'What do you want this next song to be called?" Steve Huckaby asks the gang of little kids who are crowding a makeshift stage at Memorial Skate Park. The kids ponder the question briefly before one shouts out an answer.
"That's exactly what it is," responds the Inelements frontman. "This song is called 'Cats Shooting Laser Beams Out Their Eyes.'
"But," he adds with a grin, "it's also called 'Vimana.'"
With that, the Colorado Springs band launches into its upcoming EP's screamiest song, although even this one has melodic passages buried beneath its bludgeoning exterior.
As for whether the song is really about keen-eyed felines, or something more aligned with the Sanskrit word for flying chariots and palatial temples, who can say? Huckaby's lyrics aren't exactly linear, and even the more straightforward ones are subject to interpretation.
For example, there's "Find It," one of several songs he wrote after being deployed overseas.
"'Find It' is directly about the Iraq war," he says. "Well, that's what it's about for me."
But with plaintive lines like, "Today I looked into the sun, I found out that it doesn't shine for us," "What are we fighting for, is this the end?" and "I'll take you by the hand, and get you out of here," it's easy to assume otherwise.
"Man, I can't tell you how many women have come up to me, like, 'I know you're talking about a relationship, I know you're talking about a girl.' And I'm just like, 'Hey ... yes I am.' You know? I want the listener to look at it and see what they want."
Nursing a Shiner Bock on the back patio at Poor Richard's a week after the skate park show, the 30-year-old singer speaks candidly on a wide range of subjects: growing up in a religious household, watching friends die in Iraq, the anomaly of being a black singer in a predominantly white genre, the new material his band will be playing at its Black Sheep CD release show this Saturday.
He also talks about the guitar interplay between Inelements co-founder and Chevelle fan Matt Tuttle, who favors slow, expressive melodies in weird tunings, and relative newcomer Eric Madrid, who leans toward the kind of hard-rock precision you'd expect from a fan of Alice in Chains and Eddie Van Halen.
"They balance each other — I don't know how they do it, especially when we're writing music — but they figure each other out, and it fits together so well. Like on the song 'The Warning.' I wish I could play it right now ..."
Actually, he can. "Let me show you, if you don't mind," he says, picking up his iPhone and calling up the new EP's title track.
The song opens with an urgent, unaccompanied vocal — "Ravage my body, draw me and quarter, hang me from trees of the fruits of my labor, I guess that this will work out for you" — the guitars crashing in on the last line and carrying the song through as many dynamic shifts as can reasonably be fit into a 3½-minute track. As it plays, the singer points out the nuances of each guitarist's parts, some of them audible on an iPhone speaker, all of them epic on a home stereo or when accompanied by the frontman's rafter-swinging, crowd-surfing antics in a crowded club.
"The Warning" will surely be the band's hit, if it ends up having one. And in the meantime, there's still a lot to talk about.
Indy: The record industry used to be good at breaking new bands — promoters pitched songs to retail and to bigger stations like KILO, who would in turn report to Billboard. Now Clear Channel dominates the airwaves, and Billboard has begun treating YouTube plays like record sales, just in time to make the "Harlem Shake" a Number One hit. What strategies do you see, at this point, for getting a band heard outside its hometown?
Steve Huckaby: Well, we've learned a lot in the last year or so, and at this point it's pretty much, like you say, YouTube. We used to have that old attitude of, "OK, we're just gonna write good music." This is back in the day when we were still kind of developing, and we thought, "Somebody who has the power and likes our music is gonna sign us." And that's what we kind of strived to do, like, "Hey, we're gonna get signed!"
Indy: This would have been how long ago, like 2007?
SH: Yeah, 2007 is when we started, but I'd been in another band before that called After Eden. I actually got the tattoos. [Shows forearms, with "After" on one, "Eden" on the other.]
Indy: Isn't that kind of like having an old girlfriend's name tattooed on your arms?
SH: Well, the thing is, I love those guys, those guys are awesome. But we were all deployed together, and when I got out of the Army, they were still in.
Indy: Deployed where?
Indy: What was that like for you?
SH: Dude, Iraq was like, think about prison, but with bullets getting shot at you and it's always dirty and nasty and you don't have anything.
Indy: None of that sounds good.
SH: No, and even if you did have something — like, I had this little DVD player, and I used to watch The Sopranos and Lost on it, and that thing got broken. I didn't do anything to it, it just sat in my room and it got broken somehow. It's like, the thing you find the most solace in, just breaks.
Indy: Your DVD player committed suicide.
SH: Pretty much, yeah. My DVD player committed suicide.
Indy: So why did you leave the military? I can think of any number of reasons, but what were yours?
SH: Man, I was done with it. I was deploying too much. And I was involved in an incident. One of our helicopters was shot down and I was in the air at the same time. So they got shot down, and we probably lost 15 people there.
Indy: And they were people you knew?
SH: Yeah, people I knew. And they were young kids, too, like 21 or 22. It was as if you took a helicopter, fire and people, and put it all in a blender, blended it all up, and just poured it out on the ground. Man, it was the worst thing ever.
Indy: So does your previous album, Post Stress, have anything to do with your military experience?
SH: Yeah, a lot of the lyrics for Post Stress were written when I was in Iraq. But with the name Post Stress, I took out the "Traumatic" part, even though it was definitely traumatic. But I wanted people to focus on the after part.
Indy: Like the healing?
SH: Yeah, I don't think they have a name for that.
Indy: You don't really hear about people actually acclimating back to civilian life.
SH: Yeah, and people do that all the time. But they call it post-traumatic stress, like you have it for the rest of your life. Which is fine, you know, I'm diagnosed, I have post-traumatic stress. But I'm trying to think positively and to break out of that, and then maybe people will find something they can relate to in that.
Indy: Was there any lyric you wrote that was directly tied to your experience there, or are they all kind of metaphorical?
SH: It's all kind of metaphorical. I think the song "Singhto the Destroyer" was just all these memories of the destruction of war, but I used metaphors like the Bible. Everybody wants to blame the devil for the bad stuff that goes on in the world, but what if it's just us?
Because, man, when I went to war, I was still religious. And when I got there, that went out the window. You're calling people back home, and they're complaining about, "Oh, it was hot today and I got no air conditioning." And you're sitting there in the dirt in Iraq, and it puts everything in perspective.
Indy: So the kinds of things that would upset you in civilian life didn't seem so bad after that?
SH: No, nothing did. Like, I came back and — this is the worst thing I ever did — I had somebody in my life who lost a good friend, and this was like right after I got back from Iraq, and she was hurt, and I was just like, "Such is life." How cold-blooded is that? Like, just discounting someone's feelings because of what you went through.
She'd lost a good friend and the only thing I could say, my comforting words, were, "Such is life." You don't tell that to somebody you love.
Indy: How did she respond?
SH: It was actually my sister, and she didn't respond in a hateful way. But I'm her big brother, and even if she needed to come to me now and talk about it, she probably wouldn't, because I took that cold approach to it. But me and my sister still love each other to death. And it could have been because I'd just gotten back and I'd lost some friends there. But as you grow, it's just like, I shouldn't have done that to my sister.
Indy: So you grew up in Toledo, Ohio. How was that?
SH: Oh man, they call it "the shitty." The shitty of Toledo. I love it, though, it's my hometown, and that's where my mom lives now. My mom was kind of religious at the time — my dad had passed away and she was a single mom, so she turned to the church. She even sent me to the Christian school when I was in first grade. But I have a whole other thing about religion now.
Indy: It seems like we always react to our parents, whether it's following in their footsteps or rebelling against them.
SH: Yeah, it took the Army for me to actually see that I'm not a religious person anymore. You know, I've been into spirituality, which is cool, I believe that having a spiritual relationship, with whoever you want to, is awesome. But I just don't believe in organized religion, with that dude up there, in his five-hundred-dollar suit and diamonds, telling you, "Hey, you can do this better."
Indy: I wanted to ask about when you started out singing. It seems like when people start out, they tend to hear somebody else in their head, and they're just happy that they kind of sound like that. Who were the early singers you emulated, consciously or not?
SH: The three bands that really got to me — well, I didn't really get into rock 'n roll until I was in high school, and I had a friend kind of show me some stuff. And for a long time I would listen to Incubus — you know, Brandon Boyd. And so, whenever I sing, that's who I tried to emulate.
And then on some parts, I would try to emulate Chino from the Deftones. But then when I was angry, and a lot of times when I sing, too, it's Daryl Palumbo from Glassjaw. It was like those three together. If one of our songs had a part that reminded me of an Incubus song or a Glassjaw song, I would try to do that. And I think I still try to do that to this day.
Indy: All three of those?
