(Here we present BadWolf’s interview of Hiran Deraniyagala, guitarist for Detroit’s Battlecross, whose latest album Pursuit of Honor we reviewed here. This interview transcript appears courtesy of the Toledo City Paper.)
They’ve got you doing press, because Tony [Asta, guitarist] is on his honeymoon?
Where are he and his lovely lady at?
Chicago. They just got a hotel. They never really I guess went out just themselves. They’ve always vacationed with family, or gone on the road with the band. So Tony and her have never really been able to enjoy that time together. This is the honeymoon they could afford right now.
I hope he doesn’t feel like he’s going to be back on the road too quickly.
Oh no, they knew this in advance. She’s used to his travels. Because being in a band, things come out of the blue. When the wedding date was set we were actually afraid we’d be out on the road at that time and some of us would miss the wedding. We might have had to do some dates without him. But it all worked out that we could be there. Now there’s nothing to worry about now, I guess until kids pop into the picture.
Hopefully it’s a little while before that happens.
I can’t imagine a Battlecross show without yourself and Tony—you guys are the band.
One time Tony was working on a car and smashed his finger in a spring or something, and we had two shows back to back—this was before we got signed—and we had to do them without him. It was weird. We didn’t get anyone to fill in, it was short notice, so I just went on without him. The first show we were very uncomfortable but afterward it turned out pretty well. So we went in a little cocky for the second and that show was… yeaaaah… too much confidence. I hate canceling shows, so anything we can do to not let that happen is what we’d prefer. But we have cancelled a show. Gumby was sick, really sick. Out of all the shows we’ve done I think we’ve cancelled one.
You and Tony learned guitar together, right?
Yeah we both took lessons from the same guy. Tony and I have always been back and forth at each other’s houses playing guitar. I started in… I was in eighth grade, he was in seventh in the suburbs of Detroit. His dad lived across the street from me, and when he was there I would walk over with my little practice amp and we’d jam in the basement. In high school, our senior year, we found a drummer. That lasted a couple months until he showed up one day and said “I want to mix hip hop with metal.” I was like… yeah, we’re done.
We were not hanging with him anymore. Even in the early stages Tony was the driving force behind the band. Whenever someone missed practice he got very upset, he would be very militant. So he whipped the rest of us into shape. Missing practice was like missing work. That character shaped me to stay dedicated, it kept me going and helped shape our seriousness. To us, practice became a routine that we took seriously.
Anyway, we went though drummers, and there was a time when it was us two and a bassist, every Saturday, no drummer. Finally we did a show without a drummer! We met a promoter in a club, and asked to get on a show, and he was fine without a drummer. We booked with a lady at a bar with a country band!
We showed up and said “you know we’re metal right?” She didn’t have any idea what to do. A friend of our bass player showed up at a show in a Zildjian shirt and joined as a drummer. It went from there. We started doing shows more, did our first demo recording, and then things started really taking off.
That had to be eight years ago.
Yeah, 2007 was when Mike [Kreger, the drummer] joined the band.
You just did some heavy touring, eight years after, on a big fucking bill. Metal Blade must have a lot of faith in you to put you onstage with Five Finger Death Punch [note: this was a misleading remark on my part; Metal Blade does not put bands on tours, their managers and booking agents do – BW].
Yeah, well there was some skepticism at first. There’s a gap in heaviness between Five Finger Death Punch and us. They wanted to push us with the hardcore death metal crowd, and then Velda [Garcia, band manager] really pushed it as a great opportunity, and it was good to get out there so early to such a big audience.
And how do you feel about how the tour went?
I feel great. It did great when you look at the analytics of our fans, our facebook likes, and Velda’s surveys—she really gets into the data of our band, which is awesome. You can find out so much about your core audience, their locations and habits, and focus on them. We found out the majority of our audience came from Trespass America. It opened so many doors for us, especially with the other bands and the crew. Everyone expects the first band to suck, even the fans. A lot of people weren’t expecting us. We showed a lot of professionalism. We weren’t jacking off, trying to party all the time and be rockstars. We showed up on time, which earns the respect of the crews. In this industry, everyone talks. A good reputation goes a long way. And that means not cutting corners, not being shitty, not doing things just to get ahead. You do things the right way, you work hard, you bust ass, and it shows. Do the right thing.
That sort of ties into your self image. And also that you’re a band from Detroit.
Absolutely. You know how people are in this city. There’s this black cloud over Detroit, over Michigan. Nobody expects anything good to come out of it. Instead of crying and complaining, we’re trying to make our point by doing our thing. We’re showing people that there are good people from here, and there is such a thing as character and a good quality to people that will give you something to show for it. There’s hardworking people here. It’s about busting ass and believing in what you do. I hate that whole rockstar mentality, but I love music.
And now you’re doing this little club run. What are you hoping to see here?
How much Trespass America really helped us. There’s numbers on facebook, but now it’s time to see what we can do out there on our own. I want to see how much that tour really increased our fan base and how willing people are to see us live. We got to get a taste of both during the tour because we did club stuff on off dates. Honestly, playing almost every day makes you so tight as a band. We’re still getting used to a big stage: the acoustics are so different. I always felt better in the clubs. Playing-wise, those are my favorite shows to go to. The big arena stuff puts you so far away that you miss that intimate connection between band and audience. We did some club shows on our way home from Trespass, and we had people come out to those shows who first saw us on the big tour, so we’re already seeing good signs.
So give me your gut reaction. Do you see your fanbase as more—and maybe I’m making a false opposition—as more the Top 40 crowd or who Metal Blade originally wanted to push you with?
Having done Occupation Domination and Trespass, I can say we connected more with what you’d call the Top 40 crowd. We definitely straddle the two sides, but there is a side of us that seems more mainstream because we don’t go a million miles a minute constantly, and we don’t do technical stuff all the time. There’s a songwriting aspect. I’m not saying death metal bands don’t write good songs, but there’s a catchiness that we go for. Our influences are all the big metal bands, Testament, Metallica, Slayer, and Pantera, who all had that element.
When we set out to write a song, we look for things that get stuck in our head—that’s what grasps that audience. Like I said when we did those surveys, very minimal from Occupation Domination compared to Trespass.
True, but there seems to be a level of technical acumen that is also a gap. Can you name a technical metal band in that scene? Perhaps Avenged Sevenfold sometimes, but otherwise I don’t see the parallel.
What’s important for us is that we play songs that are fun but are also a challenge. We push ourselves as musicians, but we don’t like to show off. Who cares other than the musician? The average music fan doesn’t care that you can sweep and tap for two minutes. It’s cool, and a lot of people do appreciate it, but after a while I want an actual riff. I do like the technical side, I love that stuff, and I try to emulate all my influences, so it is important, but some of our songs are just straight-up riffs. We try to work really hard to progress without being obnoxious.
So there’s only one new song on The Pursuit of Honor. So you’ve been playing the same stuff for… four years? Where’s the next album?
I know, I know, that’s our focus right now. We’re planning on hitting the studio in 2013. We want a record out by summertime. We’re definitely working on new stuff. We have four songs pretty much in the bag, no vocals yet. There’s eight or nine song in the works, but a lot of them need the fat trimmed and parts refined. We’re very picky. I hate to write like 20 and then pick ten from that; I like to focus. We tend to write our songs one by one. Some of these songs are a bit old—one was almost ready for Push Pull Destroy but just wasn’t cooked yet. We wrote some other stuff on the road. Tony’s really the mastermind, he writes whole songs. I write a lot of riffs, and I’ve tried to put them together on a drum machine but… I suck at that shit. I hate it, I can’t ever make it work.
I’m trying to learn, but Tony’s the guy who can program drums. I like to give Mike free reign. That’s how all the older Battlecross stuff was written. I leave it open-ended for him. We don’t make our songs one guy’s way or the highway. So yes, I’m getting off topic, but there is new stuff coming!
Compare the new stuff to the old for me.
Similar style. Right now the longest song is about four minutes, four thirty.
So no “and Justice for All” yet.
No, no I like to trim the fat. The albums I like are all solid, front-to-back. I’d rather have a shorter, solid album than a sloppy one, and I think that’s what we’ve done in the past. Every song has its own feel, some are faster, some are slower. There’s thrash, there’s groove, but we don’t go too far into the breakdown realm. And as long as Tony and I are the guitarists, that shit will never happen.