Chimaira's Rob Arnold talks touring, record labels and his top albums of the decade

For the lead guitarist in such an intense band, Rob Arnold is sure one calm, together dude...

It’s only 6 am in Perth, but quite a bit later in St Petersburg, Florida, where Rob Arnold is sitting on the tour bus that has been his home during Chimaira’s tour with Trivium. He reveals that there are three days left of the tour – ‘and then we’re homeward bound’, the guitarist sounding like he’s quite relishing the prospect. Not that the tour hasn’t been good. ‘The shows have been cool, we’re getting along with all the bands, the fans seem to be liking it, and it’s a great way to end out the year.’

Always a hard-working band, Chimaira’s latest non-stop touring schedule is in support of The Infection, released in April of 2009. Critically, the album has been well received, and it debuted at number 30 on the US charts, the highest of any Chimaira release. Rob is cautiously optimistic about the album’s commercial success.

‘These days it’s kinda hard to have expectations of what [an album is] gonna sell, because obviously everyone knows what’s going on in the market, but yeah we certainly are happy. We’re still alive and afloat and still doing it, there still seems to be a demand and everything, so these days all we can ask for is relevance.’

Other artists I’ve spoken to have found that while they don’t sell as many records, they get more touring opportunities and when they do play live, more people come along to their shows. Unfortunately this is not the case for Chimaira, Rob relating that they’ve found sales are down across the board.

‘From my experience – it all starts with the record sales. The more you sell there, the more tickets you’re gonna sell, and the more merchandise you’re gonna sell.’ He agrees that it’s a sad state of affairs, but there are no easy answers.

When Chimaira first started out, they were associated with the nu-metal scene to a certain extent. Later, they were often stuck with the metalcore label. Yet despite the backlashes against these tags, the band seems to have scraped through with their credibility and reputation intact. Rob puts this down to having a mindset and business approach based around longevity.

‘Instead of trying to be a one-hit wonder or a trend, we’ve kinda just done the same thing from day one: write music for ourselves, and hope that people are gonna like it.’ A strong work ethic and relentless touring – for ten years, no less - has helped the band make a name for themselves. As for the tendency for record labels to jump on trends– what Rob refers to as ‘the metalcores and the deathcores’ – he sees them as being merely sub-genres of metal in general.

‘It’s not that those bands aren’t looking at their business in the same way,’ he explains, ‘but usually in my opinion the pure metal bands are the ones that do have the longevity.’ It’s obvious that Rob considers Chimaira to be a ‘heavy metal’ band, first and foremost. ‘When asked, I say I’m a musician,’ he agrees. ‘And when they ask “oh, what do you play” then I say “heavy metal”.’

Not that the trends are a bad thing. ‘I‘m happy that everything’s happening for all the deathcore and metalcore bands because what it’s doing is promoting metal in general, and keeping metal alive, and turning more kids into metalheads, and so with that, all it does is help our band, and our longevity.’

I’m curious about the song-writing process. While the liner notes list individual writing credits for each song, the booklet also states ‘all music by Chimaira’. With six band members, there seems to be a definite danger of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

‘The main writing team of the band is Mark and I’, Rob explains. ‘Then Matt contributes quite a bit guitar-wise, and then the other guys fill in their parts as well, with the keys, and the drums, and the bass’. So while the whole band is involved, the writing credit for the song goes to those who came up with the idea, or as Rob puts it, ‘who made the song possible.’

The Infection is the second release for Chimaira on Nuclear Blast, their first three albums having been through Roadrunner. I ask Rob how the change had worked out for them.

‘We have a little bit more control over what’s happening, we have a little more artistic freedom,’ he says, stating that the reason for the move was largely to do with that artistic freedom. ‘Roadrunner in the past – and i speak primarily about Roadrunner in the US – they were always trying to get more radio-friendly tunes out of us, and more commercially marketable songs, and we just weren’t willing to provide that.’

It’s the classic problem for many bands – artistic integrity pitched against commercial viability. ‘We know who we are,’ says Rob. ‘We’re a heavy metal band who knows exactly what we want to do and we’re not going to change for anyone. Nuclear Blast definitely saw that in us.’ There’s also the benefit of being on a smaller label. ‘With Roadrunner we were a small fish in a big pond, and now with Nuclear Blast it’s kinda the other way around,’ he laughs. ‘So we get a little more of the attention that we either demand or deserve.’

While Rob says they’re happy with the change, I wonder if the band had ever thought about going out on their own, without a record label.

‘Well I won’t lie,’ he says. ‘We’re certainly talked about that sort of thing, just because of the market right now and the industry in general.’ But Chimaira recognise the value of a record label as well: the business mindset and expertise. ‘They [record labels] know how to market a record and they know how to distribute a record and those are all things that we, as musicians, don’t really have any experience in.’

Still, Rob recognises that things are changing. ‘The way trends are going it seems the musicians themselves are taking in more of that role, and are going to have to learn how to take on that role and who knows what’s it going to be like in 5 years or 10 years, and what bands are going to have to do.’ For now though, Rob says Chimaira are comfortable ‘doing it the old fashioned way.’

Being the end of the year, the next big show that Chimaira are doing is their annual Christmas show in their hometown of Cleveland. It’s now in its tenth year, and I wonder if the guys ever intended for it be such a tradition. So how did it start? Rob laughs.

