The Sonoran Desert is an unforgiving place. Covering vast stretches of Arizona, Southern California and Northwestern Mexico, its merciless heat and brutally exposed terrain have delivered dehydration and death to many an unfortunate traveler. In this harsh environment, Chase Mason has known both triumph and tribulation. As the vocalist for death-metal upstarts Gatecreeper, he's taken the underground by storm with his band's infectious mixture of Stockholm-style death metal and hellacious hardcore.
But the road has not been easy: The title of the band's full-length debut, Sonoran Depravation, references not only the group's home but also Mason's once-desperate state of mind. Prior to Gatecreeper, he was a heroin addict struggling to stay high on the sizzling streets of Tempe, Arizona. Today, he's about to celebrate five years of sobriety. "That whole era of my life feels really far away, but five years is definitely a huge milestone," he says. "Getting off drugs definitely helped me follow through with Gatecreeper. I had the idea for the band for a long time, but I was never able to actualize it because I couldn't get my life together."
Gatecreeper came together in 2013 when Mason met drummer "Metal" Matt Arrebollo and the two bonded over a mutual love of Dismember's divisive 1995 album, Massive Killing Capacity — a record alternately hailed as a melodic death-metal masterpiece and dismissed as a weak sibling in the legendary Swedish band's otherwise revered discography. "Some people think it's not a very good record, but every song on that album has a catchy quality to it," Mason enthuses. "It was a good example of, 'Hey, we should start a band like this.' So we've taken the template of that and mixed in a couple of other things to make it our own, but that album is definitely a cornerstone for Gatecreeper."
Mason and Arrebollo joined forces with guitarist Eric Wagner to record Gatecreeper's eponymous 2014 EP before ever playing live. (In addition to handling vocals, Mason played guitar and bass on the recording.) The roaring four-song, 11-and-a-half-minute offering soon caught the bleeding ears of headbangers across the globe — in part because of contacts Mason made while recovering from his addiction. "When I was trying to quit heroin, I got on methadone and moved back in with my parents," he explains. "I had access to a computer and a lot of time on my hands so I just dug super deep into music blogs to discover all kinds of old-school death metal. When I started Gatecreeper, I just kind of reverse-engineered how I found new music and sent our music to a bunch of different blogs and websites. It kinda grew from there."
To start gigging, the trio expanded into a quintet that now includes bassist Sean Mears and guitarist Nate Garrett. They eventually landed a deal with metal powerhouse Relapse Records, which released Sonoran Depravation in October of last year. While Mason's lyrics on the EP directly reference his drug experiences, the vocalist's approach on the full-length was less transparent. "Some of the stuff on this record might not be speaking directly about it, but it's still there," he offers. "It's always gonna be a part of my life and there's other emotions that stem from that, whether it's being apathetic or feeling dead inside or feeling frustrated. Like, the song 'Desperation' is about a feeling that was very familiar to me when I was using drugs. So I think [my lyrics] will always have a little bit to do with that, whether it's obvious or not."
If there is another positive outcome, other than lyrical inspiration, of Mason's former life as a junkie, it's that it taught him how to be resourceful. "There's a certain hustling aspect of that life that I've learned to adapt to playing in a band," he says. "Every junkie has some sort of hustle they do to stay high. Some people break into cars, or they're involved in some sort of fraud. I've kept that hustler mentality for the band in a way, and it's good when your motives are positive and you're in the right headspace."
Mason's old junkie hustle was only slightly less risky than most. "I was a middleman," he explains. "I dealt drugs for a long time. I wasn't really making any money, but I was getting high for free. Luckily, I didn't have to do a lot more illegal activities that would've made me vulnerable to the law. I'm super-grateful for that, because those kinds of complications can haunt you even if you've been sober for as long as I have."
Mason's past habits could haunt him particulary intensely on the road, as tour life practically oozes with the perils of rock & roll decadence, and Gatecreeper have been on tour a lot: After Sonoran Depravation's release, the band hit the extreme-metal circuit with Skeletonwitch and Iron Reagan, Nails and Toxic Holocaust and, recently, Arkansas doomsayers Pallbearer. However, Mason says he hasn't had any problems resisting temptation. "I'll make a joke about it sometimes when someone offers me a drink or whatever," he explains. "I'll say, 'You definitely don't want me to do that because then I'll probably steal your credit card.' But usually I just have to tell people the situation, like, 'I don't do that anymore, and here's why ...' Unless they're a huge asshole, they're usually cool about it."