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Exclusive Interview with Shadows Fall Frontman Brian Fair

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Friday, June 16, 2006 @ 8:07 AM

Major Label "Mass-holes"

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After spearheading the thrash/metal/core movement for nearly a decade and emerging as one of the genre’s few truly innovative forces, Massachusetts quintet Shadows Fall is crossing over to the “dark side” of major labeldom at Atlantic Records. But when you can sell more than 250,000 copies of an album on a small label, like Shadows Fall did with 2005’s The War Within, and earn a Grammy nomination after years of backbreaking road work that helped win fans one at a time, the majors are gonna want to get in on the action. And the band had plenty of bidders before Atlantic made them an offer they could not refuse. But before they make the move, Shadows Fall is offering some last — perhaps — nods too the underground from whence they came with the release of their indie grand finale, and sixth album overall, Fallout From The War on longtime label Century Media. They also will be headlining this summer’s Sthress Tour, a sort of club-sized version of Ozzfest for the new “generation heavy.” And betwixt and between, frontman Brian Fair is playing some gigs with Overcast, his pre-Shadows band that also featured Mike DiAntonio, now bassist with Killswitch Engage. Before splitting in 1998, Overcast helped jumpstart New England’s metal scene and pioneer a sound fusing thrash metal aggression and speed, hardcore belligerence and punch and classic metal instrumental flourishes that should be quite familiar to anyone who’s seen the resurrected Headbangers Ball of late — thanks to bands like Killswitch and Shadows Fall. As he awaited game one of the recent Red Sox-Yankees series at Yankee Stadium (which was over by the second inning when Sox pitcher Josh Beckett got tagged for eight runs), Fair offered the following about how a bunch of self-proclaimed “Mass-holes” helped change the face of American metal, their shiny new deal with the major label devil and had some fond recollections of Dimebag Darrell Abbott, who was killed just after Damageplan’s tour with Shadows Fall ended in 2004.

KNAC.COM: I read that you just did a show with Overcast at El ‘N Gee [in New London, Conn.] That place was a dump when I lived up there 10 years ago, I can’t believe it’s still around?

FAIR: Yeah, we played there Saturday night. I think it’s called Club Hypnotic right now, they’ve mostly been doing hip hop and stuff like that, but they’re starting to do hardcore and rock shows again and I think they might actually be going back to the old name. The El ‘N Gee’s been around for fucking ever, man. It was pretty great to be back on that stage again, there were definitely some old memories. Overcast played there with At The Gates years ago. It was pretty crazy.

KNAC.COM: How many shows has Overcast done since your “reunion?"

FAIR: We’ve done a little bunch recently. We did the one reunion four years ago at the Metalfest [in Worcester], a show out in Western Mass., in Chicopee, then we played the show in Connecticut Saturday then we’re playing Thursday in Worcester one more time. And then Killswitch starts recording their new record, Shadows Fall’s gonna be hitting the road again and then who knows.

It was crazy that all five of us were home at the same time. That’s the only time that’s happened probably since the band split up, so we had to make the most of it and it worked out perfect. Hopefully once the record comes out some time next year we’ll be able to get together and play some shows again, but we’ll see what happens.

KNAC.COM: Where do things stand with the Overcast album?

FAIR: We finished tracking everything, but we might not be able to mix it for a while because when Killswitch starts recording their album [guitarist] Adam D [Dutkiewicz] is gonna have his hands full, and we recorded with him. We were able to kind of fit it into his crazy schedule. But we’ll probably have to regroup and mix it down a little bit later.

We’re still waiting to figure out whose gonna be putting it out. We kinda forgot that there would be a whole business side of it, to us it was a bunch of friends getting together, but since our other bands all have deals with different labels they were all like “wait a minute” because Shadows Fall will have a new record out and so will Killswitch, etc., and they don’t want an Overcast album to take away from that.

KNAC.COM: Does Overcast still have a deal lingering from way back when?

FAIR: No, that was all handshake, random like “OK, I’ll put it out.” We were thinking about just remixing or remastering the old stuff, but I think we’d just lose so much of that youthful energy and what makes those records great was that rawness. So what we decided to do was go back and record them the way we wanted to hear them without just aping the originals, so we wanted to do it with a little more time.

