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Interview

Frontman Bruce Fitzhugh Of Living Sacrifice Discusses New Album "Ghost Thief," Reflects On Past

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Band Photo: Living Sacrifice (?)

Christian metal godfathers Living Sacrifice have much to be proud of. From 1991 through 2002, the Little Rock, Arkansas band became a living (ahem), breathing evolutionary machine, tackling thrash, death, and groove metal with consistently stellar results – and helping pioneer djent and metalcore – before calling it a day. (Read more about the band's history in our recent edition of Sunday Old School here) Despite all this and Living Sacrifice’s influential legacy, frontman and rhythm guitarist Bruce Fitzhugh is hardly one to boast.

In keeping with the doctrines of faith the band was originally formed to express, Nashville-based Bruce reflects on his life’s work with a casual, easygoing humility that never attempts to soak up personal glory. Even considering Living Sacrifice’s triumphant 2010 return with “The Infinite Order,” an exhilarating, all-purpose American metal record that reignited love in the hearts of many old school fans and earned the band some new ones, Bruce is a dedicated family man and small business owner with his feet firmly on the ground.

However, that doesn’t stop him from continuing Living Sacrifice for the sheer fun of it, as evidenced in the stunning new album “Ghost Thief.” Bruce is here to tell you all about it, and much more.

Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): “The Infinite Order” seemed an amalgamation of all Living Sacrifice had done up to that point…

Bruce Fitzhugh: That’s the impression you got from that record, you think?

Mike: I think so, yeah. Some years had gone by, but I did sense some elements from most of the previous records, even though it had its own identity. I bring that up because I felt you outdid yourselves on that one, and I wondered just where you could possibly go from there. Did that question ever come up?

Bruce: No, we didn’t really think about that at all. We wanted to write another record, so we just got together and started putting songs together. Rocky Gray [lead guitar] had quite a few ideas pretty much completely fleshed out. We would tweak them here and there, and work on them a bit, and he and Lance [Garvin, drums] worked some of those out. It’s really weird… when you have some riffs and the structure of the song… I don’t really hear the identity of the song until we get it tracked. There’s often no opportunity to demo the song completely out, with scratch vocals and everything. Lots of times we’ll have the music complete but won’t necessarily know how the vocals will go until we actually record it.

Mike: The process gives the song an evolving life of its own. I can understand that.

Bruce: Definitely, definitely. And then as you’re recording, you’re turning your ears to the sound, the tone, that kind of thing. We really worked hard on getting a live, authentic drum sound. There’s little to no sampling as far as the drums go. All the percussion is live. A lot of heavy records sound amazing, but the drums are all locked into a ProTools grid, and all the tones and sounds are obviously sampled. We definitely did not want to have that.

Mike: There is a certain point beyond which things can sound too clinical, and make you wonder, “What’s the point of listening?”

Bruce: Yeah, and I don’t think we’ve ever had that, or pushed it to that extreme, but we were very conscious of it on this record, so any drum editing we shied away from completely. We wanted the performance to come through, even if it wasn’t perfect.

Mike: Since you brought up riffs, I’d venture to say this is your most melodic album so far, guitar-wise. “Mask” and “Before” even seem to have a Gothenburg metal vibe, like In Flames and At The Gates.

Bruce: Oh, wow. Yeah. That’s Rocky. He loves the melody! I don’t know if it’s conscious, but a lot of the stuff he’s been writing in the past two years has strong melody and hooks. So I would say that’s different for us, but there’s still quite a bit of our rhythmic, pummeling element. From my standpoint, it’s about locking into that mid-tempo heavy groove, which a lot of the songs have, from “Ghost Thief” to “Screwtape” to “The Reaping.”

Mike: It wouldn’t be Living Sacrifice without good groove. Well, moving on to lyrics, I don’t have them in front of me, so I haven’t been able to completely decipher what you’re saying on some of the songs, [Laughs] but I’m curious about some of the titles. So obviously, “Screwtape” is based on C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters.”

Bruce: Yep. That came from the idea of describing temptation and our thought processes that lead into temptation, y’know? That led me into thinking about that particular book – which I read years ago, not necessarily recently – as a literary tool. I wanted that protagonist to be the voice of the song: the one that leads astray, or the devil on your shoulder. So I thought it would be a good title, and referencing it might introduce some people to that book, because it’s a cool book. So it was a great literary tool to use.

Mike: I don’t think it’s ever been referenced in metal, as far as I’ve heard.

Bruce: Probably not. Only Tolkien gets the honor of having all the metal references! [Laughs]

Mike: And then there’s “Straw Man,” and even without reading the lyrics, I had my own suspicions of the meaning of that song…

Bruce: What does it mean to you, as far as how you heard it?

