Fubar – Saint Louis, Mo
By: Matt Albers
Photos By: Nick Licata
Metal music is known for its sometimes divisive subgenres and their equally infamous followers, colorful though they may be, that can sometimes fit into a stereotypical archetype of its own unique subculture. Any of those individual subgenres can have their own movements and timelines, some longer or shorter than others. The size of their impact and appeal can vary, as well. Take thrash metal for example; the insanely fast riffs and drumming accompanied by raspy, high-pitched vocal wails was a landmark in metal history during the 1980s.
The sound, songwriting, speed, and seemingly never-ending aggression took metal to a new level during its time, and its influence continues in music to this day, even reaching outside of the metal genre as a whole. But with any defined movement or scene, eventually musicians and fans continue to progress, which can leave bands and styles in the past to some listeners. Fortunately, the best and most honest bands – both old and new – who know how to balance all of the aspects of professional music to make it work for them, find ways to secure their own legacy (even if it still evolving).
Forming in Denver, CO in 2004, Havok has become one of the most recognized and respected bands in the re-awakening of thrash seen in the past decade. Even within that time, some bands have already disbanded after their fifteen minutes of fame ran out. Unlike their peers, Havok’s youthful appreciation and understanding of their art extends beyond the predictable thrash metal prototype. The technicality and bold structure of their songwriting builds on the familiar thrash blueprint so uniquely, that it recently caught the attention of metal record label Century Media, after three acclaimed albums on European label Candlelight.
While on tour with Crowbar, Revocation, Fit For An Autopsy, and Armed For Apocalypse, I chatted with Havok’s front man and founder Dave Sanchez about Havok’s journey into international metal acclaim through musicianship and resilience.
Havok is a thrash metal band; I think that much is true. And thrash had its birth and heyday several decades ago now. While it’s no question that the bands from that initial movement have had and continue to have an impact on bands that would follow, it’s common to see new bands form that are kind of a throwback to the now nostalgic appeal of that sound and movement. However, it’s safe to say that Havok is one of the thrash bands that is known for incorporating more diverse styles and writing techniques into its sound which gives the band a unique identity.
That’s good [laughs].
Why is this important to you? Why push yourselves and not just stick to a strictly classic thrash formula that, in the past, seems to have been proven to work, at least to some extent?
I think if you’re going to re-hash the old sounds, it’ll get dull really fast. And if you’re going to try to emulate exactly the old style, I can name five bands off the top of my head that probably already sound cooler than you, so… [laughs]. There has to be other flavors involved, because variety is the spice of life, and thrash is a really cool genre – it’s my favorite – and I think our band will always have that thrash backbone, but without diversifying the sound, it’s not exciting; it’s all been done before. I think those new sounds are part of what make our band sound fresh and sets us apart from bands that just try to re-hash the old sound.
Is there ever a point when you’re writing that you say, “Oh let’s not do that, that’s a little too much or too different”?
No, not at all. As long as it’s heavy-sounding and catches the listener, and we think it’s cool, it’s going in a song. Doesn’t really matter how weird it is. We’re down for the weirdness.
Metalheads are notoriously picky, maybe even opinionated. But I would argue that out of all of the metal subgenres and their followings, thrash is probably where you find the most cutthroat diehards that border on – if not fully dive into – elitism, at least sometimes. Do you think this is a true statement or a stereotype, and why?
I think there are definitely elitists, but I don’t think that it falls under just the thrash umbrella. I think there’s plenty of elitists in death metal – black metal, especially, nerds… I think there’s lots of people that value their opinion, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when you invalidate anybody else’s opinion just because YOU don’t like it, that’s kind of bogus… Different strokes for different folks, people like whatever they want. As long as they’re not killing anybody or hurting people, I think you should be free to do whatever the hell you want, and I’m not going to knock you for it. But to answer the question very directly, elitism is rampant throughout the metal community, I believe, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. “Elitist pricks: pull your head out of your own ass, your farts don’t smell that good, quit being a dickhead.” That’s all I’ve got to say [laughs].
Words to live by. In your experience, what do you think it takes to be a successful thrash band? Do you think it’s important to first establish a strong foundation in that core niche market, or branch out to as many people as you can through your music sooner rather than later?
I think branching out is always the best option, because then you’re covering all your bases; you’re covering the niche area and you’re also branching out to people that maybe aren’t into the bands that you’re influenced by, but they like YOUR band. We are often told by people that they don’t even like metal, but they liked us. And that’s a really big compliment. It’s cool because, it’s music; it’s not just all about being metal, you try to be musically sound. Not just a “balls-to-the-wall adrenaline” the whole time. And I think that comes across to all kinds of listeners, not just metal people.
Havok has been regarded as one of the most important bands in the contemporary thrash movement and scene. We’ve seen a lot of bands come and go but few bands seem to stick around like you do. What is the secret to Havok’s success among your peers in which you not only stay relevant within the metal community, but also seem to earn or even demand the attention and respect of your audience and fans, particularly those “hard to win over” fans we discussed earlier?
I think our longevity is due to me not ever wanting to stop doing this. We’ve had many, many setbacks with lineup changes and people leaving the band… tours cancelled, you know, shit happens. But rolling with the punches is the key to the longevity. When something knocks you down or stifles your progress for a minute, you can’t let that be detrimental to it, you’ve got to keep going. I’d say the reason that we’re around and still relevant is not just because of the music, but because we tour a lot and because there’s constantly new things coming from us. Whether it be music or tours, we don’t really stop. We’re pretty relentless with our touring schedule, and we release a new album every couple of years. I’d say that’s really the key to our longevity, just sticking with it. Lots of bands can’t do that because of jobs, or girlfriends, or moving away, or [they] didn’t get a long, or they didn’t want to practice, or they can’t tour. There’s every reason under the sun; this is a really hard industry and a really hard niche of this industry, being a touring musician is incredibly hard. A lot of people say that they want to do it, and then they start doing it and realize how fucking hard it is [laughs] and back out. [You] can’t blame them, because it’s definitely not a normal life, but it’s one that I have a lot of fun doing. So that’s why I’m here.
