“Everyone thought I was absolutely insane for having the dream of wanting to make it big,” says Emphatic’s lead guitarist/songwriter Justin McCain, recalling his upstart years as a musician in Omaha, Nebraska. A self-described workaholic, McCain refused to give up, despite facing what some musicians would have considered insurmountable obstacles.
Emphatic released a new album, Another Life, on October 22. The CD is the long-awaited follow-up to Damage, the band's label debut, after four independent releases. Through it all, McCain has remained the fulcrum, steadfastly pushing forward through member changes and the departure of longtime frontman Patrick Wilson as the group prepared for the Carnival of Madness tour.
With a loyal fanbase and a lot of original material waiting to be recorded, McCain never gave up. He regrouped with former Fuel frontman Toryn Green, guitarist Bill Hudson, bassist Jesse Saint and drummer Patrick Mussack, signed with imprint label Epochal Artists Records, and produced Another Life. The first single, “Remember Me,” debuted at No. 6 on iTunes and is setting the foundation for the band’s new lineup, new label and new management.
Emphatic experienced success with Damage. You had a Top Ten single on the Heatseekers chart, toured, and were ready for Carnival of Madness. Then you had no lead vocalist. Is that when things began to unravel?
Patrick was never really on that tour. It was a little better than I expected it to be for a band that didn’t have a frontman. I thought the brakes would be put on the project right away, but that wasn’t the case. The Carnival of Madness tour went very well. We got thousands of new fans and it was a great experience for us, but after ten or eleven months Patrick still hadn’t returned. It got to the point where something was going to have to happen and that’s when things started to take a turn. The band was in disarray and we didn’t know what we were going to do.
Did you consider starting over with a new name or moving forward as a solo artist?
Emphatic is something I’ve been working on for about ten years. There have been different members, but when it came down to it, I’ve always been the primary writer and I handle all the business, so the name was going to stay regardless of who was involved with the project because Emphatic’s my baby. I’ve worked hard on it. From a fan standpoint, some people said, “You should change your name,” and some said, “Keep the name.” I respect their opinions, but regardless of what happened with this band, and who was in the band, at the end of the day, we have so many fans and I didn’t want to give up on them. They stuck through everything. If I changed the name, then there’s a lot of hard work for nothing, and it was like giving up on all our fans who have been through everything with us. I decided to keep the name, rebuild a little and give our fans the best band possible.
Was there ever a point when you considered giving up?
Never. I couldn’t give up if I told myself I was going to. It’s in my blood. I wake up in the middle of the night with song ideas in my head. It’s always been who I am, as far back as I can remember. I was telling my wife the other day that before I even had a guitar I was writing on cassette tapes with different band names and pretending I was in a band. It’s always been with me. I’m always going to do it.
What drives you during those times? How big a part do your fans play in keeping you going?
I’m a very competitive person. Prior to getting a record deal, I liked the idea of being in a position where you create your own thing and you work hard for it. I’ve always been a hard worker and done everything I can in this industry. I love being the underdog. I like the story of working hard and achieving something that’s virtually impossible. Getting a record deal, for example. It’s so hard to do. How do you separate yourself from the pack and get that done? A record deal was one of my goals since I was a little kid, but I soon found out that was only one aspect of it. There was so much more that I wanted to do. I wanted to tour, meet as many people as I possibly could and really build a brand. Basically, what drives me is the want to succeed. And music is my passion. It’s always been, so I’ll never give this up.
Where does your work ethic come from?
I think in some cases it’s how people are raised and in some cases it’s just your character. For me, it’s a combination of both. You have to love something and really want something to be passionate about time invested into it. I always wanted to do music as a career and I’ve never given up. No matter what obstacle has come my way, I’ve always found a way around it, over it or through it.
A lot of bands now believe that labels are not necessary because of the Internet. Emphatic, on the other hand, has always gone after the record deal. Why is a label important?
At the level we are, a label is definitely necessary. It depends on your goal and the situation you’re in. We want to go as far as we can, and there are certain things a label can do that you can’t do on your own, for example, distribution. Everyone can put their stuff online, but this label has done an amazing job for us. We’ll be in stores internationally and in all the Best Buys, and that’s not something you can typically do if you’re straight-up independent. Aside from that, I don’t think we would exist if it weren’t for radio. Some bands are a little more underground, so when they’re going the independent route they may be building their brand in a different way, based on what style of music they are. But we’re definitely a radio rock band and that's a good reason to have a label, because there’s a great radio department there and a lot of things you can’t do independently that a label can help provide. If it’s the right team, they can get a lot done. There are teams at labels, and depending on your style of music, that's a big factor in whether or not you need a label or which label would be right for you.
