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Interviews: James McHenry of Blind Equation talks new album ‘DEATH AWAITS’

Chicago-based emotional cybergrind band Blind Equation are one day away from releasing their excellent new album DEATH AWAITS. The album dives deep into betrayal, fear of the future, and self-doubt with honest, hard-hitting lyrics that are delivered with unwavering intensity whether they are sung or screamed. They mix together elements from metal, hardcore, chiptune, pop, and more to create a wonderfully chaotic sound that will have you head-banging, moshing, and dancing all at once. DEATH AWAITS will be out everywhere September 15 (but you can listen to it early over at Metal Injection now) via Prosthetic Records and Blind Equation will be playing shows across the US this fall. Punknews editor Em Moore caught up with James McHenry over Zoom to talk about the new album, making Blind Equation into a full band for live shows, songwriting, which lemon-lime pop reigns supreme, and so much more. Read the interview below!

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DEATH AWAITS will be your first album on Prosthetic Records. How did you decide who to sign with? What has working with them been like?

They actually reached out to us a couple weeks after I dropped LIFE IS PAIN back in September 2021. We were playing a show in October and that was going to be our first show ever as a full band because prior to that I was performing solo. I would have the backing track and I’d be doing vocals over it. Blind Equation has been my solo project and technically still is, I handle everything compositionally and production-wise for the project. I’ve just now added band members to play with me but at the time this was my first time trying that idea. I had the show booked prior because I was originally going to play solo and then a couple of weeks beforehand I hit up Bill and Jeff and said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about making Blind Equation a full band for live shows. Is that something you’d be into?” Both of them said yes and I viewed that show as a trial run to see if this would work out and if we would continue doing shows as a live band or if I would go back to doing them solo. Then I got this email from Steve saying, “Hey, I see you’re playing your first show as a full band. What time do you play?” Then I scrolled down to his signature and it says, “Prosthetic Records” and I was just like, “Holy shit!” It was like, “First show ever as a full band. Dude from Prosthetic is going to be there. No pressure at all”. It ended up being really cool. He’s been super kind to us. Really, really, great amazing person. It was cool meeting him at that show and he really liked our set. Ever since then, he wanted to sign us and we wanted to sign with them. There’s a lot of bands on that label now that I love, there’s bands that have been on that label in the past that I love, and also just the fact that they’re really open to signing bands that are pushing the boundaries of metal forward. In the past, they’ve signed bands like Thotcrime, Pupil Slicer, Neckbeard Deathcamp, and so many other bands that are just kinda out of pocket but are fucking amazing. It’s really cool to be kind of categorized with those bands. They just shared a similar ethos with us and they’ve been amazing to work with.

How was bringing in two more people? How has that changed the dynamic of Blind Equation?

It’s changed quite a bit. When I write songs, it hasn’t changed too much, although, in the back of my head, I’m sort of thinking, “How is this going to sound with drums? How is this going to sound live?” However, I try not to let that limit what I write either because if I think something sounds good, it sounds good and I don’t want to sacrifice what sounds good on the record. For our live shows, I feel like there’s a lot more energy to the Blind Equation live performance than there was before. Having the drums behind it and the keytar to add onto the melodies and highlight parts that maybe the listener didn’t hear on the record, it brings it into a new context. A lot of the drum parts that I write are completely inhuman and completely impossible to play but the way that Bill adapts them into the live set is great. He simplifies it in a way that makes it more accessible but also makes it dancier. It makes the set a little bit heavier. When people see us live they come up to me and say, “I listen to you all the time but you have some fucking mosh parts! It’s super fucking sick!” It takes Blind Equation and makes it into something else live. It’s really cool that we’re able to do that as a full band.

There’s a quote on the cover of LIFE IS PAIN that says, “Death draws nearer with every passing day”. Was that foreshadowing for DEATH AWAITS or is that just a happy coincidence?

