Matt Heafy: "Rock should be made by the people in the band, not by ghostwriters or teams of songwriters"

Trivium mainman Matt Heafy on his childhood, hazing, Ascendancy, the eventual success of risk-taking and much, much more

Matt Heafy: "Rock should be made by the people in the band, not by ghostwriters or teams of songwriters"
Header Photo:
Grizzlee Martin

Matt Heafy is on “dad duty” today, taking care of his twin toddlers after their swimming lessons in the morning, and we find him in a contemplative mood. And as well we should, as the events of the past 12 months have given the Trivium frontman reason to breathe and reflect. This April, the Floridian heavyweights released their 4K-rated ninth album, What The Dead Men Say, and changed the game with their subsequent A Light Or A Distant Mirror livestream experience (not at all surprising given Matt’s passion for Twitch). Away from his day job, he’s also featured on new albums from Bleed From Within, Me And That Man and Chthonic, as well as just dropping a new five-track EP with YouTuber and friend Jared Dines (inventively titled Dines x Heafy).

Alongside this constant hubbub of creativity and hours of daily livestreamed rehearsals, 2020 also brought with it the 15th anniversary of Trivium’s breakthrough record Ascendancy. Setting the metal world ablaze upon its release, it not only won K!’s Album Of The Year but also saw them bumped onto the main stage at Download that summer, and onto the cover of Kerrang! magazine, heralded as “The hottest metal band of the century” with Matt holding a flaming guitar.

Alas, the rocket strapped to their backs didn't quite hit the stratosphere. The story of Trivium since then has been a bumpy one, never fully capturing that zeitgeist moment again, owing to the odd misstep in their recorded catalogue, and risks not quite paying off as best they hoped. Today we sit down with Matt as he takes time away from his devoted online community to look back on how he made it here, what he’d have done differently, and why he’ll always fly the flag for metal – even if some bands won’t.

You grew up in Florida but were born in Japan and have a Japanese mother. What impact did that have on you growing up in America?
“I didn’t understand I was from somewhere different at first. I remember everyone [at school] talking about what they had for breakfast, someone asked me, and I was like, ‘What I always have, rice and salmon.’ And everyone looked at me like, ‘What the hell? That’s not normal. We had cereal.’ At that moment I realised I had been doing something different, that one culture’s norm is another place’s something different, so I wanted to find out what other people’s norms were. When we started touring the world, I wanted to see what other people’s rice and salmon was, what every country’s breakfast was, how they grew up…

“That’s the positive side of it, but growing up you do face racism and I faced that quite a bit on tour when we started off. People who didn’t like the band, I would hear them yell Asian racist slurs or do the Asian eyes at me and flip me off. This was in the early days when we realised this divide exists – and we see it now more than ever. We see people that believe people are different, that because you’re from somewhere else that means something, or if there’s something bad happening in that country it means you’re responsible.”

What morals and life lessons were instilled in you from growing up surrounded by Japanese culture?
“I’ve always considered myself half-Japanese and half-marine. My dad is a marine, my mom’s Japanese, and while being a marine isn’t exactly a culture, it’s a lifestyle that instils something into people’s lives. Those two cultures are two of the most regimented, disciplined things you could possibly have as a backing. My dad was all about things being regimented and drill-based, but was also incredibly supportive as soon as I found what I wanted to do in life. As soon as I said, ‘I want to be in a band that does well and plays shows around the world,’ he was all about that. And I definitely incorporate things in my life that have a Japanese way of looking at things, for example the way I practice guitar or vocals – I practice for perfection, knowing that perfection isn’t possible. With singing I work to being as good as Freddie Mercury, knowing I’ll never be as good as him. I know that sounds kind of dismal in the end, but it is meant to be a positive source that keeps going. That ouroboros where perfection and imperfection have to live harmoniously, and I think that has to come from Japanese culture.”

You grew up in Florida and joined Trivium at 13. Were you aware of the state’s death metal heritage?
“The death metal scene was ’92/93-’97/98, and I didn’t get into metal until 1999, so I missed it, but later on when I got into extreme metal I went backwards. I was late getting into everything, but I made sure that when I got into something, I went back to the roots of where it came from, and that’s what I always implore our fans to do. We wear band shirts that are our influences, but also ones that are contemporary because it’s about keeping the new stuff alive while also educating people about where it came from.

“One of the biggest death metal influences on Ascendancy who aren’t talked about enough are Martyr – a French-Canadian tech-death/jazz band, who were super influenced by Florida bands like Atheist and Cynic, but it was unlike anything I’d heard before. People need to check out Warp Zone by Martyr. The other record that was big for us on Ascendancy was Death’s Sound Of Perseverance. Death were from about 10 minutes from where I grew up. We played a fundraiser for Chuck when he was in the hospital with a brain tumour; we played when I was about 13 or so. Death were the biggest influence on us of those Florida bands.”

Ascendancy celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. How does it feel looking back on that record now?
“When we wrote Ascendancy we had no fans, no supporters. We played locally and sold a couple of shirts to an aunt’s friend or high school buddy, it wasn’t like what we have today. We just made the music we loved based on our vast influences. I just talked about death metal but Ascendancy was influenced by the classic metal greats, melodic death metal, black metal, metalcore, hardcore… I was into bands like My Chemical Romance and Dashboard Confessional, and mixing those things into everything else going on is what made that Trivium sound. We allowed everything to be there – from the simple and melodic like Dying In Your Arms to brutal and fast like Declaration. But we wanted to make the music we wanted to make. Everything we make that feels the most Trivium is the stuff that we make with just the four of us – we get in a room together, I make sure I can play it and sing it, we know it by muscle memory and we rehearse the hell out of it before we record any of it. That’s what we did on Ember To Inferno (2003), Ascendancy (2005), Shogun (2008),In Waves (2011), The Sin And The Sentence (2017) and What The Dead Men Say (2020). Those were the six where we didn’t let anyone in, it was just the four of us before we allowed a producer in.”

You were just a teenager when you found global success. That must have been crazy.
“I look back now and I wish that I’d given myself a minute and looked around a little bit. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but I wish I’d paused for a moment and allowed myself to just sit and look around. We were just so in the middle of it and doing it that we had no time to do that – especially with the Download show [in 2005]. I woke up 30-40 minutes before the set, I was still hungover, my voice sounded like crap, I didn’t really warm up, I didn’t change my strings, we put our postage stamp-sized backdrop onstage… We weren’t ready for that show, but for some reason when we walked onstage everything worked. For whatever reason we were able to pull that last thread that was there in our bodies. When I was walking off is when I realised we needed to be more serious.

“I remember the time we did the double sold-out nights at the Astoria and were presented with the gold records onstage, and that’s insane, that doesn’t happen to bands like us – it hasn’t happened to us since then. I remember going up to the dressing room after and the four of us being in a screaming match with each other, I won’t go into why, but it showed that a part of the band was ready to go to that next level and a part of it wasn’t. I’m not putting that on any one of us, but we weren’t ready for what it needed to be.”

So why did you decide to make The Crusade next?
“It was my decision to rebel against everything we just did. I looked at Ascendancy and thought we did everything right. Can we do everything right again? I don’t know. And I looked around and thought everyone is doing screaming and singing, everyone is doing breakdowns and solos, and everyone has a ton of double-bass – so let’s do the opposite. Let’s make a record that sounds like it’s from the ‘80s, that’s really thrash, I’m gonna sing entirely, no breakdowns, go back to standard tuning.

“I’ve thought about what would happen if we made Ascendancy Part 2 instead, and the UK and the U.S. would have been happy, but I don’t know if the rest of the world would have picked up the way that it did. I know we wouldn’t be exactly where we are now, and where we are now is a place where we’re able to try something different on every single record until recently. While Sin and Dead Men aren’t drastic differences from each other, it’s that same idea of allowing everything to happen. I don’t think we’d have made a record like Shogun, Sin or Dead Men if we didn’t do The Crusade. And at the time of The Crusade, the screaming was starting to feel pretty terrible; I should have learned to scream like I can now and it not hurt. It felt like my throat was bleeding every show.

“Everything you do in life leads to where you’re at now and you need every failure and every success, but Ascendancy was such an interesting point. It was the first and only time in our career where Trivium were winning awards, getting magazine covers, features – we were a band that the press would talk about. That was the only time in our career that it happened and the only place it really happened was the UK, which is why we love it so much. But it’s been an interesting relationship in that transition from Ascendancy to The Crusade, that transition from, ‘You will be the next biggest band in the world’ to, ‘You are the worst band in the world.’ That was an important life lesson for a 19-year-old to learn.”

