Another Huge Leap Forward: Our Interview With Aaron Beam Of Red Fang

For those not ‘in the know’, Red Fang were just that band with the awesome, damn funny videos. Beer zombies? LARPing? Those are the ones. By now, though, they’re rightly known by all and sundry for the size of their riffs and for their alarmingly catchy pop-sludge, songs like “Blood Like Cream” rivalling any chart-bothering hit, but with added volume. Now, they’re back with Only Ghosts, a more gritty and inward-looking record that still knows its way around a good hook, and we caught up with bassist and vocalist Aaron Beam to discuss this huge leap forward for the Portland quartet.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. How are things at the moment?
They’re great. We’re leaving today for a little mini-tour of some of the cities in our neighbourhood, trying out some of the new material a little bit more, so it’s exciting.

How has it gone down so far? Have you had long to try them out?
We just did a short tour in Europe. We did four shows over there a week and a half ago and have been playing a number of the songs here and there, and they fit really well into the set. People, even not having heard the record, are responding really well. It’s fun.

There’s a real immediacy with some of the new songs, though that’s not really new territory for you. You hear them once and then you’re singing along.
That’s awesome, and I guess the weirdest thing that ever happened in that regard was when we first started playing “Blood Like Cream” from the last record, but before the record was out. People started singing along by the end of the song, but they were singing words that weren’t even close! I mean, the chorus is pretty repetitive so they’re singing along with the chorus, but just making up nonsense words. What I like is that that record’s been out for three years and I watch people at shows and that exact same thing is still happening – people are saying things that are clearly not even close to what we’re actually saying. I love that.

You recorded Only Ghosts with Ross Robinson and Joe Barresi. How did you find the experience after working for so long with Chris Funk?
Chris is great and we love working with him, but we wanted to get out of Portland to do this record so that we could be more focused on the creation of this music and be more immersed in it. That required being in a different city because it’s easy to be distracted by your day to day life when you’re still in Portland working on an album. As far as working with Ross, it was a completely different studio experience from anything I’d ever experienced before and I can’t say enough positive things about it. He works you really hard and gets really deep on an emotional level, but he gives so much of himself that you really have no choice but to give back. He’s very effective at motivating you to do the very best that you can possibly do and focus on making the song as good as it can possibly be. It was physically and mentally hard but well worth it, in my opinion. We spent a month with Ross and we weren’t in the studio with Joe, but doing stuff over email, but right from the get-go it was clear that we were on the same page about sounds and the feeling of the record, the emotional impact that we were trying to make with it. It was super-smooth and easy working with him; he’s very good at what he does and we’re looking forward to hanging out with him when we’re in L.A., sharing a beer and getting to know him a little better on a personal level.

Did being in California affect the album, or did you just try to close yourselves off in the studio as much as possible?
I think it’s hard to avoid the effect of the environment on the work you’re doing. While we were doing the drum tracking, which took 10 or 11 days, it was beautiful. We were in this house that was right on the beach, it was beautiful the entire time except for one day when there were these crazy storms that started flooding the floor that I was staying in – I think I used about 15 towels to mop up the water that was coming in – but aside from that it was just this gorgeous environment outside. We were all trapped inside this little windowless box and it was super-hot; we’d be in for four or five hours at a stretch, all in our swimming trunks just because it was so warm. I think there’s something about the physical challenge of that that affected things. We were fighting the elements and I think you can feel that a little bit in the music. As far as the weather, it’s nice to feel relaxed when you’re not in the studio pounding away at whatever song you’re working on, so I think there was an advantage to being in California in that the down-time was a really good release.

How much preparation was there going into this? Was there much written already or did a lot come out in the studio?
Probably half the songs were pretty well finished. We’d actually been doing a little tour heading down to the studio where we played five or six of the songs that ended up on the record, and those songs were way more finished than we’ve had probably any song going into the studio ever, because Ross had prepared us ahead of time by telling Brian (Giles, guitar/vocals) and I that we had to have our vocals pretty much done before heading into the studio, and we’ve never had that before. We had songs totally written – vocals, lyrics, everything – and those songs got some tweaks done to them by Ross and us while we were tracking them, but then there was four or five songs that were maybe just skeletons, one or two riffs that weren’t really songs at all, and we basically created them in the studio, which was a brand new experience for us. It was challenging and very rewarding; it actually ended up being a little less challenging than I thought it would have been because once we got into the rhythm of working in the studio with Ross ideas started flowing very easily.

