Interview: Andy of Black Crown Initiate.
Interviewed by CJ Claesson
It’s been almost 4 years to the day since the progressive death metal behemoth Black Crown Initiate released their last full-length album. Formed in 2012 and getting massive traction with their EP ‘Song of The Crippled Bull’ (2013), led to embarking on tours with the crème de la crème of extreme metal. During the years, the band have experienced the highs and lows of the industry and the importance of staying true to a united vision. Now signed to the apex metal label Century Media Records the Reading, Pennsylvania natives are back with a monstrous follow-up to the critically acclaimed ‘Selves We Cannot Forgive’ from 2016. ‘Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape’ serves up a buffet of sonic aesthetics, sure to satisfy your rumbling progressive death metal appetite. To get a further look into the BCI camp, I had a chat with the lead guitarist, clean vocalist, and general master-mind Andy Thomas about the new album, the battle of man versus technology, and much more.
The Razor's Edge: Did you cut your beard off?
Andy: Yes, I did, but it's growing back. I had a very important job opportunity that I couldn't pass up to deliver pizzas.
The Razor's Edge: So you’re still living the Billy Gibbons fantasy?
Andy: Yeah, I have a pretty formidable beard again but for a while there I cut it off. But I get to wear a bandana for work so it’s kind of obscured the whole thing. They don't actually know how long it is, which works out in my favor.
The Razor's Edge: Except for the obvious implications COVID has had on touring bands such as yourself - how have you been keeping busy?
Andy: I've been delivering pizzas, because apparently that is recession proof, that is virus proof. I am essential, my man, I am essential. I deliver a lot of pizzas and just been doing a lot of interviews and promoting the album however I can. I have to do some playthroughs and shit which I'm not really looking forward to because I'm sort of a troglodyte when it comes to technological stuff.
The Razor's Edge: You've said that "Selves We Cannot Forgive" (2016) was influenced by the world we live in getting sicker every day. With everything that's going on in the world - does this album continue on that message?
Andy: I don't know. I mean, I think this album largely was a way for me to bookmark and close a chapter in my life which really took about 32 years. I moved to Arizona and started to make conscious decisions to have a better life. I think this album is reflective of sort of letting go and also human accountability. Like, you can't blame your parents anymore or whatever it may be. A lot of the album for me is about that.
The Razor's Edge: I remember when you were playing in Berlin last year and introduced ‘Years In Frigid Light,’ you mentioned that it was inspired by the time you thought the band might cease to exist. Could you explain that deeper?
Andy: That was a bad time for me, dude. But I'm here now and I survived it. The album represents a very terrible period for me, but also being able to look at it from the vantage point that I’m at now, which is a much better one. I have a have a nice life with a wonderful partner and I have dogs. I don't really have that much to be upset about other than the fact that the world is completely fucked up.
The Razor's Edge: Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape being the first release on Century Media Records - does that come with added pressure as opposed to getting signed to your former label?
Andy: Not really, because Nick and I and Ethan, to a degree, had the album done when we signed with Century Media. Even when we were in Europe, which was September of last year, the album was pretty much done musically. I still had to figure out what I was going to write about, which I eventually obviously did, but the music was done. It's more of an honor than a pressure to be on Century Media. When I was a kid the majority of albums I listened to, I got through Century Media distro.
Century Media was a huge part of my early listening as a young man. It’s more just an honor to be able to say you’re signed to Century Media. It's really the first time we've been signed to a label that legitimately signs you because they believe in you and then continues to believe in you and allows you to do what you're doing and going to do naturally and just backs that, instead of trying to infiltrate and influence what you're doing, so that's cool. It's not really anything but pleasant for me. If there was a pinhead of pressure put on me, I would fold. I do terrible under pressure.
The Razor's Edge: You've said that you feel like this is your best album to date. Did you have a different approach to this album versus the predecessor "Selves We Cannot Forgive"?
Andy: It's interesting because when we came out with our EP it was very much just something that we wrote because we just wanted to write something. We weren't signed. We had no hopes of being signed. We had no team. We had nothing. In a lot of ways because the way the band fell apart in 2016 this album was constructed in a lot of that same headspace. There wasn't any pressure, because we had no team, no label, no management and we had no real hope for a future. We were writing music just to write it. I think that yields a different result because you're not writing it to a timeline or letting a label dictate. We didn’t do that with this album, and I think that shows. It's a different outcome when there's zero outside influence or pressure.
The Razor's Edge: You’ve also mentioned that you now have the most cohesive lineup ever - how does that influence the songwriting and general atmosphere in the band?
