Darkest Hour

Fifteen years in, Darkest Hour continues to create and perform metal tunes with a smooth blend of ferocious energy and emotive progression. I had the chance to speak to guitarist, songwriter and founding member Mike Schleibaum at their stop in NYC about their new album, the way the members work out their long distance relationships and the almighty breakdown.

Can you give me some updates on your next album?
Okay, I’m gonna give you all of the information right now. So, the name of the record is called The Human Romance. It’s coming out February 22nd and was recorded in Winston-Salem and Ashville, North Carolina for two months in September and October and we wrote it in the following two years after The Eternal Return and we started writing it right away. It was the first Darkest Hour record we ever started writing right after we had recorded the last one. So, we have been working on it for a super long time.

So this is probably the longest you’ve ever spent writing a record then.
No, well…it’s hard to say what is writing a record. Because you’re always writing songs and you’re always writing riff ideas. Like, whenever I pick up a guitar I’ll play someone else’s song that I like: I’ll play a Van Halen song or I’ll make a song up and if I make a song up, it’s a Darkest Hour song. So, we’re always doing that. But this was the first time we knew what the direction would be exactly when we finished the last one. I think at times in the past we were kind of let’s do this, then let’s do this, then let’s do this. This time, we knew what we wanted to do to follow [The Eternal Return] up.

How would you describe your upcoming album in relation to the themes or tones of your last album The Eternal Return?
Oh, it’s a lot different. The Eternal Return is kind of this bleak, very aggressive, in your face, shorter, stripped-down, no-frills (although there is guitar shredding) kind of thing. The vocals are more a straight death metal approach, the music is a lot faster, the songs are shorter, there’s some weirder things going on, but there’s still some guitar shredding. The art; it’s like black and then you pull it off and it’s kind of yellow. So this whole thing…it was kind of the end of the Victory [records] era with the sun going down almost kind of like curtains closing kind of black thing and if you look at the theme it’s kind of like The Sadist Nation was that way and then a lot of people don’t see it.

It doesn’t matter, it wasn’t meant to be that obvious, but Deliver Us and Undoing Ruin are like twins, you have a boy and a girl. One is emotional and the other one is a little more eclectic, introspective. Deliver Us is like the proggy, introspective one, Undoing Ruin is the more emotional one. And then you have The Eternal Return which is kind of like the bookend of the Victory era which is kind of an aggressive, punker [era].

I mean, I like the things that we did; I love things about the Eternal Return that drive people crazy who like Deliver Us. I like when guitars go crazy and get a little out of tune sometimes. They’re kind of punk and there’s feedback, it’s not so layered and it’s not so orchestrated. But I also like when it is. The Eternal Return was like, let’s do that. That’s the immediate bookend of the sound of that era. So, I think this new record is re-defining what it’s about. This is kind of a grown-up…well, I don’t want to say it that way because to me The Eternal Return also sounded grown up. The sound of Lonestar [(guitarist Mike Carrigan)] in the band is a more grown up sound to me.

[As I said] the name of the new record is Human Romance and the cover when you see it…it’s the first time we ever used a real photograph. Normally on every record we’ll use an illustration that someone’s done, like on Undoing Ruin or Deliver Us or - there’s always art that someone does. Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation is a photo, but it’s got art on it kinda. This [new cover] is a photo of two skeletons that were fused - basically these people died embracing each other in a lava flow and then their bones were fossilized together in an embrace - and it’s kind of like a metaphor for our relationship with music, which is hard when you’re a musician forever. You’re in love with this thing that eventually is gonna be really destructive in your life. But, it’s also a metaphor for the way the world is and the way doing anything that you love is. And the way love actually is. You have to hold onto anything that you love and then die with it, kind of. And that’s sort of the record. This is the first time we saw a picture and we were like yeah that’s sick, and we were like there’s no way we can get the rights to this picture, that’s crazy. But the people at E1, they were all a little different than we’re used to, they were super pro, so they got it in like two days.

It kind of builds on the theme of the records, which is how it’s different from The Eternal Return…there is the return of aetherial effects, the emotional sounding chord changes…it’s obviously different sounding than The Eternal Return and people will get it. The guitar solos, they’re shredding ya know…[but] I don’t think that they’re over the top. I mean, there are people that can shred harder. There is a guest solo by this dude Tosin from Animals as Leaders. It hasn’t been totally mixed yet, but that shit is hard to play. I doubt most people can play that shit on guitar. Other than that, there’s solos and they’re emotional and whatever, but I think this time the focus is on how you make what you want to express artistically. If you want a more generalized, smoothed out well-rounded [album] the solos and the shredding and stuff should be tasteful . It’s not about how hard it is, it’s about how it fits in the song. Peter, that was kind of his direction, (this is Peter Wichers who is also in the band Soilwork), who’s also this producer guy. His take on all of the music was kind of the same which was less is more in some areas. Whereas Deliver Us, it was like pile it on and Undoing Ruin it was more, make it memorable and emotional, so it’s kind of a little bit of both.

Yeah, that was probably way too long of an answer.

It was a very long answer, but let me tell you that was total Darkest Hour metal-nerd answer and fans are going to appreciate that, definitely.

If you don’t care, just skip to question 3. I’ll make the answer to this one short, I promise.

Do you ever get any elitists questioning your lack of breakdowns?
There are breakdowns on the records, you people are fucking crazy. There’s not breakdowns in every song…

Lack of breakdowns though.
There are. There’s a breakdown at the end of Full Imperial Collapse. There’s a sick breakdown on every Darkest Hour record. There’s a breakdown in the middle of Sadist Nation and Into the Grey. But, it’s not like a breakdown, like we don’t set it up like Hatebreed. I think that people like that but the thing is I think we are like the Swedish sound plus that, so there’s already a lot of that in the sound already, so people don’t really ask for more of that. I think what you have is more metal purists being like - [in a thick French accent]: "Why do you do that?" Well, because that’s badass.

So that’s a French accent? This is when you go to France?
No. That could be French, that could be from Poland, that could be from Russia, that could be from Greece, Chile, Ecuador…dude you just never know.

What are your practice sessions like before you go out on tour?
Well, they vary because everybody lives all over the place. Washington, D.C. is Darkest Hour central: that’s where I work out of. I have a studio in my house, I kind of organize and centralize the whole thing. Lonestar lives in Texas but he’s single and in his 20s, so he doesn’t give a fuck. So, he lives out of my house sometimes when we write. He’ll fly out, we’ll work out guitar parts and song dieas and get them how we want them. Then Ryan drives up from Richmond [Virginia] and he’ll lay down a drum demo with me. Sometimes in my basement studio, sometimes in a practice space or whatever. Then we’ll record all the guitar ideas over the top of it. Lonestar will be there with me, or if he’s not there I’ll do it by myself, but we’ll put all the layers down. Then, we’ll send it around to everybody on e-mail. John Henry will probably like one part of it, so that part will become part of the songs and then we’ll re-tool it. Paul [Burnett the bassist will usually] want the songs a little more defined. After that’s all done and we have songs that feel good we’ll demo the little rhythms whispering and those rhythms over the top of the riffs become what the vocal patterns will become so John gets an idea of what the vocal patterns are when they happen. Then, he writes words to those and then those become the lyrics in the songs and then you have a Darkest Hour song. He comes over and he demos them and then everybody talks about what they like and what they didn’t like and it’s a serious, painful argument. We change a couple of things. Then we go into the studio and then it happens all again a couple times and then the final version is heard.

And your practice sessions, just before you go out - ?
Well, before our tour, everybody flies in and it’s funny how each dude arrives; it’s like that Motley Crue video where they all play at the end after Vince Steele smashes the telephone - each dude walks in at a different time and then Vince Steele walks in at the last minute after everything’s all set up and he parties. It’s like that. This time for this tour we had a lot going on so we practiced for a day, then we went to this pre-production place and we set up everything: all the lights, the backdrop, the fuckin' whole thing to make sure we had everything that worked so we’d be prepared the first day. Now we have kind of a better rhythm of what it takes to try to be able to show up on the first day and try to have a good show. And yesterday, which was the first day of tour, if we hadn’t have done all that other shit it would have been a total disaster, so…
Yeah I can imagine…has your songwriting process changed as your lineup has changed?
It’s definitely changed since the band has begun, and the sound that is there is changed because the lineup has changed, but the songwriting in general how we do it has definitely changed. In the beginning, the first three records up to Sadist Nation, it was just anything I said went, and John [Henry, our singer] would sort of toward the end kind of commandeer the lyrics and vocal rhythms and stuff, then it became more of his thing. Sadist Nation was the first record where he kind of like [wrote almost all of the lyics], and then Undoing Ruin a little more, and then Deliver Us almost all, and then The Eternal Return, all. So, being what happened around then is [former guitarist] Kris [Norris] was in the band and in the beginning he didn’t want to have anything to do with the band, it was my band, he was just playing guitar. And then on Undoing Ruin we kind of opened it up and Kevin translated it. So, then it became more about like OK one of the guitar players will bring in the main idea for a song cuz it always starts on a guitar and then the band kind of twists and turns it so then it becomes a song. I would say that hasn’t changed since Undoing Ruin, but before that the earlier Darkest Hour records were basically me. But [drummer] Ryan [Parrish] had a really big role and John also did too, because it was the same thing: it was reactionary. Here’s a good idea - now let’s make it a good song. Now, ever since Undoing Ruin, the guitar player will bring in an idea and everything wil be voted on. So, that has changed. I think that the key thing is that it’s really hard to balance that because there are so many bands where there is one guy who just does [all the songwriting], but balancing on figuring out how to do a band where people are able to jockey for it to be all different in the end, it’s harder to negotiate because it’s a lot harder than "Here it is, here’s the song, here’s your part". But, that’s kind of what being in a band is, that’s the hard trade-off.

It’s a painful democracy.
Fuck, I hate it. I’m gonna take a drink of this Corona.

What's your most hated interview question to answer? What do you hate answering?
I don’t hate answering anything because I don’t have the approach to the press that say, Henry Rollins would have. I’m cool, I kind of live a clear and transparent life, so I don’t give a shit. There’s certain things I don’t like talking about in interviews, like I don’t want to talk about my normal life, outside of being in a band. That’s pretty much it.

So you have gotten asked questions about your personal life?
Not really. But, it’s just weird, because you really have to be a true Gemini to be a musician. Because you really have to be able to figure out how to be somehow of a normal person and somehow of an entertainer, because the reality is if you become all one you’re not the other. If you’re all the normal person, then you don’t know what it takes to be like David Lee Roth, who’s a motherfuckin' badass or Dimebag Daryl who’s a motherfuckin' badass, or was. Or Eddie Van Halen…you have to be fucking crazy and eccentric to be musically inclined, but at the same time you have to balance in with being a real person because if you can't [handle it], you could end up being a total jackass. So it’s balance.

It’s not that I mind talking about that stuff but if I had to pick one thing that I would prefer not to focus on it’s what everybody is doing when they’re not in the band. Because it’s how you keep yourself normal enough to walk right out the door and if you met somebody who has a Slayer t-shirt on or a Darkest Hour t-shirt on which is what you have to do even though you have a relationship with some people because they’re fans. It’s weird to say, but I have met people that Darkest Hour means more to them than Slayer or Metallic or Anthrax or Van Halen, any of the bands that mean a shitload to me because it’s a generational thing. It’s just different, but you have to remember that they’re just people and you can’t treat them as lesser than just because they worship something that you’ve created. It’s hard to do, but that’s the slippery balance to remain a normal person, but rock pretty hard.