Interview with Joel Grind and photos by Brian O’Neill
A lot has changed since 1999 when Joel Grind sat in his bedroom and started cranking out riffs that would become his one-man homage to all things that thrashed. In fact, Toxic Holocaust itself would undergo many transitions. The last two albums, 2011’s Conjure and Command and Chemistry of Consciousness, two years later featured other musicians, turning Toxic Holocaust into a band rather than a brand.
As Toxic Holocaust approached their 20th anniversary, Grind found himself a free agent when his contract with Relapse expired. Once again locked in a room with a guitar and no expectations, he realized that was the direction he wanted to go in for what would become Primal Future: 2019.
The October release is a throwback to his nascent, D-Beat loving ways and a noticeable departure from the more straightforward crossover thrash he was churning out for the past few albums. However, unlike those bedroom recordings, this time, the massive eOne Music will be releasing it to the masses, a step forward that Grind embraces with as much fervor as anything else he does.
The press release referred to this as Toxic Holocaust 2.0. What’s that all about?
After the last record, I felt like I [took] that style of like super-short, minute and a half, two minute-long songs as far as I could personally take it. The last record was the last record on Relapse. With this one, I was looking for a label. I was like, if I can find a label that’s down to do another record, I’ll do another one, but I want to do something that’s different than the last one. I think that’s where the 2.0 came out of, because it was a situation where I [didn’t] want to repeat the last record. I feel like I took that as far as I could take it. I was happy with the record. If I just did another record like that, at least for me personally, I wouldn’t be as satisfied with that record. So this one I want[ed] to do something a lot different than that.
That’s the beauty of having a long period of time in between records. It allowed me to rediscover … It’s kind of cliché, but rediscover my roots and go back to being solo again. I think that’s where the 2.0 thing happened. It’s back to the roots but also a new, fresh perspective with 20 years of experience.
It is a lot different than Chemistry of Consciousness. That seems like a thrash records, whereas Primal Future sounds like a Discharge record.
I’ve always said bands like Discharge, Bathory, and Venom—and of course Motörhead and Sodom too, but I would say Bathory and Discharge, are the blueprint of the direction I wanted to go in. Even when it’s not a conscious thing, I think it still comes out because it was in those formative years of me learning how to do this myself, learning how to make songs. That was always in my head, that’s my influence.
Toxic Holocaust began as you doing everything yourself. Based on what you’re telling me now, the new album is you doing things yourself. In between, it’s kind of nebulous as to whether it was ever a band or not watching from the outside. Did it feel that way to you?
The weird thing about starting it as my baby or a solo thing was that I was always going to be the constant in the band. I’ve always had a direction of the way I wanted to take the music. What’s really cool is, after playing this for so long and meeting other musicians, it morphs.
When I meet certain people, you have that chemistry. That’s a big reason why the guys that were playing with me, Nick [Bellmore] and Charlie [Bellmore], they played with me for a long time, and they made it to albums because that felt at the time like a band. They went on to do other amazing stuff. They’re Dee Snyder’s backing band, so they’re doing really well for themselves.
So this whole going back to the roots thing was like a culmination of not having a label, being on the 20th anniversary and wanting to go back to the way I started, getting that spark again to do this. Also, it just made sense in the whole timeline; those guys were off touring.
Another thing to add to that is I did a record in 2013, The Yellowgoat [Sessions] that I did solo. Ever since that record, I would always get hit up by fans [asking] ‘when are you going to do a Toxic record solo again?’ All of this was the perfect storm to bring it back.
So, you were a total free agent before the album was recorded?
Yeah, this whole album was self-funded. I did the whole album, and it was finished by the time I signed.
Most people in that situation, like, wind up putting it out on Bandcamp. Not a lot of people wind up having Michael Bolton as their labelmate. How did that come about? Obviously High on Fire already made the move to eOne Music, but Toxic Holocaust is different even from them.
