FOR THE PAST DECADE, Red Fang have excelled at writing hook-heavy hard-rock songs that kick down your door, grab you by the throat, and growl in your face—but, you know, in a good-natured sort of way.
As metal bands go, the Portland quartet is the opposite of so many of their contemporaries: often grinning instead of glowering, more groovy than gritty, heavy but highly relatable. The band has become one of the biggest in Portland, thanks to a relentless tour schedule, a handful of popular YouTube videos, and the fact that their music is the perfect soundtrack for the least pretentious parties.
On their new album, Only Ghosts, Red Fang delivers more of the same, only this time it comes with a healthy dose of “swirling insanity,” according to guitarist Bryan Giles. That’s a quality that can be tied directly back to a guy named Ross Robinson, the legendary producer who has worked with bands like Deftones, the Cure, Blood Brothers, and At the Drive In.
While tracking Only Ghosts, Robinson spent a fair amount of time crawling around what Giles calls the “pedal puddle,” a collection of 15 to 20 guitar-effects pedals.
“He’s on the ground with ’em, turning knobs and going bonkers,” Giles says. “At one point I was listening back to a track and I said [to guitarist David Sullivan], ‘I wanna do something like what you just did.’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I’m like, ‘How do you play that part?’ And he’s like, ‘Dude, that’s you.’ I had just done it, but it sounded so crazy. I loved it. I’m a big fan of noise.”
Robinson left more than just a sonic imprint on Only Ghosts, too. The producer pushed Red Fang—all four members write the songs, including bassist Aaron Beam and drummer John Sherman—to think about their music in an entirely different way, digging into their emotional roots. The result? Punchier performances (especially vocally), and a recording session that was more trying than any the band had ever experienced—and ultimately more rewarding, too.
The Mercury caught up with Giles to talk about working with Robinson and how it made him feel.
MERCURY: When you were talking to Ross Robinson about these songs, did you find yourself caught off-guard by anything?
BRYAN GILES: I think because he was asking questions, it helped clarify in my mind the core of the thing. It’s really more about the emotion that’s driving them, not so much the lyrical content or the message you’re trying to put across. It’s about what part of your personality or your emotional spectrum is happening during the songwriting and how can you best put that in the song so it has maximum emotional impact.
But yeah, I think I was surprised at several points just realizing the depths of some of my anger issues. It was like therapy. It was like, “Yeeeuuch.” It wasn’t the happiest time for me but I think it was helpful.
Did recording Only Ghosts feel more cathartic than your previous albums? Does listening to it feel cathartic?
Absolutely. Definitely. I would say this is the most satisfied I’ve ever been with a record, and I feel it most accurately represents our band and where we’re at now with our songwriting. So it’s very exciting to be touring on a record that I’m proud of. And if people don’t like it—if it gets us slammed in the reviews—that doesn’t bother me because what matters is that we’re all just proud of it.
The fact that you’re so happy with the record makes me wonder why more producers and artists don’t go through a similar “emotional digging” process.
Well, it’s really unpleasant. And honestly, I don’t think there are very many people in the world who could do that without it being intrusive or insulting or rude. It’s just that [Robinson] shares so much of his very personal life that you feel compelled to go as far as he goes.
But during the recording process I found myself avoiding him. And when I’d see him I would sometimes get angry. Because what he represented was this person who was opening up wounds, you know? So yeah, it was unpleasant. I walked around his house and there were a couple days when I was really angry and there were a couple days when I felt like crying. It was gnarly.
I assume you’ve let all that go and are friendly with him now.
At the end of the recording process I told him, “You know, Ross, there were days when I just hated your guts.” And he’s just laughing. I’m like, “You made me feel like such shit.” He’s like, “Hey man, I didn’t write these songs. You did.” And I just laughed because he was right. I love the guy. He’s great. But he wants honesty out of you and... if you have some unpleasant things in your past, the last thing in the world you ever wanna do is talk about it.
Especially to a relative stranger!
Exactly! He was a stranger, but he got to be like family, really.
Going into this process, did you have any sense of what it would be like?
I’d heard about it. The guys in Wild Throne had just recorded there. Cancer Bats had just recorded there. They all reported the same thing: a very intense experience, but they were all very excited for us to do it. They said, “Oh, it’s gonna be amazing. I can’t wait for you to go.” Really? Because everything you’ve told me sounds terrible.
Did the other guys in the band have a similar experience?
I think Aaron and I got it the worst [because] it’s a bigger can opener when you’re getting into lyrical content. But we all got it. No one was off the hook, I’ll tell you that. But the most intense sessions were the vocal sessions. I remember Aaron was about to start tracking and Ross was like, “Okay, we’re gonna start talking about the lyrical content,” and I said, “I gotta go,” and I ran out of the room. I just couldn’t take it. I left. I couldn’t fuckin’ do it.
You mentioned earlier that it wasn’t a particularly happy time for you. Are you better now? Is everything okay?
That’s why I’ve always played music. Everyone has demons and it’s a great way to get them out and express them in a positive way instead of being harmful to myself or others. I think if I can channel it into something good that fills me with a sense of purpose and I can see other people smiling and dancing, that’s just amazing. Like maybe, okay, I’m an angry dude, but I’ve turned that into making a lot of people smile, so that’s a win-win. I love doing it and it seems like people are stoked to hear it. So yay.