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Interview: Northlane’s Josh Smith talks writing ‘Alien,’ Australian music scene, new bassist, & more

Posted by on September 20, 2019

When Australian metalcore band Northlane released their fifth studio album, Alien, on August 2 (order here), they presented to the world a personal project unlike they ever had before. Exploring the trauma vocalist Marcus Bridge endured as a child and the way it shaped him as a person, the album’s dark, chaotic, intense vibe struck a chord with many. The record was well-received by critics and fans alike, leading to a number 3 debut on the ARIA charts and sold-out shows all over the world.

We sat down with guitarist Josh Smith prior to their sold-out show in New York City to talk about their latest offering, writing such personal music, the amazing feedback it has been receiving, the recent addition of Brendon Padjasek (ex-Structures) to the line-up, the scene coming out of Australia, and more.

How has tour been going so far?

Ridiculously well. We had no idea what to expect going back here because we haven’t been here in about four years or something. And at this stage it looks like about two-thirds of the shows are gonna be sold out, maybe even more. I had no expectations really of what was gonna happen. I didn’t think in my wildest imagination it’d be this good. I couldn’t be happier really. We all kinda feel that way.

How have the audiences in the United States differed from in Australia?

In America…They’re actually different all over America, I’ve found. Which is I guess to be expected ‘cuz you live in such a diverse country. Like, New York is so different to LA, for example. I really like this part of America. I think the crowds are most passionate in this kind of area. We played in Boston last night and it was scary watching people enjoy the show in their Boston way, which is literally just beating the s*** out of each other. I mean, people appreciate music differently all over the world. Australian fans are pretty manic, but so are people here, It’s kind of like a universal language, really.

I feel like there are a lot of bands getting big out of Australia lately. What do you think about the rock scene that’s coming out of Australia right now?

It’s been happening for a minute There’s been bands from Australia doing really well. First one was probably AC/DC (::laughs::). But, you know… Australia definitely punches above its weight. When you consider that we have 20-something million people, a third the size of the UK, we have a lot of really amazing artists. The key ingredient probably would be that you have to work really hard to have a career in music if you’re Australian, especially for a global career. You get pulled through this ringer pretty early on in your career and the ones that survive always seem to do really well because they don’t really take anything for granted and they’re playing music for the right reasons. Nobody from Australia plays music with any expectations of success, so you don’t have any artists that are trying to be famous or any s*** like that. They are literally just playing music because they love it and they know the chips are stacked against them so they work really, really hard at it. So that’s probably why.

So, you guys just released your fifth album, Alien. Could you tell me a little about the creative process behind the songwriting and recording of it?

We started writing it about three years ago and we recorded half of it in the middle of last year and half of it at the start of this year. And the process for this record was really different to the other ones. So, Jon has always been the main musical song writer in the band. But the big difference was I collaborated with Marcus on the vocals in a way that we hadn’t done before. The record’s very personal and it’s about his, you know, trauma that he’s been through. We only really scratched the surface of it too. It was almost like doing a therapy session. I would sit down with him, we’d listen to our piece of music and I would say, “how does this make you feel? What can you relate this to?” Then he would tell me a story and I would write pages of notes about this thing that he’d been through and then we would pull a song out of that. It was really hard, some of the things he told me I can’t even fathom. That’s why he’s not doing any press about it now, because it’s just too much for him. It’s incredible he can even get up there and sing these songs. But, yeah… Once we would get the main idea of the song. We would start with the chorus usually, or just have a really succinct point about what it was going to be about. Then we would go back to Jon. We would kind of go back and forth a few more and [make] changes on both ends. We’d be like, “this part needs to change to the vocal” or rearrange the song a bit. And then he would have recommendations on the vocal as well, what he liked and didn’t like or whatever. Just refine and refine and refine and eventually the song would be done. Nick, our drummer, would do his thing with the drums as well.

The other key difference with this record is that we had Brendon come in about half way through the writing process. Having him around was very valuable too because he’s a songwriter and producer too. So, he was a big help too.

What was it like soundtracking Marcus’ stories, just because they were so personal?

