Of the several pleasant musical surprises 2011 has thus far wrought, none have stuck with me quite so much as Red Fang‘s Murder the Mountains. The Portland, Oregon, four-piece’s debut full-length for Relapse (second overall behind a 2009 self-titled on Sargent House) is an unflappable 10-track rock monster fuzzily-photographed while running through the woods with scientifically-impossible gait. From the catchy rock songs like new single “Wires” and the start-stop “Human Herd” to the more metallic feel of opener “Malverde” or “Into the Eye,” Red Fang‘s sonic diversity feels natural and unforced, which is getting harder and harder to come by when it comes to heavy rock.
Murder the Mountains was recorded by Chris Funk of The Decemberists (the right choice, if only for the drum sounds he gets out of John Sherman) and mixed by Vance Powell, whose considerable resume boasts a Grammy win for his engineering work with The Raconteurs. Two unlikely picks for four dudes playing beardo rock from Oregon, but there’s no arguing with results. These tracks are neither light of weight nor -ista of fashion. Instead, they rip through the burly riffage of guitarists Bryan Giles and David Sullivan, both of whom also contribute vocals — as does bassist Aaron Beam — ignoring convention and the “no-fun” heavy metal ethic in favor of entertaining songs that don’t sacrifice their edge in the name of accessibility. They make the accessibility come to them.
They have a couple mega-tours lined up: Metalliance — with Saint Vitus, Crowbar, Helmet, Kylesa, labelmates Howl and The Atlas Moth — starts tonight, March 17, and later in the summer, Red Fang will join the traveling Mayhem Festival with Megadeth, Disturbed and Godsmack, which is bound to put them in front of a bunch of commercial-rock-loving douchenozzles, but will doubtless also earn them a slew of new fans. Nonetheless, as I spoke to Bryan Giles for the following interview, branching out to audiences beyond the heavy underground was just a fraction of what I wanted to get his thoughts on.
Giles was more than amenable. We talked just hours after I posted my review of the album and we discussed the band’s multi-faceted songwriting approach, the consideration of audience, the fact that he’s never heard Entombed before, the growth between Red Fang‘s self-titled and Murder the Mountains, what they’re saying on the message boards (which he insists he reads only for entertainment purposes), Orion Landau‘s excellent cover art, and much more. We were only on the phone for about half an hour, but like Red Fang‘s music, the interview was packed full and moved at a pretty good clip.
The complete 3,500-word Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
Congratulations on the album. I just finished reviewing it and it’s killer.
Thank you very much. We’re all really proud of it. Chris Funk was a great producer. We’d never had a producer before, so that was sort of dubious. “Producer? What the hell? Just go to the studio and record the thing!” But he was great, and just had really good ideas as far as putting extra stuff on there, making it a deeper listen. Hopefully it’ll get people into it and listening to it for a long period of time. It won’t be something to listen to for the summer and then forget about.
How did you decide to work with Chris Funk?
He contacted us about maybe a year before we record. He was starting to produce bands and I guess he saw us at a show or something and he just offered his service. I honestly never asked him. I don’t even know if he had seen us. I don’t know. He must have seen us play at some point, I just never did ask him. But yeah, he was trying to get more into the producer role, and we had a meeting with him, and honestly, The Decemberists are not my favorite band. I appreciate them, what they do, but I like hard rock. So I was like, “Well, I don’t know if this guy’s really the guy to work on a hard rock project,” but I think it added a lot more dimension than some of your more typical producers who have a long list of heavy metal projects under their belts. He had a fresher approach than maybe a lot of people who’d be like, “No, no, I always mic amps this way,” and “I always make the drums sound this way” and whatever.
Well, you have the Grammy-winning mixer, you have the guy from The Decemberists producing, but it’s still a heavy-sounding album.
Well thanks for saying so (laughs). Honestly, it does worry me a bit. I try not to worry about that kind of thing, but yeah, having the Raconteurs and Decemberists on your press sheet is like, “Oh shit. We’re gonna get some backlash from this one,” but those guys really know their shit. That’s all I know. The naysayers can go hang. But we’ll see.
I thought I heard a little Entombed in the first track and “Into the Eye.” Is there any of that kind of vibe going on?
Unfortunately – I’m going to show my ignorance – I’ve never listened to that band. I am woefully uneducated in music, it seems like. I’m still listening to my Ride the Lightning record or whatever. It’s like, “Dude, that was 20 years ago. Get a new record.” But I’m lucky enough, my bandmates are a lot more versed in new music and stuff. So I hear stuff through them, but it rapidly goes out the other ear. I’ve forgotten roommates’ names before, so yeah. It’s kind of sad. But yeah, I’ll have to check it out.
How does the songwriting go for you guys?
We approach songwriting in a lot of different ways, and I think it shows. I feel like we have a variety of songwriting styles going on. It’s not just cookie-cutter Red Fang song one, two, three, and it’s because everybody brings something to the writing process. Someone’ll have a riff and then someone else’ll run with it. Then someone else’ll take the job of writing lyrics and singing. A lot of times, it’s one riff that’ll come in, and it’ll just spark someone else’s imagination and then, in turn, that’ll come back around. It’s very much a communal process.
I think that comes across on the album. It sounds like multiple people contributing.
When we first started the band, it was the other three guys, and I was living in San Diego. They wrote some amazing riffs, some of these rippers. I was like, “Dude, these riffs are great.” They asked me if I wanted to come back and join the band, and I was like, “Hell yeah, of course I want to join this band!” so I came back and we went through those riffs a lot, but we just couldn’t seem to get them to gel in a song form, and I’d been writing on my own in San Diego, so the first two or three songs were mostly my songwriting, but luckily that changed. Initially, we were a lot more homogenous. I was singing all the songs and they were a lot more – like “Bird on Fire” was one of our earlier ones, from the first record. They were uptempo, sort of punk rock songs. Once we’d gotten the set together, we relaxed and I think everyone picked up the songwriting a lot more. Lately I have been writing less and less, I feel like, and the other guys are writing more now, and I just really enjoy what everyone’s coming up with. It’s really fun, and we’ve been doing it long enough now that we’re feeling comfortable with trying out new styles. It’s not like, “Oh, that’s off-limits. That’s too stoner rock. That’s too speed metal. That’s too grunge,” or whatever. It’s like, if you’re sitting in your room and you’re playing your guitar or bass, and it felt good to do it, let’s at least flesh it out, turn it into a song before we reject it. A lot of the times, the songs that you’re most questioning at the outset are the ones you like the most. There’s a break in the single that’s coming out – it may already be out; we’re going to have it for this tour – the song “Wires” is the lead song. There’s a breakdown that Aaron wrote for it, and when he played it for me, he did a multiple-track demo on his computer, and I was just thinking to myself, “There’s no way I’m playing that!” We called it the spaghetti western part, and I’m like, “You’re kidding me!” but once we learned it and put it in there, I just love it. Initially, I was like, “No way man. You are really getting outside of my comfort zone right now. Spaghetti westerns? For Christ’s sake, we’re a rock band!” But I think it really works in the song, and when it comes back in heavy, it comes back harder, because you’ve got this more subdued, odd, melodic thing happening. It’s like Jimmy Page said, “Light and dark.” If you want a super-evil sounding song, and all the parts are evil, then it doesn’t work quite as well as if you have something to compare it to that’s not as evil.
In terms of progressing, moving ahead stylistically, it’s interesting you said other people are writing more and things are gelling more. I think that comes out in comparing Murder the Mountains to the self-titled.
Yeah, I think when we first started, it was pretty much, “Alright, here we go: Four-piece metal/punk band,” and we were just throwing it out there. Which is great, but to keep it interesting for ourselves, we had to dig a little deeper into the songwriting. I think they’re still pretty simple songs. We do little things here and there to make it not monotonous or whatever. If you’re going to have a part that repeats four times and then goes into the next part, one of our favorite tricks is to make the third time different slightly. So there’s little things like that with us, but really, it seems like we’re still writing the verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge format, with guitar solos and whatever to embellish it. That’s been our goal from the outset, was to play music that made us feel great about listening to music when we were younger. We didn’t want to write music as musicians. We wanted to write music from the standpoint of, “Well, if I was smoking a joint and listening to my stereo on a Friday night, where should this song go and what’s gonna create the maximum amount of awesomeness?” A lot of times, we’ll come up with riffs that are really fun to play and a lot of notes, lot of moving around, and then just strip it down, say, “You know what? That’s a cool guitar part, but if we’re singing there, it’s gonna be one chord.” If it doesn’t need the noodles, the noodles can end up mucking it up. If the vocal part is strong, everybody get out of the way. I don’t want to call it dumb-guy rock. I don’t consider it dumb, but we just try to use as much economy as possible to arrive at a song that’s worth listening to, not worth playing.
