Chance Garnette of Skeletonwitch
Vocalist Chance Garnette spoke with us before their recent show in Wallingford, CT, and discussed going full bore when it comes to being in a metal band, album reissues, the future of physical media for music, and more.
Interviewed by: B. Cross
You’ve been touring pretty relentlessly in support of Forever Abomination. Was any particular performance a favorite?
Right before the record came out, we were in Europe, and we had the privilege to play Wacken [Open Air]. That’s one of those type of things that you never thought you’d be able to just go to as a fan, and just be there in general. You know, you see Headbanger’s Journey…“Oh my god, Wacken! That’s crazy, I’d love to be there!” But then, actually getting to play it? It was amazing! I guess on paper it was during Breathing the Fire, but the new record Forever Abomination came out maybe two months after that. So we were playing three or four of those songs on the tour, and just to be there…that’s the big one, man. Seeing eighty thousand people! You play some big shows sometimes, to support bands like Arch Enemy and Cannibal Corpse, and those crowds are fucking amazing. But nothing compares to eighty thousand metalheads! You never saw a bigger sea of black in your damn life! (laughs) It’s incredible. That definitely is one that sticks out in my head, that no matter what, I can never forget being given that opportunity. And it pretty much was the springboard for Forever Abomination, so that’s probably the one that we all would agree that we never thought we’d get to do, and we were beyond stoked that we got to do it.
During this past summer, you guys played a few shows in record-breaking heat and humidity. It was a rather severe health hazard; how did you power through it?
I don’t do anything half-assed, whether it’s the band, or how fast I ride my motorcycle…or should I have one tattoo, or two thousand and one tattoos? I have to be an extreme type of person, really. It was hot as hell, but people came and they spent money to see me do this thing. I’m not going to shortchange anyone because, “Oh, it’s too hot for me.” If I go down on stage, that’s going to be kind of cool in a way, as long as I don’t die. (laughs) You owe it to your fans to do that. I’m not going to bail out because I’m a little bit uncomfortable. It’s like if I’m sick. “Dude, I’m sick! Cut half the set!” Not going to happen. I’ll pull through, and if I puke on stage, if I collapse on stage or whatnot, it’ll be what it’ll be. Before, I was a carpenter, when I wasn’t full time Skeletonwitch, when I was splitting my time. Everything had to be fucking perfect for me; I’m just that type of person. I’m not going to do “good enough.” It has to be right. I would hate it if I left the stage; I’d feel like and asshole if I was like “I was hot, and I shortchanged these people.” You just knock it out and there’s plenty of time to sleep and cool down later. The set can only be roughly an hour, and I could put up with just about anything for an hour. So yeah, man, I owe it to the fans; they paid the money to come and see it, so I’m going to give it back to them. No matter if it’s ten degrees or two hundred and ten degrees, I’m going to do the best that I can possibly do.
Rumor has it that Skeletonwitch is playing some “new old” stuff on the current tour.
