We talked with vocalist and great lyricist J.R. Hayes about Pig Destroyer, his views and the new album ‘Head Cage’

It’s been almost two decades since the world was first assaulted with a record entitled Prowler in the Yard. Since then the Washington, D.C.-based grindcore masters and innovators Pig Destroyer have been a benchmark of quality in terms of heavy music. The release of their sixth full-length, Head Cage, was the perfect excuse to talk with vocalist and great lyricist J.R. Hayes about the band, his views, and, of course, the record itself.

We know head cage as a method of medieval torture, but what did you want to convey with this album title?
I think it was just difficult for me to find an album title that I could get the whole band to agree on. I think I probably came up with like 100 of them that they shot down, but I liked this title because it was simple and straightforward and I think it kind of encapsulates a lot of the different themes that run through all of my lyrics, you know, just sort of like the escape from society, the escape from one’s own head kind of thing.

In 2012, when Book Burner was released, you were very much into religious arguments. Were you focused in something specific during the time Head Cage was conceived?
When I did Book Burner I was reading a lot of nonfiction stuff. It was a lot of philosophy and religious literature and things like that. For this album I wanted to kind of try to make every song a little bit different from the other one. I didn’t want to… in the past we’ve kind of done records that I think people would call concept records, and that’s fine. I mean, that was fine for those albums, but for this album I kind of wanted to go a little more all over the place and try some different things. We don’t like to repeat ourselves as a band, we’ve never really wanted to remake the same record over and over again. You know, we always want to try to move forward and make sure that whatever record we put out is a document of where we’re at in a specific time. So yeah, I was just trying to mix it up and, do some fiction stuff and do some more philosophical type of stuff.

Reading the press release and Scott Hull’s statements in particularly, one wonders how Head Cage could have turned out to be so differently sonically. Could you talk about that balance between Scott’s vision and the rest of the band? Because it seems that Head Cage could have been a completely out-left-field, almost unrecognizable Pig Destroyer record. He talks about being influenced by Metz, Cherubs, Confessor and Loincloth.
He always wants to challenge himself, and like I said, we don’t really want to do the same thing over and over. I think early on in the making of the record, I think Scott was kind of very anti-blast beat, but the rest of us… to me that was sort of throwing out the baby with the bathwater kind of attitude. I wanted to keep the blast beats but also add some new things to it. I don’t think I would have been comfortable with an album that had no blast beats on it and had no indication of our “old” band. I wanted it to be a mix new things but also familiar things. I think he felt like he was at the risk of alienating the band if he just like pushed too hard on it. But that’s what being in band is all about. You have to take the individual’s vision, but then it has to also fit in to the band vision, because we try to make the band a democracy. Scott is always trying to be a better guitar player and a better composer. It’s really easy, especially when you have success with something, it’s really easy to get complacent and just be like, “well, this works so we can just do this and it will be fine”. Maybe that’s true, but if we’re not challenging ourselves and challenging our audience then I don’t feel like we’re doing our job. We want to give people a reason to buy the new record. If it sounds just like the last few records that we did, then why would we expect people to pick it up, other than out of some sort of loyalty to the band, which, you know, people probably would. We want to make sure that there’s something new for people who want something new and also something old for people who want something old, you know, so you can’t make everybody happy. But hopefully we can come closer.

You have John Jarvis on bass now. How’s that worked out? Did it add an extra flavor to the creative process?
Oh yeah. I mean, it really gave us a lot more room to try different things. I think that was part of the spark for Scott as far as, you know, being able to do different things, because him being the only guitar player in the band, I mean that’s a lot of pressure on him to always be playing the whole time and always be not just a guitar player but the rhythm and bass player as well. And so, having a bass player kind of opened things up for him a little bit so he could try some different things that he wouldn’t have been able to do on our older record. Having John it’s also having another person with ideas, which is always great.

