Back To The Past (30):

Now this is going to be a story that every devoted metalhead should read very carefully. We had the chance to talk to Debbie Gunn (real name Debbie Gunderson), who was the amazing frontlady of SENTINEL BEAST. After that period of time, Debbie fronted ZNOWHITE, another US metal outfit from the eighties. Last but not least, Debbie was also a member of ICE AGE, the great all-female metal band from Sweden, who never really got the recognition, they deserved so much. Can you beat that, a woman who fronted three of the greatest metal bands? No wonder, she’s got a lot to tell us. We’d like to thank former SENTINEL BEAST bandmate and ex-FLOTSAM & JETSAM guitarist Michael Spencer for all his help with this interview. We owe you one! OK, read on and get to know all in ‘ins and outs’ of SENTINEL BEAST, ZNOWHITE and ICE AGE, in this exclusive Metal Maidens interview with Debbie Gunn. You’ll be amazed!

When did you start your musical career and did you play in any other bands before you joined SENTINEL BEAST?
“I actually started playing music at the age of ten. I got my first instrument, a clarinet. I later went on to play the trumpet and saxophone. I was fifteen, when I played in my first rock band called SAPPHIRE. I also played in various other garage bands until forming SENTINEL BEAST in 1984.”

In which year was SENTINEL BEAST formed and how did you get together as a band?
“Michael Spencer and I formed SENTINEL BEAST in 1984, after having written a few songs together. We hooked up with Scott Awes, Barry Fischel, and Greg Williams. We went through a bit of a line up change before landing Mark Koyasako on guitars.”

Who came up with the name SENTINEL BEAST and why did you actually choose this name?
“It all happened by accident. Mike and I were looking for a name, when he came up with the word SENTINEL. It reminded me of the JUDAS PRIEST song,“The Sentinel”. We played around with the name, when I came up with the word BEAST, and so SENTINEL BEAST was born. Soon after we realised, that the name was also a slang for Cerbeus; the three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hell.”

What’s the metal scene like in Sacramento, where you came from? Were there many clubs, you could play at?
“The scene has changed quite a bit. When we started, the local bands were playing glam music. There were probably a couple of punk bands around town, but nothing really heavy. There used to be a lot of cool underground clubs, but all of that has changed. Now there’s only a handfull.”

Can you name a few other interesting bands, that came from your area in the eighties?
“Well, let’s see. There was RED RUM, CRITICAL MASS - Oh hell, I can’t remember the rest. But I’m sure they were good. I always support the local scene.” What’s the metal scene like today in Sacramento or did you move in between? “I’ve moved several times, but after ICE AGE, I’m back in Sacramento. The whole music scene here is thriving. This city has come a long way. There are a lot of really good metal bands here. We have some bands that have kept up the old style, but have added a new flavor to it. Then of course we have a few national acts here as well.”

You appeared on “Metal Massacre VII” with the song “Sentinel Beast”, taken from your first demo. Did the demo version differ much from your debut album and which other songs were on this first demo?
“I liked the song better on the demo. It was much heavier. The album, I feel, was rushed. We were young and dumb and didn’t take our time. Let’s see, the demo songs were: “Full Treatment”, “Kill The Witch” and “Tonite”.”

What’s the name of this demo and how many copies were sold of it?
“Well, now you’ve stumped me. The names of our demos were, “Demo ‘84” and “Demo ‘85”. How creative we were – hahaha - As far as sales goes, I really couldn’t tell you. Ya know, we gave some away to friends and we sold some and who knows what happened to the rest?”

We can say, that IRON MAIDEN (old style) pretty much influenced the sound of SENTINEL BEAST. Maybe you can name us some more of your influences?
“How did you guess?!? I think IRON MAIDEN was the whole bands favorite. You’ll never guess, but JUDY GARLAND is one of my all-time favorites. She’s so powerful! Some of my more recent influences are SARAH MCLACHLAN and LOREENA MCKENNITT. They have such beautiful voices. I also love NO DOUBT!”

On the “Eastern Front” sampler, there’s a live version of “Dogs Of War”. Where was this recorded and what can you remember from this gig?
“Oh wow! That was recorded at Ruthies Inn, where the shows took place. I miss that club! Some of the other bands were DRI, VIOLENCE, LAAZ ROCKIT, LEGACY, HEATHEN, DEATH ANGEL (just to name a few). It was a blast!”

“Dogs Of War” was also on the “The Best Of Metal Blade” sampler. Is it such a special song for you or do you have other favorite tracks from your SENTINEL BEAST time?
“Actually, Metal Blade Records chose the song. I wish it could have been our demo version of “Sentinel Beast”.”

On “Depths Of Death”, you play an extre-mely cool, but very fast version of the IRON MAIDEN classic “Phantom Of The Opera”. Why did you choose this particular song?
“That song is the coolest! When speed up, the bass and guitar riffs are extremely challenging, not to mention the drums, as well. That song is so fun to play. In my opinion, that is a MAIDEN classic!!”

Did you also play the song live?
“It was our encore song. The audience would chant “Phantom, Phantom, Phantom”, until we played it.”

Speaking of live shows. Can you tell us how a SENTINEL BEAST show looked like back in those days?
“I have a funny story to tell. We had this camera guy come in to video tape our show. He heard it would be crazy, but he didn’t believe it. Our intro song was nice and mellow, so he thought he would hang out in the crowd. The crowd was moving very slowly, waiting for the song to kick in. During this time Mr. Camera Man was taping us. When we watched this video back, we fell out laughing. The music was speeding up, the crowd was too and the camera was in the air and everywhere except on us. The camera guy landed on his ass. It was great comedy! Our shows were always fun. We had a great following. Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area were always supportive of us. Sometimes we would have huge pillars on both sides of the stage, like Roman columns. The only cover we played was “Phantom Of The Opera”.”

And with whom did you share the stage?
“We played with EXODUS many times. I love that band! We also played with SLAYER, OMEN, MEGADETH, EXCITER, KING DIAMOND, MERCYFUL FATE, and many others.”

Do you have any fond memories about a specific show?
“I always had fun, when we played with EXODUS. Those guys are so nice and fun to hang out with. I guess I would have to say that all of the Sacto (Sacramento) shows were my favorites. I loved hanging out with my friends after the show and the big parties at my house.”

Are there any funny or interesting stories to tell about life on the road?
“Actually, we only played in California. I guess that could be a laugh in itself. Really, we did have some funny times, but they weren’t on the road, unless you want to count the time when the band OMEN came to our hotel room, while we were in LA recording our album. They tied me up in the bathroom then tied the door shut. They also stole our shower head. By the way, they used the curtain ropes to tie me up with. I’ll give Kenny Powell full credit for that. They’re actually god guys. It was fun, and I managed to get free of the ropes (kinky).”

How were the reactions of the press about this first SENTINEL BEAST album?
“Well, we got three and a half stars in Kerrang magazine. Not bad. Most didn’t care for the production. Nor did I actually.”

How did you get in touch with Eleni Thermopoulos, who designed the beautiful sleeve for this wonderful album?
“Metal Blade Records handled everything. We never even met the guy. But when we saw his work, we were very impressed!”

Didn’t you record a second album, entitled “Escape From Within”? Why was this never released?
“Actually, we had written some new songs and had ideas for a second album, but nothing concrete. We didn’t record it yet…”

When did SENTINEL BEAST disband and what was the reason for that? Was it because Mike Spencer left the band to join FLOTSAM AND JETSAM? Couldn’t you just continue with different band members?
“After Mike left the band, we found another bassist named Manny Bravo. He was also a local of Sac Town (Sacramento). The band continued, until I left to join ZNOWHITE. Like I said, there was no album in the making.”

In our magazine we have a section, called “Back To The Past”, where we write about bands that don’t exist anymore. We already wrote a story about ZNOWHITE. When I got to the part where you came into the picture, I wrote that Ian Taffoya had to choose between two singers to follow up original singer Nicole Lee. These two singers were Debbie Gunn and Dawn Crosby, the late frontlady of DÉTENTÉ and FEAR OF GOD. What can you remember of the time, that you joined ZNOWHITE? And do you know if it is actually true that Dawn Crosby was one of the people, that wanted to become the new singer of ZNOWHITE?
“I remember a lot of hard work and preparation for a US tour. It was to be my first. God, I was excited! I remember hearing something of Dawn, but I don’t really remember the details. I wish that I could have met her.”

Did you actually meet Nicole Lee, when you had to replace her or did she leave already at that point?
“Yes, I did meet Nicole and we became friends. She’s really cool.”

Was Ian the man in charge by ZNOWHITE, or did he sometimes follow up on your advise too?
“Ian was the man in charge. He was very professional and knew exactly what he was looking for in sound. He had it all worked out in his head. I don’t think I ever worked with anyone tougher than him. Even though I had ideas of my own, I always respected his, since it was his band. This doesn’t mean we didn’t butt heads. You bet we did. But we always remained friends. We never let business interfere with our friendship.”

Did you play many shows with ZNOWHITE, and with whom did you share the stage?
“I did two US tours with them. Our first tour was with a Canadian band called RAZOR. They were cool guys. Our second tour was with the Brooklyn band LUDICHRIST. On that tour we came to California. A lot of my Sac Town and Bay Area friends were at those shows. It was fun!”

Was it difficult to replace Nicole Lee in your opinion?
“In some ways it was hard to fill her shows, because she had a higher range than me. But I don’t feel like I replaced her. I just took over for her.”

Did the die hard ZNOWHITE fans accept you easily as the bands new singer? After all, they were used to the voice of Nicole Lee for so many years?
“Yes, I think they did accept me. I think, because we both had a heavy voice, which is hard for females to do anyway. Our styles were very similar.”

Did you get to choose the songs you wanted to sing at live gigs or did Ian prepare the setlist? I can imagine there were certain songs, you didn’t want to sing?
“I think for the most part it was a group thing. We would work together on it.” Did you actually record any songs with ZNOWHITE or was the time too short for that? Maybe you can give us some titles or more information here? “I didn’t record with them, but I did work on the new songs with them. Those songs ended up on their next album. I really can’t remember the titles off hand.”

For how long did you play with ZNOWHITE?
“I would say about one year.”

What’s the biggest difference for you between SENTINEL BEAST and ZNOWHITE?
“SENTINEL BEAST was more IRON MAIDEN and SLAYER influenced, where ZNOWHITE was more of an East Coast sound of thrash metal. Also, I wrote the songs in SB and had more control.”

Pretty soon after you left ZNOWHITE, you joined ICE AGE. A very surprisingly move, if you’d ask me, or don’t you agree with that?
“It surprised the hell out of me, too! I had never worked with women in music before. I didn’t know what to expect. I had them send me a tape first, because at that time, there weren’t many good female bands that took the music serious. I was blown away when I heard the tape. I said, “where do I sign?” “

Did you move to Sweden to rehearse with these girls or did they come over to America?
“Well, we all went to England, which is where I was born. The band had English management, so we all relocated to a little village called, Wisbech.”

How did you actually get in touch with this band and did they know you already, when you auditioned for the job to become their singer?
“After I left ZNOWHITE, I called the record company and told them that I had left the band. I also told them to let me know if they hear of any bands looking for a singer. Three days later that called me with information on ICE AGE. When they told me it was a girl band, I wanted to hear them first. The rest is like I said earlier.”

What was it like to play in an all-female band for you?
“It worked out great, because they were all dedicated to play. It was hell on our road crew because we would PMS at the same time.”

Did you play a lot with this band and do you have any nice memories about touring with ICE AGE?
“I did one European tour with ICE AGE. We played all over England. One particular moment that was really cool was meeting Kim of GIRLSCHOOL, backstage at one of our London gigs. In high school, I was a big fan of GIRLSCHOOL. She was really nice. Some of the memories I have of ICE AGE are really funny. Like the time Tina (drummer) Stromberg had to use the restroom, while we were on the road. We pulled the bus to the side of the road, so she could go. As soon as she had her pants down and was midway through, our manager moved the bus forward so all traffic could see her squatting down. How embarrassing! Cars drove by honking their horns. Mind you, our manager got an earful afterwards. I had a great time on the road. I think Edinburgh was my favorite place to play. If I recall right, the place was called “The Venue”. “

Do you have any favorite songs from your ICE AGE time?
“I really liked the songs “Instant Justice” and “In The Name Of Science”. Those two songs stuck out for me. They were fun to sing.”

I can’t remember that the band released any more demos besides the “Instant Justice” and the “General Alert” demos. Did you write any new songs together after that, and if yes, what happened to them??
“Well, we started writing new songs. We got some of them finished, but the band fell apart before we could finish the rest. We played some of them live, but I can’t remember the name of them.”

When you joined ICE AGE, they had planned on recording a video clip for “Instant Justice”. Did you like to record this video clip and how long did it take you to get it filmed?
“Yes, the band had plans for me to re-record the demo and to put out a video. It was a blast filming “Instant Justice”. Fans from all over England showed up for the taping. A lot of them were in it. I would say it took all day to film. We had to do retakes and different location shots. It was quite an experience.”

I read in an interview with ICE AGE, that you were glad to be in an all-female band, because now you didn’t have to hide anymore. Did you have to and why?
“Not so much with SENTINEL BEAST, because those guys were like my family. With ZNOWHITE, I felt like I didn’t always fit in. I felt like I couldn’t talk to them about some things, such as female problems. With ICE AGE, if it was that time of month, everyone understood. Sometimes the pain would be so severe, that I would pass out from it. Such a thing happened, while I was in ZNOWHITE. We were on stage at the Cat Club in NYC, when I passed out at the end of the last song. After the show, Ian was pissed at me and asked what happened. I yelled back that I had bad cramps. He apologised.”

How would your male fans react, when playing live?
“Well, in SENTINEL BEAST, fans would jump on stage, kiss me, and dive off. It was very flattering. Also, in Los Angeles some of our fans were trying to get over the barricade. It’s exciting.”

Did you have a huge fan base and people trying to meet you backstage?
“Oh yes. Lots of autographs, which I was always willing to sign. Lots of hugs and kisses. It was fun. I still get asked for autographs. That is, after they recognize me. I look completely different.”

How come ICE AGE never released an album?
“We had record companies interested, but the bottom line is that they wouldn’t sign us, as long as we had our particular management company. They didn’t like them. We had a contract with them, that we couldn’t get out of. It was a bad time for us.”

“In The Name Of Science” would be my favorite ICE AGE song; what’s yours?
“You got it! Hey, we have the same taste!!”

You were rumoured to tour Russia and Poland with ICE AGE. Did this tour actually take place?
“I wish it did. We did have plans to play there, but the tour was cut short, for whatever reason. I really wanted to go.”

Is there a difference between metal fans in Europe and the US to your opinion?
“Yes, there’s a big difference. American metal fans in general, follow what songs are out at that particular time. Some of them are die hard fans, but not all. European fans seem to be loyal to their favorite bands. That’s cool.”

What was the real reason for the break up of ICE AGE?
“To be quite honest with you, the management caused the split of the band. They spent all of the bands money. Everybody quit except Pia, Tina, and myself. We brought in some new members from New Jersey. Tammy (bass)and Lisa (guitar). We were living in Sweden at the time and couldn’t work without permits. The American girls and I suggested moving the band to the USA, so that we could work to support the band. Tina and Pia wouldn’t have to work. Our Management could do the work from Europe. The management flipped. One of them tried to kill us in the flat. We managed to get out with the help from a hippy from Peru. He let us stay at his house, until we could get a flight out of Sweden. Tammy, Lisa, and I made it back to New Jersey and formed a band called S.I.S. (Stranded In Sweden). Pia later joined us for a show at Brooklyn’s L’amours. We opened for ZNOWHITE and BIOHAZARD. We did a few radio spots and other shows. After a few months of that I quit the band and moved back to Sacramento.”

Was the process of songwriting with ICE AGE much different than with SENTINEL BEAST?
“Not really. We just got ideas and wrote them down or record them. We were always open for band imput.”

What did you do musicwise, until you joined BRUTAL GROOVE?
‘I jammed with some of my friends, when I moved back to California.”

Can we see BRUTAL GROOVE as a continuation of SENTINEL BEAST?
“No, it was a different style. BRUTAL GROOVE had slow heavy riffs. It kind of reminded me of early SOUNDGARDEN.”

Who were in the line up of BRUTAL GROOVE?
“Apart from me on vocals, there was Joe Fraulob (guitars), Randy Valdez (bass), and Steve Williams (drums); later replaced by Joey Pregno.”

Can you tell us a bit more about the demo tapes you recorded with BRUTAL GROOVE. How many copies were sold?
“We only made two demos. The first one was called “State Of Execution” and was recorded in 1991. Our second demo was recorded at The Puss Cavern in Sacramento. I don’t remember how many we sold of our first demo. I don’t think that we made our second demo available.”

