At the locus of the various extreme metal stylings exists a very special band: Skeletonwitch. A high-octane juggernaut of musical extremity given life in Ohio in the early-to-mid 2000’s by Nate Garnett, their style is fast, short cuts – their longest song is just over four minutes – that are surprisingly technical in nature and highly invigorating. Listening to Skeletonwitch is like getting repeatedly punched in the gut by a cold, frostbitten fist: they fuse the typical grim, atmospheric Satanic imagery of black metal with the snappy immediacy of thrash metal and the pulverizing rhythmic riffs of old-school death metal into a combination that is fun, energetic, and makes for absolutely fantastic winter listening. It’s April 8th in Chicago, decidedly not winter (or so one would think), yet it’s still 30 degrees and snowing outside as I walk across the street with Evan Linger and Adam Clemans of Skeletonwitch, bassist and vocalist, respectively, to sit down and talk about the Decibel Tour they’re on with Abbath, High On Fire, and Tribulation. We’re sitting in a little Mexican restaurant, and as High On Fire is rocking out in the Metro concert hall, we’re sitting here talking death metal as Billy Joel and Elton John play in the background.
Thanks for joining me, both of you guys. Starting off, how’s the tour been so far?
Adam Clemans (vocals): It’s been excellent.
Evan Linger (bass): Yeah, really excellent.
Adam: Really good. Great attendance, super positive crowd, just a great time all around.
All of the bands on tour bands that have a very “no-bullshit” attitude when it comes to their music. You see these dudes play up there on stage, and it’s just METAL. It’s just classic metal and the classic attitude that comes with. Is that different than when you tour with other groups?
Evan: We don’t really tour with bands that aren’t straightforward, you know? Like, we’ve done stupid shitty tours with stupid shitty bands – not going to name any names – but we generally tour with straight shooters. Even if we tour with some bigger bands, commercially successful bands like Amon Amarth, and these dudes get wasted before they play and if they go up there and play their instruments and just fuck everything up it doesn’t matter because they’re in a goddamn rock and roll band and it’s about the show just as much as the music. We’re not gonna tour with bands that aren’t straight shooters. All of the bands on this tour are like that and it’s great to be around bands that are awesome bands AND awesome dudes.
Yeah, I mean, you get to hang out with Abbath and Matt Pike.
Evan: True rock and rollers.
Adam: Yeah, that’s been a trip. Matt Pike is super friendly: our first day, he came up, and without me introducing myself to him and said “what’s up Adam?” Like, what the hell? Matt Pike knows my name!
Evan: My story is that I’ve met him a million times and he never remembers my name. I don’t really expect him too, though, it’s been spread out, and plus, I just play the bass.
How’s the recording process been for this newer stuff, now that Adam’s in the band?
Adam: Well, from what Scott [Hedrick, one of the guitarists] was telling me, this time it was a lot more collaborative between the whole band and the vocalist, whereas before they would finish a song and hand it off to chance and be like “just do your thing over it.” This time, Scott and I bounced a bunch of ideas back and forth on where to place vocals, and things like that. So that was really nice because I’m all about collaborating and making everybody happy instead of just doing my thing and not giving a shit about anybody else.
Yeah, on “Well Of Despair” [their newest single] you really took the band to a different place, I mean, the chorus stuff going on there is something that hasn’t ever really been a part of Skeletonwitch before, was that your contribution?
Adam: With that song in particular, I wanted to set it up as verse-chorus-verse, and make it catchy. The whole thing with the chorus part was me doing something I could picture on a Skeletonwitch song and then me adding my own flair to it.
Did you write the lyrics as well?
Adam: Yeah, I’m a total control freak about lyrics.
Evan: We wouldn’t have gotten a guy who didn’t have awesome ideas for lyrics for the band. Plus, I already gotta write basslines, I can’t write your fucking lyrics. Everybody writes their own parts.
I was reading an older interview with Scott to prep and he said most of the time what happens is Nate will bring the skeleton of a song he wrote to the group and everyone will help flesh it out in their own way. Is that still how it works, or – you said it was much more collaborative this time around – did the band get together and write as a four-piece or was that still kinda how it went this time around?
