Some heavy metal bands are concerned about projecting a certain image, about sounding and looking as intimidating as their mosh pit-inducing sound. Meeting at vocalist/guitarist Johnny Jones’ home, ASHFALL begins their conversation with NEPA Scene by talking about Gary Busey, chicken wings, and Taylor Swift, so it’s clear from the get-go that there are no tough guy personas here.
In fact, it’s quite apparent that this Pittston-based band – which currently features guitarists Dave Kline and Billy Barrett, bassist Corey Kime, and drummer Randy Elmy – could care less about the things that concern many musicians – getting signed to a label, touring the world, and even earning a living from their music. ASHFALL is a group of friends just writing and performing the songs they enjoy creating, pure and simple.
“We’re older guys. We’re not kids in our early 20s,” Barrett pointed out.
“We don’t have the pressure to get signed and everything else. We all have our jobs. We all have either our kids or schooling or whatever we’re doing. For us, we’re kind of doing what we want to do without that in the back of our heads: ‘Is the record label going to like this? Are they going to want to pick us up?’” Kline said.
“So it’s more fun.”
“Fun” is the keyword that comes up again and again, though it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Important members have come and gone and hiatuses were taken, but that’s to be expected in a band that was formed over a decade ago in the early 2000s. Rather than move on, though, when Kline, Jones, and their original drummer started playing together again in late 2012, it just made sense for ASHFALL to rise again.
“Dave wasn’t having it any other way. When he called me up to get the band back together again, he was like, ‘We should just do ASHFALL again.’ I really didn’t want to, to be honest,” Jones admitted.
“I was all for jamming with them again and seeing how that felt, but with [original guitarist and songwriter] Jared gone, I kind of felt that the impact he made with us was just so great that I didn’t know if we could really duplicate that again, in all aspects.”
“We already have a boatload of songs right there. We already have a name that people know. Why change it?” Kline argued.
“You want to kind of go back to what you’re doing. It’s always nice to start off new and do new things, but we could do that on our own if we wanted to,” Barrett added.
“We do our own thing, and we do it well – as long as we don’t drink too much.”
So what is it that they do exactly? They describe themselves as “a hard rock powerhouse that takes all the best elements from modern and old school metal/rock and combines them with power-pop songwriting and sensibility,” and they’re unapologetic about mixing metal and pop together.
“We’re always going to be a heavy band. That’s what we do,” Kline clarified immediately.
“A lot of people have this preconception when it comes to heavy music and metal music that it’s got to be dark and dreary and kind of pissy and stuff. The thing I liked about this band is it was heavy, it was metal, it was in your face, but not every song was the typical stuff that you would assume lyrically, content-wise.
“Jared, obviously, was a major, major part of that. He wrote songs that were heavy, but were still kind of upbeat and a little more poppy.”
“I certainly don’t think that we’re breaking the mold by any means. I think what we do we do very well. I don’t think we try to sound like anybody, but we definitely wear our influences on our sleeves. There’s no way around that,” Jones continued.
“The band has been compared to Killswitch [Engage]. I’m a huge fan of that band as well. I don’t try to sound like them when I sing; if it happens, whatever. Breaking Benjamin, too. Dave likes them a lot. I love Ben. They made a huge impact in the area, and worldwide, even. Definitely a huge influence on me.”
“We write, and what we write is what we write, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. If it sounds like somebody else, too fuckin’ bad because there’s very little out there that you’ll be able to do to be original because pretty much everything has been done,” Kline emphasized.
Barrett was dismissive of this attitude back in 2003, but that was before he had seen them live.
“I came from a pretentious punk rock and hardcore background, that kind of music. I was like, ‘I don’t want to play mainstream rock,’ and then I saw the attention, and I’m an attention whore, so then I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll totally join the band.’ It was just for attention, and being a fat kid who didn’t get laid at the time,” he joked.
He’s now married with a child, so it must have worked.
Kime, however, was a longtime fan who couldn’t wait to hop on board about two years ago.
“I was more than all about that because I used to play in a band called the Black Orchid, and we always used to play shows with ASHFALL. I always used to watch them when we were playing, and I absolutely loved them. They were always my favorite band to go see when they played shows around here, so when I got this call, I was working with a band and I really saw it going nowhere, so once I got the offer from these guys, I jumped right on it,” he enthused.
“I was just stroked as shit that these guys thought enough of me to ask me. I came down, the first thing I said, I looked them all dead in the eyes without taking off my sunglasses and I said, ‘I’m not going to be the best bass player you’ll find, but I’ll be the best-looking bass player you’ll find.’ And I still honestly think that’s true.”
Their newest member, Elmy, who will make his live debut with ASHFALL this Saturday, March 28 at the band’s big comeback show at Diane’s Deli & Internet Cafe in Pittston, was living in Los Angeles when his offer came.
“They were just joking around because originally I was going to fly in from California to come visit my family for the holidays and they’re all like, ‘You’re not going to go back because you’re going to play with us,’” he recalled.
“We were going to give him a percussion intervention,” Kime interjected.
“Things happened out there, and I felt like I needed to come back,” Elmy said, and with ASHFALL being his favorite local band, it was an obvious decision.
“It’s nice to actually for once play music and just be more about loving the music and having fun rather than, ‘Oh, this has to be a living,’ or ‘It’s got to be my fucking life, or what else am I going to do?’
“It’s a nice breath of fresh air to not because I’ve been down that road where I was on a record label and they totally fucked us over big time. They tried suing us; that’s one of the reasons why things faded for us. It was quite funny because we actually sold more albums on our own than we did on that label.”
