Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Inter Arma
This is the 39th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Artist: Inter Arma
Album: Sky Burial
Label: Relapse Records
Favorite Song: "The Long Road Home"
The Bare Bones: Sky Burial is the second full-length by Virginia metal band Inter Arma, and the group's debut on Relapse Records.
The Beating Heart: Pitting together the almost ambient ambience of post-rock and country with the terrifying outbursts of death and black metal, Inter Arma are one of a kind, and incredibly difficult to pin down. In a metal scene more and more seemingly invested in defining what kinds of music bands make, and often allotting specific labels who deal operate exclusively within those generic limitations, the Virginia band seems just as happy not caring about any of it. And while dabbling in, shall we say, an eclectic set of influences can sometimes lead to what seems like a misshapen, awkward and incohesive body of work, Inter Arma's alchemy produces a distinct identity all their own, one that, in one past interview, I dubbed "Anthems to the Skynyrd at Dusk." An important milestone in their ongoing journey of defying whatever it is people think metal is, Sky Burial is a beautiful, elegiac almost, and crushing album that both continues and draws from the existing tradition of American extreme metal and, somehow, participates in the wider tradition of American songwriting. Not unlike, I should add, a band that has been discussed extensively in this series already and one that perhaps serves as a distinct influence on Inter Arma, Neurosis. And it is for that reason that I have decided to discuss that singular album with T. J. Childers, the band's drummer and one of my own personal favorite drummers working today.
Before we get to my pleasant conversation with T. J. this is my chance to encourage you to check out the rest of the Albums of the Decade series as well our new podcast (YouTube, Spotify and all that) and/or our latest compilation album MILIM KASHOT VOL. 2. Also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, if you like what you see here (for whatever reason). Thank you for your time and support. On to my talk with T. J.
Is there a moment you remember, perhaps as a younger person, where a song or album or show really changed what you thought about music, or made you want to make music yourself? I realize that there are probably many such moments in a musician’s life, especially given how you’ve been a musician from a very young age, so maybe just on that sticks out.
There are a bunch of those moments. I got into music at a really young age and as I sort of progressed as a musician….. You get older and you start getting into other things. So there have been different moments where different songs and different records kind of kicked me in the ass and in a roundabout way showed you different places where you can turn along the road. One of the earliest ones would be [Iron] Maiden, because I was always in my dad’s cover band when I was a kid and we cycled through a lot of different bass players. And we had this one bass player who had just graduated from college, a younger dude from Upstate New York, and he was super into Maiden. And he was a bass player so he loved Steve Harris. He had Live after Death on VHS…. He had everything. And he let me borrow Live after Death and I just watched it and went: “Oh my fucking God! How is this happening?” As far as definitely the heavier stuff Maiden was one of the first things that really kicked my ass to where I said: “OK, so there’s a whole other world out there that I’m not aware of.” And, granted, I was only seven or eight years old, I don’t remember exactly, I was super young, and I had already liked AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. And that’s another one – I was maybe five, listening to Led Zeppelin II and “Moby Dick” and I would just listen to that over and over with the headphones on in my living room in my parents’ house and then run out to the garage, sit behind my drum set and play it, emulate it, and figure out what he was doing. And then go back inside and listen to it some more, and the go back out to the garage and play the drums more [laughs].
Yeah, there just have been a bunch of those moments. Even hearing “Blackened” by Metallica for the first time when I was 13 or 14. Hearing that double bass part that was fucking flying, and I went “Oh my God, I didn’t know you can play double bass that fast!” Or hearing Morbid Angel for the first time. It sort of just progressed.
And with Iron Maiden, was it the drum thing or something else?
It was the whole package. And, honestly, what got me the most, and who is without a doubt the cornerstone of that band, was Steve Harris. Talk about a heavy-metal-ass motherfucker, watching him just rip on bass, his right hand is flying, singing along to every word on every song, because he wrote all the songs [laughs]. It looked like he was having the greatest time ever and makes it look effortless. Still, when I’m watching Maiden videos, I’m watching Steve Harris. So, oddly enough, it’s the bass player [laughs].
