For more than a decade after their 2003 formation, Skeletonwitch played an uncompromising style of blackened melodic death that rarely dropped below full-speed pummel. Then in early 2015, founding vocalist Chance Garnette was fired for alcohol-related issues and a gradual transformation began.
The band had Battlemaster vocalist Andy Horn play the rest of the tour, then in early 2016, they recruited vocalist Adam Clemans, who they knew from touring with his other band Wolvhammer. Clemans, whose favorite artists include the Cure and Leviathan, had just woken up and was getting ready to go to work for a construction company installing spray-foam insulation. He started brewing a pot of coffee and checked his email when he saw the invitation. At first, he thought it might be a prank.
"Their old drummer Dustin Boltjes wrote me and asked straight up if I had any interest in possibly joining the band," Clemans says shortly after the end of Skeletonwitch's recent tour with Obituary and Pallbearer. "I was super-excited even though I really thought someone could be messing with me. I emailed him back and spent the rest of that day freaking out, going, 'Is this real?' Because I never would have expected that. My vocal style is so different than Chance's. It's weird that they thought of me but I'm very happy they did."
Clearly, the feeling is mutual. While Garnette's death vocals complemented the band's face-bashing songs, Clemans' ravaged delivery — ranging from a hardcore bellow to a floor-rattling roar — and dark, introspective lyrics are a better match for the more eclectic and atmospheric sound of the band's new album Devouring Radiant Light. An apocalyptic excursion through charred landscapes and crumbling metropolises, the album lends credence to the idea that to create, it is sometimes necessary to destroy.
"I wanted to use dark imagery to tell more of a positive narrative," Clemans explains. "A lot of the records I did before Radiant were much darker. This one's all about trying to find your passion in life and not letting the darkness suck you in, but to go towards the light, whatever that is for the individual."
Skeletonwitch's journey from blackened death to a more progressive and textural style of black metal began with the 2016 four-song EP The Apothic Gloom, which the band tracked right after Clemans joined, leaving some fans perplexed by the more expansive sound and less death-oriented vocals. In retrospect, the EP was a fiery bridge from 2013's a Serpents Unleashed to Devouring Radiant Light. At one point, however, it looked like the bridge might never get built since Skeletonwitch was in a state of flux for much of 2015.
"It was a weird transition for a minute there because I actually never did a show with Skeletonwitch before I did that first EP," Clemans says. "And before I joined, they all weren't sure if they were going to continue as a band. But after doing a few tours with them and recording the new record, I was so much more comfortable. And I think the band's sound is better than ever."
To gain some insight into the voice that has helped transform Skeletonwitch, Revolver caught up with Clemans to talk about his time in deathcore darlings Veil of Maya, getting jumped at gunpoint, why Wolvhammer have been mistaken for NSBM and why the rest of Skeletonwitch call him a "band collector."
DO YOU COME FROM A MUSICAL FAMILY?
ADAM CLEMANS My dad played in bands when he was in his 20s, but I wouldn't say my family was very musical per se. I played saxophone at nine and 10 and I was in choir. But at a pretty early age, I fell in love with metal and punk through my older sister, who loved Slayer and Danzig. When I hit my teens it became an obsession with me to try to put bands together. I just knew I needed to play live music and record something
DID BEING IN CHOIR PREPARE YOU FOR A CAREER IN BLACK METAL?
Actually, I think it was a big advantage for me, even for something as simple as learning the right breathing techniques to sing. I started choir in first grade and didn't stop until I left high school. I've never lost my voice once in the 14 years I've been doing this.
HOW DID YOU CULTIVATE YOUR BLACK-METAL SCREAM?
I needed to acclimate to it when I was in a high school band. I was playing bass at the time, trying to teach myself the instrument, but I found dudes that were much better and I wanted to be in a band so bad. The one thing we needed was a singer.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST BAND?
It was called Within Four Walls. We never recorded anything, but we played two shows. A friend of mine recorded one of them on his camcorder. A month later, I sent that VHS tape to the Veil of Maya guys and that's how I got asked to join.
HOW DID YOU KNOW THEY WERE LOOKING FOR A SINGER?
I didn't know. I had seen Veil in Milwaukee at a festival and I really liked them, but I thought their vocalist was not so great. And me being a bold 16-year-old kid, I emailed their [ex-] guitarist Tim [Marshall] and told him that I loved them but they could use a better vocalist. He straight up asked me if I could do it so I sent him the VHS tape. Out of nowhere, I get a phone call from [guitarist] Marc [Okubo] asking me if I want to join. I dropped out of high school and moved to Chicago in two months and started going full steam.
WAS SINGING FOR VEIL OF MAYA A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE?
I was so young that it was intimidating. They were all older than me. I really took a risk and things moved at a rapid pace once we started touring. The show offers we got were mindblowing. But to be honest, I felt like an outsider. That could have had a lot to do with me being so young and kind of shy. And I was so blown away by what I was getting an opportunity to do that I didn't really know how to respond to it. I did the first demo and the first record All Things Set Aside. And then we were offered a deal with Sumerian. I started working on writing for The Common Man's Collapse when I realized this wasn't the best situation for me to be in.
