When we got word that Demon Hunter was releasing a new record, everything stopped.
This month’s calendar for the magazine – previously thought out pretty extensively – had to make room for the veteran metal band’s seventh album. With no warning, our issue changed. But while the album has so far been shrouded in mystery, vocalist Ryan Clark was very candid about the experience of writing, recording and presenting Extremist to the world.
“We were holding onto it for a while,” Clark, the only remaining original member of the band, says. “There’s this whole big superstition behind it, but we were talking about how to market records these days. Whether to even follow the old model of eight months in advance. With so much stuff out there, sometimes I think just dropping a record and telling people it’s out might be the wisest thing to do in terms of people’s attention spans these days. If you let them know your record is out and at that very second they can go and buy it, that might make more sense for our current state of things. It’s hard to convince a label that you want to do something like not market a record until it’s out.”
Unbeknownst to most fans and publications, Demon Hunter has been sitting on Extremist for a while now. Clark had been writing far enough in advance for this record that for the first time, the band was able to sift through songs, picking only those they knew, for sure, would make the cut for the album. “Usually I’ll just write everything, and then I’ll send it to the guys. They’ll learn them, and once we get in the studio, we’ll improvise on parts here and there, making certain decisions based on the pre-existing songs, to change this or that. We definitely did that this time, and probably more so than we’ve done in the past.”
Unlike most of the previous Demon Hunter records, the band took a longer time on the recording process, met with Aaron Sprinkle several times, as well as their co-producer and bassist Jeremiah Scott (ex-The Showdown). “We met a few months before the recording process, going through all the demos,” Clark says. “We talked about which ones to keep, which ones to change, which riffs could be better. That was helpful, and something we’ve never done together as a band. The process all together was different. Every single song was recorded in Seattle with Jeremiah, our bass player, in his home studio. Previously, all of our stuff would normally be with Aaron Sprinkle, and it was actually really good this time since Aaron has since moved to Nashville, so all the singing vocals I did with Aaron. He did some pre-production after the record was finished.”
Discussing the process and differences on Extremist, Clark talked heavily about the changes in location, as well as their focus on details. “Every other record, I had the luxury of being at home and just doing it during the days and downtown. With recording at Jeremiah’s house, and the atmosphere, the environment – we were able to really maximize our time.
Schematically, it’s definitely a Demon Hunter record. It’s not going to be something off the wall. It’s not going to throw you for some loop. But that being said, I think it’s one of the bigger leaps or strides that we’ve ever taken, in terms of attention to detail and technicality.
“I went down there for about a month, but the guys got started easily two or three weeks before me,” he continues. “They continued working on it for probably a month after I left. So it was a much longer process, which allowed us to be really particular about it, kind of even fine-tooth-combing the whole thing.”
Every Demon Hunter record incites curiosity from fans and critics, wondering how the band is going to play it out, and true to their pattern, each record seems to get harder and more melodic at the same time. But that’s not to say it’ll be way off base, which Clark was quick to point out. “Schematically, it’s definitely a Demon Hunter record. It’s not going to be something off the wall. It’s not going to throw you for some loop. But that being said, I think it’s one of the bigger leaps or strides that we’ve ever taken, in terms of attention to detail and technicality. Not saying it should be categorized as a technical metal record, but for us and for what we do, it’s taking a pretty big stride in that direction. We’re never going to be that kind of band that literally takes a left turn and gives people something left of center. We’re not going to do OK Computer-to-Kid A on everyone.”
Hearing Clark talk at such length about the structure of songs and the evolution of metal, it’s hard to ignore how much this guy does on a daily basis. He’s super knowledgeable about everything the band does, and has a special for the path of the new record. “There’s a different dynamic this time around. We tweaked the existing structure, and with small details changing, parts themselves are a little less straightforward than they have been in the past. It’s kind of like, if we were just going at the same pace, it feels like a Demon Hunter record from 2017. We’ve jumped a pretty big step up, into what feels really mature.
