Since the opening bars of Korn’s debut album in 1994 the nu-metal phrase has been thrown around. In recent years however it’s become little more than a lazily used sub-genre of rock, often bring unwanted associations of pre-pubescent angst and rap. “It’s kinda like any genre tie; it just gets used and abused,” continues Justin. “Nu-metal, seemed fine for band like Limp Bizkit but when it started getting put on bands like Deftones and Tool… Where’s the common ground there? It’s the same with emo, hardcore, punk, any genre. I just don’t know what any of those words mean anymore. What is a punk band? It’s silly, almost.”
Despite Justin’s obvious dislike of whatever nu-metal may be, Hells Is For Heroes were part of Papa Roach’s continual quest for world dominance in 2002, and is quick to comment on the benefits of such a support slot. “It gave us the chance to get out into other countries we’d never been to before. Everywhere we played no one had heard our name, let alone any of out songs. It was exciting and fresh. The Papa Roach boys were really nice to us. People seemed to really get into it and we got a lot of feedback.”
On paper one of the band’s largest achievements to date was single ‘Night Vision’, entering the singles charts at 38. “It’s weird, personally it didn’t really register,” modestly comments Justin, not sounding too concerned. “Obviously I was happy in so far that I know it means a lot to other people, it’s some kind of scale by which they can measure you as a band, or how far you’ve come. To us it’s not the scale we use. We try to judge ourselves purely on the songs we write, the shows we play and the quality we turn out in those areas. The bands that I’ve grow up listening to, or are inspired by, never really had much singles chart success so it’s one of those things. It’s pleasing to know that you’re in the top 40 because people think it’s a big deal, but to us it doesn’t hold that much weight.”
It’s ‘Night Visions’ successor however, ‘You Drove Me To It’, that holds greater importance to Justin. Despite a previous single release he’s clear about the band’s decision to have it re-released. “It was the first limited single we released in 2002. To be honest we were never quite happy with the recording of it. It was just a big polished rock record. We’d just signed to the label and were pretty clueless. This is how it was meant to sound. It’s heavier and faster and it feels right that we should put it out again to make the point. This is what the song is meant to be like.”
Hell is For Heroes found themselves relocating to LA to record their debut album, entitled ‘The Neon Handshake.’ The decision why soon became clear.
“We ended up with a choice of recording at this studio in LA which did the first Rage Against The Machine album, the first System album, ‘Nevermind’, or some random studio in Milton Keynes,” explains Justin. “The choice wasn’t that hard. We were staying right in the middle of Universal City, the entertainment capital. Seeing the bizarre people that you get around there, coming in and out of town for the three months we were there, sparked a few drunken conversations and in one them the phrase ‘The Neon Handshake’ surfaced. We all sort of thought ‘that pretty much sounds like our album title’.”
Quickly continuing to acknowledge the artificial surroundings the band found themselves in, he continues, “We were definitely seven European misfits who were in a room without windows for about three moths surrounded by this endless sprawl of madness. There is this surface of plastic surgery, Baywatch and horrible sports metal bands, but like anything, if you’re there long enough and scratch hard enough there is a world underneath that fights to get out. It’s like Hollywood - the amount of shit it turns out we all know, but there’s also some of the greatest films that I’ve ever. You’ve got to look a bit harder.”
Looking harder for certain things was a task Hell Is For Heroes themselves came across when recording ‘The Neon Handshake’. Pelle Henricsson and Eskil Lovstrom were two producers who worked with now defunct Swedish hardcore punk group Refused on the bands album 1998 album, ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come’. The album is one of punks defining moments of the 1990’s. Both men also produced ‘The Neon Handshake’. “We were working with some producers the record companies hooked us up with, it just didn’t work out,” admits Justin. “ We were very conscious from the beginning that a lot of bands, particularly that do our kind of music don’t necessarily get to make more that one album. This album had to be everything we wanted it to be. I was really into Refused at the time and I remember being overwhelmed by the quality of the sound on ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come’ and how much energy was on it. I actually went on the internet one night, found a contact email address and emailed them saying, ‘We’re in this band and we’d love to do our album with you.’ They got back in touch and came over to see us at a show. We instantly clicked on a personality level. They seemed to understand us from the moment they met us and it went from there. Making a record for a rock band like us, getting really big guitar sounds and fat drum sounds is pretty easy to do. It’s not easy, but it’s something you can learn how to do at audio engineering school. Getting that and maintaining that energy and spirit behind the songs and behind the band is the hardest thing to do. We can’t do it ourselves, which is why we needed those guys to sort it out.”
Working with producers who have worked with the likes of Refused must mean there was less of a chance of your ideas becoming diluted.
“Exactly. They’ve gotta be on your side, otherwise there’s no point in doing it cause you’re going to end up with something that you’re going to live to regret. Even if it’s one tiny bit on one song, that’s an enormous weight to carry around. Making an album is such a rare opportunity. We wanted to make sure it was right and we did it.” Talking in such a manner it’s no shock to discover Justin has no regrets about the album.
“That’s not to say we think it’s perfect album because if we did we’d have to split up right now. For what it was, for the time and place it captures everything we wanted it to. It’s got our heart and soul on its sleeve. Whatever happens now, if it sells one copy or one million copies we’ve done what we wanted to do.”
Continuing to chat about Refused’s front man Dennis Lyxzén and his decision to split Refused at the band’s peak, conversation interestingly shifts towards the ethics of authenticity.
“Lyxzén is an amazing front man. ‘The Shape Of Punk To Come’ to me was so good. Where could you go from there as a band? The one thing that every single band has in common, whether you’re a manufactured boy band or a death metal band is every single band dies a death. The Rolling Stones from my point of view died a long time ago. The thing is, at what point do you know when the time to quit is? The worst thing I think for a band, an important band like Refused, would have been for them to lose the edge they had, then keep going trying to claw it back and wither away in a kind of depressing Rolling Stones way.”
Undecided whether it’s an unfair comment to make I mention Manic Street Preachers. “Exactly,” replies Justin, in agreement. “They’re kind of ironic because they said that before their first album. They said we’re going to make this album then quit. They understood. They seemed to at that time understand that for important bands, for bands trying to say something, rather than going through the motions of releasing records to make as much money as possible, you’ve got to know when to quit. That’s the most important thing.”
It’s one thing suggesting such an idea, another no doubt putting it into practice. When asked if, when the time comes, Hell Is For Heroes will make the honourable move and disband it becomes clear discussion of such events has already occurred. “We’ve talked about this as a band. We will take this band as far as we possibly can so long as we’re writing music together that we all love and we’re still getting a buzz out of playing. Regardless of what happens with the career side of it. That’s something you have to keep separate. A lot of bands sell a million records and that in it self becomes the reason to carry on. It shouldn’t be. If we have to go back to touring in a banged up old van and sleeping on people’s floors as long as we’re getting the same buzz out of playing shows and writing songs then we’ll carry on. Likewise, if we sell ten million albums and feel like we’re just writing songs going through the motions it’s time to give up. It’s a weird thing, you never know how long it’s gonna last, it could last a month, it could be ten years.”
With the band’s debut album poised for success and singles continuing to penetrate the UK charts, it’s certain to say Hell Is For Heroes will be with us substantially longer than a month, if not the latter figure. In the meantime any opportunity to witness the band while they are still playing the UK’s circuit of smaller venues would be a very wise decision to take as one thing is guaranteed, it’s not going to last.