Protest The Hero 2020: (L to R) Luke Hoskin (guitar), Michael Ieradi (drums), Rody Walker (vocals), Tim MacMillar (guitar)
Photo by Wyatt Clough
By the mid-2000s, Protest The Hero had already gained a pretty serious following in Canada. It was a time when the underground heavy music scene couldn’t have been more divided. On the one side there were the old-school headbangers and the new crop of extreme metal-worshipping youngsters. On the other side were the metalcore kids, and despite their music having all the trappings of extreme metal, most of it was dismissed as somehow being too soft. Sure, the overly-saccharine screamo subgenre was a part of it, but bands like Despised Icon, The Red Chord, and their progressive cousins Between The Buried and Me were as heavy as any tech-death god. It was these bands who would eventually bridge the gap between the scenes.
Protest The Hero had a more hardcore punk take on the genre, with liberal doses of classic metal guitar and prog melodies, punctuated by vocalist Rody Walker’s operatic tremulo. It was their second album, 2008’s Fortress, that began to shift the band from metalcore scene darlings, to international headliners. It also arguably remains the heaviest album ever to hit Number One on the Canadian charts. Speaking to Walker from his home, he holds nothing back in describing the main drawback of that album’s success.
“A lot of people started listening to us on Fortress, and (the same people) are often very disappointed by the rest of our output because nothing we’ve done has been quite as Metallica as what we did on that second record,” says Walker laughing.
“When we write stuff I’m always kind of baffled when people harken back to Fortress, and reference it as like the most metallic thing. I think that Fortress was a lot of people’s first experience with us. First impressions are everything, and you never get to have that first impression again. So when people enjoyed that record, which I do appreciate, they find it hard to have that same experience again. It’s like heroin, you’re chasing the purple dragon and you never quite capture it again! (laughs) I think the evolution of our band has been really natural, and somewhat obvious. I think that’s also where some of the divide is. We sort of left the metalcore behind in my opinion, moved in a more progressive way for (2011’s) Scurrilous. But nothing that we’ve ever done is an extreme departure, and I don’t think there’s a crazy amount of diversity amongst our album catalogue.”
Putting out an album has now become a tough business decision to make these days. The band has just released Palimpest, their first full-length in seven years. It’s a sprawling historical epic that tackles various events in U.S. history, while giving you the most advanced version of their sound that they’ve ever produced.
“Releasing under quarantine is not ideal, people don’t really have money to spend,” says Walker.
“(It) will impact the release of this record and ultimately the amount of money we make. We had a discussion, we sat down and went ‘Do we care? How much do we care?’ We didn’t start this band for money, and as much as it is our career and our job, it’s gonna be fine! We are fortunate that we are not so reliant on touring to pay for our lives. So we just put the record out and bit the bullet.”
Most of the press related to the album has been regarding Walker’s lyrics on Palimpest, which were written in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election. While most of Walker’s lyrics have been personal in nature, this album finds him looking outward for the first time, and in my view it’s the most direct writing that he’s ever done.
“I know we’ve certainly had… (chuckles) lyricism that was more flowery and artsy, but I’ve always done my best to have people know what I’m talking about,” he says cautiously.
“(2013’s) Volition (had) a lot of that and some people were really not fond of just how specific I was. I know we’re not the first ever to do that ‘cause there’s a whole history of punk rock artists doing it. Punk rock has a long history of (people) saying exactly what they mean. That’s something about that genre specifically that I have always appreciated, like there’s no bullshit, and you see other artists who haven’t explored it before (who) are exploring it now.”
A big part of the recent press coverage has centered around a statement Walker made in another interview when he was asked if the new lyrics will alienate fans who don’t “align with (the band) politically and socially.” Although his answer specifically addressed the “super right-wing, alternative conservative element,” subsequent headlines have misconstrued his response as saying that anyone with any kind of conservative values shouldn’t listen to their music. It was a strange question to begin with, as Protest always seemed to have one of the more diverse audiences in heavy music.
