Appalachian Noir: The Deciblog Interview with Chris “OJ” Ojeda of Byzantine

After fifteen-plus years of hard work and some setbacks  Byzantine is finally reaching a larger audience. Their recent self-released album To Release Is To Resolve has received nearly universal acclaim. The band also put aside years of label frustrations and now handles the bulk of band business themselves: releasing, tour coordination, promotion and social media.

However, the proverbial long way to the top has definitely been a long one for the band, which started in a part of rural West Virginia with minimal access to heavy metal and widespread economic problems. Many of the band’s best songs since their formation have touched on the problems of Appalachia, particularly rampant prescription drug abuse. Decibel talked to frontman Chris “OJ” Ojeda about his long metal apprenticeship and one of the world’s most dangerous jobs: pharmacy delivery driver in rural America. 

The song we premiered this spring (“The Agonies”) was about prescription drug abuse in your home state. Tell me a little bit about where you are from.

I’m from a small area of southern West Virginia 50 minutes south of Charleston. It’s about an hour from the Kentucky border and very rural. My town had about 2,000 people. We’ve been hit very hard with big drug problems. I’ve never partaken in drugs like that and have a pretty good outsider’s perspective. But it’s really crippled our economy back home. There are so many people out on disability or flat out robbing people. It’s hard to be a senior citizen back home and have any type of medicine in your house because you worry you’ll be killed. It’s happened a few times in my community; someone murders someone’s grandmother because they have some oxycodone. The name “The Agonies” is a street name for prescription pill abuse.

A while ago I had a job delivering drugs for Rite Aid. In the morning they would load my vehicle with $250,000 worth of narcotics and I’d drive to five or six different Rite Aids in my county. I had no idea how dangerous that was. I didn’t carry a firearm. Every Rite Aid I delivered to was robbed! Someone could have just run me off the road and shot me in the head and stolen a half-million dollars worth of hydrocodone.

You didn’t carry a gun?

No. I was completely oblivious to the fact that I was driving through one of the most drug-addled areas of West Virginia with all of these level three drugs. It lasted about seven months before I figured out that I was going to get killed. Here I am just hauling this shit around with no gun. It was a weird experience.

You were like a mule and you didn’t even know it.

(laughs). It was very eye opening. This was seven years ago. The problem was bad then and it’s even worse now. It gives me chills to think about what I was doing for a living.

Have you seen a lot of friends fall victim to drugs and have their lives fall apart?

Yes, a lot. For the size of our town the percentage is way too high. West Virginia has the highest mortality rate for prescription pill abuse. Everyone in my (touring) van can name people we know who’ve died from this. Our tour manager says he can think of ten in his bloodline. Since we need to represent the state and ourselves we stay away from it and write about it and let people know it’s not right.

Do you have any ideas for a solution since you are around it so much?

If I knew that I’d get into politics rather than writing heavy metal lyrics (laughs).  There is so much corruption and poverty as well and it all ties together and people feel hopeless. And there’s not the best health care at home so the rehabilitation some people need might not be possible and they turn to pain pills. Once that gets into your system it can suck your soul right out. I do think education can help. But the state is lacking on all points right now. The best thing I can do is write about it and stay away from it

What was it like growing up in Appalachia? Did you grow up around difficult circumstances?

There’s not an upper class where we are from. Any people who are well-to-do are coal miners and they busted their ass their whole life. Our well-to-do is everyone else’s middle class. I grew up in a house that didn’t really want for anything because my Dad worked 60 hours a week in a mine. Right now that is shifting because of the EPA. The mines are dying and everyone is struggling. It’s making a lot of people depressed and forcing people to do things they don’t want to do. A lot of good musicians in our area fell to drugs. I was able to move to Charleston and further my education and keep playing music. But I’m still close to the source.

How did you find your way to heavy metal in these circumstances? What was the gateway?

