Death, Insanity and Desolation: Primitive Man's Ethan Lee McCarthy on the thematic elements of 'Caustic'
Interview by Parisa Eshrati
Last fall, Denver-based doom metal trio Primitive Man released one of the most nihilistic and soul-crushing records of the year, with themes ranging from personal tragedy to the degradation of society. In anticipation of their upcoming set at Northwest Terror Fest, we spoke with frontman Ethan Lee McCarthy about the many factors that have created the suffocating atmosphere of their music, and how they've achieved their heaviest sound yet.
For your latest album, Caustic, you had the goal of being more extreme and heavier in sound than ever before. What kind of practices did you indulge in to tap into that heavier sound? Do you think there’s a peak or pinnacle for heaviness?
The lineup change with our drummer really helped us go in the heavier direction we originally wanted to get into. Our previous members were going for more of a slower, mid-pace sludge sound. In my opinion, we’re definitely a doom band, though I’m sure a lot of people would disagree with that. Having Joe [Linden] as our new drummer has really got us all on the same track, because previously the band would always be on different pages about the speed and general direction of our sound. Now we can tap into the more disgusting forms of music and try out even more disgusting tempos. I think Jon [Campos, bassist] and I still play our instruments mostly the same as we always have, but having Joe on drums has allowed us to explore different realms, and that room for creative space naturally made the music heavier.
As for the second part of your question, I don’t think Primitive Man has reached the point where we’re our heaviest at all. We’re writing new material right now and I feel like it’s already heavier than Caustic. As far as an overall pinnacle for heaviness...well, I’m sure no one thought it would get heavier than Led Zeppelin. Then Slayer came along and no one probably thought it would get heavier than that. I hope that music just continues to grow harsher and harsher. Like, when I’m 70 years old I hope heavy music just becomes so fucking unlistenable to the point where I can’t even handle it [laughs]. I would really appreciate that.
Well it’s good to hear that accessibility isn’t of any concern to you!
Oh no, I don’t care about that at all! [laughs]
On that note, are there any bands you’ve listened to over the years that at first were too heavy and inaccessible for you but now take inspiration from?
I could probably tell you a hundred of those stories, but one of those most significant moments in my life was going to Best Buy as a young man and picking up a copy of Diabolical Conquest by Incantation and Temple of the Morning Star by Today is the Day. I bought those albums based off the cover art, ‘cause this is before you could open CDs and sample them. I still distinctly remember putting those records on for the first time. As soon as the Incantation record started, I felt so fucking smothered. It just sounded like every noise possible happening at once and I didn’t understand anything going on. At the time, I was listening to Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel and whatnot, but that Incantation record is way more fucking insane than Covenant by Morbid Angel, which was the heaviest thing I knew at the time.
That Today is the Day album was one of the craziest things I had heard too. There’s all those bizarre noise tracks and Steve Austin is doing the most insane shit with those vocal distortions. When I put it on, I thought “This is fucking it. I haven’t heard anything crazier or more extreme in my life.” And now, I’m so desensitized to it [laughs]. It’s still good and I appreciate those records, but they doesn’t phase me at all.
I love that. So, do you still work as a substitute teacher?
Yes I do. I’ve specifically been working with kids with developmental disabilities for the past several years. I haven’t worked in a little while though, because we just got back from a long tour with Spectral Voice and we’re about to leave again to tour in the UK. But in theory, yes, I’m still teaching and will continue when I get back home after this tour.
Do you think any of the current politics of public school systems make contribute to the harsh atmosphere of your music?
Oh yeah, I write all sorts of things thinking about what I deal with at work. I come across so much insane shit with this job. I have a lot of gripes with public education that I take out with music.
That makes sense, that anger definitely comes across in the record.
Well, I want to clarify that in Caustic I’m actually complaining about working in the marijuana industry. For awhile, I had to quit working with kids because I had to tour a lot and the only other thing I could do was work for this dispensary. It was fucking lame. I don’t think I’ve worked a more hollow job or have experienced a more hollow of a fucking industry. People have this romanticized view of what it’s like to work as a budtender, but it’s a trash ass job. I was making very little money, and it was a super bad time in my life. So this past record in particular didn’t have to do with substitute teaching, and I want to reiterate that I love working with kids. But when it comes to working in dispensaries, there’s no future in that shit.
Let’s talk a little bit about your art. It started more as a hobby while you were healing from an injury, and now you’re getting more into it and even designing album art. Now that you’re taking art more seriously, what kind of themes do you enjoy exploring visually and how have you seen it parallel with Primitive Man’s music?
I like to create art in the realm of what I guess you could consider your typical “metal” themes, especially death. It’s always relevant to my feelings. You can’t escape death, no one is above or beyond that, and I think there’s a lot to artistically explore in that area. I always incorporate those vibe into the music that I write...desolation, death, insanity. I mainly explore the same themes visually and lyrically because I’m always trying to find a way to explore those feelings. I got a lot of them.
I really appreciate how much of your own personal experiences go into Primitive Man’s music,and the fact that you’re able to write about pain and depression with no filter. It’s created such a raw atmosphere for your music. At the same time, though, I think there’s a common misconception with music fans that good music comes only with personal or political tragedy. What’s your take on this? How do you personally separate this idea that you have to be in a depressive mental state in order to write good music?
If there’s a day that I wake up and there’s world peace, and all of the personal problems of myself and my loved ones are finished, then I feel like I’ll be able to fully answer that question. There is constantly so much awful shit going on in the world that I never feel like I’ll run out of inspiration to write this music. Even if things are really positive for me personally, they’re bad for someone else and I’m real empathetic to that. There will always be problems to face, and there will always be that feeling of frustration that I can only change so much as one man.
The best way I can put it is that Primitive Man is my outlet for depression. My personal problems and problems of the world exist every single day, and I revisit these themes in the music night after night on tour. Playing this music is a release, and I appreciate that experience every time I play.
You guys have put out some seriously gnarly music videos, like the “Sugar Hole” video released a month ago. It was directed by Marcos Morales & Neil Barrett, but I’m curious if you also had any artistic input in these videos or if you see yourself going that way in the near future.
Every one of our videos have been directed by those guys, and we’ve been present for everything except for the first music video (aside from our performance shots). Marcos and Neil directed, and Jon and I were there there with them drawing up storyboards, throwing out ideas, working with the actors, and even producing. We’ve been getting more and more into putting our creative input in these videos, and we’re going to do a lot more in that vein. I can’t reveal too much, but we’re going to work a lot more with film in the near future. It’s a great medium and we’ve had such a good time with it this past year. This idea of what we’re working on next will be our best project to date.
What’s next for Primitive Man? What can we look forward to from you for the rest of the year?
We’re putting out another noise tape, and there’s going to be an LP version of that coming out later this year. We’re also releasing some splits that we can’t mention with who yet. After touring, we’ll come home and write for our next full-length album and start recording. In the meantime, I’ll also be doing a European tour with my deathgrind/noise side-project, Vermin Womb.
Finally, people are always asking you what makes you tick, so I’m curious about the opposite end. Besides music and art, what are things that give you give you peace of mind?
Friends. Family. My animals. Pot. I really like pot [laughs]. That’s about it, to be honest. Music and art are my shit. It’s what I love more than anything.
All interviews posted before October 2015 were originally recorded for KAMP Student Radio.