Mike: Well, since you guys are a faith-based band, and with a “straw man” being a false representation or false argument to make defeating an opponent easier, it seemed a critique of the typical criticisms or slanders a person of faith might encounter in a world that’s very secular.

Bruce: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Definitely. Creating a straw man to make your argument. The little twist on it, though – the concept of portraying something as something else, as what you think it should be – is that being Christian, as all of us are in the band, sometimes means experiencing that criticism FROM people of faith. Not just those who don’t share our beliefs or our faith in God. Basically, because we’re in this band, people have certain expectations of what we should believe or agree upon. Obviously, within Christianity, there are many different doctrines and things like that that not everybody agrees on. That’s why there are a gazillion denominations and churches. So the song is sort of a statement against projecting onto other people an idea of what they’re supposed to be, and holding them up to that standard.

Mike: It’s an interesting point, the criticisms from within the faith. I can imagine, being an aggressive, extreme metal band, you guys have encountered plenty of that kind of resistance over the past couple decades.

Bruce: To a certain degree, sure. It comes from all sides. Once you put something out there as art, you’re opening yourself up to criticism. And Living Sacrifice is known for being a “Christian metal band” because that’s how we started when we were eighteen years old, and we absolutely wanted to use the band as a tool to share our faith, for sure. And that hasn’t changed, y’know? The way we do it has probably changed a little bit, and we’ve learned a lot over the years, but yeah. It’s always come from all sides.

Mike: Speaking of changing your methods, I’ve noticed that on recent albums, your lyrics have approached faith in a more philosophical way, in which criticisms are confronted and false arguments are dismantled. These days, that seems the only way for a person with such beliefs to get somewhere with people.

Bruce: Well, everybody’s different, and in all honesty, I never was a good speaker. So I felt that the best thing we can do is put out good songs with good lyrics, and let the lyrics speak for themselves, and share our faith in conversation or whatever. But in writing record after record, there are different ways of saying similar things. Part of me didn’t want to repeat myself, so I decided I wanted to get a little more literary or cleverer with the lyrics, instead of just being in your face with no creativity involved. That’s always a struggle: “How can I say this in a way either I haven’t said it before or maybe someone else hasn’t said it before?” And some of our songs might not even be about anything necessarily faith-based – it might just be about life, coming from the writer’s perspective, which for the most part is my own. I like to ask questions to start a conversation, and a little bit of the downside is that people can read into it more. So they’ll come up to me and ask “Is this song about such-and-such, or this or that?” And I’ll be like, “Not really, but if that’s how you interpret it, then that’s totally fine.” But there’s always a specific place I was coming from when I wrote it.

Mike: I’m also curious about “Sudden,” which is one of my favorite songs on the record.

Bruce: “Sudden” was inspired by a couple of people we knew that just died suddenly over the last few years. They were good friends of ours in their thirties who died in their sleep. One of them had an enlarged heart nobody knew about, and the other one had epilepsy. A mild form of epilepsy, but it was enough for a fatal seizure. Totally unexpected, y’know? It’s kind of shocking and jarring when a young person, outwardly healthy by all accounts, just dies like that. It ties into the idea of the “ghost thief,” death. The idea of what that person experiences, what he or she goes onto, and the potentials for an afterlife – whether it’s based off the Bible or some near-death experiences. I actually read a couple books and stories about near-death experiences, about how the people interpreted what they saw, and things like that. It’s fascinating to me.

Mike: Also, reading about near-death experiences naturally begs the question, “What about the ACTUAL death experience? Is it that, plus something else?”

Bruce: Totally. And the song of course references the loss of that person, who may be a husband and a father – the family just expects him to be there, y’know? He’s got plans for his life, and then he’s just gone. Pretty jarring, for sure.

Mike: And appropriate in the realm of metal, I think. Metal covers some dark topics, and some people assume it’s from an evil standpoint, but it doesn’t have to be. It just addresses the “unpleasantries” of life in an emotional way.

Bruce: Yeah, life, and the existential question, and all of that.

Mike: Getting back to a happier note, Living Sacrifice has undergone a very interesting musical evolution. As an artist, are you ever able to separate yourself and appreciate the music as a listener, and if so, is there an album or cluster of albums you prefer?

