Ringworm have been cranking out metal mayhem for over twenty years now, gradually gaining global attention with no-comprise heavy metal platters like Madness of War, Hollow Soul, and Birth is Pain. Tattooed, black T-shirted, and tough, its members are (along with those renowned hardcore heathens Integrity and Chimaira) indefatigable Midwest metal messengers: Rustbelt rockers who serve notice to the world with each release that yes, Cleveland still rocks.
Founded and fronted by fiery-lunged vocalist Human Furnace, the band rotated members throughout the 2000s but solidified its lineup for a string of albums and 7" splits cut on Victory Records and the A-389 label (Venomous Grand Design, Scars, Your Soul Belongs to Us). Matt Sorg and John Comprix constitute the tag-team guitar force backing Furance’s bellows with their neck-snapping riffs and bristling leads. Drummer Danny Zink creates the bludgeoning beats that swirl mosh pits into maelstroms, and Ed Stephens plumbs the deep end of the Ringworm mix with his burly bass lines.
The group’s fortunes took another upturn in early 2013 on signing to Relapse Records, who issued the well-regarded Bleed EP. The titular tune from that release reappears on Ringworm’s latest EP, Hammer of the Witch—along with a dozen other selections for a scorched Earth.
Pugnacious tempos? Check (“Exit Life,” “Leave Your Skin at the Door”). Palm-muted power chords and staccato riffs on Gibson Les Pauls channeled through overdrive pedals and blasted out Marshall stacks? You bet (“We’ll Always Have the End,” “King of Blood”). Squawking leads, tremolo-tweaked scales, and terrifying twiddly-dee fret board fills fingered on the necks on B.C. Rich guitars and Flying V’s? Oh yeah (“Die Like a Pig,” “I Recommend Amputation”). Sweaty, hyperkinetic rhythms undulating beneath Furnace’s trademark roars? Uh-huh.
Carry on, my demons.
The band recently played a show February 21st in Akron. They’ll swing through Nashville mid-March and perform showcases for SXSW, then embark on a long-running tour (with Death Before Dishonor) whose itinerary will drag them as far as the Czech Republic. A couple Ohio stops appear on the schedule, but Ringworm won’t be back in Cleveland until April, when they head up Fire Fest III at Lakewood’s Foundry.
We had a long phone chat with Furnace last week about Hammer of the Witch, the history of hardcore, the future of Ringworm, and…well, a whole helluva lot more.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: How was the show Friday at Old Haunts?
HUMAN FURNACE: It was some place we never played before, but it was killer! Sometimes the little shows are the ones that are the best, you know? Place was packed. People lost their minds. It was a good show.
EXAMINER: You’ll be doing SXSW in a couple weeks. Is that first for you guys?
HUMAN FURNACE: No, we’ve actually played—not last year—but over the years it was quite a few times. I think this will be the third time, maybe? I could be wrong. But yeah, we’ve played it before. We’re doing a week of shows, there and back.
EXAMINER: Is the band in a better situation now on Relapse?
HUMAN FURNACE: Yes. We like it a lot better working with Relapse. They seem to be more in tune with what we’re trying to accomplish and put out there. When we signed with the old label in 2001, they were different with their agenda, and the type of bands they were putting out had more in common with us. By the time we fulfilled our contract with them, their whole agenda was completely different. Put it this way—we felt like a fish out of water on that label. We didn’t think they were really getting our music to the right people, whereas Relapse is more of a metal audience. What we’re doing translates really well to that label.
EXAMINER: More relaxed, maybe?
HUMAN FURNACE: Right. Yeah. We never like, put any pressure on ourselves or had any put on us by the labels to put out a record every single year. Our records happen when they’re ready. Sometimes between records you just have to recharge, you know? If you consistently put out good records, no matter how far apart they are, people will wait for them.
EXAMINER: What’s the writing process like in the band? Do Matt and John work up the riffs—maybe jam with the other dudes—then pass it along to you?
HUMAN FURNACE: Yeah, they pretty much handle all the music stuff, then they pass it off to me, and I do my thing with it.
EXAMINER: There’s a nice kind of arc to the new record, Hammer of the Witch. It starts with “Dawn of Decay” and ends with “Height of Revelation.” I know the songs aren’t interconnected, but the sequence suggests a morning-into-night sort of thing.
HUMAN FURNACE: Maybe. I never thought of it that way, but I guess you could say that! It’s not a concept record by any stretch. I just approach each song a little differently. So I dunno.
EXAMINER: Take us inside some of the tunes. There’s a lot of violent imagery here—not uncommon to metal—but the purveying themes are defiance and revenge.
