With their new album, ‘The Eternal Return’ and a handful of tours across North America and Europe, 2009 has been a busy year for Darkest Hour. LarryMac recently got a chance to talk with founding member Mike Schleibaum about the new album, touring, partying, the music business and everything that goes with fifteen years on the extreme metal scene.
LarryMac: First off, thanks for giving me some time.
Mike Schleibaum: No problem, man. We just gotta rock. Anytime we’re not rockin’, we are free to do interviews.
LM: You guys seem to have broken onto the scene all of a sudden but a lot of people probably don’t know that, specifically, you and (vocalist) John (Henry) have been at this for like fifteen years. What is that suddenly turned you guys into a household name and blew you up over the last year or two?
MS: I would say that the band felt biggest in America right before Deliver Us came out and I think a lot of it had to do with Victory. Victory was really pushing the band hard and the band still gets great opportunities due to the fact that, like you said, we’ve been around for a long time. A lot of bands are familiar with the band. So I think that the appearance of us blowing up is due to us continually getting the right opportunities. I think when you’re on a record label they push you for a while and then when they draw back a little bit because it’s close…you’re nearing the end of your contract, it’s kind of weird because you’re kind of on roller skates, you’re just on coasters. But we’re on this tour – it’s great and we’re working…we started working on a new record, which just means guitar riffing – right now me and Mike (Carrigan) are riffing it out and we’ll probably work on another record really soon. We have a couple more tours in the U.S.
LM: Hidden Hands… was kind of a departure from the thrash/punk sound you guys had earlier.
MS: More metal.
LM: Yeah, it was more European. Was that an intentional move on your part, a natural progression with the band or a byproduct of working with (producer) Fredrik Nordstrom?
MS: Well, I think it’s a combination of a few. I mean, if you listen to The Mark of the Judas and you listen to So Sedated they’re kind of, like, confused. I think it’s because we wrote So Sedated kind of fast. And basically, Hidden Hands is what we wanted to do: it’s more metal, it’s faster, it’s heavier. It’s just that Fredrik knew kind of how to bring that out and, also, we added the other guitar player – we added our second second guitar player, this guy Kris (Norris), who was the first guy that was actually as good – like, I’m not saying that I’m amazing on guitar or anything – but the other two guys, who were really good, they just kind of showed up and played and we rocked in concert, but Kris was into guitar playing so we could take it to a different level. I think that combined with Fredrik paying attention and making it sound more metal really took it there and then I think you can see what happened was Devin Townsend took it to the next level on the Devin Townsend records. Then it got into being really more orchestrated on the guitar and a little bit less about specific riffs but, you know, it’s all a cool translation of the band. You know, some people love Hidden Hands and some people love the Devin stuff so it’s kind of cool to have a couple different sounds in there.
LM: With the evolution that your sound has undergone since your first EP, what should people who haven’t picked up The Eternal Return expect?
MS: I, personally, feel like it’s far from the first EP but I’m sure people that aren’t as familiar with the genre probably wouldn’t see all the…you know, they’ll be, like, “Oh, the guy is still screamin’ his ass off”…I don’t know. The thing is, The Eternal Return, to me, sounds like the band of old with a little bit of a couple different eras sprinkled in the middle but more importantly, to me, it just sounds like, the sound of it, is kind of a more grown up band in the sense where we wanted the drums to sound a little liver, the music is a little bit less orchestrated in certain places and more driving and with The Eternal Return we made, on purpose, a really dark, pissed off, twisted, metal, fast as fuck record. That’s what we wanted to do. That’s where we were at creatively, that’s where we felt we were at in our lives. The older you get, the more pissed off you get. So, it’s just like we could have gone and said “Let’s do Deliver Us Part 2″, blow it out and make this prog epic fuckin’ cerebral masterpiece. But, instead, we were more like “Dude, let’s fuckin’ pound it out and do just a sick riffer, the whole record” and, you know, those songs are fun live and they’re fun to play and I think it’s because they came from that place.
LM: I can tell you some shit about getting old and pissed off (haha). Is there one track on there that you can point people to and say “THAT is the sound that Darkest Hour is all about”?