Bruce: I think it’s really hard for us to separate ourselves from it, for sure. There are times though, especially when it’s something I haven’t heard in a long time, when I might enjoy going back and listening to it with fresh ears. But not often. I don’t usually go back and listen to past albums. I’ll listen to a new record almost every day once it’s finished. I don’t know why; I’m just listening and wondering, “Is this what we meant to do?” And for the most part, it is. But for me personally, it’s also for the repetition of hearing it, so that when we’re playing it in rehearsal, it’s there. I can recall it, and it makes performing a lot easier. We don’t play a lot, y’know? We all have families and different careers and things like that, so when we get together and rehearse for a show, that’s when we’re really playing songs. Even when we’re writing, we might record a demo and then not actually go back to it until we record it for the album. And then we won’t play it again until we decide we’re going to play it live, and then at that point, we need to actually learn the song, or re-learn it. So yeah, going back doesn’t usually happen for me. Some of the earlier records I have trouble listening to, like “Nonexistent,” [1992] because it sounds so bad.

Mike: [Laughs] Though you did re-record “Enthroned” in 1998.

Bruce: Yeah. And there are good songs on “Nonexistent.” But my favorite records are definitely from “Reborn” [1997] onward, and they’re all very different, and each one has its own sound in my opinion. But they all still sound like us, or at least I really hope so. It’d be great if somebody that hasn’t listened to us in five years hears something from the new record and says, “That sounds like Living Sacrifice.”

Mike: That’s what I thought, although “Screwtape” kind of threw me for a moment, because I’d forgotten that Ryan Clark [Demon Hunter] sings a guest chorus, and it sounded strange at first: “Did Bruce take singing lessons… is he trying to get on the radio?”

Bruce: [Laughs] Yeah, I couldn’t do that.

Mike: But then those ’91 thrash riffs came in, and it made sense to me. But you mentioned not touring or playing regularly these days, so I’m curious about something that isn’t really covered in depth: what factors led to your initial disbandment in 2003?

Bruce: Essentially just economics and family, and stuff like that. We were touring full-time at that point, and we were starting to have kids. I had a newborn and a two-year-old daughter at the time. And the reality just hit us that the only way to make income at that level is to stay on the road, because the only time you get paid is when you play. So I personally wanted to be there for my kids, and it’s funny, because it was kind of before the resurgence of metal. [Laughs] Before a lot of bands got big and really blew up, or at least started doing really well. I mean, a lot of these bands, even as big as they are, they struggle. But then again, at the time, Killswitch Engage and As I Lay Dying were playing small clubs, and at some of our final shows, Underoath opened for us. They’d been a band for a while, but still, nobody was selling 500,000 records like they started selling years later. And we never sold even close to that. So yeah, it was just that reality. By that point, we’d been a band for ten-plus years, so it was kind of like, “What do we do here?” And I loved it, every aspect of it, and if we could’ve worked out a situation where we could tour a couple months out of the year, that would’ve been amazing. But that just wasn’t the reality of it, so we had to figure out what we actually wanted to do in our lives, at least to make a living. That was the main part of it for me. And at the time, I really had to separate from it because I didn’t feel I could do it part-time. I felt I needed to stop. And five years later, I’d started my own business and worked for myself, Rocky had come off the road and was no longer performing with Evanescence, and so we felt we could do this again – at least on a limited level, and have fun, and not have it be like, “We’ve gotta make so much money or we’re gonna go into debt,” or something like that.

Mike: You mentioned a big metal resurgence, at least in the States. During that time, various bands started citing Living Sacrifice as an influence. Were you guys surprised or flattered to discover that?

Bruce: Sure, definitely. Always! And it doesn’t really happen that much anymore, because those bands have moved beyond and gotten bigger, and what happens now is, a lot of up-and-coming bands around here have never heard of us at all. [Laughs] It doesn’t bum me out; it’s just kind of the reality of it. I mean, we don’t make anything monetarily off this. We just enjoy working together, writing together, and playing these songs when we get a chance. It’s just what we like to do.

Mike: Do you have any ideas on why the so-called “Christian metal” genre became so monopolized by screamo and metalcore bands? I’ve always wondered why it hasn’t produced more bands like Living Sacrifice or Mortification.

Bruce: You know, I think it just has to do with popularity. A lot of these younger bands coming up, they’re attracted to what’s popular. It could be the first band that they started liking or listening to, and so that’s where their major influence comes from. And part of that might be coming back around. It goes both ways. There are some bands, not necessarily in the Christian world, but heavy bands that are taking more of a classic metal approach to what they do, like Mastodon or whatever. And I think young kids as they come up, whether they’re Christian or not, will hopefully be influenced by Mastodon or some of these more – for lack of a better term – “authentic” metal bands. Hopefully we’ll see some more of that. But yeah, it is what it is. And now, the popularity of the kind of bands you mentioned seems to be far greater, at least as far as numbers go, for some of the younger kids. Though lately, there’s definitely no lack of good, classic-sounding thrash bands like Revocation.