The first time around I would do the vocals in one day for the whole record. So this time we actually got to do some backing vocals and some other shit, so it was cool. And we definitely didn’t slow anything down either. I think everyone thought we would slow the shit down, but we were like, ‘Nah, those are the tempos, that’s where they stay” (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Is Overcast something you want to carry on, or is this just something you want to get out of your system?

FAIR: We’ll press on if we have the time. It’s always fun when we get together and jam, so if we can we’ll do it. There’s no agenda and no pressure, no real plan, just whenever we can work it out we’ll try to work it out. The shows have been so much fun, so we’ll see what happens.

KNAC.COM: Shadows Fall has the Strhess Tour coming up, will that do it tour-wise for you guys before you go record the next album?

FAIR: Yeah, it will be our one tour for the year, which is crazy. This year we did one show around New Years, we did five shows with Agnostic Front a little while back and this will be the only real tour we do for the year, which is unheard of for us. We usually tour like eight months out of the year, but we took the whole fall off to concentrate on Fallout From The War, and then after that we took some downtime in general around the holidays and in January and then since we regrouped we’ve just been working on new stuff and playing those handful of shows.

So we’re gonna basically go out on tour and when we get home start on preproduction and then hopefully start recording early in the fall, like the end of September or early October if everything goes well. We might do a short post-studio tour at the end of the year, but that would probably be it, so that’s why we’re really psyched about this tour. We’re gonna go out, play some songs from Fallout that we’ve never played live before, pull some stuff back into the set list that we haven’t played in a while and really we’ve got no reason to save anything energy-wise because this is the one tour, so we’re leaving it all out there.

It’s gonna be long sets and a lot of energy and hopefully as many people as possible can come out because we’re gonna have to go back into hibernation after that.

KNAC.COM: You did the first Strhess Tour last year, did you not?

FAIR: Yeah, it was us and As I Lay Dying and it was awesome, so it’s cool that we were there for the inaugural one and now we’re back again. We were trying to find a cool headlining thing to do and the people from Strhess were into getting together and working it out. And the Sounds of the Underground people said “hey, we’re gonna be near each other a couple times, we might was well combine forces for those shows,” [in San Diego and Phoenix] so that’s gonna be awesome. Instead of trying to compete over the same area we might was well combine them and push it completely over the top.

And there’s a few shows where all the bands that will be rotating in and out of the Strhess tour will be getting together, it’s cool. And it’s a nice diverse bill, there’s some younger bands like Still Remains and then there’s some old school death metal with Suffocation doing a few dates. We’ve toured with every single band that’s on this tour, so we all know each other which makes the day in day out stuff all that much easier. You know you’re not dealing with any bullshit, everyone’s friends, it’s all about getting it done every day and putting on the best show. And even the bands on Sounds of the Underground, we’ve toured with most of them, so when we roll in there we know it will be like the class reunion.

Then it’s back into studio seclusion. But we’re psyched, we’ve been writing like crazy, but we’ve missed the road, so we’re really excited to get out and play some shows.

KNAC.COM: How has the work on the “major label debut” gone so far?

FAIR: It’s going great man, we’ve got a ton of ideas and a lot of skeletons of songs worked out. Since we do have a little more time than we used to, we’re trying to come up with as much as possible and then we’ll focus in on fine-tuning everything.

It covers just as much variety as we always do. We’re going to have the technical thrash songs, we’re gonna have the real straight up heavy tunes, we’re gonna have the more rock and roll tunes. It’s all gonna be in there. We’re definitely not going to be limiting ourselves for anyone else’s expectations, we’re just laying it all down like we always do and see what happens.

KNAC.COM: Did working on Fallout, which was stuff you previously had gotten started on, help when it came time to writing for the new record by getting the juices flowing again, or did it get in the way of trying to think up something new and fresh?

FAIR: It definitely helped. We’d been on the road for like two-and-half years, so it got us back into the writing mode. And that’s the thing, a lot of the ideas for Fallout started during The War Within and some before that, but the one misconception is that people think they were already finished songs that had been demoed and were just waiting to be recorded. They were never finished, some of the songs we had like one or two riffs from a practice tape from a boombox.

