Under Control

As Islander's star burns brighter every day, the South Carolina-based band has stayed on track with some help from some genre-defining friends, knocking their sophomore album, 'Power Under Control,' out of the park

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Photo by Dustin Smith

With the road before them paved in platinum records and the spoils of material excess, it would be understandable — maybe even expected — for a rapidly ascending band like Islander to chase its spoils rather than chase a career. But the South Carolina-based band has their eye on a different approach to ensuring the band’s longevity. With Korn, P.O.D., Avenged Sevenfold, Papa Roach, Love and Death and Bad Brains in their circle of friends or past employers, they’ve had some iconic teachers — even those who helped write the manual on how to live in the industry — help them along the way. Under some incredible tutelage, Islander is managing impeccably, taking stock from the lessons of their predecessors all while building a lane all their own.

Islander has most often been dubbed nu-metal or metalcore, but as far as they’re concerned you can just call what they do punk rock. It’s not uncommon to see vocalist Mikey Carvajal walking on the crowd at a live show, or for guitarist J.R. Bareis to don amorphous clothing on stage and in public, but that’s the aspect of rock and roll they’ve embraced. They like having a good time, and they’ll express it however they feel that day. But that doesn’t mean they follow the tragic rock formula for the rest of the lifestyles, as they openly shy away from drinking, drugs and ladies looking for more than a platonic concert-going experience. Being transparent about these choices is just one of the ways they’re setting a precedent for what it means to be a rock star today.

Following a couple of key lineup changes that caught the attention of a wide array of fans and media outlets, Islander now has a new fresh start, including bassist Ezekiel Vazquez, former Avenged Sevenfold drummer Arin Ilejay, former Love and Death / Brian “Head” Welch guitarist J.R. Bareis, and, of course, cornerstone Carvajal, who is now the sole founding member of the band. Power Under Control is their first full album together, though it is the band’s sophomore release, full of colorful vocals, a healthy helping of heavy metal, and a well-written showcase of melody that sticks to the brain like glue. In the wake of their debut work, Violence and Destruction, Control has a life of its own, a concept work defined by its character studies throughout each passing track.

As could be expected of a band on the horizon of a pending album release, it’s been a busy week for the guys. They were in Cleveland for the Alternative Press Music Awards only a couple of days ago, and, although they are now wrapping up everyday life before heading out on their first headlining tour, Carvajal and Bareis shared a few candid moments with us about the musical world they’re living in, and how it’s not always what it seems.

Islander in the studio recording their sophomore album, 'Power Under Control'

Did you have fun at the APMAs?
Mikey Carvajal: Yeah, we had a great time. I mean, it was an awards show. A lot of it was really funny, so it was good.

(To Bareis) I wanted to compliment your dress (that was worn to the awards show). I thought it was pretty rad.
J.R. Bareis: (Laughs) Oh, thank you! I don’t know, I just like to be weird and whatever. They wanted everyone to dress up for the awards and I was like, I’m just going to wear a dress then!

Kurt Cobain used to do it all the time. It’s the music business, you can do what you want.
JRB: Yeah, totally!

Does it sometimes just trip you out that this is your life now? For a living, you go on stage and play guitar for all these people.
JRB: It was my dream. I always wanted to do that, and then it happened for me at such a young age. I started touring when I was 15 and it was just like, “What’s happening?” You know? It was weird when it happened, and it’s still weird to me now when I think about it. But, I’m totally blessed.

(To Carvajal) I saw that you were reppin’ (WWE Wrestler) Sting with some gloves at the awards show.
Mmhmm.

I’ve heard of your, uh, well, I don’t think I’d call it an obsession at all but… You’re a big fan, right?
Yeah, I’m a really big fan. I actually wanted to be a wrestler. It was just always in the back of my head. You know how people have dreams of being like an astronaut or a rock star? For me, I thought it’d be so cool to be a wrestler; but my knees are terrible, I don’t really work out enough to be a wrestler, so being a performer on stage and getting to play music is the closest thing I could do to wrestling. Sometimes when I’m on stage I pretend I’m in a ring and wind up with the crowd. So there’s a little fact about me. I’ve actually become friends with Sting, too, so that’s pretty cool.

Islander

How do you feel about that? All these people you grew up looking up to, now these are people you’re hanging out with.
I think that’s one of the weirdest things for me. I grew up listening to certain bands that we’ve toured with. I’ve been watching Monday Night Nitro my whole life, and all of the sudden being able to hang out or sit back stage with Sting, that, for me, is one of the craziest experiences yet.