WHAT WAS GOING ON THAT MADE YOU UNCOMFORTABLE?
I definitely didn't like where my life was heading. I was drinking a lot to deal with feeling insecure and people starting offering me cocaine for the first time. I was a dumb-ass kid so I was like, "Yup, I want to experience this lifestyle." It tossed me into a pretty dark spot for a couple years. It's one of those things where you have to stop and realize, "Hey, a few months ago I didn't drink and here I am drinking and doing cocaine with this 40-year-old guy that I don't know very well."
AFTER YOU QUIT VEIL OF MAYA YOU WENT BACK HOME TO MINNESOTA. DID YOU FEEL DEFEATED?
I guess. I really wanted to play music again. After I had been home for six months I saw online that a band called Everest — which became Iron Thrones — was looking for a singer. I knew the Everest dudes decently well from playing shows with Veil of Maya. So I said, "If you guys are still looking, I would be interested in giving this a shot."
HOW WAS THAT EXPERIENCE DIFFERENT THAN YOUR TIME WITH VEIL OF MAYA?
It was different because that band had to be built completely from scratch. Veil of Maya had so much momentum out of the gate and Iron Thrones was one of those more pedal to the metal, you gotta get back in the grind and build this thing up from nothing kind of things. It was another learning curve and taught me a lot more about what it means to be doing more extreme music. There is no money in it, so …
YOU STAYED IN THE BAND FOR SEVEN YEARS AND SELF-RELEASED AN ALBUM AND AN EP IN THAT TIME. WERE YOU FRUSTRATED BY THE LACK OF MAINSTREAM ATTENTION?
Not at all because it was the first time I had ever been in a band where it felt almost like a family. That's what I was missing from the Veil experience. Even though Iron Thrones had to struggle just to book a string of six shows so we could go out on the road, I didn't care because I loved being around those guys.
IN 2012 IRON THRONES PETERED OUT AND YOU JOINED THE BLACK METAL BAND WOLVHAMMER A NATURAL MOVE FOR YOU OR WERE YOU JUST LOOKING FOR ANOTHER BAND TO JOIN?
Iron Thrones played a bunch of shows with Wolvhammer because we were both in Minneapolis so I got to know those dudes pretty well. I'd always talk to the Wolvhammer dudes about black metal and goth rock. [When vocalist Micah Leonetti left], Wolvhammer asked if I could do a seven-day tour down to South By Southwest. After the first show, [ex-] drummer Heath [Rave] was like, "We're gonna keep you if that's cool with you." And I was like, "Yeah, I just want to make music all the time!"
WOLVHAMMER HAVE BEEN ACCUSED OF BEING AN NSBM BAND. WERE THERE ANY CONTROVERSIAL INCIDENTS THAT CAUSED PEOPLE TO FEEL THAT WAY?
It's kind of a German sounding name and there are a lot of ignorant people out there. What really tosses people off is the symbol we use of the crossed hammers. There's apparently a skinhead group called Hammerskins that uses crossed hammers. But the entire reason we used crossed hammers was because of Heath. He grew up a huge Pink Floyd fan and he was inspired by the marching hammers in The Wall. But people think it looks sketchy and instantly tag us with that label even though if they sat down and talked to any of us for 10 seconds they realize that's not the case. Not even close.
HAVE YOU RECEIVED DEATH THREATS OR DRAWN NSBM CROWDS TO YOUR SHOWS?
We were on tour with Taake and Young And In The Way, and when we were in San Diego one of the Antifa members ran into the show with a T-shirt tied over his face. He Duct taped the trigger down on a pepper spray bottle and chucked it at the stage. We had to evacuate the entire venue. There was a protest going on down the street about how all the bands were neo-Nazis or white supremacists. And it was all bullshit. At the end of the day, they harmed a bunch of innocent people that paid money to watch a show. And that's the kind of thing that really pisses me off.
EVEN THOUGH YOU'RE MAKING SOME STATEMENTS ABOUT SELF-MOTIVATION WITH SKELETONWITCH, YOU SEEM TO HAVE A NEGATIVE VIEW OF MANKIND.
I find most human beings are pretty arrogant without having anything to be arrogant about. Ignorance is one thing in the world that drives me insane. When people don't understand something or know something, most of the time they demonize it. I always thought that was such a stupid, limiting way to approach life.
DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF MISANTHROPIC OR DISTRUSTING?
Regardlesss of how nice I come across – and I hope I'm a nice guy – I don't consider myself a people person. I'm talkative when I'm on tour because I'm surrounded by people that have a passion for what I have a passion for. But when I'm at home I'm a lot more quiet and reserved because I don't enjoy talking to most people all of the time. I don't have many commonalities. But I think the best kind of art comes from those feelings of darkness and or going through hard times.
HAVE YOU HAD ANY PARTICULAR TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES THAT HAVE COLORED YOUR PERSPECTIVE?
