Whereas most bands’ proclamations refusing to be cookie-cut is just lip service, August Burns Red, five guys from Lancaster, PA, put their money where their mouth is and spend quality time releasing things like a Christmas album. Here, guitarist and main songwriter JB Brubaker sits down with HM to talk about their latest effort, the future of their craft, and whether or not Eagles’ quarterback Nick Foles is NFL ready.
August Burns Red is now a veteran act. What are some of the lessons that your experience has taught you, and how do you think you have changed as a band (and as musicians, as artists, as communicators) over the years?
When talking about what we’ve learned as a band over the last 10 years, it’s hard to speak generally about the topic because there are many different aspects to playing in a band as a career. I can break it down into four categories: performance, business, relationships, and musicians.
Let’s start with the performance aspect. I see a lot of bands on the road not preparing for their live shows. They’ll just grab their instruments and go up there and play. That would be great for us if we were capable of just hitting the stage cold and playing to our potential, but that simply isn’t the case. We have tried it, and we certainly don’t play as well. It all comes down to the amount of time you’re willing to put in. (This lesson can apply to all things in life, but for right now, we’re just talking about preparing to play a show.)
For me, personally, I need at least 20 minutes minimum to get my fingers warmed up so I can play up to speed. In addition, there are almost always a few riffs in the set that are giving me trouble on any given show day, and I have to continue to practice those parts so I can nail them when it counts. There are parts in songs that date back as far as Messengers and Constellations that still give me trouble. You’d think it’d get easier after all these years (laughs).
At this point, each of us know what we need to do in order to deliver the best show we can. We have played over 1,250 shows in our career and we are definitely still refining the performance preparation process. I don’t think that will ever stop.
The business aspect of the band has come a long way since the beginning. From 2003-2008, I was doing my best to manage the band and our finances. After our first two trips to Europe, I decided I was spending too much time behind my computer trying to manage our business and not enough time behind my guitar. After much thought and a lot of meetings, we finally hired management in 2008. Holding out as long as we could gave us a lot more options for management and was one of the wiser decisions we made along the way.
We’ve always tried to make decisions with the long-term in mind. ABR is definitely not a “live fast” kind of band. We toured in a van and trailer as long as possible—once you step up to a bus, it’s hard to go back. After touring on a bus for a few years, I understand that more now than ever. We recognize that this could all go away very quickly, and because of that we are always trying to make sound business decisions that will make sense in the long term.
We aren’t teenagers playing music just for fun anymore. Obviously, this is the best job in the world, but we have to treat the business aspect of it as any normal company would. There are a lot of people directly affected by our success (or lack thereof). For that reason, we try to look at every business decision from all angles. We listen to what people advising us have to say and try to learn from the mistakes we’ve made or our peers have made.
This industry is changing a lot, lately. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best band in the world—if you can’t run a business well, your band will fail. That is very clear to all of us at this point.
Relationships are a huge aspect of being in a band. Not just the ones we have with each other as band mates, but the ones we try to maintain with people while we are on the road, with other bands we tour with, and our fans. Fan interaction is so important now, and if you don’t give your listeners the time of day, there are a thousand other bands who will. You’ll be the only jerks who don’t care enough to reply to a tweet or take a photo at a show. That stuff is pretty easy to do, so there’s no excuse to ignore the people who made you the least bit relevant in the first place.
Learning how to get along with each other has been an ongoing struggle as time has passed. I think ABR does a pretty good job on getting along while crammed into small living spaces for months at a time. We can see the signs of when someone is not in the mood, and we’re pretty good about leaving each other alone in those situations.
I know what makes everyone in this band tick and I know how to tick everyone in this band off (laughs). We all do. We crossed the “friendship” line years ago, and we are more like brothers at this point. We fight over petty things, and we all have different views on all sorts of subjects. It’s hard to get everyone to see eye-to-eye, but we’ve learned to take a democratic approach to most things, be it an album title or where we want to go eat dinner on an off day.
Finally, as musicians we’ve learned what works live and what doesn’t. We are always trying to push our music forward and stretch our fans as much as we can without going past that breaking point of being too far out there. While we are a metal band, there are a lot of other styles of music that influence the way our songs come out. I think that’s only natural at this stage in the game. We used to write songs just for the people in the pit, trying to be as heavy as possible.
People sometimes ask if we are going to write another Messengers. That was our heaviest, most breakdown-driven album to date. We will never write another Messengers, and I can say with confidence that if we did, even those people who say they want that would be bored by it. Been there, done that. The genre needs to change, or it will quickly become irrelevant.
When you guys are together on tour or in the studio, what does the typical conversation sound like?
When we’re together, we are joking around constantly. We are pretty great at making fun of one another, and we know where our lines are and what the consequences of crossing those lines would be. If you sat in on a conversation, you might be surprised at how ruthless we can be to one another, but it’s just a product of being together in small living conditions for years and years. We really do love each other. We just also love making fun of each other (laughs).
We will never write another Messengers, and I can say with confidence that if we did, even those people who say they want that would be bored by it.
When it comes to sports, I’d say baseball and football are the most popular amongst the band. Matt (Greiner, drummer) likes soccer, but he’s alone in that. If we are on tour in the States, there is always a game on TV in the bus. We root for Philly in everything, and some of us take our sports quite seriously, myself included.
A couple of the guys enjoy playing video games on the road, your standard Call of Duty or whatever. I am not personally into video games on tour as that simply occupies a TV that I could be watching sports on. We play a lot of Mafia on tour; it’s basically an elaborate who-done-it game that forces us to debate for hours and accuse/defend each other until we are blue in the face. Mafia is an especially popular pasttime when we are overseas.
Sometimes it’s easy to complain to each other when facing adversity and working together. Thinking back through the various stages of your band, what have been some of the complaints you had in the beginning up to now? How have your complaints changed?
The complaints at the beginning were about whose turn it was to sleep on the sofa at some random kid’s house. Whose turn it was to drive the first shift of an overnight drive. Whether or not we should stop at Taco Bell after the show. Now we complain about who gets to have a middle bunk spot on the bus. Who gets what storage drawers on the bus. Who left their wet show clothing laying in the back lounge.
All of our major arguments usually stem from money, like in a marriage (laughs)! I remember our first accountant telling me years ago that the bigger we grow, the more money will get in the way of our personal relationships. We have done a good job of separating business decisions from our friendships, but I think all of us cringe a little bit when we have to discuss something that will directly affect everyone’s finances. Things are more fun when you don’t have to discuss that kind of stuff together.
How are the crowds in Europe responding to ABR? How would you compare the crowds in different countries at your live shows?
Crowds in Europe aren’t terribly different from the USA. I think you will commonly see way more black t-shirts in the crowd in Europe, and the vibe in the metal scene is simply “darker” than it is in the States.
Australia is a lot like California, and the shows there are quite comparable to what you’d see in the States. Places like Japan, Southeast Asia, and Latin America are way wilder than the States. The crowds are rabid, probably because they don’t get as many shows. They really seem to buy into the concept of viewing bands as celebrities, and they will bend over backwards to get a photo, autograph, or guitar pick.
It is fun and flattering, but I am thankful that not every country is that way. It would be frustrating to not be able to go anywhere outside the dressing room without being surrounded by people who want a picture or autograph. I can’t imagine how big pop stars and movie stars must feel on a daily basis trying to go anywhere. What we experience in places like Latin America would only be scratching the surface of what real celebs are dealing with all day, every day.
What’s the worst onstage mishap that’s ever happened to you guys? How did you fix it and carry on?
These are the shows I have regular nightmares about. When everything goes wrong on stage, it is the most helpless feeling. It’s completely embarrassing.
I can think of one such moment that happened recently at the Impericon Festival in Leipzig, Germany, this past April. We were playing a late slot at the sold out festival—over 5,000 people were in the building. Besides your standard playing errors caused by rocking and rolling, everything went smoothly for the first half of our set.
