Howdy, Paul here, following up my review of the fantastic Unwelcome, with an interview with frontman James Malone of the metal band Arsis. Arsis is a well-established band from Virginia Beach, having hit the scene with their 2004 debut, A Celebration of Guilt, playing a more technical style of melodic death metal. The band features not only one, but two of the most talented guitarists in metal today; Mr. Malone himself, and newcomer Brandon Ellis. Their fifth studio album Unwelcome will hit stores April 30th. In the meantime, enjoy this interview with the band’s very humble and class-act frontman, as he discusses the new album, personal influences, and 80s pop covers. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous for this phone-in interview!
Paul: First thing’s first, as a huge fan, it’s a true honor to be speaking with you and I just wanted to thank you in advance for taking the time to do this interview.
James: Yeah, no problem man, thanks for the interview I really appreciate it.
Paul: So you guys are all set to release Unwelcome in a couple of weeks. How prepared were you to go into the studio, and how did the entire process play out in comparison to earlier Arsis albums?
James: Well, with Celebration of Guilt being our first album, we obviously had some demos out prior to recording, with a few of those songs actually being on the album. Even with Diamond and Disease and the second full-length, the way Mike Van Dyne and I used to demo stuff out was really super primitive. I would demo everything out on a full-track cassette recorder, then program the drums with a drum machine from the mid 1990s (laughs). So, it wasn’t high tech at all. Then I’d send it to him and he’d make boom box recordings of himself jamming along to my demos and mail it back to me. So by the time we got to the studio, I had an idea of what his drum parts were going to be like, but there were always some surprises that would turn out different than I imagined. But with the latest album, Noah and I actually demoed a lot of the stuff out at his place, went over and fine-tuned it, then sent it off to Shawn. Shawn would program pretty much exactly how he was going to play it, so we were actually super prepared to record Unwelcome.
Paul: Both you and Brandon are excellent guitar players, so how did you divide the guitar solos?
James: When we tracked Unwelcome, it was before we actually asked Brandon to officially join the band. Well, we had the idea that we were going to ask him to join; I had just never met him. The other guys had toured with him when he filled in for me. We did plan a lot of guitar solos for the album with the idea that he would be joining Arsis. If there was a song that I had planned two guitar solo sections for, I wanted him to have one of those sections, and then there are a couple songs when he had the only solos on the song. “Let Me Be the One” is all Brandon, and there’s a lot of rocking 80s kind of riffs. It’s a really weird progression harmonically at the same time, but Brandon loves 80s music and he really gets off on being able to play over weird stuff, so it was really a perfect solo section for him to take.
Paul: How did his joining the band come about given that he’s considerably younger than the rest of the band?
James: It’s working out great actually. Brandon is pretty mature for his age, he keeps a level head, and he’s actually taken quite a bit of interest to the business side of things. Not only that, but Brandon Ellis is THE best guitarist I’ve ever played with in my life.
Paul: I’ve just gotta say, isn’t it amazing how he’s only 20 years old? He’s a young player but the stuff he’s doing is incredible! I remember listening to him play for the first time and was just like, WOW.
James: Oh yeah, Brandon’s a very mature player. And he really plays like a man, y’know? I’ll be like “you’re beating the fuck out of your strings dude.”
Paul: What struck you guys to do a cover of Sunglasses at Night? Did it just come about as a joke like when Children of Bodom covered Britney Spears, or did you guys actually put a lot of thought into it?
James: (Laughs) Noah and I… Noah especially had really wanted to cover that song, probably for 5 or 6 years now, ever since he joined the band. He’d just be like “let’s do a melodic death version of that song, it’d be so awesome.” We were finishing writing up stuff for Unwelcome when we went over to his house, and he had the intro and the first riff written out in death metal style, and I was just like, “that is fucking badass.” (laughs) And I just sat down and finished arranging the rest of the riffs in a death metal type context, brushed up on the vocals really quick and was just like, “hey, I guess we’re covering Sunglasses at Night now!”
Paul: I actually had no idea that it was a cover of an 80s song in the first place, but I was wondering why you were singing “I wear my Sunglasses at Night.” Then I was playing it in the car with one of my bandmates and he burst out laughing and was like dude, you know this is an 80s pop song right? Then he played the original for me and I felt like the biggest idiot. It was like, “I already wrote the review! Fuck!”
James: (Laughs) it fooled everybody. When it was being reviewed for production, the guy was like “I dunno about these lyrics James.” And I was just like, “It’s a cover!” (laughs)
Paul: Then I showed it to my mom so you can imagine how that turned out.
James: Oh my god, what did your mom say?
Paul: We come back to the house, and I say, “Hey Mom, have you ever heard of the song Sunglasses at Night?” And she’s like “Oh, yeah, that’s a really cool song from the 80s!” And I’m like, “yeah, well this metal band covered it.” So I put it on. And at first, she’s kind of getting into the intro. Then she hears “I WEAR MY SUNGLASSES AT NIGHT!” (laughs) and her eyes pop out of her skull.
James: (laughs) Oh man, that’s a great story, glad it’s shocking some people. Mission accomplished with that! I think we kind of made it our own though.
Paul: Oh, yeah totally! I never would have guessed it was actually an old pop song, because I never heard the original before. I just wondered, “Why is he saying I wear my Sunglasses at Night?”
Paul: Anyways, I know that you guys are really big on King Diamond. When I saw you guys open for Sonata Arctica, I remember seeing you wearing a Mercyful Fate shirt, while Brandon was in a King Diamond shirt. And I said to myself, “Hmmmm… I think this band really likes King Diamond.”
