In the distorted airwaves of metalcore, where every band seeks to carve a niche vibe, Dallas-based Memphis May Fire cut through the noise with gritty, technical and genuine music that sounds apart from the rest.
As the band evolved, losing and adding new members, enhancing their music with grandiose orchestral elements and writing lyrics that tackle a wealth of relatable issues like faith and anxiety, so has their fanbase, growing to include fans across the world in places like Chile and Sweden.
The prolific work of Memphis’ instrumental writer and guitarist Kellen MacGregor and lyricist and frontman Matty Mullins produced four full-length albums and an EP between 2009 and now. Since the release of their latest album, Unconditional, on March 24 this year, which hit number one on the Billboard indie charts, Memphis May Fire toured extensively across the world.
While he was home on a performance hiatus, I had the opportunity to speak with Mullins about Memphis’ summer performing internationally, the intricacies of their live show, their relationship with Yellowcard, and Matty’s self-titled solo album.
It’s been a different kind of summer for Memphis May Fire, who are usually a mainstay on Warped Tour. Can you explain what the band did this summer in support of your March release, Unconditional?
When you get to a certain level in a band, there’s a lot of things people don’t realize. Warped Tour is like the happening thing over the summer in America, especially for a band like us, but there are people that are buying music and supporting us overseas, and a lot of great festivals internationally happen during the summer too.
You have to make a choice, and we thought after doing Warped Tour two years in a row it was best for us to go and spend some more time in Europe over the summer and play some of the major festivals over there like Download. I think making an appearance over there during that time of the year can be a lot more impactful than going over there and just doing a standard club run in the winter months.
So that’s what we decided to do this summer. Also, if you’d done a full year of Warped Tour performing on their main stage, then technically you’re not allowed to come back and do main stage again the next year. You’d have to take a year off. If we were to have played it this year, we wouldn’t have been playing main stage, which wouldn’t have been worth it for us.
We also just did a South American tour and Mexico with Killswitch Engage, which was incredible. So yeah dude, it’s definitely been a change of pace this summer, but we’ve really enjoyed it.
What do you like to do when have time in between tours?
In between all our summer runs when we had our time off, I signed a one-album deal with Rise for my solo record. I took the record advance and actually built a studio in my house so I could just do everything from home rather than go to Phoenix or wherever Cameron [Mizell, producer] is, spending even more time away from my wife to do a new album, so it’s been kind of cool.
I decided I wanted to do a solo record and Rise was on board with it, but my only situation was that I didn’t want to sacrifice any time at home to do it, so it all really worked out. My wife and I just bought a house in Nashville and we love it down here. We have a guest bedroom, so every time Cameron is up to track vocals with me he just stays over. It’s just a really good vibe.
I’ve been spending most of our time off doing that. The other guys are interested in their own things in their homes. Kellen [McGregor, guitarist] is really interested in fitness, so he works out a bunch. Cory [Elder, bassist] has been busy working on designing his own line of basses, which is awesome. It’s been good for everyone to kind of regroup and refocus.
Having a home studio sounds pretty awesome.
Yeah dude, it’s been a huge blessing.
Memphis May Fire always put on an exhilarating live performance. What are you and the band trying to convey during your set?
I think there’s a bunch of really cool answers I could give you to make it sound like we’re a cool band, but we’re not. I’ll be completely honest with you dude, the reason why there’s so much energy in our live show and the reason why I think people really enjoy it so much is simply for the fact that, dude, we’re having fun.
I mean, if you don’t enjoy your 30 minutes to an hour on stage every day, then being in a band is simply not worth it. The amount of other things that go into it, you know, the 12 hours a day that you’re doing something else other than playing is less than exciting. It can be monotonous. So, just being on tour is all about that time on stage and really soaking it up, just seeing it for what it’s worth. It all comes down to us just enjoying ourselves, enjoying each other and really just loving what we do. That’s it.
You guys have toured extensively, from playing headlining tours to huge festivals. Are there any different thoughts that go into choosing what songs to play depending on the type or length of the show?
Totally. It definitely changes up. Every single festival and every single tour requires a different type of setlist. We’ll have either a restricted amount of time, or be given an allotted time that’s way longer than we’ve ever played before, so that is what’s kind of fun. We get to go back and we say, “Okay, well, we’ve put out these songs over the past six months and they’ve done really well, so obviously people want to hear them live.” But then to fill up the rest of the setlist, we get to go back through all of our old albums and see if there’s something we haven’t played live in a while to try.
It’s kind of like the process of elimination. We’ll take an old song and throw it back into the setlist and see what the crowd reaction is. If people don’t remember it, then it wasn’t good and it’ll probably be the last time we toss that one in.
It’s hard to please everybody. I think that after a show people could come up and be like, “Aw man, why didn’t you play this song?” But the problem is that dude is the only person in the crowd that wanted to hear that song. We try and put something in there for everybody.
This upcoming tour, you are touring with Yellowcard, who aren’t a metal band. How did you decide to go on this unconventional run with the pop punk rockers responsible for the iconic 2003 album, Ocean Avenue?
There’s definitely a sense of good pride in this tour because when we had the idea to put this tour together, we had everybody in the industry including people on our team telling us that it was a train-wreck idea, because it’s not something that you would see usually.
Ocean Avenue came out forever ago and Yellowcard’s fanbase is definitely not the same type that Memphis has acquired the last couple of years. So basically, we all grew up around that band’s peak with Ocean Avenue. We did a couple of festivals with them and they were on Warped Tour with us and we got to know a couple of dudes in the band and it just comes down to them being awesome.
We really enjoyed them as people. It felt really cool to 16-year-old us to be like, “Oh my gosh, we’re friends with Yellowcard!” What’s funny is that we all grew up on that kind of music and a few of the dudes in Yellowcard are like straight metalheads and just love heavy music. A couple of them have been really big fans of Memphis for a while now, and we had no idea.
It was really cool. When we got together we were fans of each other and we respected each other. We have always texted each other between the bands saying, “Dude! It would be so awesome to tour together!” Never thinking it would actually happen.
I sang on the new Yellowcard album. I did guest vocals on one of their songs and we kind of got together and were like, “Why don’t we just do a tour together? We can keep headlining tours in our own markets to our own fanbases for the rest of our lives, but doing a tour like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Why don’t we do something that nobody would expect?” So we decided on a Memphis-Yellowcard co-headliner, and even if they’re polar opposite fanbases, we get to play to people that probably never heard us before, and same for them.
So when we announced the tour, I think everybody on our team was biting their fingernails, thinking it would be a nightmare, but ticket sales went through the roof. It started blowing up right off the bat. I think our fanbase bought, their fanbase bought, and a group of people that like both bands and open to different styles of music, they bought too.
It’s been a huge success story from the beginning. There have been massive ticket sales in major markets and I think the tour is mostly sold out. So it started with a crazy idea and it turned out to be an awesome idea. We’re really pumped about it.
This tour with Yellowcard spans October and has only six off-days. Do you think that’s a challenge?
Here’s the deal. We have the world’s best booking agent, hands down. There’s nobody better. I’ll stand by that until the day that I die. Dave Shapiro is the dude of all dudes. He is rock solid and every decision he makes, I know he made for a very intentional reason. So when it comes down to it, we either have a plethora of days off because that’s what Dave decided was best and that’s what we needed, or we have hardly have any days off, because Dave decided it was best.
Things are better for us these days, as far as show after show after show. We all switched to in-ear monitors instead of just using wedges, and that really allows us to be inside of our own heads during every live performance and prevents me from singing too loud or putting too much force into it, thrashing my throat. Just the preservation of my voice has become a lot better since we starting using in-ears, and that’s great for opportunities like this, where we don’t have a lot of days off.
At the end of the day man, yes, we are ready for the challenge. As far as I’m concerned, there’s not much that could ever make us cancel a show. I don’t think that we’ve ever canceled a show due to exhaustion or anything like that. If my voice is trashed, I get up on stage and I’ll say it straight up before the set even starts. I’ll tell them, “Hey guys, my voice is trashed, but I’m not going to give up on you so don’t give up on me, let’s sing this as loud as we can together.” That technique has never failed in the past. People love that and appreciate that we’ll get up there and do our thing no matter what.
What do you enjoy most about being on the road?
I think that social networking and the internet ruins music, not because people can download it for free, I don’t even care about that. I know there are a lot of people that blame the downfall of the music industry on like piracy and stuff like that. The thing that ruins it for me is, just like when you go on Yelp and look at restaurant reviews, the people always writing reviews and online giving their critiques are just people that are upset about something.
I think it goes against human nature for people to get on the internet and say something positive. The fact of the matter is, every single one-on-one experience I’ve had with fans has been so positive. All the garbage you read on the internet nobody ever says in real life. You get opportunities at meet-and-greets, signings, or even just on stage looking out at the crowd and seeing their eyes lighting up, and you realize that your music is making a very positive impact in their lives. Having one-on-one experiences with our fans and devoting more time to ignoring social media completely I think is what makes touring so amazing.
On the flip side, what is something disliked about touring?
The standard, you know? Being away from home and being away from family and friends that you just don’t get the opportunity to connect with when you’re on tour. I think that that’s the biggest struggle. It’s also the most generic answer. I mean, I wish I could give you something more exciting, but at this point in my life dude, having gone through a phase of depression and anxiety and things like that, I just realized the value of just being thankful for every single thing every day.
So I’m living in the moment, thankful for my time on tour, and when I’m home, I’m thankful for my time there. I guess I kind of ignore the things that would cause me any discomfort while I’m on tour.
Your solo album, Matty Mullins, released in September while the band’s been on the road. Are there any plans to support the record after this Memphis May Fire tour ends?
I did this record with almost zero intention as far as pursuing this project. I told Rise Records I grew up on Christian pop music and I love Jesus with all my heart. If I can write more and more music about him, then I will do that at every opportunity that I get.
At the same token, Memphis May Fire is not just a band; it’s a group of brothers. We have a lot of people that aren’t in the band that work for us that also depend on the band for their financial state. Honestly dude, Memphis is a freight train right now. I have no intention of touring on my solo stuff.
I’m going to give all my free time to Memphis. They stuck by me through all this and they deserve it. You know, the record is just the record to be the record. And that’s it. If radio stations play it, that’s awesome. I always want more people to hear about Jesus, and if they like my music and it inspires them, then great, but it was just another outlet for me to express my artistic ability. That’s all it is. I hope that Memphis’ fanbase can really get that message, because I don’t want this project to worry anybody.
After this tour, what can fans expect from Memphis May Fire? Is there any new music or subsequent tours?
Aw man, there’s always new music. And yes, we have another tour that’s already booked that won’t be announced for a long time, so I can’t talk about that. But the touring is not slowing down; the music writing is not slowing down. Kellen is just a machine, dude. I mean, when it comes to instrumentals, that dude is just cranking them out. He’s just brilliant, and I think that the only way that he can fully express that brilliance is through music, so he’s constantly writing and creating stuff that is setting the bar, in my opinion. Every time I get an instrumental from him it’s an honor and a privilege to write to it.
So, there’s tons of music being written and I think people can expect a new record sooner than they would imagine, and the touring is being booked. It’s not slowing down. That’s pretty much all I can give you at this point.
Memphis May Fire perform with Yellowcard on Oct. 31 at the Starland Ballroom, on Nov. 2 at the Best Buy Theater and on Nov. 3 at The Electric Factory. Their latest album, Unconditional, is available now. For more information, go to facebook.com/memphismayfire.