"I'm currently mourning the end of summer," says Matt Knox. But the vocalist-guitarist isn't quoting a metal lyric. Instead he's referencing the start of another new school year as a Philadelphia high school English teacher. It's a strange life Knox has carved out for himself: wrangling 10th graders and creating progressive death-metal with Horrendous in his increasingly fleeting spare time.
They're all busy with day jobs: Knox's older drummer brother, Jamie, is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, working in an immunology lab ("He works on HIV cells!" his bandmates note); guitarist-vocalist Damien Herring does online coaching for a fitness company and operates his own audio business; and bassist Alex Kulick works in visitor's services at Philadelphia anthropology and archaeology museum, Penn, and plays "in a bajillion other bands.
It's getting tougher for everyone to balance their artistic and real-world demands: Just as the fall semester begins, the band — which formed in 2009 — is gearing up to release their hyped fourth LP, the sprawling Idol. And it's a critical moment, with Horrendous having expanded to a quartet and signed to the Season of Mist label (Cynic, Atheist, Morbid Angel, The Dillinger Escape Plan).
But the quartet took a major creative leap with their latest album, which weaves more progressive and jazz elements into their extreme-metal web. The band spoke to Revolver about their backgrounds, teenage lives, evolving relationships with religion, and the heady themes that informed Idol.
MATT, I READ THAT YOU GOT INTO METAL PARTIALLY AT LEAST THROUGH YOUR FIRST GUITAR TEACHER, WHOM YOU DESCRIBED AS "THIS CRAZY-ASS" BIKER-LOOKING GUY. FOR MOST MUSICIANS, THERE'S USUALLY SOME PERSON EARLY ON, SOME KIND OF MENTOR OR JUST EARLY EXAMPLE, WHO HELPS PUSH THEM TOWARD THEIR INSTRUMENT. WAS THIS BIKER GUY PRETTY INFLUENTIAL ON YOUR DEVELOPMENT AS A PLAYER?
MATT KNOX It's strange that you asked this question. My first actual experience with guitar in general was from a family friend. We all listened to punk music, and he brought a guitar over to our house. I remember seeing it and touching it for the first time — even though I couldn't do anything on it, I knew I wanted to play. We actually saw this guy again a couple days ago, after not seeing him for 10 years, and I told him, "You're kind of the reason I started playing, actually."
From the time I started playing guitar until I met my guitar teacher, we were just playing punk: fast and shitty stuff to the best of our abilities. I remember going in, and one of the first things he asked is what songs I wanted to learn. I brought in stuff by Kid Dynamite and Rancid, and I remember so vividly that he put it on and was like, "Yeah, we could learn this stuff, or …" and he immediately started ripping this solo. Of course, I was shocked and amazed. [Laughs] I even remember the guitar: It was this Gibson Les Paul sunburst with red on the outside. Then he gave me a list of CDs to buy and listen to. He was a huge Ozzy and Dio fan, but the first CD on the list that I got was Iron Maiden's Piece of Mind, which is still my favorite of their records. I think I was 10 or 12 at the time.
To make matters more palpable and hilarious, we went to Catholic school at the time, and I would go to lessons in my Catholic school uniform. I would roll up and learn Iron Maiden songs and shit. I had to stop taking lessons with him after I finished middle school because the timing just didn't work out — we went to a Catholic high school as well, and we had to drive kinda far to get to it. He definitely started my direction in terms of what I was getting into and what I viewed as interesting guitar playing.
If you wanna check out this guy's playing, his band is called Thunderbrew. As you can guess from the name, they were a Black Label Society–type band, and they sang about beer and ripped solos. I remember the first time I saw them play, it was at a church fundraiser, and they somehow ended up playing. It was a really funny setting to be playing in a church full of 10-year-olds.
ALEX KULICK Matt and I met in a coffee shop randomly two or three years ago, and that's the only reason I play in the band. The first band I ever played in was an Eighties-revival-meets-thrash band called On Top, and we played a show with Thunderbrew in Delaware. Years and years later, I'd found out that that's the band Matt's teacher was in.
IT'S INTERESTING THAT MATT AND JAMIE WERE IN CATHOLIC SCHOOL. DID, OR DOES, RELIGION MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU GUYS?
MATT KNOX I remember believing up until middle school, and then I started to have a lot of questions. I didn't completely abandon it necessarily, but my questions led to an outer lack of interest or care. My adolescent mind pulling me toward not caring was really just a symptom of me having a lot of questions about it, not buying it anymore.
JAMIE KNOX It was similar for me, I guess. We were raised that way, and until a certain point that's just how things are in your mind: This is the universe and the way things work. I just took it at face value for a really long time — up until high school, I guess. It was a big part of our life at the time. Our parents still do go to church, but they don't make us go when we're home. [Laughs] We resisted, and at some point they just stopped caring.
MATT KNOX Jamie and I have a younger brother, and we saw him recently. He reminded us that he was the first one to step out of line with that stuff. I remember vividly that our parents would go very early in the morning, and we'd go later when we actually woke up on Sunday, and we'd just sit in the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot across the street, just staring at clouds with music on. And we'd come back home with the church bulletin for the week to prove that we'd gone.
