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KILLSWITCH ENGAGE Guitarist Joel Stroetzel on ‘Atonement,’ Game Of Thrones, Napalm Death, and Flash Gordon [w/ Audio]

While at this year’s Heavy Montréal, Mike Bax spoke to Killswitch Engage guitarist Joel Stroetzel about the festival, their most recent album Atonement, Joel’s “gateway” concert, and even Game of Thrones.

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One of the bands I was eager to see again at Heavy Montréal this year was Killswitch Engage. Boasting a song that features vocals by both Jesse Leach and Howard Jones (“The Signal Fire”), it was a coming-together moment for Killswitch fans that came as a most welcome surprise. Add in some guest vocals from Testament vocalist Chuck Billy (“The Crownless King”), and you have the makings of a metal classic on two songs alone. With the additional lead singles “Unleashed” and “I Am Broken Too,” Atonement (Metal Blade Records) should play out to be one of Killswitch’s most popular releases to date. Joel Stroetzel, KSE’s long-time guitarist, took a bit of time in the media tent to field a few interviews, and we managed to get a few minutes with him to catch up.

The audio for this interview is included here via SoundCloud. There is a fair bit of background noise. Anyone thinking interviewing bands is an interviewer and interviewee sitting in a soundproof area to talk for ten or fifteen minutes need only listen to this audio-nugget for a genuine peek into the “glamours” of on-site interviewing. An alarm from an adjacent building kept incessantly going off, adding into the melange of overbearing audio from surrounding five Heavy Montréal stages. So this interview was indeed recorded at the Heavy Montréal Festival amidst a melee of music, scurrying festival workers, and press types. It’s decent enough audio that we deemed it worthy of a listen and included it for listeners who’d like to hear Joel Stroetzel’s voice answering questions in the real.

I understand that you are ready to drop another album.

Joel Stroetzel: “That’s correct.”

Can you talk a little bit about the writing of that album? How long it took to put it together?

Stroetzel: “Well it took quite a while actually because we all kind of live across the States now at this point. So we just started sending each other demos and stuff, emails and whatnot, until we had enough ideas where it was worth getting together on that. All the music stuff happened pretty fast after that, you know? Suddenly we had 20 songs. It took a while to get them all recorded. So Justin (Foley, drummer) and Adam (Dutkiewicz, lead guitar) did the drums in San Diego, and the rest of us kind of did the guitars and bass wherever we could.”

Killswitch Engage’s most recently-released music video is for “The Signal Fire” off of Atonement:


How many sessions did it take for you to do all of the recordings? Was all done in one shot?

Stroetzel: “No, no it’s really spread out. We had the drum tracks where Adam spent some time with those, getting them mixed and ready for us to track too. And then we did some of the guitars in San Diego where Adam lives (and) did some of the guitars Massachusetts. We did vocals all over the place. So it took a while. And in the middle of all that Jesse (Leach, lead singer) had to have surgery on his voice, his throat. So it took a while. Probably about two years in total to make the thing.”

Now I’ve read some pre-press on the album and it’s stating that it was a hard album to write. Was that just on Jessie’s side or was that everybody?

Stroetzel: “I think I think that was probably mostly on Jessie’s side. Because he was going through some personal stuff when we were doing it. We had a lot of music ready to go. So you know, it’s gonna be tough for somebody doing shows and the band hands you 20 songs and says, ‘Here you go!’ So yeah, I think it was a challenge.”

You’re on your Metal Blade now, right?

Stroetzel: “That’s correct.”

Is that new for this album?

Stroetzel: “It is. This is our first record for them.”

When did you sign with them?

Stroetzel: “Probably about a year ago I think at this point. It has been great so far. It seems a pretty good roll-out these guys are doing for this record, and everybody’s been cool.”

Images of Joel Stroetzel at Heavy Montréal (Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montreal, Quebec) on July 28, 2019, by Mike Bax and Trevor Lamas:

Killswitch Engage guitarist Joel Stroetzel at Heavy Montréal (Parc Jean-Drapeau (Montreal, Quebec) on July 28, 2019

I mean, you’re a band that’s already well established. I’m sure you didn’t have to show them (Metal Blade) anything or bring demos along before that signing.

Stroetzel: “No, not so much. Those guys kind of approached us with an offer and we talked about it went back and forth a little bit. There are some other offers we’re entertaining. And we were with Roadrunner for many years; those guys were good to us, and we just figured it might be time for a change, man. After all those years.”

If I’m doing my math right this is 20 years for Killswitch.

Stroetzel: “Yeah.”

That’s a pretty significant amount of time for for a metal band.

Stroetzel: “Absolutely. I don’t know how we got this far. We’re still kicking around.”

