Death is a topic that most bands won't touch all that often when it comes to music. Death metal bands will do it, but in a way that's more based in the lore of "horror" and fiction. Massachusetts' own The Acacia Strain take this a step further and explore the philosophy of it throughout their honest, guttural, heavy-hitting music. The quintet are touring on Gravebloom, which is perhaps their darkest and most honest record yet.
We sat down with Griffin Landa (bass) and Devin Shidaker (guitar) when the band came through Mountain View, CA on this summer's Vans Warped Tour to talk about the making of Gravebloom, the concepts and themes talked about on the album, and why it's okay to sometimes not feel okay.
With “Gravebloom” being the newest record you guys have, not only is the sound much heavier, but the lyrics and the topics are much darker. The topic of death is brought up throughout this record (as well as a number of your guys’ records), but when did you guys become comfortable with talking about that subject matter in your music?
Devin: Part of it, I think, is that death is a part of life and everyone is going to go through it. Everyone has experienced it in some way. Everyone has someone that they know has died. It’s an interesting topic. We love death metal and stuff like that, but a lot of other bands will approach it from more of a “horror movie” aspect. I think we talk more about the philosophical part of death.
Griffin: Especially with this record. We went into it more trying to achieve a feeling, rather than “this is exactly what we’re going to talk about”, because even Vincent (Bennett, vocalist) doesn’t write until the music is pretty much done. He just writes constantly. It’s not like he’s got the music and it’s not like he’s going like, “I’m writing the lyrics to this song about this”. It’s more [that] he’s thinking about stuff, all day, every day, and he just writes it down.
Devin: If you listen to the record, you’ll get the feel of how the songs are. He won’t write for a specific thing, he’ll write more along the lines of “this will fit with this music”.
From your guys’ point of view, when it comes to working on guitar tones and honing in your sound, getting that feeling you had worked on, how extensive is that process for you?
Devin: It’s pretty extensive.
Griffin: Yeah, very.
Devin: Especially when we’re in the studio, because we’re shooting out a bunch of amps against each other to try and see what works. We’re tuned so low that you have to have that tone right, otherwise it will be too muddy or it just won’t cut through. You want to have something that has a really tight attack to it. With bass, on the record before this one (Coma Witch), it’s barely there. We didn't want that again. We wanted the bass to be right there with the guitars. They’re both tuned low, but they’re different frequencies. And the bass has such a punchy tone to it, it almost sounds like a chain smacking against a wall. (laughs)
Griffin: Finding the right tone for a band that’s tuned this low is pretty tough, but we’re all kind of gear nerds, so we’re all trying to find the best tone. It’s ever-changing, live and in-studio. It’s cool to just try stuff and see what does and doesn’t work. On this record, we pretty much used my live rig, and it’s fuzz pedals. For guitars, we probably shot out maybe ten or twelve amps.
Devin: Yeah, I think the main tone was a VHD Pitbull and a 5150 Tube.
I read that the record was done for a full year before you had announced it, and I think Vincent had said it was because you guys wanted everything down to the artwork to be totally perfect. Had you guys ever let an album sit that long before its announcement? During that time, did you guys make any changes to the overall record (mixing, mastering, etc.?)
Devin: I think it got released pretty much a year after we had finished the recording process. There was like a month or two of mixing and mastering. Once that was done, we probably had about nine or ten months of waiting.
Griffin: We got the art about four months ago?
Devin: We got the art late last year, but then you’ve got to factor in time for pressing vinyl. There’s like nine plants that do it. Some of them are very small. And now Record Store Day is a thing, major labels are starting to [sell vinyl] again, so those wait times are huge. With Warped Tour coming up, if we had released a record early, we couldn’t tour because we would be in conflict with Warped dates. And if we toured too early, we wouldn’t have enough time to promote the record.
Griffin: We were kind of stuck, with multiple different factors coming into play. But you know, it is what it is, and it’s out now, so we’re all excited and stoked on it.
Additionally, it’s not like you guys just go to a record plant and say “oh here’s our record, press it on black”. You guys make very colorful releases, between the artwork and the actual color of the vinyl itself.
