Political Fears, Mechanical Rhythms and Tony Hawk: In Conversation with Copperhead’s David Leonard

Copperhead is the anarchic, ferocious brainchild of David Leonard, a Richmond, Virginia-based musician and artist who you may know as one-quarter of metalcore band Dead & Dreaming. On Copperhead’s blistering new album Gazing In The Dark, which has just come out via Purple Tape Pedigree, Leonard melds post-hardcore melodies with a noisy, furious energy – in part inspired by his work as a shipyard welder, where he claims to have stolen rhythms from the machines. We spoke with him to find out more about the LP.


Hi David! If you could start off telling me a bit about the recording period that’d be cool, and how the ideas for the record gestated. As I understand it the final double LP is a remastered self-titled and then an entirely new project, could you explain that in a bit more depth and tell me about the journey you’ve been on with the album?

Thank you for taking the time – I appreciate it. 

The idea to start this project began in late summer 2018. Dead & Dreaming, the band I play drums in, wasn’t doing too much and I was and always am hungry to create music. The initial idea for it was actually to be an industrial/dance project but my hardcore and metal roots permeated those early demos and the direction started developing. 

One of the guitarists in D&D, Jordan Faett, runs a studio in Richmond called Soul Craft Collective. He and I have a good musical rapport after writing in D&D for years. I told him about my vision for a solo project and he was on board to help. I wrote most of the songs on bass but I’m not too fluent on strings so he recorded the stringed instruments. 

Our rapport made it super easy for me to translate ideas to him. Recording for the self-titled release was finished late December 2018 and released mid-January 2019. Around this time I, in a beautifully divine way, met Abdul Bilal (among the rocks and roots, och, shame) and he introduced me to the folks at Purple Tape Pedigree (PTP). They showed interest in releasing music so I started to arrange more themes, concepts, lyrics and grooves for new songs. These were finished in July.

My experiences with the process of making it were tumultuous and rewarding. I have a long commute to and from work and that meditative drive allowed so many ideas to come to me. My job is loud and noisy and that definitely directly affects the vibe of the music I write. I’ll spend a lot of time ruminating over a single musical/lyrical idea and building it in my head, hoping I can remember, since mouth recordings are so unreliable.


So you mention that you began to develop more themes and concepts earlier this year. Could you speak in more depth about those themes as you see them? Would you describe this as a political, as well as a personal, record?

The song themes for self-titled release feel mostly poetic and ethereal whereas for the newer ones I felt the need to bring things back to earth and in my body, so to speak. Each of the newer songs has multiple themes weaving in and out of each other and a personal, political and poetic layer to them, which took a good amount of ruminating, drafting and changing over a period of a couple months. Themes of disgust and fear of the present and future of the government, corporations and media are present throughout. I also explore some of the ugly realities of human nature looking out to the world around me and inward towards myself. Addiction, inauthenticity, familial trauma, mental health issues and violence of every degree have been things I’ve experienced directly and indirectly throughout my life and I pull no punches displaying my frustration with those things here. The most important overall theme of Gazing In The Dark is how communication, community, forgiveness and resiliency can build spiritual strength and evolution when living through fucked up situations. 


Right, when I was in my early teens I started listening to a lot of punk and hardcore – in particular Converge and Florida-area stuff on No Idea Records – and looking back that was a time of emotional turmoil for me for various reasons, one of which was coming out to my parents and in school and getting a bad reaction. I was definitely angry and I guess found some solace in ‘heavier’ music, then as I reached 18 I got more into the club scene that was in London at that time. That move towards more, you could say, euphoric (but still emotionally fraught!) music partly came about through being older and getting into clubs, but also I think marked a spiritual change in how I was feeling.

Which I bring up here because you mentioned that the album began as an industrial/dance project, so I wonder, did the sound change as the themes developed? Did you find yourself delving back into a more hardcore/punk sound because that fitted better with the political and traumatic themes you’ve touched on, in terms of being able to express them through music?

