When I was a kid, of course I loved Christmas. Gifts, food, candy, chocolate, family and friends dropping by and bringing more gifts, food, candy and chocolate, a fat man breaking into your house and not stealing shit…what’s not to like? Then, during my angsty teenage-and-early-20s, I really developed a rock-solid hate-on for the holiday due to many of the same reasons I used to love it as a kid. It seems I’ve travelled full circle because I’ve started enjoying the holiday season in incremental amounts over the last few years as I’ve gotten older and ricketier and now have a kid of my own who enjoys getting gifts and stuffing his face alongside dear old dad. Plus, watching and laughing as motherfuckers trample each other on Black Friday a month beforehand totally gets me in the holiday mood and Netflix really helps deal with the injury of everything being closed on Christmas Day being insulted by the fact there’s never anything on TV worth watching.
J.J. Hrubovcak will certainly be helping with my enjoyment of the holidays this year. What the coffee-addicted bassist/vocalist for Hate Eternal has done in celebration of the season is whip out his four-stringed yule log (amongst other instruments and his vocalist brother, Mike) and created an EP called Death Metal Christmas – Hellish Renditions Of Christmas Classics. Sure, there will always be a grin-inducing element to hearing traditional Christmas tunes played in the spirit of Choosing Death, but Hrubovcak’s versions dismiss the campiness of Christmas sweater merch and present as a lot more serious with a darker vibe overall as he’s changed many of the lyrics to fit his own twisted vision. What follows is a chat I had with the creator a couple weeks before sleigh bells started ringing.
Where did this idea come from and what were you trying to achieve? Were you always a huge fan of Christmas growing up?
I was always a huge fan of anything dark. When I was little, I always into these super-dark hymns and thought that someone should take them and turn them into something that would be really powerful; something really metal. A lot of people have taken older Christmas tunes and turned them into something metal, but nobody’s done it where it was very, very dark. I always looked at these hymns and thought it would be great to have all these orchestrations in there, different harmonies and everything and no one does blasting or double bass in their Christmas tunes. Actually, that’s not true; there are death metal Christmas tunes, but it’s always campy and always a joke. It’s always something about Santa or zombies ripping apart Santa.
You mention the term “dark,” but the association with Christmas songs or carols isn’t usually of darkness. It’s Christmas music; it’s supposed to be happy, positive with kids singing and shit. Is that darkness something you’ve always heard that few others have and when you mention it to people, what are people’s reaction?
I can tell you right up front that every time I mention Christmas and death metal I get looks like, “What the hell is this? Is this just going to be another ‘Jingle Bells’ with blasting?” When I say dark – I mean forget the lyrics because the lyrics are usually of a religious nature and telling the Christian story of Christmas – it’s the music itself. For instance, “We Three Kings” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” aren’t of a happy nature like “Frosty the Snowman.” There’s no way I could take that or “Jingle Bell Rock” and turn them into something super-dark and serious. If you did that, the actual themes would change so much that you wouldn’t even recognise them. These hymns, to me, were always dark. Not so much “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” but the others were.
At what point did you start not just thinking about it, but actually working on it?
Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a while, actually. I’ve been thinking about for a couple of…
A couple of Christmases?
[laughter] Yeah! Yeah! Last year, I was like “I gotta get this out. I gotta get this out!” but it was too late so it had to be done this year. I didn’t really start the music until later this year and it all came together really quickly. Originally, I wanted to feel out the idea, that’s why I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even tell my brother but as soon as I started to construct the tunes themselves, I was like, “Man, this is going to turn out great!” and I had to do it. The more I did it, the more it gained momentum and the more fuel I had. It just snowballed from there. It basically became a cram-fest to the point where I was working around the clock, non-stop, getting like an hour of sleep a night and cramming as much as possible because I knew I wanted it done for this year.
Your brother does the vocals, right? And you did everything else?
It sounds pretty together and lively, especially the drums which, even though they’re programmed, have a lot of flare to them. Was it a challenge doing all this by yourself?
I’ve played drums in other bands before and I was thinking about it from the point of view of that I didn’t want it to be standard. I wanted to add some flavour and make sure it sounded like it had some life to it; the same thing with the guitars. I wanted to create a lot of energy. I love aggressive music, but that goes for any style – death metal, jazz, classical, pop rock – anything as long as it’s aggressive and has some thought put into it as far as how many layers there are to the music. I love anything like that, so I wanted to do the same thing for this. I was looking at the lyrics and I wanted it to have some sort of relevance and not have anything to do with Christmas religious stuff. I was thinking about it from the point of view of a dark element that basically creeps into and seduces society and turns man against itself.
How much lyrical alteration did you do?
Some of it I kept because there are certain lines that were pretty dark already. I don’t know why it is, but when you look back on Roman Catholic hymns and Catholicism in general, they’re already talking about drinking the blood of Christ and eating the flesh. There’s always some sort of darkness going on. The lyrics themselves were already pretty dark, but I re-wrote a lot of them. There was maybe a paragraph or two that I left as is. You’ll get to see it; I put all of the lyrics on the website so you can compare the originals and new ones.
What can you tell us about what you did with and how you approached the lyrics?
