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Stray From The Path: “If cops are gonna keep doing this stuff, we need to keep talking about it – with greater intensity than before!”

As Stray From The Path rail against police brutality and ‘copaganda’ on furious new single III, and confirm apocalyptic album Euthanasia, we catch up with Thomas Williams to find out how the Long Island hardcore veterans unlocked new levels of ferocity…

Stray From The Path: “If cops are gonna keep doing this stuff, we need to keep talking about it – with greater intensity than before!”
Words:
Sam Law

The last time Kerrang! sat down with Stray From The Path, things were looking up. Having ridden out the backlash to notorious 2017 single Goodnight Alt-Right, the Long Island collective were coming to the conclusion that conciliation, rather than provocation is the best route to real change. A life-changing charitable trip to Nakuru, Kenya with the Hardcore Help Foundation and Actions Not Words had broadened their worldview and changed their perspectives. Coinciding with the release of November 2019’s excellent Internal Atomics, they were about to undertake their continent-hopping biggest-ever headline tour.

What a difference a couple of years can make. Re-emerging with cop-baiting new single III and announcing darkly-titled 10th LP Euthanasia, that hope and positivism has been replaced by rage and nihilism, as they reflect on a world scarred by the pandemic, still plagued by brutalist law enforcement, and more divided than ever.

“Internal Atomics ends with the message of ‘Change the world!’ then this new one starts off like ‘Kill everyone!’” smiles guitarist/vocalist Thomas Williams wryly, admitting that he and bandmates Andrew ‘Drew York’ Dijorio (vocals), Anthony Altamura (bass) and Craig Reynolds (drums) couldn’t help but dive into darkness. “That last album was us writing about a big, inspiring moment in our lives. But after 2020 and 2021, how could you not write a record that’s miserable? Our art is an extension of our reality, and there’s not a lot to feel happy about nowadays…”

New single III is the latest chapter in the Badge & A Bullet series, begun on 2013’s Anonymous, and continued on 2015’s Subliminal Criminals. How did it feel having to revisit themes of police brutality and ‘copaganda’ again after all these years?
“Honestly, as the person who manages the band as well as one of the main songwriters, I didn’t know about it because I didn’t want the fans to think that we were just leaning on stuff that had worked for us in the past. At this point we don’t really need to spread awareness on police brutality, because they do it themselves. But then everyone else was like ‘Come on man, the cops are worse than ever!’ If they’re gonna keep doing this stuff, we need to keep talking about it – with greater intensity than before! You can see the progression in those songs over the years. The first Badge & A Bullet was like 10 years ago, and we were saying, ‘You’re supposed to serve and protect us! Not all cops are bad, but this isn’t fair!’ Then the second one was like, ‘Hey, these guys are actually killing people. They’re killing 12-year-old kids! This is serious.’ Then Part III is like, ‘Fuck all of them. Abolish the police!’”

How inspiring was the Black Lives Matter movement?
“That shit was really cool, seeing people come together to protest against those wrongs. Then, of course, there was the other side, with the right wing supporting [the police], but that’s always going to be a thing. I went to protests myself, and the lyric in the song, ‘The riots only start when the stormtroopers roll up…’ references how things only escalated when the cops escalated it. I’m interested to see the reaction to this new song because parts I and II were super-polarising and pissed a lot of people off.”

What kind of things did you witness at the demonstrations you attended?
“I was there with my pregnant wife, so at the point at which they started shooting tear gas into the crowd, I would fuckin’ bounce. But I saw with my own eyes – as did we all on the videos that came out – how it was when the cops started escalating things that things really escalated. When I was there, we’d all be walking and singing and chanting – it feels really good for a while, like a real community – but then they flip a switch and it can turn extremely violent.”

Was there a particular frustration, as an overtly political band, to not be able to get out there and play?
“We’ve done what we can in terms of fundraising, plus we were writing music. And these days you can do a lot from your phone. I don’t want to say that our lockdown was any more special than lockdown for any other artist who wasn’t able to perform. It sucked. You lose your whole purpose in life, because this is what you’ve been doing for like 13 years or so. There were times when I wouldn’t talk to our guys for weeks and when I’d hit them up with a riff they weren’t even sure if they wanted to play anymore. And there were times when they’d be really inspired, but I hadn’t touched my guitar in three months! The music industry was the first to go and the last to come back – and stuff is still getting cancelled!”

Not only will it mark your grand comeback after lockdown, but Euthanasia marks your 10th studio album as a band. Does it feel like a landmark?
“Man, that stuff makes me feel old. A lot of people would say it’s our 10th album, counting the records we put out when we were a local band, but I count it as our eighth from Villains when Drew first got involved. Whether you say eight or 10, though, it’s still a lot. I’m just thankful that the band is still together and we were able to make a record that I genuinely think is the best we’ve ever done. Interestingly, a lot of bands in our genre are putting out their best records late in their careers: Architects, Stick To Your Guns, Underoath and, even though they’ve disbanded since, Every Time I Die. We’re still figuring out how to be better as we get older and, lyrically, it’s not hard to find things to sing about, because the world is a fuckin’ hellhole.”