Holy shit! [laughs] I didn’t even think of that! It’s funny that you mention that though because I have been foreshadowing DEATH AWAITS for quite some time actually. On the physical release, on the tape of LIFE IS PAIN, on the inside cover below where it says “Made in Canada” it says “DTH WTS” – DEATH AWAITS but without vowels. I also did a feature for a band called DREG – who are unfortunately inactive now however members of that band are now in Silithyst from New Jersey – where I had a lyric saying, “Death awaits my hollow soul” or something like that. That came out in 2020. I like to foreshadow shit like that years in advance.

I just had the title DEATH AWAITS for an EP or an album or a single of some sort in my head for quite a while. I’m not exactly sure what inspired it, it was something that came to me and something I related to, and wanted to make that a release. I actually drafted up EP artwork before I even wrote LIFE IS PAIN a while ago on Photoshop to be something between BORN TO DIE and whatever I was going to put out next but that ended up not happening. I wrote the song “death awaits” a couple of months after I wrote LIFE IS PAIN. It just kinda made sense to name this album Death Awaits after it was repeated in my head for so long and I came up with the thing without the vowels on the last album. [laughs] I don’t have a crazy explanation for it, it just sounded cool and I put it in a bunch of stuff leading up to it and then here we are.

You gotta trust your gut when something like that just sticks.

Oh, absolutely. There’s no Easter eggs in DEATH AWAITS for the next release. I do not know what I’m doing for the next release. At least I had everything leading up until this point.

The cover of this album features a glowing pink flower against a black background. What’s the significance of the album art?

For the album artwork, I actually had my friend Paris who does designs under the name Angel Gasm design it. I brought the idea to them that I wanted. They’ve been handling a lot of the visuals for my stuff as of late. They did the Blind Equation logo and a bunch of merch designs, and they also did the LIFE IS PAIN artwork. I just told them that I wanted something that made it look like it was not a metal album but also something simple, kind of minimalistic while also still maintaining my prior aesthetic. The flower represents death but also rebirth in a way and that ties into the title, DEATH AWAITS. I think it matches the sound and also the significance of the album pretty well. I can’t take credit for coming up with the flower iconography. I didn’t know what I wanted but that matched what was missing from my vision for the album artwork.

It fits well. When you’re listening to the album and looking at the cover, each song gives you a different view of it.

Yeah, I completely agree! I also wanted to stick out from other metal releases as well. I feel like a lot of metal releases look sick as fuck like some fucking skulls and some demon shit going on and crazy vast detail but I just wanted to keep it simple while also making sure it still looked like a Blind Equation album.

Rat Jesu and DEATHTRIPPA are both featured on this album. How did you decide who to collaborate with?

For DEATHTRIPPA, we had been talking online for a couple years up until that point. We found each other through the cybergrind community online. He lives in New Zealand. He was just like, “Do you wanna video call sometime?” and I was like, “Hell yeah!” I’ve been learning a lot about New Zealand through him and I also really like his music as well. When I was writing this album, I definitely wanted him to feature on a song and feature on a heavier part. His stuff is a lot heavier and digital hardcore driven. I knew I wanted a feature right when that breakdown hit in “suffering in silence” and he just came to mind. I thought he was the perfect fit for it and I believe that he was. Recently, I did a tour with him and brought him out to America. We did that song together every night and that was sick as well. Even though the song wasn’t even out yet, it was very cool!

For Rat Jesu, I’m a huge fan of her 2021 album, it’s been on repeat. It’s up there on my Last.fm most played albums. That album was a huge influence on this album and when I was writing that part in my mind I was like, “This is a Rat Jesu part”. I was trying to do my own vocals over it but it wasn’t hitting and I was like, “I’m just going to DM Rat Jesu and see what happens”. She was super down with it. She really liked the track and really wanted to work on it. She was even like, “Can I do a guitar solo over this?” and I was like, “Hell yeah!” That’s how that came about. I just kinda cold DMed, ended up in her message requests and it worked out perfectly. I’m insanely happy with how “killing me” turned out because it turned out really fucking sick.

How would you describe your songwriting process?

