Interview with vocalist Scott Ian Lewis | By Nicholas Senior | Photo by Kyle Bergfors
Humorously, 2014’s Die Without Hope ended up being the wellspring that gave Carnifex a new life. Since then, the San Diego quintet have been testing the boundaries of their sound, redefining what deathcore can be. World War X, out Aug. 2 via Nuclear Blast Records, is not only their creative zenith, representing the band at their most visceral, vicious, and exhilarating, it’s also their most replayable album in recent memory.
For those who’ve been keeping tabs on the darkness-obsessed act, World War X is not a steep sonic ascent but a culmination of their collective creative progression over the past few records. Vocalist Scott Ian Lewis and company have been fighting the good fight, continuing to represent deathcore while many bands have left the sound altogether. This album highlights that the struggle was worth the crusade.
“We thought about that stuff when writing the album,” Lewis states. “That was something we wanted to focus on, replayability, writing songs that had a flow to them and had flow and contrast to them. We wanted songs that took you on a journey and weren’t just a single note from beginning to end—not just in the songs but across the entire album. That was our marching order, so to speak.”
Between their last album, 2016’s Slow Death, and this release, Lewis wrote the blood-spattered mystery graphic novel “Death Dealer,” and it’s clear that World War X harnesses his storytelling talent with even more elegiac, beautifully written lyrics. It’s not a concept record, but there’s a deep cinematic element here, like if David Fincher directed an apocalyptic horror film—or a modern retelling of “Full Metal Jacket.”
“—or Kubrick, yeah,” Lewis interjects. “The Fincher reference is astute, because I am a total student of his work and admire what he does creatively, but before I found Fincher, I found Kubrick. I remember a big thematic archetype that I had been leaning on for this entire album was the movie ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and that cynical look at war. Kubrick showed it, and at first, you think he’s glorifying war: it’s on the cover, on the leads, everything about it is highlighting war, making it look cinematic—and good too. It was also this cynical look at what came from it. That was the subtext of the whole thing.”
Even when Carnifex push the boundaries of their inherent brutality, there’s a philosophical, contemplative element to their work. It’s easy to picture aspects of World War X filmed like the scene in “Se7en” in which Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman wax poetic about the absurdity of life but with war as a backdrop rather than a biblical murder spree. The subtext and layering are impeccable, even more so than on past albums.
“It was an inspired record, not just for myself but for [guitarist] Jordan [Lockrey], [drummer] Shawn [Cameron], and myself, who wrote the album,” Lewis says. “Jordan’s guitar playing on this record—you talk about inspired, he took it to the next level. I can’t even take even a portion of the credit. We were just coming off this great creative energy from the Slow Death cycle.”
“We had four or five songs loosely structured at that time,” he continues, “and we just hit the ground running. It came together in this real fantastic way, where it was just—every time we would have a writing session, it was like, ‘Wow, another great idea! I thought we were out of those by now,’” he laughs. “That kept happening. I don’t know if it was blind luck or if we were just vibing, having a great time. That’s all I can credit it to—and the time. We had three years. All those things came together, and that’s why I think this record came together. It was this time, this place, and this moment, all the great energy that the fans gave us. It just led us to feeling confident. That let us write freely, without any caveats or expectations on ourselves.”
World War X feels like the band have hit their second stride, like they’ve collectively leveled up to Carnifex 2.0. It’s as if they are finally able to achieve what they dreamed of back when they started and that hunger that all new bands experience has been rejuvenated.
“A lot of that,” Lewis concurs, “is in the intention of your writing process, and when [you’re] a young band, you’re trying to sound like someone—not intentionally, like, no one’s trying to rip anyone off, but you’re thinking of bands, you’re opening for bands, you’re seeing bigger bands crush it onstage and thinking how you got to get there and sound like that. That’s perfectly normal and exists in every artist’s life.”
“Then, there is a point” he continues, “where you actually aren’t looking at other artists; you’re simply looking internally at the vision you then want to express. That evolution, that 2.0, is where we got to the point where, through natural evolution, we stopped looking externally for any sound or cue on our next album or what sounds we wanted to hear and just wrote from that internal source. World War X, on the end [of that spectrum], is sort of the momentum that’s continued ever since Die Without Hope. This is the culmination of really feeling that new source of writing inspiration. It’s the purest Carnifex record. It’s the vision we’ve always wanted to articulate, but now, we’re at a place where we’re able.”
Self-preservation is a natural instinct, whether in war or when writing a new record. Carnifex had the desire to incorporate some melodic influences while also seeing how heavy they could get, stretching their sound as far as it could go in multiple directions, but they were wary of following a preexisting blueprint.
“It’s like we embraced that trope of writing our most melodic and most brutal record,” Lewis laughs. “I know people say that all the time, but sadly, it’s really kind of true. We really tried to find a way to take both spectrums and bring them together in a way that nobody’s thinking of that cliché, they’re just thinking, ‘That’s a rad song.’ We try to do that a lot, like in ‘This Infernal Darkness,’ there’s this great piano piece, but right before that is this insanely brutal, really primal, basic breakdown. They’re just right next to each other, but in the context of the song, they flow wonderfully together. That’s something we really tried to do, find that contrast, just like you would in a story with contrasting characters. The challenge is finding that continuity and tone. The credit goes to Jordan.”
The breakdown at the end of the title track, which also opens World War X, is just monolithic. It’s possibly one of the best breakdowns of the band’s career.
“Those lyrics that are over that breakdown, I really tried to strip away that subtext and spoon-feed what the theme of the album is,” Lewis explains. “The lyrics are ‘Burn the flags, bow to the gun / Born to kill, because that’s how wars are won.’ That’s this amalgam of glorifying it but really underscoring the sick cynicism of it. That’s what the album is about—it’s schizophrenic in that nature. One minute, you’re thinking it’s all about guns and the glory, and the next, you’re thinking it’s all a big, sick joke on all of us that really isn’t doing any favors for anyone.”
Lewis has mentioned that he likes to write “schizophrenic” characters as well, and he does so here, utilizing dichotomy in a neat way.
“I do, and that’s internal. That’s me. That’s my—I hate to use the term—writer’s voice,” he says. “When I’m writing, I’m having these same internal arguments with myself and pick them apart at each angle. That desire to look at the same argument from different angles is just healthy, [not only] as an individual but as a culture and in the world. It helps you realize that there’s not a lot of black and white; there’s a lot of grey out there, and that grey is where all of us live. Our lives are grey.”
“I’ve learned to embrace what David Lynch calls the ‘art life,’” he mentions, “which is the idea that everything you do is in pursuit of a creative vision. I’ve tried to accept that and sidestep my insecurities and shortcomings that I put on myself. I just want to express this art as truthfully as I can and put it out there. Whatever comes back comes back. I got a lot of flak for [our early albums]. If you are writing lyrics about love and loss and how your heart hurts, you get tagged ‘emo,’ and no one wants to hear that. Deathcore was all about ‘chopping up the whores with chainsaws’ and putting it on a shirt. Those early lyrics got really panned, especially because we were a Myspace band.”
“The reality was that was my truth—I didn’t know anything about cutting people up with a chainsaw, so why am I going to write about that?” Lewis says. “How am I going to get up onstage for 15 years and passionately express lyrics that don’t mean anything? So, I wrote from the heart, even though I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I just did it because I didn’t know anything else. Now, I see the value in expressing that truth, and I’m just trying to embrace that. If I were to say anything [to someone] else wondering how their band can get here, I’d say embrace your creative truth, even if, at first, it’s not fireworks. If you get started out on the wrong foot, I don’t know how that ends, how that lasts 15 years.”
What’s more, that nagging negativity doesn’t necessarily go away. Even if one’s own life is fine, it’s hard to ignore the shitty aspects of the world around you.
“It’s true,” Lewis agrees. “The reason that the album talks about a schizophrenic point of view is that another theme of that album is mental health: the toll these wars take on us and the war for our mental health, to center or right yourself, the themes of feeling depressed or numb, a lot of the emotions that people feel, our age or younger. It’s a very chaotic time.”
In a post-truth world, it’s tough to escape political reality—it’s everywhere, and it’s tough to know what to believe.
“We became vertically integrated under duress,” Lewis notes. “No matter how involved you are, there’s no escape. You’re inundated constantly.”
That’s why it’s crucial to fight, why we need a rallying war cry to push back against a world at odds with sanity, empathy, and goodness. Whether you want that or just the best way to get through a half-hour at the gym, Carnifex’s new deathcore classic, World War X, delivers.