Interview: Tony Foresta (Iron Reagan/Municipal Waste)
Tony Foresta is one of the hardest-working men in heavy music at the moment, and a super nice guy to boot. He's the oft-imitated but never-emulated lead vocalist for neothrash pioneers Municipal Waste. Foresta is now moving into '80s style crossover hardcore with his brain-pounding band Iron Reagan, featuring members of Waste, Cannabis Corpse, and Darkest Hour. They have been touring relentlessly in support of their latest album, the newly released The Tyranny of Will, and brother, if you think the records are killer, wait until you get a load of their live show. I had the distinct pleasure of getting to speak with Foresta about songwriting techniques, life on the road, band artwork, and his unique approach to vocals. 15-year-old Rhys was insanely jealous.
When Iron Reagan are writing songs, what does the songwriting process look like? Say all of you got in a room together and you're jamming, what does that look like and how do you eventually reach a consensus?
You know, we've done it a couple different times, and honestly with the new lineup I think it has been different every time. One of the things we did was, on the [Spoiled Identity] EP, we did this round-robin type thing where we had one guy, like the bass player or one of the two guitar players, just be by himself with a guitar and our drummer in a room, and he'd play a riff, and then the next two would be in another room writing a riff together. So then, the next two would come into the room with their riffs and [the first would] see if it worked with the current song, and if not they would save the riff and the other person would come in the room and try their riff and see if that one worked, and that's how the Spoiled Identity EP was written. It was really weird, but it worked out really good.
This latest record had a lot more riffs because we were on the road a lot and we managed to bring a recording setup with us, so we were recording and writing riffs while we were in the van. We did the tour with GWAR and we did the tour after that with Occultist and a lot of the drives were nine, 10 hours long, so we just had nothing to do. We ended up buying this small guitar, and all three of the guys play guitar, so they were just passing around this guitar in the van and hitting record and writing shit. We used a lot of that stuff. It was really weird. I've never seen a band write like that before, just stockpiling riff after riff after riff. And then I'll come in and write lyrics and take parts I don't like out, or I'll make them play parts over and over again that go better for a chorus, or something like that. We've gotten better at it, especially with the new record, and it leaves a little more room for guitar solos and stuff like that, which was something I'd never really done with a band before.
That seems to be generally how it happens. I play in a band and I'll let the guitarists figure it out and just be like, "Peace, call me in 20 minutes and I'll figure out vocals."
I always add the vocals last unless I have a particular song that's based around vocals. But for the most part, if something is the part where I feel like, "this is where the chorus needs to come in," I'll put my input there. Everybody's pretty open minded; if somebody doesn't like something, we either trash it altogether or see what they like. There isn't really a "Band Nazi" in the band, you know, like a lot of bands have that one dude who has to rule.
Oh, I know, I know...
(laughs) We don't have that, we're all pretty open-minded because we know each other's other bands and we know that we're not dummies (laughs).
So, do you ever produce more songs than y'all can remember? Like, you look at the first record and at Spoiled Identity and there are a ton of songs on each and they're all 30 seconds to a minute long. Do you ever introduce, say, "Eat Shit and Live" and the band starts playing "Eyes Piss Tears" instead?
(laughs) That hasn't happened yet, but I think with the bulk of Municipal Waste songs that I know and the bulk of Iron Reagan songs, I got to start forgetting lyrics sometime. But we practice a lot. If we go on tour, we do mix the set up a little bit but we always have a set group of songs. We'll take some out of the set and put some in, but for the most part it'll be 30 songs total that we work with for each tour. It has been working out really good. I haven't forgotten anything yet. But there are also songs that we've recorded that never came out, that were never finished, and there are tons of that, even from the demo. Me and Phil were talking and we were like, "we need to start going through all that," because there are some killer songs that we just never really had time to finish before the recording date.
Just put it on the next record, that way you've always got a surplus.
Hopefully, if we can find them (laughs).
When Iron Reagan is in the studio, what kind of sound do you look for? Like, say, something big on treble and cutting, or something with a hefty bass end? What sound do you, yourself, or the band prefer in getting out of a studio?
For myself, I like the vocals to cut through. A lot of bands nowadays are doing real heavy reverb, and I like a little bit of distortion on my vocals but not too crazy. I want people to be able to understand the lyrics, kind of like with Slayer where you can tell every word he's saying but it still sounds evil and cuts through. I always want [Iron Reagan] to sound heavy, but I want every instrument to cut through. I want it to have a "live" sound, does that make sense?
That's important to me. I want it to come across live, but be not shitty sounding. (laughs) I'm not good at wording that. Phil's real good at describing the way he wants something to sound, but when I talk to Kurt [Ballou, at God City Studios] and he asks me how I want it to sound, I say that I want it to have a live sound, maybe like a Born Against record but with more balls to it. And he's a '90s dude, so he knows what I'm talking about. I like what he did with the record, he did what I imagined. I was so happy when I first heard it, I couldn't believe it.
Veering from the subject of recording a bit, you guys are on the road a lot. It's how you pay the bills, from what I understand. What keeps you sane and energized on the road? With Municipal Waste and Iron Reagan, you've been on the road a lot over the past decade, and yet every time I've seen either Waste or Iron Reagan, y'all have completely brought it. What strategies do you have to keep yourself focused so that when you play live, you can still bring it?
I try to get as much sleep as possible. For a singer, that's the most important thing. I've had friends of mine that sing in bands that lose their voice a lot, and I used to have that problem too. Basically, anybody who asks me about that, the answer is try to get as much sleep on the road as possible because it's already hard enough to sleep anyway. I'll operate on five hours of sleep a night, and I'm always the first one to go to bed. I mean, I'll party, I'll still hang out with everybody, but there has got to be a point where you got to slip away and get some shut-eye because you got a long drive ahead of you tomorrow and you gotta play to probably more people than tonight.
It gets tough, man. Towards the end of a tour, you can definitely see that we'll get worn out, I get worn out pretty bad. I'm training right now, I'm getting ready to go work out for a while because I'm trying to build up my endurance just for going to South America. We have to fly every day there, and that's almost worse than driving because you don't really get to rest. There are layovers and you gotta be at the airport at six in the morning after you've been at a show til one in the morning and there's not really any sleep. Last time I did South America I didn't really sleep like I usually do.
Yeah, and sleeping on planes, in my experience, is fucking impossible. I absolutely cannot do it.
And days off too, you know? You're always like, "days off, I'm gonna party my ass off!" You should be resting. But I'm guilty of that, too, like, getting drunk for no reason at a truck stop in Albuquerque.
It's so exciting to have a day off, but you got to use your days off as your days OFF unless it's a special occasion, because you're going to regret it two days down the line when you're in New York City and you gotta play to a shitload of people and you're all haggard.
Where are your favorite places to go on tour?
For Iron Reagan, Denver. We've got a lot of close friends there. Whenever we go through there it's just a real warm and fun environment. LA, too. It's the same thing that happened with Municipal Waste: the first three times we played LA it was kind of rough, but now when Iron Reagan plays there it's awesome. LA kids love us now. I also really like the Bay Area. We've probably played the Bay Area, in particular the Oakland Metro, more than we've played anywhere in Virginia. I don't know why, it's just for some reason every time Iron Reagan comes through we've played the Metro, which is great.
This is a question I've had for a while: What are some places where you've played in the past where you play there once and you're just like, "Man, I need to go to law school, this has killed any sort of vibe I had?"
I would say that the Midwest in general, as far as places that make me wanna go to law school. . . I mean, Cleveland fucking rules and there are a few other places, but for the most part it's kind of depressing and they don't really support music the way other places do. And it's sad, because there are some good bands that come out of there, but it's just a weird scene in general. You just wanna blow through there sometimes.
There's a lot of bands that come out of the Midwest, and then they go on tour to get out of there.
Absolutely. Canada has been good to both my bands, though. I really really want to get Iron Reagan over to Europe because a couple of the guys have never really toured Europe -- though me and Phil and Ryan have done it a million times -- so that's an exciting thing about doing a new band as well, taking these guys to different places.
Definitely, and definitely playing different places than you would have with Municipal Waste.
I love dive bars, playing small venues, and house shows.
Yeah, my band, MRSA, opened for you guys in Asheville a few months ago. If it had been Municipal Waste it would have been too big of a show to play at that venue, but for Iron Reagan it was perfect.
That was a fun-ass night, man.
That was like a diamond in the rough. We were not expecting that. We were having a tough time, having vehicle breakdowns, we were at the mechanic all day. We get there and it was just smiling faces and Jell-O shots.
I remember the Jell-O shots.
Yeah, I look back on that one fondly, can't wait to go back there. And you guys were awesome too, man.
Good times, man, good times. Moving out of that, tangentially, who does a lot of your artwork? Do you ever come up with designs? When you all have a design, how do you parse over what goes on a T-shirt or an album?
For the most part I pretty much direct all the art for the band. There's been a few shirt designs that Phil would find people to do, but for 90% of the stuff, I oversee it just because I want it to look a certain way. I don't want it to look all "thrash revival," you know? Nothing against that, I just want it to look different from what a lot of bands are doing now.
Not going into the whole "toxic waste/zombies" thing.
Yeah, I mean, I've already done that, and [Iron Reagan] itself has a different aesthetic, so I don't want it to be lumped in visually with other shit I've done or with what a lot of other people are doing currently. I think we've done a good job trying to separate the two. I like most of imagery we've done, I like the new album cover. I think the artwork we've done for the new album looks a lot different from what most records are doing right now.
Who designed the "Don't Break the Gooch" shirt? Because that one is awesome.
That's our buddy Sam. He does all the Speedwolf artwork. Phil got him involved to do another design and I got him to do the "Don't Break the Gooch." Sam's also done a couple of other shirt designs for us, as well as working on the EP cover. Yeah, he's awesome. Are you familiar with the Speedwolf artwork?
Yeah, I've been wanting one of those wolf pentagram patches for a while. Those things are sick. Moving again in a different direction, whenever you hear Iron Reagan or Municipal Waste, you know it within seconds because you've got this really distinctive voice. How did you develop that voice? What influenced it? Do you feel it's in any way different when you're doing Iron Reagan than when you're doing Municipal Waste, or do you generally keep it fairly uniform?
I think in Municipal Waste I sing a lot faster, sort of screaming more. There's a lot more rapid-fire vocals in Municipal Waste, it's like "dadadadadadada" rapid-fire shit. I try not to do that as much with Iron Reagan. I don't have a deep voice, I have a higher-pitched voice, so I just shout a lot more. My main influences are Sam McPheeters from Born Against. When I was a kid, what made me want to sing the way I do was listening to a lot of DC hardcore. Ian MacKaye is a big influence on me vocally, especially when I was younger, like, "you're kind of an asshole but you're screaming your heart out because you care about it." And I listen to a lot of S.O.D., I really like Billy Milano's approach. Pat Dubar from Uniform Choice. A lot of people compare me to Kurt Brecht from D.R.I. and I think that's just because we have a higher-pitched voice and we both do rapid-fire vocals, and I've never really tried to emulate him at all. We're good friends now. It's funny, I sat up with Kurt one night and was playing him all these bands that influenced me and I played him Born Against and Dropdead and stuff like that. He was like, "I know all these people say you try to sound like me, and I don't understand it. I'm listening to this right now and I think you seem more influenced by this guy than what I'm doing." I was like, "Man, that's totally how I feel, too." Just hearing it come from him was a huge compliment to me. I'm not trying to be anyone else, they're just influences on me.
It's just what I grew up listening to when I started wanting to scream in bands.
And it's one of those things where, as one develops as a vocalist, you develop your own style. That is certainly the way it happened for me.
Iron Reagan and Municipal Waste are both essentially thrash metal, although in different ways, like Iron Reagan is more crossover hardcore while Municipal Waste is more Bay Area. But you also did No Friends for a while and Phil's in Cannabis Corpse. What are some non-thrash or non-hardcore influences that you can think of, if any, that have found their way into Iron Reagan?
Oh yeah, Ryan, our drummer, he was in City of Caterpillar. I don't know if you've ever heard of them.
They were like an offshoot of pg.99. We listen to Devo, we listen to a lot of crazy shit. A lot of heavy metal. Like you said, I was doing that hardcore band, and people thought that sounded like D.R.I., which I thought was ridiculous (laughs). I didn't think it sounded anything like D.R.I. I listen to a lot of melodic punk and pop-punk and shit.
Like Pegboy. Pegboy is a really great band. I love the way that they bring back choruses and make songs that wouldn't normally be catchy. I like Scratch Acid a lot, Jesus Lizard. I mean, I saw Jesus Lizard like four times when I was a kid, one of my all-time favorite bands.
It doesn't have to be metal, it doesn't have to be punk, or hardcore as long as it has passion to it. I like Tegan and Sara too, I listen to Tegan and Sara all the time, I don't give a shit (laughs).
You like what you like, man. People who judge other people for liking non-metal music are stupid.
They're narrow-minded and they're probably young (laughs).
Yeah, they're probably, like, 14 years old. Would you ever think about doing a non-metal side project? I should say, like not metal, punk, or hardcore?
I've thought about it, but I'm not a very good singer. I'm more of a shouter. I grew up for so long in the scene. I have a couple ideas of what I want to do, but it has got to be interesting, it has to be weird, and able to keep my attention. But I have a couple projects in mind that are going to happen someday. Who knows, next Iron Reagan shit might be totally off-the-wall. That's what I love about Iron Reagan is that we can do whatever the fuck we want. It's still so new that it doesn't really matter what we do.
It's not quite as established yet, so there's still a good amount of leeway.
And we can take it to wherever the hell we want, and that's an exciting place to be right now. So when I do the Iron Reagan country album next year you're gonna know what I'm talking about (laughs).
You gonna have Hank III on that?
Who knows? I've heard that guy's pretty open-minded.
If you'll permit me here, total fanboy question: you're stuck on a desert island with food, water, duct tape, and three classic '80s/'90s hardcore records. What are they?
Faith/Void split, anything by early Discharge. . . fuck, man. . . Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade.
Oh, I love that album! It's so good!
(laughs) Cool! I'd say for honorable mention Dag Nasty's Can I Say? That's like my favorite album.
Has there ever been talk of doing a Municipal Waste/Iron Reagan/Cannabis Corpse/Volture/whatever tour, just having one big tour where most of the people are shared between those bands? Maybe put Burnt By The Sun in there as well?
There has been talks about it, and then we would walk away from whoever mentioned it (laughs). I don't think any of us want to play two to three shows a night for an entire tour. It's already exhausting enough just doing one set a night. Some guys do that in other bands, like my buddy Chris Ulsh is in Impaler and Power Trip. But no, I don't think I'd want to do that. It's good to establish your own thing and have that going on, you don't need to cling on each other's side bands all day long. Although I like every one of my bands' side bands. I'm really lucky to be in a band with so many talented musicians, you know?