Absolutely! The whole eOne thing came because we were shopping around to some labels. We had a lot of interest, but at this stage in the career, I didn’t want to sign for seven more albums or something like that. That’s like a standard deal nowadays; you have to sign [for] a bunch of records. Doing this so long, realistically, seven albums from now, I’m going to be pretty burnt!
You’ll be Michael Bolton!
Exactly. That’s not saying I don’t have another seven records, but I don’t want to be obligated. I don’t want to do those contract fulfillment records, you know. If I can do records just because I want to do them, I think that’s important. I think you make better music if you do it because you want to, not because you have to
Also, eOne has really good European distribution. We tour Europe once a year, and the issue always was that they couldn’t get the records at their local shops. That was really important to me, to make it cheap for them. Instead of paying import prices for records, they could get them at the shops. Obviously, I think everybody into metal knows that Europe is a huge, huge market for metal. So, you want to make sure that they can have access to the albums, and eOne is distributed through SPV over there, and that’s one of the biggest distributors for metal stuff over there. So, it just made sense in that respect.
It is weird. The lineup is definitely weird on the label. The roster is kind of strange, but they’re really good to us and they didn’t do the typical hands in the pot of what you have to do creatively. They let me come up with artwork and who I’m going to use [as] an artist. That’s super important to me. I think for any musician, it’s important to be able to actually realize your vision of it, not what a label thinks your vision should be or what is marketable.
You have been prolific with splits and singles and odd songs here and there, and a lot of them weren’t on Relapse. Do you have the freedom to continue doing that now that you’re on a major label?
Actually, that was one of the things that I really fought for. I wanted to be able to still do the underground releases in between album cycles, and I do have the freedom to do that. I wrote extra songs—the time period between the two albums was so long, but I was continuously writing things—so I do have extra songs that I could use on EPs and splits and things like that. So yeah, that was super important to me to continue to be able to release things on whatever label I really want.
I want to get a little bit more in-depth into Primal Future. The title sounds like a concept album, and the song titles and some of the lyrics do seem to all kind of fit into a conceptual thing. Am I reading too much into it? Because most people think conceptual albums are from prog metal bands or Pink Floyd.
Honestly, the way I looked at it was, it’s under a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi umbrella, but none of the actual songs are combined into one story. If you looked at it as, like, a book, it’s like a compiled list of short stories where every story is separate, but it fits the umbrella of that kind of cyberpunk future thing. Concept records are pretty proggy, and they can be cool, but I think it gives you more freedom if you write each song separately. It’s cool if they do fit a theme, but it doesn’t have to be one full concept.
We’re living in a tumultuous time. How much does that play into your worldview?
It definitely plays a part, even the way I was writing lyrics, but I’ve never been one of those kinds of bands—I don’t like to spoon feed people my narrative or a way that you should think. I like to write things and then let people decipher what I’m talking about or take their own things from it. I always think the most interesting lyrics are ones that don’t necessarily go, ‘This means this and this means this.’ I like the ones where you read and it makes you think. You kind of bring your own perspective and your own outlook on life to things.
The way I wrote this record was what an eighties movie or book would predict the future would be like now. So many of my favorite movies are taking place in 2019, 2020, which now is the future, which is really funny! Some of it’s true; some of it didn’t happen, but I like that perspective: This is what they thought the future would be. Some of it is actually scarier now than what they predicted!
How does the future of Toxic Holocaust look compared to what you thought would have happened twenty years ago when you started the band? Is it what you pictured?
Not even a little bit! When I did that first demo, Radiation Sickness, in 99, I never thought about anything past that demo. I never thought I would be doing this 20å years from now. I’ve been doing this longer in my life than I haven’t been doing it, which is crazy to think about it.
The album does hark back to the crusty Discharge sound until the last song, “Cybernetic War,” which sounds like early Running Wild meets Dokken. How did a commercial hard rock song enter the Toxic Holocaust canon?
