When Metal Insider started the No Label Needed contest, we didn’t have a “sound” or genre of metal in mind, we just wanted the band that won to have an independent spirit whose music was good. Iron Thrones embodied everything we were looking for in a winner, and the resulting EP that they recorded has also struck a chord with metal radio, as it’s currently the #3 album on CMJ’s Loud Rock chart. We caught up with guitarist Steve Henningsgard to talk about what they learned since winning the contest.
So to lead things off, what do you think you accomplished through winning this contest that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?
There are a lot of small and large things from every aspect of the band. But radio promotion is something that we would have never gotten into without somebody teaching us how to do it, just because it’s not really obvious from an outsider’s point of view how to get on more than a couple of radio stations, like local stations that you know about and just hope things work out. A lot of the background, like CMJ and such, are things that you don’t really know about unless you go searching for them. A lot of the music industry works based on the mystery of not knowing how to make things happen (laughing). Working with a company that knows it and does it a whole bunch really helps when it comes to radio.
Also, anybody can write up at least a remotely OK press release if you have writing skills or if you look at other ones. There’s pretty much a format to them and there is definitely an art to it to making a really good one, but the difficult thing is getting the mailing list and the respect of the people on that mailing list to actually post your press releases, and that’s again something that doesn’t just happen. You have to build up a rapport with those people and have a consistent quality. We have a list of people and sites we can send things to, but we don’t have established relationships with them and we don’t know the exact timing that makes sense. So it’s always things you can do as a D.I.Y. band, but it’s so much easier going through someone who has all the established connections already.
How different would you think The Wretched Sun would have turned out if you just did it yourself or with the same producer that you did the last album with?
Well we did the last album ourselves, and so you can easily run into self indulgent things when it comes to production. Like putting more and more harmonies until it’s as big as you think it should be, which doesn’t necessarily fit what other people to get out of it that you want them to. But it’s definitely different then it would have been, and I wouldn’t say it’s more or less “Iron Thrones” then it would have been. It’s not like we went in there and [producer Will Putney] Will gave us all of these new riffs to learn (laughing) and then we went to play his stuff. There wasn’t even any time to. We were doing 18 hour days over and over again in the studio just to get what we had down. There was definitely an influence with the pre-production side of it. Having somebody else to suggest “maybe we bump the tempo here,” or “maybe you guys could think about how strongly you feel about this part? Do you think you could rewrite some part of it to make certain thing make sense?” Just suggestions, but suggestions that I don’t know if we would have come up with ourselves. It definitely would have been different and definitely wouldn’t have been as much of a punch in the face as this one is. That’s definitely Will’s style, just kind of a “Hey how’s it going? I’m going to kill you.” (laughing). There’s not going to be any part of the record you can ignore or lay back to. It’s just full force the whole time, which for going through the whole contest it really works as a wake up for a lot of people to have production like that.
Out of all the things you’ve gotten so far out of the contest, what have you been most surprised to learn about that you necessarily known?
What I’ve really been most surprised about is, you always hear that “control” is the biggest part of being an independent band, and you never really get a sense for what you have control over until you don’t have control over it (laughing). There’s always parts of a band that you’ll have complete control over regardless because, unless you’re a band that has somebody else writing for you, you’re always going to have your own material. But it’s relinquishing control of little things, and it’s really deciding, like I think we have a much better sense of deciding which of those elements we want to keep control over and which ones relinquishing control, like the benefits out any potential consequences of being misrepresented in some way. It’s having other people that aren’t in the band make decisions for you, and it’s finding people you can trust to make good decisions for you on your behalf. It works the same with booking agents, even with producers. It’s finding people you can work with. That’s just as important, because if you can’t work with somebody or if you can’t trust them then you’re going to get a bad taste in your mouth from any of it, and then try to do it yourself. But being exposed through this contest through people that do know what they’re doing and you do feel confident in just letting them do their thing, it’s nice. It’s refreshing to have people doing that, and if you have the money to pay for it then go for it (laughing).
Is signing with a label your end goal or did this sort of teach you “Hey, we might not need to”?
Really, and this is definitely connected to the last question, we have a really good sense for what things as a band that we’re not good at, and that it would either take us a long time to get good at or we never would be good at. Building connections is one thing. Being on an established label where all you have to say is ‘I’m on this label’ and booking agents will say “Ok, let’s book a tour,” I mean it’s not completely that simple, but finding a label whose strengths compliment our weaknesses and who accepts our strengths and doesn’t try to take over for them, like the fact that we can record ourselves is a big strength to this band because the recording budget doesn’t have to be literally anything from the label, like they literally don’t have to pay a cent they just have to pay if they want mastering. Finding a label or any business that can give us what we need and stay out of our way for what we don’t need, if we can find something like that, then it would be ok working with a label. And if we can’t, we won’t (laughing). Simple as that essentially.
