Photo Courtesy of Rotting Christ
Arguably, Greece’s Rotting Christ have the most controversial band name in heavy metal. Oh sure, there are and have been way more perverse band names involving extreme violence and/or various bodily fluids. But none of those acts have achieved the international acclaim that Rotting Christ has.
The most notorious incident occurred in 2005 when the band was forced to withdraw from two Greek summer festival dates, after Megadeth frontman and newly born-again Christian Dave Mustaine threatened to cancel his band’s headlining sets if Rotting Christ was on the bill. Basically the name is as offensive to the mainstream as you can get before you move into ultra-shock territory.
But the name isn’t the real story. What’s actually worth noting is that, in spite of the name, the band is one of Greece’s most well-known cultural exports with a career spanning nearly three decades. This speaks to the high quality and diversity of the band’s music. Every three or four albums they’ve changed musical directions, and unlike when Mr. Mustaine does it, these changes are generally embraced by their fans.
They debuted with a raw, yet melodic black metal sound, but by the mid-nineties they had infused it with a groovy gothic/romantic atmosphere. This period was also when they would perfect their signature brand of catchy and nearly unforgettable riffs. In the 2000s their sound became accentuated by ethnic musical influences from Greece and around the world. This style attracted a much larger international audience, particularly the 2004 album Sanctus Diavolos and 2007’s Theogonia.
On their more recent albums (the most recent being Rituals which came out earlier this year), the band have traded in their signature riff style for sprawling orchestral compositions with layered choral vocals. I caught up with Rotting Christ co-founder and frontman Sakis Tolis on a recent tour stop in Toronto to talk about the band’s musical journey and what has influenced the latest change in style. We also spoke about their lasting legacy, and whether they still get in trouble for their name.
Rotting Christ’s latest album Rituals is available now from Season of Mist. You can stream the whole album here, and you can watch the video for “Apage Satana” below.
Photo Courtesy of Earache Records
Tim Commerford is best known for being the bassist in Rage Against the Machine, as well as disrupting Limp Bizkit’s MTV Award acceptance speech in 2000, and his giant blackened shoulder tats. Currently, in addition to playing with his Rage bandmates (minus vocalist Zack de la Rocha) and legendary MC’s Chuck D (Public Enemy) and B Real (Cypress Hill) in the supergroup Prophets of Rage, he’s also introduced the world to his new punk band Wakrat. The band is named for their French drummer Mathias Wakrat. In fact when the band was opening the Prophets of Rage tour this past summer, Commerford would announce that the band was from France, even though he’s writing all the lyrics. As such when I had the chance to speak to Commerford about this new band, I wanted to know how this unlikely trio came together.
“I met Mathias through Zack de la Rocha, and Zack and I came up listening to punk rock as little kids in elementary school” he says excitedly.
“Zack played guitar and knew all the songs on the (Sex Pistols’) Never Mind the Bollocks album. So we were in like fifth grade and we were playing those songs together, like in my bedroom on acoustic guitar and I would do the vocals. The love of punk rock has always been a big part of my musical influence, whether it’s The Sex Pistols, or whether it’s Bad Brains, or Fugazi, Minutemen, Minor Threat. I’ve always appreciated what I consider hardcore, especially the Orange County hardcore scene, or the D.C. hardcore scene, that was something that I was always really inspired by.”
Despite this enthusiasm for the genre, there wasn’t an instant musical connection between Commerford and Wakrat. But when the opporunity presented itself, Commerford was quick to jump on board. “Zack introduced me to Mathias and said ‘Hey, he’s a jazz drummer, he loves hardcore music and you should go mountain biking with him.' We mountain biked for a long time, talked about music all the time, but I don’t think I ever took him too seriously on a drummer level. Then one day he said ‘Hey I got this project with (guitarist) Laurent (Grangeon), my buddy, another Frenchman. Would you be willing to play bass on it?’ I listened to it and I was blown away. I’m blown away by the arrangements, I’m blown away by the time signatures. Mathias is a jazz fanatic, and he knows every jazz song in the be-bop era. He can not only tell you what song it is, but what record it’s on, and who the players are. He’s not square. He doesn’t see things squarely in a 4/4 gridded-out way. They played me those arrangements, (and) it was really challenging for me to play bass on them. I thought about finding a vocalist, I had some ideas and it didn’t really work out. Then I laid vocals on it and it just became a Rubick’s Cube of trying to figure out how to play those bass lines and sing them because I never, ever thought that I would ever be doing anything like this. I’m surprised, I’m proud, and I’m a better musician because of all of it. It’s crazy music and I love it so much.”
“Weird time signatures,” is in fact one of the random pieces of stage banter that he drops on the audience between songs. It’s definitely a highlight of the band, creating a tone that almost sounds like a punk Primus. I mention to Commerford that this is something that’s become quite prominent in heavy metal, but it’s surprising to hear in a punk context.
