huge thanks to Brian Schultz, Scott Heisel, and the entire Alternative Press staff!
Web Exclusive: A conversation with Cancer Bats' Scott Middleton
CANCER BATS have uprooted their punk/hardcore foundation to become a monolithic metal/hardcore monster, carrying the torch for heavy music emanating from the Toronto area. With their new record, Hail Destroyer, the quartet have spread their ribbed wings and concocted a fierce, prolonged bark that crushes more efficiently than their past work and helps them to escape certain, ahem, associations they've previously been pigeonholed with. Brian Shultz recently addressed that issue with guitarist Scott Middleton, who also discussed the rigors of touring big and little, Canadian content laws and what it's like working with wolves.
You've dealt with incessant comparisons to Every Time I Die since the band's inception. Was there a conscious effort on Hail Destroyer to get away from that?
Well, that's a weird thing to begin with, anyway. Those guys are our friends; we've toured with them. It's such a funny thing to be... I wouldn't consider them an influence on our band, really. To begin with, I think it's just [that] we kind of share similar influences maybe from older bands, like Entombed. That's the kind of thing, I think, when we did go into this [we wanted] to really try and capture more of us. On the first record, it was really just the first batch of 11 songs that we'd written as a band. We were still trying to find where our strengths and weaknesses were, trying new things, and I think it was a little bit cluttered, whereas on this new record it was just more focused and it was like, okay, we know what we're capable of. We know where we want to push ourselves. And we also kinda wanted to stray away from anything that sounded typical and contemporary.
[With] Every Time I Die, I find that a lot of bands are directly ripping them off. And that bums me out, because I think they're a really good band, but when I hear other bands literally trying to sound like them, it's like, "Wow, let's...not sound anything like them." I mean, I never really thought we did to begin with but I don't hear those comparisons as much anymore, which is a good thing to me because we just want to be our own band.
It's safe to say Cancer Bats are at the peak of their popularity. How would you compare and contrast it to when your former band, At The Mercy Of Inspiration, were at their peak?
It's two different things. With At The Mercy Of Inspiration, we always put out our own records because any time we tried to work with a label we couldn't come to an agreement and we were always like, "You know what, screw it. We can just put out our record, and we're gonna go on tour anyway."
It's monstrous altogether, because with Cancer Bats, we've been able to tour outside of North America--go to Europe and Australia and reach many times more people. We have music videos, and we have record labels around the world that we work with.
It's hard to describe, because it's two different things. At The Mercy was such a fiercely independent band [who] did really well locally in Canada and across the country here, and we played in the States a bit but [we weren't] really the kind of touring machine that Cancer Bats have sort of become. They both have their charms, but at the same time, in some parts of the world we'll still play basement shows, like my old band would. That's still fun for us. We don't care. We're not only interested in playing massive shows or festivals or things like that. [We still have that] desire to play hardcore shows [and such]; that's still a part of who we are. Whether [or not] it's a different beast, at the end of the day music's something that we're still passionate about. It's kinda cool to have achieved some success; this is just kind of an extension.
That's how Cancer Bats started; I worked in At The Mercy until it was just like, "Okay, wow, this can't be a band anymore. None of us get along. We're all going on different paths." And I started Cancer Bats with [vocalist] Liam Cormier, and basically just took what I learned from that band--learned how to book tours on our own...recording our own records--that kinda thing. You learn from your mistakes. I was like, "Okay, I know how to be in a better touring band, and I know what kind of people to look for to be in a band to make sure it's gonna work." I took from [those experiences] and really benefited from it.
What aspects of the DIY approach do you miss?
It's kinda weird... With Cancer Bats, we have booking agents and record labels. I don't miss a ton of it because I still feel just as involved, for the most part. Maybe I'm not on the phone trying to call random promoters that I don't know to try and book our shows and stuff. But...I don't know, it's hard to say, because I don't really miss struggling and fighting with the other guys when you're trying to do everything for yourself. Now I find [that] when we have experienced people working with us it makes things a little bit better. We still have full control over the music we want to make, and the artwork we want to have, the kind of merch that we do--that's all controlled by the band. It still feels in a lot of ways that we have that kind of DIY inspiration. Maybe we're not what people call a DIY band at all, and I wouldn't...but we're not just relaxing while everyone takes care of us. We're still in a van and sleeping on floors and shit because...it's just more real to us, I guess. It's what we know.
Where have you played recent basement shows or halls?
