(In this interview conducted late last year, NCS writer BadWolf caught up with James May of Savannah, Georgia’s Black Tusk, whose 2011 album Set the Dial is a hell of a thing. In addition to a full touring schedule, the band also played the inaugural Metal Suckfest in New York City last November (reviewed by BadWolf here), and the live photos accompanying this interview except for the one abovewere taken at that show for NCS by Nicholas Vechery.)
BW: How are you feeling about the set you played at Suckfest?
BT: It was good. You could tell it was the first fest. It was a little chaotic getting stuff where it needed to be on time, but the overall turnout was good. We played the first night of the festival, so I’m sure they worked out the kinks on the second night.
BW: Have you played any other first fests?
BT: Maybe the Devilmech fest in Atlanta [Athens]. That might have been the first year.
BW: So how do the festivals compare to one another?
BT: Festivals are usually pretty uniform, that’s just the nature of the beast. There’s a lot of bands in a bunch of chaos. Everybody getting stuff to where they want it. From my perspective, they’re really fun to play, but as a touring band when you see a bunch of bands play every night, festivals just aren’t very much fun.
My girlfriend goes to music festivals all the time, and when I’m home she tries to bring me and I’m like “Dude, that’s what I do. The last thing I want to do is watch a bunch of bands all day.” I’m pretty sure everyone in a touring band feels the same way.
But I do like them—it’s a way for a lot of different people to see your band.
BW: So given the choice between a festival date and your average tour date…
BT: Festival. It’s usually worth the bullshit, because there’s usually lots of people. A show is a gamble, it might be an awesome show, it might not be. It might be flyer-ed right and promoted, or it might not. At a festival you can pretty much expect the same turnout at every one. There’s going to be a lot of new faces. You want to get new people into your music.
BW: Do you think that in New York most people were familiar with you?
BT: I think people were familiar with us, but we definitely got new heads.
BW: So you played a lot of new stuff off Set the Dial… to your doom. I’m sorry I can’t just say Set the Dial, it needs to be the full chorus.
BT: Yeah, it was supposed to be Set the Dial to Your Doom like the song, but we changed it at the end just because the rest of our albums have three-word titles. It was either Set the Dial or To Your Doom. Set the Dial won.
BW: How long have you been playing new material off that record?
BT: This last tour was the first run from the album, so we’re still working out the kinks.
BW: From where I stood you seemed ungodly tight.
BT: I don’t think you get the music until you’re like three tours into promoting an album. Even on this next tour we’re changing stuff around. Musically you play it right, but I’m talking about song order. We always do that until about the third tour, then we have the set how we want it. It’s always a variety show for the first little bit when you release a new album.
BW: So how do you design the set?
BT: Well, right now I want to play all the new shit, but when you go see a band you don’t want to see all stuff you haven’t heard. If I go see a band I really like, I want to hear some old shit. It might be good shit, but if it’s new I don’t know it yet—I’m probably going to buy the album at the show.
So, we pretty much think about how we’re going to mix new stuff and old stuff.
BW: Are there any songs on Set the Dial that you really enjoy playing?
BT: I really like “Bring the Darkness.” That seems to be one that people really respond to, and it’s really fun to play.
BW: Do you always play “Bring the Darkness” with the “Brewing the Storm” intro?
BT: We’ve been starting the set with “Brewing the Storm” but not going right into “Bring the Darkness.” So we play both but not together. We start with an oldie.
BW: How do you feel about the new record compared to the others?
BT: To categorize our albums, I think The Fallen Kingdom sounds like thrash mixed with Dystopia. On Passage Through Purgatory I think we were really trying to find out what we wanted to do as a band. Taste the Sin was definitely a thrash metal album, but not typical thrash. It was Black Tusk’s thrash, it was as fast as we go. Set the Dial is just a heavy rock n’ roll album more than anything.
BW: It definitely feels groovier than the rest, but at the same time it’s very connected to Taste the Sin, which felt—I thought—very distant from Passage Through Purgatory.
BT: Well on Passage Through Purgatory the name says it all. We were trying to decide what this band would end up being. We already have a new album in the making; we know what that theme is going to be. The concept of this one is already moving in another direction.
BW: So can you tell me what that theme is?
BT: I cannot. What I can tell you is that it will not sound like Set the Dial. We won’t be so groovy next time because I can’t stand doing the same album over and over. It’s still going to sound like Black Tusk, but I think this one is going to be a pretty hard hitter.
BW: I’m not sure what a brutal Black Tusk would sound like. I can’t really imagine you guys with palm-mutes, breakdowns, and blast beats.
BT: No no! I am so against using double bass. If it’s done tastefully I love it, but when it’s over and over every song I can’t stand it. So many people abuse it, but when it’s done well it’s fucking sweet. I think we might throw that in on the new one. I will probably do it this time to fit this concept and then never do it again!
And why not? I know people don’t expect that from us.
