August Burns Red’s JB Brubaker on Simultaneously Challenging Himself and the Metalcore Genre (Interview)

Photo by Justin DeGuzman via
Photo by Justin DeGuzman via
Photo by Justin DeGuzman via

August Burns Red is a massively successful metalcore powerhouse, but despite its constant drive, the band puts much consideration into its evolving career trajectory. With the conclusion of one album cycle, another immediately begins, but with perhaps a new goal in mind. For 2011’s Leveler, that entailed an exhaustive worldwide tour and the documentation thereof. For last year’s Rescue & Restore, the band challenged metal tropes by assuming the role of the genre’s defenders. August Burns Red loathes stagnation but wholeheartedly praises and actively attempts innovation.

Rescure & Restore is an equally blistering and accessible effort; it charted at a rank currently held by My Chemical Romance, despite defying typical Top 40 success formulas. The album lacks clean choruses, but on August Burns Red’s spectrum, intricate lead riffs and pounding aggression coexist with brass and strings. Fortunately, this isn’t an artsy abandonment of the hardcore spirit, but the band is well-aware of its previous output. August Burns Red’s sixth full-length avoids recycling former tricks; “Creative Captivity” is as passionate as trumpet-touting metalcore mission statements can get.

Substream spoke with guitarist JB Brubaker, who reflected on August Burns Red’s discography, detailed the band’s place in metalcore’s swaying movement, and hinted at forthcoming material despite having released an inventive full-length less than one year ago. We touched on his songwriting motivations, fan and critic perceptions of the band, and lyrical themes as well.


Substream Magazine: This year’s Record Store Day saw Thrill Seeker reissued on vinyl. Can you talk about how this re-release came to fruition?

JB: ABR, we like doing vinyl stuff. We enjoy the collector’s aspect of it, and a bunch of the guys in the band are avid collectors. We like to try to put stuff out for Record Store Day. Thrill Seeker happened to be the only full-length we’ve done that never had a vinyl release. We didn’t really have anything to put out this year in particular. Our label actually came to us with the idea and suggested, “Maybe it’s time to do a Thrill Seeker LP,” which is something we were thinking of putting on a box set or something, and that’d be the only place you could get it. But we decided to do it for Record Store Day just because we had nothing else coming out to put out for Record Store Day. That’s a nicer way for collectors to get ahold of it versus making them spend 100 bucks to buy this big box set just for one record.


SM: Thrill Seeker was originally released nearly nine years ago now. How do you reflect on the band’s debut after having released five more full-lengths in less than a decade?

JB: Well, I think it was an interesting start. Looking back on it, I feel like it’s a very scatterbrained album, and I’m not sure that it would hold up by today’s standards. If someone were to hear August Burns Red for the first time and that’s where they started, I think they might be quick to be like, “Eh. This sounds old.” The genre has evolved in the last 10 years, and we have as well. I think it’s a really nostalgic album for people who got into the band closer to its release. And, you know, it’s fun to go back and listen to it. I haven’t listened to it in a while, but I probably should just for nostalgia’s sake. I don’t love it. It’s not my favorite album we ever did, but it was a cool starting point.


SM: Foreign and Familiar documents an extensive 232-date tour. What were the biggest pressures you faced in embarking on such an immense undertaking?

JB: The hardest part about touring that aggressively is the travel itself. That tour took us to a lot of places that we hadn’t been, involving a lot of flying to get from A to B, which is just a lot more stressful than traveling via a bus or something. The constant flying grew tiresome, especially during the Asian leg of the tour, because there’s no way to get around conveniently when you’re in that part of the world. Stuff is really far apart, and it takes forever to get there in the first place from the States. There was a stretch, and it’s documented pretty well in the DVD, where we’re doing Japan, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and Australia, and there were maybe five weeks, and that was honestly the most grueling stretch of touring I’ve ever done in my life. Because of the flying and the lack of sleep and the early mornings, it was just a lot to take in and handle with not a lot of time to recharge your batteries. I mean, I’m proud of what we accomplished. I don’t need to do that the way we did it again. I think we could plan it a little more efficiently, as far as our health is concerned.


SM: You recently supported Asking Alexandria on tour, and you have a series of festival appearances approaching. Do you foresee August Burns Red playing another headlining tour as lengthy as the tour for Leveler?

JB: We actually have pretty big plans for the next album cycle we do once we’re done with Rescue & Restore. I don’t have those plans exactly. They’re not something I can really discuss at this point, but with Rescue & Restore — because we had done so much on Leveler — we kind of pulled back a little bit on Rescue & Restore. We didn’t go to Japan and all over Asia and South America and places like that on this album cycle. We kind of did more of the staples: North America, Europe, Australia. I think when our next full-length comes out sometime next year, we’re planning on being a little more aggressive with the places we go and where we play. I don’t know that it’s going to be 232 shows. I have no idea. But we want to tour hard because we’re kind of taking it a little easier this year in preparation of getting back at it pretty hard in 2015 and 2016.


SM: How did the length of the Leveler tour affect how you felt about Leveler as an album? Were you at all burnt out on its songs after having played them so frequently over the course of a few years?

JB: I actually wasn’t. Compared to the older songs we’d been playing, the Leveler stuff still felt pretty fresh to play live, even at the end of that album cycle. Both the tours we did in support of Leveler were so great — everything just fell into place so well with that record — that it was really easy to want to take the stage and play, because we were drawing good crowds and going to exciting new places, and it was a really fun time, especially because we had the videographer with us documenting everything. It kind of put this whole new spin on touring for us. I thoroughly enjoyed it, minus the lengthy Asian tour segment where I didn’t sleep, but the majority of the cycle was a whole lot of fun.


August Burns Red Promo


SM: Rescue & Restore, or at least its title, was in part inspired by witnessing a lack of creativity in the metalcore genre. What elements define an original metalcore act, in your opinion?

JB: It’s more of what elements are avoided, almost. I feel like such a jerk answering this kind of question because I just kind of shit on other bands. Other bands that are doing that, I feel bad about that, I apologize. I don’t hate everything; I just don’t love everything either. One of the things I’m kind of annoyed with with the genre right now that I think is kind of pretty dumb and I think is going to be a pretty sleazy trend is the incorporation of dance beats and electronic samples and whatnot in the songs. I think that that’s really played out already, and that’s like this hot trend right now, but I don’t think it has a lot of lasting value. And maybe I’m that far removed from what’s cool, but I think it’s a really silly trend, and it’s kind of just borrowing from what’s popular on the radio now, with pop music. I guess maybe that’ll work for a minute, but I don’t think that the genre is built on something like that, and I think it’s going to go away almost as quickly as it came. At least I hope so, because I can’t get into that. I think that there’s a lot of repetitiveness in terms of song structure. It’s like metalcore bands have adopted this pop-song formula where they can get away with playing verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, and usually your chorus is a breakdown, or your bridge is always a breakdown. It just became awfully formulaic, and to me, that’s not what metalcore was when I was coming up on it. Maybe I’m the problem. I don’t know. But that’s not the music that ABR’s going to play. We’re not interested in following those trends. We’d rather try to do something different than that, I guess, whatever that may be.


SM: In writing Rescue & Restore, how much of a desire was there to challenge yourselves creatively?

JB: I’d say a lot. That’s always important to us. On every record we write, we want to push it a little more than we did on the previous one, just as musicians and as songwriters, which is one of the biggest clichés you’ll hear, but we truly do believe that. Especially after doing so many albums, it’s important for us to change enough that it doesn’t sound like a record we’ve already put out, because I think that you can quickly lose a lot of people’s attention spans if you’re just rehashing what you’ve already done. Then it’s just more and more challenging every single record, because we still have these certain elements that we have to include that make our band sound the way we do, but we have to try to find ways to do it and surround those parts, the staple things we do — like odd-meter breakdowns — we have to include that stuff while putting stuff around it that maybe is different-sounding than what you would’ve heard us do on albums three, four, and five, you know what I mean? It gets trickier with each record, but it’s fun for us. We enjoy writing new music and challenging ourselves to come up with new stuff.


SM: Was there a similar desire to challenge some of the conventions of the metal genre?

JB: Yeah, and I think that’s also a product of wanting to broaden our own horizons and the fact that we listen to a lot of music that isn’t metal, and we are influenced by that, sometimes more directly than maybe we realize. There’s lots of great music out there. Especially with metal, I feel like it borrows a lot from classical music, which is really cool and super complex music, and I think that, when integrated into metal, can make for some really cool parts. That’s kind of some stuff that we might look into exploring some more as we write for the future.


SM: What inspired the horn and string arrangements of “Creative Captivity”? How did the song come together in the studio? 

JB: That was the last song written for the record, and that wasn’t really a conscious effort to write this horn part. The ending of the song just had this very triumphant vibe that we thought lent itself to this lead trumpet part at the top of it. As far as the strings go, I mean, string arrangements are something that we initially started playing around with more on our Christmas covers album called Sleddin’ Hill. I think that’s a great sound to accompany heavy music, especially the more melodic parts, and I think that strings, violin, cello and stuff like that, will probably be something that we use a lot of moving forward as a band, just because it adds this new layer and texture to your typical drum, bass, guitar sound. I like having — especially after writing so many songs — having some more instruments to play around with.