“Obviously I’m not saying that anyone who votes conservative (shouldn’t be) listening to my music, I’m talking about the alt-right,” he says with some frustration.
“(Our audience) is diverse to a certain degree, but it is also predominantly white and predominantly male. I think we have a responsibility to acknowledge that, and speak up and support the black community. There are people who are coming to our shows, black people, people of colour, indigenous people, and they are surrounded by predominantly white males. So it’s not only our responsibility to attempt to inform the white males that are coming to our shows about how we feel. But it’s also our responsibility to make those people of colour feel more comfortable and less isolated when they’re coming to our shows and when they’re listening to our music, make them feel included.”
I mention to Walker that I think it's in part due to this diversity, that I have at times witnessed what I termed as “incidents of privilege” at Protest shows in the past; white audience members singling out people-of-colour in some way. For instance I remember seeing a drunk white fan walk up behind a black man with an afro, and begin petting his hair like he would an animal.
“In relation to the acts of privilege that we’ve seen, that we’ve perpetrated ourselves, I think now is a huge time for us as individuals and as artists with a platform to acknowledge the privilege that we have inside ourselves, and attempt to acknowledge the moments where we have expressed or ignored prejudice,” he says passionately.
“We have a platform to sort of promote that idea as well so people who listen to our music can also maybe look inward and try find their own moments of prejudice and privilege. The first step in order to expel your own privilege and prejudice is to fuckin’ acknowledge it. I think now is a really good time to fuckin’ do that, for all white people. “
Palimpest is also the first album for the band since Walker blew out his voice in 2018 on the tour for the 10th anniversary of Fortress. Recovery required a period where he couldn’t speak at all, and it forced Walker to prepare for the worst and confront the fact that he probably couldn’t continue with the band if the treatment didn’t work.
“It was about a week where I didn’t speak and I was on (anti-inflammatory medication) Prednisone,” he says with a note of self-consciousness.
“What choice do you have than to just like, go inward and wrap yourself in balls of anxiety? I got to a point where ‘If this doesn’t work, why would I continue to try and just ultimately injure myself?’ Thinking about singing a little lullaby to my son, or just speaking to my family… why would I jeopardize my actual speaking voice, cause that’s fuckin’ insane! (chuckling) Y’know you’re taking away one of your senses to be in an…. underground metal band! (bursts out laughing) I spent that week very much, sort of… fuckin’ panicking! But it is what it is. I found a way to get myself back and healthy in a way that doesn’t hurt. I worked my buns to the bone to get this (new album) sung.”
Walker has always been fun to talk to, as his penchant for serious topics is offset by his near-constant, often self-deprecating sense of humour. It’s amazing to see how family and fatherhood have become essential parts of his personality. He’s been spending his quarantine at home where he’s settled into a routine that includes lots of time hanging out with his 2-year-old son. Fortunately for Walker he hasn’t had to perform any homeschool duties yet.
“If I had to teach him anything other than dinosaur names I think I’d be fucked!” he exclaims.
“I’m scrolling through Facebook and y’know how they have those tricky math questions that people post like ‘Oh, post the answer in the fuckin’ comments!’ I try to do those every day and then I look in the comments and someone will have the same answer that I came up with and it’s always the wrong answer! But my quarantine life is pretty simple. I wake up with my boy every morning, and we goof around, eat breakfast then we head over to my parents’ house. My mom takes him for a walk and I lift weights with my dad. Just drinking a lot of booze and raising the next generation in isolation, and I often wonder and worry about the psychological damage that this will do to our children!” (laughs)
Protest The Hero were children themselves when they started the band. Between becoming a father, his vocal recovery, and spending a ton of time at home, the last couple of years have got Walker thinking about the early days of the band, and just how much pressure was on them at a very young age. As consumers we don’t always consider the effect that public attention can have on a young person, and how the desire to meet the expectations of others can eclipse their own well-being.
“When we were comin’ up we were young kids, and people were like flabbergasted by what we were doing,” he says.
“But with time as we’ve grown older and our skills have sort of, rounded at the edges, maybe I don’t see us being as successful as some other people might have viewed us. It’s really based on other people’s expectations, which is a really awful way to value or devalue yourself. Reflecting on what things were and what things could have been, I don’t know, sometimes when I look at it I feel as though we didn’t quite live up to our potential. But other times I look at it and I think ‘The sky’s the limit, we’re not fuckin’ done.’”
You can get your own copy of Palimpest in a whole bunch of different formats (including tie-dye cassette) here, and you can stream the full album below.
From 2011-2014 I was a proud part of the official Relapse Records Podcast. I started off doing the artist interview each episode, and by late 2012 I was hosting the show. Below you'll find 2 playlists, the first has each full-length episode that I hosted, and the second features all the individual interviews I conducted for the show.
Photo by Jens Nordström
Heading into Germany’s Wacken Open Air festival in 2011, I was of course looking forward to seeing heavy metal titans like Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, and Motörhead. But my interest was perhaps piqued even more by a certain Canadian hard rock act on the bill, the one and only Danko Jones. Hard rock music of a certain calibre has always found a place alongside heavy metal, but from a Canadian perspective it still came as a surprise to some to see Danko Jones in that context. But there I stood, watching thousands of German headbangers sing every word to “First Date.”
Most Canadian rock ‘n roll fans look back fondly on the glut of guitar bands that our country produced in the 90s. These bands only found limited international popularity, but in Canada they were rock royalty. A bunch of those bands are back now, playing their old hits together on tour. But despite coming up with these bands, who are now considered nostalgia acts, Danko Jones never stopped making new music and touring.
“To a lot of the Canadian audience, we are in the same boat as those bands because we went away for years,” says Danko Jones’ eponymous frontman from his home where he’s been quarantining since mid-March.
“We were pretty much gone. We tour abroad 80% of the time, if not 90-95% (laughs). So I think for the (Canadian) audience we might actually be a part of all those bands, 90s bands if you wanna put a name on it. There’s enough of a demand for us to put out new material and to tour or else we’d probably be stuck in a lot of those nostalgic tours. Not to say that those are bad. I think those are probably (more) stress-free, tension-free, than even their original tours when they were at the height of the popularity. Those bands went away as in they broke up, they stopped. We’ve never stopped, we’ve never taken a break, we’ve never gone on hiatus, we’ve never started a side band so the main band is put on ice. We’ve never stopped writing when we’re not on tour, we’re writing right now! We were writing before the crisis. That’s the difference I think. When the popularity faded for a lot of those bands in the one territory that they were doing well in they called it a day.”
The decline of the 90s Canadian rock sound coincided with more opportunities in Europe for the band. Seeing them play to foreign audiences, it does seem more of a natural environment for their sound. After all, Danko Jones plays big, confident hard rock. It’s a classic style of music that will always be in demand somewhere. That certainly plays a part in the band’s longevity, and their continuing appeal to fans who are a bit more passionate about their rock ‘n roll.
“A huge community of people, mainly music lovers, know that hard rock music is timeless to a certain degree,” says Danko.
“If you are a casual listener of music you can’t really tell the difference between Cheap Trick and Broken Social Scene, really. You just like the song, (using an effete voice) ‘Oh the song is great! This is a great song!’ If you’re a music fan, you can kind of figure out what the genres are and in doing so you will quickly realize that hard rock is a timeless kind of music. That is one of the reasons, one of the reasons, why we deliberately changed our sound when we were into year 2 or 3 of our band. We started off as a garage punk band. (But) I always wanted to just play KISS riffs, and AC/DC riffs, and Thin Lizzy riffs anyway. So it was an easy transition. We got better at our instruments and realized that the aesthetic of garage rock didn’t really vibe with how we were as people. It’s a very dirty, raw sound, which I love. But it’s a very deliberate dirty sound, meaning you have access to the best studios and the best sound but you deliberately choose to make your recording sound as if it was done on a cassette recorder in a basement. That’s a pose to me. You get branded with certain things as you transition, but now that we’re talking in 2020 I think we made the right decision, we’re still around.”
