Mastiff will release their new album “Plague” on 1st February 2019. Recorded in one day, much of it live, in a hot and sweaty studio in Hull during the scorching summer of 2018 it sounds like the end of the world. Mastiff fully realised. It makes BORK sound like pop music.
As first single “Hellcircle” blows up the internet, and vinyl pre-sales commence (a sexy white-with-black-splatter vinyl at that), guitarist James Lee and bassist Dan Dolby chatted with us about the last 18 months, Plague, their hometown of Hull and the forthcoming APF Records Showcase.
APF: BORK came out in August of 2017. How’s your year-and-a-bit as a band been since? What were the highlights, and why?
James: Pretty fucking great, to be honest. I mean, miserable, awful. Sorry, went off-brand there for a second. Seriously though, the last 18 months(ish) have been good for Mastiff, we’ve really solidified as a unit after the line-up shifts we’d gone through over 2016/17, and I think it shows not only in the new material we’ve written, but in how much more intense our live show has gotten, if that’s possible. There have been plenty of highlights, obviously writing and recording ‘Plague’ is up at the top, but we’ve also played some of our biggest and most prestigious shows in the last year or so. Being asked to open for Iron Monkey at the hometown show of their big comeback tour was unreal, as was opening for our pals Conjurer at our second home The Alma Inn on their album release show. Probably the best gig this year was at Desertfest though, we packed out The Black Heart in Camden, and were informed later on that people were literally queuing down the stairs to get in while we played. That’s absolutely bonkers.
Dan: It’s been amazing if I‘m totally honest. I had only been in the band a couple of months prior to BORK being released. Since then we’ve gone from strength to strength. We’ve become a tighter unit which has really help develop our sound. I’d say Riff Fest in 2017 was a highlight for me. Totally felt the love from the crowd on that day! Opening for Iron Monkey was insane too. Probably my favourite gig from my time in the band would be our headline show at The Red Lion in Stevenage. The crowd went fucking bananas!
APF: How do you look back on Wrank and BORK these days?
James: They’re both massively important in how the band has evolved sonically over the years. ‘Wrank’ is an odd one for me personally, because that was already out there giving the world a headache when I joined Mastiff, so while I didn’t contribute anything to it, we were still playing those tracks live when I became a member, so there are a few cuts from it that I have a lot of love for. This was Mastiff at it’s sludgiest for sure, things got a bit weirder after that. ‘BORK’ was the first thing the current line-up wrote and recorded together, and though we’re all still immensely proud of it, looking back it feels like a very transitional record for us. Individually I think all the tracks hold up, but don’t necessarily sit together all that well, and because some of us were still fairly new to the fold – I’d been in the band about 6 months when we recorded it, Dan literally about 6 weeks – I don’t think we’d fully realised what this version of Mastiff really was yet. Though ‘Plague’ shifts pace quite a lot, I think the tone and atmosphere of the album is consistent, whereas ‘BORK’ is a bit all over the place. We still throw a couple of those tracks into our shows, though. ‘Everything Equals Death’ is always a good time live.
Dan: When I listen to Wrank and BORK now they don’t even sound like Mastiff releases to me! They’re solid for sure but I feel they lack any real direction. ‘Plague’ is though, in my opinion, a fully realised album that ebbs and flows and feels like one cohesive piece or work. The band knew what we wanted and how to achieve it.
APF: Plague is exceptionally heavy, way more so than BORK to these ears. Was there a conscious effort to go off the ledge in this way?
James: Yeah, coming away from ‘BORK’, there was definitely a mutual feeling among us that we needed to really piledrive our sound into the dirt for the next album. Obviously Mastiff has always been a heavy band, it’s not like there’s a secret acoustic album hiding out there or anything. But we knew we could really crank up the punishment this time, push the extremes as far as possible. We’ve moved pretty far beyond the more groove-based sludge sound on ‘Wrank’, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything even remotely melodic on ‘Plague’. Our goal was discordance, aggression, filth, and I think we nailed it pretty hard. Since me and Dan joined, we’ve brought more noisecore and grind influence into our sound overall, and it’s a testament to the rest of the guys that they’ve picked it up and run with it, especially Mike (Shepherd), his drumming is fucking unbelievable on ‘Plague’. We also decided fairly early on in the process of the plague theme that would run through the album, and that’s really helped us channel the vicious, unsettling sound, and helped Jim (Hodge) summon some of the most harrowing lyrics and vocals I’ve ever heard come out of him.
