While Toothgrinder have been kicking around New Jersey since their formation in 2010, it wasn’t until Spinefarm signed them and released their third EP, 2014’s Schizophrenic Jubilee, that they were in the national spotlight. And for them to have followed up last year’s full length debut, Nocturnal Masquerade, with a second full length less than two years later, is impressive. More impressive, however, is the leap in songwriting that’s taken place between their first and Phantom Amour, which was released last month. We met up with the band to speak about that, the increased singing on their second album, and their touring plans.
Tell me what the process of writing the album was like. I know when you guys went into the studio with the songs that were going to become Phantom Amour, they were totally different. They were a completely different batch of tunes. What was that situation like for you guys?
Johnuel: We wrote about 20 songs going into the studio, and when we got settled in the studio, we listened to all the demos, we listened to all the pre-pro that we worked on and we had to talk about getting some new ideas out there – together, with our producer, Taylor [Larsen]. That turned out to be seven songs on the album. We used 6 from the pre-production process and there was a lot of – I feel like everyone was utilizing a creative aspect in the studio at all times. Justin was in the back, there’s a back studio at Oceanic Recordings, where Spencer Sotelo of Periphery lays down his ideas and vocals, so Justin had a whole bunch of time to speak his mind on the lyrics and all, while we were working on the guitars, bass, drums, programming, what have you. It kinda all happened in the moment, which I feel is the way the band has always worked.
Justin: Yeah, we knew we wanted to do something a little different than Nocturnal Masquerade. I mean, I think every band wants to progress. That was definitely an idea from the very, very beginning but I don’t think any of us really anticipated how different the outcome was going to be [chuckles]. If you talked to us six months prior to the recording session, where we were all hashing out ideas for a while, and you showed us the finished product, we’d be like ‘whoa.’ It was a lot of in the moment work; I can’t speak for everyone because everyone has their own story, but vocally, a lot of the vocals are, especially a lot of the screaming, Taylor would always be like, “First take is usually the best take,” but some of the harder singing parts, obviously, are going to have to run through those a few times but a lot of the spur of the moment. Almost like a Jay-Z feel in the sense of, ‘Well, I didn’t write that lyric down, that’s not what I was going to say, but this lyric is sick’ and it just came in my head and I don’t know. It was just very cool and very different writing a lot of the record in the studio.
I don’t think we could have done that if it was our first—I know we couldn’t have done that if it was our first. There were two things that happened that were really nice: It was really nice we worked with Taylor twice before this because we developed this awesome relationship with him. When we see him, it’s a friend – it’s not like some guy we never met before, and you have to get through the whole nervous mode. Johnny never met him, so he had to deal with his first Taylor experience. Which, you know, we all had to go through our first time because he can be hard to work with, but I’ve grown to love the guy. He’s a good friend of mine and a good friend of ours now.
Taylor seems like a really hands on kind of guy in that way.
Justin: Oh, absolutely. He’s big into working out and going to the gym and eating pretty healthy, like I am. He always asks me “do you want to work out with me” and I’m like ‘yeah of course’. Even when we are doing that, it gave me personally, time to hang out with him and develop that vocalist-producer relationship. We talk about things, like even when we weren’t in the studio. So when we did go into the studio, there was no awkwardness. If I had to bust out this super vulnerable part of a song. I don’t want to say embarrassing, but it’s a little hard to do, to get your head straight, to put it out there honestly and make it sound real. It’s a lot easier when you develop that kind of relationship. For me, it was a ton of fun, the experience was great and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Johnuel: I value Taylor’s opinion very, very much. It definitely shaped a huge part of what the album became.
When that part of the writing factored in, when it became this situation of ‘okay, there’s a rewriting happening in studio’, which is probably not what you were expecting. So was that moment, “oh shit. What do we do?” or was it “Awesome, great. We get to be really honest and spontaneous” rather than extending the vibe you had on Nocturnal. Was that in the moment situation right as it happened good, or was it total terror?
