Albert. He wrote most of the music and I the lyrics. That's what broke up the band. There was a lot of tension between Albert and the rest of the band. He always felt that he never received the recognition he deserved for all that he contributed to the band. Kenneth played the parts he felt would fit the song as far as drumming went and Johnny and Julio pretty much just followed Al's lead. Albert is responsible for all that I know about music, and being able to carry a note today. The 'Guitar God' was in it's heyday back then and he like any other guitarist of that time wanted to fit that mold. Towards the end the bickering between he and I about the music direction and other issues just came to a head. We used to rehearse every other day without fail for 4 years straight. No bullshit. It took its toll on us. You would think that with all that rehearsing we would have had more songs.
TMU: I always thought the band had an original / unique sound. What were some musical influences?
Al Berlanga: Influences. There are too many and too varied from one guy to another. I was into Maiden, Rush, Sabbath with Dio, Al DiMeola. Mike was also a Maiden fan and a U2 nut. Johnny C. got into Slayer and Exciter, and Julio was into Priest. You could say that all of these artists were influences but when you're jamming, who knows.
Michael Vasquez: Thank you for the compliments on the band. We were all heavily influenced by Iron Maiden. I was very proud at the time that we could play any song off the first 3 albums by Maiden if you wanted us to. I was a big Kiss fan. Aerosmith and Cheap Trick were early influences as well and then I got into the metal stuff: Judas, Maiden, Saxon, etc. Once Metallica and Queensryche came along everything else went out the window and then Fates Warning and we were all hooked. Albert was a big Gary Moore fan and of course Yngwie or however you spell his name Malmsteen. Black Sabbath was one of Julio's favorite bands. Johnny really got into LA Slayer after we opened up for them at the Villa Fontana. I started working at Sound Warehouse in 1985 and from there my musical tastes just went nuts.
TMU: Where did Syrus record their demo? It sounds better than most of the demos around at the time. Do you remember how much it cost?
Al Berlanga: We recorded at several places. We had three or four demos but I think the bulk of it was recorded at Editpoint Studios. I don't even know if it is still there. We paid about the same per hour at just about all the places. EditPoint was by far the most professional for us at that time so we kept going back. I think if folks though it sounded better, it was only because we really were prepared before going in. Like every other band, money was in short supply so we made sure we would not waste time by not being able to pull off parts. At $25-$50 an hour your better have it together. We would book 3-4 hour sessions. We didn't want ear spank by spending all day and then finding out the next day that it sounded like shit in mixdown because your ears were shot.
Michael Vasquez: I don't know which demo you have and that I can't remember. I know we recorded one at Blue Cat Studios. We did some at Windsor Park Mall with the guy who helped out Wyzard, Gilbert Vallenzuela or Nip as he was known in those days. We also did some recordings at STARR studios? The last one I think was done in our practice room. I just found the reunion show tape and the last Syrus demo ever recorded. That one featured Pete Perez from Riot on bass and Tony Ramos on drums. Albert and I were the only original members on this recording. It was done in 1988, I think. The cost, don't know. I remember Buster from Wyzard being at one of the recording sessions for the vocals one time. Thanks for compliment as well about it being one of the better sounding ones. Wish I knew which one you had.
TMU: There are conflicting stories on the title of the demo. Was it self-titled or was it called S-777?
Al Berlanga: We had several demos. One we actually duplicated and sold. All it was ever called was Syrus. S-777??? I think that was Seagram and 7, straight up over 7 cubes of ice!
Michael Vasquez: Again, I would have to see the cover to find out which one you're referring to.
TMU: Do you have any live audio or video of the band from back then?
Al Berlanga: Man, we had some killer footage of some of the shows. One at the Cameo and another at BSA high school. But you lend them out and they never make their way back. Johnny C. might have some. We haven't spoken in 10+ years so I couldn't be sure. However, we all have photos.
