On stage Trevor Phipps, vocalist for metal veterans Unearth, cuts an imposing figure. A roaring blur of motion and energy, it doesn’t matter the size of the stage or the crowd, Trevor delivers his earth-shattering bellow with a conviction that is irresistible on tracks such as ‘watch it burn’ (see video at the base of this post), the evergreen classic ‘Giles’ or the quite brilliant ‘my will be done’. The band too, as Trevor asserts in this exclusive interview, have improved over the years to become one of the tightest, hardest units treading the boards reminding fans that ‘metalcore’, for all of its negative connotations, is far from a dirty word.
Off stage, Trevor is thoughtful, friendly and more than willing to talk about the development of his band (a band of which he is rightly very proud), the quest for a drummer, the recording of most recent album ‘Darkness in the light’ and the rigours of touring. We were privileged indeed to catch up with Trevor at the band’s Leicester show (an awesome show with amazing performances from Leicester’s own Internal Conflict and the mighty Malefice) and discuss the legendary institution that is Unearth…
Well, first of all you’ve been around for a long time now, you started in 1998…
’98 we started as a band, yeah…
And you had what was a unique style back then and since that point it seems to have been copied by a lot of other bands – that must have been kind of frustrating to you?
Well, imitation is the greatest form of flattery I guess, which makes it easier for us to accept. The only time that it upsets us is when people think that we’re copying band’s that have copied us. I’d hate to name some names, but there are some bands that have had some success and I’ll see on youtube or whatever that we sound like this band and I just think well, we started a year or two before any of these bands were around and they’re the ones that kind of borrowed our sound so that’s why it sometimes get to us. But, at the end of the day all music is copied – it’s everyone’s take on their personal view of their favourite bands all mashed together.
This is your fifth album – ‘darkness in the light’ and I was wondering how you feel you’ve developed musically over the years?
I think we’ve all gotten better at our craft. I think our songwriting is better and is definitely a bit more metal than when we first started. I think the potential was to start out as a metal band with the hard core influences – you know, we just took the bands we were most influenced by and tried to make something unique and different, and I think just by getting to be better players has helped us to become a better metal band.
Do you still feel the challenge to make a bigger, bolder record?
Yeah – if there was no challenge there’d be no point in making a record.
Again – when you started back in ’98 the internet was in its infancy and you kind of grew alongside it as a means of sharing music, piracy, promotion – how do you think the development of the internet as a media tool has affected bands like Unearth?
It’s easier to get in touch with your fans. We had websites back then like Geocities and weird domain names but it’s easier to get in contact with our fans, to field emails and to post updates on what the band is doing without there having to be a big press release behind everything a band releases. We have Facebook, Twitter, Myspace or whatever and people can get access to it. I notice that it does lend to more trends – more bands come and go now than they used to and the bands can’t really stop for a second because fans can find them faster and if you get big too quickly that causes strife within a band because they expect they’re going to be at that point the whole time, whereas when we started there was more of an aspect of developing as an artist. You’d play the shit shows, there’d be ups and downs at the start and, especially in metal there’s always going to be ups and downs, and that’s why only the strong bands are survivors; bands like Testament, Anthrax might have had a down point in the mid to late 90’s, but now they’re back as strong, if not stronger than ever. So you get to ride the wave and not just depend on fly-by-night fame.
That brings me to my next question – fourteen years is a hell of a career for an extreme metal band and I was wondering what you felt was the reason for your longevity.
It’s the perseverance of this is what we want to do and each guy in the band just loves what we do and, like I said, it’s ups and down / peaks and valleys in everything. There’s always ways to keep going for us, we have always said if it got to the point where the band wasn’t fun anymore we wouldn’t be here, but there’s always a reason for us to be here and we try to play every show like it’s our last one – we’ll play the big festivals in front of 100,000 people, we’ll play the small clubs like this one the same way – Buz said it best, he said: “we’ll play wherever there’s electricity.”
You’ve got five records to choose from – how difficult is it to choose a set list that keeps balance between what makes the fans happy and what keeps the band playing something that’s fresh?
Well, it’s a lot of trial and error for us and songs that may or may not work live and songs that get the best response. We’ll pick different ones for a shot on each tour – for example on this tour there’re a couple of songs we haven’t played for a while; I think maybe never in England and Europe – it’s a song called ‘bloodlust of the human condition’ I’m not sure if we’ve ever played that here… we may have… but to our memory this is our tenth year coming to Europe and we’re not sure we’ve ever played it here so we’ve added it to the set list on this tour.
