To channel their metalcore angst, the guitarists divvy up 6-string duties onstage and in the studio.
“I pictured myself screaming and punching the shit out of a brick wall as hard as I could,” says Ben Bruce, lead guitarist and chief songwriter for British metalcore kings Asking Alexandria, describing his state of mind while recording the punishing guitar sounds on “Let It Sleep,” just one of the cauterizing songs on the band’s just-released new album, The Black. “I definitely channeled a lot of angst and misery into my playing on this stuff, that’s for sure.”
Screaming and punching might also describe Bruce’s mindset during much of the past couple of years. In early 2015, Asking Alexandria’s singer, Danny Worsnop, quit the band after a period of protracted acrimony. If that weren’t enough, Bruce’s friend and guitar tech, Chris Holley, died suddenly after developing a blood clot on a flight. And there’s more: Bruce’s wife, Samantha Cassaro, fed up with her husband’s drinking and demanding tour schedule, filed for divorce. “It was the hardest time of my life,” Bruce notes thoughtfully. “But if you’re an honest songwriter, that kind of turmoil is going to come out in your music.”
“There were a lot of stressful situations, which anyone can understand,” adds rhythm guitarist Cameron Liddell. “Losing a front man is really, really scary for all bands, and 90 percent of them don’t actually make it through. We were just very fortunate to find a great front man, a great guy, who slipped into place way faster than we all expected, and then we got underway with the new record.”
New guy Denis Stoff, a Ukrainian screamer whom the band had discovered on YouTube, matches Asking Alexandria’s unhinged intensity perfectly on The Black. The record marks the group’s return to hard-as-nails, electronica-enhanced metalcore, following their brief foray into more polished mainstream post-grunge on 2013’s From Death to Destiny. In many ways, the record is the band’s most lethal work to date, with Bruce (who recorded all the guitars) slicing and dicing like a Ginsu knife through such breakdown-o-rama epics as “Sometimes It Ends” and “Just a Slave to Rock ’n’ Roll.”
But all is not sledgehammer riffs and crumbling walls of sound: Bruce, who experimented with different scales and chords during the recording sessions, dips into a bit of prog-rock on “The Lost Souls,” and he drizzles ringing, Edge-like guitar lines on the chant-laced power anthems “I Won’t Give In” and “Send Me Home.”
“The biggest thing you can do is try to surprise yourself with whatever you’re playing and writing,” he says. “If you’re coming up with stuff that sounds like you’ve been there before, that’s when you have to put the guitar down and wait for something better to come along.”
Premier Guitar spoke with Bruce and Liddell about their relationship as players, Liddell’s unabashed love of rhythm guitar, Bruce’s disdain for solos, and how each guitarist strives to sound unique while using the same gear.
Before you saw Denis Stoff on YouTube, did you know what kind of singer you were looking for? He sings a little like Danny—some bands might want to go in a completely new direction.
Bruce: We weren’t looking for someone who could mimic Danny and sound like him. We were just looking for someone special. If Denis sounds like Danny, he sounds like the younger Danny, when he actually gave a shit. Denis puts a lot of emotion into his singing. From the screams to the other sides of his range, it’s filled with passion. That’s what I saw in him. He’s a young kid who loves what he does, and he puts everything into his vocal performances. When we heard Denis’ voice, we just said, “Wow. This is the guy!”
Describe how you and Cameron work as a guitar team—how you stay out of each other’s way and how you complement what the other guy is doing.
Bruce: It’s just something that’s come about quite naturally. With myself being the primary songwriter, I’ve always had a specific way of playing and writing—it’s natural. With different band members back in my past, it never really clicked. When I met Cameron, it’s almost like he knew right off the bat what I was going for, and we just slipped into place very easily. We don’t even think about it anymore. I’ll come up with a riff, and he’ll be like, “Oh, I know exactly what to do with that.”
Do you discuss who should handle which part, like “I’m going to be down here on the fretboard, so you should be up there on the neck?”
