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FURY, FLAMES, AND PHOENIX: THE ERIK RUTAN DOUBLE-INTERVIEW

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Photo by Alison Webster

This month, brutal death metal trio Hate Eternal, led by producer/guitarist Erik Rutan, has been at the center of a pitched battle between MS co-lord Axl Rosenberg and MS writer-at-large Anso DF. The conflict? Is Hate Eternal’s forthcoming Phoenix Amongst The Ashes record awesomely killer (per Axl) or is it insanely ripping (per Anso)? Does it fuck the face and slam the nutz (Anso) or does it render each listener “so fucking happy to be alive” (Axl)? Can its production and performances better be described as a high watermark of contemporary metal (Axl) or as a gift from another realm to every living music listener (Anso)? Is Phoenix a shoo-in for metal album of the year (Axl) or does it crush every other record on earth (Anso)?

Welcome to our love war.

When the time came to phone up Rutan for a discussion of Phoenix and other Hate Eternal affairs, we at MetalSucks opted to settle this battle of agreement with an interview conducted by both Axl Rosenberg and Anso DF. Unsurprisingly, Rutan took on the task with good humor and ease, only succumbing to confusion at times when Axl and Anso simultaneously rushed to hail Phoenix and its predecessor Fury & Flames. In its unexpurgated glory, we present our very special double-team interview of the great Erik Rutan.

Axl Rosenberg + Anso DF: Erik, hello!

ER: Hey. How’re you doing?

AR + AF: Hey! Great!

ER: Whoa. Wow, this is crazy.

ADF: There are two of us.

ER: This is a lot to handle just waking up in the morning.

AR: Sorry, man.

ER: I always joke around when people ask, ‘What time you work in the studio?’ I say ‘Metal hours.’” That means that it does not start before noon. [laughs]

AR + ADF: [laughs]

ER: Maybe I was meant to be born in Hawaii or something. How’re you guys doing?

ADF: We’re good, man.

AR: How’re you?

ER: Not bad, not bad. Just keeping busy.

AR: What are you working on?

ER: I just finished mixing Cannabis Corpse, and then I got this band called Desecravity from Japan. This stuff is really crazy. It’s like death metal and twisted, insane shit; if I had to compare it to something, [I’d say it’s] in the vein of Origin as far as really technical kind of stuff.

And Hate Eternal is practicing for a tour.

AR: Right.

ER: And working on these new songs, doing interviews and things like that, but doing all good things.

AR: Let’s talk about the new album, which the two of us love.

ADF: Congratulations!

ER: [laughs] Thanks, man.

AR: I know Fury & Flames dealt a lot with the loss of your friend and bandmate Jared Anderson. Since this album is called Phoenix Amongst the Ashes and its first song is “Rebirth,” it’s easy to view this album as a new start for Hate Eternal. Is that accurate?

ER: Yeah. In a lot of ways, Fury & Flames was such a hard record to do for me. Not only did I replace my band basically, with my drummer and bass player leaving, but I was talking to Jared for some time about potentially coming back to the band, and then he passed away. It was a tough time to pull my act together. Luckily, the one person that really changed things for me was Jade [Simonetto, drums]. We’ve been playing together now for four years; meeting him and his becoming such an integral part of the band now really helped change my outlook on things. On a personal level and on a music level.

With Fury & Flames, it was the building process of trying to handle what was going on. I had worked on 10-11 albums in a row producing; I didn’t even realize until I was in the final stages of Fury & Flames that I felt so fried. I was so burnt out from producing so many records and I was just done emotionally. I was burnt toast. I really had a hard time with the record. Getting that record done was definitely the hardest record I’ve ever done on so many levels.

ADF: When you say that you were ‘fried’ by the final stages of Fury & Flames, you’re saying that it was due to a huge workload combined with the emotional strains? You had to rebuild your band and go on without your friend.

