Words: David Locklear
Photos: Chris Shoemaker and Steve Thrasher
“Please immediately exit the venue and seek shelter.
Once outside the gates please return to your vehicle.
Please do not run, push or shove.”
This mantra rang out across the grassy fields of the Epicenter Festival repeatedly as the patrons of the festival languidly trickled out by the thousands. Black clouds were slothfully pushing our way quietly and coldly, looking ready to bring down the hammer of Thor’s wrath in a very real way.
But it didn’t begin this way.
The Epicenter Festival began with me doing a mad sprint across two large fields, through a very backed-up-with-traffic highway and the threat of arrest by a testosterone filled state trooper as I tried desperately not to miss the narrow 20 minute interview window I had secured with the band Zeal And Ardor weeks before.
It’s a sunny Friday in Rockingham, NC and the opening day of the very first Epicenter Festival, boasting a lineup of both up and coming bands-such as the aforementioned Zeal and Ardor and 70’s rock influenced Black Coffee-along with metal godfathers, Judas Priest, and the long-in-the-making return of the legendary Tool. Anticipation was high.
Even though John and I arrived an hour prior to the interview time, I was still doing a treasure hunt for the media tent five minutes prior and developing that gut feeling that no matter how much effort was exerted, I would fail to achieve my goal. Finally, I see the media tent placard in the distance behind several fences and manage to claim my table at 12:15 just as Zeal and Ardor were finishing speaking to another outlet in the tent. I felt like Indiana Jones narrowly missing a boulder.
As the guys settled in for our talk, I attempted to suppress the small amount of adrenaline still running through my limbs and went into interviewer mode to talk to founder/vocalist/guitarist, Manuel Gagneux, and guitarist, Tiziano Volante.
My Global Mind: Sorry about being a little late, but I’m glad I caught you guys.
Manuel Gagneux: No problem, man.
MGM: So the recent album, Stanger Fruit, tell us what it’s about.
MG: Repression, rage, sadness. Also death!
MGM: Right. And based on the satanic lyrics, I think it’s safe to say you were all raised Catholic.
Tiziano Volante: Yes!
MGM: So many of the lyrical themes are spirituals that are-instead of being directed at God-directed at the devil.
MG: Well, black metal is about inverting things, and so I thought it was an interesting idea to do that. And there was this whole thing on 4chan that happened, but that’s a whole other thing. (He is referring to the incident where a 4chan user suggested he combine “black metal and nigger music.”) Who cares? (Laughs).
MGM: Were you guys surprised at the way the first album, Devil Is Fine, blew up so quickly?
TV: Yeah, it was super weird. The band didn’t exist back then. I was playing in a band and we were blasting that song (Devil is Fine). I mean, I knew Manuel, but thought his music was a Swiss scene type of thing. (They both laugh) Then articles were written and the hype just appeared.
MGM: So you never planned for this to be a band situation, Manuel?
MG: Nooooo, I never thought it would be played live. So here we are playing this massive festival two years in.
MGM: I mean to think of how far you guys have come by blending gospel and black metal, why do you think it’s connecting with people?
MG: I think there is a novelty to it. I mean, it’s kind of a gimmick and people like gimmicks, but gimmicks don’t really have longevity. We probably won’t be here next year! (laughs)
MGM: Well, with most gimmicks you can usually pick up on whether someone is bullshitting you or not and I feel like you guys are being pretty genuine what you’re doing. Have you encountered any protesters at your shows?
TV: Not so far, which is still surprising.
MGM: That surprises me too. I figured you would’ve had at least one story of a guy trying to hit you with a cross.
MG: People have seen everything. Everything has already been protested, there’s no real surprise for people anymore.
TV: Especially traveling through the Bible belt, we found that people have been very welcoming.
MGM: Getting back to the record, one of the songs that really struck me on “Stranger Fruit” was a track called “The Fool”. That one sounds like it was lifted directly from the soundtrack of the horror movie, “Suspiria”. Why was that track put in there when so many of the rest of the songs are full of rage and spiritual angst?
MG: Kind of like a pallet cleanser, but also I like to just build a holistic atmosphere. Those are heavily inspired by a woman named Wendy Carlos, who did the music for films like “A Clockwork Orange.” She used to be Walter Carlos and she transitioned in the 60’s-which is insane-and she kind of inspired that sound.
MGM: Wow, I had no idea. That’s a pretty unknown concept for that time. What are some other influences?
