WHERE MOST BANDS CHASE PUBLICITY with Machiavellian urgency, Wovenwar waited several months to announce that they even existed. Of course, anybody familiar with their origins understood precisely why, because, contrary to that dusty old chestnut, not all publicity is good publicity.
In the feverish subculture of extreme metal, most bands could only aspire to reach the heights of As I Lay Dying. Founded in 2000, the San Diego metalcore act (vocalist Tim Lambesis, guitarists Nick Hipa and Phil Sgrosso, bassist Josh Gilbert and drummer Jordan Mancino), amassed uncommonly broad success on the back of a punishingly heavy catalog of studio output and an ambitious touring regimen that saw them amass a feverish global following in their decade-plus run. One of the elite outfits of California’s Metal Blade Records label, AILD collected a raft of critical accolades along the way, including a mantle full of “Band of the Year” awards and a Grammy nomination for their 2008 song, “Nothing Left.” Their sixth studio album, 2012’s Awakened—which would also be their last—reached number 1 on the Billboard Hard Rock chart and 11 overall on the Billboard 200. Indeed, the band were poised for a gigantic run; that is until that day in 2013 when Lambesis was caught in a police sting operation putting a hit out on his estranged wife, Meggan.
The headlines described something from a far-fetched B-movie script, yet the details were very real indeed. Suddenly, major news outlets and even slobbering corporate lapdogs like Rolling Stone (which rarely cedes valuable reality TV coverage space to heavy metal), were reporting on the heavy metal singer who tried to orchestrate the death of his wife and mother to their three adopted Ethiopian children. The lurid revelations that would emerge left little room for debate—in a stunningly naïve decision, Lambesis had asked a trainer at his gym for a connection with a hitman. The trainer instead contacted police, who sent an undercover officer to meet with Lambesis and record the meeting–an exchange during which Lambesis provided the phony hitman with a cash down payment, photos of Meggan and his address, along with dates when Lambesis would have an alibi. Lambesis’ final instructions were as unequivocal as they were chilling: “Just to clarify, I do want her dead.”
With such unimpeachable direct evidence, Lambesis—who would later attribute his actions to the side-effects of wanton steroid abuse—eventually pleaded out and received a six-year sentence. At the sentencing hearing, his former bandmates Hipa, Sgrosso and Gilbert attended in support—of Meggan.
Lambesis would later give an interview, published after his sentencing, in which he downplayed much of his culpability, instead offering comments that seemed intended to elicit sympathy. In response to the observation that his ex-wife had filed a $2 million civil suit against him, Lambesis groused, “When it rains, it pours.” He additionally took a decidedly critical view of his former bandmates, their contributions to As I Lay Dying, and their future without him.
Curiously, through the 12 month ordeal following Lambesis’ arrest, his former bandmates remained relatively silent. Not just silent about their singer’s troubles, but silent, period. As many speculated on the end of As I Lay Dying and Lambesis’ impending incarceration, few realized that Hipa, Sgrosso, Gilbert and Mancino had already moved ahead together with a new project–Wovenwar. By spring of 2014, the four musicians had already written an album’s worth of material, along with vocalist Shane Blay. Moreover, they had inked a deal with AILD’s former label, Metal Blade Records, and they had summoned the brawny, knob-twisting talents of producer Bill Stevenson (Descendents, Black Flag) to helm their debut. When the new band began leaking teaser videos onto social media, the jaw-dropping scope of their efforts was revealed—not only was the Wovenwar debut ready for pre-orders, but they quickly announced a summer tour with Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society, as well as a trio of Southern California record release shows in August, followed by a headlining European tour.
As Wovenwar complete their final preparations for their summer campaign, we caught up with Nick Hipa to discuss the end of his old band and the future of Wovenwar.
When and how did the new band come together?
Last May, the fourth or the fifth, we played our last As I Lay Dying show in Shanghai, China, and Tim was arrested on the seventh. As the facts unfolded, it became apparent that Tim was in very serious trouble, and there were a lot of feelings there, because we were personally involved with everyone that was related to the situation. We talked among ourselves for awhile and we tried to reach out to the people who were truly victims of the whole thing. Ultimately we had to ask ourselves, “What are we going to do? What is our job? What are we going to do to survive after all of this?” I think that in early January we got together after spending a few weeks figuring out what was going on on the actual legal side, and then we started focusing on the present and the future. In that conversation, a few very specific things came up–do we keep on going as As I Lay Dying or not? The immediate answer was “no,” because Tim, in spite of the things that he was found guilty for, and some of the things he was wrestling with personally, was a great frontman and he was the face of As I Lay Dying, so for us to try and continue on with that didn’t feel right. Our natural response was to write music and start another band with a new name and just make it something completely separate from the past. When you invest yourselves in something for over ten years, you’re building a career and you’re developing a sound that everyone associates you with, but to move on in the same vein with a different person, I felt like would have forced that new project to always live in the shadow of the old. We just had to do something completely different and that’s why we changed the name. We pretty much started writing heavily in June.
