(Andy Synn brings us another edition of this series devoted to metal lyrics, and his guest this week is Josh Thieler of Pittsburgh-based Slaves BC.)
I hope you’ve all been enjoying this series of columns so far. I certainly have, and it seems like a lot of the writers/vocalists I’ve spoken to have too, and have really appreciated the chance to talk about this particular part of their work.
Today’s edition comes courtesy of Josh Thieler of Slaves BC, who provides us with an insight into his past, his process, and the roles which both faith and suffering have played in his development as a writer (and as a person).
When I was younger, I spent most of my time in my room without tv/phone/computer. Luckily, I had books. My grandfather was a pastor and a teacher for decades. He had accrued a decently sized personal library, so I always had books available to me. I started reading some of the classic novels when I was very young. I would read them and re-read them over and over. I also had read the entire Bible by the time I was 6. Some of the more poetic books of the Bible (Psalms, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes) sparked my interest in poetry and lyrics.
When reading, I spent a lot of time listening to music. Back then, you listened to physical CD’s or tapes that you had to buy, and they came with lyrics, artwork, and liner notes. If I wasn’t reading a book while listening to music, I was studying those lyrics. I knew since I was three years old that I would have my own band someday, and I wanted to get a jump on that early on. I started writing my own lyrics. I pulled inspiration from things I had read either in other lyrics, the Bible, or books I had been reading. I wrote as a way to combat loneliness, fear, and sadness that plagued me constantly as a younger person.
That is something I kept up through my whole life. Whether I had a musical outlet or not, I was always writing lyrics. I still have a lot of those notebooks filled with lyrics from childhood all the way through to now. I actually pulled a lot of the lyrics from the recent Slaves BC record Lo, and I Am Burning from those notebooks as far back as 15 years.
I think I was the chief lyricist for Slaves purely because we decided that I was the vocalist. If I was going to be the vocalist, I wanted to write the lyrics. Early on, I got a lot of help from Sean (guitar/vocals/best friend) because I was self-conscious about the lyrics themselves as well as arranging the delivery of them to the music. Sean is also the only other member who has contributed lyrics to Slaves BC. The lyrics to “Crawling Through Nothing to Nothing” from our All Is Dust and I Am Nothing record were written by Sean.
The lyrical inspiration for Slaves BC has varied a bit. Our initial demo, This World Shall Pass Away, was basically the book of Revelation rewritten from the perspective of those experiencing each part of what is written in the book. All Is Dust… was my examination of the book of Ecclesiastes with my personal views on that book and its philosophies. For Lo, and I Am Burning, I used lyrics that had been written during all the low points in my life. I was pulling inspiration from loss, depression, and anger from various life experiences.
I will say, I did steal a line from The Road that I jotted down the first time I read that book:
“Call down your dark and your cold and be damned.”
From our song “I Looked Upon the Face of God, and My Body Turned as Ash”
I will call down my dark and my cold and be damned
I like this question. There are so many. But my mind is blanking on some of my favourites since I’m being asked.
I absolutely love the lyrics to all of Mgla’s Exercises in Futility. I can’t pick one, so I’ll just pick the first half of the first track off the album:
The great truth is there isn’t one
And it only gets worse since that conclusion
The irony of being an extension to nothing
And the force of inertia is now a vital factor
And there is despair underneath each and every action
Each and every attempt to pierce the armour of numbness
Burning bridges becomes a habit to support
And the front line expands like there’s no tomorrow
I envy the maggots
Their stuff at least sticks together
Better than laudations of misinformed seers
And those are lengthy annals of shame that we work with
It’s like dumping dead meat at the brink of Styx
With a barge that we made of what was left of Yggdrasil
After veterans of spiritual revolts were done with their armchairs
And I don’t even remember which brink is which
I think I love the lyrics to this album because of my love for the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s almost like Mgla and I wrote the same story but from different perspectives. Whereas Exercises in Futility follows a parallel to Ecclesiastes and draws it to the conclusion of nihilism, All Is Dust… follows the nihilistic viewpoints but draws the conclusion in faith in God.
I also love the lyrics for the title track from Converge’s You Fail Me:
You think you are a poet / In your eyes you are a star
Who lives through a fantasy of rising above
You think you’re a victim / But you live as a drunk
That has never sacrificed that has never loved
You think you are tragic, but I know you are lost
You have walked the fault lines / And you have crossed them all
This world doesn’t fight you, you fight yourself
Thinking we fail you, you fail yourself
During one of my darker periods, I was letting myself wallow in self-pity for much too long. You Fail Me allowed for me to do some self-examination, and I realized that I needed to stop blaming others for my problems. I got “You Fail Me” tattooed on my chest to remind me when I want to blame the world, to look at what I should be doing differently in myself instead.
Most of the lyrics that held the most meaning to me are things I was listening to as a teenager. Bands like The Chariot, Mewithoutyou, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, and the Blood Brothers were inspiring to me lyrically. Pick any song by any of them from 2000-2008 and I probably love the lyrics and could quote them all.
More recently, I think the lyrics that cut me the most were from Couch Slut’s My Life as a Woman. Those lyrics are as harrowing as Megan’s vocals.
I honestly don’t know if I can say that my lyrics have improved or not. My process has changed. My approach to writing and what I am trying to write have changed, but I don’t know if it is better.
Our releases before Lo, and I Am Burning were story-telling, but they weren’t necessarily “my” story. Sure, the book of Revelation is something I really like, and my faith is the main chord in which my story is woven.
With Lo…, I’m telling my story. I wrote all of my deepest and darkest secrets, my failures, my regrets, the things that broke me, my despair, my loss, and my shame. I don’t really know if the style and technique are really better or the rhyme/meter/whatever. I think these are my best lyrics because they are the most personal and honest lyrics I have ever done.
I’ve said this previously, but most of the lyrics for this newest album were written at my lowest points before I knew there would be a light on the horizon. For me personally, there is no better time for reflection and honesty than when you are on the edge of a cliff and considering letting go.
For this I picked lyrics from “Hide Us, O’Death” which was originally from our This World Shall Pass Away demo. I think I have successfully removed all of that demo off the internet, but we re-recorded the track for our split 12” with Grace & Thieves:
We cower in darkness, gnawing at our tongues
tearing our flesh in fear
Rescue us, O Death
from the face of he who sits on the throne
Steal us away from his judgment
We will curse him to our last breath
He will not have our souls
As one defiant voice, we scream
‘Unseat the tyrant from his throne’
This song was something I wrote from the perspective of the followers of the Antichrist living through what has been called “The Tribulation”.
This part of Revelation is what a lot of people have in mind when they talk about “the end of the world”, apocalypse, or Armageddon. During this time, there is a period of plagues and catastrophes that are consuming the entire planet. All of the people are united under the rule of the Antichrist, and they are pulling together to ride into war against God.
The author of Revelation did a way better job of depicting these events, and he used highly vivid imagery that does a great job of putting “the fear of God” in you. But whereas he was writing down his dream, from the perspective of seeing it happen in the dream, I rewrote it from the perspective of the people he was seeing.
Since the lyrics from Lo… were all written by me over the course of years a lot of them are actually older than this band. For example, the song “Glory” is not so much lyrics as it is a part of a suicide note I wrote over a decade ago.
But these lyrics are from the track “Honor Thy Father and Mother”:
I’ve struggled to come to terms with the fact that I was abused.
My mind, my body, my soul: you violated me in every way.
You passed your curse to me.
I am a failure.
I am not a man.
I will never be loved.
I will never find grace.
I will never be better.
I will always be nothing.
I ruined your life.
I should never have been born.
The lyrics to this song were written right after my grandmother died in October of 2016. That week leading up to her dying and the funeral and everything was really awful for many reasons, and my parents were a big part of the reason why.
But, after the funeral, I was finally able to admit to myself fully that my entire life I had been abused by them. And I just had to immediately sit down and write it all out. It’s kind of a letter to them that I will never send because I wiped my hands of them after my grandmother’s funeral. Writing these lyrics was all the closure I needed.
The first 3 lines from this example are addressed to my parents. The next 8 lines were direct sentences that had been said to me by one or the other of my parents over the years that had cut into my mind and continuously echoed in all that I did. Writing them down allowed that echo to finally and fully decay. My mind is much quieter and I’m finally at peace with all of the stuff that happened.
At the time that I was writing all of the lyrics to Lo…, it was definitely self-serving. To help me put whatever into perspective and find catharsis. The lyrics are included in this album because its my confession. I want to be completely open about my life. And largely, the lyrics are included in case there is anyone out there that needs to hear/read them.
A lot of people have reached out to me since this album came out to talk to me about their struggles. I don’t know if I can really help, but I try. I have advice, but mostly I’m just here to listen to anyone who needs it. This is why the album is out there. To let those hurting and struggling know that they are not alone. So lyrically, I don’t know if the lyrics are technically better, but they have done exactly what I wanted them to.
Thank you for reaching out to have me do this interview. Sorry it took me so long!
Lo, and I Am Burning is out now. You can find it digitally all over the place and we still have vinyl available through my label, The Fear and the Void Recordings. We also have a couple EPs we are working on, which might turn into splits if anyone has any interest. Until then, come see us and hang out. We’ll share some whiskey and conversation.
And I want to say that if anyone is struggling, if anyone is hurting, if anyone is broken, if anyone is lost, find someone to talk to. If you don’t want to go to anyone you know, find a professional to talk to. Or go to a church and talk to a pastor. Talk to a teacher. Call a hotline. And if you can’t do any of that or you aren’t ready to yet, reach out to me. I’ve been there. You can make it through the dark. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You have worth. Don’t give up.