By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Over the course of the past decade and a half plus, Portland, OR-based quartet Red Fang has established itself to be one of the most talented, hardest-working bands in heavy rock. Since first coming into wider recognition with the release of their eponymous Sergeant House Records debut in 2009 — and the viral Dungeons-and-Dragons inspired video for “Prehistoric Dog” that featured the beer-shotgunning band clad in 12-pack armor battling wizards (it’s been viewed over 6.5 million times on YouTube) — Red Fang has earned a sizable international fan base with its relentless touring schedule.READ MORE: Oakland City Council Votes to Defund Police, Stripping More Than $17M from Department Budget
The band’s subsequent albums — 2011’s Murder the Mountains, their first for noted metal imprint Relapse Records, and the follow-up effort Whales and Leeches in 2013 — further solidified the quartet’s reputation, though their continued partnership with “Prehistoric Dog” video director Whitey McConnaughy on a run of hilarious clips didn’t hurt. The recordings showed the band refining their compelling mix of sledgehammer riffs and hook-laden tag-team vocals of bassist Aaron Beam and guitarist Bryan Giles (second guitarist David Sullivan and drummer John Sherman round out the band).
In 2015, the group convened to record outside of Portland for the first time, traveling to Ventura in Southern California to work with renowned producer Ross Robinson — who has helped track albums for everyone from Korn, Limp Bizkit and Slipknot to At The Drive In, Sepultura and the Cure. The resulting album Only Ghosts came out the following year and found Red Fang pushing it’s sound in experimental new directions while still pounding out the band’s signature blend of heavy riffs and indelible melodies.
Red Fang maintained their relentless touring schedule in the years that followed, as well as putting out occasional new songs — including a brilliant cover of Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army-era classic “Listen to the Sirens” as a digital single in 2018 that showed off yet another side to the band.
The quartet was preparing to finally announce its long-awaited fifth album and accompanying tours last spring when the coronavirus pandemic put the group on an involuntary hiatus. Instead of crossing their fingers and hoping the album would sell well without shows promoting the release, Red Fang decided to hold off, waiting to announce Arrows until April after the success of the COVID vaccine brought a safe return to the road closer to reality.
Pushing the band’s sound into some previously unexplored territory, Arrows throws some sonic curve balls into the mix with the quartet’s usual combination corrosive ragers, pummeling, melodic stoner anthems and dark dirges. The album also saw Red Fang reuniting with producer and fellow Portland music scene mainstay Chris Funk, a member of indie rock outfit the Decemberists who has recorded Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks and Langhorne Slim among others. CBS SF recently spoke with drummer John Sherman about the unplanned extended break from band activity, how they survived the pandemic and the process that went into recording the new effort set for release on Relapse Records on June 4.
CBS SF: Good to get a chance to talk to you. I hope you’ve been surviving through this last year of chaos and weirdness.
John Sherman: Yeah, it’s been intense.
CBS SF: I didn’t realize until I got the email about Arrows that you already had an album in the can. But it made sense to sit on it. Why put it out if you are only selling it online and can’t play any shows?
John Sherman: It was supposed to come out a year ago, and luckily we hadn’t announced the release yet when everything in the whole world s–t the bed. All of our tours got canceled. We already had tours booked. We had a full U.S. tour booked, a full European tour booked. We were going to be on tour all summer pretty much into the fall. And that got canceled. So we’re like, “Well, let’s not put the record out.”
The tours hadn’t been announced either, so that was good. It wasn’t like…we didn’t have to take anything back from the fans or refund any tickets or anything. But it was a harsh toke, so to speak, to just have to cancel everything and just wait.
CBS SF: So given that sizeable pandemic pause, how did the band spend the last year? I know you were eventually able to get together with Whitey McConaughey to make the latest video…
John Sherman: We actually filmed that pre-COVID also. That was already done, so we had to wait on that too.
CBS SF: Oh man, that is harsh! So how did you spend the time? I suppose you’d eventually be able to maybe do some socially distant practicing together. Were you working together in some respects?