MG: Everything that Alan Womack has recorded, Darkthrone, Celtic Frost, all of those makeup boys! (laughs)
MGM: All of those happy Norwegian guys! Well, “Stranger Fruit” sounds a lot less devilish than “Devil is Fine”; it feels like a transition into something new. Do you think you’ll be spring boarding off of a lot of these ideas on the next record?
MG: We’re just experimenting at this point. I think to say we’re going in that direction or this direction would be incorrect.
TV: The next record is going into space.
MG: Yes! It will be in space. It will be very kazoo heavy.
TV: It will be a multi-verse of four EP’s, and then we will do a double album after that where all of the singles will be combined.
MG: It’s all going to be on mini-disc where you can download it on MySpace. It’s just something I wanted to do for a long time. (laughs)
MGM: Maybe even an eight track transfer possibly? And eventually just regress to the point of beating on a rock all the way back through human evolution?
MG: Yes! (They both laugh)
MGM: So is there anything special in store for your performance this afternoon?
MG: Shit, we’ve only got 30 minutes, man! I don’t think we’re going to be able to pull that off!
MGM: So no human sacrifices today?
TV: No, we’ll just do it with our music!
After the interview, we began the trek across the very level fields that hosted the Pine Stage, Sirius Octane Stage, Quarry Stage and the Monster Energy Stage. I only mention the level concert field because when you compare this terrain to that of the Carolina Rebellion (which seemed like miles divided the stages from each other, in addition to the media tent being located on what felt like a mountain top) it made seeing artists perform a very easy task.
The festival felt as if it were warming up it’s engine as we closed in on the Pine Stage to watch Black Coffee perform. These guys have a reverential hard-on for the sound of 70’s rock: they tore across the stage with unbuttoned shirts, mountains of breeze styled rock hair, and side burns that were groomed to tickle the inside of a woman’s thighs. They infected the crowd with their energy, jumping, bending and screaming through their unfortunately short set of hard pounding tunes, such as “Away” and “I Barely Know Her”. When they bowed from the stage, it’s safe to say they left everyone wanting more.
Walking away from the stage, I get a text from a member of the band, Skillet. This is one of the things that never gets old as a music journalist: getting personal communication from bands you’ve listened to for years, and feeling the high school version of yourself shitting their pants. Very cool feeling.
The band was running ahead of schedule and wanted to see if I could speak with them a little earlier than we planned, so we hustled back to the tent to sit down with Skillet singer, John Cooper.
MGM: Hey, John, good to meet you.
JC: You as well.
MGM: So you guys are coming out with a new album in August, what is it called?
JC: Boo-yah! Man, look at your hat. (He pinches the brim of my Australian outback hat.)
MGM: Hell, yeah!
JC: That way if it rains, you’ll be fine. Or if you have to go into a tomb to steal something! I love it man. You look like you can throw open the saloon doors and clear the place out.
MGM: All I need is my peace maker, and I’ve got you handled, baby!
JC: (laughs) For people who aren’t watching, they’re probably like “just do the interview man!” Yeah, we got a new record coming out it’s called “Victorious” on August 2 and preorders went on sale just three days ago. So I’m on top of the world. When you’re releasing a new album it feels like you’re about to have a baby, like” It’s a boy!” Because when you make records, you make 50 songs for the record, then you demo 30 of them, and you always have songs that you love, but they don’t make the record. Then you take 10 songs of the 12 songs and you have to go back and make those songs sound better, so they don’t sound like crap. So now it’s finally here and, man, we want to get this music out. I’m pumped.
MGM: I imagine it’s like having an argument in a marriage, trying to get which song everyone agrees should be on the record.
JC: So I was listening to a “Thriller” retrospective with Quincy Jones, and I remember he told Michael Jackson when they were making “Thriller”, that when it comes to the songs “You have to kill your babies.” Of course, when he says it, it sounds awesome. And I know that a horrible way to say it, but that’s how it feels.
MGM: Right, I would imagine so. Now tell me a little bit about the new baby, “Legendary”. I watched the video several times and it has a pretty deep meaning.
JC: It’s kind of the story of what’s happened for the last three years since the last record came out. We’ve toured all over the world it was pretty cool. And with songs, there’s always a deep meaning and a shallow meaning. So the shallow meaning is this: your life is short and you got to make it count for something. Don’t let other people tell you who you are, don’t be a victim. You’re in control of your life. A deeper meaning is that we all say we want to be legendary, but the truth is that we’re all going to die. We’re not here for all that long. I mean, once you turn 40 years old, 60 isn’t that old anymore! (Laughs) Not that I know!
MGM: Me neither!
