Standing in front of his refrigerator, Primitive Man frontman Ethan McCarthy looks back and forth between a coffee pot and a bong that both sit on his kitchen counter as if he's trying to decide whether it's time to wake or bake. Either way, he'll need something to drink from the fridge. He retrieves a container of milk and opts to brew the coffee.
McCarthy is dressed in black jeans and a black tour shirt from Nottingham, England, band Hell, yet his Denver carriage house is a balance of darkness and light. A flag with the insignia of the Canadian blackened death-metal band Revenge hangs from the wall and a white orchid brightens the window sill.
He talks about how much he likes Hell even though they fall far outside the parameters of trudging, doom and plundering mechanized metal with which Primitive Man — also featuring drummer Joe Linden and bassist Jonathan Campos — are often aligned. Then he points to the Revenge flag and the conversation shifts to war metal. We discuss rumors about Revenge being affiliated with the NSBM movement and he admits he's heard that but he's never read anything from them that would confirm the rumor.
"I got into them when they were so unknown. I was like this is the most extreme shit I've ever heard and I really seek that out. But if I found out that Revenge were a bunch of white supremacists, I would be pretty upset about it because they're so good."
He adds that he doubts the rumors since drummer and vocalist J. Read briefly played in Blasphemy, whose guitarist Caller of the Storms (real name Geoff Drakes) is African American.
As knowledgeable as he is about extreme music, McCarthy is aware that the subgenre is populated by some prejudiced dudes. That would be a problem for him, anyway, but it's especially irksome since he's half-black, which has led him to feel disenfranchised not just in the underground metal scene but also in American society in general. He delves into those feelings on the "Disfigured," from Primitive Man's second full-length Caustic: "A ghost and an alien/Eviscerated by race relations/And shame in my heart/From when they fucking spit on me."
"I'm half black and half white and I feel like if you're mixed in America, you're living a really specific experience that people who are of one race don't understand," he says. "My entire life I've been asked to pick: Are you black, or are you white? That's a hard decision and if I had to pick one, I'd pick black because that's the way society views me. Sometimes in my life, I've felt not accepted by whites or blacks and that just makes you feel so alienated from everyone."
Race identification is only at the edge of McCarthy's roiling pit of angst, which explains why Caustic sounds so bleak, ugly and apocalyptic — a 120-minute concrete-wrecking hybrid of Godflesh, Thou, Eyehategod and Neurosis. The week before launching a tour with Bell Witch to support the album, McCarthy addresses a range of topics, from the joy of creation and his battles with depression, to working with learning disabled children and in the weed industry, to racist cops and his frequent thoughts about death.
DID YOU ENJOY MAKING CAUSTIC OR DOES THE TORTUROUS MUSIC REFLECT THE CREATION OF THE ALBUM?
ETHAN MCCARTHY It was really a fun record to write. We did a lot of it on tour. We spent eight months on the road in 2016 so we had to write when we could. When we got home we had a few months before we went in to record and that's when we wrote a bunch of the shorter songs.
IN ADDITION TO BLUDGEONING METAL RIFFS, THERE ARE WASHES OF INDUSTRIAL NOISE THAT ACT AS BRIEF, UNSETTLING RESPITES BETWEEN THE BARRAGES.
We have noise on our first record [2013's Scorn], there's just not a ton of it. And then we put out a double LP of noise and drone and power electronics songs [as P//M], so it's been a part of Primitive Man, but I wanted to mix the noise with the songs more fully on this release to make it a more prevalent part. I've been experimenting with soundscapes for many years before Primitive Man formed [in 2012], and I feel the noise really complemented the mood we were trying to get across. I think it brought out the vibe of desolation we were going for. I don't know. Basically, I was fucking pissed.
RAGE SEEPS THROUGH EVEN THE CRACKS AND PAUSES IN THE SONGS. WHAT WAS EATING AWAY AT YOU WHEN YOU WROTE CAUSTIC?
