INTERVIEW WITH MARC MOTLEY BY NATHAN KATSIAFICAS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANABEL DFLUX
Lead guitarist Marc Motley of Los Angeles based mathcore band The Arson Choir talks about the band’s diverse influences, what it’s like trying to grow an up-and-coming band during a pandemic, politics and racial divisions in America, and whether metal is the best media in which to address them. The Arson Choir released its second ferocious EP Invisible Monsters in early October and is known locally in the LA scene for the band’s frenetic live performances.
The Arson Choir is a young band, having just released your sophomore EP Invisible Monsters. How was it putting out new music during a pandemic so early in your career? Did you have any hesitations?
The thing with Arson Choir and the thing I’ve always tried to keep in my brain is this band could end tomorrow. The pandemic has showed us that everything can change in an instant, so adjusting to that and understanding that, you have to appreciate every single thing that comes your way. I mean, the drummer could leave, the vocalist could leave, something could happen to me where I could no longer play music. It just became something where it was more of a “this needs to get out, we have to do this, no matter what!”
“IT’S OUR HONEST FEELINGS ABOUT WHAT’S GOING ON. IT’S NOT SINGING ABOUT DRAGONS AND GOING INTO TIME LOOPS”
Hopefully, people like it, and at the end of the day, it’s releasing stuff that I have to get off of my brain, no matter what. There was definitely hesitation, but that would’ve come no matter what because we’re releasing something that means a lot to us. It’s our honest feelings about what’s going on. It’s not singing about dragons and going into time loops or stuff like that. We’re singing about emotional things that affect us everyday. I think it helps to connect with people that way, too, like, “You’re going through something the same way I’m going through something.” It felt like the right time to have those kind of conversations.
What would the band have been doing right now were we not in this pandemic?
The plan has always been for us to play as many shows as possible. I feel like that’s one thing this band has done very well. Our live show is very much a large part of how this band conveys our message and music. Having a band is a performance. I like a lot of bands that are able to exactly replicate what they did on a record live, but at the same time, I like a band that puts on a show. I feel like there aren’t a lot of bands in our area that have kept that mentality. They very much just get up and have that tough guy stage presence. They aren’t putting a lot of energy into it, a lot of risk into what they do. And I feel like we do that. We jump on stage because if you’re not there to see a show, it doesn’t feel like you’re there to do half of what’s going on.
“OUR LIVE SHOW IS VERY MUCH A LARGE PART OF HOW THIS BAND CONVEYS OUR MESSAGE AND MUSIC.”
Bands like The Chariot, Every Time I Die, The Bled, they put a lot of energy into their shows. I hope that we captured 20–25 percent of that. We just get on stage and go crazy. I think that was a big part of what was hard to translate with our content. We weren’t capturing what we do live, so we had to figure out something else. How do we capture our energy and translate that in a way that can be conveyed through the screen? When shows come back, hopefully it’s like, “I wanna see that! Whatever that is, that’s what I want to see!”
Invisible Monsters feels very timely in terms of lyrical content, delving into issues of police brutality, systemic racism, and racial injustice. Have the reactions to your new release been positive? Are your fans connecting to the messages in the songs?
The easy answer is yes, there have been a good amount of positive responses. I do think that the conversations need to be there. They need to be started. We’re not going to get over in certain places, and that’s okay. I understand that there are certain places with certain mindsets that aren’t very receptive to what we have to say. And that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with having those conversations, but I like to have the conversation, not an argument.
This is what we believe. There’s a lot of stuff in the record that Phil [Phenegar] our vocalist goes through. He goes through it every day, just being who he is, dealing with different interactions with the police, and the subject isn’t new. These are all things that, as guys of color, we’ve all experienced something. Three members are Hispanic, and Phil is who he is. And a lot of what he says talks measures of what we all go through and what we fear. It’s weird seeing a lot of the body cam stuff that’s coming out. It’s like these things were probably going on a lot before they were being documented. And it needs to be talked about.
“THE RECEPTION FOR WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT IS POSITIVE, BUT IS IT ALL POSITIVE? NO. THAT’S OKAY”
There needs to be a new standard held for these interactions, and I feel like if we don’t bring these conversations out, it’s not going to be talked about. Yes, it’s delicate, and yes, it’s sensitive, and yes, it’s difficult. There are peoples’ feet getting stepped on, and they don’t particularly like it when that happens, but that’s how growth happens. The long-short of it is, yeah, the reception for what we’re talking about is positive, but is it all positive? No. That’s okay, even if you’re talking bad about me, you’re still talking about me. If that means bringing up what The Arson Choir’s opinions are and you may not agree with them, you’re still talking about The Arson Choir.
Historically, loud rock, metal, and punk have always been political. Why do you see metal as a good media to get this kind of message across?