John Sherman: We didn’t even get together for a long time, especially at the beginning when people didn’t know very much. It was a very scary thing. We were trying to be as cautious as we could, especially because some of us have elderly family members that we’re caring for who are extremely immunity compromised. We didn’t want to take too many chances. We didn’t get together to even start jamming again for months and months.
We finally did with masks on, but we have a really big rehearsal space, so we’re lucky that we can spread out. Still, it sucks to practice with masks on. But basically, we just all realized we weren’t going to have any income for a year. So we got day jobs. I’ve just been working construction for the last year. I’m just finally getting back into feeling like a drummer in a band again. So that’s good.
But I’m also very lucky in that I have a wife who has a job that she was able to keep the whole time and work from home. She’s actually working from home right now, so I’m trying to distance myself in our small house so my interview doesn’t leak into her Zoom meetings [laughs]. As much as I want to cry about the last year, the whole world got beat up. It could have been could have been much worse for me.
CBS SF: I did want to get a little bit into the Red Fang pre-history, and discuss some of the bands you were in before we start talking about the album. I have discussed some of this in past times talking to Bryan, but I don’t remember all the details. I know you and David Sullivan work together in Mercury Birds. Actually, looking at your history and the other bands that you’ve played in, I realized I might have seen you playing with Bad Wizard at Slim’s. I know I saw them there at some point…
John Sherman: No, if it was at Slim’s, it wasn’t with me. I only did a couple of tours with those guys.
CBS SF: The vague recollection I have is that you and David connected with Bryan in Party Time. I’m figuring that’s when you guys were all already in Portland?
John Sherman: I can try to give you the most condensed version I can. Basically. David and I were in a band in North Carolina called Mercury Birds. At the same time, Bryan was in a band in San Diego called Last of the Juanitas and we were kind of friendly bands. When they would come to the East Coast, we would hook them up with shows.
This is back in the days of booking your own shows and stuff. So we would trade shows. We would come to San Diego and stay at their place and play shows with them. And then they moved up to Portland shortly before I moved out here. When I moved out, I was like, “Well, I need to find a band and find people to play with.” And I really wanted to play with Bryan.
So he agreed to start a band with me, just a little side project so that I could play out and people would know that I was in town and maybe I could find a real band, quote unquote. But I didn’t want to let go of him [Bryan], so we started Party Time and David moved out here and we put David into Party Time. And that band lasted for a couple of years and it was it was a good time.
But when that band broke up. I had been wanting to play with Aaron for a long time. I started to play with Aaron and we needed more members, so we got David. And then Bryan moved back to San Diego. Then we said, “Bryan, just moved back to Portland and be in this band!”
So it was kind of like a little Party Time reunion, but totally different. And that ended up being Red Fang. So we’ve all been playing music together in one form or another for a long time. David and I for the longest, but even Bryan and I since 2001. So 20 years…
CBS SF: Thanks, that’s a good to refresher to fill in all the fuzzy gaps in my memory. To get the album. I am really loving it. It sounds great, very Red Fang, but it also sounds different. It took a little adjusting to initially. I was kind of thrown by the beginning at first. Both “Take It Back” and the start of “Unreal Estate” had me wonder, “Wait, is there something wrong with my stereo? What’s going on?”
But once I got acclimated to it, I really loved how the music kind of emerges from this really weird, murky opening. How did you end up deciding to begin the album that way?
John Sherman: I can’t remember whose idea it was to start with that, but…I mean, I felt the same way that you did probably when you when you first heard it. When I heard that idea I was like, What? That seems crazy to me. That’s going to just throw people for a loop. And at first, the idea of throwing people for a loop initially threw me for a loop. I didn’t get it.
Then I was like, “Wait a second. That’s actually pretty awesome.” If people don’t just turn the thing off, if they if they make through a couple of minutes into the record, it’s a really cool, spooky, weird way to to open the album, I think. Especially because that song [“Take It Back”] in particular is such a departure from anything that we’ve put on an album before. So why not just start off weird?READ MORE: Firefighters at Scene of Morgan Hill Gas Leak; Some Evacuations Ordered
You know, you kind of have two options: you start with something that everyone knows and get them comfortable and then ease into the new stuff that’s outside the comfort zone; or you just pull the Band-Aid off and go ahead and start weird and see what happens.
