This past week saw Pennsylvania-based metalcore outfit August Burns Red hit the stage at The Assembly in Cape Town for the second, and final, show of their whistle-stop tour of South Africa – the first time the band have set foot on African soil. The Grammy-nominated five-piece also played the main stage of this year’s Oppikoppi Festival, taking the opportunity to experience some of our country’s natural wildlife at the same time. CULTURESHOCK caught up with guitarists JB Brubaker and Brent Rambler post-soundcheck in the Mother City to chat about preconceptions, creativity in metalcore, longevity and more.
CULTURESHOCK: Welcome to Cape Town. By the looks of it on your social media, you guys have been enjoying South Africa a lot. How has it been so far?
JB Brubaker: Oh yeah, we’re having a ball. It’s beautiful, especially here in Cape Town, and we had a great time up north as well. It’s not as pretty to look at but the wildlife is incredible and it’s stuff that we’ve never seen anywhere else in the world, so it’s been a very…we’re not working now, you know? This is like a holiday for us.
CS: Did you have any preconceptions about South Africa before you came here that may have changed now that you’ve been here for a couple of days?
Brent Rambler: We’ve only had good things relayed to us, as far as that goes. I had no idea when we booked this …someone said “oh you guys are staying in a lodge for the first couple of days” and I was like “oh okay, I wonder what that is?” and we got there and we were just like “holy crap”. It was incredible.
JB: It was like a four-star hotel, not like a “lodge”. It was a resort, they put us up in a resort.
Brent: Yeah, it was amazing.
JB: We’ve been getting pampered, it was weird.
Brent: Yeah (laughs).
JB: We’re not, you know…thank you, you guys went above and beyond. I’d say I had, I guess, I’d heard Joburg can be a pretty dangerous place to just like, run around in…and I can’t say I had that debunked ‘cos we didn’t go there (laughs). We only got to the airport and then we drove further north so I don’t know how accurate that is. Our local tour manager told us, you know, Cape Town’s pretty chilled but if you walk around at night, stay in a group…don’t go alone or you might get mugged. But he’s like “I’ve never been mugged in my life”, so…I think it seems like a city.
Brent: It seems like a normal, standard city as far as that goes.
JB: Don’t walk around New York City in a bad neighbourhood at night either!
Brent: You’ll probably be mugged.
Brent: I think that people where we’re from are also in denial about how any city in the States, you don’t want to walk around at night either. You have the same things everywhere, city to city. There’s good and there’s bad.
JB: Crime’s gonna happen. I feel like the government too, the local government…for instance, I went on CDC.com (our travel advisory-type site for America)…
Brent: You always check if you can drink the water.
JB: Yeah, and they’re like, “Don’t! Drink bottled water” but we’ve been drinking the water from the hotels and everyone’s fine. I went to some South Africa website and they’re like “they have high standards for the drinking water in Cape Town”. I have a feeling I’m drinking higher quality water than at my house at home. (laughs) I really do. It tastes great, I’ve been drinking it all the time.
CS: You guys have been touring a lot this year – a big European festival summer tour, your whirlwind visit here and then a two-month US/Canada headlining tour coming up as well. Some of you guys are married and some are getting married soon (drummer Matt Greiner is engaged) – how tough is it to be away so often from those you love whilst doing something that you love for a living?
JB: For me, it’s the hardest part about what we do. I’ve missed my wife a lot on this trip simply because I wish she could be here to do these things with me, because this feels like a vacation and we’re doing such cool stuff and seeing such an amazing place. It feels weird that I’m not sharing that experience with her ‘cos usually this would be the kind of thing that we’d want to do together. We both understand how it is, that this is my job…like, on this trip I’ve almost felt a little bit guilty about how cool it’s been because it’s not fair that she’s, you know, sitting at home waiting while I’m out here having a blast. That kinda sucks for her, but that’s just one of those things.
Brent: They knew what they were getting into (everyone laughs).
