Beartooth: Sick & Disgusting

This was my first cover story for any magazine. The opportunity came up last minute, but I'm pleased with how it came out. I wrote more about how I got the story here. This story joined my feature on Emarosa's Bradley Walden in issue 41 of Substream Magazine.

I often think about how age determines one’s interest in the Vans Warped Tour. Now entering its twentieth year in operation, the tour has supported the alternative music scene’s best for almost as long as I have been alive. Superstars like Eminem and Katy Perry made some of their first nationwide-wide rounds on Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman’s punk-centered festival, eventually outgrowing its draw and finding success in a more mainstream part of the industry. Still, there are many others who have maintained long-term stays on summer’s hottest roster. It’s these I forget about when contemplating the worth of a tour that I find I’m starting to outgrow. One such musician is Columbus, OH native Caleb Shomo, the man behind Beartooth, Warped 2014’s hottest in hardcore.

When post-hardcore act Attack Attack! ended their six year run in 2013, Caleb Shomo had already checked out. Providing the majority of vocal work for the band, as well as services on the synthesizer for which the band was well known, Shomo decided in the summer of 2012 that it was his time to go. The band had its share of troubles over the years and controversy plagued both current and former members, leaving a haze of negativity surrounding them. He formally announced his departure in December after leaving I Am Abomination’s Phil Druyor to handle the vocal duties, an appointment that would last just 4 months before the Attack Attack! name was laid to rest.

Now, sitting groggily across from me at a table in the lower dining area of Blossom Music Center, Shomo dabs a few drops of his favorite vaporizer liquid into his device. He closes the cylinder back up with a few twists and takes a puff to ensure the job was done correctly. He’s only been awake for an hour or so and hasn’t had the chance to utilize the venue’s shower rooms, but he doesn’t seem bothered. This is his fourth year on the tour; his first with his new band, Beartooth.

After pleasantries are exchanged and smoking/recording devices are primed and lit, we dive right into Warped Tour, my host for the day and Shomo’s home for the remaining three weeks of its stretch.

"How have the shows been so far?” I ask. The man in front of me expected this question as any tour-worn musician would. His eyes are diverted to the bottle of vape drops in his hand as he responds, "They’ve been good. They’ve been fun and exhausting at times, but the shows are probably the most fun shows I’ve ever played in my life. So I’m good with it. I’m having a good time out here.” He’s not despondent as he says it. He looks like he means it.

I mention his experience on the tour with AA! and he leans back to stretch. He’s still waking up. "Not really. Honestly, it feels pretty much the same as when I left it. The only thing that’s different is that this year we’re mostly on the Kevin Says stage which we have to push our gear to every day because they don’t have a truck, but we’ve been getting moved around to different stages. It changes morning by morning.” The Kevin Says Stage is one of the smallest ones on the tour, but he doesn’t look bitter; there is an air of appreciation in his tone.

"Does the size of the stage make a difference as far as how many come out to watch your set?” I ask him, interested. "Yeah, it definitely does, but to an extent. The only thing that can get weird about the Kevin Says Stage, or any stage really, is if it’s in a really small area that can’t fit a lot of people. Everyday they have to figure out where to put the stage and I don’t know how they do it,” he shakes his head in wonder, "There are so many stages. I couldn’t imagine being a person that has to put this tour together.” His voice is starting to warm up a bit as he expounds on the efficiency of the Warped Tour’s crew. "I’ll wake up at, say, 9AM and walk out [of his bus] to find the whole tour is already set up. It’s a different breed of people, truly.”

In June of 2013, Beartooth dropped its debut LP, Disgusting, via Red Bull Records. They’ve toured in both the US and UK and are on for the entirety of Warped’s 2014 run. Still, the band is new at least in its current form. Each of the roster is a ghost of Ohio bands past, a Columbus area supergroup of sorts. "Brandon Mullins plays drums. He was in a Columbus band called The Promise Estate for a long time. My guitar player Taylor [Lumley] was in a band called Before We Forget. Both he and Brandon were both crew members for Attack Attack! for a long time. Kam [Bradbury] and Oshie [Bichar] who play guitar and bass were in a pop-punk band called City Lights and I just loved them. It’s awesome that they play in this band. A lot of good music comes out of Columbus and Ohio in general. It has a really cool scene.”

The origins of the touring band established, the heart and soul of the band remains Shomo who wrote, played, recorded, and mixed the record by himself in his basement studio. "Beartooth sort of started as a side project for me personally. I record everything for it. I write it all and play all the instruments myself. But it started out as an outlet for me mentally when I was still in Attack Attack!. It helped get my head together and my emotions under control. From there it sparked.” I can see the spark in his eyes, which are no longer looking about, but instead looking back at my own. There is a gladness about him as he recollects, "I was bored at home. I’ve been touring since I was 15-years-old, so that’s what I was used to. So I went back into it and here I am, back on Warped Tour. It’s crazy and it’s all happening very fast."

Being that Disgusting was made solely of Shomo’s mind, there is a lot of self-reflection found within it. It’s not made up of musical trends and scene clichés. Instead, you’ll get "whatever it was that I was feeling or thinking in that moment, that’s what I wrote about. I didn’t overthink it, I didn’t preplan the record. I just write in the moment and that’s what Beartooth is. I just go into my basement studio whenever I feel I have something to get off my mind and just make a song.” Not unlike his process in AA!, Christianity had its role in the lyricism for this effort as well. "In no way is Beartooth a Christian band, but I personally have my beliefs and, being that I just write about my personal experiences or thoughts on a situation, that’s going to bleed out a little bit from me. I’m not necessarily sure in what fashion it will come out. Whether it will be in a positive way or in a questioning way. If I’m writing about what’s going on in my head, that’s going to come out because it’s a part of my life.”

Production and composition can be of the same train of thought or completely separate occurrences for some. For Shomo, he has experienced both in his career as a musician and record producer. "It depends on the band. For Beartooth, it’s very much a part of the same thing. It’s like this whole two-or-three day process. It’s me going down to my studio and locking myself in there without anyone else around, writing. The engineering, the producing, and the songwriting are all part of this one thing. I record the vocals standing in my control room with a microphone and headphones plugged into my interface. I just hit the space bar and do a take. For other bands, it changes. It depends on how much they want me involved in the process. There have been times bands don’t really want any contributions writing-wise. At that point, I’m just an engineer. I’m hitting record and mixing the songs. There have been others I’ve worked with where I have a way bigger part in the writing process. We have real co-writing sessions and I get to really produce.”

There is one track on Disgusting for which the young man in front of me cannot claim full credit. The fourth song, “In Between,” was co-written by friend and collaborator John Feldmann. Feldmann is known best for his role as singer of punk band Goldfinger and producer of bands such as The Used, Good Charlotte, Ashlee Simpson, Saosin, Neon Trees, Black Veil Brides, All Time Low, and so many more. What he’s likely least known for is his A&R work for Red Bull Records, the home of Beartooth. "He’s a really good friend of mine and he’s the main reason I’m signed to Redbull.” On how they met, he recalls, "On [the] second Attack Attack! record, we did a rerelease with some extra songs. We did two songs with him. After that, Attack Attack! actually did an entire record with [him] that nobody has ever heard, but John and I stayed friends through that. He and I meshed well as writers. So, when I left Attack Attack!, he hit me up about just doing a publishing deal and being a writer with him. Then obviously, he heard Beartooth and some electronic stuff I do and he wanted to know what was going on with that. From there I wrote two songs with him for Beartooth and we used one.”

The process of working with Feldmann differed vastly from his home studio’s seclusion. "It’s fun to work with a producer sometimes. He’s the only person I feel comfortable with working on writing a Beartooth song with. He has seen me at some really high and low moments. I think he understands me a lot as a person. For me it’s really cool to come in and have that different regard from someone you trust. I’m not hitting record by myself. We’re working together. I go into the drum room to play drums and instead of saying, ‘eh, that’s good enough,’ he’s tells me I can do it better.”

Still, Feldmann only laid his gold finger on the one song from the record. The rest was handled by Shomo in solitude, often when his emotions ran at their highest. A clear indicator of that is the album’s closer, “Sick and Disgusting,” a chaotic and disturbing piece of music that leaves you feeling uncomfortable for nearly four incredibly emotional minutes. It’s as if the listener stepped in on a private moment they weren’t supposed to hear. Difficult to record and even harder to discuss now, the composer does his best to recount the session. "Honestly, it happened so fast that it’s kind of a blur. That song happened in about two hours. It started with me playing guitar to a click, on the fly. Total improvisational playing. Then I stopped and said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine. That’s the song.’ I recorded the other guitar, wrote drums to it, and added bass. The lyrics were another very on-the-fly thing. I put the music on repeat and hit record. I was in a really weird place when I did the take and it is what it is. It’s not a jammer. It’s not a song that you can’t wait to turn on when you’re in the car with your friends. I didn’t even want to put it on the record, man. It’s so personal. That was me at one of my most vulnerable stages in life. The moment was just for me. It’s not a thing that other people will understand and I don’t really care if they do or not. They’re not supposed to. That is what Beartooth is to me, to the core. It is me having a therapy session by myself in my studio. I think if I wouldn’t have put that song on there, I would have sold the record short. Which I didn’t want to do.”

As complex as the emotions and strings of thought running through its creator’s head, Beartooth is difficult to define. A mixture of influences course throughout the track listing, but aren’t so easily placed. “People ask me all the time, 'what bands influence you?’ I mean, if you just listen, I clearly love Rage Against The Machine and Billy Talent. Even pop music, old rock and roll, and punk. But when people ask what Beartooth is, I just tell them we’re a loud and obnoxious rock and roll band. That’s what we are. It’s hard to describe, but I think my inspiration really comes from the emotion of that moment. You can tell in the songs that some are aggressive while some are more reserved. Some are melodic, some have no melody whatsoever, it’s craziness and it just comes from my weird mind.”

