Classic thrash metal stalwart act Lich King was formed in 2004 by vocalist Tom Martin. The Massachusetts-based band has released several albums, with the most recent being the Do-Over EP, a full re-recording of Lich King’s “one man band” early material. Influenced by classic thrash bands like Vio-lence, S.O.D., and Exodus, the band’s music is best described as a genre-upholder: rock-solid, enjoyable metal that doesn’t attempt to re-invent the wheel or cross boundaries at the expense of musicality. Well after the band’s 2015 European tour ended, Iris and Steve from PlanetMosh had the opportunity to speak with the band about how Lich King works on music, and how the band relates to the rigors of the music business.
First of all, please bring us up to speed on what’s been going on in your camp since you released the Do-Over EP.
Tom: Some touring, some doings, and writing, writing, writing. Actually, check that, there hasn’t been as much writing as there should have been, but there’s been a good deal. There’s been some. Mostly it’s just been video games and putting things off, or having other people put things off on us. We’ve had a few disappointments in 2015.
Joe: Brian has been huffing glue, Mike grew an Afro, Nick is practicing his “Invisible Man” act, and Tom turned into a pumpkin. I’ll let the others give comment on me.
Brian: Joe is getting tattoos and holes in his body where there shouldn’t be any.
(I looked for the answer before asking this, and couldn’t find it – sorry!) What happened to your old vocalist? Are you still hunting for a new vocalist?
Tom: I appreciate you looking around for the answer before asking. Most of these things just go as follows – so where’s the name from? What kind of metal do you make? What’s next for you? So many of these interviews are just boilerplate nothings from people just looking to fill space, so, thanks for doing some legwork and coming up with questions that apply to us.
Tom got tired of touring and bailed out. Tom’s also me, so I’m going to move to first-person. Touring’s just disappointing, unless you’re at a certain level where you get a guaranteed turnout and hospitality. I’m older than the other guys, so the bad shows hit me harder in a “what am I doing with my life” sense. Spending an evening of my dwindling time in a smoky Pittsburgh bar, so I can scream myself hoarse for seven people doesn’t hold much attraction for me. I like the music, though, and I like the guys. They still want to tour, so I stepped down. We’re still hunting for a vocalist, still not finding anyone. Everyone wants to joke that they’re going to try out; no one does.
Joe: Tom is still a big part of the band; writing, handling social media, artwork. The song “I Quit”, that was released in a long line of April Fool’s jokes, sums it up very well. Check it out on our YouTube page.
You managed to play both Friday the 13ths in 2015. Now that’s metal. The Pittsburgh show must have been different from the Berlin show… how were those gigs?
Joe: Berlin was our very first show in Europe. It was packed, and the crowd was crazy. It also happened to be the night of the Paris attacks, a few hours away from us. With our date in Paris just a week away, it certainly made us wary – lots of bands cancelled in the wake of that event. But we resolved to keep the gig, and give Paris the show they needed and deserved.
Brian: Berlin was the kickoff to our European tour, and it was nuts. Pittsburgh was unfortunately kind of a dead show. It happens.
It’s a mystery what you’re touring or promoting. You just happen to be on tour?
Brian: We’ve put out four albums and an EP to date. We had yet to play Europe, and we’d had people asking us to play there for years. It was more a matter of getting that under our belt than promoting a specific release or anything.
Joe: We always wanted to play Europe. When a legitimate opportunity came around, we had to take it.
Brian: We get a lot of random offers through Facebook or email that just end up fizzling out, and a European tour was one of those perennial things. Our manager at the time got in touch with Daniel Duracell at Roadmaster Booking in early 2015, and then we started hammering out actual details, and everything came together over a few months.
Someone told me that all of the smaller venues in Germany and Eastern Europe look like converted concrete / military bunkers. Is that true? This is your first big European jaunt… are you enjoying the tour so far?
Joe: We played a few venues like that in Germany! They all had an amazing atmosphere for shows. Aside from a van breakdown, the tour couldn’t have gone better for us. We couldn’t have been in better hands.
Brian: Hexenhaus in Ulm, Germany was actually an old fort. That was pretty rad.
What’s different about touring in Europe, versus the USA? Do you have a favorite European insult word yet? (Mine is the British “twat”).
Joe: Food is incredible, shows have amazing turnouts, and fans support the band like nothing I’ve seen before.
Brian: Geography, more than anything. Driving 6 hours and being in a new country is pretty surreal, and major cities seem to be closer together. With this being our first European tour, I also think there was a lot more excitement about us coming over, than in the U.S., where we’ve been everywhere once or twice. As for insult words, a bunch of our German fans were insistent on teaching me the German words for “asshole”, “motherfucker”, and “wanker”, so I know those now.
What’s scarier, a Canadian tour in the winter or a US eastern seaboard tour in the winter?
Tom: Oh, a Canadian tour is FAR scarier. In an east coast U.S. trip, at least the temperatures start getting warmer as you get a few hours south. Once you hit Virginia, it’s almost time to bust out the shorts, and once you’re in the Carolinas, it’s positively balmy everywhere. Canada’s great, but the prices are insane, and I wouldn’t want to tour around our area in the winter, much less hours north.
Brian: Strangely enough, the European tour had the most wintry conditions we’ve toured in – we always manage to avoid touring from November to February. But if I had to say, I’d be more afraid of Canada in the winter for sure.
Any ‘stories’ from your most recent Euro tour that you care to share? (…Something about your tour manager getting 50 stitches in his arm – what happened?)
Joe: The short story is that he slipped in the shower, burst his arm open, and (rightfully) woke us all up screaming bloody murder. Nick and I got up to a bathroom/kitchen floor with a considerable amount of blood. Luckily no bones were broken or arteries ruptured, and (Belgium?) has free healthcare. It was amazing to see a system like that work. What really tops off the story is that we were staying in an old slaughterhouse!
Brian: It seriously looked like a shark bit him. There’s a picture on the Evil Eye Records page if you want to check out some gory shit. We were at band practice when Tom finally saw the picture, and he almost screamed.
On a serious note, talk about a trial by fire ‘welcome to international touring’ gauntlet! How was it playing in Paris after the massacre? Did you play to a ‘ghost town’? Or were things… okay?
Joe: We had no idea what to expect, but Paris was bustling as if nothing happened (besides the groups of military on patrol). The room was packed and energetic. People told us they were grateful that we didn’t cancel as so many others had.
Brian: Yeah, other than the police with giant assault rifles hanging out at every major landmark, it didn’t really feel all that different. We did get stopped and searched by French police three times at border crossing, which I imagine might been a bit more lax otherwise.
As for metal on the whole… are you part of a thrash revival? Your sound is very retro.
Tom: Yeah, we’re considered to be a part of that now-diminished club. There was a nice revival going on a few years back, but it’s safe to say that that’s over with now. I’m not the sort of dude that quotes Hunter S. Thompson, but there’s a line from Fear & Loathing that applies: “with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” That’s much more gorgeous a way to look at it than the thrash revival deserves. Really, we just had a bunch of kids that discovered something fun to do for a while, and once the trend went away, they stopped pretending they cared. There are still lots of people that care, but the revival was all about the phonies coming in, making patch-vests and buying high-top sneakers off the internet so they could be in on the cool kids’ club for four minutes. All that’s over with now, and I just want to give a stately Sam Elliot head-nod to the people that remain.
Lyrically, if you’re not singing about fantasy topics or negative emotions, what are you left with? Thrash can be a little narrow. I guess you could go Nuclear Assault sociopolitical… (but then you tread near dangerous hardcore waters.)
Tom: We muck around in meta commentary – we talk about metal, metal fans, metal bands, the gorilla in the room. It’s pretty fun to do a song about how cool that song is. It’s just silly, stupid, and highly rewarding. All the guys that are turning in another song about someone getting tortured in hell are wasting their time. When you see a song titled EVISCERATION OF CHRIST, what’s your first reaction? Is it “oh shit, that sounds amazingly brutal” or is it more like… nothing? Like the title might as well not even exist? That’s why having weird or confrontational subject matter is breaking through the white noise of every other band. Like the Party Cannon logo. It stands out on a flyer, doesn’t it? Life’s short, metal’s fun, be silly. That’s what I say.
Joe: For the most part we stay away from the political scene, unless we’re poking fun at it. I think satirical humor is our specialty.
… Or S.O.D satirical. The satire is refreshing, especially since S.O.D retired. Does it run the danger of of pigeonholing the band though? ‘These guys are a parody…’
Tom: It’s definitely a risk. Making songs with jokey subject matter gets you labeled as a joke band, and that suggests you’re just writing novelty songs with no effort put into the music, like a thrash metal Weird Al Yankovic. It’s just the dummies that are going to pigeonhole you, though, so you’ve got to take a shot. If you’ve got satire, use it.
Joe: Nahhh, we do more than our share of satire, but we cover more serious topics too.
It worked for Steel Panther and Eagles of Death Metal (and others) though. Do you write music first, or lyrics first, and where’s the new material going, topic wise?
Tom: Music first, always. The music gets written with no subject matter in mind, and separately I come up with a list of song names or concepts. The music is always a big deal and must come first. Lyrics are easy. That takes almost no time at all, and is practically unimportant anyway – who reads lyrics? Who cares? The riffs, though, that’s what people should come for and that’s where we invest the majority of our time… When we’re not playing video games. The new material’s going where it’s always been, but sharper and better. It’s going to be as silly or sillier than ever, and as good or better than ever.
Joe: Music first. We have a weird process that involves things like “Brianizing” and letting Tom touch drums occasionally. You can expect a nice mix of what we do best: satire, humor, violence, headbanging mosh madness, etc.
Overkill and Annihilator are well known in thrash circles, for very good reason. They’re like the underground’s upper crust. Are you guys part of the next wave… will you be our ‘next Overkill’?
Tom: That’s really hard to say, because any established band is very specific. New bands are all the same mish-mash shade of gray because they’re doing the same crap and haven’t found themselves yet, but it’s really hard to say anyone is the next anyone. If you put a gun to my head and made me pick one, I’d say we’re the next S.O.D lyrically and the next Vio-lence musically. I know we’re closer to Exodus than Vio-lence, but a lot of bands are close to Exodus, and I think we might be the closest to Vio-lence that’s out there right now. So yeah, that’s my answer that makes us look like assholes, we’re the next Vio-lence with S.O.D lyrics.
If you weren’t playing metal and touring, what would your (dreaded?) ‘day jobs’ be? Corollary: do you intend to make this band a career, or is this like a side project / fun creative outlet?
Tom: I can answer this since I went back to my day job – I do illustration! I know that Nick and Mike want to make a career out of this, and I absolutely am happy keeping this at hobby level. I’m not sure about Brian and Joe. They’re serious about the band, but I don’t think they’d be heartbroken if they had to fall back on their day jobs. Speaking for me, as I’ve spent a long time working on my career and just did music as a goof, it’s really frustrating that music is what I’ve been most successful at. Then, it’s even more frustrating that there’s no money in metal anyway, so it’s all a big cosmic joke.
Brian: 90% of the time, I AM at my day job – I’m a freelance audio engineer. I operate a recording studio and do live sound at clubs, festivals, and other events. I also help run a festival out here in western Mass called RPM Fest which slowly eats up more of my time when the summer rolls around. I’ll be honest – I don’t make a ton of money and I still live at home, but I enjoy the hell out of what I do and it gives me the flexibility to drop everything for a couple months to hit the road. Ideally I’d like to be on tour with Lich King 3-6 months out of the year, and spend the rest of it working on records with bands.
Regarding this whole idea of making a career out of being in a touring band – what people don’t seem to ‘get’, is that it’s not just writing music and getting up on stage and playing music for an hour a night. The “work” (and therefore your income) is in everything else outside of performing – networking, tour booking, press, promotion, graphic design, recording, distribution, merchandising, budgeting and finances, and there’s plenty more I’m probably skipping over. You need to learn how to do ALL of these things and do them well. Bands don’t just magically “blow up” – you could write the best fucking music in the world and put on the greatest live show in history, but if you don’t capitalize on that and ignore all the “business” stuff it’s not going anywhere.
Joe: Well as it turns out, most of the time we aren’t touring. I wish we could make this a career, maybe we can get to that point some day. The dream is several month+ tours a year. Or just touring all the time, ’til we die.
What (or who) brought you to metal in the first place, and what continues to inspire you to create?
Tom: I was a very by-the-numbers metal kid at the beginning. I started with Metallica, moved to Megadeth, moved to Anthrax, skipped Slayer, and went straight to Sepultura. Things went from there. I discovered that I’m about a few very specific things in metal – the chug, the ascending anxiety, the thrumming energy that’s like a train blowing through barriers. I chase those. As to being inspired to create, I’m always making something. Once this album’s done, I think I’m going to write a book, and through it all, I’m drawing. That’s not to say I’m stupendously creative. If I were I wouldn’t just be copying established genres in the first place. I feel driven to make stuff that’s very similar to what’s been done before, but I want to see if I can turn out a good version of that stuff.
Joe: I started my slow descent into metaldom in middle school. I can’t pin it down to one particular thing, but it kept me going. What keeps me here is the joy of playing it. There is nothing like feeling the energy of the music on stage and the crowd giving it back to you.
Brian: I was a freshman in high school when Toxicity by System of a Down came out, and that was the first metal band I really got into. Didn’t really get into thrash until much later on while I was in college. My biggest drive in all of this is more about performing than creating – I’ve been playing music since I was three, did concert band, marching band, jazz band, chorus, and all sorts of ensembles all throughout high school and college – I like the rush of playing for an audience and I get stir crazy if I’m not performing music on stage on a regular basis.
You guys have a hilarious Twitter feed; the jokes in between the show announcements and other goings-on are priceless! Do you enjoy the self-marketing or ‘social media’ aspects of being in a band? It used to be, you were the artist, and your job was to create more art – the PR guy was your marketing agent. Now it’s all DIY…
Tom: We used to enjoy the promotion so much more. We’d put something out there, and it’d get a big response. We’d come up with a joke or a contest and it’d get shared, things were great. Then they introduced Edgerank on Facebook and suddenly .7% of your fans are seeing anything you post. Now it feels pointless. You work on an idea and put it out there, and sometimes only 150 people see it total, and two people comment, and that’s it. Your idea died in infancy. Twitter still shows everything to everyone, but I’m not convinced there’s promotional clout in Twitter. If I thought there were some untapped potential for metal marketing in Twitter, I’d take to it immediately, but all I see is people sharing other people’s jokes. I like being the PR guy, though. I like the PR. I’m good at it. I just can’t figure out a way to make PR -matter- anymore.
Brian: It’s more about trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t on Facebook these days – it seemingly blocks or limits certain things, like any time we push a new podcast episode, but dumb memes and jokes get massive views and likes. Twitter has the opposite problem – it shows -everything-, so our post about our new t-shirt design gets buried under 300 other posts about food or cats or whatever.
Do you have any advice to offer to musicians who are just starting out?
Tom: Yeah – quit. I’m about to get really negative on y’all, so buckle in. So many shitty young bands choke the scene that it’s another thing that feels pointless. It’s a big gray wash of nothing riffs and nothing ideas. Of course, some of those bands are going to find their voice and write some decent music, but that number is so, so small. 99.998% of all metal is bad. It’s like baby turtles scrambling on the beach, trying to get to the water. Most of them are just going to be eaten. The ones that make it will be rewarded with finding out that being a turtle really isn’t such hot shit after all. Not to crap on anyone’s dreams, but if being in a successful metal band is your dream, take a good, hard look at the game. Try to see through the rock star bullshit we let you all believe because it’s good for OUR suffering egos, and realize that the only moments in which a band is bathed in glory is that short time they’re on stage for a screaming crowd (which is nice, don’t get me wrong). The rest of it is worrying about rent and food and gas, just like any other poor person. I’ve said for years that your average successful metal musician is doing about as well as anyone in an entry level office job. So, yeah, quit… or at least carefully evaluate this whole mess as a career path. If you’d have fun and feel fulfilled living this life, do it. Absolutely. That should be the whole point anyway. I just know I didn’t.
Brian: I’ll take the slightly more positive angle on this: work hard on your musicianship and don’t take shortcuts. Meaning – learn basic music theory and how to read. Take lessons for your instrument. Don’t play double kick and blast beats until you can play steady time with consistent dynamics. Don’t worry about sweep picking and shredding until you can cleanly play rhythm guitar parts. Don’t scream until you learn how to sing with proper technique. Don’t play fast until you can play slow. Don’t play loud until you can play quiet. Don’t worry about starting a band until you’re a well-rounded musician first.
(Lichmas was coming, and PlanetMosh was on the list…) What do you have in store for us?
Tom: Lichmas is a joyous time of year where we give something stupid to the fans. In the last few years, it’s been a new song. As of this writing it’s well past Lichmas of 2015, and you guys got socks. Oh no! That’s terrible. We gave you guys the receipt, though, and you should probably hang on to it. You may be able to exchange those socks for something cooler. Sorry everyone.
Joe: Oops, we took a little long on this interview.
(01/2015) Band Lineup:
Tom Martin – Vocals
Nick Timney – Guitars
Rob Pellegri – Guitars
Joe Nickerson – Bass Guitar
Brian Westbrook – Drums