Interview with Chris Motionless by Joe Daly
Photographs by Jeremy Saffer
It’s one thing to take online fire from social media trolls that aren’t actually interested in your music, but it’s a bit thornier when your own fans are coming at you. That’s precisely where Motionless in White found themselves after releasing its sophomore album, 2012’s Infamous, which alienated some of their longtime supporters that felt it veered too drastically from the band’s metalcore roots. Rather than capitulate and cater to those fans on the next album, 2014’s Reincarnate saw Motionless in White double down on its new direction, serving up an ambitious and absurdly catchy feast of goth, horror, and industrial metal that marked a creative high for the Pennsylvania five piece—singer Chris “Motionless” Cerulli, guitarists Ryan Sitkowski and Ricky “Horror” Olson, bassist Devin “Ghost” Sola, and drummer Vinny Mauro.
On Motionless in White’s latest album, Graveyard Shift, the band hones its sound even further, turning in their most polished and exhilarating outing to date. We caught up with Chris Motionless a few hours before the band hopped on a plane for its first ever headlining tour of Australia.
You’re about to get on a plane to Australia. Are you ready?
Yes! This is a pretty special moment in our career because it’s our first headliner in Australia. Having toured so much and headlined both the US and the UK, it’s really awesome to see that we’ve hit that level in another country. Looking back to when we formed in 2005, doing a headlining tour in Australia is one of those surreal, too good to be true moments, and it feels pretty awesome.
What was the vision for the band when you started, and how does it match up with today’s reality?
We were a band that was just really interested in playing music because the bands we were all listening to back then had affected us in personal ways—mentally, emotionally, and all the different ways that music can impact you. We wanted to be in a band, we wanted to look different but play heavy music, and we wanted to write lyrics and songs that cause a reaction in people. Our band was all about being there for the fans as much as possible and trying to maintain a constant line of communication with them. As the years went by, we discovered that was kind of a naive thought. Now we’re in a much busier place, we’re in much higher demand, and social media is entirely different now from what it was back then. At least once a year we try to plan at least one event, whether it’s a music video or album cover contest or anything like that, to involve the fans and to integrate that same mentality that we had at the beginning.
“WE HAD THE CHANCE TO STOP SEARCHING FOR OUR SOUND AND TO JUST EXECUTE ON THE SOUND THAT MADE US SO HAPPY.”
Very few people that form bands end up achieving the level of success of Motionless in White, and what often defines those bands is their ability to deal with the struggles that come with the territory. What has been one of the hardest challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The biggest challenge was reaching a point where we acknowledged that we weren’t entirely happy with the music we were creating, even though our fans at that time were happy and they were very supportive. We had to ask ourselves, “Who are we doing this for? Our fans or ourselves? What’s the goal here? And what’s the best way to achieve happiness and fulfillment in this band?” We made some moves about a quarter to halfway into our career that upset a lot of fans, and that exposed us to more criticism that ran a lot deeper than it had before. But those were changes that we needed to make to just feel happy about who the band was and where it was going. When I look back on that, I’m honestly surprised that we lived through it and that we survived changing our sound.
What was your reaction to the criticism from some of your fans?
I personally don’t think that it was an insanely drastic change, as much as some fans like to make it out to be, but they seem to think it was traumatic, and dealing with that reaction became the hardest challenge for us.
It’s a paradox for musicians that fans want them to act like rebels and rule breakers, but at the same time, they expect them to play a role that they’ve written for them. A few years ago you spoke out against fans that idolize bands and put musicians on pedestals, and you took a ton of heat. How do you make peace with a reality where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t?
It’s exactly that. No matter what you do, people’s instant reaction seems to be negativity and a wanton willingness to tear it down and criticize it. It’s so much easier for people to go in that direction and criticize instead of going deeper into something and trying to understand where a person or artist is coming from. That’s kind of sad. There’s this sense that bands should conduct themselves according to standards that the fans have set, and it’s one of those things that I laugh at. I totally embrace the idea of damned if you do and damned if you don’t, because it just makes it easier to say, “I don’t fucking care. I’m just going to say this because it needs to be said.” Why am I going to hold back on writing a song I want? Why am I going to hold back on making some sort of speech that I want, just because I know it’s going to set me up for criticism? Everybody gets criticized, so what really does it matter? I’d rather get it out and say something that might impact somebody rather than keep my mouth shut and just sit there with all the negativity bottled up.
