Havok’s David Sanchez and Reece Scruggs: Guardians of the Riff
How the guitar duo put a hammerlock on heavy for Conformicide, a metal manifesto packed with serpentine 6-string and screaming, mega-speed solos.
If Havok’s fourth album, Conformicide, is meant to be a wake-up call, the alarm is set for loud, hard, and intense. Songs like “F.P.C” (the last two letters refer to political correctness), “Peace Is in Pieces,” and “Wake Up” carry a clear message about living in a broken system where elites control people’s lives without being held accountable. The lyrics are designed to make you think, but it’s the music that delivers the message.
After years building a devoted fan base, the Denver-based band’s new album could well be its defining moment. With new bassist Nick Schendzielos (from Job for a Cowboy and Cephalic Carnage) combining with drummer Pete Webber in a powerful-yet-nimble rhythm section, Havok’s engine room is fierce and fluid. Then there’s the explosive and highly synchronized team of rhythm guitarist, lead singer, and band co-founder David Sanchez and lead guitarist Reece Scruggs, who replaced Shawn Chavez in 2010.
The minor key acoustic guitar motif that introduces the album’s opening cut, “F.P.C.,” sets a contemplative tone, but as the song amps up to high gear under Sanchez’s snarling vocals, it’s clear that all thinking will be done out loud. The sonic and emotional shift sets the tone for the rest of the album, where high-powered thrash metal meshes with progressive—and often subtle—ideas from other genres.
Sanchez and Scruggs are evangelists for the supremacy of the riff. And on songs like “Hang ’Em High,” “Intention to Deceive,” “Ingsoc,” and others, they practice what they preach. The riffs don’t just hit hard: they show imagination—building tension, releasing it, and unleashing a fury that would fit the soundtrack to a present-day version of George Orwell’s 1984.
Sanchez, who played both sides of the two-guitar rhythm attack on most cuts, provides a perfect bridge between his vocals, Scruggs’s lead guitar, and the rhythm section. Meanwhile, Scruggs stands out with smart fills, textures, and blistering solos. The lead work displays impressive physical technique, but it goes beyond finger gymnastics to serve—and often elevate—the songs.
When we connected by phone upon the album’s recent release, Sanchez and Scruggs were clearly stoked about Conformicide, their new bassist, and the message behind their music.
We live in a singles-driven world, but Conformicide is a unified album in the old-school sense, musically and lyrically. What were your goals going in?
David Sanchez: The idea for the record was doing something that wakes people up and actually says something. A lot of bands today aren’t talking about anything real. As for the music, we wanted to match the anger and seriousness of the lyrics, and we wanted it to really be layered and dynamic.
The album opens with “F.P.C,” and though it becomes a very heavy tune, the acoustic intro sounds almost classical. Did you plan that contrast from the beginning?
Sanchez: That intro actually came together very last minute. Reece was just hanging out playing in the studio lobby. I heard what he was doing and was like, “Dude, we have to include this on the record!” Then we worked out our parts together. That intro is what led to “F.P.C.” becoming the album opener.
So you were drawing from the arsenal?
Sanchez: The beginning of the song “Master Plan”—that kind of slow, marching heavy classical motif—I’ve had that since I was a teenager and it never wound up on a recording until now. So, it was kinda cool, 13 years later, to put it on an album. Everything else in that song is built around it. It was cool to take something off the bookshelf. The rest of the song is loosely based on the chords from that intro. Once that song kicks in—it really kicks in. It takes off hard and is relentless the whole time. That one’s going to be fun to play live.
Speaking of builds, “Peace Is in Pieces” has an interesting intro, with that skittering guitar. How did that evolve?
Reece Scruggs: We basically had the whole record done and rehearsed. We were jamming on this idea and we started listening to these parts and were like, “We have to put this on the next record.”
Tidbit: The band arranged most of the songs for their fourth album on Pro Tools before honing them together in rehearsals for the recording sessions.
The music is clearly thrash metal, but it pushes to the edges of metal with other genres. What are your influences as players and songwriters?
Sanchez: I grew up in a house filled with music: Devo, Oingo Boingo, AC/DC, Elvis, the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd. My early influences were Metallica, then Anthrax, Pantera, Slayer, Exodus, Testament, Death, Dimmu Borgir. Now I’m influenced by everything from jazz to classical to classic rock, new wave, prog, etc.—especially in terms of songwriting. And it all finds its way into the music. Danny Elfman and Oingo Boingo are an especially important influence, along with Al Di Meola.
I started playing when I was 13. I took lessons for the first year-and-a-half, and got pretty good pretty quickly because I used to play along with old Metallica records. My right hand got tight early.
Scruggs: I started at 11 and played in bands from an early age. As a kid, I started playing with much older guys, and I was sort of a local sensation in Virginia—the kid playing with the adults. I developed my style by being made to learn cover songs to play in three-sets-a-night cover bands on the weekends. I learned a variety of styles, because the tunes we covered varied from the Eagles to Metallica, Hendrix to 3 Doors Down [laughs]! Anything to get people on the dance floor.
KISS is my favorite rock band. Pantera is my favorite heavy band of all time. My musical influences came from what my family was listening to. Everything from Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, SRV to KISS, Pantera, solo Ozzy and on. I started to get into heavier music after listening to Metallica, Testament, Death, and Decapitated. The lead players with those bands are among my most favorites as well. I started really leaning towards shred stuff when I got my hands on the instructional videos by Paul Gilbert, Vinnie Moore, and Greg Howe. I still reference those videos to this day.
Do you guys build the arrangements through jamming or in the studio?
Sanchez: For the majority, stuff was arranged in Pro Tools as we would rehearse.
Scruggs: We were sitting on a stockpile of really good riffs and ideas. We said, “This is some killer material. Let’s use this stuff that we’ve had for a while because it fits so well.”
Sanchez: But there were a couple of songs that came about organically out of thin air as we were jamming together in a room.
As a guitar team, you’re totally locked together rhythmically and your parts play off each another. Do you work on them together?
Sanchez: Reece came up with the majority of the solos by himself. But there were certain parts [where we worked together]. Like in the song “Wake Up,” there was a part I knew for sure that I wanted the lead to match, to harmonize with the rhythm underneath. So, every once in a while, I’ll throw in my two cents. But as far as solos go, that’s mostly all Reece.
Sanchez expects no trouble translating the lock-step intensity of Conformicide to the stage. “Everyone’s a good musician in this band,” he says. “For me, getting down the vocals while playing the riffs is the hardest part. I have to split my brain in two and put my hands on autopilot.” Photo by Derek Novaes
Reece, how hard was it to nail your solos at these fast tempos?
Scruggs: To be able to lock into all these songs—whether it’s lead over rhythm, two rhythm parts, or rhythm over lead—I sat down for hours and hours a day playing with a metronome, playing with the demo track, playing with the solo section. I was just trying to get everything as locked as possible so there weren’t going to be any problems with me nailing things at the speed we were going, and I’d be able to pull off anything that I could come up with in my head. The metronome became my best friend.
Sanchez: Also, before we started recording, we were rehearsing all these new songs with the click. I think that helps a lot, too.
There are lots of tempo changes. Do you program those into the click?
Sanchez: Yeah. We map out most of that stuff before we start recording.
Scruggs: We’re super prepared.
Sonically, the guitars also blend extremely well together. How did you record them?
Sanchez: We used our own guitars with our own overdrive pedals. For amps, we blended a Peavey XXX II with a Peavey 6534 Plus. We ran one take into the two heads going into two different cabs and blended the microphones.
Did you guys play together?
Sanchez: No. I did most of the rhythms and Reece did most of the solos. We use different settings for our amps, and I used the same settings I use live. Even though I was tracking both rhythm parts, for “my side,” I used my guitar and my overdrive, and for “Reece’s side” [the parts Reece plays live], I was playing his guitar running through his overdrive. I think the different guitars and pickups make the biggest difference in keeping our individual tones definitive and separate.
What kinds of guitars and overdrives are you using?
Sanchez: The guitar I use in the studio is a Framus Custom Shop Wolf Hoffmann with EMG 81 pickup in the bridge, running through an Electro-Harmonix Soul Food overdrive.