During our fifth song, my guitar randomly started cutting in and out. It was like someone was flipping a light switch on my signal. Neither Kevin (our guitar tech) nor myself knew what was going on. I have had a zillion different tech problems on stage over the years. Kevin and I are great at quickly diagnosing and solving these problems, but this one wasn’t falling into any quick-fix scenario. So, Kevin just ran a cable directly from my guitar to the amp, so I was playing with a completely dry, unaffected tone. This is, like, the worst case scenario for me as I have a bunch of pedals running at all times that are a big part of helping me to get my sound live.
My tone was so dry and awful. I was furious, but what else could we do? We were on a strict schedule and there were 5,000 people there, bobbing their heads regardless of what my guitar tone sounded like.
We finished off our set with the songs “Empire” and “White Washed” and I basically stood in place and stared at my frets doing my best to not mess up and lose my cool any further.
This might not sound like that big of a deal, but I was seeing red when we finished the show—and I am really good at rationalizing everything in these situations. I hate feeling that way; it took me a good half hour to accept what had happened and get over it. I was just embarrassed and frustrated because we hadn’t fixed whatever was causing the problem.
The next day, when setting up before the show, the same problem occurred. I fixed it in about five seconds. The wireless cable that went from the receiver into my guitar was slightly unscrewed. It’s always the simplest thing. Bah!
What has the theme of this new album turned out to be?
The theme to this record would be diversity. I don’t think any of the songs talk about the same topic lyrically, and I don’t think any of the songs sound terribly similar musically. Each song has its own identity.
That was a goal we set out to achieve when writing for this record. We want people to open their minds a bit, both musically speaking and in regards to the lyrics.
Hearing a completed song for the first time is one of the most rewarding feelings you will have while being in a band.
Which songs (if any) went through the most changes from initial song idea to final recording?
The song “Treatment” went through some changes in the writing and recording process. I had originally written three different endings to this song. I showed them each to our producers, Carson Slovak and Grant McFarland, before we arrived at the ending that is on the album. There was also a large “happy” sounding thrash part in the middle of the song. Jake (Luhrs, singer) hated it, and we debated for a while in the studio: I liked it because it was so different from anything else (due to it being in a major key and happy instead of minor), and Jake hated it for the same reason. We eventually nixed the whole section and rewrote something a little safer in its place. I am happy with the new part we wrote, and now “Treatment” happens to be one of my favorite songs on the record.
What were some of the highlights when you were recording these songs in the studio?
One of my favorite moments of being in the studio is listening through a song for the first time with all of the elements in place. We did only three rough pre-production demos for this record, so most of the songs we were hearing recorded were for the first time. Hearing a completed song for the first time is one of the most rewarding feelings you will have while being in a band. It’s fun to hear the song progress from just naked drum tracks to a finished product.
What was a challenge you guys faced when recording and/or writing this album?
A challenge for me was to physically write the album in a timely manner. The writing and recording of Sleddin’ Hill set me back from my normal writing schedule, and I found myself with a lot of writing to do in the second half of 2012. Coincidentally, we also had an intense tour schedule planned for the last three months of 2012, and I am horrible at writing while on the road. I made writing my full-time job after our touring ending in December and finished the last two songs literally days before Matt started tracking drums.
I’m not a fast songwriter, so the months leading up to the recording were quite stressful for me. But everything came together, and I’m really proud of how (the new record) turned out.
Another difficult process is the choosing of lyrics. ABR has always had a very open format to writing lyrics. Anyone in the band can contribute, and we then put all of the potential lyrics on the table and talk about which ones we think are the best. We had over 25 sets of lyrics to read and evaluate. This is a tough process because everyone is obviously going to be somewhat attached to their own writings. It is a humbling experience to bring something to the table that you’re stoked about only to have it shot down by the rest of the band. While this isn’t a fun process, it does help us to get the best lyrics we can for each song.
Finally, guitar tuning always poses a challenge in the studio. Our producers were extremely thorough with the tuning throughout the entire recording process. I think we spent more time making sure each chord was perfectly in tune with all the correct harmonics and overtones present than actually playing the guitar. While that was frustrating at times, it was worth it in the end.
Who produced this album? How did that decision get made? How did the selection process take place?
Carson Slovak and Grant McFarland produced (the new record). They were also responsible for the production of our holiday album, Sleddin’ Hill. We have been working with Carson since we first signed to Solid State. Carson recorded the demos of Thrill Seeker that got us signed to Solid State, as well as all the pre-production for Messengers. He also mixed our live album Home and produced all but two of our Christmas singles. Needless to say, we had a lot of history with him, and we enjoy working with each other.
Grant has been a long-time friend of the band. He used to play drums for a band from Lancaster called This or the Apocalypse, but he put down his drum sticks to work full-time as a producer at Atrium Audio in Lancaster, PA.
Grant was responsible for all the vocal production on this album. He recorded three pre-production demos with Jake before we gave our final seal of approval to work with him on vocals. Jake and Grant have great chemistry. They spent a ton of time working on vocal patterns and making sure everything was delivered the best it could be.
Carson and Grant also mixed the album, which was the hardest decision for us to all agree on but a no brainer now that we are finished. There was some concern from the powers that be about using a fairly unknown name to mix the album, but we had confidence in their work, and I think they knocked it out of the park for us.
Going back to the discussion about writing for this album, what sort of thinking went on about what your goals would be? I’m curious if you paused to think through what you wanted to accomplish with the record.
My main goal when writing (the new record) was to make every song unique from the others. I made a conscious effort to use different tunings and keys for a lot of the songs. I have a real problem with how sterile metalcore has become, and I don’t want to contribute to the drivel. There are a lot of trends that are currently popular in this genre that I’m personally not into at all. I specifically avoided some of the flavor-of-the-week elements bands are doing right now.
Our listeners are the only reason we have had any success at all. If people didn’t care, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do so we are forever grateful.
We’ve always tried to do our own thing as a band regardless of what seems to be the hot ticket at the moment. I think a lot of people are becoming bored with the genre, and it’s our goal to keep things as exciting as we can. That was the goal.
How has August Burns Red’s popularity affected the way you think about this band? You guys have been blessed with a loyal and ever-growing fan base. Many of your peers have probably come and gone while you are continuing to sell albums and play to big crowds. How does this impact what you do and how you approach your craft?
I’m thankful for every day I get to continue doing ABR full-time. I dread the day it all comes to an end. Every time we put out a new album, I am really nervous and anxious thinking, “I hope people still like us after this record.” So far, every record seems to be well received, so I can only hope that continues.
Our listeners are the only reason we have had any success at all. If people didn’t care, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do so we are forever grateful.
We certainly consider what our audience likes and dislikes about us. While we are always pushing the boundaries of our sound, I don’t think we’ve lost the elements of this band that made people like us in the first place. I’m so thankful that our fans have been open to us pushing our sound, and at this point, I think most of them would be disappointed if we were content to just release a carbon copy of a past album.
There will always be naysayers—and they seem to talk the loudest—but overall I think we have some of the more open-minded listeners in the metalcore world.
How has the perception of ABR as a “Christian band” affected you guys? In your opinion, what are the positives? What are some of the detriments to being associated with that scene?
Right out of the gates, our connection with the Christian metal scene was helpful. Those people embraced us from day one and helped us get off our feet. We are forever grateful for that. One thing I’ve always noticed about this scene is that people are, for the most part, very open to differing views on lifestyle choices, be it religion, diet, etc. I think that comes from the punk/hardcore ethics of this community. For that reason, we never felt like black sheep on a tour.
We never felt judged because of our Christian background. It’s nice to be a band that can go play a festival like Hellfest in France or Cornerstone Festival in Illinois and be received well at both.
The only detriment of being referred to as a Christian band is the microscope you are put under by some people. It sometimes feels like people are just waiting for you to screw up so they can call you out.
I’m 28 years old, and after traveling around the world a few times and seeing a lot of different cultures, my worldviews have changed. When I was 14 and in youth group, I had a very narrow view of the world and an extremely legalistic approach to Christianity. I sometimes hear from fans that are just like me when I was 14. They are quick to judge without a whole lot of experience living outside the neat little box their parents have constructed for them to live in.
As you grow up and start living on your own, you begin to see things a little differently. One of the most controversial subjects is the consumption of alcohol. Can a Christian drink alcohol? The 14-year-old me would’ve said never. But the 28-year-old me says, “If you’re of age and it can be done responsibly, sure.”
Our take on Christianity varies from member to member. I think that’s only natural. We have had in-depth discussions about whether ABR is a “Christian band” or “Christians in a band.” If you ask me, that question is splitting hairs and is a silly topic to debate. Jake and Matt are the most outspoken individuals when it comes to their faith.
What we believe is no secret, and we don’t feel the need to explain that every time we hit the stage.
Jake is especially vocal as his life was in turmoil before he turned it over to Jesus. For that reason, he has the urge to shout it from the mountaintop, so to speak. Jake would probably be happy to get on stage every night and preach the good news to our audience, but that has never been ABR’s approach. We are on stage to put on a great show and entertain you.
What we believe is no secret, and we don’t feel the need to explain that every time we hit the stage. I’d rather win over a new fan with a great show and have them dig a little deeper into our lyrics than to stand on stage and preach.
Jake does a little ministry on the side called Heart Support. This is a separate entity from ABR where he is able to quench his thirst of talking to others about his faith. The band is cool with Jake doing this and I think it’s great that he is working so hard on his own to positively impact impressionable minds.
What sort of changes has adulthood or, as you said, evolution in your lifestyle (marriage, kids, or just plain getting older) brought to the band?
Well, we are getting to a new phase in our band where life is beginning to get a little more complicated. Brent and Jake are married. I think I’ll probably be married before the end of (the new record’s) album cycle. Brent has a baby on the way. It can get a little tricky trying to juggle the busy tour schedule with obligations at home, but at the end of the day, the most important people in our lives understand how a relationship with a touring musician works. It’s certainly not for everyone, so when you find someone who can tolerate you being away from home half the year, you lock them down (laughs).
What are your thoughts on new technologies and how they deliver music to the fans?
First of all, I can say with confidence that without the Internet and people downloading our music, ABR wouldn’t be where we are today. Like any band, we prefer when people acquire our music legally since we do see some money from our sales, but had people not pirated our music left and right when we first hit the scene, I don’t think word would have spread about our band.
Music streaming sites like Pandora and Spotify are extremely convenient for users. Spotify is almost too good to be true. All the good is targeted at the user as they pay a small fee to listen to basically whatever they want whenever they want. As a music fan, that is amazing!
As an artist, it’s kind of a bummer because we see fractions of a cent from plays on Spotify. At the same time, this is what the industry is moving towards, and I think it’d be really silly to try to keep our music away from something like Spotify.
A band’s music is becoming more of a marketing tool than a source of income. Someone downloads your album illegally or listens to it on Spotify and gets into the band. Now you have a new listener who might come to a show and buy a t-shirt. Touring is the only really consistent source of income for most artists these days.
I think in the next few years you are going to see more and more of this fan-funding stuff instead of bands relying on record labels to loan them money to make albums. I have mixed feelings about this. While it’s great to be able to operate independently, the concept of begging your fans for money kind of sucks. I’m really interested to see where this trend goes in the next few years.
Michael Vick or Nick Foles?
I like the upside of Michael Vick with Chip Kelly running the offense and a healthy offensive line. I think Vick can be a huge weapon with some protection, something he hasn’t had in recent years.
Nick Foles looks to have some potential, but he obviously needs the snaps since he doesn’t have but half a season of NFL experience. I don’t think the 2013-2014 season will be the year Foles gets that experience.[/groups_member]
August Burns Red was posted on May 6, 2013 for HM Magazine and authored by Doug Van Pelt.