The Cover Story

Gatecreeper: “Death metal is sacred, and you’re passing it from generation to generation… a lot of genres don’t have that”

A decade ago, Gatecreeper were a bunch of misfit metal maniacs from Arizona. Now, they’re being hailed as death metal’s new leaders. On the eve of their excellent third album, Dark Superstition, the Sonoran Desert crew explain how they’re seizing the moment, the importance of preserving the scene, and the peace-giving qualities of music’s goriest movement…

Gatecreeper: “Death metal is sacred, and you’re passing it from generation to generation… a lot of genres don’t have that”
Nick Ruskell
Andrew Lipovsky

Eric Wagner is looking for the words to describe death metal’s bloody heart. We’ve asked him to put his finger on the thing that keeps it such a virulent and violently exciting thing, almost 40 years since the term first appeared on Bay Area demons Possessed’s Seven Churches album. Eventually, he comes up with a humdinger.

“You know when you're in a room of 500 people at a show, and you don't know anyone there?” he asks. “And Corpsegrinder says, ‘This song is about shooting blood out of your cock,’ and everyone’s looking at each other, and you’re all on the same page?”

Of course. Classic.

“Dude, right?” grins Gatecreeper’s jolly guitarist. “It's almost like meditation.”

Probably not the first word you’d grab, especially not next to Cannibal Corpse’s now-traditional onstage introduction to the always-charming I Cum Blood, but it’s also weirdly on point. Death metal for many exists in its own sphere. Eventually, as with so many things that put a powerful hold on a person, it helps block out the world and its nonsense, fixes the mind on the moment.

“We're all weirdos, too,” he continues. “Well, not necessarily weirdos, but people who didn’t have a fun time in high school, or feel they don’t fit in anywhere else. A lot of people feel like that, and now we can come together and we have this thing that's ours. We can claim it and have fun and enjoy ourselves together.”

When the men of Gatecreeper talk about death metal, to a man they do so with this same enthusiasm of dyed-in-the-wool maniacs. Singer Chase Mason states that, even after twenty-plus years as a fan, “I never get bored of it.” For drummer Matt Arrebollo, “It touches something primal in people, that aggression and that power that a lot of people don't express in their day-to-day lives.” Of the band’s two newest recruits, guitarist Israel Garza talks of death metal being “a dark world that ties in with extreme art and horror”, while bassist Alex Brown joined the band in 2020, having spent years as a devotee “watching them from the very beginning”. Nobody here is a casual.

“I've been going down the rabbit hole of old-school death metal for 15 years, or longer,” says Chase, underlining his point. “I'm still finding old albums that I had never heard before, finding demos, finding bands who only did one thing in 1992. If you're the type of person to really absorb things, and really dive in and nerd out about things, it's perfect.”

This is how the five of them approached their third album, Dark Superstition: by diving in and immersing themselves and really taking a bath in it. Having proved on 2021’s surprise-dropped An Unexpected Reality EP – where one side was sub-60-second grind, and the other was a single 11-minute doom song – that whatever Gatecreeper do will sound like Gatecreeper, they’ve stretched their thick stomp in new directions, bringing in a touch of goth, a trace of melody, upped the catchiness and sharpened everything until there’s nothing less than all bangers. It absolutely rips.

"We worked on this album for a solid year," Chase explains. "Even longer, from the very beginnings of writing. I've done something for the record literally every day. We wanted to elevate everything, and make every single part of it the best it could possibly be. It's hard, but I'm very proud of it."

“If you’re the type of person to really dive in and nerd out about things, death metal is perfect”

Hear Chase on how he’s always on the hunt for new death metal

Working with production genius and Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou at his GodCity Studio in Salem, Massachusetts, some 2,500 miles from their base in Phoenix, Arizona, and with input from Fred Etsby of Swedish death metal OGs Dismember, it is the result of the thick end of 18 months’ work and sturdy focus.

There’s another reason they’ve been so meticulous this time. With things growing for a decade, and with fans from heroes in Cannibal Corpse, to Glassjaw’s Daryl Palumbo, to loveable crayon-faced rap icon Post Malone, this could be the record – their first for metal juggernaut Nuclear Blast – that does it for Gatecreeper, pushes them up and makes them the band of death metal’s current wave.

Indeed, their feet have barely touched since finishing Dark Superstition. On the day we meet up with them, they’re at The Norva in Norfolk, Virginia, a week into a U.S. run with In Flames. In a few days they'll hit Daytona International Speedway for Welcome To Rockville, alongside Judas Priest, Foo Fighters and Slipknot. A couple of weeks ago, they hit Asia and Australia for the first time, discovering to their astonishment that in some places they were treated with the same reverence as their own heroes in DM legends Suffocation, with whom some of the dates aligned. In others, fans told them they’d started their own bands to make Gatecreeper-style music.

If the ’80s had leaders like Possessed, Death and Obituary, the ’90s Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel, and the early ’00s Nile and Dying Fetus, why not Gatecreeper? It’s happening anyway…

“Our manager keeps telling us, ‘The bases are loaded, the bases are loaded,’” grins Chase. “We would have made this same record, no matter who was putting it out. But the fact of being on a new label, that's a bigger label, and having a much bigger reach all over the world, having a bigger budget, being at a point where we're kind of teetering on the edge of hitting the next level, it all culminated in lots of internal pressure.

“We feel like, ‘This is our chance, we can’t blow it.’”

If you want to trace the roots of Gatecreeper, one must head back over a decade, to Arizona. Chase was living, as he still does, in Phoenix, the capital of The Grand Canyon State, where as well as having a decent local scene of its own, touring bands would often stop, largely on account of the city’s convenient location on the gruelling desert drive between Austin in Texas and Los Angeles.

This is where he was first introduced to Matt, “as Metal Matt”. Matt was from Tucson a hundred-odd miles to the south, a not uncommon trek for Tucson residents to make for shows.

“We just instantly started talking about metal,” remembers Chase. “I remember talking about a lot of death metal, and Dismember’s Massive Killing Capacity in particular, and going, ’Yeah, I want to start a band like that.’”

Back in Tucson, Matt had a roommate, Eric, a fellow veteran of the long drives north, who wanted to start such a band as well. Having “tried to be in bands since I was 14”, the clarity of vision that emerged as they texted for what the new thing should be was welcome. All three were death metal aficionados, even if their own routes toward its dark path had been somewhat different.

“I grew up listening to a lot of different types of extreme music,” remembers Matt. “When I was young, I was attracted to anything extreme. I didn't draw a lot of distinctions between sub-genres and stuff – if it was fast, if it was heavy, there's blastbeats, if there was double bass, that's just what I liked.”

Eric first got into music through digging punk and ska as a kid, taking lead from his older sister towards the more dangerous tones of bands like the Misfits. The big revelation came one Christmas where he opened his stocking to find – what else? – Cannibal Corpse’s Gore Obsessed album.

“I listened to it, and I had no idea what was happening. I was like, ‘This is crazy music,’” he laughs. “But then it clicked, and I was obsessed. So that was what I talked about all the time. It was a pivotal moment where my life changed. I can thank my sister for that.”

Despite the sudden influx of musical giblets into her household, Mrs Wagner was glad her young son had found something he loved so much.

“My mom would be totally fine with me getting Cannibal Corpse shirts [and] wearing them to school,” he beams, proudly. “It wasn't one of those situations where it was shunned in my house. And then [when I was] starting bands, we’d play five hours a night in my room, and I’d come out and my mom, God bless her, would be sitting in front of the TV trying to hear it.”

“I grew up in a religious family – metal was not welcomed”

Chase reveals how he found his own way into discovering metal

For Chase, things couldn’t have been more different. First getting into punk like Green Day, he recalls there being a dividing line in his school between those kids and the metal kids (“Plus, the metal at the time was Static-X, Korn, Limp Bizkit – I didn’t like that”). But getting into skateboarding, he began to cross the divide, hearing Slayer on skate videos, or other friends “turning me on to darker stuff like Danzig and Misfits and Pantera”. Then he discovered The Black Dahlia Murder, “where death metal all kicked off for me,” and through the recommendations of that band's much-missed frontman and full-time metal enthusiast, the late Trevor Strnad, as well as watching Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta on Headbangers’ Ball, began discovering Morbid Angel and At The Gates.

The real reason it was so different in his house compared to Eric’s, though, was that it wasn’t just not to his parents’ tastes, they thought it was a genuinely bad vibe.

“I grew up in a religious family,” he says. “[Metal] was not welcomed. It was taboo to be listening to metal, or even to punk. It wasn't accepted. So I was kind of on my own. And I didn't necessarily have that older brother or kid from my neighbourhood that handed me a tape copy of [Metallica’s] Kill ’Em All. I was kind of on my own. So, I took a weird path, I think, but luckily, we had the internet and I could get into it, even though the metal lifestyle and the world of metal was not accepted in my household.”

By the time Chase met his future bandmates, he too was not on his first day in Arizona’s music scene. He’d done turns in bands, as well as promoting shows himself around Phoenix. With this new venture, they wanted something else. There were plenty of bands across the state – good ones, too – and the outpost nature of their locale meant that the divisions between scenes were more porous than they might be in New York or LA. They wanted to be different, though. They wanted to do it properly. Eventually, they might want to do what so many hadn't and break out.

“I was like, ‘You know what? Let's just have fun, and just enjoy this and not have any big plans.’ I went into it with that headspace,” says Eric. “But when we first did the EP, we’d have talks about, ‘Okay, when we release this stuff, let's not put the demo version out, let's not put out a half-done thing. Let's make sure that when it comes out, it looks like we've been a band that's been around for a while.’ Suddenly, one day Gatecreeper existed. We had our first show booked. We dropped music and maybe even had a shirt. It was like, ‘Boom, Gatecreeper’s around.’”

For Chase, part of taking Gatecreeper so seriously was about more than simply being professional. Having recently got sober after years of drug and alcohol abuse – and still going strong to this day – he needed something proper and rewarding in his life he could work on.

“After years and years of playing music, I was still never able to do anything with it,” he previously told Kerrang!. “I had my own personal problems because of drugs that always got in the way. So, starting the band after I got sober, it gave me something I needed to do.

“I’ve built up all these things that I don’t think I’d be able to do – actually, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do them – if I was still drinking or doing drugs or whatever. It’s motivating. If I’m ever tempted about going back to that, I just remember that everything that I have now would be gone pretty quickly if I didn’t keep doing what I’m doing.”

A decade and change later, Gatecreeper are at the edge of something great. And where they’ve been so far has put fingerprints all over Dark Superstition. Chase says that a summer last year appearing at festivals across Europe – including a staggering outing at Bloodstock – made them realise how well they translated into what he calls “Euro-fest metal”, and the ‘Hey, hey, hey’ bits in songs are very cool. Eric agrees, noting that, “Going from playing to 100 people to 30,000 at a festival makes you take a look at how you see yourself and how you see your music.”

Ask how they feel about being one of the main bands in a new generation of death metal, all five say it’s awesome, if a bit odd.

“It's very validating, it's very, very kind, but it's very weird,” says Chase. “I try not to think about it too much – like we're some sort of faces of some sort of wave or something. I try not to really think about that, because I don't think that we're responsible for anything, you know? But it’s pretty cool, and pretty crazy.”

But if it’s true, and if it does happen, then that’s good for everyone, if they can be a buttress in death metal’s future.

“I hope it does good things for death metal as a whole,” says Alex. “I hope we can reach a lot of new people, and get them into the genre.”

“I see death metal as something that's sacred, and you're passing it from generation to generation,” adds Eric. “I feel like a lot of music genres don't have that. [We’re going], ‘This is death metal. I'm getting old, I'm gonna die soon. Here you go. Pass it on.’ That keeps that keeps it pure.”

“I see death metal as something to pass on that keeps it pure, it can just keep going forever”

Hear Eric on why death metal will never die

Gatecreeper are very proud of their success, just as they’re proud of what they’ve made with Dark Superstition, and proud that they’ve put their home on the musical map. Even transplants Alex and Izzy carry the vibe with them, the latter having first lived in Delaware before moving there as a teen, and the former being from similarly roasting Texas.

“It’s really cool, and we’ve seen a lot more bands talking about the Sonoran Desert and putting cacti on their artwork,” smiles Eric. “We’re super-proud to have put Arizona on the map, especially if it means people check out other bands from there. We’re all proud of where we’re from – I could be a travelling shoe salesman and I’d still rep Arizona!”

Equally, they’re just proud to be carrying the death metal flag, success or not. Chase says they’d do this anyway, even if it wasn’t his livelihood. Having started in a time of flux for the scene, to be part of it right now, when it’s having something of a golden moment, as fans, is just brilliant.

“I think we're fortunate to be in an era where a lot of our favourite bands growing up are still around, and still active,” says Alex. “It’s been really cool to be able to tour with Obituary, do festivals alongside Cannibal Corpse… We're still kind of living the dream at this moment.”

“Before we started Gatecreeper, there were some real high points when people were really enthusiastic about music, but when we started, it was kind of in a lull,” says Matt. “Thankfully, it's grown a lot since then. I think people have been craving something like this for a long time. Your average metalhead doesn't want to come to the show and headbang in odd time signatures, you know what I mean? They want to party, just headbang, mosh, drink beer and have a good time. And I think that's what is drawing people to this resurgence of metal.”

And back to the start again: what is it that keeps this stuff filled with blood after so long? Ever the fan who’s managed to get onstage, Eric has a die-hard’s answer.

“Death metal is just death metal,” he enthuses. “Cannibal Corpse keep releasing records that sound just like Cannibal Corpse records and everyone loves it. That’s awesome. It’s not just music, it's also a lifestyle. It’s the clothes I wear, the people I’m friends with. Even if I wasn't in a band, I'd still be going to shows, and I'd still be wearing my death metal shirt. If I went to the Circle K and saw someone in a death metal shirt, I'd be stoked!”

“Once you get into the world of death metal, and you realise how much it encompasses your whole world and you can be surrounded by it, I think that's exciting for a lot of people,” says Chase.

“I know it's exciting for us.”

Dark Superstition is released May 17 via Nuclear Blast

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