Yeah, things we haven’t played live before. When you tour as much as we do, people want to hear certain things, and we’re definitely going to pay attention. We had that little Adult Swim video, “Bringers of Death.” Honestly, that was a last-minute “You need a bonus track for Europe” thing. Uh…okay. That was the very last song we wrote, it was meant as a bonus track, but Adult Swim picked it up and a lot of people saw that video. It happens to be our most-watched video ever! Of course, it is Adult Swim; that’s a hell of a platform right there! But we’re actually playing that song on this tour. We’re doing “My Skin of Deceit” from Forever Abomination which has never been played live before. We’ve played “Baptized in Flames” two hundred and thirty-seven billion times, but we haven’t played it in a long time. This is out first true headlining tour for this record; we’ve done headlining shows, but this one’s really on us. It’s our set, it’s our everything on this one, and everyone needs to leave happy. Everyone needs to leave feeling like “I heard almost everything I needed to hear!” But the biggest ones, you always hear people yell it out while you’re on stage. “Play this one! Play that one!” And the majority for ones we haven’t been playing are “Bringers of Death!” We’re like, “Man, that’s a B-side! We’re not going to play that!” …well, yeah, we are. We’re busting it out on this one, and it’s been going over really well. I mean, there’s no zombies and furries battling in front of the stage… (laughs)
(laughs) I don’t think we can make that happen; I don’t think we have the production budget for that yet. But yeah, when you pose the question to people “What song haven’t we played that you want to hear?” it’s either “Onward to Battle” or it’s “Bringers of Death.” We have our ten-year anniversary next year, which in itself is just amazing to me…
Thanks! And “Onward to Battle” was one of the first songs we ever wrote, back in 2003. So we need something special for that. Maybe as a teaser, “Onward to Battle” will be on that one, but we’ll see when the time comes. I’m not really sure what’s going on there; I can’t plan that far ahead yet. Right now we’re focused on this tour, and it’s sixty-three shows in sixty-five days. Two days off! Definitely curbed the drinking; well, I’m drinking every day, but I’m not going crazy! (laughs) I just think with this style of vocals I would get through about forty-two days, and then have no voice left. (laughs) You owe it to the fans to do your best. And if that means not getting fucked up beyond recognition every night, then so be it. This is my job. This is what I do. Like I said, I can’t do anything half-assed, so if it means laying off of whatever’s your thing, then that’s what it is. There’s plenty of time to smoke weed and drink beer not on the road.
Early on, Skeletonwitch was sometimes unfairly lumped into the “thrash revival” category. Your records have always blended multiple styles of extreme metal together, and Forever Abomination even more so. Was that any kind of response to your critics, or just the natural growth of your music?
We’ve never done anything like “Let’s deliberately make this one sound this way.” Each record is a snapshot of where you are at that time in your career. I think it’s a natural progression; if you go back even before Beyond the Permafrost, to At One with the Shadows, there’s definite black metal influences in there. I think some journalists just get lazy as hell. The Internet is a plus and a minus. It’s great because so many people can be introduced to what you do. But then someone else says “I’ve got a web ‘zine that’s got two followers! Can I get in for free?” And then they all want to come to the show, and then I’ve seen the same exact quotes in multiple people’s interviews. So obviously they read Person A’s interview, and then pretended I said that in Person B’s interview. They’ll see that such-and-such magazine has a little Skeletonwitch piece or whatnot, and it’ll be like “Retro thrash band Skeletonwitch did this and that tonight!” and then a year and a half later, you’ll see the exact same thing! All they did was go back and read someone else’s interview! I believe that there’s thrash metal in our music, absolutely. Are we a retro thrash band? Absolutely not. I prefer to just be a heavy metal band. Was Forever Abomination a response to critics? No. Like I said before, we’ve never been like, “This one needs to be more death metal,” or “This one needs to be more black metal,” or “We really need to pretend that we’re Exodus!” That’s not how we do it. It’s just where we are that the time. I definitely don’t believe that we’re a retro thrash band. The media will say what they want to say, and the people will read what the media has written; and unfortunately, it’s not always one hundred percent accurate. I’m sure anyone, whether they’re a musician, or an actor, or anyone that’s in the business of entertainment has been unfairly categorized in something that they’re not. Skeletonwitch in my head is a heavy metal band; it doesn’t need to be a thrash metal band, a black metal band, or a death metal band. It’s just a heavy metal band, and we do what we love; we draw from all of our influences and all of those subgenres of music and create our thing out of what we all like. We’ll see what happens on the next record; we don’t predetermine, we just write, and whatever comes out, comes out. I don’t think you can say “Skeletonwitch sounds exactly like…this band.” I don’t think you can pinpoint a band that we sound exactly like. So many people try to subcategorize and put you in the smallest box possible, which I think is fucking ridiculous!
Have you ever considered incorporating musical styles from outside the metal realm?
