Exmortus: Lineups Change, “The Sound Of Steel” Doesn’t
Exmortus is no stranger to line-up changes. This fluidity allowed founding guitarist/vocalist Jadran “Conan” Gonzalez to roll with the punches when longtime drummer Mario Moreno along with guitarist David Rivera left the band at the end of 2017. It has also honed the Exmortus audition process into a trial by fire: Hit the road with the band for a month-long tour right out of the gate. No pressure, right?
When the band recruited Warbringer’s Chase Becker he jumped right onto a west coast tour pulling double duty in both bands supporting Darkest Hour. He and Warbringer drummer Carlos Cruz recorded the band’s fifth album The Sound of Steel, but, while Becker has decided to soldier on in both bands, Cruz is sticking with Warbringer exclusively. When a European tour supporting Obituary came up in March they had Adrian Aguilar learn the set in two weeks. Now he rounds out the permanent Exmortus lineup.
The Sound of Steel continues with the neoclassical thrash that has always been Exmortus’ forte with some welcome deviances. “Strength and Honor” has dueling guttural and falsetto screams atop flamboyant guitar histrionics and lead track “Make Haste” is classic, ripping speed metal that shreds so righteously, it is obvious why the band helped trigger a thrash revival with its In Hatred’s Flame debut a decade ago. There are two scale-singeing instrumentals, “Tempest” and “A Minor Instrumental” (guess what key that’s in).
As solid as that is, the reason that Exmortus is still around while former labelmates and former labels have vanished (seriously, anyone know what happened to Merciless Death) is not just Conan’s shred skills, it’s how the band injects downtuned death metal into “Into the Maw of Hell” and even chunky groove metal on “Feast of Flesh.” The band released a somewhat NSFW video for that in advance of the album’s release that would get nods of approval from goregrind fans.
Jadran “Conan” Gonzalez took time away from shredding to call from his Los Angeles home to shed light on the new lineup, the band’s first ever headlining tour and how to make the perfect Exmortus burger.
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I want to step back a little bit into time to start this off. When you went to record the album, you presented it that, “Mario and David would be stepping out for this session.” At that time did you know that they were no longer going to be in the band or were things still in a state of flux?
They mentioned to me that they didn’t want to continue doing this. They wanted to work on some things at home. So I knew it was going to be permanent, but I didn’t want to announce it officially because they were still willing to help out.
Right after that we did a few shows with Kreator and Sabaton, some home shows in California and Arizona. I didn’t really want to announce it and people would be weirded out. Also they preferred themselves that it not be announced. They kind of wanted to just keep it private. So I didn’t really want to make a big spectacle out of it.
That must’ve been a very weird time where you’re actually playing these big shows knowing that half the band was already out the door and not really able to tell anyone.
Yeah. We had that offer and Carlos and Chase from Warbringer were already doing something else during those shows so I asked them if they were willing to do these shows, at least, their last shows with Exmortus. They were willing to do it, but they didn’t want to keep it going. It was a little weird, I guess… Not weird, but a sad moment with those guys. It wasn’t bitter or depressing; it was just kind of reflecting on how that we’re not going to be playing together anymore.
It was a little bit of a downer, but I’m still going and it’s all for the best. Mario is still printing Exmortus shirts. I mean, he’s my cousin for crying out loud! We’re not going to stop supporting each other!
Those shows were at the beginning of this year after Chase had already played sets with you and Warbringer while supporting Darkest Hour at the end of 2017.
That was a jam-packed month. That month we did that tour with Warbringer and Darkest Hour and right after that we were getting ready to record the album because we recorded it in January, the first two weeks of January. So we came back, we had to learn all the songs. I had finished writing the album during that tour and I showed the material to everyone and they’re like, okay, cool, let’s do it. Carlos learned the drums in like two weeks to record them.
Were you envisioning them as permanent members while recording it?
It was more, at first, a helping out kind of thing. When Mario and David decided to just step out – or leave in this case, I guess I can say that now! Then I got this offer for Warbringer and Darkest Hour. It seems like it’d be a pretty good run. It’s the west coast. It’s not venturing too far out and that would give me time to finish the album.
At that point I had written half the album and I didn’t want to stop, so that’s why I didn’t stop doing the whole band thing. I felt like it had to continue doing it because I had half of The Sound of Steel written out and I just didn’t want to let that material sit there. I guess it could have used it for other projects that I may want to do, but those songs are so Exmortus! It has Exmortus written all over it and I couldn’t just leave it there.
Of course I asked Carlos and Chase to fill in, otherwise I would have not accepted that tour. So I’m grateful that they did that. At the beginning it was understood as lending a hand, I guess returning a favor because I filled in for guitars on a Warbringer at the beginning of 2016. This was when they were just coming back before they recorded Woe to the Vanquished. This was when they were getting back on their feet again and they needed a lead guitarist so I helped out for the whole tour. I did double duty, I did Exmortus and Warbringer. That was pretty fun and interesting. A little exhausting!
And Chase returned the favor!
Yeah! They were more than willing to help with the record and of course the tour. But I wasn’t really expecting them to stay or anything. But I’m glad Chase is willing to help out all the time. I’ve known Chase forever and before we were performing together because before we would be at that same shows. He used to play in Desecrate and we would play shows together. This time we’re actually jamming on the same songs, the same music. It’s pretty fun on a friend level, finally jamming in a band together.
As far as Carlos, he has too many things going on, I guess. He’s more of a studio kind of guy. He says he likes more of the creative aspect, which I don’t blame him, I do too. So he’s more focused on that and only touring for Warbringer, whereas Chase is willing to tour for both.
So we have Adrian Aguilar now on drums. He is for sure permanent.
I got a call for the Obituary tour that we did in Europe. That happened at the beginning of March, but two weeks before that started, that’s when I got the call. I was like, that’s a great opportunity but I didn’t even have a drummer. I asked Carlos and he said he couldn’t do it and although Chase said he could, Adrian was already training out. He was already learning a couple of songs for an audition and I told him, “Hey, do you want a real audition? You want to come with us on tour in Europe with Obituary.”
He was like, holy shit! He had two weeks to learn the rest of the set, which was at least 30, 35 minutes more of music. And he did it, he fucking did it! So because of that, I’m like, dude, you’re in!
You’re the one constant in Exmortus. You mentioned that you did a lot of this record and you always have done a lot. Has that always been the plan or has the frequent lineup changes kind of forced your hand that way?
That’s an interesting question. I think it’s a lot of that at once. For sure, I write a lot of the music because I’m always coming up with musical ideas and I’ll share it with everyone. If they like it, cool. It stays. If they don’t like it and they’re not really into the riff it’ll affect their playing. I want the whole band to play with confidence and to really perform it well. So in a way, yeah, the members in the band affect the writing process even if they’re not actually writing the music. It still affects how we all work together and I want to make sure everything’s performed in a fun way, a fun and passionate kind of way.
Mario did contribute a lot of riffs throughout Slave to the Sword and Ride Forth. He wrote a lot of lyrics and he even came up with the album titles! That was his vision and I just helped him by filling in the gaps. We collaborated very well. I didn’t really have that this time around.
Was anybody else able to step in and contribute or did the logistics make this more of a Conan production than previous records?
A little bit more. Our new bassist [Phillip Cody Nuñez] – he’s been with us a while but this is his first album – he helped out a lot with lyrics and even riffs. I had him play shit and he did it better so we kept that. I think Philip Cody helped out a lot on this album because I feel like I need that. I need someone to kind of proofread my stuff. And then since it wasn’t Mario, it was, it was Cody this time.
You came out with “Feast of Flesh” as the first single and video. It’s not what people expect from Exmortus and it’s different even from the rest of The Sound of Steel. Why did you lead with that track?
I like to fuck people, artistically! I think that’s what makes a band interesting. One of my favorite bands, Judas Priest, I’m sure you love them too, they changed a lot. I didn’t experience it the first time around in the eighties, but they changed a lot too. Looking at that retrospectively, I see that change and I admire that they were able to adapt to the times. I’m sure they pissed off fans especially with Turbo or Ram It Down, it’s more glam sounding, but it’s still fucking Judas Priest and it’s still fucking cool! They still have actually heavy songs on those albums and of course they came with Painkiller which is one metal motherfucking album!
I’m not saying that was a direct inspiration for the “Feast of Flesh” video but I just wanted to kind of emphasize that. Check it out, we’re not changing but this is a side of Exmortus that you need. It’s stupid how some people could so limited. I like to have fun. That was the first song for me to write and actually that’s one that Mario encouraged me to elaborate on.
We had like half the album done before Mario left and that was one of his favorite songs to play. I like to go on with what my fellow members like to play and enjoy playing. That was one of his favorite songs to jam to so I pushed for it. I emphasized it by making a single with cheesy, gory lyrics and of course a cheesy, gory video.
But it’s not supposed to be the new direction of Exmortus. We have “Make Haste,” we have “Victory or Death” which was just released [as another single]. They are very expected Exmortus tunes. I don’t think having “Feast of Flesh” will change the whole balance. I think it brings balance. I think it makes those neoclassical elements that we are known for stand out even more because we have this stompy, caveman kind of riff going on and the more mindless shredding parts contrast with the wells thought out and thoroughly composed neoclassical structures of the other songs.
And your girlfriend, Misha Rodriguez, played the victim in the video! Was it hard to convince her to do that?
She was more than willing! It was funny. I forget how we came up with the idea, but when I wrote the lyrics for it, I had in mind a cool cheesy music radio. We were just brainstorming and that came up that my girlfriend will whip you like a victim that we would just tear her apart and eat her flesh. And she was so she was so down! She was really excited about that so it wasn’t hard convince her!
Shooting it was a little tricky because all that blood was cold. We had to let that sit out for a while and she had to stay playing dead for a good while. I know the song is rather short but the shooting took a few hours of that table scene so she was lying in cold blood for a while. So that wasn’t very fun for her!
One thing I like about Exmortus is how you obviously take skill in your musicianship, but you write catchy songs for those who just want to thrash. Is it a conscious decision balancing those elements?
I agree that a lot of pop music is too catchy, it gets stuck my head and I now I fucking hate that song! But other music is a little too complex, too many damn notes. I mean, I think we’re guilty as fuck, but there are too many notes or it’s too chaotic and you can’t follow it so easily. So yeah, it’s kind of hard to find that balance and I always feared that especially with Exmortus. When we first started we were playing a lot of notes, a million notes a second. I didn’t want to do that all the time. I try to really pay attention to composition. I am very conscious of that. If I’m going to make something complex, at least I want to base it off of a basic idea, like a basic riff or whatever, something that repeats, but I’ll change that repetition in so many different ways that you won’t initially recognize it.
Right out of the gate you’re doing a month of shows in North America, your first headlining tour. You must be excited about that.
Oh yeah, I’m so stoked about that! We just love to perform and every time we do, fans will ask for one more song but sometimes you just can’t. We can’t really do that. And that’s a shame because we want to try to fit all of our own favorites and of course fan favorites into the performance and now we’ll get a chance to do that. We’re trying to work in old songs as much as possible so we’ll probably bring back some shit from In Hatred’s Flame and Beyond the Fall of Time, the second album. That will be interesting and I think fans are in for a treat.
The fine folks at Grill ‘Em All hosted your record release party and had an Exmortus menu item in your honor. What was on it?
We were talking to the guy from Grill ‘Em All and I think we decided on a burger that’s a half pound patty, four strips of bacon, two fried eggs and I believe there’s avocado, grilled onions, maybe even jalapeños. That’s pretty much the idea we’re going for, a really heavy burger!
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