One of the things that comes up when it comes to Inter Arma and also something that has come up in my conversation with Mike [Papparo] has been this idea that you guys all come from relatively isolated smaller communities with different musical identities but that you didn’t necessarily come from what you might call a metal background. If I recall Mike spoke of it in terms of you coming with more of a classic rock, country thing. So, is that the case, was metal not the main thing for you early on?
Well, like I said earlier, one of the things that really got me going crazy about music was Led Zeppelin and John Bonham. So the classic rock stuff was always there – Zeppelin, AC/DC. But the things that really got me motivated about getting better at playing drums and even in wanting to start playing guitar were always heavy metal. Hearing Metallica and hearing Lars play double bass that fast and going: “Oh fuck, I’ve got to practice to be able to do that.” And actually going back to the first question, talking about a “A ha!” moment – my best friend growing up, who I used to skateboard with all the time, his mom’s boyfriend somehow got a copy of Pantera’s Home Videos Vol. 2. And just watching that and going “Look at these fucking guys!” and hearing “Walk” for the first time, “Mouth of War,” “A New Level” and all those songs, that made me go: “I think this is what the fuck I want to do!” Which led me to really practicing more, and writing. I was very into punk rock, so I was in a punk band when I was, I don’t know, 13 or 14. But once I really got into metal I went, OK, so I’m going to start writing way heavier stuff and try to progress on the instrument.
So, when I joined Inter Arma, it was a metal band. People try to pigeonhole was as “post metal” or “blackened doom” or bla, bla, bla. But, we’re just a metal band! It just so happens that there are other influences in the band that have creeped their way in there. I don’t think that having an acoustic guitar on a heavy metal album is that outlandish. You can listen to old [Judas] Priest records and there are acoustic guitars, there’s acoustic guitar in Neurosis records.
Or Pantera, for that matter.
Yeah, exactly. So, yes, I am into other types of music. I mean, I was just watching a ZZ Top documentary, I fucking love ZZ Top, and I listen to a lot of country music – old country music, none of this new garbage. And there may be little inklings of those things creeping into Inter Arma stuff, but it’s mostly from a metal background. But all those other things are in there, I still lovesThe Beatles, old rock n’ roll, old psychedelic stuff, whatever, I like all of that stuff, everybody in the band does. It just so happens that I have this repertoire of 8,000 cover songs that probably does contribute a little bit to my songwriting in the band, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m the rock n’ roll guy. Even though I guess I kinda am [laughs].
[Laughs] I think that a lot of talk about music is bullshit. I mean, art in general, but music specifically. But, when I say that you’re the classic rock guy or the guy who loves John Bonham in the band, what I mean by that is is not necessarily “Oh yeah, there’s that long quiet part in ‘The Long Road Home,’ that’s you.” Or that the country-ish stuff you can hear on Sulphur English or Paradise Gallows is you. But what I do mean is that…. Part of the story in metal drumming, and this may go back to your own story of watching metal drummers and wanting to get technically better at drumming, is the tendency to use the drummer as a pacemaker. So, if the song is very fast so the drummer has to be very skilled in order to be the drummer in that song. But that’s not necessarily the role of the drummer always, and in other types of music. And I don’t mean to say that’s what metal drummers do exclusively, but there is an element to metal drumming that is more like a skill competition. But real music, real songs, aren’t skill competitions. They can be, they may be also about that, but the magic that makes the song a song isn’t just the fact that you could do that thing very fast.
So, what I was wondering to myself as I was asking you that I didn’t necessarily mean that you’re the brain behind the classic rock influences or the use of acoustic guitars in Inter Arma songs. What I am interested in is whether or not you are responsible for that mindset of what a drummer does to make real music, which is such a big part of what makes Inter Arma what it is. Because you’re not a common metal drummer that way. Does that make sense?
Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. And touching on the point you made about how a lot of metal bands are in this sort of a pissing contest where it’s “Let’s see who can play the most notes per bar? Can you play double bass at 250 BPM?” I can appreciate that stuff to a certain level, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that when I practice drums these days a lot of what I focus on is double bass speed, because it is something that kind of didn’t come naturally to me, I had to really work on it. I set the metronome to 180 beats per minute and play at that tempo for 15 minutes straight, and then pump it up to 200 beats per minute and play for another five, ten minutes straight. It’s something that I work on. But, it’s a tool in the tool bag, it’s not the end-all, be-all answer to what a metal record should sound like. To me, especially when you get into that whole tech-death world, you can’t really tell any of those records apart – the way they’re produced, the way they’re being played, the way the songs are written, it really all just blends together, and there isn’t a lot of soul. I know that’s cliche to say at this point, but it’s true. And it’s not that I try to avoid that in how I play drums in Inter Arma and even in how Inter Arma records sound and how they’re produced, it’s just that I know that the records that I love, whether it’s Led Zeppelin II, or Morbid Angel’s Domination, or … And Justice for All, any classic rock n’ roll records or any classic metal record, even if it’s death metal or whatever, the vast majority of the ones that everybody loves the most, they’re not quantized. They sound like a band in a room playing fast, and they’re all just going for it simultaneously. And if there are little mistakes and flaws, so be it. For me, the mistakes and flaws are what makes the record sound like human beings. I’ve said this in interviews and to people before, but the little mistakes on records are the things that I catch and love the most, because it just sounds like a band playing. Even guys who can play 250 beats per minute…. Like, George Kollias from Nile who can play a blast beat with one foot at 270 beats per minute – which is just fucking crazy – but even he is going to have a bad night some night and he’s going to make mistakes, he’ll drop a stick, his foot will slip on the pedal, whatever. And to me that’s not even a mistake, it’s a dude going for it and you’re going to hear mistakes.
So, I guess it is by design that our records sound that way. I don’t practice drums to be a perfect drummer, I just want to keep the tools sharp in the toolbag so that when I do want to be able to play double bass at 200 beats per minute I can bust it out and not look like an asshole on stage. The best records are the ones where you hear those mistakes, and if you listen closely to an Inter Arma record there are a lot of mistakes, especially on my part, because I’ll leave shit in there – if you listen to the drums there are mistakes all over the place. So, yeah, it’s part of who we are and honestly I feel like it’s something that sets us apart from a lot of bands out there these days. Because a lot of bands want everything to sound perfect and it’s just not interesting to me. It doesn’t make for an interesting listen and I don’t think it’s going to hold up in the Pantheon of music. I mean, there’s a great Buzz Osbourne quote where he’s talking about Origin and he says it sounds like Donald Duck on a typewriter [laughs]. He’s kind of fucking right.
[Laughs] Yeah, I kind of like Origin and but I can see how that makes sense. I remember hearing or reading you say that despite the fact that you can do the whole fancy drumming thing when you need to that basically what you’re doing as a drummer is holding down the song, that being the tradition of the great drummers you love that weren’t necessarily the drummers that did something flashy every second of the song and that they were there in the service of the song. I just want to add that that in itself isn’t a very typical metal attitude to drumming. And even though it sounds like something that should go without saying, that the drummer’s role is to support the song, and even outside the current discussion of tech-death, the idea that a drummer can also, sometimes, provide breathing room, or knows when to stop drumming…. There’a a great moment in “Destroyer” – the Sky Burial version of the song – where there’s this droning riff and you’re just slapping the sticks together, you know what I’m talking about?
And that was a very interesting choice for me. Because my mind, in that moment of a band creating tension, goes to a place where the drummer is going to keep the beat with the bass drum or touch the cymbals here and there. All of which is drummer language for “I’m about to give you shit. And you’re just slapping your sticks together and I was like: “That’s so odd,” and, at the same time, it’s oddity only generates more tension because you as a drummer kind of stated: “I as the drummer am not going to stand in the way of the song right now.” And I think that’s a rare thing, and I agree that it’s something that sets Inter Arma apart from a lot of other bands, not just because you’re not overdoing it but because, if I may, because you’re that rare type of musician that knows how to amplify a song by not doing stuff. You know what I’m saying?
