"Rob and I have been the core songwriters for so long that we've been known to put so much on a song that it doesn't leave much breathing room for the other guys anyway."
Some bands need to maintain a stable line-up to survive. Led Zeppelin. Rage Against The Machine. Others can handle the odd member change here and there and still do quite well - Van Halen. Pearl Jam. Chimaira has not been immune to the old switcheroo over the years, but the most recent change has been a big 'un: drummer Andols Herrick, keyboard player Chris Spicuzza and bass player Jim LaMarca all departed the band over the past year. The remaining three members (guitarists Rob Arnold and Matt DeVries and singer/founder Mark Hunter) really had their work cut out for them, but somehow they've managed to pull it off: The Age Of Hell is one of their strongest albums to date. Angry, loud, at times melodic and often just a little bit raw, one gets the feeling that Chimaira is going to be just fine.
"It was difficult because these guys have been friends of ours for a long time," Hunter says of the line-up change, which began when LaMarca walked in 2010 and culminated with Spicuzza and Herrick calling time a few months later. "We've grown older together and shared so many experiences, so it's always a tough thing, but sometimes when you're facing such adversity and the adrenaline kicks in and you just have to move forward. We knew that making an album would be difficult without the guys but at the same time we felt confident we'd have a handle on it. We knew in our hearts that we'd be able to do it, as difficult as it was. We just had to push forward."
Thankfully the songwriting process wasn't unduly affected by the change: Hunter and Arnold have long been the band's creative core, more often than providing the other guys with a more or less finished song to work with. "Rob and I have been the core songwriters for so long that we've been known to put so much on a song that it doesn't leave much breathing room for the other guys anyway," Hunter says. Both he and Arnold took on additional responsibilities to keep things rolling. Arnold played bass on the album, while Hunter took control of they keys and atmospherics. "I worked closely with a good friend of mine named Pat Finnegan, and he's in a stoner space rock band called Ohio Sky," Hunter says. "I was really in the mood to hear some of that really droning, atmospheric stuff, so I knew he'd be the perfect guy to work with. He's got a lot of cool vintage toys and I wanted to use all real keyboards instead of electronic programming like we've done in the past. This was played organically. A lot of it was one take, and it was real exciting."
Producer Ben Schigel handled the drums on The Age Of Hell. A former bandmate from Hunter's pre-Chimaira days, there was already a natural musical chemistry in place and, more importantly, Schigel freaking slays on this stuff. Hunter agrees. "He's an amazing drummer. He was in a band with me before we were doing Chimaira, so for me it was kind of a homecoming, getting to play music with a guy I started playing music with."
The album features a lot more clean singing that Hunter has done in the past. "Rob had suggested to just go for straight singing, which is funny for him of all people to suggest that, because in the past he has not been a fan of the singing: he's more of a death metal guy. That opened up the floodgate and I just went for it." This is especially prominent on "Beyond The Grave," a track that Hunter describes as a 'cool ballad.' "There's such a thing as a cool ballad, like Metallica's Fade To Black. I love metal and where it's going, how technical and deathly and brutal it's getting, but I think there's room for great songs as well, and that's just our attempt at one."
A few hours prior to our interview, Hunter was on Twitter gauging the response from fans as to whether they'd consider kicking in some bucks via Kickstarter to help fund a music video. Hunter feels that with dwindling returns from record companies and the high costs of staying on the road, asking fans to donate for a video could be a smart way of staying on top financially while also doing something cool creatively. "I think it's a brilliant idea. I do realise there is so much good to come from a record label, but that doesn't mean we have to just solely work with them. So with this kind of opportunity we thought we'd just see if it would work. I think it's awesome if it does. I'm a big fan of music videos and I hate that it's a dying art in terms of TV, but on YouTube it's still very relevant, and we've had over 100,000 views on the last video, and that's cool to me. I'm not looking to have millions and millions, but if we spend the time to get that kind of number is very rewarding. So why not have a visual? The art is a visual in my mind before it goes on to the record, so why not try to have a visual representation of that?" Another upshot of course is that the crowd-sourced funding model also gives a generation of fans raised on downloading an opportunity to participate financially in the band. "That's cool for them too," Hunter says. "We'd put credits on it at the end so every kid can show that they were a part of this."
BY PETER HODGSON