A new Pig Destroyer album doesn't come out often, but when one does, it's cause for celebration. September 7th marks the release of the heralded grindcore crew's latest offering, Head Cage, the follow-up to 2012's Book Burner and just the sixth LP that Pig Destroyer have released during their 21 years as a band. (You can pre-order it now via Relapse.) It's also the group's first to feature bassist John Jarvis, or any bassist at all, and marks a distinct shift in songwriting style and aesthetic approach. In terms of its sound, the result is less blast beats, more groove; less grind, more noise-rock. In terms of its visuals, Head Cage sees a move away from the group's characteristic illustrated artwork for eerie photo-based work by musician and artist Mark McCoy. In all, the album represents another major step in the continuing evolution of Pig Destroyer, which has expanded over the years from a stripped-down power trio to the quintet of Jarvis, vocalist J.R. Hayes, guitarist Scott Hull, "noise guy" Blake Harrison and drummer Adam Jarvis.
At the center of this evolution, and of the band itself, is Hull. The group's main songwriter and co-founder, he's also a family man with a long-running non-music-related day job. Ahead of Pig Destroyer's Revolver-presented show at NYC's Gramercy Theater on September 22nd (get tickets here), Hull talked to us about juggling not one but two bands (his other is drum-machine grindcore project Agoraphobic Nosebleed), how having a life outside of music gives him creative freedom, the inspiration behind Head Cage's augmented vision and what he hopes fans get out of the album.
THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE ON THE NEW RECORD IS THAT BLAST BEATS ARE PRETTY FEW AND FAR BETWEEN. WHAT'S THE REASON BEHIND THAT THAT CHANGE?
SCOTT HULL I just felt it was — and this is the 2018 Scott Hull talking now — kind of silly to have to have blast beats on our record for it to be a valid Pig Destroyer record. I mean, obviously our roots are in grindcore, death metal and stuff, but we have tentacles that reach into very different genres that have nothing to do with blast beats. I kind of wanted to not be beholden to that when I was writing the new material. So in some form or another for the past 25 years, between Pig Destroyer and Agoraphobic, I've been doing stuff with blast beats, so I wanted to sort of stretch out and explore another side.
I love blast beats, but it just seems kind of a trivial or kind of a silly requirement to have, and also I didn't want to feel required to do anything. I kind of felt like I needed to hit all those grindcore points with Book Burner, and for me feeling the need to do that, it made Book Burner kind of a lesser album. A lot of bands that I really appreciate can pretty much do anything they want and a lot of it's successful. I want to be able to write whatever we want. It's not like we don't have records that aren't completely left of center, like Natasha and Mass & Volume, which admittedly aren't like they aren't like full LP releases. There's no blast beats on any of that stuff.
DO YOU THINK THE RECENT HYPER-ACTIVITY, COMPARATIVELY SPEAKING, BY AGORAPHOBIC NOSEBLEED HELPED CONTRIBUTE TO THAT?
[Laughs] Yeah. [Agoraphobic Nosebleed] are true "road dogs" with, I think, still under 10 shows. But yeah, I get what you mean and that definitely does. There's a million bands out there, all of which are vying for your bandwidth and attention. What am I going to do that I feel is worthwhile and taking up space and time away from any of those other bands, a lot of which are really good? If I'm not doing something that's maturing in some way — at least some sense of progression from our last record, then there isn't much of a point. That's not our band. And I mean, I've been that sort of cretinous fan before — where I want every record to sound the same. If Mortician came out with a really slick record that had slick drums, I'd be like, what the hell is this? But 2018 Scott Hull, it's been six years, what am I going to say with this next Pig Destroyer record? And the answer is, number one, we have bass — I'm very happy with adding John. Number two, that adds to our ability to write different very different song structures. I can pull in influences like Jesus Lizard, Metz and stuff that have nothing to do with grindcore to blend with our existing body of material.
So for me it was very invigorating and exciting. Now that being said, I did write half the record and start doing some interviews where I said, there's gonna be no blast beats. And my bandmates went, "No! Foul!" So I went back on that and said, "Well yeah, I gotta go back and listen to some of the stuff that I normally listen to, like Assück and Brutal Truth, and get that shit in my blood and put that on the disc, which I did. So yeah, there's definitely fewer blast beats, but I think the stuff that's there is still fast and chaotic enough to please people that are hoping to get some of that.
ALL THAT SAID, AT THE END OF THE DAY, PIG DESTROYER REALLY JUST MEANS YOU AND J.R. TO A CERTAIN EXTENT, BUT DO YOU EVER FEEL CONSTRAINED CREATIVELY? HOW OFTEN DO YOU WRITE A RIFF AND THEN SAY, "THAT'S NOT A PIG DESTROYER RIFF," ONCE YOU'RE DONE?
