CHIMAIRA’S MARK HUNTER: THIS INTERVIEW AIN’T HELLISH
If I’m not mistaken, Chimaira vocalist Mark Hunter has now been interviewed for MetalSucks more times than any other musician — which is fine by me. Not only is he one of my favorite front men all of modern metal, but I always come away from these interviews feeling like I actually learned something about a band I love. In a world where it increasingly feels like too many folks are giving what I’d call “paint by numbers” answers to interview questions, Hunter’s willingness to be so sincere is always refreshing.
And, besides, Chimaira’s new album, The Age of Hell (out today on eOne — stream it here, buy physical copies here, or download it from iTunes here), is not only totally awesome, but it arrives admist a flurry of drama and controversy, as the band changed fifty percent of the line-up in the intervening years since 2009’s The Infection. So there was certainly plenty to discuss this go-’round!
After the jump, read the full transcript of my most recent chat with Hunter, in which he discusses those line-up changes, Hell‘s creation, the band’s upcoming tour plans, and much, much more.
Before we talk about the album specifically, let’s get the obvious nonsense out of the way. There were some pretty big lineup changes since the last album. Were you ever worried? Was Chimaira’s future ever in doubt?
I was definitely worried for quite some time. We know things behind the scenes a lot longer than the fans. For example, Jim told us he was leaving the band in February of 2010. We didn’t announce it until after Mayhem Festival. Internally, there was a paradigm shift, and you really start to feel this uneasiness. And there was so many things going on, from our record label changing staff, to the industry taking a strange turn, and the economy… All of these things were happening at once.
So not only were all of us worried as individuals, but we were definitely worried as a business about what we were going to do. There was a lot of ups and downs in all that. You go through the whole negative phase, like, “Nobody cares, the industry sucks, everything’s going downhill, fuck this, let’s get out.” But then there’s the positive side — “Look at all the fans that we have, the opportunity of what we can do.” For me, personally, I chose the latter.
Although was a difficult choice to do that [laughs]. It was hard with what we had facing us. It’s difficult to change, and it’s definitely difficult to accept that people have things in their lives that they would like to do that are perhaps different thanwhat the entity Chimaira requires.
So there was a moment in time where I was like, “I’m throwing in the towel; I’ve had enough.” But about five minutes later, I came to the reality of what that meant. I just really enjoy doing this too much, and I guess I’ll put up with the whatever is thrown at the entity of Chimaira and what’s thrown at me at least one more go-around. I enjoy this, and I enjoy how I know our music makes our fans feel.For me, that has so much more worth and value than any of the obstacles that were put in front of us.
You guys didn’t really solidify the new lineup until after the album was done. Did you ever think about doing that beforehand? Was there a reason why you decided to make the album with the three of you… or I guess the four of you, if you include Ben [Schigel, the band’s longtime producer].
There was a discussion. But it all happened so fast. Literally, we were scheduled to be in the studio in February, and we kind of decided to make the internal changes… or the internal changes started to manifest, I should say, right before the Christmas show.
The initial thought was, “Why bring new people into the mix that have never really played with us before and try to see what happens, when we’ve already made so many albums together with Ben?” I personally was in a band with Ben before Chimaira [Skipline, which also featured now-former Chimaira bassist Jim LaMarca.-Ed.]; he’s always kind of been the silent seventh member of Chimaira. It made more sense to us to work with him. We knew not only that he would he just rule on the drums, but that he understands the songs, understands the band, understands the players, and understands Chimaira better than most people. It made perfect sense to focus on what we had with him.
So we scrapped virtually all of our demos, and basically, it came down to Rob [Arnold, guitarist] and I working solely with Ben, writing the album virtually from scratch. I think out of all of the tracks, maybe two or three were written before all of this stuff happened.
Is this the most involved Ben has ever been with the songwriting?
Yeah, without question. He’s always chimed in. He’s had his hand in some of our well-known songs, like “Down Again” and “Power Trip,” by helping to rearrange those songs from the original demo. We’ve let him in since way back in the day, and he’s helped song structure and finding… sometimes as an artist, you’re like, “What is it missing?” He really helped us find what we were missing. We’re very comfortable working with him.
