For Black Tusk, this tour comes hard on the heels of a tragic loss. Their bassist, Jonathan Athon, died in November last year as a consequence of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident in their hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
The swamp metal trio had not long finished recording a new album (‘Pillars Of Ash’ is set for release mid-2015 through Relapse Records). Corey Barhorst (ex-Kylesa) has the unenviable task of picking up the reins left by Athon’s passing. A formidably powerful bass player in his own right, Barhorst’s long-standing friendship with the remaining members will hopefully serve him well.
I caught up with drummer/singer and founding member of Black Tusk, James May at their recent appearance at Norwich UEA (18/2/2015). It’s never easy to talk with someone on the subject of lost a friend or brother, but I was struck by James’ outlook and positivity, whilst still coming to terms with Athon’s loss.
JM: Thank you.
MJ: Black Tusk on tour with Black Label Society and Crobot along as well. How’s the tour been going so far?
JM: It’s been good. We started off in Budapest and we played five shows before we got on this tour. And then, since we got on this tour, Black Label kind of has a different crowd than what we’re used to. At first you’re a little “How’s it going to be taken?”, but it’s been taken very well. So the tour has ended up being great for us. The crew is really nice to us, everyone one is cool with it, so there’s no problems at all. We like it, man.
MJ: Sorry to bring this up, but it’s been a difficult time for you of late. I guess there’s no such thing as great timing in any of these events. Especially on the eve of a tour such as this one. You lost a very dear beloved band member.
JM: A brother, more than anything.
MJ: Tell us about how you’ve been coping with it.
JM: Your own ways you get through it. Like I said, it wasn’t like a band member. Black Tusk was like a three-headed monster. You know what I mean? It’s been just us since the beginning. We’ve all known each other since we’ve been younger and when the band started. So it’s not even three guys that hooked up three years ago. It was before that. I’ve known Athon, knew him more than I had not known him at that point. You know what I mean? So, it was horrible. But we had to do what was good for the band. Me and Andrew both said, like, if it was me, I would want you guys to keep going. You know? Just things happen. There’s nothing you can do about it. And the band, to stop because of it, no, I mean we did think about it of course. We were thinking how could we even replace him? It’s always been us. And it would have always been us. But, on a lighter note, we’ve got Cory now. He’s great. Thankfully for him, he can come tour with us and he was interested in doing it and looking like he is going to end up working out for the full time for the future. But we have known him a long time, as well. Like since before, since before the band started, when he was coming to see our older bands play. So he’s always been around. It was a lot easier to have someone we already knew and that was around, than have someone come in that was just going to try out for Black Tusk. You know what I mean? You know, no one ever wants something like that to happen. We dealt with it the best way we could.
MJ: It’s got to be different.
JM: It’s different. We’re still getting used to it. The first night was really weird. The first, in Budapest, it was the first time we had ever played together in front of a live crowd as this new setup of Black Tusk. But, at least the crowd was so good to us that they made it really easy for us. They were going nuts and everything. They made it really easy for us to have our first show. So shout out to them for that.
MJ: You’ve a few more dates in the UK, then you head over for an extensive tour of mainland Europe. That’s a lot of contact with a lot of fans out there, different crowd as well for you and the boys in Black Tusk to perform in front of. What is it you look forward to most on tours like these?
JM: The reason to take a tour like this is so you don’t keep playing to the same niche of people. Your band is never going to grow when, you know when we first started, it’s safe to play in front of like metal punks. Because you know they’re going to like it. And after a while, you hit a ceiling, it’s only going to get so big, you’ve got to go on tour with another band that has a different crowd and win them over and that’s what we’ve done the past six years is just go on tour with bigger bands and try to get some of their crowd, too, because that’s how you build this thing to get bigger and bigger. The first four years you spend around in shitholes playing to people that you know. I don’t have any problem with them. They make sense. As long as the people are cool that are on the tour, the actual bands and crew and everything that makes it so much easier.
MJ: Music wise for Black Tusk, it goes without saying that it’s been a challenge rehearsal-wise and prepping a setlist?
JM: We were kind of freaking out a little bit in getting this stuff together before this tour. And also, you know, no one wanted to go to that space. We didn’t want to play. But we had to. We had to get the stuff together for the tour. But me and Andrew were like dreading going to the practice space again. It didn’t feel right, without Athon there, so, but we pulled through it. We got it done.
MJ: Where is the main body of music coming on? Off of your last album? Tell us about that.
JM: It’s pretty much, we’re starting the set with some Taste The Sin stuff, then we have this new 7″ out, Vulture’s Eye, that would be new to anyone over here. It’s a few months old. And we do those two songs from that. Because our band is the type of band where we always do an album and then something in the middle, a seven-inch or an EP until we get another album. We just have always done that. So, we do that, then we go into Set The Dial stuff, and then we go into Tend No Wounds stuff, and then there are a couple of new songs thrown into that that are going to be on the new album coming out in the end of summer.
MJ: You’ve recorded a new album with Joel Grind (from Toxic Holocaust) at the controls. The album’s completed?
JM: Man, that album is done. Mastered, everything. And I am so glad that Athon got through that album with us. I mean it’s all him on there, no one had to come in and finish it for him. That is the old Black Tusk on that album. And we are stoked about it. If you like Black Tusk, you will like this album. It’s not like the last EP. The last EP was experimental. We kind of did some different stuff on that, that’s why we didn’t make it an album. We just wanted to do some other stuff that we usually don’t do. We weren’t going to make that the official album. This is the new album. You know what I mean? It sounds great. We did it with Joel and Brad Boatright (from Ashes Rise) mixed it. It sounds really big and it’s called Pillars Of Ash. That’s the name of the album.
MJ: Some serious EQ then?.
JM: Yeah, it’s ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ you know? John Baizley’s going to do the artwork cause it’s, you know, whenever it is a full length release he does the artwork. I got to use the Paul Burdette’s (from Tragedy) drum set for it, so the drums are amazing and we’re excited about it. The only thing about it is by the time it comes out we’ll have had it for eight months. So those are the old songs to us by the time they start getting played.
JM: Yeah, and he’s going to, he’s taking his time with it because this album is also going to be a tribute album. You know what I mean? So we’re making sure that this is going to be done right. He wants all the layout to look really impressive and really good, so that’s why we’re just waiting to put it out. We’re not going to push it. It would be nice to have it for this tour, but it can wait as long as it gets done right. You know? We’re going to be playing a bunch of festivals over here so we’ll have it with us when we come back.
MJ: Well, James, Black Tusk, thank you for affording ‘The Classic Rock Show’ your time. Best of luck with the rest of this tour and we hope to see you again soon.
JM: Thanks man. It’s been a pleasure.
This was arguably one of the most difficult interviews I’ve ever done. Not, I hasten to add, because of the artist…far from it…James is a really straight up guy, but because of the subject we spoke of first; the tragic death of their band mate Athon. I hope that the deep sense of loss for a ‘Brother’ transcribes fully onto the page. The band is still grieving, yet they have somehow managed not to let that get in the way when playing ‘live’. Judging by the Norwich UEA set they played, Black Tusk are well worth checking out if you haven’t seen them before. I can’t wait to get my hands on the new album.