When it emerged that Gojira, Code Orange and Car Bomb were going to tour the UK and Europe together on surely one of the finest bills to come to the UK this year, it seemed the perfect opportunity to get three of the most electrifying, forward-thinking, uncompromising bands in heavy music together in one room to talk metal in the 21st century.
In the past year, all three bands have released albums that have pushed the boundaries, offering up some of the most exhilarating heavy music of modern times. Gojira’s Magma reinvented the band’s signature death metal sound, introducing an accessible thread without compromising their raw intensity. Car Bomb’s Meta is an astonishing, technical tour-de-force which manages to marry phenomenal musicianship and deadly rhythms to savage hooks. And Code Orange’s Forever is an unrelenting, unsettling maelstrom that takes its cues from a variety of genres and splices them together to create something altogether darker and sinister.
We discussed a wealth of topics, including how streaming platforms and the accessibility of music has broadened people’s tastes, how consensus amongst the metal community seems more fractured than it’s ever been before, the struggle to make a living from music aimed at a niche audience and how redundant the term ‘sell-out’ has become in a world where heavy music barely constitutes a viable commercial option.
What state is heavy music in both artistically and commercially in 2017?
Michael Dafferner (Vocals, Car Bomb): I would say it's a fragmented yet exponentially growing genre. There are more bands playing this style of music now than ever before and they have the freedom to record at home instead of throwing a lot of money at a studio. There are so many genres and sub-genres, in my view it’s almost like a capillary system. It's ridiculous at this point to try to categorise things because there are very subtle variations between lots of these sub-genres; the amount of verbs or adjectives you would need to describe some bands is ludicrous. It's still all metal but that capillary system is branching out and getting wider all the time.
The genre is very disparate now and the consensus on what is ‘classic’ or not seems more scattered than ever. If you look at the 90’s, most people will agree that Enter Sandman, 5 Minutes Alone, The Beautiful People, Roots Bloody Roots etc would be considered classics. But whilst I feel like Stranded for example is the equal of those songs, the genre feels so fragmented, I wonder if it would be considered a classic in 5 or 10 years times?
Jami Morgan (Vocals / Drums, Code Orange): I definitely think it’s 100% accurate that there is a commercial wall that heavy bands come up against now, but to me there’s not all that much quality, even right at the very top of those bills. The quality that is there is usually bands that have been around for a long time. But I kind of disagree that Stranded won’t be seen as a future classic, I think it will be revered in the exact same way that those other songs you mentioned are. Actually, I think it already is; you can see that when you're at the shows. The people there aren’t fly-by-night fans, they're sticking with what Gojira do no matter what, even when they write a record that sounds completely different. It's hard to build those sorts of fans now it seems. They're an amazing example of a band who put out records they want to put out. It’s not just a bunch of songs that are aiming for mainstream exposure. You build a fan base by doing that and staying consistent. It's definitely not like it was in the past where maybe if one band broke through, the bands around them would break through as well.
Michael: Like the Seattle scene in the 90's. The fact that anybody can make music and put it out there in some way, even if it's not through a label, makes it almost impossible to make a living from it, unless you’ve established something major over a period of time. There's so much music out there and it’s so accessible now that everything you do is a flash and then it’s gone; everyone moves on to something new pretty quickly. You spend a year, two, maybe even three years working on a record people might only listen to for a week.
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Jami: Part of that in my opinion is society having shorter attention spans but a lot of it is to do with the way bands are choosing to promote and release their music. If you're a rapper, you can record a song in a day and put it out the next morning. There’s an immediacy there; when something's hot, when it's ready to strike, they can just drop it. The style of music that we play can’t have that kind of immediacy; when you're in a band where you really care about the nuances of how everything sounds, it takes a long ass time to get that right. But that means that a lot of metal and rock bands just aren’t adapting with the current times. I don't know what the answer to that is with heavy music exactly, that aspect of it is really tough.
People listen to a broader range of genres now that the majority of recorded music is available for free at our finger tips. There’s less risk trying something new than there was when a CD cost £15.99; you didn’t ever really know what you were going to get
Michael: Yeah, you saved up your paper route money or whatever you had and spent it on a record. Sometimes you got a piece of s**t, but you'd listen to it anyway because you’d invested something in it. There's music from my youth where I'd get the cassette tape or the CD and I'd be like 'I have to listen to this! I just spent all my money, I'm listening to this for the next month, I don't care if it sucks!'