And based on my experiences with working with him before Chimaira, I was really excited about it. Not only was it returning to my youth so it was like, “Wow, this is the guy I originally wrote songs with,” but I also knew what a great of an improvisational player he is, and that’s how I like to write. So I knew that it would be very exciting, and that we would have no idea what to expect. Working with him is like getting on a rollercoaster.
That sounds fun.
It was exhilarating, because we knew it was going to be awesome, because we had confidence in ourselves, even if it was also going to be scary because we were working without guys that we had been used to working with our entire career.
It was also really fun because it was a chance to just let it all out and be ourselves and go for it and see what happens.
You did the effects-y stuff on this album, the stuff Chris Spicuzza used to do, right?
I assume that you have always a little involved in that, but how did you find being so heavily involved in it?
I definitely had a great time working that part. That’s the element of this band that I’ve always taken pride in — even more so than any of the vocals. I love the atmospheric stuff.
I didn’t really want to think about how I’m going to top anything that Chris did or anything like that. It was never about that. It was just a totally different album and a totally different vibe, different songs. It was exciting.
I also had help from a good friend of mine who is in an up-and-coming band in the area called Ohio Sky. They’re like a Pink Floyd meets Mastodon meets Deftones kind of band. Their keyboard player [Patrick Finegan] and I have become good friends, and he’s been helping with some of the artwork, too. He helped out quite a bit with the samples as well. It’s been a collaborative effort. A couple of friends came in. [In addition to Finegan, Kalam Muttalib, Lauren DuPont, Vincent DiFranco, and Emil Werstler are all credited in the album’s liner notes with “additional keys and samples.” -Ed.] With anyone that came in the studio that was hanging out, were were like, “Hey, do you want to put a little something on this album?” We tried to make it fun, and not just me doing every little thing. That’s the beauty of the electronics, is that they’ve always not just been Chris and I, but the producers always help, and somebody always comes in and fills in a little bit and throws a little more paint on the wall. We just maintained that tradition.
It’s interesting because you would think that there would be less of that stuff without Chris, but you’ve got one entire track, “Stoma,” which is basically an electronic interlude. Can you talk about that track and how it came about?
Basically it was just Ben and I hanging out in the back room.I think we were just messing around with a Moog synthesizer. We stumbled upon a noise, and an hour or two later, we had that whole piece recorded.
Something Chris and I always fought for was to have more electronics in the band. We’ve always tried to have it be more upfront. There was a period when our first album [Pass Out of Existence] didn’t do so well where some folks thought we shouldn’t have a keyboard player. It was considered nu-metal and cheesy. We just never really paid attention to that. It was like, “You don’t understand what we’re doing.” Chris wasn’t ot a DJ and it’s not straight-up keyboards. It’s more like we’re designing the score for a horror movie or something.
So with each album, we’ve experimented more and more. I think that this time around… [Chris] would have a lot of fun making this album. It was definitely weird not to have him around. I wouldn’t describe the experience as, “I’m so glad that these guys are not there.” Because they always will be there in spirit.
My thought was, “I want these samples to be great, so that hopefully if Chris hears it, he’ll think ‘Wow, they stepped it up.’” His work definitely influenced everything that was on this album.
Speaking of experimenting, there are some way different vocal performances from you on this album. I think the song “Clockwork” alone has more clean vocals than all the other Chimaira albums combined… and that’s not the only song. How did that come about?
I think when we started out, we had the intention to have melody in the group. Those that are familiar with our DVD [The Dehumanizing Process] know that in our earlier days, half the band wanted singing and half the band didn’t. During The Impossibility of Reason there was some singing, but I think that whole argument [about that singing] kind of destroyed my desire to sing that much.
And it was probably a lack of confidence as well — “Man, why don’t the guys in the band want me to sing?” It was like a silly, youthful mistake. You kind of want to make everyone happy, so you put a little melody in here and a little melody in there.
Bu this time around, it was just what I wanted to do. I feel this is the right time, and I had the right amount of confidence to do it and make it serious. We’re not one of those bands who are like, “Okay, we’re going to put some melody in because we want to sell some records.” I wanted to sing, and I wanted it to sound great with the music we were writing.