This record was written during a specific and difficult time in our lives. Some people close to us passed away and the presidential election was really traumatic for me. Also, I quit my job as an educator and started working in the marijuana industry so that I could tour with Primitive Man. I took a huge pay cut to do that. So while I was a retail worker in a marijuana store I was barely getting by and feeling really stressed out. And I was taken advantage of by the people I worked for. That inspired me to write a lot about income inequality.
WORKING IN THE MARIJUANA INDUSTRY SEEMS LIKE IT WOULD BE MORE RELAXING THAN A CORPORATE DESK JOB.
Man, everyone thinks that, but it's not like that at all. For the people that own the dispensaries, it's very lucrative, but they pay their workers like shit. There's this big misconception that the people who work in the marijuana industry as budtenders are making a shitload of money and are getting all this free weed. That's not true. You don't get any free shit. The people that work there have to buy their shit just like everyone else does. Even if you get a discount, it hardly makes up for how little you get paid. It's not the utopia that you'd think it would be.
YOU WERE A TEACHER BEFORE YOU STARTED WORKING AT THE MARIJUANA DISPENSARY. WHAT WERE YOU TEACHING?
I've been working with children with developmental disabilities since I was 19 years old. Other than music, that's all I've done as an adult. I've dealt with kids with Down Syndrome, autism and a gamut of other sensory issues. I'm actually back doing that again now, but I mostly work in the classroom as a paraprofessional, which is like a teaching assistant for kids with learning issues. And now I'm just a substitute so I can make my own schedule. It allows me to spend more time on the band.
WHAT IS THE EXPERIENCE LIKE WORKING WITH DEVELOPMENTALLY DELAYED CHILDREN?
When you work with children you can see some really fucked-up shit that can have a profound effect on you, so sometimes my lyrics have been influenced by stuff I've seen happen with kids, especially with issues of beating and abuse. We found out one girl was being molested by the person that came to pick her up from daycare. That was heartbreaking. These are such innocent little kids. They're already dealing with problems and they're in a crucial stage of their development. They shouldn't have to deal with that kind of trauma.
IT'S INTERESTING TO LEARN THAT SOMEONE THAT CRAFTS SUCH NIHILISTIC MUSIC WORKS TO IMPROVE THE LIVES OF CHILDREN.
I can see why people say it sounds like we don't believe in anything. But I believe in everything because I work with kids and I'm a person of color so I worry about racism and police brutality and I want things to change. I touch on a lot of that in Caustic. The reason we sound so angry is because I'm very pissed off at how things are now, but it doesn't necessarily mean that I don't want everything to get better.
HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED RUN-INS WITH THE POLICE?
Back around 2004, I was in a park with this white girl. We were just sitting there talking. We weren't drinking or making out or anything. And the cops rolled up on us in their cars. They handcuffed me, threw me down on the ground and searched me. They asked her if she was there willingly and she said, "Yes! Why are you handcuffing him?" And then she said, "Are you doing it because he's black?" And they said, "Maybe we are." And that was way before all the racist shit that's going on now with cops.
HAVE YOU BEEN CONFRONTED WITH RACISM ON TOUR?
We've been pulled over on tour, and they just threw my ass in the back of their car right away. Our drummer is Puerto Rican, so between the two of us, we've had all sorts of issues.
YOU'VE DESCRIBED PRIMITIVE MAN AS DEATH SLUDGE. THE SLUDGY STUFF SOMETIMES BORDERS ON REALLY HEAVY STONER METAL — KIND OF LIKE EYEHATEGOD. IS WEED A CREATIVE TOOL FOR YOU?
It's more a personal medication. It's not for partying. I use it to heal and calm myself down. I don't take medication. I can't pop a Xanax to chill the fuck out. So if I've had a bad day, I smoke. I'm not a big drinker anymore. Marijuana has been the thing for me ever since I was a kid. And marijuana really helps me keep my shit together as an adult.
THERE'S A TRUDGING MECHANICAL METAL ELEMENT TO YOUR SOUND, AS WELL. WAS GODFLESH A MAJOR INFLUENCE?