Oh damn that’s an interesting musical trajectory!! Mine was pretty different. My parents were strict Baptist Christians growing up so I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything that wasn’t related to that. I did however, love playing the Tony Hawk series when it came out on PlayStation. I was exposed to cuts from Motörhead, Dead Kennedys, Suicidal Tendencies, Primus, Public Enemy, Unsane and a couple other bands. I loved the energy of the music and was able to secretly listen to them without getting in trouble. Those songs continued to resonate with feelings I had throughout childhood and teenage years. 

In my freshman year two of my friends introduced me to a good mix of bands, and with Limewire and Wikipedia I was able to do a lot of research on all kinds of music. My love for heavy music really took off there. 

I think the sound changed for a couple of reasons, mostly because hardcore/punk/metal is just the default way I think about music so it just felt comfortable. I would’ve been able to express those same themes through the initial sound I believe. The dance/industrial vibes are still present throughout the record though, I definitely can feel them on ‘Sub Lingual’, ‘High Production Land’, ‘Serotonin’ and ‘WorldWideDarkWeb’.ad 9th.png

Those Tony Hawk soundtracks were dope! It’s interesting that your trajectory was very different, but I think there’s an element of rebellion in both our journeys – and that’s something that seems to come up a lot when I talk to people about how they got into hardcore, metal etc. And that’s reflected in some of the themes you’ve highlighted too.

I wanted to ask you about the way you build your sound from (as you describe) the cadences and noises you hear in your everyday life. That’s a really interesting technique. What effect do you think it has on the listener?

I honestly would hope it wouldn’t have an effect and the listener would just experience the music as a whole! I think that technique is just my brain’s way of being able to find inspiration in anything. It’s just a fun way to engage with music at anytime and it’s challenging. This concept actually isn’t exclusive to noises and patterns I hear throughout my day though! Sometimes the initial spark is a line of lyrics or one or two interesting words that end up being a song title. For example, the genesis of ‘Serotonin’ was just me playing around with different ways to cadence “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors” over that primal drum pattern. I shifted a couple things and the rest of the song was built around that.


So would you say it’s a technique that’s partly arisen out of practicalities, juggling music and work? Is that something you find fairly easy or do you find it restrictive?

Perhaps. I’d be using this approach even if I wasn’t working so much. There’s just more sounds to be inspired by in a noisy industrial environment. A part of me doesn’t like that my current job has that much effect on my art but another part embraces it and uses it as a resource. It’s really effortless for me to approach music this way. 


Well I definitely think that noisy environment has a good impact on the sound – but I guess that’s my love for noise. Have you been doing any live shows with this material or are you planning to?

Yes! Copperhead’s played two shows this year that were so tight. I’m blessed to have a group of super talented guys to play with. As of right now it’s Jordi (engineered the album and is in Dead & Dreaming), Matt (Down To Nothing, also Dead & Dreaming), Jug (Hybrid Warfare) and Mark (Red Vision, Downfall). Soooo much love for these guys! They’ve been awesome friends throughout the years and I can take comfort playing live that they crush. It takes a lot of planning since we are all in active bands, but I look forward to playing more shows. I’m also looking forward to doing some collaborating in the writing process with them, I’m excited to see this evolve from project to full band. 


That’s awesome – so was the success of the shows what inspired you to now look at developing it into a full band or was that always the plan?

Nah, I think the idea of doing a full band thing was in the back of my head from the beginning but I wasn’t sure – the idea of fronting a live band seemed pretty daunting to me. But I did make a subconscious effort on the first songs to strip back my playing a bit so whoever would play live could learn it easily. If I knew my homie Jug was gonna be in I would’ve definitely opened up a bit more in those recordings! He’s such an incredible and disciplined drummer.


One final thing I’d be interested to know about is how the artwork came about and what ideas and inspirations were behind that?

I’ve just been drawn to indigenous and ancient architecture and artwork since I was young. The images in the artwork are fertility statues that I came across. Basically a visual depiction of the last stanzas of lyrics in the title-track ‘Gazing In The Dark’. 


Conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Gazing in the Dark is out now, via Purple Tape Pedigree. Read our interview with PTP label head Geng, here.

Words: Alex McFadyen

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