Portland’s Red Fang turned ten this year and with three acclaimed studio albums and an ever-growing international army of devotees, the band has no plans to slow down. Though a cursory listen would put them in the metal category, their fan base expands far beyond metal. Their particular brand of heavy music is a unique distillation of thrash, sludge, pop and punk. Their music itself is very serious, but yet they’ve managed not to alienate the purists with their humorous sensibilities, e.g. releasing a video featuring the band saving the world’s beer supply from rabid, drunken zombies. While their antics have made the band mildly divisive to some, Red Fang overwhelmingly wins in the end. The heaviness stops with the music – no tough-guy bullshit and no silly metal posturing. It’s a victorious concoction of pilsner, black t-shirts, laughs and riffs. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Dave Sullivan, (guitar) and John Sherman, (drums) to chat about these things, as well as the tropes of genre terminology, how to conduct yourself on tour and more. Three dudes and three tall-boys later, this is what resulted.
Interview by Kevin Spain.
Kevin – I’ve seen your name on a handful of online media publications and various playlists with titles like “metal bands for people who don’t like metal.” From my personal experience of seeing you guys, your crowds run the gamut of different band t-shirts and styles. How do you think this happened? How did metal become so much more appealing recently?
John – For us, I think it’s because none of us listen strictly to metal. We all listen to a lot of different shit and I think all those influences end up in our music. So even though it leans towards the darker, heavier side of music, we all listen to…on our way here we were listening to Michael Jackson, Wu Tang, Sepultura and sometimes there’ll be some Justin Timberlake in there.
David – It’s a blend of a lot of stuff. I don’t know what made that change happen. Torche is good example of that I think because they’re heavy but they’re also really catchy.
John – They’re heavy as fuck! They’re the heaviest.
David – They’re super heavy, but they’re kind of catchy at the same time somehow. We’re just doing what we like and we happen to like a lot of heavy stuff and a lot of other stuff, so it’s just a mixture. We’re not intentionally trying to do a certain style, so it’s just a blend of everything that we like.
John – Yeah, it just seems like when it comes out it goes through the filter that ends up being kind of heavy.
Kevin – Do you give credence to terms like sludge metal, stoner metal or party metal, and do you think they’re even relevant or helpful anymore?
David – (Laughs). No.
John – We used to try to think up ridiculous terms for our band whenever someone would ask what we were. We’d say we were classic Pacific Northwest street metal, even though we weren’t metal at all back then either. I don’t think we’re metal now. I guess there are metal tendencies, but…
David – And some of those words can be helpful, like if you say doom or sludge you can kind of think Melvins, YOB, but really genres are just…
John – But I would call Black Sabbath doom also.
David – Me too, me too.
John – And I would say Mudhoney is kind of sludge, even though they’re not like fuckin’ Windhand or something.
David – I mean it’s hard to talk about music. You gotta use words.
Kevin – It can make you cringe though too.
John – Yeah kind of, but also I don’t care what people call us as long as they call us. You can call me whatever you like, as long as you’re into it. Or if you’re not into it, shut up and get outta here. You’re right though, you have so say something if you’re trying to describe a band.
David – It’s like a lot of times you try to avoid comparing a band to other bands, because that’s the easy way to kind of give you an idea of what a band’s like. All those terms, there’s so much overlap and it just doesn’t really mean much anymore.
John – It’s like we were talking about the other day, pretty much every band in the ‘90s was “Angular Rock.” Like, “Oh that’s real angular.” Like what do you mean, angular? “You know, like Drive Like Jehu.”
Kevin – I was just gonna say that.
John – And like all the bands that sound like Drive Like Jehu.
Kevin – Unwound.
John – Yeah, that’s a good one too.
Kevin – Jawbox, Shiner.
John – Yeah and we were talking about that and like, what does that even mean now? (Referring to self), “Well I think it means like, you know, you change directions really quickly, like if the riff goes from here to over here.” Maybe that’s what I think is angular. Not rounded edges, you know? Not smooth transitions.
Kevin – I thought it might’ve meant the shape of the chord.
David – Yeah!
John – Yeah, it might! I’m a drummer. I don’t know. People are always going to have weird labels. Who knows…what are you going to do?
Kevin – You guys have been on the road consistently since 2009. In what ways has that taken its toll and what has being on the road done for you other than the conventional stuff?
John – If you want be in band, if you want that to be what you do and if you want that to be your thing, you have to tour all the time because…luckily the internet is a total double-edged sword where it’s awesome because you can find out about anything for free if you have an internet connection. Like some dude in China could find out, well maybe not China because they monitor their internet or whatever, but you know what I’m saying. If you have an internet connection, you can find out about anything, which is great, but it also waters down everything so you have to fight harder to be seen and heard, which means you have to get out in front of people all the time. And honestly this year we haven’t toured that much really. By the end of the year we’ll probably be only gone for three months, which might sound like a lot to some people. We’re usually gone six months, which is perfect for me. But there are a lot of bands that tour ten months, which is insane. I can’t imagine that.
David – One thing I can say that it’s done for me is made me realize that I’m pretty lucky to have a group of friends that I get along with musically and we can spend six to eight hours a day packing the van, playing shows, sleeping on floors or whatever, and we all still get along. Maybe there are some rough spots for sure, but we just work well and we’ve been doing this for ten years now and it’s still happening, so that’s one thing I guess the road has taught me.
John – Yeah it’s tough. It’s tough to find a group of people who you can share that experience with and not kill each other, you know? David and I have been playing music together for close to 20 years, and Bryan and David and I like 15 years. And this band’s been around for ten years. And the reason is, in between all the different bands we’ve played in, I try to play with other people and if you have that magic connection or whatever, like “I gotta get back together with these guys, these are the guys that get it.” So if you’re on tour, if you go on tour and you don’t have a fucking awesome time at least the first half dozen times you do it, then stop doing it. It’s never gonna be awesome for you.
David – And bring as many socks as you can bring.
John – Yeah, socks.
Kevin – I can’t really think of any other bands that demonstrate gratitude and appreciation for their fans as much as you guys. Do you feel you’ve always been that way, before Red Fang, or do you feel a certain wisdom has come with age and experience? I know this is a hard thing to measure, but it’s just something I’ve noticed.
David – I think it was pretty easy. We’re all pretty mellow, nice dudes, I think. But also, once we started touring as a small band not making any money at all, maybe a drink ticket or two from the bar, you realize pretty quickly, especially because some of us worked in bars forever, if you’re a fuckin’ nice guy cool shit happens, you know? If you treat everyone rad, you get treated rad. So that’s a good piece of advice to any band that’s touring – if you get drink tickets, still you gotta tip your bartender. That drink ticket is for a drink, but that bartender’s not working for free…fuck that, tip your bartender. Guaranteed you’re gonna get an extra drink ticket. If you’re awesome to the bartenders and the door guys and the sound guys, and make friends with them, they tell their friends and the club enjoys having you there.
John – Yeah, it just makes sense to be nice.
David – Just make friends with them and that’s rad, and the same thing with fans.
John – Because they came out to support you, so be nice to people.
David – I think we learned a lot when we started touring with bigger bands like Mastodon. Those guys we super gracious and generous dudes, and they could’ve not talked to us the whole time except tell us to eat shit and fuck off and we would’ve been like “Man, thanks so much for having us on this tour.”
John – They were super nice to us.
David – Amazing.
Kevin – Those guys are absolutely notorious sweethearts, very fucking good dudes.
David – And we’ve been lucky with pretty much every band we’ve ever toured with, with very few exceptions, have been fucking awesome people. And the longer you do it, that network kind of grows. You end up hanging out and shootin’ the shit with bands who have played to 60,000 people and guys that have worked lights for bands that play to 60,000 people or whatever, rad people hang out with rad people. So be rad. Or you’re gonna hang out with shitty people.
ALL – Cheers. [Toast]
Kevin – What do you have to say about the notion that playing metal or just heavy music demands some sort of purity?
John – Yeah I can talk about that one. I know there’s this idea…like “false metal” or whatever, I don’t care about that. That’s just…if you enjoy doing it, creating it or you enjoy listening to it, then whatever. There’s no way to define what true metal is.
David – I don’t care if you’ve never heard of Slayer before today and you hear it and you like it, then you fuckin’ like it.
Kevin – You’re in.
David – I’ll listen to fuckin’ Lionel Ritchie and Hell Awaits on the same day. I don’t give a shit. No guilty pleasures, only pleasures.
John – Yeah exactly, that’s a good way to put it.
David – And people who want to be in some exclusive club or whatever, then fine, you can have your club. I don’t need to be in it. I don’t like this cliquey, holier than thou shit.
John – Just enjoy it and don’t be weird about it. Like once a band gets more popular, (listeners) stop liking it because it’s too popular or whatever. That’s stupid. Either you like it or you don’t.