ARSIS – Interview with guitarist/vocalist James Malone
By Peter Atkinson
Photos from facebook.com/arsis
Arsis mainman and lone original member James Malone has had to deal with quite a bit over the Virginia Beach, Va.-based melodic/technical death metal band’s decade-plus career. Frequent lineup changes and Malone’s own well-chronicled health problems — notably a 2008 recurrence of the anorexia he’d dealt with as a teenager that was brought on, ironically, when he quit drinking alcohol after becoming what he described as a “fat, bloated drunk” — have presented significant obstacles for the band, who have had to refute rumors of a break-up on more than one occasion.
Arsis dropped off of tours with Faceless and Carcass, missed dates on others, played shows without a bassist and did a tour with Firewind in 2011 that Malone himself was forced to sit out. Over the last year or so the band lost drummer and Malone’s long-time cohort Mike Van Dyke for a second time and guitarist Nick Cordle left to join Arch Enemy – following in the footsteps of ex-guitarist Ryan Knight, who’d left to join The Black Dahlia Murder and live drummer David Kinkade who moved onto Soulfly.
Yet here they remain, a testament to — unfortunately quite literally — what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Arsis issued the six-track EP, Lepers Caress, through Scion A/V, late last year and have followed up with their fifth full-length Unwelcome, due April 30 on Nuclear Blast, both packed with the band’s unique mish-mash of death metal brutality, classic metal catchiness and classical dexterity and elegance. And they are jumping right out on the road that originally had them opening for Swedish heavyweights Hypocrisy, however Hypocrisy announced April 26 – after this interview was conducted – that they would not be able to take part in the tour because of visa issues, leaving Arsis to headline the shows with Krisiun as well as some scheduled dates on their own. After that, Arsis were looking forward to a busy, productive year ahead.
As the band readied to hit the road, Malone took a few moments to answer a batch of questions via e-mail and sounded pretty upbeat about where things with Arsis stand right now and what lies ahead.
Greetings from Northern Virginia and hope all is well in Southern Virginia.
James Malone: I hope all is well in land off of I-95.
Just out of curiosity, and not like Northern Virginia is any sort of hotbed, but is there much a music “scene” in the Virginia Beach area, or is it mostly just cover bands playing for the tourist crowds there?
James: While there are A LOT of cover bands in the area, there is a decent local scene for Thrash and Blackened Thrash. The Day of the Beast, Possessor and Vorgum are bands from the area that are definitely worth checking out. Virginia Beach has always been a difficult area for metal. The good thing is that most of the bands support each other at shows and everyone tends to friends with each other.
Anyway, appreciate your doing this, especially since you must be rather busy what with the album coming out, the tour starting, promotional activities and the video work all sort of happening at the same time.
James: No problem at all. I appreciate you taking the time for the interview.
All of this is coming together at the same time, though, does give the album a good pad to launch from.
James: Indeed, every bit of promotion helps.
Are you guys ready for the touring? Will this be the first time you all have played together as a band, or was this lineup the one that did the tour at the end of the year?
James: I never feel truly ready until about a week into the tour, but all the each guys are so good at what they do that it takes a lot of stress off of me. We did indeed do the Sonata [Arctica] tour with this lineup [with new guitarist Brandon Ellis, drummer Shawn Priest and bassist Noah Martin] last December and I honestly think Arsis sounds better live now than we ever have.
How are things gelling with the band? The last year or so was a bit of a tumultuous time line-up wise, and this is not the first time you’ve had to rebuild the band?
James: Everything is going great, better than ever actually. I know we had 2 members leave last year, but we managed to record a full length album for Nuclear Blast, an EP for Scion A/V and have been more productive than ever. I didn’t feel that we were ‘set back’ at all.
Would you like to have a stable line-up over a long period of time, or do you prefer working with new musicians to keep things fresh, as it were?
James: I really feel that this newest lineup is the definitive Arsis lineup and I really don’t want anything to change. I would be happy playing with these guys for the rest of my career. Everyone communicates so well. Everything gets done in a timely manner. No real drama amongst band members. This is best Arsis has ever been.
For better or worse over the years, it seems like Arsis has been something of a training/proving ground for other bands, since members have gone on to Black Dahlia, Arch Enemy, Soulfly, etc.
James: This does seem to the case, huh? I guess it’s flattering.
Still, guess says something that people who played with the band before (Martin, Priest and Van Dyke) seem willing to come back?
