The Cover Story

Bad Omens: “Most stuff people in our space are doing is kind of boring… I want to challenge myself and struggle when I create”

Through years of graft and experimentation, Bad Omens have graduated from plucky tour openers to one of the most talked about bands in metal. Ahead of their long-awaited return to the UK, Noah Sebastian and Jolly Karlsson reflect on their rapid ascension and why being the outsider is a good thing…

Bad Omens: “Most stuff people in our space are doing is kind of boring… I want to challenge myself and struggle when I create”
James Hickie
Bryan Kirks
Erin Day

There were many reasons to be excited on Tuesday, October 26, 2016. First and foremost, it was the opening night of the 10 Years In The Black tour, celebrating a decade of Sumerian Records, the label founded by Ash Avildsen, son of Oscar-winning film director, John G. Avildsen.

If that anniversary wasn’t reason enough for merrymaking, the evening was headlined by a rejuvenated Asking Alexandria, with their first live appearance since reuniting with frontman Danny Worsnop, who’d quit in early 2015.

In Seattle’s 1,150-capacity Showbox SoDo venue, the anticipation meant pressure for the other bands on the bill – I See Stars, After The Burial and Upon A Burning Body – but particularly the evening’s opening act, Bad Omens. The Richmond, Virginia band were relative newcomers to Sumerian’s roster and a little on the green side (frontman Noah Sebastian would turn 21 just five days later, on Halloween). Despite a star-making performance, Noah’s recollections from that time focus on self-deprecation rather than self-aggrandisement.

“Ah… Seattle,” Noah ponders seven years on, while considering what advice he’d bestow upon his younger self. “I don’t know if I’d call it a regret, because I’m not sure I could have done it differently, but we did few high-profile tours like that one when we were starting out when we were not as good as we could have been live. As much as the internet and TikTok wants to make you believe you can be a superstar overnight, the live setting is where you have to deliver because you can’t rely on the algorithm or some marketing tactic.”

As you can tell, Noah, now 27 but described by those who know him as “an old soul”, is a realist. He may be speaking to K! from his home studio, but that’s less extravagant than it sounds; it’s in the master bedroom of the Los Angeles house he shares with several other creative types (including Bad Omens guitarist Joakim ‘Jolly’ Karlsson) who have all prioritised creativity over comfort by sleeping in the building’s other, smaller boudoirs. And while the studio has a vocal booth, it’s actually in a converted closet.

Noah is a fascinating specimen who says interesting and sometimes provocative things, but does so thoughtfully and in a relaxed purr that takes any sting out of them. And he generally saves his harshest criticism for himself, anyway. He admits he still watches videos from those early days, harshly critiquing his performances, and believes nothing should come easy to working musicians. So while others wonder how Bad Omens – completed by bassist Nicholas Ruffilo and drummer Nick Folio – transitioned from plucky newcomers to prominent players, for Noah it’s little more than hard work paying off. Although they’ve managed to infiltrate playlists and festival line-ups without much media fanfare, Noah doesn’t think they were particularly deserving of it before now. “I don’t think so,” he replies when asked if Bad Omens should have graced the cover of Kerrang! earlier in their career. "We are a much better band now than we were a few years ago.”

“None of us want to be famous”

Hear Noah on Bad Omens’ expectations and aspirations

But that’s not all; the idea of things being handed out too soon or too easily evidently sticks in Noah’s craw. “I think it’s important to level yourself and try to be as objective as you can be with your own work,” he explains. “You have to realise that if something hasn’t happened for you yet, then maybe you don’t deserve it. I think that’s something lost on people growing up in an age of instant gratification. It’s hard to understand the concept of waiting for something when you can order groceries to be delivered to your house within an hour, or have your opinion validated with one Google search. People get lost in that now because it’s all they know. It sounds like an old boomer thing to say, but you don’t really get those important lessons that thicken your skin and teach you the benefits of hard work or patience – or even pain.”

This line of thought – of someone or something being fashioned by time and experience – intersects with something Noah said in an interview last year about wishing Bad Omens' third album, last year’s The Death Of Peace Of Mind, was every listener’s entry point to his band. Coming from the mouth of another frontman, this would merely be taken as promotional hyperbole, the usual assertion that any new record is ‘The best one yet, dude’. Noah, however, invites a certain type of scrutiny that, as we’ll discover, he’s uncomfortable with and means his words are pored over in search of weightier significance.