Where does Graveyard Shift find the band creatively?
I think that we’ve finally hit our stride. Reincarnate was a course correction and it was the realization of what we’d been trying to accomplish. With the new album, we had the chance to stop searching for our sound and to just execute on the sound that made us so happy. So, it was a really liberating experience. When you hear this album, I think that comes across. You can hear more of the last album in the new record than any of the other previous albums. If you’re wondering where we’re at and where we’re going, this album is a pretty good indication. I’m really happy with it for so many reasons. It’s our best album, and I’m not just saying that because this is an interview (laughs).
To your point, there are strong similarities between Reincarnate and Graveyard Shift. Where will fans hear the differences?
I really believe that the opener, “Rats,” sets the tone. It includes a lot of different elements that represent where the band is now and where we’re going to continue on from, and that’s why we want people to hear it first. It’s an awesome question, because when we work on the sequence of tracks on an album, it’s not simply, “Oh, let’s put this song here and this song there,” but a methodical series of decisions, and that’s one of them. Even the second track, “Queen for Queen,” shows that the band can embrace a radio-like style, but we can still keep things heavy and rooted in the things we’ve done all along. I’d say that right off the bat, those two songs give a pretty good idea of what the band is about.
In the past, you’ve drawn lyrical inspiration from classical literature to Dexter. What were your influences for the new album?
I pulled back a little bit on writing from the perspective of different characters, although there are one or two tracks—the entertainment tracks, I call them—that are meant to be totally over-the-top, just to be entertaining, and where we can play with the horror aspect of our identity. But the lyrics are mainly drawn from experiences that I’ve had over the past year and a half. I always write tracks that are true to the heart and based on personal experiences, but in the past year and a half, so many things have happened that have impacted me deeper than anything before. There’s a lot of lyrical content that’s just real—not so much stories inspired by movies or characters, but real life shit that everybody goes through and that I’ve been going through. Just a lot of hard hitting, real life shit.
Can we talk hockey?
(laughs) Yes, we can!
What do you love so much about the sport?
I think that hockey is relatable to our world—the heavier side of music. If there was a sport that represented our realm of music, like the Ozzfests and the Outburns, I think that hockey is it. I always wonder if other people view it that way. Hockey is gritty, violent, and not pretty in any way, and I feel like it’s a very blue collar sport, which is the lifestyle I grew up with, so I really identify with that sport.
Who’s looking good for the Stanley Cup this year?
Let’s hope that the Tampa Bay Lightning are looking good! Of course, I think the Penguins are going to get really close again. I don’t think they really lost anybody. I guess losing [goalie Marc-Andre] Fleury doesn’t really matter with Matt Murray in net. I don’t know if you’re a Ducks fan, but I’ve been wanting to see them get to a final, but they can’t seem to get past the Western Conference Final, unfortunately. Two years ago I was so badly hoping for a Tampa versus Anaheim final, but fucking Chicago took that from me.
With such a heavy goth image, people might be surprised that you’re also a real outdoorsy kind of guy.
I think about that all the time! (laughs) Right now we’re in the Marina del Rey [of Southern California] area, kind of by the beach. I don’t like the actual beach or being heavily in the sun, but I have to say that on our last tour, my girlfriend and a few other people on the tour started referring to me as a frog because I love sitting outside in humid, sticky weather and just eating fruit and drinking iced tea. I don’t know, that’s just how I grew up. My dad took my brother and me fishing so often when we were kids, and we were always out riding dirt bikes and doing that kind of stuff. Just because I wear makeup and we’re very much in the goth or metal scene, I never felt like I couldn’t like being outdoors, just like I never felt like I couldn’t like hockey because I’m goth. I’m just going to continue being the frog that I am and hang outdoors and enjoy it.
With everything you have going on, how do you maintain a balance?
It’s been tough, especially regarding my family. My dad’s health has been up in the air during this past year and a half. I always took it for granted that my family’s healthy and we’ll all hang out when I get home from tour. Then you get a call about someone in your family having some pretty gnarly health issues, and everything changes. So, you still look at what you’re experiencing as very grateful, but you realize that you’re missing out on other aspects of your life that mean even more to you. So, when I’m home I try to make the time to be there and be present. And my girlfriend comes out on tour a lot with us, and we get to hang out and do really cool stuff. In that way, there’s some balance with the business side of things. It’s an ongoing struggle, but just like everything else, I do the best I can.