On August 28, 2010, Chris “Rover” Rybicki (best known as Unearth’s first bassist) was riding his scooter when a drunk driver struck him. Though he was rushed to the hospital, Rybicki passed away from his injuries on September 20, 2010. In hopes to honor their fallen former bandmate and help his family, Unearth and a few of their friends are holding a benefit concert on February 19 at the Saint Michaels Hall in Lynn, MA. Admission to the show is only $10, with all of the proceeds going to Rybicki’s family. In addition to losing their former band mate and close friend, the past few months for Unearth have been anything but calm. Last October, the band parted ways with drummer Derek Kerswill. Despite still searching for a permanent drummer, Unearth are already in the studio recording their first album since 2008’s The March, and are prepping for a big Summer. Unearth’s frontman Trevor Phipps took the time to talk with Metal Insider about the upcoming benefit show for Rybicki, the band’s upcoming recording and touring plans, the search for a new drummer and who will be playing on the next studio album.
How did this benefit show for Chris “Rover” Rybicki come about?
Some of Rover’s friends approached Buz [McGrath, Unearth guitarist] about it, asking us if we’d be into helping out with the costs for all of the arrangements that were made for his funeral and stuff. So it was a no brainer for us to play the show for his family.
Is there anything special that you’re planning for the show, or anything special that fans can expect? Or will it just be a regular Unearth show?
It’ll be our show. I think we’ll play a bit more of some older stuff during the show, stuff that he played on. He played on our first two EPs and our first full length. We might play a handful of songs from those albums. That’s about it for the most part, playing the songs that we play that normally would be on our same old shows. We’re having a bunch of bands from the past that are playing with us like the band No Choice, which was the band that he was in before Unearth. Old friends of the band Gasket, they’re still a band now but they’re not really a full time band. They were a very busy band in the late 90s when we first started, and we’ve played a lot of shows with them. So it’s just a cool, local vibe for this show. Hence why the show will be in Lynn, MA, to keep that local vibe?
Yeah, I mean that was a place that we used to play when he was in the band, before the band started full time. That was the reason why he wasn’t in the band. It wasn’t a bad break. That was back in 2001 when he left the band because he just couldn’t tour. The band was starting to tour full time, but we stayed friends with him since then and we would hang with him all the time, and he would still come to all of our shows. So that’s why we went with Lynn, and he’s from Lynn to so it’s just a whole local thing for us.
I was actually just about to ask before you mentioned this, but even after Rover left the band in 2001, you all still kept in touch?
Yeah, we were still good friends with him. He only left the band because he couldn’t tour. We’d hang with him each week. He’d come to our shows when we played in Boston, Worcester, or Providence. He’d always come out and hang and just play with us. He was just a real good dude. And that’s the reason why we’re doing this too. He was a great friend to us.
Are there any particular moments or memories you had shared with Chris that really stand out for you?
There’s a bunch. I mean, he was just a funny guy. He had a very dark sense of humor. He always had the dirtiest jokes in the world. I still remember the time when we actually couldn’t get into Canada because of him, because he [had] some kind of stuff on his record before. So this one time we’re going up to the border to try to get in and [laughs] he brought a fifth of vodka with him. And then we were like “Alright this is the last chance to get into Canada. Let’s toss that bottle,” and he wouldn’t. So he just guzzled the whole thing. And he was fucking hammered by the time we got to the border, and they wouldn’t let him in because he had a record plus he was hammered. That was just kind of the way he ruled. He just didn’t give a fuck about much at all. He just wanted to have fun and live his life, and that’s about it.
How do you hope people will remember Chris?
He’s actually on our DVD [2008’s Alive From The Apocalypse]. So if people want to get an idea of who he was, it had a bunch of segments on that DVD that he’s on talking about us and has a bunch of face time on there. I think there is actually some clips of shows. He just loved playing bass. He also played guitar, not in Unearth, but he was just a great player. A funny guy, a good dude, like I said a dark kind of humor, and that’s him. He loved his beer, he loved metal and hardcore, and he loved his jokes.
Shifting to a different topic, the band is currently in the studio recording a new album. How is the recording process going?
