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.