Twelve months ago to the week, Pennsylvania metallers August Burns Red dropped their brilliant new album, Guardians, and were about to hit their usual two-year touring cycle when the world came grinding to a halt. Like all of us, the metal outfit expected life to return to normal fairly quickly but, here we are twelve months later and life is still yet to return to anything close to normality.
Despite being sat on a record they haven’t been able to tour, chatting to bassist Dustin Davidson recently, all is well in the ABR camp. The band have just released a new EP, the Guardians Sessions, through Fearless Records featuring a couple of interesting covers and a few reworked favourites, but, even a new EP and a new home studio can’t hide the fact that the bassist is itching to get back out on the road.
Thank you for your time, appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. I wanted to talk first about the new EP, and see what else is going on. First, where did the idea come from for the EP?
Dustin Davidson: “The idea for the EP came together starting with a couple of songs that were leftover from the Guardians recording session that didn’t necessarily fit the vibe of the album. We still wanted those songs to be released because we still like them, I’m talking about ‘Standing in the Storm’ and ‘Icarus,’ they were just two songs that just didn’t fit the overall dark vibe that Guardians gave off. We didn’t have enough room on the record so those two didn’t make the cut. But, as I said, we wanted to still get those songs out there. Then we wanted to add to that and do some other things too, like the (System of a Down) ‘Chop Suey’ cover.
We’ve also been doing reimagined tracks, probably since, I think, the first one we did was back in 2011, from the Leveller album. We just enjoy stripping down an August Burns Red song and taking away the metal guitars. When you do that there’s a lot more space to add other elements and reimagine the tracks which, creatively, is really fun and we always look forward to doing that to some of our songs.”
Is there any more material in the ABR vaults that we’ve not heard yet? As you said, you wrote a lot of material that didn’t make the last record and then there’s the System of a Down cover that came out?
“No, that’s it just, just those two songs, ‘Chop Suey,’ and the reprised tracks. Those were stuff that we just did to add to complete the fan sessions EP to make it more than just the two unreleased songs. We just revamped the guitars on ‘Icarus’ and ‘Standing in the Storm’ to make it sound better and make it match. ‘Westworld’ was another cover that’s on there. We did that as well at the same time as ‘Chop Suey.’”
You’ve told us about reworking August Burns Red songs. As you’ve obviously not been touring, and you’ve got a lot of time, has that give you chance to do different things with the music or try different ideas that you wouldn’t have had before?
“Yeah, absolutely. When we tour it occupies about six months out of the year, at times, even more sometimes. It’s a lot of time, you know, and a lot of time and effort goes into preparing the tours. It’s more than just having the songs ready, there’s also the thought that goes into like the production and all that stuff. So, when that time is taken away from us, we have time to focus on other things. I’ve invested that time and money into building up my home studio and just buying new studio gear. I got a Mac Mini and I got Pro Tools and I’m learning how to record my own stuff and learning how to engineer and use plugins and stuff to develop new ideas which is really cool.
In the past, leading up to this point, the way that we write is that (lead guitarist) JB (Brubaker) and I write the songs just with our guitars and then we put them in this super archaic dated programme called Tab It, which is like MIDI playback, and it sounds like old school Nintendo and that’s the demo of our song. You’re very limited to like the orchestral and pads and stuff like that you can put in there but when you have something like Pro Tools, and like I have, a keyboard behind me where I can sit there and play the keys and add little layers and textual stuff like that, it’s so much easier to get stoked on just like a typical thrash riff or just like a generic metal riff. You just get so stoked hearing it back recorded as opposed to playing it and then putting in Tab It. I think that this is going to help us, and Jamie’s getting into it, too. He’s using Logic, and I’m using Pro Tools so I think it’s going to help us develop our songs more.”
A lot of bands over the last year have taken the time to recharge batteries, that certainly sounds like the case with ABR. Now, with all the new stuff you’ve been learning, is it going to change the way you look at the band going forward?
“Yeah, I think some of us kind of took it for granted because, for so long, it was a sure thing, going on the road and touring and having like this album cycle of like, two years then, right out from under us, it was taken. I’ve spoken to a couple of guys in the band, they’ve said like, ‘Wow, yeah, I was just kind of on autopilot and, and taking it for granted just what we get to do.’ I know that when we get back to the road, it’s going to feel very special to all of us. We did two live streams last year and, just getting together for that was like a surreal feeling for us. Usually, when you get ready to gather for a tour and put all that work together in preparing for the tour, it just becomes like a routine, and now it’s been taken from us. So, when we got together to start practicing last year, we were like, ‘damn, we used to do this all the time and now we don’t do this anymore.’
So, just playing music together was so cool and I can’t wait until we get the chance to do this again, to get with our crew and be around our friends. It’s like a small little family that we have on the road and I really look forward to being able to do that again.”
Ok, as you said, it’s like you’ve been on autopilot. Write, record, tour. Write, record, tour. What was it like being forced to break from that? I believe, if my dates are correct, Guardians came out a year ago this week?
“That’s right. Yeah. Well, having it taken from us, and being forced to stay in one place was very weird at first. If you remember, it was kind of like, ‘Hey, let’s just do this for two weeks,’ and then we’ll be ahead of the curve and we’ll be able to go back again. I think the longer it’s set in, it was like, ‘whoa, when are we going to be able to go back again? When is it going to be safe to go back again? How are we going to be able to do this? What’s it going to be like? How many bands are going to try to go out at once?’ It was a super, super uncomfortable feeling.”
Obviously, as I said, the album came out, literally, just as this all kicked off. What are your plans going forward for Guardians? Are you going to tour it or are you just going to write a new record and start from scratch?
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the touring cycle for Guardians. It’s certainly not going to be able to see the sort of exposure that the other ones have because as I mentioned earlier, it was like our cycles were always two years. It seemed like we are releasing an album every two years. Guardians was the first one that was three years. Now, with Guardians, there’s just no way that we’ll be able to hit start again and do a two-year cycle for Guardians. We still want to tour it, of course. It went over really well and was received really well amongst our fans so we know that our fans are hungry to hear it.
Aside from that Killswitch tour that was postponed, we’ve played three shows. Then, aside from the live stream, we haven’t played any Guardians songs so, even though I know that we’re going to be able to do that when we tour, it’s not going to get the same attention that the other albums have because we can’t just hit pause and not release music for another two or three years. So yeah, that sucks but that’s probably the way it’s going to work out.”
I was going to ask, is that frustrating given it is such a great record and obviously, you were ready to go with the Killswitch tour. Then it all stops. How frustrating was that?
“It is frustrating, but there’s nothing you can do about it. I can let go pretty easily because I know we can’t do a thing about it. What I’ve been trying to do is like, do quick playthroughs for my Instagram and play some songs off Guardians to keep people interested while doing what I can to keep pushing Guardians. I guess it’s a little frustrating, but at the same time, I’m excited to just tour and play shows again.”
In terms of the covers, where did the System of a Down cover come from? Are they a big influence on you as a musician?
“That cover came from the idea where we usually play change over music every night before we go on stage but we always change up the list. System of a Down is always in there just before we go on and so people always sing it and it gets people hyped up for the show. We just thought it would be a really neat surprise to cover that song. We debuted it at our Christmas Burns Red live stream. Our fans expect a System of a Down song to be right before though then, instead of playing the original, we played our cover and that was how we debuted it. I’ve always loved System of a Down, I think that they’re a band that’s in the mainstream that pushes the mainstream and does some stuff that you’re just not going to hear on the radio. They’re definitely inspiring musicians.”
The other cover is the Westworld theme. Where did the idea come for reworking that?
“Jimmy and I, and I think Brian as well, are really big Westworld fans. JB did that one. He started it a while ago but let it sit for a while because we didn’t really have anything for it. Then, once we got home from the Killswitch tour, and sat down in the middle of the pandemic, that’s when he decided to finish it. That just came from being big fans of Westworld. I forget the composer’s name of that song, but they are incredible. It’s the kind of track that you would hear once and think that would make a sweet metal track. It just sounds dark and ominous, and you’re like, ‘I can make that metal.’”
That kind of leads into my next question. Have you got any favourite TV shows where you think the theme would suit a reworked metal theme tune?
“I haven’t really thought about it much. I definitely want to. I did Zelda a couple of years ago. You know? The video game Zelda? And that, that’s great. I even have a Zelda tattoo and, growing up, that was a huge influence. My childhood was playing Zelda and hanging out with my brother, and my mom played it as well. So it’s one that I have always wanted to do. I did that a couple of years ago and I thought that I’d want to do more video game stuff and more TV show stuff but it’s just like it’s on the backburner for now. Something I’ll get to later I think?”
Now you’ve set up your home studio, has that reignited your fire to explore other avenues?
“Yeah, absolutely. The studio has given me so many more tools to be able to develop my songs and write them easier and, as I said, the main thing is that, in the past, it was so hard to sit down and write like an August Burns Red riff and be stoked on it because it’s so simple and generic. It’s not that cool but, then when you go to the studio and you record it and you hear it back you’re like, ‘ok, that’s sick, that’s heavy.’ We know people are going to like this and so I think that was the missing link for me was having the studio to be able to sit down and crank out some metal riffs to hear them back and to like really vibe with it and feel it.”
