Ironic appreciation of traditional heavy metal is nothing new. Vintage-style Hellhammer and Iron Maiden t-shirts are sold to subculture tourists for astronomical prices on St. Mark’s Avenue and at Urban Outfitters. Flip on the television, and you’ll see celebrities inadvertently wearing heavy metal inspired designs by high-end fashion houses. Heck, Norton Anti-Virus appropriated Dokken for a series of commercials comparing the metal band to computer viruses. So, judging by their name alone, it would be easy to assume Necromancing the Stone, are just another batch of imposters, metal-come-latelys operating with a wink and self-satisfied smile awaiting their payout—but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Comprised of five veterans of the extreme metal scene, Necromancing the Stone instead allows these well-versed professionals to celebrate the sound of the albums they grew up with. Consider it a thank you to all of the bands who came before them.
We chatted with guitarist James Malone (who also plays in Arsis) while he was driving through Mineral Wells, Texas, with his girlfriend, on their way to visit an abandoned hotel.
Since we’re going talk about the ’80s, I thought we should start off by finding out how old you are, and how the ’80s figure into your life.
I’m 36. So the ’80s are quite nostalgic for me. I didn’t have the experience of going to a lot of shows or anything, but it seemed like a swell time.
Did you have any older siblings that influenced your upbringing?
My sister is three years older than me, so she was able to introduce me to stuff. She spent a lot of time watching MTV. That’s how I saw the Twisted Sister videos. That’s how, when I was five, all I wanted for my birthday was a copy of the Twisted Sister Stay Hungry album.
Did you get it?
Yeah! My mother relented and purchased a copy of it for me, along with a Fisher-Price record player. She also picked up a Masters of the Universe record so she didn’t feel so badly about getting me a metal album. That was pretty much exactly how and when I got into metal.
I’m just going to assume you guys are also fans of Romancing the Stone.
Oh yeah. I grew up watching that movie. My mom had it in heavy rotation. I still remember the scene with Kathleen Turner and her little bottles of liquor in the beginning of the film. I thought that was so cool, that she was able to buy all those little bottles of Gran Marnier. And Michael Douglas was quite a badass. The scene that really stuck in my head was the airplane wreck they come across. The dead pilot with the aviators and the Grateful Dead shirt. You know, having some age on me now, I understand that the plane was for drug runners. Never occurred to me the first time I watched it. I’m also a huge Danny DeVito fan. He’s great in these films. I need to revisit Jewel of the Nile. I mean, the Billy Ocean theme song is great. When the going gets tough, the tough get going!
Do you have a favorite ’80s film?
I do. It’s a tie between two films, actually. I would say either Heathers with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, and a vampire film called Vamp with Grace Jones and Robert Rusler. Tarantino actually borrowed a lot of from Vamp for From Dusk Til Dawn, and I just think Vamp was done a lot better. It’s vampires and strip clubs, but it’s also got this ‘80s college comedy aspect to it. The shots are really awesome, the colors are so awesome. Grace Jones plays the head vampire and like, doesn’t have a single line in the film. She just looks bizarre. It’s just a really cool film. I think highly underrated, as far as vampire films go. Vamp also has a really great soundtrack. I think the composer was named Jonathan Elias and like, that guy did a record with Robert Downey Jr. He also did the soundtrack for Children of the Corn, and a bunch of other 80s horror films. It’s just everything you can expect from an 80s soundtrack. It’s got minor scales and dissonance and this new wave, synthpop aspect to it that I think is really rad.
You’ve been in Arsis for a while, which is a bit more extreme. What’s it like getting the chance to play in something a bit more traditional?
I’ve been doing the extreme metal thing for quite a while. Since maybe the early 2000s. I started writing a lot of the material for the first Arsis record in the late ‘90s. So, you know, having the opportunity to do a band like Necromancing the Stone is great. Kind of a breath of fresh air.
In Romancing the Stone, Kathleen Turner’s character is a romance novelist, and she’s writing her own fantasies as a way of living them out. So, how does that relate to real life? Are there soulmates?
