The Strange Journey and Unstoppable Rise of Spiritbox | Revolver

The Strange Journey and Unstoppable Rise of Spiritbox

From a Canadian island to the Californian desert, Courtney LaPlante and Co. have thrived in the middle of nowhere. Now, they're set to take over the world.
spiritbox_credit_travisshinn_featured.jpg, Travis Shinn
Spiritbox, (from left) Bill Crook, Courtney LaPlante and Mike Stringer
photograph by Travis Shinn

Spiritbox's Courtney LaPlante moved around a lot in her childhood, but it still didn't prepare her for where she'd end up. Her father was a university basketball coach, and bouncing from city to city was somewhat expected. Over the years, the family went from Maine to both Auburn and Jacksonville, Alabama. Sometime after her parents split, a teenaged LaPlante was again forced to uproot, but this time it felt different. Her mother had fallen in love with a Canadian from Victoria, British Columbia, and was ready to head to the northwest coast to be with him. It'd be a long trek from the American southeast to the remote tip of Vancouver Island, roughly 2,800 miles — plus, you need to take a 90-minute ferry ride to even get there from the mainland. Considering how, at that point, LaPlante had only ever seen a ferry in a movie scene from The Ring, she was perplexed, to say the least.

"I didn't even know that this place existed. I didn't get to that part of learning about Canada. I was just like, 'British what? An island? Are you guys fucking with me?'" the singer recalls, expressing the incredulity she felt when faced with the move. "I was like, 'The second I turn 18, I'm fucking leaving this place [and] I'm moving back [to Alabama]. This is bullshit!' But my uncle was like, 'You're not going to understand this now but trust me — you've grown up in a very sheltered place and you're about to be exposed to a lot of new experiences and people. You're never going to come back here. You're going to love it there.' And he was right!"

Seventeen years later, LaPlante is explaining this all from the oceanside apartment in downtown Victoria that she shares with her bandmate and husband, guitarist Mike Stringer. This is home, the longest she's ever lived in one city, and you can't blame her for loving the Island's idyllic setting. Floatplanes often pass by the couple's window to touch down at a nearby harbor; they're not far from the shoreline where herons and cormorants communally flap along a cooling, Pacific Ocean breeze. Its summertime — the hottest on record in the province of British Columbia — and though much of the city's lawns and park space has been sun-scorched a pale ochre, it's hard not to be transfixed by the cerulean view of sea and sky. "I've never taken it for granted how beautiful and scenic this area is," the vocalist admonishes.

Just as breathtaking, you could argue, is Spiritbox's long-awaited debut LP, Eternal Blue. Since forming the band in 2016, Stringer and LaPlante — who are joined by bassist Bill Crook and live drummer Zev Rose — have captivated heavy-music fans through their mix of prog-textured djent, anthemic yet atmospheric alt-metal and more. Take the stylistically divergent early teases "Holy Roller" and "Secret Garden." The former is all roiling nu-metal grooves and Nineties trance break-beats, with LaPlante's performance pivoting from an effects-slathered roboto-voice towards a gnarly, subterranean growl. On the flip, "Secret Garden" weaves together stadium-made hard-rock hooks and melancholy sing-alongs. Fittingly, they've made big name converts out of both Evanescence and Limp Bizkit, the "Nookie" magnates even tapped Spiritbox for a tour this summer that was, tragically, canceled after just a few dates due to COVID-19 spikes. The band's music is clearly also resonating with a younger generation — a nine-year-old girl named Harper going viral with her impressively brutal, fully-screamed vocal cover of "Holy Roller." ("I can't even think about it without tearing up," LaPlante beams.) Well before wading through their Eternal Blue, however, LaPlante and Stringer were in less widely accessible and more tech-heavy waters.

spiritbox_courtney_credit_trvisshinn.jpg, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

LaPlante first sang in an Alabama church choir, and learned how to play guitar in high school. While she listened to Evanescence and vibed to the nu-metal she caught on the radio, she didn't fully immerse herself in heavy music until after graduating high school, when she formed Unicron with her guitar-playing little brother, Jackson. According to the vocalist, the band began playing Rage Against the Machine-inspired rock before spiraling towards progressive metalcore. She adapted by adding a wide range of gurgling lows and piercing highs to her technique.

As for Stringer, he was raised a half-hour east of Victoria. To him, Victoria was the Big City. "You can drive through it in 30 seconds," he explains of his hometown, where he still maintains a personal studio set-up in his parents' basement. "I guess when you're younger you don't really think about that, but in reality [it's] out in the boonies, the middle of nowhere. You have a grocery store, a post office and then a gas station. That's it!"

