There’s no homework necessary to prepare for Ringworm’s recently released Seeing Through Fire. If you’re at all familiar with them across their 30-year history then you know their metallic hardcore is more riffs than breakdown, equal parts thrash and grindcore, and purely vitriolic. The group’s evergreen quality is in part due to their stubbornness and belief in their own identity. They’ve never attempted to disrupt their sound. Instead, they adjust it on a microscopic scale. However, Seeing Through Fire is as close to a return to their roots as possible for Ringworm, as if it’s been encased in ice since the early 90s. It’s as pure of a representation of the band as their debut.
Persistence and consistency are the keys to Ringworm. Nothing on Seeing Through Fire should shock regular listeners, but that’s not the point. As with any act that garners a reputation for reliable quality, Ringworm have cultivated an impossible-to-fully replicate aesthetic, something that vocalist James “Human Furnace” Bulloch is aware of, though even he can’t quite put his finger on their X-factor. The surprise of a new Ringworm release isn’t the sound, but the fact that they’re still so good and worth listening to without changing too much. Like other legacy acts such as Motorhead, you don’t turn to Ringworm for innovation, you tune in for how they use their tools. Though, in the case of their latest album, there is a surprise guest solo from Voivod’s Daniel Mongrain, one that disorients Ringworm’s framework and, through deeper inspection, reveals Human Furnace’s approach to vocals.
Prior to Seeing Through Fire’s release, the gruff Human Furnace chatted with us about the group’s songwriting process, their longevity, and his side project Gluttons.
Do you find that your influences have gotten newer and more modern as the years have gone on?
James Bulloch: It all starts with Matt (Sorg). He’s our songwriter. We’re all in our early 50s but mentally we’re all frozen at 15, and Matt’s one of those guys that if something came out after 1988, in his eyes, it sucks. That’s fine, it keeps what we do pure. It keeps us sounding the way we sound. Lyrically, I just add my two cents to it, and vocally I don’t have much range. My musical toolbox has three hammers in it – a large one, a small one, and a medium one.
You’ve mentioned before how Ringworm is like Motorhead or AC/DC where you can go into a new album already knowing what you’ll hear. As the new album shows, the music still holds up. There’s still music to be mined from an unchanging approach, and it’s interesting to think about it that way.
Yeah, we’ve never found the need to change anything. Everyone in this band plays in other bands. I don’t particularly listen to a ton of bands that sound like Ringworm. There are a ton of bands that play heavy and fast, and I listen to them and they’re great, but I don’t usually listen to that type of music a lot. But I’m not going to bring my outside influences into Ringworm because Ringworm is its own thing. And I think all of us in the band know what we do best so we stick with it.
We still try to improve on that and reinvent our own wheel, though not reinvent the wheel, but we keep it the same but change it up slightly. To the untrained ear, it all sounds the same. But you could say that to just about any genre. You could listen to a country song if you’re not a country fan and say it all sounds the same. But if you’re a country fan then you can point out if a song is different from another.
Looking at it from a musician’s perspective, some of it comes down to you pushing yourselves, even if that doesn’t come through. Making smaller advancements is self-fulfilling in a way.
It’s easy for Matt because he’s a riff machine. I mean, he probably has another record ready for us now, I wouldn’t doubt it. He has no trouble pumping music out. Whatever direction he’s feeling for a song or album in general. Baked into our DNA from the start has been hardcore, grindcore, thrash, and even some doomy riffs, we’ve mixed it all together. And from record to record, sometimes the percentages vary. But with the new one, we’ve taken it back to the early days when things were even across the board. It’s riff-centric. I mean, we’ve never been a breakdown-focused band. We have breakdowns, but some bands are 95% breakdowns whereas we’ve always been about the riffs.
Speaking of that, you have Daniel Mongrain on “Death Hoax.”
Oh yeah, that was such a score to be able to get him to do this. We’re all huge Voivod fans, and we’ve had the chance to tour with them a few times. On a personal level, it’s 15-year-old James’ dream. They’re awesome dudes and we’ve gotten to be decent friends with them. When we were getting to the end of the record it was a weird time cause it was the pandemic and the lockdown and everything was all fucked up. We were able to get ahold of him. We’re not huge on bringing in a ton of guests, but we thought we should give Dan a shot. He agreed to do a solo for Ringworm and we didn’t know what we were gonna get with it. We were so pumped when he sent it back to us because the style is so weird. It’s insane, his timing, everything about it is so unusual but it’s amazing. It contrasts with Matt’s style. They’re so different but Dan’s contribution fits the song so well. I love that song so it’s gonna be tough to play it live without Dan, so Matt is gonna have to buckle down and learn to play it.
