“Crushed. You work so hard to build something with somebody, and nobody wants to admit to limitation,” says Of Mice & Men‘s drummer Valentino Artaega, his voice flat he reflects on how he felt when former vocalist Austin Carlile told him the reality of struggling with Marfan syndrome.
Formed back in 2009, the journey of the formerly five musicians has stuck true to the book Of Mice & Men: ‘the well laid plans of mice and men often falter’. Despite a strong foundation formed by Carlile and former bassist Jaxin Hall, and five albums of vocal dexterity and devastating rhythms, the road has certainly been a tough one. Plagued by a string of lineup changes, the band faced their ultimate challenge when Carlile, after years of struggling through extreme pain during shows and multiple surgeries, decided to step away last year to focus on healing.
Just over a year later, the now four-piece are determined to keep the legacy alive, keeping things heavy and emotionally raw with upcoming fifth album Defy.
It’s 11am in Stuttgart, Germany when Artaega, having just woken up, sits down to chat. He delved into the group’s upcoming appearance at Download Festival in March, his deep relationship with The Amity Affliction, and making music alongside the producer who worked with his hometown heroes.
First off, we’re super excited that you’re playing our first Download. You must be feeling pretty pumped about it.
“Absolutely. We’ve loved having the opportunity to come through on a couple of Soundwaves, and we’re glad to see another massive entity that’s coming and bringing bands from all over the world to play for the wonderful people of Australia. We don’t get to go that often, so it’s really exciting for us.
“Shoutout to The Amity Affliction who brought us out there for the first time when we were a very young band. They kind of showed us the ropes, as they are arguably one of the biggest ringleaders of metal acts out there. They introduced us to the beautiful world that is Australia, took us on all of their adventures… It reminds us a lot of California – it’s a very easy-going atmosphere, and the people that love the music are amazing.”
So on Defy, like Aaron’s mentioned, you guys really challenged yourselves to go outside your roles. You’ve been writing guitar parts on this record, right?
“Yeah, and I’ve actually been writing songs for the band for a little while now, and a lot of them ended up on this album. We draw inspiration from anywhere, and while we have dedicated roles, at the end of the day we’re just musicians. Thankfully, we’ve been friends for such a long time… It took me a while to feel comfortable finally showing the guys the material I write on my own, but it’s a collaborative effort. I feel privileged to work with the rest of the guys, because we’re able to make awesome music when we bring all of our ideas together.
“With this album, everyone contributed a lot to be able to make what I feel like is the best Of Mice & Men record. It took a lot of subjective reflection to look at all of our albums and at the impact we’ve made on our audience and ourselves, and put that back in the music. I feel like we did an amazing job, and hope that our audience can actually take that away.”
You’ve probably heard the misconception that this latest record isn’t as heavy as the last ones, but it sounds like you’re pushing the boundaries.
“It was important for us to dig deep, and we ended up writing most of it after immediately coming off a tour and playing massive festivals. We probably played to more than 100,000 people over this last summer. We really look to our fans to help us through whatever challenging times we may face, and this album was important for us. We played with a lot of sick metal bands over the summer, and we were like, ‘Metal music is what moves us. It’s what gave us this amazing life, and it’s important for us to continue that’.
“Not only is this one of our heavier albums, there’s also so much depth because it means so much to us, and our ability to be able to play it and travel the world… It really inspired this record, and every record’s different. We’re a constantly evolving musical entity, but also very aware of our audience, and our fans inspire us to create music that we hope can be shared with them.”
I saw a few studio photos and it seemed like you guys were having a lot of fun making the record.
“Absolutely! It was a very creative process. Howard (Benson, The All American Rejects, Flyleaf) always spoke about it as being like the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, where he lets the players and people that were the star powers just do their thing. He encouraged us to enjoy making music again. Working with different producers, you find yourself in situations where they will challenge you, and Howard did that by encouraging us to be the best that we could be. That’s a funny thing to ask of any person, but we knew what that meant. I’ve been a musician since I was four years old, and to be able to create with an awesome coach and amazing team around us… It was a very conducive relationship that we were able to have with the studio.
“We were living there too, and this was the first album where we’ve ever seen the sun, because we basically recorded all of them in a hole somewhere that was not our home (chuckles). We were finally able to create an album basically in our backyard, just up the way from LA… We were able to hang out with our family and friends, we could go to our friends’ studios in that area… It was hugely creative.
“We come from such a beautiful place in southern California where it’s a creativity mecca. It can also swallow you up and eat you whole, but if you have a good head on your shoulders and care enough, you can survive out there.”
Speaking of playing music with your best friends, how did you feel when Austin decided that he couldn’t be in the band anymore?
“Crushed. You work so hard to build something with somebody, and nobody wants to admit to limitation. I think for us through the years, we always knew there were some that were out of control, especially with Austin. It’s been a little over a year now since he was hospitalised for a month, he cancelled a tour and after that month, he sat us down and talked to us about the reality of what he was facing. As much as we were crushed, we also felt a sense of relief knowing that he would be able to truly focus on his health, and listen to his doctors.
“That was always the number one goal, because this life isn’t meant for everybody, and we know that because we’ve been through so many people in the band. We really respected his decision and his doctors, and it was very important for him to follow that. Our lives changed, and we had to move forward knowing that the band would be different.
“We didn’t want to replace those memories and try to fill them with somebody new. The most important thing to do was to do everything we could as the remaining unit to carry on the legacy. Now Austin has a different focus, which is great because it’s on himself and his health. For us, we’re going to continue to focus on the music and everything we’ve built together.”
Reflecting on the music you grew up with, were most of the bands local?
“Funnily enough, Howard got his start by recording one of my hometown local heroes that really encouraged me, P.O.D. from San Diego (predominantly Chula Vista which is where I’m from). He was the producer that brought them into the spotlight by helping them create something amazing that turned them into one of the biggest bands of the 20th century. Being fully aware of this band that came from where I come from, which is a blip on the radar… It showed me that anything’s possible.
“While I didn’t know the guys more personally until recent years when we’ve done festivals together and hung out, it still rings true. To be able to work with someone like Howard who cultivated those minds to help push them in the right direction to make timeless music… It was a huge inspiration. It was creepy at the studio, walking by all these platinum plaques, seeing people who were my heroes and knowing that I’m in the same position now to do that.”
Interview by Genevieve Gao
Of Mice & Men are ready to defy the odds with their latest album (Pre-Order Here), as well as old favourites, when they bring their signature brutality to Download on March 24 in Melbourne – tickets available here.
Download Festival Australia 2018
March 24th @ Flemington Racecourse, Melb VIC