Type O Negative’s Peter Steele: ‘I’m an old man having his last fucking tantrum.’

On May 13, 2005, the world of heavy music was shaken to its very foundations by rumours that founding Type O Negative frontman and bassist Pete Steele was dead. The only clue as to the news’ veracity was an enigmatic image posted on the official Type O Negative web site: an illustrated tombstone that read read ‘Peter Steele, 1962-2005’. For anyone who knew anything about Pete Steele or his music, the understated epitaph spoke volumes. It said, simply: ‘Free At Last’. It was a tragically fitting postscript on a famously cheerless existence. Sure, Pete Steele was a musical visionary whose trademark baritone and gallows humour fused a language of love and loss with gothically-tinged, Sabbath-loving sounds to create one of the 90s most successful yet inimitable metal bands. But Pete Steele’s life was also one plagued by personal loss, bouts of severe depression, and an outlook so exuberantly free of any kind of optimism, that all anyone could really do was laugh at it. Not out of ridicule, but in knowing agreement that you haven’t lost everything if you still have your sense of humour.

The news wasn’t without its sepulchral portents. Type O Negative’s autumn 2004 tour had just been cancelled due to a medical exam that revealed certain ‘anomalies’ in Steele’s health according to a statement released by the band’s management. So it was a relief when Type O drummer Johnny Kelley stated in a February, 2005 update that, “there really isn’t much to report other than he’s doing fine and his health is improving daily.” But it suddenly looked as if the sticksman had spoken too soon, and the metal world was left with only Type O’s last album to make sense of the loss, 2003’s aptly-titled Life Is Killing Me. Eerily, it seemed to forecast its creator’s ostensibly gloomy demise with songs like I Don’t Wanna Be Me and indeed, The Dream Is Dead. 

(Image credit: Daniel Boczarski/Redferns)

“Aah, that was all bullshit,” laughs Steele in his thick, low-octave Brooklyn drawl. “The tour was cancelled because of internal problems in the band. It would not be correct for me to get into because of my relationship with the guys. That was not my doing but somebody had to come up with some excuse. Of course, being the biggest member of the band I was the biggest target, so I’m getting these emails like ‘I hope you get better’ and then when it got out I was alive it was, ‘I hope you fucking die asshole.’” 

As Steele tells it, the tombstone was meant to be a prank hatched by keyboardist Josh Silver to announce the end of Type O’s relationship with longtime label Roadrunner Records and their subsequent signing to SPV (“They’ve always treated us fairly but friendship doesn’t pay the bills,” he says of the move). The hitch? Silver’s original idea was to depict four tombstones – one for each member of the band, aka ‘The Drab Four’. Steele can’t explain why only his tombstone was used, but not everyone was amused. Among them, a judge who Steele is legally bound to see from time to time due to what he describes as ‘legal problems.’ 

“He happens to be a Type O Negative fan and he sent the cops to my house to see if I was dead or not,” says Steele, chuckling. “I told Josh, ‘man, you have no idea what you’ve just done – you’ve just upset the New York State Supreme Court! I think it’s fucking funny too but tell me if you’re going to do that sometime!’ And then the judge is like, ‘do you think this is funny?’ I had to plead the fifth,” he laughs.

It’s a rare moment of levity in a conversation that frequently veers toward melancholy, heartbreak, and the tales of loss that have laced Type O’s music ever since the release of their 1991 debut Slow Deep And Hard, an autobiographical account of Steele’s failed romances, first darkened the world with its slinking, funereal dirges. As for those legal problems he mentioned, it sounds like Steele’s luck hasn’t changed.

“I had an altercation with someone…” he says, pausing as if waiting for a rimshot, “over a woman of course. As anyone with an IQ will tell you, women are the basis of all wars on fuckin’ Earth. Only men start wars and you know why? Because they want more land and they want more money, because when you get more power you get more pussy. Maybe that sounds sexist but I am a sexist, OK? I hate men. I hate competition. I love women. I come from a family of five aunts, five sisters and five nieces. You know what? I love it. I’m this little piece of testosterone floating in an oestrogen sea.”

