Unearth Channels Spinal Tap: "Have A Good Time All The Time"
Heavy metal? Metalcore? Mosh metal? Such questions matter little to Unearth shredder Buz McGrath, whose influential Massachusetts band has defied strict categorization for over a decade. After nearly three years since the last studio offering "The March," Unearth is set to drop their new album "Darkness In The Light" on July 5th and embark on a whirlwind of festival and headline touring. Here, I check in with McGrath for his thoughts on the album, subgenres, the subtle dynamics of a live performance, and more.
Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): I’ve had the chance to spin the new record a couple times, and I’d like to say congratulations for making it killer!
Buz McGrath: Thank you, man. Thank you very much!
Mike: I’d list for you all my favorite riffs and solos, but it’d be way too long. “Arise The War Cry” is a pretty epic track, though.
Buz: That one’s pretty intense. It was a weird one for us. We don’t usually do too many grooves like that, and it was kind of a sensitive lead with a mellow beat. And that was the big question, “Is this gonna be all right?” But a lot of people seem to like it. It’s a little bit different from what we usually do, so I guess that explains some of its appeal.
Mike: This is definitely an Unearth record, but it doesn’t seem to rehash any of your previous material. What do you feel makes it different?
Buz: Musically, we always try to take a fresh approach. Sometimes a riff will come up, and we’ll think we’re kind of ripping ourselves off. So we try and keep a tight leash on that kind of stuff, and it helps. At the same time, as long as it’s me, Ken [Susi, guitar], and Trevor [Phipps, vocals] in this band, it’s always going to sound like Unearth. The drums kept it fresh on this one too, because we had a new guy come in and play drums on it. So that definitely added a major element, and freshened it up a bit.
Mike: Do you have a favorite Unearth album so far?
Buz: I’m not going to count this one, because it wouldn’t be fair. When everyone puts out a new record, they always say, “Oh, it’s our favorite record, it’s our best record of all time!” And yes, it probably will be both of those things, but as far as our older stuff goes, I like “The Oncoming Storm” and even the one before it, “The Stings Of Conscience.” It was just so fresh back then, y’know? It was so new to us, and we were just coming up with stuff, and it was a really fun time, discovering ourselves musically. Touching ourselves in a musical way. So those have good memories for me, not that the other ones don’t, but I do look back on making those records with fond memories. With music, there’s always a time and a place, especially for me. Wherever you were in your life when you first heard that record, whatever connected with you at that time, that’s what attached you to that band. And hopefully that band keeps putting out stuff that keeps you interested, and it doesn’t always happen, because you change as a person. I use In Flames as an example. I loved their earlier stuff – “Whoracle” and “Colony” are two of my favorite records, and at that time in my life, that’s exactly what I needed. When they kind of started to do something different, I fell away from it. It just wasn’t for me. But then years later, I came back and revisited those records I didn’t like, and found that I really enjoyed them. So maybe it was me! Maybe I just wasn’t ready for that music yet. So I think that’s a cool aspect of it.
Mike: Funny you brought up In Flames, because I think their new album “Sounds Of A Playground Fading” is phenomenal.
Buz: I heard a little bit of it, so I’m not going to pass judgment on it yet. There’ve been some people bumming out on it, but I think those are the people who may not be ready for it yet. I heard some stuff online that sounded pretty cool, and I definitely have to sit down in my own environment, put on my headphones, and listen to the record in its entirety to say yea or nay. And you know what? If I don’t like it, I’ll bet that in four years I’ll come back to it and love it.
Mike: With Justin Foley on drums and Adam Dutkiewicz producing, [both of Killswitch Engage] is working with people from the same regional music scene a big advantage for you?
Buz: It definitely is. There’s no weird “getting to know somebody” period. We’ve done several records with Adam, so that’s a no-brainer. He knows what we’re going for, and he knows how to get it for us. We’ve been friends with Justin for years, ever since his old band Blood Has Been Shed. That’s where we noticed his talent, because technically, that man is above and beyond. With all of this so-called technical metal stuff that’s coming out today, he’s always at the next level. And we knew him from Killswitch too, so we’ve always been good friends with him. When it came time to do the record, we wanted him, and he was into it, so that was rad. Ken and I wrote most of the record, including the drum beats, and once all the demos were done, all the arrangements, we gave it all to Justin. We told him, “Look, these are drum beats made by guitar players, so they’re not always going to be the best.” And we asked him to put his style on it, and when we first heard what he’d done with it, we went “Wow! This is really shining!” We never ever jammed together! We never played those songs in the same room. Basically, he got the scratch guitar tracks with clicks, and he played his drums to them. It was only about a week ago during rehearsal that those songs were actually played in a live environment.
