Gorilla Biscuits to Dead Heavens: Walter Schreifels' life in music

A collage of images of Walter Schriefels' albums

Walter Schreifels has led a storied life. Inspired by the fledgling New York hardcore scene of the mid-late 80s, Schreifels’ musical career began when he and his high school friends banded together to form Gorilla Biscuits in 1987 – a band who would become NYHC legends in their own right. From there, he went on to form the agenda-setting post-hardcore group Quicksand, before helping to spearhead the emo boom of the early 2000s with the MTV-approved emo-rock group Rival Schools.

Having been keeping himself busy for the past couple of years with alt-rock “supergroup” Vanishing Life, Schreifels is now preparing himself to unveil Whatever Witch You Are, the debut record from his newest band Dead Heavens. A mix of blues-rock and stoner-friendly psych which lends more than a passing debt to Black Sabbath and the blues-inspired heavy rock that came out of Britain in the 60s and 70s, it’s a complete change of pace from what’s come before, while still remaining quintessentially Schreifels.

Below, we catch up with Schreifels to get the inside story of his life in music, from where it all began to what the future might hold.

Do you remember what the first album was that got you interested in making music?

That’s tough to say, might have been Got Live If You Want It! by The Rolling Stones. Great photos on the record sleeve and [it] sounded like they were having fun.

What was the first band you ever joined? Any before Youth Of Today and Gorilla Biscuits?

My first band was called The Rodents, formed when I was 13. Our big song was called Reagan Youth, before I had heard of the band by the same name. This was a few years before Gorilla Biscuits.

What drew you to get involved in the NYHC scene?

Once I discovered hardcore music, all other interests were shelved. Hardcore at that time was the coolest, and I wanted to know everything about it. It sounded so shitty and raw at that time, it made The Damned sound like top 40.

As you remember it, how did those bands come to be? Can you talk us through the story of Gorilla Biscuits forming, and of what it was like to step into a fairly established band like Youth Of Today?

GB came together because I could play guitar and wanted to form a hardcore band to play CB’s. My clique of people were the new kids on the scene and were stepping into the world of Agnostic Front (AF), Cro-Mags and Murphy’s Law – the originators of NYHC. At first we were going for a Decendents meets AF approach, but eventually became more influenced by Youth Of Today (YOT) and 7Seconds. Joining YOT was a dream come true, they were my favourite all around hardcore band at the time. I joined right before the first YOT US tour, [which] was an incredible experience.

What are your favourite memories from that scene in the late 80s?

“The variety of people and musical styles. The scene at its peak included all the classes and ethnicities of New York. Plus all the punk archetypes too; crass punks, skinheads, hip-hop kids, straight edge, skaters and goths. It was a great mix of people and ideas. Unfortunately that balance didn’t last long – maybe a couple of summers – but it was great while it did.”

If you had to pick one record from this time in your musical career to point people towards, what would it be and why?

Start Today [by Gorilla Biscuits] is my best from that time of course – it tells the whole story. Also, it was how I learned to make records and write songs.”

You then moved onto form Quicksand, which represented a shift in direction for you. What inspired that change of pace?

“The scene had become too violent and, musically, I was ready to move on. With the help of my bandmates, we took what we thought was the best of the hardcore energy and opened up the musical possibilities. People in the scene got it and many more outside the scene.”

Of the two LPs, which do you feel was Quicksand’s key release?

“I couldn’t say; they’re part of the same thing. The second [Manic Compression, 1995] is a reaction to the first [Slip, 1993].”

Rumours have been circulating since 2013 that new material could be forthcoming. Can you confirm/deny these once and for all?

“Can’t confirm or deny.”

Will Moondog ever be properly released?

“No plans for that – I’m happy where it is for the time being.”

You wrote and produced the first CIV record, Set Your Goals. What made you decide to not be an official member?

“I was in Quicksand at the time and was concerned that I would be in a contractual conflict between the record labels. I wasn’t so interested in touring with CIV anyways, as I was already touring a ton with Quicksand. For me it was about making the record, I wanted to get Civ back out there and revisit GB style songwriting in a new context.”

Can you tell us a bit about World’s Fastest Car – having heard various songs that leaked online it looks like you had nearly an album’s worth of material?

“Most of this material ended up as Rival Schools – WFC was the working name of the band. I was making demos for Island records, where I was signed at the time.”

Then you moved onto Rival Schools, which was arguably your “biggest” band – especially over in the UK. Did you know you were on the verge of something exciting there?

“I was happy with the success, especially in the UK. In truth, Quicksand was “bigger” (in the US), but not in a pop kind of way – that was how Rival Schools was different. We had more acceptance from NME and MTV, which was nice, so we reached a new and wider group of people that way.”

Despite United By Fate’s popularity, the band was short-lived. Can you tell us what was going on around then within the band, and what spurred the decision not to continue?

