Being able to do death metal vocals, in and of itself, is a hell of an accomplishment. Being able to play keyboards and do drum programming as well is even more impressive. Throw in being an outstanding visual artist sought after for album covers and other pieces makes for a hell of a triple threat. Mike Hrubovcak is just such a renaissance man.
If you’re a fan of extreme metal, you’ve definitely heard something that Hrubovcak has been on. The always busy frontman has released albums under the banner of Divine Rapture, Monstrosity, Azure Emote, Hypoxia, and House By the Cemetery, among others. If that wasn’t enough of a resume, Hrubovcak also has been doing visual arts and graphic designs, including a variety of album covers, for decades now. I recently caught up with the multi-talented artist to talk about his varied career.
First off, what got you into extreme metal in the first place? What was your journey like from getting into music to getting into the really heavy stuff? Who were some of your early inspirations?
Mike: I got into metal at a young age, like nine or ten, around 1987 or so, my older brother first showed me the original classic hard rock metal stuff, then Metallica, Megadeth, Testament, etc. I remember being in grade school and my one friend making fun of me for blasting Metallica’s cover of “Am I Evil” on my Walkman down the hallway while singing along to the lyrics. It wasn’t until I was in karate class at like age 11 or 12 that a friend there had taped me a mix tape of underground grindcore (original Bolt Thrower, Morbid Angel, Carcass, Terrorizer, Death, etc), and once I heard that stuff I instantly fell in love and found my home diving headfirst into the underground black/death explosion of the early ’90s at the time. Being an angry, awkward teenager, it was the perfect release for me to lash out my frustration towards life in general, and growing up in a very religious household, etc. So being a rebellious teenager, it was just natural instinct. I think around age 13 or 14 or so is when I started growling and freaking out in class all the time and letting my hair grow out long. I found some older friends on the bus who were also into metal and playing guitar in their backyard that was in walking distance from my house, so by age 16, as I was entering high school, I was hanging out with them more and jamming in the early stages of what became my first high school death metal band, called Disillusion. We’d play house parties and backyard shows, then eventually the Trocadero Club in Philadelphia by the time I was 17 or 18.
How did you know you had talent for making music? You’ve done vocals for a variety of bands but you’ve also done other things like keyboards and drum programming. How did you get into doing those instruments? How did you discover that you had a talent for death metal vocals? It’s such an extreme style of singing that definitely takes a unique skill set!
Mike: Well I was into painting and drawing and doing artwork stuff as a kid before I started singing in my first band. I guess you can say I was a bit eccentric in school, they called me “The Growler” and I’d freak out a lot, burn myself, smash my head into walls, and all that. My teenage years were very unstable and angry. I never really set out to sing in a band, it was just my friends being like “Those growls sound sick, you gotta come sing for us.” I wouldn’t say it took any skill to growl at first, just the anger and energy to wanna do it, and I remember spitting up blood at practice one day and I think I broke my throat at that point and was able to do it better and better as the years went on. Then eventually it takes a lot of skill to get to the point of learning to do it right, with so much variation, the highs, the lows, the mids, and the various styles in between. I didn’t start doing keyboards or drum programming until after my other band, Divine Rapture, broke up in the mid 2000s. I started messing around with that stuff to try and make my own band project, Azure Emote, which was very experimental cause I wasn’t really a musician at the time, just a vocalist/artist trying to be creative since I didn’t have the outlet of Divine Rapture anymore.
As a vocalist in one of the harshest genres, how do you keep your voice healthy between shows? Has it gotten harder to take care of your voice as time has gone on?
Mike: It’s rough for sure, especially on the road when it’s every single night and you’re guaranteed to get sick on top of it too, having to growl with strep throat or the flu sucks (laughs). Drinking hot tea with honey helps, or hot salt water. I used to keep a bottle of honey in my bunk, until one night it broke open and dripped all over our merch guy in the bunk under me and he woke up all covered in honey like WTF (laughs). I also used to just not talk to save my throat and write stuff on a pad of paper when people tried to talk to me, but that’s annoying and didn’t last long, plus I don’t want fans thinking I’m a dick for not talking to them at shows. Whispering though is one of the worst things you can do for your throat too. Don’t do it. Either talk or don’t talk. Now I just gargle a shot or two of honey whiskey and say fuck it, cause if my throat cracks it cracks, what do I expect after destroying it for so many years (laughs). Your throat is not like a guitar you can just re-tune or re-string or a drum snare or cymbal you can replace if they break, you gotta just roll with the changes and do your best.
