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12th February 2009
2008 marked a decade since Unearth formed, originally under the moniker Point 04, although adopted their present day name before the release of debut EP 'Above the Fall of Man' in 1999. New album, 'The March', was released late last year to critical acclaim, and with this fourth full-length effort the Massachusetts quintet have undoubtedly produced their most accomplished work to date in terms of songwriting and musicianship while simultaneously progressing their sound into a more maturely honed fusion of retro/modern metal. It is also the band's first release to feature talented sticksman Derek Kerswill since he was recruited back in 2007. Over in the UK for the sophomore outing of Metal Hammer's Defenders of the Faith shows with a varied bill that also features Lamb of God, Dimmu Borgir, and Five Finger Death Punch, I arranged to meet up with the band before their show at Birmingham Academy. Hooking up with Unearth's tour manager outside the venue, he takes me to the band's dressing room backstage and introduces me to both Derek and frontman Trevor Phipps. With Derek on interview duties, Trevor, with the band since 1998, states that he'll fill in the gaps as and when required. Settling down on a sofa at one end of the room, I commence by enquiring about the previous night's show in Bristol, the first date of the short tour...
METAL DISCOVERY: How did the show go in Bristol last night?
DEREK KERSWILL: It was great, you know, good first show; a lot of people; good energy.
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(Derek Kerswill on Unearth's slightly progressive musical leanings)
"I think there’s a thought process that goes into some of our parts occasionally that might make it a little progressive, or just an unconventional aspect of the freezing of the riffs and stuff like that. They’re pretty...heavy at times but, yeah, I’d say mildly progressive."
Derek Kerswill in Unearth's dressing room backstage at the Academy, Birmingham, 12th February 2009
Photograph copyright © 2009 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: Was it sold out that one?
DK: Yeah, sold out. Some kid came up to me - “I’ll give you forty quid if you can get me in”! I thought about trying to get him in whatever way I could!
MD: Yeah, and make forty quid! A few beers!
DK: I was thinking about the money in US dollars - it’s about 70 bucks or something!
MD: How do you find UK crowds compared to playing back home in the States?
DK: Can I be honest, or should I…?
MD: You can be honest.
DK: I feel like UK crowds are depressed a lot of the time. It’s just it seems like whenever we’ve done the UK - with the exception of Download 2007 which was one of the greatest days of my life - it’s just kind of a sombre feeling over the crowd. I’ll tell you one show that was amazing - we did that Never Say Die tour with Parkway Drive. It was fucking killer, and we played at Yeovil…awesome! Awesome! Dude, I hung out after the show with a bunch of fans and they were just cool, and took me out to drink. You know, I got wasted, and it was fun!
MD: They were quite small venues on that tour?
DK: We did a few that were…
MD: Oh yeah, you played The Forum in London?
DK: The Forum, yeah, awesome.
MD: Nice venue.
DK: Yeah, it was sold out. Fucking awesome! But I feel like we get a lot more support at home, but I think there’s still room on the bill for us, you know.
MD: Definitely, yeah. Are you a fan of any of the other bands on this tour?
DK: Yes - Lamb of God. That’s about all I’ve got to say!
MD: Not Dimmu?
DK: Ah, Dimmu’s great for what they do, it’s just that I don’t listen to it. I don’t even listen to that much metal personally. I mean…actually I do. I listen to everything from 30s and 40s style blues to Stratovarius. I’m more a kind of power metal and classic metal guy. You know who I do love though? They’re not on this tour though, but they’re UK boys, and I’m in love with their new record - Architects. Absolutely love them. I really like their groove. If you took The Refused and Cave Men, and you put them together, and they humped and made a really beautiful baby, that would be Architects. I love ‘em!
MD: Marvellous! The media often label Unearth as metalcore…
DK: I predicted you was going to ask that question!
MD: Is this the question you get asked the most?
DK: Yeah!
MD: Okay, we’ll carry on…I was gonna ask, blah, blah, blah…do you hate labels…?
DK: Yes, I do hate labels.
MD: It’s shit, okay, ignore that question!
DK: No, I’ll answer it. I’ll use it to vent a little. I think, right now, metal…I’m not afraid to tell people I’m thirty five years old; I grew up in the late 80s when, you know, us as fans…how old are you?