Yeah, there’s that famous jazz musicians’ saying that “It’s not the notes that you play, it’s the notes that you don’t play.” And I think there’s a profound wisdom behind that if you really start to think about that phrase.
Do you think that’s something you picked up doing all those covers? I ask that because I interview a lot of musicians and their careers. And it seems like there’s always that young spark of a band that wants to conquer the world, in terms of shows and maybe money and maybe quitting the day job, which is an ambition maybe related to being the best at what you do from a technical standpoint. And sometimes that burns out and you find yourself kind of misled by your own ambition, like: “Wait, I wasn’t supposed to play the fastest? I wasn’t supposed to play the most shows? Was there something else that was supposed to happen?” So, do you think there’s a way in which you bypassed that by being introduced to music and to the music business as young as you had and to repeatedly playing classic songs as much as you did?
Ah, that may have contributed to it, a little bit. I remember being told early on, it might have been my uncle Kenny, I don’t know. But I remember being told very early on that no matter how tough you think you are, no matter how badass you think you are, there’s always going to be somebody that can whoop your ass. There’s always going to be somebody better than you at what it is you think you’re the best at. Mike Tyson eventually got beat. He would come in the ring and fucking destroy motherfuckers in 12 seconds in the first dozen fights of his career and eventually he slowed down a little bit and eventually he lost. Trying to be the fastest band, trying to be the most technically precise musician…. Again, if you view it from the standpoint of utilizing that skill as a tool in the toolbag, it’s cool. But if that’s all you are, you’re going to fall on your face eventually. And I think I just had that instilled in me as a young kid. I was never interested in making Inter Arma the fastest or the heaviest band – the fastest and heaviest band is still Morbid Angel, they still haven’t been beat as far as I’m concerned.
And technical proficiency, even if you look at it from an artistic standpoint, yeah, there were definitely a lot of painters who were more technically proficient than Vincent Van Gough. But whatever Vincent Van Gough did he was able to put emotion into it – or whatever Absinthe he was drinking at the time – he was able to put that on canvas and make that emotion connect with a lot of people. I think that’s more important, that whatever artistic medium you’re in, whether you’re a painter or a musician, putting as much of yourself into it as you can is way more important than being the most technically proficient as you can be. It’s like the famous example of Michael Angelo Batio, who can play 10 billion notes per second, never misses a note, and he can do the craziest string-skipping shit you could possibly think of, but Billy Gibbons can bend one note and it makes you want to cry. So, tell me who’s the better guitar player there.
I want to lead this into a discussion of Sky Burial, because I think that album is an interesting moment for you guys as a band vis-v-vis everything we just talked about. But just as a side note, I find it fascinating that my favorite “metal” drummers are drummers who weren’t taught to be metal drummers. Which kind of fits my favorite drummer ever, Gar Samuelson. He was the first Megadeth drummer.
Oh, I know who Gar Samuelson is, he’s a monster.
He is. And one of the things that make him into a monster is that, while they’re still playing very fast music, his playing makes it feel human. There’s so much soul in his playing – I think that’s a good word for that – that once you plug that into a band then it’s a whole other form of music. Maybe that’s why I’m interested in drumming as much as I am, since once a drummer knows when to hold back, when not to play, that’s such a huge difference.
And that does lead me to talk about Sky Burial. And I don’t know how that album feels like for you now, with two albums that have been released since, but Sky Burial felt like a very significant moment for Inter Arma. Obviously important for contract, publicity reasons, but I’m mainly thinking here of the difference between how you sound on that album and how you sound on anything that came before it. It sounds like an “Ah ha!” moment, as if you had caught on to something. Even if you listen to the older songs on there, they kind of sound the same but leaps and bounds from where they were in the earlier versions. The production, adding keys, elongating atmospheric segments, and, finally, an emphasis on dynamics. What was different for you coming into that album? Was it just a case of reworking stuff you had or did you feel like you were on to something in the studio?
