Shai Hulud have been a respected name in metallic hardcore and punk since they were founded in 1995. Named for the giant sand worms that appear in Frank Herbert's legendary Dune novels and known for frequently referencing high fantasy, comic books and classic films, Shai Hulud also have a deep relationship with geek culture. Built around core members Matt Fox (guitars, lyrics) and Matt Fletcher (bass), they have at once struggled with the logistics of never having a permanent, dedicated vocalist while still managing to maintain a sense of aesthetic integrity and consistency across their records. Their latest release, Reach Beyond The Sun, is their only full-length to feature a vocalist who also performed on another LP: Chad Gilbert, who also produced the record and is best known for founding the pop punk band New Found Glory. The collaboration between Fox and Gilbert has paid off on Reach Beyond the Sun, resulting in an album that features sophisticated lyrics and complex emotional registers along with slick production and incredibly hooky, sing-able choruses, especially on the tracks "To Suffer Fools" and "Think The Adder Benign." Coming off three days of doing press, Exclaim! was able to talk with the exhausted but still enthusiastic guitarist and songwriter of Shai Hulud, Matt Fox.
So, is playing music a passion or a compulsion for you?
I would say passion. The only compulsion that I have are motor ticks.
I was wondering if it was pure Superman love that drives you, or if you are a little more like Rorschach in your devotion, "we do it because we're compelled."
I think it's more Superman than Rorschach. I almost wish that is was more Rorschach but that's not accurate.
Well, he doesn't seem terribly happy, and doing something out of desire instead of craziness is probably a better state to be in for your own health.
A good point.
I have always found it curious that, despite being the primary lyricist and songwriter, you do not sing.
No. I don't typically have the right kind of voice. Every once in a while I can access it for like a word or two, but it's not consistent. Typically I sound pretty bad when I scream.
You've said that before when talking about Shai Hulud's search for a vocalist, that you are looking for a specific kind of voice. What is that kind of voice?
I think it's just a pissed-off person sound, straight up. What seems to be popular these days is kind of a more manufactured sound where there's a lot of posing or a lot of fabrication to it. I think that my band comes from a school where it should be... like, somebody you love is about to get run over by a car, and the only way you can save them is by yelling to let them know that there's a car coming. That's the voice we're looking for.
So you're kind of going for something between anger and panic?
Panic? Wow, that's an interesting way to put it, I wonder if that's the case. If you could equate panic with a sense of urgency which I guess you could, that is what we're looking for. With the advent of metalcore where you've got your pig squeals and you've got your really high highs, that kind of vocal showboating — a lot of people who have been sending in auditions, that's kind of what they do. Instead of somebody who just kind of picks up the mic and yells because there's something in their heart that they simply can't speak. It's more important than that, and that's why they yell it. I don't know if I'm painting the wright picture, but that's what we're looking for. And those voices are there, and I think even the people that send in auditions that don't sound like they have those voices, they may very well, but it's just not the popular approach. I don't think that it's an approach that a lot of people are doing today.
You're finding that most voices are more considered and affected than raw or emotive?
Exactly. Affected is the best word. That's exactly what seems to be prevalent today and that simply doesn't work for us.
The need for a very honest voice is certainly necessary for all your work, but particularly on Reach Beyond the Sun, which hinges on emotional authenticity even though the ideas can be quite sophisticated. On each track you get the sense that what is there couldn't be duplicated, that what is there will never happen exactly that way again.
That's a good way to put it. I think also you could say that's partially a sense of urgency too, where it couldn't be duplicated exactly, whereas with a more affected vocal style, it's something that you could replicate over and over again.
Which much be very comforting, to know that you can do it over and over the same way.
Exactly. And I don't know if that is necessarily the truth, but I like that, because there is also this fear that I have when recording that if a singer gives me a take that might not be perfect but is good enough, I say "Okay, let's go, let's move on from there," because I'm almost afraid, I don't want anyone to blow out their voice or I'm afraid that we're not going to get it as good as we already had it, so let's take what we have and go. I think that's a pretty accurate — it's funny we're trying to give terms to this, because it's so intangible. And then your mother and my mother and all the mothers across the world will say, "It's just the vocals that I don't like." The harsh vocals, to my mother, I could play her the best of the best of our auditions and the worst of the worst, and she would say, "Why can't you pick either of these guys?" But there really is a certain sound that we go for, and without spending all the time in the interview talking about that, I think we nailed it (for Reach Beyond The Sun) with urgent, not affected, genuine, angry and emotive vocals. Hopefully that pinpoints it and anyone who still wants to audition, you know what to send in now.
So you're constantly fielding audition tapes still this deep in the process?
Yeah. It's definitely slowed down. When we first posted it we got quite a few in and it lasted for a while, but now we get an email every once in a while, people wondering, the stragglers saying, "Hey, are you still looking for a vocalist?" The site is still up, and though we haven't made mention of it in a long time, we are still accepting things, But yeah, the auditions have definitely slowed down as we haven't been actively discussing it in the past month or so.
At what point does the difficulty in finding or keeping a vocalist or at least the same vocalist consistently, at what point do you accept that as part of your aesthetic?
