Triumphant With Empathy: Of Mice & Men on ‘Defy’

Interview with vocalist/bassist Aaron Pauley | By Nicholas Senior

Of Mice & Men’s triumphant and emphatic new record, Defy—released Jan. 19 via Rise Records—features cover artwork that evokes “The Great Gatsby”-era Art Deco style, an emblem of seemingly vapid decadence. One gets the sense that there’s meaning behind it, but only after looking deeper, going beyond the surface-level bullshit.

After all that’s gone on in the past couple years—most notably, bassist Aaron Pauley stepping up as vocalist after Austin Carlile’s departure—it’s clear the Orange County band had to retool and refocus their approach. Maybe that’s why Defy takes all that has made Of Mice & Men scene legends and amplifies it, presenting the band’s most live-ready batch of anthems yet, albeit with a greater sense of purpose and power. It’s a gratifying and uplifting release from a band who have specialized in sincerity since their inception.

Reflecting on that lyrical focus, Pauley shares, “Part of being honestly hopeful is acknowledging the bullshit and the trials and tribulations. It’s really easy to end up with very sugary, glossy hope, where it’s like, ‘We’re gonna get through this!’ At the same time, as a listener, that can sometimes rub you the wrong way, especially if you’re going through a lot. Sometimes, it’s better to hear somebody going through something at the same time. Somebody said that about Chester [Bennington] and Linkin Park: in their lyrics, they never really sought to grab you and pull you out of the hole you were in, they would just crawl in there and sit with you for a little bit. That’s the emotional tone we took with the record.”

After all the tumult of the past two years, what inspired Of Mice & Men to write such aggressive yet jubilant tunes? It all goes back to basics, Pauley explains. “Elementally, as far as the music goes, that was hugely influenced by the summer we had,” he says. “We spent this past summer playing the U.K. and Euro metal festivals. Initially, we were supposed to play Warped Tour, but with the announcement of Austin leaving, our offer for Warped Tour was taken away, so it was like, ‘What do we do now?’ Our booking agent contacted those Euro metal festivals, and they were happy to take us on.”

“We had a very triumphant-feeling summer,” he continues. “It was a very successful tour for us. We were playing main-stage on a lot of these giant festivals with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people, and we got to play long sets. We got to play every day and really see in our audience what was moving people, what was connecting with them emotionally and physically. For us, the record’s sound is very much connected to our live show. After we got off of tour in July, we were in the studio by August. We were just all-in. We had that very visceral, tangible connection to our live sound.”

“Lyrically,” Pauley adds, “one thing our band does when we write—if we spend an hour jamming, we spend two hours talking, because communication is so key when you’re in a band. We just talk a lot. For me, being the lyricist and vocalist, this isn’t my story, it’s our story. I’m just the mouthpiece for the band. I was writing what the band was going through collectively.”

However, Pauley has become the most vocal member of Of Mice & Men. Was he nervous about taking over this role? “I wouldn’t say nervous,” he clarifies. “When we made the decision to keep moving on, the thing we told each other is: we’re going to see if we can do this, first and foremost. Secondly, we need to guarantee that when we continue Of Mice & Men, that it literally holds up to what we used to do. We were an award-winning live band, so keeping that up was super important to us. We were never going to continue the band unless we were confident that we could be as good, if not better, than we were in the past.”

He acknowledges that collective preparation helps alleviate any stress and credits the band’s ability to work together as a team for a greater goal. Pauley says he benefitted from “thinking about it like an athlete, where it’s just practicing a lot, working on drills and my voice, and making sure my longevity is there. Get my sleep in and diet right, things like that. When it came time for my first show in Vegas, I remember—we had an hour-long set in Vegas, and I remember thinking, ‘Here we go! Let’s go do this!’”

“It was funny, because halfway through the show, I had a moment of clarity; in my head, I was just looking out over the audience, thinking, ‘Damn, we’re doing this,’” he laughs. “I never felt nervous, which was definitely a saving grace. When I get nervous, I tend to over-warm-up and overcompensate and try to over-sing, and I can end up undoing myself mentally. A lot of what we do onstage has to do with mental dexterity, staying in the zone, not over- or under-exerting. I don’t mean to sound dismissive or conceited, but we just really made sure to put the work in.”

Pauley viewed this as just another challenge, another hurdle to clear. That narrow focus was key to the band’s growth, which ultimately resulted in Of Mice & Men’s most engaging release yet. Defy may also be their most exuberant album, but there’s a depth to the fun. “Nothing that we try to do is vapid, especially because we’re getting old,” Pauley elaborates. “We’re getting into our 30s. For us, it’s really about leaving something that fans can chew on. If a record’s going to come out every couple years, the last thing you want is for someone to hear it once and go, ‘That was cool,’ but really have nothing that makes them want to dive back into it. For us, we wanted to try to layer things—especially musically and sonically, with regard to how we layer different instruments. Like, there’s a sitar in a bunch of songs. We have a bunch of really awesome programming with an analog synth. There’s a lot to it, just so you can dig as deep as you want.”

“At the same time,” he notes, “not everybody listens to music that way. There are lots of people who like to put something on in their car and have it feel good. It’s important to have that immediate element too. That’s important to us, especially coming off of [2016’s] Cold World, because we realized there wasn’t enough of that initial ‘fun’ element to make people want to dive into it. It’s a very sad and dark record, because that’s where we were in our lives.”

When searching for that brand of honest hope, Pauley looked to one of his musical heroes—and ended up finding a way to pay tribute to him. “What I realized once we got the masters is that every song deals with different ways of working through change,” he expounds. “Our entire lives over the past couple years have been about that: the major life changes. You can either let change define you, or you can define yourself through whatever you do about it. The most meaningful song for me is ‘If We Were Ghosts.’ That’s the closest thing to a tribute to our dear friend Chester Bennington that we could hope to write. We were close; we did a bunch of tours with them. We had just seen Linkin Park two weeks before he passed, and we had dinner with him at Hellfest. It was very surreal.”

Pauley remembers exactly where he was when he heard the tragic news of Bennington’s passing. “We were doing preproduction when we got the news,” he reveals. “We were at my apartment, working on ‘Warzone.’ It was like, ‘Fuck!’ We had no words. He was a friend of ours. I had the side that loved Linkin Park, and I had the side that was hurting for my friend who I would text random funny shit to at one in the morning. It’s so senseless and so fucking brutal. I struggle to find words when I describe how impactful that is in such the worst way, but I remember all the stuff he would say to us, the words of encouragement: his encouragement of my taking on this role as the lead vocalist in Of Mice & Men and his being a constant source of encouragement both directly through our friendship and indirectly through the legacy of music that he made.”

Despite the defiant title of their newest album, Of Mice & Men have proven to be masters of accepting change and finding hope in even the bleakest of circumstances.

Purchase Rise here

Photo by Alan Snodgrass

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