It’s funny you say that because, I mean, like stuff like Dokken and Running Wild are huge influences on me. Maybe 10 years ago, if you said I wrote a commercial hard rock song, in your younger days you, you kind of take offense to that! But honestly, even that is not a marketable thing nowadays. Even writing, like, a quote-unquote “commercial hard rock song” is not going to get you radio play!
The way I wrote that song, I was thinking of if you were watching an 80s movie, there was a montage! It just started from some riffs that were uncharacteristic of things I normally write. It’s weird because you never really know where you’ll get a creative spark, and you don’t really know where it comes from. I just started writing this song and all this stuff just started flowing.
I’m really happy with the song. It’s funny, that’s the one I was expecting backlash on. Today is the day that the record drops. A lot of people are hearing it now on Spotify, and today on my [Facebook] feed, everyone’s like, ‘Dude, that last track is amazing!’ So, it’s totally, completely the opposite of the way I thought.
You’re touring with half of Weresquatch—Tyler Becker and Eric Eisenhauer. Could they become more involved like Nick and Charlie, or are you adamant that Toxic Holocaust still be your own thing again?
To be honest with you, for records, I really had a great time doing it solo again, especially doing it all from home, just like I did in the early days. It had that same feeling, that creative spark that made me start the band. And it made me think, maybe I will do another record like that again, solo. At the very least, the next like EP or something will probably be solo.
But, as for the live lineup, these guys are amazing. They’re killing it! And it’s nice because they actually live in my hometown. That’s always been my hardest thing, finding musicians in Portland to be jamming with, because either people are in a ton of bands or they don’t want to tour this month or they’re in New Jersey.
Are there increased expectations from a bigger label, and how do they align with your expectations?
That’s a good question. It’s kind of funny because that was my biggest worry signing with a label this size. I was worried about pressure from the label to do this and that. And to be honest with you, they’ve been really cool, very lenient, and [they] listen to my ideas.
For instance, I wanted to do a cassette of this new album. It’s basically a major label; them doing cassettes is probably so weird to them. But they were like, “sure, how many do you want?”
I think nobody will put as much pressure on me as I will. I’m my own worst critic, and I have a set way when I know when a song is done, or the artwork is right. I had a previous piece of artwork for the cover, and I paid a decent amount of money for it, and I just personally ate the cost because at the end of the day, it didn’t really fit the concept that I really wanted.
I think it’s important to have your own vision, and I think that labels back off a little bit if you take the reins. I think a lot of them are like, “He’s been doing this for 20 years and has a decent fan base;” they signed us for a reason. “I guess he would probably know better than we would if we started meddling into it.”
What do you think about reaching more people? In underground music scene, that’s considered a bad thing to many, but no musicians don’t want their music to reach more ears.
That’s the paradox I always struggle with. I never understood that mentality. Fans of underground music, bands that they find are their babies. When anybody outside of their group of friends finds out, they feel like their secret has been taken away from them. It’s a weird paradox because I think if you play music, if you don’t want anybody to hear your songs, why make records at all? It doesn’t make any sense to me to even release music if you don’t want people to hear [it].
If I can make a record, and people dig it and they want to hear it, I want them to have access to it. I don’t want them to pay the crazy eBay prices if a record is super-limited. I want people to have it at a reasonable price and to be able to get it. That just makes sense to me! If you’re gonna make a record and people want to hear it, why don’t you let them hear it? I never understood that weird paradox that it’s not cool to have people like your band outside of a certain amount of people. If you’re doing it true to what you like, where’s the problem?
Now, if I signed to eOne and they’re like, “You have to make this, like, super modern record…” But this record is pretty much one of the dirtiest records I’ve ever made. It sounds like it was recorded in a well! I intentionally made it sound, like, super fucking dungeon sounding, you know? It’s not a commercial sound, but it’s what I like, and it was something that was fitting the vibe that I wanted to have. I think it’s cool if people also dig it and can have access to it.
And in another 20 years, we can see how it held up!
Well, let’s just take this to the 21st year for now and see how I last!