James: I’m sure you weren’t paying attention to this, but I was actually wearing a King Diamond belt buckle.
Paul: Oh, awesome! But yeah, after listening to Unwelcome, I felt that the album drew a lot of influence from them. Would you agree?
James: Oh yeah, for sure. They were a really big influence on me when I first started playing guitar. Especially Don’t Break the Oath. It’s just so dark; I remember I was 13 years old when I bought it. I talked my mom into taking me to the record shop and bought Judas Priest’s Painkiller on cassette and Don’t Break the Oath as well. I fell asleep listening to Don’t Break the Oath and realized that this is what I wanted to do. After that I’d just take money my relatives gave me and bought King Diamond albums, and it all went downhill after that (laughs). But yeah, we’re definitely influenced by King Diamond, Brandon really loves Andy LaRocque. Big time.
Paul: More specifically, who are some guitar players who have inspired your sound? I’ve heard that your taste in music is rather diverse, so I’m especially curious to know.
James: Growing up as far as learning guitar, well, we talked about King Diamond. And I was a big fan of Paul Gilbert, especially his stuff on Street Lethal with Racer X. Also, Cacophony with Marty Friedman. Then after that I got into the more brutal stuff. Like Carcass and Dissection. Stuff like that.
Paul: I’ve noticed a lot of diminished arpeggios in your playing, which gives it a cool neo-classical kind of flavor. Are you classically influenced or trained?
James: Yeah, I guess so. My first instrument was violin, where I was taught a lot of theory and stuff like that. I was never really a classical guitarist though. I could never get into finger styled playing. And of course I like Yngwie Malmsteen.
Paul: Rising Force is one of my favorites.
James: Yeah man, that’s good stuff.
Paul: What do you guys do to pay the bills when you’re not on tour? I read somewhere that you’ve worked with hair. Did you go to cosmetology school or anything?
James: I did. I don’t work at a salon anymore. Right now, I’ll be a parks operation coordinator for a couple months at a time. The way it works is that I’m on call, but it’s a pretty cool job.
Paul: Do any of the guys balance the band with school?
James: The only one who I think is taking classes right now would be Noah. I know he works as well; he does stuff with audio visuals. Brandon I think just shreds for a living. Shawn… what does Shawn do? I think Shawn is the manager at a grocery store.
Paul: How much metal do you listen to nowadays? Is it stale now that you’re playing it every night alongside a bunch of other metal bands, or is it still fresh and exciting to you?
James: Some metal is still fresh and exciting. I don’t listen to it as much as I used to, I’m not gonna lie, but we still listen to a fair amount of metal. If we listen to metal on tour, it’s usually going to be 80s metal. Or even glam rock. You know, the fun stuff. But yeah, I still am a metal fan.
Paul: You’re magically thrown back in time and can play in any band from the 70s or 80s. Which would you pick and why?
James: Wow, that’s a good question. Let me think… any band?
Paul: Any band, it doesn’t even have to be metal.
James: (long pause) Man… that’s a really good question. (More silence) I’m thinking hard about this one actually. I’m wrestling between artistic value and popularity. I would say King Diamond. I think they made money too, back in the 80s. They also had that glam imagery I really loved in the 80s, just darker.
Paul: As I mentioned before, I saw you guys back in December with Sonata Arctica. How did that tour go? What were those guys like?
James: Oh, they were really nice. Everybody was really spot-on every night too. Tony really is an incredible singer. I know it seemed like a weird package to a lot of people but I had a good time. I mean, I know a lot of the fans weren’t as receptive to our style as I would’ve liked, but it was a good tour to get back into the swing of things. It wasn’t super long… We had a great time, we really did.
Paul: When you guys are touring, how do you guys make most of your money and how is it distributed?
James: Well, you sell merch of course, and have a guarantee from the venue every night. So what happens is we first pay off our dues, and then we just split the rest four ways.
James: Yeah, to be honest with you we’re smart about the money. We don’t order merch that we can’t pay off immediately, so we never have debt hanging over our heads. After we pay off everyone we need to, the rest is all profit and we keep our spending very minimal. It’s actually equivalent to what I make working my day job 40 hours a week so I can’t complain about that.
Paul: Plus you love what you’re doing, so that must make it even better.
James: Yeah, exactly.
Paul: Well thanks again James for taking the time to do this interview, it was great talking with you.
James: No problem man, thanks a lot for the review!
Paul: Anything else to say to the fans?
James: Thank you all so much for the support, looking forward to seeing you on tour soon!
Catch Arsis on tour with Hypocrisy, Krisiun, and Aborted!
05/01 – Gramercy – New York, N.Y. *
05/02 – Palace – Stafford, Conn. *
05/03 – Foufounes Electriques – Montreal, Quebec *
05/04 – WreckRoom – Toronto, Ontario *
05/06 – Reggie’s – Chicago, Ill. *
05/07 – Station 4 – St. Paul, Minn. *
05/08 – The Zoo – Winnipeg, Manitoba *
05/09 – The Exchange – Regina, Saskatchewan *
05/10 – Pawn Shop – Edmonton, Alberta *
05/11 – Republik – Calgary, Alberta *
05/13 – Rickshaw Theater – Vancouver, British Columbia *
05/14 – Studio Seven – Seattle, Wash. **
05/17 – The Vex – Los Angeles, Calif. **
05/18 – 910 Live – Tempe, Ariz. **
05/20 – Trees – Dallas, Texas **
05/21 – Korova – San Antonio, Texas **
* with Starkill
** with Autumn’s End
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