What’s the meaning behind that album title, Euthanasia?
“Euthanasia, where it is legal, is based on two requirements. The first is to be in a constant state of pain and suffering. The second is that that needs to be incurable. It seems to me like the whole world could qualify for that, nowadays. Even though things aren’t really incurable, it’s easy to feel hopeless. This record is nine tracks of just fuckin’ shitty, miserable stuff that happens every day in our world, then this apocalyptic final track, with Drew saying, ‘As the fires encase the sky, we’re reminded one last time we could have gone in grace together…’ We could have thrived. We could have shined. Over the pandemic, people – those people who weren’t kicked out of their homes, at least – had the opportunity to try things they’ve always wanted to try, be that learning to cook or starting a family. But instead it feels like everyone is at war with each other, people are dying, people are still sick – like my uncle who’s fighting for his life right now, waiting for a double lung transplant. The album cover shows this button where we could shed the human race from the face of the earth like a snakeskin. Maybe we should. That’s metaphorical, of course. I don’t think the world should actually be wiped clean…”

Your collaboration with Stick To Your Guns frontman Jesse Barnett on Bread & Roses – the first clean singing ever on a SFTP song – offers a glimmer of respite. Was it important to have that contrast to the vitriol elsewhere?
“Yes, it was, and I’m glad that it’s Jesse who delivers it. Some of the only inspiring things from the last few years are the things that he’s done: opening a leftist bookstore in Los Angeles – All Power Books – that’s become a huge part of his community, organising their mutual aid programme called Red Bread where they give back to their community and help the homeless. He’s one of my best friends, we work together, we’re in another band [Trade Wind] together, and the shit that he does out there is inspiring and makes me proud to be his friend. It’s a good song to break up that chaotic, miserable, murderous vibe, just saying that people deserve their bread and their roses.”

With Drew relocating to France for a large part of lockdown, and Craig based in the UK, how hard was it to get this album done while separated by a literal ocean of distance?
“It was difficult. We actually wrote a lot of the album on Twitch. I’d been playing video games and streaming with my friends on there, and when I found out people were playing music I talked to Craig, like, ‘What if we actually wrote the record on Twitch?!’ We started a SFTP channel which we still use, and we were streaming five or six or seven times a week. One day would be Craig jamming or playing drums, then programming it and sending it to me. Then the next stream would be me opening what he’s sent and writing to it. Honestly, there were times where our Twitch chat was giving us advice on the song, and we used it! Actually getting Craig into the United States to record his drums was insane, too. We needed to qualify for something called an N.I.E. – a National Interest Exemption – to show that Craig is ‘vital to the American economy’. That sounds extreme, but SFTP is an American business, Will Putney is an American producer, and UNFD is a record label based, partially, in America.”

Craig suffered a pretty serious injury during recording, too, right?
“We were waiting eight months mostly just for the N.I.E. appointment, then the next day, after being approved, he broke his back and we had to push things back months again. I don’t want to get into the details because it’s his story to tell, but he should be fuckin’ dead. Thankfully, he’s alive. The fact that he was able to come back eight weeks later is a miracle. We started recording in July, and finally got him here in December. Dealing with his back is something that we deal with to this day, and we will deal with forever. It’s something that you only do for a one-of-a-kind drummer like Craig. I wouldn’t do all this shit for someone who isn’t like he is onstage and off.”

Was tracking drums at the end of recording a big adjustment?
“That’s actually the way we normally do it. We program the entire record, but sometimes Drew finds a vocal line that might go better with a different kick pattern and we can change it then and there, then let Craig do his thing when he records. If Drew was trying to do a fast vocal thing over a fast drum thing that was already set in concrete, it could sound awful.”

Is it true that when you first came together with Will in the studio, it was the first time you’d all been in the same room in two years? What was that day like?
“Yeah, that was December 2021 and the last time we’d been together was January 2020, so 23 months to be exact. But the emotions were just like ‘Whatever…’ Craig and I had streamed or talked or texted together every day. Drew and I have been best friends since like sixth grade. We gave each other a hug, then it was like, ‘Okay, what’s for lunch?’ It wasn’t this crazy euphoric thing that we thought it might be. It was just ‘What’s up? Okay, let’s go to work…’”

Frustratingly, your European tour with Beartooth and Motionless In White was postponed to 2023. How good was it to manage that full tour with Underoath, Spiritbox and Bad Omens in February and March?
“That tour really put a lot of life into us. It was when we got out there, playing these massive shows every day, that we first felt like we were having that religious experience we thought we might getting together in the studio. Plus, it felt like we were playing to a completely new set of fans. We were one of the replacements for Every Time I Die, and these shows had been on sale for like two years. Plus, Underoath are so big, and Spiritbox are so new, that a lot of people coming out to the shows weren’t even [traditional] hardcore fans. We love Architects and Stick To Your Guns, but we’ve already toured with them many times. On that tour, every day we were meeting people who would say they’d never heard of us before, and we’d tell them ‘Okay, we’ve already got eight or nine records you can go and check out!’”

Lastly, what would it take for Euthanasia to feel like a triumph after the turbulent time away?
“Oh man, honestly I haven’t even had the time to think about that. What I will say is that, right before the pandemic, we did our best-ever tour: a headline run across the UK, Europe and Australia. And we got there on our own. Nowadays, we get plenty of coverage, but back in 2013 or 2014 we didn’t. I remember being main support for Architects at a record release show in Brighton for Lost Forever // Lost Together, getting to the venue and asking where all the other bands were. Everyone was doing press or videos or radio or whatever. We were just sat there playing cards. All we had was our music and our live show. We worked our asses off, just the four of us playing our instruments without backing tracks or crazy lights shows. And we got to the point where we were doing a sold-out headline run and taking out all these cool bands like Loathe and The Devil Wears Prada with us. We went from undesirable to undeniable. I just want to be able to pick up where we left off, having worked for a decade to get there!”

Euthanasia will be released on September 9 via UNFD.

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