Dan: For sure. I had virtually no input in the tracks for BORK as I’d only joined Mastiff a matter of weeks before we were in the studio! I’m heavily in to noise rock and grindcore as well as noise and dark ambient. The ‘groovy riff’ has never really been something I’ve ever been interested in! My attention span has never been up to the task. Our aim was always to go heavier but I’m surprised how easily we found this transition. Everyone was on board and writing these tracks was an absolute blast!
APF: Can you tell us a bit about how Mastiff songs are written / gestated before recording?
James: For the most part, we just kick ideas around in our practice room until they become a song. Phil (Johnson) is a riff machine and almost always has something that works as a starting point for us to build on. Occasionally one of us will have a fairly strong idea of an entire song structure – I had ‘Brainbleed’ from the new album kicking around in my head for weeks before I took it to the band, which we then managed to knock out in about half an hour – but generally it’s a process of figuring one part out, then thinking about what would sound awesome after that, and so on. Sometimes ideas go nowhere, sometimes we’ll write a cool riff for a song that ends up becoming an entire separate song in its own right, sometimes something awesome just appears from nothing. We were pretty sure we were finished writing for ‘Plague’, then in the space of about an hour one week we just knocked ‘Vermin’ out, which ended up becoming one of the best songs we’ve ever written.
Dan: Jam and Phil tend to come up with the basis for the songs with the rest of us adding our parts as they manifest and mutate. Sometimes the songs end up wildly different to how they started and others remain pretty much the same. Bass wise, whilst I’ve no problems with embellishing my parts, my approach to playing has always been to do whatever to support the track. Whether that is playing the same as the guitars, following the drum beat more or just playing open strings, I don’t really care as long as it helps the song.
APF: As with Wrank and BORK, Plague was basically recorded live in a day. How do you manage to capture such widescreen brutality so quickly? How did the recording go? Any tales to tell?
James: The awful reality of our recording process is that we simply don’t have bottomless budgets to work from, so getting in and out of the studio as fast as possible is a financial decision as much as an artistic one. That being said, there is an undeniable magic that comes from the sound of a band all shut in a tiny, sweaty room together, playing in much the same way they would at a live show. Mastiff aren’t necessarily the most technically able band on the planet (again, except for Mike who kicks the shit out of most drummers half his age), but we practised the fuck out of the songs on ‘Plague’ for a couple of months leading up to recording, so we knew we could turn up, switch on and blast through them like our lives depended on it.
With ‘BORK’, I listen back now and can hear that we weren’t well rehearsed enough, and though it came out well, given the chance I would re-record the entire thing in a heartbeat. With ‘Plague’, I don’t think we could have captured better takes of a single song, which speaks volumes about the closer ‘Black Death’, as what you hear on the album is the one and only take we did, and for a song that’s 9 minutes long, that’s quite an achievement if I do say so myself. Obviously with such a tight turnaround, we didn’t have loads of time for craaaaaazy hi-jinks in the studio, though it was recorded in the middle of the hottest summer the UK has seen in about 30 years, so you can imagine what that room smelled like, and Jim spent basically the entire time with his shirt off. Sexy stuff.
Dan: As James said, a lot of practice. I’ve recorded albums tracked and live and I much prefer live. It gives the sound a little something else. There’s more feedback, and more small mistakes, but I think that gives personality! I’ve never been so fucking hot as when we were recording ‘Plague’ though. I think that totally added to the urgency of the album.
APF: You’re all resident near the Humber. Your self-styled motto of being “a miserable band from a miserable town” needs some explaining. How has being Hullensian influenced your sound? Do you want to get out, or are you happy being from and staying there?
James: Hull is a very strange place. It’s officially considered a city, and geographically is actually quite large, yet it has a really small city centre, and is mostly made up of bleak council estates. It’s also a typical Northern post-industrial city in that it’s full of crumbling factories and empty shops, and countless miscreants roaming the streets. Hull was the UK City Of Culture last year, and yet walking around now it’s like it never even happened, the second the clock hit midnight on January 1st 2018, all the goodwill and optimism just dissolved and we were back to the usual trudging misery of life on the banks of the Humber.
