Donny Hillier of TRAUMA Discusses his Career and Cliff Burton in Trauma with Mark Dean of Madness To Creation

Donny Hillier of TRAUMA Discusses his Career and Cliff Burton in Trauma with Mark Dean of Madness To Creation

Contributor’s Note: Late 2020 will prove to be a busy time for first wave thrash metallists Trauma, as they will release their fourth full-length release overall, as well as touring throughout Europe on a bill also featuring Ross the Boss and Burning Witches. Comprising members Donny Hillier – lead vocals, Kris Gustofson – drums, Greg Christian – bass guitar, Joe Fraulob – guitars and Steve Robello – guitars, Trauma looks to build on the buzz created by their last album, 2018’s ‘As the World Dies.’ 

 “Trauma is currently considering what the album should be called,” explains Kris. “Usually for us we have to think about a theme/scope of the recorded songs and what it represents for the time now. Hopefully we will have something soon that makes sense for the recorded collection of tracks, It seems that the new record title may be a little similar in its title as to our last album, ‘As the World Dies’.” 

 And the group can’t wait to kick off their first substantial European tour. “Trauma is very much looking forward to touring with Ross the Boss and Burning Witches in the fall. Honestly, we cannot wait to hit the stage. The only other time Trauma played in Europe was at the Headbangers Open Air Festival. The fans seemed to really like our performance that day. We played for 90 minutes! The stage manager had to let us know that we needed to stop, but the crowd wanted to keep listening to us which was great. We are looking very forward to getting back over to Europe. We had other opportunities in the past to do so, however the timing just wasn’t right. We are hopeful that it will be on in November 2020. So far so good.”

 Originally formed in 1981 in San Francisco, Trauma was part of the same scene that gave the world such thrash notables as Exodus, Metallica, and Testament. And the band’s original bassist was none other than the late/legendary Cliff Burton (who would later join Metallica). 1984 saw the release of the group’s debut album, ‘Scratch and Scream,’ before the band parted in 1985. But in 2013, Trauma reunited, and have been back in business ever since. 

 “Trauma’s future plans are to finish recording the new album, then have it released and do as much touring behind it as possible. We are always playing around with new ideas for songs, and own a studio to record in. As long as there is interest in the band we will keep putting out new music and perform live. It is really up to the fans, which we thank very much for keeping this alive for us. Without them this would not be possible. The new album is going to be much heavier in terms of songs, tempo, changes, etc. ‘As the World Dies’ was a good album. But here we are in 2020, so we are trying to up our game and play with more fire utilizing faster guitar riffs and drums. We believe this will be a great  album for Trauma.” 

 And in the fall, European metalheads will get an opportunity to experience Trauma live on stage. “We always hit the stage like it will be our last time. We always hit it hard, putting all the best songs in the set list, making certain no stone goes unturned. Our idols are Sabbath, Zeppelin, Priest, Maiden, and many others. So we try and always make the experience a memorable one for everyone. We pour our hearts and souls into the Trauma set. Not compromising in any way. Fans are in for a METAL FEAST!!!” 

I caught up with vocalist Donny Hillier of Trauma for Madness To Creation to discuss the band’s musical history,past ,present and also future.  Fans can find Trauma at the following locations:

www.traumametal.com

www.facebook.com/TraumaThrash

www.twitter.com/Trauma_TheBand

www.instagram.com/traumametal

Mark Dean:  Good afternoon-. I just wondered, how are you spending your time currently ? It’s a surreal time for the world at large right now. 

Donny: Okay. Well, for the most part right now because we’re writing songs for an album that we’ve got studio time booked for early July, I’m spending a lot of my time writing lyrics to songs that the two guitar players are feeding me the music on. And by the time I start writing lyrics, usually Kris, the drummer and Greg, the bass player have already done their parts as well. That’s if Joe writes the song, but if the other guitarist, Steve writes the song, then he is pretty much doing the drums virtually and the bass guitar and all the guitars. So to answer your question, long answer, I realize, I am spending a lot of time writing lyrics to the songs and then we’re doing demos on every song. We’ve done six so far in a matter of about three or four weeks.

Mark Dean:  Do you find that what’s going on around the world, obviously, the civil unrest you have in America, the pandemic situation, is obviously influencing your writing?

