Skull Fist – Making Payment in Metal

Sunday, 17th April 2022

Of the new brigade flying the banner high for traditional heavy metal, Canadian act Skull Fist certainly are near the top for standout songwriting, killer records, and memorable live performances. Witnessing the band back in January 2015 in Providence, RI, it’s easy to feel the band’s authenticity for the cause. The latest record Paid in Full continues the aim for undeniable hooks, engaging vocal melodies, and riffs/lead breaks plus steady grooves that make followers headbang with glee.

We reached out to guitarist/vocalist Zach Schottler, and the man had plenty to say regarding the new record – his fears about signing with a new label plus the struggles in the past, his interesting take on songwriting, studio takes, and live performances, talk of Prism and Iron Maiden, plus honesty regarding behind the scenes decisions for the band and what success means to him.

Dead Rhetoric: Paid in Full is the fourth and latest studio album for Skull Fist – and first for new label Atomic Fire Records. Discuss the thought process behind signing with Atomic Fire, and where you see this set of material in the catalog of Skull Fist?

Zach Schottler: Dealing with Atomic Fire, I was reluctant as hell to work with any record label at the time when they were asking about us, I was battling it out with our old label. I honestly didn’t want to sign with any labels, I would rather fade away into obscurity then deal with that shit. They had such a good deal; they were cool in having a deal which I felt like both of us were in a good situation. A lot of times with record labels it’s just like, they take 85% or whatever it is. Obviously since they were cool with what we wanted; it is good to work with them. So far, I can’t deny it, it’s been totally nice. They are a lot easier to work with than the previous label.

And the album, where it sits. It’s heavier, I think it’s very much still Skull Fist, but I think it’s just a bit heavier than anything else we’ve ever done. I’ve been calling it disgruntled, but that’s just how it feels for me, anyway (laughs). I’m sure everyone else who likes the band is going to have opinions on where it sits for them differently than it does for me.

Dead Rhetoric: Right. It definitely feels different than the last album Way of the Road, a little bit more variety as the last record had more polish and commercial aspects, I feel…

Schottler: I think the last one was a little bit rough. I had to set the bar pretty low vocally, I had chopped up my voice and had these surgeries. Just in order to get through that record was a pain in the ass. I was a bit whiner on that one, and this album I was a bit meaner. Every album we’ve done has been different, at least slightly different over time.

Dead Rhetoric: You were talking about your old label NoiseArt Records in Europe- which I believe licensed your work for North America with Napalm Records. What seemed to be the biggest difficulty dealing with NoiseArt Records, I know at least on the promotional level it was hard to get material often to review…

Schottler: Napalm was fine. When you say stuff, you potentially start an issue that could be even more of a problem. But I didn’t care with them. It was a terrible record deal. We got 14% of things. Every time I got an invoice, there was something wrong with it. They were charging us more for things than we should have been paying. I felt like… sometimes you are dealing with someone like a promoter, the guy… ever see the guy in our video for the song “Bad for Good”? You know the fight booker that was booking the fights for me, the money and the track suit? That was what working with NoiseArt Records felt like. It was a lot of stress. You constantly had to be looking, we were getting nothing, I would see a statement and tally how much they made and how much I made. I had to keep checking to see if they had everything in order, it was just so dirty.

Dead Rhetoric: Sharon Ehman handled the artwork for this new record. Was this a collaborative effort between the band and her to get to the final product – and do you still believe in the importance of cover art in today’s marketplace compared to the iconic work of bands during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s?

Schottler: We have been friends since we were kids, and she’s always the person that I go to for perspective. She’s really smart, so having her help with the album art. I’m not a visual guy, I’m terrible at art and terrible at visual things. If it were me and the album cover, it would have ended up like a picture of the band. That’s what Way of the Road was. It’s really good, it’s cool to have Sharon there. It’s nice having her help, I don’t really like working with people very much. As much as I can do on my own, I will do. I’m just older, a little bit quieter I guess, so bringing other people that I don’t know in to work with I guess is a bit of a pain.

It depends right? I’m not a visual dude. I don’t care as much about music videos, I do them because I kind of have to at this point. I almost wonder these days if people really listen to music other than it being background noise sometimes (laughs). For me, I don’t think visuals are important, even with the music that I like. If there is a cool album cover, right on. But for me it’s all about the tunes. I understand why some people do care about it though. I understand in a wider audience of the world, that’s important. (It’s) eye candy for people.

Dead Rhetoric: Not necessarily being a visual person, was it an easy choice to pick out “For the Last Time” and “Long Live the Fist” to be the two singles and videos for the record?

