THE EARLY NOUGHTIES saw a surging onslaught of late-90s outfits storming across the American metal landscape, led by a far-flung panoply of stylists that included Lamb of God, Clutch and Slipknot. Charging hard into that gnashing fray was Unearth, a pugnacious metalcore quartet from Boston, whose breathtaking administration of hardcore, thrash and extreme metal incited a thunderous response from headbangers and critics alike. While many of their peers detonated heavier riffage and others might have played faster, none from that uprising harnessed metal’s dark potency with the blazing abandon of hardcore as masterfully as Unearth. Since forming in 1998, their fearsome live show and a catalog of bone-powdering releases have made them an enduring favorite of metal purists across the globe.
This month sees the band (vocalist Trevor Phipps, guitarists Buz McGrath and Ken Susi, bassist John “Slo” Maggard and drummer Nick Pierce), release Watchers of Rule, their sixth and most bludgeoning collection to date, via eOne music. As the band prepares for the release with a North American tour, we caught up with Trevor to discuss some of the challenges in getting the album finished, the surprising historical content in the lyrics and we finally resolve the question of which was better – Fantasy Island or The Love Boat.
At long last, the album is about to be released. How does it feel to see it finally hitting the shelves?
I love this record. I think it’s our most aggressive record yet. We went in with a mindset similar to what we did on III: In the Eyes of Fire — go in with a pissed-off, hard-hitting approach and that’s the kind of record that we got.
You brought Mark Lewis (Whitechapel, Trivium, Black Dahlia Murder) back to produce the record. What about that dynamic suits you guys so well?
As far as metal goes, he’s one of the best mixing dudes out there. He really knows how to hone in on what the band is looking for and how to make it sound clean, but dirty at the same time, if that makes sense. He mixed our last one and this is his first time producing with us. One thing about Mark is that he loves eating chicken. During the sessions, he was trying to pack on pounds and he was lifting a lot of weights and he ate chicken every second of every day. It was pretty hilarious.
Although you’ve been at this for awhile, Unearth hasn’t tampered much with the formula, other than an obvious move towards heavier and angrier with each album. Do you feel like you have something to prove?
You have to be angry to write a heavy record and I think it’s important for a band to feel that they have to prove something on every single record. If you lose that fire to prove something to your fans, to your band mates and to yourself, then it will show in the music. If the fire isn’t there then maybe it’s time to hang up your boots. Some bands can coast for a while on their reputation, but in the underground music world, you’re only as good as your most recent album. There aren’t any pop hits that you can lean on to continue drawing a crowd, so if your album isn’t worth a damn, then people will move onto the next thing. That’s how and why we continue to put out strong albums. If you want to stick around doing something you love for a long time then you have to be all in, all the time.
Do you feel like the band took any risks this time around?
I think so. It’s our most metal record to date. There are more blastbeats on this record, there’s more speed to it and the riffs are much more progressive than on earlier records — although I’m not going to say this is a progressive record, but it’s progressive enough for us. Each guy has stepped his game up on the album and these vocals are way more vicious than on past records.
Looking back on the process, was there one moment when you felt like you had nailed it?
That’s a hard question to answer because we had a lot of ups and downs during the recording. When I first heard the demos — when I heard “From the Tombs of Five Below” — that’s when it hit me. I thought, Holy shit…this is a really heavy fucking record… But then we had a setback with our drummer Nick, when he fucked his back up pretty badly. He was out of commission for about three weeks, so we couldn’t track drums. That was last spring — March and April, 2013 — so finally he got back to tracking, but so much time had passed. The guitars, bass and drums had just got finished and we had to leave for a European tour the next day. But once Mark put that mix together and we got the actual sequence of songs that we wanted, it finally felt like a full, complete record and we were finally stoked. I say “stoked” too much. (laughing)
On previous releases like The March, you took on some historical themes. What did you do lyrically this time around?
I think I always include historical references in my lyrics and I try to tackle politics without being too preachy, like current events and the mood of the world at that moment. The song “Watchers of Rule” is a direct reference to what happened with Edward Snowden. You can have your own take on it and you can read from the lyrics where I stand with that. I’m not asking people to agree with me, it’s just my take on different current events. Historically, I wrote “Trail for Fire,” about the massacre of a bunch of Christians by Mormons in Utah in the late 1800s. I read about it in a book I have called The Most Notorious Crimes in American History. Basically the Christians were accused of trying to dismantle the Mormons and of trying to attack them, but they weren’t, the Christians were just trying to make their way out west. But there had been a slaughter of Mormons recently before that, so the Mormons thought that’s what the Christians were doing. They trapped the Christians, who circled the wagons and fought for five days but then the Mormons lured them out and slaughtered almost all of them, including the women and most of the children. So it was a pretty brutal massacre.
As a band that’s communed with the metal community around the globe, what stereotypes have you found to be true, and which ones are false?
It’s funny because we’ve toured a bunch and it seems that more often than not, when we’re out in a hotel or at a restaurant, people invariably comment on how nice we are. That seems to be the case with most metal bands. As a whole, metal fans in general are there for a good time. We’re all in it for the same reasons and that creates a big family. On the true side, people wear a lot of black, you see a lot of strange piercings and tattoos and the mosh pits can get pretty violent at times, but people aren’t there to really bludgeon each other. I just love being a part of it. I grew up with rock and roll as a kid, listening to my dad’s record collection. Then I got into metal as a young dude. I had a pretty sick mullet by the sixth grade (laughing), with my Anthrax shirts and my Metallica shirts, listening to Megadeth and Testament—they’ve been a big part of my life and today I couldn’t be happier.
I’m going to throw out some Either/Or choices for you. Pick one and tell my why you chose it. First, east coast or west coast?
East coast. It’s where I’m from. Quick story – we played 2004 Ozzfest, and we put together a dodgeball tournament between east coast bands and west coast bands from the second stage. More often than not, the east coast would win, even though the west coast had some pretty sick athletes, stacked with dudes who always worked out. But we had that east coast mentality with equal parts teamwork and that blue collar attitude, and that put us over the edge in the majority of those games.
Love Boat or Fantasy Island?
“The plane, the plane!” (laughing) That’s a tough one. As a kid, my mom would watch the Love Boat, but that’s a really hard one. but I’ll go with Fantasy Island, just because of that little dude. That was a magical show when I was a kid.
Iron Maiden or Metallica.
Metallica. Love Maiden, but I like my metal heavy and the first Metallica records will go down as some of the greatest heavy metal records of all time.
Comedy or horror?
I like both equally, and I love watching comedies like Billy Madison, but I love myself some Friday the Thirteenth or Nightmare on Elm Street. Fuck… that’s a hard one. I’ll go with horror.
Guitar solo or drum solo?
Guitar solo. I think drum solos are pretty fucking boring. I think they’re cool if they’re ninety seconds or less, just to show off a bit. But when dudes are hitting them for like twenty minutes, it’s time to get a beer.
***Watchers of Rule will be available on all major US outlets on October 28, 2014.***