After four albums that increasingly showed the band departing from its headbanging heavy metal roots, the Sword frontman J.D. Cronise knew it was time to make a clean break when making the band's fifth album, High Country. With a new focus on songs as opposed to riffs, getting rid of the down-tuned guitars and incorporating heavy use of synthesizers, the Sword in 2015 is certainly a different band that than the one that released their full-on-devil-horns debut Age of Winters in 2006. High Country, out tomorrow on Razor & Tie, has already earned a four-star rating from AllMusic editor James Christopher Monger, who praises the band's streamlined, reinvigorated approach. But even so, Cronise knows some of the old fans will probably exit at the station.
Cronise took us behind the curtain to talk about why it was time to move away from the old sound, why he is finally getting to sing in a comfortable vocal range, and which bands he admires that deviated far afield from their original style.
AllMusic: With the shift on High Country, it's pretty clear that you don't feel the need to retread old ground at this point.
J.D. Cronise: Yeah, totally. With any kind of stylistic change, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There’s going to be your old fans who are going to hate anything that sounds different, but at the same time, if we were to have consciously tried to write an album that was going to please our old fans, then that really wouldn’t have been very genuine for us as musicians. You have to pick your poison on that one, and for us, just writing an album that we think people are going to want to hear, that wasn’t an option for us. We had to do what we needed to do, and some of the old fans aren’t going to be on board, but hopefully some people that haven’t given us a chance before will listen to us with new ears, perhaps.
AllMusic: Are you more scared or excited to see how people react to the new material?
Cronise: For me, it can’t have happened any other way. If we had played it safe and delivered the album that was expected of us, that definitely would not have been nerve-wracking, necessarily, but it is in its own way, you wonder if people are going to think it’s boring, so that’s the risk you run with not trying something different. I’m not really nervous about what will happen, change is something I’m pretty comfortable with and I think is pretty essential to life in general. It’s just an inevitable part of evolving as a band.
AllMusic: Who are some bands you love that have made big changes to their sound over time?
Cronise: The first thing that comes to mind, the most recent example, would be Clutch. I was just listening to some of their older stuff the other day, and they’re a band that started out with a sound that was very, very different from where they are now, but I think they’re a band that’s only gotten better over the years, as they’ve refined their sound and matured as musicians. Hopefully that’s what we’re doing, as well. And of course, the classic example that we always try to follow, would be Led Zeppelin. If you’re listening to the difference between where we’re at in our sequence, the difference between Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy is pretty stark. But being Led Zeppelin, it didn’t matter where they took it, it was usually going to be pretty awesome. That’s what we’re hoping, that it still sounds like us, even though it may not sound like our old stuff.
AllMusic: Your vocals sound a lot different now, it must be fun to get to mix that up a bit.
Cronise: Yeah, there’s more vocals on this record than on previous records, and we used to do that double-tracked sound, the Ozzy Osbourne sound, it’s a super common recording technique and makes vocals sound twice as good, sometimes, and that’s not a technique we utilized as much on this record. We changed the way we tune our instruments, we tune to a higher-pitched tuning, which, for me, has the interesting effect of making the vocals come down in pitch rather than go up. I feel like when you tune really low, it creates such a huge bottom end that you almost have to have vocals at a certain pitch to get above the din of the low end, and so when you redistribute the frequencies a bit with a higher tuning, I found that I didn’t have to strain as much vocally to hit high notes, I could be a bit more in my range. There’s a lot less of that high, heavy metal kind of singing and more what comes a bit more naturally to me.
There’s some people that can do low tuning and still somehow sing in a way that’s not screechy or high, but for me I found that to cut through, I had to take it up to a level that was just at the top of my range, which is cool, but doing that night after night on tour, singing these songs that are as high as you can sing them, can kind of wear on your voice after a while. It’s nice to finally write and sing in a register that isn’t straining on my voice. The general feel of the whole record is more relaxed. We’re older, calmer, more centered people, and I think the music reflects that, it’s more chilled out, not as intense kind of music.
AllMusic: You've said that you wanted to make music that people can smile to. What's some music that makes you smile?
Cronise: Every record should evoke its own mood, I’m not trying to cop anybody else’s style. I’ve been getting into this band, Goat, from Sweden, they’re pretty good. There’s a super-heavy, crazy math-rock album by this band from Florida that has the guy who plays drums in Floor, he plays guitar and sings in this one, it’s called House of Lightning, their new record is really awesome. It’s super heavy, but it’s so crazy and all over the place that it’s this crazy fireworks show of riffs and drums and things, which isn’t at all what we go for, but it doesn’t have a super dark vibe, it’s very dazzling. As far as what we’re going for, something a little bit more meditative and zen and easygoing, chilled out, good time groove. That being said, there’s still some heavy shit on the record.
AllMusic: "Suffer No Fools" on the new album still has some of that old heaviness in there, so it's not like you're completely rejecting your past.
Cronise: No, not at all, we’re still playing our guitars, doing that kind of riffing. But most of our songs, we’re trying to make the arrangements more about the songs themselves and less about the instrumental parts of the song, it’s more about a song that is a coherent piece that says something, that isn’t just a collection or riffs or some vocals thrown in between some riffs. The arrangements are a little tighter, most of the songs aren’t super long, but there is definitely still a lot of playing on the record.
AllMusic: Do you think that you needed the previous four albums to get you to this point?
Cronise: I think even early on, every record has incorporated more and more rock songwriting and less heavy metal, less Wagnerian bombast. We weren’t really trying to be that kind of band or do that kind of thing at that time, we were still trying to make a very distinct impression, and to do that we were using volume and low-tuned guitars and drastically shifting tempos and that sort of thing. We’re in a place now where we wanted to make a different kind of record.
AllMusic: Were the other guys in the band on board immediately when you came in with these new, different-sounding songs?
Cronise: Yeah, that’s pretty much how it’s gone so far. There were a couple of ideas for things that they’d been working on separately from me, because I don’t live in Austin any longer, so the other three guys would get together and jam when I’m not in town, and they’d been working on some stuff, and some of those things didn’t get developed or make it to the album, I’m more the idea guy, ultimately I’m the songwriter, I write the lyrics and stuff. They had a couple of things that were cool, but that I didn’t feel I could sing over or enhance in any way. So they had some more metal-sounding stuff that maybe even they were unsure about, “Do you like this, is this good, should we do anything with this?” Even the stuff I was working on, we kept all the stuff that was sounding good together and ditched all the other stuff.
AllMusic: And how did they react when it was brought up to put horns on a song?
Cronise: That was Adrian, the producer, his idea. He was very hesitant to bring it up, because they’re his friends from Grupo Fantasma and Brownout, and he’s known for Latin fusion kind of music, so he was really hesitant and reluctant to bring up having horns on anything, because everyone already thought he was going to turn us into some kind of salsa band or something. Finally he was like, “I didn’t want to say this, but I really think that this one song would sound cool with horns on it.” We were totally open to it. I think a lot of people that listen to our first record maybe don’t realize so much that a lot of our influences aren’t really as apparent on some of that stuff or are pretty subtle, but we listen to a very wide range of music, different styles of music, different kinds of stuff, and we felt like to really represent ourselves well, we should incorporate more of that into our music rather than just sticking to one particular sound, which none of us really listen to that much heavy music these days. We all still do somewhat, but 10 years ago maybe that was most of what I listened to, and now it’s a small part.
AllMusic: You've dabbled in synthesizers over the years, but they're very prominent on High Country.
Cronise: There’s some synth even on the first album, it’s just very low in the mix. But we’ve used synths here and there all along, and we started using them more since we’ve been able to incorporate one live, and on this new one, we kind of went crazy with them, and we still have to figure out how some of those parts are going to be replicated live, but it will be fun to figure it out. We tried not to go too crazy and put any crazy synth or keyboard solos on the record, but we did definitely incorporate that a lot more, and that also can help to fill the space of the guitars rather than just making it all guitars, like a wall of super low-tuned, super-distorted guitars, just having the guitars be a little more organic and just do what they do melodically and have them reinforced with other stuff and have percussion in there and a lot more distortion on the bass, that analog synth sound in there can fatten out the whole sound and still make it heavy without it being so guitar-centric.
AllMusic: How do the old songs feel when you play them live now?
Cronise: We’ll probably play more new stuff, at least from the last couple of records, because we had a member change in there, and Jimmy, our drummer, this is his second record that he’s been on, so we’ll probably play more of the stuff that he played on. We’ll still play a few songs from the old records, but live, we started playing in a different tuning, which has made it interesting. A lot of our old songs work really well, we think, in a higher-pitched tuning, and it makes them a little less muddy and sludgy, and from our perspective, gives them a bit of new life, so that’s been fun. I don’t know if we’ll do that permanently, maybe we’ll have enough crew guys to have a ton of guitars on tour with us. But for now, our heads are more in the new stuff, the new way of doing things, and we have one poor stage manager-slash-guitar tech-slash-roadie, Dave, and having six or eight guitars for him to deal with, having guitars in alternate tunings and stuff like that, we’ve learned from doing that for a few shows that it almost killed him. So for various reasons, we’re just playing everything in a different tuning now. For us, it helps us get more into playing the old stuff and gives it a new dimension.
We played a few shows where we played new and old songs where we played guitars, and not only does that take momentum away during a show, it’s this awkward break where everyone switches guitars, and I hate stuff like that, I hate awkward moments of silence onstage. It made more of a separation between the old material and the new material when we were doing it that way, playing the old material in the old tuning, and the new material in the new tuning, it was a bit more like, “Here are these songs, and these are these other songs,” and playing them in the same tuning makes it all more coherent.
AllMusic: "Ghost Eye" stood out to me as my favorite new track.
Cronise: That one was the little song that could from this record. That was based on a couple of riffs that Kyle [Shutt, guitarist] had, and he thought that they were too old school Sword-sounding, he was not that into it, he thought that was something we should ditch and not use those parts. I thought, “No, those are great riffs, why wouldn’t we use that?” So I expanded on it and wrote the words, and it came out way better than anyone expected. I always knew we had good parts and good building blocks and it was going to be a good song, but it was just funny that Kyle thought it was too Sword-like to be on a Sword album. To me, I think that’s a good kind of bridge of older-sounding stuff and the newer-sounding stuff, it bridges those two territories.
AllMusic: You've said that you don't like to see moshing at your shows, so what do you like to see people doing when you look into the crowd?
Cronise: Just having a good time, enjoying themselves. The moshing thing has its place, it has its time. It depends on the mood of the crowd. Sometimes a bunch of drunk dudes can just get whipped up into a frenzy where nobody’s really having a good time, and we don’t play a lot of our older, faster material so much these days because it creates that kind of thing. You see girls getting pushed to the side and getting drinks spilled and all this stuff. If that’s what you’re going for as a band, I understand that kind of confrontational kind of attitude to take onstage, but that’s just not what we want to put forth, so I want to see people with smiles on their faces, rocking out.
The Sword have an extensive tour booked through December. 'High Country' is out tomorrow.