I don't really present it to the guys unless I feel like it could be a sell. "Army of Cops" was the first thing I wrote for the record, but to be honest it was kind of a weird song. It was catchy to me — it came from listening to a lot of Helmet and mid-period Sepultura like Chaos A.D. So that's sort of like mid-paced groove. And if you listen to the drums, it's straight-up John Stanier of Helmet. That seemed to resonate so strongly with the dudes. And even though it's sort of unique for us, once you hear it with J.R.'s vocals, it makes it a Pig Destroyer song. There's a lot of shit that we've written that without vocals doesn't necessarily sound like a Pig Destroyer song, but everybody's into it. And then once we finally lay his vocals down on it, it becomes a Pig Destroyer song. He's really the one that gives it the identity more than anything else, I think.
We all listen to a ton of different music. John Likes Quicksand a lot, J.R. likes shit like Morrissey and from all over the spectrum. So I think that if I just write something that everybody seems to get excited about, for one reason or another, then I think we're going to go forward with it.
Right now I'm writing a song for the Decibel Flexi and I took a specific approach with it — listen to Napalm Death's Harmony Corruption, which was a big transitional album for them. That LP has a lot of really long, sort of mid-paced, Nineties-type death-metal record from a grindcore band. I wrote a song like that. It's like three and a half minutes long and it doesn't change a ton, but it follows the same kind of beats that. So we're kind of wrestling with it now. Some of the bandmates think it's really cool and they get what I'm doing and some of the bandmates think it's too long and ponderous and it needs to be trimmed up quite a bit. It's all a matter of whether or not everybody just kind of digs the particular material that I'm writing it. If they do then we just go with it.
YOU TOUCHED ON THIS BEING YOUR FIRST LP WITH A BASS PLAYER. WHEN YOU WRITE NOW, ARE YOU WRITING WITH A BASS PLAYER IN MIND?
Normally, I'm writing in my studio with the drum machine — well, programs on a computer. I'm composing stuff in my studio with bass and with guitar. The demos that I've passed these guys are fully formed songs without vocals that are virtually identical to what the finished product is. Because the songs were so fully vetted and edited by the time that we go to learn them, that there was nothing else we wanted to change about them. I'm definitely writing with bass in mind now. It does inform the process.
THERE ARE SO MANY BANDS OUT THERE THAT ARE ACTUALLY MORE CREATIVE WHEN THE MEMBERS HAVE A SECOND JOB OR SOMETHING ELSE THAT SORT OF CONSTRAINS THEM CREATIVELY. IT SORT OF LETS THE MONSTER OUT STRONGER ONCE IT'S BEEN UNLEASHED. DO YOU THINK YOU ARE LIKE THAT? THE IDEA THAT BECAUSE YOU HAVE A CAREER AND A FAMILY LIFE, YOU'RE A BETTER GUITAR PLAYER?
I've been dealing with this for my entire life. When I joined Anal Cunt, I was in graduate school in Boston and I was like, "I could leave school and join this band who goes on tour and plays with Pantera." In the space of about two months, I just realized that was very fleeting. My conception of what it meant to be in a band, especially in the underground, was a very different one than what the reality is. I pretty quickly decided that I needed some sort of a balance in my life.
I don't want to be all one thing. I don't want to be just doing music all the time because, number one, you'd get sick of it. Number two, if you relied on it for your livelihood, you'd probably tend to resent it. Or if you relied on it for money, you probably would change the way you were writing music because you'd want to sell as much as you possibly could or get as many people to your gig as possible. So that inherently is going to change what you're writing. So if you keep it as pure as possible and you don't expect anything from it, like money or notoriety or high-profile fame or whatever it is, then you're basically just writing because you love to do it and you're writing shit that you want to hear. Which is kind of the way we've always kept it. We don't want to be any bigger than we are because we couldn't deal with that. Anybody in the band who wants to tour more and be in more active bands are doing that. John and Adam have Scour — Adam has Scour and Misery Index and Asthma Castle, John has other side stuff — and J.R. has Virginia Creep and now working with Enemy Soil, too. So anybody who wants to be more active in playing other bands for whatever reasons has the headroom to do that. But for me, I only want to do stuff that I'm inspired to do because I fucking love it. Not because I feel like I have to do it. So for me, you're 100 percent right. There are a lot of people that come from the other side of the fence and say, "No, you have to be completely dedicated. You have to do a tour cycle." Most of those people are probably label reps, you know what I mean?
I've been doing this for a little while, and I hate to sound like an old cranky dude, but I've seen a lot of bands that get really big really quickly. They're really young and then they just fucking to evaporate because they lose interest in it. There's a lot more stress than they had imagined. There's a lot less fun involved and there's also a lot of people pulling money out of places that they didn't know existed.
