Vocalist Trevor Phipps
***Interview & All Photos By Lord of The Wasteland.
Transcription By Claudia
I caught up with Unearth vocalist Trevor Phipps recently to discuss the band’s upcoming headlining tour with Darkest Hour, August Burns Red and Suicide Silence, as well as their DVD shoot, the drummer situation, the “metalcore” tag and his thoughts on being a “savior” of North American metal.
Since your drummer, Mike Justain, left the band back in May, Unearth has used Derek Kerswill from Seemless and Gene Hoglan for the live shows. How did you cross paths with Gene Hoglan?
Gene Hoglan was on Sounds of the Underground in 2005. It was a tour we were also on and during that tour we shared a bus with the band, Opeth. Their drummer had to be sent home for some health issues or something, so they asked Gene to fill in. Opeth, of course, they have some very progressive parts and they’re very long songs and Gene learned their set in pretty much half a day. It kind of blew our minds and so we knew that he was extremely talented from his past history and then we saw him do that and we were even further blown away. Then he rode on the bus with us for a couple of the off-day shows and we just kind of became friends with him. Then, fast forward to 2006, Strapping Young Lad was also on Ozzfest with us, so we got to hang out with him all summer last year, so when it was time for us to let Mike go—it just wasn’t working out with Mike—he was the first person we called and, lucky for us, he was available.
I was actually at, I believe, Gene’s first show with you guys last May when you played Vancouver with Dimmu Borgir.
Definitely was and Gene did a great job. That was after only about three hours of rehearsal with us and that show definitely didn’t do him justice, as a couple of days later, man, he was locking it in. I think we only played five or six songs that night. By the end of the tour, he knew eight or nine and then we took him again with us to Australia and he learned, I think, eleven tunes and he nailed the stuff every single night. He’s just a machine.
Have you found a permanent drummer yet?
Not quite yet. We haven’t really had the time to do the full search yet. We have Derek and Gene as guys that are filling in when they’re available. Derek might be the guy because I’m not really sure how much of a full-time band Seemless is at this point. Plus, he’s local to Boston just as we are and he’s helped us write in the past when Mike….we shared Mike with a couple other bands years ago and Derek sat in at some rehearsals, so he would be an obvious choice for us, but we’re not closing the doors on any other future potential drummers out there.
Is Derek going to be behind the kit for this tour coming up?
Yes, he is.
III: IN THE EYES OF FIRE – 2006
How long are you guys going to be on stage for? What sort of setlist are we looking at?
I think we’re going to do more than we have in the past for headlining shows. I think we’re going to do maybe twelve or thirteen tunes. We’re going to aim to do just over an hour, whereas we did about 55 minutes—about ten songs, maybe eleven—on our last headlining tour about a year ago.
The tour hits Vancouver on the 15th of October, so is this going to be the final run of dates in support of III: IN THE EYES OF FIRE?
The final run of a full tour. We’ll probably do a handful of weekends when we’re in the writing mode for the next record. I think there’s a South American and a Mexican trip kind of in the working mode right now for sometime in the new year, but as far as a full tour, unless some amazing opportunity comes up, I think this will be it for tours for us. It’s about time to start writing for a new record.
So you haven’t started any writing yet?
The guys have some riffs and some ideas for structures for those riffs but we haven’t really settled down into our actual writing mode.
I read that you are shooting a DVD on October 9th. Do you have anything special planned for that show?
Nothing yet. I wouldn’t even say that we would have to do anything too special. I just want to show on DVD what a true Unearth live experience is like. We do take pride in the fact that we bring a lot of energy to the show and we try to incorporate the crowd into as much of the show as we can and just have a balls-to-the-wall good time. But that’s what our whole intention is to portray on this DVD.
What other things are going to be on the DVD besides the show? Is it just going to be a single disc or is it going to be a big thing?
We’re doing a double disc. One will be the show and some other live footage from other shows throughout the years. We’ve been a band since 1998, so we’re trying to go back as far as possible. We actually reached out to the fans to send us any kind of tapes they might have, any recordings, any pictures, from the early days. We’re just trying to do a full backlog of everything that encompasses our career up to this point to show people who might not know the band where we came from and how we got where we are now and also to show the fans some appreciation and to show them how we’ve grown throughout the years with them. This is our first real DVD. We had the add-ons with our special edition CDs but this is our first real one, so we’re trying to do it right.
THE ONCOMING STORM – 2004
Since THE ONCOMING STORM came out in 2004, I’ve seen Unearth live six times. Now that the band has reached a certain level of success, are you going to scale back your touring schedule or do you think it’s going to be even more intensive?
I’m not sure we can get any more intensive because we’re gone so much. That’s a tough question because we do enjoy being on the road a lot and with each record, there are more opportunities worldwide. So with this record, we toured a little bit less in North America than we did for THE ONCOMING STORM but we did a lot more touring worldwide. And it’s not over yet, like I said, we’re probably going to Latin America, so I don’t think there will be any less. We’re gone between eight or ten months each year, so I don’t think there will be much more because I’m not sure if we could handle it physically and mentally and juggle our personal lives. That’s what I’m kind of hoping because the band enjoys what we do and I’m thinking that we’ll probably just stick to the schedule.