Ironically though, the people of Hull have some weird sense of local pride, but it never quite manifests the way it should – rather than building ourselves up, most people here would rather just tell everyone else to fuck off. I think it’s that mentality which has fuelled Mastiff to a large degree, not necessarily because that’s how we feel as such, more that we just feel that seething, self-imposed isolation emanating from this city and basically just set it to music. As for whether we’ll ever free ourselves from Hull’s shackles, I actually joined Mastiff immediately after moving back home to Hull after 8 years in London, so if I can escape to the glory of our capital and still end up back here, what hope do the rest of us have?
Dan: I quite like Hull if I’m honest! I’m a yellowbelly and grew up in a small town in South Lincolnshire where everyone knows everyone, so I like the anonymity. Hull feels more like a home to me now than anywhere I have ever lived and I have no desire to leave. Maybe I’m just a miserable cunt and the ‘miserable town’ suits me!
APF: You were one of the first bands to sign to APF Records. Which of your label mates do you have a particular affinity with, either personally or musically?
James: First of all, signing to APF was literally a dream come true for all of us. Making music as horrible as Mastiff do, you kinda resign yourself to the notion of only ever really doing it for yourself, so having someone like our lord Satan not only declare some kind of misguided love for us, but actually want to spend his own money on making sure other people can hear our noise is absolutely flabbergasting. It’s also been amazing seeing how much APF has evolved in the last 18 months, the label’s profile has grown exponentially and the roster has really diversified, and it’s a real honour to be part of it all. As for our labelmates, it’d be remiss of me not to call out our hometown compatriots Battalions, with whom we used to share a bass player in the form of the incomparable Matt ‘The Fumb’ Dennett. Those guys have been plugging at it for years, and it’s lovely to see mates getting their dues. As for the rest of the label, I really loved The Hyena Kill’s ‘Spun’ EP, they’re like a noisier, scuzzier Deftones which suits me just fine, and I used to be a real thrash head, so Redeye Revival are right up my street.
Dan: I missed out on the first signing but signing with APF to release ‘Plague’ was unbelievable. To know someone has that much faith in you and what you do is humbling and I will forever love (label owner) Satan for that. My personal favourite bands on APF are Trevor’s Head and Under. They do not stick to any rules and create astoundingly original music. If any readers haven’t checked these two bands out yet, do so immediately!
APF: Your album launch show is the APF Records Showcase on 2nd February in Manchester. Looking forward to it? How did you find the last one?
James: I can’t fucking wait. The first showcase was a party and a half, so many great bands and generally awesome people having a great time in a really kickass venue, what’s not to love? Obviously it’s going to be even more special 2nd time around, as you said it’s our official album launch show, and we’re going to be playing ‘Plague’ from start to finish, which we haven’t done yet. We’ve been playing most of the songs from the album for a little while now, but we’ve only done ‘Black Death’ once, at Desertfest, and that song is like the end of the world, so we’re hoping we can bring the roof in on The Bread Shed. The showcase is the day after ‘Plague’ is out too, so it’ll be the first show we’ll have played where people might actually know the songs, which means they know exactly when to kick the shit out of each other in the pit, when to try pry the mic from Jim to scream along, and when to plunge their thumbs into their own eye sockets in order to end their suffering as quickly as possible.
Dan: Fuck yeah, I’m looking forward to it! The last one was an absolute blinder! As James said it will be even more special this time round as it’s the ‘Plague’ show.
APF: Finally, anything you wish to declare?
James: We consider ourselves incredibly lucky to be in the position we’re in right now, we get to play shows with some of our favourite bands, we get to record and release music, and people actually seem to give a shit about it. We know that our music isn’t for everyone, but fans keep buying t-shirts and turning up to shows, so we must be doing something right amongst all the chaos. We’re so fucking excited to get ‘Plague’ out there in the world, it’s by far the best thing we’ve done as a band and want as many people as possible to be infected. It’d be nice if people would go and buy the vinyl too, because MASTIFF VINYL IS A REAL THING THAT IS HAPPENING. So yeah. Buy the album. Come see us on February 2nd in Manchester. Support APF Records. The Vermin Will Win.
Dan: Support APF Records and the bands that are on this incredible label. Like it or not, Mastiff are here to stay and we’ll only get more brutal. To paraphrase Nada in ‘They Live’, ‘we’re here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and we’re all out of bubblegum’.
“Plague” is released on 1st February 2019 on APF Records. “White with black splatter” Vinyl pre-orders are open. CD pre-orders will follow soon. Pre-order link:
The APF Records Showcase is held on 2nd February 2019 at the Bread Shed in Manchester. Event details: