Midnight Creeper – Exclusive Interview with Mastiff

Above: The boys welcome you to the beautiful English city of Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

The question of the heaviest album of 2021 is already a settled one. The answer is Mastiff’s Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth that came out in September. If you haven’t heard it, you should start your counselling as soon as possible to prepare for the trauma of the Hull quintet’s sludge-grindcore brutality. Think of that moment when you first heard Napalm Death’s Peel Sessions or Dillinger Escape Plan’s Calculating Infinity – you laughed at the absurdity of the music and wondered what kind of human beings could create something so hostile and unforgiving. As we said in our review, listening to Mastiff is like ‘crawling on the floor with appendicitis.’

It wasn’t always like this. The band found that promoters were quick to put them on the stoner/doom metal circuit in their early days, when their hearts were elsewhere. It was a frustrating experience introducing elements of grind and hardcore to an audience expecting Electric Wizard and Saint Vitus. But things changed with the release of their 2019 release, Plague, and now Mastiff find themselves at the forefront of extreme metal rather than in pursuit of its audience.

2021 has been a good year for England’s underground metal bands, with Mastiff’s friends in Pupil Slicer and Death Goals signing to Prosthetic Records, Urne getting snapped up by Spine Farm, and the Hull quintet inking their deal with eOne. These are exciting times for a new generation of future innovators. You might even say a loose collective of bands that incorporate, grindcore, powerviolence, mathcore, sludge and metallic hardcore into one melting point are starting to build a scene – however fortuitous it may be.

We spoke to Mastiff guitarist, James Andrew Lee, about the band’s new album to dig deeper into the songs on Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth. Like everyone else, we want to know the thought processes behind their merciless slab of extreme sonic intensity.

Above: Promo shot from the band’s days on APF records before they signed to eOne/MNRK Heavy.

Let’s start with the big event of 2021 – Mastiff signing to eOne Heavy. You’re now on the same roster as Ace Frehley, Fit For An Autopsy and Crowbar. Tell us how this deal materialised.

Our relationship with MNRK Heavy (formerly eOne Heavy) is solid-gold proof that who you know is more important than anything. Our friend, Dan, who plays bass in Calligram, works for the label as his day job, and at a show about eighteen months ago he told us we should send him our next album and that he’d pass it up to his bosses, and we might get a cool support tour with Crowbar or someone like that. Fast forward about ten months, we’d finished our new album and sent Dan the un-mastered version thinking “fuck it, why not?” Two weeks later, I got a message back from him basically saying, “The label love the album, and they want to sign you.” Obviously, we thought it was a wind-up to begin with, but after chatting with Scott Givens and his team and seeing real people on the other end of the Zoom call, we realised it was very real indeed, haha. We actually signed the contracts all the way back in January, but because of lockdowns, vinyl pressing wait times and general pandemic logistics, it was agreed on both sides to wait until we could give the album a proper launch rather than just drop it out half-heartedly. The fact that MNRK wanted to put so much into the release was a huge thing for us. From that first conversation onwards they’ve been so supportive and enthusiastic in letting us be the band we are. There’s been no pressure to change anything or to present ourselves in any way we wouldn’t have anyway, and that’s why we know we made the right call. And yeah, being label-mates with bands like High on Fire, Crowbar and The Contortionist certainly sweetens the deal.

Your new album, Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth, is a monster of a record. We warned our readership: “If you haven’t heard Mastiff, prepare for your intestines to rupture and your bowels to fail you.” What are some of your favourite one-liners from other reviews you’ve received in the music press?

Making music as outlandish as we do, it’s very easy for journalists to heap on the hyperbole when talking about us. There have been some absolute corkers in the reviews for Leave Me…, though. We did an entire social media campaign just of Blabbermouth quotes because they were so ludicrous but also completely fitting. The best would be: “If you need cheering up, this may not be the best place to start. Unless, of course, the world consuming itself from the inside out and spitting in the face of humanity is your idea of a good time.” I also appreciated that someone described our sound as “meathead fight riffs”, presented in an entirely positive context of course. And we suspect there’s something lost in translation a little, but a review we got from Germany proclaimed, “Neither James Andrew Lee nor Phil Johnson understand fun on the guitars”, which I think is probably the most accurate depiction of our song writing process that’s ever been published.

Your home city of Hull plays a big part in your identity and in your music. To what extent is some of the “grim up north” imagery overplayed and tongue-in-cheek?