Is audience a consideration then, when you’re writing?
I don’t think about the audience, but I think that part of being in a collaborative music group is you are each other’s audience. What we’re trying to is impress each other, like, “Check out how badass this riff is.” So I guess we’re each other’s audience. You’re not gonna want to come into practice with a riff that’s flat, because everyone’s gonna be like, “Huh? What’s that crap?” I think that we criticize ourselves enough that we don’t need to be thinking about any third parties. I trust the musical taste of my bandmates more so than my own at some times, so it’s nice to bring something in, and even if it’s a flawed idea, they’re very supportive. I think we’re all very supportive of each other and we try and find the good thing in it – say, “Well, this and this, these parts are kind of overplayed,” or whatever, if you’re doing something that you’ve heard a million times, “but this section, maybe we can repeat that, or do a chord change with it.” And then, in turn, someone else’ll be like, “Oh, if we do that, how about we do this, and what about that riff from last week? We’ll stick that on there.” But yeah, for entertainment, I’ve been reading some of the message boards. We’re doing some tours. We’re doing the Metalliance Tour with Helmet, and Saint Vitus and Crowbar and Kylesa. Amazing lineup, I’m really excited to be a part of it. But of course there’s message boards on the internet, and there’s some pretty slanderous stuff about us on there. I read it mostly for entertainment, and it’s like, “Well geez, this 14-year-old kid is really mad that we’re not heavy metal enough.” Even more so for the Mayhem Festival, which we’re doing later this year, which is a lot of young people, and man, some of the fans that go to Mayhem are really rigid in what they consider to be metal enough to be acceptable for that festival. A lot of people flipping a shit, like, “What is this jam band doing on the fest?” and I’m like, “Jam? Have you ever listened to our music? We don’t jam at all!” But if you read that stuff, you could probably chase your tail forever and you’re never going to make everybody happy. Like I say, I’ll read that stuff occasionally for entertainment, but I don’t let it get under my skin. I suppose if I read your review and it was really harsh and took the record very seriously and picked out its flaws and put a light on them, that might affect me more, although we’ve been lucky enough to get if not positive reviews, at least C+ and better reviews. At least on our last record. So I really haven’t had to read the ones where it’s like, “Two words: Shit sandwich.” That hasn’t happened yet. But I’m sure it will. It’s just a matter of time.
There’s always going to be one guy who goes the “shit sandwich” route. It happens to everyone.
Exactly. And I’ve noticed with the weekly magazines, there’s a real danger in the hip world of alternative weeklies, that it is cool to talk shit about something that everyone else thinks is cool. It’s the alternative, so sometimes I’ll see reviews for things that I really enjoy, and they just destroy it. I’m like, “Ugh.” Especially for movies. I go to movies to be entertained. I’ll go see the Hollywood blockbusters or whatever, and then I’ll read the weeklies, and they’re just destroying it, like, “This piece of trash never should have been made,” and I’m like, “Really? I thought it was pretty fun. There were explosions. Whatever. I’m not looking for Shakespeare here. I don’t know what you were planning on seeing.” I guess even then, that would be my, “Ah, he’s just trying to make himself be cool by talking trash.” Whether or not that’s true, that’ll probably be my defense mechanism for negative press.
Well it’s good you have that all lined up.
I have it all worked out, man. We need to start scripting out some heckler retorts for the summer too (laughs). I’ve heard of people doing that.
The Korn fans, man. You gotta watch out.
I know. I think the people who are really grumpy about us being on that festival will be pleasantly surprised. That’s at least my stance. I think we bring as good a show as anybody. It may not be double-kick and lightning-fast guitar solos, but I think we bring it, and we’ve played with a bunch of different heavy metal bands that were way “heavier” than us, and we win over crowds. I think crowds are like, “Hmm, who are these dudes? They’re not wearing spikes or anything. What’s their problem?” and in the end, we get new fans out of the strangest places. I’m not really too worried about it. I think these people just haven’t been exposed to our music and we’re gonna change their minds. Dammit (laughs).
Tell me about the album art. Where did the artwork come from for the record?
I was done by this guy Orion [Landau]. He’s the in-house artist for Relapse. We had some sketches from several artists we’d used in the past, trying to come up with something, and nothing was really working. Orion wasn’t able to do it initially, because he was really busy, but his time got freed up and he said he was willing to work on it, and he put that together while we were on tour. We were seeing pictures of it on our laptops or whatever when we were on our way home, and it’s really intense. There’s a lot going on. I’d like to think there’s a lot going on musically too, so I think it pairs up well with the music. Did you get the full six-page thing?’
