It’s been a wild ride for Horrendous, the death metal band originating between Philadelphia and South Carolina, but one that has been an exciting journey for fans of the genre to follow. Formed in 2009 by punk loving brothers Matt and Jamie Knox along with their more metal-leaning friend Damian Herring, the group started with more of a traditional death metal sound. Over four full-lengths, the band has stayed true to its roots while incorporating more and more progressive elements into their sound. The evolution of the band is one that has never felt anything other than organic and it gives fans a bit of the unexpected when guessing what the newest offering from Horrendous will be like when it hits shelves next year.
Much like every other band, and person, Horrendous has had a rough few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Momentum that the group felt it was finally gaining through their stellar releases and touring schedule had stalled somewhat as the entirety of the world was put on hold. Now, with some sense of normality starting to slowly return to the world, Horrendous is hoping to capitalize on a music industry that is timidly getting the wind back in its sails. I recently talked with Jamie Knox about his band’s history and getting the fires relit after a forced hiatus.
First off, how did the band start? Matt and Jamie, with you two being brothers, was this something that was talked about for years and how did Damian and eventually Alex (Kulick) come onboard?
Jamie: Since we first got into punk over 20 years ago, Matt and I have been very invested in writing and playing music – playing in a serious band was always a dream and goal for us. We went through several projects together before Horrendous, starting all the way back in middle school. Many of these had more of a thrashy punk type vibe – our interest at the time was adding metal influences to fast punk. We are from PA, but we both ended up going to the University of South Carolina for college. I was there two years before Matt, and I met Damian within the first few days of school – he and I both had an interest in metal but didn’t play music together. Once Matt arrived, we wanted to continue our music and invited Damian to jam with us. We initially tried to force this metallic punk stuff on him but it didn’t really work out, so we started jamming on more death/thrash type riffs and things gelled very quickly. Within a few months we had the basics laid out for most songs that ended up on our Sweet Blasphemies demo, which was recorded Summer of 2009.
Up until 2015, 2/3 of the band lived down in SC. The metal scene down there was basically non-existent at the time aside from metalcore and deathcore acts. Basically, we didn’t have friends or know others who could play bass and had any level of interest in more traditional metal genres, so we decided to play as a three-piece without bass. I would fly down to visit and play shows, and occasionally they would road-trip up to play in the mid-Atlantic area, but shows were infrequent. Due to these factors, we didn’t bother getting a bass player until we started receiving more serious and frequent show offers. When we got added to the Decibel Choosing Death Fest in 2016, we decided live bass had become a necessity. Steve from Crypt Sermon/Daeva played several shows with us on bass, but his schedule made it difficult to commit enough time. Matt and Alex met at a coffee shop and ended up jamming a bit together – Alex is a big jazzer and I believe their first time playing together was in this vein. It was clear that he is a gifted musician – he was primarily a guitar player but we knew he would be more than capable of playing bass, so we asked him to play live. Of course this worked out very well, and the rest is history.
You’ve got four albums out and I dig all of them. That first one is the most “traditional” sounding death metal album but then you start to add more of the progressive element to the mix and it makes for a memorable sound that you guys have run with. How did the evolution of your sound come about?
Jamie: I don’t think there’s any specific “cause” for the evolution of our sound. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think we are generally people who look forward in various aspects of life, to the point that any kind of stagnation starts to feel shitty. You have new experiences with time – how can I use these to better myself and improve my everyday life? This goes for our music as well. When we are putting an album together (which is an extensive, intense process), we push ourselves in terms of both writing – paying absurd attention to detail – and our playing ability. Most bands would probably say such a thing, but the process of crafting our music feels like it swallows us whole. We work harder on this than anything else in our lives, and I think it means more than anything to us for this reason. Writing is actually incredibly stressful because you want to make something that will stand above what you’ve done before – something you’ll love and respect above everything else. For us this tends to involve increasingly creative and technically difficult playing as well. Each time I record drums for an album it is stressful as hell because I’m playing stuff that is harder than anything we’ve done before. Playing the Idol songs now is much easier than at the time of recording, whereas our new material is really challenging for me in terms of new rhythms, physical endurance, etc. So there’s this constant forward march, which is a very natural process, and this lends itself to evolution. Additionally, I think we’ve become very good at allowing any and all ideas, no matter how wild, to enter into the fray. Once you get to a certain place in terms of writing, new concepts and avenues emerge for future work, and we follow these in a very serious way.
