Interview: CJ McMahon of Thy Art Is Murder

Sat opposite me on a sofa that is far too low to the ground by anyone’s standards, is The Purest Strain Of Hate Himself; CJ McMahon of Thy Art Is Murder fame, apologising for his sore throat… we can let him off on that one though. Sat in a small room in The Electric Ballroom ahead of what will be the biggest headline show of their career thus far, CJ is open and reflective on the band and deathcore, where the two intermingle, where both currently sit in metal and where both are going. Read on for more.

So how is the Dear Desolation tour going so far?

Honestly, it’s great man. We had the first show in Munich which was just shy of 1000 people, our biggest headline show in Europe at that point. We’ve had some big support slots with Parkway Drive and Architects and festivals but it’s comforting to know that we’re still growing. Most of the shows on this tour have sold out or are real close to selling out which is just great, man. The record’s done really well, the shows are sick and the crowds are the craziest they’ve ever been so it’s a great feeling.

Yeah, people are going crazy outside!

I gotta stay inside, man or I’ll get chased down the street! That’s all cool but I’ve got shit to do today. I don’t get to hang out with fans as much as I used to or as much as I want to. The opening band Justice For The Damned are friends of ours from Australia and it’s their first time out of the country. To see them see us as being their friends and Australian and for our record to be doing so well, it’s all great for them because they see that they can achieve great things from what they’re doing. It feels great to give that back to a young band from our home country.

How is the material from the new record going down at these shows?

It’s going great man to be honest, before we released the record we weren’t sure how the crossover would be but there’s three songs in particular from Dear Desolation that when we start playing, you hear the crowd really reacting to it.

I know exactly what three songs you’re talking about!

We have in-ear monitors now and microphones that pick up the crowd sound and there’s parts where I’m looking down and clapping my hands and I can hear the roar from the crowd and I think “Yeah, this is sick!”. Honestly the last few months have felt like a dream, man.

It’s actually doing quite well in the charts too, were you expecting anything like that?

No, we generally don’t have expectations for our releases at all so that we’re not disappointed! At the same time, it’s hard, especially with this record where there’s been a slight change in the sonic and emotional approach to it. It’s been different to our previous releases so we weren’t sure how people would take it. We were very cautiously optimistic about the whole thing. We knew it would do alright but we never knew it would go this well, that’s for sure.

So, it completes the Hate, War, Desolation, trilogy. When you were writing Hate was it a conscious decision that you were going to map out the three albums like this?

No. When we wrote and recorded Hate, we were in the mindset that we were going to go to New York and spend all this money to do the record as well as we could. If it does shit, we’re just going to break up and go our separate way. That was genuinely the plan. We had had enough. We loved it but we all lost our jobs because of the band and we didn’t have any money so Hate was the last shot to see if we could do something cool. It ended up blowing up and then Holy War was a case of “Let’s keep this train running” and now Dear Desolation is “Let’s find where we are as a group”. Now the trilogy has done as well as it has, we’ve found what is truly us. That was the idea behind it and we did everything as best as we could. The feedback and the acclaim from it has been amazing. We never thought we could get that well in the charts. We’re very happy.

With the three albums all saying something a little different in the storyboard of the trilogy, was there much of a different process in the creation of Dear Desolation to create a different story?

Well, we wanted to have something that was more of a “real” record and I feel that Dear Desolation is that. Lyrically, it’s about real things, it’s very politically driven though it also has usual side-elements of what we tend to write about like anti-religious stuff. There’s the political movement of Trump’s administration, the people that work for him and with him. “Fire In The Sky” is about the Dakota access pipeline. We talked about things of a real nature and I think it feels more devastating because it’s fucking real. This isn’t about a demon coming up and destroying the earth and all of these mythological stories. These are real things happening and it’s driven by real issues in the real world by real people.

It seems that with these three albums, a story has been mapped out quite well. With the next album, will it follow this theme or are you going to try something else?

To be honest, man, the thought hasn’t even crossed our minds. At this stage, we’re not going to be thinking about that stuff for at least another year. We go into the mindset of writing to write about a month or two before we go to record where we start gathering ideas for lyrics and riffs. Then there’ll be a few months where Sean and Marsh will write riffs and me and Marsh will work on lyrical content. Having just done a new record though we don’t want to think about anything new for at least another 12 months! We’re like: “That’s it, we’re fucking drained!”. By the end of writing and recording a new Thy Art record there’s always a few days where we’re like “Where do we go next? What can we write about?” like a writers block so I think it’s best for us to let it happen organically when we need to.