MD: I’m thirty five. ‘Seventh Son…’ got me into metal in ‘88, so that’s my era too. Slayer; Testament…
DK: Yeah, Metallica; Slayer; Anthrax; Megadeth. And then even Forbidden; Violence and Death Angel. I mean, all these great records that came out. The scene that was spawned and, back then, it was just metal. Like no matter whether it was Death; Obituary or Anthrax or Metallica…it was metal, and we just all were metalheads. And if you didn’t dig Forbidden, you didn’t hate metal; you didn’t form another sub-genre. Fast forward twenty years, and I just feel like technology has taken away the live aspect of playing. Like these kids - they’re relying on it to play live now; they’re relying on it in the studio, and you go and see the bands and they suck. That’s why I was so happy to see Architects. I heard them live before I heard the record - to me, their record does them no justice. They are a fucking great live band. But, what I’m noticing now… drums are triggered; dudes can’t play. Like, you know, it is very one-dimensional, plus the fact that “we’re not death-core; we’re death metal sub-core-blah-blah-blah”. And like, what are you talking about? Dude, let’s just get back to supporting metal, you know. If you don’t dig Unearth, that’s fine, but there’s no use in negative energy. I just feel like people want to hate bands more than support them these days. And no-one can get away from this - I’ve seen it everywhere about everyone all the time. And I don’t know if it’s just so saturated that shit comes and goes so fast. As much as MySpace can help bands five years ago, it’s hurting a lot of bands now.
MD: Yeah, I mean for me there’s only two genres of music - music you like, and music you don’t. There’s just 4, 5, 6 people playing instruments, and why does it have to be labelled.
DK: In terms of Unearth being labelled metalcore, and I think our new album is just a metal record…I think we wear our influences on our sleeve but still have something very fresh to offer. So yeah, you can hear that we’re big In Flames and Pantera and Earth Crisis fans…well, Trevor’s an Earth Crisis fan…you can hear our influences, but I still think that we have something very fresh, and organic, and new to bring to the table. And metalcore isn’t a bad thing to me, but I feel like all of a sudden it’s so eight years ago, and they’re looking for the next thing. But I mean Testament just put out one of their best records to date in they're twenty something years old so, you know, it’s just good music.
TREVOR PHIPPS: Are Testament all twenty years old?!
DK: [laughs] Yeah…no, the band is twenty years old!
MD: Kind of following on from that, you have a lot of old school influences you can hear in your music which you combine with a more contemporary sound. In that sense, would you describe your music as having a progressive element?
DK: Oh wow, well if you’re saying that we have a progressive element, I appreciate that.
MD: I can hear it, yeah.
DK: A more thinking man’s way of approaching the musicality?
MD: Yeah. Prog-metal generally is regarded as Dream Theater and clones of Dream Theater, like the whole technical kind of thing but, for me, prog-metal is something that’s progressing what’s gone before.
DK: Yeah.
MD: And you have all the old school stuff in there like Anthrax, Testament and Slayer, but you’re moving it along, for me.
DK: Cool.
MD: Would you ever regard your music in that way?
DK: Er, yes. I mean mildly progressive, maybe. I love that band Porcupine Tree. I know they’re from England and they’re one of my favourite bands. Or Opeth - I know we’re not as progressive as Opeth, but I think there’s a thought process that goes into some of our parts occasionally that might make it a little progressive, or just an unconventional aspect of the freezing of the riffs and stuff like that. They’re pretty, quote-unquote, heavy at times but, yeah, I’d say mildly progressive. Thanks, because that’s a compliment to me.
MD: Are you a Cynic fan at all - have you heard the new Cynic album?
DK: No, but everybody’s talking about how great it is.
MD: Ah, it’s brilliant - really, really good. Buz had to miss the “Fuck School, Fuck Work, Let’s Rage” tour…that’s a great name for a tour…due to being overseas with his wife adopting a baby. Is he back on tour with you now?
DK: He’s back, yeah.
MD: How did the adoption go; are they happy parents now?
DK: Yeah, we actually had a bro-down last night and I started asking him all the questions because it’s just been like he got home a couple of days before we left; we rehearsed real quick; packed up all our shit and we took off. And we were at the hotel last night and were finally able to wind down. We flew in yesterday morning and played the first show last night so dudes were pretty spent, but we were just chillin’ out, having some beers and talking and stuff, and I finally started asking him questions about the whole process. And it was pretty crazy man. There was a lot of stress they had, but he got through it and the baby’s beautiful; she’s so cute. And he’s happy, and his wife’s happy, and everything worked out.
MD: It must be hard adopting and then going out on tour.
DK: They only just got home, but they were together for two months. He missed that tour and Emil from the band Daath came out with us. Dude, two things, that dude is incredible. Secondly, the new Daath album, we’ve heard it so many times, it’s really awesome.