Especially with Sting because he had such a big impact on my life as far as we share the same faith. My grandfather (and I), we used to watch wrestling together before he passed away, and that was something special to us. The same with bands like P.O.D. and the Korn guys. They used to be on MTV growing up and now they’re just my goofy friends. I don’t even see them that way anymore at all. It’s like different people. It’s like, I know that that’s the band, but to me, they’re just my friends. I watch the old footage of them and it’s like, “Oh, there’s that band!” I still feel like I don’t know those bands (laughs).

What would you say was biggest shock to you when you finally hit that big tour with Seether and Papa Roach?
Just how normal everybody is, I think. I always heard about it, and I knew it to an extent, but hearing these bands people think are loaded talk about their phone bills or trying to make it home in time to see their kids’ birthdays — random things like that — that’s something crazy to me. Knowing how normal they are.

Also, knowing how fake the rock industry is — or the music industry in general. It’s a huge facade. It’s not real. It’s like it doesn’t even really exist; it’s just something that’s thrown out there so people have something to be entertained by, which is disheartening on a couple levels. For me, I think the biggest one is that if some of the fans base their lives off of wishing they had the lives of some of these rock stars… they don’t have the lives that people think they do.

I think as Islander is becoming more popular, people are starting to realize these are good guys, they’re not out there doing the drugs and setting bad examples. Why is that so important to you to be set apart?
Personally, that comes from all of us being born-again Christians in this band. It’s weird, because we don’t want to be considered a Christian band and we also don’t want to considered a “band of Christians.” What I mean by that is that everybody, for some reason, gets so interested when a band has faith, and I would say they don’t get super interested in a band has faith of any other kind — for some reason, only the Christian faith. I think some of it is based on sales and all that kind of stuff. You know, I’ve heard it said when you go to Best Buy, they don’t have a Buddhist rap section that you can find the Beastie Boys in or anything.

Right, there’s a Christian music industry. It’s set apart, but it’s an industry that’s established.
Exactly! I don’t think that that’s right. I think that’s actually terrible. For us personally, anytime somebody asks us, we’re like… When you go sit down and you order some spaghetti, you don’t ask, “Hey, is this Christian spaghetti made by a Christian chef?” You just want good spaghetti, you know? That’s the way we view our music. We believe wholeheartedly in what we believe, but when it comes to our music, we just hate that it even comes up as part of the topic, like it’s part of our art or something like that.

“Let’s not just sit here and talk about what we believe in, let’s just say, ‘Look, I’m not gonna sit here and argue with anybody. Does somebody need some water, does somebody need this, does somebody need that?’ Let’s figure that out, and maybe when they’ve quenched their thirst and had their meal, maybe then we can sit down and talk about what we believe in on a full belly.”

All that Christian-band-Christians-in-a-band stuff aside, in our country, there’s too much happening, there’s turmoil everyday right now. What role does your type of music have in what’s happening, and how do you think it can influence it?
For us, we don’t look at it like a genre for our type of music. To us, it’s all either punk or not. I think punk has always had a place in standing up and saying, “Hey, even if we’re not completely sure of what’s going on, even if we’re confused, we’re allowed to ask those questions.” It’s a good place to be. Instead of thinking we know it all — even if we have foundational beliefs we (hold) as fact — I think saying also, “I don’t know everything, I’m obviously not God” (is important). I think the punk rock thing to do is throw my fist in the air and say, “Something’s messed up.”

I’m gonna look for the truth, and if we can all do that together, I think that’s going to be a good thing. Let’s be truthseekers together, let’s be good to one another, and let’s be punk rock in the mentality that we’re not just going to take what the media throws at us. We’re not just going to take what the awards shows throw at us, anything like that. We’re going to look deeper and look for ourselves. We’re going to figure out what we actually believe in. I think that’s what we all need to do.

We need to take a step back, drop some of our pride, say, “What’s going on in our world?” and let’s look at how we can help. Let’s not just sit here and talk about what we believe in, let’s just say, “Look, I ‘m not gonna sit here and argue with anybody. Does somebody need some water, does somebody need this, does somebody need that?” Let’s figure that out, and maybe when they’ve quenched their thirst and had their meal, maybe then we can sit down and talk about what we believe in on a full belly.