Bruce: After all the years of writing and playing with each other, it’s all unspoken. It’s a strange thing, but it works.
Cameron Liddell: In the early days, there wasn’t such separation, but nowadays there’s a distinct difference in what we do. I’m quite content to play rhythm and maybe octave chords, and Ben can go off and do little lead lines and stuff. You can’t have two guitarists playing the same thing. That doesn’t work.
Ben, what do you specifically like about what Cameron does on the guitar?
Bruce: He’s just a solid, solid guitar player. Cameron is the rhythm guitar player in the band, and he loves that. A lot of guitarists back off from that because they want to play leads. Cameron has never been interested in being a lead guitarist—even before joining this band, it was never his thing. He grew up listening to bands like Slipknot, so he was always into heavy riffage and pounding rhythms. He doesn’t get upset and try and argue about, “Oh, I haven’t had a guitar solo on this record.” He goes with what his strengths are and what he loves to do, and I really admire that.
Cameron, as far as rhythm guitarists, who did you take your cues from when you were starting to play?
Liddell: From the get-go, it was Mick Thomson from Slipknot. Seeing him was a game-changer for me. I was 12 years old and I went to my first show, the Leeds Fest, and Slipknot blew my fucking mind, man. It was, “Right, okay. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I started looking him up, searching around for how he played and checking out his Slipknot riffage. He played loads of chugging patterns, and that made me want to play rhythm guitar. Don’t get me wrong—I love good guitar solos, but I’m not that kind of player. Never have been, and I don’t think I ever will be. And I don’t mind saying that. Rhythm gets a bad name.
How did you work to become a really strong rhythm guitar player?
Liddell: It was pretty much by listening to a lot of metal growing up. The local band I was in, we were a super-chuggy band, totally rhythm based. I listened to bands like As I Lay Dying. They got me learning cool, interesting rhythms—not always breakdowns, but tight rhythm patterns. I took to it and I enjoyed it. My picking hand became my main priority.
It’s a shame that people look down on rhythm guitar. I guess it depends what kind of band you’re in. I remember when I was trying out for Asking, I jammed out with them and got their rhythms down really easily. Ben said, “Yeah, this is the guy. He’s perfect.” If you’re in a metal band, you need to be a solid rhythm player, no question about it. It’s almost like having a bad drummer in a metal band—it’s not going to work. If you can’t execute solid rhythm patterns, you’d better rethink what you want to do. It’s all based on rhythm.
Ben, you used to have a “no solos” rule, and that changed a little bit on From Death to Destiny, your third studio album. What was behind the no solos thing?
Bruce: It wasn’t that we had a no solos rule. If you listen to Stand Up and Scream, our first record, there are some sweeps and stuff in there. If you listen to Reckless & Relentless, “Someone, Somewhere” has a really cool, bluesy rock ’n’ roll guitar solo. So it wasn’t a rule; rather it’s that when I was young I noticed that guitar solos were something that I wasn’t into so much. It’s a bit self-satisfactory. I was always thinking, “Could this song be great without this guitar solo? Is this guitar solo making the song?” A lot of the time, the answer was, “No, it’s not.” You know—are you adding to the song or just masturbating?
I didn’t want to get caught up in that, because in previous bands I was in, every single song had a guitar solo. Some songs had three guitar solos. It became too much, and it didn’t seem necessary. I wanted to concentrate more on the songwriting.
The Black feels like a dedicated return to grindcore. Do you feel as if the last album didn’t hit the marks in some way?
Bruce: No, not at all. Going back to the beginning of this conversation, I went through a lot, and so I was writing some really heavy music. But it wasn’t predetermined to go in any kind of direction—the music just came out the way it did. I think this new record has songs that are just as anthemic as the last one, so we didn’t abandon that direction.
“I love good guitar solos, but I’m not that kind of player,” says Cameron Liddell. “Never have been, and I don’t think I ever will be.”Photo by Ann Buster
Cameron, you didn’t play on this new album.
Liddell: That’s right.
Are you okay with that? A lot of guitarists would say, “Hey, man, why not?”
Liddell: Obviously, I really did want to play on this record, but it came down to needing the right tones for the guitars. I’m a lefty, so I need my own guitars, and the producer wanted the same guitars on all the tracks. Yeah, I was bummed out, but it is the way it is.
Bruce: That’s just the way it’s always been. He didn’t really perform on From Death to Destiny. He didn’t really perform on Reckless & Relentless, and he didn’t perform very much on Stand Up and Scream either. I think it just goes back to when we were doing our earlier albums. We had very limited time in the studio because of budgets and stuff like that.
For this record, we went in with [producer] Joey Sturgis, who’s recorded all of our albums so far, and we had to do everything as quickly as possible. I wrote the songs, so I knew them better. We could just set my tone and get the guitar sounds, and off we went. Joey knows my playing style and my techniques, so he’s very good at capturing my guitar takes. It’s really about expediency.
Liddell: But I was at the studio the whole time, so that was cool. I was hanging out and seeing what was going on. I know the full record. It wasn’t like I wasn’t there and came back and was surprised at what everybody did—you know, like, “Oh, you’ve got a full record! How did that happen?” [Laughs.]
So you’re studying the parts because eventually you’ll have to play some of the stuff live.
Liddell: Exactly. I was there for the full process. I’m still a part of the record.
Does Ben ever track anything you’re expected to play, but you have to tell him, “Hey, man, that’s not my style.”
Liddell: Not necessarily. We read each other quite well. We’ve been playing together for seven or eight years now, and all we’ve ever known is Asking. There’s a lot of intuition going on. Nothing is unexpected.
There are thick waves of rhythm guitars on “The Black.” How many guitar tracks are on it, and how do you work to give each one its own tonal characteristics?
Bruce: I think we used three different guitars on that track. We relied on the guitars themselves for their different sustains and their different tones. We used a Gibson Les Paul Studio—not sure of the year. We used my custom Ibanez, of course, and there was a third one ... some strange brand [a custom Halo Guitars model with an EverTune bridge system] that Joey had built for him. We took all of the strengths and weaknesses of each guitar and, rather than trying to manipulate it with effects and tones and EQ, we used the sound of the guitar itself for that particular section. We just built things up naturally.
Is it all about what your hands are doing instead of effects?
Bruce: Joey is very particular about how tight he wants guitar sounds, and it just so happens that I have a very steady right hand. All the takes are super-tight. That said, you’re never going to get the same take twice, but Joey tries to make me play as if I will. No matter how precise you are, your strings are going to rattle differently and you’re going to get various overtones. So you get a kind of discordance. It all adds up and gets heavier and darker.
But it’s not all heavy and dark. In both “I Won’t Give In” and “Send Me Home,” you offset the robust power chords with nice, sparkly, ringing guitars. The sound is reminiscent of such ’80s bands as U2 and the Cure.
Bruce: Sure, yeah. I quite like that—one sweet tone at one end and a really heavy tone at the other. We switched out guitars depending on what section we played, and we played to each guitar’s strength. Joey made a custom plug-in—essentially a Ben Bruce plug-in—and we just messed around with it until we got what we wanted. We do a lot of work in sections, so I would get a sound for just one part of a song, not the entire thing. We would spend hours doing stuff like that.
Ben, I understand you experimented with some different scales on this record.
Bruce: Yeah, we had a friend come in to engineer the guitars for the record. His name’s Sam Graves, and he’s a phenomenal guitarist. Over the years, I’ve gotten very comfortable playing around with the same scales and keys—you fall into that zone where things are easy—so Sam really pushed me to experiment more. I enjoyed it, actually.