I actually don’t. It’s not. To be completely honest, I don’t see metal being a great art form for this because it’s not received well. It’s not always the best reception when you have the conversation of like, “What band do you like?” etc. because you have a lot of gatekeepers, and I hate being that guy, but there is a lot of that. “Your metal is not my metal,” or, “Your metal has too much this, or too much punk, or isn’t tuned low enough.” To me that turned it less into an open conversation of bringing these subjects up and more into like, “Let’s just not fit in.” I don’t want to fit in. If you’re going to be the guy who is upset that we’re not tuned to drop Z on an eight string guitar, I don’t feel like talking to you. That’s not what this is for. This is for mental release, this is for community, this is for our scene, this is to bring us together. And I feel like the metal community lost that somewhere.
There definitely has been a very welcoming community in the past, and there are kids and dudes that love what we do and that’s great. But in a weird way, we definitely had a lot of pushback, where, “Your metal is not my metal, so I don’t like it!” And I lost that mentality a long time ago. We’ll play with anybody, whether we fit or we don’t. Punk, hardcore, metal, metalcore, mathcore, noisecore, I don’t give a shit. Let’s just go play a show and have a good time! If we can leave with one person that connected with us for 10 minutes? Cool. If we can leave with a hundred people that connected with us? Even better. But is it the best platform to have these kind of conversations? I don’t know. I feel like there’s a lot of noise and not enough things cutting through the noise.
“YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO PUSH BOUNDARIES. YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO START THOSE CONVERSATIONS THAT ARE A LITTLE UNCOMFORTABLE.”
There’s a lot of bands that are just bands. This is coming off super judgmental and big-headed, I’m sorry, but there’s a lot of bands that I feel like maybe don’t have a message, or maybe don’t have something that they stand behind, because it’s almost controversial to stand for something now. You have to play things so safe right now, because you can’t step on any toes. If you offend somebody, you have to spend the rest of your career playing it safe and making sure you’re not hurting anybody’s feelings. I’ve seen a lot of bands that are okay with that. I like being able to have a conversation that is at least able to be out of the norm, to push the boundaries. I feel like art in general shouldn’t be safe, you should be able to push boundaries. You should be able to start those conversations that are a little uncomfortable.
For a while now, I’ve seen metal be safe and be not willing to push some boundaries. I miss something like System of a Down or old Rage Against the Machine, where there was something in there that was pushing the envelope, that was pushing the message. I don’t remember anymore what Slipknot stands for. I don’t know what a band like Lamb of God means to anybody anymore. When I was a kid, I remember those bands pushing the envelope, pushing the message, pushing something more than just, “Hey, we’re metal.”
Listening to Invisible Monsters, it sounds like a Dillinger Escape Plan kind of show, with fans doing backflips off of the stage into the audience. How did you find a way to capture that energy?
Well, first of all, thank you. I really appreciate that. It was really a difficult task to find a way to capture what we do audibly, to translate what we do live, even in a practice space. You hear something while you’re playing it, and then you record it and hear it back. And it may not be exactly what you thought it was, or maybe the room sounded different at the time. So, just finding a way to translate what we do in general, it can be a fight. We spent a lot of time contacting, emailing, Facebook messaging producers, studios, engineers, like I have probably a good hundred messages from different people just trying to narrow down who we wanted to work with. That was tough because we’re not like a gigantic band. We don’t have this massive budget, but I still want what we do to sound right, to sound good.
“WE GET TOGETHER AND WE BANG OUT SONGS. WE YELL AT EACH OTHER AND FIGURE OUT HOW TO MAKE THIS WORK.”
The problem that we had is that there’s a lot of places right now that are more than happy to do digital, and that’s it. Like, “Whatever we do, we’re going to do it in the computer.” So, digital drums, digital amp, the only thing that’s real on a record is the vocalist, and even then, that can be autotuned. We ran into a lot of studios that were ready to set up an electronic drum set and capture drums that way, and then we’ll get samples and use those as the drums. And then, we’ll bring in a Kemper or an Axe-Fx and we’ll capture it that way. A big part of this band is not doing that. We still get in a room together and bang out songs. I know quite a few artists that they’ll transcribe the songs onto the computer, and then send it out to each member and that’s the song. That’s songwriting. We don’t do that. Flat-out, that’s just not something we do. We get together and we bang out songs. We yell at each other and figure out how to make this work.
I feel like that organic procedure needs to be captured as well. You need to be in the studio, you need to be in front of an amp, or behind the drums. It’s not the same being on a computer and programming it. I get that side of it, it’s cool. I like that music, too, but for me it sucks the life out of it. I didn’t wanna do that for us. I wanted everything to be as real as possible. So, there’s a series of behind the scenes video that we did that are Kevin [Kincaid] playing drums. You can see the mics and the board, and see we were in a studio—well before the shutdown—getting the work done. I feel like that’s a big part of what bands are forgetting right now. It’s so easy to have just one person put together everything and go, “Here, here’s the song!” It’s a lot more organic to go work with your dudes and figure out what the final idea is gonna be.
