Losing drummer Kevin Lane in late 2010 certainly took the starch out of Knoxville, Tennessee deathcore doomsayers Whitechapel. As hard as that pill was to swallow, Ben Savage would experience worse between the release of A New Era of Corruption in the summer of that year and the difficult birthing of the band’s latest self-titled LP, a fiery blast furnace of hostility and rage that burns so hot it threatens to consume anything that dares creep near it.
“My best friend died during that time, and he was a real amazing piano player,” admits Savage, one of three architects of the savage, thickly layered guitar onslaught wrought by Whitechapel on its immense new sonic undertaking, released June 19 by Metal Blade. “That’s why we put piano parts in the songs. He was an amazing piano player and a songwriter. When he sung, it was beautiful. His name was Andrew Bledsoe (the son of veteran Knoxville music writer Wayne Bledsoe) and … yeah, he was a great piano player and we felt his arm around us.”
The melancholy that resides in those purposefully struck keys is palpable. Unchecked violence and vehement invective almost buries them on Whitechapel, a bloody war of brutally heavy riffs, fire-breathing vocals and punishing, seismic rhythms all caught up in a powerful maelstrom of surging emotions and oppressive darkness. And yet there are sinewy vines of strange and beautiful melody found in the ruins of these massive, shape-shifting structures of sound. From the scathing, anti-conformist rant “(Cult)uralist” to the crushing devastation and bleak outlook of “Possibilities of an Impossible Existence,” Whitechapel is a furious condemnation of a society gone horribly awry, as the crazed, chaotic beatings of “Section 8” and “Hate Creation” so viciously illustrate.
Now boasting a lineup of Savage, the growling, roaring lion of a vocalist Phil Bozeman, guitarists Alex Wade and Zach Householder, bassist Gabe Crisp, and drummer Ben Harclerode, Whitechapel, formed in 2006, is primed to stomp its way through the heavy metal community like Godzilla on bath salts. In a recent interview, Savage relayed the story of how Whitechapel survived drug addicted booking agents and anxiety over a change of drummers to record its fourth album in a house abandoned by a couple that apparently fought like cats and dogs. Here’s what Savage had to say:
What do you remember about hearing the new record in its totality for the first time?
Ben Savage: I was just really stoked. I guess I look at it in a different way, because I could see all the elements coming together, like how all the riffs kind of just fit into place and how all the ideas came to be. I mean, it was like that one was put together in a month, but we had ideas and parts for like a couple of years. We had riffs from before the last album and stuff, so I could see it all coming together, and I thought it couldn’t have come together in any better way. I try to think about what else we could have done, but I can’t really think of anything major that we could have done differently. So that’s a good sign, I guess.
In sitting down and thinking about recording the new record, what elements of the Whitechapel aesthetic did you want to retain in making this album and what new features – like perhaps the piano intro to “Make It Bleed” or that really affecting quiet guitar outro in “Dead Silence” – did you want to add?
Savage: I wanted to be as different as possible, without coming off too tacky I would say. I wanted the songs to be well – I mean, we all did – in a live setting, to be just really powerful. And that’s basically what we tried to do, make it as cool sounding as we could and still be able to pull it off live, but make it cool sounding so that it intrigues people that listen to it for more than just the music, to give them like another perspective – a musician’s perspective, but still have like a nice live feel to it. So we messed around with tempo changes and stuff, like dropping the tempo down. I still wish we could record an album without a click track, because our first two were like that and they sound real blah. We tried to make it as live as possible, basically.
Listening to the new album, you can hear an increased complexity – both sonically and lyrically – to this new record. But, it also has an expansiveness that is quite remarkable. Do you feel like this is your most ambitious record to date?
Savage: Yeah, I’d say so. We’ve all been through a lot the past couple of years since the last record, just in our home lives and everything. You try to find inspiration in like the down times – I mean the hard times and everything. It really came together I think because the record is real dark sounding, too. A lot of the riffs were written under not very ideal conditions. Yeah, it’s definitely way more vicious, because for the most part, we didn’t want to overthink it. That was the main thing. The previous record, we tried to – especially the first two albums – fit like 10 riffs into one song. On this record, it’s more like three or four riffs per song, but those riffs go on different tangents. It’s definitely way more dynamic, and it’s definitely like we didn’t just write a riff with the first idea, you know. If we wrote a riff that was cool, we’d just see what else we could do with it and see what other avenues we could take rather than just stick with the first idea that came to mind. Phil did an amazing job, too. Like, he’s just … it’s like we make the beats. We’re like Dr. Dre and he’s Eminem just laying vocals down over it, and it just makes it awesome.
