Kill The Lights / James Clark On The Making Of Death Melodies

With their seismic debut album, The Sinner, released at the back end of 2020, Kill The Lights announced themselves in a blaze of firepower. With the new album, Death Melodies, released this Friday, it made perfect sense to catch up again with vocalist James Clark to get the lowdown.

Kill The Lights – Death Melodies (Fearless Records)

Release Date: 8 March 2024

Interview: Steve Ritchie

Death Melodies is a perfect, layered Metalcore album, and you can hear half of it live when Kill The Lights are over here in April for their UK tour.

James Clark spoke with MetalTalk Editor Steve Ritchie from his base in Minneapolis. “I’ve been here for about 20 years,” he said. “My accent’s a little ruined. I had 18 years of England and then America on top of that. It becomes Australian somehow.” Being from Norfolk and having spent many years in North London, I’ve experienced the same accent issues.

Kill The Lights
Kill The Lights – Death Melodies – Out Today

We last spoke in November 2020, just as Kill The Light released The Sinner. “If you look back, that was the Covid era,” James says. “A lot of hard times to many people. Hard times in the music industry as a whole and a hard time to release records. We’re pretty excited this time to be able to get out there and tour and do all the fun stuff that comes with being in a band. It was a long few years, but very constructive as well with what we got going on and what we managed to achieve.”

This was an especially tough time to form a band and make a record. With all the work going on behind the scenes, the excitement of those first few live shows must have been immense. “It was such a relief,” James says. “The first couple tours we did were still under the Covid stringent rules. Testing every day and all that kind of stuff. For our upcoming European UK tour, we are just super excited to get out with the boys and meet and greet the fans, which we haven’t had a chance to do yet.”

The Sinner was received really well. Playing that live must have been quite an empowering experience for Kill The Lights “Yeah, it was great,” James says. “It was very well received by fans and press. You never know when you get together as a group of guys, what people are gonna think about it. It was really nice to see. We hoped we would get such a response but it was really nice to get that affirmation.”

The Kill The Lights writing process for Death Melodies has been going on for a long period of time. “With pushing back the first album a little bit, we had already had some songs in the bank,” James says. “We continued writing. We had a couple of sessions in Minneapolis. We had a couple of sessions in the Covid period. The only place we could all meet up then was Canada. We did some UK writing sessions and some writing sessions on tour. We used anything and everything we could to be able to work together and write. When we went to the studio, we had about 24 songs that we had to pick 12 from.”

Death Melodies is a great album. Again, it is one that takes you on a journey. Opening on Hear You Scream, right at the start, Kill The Lights announce their intentions with the first scream. “We spent a full day in an Airbnb just listening through all the tracks and figuring out the track sequencing,” James says. “The world’s become a bit of a singles world these days. But for us, it was important to try and create a bit of a journey in those songs. Some depth, some ups and downs. I think we did that.

“It brings you on a bit of a journey through the song styles and ups and downs and heavier songs, more mellow songs. It’s a bit of a journey through the whole record, which we’re pretty excited about. I think we achieved that pretty well.”

I definitely think they achieved that. I love the change of pace as Hear You Scream progresses. Guitarists Jordan Whelan and Travis Montgomery are exceptional throughout the album, but the guitar interplay on this first song really sets the scene well.

“I’m very lucky to be able to play with such talented guys,” James says. “The way they’ve managed to meld together. Both their styles are slightly different, but they come together really well, and they complement each other. This is a great example of that alone. So some cool bass screws [from Jason James] in there as well, particularly in the chorus. It’s just come together really well.”

The advantage of listening to this on headphones is that you get to experience the layers in the songs much better. The song finishes on quite a doomy stomp. James sings, “The world is bringing me down.” Lyrically, he has reached into himself with the topics that he is talking about on this album.

“I think it was really important for me,” James says. “To be honest, with all the build-up we had with the first album and not really achieving quite what we felt we could do with that, just based on the restrictions we had… For me as a musician, I haven’t had quite the success that some of the guys have had in the band. I felt that, on that first record, we had done something pretty cool. I really hoped it would project us with a lot of opportunities. I think it would have if COVID had not hit.

“I think it’s a balance of those emotions happening going into the second record and a mix of just dealing with my own personal anxieties, stresses and depression. Some of those pieces that a lot of us all deal with. Relational challenges, life challenges. I don’t care your age, your ethnicity, where you’re from. We all deal with a lot of the same things.

“That’s a big part of what this record is about, but also about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I want people to at least take away that, hey, yes, I’m addressing and acknowledging this. But sometimes, there is a bit of hope at the end that we can turn it around. We can get through stuff.

“At the end of the day, we just need to talk a bit more. If people were a bit more willing to talk about the problems, society as a whole would be a lot more healthy.”