MS: (Laughs) I think that on every Darkest Hour record you can always get a hint of where the band is going to go with the next record with the last song of the predecessor. Like, with Hidden Hands we had this epic instrumental and Undoing Ruin was pretty out there, musically – it ends with “Tranquil”, which is this long-ass fuckin’ song that jams and is pretty epic and then Deliver Us was really more about being epic, but ends with “Deliver Us” which has kind of the heaviest mosh riffs. And so I think that this record – if you look at the last song, “Into the Grey”, it’s a little bit more linear, it’s a little bit more complex than the other songs and it’s a little bit out there structurally but I think…you know, I think that the future of the band is we’re gonna take a lot of the speed and aggression and everything that’s happening on this but you’ll see a little bit more of some of the orchestrated stuff of the past blended a little bit. I think we made the statement we wanted to and the real question is now “what’s the next statement?”. Because people, fans, always want you to make the SAME statement so that you can just be like “Damn, I like that; damn, I like that” but even AC/DC, who I’m a super big fan of, they didn’t make the same statement on every record. Fly on the Wall is a lot dirtier than For Those About to Rock, which came out before it, but they just changed every time along the way.
LM: So fans like to hear the same shit, but you get tired of playing the same shit…
MS: It’s just more like you’re always trying to find that sound that makes you say “Yeah…THAT”. The funny thing is that the band has been around long enough now that I think people know what…like…we tour with with other bands and they’re like “This is our Darkest Hour riff” and you’re, like, “Really?”. But that’s the riff, that’s what kids hear.
LM: You guys went out on the Thrash & Burn shortly after you starting recording, right?
MS: We went out on Thrash & Burn right after we finished the record in May – with Bleeding Through, in Europe.
LM: Because it looked like you guys came back and cranked that out quick.
MS: Oh, we didn’t. We got off Thrash & Burn in the U.S. and (Mike) “Lonestar” (Carrigan), the other guitar player, and I were in my house for like two months straight. You think it sounds like fun, because all you want to do as a kid is write music, but it’s hard when you have pressure and you want it to be good and you’re fuckin’ thirty-two years old and you’re like “this fuckin’ defines who I am”. It was rough and then we started to jam with the band for a couple months, we did a short Canadian tour, and then we started recording in March. It took like seven months; we really did take our time. But it’s good that the appearance was that we didn’t disappear – that’s really what we wanted. Plus we hadn’t been back to Europe in awhile so we really needed to do that.
LM: So you guys just got back from Europe. How was the touring over there?
MS: It was sick. Eastern Europe is always super friendly. Actually, our merch person today – his name is Thomas – we met him, he’s from the Czech Republic, in Prague. He’s been our driver, he’s driven the van the last few times we did van tours. We haven’t done that many van tours recently because they’ve been bigger, full package tours. But Thomas is a great guy, he’s our little import from eastern Europe. He’s just a little snapshot of what it’s like. People are super respectful, they’re super excited you’re there. There’s a lot of things that aren’t really that great over there so music is something that provides them a lot of joy.
LM: Is it good to be back or did you come back and suddenly remember why you were in a big hurry to get over there?
MS: No. Without sounding ridiculous and super crazy patriotic, I love America. I like touring, I like Chipotle, I like staying in American-style hotels, I like American-style showers, I like things in the U.S.
LM: Cold beer?
MS: Oh yes. But they have some great beer in Europe. And they have some really crazy hotels with fucked up architecture that are sweet and nice places to walk around, so it’s all cool. The thing is, you have to be able to know what to expect – which after you’ve toured enough, you do. And then just have fun and just meld – you have to meld to each touring situation.
LM: Does the fact that you guys are from Washington, D.C. mean that every time you go anywhere everybody wants to talk politics?
MS: It is with me. People in America are so bent out of shape about Washington, D.C. There’s always, like, “That’s right, that’s how they do it in Washington, D.C. but not here!” Whenever I see people who say that, I’m like “Fuck you! Let me tell you how it’s done in D.C.” If you get rid of the government, there’s a city there that’s pretty cool. But yeah, people do want to talk politics and it’s cool because when you live in D.C. you’re flooded with it, you’re inundated with it all the time and I’m a junkie for it, I love politics. I like being near it all, so it’s cool. I’ll talk to people about politics but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m gonna say what they like.
LM: You guys were on Summer Slaughter with Suffocation and Dying Fetus. Was there a culture shock in playing with grind-styled acts?
MS: Death metal is a hard sell, man. They’re just a judgmental as hardcore punk kids, but in a different way. It was interesting at first, but Darkest Hour fit right in and got along with every band. We loved Suffocation, we loved Origin, we loved Dying Fetus. All the most brutal death metal bands partied all the time and it’s cool. It’s funny to be on tour with people that make such pissed off, wretched music and they’re really great guys.
LM: How about the adjustment of playing with bands like that to playing with Trivium?
