Music

Eyehategod spreads the sludge metal gospel

by William Archambeault

Contributing Writer

Eyehategod shouldn’t have lasted three decades.

“I was there when we started the band and if you had told me back then that we were going to be still going on 30 years later … to say that this band would’ve been the one that we all focused our time on, that’s crazy,” says founding guitarist Jimmy Bower.

The American sludge metal act will bring its slow riffs and walls of feedback noise to Japan in March. In Tokyo and Osaka, the group will perform its first Japanese shows in 17 years. These shows will also feature English grindcore band Napalm Death, American death metal group Misery Index and Tokyo experimental punk duo Melt-Banana.

In 1988, the founding members of Eyehategod weren’t much older than children yet were already teenage veterans of New Orleans’ punk and metal scenes. While many of their contemporaries imitated rapid-pace thrash metal bands like Slayer, the members of Eyehategod went in the opposite direction. Bower says the band opted for slower tracks “almost as a joke.”

Inspired by Melvins and Black Flag, Eyehategod began to hone its own style with a guitar sound both as massive and slow-paced as an elephant. Incoherent screams expressed misanthropic ideals over abrasive feedback. Frontman Mike Williams was downright confrontational, known for unexpected and hazardous decisions, both onstage and off. Eyehategod, along with other New Orleans groups like Crowbar, innovated a new sound known as sludge metal.

Although Bower once viewed the band as a bit of a joke, it has his full attention now. In 2018, Eyehategod celebrated 30 years with its busiest year yet. The group underwent rigorous touring, visiting Brazil, Russia and Canada. “Every month out of the last year, we were on tour,” says drummer Aaron Hill. “That’s the most touring I’ve ever done in my life! Its insane!,” says Bower.

The band’s hard work appears to be paying off. In September, a Rolling Stone headline crowned them “One of America’s great live bands.”

Similar to the way that Louis Armstrong served as New Orleans’ worldwide jazz ambassador, Eyehategod now takes its harsh sounds all over the globe. In their tiny seventh floor practice space, Bower, Hill, and bassist Gary Mader discuss their recent international expeditions. In reference to Sao Paulo in Brazil, Hill says, “There were some people standing right out the front door, selling all their own bootleg Eyehategod shirts.” “They had two different designs!,” interjects Mader.

While the band’s members can laugh about their lives now, they aren’t far removed from a time where things weren’t so bright. In August 2013, founding drummer Joey LaCaze unexpectedly passed away just days after a European tour. He was 42 years old. The remaining four members decided to persevere through the pain. Two months later, they began touring with current drummer Aaron Hill. In May 2014, Eyehategod released a self-titled album, the group’s first album in 14 years. After tragedy, the band was making a comeback.

In mid-2016, Eyehategod mysteriously began canceling shows. Initially, members didn’t tell fans why they scrapped high-profile performances.

After decades of well-documented alcohol and drug abuse, singer Williams had destroyed his liver beyond repair. His health took a critical turn and no one knew what would happen to him. “I was like, ‘Do they even give liver transplants to people like Mike? Do they even give transplants to drug addicts?'” Bower recalls.

With Williams’ blessing, the band continued to tour in his absence. For one tour, the group recruited Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe, a vocal Eyehategod devotee. For a few shows, the band even joined forces with Pantera singer and longtime friend Phil Anselmo.

Still, Eyehategod never got too comfortable with the idea of performing with anybody besides Williams. “If we’d have lost him, I don’t think we’d have continued,” says Bower.

“We went and saw him at the hospital about a week before he got his transplant and we basically, I hate to say it, went to say ‘bye’ to him,” he says. “He was stage four when we went and saw him. He was about to die.”

In December 2016, the unexpected happened. Williams received a liver transplant and it took. “I remember texting with him one evening, going to bed, and waking up in the morning and finding out that he got a liver that night,” says Hill. “It was that sudden.”

The singer’s return to the stage was also sudden. Just four months after he received his new liver, Williams hit the road with his old band. He hasn’t looked back since.

Members of the band seem eager to return to Japan. They last performed here in March 2002. This time, they will perform at the 32nd edition of Extreme the Dojo, a music series that specializes in bringing metal bands to Japan. When Eyehategod came the first time, Extreme the Dojo was in its infancy. The 2002 tour was only its second event.

Extreme the Dojo wasn’t the only newcomer. That tour was Mader’s baptism into Eyehategod. It was the bassist’s first tour with the band after joining at the end of 2001. Mader had never even been out of the United States. Prior to that, his tours with other bands typically lasted less than two weeks, a sharp contrast to Eyehategod’s seemingly nonstop road dog lifestyle.

“I had never played in front of that many people,” Mader says in reference to the Japan shows. The band documented the first night at Club Quattro in Tokyo on a now out-of-print DVD. “It was good quality. It was from the soundboard. Whenever we hit something heavy, you could see the camera vibrate,” says Mader. Two songs from that night can still be heard on the band’s 2005 compilation, “Preaching the ‘End-Time’ Message.”

When not on stage, Mader went sightseeing. He still recalls visiting Tokyo Tower and temples in Kyoto. Bower went shopping.

“I remember we were walking, going to a bunch of markets. I had so much … to bring home (so) I gave my guitar to Nambu, the promoter over there,” says the guitarist. “He was like ‘no, no.’ I was like ‘yeah, yeah. I bought too much stuff.'”

“A 1978 Gibson SG!” laments Bower of the guitar. “I’m going to try to buy it back.”

Despite the long gap between visits, the group still retains a following. Stores like No Remorse in Nagoya and Time Bomb Records in Osaka continue to stock the band’s merchandise. Even in more secluded regions like Tohoku, Eyehategod has fans. Yoneda Shuichi, the singer for Sendai hardcore punk band Spike Shoes, is an avid supporter, sometimes wearing Eyehategod shirts during his own shows.

Eyehategod will look a little different than when it last played in Japan. In 2018, the band downsized to a four-piece when longtime guitarist Brian Patton left to focus on his family. Hill continues to carry the torch for the late LaCaze. Mader, the new guy when the band last visited Japan, returns as a hardened veteran of over seventeen years. Although they might appear different now, the members of Eyehategod will continue to be who they’ve always been. “I’m proud of the band because of what it has been through, what we’ve done,” says Bower. “Out of the whole history of the band, this is the coolest time because everybody’s focused. It’s what we do 24/7, 365 days a year so it’s awesome.

“There’s nothing like being in a band when you’re young and being in it when you’re 50 and still acting like a kid.”

Eyehategod plays Extreme the Dojo at Umeda Club Quattro in Osaka on March 5 and Shibuya Club Quattro in Tokyo on March 6 (each ¥6,800). Also performing will be Napalm Death, Misery Index, and Melt-Banana. For more information, visit www.eyehategod.ee.

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