Shadows Fall hails from your neck of the woods and after they jumped to a major label last year, I don’t know if their sales were what they hoped for since they left Century Media Records. I was just wondering if Unearth are considering going to a major label as well, or if you’re happier being on a larger metal indie label like Metal Blade?
That’s a decision we made a while back. Our first record was on Eulogy Recordings, which is a pretty small indie label out of Florida. We had some decent success there and kind of got a name for ourselves and then we had the opportunity to jump up to some bigger labels. Some actually threw some money at us and it just didn’t feel right to us because if a band doesn’t sell that well, they could drop you and just kind of bury you. There are some success stories—Lamb of God does very well—but there are no guarantee that is going to happen for you, so we actually did go with a smaller offer with Metal Blade because they showed us how much they believed in us and what they would do for us and how much promotion and backing that they would give us. That was only a two record deal and that was before THE ONCOMING STORM, but after that record, we were so happy with what they had done, we re-signed for three or four more, so I think we’re locked in with them for a long time and it’s a great place for us. We’re extremely happy.
THE STINGS OF CONSCIENCE – 2001
You’ve got an imprint as well with Metal Blade called Ironclad Recordings. Are you still signing new bands or what is the status of the label?
Yes, I am. I’ve signed a couple this year. I don’t do it at a fast rate because I am so busy with Unearth but I do sign a couple bands here and there and do my best to promote those bands and get them heard.
Unearth started out as a metalcore band and then you branched out quite a bit on III: IN THE EYES OF FIRE. Do you think Unearth is ever going to shed that metalcore tag, especially now that so many bands have tried to emulate your sound?
That’s a funny question because the band never set out to be metalcore. I don’t even think the term existed when this band started in the summer of 1998. Our intention was to just play music we liked because we were all in bands ever since we were kids and the bands didn’t have that much success. I mean, locally was one thing but we couldn’t really branch out and so we formed this band with the intention of writing music that we wanted to hear. We weren’t concerned with writing music for what the crowd might like to hear. The band didn’t care if the crowd moshed here or there. It was about the fact that we just wanted to write what the five of us collectively wanted to hear. At that time, our main influences growing up were bands like Iron Maiden, Testament, Pantera, Hatebreed, which was just coming to life at that point, so let’s have some hardcore style in there and also Iron Maiden-style riffs, maybe some In Flames-style riffs. We just kind of made songs we liked and then fast forward a couple years, all of a sudden metalcore is a tag and now everyone is doing it. I don’t think it’s anything we’re going to shed. I mean we like what we like. I don’t think we even intentionally changed. I think with each record we progressed as musicians, especially Buz [McGrath] and Ken [Susi] who are both getting just better at their guitars whereas they were more of the metalcore guitar player a couple years ago, they’re definitely getting recognized as more skilled metal players. I’m just hoping that people view us as a good, heavy band and if they put a tag on us, so be it. If not, then that’s cool, too.
Buz McGrath (left) and Ken Susi (right)
Does your own background lean towards the metal or more towards hardcore?
I think I can speak for all of us, except for Buz, maybe…we all started with metal. My first tape was Anthrax in third or fourth grade. My first record was KISS when I was just three years old. I didn’t really get into hard core until I was about fourteen, but I definitely started out with all metal. Testament, Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and then Pantera came along. Then I had my death metal “birth” with Deicide, Obituary and Morbid Angel. Then I was shown the FIRESTORM E.P. from Earth Crisis. I think I was fourteen years old and it just kind of took me by surprise. It was kind of what I was personally looking for. It was the heavy metal guitars and vocals without the very redundant guitar solos that seemed to kind of over saturate every song. Then what happened was the guitar solos kind of disappeared after that, which I’m glad that it’s coming back now, but there was a time, in like the early mid-nineties where guitar solos were in every song and just seemed redundant to myself and my friends. But for me, and I think for most of the guys in the band, we all started with metal. I know that Buz was a skateboard kid, so he definitely was into more the punk rock and hardcore scene when he was younger and got more into metal as he got older.
Along with Shadows Fall, Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage…that whole New England scene, Unearth was credited with giving a much-needed shot in the arm for North American metal. Do you see yourselves as saviors of American metal?
(Laughs) I think it’d be pretty cocky to say that. I do appreciate the records that we’ve written and it is great seeing and hearing bands that have been influenced by us and hearing the imitation from other like-sounding bands that are out there now, but I can’t view ourselves as that you know. I just think we’re a band that happened to strike a chord around here and, luckily for us, around the world. We’re a worldwide success at this point, but I can’t call us a savior. I would just say we’re very fortunate that people enjoy our tunes.
You mentioned Anthrax and Testament as some of your influences. What do you think of this resurgence of thrash that seems to be on the horizon?
I think it’s cool. I was bummed out when it kind of disappeared. That was what I was into a lot when I was younger. It’s just fast heavy metal and I dig that and I think that we bring that to the table, as well. I don’t think it should have disappeared but it’s cool that it came back and I know that all music goes in waves and it might be gone next week but it’s cool that it’s kind of a trend right now. It’s good to hear some good young bands.
Alright, thanks a lot, Trevor.
Right on. Appreciate it. I’ll see you next month.
***Thanks to Sarah at Metal Blade Canada for setting up the interview.