What got you guys into extreme metal in the first place and who are some of your influences? What do you guys like to listen to outside of the genre?
Jamie: Matt got into metal in general from his guitar teacher back in middle school – bands like Iron Maiden and Megadeth. He played that stuff all the time, and I eventually followed suit. But as I mentioned, punk was a huge part of our lives as well back then (and it still is). I think the influence of punk in what he and I write is much larger than people realize. I would say, for example, that my drumming style comes from more of a punk mentality, with metal techniques added on top. I learned to play basically by listening to punk records and emulating my buddy, who is a phenomenal punk drummer. We eventually branched out into more extreme metal, and meeting Damian got us interested in the “old school” types of death metal bands that probably had the largest influence on our early sound. Damian has been a metalhead since back in his early teens and probably has one of the best obscure early death metal demo collections (digital of course) from those times. Alex was also a big metalhead as a teenager – specifically thrash I believe, but he listened to more extreme stuff as well. When we met Alex, metal had taken a back seat and he was focused on free jazz and improvisational music. He still loves that stuff intensely, but I believe the band has pulled some of his listening habits back into the metal world. At this point we all listen pretty broadly to a lot of different music – from Prince to King Crimson to Soundgarden to Klaus Schulze to Savatage, etc. And all of this probably influences us to some degree in how we think about making music – opening new possibilities that we otherwise had not seen. For whatever reason, I’ve had a recent obsession with early dirty rock/speed/thrash/black metal bands since the beginning of quarantine – stuff that I really didn’t care about previously. Celtic Frost, Venom, Motorhead, Razor, Bathory, etc.
What’s the writing process like for you guys for the music side of things? Do you have a primary songwriter or is it a collective process?
Jamie: It has varied a bit over the years – early on, we tended to put songs together as a group while jamming. Damian would come up with a cool riff on the spot, Matt comes up with one to follow it, etc. As our stuff has gotten more complex and we don’t get as much time to play as a full band, more commonly Matt comes up with the basic skeleton of a song and as a band we hammer out the ideas and add until the song takes its full shape. Matt and I spend a lot of time messing with ideas before the full band gets together since we live near each other and honestly we just love to play. Everyone has left their mark on a song by the time it is done – a Horrendous song wouldn’t sound like Horrendous otherwise.
What do you use for inspiration for your lyrics? It’s clear that you put a lot of thought into them and they’re incredibly detailed and really tell some truly despairing stories. Is there a catharsis for you in lyric writing and do you ever use that process to work through things either that you are feeling or in your own life?
Jamie: We do take lyrics very seriously, particularly from Ecdysis onward. Our earlier stuff tended to be more traditional – just having fun with metal imagery and whatnot. But now I view it as a real opportunity for expression – to try and make the listener feel a certain way, to add to the tone of the song, to experiment with my own ideas about how the world works and how we should experience and process it. There is certainly a catharsis when I write (and I know the others would agree for the lyrics they write, particularly on Idol) – some songs are about exorcising demons, some are almost like a reassuring/motivating message to the struggling self, others are an attempt to work out ideas and concepts that occupy our thoughts using interesting imagery. We put so much effort into composing the music that it would feel silly to have hollow lyrical content.
Staying with the lyrical themes, Idol to me feels like a more topical album than the previous ones and I was wondering how much you mined the current (at the time) state of affairs for that record. It might just be me projecting here since I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life but it can really be hard to feel hopeful about the state of the world sometimes and that kind of was what I took from some of those lyrics. What was your state of mind like while writing that record and what did you hope to accomplish with the lyrics there?
Jamie: You are spot on – anxiety was unfortunately bearing over us during the long writing and recording period for Idol, and it colored much of the album lyrically and even somewhat compositionally. The US was undergoing a huge socio-political shift at the time (of course we are still living in the thick of this now), and our own personal lives were becoming more complicated – disillusionment with careers and work, changing life circumstances, etc. This negative cloud found its way into our album and I don’t think we could have avoided it. I suppose we hoped to exorcise some demons by writing these songs, and perhaps to face them ourselves. Hopefully listeners took something away from this exercise, but it is understandable to me if this has become a tough listen for anyone.
