One thing that can never be said about the UK’s Mastiff is that they’re not heavy or not heavy enough. And somehow, on their second full length — and first for APF Records — Plague, the band is at their absolute heaviest, musically and lyrically. Their concoction of hardcore, grind, and sludge seethes with aggressive and downtrodden misanthropy complete with enough frustration and hatred for the status quo to last ten lifetimes. If it sounds dark and menacing that’s because it is and was built that way. Experiencing Plague is the closest thing to actually living through one and coming out the back side scarred and bruised for life – such is the power of Mastiff. We recently asked guitarist James Andrew Lee our set of Profile questions and he was an absolute champ with his answers that shine a light on him, the band and its background. Head below to see what he had to say and DO NOT miss out on Plague — we’ve included some handy links specifically for that purpose.
How did you first get into playing music, and have you achieved the level of success that you hoped for?
I’ve been playing guitar since I was a pre-teen, which is longer ago than I’d like to admit. I picked guitar up because I had two older brothers who both played, however neither of them had any inclination towards metal, that I found on my own. Up until the point I joined Mastiff, I’d pretty much given up any hope in finding any kind of tangible success – I’d been playing in bands pretty consistently for about 15 years and aside from the odd cool show none of them ever really amounted to much – so the fact that we’re now getting all this positive attention, putting an album out (on vinyl, no less) and being offered awesome shows all over the place is way beyond my wildest expectations.
What’s the most you have ever debased yourself to get your band onto a show, into a magazine or otherwise promoted, covered, and praised? (If you don’t have a story, please tell us any funny/embarrassing story.)
I don’t know if ‘debased’ would be the right word, but we’ve definitely let go of our shame and dignity plenty of times and sent a good number of begging emails to promoters and bands to get on certain shows, which has very occasionally worked. Thankfully we have a decent enough network of friends in the scene that we very rarely have to offer up our various orifices to get us onto good shows, though there are definitely members of the band who would volunteer, regardless of how necessary it was.
What do you see as some of the great things happening in metal and what are some of the worst things happening inside the scene right now?
There is a very strong underground metal and hardcore scene in the UK at the moment, and it seems like more and more of the bands that we regularly play shows with are getting noticed and being covered in the more mainstream alternative music outlets, which is really great to see. There’s also a great breadth of real creativity out there at the moment too, bands stepping outside the boundaries of specific sub-genres and really mixing shit up. Take someone like Conjurer, they manage to go from post-metal to black metal to full-on hardcore within the space of a single song and make it sound natural as anything, and they’re getting massively popular with it, that’s amazing and awesome. As for the negatives, like at any point in hardcore and metal history, you still find that certain cliques can form in the scene and become quite shut off from one another, which sucks. You can make the right kind of music, but if you’re not friends with the right people or don’t look a certain way people will still turn their noses up at you, which is an incredibly backwards attitude and yet is still rife.
It seems that now everyone has a passion for some cause and that those people are very open about displaying their passions. This is probably a very, very good (and progressive) thing socially. What are some of the most important issues (social/political/humorous/etc.) for you and how do you insert those issues into your music?
Mastiff are really not a political band, and most of our songs tend to come from a much more personal place lyrically. One matter that does come up in our music a lot though is mental health, which is a very big concern in modern society and one that’s close to us all for a number of reasons. It’s something that’s been stigmatised for a long time and that has been swept under the rug wherever possible, but it feels like things have taken a turn for the better for once and that people are being encouraged to be more open about their struggles nowadays, which is very refreshing. Mental health issues have touched all of us in the band in one way or another, and that battle against our own minds is something we take very seriously. For the five of us, even just the act of playing in Mastiff is a very cathartic and therapeutic process, it gives us a platform for us to unload all our frustration and negativity in a healthy manner, and that’s been very important in keeping us all ticking over as people.
What, or who, got you into metal and how old were you? How did your family take the news?
For me personally, there wasn’t necessarily a single person or some grand watershed moment that turned me onto metal, it was more a gradual process of listening to one thing that lead to something else, and those bands just kept getting louder and heavier as I went along. I started listening to my Dad’s Queen albums as a very small child, which I guess set me on the path, then in my very early teens started listening to indie and punk of my own accord, and probably by about 14-15 I was starting to pay attention to the more mainstream heavy music, which would’ve been nu-metal at the time. Deftones was a big one for me, not just because of how fantastic they were, but because through association I then discovered Glassjaw, which turned me onto hardcore and metalcore, and that’s when I really figured out where my true musical path was. Like probably the vast majority of kids into heavy music, I’m sure my parents figured it was some awful phase that I’d grow out of, but I’m 34 now and am pretty sure it’s not going away anytime soon.