“Every time I look back at the Demon Hunter records, every two records was a kind of jump,” Clark reminisces. “Obviously there was the first record, and the next big jump was The Triptych, where we came into our own, starting to incorporate guitar solos. Things got a bit faster. Storm the Gates was kind of Part II of that, but another big jump came with The World is a Thorn, when Patrick joined the band. Guitars got even faster, solos got crazier, way more heavy metal and double kick is very present. And it was still getting faster and taking more of a front seat. True Defiance was a Part II of that, in a way. So Extremist feels like another one of those jumps that puts us into new territory.”
From Clark’s point of view, he tackled a largely untouched topic during his writing for the new album. It’s not on every song, but when you dig past the normal Demon Hunter stuff, there are some gems. “Lyrically, it’s your standard variety of Demon Hunter themes: the state of the world today, idolization of self, denial of self, concept of eternity – just about all those things I tend to tackle in every record. One reoccurring theme that is probably new to this record, and is present in really three songs, is the concept of the scrutiny that exists in being ‘a Christian metal band,’ from the Christian side. I’ve never really written about that, from my recollection. I’m trying to paint a picture of how I’ve always been open and intent about being a very flawed individual. I feel like a lot of people, young and some of them legalistic, fragile people in the Christian market that are like, ‘He’s talking about his old self. He’s talking about some version of himself that has been redeemed and he doesn’t deal with it anymore.’ People tend to judge and scrutinize on that level, as if that kind of stuff … must be part of your past or whatever. That’s not real life and that’s not real adulthood.”
Every time I look back at the Demon Hunter records, every two records was a kind of jump.
Clark and the rest of the band care deeply for their fans, and it shines through in the explanation of why they’ve decided to stick with Solid State Records, and how the Extremist imagery really plays into the territory the band wants to tread as they continue on. “It’s basically supposed to be real people. It’s not about a struggle or trial. It’s not necessarily something that I’ve dealt with five years ago. It could be something I’m dealing with right now. There needs to be a lot less nitpicking and scrutinizing about the small little gray areas of life and Christianity.”
Clark is acutely aware of what a word like “extremist” implies, and the imagery and concepts that come to mind when the word is used. It’s what he was focused on when writing for the concept. “It’s a logical step, when they hear that word,” Clark agrees, knowing people are going to make the connection. “In current politics, that word is a scary word now. Where we live, a lot of people think like those radicals, extremists. It’s definitely a play on the idea that there’s power in that word. Because if you’re an extremist, you’re willing to go to rash measures for what you believe in. … I think, for a lot of people, they don’t realize that it is just a word to describe someone that takes extreme measures. I think (people) will be a little scared about (having that) conversation.”
One reoccurring theme that is probably new to this record, and is present in really three songs, is the concept of the scrutiny that exists in being ‘a Christian metal band,’ from the Christian side.
The band is also aware of how some fans might feel, seven records deep into fandom. Many of them (me and probably you included) hang onto how they felt about a record or a band at a certain time in life, and long for more when it comes to new material. Clark understands. “Even if that’s not changing styles or making any drastic changes in the recipe, we still have to push further. I think there’s a handful of people that would love for us to just do some version of the first record again or of Summer of Darkness. As understandable as that is – because I know how it is to cling to a record or a band that’s 10 years old or whatever – at the same time, everyone needs to understand that there’s no feeling of progression or fulfillment if you’re treading that water. You need to push in some direction.”
Being in the metal world – heck, the music industry – for 13 years doesn’t come without its challenges. I asked Clark how a band like Demon Hunter has managed to stay relevant, particularly in Christian music, and even more particularly in Christian metal. He mentioned that one of the most driving factors for their longevity is the fact they don’t tour full time. “We don’t get sick of it. We tour just enough to enjoy it, and we call the shots. We only do the tours that want to do. We don’t ever feel like we’re doing a tour because we need to. We aren’t in people’s faces all the time. We don’t oversaturate ourselves. We’re not going to be in Cleveland three times this year. If you’re lucky, we’ll be there once. Also, we live in different states. Me and John live up here (in Seattle) and the other three guys live in Nashville, so when we get together and hang out, it’s fun. We don’t get sick of each other, we aren’t in each other’s faces all the time, we aren’t living together and we’re not around each other all the time.”
