Wage War: “We’re Not Writing Songs Thinking We’re Going To Fix People. We Write About How We Feel”
It was on a 17-hour drive from their home base near Ocala, Florida, deep into the heart of Texas that Wage War truly began to contemplate the long and winding road to success. Unlike the dusty highways that have carried them on their criss-cross journey across America – and up through the metalcore ranks – it is a trail that narrows out the further you go. The landscape rises steeply away, promising a perilous drop should you fall asleep for just one second at the wheel. Friends, family and the earthly reassurances of home fade quickly into the rearview. Demons take up residence in the passenger seat, whispering insidious doubts into weary ears.
“We’d been working on our album for about three months at that point,” explains guitarist and co-vocalist Cody Quistad (he’s the one who doesn’t scream). “We were looking through lyrical and conceptual ideas, trying to figure out what this record means to us. That word, the eventual album title, ‘pressure’ came up. And it got us thinking.”
Writing from the heart, they’d simply been chronicling the on-the-road existence of a 21st century touring outfit. The tense through-line, however, was obvious: fans tugging in contradictory directions, wanting to see their heroes progress, but not change too much; home life stretching further away daily; internal voices demanding perfection. Cody’s vocal partner Briton Bond nods, with a sigh. “We’ve got pressure coming at us from all angles.”
Unsurprisingly, despite presenting themselves with hearty country charm, the quintet – completed by guitarist Seth Blake, bassist Chris Gaylord and drummer Stephen Kluesener – found themselves grappling with mental health issues. ‘I’m afraid of all the things that I don’t say,’ writhes lead-single Low. ‘The thoughts in my head that keep me tossing, turning, lying awake’.
“It’s a weird thing to talk about for some people,” expands Cody of the track’s largely confessional content, “but it’s becoming very prevalent in the touring world. People hold these things close to their chests for so long that they begin to eat away at you. That can be influenced by society, social media or world events. It’s not an uplifting song. There is no resolution. But it’s amazing how many kids connect with it.”
Album opener Who I Am continues along a similar theme of catharsis.
“I’m a big comment reader,” Cody explains. “I’ve watched every YouTube video about our band and I could read 1,000 comments with people saying nice things, but one person raining down on us can totally ruin my day. I think the script needs to be flipped. If people raised up the things they loved rather than dumping on what they don’t, the world would be a very different place.”
The most poignant pressure is that of personal guilt. The furious Ghost reckons with the blindsiding reality of having left home behind. “I was at a family gathering the other day, and something happened which was funny, but dark,” Cody laughs uncomfortably, illustrating the idea. “One of my family had a young baby – maybe a year or two old – and I found myself lost for words that I didn’t even know this baby’s name. It hit me how much I’ve been gone, how disconnected I’ve become: missing weddings, funerals, important life events. That can be a tough pill to swallow.”
Such is the price of stardom.
“We don’t write these songs because we feel like we know the answers,” Briton interjects. “We’re not writing songs thinking that we are going to fix people’s lives. We’re writing songs about how we feel as humans. A lot of kids that won’t ever pick up an instrument will connect with that. If you love something, you have to go for it.”
READ THIS: Daily Mail headline or metalcore band name?
“Pressure isn’t an inherently bad thing,” Cody picks up. “It’s how you respond that matters. Pressure can be our greatest teacher. It’s about learning, whether you cave under it or push through. It never goes away, whether you’re working, running a business, starting out in a relationship or in a marriage. It’s in everything.”
“Life is life,” shrugs Briton. “It’s the trials and tribulations that make people who they are. I always remember the story of Johnny Cash being told his music was awful. If life is hunky dory perfect, people cave when things get hard. I don’t think we’d have written these songs if life didn’t kick us in the rear. Unless you’re going to live on an island by yourself, it will get to you.”
“That doesn’t always end well,” adds Cody.
“True,” grins Briton. “I’ve seen Cast Away!
A striking cut diamond adorns Pressure’s artwork. It’s not just representative of the sharp-edged songs within. The hardest stone, see, is a product of the most intense stress. The record is very much the product of all the time and exertion spent on bringing it to life. Cody explains that, with album three, Wage War know that they need to make their mark.
“The first one establishes you’re in the game. The second is a little improvement. The third is where all eyes are on you. You’ve grown your band across two records. You’ve gained all these fans. Now you’ve got this platform, what are you going to do with it? This is the next two and a half years of our lives. So, how’s it going to go?
Sunday May 21, 2017 would prove a pivotal waymarker. Celebrating Cody’s 24th birthday, the band received their first shot at one of U.S.über-promoter Danny Wimmer’s major festivals: Rock On The Range in Columbus, Ohio.
“I remember walking out onstage and being floored,” he says. “There were so many kids, who’d probably never even heard us before, going crazy. Then we got to the end of the day, watching Metallica and thinking about the really long-shot. We had the conversation the other day about who could be the next Metallica and decided there could never be another. But they started out as just a metal band. Then they put out The Black Album and everything changed.
“I remember standing there, watching them and realising that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. Metalcore is at an all-time high right now. There are big bands like A Day To Remember, Bring Me The Horizon and Architects. We want to be one of those big dogs. We want to reach as many people as possible while keeping all the essential elements of what makes our band our band. It was inspiring, watching Metallica still crushing it after all these years.”
Subsequent stories veer between triumph (touring with longtime heroes ADTR, booking their upcoming headline performance at Orlando’s House Of Blues – the legendary venue they frequented growing up) and tribulation (completing the entirety of Warped Tour sleeping in a 12-person van and having their transport rushed by Syrian refugees as they crossed the French-English border at Calais). They’re all reflected, however, by the shapeshifting sounds within.
Following the foundations of 2015 heavyweight debut Blueprints, 2017 follow-up Deadweight saw the first real embrace and experimentation with melody. Decamping cross continent to work with producer Drew Fulk (whose credits are as varied as Motionless In White, Lil Peep and iDKHOW) in Los Angeles, this record sees them branch out into far broader territory, from vicious hardcore to borderline pop.
“LA is one of those cities where everyone is hungry,” Briton quips, with a knowing twinkle. “Out there you get inspired. Everyone wants to be the next big thing.”
He’s quick to defuse any sense of impudent big-headedness. It’s just a matter of maturity.
“We’re all still big metalheads, but as we’re getting older, we’re not blasting metal every day. We’re exploring a lot of different stuff.”
“I’m a big pop-country fan,” admits Cody. “I listen to a lot of Florida Georgia Line. I know it’s forbidden within the metal scene, but I love Justin Bieber, too. In 2019 everyone’s listening to everything and people are questioning the limits of what metalcore can be. That’s a healthy thing. Expand the genre, create your own sound and leave your own mark on it.”
READ THIS: Warped Tour at 25 – a celebration
And what of those tiresome, inevitable accusations of ‘selling-out’, we wonder? The band understand that evolution is necessary for survival. For every fan bogged down in another time, there are new converts waiting to be won.
“Some friends of mine know I’m in a heavy band,” grins Briton, with the relish of a general winning the field. “But maybe they’ve never really listened to Wage War. Then they hear this newer stuff and like it. They get that metalcore bug and start digging deeper and deeper.”
“If you’re a heavy band, the safe bet is to just write the heaviest songs,” Cody underlines the point with refreshing bluntness. “In a way, the safest move would’ve been to simply write our heaviest record yet, but that’s just not what we wanted. We definitely feel like our time is upon us, but that isn’t going to change what we do. We want to make metalcore more accessible than ever, so that people who don’t normally listen to the genre can listen to this and realise they like it.
“This is the music we grew up on,” Cody stresses passionately. “That’s why we want to help keep it alive.”
Wage War, iDKHOW, I Prevail, Ice Nine Kills, August Burns Red and more will play Fearless At Home.
Twenty years later, Killswitch Engage’s first LP remains one of metalcore’s shining examples of ambitious arrangements, encouraging lyricism, and unfaltering determination