CBS SF: In the press materials that came with the album, Bryan actually credited the producer Chris Funk with some of the weird atmospherics that are heard on the album. How much of that beginning was Chris’s input and how much was collective?
John Sherman: It was collective, but really that track, “Take It Back” is mostly Bryan. That was his brainchild. He finally started figuring out how to do stuff at home with GarageBand and that kind of stuff. He had this creepy, weird demo version that he brought to the band a long time ago. And we were like, What do we do with this? Hell, I don’t even want to put drums on it, really. It just seemed so spooky and weird, we didn’t really want to turn it into a rock song. We just kind of wanted to leave it spooky and dark.
Chris has lots of fun toys to layer crazy sounds over stuff, so it was a perfect song to just f–k around with in the studio. It’s a good studio song to waste time on, you know? [Laughs] You could spend hours just layering other creepy, weird sounds.
CBS SF: I’m just thinking of this now: Is that song something that you guys would maybe use as a recorded intro tune as you get ready to start playing? Or is it something you could imagine pulling off live?
John Sherman: You know what? I’m going to claim it is my idea, but you just gave me an idea! [Laughs] I never thought of that before, but now that you say that, it’s not a bad idea.
CBS SF: You can go ahead and take credit for that. If I see you guys do that, I’ll know in my heart it was me and I’ll feel good about. I’ll know.
John Sherman: Yeah, you and anyone who reads this interview [laughs].
CBS SF: How different was it reuniting with Chris as your producer versus the recording process you guys had with Ross Robinson on the last album? I know one big change was you were able to work locally. If I remember from the conversation I had with Aaron, the band actually went down to Southern California and stayed there to record with Ross for Only Ghosts…
John Sherman: It was a totally different experience for many reasons, but the biggest was that the last record with Ross, the studio was in his house in Venice Beach and we lived there for a month or however long it was. So we were just totally immersed in the record 24/7. And it was a really intense process that none of us had ever done before.
It was awesome and it was amazing. It was…I don’t even know how to describe it, but it was intense. We work through every single song until the song was done and then record that song before we moved on to another song, at least for the basic tracks. And with Ross, he wants the whole band to know why they’re doing whatever they’re doing.
So at the end of getting each song ready, before we recorded, we’d all sit in the room where the drums were recorded in — which is a really small room — and talk about the song. Which was really uncomfortable for, I think, Brian and some of us. It was uncomfortable to do that; to talk about the lyrics and stuff. Most of the time, I don’t know the lyrics or even hear a lot of the vocals until the song is recorded. So that was different.
This time, we all wanted to be home to record this record, because almost all of us had some family stuff or personal stuff going on that we needed to be around for. It’s nice to be able to go home and sleep in your own bed every night. So we knew we wanted to stay in town and Chris Funk has access to this amazing studio in town.
We had recorded one single, the song “Antidote,” there maybe a year or so before deciding to work with him again. Then he approached us about producing this next album and using that studio. And it was just kind of like, “Well, yeah. Why not? I mean, that’s perfect. It’s in town, we’ve already worked with you before, it seems to work well and the studio is awesome. So sure, let’s do it.”
The big difference was being in town and also it was just really casual this time. It wasn’t an intensive boot camp; it was really mellow and just kind of doing whatever we wanted to do, We always do whatever we want to do, but it seemed like we didn’t have a lot of pressure this time. We probably went in with about 70 percent of the songs — 60 percent maybe even — of the songs finished and finished the rest in the studio. Some of it was just spur of the moment kind of stuff that just happens. It was fun. Relaxing.
CBS SF: It wasn’t until I was actually preparing for the interview that it struck me, “Oh s–t. It’s actually been five years since Only Ghosts came out.” How did that happen?