We did an American tour with this hardcore band, Reign Supreme, in April/March. Half that tour was in basements or garages. I know we played a garage in South Carolina and Indianapolis; that was kinda cool for us. [Reign Supreme] tour like crazy all the time and I really respect them for that because they're a really hard-working hardcore band. We get along with that and we come from that, so going back to that was actually pretty cool in a lot of ways. We still have the VFW shows kinda thing--that still goes on. Like, when we tour across Canada there's a lot of places--it's really hard to do all-ages shows in a lot of cities in Canada. We make sure we talk to our booking agent, like, "Okay, you may know this promoter that's booking a bar but we only want to play all-ages shows." So 90 percent of the time, we know some kid who's gonna rent out this hall in the middle of, I don't know, Nova Scotia or something, and that's where we're gonna play the show. We don't care if there's a good sound system or not, we just want to make sure that nobody's getting denied at the door just because they aren't old enough to drink or something stupid [like that]. We like to keep it open to people who do want to see our band.
You'll soon embark on a tour with Bullet For My Valentine, which I'd imagine is your biggest yet. How do you deal with such a massive shift like that?
That's a new thing. I think it's a great opportunity for our band, especially in America where we're still trying to really get out there. It's not really anything to deal with; it's hard to say because we haven't started it yet. It's something that was offered to us and we're like "Uh, this is a pretty great opportunity." And Bleeding Through are also on the tour, and we took them out in Canada with us so we're like, "Hey, we can tour with our friends; this'll be cool." Bullet are a really massive band right now. We're sorta looking forward to trying...it's almost like a challenge in a way. We've done a tour with Rise Against and that was amazing, so we kinda know what to expect because we've played some bigger, more professional venues. We kinda know what that's like. Assuming that the guys in Bullet are all good dudes, their tour crew and stuff like that all treat us with respect, I'm only looking forward to it. I'm pretty excited.
We haven't had a chance to really play to the more...mainstream metal crowd in the States yet. [I'm] kinda curious, because a lot of the stuff that we've done has been more punk and hardcore-related because that's where we came out of. But I'm noticing throughout the touring that we've done, the other kinda kids that are coming to see us are the ones that are into metal because they look at us and they're like, "You're a heavy band. You've got metal riffs." It's a little bit different sound but they're into it. I'm really hoping that'll translate on a bigger scale--hopefully, with the new record having just come out.
Let's talk about your video for "Hail Destroyer." Was that all digital editing or did you actually work with wolves?
No, dude. Those were full-on real wolves. It was kinda funny because we didn't really know about it until a day or two before. We kinda just heard of a concept from the director like, "Yeah, they're playing in a black room." At the time, I was kinda like, "Eh, it's gonna be boring, [but maybe] interesting in how it's gonna work." We worked with Mark [Ricciardelli], the director, a couple times on our other videos, and I knew he would make it look good but then it was like, "Okay, we're gonna be working with live wolves," and we're like, "What the fuck? That's gonna be insane."
So we get there and we're setting up all our gear, then all of a sudden this zookeeper comes in [with] four wolves. And we're like, "Holy shit." Like when you see them, you look at them and you're like, "That is not a dog." It's like they have a fire in their eyes, and they're just powerful animals. They sanctioned off this part of the room and we had to go meet them and pet them until they were familiar with us and comfortable and it was really, really intimidating. I was pretty scared.
But [the wolves' handlers] were nice, and they taught us you have to put [your] hands on their head so they don't jump up, because they always want to go for your face. One of the camera guys actually had a wolf, like, jump up on him and slashed his chin open. He had to go the hospital and get stitches. [The handlers said], "We work with a lot of lions and tigers and things like that for music videos, but those animals are way easier to tame than a wolf. Wolves are really unpredictable and just a much harder animal to work with, so be careful." And we're like [laughing], "Okay!"
So then, [in] the video, we're playing, then they bring the wolves in, and for half the video they were on leashes. You don't really see the zookeepers at all; they're just, like, leading them around through behind the amps and stuff. But then, for the other half of the video they actually let [the wolves] off their leashes and let them run around. So I'd be, like, playing and headbanging [laughing], and I'd look and there'd be this wolf staring at me with its teeth out. We got kinda scared. At the end, you could see [that] some of the wolves were starting to, like, get really restless and kinda panicking. The loud music [was] kinda scaring them, and some of them were a little bit harder to tame.
The only thing that was kind of digitally edited [was] where you see this wolf kinda attack Liam, or like it's about to... They filmed the scene of the one mother timberwolf trying to attack the male arctic wolf and they cut the arctic wolf out and put a shot of Liam singing in the mic so it looks like the wolf is growling in his face and trying to attack him. That's the only kind of digital editing. Otherwise, it's all actual wolves. It's kinda crazy--they were actually throwing pieces of raw meat around the room to attract the wolves and a couple times we'd freak out because some of these pieces of meat would either land on our shoe or by my amp or something. It was kinda funny. But it was a good video. It was probably one of the most fun times I've ever had making a video.