As the primary songwriter, you’re the thread and the sound at the core of the band. How have you grown, and how did you draw on the past couple of years to create the new material?
From my heart and my soul, every lyric is real, so when you ask how did I grow as a songwriter, I can’t really tell you because it’s based upon real incidences in my life. It’s not like I’m sitting down and trying to study something and become better at it. It’s either about someone that I know, an experience that I’ve had, or something to do directly with my life. When you hear one of our songs, if it sounds like we matured a little bit or sounds a little different, it’s just a different time in my life. I’m not trying to do anything different. It’s just that chapter of me. Toryn is a co-writer on these songs and that was new for me. The last time I wrote with someone who was in the band was when the band first started. I took over the role for all these years, so it was cool working with Toryn. We put our touches on the songs we brought to the table and did the best record we could.
What is the songwriting process like for the two of you?
We didn’t really write one whole song together. I write so much, so what I’d do is bring a song to the table, show it to him and tell him what I liked the best. He put his touch on my songs to fit his style. We’d each put our stuff in the pile and we’d hone it in the studio. It was an easy process because we both did our work and came to the table with some great options.
Did you write for his voice, or did that happen when he put his touch on the material?
Actually, I wrote for Patrick’s voice. I was with him for nine or ten years. I knew his range and the things he could do, so when I wrote, I always had his voice in my head. I had this arsenal of songs, and I picked the ones that I thought would be the frontrunners for the record. Once we demoed those, they were good, but some of the ones we didn’t necessarily think would be album tracks were phenomenal. It’s amazing how someone else’s vocal can go on a track and bring it to life. That happened unexpectedly. I didn’t write for Toryn’s voice because I didn’t know what to expect. I wrote the way I always do, and some of it turned out better than I thought. It was an interesting process.
How did you find your new band members?
Patrick has been with me for a couple of years. Bill called me and said, “I want to be in your band,” and I said, “OK.” It was as simple as that. He’s from Brazil, but he had lived in Omaha for a couple of years, so we kind of knew each other from the scene and he’s an awesome guitar player. Jesse was referred by a couple of people I worked with in the past. I gave him a call, he flew up, we talked, and that situation worked out pretty easy as well. Toryn was the first guy I brought in. I wanted to make this the best possible band, and that’s a huge feat to accomplish because Patrick was a star, a great showman, and those were big shoes to fill, but I knew one guy that could do it and that was Toryn. I was a fan of his. I hit him up on Facebook and he told me that he was a fan of Emphatic and that he’d love to do it.
Facebook recreated Emphatic. I didn’t think I’d get a response, but within an hour and a half he responded and sent me his number. I almost didn’t send him the message. I thought he’d never see it. But I did it anyway, and boy, am I glad I did. The one guy I wanted and thought I’d never get is now the singer for the band. It’s been a little over a year now.
Were you looking for a rhythm guitarist? How are your styles similar and different?
I wasn’t, really. I almost opted to be a four-piece until Bill called me. We’re a very song-driven band, so we’ll never focus on instrumentation. It’s not that the playing isn’t important, but it’s not a situation where we try to be impressive and go overboard if it’s not right for the song. If you’re a band that's focused on a lot of soloing aspects and instrumentation, then it’s cool to have two guitar players because you can feed into each other. But that’s never been this band. I write the songs and I’m confident to go up there and do it on my own, but on the flip side of that, I thought maybe we can start integrating some cool things live. Bill is a world-renown soloist. He’s an awesome player who has played with tons of different touring bands in Europe and he’s always hired to be the lead guitar player, so I thought we’d put him on a solo or two on the record. He played the solos on “Remember Me” and “Forbidden You.” Live, that’s something cool we can work on and offer our fans, so I thought it was a good idea to bring him in.
When will Emphatic begin touring?
We’ve done a few shows here and there since we got out of the studio. We were concerned about doing the right record first. We’re looking at touring starting in mid-January. We have the right group of guys. There are a lot of guys out there who have star quality and can play, but what’s different with this group is that they’re nice guys, easy to work with, and everyone has the same goal: to take this to as many people as possible.