With a lineup including members of hardcore leaders Earth Crisis alongside members of Sect, Catharsis, Undying, Magnitude, and Die Young, it’s fair to say that there is some hefty pedigree behind hardcore newcomers Tooth & Claw. Ahead of the release of their impressive debut, Dream of Ascension, via Good Fight Music last month, we spoke to vocalist Daniel Austin to find out how the group came together and the inspiration behind their crushing new album.
Thanks for your time, how is life treating you today?
Daniel Austin: “Hey there, I guess you could say life is pretty good. Could definitely be worse anyway. Could always be worse…”
So, Tooth & Claw, you guys formed during the pandemic. What brought you together?
“Scott (Crouse) had been sitting on some riffs that he didn’t feel would be quite right for either Earth Crisis or Sect, particularly because they were songs with a more melodic or atmospheric dimension than either Earth Crisis or Sect is known for. He reached out to me to see if I would be interested in starting a new band for the songs he didn’t have a home for. He says it was the pandemic and quarantine that finally kicked him in the ass to get this new project going. So he sent me the first couple songs, I loved them, and we began going full force writing more songs.”
While you will have crossed paths in other bands during your time, why do you think now was the right time to work together or was it just a case of planets aligning?
“Really, it was the pandemic. All our bands couldn’t play shows. I think Scott was trying to be creative and productive with all the spare time he then had away from the stage, and it was the final straw to make him want to find a home for the songs he’d written that didn’t have a home yet. He and I have been doing interviews to promote this record lately, and he has said consistently that he always planned to ask me to start this new band at some point, perhaps for years even, but I swear the idea was never on my radar. It was a total surprise to get the email from him asking to check these new songs out.
In some ways, it is definitely a case of planets aligning. Cameron and Jimmy joining the band was also a case of that, as they both have other bands to prioritize and juggle plans with as well, but everyone sees enough value in doing this band, at least right now, to make it work.
Starting this band was definitely the best thing to happen to me in 2020. I know it was a rough year for most people everywhere, so I feel fortunate I got this ray of sunshine-type opportunity amid all the pandemonium.”
When you first got together, what were the original ideas for Tooth & Claw and who was the instigator for working together?
“As I said, Scott had the original idea for this band in mind, and he emailed me out of the blue. We quickly started discussing the vision and vibe we wanted to achieve. I think we had actually completed a couple of songs in the studio before we settled on the name Tooth and Claw, too. It took a month or so for a more complete vision of the band to come together, name and all. Now that the band is real and making its first big release, I think the name ended up being perfect.
I was one of a handful of people to try out to be Sect’s vocalist back in 2015 or 2016, or so. Back then, Scott and Jimmy (Chang) had actually wanted me to do a strictly militant vegan type approach for the lyrics. This was before Sect even had a name. I was down and did two songs that way back then, but you know, at this age, personally, writing lyrics like that feels kind of larpy to me. I can have fun playing the vegan tough guy, totally, but those kinds of lyrics aren’t something I would try to write these days if it wasn’t for some of my vegan straight edge riff heroes like Scott or Jimmy asking me to try out for their band in a specific way. And anyway, Chris Colohan obviously got the part for Sect, and he didn’t want to do the militant vegan approach to the lyrics, so he took the band in a different direction.
I mention all this because when Scott sent me the earliest Tooth and Claw songs, I asked him, ‘So do you still want me to do the militant vegan thing?’ This time around he said no, which was a relief to me because upon first listen, the songs for this band already had me wanting to explore psychological and mysterious aspects of consciousness and human experience. I didn’t want this band’s content to be caught within the bounds of any ideology, and upon our first conversations, neither did Scott. This was always meant to be a different kind of band altogether.
We’re absolutely a band of vegan straight edge dudes, but that’s not what we’re singing about here. The original idea was to be more explorative, metaphorical, even metaphysical, as odd as that may sound. I think Scott’s riffs and compositions for this project are very conceptually evocative, so I wanted to compliment the evocative feelings of the music with my lyrics, and also with the imagery we’ve chosen for our online videos.”
What were the challenges you faced getting a band together and recording an album?
“We ‘didn’t’ get together to record this album (laughs). I recorded half the vocals in Memphis. Then I moved back to central Texas, and I would drive over to finish the last half of songs in Houston at my buddy’s studio. Scott and Cameron (Joplin) completed all the instrumentation in Eastern North Carolina (at different locations), and to this day we have never played or practiced these songs in a live setting as a full band. We have been together as a full band on two occasions: first, our first photoshoot for the photos we used to announce the band (for which no instruments were involved), and second, when we shot the ‘Your Crucifixion’ video.
It’s funny because we were technically ‘acting’ like we were playing that song together in a field for the video shoot, but clearly, there was no electrical source to turn the amps on, and Cameron didn’t even have a beater on his kick drum pedal. I did, however, blow my voice out screaming for the video shoot in the cold. That’s as close to playing together as we’ve gotten so far.”
Let’s talk about the album then. As we know the band came together during the early lockdown. Are the themes on the album inspired by your experiences of the last twelve months?
