Loathe: Face to face with the unstoppable future of British metal

Loathe’s stunning I Let It In And It Took Everything album was supposed to kickstart the year in which they took over the world. 2020 had other plans, though. At the end of a turbulent 12 months, Britain’s most exciting breakthrough band reflect on their journey – and how not even a global pandemic is going to stand in their way…

Loathe: Face to face with the unstoppable future of British metal
Sam Law
Paul Harries

For years now, Kadeem France has dared to dream. Never once, though, did he imagine this. Flash back to February 15, 2020: the most intense emotional moment of his life behind the mic. Eight days removed from the release of his band Loathe’s astonishing second album I Let It In And It Took Everything, and on the final date of a mini-tour of the UK that had seen said quintet storm nine cities in 10 nights, they found themselves crushing London’s 320-cap Omeara, in front of a raucous full house.

“A lot of my London family had come to see me that night,” the Liverpool-based frontman remembers, “so I ended up staying backstage for much of it. I hadn’t really seen the crowd until we got onstage. When I stepped out, I remember just turning to our bassist Feisal [El-Khazragi] and saying, ‘We’re doing it!’”

Midway through a searing 17-song set, as the band were warming into Two-Way Mirror – their weighty chronicle of Kadeem’s often-messy recent attempts to reconnect with his long-absent father – the frontman caught a glimpse of a familiar face in the heaving throng. Separating the swell of bodies with a pointed finger, he watched his old man – who’d made the trip to see his son crash the capital – shoulder to the front for a firm forearm embrace. Then chaos erupted properly.

“It was a mad moment,” Kadeem smiles. “I’ve never felt anything like that before.”

For guitarist, co-vocalist and longtime fellow conspirator Erik Bickerstaffe there wasn't quite such an obvious emotive crescendo, but no less feeling of catharsis, connection and climactic euphoria. “It felt like all the work we’d put in culminated in this one night where all these people came together,” he gestures. “London is kind of a mad-far journey from Liverpool, and we’d never done a headline tour where we were selling places out before. The whole show felt like one big group hug.”

Then the entire world took two strides apart.

What should’ve been the first leg of a year-long victory lap would go down as their only shots fired against the COVID-enforced sprawl of silence that followed. For Erik and Kadeem – and their bandmates Feisal, Connor Sweeney (guitar) and Sean Radcliffe (drums) – feelings are complicated.

“We look back and it’s this huge, monumental achievement, which was taken away from us instantly,” Erik says. “‘Things are kicking off! Let’s go!’ Then, suddenly, everything you have scheduled for the next year is cancelled. Done.”

The contrast between globe-straddling rock star adventure and life at home is stark. Kadeem has been working a couple of shifts a week in a local restaurant, getting back into skateboarding, and joins us today holding a refined-looking glass of wine in his dimly-lit lounge. Erik scrambles through a tangle of equipment in his garden studio, caught up in “a multitude” of production projects for other bands, admitting that his greatest non-musical excitement has been having the time to play through both of The Last Of Us video games.

Where so many of their glass-ceiling-punching peers have confessed to seething resentment, hollow depression and the simple struggle of hanging on to the coronacoaster, though, Loathe are on calmer, more reflective form.

Kadeem identifies three main feelings: frustration that their steep upward trajectory was so cruelly interrupted, gratitude for having gotten to achieve what they have, and internal growth – both personally and as a collective.

“In a funny way, it feels like the whole lockdown has been a bit of a blessing in disguise,” he reasons. “Before this – writing the second album, touring – it felt like everything was constantly 100mph. We didn’t have time to stop and take it all in. This year, we’ve been able to take stock: of what we’ve accomplished; of our current position; of where we’re going next. We’ve just recently gotten a 24-hour rehearsal space. We see each other every day. I’ve been doing more music than ever. I didn’t expect that to happen during lockdown, but it shows the ball is rolling and this [band] is slowly becoming my life.”

“It’s allowed us to love each other more,” Erik nods. “We’re more grateful for the things we can accomplish together.”

That’s all very ‘peace and love’, we jest, for a band called Loathe…

Erik laughs. They’ll never relinquish that gnarly band name, but it isn’t necessarily reflective of this group in the here and now.

“We used to see the world through this lens where everything was on our nerves or in our way. As you grow up, you perceive things more clearly. We started off in a very loathsome place, but we’re somewhere different now. Personally, I was on autopilot for so long. Going from being the big-shot on tour to being the guy sitting in his house grounded me. I was facing-up to certain behaviours, thinking about decisions I’d previously [suppressed]. Kadeem and I have been doing this since we were 14 or 15 years old. It’s necessary, once in a while, to give yourself a slap in the face...”

If those 15-year-olds could see themselves now, we wonder, would they believe how far they’d come? Kadeem flashes a grin. “Not to sound cocky or anything, but absolutely!”

Toxteth is far from a metal Mecca, but on their frequent back-and-forth treks between Liverpool city centre and Kadeem’s then home in that southern district as teens, he and Erik’s conversations would be loaded with the unlikely bravado of young dreamers.

“Literally every one of those walks would be about all these things we wanted to accomplish. ‘We’re going to play Japan!’ or, ‘Our first show in America needs to be with Slipknot…’ We’ve never openly declared, ‘We’re going to be the biggest band in the world!’ But when we’re bouncing off each other, hyping each other up, it’s been about saying the sky’s the limit, and there’s no end to where we want to go.”

“I think things being a mystery, and being up the listener to interpret, is something not many bands do nowadays. But you want more when you don’t know everything…”

Listen to Erik discuss what Loathe will never reveal about their music by clicking above

The ascent started on May 22, 2011, as their contrasting paths into heavy music converged. Erik was enraptured as a youth in St Helens by the superstars of late-’00s metalcore like Miss May I and Attack Attack!. Kadeem, meanwhile, caught on through the sounds of skateboarding, WWE and video games. Along with virtually every other alt. kid in the area, both youngsters descended on Liverpool’s Hub Festival: a 10,000-strong BMX-and-rock get-together at the city’s Otterspool Park. Bands such as The Blackout and Young Guns had already torn through, before a random mosh-collision during Funeral For A Friend saw sparks fly.

“I ran into this guy who just looked at me and said, ‘This pit is shit. Do you want to start another one?’” Kadeem smiles. “So we did!” The festival was done before they could meet again, but as drummer in the band Escapists UK, fate would see Kadeem literally turn up at Erik’s doorstep later that summer. “My friend Michael had us booked in for recording with this ‘really cool guy’ he’d found. We turned up, and it was Erik. I just looked at him and went, ‘You’re the guy!’ The rest is history.”

Friendship was fast, with Kadeem joining Erik’s band Our Imbalance on vocals shortly after, with future Loathe sticksman Sean also onboard. Bonding as “cool kids” into the "fringe" metalcore scene – their friends were still obsessed with entry-level legends Metallica and Iron Maiden – there was cutting-edge camaraderie from the beginning.

Indeed, despite its legendary musical heritage, Liverpool has always been light on heavy heroes. Local upstarts like Chasing The Legion and Carcer City, mentors for our duo early on, never quite made it. Arguably the city’s last international breakout acts, extreme supremos Carcass and post-prog/death-doomsters Anathema, both began before these lads were born.

“Knowing that there weren’t many bands playing what we wanted to listen to made us more motivated to do it ourselves,” Kadeem explains. “There was an enthusiasm to be different.”

That enthusiasm saw Our Imbalance boldly metamorphose into Loathe in 2015. Preston native Connor and bassist Shayne Smith – who’s since moved on “to pursue a career in tattooing” – came in. Members were initially identified via cryptic three-lettered stage names: DRK, DRT, SNK, MWL and NIL. Kadeem sported a mask which would become the artwork for their debut 2016 EP Prepare Consume Proceed.

That schlocky, quasi-anonymity was both rebirth, they explain, and reaction to the frustratingly social media-obsessed nature of their local scene. “It was less about music than memes,” Erik cringes. “I didn’t follow bands to get a laugh while scrolling through my phone. I was looking for music.”

“We wanted to give ourselves an identity,” Kadeem continues. “We wanted to be more than a Facebook group.”

Pressing onto the national stage, many (including this writer, in their first K! review) found that derivative anonymity to have the opposite effect. “It was basically just Slipknot,” Eric looks back, without embarrassment. “Regardless of how on-the-nose it seemed, though, it was the sound of young people excited about making music – learning through those ‘mistakes’ to come out better on the other side.”

Dropping the facade, things have ramped up exponentially ever since. 2017’s The Cold Sun LP, recorded at Atlanta, Georgia’s Glow In The Dark studios with Being As An Ocean/Capsize producer Matt McClellan, and 2018’s This Is As One EP saw their sound grow broader and deeper, encapsulating the technical angularity of Meshuggah or Periphery, and the fragile ambience of Deftones. The arrival of resident Welshman and ex-Holding Absence four-stringer Feisal has solidified their line-up. A cult following, too – united behind the ‘Loathe As One’ slogan – has sprung from the underground.

“We always pride ourselves on keeping it real,” Erik reflects on their breakout appeal. “We’re open and willing to doing things differently. We’re not trying to emulate anyone else. We’re trying fill a void in the music world that we’ve noticed for ourselves.”

“We’ve always had that tunnel vision,” Kadeem picks up. “We’re in the metal genre, but we never want to be bound by the rules of being in a metal band. Loathe is a project where we can be as open and creative as we want to be.

“We never want to be put in a box.”

I Let It In And It Took Everything is Loathe’s most strident statement to date. Sprawling over almost 50 minutes across a soundscape that alternately sears and salves, layering up textures before sledgehammering through, it still feels breathtakingly fluid, experimental, and invigorating 10 months on. Wielding the raw power of Architects, the dynamism of Code Orange, along with the avant-garde listenability of Sleep Token and Higher Power, its 14 tracks demand repeat listens and reward them with astounding intellectual and emotional payoffs.

Kadeem and Erik stress their ambition to wield the auteurist authority of film directors, citing violent surrealist master David Lynch – and his expression of singular vision through works as strange and disparate as Blue Velvet and Eraserhead – as a key reference. I Let It In…, Erik explains, is like an alternate soundtrack to the filmmakers’s classic offbeat TV mystery Twin Peaks.

“It’s bleak. It’s surreal. But it’s also grounded. There’s an almost uncanny-valley weirdness to it. That’s reflected in the sudden changes of direction in the music where you can go from being dead chill one moment to feeling utterly anxious the next.”

They’re comfortable, too, with their work having the same sense of interpretable impenetrability. There are a few clear lyrical motifs – Two-Way Mirror’s existential anxiety, Screaming’s harsh self-analysis – but the band welcome the mystery and universality of songs into which fans can look and find themselves. ‘I'll show you who I am inside,’ teases A Sad Cartoon. ‘It's simple, I'm certain from behind the curtain / It's in your hands this time…’

After those months’ rumination, though, they do broach the album’s overarching through-line: that titular ‘It’ that they let in…

“‘It’ is the world,” Kadeem explains. “It’s the period of time between releasing The Cold Sun and this. All the touring we did. All the sacrifices we made. How much that takes from you, and changes you…”

The band frequently refer to a crazy 451-day span, between beginning recording and wrapping up. In reality, the creative process was closer to the full three years between LPs. The protracted arduousness of its birthing originally left its authors too numb to contemplate what they’d created.

“I was a shell of a man – mentally and emotionally destroyed – after we completed the album”

Hear Erik discuss his changing relationship with I Let It In And It Took Everything by clicking the button above

“Initially, I hated it,” admits Erik. “I was like a shell of a man – mentally and emotionally destroyed – after we had completed it. That definitely hindered my appreciation at first.”

“It’s the soundtrack to all the struggles that we went through to get it made,” adds Kadeem. “Recording everything ourselves. Doing 90 per cent of the production. Then trying to be in a touring band on top of all that.”

That process replays in a dirgy kaleidoscopic blur. Prolonged initial work saw the band decamp to an isolated cabin (not so) close to Llanelli in West Wales. The friction of five keen creatives in a confined space created musical fire, but also a sense of mania that saw Erik and Kadeem having to “escape” to Cardiff to decompress – a trip that brought into focus tellingly-titled highlight New Faces In The Dark. Additional tinkering happened on and off in Erik’s home studio. It even spilled onto the road as they joined LA rap-rockers Hollywood Undead for an academy tour in April 2019 with mixing equipment and a big-screen monitor in tow.

“It seems so stupid with retrospect,” Erik half laughs. “I didn’t have ear-protection in for most of that tour; I would come off these huge stages and then sit down in the dressing room and start to blast more music into my ears.”

Some bands crumble under pressure. Fortunately, Loathe responded with diamond-like strength and sparkle. Moreover, those ingrained tones of exasperation, remoteness and dissociation have made I Let It In… a curiously fitting album for the year that followed. “You can hear it in the sound of the album,” Eric acknowledges. “The frustration in the guitars, or the feeling of isolation in Kadeem’s vocals in this cold cottage in the middle of nowhere in the Welsh hillside. We were screaming and shouting and going at it ’til 4am every night.”

Like 2020, too, the record will endure as an unforgettable milestone with a process they’re in no hurry to revisit.

