Words by Andrew Lampela
Inter Arma have been creating their own path for a hot minute now. The terms ‘blending elements’ and ‘stretching boundaries’ are both accurate and, yet, somehow have lost most of their punch when trying to describe their records. Sulphur English takes things up a notch, adding a great bit of depth to the weird guitar harmonies of “Citadel”, a stifling melancholia to the acoustic “Stillness”, and a smothering atonal menace to the completely crushing “The Atavist’s Meridian”.
All Inter Arma records are best felt as a whole, but this could not be more true in the case of Sulphur English, a crushing statement from one of the most individualist and interesting voices currently in metal. T.J. Childers is a disarmingly nice guy to chat with about the current goings on surrounding the album, just don’t get him started about Metallica.*
Off Shelf: This record is awesome, and I feel quite a bit darker than the last.
TJC: It’s a little bit different. Not crazy different, but yeah…
OS: I mean, the pacing is very deep to me. The heavy parts are just as heavy, but the slower, mellower parts are much more melancholy, and it definitely feels of a whole as opposed to a collection of songs. Do you write the album around songs, or do you allow the songs to dictate where things go?
TJC: Well, as far as the pacing goes, I am also a fan of sitting down for a whole record. Now that said… when we sit down to write a record, we don’t sit down to write a record. “Howling Lands” was written a year ago, then other songs came in here and there. We didn’t hunker down in a room for months and say, “here’s how we want the pacing to go”. The songs just kind of come out organically.
That dictated the vibe on this one, because we’re all kind of disenfranchised with the metal scene over the last couple years. It’s homogenized, and safe, and pretty boring for the most part. Obviously there are still some great bands out there for sure, but as with anything, ten percent is great, ninety percent is pure shit.
That was our vibe, and I wrote a lot of this record on guitar, and my whole thing was I wanted this album to sound like a huge middle finger to heavy metal even though it’s a heavy metal record.
OS: I played this album for some of my friends, metal fans but probably not as deep as most, and they were honestly lost. One of my favorite songs on the album, “The Atavist’s Meridian”, elicited the response “It just sounds like a bunch of bees, like just a noise.” I mean, I had to agree to some extent…
TJC: [laughs] That’s what my mom says about all of our records!
OS: …but yeah, I feel like this album, in both quiet and loud parts, is pretty abrasive.
TJC: There is definitely an abundance of dissonance.
OS: Which strikes me as a contrast to the lyrics. As someone that toiled away at an English degree, these are some heady lyrics, like some sort of prologue to a Victorian novel. Where does that contrast come from?
TJC: Let me just preface with Mike writes all of the lyrics. That said, we all read a lot, and we all don’t normally enjoy typical metal lyrics, especially when you start to get into the Slipknot “fuck you, I’m so angry” type of bullshit. That’s completely off the table. Even more so, the wizard going up the mountain shit is so overdone and it just lends this type of cartoonish-ness to any band doing it. For me, it’s hard to take seriously. I love Priest and Maiden, as far as what they do, but the way I want to express this band and the way I wan people that listen to react is just not like that.
It’s a coincidence when Mike joined the band and we went to record that I had to see the lyrics and I didn’t want them to be teenage angsty lyrics, not that I really expected them to be that way, but…holy shit. He has this Victorian Cormac MaCarthy thing going on. Stark yet beautiful, and I was of course like “roll on, please embellish” for sure. It is very awesome that he writes this way, and it adds a very unique flavor, probably one of the things that makes us stand out, as far as the metal scene. Even with the bands that are different, you don’t have that sense of eloquence, and as much as I hate to say it, that sort of high brow kind of thing. That really sets us, and Mike in particular, apart from the pack. I love that he has a way about writing that, even if some of the songs on the album are political, he colors things in such a deep way that he doesn’t have to say what specifically sucks, just that things suck.
OS: Once again, You’ve gone with Mikey Allred, and I really think he’s zeroed in on the claustrophobic nature of your music, whether crushingly heavy or alternately crushingly mellow. He also handles quite a few little guest spots on here.
TJC: He’s all over the place, not just in a producing or engineering aspect…I’m trying to think of the right capacity…
OS: All around good dude?
TJC: [laughs] Yeah, that’s putting it very broadly, but also pretty accurately.
OS: It’s got to feel pretty good to have found your dude, though. Somebody that gets what the band is both doing and going for.
