Onstage Bryan Giles (shown above) and David Sullivan double-up for unison riffs and then play wildly divergent parts to build hooks and dynamics into the songs. Since Giles often handles vocals, Sullivan plays the lion’s share of leads.
Photo by Chris Schwegler
Most people know Red Fang from their videos, which are epic, if not misleading—because there’s a lot more to the Portland, Oregon, quartet than Pabst Blue Ribbon, beer-crazed zombies, cartoon princesses, vengeful nerds, and mindless destruction.
For starters, the band’s riffs are unconventional and almost never in 4/4. Guitarists David Sullivan and Bryan Giles (who also often handles vocal duties) juxtapose angular lines, rage through constant time shifts, and create a sense of tension, release, and musical sophistication. “The song will be trucking along, and suddenly you’ll get to this weird part in five or seven,” says Sullivan. “We enjoy that—it makes it more interesting for us.”
But the Fang guitar team, together with bassist/vocalist Aaron Beam, also avoids simple blues patterns and clichés, often incorporating a healthy dose of dissonance and feedback to keeps things interesting. “We try to break out of the same patterns you hear all the time,” says Sullivan. “We’ll do a weird chord that sounds wrong, but works in the context of the song.” Giles agrees. “A lot of being in a band for me is exorcising negative thoughts that are swirling around in my brain,” he says. “Tritones and real grating elements express that angst better.”
Dynamic contrasts are important, too. They are often dramatic, prevent ear fatigue, and make the heavier parts sound even heavier. Only Ghosts, Red Fang’s latest release, proffers a lot to learn about strategic placement of layered sounds and ambient textures within the context of heavy grooves.
But the secret sauce—what gives Red Fang true depth—is its members’ diverse tastes and influences: Perhaps unsurprisingly, Giles and Sullivan grew up on Sabbath and Maiden, but they’re also into ’70s British post-punkers Bauhaus, country legend Willie Nelson, avant-rocker Captain Beefheart, and even pop icon Justin Timberlake. “I just like good music,” Giles says. “It doesn’t have to be hard rock at all—although for playing music, I have always gravitated toward the darker end of the spectrum.”
We recently spoke to Sullivan and Giles about writing and recording Only Ghosts,their fourth LP and first with producer Ross Robinson (Slipknot, At the Drive-In), how they divvy up guitar duties, and what’s up with Giles’ bastardized 5-string vintage Mustangs.
Do you guys write riffs together as a band or come to rehearsal with ideas you worked out at home?
Bryan Giles: We try not to limit ourselves to one technique or another. What I like to bring into practice are two parts that seem to go well together—that’s a good starting place. If you just have one riff, you can find yourself playing it over and over and getting nowhere, so as a kick-starter I like to have an A and a B part. The riffs seem to have a better chance of surviving if they have a buddy to go along with them. So we’ll work on those, and hopefully it sparks inspiration for the other guys. If it does, then it starts mutating and we’re off to the races.
David Sullivan: There’s not really one main songwriter. Me, Aaron, and Bryan bring in ideas. Sometimes it will be almost complete songs, sometimes it’ll just be a couple of riffs. At practice, we put them together, flesh them out, and make them into actual songs. It’s all of us doing that together.
A lot of your music is in odd meters. Is that on purpose or is that just the way the riffs turn out?
Giles: I was in a band for about eight years called Last of the Juanitas, and it was instrumental math rock with constant time shifts—crazy, Rubik’s Cube songwriting. I did that for a long time and then started thinking to myself, “Why are we purposely trying to thwart someone who might want to rock out to a song?” So I started a band with John and David called Party Time—the name was sort of our mission statement.
FACTOID: Red Fang’s Only Ghosts was recorded over the course of a full month’s worth of 12- to 14-hour days in the studio—a pace set by producer Ross Robinson.
Sullivan: We all like stuff that is a little out of the ordinary. Another band I was in was called Shiny Beast, a name that was a nod to Captain Beefheart. It was a three-piece, mostly instrumental, and intentionally doing odd times, weird chords, and dissonance. I really like when a beat or a riff has an odd time signature, but you don’t really notice it. You can nod your head right along and it still works and doesn’t feel weird.
From the looks of your raging audiences, it seems they don’t realize anything unusual is happening.
Giles: We can attribute a lot of that to John’s drumming. We’ve been punishing him with these bizarre things for so long, he’s really gotten good at finding the flow in something that absolutely doesn’t, theoretically. We do a song on [2013’s] Whales and Leeches called “1516,” and that’s because it’s in 15/16. When we were first writing that song, we were playing it and John was like, “Guys, there is something really wrong with that riff.” And we were like, “No man, it’s awesome.” He screwed up his face and said, “You’re dropping a beat.” That was going to pose a problem for him, so we were like, “Okay, let’s put that beat back in.” So we put it back in, but nobody in the string section was happy. It was like, “No—it was way better the other way.” It made a lot more work for John, but if you listen to that song, unless you’re counting it out you’re not going to notice. I mean, the odd time makes it more frantic sounding, but John certainly makes it sound straight, too. I love when he does that. I feel like I can get away with writing more fucked up things because of his smoothing techniques.
You guys are big fans of dynamics, too, though.
Sullivan: You’ve got to have some contrast in there. It almost becomes monotone if everything is trying to be heavy. Within a song, you need a part that builds up and then the big heavy part has more impact. So that is definitely something we try to do—not just make it always at full volume. Sometimes we’ll tone down the part before, or we’ll put in a transitional part, or have a little more build-up, or even a tension-building part. Sometimes we’ll hold a note a little longer than it feels like it should be, and then you get that release at the end of it.
Giles: If you’re listening to death metal or something and it’s full speed ahead—double kicks and super-fast guitars—it loses its impact, because there’s nothing to compare it to. If you put in a prettier, more laid-back element and then you go back into the super-fast stuff, that’s where you’re going to feel it. The punch isn’t going to hit if you never pull back and swing it again.
Get a close-up look at one of Bryan Giles’ heavily modded 5-string Fender Mustangs as he begins “Prehistoric Dog” at a 2014 metal fest in Viveiro, Spain.