Mike: What other newer stuff are you into these days, at least in the past year or two?

Bruce: Man, good question. There is some good stuff out there. I think the latest Gojira record was great. This isn’t so much metal, but Kvelertak. They have two amazing records out, just really high energy. I saw them live in Nashville, and it was insane how tight they were and how much energy they had. Those are two I can name off the top of my head right now. [Laughs] Honestly, I’ve been going back and listening to really old stuff, like Corrosion Of Conformity and Down. Kind of more blues-rock metal stuff. I got the new Black Sabbath record and really like that.

Mike: You know, I haven’t listened to it yet – how does it sound?

Bruce: It sounds amazing! Really good. It sounds like 1970s Black Sabbath with a great recording. My only gripe is that the songs are good, but there’s nothing truly “great.” You’re not going to find a “War Pigs” on it, or a “Paranoid,” or anything like that. The album has eight songs and it’s about an hour long, so most of the songs are about seven or eight minutes. I appreciate the fact that they didn’t try to create a “modern” Black Sabbath sound, for sure, and Rick Rubin produced it really well. The riffs are killer; some of them are just monsters, and just sound like, well, Tony Iommi. But I don’t hear that one amazing classic Black Sabbath song that somebody’s going to want to hear twenty years from now, y’know? But other than that, it’s great.

Mike: It can be a frustrating situation sometimes, though, that nagging, intangible lack of an instant classic.

Bruce: Yeah, I mean, it’s good to the point where I really like listening to it and will in the future, but it’s interesting because I’ll go back and listen to the old Sabbath stuff, or the “best-of” records… there are a couple of them. You could fill up two full records with amazingly good, classic Sabbath songs! They wrote a lot of good songs just like Zeppelin did. SO many, y’know? And with Ozzy, they didn’t even do a ton of records… like six, maybe? So there was just a lot of great stuff during those years. And it’s not just them. Even the last few Testament records and the new Megadeth stuff: they keep putting out killer new material.

Mike: Did you like “Super Collider?”

Bruce: Ah, I listened to it a little bit. Not as much as “Th1rt3en” or “Endgame,” which is probably my favorite of all that have come out in the last several years. They’re so fast, though! They’re so quick. I mean, gosh, they’ve put out three records in what seems like three years – I’m sure it’s been more like four or five – but that’s still pretty quick. Most people wait two or three years these days. But man, they’re fast. And even “Super Collider” has a lot of good stuff on it. It sounds like Megadeth: great musicianship, killer playing, and good songs. There are a few songs I’m not into, that aren’t my favorites, but it’s funny, man. Even some of the Megadeth stuff that I wasn’t into back in the day, the stuff after “Rust In Peace” – because that album was just so insanely good – like “Symphony Of Destruction” or whatever… I find myself really liking all those songs now, all the melodic stuff they did. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just that I heard it for so many years and it’s grown on me, I don’t know. But they’re great songs.

Mike: I know what you mean. When we’re younger, we dismiss anything that steers the formula away from the heaviest, fastest metal, and then we mature over a few years, revisit that stuff, and think, “These are good songs. I like this.”

Bruce: Oh, yeah. I identify with that, for sure.

Mike: But for what it’s worth – bringing it full circle to Living Sacrifice – I do think “Ghost Thief” has some classics, or at least instant fan favorites.

Bruce: Thanks so much, I really appreciate it. We had a great time making the record and I like it a lot. I think we’re all really, really satisfied with how it came out. Sound-wise, song-wise, production-wise, and we hope our fans enjoy it. We hope we make some new ones, too.

Mike: On that note – and this is a cheesy stock question, but I have to ask it – hypothetically, what if someone waved money in front of you and said you could tour with a band of your pick?

Bruce: I think all of us would say Metallica. They’re pretty much it. I would think ANY metal band that’s honest would say Metallica. But I would equally say Megadeth, or Anthrax, or even Slayer, y’know?

Mike: And that would kind of bring things full circle, what with that “Seasons In The Abyss” sound on your self-titled debut, especially with DJ’s [ex-bass/vocals] old singing style.

Bruce: Yeah, that was apparent for sure. The sound that they had… we were seventeen, eighteen years old and thought that they pretty much nailed it. [Laughs] So we weren’t intentionally trying to sound like them or be like them, necessarily, but the influence on that record is obvious. And part of the reason “Nonexistent” sounded so different was that we wanted to get away from that.

