Interview: Early Graves - Thrash in the Saddle Again
After a series of tragic setbacks—including the death of founding vocalist Makh Daniels—Chris Brock and Early Graves charge back into the metal fray and emerge triumphant with a thundering masterpiece.
Early Graves "Red Horse"
Red Horse—the latest release from San Francisco metal band Early Graves—describes an outfit toughened by constant adversity. As guitarist Chris Brock describes it, the title is a reference to numerous obstacles that have threatened to derail the band, including the terrible loss of founding vocalist Makh Daniels to a fatal 2010 van accident while the band was touring to support their second album, Goner.
After months of hibernation and emotional recovery, the remaining members of Early Graves, as well as new vocalist John Strachan (also of Funeral Pyre), returned to the studio with a vengeance, recording the most focused and succinct record of the band’s career. Red Horse has fewer of the noisier textures and dragging moments of feedback that were hallmarks of 2008’s We: The Guillotine and Goner. “We wanted to make literally every second count,” says Brock. “We didn’t want long transitions between songs—we wanted to do the most we could possibly do in 30 minutes.”
As evidenced on Red Horse and previous Early Graves albums, Brock’s style ties together thrash, punk, and early hardcore influences—with riffs that often come from the same school as Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman and Morbid Angel’s Trey Azagthoth—but his style also somehow still manages to pull from the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Thin Lizzy, and Black Flag. “We definitely have punk and death metal riffs,” he explains, “but in more of a rock ’n’ roll structure.”
Brock is an unabashed fan of the Gibson Les Paul. “When I was young and learning to play the guitar, I was really into all of the metal guitars that were cool at the time. But when I got older and got my first real guitar, it was a Gibson Les Paul Studio. There’s just something about Les Pauls that I can’t describe—they feel the most natural to me, and they sound gigantic.
“I want to have to really battle the guitar,” he says. “While I’m writing a riff, the feeling and sound from fighting the Les Paul is part of what tells me I’m playing a good riff. The experience of playing one translates directly to my writing.”
Chris Brock (right) rocks out with Early Graves' new vocalist John Strachan (left). Photo by Denise Borders /punkworldviews.com
Both Brock and guitarist Tyler Jensen mainly rely on Gibson Les Paul Studios when playing live, and both are loaded with Lace humbuckers. “I’ve got a set of Nitro-Hemis in my Studio, and Tyler’s got a set of Drop N Gains in his,” says Brock. “It’s really hard to cover mistakes when playing a Les Paul, because the notes sound so huge. The Lace Nitro-Hemis take that to the next level—they’re so clear sounding that it was almost frightening when I first used them. They don’t roll off the gain, but they make everything sound so much clearer. I totally love them.”
Both guitarists also used Brock’s completely stock Gibson Les Paul Standard with Burstbucker pickups to record Red Horse’s solos and the few clean guitar tracks. “I never felt the need to change the pickups, because it just sounds great as it is. I love using the neck pickup for solos—it just sounds so smooth and even.”
Although Brock is always open to trying new amps, he and Jensen are devotees of Mesa/Boogie Dual and Triple Rectifiers, specifically the 2-channel models made from the early to mid ’90s—in fact, he just traded an ESP Ron Wood T-style guitar for an old ’95 Dual Rec. Like many hardcore Recto fans, Brock says his all-time favorite Rectifier is what enthusiasts refer to as a “revision G,” and he insists there’s a huge difference between the feel and body of older, 2-channel Rectos and the more modern 3-channel models. “I love trying everything, but I always come back to my old Triple Rectifier. I just don’t think I’ve played anything else that fits me and how I play as well as that amp.”
Although older 2-channel Rectifiers have risen in price over the past several years, they haven’t gotten to the level of vintage Mesa/Boogie Mark I and Mark IIC+, or Marshall Super Lead amps. Brock says this is mainly because of an unfair stigma. “I’m telling you, people knock on them now because they were nu-metal machines back in the day, but those old Dual and Triple Recs are really sweet. A lot of people complain that the lows are flubby, but you just have to know how to set them and not be afraid to use the midrange knob. A lot of players’ inclination is to scoop the mids and crank the gain—but you’ve got to have those mids in there, otherwise they can sound kind of goofy.” Brock also points out that he gets his best Rec tones by setting the master volume as close to noon as possible so that the power section is really working and allowing the amp to react more dynamically.
When playing live, Brock and Jensen each run their 2-channel Triple Rec heads into a full stack of Marshall 1960 cabs loaded with a mixture of Celestion Vintage 30 and GT-75 speakers. Each cab is lined inside with egg-crate foam, which Brock says makes the bass “pop out” a bit more.
While the Les Pauls-into- Boogies recipe has long been a staple for Early Graves, Brock says that when he recorded Red Horse he had in mind a very specific set of tones that required a little something more. “I’m a huge fan of Metallica’s older stuff, but I’ve spent the last 20 years fighting the ‘Black’ album. But it just sounds so damned heavy, and I wanted that aspect of it. So I basically went into the studio wanting the guitars to sound like a mixture of the Black album and … And Justice for All.” To accomplish this, producer Tim Green mixed in Brock’s “revision blue”-era Bogner Überschall and two of his own late-’70s Marshall Super Lead amps to give the guitars more crunch. “The Überschall is really cool in that it’s kind of in the middle of a hot-rodded Marshall and a Mesa Recto,” says Brock. Green also used his vintage Marshall Guv’nor overdrive pedal to boost the Marshalls, which were in turn mixed down into their own track and layered against the track that combined the Überschall and Triple Rectifier.
However, even with that new amp combination in the mix, Brock still felt the tracks lacked the Black album’s crisp detail. Because the guitars on Red Horse are tuned to B standard—three steps below the Black album—he decided to double each riff with a Danelectro ’56 Baritone reissue. “We used it a bit when we recorded Goner, but we used it for everything on Red Horse. It just made everything sound clearer—and it just sounded great when everything was put together.” In addition to the Danelectro, a new baritone built out of spare parts by Jensen—the band’s resident “fix-it” guy, according to Brock—has already been inspiring new material for the next Graves album.
For live shows, Brock and Jensen keep effects use to a minimum. Brock’s pedalboard contains a Dunlop Dimebag Darrell wah, Boss TU-2 tuner, MXR Carbon Copy delay, Boss NS-2 noise gate, and an Electro-Harmonix Small Clone chorus. Jensen’s is barren in comparison, consisting of just a Boss TU-2 tuner, Boss NS-2 noise gate, and a Robert Keeley-modded Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive. “He keeps it on at all times, and has it set as a boost with the volume up and the gain almost all the way down,” says Brock. “It slams the front end of his Rectifier and makes it grind more.”
Despite their relatively simple rigs, Jensen and Brock are both avowed gearheads constantly on the lookout for new stuff to try. “I want to try the new Bogner Überschall pedal, and the new pedals from Mesa/Boogie,” says Brock. “And I know that they’re not new, but I’d love to get my hands on a vintage Roland JC-120 combo, and I’ve been on the hunt for an old rackmount Triple Rectifier for years. If I find one for the right price, I’m snapping it up.”
Visit the world’s TV to check out Early Graves in all their thrash-tastic glory.
Filmed most appropriately in
ashen shades of gray, this October
2012 clip shows Brock and company’s
entire rafter-shaking set
at the Speakeasy Lounge in Lake
This Early Graves footage shows
the San Francisco headbangers
with late vocalist Makh Daniels
at an April 2009 gig at Seattle’s
Brock, Jensen, and company
perform “Goner” at 2012’s Sound
and Fury Fest in Santa Barbara,