Being misunderstood is part of Matt Fox's job description.
As founder, guitarist and principal songwriter for Shai Hulud, he's led his band through four critically acclaimed albums that mix sonic intensity with melodic invention and lyrical sophistication. As such, the group clearly has less in common with Metal Blade labelmates like Cannibal Corpse than with straight-edge alt-punk bands like Fugazi.
Shai Hulud also steers clear of misogyny, although it trades heavily in misanthrope. Elliptical lyrics about "life through loathing" and "hope within hatred" — especially when delivered with full-on hardcore fervor — are not the kind of thing you'll hear on a Blink-182 Christmas album.
But there are, at least in some songs, trace elements of sarcasm, even if Fox is disappointed that most people never notice them.
"If you're gonna base your band on profound hatred," says Fox, "and you don't have your tongue somewhat in cheek, you can come off like real jerks, or as people who take themselves too seriously. And we don't. We take the band seriously, and we take the lyrics seriously. But it's not like we're brooding in a corner 24 hours a day."
And while the band's adrenaline-fueled angst might suggest otherwise, Fox is anything but ill-tempered in conversation. "I would not by any stretch of the imagination consider myself an angry person," says the musician who named his band after the oversized sandworms in Dune. "You know, I'm usually wearing a Muppets or a Star Trek shirt. I'm very approachable. It's not like, 'Oh, there's that Matt Fox guy.'"
Economy of excess
Despite numerous lineup changes along the way, Shai Hulud has consistently maintained a densely textured sound that stands apart from those of its hardcore peers. Like guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, whose band Television strayed from the pack during the original punk invasion, Fox has clearly spent an inordinate amount of time in the company of his instrument.
"I used to sleep with my guitar on the bed next to me because, you know, certainly there was no girl there, that's for sure. So it was a natural thing for me to go to bed playing guitar and constantly writing stuff."
The guitarist doesn't do that anymore. He's also fallen out with the prog-rock approach of juxtaposing disparate musical elements into a single song.
"I don't know whether it's evolved or devolved, but I've changed in my natural approach to writing music," says Fox, who's moved from his native Florida to the East Coast since starting the band. "Now I like to have a musical theme throughout. My preference in writing is to come up with one signature part and try to base everything around that. Take that riff and play it forward and backward and left and right."
Shai Hulud's latest offering, Reach Beyond the Sun, finds the band embracing a more focused, straightforward sound. It's a pronounced departure from the complicated mood swings that marked 2008's Misanthropy Pure.
Fox says the new album was a direct response to its predecessor's excesses. He cites Misanthropy's "Be Winged," co-written with bassist Matt Fletcher, as an example of his lingering tendencies toward complexity.
"I was alone with a producer in the studio, and when left to our own devices, he and I can overcomplicate a lot of songs. So the songs which Fletcher and I wrote together would leave him one way and come back another.
"'Be Winged' started out as a short fast hardcore punk song. And when he got it back, it was still that, but it also had all of these darker melodies and harmonies and a bunch of new tricks that we added in. And while Fletcher appreciates unpredictability and, you know, progressive music, he said, 'I really feel that you guys took the emotion out of that song.' And I really agree with him."
So this time around, the group set out to resist those urges. That simpler approach was also embraced by returning vocalist Chad Gilbert, who'd first joined the band at 14 and left after the release of its debut album.
"We never wanted to show off," says Fox. "All we wanted to do is bring out very strong emotions. So yeah, when Chad came back onboard with his thoughts of where the album should go, it was what we'd been saying for the past four years. So it was a perfect fit, because what we wanted to do was exactly what he wanted to hear from us."
Gilbert, who'd gone on to form seminal pop-punk band New Found Glory after leaving Shai Hulud, plays the role of both singer and producer on Reach Beyond the Sun. But on the band's current tour, his vocal chores have been handed over to Justin Kraus, the singer from Philadelphia band With Life in Mind.
Which naturally raises the question: Since Kraus is now the seventh vocalist who's either toured or recorded with the band, wouldn't it be simpler for Fox to take on that role as well? "No," says the guitarist. "I mean, it might be simpler. But if you heard my voice, you wouldn't recommend that."
No matter who's at the mic, Shai Hulud still manages to sound like Shai Hulud, combining the best elements of punk, metal and hardcore. "From my perspective, hardcore and metal aren't all that dissimilar in nature or in sound," says Fox. "That line has been blurred by hardcore bands like Burn, who incorporate a lot of metal elements, and by metal bands like Napalm Death, who incorporate a lot of hardcore punk elements."
Of course, both genres incorporate elements of anger and alienation, something Fox has been grappling with ever since he was young.
"I don't really follow politics, but when I do, the things that I hear can certainly get me riled up. But I think the thing that irritates me most is human misunderstanding," says Fox. "I've always had trouble getting along with people and — I know that this is the battle cry of a crazy person — but I don't think it's me. Sometimes I feel like I'm in that Twilight Zone episode, 'Eye of the Beholder,' where I'm the beautiful girl among the pig-faced people. But, you know, what's the likelihood of that?"