Why hyperpop owes its existence to heavy metal
Hyperpop is on the rise – and it’s thanks, in large part, to metal subgenres like nu-metal, crunkcore and metalcore…
There’s arguably no better distillation of what metalcore was in the late 2000s and early 2010s than the music video for Attack Attack!’s breakout 2008 single, Stick Stickly. From the genre-mashing music to the outfits, haircuts, and crabcore dance moves, the video truly is an artefact of a specific period of time.
Stick Stickly was one of the first songs Attack Attack! wrote, which they self-released on an EP called If Guns Are Outlawed, Can We Use Swords? The song was a hit, and soon Attack Attack! were one of the hottest up-and-coming metalcore bands in the world. They were quickly scooped up by breakdown powerhouse Rise Records, who arranged the band to film a new music video for the song (the original one from a few months earlier was incredibly low-budget and sloppy, even for the time) so it could be promoted on YouTube, which was still a fledgling concept.
The now-infamous video exploded in multiple directions: metal traditionalists loathed it, virtually every critic derided it… but, as is often the pattern with novel cultural breakthroughs, the kids couldn’t get enough. The song became a hit, even as Metal Injection asked, "Did Attack Attack! just put out the worst song/video ever?"
By the time Attack Attack! released their follow-up album in 2010 (which charted as the Number One Top Independent Album, the Number One Top Internet Album and the Number One Top Digital Album), the entire face of metalcore was beginning to be remade in Stick Stickly’s image.
Somehow, despite Attack Attack! breaking up in 2013 (long after original vocalists Austin Carlile and Johnny Franck had left) and their influence waning on a changing genre, Stick Stickly has never completely faded from internet relevancy. The high-schoolers who fell in love with the song are now in their mid-to-late-20s, which is when nostalgia for once-beloved media starts to set in. And a resurgence of Stick Stickly memes and callbacks has occurred, and even trendy bands outside of metalcore who are beginning to tap them as wholehearted inspirations.
However, there’s never been a legitimate documentation of how Stick Stickly was made, and how those associated with the band reacted to the video's notoriety… until now.
Around 2006, then-high-schooler Johnny Franck was obsessed with local buttrock band Ambiance. He started hanging out with them at their practices, and quickly formed a tight bond with their guitarist Andrew Whiting. “I was like, ‘Damn, this dude rips and he’s got a flanger pedal, I think that’s cool as fuck,’” Johnny remembers.
Eventually, Johnny was asked to join the band as a replacement guitarist, and he and Andrew decided to change the name to Attack Attack! because “there were a million fucking bands on MySpace named Ambiance”. The two were in search of a vocalist, so they hit up Austin Carlile on MySpace, who was then fronting a hardcore-minded metalcore band named Call It Even. He immediately agreed to join Attack Attack!, and the three started practicing. Eventually, they added bassist Jon Holgado and keyboardist Caleb Shomo, and the line-up was solidified.
“We really loved Enter Shikari,” Johnny says of the British quartet, who had just released their 2007 debut Take To The Skies, which featured some of the first instances of dance beats crossed with metal. ”It wasn’t that we loved everything they did, but there were two or three songs that they had just put out where they did a hardcore breakdown with a synth behind it. And we were like, ‘Bro, yes. That is sick.’”
However, at first, this direction wasn’t a consensus move within Attack Attack!.
“Andrew Whiting was like death metal, slam, hardcore [guy],” says Johnny. "I was, like, 'Forever The Sickest Kids is the greatest band ever.' Like, give me that neon, fuckin' crazy, bright, poppy stuff. So Andrew and I would always fight. He’d want some breakdown… I’d advocate for this absurdly bubblegum pop shit, and Andrew would be like, ‘Oh my God, dude.’ I was like, ‘Bro, we gotta do it.’”
“Auto-Tune was just starting to pop off in pop music,” Johnny adds. “You could not get a hotter feature than T-Pain. And I just remember hearing that effect and being like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool.’ And then I remember I See Stars did it in one of their songs and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing.’ I remember looking up, like, 'How do people get that sound?' I didn’t even know it was Auto-Tune at first.”
Above: The first, unofficial Stick Stickly video.
In mid-2008, Johnny and his bandmates signed to Rise, and the label asked them which producer they were interested in going with for the impending album. “And we were like, 'Joey Sturgis, hands down.' He was just on a different level than any other producer that we had seen.”
Rise owner Craig Ericson doubled as Joey's manager, so he was the one who approached the producer with the offer.
“I think he knew that I sort of would hate it a little bit, because of the Auto-Tune and stuff,” Joey remembers. “But he was like, ‘Just trust me on this man, this is gonna be huge and I think you’re gonna have a lot of fun with it, and you’re the right guy for the job.’ And I kind of was just like, ‘Ugh, alright.’"
It wouldn’t take long for Joey to realise that he was indeed the right choice for the band’s then-unheard-of sound.
“I would argue that I was the perfect producer,” Joey says. “Because at that time I was so obsessed with the perfectionism of it that there was no-one else who would’ve done it that way. My approach to the record was, 'Let’s make it over-the-top polished and perfect as possible. But super-brutal, but super-poppy… Basically take all the character and the attitude out of it and just make it sound almost like a robot played it.'”
As Joey did his best to comprehend the band’s sound, Attack Attack! were trying hard to lock down their goals and their message… but they definitely weren’t thinking about revolutionising heavy music when it came time to shoot their first video.