We may have a touch on Forever Abomination with the acoustic intro to the record. Classical guitar has kind of always been a metal thing in a kind of way. I believe metal players especially back in the day incorporated classical guitar. Am I going to sing? No, I’m not going to sing. (laughs) I’m not sure anyone would want to hear that! Are we going to throw in an odd instrument you normally wouldn’t hear in a metal band? You know, probably not. Even though I absolutely love that banjo solo in that newest Taake record (“Myr,” from Noregs Vaapen). That was a fucking gold mine right there; that was perfect, and it rips! I’ve always thought that bluegrass and speed metal were kind of the same, but without distortion. You’ve kind of got that same drumbeat in a way. That fits perfectly, but I don’t think we’re going to do it. I always think it’s a bad idea when you’re like “This album’s going to be totally different!” You came up doing your thing; if you’re doing something totally different, then you’re either bored with your thing or you’re trying too hard. Your fans like you for a reason! Has Slayer put a goddamned tambourine on a record? I don’t think so! Has Slayer had a flute solo? I don’t think so! I think you need to stay true to what you do, and if you want to start doing other things, maybe you need to be in a different band. I can’t say that our next record will just be more of the same, but I hope it’s a progression and I think it will be. I think we take what we do, and next-level it each time. But are we going to step out and just totally switch it up? No, absolutely not.
Songs like “Stand Fight and Die” have a few slow sections, but would you ever write a completely slow/downtempo song? Not a ballad, just a slow grind.
I think maybe sections are what we’re more into doing. I don’t think we’re going to do a doom song or a stoner song. That’s just not us! In “Cleaver of Souls,” that has a big heavy part, and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever done. But is it un-Skeletonwitch? I don’t think so. I don’t think we’re going to do a big droney-ass eleven-minute song; I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Has any work begun on the next record? I know you generally prefer not to write on the road…
Yeah, it’s too difficult for us, especially being in a van. I don’t see us getting back to a hotel room, which is not every night, believe me! Hotel rooms are nice, and we’ve got one tonight, which I’m so fucking stoked about, but occasionally we have to still sleep in the van. Whatever it takes to get it done. I don’t think anyone right after a show, in a Wal-Mart parking lot, is going to say “Let’s work on that new material!” (laughs) That’s not going to happen, and nor do I think that we’re going to go back to a hotel room and do it. We usually don’t get in until around 2 AM, and a lot of times, the drive was long as hell and we have to be up by seven and out the door by eight. It’s just not conducive to really sitting down and concentrating on writing. Could we write a song? I’m sure we could, but it wouldn’t be one of our best songs, and I want every song to be one of our best songs. Having said that, Nate (Garnette, guitars) has started to write demos; he lays down the foundation, like the riffs and a little drum machine to give you a feel of what’s going on. I guess riffs without any kind of percussion backing them leaves a little bit too much up to interpretation. You could have a slow beat or a fast beat or a midtempo beat to about any riff, but he needs to get his point across! So Nate will lay down a drum machine framework to these riffs, and then we’ll piece them together and make a song out of it. Usually the song is about seventy percent or more there; Nate doesn’t write lyrics. He gives the band an idea of where’s he’s going. We all get the demos, and then we all add our thing to it. We get together and we decide to maybe extend this part, or maybe this part’s just a bit too long. He has a demo that he gave us not too long ago, and there’s this one section that’s a perfect opportunity for some attack/counterattack vocals, but it’s not long enough. So let’s extend that another four or another eight so I can sing over that. Honestly, writing lyrics and patterns to Nate’s stuff is challenging! Sometimes it’s not just one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. And then I’ll hear that part where “There’s the vocal part right there!” If it’s only two measures, it’s not set in stone. Nate’s not like, “No! I wrote for fucking two measures, that’s what it’s going to be, figure it out, son!” So yeah, we have a couple of demos at home, and I brought some with me on my iPod. When it comes to writing on the road, I can probably do it more than anyone else. I’m just sitting in the van sleeping my ass off while someone else drives! (laughs) I’ve got a notebook with a million lyrical ideas, and I get new ideas every day, just seeing things or hearing things. I’m constantly jotting down shit. I’ve got so many two-word, four-word, and eight-word phrases in a notebook that I just go through and find one that fits. And once I find that, I’m home free! But finding that one that fits, that starts the song…I don’t write from the beginning. If the first words I come up with are the first words, then great. Usually they’re not, and they’re often somewhere in the middle; I’ll build frontwards and backwards from there. But we are writing, and when this tour ends in mid-November, I think we’re going to just sit on our asses until the first of December. (laughs) We’ll have about two weeks to recuperate from a sixty-five day tour. I think we deserve two weeks to go home and eat our food, pet our cats, watch our TV, smoke our weed! (laughs) We’ll do what we want to do for those two weeks, and then it’s right back at it. Nate will get right back on it and he’ll send us more demos, and that’s the big plan for December, January, February, and March: to write the next Skeletonwitch album and record it in April.