Die Alone follows. This is superb. There’s a wonderful riff at the beginning. I really love the way Jason powers his bass through. This will be a great one to hear live and I can already feel the bass and drums blasting through my feet as I’m standing near the front of the stage.

“That’s one of my favourite songs on the album,” James says. “It’s the sweet groove and some of the drum beats in there too that Moose [Michael Thomas] pulled out on that floor. A bit Pantera-esque. We try not to break the mould.

“But we’re trying to push stuff that you probably wouldn’t expect a Metalcore band to do. Whether it’s a compliment back to an old band or whether it’s a look forward to some more modern stuff. We’ve tried to keep it interesting while still maintaining what we are. We will always be founded in that Metal / Metalcore genre. But there’s nothing wrong with exploring different grooves.”

Die Alone has a great sing-along part in the chorus, too. There’s a slow-down part before the epic solos, and then it’s back to the chorus. The riff is really big in the outro. When there are sections like that in a song, is that something difficult to craft together as they are writing?

“We do different phases,” James says. “So certain songs will write themselves. This one, that intro, which is also the outdo riff, initially, when we demoed it up, we didn’t come back to that riff. Some of the guys were like, maybe it’s too obvious. It’s just such a good riff, though. I want to hear it again. I just felt we needed to go back to it. That was one when we collectively heard it like that, we were like, yeah, that works.

“I think oftentimes, we’ll have variations of songs going into the studio. We may change sections of the songs. Some of the songs dramatically changed when we went into the studio, and that’s the magic of the studio. But for the most part, we kind of pre-produce a lot of these demos going into it and know, for the most part, where it’s going to land.

“We’ve already written the album before we rework the album for the studio. It’s how we’ve always worked versus being in the studio and writing. Chris Clancy, one of the producers, is very good with that. Chris is really good with the pre-production piece and figuring out, hey, this is a really strong point here vocally, or this is a really strong riff, saying we need to reiterate this riff down the line or bring it back in somehow.”

Broken Bones is another one that will be really cool live. It makes picking the set list a bit harder. “Doing two shorter runs in the UK previously, we didn’t really flush out everybody’s love for The Sinner. But I think it’s also important to play the new tunes as well. So I think it’s gonna be a very solid mix. We’re playing for over an hour. I think we’re at 14, 15, 16 songs for the set. So, it should be a pretty good balance of both. Probably a bit more Sinner, then a good seven new tunes.”

Bleeding is a song where James’ vocal range shines through. I love the way this song builds. In the second verse, the pace picks up wonderfully. He is screaming, “And no one hears a word you say”, in the middle part. It’s really atmospheric.

“I’ve been in bands for 20 years,” James says. “I feel like musically, this is the best surrounding I’ve been in. I tried some different things, whether it’s falsettos, some different screaming styles and different singing types. I did truly try and push myself to see where it would go and believe me, it didn’t always go. It wasn’t always the right thing at the right time.

“But I think if you’re not pushing yourself, you could easily fall in doing the same, very generic kind of song over and over again. With Chris Clancy, who is a great vocalist himself, we tried some different stuff, and if it worked, it worked.

“I think trying to create some of that dynamic where you have some subtle soft falsetto or quiet allows the heavy stuff to be way heavier or the gang scream or whatever it is to be way more impactful. We tried to create as much dynamic in songs as possible.

“Then we picked some songs where we just wanted to bang all the way through. The vision was seeing everybody just headbang through the entire song. You need those songs, too. I think we did a pretty good job with that.”

It works very well. The range of the vocals is one of several Kill The Lights aspects that stand out a lot for me on the album. Scapegoat has some wonderful shredding at the start. The whole band has really pushed out on this record. It’s really impressive.

“Scapegoat just sits in that Metalcore genre,” James says. “That’s Jay’s zone right there with that screaming specifically. To open it with that solo groove, so it’s got a lot of energy, that’s another one that’s likely gonna be played live.”

There is an almost late ’80s early ’90s feel to Man Without A Face, especially to the verse around the riffs, the rhythm and James’ vocal. “That’s one of my favourite songs on the album, to be honest,” James says. “I love that. The groove to it, the thrashy vibe to it. Again that was one of the ones I fought for on the record.

“What’s interesting about the record is having 23/24 songs, we really had to dig deep in deciding which twelve would make it. That was one that was a bit borderline. But for me, it was one of my favourite tracks.

“When you chat with the guys, I think most of us would have a little bit of overlap. Everybody’s got three or four different favourite songs out of twelve, which is kind of crazy. But, hopefully, what the listener finds out is a good thing because it means you’ve got some good songs on the album.”

