Once Human’s Logan Mader and Max Karon
Two-thirds of a triple-7-string lineup reveal their formula for sonic domination and how the band’s new album truly is an Evolution.
Logan Mader made a huge noise with the exceedingly heavy sound of Machine Head. The two albums he contributed to, the 1994 debut Burn My Eyes and 1997’s The More Things Change…, established the band as a major force to be reckoned with in the ’90s metal scene. After parting ways with Machine Head, Mader went on to tour with Max Cavalera’s Soulfly, supporting that band’s debut album. But in 1999, after success with two of the heavier groups of the ’90s, Mader stepped out of Soulfly and the touring world all together, rarely surfacing except for a brief stint in the Whitfield Crane-fronted Medication.
While it may have appeared to fans that Mader had disappeared completely, he was busier than ever. He dove headfirst into a prolific music production career that has found him working with such luminary metal bands as Five Finger Death Punch, Fear Factory, and Gojira.
His production work led to a collaboration with Australian-born vocalist Lauren Hart. The two began working on what was to be Hart’s debut album when they discovered they had a strong connection and were both heavily vested in the music they were creating. For Mader, the wheels of forming a new band were officially in motion. “That was it,” he relates. “I had to do it. I loved the music we were making.”
That band is Once Human. Mader and Hart added bassist Damien Rainaud, drummer Dillon Trollope, and second guitarist Skyler Howren to their ranks, and released their ruthless 2015 debut, The Life I Remember.
Once Human delivered a hard-edged sound that performed a virtuosic balancing act between death- and groove-metal. The sheer range and vocal power that emanated from Hart’s petite frame had more in common with Nordic black metal vocalists than it did with other female death-metal powerhouses. It was this sound that gained the new band opening slots on Fear Factory’s world tour. And it was this tour where Once Human first crossed paths with their soon-to-be third guitarist, Max Karon, beginning a new chapter.
With Karon now onboard, a new sound began to emerge that would heavily inform the band’s sophomore release. “I brought more of a modern, Meshuggah-influenced side of things,” said Karon. “And I really like Pat Metheny, which is totally out of left field.” It’s these influences that worked their way into Mader and Hart’s songs, injecting their fierce aggression with a fresh dynamic that pushed everyone in the group to new heights.
Once Human settled on the fitting title of Evolution for the resulting album, and are setting out to prove that this band, with three guitarists, is one of the most exciting and extreme creations in modern metal.
A big story in metal right now is “The Return of Logan Mader.” Logan, tell me about your road back to recording and performing as part of a band.
Logan Mader: After developing my producing career to the point where I was pretty well established, I did start to miss playing live in a band. It took meeting Lauren. The music that we started doing really brought me back. Originally, I was just going to produce and develop the project, and something told me, “I should probably do this.” I’m glad I did. But I still produce and I still mix, and I love doing that. I don’t plan on stopping.
Max, you’re new to the band. Tell me how you got involved with Once Human.
Max Karon: I met them while I was a guitar tech for Fear Factory. I just hung out with them, we became friendly, and they heard my stuff. I started sending them demos, and one thing led to another.
How did the sound of Evolution come together?
Mader: It was organic. Lauren came in with her influences. She leans towards European black metal—like Dimmu Borgir, old Opeth, and Devin Townsend. Well, he’s not black metal. And I was more kind of groove metal. So with the combination of our two styles, we worked to make something that’s unique. And then, bringing Max in on the second record, he’s a big part of how we’ve evolved so much. Max is amazing. His musical mind is alien.
Karon: I think a lot of their first album was very straightforward metal. What I brought was more of a progressive sound. I hate to say this, but I bring a little bit of a signature sound. It’s really heavily influenced by everything I listen to.
Are there any spots on the album you would point to as examples of your sound?
Karon: There’s a song called “Drain” that is in a strange time signature. And there are some parts within other songs that syncopate to 4/4 and aren’t as straightforward. And a lot of my lead playing’s note choices have been influenced by [Meshuggah guitarist] Fredrik Thordendal’s solo album. I brought a lot of the spacy-sounding leads into the picture.
Mader: Max influenced me a lot, actually. Like now we’re playing 7-strings with the G–C–G–C–F–A–D tuning, which opened a spectrum of riffability for us. And the caliber of the riffs that he was writing, and the intricacies, and the fact that they were so unique really pushed me to make my riffs on par with that.
What led to that alternate tuning?