JC: Yeah, and then you have your kids, and then they turn into teenagers and you’re like: “Holy moly, this has gone fast!” So we’re really not here all that long. We’re not destined to be legendary, you’re destined to die. That’s the way it’s going to be, so you’ve got to make your life count for something. Be proud of who you are, don’t let other people tell you who you are. Something I drew on personally when writing the song, is the chorus of the song says: “Never going to keep me down, still the one standing now.” That line comes from the fact that I still can’t believe that I’m still in a band after 22 years, and I still can’t believe people are listening! There are people who still say to us:
“You guys have got to stop admitting that you’re a Christian band, nobody wants to know that.”
“You can’t do Christian interviews.”
“You can’t have girls in the band!”
“You can’t have keyboards!”
“You’re not heavy enough!”
“You’re too heavy!”
“You’ve got to do all this!”
And I’m just like: I just want everyone to shut up. All the critics to shut up and let me do me, you know? We’re still standing. We have a gold record and we didn’t need you telling us who to be and so that’s a little bit of a stick-it-to-the-man to the haters. You have to learn in this business who to listen to and who not to. And even if they have good intentions you have to say “I appreciate it, but no.”
MGM: So, not to brag, but I was one of the OG fans that bought your self titled album in the 90s from a Zondervan bookstore-
JC: (Laughs) No way!
HV: Yeah, man! (Singing) My beautiful robe! And one of things that I’ve noticed over the years from the beginning until now, is that your sound has changed-in my estimation-to a much heavier sound than the way you were at the beginning. Which goes back to what you feel is the appropriate sound for Skillet. In particular, on the album “Alien Youth”, the song ‘Eating Me Away’ seemed to jump forward into a much heavier sensibility.
JC: That’s interesting. You know, it’s funny, because literally three minutes ago I was doing another interview and somebody said a lot of people feel that the last record wasn’t heavy like the old stuff used to be. And I just said-not three minutes ago-exactly what I’m about to say now: it’s so subjective. Everybody has an opinion and some people go “That stuff was heavier back then.” And some people go: “Well, it’s so heavy now.” And I never have any idea! People will ask: “What’s the new record like?” And I’m stammering, saying “I don’t know?! (Laughs) I hope you like it!” To me, the newer stuff has more of an identifiable sound and I think we found a lane. To me, Skillet has not been scared to change and change with the times. You know, I think skillet is hard rock, but it’s also an electronic, and it’s also very digital in some ways. And there’s a lot of crossover between say, a Skillet record and perhaps Skrillex, or Nine Inch Nails, or even some newer beats. So I think we kind of all put that together and it kind of gives us this lane to where we are going to do very current music. We have a lot of fans that don’t really like Metal and don’t like hard rock but they like Skillet. And sometimes we have a bleed over from the younger, alternative fan bases, so I never know. But I just want make music that is hopefully fresh and new. And most importantly that the fans like! (Laughs)
MGM: Yeah, you don’t want to leave them in a Metallica/Lou Reed “Lulu” situation.
JC: Yeah, you got to keep those fans happy, man.
MGM: Well, it’s great that you guys been able to do this for as long as you have been able to. For me personally, I’m a Christian who has always loved heavy metal, but I always was annoyed by of a lot the preachiness of many mainstream Christian bands. It seems like you guys have been able to get your message across without blatant proselytizing.
JC: Well, thank you and I agree with you. Everybody has their own kind of idea about what it means to be a Christian band. For me I always thought music should bring people together. I just said Nine Inch Nails, that’s a great example. I don’t agree with everything that I assume Trent Resznor believes-I don’t know him personally-but I like the music because I believe him. To me it’s good art. And it’s genuine. He’s writing what he feels, and believes, and when I hear it, I go “Yeah, I believe him.” I believe that he believes that, and it feels real to me. So I think the same thing for a Christian band. I don’t think everybody who listens to Skillet needs to be religious by any means. Sex, drugs and rock’n roll is the mantra of this music, and I always felt that phrase was sort of the antithesis to what rock’n roll is about. To me, it wasn’t about sex and drugs, it was about the music. So, if all of a sudden it has to be about sex, to me the music has now been-and I’m trying to think of an inoffensive way of saying this-bastardized. That’s not what it’s about; it’s about the music. Metallica? I have no idea if they sing about sex and drugs, I just thought they were singing about dragons and the bell tolling! Remember the video for ‘One’? I just always thought they were singing about stuff that was cool, and it never crossed my mind that it would be something I would disagree with on a philosophical or theological level. So for me it’s not about partying. Now I will say some of my favorite bands happen to sing about sex and drugs all the time! Motley Crue? A party rock band, one of my favorite bands of all time and it would be hard to imagine them without that. But I love that! AC/DC. I never really knew anything that they were singing about until I got older and I was like “Oh wow, every other song is a euphemism for sex!” But it was great music.