Evan: Well, really, Skeletonwitch is Nate’s brainchild. When you hear the songs on these records, it’s like at least 70% Nate. Maybe a little less this time around, since Scott wrote more parts and Adam and Scott collaborated on some stuff. Nate still wrote most of the stuff this time around, but it’s more collaborative than it’s ever been in the way we’ve done it. We’re not a doom band, we can’t really just get together and jam and see what comes out or whatever, there has to be more structure to it given the nature of the music and how fast and precise it has to be. But it’s definitely more collaborative than it’s ever been, and I think that really shows what’s to come, you know what I mean? It’s not like I just wrote my one riff for this one and then ticked off my box for contributing.
Speaking of structure, one thing that’s always been pretty unique about Skeletonwitch is that you guys have a very singular, focused-in style. There’s not many other bands I can think of that exist in the world of extreme metal, besides, like, Behemoth, that occupy all of the extreme metal territory at once. Is that a conscious decision? Do you guys ever go in saying, “well, this isn’t black metal or death metal or thrashy enough?”
Evan: Well, we never say anything like that, I think it’s just indicative of everyone’s taste, that’s just what everyone likes: we like some death metal bands and some black metal bands and some thrash metal bands and some rock and roll bands. The thing is, Nate is the filter for everything. So, you know, Scott and I write riffs and bring them to Nate and he decides if it’s good enough or if it fits our style or what and it adds a bit of highbrowness to the band, because he does have a grand vision in mind, musically, for the band. He makes sure everything is Skeletonwitch, even if it’s a more rock and roll type song or a more black metal type song or whatever.
Adam, do you work closely with Nate developing the vocal structuring for a song?
Adam: Well, it was more with Scott, honestly, I did write a lot of backup vocal parts for Nate to perform so I’m excited for when we get to the full-length and I get to mess around with that, as far as doing backup stuff and things like that.
One of the other things that I’ve always been attracted to with you guys has been the art. Like, this is an awesome piece [note: I have with me a vinyl of Serpents Unleashed that I’m pointing to]. It’s the classic John Dyer Baizley [guitarist of Baroness, and artist for all of their covers as well as many other bands], very saturated colors and a lot of attention to detail. Is there a super specific vision in mind for the art or do you guys just give the artist a set of real basic parameters and just say “go wild?”
Evan: In the past, we’ve picked an artist and asked them to do one particular thing, but now we’re working a little bit more collaboratively and being more creative with choosing artists we really like and letting them use their craft to help us say what we’re trying to say with each record, so we’re definitely more open now than we have been in the past.
Adam: For me, personally, art is extremely important for conveying the themes of the music, and when we were picking the artist for the EP it was a question of giving him the ideas in the lyrics and letting him help us illustrate that, literally. All I can say is wait until you see the art for the EP, it’s mindblowing.
Yeah, I follow the dude who did the cover for “Well Of Despair” on Instagram, his name is grindesign I think? He’s amazing.
Evan: It’s someone else who did the art for the 12-inch, which is four songs and almost as long as an actual Skeletonwitch record because they’re longer songs. The guy you’re talking about is named Robert Borbas, and he lives in Budapest. We’re actually doing a Skeletonwitch beer and he’s doing the art for that. We’re good friends with him, and he’s an awesome dude, but it’s a different guy on the EP. But yeah, you’re gonna get your mind blown by the artwork, it’s amazing.
So, what are the themes of the EP?
Adam: One major theme of my lyrics has always been sheepheadedness within society and just the idea that on a scale of, you know, what Skeletonwitch is doing on this tour, it’s big, but the general public has absolutely know idea this is going on, and the fact that this many people would come out for a show blows most peoples’ minds. I like writing about the difference of people living for their art versus people just kinda going to their jobs day after day and just going home.
Does Well Of Despair reflect that in the lyrics?
Adam: Yeah, it’s really about how depressing it is that most people around you are just kinda content being a cog in the machine. The older stuff is about, you know, the typical horror and Satan and shit – which is awesome, don’t get me wrong, it’s the foundation of heavy metal – but I wanted to bring something different to the Skeletonwitch ethos this time around.
Adam, how has your approach changed from Wolvhammer?
Adam: With Skeletonwitch in particular, it’s a really big challenge, because with Chance [Garnette, the previous vocalist], he was so specific about the way he placed and phrased his vocals that it’s very hard to learn. It’s almost got a hip-hop swing in certain parts, it’s very on-point and upped my game in terms of writing over quicker parts and doing something I’m not really accustomed to doing, with Wolvhammer it was a lot slower and a lot moodier, there’s more space for long, drawn out vocals, but here, you miss one beat and you’ve thrown the whole thing off. Yeah, it really upped my game.