How did Divine Rapture come about? You guys put out two really solid records as a band. Have you ever thought about doing anything under the Divine Rapture banner again? What did you learn, as far as a musician, through your time with that band early on in your career that you transferred to your other bands?
Mike: Yeah Divine Rapture was my first real full-time band that I made with my brother after Disillusion ended, he made all the music and I’d do all the vocals, lyrics, and art. We’d play all over, and had a good following worldwide through snail mail, CD trading, zines and magazine compilations, playing Milwaukee Metalfest, etc. I learned a lot from those experiences (what we did right and what we did wrong), too many to name really, but we definitely put in the time and energy. We were one of the first bands to record at Erik Rutan’s new studio at the time down in Tampa too. After Divine Rapture broke up, a few years passed by and Colin Davis got in touch and asked us to join Vile and then we eventually had our first real extensive touring experiences in Europe, the U.S., and Canada. I later joined Monstrosity, while still doing Vile at the same time and my brother then left for Hate Eternal. I’d be down to do another Divine Rapture one day but everyone’s so busy these days, doing family stuff etc, so it’s totally up to my brother if he wants to revive it even for just another album.
How did Azure Emote get started? It’s a cool sound that’s very death metal but with more of an industrial tinge to it. How did the sound for that band come about?
Mike: By accident really. Shortly after D.R. broke up, I sang in Rumpelstiltskin Grinder in their beginning stages, with my friend Ryan Moll for a few jams and a few shows. I was kinda in a bad place mentally at the time after facing some major jail time and going through the court system for a year, cutting my hair, and then my band with my brother of seven years breaking up, and around the same time a bad breakup with my ex of 6 years, on top of moving etc. The last show I played with Rumpelstiltskin Grinder in Philly, I had cut myself pretty bad with my knife while singing and the promoter took me to the emergency room after the show to get about 30 stitches in my arm. After that I decided not to play out for a while and just start my own project instead, something a bit more personal and dark. It was pretty much me just messing around on the computer and having Ryan translate all the riffs that I had in my head and then taking those riffs and building on them. I like all kinds of dark ambient industrial cyber stuff too, as well as orchestral Therion type stuff, Laibach, Dead Can Dance, etc, but with a death metal foundation and heart, so I decided to just put it all together with total freedom and do whatever came to my head. I had no sense of gearing it towards anything in particular, and just wanted to be creative with no boundaries and that’s what happened. Azure Emote was my outlet to channel my passion and do whatever I wanted with my middle finger in the air towards everything, so it was a perfect catharsis for me and something that I could control amongst all the other chaos going on in my life that I couldn’t control.
What’s the music writing process like for Azure Emote? Being that you wear multiple hats within that band, how involved in the composition side of things are you? Has the process changed much over the years?
Mike: Yeah I pretty much compose it all, but then give the demo skeletons to all the different musicians and let them do their thing to expand on it. I used to sit and hum the riffs to Ryan but now I send him keyboard riffs through email and then he’ll send back a bunch of different variations to pick and choose from, chop up and re-organize etc. I used to use the old school drum machine by hand but now it’s all in digital programs so it’s a lot easier, technology wise, to create stuff.
What was the writing/recording process like for the latest record, The Third Perspective? Was that at all affected by COVID? How do you feel about the final product? As a fan, it was awesome to get a new record after a bit of a gap and it might be my favorite from the band.
Mike: Thanks man, glad you like it! Yeah it’s a bit more polished than the others and I always seem to have a gap between albums just cause I’m juggling so many other bands and things all the time. Luckily, we got it done right before COVID so it didn’t affect anything. I had finished the music video with Nader Sadek right around that Feb. and the album came out in March 2020, so it all worked out. We recorded it at my friend Ron Vento’s studio down in Maryland, like all the previous albums, the only difference for this one was getting Dan Swano to master it this time.
What are your goals/plans for the future of Azure Emote? Obviously the latest record isn’t that old yet but when do you guys start to think about new music? How does the ball get rolling with that, as far as the band is concerned?