Are there any plans to do anything to landmark that 20 years? Do you think you’d do an anniversary release, or a tour, and play some old nuggets?

Stroetzel: “I would imagine we’ll do something like that. The wheels are starting to turn as we try to think of ideas on what to do.”

Can you maybe tell me what one of your gateway bands or concerts was back when you were younger that really motivated you to become a live musician?

Stroetzel: “Oh for sure. I remember going to see Napalm Death when they came around Massachusetts. And I saw Testament. A lot of bands. I liked a lot of thrashy stuff and death metal stuff growing up. I played the piano when I was a kid. And then I started getting more into old Metallica and things like that. I begged my parents for a guitar. As soon as I got one I couldn’t put it down.”

Also off of Atonement check out the lyric video for “I Am Broken Too:”


This isn’t your first time on these grounds playing an Evenko festival. You’ve been a part of Heavy Montréal a number of times in the past, correct?

Stroetzel: “That’s correct, yeah.”

Is there something about this festival that sticks out in your mind, something you like about it or something that makes it stand apart from other festivals that you’re doing?

Stroetzel: “Honestly, it’s always an awesome crowd here. People are super energetic, and it’s always great. I know one of Adam’s favourite things about it; There’s a girl that always shows up to the shows here and wears a horse mask. So he calls it the horse tits festival. He’s like ‘Oh, great, horse tits!’”

What to you is the most important characteristic of your genre of music?

Stroetzel: “The most important characteristic; I really think it’s just being able to convey emotion in kind of a raw way. That goes musically as far as playing instruments, and especially for Jesse, I think. Because his lyrics are pretty personal a lot of the time. And I think it’s a good outlet for him.”

With the demise of Pledge Music, I don’t know if you followed that at all?

Stroetzel: “I don’t even know what PledgeMusic is.”

Crowd funding. So they took a bunch of money and went Chapter 11 and have not paid the bands. They won’t ship any merchandise, and they have screwed all of the patrons out of their money. So I’m curious if you’ve got an opinion on crowdfunding, do you think Killswitch would ever do that? Bring their fans in and have them pay something in advance that would make it an autographed album or an opportunity to see you know the recording process of how you make music?

Stroetzel: “I could definitely see doing something. You know, we’ve done presale things or something like that where people get an autographed record in the package if they get in on it ahead of time but usually not until it’s done on our end. You know, we just want to make sure that we can actually deliver it first.”

Killswitch Engage’s eighth studio album Atonement was released on August 16th, via Metal Blade Records:

When did you join Killswitch?

Stroetzel: “Since the beginning. Since the beginning of the year 1999 at this point.”

What brought you guys together as a band back then? Aside from a love of making loud music, is there anything that you bonded over prior to deciding to become a band?

Stroetzel: “Well, I’d met Adam. We worked at the same music shop, so he had a band at the time called Aftershock. So I kind of stepped in when they lost one of their guitar players and started playing with Adam. This is probably ‘97 or so. And then we played some shows with Mike (D’Antonio, bass), who was playing in Overcast at the time. We got to be friends at the shows and stuff like that. So Adam and Mike really started talking and jamming together, and then they invited me to jam with them after that. So that’s kind of how it all started.”

What’s your favourite piece of band merchandise that you owned as a youngster? That you maybe wish you still had and could fit into?

Stroetzel: “Well, speaking of Napalm Death, I had this awesome Diatribes long-sleeve T-shirt. With all of these cool patterns down the arms that I probably bought in 1994. I can’t remember when that record came out. I wish I still had it.”

Can you pick a favourite performance that Killswitch has done over the years? Something that stands out for you personally. And why was it so good?

Stroetzel: “I think there’s a couple. The first time we did a DVD with the live DVD in western Massachusetts. And I think all the stars align for some reason on that night. Everybody seemed to play well. And it was one of the better crowds we ever had there. That was a really good time. I think other than that, maybe doing the first big festival that we did. Maybe like Download Festival in the UK. It’s just really overwhelming because we were used to playing the smaller clubs and all of a sudden you walk up and there’s a sea of people, and it’s pretty overwhelming. So it kind of a cool experience.”

Relive the now legendary Killswitch Engage song, “My Curse:”


How important is physical product to you as a band? The selling of CDs and LPs and cassettes and merchandise; Do you feel like that’s a prominent part of what Killswitch Engage is?

Stroetzel: “I think it’s definitely become a little bit less prominent. I’m actually curious to see how this new record does because it’s always kind of a rollercoaster ride with the way that the industry changes. But I mean for us we’ve never been a band with big radio hits or sold millions and millions of records or anything like that. So for us, it’s more about the touring I think. And doing the live thing. I’m curious to see how the record release goes.”

Did you use that that FaceAPP thing at all and make yourself look older?