ER: Yeah, exactly.  That’s exactly what I mean.  Sometimes I underestimate or overestimate … I feel like the Terminator at all times. I say, ‘Yeah, I can do this. Yeah, I can do that’ and I never even look back. More than anything, it was the emotional overload of doing the album and the whole time feeling a lot of melancholy and anger.  There was so much stuff going on at the time.  It’s hard to even explain really what was going on because it was just so much. The record was so important to me because I felt like this album was dedicated to my bandmate and my friend, and I felt a responsibility and having new guys in the band and things like that. The record was so important so getting it done was certainly … Even when I finished it, it was like I went through this stage of just [pauses] I don’t know.

Everything hit me when I was done and all of a sudden I just went through this weird phase of loss and depression. It was a hard time of my life, and I was in a tough headspace. I guess that’s why I say that I’m really proud of the album because of just what I endured to get it done. The workload was on me because I try to keep myself so busy that I wasn’t kind of dealing with some personal things that I should’ve been.  I had a loss in my family as well, and it was just an overload.  With the new record I definitely felt that I was finally starting to regain a lot of things and was in a better headspace; it definitely was a restart of things.

AR: Yeah, in the newest behind-the-scenes video that you guys released, it looks like you were having a lot of fun on this album.

ER: Yeah, I felt like this album was a clean slate in a way. I learned a lot from Fury & Flames, doing so many records back-to-back, and realizing that I need to better coordinate how I [organize work on Phoenix Amongst The Ashes] so I don’t let myself get into that state of mind again. I’ve talked to other engineers that play in bands that do their own records, and they all say the same thing. Most of them send the records out for someone else to mix because by the time they’re ready to mix, they’re losing their fucking minds. I thought about that with Phoenix Amongst the Ashes, but the thing is when it got down to the end, I just felt so close to the record. There was no way that I could have someone else mix this. I felt like I needed to follow it up from beginning to end.

I love hearing Flames; I love the material, but I feel like a lot of emotional and other types of baggage really infiltrated me in a way that made things so hard. With this record, I felt like I was in a way better place in my life and headspace. I really spread it out. Basically what we do is so much of the preproduction is me and Jade jamming at the studio and recording every day.

As a kid, I always dreamed of owning my own studio and being able to take your time. To be able to do that is amazing. We tracked the drums, the rhythm guitars and the bass. Then I took a hiatus from it to record the Agnostic Front record, and even though I didn’t take a break per se, it was good to just get away from Hate Eternal for a little while after working on it for more than two months straight and doing Agnostic Front — which was fucking awesome.

To work with Agnostic Front was amazing because it was a different record, and it got my mind off [Phoenix] for a little while. When I was able to come back to it, I just felt so fresh: “Oh wow, this sounds pretty good.  Let me do the vocals and mix.” It really made a difference; when I listen to Phoenix Amongst The Ashes, I feel that not only is it by far our best production as a band, but I really feel that it’s my best production period. I learned so much. I’m so fucking hard on myself — most people know that already. I’m a perfectionist to the utmost degree, so the fact that I can even sit here and say ‘Not a bad job, dude’ —

AR + ADF: [laughs]

ER: — ‘You can do better next time, but not bad, not bad.’  ‘Not bad’ from me is like a fucking breakthrough.

AR + ADF: [laughs]

ER: I’m really so fucking pumped up about this new record, I can’t even tell you.

ADF:  In what way does the production on Phoenix surpass Fury & Flames? Was there something specific that you wished to improve?

ER: On Fury & Flames, I wish that the guitars were more defined and pronounced. A lot of people never want to admit that they’re wrong, so they never want to say those things. I wear everything on my sleeve, man. I don’t hold back shit. I’m a straight shooter. Some people don’t know how to handle that — especially in the music business where so many people’s mentality is to tell you what you want to hear. I just don’t give a shit. I just call it like it is. It makes people uncomfortable, but I don’t give a fuck.  I don’t hesitate to fucking say what’s going on.

With Fury & Flames, I just thought that I had a new drummer and in the back of my head I was like, ‘I got to make sure that the drums are sharp so that everyone knows that this motherfucker ain’t messing around.’ I had Alex [Webster, bass, Cannibal Corpse] playing bass, and of course I was like ‘I got Alex Webster, so I got to make sure that he’s kicking ass.’ Not playing-wise, because we all know he kicks ass, but as far as making sure the bass [sound] got through.

Somehow in the past, like with Fury & Flames, I feel like the one thing that got compromised was the guitars; not that, in my opinion, Fury & Flames sounds bad by any means.  I like the vibe of Fury & Flames as far as the sound, but I do feel like I tried something different with the guitar sound, and by doing that, I compromised my guitars a little bit. I wish the guitars were a little more pronounced because I felt that Fury & Flames is a much better record than what some people might realize.  Not that I’m disappointed either; I just wish it could have been a little better.

With Phoenix Amongst the Ashes, that’s one of the things that I was thinking.  I was going to make sure that I got such a fucking heavy-ass guitar sound.  I worked on the guitar sound during preproduction and really figured out what I was using and just left the amp up, the cabinets up, the mics up — I just left it there.  I was like, ‘This is going to be the shit, and I’m going to roll it.’  That was really the one thing I wanted to make improvements on, as well as trying to branch out vocal-wise, doing different patterns and doing a lot of different things. I didn’t really force anything but going into the record I wanted to work with different tempos and different elements and dynamics and things like that.

From a production standpoint, I wanted it to be just this really more organic vibe with it for the new album.  It just had this kick-in-your-ass feel to it. On Fury & Flames, what I was going for was a little bit more modern-esque sound. With this one, I wanted to get back to an organic kind of raw but clear production.  I feel that this is, by far, is the closest I’ve gotten with Hate Eternal to the kind of sound that I’ve hoped for.  That’s what makes me get that five lousy hours of sleep that I get every night.

ADF: [laughs] It’s a great sounding album. You’re a producer and an engineer and you know how to achieve what you want in the studio. What records have struck you as having production to be emulated?

ER: It’s funny. What I’ve been trying to create in my niche as a producer/engineer/mixer is a bridge between the vibe of older records and the clarity and standard of today’s modern production.  I’m trying to really bridge the gap on both because I feel like a lot of productions these days are stripped of vibe and tend to be a little sterile. Not all, but some are sterile and sound so perfect, and humans aren’t perfect. My whole principle of producing is the belief in performance over perfection. That’s my motto.

I work dudes in my studio; believe me, you can imagine with my own band that I’m pretty fucking brutal. I really work guys to get the best performance that I can. Not only does that make for a more lively record, but it makes for a lot more confident musician at the end of the day when they leave the studio and say, ‘Yeah, I busted my ass on this fucking thing,’ rather than ‘Oh, that’s good enough.  I’ll just use some studio magic later.’ That’s not my M.O.

A lot of times with the record I’m doing, I’m really just comparing it to the records that I’ve done and are happy with.  I always go back to a lot of earlier records that I really just love. Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets are two bad-ass records from a long time ago, but you can pop on Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets at anytime during the day 24/7 like 7-11 and it’ll fucking kick your ass. There is something about the vibe of those earlier records, or even the earlier death metal albums from the early 90s. A lot of that is just because it’s actually humans playing the shit and tracking it to two-inch tape where they didn’t have the options to do studio magic back in those days. The magic was coming from the hands and the fingers of the musicians.

Two of my favorite productions that I’ve done would be Cannibal Corpse [Kill (2006), Evisceration Plague (2009)] and Goatwhore because I think those records capture the bands.  When I listen to Carving Out The Eyes Of God from Goatwhore, to me it really captures the essence of what that band is. When you see them live you’re like, ‘Wow, this sounds like Goatwhore on the fucking album.’ The same with Cannibal. That’s something that’s getting lost in today’s production, and with Hate Eternal that’s exactly what I wanted to capture.

As a producer, I was really thinking about the records that capture the vibe of other records in the past. We have this standard today where everything is super clear, super loud, super bright, and super perfect. I’m trying to stand on the fence and make it live up to a standard that people expect today; but at the same time, I’m giving it a different tinge to have a different vibe. There is a reason that you can pop in some records from 20 or 30 years ago and they still carry weight. Some of the records these days that have this perfect, sterile approach … Are they going to stand the test of time in ten or 20 years like Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets?