No, I’ve been staring at a giant jpeg of the cover.
Okay. The front is gonna say Red Fang, Murder the Mountains, then it’s going to be a die-cut circle, and you open up the front page and it’s a full piece of artwork, full 12”x12” piece of artwork for the vinyl. For the CD, I think there’s six pages and the LP’s laid out differently, but he’s got a bunch of really cool – I don’t want to say Satanic – but Celtic or occult-looking imagery, and it’s intriguing. And it’s not just pentagrams and goats. It’s a little more mysterious than that.
What do you guys have planned for after the Mayhem Fest? Do you know what you’re going in the fall yet?
No, we don’t. It took so long for us to put this record out. We didn’t have a home for it, first of all. When we started recording it, it was all out of our pocket, and we completely finished it before anyone agreed to put it out, so we were sitting on a pretty expensive home art project that we could hang on our wall, like, “Oh god, it’s never gonna see the light of day,” but luckily Relapse decided to pick it up. They’re a really great home for us. I’m really excited. They just opened an office here in Portland, so we’re real tight with them. So I guess there’s a little anxiety on my part that it’s going to take another two and a half years to get another record out if we don’t start motivating. My real tentative plan was to get back from Mayhem – and that’s gonna be the better part of four months of touring in six months, so I don’t know how much we’re going to want to jump back into a van right after that. I’m hoping we’ll come home and do songwriting for a couple of months, but we’ve been getting offers on a daily basis, and really cool ideas. Whether it works out with peoples’ families and travel and stuff. If something kickass comes down the pike, then we’ll probably do it, but it’s gonna have to be pretty good, because like I say, I can’t wait another two and a half years for a record to come out. I’ll be old and gray by the time we get a third record out, for that matter.
So when were you actually in the studio for Murder the Mountains?
That was the end of 2009. December 2009, I think. Maybe it was November. Something like that. And then Aaron and Funk flew out to Nashville with Vance, and that was in February, mid-February , so it wasn’t mastered, but it was mixed, ready to roll, February 2010. So you can imagine how much I’ve been wanting to get this record out. It’s been a year and a couple months. I mean, a lot of the reason it’s taken so long is we didn’t have a label, and once they decided they wanted to put it out, there’s a lot of lead time. Things I don’t consider. I don’t know the business end of this at all, but as far as getting their ducks in a row, making sure that when this time comes out, there will be space for someone to get a review in or something like that. I guess once they decided to do it, we had to pick a date for it to get released six months prior to that date. And we had to have the final art before then, which took a while too. I don’t know. It’s surprising how much more crap there is to put a record out than just recording it and sending it to the factory. But I think that waiting this long has given it the best chance it’s got of getting out in the world and I feel like we’ve done everything right as far as being patient, not rushing it out there to have it get filed in the back of the ‘R’ section.
At the same time, you still get eager to go on to the next thing.
Absolutely. We’ve been playing a lot of these songs live for a year and a half. They don’t really feel new to me at all. We’d held back some of them, some of the songs which I think are great, I think will work a lot better once people have had the chance to hear them. Even if you’re playing to a crowd of 50 people and five of them have heard the song several times on a record, their enthusiasm for that song is infectious, and it gets a crowd going a lot more. So some of these songs, we’re going to be playing for the first time this summer, and I’m really looking forward to that, because the set list gets stale sometimes. I don’t think we perform it flat-footed or anything. It’s for us, night after night. Since we’re only playing one night, two/three times a year in a town, I hope we’re not boring people.
Do you know which songs you’re going to be including in the set list? Do you focus more on the catchier, straightforward rock songs, or the heavier stuff live? Do you have a preference for playing either one?
I guess my preference is playing some of the faster ones. More energetic songs. I think some of my favorite songs are the slower ones, but if you’re trying to grab a crowd, busting out the six-and-a-half-minute dirge is maybe not the way to go, especially if you only have half an hour for them to give you the thumbs up or thumbs down. But yeah, we were talking about the set list for what we’re going to do this year, and I think what we’re going to do is put together a seven or eight-song set list and then just have alternates, try them out the first few nights of the tour and see how people are reacting to it. Although we don’t want to be affected by the crowd in our songwriting, we certainly want to bring an entertaining show, so if we can see people being markedly happier with one song over the other, we’ll go with the one that makes them happier.
Tags: Oregon, Portland, Red Fang, Relapse