SH: Yeah, because they're great artists and they're great singers, and I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to be like the people that brought you up musically, you know what I mean? But I grew up doing R&B songs and church choir songs.
Indy: Where did you do R&B?
SH: At home in Toledo. For a long time, all the songs I would write were R&B songs.
Indy: What did they sound like?
SH: Like pop R&B, like Musiq Soulchild. I even recorded one of his songs — I did this duet with this girl back in Toledo. That was my thing, R&B.
Indy: So back then you were singing about women.
SH: Yeah, I was talking about love.
Indy: But the war thing screwed everything up.
SH: Hell yeah, dude. Actually, Iraq kind of started me listening to Lenny Kravitz, too. But growing up in Toledo, there's still a kind of racial separation, a little bit. So I had that when I started getting into rock 'n roll. You know, the black people are getting on you because you like rock 'n roll, and the white kids are like, "Uhhhh ..."
Indy: I'd been wondering about whether you had an outsider status, at the beginning or even now.
SH: Yeah, not now so much. I don't let it happen, you know what I mean? I just let people know, "Hey, I'm just like you, don't try to stereotype me."
You know, a lot of times you hear, like, "Oh, you're black and you sing metal?!" I'm like, "Dude, it's 2013, of course I'm black and I sing metal, what do you think?"
Indy: Well, yes and no. When Vernon Reid started the Black Rock Coalition, I'm pretty sure that never made its way out to the Rockies. And if you think about it, who is there? There's Rage, Bad Brains, Sepultura, Sevendust, King's X ...
SH: We've got a few. You've got Nonpoint.
Indy: And Fishbone, although they've got more of that ska thing going on. But yeah, if we tried to name all the rock bands that have white lead singers, we'd be here for a while.
SH: Yeah, absolutely. There's a hardcore metal band from France that's blowing up there, and they look like a bunch of hip-hop dudes. And they're black and they play metal. But I guess maybe I am one of the few. There's a lot of cross-genre music going on, but for some reason metal is like the one type of music where, as soon as you hear me sing, it's like, "Oh, I would've never expected that!"
Indy: It's like, "You don't sound black."
SH: I love my culture, but even my family, it took them a while to understand what I was doing. Even my wife at one point called me an anomaly.
Indy: It seems like a number of alternative metal bands will have two vocalists, one to do the screaming, the other to do the singing. But you obviously do both, even though you don't get into that super-low range. Is it hard to go from full-on screaming into a more melodic part, and how does that affect your vocal cords?
SH: Well, I think my vocal cords are used to that, but it takes some practice. It's all about breathing and technique. Right after you scream a part out, you've gotta take a big breath. And if you don't take that big breath, that melodic part is not gonna sound too good.
Indy: In terms of the really deep guttural vocals, are there bands you're into that do that?
SH: There aren't really a lot of death metal bands that stick out in my mind, although there is one band called Amon Amarth, who you've gotta look up. They sing this song called "Twilight of the Thunder God," it's like Viking metal.
Indy: One thing I liked about Norway's black metal scene in its early days is that it sounded like avant-garde punk recorded on cassettes. Really distorted. But then it started getting slick.
SH: Yeah, I kind of wish it'd go back to that.
Indy: People say the same thing about punk rock, and the same thing about metal.
SH: It's the same thing with hip-hop. It all kind of recycles itself. The technology's a little bit different, but if you look at the trends, you know, it's the same thing. And we don't fit anywhere. [Laughs.]
Indy: Actually, I could imagine people hearing "The Warning" on KILO and never even suspecting that it wasn't a national hit.
SH: We hear a lot of people say that: "Oh man, I could hear this on KILO."
Indy: But you'd want to be heard on five different formats.
SH: Oh yeah, absolutely. I wanna be heard everywhere. And as a band, we love so much different music and we play so much different stuff. We have probably like, five other songs that are just the opposite of what you'd expect us to do. But we've kind of embraced the whole KILO thing, you know? Although I don't listen to every band that's on KILO.
Indy: Yeah, they claim to have played a pivotal role in breaking Creed, which was kind of a bad thing to do.
SH: I know! I hate Creed. That's just one of those bands that's like the ugliest shit in the whole entire world. I mean, if there was a baby and it was Creed, I would punch it in the face.
Indy: I can see us running that quote in 36-point type.
SH: Yeah, my band is like, "Dude, don't say anything stupid," because they know how I am. But, you know, whatever. I've said worse.