When we got together after Ozzfest we wrote these from the ground up, and all the vocals and lyrics were done during the fall. So for us these were brand new songs and we brought some techniques that we might not have stumbled upon if we hadn’t done these sessions. I was doing a lot of vocal harmonies myself and some of the higher stuff that in the past Matt [Bachand, guitar] would have done which he’ll end up doing live because I can’t sing two things once (laughs). That pushed us and Jay tried some new stuff on drums and Zeuss tried some new things with guitar tones, so it got us psyched about writing and recording again. We took some time off after finished, but when we got back together, the ideas were just flowing already.

And some of the stuff that came out from the Fallout sessions, we’re just so psyched those songs got to see the light of day because the finished product is something we’re proud of. Instead of re-releasing old stuff or remastering shit, if we’re gonna release an EP why not put together and LPs worth of material no one’s ever heard? So we put a couple covers on there from a few bands we really respected from back in the day [Only Living Witness’s “December” and Leeway’s “Mark of the Squealer”] and had Jason [McMaster] come in to do “Teasin’ Pleasin,” which was a lot of fun. It worked out perfect.

KNAC.COM: When you do work on the new album, will you be using the same places and people you’ve worked with before [Planet Z Studio and producer Zeuss], or is Atlantic springing for a change of scenery?

FAIR: We may mix it up. We’ve been talking about it for a while. And even Zeuss has done some work at different studios around the country, and sometimes it does break up the monotony and also the distractions at home. It’s easy to lose focus at home, especially since we have been home a lot over the last year. It’s easy to forget you’re making a record.

We may try for that total immersion where we pull ourselves out of the comforts of home where we seclude ourselves in a studio somewhere in a new environment, but we haven’t made any full decisions yet, we’re still feeling it out. We know how we work well, so we need to find a place we’re comfortable with and people we’re comfortable with, but we’re not gonna close ourselves out to any options.

KNAC.COM: Have you had much communication with the people at Atlantic since you signed with them, or does that happen when it’s time to make the record?

FAIR: No, they’ve been great. We’ve been hanging out and they’ve even been psyched about promoting the new stuff and helping us out. The way we build any business relationship, and it was the same thing with Century Media, is we were friends with the people we signed with before we signed with them. With Atlantic, these are people we’ve known for a while and built that trust and comfort level, so we’ve been on the same page for the last couple years, even before we signed, so they knew where we were headed and the transition’s been super smooth.

We had an amazing time with Century Media and got to a level we never thought we would, but as we headed in new directions as a band the company was changing a little bit too and a lot of the people we had originally been working with had gone on to other things. It evolved to where we met new people we felt comfortable with.

We knew exactly what we wanted in a record deal, which eliminated a lot of people right off the bat, so once we narrowed it down it was more about us feeling comfortable working with people every day, that’s how we ended up where we are.

KNAC.COM: Obviously Atlantic’s going to looking for you guys to sell more records than you did with Century Media, do you think there is much more of an audience out there for your style of music?

FAIR: I have no idea man, I didn’t expect us to sell as many as we already have (laughs). But I really think there is a lot of potential. You look at some of the bands that have pushed the envelope of what people would consider mainstream appeal, a band like Slipknot that has blast beats and brutal vocals and all this real intense imagery, they were able to go platinum a couple times over. Even when Metallica did it, when And Justice For All went platinum, that was a pretty challenging record for listeners, it definitely wasn’t watered down music and it was able to work.

Even bands like Tool totally shaking up the perception of what a radio single is, a nine-minute song with two riffs, but they made it work, the rules have really changed and the audiences are so open minded because there is so much available to them, whether it’s through the Internet or digital cable or satellite, they’re not relying on just a few songs on the radio. They are really able to find a lot more music. That’s probably helped a lot of bands that maybe wouldn’t have had a chance to really be able get out there and have the world experience their music.

KNAC.COM: How long did you have bigger labels sniffing around?

FAIR: Once The Art of Balance did more than 100,000 copies on an indie label at a time when metal with guitar solos was pretty far off the radar screen, I think that really opened some people’s eyes. And it seemed like there was a lot of records at that time, Killswitch Engage was doing really well, and Lamb of God, so that’s when things started going off.