Donny:  Absolutely. Yeah. Definitely. Some of what we do is social commentary and then occasionally there’s a song that’s really not like that, it’s more back to the sword and sorcery or warfare kind of thing. But no, there are songs in this batch of tunes about the social unrest and of course, not every member of the band feels the same way about everything, but we pretty well have a consensus. America definitely is divided right now. Everything is political now: the virus, even down to if people are going to wear a mask or not when they go into a public place. There’s so much division right now that it’s something I really never thought I would see.

Mark Dean: Trauma as a band, you formed way back, 1981, I think the band first got together.

Donny:  Yes.

Mark Dean:  I’m sure you’ve been asked this many times. Of course, part of that lineup was Cliff Burton who went on to play with Metallica.

Donny:  Right.

Mark Dean:  I just wondered if you could just talk briefly about how he was? How did you first connect? What did he bring to the band? Was it clear how talented he was as a musician way back then?

Donny:  Okay. All right. So I had moved to California just several months before meeting the Trauma band members. And I had gotten quickly into an original band and we were playing some shows around and we played a show in Hayward, California, which is just south of Oakland. And I did my set and two guys approached me, and one was Mike Overton, who was one of the founders of Trauma. And I think the other was Tiger, who is the other guitarist, another founding member. And they said they hadn’t heard a metal band called all Trauma. And at the time I was kind of doing a hard rock thing. I really hadn’t discovered heavy metal other than hearing a bit of it, but my background was hard rock and a devout Led Zeppelin fan at the time. But the British new wave was something I was just starting to discover. 

And so they asked me if I’d be interested in talking about jamming. And I was, I really liked both of those guys from the get go. And so the next thing was several days later, I was in my apartment in Oakland and we’d arranged for the four members of the band to come meet me. So you were asking about Cliff specifically, but the guys came walking down the hallway. I met him at the door and I think Cliff was like the last one to come into my apartment and everybody was all cool. It was really a good thing. So there’s this tall thin flaming red hair dude, just a nice vibe. And he had his trademark blue jeans on, bell bottoms and denim jacket.

And it was just a really nice meeting. And soon after that, probably within days, I went and jammed with them and we immediately knew we all wanted to work together. And so my first impression of Cliff was really good. And the whole band had a nice vibe and we were out playing quickly, probably within four or five, six weeks. We were out playing shows and that was an original band. So we were working pretty hard and it was immediately apparent that he was very talented. And Cliff was, in those days, kind of a quiet, cool presence. But at the same time it was obvious that music was his life and he was very talented. And I knew that he practiced hours every day and it was just a pleasure being with him.

Mark Dean:  And then Trauma released the debut album in 1984 and split up in ’85. What happened? What went wrong?

Donny:  Okay. I would say we kind of imploded, we had done some shows down in LA. We had played all around the Bay Area and the showcase clubs repeatedly. Things were going pretty well. Cliff left, which of course slowed us down. Also, our original drummer left, but he was replaced by Kris Gustofson, who’s still in Trauma today. And so some personal problems among band members and a couple of band members moved away. And so it was hard to maintain, although originally it was like, “Oh, yeah, we’ll get together, and, yeah, we’ll still do shows.” 

But the other thing was, we didn’t have management at that time. We had a manager who was kind of a mover and shaker, but he also had made some enemies of people and so the band no longer wanted to work with him. So we had management from  Shrapnel Records’ Mike Varney, that’s not his cup of tea. He doesn’t manage bands, he releases the albums and his PR was nonexistent. Our PR was nonexistent. There was no internet at the time, so although we found out later that some people in Europe and around North America really liked the band, we didn’t really have very good lines of communication and that may have made a difference, but there were a lot of reasons, Mark. And so it was just untenable to continue going. 

And I was being recruited by another band that had some label interest and money behind them. And everybody had had their own thing going. Kris went to LA and became a part of that scene and did a number of US tours with a band, went to Europe and played with Marc Kohler from Krokus. And it just imploded, I guess, is the right word.

Mark Dean:  What about yourself then? Did you continue in the music business? Where you totally fed up with it and got out and went and did something else? What did you do in those 30 odd years before the band reunited or got back together?