CS: I haven’t seen this question asked anywhere around the internet, and it’s always something that’s struck me about you guys – your image is quite different from any other band in the metal scene. You’re not all dressed in black with long hair, pointy guitars, even eyeliner. Did you ever felt pressured to “look more metal” early on or even now when you play these huge metal festivals around the world?
Brent: I sometimes think that when we go on stage at festivals like that, people at first don’t take us very seriously because they don’t know who we are and are like “this is not going to be a metal band”, but that’s really as far as it’s gone. I remember, maybe when we first started, we had an A&R guy who liked the fact that we looked like this. I forget the exact quote, but he said, “You’d probably sell more records if you just wore black, but that’s not what you do”. And it’s just who we are. I don’t know. I said this in an interview in Germany and the guy seemed offended, but I said that metal & metal music is not a lifestyle, it’s just what you personally listen to as far as what you enjoy.
CS: And that didn’t go down too well?
Brent: I could tell he was just like “I’ve been living my whole life by the book of metal” pretty much. To us, we play the music that we like to listen to (especially when this band started, we’d listen to metal bands) and sure, we had a ton of friends who listen to this style of music and we’ve maybe made friendships because of that, but at the end of the day it’s a style of music. It shouldn’t dictate your life. We’re normal dudes playing music that we enjoy.
CS: We won’t see you wearing eyeliner and face paint anytime soon then.
Brent: We’ve talked to bands who dress like that; we were at a festival and we asked a guy from one of those bands with makeup “how long does this take?”. He was like “two hours before every show” and we were like, “no thanks”.
JB: And he doesn’t take it off, he wears it to bed and stuff because he doesn’t want to redo it.
CS: That must be gross on summer tours like Warped Tour when it’s all hot and sweaty.
Brent: Yeah, he was saying it’s terrible then. He said it gets all over his clothes and I think that’s why those guys originally started to wear black ‘cos it was really popular to wear black paint and white paint and things like that. If you’re wearing white shirts you’re going to have makeup pasted all over it…I dunno.
JB: Sounds like a burden. I’m glad we don’t have to worry about that.
Brent: Maintaining an image seems to be really hard. I’m glad I just get to go to the store and buy clothes …
JB: … buy what we want and wear it on stage.
CS: You mentioned earlier that when this band started out you were listening to a lot of metal, and your songs still have a lot of traditional metal elements to them – things like breakdowns, double kick, harmonised lead guitars and so on. Over the last two albums, I’ve noticed you including a lot more different styles of music into parts of your songs, sometimes with different instrumentation as well to reflect that. Is that a conscious effort to be different or a natural result of you five growing as musicians over time?
JB: Well, it’s certainly a combination of the two. There’s only so much you can do within the box that is metal, and after doing six full-lengths like that you’re naturally going to want to start doing things differently or you’re going to be writing records that sound the same. I’m sure there are people who would say our records sound the same already, and that’s with us trying to do different things. But, I think as we’ve gotten older and our influences and musical interests have changed as well, we’ve wanted to incorporate some of the things that we’re into now, you know. I don’t think any of us are going home and putting on metal all the time, you know what I mean? So it’s just one of those things where it does happen organically, but I also like that it makes us sound a little bit different than the pack of metal bands. I want to stand out, it’s important.
CS: Do you still pay attention to any of the other bands in your genre?
JB: I’ll admit that, as I’ve gotten older, the new wave of metalcore bands is not my cup of tea and I don’t listen to them. I keep up in that I’m aware of what’s going on, but I’m not recreationally listening to it stoked, you know. I’m listening to it more as research, yeah.
CS: Right. Moving away from metal and metalcore, you guys have often been labelled as a Christian band, and when you put out music I imagine that people expect certain things or certain behaviour from you. Do you feel that this label is a blessing or a curse?
JB: It’s certainly not a curse.
Brent: Well …
JB: I guess maybe in Europe (laughs).
