Interview: Skeletonwitch’s Scott Hedrick
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Scott Hedrick is a lifer. As one half of Skeletonwitch's dueling lead guitar team, he has steered his band from barn parties to massive festivals without sacrificing his band's unabashedly traditionalist approach to extreme metal. Not that traditionalist means conventional. Skeletonwitch blend classic metal, thrash, death and black metal—and package their hybrid sounds in easy-to-digest songs. They peddle their wares on a seemingly endless stream of cross-country tours.
I spoke with Scott right before embarking on an especially gruesome round of shows: 60 dates in just under two months. We spoke about his writing duties, the reality of touring, and the shaky middle ground between mainstream and underground, a razor's edge that Scott Hedrick walks every time he picks up a guitar.
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I saw that headlining tour schedule and thought to myself, "jesus, they're gluttons for punishment."
Yeah! Once we sat down and looked at the map, I just thought 'fuck, fuck fuck.' We joke around about how punishing it's going to be. But the worst day on tour beats the best day working at an office or a factory. So really, we have no room to complain.
What's the hardest thing about being on tour, for Skeletonwitch?
OH! That's hard. For a tour that long it's going to be night after night of giving it everything you've got. But at the same time it's not difficult when you love what you do. It can get tiring. All five of us have girlfriends or what have you at home, family and friends. But at the end of the day it's not that difficult. We're used to this. If we didn't want to do it, we wouldn't.
But at the same time things have been going your way in the past few years—you have an audience. I think most bands would look at your career and think, "that's a pretty good gig."
Thank you for saying so. I agree completely. We've been doing this for 10 years and we've always done things our way. We used to book all of our tours ourselves. We grew the band we wanted to. There wasn't some promotional company helping us explode overnight. It's just that each record sold a little better than the last, and we got better opportunities for touring. When you build a sturdy foundation people do come out. The impression I get is when you bust ass and believe in what you're doing you can build a steady fanbase and respect. We've had a lot of people from other companies sort of pat us on the back. I was talking with someone from Metal Blade and he said “Man. I champion your band all the time and I didn't even sign you!”
It's a testament for working hard and not taking anything for granted. It's just time and hard work. Last week I was at a festival in Finland [Tuska Open Air] playing in front of thirty thousand-odd people. I never thought that would happen.
Was there a fanbase waiting for you in Finland?
There was some. There were definitely people with Skeletonwitch shirts and people who came up to us afterward and said they'd been waiting for us. There were more people who didn't know much about us. It was more of an exposure thing, it was not the Beatles getting off the plane. But there were some people waiting—including some people organizing the festival who said they'd been trying to get us there for some time. I told them they should have called me! Shit, if I'd known people were trying to get us to Finland I would have gone years ago. So it was a mix of die hard fans and everyone else at the festival. It's always exciting when you're somewhere for the first time and just show them what you can do.
So when you're onstage, can you tell if you're having a good reaction or not—right in the moment?
It really depends on the show. For instance there are a lot of Europeans who don't know us, so we'll see a few kids headbanging up front, maybe a small mosh pit, but mostly people just walk by and stand there. If after a few songs we see the horns go up—then we know. But if we're doing a headlining show at a small club, usually the kids are going crazy. It's mayhem, and you know they're loving it right off the bat. Particularly in mainland Europe they're more laid back and chill, they just sit and enjoy it. This was our sixth time in Europe and after that time we've realized that they're very meticulous about their metal—they're kind of picky about it. They're analyzing—but those are the people who will come up after a show and shake your hand and buy all kinds of merch! I usually say, "I thought you didn't like us. You were just standing there with your arms crossed." It's particularly a German thing. I can relate to it. The older I get the less I'm jumping off stage and the more I'm standing in the back with a beer. Hangin’ out, enjoying it. But sometimes you don't know what someone thinks until they're done.
What makes a good performance to you?