For the first time you’ve handed one of your records over to someone else – Will Putney, who mixed and mastered the album. I know Scott was kind of relieved but was it an easy decision for all you guys?
It was definitely a big decision for me. Ultimately his decision because, you know, he’s the one who would have to do all that work, you know, and I think that, um, I think that him knowing that he wasn’t going to to do the mixing and mastering this time it kind of allowed him to focus more on the composition and the recording and just making sure that the songs were right as opposed to kind dividing your forces a little bit and having to think about all that stuff. He got to focus more on just being in a band, and just being the guitar player. I think that was good for him because I know that when we do the record, it can be kind of a grind, no pun intended, to do all of that stuff on his own and it’s really exhausting and time consuming. It made us a little nervous, but I think Will did a great job and things turned out well.

“When you go crawling to the government for security and convenience, that’s at the expense of your own freedom. You can’t really have both of those things at the same time. I personally would rather err on the side of more freedom than less freedom. I think that there’s a sort of a movement in our government where they want to try to slowly take those things away from us and they make it seem like it’s a good thing, but it’s not.”

There are a couple of verses that are very interesting in the song “Army of Cops”. I was wondering if you could further detail your thoughts on your opinion that “we’ve become the nation of victimization / why can’t we admit we’re hypocrites? / nobody likes our direction / yet we don’t turn around / could it be, that secretly / we like being kept down?
I think what I was going for in that lyric is that… in America, I can’t speak for other places around the world, but in America there’s a kind of a way that I’ve always kind of understood our constitution and understood the way that America is, is that, you know, people should be able to do what they want without harming other people and we should be allowed that freedom. But then there are a lot of people, especially I think younger people, who kind of, want more security and they want more convenience and things like that. When you go crawling to the government for security and convenience, that’s at the expense of your own freedom. You can’t really have both of those things at the same time. I personally would rather err on the side of more freedom than less freedom. I think that there’s a sort of a movement in our government where they want to try to slowly take those things away from us and they make it seem like it’s a good thing, but it’s not. People have this sort of… maybe they would even deny that it’s there, but I think inside people they, they kind of want that security. They want that strong hand to rule them even if they don’t want to admit it.

I loved the way you describe nowadays’ social climate on “Trap Door Man” – “if you make me pick a side / you might not like what I decide / apparently, if we disagree / we become sworn enemies”. This sort of environment seems to have just started, with a long way down to go. It’s like an environment fueled by fear. I don’t know if you would agree.
Absolutely! I think that basically what’s happening is that there’s like this sort of sense that if you speak your mind and people don’t like what you’re saying then that can sometimes result in you losing your job or you know, or being ostracized by people because they don’t like what you’re saying. If someone says something that I don’t agree with, that’s fine to me. I totally welcome that, you know, and I think that, um, you have to keep that stability, especially in public life because if you’re not going to listen to what someone else has to say and respect their opinion… once you take that away, the only thing that’s left is violence and hate. You have to be able to discuss things, and I think that there’s a certain climate in the US right now where people just don’t want to have a conversation. They just don’t want to say, “yeah, fuck that guy. He doesn’t think what I think, so fuck him.” I just think that’s a really poor attitude. When someone believes something differently from you, even if it’s really different from something that you believe in, I think you still have to communicate with those people and you have to understand that they’re still people you know, and they have a right to believe what they want. A lot of people just want to live in a world that doesn’t exist. I try to live in the world as it is, even if it’s not something that I like. You have to be realistic about it. I’m the type of person where I don’t like to read a bunch of stuff that just lines up with everything that I think. When I read things, I want to read things that go against the things that I think I want to learn about all aspects of an issue. That’s why I think it’s a good thing to watch debates because then you get a feeling for where both sides are coming from. I think that that’s the only way to get the full picture of what’s happening. When you become isolated in an echo chamber and you just surround yourself with people who think like you do, well, that’s kind the death of critical thinking. You have to progress your ideas and to make yourself smarter, you have to keep feeding your brain different things, you know what I mean? And some of those things you might agree with and some you might not. I just think when you just keep focusing on things that you already know and you already believe, well that kind of stagnates you as a person.

Words: Tiago Moreira // Photo: Jay Dixon – Head Cage is out now on Relapse Records.

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