I love Godflesh and I think [the band's frontman] Justin Broadrick is a genius, so I'm sure that comes out a little bit. I loved the first two Godflesh records, [Streetcleaner and Pure] a lot. But that doom band from Japan, Corrupted, are a big influence for me, too. I also like Unearthly Trance, Disembowelment and Neurosis. There's a lot of stuff in there, but I'd like to think the songs I write have a lot of me in them, too.
YOU PLAYED IN THE GRINDCORE THREE-PIECE CLINGING TO THE TREES OF A FOREST FIRE FROM 2006 TO 2013. DID THAT PLANT THE SEEDS FOR PRIMITIVE MAN?
It was totally different, but after we broke up I'd been playing so much grindcore I was really ready to play doom. I had actually wanted to play doom for a long time. Being in Clinging helped me learn how to be a touring musician, but it wasn't totally creatively satisfying.
YOU ALSO PLAY IN THE TRIO VERMIN WOMB. DO YOU FEEL MOST COMFORTABLE IN THE THREE-PIECE CONFIGURATION?
I like being in a three-piece band because there are less people to cater to and less people to pay. So there's less to worry about.
PRIMITIVE MAN HAS CREATED SOME DISTURBING MUSIC VIDEOS THAT FEATURE GROTESQUE NUDITY, SUBSTANCE ABUSE AND EXTREME ACTS OF VIOLENCE. THE FIRST CLIP FROM CAUSTIC, "VICTIM," IS BOTH PSYCHEDELIC AND RAUNCHY, LIKE AN EXPLOITATIVE HORROR FILM.
That video is supposed to reflect the underbelly of man and man's ruin. And the people watching the man get bludgeoned to death is an analogy for people's acceptance of cruelty if it's not happening to them. When I was younger, I use to be called a bleeding heart all the time because I would always be caring about people who were in a less fortunate situation than me. I guess I'm still like that, but just because I care about other people doesn't mean I think that society is on its way up. Humanity is on a really terrible slow decline, but I just can't stand around and watch it and not say anything. I have to keep trying to make things better in my own way.
THERE'S NOT A LOT OF HOPE IN A SONG LIKE "TEPID," WHICH FEATURES LINES LIKE, "THERE'S NOT ENOUGH SMOKE IN THE WORLD TO HELP ME BURY THE LAST 33 YEARS/OF AXES GROUND INTO CONCRETE AND BOUQUETS MADE OF SKULLS."
That's about depression and that's one of the things I've struggled with over the years. It runs in my family so some of it's genetic and it can be really hard to cope with. I'm just lucky I have a really supportive partner. She has helped me get through a lot of stuff, but I definitely still have to write about it.
WHAT'S THE MOST INTENSE SONG FOR YOU, LYRICALLY?
"Sugar Hole." The basic idea is about knowing death as a physical being and becoming comfortable with it. My father had cancer. I was watching him go through that and it's just really weird to see the person that raised you having a bunch of treatment and getting by one day at a time, and thinking that he might pass. He's doing better now, but that is me getting intimate with death. My wife had a lot of sickness and death on her side of the family over the last couple years so it's become a thing for me. But instead of dealing with it straight on I make more of a sexual thing out of it, like I'm eating death's pussy because I'm a dirty piece of shit. That's really what the song is about. I just have a dirty mind.
ARE YOU OBSESSED WITH MORTALITY?
I don't fear death and I'm not obsessed by it, but I'm not ready for it. I want to live a good life and when I get older and it's closer to my time to die, I hope I'll be ready to accept that. My father has talked to me a lot about death. He's accepting it — that it's coming. That's pretty heavy. I'm not there yet.
YOU HAD A RELIGIOUS UPBRINGING, BUT NOW YOU DON'T FOLLOW ANY RELIGION, RIGHT?
Yeah, and being raised with a religious background will fuck you up because when you give it up there's always a little piece that still hangs on. I still have baggage from my childhood from religious stuff that I carry around. It's really difficult. You spend your whole life learning about religion and believing in it, and then one day you give it up. When you're young, you're like, "Fuck that shit. I don't believe in it. I love death metal!" Then when you're older, you're like, "Oh man, I know what I believe, but I sure wish those stories were real. I don't want to die and be asleep forever."