I think my current girlfriend and I are soulmates, in a way. I think it works out in the most random places and ways. You know, you meet someone and you just kind of, super get along.
What about obstacles?
Obstacles can be a positive—you overcome them together, and then you strengthen a relationship. Relationships do one of two things: they either play to your strengths or play to your weaknesses. And that can be any relationship you know, co-worker, bandmate, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife. You either enhance each other’s weaknesses or each other’s strengths. I definitely think that it’s possible to find somebody out there and play to their strengths. Even shitty situations can be kind of fun at that point—with the right person.
So how did this album come about with all of you being so pre-occupied with other projects?
The way it all came about was kind of interesting. Justin Wood and John Williams are in a band called Brimstone Coven together. I’ve known Justin Wood for probably 12 years now. At one point we both lived in the same town in West Virginia around, maybe, 2004. We kind of lost track over the years, but about two and a half years ago, while I was living in Pittsburgh, I ended up running into him at a show and going back to his house and meeting his wife. He and John had a project called Necromancing the Stone going for a while, but they couldn’t find the right personnel, so it was kind of on the shelf. They asked me if I would be interested in playing guitar on some of these tunes and I was like, ‘Sure!’ Then I checked out the compositions and they were awesome.
Then, randomly, Jeramie King of Dritt Skitt, Ribspreader and Infernaeon messaged me on Facebook and as like ‘Hey, dude. Can we rock?’ I told him I was going to be doing this project for funsies, if he wanted in, we needed a drummer. He thought he could bring Bart Williams on for bass—he’s ex-Black Dahlia Murder. In like a month, we had a demo, and we were shopping it. It just kind of blew up overnight.
It definitely seems that way—I mean, you went straight to Metal Blade, right?
Yeah! So it really worked out well. I immediately had a bunch of ideas for songs and Justin and John liked them. Justin and I had a great way of playing off each other and, going back to before, working off and enhancing each other’s strengths. It’s a weird mix of extreme metal dudes, and we definitely bring that in our attitude and a few technical aspects, but, with the vocals, John is pretty much a crooner who brings to mind Jim Morrison. There’s the whole tongue-in-cheek aspect of it as well…
I was trying to relate that to Romancing The Stone—there’s a theme of false identities and people re-presenting themselves in a new light. You guys are all known for extreme metal, and here you get kind of a rebirth with this incredibly fun collection of music.
I absolutely agree. Justin and John are known for their ’70s occult throwback stuff. Jeremy and myself come from more of a black metal background. And now, we’re playing music that is more of a hodge podge of metal genres that just work.
I see a lot of people calling it Power Metal, and I guess that’s due to the lyrics. To me, you just seem like traditional, awesome heavy metal.
I would agree. That’s the first thing that came to mind when Justin and John showed me the demo. It has the New Wave of British Heavy Metal aspect to it—kind of traditional heavy metal thing. I wouldn’t throw it into a power metal category. We aren’t Sabbaton or Blind Guardian. We don’t really have a whimsical aspect. Sure, some of the lyrics are fantasy-based but, to me, it’s just traditional heavy metal on. It’s what we grew up on—with a little Candlemass and thrash thrown in there.
I almost blame the internet for that. Everything is so specific these days. People are like, ‘I’m into extreme death with a little southern sludge and a hint of thrash.’ You can type those words into Google and get a band that fits all those criteria. It’s weird. There’s just so many sub-genres.
The music definitely contains these fantastic tales and, much like the films, the songs have heroes. Like the Crusher in “Crusher” is a hero or the resurrected wife in “Rotted Reunion” or the Necromancer’s wife in “Bleed for the Night.” How would you define a hero?
I would define a hero as somebody who stands behind their beliefs and fights for them—someone who has some sort of conviction that they stick by. There are a lot of different heroes of different races and genders and stuff—it’s really just about having a strong set of convictions that they stand behind.