It’s great. We just started drums yesterday, actually. I’m not there today and I’m gone the rest of the week, but they’re all out there at Zing Recording Studios in Westfield, MA right now taking care of that. Then we start guitar next week, then vocals. Adam [Dutkiewicz, who is producing the new album] goes out on tour with Times Of Grace, his new band, in February. So we’re going to put the finishing touch on a couple of songs while he’s gone, and then in March I think we’ll do one or two more songs. It should be mixed by the end of March, and then we should have a late June release. We actually switched up mixers because Adam’s busy with Times Of Grace right now. We actually haven’t really announced this yet, but we’re going with Mark Lewis for the mix. Adam is still doing the production and engineering, but Mark Lewis is doing the mixing.
So once the album comes out in June, are there any Summer plans set for the band?
Yeah, the touring for this album is already shaping up. We have a big tour this Summer that we can’t announce yet, but it’s a pretty big tour that we’re very excited about. It’s in North America. Followed by something in Europe, that’s not confirmed yet but that’s the next thing. I think it’s a few days away from being confirmed. Then I think we’re going to be heading over to Australia and Japan, and maybe do some other dates in the Pacific Rim. And then I think we’re talking about doing some more stuff in the U.S., probably around Novemberish. So we have a bunch of stuff lined up already, so that’s pretty cool.
You mentioned just before that the band is laying down drum tracks for the new album. Who is actually playing with you in the studio right now?
It’s Justin Foley, he plays in Killswitch Engage and Blood Has Been Shed. He’s doing the drumming on this record because Killswitch has some down time. Times Of Grace is doing some stuff now. So we just asked him to help us out, do the tracking, and he was totally up for it. So he’s out there with them right now tracking the drums. He’s a great drummer. We’ve been friends with him for a long time. He’s the guy for the job for this record. It kind of buys us time, too, as opposed to starting our search now for a drummer. We can just nail this record with him and then start our search after that.
Will you start the search for a permanent member before touring then, or will you just be looking for a touring session drummer?
We haven’t gotten that far. I mean, he [Justin Foley] has his main band. So he won’t be our next drummer, of course. If Killswitch is still inactive by the Summer, which I kind of doubt, he might do a tour with us, but I think he’s got his own stuff with Killswitch. I think it’s just this record that he’s going to help us out. It might be one tour. I can’t say right now because we just don’t know. But after this record in March, we’ll start our search for the next drummer.
A lot of fans were surprised to hear that Unearth had parted ways with drummer Derek Kerswill back in October. Could you provide any insight as to what caused the split?
It was a decision that we made because things just kind of grew apart. We tried to write this whole Summer with Derek, and he had a different idea of what this was going to sound like then we did. This band has been together since 1998, so we didn’t want to listen to a different person’s perspective so much as in that the band has its own vision. Derek is a really good guy. He’s a great rock drummer. As far as metal goes, he’s very good, but I think the band wanted someone who could be a bit more extreme. And Derek has a lot of great, great, great things on his plate. He’s got his own band T AN GE NTS, and that’s a great rock band. I think that that’s what’s in his soul, and the band could tell. We talked to him and we were like “Look, this is what we’re feeling,” and he was like “Alright.” I think there’s no hard feelings. He’s a good dude. I haven’t spoken directly to him since, but we’ve traded emails and they seem friendly. So everything is cool.
You’ve mentioned how Unearth has been together since 1998. Since then, the band has gone through a few lineup changes. What would you say is the hardest part of splitting with a band member?
Telling them [laughs]. I think that’s the main thing. For us, it’s mostly the drummers that we can’t get down with. With the bass, we’ve only had two bass players, first Rover and now “Slo” [John Maggard], but Rover was only because he couldn’t tour. He couldn’t get into Canada and that’s a place bands go to tour all the time. But as far as drummers, though, I can’t tell you man. Our first drummer [Mike Rudberg] was an awesome dude and we’re still friends with him, but he just didn’t want to tour anymore. He actually left tour in 2003 with Shadows Fall. We played a gig, and he said “This is it. I’m going home.” So we had to fly in a fill-in for the last half of the tour, which was really weird. The drummers we’ve had since, I can’t tell you why. It’s just not the right fit for some reason. The drummers we’ve had are all good. It’s just not that piece of the puzzle that we’re looking for. I think our first drummer was that piece of the puzzle. He’s from this area, we’re great friends with him, but he just didn’t want to leave home anymore. Touring isn’t for everyone. It’s fun at first for those first couple of years, but then people can get tired of it. And I think that’s just what happened with him. We’re hoping that the next guy we find will be that right fit that we can trust for years to come.