AR: Right.

ER: I don’t know that.  I’d like to think that hopefully some of the records that I do will stand the test of time.

ADF: Do you remember pop music in the ’80s? Everything was so canned and precise.

ER: Yeah.

ADF: We might look back on this period of metal the same way. So much is locked-down and vacuum-packed.

ER: A lot of people don’t talk about it. I really don’t even talk about it because I don’t intend to offend dudes who do production like that or bands that want that production. Everybody has the right to have whatever kind of sound that they want.  I just feel like there’s a reason that you listen to these … I’m an old school dude.

AR: I wanted to circle back to something you said a minute ago about Jade giving you a new perspective.

ER: Sure.

AR: Could you elaborate on how he gave you a new perspective or what’s different working with Jade? Of course, you’ve worked with a lot of great musicians.

ER: Oh man, my whole career has been surrounded with the best. If you look at the drummers that I’ve played with? Wow. Brandon Thomas of Ripping Corpse is an amazing drummer; Pete Sandoval is a legend and pretty much the reason that death metal has become an art for drumming; Derek [Roddy, former H.E. drummer] and now Jade in Hate Eternal.

When I met Jade, he was about 22 or 23 years old.  He was hungry as shit. I’d been trying out drummers. A lot of drummers were sending me videos, but Jade was like, ‘I know all the songs, man.  Why don’t I come down and try out?’  I said sure. He came down and we jammed out about 15 songs in one weekend. He knew a lot of the tunes. Jade was a diamond in the rough. He was young and not super experienced, but I just felt that if I gave this guy a chance, he was going to turn into a fucking monster.  He made the transformation for sure.

On a personal level, he’s one of the most dedicated guys I ever worked with. He practices all the time. That’s what he does. He lifts weights, practices drums. That’s what he lives by. It’s not rare to see Jade after playing a headlining set to be practicing his double bass or on pads after the gig.  Who the fuck does that?

AR + ADF: [laughs]

ER: He just lives, breathes, eats and shits death metal.  His youth and dedication … When I need him, he’s here. He’s always been here for me as a bandmate; he’s like a younger brother really. He’s the younger brother I’ve been trying to guide in music. I’ve spent so much time with Jade over the last four years. The four years that I’ve spent jamming with Jade is way more than any time that I’ve spent with Derek or anyone else because Jade is always here. He lives in Canada, so when he comes [to Florida], he stays here for a long time. He loves Florida. There’s a lot to love where I live.  I live on the beach and my studio is three miles away.

Joining Hate Eternal for him was how it was for me when I joined Morbid Angel. Hate Eternal is one of his favorite bands, so when he had that opportunity he just took it. He took the bull by the horns and just ran with it. When Jade joined the band he knew that I was going through some tough times. He knew that and was there for me in so many different ways both musically and personally. He’s been so loyal and just did everything possible to be the utmost professional and the utmost band mate I could possibly ask for. That single-handedly has really rejuvenated me in so many ways.

A lot of times, I used to write the music and then I’d put a drum machine in there with some drumbeats. With this record, I started the riffs at home, recorded them and send them to Jade and to JJ [Hrubovcak, bass]. Then we would get together and work on everything. Jade really worked on all the drumbeats himself and this is such a really great collaboration. To me, when I listen to Phoenix Amongst the Ashes, I truly believe that it’s the best all-around performance that I’ve had in a five-album stretch. Jade has a great groove as well as the ability to play some inhuman shit. That’s really the color and character of this new album because there are so many different dynamics that I was never able to capture in the past. I attribute that to Jade’s skill and dedication to the band and his art.

ADF: You mentioned that Jade eats, breathes, and shits death metal. That description is probably accurate for you, too. You have your studio, you have your band, you’re in and of death metal. However, I am titillated to see that you did some production work for a friend of metal, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who wrote the book on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. It’s not a metal album, right?