On Scapegoat, Kill The Lights, throw in a really fantastic melodic chorus, which will be a fist pump for the crowd. With a wonderful soft middle, this is another epic song across a pretty epic album. “There are different dimensions to that, right?” James says. “There are different vibes and work going on in that song. It starts off pretty intense. You talk about the pretty sing-along chorus, and then we bring it down to build it back up again in a pretty epic way as well. There are some really nice dynamics in that song.”

James adds, “Lay me to rest”, as a vocal line which stands out. “We sit down and ask, does this lyric work? Have we used it too much because it’s easy to do that when talking about some of the same themes? Can we make this line better? There’s quite a lot of reflection on the lyrics.

“On an average song, sometimes I will listen to it, and I’ll write it, and it’s done. It can be done in ten minutes. Other times, I’ll probably listen to it, I’m not lying, a couple of hundred times before I capture where it is and how I get there. Other songs need a rewrite, and then the rewrite is where you find the magic. They talk about 10,000 hours of wood-shedding practice to define your craft. I think I’ve got a few hours in that.”

Suicidal, with its beginning, I was tossing up in my mind whether this would be a set opener or the first song of the encore. “You’ll have to wait to find out,” James says. “That’s in my top three, top four probably. It’s got a bit of a Thrash vibe to that one. I’m a bit of a Thrash guy, too. I always love it when we can pay homage to the Thrash Gods.

“There are people doing it these days but to accent it and use it, but use it within the genre too and highlight your influences and show, look, here’s a nod to Thrash. We appreciate it and want to incorporate it as part of our sound. It’s just a really nice dynamic. Jordan and Travis can write stylistically too, but blend it with the other styles we’ve got going on.”

When James spoke earlier about the journey through the album, you have closure with Drowning. James has been very open about his mental health issues in the past, which makes Drowning quite an emotional listen in the context of the album.

He sings, “Let’s wipe away your tears and cover you in gold,” at both the beginning and end of the song. This is slow and very poignant. It is goosebump-inducing when you think of the aggression of the album and its power through all the changes. It is a message of hope at the end, isn’t it?

“Yeah,” James smiles. I appreciate you letting me know that because it gets me that way. I think it’s just a collective release of breath, like feeling some of that weight you’re letting go a little bit. You’ve told your story. You’ve said what you need to say. I love how that one came together, too.

“It’s an interesting story about that process, too. Writing with Travis on that one, he hit two notes randomly. I’m like, open note… play that again. Open note it. I had the first melody for the verse, which was written in about 10 minutes. That being said, I left him at the studio, and we had no chorus. I’m like, just throw something down. I got a quick idea, and I’ll throw it down. That was it for the chorus.

“And again, another one of my favourite songs on the record. It just came together. That’s got some kind of groove in it. It’s a really, really cool groove in that chorus riff. You don’t always hear it. There’s a couple of layers in there, but it’s really cool. Like I wouldn’t even say a Gojira riff, but it’s this really cool kind of groove in that one.

“But then it’s got kind of some of that ’90s grunge-esque vibe Soundgarden influence in there too for a melody. But that’s what I heard in that song. You listen to the verses, it’s got a bit more of what would be considered more of a modern melody vocal line. It’s another piece of texture that we found, and it works. It sits nicely in context with the rest of the album, too.”

When I first heard the song in the context of the album, when James finished the closing line, I wrote down that it was the closest thing to a very Heavy Metal cuddle you can get from using your ears.

“That’s the best quote I’ve heard yet,” James smiles. We just wanted to end it to the point where you’re satisfied but want to go back and listen to it again. I’m proud of what we did, proud of being able to share stuff, and people just seeing, hearing, and acknowledging it. It’s very cool to hear that, so I appreciate it.”

Listening to Death Melodies, you get the sense that Kill The Lights have really worked hard between themselves to develop something special. There is no sign here of the difficult second album.

“I think a lot of bands struggle with that second album,” James says. “They have probably five or ten years to figure out the first one, and then I feel so many bands struggle with that second one. I think for us, we came together as guys that have had their own style, doing their own thing, and we figured it out somewhat on the first. On the second one, I think we have defined who Kill The Lights really are. We created our own band sound.

“It’s not these dudes from five other bands in this supergroup thing. Now, it carries its own weight. They’ve figured out the sound, what they like to do and how they do it. We haven’t shied away. We didn’t shy away on the first record to be able to do songs that are a bit more ballardy or, a bit more radio. But then we didn’t shy away from heavy stuff either. So I think we’ve covered the same again on this.

“I just think we managed to take what we did on the first… it’s more seamless and it’s melded together way better. We kind of figured out how to write the songs a bit better and I think we stretched all those things that were good in slightly different directions and pushed the boundaries on it. But, it’s funny, every band’s gonna say the next album is a better one.

“The listeners will be able to tell. They’ll figure it out themselves.”

Kill The Lights – Death Melodies – Out Today. Exceptional. Available from here.

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