You attended Tim’s sentencing after remaining silent for almost the entire ordeal. Was that any type of comment on the situation?
Well, we had over a year to just kind of think about it, and we didn’t really feel like it was necessary to comment on our personal feelings, because it’s not really anyone’s business. This happened and how we deal with this is how we want to deal with it, but Meggan is a really good friend of ours. People don’t realize that this woman was a part of our lives for ten years. She was like a sister to us. We toured together, when they adopted children, those children became a part of our lives, so they were our family. When people who you consider family are the victims of something so extreme, you support them and you care for them and you let them know that if they need anything, you will be there for them. And Meggan had reached out to us and said that it would mean the world for her if we could be there and support her. In my mind, there was no question–if you need us, we will absolutely be there. So we went to the sentencing just to support her as she gave her testimony and saw the person that tried to have her killed for the first time. So it was a very emotional experience for her and we were happy to be there to just give her some sort of validation and some strength.
On two separate occasions, Tim has made statements that have sort of drawn you guys out to respond; one was a statement on As I Lay Dying’s official web site (since removed) and the other was the interview that he gave before his sentencing. Do you think this is the end of the “he said/they said” dynamic?
I would hope so. The entire time, we didn’t have to say anything about it. Again, it’s a very private and personal matter. We had talked before and he was aware of how we felt and we were aware of what he did and how he felt about it. Also, the way he had been behaving for years, it was such a complicated dynamic. You can’t express to the world how much is involved, so in our minds, it was like, “OK, this happened, let’s just move on with our lives.” The only reason we responded both times was because Tim took it upon himself to publicly make statements or make claims that weren’t true, and when somebody says something that’s untrue and that’s defamatory toward you, you have to defend yourself. We would always choose the path of silence over trying to create drama, but when somebody challenges you like that and says things that are simply false, you have to set the record straight and in both circumstances we said something, it’s because it was instigated. Moving on with our lives, we still have no desire to speak of his character as we had known it for the past few years. Clearly he needs a lot of time to work on some things and we had tried our hardest for years to pull him aside and get him to see things the way they were and not actually the way he thought they should be and it just didn’t work, to the point where we felt like our voices were falling on deaf ears. And no pun intended–that’s an As I Lay Dying song–but we had just lost any sort of hope in getting through to him. Even still, when this all went down, we tried to just move on with our lives. I wish him the best–I was like “Dude, you have to figure a lot of things out”–but for one reason or another, I don’t know if he was threatened by the fact that we were starting a new band or that he thought we were trying to continue as As I Lay Dying, but he just chose to say things that diminished what we were doing. He was trying to hinder some of the progress we were trying to make personally, apart from him, and it’s just unfair because it’s very unnecessary. So our responses were warranted only in the sense that he was publicly trying to discredit us people and as a new band moving forward.
Speaking of the new band, where does the name come from?
The name is just something that we collectively settled on based on the idea that at our core, we’re all the same. As human beings, there’s a common thread that runs through us, and we have the spectrum of love and hate and everything in between; we’re born exactly the same but as we age and go through life, certain parts of our character are cultivated, whether it’s a belief system or whether it’s a religious belief or a political belief, or prejudices or anything. Those are influenced by the people who are raising you or the environment you’re reared in. You see so much bigotry, hatred violence and war, but they’re all fabricated–they’re not necessary, but they’re just created. I think people lose sight of the fact that the human heart is the same in all of us and that’s where the name comes from. We chose “Wovenwar” instead of “Wovenhearts” or something like that because we had to go with the heavier-sounding one and that might sound superficial, but the idea is there. If you recognize that those things are all created, then you can choose to live a life in opposition to that.
Is that a dominant lyrical theme in the album? Spiritual expansion or interrelation?
Some of that is there, but honestly a lot of it is more traditional in the way that I think a lot of people write lyrics–you just focus on a topic that weighs heavily on your heart or that comes to mind as something you’ve dealt with, and you write about it. I think that for our part, there’s positive resolve and optimism in the majority of our lyrics because I think that’s how we all choose to handle things. So many times, situations just unfold, whether you’re part of them or whether other people created them for you and you can’t change the past. You can’t spend too much time wishing that it hadn’t happened, you’ve just got to figure out how to move forward and that’s been our perspective for everything we’ve been involved with in the past year, and with our singer Shane, even though he wasn’t in As I Lay Dying, he’s been a friend of mine for years–as long as I’ve been in As I Lay Dying and even before that, and being so close with one another, I’m familiar with a lot of the stuff that he went through and he’s familiar with a lot of the stuff that I went through and that we all went through and we’re all able to be on the same page, even though we didn’t have the exact same experiences.
