INTERVIEW WITH MATT FOX BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
Originally formed as a side-project to guitarist Matt Fox’s main band, Shai Hulud, Zombie Apocalypse saw Fox joined by members of The Risk Taken, Shallow Water Grave, and try.fail.try in the combination of melodic hardcore punk and classic thrash metal. After the release of their 2003 debut, This Is a Spark of Life and a split with Send More Paramedics two years later, Zombie Apocalypse disappeared once Shai Hulud signed to Metal Blade in the mid aughts. Now that members’ schedules have cleared and eased up, it seemed like time for Fox, guitarist Matt Fletcher, and co-vocalists Ronen Kauffman and Eric Dellon to resurrect the zombie for Life Without Pain Is a Fucking Fantasy, the short, sharp, shocking result after 15 years of dormancy. We caught up with the always astute, eloquent, and hilarious Fox to discuss coming back from the grave, releasing a record no one wants or cares about, and why zombies are lame.
There’s a bunch to talk about with regards to your return, but take us back to the beginning. How and why did Zombie Apocalypse form in the first place?
That’s actually a funny story as I recall it. Well, funny to me anyway. Matt Fletcher, who joined Shai Hulud in 1999 on guitar and later moved to bass, and I were at a used record and bookstore somewhere in South Florida called All Books and Records. It was a fun, regular stop, and they had a lot of cool media stuff. We were looking at novels a few paces apart from one another, and every once in a while one of us would see something we thought the other would be interested in and we’d say, “Hey, have you ever heard of this?” As I recall it, I said something like, “Have you ever heard of this? It’s like this guy wrote this book for you.” It was something like Lonely Road Warrior Fights Off Mutants in the Zombie Apocalypse. Now, the joke is that I was totally making that up, but he looked up and was like, “Really?!” He got excited and I had to tell him I was just kidding, but we both thought Zombie Apocalypse would be a good band name at the time. Now, zombies are so ubiquitous, but at the time we thought the phrase was so ridiculous and stupid that we had to name a band after it. We went home from the bookstore and I looked up on the internet to see if anyone had used the name, and the only thing I could find was the EP by Mortician called Zombie Apocalypse. Imagine a time you would type “zombie apocalypse” into Google and only one thing would come up? That was good enough for us to start a band called Zombie Apocalypse. There was no musical direction or anything. I guess we knew it would be fast, but it all started from me making up a joke title to intrigue Matt Fletcher.
“ZOMBIES ALWAYS SEEMED TO BE ONE OF THE LAMEST CREATURES. I’M FOND OF VAMPIRES AND WEREWOLVES, AND MY FAVORITE HORROR MOVIE IS PROBABLY THE INVISIBLE MAN.”
From your standpoint as someone who’s really into horror, sci-fi, and the like, what do you attribute the popularity of zombies to these days?
You’re talking to a bit of a cynic here because I don’t really know. The funny thing I could say is that it’s because people are zombies so it’s no wonder it’s spread so rapidly. I really have no idea. I remember when zombies started being really popular. I didn’t understand it. Dawn of the Dead and stuff has always been popular with horror movies fans, but zombies always seemed to be one of the lamest creatures. I’m fond of vampires and werewolves, and my favorite horror movie is probably The Invisible Man. These characters always seemed a hell of a lot more interesting to me than zombies.
Tell us about the return of Zombie Apocalypse.
When we first started, it was three guys—myself, Fletcher, and the main singer, Ronen Kauffman. When we were doing vocals for the first record, we called a friend, a really talented guy named Eric Dellon. His vocals were so good and he never seemed to lose his voice, so we had him do a lot of the backup vocals on our first release, This Is a Spark of Life. He was on the record so much that we just asked him to join the band. His voice was a good counterbalance because Ronen’s voice is kind of high and punky and his is low and metal. So, he’s not an original member, but he’s a longtime member who’s practically been there since the beginning. Throughout the years, we’ve worked together and he actually sang for Shai Hulud for a little while. So, starting at least six years ago, probably even longer, Eric, who is also a phenomenal guitar player and extremely creative, would send me riffs. After a while, he sent me a decent enough collection of riffs that I was like, “Wow, some of these would make for an interesting Zombie record,” because I generally write the fast, melodic, punky stuff and if it’s very thrashy, it’s from him. So, I thought it would have been a great counterbalance and a fun record if we had his writing interspersed.