It’s very difficult for me to begin it. I start writing on Cubase and I manually tab in all of the MIDI notes so I’m not performing or riffing on guitar or anything, I’m just clicking notes and seeing how it sounds when I hit play. I’m really only going off the preview when I click the note to see if it’s in key and whatnot. I know my scales and stuff but sometimes I go by ear and just hope for the best. I just click a bunch of notes and it takes a very long time. I try to write a couple different melodies in conjunction with that. On this album, I think I have, on average, 3-6 different melodies happening at the same time. I’m writing that linearly although sometimes I’ll write a part and say, “This works better later in the song” and I’ll move it around. I usually write it front to back.

In previous releases, I used to write the first song first and the last song last so pretty much the tracklisting would be in order of how I wrote it and I wouldn’t change the spacing or anything at all. With LIFE IS PAIN I wrote that sort of as a 21-minute song, even though they are all different songs. I wrote it all in one go which is kind of insane looking back. I think it worked really well for that reason. For this album, I wanted to take a different approach and just write a bunch of songs, see where they fit in with each other, and place them afterward. I had in mind that “death awaits” would be the opener from the get-go. When I wrote “the last glimpse of me”, that was the last song I wrote and I kinda knew that would be the closer. But for everything else, I played with the order to see what works best.

I have a bunch of placeholder synths that I’ll use in Cubase and then I’ll move to Logic and figure out what synths I really want to put on the record. I’ll sometimes double-up some synths and move stuff around like, “This melody might play on this synth but later in the song it plays on this other synth”. Also since I’m using a Mac right now, it can’t use certain plug-ins so I still have my 2009 Dell sitting somewhere. I put the MIDI on that Dell so I can export the WAV files of some of the synths I used on there and import them into Logic. It took a while. I think there’s over 100 different tracks on Logic for this project. I also added in a couple effects here and there. There’s a lot of moments where it sounds like a 144p YouTube video and stuff, that RealTime Player vibe. There’s a lot of parts where it sounds bitcrushed. Sometimes I’ll change the drums out for certain parts and have some breakcore shit going on. For this record, I made it a point to add a bunch of different sound palettes that I hadn’t used previously. Then I mixed it all and added vocals.

You said that “you betrayed the ones you loved” was one of the first songs with a heavy pop influence that you wrote for this album. What was it like to explore a poppier side of Blind Equation?

It’s been a lot of fun! It’s been something I’ve wanted to do with the project but I didn’t know how to approach it. “you betrayed the ones you loved” is definitely one of the first lighter songs I wrote. I was listening to a lot of Porter Robinson and a lot of Jane Remover. I was just obsessed with “movies for guys” by Jane Remover in particular and basically throughout this entire record I was like, “I want to write a song kind of like that”. I did not end up doing that because I just did not end up ripping off that song enough to my liking, “you betrayed the ones you loved” was the closest I got. I took the tempo of that song and wrote my own thing over it. For the first bitcrush pop part, originally that was going to be normal drums, normal synths, and stuff. Then I’d listened to a lot of Jane Remover and was like, “What if this part is all bitcrush and I only use synths that are only used in this part and nowhere else on the album, and what if I changed the drums too?” I ended up using those same synths and drums on “the last glimpse of me” but other than that, it had not been used previously on the album. For the chorus, I actually had a different one written out and in my head for months and months. Every time I recorded it, it just wouldn’t sound right so I decided to change it completely. I’d been listening to a lot of smaller underground Soundcloud rap, I think the one that I got influenced the most for that song was Capoxxo, and I decided to experiment with doing a chorus that’s one note but you’re saying a lot of words. I ended up really liking what I had sung and put that in the song. It’s been a huge learning process for me with incorporating these pop elements into the album and it’s really my first time ever doing that. It’s also my first time singing on an album and actually being proud of it and singing like a chorus chorus. I’ve done a couple of singy bits here and there on previous releases but nothing like this. It’s been really cool experimenting with that.

What helped you to build up your confidence for singing?

My friend Scott Gilmore, who plays in the band Soulkeeper, helped me with that. He’s been super influential and super helpful with my writing and production process. I’ll always send him songs and ask for tips and stuff. He’s not much of a vocalist himself, he’s primarily a guitarist which is kinda how I was, and he sent me a vocal cover he did one time and he did a shit ton of autotune. It sounded great and I was like, “If I just use a bunch of autotune, I’ll be fine!”

