Put on Arrows, the new album by Portland stoner rockers Red Fang, and you might not get the chugs you’re looking for. Sure, opening track “Take It Back” and follower “Unreal Estate” are heavy as hell, but they’re less cruising-in-a-rad-van heavy, more raising-the-chalice-to-the-ancient-god heavy. One might not expect the dudes who once got famous wearing beer-case armor to have a Mercyful Fate moment, but here we are.
“I’ll take that as a compliment!” laughs guitarist-vocalist Bryan Giles. “I was in kind of a funk, I guess, and I recorded a demo version of [‘Take It Back’] in an afternoon. It’s not the most cheerful thing, I admit! It was real trash, but in a cool way. I just played it on guitar but then pitched it down to drop-A digitally, and it broke up, but not in a hepcat-cool way, in a gross way. That demo just sort of hung around long enough that in the studio, someone, I think it was Aaron [Beam, bass, vocals, and keys], said, ‘We should do a version of that,’ and I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I’ll do that.’ I think it turned out real scary. Working with [producer Chris] Funk on something like that is perfect, because he lives and breathes that, creating atmosphere out of weird, unexpected elements. It’s like being in a basement and there’s a murder in there, but the lights are out. I think it turned out fantastic!”
The unpredictability of Arrows might be its greatest strength. The album certainly brings the fuzz and thick riffs that fans have come to expect from Portland’s gnarliest hard rock act, but at no point does it lean on self-reference or influence-worship. Instead, the record is packed with enough honest emotion and sonic weirdness to make even longtime Red Fang fans reconsider their understanding of the band. And Bryan wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think the ideology behind the band still stays true, that there’s no such thing as a ‘Red Fang song,’” says Giles. “There’s just a song that the four of us like. So we don’t approach it with any kind of formula. There are some habits that we get into songwriting-wise, some intervals that we go back to that we all appreciate, but in general, it’s just, Well, that’s a weird idea…okay! I’m very much in the mindset of just saying ‘Yes’ to an idea, and running it down. And if it ends up being awful, at least we found out. I don’t want to say, ‘That probably would’ve been awful,’ I want to be sure that it was awful before we move on.”
It’s been five years since your last album, Only Ghosts. How’d that chunk of time influence the band?
Geez, you know…it’s so hard to see five years from any kind of objective perspective! I think we’re getting a little older, so our personalities have become a little more rigid, and I think that’s normal. On the new record, I was able to bring in some guitar ideas that are a little…I was like, I don’t know if the guys were gonna go for this one! But we still all love making music, it’s still fun. It sounds different from any of our other records. But hopefully they all do, from each other.
Was there any track specifically that you think expanded what a Red Fang song could be?
I think “Days Collide” comes to mind — it’s sort of a lament. It’s a melancholy sort of thing. And if you strip it down to its root element, it’s this drone-y thing in G, and it kind of hangs out there. I think sometimes you don’t have to have these grand ideas — it’s everyone’s take on it that makes something amazing. That guitar part was this sort of sad, lilting little thing…and then we Red Fangified it! It gets going. And it’s fun to go, Well, where else could this go?
Is that a common part of the process — bring in an unusual part, and then bam, give it a dose of the ol’ Red Fang?
Well, yeah! It’s unavoidable, and I really try to see the potential in everything. There are some parts in songs where I’m like, Get out of here! I think one of the most notable moments for me is the instrumental break in “Wires” — Aaron came up with that, that guitar sort of thing. And I was like, ‘What the fuck? What are we doing here, is this a spaghetti western?’ But I got a sick sort of pleasure out of it, and said, ‘Welp…alright…’ Now I don’t think the song could work without it! So I try to keep that in mind. There’s a song “Behind the Light,” where when we were writing it, I didn’t have an idea for Aaron’s vocal scheme on it, and I thought, Well, this is just a dismal failure, but everyone else seems on board. I’ve written my part, so I will do it, and maybe we’ll never play this song again, or never, ever live, I don’t know. And then in studio it came to life, and I was like, Oh, I get it, this song is cool! But it took eight months from the time the idea was brought in until we recorded it, where I thought, Okay…this is awful. What’s the point in this? This is terrible. I love those eureka moments. Sometimes they keep me in the dark over there — I’m like, Hokay, I’ll play some power chords, see what happens.
That’s big of you, to let a part you don’t like or understand ride for eight months. A lot of musicians would’ve just kiboshed it.
