Cobalt, “Cold Breaker” and Charlie Fell
Perhaps you've seen a meme floating around the internet wherein great actors and songwriters play out the verbs that happen to be their last names. Roger Waters keeps the grass hydrated. Tom Waits exercises his patience while Jeremy Irons keeps his shirt clean.
Charlie Fell doesn't need a meme. He did fall. He has fallen over and over. He sat behind the drum kit for Nachtmystium on their tour opening for Turisas and Cradle of Filth in 2011—their last tour before the controversies surrounding studio drummer Jef Whitehead and singer/guitarist Blake Judd derailed that band. That was the first fall, the first public one anyway.
He took up bass and vocal duties for Lord Mantis, whose 2014 album Death Mask was poised to fill the critical and commercial vacuum that Nachtmystium left. This fall from grace came in real time, harder. Fell spent the first round of the album's press cycle on damage control, defending Death Mask's controversial cover art, which depicts a transgendered figure engaged in symbolic and literal self mutilation. The press spent so much time quibbling over whether or not such art constituted a tacit admission of transphobia that people nearly missed the even more controversial lyrics to the song "Body Choke." To wit: "I am the raping nigger."
Lord Mantis and Fell parted ways not long after, right when Fell's battle with heroin addiction transitioned from private struggle to open secret.
This is old news. Two to four years old. It needs to be reiterated for two reasons. First, because regardless of your personal opinion of Fell as a human being, those experiences continue to inform who he is right now. Second, because the shadow of those events fall heavily on Fell's work as the new vocalist of Cobalt, whose new album Slow Forever not only upholds the band's storied legacy, but also serves as Fell's letters from the bottom of mankind, and his hand-over-hand climb out of it. Nowhere is Fell's past more relevant than on the album's standout track, "Cold Breaker," which we are streaming exclusively below.
"Cold Breaker," the most angry and energetic song on the album. It plays Fell's fight with substance abuse somewhere between a sexual power fantasy and hallucination of street crime. When the song reaches its fever pitch, Fell screams, "shuddering on the surface reminds me of you / and how we'll burn / on that thin borderline we will burn baby burn." It's a call back to "Arsonry" the highlight of Cobalt's last album, Gin, but also a direct reference to the words of Malcolm X. That these words come from an accused racist who replaced another vocalist himself guilty of hate speech is irony that is not lost on me.
Fell is, if anything, self-aware and open. He spoke with Invisible Oranges in great detail about the allure of heroin, the importance of living up to Cobalt's legacy, and why he made the choices that he did in Lord Mantis. Charlie fell, but he might crawl out of his hole yet.
Emaciated point of entrance
The oldest wound
Buried in eyes
The ease of dying
Condone the act of self destruction
Your sheltered life
Leaving you in between
Hope and addiction
Conformity and self abuse
It's not a fad
Devote your self to selflessness
It’s more than religion
Condone the act of self destruction
And bury it in the veins of lovers
Shuddering on the surface reminds me of you
And how we’ll burn
On that thin border line we will burn baby burn
I feel a fever coming on
What’s always there is always gone
I can't trust anyone
Hit the streets with the cloak and dagger
Neon steam on a melting beam
Pissing gin with your bath salt stagger
Emaciated point of entrance
The oldest wound
The ease of dying
Condone the act of selfishness
I feel a fever coming on
What's always there is always gone
What's always mine is always mine
I want to leave my mark this time
Hey, this is Joseph from Invisible Oranges. How are you doing?
I'm good, man. How are you doing?
I'm doing well. It's a beautiful spring afternoon in Seattle, Washington. Where are you at?
I'm in South Carolina, Beaufort. The middle of nowhere.
That is the middle of nowhere. Why are you in South Carolina?
Well, I got stuck here. I've been here for four months, but before that I was in Olympia [Washington] for six months, doing Abigail Williams and a couple other things. I split ways with the Abigail guys. I met a chick and she lives in Maine. So I went to pick her up in Maine, we were gonna drive back to Olympia. I ended up staying down here at my parents' house for the time being. I'm just chilling out but there's not a lot of jobs down here so it's taking me a bit to get some footing so I can back to Chicago.
So your ultimate goal is to get back to Chicago?
Yeah, I mean, eventually. That's where I'm from and I like it there. It's tough and stuff; money has been super tight. So it's just I left Chicago last year. I split with this girl I was with. I had to do rehab shit. And since then I've just been trying to find work. I'm working at a hotel bartending right now.
Let's just clarify one thing. You didn't write the lyrics on the title track? On the song, "Slow Forever," that's Eric [Wunder, instrumentalist/songwriter], right?
It was both me and him. He had a good couple pages of lyrics down. Right? We used it as a word bank. I would start forming some of my ideas around some of his words, and vice versa. So he had a few lyrics. There's a few songs where he would give me a line. He's like, "Here's a line. I want this lyric to be in this part." Whether it was just phonetically he liked the sound of the cadence, or if he just liked the story behind a certain lyric.
So he had a thing for “Slow Forever.” We had taken this chunk out of his notebook, it was a poem about a God-type figure on a throne. He had these animals that were inside of this throne that were released and turned against him. That was the poem he wrote for “Slow Forever.” And then I put some lyrics in the beginning around that chunk that he had pulled out of that notebook.
One of the big draws of Cobalt was Phil McSorley’s lyrics. How did you feel about following in his footsteps?
I was a big fan of Cobalt before I joined the band. I'm friends with Phil and I'm friends with Eric. I went on one of the only tours that Cobalt did, as part of Lord Mantis. I met Eric in 2010 when he was playing with Jarboe and I was playing with Nachtmystium. So we toured together and we had a mutual respect for each other. When he asked me to do it I felt a little bit out of my comfort zone because I was unsure about myself. Drums are probably my most confident instrument. I feel like if somebody asked me, "What do you play?" I definitely would say, "I play drums." So, as a vocalist, I was like, "Oh, man, I don't know if I could do it if there's someone else's music." I'd just done it for Lord Mantis but I know all the songs because I was writing them. You’ve really gotta get into someone else's head especially if you're joining as a vocalist to a band that already exists because people have a preconceived identity already for the band. You know the difference between a book and movie? When you read a book and you see the movie? You already have your own abstract idea of what that person wrote?
And you see the movie and it doesn't fit your vision of that book. So it's the same idea with a band. Everyone has their own idea of what that band's identity is and what they see in their head when they listen. I was like, "Oh, man. I hope my idea of Cobalt is what other people's idea of what Cobalt is." I was, I wouldn't say intimidated, but it was definitely unique. I knew I had to give it a lot of attention and I also really wanted to make it good. It was important to me to not half ass it. I didn't want to just go in there in deep vocals and growl into a microphone.
I'm used to your lyrics on Lord Mantis, and the theme of kink is really central to that project. I thought that would carry over into Slow Forever, and you chose not to. Why is that?
Well I feel it is an element in Cobalt. It sounds bad but Phil had this really cruel, sexual element in a lot of those Cobalt lyrics. You know what I mean? What was it, “All the way down into the hotel basements, Stuffing her mouth with my fingers,” something like that. It has almost a serial killer, rapist kind of sound. In a way, he's a fucked up dude. He's a friend of mine but he's a fucked up dude. When me and Eric were talking about lyrics, that really didn't come up as a theme. Lord Mantis was really self-reflective of more and more of what I was going through. How do I put this? It was more straight up and I didn't really write metaphors for what was going on in my life. It was kind of straight, it was real visceral and real and there was no poetry to it.
With this, I guess I got more out of myself. I didn't just write about myself. We were talking a lot about nature, the whole cruelness of existence in a sense and trying to be what he always would say was the noble savage. That's Eric’s words, putting it that way. We were trying to write it from a noble savage mind frame. Dealing with your existence in a really tough landscape. He had just left New York and he has his own things he was doing. I had a lot of really heavy shit that I was dealing with and we were on the same page that way.
I wasn't living the way I was when I was doing Lord Mantis shit. When I was when was doing Lord Mantis shit my life was more dingy, I guess you'd say. I was doing a lot of crazy shit and really exploring the bottom. Some people like to explore their sexuality, I was exploring the depths of how far I can take my addiction, cruelty to myself and to the person I was with. In a way we were both into torturing each other. That's a where a lot of the sexual lyrics from Mantis came.
I'm not in that place anymore. I'm writing these lyrics from a spot of trying to climb back up. I had money when I did that shit. I have no money now. And I'm not all fucked up anymore. I'm living at my parents' house and was just playing Playstation. Living outside of that. I wasn't in this really fucking insane place anymore. So I wrote a lot outside of it. I wrote more about my ideas than about my own personal exploits. I'm not writing about the bottom anymore, is what it really is.
Kink is important to me in my life. Even if it was from this negative standpoint, it was important to me hear [kink] expressed in a metal song, again. People used to do that in the '80s, in Accept and Judas Priest at times, but not in a visceral way. And so that Lord Mantis album did make me feel less like an outcast, I suppose.
The thing is that unfortunately in America we are outcasts. If you want to explore your depth and universe you're going to be a fucking outcast in this world. It sucks but that's how this country is. It's a thin veil of etiquette and kindness. Once you try to reach that back, people slap your hand. They don't want to see what's under it. You know what I mean? A lot of places are more apt to explore that but, yeah, it's a thin fucking veil, man. I mean, people want to lift it up, there's not many of us. Right after my sister passed, about six years ago, I was seeing my brother. Right? And he's a real normal guy. I remember I put a Depeche Mode song on. I love Depeche Mode. they’re maybe my favorite band. Music for the Masses, that's my album. I put it on, and he's like, "Why would you put this shit band on right now?" And I was like, "Well, don't you feel like diving into the sadness of the moment?" People when they get to the point of feeling that intensely, they either shut it out or do what they can to dive into that emotion.So I think people in the U.S., a lot of times get uncomfortable and push it away. I think that's kink style of thinking.
Going back for a second, you have that thought about primitive man. Is that where all the animal imagery comes from? There's song titles like, "Elephant Graveyard," and "Hunt the Buffalo." There's definitely this sense of the mammal kingdom on the record.
A lot of it was from Erik. Like I said, the noble savage and primal man were the words he gave me to start from. We almost wanted to have a post-apocalyptic feeling. He was watching that movie The Road a lot and we wanted to capture the imagery of that, the animal bones and not just human civilization decaying, but all the whole world. When you say those words, animal skin and bones, they bring up images. Do you know what I mean? It's like you're conjuring images into whoever the listener's head from this pile of words. Right? You don't go outside of it, that puts a filter on what they're gonna think.
So that was why we stuck to animal words and to talk about rust, kings, power and decay. It all goes along this kind of color palette where it doesn't necessarily tell a streamlined story, it's more abstract. My colors were brown and green and all these couple colors. You limit yourself to those kinds of colors and have an effect.
And as for “Elephant Graveyard,” some of the stuff, Eric came up with a long time ago. I know him and Phil came up with that years ago. I might be wrong but he said they were at a casino in Vegas and there were these really old people and a buffet or something of the sort.
Very Hunter S. Thompson, the people in the casino, that image.
Yeah, that's where you have an elephant graveyard, talking about these old people dying and being fed a bunch of slop at the buffet in Vegas. So some of the stuff he had for a long time. Some of the songs were from Gin. Some of them were actually older. There's a song on there from before Cobalt, from one of his really early bands.
Which song was that?
“Final Will.” It's something from him and Phil's first band together before Cobalt.
The song we are streaming is “Cold Breaker.” Is that new?
Yeah, that's a new one.
Earlier you mentioned that you went to rehab. I don't know for a fact but it seems like “Cold Breaker” is about breaking addiction.
Yeah, I mean, and also some slasher the stuff that Erik is writing and I'm writing the lyrics for. I do my lyrics in a strange way where they are a patch of words on notebook paper. I have a word bank. I take the words that I want. I use a lot of the same words throughout the record. I use the word kerosene in three or four songs on there. I want to keep the same words going so it really, like I said, paints the picture. On “Cold Breaker” there are several lines about that. And a lot of is the embrace--it's a constant throughout--it’s hard to break something if you're embracing it at the same time, especially if you’re like me.
I'm pretty fucking manic. In the beginning of the day I can be completely blissful, happy and at the end of the day I'm self-destructive. I'm constantly going through these fucking waves. I've been like that since I was a kid. A lot of that song is constantly embracing the self destruction until it gets to the point where it's almost like autoerotic asphyxiation where you get off on how fucking crazy this shit's going.
A lot of my lyrics are thoughts are about that feeling I was having with this same girl I was with at the time. She was the same way about things. She took things to the point where I lost my apartment. “You're getting evicted.” I left and luckily, insanely, neither of us are dead from how far we were taking shit at the time. A lot of stuff on “Cold Breaker” is about that. You want to die so fucking bad but you don't. But you like the feeling of it. You like that feeling of killing yourself. You're really into it. I'll always be a pig in shit whenever I'm sad, I'm gonna put on the saddest music as much as I can. If I feel self destructive, I'll do anything I can to push that feeling to its most extreme point to where it can't go any farther and it turns into something else.
Why do you think that is?
I don't know. I almost want to compare it to the foodie looking for the ultimate steak sandwich. It's a certain flavor you're looking for. You had this insane despair and then it morphed into self destructiveness. Then you're with this chick and then . . . I don't know. The weird love and lust I had for this woman would be pushed by my self-destructive behaviors. And it would end up strange. It would make us closer for a short time.
For a short time.
It just resulted in this bliss. That's the key. It doesn't necessarily have to be sexual to be sexual. Do you know what I'm saying? I guess it was just a way to expressing love or wanting to be close to someone. People would say, "You're in war, you get shot at it makes you closer with the person you went to war with." You know what I mean? That's the truth of it. I think I like to push myself into those spots because at the time it made me closer with the person I was with and we would get really fucked up and end up this state of bliss. I don't know. That's why people fight in relationships.
That might be true.
A lot of is because they want to feel something together. “Why is she always so fucking mean to me?” She's trying to get something out of you. She wants to feel something. She wants to know you like her. She wants to piss you off. Does she piss you off? What can I get out of myself? How far can I push myself? What will come out of it? What will happen? Boredom.
Do you think that that part of your life is behind you though? You said you've been to rehab but at the time you say you want to back to Chicago and it seems like almost every metal musician in Chicago comes into a problem with substances at some point.
Yeah, well, that city's fucked. I miss Chicago. That's my home. I grew up there. I love it. I love the cruelty of it in a sense. Man. I don't think it's behind me by any means. I'm sure I'll put myself through hell till I'm dead. But it’s on the level right now. I'd like to at least be at a point where I can control it. Actually, I'll tell you what, even if I tread fucking light, and I'm still able to work like I was, I have all these other problems, too. My back is completely fucked. I've got two slipped discs. That's given out on me. Eventually it's like, I’ve got to take a little bit of a dip so I can function. But you're not gonna have any fun if you're dead. So I doubt it's all behind me. Hopefully I can just find something a little less crazy. I think that's what it will be. It'll probably just manifest itself in a different way. I don't want to go back to using this shit like I was. I’ve definitely had my fucking slip-ups since I've gone to rehab. It's easier to catch now. I can understand my behavior a lot more. But yeah, I mean, I think it'll just manifest itself in different ways. I'm sure that pig-in-shit mentality of rolling around in my own emotions probably will never end. But to be honest too, doing a bunch of heroin gets old. That gets boring too. Everything's boring.
You're living with your parents. What would you do if your parents ever heard you and I having this conversation right now?
Yeah, well, there's actually not much that they don’t know, especially because they read my interviews. They know all this stuff about me. Nothing shocks them. I was a weird fucking kid. So the weird shit they saw in my bedroom as a teenager probably made it so they can handle anything at this point. They're also on vacation right now. They went to go see my brother in Texas. So I've got the place to myself which means I get to listen to music and play PS4 really loudly. So that's my big thing right now. There's nothing to do in this town. I mean I’m used to the bar culture, I've been here before and had a little bit action here. My big thrill now is I go to Applebee’s and I get a salad and I play PS4 and me and my chick hangout. I'm waiting for all my gear to get here. Because when I left Olympia, I left all my shit there. So I don't have any of my gear. I haven't really writing or anything which has been shitty.
Is your plan to focus on Cobalt full-time?
I mean, it's open really. The reason Cobalt didn't really tour that much was that Phil was an active duty officer. He only got so much leave, which he spent with his family. He has a little girl, he has a wife. So they weren't able to tour a lot. Eric's always wanted to take the band to that level, and he never had the opportunity. He's been with Phil forever. Him and Phil grew up together. That's actually why I was nervous to step into the band. It’s one of those bands that’s been the same dudes the whole time. You know what I mean?
And Lord Mantis, the only reason Mantis didn't tour that much is because the guys I was in the band with really weren't touring kind of guys. After we toured with Cobalt, those dudes complained several months after . . . it wasn't even that bad of a tour! It was a good tour, I thought. They didn't budget their money. Touring is hard work. You gotta drive a ton. You're in the van a bunch, it's uncomfortable. You gotta sleep on people's floors at that level of it. It's not about drinking and getting beers and eating steaks. You have to put the whole performance first and that's why you do it. To perform for the people that got something out of the record. I think I had a million times more personally invested in the band and its management than the guy. I would do that for that music. I would suffer for it. Because it meant something to me. The guys we had in the band, it really didn't mean much. You know what I mean? They can't even take . . . for example, they have the shirt they came out with. It says, "Suck it good," or something [They also now sell women’s underwear that say “Eat it” - Ed.]. They're trying to make it a motif at this point. It was never a personal thing for those guys. It was more just a band to play in. It's continuing without me. But they've taken the . . . you were talking about the kink thing. Right? That was stuff that I wrote about from a personal point of view, but they've turned it into a theme restaurant. You know what I mean? "All right, we're gonna use that as our marketing strategy and run with it, because that's what we're known for is being sexual perverts." See what I mean? Making a t-shirt that says, "Suck it good," I don't know, that missed the point. But not to get off topic, man. I have a lot of ill feelings for those fucking dudes.
If we’re going to be on a tangent, I know the interview's about Cobalt but a lot of people were upset when that last Lord Mantis record came out. Especially because of the word ‘nigger’ in “Body Choke.” What's the story behind that song?
I'm definitely not a racist. It was there because it was the nastiest word I could use. It was effective in that trying to kind of make the . . . how awful everything was, which was going on at that point. I was pretty much a complete outcast in everything during that record. Right? I had a spot where I had a problem with some police officers on the south side. I beat up a cop and shit. It was just the ultimate way of being . . . There's no good way of putting it because you say it from an emotionally 'trying to really pick at yourself' kinda point. But it had nothing to do with black people or a race. And it was the same as that song “White Nigger” by Eyehategod. What he's trying to say in that song is the same thing. If you’re a heroin addict you're the ultimate social outcast. You've got a target the size of fucking Texas on your back. I borrowed that song title from Christian Death. Everything we’ve talked about jumped out at that point: getting beat up by police officers. Fucking everyone in my band hating me. That was where that line, “I am the raping nigger,” came from. It was also a line of cruelty that I expressed earlier with my ex-girlfriend in it. That's where it all stems from. It's hard to explain too, it's so abstract. It was about cruelty and being an outcast. There was no harsher way to put it.
Do you understand why it upset people?
Oh, yeah, I totally understand why, but I wrote the lyric. I'm like, "Well, am I gonna censor myself? This is what I wrote." It's gonna offend people. And I can't say I'm sorry to people it offended. This is just my art. I'm not doing this to please anybody. I'm not doing this to fucking win a popularity contest. I'm not trying to sell records, man. I don't make any money off this shit anyways. All playing music has done is driven me into poverty. I've suffered for it. I'm not trying to please anybody. To me that was the lyric that fit the fucking nastiness of that song. It's a cruel fucking existence. All of these things that happen to you seep into your music.
So if you're not trying to sell records, what is your goal?
Just what I do. I feel the need to do it. I've been making music since as long as I remember. I have a hard time expressing myself through words or communicating. I have a hard time communicating with people, in general. Fuck, man. Being down here, especially with real uppity motherfuckers. Plain, white bread, old ladies, and shit. It's hard to communicate. It's hard to feel like I have a way of connecting with anything. I always connect to music. It felt like a way I could be honest. I've never been good at putting that whole dog and pony show up. Talking to people and etiquette and politeness. I just play music. It's what I do. I can't really tell you why I do it. I find it has immense enjoyment out of making a song. And I think the aspect of wanting to do it publicly is because I feel like it's the only thing I've ever been good at. Everyone wants to do something well and be appreciated for it. I'm fine doing an album. I'm fine doing it for myself and everything. And I pretty much do do it for myself. It's not like I rely on it for all money or anything.
Writing those lyrics poetically was a terrible career decision. That's a terrible thing to say, but I can't fake it. I can't censor. I've got no filter. I've felt I'd been cheated and I was cheating that song if I didn't put it in there. It has nothing to do with race. It's hard to tell people, "Look, it has nothing to do with race. It has nothing to do with me hating anybody." You know what I mean? It's like a painting. It's part of the ugliness of it.
I remember when people were upset at that album cover but, I thought of it as a metaphorical self portrait.
I understand what people are upset about in the lyrics. But the cover? I don't understand how people would think that I hated a group of people based on the cover. If you look at the thing there's a noose coming out of the pit in the arm, where most people shoot up. My friend Jef Whitehead drew it for me, and he used the lyrics as a reference and he knows me well enough to do something like that. I have a lot of those self-mutilation scars on the figure in the album cover. I have the same ones.
I look at that album title and I think sometimes self loathing is dehumanizing.
Self loathing absolutely does. Most of my writing ends up with a certain a level of dehumanization to it. My perspective has always been man is meat. We're just all these meat sticks and once you start thinking of yourself as an animal, outside the culture and outside of race and outside gender, and all this stuff, you’re sitting on the toilet taking a shit like a really intelligent monkey.
I'm getting married. I met this chick, she’s my fiancé right now. And I was talking to her about it. She's asking about me some of the stuff. And I told her when I was writing those lyrics and stuff. I said that a lot of it and a lot of my lyrics in general, are about the need to try to reach for something outside the flesh. The wanting there to be some sort of magic or something outside the hardness. Reaching for the divine and not being there. It's like all these humans in a big field, naked, reaching their hands up, trying to grasp more than just what's there. And you want there so badly to be something outside of this cruelty that you can grab and save you from it. This is the hard facts that are so fucking rough. So I guess that's what most of the lyrics are about. Just trying to reach out of it.