The originals were initially designed to tell the classic Christian theme behind Christmas: a baby is born to a virgin in a manger and all these kings come and deliver gifts. They’re designed to tell a story and they basically sparked this idea of a new king. In the original, the new king is supposed to be Christ, but in this version the king is the demon Azrael. But it’s not only a demon; it’s a way of thinking that seduces society to where most of society ends up thinking along these lines. I chose Azrael because a lot of lyrics already had Israel in them and Azrael is the angel of death in some of this folklore who is supposed to born to a wealthy family, gets involved in politics, does a lot behind the scenes and his ideas end up being promoted by other people around him. These ideas, they don’t realise, are detrimental to themselves and once these ideas are in place that’s when all hell breaks loose. Azrael, not being from this Earth, doesn’t realise he was put here to accomplish a certain end, which is to destroy man. It’s basically a mindset where if you take certain steps, you take a certain path and it starts to become commonplace and part of the collective unconscious and people can tend to hurt themselves more than they realise and this Azrael is just a personification of that. But I don’t want the lyrics to be the total focus of the record; the focus for me was to make the music shine. I wanted to put a totally different spin on the music.
When you’re doing all the writing and instrumentation yourself, how hard is it to pick an endpoint instead of getting into the trap of endlessly tinkering?
[Laughs] It is pretty difficult because most times you want to tinker with it until the end. There’s no such thing as perfection, but you could go on forever and keep rocking it until it never comes out. But I actually had a hard deadline of when I had to be done because if it didn’t have it done by then, there was no way I’d have the CDs done on time and there’s no way that I’d be able to have the downloads available or have the press stuff done.
How was it coming up with the additional harmonies and riffs and layers? Was it difficult and did you experience a lot of trial and error?
I knew I wanted to use the hymn themes, not the rest of it, just the themes. So, I took the themes and kept working on it until it built itself and it just started coming out like itself. As the songs grew, I’d just go with the flow. I definitely wanted to add some solos; what’s death metal without screaming solos, that’s what I figure [laughs]. Plus, I’m also a guitar player, so I wanted to have that in there.
How does writing by yourself with already established themes compare to writing songs from scratch in a band setting?
The main difference is that this stuff writes itself a little faster just because you have the themes. But for the most part, writing in death metal takes a lot of, I guess you could say, meditation where you’re so focused. Sometimes, it comes out from just messing around, but lots of time you’re just so focussed on your ideas and building around that. It’s just a matter of working and working it. Eventually, you have a basis to work with and you just go from there.
How was it recorded? Partially by you at home and partially by Brian Elliot and Erik Rutan at Mana Recording?
We both engineered certain aspects of it. I did a lot of the guitars at my place and engineered there and Erik also did some of the guitar stuff there. He was responsible for tones and re-amping.
You’re going to have to walk me through this…[laughter]
I used a drum plug-in and the main thing I was thinking to myself was how this was a grand experiment for me. I really wanted to do well, but it was an experiment to see how well programmed drums would perform in this type of setting, or how well I could do it. When I was writing the drums, it literally took me two months of constant tweaking to try to get it so that it sounded like someone sitting behind a kit. I feel it came out that way; a lot of drummers may differ, though [laughs]. So, I tweaked that, recorded all the guitars, bass and vocals at my place and everything was re-amped, tweaked, mixed and mastered by Brian. Erik engineered the guitars and bass once I sent the files down there. When you re-amp, you basically take a direct input of the guitar and turn it into what you want it to sound like. Basically, you can think of it like “I’m playing clean guitar and it comes out distorted on the other end when it’s in Florida.” That’s a very simplistic way of looking at it. The tones are very crafted and everyone worked really hard on this record, especially Erik and Brian because it takes forever to get the type of tones where it sounds natural.
Though it’s never early enough for retail outlets to start thinking about Christmas, it’s still pretty early and the album was just released a week or two ago. How have the reactions been so far?
I always go in with no expectations because I don’t know how it’s going to matter to anyone else. The bottom line is that I had an urge that I needed to do this; it’s like I needed to take these themes and convert them into something unholy [laughter]. Obviously, you want your music to do well, but the most important thing is that I’m doing it because I can’t not do it. It’s like every musical endeavour I’ve ever done; it just eats at me until it gets done. I’ve noticed some folks online aren’t too interested, but most reactions have been pretty good and I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback especially regarding the theme of it and how it could be a possible outcome for man. It’s obviously not meant to be realistic, but it could be, like the Hitler story or something because it’s a theme that’s repeated throughout history for the most part.
Next Christmas would you do it again?
[Laughter] I would love to do it again. This was a great experience, but next time I’d do a couple things a little differently. I was even thinking about doing a different holiday, but I’d do it next Christmas too because I already have some ideas for that one; if not next Christmas, the following one, depending on how busy Hate Eternal is because we’re doing a lot of things next year too. I would definitely do it again. I loved it.
Nice segue. What’s going on with Hate Eternal? [Drummer] Jade [Simonetto] recently quit and you played Anselmo’s Housecore thing with Adam Jarvis?
Jarvis was awesome. He was great and he did an excellent job. Right now, we’re keeping our options open after Jade decided to go back to school. We are working on new material and Erik and I are sending Pro-Tools sessions back and forth all the time. The new stuff is sounding awesome. It’s along the lines of Phoenix Amongst the Ashes, but expanded.
And here’s J.J. rendition of The Nutcracker Suite: