Members of the popular '80s heavy metal band Tension is… (Staff photo by Phil Grout,…)
Tom Gattis is not an easy man to reach, but the Maryland native has a pretty good excuse. As a structural engineer at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory, he works in a facility that specializes in nuclear weapons research.
Not many former rock and roll frontmen can claim national security as a reason for spotty phone reception. But this former Laurel resident is one of them.
After ensconsing himself in an unclassified area of the building, Gattis settles in to talk about unclassified topics, mostly involving his upcoming reunion gig with the group of heavy metal rockers known as Tension.
Throughout the '80s, Tension was a popular fixture on the regional music scene, forerunners of a subgenre of metal known as speed or thrash metal. The Laurel-based band headlined at nightclubs like Baltimore's Seagull Inn and Washington's Bayou, both now defunct.
Tension opened national touring bands like Iron Maiden and Megadeth, and even recorded a major-label album before disbanding in 1988.
It appeared as though their impact was long forgotten until Gattis, the band's singer/guitarist , received a phone call last year from an unlikely source.
"A promoter in Germany called to ask me what it would take for Tension to reunite and play this huge festival over there," he recalls. "It turns out that our record is a hugely popular cult favorite in Europe. After all these years it was a bit of a shock."
While none of the one-time band members is quitting his day job, the validation prompted all the former bandmates to explore other invitations. On Nov. 5, Tension will headline the Defenders of the Old Festival at Baltimore's Talking Head Club at Sonar.
"We see it as kind of finishing the job we set out to do in the first place," says Gattis, 47. "I've flown in for a couple rehearsals and they've been great. We don't sound like a bunch of old farts, I can tell you that."
Gattis was raised in West Laurel before his family moved when he was 9. They returned to their property on Supplee Lane six years later when his father, Dr. Bruce Gattis, opened his Laurel practice. By this time, the young Gattis had one major goal in life.
"I was hell-bent on being a musician," he says. To that end, his mother had a barn on the property outfitted for her son and his band. "It had electricity and a stage," he recalls of the once popular Laurel teen hangout.
By the time Gattis was 21, Tension was signed with a major label in Hollywood. "The recording studio was in the basement of the Capitol Records building," Gattis recalls. Pat Benetar was recording an album in the studio next door and Bob Seger was across the hall.
It should have been a heady time for Tension, but the project was doomed. "The problem was that the guy who was recording us was just one of these Capitol Records bigwig's kid. We had this world-class studio and essentially the person recording us didn't know what he was doing. When the record came out we were all pretty unhappy with it."
Despite the setback, Tension wasn't ready to throw in the towel. The band returned to Laurel and a fairly busy schedule of gigs, but it wasn't too long before Gattis realized the band was losing momentum. "It became really obvious to me that we would have to relocate in order to move forward," he says.
"One night I sat the band down and said, 'Look, we've gone about as far as we can go here.'" For Gattis, that meant moving the band to Los Angeles, the epicenter of '80s-era hard rock.
"You had to be on the Sunset Strip every night," he insists. "We needed to be playing in front of people who could do us the most good." But the plan fell on deaf ears, and when it was clear nothing more would come of it, Gattis decided to quit.
Unlike so many other rock and roll flameouts, this story turned out fine for all involved. Gattis, for one, is quite content with his current career. "I love mathematics and physics, and engineering is a great melding of the two," he says.
"In life, some of the best things happen when you quit something else."
Even so, Gattis admits he's looking forward to reliving his heavy-metal past. "It's not the kind of music you grow out of," he says. "It sticks in your bones and you essentially never get rid of it. It's almost like it's imprinted on your DNA."
Tension headlines at the Defenders of the Old Festival, Nov. 5 at the Talking Head Club at Sonar, 407 E. Saratoga St., in Baltimore. All ages are welcome. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 the day of the show, and are available at the box office, by phone at 410-783-7888 or at http://www.sonarbaltimore.com.