Lancaster, Pennsylvania, smells like manure. It's Amish country, full of horse and buggies, endless rows of corn, and plenty of livestock producing plenty of excrement. It's also the charming, blue-collar city that August Burns Red proudly call home, and Revolver is here to visit them. But first we'll have to travel 20 miles outside of town to Rock Lititz. In contrast to Lancaster's bucolic vibes, Rock Lititz is a marvelous state-of-the-art mega studio production complex-meets-mall of the touring world. Pop star Billie Eilish is rumored to be in its largest room when Revolver shows up, but we head toward stage two instead, past a few shops selling loads of pyro to meet up with the twice Grammy-nominated metalcore veterans: singer Jake Luhrs, guitarists JB Brubaker and Brent Rambler, bassist Dustin Davidson and drummer Matt Greiner. Before we even turn down the hallway, we hear Luhrs' distinctive roar — resounding through two solid, weighty closed doors.
Upon entering the space, we see Greiner sitting behind his kit in front of ABR's gorgeously blue-lit U-shaped flaming logo, patiently waiting to run through the band's set. Brubaker is hunched over a laptop, tinkering. A fog machine shoots vertical smoke in front of us, and a new scent hits our nose. "Smells like pancakes, doesn't it? Or waffles. No, pancakes," Rambler says with a laugh, walking over to us. The band is all smiles — it's the day before the kickoff of their spring tour with Killswitch Engage, though little do ABR know that they'll be forced to return home after just a couple shows due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting bans on public gatherings. Even so, the group's good spirits are merited: Regardless of the tour's future, they're about to drop Guardians, their eighth album and finest in years.
Before practice, Luhrs and Revolver step out into a cafeteria area to grab coffee and talk. The singer, who's originally from South Carolina, rarely does solo interviews as a spokesperson for ABR, nor does he often publicly discuss his personal life aside from what fans can see on Instagram — his love of hockey, motorcycles and his French Bulldog, Winston. But he's ready to open up now, even though it will mean delving into some very dark topics counter to the prevailing cheery mood of the day. He's ready because, as he'll often remind you, nothing's perfect and we're all too human. His life experiences have cemented that belief in him and led him not only to "scream for a living," but also to found HeartSupport, a donation-funded nonprofit formed in 2009 that promotes mental health initiatives. According to Luhrs, the organization has six full-time employees, over a hundred volunteers, and roughly half a million people a month interacting with their support wall and social media.
"We're just here to help cultivate this environment to help people grow, learn and be educated," he explains. "That's really important to me, because I didn't want to step into this role and just say something that I didn't mean, or be looked at as, 'Look at this guy. He's just starting this nonprofit and it's just bullshit.'
"I did it because I was tired of seeing people broken. I did it because it made me fucking cry."
AS AUGUST BURNS RED'S VOCALIST, YOU'RE THE ONE UPFRONT AND CENTER, SINGING, LOOKING INTO PEOPLE'S FACES EACH NIGHT. WHAT DO YOU SEE?
JAKE LUHRS I see ... [pauses] brokenness and I see love. I see a lot of people who are looking for an escape, they're looking for someone to appreciate them, they're looking for a release. We have this shirt, "Angry Music for Happy People," you know? I think that when we look at life, every human being on this earth wants to be loved, and I think very single human being on this earth wants to love others. So I think that's what we try to do with our music and our lyrics. And just change the environment in the room to where it doesn't have to be this tough-guy hardcore-metal thing. It's like, "Hey, why don't we enjoy this moment together and make memories, and live life in the present?"
IN YOUR 2018 BOOK, MOUNTAINS, A DEVOTIONAL, YOU WRITE ABOUT HOW FANS COME UP TO YOU AT THE MERCH TABLE EACH NIGHT AND OPEN UP ABOUT THEIR TRAUMAS, AND YOU'D GIVE THESE "FIVE-MINUTE PEP TALKS." BUT THEN YOU REALIZED THAT WASN'T ENOUGH. HOW COME?
Me talking to them wasn't going to change anything — it was going to give them temporal means of satisfaction or it was going to give them enough to get them by for a little bit. It just frustrated me after listening to people's stories, people saying, "Hey. I was raped by my father and I'm going through this right now, and your song 'Redemption' has helped me know that I'm loved." "Hey man, I was a heroin addict for six months. Me and my buddies were in sober living and we listened to 'Composure' every morning and it's helped us stay clean."
Talking about suicide, and looking at these young women and men with their scars all over their wrists and their legs ... it was really unsettling for me to love them, encourage them and then they just go home and then I just go to another city. They still go home to the same environment. It's still the same place. If they have an abusive father, they still go home to an abusive father. If they are cutting their wrists, they're still going home to cutting their wrists. It made them feel good to be able to share that with someone and give them a hug.
So that's why I started HeartSupport. There's so many people that need to be heard. I wanted these people that I'm interacting with, my fans, for them to have a place to share these stories and then be able to realize, "Hey. I'm not alone. This community is helping me understand myself and my circumstances."
