Interview with Aaron Pauley by Nick DeMarino
Photographs by Marcus Maschwitz
It’s been an eventful year for Southern California metalcore kings Of Mice & Men. Despite the departure of their founding vocalist Austin Carlile, the band has soldiered on as a quartet, with bassist and clean singer Aaron Pauley taking over full vocal duties. Of Mice & Men managed to put out a couple of songs and videos amidst a busy US and European tour schedule, and now, in 2018, the band is set to release, Defy, its fifth album and first with Pauley at the helm. Pauley discusses Defy and the changes and new beginnings for Of Mice & Men.
Was it a difficult decision for you to take over lead vocal duties?
It was a role I’d done in a previous band, that is, handling both clean singing and screaming. When it came time to decide if we were going to continue with the band or not when Austin announced he was leaving, we decided that before we looked outside the band, we’d try to keep it as in-house as we could. It just seemed like the easiest solution. I didn’t have too much apprehension about it. It was more about figuring out how we were going to divvy up the parts. Alan [Ashby, rhythm guitar] and Phil [Manansala, lead guitar] have both started backup screaming. We knew we could make it work.
Was the future of the band ever in doubt? What was the darkest moment?
It was going out on tour that last time before Austin had left. Seeing how bad he was hurting, we all felt lost and had this weird moment. I think we felt so disconnected from everything. That was the darkest time. After he told us he was leaving for health reasons, we took a few days at home—we weren’t on tour then—and then hit each other up. We just got in the shoebox practice space, jammed, and made some noise. Music is very therapeutic for us. I think after about an hour we decided to jam one of the older songs. We all looked at each other, and we just knew we were going to keep the band going.
“WE’VE GOT A LOT TO PROVE TO PEOPLE NOW, AND THIS IS THE START OF A NEW CHAPTER.”
What is it like revisiting songs from the first two records, Of Mice & Men  and The Flood , from before you joined the band?
When I first joined the band in 2012, that’s a lot of what we were playing. Those songs have a special place in my heart even though I didn’t help write them. They were a huge thing in my life, going from being at home to playing those songs in a professional touring band. There’s always going to be some nostalgia for me with those songs, even when we’re playing them now, even though I’m singing them now. I think that’s the sign of good music, that you can relate to it no matter who wrote it.
What was the writing process like for Defy?
We had done the first few songs before heading out on tour. There were four, five, or maybe six songs written at that point, and we went on tour in the spring for our first shows back as a quartet. We’d just been playing together and fooling around on our home demo rigs. We were all doing a lot of work. We realized if Of Mice & Men was going to continue, a big part of our future was going to be this music we presented. We actually recorded and then released two, “Unbreakable” and “Back to Me.” So, we went out and we played a bunch of radio festivals in the US, then we went overseas for a full summer. We were on some UK and Euro rock and metal festivals. The promoters still had a lot of faith in us and kept us with the same billing as before. It was really great to play those shows. Coming back home, we had a lot of confidence, and we finished up writing for Defy and headed into the studio. In the past, we’d usually written records during extended breaks between touring cycles. That’s what I’d experienced recording Restoring Force  and Cold World . This was different, though. We wrote some of this material in the midst of playing big festivals, and the live show is a big part of what we love so much about this band. I think we wrote a lot of Defy with our live show in mind. We all had this new energy. We all felt reinvigorated. We had this new lease on life and were able to still be touring and doing shows. It felt natural. Nothing was too thought out or planned.
Do the songs on Defy comprise a coherent album, or is it more of a collection of like-minded songs?
The tracklisting came a long time after we finished the record. We tend to look at albums as a collection of songs. We just write a collection of songs over a period of time, so it’s really just a snapshot. We don’t think about things in a top-down matter. So, yeah, it’s more of a collection of songs.
There’s a consistent energy on the album, though the last song, “If We Were Ghosts,” feels quite a bit different.
We wrote that in the studio at the same time we decided to cover Pink Floyd’s “Money.” Those two songs came about because we had booked six weeks to record Defy, and by week three and a half, we were finding the done mark as far as the instrumentals were concerned and it would only take a day for each song on vocals. We had all this free time, and our producer challenged us to do a cover, just because it’s fun and we had the time, as well as a ballad—something more downtempo than what we’d recorded. Valentino [David Arteaga, drums] had been working on this instrumental loop, so he and I sat down and finished it. That became “If We Were Ghosts.” For us, it’s an important song that honors Chester Bennington [of Linkin Park, who died in July 2017]. He was a friend of ours, and that band was very instrumental from the Restoring Force cycle, taking us out on two tours. As soon as I heard the song, the idea just popped into my mind. I definitely heard a lot of Linkin Park vibe on it.
You also recorded the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Money.” How did that come about?
I suggested it tongue-in-cheek because we would listen to it in Alan’s car while driving from Orange County up to the studio. Everyone looked at each other and shrugged. Pink Floyd is one of those bands you don’t really cover, but we said, “We fucking love that song, so let’s do it.” From there, Alan went to work on the arrangement. It wasn’t intentional, but it worked out that it fit the overall theme of the record. Every song on the album is about dealing with change in a different way, or at least how you think you’re going to deal with change. I don’t think there’s a single person out there that doesn’t think that having more money would change your life and make things easier.
