I think this is the seventh time I've written about Cruelty of the Heavens in two years, so I'm gonna keep the intro short. Their debut album, Grow Up and See, has managed to secure a spot as one of my all-time favorite albums. A slight departure at times, last year's Somewhere Between Paranoia & Depression EP was near-equally impressive. Recently holed up in American Recording Studio tracking new material for a planned four-song EP, the band wanted to talk, so of course I was more than willing to ask a few questions...
When we last spoke almost exactly one year ago, you had just added former On a Dead Machine drummer Ed Harris as a second guitarist. Shortly after that, I believe a different guitarist had jumped into the lineup in preparation for some live shows, but it appears that you're back to a trio now, is that right? What happened there?
Neal: Yeah, man, it's a shame no one got to hear Ed with us. It was sounding excellent inside of the practice room. It was coming together. Finally found another person that actually got it. We were getting ready to do the first run of shows with our buds in Better Days, which ended up being St. Louis, Cincinnati, Nashville, and Springfield. Us three want to get this band out of town as much as possible. Ed's schedule wouldn't allow him to do so. Ed owns/operates a successful local Memphis business. It's extremely hard for him to step away from that to do out-of-town shows, which we understood, you know? There weren't any hard feelings or anything. Ed is a great dude. We love the guy to death. The other guy after Ed was a very close friend of ours, McTyere Parker, from a band called TheWaits. He volunteered his time to us for the upcoming shows we had already committed to. At the time, we were still unsure of being a three-piece. We wanted that second guitar. So, he helped us on about six or so shows. Cruelty of the Heavens is definitely a two-guitar band, but we're going to remain a three-piece until the time is right for us to add another person to the art project.
Jared: Ed and McTyere are both great musicians and great dudes, but the touring and the way we prefer to run the band seemed to be an issue. Cramming into vans and sharing hotel rooms is not for everyone, and we get that. They both have other projects that are doing well, and we wish them the best. I personally prefer being a trio anyway. It feels more natural and makes arranging schedules that much easier. Getting three people's lives to align is way more attainable than four.
How has the reception to the live shows been thus far?
Jared: It has been great. We played several out-of-town shows with McTyere on second guitar, and just recently played our first local show as a trio. This is the first band I have been in that isn't extremely fast and heavy, so at first it was a little strange, but now I have gotten into the flow of it and enjoy it immensely. Every time, as soon as we are finished with a set, I am anxious to play again. I know a lot of people are still shocked to see the guys from Chaos Order doing this new thing.
Neal: It's been really good! There are a lot of crossover kids out there! More than some would think. My first thought when I see someone wearing a Sepultura shirt is, "Man, they are going to hate us!" But, after we play, it's Mr. Sepultura Shirt buying merch off the table. So, you can't ever really tell. People, so far, have seemed very accepting of the band. Lots of people still remember us from Chaos Order and are in complete culture shock when they see us in Cruelty of the Heavens. It's been very nice, and we sincerely appreciate the support.
Jumping over to the new recordings, Neal mentioned to me that the material is shaping up under the influence of everything from The Cure to The Joshua Tree-era U2. Go ahead and discuss in a little more detail what has been inspiring the writing process and tonality of the new compositions, and how the direction may differ from Grow Up and See.
Jared: I feel it's pretty similar to Grow Up and See in a lot of ways, but a bit heavier and darker. At the same time, there are some big, melodic choruses, so it's a nice contrast. The writing process was the same: Neal and I writing the music together, and Neal writing the lyrics. One of the songs, I actually wrote the music about 13 years ago, but the punk or metal bands I was in at the time didn't fit, so I sat on it. It still feels great being in this band and not having to hold back because something isn't fast enough or heavy enough or whatever. To me, the new songs have elements of The Cure, Joy Division, The Stone Roses, and Alkaline Trio. I have never been into U2, but Neal likes their guitarist and there are some elements of The Edge in there, for sure. Lyrically, Neal has written some of his best stuff, and I feel it's similar because I know him so well and I know where a lot of his words come from. But, to most people, they will see a difference in the theme.
Neal: During the writing/recording of Grow Up and See, I didn't really think about having to sing/play these parts live. I didn't know how hard I was making things on myself until we started playing those songs [laughs]. I went absolutely crazy with guitars on Grow Up and See. This time around, I've written more guitar parts around what the vocal is going to do. I also used an alternate tuning the entire time, just so I can accomplish more as one guitar player, and to ensure it being different.
I'm a huge fan of The Edge from U2. I really like the fact that he can take something so simple, but it'll stick with you forever. He's the king of simplicity. I've also been reading a lot recently. I've been trying to draw more inspiration from outside of music. I like to read something and then try to put an emotion to it with something on guitar. As far as tone, I went as far as I could before it wasn't us anymore.
I don't really consider us a "heavy" band. I don't think this material will be as "pretty" as Grow Up and See is. I feel like the songwriting is a little more direct and broken down. Not using any instruments that aren't a part of the band full-time—like violins, pianos, etc. Back to basics. We have a new song called "Angeldust," and I think it's the "heaviest" thing we've written.
I've been lucky enough to hear one super-early rough mix titled "Poltergeist." While consistent with Cruelty of the Heavens' recordings thus far, it's arguably a tad slower and more spaciously atmospheric—musically bearing an almost Katatonia-esque quality at times, in a "non-metal" way. How would you say this track is shaping up to fit into the big picture?