With everything apparently moving towards digital formats, why did you choose to release some special recordings exclusively on vinyl?
It’s an awesome format that never goes out. I’ve seen a few bands bringing back cassettes and all, and that’s cool because cassettes were a huge part of the music scene for a long time. I don’t know how many cassettes I have that don’t have any writing left on them because they’re worn off! I definitely grew up when you would write letters to people and get back tapes that you’d copy for all of your friends. That’s just how it was back in the day without the Internet. But back to the question, vinyl is more popular than CDs right now. Are CDs a dead format? Very close, because you can just steal it for fucking free! I mean, other than the artwork, and that’s why we try to make an interesting package. You can’t download a triple gatefold or get the full artwork. The artwork has always fit our albums; I don’t think believe that you could take the Beyond the Permafrost cover and pretend it was the Forever Abomination cover. I don’t look at a piece of artwork and say “I want that!” before the album is written. We create the music, create the lyrics, create the album, and then create the artwork. You’re not getting the full experience when you’re stealing it off of a torrent site. You’re getting the music, which is the focal point of doing the whole goddamned thing. Which I’m okay with; would I rather a kid not have it instead of downloading it or stealing it? I’d rather him have it than not have it, but you’re not getting the full picture of what’s going down without the actual product. A lot of people love vinyl, man, and I’m just too rough on everything to be a vinyl collector myself. Scotty (Hedrick, guitars) has a ton of vinyl. Nate and I? No, because it would all be scratched and broken, and I’d put it in a corner and end up putting my bicycle or something against it and it would be gone. I just can’t collect vinyl. But vinyl is an awesome thing, and I don’t believe that will die. Vinyl will never die, and I think CDs are on their way out, but unfortunately right now there’s nothing to take its place. For a hot second there was Mini CDs, but no one could put it in a car stereo with a slide-in deck, because it wouldn’t spit it back out! (laughs)
And they could only hold around twenty-five minutes of music, too.
Yeah, they definitely had that time constraint on them. I don’t think we’ll ever write an hour-long album, though. I don’t want to listen to too many albums that are that long. (laughs) My attention span isn’t that long, minus Led Zeppelin; I could listen to that all goddamned day! But I’m not really paying attention to every little thing; it’s just in there, and I love it. But I don’t know what’ll replace CDs; I don’t know if it’ll be completely digital, but I don’t think so. Where we live out in Athens, Ohio, it gets pretty rural. It gets pretty country. And a lot of people seriously don’t have a computer out in the sticks, and if they do, they have fucking dialup, still. If you’ve ever tried to look at porno over a dialup connection, you might as well not even bother! (laughs) I can only imagine what it’s like to try to download music or a movie or something. I think everyone is really trying to figure out what is the next format for music. I believe that digital is going to be at the forefront, but there’s got to be a physical copy other than vinyl sometime, somewhere. Maybe they’ll put them on memory sticks or a jump drive. I don’t believe we’ll know for a while what that format will be. Something will take over, but I’ve still got eight-tracks from when I was a kid! I had this Emerson home stereo that had a radio, record player, cassette, and eight-track all built into the same box of crap that was about the size of a treasure chest. (laughs) It was fucking giant. Eight-track’s dead, it’s not coming back. Cassette is nostalgic, it’s cool, and I own hundreds of cassettes. They mean a lot to me. But we’ll see how it goes, man; digital will be at the forefront like I said, but there’s got to be a physical copy that you can listen to in your car or at home that’s not vinyl. I just don’t know what that is. But you have to put all of that out if you want people to hear your thing, whether they collect vinyl just because they like the look, or they actually spin it, they still want it. And I’m definitely going to put it out. The colors and things we’re doing are awesome. I don’t have a record player, but I’ve have every record we’ve ever done. There’s a definitely a resurgence in vinyl, and actually playing it as opposed to just collecting it. You can go to Wal-Mart and spend a hundred and twenty bucks, and buy what appears to be an old-school phonograph…but it has a CD player built in, and I know a lot of kids that have that. Vinyl isn’t as popular as it was, but it ebbs and flows, and everything comes full circle. Maybe CDs will be cool again! But right now, it’s just easier for people to grab a torrent. That might be the wave of the future; you put records out and don’t even fucking sell them, and let kids come to shows. And that’s the important part. If they’re going to download it, and they like it, then they’re going to come to the show and have a good time and get a t-shirt. And that keeps the wheels of the machine turning. We’ll see what happens, man, and I’m very interested in it. I do look forward to seeing what the next big thing is, because I’m clueless right now. (laughs)
Is there any chance of a reissue of your first record, At One With the Shadows?
