By Avinash Mittur
When I was in high school, Fog of War weren’t just any young thrash metal band out of the bay area- they were an institution. A Fog of War show was an immediate guarantee of a fun time for me and my friends and their tight, dialed in live sets were, and still are, something truly remarkable to see from a band barely out of their twenties. Fog of War has always been one of the most consistently reliable thrash bands that a metal fan can see in the Bay Area, and it was truly a pleasure for me to speak with the band – Mosh Branum on lead guitar and vocals, Jon Fryman on lead guitar, Alex “Wink” Winkley on lead guitar, Nick Mamere on bass and Matt O’Connell on drums. We got to talk about the band’s unique situation as a thrash metal band with three lead guitarists, the current state of heavy metal, touring outside of the bay area and the band’s upcoming album, “Here Lies Humanity.” Read our conversation below, and be sure to check out the band’s facebook page for updates on their upcoming shows and the new album.
You guys have been around for the entire so-called “thrash revival” movement from the beginning to its current decline. What has it been like seeing it through this whole time and in a way, surviving the trend?
Mosh: Perseverance is really the only way to get through it, especially when you see the scene rise and fall multiple times within one “revival.” It gets rough and it can ebb and flow- the trick is to remember why you’re playing music in the first place. It isn’t about the popularity.
Matt: It’s lucky for us that we don’t care about the turnout too much. We’ll play a show with nobody there- we’re happy to do it just because we like playing music. It’s more for ourselves and we’re just happy if other people like it. We’re not worried about whether other people are going to come or anything like that.
Mosh: The internet definitely helps though because it’s like your audience comes to you in that regard. It’s easy to keep playing when you know that there’s still people listening. It gives you more motivation to keep doing it, even when all of us have full-time jobs and other projects. It’s hard enough practicing, but it makes it easier knowing that there are people out there enjoying the music.
As of the last couple of years, Fog of War are now one of the few thrash bands with three lead guitarists. You also have a new album coming out really soon, “Here Lies Humanity”- how has having three lead guitarists affected the writing of the album?
Mosh: It actually made the writing easier!
Jon: I think it’s benefited tremendously. The three-part harmonies we’re doing now are a lot of fun, and there’s a lot more melody that’s been worked into the material, not that we didn’t have it before.
Mosh: There were two eras in the lineup, one with Wink on lead guitar and another with Jon. We all worked together so easily before anyway and now we all worked together tremendously well that it just made writing a breeze. When we got Nick, a guitarist by trade, in the band it was like having four guitar minds working on the material. Everything became way more aggressive- we’ve got four-part sweeping harmonies on the new record and having three lead guitars and a bassist who riffs like a guitarist makes it super easy to write some good stuff. We’re really happy with the way things turned out.
Compared to the sound of the “Confessions of a Thrashaholic” EP that came out a couple of years ago and the self titled album, in what ways is “Here Lies Humanity” a different record?
Mosh: It’s got a lot more melody, the songs are really starting to toe the line of power metal territory.
Wink: It still has an aggressive edge on it though, we haven’t lost any of that drive. It still hits hard.
Mosh: There’s a lot of controlled chaos, and I’m not gonna turn into Hansi Kursch any time soon! The vocals still bring to mind some of that crossover sound that we were labeled with. When it comes to the lyrics, everything is story-based. There are no songs about “thrashing” or anything like that. The songs all tell stories and are pretty serious. It’s still fun, but the songs are designed to be provocative and to let people use their imaginations a little bit. We want to give people something for their brains to chew on instead of a “thrash, thrash, thrash” kind of thing.
That’s interesting that you say that because a lot of bands, even the classic ones back in the day, had pretty simple lyrics. Some would argue that lyrics aren’t a priority and that it’s about the music itself.
Mosh: Oh man, no- lyrics are extremely important! I’ll go through six or seven complete sets of lyrics for any one song and keep scrapping them over and over until I find the ones that are perfect. Some of the songs on the EP were actually reworked to fit this new writing dynamic. It’s almost like the EP is a collectable now because the songs have changed so much since then.
Nick: There were a lot of bands like Atrophy, who had awesome, extremely intelligent lyrics and I think all of us really liked hearing those words come from a metal band.
Matt: The music definitely comes first, but we want to be creative lyrically.
Mosh, you mentioned that you guys all have full time jobs. A lot of really famous musicians like Slaughter By The Water’s emcee, Chuck Billy, have day-jobs too. Is being full-time musicians something that you guys are still working towards or maybe a hybrid of careers of sorts?
Mosh: We definitely want to stay on top of both our jobs and being musicians. I don’t know if any of us would ever have the time to just not work.
Matt: Musicians that can make a living just playing are few and far between, especially in metal. You basically have to be Iron Maiden or Metallica.
Nick: You have to accept that you’re playing to a niche audience and you have to love doing it.
Jon: I think it takes a long time, and even lots of our favorite bands still have day jobs. You have to love it to do it. You’re probably not going to make a significant amount of money playing metal music unless you get lucky.
Mosh: It’s kind of a waiting game too. You see a lot of bands that had relative renown in the ’90s, they’re being dug up now and they’re seeing some money flowing in. It’s definitely a waiting game to see any sort of financial or commercial success unless you get really lucky.
Jon: If we could support the band and pay for the gear and transportation by playing music alone, we’d do it. Anything else would be a bonus. If the industry changes somehow then it would be nice.
Nick: When we actually do get some money we spend every cent on equipment! Then we start saving again so we can buy the next better thing.
Mosh: In reality, you’ve got to look out for yourself as an entity because labels aren’t gonna do that for you anymore. The internet does half of a label’s job for free anyway.
Jon: Most of our generation knows how to network online too. A label can help out with some stuff, but we’ve been pretty successful hanging in there compared to bands that have already been picked up by record labels.
You know, metal is in a pretty oddball state these days. The latest Testament album “Dark Roots of Earth” hit #12 on the Billboard chart and “The Final Frontier” by Iron Maiden hit #4 two years ago. Despite this, it’s tougher than ever for local bands to break out of their scene. Fog of War are somewhere in the middle of all that- you broke out of the whole “bay area thrash comeback” thing from a few years ago and you remain active to this day. With today’s state of metal, how has Fog of War’s level of activity been affected? Has it made it easier or tougher for you guys to play shows or release music?
Mosh: It kind of depends on where you go. The Bay Area can be a little hit-or-miss, especially when everyone’s seen you a hundred times. Lately we’ve been going to down to the Los Angeles area and we’ve been really well received. We’re starting to pick up a lot of people there. The relative success that metal has been experiencing, like Municipal Waste who are on MTV now, has been pretty cool to see. I can only hope that it trickles down into the smaller subdivisions both regionally and internationally. I would hope that it would give the average music listener more of a reason to explore new bands and thus possibly increase the chance of any metal band of becoming more successful. Hopefully it does some good for Fog of War. I would like to think that it will anyway.
Wink: You also have to recognize that this kind of thing comes in waves. There’s a new group of kids coming up and attending shows at The Gilman again (Note: “The Gilman”, or 924 Gilman Street, is a famous punk and metal venue in Berkeley). That’s kind of the trick, knowing that you’re riding the crest and sometimes you’re riding the drop- you just wait for it to come back and until that point, write your ass off and try to have something ready for when the wave comes back.
You guys mentioned that you’ve been to LA recently. Metal Assault is based in LA, so for the fans from there that might read this interview, what makes them different from Bay Area audiences?
Mosh: The people in the Bay Area that still go to shows are still really into it, but I think one thing that helps is that LA is a much bigger pond for us to jump into and there’s a lot more people in general.
Matt: Less people have heard of us down there. We’re all from the bay, we started here and we’ve played here again and again. Up here, everyone’s seen Fog of War a dozen times now.
Mosh: After all this time our fans have become our friends, which strangely enough makes them not as inclined to go to the shows! You get to know everybody and get a little too close and they end up feeling that they don’t have to go and that they’re supporting you regardless. Shows end up dwindling as a result.
Matt: In LA, we’re not as popular so people are more excited to see us since we don’t come down very often. We definitely get more amped up onstage from their excitement.
Mosh: It’s always fun to be the touring act and to meet lots of cool new people.
Jon: Even the kids who don’t live in Los Angeles itself are awesome to see, we’ve met kids who came up all the way from San Diego just to see us. Now that was really cool.
For a band that’s been around for eight years now, Fog of War has had an amazingly solid lineup. Nick’s been the only real difference between now and the other eras of the band since you pulled an Iron Maiden and added a third guitarist. How have you guys managed to keep the lineup so consistent over the years?
Mosh: We’re all friends first and foremost.
Matt: If we start getting mad about band stuff, we just figure “let’s just drop it and do something else.” We treat it less like a business and more like a friendship. When we rehearse, it’s like “let’s just hang out, drink beer and play some tunes!” We don’t get too stressed out about it, which definitely keeps our personal relationships healthy.
Nick: Well, Jon is my brother and I’ve known Matt since I was in diapers! I’ve known both Wink and Mosh since middle school- we’ve all grown up together.
Wink: We all grew up in the same circle of friends- we’ve known and hung out with each other for years. Outside of playing music, we all just get along really well. Band practice is probably the most fun part of my week anyway!
So to start wrapping up, the new album will be out this fall?
Mosh: We haven’t hammered it down to a specific month yet, but yes- fall is what we’re aiming for. We keep thinking we’re done with certain things but we end up going back and tweaking them.
Matt: We keep thinking “oh, it’s not good enough” so we keep re-recording bits and pieces in hopes that we make it better.
Wink: We’re wrapping up recording now and we want to make sure we have plenty of time to mix and master the album.
Are there any future gigs that you guys want to let us know about?
Mosh: On September 21st, we’re gonna play The Gilman with Hatchet, Bonded By Blood, Deathstrike and Trecelence. That’s gonna be awesome. Other than that, we’re just focusing on getting the record out. We only booked that show because it’s got a great lineup and we loved the opportunity of playing with all those bands.
Lineups like that are rare these days. I remember in high school there used to be amazing thrash shows all over the place every other weekend.
Mosh: There used to be 300 people per show, now you’ve gotta fight for fifty! But yeah, every single weekend there used to be shows at the Gilman or in Santa Cruz and everyone would turn up.
Matt: Besides the one show in a few weeks, the album is our main focus. Hopefully we’ll hit the road some time after its release and we want to play lots of shows to promote it.
Mosh: We’ll be going to Portland to play with Spellcaster and we want to hit LA again when we can.
Related: Slaughter By The Water gig review