TP: It’s progressive too, but they’re not overboard. It’s really good.
DK: Yeah, and Kevin Talley is one of my favourite modern metal drummers.
MD: They have a bit of an industrial element to their music too?
DK: Kind of but, dude, this is a little bit more organic. It’s very classic metal with a progressive flair.
MD: You’ve kind of half answered my next question - did you get to rehearse much with Emil before the tour?
DK: Dude, he came up to rehearse for one day, then we went out and played a show with him.
MD: Seriously?
DK: Yep. And he just had his shit together. But it was like when you’re in this, and the capacity of where we’re at and what we do, if you don’t have your shit together by the time you walk in the door, you probably would never have gotten asked to do the gig. I came in, like they got rid of Mike, their old drummer, and I was with my band Seemless at the time, and they called me when I was on my way home, and I had seven days. I hadn’t played double bass in like two years, and I had seven days to learn a set. And then I went to Spain, and Download fest was the second show I ever played with them. So I didn’t have much time, but that’s just how we rolled. If we get people that are capable to help us out, we just take care of it and move on, you know.
MD: Er, this is probably not a question I should be asking the present drummer of the band, but the legendary Gene Hoglan helped out on drums in 2007?
DK: Yeah.
MD: Was Gene ever a consideration, or asked to permanently join? Probably not a question I should ask you!
DK: No, it’s okay, I know the answer to that question, and he definitely wasn’t asked to join the band. He’s got so much going on - he was there as a fill-in situation, and I think it was a couple of weeks touring with them.
TP: He filled in for half of the Dimmu tour, and then he filled in for Australia. Derek was already filling in at that point, but he couldn’t go to Australia with us. So he filled in for a total of maybe six weeks, but it was awesome and it was an honour to have him with us. Ken and I had a conversation with him as to how much longer he could - you know, this was on the Dimmu tour - how much longer he could fill in for us if he was interested and pursuing it further at all. And we just had a conversation and he said “you guys are awesome, and I’ve had a lot of fun, but I’ve got a million projects going on,”, and it didn’t make sense for us to have a guy who was busy all the time either. So it was a very quick conversation but we’re still friends, and he’s an awesome dude and a great drummer, but we found the final piece of the puzzle with this guy right here. He’s actually the first guy we called when…
DK: Like literally that night. The night that stuff went down with Mike, I got a call, like “what are you doing?”…
TP: Yeah, Ken kind of freaking out.
MD: So you two knew each other…you knew the band before?
DK: Oh, I worked on ‘The Oncoming Storm’ with them. So I helped write a bunch of stuff on ‘The Oncoming Storm’ and they actually asked me to join the band then, and I was in my band Seemless. And it was kind of like this is my baby, I need to see it through in order to move on in my life. I did that, and literally on my way home from tour is when they called and asked me to fill in the first time, and I finally just said, you know what, I love these guys as guys, and the music is challenging, and this will be something new for me to tackle. I played with Shadows Fall for a year in 2001; I’ve known all these guys. I was married and had a really good corporate job with Hewlett Packard for years, and I was the guy who would just come in and clean stuff up in the studio; maybe run out and do a fill-in here and there but, you know, in my mind I just had a tough time with my wife at home, and that was what was most important to me. And it still is, but she just happened to be very cool, and she just said “you know what, I want you to take these opportunities and run with them because I don’t want you to ever look back”, and I’ve been on the road ever since. But I’m very proud of…dude, I’ve had opportunities to be in a lot of bands, and there was a reason I joined this band. You know, not only because we’re a family, but because there’s so much mutual respect that we all have for each other. And we do, we have a blast together. There was definitely some rough times for these dudes and it’s almost like we’ve re-invented the wheel, and we’re really stoked.
MD: Proper musical chemistry.
DK: Yes! Chemistry period! Synergy in terms of the guys and personalities; synergy musically; the live show has definitely got…I mean Mike’s a great drummer man, he’s got a new band called Trap Them and they’re smaller, but that band lends to his style more than I think Unearth…
MD: Where Unearth are more suited to you.
DK: Yes.
MD: Fuck Gene Hoglan then in that case! Well, I don't mean that in a bad way!
DK: Well no, not in a bad way, but everyone’s got different chemistry with different people, you know, and Gene is awesome at what he does. I still think it might have made Unearth a little different to what they wanted, so everyone fits into these puzzles, you know, at different times for different reasons. But we’re pumped now; things have been great for a while.