A Decade Later, Inter Arma Still Hate Safety Metal
Inter Arma are no fly-by-night operation. Formed a decade ago, the Richmond band, featuring members of several different entities from the area scene, released their first LP, Sundown, in 2010 via the venerable Forcefield. Mixing the teachings of Darkthrone, Pantera, Neurosis and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band paved a path that, despite the disparate nature of those artists, felt wholly organic, catchy and dramatic. Soon thereafter, Relapse came calling, and the band released the Sky Burial LP, followed by the beyond epic, 46-minute-single-track EP The Cavern.
Their latest is sprawling, ambitious and possibly the crystallization of their intent. Mixing stuttering riffs, jazzy and mind-blowing stick work, and experimentation that never teeters into self-indulgence, Paradise Gallows is Inter Arma’s masterwork, one of the greatest testaments to heavy music in 2016. Stream it in full below.
During a recent wave of dates, we talked to Inter Arma about their process, “the jam,” the parallels between Elvis and GG Allin, and why Run the Jewels are one of their favorites. Full details are below.
There is a sort of “jam” element to you guys — a stutter that exists with bands like Eyehategod that play with the groove. I would imagine with that comes a certain amount of improvisation, however small. All that said, is a song a living thing? And furthermore, do you ever feel like you are done with a record?
Trey Dalton (guitar): That definitely happens to me all the time. I don’t play anything from Sky Burial the way I recorded it, with some obvious exceptions, where it has to be played straight. But something that’s more open-interpretation, it’s completely different. And we will continue to evolve for however many years to come.
So, coming off the last two Relapse releases, did you feel a need to push in specific directions? “I want a song with more prevalent piano,” that sort of thing. Or even more technical aspects — maybe some goal in the studio where you thought to yourself, “Oh, we fucked up this last time. I want to do it this time.”
T.J. Childers (drums): I always want to have weird instrumentation on records, and there’s been pianos in the past on records, but not as leading, not quite as prevalent as it is on the new LP, where the song fucking stops, and then here comes Elton John or Guns N' Roses. The only thing that I really strive for is to do something different, not necessarily expand on what we are already doing. At the end of the day, everything is channeled through everybody, so any idea we’d have is going to sound like Inter Arma.
You toured like crazy following the release of Sky Burial, and I assume the goal this time is to go out the same amount or more. How much were you playing out around that Sky Burial tour? I feel like every other month, I either saw you guys or KEN Mode.
TJC: Because we did two massive tours with them. Mutilation Rites, Earthling, KEN Mode, Woe, Black Tusk — that was one year, and the year after with KEN Mode again.
TD: That’s because us and KEN Mode are masochistic.
So, it’s a similar vibe this time around. You guys are gonna go for it.
Steven Russell (guitar): Maybe 10 more people will show up this time, too. [Laughs]
Is metal an inspiration anymore? I mean, to the degree that it was when you started this band. I always wonder if you live in a world 24/7, does the source material become more or less appealing?
TD: I fucking hate it. [Laughs]
Seriously, though, do you listen to metal in the van?
SR: There are a few metal bands that we're all really stoked on when it comes on in the van: Morbid Angel, some Nile songs, stuff like that. You need your break, though; the van time especially.
Mike Paparo (vocals): We listened to Pantera yesterday, though — their live record.
TD: As the tour progresses, we have almost positively played with shit bands, and that’s when you kind of have to sit through 30 or 45 minutes of bad metal. After that, you need a break.
Have you ever been inspired by something really left field that you incorporated into a record? We were talking about Elton John earlier.
TD: Specifically, I can’t tell you. The initial chord progression that starts on “Nomini,” I kind of had that for a while, and I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Then I had this other chord progression from a different key, and I transposed it to fit.
Just toy around until it gets to another level …
TD: Mikey had all the crazy contraptions and synth sounds and everything, and he helped T.J. add all the different layers of textures and shit, so it kind of all came together.
TJC: I was up on the ladder last summer, mindlessly painting siding on the fucking house, and thought, “What if I did that? Maybe that would work?” Tried it and turned out okay …
MP: “The Summer Drones,” that vocal thing that I do, it sounds like I talk through a distortion or something — that was a direct homage to Wovenhand.
TJC: Even the drum beat at the beginning of that is aping the Om drum beat.
In this age of the deaths of Lemmy, Bowie, Prince and many of our heroes all at once, do you think there’s truly a living rock star? A larger than life figure?
TD: Matt Pike is probably the closest thing, an over the top character. But in the end, he’s just a real-ass dude in the rock and roll world. He’s the closest one I can think of.
Is that a band you look towards for inspiration? Like an “I admire that band’s drive and work ethic” sort of thing.
TJC: High on Fire. Those dudes have been working hard forever, touring relentlessly, and it pays off. You gotta give credits to those dudes. Can you also say Kid Rock is a road warrior?
Dave Grohl, I have a man crush on him. I still think Foo Fighters still put out good music; not front-to-back wonderful, but still good songs and lyrics. I remember that at one point Foo Fighters toured all the time. He doesn’t have Lemmy’s badass[edness], Prince’s mystique, but I still think he’s a bad motherfucker…
Are there any bands that you want to share the stage with?
TD: There’s a few … it would be cool to play with Morbid Angel. Or Metallica. Even though they are a shadow of their former selves, you can say you played with fucking Metallica. Playing with Carcass would be cool. I also want to play with Oranssi Pazuzu.
Joe Kerkes (bass): I think another bucket list for me would be Neurosis. I’ve been listening to them since high school. That would be a real big one. I would like to play with Diocletian. Budos Band.