Mike: “Nonexistent” always reminded me of Obituary.

Bruce: Yeah, yeah. There was a big death metal influence on us during that time, and for “Inhabit” [1994] as well. We were listening to those guys, Carcass, and other bands from that whole early to mid ‘90s death metal era. And when DJ left the band, we kind of regrouped and said, “We really need to find OUR sound.” So that’s what we tried to do with “Reborn.”

Mike: It always struck me as a very natural, graceful symmetry of evolution. A band forms at a very young age, absorbs various outside influences for a while, then matures, regroups and spits those influences back out in a reinvented form that’s suddenly innovative.

Bruce: Quite possibly. All of those records came out really fast – the first three albums, that is. ’91, ’92, and ’94. And yeah, we were young, and we had that goal to be the fastest, most technical, most brutal [Laughs] that we could possibly be. And it’s a losing battle, because you make something that you think is just freakin’ awesome, and then… Suffocation puts out a record! [Laughs] And it’s like, “Uh, never mind. We’re not gonna touch that.” [Laughs] But Malevolent Creation, we used to listen to those guys and we actually toured with them a little bit, so y’know… the technicality and speed, that’s what we were into back then. And when we did decide to completely regroup, with me taking over on vocals, we had to ask ourselves, “What do WE sound like? What are WE going to be?” Especially with my voice being what it was. I mean, I’m not a death metal singer.

Mike: Well, you could’ve fooled me!

Bruce: [Laughs]

Mike: No, honestly. Especially on this new album, your voice sounds more guttural, more brutal than it’s ever sounded.

Bruce: Yeah, it has gotten lower, for sure. If you listen to “Reborn” and then to the new record, it could be two different guys. [Laughs] It’s definitely gotten lower. Though I am more comfortable singing at a lower range.

Mike: It seems that style really emerged with “Conceived In Fire.” [2002] That massive intro, and the big, deep growl, “UNLEASHED!”

Bruce: Absolutely, you’re right. I’ll say that vocally, “Conceived In Fire” is one of my favorite of our records, for sure.

Mike: And you guys managed to work in some clean backing vocals on that one, for “The Poisoning.” Now that I think of it, you did the same thing for some songs on “The Hammering Process,” [2000] and there’s a bit of that on “Ghost Thief” as well. Is that Rocky?

Bruce: That’s actually Arthur. [Green, bass] He did a little bit on “The Infinite Order” as well. Going back, we started all that on “The Hammering Process,” and even I had a bit of clean singing on that one. But it was so difficult for me to pull off that I decided not to mess with it anymore. On that record though, gosh, it’s EVERYBODY singing different parts of songs. It’s Arthur, Rocky, even Matt Putman, who was doing backup percussion at the time, and me. On “Conceived In Fire,” it’s just Arthur and Matt Putman a little bit. On the last record and the new record, it’s just Arthur.

Mike: For the limited number of shows you DO play these days, what does a Living Sacrifice setlist look like? What albums do you draw from the most?

Bruce: Honestly, we usually do at least a couple tracks from “Reborn.” We pull pretty heavily from “The Hammering Process” because that was our most popular record, and people really know those songs, especially “Bloodwork,” “Local Vengeance Killing,” and “Flatline.” We used to fill up almost half the set from that album. Not so much anymore, especially with the newer stuff, so we’ll do “In Christ,” which was a bonus track we specifically recorded for the best-of album, “In Memoriam.” [2005] That’s become a big favorite with a lot of people. Sometimes “Death Machine,” but sometimes not. That’s the digital single we put out in 2008. Then easily two or three songs from “Conceived In Fire,” like “Symbiotic,” “Imminent War,” and “Ignite.” And when we toured for “The Infinite Order,” we were playing at least three or four of those songs each night. We played quite a few of those shows in 2010, but not so much in 2011. We did do a show out in Norway though, and in 2012 we did a show in Costa Rica. Pretty soon coming up, we’ll be doing Little Rock, Dallas, and Oklahoma City, all in December.

Mike: Geographically, that must be easier!

Bruce: It is. It’s easier for us to make those shows happen on the weekends, so that’s kind of how that’s come about. Unfortunately, we probably won’t be doing many shows for the new record, but if given the chance or opportunity, we’ll try to play more.

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Mike Smith is a Southern-born, New England-based writer and a diehard metal and hard rock fan. As a music journalist, he is a staffer with Metalunderground.com and Outburn Magazine. As a screenwriter/producer, he is currently working on his first film with director Jason Matzner ("Dreamland").

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1. Ross F. writes:

This was a really awesome interview! Thanks!

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