Celebrating the release of their new album Mana, Portland’s Idle Hands are experiencing what it’s like to tour Europe—and learning how it feels to build something from the ground up
A major musical contender from the always-exciting musical hotbed of the Pacific Northwest, Idle Hands was formed in 2017, and have perfected a melodic drum-driven sound on their latest LP, Mana. Their lead singer Gabe Franco has been living and playing in Portland for about ten years and lends his strong and soaring voice to Idle Hands’s well-constructed metal anthems.
Idle Hands came to be after the seminal Pacific Northwest rockers Spellcaster dissolved. Angst and raw emotion burst forth in their sound, and soon Gabe Franco forged ahead with the always-busy guitarist extraordinaire Sebastian Silva and drummer Colin Vranizan. They transformed their style into a heavily-imaginative gothic rock interpretation and produced such songs such as “Blade and The Will,” and an EP, Don’t Waste Your Time, which was produced by Franco, who produced Mana, as well.
Mana is a departure for Idle Hands, a departure from how Franco has written songs in the past. This time, he wrote and dropped tracks in layers to develop the song composition around Vranizan’s solid drumming underpinnings. The result is a distinctive, danceable sound due in equal parts to an emphasis on studio production, memorable and satisfying song construction, and the band’s obvious virtuosity. It’s no wonder then that Idle Hands has become quite a hot international attraction, with fans from both the United States and Asia anxious traveling to witness the group’s packed-out European appearances.
Your debut gig as Idle Hands was opening up for Uada in Portland. Did you feel a different vibe in the air or anything like that with the start of this new band?
Right off the bat our first show was packed, I would say mostly due to Uada being there since they are the hometown favorites. When we played in there it was jam packed and half the crowd was singing our songs and they knew the words. Every show we have played since has had great crowds. It is miles beyond what I was doing with Spellcaster. There seems to be some life and energy going on with this project.
IHow was “Blade and the Will” written and did you see it evolve with the different versions of it?
That was the first song I wrote. I sat down one day and said I am going to write a song. I played some chords—it was like, (the) chorus was pretty easy, the verse is clean, and I started building it up. I just layer things. I start out with a very simple bass line for each song, like so simple it sounds dumb, but the song flows. There is a solid progression to it. There is never a time when things change or you get surprised. I come up with the bass, I layer it, and that is what I did for that song. However, I didn’t get the final version recorded until 6 or 7 months after I was done with the song because I was getting married at that time and going on a honeymoon and money was tight and I had a crappy job. So, it was whenever I had extra dough, I would take care of tracking. Colin was just a session drummer at the time helping me out with demo tracks. That version went on the EP. The reason I rerecorded it for Mana was the first time singing it on the EP, and I felt like my vocals were a bit shaky. I also wanted to change a few things. I put in a different solo section and some harmonies on the new version.
Tell me about how it was like recording at SharkBite studios in Oakland and Falcon Studios in Portland?
I flew down there in November 2018, Colin knew all the tracks. We went in and nailed them all out. Funny enough, we were in there for 6 hours, and Zach the engineer had fucked something up. We had to trash all of our drum tracks. We were almost done. We had to restart and were faced with the prospect of coming in the next day. Colin was like ‘Fuck it, I am going to do them all right now.’ He nailed out the entire album in 2 hours. What you hear on the album with the drums is from those 2 hours. What I do for all my recordings is, I get the drum tracks taken care of and I bring them back to Portland. I had a month off because Silver Talon was touring, so half of my band is on tour. Sebastian and Colin were going around the country. I took those drum tracks and sat at home everyday and did pre-production. I took my songs and rewrote them over the now recorded drum tracks. This way Colin can do the songs free ball; he knows my structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, whatever. He just jams to that, and there is no set thing he needs to do. I come in later and write over these drum parts so it sounds like we planned the whole thing out. Really though it is me writing around Colin’s drumming. A lot of the parts of the songs are just because Colin did a cool fill and I decided to remove one of my parts. For example, in ‘Dragon, Why Do You Cry,’ at the end there is a part where he does a snare roll with the harmonized guitars—that was never planned. After the pre-production was done, we just did a few months of me and Sebastian tracking guitars and myself doing vocals in Portland, and mixing. It was done in late January and then we sent it off to the presses.
Can you explain your philosophy on layering to develop the compositions?
I think Gene Simmons said it: keep it simple, or stupid—or maybe that is what his band name stands for! I don’t care what chord or riff it is that I start with as long as it flows. I just use that as a base. I start there and get the entire song laid out in these chords. Once you have that foundation, you just start playing around on it. I loop it, solo over it, and figure out cool melodies until something hits me and I go, ‘Yeah, that is catchy as hell.’ I just keep layering and write my vocal melodies on guitar, and then write lyrics over the vocal melodies. The way I do things, the only person who needs to know anything when I am writing a song is Colin. He just needs to know the general structures of the song. After that I can go into the studio and do everything else myself.
Idle Hands has spent a good amount of time in Europe. How has being on the German label Eisenwald helped?
Eisenwald was great in terms of pushing our record in Europe. They did a fantastic job and Mana sold out on the day it was released. We did 3 weeks with Tribulation, Gaahl’s Wyrd, and Uada. We came home for a month and the went back. As Mana was coming out, we did the festivals Keep it True, Metalheads, Muskelrock, and all these headlining shows around [Europe]. The response was phenomenal. We did 34 shows over 50 days. There were some shows where it was just us, and we were packing houses and people were singing along to every single word. Your job as a musician is to write amazing songs and doing things no one else is doing. Agents, labels, and managers all see that hard work. The more you do something, the more you’re going to [keep doing] something.
What would you say were some of the most memorable shows for the band, so far?
Keep it True is the obvious big contender with 3000 people. I really enjoyed a few cities on the last tour. Kamen in Germany. Göppingen and Osnabrück. Those 3 in particular the crowd was going absolutely nuts throughout the entire show. This tour was way crazier than the Tribulation and Gaahl’s Wyrd tour. On that tour people were like ‘Who the hell is that band on that tour?’ Especially since we were opening up for black metal bands. This tour we were the band people were coming to see. We played London, and there was even a couple that flew over from New York to come see us. I asked them why, and they said, ‘We wanted to see you before you were playing venues too big for us to meet you.’ There was also a guy who came from Thailand that came to see us at the London show. We played in Athens—which was amazing. We saw the Acropolis and drew a bunch of people there. We got into Metal Hammer there and were featured in 10 different magazines. We got to go to Hungary for the first time. The day after that we were driving to Prague, and our bassist Brandon accidentally backed the van into a government building in Slovakia and fucked it up pretty bad. These Slovakian police came and told us, ‘Give us 50 bucks and go away.’ [Laughs.]