“It’s a battle with the self,” Erik confirms. “Only when you have the time to stand back and reflect do you realise what it is that you let in – and what comes with it.” On the one hand, they stress, Loathe shouldn’t subject themselves to that level of pressure again. On the other, fans’ fervent reaction suggests the juice is worth the squeeze. “We learned a lot with this album,” Kadeem sighs. “We live and breathe this band. If it takes everything, so be it…”

“I think it should be a given that we’ll kill ourselves for our art,” Erik reaffirms. “I’ll lose sleep. I’ll hate the music. I’ll hate myself. I know this is what it takes. We’re perfectionists making it perfect…”

Beyond music, 2020 has thrown up unexpected opportunities for artists as principled as these to affect the imperfect world around them. Back in June, Kadeem explained to K! the importance of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis law enforcement. From being attacked on the street and feelings of alienation as the sole black face at rock shows growing up, to combatting micro-aggressions and police intimidation on tour on both sides of the Atlantic, undertones of racial prejudice – and a willingness to spearhead diversity – have impacted much of the frontman’s personal experience. As the summer of discontent blazed on, he rose to prominence as a figurehead for the UK alternative community.

Emphasising an open door to listeners of any colour or creed, he hopes, will help minority fans know they aren’t alone in heavy music in a way he wishes he had, while assisting the orchestration of some higher-profile fundraisers will aid more affirmative action. Loathe’s ‘We’ll face this reckoning side by side’ T-shirt raised more than £6,000, while their heavy involvement in the 40-person UK Music Scene cover of Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name threw further weight behind a worthy cause.

So, how does he feel looking back at the year’s end?

“I honestly think there is still a lot more to be done,” he says, considering the question. “I don’t mean to be pessimistic. The BLM movement was amazing. But there were two sides to it. As it came into the news, and with the internet culture being what it is nowadays, it showed the racist underbelly to England [and the wider world]. It shocked me as much to see how many people were so strongly against it as it did how many people were down to support it.”

In a potentially lost year, though – with bands and fans separated, and traditional structures mothballed – it was a powerful, poignant reminder that the rock community is stronger when we stand together.

“It gave me faith in our scene,” Kadeem carries on. “That fact that Loathe were able to contribute what we did was huge for me. We’ve never really been a band to make much of a commentary on the world around us, but it felt right in the moment. It was amazing to see how many bands I like and enjoy listening to were there to support us. [Rock has] always had that message that we’re all in this together, fighting for what’s right, but to see it put into action felt absolutely amazing. People do care. We can do this together.”

“Our scene has always been about being in it together and fighting for what’s right, and it was amazing to see that in action”

Hear Kadeem reflect on the positivity of rock’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement by using the button above

As COVID subsides, reigniting that arms-around-shoulders kinship is a priority. Beyond careerist considerations, Kadeem admits a simpler frustration at not being able to get out there and throw down alongside friends and contemporaries like God Complex and hip-hop collective New Tribe. Moreover, the I Let It In… era wont be fully underway until its songs are unleashed live around the world.

“It’s been a case of pushing it to the back of my mind,” he smiles, wryly. “But eventually you get to a point where you realise you haven’t played a gig in nearly a year. You’re watching YouTube videos from February that feel like they’re from a lifetime ago. Many people have heard this album on record, but they’ve not experienced it yet.”

“The disconnect that Loathe have between on record and live is special,” Erik adds. “It’s almost like the album is homework, then the show is playtime. You’ve analysed it. You know every section of it. Then you get there and you’re just like, ‘Hit me with it!’”

“A few weeks ago me and Erik were in the town centre in Liverpool and we saw this huge crowd just standing in the street watching a busker,” Kadeem recalls. “People have been missing live music. I honestly believe shows are going to blow up even more than before. There’s a new love for it, a new appreciation.”

For now, though, Loathe are happy to keep surfing that wave that started on the other side of the pandemic. I Let It In… has endured, now making Album Of The Year conversations around the world and elevating Loathe to be spoken of as Britain’s most exciting breakout band. Interest from fans only continues to build. And there’s no forgetting that Deftones’ frontman Chino Moreno even vocalised his support. Those 15-year-old dreamers would be proud, but more so, they’d be desperate for even bigger things.

Well, what’s next?

“Experiment more,” Kadeem says, with an air of untold possibility. “Find ourselves as artists. I want to expand our universe in any way possible to make it something fans can live inside. I’m excited for the journey, to grow with our fans, and to see where this thing is going to go.”

“Expect the unexpected,” stresses Erik, with disarming purpose. “We’ll always try to do things that people don’t expect from a band like ours. We’ve already proved that with the music. But we’re going to do it in other ways, through other mediums and on other platforms. We want to expand the Loathe lore in any way possible to give people in all different walks of life a way into what we do.”

So, take over the world, basically…

“Literally,” nods Kadeem, with just a touch of mischief.

“It’s always been that,” Erik concludes. “Right from day one.”

Loathe’s I Let It In And It Took Everything is out now via Sharptone.

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