What about your background, particularly the scene of your local region when starting out as a band, affected you, your style, and your direction to eventually break out on a larger scale?
Touring was definitely the spark that lit the fire. Getting out of your home state is the way to do it. You can’t stay a local band forever if you want to be bigger. You have to get out there and hit the pavement.
And how did Havok do that? Was there any kind of technique, or was it kind of just “keep hitting the wall until it breaks”?
What we would do is, through the beauty of the Internet, we would contact other bands that we thought were cool and played a similar style of music. We’d contact them and say, “Hey we’re going to be coming through your city on this day or this day, can you hook us up with a show? If you can, it’d be cool if you can play with us. And if you can get us a show, we’d happily hook you up with a show when you come though our neck of the woods.” So basically, we started touring by doing show trades. “I’ll trade you a show in your city for one in my city.” And that’s how we started.
As someone who’s not a touring musician, “show trading” is a very unique concept. Is that something that’s kind of new with the, as you said, beauty of the Internet, or does it go back even further?
I’m not sure. I would imagine it has to go back further than the days of the Internet. It’s a good way to do it, because then you have a built-in crowd from the locals that want to see the band that they know, and you get to play in front of them and you make some buddies and can meet up with them next time you’re in the town. It just started snowballing from there.
Can you imagine what it would be like to be a band now without the Internet?
I can imagine my wallet being a lot fatter [laughs]. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t have the same lineup, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t know the people that I do without the Internet. Guess there’s not much use in thinking about that hypothetical, because things are the way they is.
You’re on a pretty diverse tour right now, with bands that sound very different from each other. How has the experience been throughout the routing? What have crowd reactions been like?
It’s been a really great tour, it’s been fantastic! All the bands are heavy, rad bands. And the dudes IN the bands make the tour very, very pleasant; when the guys on the trip are really cool it makes for a miraculously breezy experience. I’m stoked, everyone gets along and everyone’s nice. Touring’s a lot easier when people aren’t dicks. It’s bad enough as it is when you’re eating like shit, sleeping like shit, spending six hours a day in a van cooped up with a bunch of farting, smelly, burping dudes… It’s nice when people are kind.
I would imagine the farts and burps would get a little old after a while.
…Eh, sometimes; when you rip a good one – the chainsaws – those are pretty good.
[Laughs] How does this compare to previous tours? Is it on the higher or lower end, or kind of in the middle as “just another tour”?
Every tour has been awesome for the past few years. I don’t really have many complaints at all. And this one especially, like I said, everyone’s really cool and chill, and easy to work with. So everything’s laid back and everyone helps each other out loading gear on and off in and out of the venue. So it’s nice, man. I’d say this is one of my favorite tours.
Do you prefer to tour with bands that are different or more similar to your own sound, style, and audience demographic? Why or why not?
I don’t mind either, because the ones that are similar to us I know are probably going to dig us, and the ones that aren’t similar… fans of stuff that’s not like our band, I like converting those people. I enjoy having people come up after the show and say, “I don’t really like thrash metal but you guys are awesome.” That’s a really cool thing to hear
Inspiration comes from real life, especially recently, and what’s going on in the world. There’s a lot of things that bother me, and I need to get those ideas out of my head. And putting them into a song is the healthiest way I can possibly do that.
Does that include a song like “Chasing The Edge”?
That song is written practically from Nicolaus Copernicus’ point of view, about discovering that the Earth is not the center of the universe. So it’s kind of ahistory song, but I’m way into science and I think without people who think outside the box like that, we’d still be living in the stone age. So I think people who challenge the status quo should be championed and not ostracized for thinking unlike others. It’s people who think unlike the rest that are advancing civilization.
There are definitely some songs and themes that are politically driven (“Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death!” seems to be just one prime example). Are you trying to give off any particular message when you write a political song?
The message of that song is something that I think almost every American can get behind, because stuff is getting pretty far gone as far as corruption and abuse of power goes. Like I said earlier, I think people should be able to live however they want. As long as you’re not hurting anybody, killing anybody, stealing from people, you should be able to do whatever you’d like. At this point, our government seems to be regulating so many things and sticking their noses in everyone’s business when they shouldn’t, and I have a huge problem with that. The lyrics to that song are very angry and I think that’s the way a lot of this country feels.
What are your experiences and opportunities like after this change compared to your previous label, and what can we expect from your next effort?
This next album with Century Media, I expect to go very well. Century Media has had a really killer lineup for many, many years, and they’ve broken a lot of awesome bands. So I hope that we’re one of the next in line to have that kind of treatment. The next album, I truly believe, will be the best one; I think it’ll smoke all of our other three albums. We’ve got so many killer riffs up our sleeves that we wanted to use on previous records but never got around to it; we had full songs and we had to just hang it up on the shelf. But now is the time to bust out some of that stuff. We got some good tricks up our sleeve; lots of good music, lots of heavy stuff, it’s going to be super dark, and lyrically I think it’ll have a good message that people can get behind.
What have you not done yet as a band that you still want to do? What are your goals, both short-term and long term?
A dream come true would be to play with Metallica some day, but also as a band I’d like to go skydiving – and if Reece (Scruggs, lead guitars) won’t do it, I’ll shove him out [laughs]. But no, I’d love to go skydiving some day on tour, I’d love to play with Metallica some day, and go to Africa some day.
How about skydiving into an opening set for Metallica, IN Africa?
Aw man, that would be like, just kill me after that [laughs].