I’ve never had a guitar lesson in my life—I’ve always learned by ear. I couldn’t tell you the exact scales and stuff that Sam had me mess around with. He would just sit me down and run me through things like, “You’ve been using this scale a lot. Why don’t you try this one instead?” Little things to get you out of your box. It was almost like I was having my first guitar lessons during the course of this record.
Cameron, is there anything you’d like to learn on the guitar right now?
Liddell: I’ve been thinking about getting a teacher for when I’m off tour, but we’re so busy all the time, so that’s a problem. This new record doesn’t have the same old octave chords—there’s new shapes and patterns in there, for sure. It’s still our guitar sound, but there are a few changes.
As for what I’d like to learn, it wouldn’t be specific stuff—just broadening my guitar playing. It would be cool to play some new styles in my downtime, for my personal pleasure. Of course, I’ll always have what I do in Asking as my number one, my career.
Both of you have signature Ibanez guitars. Did you confer with each other to make them different tonally?
Bruce: No, not at all. I was approached by Ibanez to do a custom, and I was like, “Hell yeah. I’m stoked!” I sat down with my guitar tech, and we went over a bunch of stuff about tones. Then, after mine was done, I guess Cameron was asked if he wanted to do a signature guitar as well. He ended up doing the same thing with my tech.
Liddell: We’re both on Fishman pickups now. I originally was with EMG, and then a rep from Fishman hit both of us up and came to a show, and he was like, “You know, you don’t have to come with us, but put them in one of your backups and see what you think.” We were like, “Okay, cool.” Our tech put them in our backups, and I literally could tell a huge difference. It was pretty insane, because I’ve been with EMG since the beginning. Ben and I were both pretty stoked on the product.
Bruce: The Fishmans are great. Originally, I put Seymour Duncan passive pickups in the guitar. I’ve never been a big fan of active pickups—I just don’t like the tone they get. But when we were approached by Fishman and I tried out their pickups, which happened to be both active and passive depending on which setting you’re on, I was just blown away. They were like a must. I said, “We have to have the Fishman pickups in there.”
I’m a big blues fan, so I played a lot of blues growing up. I always had Gibson Les Pauls and I got used to that fat, chunky neck. Ibanez guitars are renowned for having that sleek, thin neck, which I guess helps the shredders, but it just wasn’t for me. So as far as other things on the custom guitar, they actually redesigned the neck to make it more like a Les Paul. Next to the pickups, that was a big thing for me—that neck.
Did you use any pedals on the album?
Bruce: No, no pedals. Joey is a big computer nerd, so he creates his own tones. He has his own company called JST—Joey Sturgis Tones. Basically, it’s very similar to the Line 6 POD Farm, which we used, too, but it’s more versatile.
Live, you both use Peavey 6534s. A lot of guitar teams want to differentiate themselves by the tools they use, but you don’t mind using the same gear.
Bruce: It all depends on how you use the stuff. The Peaveys are roadworthy heads. They sound great, they kick ass, they’re trustworthy—we love ’em. We don’t use them all the time, though. Because we travel a lot, it gets expensive and inconvenient to travel with heads and cabs, so we’ll use Axe-Fx live, as well. If we’re flying to Thailand or somewhere, it’s a must. Good luck trying to explain to the promoter in Thailand that we need a Peavey. We’ll get there and they’ll have brought in a Marshall head or something. So in those situations, it’s just easier to use Axe-Fx—we’ll go direct.
Because you do use the same guitars and gear, how do you achieve different tones on stage?Liddell: I would say it’s in the different pickups we use. I’m more of an active pickup sort of guy, so my tone is a little bit raw, whereas his is kind of a warm and clean distortion. Crunchy and raw—that’s a good way of describing my tone. There’s a really good combination of sounds in a live show.
Here’s Asking Alexandria’s 42-minute set from 2015’s Graspop Metal Meeting. At 14:32, the band previews the then-unreleased “I Won’t Give In,” in which Bruce plays icy lead lines over Liddell’s monster rhythm riffage.