I've gone through many periods of my life when I didn't have a home and I slept on people's couches. I'd take a bus to a different state just so I'd have a place to stay for a weekend with somebody. Once, I was jumped in Chicago at gunpoint. I was walking towards where I was staying at the time and a random dude came flying out of the alleyway and grabbed me around my neck from behind and put a gun right in my back.
WHAT DID YOU DO?
Nothing. I didn't actually have any money at the time, so he threw me to the ground and got all pissed and was smacking at my pockets. The only thing I had was a half-eaten sandwich. He took it and threw it down the sewer and then ran off. I was like, "If you're gonna ruin my day that bad and put a gun in my back and you're not even gonna take my damn sandwich…" I mean, what the fuck!
YOU'VE EXPRESSED A FASCINATION WITH THE OCCULT.
I came from a pretty religious family and I never questioned it when I was younger because it was just a part of life. At the same time, I loved dark imagery. As I got older and listened to more death metal and black metal I realized a lot of the bands were very anti-Christian. That sparked my interest in reading some Christian literature and Aleister Crowley, The Satanic Bible by [Anton LaVey] and Atheism: The Case Against God [by George H. Smith]. I just wanted to figure out where my brain is at. And I've become quite attached to certain things from the atheism side and the LaVey side because, at the end of the day, LaVey is talking about humanism and a lot of that makes sense to me.
LAVEY USED CRYPTIC SYMBOLS AND RITUALS TO ADDRESS BASIC HEDONISM AND EXPRESS THE IDEA THAT HUMANS ARE SELFISH CREATURES.
It's true. I'm a selfish person in certain ways. I don't think anyone ever truly gets away from that. It's just a matter of knowing where your moral compass lies. I'm a moral person. I'm not a crazy lunatic, but I lean a different way than most people. At the same time, I don't do any rituals and I wouldn't call myself a Satanist. I think I'm an atheist above anything else.
HAS JOINING SKELETONWITCH HAD A PRONOUNCED EFFECT ON THE MUSICAL TRANSFORMATION OF THE BAND?
My vocal and lyrical style is my thing. But these guys are so fuckin' good at what they do that they might hand me something and I might have an idea of how to expand the riff or put something behind it to create more of an atmosphere, but any change in the band's sound has come from them. I'm very structurally minded. I try to think about the whole picture almost the way a movie director would go about it. I care about how the whole record is going to move rather than look at things song by song. And I think that's what they wanted to do also, and that's the difference between the new iteration of Skeletonwitch and the old band. The old band is amazingly solid, but it's just one ripper after another. I think it was important to all of us to make a record that was more about storytelling than just bashing you over the head with 15 songs.
DID THE CREATION OF DEVOURING RADIANT LIGHT COME EASILY?
It went so smoothly. Scott [Hedrick, guitarist] started sending me demos early on after the EP and everything came together naturally. I would listen to the songs three or four times, get into the feel of them and just start writing. The songs were so good it felt like the lyrics almost wrote themselves.
IS IT EVER HARD TO SEPARATE YOUR ROLE IN SKELETONWITH WITH WHAT YOU DO IN WOLVHAMMER?
It's really a headspace thing. I want both bands to come across powerful in a live setting, but there's always been a snide-ness to what Wolvhammer do that always gets me in a primal state of mind to just fucking let loose. Skeletonwitch is a little more calculated. It's still enjoyable and a huge release of energy. They're just two different things.
ABIGAIL WILLIAMS FRONTMAN KEN SORCERON IS FILLING IN FOR YOU IN WOLVHAMMER WHILE SKELETONWITCH IS ON THE ROAD. DOES THAT KIND OF KILL YOU INSIDE?
It does suck a lot. That's been the hardest thing for me, making my schedule work for both bands. That's not always possible. But at this point in my career, the one band I attach to more than anything is Wolvhammer because I've been in that band for longer than any of my other bands combined. It's like my little baby. But I love being in Skeletonwitch and I can't turn down the tours they get because my end goal is to make more music and play in front of more people and talk to people about music after the shows. And Skeletonwitch is awesome for that. It's difficult to balance aspects of it but I'm going to try to make it work for as long as I can.
YOU ALMOST HAVE TO BE IN MORE THAN ONE BAND THESE DAYS TO SURVIVE. BUT YOU HAVE ALSO BEEN INVOLVED IN NOOSE ROT, SHAIDAR LOGOTH AND LIAR IN WAIT.
The guys in Skeletonwitch give me a little crap from time to time. They call me a "band collector" because I have a bunch of studio projects back home or stuff I never have any intention to do anything live with. It's just like, "Hey, I really want to try this kind of music and see what my voice sounds like on it," so I come up with something like Liar in Wait which is really influenced by my love for The Cure and Joy Division mixed with black metal.
DID YOU EVER HAVE ANY RESERVATIONS ABOUT JOINING SKELETONWITCH?
Yeah, I gotta admit, for sure. The first thing I did after answering the email from Skeletonwitch was call the guys from Wolvhammer and ask them their opinion for what I should do. And, of course, all of them were instantly, "Dude, you have to do this and if you don't do it you're kind of an idiot." So they all had my back, which is great.