In addition, Clark talked about his writing being a powerful piece to their legacy as well. “I think studying any trends has been huge in keeping us relevant,” Clark explains, “and I think, lyrically, I make a point to relate to people – with this band in particular. And it’s not like this for when I write lyrics for the bands, but for Demon Hunter, it’s important to me that I make a connection. I feel like I need to talk about things that are relatable and part of the overall overarching human condition. Common struggles and common misconceptions or worldview and things like that. I know they’re not all popular for everyone, but I think there’s a general relate-ability.”
That amount of time can really grow and change people, and the audiences change as well. Clark was open about what he’s seen change, and issues he’s seen throughout his time with the band. “We talk about life and death a lot, specifically death,” he reveals, although with a name like Demon Hunter, maybe not so surprisingly. “I think it’s important to talk about. After you’ve been a band for 12 years, you’ve seen fans die and you’ve seen fans children die. You talk to fans that have lost family members in the last year. You talk with family members of people that died and wanted one of our songs played at their funeral. It’s not like a fascination with death as much as it is, like, we’re here for them.
“I see it as an important thing to talk about, that a lot of people try to ignore these days. I think people do want to talk about it, (because) they want a sense of peace and comfort about it. What I do… Singing about that I try and point it to them in that way. There’s a meaning to it and there’s a silver lining to it and it’s not just a mystery to me. My viewpoint is it’s just a feeble thing.”
Most people are aware that Ryan Clark is not just part of Demon Hunter. He’s also a gifted graphic designer, and is single-handedly responsible for the incredible covers of each of the Demon Hunter albums, as well as working as a designer for many of Solid State’s bands, as well as running his own company, Invisible Creature. So the natural question becomes, how does he manage to juggle everything? “If we were touring more often, I wouldn’t be able to do design at the level and quantity I do right now at all. So that helps, the fact that I can kind of pick up or put down Demon Hunter as I please. It’s hard to put it any other way. I hustle. Between design and music, I have other music projects that I work on and other things that I do, as well. I kind of just don’t stop. I don’t. I work full-time. I work usually 10-hour days. Whether that means writing music for four hours and designing for the other six hours, that’s pretty common. Most of the time it’s just 10 hours of design unless I’m actively writing for a record. I do these interviews in between work and any little thing that comes up, whether it’s writing something for Demon Hunter or making merchandise or writing a song or something, I just fit that in wherever I can. For the last 13 or so years I’ve just been go, go, go, and that’s all that I really know. I’m comfortable with it. I’ve found some kind of balance between both things. It’s a lot of work, but I don’t really know anything else.”
During the True Defiance era, Demon Hunter toured much more than they really ever have before. Many overseas fans picked up on this, and according to Clark, they did somewhere around 60 dates, which was significantly more for a band that doesn’t tour much at all. For Clark and the rest of the band, it was out of a decision to take up the opportunities that had presented themselves. “We did four continents. Something like 14 countries. We started taking advantage of more of the unique (things that are), quite possibly, once in a lifetime opportunities, which are the short international things. If someone’s willing to pay you to play shows in a foreign country, you’ve just got to take advantage of it when it happens. We’ve done that more often.”
During those tour dates, the band played some more intimate, acoustic shows, and the style is slowly becoming a staple for Demon Hunter. Asked if acoustic tracks and more extensive touring will be a part of the cycle for Extremist, Clark admits it’s on the way. “We’ll definitely do some on this record. For us, it’s never very calculated or planned out. We don’t schedule or plan tours a year in advance. If something comes up and it’s two or three months from now and it makes sense and it works out for us, we’ll say yes to it. If that’s all that makes sense for the whole record, then that’s all there’ll be. If a handful of those kind of things come up through the record cycle, we’ll do them.”
Towards the end of our conversation, Clark was open about his quiet moments with God and what he’s been learning from his time with the Creator. “(God’s been taking me through) the shape and structure of my life, how that looks going into my mid‑30s in regard to the band and my work and everything. I’ve done this – or some version of this – for the last 20 years, and it takes on different shapes and goes through different phases and things. Right now, I think I’m at a pivotal point – not for any particular reason – but just a personal feeling of what’s next. Just trying to listen to the still voice in regard to those kind of situations.”
Demon Hunter was posted on March 3, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by Justin Mabee.