SM: “Fault Line” is seemingly about the mutual support between the band and its fans, but it also contains the lyric, “Don’t call me your hero.” What are the downfalls to having fans identify members of the band as heroes?

JB: That song was written specifically about our lead singer, Jake — our guitar player Brent wrote that song — and Jake has always been really good about reaching out to fans who want to talk to him, and after every show, he does his best to go make himself available to talk to people and stuff, which is really important to him. I think it’s nice and that people appreciate that as well. The “don’t call me your hero” line specifically refers to… It’s cool that people look up to Jake or any of us or anyone that’s a musician in general, but you’ve got to remember that we’re just people too, that we’re no better than anyone else, and it’s great that people can, I guess, find inspiration or get help through the lyrics, but we’re not heroes, I don’t think. We’re just dudes playing music. It’s important not to put us on some pedestal we don’t deserve to be on, I think. That’s where that line comes from.


SM: At what point in the band’s career did you become conscious of fan expectations in your songwriting, or do you try to separate the two?

JB: I’d say probably on Leveler, was when it became more of a bigger deal, especially because my influences as a songwriter were kind of changing a little bit, and I realized that it was important for us to keep the really heavy stuff and the thrash parts and stuff. I feel like, at this point, I could happily write an indie-rock album and be really happy with it, but we sort of put that out under the August Burns Red name. I don’t want to disappoint people who have been longtime listeners. I understand that too. As a fan of other bands, when I’ve heard a band that’s put out a lot of albums and they dramatically change their sound, it bums me out. I don’t want to do that to the people that view our band like that, you know what I mean? I can kind of see it from both sides.


SM: “Treatment” rather strongly rallies against bigotry and advocates acceptance. I suspect it’s targeting certain hate groups. That being said, what are your thoughts on the Westboro Baptist Church and the recent passing of its founder Fred Phelps?

JB: I can’t say that I will be mourning his loss. I think the whole thing is pretty ridiculous. I feel like they’re master trolls. Their group must be really small, because it’s so ridiculous I can’t imagine that that many people could actually be buying into it, and I also think that the thing that feeds them the most is the media talking about them. The more that we talk about them, the more they’re going to probably want to be in the spotlight, because they’re just attention whores, basically. Obviously, they’re not really people of God, whether or not they say they are. They’re just extremists trying to get attention. As for the passing of their leader, they’ll fade, because it’s a freakin’ joke. It’s disgusting. But I have the same opinion that I’m sure everyone has, minus the 30 people who are involved with Westboro Baptist.


SM: The band’s religious beliefs are frequently discussed among music publications and audiences. Why do you think that that’s such a recurring question and point of reference for some people?

JB: I don’t know. I guess because religion can be controversial. Controversy can make for a more interesting story. It’s never been the driving force behind our band, at least it hasn’t been for me as a songwriter. It’s been more of a personal thing outside of music. We’re entertainers, and we also want to bring a positive message to a pretty dark scene that has a lot of young people in it that can be influenced by some pretty ridiculous messages coming from other bands that they put up on a pedestal. I understand, I guess, people wanting to talk about our religious beliefs. Like I said, it’s part of who we are, and it seeps into our music, but we want first and foremost to be a good band. That’s the priority.


SM: You’re playing a number of festivals this summer. How would you compare the general festival environment to that of standard club shows?

JB: If the festival does well, the shows are obviously going to be a lot bigger. Bigger stages, bigger crowds, a lot less intimate and oftentimes played during the day with the bright sun, so it’s sometimes a little less dramatic. There are certain songs that we don’t like to play in a festival setting because of the vibe. I enjoy both. Festivals are fun. I wouldn’t want to play festivals exclusively, but they’re fun to sprinkle in from time to time. Especially in the summer, that’s festival season, so people want to come out and see a ton of bands for one ticket price, and I can appreciate that. I was the same way. I still attend some festivals, so I back it.


SM: You mentioned earlier that you had plans for releasing a full-length next year. Can you share any details on the progress of that?

JB: We have a couple songs done. I’d say we’re in the early stages of writing, but like I said earlier, we have a lot of time off now. That’s going to be the big focus for the rest of the year, basically, to write and record the new record. I’m not sure exactly when it’ll come out, but I’d say the first half of 2015.


Interview by Anthony Glaser