Backlash – World DominationSaturday, 17th July 2021
While many look to the East Coast and West Coast as prominent epicenters for metal markets stateside, musicians often applaud the strong Midwest circuit for support. Hailing from Illinois, Backlash have been determined to put their heavy/thrash metal style onto a new generation. Influences from Megadeth and Metallica to Avenged Sevenfold and others come to mind – impressive riffing, potent and punchy rhythm section work, plus melodic vocals in a genre where screaming seems to be the norm put the quartet in rarified air for their work.
We reached out to guitarist/vocalist Ryan Sorensen one afternoon and had a great conversation regarding the band’s latest work Colossus, the development of Backlash as a band, future goals, favorite shows, and lots of discussion on what it takes beyond the music to grow a following in today’s musical landscape.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your earliest memories surrounding music growing up, and how did you gain an interest in heavy metal and wanting to pick up an instrument to eventually develop your own music?
Ryan Sorensen: I appreciate this. Some interviews I get are off the cuff, where it’s like ‘what kind of guitar do you like?’. Very low-quality type deal. I appreciate the question. The earliest memories of music I would have to say are not very heavy metal. Earliest would be riding in the car with my mom- and I will be 30 this week. The mid-90’s would be my earliest memories of music, riding in the car with her she had on Pat Benatar, Bon Jovi, Alanis Morrissette. She had me relatively young, she was in her mid-20’s back then. Collective Soul, and then around the late 90’s when I was between 8-10 years old, I remember riding with my dad in my truck. We are from the Chicago area, and I remember he had Disturbed – Down with the Sickness, he had that before the official CD came out, he told me to pick this up. I heard it and that was the first super heavy music I was into.
Picking up an instrument. I was in band in school, I did a bit of everything growing up. Boy Scouts, did band, did chorus. Chorus in school was more of a chill class period – in middle school. Over time, I realized how that did affect me and help me progress later on. Playing an instrument, clarinet in fourth or fifth grade until eighth grade. I was into athletics and wrestling, so I ended playing the clarinet. In senior year of high school, I was playing video games, Guitar Hero and Rock Band came out. I loved guitar and heavy music, every since I heard Disturbed. Pantera, Metallica, Megadeth. Guitar Hero Metallica came out – I was a junior in high school. My buddies would get together to play the game on the weekends. That was next level. I remember that the music was crazy, so different. I researched a little more into the music. “The Thing That Should Not Be” is my favorite Metallica song, still. I could play the game to expert plus. The singer from Metallica was the man. I took the microphone and hung it from the ceiling, and started playing Guitar Hero and singing at the same time. I wanted to do this! The feeling of it.
So I got a cheap guitar from a friend, I knew I could sing. That’s how it really started. I was fully submerged. There was nothing else I wanted to do.
Dead Rhetoric: Did you have any formal training at guitar or vocals beyond your chorus work – or did you just develop things on your own and by listening to records?
Sorensen: Vocals – chorus in middle school and high school. It was fun, the teacher was cool. It was helpful as well to be able to talk to girls in an easy, not nervous way. I took lessons in school with show choir. For guitar, I got it from a friend for free. I messed around it. YouTube in 2008-2009, people would upload videos learning how to play guitar, this and that. I used that, and one of my best friends at the time was a professionally trained, classically trained piano player for fifteen years. He’s a savant. His dad was in a rock band in the seventies, heard I was picking up guitar. He offered once a week to teach me some basic stuff, how to play guitar. Every Thursday for an hour, he would show me the basics of Rick Derringer, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, stuff like that from that era of music. The basic pentatonic scales, all the stupid questions like how do you hold a pick, how does this thing work, all that kind of stuff. He was pivotal in pushing me in the right direction on guitar. Heavy metal, he wasn’t quite into. Metallica I saw them get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, I was a senior, that’s it- I want to do this.
Dead Rhetoric: Was Backlash the first original band that you developed, or were there other bands before this?
Sorensen: I would say this is the first mega-serious band. I started playing guitar around 17 turning 18. By 20, it’s when I got into playing covers, traveling all the bars and local venues. We covered Avenged Sevenfold, Ozzy, Metallica, Pantera, Iron Maiden, and I played rhythm guitar and sang. I didn’t care about lead guitar. That band was called Avarice. Call the boys up, we just turned 21, we would play bars. We would play within an hour of where I was locally and play two to three-hour sets. We would pack places – we sold one bar out of beer, we had the place jammed. While you are working on your chops, how do you work on chops but learn the artists and these favorite songs. You take this skill set and develop it over time in front of people. You see the reaction, you feel the energy, you get to understand that connection from the stage to the floor. The best experience is paying your dues. That was my first playing out, wanting to write original music but you are still learning. Rudimentary in that aspect.
Backlash – I started Avarice and the bass player wanted to start his own punk band, he loved Misfits, Rancid. The lead guitar player wanted to do heavier things, like Killswitch Engage, modern/heavy and aggressive thing. The drummer was Switzerland, he was neutral. They wanted to do their own thing – they wanted me to not be in the band. I was pissed, I was 22-23, really playing for a year straight. That’s fine – I packed up all the gear, it was my gear as I paid for everything. I had the van, the mic stands, the speakers. I’m going to make my own band, originals, no more covers. It was going to be aggressive, fast, and heavy. It’s going to be different, and that started in 2014. This is my goal, I am going to build this from the ground up. Years and years of building things up to where we are now.