James: I know for a while there I had a reputation as being hard to work with and I guess I can understand why because a lot of people were leaving the band. The funny thing is, almost everyone that left the band either rejoined or asked to rejoin. Clearly, I am an asshole.
And no matter what, the musicianship is always top notch. Unwelcome is yet another “technically dazzling” effort, to use album review vernacular?
James: Thanks, we try to be on top of our craft so to speak. I am glad this seems to be showing the new material.
Did you write all of the material again this time, or did the other band members get involved with the songwriting?
James: It was definitely a group effort this time around. Sure, there were some songs that I started on my own, but there were also some written around or that were inspired by Noah’s riffs. Shawn even sent over about a minute and a half of just drum ideas that became a song. Noah wrote some the lyrics on this album. Everyone had their hands in the creative process.
How did you end up getting involved with the Scion folks and how did the EP end up coming about, since it sounds like all this happened after Unwelcome was in the can?
James: We have been working with Scion off and on for a few years now. In 2010, we were part of 2 Scion Rock Shows with Death Angel, and it was a blast. They really made us feel like rock stars for a few days with that whole experience.
It did happen directly after we tracked Unwelcome and we were a little worried we wouldn’t be able to meet their deadline at first; we only had 3 weeks to write and record the EP. I think the pressure and stress really proved to us that we can really function as a ‘band’ and work together to conquer obstacles. I think I brought us closer as a band and as friends.
I know the Interweb crybabies bemoan Scion’s “corporate involvement” in the underground metal scene, but something like Lepers Caress certainly seems like a good way to promote a band like yours, especially given the nature of the music business these days?
James: People really do like to bitch a lot on the Interweb for sure. It’s really easy complain and insult people if you don’t have to do it face to face. Sure, there were some guidelines we had to follow when working with Scion, but overall it was a great experience. If given the chance, I would work with them again.
How is your health these days? Do you still struggle with the problems you were dealing with a couple years ago or have you managed put that past you – and if not, have you at least found a way to cope/manage so that old issues don’t return?
James: I am doing better than I have in years. I sat out the tour that Arsis did with Firewind in favor of a job with health insurance. I used this to get some help that I had needed for years and as a result, am more productive than I have been since we recorded our first album. Medication is great thing.
How difficult has it been recovering from/battling those ailments, is it something you’ve largely had to do on our own?
James: I tried for years to do it alone and finally had to admit that I needed a little extra help, medication. I had to get over my shame, swallow my pride, and admit that I have problems that bigger than me. Once I got the proper treatment, life stated to look a lot better.
The last album certainly reflected the health issues you were battling, is there any sort of overarching “theme” to the lyrics on Unwelcome?
James: In some ways it’s a very personal album for me, but at this point I am so removed from certain situations that the lyrics don’t have the same meaning to me that they did when I wrote them a year ago.
Since you write most, if not all of the material, and the music is rather complex, do you have a specific list of ingredients you look to incorporate into each song, or do you write more from instinct and the pieces fall together as they may?
James: I really do just write from instinct these days. I want everything to be as sincere as possible and therefore I try not to overthink these days. I didn’t spend longer than a day writing any one song album. They all just kind of ‘happened.’
Regardless, however the sausage gets made, so to speak, it’s pretty amazing the way you guys are able to be as aggressive and technical as you are, and still have memorable, even catchy songs. There’s so many uber-technical bands around these days that are all flash and no substance.
James: I honestly can’t listen to anything that’s considered to be ‘technical metal’ by today’s standards.
Your selection of cover material over the years has rather quirky – which is cool – but why “Sunglasses at Night?” I actually saw Corey Hart live eons ago opening for Rush or April Wine at the old Montreal Forum and will forever be scarred.
James: I think everyone secretly loves that song. If they don’t…I don’t trust them, hahaha. Noah had been wanting to do a cover of that song for as long as I have known him. One morning I went over to his house to work on some demos and he had the intro and verse recorded for the his version of ‘Sunglasses…’ and I thought it was 100% badass. We worked all afternoon finishing the arrangement and the rest is history.
Still, you did a great job of giving it a much-needed horsewhipping. I’m sure Mr. Hart would be horrified by your rendition – so kudos for that.
James: Thanks man, its one of my favorites on the album.
After the Hypocrisy tour, how is the summer, rest of the year shaping up? You guys going to be keeping busy?
James: Hopefully more touring!!!!
That’s really about it. Thanks for your time and if there’s anything you’d like to add, the floor is yours. If not, good luck on tour and safe travels.
James: Thanks Peter. I hope to see you out at a show!!!