Andy: Nick, James, Ethan and I are all just old friends. When you're writing music with your old buddies, who happen to be a bunch of big dumb dumbs, it's more fun! Being in a band with people that you don't get along with isn't fun, and I think anybody who’s been in a band knows that. When you're just together for the outcome and you hate each other the rest of the time, that sucks. We don't have that at all, and I think that yields better music. Although I don't know if that's necessarily true, because I think, historically, there have been a lot of great bands that have hated each other’s guts. So, I don't know, but for us it works better to just be buddies.
The Razor's Edge: Sam left the band - and Gabe Seeber is credited for the drums on the album - are you actively looking for a permanent drummer?
Andy: That's an interesting question. The short answer is yes, but long answer is for what? Touring seems uncertain for the long-term foreseeable future. Gabe will continue to be involved with us in any capacity that he can. But his personal life kind of dictates that it can't be a full-time thing at this point. If that changes then we'll have a discussion, but at some point, we will have to look for at least a permanent filling drummer or different guys or whatever. We haven't really stressed over it too much. Especially with a paused world.
The Razor's Edge: BCI records are substantial pieces of work - what’s your typical songwriting process like?
Andy: I’m a pretty simple guy so I just pick up a guitar and go “dum dum dum dum” and go “that sounds cool”. Then I take it to Nick and then he might have something, then he goes “that sounds cool” and then we have a song.
The Razor's Edge: It’s just that simple?
Andy: Pretty much dude! It’s definitely not rocket science. Nick and I, and definitely Ethan, are relatively schooled musicians. We know a good deal of theory and stuff so if you find yourself in a musical trap there's ways to get out of it. But for the most part it’s just “this riff is sick”, you know? I have a lot of fun putting music together and I don’t over intellectualize stuff. Unless it comes to concepts and stuff, but even then, it pretty much flows out of me. I sort of have a rolodex of life experience that I pull from, I guess. But it's definitely not a huge convoluted process. I can barely use a computer.
The Razor's Edge: Regarding the creative process - are you all equal contributors when writing?
Andy: I would say I have the bulk of the work. Moving forward, I think Ethan will be much more present on the next album, which I look forward to. He’s a brilliant musician and a great guy. With this album, being written over three years, the way it worked out was just me having ideas and putting them together with Nick and then Ethan joined the band towards the end of it.
When it gets time to go into the studio, that's pretty stressful for me. Because I write all the vocals and I have to track my vocals and kind of oversee James tracking his vocals and then I have to track guitars. But it’s fun! This time, for whatever reason, I felt more focused than I ever had, and I think that shows.
The Razor's Edge: Asking about your favourite song on the album, is the same as asking a parent who's their favourite child, I imagine. I assume you love them all - but is there one that sticks out to you?
Andy: I think Son of War. When that chorus develops… I was really proud of that. I'm proud of the way that song turned out. Some of the most challenging stuff to play is on that and Ethan plays a really cool solo.
The Razor's Edge: Is there a B-side somewhere or did you write all the songs specifically for the album?
Andy: Holy Silence, the second to last track on the album, Ethan, Nick and I wrote that song musically in 2008. That song was done completely with guitar solo and all, note for note in 2008. But we never used it because Ethan wasn't in the band. So, when he joined the band, it was kind of a no brainer to use that song. That's kind of how we work. We always have stuff laying around and when it works, it works. I don't think we have any full songs currently, but there's a lot of cool riffs and eventually we’ll use it for something, maybe. We don't really force things, so if it doesn't work it just doesn't work. I try not to get too married to any ideas because if you try to force something to work, generally it won’t. Like anything in life, I guess.
The Razor's Edge: Years In Frigid Light has been described as a masterpiece - does that resonate with you?
Andy: I don’t know, I mean, a masterpiece? A masterpiece to me is like ‘Master of Puppets’ or something, so I don’t know. It's definitely a cool song and if you liked the original demo that we put out, then I think you'll really like the album version, because we rerecorded it and restructured it. Actually, I got to use the Leslie rotating speaker cabinet that Live used on ‘Lightning Crashes’ on Years In Frigid Light. If you’re a 90s music fan, that literal Leslie cabinet is on that song, so that was pretty cool. My inner little kid at the swimming pool in the summer was really stoked on that. But, I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece. It’s cool. It’s hard to sing - I can tell you that!
The Razor's Edge: Continuing on the gear used on the record, did you change anything gear-wise on your part for this record?
