THREAT SIGNAL’S JON HOWARD: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Given the unprecedented amount of bands that are getting their starts via the Internet these days, it’s somewhat remarkable that any of them manage to make a name for themselves. Animals as Leaders, Periphery, Cloudkicker, and a fair number of similar projects have been getting the majority of the recent buzz, but Threat Signal were among the first to put music online and get a record deal from it.
All the way back in 2004, Jon Howard, Rich Howard, Kyle McKnight, and Adam Matthews wrote and posted the song “Rational Eyes” on GarageBand.com, leading to the eventual formation of a permanent band and the 2005 release of Under Reprisal. In 2009 they released the album Vigilance, which was received rather poorly.
The band is back with a self-titled new release that blends the brutality of their first release with the much-criticized and (now much-improved) melodic tendencies of Vigilance. I talked with extremely stoked vocalist Jon Howard last week about everything from the TS writing process to the band’s recent lineup changes and the state of the current metal scene.
Can you tell us about your new album?
Well, we recorded it with Zeuss down in Massachusetts at Planet Z, and basically we chose to make the heaviest fucking record we could possibly make. That was the idea behind it, so that’s what we did.
Well, I was about to point out the heaviness of the new album and ask whether the heavines was a conscious decision, but you kind of already answered that.
It definitely was. The last couple records, we kind of wrote whatever we wanted, and whatever came out, came out. This time, we sat back and said, “let’s write the heaviest shit we can.”
It’s definitely different from the last two, haha.
So how was the writing process different without Adam and Norman?
Actually, it was exactly the same, pretty much. We always write our songs with Guitar Pro; it’s all tabbed out, because we live all over North America, so we send the files back and forth. Actually, this record was the very first time every single band member contributed musically and wrote on all the songs and played on the songs, so it was a full-band effort. And that was pretty much a first for Threat Signal.
Cool, I didn’t know you guys wrote with Guitar Pro. How often did you actually get together and play as a group before the album was finished?
Well, we did a couple local shows and gigged around, but all the writing and everything was done separately. Every song is written before we jam on it. We don’t sit in the rehearsal room and write songs because of the distance. There wasn’t really much jamming before we went into studio. We had those couple of shows, but after that we took a couple weeks off and got our shit together. Then we all met at the studio. We mostly just rehearsed on our own.
That’s pretty cool. What do you personally think of the album as a whole, compared to your guys’ earlier releases?
I’m very proud of it. I didn’t think this band could get that evil and that heavy, and it’s kind of exactly where I wanted it to go. Compared to past records… Vigilance was kinda out there. It had a more melodic approach and was more rock-oriented. There are heavy parts on it, but we went way towards the melody. With the new record, I could see a lot of people who liked Under Reprisal getting into this one because it takes the heavy elements of Under Reprisal and emphasizes them. We brought back a lot of the bends and the grooves and shit like that.
The production sound is really phenomenal.
Thanks, man! Yeah, Zeuss does a great job. He’s like an all-in-one. He’s does the producing, engineering, mixing and mastering; he did the whole thing. And he did it all within a fucking month.
So how long did it take you guys to write everything and get it together?
Well, the demoing process took about six months. And then when we jumped in the studio, we came in fully prepared — everything tabbed out, everyone rehearsed. Tracking took between 3-4 weeks and then maybe another week to mix and master it. It was probably a 5-week process.
That’s pretty fast considering the distance between members.
Yeah, well, it’s pretty machine-like — everyone just practicing on their own with a metronome. It’s very mechanical metal.
Like you mentioned, you had a heavier sound on Under Reprisal and a more melodic sound on Vigilance. I’m really enjoying the juxtaposition of those on this album, like in the last part of “Disposition.”
That song was actually written by our bass player, Pat. He wrote a couple songs on Vigilance as well. It’s kind of like a Pat thing — just adding in all these layers, some keys, some clean guitar; it turned out really, really cool. Pat has a few songs on Vigilance, but “Disposition” is the only one he fully wrote on the new record. He writes a ton of stuff.
Do you guys have a main songwriter, or do you all throw ideas together?
It was pretty much all of us, especially this time around. [Guitarist] Chris Feener, who’s been in the band for a little over a year, brought two new songs to the record, and Travis wrote the majority of the riffs. Their solos were pretty much split. And then Alex wrote all the drum parts. Every single one. On the other records, someone else would write the drums and our drummer would play it. I wanted to make everyone tight and feel like this is their band.
And did you take care of most of the lyrics then? Was there a theme for the lyrics or anything?
Yeah, I wrote all the lyrics and all the vocal parts. I got into some world issues and conspiracy theories, hating on the world a little bit, saying that we have to change our ways or we’ll all end up fucking ourselves. That was the bottom line of what the whole record was based on.
I also heard you guys were trying out different guitars and equipment or something?
Yeah, for the first two albums we used 6-strings in Drop C tuning, and we chose to jump over to 7-strings and dropped the tuning even lower to A#, I think. It just made everything so much heavier. The way they wrote the riffs brought my vocal range to a different level — I’m bringing the low screaming back — and it changed everything for this record.
You guys definitely have some metalcore elements to your sound, and I’ve heard people lump Threat Signal in with “the rest” of the metalcore bands. How do you guys feel about being tossed into such a general category?
I don’t like being put in general categories at all, but to each their own. People can say whatever they want. I think Threat Signal’s a dynamic band, if you go through all our records. You listen to it all and there are a lot of rock elements, groove elements, really heavy shit, blast beats — we’re all over the place in metal. I can’t see us being thrown into one kind of general category. We’re influenced by Swedish death metal, American metal, rock, jazz; it’s hard to say Threat Signal is just one thing. I’ve heard it all. You can’t just listen to one Threat Signal song and say you know the band. People hear two songs and they instantly say, “oh, they’re _____ genre. That’s all it is.” People are saying how Threat Signal is doing more djent stuff, but if you go back to Under Reprisal and listen to the stuff there, it’s the exact same kind of thing we were doing there, just emphasized more.
Is there a particular aspect of your sound you want people to focus on that really makes Threat Signal stand out?
I think a lot of the bendy riffs put Threat Signal onto a different level. We’ve had guitarists fill in and try out, and if they can’t nail the bends, they’re not playing in Threat Signal. Not every band does it like that. We’ve got a lot of groovy riffs, we incorporate the tapping, and we’ve got clean riffs, and pianos… there are a lot of little elements, a lot of different shit. It’s not just “plug in your guitar, turn up your distortion, and rip.” A lot of the time it is, but there are subtle elements involved as well. We mix the screaming vocals and the melodic vocals, but I don’t jump into the heavy stuff and then go to completely clean singing; it’s not night and day like that. I sing my melodic parts, but it’s still got balls and power. It’s still a little raspy, and I think that’s different from what a lot of other people are doing. I just wanted to do something different – I’m a big fan of Fear Factory, and I love how they do that kind of vocal style, but I didn’t want to do that exactly. I want it to be different.
And what are your guys’ plans for the near future in terms of touring?
Well, we’re trying to line some stuff up for Europe again in 2012. Honestly, we’re looking to be a support band. We don’t want to headline, and we’re just searching for tours. We don’t have anything concrete lined up to tour the US, but we’re trying. It’s a hard game. Everyone’s got a band, everyone wants to be on the road. It’s tough competition. I’m hoping this record gets into someone’s hands, and we’ll get the right tour.
Why aren’t you guys looking for a headlining slot? At this point, you’re probably popular enough.
I want to wait until later next year. We’ve done the headline circuit, and some shows are great, but then at other shows, there’s nobody there. I think Threat Signal is portrayed as a pretty big band on the Internet and by word of mouth, but when it comes down to the shows, it’s hard to get people off their fucking asses and out of their computer chairs. We’ll go to some shows and we’ll be playing in front of 20 people. I respect those 20 people, and we’ll play the show every night and have a fucking blast, but it’s not paying the bills. It’s hard to afford to do that.
So what keeps you continually playing metal in a society where metal isn’t really popular or profitable, and where even the “devoted” metalheads sometimes are illegally downloading instead of buying CDs and where they can’t be motivated to go to shows?
It’s pretty much the same reason I started playing music in the first place: I love it. I wanna hear what I’ve recorded and written. I wasn’t searching for a record label. I didn’t have a band. I just had two friends and we recorded music in a bedroom. And we just wanted to record the music so we could hear it. Then we threw the songs online and it took off and we got a record deal, then we realized we had to put a band together and make an album. It was all for the love of music, and then it turned into something else. It turned into this fucking business, this crazy fucking industry where everyone’s trying to grab every single cent you make. I spend half the time on business instead of music, but when it comes down to it, I love the music so much I can’t let it go. It’s been up and down: we lose members all because of financial reasons. People can’t survive in this game. They gotta drop out, get the real job, 9-5; they have to support their families. And I understand that, but I’ve chosen to keep myself available for music. It’s what I love. I hope we can hold this one together and keep kicking ass.
I love it too. I play myself, and I’m just trying to figure things out playing by myself and whatnot.
Exactly. That’s what we did. We didn’t have a drummer. We just played together and wrote music, and figured it out. We were searching for a solid drummer for a long time. As long as people are into metal, they can make it happen. Metal’s so underground: you’re not trying to be a rock star. You’re doing it because you love it, and everyone into metal knows that. You don’t jump into this when you’re trying to make money. And that’s why it’s such a great community, and why everyone understands each other and loves it so much. Those Threat Signal tattoos people are getting? That’s amazing. Holy shit. To have someone tattoo your logo? That’s incredible.
Yeah man. It’s great, and more people are getting into it nowadays too, especially with the djent movement and stuff. The scene’s expanding, and even if a lot of people are still unaware of it or are unwilling to approach it, there are more people getting into metal all the time. Was there anything else you wanted to mention?
I’d just like to thank you for having me on your website and everything. It’s really cool. You actually pay attention to Threat Signal and give a fuck. Hopefully you won’t rip on us too much. I remember we got ripped to shit on your site for Vigilance, actually. It made me laugh. Any publicity is good publicity.
Threat Signal’s self-titled new release is out now on Century Media.