What advice do you have for aspiring music critics and outlets out there? How can we all better serve the genre in the eyes of a hard-working musician?
I’ve dabbled in some music journalism myself, so I have the luxury of being able to see both sides of the fence. As a journalist it’s important to be honest and critical, but unless it’s totally warranted, you don’t need to be a dickhead about things you don’t like, because that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s objectively bad. There’s almost always something to like about a band, even if it’s buried under layers of garbage. I think it’s also massively important to understand the context of the band you’re talking about before ripping into them. Like, Mastiff is not a particularly technical band, but then we’re not trying to be – we’re a brute-force hardcore band, we want to pummel you into the ground. So if someone reviewed us and criticised us for the lack of technical flair in our playing or the fact that we don’t have any shredding guitar solos, I mean, that wouldn’t really be fair, because we’re just not that band. You wouldn’t mark a Neurosis record down for not having enough blastbeats and sweep-picking, you know? Understand what you’re reviewing, and judge it on its own merits, not something else’s.
What’s your goal? You guys thinking world domination? Maybe saving a continent? Maybe invading one? Any interest in starting a cult? Do you guys have day jobs or hobbies you want to share? Whatever it is, please let us know.
The average age of the band members in Mastiff is about 40, we’ve all got jobs and families, so we understand the limitations of what we can and really want to achieve. At this point in our lives/careers, fucking off on a 3-month tour probably isn’t in the cards for any number of practical reasons. That being said, we’re enjoying being in Mastiff more than at any point in the band’s history, people are paying attention to us, we’ve got a fucking killer record about to drop that we’re so proud of and that everyone who’s heard so far has been very positive about, so we want to do everything we can to give it some legs and see how far it runs. The very fact that ‘Plague’ is being released on vinyl is a big tick on all of our life goal lists, so that in itself feels like a big achievement. Hopefully we’ll get to play some bigger shows in the next year with bands we like and respect, maybe do some festivals, and despite what I said earlier, if the chance to do a European or US tour came up, we’d bend over backwards to make it happen.
When you’re not obsessing over your own material, what are some of your favorite albums to listen to currently? (Feel free to include non-metal)
I’ve spent the last couple of months pouring all over the new Cult Leader album, ‘A Patient Man.’ They’re probably my favourite heavy band in the world at the moment, they manage to marry everything from grind to discordant hardcore to post-rock together into a cacophonous-but-coherent whole. They’re absolutely mesmerising, and definitely a huge inspiration to our band. I also recently discovered the band Sectioned, from Scotland, whose album ‘Annihilated’ I only heard in December and it still managed to make my personal AOTY list. It’s hard to easily describe, it’s a hardcore record but with huge bottomed-out riffs, but the whole thing is like an impenetrable wall of noise, it’s an ordeal to listen to but in the best possible way. I would fucking love for Mastiff to play with these guys, so if you’re listening Sectioned, hit us up!
What is the 12-month outlook for you or your band? Any specific events on the horizon that the masses should be aware of?
The most pressing date for the diary is February 1st, because that’s the day ‘Plague’ comes out. It feels like that’s been on the horizon forever, as it’ll be 8 months to the day since we actually recorded the album, but it feels good that it’s finally about to be unleashed. We’re playing a show in Nottingham that night with our brothers in Widows, and then heading to Manchester the next day for the 2nd Annual APF Records Showcase, where we’ll be playing ‘Plague’ start-to-finish for the first and maybe only time, so that’ll be one for the ages. After that, we’ll be spending the rest of the year slogging our arses to support the album, we’ve got a little mini-tour around the south from the 21st-23rd Feb, and we’re heading back to The Black Heart in Camden on March 2nd, which should be great. We played there twice last year, including at Desertfest, which was probably the most packed and sweaty gig we’ve ever done. So hopefully we can replicate that, if not blow it out of the water completely.
Summarize your band in exactly one word. (Disclosure: If you include additional words, we will select our favorite for the final publication.)
Many thanks to James and Mastiff for their time!