“It’s a contemporary take on punk rock. I love old-school punk rock, I do. But there’s not a lot of punk bands who mess around with time signatures for some reason, that’s not happened. There’s not a lot of music that changes time, even Rush, most of their music is 4/4 time. Every single song we play has got at least one part in it that’s not in 4/4 time. The time signature thing is really what I think makes us a unique, fresh take on punk rock. It’s an important part of the band. Mathias and Laurent, the craziness comes from them. I never thought I would be playing music in these kind of time signatures, and it takes a different thought process to wrap your head around it than it does to be playing groove-oriented Rage Against the Machine-style music.”
In addition to the prominent bass, Wakrat’s songs also come across as extremely beat-driven. But behind that lies an unexpected nod to electronic music. “A huge influence is also The Prodigy and I hear those drum beats” says Commerford with a serious tone.
“What Laurent does in guitar is akin to what Tom Morello does in his solos, in that when (Rage Against the Machine) first got with Tom he would play and his solos didn’t really sound like a guitar. Laurent doesn’t really play solos, (he) just plays rhythm. A lot of times his rhythm sounds like a loop, like a messed up glitchy loop and I love that. There is like a kind of electronic vibe to Wakrat as well that again, makes it sound contemporary to me.”
Starting a new band can be both a blessing and a curse for a member of a high-profile act like Rage. On the one hand their fans may be enthusiastic for the band members to explore new music. But on the other hand there’s a certain level of cynicism expressed by part of the audience who will always compare the artist’s new group with the best material of the band they’re primarily known for. Commerford seems to get fuel from both reactions. “I really feel like every show we play, I sense the enthusiasm as the show progresses. It’s not like people are leaving, people are coming and I like that” he says.
“That all being said, as much as I notice ‘wow that kid is really digging this,’ but those old folks that are frowning right now, they’re not digging it, and I like that too. I like that our music is not... like there’s no grey area, love it or hate it, that’s the way it is. I saw a tweet on one of our pages and some guy was like ‘I’ve easily been to 500 shows and Wakrat is the worst band I’ve ever seen,’ and we retweeted it, I thought it was badass! Cause we give love too, it’s love and hate. The music is crazy, and the lyrics are violent. I’ve always wanted to be in a band where I pulled no punches, and if somebody in that audience doesn’t dig it, it feels so good to be up there saying what I’m saying. We have a song called ‘Pigs in a Blanket,’ and the chorus of that song is ‘Fuck with me and I will kill you all.’ Every night I look out at those people who I think aren’t digging it, and I go like, ‘This next song goes out to you and all your loved ones.’ It just feels so good, man. That’s the type of person I am. When we played our first show at The Viper Room (in West Hollywood) and Zack was there, Zack just loved it. This is the kind of music that we grew up on and we love. He’s like our biggest fan and we talked after the first show, we talked for like two hours about everything. He’s like, ‘Dude you can do this. This is you, it comes from you. It’s real.’ These words are mine, it comes from me and I mean them.”
Before we finished up I had to ask Commerford about the audience reaction when Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters made a surprise appearance at the Prophets of Rage show in Toronto, joining the band in an appropriately-loud rendition of MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams.” A powerful set of Rage, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill classics had worked the audience into a frenzy, and Grohl showing up on top of all that pushed the noise level to deafening proportions. That being said, it seems as if the crowd may not have provoked much of a reaction from Commerford, and perhaps neither does Grohl’s current band. “We heard he was going to be at the show. He said he could do it so we learned (the song) in our little jam room, like moments before we went on, and did it” he says matter-of-factly.
“It was cool and I’m a huge fan of Nirvana. I love Nirvana, and I love Dave Grohl as the drummer of Nirvana (laughs), I love him as the drummer of Nirvana! I’m proud to be able to join the stage with him. But is it overshadowing that I get to be up on stage with Chuck D and B Real? No, I’m still kind of high from that. I’m still blown away that I get to reminisce about shows and talk about history of music and cultural history with Chuck D every day. It’s a dream come true. The whole thing’s a dream.”
Wakrat’s self-titled debut album is available now from Earache Records and iTunes. Check out the video for “Generation Fucked” below, where the band claims a section of Parliament Square in London as a sovereign state.
The Tool frontman talks about his Canadian connection and his new biography ahead of his Toronto appearance with Alan Cross.
Alternative rock icon Maynard James Keenan (vocalist for Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer) has just kicked off the book tour for his new authorized biography A Perfect Union of Contrary Things. This includes a stop at Toronto’s Convocation Hall for a sit down with Alan Cross on November 14th. In anticipation of his return to Canada, I thought it would be appropriate to speak to Keenan about his past experiences north of the border. I also wanted to know how he felt about confronting his audience up close on the book tour after cultivating a such a mysterious image through his music.
“I get the mystery part a little bit in terms of me never explaining what the songs were about” he says.
“But as far as being out there and talking, I’ve been talking pretty much the whole time, storytelling. That’s kind of your job, as the entertainer, as the lyricist, as a winemaker, as a chef, you’re the storyteller. You’re out there. I think making people have to decide things for themselves I guess would be perceived as a mystery, so we’re not really giving anything away with a story like this. This is just a story and it’s not the whole story. Those stories are in the songs, those stories are in the wine, they’re out there.”