“Our guitar player left at our peak which kind of took some wind out of our sails internally. Outside of that, we had done a lot of touring and I think we were all burned out from it. In retrospect I wish we had taken some time to better consider the possibilities of keeping it going, but I’m also accepting that things go the way they’re meant to, by fate.”

Rival Schools’ second record was released after being kept back for many years – can you tell us about what was happening around that time, and what you did with these recordings to get them fit for release?

“These were demos for a second record, Island in the US were dragging their feet and eventually we ran out of steam. There’s some good songs there, but these recordings were not meant for release. I’m happy they’re out now though.”

Reunion album Pedals came out a couple of years before “second” album Found – was Pedals, in fact, the second album you always wanted to make?

“I didn’t have a mission like that. Pedals was made because we were all up for it at that time and those were the songs we came with. It didn’t get as much attention as UBF, but I think it’s a great record and we had fun making it.”

Do you have any regrets about Rival Schools not continuing for longer?

“In the sense that we were on a bit of a roll it would have made sense to take advantage, but I wasn’t feeling that at the time so there’s no point in regretting – things happen the way they do. I’m just grateful for the fun we had and that the music is still meaningful to people.”

You then went on to record an album with Walking Concert, and later some solo work. Where did you see your musical career heading at that point?

“I wanted to get out of the rat race of the major label scene at that time and the “emo” paradigm I had found myself in with Rival Schools. I also wanted to be more independent in my decision making, less band oriented. The Walking Concert record [Run To Be Born, 2004] and my solo record [An Open Letter To The Scene, 2010] are both great in my opinion. They didn’t gather the same audiences as my prior work, but I’m still very proud of the music.”

You then went on to form Vanishing Life, which was widely referred to as a “supergroup”. How did you feel about that term?

I love Vanishing Life, Surveillance is one of my best records, [and it] got me into playing big, aggressive music again. I’m really happy with my lyrics on the record, too. We’re planning to do more. The supergroup thing only means it’s tougher for us to get together to play live with so many varied schedules. Any rate, I’m very proud of this record and band.”

How did it feel to not be responsible for writing the songs?

“I wrote three of the songs on the album including the opening track Realist. I was happy to have two other guys writing complete songs that I was inspired to write lyrics for. I’d say there was less pressure in that regard, but I still wrote a good share of the material.”

Was it a sort-of relief, or did you miss having that level of input?

“I think it may have been misrepresented how much I was involved in the writing, because I wrote all the vocals and a fair share of the music. It was nice to have my bandmates coming with complete song ideas and writing to them as a vocalist only, that’s an approach I hadn’t taken very much in the past.”

Do you guys have any plans to record anything else soon?

“We’re planning a recording session in a couple weeks from now, so yes, and I’m expecting greatness.”

Now, Dead Heavens have just released a new record. What’s the story behind that band getting together?

“Dead Heavens formed after a solo tour that I did. On the tour my then-backing band took a heavier approach, which led me to the Dead Heavens sound. I wanted to make blues rock/psych music, and found the exact right people to do it with.

You’ve been playing together in various guises since 2013 – what made you decide to record your debut now?

“The record was recorded last year, we got a little stalled on the artwork and I wanted to make time for Vanishing Life. In that time we’ve released four 7” singles, so we’ve been busy enough anyways. We also play locally and in California quite a bit – now’s the time for a full-length.”

Musically, Dead Heavens seems to represent another shift in sound for you. Do you feel that’s a fair assessment, and if so, what made you decide to drift towards a more bluesy, psychedelic sound?

“Yes, I’m always pursuing new sounds. I’ve been a fan of blues rock and psych since I was a teenager, so that side of me has been there just waiting to get out. I learned to play lead guitar for this.”

Given the musical history of the band’s members, people might be surprised by the direction the band has taken. What would you say to those expecting something entirely different?

“Getting something different is the fun; I find making that adjustment to the unexpected is what great records do for me, it can reveal deeper levels, twists and turns.”

What were your key influences/inspirations when recording the new record?

“Definitely digging into classic rock, but also more contemporary bands like White Fence, also shoegaze. Graveyard from Sweden was also an inspiration, Dungen too. The MBV record [by My Bloody Valentine] was a shared favourite. We’re also fans of porto-metal bands like The Damnation Of Adam Blessing.”

What do you think the future holds for the band, and for you as a musician?

“I’ll be touring with Dead Heavens throughout the year and developing more new material. I’m planning to keep moving forward as a musician. I still find it infinitely interesting to write and record songs, play live, travel and hang with my friends. It’s the perfect job for me.”

Dead Heavens’ new album, Whatever Witch You Are, is released on 7th July via Dine Alone Records.

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Briony Edwards

Briony is the Editor in Chief of Louder and is in charge of sorting out who and what you see covered on the site. She started working with Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Prog magazines back in 2015 and has been writing about music and entertainment in many guises since 2009. She is a big fan of cats, Husker Du and pizza.