Justin: I think it was different for everyone. For me, it was absolutely amazing. I went into the studio knowing I was going to write at least two songs in the studio, because I like doing that. There’s something about writing a song in the studio you can’t—no matter how many times you practice a song you can’t recreate it because you overthink things, you start messing with things that shouldn’t be messed with. When you’re there, you’re doing it, you’re laying it down, you’re writing the song as you’re recording it? That’s it. That’s there and it comes out super honest. I was excited the whole time. It was a little nerve wracking, you know, it’s different. Especially when you’re in the first week or first two weeks, you’re like, ‘whoa, we’re really doing this. We’re starting from scratch.’ It’s nerve-wracking but there’s this attitude I had from the very beginning in the full writing process, that I was just like, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ And I don’t mean—when I say that, because I’ve said that to a lot of people that have done this question-answer lately, it’s not a bad ‘I don’t give a fuck’ it’s a ‘I just want to have fun.’ I want it to come out real, I want it to come out honest, I want it to come out fun, and I think that’s what happened. [laughs]
That’s a very punk rock attitude to have about a record that’s, I don’t mean this in a bad way, which I told you guys a thousand times already, it’s a very produced, slick record in a lot of ways.
Justin: You know what it is? We had this confidence from the first album to like, back it up. It’s not like we were going into our first record naïve, giving this kind of attitude and completely shitting the bed on it. The first record, Nocturnal Masquerade, that was our time to go in there, get the nerves out, put down a record, be extremely terrified and nervous the whole entire time and then have it come out. This time it was like, there is one thing I know we can do. We can record a full length because we just did it. Check that off this list because we never done that before besides the last album. So that’s the first thing. Your first full length is such a huge undertaking—it’s terrifying. Once you get that out of the way, you can go back in the studio and be yourself and have fun rather than be worrying the whole time, is this record going to get done? I know it’s going to get done. Quote unquote, “Let it Ride.”
Matt: Just to reiterate what Justin said, it’s one of those emotions too when you’re going in— we know we had good songs already done. Like we had our pre-pro for songs, we knew they were good songs, there were good riffs, there was good material already written that we could always refer to, but there’s something about the raw emotion of being on the spot and kinda just rolling with it. We left all the mics set up on the entire drum kit, everything was ready to just plug and rip. So, if we thought of something that transitioned better, or a better part to a riff, or if Wills thought of a better drum fill, we could literally go back in, arm the tracks and re-record it on the spot. If he did it a week later, day later or 15 minutes later, it was one of those good things because it was fresh, you were forced and on your toes to generate new ideas, even for stuff that you just generated 5 minutes ago. So, it’s kinda cool, but again, a lot of people can’t work like that. It’s one of those things if you’re a perfectionist, it’s the most nerve wracking thing because you’ll listen to that record a month later when it’s submitted for completion and you’re like, ‘Oh fuck, I wish I did this, or I did that.’ We’re a band that hits the ground running, always from day one it’s always been like that. It’s not something we’re unfamiliar to, the concept – it’s just unfamiliar doing it in the studio that hard.
Justin: That brings up another point that I just remembered. On Nocturnal Masquerade, I don’t know if you got that from what Matt was saying, on Nocturnal Masquerade we recorded the entire album like, alright, we are going to do all the drums, all the bass, all the guitars—for the most part, obviously little things change here and there, but for the most part, you do the classic drums, guitar, yada yada, vocals. This one [Phantom Amour] we just did it song by song – ‘alright we’re doing the drums, alright Matt get in there, we’re doing the bass, guitar, yada yada, alright vocals’ and then it was like, ‘let’s work on another song’. It was really cool and for me, it was awesome because I didn’t have to bust out three songs in a day. I could just take it easy. I actually lost my voice a few times on Nocturnal Masquerade record, so it was nice to not having that anxiety on this record. On the EP and and Nocturnal Masquerade both, I lost my voice on those recording processes and this one I didn’t because it was much more relaxed and it was better and I hope for records to come, we take relatively the same approach.
