Lions of Metal

On their third full-length album, Till the End, Phinehas is building something that lasts

Photo by Mark Maryonovich

The first time I saw Phinehas play, I was floored. It was a sonic pounding; you come away grinning, ear to ear. Now on a new label (Artery) and with a new guitarist (Daniel Gailey), Phinehas is set to drop their third full-length release, a trusted blend of their thrash-infused metalcore. I sat down with vocalist Sean McCulloch, and listening to him talk about the new album, his zeal is overwhelming, and it’s clear Phinehas has cranked everything up with their new album, Till the End. 

How was the band’s time in the studio, writing a record with your new guitarist, Daniel Gailey?
Back around April, a little over a year ago when Daniel joined the band, we quickly realized he was going to bring so much to the table. And not just as being a brother and a best friend, which he is now; he is an incredibly talented sound engineer and producer. We would have a couple weeks off between tours — it’s not that much time — but he would lay down tracks where he and I had gone over guitar parts (on the road or in the van or we would talk about song concepts), and he would gradually record them and put them on paper, so to speak.

The album was written over a course of eight months, very staggered and wasn’t super quick. We had a ton of time to sit on it and self-produce it in a way that we could make changes. Then we ended up writing another song — well, basically, two songs — in the studio. Because of our situation, it wasn’t something that we had to rush, which I’m really thankful for; I feel that was what we had to deal with for The Last Word is Yours to Speak. … Daniel lives in Atlanta, Bryce (Kelly, bassist) lives in Iowa, Lee (Humerian, drummer) lives in Southern California and I live in Southern California, so we’re a little bit spread out. That put us in a weird position, so (for that album), we had a writing process that was, basically, through email.

Daniel is one of those guys who’s frustratingly good at everything. For example, on this last tour, we were out for like five weeks. On a whim, him and Bryce picked up yoyos and, within that five week period, Daniel — who had never picked up a yoyo before — was doing insane tricks like a pro by the end of the tour. He can pick up something and has that drive to be the best at it. That’s just the type of person he is. With that in mind, we would have a riff idea or something like that, and he would throw it down in his recording studio and put (basic) drums to it and stuff like that. It would give us an idea of not just how a riff is going to sound, but of how an entire song is going to sound. From there we could tweak the structure before even going into the studio. Going in, we had eight preproduction tracks, and I recorded a couple demos myself and sent them over to him, and he absolutely made them sound so sick. So he’s the best.

What kind of influence would you say Daniel has had with the band and your guys sound?
We’re definitely still Phinehas, but he’s absolutely had a huge influence. For this record, I would say there are definitely a lot of things people will be surprised with — and by that I mean people will be sonically punched in the face over and over and over again, (not counting) the sonic quality that Joel Wanasek, the guy that mixed and mastered it, brought out of the record. He really made it sound awesome.

If it’s going to be a heavy part, you’re going to feel it in your loins (laughs). If it’s going to be a melodic part, it’s going to, hopefully, move you. I mean, we’re definitely Phinehas, but I would say this is the kind of material that, in the seven years I’ve been in this band, I thought we would be capable of writing. It’s not because I didn’t have confidence in the band or anything, it’s just so much more focused and concentrated — I can’t really explain it. Like, we’ve had guitar solos in the past, but the guitar solos on this record are what guitar solos should sound like. We’ve had breakdowns and riffs, but nothing to this caliber, if that makes sense.

I remember, on The God Machine, sitting down with our old guitar player and showing him the riffs so he could record it or, on The Last Word is Yours to Speak, I was playing guitar while we were writing it. I know how to play both of those records front to back. Not to brag on myself, I’ve been playing guitar for 14 years. Daniel joins and 75 percent of the record I will never learn how to play because I know I can’t play it.

You guys have hit that golden standard of playing.
Oh yeah, absolutely. In my humble opinion, I think guitar players — and just people in general — are going to get massively stoked on how creative and how fun Daniel’s guitar playing is.