I know there is! (laughs) I know it for a fact! We put that album out ourselves in 2004. Initially I had planned on rereleasing it in time for this headliner, but then I decided maybe the better move is to go ahead and hold off, and maybe put it out a little later like spring of next year or something like that. I don’t have a solid date, but that record is ours. We paid to have it done out of our pockets, and it sounds like shit. (laughs) Like I said earlier, every album is a snapshot of where you are at that time in your career. And that one is a snapshot of where we were. You see the pictures of us in it, you’re gonna be like, “Yeah, that’s not what they look like these days!” (laughs) But it’s definitely what we were most proud of at that time. And I’m not going to remaster it; I believe it needs to sound like it did back then. I don’t know how many fucking things I have that are reissues of old things that are unremastered and unretouched. They’re maybe in a different package, because your first ones need to hold that nostalgia. I don’t want to put out the same exact thing, because if a kid had it in 2004, and I put out the exact same package…who can tell which one is which? “I got the old one!” But now it means nothing because the new one is out and it’s the same thing. The reissue will be distinguishable from the old one. Maybe it’ll be in a digipak; so you’ll look at it and know it’s new, but it’ll contain exactly the same material and sound. It’s definitely coming back, and we’re going to do it ourselves again. In the beginning, we ordered a thousand copies; we sent it off, had it done, got it back, and it was the biggest day of my goddamned life. “Holy shit, a thousand CDs!” I was so fucking proud of it. There’s no way I’m going to dog it and be like, “It’s not good anymore.” If I was so proud of it then, I’m so proud of it now. It’s just where it came from. We’re going to put it out again ourselves. It’s not going to have label backing or major distribution. It’ll be like it was then…but now. More than likely, it’ll be mostly sold on tour, and we’ll definitely put it on the webshop. And I have this old shirt that we did back in the day, with the old logo and the old art, all that mess…maybe we’ll put them together. The old shirt, the old logo, with the old disc, in the revamped package, as a little thing of “Here’s where it was in 2004.” Almost ten years ago! There’s something cool about the old stuff. You probably have old copies of stuff from bands that have progressed incredibly, and then they reissue something…and it sounds like dick. But you want it, and it’s your fucking favorite, because that’s the first thing you heard from that band and it brings it all back.
Any last words for your fans?
I want to tell everyone thank you very much for giving me and my brother Nate, Scotty, Dustin (Boltjes, drums), and Evan (Linger, bass) the opportunity to have the greatest job in the world. We’ve all worked other things where you just don’t want to get up in the morning. And on occasion, I didn’t. I was like “Fuck it, I’d rather be unemployed than do shit that makes me want to cut my wrist every day.” And from the guys that are still doing that, in their local bands and struggling to make it happen, I’ve been told “Man, I fucking hate my job, but I put my iPod in and listen to your music, and it makes it go by and makes it better.” I just want to say that I’m glad that I could do that for you all, man, and I’m so stoked that you guys are supporting Skeletonwitch by coming out to the shows and giving us the opportunity to do this for a living. Everything must come to an end, and eventually it will, but I’m just glad to be here right now I’m only here because of the fans. A big thanks to anyone who’s ever done anything to support our band. I appreciate it very much!