MOST OF US GRAVITATE TOWARD A CERTAIN GROUP OF PEOPLE IN SCHOOL — I SORT OF FLOATED BETWEEN THE NERDS AND THE ATHLETES, NEVER QUITE FIT IN ANYWHERE. WHAT KIND OF TEENAGERS WERE YOU?
DAMIEN HERRING I was definitely the metalhead. There weren't too many in my school, actually. I was pretty much an outsider but known as a guitarist and metalhead. I still played sports my freshman year, although I had to quit just because I was devoting more time to music and playing guitar in the jazz band.
KULICK Things tend to happen in tandem where when you're settling into an identity in secondary school, you're also discovering whatever things you like. I was a music person. I played saxophone in middle school, and then my stepdad put a guitar in my lap when I was really young, and I couldn't even hold it, and I've been messing around ever since. Almost right at the end of middle school, I met this guy who would become my pseudo-older sibling. I was into some music and could play, and I met this guy who showed me a lot of heavy music all at once. I heard Lamb of God for the first time and a bunch of random heavy bands — I remember going out and buying CDs at FYE for the first time and not knowing what I was getting into.
I was a really friendly kid, but everybody thought I was the weirdest dude ever. There were a lot of jock people who were really mean, but they just thought I was kind of a weird, clownish kid. There was a phase where I was wearing Tripp pants and was kinda like the goth kid. I was very friendly with a lot of people, but since I'm from West Chester, Pennsylvania, I grew up with a lot of suburban, rich types. I had a lot of really good friends. I was really lucky because I had a small community of people who were really into heavy music. In the early 2000s, there was a thrash revival, and my band was one of those bands. I was one of the only metal-head in school, and most of my metal-head friends were older and had already left school by that point.
EVERYONE BUT ALEX WENT TO SCHOOL AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA, SO I GUESS YOU SORT OF HAD A TASTE OF THE BIBLE BELT. DID IT FEEL STRANGE? DID YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE THERE?
MATT KNOX I never had it in my mind much while being on campus. Columbia [South Carolina] is one of those places where the college is the city. Most of what's going on is going on around campus. There's obviously a huge religious presence there, just driving around — these huge mega-churches. I think we were removed enough from that culture to where we didn't feel much of it.
HERRING Just going to school in South Carolina was like a whole new world. First of all, I grew up in a Jewish house in northern Virginia, just outside of D.C. We weren't very religious, but we celebrated Hanukkah. The majority of my friends celebrated Christmas, but nobody ever talked about religion or anything. But these weren't devout people — they were just like culturally Christian. South Carolina was the last place I expected to be when I was younger. But I really enjoyed my time there, though it was a big change in a cultural sense. I specifically remember there was this girl I wanted to date who was a really devout Christian, and she made me go to church with her on our first date. It was the most bizarre experience I've ever had. The next day I just literally laid in my bed all day.
MATT KNOX Tell the quote!
HERRING "Your body is not your own." [Laughter] It was a shocking experience.
YOU GUYS PLAYED LIVE WITHOUT A BASSIST FOR YEARS, AND NOW YOU ACTUALLY HAVE A QUARTET LINE-UP. NOW WITH ALEX ONBOARD, YOU CAN FEEL A DIFFERENT ENERGY. THERE SEEMS TO BE A JAZZIER, PROGGIER TOUCH ON THE ALBUM.
KULICK Believe it or not, the progressive element exists in us in different ways, but I've gotten my education in progressive rock from Matt and Jamie over the last couple years. The elements are very familiar to me, and that stuff was around when I was coming up. But my listening background was metal — I grew up loving thrash. But I ended up falling in love with bands like Cynic and Atheist that fucking blew my head off. I was so fascinated by them, and I wanted to understand what was going on there. Then I moved really far away from heavy music for years. My best friend in high school was really into jazz, and I played in the jazz band as a saxophone player. But I didn't listen to jazz — I didn't give a fuck about it.
He played me my first jazz records on a trip once in a hotel room. He was a guy I thought was a dick jock for a long time, and he and some guys in band made fun of me for being a metalhead [and] coming into class wearing Slayer T-shirts and stuff. Then we ended up sitting across from each other at the bullshit Cheers bar in Boston, and we got into a conversation and made a connection and hung out. He played me some jazz, and I didn't even really like it, but I was hearing music where I didn't know what was going on and wanted to know.
I just wanted to play anything. I ended up going down a really deep hole, and that's why I moved to Philadelphia to study jazz. And I ended up getting into the really "out" stuff, really experimental stuff. Then I got involved in heavy projects in Philly that are more minded toward openness in general. I came here as a guitar player, and I became a bass player because all the bands in Philly I've played in have needed bass players. I've played bass my whole life in the back corner but never as a dedicated thing, but now it's become a huge part of my life.
THE NEW ALBUM DEFINITELY SHOWS THAT EXPERIMENTAL SIDE, PARTICULAR YOUR PROG-ROCK INFLUENCES. WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR MAJOR PROG INFLUENCES?
JAMIE KNOX Mostly the pretty big acts. King Crimson has been one of the most interesting bands to me in the past couple years. Also, Yes. Those are my two favorite bands in that genre, I'd say.