I’ve got to ask the dreaded deathcore question. Dear Desolation feels like another step away from deathcore whether that was purposeful or not. With Suicide Silence similarly distancing themselves from the genre, where do you think it’s future lies? It feels like two of its biggest bands have jumped ship…

Yeah. It’s a strange thing. I fully respect what Suicide Silence were trying to do. I think their goal and vision was amazing but I also think they had the wrong producer guiding them in the wrong direction with their vision. And with all the bullshit that Eddie is running his mouth about us, it’s just jealousy, 12-year-old fucking bullshit. It’s sad because we used to be good friends but now I just don’t give a fuck. I fully respect what they were trying to do but they didn’t pull it off. Carnifex went: “Fuck this, we’re gonna go a bit more black metal” and that’s working for them. It’s their natural progression and they’re killing it. Whitechapel have always just been Whitechapel. They had their own sound and their own way and they kill it. I don’t even know where we’re going! We’re just doing what we want to do. I don’t know what that is!

It’s working!

[laughs] Yeah. It’s working and it’s definitely something we wanted to achieve. We wanted something different because we like different things and we’ve taken elements from all of these different bands like Behemoth, Meshuggah, Gojira and there are hardcore elements from Poison The Well and Bleed Through. There’s so many elements in this that make us who we really are. We broke down a lot of things that we knew worked for us in the past and we’ve got these new things that we’ve never touched on before. With me as a vocalist there’s been accented screams in different places that required something other than just being brutally heavy. It’s trying to be tastefully seductive with accents and things like that. In moving and readjusting things that we’re good at and that work for us, in a way we’re branching out and I think deathcore has always left a sour taste in my mouth when people put us into that category because we’re very different to a lot of those bands. Deathcore as a subgenre is so vast. There’s so many bands in that realm but they all sound so very different, like I was saying about Carnifex.

And then you’ve got bands like Chelsea Grin too, where there are a few elements that tie it all together but everyone’s got their own spin on it…

Exactly, and when people say “Oh what kind of band are you in?” We say “A metal band” or “A heavy metal band”. We won’t say “We’re a deathcore band and we have elements of this.” Fuck all that, we’re a fucking metal band and at the end of the day we play metal. I’m not a rapper or a punk, we don’t play reggae, we’re a heavy metal band.

With deathcore being kind of directionless where it is, where do you think the next movement in metal is going to come from?

Phwoar! Well I can’t say because I’ve got something in the works but I don’t want to give it away so I don’t want to answer the question [laughs]!

So, going back to the album. Some people have said that it was quite rushed to capitalise on your return…

No, not at all.

Not to any extent?

No, to be fair they had already begun writing by the time I came back so when Sean and Marsh started writing, it was way before we started chatting about me returning. They had already written a few songs and they had a lot of riffs in the storage for whoever was going to front Thy Art Is Murder. Regardless of me coming back or not, musically, the record would be the same. Vocally, I don’t know but everyone has a different and unique sound to their voice and how they rhythmically do their lines. It could have ended up sounding completely different with the vocals but the record as whole with the lyrical content and how the music was made would have been exactly the same whether I was there or not. To be fair, I didn’t actually have very much to do with this record lyrically. Phrasing and patterning-wise it had a lot to do with me and Marsh sitting down and going “It could be said like this” and I’d say “We can do that but on the last two words I could do it like this”. I wrote a lot on Holy War and a bit on Hate but the least I wrote was definitely on Dear Desolation. The credit for that goes to Sean and Marsh, our two guitarists and also our producer Will Putney. I brought forward a lot of concepts for this record and I wrote stories about the different songs which were then broken down into lyrics. That had a lot to do with it but I didn’t do as much as I did on previous releases.

And where does “No Absolution” fit into all this? Was that a test of the waters for your return?

“No Absolution” was more a case of just writing a song for the fans because it had been a while since we released anything. It was a nice way to tell the world I was back but also to say “Sorry we haven’t released anything for a while, here’s a song for free”; more to just tide fans over till we could bring Dear Desolation into the world.

And lastly, there’s a lot of themes in the album from “Slaves Beyond Death” being about anti-consumerism, “Man Is The Enemy” being quite self-explanatory and “Puppet Mastery” on independence. What do you want listeners to take away from this record?

I never really want anyone to take away anything, I just want them to enjoy the music really. I don’t want to push our agenda and beliefs on anyone because that’s exactly what we stand against. With political infrastructures being about moving political campaigns to pressurise ignorant people. The same agenda-pushing happens in religion. We’re just singing about the things we believe in and if people are just coming to the show and have no idea what we’re about and they’re just enjoying the music and the stage presence, that’s enough for me. I’m not trying to force anything on anybody else. If they really wanna get involved then that’s great too but really I want people to come and say “That’s a real fucking band”, “That band is heavy, they play perfectly tight, their vocalist is incredible. The way they move, the way they act etc”.

I want them to walk away from the experience of “That’s what a live show should be about” and as far as our agenda goes and the lyrical content, if people want to jump on board then that’s cool. We’ve got a lot of religious fans around the world which is very surprising and that’s what they’re there for and I respect that more so than anything. Our belief structures are very different but they’re there appreciating what we’re doing and I appreciate them doing that so I don’t want anyone to take anything away except for thinking “That band is killer”. If people walk out like that then I’m happy man!

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