I work in Amazon's cloud and I build shit in the cloud. And so that's edifying to me on a very different level that music isn't. I accomplished shit there that I wouldn't accomplish otherwise. And it's just shit that I love to do. I love building stuff. And of course that pays a lot of my bills more than music does, but it's the same level of personal satisfaction. It just at one pays bills more than the other end. Being involved in both gives me a balance.
Also, I've heard of folks who have just given up music altogether because they felt artificially that they had to because they had to at some point "grow up." I think there's plenty of room if you love it to make music and record shit on your own, especially these days. Dedication always shine through eventually. Dedication and conviction. It's not technical ability so much, because there's a billion people that can play amazing shit and even if they can't, you can fake it in the studio. It's grit and sweat and whatever you encode that's intangible that will come through and last more than any ultra sheen that you put on production or any amount of technical ability.
OBVIOUSLY YOU'VE BEEN AWARE OF MARK McCOY'S WORK MUSICALLY FOR DECADES — DAS OATH, CHARLES BRONSON, ETC., ETC. BUT AS FAR AS HIM DOING THE COVER ON THIS LP, WHERE DID THAT IDEA COME FROM? WAS IT INSPIRED BY HIS YOUTH ATTACK STUFF OR THE RECENT FULL OF HELL COVER OR …?
As far as Mark McCoy's art is concerned, the first thing that I was aware of was for Deny the Cross with Carlos from Black Army Jacket and Dave Witte. it was a really awesome photo composite. Almost all of our records have been drawn or painted studio art, and for this one J.R. AND I kind of swapped roles — typically he's in charge of the art and I'm in charge of coming up with a title. So I decided that since I'm switching everything else — production, the way I write the music due to the bass — I figured I might as well switch up the art, too. I decided to think about getting somebody who is really cool and creative with photo composite, and the first person I thought of was Mark McCoy. What kind of sealed the deal was seeing a couple of other pieces that he had done for Full of Hell — the cover and a couple of other shots.
YOU'VE SPOKEN BEFORE ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF ASSÜCK, HUMAN REMAINS, JESUS LIZARD AND METZ — BANDS THAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO. WHAT'S YOU RELATIONSHIP WITH THEIR MUSIC? TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU ANALYZE AND DISSECT IT?
If I'm really into a band, I will deep dive into band and deconstruct shit. And I did do that with Metz this time around. Confessor has been one of those perennial bands that I will absolutely study. I don't even listen to them from a qualitative point of view, it's almost from a quantitative point of view — like how they create certain structures and things. You know, two bands could have the same drum beat and the same kind of guitar riffs, but it still wouldn't come across the same way. And that comes from what I was talking about earlier, that sense of conviction and the kind of intangible the way you do it as an artist. Somebody who plays the same notes that Miles Davis plays on Kind of Blue — it's not gonna sound the same because it didn't come from Miles Davis.
So there are, there are a lot of bands that I studied. Voivod. Melvins. Slayer. Napalm Death ... There's a lot of bands like Human Remains, unfortunately, where their body work is not that big, but what they have is pretty spectacular. Lethargy — I listened to a lot of, too, because there's such incredible musicianship in that band. A lot of what I like, especially if it's a big body of music, I will probably dig in and dissect and find out exactly what it is that I liked so much about individual songs. It's not from an academic perspective. It's just that I have this instinct that I want to sort of capture a spirit of something or I want to see what this thing is. It's the intangible that makes it so great to me. Cherubs is another one — I probably didn't listen to any band more than I've listened to Cherubs and Metz in making this record. It's crazy.
AS YOU'VE GOTTEN OLDER, I'M SURE YOUR DEFINITION OF "HEAVY" HAS EXPANDED QUITE A BIT. WHAT DO YOU THINK IS A BAND OR ARTIST IS HEAVY, BUT ISN'T NECESSARILY METAL, THAT YOU TRIED TO FIT INTO PIG DESTROYER?
Probably the closest thing that I've really tried that is outside of our immediate comfort zone is probably Swans? Trying to capture the early vibe on records like Cop, Holy Money and all of that on Natasha. The very beginning of the repetitive, a squall of darkness where the bass doesn't sound like bass and there's percussive shit all over the place and just howling vocals. And that's also probably the thing that's furthest away from Pig Destroyer that I've tried to put into the band. I think it was pretty successful, but it wasn't really meant to be a song — more an ambient piece or something.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE THAT THE AVERAGE PIG DESTROYER FAN GETS OUT OF HEAD CAGE THAT THEY WOULDN'T GET OUT OF ANY OTHER RECORD IN THE PAST?
The sense and edification that, after all this time, we're definitely not phoning it in. We're continuing to push it further and we're spending time not just to get something out so we can go play shows and try and make money, but to release something that would mean something now and years down the road. So hopefully people will get that Head Cage is a worthwhile entry into our discography and the fans are appreciative that we're putting in the effort that would be required at this stage.