HUMAN FURNACE: Every song has definitely has meaning to it, but I lyrically I just write about stuff I know. Experiences in my life, the way I view the world, you know? Stuff like that. But when I write lyrics, I like to use a lot of metaphor. Keep it somewhat mysterious, I guess, so people can attach their own meaning to it. But I also like to keep it…I can be very blunt and literal with the words, as well. For instance, “Skin at the Door”—that’s basically a song about pure carnal relationship. You know what I mean? Being with someone for carnal reasons whether it’s beautiful or disgusting or not.
EXAMINER: “Psychic Vampire” seems to be directed at the sort of people who suck the life energy right out of you.
HUMAN FURNACE: Absolutely. That song’s pretty much out there for little interpretation. Everybody kind of knows someone like that. Someone who just sucks the life from you every time they’re around.
EXAMINER: You issued “Bleed” late last year as a single. There’s references to sacrifice and Lazarus on that one. Again, aggressive imagery with religious undertones.
HUMAN FURNACE: I’ve used a lot of them pretty much on all our stuff, because I’m a horror nut to begin with. So I’ll use occult overtones and dark imagery. It’s just my way of being creative with it. That one in particular is about organized religion, and detaching yourself from that type of mentality.
EXAMINER: I hear you. The Catholic Church has kind of lost its way in my time. I’m sure other organized religions are similarly out-of-touch.
HUMAN FURNACE: I never really had a problem per se with religion in general. In its true form it can be a good thing. Because basically, well, my main thing anyway is, “Don’t be an asshole,” you know? Be a good person. But organized religion seems to use all types of ways to get your money or make you feel guilty you’re doing or not doing. All about money.
EXAMINER: Is “Vicious Circle of Life” a heavy metal take on the nature themes from The Lion King? I thought I heard a reference to Africa in there.
HUMAN FURNACE: No, I never really thought of it that way. I’m not a big Lion King fan. That one’s just about, the more things change with life, the more they stay the same. Bad things happen and will continue to happen to people, and that’s just how things go. But for all the bad, I find comfort in knowing…sometimes when I feel the worst, it’s also when I feel most alive. It’s hard to explain. Sometimes it’s just like that, and I find comfort in it for some reason!
EXAMINER: Again, I know what you mean. There are people out there who would rather be uncomfortable—or even endure discomfort or pain—if they can’t feel pleasure. To them, it beats feeling nothing. Because then, how do you know you’re alive?
HUMAN FURNACE: Yeah, it’s during the times when you don’t feel anything—that’s when you know you’ve hit rock bottom. No emotion at all.
EXAMINER: The new cover art is striking. You did that?
HUMAN FURNACE: Yeah, that was me, I did the cover. Thank you!
EXAMINER: Looks great. Very detailed. I could see this on a lithograph or something.
HUMAN FURNACE: That piece was something I did…about a year and half ago, myself and a business partner—Marty Geramita—put on a gallery show in Cleveland called “Life and Death in Black and White.” I’m a huge fan of illustration-based design, pen and ink. That’s primarily what I do. So that was my piece for that show. And around the time the show was happening and that piece was finished, we were starting to put ideas together for the new record. So I kind of wanted to use that for the new record. I wasn’t sure it would get used, but things kind of fell into place. It’s pretty bold. Two colors can be really bold and striking. And that cover, that art basically influenced the songs names—“Hammer of the Witch”—and consequently the name of the album. It just fell into place. It took me about 200 hours to do that. I wanted to get a lot of work from that, you know what I mean? I wanted to put that piece to work, rather than just have it be for the show. But yeah, I think it turned out to be pretty good.
View the “Life and Death in Black and White” promotional video here: https://www.facebook.com/LifeDeathInBlackWhite
EXAMINER: And it was just a convenient go-to image for the cover? I mean, it’s fantastic, but it just made sense after a while to go with it since it was already on your radar?
HUMAN FURNACE: Yeah, I mean. I’ve always been a huge fan of like, illustrators in general. Pushead [Metallica artist], and that style of illustration. They’ve done some really great album covers, and I just wanted to do something like that as well, in my own style. That kind of fell into place. After a while it was like, “Yeah, we’ve got to use this for the cover.” And in the vinyl format—I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to see it—but we’ve got copies of it, and it looks great on the vinyl. There’s an insert as well, this giant poster of the completed artwork. And the front of the album is embossed, so yeah, it’s really sharp.
EXAMINER: Gotta ask about your name. You hear a name like “Human Furnace” in reference to a heavy metal singer, and one presumes it’s because of your singing style. Is there more to the story than that?
HUMAN FURNACE: See, now that’s a question I don’t usually answer—where it came from or what it’s all about. But basically, I was using that moniker to sign my drawings back in high school. This was before the band even came out. It has a meaning to it, but basically it’s just a way to sign my pictures, like Pushead. Something to separate the alter-egos, I guess you could say. And then it just seemed logical as I took the step into singing with the band, that I often deal with this fantasy world thing, you know what I mean? I figured it was a no-brainer to continue using the moniker in the band. Pretty simple.