The newer generation of kids making pop music nowadays has also been super inspiring for me. Hearing that and seeing the amazing shit that has been coming out has pushed me to get out of my shell and just say, “Hey, just do it! Just sing on the song”. I’m glad I did. I’m really happy with what’s on the album. I don’t listen back to it and go, “Oooo”. It’s been a year since I recorded a lot of those songs so that’s good.

You’ve mentioned that writing “killing me” showed the importance of opening up and talking to people during rough times. What helps you open up to others? What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to do that?

I’m no mental health expert by any means so please take everything I say with a grain of salt. Having a strong support network is very helpful although obviously not everyone has access to that and that can be tough. However, reminding yourself that you’re not the only one going through this stuff and that there are other people in your position helps. The person that you’re venting to or want to vent to is also going through stuff. If they’re your true friend, they’re going to understand and they’re going to hear you out. They’re not going to think less of you for feeling down. Just reassure yourself of that.

I know sometimes people can have very negative experiences opening up to people and that can really negatively affect them and make them not want to open up which is unfortunately what I had dealt with around the time. I’m definitely healing from that and taking the initiative to say, “Fuck it” and open up. It’s easy to think you’re going to be a burden to someone if you open up, I think that’s a natural human reaction, but if I’m the voice that says that you’re not a burden for opening up and your real friends are going to hear you out, I think that’s good advice to run with. Also writing about it helps. If you’re a vocalist for a band, fucking write a song. If you’re not the vocalist of a band, write it down in your Notes app or something, just document how you’re feeling. That shit helps a lot.

Did you have a song off DEATH AWAITS that was the most cathartic to write?

Probably “warmth” because at that point I had already gotten in the groove of writing. It’s very hard for me to get into the groove because I have a lot of creative blocks that I struggle with. If I write a song for an hour and I don’t like it, I won’t go back to it. It’s hard for me to finally write something that I’m happy with but on this album, it had been the first time that I’d been writing song after song after song with no breaks. Every weekend I’d write a song or two and it was really cool to be able to do that because I’d not been able to do that in the past with the exception of LIFE IS PAIN. Usually, my creative process is I’ll write a bunch of songs in two months and then not write anything for two years. With this album, it was like, “Oh yeah, the two-year mark has ended!” “warmth” was one of the last songs I’d written and I was so in the groove. At that point, I really wanted to write a song that started out with a fucking Eurodance beat and shit and I did that. Then it goes into this blasty part and I think it’s fucking sick. I’m really stoked on the ending that I wrote as well. The lyrics are super vulnerable but it’s all good. I think that was the most fun instrumentally to write and I’m really stoked on it.

The video for “you betrayed the ones you loved” was filmed at the First Estonian Church in Wisconsin. How did you decide where to film?

We wanted to drive up to Northern Wisconsin, where Paris, who did the album artwork and logo and everything, is and we were thinking of spots to film it and then they brought up that idea. I feel like if you’re from super rural Wisconsin you know about all the abandoned spots. They sent me some pictures and I was like, “Yo, this looks fucking sick!” It was winter when we filmed it and I hadn’t gotten new tires so I could barely take my car up the hill. It was all iced over so I had to walk a little bit with the stuff to set up the video. It was really cold but we did it. I think it turned out really sick.

The winter fits the vibe.

Absolutely! Part of me wishes we’d filmed it later because there were two things that made it not as good as it could’ve been. There’s no power at the church because it had been long abandoned so we couldn’t listen to the song as we performed it. Bill listened to the click track on his drums and we just had to go off what the drums were doing. I had to mime the words to the drums and nothing else and the same with Jeff with the keys. That was the first time that we had ever performed the song because we had not put it in the live set yet. That was basically our first time ever performing it. It was very cold so we couldn’t move around as much as we would have liked to. I think the video turned out super sick though. Paris did an amazing job. I think the snow definitely fit the vibe, got that black metal aesthetic. Morta Sustain absolutely crushed it on the editing. I’ve been a fan of his work for a while and it was cool working with him.

You’re wearing a Skinless shirt in the video. What impact has that band had on you?