Karon: I was doing some writing in dropped C. Then I tuned the two high strings down from A and D to G and C respectively. So, that made open C. And then I started working on I of Tongues [A new band with former Devildriver drummer John Boecklin.] demos, and it became G–G–C–F–G–C.
Mader: When Lauren started getting the tracks, she was intimidated because it was so good. It was like, “Fuck. I’ve got to really deliver on the lyric, and the vocal performances.” She really put her heart and her head into it and wrote some thought provoking, meaningful, powerful lyrics. She’s evolved as a vocalist as well. Her vocal tones are much deeper and guttural, and more powerful now. We all raised our standards, and stepped up our game. A lot of evolution there, you know?
Despite all the technical aspects of your music, the songs never lose their groove or integrity. It’s never heavy for the sake of heavy, or technical for the sake of technical.
Mader: Yeah, that’s definitely a conscious effort. Lauren and I really spent the most time on arrangements. And Max would deliver a lot of riffs and stream-of-consciousness-type pieces. And then, of course, it was all about the song and making sure that song felt right all the way through.
Karon: For me, it was exactly a result of all of us being in a room and agreeing on what sounded good. There was an objective: It was to make something straightforward, easy enough to catch on the first time, while heavy and complex enough to be interesting, but not needlessly complex.
Logan, you had your hands in some pretty influential music in the ’90s and early 2000s. And Once Human’s previous album, The Life I Remember, contained a more straightforward metal sound. But when I listen to Evolution, there are a lot of very modern sounds.
Mader: Well, the guitar tones actually came from Max. They were an Axe-Fx. I think it was a Fryette amp simulation that he had as one of his presets. When I heard it, I really loved that tone. It sounded like everything that a really aggressive, modern, heavy guitar tone should be.
The album is extremely clear for how much is going on. Logan, you normally mix, engineer, and master, but you chose to go with Jens Bogren for mastering Evolution.
Mader: I made sure to get a bigger low-end going on this record and to really utilize the spectrum. I’m quite proud of the mix. But I wanted to work with Jens Bogren because he’s got a lot of analog gear and a proprietary mastering suite in his studio. I really love what he did. He added some analog life and punch to it.
Mader catches some air as he slams chords during a Once Human concert. “After developing my producing career to the point where I was pretty well established, I did start to miss playing in a band,” he admits. Photo by Harry Long
How is your playing on this album expanded from what you’ve done in the past?
Mader: Well, I’ve gotten better, because I’ve had to push myself to play riffs that are not the easiest kind of riffs to play. And I was writing riffs in the studio that were like, “Fuck, I can’t even play this!” Then I would practice it piece by piece. Now, after practicing it, I can play it. I think any musicians should always do that. Otherwise you’re kind of idle and stagnant.
Karon: Every time I sit down to write I’m hyper-aware of every one of my writing ruts. There are lots of common patterns in my playing. So, I’d say this album challenged me to make something cohesive but different from song to song.
Including Skyler, Once Human is a three-guitar band. That’s unusual in music as heavy as yours.
Mader: Yeah, it’s pretty fucking heavy. I love Skyler, and he’s a good player and a good dude. There are moments from the album with main riff and octave riff duplicating, and then lead going on top. So there are three guitars recorded. And we’ll distribute those parts between the three of us live to replicate it organically.
Max, have you done the three-guitar thing before?
Karon: It’s new. It’s going to sound bigger and better than having two guitars. I know Skyler and I will be switching off for certain leads during the live show. So the rhythm section is always going to be a little bit bigger as a result.
With that much sonic information, how do you track guitars in the studio?
Mader: I did most of the rhythm tracks on the record. Usually it’s just two tracks. And Max does a lot of his leads with main and octave. We never really quad tracked. I think the intricacies and the subtleties and nuance is in the speed of the riffs. It has a better clarity and is more effective to just do doubles.
Karon: A lot of the leads are my recordings. Logan, being a very detail-oriented producer, locked in the guitars exactly how we wanted them. But my lead playing was kept, with my weird tones and stuff.
Mader: There are other times, too, where, if it’s a really busy riff, I’ll play something similar to the bass line on rhythm, and it gives more clarity. It sounds better live to have two guitars doing the riff and one doing that.
In the videos for “Gravity” and “Eye of Chaos,” all three guitarists are playing Ibanez 7-strings. Is that a recent development?