Were you still with Abacus Recordings when the label was folded into Century Media?
Yeah, yeah, we were, actually. I think we got a little disenchanted when we [heard] Abacus was folding... We hadn't really spoken to anybody at Century Media. At that time, we were still writing the record, but... We didn't feel comfortable with it. We didn't feel like we would be an important band. We kind of looked at it like, "Okay, here's one of the bands from our defunct label that didn't work out and they didn't sell a lot of records on Abacus so..." We had the feeling that maybe we would just get lost in the shuffle. We just didn't have the confidence because we weren't entirely happy with Abacus. The sad thing about Abacus was, all the people that we worked with on a day-to-day basis, they were all really great. [We had a] great publicist; our A&R guy was good, and the team there was good. It was just like they weren't given the resources or power to actually push the bands that they had signed or wanted to work with.
There were problems [though]. Kids were complaining they couldn't find our CD in stores and stuff like that. That's really depressing as a band to hear when you're on tour and you want to get kids excited and they can't buy your music. [We thought,] "You know, maybe we should just take a step back and stay away from this right now. Maybe this isn't a good thing." We talked with our guys there and they were cool with it and they understood; it was a nice, clean break. There were no hard feelings or anything like that. It was just like, "We're working on a new record. And if we want to go to America again, we want to [have] a clean slate."
How did it feel to be part of that metal/hardcore Renaissance Abacus was having, with signings like Sick Of It All and Ignite?
It was actually pretty cool in retrospect. Certain bands like that got me more excited about the label, because originally when we'd been on that label, there [were] a couple tech bands, or sorta more moshcore kinda stuff that I wasn't really into. But when they signed Planes Mistaken For Stars--I was pretty into that. Sick Of It All--I think their last record was really good. And same thing--I was never a big Ignite fan, but I actually really like that Ignite record they put out, surprisingly. I was just like, "Wow, they're actually putting out some quality stuff." So it got us excited, because we're like, "You know, they're looking to sign these bands and hopefully push them," but... I don't know if it's just them, or if it's in the American music industry in general, but it seems like with bands and labels [the method is], sign it, put out the record, and then just hope it takes off with very little push. Unfortunately, maybe that was the situation at Abacus. I don't know. It was kinda depressing to see. We'd want to try and work more ideas [we had], and it wouldn't work out. It was like, "Oh, we can't," or it just didn't happen.
It seems like the mainstream outlets in Canada are more willing to embrace underground or heavier music. Do you find it more difficult breaking into America because of the arguable difference in coverage?
The thing [about] Canada that we're really fortunate to have is, because of the small size of the country--we only have, like, 30 million people versus [the U.S. having], like, 300 [million]--the government and arts groups and stuff like that have realized that they need to foster Canadian talent within its own country and make sure Canadian artist are able to actually have careers in entertainment or whatever. They've created certain regulations where you have to play a certain amount of Canadian music on television and on the radio. So I think when a band like us or Alexisonfire come along or something like that, bands that have had a lot of [notice], music video channels and radio will pick up on it because not only do they have to play Canadian music, but they're also [finding] good Canadian bands. We're getting major video play right now on MuchMusic in Canada even though we're much heavier than anything that's usually played during the daytime. I don't think it's just because, but...because of the Cancon laws it's called, Canadian Content, it forces them to at least give us a chance and when kids respond to it, then they realize, "Hey, kids actually like this stuff. This is awesome." Then they start pushing, you know, the new Alexisonfire record or our band or something like that. And through that, it's actually created a really big explosion within Canada and an interest in Canadian bands and kids aren't just going to see touring U.S. bands anymore. Local shows will sometimes do better than bands from America coming to Canada, which wasn't the case when I was growing up--it was the opposite. It was people only [wanting] to go see big headliners for the most part. So it's kinda cool.
But coming into America, it's a different animal altogether. You guys have a huge population, and yet to go with that there's also a million bands. I find with that kids are really jaded and not necessarily as interested in bands they've never heard of. They're not willing to lend an open ear. A lot of the tours that we've done, you can see it in the crowd where the kids are only going to see the bands that they paid to see and they'll go stand outside for bands they're not interested in or give them a pretty cold shoulder. We've experienced that a lot ourselves, through the early touring that we've done; kids are really particular about what they like, I guess. It's definitely hard. You're not always welcome with open arms.
It's a challenge. It's like, "Okay, you're not interested, but we're still gonna play our asses off and make you pay attention." That's the kind of attitude we go in with, no matter what situation--whether it's touring with Bullet For My Valentine playing to 3,000 people a night, or going to a basement with Reign Supreme and playing to some hardcore kids. It's the same thing. We really have to work hard because we realize that it's the hardest market in the world to try and play in or get people to give a shit about you, really. alt