TD: It would be cool to play with Mastodon. I still love Mastodon, I don’t give a fuck what others say. Dälek.
TD: Also Run the Jewels!
What connects you to a band like Run the Jewels? Is it the lyricism or the unique production?
TD: I like how El-P uses all those weird synths ... with technology now, it’s hard to get a sound that is truly analog. It’s so warm and weird. The chord progressions that he comes up with are so fucking awesome and unique. Plus, Killer Mike is Killer Mike. He is the shit. Yeah, that last Run the Jewels record, front-to-back, just fucking smokes.
One thing that I have always been curious about, Mike, is how do you keep your vocals interesting? What is the key to making something that, to an outsider, is so singular, keeping it fresh and subtle?
MP: It’s hard. I try to keep things as varied as possible, and Inter Arma has been great having me do that, because some of the songs are so long. If I don’t vary it up, I can kill all the songs. People would be like, "The band is sick, but the singer fucking sucks," and I see ... that [in a lot of bands] myself: “This band would be cool, but the singer is ... you know, just not changing anything."
TD: Like Meshuggah. [Tomas Haake] only has one pitch and attack, but it works for them.
MP: Yeah, it works on some bands, but for this band it won’t work. I don’t think I’m a great vocalist by any means, but if I don’t even try to push myself to do different things and do same thing over and over again …
TD: It would be boring as fuck.
MP: ... I should just be the merch guy. So, I try to change it up. I listen to so many different kinds of music. On this last record, I just gave it a shot, and they would tell me if it sucked.
TD: Well, some of the songs force you into a style. How are you gonna do in “[The] Paradise Gallows”?
MP: I was thinking about rapping … [Laughs]
When you first started to listen to heavier music, what was the band or record that caused you to shut the door and do vocals by yourself?
MP: Wow. Arise by Sepultura. I always loved Max Cavalera’s pronunciation. He didn’t try to hide his accent, and that’s so fucking cool. He is so distinct that you can tell exactly who he is. It was definitely that. I love death metal, and I still remember first time I heard Deicide.
The first Deicide?
MP: Yeah. When you listen to it, you know that he double-tracked his vocal, but when you were 12 years old, you think, “What the fuck is he doing? How did he do two things at once? What the fuck?”
I’m so hesitant to call Inter Arma any one style, but let’s talk about black metal quickly. Do you think there are still places to go for black metal? I feel like a lot of the ground has been covered.
TJC: A lot of ground has been covered, but I feel like there are still a lot of places to go.
MP: You can do so much with it, but people handling that music are so closed-minded.
TD: That’s also kind of the culture of it.
It’s like hardcore culture, or virtually any genre culture…
MP: Anything. They don’t want to progress. Nowadays, bands like Oranssi Pazuzu … they are not really black metal, but they have black metal tendencies and are pushing boundaries.
TJC: Like Leviathan, It’s black metal, but …
MP: I mean, that guy [Jef Whitehead] takes in a lot of different music. That guy was in a math rock band, there are some albums with just covers, he covered Lungfish … he’s coming from a different place. I think if you come from a different place for black metal, you can do a lot of stuff with it. I still like stuff that sounds exactly like Transilvanian Hunger, though.
Some black metal people hate progression — they just wanna hear the exact same thing. That’s fine, that’s your deal, that’s cool. But I like weird shit.
TD: That’s why you aren’t a true black metal warrior.
MP: No, I’m not cult.
TJC: I fucking hate that mentality in any kind of music. It’s fucking lame.
It’s completely against any form of creativity.
TD: It seems so counterintuitive. That’s why rock and roll got to a point where black metal existed. It’s all just rock and roll, just a bastardized fucking version of it …
I recently had a conversation about how Elvis shaking his hips on television is the direct antecedent of GG Allin.
TJC: It sounds like a bit comical to say this, but there definitely is a correlation to GG Allin shitting on stage and putting a microphone up his ass. It evolves toward that, and fucking 40 years later, that’s what you have to do.
Do you think that rock is dangerous anymore?
MP: Not really, and I fucking hate that. I want to make Inter Arma a dangerous band, but there are other ways of being dangerous, and that involves taking risks. You see how bands that don’t take risks identify themselves, like “we are hardcore band” or “we are black metal band.” Every town has a metalcore band, a fucking sludge band, and they are awful and terrible — aping Eyehategod or something. Fuck you! Do something else! I mean, look, if you want to play sludge, it’s fine … try to own it. Try to make it yours.
TJ: There are an infinite number of notes you can basically combine and turn into something. It doesn’t have to be the exact replicated version of your favorite band.
TD: I’ve heard it called "safety metal." It’s so accurate. It’s just so formulaic and not taking chances. Just putting out the same record over and over. Do what you want to — that ain’t me.
I would definitely say Paradise Gallows is ... a risky record. When we recorded it, we kept saying, “What are we thinking here?” But we dig it!
MP: I clearly remembering saying, “No one is gonna like this," while coming out of Nashville.
Speaking of landmark albums, when someone asks you what the new record is, is this Inter Arma’s Leviathan or Houdini, etc., how do you respond?
TD: I was thinking about this the other day …
MP: It feels so pretentious to say that …
TJC: I think we all think about this kind of thing, but don’t wanna say it. Maybe this is Inter Arma’s Revolver?
TD: I’m gonna say that this is our Master of Puppets. The first record was super punk-y and stripped down, the second’s songwriting is a little bit better, and the third one — this is what we should sound like. And I feel like that record cover mirrors the first three Metallica records. I’m a big Metallica fan, so I don’t think that’s unreasonable.
MP: Who’s Metallica? They did “Raining Blood,” right?
TJC: No, that’s Pantera.