“I was 16 at the time, I barely had the ability of any sort of abstract thought,” says Johnny of his mindset on the day the band rolled up to their video shoot in Oregon. “I was very much living in the moment and not really thinking about anything.
“Rise was there, and they were like, ‘We got this sick video set-up for you guys at this cool house.’ And we get to the house and we’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool.’ And we were like, ‘Why is there this girl in this dress?’ And they were like, ‘We’re just gonna have her’ -- I don’t even remember what the conceptual pitch was. But I do remember that there was one.
“I think someone explained it to us and we were like, ‘Get this: There’s a girl. She’s in a dress. She doesn’t know where to go,’ We were kind of roasting it a little bit, if I’m not mistaken. ’Cause we roasted everything, that was just what we did… Caleb is 15 at the time, Jon’s 16, Andrew’s 17, I’m 18. We’re kids. We’re not like, 'What’s the narrative of this video?' We were like, ‘The girl doesn’t make sense but the video looks better than the one we did before.’
“[Those outfits were] was just what we wore,” Johnny adds. “There’s no thought put into that either. We would go to American Apparel and try to find the deepest possible V-neck we could. It was like, ‘Dude, that’s pretty good, but it’s not deep enough…’ Someone on our team was giving us shit ’cause we did a photoshoot and we were all wearing tank tops and shorts. Like every single person. We just had no style, we just didn’t care.
“I have very curly hair and the owner of Rise was like, ‘Dude, you gonna straighten your hair for the video?’ And I was like, ‘Are you gonna straighten my hair?’ Because I have basically dreadlocks at this point, ’cause they’re so curly, and he was like, ‘Okay.’ So he spent two hours straightening my hair before the music video and it hurt so bad.”
However, while V-necks and bowl cuts were a huge part of Stick Stickly’s popularity, nothing could match the crouching pose taken by the band’s guitarists, later to be known as the “crab walk” that would earn Attack Attack! their very own derisive term within hardcore music: crabcore.
“When I joined the band I was talking to someone in the band, very early on… And I was like, ‘Dude I don’t know what to do onstage. I look like such an idiot.’ And they were like, ‘Just copy what Andrew does.’ So I literally just did everything he did. And then when Jon joined the band he was like, ‘Dude, I have no idea what to do onstage.’ And I was like, ‘Just copy everything Andrew does.’ And then Caleb did the same thing.
“So that’s how the synchronization came into play; it wasn’t a conscious decision, we had no idea what to do, and Andrew did. So he did the crab stuff and we were like, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s just follow that…’ I feel like that was an iteration of the power stance. It was just a next-level rock’n’roll power stance.”
After the video was filmed, the band saw it once, okayed it, and then continued on to tour without giving it any thought – which is how Johnny remembers handling practically everything Attack Attack!-related.
“I wasn’t even on the internet that much back then," he recalls. "I didn’t have a smartphone. I had a flip phone. I don’t think I knew what YouTube was back then. So when the video came out, I didn’t even pay any mind to it… I didn’t understand Internet culture. I didn’t even know what a meme was back in 2008 and 2009. I was just playing shows and that was pretty much it… I knew that we were getting hate online, but I didn’t know that the Stick Stickly video was doing super-well. I didn’t really pay attention to it.”
“I was very active online and kinda knew,” says Joey Sturgis. “I was a lot older than them, so to me, some of it was just kinda silly. I look at it like, 'Okay. That’s a bit of a strange move there on that scene.' My perspective was, I was trying extremely hard to be a good producer. So whenever anyone talked shit about my production – even if they were saying something about the band in the video – I would still get hurt by it.”
Joey now admits that he was a bit concerned that the blowback from the Stick Stickly video might affect his professional standing. “I was a little worried about that, and actually did face quite a bit of backlash because of the vocals being Auto-Tuned and stuff… so I would defend myself online saying, ‘No, this band can do whatever the fuck they want and I just did what they paid me to do.’”
It wasn’t obvious at first, but eventually Johnny and his bandmates began to notice the impact their music, particularly Stick Stickly, was having on other bands they were playing with.
“We did a lot of stuff with [Asking Alexandria] and I remember one of the guys in the band was like, ‘Man, you guys were such a huge influence to us.’ And then obviously as I had [my] studio right after [I quit Attack Attack! in 2010], I realised how many bands sounded very similar. They were all coming through my studio… They were like, ‘We want a synth on this breakdown.’ And I was like, ‘I know what you’re trying to do here.’ I was getting paid, so I didn’t really care.”
“I think what a lot of people didn’t understand was that Attack Attack! actually had talent,” Joey says. “Johnny can really sing. He was doing [the Auto-Tune] on purpose, though. And so other bands would come in [my studio] after them and be like, ‘Yeah, we’re like a mixture of Attack Attack! and this other band and this other band.’ And then they’d start to perform and I’m like, ‘Oh God, you can’t sing.’ So then it ends up being the same effect, but without any talent.”
“It’ll go down in history," continues Joey. "It definitely kind of created its own category and was always the subject of controversy, for a lot of different reasons… And it was definitely negative from the audio production community, ’cause they hated the fact that I had all this Auto-Tune and fake [string, synth] stuff happening in there. Naturally, I felt sort of like, ‘Damn, my own community thinks I’m a joke.’ But I was also like, ‘Who cares? All these listeners love it.’”
“When I look back on it, I was like, 'Oh, that was fun,'" says Johnny. "That was a cool thing we were able to do."
Hyperpop is on the rise – and it’s thanks, in large part, to metal subgenres like nu-metal, crunkcore and metalcore…