There is also this little bit of… I mean, back in 1998, I was one of the very few screamers in a world of more aggressive yelling and melodic metal. Fast forward to the present, and who’s singing?
It’s interesting, because I feel weird calling them “clean vocals,” because obviously that’s what they are, but it’s not at like what Howard Jones or Phil LaBonte does. It keeps making me think of Alice in Chains. It seems like a much moodier style of singing.
I just go out with the same approach that I do with the screaming. To even have that comparison is so mind boggling.
I will never not say that I don’t try to emulate…. it’s definitely no secret that [Layne Staley] was one of my favorite singers. But I’m also 100% trying to sound like me. There are so many more easier ways that I could sit here and go [mock screaming noises] all day long. I think it’s just me being me. I’ll choose to do the same harmony that [Alice in Chains] might do.
I didn’t mean to imply that you were aping him…
Hey, all musicians are borrowing from each other. That’s not secret. There’s a difference between ripping off and paying homage.
It’s just a matter of having the confidence to do it. I feel that it’s time, and that the music calls for it.
Was there less resistance to the singing from your band mates this time?
[laughs] Well, there were less band mates this time.
I guess I should say from Rob. Was Rob resistant to the singing this time? [laughs]
I think that this time around, we both kind of looked at each other like, “What have we done?” Everything — where we got to and where things went unexpectedly — we, as leaders of the band, take responsibility for. If a member leaves, it puts that weight on our shoulders. A lot of this stuff is life decisions and needing to move on. So we looked at each other in the studio and said “Hey, let’s make this the best Chimaira record.We have to make this great for our fans. This is now or never — put it all out. Put everything that you wanted to put on a record.”
That’s great! And you guys have already played some new material live. How was the reaction to that? I would imagine that it was pretty positive…
Yeah. I recall in the past when we would debut songs, trying to gauge the fan reaction… This is six albums in now, and this time it felt different. You could see this excitement when people rushed up to you after the show. They were lik,e “wow, I really like that new song!” They were almost grabbing us. There was this genuine feeling of, “Whoa, I can’t wait to hear more”. Whereas before, you would get the obligatory “Yeah, that was cool. Now play some old shit.”
That’s usually the thing. Usually your fans are an album late.
Everybody says that. But I imagine it’s especially true for you guys, because you make shifts in your sound from album to album — I know some fans get cranky about that.
[laughs] It’s strange. I think that the fans, the ones that I talk to at least, seem to get it. There are always the fans that like to complain about things and tell you that they don’t like a certain album or something. I never understood that. I would never go up to Steven Seagal and say, “You know, I never really liked you in Marked for Death.”
These guys will come up, and I listen to their feedback. You try to figure out, “Okay, what is the essence of what they’re missing?”, and you kind of grasp that. But at the end of the day, we’re just like, “Well, you can’t please everyone.” Artists change as individuals. That’s how style get effected. We’re not going into the rehearsal space going, “Let’s try and change our sound up. What equation is missing?”, and there’s a drawing board. You might have a legitimate discussion and say “Let’s have more diversity on this album” and things like that, but you can’t plan for anything. It’s impossible. So we’ll always go a different way.
That makes sense. I know for The Infection you said that the lyric writing was done via, for lack of a better term, freestyling. Was the process kind of similar for this album?
Yes, and for the writing of the music, too.
We started writing together in January and we were done recording by the middle of March. I think we came up with ten songs from start to finish in that month and a half time period. A lot of the playing was impromptu, and a lot of the drums on the album are second or third takes. It was pretty cool.
The scariest thing about doing it that way was that we had no idea what the album was going to sound like until it was done. We built it from the bottom up and a lot of it was based on feeling and capturing the emotion.
But we had a schedule. It was like, “We know how this song goes. Ben track the drums and Rob do the guitars and bass.” Then I would spend the entire day with that song writing and recording the vocals, and then take it into the back and do keyboards while they were doing guitars and bass for another song.
So you were doing one song at a time?
Yeah. We had a weird schedule where Ben would be like, “I want to do six songs and then I don’t want to play drums for a week and a half.” [laughs] It wasn’t like, “Let’s just do this song today.” But if you really map it all out and technically look at it — yeah, we did a song a day. All written and recorded.
