“For you know only a heap of broken images.” –T.S. Eliot
Inspired by rich philosophy and literature, Tampa metalcore band Forthteller is back with their third release, Nihilist. After three EPs, this band has certainly found their voice not just in metalcore but in society. Built on the strong conviction surrounding their message and their fierce relationships, the band is making a social and philosophical statement with their latest work.
I first heard of Forthteller at a small bar gig in Memphis, TN. I remember thinking that I haven’t seen a live show as good as theirs in a very long time. These guys knew how to convey a strong message in addition to their musical excellence and engaging performance. Inspired a great deal by Silent Planet, Forthteller fishes for your attention, hooks you in, and leads you through an alternate story of the world full of emotion, intrigue, and an aggressive cry for change.
Nihilist explores the ramifications of a Godless world and, consequently, emphasizes the desperate need to reconcile society with a savior. Drummer and songwriter Thom Shultz talks with me about the complexities behind Forthteller’s message, as seen evidenced in the EP.
First, tell me about the album. Tell me how the concept came about.
The concept started when we first formed. My focus in school is literature and philosophy, so, really, the concept started with the first album. We had this theme based off of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. It’s loosely based off of that, and, during that process, we came up with a character who is like an “angel of death.” It was almost a judgment kind of thing; he was judging individuals. Then, for the second two EPs, they’re similar and linked as far as content goes. We were originally going to do them as a full-length, but it just worked out to be two EPs because of scheduling.
But how that came about was we ended up transitioning that character to one almost like Nietzsche’s character from the Parable of the Madman. It’s basically a guy who comes into a city at midday holding a lantern, proclaiming the idea that society has done away with God. Like, we’ve killed God. People look at him like he’s a madman, like he’s crazy. At one point in time, he says, “OK, I’ve come too early,” and he goes on and does a number of other things. That’s where the idea of the lantern came from. And even that plays out on two levels: The madman is also a representation of Plato’s allegory of the cave, where you have a guy who leaves and finds the light and then goes back into the cave to tell people, “Hey, there’s more to this world,” and he gets scoffed at.
You see this throughout our music videos. We’re setting up this character in that framework as an intellectual madman. We identify with it a little bit, like, who we are as people. The idea is that you know he’s coming and proclaiming truth and people view him as crazy. When you listen to Old Testament prophets – you know, emerging science and stuff – people looked at it as crazy. We have that as a character that prefaces some of what we’re trying to do.
And then the album more specifically gets into the idea of nihilism, really going back to Nietzsche’s proclamation of “God is dead” and framing it with that concept. We decided, “OK, let’s look at society through the framework of Nietzsche is right. Let’s say a society killed God.” And, then, “What is the fallout of that? What are the implications of God being dead?” That’s what the album is. It’s about what it means for society now that God is dead.
We look at different cultural norms in our society that are driven by human nature. Without the framework of metaphysics, we’ve become a materialist society that focuses on the individual, that focuses on the idea of the self and self-fulfillment. We took a bunch of different topics from the church to evolution to the family system and examined them all in the last two EPs and said, “How does this fit with the framework of God being dead?” And, “How does this fit with nihilism?” That’s where we came from, the idea of looking at society; it’s almost a social criticism. And, then, dealing with the implications of those (ideas) as a society who has drifted away from metaphysics, drifted away from an explanation of humanity from a metaphysical standpoint. We’re going to go and see how that impacts our society and how this framework of nihilism sets up our society for the church.
Would you call it a kind of a dystopian concept?
Yes. It definitely is. That is my area of deepest interest and my focus for my thesis for my undergrad. All my favorite books are all dystopian novels, as well. It really resonates with the idea that, as humans strive for this perfect society, we strive for knowing that God is good. “Now that we’ve killed religion and we’ve done away with it, I mean that’s good, right?” Forthteller is kind of asking, “Is it good?” You know, having done away with those things, are we sure it’s what we wanted?
What’s really been cool is people have been referring to the EP as, like, “our sound,” and we haven’t really gotten that before. With the past EPs we’ve put out, we’ve been finding ourselves. I was the only one who was in a heavy band prior to this band, and most of us actually started out by playing worship. This was taking a bunch of worship-band guys and bringing them together and going, “How do we do heavy music?” At first, it was kind of odd, because we knew what we heard and what we liked, but we didn’t really know how to create our own sound with it. So what’s been really cool with this one is when people are like, “Wow, keep this sound, this sound is good.” That’s been really cool, to see people resonate with it in a way that we didn’t have with our past releases.
So what do you think makes the difference between the last releases and this one?
Well, for one thing, when we first started, we really put a lot of energy and a lot of time into a live performance. That was the main thing. We didn’t focus as much on creating a composition musically that would connect with people. We were trying to find what we liked to do and we weren’t actually thinking about how the audience was going to respond.
Then, I think, after playing the last two albums and hearing peoples comments – mostly good – we saw there were some things in the last release we liked but were hard to follow (along with). (Our fans) recognized that (our music) had something, but we weren’t focused on connecting with our music in the way we probably should. And then, with this one, we spent so much time saying, “How is this going to connect with the audience? How are people going to respond to this?” You know, if we want to write more technical music but people aren’t going to connect with it, then what’s the point? Especially with the message we have. So we spent a lot of time on it.
A really cool process we got into was doing scratch tracks. We would record everything we had and then listen through it to basically take parts out. We had one session where we literally had the basic framework of most of the songs and had a bunch of lead lines that were just cheap. And we spent an entire practice just replacing lead lines. We really got honest with each other, and I think that was a huge thing: being able to be honest with each other and say, “This is just not good enough. I know that you can do better.” We told each other that frankly. We were willing to accept that criticism from each other, and I think that’s a huge thing, being able to say, “You know what? You’re right. I could do better.”
Can you talk more about the dynamics between the guys in the band, person to person?
The band is built on discipleship. I mean, that’s what we are in it for. The music is an outpouring of that, and, obviously, we’re all musicians and we love that, but the relationships are key. We are framing it in terms of authentic, open, and honest discipleship where we can lovingly tell on another, “Hey, you know, you could be a better person.” And I think the church, in general, has a tendency – especially in the 21 st century – to either say, “You’re sinning. That’s fine.” Or to say, “You’re sinning, and I’m going to condemn you for it.” The church has a really hard time finding this balance of I love you and I want you to be a better person so that you can serve the kingdom better. That concept is hard to find, and you have to work at it. It’s something that, as a band, we have to work at constantly. I think the church has lost the tact to say, “Hey, we know we’re forgiven, and let’s use that forgiveness and grace to help us move forward. How can we help? How can we help each other grow?”
And that’s our dynamic in the band. Sometimes it can get intense, and sometimes it’s loud. Sometimes, when we’re really honest, we’ll have knockout, drag-out battles where we’ll just be yelling at each other. And then, afterward, we’re hugging it out, going to eat, some nonsense. I really think that that comes down to a focus on scriptural discipleship where we’re in a relationship with each other for the purpose of serving the kingdom and building one another up.
How does the actual songwriting process work? Where does it start and who does what?
That was a weird thing before, where we didn’t have a dynamic figured out. For the first album, I actually wrote a good 60-70%, probably because I was the only one who played heavy music before, and then other people adapted it to their own style. Then, on the second one, we all wrote our own parts, and you could almost tell in that release that there’s a tension between the parts because we didn’t work together to say, “How are these parts going to fit together?” We did that a little bit, but not like we did for this last album. With this one, we really sat down and figured it out.
The biggest thing that helped was recording scratch tracks. We recorded each of our parts and layered them over each other. Then we went back through and took the songs apart and found what wasn’t working with everything else. We really focused on how we were going to make everything cohesive and how everything would compliment every other bit. Now, it’s gotten to the point where me, David (Winters, vocalist), and Justin (Hatton, guitarist) actually write most of the structure and chord progressions. Then Ryan (Kole, guitarist) brings in more of the ambient lead line stuff. Josh (Beoddy, keyboardist) obviously does the keys, and then Garrett (Sharp, bassist) comes in, and we introduce him to the flow of the song.
You talked about it a little, but is there anything that made the studio process different this time?
This time we did live drums. It definitely provides a different dynamic. A lot of our music is driven by the drums; they aren’t just backing it. Drums are an integral part of how the music flows, so having the live drums really provided a different dynamic. Some of our parts are a little more free-form, so some of the stuff got lost in translation; when you’re doing the tabbing, it gets very metronomic and stiff. Having the live drums allowed it to flow a little more. That really helped us capture our live vibe. We try to be as tight as possible, but we also try to let it flow out of us so it’s not stiff.
Aside from the message of the album, is there an overarching message of Forthteller that you want people to know?
Really, we have a mid-set speech that Justin does, and that’s where we’re at: Ideologically, it’s saying that there’s a lot of stuff our society takes for granted. There’s a lot of injustice and things that are ignored. We have a lot of programs and social justice issues becoming present. But there’s so much more than what gets published and publicized.
We’re asking people to one, not take for granted the very real privilege to live in this society that provides so much for us, and, two, to see that there are people suffering in this country and also all over the world. So often we get caught up in topics that consume us to the point where there are a few major debates that you can count on your hand, from racism to sexism to issues of sexuality… all of that.
They’re all issues that need to be discussed, but, beyond that, there are things that get lost in the passionate debates. We forget issues like human trafficking, the family system and what it means for society, extreme poverty in other countries. So I’d say our message is to broaden your horizons, expose yourself to more than just what the media tells you that you should be paying attention to.
Forthteller was posted on August 26, 2018 for HM Magazine and authored by Nao Lewandowski.