A Careful Tyranny
When Nails pulled up to their hotel in Helsinki, Finland, for last year’s appearance at the Tuska Open Air Metal Festival, they walked through the front doors, groggy and tired from the long international flight. That’s when vocalist/guitarist Todd Jones immediately spotted Bill Steer, the British guitarist for Carcass and Napalm Death, sitting right there in the lobby. He had to do a double-take. “We lost our minds,” Jones said in a moment of brief fanboy appreciation.
When the shock wore off, they went upstairs to rest before they had to start gearing up for their show. That night, Nails played a wicked set and after they finished, Jones went upstairs to sleep. He woke up a couple hours later to 20 text messages on his phone. “GET DOWN HERE,” his band members pleaded. “We’re hanging out with Phil Anselmo and the Illegals!” Anselmo (Pantera, Down) urged the band to wake up Jones and get him down there. “Where’s your singer?” Anselmo asked. “I want to meet my goofy cousin.”
The point is Anselmo, a goddamned metal legend, is into Nails, which is sort of a testament to the fact that the band—despite being heavy, dark, scary and alienating to most normal people—has something interesting to say outside of their local Southern California sphere. Let’s get it straight: Nails is not a great band because of a popular sound or crisp production or fancy guitar riffs—they’re great because every instance in every song is deliberate. For example, by starting “Depths” (from the album Unsilent Death), with a squeal and then a heavy chug of the guitars, the listener is placed in a desolate room, a dungeon, where the anticipation of what’s to come is frightening. And what actually arrives is scarier than anything we could have imagined. Jones’ vocals—powerful and desperate—are at once growling and high-pitched, and he conjures a dreary picture of the hateful world with dramatic screams worthy of a Tony award. The band can evoke the entire misery of the universe in one 14-minute album. Yes, that’s 10 songs in 14 minutes: Fuuuuuck.
Jones, who is surprisingly soft spoken on the phone, uses his voice exactly how his band uses music: to pinpoint what needs to be said and to say it powerfully and economically, as not to waste time. “Restraint is a big part of our sound,” he says. “We have these ideas of what we want the band to sound like. We want Nails to be a very specific thing. If we make something that doesn’t fit into that, we’re just not going to use it. How often do we make a riff that we’re going to use? It’s very minimal. It takes us three years to make a record.”
Just think about that: Three years to make a record that will not last more than 20 minutes from start to finish. That’s a lot of thinking and planning and editing for such a short album. It’s beautiful how much thought goes into a Nails record, the end result being something like their latest album Abandon All Life, a tight collection of blistering hardcore and grindcore metal tracks that transport the listener to a very dark and frightening place. The band can be so scary that it’s hard to imagine the man I’m talking with on the phone goes to a day job and interacts with coworkers in a regular fashion. In fact, Jones, an IT guy during the day, doesn’t even tell his coworkers about his band at all. “I don’t talk to anyone about my band. They wouldn’t understand it. They would think I was some sort of freak or something,” he says. “Normal people don’t understand grindcore, death metal or hardcore.”
It’s true. Not many people get dark music, but those who do love Nails for their unique take on brutality, a sound that all comes down to Jones being a huge fan of music and his keen sense of not wanting to let anyone down, especially himself. “I don’t want to disappoint our fans,” he says. “Punk rock and hardcore could be simply bursts of energy. But I think my favorite bands, typically, have structure and restraint and it’s a very focused sound. I just want to be in a band that I like.”
“General Interest Poseur”
With Nails’ rising popularity comes a host of opportunities that were previously unheard of for bands who make heavy music—a brief partnership with the vehicle company Scion, for instance.
“They did a lot of good for us … when Scion was paying all these hardcore bands or metal bands to play shows for them. They treated people extremely well. Was it weird? Fuck yeah it was weird,” Jones says.
And, of course, when an underground band appears to have taken money from a sponsor, the message boards light up with purists claiming “sellout” and worse. After all, the enemy of heavy music is often thought to be corporations, or The Man, if you will. But Jones, a sensible man in his 30s, doesn’t really give a shit. The band’s strange partnerships and interesting opportunities (like a collaboration with Converse and Decibel Magazine) have allowed Nails to travel and/or expose their music to new people, which is all that really matters in the end. “I’m pretty much open to anything,” he says. “As long as it makes sense for us and we benefit and it doesn’t hurt us or our audience.”
Another strange aspect to the band’s rising popularity is reviews from music media outlets, such Pitchfork, which is often thought of as the hipster Holy Grail for pretentious indie reviews, a publication that runs off equal parts snark and hipster fumes to make (and mostly break) music careers. A hardcore band like Nails doesn’t exactly expect to get a rave review from such a publication.
“I was not expecting, but I am very grateful for it. More importantly, [writer Brandon Stosuy] understood our record. It feels good to be understood,” Jones says.
However, interestingly enough, not all good reviews are equal. For example, Anthony Fantano from The Needle Drop—the self-described “Internet’s busiest music nerd”—enjoyed both Nails albums, but Jones is not nearly as enthusiastic about his review, simply for the fact that Fantano obviously doesn’t understand the band at all.
“He’s the kind of person that listens to anything and can kind of find the good in it. At the end of the day I don’t think we’re a band that those people can really jive with. I think our band is too extreme,” he says. “So if someone’s going to hit me up and say ‘What do you think of Anthony Fantano’s review?’ I think it’s cool, but I think he’s a general interest poseur.”
While Jones won’t reveal the name of Nails’ new album, he says it’s just about done and, more importantly, that it’s going to be brutal as fuck.
“If you took our first album, Unsilent Death, and held it up against Abandon All Life, it’s basically a progression in the same direction—a little bit more metal, a little bit more technical, but also in some ways it’s a lot more Neanderthal. All I can say is it’s through-and-through a Nails record. We are taking the same caution and restraint and carefulness with writing this record that we did with Unsilent Death and Abandon All Life,” Jones says. “If you’re willing to go a bit more extreme with us, then this one might be your favorite.”
To be honest, it’s sort of horrifying to imagine an album more extreme than Unsilent Death and Abandon All Life. But for fans of heavy music, and for people who know exactly what Nails is capable of, the idea of Nails magnified is thrilling. We can only hope that the band will unleash a few of the new songs when they stop in Sacramento, where they last played several years ago to a nearly empty room.
“There wasn’t very many people and nobody really knew who we were,” Jones says about the house show they played back in 2010.
But it’s 2015. The world still sucks. We’re all broke. Cops are killing everyone. California is dry and everything is lighting on fire. Which is a perfect atmosphere for Nails’ disparate melancholy and unadulterated rage. When they come, Sacramento will never be the same. It will be worse. And you’ll probably want to be there for the mayhem.
See Nails live at Midtown Barfly in Sacramento on Aug. 22, 2015. Pins of Light and Human Nature will also perform. This 18-and-over show has a $12 admission and gets underway at 6 p.m. Midtown Barfly is located at 1119 21st Street, Sacramento. Get tickets in advance at Shufflesix.queueapp.com