In truth, neither interpretation is correct. “It’s a multi-faceted answer,” begins Noah of why he said what he did. “The Death Of Peace Of Mind is our best and most original work yet. While there are things I love about our previous records [2016’s self-titled debut and 2019’s Finding God Before God Finds Me], they felt too safe and on the nose with regards to some of the bands people were comparing us to. But [The Death Of Peace Of Mind] is the most accurate version of who we are now. I don’t want people discovering the band and having a preconceived notion that we’re something we’re not, because the first album came out in 2016. I don’t want people thinking we’re those people or those songwriters.”

Try as they might to evolve, there are still those trying to put Bad Omens into a particular bracket, even if they can’t agree on it, which surely negates the exercise altogether. On the one hand, even with their move away from traditional instrumentation and organic sounds, they’re still labelled metalcore. Others, however, as even a cursory glance at Reddit reveals, are dumbfounded by their inclusion in such conversations. Noah is among the latter.

Raised on a musical diet ranging from metal to gospel, Noah had a predilection for rap. He cites Curtain Call, Eminem’s 2005 greatest hits album, as a formative favourite, with its backing tracks beginning a lifelong love of incorporating electronic sounds. Heavy music, meanwhile, is something he’s grown to find limiting.

“Most stuff people in our space are doing is kind of boring,” Noah doesn’t mind admitting. “I’ve got to a point with heavy guitar music where if I check out an album I’ll think, ‘I could have written this.’ Not in an arrogant way, but I want to challenge myself and struggle when I create.”

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Noah talks elitism within metal and toward Bad Omens

The members of Bad Omens almost burned a house down once. Not the one Noah is in currently, but another a few miles away he shared with the band’s guitarist Jolly Karlsson.

Born in Husqvarna, a city in southern Sweden with a population of 24,000, Jolly became involved with Bad Omens through his association with original bassist Vincent Riquier. He likes to dabble with making house tracks in his free time, but one of his most enduring musical loves, he tells us, is Metallica. “They obviously sound so different to Bad Omens,” qualifies Jolly. “But, ultimately, a riff should be memorable, and if there’s anyone who can do that it’s Hetfield.”

Jolly, a polite interviewee with a nervous delivery and pet cats darting around him, says he and Noah have distinctly different vibes and magic happens when they coalesce. “He will often come up with the foundation and say, ‘I think this could be a Bad Omens thing – can you try and make it like us?’” explains Jolly. “I’ll hop on it and the results may be completely different to what he imagined, which will pump him up with more ideas. The process is kind of like tennis.”

It was during one of these back and forths making The Death Of Peace Of Mind that things got a little, er, combustible. Noah was sitting at the desk in his room, working on a heavy, pulsing interlude called What Do You Want From Me?. As he built its synth loop and layered in some industrial drums, the sounds he was making began to attract attention. Entranced by what they heard, Noah’s housemates got involved one at a time, adding opinions and parts into the mix. Jolly was the last to join, at which point the room was crammed, but not enough to stop this session from going on for two hours.

No-one remembers who smelled the smoke first. In the haze of creativity, the acrid aroma somehow passed everyone by until it became unmissable. Despite the cheapness of the speakers being used, upon inspection they hadn’t blown, so the group opened the doors to Noah’s bedroom, to be confronted by a dense cloud emanating from the bathroom. “There was a fan in there, which was so dusty it had caught fire,” recalls Jolly now. “We couldn’t stop it so the fire department had to come and take care of it. Weirdly, they actually turned up in about two minutes, before I’d even thought to call them.”

It appears that making music so captivating that you stop paying attention to your surroundings is what Bad Omens do. But what does Jolly consider their M.O. to be?

“We’ve proved we can do whatever the fuck we want. That’s how we’re able to put R&B songs alongside metalcore songs,” reasons Jolly, with a caveat. “As long as we merge styles nicely, so it doesn’t sound weird and misplaced, that’s what we’re going to keep doing. It’ll be interesting to see what we do next, but I think we’ll always keep a foot in the heavy. We like rocking out and we’re decent at it, so if the songs are good they’ll be on the [next] record.”

There are some topics Noah Sebastian won’t elaborate on. He’ll tell you, for instance, that he was raised by his Christian grandparents and had “a crazy upbringing”, but he’ll do so to provide context on a topic, such as what it’s like growing up in Richmond, with an implicit understanding that he won’t be discussing the hows or whys.

That’s not to say Noah is opposed to doing press. Far from it, in fact, which comes as a surprise to him. “For an introvert, I love doing interviews because I love talking about music and the more existential aspects of being a creative person.”

He also started therapy recently. Perhaps it’s to deal with the mental fissures of his past. Perhaps it isn’t. Maybe it’s a necessity after the breakdown he discussed in a statement in 2019, after Bad Omens’ well-publicised withdrawal from a tour with The Amity Affliction and Senses Fail. And maybe it’s not.

Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that Noah is a complicated man with complicated feelings, which therapy has undoubtedly helped him articulate with clarity. “I think a lot,” he says. “It’s my greatest asset as a songwriter and a human being.”

“As Bad Omens gets bigger I feel like I get smaller”

Hear Noah on humility and the dangers of the ego

One thing Noah’s eager to discuss, though, is his aversion to adoration. It’s not simply that he doesn’t want the kind of attention that results in baby pictures of him being shared online. His bigger concern is that fixating on him prevents someone from working on themselves.

The problem, of course, is when Noah tries to say less, he comes across as more of an enigma, leading fans to try and fill in the blanks with their own ideas.

“I don’t want to associate with a construct that people who don’t know me make about me in their heads,” he explains. “They put this weird identity on me that might be fun for them but it isn’t very accurate. I’m not necessarily bothered by it, I just want people to do their own thing. I don’t want someone to make me their whole life. That’s not very healthy for anyone. I have all sorts of artists that I admire and I love but I couldn’t tell you where they live or when their birthday is, because I have my own thing going on.”

Don’t believe Noah? Then tell him about the omission of The Death Of Peace Of Mind from K!’s Albums Of 2022 list and the consternation it caused with Bad Omens fans, some of whom contacted us to voice their displeasure. Does he appreciate that kind of support? Not so much…

“I think people being quick to say things on the internet, whether it’s something they’re inspired by or offended by, is a double-edged sword,” suggests Noah. “Those people may be in your corner, speaking for you or jumping the gun and misrepresenting us. As someone who has a lot of pessimistic reservations about social media, it can be very annoying.”

The biggest compliment you could pay Bad Omens, their frontman says, is listening to their music and being inspired to make some of your own. As to what else the band can give to the world, that’s something Noah and his bandmates are still trying to work out.

“As Bad Omens get bigger and my emotional struggles lessen as I become a healthier person, I find myself overwhelmed with a much more loving and empathetic approach to the world,” explains Noah. “I want to focus on the band doing whatever good it can. I don’t think we can do anything huge as far as the grand scheme of massive problems the world is having goes, but when it comes to what we know – making music and the music industry, engaging with our fans – we want to do our best to change the landscape.”

It’s an admirable goal, especially when Noah reveals that, despite Bad Omens only just getting on some people’s radars, he already feels he has nothing left to prove. He’s done what he set out to do. Now it’s a case of doing more of it.

“There was a point when I felt I had a lot to prove, and wanted to impress people and be admired. But I’ve grown into someone who wants to focus on real shit,” he says with a laugh, worried he’s being too vague.

“The Death Of Peace Of Mind was the perfect example of what I think making music and being in the music industry should be like,” he elaborates. “We made a record we wanted with no-one saying, ‘It’s due by this date,’ or, ‘It needs to sound like this.’ We made something we thought was cool and we were proud of, and that paid off way more than anything we’ve ever done.”

It’s worth noting, of course, that The Death Of Peace Of Mind was made during the pandemic, a period when musicians found themselves with huge swathes of downtime where their touring schedules used to be. And Noah is aware he may never get those creative conditions in quite the same way again. But he’s a man who needs very little – to be able to afford his rent and buy the occasional new piece of equipment for the studio – so as long as he’s staying true to the most valuable lesson he’s learned over the past year, everything else is going to fall into place.

And what is that lesson?

“To stay true to yourself and not let the pressure get to you.”

The Death Of Peace Of Mind is out now via Sumerian. Bad Omens tour the UK from February 27 – get your tickets now.

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