Forever strikes me as a record that pulls from a very wide pool of disparate genres to create something fresh
Jami: The goal for our record was to have ups and downs and trap doors but we also wanted it to feel cohesive. We're trying to invoke specific emotions at certain points and I feel like you can't do that by just pursuing the same relentless path; as a listener, you just become immune to that. You've got to find ways to affect different sides of people, that's why we introduced more electronics and stuff like that. But it’s not just a case of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks, it has to be calculated. There are peaks and valleys, different ways to express darkness that don’t just involve screaming in people’s faces. Do we care what people think? Not really but at the same time, it's good to take constructive criticism; if you put yourself in a box and just think 'f**k everybody' then you really might make something that's a piece of s**t.
Joe Duplantier (Vocals / Guitar, Gojira): Well if you really think 'f**k everybody' you won't put a record out in the first place, you’ll just stay in your room and write music for yourself. But if you're going to record something and put it out there and tour it, you have to give some consideration to what other people might think.
Magma is a good example of a record that retains a lot of aspects of what people love about Gojira whilst also being easier to digest than your previous material. How difficult is it to take something abrasive, dissonant and challenging and broaden its appeal?
Joe: Well, on this record I personally was trying to be in tune with myself as much as possible and forget about people's expectations. Some of our fans are probably already disappointed that I stopped screaming and started singing, but we’ve spent so many years being an angry, aggressive band that’s pissed off with the world around us. You can’t be in that state of mind for your whole life, after a while, you start betraying yourself and your music if you don't evolve. I felt like there was a change coming for Gojira and on Magma, I knew that change was going to happen. I needed to sing more and spent hours recording demos, trying to use my voice in different ways and at first, I hated everything I did. I enjoyed singing but when I listened back to it, I would feel so vulnerable. I spent months doing the vocals for this record, trying to let whatever I had in me out as a singer; it was a huge learning process.
Do you think the release of Magma has seen a significant increase in the size of your fan-base?
Joe: Yes I think so, we worked a lot harder on this record; we usually write about 14 songs but this time, we wrote maybe 25 and pushed them all very hard. Then Mario (Gojira drummer and Joe’s brother) and I would sit down and be very critical of what we’d done, we were obsessed with creating something perfect. We were going through a very hard time in our lives too because we were losing our Mum (she passed away in July 2015) and it became a very spiritual, cathartic experience for us. Every single note, every word on this album is really honest. Some people say we’re selling out because I’m singing more or whatever and in a way, I almost want to say that's true, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing! We have kids, we're more at more peace in our hearts and we didn't need to be that pissed off anymore, so maybe we intimidate people a little less.
It’s funny you mention selling out ... I think the term has become so mangled that I don't even know what it means anymore!
Michael: Yeah, it seems if you make any money from music, you're branded a 'sell-out'! I mean that's just so f**king stupid!
Screaming is lot more prevalent in metal than it was 20 years ago, but it’s something that does seem to alienate people from outside the genre
Jami: It definitely does put people off, you don't ever put on the radio and hear people screaming.
Joe: I think it does act as a sort of natural filter, but it's not like we scream to push certain people away, we scream because we need to or because we want to. It's such a powerful tool, sometimes I forget because I'm so involved in the metal scene day in and day out, it almost becomes routine, but used well it’s this pure, raw, aggressive expression of energy. Being open and sensitive enough to feel the trauma of the world around you will be enough to make you want to scream for sure.
Michael, you released a documentary in 2010 called Why You Do This that paints a very bleak portrayal of what life is like in a metal band
Michael: It wasn't my intention to make it bleak; the point I was trying to make is that we could play whatever style of music we wanted, but we play a genre that's very difficult and appeals to a lot less people because we love it. Our drummer Elliot is a jazz musician, we all love jazz. I love hip-hop, I love a lot of different style of music that would be way easier to do, but as an artist, I don’t think you get to choose what style of music you play, just like you can’t choose how you feel, I think it just comes out naturally. And I think that's a good thing, I think with anything in life, that's what you should do, you should never do something just because it’s easy.
So in that sense, metal's almost the embodiment of following your heart rather than your head...
Michael: Sure! You could have a whole psychological discussion about it but I think something that draws people to heavy, aggressive music is when you learn that the world’s not a safe place. A lot of people I know within the metal scene have had that experience, where they realise they’re not protected and the world isn't all flowers and butterflies, there's a lot of f**king scary s**t out there. That might initially be a scary thought but I think metal is about embracing that, taking ownership of it and I think that’s a really cool way to view the world.
What attracted you to produce Car Bomb’s third album Meta Joe?
Joe: We've been friends for 10 years and I’ve produced other things before. I produced every Gojira record except L'Enfant Sauvage, which I co-produced with Josh Wilbur. I just love Car Bomb’s music and it made total sense to get in a room together, drink beers and record metal together. It was great fun, I didn't do all that much to be honest. I think being a good producer is all about trying to help a band get where they want to go. I'm not saying I am a good producer but I'm trying to be be one!
