“We’re trying to raise the bar”: How Killer Be Killed made one of 2020’s best metal albums

Members of Mastodon, Soulfly, Converge and The Dillinger Escape Plan take us deep inside the secret album they’ve been keeping from us for the past five years…

“We’re trying to raise the bar”: How Killer Be Killed made one of 2020’s best metal albums
Sam Law
Jim Louvau

The first rule of Killer Be Killed is: You do not talk about Killer Be Killed. On March 1, 2015 the unwillingly-labelled metal ‘supergroup’ left the stage to thunderous applause in Sydney, Australia, and the whole world presumed that we’d seen the last of them. With one album and just six shows under their belt, they’d burned bright and fast. Only memories would remain. Consequently, when word broke on September 4, 2020 that astonishing second album Reluctant Hero was ready to go, it struck like a bolt from the blue.

“Misdirection is a powerful tool,” grins guitarist/vocalist Greg Puciato, mischievously. “It’s cooler to get a present when it’s not your birthday.”

When asked how four of the brightest luminaries in modern heavy music managed to conceive and craft these 11 songs over a gaping five-year span without anyone – from fans to legendary label Nuclear Blast – finding out about it, their answer is disarmingly straightforward. Secrecy is simple.

“Everyone broadcasts their every move, nowadays, whether they’re pumping gas or grabbing food,” the erstwhile Dillinger Escape Plan/Black Queen vocalist continues. “Every time a musician picks up a guitar it’s, ‘Bet you can’t guess what I’m writing for...’ It’s like giving everybody this constant, three-year hand-job. Eventually, it’s just like, ‘Okay, we get it!’ At that point you could put out fuckin’ Master Of Puppets and people would be like, ‘You’ve been talkin’ about it for years, it better be good...’”

Max Cavalera erupts in a hearty laugh.

For the infamously-talkative Sepultura/Soulfly frontman and Greg’s fellow KBK six-stringer/vocalist, keeping schtum was a struggle. “Every time I did an interview, I lied my ass off,” he confesses. “Sometimes I’d be in the studio with these guys and I’d tell people that I didn’t even know if Killer Be Killed was still a band. But, when the [news] dropped, it was like an explosion. People were freaking out about new music. How cool was that in a world where there are no secrets?!”

Now that their silence is broken, we have to ask what’s drawn such busy players (no member has fewer than two other currently-active projects) back after all this time?

Mastodon bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders refers to KBK’s other unwritten rules: “No stress. No drama. No bullshit. No ego. Period. It’s a super-collaborative, fun band. If it wasn’t, I don’t think that any of us would even want to leave our house to be part of it.”

Drummer Ben Koller nods emphatically. As well as keeping time in Mutoid Man, All Pigs Must Die and Converge, the esteemed sticksman is the father to three small children, the youngest of whom arrived just at the start of this year. His time is at a premium, but he’s still thrilled to play his part. “The culmination of personalities is fucking amazing. Troy and Greg have these great musical minds, with such vision. Max is so positive, and he’s such a fan of heavy music that you can’t help but be inspired yourself.”

“There’s no stress. There’s no drama. There’s no bullshit. There’s no ego”

Hear Troy Sanders distil the essence of what makes Killer Be Killed work

Crucially, nothing is over-calculated. Some ‘supergroup’ collaborations are born of necessity (Audioslave, Velvet Revolver); others driven by boredom or unfulfilled musical needs (Probot, Them Crooked Vultures, The Raconteurs). Yet each member of KBK is fuelled first and foremost by interpersonal chemistry and camaraderie. This, they explain, is the mid-career equivalent of those teenage bands with which they all first found their way into music.

“We were all kids at one point – kids that loved heavy music,” Greg smiles. “We’ve all intersected now, in our 40s and 50s, but we’re still as excited as we ever were. We’re still on that adventure that we were when we first picked up guitars.”

“If you look at any of our phones,” Troy continues, “you’ll find that a lot of our friends are musicians because we’ve been road-dogs for so many years. You’ve shared a lot of stages and backstage rooms and festival areas with these people. They are the ones you befriend. So when it comes time to find a really cool guy to play the shit out of the drums, it’s not like delivering a sales-pitch to some unknown dude. It’s like, ‘Let’s ask Ben!’”