TJC: He’s done all of our records, since Sky Burial. Really, even meeting him was an alignment of the stars. We never want to make a record that sounds like, I don’t know, a Cryptopsy record. While I love Pro-Tools, I also hate it, especially in the metal world, because a lot of death metal, and all the technical death metal and really, most fast stuff, is put on a grid and made to sound perfect, and that’s not what a good rock record sounds like. Despite all the sub-genre title bullshit, we’re still a rock and roll band, and that record to me should sound like four or five guys in a room playing together with little mistakes and imperfections. That’s the type of shit that makes a record sound awesome. Like, you listen to Zeppelin III and Bohnam’s bass drum is squeaking in the background. Things like that are what separate a legendary record from some mediocre over-produced run of the mill record. As luck would have it, Mikey is the exact same mindset.
OS: The production goes with these songs perfectly. Too clear, and you don’t get the smothering vibe, and too rough would make these songs unintelligible.
TJC: We kept everything pretty raw, the click tracks are very minimal, the editing is very minimal. We punch in, because we’re human beings, but we tried to keep it as what you hear on the record is what we played. Like you’re doing sixteenth notes on the bass drums…it’s supposed to sound like madness. If it’s perfect, then it just sounds…if I can borrow from Buzz from the Melvins, it sounds like Donald Duck on a typewriter. It just sounds…stupid, I guess. The imperfect element is what adds to it.
You take the riff from “The Atavist’s Meridian” and you just make it sound real and put those imperfections in there and all the crazy drum stuff in a good drum room with some reverb and it’s going to sound way crazier than some overproduced heavy metal record. Mikey puts good microphones on the drums and amps, and knows how to mix shit in the old school way. Mikey is the shit, and working with him has boosted us to levels we didn’t know we had in us.
OS: So, “Howling Lands” has to be one of the weirdest singles ever, right?
TJC: Little bit of a story behind that one. We were trying to tour in Canada for the first time, and we got turned away. It was because of me, because I have a DUI from ten years ago. We turned away, and I just sat in the passenger seat just repeating ‘fuck Canada’ over and over, and that rhythm just turned into ‘fuck Can-A-Da’ and I said that as soon as we get home, this is happening. And then we went to Olive Garden after getting turned away from Canada.
OS: I mean, some of the best shit ever has probably happened with the phrase, “fuck it, lets hit Olive Garden”.
TJC: [laughs] Yeah, we feel like shit, lets go to Olive Garden!
OS: It’s a very strange world out there for bands, what with digital streaming consumption and the idea that a song has to hit you within the first minute or it’s on to something else. You guys obviously don’t give a shit, but how do twelve minute dirges fit in to this type of interaction?
TJC: When it comes to the whole three minute and thirty second pop world, we certainly have no place there.
OS: But even in metal, this is true. There is a type, whether it is a three minute blaster or a fifty minute song about weed that somehow became the norm. How do you approach things in regards to the album?
TJC: It takes as long as it takes for a song to be a creation. If the intro is two or three minutes long, then it’s two or three minutes long, you know? One of our big things when we write is feel. When does it feel like it should change? Where does this feel like it’s going? If a part is fucking cool, and you feel like playing it for five minutes, then that’s what it’s fucking going to be. Outside of a few exceptions, after recording a song, it’s just when it feels right, that’s how long it is. If it’s ten seconds or ten fucking minutes, that’s what it’s going to be.
I just feel like, I respect anyone that can write a good three and a half minute pop song, but I think it is insanely hard and when you look at writing credits on a fucking Katy Perry record there are fifteen songwriters, it literally takes a team of songwriters to craft a science experiment or some shit. I respect that, I really do, but I feel like any band, and any metal band of our similar ilk or whatever, if they’re trying to write a three or four minute song like that hold people’s attention for people who ‘can’t focus that long’, you’re dong a disservice to yourself really. You’re selling yourself short if you’re writing songs for other people or for some sort of demographic. I don’t think it’s cool, I don’t think it’s art, it’s a cop-out.
Again, if the fucking song needs to be twelve minutes long, then that’s how fucking long it is. If you like it, if you don’t, we don’t really give a fuck… our records are how we sound.
*This is the point I actually did get T.J. started about Metallica, and we both nerded out pretty hard for fifteen or so minutes regarding our mutual love of …and Justice For All and all things ’80s Metallica. Trust me, nobody needs to read about us dorks.