I think that’s one of the big keys in our songwriting — having trust in each other. I came in with the basic song structure for “Malverde,” and Aaron went along with it, played his bass parts and everything. And then he came to me and said, It’s just all D. It’s so boring. This is terrible. And then we turned it into a song! We’ve all had those moments. We’ve also had moments where we thought it was going to be great and turned out terrible, so there’s no reason not to chase an idea down. Every idea has potential.
You guys worked with infamous nu-metal producer Ross Robinson on Only Ghosts, but now you’re back with your longtime producer Chris Funk. How’d that happen?
I think it was just circumstance. When we did Only Ghosts, that was such a cool experience, but we essentially moved to California for five weeks, and Ross was awesome and let us stay in his house. It was so immersive — wake up, walk down the strand and get coffee, and there you were in this box in his basement, sweating. It was 13 to 14 hour days. It was really only grueling for Ross, because he was constantly at the controls. He got super sick and just kept going and going. It was great, because we had that environment and I’m glad we got that experience…but realistically, with families and things, we couldn’t do that again. We need to stay in town and make sure our lives don’t fall apart in the meantime. We tour a lot, but it was weird to sit put for five weeks somewhere that’s not my house! But I really enjoy working with Funk, and he’s running a studio in town called Halfling that’s a really cool environment — it’s really conducive to creativity, lots of open space. So we were comfortable with him, and he was still down to do it!
The outro to the track “Fonzie Scheme” features a cello arrangement. Is there a Red Fang symphony album in the works? S&RF?
Oh, that would be super cool! No plans there. Well, we have talked about it — doing something, collaborating with [Kyleen King] who did the strings on Fonzie Scheme, who’s from the Portland Cello Project.
How’d that come about?
Chris Funk was in contact with them, and he was like, ‘Let’s have strings on this song!’ And we were like, ‘…okey dokey, you’re the producer. Let’s see what happens!’ And it was cool. They came in and put down their tracks over the course of two hours. It was fun, sort of doing fantasy sports with the string arrangements. Like, ‘Ooh, what if you did this?’ I sort of approached it from a cartoon perspective. But it was fun doing that — they had come with those arrangements, but it was fun tweaking them in the studio. One of the concerns we had was, is this our adult contemporary moment? Is this where we jump the shark? Fucking string section, SHIT! But it works in the song. It’s not “November Rain” or anything. I hope we don’t even have a “November Rain” in us — that was the death of rock and roll for me, that ideology. Let’s do something so we can sell Bic lighters! Disgusting.
I also read that the drums were recorded in a drained pool. What was that like, and was loading in and out of an empty pool as much of a bitch as it sounds?
It seems that way! I stayed the fuck out of it, man! The older I get, the more phobic I get in general, but I just did not want to get in the pool. It’s real deep. But yeah, we lived right next to that pool, it was right outside the studio door. John [Sherman, drums] was a trooper — loading drums into a pool that was, I don’t know, 12, 15 feet deep. It’s a huge pool! And it sounded amazing! At the time, I was like, The whole record, every song, in the pool! The natural reverb effect on “Unreal Estate,” the drum intro — I think that’s just what we captured from room mics in the pool, and it just sounds massive. But that doesn’t really work for fast songs. If you’re going to play something in a virtual cave, you want the drums to have space to breathe. There’s no reason for the snare to have a four-second reverb tail if you’re going to be hitting the snare every .3 seconds. But yeah, I was jazzed about how it sounded. There’s lots of moments where that sort of augments the drumming. We didn’t record the first tracks in the pool, but we knew we were getting in the pool eventually. And by we, I mean the royal we, meaning John!
How much of the album was written/recorded/made during the pandemic?
Well, people will be happy to know that this was in the bag well before the quarantine came, or there was even talk of the coronavirus. Any kind of angst on this album isn’t because we hate Zoom. There’s no anti-Zoom fight song. Which could, I think, at this point, be a breath of fresh air for everyone.
It’s good to know you were this weird and angry before the whole world went to Hell.
We’re naturally this grumpy! That said, I’ve said before, it’s a moody record, but it’s not really any more moody than anything else we’ve done. But I skew toward angst, because as far as an outlet, I’m really very mild-mannered. If anything, I am overly pleasant. So I get to be my worst self in this band. Just basically channel all the stuff I cover up with pleases and thank yous all day long.
Well, bad news, now that might be the headline. ‘Red Fang: Too Pleasant for Metal.’
That’s intriguing! How pleasant could they be?
Red Fang’s Arrows comes out June 4th on Relapse, and is available for preorder.
Words by Chris Krovatin