MGM: Right, that’s an interesting way to put it. Tell me, what time are you guys going to be playing today?
JC: Uh, I should know this! Oh, 6:15. I can’t remember if Korn or Rob zombie are going to be playing later, but I’ll take either one!
MGM: I’m curious to see Korn again. I haven’t seen them in 20 years, back when they were playing in a club touring on their self-titled album.
JC: Oh wow, that was early on.
MGM: Yeah, it was a wild show! I got my ass handed to me in the pit. It hurt. No bueno.
JC: You know, I think people that didn’t grow up in the 90s don’t really understand what rock and metal was like in the 90s. It was a whole different anger and angst. It’s funny, I love culture studies and so what I see where our culture is at today with young millennial’s is they seem to be more like: “Life doesn’t really matter, so let’s party and make it awesome!” Generation X was more like: “Life doesn’t really matter, so let’s blow it up!” You know, like ‘Fight Club’! Like you said, in the mid 90s if you went to a concert and someone didn’t get hurt, it wasn’t really a rock show. It was a dark period. And not to get too deep on this, but we are seeing a resurgence of suicide rates like we saw in the 90s. Where people are going “Life is amazing! Everything is wonderful! Everything is awesome!” Isn’t it funny that in the end it’s about realizing our own futility and that you’re not actually going to live forever. Which is what my song “Legendary” is all about! (Laughs)
HV: Ha! There you go! Good full circle.
JC: So go listen to “Legendary” and buy the new Skillet record!
HV: John, thank you for your time, brother.
JC: Absolutely, thank you, man.
Exiting the media tent, clouds began painting the sky with a non-threatening off-white color and sprinkling the crowd with a fine mist of rain-nothing really off putting, just a mild nuisance, but not enough to diminish the ever-thickening crowd of festivalgoers. We settled to the left of the Monster Energy stage to watch the unusual set by murder-folk artist, Amigo the Devil.
Standing alone with an acoustic guitar and looking dwarfed by the massive PA’s and unused stage lighting, Amigo strolled through his bi-polar set of catchy and wildly off-putting songs, such as “Cocaine and Abel”, “I Hope Your Husband Dies” and the impressively gory “Perfect Wife”. Among all of these brooding tunes, however, Amigo brought a healthy sense of levity to the proceedings with self-deprecating stage banter by calling himself “Bargain Bin Dave Grohl” and asking the crowd “I know what you’re thinking: who the fuck brings a banjo to a rock festival?” His humor and bleak subject matter won over all in attendance with a perfect sweet and sour presentation.
Strolling across the festival grounds, we grabbed a Jack and Coke from the Jack Daniels kiosk, and as we took our first sips of tasty adult beverages, an insane energy came bursting from the Quarry stage. Hyro The Hero took to the stage, grabbed the audience by the throat and didn’t let go. You could feel them putting every bit of fury of a 2 hour set into 30 lean minutes of music. Sporting a bandana wrapped around his forehead, Hyro looked like Tupac resurrected and mad as hell about being dead. Guitars spun, bodies flailed about, pits formed and mayhem was fully in control.
After Hyro the Hero’s fire died down, and many people were forced to recover from what they just witnessed, Zeal and Ardor took to the Monster stage.
Their set was great and they sounded almost identical to the way they sound on their records. And after speaking with both members earlier-who were engaging, happy friendly guys-it was off-putting to see them wearing scowls, black robes and barking hymns to the devil. I recognize that even though they admit that what they do is a gimmick, they do a helluva job selling it.
They punched through a nice mixture of tunes, performing the title tracks of both of their albums, as well as the high energy and angry songs, “Row Row” and “Baphomet”. Two members, Denis Wagner and Marc Obrist, were dedicated to solely providing the evil-monk chanting, giving the songs a much more sinister sound. The longer they played, the creepier their set was, and even in late afternoon light, you certainly got the feeling that something ominous was lurking in the crowd.
Rain continued to sprinkle the crowd lightly for about a half an hour, but the mild threat of a storm was put to rest as we walked to catch the set for Meshuggah.
