Employed To Serve are putting British metal back on top

For the past decade, Justine Jones and Sammy Urwin of Employed To Serve have helped elevate British rock and metal both on and off the stage, from Album Of The Year releases to their championing of new bands. Now, with fourth full-length Conquering on the horizon, the pay-off is being felt across the entire scene...

Employed To Serve are putting British metal back on top
Nick Ruskell
Paul Harries

Some years ago now, at the end of her last job in retail, Justine Jones made a decision. Providing she could eat and had a roof over her head, she wasn’t, she told herself, going to spend her life doing anything that was “un-fun”. Instead, Justine decided, she’d navigate the world by working hard on the things she loved and that she truly believed in.

“I've never been content to be a cog,” she says. “I've always wanted to be like a very heavily involved person. I like having a say, I guess. I've never liked having a manager, in terms of work. I have got that childish, rebellious thing, like, ‘Don’t tell me what to do.’”

Employed To Serve are not cogs. Nor are Justine and guitarist Sammy Urwin ones to sit around and wait for the lights to go green. With what the singer calls “our Hatebreed, perseverance attitude”, a self-starting, hands-dirty, DIY ethos that’s as much about enthusiasm for music and building a scene as it is firing up pits, they have become one of the most exciting British metal bands of the past decade. When Oli Sykes invited them to join the Bring Me The Horizon-curated All Points East festival two summers ago, he noted that they were “one of the few heavy bands around who I actually like”.

Kerrang! had got there before him, mind. In 2017, we crowned Employed To Serve’s second album, The Warmth Of A Dying Sun, our Album Of The Year. Its follow-up, 2019’s Eternal Forward Motion, was awarded a full 5K rating and a spot on our front cover, their second. When they gave us the nod a while ago that they were about to drop the first single from their brilliant fourth album, Conquering, coming this September, we didn’t even need to think about giving them a third.

Like Oli’s band, there’s an energy to Employed To Serve, an orbit around them that feels like it’s pulling in other bands, linking seemingly unlinked outfits together through sheer enthusiasm. Beyond the band, offstage, Justine and Sammy run Church Road Records from their home in the Surrey commuter town of Woking (a place notably annihilated by Martians in H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds). Through this, they can sign and put out music by bands that they like: the only real signing policy amounting to “bands that excite me”, says Justine. There’s as much gratefulness towards the artists they release – Svalbard, Palm Reader, Cruelty, to name but three – for trusting them to look after their records, as there is to anyone who gives their own band the time of day.

“As cheesy as it sounds, we're lifers,” says Justine. “I love music. I love releasing it. I love that I do it for a full time job. I love playing live. First and foremost, we are music fans. Obviously, we love being in a band and stuff. But we just live and breathe music.”

As with so many things for so many people, the depth of this dedication was thrown into sharp focus as COVID took hold last year. At the end of 2019, Employed To Serve were on a winning streak. Eternal Forward Motion was one of the year’s most acclaimed releases, they band had spent a month on the road with Bury Tomorrow in Europe and the UK, and on New Year’s Eve, Sammy and Justine put a bow on their long-term relationship by tying the knot. In March 2020, just before lockdown ended touring for everyone, the band’s UK headlining run just about snuck in, and saw them sell out London’s Camden Underworld, a show that ended in chaos with the audience onstage triumphantly carrying Sammy on their shoulders.

When things ground to a halt, the gap left was palpable. Once source of reflection came in taking stock in what the band had achieved, while also having to find a replacement for guitarist Richard Jacobs. It’s an exercise the pair are admittedly used to, to the point where Justine says, “We probably look like dictators, like it’s the Sammy and Justine show.”

To wit, keen observers will note that they are the only members of Employed To Serve to be on both this Kerrang! cover and the last one. There’s no bad blood anywhere – Richard left to move to Japan with his wife, drummer Robbie Back has become a dad, bassist Marcus Gooda went on to focus on other things – it was simply the wage of getting older in a band. When life’s forks come up, you have to make a choice. For Sammy and Justine, the choice just happens to be to stay the course. Three new members have been drafted into the band – guitarist David Porter, bassist Nathan Pryor and drummer Casey McHale – but it still provided a moment of reflection for what was actually important.

Another, more serious bit of stock-taking came last September, when Justine resigned from her job as a label manager at Holy Roar records, after serious assault allegations were made against the label’s owner. Soon after, that label folded entirely.

But in both cases, where events could have sown doubt or caused serious damage, things instead bloomed. And so, Sammy and Justine turned Church Road – a small concern of Sammy’s for years already – into a full-time occupation and livelihood, taking on Holy Roar releases already on the slate and pressed, and releasing them herself. In the case of their first release, Svalbard’s When I Die, Will I Get Better?, there was barely a month to move everything over, and yet it still hit the shelves on the day it was always intended to. Because, looking back, it’s almost like there was no other consideration than to carry on.

“When everything happened, I thought, ‘Maybe I could go to a bigger label or something.’ But that's not where my heart is,” says Justine. “My heart is in finding bands in tiny little venues and then helping them grow into their second hours and stuff. And it's just more fun. Obviously, it's very scary [running your own label], and I've spent a lot of this past year very stressed. But I don't have to answer to anyone – I just do the best I can for the bands because I love them. My favourite thing is sitting on Bandcamp with a coffee or a beer, and going through each genre finding the best bands of that day, or going through Apple Music or Spotify and finding new bands. It has been like that since I was a kid. So doing a record label just makes sense.

“Obviously I wish it was under better circumstances, but COVID has been almost like a blessing for this band, because it's helped us regroup,” she continues. “It made us take stock of all the cool shit we've been lucky enough to do. Because sometimes when you get caught in the rat race of everything, you’re never really living in the moment. And then COVID happens, and you think, ‘What do I miss?’ Friends, family, playing shows. And I'm like, ‘Cool, I'm doing the right thing. Let's get back to it.’”

“It’s a very rich scene at a minute, and we need to stick together and support each other”

Hear Justine celebrate the richness and variety of the UK’s rock and metal scene right now

For Justine, this meant becoming the boss. For Sammy, already a music obsessive with an apparent addiction to both old-school death metal and playing guitar in as many bands as possible as a member of Renounced and Motormouth (as well as playing in Glorious with Justine), it was an opportunity to dedicate his life to his passion even further. A gardener by trade, he’d lately found himself wondering what was beyond it.

“I was doing gardening work on and off for the last 10 or so years. I enjoyed the work, but sometimes I would kind of find myself being a little bit like, ‘What's the five-year plan?’” he says. “I’ll always do the band. But we got a few members going off and doing other stuff. I knew I had to find something else to do, because I wanted to do something in music that also fit around being in the band. I just knew I wanted to be with like-minded people talking about music all day.”

Sammy and Justine talk about music a lot. Get Sammy started on metal, and his enthusiasm quickly runs away with him. For Justine, their impending gig at Download Pilot a couple of days after our interview is as much about watching everyone else as it is their own show. Though one of the heaviest bands on the line-up, as a showcase of the breadth of rising talent the British rock scene has, appearing on the same ticket as Enter Shikari, Trash Boat, Creeper, Boston Manor, Neck Deep, Loathe and Conjurer is a large-scale version of what they’ve been driving at for years.

“It's so funny, because it kind of sounds weird, but within the British scene, it makes total sense,” says Justine. “It’s a very rich scene at a minute, and it's for all spectrums. You have bands like Orchards and Gender Roles on the Big Scary Monsters label, but equally, there’s loads of heavier bands, too. Everyone knows how hard it can be being a British band, because it's hard to get over to America. And now, unfortunately, it’s gonna be hard to get to Europe [after Brexit]. So everyone's got this thing like, ‘We’re this little island here and we need to stick together and support each other.’ It's a nice collective, and a moment in time to be a part of.”

“Even though we've written a more metal record [with Conquering] for us, that's definitely not a statement of us closing the door,” says Sammy. “Obviously we'd love to tour with Gojira or Lamb Of God or something like that. But if Creeper came to us and said, ‘Do you want to tour with us?’ we'd say yes.”

It was on such a line-up that Justine first appeared on the cover of Kerrang!, alongside Becky Blomfield of much-missed alt.punks Milk Teeth, with whom ETS were touring at the time. It not only showed two rising talents in the British scene, but also how well such different ends of it slotted together. Which was kind of the point.

“We were like the little metal sandwich in that tour,” says Justine. “But we worked well, because it was an example of this sort of British scene that's going on at the moment.”

“People turned up who would be wearing ETS T-shirts, and then singing along with Milk Teeth and vice versa,” says Sammy. “That's so cool to see. Obviously there's still a little bit of gatekeeping going on in the world of metal. But, for me, that was a really good sign of a shift.”

“It makes total sense. I don't know why it's not more of a thing, having mixed bills like that,” says Justine. “Everyone in our generation grew up listening to Slipknot and blink-182; two polarising bands, but it makes total sense. I listen to both of them religiously. So that actually kind of makes sense in a bill. It’s literally a music fan’s show. I remember Thursday opening for My Chemical Romance at Wembley on The Black Parade tour when I was 14, and Reuben opening for Billy Talent as well. I literally got to get into heavier stuff from those mixed line-ups.”

Put it to either of them that between their music, DIY attitude and simple lust for wanting to marshall a scene without walls, Employed To Serve could be called leaders, or at least the setters of examples for others to follow, and it’s a compliment they’ll take, but also something that they don't want to take too much credit for.

“I mean, it's for others to say, isn't it?” says Justine. “We just have mental to-do list of stuff we want to achieve. And if that inspires people, that’s sick. It's never like we try to be the leaders or anything.

“At the end of the day, I love the idea of kids getting into metal because of us and vice versa.”

“We’re wearing our influences for this record more on our sleeve – early Machine Head, Testament, Exodus”

Hear Sammy discuss the impact of his lockdown listening on the sound of Conquering

As such an entry point, Conquering is a very good one. Ultra heavy and explosive, it leans even further into Sammy’s love of death metal OGs like Morbid Angel and Death, plus classic thrash, with shredding solos everywhere, as well as more vocals from the guitarist. And not even changing three-fifths of the band since their last album has had anything other than a sharpening effect. Fundamentally, Conquering is exciting, full of energy, and powered by a deep-set love for simply doing it.

“The floodgates have been opened, I guess, in terms of wearing our influences for this record on our sleeve,” says Sammy. “I like to think we still maintain the ETS that was there before, but it's obvious that during lockdown and leading up to this record, for me it was about early Machine Head and Testament and Exodus and stuff. I feel like this is our chance to show that side of us a bit more.”

“It's where I feel at home, as well, because I grew up listening to early Lamb of God and ’90s-era Roadrunner Records bands,” adds Justine. “Straight-up metal, but not straight-up metal in the sense that we're doing it by numbers. We sound like us, but there are more choruses and solos.”

“Lyrically, it's similar to Eternal Forward Motion and touching on some pretty bleak stuff, but for the most part we tried to put a positive spin on it,” says Sammy. “I wanted put all of that energy into something positive. I didn’t want to say the same things again, because I didn’t want to make it sound like it's the same record. I'd say it's an even more positive record than before.”

The day we meet for this interview, long after the tape recorder goes off, conversation about bands and music continues into the small hours. Three days later, at Download, as Sammy chucks himself into the crowd at the end of the band’s set and Justine alternates between roaring her head off and smiling her face off, the delight in all this is self-evident. Employed To Serve are one of the best metal bands in the country – one of the best bands full stop, in fact – but on a broader scale, they also act as a reflection of an emerging wave of bands for whom being in a band is an act of joy, of doing something with your life, of not settling for things that are, as Justine says, “un-fun”.

“Stuff in the band does get to you sometimes and you do get grouchy or whatever,” admits Sammy. “But we realised that we're also very fortunate people who have played with people that have become our best friends. It’s about taking stock and being like, ‘This is fun.’ That’s what the album is about. It's about not letting things in your life get the better of you. Because sometimes they do, and you find yourself getting all aggy, and you're only doing yourself a disservice at that point, really.”

“I think Henry Rollins said, ‘Tenacity over talent,’” says Justine. “We work hard, but it's tenacity. You could be the sickest guitar player but just sit in your bedroom and never play a show. No.”

“I mean, I do set myself up for it, where I'm kind of pulling my hair out,” adds Sammy. “I've had times where I've had three or four band practices a week. And there's a gig this night, and a gig that night, and I’ve got to do this, that and the other. But you’ve gotta be in it to win it. And when a cool gig comes about, or cool tour comes about, or you’re just really happy with what you recorded, that's when you know it’s worth it.”

As they say themselves, Justine and Sammy are lifers. As other members leave to start families or move abroad to begin the next chapter of their lives, rather than feeling left behind, it’s almost made them realise even more quite what a special thing they have.

When it brings you as much happiness as doing this clearly does, what else do you need? And anyway, it’s worth it to not simply be a cog.

Employed To Serve's Conquering is out on September 17 via Spinefarm Records – pre-order your copy now.

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