I have a question for you Justin: Tell me all about how you turned into being – imagine I’m doing air quotes here – you became a singer on this record. There was some singing on Schizophrenic [Jubilee] and a little more on Nocturnal [Masquerade] but Matt was doing a lot of the melodic vocals live until this. So what was the process like for you? Is that something you always wanted to do and you just didn’t know how to slot it in? Or was it a major jump out of your comfort zone because it was a necessity for where the music was going?
Justin: Nah, it was always something I wanted to do. I just sucked. [laughs]
Matt: I told him! I said “you know I’m not doing any fucking Queen shit on the next record, that’s you.”
Justin: I always wanted to sing. The bands who have inspired me to play music, from an early age, weren’t even necessarily heavy bands. I’ve always wanted to sing, always wanted to tell stories. I try to explain it to people – there’s certain stories you want to tell, there are certain ways you want to convey a message, that kinda sound weird with such an aggressive platform. I always wanted to tell some stories and see myself in a different light. I was never a good singer. I had the attitude but never had the knowledge or skill. A year ago, I started taking vocal lessons from a local teacher—which I’m still doing to this day. I started taking lessons with this girl Sam, she’s a local girl, really talented, went to school for music, and she’s been helping me. I mean, we’re not doing anything crazy, we’re just learning songs and I’m getting treated like everyone else. It’s just a fun, fun process and I just did my thing. I think it all had to do with the lessons and this final decision and desire, to not beat around the bush like ‘yeah, I’ll try singing, nope, didn’t work,’ no it’s like ‘alright, you’re singing on this record, and you better be fucking prepared to do so or you are going to look like an asshole’.
It was one of those things and that pushed me to do it. A month before the studio, then in the studio, I worked 4 lessons with Melissa Cross. We paid for 3 but she was nice enough to do a couple extra and a couple warm ups, she’s not really a clock watcher. That was fun, and she really helped me a lot. I had it in me, but there was this mental game and then there’s this physical game. The physical game I had, but I had to get my breathing and stuff a little better – but the mental game is the hard part. With singing, you have to know you’re going to hit the note, or know you can do it before you do it. If you second guess yourself at all, it’s going to be awful. It’s really just building up the confidence just to do it. That’s the issue, the confidence. Once you get that, then you can start branching out into other things like the real technical aspect of it, and I’m not even there yet. I’m by no means a technical singer but I hope with time and practice I can get there.
Now, Johnuel – and the rest of guys can jump in on this too, what was it like coming into the band? And for Justin and Matt – what was it like adding Johnuel, because you had a very different guitar player on Schizophrenic Jubilee and Nocturnal Masquerade in terms of play style and these other sort of things, and I feel like the vibe changed really, really dramatically, in terms of the soundscapes, where the notes fall in, the textures, the backing vocals that you bring in. Everything changed. Was that an easy thing to happen?
Johnuel: It was easy in some ways but also more creative. I joined the band in September 2015, and that was right when Nocturnal Masquerade was mastered and ready to go. I’ve been basically here since the touring cycle for Nocturnal Masquerade. For Phantom Amour this time around, I was lucky enough to go to school with some incredible, some insane musicians in Boston at Berklee, and I played in a lot of jazz and fusion ensembles. I was doing more instrumental, experimental and it’s funny you say ‘soundscapes’ because one of my best friends goes under the alias ‘Soundscapes.’ I was listening to more ambient and more post-rock type bands. So, I guess some of that influence found its way with the textures and the guitars – especially a lot of the clean guitars. I honestly feel like this has been the most important and creative work I’ve done in my life to date, and the most mind altering on how I think of music.
