Interview: Carl Byers of Coffinworm

You’ve likely heard of Coffinworm, perhaps because of their stellar Profound Lore debut When All Became None. It isn’t because of an ambitious tour schedule; these guys only play outside of Indianapolis as their schedules allow. A blue-collar work ethic infuses everything they do, even their often depressing music. “We’re not dumbasses trying to look evil,” guitarist Carl Byers said recently. “We’re just people like everyone else. What we collectively make is what is important. There’s something that gets spoiled when you are super candid about everything.”

Byers, a journalism school graduate who worked as a music writer for small independent newspapers before actual music took precedence, talked to us recently about scrapping the initial efforts of their second album and how strong friendship fuels their dark material. The Flenser will reissue their 2009 demo Great Bringer Of Night in limited vinyl editions. If you haven’t checked it out already, you should.

— Justin M. Norton

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Have you and Dave (Britts, vocalist) been friends for a long time?

We’ve all been friends for a long time. I grew up about an hour north of Indianapolis and didn’t move down here until 2004. Before that I played in a few bands when I lived in Muncie. I met Garrett (O’Sha, guitar) through playing shows in our old bands. After I moved to Indianapolis, Dave and I were hanging out a lot and working at the same place.

Where did you work?

Trader Joe’s. We all were an active part of the (Indianapolis) music scene, which is pretty tight knit. Coffinworm came together somewhat randomly. Prior to the band forming, our now former guitar player moved to DeKalb, Illinois, and moved back after about two years. He and I had talked about starting a project when he moved back. The band Garrett and I were playing in at the time was on the way out, and we wanted to keep playing together. The five of us sat down over a few beers and put things together.

Would it be safe to safe to say that the earliest ideas for the band were hatched as you guys were shelving organic produce?

Not really (laughs).

Your band has been able to create a certain mystique without any of the normal metal trappings, just through your music and the aesthetics of the album.

We’ve always tried to maintain a collective identity. The band is all that matters. What we put out there (musically) is what’s important. We don’t want to talk too much about our influences or put ourselves on display. We’ve never wanted to reveal too much and let the music speak for itself. Mystique is partially why a lot of people are interested in certain bands. For example, there’s no reason anyone should give a fuck about black metal outside of a small group of people. That’s not an elitist stance at all. I don’t understand why it’s so huge. It’s so strange to me that style of music has become so big and shows up in pop culture in the most random places.

I’ve talked to Karl Simon (The Gates Of Slumber) before and he said where he grew up was important to his music. Is the same true for Coffinworm?

I think that’s a running theme for a lot of the musicians here and the bands that come out of Indianapolis. It’s a very tight knit group. Once you’re embraced, you make friends quickly. Part of that is Midwestern warmth; it’s not real catty and it’s not about appearances. We all grew up feeling dejected and cast out, which is what we have in common. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be at punk or metal shows.

Granted, I don’t think this is much different than any other city with a music scene. But I grew up in a college town and there wasn’t much to do when you were of a certain age except hang out, get fucked up, make music and cause trouble. There came a point for me where being in my bedroom playing Black Sabbath songs by myself got boring. I wanted to find people to play with. The people here and the music scene keep everyone grounded. We’re grateful that anyone shows up when we play. We do it because we care about it, not because it creates opportunity. I’m happy to have an outlet outside of my job.

The Midwest has been hard hit with the recent economic downturn; have you felt that personally or in the scene?

Not specifically for Coffinworm. We don’t have a van; we rent one and sometimes borrow/rent equipment when we play out of town. I don’t think the scene was affected here as much as on a national level. It may have affected how many places there are to play. There are a small handful of people here steadily booking shows. Sometimes the venue that has been a go-to for punk or metal shows closes or moves. There are a few places in town that have been really supportive for years. Since it’s on such a small level it’s not that hard for people to continue doing it on a local level. It’s not terribly expensive to play shows or go record a demo.

Is there still a good old record store in Indianapolis?

The one that was on the top of the heap for vinyl–it was called Missing Link–closed a few years ago. Collectors would always come there when they were in town. It ruled. Dave worked there for a few years. There’s another good store called Vibes Music (owned by John Zeps from Ice Nine/Burn It Down). There are two or three others that stock new releases but they are more geared to indie rock, not as focused on metal or punk. For a city this size, there are a fair amount of record stores, though.

For a smaller city record stores have always been a crucial network for musicians.

It’s weird, there’s been an evolution where people don’t make flyers anymore. Now everyone sends Facebook invites. Everyone buys music online. I’m not sure the stores here are linked to the scene as much as they used to be.

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Coffinworm – “Instant Death Syndrome” (live)

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Why the name Coffinworm?

It’s an occult reference to Choronzon that Todd (Manning, bass) suggested. It’s a literary reference, also, although I can’t remember where it’s from. He thought it made sense with our writing/sound, and we went with it.

Were there any false starts with names before that?

Not really. I don’t remember anyone suggesting anything else. There may have been a few private conversations where other names were thrown out, but nothing that made it to a group discussion. Coffinworm worked so we went with it.

Did the image of the eye on the cover of your debut tie directly into the occult reference you mentioned?

It’s supposed to represent the void. There were a few different pieces of the cover that didn’t make the final version. Our drummer Josh wasn’t in the band at the time, but he did the painting. We basically gave him a few specific ideas and told him to turn the record on, get baked, and go to work. He did a great job. I don’t know if it was intentional that it looks like a serpent eye but the main idea was to incorporate the void.

I find your approach interesting in that it combines real-life horror with things like the supernatural and the occult. And it does it in a way that doesn’t seem forced . . . there isn’t one song about magic, or another about murder, for example. There’s a consistent vibe.

It’s centered on death, doom and destruction. That’s the whole basis of the content, the approach. Dave’s take is that the lyrics need to match the vibe of the music. We don’t sit around and conceptualize anything outside of the artwork and when we decided on the initial approach of the band. Everything that’s happened in terms of music and writing, as well as live, hasn’t been because we’re striving towards some conceptual end.

Was “Strip Nude For Your Killer” directly influenced by the 1972 Italian giallo film?

It’s homage; that’s one of Dave’s favorite movies.

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“Strip Nude For Your Killer” (movie trailer)

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After your promo got a lot of good buzz what was it like to get an offer from Profound Lore?

We were really excited. I had talked to Chris (Bruni, label founder) a few times before the band formed, just e-mailing with him because I’d reviewed some of his releases. He also wrote for a magazine I would read when I could pick it up locally. At the time we were gearing up to record the demo, Chris had done the Gates’ Conqueror album. I had mentioned to him that we were going into the studio with Bob Fouts to record. Chris looked at our MySpace page and saw a video from our first show, said to let him hear what we recorded. I sent him a package with a t-shirt and a disc of all the tracks. After listening to the demo he offered to work with us. We were really fortunate because I don’t think that happens very often for a band that hasn’t done a fair amount of legwork or touring.

Sanford (Parker-producer of When All Became None) seems to have the ability to make what’s special about a band really pop in a recording.

Well, you can tell when his hands have been in a record and that’s great. He has a distinct style, but it never overshadows the band’s flavor. He was very laid back, right from the basic tracking. It was fun to be in a real recording studio with a cool guy who makes amazing music at the helm.

What are you working on now?

We’re writing the second record. We just demoed two of the new songs last night. I’m not sure when we will get into the studio. We worked on a batch of songs last year and just scrapped them. It didn’t sound like us. We were trying to up the ante and ended up with stuff we weren’t attached to. So we’ve been putting together new songs.

What went wrong on the songs last year?

They just didn’t sound right to our ears. After the lineup change–when I moved from drums to guitar–there was a new dynamic. Our new drummer is also a different player than I am in some respects. And it was very different for me to play guitar in this band. I did write some riffs from the start of the band, but there was a period where we just tried to find the groove together. Settling into the new lineup. The only song we kept from last year was for the split 7″ with Fistula that’s coming out in June. There were some cool riffs and songs but the other compositions didn’t sound like us. We needed to make sure there was a unifying element. Not that anyone would show up to practice and play ska riffs, but we had to keep things based in the same place. The stuff we were working on last year was just too manic.

If you ever need to get out of a contract in the future you could always use those songs as a special release.

(Laughs). They are best left forgotten.

Do you feel like your music requires a few listens to really seep in?

Well, those are usually the types of records I gravitate towards. I like things I might not get from one listen. I’m not saying our music is multilayered or is super complex or requires a lot of listening to ‘get it’. But I definitely think there’s a lack of active listening these days, especially with digital downloads. Everyone is busy, that never changes, but there’s a need for people to sit down and listen to records all the way through without distractions and look through the insert or booklet. I’m guilty of that but I try to make as much time for uninterrupted listening as I can.

Will Coffinworm ever write a happy song?

Fuck no (laughs). That’s not a reflection of the things we’re trying to express through the band. Everyone has their personal demons. Life can suck but it’s what you do with it. Art should reflect the parts of yourself that you aren’t exposing on a regular basis. Art is a way for people to communicate in a different way. It’s supposed to be primal and raw. And that’s something people can’t connect to all the time in their personal lives. That’s why there is an audience.

You have to admit that a Coffinworm cover of “Shiny Happy People” would be pretty subversive.

(Laughs). It wouldn’t make it through one person in the band to get approved. Hey, we all listen to different stuff. I can’t listen to metal all day, but it’s what I like to play the most.