ER: No, it’s definitely not a metal record. I’ve been doing death metal for 20 plus years at this point. I definitely love doing death metal. In the last three years, I’ve worked with Nile, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and have done Hate Eternal and all kinds of stuff. I loved that. The Mountain Goats [work] popped up by Johnny contacting me online. He’s a big Hate Eternal fan. I didn’t realize until afterword that he’s a big Hate Eternal, Morbid Angel, and Cannibal fan. I guess they’d been watching the Making of Evisceration Plague on tour. Some line in it just totally grabbed them and just made John say, ‘Contact Erik Rutan and see if he’ll work with us.’ I got the e-mail from John saying, ‘Hey, we’re the Mountain Goats. You’ve probably never heard of us before, but I’d love to work with you. We’re an indie rock band. Check us out.’

So I checked them out. For me, my life is always about a challenge. If you listen to everything I’ve done in my career, it’s very challenging stuff; that’s because I’m always looking for the next challenge. I get bored so easily. I have to always push and challenge myself. I knew that the Mountain Goats [project] was going to be a challenge because it was totally out of my element to a degree. The Mountain Goats is acoustic guitars, drums with brushes, and things like that with different dynamics. The way we recorded things the Mountain Goats was we were recording live as a band and with only minimal overdubbing. It was such a unique approach.

My automatic first impression was that I had to do this because it would be awesome as a producer and an engineer. I always felt that I had a lot to offer not only in metal, but in other forms of music because I grew up in a classical kind of family, surrounded by that and rock. I’ve been subjected to a lot of music all of my life. I just felt that this would be something really special to do. It was such a unique experience.

I didn’t ask them before the session because I didn’t want to interject too many questions as to why they chose to work with me, but in the back of my head I was just thinking that it was a pretty unorthodox pairing.  Afterwards, I asked, ‘Why did you contact a quote-unquote death metal guy and John said that he just felt the passion that I put into producing after watching that video. He was like, ‘Man, I just wanted to get that. I know that you’re going to make sure you get the best out of us.’

I think my reputation as a producer has spread over the years. If you come into my studio, you need to be prepared because I’m going to bust your ass on it. I’m going to make sure I get the best out of you that I possibly can.  I’m going to evaluate your skill, and I’m going to evaluate everything. I’m going to bring out the best I can out of you. John felt like I could bring something to the table. One guys that I’ve looked up to in my career was Tom Dowd. He went from recording Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles and to recording Derek & The Dominos and all this stuff.  He did six decades of music.

AR: Right.

ER: Rick Rubin, a guy who did Slayer and Run-D.M.C., then he’s doing Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash. Guys like that are really what inspired me as a producer. Guys that can take individual bands and create a unique sound for each one of them; that’s how I approach every album I do. With the Mountain Goats, this was my time to shine in a different way. I gotta say that the last couple of weeks in regards to the Mountain Goats have been killer; three weeks ago they were on the Late Show With David Letterman playing one of the songs that I produced. I produced four songs with them, and they played one of those songs on the show a couple of weeks ago.  I was in my house watching a band that I produced on the David Letterman show which is something I thought I’d never do.

AR + ADF: [laughs]

ER: This week I got some links from people where I’m reading Rolling Stone and Spin and Erik Rutan is mentioned in there.  If someone had said 20 years ago that I was going to be in Rolling Stone, I’d be like, ‘Whatever, sure.’

Then The Mountain Goats hit Billboard and I was like, ‘Awesome.’  It’s such a good bit of success. Watching those guys on David Letterman reminds me the feeling I had when, on tour with Pantera, Slayer and Morbid Angel, I got the opportunity to play “Walk” at Pantera’s encore with Dimebag’s guitar.  It was one of those special moments in my life that I’ll never forget.

I recorded that David Letterman show and watched it like five fucking times. I was like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe I recorded these guys and they’re on a show that I’ve been watching since I was a kid.’ It just kind of blew my mind a little bit. I never take anything for granted in life, especially with the hills and valleys that I’ve experienced in my life and career. I really value every little thing that happens in life, man.

ADF: That’s awesome to hear that you still get pumped about that stuff.

