Confessions of a Thrashaholic

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No longer in their rebellious youth, Fog of War is evolving from a traditional thrash party act into a politically charged, free-thinking evangelist machine. What inspired the band to redefine their tried-and-true, crush-your-face-in-the-mosh-pit riffs into funky, cross-genre musicianship? With Fog of War deliberating on their latest album, which promises an evolved sound and powerful message, everyone has been curious about the new direction of this 10-year-old thrash act. We recently sat down to for an exclusive interview with them to find out more about these exciting new changes.

As an introduction, can you let our readers know how was Fog of War originally formed?

Matt O’Connel (drums): I actually met these guys when I was still in middle school. I would walk by the same Starbucks every day after school and I would see all these guys in At the Gates and Napalm Death shirts, drinking 151 like it was no big deal and listening to mini-disc players. Eventually, I got a metal shirt of my own, we started talking, then quickly became friends because of our similar interests.

Josh Branum (guitar/vocals/lyrics): Wearing metal shirts and patches was the catalyst for my life as a whole. There weren’t a lot of us back in the day, so it made it easy for us to pick each other out of the crowd and form the circle of friends that I still hold today. The band officially formed when we were at a party discussing the fact that we were all into the same music, but that we didn’t feel like our current bands were working out. The bands were good, but they were transitioning towards styles we weren’t into; we all wanted to focus purely on thrash. So, we left our old bands behind and formed Fog of War.

You just had a major show where you played alongside Soulfly, Max Cavalera’s (ex-Sepultura) new project at DNA Lounge. How would you describe that experience?

Josh: It was awesome. Playing with Max, the guy who wrote Beneath the Remains (which was a big part of our upbringing) was awesome. It really felt like we were meeting a metal legend. And the huge crowd at DNA Lounge was amazing.

Matt: The best part of playing with A-list acts, especially ones that are from different genres (Soulfly being more death metal) is that you end up with a lot of new fans. We got to meet a lot of new fans and we were also happy to see a lot of our loyal fans come out and support us through a major milestone.

Recently, you parted ways with bassist Joe Orterry, taking on Nick Mamere as a replacement. Many fans were concerned that Joe was a defining element in the band’s sound, and that Fog of War would not be the same without him. How would you say this transition has affected the band?

Josh: Nick has filled the role perfectly. Like fans have come to expect, the bass work in Fog of War is a composed style that stands on its own, rather than just maintaining a beat or following the guitars. It was challenging to part ways with such a talented musician, but we’re thankful that Nick has stepped into the role and maintained the up front sound that our previous albums have established.

Matt: What a lot of people don’t know is that Nick actually started as a fill-in. He was previously a guitarist, but when he got the chance, he practiced so hard and embraced the instrument so intensely that he’s become one of the most talented bass players I’ve ever known.

One of your primary lyrical themes is thrash metal culture in your local community, the San Francisco Bay Area. What would you say is the current state of this movement, and what has been your involvement in bringing it to where it is today?

Josh: Back in 2004, we felt like there was almost no thrash metal culture in the bay. At the time, we were only aware of two bands in the scene, Fueled by Fire, and Merciless Death, and they were 300 miles away in Los Angeles. Back then, we were mostly playing shows at bars with bands that didn’t match our style. Thankfully, this was all happening around the time that MySpace started becoming a networking tool for bands, so we started reaching out to other artists, eventually connecting ourselves with other local acts like Devastator/Blessed Curse, ZH, and Hatchet. Pretty soon, we were all playing shows together and bringing in 300 attendees to pure thrash events. The peak lasted about three years before we saw a major movement of fans and artists transitioning on to other things like career and family. After that, thrash went underground for a bit and started mixing back in with traditional metal and punk shows. Today, we’re at the start of another revival. The signs are starting to show – just look at the rising number of young kids running around in denim vests.

You guys are currently working on your second full-length album, Here Lies Humanity. What’s the current status of the production and when can fans expect to hear it?

Josh: The album is still in post-production, but we don’t have a concrete release date just yet. As our fans know, we tend to take a lot of time perfecting our albums and don’t want to rush it out the door.

How would you describe some of the changes in music style you’ve incorporated into Here Lies Humanity?

Josh: Our new album is different in a lot of ways. We’re now more influenced by power thrash rather than the more traditional style, so from a composition standpoint it’s a lot more complex. If I had to name a couple bands that we’re influenced by, I’d say we’ve taken a step towards Blind Guardian and Helloween. Additionally, Matt now plays in a hardcore punk band, and I have a side project in a traditional death metal band, so playing in these other bands and being exposed creating music in other genres has had a major impact on our style as well.

Jon Fryman (guitar): We were really inspired to move towards a more eclectic, linear structure, rather than the traditional verse-chorus loop. Our new album incorporates more melody and more harmony than before, and many of the riffs appear only once without repeating themselves. Our songs are longer (2-3 times longer in some cases), and as a result our solos are longer too. We’ve also experimented with more classical techniques such as counterpointing, and having parallel lead guitar roles that remain separate throughout a song until a given point where they cross paths, then separate again.

With Here Lies Humanity, you also went from two guitar roles to three. How has this changed your strategy for composing your songs, and how do you define each guitarist’s role?

Josh: It’s a new and interesting way to write music. In traditional composition, someone comes to the table with a riff, idea, or melody and then you build around it. With three guitars, we still follow a similar process, but the original idea plays a much smaller part than it normally would… one third to be exact.

Jon: We consider all of our guitar parts to be lead roles. Rather than having one part be a lead that the others follow, which is generally the easy thing to do, we compose three individual parts that stand on their own, but mesh together for a cohesive sound. We have to iterate a lot to get things right, which is why it took us about a year to finish writing the album.

Has transitioning from a four-piece to a five-piece band had a major affect on show logistics?

Josh: Yes, at this point we have a bass with two cabs, five vocal mics, eight mics on the drums, and three guitars, which is a lot for the sound guys to manage. We’ve actually had situations where our sound has suffered due to not having enough mics, and sometimes we have to improvise by sacrificing a drum mic. Fortunately, Matt plays the drums extremely loud so we don’t always need mics in smaller venues. We do our best to coordinate with the sound guys in advance to make sure they aren’t thrown off by our volume of gear.

How would you say you were able to achieve such a shift in style after so many years of playing traditional thrash?

Josh: It wasn’t something we necessarily did on purpose, rather it was something that happened naturally as we got better at writing and working together. Now that the process has become more natural to us, you could say that we’ve transitioned away from relying on classic structure, to a more instinct-driven writing machine.

With the changes you’ve mentioned, do you plan or rebranding your group as a new genre?

Matt: Even though we’ve changed the style of our music a lot, we choose to keep ourselves labeled as thrash because it’s where our roots are, it’s the culture we identify with, and it also makes it easier for new fans to know what we’re about as a whole.

What are the overall lyrical themes of Here Lies Humanity?

Josh: The album has a sci-fi edge to it, and we have a lot more to say than on our last album, which was more of a party record. Rather than just talking about beer, mosh pits, and 151, Here Lies Humanity is focused on important global issues like warfare, environmentalism, and socio-economic politics. Every song on our new album has a story behind it, and each line fits into a cohesive lyrical structure. Together, we’ve persevered through sweat, frustration, and heated arguments to ensure that there’s no fluff on our new album, lyrically or musically.

If you had to highlight one important message behind your music, what would it be?

Josh: I encourage people to educate themselves on the people who  are in control of their lives, which in our case is the U.S. government and the structure concealed behind it. I want to share the knowledge of what’s going on around us, because I feel that being ignorant is the most harmful thing you can do to yourself, especially when you’re doing it willfully.

Matt: We are pro-education and we love to read and learn, and we want to encourage that in others. We’re all into learning different things – for example Josh is into politics and socio-economics, and I’m more into history, but the key is that we want inspire our listeners to become passionate about enriching their lives through knowledge and awareness of what’s happening in the world.

Can you give us an example of an upcoming song that you feel embodies that message?

Josh: Sure. We’ve got a song called “MK Ultra” which highlights the cruel experiments the U.S. government was performing on civilians in the 1950’s. They would employ various brainwashing techniques and psychoactive drugs such as LSD to measure their viability for military use. Even though the overarching themes are dark and automatically metal (tripping hardcore and brain aneurysms!), the overall positive message is that you the listener always have the power to investigate things around you. Don’t take everything at face value, especially when the people in control have already admitted to doing this like this behind your back.

You previously mentioned that you may decide to take the DIY route with your new album. What led to this consideration?

Matt: We don’t want to make any sacrifices when it comes to the art we’ve worked so hard to create, and we like to do things on our own when we can. So, we don’t want to sign any contract that compromises our freedom or flexibility if we don’t have to.

Josh: It could be difficult without the support, but we feel like we are ready to take on the challenge if we have to. When we released our first album, I spent about 8 hours a day on social networks and metal forums, sharing links to free downloads and YouTube videos. It was slow at first, but it’s immensely satisfying when all of the sudden you have 100,000 views on your video. If we are not able to find a record label that gives us the flexibility we need, I am ready to follow this same process again.

What would you say is the meaning behind your band name?

Matt: In military terms, the term ‘fog of war’ was originally coined when cannon fire would make it impossible to see what’s happening on the battlefield, which is the same experience we want to create when you’re in the pit.

Jon: I just liked how it sounded, and that it enables us to abuse fog machines. There’s something mystical about fog and how it adds surrealness adds to the show. Also, I perform better when I feel like it’s hard to see me.

Rather than taking on the traditional metal persona of being cold and tough, you guys tend to smile and laugh a lot during your shows and in a lot of your photos. Would you say that this is part of the image you consciously want to create, or just something that happened naturally?

Josh: We have a strict policy to do whatever we want all the time. We do have key situations where we perform a certain way as part of our art, but most of the time we’re just expressing ourselves and doing what we love.

Matt: It’s mostly because we’ve known each other for a long time. At this point, it feels like we’re brothers so we tend to have fun and relax.

Thanks for taking the time to do an interview with us? Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers before we close out?

Josh: Yes, thanks for taking the time to interview us and check us out. If you like fast music and real, thoughtful musicianship, we would love for you to check out our new record. We’ve also got a show in the bay area in May, so if you like what you hear, definitely come check us out!

You can keep up with Fog of War by following their Facebook page.


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