Michael Vasquez: Yes, I just found the
reunion show tape and I'm in the process of getting the video back from one
of my friends. Albert mentioned the BSA video which I wish I could
get a hold of. I'm going to make some calls and see what I can find. I
know Johnny has it all, but I have not been able to find him.
I've called several friends and they don't have his number or know where he is
living at these days. Johnny is Syrus headquarters. I always
joke that the part of street where he lived and we rehearsed was
TMU: How long was Syrus together before you split up? What caused the break-up?
Al Berlanga: The band split the first time after 5-6 years together. I assume this is right since it was a while back. The second time was after a 2 year stint. We had signed to a euro label and put the band back together based on that. When it fell through, we went our separate ways. The original split really was in the making 1-2 years before it happened. A lot of friends didn't know because we didn't air issues outside the band. Probably musical direction and a lack of communication. Plus, as you get older, your views change from one another. I think loyalty issues arose as certain guys were replaced for others. For some of the guys like Mike, it turned out for the best. He went on to Petting Zoo and their local success. I played on for a while before getting "career" oriented. Julio just dropped out. He was going to a tech school and really enjoyed it. Johnny C. tried to carry the Syrus vibe for a while but the scene fell out. We only got together a second time to ride out the label signing. When it fell through, we split. But to be honest, I felt that the second version of the band had a lot of potential. The level of musicianship was much higher with the addition of Pete Perez on bass and Tony Ramos on drums. We also parted with Johnny C. and became a four piece. There wasn't that many bands at the time with the skill and precision combined with the power. We were supposed to do a european tour that I thought we would have killed. But it wasn't meant to be.
Michael Vasquez: I pretty much covered it in question 9. Julio quit after a bad fight we had one New Year's and I wanted to wait and give it some time before we auditioned other bass players hoping Julio would come back, but Albert was persistent in moving on. So we hired Henry who I did not like, not his fault, I just wanted Julio back, I didn't want to break up the core. Also about this time a weasel by the name of John Cortez who ran one of the production companies that put on shows at the Cameo Theater was hanging around with Al and telling the band the he could get us signed to Metal Blade records and other crap. He was driving a wedge between the band. Al, Johnny and the new guy Henry with John Cortez and Kenneth and I on the other side. I saw the signs that the end was near and Ray Balderama, as he was known then, had been making a name for himself as the hot new singer around, was fast becomming friends with the band, so I took it as my cue to quit so Ray could join the band and make them a stronger unit. John Cortez did have a hand in getting Ray, who would become Ray Alder, to join Fates Warning causing the initial breakup of Syrus.
TMU: Are you still in contact with other members of the band?
Al Berlanga: Mike and I are closer now than ever and Julio is the bassist in my cover act. Tony and Ken moved to the west coast sometime back. Tony is still a good friend but Ken has moved on.
Michael Vasquez: Albert was the best man at my wedding. Julio was also in the wedding party. After all was said and done and the bygones were bygone, I consider Albert, Johnny, Julio and Kenneth the brothers I never had. I love them. Johnny and Kenneth are the only ones I haven't really had any contact with in some time. It would be great to see Kenneth.
TMU: Do you still play music professionally or for fun?
Michael Vasquez: Yes, I'm in a wonderful cover band called 'The Suspects'. I love it. Julio and Al are also in a cover band together called Skye. I play every weekend. I'll email you a schedule.
TMU: Any thoughts on today’s metal scene or lack thereof?
Al Berlanga: It's back! The scene is here, it's just different. With acts like Godsmack, Tool, SOAD, Ozzy, and Disturbed, metal is back. I see it's in the bars now in cover acts. I haven't seen too many original bands recently and maybe that scene isn't what it used to be. But when your pushing 40, I don't know if I want to be moshing again. I like going to a bar and watching the local talent whilst enjoying a Shiner and throwing back some Rumplemintz. The girlz are purty too!!
I can't speak for
TMU: Thanks for the very informative interview Al & Michael!
Al Berlanga: Take care and let me know if we can help you with anything. Texas Metal was never underground!! GGRRRRR!