Fed Through the Teeth Machine: a chat with The Red Chord's Guy Kozowyk

Talking with Guy Kozowyk, vocalist for The Red Chord, was probably the longest interview I've ever done. Clocking in at an hour, we talked music, art, tours, lyrics, and a whole lot more besides.

 

I was just about to head out to the kitchen for a pre-interview cup of tea when I got a phone call from Metal Blade asking if I could do The Red Chord interview early. Having just finished a previous interview and had all my gear ready to go, I said sure thing. Guy Kozowyk was in the office at the time so we started chatting... and could've quite literally talked for the whole hour instead of doing the interview.

When I said to him that we should probably talk business, all he said was: 'if you want. But you don't have to. I'm probably more interesting than our album.'

The Red Chord had been lined up to hit Australia in early 2009; but when the cost of flights sky-rocketed, the whole thing fell through at the eleventh hour.

'So now,' Kozowyk said, 'Australia's gonna have to come to us.'

'All of us?' I asked him.

'Why not?' he laughed. 'You could fit the whole thing somewhere in America. We have that many people that aren't even supposed to be here. So yeah, you guys could blend in just fine. I don't mind having a whole bunch of people running around with funny Australian accents,' he went on.

Before we did get into the bulk of the interview about The Red Chord's work, I talked to Kozowyk about fellow band member, Mike "Gunface" McKenzie's side project - which was purely by accident. I had written the questions for Mike and for a while didn't realise who I was talking to. Oops. Embarrassing much?

Regardless, Kozowyk was happy to talk about McKenzie's side project All Rivers. In fact, he sounded a bit excited about it on McKenzie's behalf. Kozowyk's main surprise came from hearing the name of All Rivers; he told me that previously the band was called Stomach Earth.

'Stomach Earth was the original name, which I kinda prefer to tell you the truth,' he qualified.

Kozowyk describes Stomach Earth as slow, almost 'ridiculous' doom with 'secret passage' vocals - slow and scary, but still more metal than goth doom. That it has the vibe of Esoteric or Shape of Despair; and that it is almost the antithesis of The Red Chord.

'If you listen to Red Chord as, like, a mosh band or something like that, you're sorta missing the whole, like, atmospheric sort of - I don't know, obviously like Immolation - sort of like, frightening chord death metal that we sort of built our sound on,' Kozowyk explained. 'I guess if you slow that down to, like, a fraction of the speed, you'd get something similar to what he's doing with All Rivers or Stomach Earth or whatever he's calling it right now.'

Prior to talking to The Red Chord, I was asked by a reader of Metal as Fuck to ask whether they would be getting a replacement guitarist, to fill the gap that Jonny Fay leaves behind. Knowing that they wouldn't be, but also knowing that the band had stated that it was due to the economic downturn, I had to ask if the economic reason was for real.

'Ah - it can be,' Kozowyk said warily. 'Well, yeah, it's kinda what we were running with. You know, everyone else is downsizing so why shouldn't we? But the reality of it, we weren't getting along - like, we got along really well with Jonny Fay, who was on the Prey for Eyes record. The kid who was filling in after that, who was never really officially in the band, we didn't get along with him quite as well,' he went on. 'Well, honestly, we kinda figured out how to do everything as a four-piece; we picked up some tricks off of bands like Converge, Coliseum and other, one-guitar player, bands. About, like how to make your sound uh, full, while doing the one-guitar thing.'

It turns out that this has been a big plus for The Red Chord, Kozowyk explaining that the overall attitude of the band has been a lot better, that they get along better as a band. He also pointed out that having an extra space in the van makes travelling more comfortable, not to mention that it is nowhere near so difficult financially when you only have four members to pay travel for, rather than five.

'You know, there's not as much money to go around, and you take that extra mouth to feed out, it definitely makes it a little bit easier,' he explained. 'So it's definitely saved us a little bit.'

There is one thing that people have been wondering about The Red Chord turning into just a four-piece: whether it affects how fat their sound is. It is an issue that many journalists have enquired about and, more to the point, is one that particularly irritates Kozowyk because of the reality of recording.

'Ok, so here's the thing,' he said. 'Now this is something that's been driving me nuts a little bit. On the record - now, I don't care, you could be a one-guitar-player band, chances are you're never gonna have just one guitar player on the record. Like, you'll have one guitar, somebody plays it all, but the reality is that that - you know, Pantera had one guitar but they still had rhythm guitar tracks. So it's been driving me crazy because everyone's like "oh yeah well it still sounds like you have more than one guitar". Chances are there's parts of the record that have four guitars layered on it.'