“Nobody sits you down and says, ‘OK, you need the 30-second intro. You need this, you need that,’ because I’m trying to get a record deal. We’ve all been in bands, ‘We’ve got this coming to see us. We’ve got that guy coming to see us.’ Nothing happened. We don’t have to strive to be that band who gets signed. It’s just awesome that we could have fun with it because I feel like when you’re doing it, trying to get rich and famous, that’s when it stops becoming fun,” Kime said.
“Fame is an illusion anyway,” Elmy added.
Now they simply concentrate on writing great songs, which isn’t easy after one of your primary songwriters moves to Nashville.
“My playing ability is nowhere near what Jared’s was, so it was kind of hard for me and intimidating for me at first to take over a lot of the lead stuff that he wrote and was playing, but with me and Billy, I kind of feel like we stepped up,” Kline acknowledged.
“In a more technical aspect, we’re not going so much more for the riff anymore as we used to. Even before Jared got in the band, we still worked around a main riff in the band, and now we’re not so much doing that. We’re going more for catchiness,” Barrett noted.
The band is also more of a collaborative effort now than it ever was before.
“I want to hear everybody’s ideas out. I’ve always been about that, but we’ve kind of gotten away from that in the past. We might not get a lot done in one certain practice, but I think we definitely hear each other out, and that’s all that matters,” Jones pointed out.
“We have a high amount of respect for each other.”
Jones respects his fans as well, so when he’s asked about the meaning behind his songs, he hesitates to delve too deep.
“I kind of like to keep that avenue open for the listener to guess or relate to their own feelings. I really want to kind of wrap the listener into the moment. That’s always, I guess, been the motivation behind wanting to write songs,” he explained.
“I certainly don’t want to mislead people. I know it probably seems like I do, but how many times have you heard a song and you’ve maybe heard about what it’s really about and you’re let down? I kind of don’t want to reveal what it really is about in a lot of aspects.”
Keeping his lyrics as relatable as possible may have even saved a life or two.
“I heard one person say to me, ‘The song you just played tonight saved my life,’ and that was really hard for me to take because I didn’t know what that meant,” he remembered, still a bit bewildered by it.
“I was just kind of blown away by that. He just made it a point to let me know that it saved his life – whether it did or it didn’t, I don’t know. I’ve never heard anything past that. I’ve certainly been there, where if it wasn’t for music, I certainly wouldn’t be where I was. I truly believe that this was an outlet for me. For that, I’m most grateful.”
Kime is still impressed by the overall sound that the band produces, which he feels has grown up a bit, but with its melodic roots intact.
“There weren’t many bands doing that kind of style, where the music could be loved by brutal, hardcore metalheads, but then he barely screams. He’s got an excellent voice, so it’s very unique, to say the least,” he said of Jones.
“We’ve played shows back to back where one night, you have a massive mosh pit filled with big dudes, and then the next night, we’re playing a show and there’s girls up in the front shaking their asses. That’s something that not a lot of bands can pull off, in my mind.”
The perfect lineup
The next trick is finding supportive local venues to show off this music and continuing to build on their long-established fan base.
“Local musicians have talked for years about how much of a dead zone it is around here, but bands like Motionless In White and Breaking Ben, they came from here. These are guys who have been playing in bars just like us. It’s awesome to see. That’s proof that this area deserves more credit than it gets from a lot of people because there’s so many amazing musicians and so many amazing bands around here. It doesn’t matter what you like. On any Friday or Saturday night, you could go out and you will find somebody playing somewhere that’s going to play music that you like,” Kline noted, though he feels that people often don’t bother, choosing to complain that there’s nothing to do instead.
“That personally makes me really respect a lot of the original bands around here more, because people don’t give a shit and they still bust their asses. And they still plug and plug and plug and do what they’ve got to do in spite of the fact that we don’t have enough venues that really cater to helping original bands get out there. We used to. Metro closed. Backstage closed.
“The V-Spot, Diane’s Deli, and the New Penny are so unbelievably important to this area because they continually, every weekend, give original bands a chance to go out and play.”
For Jones, it’s not about numbers or money – it’s about respect.
“I hope, at the end of the day, people can respect us because these guys can write a song, whether they like it or not. They’re good songwriters,” he said of his bandmates.
“It’s always really been about respect. I think we’ve certainly earned that with our peers, certainly those we play with, and the fans. We earn new fans every time we play, especially with this lineup. I know once Randy plays with us at this first show back, he’s just crazy behind the kit. This puts a new life into the band.”
Jones promises surprises and new cover songs for their triumphant return on Saturday with fellow local rockers Behind the Grey and Graces Downfall, utilizing a “perfect” lineup that is firing on all cylinders, writing and planning studio time that will secure a future that begins tomorrow night.
“I always hope to make a new fan every time we play. Honestly, I don’t get wrapped up in trying to impress people. I kind of just look forward to exposing people to new music,” he said.
“I know, for me, there’s definitely a fire underneath my ass to want to show people what we’ve got. I’m kind of like a kid underneath a Christmas tree – I want to show people my toys. I’m very excited to show what Randy can do for this band.
“I just can’t wait for people to see the band. I think it’s going to be a definite eye-opener, even to people who have seen us before. It’s funny how that one element can change something about the band. I think it can.”
by Rich Howells
Rich is an award-winning journalist, longtime blogger, adequate photographer, podcast co-host, and practicing poet. He is the founder and editor of NEPA Scene.