You’re back out with a new drummer and I believe you recruited him off the back of his youtube channel – is that right?
Yeah. It was years ago and we were just kind of searching because when Derek Kerswill first joined the band he wasn’t actually, fully in the band, he was more of a fill in. So we were searching the web for drummers and we found this page and he was playing a bunch of our songs and totally nailing them… but Derek was a fill in and he kinda stayed with the band for a long time. It was never announced that he was our new drummer and he was never pressured about it, and then we started writing our new record and it just wasn’t working out with him so we parted with Derek and he was the first person we talked to. We talked to Nick in Seattle when we were out on tour and flew him out to us to rehearse. Then we took him to Alaska and Japan to try out and then he was in the band.
You’re out touring the UK now with Malefice – how is it to be back in the UK?
We did last night in Southampton – it’s only four shows, all in smaller clubs, to try and tie together the festival circuit this summer. We’re not doing any UK fests and we just wanted to come over here and do some small clubs and it’s great to be over here man – it’s just like 2002, our first time, ten years later it’s funny to be playing the Underworld again. It’s the first place we played in the UK back in 02 so it’s kind of a full-circle thing for us.
How does England compare when it comes to the intensity of the fans?
I think it’s very similar. Last night we had some pretty sick pits, people singing along so it was pretty intense and we hope for the same tonight.
You bought in Adam D to do this record – what are the advantages of him working with you?
Well, this is Adam’s fourth record with us, Terry Date did one record, so Adam’s from the area, we’ve known him for… shit, now twelve years and he’s our friend. He knows the band inside and out, he knows our tracks and our weaknesses and he just tries to make the best sounding record – we all trust him. If there’s a take that we might have, that we think is good and he suggests that we could do better, we trust his opinions.
That link with KSE has been there for quite a while because you had Justin Foley for a while I think…
Yeah – we had Justin fill in for a while because like I said, we had to part with Derek and we needed someone just to fill in. We felt that Nick might be the guy for the job but we didn’t want to go through the process of trying him out while we were still writing a record so we just knew that Justin was having time off from Killswitch and we took Justin out on the first few tours and to play on the record and I think he nailed it and he’s a great guy to have around for a while as well.
For you as a lyricist – what inspires you?
Personal experience, politics, current events… stuff that gets me going I guess. There’re no dragons and wizards in my lyrics – it’s mostly real life stuff and that’s really where the hardcore ethic comes in. Where the ‘metalcore’ term comes to us – it’s more about the lyrics.
When did that terminology appear? It seemed to flash up overnight here…
I know it was tossed around in the early 90s a bit… but it wasn’t really blown up – it was more called crossover back then and even when we started it wasn’t called ‘metalcore’. We didn’t start hearing the term until probably 2002/3 and then all of a sudden a load of bands started to sound like ‘metalcore’ bands and it got, much like ‘deathcore’, way overplayed. Almost every band was trying to be the same so it got kind of sickening and turned into a bad word and right now it’s starting to be not so bad – kind of like thrash metal was in the early 90s when every band was trying to be a thrash band. So that’s why thrash went away for a while and only the real bands stuck around. Right now, the real ‘metalcore’ bands – if they want to be called it or not, it doesn’t really matter, if that’s their sound then it is what it is – we’ll stick around and all the copycats can fuck off!
One of the big four of ‘metalcore’…
I think so – it’s us, Shadows Fall, Killswitch and All that remains are pretty solid. Lamb of God gets tossed in there sometimes but I wouldn’t really call them ‘metalcore’ at all. There are some hardcore influences, some punk rock in them, but I know when they first started they called themselves ‘punk metal’ so it’s a bit different.
Last question then – what are your ambitions for Unearth?
We’re touring the world this year – we have some Asian stuff coming up in October – and we just want to keep on touring the world and open up more markets like South America and South Africa. There’s a bunch of places in South America that we haven’t played and we just want to keep on playing and spread the word of Unearth and, of course, we’d love to get bigger. There’re no complaints but there’s always that hope to get to the higher level of the Slayers or… I can’t say Metallica because we’re not really a rock band… but the highest level that our sound will allow us to reach.
Band photo: Jason Zucco
Interview photo and live shot: Jola Stiles for SonicAbuse