To Keenan, it seems that the story is out there regardless of whether its meaning is perceived by one person or millions. I point out that this book may now be the most direct way for people to begin to understand where his art comes from. “Some of this is a map and it has to do with intuition, and listening to it” he says with a calm and sincere tone.
“I think the purpose of it from the beginning has been kind of a life journey. If you were forced to read The Iliad and The Odyssey in school then you get the heroes’ journey. You understand that there’s different phases and there’s an arc. So these stories will probably resonate with people who want to hear it at this particular moment. If you wanna focus on the older things, that’s fine. Those things are there for you. But other people are on a journey, and there’s things that resonate with them at different parts of their lives that they can build on. There are conscious people and there are unconscious people I think. You do your best to lift people up, but at some point you just have to... you know, there are people from your childhood (that) I’m sure you don’t speak to anymore. You couldn’t quite get on the same page as them. You can show them things and you can do the whole ‘lead a horse to water,’ but until they’re ready to drink on their own... just make sure that the water’s available, basically.”
In terms of conscious people, Keenan counts many Canadians amongst their number. “There’s a definite connection between physical activity and oxygen to the brain, and then your ability to kind of solve puzzles and do things, and be aware, and conscious, and present” he says when asked about his travels across the country.
“Having grown up in Michigan I’m basically Canada’s little snot-nosed brother. We’re snow-shovelers. You can’t get where you’re going without getting the snow out of the way, or cutting the wood to heat the cabin. I think in general the people that I’ve met in Canada, just because they’re snow-shovelers they’re breeding more and they have more oxygen in their brain. So I found that travelling through Canada, there’s a nice resonance. People get what you’re saying.”
One stop on Keenan’s journey that stood out to me was Tool’s appearance in Toronto a week after the events of 9/11. That night he encouraged the crowd to take their hate and anger and focus them into positive action. It sounds like a simple idea until you hear how Keenan vigorously approaches it. “You’ve heard the cliché, ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade?’” he asks.
“I’m the kind of guy that goes, ‘well if life gives you lemons, take some of that and make some limoncello, take a couple of lemons and plant more lemon trees, open up a farm, create an entire industry out of your lemon tree. Don’t kill your chicken and eat it, have the chicken lay eggs because then you have something to eat tomorrow.’”
I was also curious about the differences he’s observed between his Canadian and American audiences, but Keenan sees a different kind of divide. “There are definitely differences of course, but I see the bigger difference in being population centers vs. non-population centers” he says.
“There is that perception that when you’re in an isolated area where you don’t see a lot of culture coming through, of course your opinions, and your attitude, and the way that you go about your day-to-day business is gonna be different than a person living in a larger city who sees lots of culture coming through. In ways you become tuned to that other culture, it opens up your mind to other ideas. You tend to compromise a little bit more, but in a good way, you just coexist with different ideas. The dark side of living in the middle of nowhere is that you can be close-minded because you haven’t been exposed to anything. The bright side of that is that you get to focus on a particular activity without anybody corrupting your process. So there’s some ups and downs. Those differences between the big city and rural I think are more glaring than Canada vs. U.S. Today’s modernization, there’s mini-malls and there’s malls, there’s fast food joints and there’s fine dining, you know they’re everywhere.”
It’s keeping people on the bright side that Keenan seems concerned with. The new book brings him closer to his audience than ever before. Perhaps for those who need a push, Keenan wants his story to be a motivational one. “I’m hoping that this book will just basically be a chronicle of decisions, and those repercussions, and then the choices that follow. The gist and thrust is that you’ll land on your feet at some point. If you fall, get up, keep going. No decision is a bad decision.”
You can grab tickets for Maynard James Keenan’s conversation with Alan Cross in Toronto here.
Photo by Andrew Epstein
The first time I interviewed The Trews it was by candlelight during the great blackout of 2003. The band was getting ready to play the record release show for their debut album The House of Ill Fame. At the time I found a band from Antigonish, Nova Scotia that played melancholic yet upbeat-sounding bluesy rock, and who were eager to start earning a faithful fan base.
Now just over thirteen years later The Trews have proven their longevity, having developed a trademark sound and consistently maintaining a solid group of fans. Their songs are also far more diverse than it seems on the first listen. This is perhaps the most evident on their new best-of release Time Capsule, which features four new songs, as well as sixteen hits and fan favourites.
I went record shopping with guitarist John-Angus MacDonald ahead of the band’s in-store performance at the HMV Superstore on Yonge Street in Toronto, and while geeking out on some of our favourite albums we managed to talk about how the band has managed to retain their sound and their fans since I first met them that afternoon in the darkened front room of The Horseshoe Tavern.
For the record I did end up grabbing that copy of Björk’s Vulnicura Live, as well as a vinyl copy of Royal Thunder’s Crooked Doors.
The Trews have four tour dates lined up in the North-Eastern U.S. in early October, followed by a coast-to-coast Canadian tour starting later in the month. Time Capsule is available in stores and online now. You can have a listen to the new track “Beautiful & Tragic” here.