Grindcore kings Pig Destroyer are at the top of the mountain in their genre and they aren’t done yet. Last month, they followed up 2018’s groove-laden Head Cage with The Octagonal Stairway, a new EP that flaunts Pig Destroyer’s industrial and electronic influences. At the same time, the Virginia/Maryland grinders delved into their rich back catalogue to prepare for a number of residencies and special performances, including a performance of their genre-reinventing Prowler in the Yard in its entirety.
Guitarist and band founder Scott Hull spoke with Decibel in a rare interview, discussing The Octagonal Stairway, revisiting Prowler in the Yard and Terrifyer in their entirety for the first time since their release and the parallels between Pig Destroyer and Napalm Death’s careers.
The Octagonal Stairway is out now on Relapse.
It seems like you took a little bit of a different direction on part of the new EP with the inclusion of more electronics. What was your thought process when you were doing that? Did you just want to try something different and see how it worked?
More or less. We were originally going to take those songs, the three original, more straightforward grind songs which were released on various different standalone formats. There were two that were Adult Swim singles series and there was a Decibel track, so we wanted to release those on a proper physical format to make them a Pig Destroyer release, but we didn’t feel the need to rerecord them or incorporate them with other new stuff.
We rerecorded and remixed it, but originally we were going to do a one-sided EP where the other side would be an etching, but I felt a little bit wrong about selling a three-song 12-inch. We decided it would. be a good time for us to stretch out and do some more, we call it noise but it’s definitely not noise. It’s more industrial, reaching back into our Throbbing Gristle influences. We decided to follow that path and do something that we would put as much creative effort into as we would normal songs, but would aesthetically be something different.
We were definitely going for a different vibe with those tracks and we tried to make it cohesive and coherent with the rest of the material by including JR’s vocals and Blake’s noise, but we wanted it to be a little bit different. And we’re no strangers to do something completely left field, we’ve done stuff like Mass & Volume and Natasha and stuff. I thought it was pretty cool. I know that it’s kind of a left turn, but people seem to be into it.
You’re also coming up on a few pretty big milestones in the band. Prowler in the Yard will turn 20 next year. How are you feeling as you come up on those milestones for those big records—you were scheduled to play Prowler in full at Decibel Magazine Metal & Beer Fest: Philly—now that you’re at a point where you’re two decades removed from those early, influential records?
It’s weird because we spent most of this last year after [bassist] Travis Stone joined the band. We got offered a couple of two-date residency shows, so we decided that we were going to do those and in doing those, we had to come up with two distinct setlists. I spent most of last year—that compounded with the fact that I had to relearn songs to make playthrough videos for Travis to learn—relearning our old catalogue, which is something that’s kind of weird because a lot of those songs we never even played live. We just wrote and recorded them for the record and that was it, so about half of Prowler we never played, let alone with the new guys. [Vocalist] JR [Hayes] always has to go back and dig up the lyrics and I spent the entire year just learning all the songs off Terrifyer and all the songs off Prowler.
It’s interesting to revisit 20-year-younger me and my mindset when I was writing that stuff. It’s neat because it’s as close to getting back into that groove as you could possibly get. It’s inspiring me to go back into that direction a little bit; not to just rehash stuff, but I could tell what I was trying to go for, what we were trying to go for, which is a little different than what we do now. The songs are a little bit longer in structure and they’re a little catchier. Early in the Terrifyer and Prowler in the Yard days, and Explosions, we really tried to intentionally cut grooves off before they got too repetitive, something that the early Melvins records did and we really tried to follow that.
It was a very different sort of set of plans for those records. Interesting to see how we’ve sort of changed over the years, for better or for worse. It’s really interesting to have been around this long.
Since you’ve never played so many of them live, I’m sure it’s kind of revelatory because you haven’t played a lot of those songs since you recorded them.
It was kind of the disposable attitude about writing the music for me. It was like that with Agoraphobic [Nosebleed] too. A lot of it was trying to capture something that was very inspired so we would try to write and get a song down just enough so we could track it and get it done with, whether or not we would play that at a show was another issue altogether. We just really didn’t want to dwell and over-practice stuff. We wanted to keep it kind of rough and have the wheels about to fall off feeling.
That’s what we really tried to capture with the first few records: something that was kind of organic and messy, but definitely inspired. We definitely don’t do that now. We definitely write stuff and demo stuff and do pre-production demos for things and everything is planned out, but it was kind of a cool thing to go back and revisit that sort of more improv attitude that we had back then.
Do you think that will have an influence on you writing new music in the future?
Yeah. We’re intentionally in our mid-period phase that a lot of bands have gone through. Napalm Death had their Diatribes and the three albums. We’re sort of intentionally in that, where we’re doing stuff that’s a little groovier and it’s not necessarily as extreme, but it’s something that we need to sort of get into our discography and out of our system. I’ve already told the guys we’re going to go back into something more extreme for the next record.
We’ve got a live album coming up after The Octagonal Stairway and then we’re going to do a split with Cherubs which is going to be more in tune with that noise rock-type stuff and then we’ll do another full-length. I have every intention at this point for it to be shorter, faster, weirder songs, sort of like the earlier stuff.
When you were writing the new EP, were you focusing on any themes or ideas?
Not lyrically. Musically, “The Octagonal Stairway” was something we did a long time ago when we were still just a four piece. The other two songs, “The Cavalry” and “Cameraman” are thinly-veiled tributes to different eras of Napalm Death. Fear Emptiness Despair is “Cameraman;” there’s a few vibes going on in that song that also occur in Fear Emptiness Despair and “The Cavalry” is a very direct Harmony Corruption-type, Jesse Pintado tribute.
You have a new collaborative beer with Adroit Theory, an Imperial Milk Stout named after the EP.
This is our first time doing a collab with Adroit. [Adroit Theory owner] Mark Osborne’s a super cool guy and he’s a fan of the band, and he’s local too. I got in touch with him and we discussed potentially doing a collaboration at some point. It came to us brainstorming what we were going to do around the release of The Octagonal Stairway, so we thought it was a good event for us to do a collab. He already had something more-or-less ready and it’s in the style that Blake [Harrison, noise] really, really likes, which is an imperial stout. So we just put that into high gear, developed that and put it out within a couple weeks. It turned out pretty good—super strong for a stout.
Pig Destroyer had some residencies planned and you were going to play Metal & Beer Fest: Philly this spring. Obviously all that is on hold until at least next year. Do you still plan to come back when music returns to do a bunch of residencies and shows?
We don’t have any plans to do any residencies but we definitely will. All the shows we had for 2020 shifted to almost the same time frames in 2021, but it doesn’t look to me like we’re going to be traveling anytime soon. I know our Japanese tour is planned for February but unless there’s some drastic breakthrough in terms of a vaccine where everybody can safely travel, I don’t see how we’re going to do that. I don’t think bands have started to travel again anywhere, really, and cases are still growing, so I don’t know.
Just like everybody else, we’re chomping to get back into it and we were practicing a lot for Prowler, we had the whole record down. It sounded sharp, sounded way better than it did in 2001, so we’re definitely stoked to do that. I don’t think I want to do any more full-album shows because it was nice to go back and relearn the old material but that’s come at a cost. After a year of doing all that, it’s hard for me to get back into the writing phase for brand new material.
A lot of bands have said that because of the downtime they’ve been writing more. Would you say then that the opposite is true for you?
Most of this lockdown, I didn’t spend writing. I’ve only just started doing that. Most of the lockdown I spent mixing and finishing up The Octagonal Stairway and remixing the live CD. I was productive in other ways, but not in terms of writing new material. I’m doing that now because we’ve got that Cherubs split LP that we are going to hopefully do by the end of the year. When all said and done, it’s been about a year and a half, maybe a year and nine months since I started writing new material. I’ve got to reconnect with the muscle memory there, but it’s coming.
I was active with remixing material and getting everybody to review it and make sure it was good, but we haven’t been writing new material yet.
The last song on the new EP—”Soundwalker”—features Igorr Cavalera. How did you end up working with him on that?
Travis is in Lody Kong with Max [Cavalera]’s son. When Cavalera Conspiracy would go on tour, Lody Kong would go on tour with them so he’d stay over at their house a lot and got to know them real well, and that included Igor. Igor mentioned last time they were on tour doing a collaboration of some kind and that was kind of the impetus for doing the side of the EP that was more industrial and electronic.
They came off tour pretty shortly before the lockdowns all happened, so I got in touch with him and he worked on some stuff and sent it back to me. I added some material, some remixing to it and made it our collaboration track. It worked out pretty cool; he’s been a super cool guy and I can’t wait to meet him. It’s interesting to see the kind of electronic music he’s developed into.
Explosions in Ward 6 turns twenty this year as well.
Explosions doesn’t seem to get much love from us, does it? THere’s a lot of interesting moments. in Explosions and that was the first time we had [drummer] Brian [Harvey] with us and so we were emboldened by the fact that we had a drummer who could push us forward instead of hold us back. That being said, we didn’t feel like we came into our own musically until we did Prowler. For us, it almost feels like Explosions was sort of a glorified demo even though we did have a demo and Prowler is our first proper record, so to speak.
[On Prowler] it’s like when that intro ends, there’s almost a different band there.
We were still in that sort of hardcore theme where it was looked down upon to be too polished and definitely you couldn’t have too many metal elements in your music. The glaring exception to that was, of course, Assück. When we did Prowler, we didn’t know how not to let those metal influences come through as long as we also kept the energy and inspiration and the speed. That’s what we did and it seemed to work, which became our identity for the next few records.
So you would say that’s where those influences seeped in and Pig Destroyer figured out the sound you were going for was.
Yeah, I think it was that Explosions we were trying to make it messy and sloppy, and not have the metal edge to it. It wasn’t received very well, you weren’t supposed to be doing that, but we decided on Prowler to let our metal influences sort of shine through while keeping the choppy hardcore aesthetic that we’d developed.
We decided to not artificially dumb down the music, where I think we did a little bit of that with Explosions.
If taking on that metal edge was going against the grain, would you say then that attitude influenced what you would continue to do throughout your career? Parts of your catalogue sound different, like you’re trying to reinvent something there.
Yes and I don’t mean to be pejorative about it. We definitely don’t follow a playbook. I’m sure that we’ve lost a lot of fans by not creating Terrifyer 2 or Prowler in the Yard 3, which is fine, but we can’t just do the same old thing over and over again. That being said, we have a lot of different influences besides just grindcore and we want to show those influences in the music.
I rely on my bandmates to reign me in a little bit. Head Cage was supposed to be our total, weirdo skronk album. I listened to a lot of Breadwinner and a lot of Confessor and it was supposed to be our oddball, no blastbeats, kind of like early math rock and I was all about that. Not only that, but listening to those kind of bands with Mets and Cherubs, that’s what I was all about and my bandmates were like “you can’t really just do that with a full-length,” so it wound up being a little more balanced. Having that kind of an ethos when you start a record, that’s just a reaction to feeling like you’re redoing something that you’re done before. That’s why I was saying semi-facetiously that we’re in our mid-paced period now because we’re sort of getting those influences out of our system so that we’ll round back into more full-tilt grindcore again.
You’ve been a band for almost 25 years. If you made the same record, you’d get bored.
It would be less interesting to come back to because you’d be d0ing the same sort of by-the-numbers variations on riffs and fills and song structured. That being said, we’ve gone through some different stylistic changes and since I’ve gone back and re-learned all of Prowler and Terrifyer for these residency shows, it’s kind of interesting to go back to write those kinds of songs, which is shorter and some of the riffs I had no idea what the hell I was thinking when I was writing them.