Schottler: Yeah. “Long Live the Fist” I picked because no one had heard anything from the album as of yet. This song is alright, it has all the elements of a Skull Fist song. Whereas “Madman” would have been a bit caveman-y of a song. It’s a super basic song with super basic riffs, it’s a short song too. “For the Last Time” I liked the song, it was at the time my favorite song on the record.

Dead Rhetoric: Did it come as a surprise that Johnny Exciter (aka Johnny Nesta) would leave the band last summer after ten years with the band? And is the plan to remain a three-piece or will you seek out a second guitarist, even if it’s just for the live settings?

Schottler: When we were in the studio recording the record, it was pretty apparent that me and Johnny – we are still really good friends of course, we’ve known each other since we were like 18 or 19 – but you get older and your priorities change. I was going very much in one direction, and he was going in another direction. It was so obvious when we were recording, I told him I love him but musically we totally did not want the same things. Of course, we both understood, we are still buddies, but we don’t have to play in a band together anymore. It wasn’t nowhere near dramatic or anything like that – it was a natural thing that was going to happen. It had been something we both knew for a long time before it actually happened.

I have to get somebody else for sure. Everything that we write and play is for two guitarists. I am not good enough to just do this with one guitar, I’ve never been into hearing or seeing a band that has multiple guitars on a record and then when you see them live, its much less stuff going on there. You need the harmonies and all that stuff going on there. I have a dude that is most likely going to do it, we just have to go on tour with him. The hardest part about it – we have known everybody in the band, and it would be so weird to bring in somebody that we just met, you know? It would be awkward bringing somebody into the band that’s just brand new and we didn’t know them. Luckily, we found somebody in Toronto that we have known for 10 plus years. We want to bring him on tour and make sure that he doesn’t hate touring (laughs).

People always say that – they can’t wait to go on tour. And then when they do, they sometimes find that this kind of sucks.

Dead Rhetoric: The road can be a different animal than you imagine it to be…

Schottler: It is. It depends on if you are a really social guy, then you might enjoy it. It might be everything you wanted it to be. For me, I used to be a social guy and then when I started touring, it pushed me the other way. We’ll see how he feels about it.

Dead Rhetoric: You mention in the background information your never-ending pursuit of melody – and that guitars can do other things than four chords. How do you see the best melodies either in the vocal or musical contexts taking shape – do you find inspiration at specific times or in certain situations that you have to capture like lightning in a bottle?

Schottler: I find a lot of times when I listen back to a demo, I’ll think – there is something that has to be there. It’s naturally going this way. Sometimes the songs will turn out to be so much different than you originally had intended. There are times where I thought I was writing a Skull Fist song, and by the time I had finished the song and reworked it, it ended up not being a Skull Fist song anymore because it just naturally went somewhere else.

With making music, that is why I never would just want to make Skull Fist music. Because it’s like, there is only so much you can do, even within heavy metal. Melodies, I don’t care what kind of music it is, the melody my brain is producing to let the hair stand up on my arms, that’s what matters for me. I think it’s a really cool thing. There is something in there in this riff or this song, you have the base of a song going, you are formulating it. And you catch it, that there is something that needs to be in there that’s missing currently. Like what is it? You try to figure out what you feel that it needs to feel complete. I have a good combination of the challenge as well, a little musical adventure. That to me is the fun of making music. There are a million possibilities of what the song is going to be, and you are building a little art piece or something. Assuming you felt successful in it, you would be happy with it in the end, when you listen to the demo you feel like it’s done. That’s the highlight of it for me.

And then you ruin it all by going into the studio for hours and hours to do this. That’s the worst part about doing it – I think recording in a studio is a terrible pain in the ass. The best parts of the songs are when you just finish it, and you listen to it for the first few days.

Dead Rhetoric: Is that where the struggle between spontaneity and getting things perfect on tape remains?

Schottler: Yes. I think production has gotten out of control. Perfection has gotten out of control. It’s just crazy, everything. It feels less like being creative and more like monkey tricks. It’s to the point where you have to keep rehearsing something over and over again. If I do anything for more than an hour, literally I get frustrated. Going away into a studio is a huge pain in the ass. I always say that I wish we could just release all the demos. There’s the album! At that point the song has peaked for me.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you have a preference for the studio or the stage as a musician? Or do you find both equally satisfying for their own unique principles?

Schottler: It’s like a love / hate thing with playing live. I think being on stage playing live, sometimes feels really good. That feels like exactly what I wanted to get out of it. The problem with touring, there are 24 hours in a day, and you are only on stage for one of those hours. The rest of your time you are twiddling your thumbs, doing nothing. My number one thing, the peak of all the musical things is just finishing a song. Having those two-three days when I listen to it, I’m getting the full excitement out of it. I listen to it on my couch with my headphones, listen to it in my car really loud, those are my favorite moments. The other things you do are things you do to make a career out of it.

