New tour and album, ‘Rivals,’ gets Coal Chamber burning again
Nu-metal band reunites and performs across the tri-state area April 2-6
Even though they’ve regrouped sporadically to play live since a “permanent” disbandment announcement in 2005, notably in the form of high-profile gigs at Australia’s Soundwave Festival in 2012 and a 2013 European festival run (Download, Graspop, Nova Rock, etc.), Coal Chamber hasn’t released a studio album since 2002’s “Dark Days.”
This 13-year dry streak will end when the band unleashes its new album, “Rivals,” through Napalm Records on May 12. Once touted amongst the leaders of the so-called “nu-metal” genre, the band’s self-titled 1997 debut (which featured bottom-dropping groove hammers like “Loco”) solidified a darkened, overwhelmingly modern approach to traditional heavy metal that bypassed the standard syncopated thrash riffage in favor of a looser, jarringly wobbly rhythmic attack. With “Rivals,” some media outlets are already quick to herald the collection of new tunes as a sort of return to the glory days of nu-metal’s infancy.
“We never shied away from that label,” says Coal Chamber vocalist Dez Fafara of the nu-metal tag. Speaking by phone from a congested Los Angeles freeway en route to one of the final Coal Chamber rehearsals before the band’s current U.S. tour, which will see them play with Filter, Combichrist, American Head Charge, and Saint Ridley at The Emporium in Patchogue, New York on April 2; the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey on April 3; and in Pennsylvania for a couple of shows, specifically Philadelphia’s Trocadero Theatre on April 4 and Millvale’s Mr. Small’s Theatre on April 6. Fafara, in fact, recalled nu-metal’s primitive luster with a high degree of fondness.
“I think the scene was so beautiful in the beginning,” he continued. “There was us, the Deftones, Korn, System of a Down, Static-X – everybody in the inception. The day nu-metal started to get ruined was when certain bands were coming out and getting thrown into the mix that didn’t belong to anything that we were all doing.”
As far as the new material on “Rivals,” from which the first single “I.O.U. Nothing” was released several weeks back, Fafara doesn’t believe that the newly minted music holds much in common with the nu-metal of nearly 20 years ago.
“The new stuff is about as far away as you can get from nu-metal,” he says. “As far as it jumpstarting a new movement [which has been suggested in pre-release hype], I don’t know if you can really cast the record as nu-metal. It’s definitely Coal Chamber, but it’s a step above, beyond all that simple stuff. With that being said, whatever tag works for people is cool. We’re just trying to do our thing and throw some energy out there that’s positive.”
It seems as though it was that very energy that, in fact, led to the new “Rivals” album being born. Fafara, of course, has been busy with his main band since Coal Chamber’s breakup – DevilDriver. Each of the other Coal Chamber members – guitarist Miguel “Meegs” Rascón, drummer Mikey “Bug” Cox, and bassist Nadja Peulen – have all also been in and out of various musical situations since 2005. Fafara explains that it was the live shows of 2012-2013 that really fueled the fire for new music to be explored.
“We took it around the world, and the audiences were just incredible,” he tells. “The first shows we did were at Soundwave with about 70,000 people, and Meegs was listening to his headphones on the way to the gig, on one of those big buses that take all the bands to the stage. I said, ‘What are you listening to?’ He said, ‘It’s some music that I wrote.’ I asked, ‘For what?’ He said that it wasn’t for anything specific, just some music that he’d written. I told him that it should be new Coal Chamber. At that point, we started discussing new music – so that’s now two years ago, probably.”
One might wonder how much has changed as far as the way Coal Chamber crafts new material – 13 years is a long time to have been away from creating with each other. It turns out that getting that spark of creativity was not an issue for the band; they fired up the new tunes in decidedly lo-fi fashion, devoid of sending MP3 files via e-mail or video conferencing work sessions.
“Everybody gets in a room and starts jamming – we do it the old-school way,” says Fafara. “Everything so far has been like boom box rehearsal tapes, which is hilarious to everyone but us. But we get in a room, we jam, we find a vibe, get down to some recording, and get on the right track. I’ll start writing lyrics, whisper ideas on my iPhone as far as what I’m going to do. The band will tell me if I’m going in the right direction – the communication is extremely open.”
With over a decade in between band interplay during the writing and recording process, one might also wonder if there were any moments that stood out as particularly memorable during “Rivals.”
“After 20 years in this business, that’s one of the questions I get asked each time I make a record,” Fafara reflects. “On each record, there’s maybe one or two of those moments where it’s really overwhelming for me. On this record, the whole thing was a moment. It was so electrically charged from the moment we started recording that when we were done, I looked at my producer Mark Lewis and said, ‘We’re done?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ I was like, ‘Whoa.’ The whole thing was like a wildfire.”
Fafara insists that “Rivals” should be listened to as a whole, rather than picking out specific songs to highlight. Each song appears to be just that strong on its own.
“Some people said that the last three songs on the record should be brought up front,” he begins, demonstrating his point. “Other people have said the songs that are up farther to the front should be up even farther – we really couldn’t decide upon a tracklisting. That’s a really good sign to musicians, you know?”
Producer Mark Lewis was an essential cog in the musical wheel for “Rivals.” Lewis, who has worked on records by bands like Whitechapel and The Black Dahlia Murder, and even Fafara’s own DevilDriver, has a knack for putting an individual sonic stamp upon each artist with which he works.
“I’ve been with Mark for years, man,” Fafara says proudly, “since the DevilDriver ‘The Last Kind Words’ record [in 2007]. Mark brings something unique to every band. He’s never made me sound like any other band he’s producing, and he’s never used any of my band’s secrets for any other band. That was just one of the reasons I work with him – the other is that he’s ultra-professional. He’s the kind of guy that knows I like things in the moment – it’s got to pop off for me. I’ve got to get in there in one or two takes and hit the song, or else the day’s done for me – the energy’s gone.”
Lewis’ perfectionist work mentality is something that Fafara says Coal Chamber needed to accomplish their goals on this new record. He gives the example of Lewis taking seven days just to get the proper drum sound, which is rather rare in this day and age of shrinking recording budgets. The extra care and attention to detail did not go unappreciated by the band.
“We need this record to sound like a monster,” begins Fafara, “and it does. “I’d put it up against anybody that’s out there now: newer bands, older bands, you’re going to notice it. The production is just massive on this record.”
13 years on from the last Coal Chamber record, and 20 years into a recording career, Fafara notes that lyrical content is something that has specifically evolved for him. Lyrics are now something that he puts extra emphasis upon, as far as the work needed to sculpt them.
“It’s changed in the way that instead of getting lazy, I put more into it,” he says of his writing. “What I do, in part, is I’ll go in and Mark would say, ‘What song are we going to do today?’ Say we’ve got a working title; for example, ‘One’ or ‘Two’ – we’re going to do song ‘Two.’ I’ll sing like five different verses and two or three different choruses – I write two or three songs to every song. As far as lyrical content goes, I have a house with all these tiny rooms I can go into and retrieve memories that will bring out whatever I want to write about. Most of ‘Rivals’ revolves around current situations with things and people – it’s a very current record for me, lyrically.”
Fafara also says that the lyrical flow for this record was so charged that the ideas just kept pouring out on their own. He recalls at one point singing lyrics to Lewis over the phone, with Lewis responding, “You’re on a roll.”
“That’s also a really good point when it comes to art,” Fafara says, “when it starts flowing by itself; that’s like a miracle drug for me. I don’t do hard drugs – that’s my hard drug.”
Nearly 20 years on, there is a clear influence that can be seen in a new generation of bands stemming directly from Coal Chamber’s music – their groove-heavy sound can now be considered a constant in modern metal. Even locally in Northeastern Pennsylvania, one of our own heavies, Threatpoint, looks to Fafara and Coal Chamber as an influence, with Threatpoint often choosing a crushing cover of “Loco” to augment their live set. When mentioning the NEPA nod to Fafara, he was humbled by the accolade. He went on to give another example of Coal Chamber’s presence being felt in other musicians worldwide.
“We flew over to Brazil; there were about 100 kids that met us,” he begins. “There were six of them that were wearing these shirts called ‘Beans’ – there was a Coal Chamber cover band called Beans in Brazil. We stopped and took pictures with them. I invited them to the show that night; they even came on stage with me – it was awesome. They were like 17, 18 years old. For me, it’s always a pleasure to hear that that’s going on.”
With the reactivated Coal Chamber now a reality, does Fafara see “Rivals” as a one-off, or is this maybe a door now opened to more extensive band activity?
“I think the road takes you where it takes you,” he responds. “There’s a saying that me and my manager live by: ‘Let the movie play itself out.’ There’s nothing you can say about destiny and karma other than do the right thing, put in the work that’s necessary for what you want to do, and watch the movie play itself out. The reaction to the record and single has been phenomenal; I haven’t seen the Internet heat up like this in a long time. The shows look like they’re doing relatively well, which is a good thing because we haven’t bene out in a long time. From there, you test the waters to see if you’re having fun – that’s our main thing right now.”
After having DevilDriver as his main focus for so many years, Fafara is happy to have the “distraction” of a new Coal Chamber record and tour. Comparing the inherent “darkness” quality the two bands share, he says that contained within that darkness is a very positive, somewhat cathartic tone.
“It’s been very freeing for me,” he says of the new Coal Chamber activity. “I can use any voice, any singing tone, any lows or highs – any monster in me, man. It’s crazy. For me, this new record was also a privilege. It’s like, after 13 years, all of the different colors on a palette, now you get to paint with this. It’s like, ‘What? I hope I remember how to use blue!’ So, hopefully, people will want to turn around and push play again on this record, because we really did our best. In hindsight, I know we did more than our best.
I’m extremely proud of this record, and I want to share it with the world.”
Mark is a NEPA-based freelance music journalist and live music junkie, living vicariously through the artists he covers.