But it may be that Steele is overstating his case for happiness a bit. As he confesses, even Type O Negative’s sixth offering, their soon-to-be released Dead Again album, still bespeaks his extreme disappointment in, well… pretty much every arena. He’s just celebrated the holidays, not forgetting his 45th birthday on January 4th. Happy birthday, Pete.

“Yeah, thanks,” he says. “The 45th anniversary of getting kicked out of the best place that I have ever lived. I had an indoor pool, free food…”

Sitting in his Brooklyn home – the basement of his parents’ house – into which he famously ‘kicked a mattress down the stairs and never looked back’ when he was 19, Steele’s detachedly watching the news as he says he does every morning, ‘just to find out if any of my family members have been murdered’, he says without a hint of irony. “I sure fucking hope so after these last holidays. I’m having some family problems right now. My mother passed away which is not like a pity-party for me, but this is really the first year where I felt the impact of her being gone.”

It’s the matter-of-fact way that he reveals such a tremendous loss that says everything of the numb detachment with which Steele now accepts such tragedy in his life. His mother died in 2005, but he confesses he was still in a state of shock and supreme devastation by the year’s end and it wasn’t really until 2006 that he first came to grips with his loss. 

“My mother held my family together,” says Steele, his voice cracking slightly and the hurried, New York pace of his words slowing a bit. “I hate to sound positive but I try to concentrate not on the love that’s been lost but the love that’s been gained. All my sisters and nieces… I just try to transfer. Since she’s been gone there’s been some dissension and falling apart. I like to say blood is thicker than water but it’s harder to clean up.”

(Image credit: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

One of the ways that Steele coped was – in a move that left everyone expecting a 2005 Type O release scratching their head – his decision to reform his pre-Type O 80s thrash-band Carnivore in order to play a handful of dates around the US along with European festival appearances. A far cry from the snarling guitars and mournful, funereal dirges of Type O, Carnivore was a short-lived, animal skin-clad outfit formed from the ruins of Steele’s previous band, Fallout. Its two releases, 1985’s self-titled debut and 1987’s Retaliation were hardly major successes and Carnivore would soon disband, leaving Steele to form Subzero in 1989 after a two-year stint working for the New York City Parks Department. Subzero would soon be renamed Type O Negative. It wasn’t long before Steele’s new band would release their second album, 1991’s Bloody Kisses. The follow-up to their controversially misanthropic 1990 Slow Deep And Hard album, ‘…Kisses’ would go platinum, catapult parent-label Roadrunner into the big-time, and make Type O Negative a metal household name by the time their magnum opus, 1996’s October Rust, was released. It’s enough to make you wonder why Steele would invest himself in a Carnivore reformation and not Type O.

“The other guys in Type O are married, they have kids,” explains Steele. “I’m not married and I don’t have kids, at least I think I don’t, so I have a lot more time. I don’t want to do nothing, so I contacted these friends of many years to see if they wanted to do Carnivore for fun and profit, emphasis on fun.”

Why not just rally the troops and press ahead with Type O Negative?

“Look, I’m really pissed off about being 45-years-old,” says Steele, leaving no doubt as to his dismay at the development. “I’m like an old man having his last fucking tantrum. It was like being 25 again. It’s a sonic release. I have a type-A personality where I hold things in and then someone steps on my toe and hits them over the head with a fucking cinder block. I’ve always made it known to the guys that Type O comes first. So whenever we have time we play and go home with 20 bucks in our pockets. OK, I lied. 25 bucks.”

But there was a point last year where Steele’s disillusionment with his personal state of affairs lead him to question the very purpose of pressing on with anything. The death of his mother, to him, was the last kick in the teeth following a long period spent in doomed relationships and coping with what he describes as the two great evils in life: having too much time, and having too much money. 