Stringer was introduced to nu-metal by his older brother, but by the time he picked up a guitar when he was about nine, he was more into studying Metallica licks. As he built up his chops, he fell for the more complex riffery of Canadian prog-metal bands like Protest the Hero and A Textbook Tragedy —the latter a Vancouver-based band featuring future Spiritbox collaborator Crook, as well as drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists, Sumac, Genghis Tron). As such, Stringer's first band, Fall in Archaea, was a well-oiled wrecking unit that had Stringer regularly annihilating his fret-board with furiously dexterous, polyrhythmic abandon. When Unicron and Fall in Archaea first shared a bill at an anarchist bookstore in Victoria, both of the LaPlantes were dumbfounded by Stringer's six-string skills. The singer made a mental note, in case Stringer ever became available to jam.

"I see opportunities. I like to plant the seeds," LaPlante says with a laugh. "I was like, 'If this band [shows any] weaknesses, I'm going to poach this guy.'" Eventually, she did. With Stringer in the lineup, Unicron upped the technicality, though they likewise peppered their setlist with a fun and prescient cover of Limp Bizkit's "Break Stuff."

While primarily gigging on the Island, Unicron promoted themselves online heavily, eventually putting LaPlante's mic skills into the ears of L.A.-by-way-of-Louisiana metalcore deconstructionists Iwrestledabearonce. When that band's original vocalist Krysta Cameron unexpectedly split in the middle of a Warped Tour run in 2012, LaPlante was contacted out of the blue to fill-in for the rest of the dates. Having mostly played to just dozens of kids around Victoria, the jump to a Warped-sized audience was monumental.  On the surface, and with only 24-hours notice, she nailed that first gig — though LaPlante readily admits she was flying blindly behind the mic.

"We never played together," LaPlante explains. "When I walked out onstage, you think I knew how to sing those fuckin' songs? Hell no! I tried to learn what I could on the plane, but I didn't know all the words. I was like, 'I'm just going to yell some shit!' It's just this complete inflated sense of self you have to have, to have the audacity to just walk out there and be like, 'I can do this!'"

The fill-in position soon became a full-time gig, with LaPlante splitting time between Vancouver Island and the open road. It was a bit of weird timing — right before getting the call from Iwrestledabearonce, Stringer and LaPlante had realized their relationship was evolving, and they began dating. "We basically put things on pause while she was figuring out her career," Stringer recalls, "[but] that evolved into [getting back] together. Then I was visiting her on tour a bunch, and getting to know those guys." During one of those early tours, Stringer surprised LaPlante by proposing marriage. She said yes. Eventually, with Stringer on the road with her so much, it seemed natural to bring him into the outfit's oft-rotating lineup.

"Again, I'm crafty," LaPlante says. "I could sense that one of the guys didn't want to be in the band much anymore. I was like, 'Michael ... have I got a job for you.' Give me a couple months and this guy will jump ship." As he had with Unicron, Stringer joined up with LaPlante in Iwrestledabearonce, and brought his technical finesse to the band's kaleidoscopic 2015 free-for-all, Hail Mary. While stoked to be touring, at a certain point LaPlante and Stringer realized there were no longer any original members of Iwrestledabearonce in their current live formation — founder Steven Bradley was writing and programming from the studio. While they'd contributed to the shaping of Hail Mary, LaPlante and Stringer wondered what would happen if they ventured off to do their own thing. They fulfilled their contractual obligations with Iwrestledabearonce, capped one last tour at the tail end of 2015, and started up Spiritbox once they got back to Victoria.

With Iwrestledabearonce, LaPlante and Stringer doubled down on a dizzying hybrid of nuclear thrash, mathematically-jarring blast sections and soul-quaking breakdowns. There wasn't much room to breathe. Stringer knew this new project could harness the over-all energy of their previous band, but also introduce a new form of dynamism via textural dreamscaping and a more pronounced melodic drive —  especially when it came to the vocals. 

"My first band was very technical and dissonant — all over the place. Iwrestledabearonce was that, and so much more. I had a moment of being like, 'I just want to write a song and not worry about how many notes I'm putting in,'" the guitarist reveals of Spiritbox's M.O. "Before, I was just so into shock value — how fast something could be, or how extreme I could push an instrument. When we were starting Spiritbox, it was more like, 'Could I have that same attitude, but with songwriting? How catchy can I make something?'" The duo's 2017 self-titled debut EP did just that, cross-pollinating djent complexity with LaPlante's melodic, sugar-rush vocal layering.

Initially a studio-only project, Spiritbox had — as in the Unicron days — mainly built up their audience online. LaPlante and Stringer maximized their band time, working days together doing payroll for a local hospital and making music at night. Bill Crook joined the lineup in 2018, though Spiritbox wouldn't play a show until 2019.

Their first big tour, a European trek with After the Burial, was cancelled partway through because of the COVID-19 pandemic. After being sent home early, LaPlante and Stringer began building out their first proper LP. Last year, the pair and L.A.-based producer Dan Braunstein worked on sessions for Eternal Blue singles "Holy Roller" and "Constance" over Zoom. Though both sound sick, the distanced workflow left something to be desired.

LaPlante and Stringer wanted to work with Braunstein in the flesh, but they didn't totally feel comfortable joining him at his L.A. studio, owing to COVID. Instead, they ended up booking time this past winter at an isolated, 20-acre property deep within the scorched expanse of Joshua Tree, California. Guitars and vocals were tracked in the kitchen. Bassist Crook was there for moral support, though he doesn't appear on the LP. Stringer and Braunstein programmed the bulk of the drums, though Philadelphia-based percussionist Zev Rose punched up the sessions remotely using an e-kit.

Victoria is secluded from the mainland, and is also quite small compared to most North American metropolises — the downtown area is home to roughly 87,000 — but it still sounds like a city. The urban hustle-and-bustle brings street traffic noises coursing into the couple's apartment during the day; that faux-beach bar crowd can get pretty loud at night. Joshua Tree, by comparison, was a ghostlier kind of isolation.

"You would go outside and you couldn't hear a single thing — pure silence. It was like being in a sound proof room," Stringer says. "You could see some cars in the distance, but that's about it. To live like that for 30 days gave the record a weird feel, I think."

spiritbox_mikebill_credit_travisshinn.jpg, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

Driving through the winding, cactus-lined plains of Joshua Tree at night inspired "The Summit," a detuned nu-ballad where LaPlante pledges to reach new heights on her personal journey. Other times, the canyon left an eerie impression on the vocalist. Between takes, she'd work out in the garage. Every once in a while, she thought she'd caught a glimpse of a stranger in the window — bringing up thoughts of the cannibalistic desert-dwellers from The Hills Have Eyes. "I'd get up, turn around and look at the mountains — in my head, I [felt] there'd be a guy just standing there, waiting to get you. That creeped me out!"

To the best of Spiritbox's knowledge, the threat of a hillside lurker wasn't real, though the arid landscape offered a different set of problems for LaPlante's vocal performances. "One thing I didn't anticipate was that it's so dusty there. By the end of the trip there started to be dust storms — I couldn't leave the house because it would affect my singing," the vocalist notes. "I'd be like, 'Shut the patio door! I've got to do my thing!'"

Despite such challenges, Joshua Tree was where LaPlante, Stringer and Braunstein fully realized the 12-song Eternal Blue. Like the earlier singles, the album is a robust exploration of modern heaviness. String-bending beatdowns comingle with skittering electronic beats ("Silk in the Strings"); Architects' Sam Carter trades barbed growls with LaPlante on the bouncy "Yellowjacket." These heavier moments are levelled out by dark, pop-like sensibilities ("We Live in a Strange World") or synth-washed melancholy ("Constance").

Thematically, LaPlante explains that the record often touches on "insecurity, anxiety and mental health — things that I think are really universal, [but] stuff that [also] makes me feel so isolated." Eternal Blue's title track, in particular, waxes on feeling closed-off from the world after falling out with a friend. "I was going through a really horrible, painful friendship breakup during that time, [but] that song [is about] being OK with that, and not feeling like there's some-thing wrong with me," she explains. "It's me at my lowest point, but having comfort in that lowest point."

She continues, "There's that sad girl aesthetic [to "Eternal Blue"] that a lot of us take comfort in. I don't want to romanticize things that are hard for people to go through — and for me to go through. I don't think that's healthy or productive, but there is comfort in just accepting yourself, or embracing flaws and battles you're going through."

Spiritbox's Eternal Blue was born of isolation — from the band's remote Island roots, to the secluded desert recording sessions in Joshua Tree, to the loneliness of some of LaPlante's lyrics. The band's multifaceted approach to modern metal, however, is uniting many, from nu-metal veterans to the next generation of mic dominators. Within the ever-widening spectrum of the metal underground, it's clear they're hardly alone.

"All of us have chosen to surround ourselves with the good part of the metal world [but] there's still a fucked-up, misogynistic, sexist problem with our world," LaPlante asserts. "As I'm getting older — more confident — [and] because of Harper, the girl who made the 'Holy Roller' [cover], it makes me want to fuck it up and burn down the establishment, and the people that have gate-kept it from those who look different."