Stroetzel: “I did. It came out pretty good.”

Did you post it?

Stroetzel: “I didn’t post it. No, I just kept it to myself. Sent it to some friends.”

What is your favorite soundtrack album from a movie?

Stroetzel: “Soundtrack from a movie? It’s probably got to be Flash Gordon, man. Queen is pretty awesome.”

Would you describe yourself as someone who was scholarly when you were in school?

Stroetzel: “No definitely not, man.”

What subject did you hate the most?

Stroetzel: “I always hated math even though it was kind of good at it. So I’d always try to get good grades and keep my folks happy. So they let me play my video games when I was home.”

“Hate By Design” was arguably the biggest song off of 2016’s Incarnate. Watch the music video:


Assuming that you are still in a band and performing when you’re 60-65 years old, what do you think is the attribute that you would hope that you would adhere to the most as an artist?

Stroetzel: “If we’re still doing Killswitch at that point, I really hope we can still have some energy on stage at that point. Just move around a little bit and look like we care. I think that means a lot when you can have that back and forth between the band and an audience.”

I think a lot of the legacy thrash bands, like Slayer, coming up today and doing their final round 40 years in, and they still knock it out of the park every time.

Stroetzel: “They are still a great show, yeah. It’s awesome.”

So it’s still a possibility there.

Stroetzel: “Absolutely.”

Can you describe how you personally like to write your material?

Stroetzel: “For me, personally, I usually come up with a couple of riffs and if I could string a few together and then say, ‘hey, this is kind of a partial song’ and send it off to the guys. I’m not the best at writing full songs for some reason. Adam usually has a really good vision of where songs should go, being the producer that he is, but I always tend to need some help. So I come up with like two or three riffs that fit together that makes me happy. And so it’s good enough to send to the guys and let them finish.”

How do you record your riffs then? Are you just putting a phone down and recording them on that?

Stroetzel: “I’ve got a small studio home, and I just program drums and then run ProTools and all that stuff.”

Also from Incarnate, here is the music video for “Cut Me Loose:”


I know you guys are Game of Thrones fans.

Joel Stroetzel: “Yes.”

Were you happy with the way the series ended?

Stroetzel: “I was not too happy with the way it ended. I mean I guess in retrospect it didn’t ruin my week or anything. When I saw it, I was like, ‘Man, that could have been so much more triumphant in the way it ended.’ I was bummed for Jon, man. (laughs)”

Do you think it could have ended any differently. Was there something you wanted to see? A character you wanted to see maybe come out on top?

Stroetzel: “Yeah, I was really rooting for Jon Snow to be a king. It was kind of weird. Kind of weird how that turned out.”

You kind of got an appropriate ending though because that was where he went at the beginning of the show and that’s sort of where he went at the end. So it was full circle for him.

Stroetzel: “Exactly. It all came around.”

How much time per day are you spending looking at your smartphone, and do you feel like it’s a good or bad use of your time?

Stroetzel: “On tour? Probably too much man. Looking at guitars and reverb all the time and stuff like that. I can’t say it’s really a good use of time. Unless it’s checking actual emails for business purposes or talking to the family. It’s probably not a good use of time.”

Are you an avid social media guy? Do you post a lot of photos?

Stroetzel: “Nah, I don’t even have any of those accounts. So I try to stay away from that one.”

Alternative/Rock

The Stone Eye Singer and Guitarist Stephen Burdick Discusses His Band

The Stone Eye singer and guitarist Stephen Burdick discusses the band and their new album ‘Nothing Shall & By Any Means.’

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The Stone Eye, photo courtesy of The Stone Eye
The Stone Eye, photo courtesy of The Stone Eye

With a commendable work ethic and a certain lightheartedness, The Stone Eye has found its way to some impressive success. This year marks the tenth anniversary since the talented duo of drummer Jeremiah Bertin and singer-songwriter Stephen Burdick joined forces in their hometown of Philadelphia. Their approach to alternative rock is original and innovative. But there is also a satirical side to the band where they make sure not to take things too seriously. It’s reminiscent of the sound and general approach of Queens of the Stone Age, a band that can rock out but intermixes it with a certain level of weirdness.

The Stone Eye released their latest EP, Nothing Shall & By Any Means, last month via Electric Talon Records. In only four songs, they can deliver a compelling and diverse musical experience. The hooks are infectious, and the riffs of the powerhouse variety. It combines stoner and progressive rock with a certain vintage sludge, fuzzed-out sound reminiscent of the early ’90s. Bertin and Burdick approach their songwriting with a broad-minded approach. They are out to push musical boundaries and carry the torch of alternative rock forward, presenting classic influences to a new generation.

Today, we are joined by Stephen Burdick to discuss The Stone Eye, songwriting, being an independent artist, and more.