Was he sending you those riffs with a purpose or just for you to check out?
I think it was to just check out what he was writing. He had a band for a while called Shallow Water Grave, so he would always send stuff my way to get my opinion on it. Once Shallow Water Grave stopped, it seemed like he was still sending me riffs. And out of the blue one day I thought it would have been great for Zombie. Again, it’s been over six years that we’ve been talking about it and a few years ago we decided to nail down five riffs each, and that’s how Life Without Pain Is a Fucking Fantasy came about.
If you started this process that long ago, did there seem to be more talk than action? Did you think it was ever going to happen, and was there as definitive starting point for the album?
Yeah, I would say so. It was roughly five years ago. I couldn’t tell you exactly when, but it was after I had a good enough collection of riffs that it was time to start going through them all to take the ideas and make them into songs.
Was the album written and recorded piece by piece, or did you get in a room together at any point?
It was somewhat Frankenstein-ed. Eric does a lot of home recording and this is a project, but since Dellon wrote five songs and we didn’t have a second guitar player or bass player, he just recorded all his stuff in his apartment when he had time. I came up a couple times to record mine after they were complete. Then, we brought all that stuff to John Naclerio in New York for vocals and mixing. We also did some vocals in other studios as well. It was definitely a bit of a Frankenstein record, which is appropriate, I guess, because he is the most famous zombie.
“THIS RECORD DEFINITELY EXISTS BECAUSE THREE PEOPLE HAD SOMETHING TO SAY MUSICALLY AND LYRICALLY.”
In the time since the Send More Paramedics split in 2005 and now, would you say there has been a buzz or demand for the band?
I’d say extremely rarely. If you’re asking if there was this burgeoning request for us to return, no. Honestly, it’s just something fun for us to do. Shai Hulud has been laying a little low, Dellon didn’t have any projects on the go and he works as a paralegal, and Ronen is a teacher and didn’t have any particular musical outlets that I knew of. This is three guys doing it for fun, and the good thing about that is that there was no call for it. This record definitely exists because three people had something to say musically and lyrically. There was no label pressure, nothing done to satisfy a contract, it’s just because three people who are friends have ideas and they put them to tape, as it were. I can’t stress enough how much there wasn’t a request for a new Zombie Apocalypse record (laughs).
Since returning, and considering you don’t have Shai Hulud as your main focus, has there been any amount of increased expectation and more opportunity thrown at Zombie Apocalypse?
Yeah, there’s definitely been more attention. Zombie Apocalypse probably had our social media pages established around five years ago when we decided to start writing. We had very modest followings, like our Facebook is still only at a couple hundred followers, our Instagram had barely anybody, and I think our Twitter page might be the lowest at zero followers (laughs). Instagram is the one we now seem to focus on and use the most, and once we announced that we’re playing a show with Vio-lence later this year, things picked up. Once we announced the new record, the title, and premiered the first song, it was like, “Yeah.” Not to say we have a lot of followers, but going from six followers to over a thousand in the span of a month is pretty nice. And once Metal Injection premiered “Bullshit Destroyer,” there was definitely much more attention than we anticipated. Again, attention in the grand scheme of things or compared to Lamb of God or something, it’s really menial, but it’s great for us. We always joke that we’re releasing an album that nobody wants and that nobody cares about. But considering we started with the lowest of expectations, we were really pleased with the reception we got upon the announcement we were returning.
You mentioned three people with something to say. What are you saying?
I wrote one song on this record, lyrically, and it’s the dumb one. It’s called “Hey, You Pissed on a Snake,” and it has no redeeming social value—to name-drop an old hardcore punk band—whatsoever. Ronen is the primary lyric writer, and his lyrics are very poignant and not nearly as goofy as mine. He tends to write about fear, the overcoming of it and anxiety, and to paraphrase him, it’s about not becoming the living dead. Musically, we had a lot to say because this record, more than anything, spans genres more than anything I’ve been involved in. I don’t listen to much grind outside of Napalm Death—that’s Dellon’s influence. So, between myself loving old thrash, old punk and hardcore and Dellon being really into modern death metal and grind, we throw all of our influences together, and I think that’s what partly warranted putting out a new record.
What’s up with that James Hetfield sample at the beginning of the album?
Dellon found it. It may have been from The Walking Dead. I’m not sure, but it was from a compilation of celebrities auditioning to play the part of a zombie in something. Dellon found it on YouTube, sent that over to me, and I said, “Are you thinking about this for the start of the record?” He was like, “Absolutely!”
How does a band that hasn’t had a record out in a decade and a half and is a self-professed project score the coveted spot opening for Vio-lence in New York? You realize there are a ton of tri-state area thrash bands hating you right now.
There’s a simple answer. My friend, who books metal shows in Brooklyn and around New York City, sent me a random text asking if I was into Vio-lence. And I said, “Yeah, of course. Hugely. For years.” He knew Shai Hulud wasn’t actively playing shows, but that Zombie Apocalypse was recording, so he asked if we’d like to open for them. Again, as it was just a project, we only had a guitar player and two singers, but we’re all squared away now to have a full band for that show. That’s how it happens. I was lucky enough that a friend of mine was booking one of my thrash heroes from way back when.
I’m assuming that was a kick in the pants to get a lineup together and move beyond project status?
Absolutely. I tend to have a laissez-faire attitude about almost everything, so I didn’t seem to be worried. But Dellon, who is quite the opposite—by that I mean he’s proactive and doesn’t procrastinate —was very inspired to want to have shit nailed down right now. I was like, “God, it’s only February. The show’s not until November.” If it was up to me, on October 31st, I’d start looking for somebody. He didn’t want to go the Matt Fox route, which is admirable, and maybe a month or so ago we secured all the members and everyone is learning and practicing on their own. Sometime soon we’ll flush out the set at practice and have a time to practice a few times before the show.
Who’s in the band?
I don’t know what’s permanent, but right now these are the people who are planning on doing the show. On guitar is a friend of mine named Mark Gumbrecht. He’s a killer guitar player, has done a lot of work touring as a tech, and he played guitar in Full Blown Chaos for a couple years. On drums is the drummer from Shai Hulud, Matt Covey. He played on [2013 Shai Hulud album] Reach Beyond the Sun and does a lot of freelance drum work. I don’t think he’s joining the band. I think he’s just doing that one show with us. He also plays in a progressive punk band called Such Gold. On bass is Pat Henry, who is the singer and one of the songwriters for the pirate metal band Swashbuckle. Unless something changes, this is the lineup that’s playing the Vio-lence show.
“WORK A LOT HARDER AND WORK DAILY, WHETHER IT’S AT SCHOOL, AT MUSIC, AT PRACTICE, AT CREATING…WORK HARDER AND, AS CORNY AS IT SOUNDS, DO NOT PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET”
Given everything that’s gone on in the last 20 plus years, what would the 46-year-old Matt Fox say to a young Matt Fox?
I think it’s important to state that a younger me wouldn’t listen to an older me (laughs). The lesson would be completely in vain. This is also to say that if an 80-year-old me walked into my apartment tomorrow and told me how to better myself for the future, I probably wouldn’t listen to him either. That being said, a 46-year-old me would tell a shittier, younger me to work harder. Work a lot harder and work daily, whether it’s at school, at music, at practice, at creating…work harder and, as corny as it sounds, do not put all your eggs in one basket because I certainly did that with Shai Hulud.
What is Shai Hulud’s status?
I guess the best way to put it is—and I hate the term—is on hiatus. I don’t think that anything I do creatively will ever come to an end unless I’m on my deathbed or physically just can’t do it anymore. I never had any intention of ending Shai Hulud, and when we stopped playing shows, which was roughly three years ago, it came as a shock to me because I had been doing it fairly consistently for 20 years. I never got tired of it. If there was anything I did get tired of, it was the member changes, finding players for different tours, teaching them a wealth of material that I’m told is more complex than the average song. It got to be too much and tiring. A spontaneous hiatus was needed. It won’t be permanent. I don’t know if there will be another album, but we have been offered tours for 2020 and I’m 85 percent certain they will happen even though I don’t know who will be in the band. We will play live again and an album will be great, but there are no plans to do so right now. But, talk to me next year and I might have a different answer for you. Ten years ago we said that we were going to stop Shai Hulud and rename the project. We were going to go under a new name, The Warmth of Red Blood, which was hated universally by everybody. We ended up hating it ourselves. At the time I loved it and everybody hated it so much, but now I hate it so much that I can’t even figure out what I liked about it in the first place. Talk about being a zombie.