Legendary hardcore band Shai Hulud have been around for 20 years. Since 1995, they’ve been delivering raw, relentless music coupled with intelligent lyrics about the issues of our world. After a short break in between 2008 and 2012, the band is back in full swing with new music and a three-leg headlining tour around the US. I got to speak to guitarist Matt Fox, who’s been with the band since its birth, and it was nothing short of an illuminating conversation. We covered a lot in the interview, from lost friends to lyrical content to anatomical anomalies:
The lyrical content of your music is interesting; at best, it’s misanthropic, and at worst, it’s borderline nihilistic. When I listen to it, though, I feel uplifted and motivated, rather than depressed and down. Is there any reason from your standpoint why that might be the case?
Well, I would probably amend your statement slightly. I would say, “At best, optimistic, and at worst, misanthropic.” We don’t necessarily think there’s anything wonderful about feeling hatred. It is, however, an inevitable fact, especially if confronted with consistent stupidity. Speaking for myself, nothing pisses me off more than that, and that’s what a lot of our songs deal with. At best, though, you said you felt motivated and uplifted which really is the point, because the last thing this band means to do is bring anybody down. It’s supposed to illuminate the trouble, isolate it, and attend to it in a healthy way. In a show, that could be through jumping around, dancing, screaming, yelling, stage diving, or on a personal level, it could just be thinking, and no one should ever underestimate the power of thinking. That goes a long way.
You did mention the word “nihilistic.” That certainly was never the intention; I don’t think that’s a characteristic of the band necessarily. I remember one […] review, somebody wrote on our record […] but the review said something regarding Misanthropy Pure, the album as Shai Hulud being a band that wants to watch the world burn and ready to watch it die, and that statement couldn’t have been any further from the truth. If it were true, then it would be nihilistic, if I understand the definition of nihilism, which there’s a good change that I don’t. That’s definitely not an approach of Shai Hulud. Maybe there’s a line or two, maybe there’s even a song, but nothing that comes to mind that really promotes the idea of nihilism. In fact, I think every song that we have is almost begging for people to come together and create a solution or at least think of a solution or offer a solution or something, anything to move us even a fraction closer to a solution.
Misanthropic, absolutely, unfortunately. Optimistic, 100 percent, always. Nihilistic, maybe here and there, certainly not intentional, and that would never ever be a focus of the band. I don’t think that the approach of nihilism is any way to create any type of effective solution that would bring greater good to anybody.
I noticed on the album art for Reach Beyond The Sun you have tombstones with names like Mitch Dubey and Daniel Bobis. Is there any specific reason why you chose the names you did?
Absolutely, 100 percent. If I remember correctly, there are three names; there’s Makh Daniels, there’s Daniel Bobis, and there’s Mitch Dubey. Speaking for myself, I was very good friends with Daniel Bobis, and very friendly with Makh Daniels, unfortunately, I didn’t know as well as I would have. Those two names and Mitch Dubey were all friends of the band. I personally did not know Mitch Dubey, but the song “The Mean Spirits Breathing,” and those images that you’re referring to all go hand-in-hand. The song “The Mean Spirits Breathing,” the music had been written for a long time, and I wasn’t necessarily sure what it was going to be about, until, very sadly, our good friend Daniel Bobis, who used to play drums for a band called Cipher [passed]. And on a side note, ironically, the drummer that we have right now, who’s currently driving our van, actually filled in for Cipher on drums after Daniel Bobis’ death. But that song didn’t have any lyrics, and once we learned about Daniel Bobis dying, it gave that song its meaning and its title, which is “The Mean Spirits Breathing,” essentially being about how it only seems to be the case that the best people die and the worst people seem to function and create more viciousness and malevolence and indifference and whatever bullshit it is they create. Those people seem to be alive, and the beautiful people seem to pass away too early.
Going further, again, I’ve never met Mitch Dubey, but from what I understand, all of the people I knew that knew him said he was truly a wonderful guy, and from what I can tell, he certainly was. Makh Daniels was the singer for a band we really love called Early Graves. He had been a good friend a supporter of ours for a long time and Daniel Bobis we’ve known for, geez, almost 20 years, and we’re good friends with his bandmates, his students, and his wife. I mean, he was pretty immersed in our lives, so after Daniel’s death, that song took shape, and when creating the artwork, we wanted to illuminate those three people. Also, giving a nice visual to the song, which is always cool, and also, just paying a modicum of respect and attention to three people that we are all very sorry to have lost.
Hopefully I answered your question. I think I went on a bit of a tangent there.
No, you actually answered another question I had, which was if “Monumental Graves” was inspired by the three names.
(Laughs) “Monumental Graves,” not so much. There may be a line in there, but primarily, that artwork is regarding “The Mean Spirits Breathing.”
I interviewed Bane recently and both of you guys have this trend of releasing albums really far apart from each other, as opposed to other bands who do like, every year, every two years. Is there any reason for that? Are you looking for quality rather than quantity?
Well that’s always an answer; I don’t know if that’s the entire answer, but that’s for sure. One thing that I can say is that I feel quite confident that Shai Hulud has never released bullshit. The closest, and this might piss people off to hear me say it, but that’s my opinion, and if their opinion is different, I’m actually thankful if it’s different, but the closest thing that I think Shai Hulud’s ever released as being bullshit would be our first album, Hearts Once Nourished. Not that it doesn’t have its merit and not that it doesn’t have a lot of heart and a lot of the things that even I myself do appreciate, but that was the album that was most thrown together, least planned, had the fewest ideas, and with also the least amount of time to record. That being the case, all of the other records were given so much time and so much thought […] Wanting to release quality is always the top goal, and with the amount of planning that went into the other three albums, that was certainly the case. Just thinking back to That Within Blood Ill Tempered, we wrote and recorded twice, as a demo version, to make sure we really knew what we were doing because we had so many ideas […]
On another side note, it’s always a difficult thing for anybody who’s creating anything, no matter what it is, it could be just a student writing a paper, but what’s in one’s head is fairly difficult to commit to paper or ink or paint or mp3, whatever it is. That process, for me, takes me a long time. I am confident that I can release good material, but I’m not necessarily confident that I can do it off-the-cuff, not to be the quality that I want. So all that stated, “The Quest For Quality,” if you want to make it sound pretentious, not with you, but me (laughs), definitely takes an amount of time. On top of that, we’ve been on tour for just under a week and we’ve got new members, we’ve gone through two different vehicles, we’re having merch shipped from one UPS center to another. Being in a band that’s run well takes so many people and so much effort that I personally don’t understand how, unless a band has someone really running things, or an outside manager, or everyone in the band has their own designated role and everyone’s on top of everything, I don’t see how it’s possible to write a decent record while touring, while keeping up on everything as best as it could be done, and have an album out every two years.
And that’s just me; for all I know, it’s very easy […] Shai Hulud hasn’t been so lucky. That would be my off-the-cuff answer. I do like your statement of “trying to make it the best as possible,” because that clearly is the highest goal. Just to repeat myself, some people may be just naturally prolific, I don’t think that Shai Hulud ever has been. Everything that we ever recorded that we believe in has never come without great effort, and to think of another band, the band Propagandhi also says the same thing; they simply said that writing doesn’t come naturally, it’s difficult and to make it where it’s the best they think it could be takes a lot of great effort, and that really is the same with us, so congratulations to anyone that could just fart out something brilliant (laughs). Believe me, if I could, I would. I definitely don’t have that ability.
Actually, speaking about lineup changes, you guys held auditions a couple of years ago for a new vocalist. Is he still with the band?
Not necessarily. Right now, we have singing with us Matt Mazzali, who was in the band for around 2008, at the release of Misanthropy Pure, he’s the singer on that record and he’s also in the video for that record. So, ever since Misanthropy Pure, we’ve kind of had friends and fill-ins getting us by, and we never did any serious recording between Misanthropy Pure and Reach Beyond The Sun. During that time, we had a singer or two we thought might possibly be able to work out, but for many and various reasons, it simply didn’t. Going into each story would be pointless really.
When we started piecing together Reach Beyond The Sun, we did have Chad Gilbert, who was the singer around the Hearts Once Nourished era, was slated to produce, and we did have a singer that we were going to go in and record with. As it happened, it wasn’t able to work out, that singer wasn’t able to commit to the band as we needed him to commit, and that left us without a singer, but it did leave us with recording time scheduled. The good fortune was the producer also happened to be not only a singer with a great hardcore voice, but he also happened to sing for us before, so instead of canceling the recording of the album, I simply asked Chad if he’d be interested in doing it. As you probably know, he did. That saved us a lot […] if he ended up not singing with us, now that Matt Mazzali’s back in the band, we may have been recording the album around now.
The way that I see it is from Misanthropy Pure until now, there was a little bit of a hiatus and luckily for us, during that hiatus, we were able to do some tours and keep active […] Matt Mazzali has returned to the band to sing on all future recordings from here on out. That’s the cleanest way to think about it. Seems to be a nice, pretty bow that way.
Originally, the band was located in Florida. You guys relocated to the NY/NJ area, correct?
The band started in Pompano Beach, unincorporated. We relocated to Poughkeepsie, NY for 10 years. Then about five years ago, I moved to South Jersey, not so far from Philly. Matt Mazzali ended up moving to Pittsburgh, and other guys that we have are in the PA/NJ area. It’s fair to say that’s where we’re based now, but the home of the band, the birth of the band is unincorporated Pompano Beach
How has the relocation impacted your music, if it has?
The music? I don’t know if it impacted the music. At least I couldn’t say that it has, comfortably. […] But, having moved from Florida to New York and then New York to New Jersey has definitely saved the band. Back in 1999, finding a drummer, well, when you’re in South Florida, you know everybody, and it was really difficult to find some to play drums. Our drummer that time was still a good friend of ours, but he just started […] and they were quite busy, and even though we were still friends and still are great friends today, doing two full-time bands wasn’t possible, and that’s why we ended up moving up north and it really, really did save the band because clearly, there’s a wealth of musicians up north, and not only that, but there’s a wealth of musicians in many different directions, whereas in South Florida, you can only go up to North Florida and South Georgia. It’s pretty limited, otherwise, you’d have to keep flying people back and forth to practice.
Just to sum up, I can’t say that moving location affected the music in a creative way, but it did keep the music alive, because we now had access to either new members, or at the very least, people who loved or liked the band enough to get involved and help us get through a tour or what have you. We’ve made many, many, many friends because of our moves. Again, I couldn’t say it enough, as much as I love South Florida, moving to Poughkeepsie, NY really saved our band.
You just started your headliner tour, and it’s three legs, correct?
Correct, which is ironic because the guy that we have on bass right now also has three balls. That’s true, please print that. He’s sleeping right now, he doesn’t even hear me saying this.
What are you looking forward to on the next three legs of tour and what do you expect to be different about this one?
I’m a very simple, simple person. I’m looking forward to the same things on this tour that I’ve looked forward to in 1996, or ‘7, whenever our first tour was. First and foremost, I think it’s the freedom, and sure, there are stresses, tons and tons of stresses, but there is an exhilarating sense of freedom and once you work out the stressors and things get back to normal, which they always do, within reason, there’s a sense of freedom that’s really awesome. That’s how I’ve survived my whole life and I will always look forward to that.
On a side note, I tell this story often, but my mother has worked in the same office for 40 years, and more power to her. I think that’s incredible and I think that takes a determination and a type of strength that I simply do not have. That being the case, that’s not any way I would ever choose to live my life, and there’s nothing wrong with that because I know plenty of people, my mother included, who could never do what it is that I do.
In regards to what I’m looking forward to, it’s that freedom. It’s a really nice feeling. I really, truly would not trade it for the world. Who knows, in 30 years, will I still be doing it? I don’t know, what’s his face, Mick Jagger is still doing it (laughs). But yeah, that’s one thing, and then all of the other things that go along with tours; the same things you would ask any band and they would say, at least, I hope it would be the things that they say, which is playing a show, no matter how big or how small, and knowing that you related to somebody. So far, we’ve only played a few small shows, but I’m very confident at least at every show, we’ve made some type of emotional impact on somebody, even if only for the moments that we played. Some people might have walked away with it for a night, a day, or a week, and some people may have felt it purely when it was on, but the length of the impact isn’t important, it’s the connection and the impact that counts. I always look forward to that; that’s something that never gets old. Again, speaking for myself, it hasn’t gotten old to me yet.
On the lighter, sillier notes, we just stopped off at a gas station in Alabama and had some good Alabama home cooking. From a gas station (laughs). Finding fun and different places to eat on tour is always a blast. I think Baltimore, I’m not vegan or vegetarian strictly by any sense, but there was a little local struggling vegan restaurant that I had the pleasure of going to. They had some awesome people there, great food. Those little types of experiences on the road that all of us have, either collectively or individually, is something that we’re always looking forward to.
For me, one of my favorite things to do on the road is sit by myself and have soup at a Thai restaurant. Haven’t done it yet, but maybe that’s just one of my tastes of freedom. Looking at record stores is always great, meeting new people, of course. I love walking into quaint, little used bookstores. All of these things may sound silly, but these are the things that, I think, all of us look forward to.
What makes this tour any different than any other one? Well, I think as you get older, each tour becomes more important, because you’re grateful for what you have and you realize that none of it is anything you’re entitled to, it’s all something that you’re being granted and that people are […] you get their presence and you get their love and often, you get their money, by merch or paying entry into the show. These people are the ones that are giving this to us, and when we play, we give back, but in my opinion, I think we’re getting the better end of the deal.
So what’s different for this tour is just that you take less for granted; every single tour that you do, every next tour, you take less and less for granted. I like to think that Shai Hulud has never taken a tour for granted, but if that’s the case, this new one is one that’s taken even less for granted, and we’re more appreciative after our band has been around for 20 years, to be pulling in anywhere between five and 60 people a night to share some moments with. Here’s to another 20 more years.
Shai Hulud are currently on the second leg of their tour with xBishopx and Forty Winters and will be playing The Studio At Webster Hall in NYC on Aug. 11 and the Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, NJ on Aug. 12. They recently announced a new EP and have signed to No Sleep Records for its release later this year. For more information, you can visit facebook.com/ShaiHuludUninc and hulud.com.