At this point the whole ‘miserable band from a miserable city’ tag line has become such a ubiquitous part of our brand that I feel we’d be disowned by most of our supporters if we started saying nice things about Hull. But the genuine reality is that your surroundings do have a big part to play in your attitude as a band, and as people in general, and Hull falls very firmly into that category of post-industrial cities that were gutted by Thatcher in the 80s and never really recovered fully, hence the kinda hopeless and bleak worldview our music paints. Hull isn’t a complete shithole. Like anywhere, there are little nuggets of enjoyment to be found, but it’s far from a gleaming metropolis. Probably our biggest and best export at the moment is bands who make ugly, tortured music – like us, Black Tongue and Still – so that probably only confirms what kind of place it is.

Many people describe your music as blackened sludge metal. We don’t hear much black metal on Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth, but there’s plenty of grindcore. If you were to invent a new name for a sub-genre to describe your music, what would it be?

I think that in the past decade or so ‘blackened’ has become a fairly common suffix to add to the description of any bands who have a dark and bleak aspect to their sound. To me it doesn’t necessarily signify that those bands are specifically aligned with black metal in a traditional sense, but maybe share some of that venomous spirit. I wouldn’t say that any pure black metal has inspired our musical direction per se, but certainly more modern bands who’ve mixed it with grind and hardcore have played a big role in my personal inspiration. Bands like The Secret, Trap Them and Cult Leader are very much at the front of my mind when I write, but then Phil – our other guitar player – comes from a more traditional hardcore sensibility, so when we mix my darker tendencies with his more straightforwardly aggressive style, you end up with Mastiff. I find trying to pigeonhole bands in general quite reductive, as whatever label you put on a band, it usually only tells part of the story. But I do also understand from a marketing perspective that it’s important being able to compare bands to other established acts or genres. Lord knows how many people have checked us out because we get compared to Napalm Death or Nails, y’know? So, to actually answer your question, I do think ‘blackened’ fits because – though we share almost nothing sonically with someone like Emperor – there’s an undeniable menace to what we do. So, let’s go with ‘Blackened Sludge-Grind’. That basically covers our bases, I think.

Above: James Andrew Lee attempts to eat his microphone with no hands.

Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth starts with a bass-heavy experimental noise affair called ‘The Hiss’. Nothing else on the album sounds like this track. What were you aiming for on this song, and how did it turn out compared to your original vision?

Without wanting to get too self-congratulatory, ‘The Hiss’ was basically my baby. For quite some time, as the rest of the album started to take form, I conceived of this notion of a very slow, sinister opening track that would serve more as a scene-setter than as an actual ‘song’. We knew that the album would be pretty relentless once it kicked in, so I liked the idea of this dark, creeping introduction that, whilst tonally consistent with the rest of the record, would almost wrong-foot the listener, particularly anyone who’s hearing us for the first time. That’s why the track starts so quietly and gradually just ramps up in volume as the layers of guitars, vocals and noise start to pile up, until by the end it’s an almost incomprehensible wall of sound that then just slams straight into ‘Fail’ without any warning. I spent months trying to describe the idea to the guys but couldn’t quite communicate what I was thinking, so in the end I used my fairly rudimentary knowledge of home recording to put together a demo on my digital 8-track. And as soon as they heard it, it clicked for everyone. We’re generally very collaborative as a band and basically everything on our albums has been bashed about in a room by the five of us before anyone ever hears it, so it really meant a lot that the other four guys trusted my vision enough that they let me basically construct ‘The Hiss’ in the studio exactly as I’d demoed it, though everyone except Phil actually plays on it.

The song ‘Repulse’ sounds like all musicians in the band are playing the same percussive beat with manic intensity until it settles into a chugging rhythm at 01:05 seconds… and then you hit us with a beatdown riff at 02:32 seconds. In your opinion, which other moments on this album are equal to this song in terms of ferocity?

It’s always interesting how other people sort of forensically deconstruct our songs in a way that we never do ourselves, haha. It’s hard to argue with that take on ‘Repulse’, though, as we knew as that song was coming together that it would be good mosh pit fodder. To be honest, our ultimate goal was for the entire album to be an almost unrelenting assault from ‘Fail’ through to it all crashing down in ‘Lung Rust’, but there are definitely moments that out-brutalise the rest. I do love the part in ‘Midnight Creeper’ when everything slams to a halt. There’s a hellish banshee screech and then a manic grind to the finish line. Fun fact: that piercing howl was provided by our singer Jim’s nine-year-old daughter, Honey! The rotten apple didn’t fall far from the tree on that one.

For me personally, the most punishing track on the album is ‘Scalped and Salted’. It’s probably the most obnoxiously heavy thing we’ve ever written. I remember the first time we played it all the way through after we wrote it, I actually burst out laughing at the end because of how audaciously brutal it was. A big disgusting slam to open and close, with a bunch of shreddy riffs and blastbeats in the middle. What’s not to love? It’s by far the most fun song on the album to play too.

“Same old shit – nothing’s changed,” is a recurring lyric in the track, ‘Biege Sabbath’. What is this song about?

So, in the broader sense, ‘Beige Sabbath’ is a bit of a tirade against people who are content to exist in someone else’s shadow, yet also misunderstand why the ones casting the shadow are important to begin with. We’ve spent a lot of time together over the years playing doom and stoner festivals and shows, and it’s kinda insane to us how many bands get away with copying the exact framework Black Sabbath laid down in the 1970s. It’s impossible to overstate how important that band were to all of heavy music, but they were so vital precisely because they carved their own path and upended expectations and conventions of their era. We’re certainly not claiming to be reinventing any wheels with our music, but we’re at least mindful to pull influence from all over the heavy music spectrum and deconstruct it to the point where our sound is our own. The notion that any one band should be revered so much and still shamelessly – and intentionally – plagiarised over fifty years later is kinda sad. We’re all products of our influences, but if you never try to evolve past them and become your own thing, what’s the point?

That’s an old-school death metal riff in the song, ‘Futile’. Which members of the band listen to death metal, and what are your top three death metal albums of all time?

I’d say to a degree, everyone in Mastiff is into death metal, be it old-school or modern. Some of the guys are a bit older so were already of an appropriate age when the first wave of American death metal was doing the rounds, so they saw Death and Morbid Angel and bands like that back in their heyday. Me and Phil, being a bit younger, kinda side-stepped into death metal via late 90s/early 2000s metalcore – bands like Darkest Hour and The Black Dahlia Murder referencing Carcass and At the Gates opened up a whole new universe of extreme music to me. After that, I’ve always gravitated more towards the HM-2-soaked Gothenburg sound more, and most of my favourite modern bands at least somewhat approximate that style – bands like Gatecreeper, Black Breath, All Pigs Must Die – they all pull from that Swedish lineage. I do try to incorporate bits of that into Mastiff – ‘Scalped and Salted’ goes very Carcass in the middle, and ‘Lung Rust’, whilst quite slow and gloomy, is very inspired by Entombed. That song actually began life as a straight-up death metal banger, but we slowed it right down to a crawl, and it just felt better that way.

As for my three favourite death metal albums, I’m not going to drop any jaws as they’re probably the three most well-known death metal albums of all time, but I’d be lying or at least bending the truth to score cool points if I said anything else – Left Hand Path by Entombed, Heartwork by Carcass and Slaughter of the Soul by At the Gates. Three absolutely unfuckwithable albums, all with their own flavour, all ripped off endlessly for good reason.

Above: In case you thought Mastiff were not from the barren north of England…

Your music is dark and miserable to an absurd degree. But which genres of music do you listen to outside the extreme metal and hardcore canon?

I think like a lot of people who spend their “professional” life surrounded by heavy music, we all consume quite a lot of different stuff outside of metal. Our bassist, Dan, listens to lots of hip hop and electronica, and he runs a record label called Trepanation which releases all kinds of experimental stuff. Phil is a proper indie kid and listens to loads of 80s/90s shoegaze and Britpop. Jim stirred up a lot of internet chatter recently because he mentioned in an interview what a huge Taylor Swift fan he is, and that wasn’t an idle attempt to seem ‘diverse’ – he proper loves her. When I’m not on band duty, I almost exclusively listen to synthwave. I’m of the opinion that mainstream pop music reached an apex in the 80s, so the fact a whole genre exists now that’s just that exact sound, but blended with Vangelis/John Carpenter worship, it’s everything I want. Two albums from 2018 – Leather Teeth by Carpenter Brut and Kids by The Midnight – are straight up two of the best albums of the last decade, regardless of genre. I think probably the weirdest of us is our drummer Mike, though. You’d think listening to his playing that he exists on a diet of pure grindcore, but when he’s at home he listens exclusively to the Hull-born club singer Joe Longthorne, who experienced a brief window of nationwide fame on the 1980s variety television circuit. It got to the point that we had to stop letting him drive us to shows because every time we piled into his car it was nothing but Joe Longthorne on the stereo, which was nigh-on maddening for the rest of us.

Like Pupil Slicer, you’ve done your time on the powerviolence/mathcore/sludge circuit in the south-east of England, including the obligatory showcase at The Red Lion in Stevenage back in 2019. But what is your all-time favourite gig to date?

Yeah, we’ve done The Red Lion a couple of times, the last time was with Pupil Slicer, actually! We absolutely love that place, it’s such an unassuming environment – from the outside it looks like any country town pub but walk through the courtyard and it’s absolutely packed to the rafters with punks and crusties, and the crowd there always go off really hard. It’s funny, it felt for a long time that we really had to fight to be fully embraced by that scene, though. Historically, because of the scene we came up in, and because Mastiff were more sludgy and doomy to begin with, we were always lumped in with the doom/stoner world, and as mentioned earlier we more often than not found ourselves on shows and fests with a lot of those kinds of bands. And, y’know, no disrespect to the bands and people in that scene because there are some awesome folks doing the rounds in that world, but from as far back as our Bork EP we didn’t really belong in that scene anymore. We were pushing the grind and hardcore elements to the forefront of our sound, but it took until [the second album from 2019] Plague released for promoters to really start putting us on shows with other grind/hardcore bands.

But anyway, I digress. I have lots of favourite shows we’ve played for various reasons – the shows we did in 2019 with Cult Leader and Birds in Row were a big deal because they’re two very special and important bands for me, so sharing the stage with them was an absolute honour. We also did some shows with Leeched and Ithaca that year too, who were not only just wonderful people across the board but are two of the best and most diverse heavy bands in the U.K. at the moment and getting to see them play multiple times was delightful. Plus, that was when we first met Joe Clayton who ended up recording Leave Me… for us, so those shows have that important legacy too. But if I was to look at it purely from the perspective of it as a Mastiff show, this year’s RiffFest in Bolton felt really special. It wasn’t our first show back after the pandemic-enforced break, but it felt like the first time people were properly ready to let loose like they did in the before times, and as such the crowd were absolutely wild for our entire set. It was only a week or two after we put ‘Repulse’ out too and feeling the response for that when we played it was amazing. We’re always warmly welcomed at The Alma, but that was one for the ages.

Mastiff have earned their stripes in the underground. Which of the following describes the quintessential moment when you looked at each other and thought, “Yep, we’re thick-skinned now, and we can do this”?

a) The first time one of the guitar strings snapped midway through a live song

b) Your first heckler

c) After your first negative review in the music press

d) When the headline band mistook you for roadies

We’ve definitely fallen foul of most of those things at this point. Snapped strings are a less common occurrence than you’d expect for a band that makes as much noise as us, but barely a show passes by without leads popping out of amps, pedals just flatlining, microphones cutting out. We kinda wear how rough and raw we are live as a badge of honour. A Mastiff show is never going to be a big, glossy ‘production’ so stuff like that, whilst not ideal, is like water off a duck’s back for us. Thanks to the amount of noise we make, we don’t really hear hecklers, though sometimes pure, deafening silence can be worse. We have a song called ‘Brainbleed’ that’s literally forty-five seconds long, and we had to stop playing it live because all it ever did was cause confusion, particularly in front of stoner crowds – the song would be over and there’d just be a look of confusion spread across the whole audience, like, “Was that a song?!”, haha. As for press, we’ve been lucky for the most part that almost everyone who’s taken the time to write about us has been into us. Leave Me… has only had two mediocre/bad reviews. They were both from German websites, coincidentally, and even one of those flat out admitted that the reviewer wasn’t really into heavy music, so we didn’t really take the criticism to heart. To be honest, making the kind of music we do, it’s still somewhat shocking that anyone connects with it at all, so we’re definitely more shocked by the good reviews, haha.

Final question: What obstacles must you overcome to get over to the United States to start bludgeoning an American live audience with your music?

The unfortunate truth at the moment is that pandemic restrictions are the thing keeping us from making our way over to the USA. From our very first conversation with eOne/MNRK, they made it very clear they wanted to get us over to the States as soon as it was feasible, and we even got offered a US tour for this year but there was just no practical way we could make it work. Even the American bands were warned that shows or even entire stretches of the tour could be cancelled at the drop of a hat with no financial guarantees, so even if we’d been able to physically travel overseas there was no guarantee the tour would’ve even gone ahead as planned. We’re just biding our time and waiting for the circumstances to get better for travelling bands, and as soon as we can clear visas and the USA start letting people from England back into their country, we’ll be there. Until then, we’re live-streaming the London date of our late-October UK tour with Calligram, so anyone who wants to see us make some awful racket should tune in!

*** Mastiff released Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth via MNRK Heavy on 10 September 2021. You can read the original review here.