“The death of my mother was probably the worst thing that ever happened to me. That also came into play with making Dead Again. I won’t compliment myself and say I’m creative. But I guess for one year my motto was ‘for what?’ Why should I do this, why should I play, why should I eat, why should I go to rehearsal, for what?”

But it was with the help of Carnivore providing the creative vent that Steele was finally able to channel his more refined sensibilities back into Type O Negative – a kind of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde interplay that gave him the balance he needed. It’s an artistic process that he likens to ‘taking a shit into a CD player’, but for Steele it’s apparent it’s about more than that. It’s from the heart.

“I have issues with love and I have issues with loss,” he says. “They’ve been a running theme in my life, whether it’s 1990 or 2007. If I love someone and all of a sudden they meet someone else and they fucking leave without any explanation I feel like a dick. Because I’ve just been with them for 10 fucking years and they wake up one day and say their feelings have changed?” he says, sounding choked up. This is no random anecdote. He clears his throat and continues. “If I had my way I would handle things differently, but there are very few reasons to… live? Or for going to jail. I’ve recently realised that it’s much better to die for something than to live for something. I’m just looking for a reason to die.”

It’s that grim outlook on love that’s inspired much of the lyrical content on Dead Again, not to mention the picture of Rasputin on the cover, one of Steele’s heroes alongside Madonna (‘she fucked her way to the top but now she’s laughing herself all the way to the sperm bank’) and eccentric AC power inventor Nicola Tesla (‘very hip fucking guy’). 

“Rasputin… they couldn’t kill him,” he says, admiringly. “The guy was a monk. He was an alcoholic. He was a womaniser. He was a brawler. And he had a big fucking dick. I was like, ‘man I’ve got like five out of six here. I don’t have a big dick but I am a big dick.’ So that’s ‘Dead Again.’”

It sounded like you were referring to an actual heartbreak just then.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “This is something that actually ended in the year 2000, and like I said I do not deal well with loss. Even though it’s almost seven years later I’m really still not over it. I don’t know who this fucking idiot was who said it was better to love and lose than to not have loved at all? I’d like to kick that guy in the fucking balls. You know what? It’s not worth it, man. It’s not. Fucking. Worth it.”

Are you still taking anti-depressants?

“Actually yeah, I take Prozac,” he says. “I’ve been taking it for over 10 years now. When I do lapse and I stop taking it I definitely feel the difference. I’ve felt severely depressed all my life and I’ve never known why. I can say I’m not the worst looking guy in the world. I’ve got a couple of halfway decent bands. How can I be so fucking depressed? I almost feel like a fucking ingrate.”

Steele’s theory is that he gets it from his mother (“I’m not blaming my parents,” he’s quick to add). He recently learned that just before his mother conceived Steele, Steele’s maternal grandmother passed away in her arms, leaving her shattered and leading to a heavy regimen of what were euphemistically referred to as ‘tranquilisers’ during her pregnancy. This could have possibly had the same effect on Steele’s production of ‘happy chemicals’ – in the same way steroids affect bodybuilders. He hasn’t asked his psychiatrist because, sadly, “who would listen to a fucking maniac?”

But it seems that Steele’s strongest crutch remains his music, and for now at least, it’ll keep him going when everything else in his life remains in its perpetual state of depressed disarray.

“One last thing,” he says. “When people hear that I may have killed myself or something like that, Kurt Cobain is also one of my heroes. I think it takes a lot of courage to jump off a cliff without a parachute. Not that he did that, but metaphorically. There are a couple of reasons that I wouldn’t kill myself. The first one is I’m waiting for the punchline for life. It’s like, you know, everything is just a black joke. That is not a racist statement by the way. And secondly I live to irritate people who fucking hate me.”

Here’s to hoping that people continue to hate Pete Steele for a long time to come. 

Originally published in Metal Hammer 163