Dead Rhetoric: Now that you are in your mid-thirties, would you say your outlook or priorities have changed regarding what you want to achieve through your music compared to the development of Skull Fist in your twenties?

Schottler: For sure, yeah. I was the exact opposite in my twenties. It’s a huge contrast, where you are mentally as a kid in your twenties. When I was younger, you get sucked into the attention of it, the partying, we are all cool. Not that there is anything wrong with that stuff, after growing older you change a bit. There are a lot of side effects to things, you know? It would be weird to think that I would stay the same mentally. Whether I am the same person a year later, I would think that I would continuously keep evolving and changing. Musically, personally, all those things.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider the special albums in your record collection that forever inspire and fuel your energy and passion for heavy metal – and do you have an underrated record or band that you think people need to look into more?

Schottler: I have always been a lyric guy. I tend to like that the most. It depends on what you are listening to, and on what day. For records… when I was a kid there is an album by a band called Prism, they are from Canada. Armageddon, and there are two songs on there “Spaceship Superstar” and “Take Me to the Kaptin”. Those were… I only liked those songs, that was really a special one for me. It’s a band that a lot of people wouldn’t know.

Musically I tended to lean more towards the old rock stuff, classic versus the metal stuff. I love both styles very much. When I heard Iron Maiden for the first time, of course it melted my brain. I think discography-wise, Iron Maiden is practically flawless. Other than the Blaze Bayley stuff, but the music was still good, not as good though as the Bruce Dickinson stuff to me. I take reference and inspiration to that in a way.

For Skull Fist – it’s more about the atmosphere of it. I need a certain atmosphere, emotion, feeling for me to do Skull Fist. I enjoy doing it, and I don’t ever want to lose that, the music that we produce. I spend most of my time listening to the old rock stuff, I don’t spend as much time listening to old metal anymore. In a lot of old bands, there are definitely moments that you can take inspiration from as well. As long as you never take too much inspiration from it, you know what I mean? You still want to maintain your own sense of creativity. It could be a fine line to walk, playing an older sounding version of heavy metal. It’s very easy to mimic, or accidentally mimic old bands, instead of having your own personality to it.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you believe is difficult for many of the average fans across the globe to understand about some of the behind the scenes work and decisions a band like Skull Fist has to take into consideration over the course of a career?

Schottler: I was surprised at how many people that have asked me – ‘hey, do you have a job?’. I was surprised at how many people think of the possibility that a band like Skull Fist can make enough money as I would from a regular job. It’s a wild thing to hear. No – I have three jobs actually. One of the main reasons why I decided to be very open about the issues we were having with the label at the time, was because of that. A lot of times bands- image for some bands is important, and sometimes they enjoy the sense of guys looking much cooler than they are. They won’t share that stuff, they make it seem like the new album is so good, they sold ten million copies, and they are so rich, but that may not be the case and they’ve only sold say 100 copies.

I feel like I am honest about whatever the hell is going on. It’s nice to share, hopefully some other band that’s younger, just starting out, doesn’t want to get screwed like Skull Fist did. And that I told them, be careful. That’s one of the most important things – some people don’t realize how little amount of money a band makes in certain situations. If someone bought one of our old vinyl records, realistically we were only getting $1.40 for a record. It may be $20 for a record, wholesale cost is $10, and we get 14% of that. Its good information to share. Spotify pays a terrible rate, as music fans they just want to listen to the music. Sometimes they get surprised to hear how bands get screwed.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for Skull Fist over the next twelve months? Are there other things in the pipeline?

Schottler: I was going to move to Rhode Island and build a bunker (laughs). No, we were about to do a European tour in May, and we just had to pull out of the tour a couple of days ago. It is what it is. The way everything is, I don’t want to stress out. I don’t know what will happen, we had to cancel so many tours over the last two years. Some of those cancellations weren’t our fault. At this point in time, it seems speculative whether or not life is normal or it isn’t. To book something and I don’t feel like life is normal, but other people feel life is normal, there is a dispute over it, and I don’t want to do that.

I hope things mellow out, but I don’t want to make any big plans only to have to deal with the aftermath of cancelling it. I definitely will spend more time writing and working on music. If it seemed like touring… let’s say things get bad again, more restrictions, what else will I do? We have most of the songs done for the next album. I go day by day.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you define success at this point when it comes to Skull Fist or any personal activities as a musician?

Schottler: Success has always just been personal success. Being satisfied with the music that I make, that’s all. I have never thought of it in any other way. Being famous would be a huge pain in the ass, anyway. I wouldn’t mind not having to work all the time, I guess it depends.

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