What’s weird about it is that I didn’t do the vocals for it yet. I do my vocals last after everything gets done. When I heard the solo, it sounded bizarre, and I mean that in the best way. It sounded so out of Ringworm’s wheelhouse. So, you may not be able to hear it, and if we had a lot of time we could sit down and go through it, but I fashioned my vocal patterns after the keys in Dan’s solo. This is all techy, but simply, I tinkered with my timing, phonetics, and lyrics to fit his solo, so it makes the solo come in more smoothly and make a ton of sense. I use some of the keys from his solo in the lyrical timing. It blends a bit better, and it’s very slight, but I thought it helped make the song flow better.
That leads me to my next question since you’re responsible for the lyrics. “Thought Crimes” as you said in the press release, is about “trying to have your own thoughts amongst an ocean of controlled marketing, algorithms, and forced tribalism”, and I was wondering if you brought in those ideas yourself, or if you discussed it with the band?
Sometimes I have some stuff prepared that doesn’t have a home yet, but usually, I wait. How a song sounds dictates what I think the song feels like. It starts there, and a lot of times I won’t even know what the song is about. Sometimes I go into it with an idea, sometimes I go in just writing shit and I don’t know what it means until years later and I look at it down the road. But “Thought Crimes” was more focused on algorithms, marketing, and the constant barrage of commercialism, and people shoehorning opinions down your throat. We’re bombarded by it 24/7 and it’s been like that for decades. Someone is always trying to get something over on you. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, but if you stand back and look at it, you can see how someone is trying to sell you something. Then, everyone is selling something to you.
It’s funny you say that cause it seems like those market forces don’t affect Ringworm, given that you’ve stuck in the same lane for 30 years. It’s not a super commercial space. So were these topics about how they affect you?
Oh yeah, it’s all about that. Everything I do is about that. That’s what I know the best, or I think I do. I’ve never been one to preach about anyone or anything, cause who am I? I’m just some dude. I’m no better or worse than anyone, so I just sing about myself. I try not to be high and mighty. Some bands are very preachy, you know what I mean, and I’m sure you’ve seen it too, when some bands go up on stage and go into their spiel and you think, “Man, I know that guy or chick, and they’re a piece of shit.” That’s fine, but that’s why I try not to get into the preachier side of things. I still fuck up a lot, so I sing about what I know, which is being confused by life and all the bullshit that goes on after 51 years on this planet. There’s always more shit.
Topically that’s what the record sounds like it’s about. “Thought Crimes” “Mental Decontrol,” and “Playing God,” share a common theme.
Well, the world seems to be on fire, doesn’t it? That’s the analogy we’re going for there. You’ve gotta try to see through it, to the other side, if there is one. The whole world is on fire, so you can get lit up if you don’t try to see through it. You might not make it. Nobody gets out alive.
What helps you see it through?
It’s tough, like anybody else, you get up and go through life. You try to deal with the blows and bullshit that you’ll get. It’s not easy and it’s not easy for anybody to see your way through this life. Everyone has their setbacks and bullshit that they need to deal with. It helps that I have an outlet where I can scream and yell about it. It’s therapeutic, and it’s always been for me. At least I have that.
You have Ringworm for that and Gluttons where you can take a more backseat approach.
Yeah, and that’s more fun when it comes to playing it. Ringworm is a little more serious.
Do you spend more time thinking about Ringworm than Gluttons, or is it the other way around?
When it’s time to be in Ringworm mode, I snap a finger and I get into it. But in-between records and touring, we’re trying to keep Gluttons going. But that’s a bit tougher because that’s not a traveling band or a touring band. We don’t even have a label but we put out as much material as we can. We’re trying to get it on the road, but everyone is always doing other stuff. It’s the ultimate sideband. But the band does well and we’d like to get it out on the road, but it’s everyone’s side band.
But, I mean, I write all the songs and some of the lyrics. Our singer Kevin takes it from there. I build some patterns and vocal hooks but he does the rest. I maybe take it a bit more seriously than everyone else but that’s cause it’s my writing outlet. I get to write for that, you know. But it’s tough cause if we get offered to tour with someone for two weeks we’d have to seriously consider it. I’m used to that touring life, but some of the other guys would have to consider taking off time from work or who’s gonna take care of their kids. They’re not used to that life or that aspect of being in a band.
I find it interesting that you’ve never taken that songwriting responsibility from Gluttons into Ringworm.
You know, I can’t compete with Matt on that same level. That’s his bread and butter, so I don’t step on that. And that’s okay, he’s not looking for any help and I can’t provide it because he’s a fucking awesome guitar player and I do what I can. Ed Stephens is in Gluttons too and he’s a monster bass player. Fucking sick. So, with Gluttons, I write a basic backbone of a song with some trickery, I do what I can, and our guitarist Aaron (Dowell) along with the other players I trust them. They’re all awesome so I trust them to do their thing in their parts. Then it all comes together. I’m just the backbone but they’re the icing on the cake to make it a good rock song.
That’s good for you cause you get to focus on building a strong foundation.
That’s it, exactly. I work on the structures, dynamics, and timings. It’s fun building those songs. I work on them for a while so they don’t come together as quickly as Ringworm stuff, but Ringworm is much more streamlined.
Seeing Through Fire released August 18th via Nuclear Blast.