Anthems to the Skynyrd at Dusk: An Interview with Inter Arma
Said in the clearest words possible Virginia's Inter Arma is one of the best metal bands alive and breathing today, alongside bands like Inquisition for black metal, Artificial Brain for death metal, and Vektor for Thrash (and maybe Loss too, but their last album annoyed me). And there’s a very good chance that out of this batch of “best” bands in the world (all my opinion, of course) Inter Arma is the absolute best.
It’s a funny thing this idea of the “best band.” When I was growing up, there seemed always to be a conversation about the “best” or “biggest” bands in the world. In the mid nineties it was probably a rotating cast of R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Metallica (Megadeth siempre), U2, or whatever other band seemed to fit that bill later on (Radiohead, for instance). And the thing with those bands was that they weren’t just “good” but also “big.” Big crowds, big sounds, ambition, whatever it was, they had to be “big.”
The uniqueness of Inter Arma, then, comes from the very fact that when I listen to Inter Arma, or when I see them live (I had the good fortune of seeing them on two consecutive nights early last year, events that led, in fact, to my conducting this interview) a lot of seemingly conflicting ideas come into your head: you think flashy European black metal, you think country music, you think dingy metal clubs in the anuses of major American cities, and you, for whatever reason, think of a seventies-style stadium rock band at the height of its powers.
And it’s these conflicting ideas that make Inter Arma as special and great as it is. It’s just a few dudes rocking out, and yet somehow their sound, onstage demeanor, and the eclectic Americana-laced death/black/doom/whatever-the-fuck-it-is sound makes you, quite simply, believe. Not un-believe, which many would agree would be much more METAL, but believe. Believe firmly, first and foremost, that the fact that your listening to this obscure metal band and the fact that you’re watching that band play in some club is surely some kind of mistake. That the world is, in short, an idiot for not listening to Inter Arma, and that every man, woman, child or otherwise uncategorized person-type entity has to know and love Inter Arma.
So, following my own experience of finally getting to see them live I reached out to Mike, the band’s lead singer, and we had a nice little chat right in the very first few days of 2018 about their unique sound, their aims in creating music, and just life shit. This latter part (“life shit,” for those of you who don’t know what “latter means) seems out of place, but in fact turned out, as often is the case with my meandering interviews, to be the heart of the matter. Anyway, it was an immensely enjoyable conversation (conducted, it should be said during a months-long stay in the U.S.) and I hope you feel the same way:
So I think I’ll begin where I always begin by asking if there’s a moment that you remember in your life, as a younger person, that was kind of a “holy shit!”-chemicals-changing-in-my-brain moment that had to do with music? Something that made you change what you thought about music. The first one you can think of.
First one I can think of…. Ah, probably the first time I ever listened to Sepultura.
When was that?
I was young. Probably around 10-11 maybe. It as Arise, and I remember thinking just “Man, this is wild.”
Who played it?
Some kid had it, like in a Walkman or something. He had it at school, and probably got it from an older sibling or something. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and when I was a kid it was kind of rare to find people who were into extreme music. There was this one kind who always had Metallica shirts on and Guns N’ Roses shirts on and stuff like that, and we were young, this is eight or nine years old, and I remember him playing this Sepultura cassette. I remember that being the first time that I actually really liked stuff like that. Like “Wow, that shit is crazy! Damn, this sounds wild! I want to hear more like this!”
And did you?
Yeah [Laughs]. I mean, I liked stuff before that too. There wasn’t a whole lot of music being played in my household growing up. But every once in awhile I would hear something like Guns N’ Roses and I liked that. And when I was in fourth grade I picked up an Emperor tape just because I liked the album artwork. My mom took me to a bookstore that was near the city and they had a wall of tapes. And I was going through the tapes and looking at the artwork and I bought In the Nightside Eclipse just blind, I had no idea what it was, I just liked the artwork. I was always kind of attracted the darker, more macabre artwork. And I bought it and the second I put it into my cassette player it scared the shit out of me. I was scared of it so I threw it in the closet. I revisited it a couple of years later when I was in middle school and I had already liked Sepultura, Metallica, things like that, and I put it on and I was like “Wow, this is something. This is cool, I like this.”