Scruggs: I used two different guitars. I was using a Charvel Star that I was playing for a while with [Seymour Duncan] Jason Becker Perpetual Burn pickups, and I’ve been hooked up with a company out of California called Roehrs Guitars. I used those for a lot of the leads. For the “Wake Up” solo, I used a Charvel San Dimas with Seymour Duncans. The overdrive I used for leads—and Dave used for my rhythm parts—was an MXR Custom Badass O.D.
How do you fine-tune your tone when matching a high-gain amp and an overdrive pedal?
Sanchez: I don’t have a whole lot of drive on the pedal, and on the amplifier, my distortion is around 2 o’clock—at like 7.
Scruggs: My tone is similar. I don’t crank the distortion up on either the amp or the pedal. I have the overdrive on all the time, both live and when recording, just to basically fill in the cracks. Blending amp and pedal makes for a very solid, more consistent tone.
This is your first record with Nick Schendzielos on bass. What does he bring?
Sanchez: Nick’s cool to have in the band because he can play practically anything. Ask him to play something crazy as hell and he can pull it off, noproblem. Songwriting-wise, some bass lines were already written before he jumped into the process, but he wrote some bass lines completely himself. Others were collaborative with us tossing ideas around—playing bass line ping-pong, going back and forth with ideas until we settled on something. He brought ideas that none of the rest of us would’ve thought of.
I’ve read that you pride yourselves on creating riffs. What makes a great riff?
Sanchez: First, it must be heavy to qualify for a Havok song.
Scruggs: Whether I’m listening to music or Dave has just played me a riff, if it makes me scrunch up my nose and furrow my brow and just bob my head, that’s when a good riff is happening [laughs]. It just has to have the weight behind that couple of seconds of music to be like, “Yeah, let’s work off that!” In rock and metal, it’s all based around the riff, but there’s a whole lack of riffs in metal today. There are a lot of parts, but there isn’t a lot of staying on something decent for a while and making a tune out of it.
Sanchez: A great riff is substantive. It pulls you into the song and makes you want to invest the
five minutes to not hit skip on your music player.
So how do you develop a riff that’s strong enough to be a song’s foundation?
Scruggs: We throw stuff at the wall and see what happens. We might have 30 riffs, and one to five times out of 30 you’ll have something pretty damn special that you might base half a song off of. You must have that hook—that catchy part.
Sanchez: Every once in a while, I’ll hear something in my head and I’ll just record it into my phone with my voice and then go figure out how to play it on a guitar later. I record myself doing Beavis & Butt-Head style riffs with my mouth [laughs].
The songs are fast, hard, and rhythmically complex. Are they a challenge to perform live?
Sanchez: It’s not so bad because everyone’s a good musician in this band. For me, getting down the vocals while playing the riffs is the hardest part. I have to split my brain in two and put my hands on autopilot, and not think about anything so I can focus on the vocals.
Scruggs: [While writing the album] we got together four times a week and just played for hours on end. When we went into the studio to record, we had the material down. We played the hell out of it together. So, once we got to our [tour] rehearsals, it was still damn tight from writing and recording it.
Critics have called this your most consistent and forceful album. What stands out for you about it?
Sanchez: For me, it’s the drum sounds. I think they sound really great. And a big deal for me is the lyrical content. I’m hoping people listen to the lyrics and snap out of their television stupor. Another thing that’s cool for me is “No Conscience.” There’s a solo in that song I think is pretty cool—and that’s a rare occasion where I played it [laughs].
Scruggs: Everybody’s personal performance is the best they could possibly get. I’m more excited and proud of this record than any I’ve ever recorded. Standout moments, as far as songs go: I’m a big fan of “Intention to Deceive.” I believe it’s the best solo I’ve written in my life, so I’m very proud of that. “Wake Up” is a good one, too. That was a good collaboration. I had a chunk of that already done and Dave was like, “Hey, try that here...” And, overall, just how progressive and smart the songs are, and the direction we’re going.
Havok raises havoc on the floor of the January 2017 NAMM show, premiering “Hang ’Em High,” a track from Conformicide. This video provides close-up looks at the picking styles of David Sanchez and Reece Scruggs, as well as their main instruments: a Framus Custom Shop Wolf Hoffman V-style guitar and a Roehrs Custom RS Star.