“It’s always best when things come together organically,” Greg picks up. “You end up playing with the people you’re organically excited about playing with. This is fresh. We’re not trying to mash up our other bands. We’re trying to make this brand new thing the best it can be. It just became its own thing and absorbed the people it absorbed. We were never thinking, ‘Let’s get the guys from Mastodon and Converge...’ It was never us saying, ‘Let’s put together a supergroup.’”

Max smirks. “We’re not that smart.”

In music, as in life, you never know what’s coming round the bend. Every opportunity should be cherished. As we dig deeper into the KBK story, it’s clearly a truth that has informed – and fuelled – their every step thus far.

It was surely playing in the backs of minds on November 20, 2009, as Max and Greg stepped up to lend guest vocals at Deftones’ fundraiser for their bassist Chi Cheng, whose own path had been tragically changed when a traffic accident the year before left him in a coma (he would pass away on April 13, 2013). Crossing paths backstage at the Hollywood Avalon, Greg steered the conversation towards his just-finished guest-vocals to Rise Of The Fallen, a stand-out on Soulfly’s then-upcoming seventh album Omen. He’d felt a spark and wondered whether it could be kindled into something more substantial – specifically referencing Max’s legendary 1995 industrial effort Nailbomb.

It took a few phone calls after that night to convince Max. “We definitely had that spark,” he admits, “but I didn’t know if I was ready to do something else. Then it was just like, ‘What the hell?! Fuck it!’ That’s always been my attitude.”

Neither imagined what was envisioned as a one-and-done experiment would be going stronger than ever 11 years down the line. Their first ‘recruit’ was a drum-machine dating back to Sepultura’s Arise era, with which they completed a set of 15 raw demos at Max’s secondary “mountain house” but it was the arrival of fellow human conspirators that stoked the escalation.

November 23, 2011. Troy and Greg had been friends for virtually their entire professional careers, from scraping through 150-cap club shows together to jointly levelling festival main stages. As the pair crashed onto a couch after storming Montreal, QC’s Metropolis, the Mastodon man wasn’t shy about popping the question. “He asked me about the thing I was doing with Max and whether we had a bass-payer yet,” Greg half-laughs. “I told him we didn’t and he just said, ‘Well, you do now...’”

“I’m fuelled by the magic of opportunity,” Troy says. “I’m fuelled by it. Every time I’m considered for something unique or interesting or special, it’s a compliment.”

In truth, by the time Killer Be Killed’s self-titled debut LP dropped in May 2014, metal supergroups seemed to be ten-a-penny. Hell, in Giraffe Tongue Orchestra there was even an alternative Masto-Dillinger collaboration (guitarists Brent Hinds and Ben Weinman). Songs like Melting Of My Marrow and Face Down set Killer Be Killed apart from a crowded pack, though, with leviathan riffage, sludgy atmospherics and a three-headed vocal assault.

That following February/March’s Australian tour – strung around Soundwave Festival dates – galvanised their steely conviction that this could be the real deal.

Due to conflicting obligations, original percussionist Dave Elitch of The Mars Volta had to step aside. Ben’s arrival felt like a final piece dropping into place. “Greg called me up out of the blue one day,” the drummer remembers. “He was like, ‘Hey! You wanna’ play drums in my band?!’”

The first show on February 21 in Melbourne was a visceral realisation of ideas that had still seemed conceptual on record. Max describes the goosebumps running down his arms as they first kicked into Wings Of Feather And Wax. Troy describes the experience as “overwhelming”. Greg ranks it in his Top Five onstage memories, ever.

“Speaking to Rob Halford was the moment it hit me we were doing something special”

Hear Max Cavalera reveal how a chance encounter with the Metal God spurred him on

As if further encouragement was needed, Max’s behind-the-scenes meeting with Rob Halford saw the Metal God himself spontaneously offering praise for the band in what felt like the ultimate seal-of-approval. “The inner 13-year-old Max just dropped to the floor,” he recalls with fanboy fervour. “I tried to keep it cool as best I could, but I was wiggin’ out. When you’ve been in the music world for so long, it can be difficult to get excited about new things. You’ve done it all. You’ve seen it all. But Killer Be Killed breaks that. You could tell from our first show that it was like pure magic on the stage. No bullshit.”

