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Fresh from announcing their first wave of artists for 2024, Reading & Leeds have also just confirmed next year’s day splits…
In the beginning, there wasn’t much of a masterplan. To say there was a plan at all, master or otherwise, would be an overstatement. Instead, there was simple a desire: to craft their own music, write their own story, shape their own destiny.
The decision had been as swift as it was easy. Come the tail-end of 2015, Courtney LaPlante and Michael Stringer, at the time vocalist and guitarist, respectively, in avant-garde metalcore experimentalists Iwrestledabearonce, were hit with a realisation: their career was on the road to nowhere. Each night, they would stand onstage, performing someone else’s songs, in someone else’s band, to fewer and fewer someones in the audience. And then it arrived. “We were just hanging out one day, talking about the future,” recalls Courtney today, “and… It was like everything that I'd been lying to myself about hit me all at once.
“‘There is no future in this band.’”
Courtney LaPlante – engaging, affable, effortlessly cool – is today sat in a Los Angeles hotel. Looking back on that decision to “hand in my two-week’s notice” and get the hell out of dodge, she laughs a knowing laugh as she recalls where that choice led to next. Turns out, when you’ve spent the past few years of your life “touring the country with your favourite bands”, real life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“I think most people in mid-level bands, we are all just running away from reality,” she reflects. “The longer you’re on tour, the more we don't have to, like, get a job or try to find somewhere to live other than your parents’ basement.”
A lack of viable prospects for the former precluded the latter. Employment for the then-27-year-old Courtney would instead be found waiting tables for $8 an hour; Michael, similarly, took on the task of slinging pizzas from the back of a delivery car (the pair now work together at a data-entry company). But, as inseparable “soulmates” romantically as well as creatively, they still had each other. They still had a vision. And soon enough, they had some music – progressive, heavy and atmospheric, while owing more than a little bit to the band TesseracT – and a new band to call their own.
That band would be called Spiritbox.
They, too, had the help of their friends, who would take promo photos, or help realise video shoots for pocket change. Their former manager in IWABO, Jason Mageau, would tout the name Spiritbox to anyone who would listen (and, when his praises fell on deaf ears, he’d simply start a label, Pale Chord, in order to release the band’s music himself). When Courtney and Michael married, in 2016, guests were asked not to gift the couple new toasters or ‘Live Laugh Love’ artwork, but to instead spare them a few dollars to help cover the costs of mixing and mastering the home recordings that comprised their debut EP, released in 2017.
Courtney today describes the belief Michael and herself shared in their fledgling outfit not simply as naïve, but “delusional”. “I think there's two kinds of people [in bands],” she reasons. “There's people who are using it as a distraction, kind of how I was at the end of IWABO – I was using that as a way to not have to go, ‘Okay, you have $100 to your name, it's time for you to move on.’ And then there’s the people like who we are today, who are like, ‘I have to do this, I'm compelled to do this, and nothing can stop me.’”
Those delusions, it would be safe to say, have paid off and then some. Where Spiritbox – completed by bassist Bill Crook – once felt so overlooked that they would struggle to get arrested, today they are the name on the lips of rock and metal fans, managers, promoters, labels and journalists the world over. The music that four years ago was dismissed out of hand, Courtney scoffs, as “’a husband and wife band’” has now streamed to the tune of 75 million listens. Voted the ‘Best New Band’ in 2020’s Kerrang! Readers’ Poll, Spiritbox are indisputably the hottest act in the world right now, and in the shape of forthcoming full-length Eternal Blue, due for release on September 17, they possess one of 2021’s most accomplished and captivating heavy albums, debut or otherwise. The world, simply, is theirs for the taking.
But to understand the journey of Eternal Blue, first you have to understand Courtney LaPlante.
Courtney had the name ‘Eternal Blue’ some years before its songs even existed. In many ways, she’s had the title her whole life.
As turns of phrase go, few will ever be as haunting as Courtney’s revelation that her life has been “plagued by depression”. Born and raised in Alabama in the Deep South of the United States, aged 15 she relocated 2,000 miles north to Victoria, Vancouver Island, off Canada’s West Coast, following her parents’ divorce and her mother’s re-marriage. “I left my whole life behind,” says the eldest of six siblings. In a new school in a new town, she struggled to find both a place and friends. “[At the time] I never knew what [depression] was, and I thought that that was just how things should be… I probably cried out for help a lot and but didn't [get it], because everyone around me was going through so much stuff. I was manipulative enough to slip through the cracks, so that I never had to deal with anything.
“I'm very lucky that I am around, you know, because the teenage brain is so much different than the fully developed adult brain.”
It wouldn’t be until just two years ago that Michael gently approached the subject of his partner’s “ebbs and flows of emotions”; those three-day stints “of crippling self-doubt and anxiety where I couldn’t get out of my bed”. ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’ he told her. ‘You deserve to not feel this way.’
“It took him to make me realise that it's not normal, and it’s not that there's something wrong with me, this is just part of who I am,” Courtney says. “I would prefer not to deal with these feelings, but doesn't make me like a flawed person.”
Though predominantly recorded in Joshua Tree, California, at the turn of this year, much of Eternal Blue’s writing took shape during this dark time, and resultantly the scars of that journey are writ large across its 12 tracks. Its title is as much a phrase to encapsulate Courtney’s story as it is this collection of music.
“Heavy music is one of the best ways to help yourself connect with those feelings, so you can get over it move on, even if it's just a couple steps onward,” Courtney says. “Eternal Blue is pure selfishness, because this music for me is what I need to move on from a lot of feelings and aggression and really dark, intrusive thoughts that I constantly have.”
In song, those thoughts take on physical manifestations; characters to embody the darkness of the mind. “I like to hide behind imagery and metaphor,” Courtney reveals. “That’s where I feel safe, hiding in the shadows, and where no-one can harm me.”
Take, for instance, Holy Roller – the song, with its video that echoes 2019 horror smash Midsommar, which last year fully announced Spiritbox to the wider world. “Those lyrics are me talking as my version of the Devil,” Courtney says. “It is my depression, this evil that is trying to corrupt what I'm doing by telling me I’m not good enough, and tempting me into the darkness. I'm not religious, but I grew up in the church and the way that the Bible would personify Satan always really stuck with me. He’s not a monster; he’s a dude who’s sat whispering to you, and causing shit.”
She points to recent single Circle With Me as a further example. “In that song, sometimes I’m writing as myself, but sometimes I'm talking as my subconscious and my depression, which is standing in the way of my goals, and telling me I’m not good enough. It’s my Devil telling me, ‘Compromise who you are, and all this can be yours…’”
Those warring voices are echoed in Courtney’s own vocal performance. Few frontpeople handle the transition from cleans to screams with the skill, depth and ferocity of Courtney LaPlante – evidenced by the one-take, in-studio vocal booth performance videos that the band release to their own YouTube channel (with 2.1 million views to date, that which accompanied the release of the band’s Rule Of Nines single is more popular even than the official music video to the same track). Having recently recovered from a serious vocal cord injury that for many years restricted her range, with a polyp miraculously disappearing (an incredibly rare outcome, when surgery is normally the only solution), Courtney sees Eternal Blue as, finally, at age 32, the realisation of “my true voice”.
It’s easy to hear the duality of those shifts as the angels and demons sat on Courtney’s shoulders; not quite so, however, says the vocalist. “To me, my screams and cleans come from the same emotion,” she explains. “Screaming is physically overwhelming on my body, but there isn't as much technicality to it. I like to get lost in my performance – it’s like a hypnotised state – but it’s hard not to overthink singing, because it’s so much more fragile.”
Instead, the contrasting techniques serve to create a sense of instability and vulnerability throughout Eternal Blue. The latter, in particular, was an instructive emotion for Courtney, and one that she feels still largely remains lacking in heavy music.
“It's a male-dominated field, and men are taught that they're not allowed to show any other traits other than anger and strength,” she reasons. “Everyone universally has moments of vulnerability, but it's really hard for a lot of men to get the support to feel comfortable expressing that in their songs, especially in such like an aggressive type of music where the message is normally about ‘overcoming’, or ‘rising up’, or conquering a ‘battle’. But heavy music is cyclical, and within that, pockets of vulnerability bubble up.”
Courtney points to the nu-metal and emo movements as past evidence, and nods enthusiastically in agreement at the notion that those scenes were musical gateways for a generation of fans who might have otherwise found their musical calling away from ‘rock’. Similarly, she adds, the paths for people to discover heavy music today feel more widespread and accessible than ever. This is essential, Courtney feels, because her own experience is reflective of that. As a music fan with widespread taste – heavy music coming into her life, via a younger brother, in her later teenage years – she is just as likely to point to songwriting role models in the worlds of hip-hop, R&B and pop. Their method, she feels, conflicts with that of heavy music, where “as a vocalist, you often feel like you’re sprinting behind a song, trying to keep up. In a lot of other genres, the song is there to support the vocalist, not the other way round.”
Crucially, though, it’s about what is being said, rather than how. “The younger generation coming through, I think they’re so brave. They are unapologetically themselves, and they are exploring who they are within the context of heavy music. That diversity of voices that’s coming to heavy, who are open to expressing the unique experiences they’ve had from different walks of life, is not only making heavy music exciting, but it’s what it needs.”
But what even is ‘heavy’, anyway? Perhaps Eternal Blue’s most striking achievement is its refusal to be pegged by the most basic definition of the word. Certainly, this is a record born from the band’s post-metalcore roots; the likes of The Acacia Strain and Architects (whose vocalist, Sam Carter, features on the bludgeoning track Yellowjacket) being clear influences on the tones and tunings at play throughout the record’s heaviest moments. Riffs – technical riffs, challenging riffs – abound; breakdowns, too. But Eternal Blue is a record, crucially, of different dimensions and colours. Genre conventions are instructive, yet not restrictive, and so those same bruising djent grooves come laced with an underlying warmth, too.