Just moving away from the music then. You’ve had the studio to keep you occupied, but has there been any personal lockdown disasters over the last twelve months? You know? Any bad haircuts or DIY or cookery disasters or anything like that? ”
“Not really, I’m pretty boring and I live far away from the other guys, so I don’t really see them much. I know that JB was on an extreme lockdown. He wasn’t really going anywhere. He was just doing the grocery pickups and stuff like that. I’ve been a little bit you know, looser, like, if it’s nice outside, I’ll hang outside, and stuff like that. I’ve taken up gardening. See, that’s not very exciting but that’s my focus right now. Planting tomatoes indoors before the frost comes on.”
Back to the EP then. On the track “Icarus,” you did clean vocals for the first time? Are there any plans to do it again? Did you enjoy it?
“Yeah, I did enjoy it. The idea came from a side project called Best Case Scenario which a lot of people don’t know about because I don’t push it much. I just had a lot of collection of songs that are pop-punk. It’s all-singing with a little bit of yelling and I had a collection of songs that I had been sitting on for a while which I just wanted to release. I did that several years ago now.
As for ‘Icarus’ itself, that part I sing on, JB told me he thought it just sounds like Best Case Scenario. So, we knew the song wasn’t going to make the record before the song was even done so it was my chance to do it. I sing live anyway so I went in there and did my thing and, and put it down. In the future, if there’s a part that that warrants me to get on there and sing, I think that we’d be open for it but we’re not trying to write so we go a direction that alienates a lot of our fanbase, as a lot of bands do. If you can justify it, that’s great but, really, we want to stick to our roots. We’ve been a band for so long and we feel like the reason that we’re still relevant is because we’ve been true to our fans and write stuff that we know our fans are going to like, and it’s not going to be too left field for us.”
In terms of a new record, have you been writing material, or is that something you’ve not really talked about?
“We haven’t really talked about doing an album yet but I am writing. As soon as a lockdown happened, I was like, ‘what can I do to keep myself busy?,’ and I had a song that was about halfway done so I went straight to it and finished it. Throughout the lockdown, JB and I have been writing, although we don’t really have an idea on when we will record or do anything yet. Eventually, we’ll get to it but we wanted to stay positive and to stay busy.”
A couple of things just to finish off then. The summer festival season looks like it’s possibly going to kickstart again. I don’t know how it is in the United States but, in the UK, a lot of the American bands are pulling out because of concerns about touring? What are your thoughts? Are you kind of excited or nervous because, from what you said earlier, you seem like you’re ready to go on the road?
“Yeah, I’m very excited but I want to make sure that that it’s going to be safe. I know a couple of our guys have been vaccinated. I want to do it when it feels right to do it but I’m not the one to ask when it’s right. I rely on those in power to tell us when it seems right to open the doors again. Having said that, our industry can’t be ignored any longer and we really need to get something going. It’s been too long. So, yeah, I’m very excited. I’m not concerned about if I were to get COVID, I just don’t want to spread it to somebody I love and that’s why I’m concerned about my grandparents and people who can’t fight it. I’d be worried about spreading it to them.
When the day comes that we say like, ok, we’re going to be able to tour again, then I’m not going to hesitate. I’m not scared at all. I want to get back out there. I just want to make sure that that it’s safe, and it’s the right thing to do.”
Hopefully that will include the Bury Tomorrow shows later in the year?
“Yeah. I don’t know what’s happening there. I know that tour is announced but I haven’t heard what’s going on or what the situation is in the UK?”
Yeah. Currently, June 21st is the date being targeted for all social restriction being lifted in the UK.
“I feel like it’s closer and closer to reaching that point where we can get back to normal. I know it was bad in the beginning. I had a lot of friends in the spring of last year who got it and again, in the fall, which is interesting but, in the summer, it was almost unheard of so I’m just really hoping that’s the way that it is and we can work with that trend. If you guys are getting things started in June that means that our tour, which is November/December in the UK and Europe, fingers crossed, we’ll be able to do it then. I think that it will be the summer where we’re going to know yes or no.”
Yeah, hopefully, because it’s a killer lineup. Just to finish then, thanks for your time, looking back, how would you sum up the last year for August Burns Red?
“Well… it was a rollercoaster (laughs). Ups and downs. Highs and lows. We were so excited to get on the road. We felt like we had an album that our fans were going to love and we’d be out playing shows. This was the first album that we’ve done where we didn’t get to tour so the reception of the album was based on just looking at social media, which we could do as well but you don’t get to feel the energy of the room, you don’t have to hear the crowd reaction. It’s just like the complete opposite of what we have been used to so far. So that was an interesting way to be able to take in the reception of Guardians.
To see in a positive light and to see so many people talk about how they loved the album that really kept us going. Personally, it was really nice for me this year to kind of take a step back. For some of the guys, like I said, who took it for granted, maybe this is this was an eye-opener for them? Either way, I’m ready to go now so hopefully, we’ll see you on tour later this year.”
Look forward to it, thanks for your time.
“Of course. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.”