John Sherman: Right? It’s crazy. Those years went by quick, and all of a sudden I was like, “Man, we gotta get another record out.” And then, of course, once we did have the record all done, you lose another year to COVID.
CBS SF: Yeah, it’s not like you guys were on hiatus or anything, except for the actual pandemic hiatus. You were touring regularly. I saw you like once or twice a year and you put out a few digital singles. I was wondering if there was anything that led to the extended gap or were you just kind of gradually putting the material together? It sounds like it was definitely like a longer, more relaxed recording process, but did you gradually piece together the songs that you had done? How long were you recording with Chris for this album?
John Sherman: We weren’t actually in the studio that long. But the thing with Red Fang is that we’re a riff band. We write lots and lots of riffs. To turn those riffs into songs sometimes takes us a long time, because we won’t necessarily have a bunch of riffs that fit together well. But we’ll have riffs that we love and we want to figure out a way to make them work.
So a lot of times, a song like “Funeral Coach” on this new record, the opening riff of that song was written, I don’t know, like 10 years ago. And we just haven’t been able to figure out a place for it until recently. It takes us a while.
We’re constantly writing stuff, but — at least in my opinion — it’s not until we get a push from the record label and our manager is saying, “Hey, it’s been a long time! Let’s put out another record!” It’s not until we have a deadline where we actually can hunker down and focus and be like, “Alright look; we’ve got to make some decisions, stop f–king around with these songs and just turn them into songs.”
And we all have such different tastes and we all listen to lots of different kinds of music. We all have different tastes and very different views and opinions. Of course, those views and opinions overlap at certain points, but it takes a while sometimes to to maneuver a song into a place where we’re all happy with it. Because it’s such a collaborative effort, it takes a little longer than if it was just one guy that writes all the songs and is like, “Alright, here’s a new song I wrote. Here’s what you play. Here’s what you play,” You know what I mean?
CBS SF: So it is really by the collective committee of the band; everyone signs off on it before it’s a song?
John Sherman: Oh for sure. And the band is sometimes nervous about presenting something because it’s got to pass the test of all of us; we all have to agree on it before it flies. So the typical riffing, practice or writing session is someone says, “Alright, here’s an idea. It’s probably stupid, but…” It’s always prefaced with that [laughs]. “It’s probably sucks. it’s probably not a good idea, but…” We need to get over that.
CBS SF: And has that pretty much been the your guys’ M.O. from the start? Someone brings in a riff or you collectively remember something and say, “Hey, what about this? We should see what we can do with this bit…”
John Sherman:Yeah, it’s always been someone will bring in a riff and then we’ll jam the riff and then it’ll morph into something else. More often than not, whatever the original idea was is lost or discarded, but it sparks something else. We have lots of practice tapes, practice recordings of riffs. We try to hang on to those as much as we can and label them in some way that we can kind of remember what they are.
So that 10-year-old riff, we can revisit it every now and then and be like, “Man, we got to figure out something with this!” Or someone will come in with a new rhythm and someone else will say, “Oh, you know what would go good with that? That thing from like four years ago, we couldn’t figure out what to do with!” It’s a real weird method. I mean, I don’t know how other bands write songs. Maybe everyone does it like that. But to me, it’s all we know.
CBS SF: Since my tastes sort of tend towards heavier bands, I would say that it’s similar to methods of other bands. Talking to the guys from High on fire, both original drummer Des Kensal and Matt Pyke have said they go through old riff tapes, pick out what they want to work with and start making sort of flow charts of the songs to figure out how things fit together. So it sounds like it’s not an unusual way to work things out.
John Sherman: As we have gotten a little bit more tech savvy over the years — very late in the game — now we can send stuff to each other virtually over Dropbox or whatever. Just send a riff or something and add a beat to it and then send it back. But we don’t thrive in that environment. We definitely like to be in the same room with each other and and in real time bounce ideas off each other. It works better for old dudes like us.MORE NEWS: Project Home: East Bay Startup Aims To Solve Housing Crunch With 3-D Printing Technology