I kind of had to look at it objectively, right. I couldn’t sit down in the room and be a friend to him or a therapist. I had to be almost cold about it in a way…  The way it kinda came about was when Jon started writing the music for this record it was really, really dark and angry because he wasn’t in a good place either. And we quickly realized the only thing we could match to that music was this story that was being left untouched his [Marcus’] entire life. Never really spoken about it. When we started writing I asked him if he wanted to try and [he] said to me he didn’t think anyone would care and even if they did care he wouldn’t learn how to make these things into songs. We had to look at these events and go “what does that relate to in your life now.” A good example is the song “Freefall.” He said to me something that’s been breaking his relationship with his girlfriend is that sometimes [he] struggles to empathize with what’s going on in her daily life. She works in law and it’s a very patriarchal industry, and she comes up against a lot of s*** and she’ll come home and talk to him about whatever f***ed up thing happened to her at work that day. But for him, you know, it’s like… I don’t want to speak verbatim about his relationship or anything, but the point of the song was that he struggled to empathize and we told that by means of, you know, telling the story of an event that had happened to him where he was living out of a hotel room because it was easier for his parents to buy heroin in that area, and sleeping on the floor with his sister when they were like seven and nine years old or something like that. And somebody broke into the room and held a gun to his dad’s head and…yeah, that’s what that song’s about. It’s kind of saying “this is what happened to me and now I can’t really feel things that normal people can.” So, conveying that into songs is really difficult because he was very adamant about not… he didn’t want to be like “poor me, this happened…” He didn’t want to virtue signal or do anything like that. But he had a real story to tell, so we had to be very careful about how we did it.

Do you think it was cathartic for him? I mean, even for you guys to work on something so personal…

Absolutely…

It was incredible once it was done. It didn’t settle in for me until after it was finished because I was so objective about the process of creating it. I couldn’t stand back and go “wow, this is awful.” I just had to keep pushing him, you know. But he’s a changed person now. He’s incredibly confident and he wasn’t always like that. And watching him perform these songs every night is like a really emotional experience because what he’s talked about matters to people. A  lot of people, a lot of fans have been saying to him “this has helped me feel like I’m not the only one who’s been through something like an abusive childhood or something like that.” Because most people that have grown up with trauma like that, they don’t go around telling people, you know… So, it’s been really important for him, I think, but also incredibly difficult.

And the other thing too is it doesn’t stop for him. We had to go have another chat about that in a park just before because it’s been weighing on him pretty hard. I’m beyond impressed that he could just get up and sing those songs every night and relive all that s***, because I couldn’t do it. I don’t know anyone besides him…

Are you guys surprised by the response this album has been getting? I mean, it debuted on the ARIA charts at number three…

It’s our third number three… Charts have changed a lot in the last two years. But we’ve never really had a response to a record like this before. Maybe Singularity came close, but the public reaction to this record has just been flooring. You never know what to expect when you’re releasing music into the world, but it’s just been phenomenal. We didn’t see it coming. Shows around the world are selling out and… I had to keep adding shows to our Australian tour ‘cuz they kept selling out. We’re doing more tickets there than we ever had before. And the last few years our attendance has been dropping pretty savagely, so for us to turn that around and catch a second wind as a band is something that rarely happens.

I guess that was the whole point of this record too, because things weren’t going very well for us and we knew we had to take a big risk. So, the reason the record is so different is because we stopped caring about what people’s expectations of us were. We just wrote the record we wanted to write.

Your bassist left in the middle of writing this album. How do you think that affected the outcome of the album?

Well, to be frank with you, if he [Alex Milovic] hadn’t of left and Brendon hadn’t of joined, I don’t think we’d still be a band now. Brendon saved our band. Things were really bad and he is, like, the happiest, funniest person I’ve ever met in my entire life. He just brings life and energy into any situation. The first tour we did with him at the end of last year was in Europe and I hadn’t had that much fun playing in a band since we started and nothing mattered. Because as you become professional, you get more out of what you do in a lot of senses, but sometimes you forget to have fun. And our spirits have never been higher. Even with obviously the gravity of what our new songs are about weighing over us all the time and looking out for Marcus… We’ve never been closer as a family and him coming into the band is what got us here. I really don’t think we would have made it, I really don’t. We were definitely on the verge of collapsing about eight months ago to a year ago and, you know, I’m super grateful those events took place. Because we’ve been through a lot of s*** internally and… Yeah, I honestly don’t think that we would’ve got here without him. So, it was the best thing that could’ve happened.

You recently worked with PhaseOne on a song called “Crash and Burn” on his debut album. What was that like and do you think you guys would do more dubstep-type music?

Well, PhaseOne is just a really old friend of ours from Australia that just happened to get really big in the dubstep world and really took us by surprise. Not ‘cuz we didn’t expect him to be successful, but just ‘cuz we don’t really know that world. So, when he did his last album he just asked if he could get Marcus on a song. I didn’t really have a lot to do with it. To my understanding he just took Marcus into the studio and they bashed out vocals to that. We didn’t do the music for it. As far as collaborations go, we’d totally do more, especially in the electronic world. Like, that exists very heavily in our music now and yeah, I would definitely expect that to happen. I think that’s really cool and refreshing because a lot of artists will collaborate with people in their own sphere, but when you look outside that it makes for something pretty interesting. Like I said, we’ve done that with our own music on Alien. Like, there’s songs where the guitars take a back seat and the song is driven by the techno beat or something. We hadn’t heard that done in this style of music before. So… I would love to, I really would.

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