Have you found that your profile has risen since winning this?
It depends on which facet you’re talking about. The major metal blogs, that were obviously connected to the contest, any time we do something they’re posting about it and people are seeing it. And having, in my opinion, the material to back it up and really surprise people that a band like us actually won this contest and that we didn’t just go in and make a really commercial recording really helped us out. Because I think people are more open to hearing about what we are doing. On the flip side, it’s not like we all of a sudden became a huge band. We’re still desperately trying to book dates two weeks from now that we’ve been trying to book for two months for a tour. We’re still at the same place we were at in some ways, but I think the potential has grown a whole lot just through the different parts of the contest.
Have you had any more established musicians reach out to you and be like “Hey I heard your stuff, and it’s really cool” or even from anyone regionally that had ignored you before?
Other than the direct contest participants, not too many of them. Prior to it, even from just getting into the top 20 of it, Eyal from Daath contacted us and said he really enjoyed the record. He and I had a pretty long, ongoing conversation about just music in general what not. It’s been kind of a building process, and I think a lot of the steps we were taking before winning the contest were part of the reason we won the contest, and that’s why it seems like it fit so well because we were all ready on our way to doing some of these things, but getting such a huge jump from the people we were starting to work with anyway really helped.
What advice would you have for any band, other than win a contest that gives you all kinds of cool free shit? (laughing)
You need to secure all the different pieces, like the booking, the recording, the marketing/promotion, and the online/MySpace management. All those pieces have to be there and it’s really important to sit down as a band and figure out who has what strengths. If you don’t have anybody in the band that can record you or has any interest in really doing so, then find somebody you can trust and work with. The way Between The Buried And Me worked with Jamie King for all their different albums, and how the band and his production kind of grew together, is a certain perfect relationship because any aspect that you have figured out then you don’t have to think about it anymore. Because a lot of bands when it is time to record go “Oh shit, what do we do? Who do we go with?” while this band was like “Ok, we’ll hook up the mics and do it.” (laughing) Taking out little pieces like that is important and finding people to fill in the pieces is the second part. And really taking it from that perspective versus just sitting around and hoping some label finds you, gives you a billion dollars and says “Here, now you’re huge” – building a career is a better way to do it and finding the pieces, putting it together and really doing it is what’s going to happen. Also it’s realizing that management is probably the single most important part of being in a band that’s trying to do anything. The manager is the person that decides when to go on tour, how to plan an album cycle, and how to get everything put together. Until you have a manager, the manager is you (laughing) and without you managing yourself then you’re not ever going to get past a certain point.
What do you think the band has learned the most through all of this? I mean obviously you’re a band and have played together for a while, but you were sort of sequestered for a couple of weeks making a record.
The things you can’t learn are how to work together as a band. Because essentially you’re marrying the other people in the band, without certain obvious aspects unless that’s your thing I guess (laughing). Figuring out how to essentially live with people, it’s just as deep of a relationship as with the music, and the music is the release of it. We’ve all kind of built a respect for each other because you really learn about people when they are under a lot of pressure and when they just have to perform, like when you don’t have an option. At one point in the recording it was four hours until we had to wake up and get to our plane and we were still recording solos (laughing) so it’s like you don’t have time to screw up. Whatever you do is going on the record and it better be fucking good. So it’s really learning about ourselves, our own weaknesses and what we really think we are good at vs. what we’re actually good at. Also, when you’re in that much pressure, you tend to reach out. Lyrically, I think all four members had something to do with the lyrics on this album.
Had something like that happened before?
No, nobody had ever written any lyrics other than the singers in this band, and really nobody had written any guitar parts except for a couple on the last album and on this one our bassist wrote an entire song on it. On the flip side, none of us had time to write each other’s parts other than if we were writing the actual songs. We all had to just really quickly understand what the other people were doing and put it down on tape as it were and do it. We got really solidified and we also got a whole list of homework of stuff that we had to work on ourselves. The last thing is realizing that potential is just potential. It’s the same as talent. You can be the most talented guy in the world and sit on your ass playing Halo all day (laughing). It’s not just going to happen out of nowhere.