ER: Over and over.  The older I get and the more I do this, the more humble I have become and the more I appreciate everything. With Hate Eternal, we tour Europe. A lot of people just take that for granted like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m going to Europe. Whoopee.’ It’s my twentieth or so time to Europe for tours and I’m still like, ‘Holy shit. I’m going to be in Rome in a few weeks.  Time to have some prosciutto and fucking look at the Colosseum.’

I really value and appreciate what I’m able to do with music and the people that support me over these years. It was 20-plus years ago that I was sitting in my bedroom, jamming guitar, and listening to Slayer, saying ‘Fuck, someday I want to write some crazy shit and own a studio where I can record my own band, my friends’ bands, and bands that I love.’ At the time all these people like teachers and high school were like, ‘What a fucking pipe dream. Wake up to reality. Good luck with that, man. Enjoy pumping gas.’ It’s hilarious all these years later when a lot of people are like ‘Man, I always knew that you had it in you. I knew you’d always succeed, man. It was just something about you.’ Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.

AR + ADF: [laughs]

ER: I was totally the kid in high school that everybody thought would end up dead or in prison.  The fact that I’ve been able to do what I’ve done so far and still have so much more to do … I don’t overlook that at all and never take any of it for granted.

AR: Right on.  So this summer you got this big co-headlining tour with Origin. It sounds like you’ll be playing a lot of new material out on the road.

ER: Oh yeah, man. I’m pumped to play this stuff. It’s challenging, man. With Hate Eternal, I’ve always approached the lyrics and vocals as separate entities. When I’m writing the music, I’m writing the music. When I’m writing the lyrics, I’m writing the lyrics only as a vocalist and not with a guitar in my hand. I always felt if I do that, then I might tend to write lyrics to go along with the guitar lines all the time — everything choppy. With Hate Eternal, I’ve always tried to treat the vocals as independent.

The thing is when I’ve got to come back after the record is done and start playing and singing this crazy shit, I like to have a lot of practice. Especially with the new record. That’s why I got Jade and JJ down here really early. The last couple of weeks, I’ve been sitting at home at 3:30 in the morning jamming in my living room on the couch — just to practice singing and playing this stuff at the same time. Obviously, the lyrics are fresh in my head. It’s not about the memorization, it’s just about playing crazy shit and singing crazy shit at the same time. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god.’

Every record I’ve been doing it more and more, but this record lyrically and pattern-wise, I did some really different stuff than I’ve done in the past.  It’s really put a good challenge on me which makes me very enthusiastic: “Yes, I can’t wait to play this shit live!” I can’t wait to do that tour. Origin, Vital Remains and Abysmal Dawn to me doing an all-death metal package like that is fucking … I can’t even tell you how excited I am about it. In the summer, you’ve got Summer Slaughter out there, and I don’t know what else. With this tour, it’s death metal from beginning to end and that gets me so excited. Vital Remains and Abysmal Dawn, I’ve worked with in the studio; Origin are friends of mine and we’ve toured before. I respect all the bands, and I think it’s going to be a death metal juggernaut. What a fucking killer tour.

It’ll definitely keep us on our toes because, holy shit, we’re playing with some bad-ass motherfuckers out here. We better be on our A-game. And I’m not talking B+, I’m talking A at all times because none of those bands are messing around. Everyone in the band is rejuvenated. I feel like the vibe in Hate Eternal is something that’s very special and unique. Us three are a tight unit musically and we’re tight as shit personally. We’re all on the same page. That’s something that is really hard to achieve in a band a lot of times. You look at bands and people are coming and going all the time, but right now I feel that we’re so locked in as a band.

AR: We’re really excited to see Hate Eternal and thanks so much for waking up today and doing this double interview.

ER: [laughs] Yeah, man I had to roll out of bed at 12:30 to do this interview.  Holy shit. I apologize to 8-5ers, man. [laughs]

–AR + ADF

Hate Eternal’s face-banging forthcoming album Phoenix Amongst The Ashes is out May 10. Pre-order it here or just eavesdrop at our windows for a few minutes cuz the shit will be on blast please believe that.

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