There was a thing I told you, which you probably don’t remember but that I am very proud of. So, there’s two things. The first is that thing I told you that Inter Arma sounds like Emperor and Lynyrd Skynyrd mashed together.
I do remember you saying that, yeah.
And the second thing is also a result of seeing you guys back to back is your t-shirts, because one night it was a Samael shirt and the second night it was an Emperor shirt. Now, the reason I raise this is that it’s really rare, even outside of rural Virginia, for Americans to be into those kinds of bands. From my experience, American bands listen to a lot of European metal, but they don’t listen to that European metal – the bombast, the technical aspect. So I guess I’m saying Americans are more on the Darkthrone side of black metal than on the bombastic, weird stuff. All that goes to say that that’s a pretty unique palette. So how to get to have that taste, especially where you grew up?
So, when I got into high school I liked metal, and at that point I liked the odd obscure band, but it was really mostly things that were accessible, Roadrunner Records kind of things. But when I got to high school there was this character, and I ended up being in a band with him later, and he was always a pretentious kind of guy. I have no idea what happened to him, but he was always wearing the craziest stuff. And where I grew up it was very conservative, it was hyper religious, it was evangelical, and you just didn’t see that kind of stuff. He would come to school wearing Impaled Nazarene shirts.
And they would make him turn it inside out or send him home. Just insane, wild things like Dead World, Napalm Death, and I’m trying to remember some of the others, just bizzare… Pungent Stench! He had the Been Caught Buttering shirt, with the two severed heads kissing. And I was like “Man, where is this guy getting this stuff? What the hell is that guy doing?” And he was really pretentious, he would rarely even talk to me, very elitist.
But he ended up giving me these old catalogues, like the Relapse catalogue, Century Media had one, Nuclear Blast had a catalogue, and all the other ones. And you would just go through them and read the descriptions. The Relapse catalogue in particular, whoever wrote that was a genius, because for a kid like me it made it sound like I had to get all of it. Everything in it just sounded great. So, when I got my first job, at 13 or so, I didn’t have a car or anything, so I just started to buy music. And this guy, a lot of times by the shirts he was wearing I would go and just check stuff out. I didn’t have internet at the time, so it was hard, and every once in a while I would get him to open up and he would give me a mixed cassette tape. He tape traded too, and so he would give me addresses of people who tape traded and I ended up tape trading. I got into some obscure stuff, and he would set me into these paths of super obscure stuff. It was basically him. I was in band with him, I haven’t spoken with him for years. He was kind of an asshole, but I was in awe of the shirts he was wearing to school, like “This guy has some balls!” Kind of a badass kind of guy [Laughs].
It sounds like the fact that you were young and in the middle, like you say, nowhere and a very traditional place, you kind of had to create your own shit, and that shit wasn’t overly influenced by other people’s shit because they weren’t that many people around to do that…
Yeah, there weren’t.
So it’s like you grew up in isolation.
Yeah, it was. There was basically that kid and this other older kid who always wore the same Obituary t-shirt. There was a handful…. This is the ninties, so there was a handful of kids into nu metal and stuff like that, and every once in a while they would buy a CD that was too extreme for them, like Morbid Angel or something, and they would sell it to me, like “Hey man, you like this.” But literally, between those types of kids, there might have been five of us.
Yeah, that’s another aspect of what I’ve been calling “isolation,” because even if there are people who are generally into what you like, you’re the guy who likes the weird shit. It’s not Mike and ten other guys who would like that Morbid Angel CD, it was you.
Right. The older kid who had the Impaled Nazarene shirt, he was quite a bit older than me, so by the time I was into those things it was literally just me. That’s how I got my first Samael CD. “You have to have this, man. I like Coal Chamber, this is too much for me.”
I don’t want to generalize, and maybe wrongly generalize, but you guys don’t seem to be to keen to talk about the whole “the eclectic style of Inter Arma” thing. It seems that relatively consistently you treat that issue by saying that it’s not that you sit down in a lab and say “A ha, if we if put this super riff over what sounds like a country song that would be so great!” but it’s just that you are different people who are loaded with different influences and when those crash together you get what the band sounds like. So seeing that you are all from Virginia, but not originally from Richmond, right?
Would it be fair to say that the fact that you could crash together and make this composite is that each of you was brought up in that kind of isolation? That each one of you had to develop your own taste independently?
Oh yeah, to some respect. I come from the extreme-metal background. T. J., our drummer, he grew up playing cover-band stuff since he was a little kid, so he comes from a different thing too. I know that when Inter Arma first started his palette or knowledge of extreme music wasn’t as varied as it is now.
He was a rock guy?
Yeah, definitely. He loves heavy metal, don’t get me wrong, but he’s very much a rock n roll and country kind of guy. That could also be said of Trey. He’s from the closest city to where I grew up, but there weren’t a whole lot of people [listening to metal] even there either. So the isolation definitely plays a part in it. Joe kind of grew up travelling around, his father was a military contractor, so he moved around a lot too. We were all just finding stuff, you know?
That would be a different experience, say, form a band where everyone grew up in the big city and had the Relapse catalogue, so to speak, gifted to them or who were influenced by their environment than a band made up of people who kind of had to fend for themselves.
Yeah. And it was tough, too. Where I grew up there weren’t even bands, per se, from the closest city, say. Roanoke was the closest city to where I grew up. I grew up about a half a hour north of Roanoke. There was some really bad nu metal and things like that, but there were basically two bands that I loved from Roanoke. One of them was Suppression, they put out stuff on Slap A Ham [Records] and things like that back in the day, and they’re actually a band, still putting out killer powerviolence-grindcore, noisecore kind of records. And they had an offshoot band called Idi Amin, who were basically Roanoke’s redneck version of Man, The Bastard, or something like that. That was it! I knew about those bands too, and they were extreme, but I never got to see them because I was young, I couldn’t drive, I didn’t have a license, I couldn’t get there, even when it’s a half an hour away [laughs].
The reason that I’m dwelling on this is I grew up in Israel, which is a very metal-conscious place, but it’s still a small, middle-of-nowhere country, and you tend, when I was growing up, to be very grateful for speck of information you got, any cassette. But I also grew up in a suburb in Israel. People growing up in Tel Aviv, for instance, had a lot of people to hang with, but in my group I was kind of the thrash guy. I was the Megadeth guy who liked the Megadeth-like extreme metal bands, bands that were super serious about playing and had a kind of sense of drama to them. I can say that now, obviously at the time I didn’t think about any of these things. Like, my favorite Emperor is the later stuff – the more keyboards the better.
Yeah, I mean I like the earlier stuff better, but over time have learned to enjoy all of Emperor. I love all of it, but at first it was hard for me to get into stuff like IX Equilibrium.
Yeah, that was the album that got me hooked on them. Kind of like Passage, which was Samael’s departure from the earlier grainy stuff. Anyway, so I consider myself to be a person who had to build his own musical identity in a way. And when I’d meet new people they would say “What, you don’t know that band? That’s basic shit!” And I’d say, “No, I don’t know that band.” I have a PhD in English and people still say “What, you have a PhD and you didn’t read this or that book?” and I’m like “Fuck that, I don’t have time to read that shit!”
I don’t have a PhD because I read all the books!
And I don’t have to like every metal band simultaneously. But I do care deeply about those bands (or books) that made me into who I am. And my reason for talking about myself this long is that I’ve interviewed bands from scenes that I consider to be unique like the Swiss scene, that’s very interesting for me. So when I interviewed Bolzer they pretty much said the same thing, that Switzerland was isolated from the rest of the European metal scene and thus developed its own identity. So isolation is very interesting for me. And the way I would apply that to you guys is that Inter Arma as a band may be a collection of these moments of musical isolation.