How did you guys get signed with Artery Records?
That is sort of a long story, and I’m stoked to tell it because we couldn’t be more pumped to be with Artery Records. They’ve shown us time and time again that they care about our best interests. We don’t work with their booking, but we work with their management and we work with their label now. Mike Milford, I couldn’t say enough good things about that guy. He was in a touring band for a number of years and he’s been in the industry for so long and he still has it in him to treat a small band like us like human beings not just some product. I mean, he has a business sense, and he’s Yoda when it comes to stuff like that. He was the one that got us out of our old record label — which, I’m not telling this story to bash on Red Cord Records.

They’re shut down now right?
I honestly have no idea if they are or not but I will say this. There are a lot of things about that label people assume about them because of the way they portray themselves, you know, being faith-based and whatever else. I’m mostly just talking about one person. Being with that label for three years was incredibly discouraging, seeing the type of things he would do and hearing about kids who had just signed themselves into a contract and are paying a huge amount of money just to be on the label.

Sounds like the switch to Artery was a good thing.
Absolutely. We were in that contract with Red Cord, and we were supposed to have another album come out with them. We were on tour last summer with Sleeping Giant, This or the Apocalypse, Those who Fear and Silent Planet and, right before that tour, Mike called me and we had a ten-minute phone call, him asking me a couple of questions about our contract and if it was being fulfilled or not. He said he would handle all that and not to worry about it.

Being in that position where we were completely vulnerable, where he could have said, “If I get you out of this record deal, then you have to sign with us” — he could have said that and we would have been desperate enough to just be like, “Yeah, just get us out of it.” He could have offered us a not-so-great deal, and we would have had to have taken it. But because of who Mike Milford is and how rad he is, he said, “We’ll worry about all that stuff later. We are going to send you guys an offer, but first things first. Let’s get this taken care of and then you guys can decide where you want to go with your career.” It was this huge weight lifted, and I’m just really thankful for that dude and our new manager, Scott Lee. Mike made us the best offer and worked with us on what we really want to do.

And his vision for us was just awesome. We’re very, very blessed and very humbled to be a part of Artery Records and the way they’ve treated us, we feel at peace in every corner. We have a team that’s fighting for us. I have all of their numbers so I can get in contact with them at anytime if we need anything.

It’s cool that you guys have a label that has your backs and you don’t have to fight for yourselves.
Yeah, it was like that for three years at our old label, and the label actually had a negative influence on us and our name. We weren’t accepted for tours based on the label we were on, so, in a business sense, we were tossed aside because of the position we were in. I don’t blame them or anybody for passing on us because I know what was going on at Red Cord, and it was not good.

You guys have released a single off the new album called “Dead Choir.” What’s the message behind it?
On every record, we have a song that’s directed towards the church in one way or another. “My Horses are Many” was on The God Machine, and “Twisted” was on The Last Word is Yours to Speak. “My Horses are Many” was directed at prosperity Christianity and “Twisted” was about the Westboro Baptists. This time around, “Dead Choir” is about American Dream Christianity.

The concept I was trying to convey — and hopefully this time around it won’t end negatively, like “My Horses are Many,” which didn’t have any redemptive qualities — is more of an encouragement for people to open their eyes and to not just sing empty words, but to actually have their feet follow their words. I want people to really dig into who Jesus was and who He is today. I don’t see him in politics or anything like that. I see him in poverty. I don’t see him in the suburbs, but in the inner-city, if that makes sense.

Of course, there’s the Bible answer that “everybody needs Jesus” — and I absolutely believe that — but I think sitting in your suburban home and not putting yourself out there, not taking that next step and having your feet follow your words, I think that is worse than being on the opposite end of the spectrum. The opposite of hate is not love; it’s indifference. It’s just not caring enough to take that step.

What are some of the other themes you guys touch on in Till the End?
There’s a song called “Forever West” that’s about depression and fighting against it since it’s one of those constant fights that never ends. You’ll have moments of happiness and 30 minutes later you’ll have this black hole of a void in you. The hook goes, “Forever west, follow the sunset. Forever west, don’t let the sun set. Leave the past and the darkness behind you.” It’s about fighting forward and chasing a light.

There’s a line that says, “If you should find yourself alone, my starts will point you back to me, and you’ll have to fight through the night.” That’s what it feels like, fighting through this darkness, when you consciously realize you’re in that mindset and that’s what you have to do.