Listening to The Arson Choir, comparisons to Every Time I Die, Converge, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and The Chariot all come to mind. What are your influences personally and the band’s influences musically?
First of all, just being put in the same sentence as any of those bands is amazing. Those are all bands that I’ve looked up to since I was young. Artists I look up to are Jordan Buckley of Every Time I Die, Ben Weinman from Dillinger. I feel like those are the first names that come to mind. I like weird dudes, too. I like Chris Arp from Psyopus, that dude is an amazing guitarist! And then I have the weird ones, like Munky and Head from Korn—those dudes’ dissonant sounds, they’re a massive staple in a lot of music. Keith Barney from Eighteen Visions is an amazing guitarist, Brendan Schieppati—he’s in Bleeding Through, but he was also in Eighteen Visions—he was a big influence. Their guitar sounds are very distinctive to me.
When you start getting into the band’s influences, that’s where things begin to get weird because while Phil and myself are very much influenced by mathcore and noisy bands, some of the other guys, it doesn’t really translate as much. They’re into Underoath, Lower Definition, Glassjaw, Saosin, My Chemical Romance. It’s cool, we try to pull from everything. I think that having the title mathcore has helped us to play whatever we want. One day it might be something catchy and poppy, but the next day it might be something super spazzy and mathy.
“WE DON’T LIKE TO BE PUT IN A BOX, WE DON’T LIKE THE BOX.”
Being able to have that umbrella to go, “Today we feel like doing this,” and, “Tonight we wanna do something more this way,” gives us the ability and the leeway to play whatever we want. We may not be 100 percent what you’re there to see, but they’ll be something you like. And on the other side, you may not be there to hear Fall Out Boy, but you might hear something like a Fall Out Boy riff in there, just because that’s something we’ve grown up on. I like weird 27/16 time signatures that make no sense to anybody, but on the other hand, sometimes I just want to hear a hooky chorus. I feel like nobody or no band should ever be just one thing. I know we started with this and I’m circling back around to this, but I hate dudes that are like, “I only like this kind of metal.” I feel like those people, their vision is so narrow. They’re not opening themselves up to experience other kinds of music. We don’t like to be put in a box, we don’t like the box. The band talks about the box all the time. I feel like once you get in the box, you’re expected to do something. I hope as people listen to the songs they see that we know where the box is, and every time you hear something in the box that’s coming, we’re gonna go the other way.
Where do you want to see The Arson Choir go in 2021? What hopes do you have for the band and the music scene at large?
Like I said earlier, with this band I try not to have too many goals down the line, because it could end tomorrow. I try to keep it as realistic as possible, that helps me to appreciate everything. I always try to treat any time I pick up the guitar as the last time I get to pick up the guitar. As soon as you accept that mentality, as soon as you begin appreciating everything, it puts a lot more things into perspective. It put playing our last show at a skateboard shop into perspective, where it’s like, “Shit, that was a great time! We had a great time!” If that was our last ever show, we played to 50 people that were dancing and having a good time and really enjoyed what we were doing. If that’s the last thing we do as a band, I’m happy with that, I had a good time. I just wanna get back to playing. I would like to get to touring. I would like to be able to work on the next record, whenever that’s going to be.
“AS SOON AS YOU BEGIN APPRECIATING EVERYTHING, IT PUTS A LOT MORE THINGS INTO PERSPECTIVE.”
The goal is to be able to play shows with our dudes in Takers Leavers and Steaksauce Mustache. We love those dudes and we love those bands. Our goal is to be able to get back to playing shows with them, and seeing them regularly. That’s the hard thing, not seeing my dudes in other bands play or be happy to play because we can’t do anything right now. I wasn’t expecting this band to do much of anything, let alone have something like War Against Records behind us. The huge goals would be to make it to the East Coast, and then let’s make it to the UK and then to Japan. For some reason people really like us in Australia, so let’s make it there.
As far as the scene, especially the Los Angeles scene, there’s always been an oversaturation of entertainment. Especially after this pandemic, I would like to see the scene come back strong, and people appreciate bands and entertainers that are able to perform again. When you go out in LA, when things were busy there were 12–22 shows a night. It’s not possible to hit all those shows, it’s not physically or monetarily possible. But I would hope that when we’re able to have some sense of normality back, that people go, “Let me go see a show, let me go support my friend’s band, let me go support these bands that I don’t even know about and maybe I’ll find like two or three that I actually really dig.” It goes back to being a community. I think that’s what we lost, and we were getting to the tail end of what looked like the end of a scene. Now that we’ve had everything shutdown, I’ve seen so many of my friends say, “When shows come back, let me know! When there’s something to do, let me know, I’m never staying home again!” Hopefully, it’s shown them to appreciate how many bands are out there working hard, whether they’re playing to 10 people or 500 people. Hopefully, this reinvigorates live music in the scene.