Dead Rhetoric: You recorded a demo with Backlash fairly early in the band’s career. What were your memories about those studio sessions – and was that your first time recording an official product?
Sorensen: The first time I was in a professional studio, a good friend of mine was working in a grocery store at the time, and he was going to Full Sail or Flashpoint in Chicago. They had a big campus, he could schedule studio time and book time because he went there to learn. We were his practice, they got credits for school. In that first band Avarice we had a three-track demo, and we got hooked up with this in a day. It came out decent, not very good by today’s standards. Fast forward to Backlash, I have all the stuff to do it myself. I souped up the computer, bought all the monitors, the workstation stuff, recorded the bass and guitar myself. My drummer and I we sat down and programmed all the drums. There was no money in this, at 23-24. This has been a figure it out yourself, work from the ground up type of deal. Those first three songs in that Backlash demo, that was all done in bedroom on my computer. Very low cost, very direct, no fluff type of stuff. It’s not a professional recording, like our album is now, but those are the steps that will separate you from everybody else.
If you are willing to put the time and energy into buying the stuff, how to use the stuff, writing, performing the stuff. There is no money now, you just have to go off instinct and drive. Everything is a ladder, a small step forward to that final end goal. It will take years, money, and you will get no return, you have to sacrifice sleep, quality of life, your body, your mental stability. That’s the dues of today. In the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s it was loading up the van to get on tour, pay your dues on the stage. Over the last ten and fifteen years, there is a big black hole in terms of the music industry. There (are) no development deals. If you want to scrounge for any space, you have to fight for it. That’s my experience, what I’ve had to do and learn to get even a demo out there.
Dead Rhetoric: When it comes to the debut album – where do you see the major differences between the level of the band from the demo stage to where you are now. Were there any challenges, surprises, or obstacles that came up during the recordings?
Sorensen: Oh yeah. To answer the second part first – COVID was obviously a surprise nobody expected. The difference between the demo and what we have now: time, invested more in the album than I allowed myself to do on the demo, and the knowledge. The writing and playing, that’s what I do. What you don’t have within yourself is the wherewithal to find the equipment, use the equipment, get it down, distribute it, market it, monetize your art. Those are all things you have to learn one way or the other to do. If you can’t learn it or you don’t know it, you seek somebody else out who does know it, or buy the materials so you can learn it. For the album, I found a guy, it has to be done. I had a goal to accomplish to make me happy and fulfill myself. I looked up studios, engineers, and producers – always doing research. On the internet, everything is there. I found a guy, he’s 15 minutes from my front door. A professional studio, he’s been doing it for twenty years, he’s been in countless Chicago heavy metal bands. He’s a legit guy. Anybody can talk the talk, but when the rubber meets the road you will meet the people who can back it up.
I head over, saw his studio in his house. Get in there – he’s legit. He has a second level in his house, sound treated. Live drum set up, professional quality microphones and drum set. The whole deal, it’s a killer live room. He has the computer, the desk set up, the pre-amps, monitors. I saw this and through my own experience I scratched the surface on that. To see what this guy was doing, I knew this was a diamond in the rough. He has played on countless albums. He’s toured, played live, a little older than me – maybe ten years older.
To some people, art is not as high on the list as it may be on yours with what you want to do. We have had eight or nine people in the band. Our drummer doesn’t quite cut the mustard when it comes to the quality of the playing at the time. He left, had to go, the guy that runs the studio is now our drummer. He owns and operates Pressure Wave Studios. He heard what we were doing, and he said he was in. I consider it luck – but that wouldn’t have been there if I didn’t seek this stuff out. Those breaks will happen if you keep pushing, things will happen for you. Shawn is our new drummer. We had the ability to be there on our time too. You can write the material and have it in you, and you know how great it can be – but to bring it into something in this world we live in, to take it from idea to reality – that’s the problem. It can be tough to bridge that gap. That’s why you aren’t hearing as much top-notch bands now as you did in the past.
Dead Rhetoric: Were there certain songs for this record that were more challenging to come together or play, and were there others that came easier for you?
Sorensen: They were all very easy. We’ve had these songs in the bucket for a couple of years at this point. When we went in to record them we had already been playing them together for over a year. The parts weren’t hard, the recording atmosphere was very easy. You don’t need to jam your amps up to eleven, now it’s very accommodating. You play your parts, and do the work. Drummer goes in and does his parts. Bass same thing. Vocals are more room for effects, where you want to place things. Shawn made things painless and effortless. It’s all real amps and drums on the album. You can get into the finer details of things now without sinking a ton of time and money like you used to do in the 80’s, 90’s.
Dead Rhetoric: Where does the band try to come across lyrically as far as the content?
