Interview with Buz McGrath of Unearth

Photo: Jason Zucco

Throughout the past decade, Unearth have proved themselves as one of the most distinctive and influential acts in metalcore. The band have tirelessly honed their mix of crushing breakdowns, twin guitar pyrotechnics, and scorching vocals over the course of albums such as 2006’s ‘III: In the Eyes of Fire’ and 2008’s ‘The March.’ Unearth’s newest offering, ‘Darkness in the Light,’ sees guitarists Buz McGrath and Ken Susi shredding up a storm of reinvigorated solos and riffs, bolstered by a rousing drum performance courtesy of Killswitch Engage drummer Justin Foley. ‘Darkness in the Light’ drops on July 5 in the US and July 4 in Europe via Metal Blade Records.

During some downtime, Buz was kind enough to speak with us over the phone about the new album, Unearth’s upcoming Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival and Hell on Earth tours, and the band’s search for a new drummer.

Unearth have a pretty busy summer ahead.

Yeah, it’s a good thing.

You’re playing Mayhem Fest in the US and then the Hell on Earth tour in Europe. What are you looking forward to on those tours?

Those summer festivals are always cool. We haven’t played one in a while, so it’s going to be fun to get back to them. Mayhem Fest has got that heavy metal summer camp vibe — you know, just sit around and play backyard games and shit. The vibe is really good because I think that the people who go to those things take the day off of work, so it’s like a big event. People are ready to party, and the crowd response is entirely better because people are there to have a good time. The Hell on Earth thing in Europe is going to be fun; we haven’t headlined Europe in a while, so it’ll be nice to test the waters there, see how we’re doing.

Are you stoked to watch or hang out with any of the other bands you’re playing with on those tours?

I’m definitely psyched to watch In Flames — they’re one of my favorite bands — and check out Megadeth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before. We’re good friends with the Suicide Silence guys, All Shall Perish — those guys are rad. Kingdom of Sorrow are good friends of ours. So there are going to be a lot of people there that we’ve played with before, like to party with, and just are fans of their music. So that always makes it a good experience.

Sounds awesome. ‘Darkness in the Light’ comes out at the beginning of July. How would you compare the sound of the album to your older releases?

I think this one is more energy driven than the last one. It’s just way more intense sounding and way more interesting to listen to. I’m not saying our previous releases were not interesting; I just feel like — the drum lines especially on this one — it’s really stepped up, and it’s just a more intense level of music. That’s definitely one of the big things that stands out to me about the music. Sound-wise we used a lot of the same amps and drums, but each time you record with the same setup it’s going to come out a little bit different just because of the vibe.

Yeah, definitely. Considering that the new record is your fifth and that Unearth are one of the more well-known bands in modern metal, was it ever a challenge to push your sound in new directions?

Yeah. We have a sound. People know what we sound like, and we’re not really going to stray from that. We want to give the fans what they want, and we still want to play what we want to hear. I don’t think we’ll ever stray too far and make some artsy sounding rock, anything way out of the realm of what we want the band to sound like. It’s definitely a challenge to come up with ways to make your old sound fresh again.

Did anything in particular help inspire those new sounds?

To be honest, some of the inspiration would just come from other bands that sound like we may have influenced them. I would hear them doing kind of what we had done before, and I was like, “Wow, it’s great that people have been influenced by us.” Some of these bands that have been influenced by us suck, but some of them are awesome. The ones that are awesome I look to and say, “Wow, they took what we did, and took it a step further. I’m going to go even further this time.” There’s a try-and-catch-us-now type of mentality.

Can you name any of those bands?

August Burns Red, for instance, is one of my favorite bands. With their earlier stuff, I heard some Unearth influence in them, and they really stepped it up. A couple years ago, when I first heard one of their records before we toured with them, I was like, “Wow, this is more like it.” It seems to me like they took breakdowns that we threw away in the trash and made them awesome. That, in turn, influenced me to step up my game and try to do better.

That’s pretty cool. It’s sort of like a give-and-take evolution of the music between you guys.

Yeah, absolutely.

How did you guys go about constructing the riffs and chord progressions on this new album?

Basically, it was just Ken and I. I would do stuff at my house, make demos; Ken would make demos at his house. I would show up if I had an idea, we’d work on it, Ken would program the drums to it, and we’d have a song done. It was basically kind of like a puzzle situation. We had all of these riffs, and it was just about fitting all of them together in the puzzle that best resembled a song. It was different for us this time, too, because we didn’t jam with a drummer to write. Historically, when we wrote a record, we would sit in a room together and we would throw around ideas and jam them live, in your face. This time it was different. Me and Ken each constructed the parts at home or together, without having a drummer influencing that, which was a little different. Once we got the final demos done, we sent them off to an actual drummer who made them better because guitar players don’t always write the best drum riffs.

Yeah, definitely. Did you find that process to be more difficult than before, or was it just different?

I thought it was way easier. You don’t have to be in a room with loud drums, for one, blowing out your ears.

Yeah, that can be annoying. [laughs]

If you have some technical kick drum pattern to a chug part — a lot of our stuff is like 2-3-4-1-2-2-2 patterns, just to throw numbers out there. If I make a breakdown with the numbers I just said, it would probably be heavy. Instead of getting the drummer to remember the pattern on the spot, I already know it, add drums to it, and it’s done in five minutes. Then, the drummer can learn that on his own time instead of having everyone sit around while he learns it.

So it was a lot more autonomous, then, for you.

Yeah, I think it’s how we’ll do it all again in the future. When we do find a permanent drummer, we’ll still go about it this way. While he’s learning it, we’ll be jamming it live once he knows all of the stuff. You can have it at the point where it’s semi-tight, and then you can experiment with it more live.

