Inside the feral cocktail of bruising extremity that is Mastiff’s new album.
It may not feel like it given that many parts of the UK are currently enduring snow (that it has once again responded to with amazement as if it isn’t more-or-less an annual event), but the country suffered through one of the most intense heatwaves in living memory last summer. No worries though, cause Trump tweeted that global warming isn’t real, so we’re all good. Nevertheless, none of us have air conditioning nor the temperament for working under such conditions, so the country became a living hell for a few weeks. It wasn’t all bad news, though. Appositely recorded amongst this hellscape was the new full-length from Hull bruisers Mastiff, whose intense brand of sludge has been caving-in skulls since 2013.
The UK scene was left especially stunned by 2017’s Bork, an EP that took the band’s miserable sludge and warped it into something entirely original, with bouts of hardcore and grind thrown into the mix. Plague builds on upon and refines this foundation and emerges with something grander, filthier and more cohesive as a result. Even amongst a UK scene awash with all kinds of intense extremity, Plague sounds positively deadly. A patchwork of influences combine to create a Frankenstein’s Monster of furious, bloodstained brutality, with rampant bursts of grind giving way to sledgehammer sludge, and unflinchingly hostile hardcore also rearing its head throughout. If life as an extreme metal band is just a constant striving to write the most thoroughly heavy sounds ever recorded, then Mastiff leave no stone unturned in their pursuit.
Eager to hear more about what it takes to concoct such a feral beast, we spoke to guitarist James Lee, who joined the band before Bork, to discuss how Plague deals with the ills of social media (follow us yo), the creative process behind the release, how the shitshow that is modern UK politics informed its fury and, of course, how recording in such blazing heat aided in the album’s intensity.
What made you decide to pick the name Mastiff?
The band’s name predates my time in the band by quite a while, but from my understanding, the guys at the time wanted something simple and strong, that feels brutish and imposing. Also it had a ‘T’ in the middle that could be turned into an inverted cross, an absolute must for any self-respecting evil hardcore band.
What’s the significance of the album title Plague?
When we came up with it initially, it was just something we felt fit the mood of the songs we’d been writing – it’s bleak and unsettling and unrelentingly brutal. But then Jim [Hodge, vocals] took that idea and spun it into a lyrical theme about how social media is the plague of modern society, so we ended up with this really nice marriage between literal plague imagery and the metaphor in the lyrics.
The press release mentions that the album is “born of your disgust at humanity’s false nature”, can you elaborate on how this concept inspires the album?
It’s fair to say that most, if not all of us in the band, have had some negative experience in recent years with people lying and manipulating us through social media, be it supposed friends, people we’ve dealt with through the band, or just the general arseholes you come across day-to-day. Most of our communication as a society is done through Facebook or Twitter nowadays, and it’s created this environment where nobody is really who they present themselves to be, and people hide their true intentions behind this public mask. It’s easy to completely disconnect from your morality when you’re behind a screen and don’t have to look anyone in the eye, and that’s eroding our souls slowly-but-surely. Plague is our violent and scathing rebuttal to that.
What are some of the other themes on the album?
Death and grief are pretty strong themes within the Mastiff canon, and are touched upon on Plague a few times. Losing loved ones is something we all go through at some point or another, but unfortunately some of us have had to face losses that were far too premature, and it’s pain we live with constantly. Writing music and pouring that negative energy into it is as good a way as there is to make living with that burden a little easier.
The UK, like much of the world, is in a bit of a divided state right now. Has that atmosphere fed into your music at all?
Mastiff are far from a political band, but it would be stupid to ignore the horrific state our country is in. Though our music rarely touches upon it, the absolute fuckwits that are running our country into the ground give us all plenty of personal hate fuel, which gets very quickly burned up whilst writing the kind of horrific shit that we do. We’re living in bleak times, and Mastiff are the perfect soundtrack to such widespread disdain.
Can you tell us a bit about the creative process behind the new album?
When we made BORK, our last EP, the band had recently undergone a fairly significant line-up shift, with both myself and Dan [Dolby, bass] having only joined a few months prior. Though we contributed to that EP, we hadn’t really fully integrated our own ideas into the overall sound of the band, so there’s a real disjointed feel to that release. By the time we were ready to start writing again, though, we’d all been playing together live for much longer and had started to figure out how to bring our more grind and noise-based influence into Mastiff’s sonic palate, so when we started piecing tracks together, despite them veering wildly from one extreme to the other, they all felt like the work of one band. We definitely knew we wanted this album to be harsher and more atonal than BORK, and really pushed to make things uglier and more harrowing, which I believe we have achieved and then some.
The album draws from the quick, furious nature of grind as well as the more lumbering devastation of sludge. Is it hard to create a cohesive release whilst drawing from both?