As Kozowyk went on, how a record sounds is not an indication of how a band is going to pull off a live set. One of the things he told me he's been doing has been giving people a bit of shit about it.

'It's like, "have you ever recorded an album"? Because I mean, just because you record, like, violin on your record, or saxophone, or whatever other stupid shit, it doesn't mean that you have to do that live,' he explained. 'Like, you just do it!'

Kozowyk has found it frustrating in some ways because it's demonstrates how little people understand the dichotomy between recording and what is played live. But what they've been doing live is looping the guitar for the rhythm tracks, and playing solos over the top.

'Our guitar player has a loop pedal, and we have four cabs or whatever, two cabs on each side. And the top cab on stage left is muted. And the other three cabs are all live the whole show. Now he has an A-B switch or whatever, so you hit one and you can be playing out of stage right; you hit the other one, you're playing out of the one cab on stage left. But then, whilst he's playing it or whatever he has, like, a loop pedal where he literally plays the part, and then hits the loop pedal and the switch he's just played is the rhythm track. And when we're doing the solos, he's actually going and playing over his own rhythm track that he just recorded live on stage. It's pretty bad-ass.'

As Kozowyk explained, when they go into the solos, they don't have a thin sound; they can actually pull it off, because they're still playing both tracks.

'I gotta say, Mike really steps up because I don't think that most guitar players really think to do that,' Kozowyk mused. 'Learning gear, I think, is pretty essential.

Part of The Red Chord's ability to do that comes from the fact they've kind of acclimatised to their status as a four-piece, and also from their desire to still have that fat sound. Picking up tricks on the way is a natural part of that progression.

Besides all of the other logistics pertaining to the maintenance of a five-piece, Kozowyk told me that things are generally a lot tighter in The Red Chord camp these days. They've found that it is easier for Mike to think riffs up himself than it is to have another guitar player coordinate with him.

Additionally, not having to go and teach somebody else the same song amounted to making the writing process for Fed Through the Teeth Machine much smoother. Not having to sit there and teach someone else the riff has made writing a bit more efficient, time-wise.

While The Red Chord worked with tape for their first recording, to grab hold of that raw sound. As their material's gotten more technical, and as recording technology has improved, The Red Chord's sound has just sort of turned into what it is. Kozowyk said that the difference in the sound probably isn't that significant.

That efficiency translates through to the studio. As Kozowyk pointed out, there aren't tens of thousands of dollars around for bands to spend in the studio at the moment. Having less members also enables them to make the best use of that time.

The Red Chord has never actually had a producer, but Fed Through the Teeth Machine is also the first album on which the band has actively stated 'produced by The Red Chord'.

'There was definitely some debate with our old guitar player Jonny Fay who recorded the record. He was really hoping that he would get producer credits,' Kozowyk stated. 'And the reality was, none of our records have ever been produced by anybody. It's always been produced by The Red Chord.'

Kozowyk went on to talk about how getting a producer in for The Red Chord isn't something that they would necessarily think about doing. As he explained to me, if you're a pop act like Justin Timberlake, then it makes sense for you to have a producer, in order for you to create music that will get you sales. The Red Chord also like to be in control of what they produce and don't want to have to spend more time in the studio than they have to, to get the results that they want. It is, ultimately their music, which is really the whole point.

'We've always gone and said, ok we're gonna amount of time to write, and when we're done writing, we're gonna go in the studio. And we're gonna fucken - we're not gonna play games. We're gonna go in and we're gonna knock it out,' Kozowyk emphasised.

'If the songs are already written, and the lyrics are already written, because you told 'em to hit the tom and not the snare at that part, I mean, does that constitute production work?' Kozowyk went on. 'Does that constitute saying, like, ok well I change this beat in the song to the point where now it's a new song? To me that would be the work of, like, an engineer that cares about the way that the record sounds and less about, like, somebody coming in and writing the song. If you already have a song written and somebody says, “Yeah you should do that because it'll sound better”, you know there's a lot of stuff that we're just gonna say “thanks for the advice, but no, like, this is our music”.'

Fed Through the Teeth Machine was The Red Chord's highest Billboard Chart placement. When I asked Kozowyk whether the charting made the band feel warm and fuzzy, he asked if I meant charting in Australia. When I explained that no, nothing makes the charts in Australia except for pop, he got less excited.

'I wouldn't say it was that remarkable. I mean, honestly, I would've hoped it was a little bit more. We appreciate the support of the people who went out early and bought the record, and went the extra yard. I guess at this point I'm jaded. You know, the band's been around for ten years so nothing's really that shocking.'

As he explained, a chart position like that is kind of a numb sort of experience. He explained this in terms of bands that have come up from beneath them and suddenly make it big.

'Ok, for instance, when we played that show with Mastodon and Halo, here we are playing in the same place at the same time in front of 40 people, and then a few years later Mastodon's doin' 40,000 records in their first week and we don't sell 40,000 records in the course of our entire album cycle. It's kinda like “Oh. Oh yeah. Shit”.'

But at the same time, Kozowyk acknowledged that The Red Chord is not a very easy-to-swallow band. As he said, it's extreme music because it's not for everybody: it's extreme and it has its own little niche.

The very first record, the first pressing that The Red Chord had, was 1500 or 2000 copies, and that was their expectation. Then the first week out, it sold 3100. Looking back on their career so far, Kozowyk said that it's pretty interesting to see how far the band has actually come from then til now.

'But it's also been proportionate. Like, as we've done more and more stuff, like, I'm just excited that I keep doing this and that when I started the band, it was me and Mike, ten years ago now, our goals as a band were very humble.'

When these guys started out, they just wanted to play music; then they wanted to play music in front of people; then they wanted to play music in front of people and have people move around or sing along. Bit by bit they achieved these things. Eventually they began to hope they could go to other towns and do the same thing that happens at home; years later they found themselves on tour with Slipknot.

At the time when I spoke with Kozowyk, The Red Chord were on tour with GWAR and Job For A Cowboy; and given that GWAR is one of Kozowyk's all-time favourite bands, one of his life goals as a fifteen-year-old was to see GWAR. Talking about how amazing things are, Kozowyk got a bit excited.

'And here it is – we've played like, we're approaching, like, 200 shows or something crazy. With GWAR. This is our third trip out with them, and this trip is over the course of three months or something like that. It's kind of neat to think that bands I was influenced by, and the very first band to turn me on to death metal was Suffocation – the first band that made me wanna be in a death metal band was Suffocation. The fact that we can go out and play shows with Suffocation, or possibly do a tour with Suffocation; or, like, when we were in Europe last summer we came across Suffocation a coupla times and you look over and you're like, there's Frank Mullen watching me sing. It's like, that's the guy that made me turn around and wanna be in a death metal band.'

'Even if it's not the most glamorous lifestyle and we're not, like, making a killing and being rich or anything like that, we definitely still have a very punk-rock sort of mentality and we're just trying to make ends meet, pay our dues, do our thing. It's gratifying in the respect that a lot of the bands that made me wanna go and be in a band, now we're eligible for tours with them. Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse, Turmoil, Deadguy. They were part of my entire history of being a hardcore kid. Now all of a sudden these are the bands that we're sort of in league with.'

As Kozowyk told me, The Red Chord may even tour more than a lot of the bands that they grew up admiring, being able to count more than 2000 shows to date, with just four records. Especially with bands like Deadguy who may not ever have been touring full-time. Essentially, it strikes Kozowyk as incredible that he had a a desire to do a particular thing, and that that dream has come true.

The Red Chord are notorious for lyrics that have more than one meaning, that can't be taken at face value. As the lyricist for the band, much of Kozowyk's drive for writing good lyrics is embedded in a desire to not be the weakest link in the band. Surrounded by musicians who are all very talented and great at what they do, and not being a musician himself, Kozowyk feels very much that he has to be able to step up and, in a sense, prove to himself and other people, that his work has uniqueness and longevity.

As Kozowyk pointed out, it's very easy to fall into a pattern where the vocals are there because the band needs a vocalist, and not because the vocals are part of the backbone of a band and the band's identity. He also sees himself as being a writer before anything else to do with the band, which is why there is an elaborate story behind the vast majority of any lyrics that have made it to a Red Chord album, apart from some of the very earliest material.

It was the knowledge that the band's material would be taken at a national or international level which partly inspired Kozowyk to start taking his work as a lyricist a lot more seriously. And within that, is knowing that there are particular limitations within a genre and not wanting to rehash what another ninety or a hundred bands have done before.