And yet, with so many other commitments, to public eyes the band fell silent. Privately, though, a bond had been struck, with that magic always pulling them back.

“It just checked off every box of excellence,” Troy insists. “This was too damned good to let go after one album and one short tour. It was never a question of if we’d get together again, but when.”

2020 has provided ample opportunity for countless back-burner ideas and previously unrealised ambitions to come to fruition. Reluctant Hero’s arrival at the end of the music industry’s year of touring stasis, however, is purely coincidental. KBK II was never going to be an afterthought. This was always an escalation.

“First time, it was a fun novelty that would be interesting even if we didn’t like [the music we’d made],” Greg says. “But, when you do another record, you’re saying to people, ‘This is a fuckin’ band!’ You better bring your A-game. At that point, it needs to be good no matter whether the individual players are known.”

Eschewing the modern trend of bouncing recorded ideas back and forth online (although Max couldn’t help sticking one old-school demo in the snail mail), ideas were individually stockpiled. A commitment was made that every time each member had the same three days or more free, they would come together. The resulting writing-sessions in 2017 and 2018 were “like Christmas”, each finding a new windfall of ideas to be hammered-out – as a band.

With Greg and Ben on the United States’ Southwest coast and Troy on Florida’s Panhandle, Max’s desert compound outside Phoenix, Arizona became both central meeting point and an isolated blank canvas on which the band could really stamp their mark. “The desert has this real rock’n’roll energy to it,” Greg quips. “It feels so cool driving out into the desert in search of riffs. If you drive out far enough, you find Max, the fuckin’ riff-lord, like Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

With established rapport, these “desert sessions” brought into focus fresh possibilities for each player.

Even against the backdrop of Mastodon and progressive project Gone Is Gone, Troy describes a sense of “selflessness” which is above and beyond. “Everything is in service of the song. Who wrote the lyrics doesn’t matter in terms of who gets to sing them. That [idea of ownership] doesn’t jive in this band. Getting to see each individual enjoying it for exactly those reasons is very rare.”

Having shouldered the responsibilities as frontman and figurehead for so long, Max enjoys the opportunity to take a passenger seat. “It’s just fun to stand on the side of the stage and watch Troy, Greg and Ben losing their minds. I almost get to become a spectator in my own band. If you look at the bands we’re known for on paper, it shouldn’t work. It should be a mess. But it does work. That sense of surprise is what keeps it going for me.”

Breaking free from the angular constraints of his main concern, Ben gets to indulge the “pocket playing” of legends like The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and The Beatles’ Ringo Starr. “Converge can be almost mathematical,” he smiles. “The recording process can be very meticulous, with long days in the studio: painful in a good way. This is definitely much more rock’n’roll.”

For Greg, we wonder if KBK may have come to fill a hole left when Dillinger called it a day at the end of 2017?

He goes further. “This is more of a band than I’ve been in for a really long time. I wouldn’t even say Dillinger was a ‘real band’, because there were a couple of people in the band and a couple hired. It became this fuckin’ Voltron where we went through, like, 40 members. Also, the writing relationship between Ben [Weinman, Dillinger guitarist] and I was completely segregated where we wrote our individual parts, then smashed them together. With KBK, it’s much more natural. We’re all equal members.”

Equality, of course, doesn’t preclude a little friendly competition.

With Max having contributed 90 per cent or more of the guitars to their first album, Greg was inspired to impress his own chops. Turning up at practice with a suitcase full of pedals and a head full of riffs, he shocked his bandmates. By the end of instrumental recording with producer Josh Wilbur in Santa Ana in May 2019, Max had found a new six-string “partner” whose instrumental rapport stacks-up alongside that he found with Andreas Kisser in Sepultura and Mark Rizzo in Soulfly.

“This band makes me feel like I did when I was 13”

Listen to Greg Puciato talk about the unique way Killer Be Killed excites him

By the time it came to tracking vocals in January and February of this year, the amicable one-upmanship drove the standard them further still. With each singer featured on every song, Max compares the in-studio process to that of venerable rap collective Wu-Tang Clan: a continuous scuffle for the vocal booth due to shared unwillingness to be the weak link on any given track.

The results speak for themselves.

