Wellington-based Beastwars are already a powerful force in the realm of sludge metal. The quartet’s second full-length Blood Becomes Fire continues the path taken by their audacious debut with the colossal sound that makes their contemporaries look insignificant by comparison. On top of that, the album is told through the eyes of a dying traveller from another time who finds the contemporary world destroyed, which places the band’s style in an intriguing futuristic context. I’ve recently approached Nathan Hickey who plays the drums for Beastwars. We’ve discussed such issues as the origin of the band, the process of putting out the new record, internet piracy and the new means of music distribution among others.
As most SputnikMusic users may not be familiar with Beastwars, could you tell us how your musical path started? What inspired you to play sludge metal in the first place?
Me and Clayton (Anderson, guitarist) met in a bar and formed a friendship over red wine and stoner rock. We wanted to form a band that sounded a bit like Kyuss, but with the big hooks of The Cult. When James (Woods, bass) and Matt (Hyde, vocals) joined that plan went totally out the window. James’ massively distorted tone shaped the sound of the band just as much as Matts vocals did. We pushed harder, played louder and it all came out heavier than we had imagined it would. We were just 4 guys that met up on a Monday night to have a jam and drink some beer. In those early days we never thought that we’d be making albums and playing the shows that we get to play. When we supported Kyuss Lives!, just after our first album came out, it was such a surreal feeling. We were supporting a band that I thought I’d never get to see live in my life, and they’d chosen us to play with them.
Your maxim “Obey the Riff” fits numerous sludge metal and stoner rock bands. What exactly does it mean when it comes to Beastwars?
“Obey the Riff” is just a simple idea. Everything begins and ends with the riff. The riff has a huge weight on its shoulders. It should be obeyed. Our aim is to write better and better songs that make people feel something in their guts. The drums, the bass, the vocals are equally important, but the riff is born from the guitar. It’s the seed of everything.
Your debut was exceptionally well received, and I can imagine it’s difficult to balance the willingness to evolve with the expectations of your fans. What did your creative process for Blood Becomes Fire look like?
We had made a point of playing the songs on the new album live a lot before recording them. There were 3 or 4 songs that we were playing on the release tour of the debut album. So, these songs felt pretty worn in by the time we recorded. There were also 2 or 3 songs that hadn’t been played live at all, and the first time we’d ever played them all the way through was when we were recording them. We knew we had to evolve, but I think the first album was such a good representation of what we sound like that any evolution was going to be very subtle. The main thing for me was making the songs sound tighter and more direct. Make them as short as possible which kind of goes against what a lot of heavy bands are doing these days.
The music on Blood Becomes Fire sports a futuristic vibe with the lyrics revolving around sci-fi themes. As regards the artwork, you once again teamed up with Weta Workshop’s Nick Keller to splendid effect. What does your cooperation usually look like?
We’re really lucky to have Nick on our side. His artwork is truly mindblowing. It’s really hard trying to get heard over every other metal band in the world, but his artwork opens eyes and ears for us. One look at the cover and everyone wants to know what the album sounds like. We work really closely with him on concepts. Then, he’ll go away, paint something and show this to us. We are huge fans of his art and feel really honored to have such a great relationship with him.
Putting out a record can be a complex process that requires a lot of patience. What was the most difficult aspect of crafting your new album?
You have to celebrate all the little triumphs when putting out an album because if you don’t, it all becomes a blur of spreadsheets and emails. Then, you might lose sight of why you’re in a band to begin with. I think the most difficult part of creating the album was naming it. And I can’t believe how hard it was because now Blood Becomes Fire seems like the most perfect name in the world for the album.
Sonically, your music tends to be quite bass-centered, which reminds me of AmRep noise rock. How did you guys come up with your distinctive style? What are your prime influences?
James said he wants the bass to sound and feel as though you’re standing at the end of a runway as a 747 takes off over your head. That’s a pretty good description. He uses 2 Rat distortion pedals, a New Zealand made Hotcake pedal and a big tube amp. The rest of us just turn up and work our noises in around him. Jesus Lizard, Sonic Youth, Kyuss, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and a lot of the New Zealand Flying Nun stuff are all big influences on our sound.
Which song of yours are you particularly happy about?
My personal favourite track is “Tower of Skulls.” I love the way it crawls along, slowly evolving, getting heavier and heavier.
Unfortunately Blood Becomes Fire leaked several weeks before its release date. How do you feel about that?
Unfortunately that’s the state of the music industry these days. We offered the album to a few reviewers, and for some reason one of them thought it’d be a cool thing to leak the album a month out from release. I have no idea why someone would do that. But in saying that, a bunch of people downloaded the album for free and liked it, told their friends and now we’re sitting at #1 on the metal charts, and number 20 overall on the bandcamp sales charts, and at #2 in New Zealand top 40 behind Michael Buble. So, it wasn’t totally detrimental. It just freaked us out that someone thought it was worth leaking. Everyone these days has put their own personal value on music. Some people want to support the band to make more music, tour overseas etc. and will buy the band’s music. Some people don’t.
Nowadays such websites as bandcamp and facebook are playing a major part in the promotion process. Are you pleased with the changes that have recently been taking place in the music industry?
Yeah. Facebook is a great way to connect with fans. The band formed just as Facebook came around and we’ve seen how it can be used for good and for bad. I lost interest in Myspace all those years ago because it just turned into pages and pages of spam. Hopefully, Facebook doesn’t end up the same way. Bandcamp is brilliant: I love it how someone buys your music, you basically get paid instantly and you can keep in contact with your fans through their email addresses. Itunes feels a lot less personal. Streaming sites like Rdio and Spotify are an interesting development. We’ve done an experiment with this new album, and have only let Side A of the album be streamable. If people like it and want to hear the rest, they are welcome to buy it. I genuinely believe that we have sold more albums because we took that stance.
It’s an easy way to sit on the fence over the streaming issue. One side is that fans get to hear your music, which is great. The bad side is that the royalties you receive from those services are so minuscule that it brings me back to contemplating what music is actually worth. The time, money and effort that goes into creating it and what value people are willing to put on it. We all know CDs have been overpriced for years, and for us to press LPs living in New Zealand is so expensive because A: we don’t have a label paying for them, and B: there is no pressing plant here in NZ. So, we have to get them pressed in the States and shipped back over here. It all adds up.
There are only 4 million people living in New Zealand, and so I suppose you can’t tour extensively over there for a long time. Do you have any plans to tour abroad then?
We’d love to play through Europe and anywhere else that would have us really. Like every good heavy band in the world, Roadburn and Desertfest are 2 festivals that we’d love to play. Hopefully this album reaches those guys’ ears and maybe you’ll see us there.
Getting more people to listen to the band and play live for them is a huge part of what we do. Everything happens at its own pace. When the right offer comes we’ll be off.
What do you think the future holds for Beastwars? Do you already have any ideas for the new record?
We’ve got a bunch of ideas already for the next album. Just like how Blood Becomes Fire has evolved from the first record I’m expecting this one to take another step forwards and sideways too. We’ve always had a pretty good plan on how we want the band to evolve, and hopefully we can keep building on the momentum that Blood Becomes Fire has given us.
The first half of Blood Becomes Fire is streaming at this location: