Phinehas – Into the FireThursday, 12th August 2021
Metalcore act Phinehas returns after four years with the new album The Fire Itself. An album that sees them taking a more personal approach, particularly from a lyrical approach, while the music manages to pull off both an aggressive edge as well as a genuinely emotive core. We spoke with vocalist Sean McCulloch about the more personal and intimate lyrics that are featured in the new album, as well as his thoughts on the band’s growth and sound, in addition to some other topics including bands that they look up to, and how being a parent changed his view of his musical career.
Dead Rhetoric: What has the band been up to since 2017’s Dark Flag?
Sean McCulloch: It’s been a while – we went on the road for about two years pretty hard. We went out with Fit for a King, As I Lay Dying, Like Moths to Flames – a handful of bands. Towards the end of 2019, Dan [Gailey] ended up joining Fit for a King and I ended up moving my family across the country from Iowa to California. There was a bit of time off that naturally occurred due to things like that.
Going into 2020, the pandemic hits and everything goes to crap. Everyone has a terrible time. At a certain point a few months into it, our guitar player hit me up with a demo that he had recorded with a caption of “want to try to write while we have the down time” and my response was, “Ok, cool!” It wasn’t really downtime for me as I was in a lucky position where I could keep working throughout the pandemic. But we started sending the demos back and forth and they added up. A year later, we were done. It was a long process.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel that Phinehas has grown with The Fire Itself?
McCulloch: I guess just the human experience, if you will, from my perspective. I know you aren’t asking about what the album means, but I would say that what it means and how we have grown are one in the same. I have had to grow up a lot in the past four years, specifically the past three. My son is three and a half, and I’m learning that there are certain areas of my life that I need re-parenting on so I have been going to therapy for the past year for it. It’s been very helpful, and a long process, but I feel that it has really focused my writing. It has given me a better, and I would say, more functional mindset – as opposed to just hoping everything will be okay and instead actually doing something about it. Putting in the work regardless of how long the process is.
The pandemic hit and everyone got a long chance to really look in the mirror and see if they actually liked themselves. There’s a lot of people who had mental health issues that maybe didn’t know about it before, and now they are walking out of it knowing that they have those issues. That’s me. In my mind, it has given me a path to decide who I want to be for the rest of my life. To be free to actually be myself, and write the things that I want to write. Or to just do the things I want to do – it’s that personal freedom. Finding yourself is such a cliché, as that’s what everyone wants to do, but it’s a very real thing. Here I am at 33 years old, grappling with who I see in the mirror.
So as far as lyrically, I feel like I have a lot more to say. It’s not about other people as much. It’s weird, and I feel guilty and shameful for some reason, and I feel like that has to do with the way I was raised – I feel that about writing about myself and I shouldn’t feel that way. I want to be honest, and that’s what I am going for. So I feel like this album is more of an honest album in every sense that it can be.
Dead Rhetoric: You are saying that at 33, but I just turned 41 and it’s the same thing. There was just so much time with the pandemic. I totally get it.
McCulloch: It was a brutal time. I’m still not out of the woods yet, and I don’t think I ever will be. But I think that’s okay, and it’s about the process. There’s an author that I like to read, Brandon Sanderson. One of the quotes from a book he wrote – he asked what the most important step is, and the answer is the next one.
Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned you have a young child now. Do you find that being a parent has impacted the way that you look at life as a musician?
McCulloch: Of course. It’s gone from fending for myself to me taking a back seat. I think that is how it’s supposed to be. There were a couple points in writing this record that there are lines about him, and there are things I want him to read later in life. There are little messages here and there. It affects everything – it affects your decisions, because you aren’t just you anymore. You have this little extension of yourself, who is everything to you and amazing, and his own person, running around. You have to put him first. So it doesn’t just affect the music, it affects the lifestyle and everything.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve covered topics that weren’t as close to the band. You mentioned things with yourself, but did the music lend itself to being more personal as well?
McCulloch: I think with the music, when Dan and I sat down to talk about what we wanted to write, we talked about all of our records and talked about what we liked/disliked about them. Thegodmachine, to me, sounds almost dated. I know a lot of people don’t feel that way, and I’m thankful that they don’t or they wouldn’t listen to it anymore [laughs]. But there are certain elements that we took and put in the toolbox. Same with Last Words, and the same with Till the End.
When we got to Dark Flag, we got a little more specific as it is more relevant and recent. But I felt like we tried to write the most complicated stuff that we could. What’s the most amount of notes that we can fit in a measure? That type of thing. Like, if there isn’t enough room in the measure, than extend the measure by like a half-measure and then make that loop. We did some weird stuff that we typically don’t do. While I enjoy that record, there are some points that don’t completely feel like us. So we wanted to go back to our roots while still pushing the boundaries.
Dead Rhetoric: If some of those parts didn’t sound like “us,” what do you feel the key elements are in Phinehas’ music?
McCulloch: We like writing riffs, and I think that is pretty apparent if you listen to our stuff. But it’s not all about writing the most complicated riff, and that’s why I felt we got away from ourselves a bit on the last record. It’s how the riff makes you feel, and that to me, is where we are at. We want riffs that give you the feels. That’s where we want to be. If it’s just a riff to show-off, then it has no place. There are plenty of creative ways to move somebody, and make it a very exciting riff to listen to. That is an important element. There’s also a certain groove that I feel we tried to capture in the majority of our songs. To where you hear the song and it flows – it’s like trying people to feel nostalgia, like they have heard the song before, but they have never heard that song before. There should be a flow to it, not like, “oh, this is a 2-step beat into a half-time beat” but a rhythm for the song as a whole, and where it takes you. Does it actually end at a certain destination that you wanted it to? There needs to be a rhythm and a flow to it. To me, that’s what we try to achieve. On the sound that comes out, I would say that we are metalcore but that’s a very broad term. But we want to be aggressive and we want to make you feel.
Dead Rhetoric: One song that stood out to me was “The Storm in Me.” Could you talk about that one specifically?
McCulloch: Did you have to pick the hardest one? About a little over a year ago, I was put into a very hard situation where I was in the middle of something. It was the feeling in life where that pit in the bottom of your stomach extends into forever and you can’t take a deep breath for anything. You are stuck between people who really, really matter to you and where the consequences are dire and there’s nothing you can do about it. You just feel like you are drowning. It’s the anxiety that comes with that, it’s the crushing hopelessness and the pit of despair that you fall into, because there’s nothing you can do about it. The numbness is your only coping strategy – to just not feel nothing. Nothing means nothing. Any promises that were made are not good enough.
That’s me grappling with my faith. It’s not me renouncing anything, it’s just me genuinely struggling and struggling to understand why. For a majority of my life, I have felt like I have been in the middle of things, and there’s an actual word for it – metaxis. It’s the state of being in between. It’s a horrible, helpless feeling.
Dead Rhetoric: Writing a song which is that deeply personal, did you feel any sort of catharsis out of writing it?
McCulloch: I still get emotional when I hear it. It hasn’t even been released but I have been listening to the full version since March. It still hits me because I know that there are still parts of me that are in that spot. It’s not an easy thing to think about or revisit. What’s cathartic for me is that knowing that I actually captured the way that it feels, because of the words at the end. That was all pretty close to one take. We had to nail it since we had to get out of the studio. When we did it, Dan was like, “okay, I guess this song is done!” But I would say accurately describing how I felt in those last couple of lines was very cathartic for me because I have struggled so much with expressing myself throughout my life.
Dead Rhetoric: Taking that into perspective, what do you hope people take away from The Fire Itself when they hear it?
McCulloch: For me, I don’t know. It’s a really weird answer to give, but I wrote this album lyrically the way that I did because I was dealing with a lot! I guess I hope that someone would hear it and they are like, “oh wow, maybe I’m not so alone in my personal hell.” There’s other people out there going through hells, so maybe just hoping that people can relate – and that it’s real and it’s human. To not feel shame or guilt over that. There shouldn’t be any shame or guilt in feeling broken, or defective.
Dead Rhetoric: To switch some gears, are there any bands that you look up to when it comes to professionalism or on-stage presence?
McCulloch: I have some pretty talented friends, so I would point out the band Silent Planet, who constantly pushes the boundaries of weird and heavy at the same time. As for the sheer professionalism, when I went out with As I Lay Dying, they were the epitome of that. They treated us with a lot of respect and they were actually really stoked that we were there. Normally, when you tour with a bigger band, you expect them to be a-holes, but they were anything but. They were awesome. It was a very inclusive thing. Also, they are sick. There’s a lot of insanely talented bands and a lot of music coming out right now, which is really cool to see. So I feel like I have to plug my friends [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: What’s planned for the rest of 2021?
McCulloch: I don’t really know yet. We are watching the delta strain and how it unfolds. We are hoping that nothing else happens to cause a lockdown. We just want to give the album the attention that it deserves and the release it deserves. Dan has a decently heavy schedule with Fit for a King, but we are 100% going to play shows at a certain point. I just don’t know when that will be.