How would you describe your music?

Stephen Burdick: “I would describe The Stone Eye’s music as something that slides somewhere in the alternative rock realm of music. I grew up a massive grunge fan. When I first got into composing music, Alice in Chains were my demigods of how to do things. So naturally, we will always have that influence lingering. As we’ve all grown as musicians and individuals, our tastes have evolved and we are always trying to fit new influences in. So, anything from jazz fusion to electronic elements tend to find their way into our music. But at the heart of it, I would describe the music as alternative rock.”

What do you like most about playing music?

“What I like most about playing music is the emotional return, elated or depressive, that it provides when you stumble across something that makes your ears perk up, whether it be a song you listen to that blows you away, a riff you write, a great gig that you’re playing and you’re like ‘damn we are on fire,’ etc. Art in general, whether it be film, music, photography, etc, has a way of moving me, be it in a positive or negative way, that quite literally nothing else has and for that, I am very grateful.”

What’s the most dangerous thing that’s ever happened at one of your shows?

“The most dangerous thing that has ever happened to me at one of our gigs was totally my fault for being an egg-head. Essentially, we were having issues with one of our amps. The standby switch was faulty, and the amp was stuck in standby. I was trying to find a way to override the standby. And in all of my infinite wisdom, I kept the amp plugged in and powered on whilst I was poking around in the thing. Sure enough… zap. Receiving 250 volts or whatever is not fun, but thankfully, I was ok and the show went on without a hitch. I did, however, give up on the amp for the night and brought it to a repairman in Vegas a few days after the show. Trained professionals exist for a reason!”

Politics and Music. Yay, nay or what the hay?

“My answer is what the hay. I mean, I personally try to keep any political affiliation at bay when composing music. But music is all about what inspires you, right? So if you’re politically charged and are inspired by the current events of whatever’s going on… have at it! Sure, you may alienate a few people, but art has always been at the forefront of social discourse.

“My personal stance on composing my own politically charged pieces is… I’m not an expert on anything political, and there are a lot more informed people than myself out there. Hell, you are probably more informed than I am. So I tend to have the philosophy of letting the more-informed have the brighter spotlight.”

The Stone Eye “Nothing Shall’ & “By Any Means” single artwork

The Stone Eye “Nothing Shall’ & “By Any Means” single artwork

When you write, do you do so with the live setting in mind? Or do you write a song just for the song’s sake?

“So this is a tricky one as I tend to do both, or at least try to before my ambitions give in. I always have this, ‘ok we’re good, this is the song’ mentality going into the studio. Meaning, that what we play and sing in the rehearsal room is what I want the song to sound like on the final recordings… Meaning it is entirely composed for a seamless transition between a studio and a live setting. Then, however, I sit down in the studio, and the ideas start flowing out of me and I can’t help myself but add more to the existing formula. I mean, the DNA of the song stays the same, but I always find myself being like ‘Man… this sounds bare right here… maybe add a little harmonized riff? Or a little lick to round it out? Or this, or that?’ Everything fucking time.”

What is your writing process like?

“The writing process for us varies. Generally, it follows a proven formula that has been established over the past couple of years. Most tunes start as an idea that I formulate. This could be nothing more than a little riff to a completely structured tune that is 90 percent done. Then I pass the idea along to the fellas, get their feedback, and continue to shape the idea. Finally, after a bit of back and forth and refinement, we bring the tune into the rehearsal space and jam on it. Over these few hours of jamming, we may find that nothing changes, or that everything changes. Generally, though, by the end of this few hour-long rehearsal, the song is pretty much finished from an instrumentation standpoint.

“For the vocal side of things, that is a total crapshoot. Sometimes I am not done with the melody until I’m singing the tune in the studio. But sometimes the melody comes to me in the initial demo. It all depends, and there is no rhyme or reason to the vocals. One thing is for certain though, lyrics are always the absolute last piece of the pie. I never write lyrics before having everything in place.”

Tell us about your experience going it alone as an artist. How hard is it to get your music distributed, promoted, shared, etc?

“Throughout most of our career, we have been releasing music independently. We actually have had only one release that was not done internally (2021’s South of the Sun). Like anything else, releasing music independently is an evolutionary process that gets easier the more you do it as you gain more knowledge on the subject.

“When we released our first album in 2015, I can confidently say I had no idea what I was doing. I was doing what most artists do when starting out. Just throwing the tracks up online, making a few posts, sending a few terribly formatted emails to random bigshot publications, and hoping for the best. Naturally, though, you start picking up on the dos and don’ts of the industry, and start meeting individuals whose services coincide with your needs thus beginning working relationships. Nowadays, we have a little team assembled that makes everything happen. So it’s cool to see the evolution of the business side of things. It certainly makes things run smoother despite the operation being infinitely larger.”

Do you have anything you’d like to tell any fans reading right now?

“I’d like to tell our fans one thing: thank you! Without the support, we wouldn’t be able to do the things that we want to do and continuously find inspiration to work on our craft, tour, and release new music. Would we still be creatives without fans? Duh. But without your support, we would not be doing what we are doing right now. And for that, I owe all the gratitude in the world to each and every individual who supports us and our vision. Mwah!”

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Interviews

Dave Annable Discusses His Role as Zoe Saldaña’s Husband on ‘Special Ops: Lioness’

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Dave Annable
Dave Annable

From Academy Award nominee Taylor Sheridan, the espionage thriller features a star-studded cast, including series lead and executive producer Zoe Saldaña, Laysla De Oliveira, Emmy Award nominee Michael Kelly (whom we interview here), with Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman, and Academy Award winner and executive producer Nicole Kidman. Special Ops: Lioness, a series produced by MTV Entertainment Studios and 101 Studios, debuted on Paramount+ last summer as the streamer’s #1 most-watched global series premiere on launch day. Special Ops: Lioness is now available on Blu-ray™ and DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment as a 3-disc set that includes all eight episodes and over 90 minutes of bonus content, including two new featurettes and behind-the-scenes of every episode!

Lioness is a show based on a real-life CIA program. It follows Cruz Manuelos (De Oliveira), a rough-around-the-edges but passionate young Marine recruited to join the CIA’s Lioness Engagement Team to help bring down a terrorist organization from within. Zoe Saldaña plays Joe, the station chief of the Lioness program tasked with training, managing, and leading her female undercover operatives. The series is astounding and ranks amongst the best of the year. Lioness also features series regulars Dave Annable, Jill Wagner, LaMonica Garrett, James Jordan, Austin Hébert, Jonah Wharton, Stephanie Nur, and Hannah Love Lanier.

Top surgeon Neal McNamara has little information about his wife Joe’s government job. Suffice it to say she shows up at home exhibiting various states of PTSD and visits her family for small increments of time before deployment to parts unknown. Joe is a team lead for the Lioness special operatives program, managing deep undercover female operatives attempting to get close to high-level foreign government targets. The series starts with a bang and never lets up. Special Ops: Lioness is the newest addition to Taylor Sheridan’s growing oeuvre of captivating television. Sheridan’s work includes Yellowstone, 1923, 1883, Mayor Of Kingstown, Tulsa King, and the upcoming series Lawman: Bass Reeves and Land Man.

Special Ops: Season 1 Special Features:

Go undercover with the stars of Special Ops: Lioness with a behind-the-scenes look into the heart of The Lioness program, inspired by an actual U.S. Military program. Special Ops: Lioness includes behind-the-scenes episodes and two brand-new featurettes. Dive into interviews with the star-studded cast, get an immersive glimpse into the intricate world of the Lioness program, and explore the rigorous training required to make the series as authentic as possible.

  • Embedded With Special Ops: Lioness
  • Battle Forged Calm: Tactics & Training

We thank Dave Annable for taking the time last week to field a few questions for V13 Media. The audio (on SoundCloud) and video are available here if you’d prefer to hear Dave’s answers in real-time.

Can you talk a little bit about what working on a Taylor Sheridan project is like?

Dave Annable: “Working on a Taylor show is incredible. My bread and butter has been doing television my whole career. And this is just a whole other level. The budgets, cast, and writing are top-notch in their particular fields. And coming together, it feels like this incredible circus to be a part of.

“And this show specifically, you know, when you got Nicole Kidman and Morgan Freeman, Zoe Saldaña and Michael Kelly, the stars kept coming, and you just felt the gravity of the show – the immenseness of the show. It was just incredible to be a part of; I love it. And it was cool because I only saw the family stuff. But then, when I was watching the show as a viewer, I was like, ‘Man, this is awesome – they’re crushing it.’ Everybody just was really involved in the story and the spy aspect of it. And then, of course, the spy’s got to come home! It was just incredible to be a part of it.”

Neal was my favourite character on the show. You brought a brevity to the show that was very different from what it was about. You grounded everything, and I applaud you for that.

“Oh, thank you. I read the pilot many years ago, and Taylor came to me with it and it was an obvious yes, no matter what. But, you know, Neal was only in three scenes in the pilot (3-4 scenes), and, you know, that character and other shows can be very one-dimensional. He could be, you know, the sounding board when she comes home from work, and he offers advice, and then that’s it, you know? I was blown away when I opened the script for the second episode, where we see Neal at work in the hospital, what he has to do, and what he is like.

“Taylor is just so good; He’s carving out this character. He’s showing that he’s a human being, and he’s going to have his issues that he’s got to deal with. And then, having a wife who’s a spy, they can’t talk at night about their jobs. And then having to deal with kids, the everyday stuff that a normal father would have to deal with. I was very blown away by Taylor’s writing; he crushed it.”

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

Neal’s scenes with his daughter, especially, hit home with me. Some of those speeches were just on point – so well done.

“Well, what’s funny is that we had a rehearsal before we started shooting, right? We were at Taylor’s ranch and had the cast around with Taylor. And he was sort of hand-picking scenes for the characters to read. And he chose that scene, Neal talking to his daughter after the car accident. You know, I was reading it out loud, and I came in sort of hot, you know, and I was like kind of pissed. And at the end, he goes, ‘No, no, no, Dave. Neal’s already lost. You’ve lost, right? No yelling is going to help her.’ And he’s like, ‘This is the softest you can be.’ And, you know, he was right. He was right.

“And I think, you know, I was taking notes. It was like, shit if my daughter’s in there? I want to talk like Neal. I don’t want to talk like Dave because I would get that wrong, you know? So he just nailed it. I’ve gotten a lot of love (specifically from a lot of men) that needs to be directed towards Taylor for that scene because that’s a very challenging thing, I’d imagine, to talk to your daughter like that. And my instincts were dead wrong, so don’t thank me!”

Were you cast early on in Lioness? Did you watch the crew kind of build up?

“It’s an interesting story because I was doing a flashback season four Yellowstone episode. At the time he called me to come back to that, he’s like, ‘There’s also this other show I want to talk to you about, playing Neal, the husband of Zoe Saldaña in a show called Lioness.’ and I said ‘I’m in.’ Then I read it, and I was like ‘Oh my gosh I’m even MORE in!’ Then, it went away for almost three years with COVID, scheduling, etc. Then somebody else took over Lioness, I believe. It wasn’t Taylor, and you know, a friend of mine was like, ‘Oh, my friend just went in to audition for Neal for Lioness.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what?!’ I was like, wait a second?

“So Taylor had just taken it back over, and we reconnected, and he’s like, ‘you’ve always been the guy for me – you’re the guy. Would you come do it?’ ‘In a heartbeat!’ It was a wild ride. But here we are, and I’m just so grateful to be a part of a show I genuinely loved. You know, that doesn’t always happen, so this is really very cool for me.”

“Special Ops: Lioness” poster artwork

“Special Ops: Lioness” poster artwork

Can you talk about what it’s like working on a show with so much talent in it? Is there added pressure? Or is it easier because everybody’s just so good?

“I think both. Both things can exist. You feel it for sure. You know, it’s Taylor. When Yellowstone came out, Taylor was big, but he wasn’t, you know, Taylor-Sheridan-eight-shows-on-Paramount-Plus Taylor Sheridan. Right? So then this comes, and it’s Zoe and Nicole. And so, yeah, you feel it. But then when I specifically got on set, and you act across from these folks, you realize, ‘Oh, this is easy because they’re so good,’ right? Like a good actor is a given.

“And to be able to sort of play tennis back and forth with these superstars, it makes you better. And, you know, I was fortunate enough to be on Brothers and Sisters. It was my first real big job, and acting across from, you know, Sally Field and Calista Flockhart and Matthew Reese made me much better. You learn a lot from those actors. So, you know, I feel the same now.”

What memories come to mind when you walk on set for your first day? What sticks out for you?

“Well, it’s a funny story, Mike. Because our first day of shooting was actually the bedroom scenes with Zoe and I. We had met once, briefly, before that. So it was really, it was terrible, you know? Thankfully, we were able to sort of make jokes about it because it’s so weird and awkward. We’ve got a weird job. But it was like, ‘Hey, I’m Dave,’ you know? ‘Let’s hop in bed with a bunch of people watching!’ But I think it really did bring us together. And it got a lot of the awkwardness out, and we were just able to really sort of dive in and get gritty and play this real couple.”

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

Do you have a process that you like to adhere to when you’re prepping for a role, and do you find it changes from part to part?

“Yeah, my imagination can only get me so far, right? So it was very cool, specifically on this show. I got to sit and study with Dr. Russell Ward, who’s a surgical oncologist here in Texas. And he was inviting me into a surgery he was doing on a 12-year-old who fell out of a tree and broke his knee. So I was able to be in the room, experience it, talk to him about having to deliver bad news to parents and find out what that’s like.

“And more importantly, what is that like when you go home? Is that something that you bring to your conversations with your wife or your kids? All that stuff. So that was very eye-opening for me. Already having so much respect for medical professionals, it’s exponentially more when you see the day-to-day and you get to grind with them. Because we’re in and out usually, we see the doctor, and they fix us. But spending a day with them and seeing the patients and learning what their day really is and how hard it is – is my favourite part of my job, for sure. Learning about whatever job or relationship that the character is in.”