Brent: Yeah. It’s maybe been both at times…when we signed to Solid State Records, we signed to that label not because it was a Christian label. It was flat-out the only label that gave us an offer, and they were the indie music label at the time, their roster was ridiculous. It was huge – Underoath, Norma Jean, mewithoutYou, The Chariot, all these really big bands were on Solid State Records. We were like, this is great, this is a really big label and they want to sign us. And it was like, that or some tiny little local label, that’s all we had, that was the only other offer we had. We really liked the guy who approached us, and that’s ultimately why we went with them.
Granted, as a band, we’ve always tried to be a positive influence. We do take it upon ourselves, and personally, to be a better influence than a lot of bands are; I think it’s kind of irresponsible to go on stage and tell people that, like, they can do whatever they want and it’s not going to matter – no, that’s not true. So, I think with Solid State you had a very built-in fanbase; you had people that only listened to Solid State Records …
JB: … because they were not wanting to listen to anything that wasn’t Christian, quote unquote.
Brent: Yeah, so you had that, right off the bat you have this springboard of fans. So that right there was a big blessing, it was great to have that built-in fanbase right from the start.
Brent: But then when you get over into Europe and some other places where they very much look down upon Christianity and things like that, especially in the metal world, that’s when it becomes a little bit of a curse I guess. You have people who would never give the band a chance – ever.
JB: Like, “Oh, they’re a Christian band? That’s dumb. They can’t be ‘Christian metal’, that doesn’t exist. They can’t be real”.
Brent: That’s the thing. That’s why I think, like, sometimes in Europe they take metal too seriously. It needs to be about this topic, it needs to sound like this, and that’s metal. But I think for us, personally, like I said…like, I write most of the lyrics in the band and I can honestly tell you that very few of my lyrics have ever been penned to be strictly a religious topic.
JB: I actually think “religious” is pretty gross right now and there’s a lot of conflict … I think it’s the cause of a lot of the problems in this world, and I’m not a big fan of it. We certainly in the band have different views – I mean, there was a time when we all would have been on the same page about what we believed, and that’s not the case anymore. It’s not a source of conflict within the band, it’s just…we’ve been a band for 13 years and we’ve grown in different directions.
Brent: If you don’t change in 13 years, there’s something wrong.
CS: Yeah, that’s very true.
Brent: I did another interview for these shows before I left, over the phone, and he asked me about Christianity and what I will show my kid as far as movies and things like that, and how it aligns with that. I just kind of said, personally, I can’t say that anything in my life aligns with the current Christian views because, for me ,when I grew up I went to church It was all about love and accepting people and bringing new people into your life and treating them well. It doesn’t seem to be how it’s going these days.
JB: It makes me cringe.
Brent: Christianity [in the US] has been taken over by a political party and various political parties around the world and turned into what they want it to be and nothing to do with how it’s supposed to be.
For me to say that I’m a Christian right now…it’s painful. I don’t want to say it, because I don’t agree with the vast majority of how it is today and how it’s seen and what it stands for right now.
JB: We should say that we do not speak for all five members of the band; not every one of us would agree with that. I don’t want to say that’s ABR’s stance on it. We’re different people. We’re just not the same people we were in 2004 when we started – we were kids then.
CS: … which is good.
Brent: We’d seen none of the world, we’d talked to no-one, we had the box we lived in.
CS: You hadn’t stayed in a lodge in the African bush yet.
JB: Just wait ’til you get to hear our next album, my goodness. (everyone laughs) Sample an elephant screech…
CS: Alright – I want to talk to you about baseball …
JB: I’d love to!
CS: I know you’re a big baseball fan; are you as well, Brent?
Brent: Not as much, but I do enjoy baseball.
CS: Were you a good player back in the day, JB?
JB: I was not – I didn’t play. I actually played tennis during baseball season in high school, but ironically I play more now as an adult than I ever did as a kid. We do a couple games every summer where we just get a bunch of guys and play baseball at a local field, and it’s a lot of fun. Brent plays…
Brent: …and then the next day you feel horrible (everyone laughs).
JB: The next day you’re all sore. I’m not a good player but I really love the game.