“The themes and lyrics were absolutely inspired by experiences of mine in the last year to year and a half, but a lot of those experiences are deeply personal and had nothing to do with 2020’s pandemic or protest atmosphere of chaos, though I think all that can certainly be relatable material to what I am singing about. Regarding my own experiences, I didn’t talk about them in a literal sense, because I think if I was only singing about myself this would be interesting to almost nobody. Instead, I wanted to figure out how to sing about my personal experiences in a more ubiquitous way.
For example, the single ‘Seventy Times Seven’ was inspired by a very personal experience of betrayal. That’s something nearly all of us have endured, but instead of talking about what specifically happened in my life, I wanted to explore the idea that learning about deception by someone else brought out a side of my own self that I didn’t even know lived within me, a side that said ‘Ok, you want to start a war? Brace yourself while I burn everything down in retaliation.’ I don’t think I am alone in ever feeling that way. It’s something that most of us will experience in our lives at the hand of friends, lovers, even parents. It’s traumatic, so what I wanted to portray was the frantic feeling of trauma as it is inflicted, as well as the painful aftermath of it.
That’s more universal because betrayals and their subsequent trauma don’t even have to be personal. They can also be cultural, political, or systemic, as we have all certainly felt more than ever in 2020, I am sure. The traumas caused in those cases last a lifetime, if not generations. Many of us probably feel like we live in a climate of never-ending treachery and betrayal, I bet. It’s a dynamic that exists on many levels, and it is interwoven in our collective consciousness, and unconsciousness. Having a human brain ain’t easy, especially these days.”
Could you talk us through some of the other themes explored on the album?
“The main themes I have tried to explore in this band so far have to do with duality, the dichotomies and paradoxes of human experience, how our sense of meaning is often contradictory to our conception of reality, but even reality, once examined enough, no longer seems concrete, or even real. Consciousness, to me, might be the most absurd phenomenon we can imagine. Another way to put what I am trying to illustrate in this band would be the clashing of surface appearances versus what’s underneath the surface.
Take the title track, ‘Dream of Ascension.’ It’s a song about the stories we tell ourselves to justify the awful things we have had to do as a species to survive since time immemorial. On one hand, we have the abstract, metaphysical narrative which tells us to serve a higher power, and most often, to serve a ‘true world’ that is not this physical world we live in. This is the path religions and political ideologies teach. This a path of sacrifice of the individual for a greater whole we hope to absolve ourselves in.
On the other hand, there is the materialist perspective, the story of evolution, of might makes right, that says, ‘he who gets there first with the most’ succeeds to populate the next generation. This is the path of the self, and the self primarily, as if nothing else is real. It’s a path of endless war, whether we’re talking about physical war or spiritual war because the self must always continue to aggrandize itself. When considering both types of stories we tend to subscribe to as a species, I am not sure which is better or more fulfilling. The idea of fulfilment is most likely an illusion in either circumstance, but suffering is always guaranteed. We can take different paths, but we always wind up in the same place.
What I am getting at in Dream of Ascension is that no matter what ‘story’ you subscribe to in order to guide yourself through the uncertainty of life, your narrative universally has to be about conquering, growing, evolving, succeeding to plane of existence better than this one we are in. To me, it’s evidence of our innate human restlessness and how morality is often a cheap and dispensable notion. I don’t believe we’ll ever be satisfied with ourselves or with our paradise of a planet (though we should be), even if we could perfect modern living to eradicate suffering from our bodies and minds. If we could do that, I believe we would be bored and bring new suffering upon ourselves in pursuit of escape from boredom.
To grow and improve, we must strive and suffer. It’s simultaneously a tale of the pursuit of beauty and perfection, but it’s also bloody and tireless. I suppose all we can do is try to make the best of it. When I wrote this song, I think I was hoping to implore listeners to consider, or just feel by intuition, what narrative they think is better. The older I get, the more my jury deliberates on a verdict about these kinds of narratives.
With that in mind, this is the first time I have approached lyric writing with a rule of always trying to interlace ‘life affirmative’ ideas. I really don’t think life is always worth living, but if we choose to be here, we better do something with our precious time that is worth suffering for. Like in ‘Time’s Desire’ where I describe the fleeting nature of love, success, or joy, but then I end on the line ‘Rejoice as it all expires!’ If we didn’t get to die, none of our experiences in this world would be worth anything. Dying is what makes life interesting and valuable, so rejoice that we will get to die. If we could live forever, we’d be bored and miserable, longing for an escape. Even pleasure becomes stale when experienced in excess.”
What do you think Dream of Ascension will offer to hardcore/extreme music fans who’ve followed your careers through your other bands?
“I think this record clearly offers a ticket to a different headspace than any of our other bands. We got more ‘cerebral’ here, for sure. Instead of pointing outwardly with rage at a world of corruption, we chose to go forward inwardly instead.
I do scream 90 percent of the lines on this album, but I don’t feel I am coming from a place of rage. I am trying to come from a place of primal feeling, which I think is different. It’s more intuitive and instinctual, I think. Even if I sing about the experience of betrayal as I discussed in ‘Seventy Times Seven,’ I really tried to not come at it from a place of resentment or anger, but rather a place of mystery of the existential horror of it all, both within the betrayer and the betrayed. I actually think that’s more vulnerable.