Well, let me think about that. It was a funny, transitional period for us, because we didn’t have a bass player, or we had a temporary bass player for a year and a half or so, and then Joe, who isn’t even in the band anymore, joined the band a month before we went in to record. We had written the song “Sky Burial” and we had written “Survival Fires,” so we have those two songs that are a little different. And we never really planned on releasing “The Long Road Home” and “Destroyer,” and we had just kind of gotten an offer to do an EP so we went in with Garrett [Morris] from Windhand and recorded those songs and that EP, but we knew they hadn't really reached their full potential. So we had planned on redoing those songs in a more proper way. And we knew that we had something pretty unique and cool. I mean, that was the first time we recorded with Mikey [Allred]. We knew that he did cool work but we didn’t know if it would vibe, and we were going to Nashville to record with him and we went: “Well, this may just be a demo, something we could pass out to some people at shows.” We just didn’t really know what to expect [laughs]. And we get in there and he knocked it out of the park. So, yeah, there weren’t a lot of preconceived notions because there were just so many…. I mean, Joe had just joined the band so we were really just re-solidifying after a year and a half of not having an actual bass player. I don’t want to say we didn’t know what we were doing, but we weren’t 100 percent certain of what we were doing, and we kind of got lucky, to be completely honest. We sort of just stumbled into this sort of perfect relationship with Mikey, which is the reason that everything we have done since has been with him. Everything just fell into place, we really just got lucky [laughs]. There was nothing planned, we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing.
[Laughs] But that’s amazing, isn’t it? That’s the kind of luck you want to have, no?
Trust me, when I look back on it now I just say: “Man, thank God that worked out the way that it did,” otherwise I don’t think you and I would be having this conversation, we wouldn’t have gone on the tours that we went on, gotten signed to Relapse, everything. I think something would have happened eventually, because I knew what good of a band we were, but I didn’t foresee those things coming in the way that they did [laughs].
How closely do you associate not really knowing what was going on and how well the album came out?
Well, we knew that the songs were good. I didn’t expect it to be quite as cohesive as it ended up being.
Because it had the older songs?
Yeah, there’s old songs, there’s new songs. “Westward,” I wrote the riff for that and we wrote it a week before we went in. There were still parts of that song that I wasn’t sure yet how they’d turn out. So, yeah, it was pretty wild how everything worked out.
You mean in meeting Mikey or just that whole experience?
The story of us finding Mikey is a whole other conversation we can have. It was almost like we found a Steve Albini in Tennessee [laughs]. No one had really heard of Mkey at that point. We had played a couple of shows with his own band Hellbender – who were fucking awesome – and he was looking for shows and so he emailed us and at the bottom of that email he added: “Hey, I also record bands if you guys ever want to come to Nashville and record.” And we really didn’t have a solid place to go here in town so we just said: “Fuck it, let’s try it out and see what happens.” Everything was sort of…. Not necessarily gambling, but just “Let’s give it a shot” and “Here’s this song that we just wrote, and here two other songs that we’ve been working on for a while and we don’t know exactly how they’re going to turn out” [laughs]. Again, just a lot of question marks and the fact that everything turned out as well as it did, it still surprises me and just makes me laugh. I just think the whole thing is funny [laughs]. And then when the Relapse guys heard it and said “We want to put this out,” we were like: “OK! Cool!” [laughs].
Obviously what you guys do include elements of what could be called Americana, hints of traditional American folk and so on. And that was there before Sky Burial and a part of who you were as a band, but were you at all aware of other bands that were putting that kind of influence into their music? Say Panopticon or Cobalt?
No. Other than Neurosis’ A Sun that Never Sets. And it wasn’t even about drawing inspiration from that. I just remember sitting on the couch in the house that I was living in at the time. I was watching TV and playing my friend’s Telecaster and I just started to play chords and I said: “Oh, this sounds cool.” And I started to do this little weird, Jimi Hendrix “Little Wing” sort of elongated chord progression and it just wound up becoming “The Long Road Home.” And I was: “Well, it sounds cool if you just play it on an acoustic, and then it also sounds cool when you tremolo pick it and put a blast beat to it. It sounds cool both ways, so let’s fucking do both.” There was no “Let’s model it after this song or this band,” it just kind of happened that way.