Did you guys consciously write the album with a specific plotline in mind?
There are definitely stories being told on the album. For example “Rotted Reunion” is about a necromancer whose wife dies and he uses his powers to bring her back from the dead. But, you know, she’s actually pissed about it. She’s mad to be brought back. So, John will come up with initial ideas and vocal melodies, maybe a verse or two, and the way we wrote the rest of the lyrics would be a collaboration. John might have a verse about how excited the Necromancer’s wife is to be revived and then we’re joking around like, ‘She’s not in the mood,’ and then we get something out of that.
In the same vein we have another song on the record called ‘Bleed for the Night,’ which is kind of about a female character that’s into blood magic, and uses the most powerful blood magic she has—which involves her own blood—and she ends up dying. This is so ridiculous, it’s practically out of a D&D campaign. But I’m relating all the songs in my head and I start thinking, ‘This chick with the blood magic is the Necromancer’s wife! So that song should go earlier on the album, and then she dies so he can bring her back midway.’
There are other songs on the album like ‘From Graves to Infamy’ which is about a tribe who are being attacked, and they have to use their necromancer powers to resurrect a dead army. So I can make connections between the songs, so while the tracks were written separately, I can make the argument that it’s a concept album. But that’s mostly just me being creative and making parallels between the songs.
Have you guys ever considered making a video album?
That concept is super fun, to do some sort of huge production with concepts. I think Queensryche tried to do something like that, and they released a video but, unfortunately, it didn’t come together well. It’s not a full-on production film in the way I wanted it to be when I bought it at age 12 or 13. The only real consistency was that they are wearing the same clothes in the video, which is just evidence that they shot the whole thing in one day. But just having the budget to do that would be incredible.
The industry has changed so much since you all started—how have you been holding up?
Actually, this is for Bandcamp, right? That’s a pretty cool site for independent artists. Everything has just changed so much. Arsis put out our first record in 2004. The numbers that it sold in the first few months, nowadays even a large label would be psyched. Back then it was just mediocre. Nowadays we would have been slapped on a billboard.
There’s not much you can really do about it though. I remember looking at Arsis records and what they sold in the first week, I remember looking at downloads on torrent sites and I realized that if we sold one CD for every five downloads, that would have been awesome.
So much has changed. Remember mixtapes? Record stores?
Even just going into a record store when we were younger. You know, you buy a record just because the cover is pretty cool, and you have to listen to it and try to enjoy it so you justify spending $15 on it. But you also find so much cool music that way. It’s a shame—kids today just don’t have that experience. If you blow your allowance on a record, you’re kind of forced to actively listen to it a few times. In a lot of ways, bands are getting tons of exposure thanks to the internet, even more bands, but it’s not actively forcing people to listen to music, it’s become easier to cherry-pick what they like. It’s just become really hard to convince the younger kids to listen to older records.
A lot of that is just production value. Albums from the ‘80s that had a really good budget, like Master of Puppets or something, compared to records of today, the production probably sounds sloppy to kids. A lot of metal bands are pretty smart, and usually figure out home recording and producing, so it’s really hard to convince that generation to listen to old records. They might pick it apart production and tone wise rather than listening to the emotion and vibe of the record.
For example, I teach guitar for a day job—I work at School of Rock in Texas. It’s really tough to get kids to go back, maybe they are into some metal band now and I’m telling them to go back and listen to early Death albums, but the kids are usually upset and call the bands sloppy. They weren’t sloppy, they just aren’t using backing tracks and computers and autotune.
What age group do you teach?
I teach anywhere from six-year-olds to 50-year-olds. It’s really one of the more solid music educations, as far as the rock-band experience I’ve been involved in. My first instrument was violin, so growing up, my first experience with bands and ensembles was taken from sitting with the metronome for hours at a time, or going to youth orchestra rehearsal. It’s just a totally different ballgame. So, I try to bring a little bit of that to the things that I show my students. Make sure they do a little bit of metronome practice and music theory, along with rock practice.