Mike: I have nine songs in the very beginning phases sculpted out, I just need to make the time to get into them more and get everyone else on board with their schedules. So yeah it may take me awhile again but I plan on making another album, possibly more straightforward this time and then maybe an entirely crazy industrial re-mix album eventually after that. We’ll see how I feel at the time and how things progress (laughs).
How did you end up in Hypoxia? I know they were going for a few years before you jumped on board but you really fit their style quite well. How different is it for you to be in a bit more of a thrash sounding death band, from a vocalist perspective?
Mike: I really like Hypoxia, it’s very old school sounding to me so I feel at home with it and we clicked right away. The thrash elements remind me more of early era Sepultura, which was a huge influence on me as a kid so it’s totally cool mixing it up with a bit of old style thrash death. Mallika (Sundaramurthy) from Abnormality had introduced us at the time from hanging at shows in the city, since they were looking for a vocalist. They pretty much already had the album recorded already, just needed lyrics and vocals. They sent me the tracks and I was like, this rules, let’s do it. Then we played a bunch of fests, went to Colombia for the Rock al Parque Fest, recorded another album, and now we’re currently working on songs for a new album at the moment as well.
Your most recent record, Rise of the Rotten, came with the newish band House By the Cemetery. How did that band get started? What was it like recording/writing that record and how do you feel about the final product there?
Mike: Yeah it was primarily all done through the internet. Rogga Johansson from Paganizer etc, hit me up and asked if I wanted to do vocals for it. I always wanted to do some old school dirty Swedish DM, and the songs ruled, so I was totally down. He had some old lyrics written down to show me. I had to change them around a bit, add to them, and rewrite parts to fit my patterns but it all worked out. I love the horror movie aspect of it as well since I’m big into ’70s/’80s horror and it’s funny that when he hit me up about it I was actually watching Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead with a nice glass of whiskey, so then I went and put on House by the Cemetery right after that to get my head in the game even more (laughs).
Clearly you’re a guy who likes to stay busy, how important is it for you to have all these different creative outlets? Do you ever struggle to switch from one thing and get your mind in the frame of mind for a different project?
Mike: Most definitely. I always take on too much and often find myself getting overwhelmed but I somehow end up making it work. Like right now, I know I should be working on lyrics but instead I’ve been painting and doing art more. This is probably why I also prefer to be given all the songs to an album all at once, so I can set the time for the project and submerse myself in it in one giant block of time to be fully absorbed and focused. Piecemeal songs here and there distracts me a bit cause then I have to hop around between projects too much and it gets overwhelming. I need to totally focus and put my frame of mind on one thing at a time I think, or at least designate times, like this week I’m only going to do this, next week I’m only going to do that, etc. It gets hard pulling my headspace out of one tunnel vision thought process and then into another too quickly, especially with such varying concepts with each band.
As a lyricist, with any of your bands, what’s your writing process like? Do you have anything in particular that you’ll turn to for inspiration? What themes most interest you to write about and why?
Mike: It depends on what band. Like House by the Cemetary is a horror movie driven concept band, I.C.E. is all about a frozen demonic apocalypse theme, Hypoxia is more realistic life murders, death, dying or horror concepts, and Azure Emote is more personal and open so it’s more about natural human negativity, death, dying, growing old, and all the things going on in my head at the time or various subjects that I’ve been researching from occult spirituality, coincidence theories, Kevorkian and the original right to die movement, Nicola Tesla and sacred geometry, aliens, psychedelics, multiple dimensions, quantum physics, and the millions of other various things that peak my interest. All the themes are equally as interesting to me. Variety is the spice of life, as they say.
Where do your musical tastes run these days? Who are some of your go-to bands either when working or when relaxing? Have you stayed up to date on the death metal scene? Even as someone who listens to a ton of records, I never feel like I have more than a foothold in what’s going on due to the sheer size of the genre these days.
Mike: Yeah there’s definitely a billion different bands to check out now but there’s a lot of clutter in the way these days too, so a lot of great bands go unnoticed and get lost in the sea of “OK” bands just because of sheer volume and the attention span of modern day streaming. I find myself still mostly returning the ’80s/’90s classics, or going backwards in time to stuff I missed, but there’s some good newer bands these days too and older bands making amazing new albums, like Mork Gryning, Hypocrisy, Lord Belial, Perdition Temple, Escarnium, Korpse, Blut Aus Nord, Skeletal Remains, Kanonenfieber, Troops of Doom, Thy Catafalgue, Serpents Oath, Enchantment, Terminalist, Vanhelgd, Stormkeep, Wombbath, The Ruins of Beverast, Audon, Gorephilia, etc.
How did you get into visual art? What are your favorite mediums to work with and which do you feel you have the most aptitude for?
Mike: Well I started drawing as a young kid and went to art classes all through normal schooling, and started with oil painting, airbrush and pen and ink, it seemed to be the only thing I was good at or had the attention span for besides maybe science class. Even though I was getting good grades in everything, I was getting kicked out of other classes a lot so after high school it was a no-brainer that I’d just go to art school instead of a real college (laughs). I’m so glad I did though. Once I was in art college, I was introduced to computer art more and eventually switched from an illustration major to a graphic design major primarily for the pressure of getting a job. Eventually I combined the two and started making digital illustrations more often than physical painting. Most people prefer my digital work, I guess, for album covers but I’ve been trying to get back into traditional painting more as well just for fun. Most of my interest in the arts came from the intrigue of the crazy album covers I had as a kid, so as I got into metal more, my artwork went more in that direction with the fantasy horror stuff as well, and then I started doing art for my own band, then getting asked to do art for other bands through the tape trading physical flyer days, then eventually made my own website and it kept rolling from there.
What type of different outlet does visual art give you that’s different from music? How do you split your time between the two?
Mike: The music stuff is more anger/energy based and physical as far as interacting with other people and creating things that can be enjoyed socially that evokes an emotional response together and a feeling of comradery with your friends and bandmates and others. With the artwork, it’s a more peaceful and private outlet, whereas as a natural introvert, I get to be alone in my own space and get lost in my work mentally. Everything in moderation though and there’s a fine balance somewhere, which is probably why I go back and forth between wanting to do art and music all the time.
How do you get your ideas for your pieces? What’s your creative process like for that? Are there any particular themes you like to work with the most?
Mike: A lot of times the band gives me the concept they want and I’ll expand on it from there. I prefer though when they give me full freedom to do whatever based off the album title, or just a general concept cause then I can be more creative, sometimes when they’re too particular about all the details they want it can be limiting whereas when I’m working I realize this other thing may look a lot cooler or something. Usually the song titles or lyrics can help me draw inspiration for concepts to start with. I like the atmospheric darkness more than the gore actually but a lot of bands just want the gore so I try to place it in a scene that makes sense though, not just a giant pile of dead bodies for the sake of dead bodies, it has to tell a story somehow.
Do you have a favorite cover or piece (or a few) that you’ve made and why? How about a favorite album or two that you’ve been a part of and why?
Mike: The most recent artwork I did for Lord Belial made me happy, I was always a fan so it was really cool to do. Same with the Megadeth T-shirts and 30 Years Blessed Are The Sick Tour shirts. As far as albums musically, of course it was an honor to do the last two Monstrosity albums, I would say I favor Spiritual Apocalypse though cause that was the first album that really showcased my vocals production wise, thanks to Morrisound Studios. All the albums I was on prior I was never really happy with how my vocals came out. The first Hypoxia album came out really great too vocally so I’m really proud of that one and the first I.C.E album is still one of my favorites just cause it happened so naturally and was just creative and fun and felt like lightning in a bottle at the time.
Lastly, what are you working on now? What can fans of your music and art expect in the near future?
Mike: I have a few new artworks I can’t really announce yet and have been trying to get back into experimenting with painting more. As far as music there should be another Swedish Death Metal album I was a part of that’s still being finalized, and I’m currently in the beginning phases of writing new Hypoxia, I.C.E., and Azure Emote albums. You can follow all this on my Instagram if you’re interested, as I seem to be on there more than FB these days. I try to update my website every so often too and I’m planning on making official limited prints or tapestries of some of my classic arts available sometime in the future. You can find all that at visualdarkness.com.
All photos courtesy of Mike Hrubovcak.