It sounds like you guys were very naturally in this kind of state of flow where, maybe because of the circumstances you described, you just went with what you got and made the best of it. And that’s a very artistically fertile place to be in. But I guess my question would be how difficult it is to maintain that once the stakes change a bit?
I don’t think it’s difficult at all. I actually think it’s pretty fucking liberating, if you really think about it. If you’re just going with the flow and seeing what happens you’re not limiting yourself to anything. And going back to Neurosis, I think they’re the prime example that started out in one arena, where they’re doing more of a crusty, D-Beat thing, and they evolved into the Through Silver in Blood era and then to the A Sun that Never Sets era, and then into what they’re doing the last couple of records that have kind of been almost an amalgamation of everything, minus the early crust stuff. They didn’t worry about stuff like: “Well, we put out something like Souls at Zero so we have to put out Souls at Zero: Part 2.” They didn’t give a fuck. They just did what they wanted and went with their creative flow. A lot of bands that I’m really into, especially newer ones…. Like Queens of the Stone Age, for example – I worship Josh Homme, I think that guy’s the shit. My favorite one is Like Clockwork, and then they follow that up with Villains, and it’s a pop record! It was produced by Mark Ronson, who produced Amy Whinehouse and Lady Gaga! And even though I don’t really dig that record that much – I like it, but the way I do Like Clockwork, just because I think that record is untouchable – but I respect the fact that those guys were like: “We’re not going to try and recreate that record, we’re going to go and do whatever the fuck we want! We’re going to write a pop record!” I think that’s awesome. I think that’s what artists are and should do, following your ambition or passion. I think that’s what Neurosis did. I even like that Metallica put out Load and Reload. They weren’t trying to write 15 more The Black Albums. “We’ve done that, we want to do something different. Even the transition from …And Justice for All to The Black Album, like: “OK, we’ve taken the technical thing as far as we can take it, let’s change it up, let’s do something else. We’re not putting ourselves in a box.” Which is another thing that I feel like a lot of bands do, whether it’s some technical death metal band or a doom band, just writing the same record over and over. There are plenty of people who dig that, I ain’t one of them. There are too many musical avenues out there to explore for me to write the same song or same record over and over.
Yeah. And I also think that it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s almost never the case that the band that sets out to write the same record ends up with a good record. So the payoff isn’t amazing. I actually think Metallica is an interesting case since, while I never liked the Load albums as much, I do feel they were an expression of where they really wanted to do. And I think that some of the backlash was so fierce that they got scared and lost the plot. I think they lost track of what it is they wanted to do and became horrible.
Well, I can write you a fucking dissertation on the history of Metallica and why they went down the path they did, but that would require a whole separate conversation.
Maybe that will be a part of my Metallica-based interview series. Which will never happen because Dave Mustaine till death.
Not Dave Mustaine the person, Dave Mustaine the idea. But, never mind. OK. Looking back at Sky Burial, aside from everything that you’ve already said about it, about how everything fell into place, is there anything about that album that you’re especially proud of, or that you think held up well?
I listened to a couple of songs off of it not too long ago, a couple of weeks ago, and I think it holds up. It still sounds cool, it still sounds fresh, it doesn’t sound like anything else that’s out. A lot of that has to do with Mikey, again, but there are a couple of things there that I’m particularly proud of – “Destroyer” being one of them. I would say that, from a songwriting standpoint, the move from Sundown to Sky Burial, if I can return to what you said earlier about the dynamics, even within “The Survival Fires” it goes from crazy, Morbid Angel-sounding blast beats to the bridge where it gets real quiet, kind of Neurosis-y sounding…. I feel like the dynamics got a lot better. They were there on Sundown, but I feel like we utilized dynamics, that whole light-and-shade thing, a lot better on Sky Burial. And the songwriting in general got better, and I feel like the songwriting has gotten better and better with each record.