“Where words fail, music speaks.” – Hans Christian Andersen
In the wake of human depravity and the tragedy of moral evil, we find music. Music speaks the truth that we often can’t find, and music breathes unity over souls. Its transcendent nature often transforms it into the fuel that inspires the fight for justice and peace. Metalcore giants Phinehas use their music as fuel on their latest album, Dark Flag, in response to the universal problem of pain and the more direct and complicated condition of North Korea. Through the work, the band illustrates the immense effect of music in times of loss and global outcry. The album pushes their cause for transparency and visibility into an extremely complex situation with adrenaline and conviction, making Dark Flag the most aggressive album they’ve released to date.
“Dark Flag is a concept album stemming from the atrocities committed by the Kim regime in North Korea,” frontman Sean McCulloch told me. “This album isn’t a political statement. This isn’t a conservative or liberal agenda. Dark Flag is about human rights and how precious and valuable life is.” The heart for this cause bleeds through every line and every heavy chord. Each burst of brutal riffage is met with a force of passion-soaked melody that quenches the thirst of a global desert.
Driving through back roads in between shows, McCulloch and bassist Bryce Kelley talk me through the story behind the album and the dynamic behind the group. A true band of brothers, Phinehas are clearly veterans of life on the road. Between moments of laughter and seriousness, I was able to get a glimpse of the true passion for what they do. With such an inspiring message, Phinehas has remained true to their identity since their formation in 2001, through three EPs and four full-length albums. Within the scope of metalcore (and, more specifically, thrash metal) the band is known for bringing the best of both worlds with technical superiority and a lyrical deftness. Dark Flag reflects both Phinehas’ growth and integrity through their transition into a new album cycle in their career. Standing on their own giant shoulders with every album building on the last, Phinehas refines their sound with passionate fire, raising the bar in metalcore to new heights with Dark Flag.
Do you all live in California?
Bryce Kelley: No, actually. Our guitar player, Dan (Gailey) is now the only one that lives in the greater Los Angeles area. We’ve all shuffled around a bit.
A lot of bands can do that now with technology.
BK: Yeah, it’s not as hard as you would think. We don’t get to practice – like, ever – which is hard, especially with a new record and playing new songs. But I guess before it was ‘iffy’ to travel and share music, it would have been a lot harder for us to live in Iowa, Nashville, and southern California.
Tell me about Dark Flag. Where did it come from and what made you go the direction you did?
BK: Musically, I think it was just the natural progression of things, you know? I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and said, “We want this song to sound like this, and this song to sound like that.” It just starts with, “Hey, this riff is cool. What comes next?” It eventually turns out to be whatever happens. But I guess there is a slight overtone of us wanting it to be heavier or more melodic.
How do you know what to tweak to make it fit those ideas?
BK: I guess it’s more just listening to it as a whole, seeing what doesn’t seem to fit. It’s all about who is listening to it at the time. There were definitely some times when I thought, “Yeah, this is pretty dang heavy,” and one of the other dudes would say, “Nah, it’s not heavy enough.”
Diving into research, terrified of what I’d find, it was even worse than I thought it would be.
When I heard Dark Flag was about North Korea, I about cried. What an amazing story to tell. Can you tell me more about the concept of the Kim regime that’s going on throughout the album?
BK: I’m going to let Sean tell you that because he could describe it better than I could since he wrote the lyrics.
Sean McCulloch: Well, the lyrics are all written from stories that are centered around North Korea. I had a couple friends who worked at an organization called LINK – which is short for “Liberty In North Korea” – and they had shared some things (with me) from years ago. And with everything going on in the media and whatnot…
There are 25 million people over there, you know? It’s not just everything we see on TV like Kim Jong Un and the nuclear highlights. So, hopefully, we can shed some light on these 25 million people. It’s not their fault that this is going on. Seventy percent of the population doesn’t have enough food. Two in five children have their growth stunted from malnutrition. One hundred fifty thousand in concentration camps. It’s illegal to leave. Yeah, if you read about it, it’s insane to me.
I feel like a lot of people have this perception that it’s a somewhat developed country, when, in reality, the people there are poorer per capita than people in Uganda, Rwanda… It’s horrible there. And the things surrounding it make it sound like a modern day 1984 or some type of dystopian sci-fi novel. Diving into research, terrified of what I’d find, it was even worse than I thought it would be. I think I just wanted to shed some light on it; hopefully, bring awareness (to the situation) to where the typical listener’s gut reaction isn’t going to be, “Oh, let’s just nuke them.” No. No. That’s not the right course of action. Not this fire and fury B.S. we hear all the time.
