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Today is the Day. Karen Novak
The one thing you can always expect out of a Today is the Day album is the unexpected. Since 1992, guitarist and vocalist Steve Austin and a revolving cast of musicians (including a couple that went on to form metal juggernauts Mastodon) have warped the outer reaches of metal and noise-rock. On its ninth full-length album, Pain is a Warning, Today is the Day has taken another turn, this time making good on the band's past melodic flirtations and wrenching out charred riffs something not unlike a classic AC/DC record.
But for all of its surprising accessibility, Pain is a Warning still sounds like a Today is the Day record. And while my favorite song from the album, which just so happens to be the title track, is a total whiskey 'n' roll barn burner ready to tear up Saturday night, it comes from a dark period in Steve Austin's life in a phrase coined by his 10 year-old son.
When I called Austin, all three landlines went dead at his cabin in Maine where he lives with his wife and son. Shirtless and shoeless, he drove up the road with a cell phone to talk with me about embracing his inner Ted Nugent, how losing band members is worse than a break-up and how he found camaraderie in outlaw country rebels such as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
Pain is a Warning feels like the most straight-forward Today is the Day album. It's a total rock 'n' roll record — it's almost your Highway to Hell. To what do you attribute this focused energy?
I think a big part of the way this record came about is a couple different things. One thing is that every album that we make, we try to keep our minds open and go into whatever direction our feelings go and not worry about trying to live up to what Today is the Day is supposed to sound like or the current scene of metal. Our records tend to come out different than the last one every time we make one.
The second reason is like you described. I did take a look inside and said, "We're gonna make a brand new album and we want it to be the best thing we've ever done, but at the same time, we wanna be true to originality. I was also thinking of the current metal and hard rock and I was seeing a lot of trends that Today is the Day not necessarily started, but definitely were involved in — complex writing patterns and technicality for the sake of technicality, complexity for the sake of complexity.
The first creative idea that we threw out was, "Let's play music and let's feel the groove and even if we want to, let's not dissect and reinterpret original ideas. Let's just make up an idea, keep it, move forward, make the next idea and then connect it all together." I think by using that approach, it brought things back to a more honest and real momentum. I think a lot of that rock like you were talking about — Back in Black, Highway to Hell, Judas Priest, Screaming for Vengeance, stuff like that — the idea is to rock you instead of making some musical maze that you're supposed to figure out. I found myself at different times playing parts where maybe five years ago, I would have been like, "Oh my God, we can't play that! That's way too simple. That reminds me of Ted Nugent!" But I would reiterate to the other guys, "We gotta have faith that once we do this, it will be our own style. Don't worry so much about semantics." So parts that would have jokingly sounded like Ted Nugent wound up taking on its own character.
There always seem to be cycles of where young metal bands take their influence. When I really started paying attention to metal in the late '90s, I could hear Today is the Day in bands then and it's funny how that approach comes back ten, fifteen years later.
When I look back at our discography, I can see mindsets. That last one that we made was Axis of Eden, which I deeply care about, and for the path that we were on [it] was the pinnacle of bombastic, explosive, complex and comprehensive writing. It was just time for a change. I think [many of these new bands] miss the point because there are only so many chords, there are only so many structures, and there are only so many things you can play within an instrument. I think we all started to get more out of it and trying to find new ways to rock somebody and that brought on the explosion of technical metal. And Today is the Day was doing that long before a lot of the other bands, but for me, it grew to be [boring]. Like, "Why do we have to take a riff and add on 17 notes?" Now that original riff is four generations down the trail.
Back in the day when AC/DC was playing "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)" with something as simple as [sings riff], they were able to do that because there wasn't really a predecessor. It was a whole wide open forum of hard rock. And when the evolution of music becomes convoluted where, on purpose, you're trying to stay away from anything you've ever heard in the past, then you can miss a lot of points.
You recruited Curran Reynolds and Ryan Jones from Wetnurse as the rhythm section on this album. They do a helluva job on Pain is a Warning, but does Today is the Day's constantly revolving line-up ever hinder the creative direction of the band? Or is Today is the Day strictly your vision?
Here's a good way to talk about different line-ups: Every artist that plays an instrument has their own style and they contribute their own fingerprint. In some weird way, I feel like the reason we've always had an original sound is that, from time to time, the line-up has changed. I will say a couple things, though, that one, the worst thing that I can ever experience is when we have anyone leave the band. It hurts worse than a break-up. Most of the time when people have left a band, it's due to other career pursuits or just personal things they've got to do and they just can't contribute the workload and time to do Today is the Day. In the end, the band means so much to me that when anyone's left, it's always a huge hit. I'm in the momentum, I like when things are going good. When someone's gone, the reason they were there in the first place is that we really liked what they did and we really cared about them. Trying to find someone else to play with us that can carry the load and hopefully embellish and take the sound further is a really big task.
Courtesy of Black Market Activities
The artwork for Today is the Day's Pain is a Warning.
There hasn't been an outside producer for a Today is the Day album since 1994. You've self-produced pretty much everything since then. How did Kurt Ballou (Converge, Trap Them) help shape Pain is a Warning? Did you learn anything from him?
I've known Kurt Ballou since 1997. He and I have been good friend ever since then. He asked me to record When Forever Comes Crashing for [Converge] a long time ago in 1998. We had a similar mindset. We love vintage, pro-audio gear, we love real rock, real things, real people. When it got time to do the new album, I had decided that, for me, with everything that I was overloaded with, there was too much responsibility. We're running a record label, we're running a recording and mastering studio, we're running a band, we're running a production of our own album, we're writing the music, we're singing the songs, we're playing the music. And I thought, "What was this like — not only for me, but everyone else — when you start a band?" When you're 17-18 years old, you might not necessarily be a producer, you might not have a recording studio, you're not a record label owner, you're just a guy in a band that sings and plays guitar.
The first thought about the new album was, "You know what? I wanna get someone to record this and me [to] concentrate on playing guitar, singing and writing — where I can just be a guy in a band." [I], of course, [would contribute] production and mixing to get the record the way I want it to sound, but [I didn't want] to be responsible for it the whole time. I thought, "Who would be able to do that? Who would I be willing to trust?" It was a big deal because I have made all of the Today is the Day records. It's like a baby to me. I don't want it in anyone else's care unless they can full understand and nurture it. After a lot of deep thought, the only person that I could think of that could handle that and be on the same wavelength as me was Kurt Ballou.
When we got into the studio with [Ballou], he was, just as always, a family friend. He was there when I got married — one of the few people that were at my wedding long ago. I'll go on record saying that I learned a lot from working with Kurt. Kurt has always been one of the smartest people that I know and one of the most meticulous artists that I've ever been around. His honesty and his clarity about the way that he sees things is the big driver of the end result of the [albums he's worked on].
What is the song "Pain is a Warning" about?
That song is an epitaph for freedom. Not freedom like a Mel Gibson movie, but freedom like — I think we're all bound within these walls that we and society put us in to act the right way, do the right thing, be whatever the cool thing is. To enjoy life, you've got to live life the way you want to and you've gotta let it ride, let it roll. The title, "Pain is a Warning," came up one day where me and my son were talking about pain. He mentioned to me, "Yeah, dad, pain is warning," and I was like, "Hank, for a 10 year-old little guy, that's a pretty clear description of what pain is all about." It's a trigger to make you realize some direction you're moving or something you're doing is going to hurt you if you don't grab course of what you're doing.
I think a lot of the ways that I've tried to guide my life is that I understand when things are going right and I also understand when things are going wrong. It's a battle between what everybody else presses down on you to looking inside what you really want to do.
Does this song convey a broader theme to the album?
Yes and no. I'll be honest with you. That album was written during a really, really, really hard period of life for both me and my family. We experienced what I think a lot of people in the United States are experiencing right now — a complete and total economic meltdown. We never, obviously, have been "rollin'," driving a Hummer or whatever else. But it just seemed like there were these crushing moments over the last couple years. This past winter, I found myself at one point with no oil in the tank for our heater in house. We live in Maine, which is like Alaska, so it's like zero degrees outside. We had no money for food with two kids. All along the way, you're looking at yourself, thinking, "Is this really happening to me right now?" It's not like we were on the street, but we were up against some bad stuff. It's embarrassing, it makes you feel terrible. I think it happens to a lot of people.
The real art of making music is by telling the truth and being honest about everything, even if it's embarrassing, even if it doesn't make you look cool. I think things are going better right now at this point in my life, but during the writing of Pain is a Warning, it was like, "Can anything get worse?"
Is that an important emotion to have when you're writing music?
Well, I'd like to think about a lot of other different things. I guess it wouldn't necessarily be an important emotion — I've had kind of a turbulent life, I guess you could say. Just as much as I hate it and can't stand living that existence, but it's weird because when you sit down and start to write, it probably makes it easier because you really have something to draw from. If I was laying on a lawn chair, sippin' on iced tea, had money falling out of my pockets, then maybe I wouldn't come up with some of the stuff I come up with. I've found that the only way you can turn sorrow into something meaningful is to somehow put it into prose or lyrics and let it be heard.
While this isn't an interview about "This is You," I've gotta ask how a shimmery, sad cowboy song ended up on such a raucous album like Pain is a Warning. Like a lot of Today is the Day, it's unexpected, but still...
I was sittin' in my living room and we had all of our equipment set up. You noodle around on guitar, you start jammin', and after playing a lot of heavy stuff that day, for whatever reason, I started going through the chords that start the song. We carried on and the song was written in about an hour. At the end of doing it, I liked it a lot because it's stepping out of the mold. It's like, is Morbid Angel gonna play "This is You"? More than likely not.
Different friends and my wife say, "You know, that sounds like some Nick Cave stuff" or "Nick Cave hanging out with Nirvana." To me, I don't even hear it that way. To me, it reminds me more of what you say: outlaw country or something like Johnny Cash. It's another side of my life. I love Johnny Cash. I love outlaw country.
I've noticed that a lot of metalheads love outlaw country, myself included. Like the punk community, we look to folks like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard because they're also outcasts.
Definitely. In every scene of music, there are people that don't necessarily fit in. That goes from Stravinsky to Waylon Jennings. With outlaw country and dudes like David Allan Coe, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard — those guys are rebels and the message that they sing about is based on The Real. I think it draws a summary to what Today is the Day has always stood for: keeping it real. As simple as that sounds, The Real is just so not heard of anywhere. Everything is a prepared statement. People like Johnny Cash kept it real. When you listen to that music, you can get a feeling that this guy means what he says. It might not sound pretty and it might not be the smoothest tones, but he's putting meaning and reality behind the words. That's the way that I've tried to live my life. You only get one time down the road and there's no sense in trying to be something else or someone else.
Pain is a Warning comes out Aug. 16 on Black Market Activities. You can pre-order it here.