Courtney describes the guitar work that “flows out of Michael” as “extremely aggressive, but with a sadness to it, too”. She uses the words “sorrowful” and “mournful” to describe soundscapes that have a human voice of their own – “the sound of someone crying”, to Courtney’s ear.
“I've always just been drawn to atmosphere versus shock value,” she says. “That kind of music is so fun to perform, but it doesn’t have a lasting power over time. A great example of heaviness that resonates with me would be a band like Deftones. Heaviness is for me a feeling of compression. Heaviness is what weighs you down and deflates you. That, and not the release where you're free and you can scream, is heavy.”
To that end, she points to the album’s title-track as not only her favourite on the album, but that which, despite favouring ethereal ambience over guttural heft, is its defining moment. The emotive resonance of the melodies at play in the Evanescence-channelling opener Sun Killer or the album-closing Constance, meanwhile, make them pound for pound as ‘heavy’ as the album’s most ferocious three minutes, Silk In The Strings. The synthetic, minimalist beats that accompany We Live In A Strange World serve to spotlight open-wound lyrics such as, ’If greatness leaves me alone I know I won’t recover’, and when Courtney tenderly sings ’When birds of prey invade my thoughts, they promise I will feel the pain’ on the aforementioned Circle With Me, it hits equally as hard as the song’s closing crescendo of noise. “This music is so moving,” Courtney says, “and I truly want people to fully emote with me.”
Those stylistic shifts at play are born as much from a desire to convey the unsettled, ever-changing shape of the emotions at the album’s core, as they are to forge a fluid, flexible sound truly of Spiritbox’s own. Eternal Blue is not, then, an easy record to pigeon-hole, and such is the point. Who or what is ever simply one thing, after all?
Courtney knows that these words may cause sniffier members of the metal world to wrinkle their nose. To those people – to anyone, even – she offers no promises, about either their expectations for Eternal Blue or where the Spiritbox sound will shift next. This is a band, lest we forget, still finding their footing – and one that not even a year ago expected to be doing so under such a spotlight of expectation and anticipation. Ask Courtney, for instance, how the world of Eternal Blue will be brought to life when live shows return, and she expresses how difficult a notion that is to consider for a band who not only will spend the next year or so largely in 30-minute-long support slots, but who to date have a mere 15 live shows to their name at all. It amounts to a unique (and, make no mistake, welcomed) pressure, she acknowledges.
And so while Courtney LaPlante can feel some distance from the person she was when she wrote many of these songs at one of her lowest moments two years ago – “In the years to come, I’m going to be able to feel like the real me again, Courtney the musician, rather than the version of Courtney who punches the clock” – those same root emotions remain, albeit in different forms.
“I have all these other new insecurities now,” she confides. “‘Will I fail? Will this album allow me to live my dreams – or will it be the laughing stock of the world?’ All these songs, really, they resonate with me even more now. The oldest songs on the record are about my frustrations of not being able to be who I want to be.”
And now that you have that chance?
“Now I could be the self-sabotaging antagonist in my own story,” she smiles. “I’m putting my guard down and realising that I am desperate. I am so desperate for this.”
Courtney recently watched Billie Eilish’s latest ‘Same Interview’ video, conducted by Vanity Fair. In it, the popstar answers the same set of questions, exactly 365 days after she last did so, reflecting on the changes in her life; the October 18, 2020 edition marked its fourth straight year. “You're watching her grow into a woman and laughing at her old self – some things are the same, some things are different,” Courtney says. “But one thing she said that really resonated with me is that, now she’s a huge star, she’ll sometimes be talking to someone, and then she has this out of body experience where she’s not really herself, and she’s watching herself acting the part of Billie Eilish. And that’s really sad, because you’re just going through these things in life on autopilot.”
She jokes that Kerrang! will have to similarly conduct this same interview again in 12 months’ time. “But I think that if I can keep my self-awareness, practice what I preach and stay vulnerable in my music, then we'll be okay,” she smiles.
“I'll be okay.”
Spiritbox's Eternal Blue is out now via Rise Records/Pale Chord. Order your copy now.
Click the button below to download your print-at-home Kerrang! cover, smartphone wallpapers and more.
Courtney LaPlante styling:
White pearl fringe leotard: Vintage Falguni & Shane
Jewellery: Custom order by GlynnethB.com
Boots: Sylth Virago (sylthvirago.com) style persephone boots in mocha
Blue jumpsuit: Vintage
Headpiece: Steve David for Comme des Salons
Blue Jumpsuit: Vintage
Blue wool Jacket: Vintage
Jewellery: Custom order by GlynnethB.com
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