Veering from sludgy, seven-minute epic From A Crowded Wound to 67-second grindcore blast Animus, Reluctant Hero feels like an unshackled masterwork. Spurred on by bandmates, Greg drops a thrash riff he wrote as a 13-year-old into Dead Limbs, while the defiantly doomy Black Sabbath-on-steroids riffage of The Great Purge is complimented by his almost Ozzy-like vocals. Max delivers some of the most atmospheric composition of his career on superb second single Dream Gone Bad. The concussive Comfort From Nothing sounds like Slayer being sucked into a black hole. Topping it off, the closing title-track sees them push the envelope with an audaciously anthemic sound jointly described as “Neurosis-meets-Def Leppard”.

“We’re not trying to crush or outshine each other,” Greg stresses method in their madness. “We’re trying to raise the bar.”

Virtuosity, of course, is nothing without feeling. Thankfully, Reluctant Hero’s stylistic expansion is more than matched by its fathomless sensitivity. “This is definitely a more emotionally heavy record than the first,” Greg says. “We got a lot more serious about the tonality and weight and lyrics.”

Not that there’s ever much transparency in matter this dense and heavy. “The lyrics aren’t super-literal but neither are they super-metaphorical,” Troy shrugs, “There’s some self-reflection and positivity in there. I hope people who truly give a damn will be able to read through and they’ll see it or find it or feel it.”

In many ways, each song is a reflection of an aspect of what makes the band work. ‘I close off the madness / Black out the unseen...’ rings lead-single Deconstructing Self-Destruction. Dream Gone Bad seems to describe a different type of band, buckled under the weight of its achievements. Filthy Vagabond is a straightforward ode to being a metal lifer: ‘Just give me the mic and the night / I’m ready to slay...’

Left Of Centre could be read as a straightforward political allegory but, equally, as a lament for the difficulty outside-the-box thinkers have in finding like minds. The title-track is a haunting tribute of Troy’s creation (“reflecting the mortal memory of someone who’s strong and stoic but exhausted from the fight”) with pain pouring from its seams, which one could easily interpret as a tribute to Mastodon’s longtime manager Nick John, who passed away in 2018.

Despite having been completed before what the bassist terms the “March madness” that steered 2020 into the shit, those themes of fear, loss, frustration and overcoming feel weirdly relevant to the times we find ourselves living through. “Even the name fits the moment,” Max comments. “Every hospital doctor is a reluctant hero right now.”

It all comes back to that idea of taking ones destiny into your own hands, Greg expands: seizing the day, channelling your energy to make things happen. “You can’t play defence, you’ve gotta play offence. You can’t live in fear. You’ve gotta use positive energy. Everyone’s gotta get up to wade through the bullshit, whether you like it or not. I think that people have begun to realise that they can’t just sit around and wait for someone else to better your life. We didn’t plan that message. When you try to, it can feel heavy-handed or preachy. When something resonates accidentally, it shows that you were in tune with your environment, creating naturally and honestly.”

As November 20’s release date looms, the band are quietly confident in continuing to go with the flow. This record deserves to be played live, they agree, and verbal commitments have been made to perform a string of shows when the world permits. With eight months already passed since the completion of recording, too, ideas for KBK III have already begun to pile up. The consensus is we won’t be waiting another six years for fresh material.

“I always hope that people will love my work, but I never expect it,” Troy gestures. “I’ll just say that I’ve never listened to an album 24 times before it’s been released before this one. When the four of us listen back to this record, we’re super in love with it. We’re banging our heads, smashing our feet, rolling the windows down and driving a little faster. It’s about finding that pleasurable energy. I hope that people find something in the record that’s as pleasurable to their ears as it is to ours.”

“I want people to hear this and be like, ‘Who the fuck are Mastodon?’ or, ‘Who the fuck are Dillinger Escape Plan?’” Greg concludes. “I want it to appeal to people who’ve heard our other bands but never really liked them. I want these songs to reach beyond our existing fans and superfans, to people who people who don’t know who we already are. I want this record to be part of the heavy fucking lineage of metal history.”

A parting grin.

“But none of this is premeditated. You’ve just gotta drop the bomb and keep on flying.”

Killer Be Killed's Reluctant Hero is out on November 20 via Nuclear Blast – pre-order/pre-save your copy now.

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