For Inter Arma it’s definitely like that, for some of the other bands in this town [Richmond] it’s not. We just kind of set out to do whatever we felt like doing. We didn’t have a blueprint that said “We’re going to be a doom band,” or “We’re going to be a thrash band.” And there’s plenty of stuff like that in Richmond, which is totally fine. But we didn’t have that palette, we all liked different stuff. With me, and with T. J. it’s very much the same way, our palette is basically anything, really. We just like all different types and styles of music, period. When I was growing up my mom was listening to Neil Young and things like that, and I love that kind of stuff, but I also had to find extreme music in my own particular way, and am very much attracted to this idea of the more extreme the better. So, I ended up listening to a lot of different types music. I love everything from hip hop to the rawest black metal. And T. J. is definitely the same way.
When I joined, because I wasn’t the original singer, at that point too they were just playing whatever the hell they felt like playing. Over time our style has developed into something that’s very much Inter Arma, but we still do whatever the hell we want. There’s no reason to limit your influences. That’s how we all feel like it, that there’s absolutely no reason to, for us anyway. We just don’t want to be a paint-by-numbers death metal band or paint-by-numbers doom band. That wouldn’t make us happy, you know?
I’m looking forward to the Inter Arma gangsta rap album.
With the Master P artwork.
Oh man, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.
You can definitely hear the fact that you’re still true to yourself. I mean the sound, and this is just one person’s opinion, of your albums has changed or has become tighter, so for me Paradise Gallows is much tighter than Sky Burial, and I loved Sky Burial. But, everything that was loose about Sky Burial…. I remember when I heard that album I wrote that I didn’t know how to call that album so I’ll just say it’s the first Americana metal album.
Because that’s how it sounded like to me, but those elements are both more pronounced in Paradise Gallows and somehow more part of the larger whole. When you look back at those records do you see how these things have changed?
Yeah, definitely. When we were recording Sky Burial, a lot of those songs were old. A lot of those songs were hanging on for a long time. We also recorded that record while having no idea who was going to put it out or anything like that. We had a rough idea of what we were going to do and we recorded it. And the Americana influences too, that’s T. J. T. J. grew up listening to country music and Americana kind of stuff. He also used to play that kind of music, he played in a country band all his life. It’s just a natural thing for him. We didn’t set out to.. “You know we should put those influence here, we’re going to do this and that” it just happened. He’s been playing in bands since he was eight.
Yeah, eight years old. He played drums in his dad’s cover band. There’s a video of his on YouTube, I think he’s seven, playing “Moby Dick.” So, it’s not a “We’re going to be weird, we’re going to put this lap-steel on this song,” when he sits down to write music he’s thinking about it from that angle. We’re not trying to be different or weird for the sake of being different and weird, it’s just how it comes to us.
And it needs to sound good.
Yeah, if it doesn’t sound good it disappears, you know? [Laughs].
I’ve been out here for a few months now, and I’ve been to a lot of shows. I’m kind of like the kid who never got to have candy and who is now a crack addict.
But your shows sticks in my mind. It felt like I was in this small club, and peak Les Zeppelin was playing on stage. Just that disparity between how small the venue was and how huge your sound was. And for me, especially in shows, the drummer is key. I’m always looking there. And T. J. is just one of best best drummers I’ve seen. Not because he blast beats all the time or something, but his feel, you can’t teach that.
Yeah, you can’t teach that. He has that.
And knowing that he is as influential as he is in the songwriting process. So, how significant is it for you that your drummer plays such a central role in the band?