EXAMINER: That’s cool. I’m not gonna push you to divulge any secrets!
HUMAN FURNACE: At this point I never really tell anyone where it came from, because after using that moniker after twenty-plus years or whatever it’s been, there’s not gonna be any one story that’s like, “Wow! That’s great!” So I tend to just keep it a mystery whenever someone asks about it.
EXAMINER: It’s got to be tough yelling like you do from show to show—or even when you get little breaks, like in-studio. How do you maintain your pipes?
HUMAN FURNACE: For me, I do everything you’re pretty much not supposed to do. I rarely practice. Before tours…our drummer lives two hours away, so we rarely get a week to practice before shows or before we log a tour. Maybe it’s once or twice before we leave for a long tour. But I don’t really have time to get my vocal cords ready to go. I just do it. Somehow I’m able to do that. I smoke too much, I drink too much. I don’t practice. I sing from my throat—not from your stomach, like you’re supposed to. So I’m not really a good example of how you’re supposed to conduct yourself when you’re a vocalist in a band. I can guarantee it’s probably permanently scarred from doing this. But when we’re on the road for an extended time, there’s things I try. I drink hot tea. Something to soothe it, to apologize to my throat for mutilating it during a show. Maybe I’ll try not to talk too much during the daytime. I’ll drink a lot of ice water before a show. That helps. The rest is sheer willpower, making your voice do something it sometimes just doesn’t want to do!
EXAMINER: You know your limits.
HUMAN FURNACE: Exactly. I know what my throat is capable of doing. Sometimes I’ll push it. I try not to. I know what my comfort zone is. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have much range as far as what do, but I’m okay with what I’ve got. I rarely lose my voice anymore. I have some off days, where it’s like, sore. But at this point it’s pretty automatic.
EXAMINER: Forgot to ask about “I Recommend Amputation.” There’s a sound bite in there, some laughter that sounds like it came from a movie or something. Like, a mad scientist cackling.
HUMAN FURNACE: That’s actually from Hellraiser II. There’s a scene where this kind of, a scene from the end of that. I didn’t even have that in mind when I wrote the song, but when we did it—because I’m a horror movie buff—we thought it was good. Hopefully we won’t get sued over it! But there’s no such thing as bad press.
EXAMINER: Is that the one where the evil doctor is turned into a Cenobite, and he’s suspended by the head in the labyrinth and levitated around the maze?
HUMAN FURNACE: Yes! That’s the one!
EXAMINER: Give us some of the where, when, and how’s behind the recording of Hammer. Ben Schigel was on board as producer, yes?
HUMAN FURNACE: We recorded the album at Spider Studios with Ben Schigel. We’ve actually done our last…hmmmm…three records with him, I think. We work really well with him, and he’s a really talented guy. And like, for me in particular, we work well together and have a little groove we fall into, and he kind of knows my voice as well as I do. So he knows when to push me, and when he can get a better take out of me. Like, “I think you can do better than that.” Plus, we can kind of go in there and explain the kind of things we want to do sound-wise, and he gets it and is able to make it sound the way we want it. It’s also very convenient. Because a lot of bands travel out of town or out of state—even out of the country—to record somewhere. And that’s cool, but it’s not convenient, and it can put pressure on you as far as finality, like, “You have to get this done in two weeks.” So the convenience factor is a big deal.
EXAMINER: Well, it sounds killer.
HUMAN FURNACE: Thank you.
EXAMINER: You’ve got a date at The Foundry in Lakewood on April 19th. Is that a tour-ending show, like a homecoming?
HUMAN FURNACE: No, no. What we’re doing is, the SXSW run. Which is a week, and that leads to Austin. Then we play our way back a couple shows. Then I believe it’s March 28th we leave for three weeks or so doing the whole US with a band called Death Before Dishonor. A really heavy hardcore band from Boston we’ve been good friends with. Then when we return home from that, we’ve got some limited engagements—maybe four or five shows—and we’re headlining a festival [Icebreaker Fest] in Australia. So that should be fun. Then we come back, and then we’ve got some things that are up in the air. But essentially in the summer we’re doing the This Is Hardcore Fest in Philly, then we play our way out to another festival in Denver, and then we fly to Europe and do another fest called Ieperfest Fest [Belgium] and a few other shows. Then we come back and…well, who knows from there? Our management and booking agents are working us hard this year and promoting the new record, and we’re up for it. So I’m sure there will be other sorts of dates that pop up before we know it. It is a busy year!
EXAMINER: I’ll have to catch The Foundry show. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you guys live. Maybe in your other bands—but not as Ringworm. I’m sure I would’ve remembered.