The last song on the album is “Till the End,” and it’s about one of my best friends, Garret Russell (vocalist of Silent Planet). Him and I have been through so much crap in the past, and we kind of put a definitive statement about being there for each other. You know how you hang out with somebody and you just click with them right away and it’s like, “I feel like I’ve known you for years and years and years. Where have you been all this time?” That’s the type of connection we have. We can just pick up right where we left off and have these ridiculous theological conversations and just be so stoked on each others’ bands.

The song is about him and fighting through what can sometimes be a counter-intuitive relationship with God, where sometimes you want to fight but you’re in a situation where you don’t see an out. It’s a little counter-intuitive because sometimes the best thing to do is just let go. We’re wired to think that we have to do something about it right now, when really that concept is what’s putting the shackles around our wrists. It’s something we connect on and struggle with.

Till the End is, overall, one of the best things, lyrically, that we’ve written to date. Because of the way the record was written, I was able to put away ideas and digest them over the course of eight months, as opposed to having to put all my focus into guitar and then getting into the studio and going, “Oh crap. I have to write lyrics to 11 songs now.”

Is there anything you’re most excited for fans to hear with the new record?
I’m a little bit bias about this since I’m a vocalist, but, in the studio, I was actually able to hone a new skill, my dream mid-to-low scream where I’m not running out of breath — and it’s insane. There’s a massive difference in the vocals going from the two prior records to this one. There’s so much more of an in-your-face, angry sound to the lyrics. It’s super aggressive and it’s low.

Vocally, we broke some barriers in the studio. When we recorded “Dead Choir” — that was the first track I recorded vocally — I just had nothing in my lower range. It kind of helped that “Dead Choir” didn’t really need it, but the rest of the songs absolutely called for it. So we went into the next couple of songs and I just wanted to do it that way. I know that I scream that low in shows, but I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t do it in the studio. It just kind of clicked, and I just started doing it. Every aspect — instrumentally, in the songwriting and lyrically — is amazing, and I’m super pumped on this record. People are going to hear some of the solos on the record and drop a number two in their pants.

Faith plays a large role in Phinehas. Was that always the intention?
Absolutely. Faith has always been the cornerstone of this band. It’s the rock at the center of the four of us, and we’ve always had this thing with Philippians 2 that says, “Unity through humility.” The other guys in the band aren’t just my bandmates. It’s not Dan who plays guitar, Bryce who plays bass, Lee who plays drums. These guys are my brothers-in-arms, and these guys are like my family. All four of us have relationships with Jesus Christ.

I don’t really know what “Christian band” means. Our music isn’t a person, and it can’t have a relationship with Jesus, so hopefully our relationships with Jesus Christ can be communicated through our music and be used as a means of relating with other people. It doesn’t have to be a Christian walk of life, but it can relate to anyone in any walk of life. Initially, it started out as a band of Christians, and it was this understood thing we were Christians. Through life experiences and through some really positive influences, we felt it was best to say something about it, especially how our band is geared. We have songs calling out the church, and I feel it is our responsibility to for us to, hopefully, talk to people who have been burned by the church. Not to convert them, but to connect with them because all of us have been hurt. If, for a second, we can make a person feel loved unconditionally, then that’s awesome. I don’t care where they’re at.

You’ll meet them where they’re at not make them come to you.
Exactly. I’m not looking for them to jump through these Christianese hoops that American Christianity has set up for everybody. Screw that. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing churches out there doing incredible work. My brother, who’s my hero, is a youth pastor. He’s the one who positively influenced me to not just try and tear things down for the sake of it. If you tear something down and replace it with nothing, then what are you doing?

Instead of fixing the problem you’re making it worse.
Exactly. So he said, “Sean, you’re great at tearing things down, but what can you build?” We want to meet people where they’re at, in whatever walk of life they’re going through, whoever they are. We’ve made some of the best friends in the world being out on tour, meeting people. We’ve seen grace enter our lives in almost every way imaginable. This band is as much yours as it is mine. We’re blessed to be where we’re at and blessed to be able to do it. We love music and we love people and we love Jesus — hopefully that’s communicated through the music.

Phinehas was posted on July 19, 2015 for HM Magazine and authored by .