When Justin Matthews is not instigating audiences as the vocalist for Toothgrinder — a New Jersey metalcore act with a spazzy past and a broader metal future — he works in a warehouse that stores vending-machine goods. "We all work full-time," he says of his band. "We save up and blow it on tour." During a typical shift he's driving around in a forklift or stacking boxes of candy and snacks on pallets, but always with his headphones on.
"You can't just listen to music eight hours a day," he says. "I need to mix it up." So he gets immersed in podcasts, especially Dan Carlin's lengthy Hardcore History episodes. Listening to an episode of Philosophize This! Matthews was introduced to analytical psychologist Carl Jung, who argued that every person has the power to be good or evil. The concept evolved into "The Shadow," a highlight off the band's second full-length album, Phantom Amour.
"It's based on myself, but also everyone in general," he says of the duality detailed in the song. "You just have to watch out for your shadow. Every time I come home from tour I have a one-week jetlag period. Like, 'Oh wow. I can't talk like that, my family's around.' You forget: Turn on the other switch."
Turning a switch is an apt description for this year's Phantom Amour, which marks a genre-defying evolution for Toothgrinder. Since the release of 2016's Nocturnal Masquerade, guitarist Johnuel Hasney replaced founding member Matt Mielke, and Matthews started taking voice lessons. Both moves opened up an even wider range of sonic possibilities for a band whose twisty, djenty progcore sound perfectly matched the title of its 2014 EP: Schizophrenic Jubilee. Toothgrinder won plenty of underground hype with that release and Nocturnal Masquerade, but their recent evolution has placed them on the brink of breakthrough success.
"I just wanted to push myself to do something different," Matthews says of the desire to broaden his vocal techniques beyond the larynx-shredding style that populates Toothgrinder's prior records. "We always had melody, but never this much."
Matthews found a mom-and-pop spot near his home in Asbury Park, and jumped into voice exercises with his teacher to gauge his skill level, including singing Leonard Cohen's soaring, meditative folk song "Hallelujah," popularized by Jeff Buckley and, of late, TV singing contests. Eventually, he moved on to Stone Sour and Slipknot songs. "I already knew a lot from on my own," he says. "But having that person there helped me know when I was doing something right."
When it came time to track the material that would become Phantom Amour, Matthews, Hasney, drummer Wills Weller, guitarist Jason Goss and bassist Matt Arensdorf reunited with producer Taylor Larson (Veil of Maya, Periphery), who worked on Nocturnal Masquerade and was supportive of the band's ambitious goals to broaden its approach. With 20 demos already set, they headed back into Oceanic Recording in Bethesda, Maryland, this past spring and spent six weeks completing and recording the tracks — a potentially high-stress scenario that Matthews combated by adopting a new hyper-positive attitude.
"Just have fun with it, don't think too much, don't second-guess yourself, and have an I-don't-give-a-shit attitude," he recalls of his personal mantra during the sessions. "The first record we made was such a nerve-wracking album. I didn't want it to be like that and I wanted it to be really fun."
To clear his head during the sessions, Matthews went for a simple, restorative drive in the mountains near Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. But the trip took an unexpected turn that ultimately wrenched his band's second full-length in a new uncharted creative direction. "I was listening to Fleetwood Mac and a couple other Southern rock bands," he says. "I stopped at this bar and had a bunch of drinks, and I said, 'Screw it — I want a fucking acoustic song.'" And, after some convincing of his bandmates, he got it. Weller even played banjo.
The song in question, "Jubilee," is not one Matthews expects to play live anytime soon, except "maybe in front of a hometown crowd." But it's a clear statement that he isn't afraid to shake things up. "Ten years ago, I would've been like, 'Fuck Springsteen,'" he says of his home state's legendary son. "As I get older, I listen to some songs and I can get down with some of them."
Aside from "Jubilee," there's nothing within spitting distance of the Boss here. Metallica's "Unforgiven," on the other hand? Sure. Layered into Phantom Amour's inventive mix are strings, electronics, samples and a wealth of dynamic and tempo shifts for Matthews' many moods. He screams, raps and sings like a man committed to holding nothing back. The results retain the band's hyperactive roar, but the aggression is carefully dosed out for more impact amid a dizzying array of ideas that grind up against metal's guardrails — and occasionally soar over them.
"Sometimes in the metal genre, even when the band is trying to be different, sometimes it still sounds the same," Matthews continues, citing Radiohead, Muse, Faith No More and Black Sabbath as iconic examples of musical experimentation. "You listen to those records and there's so much depth and peaks and valleys. Sometimes it doesn't even sound like you're listening to the same band one song to the next. It's hard finding that kind of balance."
Thematically, there's a dense amount of emotion and reflection laid bare throughout the "super personal" Phantom Amour. "I put a lot of myself into it," he says. "It's the most proud thing I've ever done, and the hardest record I've ever done because I was way out of my comfort zone. That was always lingering in the back of my head, but I needed it to say these things."
He plays back past relationships, sends some apologies to his parents — who he says are supportive of his musical pursuits — and makes a case for us living inside George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984. "I always throw in a few political songs," he says. 'Blue' was on our last record and 'Red' on this record is that one. It's my political jab at the establishment or whatever."
Another inspiration was Stephen King's memoir On Writing, which Matthews read and reread in preparation. The book helped enable his openness and set up Toothgrinder to create their most vulnerable material yet. "The stories I wanted to tell on the record I don't think could've been told with such an aggressive platform," he explains. "I needed that kind of melody and dynamic that this record has. It would've came out weird any other way."
So what did Matthews' vocal teacher think of the new material? "She heard a few of the songs and was super stoked on it."