On the one level it's just playing well. Playing the songs without losing sight of what's going on at the musical level. That's not really a problem at the touring level. Every so often somebody misses a note because they're headbanging or whatever but we put a lot of emphasis on that. We can sit down on chairs and play the song exactly like the record. We could sit around and drink beers with the CD on the speakers and it will sound exactly the same. Or we could bring energy into it, run around on stage, headbang, make it a living, breathing thing and maybe sacrifice some of that perfection. We know when it's a good show. When we're all having fun, and putting energy into it, it's a good show, whether it's two people or twenty thousand. Back when we did everything DIY we played a lot of shows to the sound guy and his girlfriend—it happens—we still needed to bring it so that sound guy told his friends, "you should have come seen Skeletonwitch." Word of mouth means so much. You never phone it in. That's what makes a good performance—not letting outside factors upset you.
Then what makes a good song?
Ooh, that's tough. We could sit here for days and debate it.
I think some of the obvious stuff would be: memorable songwriting, riffs that stick in your head and interesting interplay. Some bands have a very distinct formula, they stick to it and don't deviate much. Well, we operate within a certain framework I suppose. In the sense that you won't hear a 50-minute prog Odyssey from us. That's just not going to happen! But we like to keep our songs distinct from one another.
Whether someone is drawn to lyrics or to a drum pattern is all subjective. How many of your reivewers disagree on whether an album is good or not?
On our end we do what feels natural to us. If Nate writes a riff that gives us chills then we know we need to use it, even if it's less metal and more rock n roll, for example. We're totally self serving, trying to fill a void of what we'd like to hear.
I'm with you and I'm not. Is everything subjective? I'm not sure that it is.
Ok, there is some stuff that is absolutely terrible, and some albums that are absolutely classics. But there's a huge gray area in between. If you're going to say Reign in Blood is a horrible album you're a fucking idiot, but that's about it. You can call a spade a spade but sometimes people need to be really divided on something.
You don't see yourself as particularly divisive, do you?
No, not at all. I do think there are some people that only like modern metal, the core stuff with 808 drops and breakdowns, and when they hear our band it's not their cup of tea, but I don't think we're very divisive.
And here I went into this and I was telling myself that I wasn't going to talk about Forever Abomination, but you led me right into it!
It is the most modern-sounding one, don't you think?
Yeah, absolutely. We wanted to see what it was like to take it a little more polished, something huge sounding. And that was cool but we try to do something different every time. I'm gonna say we probably aren't going to go much further than that as far as modern-sounding production goes. Most of the metal that we like is actually older metal, but just because you like that stuff I don't think it's necessary to sound like it. That being said, I also think it's a huge mistake to get too clinical, like the album is played by robots and very compressed. I think there's a happy medium and on that record I think we got closer to it. I don't think we want to make the album sound like it was recorded live through a boom box, but at the same time I don't want it to sound like R2D2, so we're trying to find the balance. We want you to be able to hear everything that we're doing. And we have a few things in place to make sure that things stay that way—for instance everything we play is in standard tuning, and we all use tube amps. Right now we're talking about producers for the new record . . . I can't let you print who we're talking to, but I can tell you it's definitely a step away from modern. It's definitely not Andy Sneap.
But you guys don't write in the studio, right? You have it all done before hand.
Oh yeah, we show up ready to go. There's always a couple recommendations, but when we get there we know where every note and accent and drum fill goes. Every time we make a record the producer asks if he can make recommendations and every time we say the same thing: make all the recommendations you want, but know that we're going to say no to 95% of them!
And they're always cool with that. Typically very little gets changed in the studio. Where we usually get help is mic placement, trying out different amps, just to get the sound right, but not songwriting.
If everything is so rock-solid that makes me wonder how long it takes to write a Skeletonwitch song.
Well our songs aren't very long.
Well yeah, but if everything is so surgically precise like you said, it sounds like a detail-oriented process. How long does that take?
It can take a little while. I have to give credit where credit is due: Nate, our other guitarist, is the main writer. I have ideas and riffs, which I record on a four-track and burn to CDs. They used to be taped, but now that we're digital I can just send him an email with . . . 20? Twenty different riffs. And he might add them in. Sometimes he shows up with a whole song, with two guitar parts and a drum machine and Evan will write his bass part. Nate's the cook, but we all work in the kitchen. He's a great composer, he can write something from beginning to end. I'm not so good at the big picture, I'm more focused on odd ideas and chord progressions. In the band we all give Nate as much fodder as we can and work on his compositions later. He starts the basis, but everyone has their chance to contribute so nobody feels stunted or frustrated. To give you a more literal answer, right now we have one song already in the can for the new record, and we're going to take all of late November, December, January and February off and start to record in mid-March, or at least that's the plan.
Is there any particular moment in a song that you did and feel really proud of?
Sure! On the new album, the song “This Horrifying Force”. To give you an example, after it kicks in past the acoustic intro, those first four riffs I wrote. He wrote the acoustic intro leading in, and then the ending parts of the song. I had the beginning and he had the great picture of where it could go.
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Skeletonwitch - "This Horrifying Force"
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Most of my songs are pretty linear--there's no verse-chorus-verse-chorus, usually. But, on the song “Baptized in Flames”, what you would call the chorus is a part I wrote. Beyond the Permafrost is some of mine. On the song “Soul Thrashing Black Sorcery”, the twin guitar lead began as a run Nate thought up to base a twin guitar lead on, but I wrote my own lead. One of my big functions is to write bits to break him out of his writer's block.
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Skeletonwitch - "Baptized in Flames"
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You guys have done the slow, gradual career arc for the last 10 years. What do you think of upstart bands that record a demo or an EP, and the next year have an album streaming on NPR?
I don't know why that happens, that something will just catch on with print and the 'cool' kids. But it doesn't really bother me, because I never believe it will be a long-lived thing. I’m sure those bands do some cool festivals that I wish I could do, but I don't get to play because I tour with some more mainstream metal acts here and there. It's funny, you get tainted from doing a tour. “Ooh, I used to like your band until you played with Children of Bodom”. OK dude. Go back to cutting yourself in the basement. Do you like bands or just the way they are presented and appear?
We did one Ozzfest and it was shocking how many people just started telling us to fuck ourselves. I was like “We're doing this with Goatwhore and Saviours. Are you gonna give them this much flak?” It's ridiculous—we didn’t change our look, our style, our sound, our setlist, or write any new songs for Ozzfest. And we did it with two bands full of our friends. Fuck yeah we’ll do it, but I guess that discounts us from doing some of these cooler, smaller festivals.
We've never been a darling of the critics. I think it's because our sound is so amorphous and we've toured with these bigger acts. But I do believe that if you're one of those other bands, then you're living in a bubble. You can only get so big before it becomes uncool and the bubble pops. I don't think these doomy or—I'm using fingerquotes here—artsy bands have what it takes to stick around. It's one of those in-the-moment things.
What bothers me more are these bands that are really successful but play horrible music.
Now . . . I want examples but that's a horrible thing to ask.
I can't do that, man, just because talking shit is uncool, but I can tell you what I'm talking about is the sort of metalcore vibe with 808 bass drops. I'm not into it. There is nothing appealing, to me, about having everyone onstage essentially playing drums with their instrument. It's a rhythmic thing, to play two chords at different rhythms. That's not good songwriting.
What gets my goat is when I meet these bands, I give their music a shot, I introduce myself and start a conversation, and I'm always curious what these guys are into. I ask them what they like and it's always the strangest answers. I asked someone that the other day and his answer was “I don't know. We like all kinds of stuff.” OK, so what makes you want to play drums? “Well we just want to be the biggest band that we can.” And I'm thinking—to get the most fans? To be a big band? That's the artist's statement? That gets my goat more than a really kvlt band that comes out of nowhere and gets to do some cool stuff for a bit. If that stuff's not horribly creative, you know, it's probably not going to stick around.