Shane’s vocals are a significant departure from the vocals in As I Lay Dying. How conscious was the decision to go with that style?
It happened in a pretty natural way. When we were thinking of singers, we thought about who met our criteria who we’d want to be in a band with, almost immediately when Shane’s name came up, that was it. There was no tryouts with other guys, or there was no, “OK, he’s an option, let’s see who else is out there.” This is somebody that’s been my friend that half of my life, and somebody that the guys knew and that they respected as a musician and who we were all comfortable with. It was like he was already one of us, and he’s such a talented guy, so let’s see what we can do with Shane. When you’re in a band, you want to draw from everyone’s strengths. In As I Lay Dying, I think we made the made the best music we could with what everyone was awesome at and we’re proud of that. With Wovenwar, Shane’s strength, apart from his guitar playing, which he doesn’t do enough of on this record, is his voice. He’s just got a great voice and what he does best is sing, and we love that about him and we wanted to explore that, so that’s what we did. It worked out extremely naturally because we didn’t ask him to do anything that he didn’t feel comfortable doing. We’d say, “Here’s some music, what would you do with this?”and he’d come back with all these vocal melodies. Immediately Josh hears those and has all these harmony ideas, so you’ve got two singers making the vocal presentation something that, if you take away all of our past musical endeavors, on its own, we felt it was awesome and that’s what we wanted to develop. The sound of the band, while extremely different, came about in a very natural sort of way in the sense of, this is what everyone does well.
A lot of bands who have reached some level of notoriety or success have trouble trying new things because they get pigeonholed by their old sound. With this new band, you had the opportunity to do whatever you wanted. Were there things that you couldn’t do in the musical style of As I Lay Dying that you wanted to explore in Wovenwar?
Yeah, I think that one of the things that we were really excited about doing was creating more rhythmic dynamics within a song. As I Lay Dying songs would all be one thing- “This is the thrashy one,” or “This is the melodic one.” With Wovenwar, we wanted to try to include the ebb and flows and highs and lows within the same song. And that works well with a guy like Shane because his voice can fit over a driving, aggressive rhythm, or something that’s a little more subdued, and I guess more mid-tempo or groove-oriented, so for us, it just felt like we could have more ups and downs within a song and create more of a mood within a song than we could with As I Lay Dying. We couldn’t necessarily do that with the type of vocals we were using. In Wovenwar, when we started to bounce ideas off of Shane, asking “What would you do here?”, because he’s such a musical guy and an amazing songwriter, if something didn’t fit for him, he would give us a very specific idea of what he thought should be done, which is a very productive approach. So it was one of those relationships where we’d throw all sorts of things at him and nine times out of ten, he’d come back with something so incredible that we wouldn’t have considered; and that one time out of ten when he couldn’t come up with something, he’d say, “Well what if we tried to do this?” If it wasn’t the solution, it was always the first step towards the solution, so it was a really rewarding experience to work with somebody who’s seasoned and who’s really professional about music, in addition to developing the relationship that the four of us have had together from writing so many albums together in the past.
You chose a producer–Bill Stevenson–whose pedigree includes iconic punk outfits like Descendents and Black Flag. How did you see that as a fit for your debut album?
We had worked with Bill on the last As I Lay Dying record and we had such a good experience with Bill and all the guys at the Blasting Room on a personal level–they’re great guys and we really enjoyed being around them–but we really respected their opinions and insight into music that even though they weren’t necessarily known for it, they still had some understanding of its elements. A lot of Bill’s work is energetic and has that intensity that we were still going for with this band, but since Bill is removed from the metal world, we were interested in his opinions like we were the last time. That’s why we chose to work with him before- he might not be “metal” but he knows what a good song is and he knows what a good fast song is. I think we scratched the surface on Awakened, and with this album we wanted to see how much more Bill could add because there was more for him to work with, I think. So we went with Bill because we love him as a dude and because we have a tremendous amount of respect for him.
You’ve announced a pretty big summer tour, plus a European headlining tour after that. What are you most excited about as far as the tours?
Honestly I’m just excited to play music. This has been the longest stretch of my adult life that I haven’t played a show. We were used to playing two or three hundred shows a year and all of a sudden it’s been a year since we’ve played a show, which has been kind of a trip for us. I think just getting out and seeing how these songs translate live is something we’re all really enthusiastic about because it’s music that means so much to us, that we can’t wait to share it with everyone.