A mind that Feldmann and the team at Red Bull Records chose to put their efforts behind in full force. "They are a very unique label and I like the way they do things. They don’t sign a lot of bands. They don’t sign more than one band in a genre, really. They don’t want to have competition on their label. Red Bull is willing to put in the effort to support the band. Whether it’s getting us to Europe to play shows for those that want to see us over there or helping us get on our feet in the beginning, they’re just the best. I know a lot of bands have negative things to say about their label, but I don’t have a single negative thing to say about Red Bull. They are genuine friends of mine. Very hard workers. They want to see Beartooth succeed. They want to see me succeed as a person.”

Watching Beartooth perform is an experience unlike any other. From the masses of teens and young adults surrounding the small Monster stage the band was assigned to that afternoon, to the additional masses of teens and young adults sprinting counter-clockwise in circles around the crowd (per the frontman’s instruction), down to the members of the swarm who made up an older minority of 30-somethings enjoying the youthful atmosphere as much as their younger show-going counterparts. Black inflatable beach balls with the Beartooth insignia dotted the bright summer sky. Sweat dripped from the faces and necks of hundreds of grinning fans simultaneously as they jumped to the pulsating basslines of the band, soaked up by the ground or a variety of distinctly branded, but equally black, band tees. Names jumped from the backs of those facing the stage. For Today, Avenged Seven Fold, Terror, MXPX, Stick To Your Guns, State Champs, Atilla, Slipknot, Alkaline Trio, a diverse collective of music fans converged for a single set lasting 30 minutes. Walls are being broken down here.

"We have elements of a lot of different types of music that people like. I love that we have diverse crowds. I feel like anybody should know that they’re safe at a Beartooth show. We don’t do fights. We don’t do violence. It’s a giant unorganized chaos. At the same time everyone is keeping each other safe for a half hour to an hour. That’s what we love. The shows we grew up going to, where we had the most fun, they were like that. It’s an emotional release, just going and losing it.” He’s smiling wildly now, "Getting things so far out of your head and stepping so far out of your comfort zone that afterwards you have a giant smile on your face and you feel great. That’s every day for me.”

In contrast, most sets at Warped have a core of highly active fans collecting in the forward-most center of the crowd. These are the attendees that form mosh pits and take part in slam dancing, a tradition of sorts at these heavier types of shows and recently banned from the tour for apparent legal reasons. The discouraging banners adorning the stages that read “You Mosh, You Crowd Surf, You Get Hurt, We Get Sued, No More Warped Tour” don’t do much to slow down the fist-swinging, air-kicking, teens who wait all year to save up and purchase tickets for the tour. Neither do the event staff in brightly colored polo shirts blankly gazing into the crowds for those who may need medical attention or immediate escort off of the premises for the sort of violence that causes more serious harm. After all, energetic crowd dancing has been a part of Warped Tour for 20 beautiful years. The banners are more of an advisory, like the stickers that cover the corners of many jewel cases sold at this very festival. Shomo shares this mindset, "When you go to a [Beartooth] show don’t stand there with your arms crossed. We’re not that kind of band. Obviously there are some shows where that’s what you do, but that’s not us. You don’t come to a Beartooth show to stand around. You come to get really involved, soaked in sweat, and have a good time.”

After Warped Tour, the band plans to continue touring. "We have three US tours lined up right now and a UK tour lined up. One of the US tours has a full Canadian leg in it as well. We’re playing until our legs fall off, but I love it. You go on tour, you miss home. You go home, you miss the road. That’s just how it is. I love being out on the road, but I do miss home. I have a wife, I have a dog, I have a house. I miss that when I’m gone, but if I’m the road and my wife comes out, I’m in my happy place. Now that we’re home (Ohio) she’s able to come out to a few shows, which is the best.”

Caleb met his wife Fleur while he was still in his first band. "She is from London, but a band called Bury Tomorrow was on a tour with Attack Attack! and she grew up with them. She came over to visit them and we met randomly in Florida. We stayed in touch and hung out when we could. When [Attack Attack!] went to Europe six or seven months after, that’s when we started dating. We’ve been married a year and a half. It’s awesome.” Having married his best friend at 21 (she's 28), I can’t help but congratulate him on his nuptials and subsequent anniversary. "Thank you, man. It's truly is a blessing to marry your best friend. When I’m home, we just hang out all the time. I can be pretty reclusive when I’m at home, mostly because I’m usually working all the time, but I get like a month and a half of just nothing after this tour. I have been working constantly for a year now, so it will be nice to have some time off with her.”

Though difficult at times, the miles between them prepared them for the future. "She lived in England for a good year and a half of our relationship. Maybe more. It was good though. It really prepared us for my being on the road. Some girls have a really hard time with that, but since the early stages of our relationship was all long-distance, we’re more used to it. That makes it easier to tour.” That’s a relatable concept for anyone who has dated long-distance or tours for a living, spending months away from home. Shomo believes distance gave he and his wife the time and space to learn about each other. "All you have is communication. You don’t have anything else. So it’s great, in a way. I’m not opposed to it. I think you really get to know somebody that way.”

Caleb Shomo is nearly a decade into his career, but his success will only keep climbing as Beartooth continues to dominate stages and people’s hearts. With thought-provoking lyricism and a passion for evoking emotional release, I expect not only the stages beneath his feet to grow, but his creative ability and art to do so as well.