Cool. I was reading an interview from a while back with Ken and he said that Unearth haven’t really been a lead-driven band, but from what I’ve heard on the new album, it seems like there’s definitely a huge focus on guitar solos and lead harmonies this time around.

I don’t know what Ken was on that day, but it should have read, “It’s always been a lead-guitar driven band.” Since the inception of this band, we were just going after crazy guitar parts. It must’ve been a typo. Maybe he said that. I don’t know.

Alright. Well, how did Ken and you split up lead guitar duties on the new album?

Basically, if you wrote a lead riff, that’s yours. Then I’ll play the rhythms over it, or I’ll take the lead part. I come up with a lot of the lead riffing, but when it comes to the actual guitar solos that appear, it’s like, “You take that half, I’ll take this half.” Then we learn them. Without hearing his or him hearing mine, they always seem to end up going well together, for some reason.

One of my favorite songs on the album is “Arise the War Cry,” especially that lead guitar riff at the beginning and the end. Did you play that riff?

Yeah. That’s a pretty intense sweep part.

How did you get that really high pitched, piercing tone on that guitar part?

We changed to a drop D tuning on our seven strings so we could just play open chords and it would be easier to get different riff ideas, but we left the other strings higher. So it’s almost like it’s played really high on a standard tuning guitar. I think one of the taps — if you were in standard tuning — would be on the 22nd fret of the high E. But since the guitar I played it on was tuned up, it’s like the tap was on the 20th fret. It’s pretty high.

That’s cool. Who did the keys on “Equinox?”

That was Slo, our bass player. He’s a piano player; he’s done some piano stuff for us before on “The Oncoming Storm” and “In the Eyes of Fire.” As soon as it came up in a conversation one day that he knew how to play piano, or we were in a bar and I heard him play, I was like, “Dude, you should write a piano part.” Almost every record, I’m like, “If you want to come up with something, go for it.” He’ll come up with something cool, and it’s always inspiring for me to hear it and then jam along over the piano track. It makes my brain work in a totally different way, and I kind of come up with some cooler stuff going over a piano rather than a guitar rhythm.

I really like how you guys went in a more atmospheric direction on that track. Do you have any new guitars or pedals that you’re excited about?

Nothing new. I’m getting my rig together to start Mayhem, and I don’t know what to do. I’ve been working with ESP guitars. Those are pretty rad, and I’ve got a bunch that I’m bringing out. As far as amps and stuff, I’ve been playing the 5153, which is good, but I’m experimenting with other stuff. I tried out an Egnater; I tried some Engl stuff. What else did I try? I don’t even know; I’m just trying to find something new. I keep going back to the EVH, but we’ll see what happens.

That sounds like some pretty nice equipment. ‘Darkness in the Light’ also features some clean vocals for the first time since ‘The Oncoming Storm.’ What made you guys want to pull that element back into your sound?

Photo: Jason Zucco

It was something we talked about. We were like, “Let’s give it a try. We stayed away from it for a while, but let’s see if we can do it tastefully, not have it sound gay or retarded.” When I first heard it, I was like, “Wow.” I knew it was going to be a big bone of contention when it was done, and we were either going to hate it and Ken was going to love it and there were going to be arguments. But it came out and I was like, “Wow.” It seemed so fresh to me that I got excited about it, and at that point I wanted to hear more. I was like, “Wow, this is cool.” The parts that he does do the singing on I think really call for a vocal style like that. At the end of the day, it’s kind of just like a third guitar line.

Yeah, just putting more melodic content in there. What was it like working with Adam [Dutkiewicz] and Justin [Foley] from Killswitch Engage on the new album?

Adam’s great. Everybody knows we’ve worked with him on a few records. He makes getting the job done easy because he comes in during the pre-production process, and he has no emotional attachment to any of the music, so he can come in and start tearing it down. Maybe you’re married to a part and its like, “This is the best thing ever,” and he’ll come in and be like, “You know, it’s not really working out that way.” Afterward, you kind of see it in the big picture, like, “Alright, he’s right. That didn’t really work well there,” so that’s a crucial thing for us to have.

With Justin, he nailed it. It’s one of the best drum performances that we’ve had on record. Before, when Ken and I were demoing the stuff, sometimes guitar players don’t write good drum parts, so we each got the songs to the place where they were actual songs, and we told Justin, “Take liberties. Play what you feel might go better here.” He came up with some great stuff. When we went up to the studio to listen to what he had done, we were just stoked immediately.

Awesome. Justin’s just in the band temporarily for the summer tours, right?

Yeah. He’s doing the first two tours with us, Mayhem and Europe, and then I think Killswitch is going to start back up again towards the end of the year.

Have you considered anyone yet as a potential permanent replacement for Derek [Kerswill]?

There’s a guy named Nick Pierce, out of the Seattle-Tacoma area. He had a brief stint in the band The Faceless and his band called Culling the Weak. He was just a kid who was one of those YouTube dudes, and I stumbled on his videos a while ago doing covers of our songs. I was like, “Wow, there’s a lot of energy there.” We started talking, and I started sending him some new demo stuff, playing parts of the newer stuff. We’ve been talking to him for a while. He played two shows with us in Alaska kind of as a tryout. Some of those kids on the internet, they look like they’re playing good, but it’s just a lot of smoke and mirrors. But this kid came, he played everything to a T, and he hit hard, which was really important. He was a cool dude. He’s going to be coming out to Australia to start a tour with us out there in October, I think.

Nice. Has it been a difficult process, or did you find him pretty quickly?

I basically found him when Derek was still in the band last year. I stumbled upon a video of him, and that was the catalyst to make me start thinking that maybe we needed a more aggressive drummer this time around. We needed somebody with a bit more intensity to move forward.

Pick up Unearth’s new album, Darkness in the Light.

For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their official website.

  • Imieamtsa

     nice unearth..