Andy: The guitar gear that we used for the rhythm tones were my EVH 5150 50-watt EL34, I love that amp. EL34 is the shit. But for a little bit of flavour we also used a Bogner Uberschall. but on a very low gain setting to give the guitars a little more clarity. For the most part it was just experimenting with analog effects pedals which I've recently really gotten into myself. We did spend a lot of time on the guitar tones but that EVH EL34 is the shit.
The Razor's Edge: You've explored a range of musical styles, as well as instruments on your releases - are there any styles or instruments you'd like to explore more or incorporate?
Andy: I don’t really think of stuff that way. I listen to so much music and I have throughout my life, so things just come out the way they do. I don’t really ever say “that doesn’t sound like us”, it’s like “well that’s cool, let’s try that”. I would like to have horn sections and string sections and stuff like that. I love how trumpets sound. I’d like to get a little bit freaky with that in the future, that’d be cool.
The Razor's Edge: Sadly, Tech Fest was cancelled - any plans to return to Europe for a full tour in 2021?
Andy: I would give my foot to come back to Europe, man. I don't know what the future holds and I think America seems to be in the middle of a power struggle that really has nothing to do with the common people. It's really a lot that's just out of my and our control as a collective society. I don't know whether we're going to be allowed to travel like that ever again necessarily. But if we are, you can bet I would love to get back to Europe. We all would!
The Razor's Edge: Any chance of seeing you do a live stream show of the new album?
Andy: Yeah dude, I’m trying to figure out how to use a computer! For real though, I’m really bad at stuff like that. I have to film a playthrough for Guitar World in the next few weeks and I'm really excited to do it, but I'm really dreading doing it because I don’t know how.
The Razor's Edge: But once you have the whole computer thing down, we can expect something?
Andy: Oh, once I figure out how to use a computer, it’s over for all of you!
The Razor's Edge: Having completed successful tours with massive acts like Crowbar, Behemoth, Goatwhore etc. Do you have a dream line-up for a coming tour?
Andy: To be honest with you, if I could tour with Rivers of Nihil for the rest of my life, I'd be pretty happy! They're just old buddies. Our bands are just extensions of each other that play different music. I would love to tour with some huge band, like Tool or something. But then I’d have to deal with people throwing tomatoes at us and shit. I’m gonna go with Rivers.
The Razor's Edge: If you'd start BCI all over again tomorrow - knowing what you know now - what would you have done differently?
Andy: I would have been more selective with touring in our early career. We did a lot of cool things, but I think we also did a lot of things that weren't necessarily compatible for us musically and I think that contributed to us burning out in 2016. I would have been more selective with who becomes a part of our team and I would have been more steadfast in maintaining what I'm doing and allowed less people to tell me that I should modify it in some way. Because then you just end up not happy with what you're doing.
The Razor's Edge: To one of your songs, I found a YouTube comment saying "Next time you hear someone say metal is just talentless screaming, show them this." - do you want to reach more people than just the diehard metal fans?
Andy: For me, a lot of the aesthetics of heavy metal is just because I grew up listening to Metallica and shit. But I think vocally, like screaming, that's just a dynamic tool. I don't think that'll ever go away for us because it's a way to make music sound really huge, mean or whatever you’re trying to do dynamically. I kind of don't look at it even as heavy metal, more like a sonic aesthetic. It's the same with fast drums and loud guitars. I don't think “wow, that's brutal” or whatever. It's just dynamics.
Is there a typical Black Crown Initiate fan?
He probably doesn’t get laid very much. Maybe he likes dragons a lot. I don’t know. The people I meet everywhere, that enjoy our music, are generally incredibly pleasant people. When you’re away from your home and stuff like that, they generally go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. The fact they enjoy our music is obviously an honor for me, so the average fan of ours is a very pleasant person and I hope they get laid a whole bunch.
The Razor's Edge: What 3 bands that are currently on repeat on your Walkman?
Andy: I pretty much forever listen to Sigur Rós. I just discovered VOLA, from Denmark, I believe. They’re really cool. They’re like heavy Deftones or Porcupine Tree. Really cool stuff. Other than that, I kind of just listen to the same stuff. I got the new Ulcerate album recently, and I thought that was really cool!
The Razor's Edge: To round off, give me three adjectives to describe the new album.
Andy: Hot. Spicy. Stupid.
The Razor's Edge: Haha, some people might disagree with that…
Andy: [laughs] Hey, it’s my license as an artist.
The Razor's Edge: If there’s anything you would like to add about the album, the floor is yours!
Andy: Thanks for listening to it! If you enjoy it - cool, but if you don’t - that’s also cool. We appreciate anyone who takes the time to scope it out. And hopefully the world turns into something manageable again and we can get there have some beers with everybody!
Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape out via Century Media Records on August 7th!