Trivium were part of a huge upswell of metal at the time, including Killswitch, Lamb Of God, Mastodon, Bullet For My Valentine...
“I know it seems like we were with it, but we never felt embraced into a scene. I remember that while things were going very well, we started touring with a lot of our favourite bands in the world, and a lot of them were not cool to us. For one of my favourite bands in the world I saw a live review of their show, and the singer said, ‘Get that Trivium shirt out of here’ and I was just crushed by that. I remember seeing interviews with other people saying some pretty nasty stuff about us, and they’d never met us before.

“We had tours where we were bullied by techs; not just told to load in late or load out early, I’m talking about having a loading dock for a dressing room with six bottles of water just ‘cause they felt like doing that. Really stupid, old-school BS, which was maybe an ‘80s/‘90s mentality. It was weird for us and we never really understood why. We just had high goals, but everyone should have high goals. It should be everyone’s goal to be the best in the world at what they do. I think that hearing a bunch of 17/18 year olds saying we’re going to be the biggest band in the world maybe did not bode well with other bands, so that was tough.

“But that’s why, when we tour, we bring out the bands we think are the best. We bring out the bands that we want to listen to, that we love, because it’s a genuine thing and it instils a future for future generations. When one band does well in the heavy music world, all bands do well.”

How important is it for you, personally, to keep up to date with what’s happening right now?
“It’s important, but it has to be genuine. I’ve seen so many artists growing up in this who’ll have two attitudes – one being, ‘I haven’t listened to anything since 1987’, which I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve also seen contemporary people going, ‘I don’t listen to heavy music. There’s nothing unique coming out the heavy scene.’ Which is utter nonsense. Just talking about the UK, the fact that Architects played to 10,000 people in London is so good for heavy music, and that means everyone can do better, because they are such an incredibly unique band. They’re doing modern metal/hardcore the exact way they want to do it, building their career up off their own accord, and for them to play to 10,000 people in London means all heavy bands get to do better. I love seeing that and it makes me feel so good.

“It feels good to bring our favourite bands out. That last UK run – Trivium, Code Orange, Venom Prison, Power Trip – is one of the coolest line-ups I’ve ever been involved in, and it was as simple as, ‘What bands do we love?’ And it’s the responsibility of bands bigger than us to do this, because there are bigger bands than us who keep bringing out the same bands all the time, because they’re ‘proven ticket sales draws’. Which is fine, but there are more bands that need that chance, that deserve that shot, and you can’t go off ‘proven success’ versus what you genuinely like. If you bring out these bands that you genuinely like, your fans are going to like them as well, and it’s going to give them a shot to grow.”

Do you worry about the state of metal right now, or do you think it’s in a good place?
“It’s in a great place: the fact that Amon Amarth play arenas in Europe! The first time I played with Amon Amarth – and I’ve been a fan of theirs since 2000 – was the Children Of Bodom tour of North America. Bodom were headlining, Trivium direct support, and Amon Amarth opening, and now they’re doing thousands of people a night in The States, 10,000 people a night in Germany. Metal is doing very well and metalcore is doing very well, and the lines are blurred a lot, which I’m so happy to see. The idea of metal bands not touring with hardcore bands has gone, to a degree.

“We’ve done many festivals and tours where we’re the only metal band, and I love that. People should be about liking everything. We’re not the biggest band in the world, but we have a platform, and I consider it my responsibility to help bring all up that I can so there’s always good music that outweighs the music that I don’t like, or outweighs music that isn’t from the heart or made by human beings. There’s a lot of songwriting that goes on in rock and that’s not right, rock should be made by the people in the band, not by ghostwriters or teams of songwriters or is submitted to you from some songwriter city. It shouldn’t be that way, and that’s one thing you don’t see in metal or metalcore or melodic death metal.”

What is there left for Trivium to accomplish?
“Just to keep doing what we love doing. We feel more comfortable and confident than we’ve ever been. I don’t feel like we’re in a place where we need to do anything other than what feels natural. For the first time in our career, from Sin to Dead Men, there’s no 180º turn, no side-step, there’s no curveball, but there is an evolution of what we displayed with the previous records. Before that, every record was something completely different to the next. It’s going to be interesting to see how it goes with this record. My only goal in life was to be an area-sized metal band – we’re not there, I don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but if we do then awesome, and if we don’t then that’s okay. If we stay at this spot forever or get smaller, bigger, all I know is I’ve got to do a job where I play songs that I wrote for people that love it and I’m very happy about that."

Dines x Heafy is out now via Roadrunner Records

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