Michael: Joe mostly helped me with the vocals, encouraging me to trust my own voice rather than emulate other people. If I ever tried to sound like Max Cavelera or Chino Moreno, Joe would just reel it back in and say, ‘That doesn’t sound like you’, so he was a huge help in that respect. We self-produced our first two records and I think that would make us over-think everything and obsess over every tiny detail. That’s why it would take us years to put out a record, but having Joe there, someone we all look up to and respect, meant that we could use him as a great mediator.
Where do you find the balance between not compromising on the music you make and making a living?
Joe: Well I have a family and I have to provide for them, so that is something that often weighs on my mind. But that said, there's no way I'm going to change a single note from what I truly want to do in order to sell more records. So the only option I have is to push what we do as hard as possible, take every opportunity presented to us, hone our craft and be the best we can possibly be onstage. But it is hard, it's a real struggle. Sometimes I think having a day job as a security blanket is the best way, because you can create the music you want to without having the pressure of it being your only source of income. Like Car Bomb, they do whatever the f**k they want to do.
Michael: Yeah I mean, these guys are in two professional bands. They actually make their money from what they do ...
Jami: ... barely ...
Michael: ... yeah, exactly barely! And that's another thing I wanted to put across in that documentary; I never had the guts to put all my chips into one basket and say, 'f**k it' I believe in myself and my music.’ I’ve always played it safe and had a job, taking time off to tour as and when I can. It’s not ideal by any means, but I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for these guys.
Jami: I’ve got a different perspective on it because we've never done anything else but this. I met Reba in middle school when I was about 12, I met Eric and Joe when I was 14, and then when I was 15, I said to them, 'If we're going to do this when we get out of High School, we’ve gotta go out and tour immediately' and that’s what we did. We became so focused on doing this so young, there’s not really been anything else in our lives besides this. We decided really early on that this was what we were going to do, even before we knew how to do it properly. This is all we know.
Joe: Maybe in a couple of years, you might think about wanting to do something else though ...
Jami: Oh for sure and that's a beautiful thing. But for us at least, we had to set it up early or it was never going to happen. If we hadn't met that early and went through all the phases we went through of being really bad and playing so many US tours for so many years, we might not’ve ever got off the ground. We're all 23 now but we've been doing this for 10 years. We’re lucky that we now have a few people helping us, which makes it easier, but we’re capable of doing it 100% by ourselves.
Joe: We spent 15 years without a record company, doing all the merch, printing it, driving the van, touring Europe. It took us 10 years to play our first gig in the US...
Jami: ... that's crazy! To me, it seems impossible to balance having a family or having a job and being in a band at the same time. I'm lucky to be able to focus solely on music right now, I don't know what will happen in a couple of years, but I know life gets hard. It's hard when you have to work a job, it's especially hard when you have kids, and it’s even harder for people who don't have an outlet at all like we all do, so I respect that you two manage to do that a lot.
Joe: My boy is two and my daughter is five; when I pack my bags to go away on tour and say goodbye to my kids, they think I'm just going down to the grocery store. What they don't realise is that I'll be gone for 5 weeks, which to them feels like an eternity. On the one hand things are great; I have two beautiful kids that I love, I love my wife and my band is successful. But at the same time, my life has never been so complicated.
Jami: But it's well rounded though, you probably have the fullest life someone could imagine. As hard as it is, someone looking at it from the outside might think, 'Wow, you got it all!' Do you know what I mean?
Joe: Yeah absolutely. It can be a vicious cycle; music is keeping me away from my family, but it’s also the main thing that provides for them. It's funny, I never thought it was going to get so hard ever and I'm not trying to complain, but it can be a struggle. We still manage to get excited when we're onstage, we're still giving 100%, we're super happy to be there and I can't wait to be writing a new record.
From speaking to Joe, Jami and Michael, it seems obvious that all three have had to make sacrifices to play the music that drives them. Of course, sacrifices have to be made whatever genre you play, but those outside of metal circles may seem perplexed as to why some graft so hard to play a style that is going to be alienating to the overwhelming majority; your chances of being successful playing music that by it's very nature, is geared towards a niche audience is miniscule ...
... and yet, despite these challenges, metal continues to thrive, almost 50 years after it was first conceived. There are barely ano other genres that have come close to lasting the long in modern music. That says a lot for the passion and dedication of it's fan-base; the die-hards, the lifers, the devoted who adopt metal not merely as a form of music, but as a lifestyle. Cynics can scoff but if that devotion remains, there's no reason metal can't enjoy another 50 years kicking against the pricks.
Gojira’s Magma, Code Orange’s Forever and Car Bomb’s Meta are all available now. Code Orange will play The Avalanche Stage on the Friday of this year's Download Festival
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