Griffin: I think there’s five different variants and colors of vinyl [for Gravebloom]. I think we each picked two colors, threw them all into a pool, and then we picked out the best ones. With this record, the color scheme on the vinyl was what it was originally going to be. We’re a band that likes color themes as well. Coma Witch is green, Wormwood is blue, and this one is purple. But the CD is blue. So there’s multiple color aspects with this one.
Going off of what you said, your band makes use of vibrant colors. With every record, there’s always one primary color that you can think of right away. Would you say that the artwork, whether it’s the drawing or the colors used, correlate with any themes on the records, or is it more just for looks?
Devin: I think it’s more because it looks cool, and it also works with our live shows. A lot of bands have really crazy light shows, but for us, when there’s a lot of strobe lights going off, I really don’t know what’s going on. (laughs) So for example, when we did the Coma Witch tour, we just had green lights, a wash of color all over the stage. This is the first tour for the record so there’s not really lights since it’s outside, but the purple and the color swirls from the artwork are on our cabinets, backdrop, and kick drum.
What does the Gravebloom represent in terms of the theme of the record?
Griffin: Essentially, I think what [Vincent] was getting at was when someone dies, something becomes alive in its place. So on your grave, if there’s a plant blooming out of it, your death represents this life coming up.
You guys worked with Will Putney of Fit For An Autopsy as a producer. In terms of working in the studio, would you say that it was an advantage that he was in a familiar touring band? What was the creative atmopshere like?
Griffin: It was good. Will gets the band, for sure. With this record, this is the first full-length that I helped write and record on. Me, Devon, and Kevin [drummer] got together at our studio in Iowa for about a week and a half or so, about a month before we went in to record. We got into the studio and pretty much wrote for a full week.
Devin: We had a bunch of ideas coming into that. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always noticed if you sit at home and write a whole song yourself, and then send it in, it’s going to get changed. It’s nice for us to have ideas, then bring them in and flesh them out. When you write a whole song, you get kind of attached to it.
Griffin: We went into this with “write riffs, not songs”, so that we could piece things together. We went into this recording process with full songs. We didn’t change much in the studio, so what Will really helped us with was finding the tones of the record, like “hey, change this little part here,” or “let’s mix this up here”. Will’s a good friend of the band. He’s not trying to change the band at all; he’s trying to make us better, which is awesome.
That’s a great dynamic to have, and it’s nice to have someone that knows what your about. Better than a stranger coming in and saying “so what’s this death metal thing you guys are doing?”
Devin: Yeah and I’ve been in that situation before, where you’ve worked with someone you’ve never met before. They’ve done heavy bands, but they get almost formulaic. You just go, “this sounds like all of the other bands that you’ve recorded, and I don’t want to do that.”
What kind of message, if you have one, would you like fans to walk away with after listening to Gravebloom?
Devin: Nothing matters. Everyone is going to die at some point. Do whatever the hell you want with your life. It doesn’t matter. We’re not really a band that’s like…we’re not an uplifting band. If anything, we’re the negativity. It helps people, where they listen and go “oh, I don’t have to cheer up or be happy. I can be upset. It’s alright”.
Griffin: With our band in general, and with this last record…a good way to put it is that our band is a good outlet for your anger so that you don’t go and do something stupid. If you’re angry, listen to the music that helps you through that. We don’t want to write music to make people more angry. Heavy music, for a lot of people, helps them to be less angry, which I think is good.
What does music mean to you?
Griffin: Pretty much the same; it’s an outlet. Everyone in this band uses this as an outlet. I’m a very happy person, but when I play guitar, for some reason it’s not happy. Usually. (laughs). It’s a good outlet that I’m lucky enough to have found.
Devin: I see that there’s two kinds of music. Not genres, but music that is art, and music that is being made as a product. No matter what it sounds like, I don’t like the music that is made as a product, because there’s…there’s no outlet, there’s no feeling behind it. It’s just “this is what’s going to sell records”. I don’t give a shit about that. I want to make the stuff that I need to make, not because I want to, but because I have to. It’s an outlet. If I sit at home and I don’t play guitar or I don’t write for awhile, I start to lose my mind. I’m bad with words; I can’t write poetry. I can kind of draw, but I don’t really like to because it takes too long. But I can pick up a guitar, play, and it feels great.