Did having a vocalist from more of a slower, sludge metal background change the writing process going in?
Evan: Well, it’s a logical progression of our sound but we definitely didn’t think well, we have a new vocalist and we need to write to accommodate him, and not being under certain constraints we were under before allowed us to get a lot more interesting with our writing, and that certainly is gonna reflect in the future material. We had a bit of a creative ceiling before, but now that’s just been completely removed for those of us who remain in the band.
Has moving towards that longer style been part of Nate’s grand arc for Skeletonwitch?
Evan: No, not really, again, that’s just kinda how it happened. Everything we do has been a logical progression based on what we do, and how we feel at the time, and even what we’ve been listening to going into the writing process. Like, Scott does acoustic atmospheric guitar stuff at home, and he plays shows, and that has a big influence on the newer stuff too. We all study musicians that are way outside the realm of metal and that certainly shows on the new material.
What have you guys been listening to recently?
Adam: I’m all over the place with that kind of shit. Every time I get asked that question, I have an instant brain fart, since I listen to so much different shit. On the road, I don’t listen to much metal, and I know that’s such a stereotypical answer but I’m really into a lot of gothic rock and industrial stuff and shit like that.
Do you like newer industrial stuff? I’ve been listening to Prurient a lot recently and it’s been blowing my mind.
Adam: Oh, man, Frozen Niagara falls blows my fucking mind. Fantastic, fantastic album.
Evan, what about you?
Evan: You guys are nerding out on the dark stuff over there. I don’t really know what’s come out recently that I’ve liked. There’s this band that’s a spin-off of The Helicopters, with Nick Anderson from Entombed – see, I’m bringing it back around for the metal guys – that I’ve been digging a lot recently. There’s a lot of great Scandinavian rock and roll kinda stuff out there, they’re doing it like American bands haven’t done it in 30 years, with a lot more technicality and passion. Maybe it’s because they don’t have to work as much so they can just get drunk all day and listen to Kiss records.
Who are your biggest inspirations for bass, both within metal and without?
Evan: Oh, I don’t know. In metal, everyone says Steve Harris, but yeah, it’s true, because he’s an amazing bassist. I’m more into the rock and roll stuff; I’m not a super technical bass player, and there’s super good bass players out there in like tech metal bands but I’d rather listen to Lemmy rock out in Motorhead than any of those dudes doing their crazy tapping and shit. Outside of metal, the bassist from The Smiths is a huge inspiration: they had a singer and three instrumental dudes and the bass on those records is absolutely fucking mindblowing. Old Motown records are really good as well, like, I play in a genre where I basically just play with the guitars the whole time, and when they’re doing something more open I get a chance to go away from that, but if you listen to ‘60s Motown records the bass is just doing something totally different than the guitar and it’s fucking great.
What do you think of more tech metal stuff where the bass is just totally doing its own thing, bands like Beyond Creation? Is that something you’re interested in?
Evan: To be totally honest, I’m not super into that stuff, but you know what band is really great in that niche? Krallice. Krallice is fucking great, and their bassist is doing stuff totally different than the guitars and they’re definitely a favorite of mine within the metal realm.
Adam, what are your big vocal inspirations?
Adam: Within metal, after listening to metal for so many years, in my eyes – and ears – so many of the guys just kinda blend together. Someone who’s always stood out is Frank Mullen from Suffocation, that dude’s lows are insane. Other than that, I’m really into Neill Jameson, from Krieg, Jeff Whitehead from Leviathan is another big one, Steve Von Till, from Neurosis. Outside of metal is typically where my biggest influences come from, people like Carl McCoy from Fields of the Nephilim is a big one for me as well.
Do you try to let those outside influences shine through?
Evan: It’s pretty limited, but I try to, when I get the chance.
Adam: Yeah, I like to do that. I mean, it’s tough, and I’m certainly not doing The Cure vocals over Skeletonwitch stuff, but it’s there. Mostly in the vocal phrasing more than the actual performance, so it’s kinda hard to hear unless you’re really looking for it.
So, I’ve got one more question, and it’s the Heavy Blog standard question: how do you guys like your eggs?
Adam [without missing a beat]: fertilized.
Good answers! Thanks for joining me, guys.
Catch Skeletonwitch on the Decibel Magazine Tour 2016 with Abbath, High On Fire, and Tribulation [PHOTOS]! And keep an eye out for their upcoming EP, available soon via Prosthetic Records!
Photos by Kyle Gaddo and Mark Valentino.