A new source of intensity adds to the fiery, riff-heavy attack on Red Fang's third album. With a relentless touring schedule leaving little time for songwriting or recording, the band felt the deadline pressure seeping into their music.
Sandwiched between the Australian Soundwave Festival in February and a European festival tour in June and July was a three-month, back-to-the-wall burst of creativity.
"It was pretty stressful. We're not very good at writing on the road. We basically don't do it at all. On the little breaks we've had from tour, we were trying to write here and there," says drummer John Sherman. "We had some of March, then April and May to write and record the whole record. We just had to set a deadline for ourselves and not do anything other than go to the fucking woodshed and jam. We'd never really written like this before. It was more like every day going in, whether we felt like playing music or not, and just jamming."
"The good thing from that is when I listen to it, there's a sense of urgency to this record that I like. The stress came through in a pretty cool way and I'm super happy with it," he says.
Whales and Leeches, the Portland quartet's third album and second on Relapse Records, is dark and adventurous, 13 songs that sit at the intersection of stoner metal and hard rock built from big riffs, dynamic tempo changes, and lyrics about vampires, zombies, and other dooms and destructions.
The progression Red Fang (Sherman, Bryan Giles on guitar and vocals, Aaron Beam on bass and vocals and David Sullivan on guitar) has made from 2009's Red Fang to 2011's Murder The Mountains to now is clear, with more riffs, more time changes and a stronger sense of turbulence throughout Whales and Leeches.
"That has something to do with us not really having a chance to keep editing and editing," Sherman says. "Sometimes songs are awesome and they come out of nowhere and they're done in one day. Sometimes they take months and you keep fucking with them and keep fucking with them and you can't remember where it started and how to get back there and you make them worse. We didn't have the time to waste to fuck with these songs much, so they're a little more organic. The first creative outburst is pretty close to the final result on these songs."
Another change on Whales and Leeches was bringing in guests, like Mike Scheidt (Yob) and Pall Jenkins (The Black Heart Procession). Scheidt's contribution in particular turns the sludgy 7-minute "Dawn Rising" into a spine-tingling epic.
"We write these long, slow, doomy songs every now and then and often they don't get put into the set and then fade away," Sherman says. "We've been working on that, just the bass riff of that song, for a while, and once we put it all together and finally finished writing the music, played through it a couple times, we said 'All right, we gotta get Mike to sing this.' It's perfect for him and he'll make it sound way better than we could." "Sometimes it's OK to say to yourself, 'Holy shit, this fucking rules, we are bad-asses right now', and that happened after that song. And we're so happy Mike was able to sing on it and take it to another level."
After considering other cities, producers and studios, Red Fang decided to stay home to record, teaming again with producer Chris Funk (guitarist for The Decemberists) mixer Vance Powell and engineer Adam Selzer at Type Foundry Recording Studio.
"One goal was to have enough songs when we went into the studio to have 17 or 18 songs to record and then weed those down and pick the best ones that would work well as an album. The other goal was to write songs that we enjoy playing and that we would enjoy listening to," Sherman says. "Our main goal has always been to write shit that we like. Ultimately we're the ones that are going to have to play it all the time and hear it all the time. We want to make sure that whatever we put out there is something we truly love."
And while the band loves heavier, darker-sounding jams, Red Fang is known just as much for their goofy sense of humor and videos with filmmaker Whitey McConnaughy.
The videos' beer-guzzling hijinks include a Monty Python-esque battle with live-action role players ("Prehistoric Dog"), gleeful vehicular destruction of everything from 80 gallons of milk to a cabinet of fine china ("Wires") and an epic air-guitar battle ("Hank Is Dead.")
"Working with Whitey is awesome because he's extremely talented and the type of guy we never could afford if we weren't friends with him," Sherman says.
"This new video is going to be the same style of Whitey/Red Fang collaboration. It's the same thing, trying to be goofy and stupid. There's definitely going to be beer and lots of zombies," Sherman says. "It's a much bigger production than the last videos. We cram a lot of scenes into those four minutes. We had a ton of extras. I couldn't believe it. I was totally blown away. For one of the days we had more than 100 people show up and get painted as zombies and stand out in the rain for 12 hours."
The millions of YouTube hits the videos have collected are part of what's pushed the band from an unknown collection of friends to a world-touring band that saw Whales and Leeches debut at 66 on the Billboard album chart.
"Having the reach of the Internet and a video people want to watch and pass around is huge for us. Touring internationally, we can go to places we've never been before and people know who we are. It's pretty crazy to go somewhere so far away form home and run into fans who know the band and know the lyrics and already have a shirt. That would never happen if not for Whitey and his videos," Sherman says.
That touring and the sense that the band is making connections around the world is the most enjoyable part of Red Fang for Sherman.
"If you want your band to be your life then you've gotta tour all the time. If you wanna quit your day job, you've got to be willing to be on the road at least half the year," he says. "I'm always impressed when we go somewhere and shows are bigger than we expect. I always expect the worst and hope for the best, but so far things have been getting better and better. I feel like most fans of ours are like us, the same kind of people we are."
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So, where does Red Fang have the most enthusiastic fans?
"I bet each one of us would have a different answer for this, but I feel like France might be the most passionate fans out there for us. France is just amazing to play," Sherman says. "Also some of the further out places bands weren't going until recently, like Russia and Ukraine, that's pretty awesome to go over there. Especially growing up with all those Cold War movies, it's awesome to play a show in Moscow. That was such a weird evil mythical sounding place for me growing up."
Red Fang is scheduled to perform Monday, Dec. 2 at Club Red in Tempe.