Karon: Ibanez is absolutely my guitar of choice. I recently began a two-year endorsement deal with Ibanez. So, as of now, I believe I am an Ibanez artist.
Karon: Yes. Feels good man. I’ve been playing the Ibanez K7 for a long time. Basically, when I was a young kid and very into nü metal, I washed a lot of cars and saved a lot of lunch money and turned it into an Ibanez K7. Little did I know it is one of the finest instruments I will probably ever own. Right now that thing is loaded with Lundgren M7s, which are the Meshuggah-design pickup. My guitar is like a sum of my influences through the years: Korn guitar with Meshuggah pickups. But I am hoping to get one or two of those multi-scale guitars from Ibanez before I hit the road.
Is the K7 what you used to track in the studio.
Karon: Yes. Certainly for my leads.
Mader: I switched over to Ibanez about a year ago. I love those guitars. I’m playing an Iron Label. It’s not the custom shop. They’re not the super-high-end expensive line of Ibanez, but I love them. They play amazing. I was really impressed when I first picked it up. And I play EMG pickups.
There are places within the album, especially on “Eye of Chaos,” where you guys hit things that are just unbelievably low and powerful sounding. Were you using 8- or 9-strings?
Mader: No. It’s all 7-string. But the tuning on the low string is G, so it’s almost as low as an 8-string. And there’s a few spots we use a Roger Mayer Octavia. That thing gets ugly as shit.
Karon: It was a totally unlikely candidate for disgusting tone. But it worked! Basically, there’s this Bloodbath album called Resurrection Through Carnage, and this is the closest I ever got to creating that kind of ugliness. That’s a big win for me!
Did you guys use any other stompboxes on the album?
Mader: Max has lead tone that’s got a lot of delay, I think a little bit of reverb on it. And beyond that there are only a few spots where clean guitars are layered. There’s a couple of moments where I would put the volume halfway back. But I don’t need any pedals.
Were you also running into the Fryette model on the Axe-Fx?
Mader: Yeah, but I recorded through a Kemper. We profiled Max’s version of the Fryette, which ran through a couple of Neve modules for some pretty drastic EQ’ing. And then we profiled that into my Kemper. So my sound has all the results of that.
Are you planning to take the Axe-Fx and Kemper on the road?
Karon: Absolutely. We plan on having the very minimum of gear onstage. I think we can get by with digital processing for guitars. It makes more sense to be lightweight at this stage in the game.
Are you running live cabinets onstage?
Karon: Not as it stands. I mean, there’s plenty of room for growth in the future, but the difference in shipping and renting backline, baggage costs when flying, and trailer space—bringing an Axe-Fx is just easier.
Are you running the profilers’ onboard effects as well?
Karon: I’ll be running all my effects in the Axe-Fx. I’ll have two pedals: a Tech 21 MIDI Mouse switcher and a tuner. But I need a MIDI Moose badly because there’s a lot of dancing involved, especially navigating across multiple changes.
What string gauges do you use for those super low tunings?
Mader: I’m using Ernie Ball’s Super Slinky 8-string set, and I just throw the 7th string away. I’m using a .074, and then it goes .064, .054, and down the line to a .010. So it’s really heavy. And I just started using Ultex Sharp .73 picks. I like them a lot for the fast stuff that we’re doing.
Karon: Lately, I’ve been using .062, .052, .042, .030, .017, .013, and .010. They’re Ernie Ball Cobalt strings. They’re angry-sounding, and I really like that. And I’m a huge fan of Ultex Sharp picks from Dunlop. A lot of my angry guitar sound comes from a brand new Ultex Sharp .90.
Does the band have a lot of touring on the horizon?
Mader: I can’t announce anything, unfortunately. My goal is to do enough supporting slots during this album, so we can do a little bit of headlining towards the end of it. And then with the next album, enough people will know about us that we will have some good touring right when the record comes out.
Karon: We’re all a little bit stir crazy right now, because we’re all dying to tour, having written the album a long time ago. We’re ready to hit the road and stay busy.
Do you feel like the goal is to continue to evolve from album to album, or have you defined the sound of Once Human?
Mader: I feel like we really have a unique identity now, with this new record. And it feels good. I think we can cruise within these parameters for at least a few albums before we start branching off. But I always just want to be creative and not really have an agenda when writing. So who knows where it's going to go?
The official video for “Eye of Chaos” offers a chance to eyeball Once Human’s triple 7-string line-up shaking the studio. Catch the unison melodies and listen for the octave pedal.