CS: Let’s imagine then, for a second, that you’re actually an excellent player – potentially the greatest that’s ever played the game of baseball – and it came down to you choosing between being a professional musician playing to packed crowds each night, or being a pro ball player. Tough decision?
JB: (laughs) Well, I’ve done the music thing for a long time, so the prospect of being a professional athlete…it’s like a “grass is greener” scenario.
CS: Let’s be honest: there’s a bit more money in professional sports.
JB: There’s so much more money in professional sports. So much more money.
Brent: They probably make more in an inning than we make in a year.
JB: I mean, if you’re the best? Yeah. Guys are getting $300 million contracts now to play for ten years. I haven’t made anywhere close to that in 13 years of playing music. Can you believe it? (laughs)
Brent: Who would’ve thought metal wouldn’t pay me millions? (laughs)
JB: That would be cool – but I’m past my prime, let’s be honest.
CS: 13 years of playing in this band – you guys have achieved a lot. Grammy nomination, touring all over the world, loyal fanbase, albums, live DVDs, even a Christmas album – what do you feel is left to be accomplished? What still drives you to make music? Do you see yourselves onstage in 20 years, such as a band like the Descendents still is?
Brent: I hope so.
JB: Yeah, if people still care we’ll definitely do it. I mean, this is a dream job and we’d love to do it as long as it makes sense, and I don’t think the drive to create new music is ever going to go away.
Brent: Being in the studio is fun; like, it’s stressful but when you hear your finished product and you hear everything come together it’s exciting, it’s awesome, it’s a blast. And then there’s a lot of different things that make each individual step exciting. This is our first time ever coming to this country and it’s been awesome, and then there’s some other countries and places we’d like to go back to and that’s going to be exciting; like Alaska and Hawaii, we’ve only been there once. There’s a lot of things like that that really keep you going and, like you said, you want to create new music and see what you can do better and to constantly meet new fans and new people.
JB: I want to leave a legacy. I want August Burns Red to be a band that people remember; like the Descendents are totally that band, and there’s a lot of bands in the punk world that are like that. The genre that we’re playing In isn’t old enough to have bands like that yet, but I feel like if we are able to continue writing albums that people find to be quality and are able to keep touring the world…I feel like we’re going to become a band who can kind of be remembered as something special for that style of music. That would be my goal at this point, I think, because we have (like you said) done a lot, but I think the legacy of what this band is is important to me now and I want to be remembered for being special and important for metalcore, you know…for however long metalcore exists.
CS: Let’s finish off on a fun question. If you could replace a character and star in any movie or TV series (past or present), who would it be and why?
JB: OK, I got one. I would be Jim Halpert from The Office.
Brent: Oh, that’s good.
JB: I like him, and I wouldn’t want to be Michael ‘cos he’s such an idiot…
JB: …and Dwight is such an oddball weirdo. Jim is actually cool and, you know, he’s got a stable wife in Pam. He’s got the good life, he’s still funny, he likes sports and stuff, so yeah – I could see myself falling into that role.
CS: Great, nice answer. Brent?
Brent: Walter White.
Brent: Just the quintessential, most…no-one would ever expect…
JB: … the unassuming bad-ass?
CS: Do you feel that’s the role you play in the band and in life already, that of the unassuming bad-ass?
Brent: Sure (everyone laughs). That’s the thing, every time you tell someone, “I play guitar in a metal band” they’re like “…what do you really do?” So, his character in that show is just so awesome, like everything about it. It was great, and the fact that he did…sure, he did something horrible, but at first he was only trying to help his family (laughs). Then he just turned into a total bad-ass. I’ll never forget that scene, one of the first bad-ass things he does, when he goes to Tuco’s place and he blows up the whole top floor and just walks out. You’re just like, “so awesome!”
CS: Well, that’s it – thanks so much for taking the time to chat. Enjoy the show tonight.
JB: Thank you!
Interview: Gareth Allison
Pictures: Job Thomas