That was before we wrote The War Within, and I think that really pushed it over the top. They were waiting to see how that did and when that does a quarter-million records on a small indie, that definitely gets the sharks in the water (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Lamb of God is doing a second record with Epic and sold about the same amount albums, so it seems like this can work with major label involvement.

FAIR: They had realistic expectations, that’s the key. As long as they have realistic goals in mind, it’s a success for everyone. The band gets to make the record they wanted to make, with a budget that they probably wouldn’t have available on an indie, but at the same time it’s probably much lower than what the majors are used to shelling out.

I think they’ve realized that this was a scene that was building quickly and they went with bands that were more established at the start. Bands like us and Lamb of God, we’ve been out there touring for a while and already had established ourselves in such a way that is outside of the way a major label would build a band. It wasn’t just through spending money on promotion, it was through touring and word of mouth, so I think they saw it as an opportunity to get behind something that was starting to build momentum.

They realized that maybe with our platforms and our available resources we can get in front of an audience that otherwise would have missed out. But on the other hand, your grandmother’s not going to on her way to church listening to the new Lamb of God — regardless of the name of the band. They know that, they are not going to try to push this to cereal commercials and shit (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Are you looking at this as take a stab and see what happens and if worse comes to worse, you can always go back to an indie?

FAIR: We have the same goals as the people at Atlantic who signed us. We want to be a band like Iron Maiden that can build a decade-plus career out of this and really survive. We don’t want to rely on one hit song or one cool looking video, that’s not the way we get things done. We’re about albums and the live show, and I think they understand that.

They’re not signing bands like us for the millions of dollars they would to sign a pop band, so they don’t have the financial risk because we don’t really need that type of money to get a great record done, so it just works out. We could have probably taken more upfront money from other places, but we wanted to know that we had someone that really knew what we were about and what we were doing. We’d rather see that money go to the right spot to get this band where it needs to go than just blowing it all just because they have it.

The whole industry is changing and if they don’t keep up, they’re gonna be gone. And pretty soon, who knows if we’ll be buying CDs, it’s really up in the air. Who fucking knows. I’m glad we’re doing this now because who knows how long it’s gonna be before people are just implanting music directly into their brains (laughs).

KNAC.COM: When the metal-core thing was first getting going in southern New England, were you aware of anything similar going on elsewhere?

FAIR: There were definitely other little spots where it was happening. There were a lot of bands coming out of the Boston area and Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, when we would go out we would play with other bands from other parts of the country that were doing similar things. At that time, especially in the hardcore scene, a lot of kids were listening to metal and hardcore can get stale if you keep it that straight forward and simple, so there was this new influx that sent it off in totally different directions and it was great. There were other bands that influenced us that thought the same way too, like Leeway from New York and Starkweather from Philly and we would hear that would totally open up new doors and that would spread around the country and then you go out to California and there were a lot of bands out there that were early on doing similar things. Overcast made it out there a couple times and for us it was cool to see that this scene was kind of happening all across the country. It was very small, it was very low key and very word of mouth, but it was definitely there, you just had to search for it.

Kids these days have it a lot easier because the shit is everywhere. I was relying on mail order 7-inches where you never knew whether that $5 was going to some kid who was actually going to send you something (laughs). So it’s cool to see it grow. There were always people out there innovating, it was more underground, but it was out there.

KNAC.COM: I went to school in Hartford and lived in southern Connecticut until 1996 and I’m still amazed that places like Springfield or Worcester, Mass., or New Haven, Conn., ended up becoming hotspots for any kind of music scene.

FAIR: (Laughs) It is pretty bizarre. What’s funny to me, too, between Killswitch and Shadows Fall you have people who went to the same tiny little high school who both ended up in Grammy nominated bands. Even when Overcast is playing, I still look at Mike and think, “This bunch of shitheads from Central Mass. somehow has two Grammy nominated artists in it. How the fuck does this happen?” We grew up in small towns and we all knew each other through the scene because it was so small, it just kind of happened that way. No one saw it coming.

KNAC.COM: Between the shitty winters and economic misery in those dying old mill towns, it’s easy to see what inspired the aggression behind the music.

FAIR: I used to think it was the 86-year drought between Red Sox World Series wins, but now that we have that we’re still angry. So that must be it, we’re all fucked up by it in some way.