Where I grew up there wasn’t a record or tape store. To find a music store that wasn’t selling acoustic guitars was an hour drive. I’d just get cassettes from friends: old Sepultura, Metallica and Megadeth. We’d listen to it until the damn tape broke. It sort of helped us retain an identity and sound. We weren’t inundated with a lot of heavy metal. One thing that hurt is that it’s hard to get noticed in rural south West Virginia. You have to drive seven hours to play in a big market. That’s why it’s taken us 15 years to get to the point where people are taking notice.

Did you copy what you heard? Did you seek out lessons?

All of my uncles played acoustic guitar and my older brother played guitar. But everything they played wasn’t what I liked. There was a group of guys I met in junior high school and we were the guys who skated. One day the main guy in the group said we need to start a band. We’d buy tablature books and force ourselves to learn it. They all ended up quitting but I had the bug and kept doing it. I’d just pick up music by ear and it developed from there. Once I got older I did start taking music lessons but I first learned by ear.

A while ago I had a job delivering drugs for Rite Aid. In the morning they would load my vehicle with $250,000 worth of narcotics and I’d drive to five or six different Rite Aids in my county. I had no idea how dangerous that was. I didn’t carry a firearm.

In addition to economic hardships it sounds like trying to embrace metal or something alternative was frowned upon in your community.

You’re exactly right. The areas where we come from – if you’re going to be a metal musician it’s a pipe dream. You graduate and get a job hauling coal or driving a truck. We were lucky enough to keep going. Now I’m 40 years old and it isn’t a pipe dream. We all have mortgages and kids but we can travel the country and promote our albums.

You are now finally having success in the metal world. What kept you going for decades?

We never expected this to turn into a career. But it’s a blessing for people to pay attention to us. There was about five years between 2007 and 2012 where we broke up. We just finished a three-album deal with Prosthetic and we ended up disbanding. I had nightmares for five years that I made the wrong choice by quitting. I finally decided to keep doing this until the wheels came off or we stopped making good heavy metal. I think we’re doing it better than ever with our own label and no real distribution.

You mentioned how difficult it was to get gigs or recognition outside of your home state.  There’s been so much technology that’s emerged where people get major label deals based on something on the Internet. Are you happy you grew up without that technology?  Do you wish this stuff was around?

It would have sped up the process but I’m grateful we did it before these things came around. Right now I don’t know if there is any regional music scene; you can come up in Canada and get a deal before you have a full band. It helped us to sit in a garage and practice for hours on end and go for years before playing in a real venue. Those are lessons that you build upon. We definitely got a lot of them. We do take full advantage of social media now but we had to go about it the hard way.

Are things too easy for bands now? Coming from relative isolation you had to want it.

I can’t say that it makes it easier. When you are 18 and coming up you will be a little fish in a big pond no matter what. But a lot of stuff comes from experience and age. It might be harder because so many bands sound exactly alike. It would drive me insane to put my band on the Internet and hear 35 bands just like it. We just need to roll with the times.

Social media and technology also allowed you to rebuild your career after years off and release your own records.

When we disbanded in 2007 we had put out three albums on a good label. And still no one knew who we were. Now we can make a first impression even though this is technically our second chance. If we had to start from scratch in our home state it would be really hard. There are only three or four actual cities here and they are spread between the mountains.

How much is coming from Appalachia part of your identity and your sound?

It’s a big part. Coming from where we did we developed our own sound. Even other bands from around here didn’t really sound like anyone else. Lyrically, we do a lot of stuff based on where we are from. I write a lot in first person. I write about what we know. Every album has something about West Virginia history or events. That way people from around here can champion our songs.

Has anyone from home ever been critical of your music or said you are portraying the region in a bad light?

We haven’t really received any negative feedback. Just this week we got an email from a fan in West Virginia. He’s a college graduate and has listened to us for 15 years. He’d been addicted to painkillers for ten years and said when he heard “The Agonies” and read the lyrics he broke down and cried.  We’re in the thick of it. My family is still there. Sometimes you need to put a light on negative stuff for it to become positive.