Matt: I’ll chime in on that. I never had to tell somebody to stop playing so good all the time. [laughs] He’s literally one of the best guitar players I’ve had the pleasure of playing with and it’s unreal. This record we really broke it down to a rock n roll vibe but he’s so good at controlling his sound and adding textures. I mean, a lot of the songs stripped down are just chord parts. Just slamming chords, 8th notes, and what he does within the chord structure, moving his fingers around that don’t change the chord but adds – I don’t want to say a full blown melody, but more of a little flair and a texture to it. It’s great because on the record, yes, you [record parts] cut and dry a lot more just to keep a layer how it is, and then it gets mixed a certain way, but live when you hear Johnuel play, there’s a lot of fun texture that comes out in just his style and it’s awesome. It’s so good, it’s so fun. He’s so talented, there was a while where I was like ‘stop playing so good. Dumb it down, I’m a horrible bass player’. [laughs]
Are you happier that you’re doing less of the singing this time? Get to step away a little?
Matt: No, actually it’s way harder! I mean, I think it’s fun because I get to do some of the heavier stuff, I get to do a lot of screaming live because, obviously you hear how many layers there are [on record]. I think Johnuel and I have our hands and our mouths full on every song. All of us are singing non-stop. It’s way more challenging for me because now, it’s not like ‘oh you’re just singing the melody’, like great, now we’re doing three part harmonies live all the time. If we get a shitty monitor mix because we haven’t moved to [in-ear monitors] yet, when we get a shitty monitor mix, we look at each other like ‘oh my God I can’t hear you. I hope he’s hitting his note.’
Johnuel: Yeah, we’re definitely warming up before shows, singing exercises and practicing the harmonies as much as possible.
Matt: If anything, the singing duty has stepped up three notches.
Johnuel: I think we inspire each other to hone in and nail that element. Especially on the last tour with Between the Buried and Me and The Contortionist – I think that just got us ready for what’s to come for when we start debuting more songs off of Phantom Amour live. So, it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Awesome. So on that note, you guys just got off the road with Between the Buried and Me, you spent last year with 36 Crazyfists, Killswitch Engage. I feel like that time that you guys spent sped up the maturing process. I feel like it takes a lot of most bands a lot longer in their career before they really curveball things stylistically or do their, as this is and in some cases with other bands, the “sensitive record,” so what’s the plan for next year? What’s coming next for you guys?
Johnuel: We have a tour that we can’t announce yet as well as some other really cool bills. Maybe some really big shows?
Justin: Can’t announce anything yet, but we have a lot of things lined up. There’s a lot of uncertainty. There’s a lot of crossing our fingers and such but as far as we know, things are going in a really good direction.
Johnuel: Yeah, were going to keep playing the album, try to get that as tight as we can.
Matt: This is the fun part, because now that the record is out, we’re gauging the public’s opinion on what they’re gravitating towards, because there’s so much diversity on the record. It’s to that point where you can cater to your crowd – there’s always pros and cons to that stuff, but it’s really nice to see what songs people latch onto. We’re still playing stuff off Nocturnal Masquerade – “the hits.” The stuff that gets the most reaction out of people, what people kinda expect. Our live performance, we like to keep it interesting as Justin will say – ‘the first couple of rows, watch out because that’s my playground.’ [laughs] He’s still jumping in, getting the front rows engaged and having fun. We did write about 20 songs in pre-pro, but going into the album and we only used six or seven. There’s a lot of free time between all of us, so we might just put more energy into writing more songs. We’re really looking forward to playing this album live.
Matt: Playing half our set with stuff off the new record, it’s so much fun to play. It really is, it’s an absolute joy. All three of us in the room right now love singing and it’s so sick when the harmonies live, when it hits, it hits like a wall, and you know it. You can react to the people in the front and they know it. Honestly, it’s all about having fun.
I saw that happen at the New York date of the BTBAM tour. It looked like you guys were having so much fun – there were no concerned faces, or panic or ‘oh shits’ about the new stuff, which is exciting to see as a fan.
Matt: Everyone has seen a stale band up there just kinda going through the motions, playing to a wall of fucking backing tracks. It’s all good – gotta do what you’ve gotta do, but that just doesn’t seem like fun to me.
Totally, 100% agree. Have to keep a little element of the punk rock in there. Before I let you go, any closing words for the fans, or somebody who might read this interview being on the fence about checking you out?
Matt: Let. It. Ride. [laughs]
Justin: I think that’s the mic drop!