How to Survive Treason, With Nick Holland of Sunlight’s Bane
A renaissance man, Detroit’s Nick Holland never rests. He’s a show promoter, a filmmaker and, more and more, a metal vocalist of some renown. His band Sunlight's Bane melds political grindcore and hardcore with traditionalist black metal and noise. Their upcoming first album The Blackest Volume (Like All Earth Was Buried) is a harrowing listen. Holland screams as if the skin is being peeled off his body, extremities-first.
For valentine's day, a gift: the record in full, plus Holland’s story of how the band came to be, the trials and tribulations of living in Detroit while making it, and how Michigan remains so isolated from the musical world at large.
Sunlight’s Bane has been around for some time, but used to be called Traitor. Why don't you walk me through the the formation of Traitor and then becoming Sunlight's Bane?
So all of us were coming out of different genres when were younger. I was about 20 at the time. I had quit my former band, which was a metalcore band, because I felt no connection to sort of the crowd and what the band was going for. It was very by-the-numbers and faked. There was a formula for what you had to do and if you followed that, just like a mathematic formula, there would be success. It just became the right time for me to leave the band. A close friend of mine named Chris, who's our guitarist, contacted me. One of my favorite bands is Pig Destroyer, so I wanted to do something very sort of unhinged like that. No click tracks, no clean recordings, just something raw. And he wanted to do more of a black metal project. We were the only people we knew who wanted to start a band. We played for about a year with no full lineup. Neither of us knew where to take it, how we wanted to present ourselves or what the band wanted to be. So we just played a few shows with friends filling here and there.
Our really good old friends Cody and Nate were forming a black metal band called Winterus. They had quit their bands and they were excited about what we were doing in Traitor. It just got to the point where we said, "Why don't you guys just join because you're out of a band and we only have half an actual line-up?" We booked some out-of-state mini-tours for about two years while everybody was still in college and trying to figure what kind of band we wanted to be.
The Shadowheart EP was really when we started, as a band, writing together. The next few years, 2012 until 2014, was us writing while we were still booking tours and playing shows locally. The plan was always to change the original name. We just called it Traitor because at the time I started the band with Chris and I was so sick of metalcore bands having some five word band name and they pretended they had deep meaning. My only thought was, "I just wish metal bands named themselves after one word that sounded cool.” It never was the right time to change it until right before we finished writing the debut record. I said to myself, "Okay, well, if we ever are gonna change the name, now is the time to do it. Why don't we name our band after one of our old songs, so if people ever search out the old material, they'll come back to this new version." We picked the song "Sunlight's Bane". That's how we got to where we're at.
What was the band you were in before you started Traitor?
It's a band called And Hell Followed With. It was on Earache Records. It's been seven years since I quit the band, so it doesn't come up as much, but it's funny how many friends I've made who actually listen to that band and didn't know that I was in it. It was kind of bitter when I left the band, so I don't often talk about it. When we first started, the fans of that band were annoyed because the band had just begun. We'd just released a record and as soon as it came out, I quit.
There is a vibrant little black metal and hardcore scene in Michigan that rarely gets any attention outside of the state. It’s interesting first that a band has accomplished that, and second that it’s such a harsh band like Sunlight’s Bane.
Michigan is either ahead of the curve with bands or their bands are years behind. There's always this sense of isolation. Michigan itself is almost completely isolated, being a peninsula, so touring out of it has huge difficulties. That's why you see so many great Michigan bands kind of just die off because there's so much difficulty in just simply even doing a weekend tour to go to Wisconsin and Chicago.
The environment makes it difficult, too. Michigan's literally covered in ice for sometimes six months out of the year. Touring is a hazard if it's not summer.
Even just playing local shows. If you're from Detroit and you want to play in Toledo, Ohio, it's all expressway and it's all iced. It gets to the point where you're making shows with weather that other bands would just cancel on. You quite often are taking a lot of risks even playing shows within a 40 minute radius half the year.
The problem with Michigan is the guarantees are so low and the turnout is also low. It's a lose-lose for a lot of touring bands, which is a shame. But maybe that fuels the innovation there.
That's another reason you see scenes that don't even let the good Michigan bands in. They're so used to having nobody come out that people just have this attitude, they say, "Fine, we'll do it ourselves." So they start the bands that they wanna see. That was us. We started the band playing the music that we wanted to see. Political blackened crust bands were not gonna come to Michigan.
You're right in that that's a very niche style. One of the interesting things about a project like Sunlight's Bane, and you outlined this in your press blast for the album, is that the two main styles at play seem to be '90s hardcore, which is very aggressively, politically left, and '90s black metal, which is pretty aggressively, politically right. So there's a lot of people who would say, probably on both sides of the aisle, that these two ideas should not mix. But you've done a really good job of balancing what's great about both of them together. Where does the idea to put those together come from?
It started very pragmatically. Instead of forcing anybody to write what they don't wanna write, let's find a way to make it work. Which is why it took so many years for us to have material that we're proud of. So much of it was material that was us experimenting, but we just released it publicly if we liked it. The overall approach was raw and stripped down and doing it just with the need to play. A lot of black metal bands from the 90s, they weren't good. They were a bunch of people who weren't very talented. Some were, some were very good bands, but by and large, a lot of them were like the punk bands of the '80s. They were people for whom the message and the act of playing were more important. What they were going to do was more important sometimes than even the songwriting or the presentation of it live. The metallic hardcore bands were kind of saying the same thing. I like early Earth Crisis, but those guys at that time were not amazing musicians but they didn't care. It wasn't about technicality, proficiency or how clean it was. Not that there's this overall message our band, but it's kind of the same approach of it's just about playing live and creating a specific feeling, and then behind that it's all writing music to fit that mindset, which is basically how I feel both black metal and '90s hardcore were. While the music and the main ideologies are different, the approach is quite similar on the surface.
While we’re talking about ideology. You’re a progressive-minded person but also enjoy some classic black metal as well. How do you square up with enjoying a band whose members might espouse something you find abhorrent?
There are some projects I just flat out won't listen to, especially ones that are active and supporting an ideology that I don't agree with. Or at the very least, I won't buy their merch because it's, in my opinion, a show of support. But if I'm listening to a record of antiquity, a record of a band with guys who are dead or don't play anymore, I might just not publicly align myself to it. The really, really extreme opinions, I just can't align myself with. When it comes to some things I don't agree with it, but it's not necessarily as severe, my justification is that I enjoy the music but I don't support the message. It's in my mind, it's kind of like watching ‘Last House on the Left’ or some exploitative grindhouse horror movies. Yeah, maybe there are scenes of rape being depicted or sexual assault or murder. Unless it's for something that's glorifying that, I don't support it. I think the difficulty in music is because it is so much more personal, even though film is as well. Things are written in films for a reason, but I think people are able to distance themselves from abhorrent instances of film because there's this belief that, "Oh, well, this is all fiction. This is all kind of just smoke and mirrors, whereas music is all real."
And as someone who's a filmmaker, I can say, "No, there's a lot put into film. Buried under the surface of the filming is the writer or the director." The way it's shot. All of that is, in some way, a representation of the people making it as well, and you don't seem to see a lot of people distance themselves from films that kind of contain ideologies that they inherently disagree with as well. The short version of the answer is I separate myself and I'll say, "This is not what I agree with. I don't support this," and I'll distance myself from what this is saying. I imagine it's almost the same thing, but not to as severe a degree, with people who are atheists viewing a Christian band or religious band. They don't care about the message at all. They just separate themselves and listen to the music.
This is just a tangent and this doesn't exactly have to do with Sunlight's Bane, but you did mention that you are a filmmaker and in that vein, your new movie, ‘Wronged’ is a revenge movie. It is a violent film, is it not?
Yes, it is. I wrote the film while living in Detroit in a venue the during a horrible summer. This is an example of life finding its way into someone's art, even though it may not be on the surface. We lived in Detroit, my wife and ,I before we got married. That summer our house flooded chest-high and my roommate lost thousands of dollars in equipment because the city shut off our grid's pump to triage the entire system during flooding. So our grid was chosen to be the one to flood so that all the others would not. So we suffered. There was nothing we could do about it. We didn't have renter's insurance because we were running an illegal venue. My car was stolen while we were there. It was a brand new car. The week I bought it, it was stolen. We were robbed numerous times while we lived there. We lived on food stamps and I carried a gun illegally and I was struggling with a lot of things in my life. I found myself, at the time, questioning what I believed and who I was. It was really the first time I felt I was growing up because I was trying to figure out, who am I in these situations. The film was my anger with the world and all my annoyances with seeing people who I knew were bad people kind of prosper while I suffered. As selfish of a thought as it was, that's where the idea of the film grew from.
That was the same time you were writing a lot of the Sunlight's Bane material, wasn't it?
Yeah, we wrote a good chunk of the album in the basement of that house.
Is it too far to see the movie ‘Wronged’ and TBVLAEWB as sort of complementary expressions of that same feeling?
Some elements of the record. We wrote the record over the course of two years, so there were probably 10 songs that were ready for the record that we had to scratch. But I would say the four [newer] songs are pretty similar in emotion and feeling to what I was feeling in the first two months it took me to write the script for ‘Wronged’. So ‘Wronged. is kind of an encapsulation of this singular season and what was going on there, where as this album is kind of a growing reflection of the two years we wrote it in. We grew up while writing it. We kicked out a band member while writing it who was an original member and one of my best friends. So the album has this feeling of growth because of how long we wrote and the course of writing was over a long period of change for all of us.
There were other things going on at that time, too, because I know that also during those two years were the two years that you were involved with Don't Call It a Fest, right?
Tell me about the whole story of how that fest came to be and why it is no more.
The first year, we did it as kind of a mocking show back in the day and something that will still happen now, where people will have what they call festivals and it will be, you know, a one-two package of 3 bands and then 15 locals or regionals, and then they call it a fest. And really, it's not a fest, it's just a very long show. And we wanted to do a show that was just packed full of awesome, awesome bands from around the country that we'd always wanted to see. It was kind of a self-deprecating joke, Don't Call It a Fest, because ours wasn't a festival at all, just a really long show. The first year was an overwhelming success and there was kind of nothing like it in Detroit, so we decided to do a second year.
We had packages offered to us because people needed a date and they just worked out. The next two years were us booking, trying to do something special that wasn't just local bands with four bigger bands. We tried to do something special and have a big line-up, but I think we kind of lost sight of that trying to do some of these festival elements. Some of the biggest problems we encountered were guarantees. Going back to what we talked about in Michigan. We were two guys who have no corporate backing and no investors in a state that draws lower than every other state. We had to ride the lines going, "Okay, this band's not gonna bring anybody, but they're affordable," and then going, "This band would bring a lot of people, but they want, say, $5000”. We had a series of cancellations, booking the band beforehand and then they'd drop to play some other show or they'd book some other show the next day within a 50 mile radius, but then also still charging you $3000. It would be something everybody would remember, but if we wanted to do that, we were going to lose thousands of dollars, so we could not book those bands.
We broke even, but just barely and that was after months and months of stress. We weren't even going to do the third year until another package was offered to us and we said, "Okay. Maybe we can pull this off." And it was the same thing. We would be in negotiations with a band and we would say, "Okay, we've locked them in," and then the moment we'd lock them in, we'd turn down other packages we didn't have. We had used our budget. Then after that, the band with the agent would come back and say, "Hey, we need more money," and we'd say, "Well, we can't afford that," and then they, "Well, we're gonna walk." So we turned away other packages to keep the one we had, only to be betrayed by them after the fact. That was the constant process of agents trying to gouge as much money as they could out of us but not letting us reap any of the rewards, which is why we eventually said, "All right, we're never doing this again."
The bands wanted to come here but wanted three times what they asked anywhere else, as if playing a show to a packed room was doing us a favor, and not us doing them a favor of giving them a cool show. "We'll come play your stupid state, but you're gonna have to pay as a lot more." That was the extortion that we were dealing with and that's why we just said we're not gonna play ball and stopped doing it.
You're in a successful band, you're a filmmaker, you're a show promoter, family man. How do you have the energy to do all of this in your life?
I also just went to school to become an EMT and to change jobs and now I'm gonna start working on an ambulance in Detroit as well, just to further illustrate the point. I don't know, to be honest. I've had people ask me that. A good chunk of it has to do with who I married and that she's also in a band. My wife, Katie, definitely puts up with a lot more than I think most people would and that's a huge starter. On top of that I'm also working a full-time job. I sleep on average four hours a night, but I have no health insurance. I also have nothing in savings. I have had to make a lot of necessary sacrifices to do this while having a semi-comfortable life. Sometimes I'll eat ramen for dinner so that I can afford to have the extra gas to drive to a show a week later. Everything is a check and balance, every decision is weighed. "Okay, well if you spend this $100 for Christmas, just know that you have $1000 you still have to spend this week on shoots. Okay, well, I have to cut this in the budget of the film or I have to buy less gifts." And it's just a constant series of sacrifices like that.