Donny:  Okay. So what I did was I went to another Bay Area band and played a lot of shows around the Bay with them. And they were an up and coming band and I was with them for about three years. And then through musical differences, I left that band and they were a little back to more of the hard rock, almost like a hair band kind of thing. And I was heavy metal and that didn’t work out. And then that led to me actually not doing anything serious for a long time. I got married, I bought a house, I had children, I worked for a corporation and after a while of that, I really missed it. But I kind of spent enough time away from the music industry that it was almost like starting over. 

I did a lot of pickup bands, played with just some demo tape kind of things when I could, I was really busy. And so, although I kept my hand in it, nothing very serious until about three years before Trauma reunited, I got into a band that did a couple of albums and never really went anywhere, but it got me back in the recording studio and regular rehearsals and playing live shows. And then Kris and I found that we were both available at the same time, which hadn’t happened for a few decades because of his world traveling. And so we recruited local musicians and reunited Trauma. So that was it, that was something that I think Kris and I had always wanted to do, and we kept in touch with each other and we’ll talk about it, but it just wasn’t manageable until that point.

Mark Dean:  What was it like then recording the first Trauma album back together again, Rapture, in 2015? I’m sure that must’ve been a strange experience being back there in the studio with Kris again.

Donny:  Well, of course we had had a false start on that because Steve Robello, who is actually one of the guitar players in the current lineup, he and a guitarist named Kurt Fry were going to be the new guitar players, but Steve had to drop out pretty much soon after we started getting going with them learning the Scratch and Scream album music and all of that. So we went down to one guitar and that’s Kurt Fry. And he’s a very veteran touring and studio guitarist, and really able to hold his own in a one guitar band. 

But it was different, that wasn’t the original Trauma sound. It wasn’t the sound that we actually wanted to have at that time. So I would say the Rapture and Wrath album is kind of almost a hybrid metal-hard rock album. And we worked with what we had at the time as far as the lineup. And was it a strange experience? I guess I knew Kurt well enough and Kris well enough that it really wasn’t strange, it was kind of a natural thing, but it felt good to be back with musicians who are serious about what they’re doing.

Mark Dean:  And of course, obviously then Trauma has brought out two albums since that. Have those albums that… I think it’s a total of three now since you got back together. Are those albums put on the same label? Have they used different labels for each release?

Donny:  It’s been two albums, Mark, since we got back together: Rapture and Wrath and As The World Dies and they have both been on the same label and that is Pure Steel out of Germany. 

And we released a single, that was the first song that we recorded when Greg Christian joined the band.

Mark Dean:  So obviously you got a new lineup now. It’s billed as a bit of a supergroup. How do you view that? Are these guys like Greg, who you’ve known for quite some time or do   you have a bit of a mix of old and new musicians in there? What about the band lineup as it is now?

Donny:  The current lineup, I think we’ve been together about three years now, and Greg was kind of the missing piece. We’ve got Steve Robello, who actually went over to Germany with us and played at the HOA Headbangers Festival on bass guitar because our bass guitarist at the time could not get a passport at the last minute. So Steve came in on bass. And since then he’s been a regular member of the band, but as a guitarist, which is his natural instrument. So Steve’s background is he played around the United States with a band called Heist. And then he was a part of a band called Dublin Death Patrol, which was fronted by both Chuck Billy and Steve “Zetro” Souza. And they did a couple of albums and they did a couple of European tours. So Steve is one of the core members. 

And then the other guitarist who replaced Kurt actually is Joe Fraulob and Joe is very well known around Northern California and beyond. He did a stint with Danzig, I’m going to guess about 10 years ago, I’m not sure about that. And he had a band called Deconstruct, which was kind of his brainstorm. And so Joe is the other guitarist. They’re both lead guitarists and they share lead guitar duties and songwriting and rhythm guitar duties. They work really well together. And of course Greg and most people know Greg and he’s toured the world extensively with Testament. So I’ve seen that super group label. We don’t really think of ourselves that way, but they’re all very veteran musicians and they’re all very comfortable on the big stage and in the studio. So it’s great to have that level of talent.

Mark Dean:  So hopefully your schedule will run according to plan, you’ve got your album release. I saw you had a European tour scheduled for September, is that still correct?

Donny:  It’s not September, it may have been at one time, but because of the virus, those dates are now… they’re booked down to cities and venues and dates, but it would start in mid-November and go to, I think, through the first week of December as it stands right now.

Mark Dean:  Is it true, again according to the press release, that you’ve only previously played in Europe just once at that festival. Is that correct? 

Donny:  That was just a one off that that festival had contacted us about a year before we actually went and did the show. But it was, like I said, a one off, but it was fun for us to do it, to get over to Germany. And we spent close to a week over there and had a very good time. We were in the Hamburg area.

Mark Dean:  I saw, again, from the European tour, a list of dates, there is nothing scheduled in the UK. Was that intentional? Or did you actually have shows there penciled in for a later date?

Donny:  I know.

Mark Dean:  Why not?

Donny:  Boy, I know. Everybody in the band would love to play in the UK. We had a tour scheduled for the UK and I’m going to say that was about a year ago, I don’t know. Time flies, but maybe it was more than six months. I think we had about 10 dates actually booked.

Mark Dean:  Yeah. I remember reading that, I think it was about… I’ve actually got a note here, UK tour, possibly 2018, around then. I do remember reading something arranged for that time.

Donny:  Yeah. Right. Well, we had a management change and new management didn’t think financially it was a good idea without a new album to support As The World Dies, being a few years old and a lot of people hadn’t discovered it. So we have a better team right now as far as the management promotion team. So it was decided that we go back to the rehearsal studio, produce a new album and then link that with a tour with a better network and better contacts than we had at that time. But we were pretty disappointed about not going to the UK. Most of those dates were like within a very, very close distance of London. And I really hope we do that again because the UK has produced the bands that are our main influences.

Mark Dean:  Just a couple then to finish. How do you keep your voice so powerful after all these years? Do you have any special training that you follow?

Donny:  I do have voice exercises that I do, I will say in some of the layoffs, you can develop bad habits if you don’t stay on top of it, but mostly it’s about breathing and delivery of course. And so I went back and had a few refresher sessions with a very respected opera teacher and singer herself here in the Bay Area and she got me back on track. And so the short answer is that doing some exercises and keeping your breathing disciplined.

Mark Dean:  Just a final one, many of your musical peers from the ’80s: Testament, Overkill, Metallica, Exodus, they’re all still touring, they’re all still releasing albums. I just wondered if you could sum up the enduring, the pain of thrash metal as a musical genre? Why is it so popular after all these years?

Donny:  Well, you’re right. They have continued consistently to produce and tour and, well… Excuse me, it’s a good question because of course, mainstream is pop and hip hop and country and you name it, but there are enough people in the world that just metal excites them. The thrash metal is bombastic, energetic. That’s the way I am and possibly you is, that music it just electrifies me and the power of it. And so I think that’s it. Those are good bands with good talent. And they’re powerful and the crowd loves that power. And that’s what I think it is. What do you think?

Mark Dean:  It’s hard to define. I started off into metal, I’ve diversified in terms of what I like to listen to as I get older, but I still like all that classic, like you said, that hard hitting stuff, like Testament, Overkill, Slayer. It’s something that just doesn’t go away.

Donny:  Yeah. It’s just like your nerves come alive and on top of that I love the new wave of British heavy metal. I love Iron Maiden, Judas Priest. So many bands, but that’s it for me, that stuff just makes me feel alive, all of it and the guitars and the pounding drums.

Mark Dean:  That’s brilliant. Thank you very much. As I said, good luck getting the album together.  Hopefully, you’ll get those European dates played and maybe some UK ones added in the future.

Donny:  Oh God, yeah. And I know our management really wants us to play in the UK and I just look forward to that and I look forward to meeting you face to face and it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for taking the time. And I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to know more about you, but-

Mark Dean:  That’s all right. As I said, once the album’s released, maybe we can talk again.

Donny:  I would love to do that, yeah.

Mark Dean:  Brilliant. Thank you very much for chatting. Take care.

Donny:  Thank you so much, Mark. And you take care also.

And there you have it!  Fans can check out Mark Dean at the following locations:

www.facebook.com/Mark-Dean-Media-Journalist

www.twitter.com/deanojou

www.instagram.com/deanojou

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