Stream the Chicago death crew's new album, 'II' (out 3/25 on Southern Lord).
Chicago’s Like Rats like to throw you off with their presentation. First off, they sound nothing like Godflesh. The cover of their second album, cryptically called II and out Friday through Southern Lord, looks like a lush forest where Striborg might hangs out, but alas, they’re not black metal. They sound like a death metal band born in a Chicago hardcore basement show — which makes a lot of sense, given that bassist Andy Nelson is best known as the guitarist for Weekend Nachos.
Whereas the band’s past efforts skewed more towards hardcore, II leans harder into the death metal side of things. There are huge vibes from Obituary (seriously, it’s amazing how much drummer Dan Polak, who takes over vocals from Daniel Shea, sounds like John Tardy), Cianide, and the aforementioned Celtic Frost; what makes Like Rats great is that they drink from death metal’s many bloody chalices, not just one. They know that Incantation is just as refreshing to gulp down as Morbid Angel, thanks to guitarist Todd Nief, the band’s primary songwriter and riff machine.
Nief has not only dedicated his life to swole riffs, but also to the very act of getting swole itself. He owns South Loop Crossfit, which makes more sense for a death metal aficionado like him than you’d expect. People who are into death metal are really into death metal, and people who are into Crossfit will let you know. Annoying to some, indifferent to many, life to a few. Sound familiar?
We talked about the connection between the two cultures, as well as self-awareness in metal and who exactly he ripped off to make II, their new record for Southern Lord (which drops 3/25—we're streaming it in full below).
Noisey: When someone mentions that they’re involved with Crossfit — I don’t want to say there’s a stigma against Crossfit, that’s too strong of a term, but there is a certain reaction. Does Crossfit culture create any complications in running your gym?
Todd Nief: Every gym has its own culture. All that stuff, at some level, is a little bit top-down; the culture of the gym will reflect the owners and the coaches, but on another level, it also depends on who the members are. There’s a difference between having a gym full of members who are in their early 30s, mid 30s people who are in serious, stressful careers and have families, verses a gym of mid-20s nurses who want to party all the time. There’s a massive difference in how those people will behave. I don’t know if there’s a good answer to that question.
When I pitched this to my editor, I told her you run this gym, and she said to me “being in metal and being in Crossfit, he must be surrounded by sweaty bros on a daily basis.” I do wonder if there are similarities between the Crossfit and metal cultures.
I would say there is in the sense that they’re both subcultures. At some level, metal is more of an underground subculture, and Crossfit is a subculture, but it’s fascinating because a lot of people who are Crossfit gym members are not necessarily subculture people. This is probably one of their first experiences being part of some form of somewhat radicalized subculture. It’s not like these people are like, “Oh yeah, I grew up going to punk shows” or “I grew up going to metal shows” or “I was into this hip-hop scene” or “I was a house DJ.” A lot of them are lawyers or business consultants, they’ve never actually been part of something that would be considered that type of subculture. I think there are similarities in the sense that once people start to buy in to the culture, then all of the sudden they have this whole separate nation network of friends that are into the same weird thing they’re into. You have this [thought of] like, “Oh, I do this thing that most people don’t do and I can wear these shirts about the thing I like. Most people think it’s extreme and strange that I do this, but I’m proud and I want to show it off.”
That’s kind of cool actually because these people who have never been part of something like that, through fitness later in their life become effectively subcultural in that sense. That said, I think there is a little bit of misunderstanding, at least within our gym, the level of testosterone and aggression involved with what we’re doing—even though it’s really hard and there’s a lot of challenging aspects to it, people are lifting weights and dropping weights and getting tired during workouts and rolling on the ground—it’s really not a culture, within our gym, of screaming and pushing yourself and getting angry and snorting smelling salts before lifts. That’s not really how we coach people, it’s much more about long-term progression and understanding the appropriate level of how to get jacked up when you should and relax when you don’t need to be jacking up and that sort of stuff.
They can both seem really intimidating from an outsider’s perspective, but once you do get in there, you realize it’s possible for you to find your own way within them.
That’s definitely true, and I think there can also be, with both metal and Crossfit, a mischaracterization that isn’t always inaccurate depending on the bands or the gyms. People are like, “Aw man, metal, these guys are so angry and fucked up,” and actually, anger isn’t really a big part of a lot of the music that I listen to. If you’re at some meathead Pantera wannabe band, then yeah, these guys are just like angry disenfranchised youth who want to mosh and drink, but [with] a lot of death metal bands, it’s much more abstract and there’s certainly negative emotion, but it’s not particularly angry. I think there’s a similar mischaracterization of Crossfit, or in general, challenging fitness—it’s not about getting super jacked up and hating the world and flipping out releasing all your angst. It’s a challenging, long term process to try and improve yourself over time, which is not [like a] emotionally stunted, weird Pantera mosh band.
I get a big Obituary vibe on this new record, and that goes back to Obituary having pretty Frosty riffs, but Dan sounds a bit like John Tardy too.
It’s kind of funny I don’t think there’s a lot of musical Obituary influence. I obviously love Obituary, [they’re] also a fan of ripping off Celtic Frost riffs. If I go through the record, I can name— “I ripped this riff from that band, I wanted to write a song like this song.” I don’t think there’s anything on this record where I was like, “All right, I’m gonna write something that sounds like this Obituary part.” That said, Dan does sound a lot like John Tardy with that less guttural vocal style, he’s always been able to do that. It’s one of those things that with the riffs we were writing for this record, it became clear this is going in a much more death metal direction and we decided to embrace that.
What stuff were you picking from with this one?
Celtic Frost is always on top of the list just in terms of the way we write riffs and tie riffs together. I could probably look at the record and think through which things did I take from. The first song has a really long intro, which is something Sepultura did a lot on Schizophrenia and Beneath the Remains. We wanted to write this intro with a lot riffs in it. That single string death metal riff is definitely Incantation, it’s not specifically an Incantation riff, but that was the idea. On the second song, I wanted to write a song that sounded like a Morbid Angel song from Blessed Are The Sick. The middle has stuff definitely influenced by Immolation, there’s a Celtic Frost riff at the end of it. Third song is a combination of Hell Awaits and South Of Heaven. Fourth song, I was trying to write something like Pestilence songs off of Consuming Impulse. Fifth song has something influenced by Amorphis, from Privilege of Evil. Sixth song, there’s a part that has a Bolt Thower-ish riff, there’s a transition I stole from None So Vile as well. Seventh song has a Sodom riff, it’s a pretty blatant ripoff. Last song I wanted to wanted to write something like “God of Emptiness,” and there’s an Immolation part too.
The art direction and photography isn’t conventionally death metal or hardcore. Where does that come from?
At least for me, I’m not a visual artist at all, but Daniel [Shea, former vocalist] is a renowned photographer. He has taken many portraits of some of the most famous and successful people in the world, he recently had an art opening yesterday in Chicago of his own artistic work, and he’s just a great photographer. John is a graphic designer for a major advertising firm. They are very high in the art/design world in what they do, and they have the main say as far as what our art looks like, what your website looks like, what our T-shirt designs look like. Based upon on the feel of the band, which is the beauty of the darkness of the world—which is a corny way of saying it, but I think a lot of what we’re going for has to do with not being necessarily a negative, depressive band, but humanity, nature, and the Earth are fantastic, insane, and brutal.
Is the photography meant to make your death metal seem less abstract and more grounded, in a way?
Yeah, I mean, one of the things that’s interesting too is when you have genres that become established— death metal has been an established genre for decades at this point, which then results in a lot of in-group signaling, where people have specific album covers or song titles or band names or things like that they utilize to say “Hey, we’re a death metal band. We have an album cover with fetuses being raped and blood everywhere.” That signals they’re a certain type of death metal. Or, weird futuristic machine war happening that signals that they’ll have a lot of super-technical riffs or something like that. There’s those obvious genre signaling days that people participate in varying degrees of self-awareness. I don’t necessarily know if there’s anyone else with the kind of more photography-based imagery, but that resonates with what I perceive our music to sound like and it makes sense. It fits well together.
It doesn’t seem self-aware sometimes to me, it feels like people are just following something, but on the other hand it’s reliable branding.
Yeah, I think there’s a positive to that, sort of what we were talking about with the gym, where if you put it out there [that] you’re a Crossfit gym, you’re going to attract a certain type of person, and that can be positive or negative depending on what you’re offering. You can put it out there in hopes of attracting a certain type of person, just like you can put out a pointy-ass logo and a shirt about disfiguring prostitutes and it is gonna resonate with a certain guy with a shaved head and a beard.
A lot of early death metal wasn’t too refined with visuals—sometimes that lack of self-awareness can be helpful.
I do agree with that in a sense that a lot of stuff we perceive as groundbreaking or totally new or whatever does come from a certain lack of self-awareness, because if you had more self-awareness awareness of what different groups are expecting of you, in a lot of cases that can stifle creativity. There’s a weird lack of self-awareness that can be positive, as well as a high level of self-awareness can be positive, where you know what the rules are and when and why you’re breaking them.
Has the well been tapped yet, as far as bands just copying sounds instead of trying to make something their own?
It’s a really interesting question—obviously, human beings have been creating and playing new styles of music from the entire time we’ve existed on this planet. You wonder is there a point where the well gets tapped on a certain style — “Well, that’s the end of death metal! That’s the end of hardcore! That’s the end of dubstep!” You usually hit that point where it becomes saturated and codified, and there are so many clone bands out there. The worst thing is that a lot of it isn’t even bad, it’s boring. "This is, like, fine, but am I gonna pick up this record and listen to it again? Probably not." It’s aninteresting particularly within extreme metal; a lot of stuff has gone the experimental route, which can be interesting, and I like some bands that would fall into that realm, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a true progression of the genre, to just say “Oh, we’re gonna play this, but we’re gonna add this other style of music to it or we’re gonna add a french horn” or whatever.
I do wonder if there’s going to be some form of evolution within metal to a different art form beyond the thrash metal, death metal, black metal genres that are established. I would imagine at some point, someone’s gonna do something different, but it’s hard to say if you can envision a new style or a new progression, then you’re onto something.
Andy O'Conner is blessed and sick on Twitter.