MS: This is more melodic and their fans are here to be entertained in a different way. So it’s interesting because you just have to change your mindset. When you play with Suffocation you have to come out with your middle fingers up, drinking a couple beers, like “Fuck you! You don’t think I’m badass?! I just slept in that van every night for a month and a half!”. When you come out with Trivium, the people want to be entertained, they WILL respond to what’s happening, they’re not as judgmental but they also tend to be a little younger. But, I mean, both audiences are cool. You just have to know what you’re up against before you get up there.
LM: So what’s up next for you guys?
MS: We’re doing this tour, finishing it, and then we’re gonna write a little bit and then we’re gonna do a co-headlining European tour with Kataklysm which will be fun because it’s metal. Then we’re gonna take a couple weeks off, write for a week or two and then do a U.S. headlining tour, which I’m really stoked about. And I’m sure we’ll come to Cleveland, ’cause Cleveland rocks. Then after that we’ll probably start working on the new record; we’ll have to find a new record deal. We’re gonna work on that because we’re off of Victory Records, so it’s a little bit of a rebirth – we’re unsigned in 2009 after a decade, but it’s not necessarily a bad place to be.
LM: Here are a couple of quickies for you before we wrap it. Favorite place to play OTHER than a Capitals Stanley Cup game:
MS: A Capitals Stanley Cup game? That’s a fucking sick place to play! I would have to say the only thing sicker than that would be to be able to play at a Cliff Burton tribute concert with Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer, where they only play records from like the first three. And everybody just parties; Hetfield’s off the wagon and is a rager. The only thing I haven’t really done after fifteen years is play a concert with Metallica. I played with Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, Slayer too. Anthrax in Japan. Megadeth I love but it’s not the same as Metallica. And I never got to play with Pantera…I did play a concert or two with Pantera, but it was like we played twenty stages away, so that doesn’t count. You don’t always reach all the goals but sometimes it’s good to have dreams ’cause sometimes when you get to the end they’re not as good as you think when you’re trying to get there/
LM: Better live crowds here or overseas?
MS: That’s a toss up. The crowds in America, it just depends on what type of crowd it is. In Europe, you could be in East Germany and have a terrible show where everybody just stares at you or you could be in Hungary, Budapest or in Russia and people could be insane. It’s cultural, but it’s also about the concert. It’s awful to say, but it’s nice to play in front of people where English is the first language because they get what you’re saying faster. But it’s also fun to play in front of people of other cultures because they sometimes take it a little more seriously: “These guys are from America! They must know what they’re doing!”
LM: One band that everybody should know, but doesn’t?
MS: It sucks that I’m gonna play this card out, but I love the band Disfear. They’re the singer from At The Gates’ crust punk band with a dude from Entombed – not necessarily Darkest Hour, it’s actually more over-the-top. I listen to that record, it’s a sleeper metal record. I also think Dimension Zero is highly overlooked. That’s like two dudes from In Flames. I think those records are sick, just sick Swedish metal. I also think the last few Dark Tranquility records have been really good – HIGHLY overlooked, sick melodic death metal band.
LM: If there’s one bit of wisdom that you could beat into the heads of young bands that are starting out, what would it be?
MS: I get this one all the time.
LM: That’s because you’ve “made it”!
MS: I did not make it, my friend! You never really make it. The answer is “keep your priorities straight”. Because if you want to make a lot of money, get a different job. If you want a lot of fame, you might get that but you’re probably going to wind up being more infamous than famous and more hated. If you look at Limp Bizkit – perfect example of how all of a sudden you’re the coolest band in the world and the next minute you’re the dartboard of the world. The priorities are: write good records that you enjoy and then go on tour, play shows and interact with people and be respectful. That’s the goal. If you lose sight, you may find a little more monetary success and you might sell a few more records but there are plenty of bands that sold thousands of records who became laughing stocks, who are not respected and it was worth nothing because in the end, their legacy is they were part of a fad – they were 90s or they were 80s. If you can make a band that might be timeless…granted, maybe it’s not timeless to a lot of people but At the Gates, when they broke up, were not a very popular band. And they changed my life when I heard that record, they changed a lot of kids’ lives and then they came back and did a reunion tour and people cared, but they’re still not Metallica. But they touched people’s lives and that is what I think IS the goal. So good luck, ’cause you’ll get twisted every step of the way.
LM: You DO have some old guy anger about you…
MS: I have some rightly-directed anger but I do not feel jaded because of my age. I feel young. Everybody always freaks out when I tell them that I’m thirty-two. So I’ve still got that going for me, maybe for ten more years. Then I’ll be really haggard looking.