I've gone through an insane, hectic upbringing when I was a kid. So the reason why I think I felt for my fans that were sharing with me is because I have lived in some of their shoes. I've experienced some of those traumatic experiences. When I was a kid, I was sexually assaulted a few times. One of my family members was a heroin addict. I've dealt with a close member of my family trying to commit suicide, so a lot of these things I can connect with.
HEARTSUPPORT ALSO WORKS WITH MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS. WHAT DO THEY SAY IS THE BIGGEST ISSUE WE'RE FACING AS A SOCIETY RIGHT NOW IN TERMS OF MENTAL HEALTH?
Well, the big area for mental health professionals is the understanding that no one really up until this point has thought about the importance of mental health, period. If we look at the way that society is built and what we champion and what we believe in and how we operate, mental health is not even in the conversation. You have everybody wanting to be successful, everybody wanting to be famous, everybody wanting and willing to do whatever it takes to get there. It's a very me-me-me type of mentality that I feel we've got. Nobody is talking about helping anybody.
And that [discussing mental health now] just a trend, and then it will go away. So, let's try to get people who are serious about mental health to really start to take action, because that's what they're saying. They're just like, "This is an uphill battle." There's statistics I could give you — suicide, I think, is the second leading cause of death between the ages of 14 and 34. That's huge. I can't imagine. What is going through your mind to where you want to kill yourself at 14?
So, there's obviously a lot of toxic things that are in our atmosphere that we're not discussing, and no one is sharing. Even with your friends, your closest buddies. You can see that one of your buddies is a massive alcoholic, and you ever say one thing to him. It's like, "Bro. You drink a lot." Say, "Why are you drinking a lot? What's going on with you?" Those are the kinds of conversations that we need to have.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TENETS OF HELPING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT JUST SAYING, "IT'S OK," BUT RATHER, "I UNDERSTAND." CAN YOU TALK SOME MORE ABOUT WHY YOU UNDERSTAND? FOR EXAMPLE, I KNOW YOUR DIVORCE IN 2015 AFFECTED YOU GREATLY …
Totally. Yeah, I was wreck. Honestly, I had spent my entire life being super performance-based where I was out to prove to the world that I was great, and that stems from my upbringing from a divorced family and all the mess that I went through growing up. When I came out of my divorce, I just felt like this epic failure. I just was like, "Man, look. You're not worthy, or you're not good. This is the truth. See who you really are?"
I just went down this road of drinking because I used to always use alcohol, it was like my friend. Alcohol was a way for me to not feel alone. It was a way for me to celebrate my victories, or to comfort my burdens or patch up my guilt. I just went down this crazy, insane drinking spree. I would go to probably three different bars — and this is nothing to be proud of, it's really embarrassing and sad — but I would just drink and drink and drink and then just come home stumbling. Not even wake up until maybe two in the afternoon and sit in my bed and just hurt. Then I would get out of bed at six and then just start the whole thing over again.
I'm a faith person. One night I just was sitting on the back porch and I was having a conversation with God, saying, "Look. You're not the singer of August Burns Red right now because you're off the road for two months." I had actually taken a leave from HeartSupport for six months. I told them, "I can't lead. I can't love anybody. I can't even love myself right now." So, "You're not the leader of HeartSupport. And you're no longer a husband. Who are you?" That was the change for me where I was like, I need to figure out who I am, and this isn't who I am, and this is definitely not who I want to be.
I remember I was talking to my dad on the phone. I was screaming out of anger and I'm asking him, "What's the purpose of life?!" Feeling like I was going to throw the towel in, and he goes, "Jake, you're a good man and you've done a lot of great things. But if you keep drinking like this, it's all going to go away. All of it." So just literally that night, I poured all the beer out. I had to go on a journey — and I'm still going on this journey years later — but I had to go on this journey of who am I? Not who society tells me. I don't want to be Jake Luhrs from August Burns Red. I don't want to be Jake from HeartSupport. I just want to be Jake Luhrs. But who is that really?
I just started to really focus on what did I want me here to be about? What was important? Because, literally, I can do whatever I choose to do, and that's including who I think I am or what people say about me, and whether I'm going to give it authority or not. I started doing things that scared the shit out of me, like riding a sports bike, and playing hockey, and just trying to live what I thought I really wanted, and find joy and purpose. So now when I get onstage, it means something different to me. Now when I talk to a fan, it means something different. It taught me it's OK that you're not perfect, because you're never going to be.
WHY DO YOU THINK YOU ALWAYS HAD THIS PERFORMANCE-BASED OUTLOOK AND FELT LIKE YOU WERE LACKING?
The way I was raised. There was always just chaos in the house. My parents — both amazing human beings — but there's not a single person in our family who's perfect or wasn't experiencing their own pain. So when you're in pain, it's hard for you to see someone else's pain when they're hurting you through that pain, if that makes any sense.
There was a lot of guilt in that time of my life from my stepdad — I was kind of just always told that I did a half-assed job. Then when my parents divorced, my father told me at the age of 10, "You're the man of the house now." So I have one side telling me that I'm the man of the house, and then I have another side telling me that I do a half-assed job. Living between those two epic positions is really, really challenging for a 10-year-old. Then I ended up living that way my entire life, which is, I think, why I became so performance-based, because I realized, growing up, that I had to do it right. If I didn't do it right, I was nothing. But if you run and operate a performance-based life, you're going to tap out.
When my parents split, we lived in a really low income apartment complex, had food stamps and I got bullied every single day. I didn't have really a father figure to help me understand and comprehend how to be a man, and I had all these kids just telling me every day who I was, and beating me up, and throwing me around. So that just made me really angry and really frustrated with the world. It's very fitting, because I scream for a living. [Laughs]
WITH ALL THESE CHALLENGES YOU'VE BEEN THROUGH, HOW DO YOU CHANNEL THEM INTO SOMETHING GOOD?
Well, the worst is when somebody is like, "Yeah, I'm going to help you lead in this area," and you're like, "Great! How do we do that?" They're like, "I don't know, I've never experienced that." It's like, "Well, then why are you in a place and position of leadership?" So, I was able to really be able to use all that to help other people, and that, to me, is a good outlet.
A really important note about pain that I wanted to share — when I was going through my divorce and I was on that road of abusing alcohol and really feeling like I failed, I realized in a moment that we can either suffer in love, or we can suffer in anger and resentment. Either road we take, we have to suffer, but at the end of the day, they're going to give you two very different endings. So I had to make that choice. If I were to continue to hold onto my ex-wife and all the things that she had done to me, or I had done to her and not forgiven us both, or make amends and hold onto that anger and resentment, I probably wouldn't be in this band. I wouldn't be here. And I would have suffered until the end of that.
DO YOU FIND RELIEF IN BEING VULNERABLE?
I think if I didn't find relief in being vulnerable, I probably wouldn't be able to lead HeartSupport, because it's hard for other people to find relief in being vulnerable. They need to see a guy say, "Hey. Real talk for a minute. This is life. These are circumstances I didn't ask for, but they happened to me."
The first time I said I had an alcohol problem was the most freeing moment because it was like, Wow. There it is. You said it. It's there, and it's OK. It doesn't change the fact that you are who you are, but you get to now recognize that it is in the room, and it is something that you need to discuss or confront.
ONE OF THE BIG TAKEAWAYS FROM MOUNTAINS IS: "I'M NOT PERFECT. I'M JUST LIKE YOU." IN THE BOOK, YOU EQUATE YOURSELF TO A CHAMELEON WEARING A MASK, TRYING TO BE PERFECT ALL THE TIME. HOW DO YOU NOT WEAR THE MASK ANYMORE?
Mmhmm. Yeah. I mean, because the chameleon is a part of your identity, it's a part of who you are. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of self-discipline. With social media, with the expectations and the standards that friends and family put on you, the expectations and standards that you put on yourself, that are probably not even manageable or attainable, all of that has got to go away. You have to push all that away for a moment and think of, "Hey, I'm going to live today for myself and for my values. Not for what everybody else wants from me."
That's hard for everyone, because the moment you go on Instagram, you're going to see tons of advertisements about who you should be, what you should like, who you should follow, who's going to follow you. You've got to change neurological pathways in your brain and say no to your habits that are a cycle. These cycling habits where you operate out of this chameleon, and then slowly, but surely, do the opposite. I'll use my alcohol-drinking as an example. That was comfortable for me. If I drank, I could engage people and not feel weird. I could say shit and not care or feel.
But then to live a sober life, it's like, "I've always had alcohol whenever I wanted it. Now I have to live this way, or I want to live this way. I know it's the good way to live, but it's not a comfortable way for me to live." It's the opposite. You've got to change your environment sometimes, or the people you're hanging out with, or the way you see yourself, or how you digest your feelings and emotions. That takes a lot of work. People don't want to do that. We don't like feeling uncomfortable. We don't like embracing "the suck."
THE NEW ABR ALBUM IS CALLED GUARDIANS. WHO ARE THE BAND'S GUARDIANS, AND WHO'S YOUR GUARDIAN?
For the band, our guardians would be our fans. When you think of guardians, they help, right? Or they nurture or they provide. Our fans definitely do that for us. When we're coming out with a new record, they're buying actual copies or they're getting all the vinyl. They come to all of our shows. We have people who have gone to 40 shows. I don't know that I've ever gone to 40 shows outside of my band to go see anybody, ever. So we have these just diehard fans. They support the band. They give us a place to exist and continue our work. They genuinely care about us.
For myself, personally? I mean, it's going to sound really cliché and really, really stupid and cheesy, but it is Jesus. God has just been through all of it with me — when everybody else was gone or no one came to help me. Who do you think I was talking to when I was drinking 18 drinks a night? When I woke up at three p.m. in the afternoon, who do you think was I talking to? I was talking to God. He just got me through it all. That's my guardian and it's the truth.