KNAC.COM: Now that you’ve been nominated for Grammy, you’ve got a big label deal, your drummer (Jason Bittner) has been named “Drummer of the year” left and right and your guitarists (Jonathan Donias and Bachand) are on magazine covers, can all that attention fuck you up in other ways?

FAIR: I don’t think so. It’s been such a slow build and a slow burn for us and it never got where it was overwhelming, we’re able to keep it in perspective. We know there’s a lot of people out there that were working hard for us to get us where we are and that we’re just a fortunate band that things fell into place like they did. We have exceeded all of the goals we’d set for ourselves, and at this point we’re working even harder to see how far we can take it.

Every gradual step, whether it was getting out of the hometowns to travel across the country to getting over to Europe and then getting to Japan and then getting on a major label and being able to make a living off the music, and knowing it was done on our own terms through hard work keeps you grounded. We see some of the younger bands who get a lot of success quickly sometimes it harder to handle things, or your expectations change, you’re thinking it’s always going to be like that.

We’ve had some ups and downs and seen some tragedy. We’ve played soup kitchens in New Hampshire and we’ve done everything in between. So we know what its like to be there and back and you never know when this is going to end, so we feel like we’re a bunch of lucky dudes who are making the most of it.

KNAC.COM: Speaking of tragedy, your tour with Damageplan was already over when he was killed, right?

FAIR: We had left two days before, we played the last show together in Albany. They were playing some shows on their way home and since we were so close to home we just headed straight there. It was quite a shock. I had been hanging out with Darrell ‘til 5 in the morning that Sunday night and then to find out Wednesday that he’d been shot, it was kind of hard for it to even register. It was the last thing you’d expect. He was definitely one of the nicest guys in the business and he was such an outgoing person, it was unbelievable to think that someone would do something so crazy.

KNAC.COM: On your DVD you’ve got that “Walk” montage, it looks like you all were having a pretty good time on that tour.

FAIR: You’re not kidding. Some of the footage was cut in from that last show, but it’s funny, usually the end of the tour is when you have that one big blowout night where everyone attacks every band and everyone goes crazy. That happened for the last week of that tour (laughs). That tour started out as “Devastation Across the Nation” and after three days we knew it was “Intoxication Across the Nation.” It was total insanity.

The Texan boys, they can drink, everybody knows that, but the Swedes in the Haunted, they can throw it down too. Throw a few Mass-holes in the mix and it was insanity. We had such a good time. That was another great thing to learn to see Darrell and Vinnie out there doing this because they absolutely love it. These were guys who were in one of the biggest rock bands of the last few decades, and playing clubs with us and coming out and partying on stage every night and hanging out with the fans every night.

Darrell was one of the most approachable guys in a band with that status that I’d ever seen. No one could even buy shots for him at the bar because he would buy shots for the whole bar. It was great. It definitely shows you what kinda guy he was. When they didn’t have a guitar tech he’d be out there wheeling his shit there, this is a dude with platinum records, setting his own shit up, not giving a fuck.

It was a great thing to see that that love never died in him. That’s the reason he was out there, because he loved making music and hanging out and partying. He didn’t want to sit a home.

KNAC.COM: You guys come from a scene that was very intimate in its infancy and relied on close contact with fans to grow. Has what happened to Darrell affected your approachability?

FAIR: No, because if you worry about that the whole time you can’t enjoy life. It was such a bizarre occurrence. You can’t plan for that. That’s the worst part about it, if the guy had just approached him onstage, Darrell probably would have been like “take the mic, brother. Sing along.”

You can’t worry about it. It’s that terrorist mentality of if you do worry about something like that, you’re not going to be able to live your life, you’re missing the point of it. You can’t always be looking over your shoulder.

I’m sure it’s changed security at clubs because they’ve realized “wow, there are crazy people out there.” And maybe they keep a better eye out. We’ve always been a band, the main reason we travel is to meet new people, see new cities and hang out and you can’t really let that get in the way. Otherwise you might as well go live up on a mountain somewhere and hide. I don’t want to live that way. I’ve seen a lot of terrible things, but I still have faith in the goodness of humanity in general. That’s what I love about being in a band is getting to meet so many amazing and interesting people everywhere you go and I’d hate to lose that because of a few fucking psychos.

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