[laughs] I just think the album artwork for Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead is very sick. I think the “Wicked World” cover on there is insane! I listened to that band a lot in high school, especially that “Wicked World” cover. I was just blown away that someone could just cover Black Sabbath like that! I just think that band’s sick. [laughs]

You’ll be touring the US in the fall including some dates with Dreamwell in November. What are you looking forward to the most about these shows?

Definitely going to all the cities because all the cities are banger cities to play in. Our last show in Indianapolis was really sick. Milwaukee is kinda like a second home for us and plus Snag, Coma Regalia, and Riotnine are on that too so it’s just going to be an epic screamo show. Minneapolis we always get a lot of love in, I love any chance we get to play that city. It’ll be our first time in Fargo as well. We haven’t played Pittsburgh in a while so I’m mostly looking forward to playing really cool shows in really cool cities. Also looking forward to seeing Dreamwell for five nights in a row, that band is super fucking sick. I caught their set at ZBR and it was definitely one of my favourites that night. It’ll be a really good time.

How would you describe the cybergrind scene in Chicago?

It’s kinda popping off, not gonna lie. I think one of the first signs of that popping off was back in June when we had a cybergrind prom. Thotcrime and Cocojoey were on tour and the last date of the tour was in Chicago and it was on a Monday. It was them, us, and Bejalvin, just an insane cybergrind lineup. I knew it would be good but I didn’t realize how good it would be. I went into the show being like, “I’m playing with my friends” and then the day of the show, like hours before, I looked on Ticketlink and it was sold out. I was like, “Holy shit! This is sold out?? We’ve never sold out Sub-T Downstairs before”. It was sold out on a Monday. People had traveled from Michigan, Tennessee, and Iowa to be there. It ended up being one of the most surreal shows I’ve ever played or been a part of. After that, Bejalvin played Chicago in July. Pretty much all of the artists except for Bejalvin and otm dropped so us, Cocojoey, and Dawndivision hopped on last minute. That show almost hit capacity as well. It was at a smaller venue. After those two shows, it showed that weird digital music or cybergrind is starting to have a presence in Chicago and it’s been really cool to see. Love Thotcrime, love Cocojoey, love Bejalvin, love Dawndivision, love everyone else.

What does the future hold for Blind Equation?

Definitely a lot more shows and a lot more touring. Once this album’s out, I want to play as many shows as I can. Definitely going to be writing some more material. There’s a lot of different directions I want to go in. Maybe I’ll go in all of them, maybe I’ll go in none of them, who knows? It might take me a while. The main thing is getting this album out. I’m really excited for everyone to hear it. I put a lot of work into it and I’m really proud of it. I think it’s really good. Putting it out there, seeing what happens, and trying to play as many shows as we can. That’s kinda all I do, I play shows, release music, and sell t-shirts. [laughs]

Now for the most important question of the interview, 7Up or Sprite?

So I asked this on Twitter because I got a 7Up at the vending machine at work because they didn’t have Sprite and it was honestly so sick. I will say 7Up in a can beats Sprite in a can 100%. McDonald’s Sprite reigns supreme though.

Date Veue City Details
Sep 27 The Forge Joliet, IL w/Hanabie, Dropout Kings, Fox Lake
Sep 30 ps1 Iowa City, IA w/3000 Centipedes
Oct 04 MKEultra Milwaukee, WI w/Anita Velveeta, Crush Fund, Chapped Lips
Nov 03 Dumb Records Springfield, IL w/Closet Witch
Nov 04 Antumbra Room Bloomington, IN w/Closet Witch
Nov 05 TBA Grand Rapids, MI w/Closet Witch
Nov 06 Crucible Madison, WI w/Closet Witch
Nov 07 The Aquarium Fargo, ND w/Dreamwell
Nov 08 Seward Cafe Minneapolis, MN w/Dreamwell
Nov 09 Cactus Club Milwaukee, WI w/Dreamwell, Snag, Coma Regalia, Riotnine!
Nov 10 Black Circle Indianapolis, IN w/Dreamwell
Nov 11 The Mr. Roboto Project Pittsburgh, PA w/Dreamwell

Source: punknews.org

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