J.D. Cronise has nothing to do, and he doesn’t like it. The guitarist, singer, and principal songwriter for indie-metal pioneers The Sword finished recording a new album, Warp Riders, almost six months before we spoke, but he was still waiting for it to be released. It was the record label’s idea to time things like this, and Cronise and the rest of the band went along, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t “going crazy” while they wait for the whirlwind of worldwide tours to start again, supporting — for the fourth time, Metallica. Here, Cronise speaks about that new record, which trades the fantasy fiction that influenced so many of the band’s previous songs for sci-fi and trades the speed/heavy metal the members drew their early inspiration from for hard rock. He also had a lot to say about playing Ozzfest (not fun), classic rock (doesn’t have to be old), and why everyone wants to talk about Lars Ulrich being a dick (unclear).
What have you been up to this summer? Rehearsing? Trying to take some time off before you spend the next year on the road?
We’re not really “trying” to; we’re in more of a forced period of inactivity. We recorded in February, and the album’s not out for a few more weeks. If we’d had our druthers, it probably would have come out a few months ago, and we’d be doing stuff now. But, you know, record labels and management companies have various plans and strategies about when they think a record should be released. On this one, we’re gonna trust their judgment and see where that takes us, even though it is a little frustrating to wait so long between recording and release. We’re kind of going crazy. We’re ready to play shows again.
What have you been doing?
Not a whole lot [laughs].
You’re off in just a few weeks to the South Pacific with Metallica, playing Australia and a few other places. Anything you’re looking forward to/afraid of there?
I’ve wanted to go to Australia since I was like 8. I’ve been obsessed with all things Australian since I was a little kid. I mean, growing up in the ‘80s, things like Crocodile Dundee and The Road Warrior, and Jacko, that guy from the Energizer commercials. Australian culture was so hot in America in the ‘80s. Mad Max movies were some of my favorite movies of all time, so I’m totally stoked.
I hope it lives up to 20 years of anticipation.
Well, I mean, I’m probably not going to get to meet Yahoo Serious or anything.
He’s probably not doing anything else, though.
Yeah, you never know. Maybe he’ll want to hang out.
Could you describe the new album to me?
It’s a concept album, technically a rock opera. I don’t really like that term, but I read that that would be the definition because it does tell a story. But it’s more of a soundtrack, really. Every song doesn’t just lead into the next one, as far as telling the story. All of the details are not covered, it’s like how a soundtrack would be for a movie; you don’t have a song for every scene in the movie, but it covers the major events.
The last record had a lot of references to fantasy novels like George R. R. Martin’s. This one reinterprets parts of MacBeth, and I’ve read that Arthur C. Clarke is an influence. Are there other authors that there are references to that people wouldn’t catch?
Yeah, yeah. Well, not “references,” I don’t really like to reference things too directly. There are allusions to The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castanada. The lyrics that are inspired by that book is the song “Tres Bruhas,” which means “Three Witches” in Spanish. I read that Carlos Castanada, apparently after he published his first books and went into seclusion, actually lived in a house with three witches, who subsequently disappeared after he died. Which I thought was a strange coincidence.
Other than that, Frank Herbert’s Dune was a big influence. I drew from a lot of different sources. There’s Arthur C. Clarke, as you mentioned, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and of course Edgar Rice Burrows, Robert Coward, H.P. Lovecraft. All those guys are my favorites.
These authors, and the cover, it reminds me of being 12 and checking those ‘70s sci-fi paperbacks out of the library. Did you read a lot of those books when you were younger?
Yeah, a fair amount. That is part of the idea of this album, is that, like I always say in interviews, I see the music we play as the auditory equivalent of science fiction – it takes you away, it’s escapist, it’s epic, it’s all the things that science fiction is, but in a musical way. To have a concept album of this type, with a science fiction bent to it, it just made sense to me, it just seemed like a natural thing to do.
I don’t really consider myself to be a writer. Maybe if I had the patience to do that, I’d be writing novels instead of playing music. To me, as close as I can come to writing a novel is presenting it in this form. This is The Sword’s version of a sci-fi novel.
Sonically, this album moves you guys into more of a hard-rock vein, rather than just heavy metal, or speed metal, as on your previous records. Could you tell me about what made you interested in switching around your sound?
We’ve always listened to any kind of rock music; we don’t just listen to Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. We just kind of felt like there’s not enough classic rock in today’s music scene, for lack of a better term. I used to think music had to get to a certain age before it could be classic rock, but now the term is redefining itself to me as, like, “traditional” rock.
It just has certain elements of rock as it was made in rock’s heyday?
Sort of. I don’t like to come across as too “retro” in what we do. I don’t necessarily think it’s backward looking. Being less aggressive, musically, suited the whole project better. Because we’re trying to tell a story, and there’s not as much emotion involved in that. There isn’t a lot of aggressive sentiment [in the lyrics]. The kind of lighter and broader rock format really worked for that. The style of songs we wrote for this record were easier to tell the story with, rather than if it had been a bunch of thrash metal.
There’s a community where you fit in well of independent metal bands, and your band is really one of its founders. But when you started off, it didn’t exist. How was that when you started? Did you get pressure to conform to being just a metal band, or a rock band, when in fact you’re somewhere in between?
When we came out, there were a lot of people who were like, “This is the most metal band in the world!” and we would just kind of scratch our heads, because, really, there’s a lot more metal shit out there than us. I think that’s cool that some people saw it as what they considered to be some kind of archetype that they hadn’t seen in a while. I can’t really explain where it came from. I guess a lot of dudes like me, in different cities all over the country, were just kind of generally non-stoked on what they were hearing, especially in the metal world, and were like, “You know what? Someone needs to bring back some ass-kicking riffs, and stop just screaming in people’s faces and playing as fast as possible and really just kick people’s asses.” I guess a lot of people had that idea at the same time, which is cool.
Have you ever seen Metalacolypse?
Of course. I think it’s really funny. There’s one episode where they’re recording, and they’re recording on water. I remember seeing that episode right after recording our second record, and the singer of that band [Nathan Explosion], listens to a take, and he’s like [in an absolutely perfect Nathan Explosion growl], “Not brutal enough.” I felt like I’d been doing that for a month. I was like, “I know exactly what that’s like.” It sounds funny, but it’s true. You listen to yourself and you’re like, “That could be so much more brutal.”
I saw them play, the band [that tours as Deathklok]. It’s cool, it’s a good live show. It’s a weird thing, like Guitar Hero. You don’t know what you think of it at first. Is this mocking what I love or celebrating it? I enjoy it, though. It’s kind of hard not to like Deathklok, once you listen to it. It is pretty good; it’s pretty catchy. It’s like pop death metal.
This is your third record. You’re touring the world with Metallica, for the fourth time, and then your own U.S. and world tours are after that. Have you “made it”?
I don’t think it’s good for anybody to try to control situations too much. I think a lot of people, especially in the music business, like to do that. They dangle this imaginary carrot in front of you, “If you just do this, dude, you’re gonna make it! You’re gonna be flying in private jets and eating caviar!” That’s really unrealistic, especially in this day and age. It’s really not gonna happen. If you think that’s gonna happen, you’re pretty fucking crazy. So, we’re gonna take it where it goes, not trying to force anything. We just play the music and see who shows up. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve made it. We’re making a living playing music, and that’s what I wanted to do.
Speaking of industry B.S., I see for this record you’re doing all the things that are supposed to be the new business models: different packages at different prices, with special limited-edition things, posters and T-shirts, those kinds of things.
Now that people have realized that music is free, the way you have to get money from them is playing shows and selling them things other than music. Some people are gonna be cool and go out and buy your album, but most people are going to just burn it from a friend or download it. You can’t get around the fact that if people have the option of paying or not paying for something, especially when it’s something as insubstantial as music, it’s really difficult for people to pass up free music. So you have to have special things for them, like special T-shirts and stuff.
About a month ago, you guys played a special show with Ozzy Osbourne. How was that? Was it cool, or completely weird?
It was weird. If it had been a typical Ozzy show, and we were opening it, it probably would have been less weird, but it was an iTunes “event,” and basically the purpose of it was to be recorded and sold on iTunes.
Was there a lot of weird extra technical stuff you had to go through?
Yeah. They didn’t even allow the full capacity of audience members into the venue, because they needed the extra room for equipment and cameras. And honestly, to tell you the truth, if I had been given all the details — it was dangled in front of us as, “You’re going to be opening for Ozzy Osbourne,” and nobody made clear that it’s not going to be in any shape or form a normal support situation — I don’t know if we necessarily would have done it. But it went well, and the people who were there, if they actually gave a shit and weren’t just contest winners, which a lot of them were, were stoked. Even Ozzy seemed like he had a somewhat of a hard time getting people excited. It was weird. And we didn’t get to meet Ozzy.
You didn’t get to meet Ozzy? But you played Ozzfest before, right? Did you meet him then?
We didn’t get to meet him then, either. We weren’t even allowed to watch Ozzy from a decent vantage point. We found a spot to watch from on the stage, and some security guard made us move. Stuff like that. And no offense to Ozzy Osbourne; I’m sure he had nothing to do with that. He’s at the head of a huge organization, but it makes me appreciate Metallica and their organization and how they’ve been to us. Someone from their organization would have made sure we could watch the show. We’ve obviously met all the members of Metallica, go out to dinner with them and stuff. But it just makes you realize, “Wow. Not everyone does this; not everyone cares that much.” It’s funny, because, every time someone asks you about them, they just want to know if they’re dicks, or they want to talk some shit on them. It’s just like, Why do you care so much, dude? Did Some Kind of Monster really piss you off that much? They’re just a band, and they happen to have a bunch of albums with classic songs.
They have a bunch of great songs, so let’s talk about how much they suck.
Yeah, let’s talk about what a dick the drummer might be. It’s like, come on, man, you don’t even know him. I can’t say if Ozzy Osbourne is a dick or not, because I’ve never met him. But I can tell you straight up that Lars Ulrich is not a dick, because I know him.