'I don't think that there's any excuse to be a copycat when you're at the phase that we are,' Kozowyk stated. 'And the fact that we're doing the style of vocals and whatever, that's tying me to death metal, but lyrically speaking I can write about anything. So what's the point of spinning tyres and what's the point of doing the same old thing over and over and over?'

Kozowyk went on to say that whatever the band does, as a band they still want people to sing along at shows, they still want it to be extreme, and they still want it to be thought-provoking and catchy material.

'That's not always the easiest thing to do when you're trying to encompass all of that,' he said. 'I guess the fact that I'm not being called out on being the weak link in the chain makes me feel kinda good.'

For Fed Through the Teeth Machine in particular, the band didn't really want to give away what all the songs were about. There are so many twists and turns that they have in terms of the lyrics that the band wanted people to hear the material and form their own impressions about it without being guided by any particular statement or explanation from the band.

'What you think my lyrics are about is probably different, it's not like it's any less valid,' Kozowyk explained. 'I'm curious to hear what your ideas are about what you're hearing and what you're reading. In a lot of ways, we have a lot of kids that come up to us with Red Chord lyrics tattooed on their arm or something like that, saying “hey you guys got me through hard times and blah blah blah”, and they get some line, and I'm like “Oh. I don't wanna tell you what I wrote that about”,' he said. 'This applied to you because your friend passed away and what I was writing about was so far from that, that I wouldn't want to insult the person,' he laughed, 'about what the original meaning was or whatever'.

While Kozowyk has no problem telling people what a song is about if people are curious enough to ask, but he would prefer to pick somebody's brain to find out what they got out of it. He doesn't see that just because he wrote the lyrics that his own interpretation is any more valid than anyone else's.

'I really hope that that's something that we keep as a legacy,' he said. 'That the lyrics stay interesting and that the people are genuinely into it.'

In terms of art work, Kozowyk takes a strong part in helping to work up art concepts, and views artwork as being important to a release; the band chooses the artist that works on the material and they have the final say in terms of how things work out. For Fed Through the Teeth Machine, The Red Chord got in touch with someone they trusted, and briefed them on what they were after. When they saw sketches of basic ideas, the band was very impressed. While the band's original vision was different, the artist's creation does exactly what the band was trying to do with the rest of the release.

'When you have that sort of relationship with the artist, that you trust their judgement and stuff, it's kind of a refreshing thing that you can have somebody come in with a lot of ideas, and you can trust that at the end of the day it's gonna look good and be a reflection of the things you talked about,' Kozowyk said.

When I was talking with Kozowyk, he was sitting in the Metal Blade office, surrounded by art from Cannibal Corpse albums, and he was disappointed to hear that I hadn't received the art or the lyrics with the digital promo copy of Fed Through the Teeth Machine.

'Cannibal Corpse being the slasher version of what we're doing, and looking at that cover that ended up being censored, of Tomb of the Mutilated, obviously we're not that sort of band, we have nothing to do with the gore and we try to be as intelligent as we can be. But if you listen to Tomb of the Mutilated without looking at any of the visuals – just hear it for a random track or something – it does not have the same effectiveness as when you sit down with it and listen to it and have the lyrics and the album cover – it puts you in a certain mode,' he explained. 'That's the sort of thing that we're trying to do. And I hope that the people take it as an album with visuals and stuff to accompany it, and not just something that's a collection of MP3s or whatever. I feel like, when you take that stuff out of the equation, that you're losing something.'

To this end, The Red Chord are also talking about the idea of releasing material on vinyl, where they are able to pay much more attention to, and elaborate on, the layout.

As a person who grew up in the age of CDs and tapes, it saddens Kozowyk to see the nature of albums change so that a 'whole package' mentality isn't front and foremost; as he pointed out, you can have 20,000 MP3s, but they don't mean as much. And the scariest thing, as he said, is knowing that there are kids out there now who have never owned a CD. At the same time, though, this knowledge doesn't reduce the band's desire to make an impact on people with its whole sound and its artwork.

While The Red Chord have nothing worked out to get as far afield as Australia yet – their planned tour for early March 2009 fell through due to flights – they are actively working to try and get out here. I guess we'll just have to wait and see if they make it.

In the interim, their album Fed Through the Teeth Machine is out now on Metal Blade/Riot.