‘Well, it actually started just by the first year, playing a show in Cleveland right around Christmas, and then the second year kind of doing the same thing, and then by the third year we said “heh, it’s kind of becoming a tradition” and we started calling it the Chimaira Christmas,’ he explains. ‘Now this year on November 27th, at the House of Blues in Cleveland, we’re gonna do our tenth annual one, and it’s crazy that then years have gone by so quick!’

Apparently fans are flying in from all over the world just for this show. ‘We’ve heard people via MySpace or Facebook or whatever saying they’re coming in from the UK, and parts of Europe, all over the US, Canada, things like that.’

At the time when I spoke with Rob, the next thing on the band’s agenda was their Australian tour, their first time headlining here. Rob agrees that it’s long overdue. ‘The first time we came was supporting In Flames, and that was great we had a great time, the second time supporting Korn, in the arenas, and now it’s time to tour and do it ourselves, play a longer set for the fans, and hopefully play a lot more songs that people are waiting to hear that we can’t do with a thirty minute set,’ he says. ‘We’re looking forward to it, we all love coming to Australia.’

Their Australian schedule is pretty tough: five consecutive shows on five consecutive days. But Rob sees it as just part of his job as metal musician. ‘We’re used to things being tough. We don’t look at it as tough, we look at it as “oh man, I wish we had a few more days off so we could do some more things”’. When pressed on the issue of touring, Rob has a zen-like calm about the whole thing that’s quite refreshing.

‘It’s a career we’ve all not only chosen and been gifted with, but also that we’ve grown into,’ he explains. As for the living in close quarters, his attitude is much the same. ‘The twelve of us that ride on this bus that I’m sitting in right now, we all have an understanding about one another and brotherhood, and we’ve learnt what this guy likes when he wakes up in the morning and what time this guy goes to bed and don’t do this around this guy, and don’t do that around that guy,’ he explains. ‘It’s the life we know now and we’ve all accepted it and become accustomed to it and while it may be hard, it’s all we know.’

I wonder if there’s some secret that Rob has that helps him maintain this calm outlook, a special coping mechanism perhaps. But the guitarist stresses that there’s not many available.

‘There’s little or no privacy… except in your bunk. You can close your curtain when you’re in your bunk, but still you’re in the room with twelve other guys and you wanna go up front, in the front lounge? There’s always somebody there. You wanna go in the back, there’s always somebody there, you wanna go in the dressing room, there’s always a few guys there’. He’s quick to point out that he’s not complaining. ‘It certainly could be worse, I have to say,’ he adds. Chuckling at my suggestion that he could be something boring like an accountant, he thinks that digging ditches or laying pavement would be more likely. ‘Instead, we play guitar and drink beer.’

The Australian tour will include a support slot from Adelaide-based Double Dragon on the East coast dates. Rob states that he doesn’t have a lot to do with the appointment of support bands, but he’s quite clear about what they’re looking for. ‘We’re glad to have them, we hear that they do well in Australia,’ he says. ‘For me, it wouldn’t really matter who’s on there as long as they’re working hard doing what they need to do to promote the shows, and promote the word of Chimaira.’ Thus far, the Double Dragon guys are doing a great job. ‘From what I hear they’re cool. I see their messages on the MySpace and how they’re doing their thing and talking about the tour and so forth. They’re cool, they’ll bring fans out, and have a good time with Chimaira.’

From Rob’s mention of MySpace, I ask if maintaining the band’s online presence and promoting themselves online is something that he’s involved in. He’s thankful that he’s not. ‘Fortunately that’s not really my department. There are a couple of guys in the band who handle that kind of thing.’ I mention that I’d heard that keyboard and samples guy Chris Spicuzza was the computer geek in the band, which Rob confirms.

‘Yeah, we’re all thankful to have him cos a lot of us aren’t too good with things online beyond checking our email,’ he says. It goes a little beyond updating MySpace though. ‘[He’s] got a great artistic sense, with photos, and Photoshop, and anything that needs to be done online he’s the goto guy. Although he resents all the questions and extra workload he has to do!’ Knowing that feeling, I laughingly ask if he’s the guy who has to fix everyone’s email. ‘Yeah, he certainly does. But like I said we’re fortunate to have him, it’s great to have a guy like that in the band, who can do that kind of stuff.’

With the Australian tour fast approaching, I ask if the band has thought about the set list they will play. Turns out I’m being a little premature. ‘Usually just before the tour starts we think about it and we go over the songs a little bit, make adjustments here and there, but no, we have not done that yet’, he explains. I ask if the fact that this will be Chimaira’s first headline tour of the country will influence the songs chosen, and Rob suggests this might be the case. ‘I’m pretty sure it will be something well rounded, from the beginning to The Infection. We’ll probably play two or three songs off each record.’

Given that it’s not only the end of the year, but the end of the decade, a lot of magazines and web sites are posting their top album lists. Warning Rob that he’s about to be put on the spot quite unashamedly, I ask what he considers his top album of the past ten years. There’s a long pause, but it doesn’t take much for him to find an answer.

‘First band that comes to mind is Opeth. Both the last records, Ghost Reveries and Watershed, I constantly listen to, and I think they’re underrated, and way ahead of their time.’

Finally, I wrap things up with the ubiquitous final words question. Like the experienced interviewee that he is, he has his closing comments ready.

‘Thanks for all the continual support, it’s great to see on our forums and message boards and MySpace how many Australian fans we have, and how many people are excited to see us come over there. I just wish that everyone who supports Chimaira will continue to support us, tell all your friends about us, and make sure you take advantage of this opportunity to come see us - we promise they’ll be killer shows, and we’re looking forward to jamming out down under again.’