Oh jeez. Well, I think I've both accepted it and not accepted it. I have not accepted it in that we are constantly still looking. I have accepted it in that not once — well, not often in over a decade — have we let it stop us. So, we continue to go with or without a vocalist, we always have somebody do the job, because we hope the music and one relation to it if we're fortunate enough to have that is what transcends any particular member, any particular face or voice, myself included. Even though I write the majority of the stuff, we hope that the music is above all and I think it is, because we have been managing to tour pretty consistently over the course of the years, and it's the music that keeps bringing people back. If we have somebody different on stage every time, it doesn't slow down the reaction and the visceral relation in a live setting through the music. Whether it's a guy named Jeff or a guy named Joe, whoever is delivering it, as long as it is authentic and sincere and doesn't sound like a cartoon, people will be there to receive it and relate to it. So, we've accepted it in that fashion, while we still persist in trying to find someone. But even right now, we have a fill-in for the next couple tours, we're set and he sounds great, and we're definitely ready to go. But all that said, I'm not giving up the look for somebody. I think the day that we finally say, "Okay this is what we are going to do, we're going to take different people out of every different tour, obviously it is never going to happen," then it is resigning to the fact it is our lot and our aesthetic. But I'm doubtful we're ever resign to that entirely.
Who is going out with you on the next couple of tours?
It's a guy named Justin Kraus, he has a band from Philly called With Life In Mind.
Because of is other band commitments, he can fill in but it isn't something that could become a permanent relationship?
Well, we're not sure. I think we'd like to see, I think he and us would like to see how the tours go. Then, first of all, if he would be, if there's a mutual interest after working together, then dealing with logistics to see if it was possible.
Despite the constant shifting in vocalists, it is notable that Chad Gilbert, who sings on Reach Beyond the Sun is the only vocalist to appear on more than one Shai Hulud album.
Two full-lengths he's sang on. Chad's also done some other stuff with us, he's done a few EPs, but this is the first time in our existence where the same singer has been on two albums.
And at vastly different points in his life and career. What was it like working with Chad again? He was a teenager when he joined the band initially, and now he has his own very established career. What was it like coming back and working with him again?
He joined when he was 15, and it was kind of interesting because the last time he and I were in the studio together he was a teenager, he was 18 years old. Come on, 18. We've been in touch and we've been friends and we've seen each other, but we hadn't really been in the extended company of each other since he was a kid. So even though we knew each other and were were excited to spend time together, I don't think either of us knew the ins and outs of each other's characters. But that said, it went fine. We have a lot of inside jokes and have had a lot of years to reference, and there is definitely a lot of love between us. But he was also serving as a producer, and he's a producer that comes from a much different area of music than I do. I lean more towards the progressive side and he learns more towards being more straightforward and catchy. We really came from polar opposite corners and we had quite a bit of a tug of war until we met at a healthy compromise somewhere in the middle. I think that the album Reach Beyond The Sun is the perfect result of that.
So you were sort of able to navigate the tension that was there and bring out the best in each other?
I think so. And it definitely materialized on the record, because I think you can hear both influences. I think you can easily hear where I'm pulling one way and he's pulling the other. And maybe I'm saying that because I'm so immersed in it, but I'm pretty sure there are some parts on the record where someone would be able to say, "ah, well that's definitely Fox's idea." But we had a good time, definitely not without its struggles, as with when any two people are with each other for 12 hours a day minimum. We also had our different ideas and such. But I think it's all's well that ends well, because the end result is a great album. Plus, I just saw him play with New Found Glory like two weeks ago, so friendship maintained and nice little bundle of joy to appreciate at the end of all our toil and hard work.
To spiral off in another direction, I am curious to get your thoughts on the intersection between nerd culture and metal culture. Nerdy things have always been involved in the content of the cultural references Shai Hulud makes (even in your band name) and the general aesthetic of the band. How does that show up on this current record?
The first thing that comes to mind is that in the song "Man Into Demon," I definitely stole a line from Clash of the Titans. If you remember in the original, when Zeus is referring to Calibos, he says he will be "a mortal mockery," and I definitely stole that. In fact, I was writing the lyrics in the studio, and I know Clash of the Titans pretty well, but I wanted to be entirely sure, and I was staying with a friend, and I texted her and said, "I'm going to be home really late tonight, but do you have Clash of the Titans?" She said yeah, and I said, "Leave it on my bed, I have an idea." I didn't just want to paraphrase it, I wanted to take it. That is part of that culture, I love Clash of the Titans. And anything I can do to take anything I love and put it into our songs and regurgitate it is awesome. I love doing that, and everyone in the band loves doing it.
They become these small cultural touchstones, and there's a moment of camaraderie when you get a reference.
Yeah, absolutely. And I don't know how many people connect with the original Clash of the Titans, I like to think they do. We've always made tons of references, and it is seldom, more seldom that I would like for sure, that someone comes up to me and says, "hey, nice Silver Surfer reference." I'd like that to happen more often. In another song, the title of which is a Tolkien quote, "Faithless Is He Who Says Farewell When The Road Darkens," the first line is from Fantastic 4 #38, with the Silver Surfer, as written by Stan Lee, saying "rather let me fail than never to try at all."
Why do you think that there is such a huge overlap between heavy metal culture and nerd culture? Why have we all read Lovecraft and Tolkien?
That is a difficult question, so hard to even speculate on. Without even an avenue to a full answer in mind, I can say that I have always been a kid. I love all of the things that I have always loved, I've never been the kind of guy to say, "yeah, I liked that when I was a kid." If I liked it then, I like it now. And maybe metal, and those things from your youth, I am never going to grow out of them, that will never be the case for me. I think maybe it's not metal in general, I think maybe you're taken by a genre of music at an early age and if you're fortunate enough to have any remote success at it, it's almost like you don't have to grow up. I mean, Kirk Hammett is over 50 and I just saw he got three new guitars, including a Bride of Frankenstein guitar, and the funny thing is, that was one of the things that endeared me to Metallica on a personal level, reading about them when I was a kid, Kirk Hammett likes the Munsters, and I love the fucking Munsters. At the time, I was 13 and he was probably 25. So maybe it's the never growing up thing, and if you can get in music, you never have to grow up. You can still love dragons and superheroes, and still be cool instead of drooling and never having kissed someone of the opposite sex.