It was unfortunate that they were trapped on a stage so small. Their high level technical brutality really requires room to breathe and it was like watching a lion being kept in a Toyota Prius. This issue aside, the Meshuggah boys really delivered, hammering out a classic, but predictable, set with songs like “Bleed”, “Future Breed Machine” and “Violent Sleep of Reason”. Everything was lean and mean in their performance, with not an ounce of fat on its body. The crowd knew time was of the essence and pits were opening immediately in all directions to fully make the most of the briefly living monster that Meshuggah brought to life.
As twilight descended, we ate some overpriced wood fired pizza and moved over to the Quarry stage, where Evanescence began to play their energetic set.
I’ve never been a fan of their music. It always seemed to me like the soundtrack to a safe-space protest on a party college campus; but, I will always allow a band to win me over with their live performance. Hell, I thought for the longest time that Baroness was the definition of self-important, posture metal, until I saw the dedication to their craft on stage and was immediately hooked in. Now, I’m not remotely comparing Evanescence to Baroness, but I will give them the same chance to prove themselves live.
Vocalist Amy Lee emerged onto the stage with vibe of an opera singer, permeating the air with performance grandstanding as she began belting out a set of their best known tunes. She and the rest of the band, moved, spiraled, cried out and held hands outstretched towards the sky and proved themselves to be experienced showmen. They have done this for 20 years, and it showed in the precision with which they played. I couldn’t help but notice that Lee was a bit heavier than what I remembered her being. However, it quickly dawned on me that the image of her in my mind was the album cover from 1999, and that I had added several wrinkles and quite a few pounds to my frame since that time as well.
They ended with their massive hit, “Bring Me to Life” and by then the crowd was eating from the palm of her hand, as everyone sang the chorus right along with her. I’m still not a fan of their tunes, but I will happily watch them perform again if they swing by.
Now, I have had the good fortune to have seen Rob Zombie perform many times over the years, and that son of a bitch knows a thing or two about presentation. I still love all of White Zombie’s music, but Rob’s solo stuff has no filter and has become a depressing parody of itself the longer it has dragged on. “The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser”? Okay, dude.
No matter. Fire, blood, fire, explosions and also FIRE! blows up real good on his stage and the music very much becomes incidental to the spectacle of good showmanship. I was about three drinks deep ten minutes into his set and didn’t even pay attention to what songs he played. He growled, guitars were played, drums were beaten and I just absorbed the swaying crowd and the larger than life presentation of horror and psychedelia that burst from the stage. Who gives a shit what song he was playing? And it’s probably because Zombie’s set was such a banger, that I found Machine Gun Kelly’s set to be a bit of a bore.
Kelly is another artist that I was curious about in terms of live performance, but the Rob Zombie hangover really made it hard for me to enjoy. Kelly sprinted up and down the stage with his lean frame and dealt with a mostly receptive crowd, and even with the exception of the occasional “Boo!” and “Poser!” being screamed out, he seemed to be enjoying himself on stage. The problem was that he seemed to be in a constant state of self promotion, reminding the audience to buy his record or to go watch the recent Netflix film, “The Dirt”, in which he plays drummer Tommy Lee of Motley Crue. I understand the need to Always-Be-Closing, but this is rock n’ roll…and this type of self-promotion will always come across as tacky. So I think I may need to give the guy another chance at another concert one day, where I am not so affected by the performance thunder of a veteran like Zombie.
As the night was coming to a close, Korn took to the Monster stage and found a thick, lively happy crowd ready and waiting to be pummeled by their down-tuned heavy rock.
When I last saw them perform in the mid-90’s, it was an energetic, lively ball of fire to witness. They were lean, hungry and angry. I am still a big fan of their debut album, and I will never forget that show and what they brought to the stage that night. So it was very frustrating to see that same band 20 years on but lacking any of the same hungry energy that made them amazing in the first place.
Vocalist Jon Davis, walked around the stage with an impressive gut and dull sounding vocal delivery, looking fat and happy.
And good for him. Good for all of them. They caught lightning in a bottle and have been able to carve out a successful life with music they created and that so many fans have been blessed to enjoy. It just makes it a little hard to take their pained posturing on songs like “Rotting in Vain” seriously. I know they are older and it is unfair to expect the same energy of a 20 year old from a 45 year old, but tell that to AC/DC, Motorhead or even Lamb of God. These guys are very comfortable and it shows. But they still do give fans what they want by playing lively renditions of “Blind”, “I Did My Time” and still busting out the bagpipes on “Shoots and Ladders”. (They also still play “Y’all Want a Single”, unfortunately. Man, seriously, fuck that song. ) They closed out the night with “Freak on a Leash”, much to the crowds enthusiastic approval and thus the first day of the first Epicenter Festival came to a roaring and successful close.