Being four records in, how do you feel the band’s process for creating music has changed? When you step in the studio to record, are you more comfortable with what you want to achieve and how to get there?
Jamie: The process for writing has evolved over time – the increasing complexity over the years, combined with our physical distance from one another and busier schedules, has necessitated many of these changes. Back in the day we spent much less time in the studio, probably because the music was a bit less complex and our ideas were fairly clear. Now, we begin recording with mostly finished songs but end up adding tons of new ideas during the process – our essentially unlimited time allows us to test things on the fly, so a big chunk of writing technically happens during recording as well. I do think that we’re starting to get into a good studio groove, although it does take us a long time to get songs to the place we want. Recording Idol was a nightmare honestly, and recording this last album started that way, but it ended with us having found a good rhythm.
You guys have toured with some really exciting lineups, including the stacked 2017 edition of the Decibel Magazine tour. What have you learned from hitting the road with some of the legends of the genre and what has touring with people you probably grew up listening to been like?
Jamie: Yes we have been fortunate to join some great tours – the ones that jump out are the 2017 Decibel tour you mentioned and also our run with Tribulation in 2016. Tribulation was really our first time on the road playing more than two days, so it was an eye-opening experience. They were such a professional band and really had everything figured out – watching them basically showed us how we need to go about touring and performing if we want it to be sustainable in any way. It brought us from our “punk” days where we really just got up there and ripped through songs without much thought, into what I’d consider our current era where everything from setlist to our stage presence to touring logistics is much more intentional and thought out. The Decibel tour showed us what it’s like to play in big venues as a smaller opening band – both the ups and downs of that. We learned a lot and had fun, but we were also constantly put in our place since openers in that environment often don’t get a lot of respect from the powers that be. That tour was particularly challenging – something like 25 shows in 28 days – and I think it did take a toll on the band and changed some people’s minds about their desire to tour heavily. I will say that Midnight and Obituary, both seasoned road veterans, helped us along a ton and were very good to us. They felt like mentors honestly, and we can’t thank them enough. But yes, being able to tour with bands from our childhood and also contemporary bands that we truly admired (Tribulation) was really a dream come true.
Your album artwork is always striking and always memorable. Who does it and how much direction do you give them? When I look at the artwork while listening to the albums, it’s incredible to me how much the tone of the music really does mesh with the feelings I get looking at those ominous covers.
Jamie: Brian Smith has become our go-to artist for cover art. Honestly we give him little to no direction and somehow he comes up with these covers that fit perfectly. Ecdysis and Anareta were his own concepts, whereas Idol and our upcoming album cover were chosen by us from a catalog of his work. We love working with him and agree that there is an incredible unity between his work and our sound.
You guys signed with Season of Mist, who released Idol. What does it mean for the band to have the support of one of the top labels within the world of extreme metal?
Jamie: It opens up doors that would normally be closed and really just puts greater resources at your disposal. We have had a great time with Season and the next album will be with them as well. That said, we love Matt Calvert and Dark Descent too – we are still close and had a great experience with his label.
With COVID hitting everyone hard but the music industry particularly heavily, how has the pandemic affected you guys? What has it been like from a band perspective adjusting to a new world seemingly overnight? Those first days of the pandemic when everything was initially getting cancelled was a real feeling of having the rug pulled out from under you from a fan’s perspective so I can’t imagine what it has been like from the band’s perspective.
Jamie: Truthfully the pandemic has been pretty tough for the band. We started recording our upcoming album toward the end of 2019, but once the pandemic hit, we didn’t see Damian for an entire year. We finally got back together probably in early 2021 to re-start writing and recording, so this huge gap in time has delayed our album significantly (not to mention the post-pandemic vinyl backups that will now add 4-5 months on top of the usual wait times). Because of this, our album which is currently being mixed by Damian will not be released until 2023, and I would guess late 2020/early 2021 is when it would have come out in a pandemic-free alternate reality. That is a very depressing prospect honestly – it feels like our music lives have been put on hold, and as we get older and time passes, we worry that this will put a damper on the band’s future.
What’s next for Horrendous? What are your goals for the next few years of the band?
Jamie: The new album is our focus right now – we hope to turn it into the label in the next few months, for a release sometime in the first half of 2023 (fingers crossed). We also intend to do more serious touring on it, and hopefully in new places like Europe. Time will tell…
Picture at top: Album cover for Idol.