Did you play any SENTINEL BEAST stuff with BRUTAL GROOVE?
“We only played our own songs, although we did play “Stranglehold” by TED NUGENT.”

Who were your influences, while playing in BRUTAL GROOVE?
“The same as in SENTINEL BEAST…”

Did you play any important gigs with this band, and can you tell us a bit more about your live shows?
“We did shows with CORROSION OF CONFORMITY, SABOTAGE and various local bands. Our live shows were pretty cool. We always packed the clubs. A lot of stage diving, and hardcore thrashing was what our shows were about.”

Do you think that the metal scene has changed over the years?
“It definitely has changed. What used to be considered underground has now surfaced. It’s now normal to listen to METALLICA. Also, now there’s rap metal, which I like."

When did you leave BRUTAL GROOVE and why?
“I left the band in 1993, but they still continued. I really don’t know how long they lasted. I left to find something new. I went to school and majored in Theatre Arts. I began acting in plays around town. I also signed with three casting companies and was casted in a few films as an extra. One of the films was the TV show “Nash Bridges”. I also did work on the film “Letters From A Killer”, starring Patrick Swayze.”

Are you still in touch with any of your former band members?
“I currently work at Sacramento Theatrical Lighting as a lighting technician. Scott Awes from SENTINEL BEAST also works there. So I see him a lot. I also see Mike Spencer a lot and have remained friends with both guys. I lost touch with Pia. I also stay in touch with Randy Valdez from BRUTAL GROOVE.”

Do you feel that female musicians are still not treated equally by their male collegues? Or do you think they have indeed earned their place?
“Things have definitely gotten better for women. There are so many great female artists out there of all types of music. I think that we’ve earned a seat right beside the male musicians, and we’re getting the respect that we deserve.”

Do you see it as an advantage or a disadvantage being a female musician?
“I don’t see it either way anymore. If you’re good, you’re good. I think that’s a thing of the past.”

Would you consider a SENTINEL BEAST reunion one day or not?
“We have talked about it. We’ll just have to see what happens. That would be kind of cool!”

How come you never played Europe with SENTINEL BEAST?
“Sometimes I wonder about that. I feel that we didn’t get the support from the record company. I think that we could have gone a lot further.”

To what music do you listen to nowadays?
“I love SYSTEM OF A DOWN, LINKIN PARK, TOOL, U2, LIMP BIZKIT, ADEMA, DEPECHE MODE, INCUBUS and others. I listen to everything!”

I read, you listen to Celtic music a lot these days and you were planning on putting together another band. Can give us an update here?
“Yes, I love Celtic music. My boyfriend, Mike Parisi (ex-RED RUM), and I are putting together another band. I will have to experiment to get the Celtic sound into our music. Of course, it’s going to be heavy.”

Do you also play an instrument or do you only sing?
“I play clarinet. I have also played saxophone, trumpet, and bass guitar, but it was long ago.”

If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently and why?
“For starters, I would have never taken drugs. The SENTINEL BEAST album would have sounded better, if we were straight. I would have taken better care of myself, such as exercise, eat right, get plenty of rest.”

Do you have any hobbies besides music?
“Yes I do. It’s not really a hobby, but I rescue reptiles that have been abused in some form or another. I have a house full. I have Bearded Dragons, Tegus, Iguanas, and Corn Snakes. Most of these were rescued. The reptile industry has really taken a hold. I also belong to The Northern California Herpetological Society. I plan on putting on a benefit concert this summer to help fund the care for abused retiles. I also educate children on the care and maintenance of these beautiful creatures.”

What are your future plans?
“I want to put together an educational facility on reptiles. I also plan on playing my music again.”

What do you think of the fact, people are still interested in reading the story of SENTINEL BEAST after all these years?
“I think it’s great! I never forgot, where I came from or how I got started. I’ve always valued the fans. I’ve met a lot of cool people in them.”

Would you like to add something?
“I think we about covered it, but there is something I would like to add. It’s a little off the beaten path. If anyone is interested in reptiles and want to help out, they can reach me at:”

Any personal messages?
“Thanks so much for the interview Toine & Rita and keep in touch.”

Interview by: Toine van Poorten/copyright Metal Maidens.

*Depths Of Death ('86 Metal Blade records)

Debbie Gunn (vocals)
Barry Fischel (guitars)
Mark Koyasako (guitars)
Michael Spencer (bass)
Scott Awes (drums)