You mentioned how it really helped that your first drummer, Rudberg, was from the Mass area and a close friend. Are you limiting yourself to finding a new drummer also from the Mass area or are you open to auditioning anyone?
We’re open to people. We’ve actually got a couple of guys that we’ve been talking to from different parts of the country and even Canada. They’re all great drummers. We’ve had them make videos for us on YouTube. It’s been pretty low key. They’re all guys that people have told us to check out. We haven’t ‘opened up the gates to heaven’ for open try outs yet. Just certain guys who people have told us are great drummers, and they’ve all been really good drummers. There’s a very short list right now, but I think come March or so we’ll have more time to focus on checking out other people as well.
In addition to Unearth, you also run Ironclad Recordings, a subsidiary of Metal Blade Records. How do you manage to balance being a part of an active touring/recording band while also running a label?
Well, I have a Blackberry. I have a laptop with all the info I need. I have a friend back home that helps out with it. He’s actually a partner in the business. I also always hire out people to do radio and press for the bands, and they have the distribution through Metal Blade. So it’s all set in place. I put out a few bands a year. It’s not like a full time thing. It’s just bands that I like a lot and that I’d like to help out. It’s a fun thing. It’s cool to see bands succeed that I helped out. That’s why I do it.
Does the rest of Unearth have any issues of you juggling both while you’re on tour?
It doesn’t really matter. There’s not much to do on the road besides play the gig. So it actually helps kill some time.
Well that’s a productive way to kill time!
Yeah, you can check out the area that you’re playing in. You could sit in the guess room and bitch and complain about being bored, or you can do something. And that’s what I’ve chosen to do.
Are there any new releases off of Ironclad Recordings that you’re currently excited for the most? Full Blown Chaos! They have a self-titled record coming out on the 1st of February. The record sounds just like them. It’s very fucking heavy. It’s a very good record, and they’re actually going out as main support for Malevolent Creation from February 11 to March 11 on their North American tour. So they’ll be on tour a bunch supporting this record, and I think it’s a great one.
What would you say are the biggest concerns or issues facing independent/subsidiary labels heading into 2011?
Lack of sales because of downloads. That’s just the main thing, because the stores won’t take in records anymore. Best Buy, recently their actual music section has really dwindled down a bunch because they just want to turn profits. They’ll have maybe a couple of CDs of the band, but they won’t take in a bunch of stock, and if it’s past its prime selling time they’ll just return the ones they have. So it’s not really like your CD will be in there for a long time. The band has to actually take off or it’s nothing, and that’s kind of a bummer for the bands that are trying to push. Especially in this style of music because it’s not really poppy, it’s not mainstream, it’s not going to fly off of the shelves in the first month or two. They’re bands that have to build. People have to trust that that band is touring and actually trying. There are so many bands that it’s hard for the bands to break through. With downloading, people just take the records and that’s eventually going to really hurt the small labels and the bands just starting out.
Couldn’t you say though that downloading is already hurting the labels? It definitely has. I’ve seen it in sales for bands that I’m friends with, my band, and bands on my label. I’ve seen even the sales on iTunes going down each month. It’s just a fraction, but still, you can see it trending down, and that’s just what’s happening right now. It’s just a bunch of torrent sites and people just get shit for free. It’s frustrating and I see why people do it. It’s still free, but it’s still killing this business. There has to be a different way, but there hasn’t been an idea yet to save it. I’m all ears cause I’m still thinking myself, but the shit is for free and there’s no turning off the internet.
In addition to CD/album sales, concert sales took a big blow this past year as well. Do you see future struggles for touring as well?
The tours that we’ve played on have actually been really good. I’ve heard the touring side of things not being so sweet. I think that will survive. I think if there was a downside to it then it was just because of the economy right now, and that people just don’t have the money. But if the recession does rebound, I mean, I think that people will always love live music, so that will survive.