Sorensen: Pretty much that’s split between myself and the other guitar player. We are 50/50, they are our songs. We have this team mentality, and maybe that’s a little different than what you see from most (bands). There is no me and the guys, it’s us. We do put on the album and if you look at the booklet, you see who wrote the riffs, who wrote the lyrics, the music – we want that to be known. Ryan wrote this stuff, Vaughan wrote that stuff – he’s the other guitar player. We all have our input placed upon them.
Lyrically I wrote a lot of them, Vaughan did a couple of them. I make changes here and there because I’m the singer and have to focus on the breathing ripping it as fast as we do. We work on it together. He does backing vocals, we go through the lyrics. My personal lyrical mentality – Dave Mustaine had a philosophy about really good songwriters write about ideas and concepts, not about literal things. Those are the everlasting songs. I enjoy going through central ideas and breaking them down into easy to digest lyrics. You can take something and make it pertain to something else totally and it works. Vaughan does more of the war and history stuff – he’s a history buff. Ancient civilizations, world wars, songs about religion – “God of Destruction” is about that. You can take these concepts and ideas and apply it to your sense of what you want it to be.
Dead Rhetoric: When it comes to Backlash live, how would you describe the stage presence and what you try to get across with the band? And what have been your favorite shows to date?
Sorensen: We opened for The Three Tremors before COVID hit – three great lead singers and insanity. High key vocals, think Judas Priest/King Diamond type stuff. That sticks out as an awesome show, that was at the Forge in Joliet. We have opened for a couple of bigger bands. Playing all over our area, Chicago – Livewire Lounge, local shows there. We’ve played with other classic metal bands, punk, progressive metal, such an eclectic vibe in Chicago with the different stamps of metal.
We are high energy, high octane, big choruses. I want to be 88-89 Metallica, just pure excellence. I am aiming for 91 Megadeth, those eras of those bands were lethal, the best. The best you are ever going to see of that scope of the music. Those are the things I shoot for. It’s not easy, the vocals you have allergies, you are on swing shift, those can be hard to pound down the way you want it done. There is no bar above those two showings of live excellence. Fast riffs, loud guitars, you are taken away from what you are doing and watch us play.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some of the biggest challenges that Backlash is facing in order to make your mark in a scene that with other bands is flooded at your level or a bit bigger trying to ascend up the ladder?
Sorensen: This is a great question. With all the music and the playing and all that, now you are getting into the entrepreneurial part of playing in a band, the marketing, promotion, sales, management. The next level of 3D chess, what it is to be in a band and what it is you are trying to do as a collective to ascend to the next level. You got chops, you have songs, you have them recorded. Great – you’ve weeded out 80% of everyone else, you have an album produced, distributed online. You have crossed that barrier, now you have cards in the game. It’s the price of entry into the game. Now you have to learn the rules of the game and find out what works in order to win at the game.
Currently we are going through this all ourselves. Online promotion, online marketing, getting all the statistics. Who is listening where, how long are they listen, the demographic of the person that is listening. I need to make sure the marketing money is well spent, because money doesn’t grow on trees. That money has to be smart, you have to be smart on your attack to take down the music industry. It’s a bloated industry, everyone can jump into the game. Learning how to make you look like a valuable asset to entities larger than yourselves. That’s one of the challenges I am facing now. You have to continue to get better, and find a way to make yourself valuable.
There is a local management company called FM management. Great people that run it. They just signed Testament to their management team, they are the ones who will push you forward to be a bigger band. Am I a fan of Butcher Babies? No, personally it’s not my thing- but I respect and appreciate their art. Would I want to be as big as them? Absolutely – they are playing shows all over, big ones. They are out there killing it. I want to get that level. Everyone wants to be Metallica level, but you have to be at the Butcher Babies level first.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some of the short term and long term goals for the band at this point?
Sorensen: Short term – increase online music sales, we have our website. We have to build things, it takes time and years. We have a shop on there. Physical CD’s are made now, digital downloads, you can buy from us directly. I’m getting hats and shirts made. Get more merchandise for our fans. I need to make it as easy as possible for people that want to support us to support us. And not feel like I am ripping them off.
Long term goal – world domination. I want to make this my full-time job. I want to do nothing else but write and play songs, play in front of live audiences. I want Metallica to call me years from now, saying this is our last tour, we need you to open for us. That’s a long-term goal.
Dead Rhetoric: What does the future hold for the band over the next year or so when it comes to promotion of the album?
Sorensen: We are excited for live shows to come back. The gas pedal has been pushed, I have to make sure that we are on it. People are playing live. What I’m not happy about – the tribute bands are endless. Live shows are back, but there is another Alice in Chains tribute band, or Tool tribute band in downtown Chicago. A lot of places are desperate, but they aren’t looking at a nobody original band with a debut album to build. They want cover bands, tribute bands. Those are the things I have to think about and work on, make those disadvantages my advantages. I’m not hating on that, I have played in bands like that in the past. We play covers in our set too, but to go from a four-hour band playing covers to a one and a half- hour original band, it’s a very different ballgame and a crowded space.
The promotion, we will promote the album. There are promotion companies you can pay to get your music in front of more eyeballs. I’m learning and experiencing it as much as possible. We are playing catch up in an ever-changing world. I have to find a way to get these ten-dollar CD’s in people’s hands.