Thriving on emotion and Holy Tomato Pies; a few minutes with Shai Hulud's Matt Fox

We called through to Shai Hulud's guitarist and songwriter, Matt Fox, ahead of their recent appearances at Soundwave 2013, to drill down and find out more about the new album and what goes into making their sound uniquely Shai Hulud.

It is morning over here, and Matt Fox is running late with a long list of interviews from his home in New Jersey. The enigmatic Shai Hulud guitarist is expecting Editor Scott Adams on the phone, but is still willing to talk to a rookie learning the ropes. Having received a copy of new album Reach Beyond the Sun earlier, I'm intrigued to learn what it is that has Shai Hulud returning to the hardcore punk sound almost abandoned in their previous release.

Fox thinks, and then gets right down to explaining what has driven Shai Hulud through the last two albums. "With Misanthropy Pure, the goal was to write the most pissed off, the angriest, most relentless album we could write. That was the purpose of Misanthropy Pure, because the album before that was so emotional that it didn't represent, especially due to the content and recording, the true anger of the band. So we wanted to make sure that we really nailed that home on Misanthropy Pure and show everybody, 'Yeah we're an emotional band, but make no mistake about it (excuse my language if I'm allowed to curse) we are fucking pissed. (Oh wait, I'm on Metal as Fuck, I can curse!)' So that was the plan on Misanthropy Pure, and in doing so and making the album so harsh and relentless it took us to another level with the songs. They started out one place, and our songs and riffs are usually pretty unique and different to begin with, so we ended up taking it to another level because we wanted it to be more relentless. Let's change this part and make it a bit more unpredictable, that'll make it angrier. Let's make this part faster, and let's try to make this part a little smarter. So we did all of these things and worked it, and reworked it, and reworked it, and all the while overcomplicating the original song to the point where it really came out, mission accomplished, an incredibly relentless, harsh and pissed record."

"And I do love the record, and I love playing songs off it, but I will say though, Shai Hulud does thrive on its emotional capacity and I think that's where most people have related to Hulud in the past, and that's what we thrive on personally in relation to our own music," Fox explains. "Misanthropy Pure focused so much on one emotion, and making sure it was repeated blows to the face, that we left behind its organic nature. We left behind the inherent warmth of emotion that usually flows through the music. So if there was any idea regarding Reach Beyond the Sun, it was to let that come back and let that breathe again. And that's why I think a lot of people are saying 'Oh it seems you've gone back to your hardcore punk roots'. Believe it or not, the original songs of Misanthropy Pure are extremely hardcore punk. It was our reworking of them, and our complicating of all the songs, and especially the production which is a very modern metal production, which make the album come off in the way that it does. But the songs are all written initially from the same place. With more of an organic production on this record, and allowing the emotional aspect and the instinctive aspect of our songwriting to flow on Reach Beyond the Sun, that's why I believe you get the sound that you get."

A marker of Shai Hulud that has carried through all the albums is the deeply introspective and poetic lyrics. Matt Fox confesses he's discovered something about himself in recent years, "I've got to tell you something that I've learned, when we would have singers, you know the guy who sang on Misanthropy Pure, when we played some of those songs live, or anyone that came through, and we've moved through singers unfortunately, someone else who would come through the band, anytime they would try to play a song off Misanthropy Pure, they kept saying 'Oh god it's so difficult' and I remember my bass player and I both thinking 'What's so difficult? Get up there and scream these lyrics!'. I never understood. I didn't realise, because I'm not the singer so what did I care? I didn't realise how many words I was cramming in to all of these songs.  Especially on the last two albums, That Within Blood Ill-Tempered and Misanthropy Pure, there's no room for breath! I don’t know how I finally realised it, but I did one day and I said 'Oh my god… I'm torturing these people!' No wonder they can't scream every word, it's physically impossible. So with this album, I made a very conscious effort not to fill every single part of music with lyrics. And I made them more sporadic. I tried to put lyrics where I thought they were necessary, and I really looked for places, anywhere that I could, to let somebody breathe. Because if this album was five years ago, top to bottom it would have been filled with vocals. The approach on this album, lyrically aside from the pacing of it, I wanted to make sure that everyone really understood what we were talking about. We always write in a very poetic nature, and we're always going to use phrasing and words that might not be common to the average hardcore fan, but we like to think that we have solid points that we like to get out. And they mean something to us. So I just try to really focus, and get the points out as directly as I possibly could. Like I said, the poetry is always going to be there, the different words are always going to be there, but it should never overshadow the point. What I like to say to myself is don't use 50c words to get across a 5c meaning, let's use 5c to get across a 50c meaning. That was the major approach to lyric writing on this record."

Chad Gilbert (New Found Glory) was one of Shai Hulud's first vocalists. He returned to work with the band on the recording of Reach Beyond the Sun. "Well it was definitely cool and fun," Fox says of working with Gilbert. "Chad's been a friend of mine for a long time, and it was interesting because he was eighteen the last time I was in the studio with him. He was eighteen the last time we spent any extended amount of time together, especially in a row. I've seen him over the years for days and hours at a time, but we haven't been in each other's company every day for four to five, six weeks since he was a teenager. That's a long time ago. So even though we knew each other, we had a rapport, and we basically knew each other's personalities and what we could and couldn't do, we hadn't worked with each other in so long there was some learning to do."

This relationship led to an atmosphere Matt feels really benefitted their new album, "I felt we worked really well, first of all based on one thing. We both love Shai Hulud. He cares about the band. I care about the band. Our ultimate goal, which I don't think either of us ever lost sight of, is we want to make the best album possible. If I'm saying something that he doesn't really agree with, or he's saying that I don't agree with, it's only because we want what's best and let's talk it out and figure out what's best. We come from different places, I tend to want to make things unpredictable and make sure they're progressive because I never want to sound like any other band. And Chad, I don't think that he's so much concerned with that. He's concerned with, is the song awesome? Does it rock? Are people going to hear it and say 'Fuck Yeah!' right off the bat? So we came from different places, and we worked through a lot of different ideas, and we definitely pushed and pulled, we were in this tug of war match and we finally met somewhere right in the middle. At a really healthy compromise that allowed this new album to show Shai Hulud's progressive nature, AND show the instinct of Shai Hulud which is raw emotion, and a song that can grab you right off the bat and kick your ass while being progressive and still instantly relatable."

"So I'm really thankful to both Chad, and Mad (Matt Fletcher our bass player), for both taking that side. Because before we even asked Chad to get involved, after Misanthropy Pure was recorded, Matt said 'I don't want to take this approach again with the next record. I think that we denied a lot of our instincts, and I think a lot of our appeal to people is the emotional instinct of our music. We need to let that flow.' And having Chad come on board, he felt the exact same way. So that difference in approach, and meeting in that compromise, I really think gave us the strongest, most versatile, and ultimate Hulud album to date."

Despite having Gilbert singing on the new album, Shai Hulud fans shouldn't expect a full time return. The band is actively advertising for a new singer through their website. "We knew at the outset, before we even asked Chad, before he even knew that we were going to ask him to sing on the record, we knew there was no possible way that he could re-join. He's got New Found Glory, and he's got a project that he's been working on which is now coming to fruition, his side-project "" in addition to his other many endeavours,  including producing. We knew him returning to the fold would be impossible. We didn't even ask. We just thought, the circumstances as they were, allowed us to be in the position to even have him return for the record. And that's special enough. I really hope that the people who love our band, or are even fans of Chad and may be hearing us for the first time, can appreciate this reunion and it's something to cherish because it's forever. It's not just one show in California, or a show in New York. It's a record that can be listened to time and time again. And though most people won't get to see us play songs with Chad live, the record exists. It's a point in time that allowed friends to come back and work on something special, and we did the best job we could, shook hands on a job well done, and then went about our lives. Him continuing to do what he does, and us continuing to do what we do. So it's just a celebration of time, and a celebration of friendship, and it's just awesome, special and unique the fact that it all came together and we could do it. That's certainly enough for me, and I hope it's enough for everyone listening."

Last time Metal as Fuck talked to Matt Fox, he mentioned Holy Tomato Pies. We had to ask. What on earth IS a Holy Tomato Pie? "I'm looking currently at a leftover box of Holy Tomato Pie. You want to know what a Holy Tomato Pie is huh?"

Yes. "Well first of all, to really understand, you have to come to New Jersey. To get a little more of an understanding, aside from what I tell you, go to Facebook and type in Holy Tomato. You will find it. You will see me as one of the people that likes it, and you can see pictures and get a better idea of what it is. A tomato pie, I'd never even HEARD of a tomato pie until this. It's not necessarily pizza, it's more of a tomato pie…" he pauses to find the right words, "A really thin crispy crust, it's got very little cheese, enough but not too much, the main component is the incredible tangy sauce. It's a tomato sauce, and it has other ingredients but I have no idea what they are, it's loaded with garlic so if you're a garlic fan then you'll flip. I think that might have even been the big selling point for me. If I smell or taste garlic on anything, I'm automatically in love. If Metallica sounded like garlic, whatever that means, who knows what I would do. The tomato pie is just so tasty, it's the perfect mix of crispy crust, incredibly tangy flavourable sauce and in my opinion the right amount of cheese. It's just a wonderful, wonderful food. I have vegan friends who don't eat cheese or meat, when I take them there they get what's called a Red Pie that has no cheese and they flip out just the same. When I have some of their pie, I still flip out because the cheese is the least important component.  I feel silly going on and on about it, because you can't be here to taste it. I'm pretty sure you'll feel just as emphatic about it as I do. Man, I can't tell you how many nights I have just spent at home, watching the original Batman show, in my bed alone with a whole tomato pie to myself. It's a brilliant evening that I recommend to everyone." It's a recommendation taken, and marked down as a good reason to visit New Jersey soon.

Matt Fox also has a final message to Australia, "My first favourite band was Kiss. And it wasn't because of the music, I was simply drawn to the band because Gene Simmons looked like a demon and he spat fire and blood. My first TRUE favourite band because I actually love the music, was Men at Work. I was in second grade, and we heard Who Can It Be Now, followed by Down Under. I absolutely fell in love with the infectious melodies, they were my favourite band. I love them dearly, bought all their singles, bought their albums and thirty years later I'm sill an immense Men at Work and Colin Hay fan. I love that fact, because I'm so drawn to heavy metal, I love telling people that my first true favourite band was Australia's own Men at Work. Thank you Australia for Men at Work, and Colin Hay, and thank you also for Mad Max!"