III: In the Eyes of Fire (Metal Blade)
An interview with singer Trevor Phipps
by Scott Hefflon
photos by Bruce Bettis
How long were your shows on Ozzfest this summer?
About 30 minutes. We did about 10 headlining shows on our off dates as well. Those were about an hour. First eight bands that rotate are given 20 minutes, then us, Norma Jean, Bleeding Through, an Atreyu got a half hour, and Black Label Society had, like, 45 minutes or something.
Must screw up your voice after a while…
It’s not the time each night, it’s the number of weeks of the tour. On Ozzfest, I was fine for the first seven weeks, and that last week, my voice still worked, but it wasn’t up to the level I like to keep it at. Ya can’t work out every day for eight weeks either, ya know?
Who’d you play with on the offdates?
It was kind of a second stage package. It was us, Norma Jean, Walls of Jerhico, The Red Chord, A Life Once Lost, Full Blown Chaos, and All That Remains. A couple of the dates, Hatebreed and Strapping Young Lad played as well. That was quite the show. The first two weeks of Ozzfest, every day it was over 100 degrees. It was brutal. The first show, in Seattle, it was 103, dry heat, and I didn’t realize it and hydrate properly, and I hurt my back the first date of the tour. I had a spasm in my back that shifted a vertebrate and I had a strained vertebrate for the first ten days.
What’s your workout to get in shape for a tour?
Both Ken (Susi, guitar) and I work out quite a bit, just to stay healthy and keep up our stage show. Our band is known for having a lot of energy on stage, so we have to keep up our cardio. You have to keep on top of it. We aren’t old, but we aren’t getting any younger, either. I’m in my late 20s, so I have to keep more of an eye on my health than I used to. I can’t jump around like I’m 22 anymore, not if I don’t stay fit.
Even some “old metal guys” like Bruce Dickinson can still jump around like the young guys.
I’m a Maiden fan, of course, but I’m a huge fan of Bruce because the dude’s in his mid-50s and he runs around like a 20 year old. And he doesn’t miss a note the whole time he’s running all over the stage. He’s a real inspiration.
For rock’n’roll, Mick Jagger. He’s in his early 60s, and that guy still kills live. I saw them a year or so ago, and the whole band were really in great shape.
I’ve always dreaded the day when scrawny Angus Young finally gets old and fat and climbs up on Brian Johnson’s shoulders and throws out Brian’s back.
It could happen some day… As a fan, it’s always a bummer to go see one of your favorite bands, and the singer’s gotten all fat and can’t move around anymore.
How about vocal exercises?
Sure, yeah, I’ve had vocal training and I do warm-ups and stuff.
What about, I dunno, honey in herbal tea or some shit?
I used to do that kinda stuff, but it seemed to make my throat weaker. While it may sounds like a joke, I find whiskey loosens up my throat and kinda cleanses it. I didn’t believe it when I first heard it, but since I switched to whiskey, I haven’t had any throat problems. If I overdo it, sure, it leaves me a little weaker and more open to sickness, but if you keep it in check, it’s all good.
Usually Jim Beam.
I’m with ya.
Sometimes Jack or Crown, but Beam is the whiskey of choice. It’s cheap, it’s a little dirtier and less rich and smooth than some of the more expensive brands, which makes it harder to accidentally overdo it. We did a lot of Crown on a Damageplan tour, and it was so smooth, we kinda went overboard. Beam is dirty, a real whiskey, not some dessert wine.
You recorded III: In the Eyes of Fire with Terry Date, the dude who made the Pantera sound that everyone’s been copying for a decade and a half, how was that?
Terry was amazing. He had great ideas on how to get the best performances out of us. He didn’t mess with the songwriting, but as far as performances went, he really got into finding out what the song was about, and coaching us to bring it all out.
Well, “Sanctity of Brothers” is about friendship, but it’s inspired by a friend of mine who died a year ago. He sat me down and had me talk about that friend and what he meant to me, then he had me try to channel those thoughts and feeling of growing up with this buddy of mine. He got me back to the place where I was when I originally wrote the song, instead of just screaming some words that I had written down.
Any other examples?
“March of the Mutes,” which is about the end of the world, if we don’t get on the right track and treat the planet better, treat each other better. I think something terrible could happen in our lifetime. Not our kids or grandkids, not “someday,” but in our lifetime. Terry’s very into that as well, so we sat down and went over the lyrics and ideas, and he got me all fired up.
So are you spearheading the New Wave of Environmental Metal?
(laughs) I won’t say we’re Environmental Metal, but every record has at least one song that dips into that. The first album had a song called “Banishment,” about us destroying our living environment with the over-consumption of oil, the polar ice caps are melting which will destroy the coastlines and effect the global climate, and that’ll have severe effects on all plant and animal life on the planet. “Black Heart, No Rain,” from The Oncoming Storm, is also about the over-consumption of oil, but more from a political viewpoint: The greed, money, and power behind it. “March of the Mutes” takes that idea and furthers it. I think in the U.S., and actually the whole world, we’re all so divided that we can’t form a group large enough to have one voice strong enough to have any real change. There are a lot of people concerned and involved about all types of injustices, but each group is divided from other groups by specifics, and governments only respond to the pressure of large numbers.
I just watch a Discovery Channel thing about the amount of trash Americans generate. It was amazing, and actually, kinda sickening.
It’s disgusting, but it’s out of sight, out of mind for most Americans. But all those landfills add up, year after year, and we’re going to run out of other people’s backyards to dump in.
Have you always been into environmental and political issues?