How much does associating yourself with positive people like The Whosoevers influence your life and yourself as a musician?
It’s huge. Before the band had gone anywhere, I used to watch The Whosoevers through the Internet and through a radio show. Just seeing what they’re doing, like I was just talking about: Why don’t we just sit down and give something to drink to the thirsty, something to eat to the hungry, and we’ll sit down and love people where they’re at. I think that’s the biggest way they’ve influenced me is seeing how they go into prisons or help people get out of sex trafficking. They don’t try change the world by making you believe different, they try to show you that what they believe is real by them living different.

That’s something that hasn’t been public enough until the last few years, so I think there was a real need for that. It’s pretty great that (The Whosoevers) are around — and they’re growing. There’s so many artists it seems like that are becoming more involved, it’s almost a movement, you know? (To Bareis) Is it kind of hard to stay humble? Or is it pretty easy considering the people you’re surrounded by who are also very humble and aware of how they’re portrayed?
JRB: Honestly, it sounds weird when I say it, but I’ve never really had an issue with not being humble. I know there are way better musicians out there that can do this a million times better than me. If anything, I just love that I’m able to learn from other bands that have made it, and they take the time to help myself and the rest of the guys in the band get to where we want to be.

Islander

Absolutely. Well, the songs you have released so far are awesome. I’ve heard you say that from top to bottom, the album follows a few characters and a story line. Is that based on any of you guys in particular, is it more conceptual, or is it a combination?
MC: It’s a combination. There’s definitely real scenarios, but I went at it more or less just making up a character. There’s a lot of hidden stuff in it, there’s a lot of stuff that I’ll never feel comfortable just giving away. When you listen to things from the past, whether it be an old Beatles album or whatever, people start discovering backmasking in the music, and I love some of the mystery within our music. Yeah, there’s some weird stuff going on. Yes, there’s some backmasking. Yes, there’s some deeper, darker meanings to things. That’s what art is. That’s the thing with this album: I hope people dig deep, and I hope they really just get in there and discover. But at the same time, the songs stand on their own. For the listener that wants to find out some of the song meanings or get a little freaked out, that’s something that’s available to them if they want to. It’s in there.

JRB: When we wrote the record, we just sat in a room for two weeks and wrote every song, in order, on purpose because of the whole concept. It was all four of us writing; we just jammed and things started coming together, and this album came out of that. It’s different from the last album, but I think in a good way.

One thing I wondered about it being a concept album is, what if somebody had never heard Islander before and the only song they ever heard was “Darkness”? Do you worry that could be perceived the wrong way?
MC: That was a concern of mine when I wrote the lyrics to that song, but I finally came to the conclusion that we can’t constantly live in a world that caters to these kids with the Tweet and Facebook-status mentality lifestyle, like, “Quick, gimme gimme gimme.” That’s honestly why there are three songs out already, because we live in a world that forces bands to say, “Here, so you don’t forget us tomorrow.” We live in a world where people really do look in the mirror and forget what they look like right after. It’s sad.

But I finally came to the conclusion that we can put out a song that’s the complete opposite of what “Darkness” says and we’re still going to get a bunch of people questioning us and saying, “I can’t believe you guys said that.” Honestly, I’d rather put out something that makes them have to go to the next track, to say, look, it’s a concept album. Look a little deeper, don’t always look in front of your eyes all of the time and take things at face value all the time. I would rather they just hear it and ask themselves what they believe in.

One last thing before I go. If you could pass along any message to the people that are going to be hearing Power Under Control, what would that be?
JRB: Besides what the album means to us — and there’s a meaning behind it for us as a band — I think people can apply it to their lives. It can mean totally different things, too. So I just hope that whatever it means to people, it helps them through whatever it is they’re going through. And hey, maybe it’ll be what our meaning is behind it, too!

MC: Make sure to listen to it backwards and frontwards and frontwards and backwards and sideways and wayside. I just want them to know that it’s not necessarily what they think it is. I think maybe 60 years from now, if we have a documentary based on us, I feel like people are going to go back to this album and say, “Oh my gosh, maybe Islander was trying to tell us something. Maybe this was a little darker than it seemed.” They’re gonna be in shock.

A little bit of a wake up call they haven’t seen yet, huh?
MC: There’s a lot they haven’t seen yet.

Islander was posted on August 3, 2016 for HM Magazine and authored by .