It does seem like he tried to sing a little more on this record instead of just all growls all the time.
Savage:I know, I know. It’s good, it’s good. It’s like you can almost sing over the choruses. Whenever we first started listening to the final version it occurred to me to make joke-like songs over the choruses, just like singing them instead of just growling them. We’d sing them. It’s real melodic like that. And also I just want to … like the big thing recently I’ve wanted to be able to do is be able to play our songs on an acoustic guitar. When we write the songs, we try to mess with the riffs as much as possible so they’d sound good on an acoustic, because that’s how you know a song is good if it rocks on an acoustic.
Is there going to be a Whitechapel unplugged album some time?
Savage: I’d be down if people didn’t think it was too tacky. I could totally do it. We’ve already done an acoustic version of a song from the last EP, but that’s the only thing. We could do a lot of acoustic renditions on this one.
“Section 8” comes from the EP you guys released last fall, and I love how it grows and evolves into something that just keeps gaining speed, and then, it has slower, brutally heavy finish. Working on that EP, did it at all point the way toward the results of the new full-length?
Savage: It did, it did. The EP was definitely a good idea, although I think some people in our band would disagree. But, I think it was a good idea in the fact that we were on tour for so long, and we hadn’t had much time to write anything together since we’d been on tour. It’s hard to get inspired when you’re doing that. So we just basically … we wrote “Section 8” as a band, because like the last album, A New Era of Corruption, that was more like, we toured a lot … we still tour a lot, but we were touring a lot back then, so it was more of like we all kind of wrote our own songs. Everybody still had an opinion on it, but it was more like, we’d already come in with pretty much full songs, whereas this one … with like “Section 8,” when we starting working on “Section 8” we just kind of went back to what we used to do and start with the first riff and work your way till the end. And then everybody throws in ideas, everybody worked together. I think “Section 8” really helped the process for this record writing-wise, like how to go about the writing part.
In what ways has the band changed the most since The Somatic Defilement?
Savage: Well, I don’t know. We have a new drummer, so that’s definitely a change. Everybody’s really been like the same, it’s just like we have a different perspective on like the music industry and how we should go about writing our songs. It just comes with experience, but we all haven’t really changed that much. I mean, we have a new drummer who can actually play our stuff perfectly, and we can actually make tempos faster, we can make riffs groove harder … that was the hardest part. Like, finding – especially in a band like ours – a well-oiled machine of a drummer who can play the fast parts perfect and then be able to groove. Usually, it’s one or the other. It’s hard to find a guy who is well-rounded, in the middle sort of, and so we found the new guy … we also call him “new guy,” so I’ll just call him “new guy” from now on in this interview. We got him like a year ago, and when we got him, he just wanted to go fast. He was real fast and we always pushed him to be like … well, he still had groove, so we were just like, “You know, man, just groove harder man, just don’t be afraid of the groove.” And you’re thinking about putting a double-bass part, a straight double-bass, 16 double basses in one part; instead think of what else you can do, like with the high-hat or something, that makes it groove harder other than that. So that was another cool thing that came about.
Did it change the dynamics of the band having him come in?
Savage: Definitely … in the studio and live. Like live, it’s tremendous, because that’s where you’re showing off for the people to see. Live, you’ve got to have somebody that’s on it. But, yeah, it definitely changes the dynamic, and because before we found him, we all were just kind of like, “Oh sh*t, are we going to find a guy?” We have a tour coming up in like a month or something. We need to … it was not a good time in the band trying to find a drummer, because Kev had just left, but when [Ben] came around, our spirits just shot up.
What guitar parts are you most proud of on the new record?
Savage: I’m real proud of the guitars in “Hate Creation,” because those two riffs … basically, the riffs in that song are like real old-school sounding. It’s like some parts you listen back and you go, “Oh, that’s really cool, like that Tool part in the middle, I’m so glad we did a part like that,” because I used to love Tool when I was a kid. My first metal show was Tool and Meshuggah, and I was really stoked to have that part in the song. And those riffs are like really old, too, so it was cool that we finally got to use them. And I’m proud of “Make it Bleed,” the riffs in that, because it’s pretty straightforward riffing, but they all flow really well. And “I Dementia” … “I Dementia” is real brooding and heavy – yeah, just happy with most of them or all of them.
I guess it feels this way with every album a band makes, but do you feel that this is the album that’s going to put you over the top?
Savage: Yeah, I hope so. I hope so, because … well, I don’t know, because every time I look back, everybody was happy with the songs. It was like all of us were happy with the material. So, yeah … I don’t know what better situation there could be.
You mentioned the collaborative nature of this album, as evidenced by the naming of it. Did that make the writing and recording of this record a more satisfying experience for you, or did it in some ways make the process easier or more difficult?
Savage: Um, it’s all three. In the end, it was satisfying, but during the process … f**k man, it’s like everybody’s stuck on a part, and you’re like, “I don’t know what you did there, but it shouldn’t be that.” And I’m like, “Well, can you give me an idea? Just something you don’t ever want to hear (laughs).” Patience is the key and Alex, our guitarist, he has a new house. So, it was really easy just to go over there, drive 10 minutes down to his house and just work and then drive home. It was a really easy process. Alex’s house definitely has a lot more to do with the writing process, because it was a comfortable setting.
Was the house finished when you were working on it?
Savage: Yeah, he got it off like this couple. They had an argument and they broke up. There were like holes in the walls throughout the whole house (laughs).
You’re kidding …
Savage: No, they had an argument. I guess the wife or the husband just went through punching holes in the walls, and … I don’t know. And then, after that was fixed, it was all set up and then from January to February, we were there pretty much every day working. But, from halfway through January and February, we went to NAMM because we have signature guitars, so that was a real kink in the writing process. I think up to that point we only had two songs done and that was January 15. And we had to go into the studio like Feb. 3, so that was a real kink in the chain. But it gave us time to reflect on the material, and I went through my hard drive while I was there. And I have like a catalog of just riffs that I went through, just listened to them. So, it was all building up to something good.
Most of the band is from Tennessee. What was the environment like and how did it inform your sound?
Savage: Well, I mean … the schools are kind of … I don’t know (laughs) … I went to this magnet school, when I was in middle school, and I met some friends and that’s when we started a band called Psychotic Behavior. There wasn’t really like a music scene, or if there was, I was too young to really go out to shows. I was just out there listening to metal in my car … I mean, not my car but at home, you know. After a while, I started going out to shows and it was cool. That made you want to start your own band and do that whole thing. So it was just ambition to do something other than just living here, ‘cause there’s nothing there that really intrigued me. I just wanted to be in a band.
It seems like culturally barren areas really influence people to start bands. I’ve heard Slipknot talking about how it was growing up in Iowa …
Savage: Yeah, I don’t know what else you do in Iowa (laughs).
What were the early days like for Whitechapel? Was it a struggle financially?
Savage: Yeah, we all had equipment before … we all had like day jobs. I was going to community college and working at a deli. Phil and Alex were working at this screen-printing shop. Phil also worked at this place answering calls for jewelry television and stuff. He also cleaned the interior of cars for Jaguar. Zach worked at a paint shop. I mean, we all had jobs. We’d save up enoughto buy gear off people that we knew in town. We all bought our own equipment. We never really had a sugar daddy (laughs) doing it for us.
What did it mean to you to sign to Metal Blade a year later?
Savage: I think that at that point, we signed to Metal Blade and it was definitely just a confidence boost. It was just like, “Wow! We can actually be optimistic with the band.” So, I think that pushed us right on into our first release on Metal Blade, because a lot of energy went into doing that and also a lot of stress. A lot of the songs are really like riff sandwiches all throughout the songs … I’m still happy with it. Oh, just signing to Metal Blade was just a huge confidence booster. It was like, “Wow, we might actually be able to make a career off this and do something cool.” Before that, we were just doing our own stuff with tours and with like shady booking agents.
You got to know the dark side of the business …
Savage: Yeah. Aw man, this guy was like a heroin addict. He booked the tour and then he just didn’t care. Halfway through the tour, he just stopped advancing shows … he just stopped halfway through, and I think it was like our second tour ever in 2007. And he just stopped caring halfway through. He wouldn’t show up. There wouldn’t be any promotion. It was like, “Oh, what the hell …” And then after we signed to Metal Blade, you could actually feel people starting to care about you. The management we have now, it’s like … well, people care about you when you’re on a label.
A New Era of Corruption seemed to up the ante, so to speak, sounding more brutal and intense. When you look back on that record, how do you feel about it?
Savage: I’m real happy with it. I mean, a lot of the songs were written individually. The songs I wrote I’m more self-conscious about … you know, I’m like, “Sh*t, maybe it would have been better if we’d worked together.” But when we released the record I was proud of it, and I’m still proud of it. I mean, it is what it is. At the time, we thought that was a necessary step. And I’m still proud of the record. It was definitely what we needed at the time, and it did what it did. And I’m proud as hell of the songs. The only thing is I’m not really like a lead guitar player. I like writing riffs, so I’m really self-conscious about my leads. That was probably the biggest part, like the leads on the record could have been a little better … but, whatever.
I wanted to talk to you about some of the tracks on the new record specifically. One of my favorites is “Faces.” The intensity and speed just blows you away, and yet it might be the most straightforward track on the record. What went into making that one?
Savage: Oh, there’s a funny story behind that one. Our bass player, Gabe, whenever we’d come up with like a cool riff, we’d e-mail each other. We’d like record it and e-mail it to each other. And then people would reply back: “Oh, that’s cool,” or “Aw, it’s cool you did this.” But sometimes you don’t get replies back. And then you’re like, “Okay, I guess this riff sucks (laughs).” Gabe actually took a liking to the first riff in that song. And we were like at Alex’s house like writing and stuff, and Gabe and I were going to work on the song. We went out back to the back porch and Gabe had like this Kentucky blueberry weed, and we smoked a bowl of it, went inside and finished the song in an hour. It was like, “Bam.” Gabe and I had never written a song before, so it was cool because Gabe just really directed the song, “Yeah, and then there should be a part like this.” And it went on like that, and we’d do that, and then, “Okay, we should bring it back to this,” and the end of the song was done in about an hour. I think Alex and “new guy” went to go get Chinese food, and then by the time they came back, the song was done. And we were just stoked on it. It was a pretty cool moment. I don’t know if we could have caught it at a better time.
Is “The Night Remains” the most melodic track to you?
Savage: I’d say so. I mean, earlier on, everybody thought that song would be kind of a dud or whatever, like it’d kind of be just all right. Then, I knew that song could be real special; it just needed effects added to it. So we really focused on … like in the song, if you don’t listen to the effects, it’s just real like straightforward, like chugging … just real straightforward. But, with the effects added to it and the layers and the atmosphere adds a new vibe. I still think we named the song perfectly, “The Night Remains,” because it kind of has a nighttime, Halloween type of feel about it.
“Hate Creation” is the first single, and the breakdowns and changes in tempo are so unpredictable. I quite like the dual guitar parts as well. Why did that track seem the perfect one to release first?
Savage: Probably because it was different, but it wasn’t so different that people would be like, “Oh wow! I’m just not going to care about this band anymore.” It was different enough that it was like Tool, you know. It was like everything wasn’t like awkward at all or … it was just like an anthemic song. I don’t know. It just felt right. I don’t know, it’s heavy and basically, it’s just classic Whitechapel.
What are you most looking forward to in touring this summer?
Savage: Yep. Um, looking forward to seeing High on Fire, Slipknot, Slayer, Motorhead … all those cool bands. I don’t know … just looking forward to playing all the new songs.
Have you played the new songs live and if you have, what’s been the reaction?
Savage: The only one we’ve played live is “Section 8,” and the reaction has been great for that. I want to start playing some of the slower songs live, like “I Dementia” and the closing track on that record ‘cause it’s going to add a different contrast to the songs we have. It’s going to have like a slower, groovy thing to the live show that’s going to be real cool.
Interviewer Peter Lindblad is a former editor-in-chief of Goldmine Magazine and has been a music journalist for the last 10 years. His work has also appeared in Elmore magazine and Lostatsea.net, among other publications.