MATT KNOX I delve into all the deeper corners like Van Der Graaf Generator and Amon Düül. Can — we're all into the Kraut-rock stuff, which has led into Tangerine Dream and more electronic stuff, Nektar, Camel. ELP, obviously.
VAN DER GRAAF GENERATOR? THAT'S ONE YOU DON'T HEAR MUCH. I'M IMPRESSED.
MATT KNOX Godbluff is so good. [Peter Hammill's] voice takes some getting used to. After you accept what it is, it destroys you.
I LOVE HOW "THE IDOLATOR" SEAMLESSLY MORPHS FROM THESE ANTHEMIC CLASSIC ARENA-ROCK/METAL RIFFS TO DEATH-METAL TO THESE SORT OF PROGGY, JAZZY ELEMENTS. HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CONSTRUCTING A SONG LIKE THAT?
MATT KNOX I think prog is a mindset. What drives me to that much so much — and jazz and jazz-fusion, which Alex introduced to us — is the idea of trying to expand yourself and what sounds you can make. Talking about "The Idolator," a lot of the songs on this record, I had skeletons of songs and parts, and I wrote a good amount of that one. During the writing process, it's a case of imagining the possibilities of what's next. Sometimes it takes some experimentation of a couple different ideas for how the song will go. Then the song starts to write itself. It's a process of learning through action, learning the song is supposed to go through making it, rather than starting with the idea of, "I want the song to do these things."
KULICK One of the interesting things, and I can only [comment on the recent material], but we have a drawn-out process where we have an idea that's posited, and then Jamie and Matt are collaborating on what the drums could be, and I'll create a rhythmic thing. Damien lives in D.C., so we can only get tighter under certain circumstances, and then he'll have a different idea or part to add. These ideas will accumulate over a long period of time. It's a really expansive, sprawling thing that feels like it's open to anything – all the way up until recording. Some parts weren't even written until the recording process started when layering started to be a thing. It's not coming from a singular place.
THE CONCEPT IS PRETTY HEADY SINCE YOU'RE COVERING SOME PRETTY DEEP STUFF — PERSONAL DEMONS AND EXTERNAL, MONSTROUS FORCES THAT GNAW AWAY AT OUR SPIRIT. HOW DID THAT CONCEPT DEVELOP? DID SOMETHING SPARK IT? AND DID EVERYONE CONTRIBUTE TO IT?
MATT KNOX It 100 percent emerged. Talking with the other guys a lot and doing written interviews through email, I've realized that we're all almost investigating this piece as much as anyone else is. It's so all-consuming and enormous that it took me a step back to analyze it and think about it. I don't think anyone set back with this idea about an overall theme, and through the process of writing things started to come together. I started to notice all these connections and various ways of feeling. It was guided by what I and we were feeling in the moment. Perhaps because art can't be separated from the experiences we're having at this moment in time.
WHEN I READ THE BAND'S LITTLE MINI-ESSAY ABOUT THE ALBUM COVER AND THE LYRICAL THEMES, IT IMMEDIATELY MADE ME THINK OF HOW THE WORLD REVEALS ITSELF TO BE UGLIER AND MORE DESTRUCTIVE AS WE GET OLDER. YOU REALIZE THAT THINGS THAT ONCE SEEMED SO ORGANIZED AND WELL-MANAGED ARE ACTUALLY CHAOTIC AND EVIL. YOU ASSUME, OR AT LEAST I DID WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER, THAT POLITICIANS WERE AT LEAST MOSTLY GOOD, THAT THEY WERE TRYING TO DO WHAT'S RIGHT FOR THE PEOPLE. AND THEN YOU REALIZE MOST OF THEM ARE JUST POWER-HUNGRY AND REALLY ONLY CARE ABOUT THEMSELVES.
MATT KNOX That is a lot of what it was for me — trying to reconcile the fact that I wanted to write lyrics that were topical and mattered but not just approaching the surface of things. I wanted something that matched the depth and complexity of the music. As much as I would love to be in a punk band that screams very literally about what's going on, that doesn't feel right for this music. I wanted to dig deeper: "What's beneath the surface of these things? What's lurking inside of them? What gives rise to them? What are these deep emotions and myths and histories?" I tried to approach my lyrics from that angle.
KULICK I hadn't realized it at the time, but looking back at the record from the macro to the micro, you have everything from stuff that some metal/death-metal bands would consider the most unfamiliar things for that genre — hyper-syncopated rhythms, harmonic and melodic content that's a little different — all the way to double-bass on 2 and 4, a really aggressive riff, fast tempos, aggressive vocals. And it was also like that in our lives: We stumbled upon this theme about our internal and external idols and these forces amongst us and within us.
Not all of this happened during the conception of the record, but I always think of them as cosmically tied in some fucked-up way: All our lives have gone through these cataclysmic changes. Matt has a new job and has been challenged by himself and his environment; Damien just sold the house he's known since he was a kid. Also, the band just went on this first expansive tour over the past couple years. From the internal to the external — if you're really connected to something you're working on, these connections become apparent, whether you know it or not.