Neal: It's the only one like it. That song was originally supposed to be a part of Grow Up and See, but didn't get finished in time. Releasing it will give a great song a life and a chance at something. We wrote the others without "Poltergeist" in mind, so it may feel different compared to the others, but we think it'll be fine. If you don't like it, then don't listen to it.
Jared: The music for that song was actually recorded during the Grow Up and See sessions. We decided to save it for a later release and Neal went back in and did the vocals on it. It turned out to be one of my favorites, but it's definitely the slower of the new tracks. The rest of the tracks have that same atmospheric undertone throughout, but are definitely more upbeat.
The lyrical direction of "Poltergeist" also carries the same narrative type of approach as Grow Up and See—even conjuring some similar imagery. Might this be another (accidental) concept release?
Jared: There is a common theme throughout. I'm not sure if that is entirely deliberate, or just how it ended up. But all the things we are into—all those dark and morose aspects of humanity—are always going to come out. I think all of our records will be concept records in a sense, just because of our writing process. The way we write songs together and always have an end goal in mind for recording and a timeframe in our heads, the songs are usually written very close together, and therefore represent a very specific period in our lives.
Neal: Well, after we recorded "Poltergeist" for Grow Up and See, I hit some extreme writer's block lyrically. I couldn't make anything happen with it that I truly liked. I worked on it for a while, then a while turned into weeks, then months, then forgetting about the song completely. Once we started the recording process on the other songs recently, "Poltergeist" was brought back up. I was nervous about it, because I wanted to be able to get it done this time. It's been fully-recorded now, besides vocals, for two years. Thankfully, I did. I went waaaaaay back to find some of the lyrics I was working with two years ago. I was shocked that they were good. I guess at the time of originally trying to make something happen with it, I was being incredibly hard on myself, just based on how quickly it came together after rediscovering the original lyrics I was working with. "Poltergeist" is really the only song that sounds like that on the EP. You can definitely tell "Poltergeist" belongs on Grow Up and See, for sure.
The band is once again working with producer/engineer David Cowell, but this time at American Recording Studio. I'd image that's a different experience, yeah? What's it been like so far?
Jared: Grow Up and See was recorded in our practice space musically and at Dave's house vocally. This time, being in an actual studio was very cool. It is always great working with Dave regardless, but we captured some great tones being in the studio. We had access to some great gear that we combined in a cool way to give it a huge sound. Sam's drums sound the best I have heard them.
Neal: It's always a good fucking time working with David! Dave knows our band probably better than we do. He knows exactly what to do with it. We trust the guy completely. We don't have to worry about the "what ifs" with him. We can say, "Hey Dave, we want to go heavier on this," and he's like, "Okay," but he'll already have 10 amps in his head that he may want me to track with. It's crazy. On these sessions, in particular, Jason Gillespie came in to help us get drum sounds. He works out of American full-time. He came in, told us where to set up the kit, what mics needed to be used, etc. Jason stayed the entire time and helped anywhere he could.
We've never recorded at American Recording Studio before. We're kind of late to the party on that one. The place has insane history, from The White Stripes, Pavement, Sonic Youth, Superdrag, Modest Mouse, and Wilco, all the way to Elvis. The place is fabulous. Tons of badass gear at our disposal!
I know that there are no firm plans for the release just yet, but what contemporary record labels do you follow that you think would be a good fit that you'd enjoy working with to take that next step up?
Neal: Hmmm, I'm not sure. Maybe Run for Cover Records, No Sleep Records, or SideOneDummy Records? They seem to have bands that are along the lines of what we're doing? I can't forget Mike from Encapsulated Records. Mike did a lot for us. He took us on before we even played our first show. It also just depends on the people's outlook that run these labels. But, in all honesty, we're not searching around to be a part of anything. If it comes, it comes. I'm having a fucking party regardless. We wanna write the best material we can and do it our way. Personally, the only thing I'd want from a label is tour support. Put us to work. Help us book better shows. If you can't do that, we don't need you. We want to work hard for people who are working hard for us, you know? Fuck the rock 'n' roller bullshit. We're trying to build something here.
Jared: I haven't thought a lot about the labels. It seems like unless we play out live and the right person sees us, then we won't even be on their radar. We are just focused on putting out great music, even if it's self-released. Then, we will tour on it, and maybe we will meet the right label for us in the process. For the most part, I think we can accomplish a lot of what we want on our own right now.
It's still a bit early, so I don't want to beg for too many specifics about the new output, but maybe you can hint at how many songs you're looking at total, about when you think you'll be finished at the studio, etc.?
Neal: We just wrapped at American Recording Studio recently. We're super excited about these songs, man! We're doing a four-song EP. The LP thing takes too much time and it drains you as a musician. We want to put more material out a lot quicker than we could if we were working on an LP. We're still looking around for someone to put this latest effort out with us and give us the support we need. If not, it'll be self-released.
Jared: It is close. We aren't in a huge rush, because we have some cool things in the works before it will be released, but most likely in the next few months it will be out. I have been listening to the mixes on repeat and I can't wait for people to hear them, but we have time. Our main goal besides releasing music is to play out. If you are reading this, we want to play your city!