How would you describe the tone of Only Ghosts? Based on a few listens, it sounds a lot more open, more confessional.
Yeah, there was a lot more cohesion in the message of the lyrics and the music. On past records, we’ve just recorded a bunch of instrumentals and then added vocals after the fact. The music and lyrics and the meanings of the songs weren’t necessarily tied together. This one is more directly personal from a lyrical standpoint – there’s less metaphor involved – and I think that being bolstered by the music makes the album feel that little bit darker, more open and adventurous musically, and more raw to me. There are fewer overdubs than there have been in the past and the tone feels a little bit darker, but there is optimism there.

That seems very close to the impressionthat I got, though there is a good balance – having something like “Not For You’” and then “The Smell Of The Sound” makes for a good clash in tone.
Yeah, it’s a progressive narrative and I’m not going to talk too much about what the progression is, but it turns out that once we’d settled on a final sequence, all of the songs that I sing on coincidentally ended up chronological, because they’re basically autobiographical. There’s a story there but it’s not easy to figure out; I think it’s more fun for people to take what is meaningful to them from the lyrics and not be told what it means to the person who wrote them. I think it cheapens stuff sometimes, and limits interpretation by telling people what the lyrics “mean” because they can mean all kinds of different things.

Red Fang "Only Ghosts" press photos 2016

“This one is more directly personal from a lyrical standpoint – there’s less metaphor involved – and I think that being bolstered by the music makes the album feel that little bit darker, more open and adventurous musically, and more raw to me.”

Both your vocal work and your bass parts are incredibly strong on this album. Were there any changes you made in terms of technique?
The approach to the vocals was inspired by Ross and it was definitely a new one. Before tracking, we spent a good half-hour to an hour talking about what the song meant and what it was we were trying to say with it. He pushed me a lot harder to push more air and sing as powerfully and loud as possible, with the idea that we weren’t going to double the vocal tracks at all. In the past, I’ve always tried to sing powerfully but concentrating a lot on pitch, creating a rhythmically even vocal take so that I can then go back and double it. This time, he just wanted to get a good vocal track on its own so he kept pushing me to go harder and deeper every single time I did another take until he felt we had something that worked. Then there are spots where he would layer the vocals or go back and double, if I did one take where there was a natural harmony he would go back and put the harmonies together, but we didn’t plan any of that stuff out. As far as the bass goes the mood of the session was about not holding anything back, so similarly I think that I was just focused on giving the maximum energy that I could to the bass playing. The other big difference was that in the past we’ve always just tracked rhythm guitar, bass and drums live and so whichever bass take matched up best with the drums, whichever compromise between drums and bass worked, was the one that we would go with but this time we did everything separate so I could focus on doing the best bass take that we could along with the best drum take. Just the style of how we tracked it affected how I played.

In the past, you’ve gotten a lot of love for your videos. Do you have anything similar planned for this album, even though it might be a bit more difficult to marry zombies with the kind of topics you’re covering here?
It’s true, although we’ve already finished shooting the first video. It was going to be done with editing yesterday with Whitey (McConaughy), the guy who’s done most of our videos, but his editing software went wrong but it is completely done. It is in the same vein as other videos, which I had some reservations about at first because this album feels more serious but really, all of the videos we’ve done (except for “Prehistoric Dog”) are pretty serious songs lyrically, but the video doesn’t really have any relation to the lyrical content, which I think is fine. We’re known for this pretty entertaining style of video, which I am still pretty entertained by, and so to me there’s not really a conflict between the content of the videos and the lyrics being unrelated. Maybe some of the other songs we make videos for might have a bit of a mood shift to match the songs more but this video matches the mood of the music perfectly well, like the last ones have. It’s pretty crazy and I’m pretty excited about seeing the final version of it.

So am I, man. There seemed to be a common link in a lot of those videos with beer, but you can’t drink beer anymore. Do you have an alternative or are you more clean-living these days?
I’ve kind of gotten over the thing I was suffering with that prevented me from drinking beer but I still prefer cocktails. My preference depends on the day but I prefer more bitter cocktails, more ‘adult-tasting’ ones like a Sazerac or an Old-fashioned, without too much sweetness in them and a bit more of a herbal feel, or the other one that’s the standby is a tall tequila soda. So, not the sweet cocktails or super-burly ones but the ones that have a touch of bitterness.

How did the artwork for Only Ghosts come about? I feel that the more I stare at it, the further I lose my grasp on what it is.
[laughs] That’s great! Hopefully, it’s having the right effect, then. We had a meeting with Orion (Landau), who’s done the artwork for all our previous albums and is super-talented, can whip stuff up really fast. We had a meeting about wanting to be way more graphic with the artwork because the first two records were very busy visually and this album feels a lot more stripped-down musically, which we felt before we’d even gone into the studio. We wanted to get back to the spirit of the very first album cover, just the skull and the logo, without necessarily trying to recreate it – something more graphic, simple and bold. He came up with that and a bunch of other variations that are hopefully all going to be released as digital single artwork. We all felt immediately that it was perfect. We didn’t have an album title when we came up with that artwork but we were messing around with a few other titles and then Only Ghosts seemed to fit the lyrical themes throughout the record and that artwork evokes ghosts. I love it – it makes me a little dizzy to look at it.

Though it’s been a few years since the last album, you’ve released a few EPs, including an Elvis cover 7”. How was that experience for you and do you have anything similar planned for the future?
The backside of that one was a cover of a song from Fraggle Rock for their 30th anniversary a few years back, where they had a compilation of 30 bands covering 30 songs from the show. Both of those, we had the same approach. There wasn’t too much from Fraggle Rock where we thought, “This song is awesome, let’s do that.” Similarly, none of us are really fans of Elvis’s music and that song in particular isn’t one that any of us think is particularly amazing. It has pretty interesting lyrics, but on both of those songs we just threw away the music and basically wrote a new song using the lyrics. That’s a pretty fun process, to keep the same spirit of the song but musically not even the same chord progressions. We were approached about that Elvis cover at first and we were quite, “Eh, none of us really like Elvis, maybe let’s not do this.” Then, we started thinking about it more and decided to do an Elvis song the way we would want to hear it. I had a great time doing that and it went pretty quick. It was one of those cases where the song was pretty much done but not the vocals. Obviously I knew the lyrics but Adam, our front-of-house engineer, said “Just start singing and see what happens.” I made up the melody kind of one the spot for the chorus and I’m happy with how it turned out. We don’t have any plans to do another one but if we’re asked, I think we’d be up for the challenge.

Between touring and releases, you’ve basically been running without a break for a few years now. Do you feel that you have to keep working and moving or else you’ll lose momentum?
It’s partly that as far as touring goes but it’s also that this is what we do for a living now, so we have to tour to make money. There’s never been a show we didn’t want to do but sometimes we end up filling our schedule a bit more. If I could stay home, have longer breaks, sometimes I would but we have to be on the road to make a living. As far as writing and being in the studio, that’s just something that comes from within. There are no external factors that make us feel pressured to do that, it’s just something that happens naturally. We all love touring but the frequency of the tours also has something to do with our income.

Are there any venues that stand out for you for whatever reason, be they positive or negative?
There’s not a lot that have stood out for negative reasons. None pop to mind which I guess is a good sign. The short tour we just did, there was a place called Tivoli in Utrecht is about two years old and has maybe five different concert halls of various sizes, and has a super-nice backstage. It has an actual restaurant and bar downstairs where you’re fed, and places like that tend to stand out – where it’s clean, nice and comfortable and the wi-fi is always raging, because that’s always important when you’re communicating with home. The one in England that stands out to me is the Electric Ballroom. That is one of the biggest places we’ve ever played but it has a very intimate feel to it. I really like that kind of place. There’s one In Denver called the Ogden Theatre and the Bluebird is a smaller version of that. Both are great, big-ish but the way they’re laid out, they feel intimate. Brixton Academy is like that too, where you know there are 5000 people there but it feels cosy.

Are there any things you do on tour that help to settle you?
It’s pretty important when I’m on tour to get some sort of exercise. I really like to go for walks when I have the time between soundchecks, explore the surroundings and get my blood going a little bit. You’re cooped up in a van all day long and not really moving your body, so that starts to make me feel a little stir crazy. Just getting out and getting some fresh air, or even doing a little exercise at the club, really helps my mental state a lot.

Do you get to sample the local cuisine much?
Oh, sure! I love regional delights. I’m all about trying anything once. I’ve tried all kinds of things that some people would probably be pretty upset to hear that I’ve eaten, but generally if it’s being eaten regionally I feel that me having eaten it one time isn’t going to tip the scales one way or another. I’m just interested in finding out about regional cuisine so I’ve tried a lot of weird things and enjoyed most of them.

How often does it come back to bite you on the ass?
So far, not really anything. There’s one thing I’d heard about ahead of time in Iceland called hákarl, that Greenland fermented shark meat, and I was ready and willing to try it if it was presented to me but I wasn’t going to seek it out. David actually did try it and he put it in his mouth, had a bite or two but had to spit it out and he said his beard smelled like it for two or three days afterwards, so I’m not super-sad about not trying that.

Words: Dave Bowes // Photos: James Rexroad – Only Ghosts is out now via Relapse Records.
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