When did the theme of change come up for Defy?
It was post facto. It was during the same time period, after we’d recorded everything and listened to everything to figure out the track order. It ended up being a common thread that we discovered.
How do you write lyrics for Of Mice & Men?
All of the songs live on my phone. I always type lyrics into my phone, and it’s always just right there. Once I write something, I bounce it off the guys. ‘Tino is kind of the go-to guy. He and Austin wrote the lyrics for “Pain” on Cold World. ‘Tino and me wrote the lyrics for “Relentless” on that same album. There wasn’t that much different in the way we approached Defy.
Let’s walk through the songs on Defy and see what comes up. What can you tell us about the opener, the title track?
We put it as the opener for a reason. We feel like that song encapsulates the energy of the record. I’ve always said, “You can either let change define you, or you can decide to define yourself through whatever change you’re going through.” If that change is trying to bend you, you can defy that. It was the obvious choice after listening to all of the songs. The decision to name the album that isn’t necessarily for the same reason, or at least not in the same sense of the actual song. For us, it’s Defy in the sense of defying the odds. A lot of people think we’re going to fail without Austin. But for us, music is our life. This change has been a creative force in the band. It’s sad we’re down one guy who had to leave because of his health, but we’re going to continue making music.
It must have been helpful playing shows as a quartet during the writing of material for Defy. Did that give you some confidence?
It did. Going out and seeing what the crowd responded to emotionally and physically, that was crucial for us. It was our lab to test things. We had high billing on a lot of these shows, so we were playing 50 to 60 minute sets. We really got to see what moves people and break down our music elementally and see ourselves in a new light. At the end of the day, this music is us.
The next song is “Instincts.”
That’s actually a song that was written while we were out on the road, and I think that’s why it has that European metal fest vibe to it. Lyrically, it’s about going with your gut. For us, that’s keeping the band going because it felt right. We’ve got a lot to prove to people now, and this is the start of a new chapter.
Then there’s “Back to Me.”
That song is all about feeling like you’re losing yourself. It’s easy for that to happen when you’re going through a major change of any kind, be that moving, changing jobs, changing relationships, people passing away, or births. It’s really easy to feel that a major part of yourself isn’t there anymore. When you’re feeling that way, one way you can remind yourself who you are is to do the things that you’ve always loved doing. You can always find a light, a way back to yourself.
“EVERY SONG ON THE ALBUM IS ABOUT DEALING WITH CHANGE IN A DIFFERENT WAY”
It’s about relenting to change, about understanding that change is the only constant. It’s something that everyone goes through, and it’s not something you can save someone from. You can always do your best to encourage other people.
I think the title says it all. It’s a reaffirmation for us. It’s an uplifting, uptempo song, and it feels so great to play on stage.
What is “Vertigo” about?
It’s all about letting go of the past and understanding that there’s always going to be a gap between the past and the present. You can never really merge those two things. No matter how hard you try, there’s always going to be that gap, and it can be painful to separate. When you suffer from vertigo, one of the things they tell you is not to fight it, just to understand what’s going on. That’s an important part of navigating a change.
Next is the cover of “Money.” Did you notice anything about the lyrics when you performed them?
I love how tongue-in-cheek the lyrics are for that song. It’s super clever. I wish I would’ve written it.
And “How Will You Live?”
It’s all about trying to reconcile rationality and emotions, about what you think versus what you feel and finding common ground between the two. If you’re not careful, that can literally tear you apart.
Next is “On the Inside.”
It’s a song about how no matter what your situation, what you do for a living, no matter how much money you make, you’re always going to be at the point that you feel like you’re breaking. Other people may not be able to recognize that or distinguish that anything is different, but, on the inside, it’s what you’re going through.
The pace picks up with the next song, “Warzone.”
It’s a representation of a panic attack. I love lyrics that have visuals, and this one has a lot of those. I like to imagine whatever a person is talking about, so similes and metaphors are important to me. I also suffer from anxiety and am prone to panic attacks, especially at night. That song even sounds like a panic attack, sonically. It’s claustrophobic in regards to the tempo and the chaotic elements in the song. So, it even feels like a war zone.
That song references a lot of our older songs. If you look at the Of Mice & Men catalog, the songs are all empowering. It’s about mind over matter. It’s about getting over a terrible situation. We wanted to celebrate that. Lyrically, I allude to four songs, one from each of the previous records. Sonically, it feels like an old Of Mice & Men song.
You already talked about “If We Were Ghosts,” but did you want to add anything else?
We’ve all had that moment when a person is gone, and we think what would it be like in an afterlife, if we were reborn, or whatever it’s like after this, and if you could see that person again. “If We Were Ghosts” is very somber. That song is important to us. And Chester was important to us. We don’t always get a chance to say goodbye. It’s important to remember that.