Mastiff was always more of a sludge band in the past, and though there were a couple of faster tracks on older releases, they really stuck out like a sore thumb. Our goal with Plague was to make tracks like ‘Brainbleed’ – a 45-second grind assault – sit next to ‘Quarantine’, which has a slow, almost post-metal vibe, and for them not to sound alien to each other. More than how each individual song is paced, it’s the consistency of atmosphere that really binds everything together. Everything we do is drenched in feedback, we stick to minor scales and don’t do melody, so no matter how fast or slow the track, it’s that same harrowing sonic assault.
You refer to yourselves as a “miserable band from a miserable town”. How does your home city influence your music?
Hull is one of the weirdest cities in the UK, and not in a fun, kooky way. Geographically it’s pretty large, but the vast majority of it is made up of these sprawling council estates, and the actual ‘city centre’ is tiny and has very little going on for it. It’s a fairly typical post-industrial Northern city in that for every glossy new apartment block and shopping centre that gets inexplicably built, there are about a dozen crumbling, empty shells of shops and factories going to ruin, and it makes for a bit of a depressing atmosphere. Hull’s people are also very strange – they’re the first to complain about what a shitheap the place is, yet will fiercely defend it should any outsider have the audacity to say anything against it. The atmosphere is one of misguided pride and self-loathing, and that permeates into our music – we’re simultaneously a product of our surroundings, and also are using it as a means to escape them.
The album was recorded during the blistering heatwave we had last summer. Did it affect the recording at all, or did the sweltering heat end up influencing the album in any way?
Though we recorded Plague with the same producer who’s done our last couple of releases, Mikey Scott, he’d moved studios since we recorded BORK, mostly thanks to increasingly extortionate rents in the ‘fashionable’ part of Hull where his old place was. Though the actual studio gear was all set up and ready to go at Studio 94 – Mikey’s new place – he hadn’t gotten around to installing air conditioning yet, and the place is up on the top floor of a building, so we spent the weekend trapped in a triple-glazed, soundproofed room with carpet on every surface, sun blazing in and only a couple of electric fans that we had to turn off before we actually hit record so the mics didn’t pick them up. As you can imagine, it got pretty disgusting really quickly, though I think that extra intensity just pushed us even harder while we were actually playing, if for no other reason than the quicker we nailed each track, the quicker we could get out of that room.
The album was also recorded live. Was it important to you to ensure you recorded it this way?
Mastiff is at its best in a live environment, with all five of us hammering at it together. It’s important for us that our records capture as much of that energy as possible, so for us the idea of recording any other way just wouldn’t be ‘us’. Now, that being said, it would be disingenuous of us to suggest that the reason we record the way we do isn’t at least a little bit because of money. We do alright with merch sales, but nobody is paying us to go make records, so we want to be as cost-efficient as possible with studio time, so realistically two days is all we can really afford in the studio. The upside of that is that it forces us to be as on top of our game as possible before we get there, because we can’t do 50 takes of each track until we get each note as perfect as possible. So whilst you might get the odd little flubbed pinch squeal or out-of-tune riff, you’re getting the full force of Mastiff as you would if you were stood watching us onstage, and that’s definitely the most important thing for us.
How do you think your sound has evolved since BORK?
Again, BORK is a strange curio in our discography now, as it was created at a very transitional period for the band. I contributed to four of the six tracks on there, one was a song the band had written a few months prior to me joining and one was a re-working of an older track, and though Dan recorded the EP with us, he basically joined in time to learn the songs and that was it. Also, even though I helped write more than half of it, I hadn’t fully figured out how to integrate my own personal style with what Mastiff had done before, so the songs are a bit all over the place and don’t even always sound like the same band. With Plague, I think we’ve hit a sweet spot where we’ve figured out now how to incorporate the more extreme grind and noisecore influences into the dark, brooding sludge sound the band had already established. So even though the styles on Plague might push in even further directions than on BORK, there’s a tonal consistency at play that wasn’t there before.
What’s next for Mastiff in 2019?
Once Plague is out there in the world on February 1st, our job is purely and simply to spread it to as many unsuspecting victims as possible. Our calendar is filling up quickly now, we’ve gone from only having two shows booked for 2019 at the end of December, to now having about a dozen just by summer, which in the grand scheme doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a band made up of guys with families and careers, is pretty good going. At the moment the most important show is the APF Showcase in Manchester on February 2nd, where not only will we be playing alongside all our excellent label-mates for the second year running, we’ll also be playing Plague from start to finish for the first time live, which should be a barrel of laughs for all in attendance. We’re also headed back to The Black Heart in Camden in March, we were last there as part of last year’s Desertfest and we managed to pack the place out to the point there were people queuing up down the stairs to get in, which is something I never dreamed we would achieve, let alone in such an awesome London venue. Hopefully we’ll also get to do some festivals and a proper tour in the summer, then start thinking about writing the next chapter in the sorrowful and agonising book of Mastiff.
Plague is out 1st February on APF Records. Pre-order here.
Words: George Parr