I think it’s a key for us. He writes most of the music, and he’s an incredible guitar player too. I think it’s important because…. I think that one of the most important things about him is that he’s a top-level drummer, and he can do a bunch of wild shit, but he can also restrain himself he doesn’t have to go ham throughout the entire song and he’s very interested in dynamics. So, when he’s writing songs he understands that there needs to be tension and that there needs to be release. To me that’s invaluable because you see so many bands that are just one thing. They do it great, but, damn, it’s one thing. When you go see Marduk, you know exactly what you’re going to get, you’re going to get 45 minutes of blast beats and screeching and buzz-saw guitars. And that’s fine! But he does that, but even from a heavy-metal perspective he comes from a very unorthodox background. The guy started playing the drums when he was two, the guy played in cover bands, bands that were playing Led Zeppelin. A lot of people, especially our age, come from a background of…. Hell, when I was that age Nu Metal was everywhere. And he was listening to the classics, so he’s got a different background from a lot of people in heavy metal. And I think he completely uses that to his advantage.
Completely. And that’s part of what sets you guys apart. It’s funny because I used to ask about dynamics so much in interviews that it almost became a running gag and it’s funny to me now that I realize how long it has been since I asked someone about that. But, that, to me, and I’m trying to be the least pretentious person I can be right now, that is what heavy is. Not being loud nonstop, but being punched in the face and then let go. And drummers have a very big part in creating that relationship within the song. You guys are all obviously great, and whatever it is you bring together is what you are, but the fact that you rely on a foundation of someone who understands music is pretty huge.
Yeah. The musicians in the band understand how music works, and it’s great. They’re always trying to challenge themselves to do something better.
Wait, who’s in the band who isn’t a musician?
You said “the musicians in the band,” so whose in the band who isn’t a musician?
Oh, me. I’m not a musician [laughs]. I don’t know how to play guitar. I play the drums a tiny bit, I don’t know any musical theory, I don’t know anything.
But you’re a musician.
Ah, loosely, I guess, sure [laughs]. But those guys, they understand, they understand the importance of dynamics and just writing interesting songs and not doing the same things twice. We would get bored if we did the same thing over and over again, you know what I mean? I mean, we could! But it wouldn’t challenge us. We would make our lives easier if we sat down one day and said “You know what? Let’s just be a sludge band.” Because there are definitely people who see us or hear us and say “I don’t like this part, and I don’t like that part. That part’s cool.”
People actually say that?
Yeah, definitely! Sometimes.
Especially in Europe. They’re much more, ah, forthcoming in places like Germany. They tell you how they feel. But, we don’t have any interest in doing that. We just don’t. It’s not something that even appeals to us. We’re just going to be doing whatever it is we feel like doing because we listen to all different types of stuff. We don’t want to be bored!
I want to kind of respond to you saying you’re not a musician, which I think is absolutely ridiculous.
Given that that’s how you feel, what is the role of the lyrics and your voice? What is it you feel you do? Because you have a huge role. So, what is it that you’re doing to the songs? You’re disrupt them? Amplify certain aspects? What’s your job?
I don’t know, honestly, to tell you the truth. I do have some core beliefs, however, when it comes to vocals. One of them is not doing too much. I don’t believe in just filling a song up full of vocals. A lot of lead vocalists have that lead-vocalist thing where they feel they have to vocalize over every bit of the song, and I hate that. For me, I like to use it more like an instrument, more like a texture, and I’m always trying to figure out a way to bring an interesting texture. I could literally make my life a 100-times easier if I just did the same vocal style over all the songs and we could probably get away with it. A lot of bands do the same type of thing. They do one thing, and they do it well. I don’t believe in that.
For instance, you take a song like “Primordial Wound.” I could have definitely just done something pretty basic over that or something very expected. But I said to myself “You know, the song is long, it’s interesting, and there are so many different things going on in it, but let me try something different here, something that I’ve never heard done before, to just see if I can get away with it. Maybe I’ll do some kind of dreary gothic-sounding thing over it.” I’m always thinking outside the box, like “How can I make this more interesting?” Our songs are long, so I definitely don’t want to stick to the same thing the whole time, and also I feel like, because there are so many dynamics, that the vocals need to be dynamic as well. And that bothers some people! I had a guy tell me once: “Yo, I love ‘Transfiguration,’ but when that black-metal vocals come in during that fast part, I hate it!” And I was like “Ok fine, I don’t care. But thank you!” And that guy is probably thinking about it like “Those vocals are coming out of nowhere!” But I’m also trying to switch up…. I feel like I can use the vocals to help switch up some of the dynamics even more.