Since I was a kid, yeah. I watch the news all the time. This record is actually a little less political than the last one, cuz I don’t wanna come across like a preacher. Last time around, there were some whole interviews that were only about politics, the music wasn’t even mentioned. I’m in a metal band. I have an opinion, I think more people should have a strong, well-researched opinion, and they should voice it. So I did take a little step back and only include a few political songs on this record.
Tell me a bit about “Giles.” It sounded all “Freedom!” in Braveheart…
I heard the story back in high school, and seeing as it took place in Salem, growing up in the Boston area made it hit that much closer to home. So there’s this guy, he owns a farm, and he has a wife and two kids. At the time, if you were accused of being a witch, you were going to die whether you confessed or not. But if you confessed, the city would take your land. This guy had two sons, so he didn’t want to plead guilty or not guilty, because he wanted his sons to inherit his land when he died. So he refused to plead anything. The courts wanted a confession, so they piled stones on him, repeating their questions. When they’d stacked so much weight on him that he was about to die, they asked him again to confess, and he whispered “more weight.”
While, uh, on a lesser scale, you put your money where your mouth is by running a record label as well, yeah?
Since 2002, yeah. There was a band called Rise Over Run, from just outside of Toronto, and they opened for us when we played there, and I thought they were amazing. They weren’t on a label, so I saved up $1500 to press it and run ads, and then we got ’em some shows with Unearth. It didn’t sell very well, but I found that I had a passion for it. Every band signed to Ironclad Recordings is a band that opened for Unearth and blew me away. A band that blows me away live is more important to me than a band that sounds good in the recording studio. Any band with enough time and money can sound good in the studio now, but if they can’t bring it live, I have no time for them.
And now, with ProTools, which some kid can get for like two grand, anyone can sit there and tweak stuff until their demo sounds perfect. But it takes the life out of the music. Our CD wasn’t done to a click track, and Terry didn’t want us to do everything perfectly, because he believes, and I agree, that humans aren’t perfect, so why should what they create be perfect? Little flaws give things character, I think. It gives it heart.
You have five bands on your label now, the most recent release was by If Hope Dies, yeah?
Five, yeah, but Apiary, from California, has the most recent release, then If Hope Dies, who’re from New York. Apiary lost their singer, but they got another one quickly.
<Being a band from Boston, where there are a ton of metal and hardcore bands – many very good, popular, and sometimes both – is there a tangible sense of “bring yer best game, or go the fuck home”?
Both with the bands and the fans, yeah. If the band can’t bring it, no one’s going to care about them. Because there’ll be another band playing tomorrow night that can. The first few years Unearth was around, we were accepted in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Jersey, and Philly, all before Boston. Western Mass was down before Boston was. There’s a real elitist mentality here, because soooo many bands come from here. No one gives a shit unless the band kicks serious ass.
It took us a long time to develop our songwriting and performance to be embraced as a Boston band. Every show we play, all around the world, I say “Wassup, we’re Unearth, we’re from Boston, Massachusetts.” We’re proud to be a Boston band.
Was there one defining moment when you felt Boston had finally accepted you?
There was, actually. The Red Sox were playing the Cleveland Indians in the playoffs, the Sox won 20 to 2. We played the Karma Club with V.O.D., Hot Water Music, and Diecast. It was one of the best, if not the best, show we’d played to that point. At that point, I felt that Boston finally welcomed us as one of their own.
Somewhere I read that you were originally going for a mixture of Earth Crisis and Hatebreed, with Iron Maiden guitar work. Anything more recent, like Swedish metal work in?
Buz (McGrath, guitars) is BIG into At The Gates. Especially at the start, it had a really big influence on his writing and playing. But this band is a democracy. We have five views and five different ways of working, and five sets of influences. So while we play metal and you’ve heard stuff like it before, we bring in elements from so many different places, that the sound really is our own. Buz is into ATG, and Ken brought in influences like Turmoil, Buried Alive, old Cave-In, Overcast, and stuff like that. When those two guitarists get together and play their styles, it becomes mixed together to form the sound of Unearth.
The bio mentioned a firm stance on no pop melodies. Was that a bio writer grasping for something to write about, or how important was that to you when writing this record?
That was definitely important to us. Many bands have been banking on the success of Killswitch Engage and the more rock radio metal bands, like Atreyu, and they’re not writing songs that’re true to them, they’re writing songs hoping to sell a lot of records. I think that bands who originated that style felt it, they meant it, it’s coming from their hearts. It’s the bands that came later, the copycats, they’re not doing it well, and real music fans can tell the difference. I think that most music fans, even if they don’t like a particular band or style, can at least distinguish between who’s real and who’s fake. We wanted to make a record that was true to us, to what we love, and not water it down with pop elements to try to get a radio hit or something. That’s what happened in the late ’80s, when every band needed a power ballad, their radio hit, in order to stay on top. But they ended up killing metal, and driving true metal underground. It wasn’t “rebel rock” anymore, it was a formulaic product meant to sell millions.
How ironic is it that bands are now “selling out” before they ever get big and are pressured to stay on top, and now starter bands are pushing watered-down, compromised copycat music and selling less than 10,000 CDs in many cases. Lots never even crack 1000! Bands signed to labels (mostly the ones who don’t promote for shit), even!
Weird, right? If you go to Lambgoat.com like I do, pretty much every day, if a band sells more than 20,000 records, all the people on the message boards hate you. I don’t get that, seeing as it’s the same record they liked, until it started to do really well. I’ve never hated a band because they sold records, only if they sold out to sell more records.