Will Haven emerged from a tangled web of rock bands in the 1990s Sacramento scene. The interconnections are dizzying: Guitarist and primary songwriter Jeff Irwin is longtime friends with members of the Deftones and Far, and the musicians sometimes played on or produced each other's records and toured together; Jeff Jaworski, co-founder of the Sacramento group Red Tape, later did a stint as Will Haven's lead singer; members of Will Haven also formed Ghostride with Rey Osburn of Tinfed; another Tinfed member, Eric Stenman, produced and mixed Far and Will Haven and collaborated with Deftones.
Though Will Haven never enjoyed the crossover success of the Deftones, they've persisted, weathering lineup changes and "final album" rumors ever since 2001's Carpe Diem, after which singer Grady Avenell took a temporary hiatus from the group. The veteran noise-rockers return March 23rd with Muerte, their first full-length since 2011. Revolver caught up with Irwin recently to discuss the record and how the band managed to achieve his longtime goal of merging emotional riffs and Pink Floydian atmosphere.
It seems like every time you guys make an album recently, the word "last" comes up, but then you come back with a new one.
I guess so, huh? I think mainly it's because this band isn't our job, it's a hobby for us. I work in an office doing office stuff. One guy works in a tattoo parlor. Another guy works for the state. Boring jobs. We do Will Haven whenever we feel like it. We get together. We jam. But it's not necessarily Will Haven stuff. Once we decide maybe to start working on a Will Haven record, we might incorporate that stuff we jammed on. If it was our job, it'd be completely different. But we just do it when we want.
We're not Deftones. We're kind of a cult band. We don't have fans clamoring for us all the time. It's pretty easy to just do the normal day thing and play the music whenever we feel like it. We're in a good spot for a band like us. We have enough of a following where people care. But at the same time, we're not huge to where we have to make it a priority. We do our everyday lives, and then it's, "Oh yeah, let's do some Will Haven stuff." It's a good situation for us.
You've always been linked to a specific Sacramento scene — how has that changed for you?
Well, it's definitely different than when we were starting out. We had a pretty rad scene in the Nineties. Deftones, Far, we came out after that, a bunch of other bands never got big but were awesome bands. But we also grew up more in the straightedge hardcore scene. Even though we were friends with Deftones, Far, stuff like that, we had other influences like Earth Crisis. Our roots were more based on those types of bands. When we started played live we'd play Sacramento but also go to L.A. We were able to develop a cool sound having hardcore influences and be friends with Deftones.
I grew up with the Deftones and Far guys way before Will Haven even existed. They'll always be close friends of mine. It's cool. I think that's maybe why we continue to do it. When we're home, I hang out with the Deftones guys all the time and hear stories from them. I'm like, "Wow, let's do some more music, I want to experience that again." Being friends with those guys keeps us hungry to do stuff and play music.
What specifically brought you guys back together a record this time?
It's funny because as we did the last EP we kind of thought Will Haven was over with. Grady was doing his own thing. He has a family, so I figured he's over it. Me and the bass player and drummer started just jamming music at our practice spot thinking we'd maybe start a band just the three of us. We did that for quite a while. Then a record label called me out of nowhere and said, "Hey, is Will Haven doing anything lately?" I said, "Nope." He's like, "Well, if you guys want to do a record, we'd love to put it out." I went to the guys, and said, "There's interest in another record." They said, "I Grady wants to do it, let's do it." So I called Grady up, and he was like, "Let's do it." It started with a freak phone call.
You've talked in the past about wanting to maintain your core sound but push the envelope — did you have specific plans this time around?
I've always wanted to incorporate a bigger atmosphere sound to us. I love metal, but it's not everything I listen to. The project we were working on before Will Haven [when we were jamming] was more bigger sounding Pink Floyd stuff. So when we started working on the Will Haven record, I was like, "Let me use some of that, but try to work it into a Will Haven song." For me, writing riffs is easy. Adding the atmosphere gets tough. When I was able to start with the atmospheric stuff already written and just write riffs over it, it was easy. Everything worked out to where I was able to put Will Haven in that vibe — it's not repetitive, it's not the same riff, it's got more balls to it.
You mention Pink Floyd — what is it in particular you admire about them?
I wasn't a huge Pink Floyd fan as a kid, but I saw them live as a freshman in high school. I didn't know much about them, I heard "Another Brick in the Wall," that's the only song I knew. I was 12 rows back at that show. That was the most insane shit I'd ever seen in my life. The lasers, all the crap going on, they sounded so big. What the hell? They sounded badass. That's when I started diving into the catalog. And I feel in love with how ambient they were but still so rock. They weren't really a band, they weren't the Rolling Stones. They could move you with emotion.
When I started Will Haven I was more into Neurosis. But I wanted to incorporate Pink Floyd stuff. It was hard for me. But that was always the vision. Will Haven, I always wanted to be an emotional thing. My riffs aren't supposed to be "metal" riffs. They're trying to get you to feel something. Not just throw your middle fingers in the air — feel an emotion. My goal is not to try to write a song, but an emotional piece. I know our songs are more metal-y, because I didn't really know how to incorporate the two at the time. But now I feel like I have been able to. I'm older, wiser, I'm writing better now.
I really don't know what our fans listen to. They're all over the board — we got Deftones fans, we got Dillinger Escape Plan fans, we got Neurosis fans. We're all over the place when it comes to a fan base. I want Will Haven to be its own thing — we'll have parts that sound like those bands, because that's what we grew up on, but we want it to be bigger sounding and not as much to the point, I guess. Being an older band it's easier to get away with that. People our age are a little more open-minded. They don't want Slayer for 10 hours — they want something heavy, but something to soothe them at the same time. And again, we're not that big. If we were Slipknot, there would have to be a certain formula or people are gonna hate us. With Will Haven, we can pretty much do what the hell we want.
Are there any of the new songs that you see as the particularly demonstrative of that "bigger" sound?
I think "Wind of Change" really stands out for me. It's not typical Will Haven. It's more chaotic than what we usually do. And the ending sounds huge. We've never had any drumming like that in most of our songs. A lot of the epic endings on these songs, I think that now we've done them, that's something we can do a little more of.
Why did you record the new album in secret?
We put little teasers out, but we didn't make an announcement or anything. We just went in and did it. We were pretty proud of what we were doing so we were like, "Let's just drop them on them like a bomb. A sneak attack. Not try to hype it up." Our last EP was cool, but I don't think it was a great record. I think if we said we're doing another record, people would have expected it sound like that — another Will Haven record, big deal. So we were like, "Let's be quiet and then drop this on them — they won't even expect this."
Where did you get the title?
That goes back to what you first said: When we started this, I asked Grady, "Do you want to do one more?" And he was like, "Yeah, but let's just quit after this, because I don't have another one in me." I said, "That's cool." So basically we were playing around with the idea of the death of Will Haven. It just stuck after that. Death is a dark and evil thing for me, so it definitely inspired me a little more to write on this record. I put myself in that position of losing somebody — Will Haven is my baby. I was treating it like, "Will Haven is dying. This is it." Get that feeling of losing something that's been in your life forever.
But it's funny: That was at the very beginning, and I don't think we expected to be as happy as we are with it. So we're leaving it open. But telling people the honest truth — we thought this might be the end of it. But at the same time we feel like we came out of the studio as a new band with a new sound. So it's like, maybe we should see what else we can do with this. We're taking it day by day. If we get the opportunity to do another one, maybe we'll do one. If not, we'll be fine with that, too.