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Interview: Eric Wallace (Black Breath)

Photo by Invisible Hour
Photo by Invisible Hour

If you haven’t seen Black Breath live, do yourself a favor. You won’t regret it. You might leave missing a few teeth, but you won’t regret it. Crowd pleasing comes naturally to this Seattle five piece and that’s been the case for the better part of a decade. Their songs pack huge, memorable wallops–the warp-speed intro to “Mother Abyss,” the swaggering finale to “Black Sin (Spit on the Cross)” and every second of “I Am Beyond”–that work as well or better in the live arena.

That spot Deafheaven had on the recent Anthrax/Lamb of God tour? Black Breath deserved it. Hell, High on Fire’s opening slot for Abbath on the upcoming Decibel Magazine tour? Black Breath deserves it. Why? Because they deserve every opening slot for every feel-good beat-em-up tour there is. Why?

Because they should be headlining. Because they write songs as memorable as “Reign in Blood.”

And because now there’s more to them than just being the most fun I’ve ever had at a death metal concert. Their last album, Slaves Beyond Death shows ambition and an aptitude for melody. They are learning to balance catchiness and complexity in a way most extreme metal bands do not. Give them another decade and they’ll be headlining huge venues. That’s why you want to see them now, while they’re hungry, while they’re the best metal band in the United States and maybe the world, full stop.

Of course, if you want to see them immediately, you’ll have to wait. Black Breath just dropped off a tour with Theories and Decapitated due to unforeseen circumstances. I Interviewed lead guitarist Eric Wallace before said cancellation.

—Joseph Schafer
—Twitter—@JosephPSchafer
—Instagram—@timesnewromancatholic

So if I remember correctly, you, Neil [McAdams, Vocals], and Jamie [Byrum, drums] are the last original members of Black Breath, right?

That’s not entirely true. From the first incarnation of the band, Neil and Jamie would be the last at the moment. But as far as who’s been on all of the released records and whatnot, four of us are still around at the moment. I played on all that stuff. I joined after a demo or two were put out, and then some of that got re-recorded on Razor to Oblivion.

So, that was when everyone in Black Breath was still living in Bellingham?

Sort of, I lived in Seattle before any of the lineup that was in the band when I joined the band. All the rest of them… Actually I think at that point maybe a couple of them may have already lived down here. At one point, everybody lived in Bellingham. I grew up there too, but I had moved ahead of basically the rest of them. And then slowly they all kind of came down and then the band was in Seattle.

So, in that case, just walk me through the origin story of Black Breath. I’ve spent a lot of time in Bellingham. It’s a funny town.

Yeah, it’s kind of a smaller place. Growing up there, it’s a little strange, but I was there visiting a month ago or two months ago. It’s weird going back because I really don’t know what to do with myself. You know I look around, I’m like, “This is nice scenery.” The only places I remember doing anything was at my friend’s houses because I wasn’t an adult at that point. I moved to Seattle before I could do any adult things. So going back there I really don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know like any of the bars or any of that stuff. It’s a nice enough place to grow up I suppose.

How did you meet everyone else in Black Breath? How did you guys get together?

I’ve know one of the original guitar players since I was like six years old. Zack Muljat. He and Jamie started the band. They were working together at the time in Bellingham. I think the two of them started it and got Neil on board around, that must have been 2005 or so. The three of them and Elijah [Nelson, Bass] was living up there at the time. And then I was already down in Seattle. Even though I went to school with Neil, and Jamie, and Zack, on and off through elementary through high school.

Now which high school was this?

Again, pretty convoluted here. Went to multiple high schools.

All of you did?

The one that I remember going to with Neil and Jamie, because they were in a different grade than me and Zack were. They were like, shit I don’t know, maybe like a couple years older or something. I didn’t really know them well at all at the time until after high school, and then I started knowing those dudes a little more just from bands and whatnot, going to shows more often. We all would have gone to Bellingham High School, and then I think they graduated and me and Zack went off to Squalicum High School because they closed Bellingham for renovations or whatever, long story. So multiple high schools I suppose.

And then, like I said, I moved immediately to Seattle after high school and they all stayed there. I think Zack went to Western, stayed to go to Western before he moved down here. So some years, and in that time, they started doing Black Breath, and then basically in 2007 I was kind of thinking about what new band I would want to do. I was in a band at the time that was breaking up. And I’m pretty sure it was that day, Zack called me up and was like, “Hey, you wanna join Black Breath?” I said, “Yeah, actually, that would be killer.”

It would be good to play in a band with one of my oldest friends. I had never played in a band with him before,so it seemed like a pretty comfortable fit, and sure enough, everything was good. I just kind of slid in there. It probably helped that I had a van at the time and I was replacing the van guy. I joined the band in 2007, and then after that, in 2008 we recorded the the Razor to Oblivion EP and put it out that year.

It seems like Black Breath is now a life choice for you guys at this point. You’re touring all the time. You’ve sort of made it as a metal band when you get a big ol’ backing banner I guess.

Yeah, I guess so, huh?

When you were recording that Razor stuff, was the goal “Okay, we’re going to get together, and we’re gonna try and be a professional group,” or no?

Before I joined the band, they put out shitty CD-R demos or whatever else. The things bands do when they don’t have real records yet. I think part of the idea of putting that out was basically “There’s nothing else to do.” No one was knocking down the door trying to get at us. So it was like, “Well, let’s put out our own record,” under the guise of being on an actual record label which we just made up. “We’ll put it out, and then we’ll have an excuse to go on tour and whatnot, and then hopefully that’ll give us more legitimacy in the eyes of a label or whoever that might wanna give us money to record a real record.”

So we dropped $400 on that and went and recorded in Tacoma and everything, put it out, and then sent copies of that vinyl out to ten different labels with a press kit that we made full of things we probably thought were hilarious at the time. And sent it out and then heard back from a couple at the time. I don’t know if the direct goal was like, “We’re gonna put out this EP and get huge.” I don’t think that was in the approach necessarily, but I had it in my head from the very beginning, “I wanna go and record at GodCity with Kurt [Ballou].” because I liked stuff he’d done, which we later did. I was like, “We gotta tour the U.S. and Europe after we do that.”

I knew it was all gonna come together in some way. I didn’t know how, but I was pretty convinced that some label would want to help us put out a record or three. And we somehow get along well, and go on tours, and records would come out, whatever else. It’s hard to have a very clear picture 5, 10 years down the road, but there was always an immediate goal. At the time it was, “Put out our own record, and see if we can get people to notice.”

Slaves Beyond Death is new, and it’s adventurous, and kind of like serious in a way that I never really thought of you guys as. I always loved Black Breath, but I didn’t think of Black Breath as the sort of band that would try and make what I saw as an artistic statement. I think Slaves Beyond Death kind of did that. What do you think?

Yeah, I’d say that’s probably accurate in some way. I know we wanted to do something different. Which is what we thought we were doing on Sentenced, I think in our heads we were doing something a little different on that record as well, but people seemed to compare it a little more similarly to Heavy Breathing. Then obviously there’s more of a jump between the last two records than the first two, but I think we were pushing ourselves to try to come up with something different each time, and to play harder stuff, and come up with more interesting parts, transitions and structure maybe. Actually I take that back, our structures are pretty simple.

It honestly didn’t seem like it was this hugely different thing really. It’s weird. We’ve been a little apprehensive on every record just thinking, “Oh, shit. Can we put this on there? Is this weird?” Our filter kind of goes out the window after a while of coming up with stuff. I think maybe we just got a little better at checking ourselves and realizing that if we wanted to make a record like we were in the middle of making, it needed to have kind of a similar vibe throughout regardless of the style of the song. So that might be where one of the serious sounding part of it comes from. We knew we weren’t gonna put a song on there that sounded like a joke because none of the rest of them really did.

What about this one [Slaves Beyond Death] made you excited?

It was challenging because we didn’t really know what we were doing as far as coming up with arrangements or where songs were gonna go that we just kind of let them go a little more than like “We’ve already done that part twice, let’s wrap it up.” We didn’t put a finite amount of time allotted to a song until we just thought the song was finished. Whereas before, we tried to keep it a little more brief and kind of get to the point. Especially on Sentenced to Life, that was more purposefully to the point and fast, loud, quick, get it over with generally.

Then this record we kind of just took the opposite approach. “See if we can take the listener or ourselves or both on a little more of a journey this time.” Like I said, we didn’t have a blueprint for it really. We never tried exactly that before. So the whole thing was kind of at times feeling like by the seat of our pants I guess.

Since it’s come out, I’ve seen you twice. I saw your Christmas show and I saw the release party at the Highline. For the release show, you didn’t actually play a lot of the album.

No. And part of that is that the guitarist who recorded with us on the record [Mark Palm] quit, and he was moving to California, so he quit earlier about a year ago actually. So the next guitar player playing with us, Lee [McGlothlen, also of Theories], he doesn’t know all of the songs. He wasn’t around for the writing of them, so he doesn’t have all of them ingrained in his head as much as the rest of us. It definitely takes a little more effort to play new stuff. Also on top of that, I think you’re pretty aware that most shows you go to see, you’re not hoping that the band or whoever, plays only new stuff. You gotta give people what they want slightly. We figured we should probably do mostly old stuff and then throw out a couple new ones.

I suppose that makes sense.

I don’t know, I mean you tell me. Would it be more exciting to see a band who…you know, a whole new record front to back before anyone’s even heard it?

It depends on the band, right? And it depends on the record. I actually don’t mind what you’re doing. But Sentenced to Life is so immediate that if I’d seen you and hadn’t heard Sentenced to Life and you just played that front to back and then “Spit on the Cross” at the end, I would have thought it would be a great set, and I would have immediately gone out to get the record.

That one probably lends itself more to that type of environment than trying to do that with our new record.

Yeah, here’s the thing about Slaves Beyond Death though, when I reviewed it, I compared the change from Sentenced to Slaves Beyond Death as kind of like Kill Em All to Ride the Lightning.

Yeah, I either read that in a review, or I read something like that elsewhere, but it was probably yours. I’ll take it as a compliment. I’m pretty sure we were just trying to stretch our own form. Probably in the same way that they were trying to do at the time they were doing it. Obviously the only difference is we’ve heard that record and they hadn’t heard it until they wrote it. Maybe that makes a little less of an accolade as you’re describing. Yeah, melodically and all that kind of shit, I would say there’s a lot more going on in the way that Ride the Lightning has a lot more going on than Kill Em All, I guess I would say that’s accurate.

You could play either of those records front to back and it would make sense—either of yours.

That’s also the kind of thing that I think people ten years down the line or whatever, would look back and say, “Man, I wish I was there. That was fucking killer. They just came out and did just that.” And then probably half the crowd would have been like, “Oh, man. They’re not playing that song I heard.” Fuck, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll try it someday.

It’s gotta be tough when you’re in Black Breath because your fans know every word. It was sort of weird for me to be there hearing the then-unreleased songs like “Pleasure Pain Disease” and think, “I don’t know what to be yelling right now, and I don’t know what comes next.” So suddenly I kind of had to stop moving and actively try to digest what your songs were as you were playing them.

Well it had probably been three or four years since we had played anything new anyway. Sometimes you catch up in the old stuff that’s for sure.

It was kind of a long gap between the two. I know some of that had to do with Jamie and the car. [Bynum was struck by a car in early 2014].

Yeah, definitely.

Do you think that that incident with the car had something to do with the record taking a more serious turn?

I don’t know. I don’t think it ever was discussed really. I think that probably just the lyrical approach which was kind of already in…Neil was working with it before we got down to recording the record, so we kind of knew where he was heading anyway. None of it was anything that wasn’t serious, at least topic wise. So we were like, “Well we can’t really make it…you know we’re not gonna like do any jokey shit here with the music or whatever.”

Like I said, we just kind of try to write shit that we like at the time and what’s exciting us and what gets our head moving or whatever else. Usually we can tell if it’s something we want to fuck with any further if we’re playing it for the first time and everyone’s head banging we’re like, “Okay, we’ll probably hold on to that part, that’s good.” But as far as the overall feeling in the end, I don’t really know. It’s kind of weird to describe your own stuff I guess.

A lot of people struggle with it.

I know. I know what I think about it, and then I’ve got a different perspective because, of course I do. But yeah, it’s interesting hearing other people describe it too. As far as like, whether it was a serious record because of this, I doubt it. There’s serious shit on all of the other ones, to some degree, there’s also more lighthearted stuff here and there too. It’s not like that [seriousness] was an element that just showed up all of a sudden.

No, that’s true. Going back for a second, something you said way, way earlier, that I made a little note here and I forgot to ask about: GodCity and Kurt Ballou. One of the things that’s sort of unique about Black Breath is that Kurt’s got a really identifiable style. If you’re listening to something he’s done, you can tell “Kurt did this.” I know some bands that now don’t want to work with him because they’re afraid of sort of becoming “a Kurt Ballou band,” but I think, especially with the new one, you guys have managed to escape that trap. You’ve managed to maintain an integral part of your identity even with Kurt behind the boards.

No offense to Kurt, but I’d say we’ve been actively, or I have at least, actively trying not to fall into some of the tricks that I know or approaches or whatever else that are why people like to lump in every band that records with him as if it’s like the same kind of fucking band. There’s certain things that are on many of his recordings that I definitely have tried to not incorporate just because of that. Whether or not it’s good or bad, I’m just sick of hearing it on the records that he’s doing. Just like the constant feedback .

So I definitely was like, “I’m not having any fucking feedback on Sentenced to Life.” It started with that one. Live, we’re not sitting there just feeding back constantly. I honestly think that lumping bands into a certain ‘thing’ just because they recorded somewhere is generally a little bit of a lazy approach. At the same time I guess, people like to do that with other eras and studios and whatnot. Meanwhile when you listen to the bands that seemingly get lumped in, they usually sound pretty different from each other.

I like working with him. He’s definitely good at what he’s doing. And with the tools that he’s got, he’s obviously honed them in a certain way that works for him. His fingerprint comes across for sure on the stuff that he records. I think we went with a different mastering dude on Slaves Beyond Death. Having that team took it a little further away from the Kurt production than maybe the first two LPs. I’ve heard him talk, and I’m trying to think more about Kurt’s outlook and why things end up sounding the way they do.

I think he likes a real live sound to the records. A lot of them I think you could almost picture seeing the band playing in a basement and it’s loud as hell, so the vocals are a little buried because the PA sucks. I’ve definitely heard records where that’s the approach, and that’s what the band is used to hearing, so they kind of go for that in the studio. I know that we were trying more so on Slaves Beyond Death to basically make a metal record which means there’s gonna be some shit that doesn’t sound like four or five people in a room making bad noise.

Thus the layering and the extra harmonies and this and that that we could never do live. Whereas our last couple records were mainly how we play live. Different types of songs necessitate a little different approach to recording them. But that probably made the difference or made the last record sound less like a Kurt record perhaps. Because I think a lot of bands, ourselves included, take more of a live approach as far as arranging the song in the studio to be able to play them perfectly.

No, that does make sense. Here’s the thought I had, “Well, all of that makes sense except Neil’s vocals are usually pretty upfront.”

Yeah, I mean we didn’t have any interest in actually burying them. I think it’s silly when I hear records where the vocals are too quiet. When is the vocalist ashamed to be the vocalist? You’re the front person, you can’t hide. So it’s something that I was never interested in necessarily. I don’t even know if it ever came up. I think that’s just how it turned out and we were like, “Cool, sounds good.”

Maybe this is sort of pretentious of me because I know that a lot of my friends disagree with me on this, but when I hear buried vocals, my assumption is that they can’t actually sing.

That’s my assumption too. Like you’re hiding something obviously, otherwise you wouldn’t be burying it.

It makes sense for the ’90s Norwegian dudes because they couldn’t sing. That they were amateurs was kind of part of the charm. Doing that in this day and age when you can go on YouTube and there’s eight people who can show you how to scream properly and all you need is a little bit of practice, that seems silly to me.

Yeah, and it’s also about knowing different ways to make a record. I couldn’t say if one’s more right than another. For whatever reason, our vocal level stayed where it was, and that was fine with me. You could hear it. I’d rather be able to hear it than not. That’s all I know. I don’t know if it’s pretentious or not otherwise. But yeah, you can bury a rhythm guitar, you know it’s there. You can hear what it’s doing, it’s fine, It’s supposed to be in the background a little bit sometimes. In certain kinds of music, maybe not so much in the kind of stuff we play because the rhythm guitars kind of take almost like the lead role. And lead vocals become more of a percussive thing then. Generally when there’s vocals, yeah, you kind of want to hear them. If there’s lyrics there, you want to hear what they’re saying.

You guys when I first saw you, you were one of these bands that were bringing this early ’90s Swedish sound back. It seemed like there was a coordinated move toward that. This is a two part question. Why do you think so many people picked up on that all at once, and why are people moving away from it?

I couldn’t tell you if people are moving away or not. I think it was convenient to talk about, and again, kind of lump things together because they have something similar going on. Whether or not there was all of a sudden a ton of bands or if there was just a new way to talk about these bands, I think there probably has to be a distinction there. To be honest, we pretty much use the same stuff we used on every single record for the guitars as far as the amps and whatnot and the pedal changed. We didn’t really change that much it just kind of came out different. Which is kind of funny.

Part of that going back to the mastering. I remember in the past we seemed to boost more of the mids and the guitars on the first couple LPs, which gives more of whatever that signature honk is to those heavy metal pedals. On the last one, that didn’t come through as much. It definitely makes the quality of the distortion quite a bit different when you mess with that range I guess. So I don’t know, I can’t comment on the rest of the band, I got no idea what they’re doing, or even who we were supposed to be lumped in with really. I know we got compared to Trap Them, and I don’t think we sound like them that much, but we were friends with those guys so it was fine.

Why was that a sound that you guys zeroed in on? Was there ever a conscious discussion like, “Yeah, it’s time for the Swedish sound.” Or?

Yeah, I think we all liked it for a long time but we started using that setup on the Razor To Oblivion EP and nobody really talks about those songs like they talk about the other ones in reference to the Swedish shit. We just liked the guitar sound and started playing fucking Celtic Frost and Bathory ripoffs riffs through that sound, and then figured out that there’s some things that work better with it than others. All the while, we were liking the Swedish bands that also used that shit, but I just don’t think we could have pulled off that kind of stuff at the time. So we’d play more power chord kind of…a little more of the punk-metal stuff I guess until we started figuring out how to pick faster.

We haven’t really changed anything from our end since the Razor to Oblivion EP really. It’s just the sound of the recordings is obviously quite a bit different, but the core of what we are using to make the records hasn’t really changed too much. And like I said, especially with that distortion pedal, there’s just some things that you can write and play that sound real proper through it, and then other things that just sound like a fucking mess. Or you can’t tell what’s going on. Figuring out how to make that sound good generally leads you to the big Dismember held out chords because that’s what sounds good through that pedal.

Have you ever considered changing? If you’ve been using the same rig all this time…

Well similar rigs, nothing’s been exactly the same from year to year. The same base of the setups for guitars, and bass, and drums have been there for sure. I think we’ve talked about more adding something to it rather than changing completely. Because if you’ve ever seen a band that has a record with that kind of sound, and then you don’t see them use that sound live to reproduce that record live, it’s pretty nutless to be honest. There’s a couple ways you can go to keep that kind of quality to it, but really none of them are that different that I’d be tempted…that I would want to switch anyway, so enough to just kind of become a different sounding band.

I’ve never really had the opportunity to see most of those bands. Obviously, I’ve never seen Entombed, I’ve never seen Dismember. I’ve seen At the Gates, but they were always doing a bit of a different thing themselves.

Yeah, that’s true. Well, the two that you mentioned before that, they were like night and day, the first time I saw both those bands. The first time I saw Entombed, they were a four piece, so we had one guitar obviously to play songs that had two guitars on the records. And yet he didn’t use that heavy metal pedal at all, I don’t believe, at the time. He was using a DS1 and a looping pedal so they could play Left Hand Path live. Which is pretty sweet, but the distortion was all different. I was excited because I really like Entombed, and at the time, I’d never seen them.

I left and I was like, “Why didn’t they just use the right [pedal]… it would have sounded so much better if they had just used that.” Then on the flip side when I saw Dismember for the first time:, two guitars, like the records, like everything else. They were just fucking destroying and have exactly that sound live. [They were playing] on a bunch of borrowed gear and they sounded fucking great. That was one of the best shows I ever saw. Obviously me and Jamie went to that show, and it was in Vancouver. We came home and went to practice the next day, and I’m pretty sure I was like, “Alright, I’m not turning back after that, that was too crushing.” That just made me want to increase the use of that sound.

If you were gonna add something, what would you add?

That’s the thing, just someone like Kurt to make it sound good. He hops right on the board and makes it translate, that’s all I need for the stuff we’re doing. We added clean guitars and shit like that that’s completely different, and I think that’s all I could think of off the top of my head that would be useful immediately is that kind of dynamic. I don’t know why we would need to switch to a slightly different but also very gainey distortion, I don’t see any point. Who knows, maybe it’ll all change.

You guys play constantly and you always do a great job. You’ve had that reputation for years as this band that just dominates live, even people I know on the Internet that don’t like your records are always like, “Black Breath’s not that grumble, grumble, but they are incredible live.”

That’s not a mistake. We don’t just happen to show up and that’s what happens. We actively try to make that the point of live stuff. Because I think that kind of music has way more of an impact when you are paying attention to the small details that very often get overlooked with aggressive music or people playing live in general.

What kind of details?

Man, just the space between the notes. I’ve heard other people say that before, but when they say that in the context of song writing, it absolutely means one thing, and then in the context of a whole live setting, seeing a show when it’s supposed to be silent, it ought to be fucking silent. Instead it’s like some guy in the corner his guitar’s squealing away while the singer’s trying to say something and dude’s just sitting there like feeding back for 35 seconds. There’s pet peeves of mine. I’m just like, “Gah, just turn the fucking thing off, and let that other thing happen that’s supposed to be happening,” instead of all the distracting nonsense that goes along with usually loud amps and shit. We try to keep the breaks real tight, that’s one of the only real secrets. And to stay in tune as much as we can.

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