Interview: TJ Childers of Inter Arma Talks ‘New Heaven’

There are many reasons to appreciate an artist: you jive with what they want to accomplish, you find their art enjoyable (God forbid!), or even a friend turned you onto them. For me and Inter Arma, it’s the Forest Gump effect: like that fucking box of chocolates, I have no damn idea what I’m going to get. You want a fiery death metal dirge? You hope for a technicolor post-metal dream? How about an icy blackened sludge riff-fest? No two records are the same, but every time you press play, the Virginia-based group deliver something special, something new.

New Heaven, out now via Relapse Records, is true to its title, but it makes you earn the heavenly hosts of its second half. Starting with a psychedelic freakout that Looney Tunes would be proud of, mixed with the kind of dissonant technicality Ulcerate introduced, Inter Arma’s attempt at a religious experience requires patience for a full appreciation, but not only does it reward your curiosity; it demands your attention. Brimming with a genre-fluid appreciation for heavy music, New Heaven does not forget that art can also be merely enjoyable. Drummer TJ Childers expands on the album’s creative inception:

“We definitely chose that title for a few reasons. Honestly, I can say since [bassist] Joel [Moore] joined the band, I wasn’t depressed, but I definitely felt like I was meandering a bit. I wasn’t focusing on music quite as much. I just had a bunch of shit that happened all at once. Joel joining the band really flipped a switch for me because it really felt like we had finally gotten the bass player that we were looking for, and it’s frankly the bass player we deserved. Anyway, fucking once we started writing the songs and New Heaven presented itself, I right away thought that should be the title of the record because it summed up everything that was happening for the band, and even for myself personally. Right around when Joel joined the band, I said, ‘I’m going to cut out all of the bullshit in my life.’ My new expression is, ‘No fucking bozos.’ It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a person. Just any source of negativity, anything in your life that feels like a fucking anchor, I want to get rid of it because I have a lot of shit that I want to do. I mean, not just Inter Arma related stuff, but also obviously that as well, but just anything, whether it was a situation that I was in or people that I don’t really associate with anymore.”

“And again,” he adds, “just getting Joel into the band and the band finally feeling complete after, even before Sulphur English… So once I felt like my life and the band was headed in the right direction, and the record was sounding fucking killer. To me, New Heaven was a no-brainer, on top of the fact that I thought that starting the record with that song where you put the needle down in the groove, and the first thing you hear is like when Bug’s Bunny drinks the bad elixir. That’s what it sounds like to me, just a pretty good psychedelic freak-out badass trip. Everyone was pretty much on the same page once the idea was brought up.”

“That’s something that I think about often,” Childers continues. “What’s the last band or record that you heard that really just didn’t sound like anything else, where somebody was really doing something new and cutting edge? Sure, you could write riffs that don’t sound like anybody else, that are just completely noisy and dissonant and fucked up, but that’s the song ‘New Heaven.’ That’s what I was trying to do like, ‘How can I create something that’s completely fresh and different, but still is catchy in a way?’ There has to be something different that hasn’t been done. Seriously, that song was really me digging really deep to do something that sounded fresh, but was still graspable (that’s not a word, is it?) to somebody who isn’t a musician like your average lover of heavy music could hear it and be like, ‘That’s cool. It doesn’t really sound like anything I’ve ever heard before.’ Maybe it’s just me getting old, but I love the artistry of it, and I love it when art challenges you. To me, that’s when I am the most attentive.”

The patience is rewarded in the second half, with folk-y John Prine goodness, guitar wizardry that ZZ Top would appreciate, and a post-punk/industrial jam that Trent Reznor would sign off on. All of it was because the band refused to stagnate:

“After Sulphur English,” Childers says, “we sat down and said we can write Sulphur English 2.0 and put out essentially a fucking 90-minute Merzbow record, just like the harshest, craziest shit that we could come up with; or we could maybe use some of that anger, aggression, whatever the fuck you want to call it, and focus more on all of the different things that we do that we know we’re good at. Not that I think that we’re bad at anything [laughs], but just focusing on some of the things that we think are our strengths, but then also expanding upon those things as much as we can and see where that takes us, which I feel like there are some places on New Heaven that we’ve never really been to before. The first song on the second side, ‘Gardens in the Dark.’ I feel like that song is pretty radically different from anything we’ve ever done in the past in the sense that it has definitely an industrial Nine Inch Nails vibe to it. [New Heaven] is taking bits and pieces from Sulphur English and taking on some of the more colorful parts of Paradise Gallows and putting it all together, so to speak. With some new odd flair.”

“We always pay very close attention to track sequencing,” he adds. “To me, it’s very important, especially because by most standards I’m a fucking old fart now, and when I listen to music, I listen to a whole record front to back. If I’m listening to Van Halen, I’m listening to 1984 from start to finish. And so, track sequencing is massively important. Coming up with something that feels like it’s taking you on a journey, it almost is a story in and of itself.”

The thing that elevates New Heaven from their past excellence is just how varied everything is here. No two songs sound all that alike, despite feeling thematically connected. Childers acknowledges that the band enjoying different types of “heavy” music.

“It’s the classic cliche: variety is the spice of life. I think the last Cannibal Corpse record is fucking great, but when you buy a Cannibal Corpse record, you know exactly what you’re getting. To me, the intensity of somebody with an acoustic guitar who’s really conveying an intense message, whether it’s Steve Von Till or Neil Young or even John Prine, that is, that’s just as heavy to me as fucking NILE. Just because something is quiet and acoustic-based doesn’t take away from how extreme it is, in my opinion.”

When chatting with the guy behind the kit, you’ve got to give the drummer some, and it helps that for Inter Arma, the drummer is also the main songwriter. However, Childers’ best attributes are not wild fills or taking over a song. It’s the fact that he knows how to move the song from part to part and leverage his playing to be exceptionally expressive and ritualistic. That’s on purpose:

“Most of the time I am trying to stay out of the way of the riff and compliment the riff. I feel like if you can do that, then it’s just going to make what you are doing sound cooler anyway. I guess it goes back to me knowing how to play a million AC/DC songs from my dad’s cover band when I was a kid, but I’ve always subscribed to the belief of you play for the song, and no-one’s there to hear the drummer play the drums except for the other drummers in the crowd. Most people are there for the riff, so you play for the riff.

I think that makes a big difference.”

“Even the fact that my drums sound like a fucking human being playing the drums and it’s not quantized and sound replaced,” he adds, “so that every kick drum is exactly the same level, and every snare head is at exactly the same level, and everything’s perfectly in time, which I just think is the most fucking boring thing on Earth to listen to a record that sounds like that. I think that element of my playing is just as important as this patterns that I’m playing in the song: the fact that there are actually dynamics within the song, and even within two bars. Two bars of an Inter Arma song, the drums can sound completely different, but back-to-back.”

New Heaven by Inter Arma is out now and you can order it from Relapse Records. Follow Inter Arma on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for future updates.

Photo courtesy of Katie Lewelyn

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