HUMAN FURNACE: Yeah, that one’s gonna be pretty good. That’s a great lineup of bands. That’ll be a great way to end the tour, too. Just with a huge big bash in Cleveland. And we don’t really get a chance to play Cleveland too much. Obviously, over twenty-five years, we’ve played every venue you can imagine in this town. But as far as hometown shows go, you don’t want to wear out your welcome so much. We play sparingly to make it special. And we’re on the road too much now to play too many shows here, so they ones we do play here are pretty good.
EXAMINER: You don’t want to burn people out, even at home. Keep ‘em wanting more.
HUMAN FURNACE: For newer bands, it’s okay to get your name out there, regionally and locally. But we’ve been around so long, it’s just like…yeah, do it sparingly in town.
EXAMINER: Each of the guys in Ringworm moonlights in other groups, including yourself. Do those projects go on the backburner when Ringworm does an album-tour cycle like this?
HUMAN FURNACE: Yeah, yeah. Everybody in the band pretty much does other bands. Matt does Soulless. Our bass player Ed’s in like, a zillion other bands, including one with me called Gluttons. And we all play out as much as we can in town in those bands. But when there’s Ringworm dates, that’s what takes precedence over anything else. It’s hard to juggle, you know? Sometimes you have to cancel shows for your other projects to do this, but it has to be made a priority to some extent. Just like anything else, even musically, it’s about sacrifice. We’ve all had to miss birthdays and weddings and stuff like that because of this band. Sometimes it’s hard to do, but you do it.
EXAMINER: The record comes out in mid-March, so there’s plenty of time to work it up for The Foundry show.
HUMAN FURNACE: The record isn’t out yet, but the songs that were released…it’s getting a positive response from a lot of people. We’re excited about that, and we’re looking forward to everyone being able to hear the rest of the record. We never really count too much on what critics say. We never really have. We just do what we like to do, and if there’s a positive reaction to it, then that’s all the better. And this one already seems to be getting a lot more attention that our previous records. Maybe it’s the excitement of being on a new label, or maybe they’re just promoting it to a more metal crowd that’s more into what we do. But so far, so good with this one! We hope it does really well and keeps us out on the road for a while.
EXAMINER: It’s my kind of metal. It sounds kind of old-school. The songs have a lot of groove, but with just the right amount of riffing and solos coming in from John and Matt. It’s a good balance. Some of the newer stuff I cover is like, noise-wall. I’m sure I’d be able to distinguish things more if I listened long enough, but it’s hard to take after a while!
HUMAN FURNACE: Right. Well…right. See, that’s exactly where the same train of thought from where we come from. We’re all early 40’s and grew up listening to ‘80s thrash. Early crossover stuff like Crumbsuckers and DRI, and COC. Early hardcore stuff, like early Earache [record label]. Stuff like that. That’s where our influences come from. And I always thought it was funny… Some records of ours are more hardcore than others, but I’ve always felt we’re kind of a crossover band. We grew up in the hardcore genre. Sometimes that’s a good thing. I don’t much care what genre we’re categorized as being in. The only problem you run into there is, someone that’s a metal-head or would probably like what we’re doing simply won’t listen because they heard we’re a hardcore band. They’ll assume we sound like Madball, or something more traditional hardcore. And we’re not. We have more metal influences. We have more hardcore influences, if you ask me, but we do our own thing. But that’s where the labels become an issue. Sometimes people just call it metal. Some describe it as metal—but with a punk rock attitude.
EXAMINER: As a journalist I admit labels are handy insofar as they’re buzzwords. They’re readily-available go-to descriptors that some readers might identify with. But yeah, at the end of the day there are very few genre labels that truly mean anything. One hardcore band might sound kind of like another, but you don’t want to paint with broad brushes and throw “hardcore” over everything. You’ve got to do your listening.
HUMAN FURNACE: Sure, it helps sell stuff. There are so many sub-genres where they just put the word “-core” after everything. There’s a “core” for everything! I understand it from a marketing standpoint. You want to market to your crowd so they know what they’re getting into, but sometimes it’s so overdone it’s just like, whatever, call it that. But we’ve played to metal crowds, and it goes over great. But we’ve played for punk rock crowds, too, and that goes well, too. We jump a lot of fences and appeal to a lot of genres. A lot of people get off on what we do.
EXAMINER: Well, thanks so much for the cool talk. We’ll mark the April 19th show at The Foundry on our calendar!
HUMAN FURNACE: That should be a really good one. There’s a lot of good bands on that one, too. Our friend J.C. put that together. He did a good job putting that together.
Order Hammer of the Witch for iTunes, CD, or limited vinyl: http://ringworm.bandcamp.com/
Tickets for Fire Fest III (featuring Ringworm, Death Before Dishonor, and more) on April 189, 2014 at The Foundry in Lakewood, Ohio available here: http://www.ticketweb.com/t3/sale/SaleEventDetail?dispatch=loadSelectionD...