Aside from being in writing mode and hosting his now-weekly podcast, I wanted to know how Danko had been spending his time during the shutdown. When it began, perhaps like most people, the first issue he faced was adjusting to a new normal.
“The first 6 weeks of this crisis was spent really trying to figure out how to cope,” he says.
“How and when to buy groceries, how to do it properly, how to do it safely. How to walk our dog, how to deal with having a dog, that took a while. He’s very reactionary, reactive to other dogs. In a way it’s good, he barks his head off and people stay away! So it’s a natural social distancer! (laughs) I end up outdoors more than I’d like to because of my dog. Now it’s all routine, I’ve got it down. But that took longer than I thought.”
Danko Jones (right) with Ralph
Part of Danko’s day is also spent keeping up on the latest news about the shutdown. His outlook is generally hopeful, but ultimately based on the search for a vaccine, and having an understanding about what it may take to get to the point where one has been found and made available. In the meantime he believes that it’s the love of art and pop culture that will help us get through what is likely to be a long process.
“It’s a waiting game, and I think people are realizing that albums, and movies, and television shows, as much as they seem like small things, it’s now become a way to deal with each day,” he says earnestly.
“There’s some good news on the vaccine front, on the treatment front. Of course we all know it’s going to take longer than just having it exist. From the moment of its’ existence, and the moment that it’s given the green light there’s still months for manufacturing and distribution. Hopefully if the trials in July in Oxford go well, cause that’s when they’re gonna have the first results of it, hopefully we can start to get back to normal by year’s end, (or) early next year, fingers crossed.”
The band are also selling a special “Stay Strong” t-shirt, with part of earnings going to frontline workers at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital.
“Sunnybrook is a hospital in Toronto that all of us in the band have been helped by personally, so it’s going to the frontline workers there,” says Danko.
“In the bigger picture, the researchers at Sunnybrook helped isolate the virus, so that will help in the future for a vaccine. Sunnybrook has actually been right there, on the leading front of the search to find a vaccine.”
The "Stay Strong" T-Shirt
This level of engagement with the current crisis is not surprising given how politically outspoken Danko is, especially on Twitter, and his left-wing opinions don’t go over well with a few of his fans. But that’s not surprising either given that some hard rockers will eschew anything that smells faintly political, or in the worst case, achieve a Ted Nugent-level of bigotry. Danko admits that he speaks out more than he used to, but he now has a platform to do so, and it’s something he feels is necessary at this point in time.
“We’re reaching a weird period in history and if you don’t say something I think you’re complicit, right?” he says with some excitement.
“I think a lot of people are finding out that I do sit on the left side of the spectrum. But as much as people think that I’m being vocal, I still try to corral that in. (laughs) For every tweet (that I’ve posted), I’ve deleted 10 tweets I wanted to send out. Listen, I just want people to be treated fairly. I don’t believe in health care cuts, I don’t believe in education cuts. Someone like (Ontario Premier) Doug Ford who cut $25 million from health care, is now putting $20 million back in. So it’s nice to see… he’s not admitting to it, copping to it. But at least they’re putting it back where they shouldn’t have taken it from. Also I care about the arts. People like Jason Kenney, the Premier of Alberta, he was basically playing in a forum that he didn’t know anything about, which is touring bands. He was screwing with tours and clubs across Canada, and eventually he took it back. I don’t want Doug Ford even remotely near any arts decisions. It’s funny now that we’re in a crisis, what are people doing during self-isolation? Well, they’re getting through this by turning to the arts. A good song will get you through a rough morning, as it has for me since this crisis started. So if anything, it will teach the right wing to value culture more and to value the arts more. Hopefully the biggest outcomes of this crisis will be better treatment for frontline workers, the service industry, and of course healthcare.”
Danko’s political stance may seem at odds with a good chunk of hard rock’s modern image. He understands that the music itself not political, because hard rock music is about moments in time that we all remember. They’re songs that usually trigger specific memories, and make us think of generally better times. These moments are part of what some might refer to as “freedom.” So it’s a circle, you have to engage politically so that those carefree moments can happen more often.
“A lot (our music) is about good times, partying, driving down the road on a Friday night-kind of thing, cause those are the best moments for me,” says Danko happily.
“I never wanna sully those moments or feelings. At the same time I feel like I have to say something because I feel those moments, those feelings, the chances to play music, the chances to rock out, and the chances to simply put out a record are strangely threatened. In a way it does all lead back to me wanting to play and be near music. Like the fact that Doug Ford to me seems so anti-culture. Just from where I stand, it does make me very defensive. So yeah I can be very political, but my endgame is just so I can play some fun songs.”
Danko’s music and personality exude confidence. He’s not someone who plays down his accomplishments. But at the same time he’s a very friendly and warm person. I’ve definitely had my own encounters with rockers who take their image too far, and I enjoy speaking with Danko because he doesn’t mince words, but he doesn’t have to talk down to do that. To him, a hard rock musician exemplifies both confidence and humility.
“As confident as the music is, I feel it does also invite a type of person who I’d like to think is really down-to-earth, and (who) uses the music they make as their own way of building their own confidence up rather than speaking from an ivory tower,” he says.
“You spend enough time in the music industry, whatever side of the curtain you’re on in whatever field, you will rack up a certain amount of stories meeting some of these idiots and weirdos (chuckles), I mean (the industry is) littered with them. We came from punk rock, it grounds people. There’s so much, (laughs) for lack of a better term, ‘policing’ in punk rock that there’s no space to have a big ego. That’s kind of where our roots are from, as much as (they are) in metal. Metal too, metal has a grounding way of dealing with things. Sometimes no, but a lot of times because it attracts outsiders it needs no grounding, because everyone has already been grounded in their straight life. So punk rock and metal backgrounds, I think they bode well for someone to play a confident type of music and still carry yourself on equal footing with everyone and be grounded and treat people like people.”
Danko Jones’ latest album is 2019’s A Rock Supreme. Check out the video for “Burn In Hell” below, filmed entirely by their fans while on tour in Europe. You can also watch their entire Wacken 2015 set here, which was recorded for their Live At Wacken album.
Last, but certainly not least, you can get your own Danko Jones “Stay Strong” shirt from Killthe8, with part of the earnings going to frontline workers at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.
When I’m greeted by Combichrist frontman Andy LaPlegua aboard his tour bus, I can’t help but notice that he’s looking a bit rough.
“Yeah I’m ok, we’re prof – we’re professional at partying,” he stutters through a wry smile. Combichrist is certainly a party band. Beginning as a solo project for LaPlegua, the band quickly moved to the front of the 2000s industrial scene, helped in part by many opening performances for German hard rock icons Rammstein. Their aggressive beat-driven sound and tongue-in-cheek lyrics also helped them grab plenty of crossover fans from the electronic and metal scenes. Their shows are sweaty dance pits full of smiling faces. When it comes to playing live, LaPlegua puts the audience first.
“I have a voice, and I would like to use that voice,” he says.
“But I don’t do it on stage, I don’t talk between songs. It’s about the music and it’s about the unity. It’s about the energy I have with the audience, and having a good time, because that’s the place to let it all out. It’s ok to be angry, it’s ok to be depressed. There’s not even really black humour in (the music) anymore, it’s got to the point where it’s serious. I speak mostly about mental illness. That’s my main thing. You don’t have to ask yourself ‘Why am I feeling this way?’ It’s an illness. But you go to a show for example, that’s a good way to get it out. All I like to say is ‘It’s ok to be angry, you can get it out right here. Just dance your ass off.’”
The humour aspect of the band has certainly been a huge part of their appeal. But they’ve also been accused of embracing “edgelord” humour, and trying to shock with no purpose. Much of the criticism was directed at now-former band member Joe Letz, but LaPlegua has also been called out for his use of the Confederate flag in the past. So his new dedication to mental health awareness, as well as the more straightforward and direct lyrical approach of their latest album, 2019’s One Fire, seems like a complete turnaround for the band on a social level.
“I like tongue-in-cheek (humour), and I take everybody else seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously,’” says LaPlegua earnestly.
“The whole edgelord thing, everybody was doing something. When you look back at it, was it ok? Maybe not, but I didn’t know better. I was a Norwegian immigrant, I didn’t know better about the rebel flag, I thought it was cool. Things have changed a lot over the last 10 years, you gotta take that into consideration for other peoples’ feelings. Whether you have a shitty sense of humour or not, you need to take (their feelings) into consideration, and you gotta own it, and I do. I wouldn’t do (those things) now. It was so different, the political climate was so different. I never did anything (with) malice. Maybe I did it to provoke people, maybe I thought that was funny. But my whole agenda has changed. You get to a point (where) you realize how influential you are. I never even thought about that back then, I never thought I would influence people, I didn’t give a shit. But I do now, and that’s why things have changed a lot over the last few albums. Of course everything else is important to me like equality for everybody, (but) I have just taken my stand on the one thing that is most important to me, and that is talking about mental illness. Too many people kill themselves, you see this every day.”
Andy LaPlegua & Andrew Epstein
LaPlegua does seem sincere about owning his past. But he also feels that he’s taken more shots than he’s deserved, and that often it’s the wrong people who are pointing fingers.
“I had a DJ shaming me for the rebel flag in a 15-year-old photo, and then I found a photo of him 10 years ago wearing an SS hat, because he’s a fuckin’ edgelord, (these are) the scene people!” he exclaims.
“If you go far enough back most of these people have done something shady, or said something shady, but because you’re in focus and in a popular band it’s easy to target you and bring up shit. There’s a million more pictures because it’s easily accessible. We’ve all done shit. Of course there’s certain things I regret doing, but I can’t change that. Whether you like us or not, whether you doubt or not that doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve said my piece and I’ve taken my stand.”
The social aspects of the band have not been the only source of controversy in recent years. The 2016 album This Is Where Death Begins was a sharp turn towards a modern heavy metal sound, rather than the aggressive industrial beats that they’re known for. Previous albums had metal songs in the mix, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Throwing that balance off also threw off a number of fans. Myself, I was more concerned that this was how Combichrist would sound from that point on. I felt that I would enjoy a one-off metal album from them in retrospect, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to embrace them as a metal band entirely. Luckily, One Fire is a return to form.
“I thought we would get more negative feedback for (This Is Where Death Begins) than we did, because of the direction we did take on it,” says LaPlegua.
“It’s also the only album that I’ve done where I had somebody else mix it. I’m not gonna say that I don’t stand by it, cause I still stand by it. (But) my vibe, my electronica, my production got lost in it. But it’s heavily coming back now. I don’t wanna say that it’s an album that shouldn’t have been done, but it’s definitely a very different album. I don’t even wanna say that it’s a weak album, but it’s just very different the others. I’ve always stood by progress, I’ve always stood by changing things up every album. Maybe this album was just a little too different, but we’re definitely setting the tracks straight again on One Fire.”
Combichrist is not the first act to release an album with a different sound, and have it not be well-received by fans. When the band plays live they usually include more than a few fan favourites. They have enough music now that nearly any setlist they put together is going to feel like their “greatest hits.” So I wanted to know, is LaPlegua more about pleasing the fans, or challenging them?
“I want the fans to be happy, of course I want the fans to be happy!” he says intensely.
“But I (also) need to be happy. When I’m the studio it’s one of the hardest things that can possibly do in my life, because I’m pouring my soul out into every single album. I just go into this dark fuckin’ hole for a while and I stay there 'til the album’s done. So for that to be worth it I have to be honest with myself and do what I wanna do. Being on stage and touring is a completely different thing. So we do play a lot of songs that the fans want on tour, we do play their favourites. We are doing this with the fans, the audience is more important than us.”
Due to the industry shutdown, Combichrist has set up a Patreon account where they are releasing new tracks monthly to subscribers. You can stream One Fire in full below.