That’s how I see it, that you participate, or that you facilitate the dynamics. In terms of literature, which is kind of what I do, when you read a book, and that book is written in the first person – say, Moby Dick – so if you read Moby Dick and you get: “Call me Ishmael” “Alright, dude! Where are we going?” Now, there’s a lot of shit going on in Moby Dick that has very little to do with Ishmael or that voice, but he’s that implement that drags you through stuff. If it wasn’t for him, if you didn’t have a person to relate with you’re not reading that book all the way through. And in a way that’s what a vocalist does in music, he’s the person. Because the instrument aren’t people. They move you, but they’re not a person.
So, your job, in a way, is to be human. And you’re a great human. You’re a versatile human. So, when I’m hurled into this whirlwind of shit that is Inter Arma songs – shit in a good way – you’re my guide through it, the Virgil guiding Dante through the inferno. And the fact you switch is up too means that I’m not safe, which is great! It’s great to feel unsafe, and it’s great to feel surprised. The fact that you can be the doom guy or the black guy and then switch to the country guy or whatever means that I can trust you, because you’re the only person I can trust, but I can’t really trust you all the way, because you’re a freak. And that’s why I don’t get you saying you’re not a musician.
[Laughs] I mean I tried really hard over the years to improve my vocals, to get them to the point where they’re more versatile. It definitely was a struggle. I learned how to scream first, I didn’t learn how to sing first. Most people learn how to sing first, I didn’t. So I had to relearn all that stuff, pitch and key and all that. I’m not great at it, but I’m getting better. I’m really excited to record the next record, because I feel like my voice is better now, even more than it was on Paradise Gallows. I listen to that now and think “Man, I could do that so much better now, god dammit!”
Do you know when that will happen? The next record?
We’re writing one right now and we’re going to record it sometime this next year.
That’s fantastic. You should come to Israel, if there isn’t a genocidal war or something.
We want to go anyplace where somebody will have us.
We will have you, we will definitely have you. Last thing I wanted to ask you, because I’ve already spent so much of your time talking about me…
Is to ask you what you’ve been listening to lately.
Of the newer stuff that came out, say 2017, I really like that Drab Majesty record. I really really like this record by this Slovakian band Krolok. They put out a record last year called Flying Above Ancient Ruins, I really enjoyed that one. It’s like a second-wave black metal kind of record, but it’s really great. I discovered, I didn’t know this, but this neo-folk artist named Rome put out this record called The Hyperion Machine, and I didn’t know about that at all, I love it, it’s incredible.
Yeah he’s great. He came to Israel, by the way.
Yeah, he did a great show.
He’s cool. He’s a different voice in that neo-folk world.
Different in being a non-Nazi?
Yeah, that’s exactly what I was getting at [Laughs]. He’s a very outspoken leftist in a world filled with shady stuff, yeah. I dig that about him immensely. I listened to that record a ton last year. I like the new Godflesh record quite a bit. The new Morbid Angel record surprised me.
I heard so much shit about that record after it came out that I said there was no way I was going to like it. I’m a bigger fan of the Vincent era as it is. So I kind of left it. And a week ago I decided to check it out, and it’s great.
It is, yeah. I’ve always liked the Tucker records anyway, except for Heretic. The production on that…. Production is always odd on Morbid Angel records, but the production on Heretic just killed me. But I’m a big fan of Gateways, so I loved it. I loved the Ulver than came out last year. I got to see them perform that at Roadburn and it stuck with me the whole year, basically. There were all kinds of records that I liked this year. That new Artificial Brain record, I liked that a lot. Just all kinds of stuff.