You talked a little about the writing process a bit. This is your fourth full-length album. How do you keep the writing process fresh and new every time?
BK: There’s a lot that comes out when we do these. There are generally about two years in between each record. As soon as we finish one, we start working on the next one – not purposefully but naturally, because you’re always writing and messing around on the guitar. Then you come up with something cool and say, “I’ll hold on to that for two years.” Then, over the course of those two years, everything evolves into songs. By the time we’re ready to make the actual record, we’ve got two years’ worth of ideas that are different, you know? Whatever we sit down with during crunch time is going to be a little different than what happened immediately after the last album. We’ve listened to new music since then. We’ve toured with new bands since then. We find new influences. It all has its effect on it.
What do you think this album has that the others didn’t?
I feel like this one would be the most cohesive album we’ve done thus far. Everything seems to fit together really well. We didn’t really have a song on this album we were uncertain about. As far as releasing it, we had a very hard time choosing singles because we wanted to release them all, whereas – with past records – we’ve thought, “This is the one.”
Picking singles is always a really weird process. It’s not just about picking the most epic song. There are definitely more factors to consider.
Yeah, it’s strange. I feel like, of the ones we picked, we did a pretty good job. We released here and there, and then, as songs were coming out, we got great responses to ones we all liked but weren’t sure if we should release. We didn’t know how well they’d go over. “Break the Earth” is the perfect example. We all loved that song, but we weren’t sure if it was too strange to put out before the actual record came out, and that’s been one of the songs we’ve had the best response from.
What does the studio look like for you guys?
The studio – that’s just Dan’s apartment. Dan recorded, produced, and mixed the whole record. So a good 80% of it was recorded in his bedroom. We went to Glow in the Dark Studio in Atlanta for vocals. We’ve never really worked with a real producer before and we wanted to try something new for this record, so we worked with a dude named Matt Goldman on the vocals. He’s worked on some insane stuff in the past – some Underoath records and things like that. We were very excited to actually try that out and see how it went. I don’t want to completely speak for Sean, but I think he would agree that he did things on this record that he didn’t think he was capable of.
I’d say that’s pretty successful.
And there are only three of you guys right now, right?
At the moment. There’s this guy named Isaiah who’s been playing drums for us. We think we might like him enough to let him in the band. He’s sitting, like, three feet away from me right now with his headphones in and he can hear nothing that I’m saying to him.
Did Lee’s (Humerian, former drummer) departure affect the sound of the new record at all?
He actually did record drums for the record before he left. Lee’s last thing with us was recording drums back at the end of March or the beginning of April. Then, two weeks later, he moved to Ukraine.
Oh gosh, that’s quite a move!
Yeah, he and his wife are heading up a mission there called Exit Tour.
I have some friends who did Exit Tour. We almost did it, too.
Yeah, they’re doing that over in Ukraine right now. We were very bummed to hear that he was going to be leaving, but we were more stoked to hear what he was going there to do.
As a band who has self-released a few projects and as one who has been on a major label, what is your advice to DIY bands?
Do it yourself as long as you can. Not that everyone out there is looking to rip you off or anything, but there are a lot of benefits to being a young band who does everything themselves. It’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of uncertainty going into it because you don’t have someone helping you who has done what you’re trying to do. You don’t always know if you’re making the right move, but it’s better to make those mistakes on your dollar than to let somebody come in, take advantage of you, and ruin your band, you know? Labels, managers, booking agents will start finding you if you’re doing a good job. You don’t need to go out and search for it. Go out. Tour. And, eventually, those things will find their way to you.
That’s great advice. Phinehas has always been right up there with the must-haves of Christian metal. I always wonder if the name “Christian metal” gets turned into something that bands never really intend it to. So I like to ask this – what are your thoughts on being called a Christian band?
I think it’s important to us because that’s the main goal of our music, but I do think, sometimes, there is a strange stigma surrounding it. You know, a lot of kids in this music scene are so used to the 2010 thing, where every band that came out was a “Christian Band,” creating a huge boom of it. They were popping up out of the woodwork – some of it because people being called a Christian band would help generate income for touring and some of it because people actually meant it. I think there was so much of it for so long that it almost became a negative thing.
Now, a lot of people have been rubbed the wrong way by it. There’s a lot of negativity that could come out of it. Not everybody is the best representation, but you give those people a platform and one bad apple… It’s a bummer. But I do think the ones still around have established what their actual message is, like the Fit For a King dudes or bands like For Today. But again, it’s important to us because that’s why we do this.
Phinehas was posted on August 31, 2018 for HM Magazine and authored by Nao Lewandowski.