And likewise, Scott’s melodic and brooding musical compositions provide an apt atmosphere for the kinds of explorations I am talking about. This is an album you can think about if you want to think about it, but I think it’s also an album you can just listen to and ‘feel’ and not think about it at all. Neither of us has written an album like that before. And with that in mind, I think the listener is more free to develop their own meanings to these songs than has been possible on any of our other bands’ previous albums.”
Musically it isn’t a typical hardcore album. Given the spread of work in other bands and the abundance of time afforded to write the record during lockdown, how much easier was it to shape and develop the record and the band sound into what you wanted?
“That’s hard to say, because Scott started working on these songs as much as a few years ago, so far as I understand. He recently said he has been working on a ton of ‘more melodic’ ideas for songs for a long time, and that he’s had tons of ideas he has scrapped over the years. So while we got the band, record deal, and album release to all come together pretty quickly this past year, I think what everyone is seeing and hearing right now is just the tip of the iceberg of effort and ideas that have been churning for a long time, starting with Scott.
For me, though, I was served these songs on a silver platter. Sometimes Scott would send me a new song via email and I would turn it around with lyrics in a day or so. Sometimes it took me a few weeks to finetune my singing rhythms and lyrics, but I was always obsessed with finishing the song once I started on one.”
Aside from the depth on the album, it’s still a hugely aggressive record. Do you think the effects of the last twelve months will inspire a new level of aggression in the music/lyrics across not just the hardcore scene but extreme music as a whole?
“That’s an interesting question. Humanity, more than ever, has the capability to enact aggression across so many mediums now, from the digital to the physical realms. Just look at how nasty people can be on social media alone. People LOVE ruining other people’s lives these days over just about nothing.
In regard to music, clearly, music has been evolving to be more and more aggressive for the past 50 years. Just compare Elvis to Black Sabbath to what’s considered heavy and radically aggressive now. I don’t think there is an end in sight to this evolution of aggression either. But why?
Something to consider is that we live in the most dreamlike, privileged era of existence of all time. I am not saying it’s a healthy or sustainable way of life, but it’s a ridiculous dream world era unlike any other. In most parts of the world, we are at liberty to pacify and subdue ourselves with endless vice and entertainment. We generally don’t have to go out and kill for food or shelter. More and more of the world’s population is economically elevated enough to be able to travel and explore the whole planet, and we can generally plan out our lives day to day with impressive consistency. If anything, I would think we should have become more peaceful and less aggressive by now.
But look at all the suburban Western children who comprise the bulk of musicians and fans in the hardcore scene. These are people who have grown up with unimaginable luxuries and comforts compared to kids in the past 100 to 200 years, even if you came from lower middle class or working-class families, yet we’re all so angry and dissatisfied. Why is that?
To me, it supports what I was saying above, about innate human restlessness. Our restlessness and aggression are bottomless pits. The void comes from a deep existential place within each of us, but sure, perhaps we’re even more aggressive these days because we suffer from exposure to too much information; the endless barrage of police brutality, geopolitical conflict, and social injustices of people who we never would have even known to exist in previous generations. It’s all broadcasted right into our faces these days, so sure, perhaps it is influencing greater aggression in music. I am not sure it is influencing greater ethical consciousness, however. People need to balance the outward and the inward.
I feel more than ever we are neglecting what’s inward, the objective knowledge of what we are and what our instinctual compulsions are, and it’s a great source of our generation’s resentment, rage, and despair. This is sad because when honed in a healthy manner, despair might be one of the best catalysts for growth there is. That’s a concept I hope to impart with this band – hone your despair. After all, despair is guaranteed, no matter what your background is. What you do with your despair, however, is up to you.”
Again, going back to the lineup, you’ve got a huge wealth of experience as musicians. What creative itch does Tooth & Claw scratch for you that your other bands didn’t/don’t?
“I am trying to sing more in this band. It’s not something I am naturally good at, but dynamic music calls for dynamic vocals, so it’s a challenge I am trying to rise to. And likewise, I know Scott has been trying to rise to the challenge of writing more hauntingly melodic passages.”
The debut album is due out later this month. What is your long term vision for the band and how does it fit in alongside other projects/work ?
“We’re really trying to take things day by day with Tooth and Claw. We hope people will like the album, and that if they like it there will be a demand for live shows and more albums. But most of us are older (in our 30s if not 40s) and we have major responsibilities, so if there isn’t a demand for the band to do more after this album, we agree that we have to let it be, and just be glad we got the chance to make an album. We’re not free to drop everything and go full force with music like we were in our early 20s, back when Scott was going full force with Earth Crisis, me with Die Young, or Jimmy with Undying. Oh, to be young and throw caution to the wind…”
Thanks again for your time and good luck with the album. Over to you for the final words…
“Thanks for giving me the chance to talk about Dream of Ascension and the ideas involved with it. The record is out now worldwide via Good Fight Music!”