On their second album, the Greenville, South Carolina metal/punk/hardcore outfit Islander were forced to face a situation that most bands only encounter after many years of activity. They’ve changed 75% of the lineup and managed to don’t skip or miss a single beat. We talked with the only remaining original member of Islander, Mikey Carvajal (vocalist/lyricist), to know more about these changes and what’s behind their new beast that goes by the name of Power Under Control.
I would like to start by talking about your roots. Your family is from the Dominican Republic and you grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. How did that shape you as a person and consequently as an artist?
My dad… it’s his side of the family that is Dominican. I think a lot of it just gave me culture as far as the idea of family being so close. Our family is so tight. I think bringing that idea into the music industry, into the scene of rock ‘n’ roll… that’s kind where it influenced me with that. I saw how family it was supposed to be and that’s the same thing with our fans. We’ve been calling them family forever because that’s what they are for us. We hate the “fans”. They are our friends and our family. I think that’s the main way the Dominican culture influenced me. Other than that… we don’t play reggae music. [laughs] As far as growing up in South Carolina, we had a lot of hardcore bands and we had a good scene for a while. Also because Atlanta, Georgia is pretty close to there and so we were getting bands like Norma Jean, The Chariot, and stuff like that as well. Lot of stuff to be influenced by.
If we look to titles alone – 2014’s Violence and Destruction and 2016’s Power Under Control – we can sense a strong change and I would even dare to say maturation. Would you agree with it and was it even something you were aiming for?
Violence and Destruction was never supposed to be like a violent title – even though it’s called Violence and Destruction. It was based off of a story in the bible, in the book of Jeremiah where he was just saying that every time that he opens his mouth he’s warning people about the destruction and all the violence in the world, and he’s just telling everybody about Jesus and they just look to him like he was the household joke because of it. But he says that if he held it inside of him then burns in his bones like fire and so he must speak. It was never supposed to be hardcore and violent. It was supposed to honestly be just another way of saying that we are sharing love and truth even though people don’t want to hear it. Power Under Control is the idea that we are born with all this youthfulness and wildness and we just grow up wanting to do our own thing…. it’s like a horse, or a stallion. You put a saddle on a stallion, you teach him how to turn left and right, you teach him how to be obedient. I feel like once we live our lives on love, and God, and the reason that we were created, I believe that our power is like the power of the horse, it’s not less powerful, but now it’s under control and can be used for good things. It’s not spread out all over the place, it’s directed.
There’s a line on the opening track that goes, “Violence and destruction is my favorite game.” It seems almost like you’re making an effort to connect the dots sort of speak. Would it be fair to say so?
Yeah, absolutely. Both albums are concept albums – the new album even more so. That’s not supposed to be me speaking in the song, it is supposed to be this character that I made up. The whole album is a story line, it kind of follows their struggle with wanting to do whatever they want to do, like on the song “Darkness”. They’re just kind of saying, “I’m gonna be who I want to be, and I’m gonna do what I want,” but throughout the album they find that it might not be the best way to live their lives. [laughs] It’s just a conceptual album with several different characters that I play throughout the album.
How is that process for you, to write in the perspective of another person, a character?
It’s difficult, and the reason it’s so difficult is because a lot people listen to music, I don’t think they see it as an art form as much as it is. I was scared that they were just going to listen to it and think that was me sharing my views and beliefs instead of me writing the story and playing the different parts. I was scared that they were going to think that I believe in darkness, or I’m into darkness, or whatever, like that song talks about. But actually I’m playing a character and that’s the way I wrote it. It’s hard to play a character in a song just out of fear that people are going to misunderstand you.
Some songwriters use characters to tell a story, but some of the content is biographical. Does that happen with you?
Not so much. This album, I definitely have the same views as where the character ends up on the album because that’s kind of the message of the album, but as far on this album, I just try to stick to the story instead of letting myself deep in there too much.
What does that bring to you… writing in the perspective of a character? A new sense of perspective?
Yeah, absolutely. Honestly… even using like the song “Darkness” as an example, it brings a lot of pain and heartbreak just from writing from that perspective just because you start realizing that a lot of the world might be the way that character is and you start to realize maybe how much pain and hurt that character lives with every day. And how many people live with that hurt and that pain… It’s pretty heartbreaking, actually. It affects me in that way, just to write from the perspective of somebody who is caught up in his own life, in his own self, instead of being sacrificial.
A lot of lineup changes happened for this album. How did J.R. Bareis (Love and Death), Zeke Vasquez (ex-ForeverAtLast), and Arin Ilejay (ex-Avenged Sevenfold) end up on Islander?
Oh, we were just friends. We had toured in the past, with different bands. J.R. was the guitar tech of Korn, me and Arin we met at Mayhem festival, and me and Zeke we met… he was a fan of our band, actually. He came out to see us live and he was in another band at the time, but we had made some changes in the band and in the lineup and… yeah, this is what it is. We were like, “Dude, let’s keep this thing going. Let’s keep playing.” So, everybody jumped in the band and we already had a good thing going that everybody believed in. It worked out.
I must confess that I find it extremely impressive how Islander changed 75% of its lineup and not only maintained the level of quality that was set with your debut album, but even manage to increase it. You being the unifying element of it all, how did you manage to pull it all together and be able to perfectly include the three new members on your voyage?
You know, truthfully… I don’t know. [laughs] When you say it that way, I really think back on it and I’m like, “Wow, nothing of this was me.” I feel like God put this band together. I don’t remember how it happened in that sense. I never planned on being able to keep it going or anything. [laughs] It was just… it happened. [laughs]
I’m really curious about J.R.’s input on this album. I remember watching an interview of Love and Death where Head was talking how he had to convince J.R., because J.R. was a little bit unsure of himself, to start writing his own stuff. What was his input on this album?
You know, he actually was still unsure about writing his own stuff on this album. It was something he was nervous about, but I think he proved himself. We just sat down in a room together – that’s how we write music – and we just start jamming. But J.R., yeah he was nervous going into it from that perspective. But I feel he did amazing. He nailed it.
You’ve said “We would not move on to the next song until we were finished with the song we were working on”. This can be in its own way problematic, because you can find yourself in a kind of a dead end without any actual good idea on how to push it forward. How did you manage to avoid those creative “traps”?
I think a lot of it is… we felt the pressure because we had to get the album done in like a certain time limit. We didn’t have a lot of money and stuff like that to work with, so we were kind of just forcing ourselves and pressuring ourselves into finishing the album within a week and a half. We just spent an extra time with it and… I don’t know. We’re artists. We never had like a super crazy road block with it. [laughs] We knew where we wanted the story to go and… it worked out.
“It’s hard to play a character in a song just out of fear that people are going to misunderstand you.”
There’s a moment on the “Better Day” where you seem to use the Auto-Tune vocal processor just like Kanye West did on his album 808s & Heartbreak. Is that a reference or just something you thought it would be cool on the song?
Oh, just something we thought it would be cool. It’s not really Auto-Tune. What we actually did was to slow the track down, the vocal track. We were listening to a lot of hip hop, like Tyler The Creator, A$AP Rocky, and we were just trying to figure out something dope to do right there to sound kind of hip hop and that’s what we came up with.
What did you want to convey lyrically with “All We Need”?
That’s the part of the album where the character is letting the other character know that, “Hey, I appreciate you playing bad guy and say what you wanted to say but don’t tell us what to do anymore. This is me and my crew and we are gonna live our lives how we want to.” It’s that same character from “Darkness” saying, “You know what? You can just stop talking because we’re going to do what we want anyway.” That’s the character that’s being portrayed in “All We Need”.
Can we talk about the lyrics on “Beelzebub”?
Yeah, absolutely. That same character that we were just discussing, in “Beelzebub” that character starts realizing that the world that we live in is ran by evil and they’ve been made them fool this whole time. They start noticing and saying, “I see what’s going on. I see behind this false portrayal of what’s been going on in the world.” And they’re just saying out loud.
On “Beelzebub” there’s a line that goes like, “They want to take my guns away and take me to a place where I can feel safe. (…) But they worship Beelzebub.” Who is the character specifically speaking about here?
It was kind of talking about the powers that be, whether be government or whatever. Saying like, “These people say they want to take guns away and they want to do all these things the world a better place but they worship Satan. So, what are they talking about?” [laughs]
So, the character is talking about gun control.
The character is talking about gun control at that moment, but they’re using it to say, “You guys say that you want to take this world and you want to make it a better place where people aren’t dying, but yet you worship and follow the rules of evil.” It’s saying basically that they don’t really want me to feel safe. [laughs] Just showing that there’s a double standard.
I’m curious to know how you managed to not freak out with touring with P.O.D. and even receive public praise from Sonny Sandoval. I mean, P.O.D. was the first band – back when you were in 8th grade and your brother begged you to go to the show – that managed to blew you away.
You got it absolutely right. It was an amazing experience to see them live for the first time and over the years I just became friends with those guys and they were a major influence on my personal life – not just musically. I guess I manage to not freak out because we were already friends, but at the same time I did nerd out a little bit. I found myself on tour with my favorite band from being a kid… who wouldn’t be excited?
For when a collaboration with Josh Scogin (former Norma Jean, former The Chariot, ’68)? I know you’re… ok, I know you’re a fanboy of Josh’s work.
[laughs] How would you know that… What are you talking about? How would you know that?
I read. [laughs]
You read… gotcha ya. [laughs] I’m friends with him. We’ve actually talked about doing a track together someday, but I don’t know when it will happen, or if it will happen… but hopefully someday. I love his band ’68…
Such an underrated band.
Yeah, they’re very underrated. Josh has been underrated for a long time. But yeah, we’ll see. Maybe someday we’ll work together.