For Primitive Man, Misery Is a Way of Life
Stream the Denver doom trio's visceral new album, 'Caustic,' and read vocalist Ethan McCarthy's thoughts on DIY, gentrification, and feeling bad.
"Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse."
Sam Neil's words from 90s cult classic Event Horizon seem an appropriate starting place when considering Primitive Man's new album, Caustic, which arrives October 6 via Relapse Records. From proclamations of Lucifer's glory to rejections of deities of all sorts, metal already has a well-documented love of all things "evil." For Primitive Man founder Ethan McCarthy, however, the hell that inspires him to create suffocating soundscapes is reality itself.
"We'll write stuff that sounds cool in the 'doom spectrum,' and I'm like 'That is just not where I'm at,' he tells me. "So, we won't keep it. I don't know how other bands do it, but for us, I'm trying to convey how I'm feeling."
Those feelings are precisely what make Caustic such a compelling release. Rarely does an album state its goals so plainly, and then completely deliver the goods as promised. McCarthy, bassist Jon Campos, and drummer Joe Linden have produced an over 75-minute-long, dense, disturbing soundtrack to horror. Manic blastbeats and tremolo-picked minor chords melt into feedback-drenched waves of discomfort. The weight of the album is visceral, its misery and hopelessness made audible.
The tangible despair of Primitive Man's music is even more noteworthy when juxtaposed with the real life Ethan McCarthy. He laughs often, even when the conversation gets dark. He greets friends with hugs and wide smiles. To be sure, everyone has demons and most work to keep the struggles with them hidden from plain view; few are able to channel those demons into something as unsettling and compelling as his music.
"You know, as a teacher, I have to be positive with children like 8 to 10 hours a day," he explains. "So the rest of that time, when we're writing songs, I am like the most fucking negative, mad person you can be."
Though the album covers a wide array of topics, socioeconomic pressures such as gentrification and wage stagnation provided fertile ground from which to harvest these 12 tracks. The working class diner in which I met him for breakfast sits on the edge of one of Denver's "up and coming" arts districts, a stone's throw from breweries, hip coffee shops, and, of course, marijuana dispensaries. Our proximity to the "new" Denver highlighted the tension that characterizes Denver today, and which many of the longtime residents, including McCarthy, feel on a daily basis.
"I'm so torn on this whole development thing," he tells me. "We have enough fucking breweries, we have enough fucking yoga studios, we have enough fucking yuppie condos. It's not like it's just housing, it's fucking ridiculously expensive to live in a box. I hate that shit. We aren't New York City, and that's what they're setting people up for—this overpriced, shitty standard of living. I hate that."
McCarthy's history with the city strongly informs his feelings about the "new" Denver. A stalwart of the underground music scene, his resume includes spending time in numerous respected outfits (Primitive Man, Vermin Womb, Many Blessings, Death of Self, Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire), running multiple DIY venues, and organizing a yearly fest (DAD Fest, or Denver All Day) celebrating the city's diverse array of metal, punk, and noise outfits. He has bled DIY for all of his adult life, and the changes in Denver have proven to be inhospitable for that scene.
In December 2016, Denver lost two of its most well loved DIY venues, Rhinoceropolis and Glob/Club Scum. Backspace, a newer DIY venue located in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, was shuttered when the property owner reneged on previously-promised support and sold the property. As developers buy up real estate for new condominiums and middle class amenities, McCarthy laments the dearth of all ages DIY spaces through which many younger people discover the underground.
"I'm watching my city get all fucked up," he sighs. "Denver, for the first time since I was old enough to know what a DIY show was, it's not really a thing here anymore. I remember one time Mournful Congregation played in my kitchen [at DIY space Aqualung]. I was talking to them about Australia and all this stuff. They were like 'This isn't a thing in Australia. House shows and stuff. You will never find this." I remember being so sad for them internally, just like 'Oh man, you guys, you don't know what you're missing.' And now we're at that moment here. It's not just in Denver. It's everywhere. That's certainly not helped my perspective."
He admits that the influx of newcomers is not all bad. As a lifer who remembers when shows were less common and crowds were smaller, McCarthy also recognizes that the growth of the city is not without some benefits."You know, when I was growing up this place was this much better than Kansas," he says. "You know, like 10 years behind. People moving in brings cool shit. It's nicer for metal shows. People talk a lot of shit about transplants, but I have to remember that my dad is from Minneapolis. He moved here. My wife is not from here. There's a ton of people that I'm close to. I can't really say I'm upset about people moving in. But I'm upset about the cost of living, the overcrowding, that kind of stuff."
The elephant in the room, of course, is that the cannabis industry has played such an integral role in the rapid changes in Denver. With the rising popularity of many Denver bands, including Primitive Man, media outlets half-jokingly reference the legalization of marijuana in January 2015 as a creative driver in the scene. He doesn't mince words when it comes to the association of the city with weed.
"Here's the thing, if you moved here for marijuana exclusively, you're a fucking idiot. If that's the only reason… come on."
Let me be clear: Caustic is, unsurprisingly, not an easy listen. It challenges you to have patience, the auditory equivalent of a cage match with the totality of humanity's failures. It is, however, most definitely worth the time and effort it demands. Sonically, it is not a radical departure from Primitive Man's previous releases, but stands as a refined version of their uniquely crushing cocktail of doom, sludge, and pure misery. McCarthy credits much of this to new(ish) drummer Joe Linden, who joined the band in 2016 and who fit right in with founders McCarthy and Campos. "Writing with Joe is awesome," McCarthy says. "I haven't written this easily with someone in a long time. I knew right off the bat when we started writing songs with him that the album was special. He's just really open minded. Willing to try things. Willing to take suggestions. Willing to give suggestions. He'll tell you if he thinks something is garbage—but tactfully, you know?"
While he can blast with the best of them, Linden's restraint allows the extended passages of glacial sludge-meets-noise to build tension to the point of near-madness. The midsection of "Commerce" forces the listener to endure minute after minute of abrasive feedback and minimalistic drum accents– by playing so little, the claustrophobia becomes palpable and the "release" of the following section, itself an unsettling barrage of delay-soaked dyads and distorted bass, is made even more satisfying. One of the other notable changes on this album is the band's emphasis on creating and maintaining a bleak atmosphere. Caustic features a handful of blastbeat sections, occasional mid-tempo double bass grooves, and only one moment of d-beat crustiness – "D-beats are too much fun," McCarthy says with a laugh – while extended bouts of noise and feedback constitute more of the material than on any previous release.
"Noise [music] is the sound of being fucking miserable," he continues. "I've done harsh noise forever and ever, and I've always wanted to have a band where I get to do that with the rest of the music. We are incorporating a lot more of that 'cause it's like 'I have the gear here and I want to do it. Nothing sounds more miserable than fucking noise music. Heavy metal can be crushing, but the people who like take the time to make noise… even when I'm making harsh noise live, I'm so fucked up in my mind, you know? I want to make already extreme music more extreme because, to me, that is the fucking ground zero of the harshest. That's it."
McCarthy employed a variety of gear and techniques to make the new album "more extreme," including numerous delay and reverb pedals, a pair of looper pedals for layering noise and feedback on itself, a Theremin, modulation apps on an iPad, and even a lo-fi microphone fashioned from an old telephone receiver. Though the tools he employs vary, the goal remains the same: "I like to make shit sound fuckin' bad."
Caustic also marks the first time Primitive Man were able to take their time in the studio. The band returned to Flatline Audio with extreme metal producer/engineer extraordinaire Dave Otero (Cattle Decapitation, Cephalic Carnage, Archspire), who has recorded all of the group's previous releases. While the band recorded Scorn in three days, they spent two weeks working closely with Otero. "Dave is so good about it. I mean, Dave really gets it." McCarthy explains that Otero works with each project as its own entity rather than trying to apply the same formula over and over. "I've gone in there with grindcore bands. He's done the Vermin Womb [grindcore project featuring members of CTTOAFF] stuff. He approaches it all so differently. He was so good about understanding what we're trying to do."
The visual aesthetic of a band informs how people experience and understand that band. While some extreme acts allow for some degree of levity in their merchandise or album covers, Primitive Man's artwork is a clear extension of the band's ethos. McCarthy handles all of the design work for his bands, though handling art was a byproduct of circumstance rather than any grand creative scheme. "I started out doing art because I was injured and couldn't really walk for, like, a couple of years," he explains. "I just started doing art, and then Primitive Man came together, it wasn't really supposed to be a serious thing, so I was like 'Fuck it, I can do art!' So I just put [Scorn's album art] together, it was like the second thing I'd donee, and then I thought 'Oh, this is dope, I can just never pay someone again to do this."
This also saved the band the stress of finding new artists, commissioning them, waiting on art, and relying on a third party to accurately convey the intended feeling behind the music. For McCarthy, visual art also provides another medium through which to exorcise negativity through a meaningful creative outlet. "I just can't really think of anyone who would have the right… dirty, I guess, aesthetic," he says, shaking his hands in the air to convey the unstable feeling he strives for in his art. "It's just best to have me express it because I'm writing about it."
Just as the band spent over a year writing the music for the album, McCarthy explained that the cover was time intensive and stressful. "The [Caustic] cover was such a hard one to make because I felt a lot of pressure from the Scorn cover. I made that in such an innocent place, just like 'Oh, cool man.' Just such a different headspace. So for this one, I thought 'Fuck, how am I gonna do this?' I actually went through three drafts. I'm under a time constraint, I'm stressed out about getting this cover done for this goddamn album. And sometimes I will sit at that computer for a 12-hour day and not come up with anything that works. By the time I got to the one we used, I was so fucking angry that I think it came out better, just…right."
How does someone create a visual companion to a nearly 80 minute album of sludge, doom, and noise meant to encapsulate the stresses of everyday life? For McCarthy, the idea was obvious from the start.
"I wanted to convey true horror."
The band will tour with Seattle funeral doom duo Bell Witch throughout October and November. Dates below.
10/25/2017 Hi Dive - Denver, CO
10/26/2017 O'Leavers - Omaha, NE
10/27/2017 Cobra Lounge - Chicago, IL
10/28/2017 Rock Island Brewery - Rock Island, IL
10/29/2017 The New Dodge - Hamtramck, MI
10/30/2017 Ace Of Cups - Columbus, OH
11/01/2017 Coalition - Toronto, ON
11/02/2017 Bar Le Ritz - Montreal, QC
11/03/2017 Geno's - Portland, ME
11/04/2017 Cop Frat - Oneonta, NY
11/05/2017 ONCE - Boston, MA
11/06/2017 Saint Vitus Bar - Brooklyn, NY
11/07/2017 Kung Fu Necktie - Philadelphia, PA
11/08/2017 The Meatlocker - Montclair, NJ
11/09/2017 Sidebar - Baltimore, MD
11/10/2017 Strange Matter - Richmond, VA
11/11/2017 Drunken Unicorn - Atlanta, GA
11/12/2017 Exit/In - Nashville, TN
11/13/2017 Whitewater - Little Rock, AR
11/14/2017 Growlers - Memphis, TN
11/15/2015 Santos - New Orleans, LA
11/16/2017 Lost Well - Austin, TX
11/17/2017 Ridgelea Lounge - Forth Worth, TX
Ben Hutcherson is a Denver-based writer who also plays in Khemmis; follow them on Twitter.