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Alternative/Rock

The Narcissist Cookbook Interview: Matt Johnston Takes Listeners Behind The Music

Matt Johnston, creative behind The Narcissist Cookbook, shares insight into their music, creative process, memorable moments, and more.

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The Narcissist Cookbook, photo by Regenweibchen Photography
The Narcissist Cookbook, photo by Regenweibchen Photography

Born and raised on the picturesque island of Arran off the west coast of Scotland, The Narcissist Cookbook, led by the enigmatic Matt Johnston, has carved a distinctive path in the music scene. Fully self-taught and driven by the rebellious spirit of punk, Johnston’s musical journey unfolded through busking, playing in bars, and navigating the complexities of life. However, a dark period, including the loss of their voice for nine months and a deep dive into substance abuse, spurred a transformation. Experimenting with spoken monologues inspired by diverse influences, The Narcissist Cookbook emerged, using the guitar to amplify the power of their words.

Their recent album, This Is How We Get Better, marked a turning point in The Narcissist Cookbook’s career. It helped propel them into the spotlight. With a devoted global fanbase and a sold-out UK tour, Johnston witnessed unforgettable moments. Venues were filled to capacity, and meet-and-greet lines stretched for hours. Their unapologetic approach to songwriting lends itself to listeners seeking honest, introspective, and fearless musical narratives. The core message revolves around self-acceptance and acknowledging the parts of oneself that may be deemed too scary or vulnerable. The Narcissist Cookbook encourages fans to embrace their fears through music and storytelling, believing that true healing comes from openness rather than hiding.

Looking ahead to 2024, The Narcissist Cookbook aims for international tours and the release of a 40-minute compilation album. It will feature the highly-requested “Courtney (Director’s Cut).” Johnston is also crafting a new album, MYTH. That album will explore codependency, fairytales, and a haunted children’s book-on-tape. V13 sat down with Johnston to dive deeper into who they are as an artist and what has shaped their career thus far.

For those not familiar with your band, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?

Matt Johnston: “My name is Matt Johnston (they/them); I’m a Scottish writer who fuses monologues and storytelling with songwriting. I’ve just finished a sold-out tour of the UK playing to ~1000 people across seven shows.”

What is the story behind your band/stage name?

“I lost my singing voice badly in 2015 for around nine months and started writing monologues and spoken pieces so I would have something to perform even when I couldn’t sing. But I had a bunch of voices – internal and external, telling me that it was preposterously self-involved to think anyone would be interested to hear me just talking. The name the Narcissist Cookbook was like a shield to protect myself from that criticism. I’m levelling the criticism I’m most afraid of at myself before anyone else can, you know?”

How would you describe your creative process?

“A lot of the time, my creative process is sitting down to write or record something and realizing I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing and treading water with the hope of something decent coming along to fish me out. A lot of the time my tracks are coming from pinpointing something I’m too scared to talk about. Then, I use the writing process to kick-start the emotional process of figuring out why I’m so scared to say the thing. Other times, I’m more like a frustrated painter. I see visuals, landscapes, characters in my head, but because I can’t draw to save my life, I’m left using the mediums I’m somewhat proficient at: songwriting and monologues to try and get those images out of my head.”

The Narcissist Cookbook ‘This Is How We Get Better’ album artwork

The Narcissist Cookbook ‘This Is How We Get Better’ album artwork

Who are your biggest influences?

“I love Sidney Gish’s songs. I actually managed to catch her live in the UK supporting some band or other last year after assuming she’d never make it over here. I think I was one of maybe ten people who were there exclusively to see her. The theatricality of Say Anything has been a huge influence; the way Max Bemis can squeeze meaning out of words through his performance always felt like it went beyond simply singing.

“I’m also a huge fan of both Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, and in particular, the triple live album they put out was a massive influence on how I approach writing and recording and the bleeding line between storytelling and songwriting, behind the scenes and front of house.”

What’s the best criticism you’ve ever received about your music or performance?

“Oh wow. I did have someone tell me, and not early on into the Narcissist Cookbook project either, that they could tell that, on some level, I didn’t believe I should be on the stage performing this stuff. That got under my skin because, in a way, they were right. Maybe it’s strange, but the bigger the audiences have gotten, the harder I’ve needed to work before the shows to tell myself that people are here to see me, that they’re here to sing along and have a good time. It’s not quite stage fright; it’s something else.

“For someone who has spent a long time honing what they do to get people to pay attention when people did start paying attention, I found it hard to cope with. Most nights, I get past it easily. But there was one night in London in 2022 where I had a full-on panic attack on stage and barely held it together.”