Wow. So even if you didn’t know what the whole album was going to sound like, you had at least had some sense of how each individual track would sound…
Yeah. We were onto something, and we knew that our intentions were — where we were going. We were all in a place in our lives where we were like, “Let’s just do something great. Let’s do the best that we can possibly do and bust our asses. It is what it is and the past got us this far, let’s be thankful that we’re here. Let’s do this and make some noise.”
Right on. So the past is the past, and now looking forward: how did this new line-up come together? Those are all dudes that you had prior relationships with, but did you talk to a wider circle of people, or did you just start calling up guys you were friends with and say “Hey, want to be in our band?”
Everything was so strange that I think we didn’t know how to react at first. We talked amongst ourselves for the first couple of weeks. Rob and I would sit and discuss about what we would do with this and that.
It made sense to continue working with Emil [Werstler, Dååth guitarist and now Chimaira bassist], as he had been such an asset [Werstler has filled-in for the band on past tours, and contributes a guest guitar solo on Hell‘s “Samsara.” -Ed.], and we got along with him so well on the road. He was more than willing to be there. He was the first.
Rob had suggested Austin [D’Amond, drums] from playing with him in his side project, The Elite. And I’ve known Austin for a long time from Bleed the Sky, and knew that he was a fantastic drummer.
When came down to the keyboardist situation,we wanted to maintain that aspect of the band because we felt that it was an integral part of our sound and look onstage. But it’s not like a guy who just plays keyboards — it’s triggering noises that were created through whatever process. Basically, we needed somebody with a knowledge of keyboards and computers. And the only person that I knew that was crazy computer guy on the road was Sean Z. from Dååth. He and I, through touring, discovered that we’re very similar individuals. We formed a really strong bond and friendship. So I asked Rob, “What do you think of Sean Z. on keyboards? I don’t know if he would do it, but that guy knows his computers. We need someone who knows computers and rhythm.” [laughs] And instantly, Rob thought it was a great idea. So I called Sean and was like, “I know this sounds totally random and out of the blue, but how would you feel about doing this?” He was immediately excited and mentioned that he actually knows how to play the keyboards [laughs], and that he always wanted to play keyboards in a band, and one of his relatives plays keyboards for a band.
So it all kind of just fell into place, and we got together to shoot the DVD and the video. And we had never played together as a band before. And here we are, “Oh, go ahead and shoot a video now and do a photo shoot.” It felt kind of strange. But the funny thing is, none of us could resist… as soon as everyone got there, they instantly set up their gear, and we were playing within a few hours.
It was exciting to go through all of the bad stuff, to lose members and all that, and still come out of it like, “Yeah, we’re all here and we’re doing it.” It sounds great.
So it feels really good. It’s exciting and we’re building the new website right now. It’s cool to have the fans get to know these guys. The story continues!
I know Rob and Matt [DeVries, guitarist] are on the road right now with Six Feet Under. But I assume there’s more touring for you guys in the future?
Yeah, we’re booking all of our touring right now. We start hitting the road in October. We’re going to be headlining the States all the way through the Christmas show.
Awesome. Am I correct in assuming that you’re not allowed to tell me who else is on that bill yet?
I’ll throw you some cool hints for the readers.
[The bands have seen been announced as Impending Doom, Revocation and Rise to Remain, so we’re going to skip all these hints, although they were pretty good clues! -Ed.]
It’s been awhile and it’s exciting to get back out there. We’re booked all the way through Easter already.
So after Christmas I assume you’re going to Europe?
We’ll be going overseas to Europe and Australia.
Awesome. Thank you. I know you’re busy, so I’ll let you go. Is there anything you want to add that we didn’t touch on?
No, man. Just, thanks to all the supporters out there for understanding that these changes are not anything other than life invading art, and for bearing with the entity that is Chimaira and having the faith that we would deliver material worthy of that name. It’s an honor to have those people who helped us get to where we are, and the fans that are still with us. Thank you.
Make sure you stay tuned to MetalSucks and Chimaira’s official website for all of their upcoming tour dates, which should be announced shortly.