BW: So you said Taste the Sin is where it really came together. Was there a specific moment where you all looked at one another and said “yes, this is working”?
BT: I would say when we were writing “The Takeoff/The Ride/The Crash.” It wound up at the end of the record but was… maybe the second thing we wrote, and we wrote it all as one, which is why it’s in a clump like that. We knew then—everything felt right and nothing seemed off.
BW: How do you write so much stuff so fast?
BT: We’re pretty much jobless!
Nobody can find a job. We tour all the time and we’re covered in tattoos. That shit don’t fly down here.
BW: It’s not like it flies up here.
Except for pretty girls, they get away with it.
BT: Well if you’re a girl it’s just gonna work out.
So, I walk around with riffs in my head and talk into my phone and record them, so when we write I have a phone full of riffs already. So, in between recording and release we’re already working on new stuff that we’re dying to play. By the time an album gets recorded it’s old to us. We’ve been playing Set the Dial for a year. By the time an album drops we’re already moving to another base on the ball field.
I like it that way—we’re always there. Even if you don’t like us you can’t forget about us, and I don’t see us going anywhere for a while.
BW: I’m guessing you practice all the time, to be so tight and creative?
BT: Oh no. We’ve got this thing where we give it all a break and do us for a little while, so that when we do write we crunch time about three or four times a week. When those songs are down we let it breathe. So the album will be almost done and we come back and spit out the last little bits to finish it. For those first songs we just crush them together, we get obsessed with writing. We don’t actually practice that much, we do it all at one time, the album will obsess our minds, and then we leave it the fuck alone.
BW: It must be good to have those two other guys that you just click with.
BT: At this point yeah, but we had to feel one another out at first. You need to learn not to step on someone else’s toes, you can’t just make someone play what they won’t play. We’re good at compromise at this point, and since it’s three members it’s really easy to out-vote someone. Black Tusk is a democracy, and it’s usually easy to out-vote something we don’t like. That’s the advantage of the tripod.
BW: That’s interesting. How many power trios can you name anymore?
BW: I suppose High on Fire as well, but that’s really Matt Pike’s thing.
BT: There’s not too many, but the thing is there’s a ton with three pieces and a singer. People say a three piece is rare, but the thing we did different was say fuck the singer.
BW: Sort of. You have three singers.
BT: Then we tripled up!
BW: Is it hard to split vocals three ways.
BT: Not anymore! We just know when we write lyrics who is going to sing what part. It’s this underlying mind thing we’ve got going on. We don’t even need to say it—it just clicks.
BW: So does everyone write their own lyrics?
BT: There are no lyric rules with us. All of Taste the Sin was all of us and numerous bottles of whisky. On this one Andrew wrote a few all the way through and so did I. The rest were collective. With this concept it wasn’t working with three people. I just had this list of things we could write about, I showed it to Andrew and he said “I take this, this and this; you take this, this and this.” We usually don’t write like that.
BW: Take me back to the beginning, how did Black Tusk start?
BT: I was in this street punk band called The Bricks, and the other guys were in this other punk band called Hammered Shit. Both bands broke up and we were just kind of done playing punk music. I grew up on metal and found punk later. I still love punk, but it’s really limiting, as a drummer. So they lived down the street from me, came to my house one night and we jammed. From the beginning that night we were like “if you don’t want to do this for a living and take this seriously, let’s not even start.” That’s why our other bands broke up, because members didn’t want to tour. So we took the three members that cared about the same things and called it Black Tusk.
BW: I feel you about finding punk through metal. I didn’t really ‘get’ punk until the financial crash happened, and suddenly D-beat made sense.
BT: [laughs] Exactly! You kind of grow up and you realize “hey man, um, so money does matter!”
BW: So punk: you guys sound more punk than the bands that, say, Last.FM compares you to.
BT: We all still like punk to this day, but I think the bands that get you into punk are what you take out of it. The bands I listen to today are still Black Flag, The Misfits, The Circle Jerks, The Sex Pistols. We still have that in us, you can’t take it out of the music. You can call my band whatever you want because I don’t know what it is. Like Motorhead! You can’t put Motorhead in a category.
BW: Sure you can: awesome.
So are there any contemporary bands tickling your fancy?
BT: Nothing has been so influential as the old stuff. I have been jamming the hell out of that new Red Fang, I really care about that record. We listen to so much different stuff. We aren’t ‘the metal guys.’ I listen to metal, but I listen to country, I listen to gangster rap, I listen to anything that sounds good. As long as you’re into what you’re playing, I’m into it, and we’re all that way. I think that has to do with us not being your regular classifiable metal band.
EDITOR’S NOTE: That interview made our mouths water for some Black Tusk music. Let’s go with this one, from Set the Dial:
“Bring Me Darkness”[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/02-Bring-Me-Darkness.mp3|titles=Black Tusk – Bring Me Darkness]