What was the highlight of the last tour you went on?

“I can’t lie, going on stage every night and hearing the room sing my songs back to me, and recite my monologues along with me, I hadn’t gotten used to it by the end of the tour, and I doubt I’ll be used to it by the start of the next one. But beyond that, the meet and greet lines after the show often went on for an hour or more. I got to meet all these amazing people who had tattoos of my work or had made fan art or fan clothing, whole jackets with hand-stitched lyrics covering every inch of the fabric, too much to recount here. And all just the most wonderful, kind people. I’m wildly excited to get out there and see and meet more of them.”

What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened at one of your shows or on tour?

“My show in Berlin landed on Halloween, and so I brought along this insane costume I put together a few years earlier. A character called Beanman made up of a baked bean mask, a baked bean vest and baked bean sweatpants. It’s honestly horrifying to look at. It seems to set off the fight or flight response in about 20 percent of people who encounter it.

“Anyway, I dressed up as Beanman for the Berlin show, and when I went on stage, I got to hear the cheers slowly change to groans of discomfort as I walked into view. Excellent. Ten out of ten experience. Very funny for me, potentially traumatizing for everyone else. After that, I received a whole bunch of Beanman fanart, which now lives on my wall in my rehearsal space.”

What are you still trying to figure out?

“I’m always trying to figure out what the scariest thing I could do for my next project is. With my album MOTH (2017), I wanted to see if I could get away with an album where the second half is almost all spoken. For HYMN (2019), I had the terrifying idea to base an album around one song being rewritten and rewritten over and over again. On This Is How We Get Better (2021) I’d gotten worried that my albums would fall apart without a solid concept to tie them together, so I put out something much more freeform.

“On MYTH (coming 2024), I’m playing with an idea I’ve had for a few years. It’s doing things with album structure and storytelling that I’m not sure I can get away with, and that’s always the most exciting place for me to be.”

The Narcissist Cookbook by Regenweibchen Photography

The Narcissist Cookbook by Regenweibchen Photography

Politics and music. Yay, nay or what the hay?

“My music has been overtly political from the start. I can’t avoid it because that’s who I am. Is it cliche yet to say all art is political? I feel like that’s the stock answer. Anyway, it is. Unfortunately, for some artists, refusing to take a political stance is a political stance. I make music for me, music that makes me happy and which represents me, and so my audience unsurprisingly consists of people like me. Neurodiverse people, queer people, people who value compassion and are tired of society hurting their loved ones. I want those people to know I see them, that I respect them and want them to be happy. And the easiest way to do that, the way that is least ambiguous, is just to fucking say it and not hide behind fake nothing statements like Love Is Love.

“Conversely, I want people who don’t want what’s best for my people to know I don’t like them and don’t want them at my shows or in my community. Because them being there makes my people less safe in a very real way. So yeah, I don’t hide my politics. I feel like doing that is a disservice to people who are sometimes committing a courageous act just stepping out their front door, let alone into a music venue full of strangers.”

Share one thing about the band that has never before been revealed.

“I used a sample from an… adult film in one of my tracks. Not for any particularly perverse reasons, but because it fits surprisingly well in the original recording session. When I tried taking it out it made the track feel diminished. You almost certainly wouldn’t know it to hear it. To anyone reading this, no I will not clarify which track unless someone manages to pinpoint the exact clip from the exact video.”

Tell us about your experience going it alone as an artist. How hard is it to get your music distributed, promoted, shared, etc?

“In 2024, it’s easier than ever to put your music out there without a queue of middlemen making things unnecessarily convoluted and insisting on their cut. It used to be that you couldn’t get played on the radio or even get your music in physical stores without a distribution deal or a label behind you. Now, my music is in the same place as Bad Bunny and Taylor Swift, and the same place as the person who recorded an album on their iPhone and uploaded it through Routenote or wherever.

“We all share the same storefront now, and that is devastating to the traditional music business, which has historically relied on gatekeeping and other underhanded tactics to ringfence and protect their investments. I love being independent because I am in total control of the decisions I make, the music I write and record, how I promote it, how I portray myself on social media and live, what shows I take on, etc. I don’t have a team of people all looking to get paid. The only person I need to worry about pleasing is me. That’s a very comfortable place to be as a creator.”

What’s next for you?

“More touring, bigger shows, more people to meet and hug/shake hands with. I’ve got a new album coming out this year and a compilation vinyl that’s going to put one of my most requested songs, the full eight-minute version of my 2018 song ‘Courtney’ that I’ve been performing live for the past couple of years, on streaming services for the first time. And second season of the songwriting podcast Jam Mechanics, which I host with Bug Hunter.”

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