Mike: For better or worse, Unearth and some of the other big New England bands of the 2000s have been credited with pioneering what they now call “metalcore.” Do you have any opinions on that term? How do you see yourselves, genre-wise?
Buz: I always considered us metal, because in the grand scheme of things, it all falls under the metal category, unless you’re straight up hardcore like Terror or Madball. The term metalcore is fine; that fits just as well. There was a time, maybe a couple years ago, when that became a dirty word, because there were so many bands coming out with that style that were just terrible. So everyone started hating on the term “metalcore,” and metalcore bands started trying to distance themselves from that tag, which I thought was silly. I thought, “This is the music you’re playing, so don’t go trying to distance yourselves from that name just because it’s starting to stink a little bit.” So you know what? People call it metalcore, and I think it’s suiting. Still, I always felt that if Unearth wrote a song that sounded like King Diamond, and then put in a breakdown at the end, people would still be like, “IT’S METALCORE!” [Laughs] Again, not that that’s a bad thing. I’m not shying away from it; I call it “mosh metal” sometimes, or whatever. But every year, someone finds another genre name to pick on, whatever scene blows up. Last year it was “deathcore.” And then in the next six months, some other thing will come along that people want to hate on, but that’s just how the cycle goes, I guess.
Mike: As far as the King Diamond reference goes, I do think Unearth is heavily rooted in more traditional metal, and I can understand the metalcore originators wanting to distance themselves from the next wave, that bastardized it and turned it into this repetitive, breakdown-based style of music.
Buz: I hear you there. But at the end of the day, as long as people are putting out heavy music, it’s fine with me. Heavy is still heavy. If a band comes out, and they’re heavy and they’re popular, then good for them! Maybe they have wacky haircuts or stand some funny way onstage, but as long as it’s heavy and they’re doing well, then that’ll open the door for other heavy bands.
Mike: Unearth seems to fit pretty well with multiple extreme touring packages, whether it’s a metalcore tour, a thrash tour, or a death metal tour. What kinds of tours really jump out at you?
Buz: The Testament tour in ’09 was a chance to get at a whole different audience. I’d call it kind of an older metal fan base. Or if we’re to go out with All That Remains, who are pretty big but have a younger audience, it’ll be swell to get in front of those kids. We kind of look at it like that, demographic wise. We do a lot of metal tours and straight up hardcore tours; we did Europe with Sick Of It All, Slapshot, and Biohazard, stuff like that. We do well with those crowds too. People see the energy onstage, and that translates well to any audience. You do get people who are kind of closed-minded with whatever little niche of metal that they back, which is fine, but for the most part, I think the metal community at large is full of pretty open-minded people. You have to be! With so many different styles, if you take a stance against certain styles, you’re gonna miss out on potentially good music. People always ask me, with all the years of touring and all the bands we’ve played with, have I ever met anyone who’s been a real dick? And the answer is usually no. Maybe one person every once in a while that I can’t even remember, but you have to be cool about it if you want to stick around. You have to work well with other people. Otherwise, you’re just gonna have a terrible time.
Mike: Can you fill me in on your touring plans for the near future, after the record comes out?
Buz: We’ll be leaving for the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival on July 5th. The first show of that tour is the 9th. We do a couple headlining shows across the states, starting in Lubbock on the 5th, El Paso on the 6th, and then Vegas on the 8th. We start Mayhem on the 9th, and that runs until August 14th. Ten days after that, we start the “Hell On Earth” headlining tour in Europe and the U.K. That’ll run about four weeks or so, and then we head over to Australia for Soundwave Revolution, which Van Halen is headlining, so that should be pretty sweet.
Mike: What’s your setlist going to look like? Which albums are getting the biggest emphasis?
Buz: For the Mayhem shows, we only get about 35 minutes, so we try to squeeze in eight songs. We’ll probably do two from “The Oncoming Storm,” two from “In The Eyes Of Fire,” two from “The March,” and two from the new one. So that’ll break it up a little bit. We’ve toured so much on those records, we know which songs work and which songs don’t. So we’ll just play the bangers and then we’re outta there. If you want to hear the deep cuts, come to the headlining shows where we have as much time as we want. Sometimes we’ll throw an oddball song in there, but usually we fall into a routine. We tend not to break from it, unless it’s a weird show and Trevor just starts calling out songs and we just go for it. On the European headliner, I’m not sure. Our fill-in drummer knows what he knows right now, and we might throw a couple more at him, but I think we’ll stick to the routine. We’ll be doing a U.S. headliner at the end of the year, and I think we’ll throw some weird ones in. But we’ve tried that before, and every time we do it, it’s always like, “Aw, that song went over like a bag of dicks!” [Laughs] We’ve had bad experiences with that. There may be some fans in the audience who are like, “Wow, I can’t believe they played that song! Awesome!” But we feed off the instant gratification of watching people react in front of us, even though there may be people enjoying themselves in the back who aren’t moving. So it’s hard for us to gauge which of those deep cuts go over well.
Mike: It also must be a big challenge to commit to perfecting a song for a live environment.
Buz: Right. Sometimes a band gets discouraged really quick if something doesn’t go well at a particular show, but there are so many variables. It could’ve been just an OK show, or for whatever reason, something affected the show that might work awesomely at another show, but by that point, you’re like, “Waaa, I’m too scared to try it again!” Pussies. [Laughs]
Mike: Away from home base, what cities or countries do you feel “get” Unearth the most?
Buz: We do pretty well in the Midwest. On Mayhem, I’m really looking forward to Chicago and Detroit. Also New Jersey, and San Bernardino on the West Coast. Those people really come out and throw down. Texas always comes out and kills it. As far as other countries go, Germany is always a good spot for us. After that, we go to Austria, and that’s one of our favorite places to play, because it’s just a cool place to be in general. The people there always love to see us.
Mike: On the subject of your songwriting, what are some classics that you keep returning to, that might pop up in an Unearth song?
Buz: Definitely In Flames, older In Flames, like “Whoracle” and “Colony.” That’s the stuff I’ve always based my guitar playing on. Arch Enemy, stuff like that. Metallica, or at least the classics, like “… And Justice For All” and “Master Of Puppets.” That’s sort of the base of my soup, and then I branch out and listen to some newer stuff. I might hear something that somebody else is doing and think “Wow, that’s really cool!” And maybe I can go to the next level with what they’re doing.
Mike: Who are some of those newer artists for you?
Buz: Whitechapel’s pretty rad. August Burns Red is a really great band. Not that they’re a “new” band by any means, but they’re pretty fresh. There’s a band on Trevor’s label called Turbid North, and they’re great. I just heard them for the first time when we did a show in Alaska with them a few weeks ago. Those are just some of the bands I’m into right now.
Mike: What do you like to do outside of music?
Buz: There’s not really much that goes on when I’m home. I hang out with my daughter and my wife, and take my dog out, hang out in the backyard, that kind of thing. There’s really nothing too crazy that goes on, except I’ll hang out at night and drink some beers with some friends. I try to skateboard whenever I can. But music is it for me right now!
Mike: How about some non-metal favorites?
Buz: My wife and I are big fans of soft rock hits in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, also known as “yacht rock.” [Laughs] We jam out some of those tunes when no one’s looking. I don’t think that that seeps into my music at all, but it’s some outside stuff I enjoy listening to.
Mike: But you never know; maybe it does seep in, and you just don’t know it.
Buz: Right, maybe on some subconscious level, it leaks in there. The broader your palate, the better off your music will be. But my influences for metal, the ones I go to for reference, are pretty standard metal.
Mike: Do you feel that Unearth has a message?
Buz: Maybe if anything, we’d quote that line from “This Is Spinal Tap” when the keyboardist is getting interviewed, and he says, “Have a good time all the time.” If we could put that on the back of a shirt, we probably would!
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