"The natural progression is to go radio-friendly, but I wanted to go real heavy..." Beartooth's Caleb Shomo on making new LP Below
One of the advantages of being in a band is the joy of collaboration, coming with things you'd never have done on your own. Whether there's three or four or five, writing and recording music is a shared experience, where you come together to make something bigger.
Of course, that doesn't work for every band. Sometimes, only a percentage of the band taking part in recordings, or, in the case of hardcore metallers Beartooth, when it comes to making albums, they turn into a real-life one-man band.
While the band have had production and writing assistance on their past records, for new LP, Below, frontman Caleb Shomo has written, performed, produced, engineered, mixed, and mastered every moment on the record.
The album is the group's follow-up to 2018's Disease and sees the band stepping up a gear in heaviness, with chugging riffs and vibrant brutality from beginning to end.
With Below hitting stores this week, we spoke to Shomo about his experience of shouldering so much work and why lockdown made this a difficult record to make...
How was this record written? You’ve said you started work on the road, but the process from there on must have been quite different from the way you’ve worked in the past?
“I wrote all the riffs on the road. I had most of the music written and we had in our heads that we were going to turn things around pretty quickly after we finished touring Disease. Then we got locked down and the approach to the album changed completely. I had a really hard time accessing any creative juices, I’m sure everybody did! The record ended up being put together from the period of early March to mid-December. That’s when the lyrics got written and a lot of the songs came together.”
It must have been a killer to have planned a fast return and then have that denied...
“We’d just come off tour and had all the energy that brings. I’d never worked like that before. I was excited to work on the record and get it done fast and then get back out. The riffs feel incredibly live and every single one is screaming “Come on! Let’s go!”. Then you’ve got these incredible dark lyrics that were written in lockdown. I think they meet in the middle nicely, but it took a long time.”
Did you ever think you might have to junk the stuff you’d come back with?
“Not really. I think the hardest part was the lyrics. I was in love with the music, but getting lyrics that fit the music and were also completely honest was really, really difficult. Every time I would write something, it didn’t feel good. There was no quality. Part of that was the isolation and part of it was just feeling like I was forcing myself to do it. In the end, what you got is a record of lyrics that are brutal and a real-time capsule of this weird year that we went through.”
You do an awful lot for every record. On this album, you wrote, performed, produced, engineered, mixed, and mastered it. Those skills must have come in handy during a period where collaboration was difficult. But does it mean there’s a lot of pressure on you?
“It does, but I like it that way. I would much rather me be doing what I truly believe and it going wrong rather than getting in other producers, writers, mixers and pushing myself away from it. I feel a bit like that would be giving up and I don’t know how well it would sit with me, bearing in mind that I could have done it. It is a tall order. There’s a lot to every record. But I’m really comfortable with it now and I’ve been doing every part of the record for 14 years now. It’s how I feel comfortable making records.”
Do you have to compartmentalise? It’d be easy, if you were stuck on something, to put it down and go do something else when you’ve got so many jobs to do?
“My workflow is quite a complete thing. When I’m writing and recording, I build the mix as I go, I’m always looking for sounds and tones. For lyrics, I have to close everything off and not think about anything else. I have to take the music for what it is and work towards that. Same when I’m mixing. I have to pretend I’ve been hired to do the job and to make every song as good as it can be and give it what it needs.”
At what point do other people get involved?
“The whole way through. The band hears everything as it goes. I have a Dropbox folder and I throw demos in there as I go and mixes in there as I go. I keep it really fluid. The band listen to it happen and then they get a sense of how we'll do things live. It makes it easier when we get together to rehearse."
How did you find maintaining relationships within the band during the pandemic? You're together 300 days a year and then suddenly not at all...
"We did a lot of Zooms and group chats. It was very difficult and very weird going from constant touring and travelling to none whatsoever. We tour all the time. It made for a tough process. Working on the record helped, that meant I was constantly sending things and keeping communication open. But I'm very glad we've got some hang time on the books now."
It's a slightly different line-up this time. Kamron Bradbury, whose been with you for a long time, is gone. Have things settled now down?
"It was very smooth. Will Deely, who is in the band now, he's played guitar with us a lot. He's filled in plenty of time when we've needed him and he's super-talented. He's been a friend for a long time so he's a smooth addition."
Obviously as it's just you writing, does having a new line-up change the way you work at all? Are you taking advantage of different skillsets?
"It does influence what I write. It's fun though. I never think of it as a limitation. I'll write whatever I want to write. I know they'll figure it out. Everybody in this band is really good. If they don't know how to do something, they learn fast. I do know that there are things that the band love to play, they love certain things. They're constantly opening me up to new stuff and I want to make our songs as fun as possible. So I do factor it in."
It's a very heavy record, is that by design?
"Definitely. It was a huge part of the writing, getting those riffs on the road. I was writing thinking "What would fans love to see at a Beartooth show?". I'm getting night after night of instant feedback and understanding which bits the fans love. I know when there are lulls and breathers. I know they love the heavy stuff, I love the heavy stuff, the band love playing the heavy stuff and I wanted to take it a step further. It was scary. A lot of bands in our position, who are gaining a bit of success, especially on the radio. The natural progression is to make an easier listen, to go radio-friendly, but I wanted to go real heavy. I wanted to go wild and live."
Obviously, you couldn't go wild and live because everyone was locked up, it must have been nice to picture what these songs will sound like...
"I had to fake it in the studio. I'd write and mix with my speakers cranked up and I'd imagine I was sat front of house and there were lights and fire everywhere. That was the only way to do it."
When did you decide that Below was the right fit for the title?
When I started writing, the song 'Below' was one of the first. I liked that tagline. When the album was done, I went through it. I like to have one word that sums up the energy and feel of the record. All our records have been really easy to name, generally, I've got the album before I start writing or it comes early on. The song tends to jump out at me."
Having been off the road for a long time, you're about to head out again, pretty much for the rest of 2021, you must be excited...
"Oh my god, yes! So much! I've missed it with every ounce of my being. I've loved being back in rehearsal. Everybody in Beartooth or connected to Beartooth needs this."
How's the setlist coming? Four records now, you need to be a bit choosier...
"There's a lot of new stuff. We're not doing the album front to back, but nearly half the show so far is new material. But it'll be a long show. We'll do all the hits. It's going to be a good balance. 2022 is filling up now. Everybody is so hungry to tour, so we're trying not to overload ourselves, but we want to get everywhere in the world."
Finally, having polished this one off, are you in to what's next?
"I've been dabbling. I've got the concept down and I've written a few pieces. I think it'll be the same as Below. I'll take my studio on the road and I'm going to let it happen naturally. I'd like to be prepared for a fast turnaround. It was such a bummer last time, we might not have come out fast, but the option was taken from us. I want to be ready to go."