Unto Others frontman Gabriel Franco talks eagles, cowbells, human instinct and cautionary tales on their album Strength.
Unto Others released one of the most fully-formed debut albums of the 2010s in 2019’s Mana under the band name Idle Hands, but a legality-enforced name change and their international plans to support it being dashed by the unpredictable arrival of a pandemic could have spelled the worst for one of the most promising young bands on the planet. Instead their recently released second album Strength has seen them land a slot on Roadrunner Records’ brilliant roster of truly visionary young bands alongside Turnstile, Code Orange, and Creeper, and their unmistakeable heavy metal meets goth rock sound is turning more heads than ever.
It’s the kind of incredible song-writing that bands like In Solitude, Grave Pleasures, and Tribulation have pushed for years in the underground with little wider success, but Unto Others with this collection of instant anthems behind them might just be the ones to buck that trend. This is music demanding the biggest stages imaginable in heavy music, and vocalist and guitarist Gabriel Franco is now beginning to wonder if the sky is in fact the limit.
It’s obviously been a dramatic couple of years for your band with the name change and then the writing of this record which you have said in your statements leading up to the album was more difficult for you to put together than with Mana, so is there a huge sense of relief for you now to see it out there and doing so well?
Yeah, it’s really cool to watch how it’s going on all the streaming sites and seeing people’s reactions. For me it’s kind of half real right now, it’s always a bit crazier once you get the vinyl record in your hands and right now we’ve just got the CD and cassette. We’re gonna be touring the UK and Europe next spring and we should have the vinyl in hand for those.
With that creation process being choppier, were there clear ideas and goals you had for the direction to take the music with Strength from Mana, or was it a case of seeing where it took you?
No, I generally don’t write music with an agenda in mind, this was just kinda the natural progression of where I was going as a songwriter. I also wrote this in a bit of a different style. All of the songs on Mana I had written my vocal melodies first and then written lyrics around them, this one was largely vocal melodies and lyrics at the same time, and it ended up with more visceral lyrics because I’m just kinda ad-libbing things on songs from the heart as opposed to methodically placing narrative lyrics over vocal melodies. There’s a more harsh vibe to this record than Mana for sure.
With those more aggressive tones, Heroin immediately pushes so much heavier than you’ve ever gone before, but across the board there’s more double bass pedals and harder riffs. Is that something you wanted to take people off guard with?
Yeah, that wasn’t the plan again but Heroin after I wrote it I didn’t even wanna put on the record because I thought it was too heavy for us. My wife convinced me otherwise, like “This is my favourite song that you have ever written”, so okay it’s going on the record and once again she’s been proven right. I feel like it’s the perfect opener and I love the idea of someone who has only heard Mana throwing on the new record and being hit by that wall of sound in the beginning. Every record we do I want there to be a bit of a surprise for the fans, where you get what you think you’re getting but also with a cherry on top.
Was working with Arthur Rizk on this record something that helped bring that side out of you?
He does it his way and I just let him do his thing, but there were times when we were recording and I thought this sounds too raw, I don’t know if I’m digging this, but the final product I’m more than happy with. He knows what the reverb means. In the past I’ve worked with producers, all fantastic of course and I think Mana was incredibly done, but where sometimes you’re asking for more reverb and you’ll get push-back of “Well, we can’t do more reverb because it would interfere with these other tracks” or something and no no no, I said more reverb!
There’s also the stadium rock side to the music which in today’s landscape is really ear-catching. That crossover appeal that bands had in the 80s and that sense of just out and out strut that they had, is that something you find to be missing in a lot of bands today and something you wanted to recapture?
I would say so. Of course I’m open to all kinds of music but right now what’s popular is a lot of the djenty styles, the Spiritbox or the Jinjer thing is getting huge, and then in the underground you have death metal being the thing. I of course have to pay attention to the trends because I am just bombarded with them by being a metal fan myself, but I don’t try to take that stuff into consideration when writing the music. This music is simply influenced by what I’m listening to which happens to be bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and then into the core of it Sisters of Mercy, The Cure and The Smiths. I do think about what we can do live with it, for example in the song Instinct there is a straight up big hey-hey chant, and I’m not writing that not thinking about the potential of doing it live with the fans. If it sounds like it’s arena stuff then fuck yeah dude, let’s do it.
The obvious point on the record where that is taken to its most logical conclusion is the cover of Pat Benatar’s Hell is for Children. How did you land upon that song and then make it feel like one of your own?
It’s funny that people keep saying it sounds like one of our own tracks but I never thought that. We did some things, like I arpeggiated a clean guitar part, but I think the biggest thing is just that it was sung by a woman in Pat Benatar and now is being sung by me in a much deeper and more gothic, stentorian way. I’m glad that it sounds original of course, that’s pretty sweet, and with it fitting in the record I always say to my bandmates when we have a weird or different song of our own, I don’t wanna sound cocky but the vocals will tie everything together. You’re gonna hear the same voice on each song so the song can be as wacky and weird musically, all that matters is that the attitude from myself over it and that’s how you get variety on the album. With this one I’m glad it worked out, I didn’t really have a plan for it to be on the record but our drummer brought it to practice and said we should cover it. That was that and I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t put a ton of effort into that song! It was more just “everybody learn that” and we maybe ran through it a couple times before we hit the studio, but it was mostly put together in the studio.
Strength has loads of little details on the record that embellish the songs, with gunshots, hand-claps, or even eagle calls. Was that something you were really having fun with in the studio seeing what you could get away with almost or was it something you ended up tearing your hair out over trying to place?
I take those things very seriously and not seriously at the same time. The eagle scream I didn’t put in cause it made me laugh, though it might do now and if it does it’s because I’m thinking about how cool it is. I don’t think it really counts as corny if it gets an emotion out of you. It’s tasteful use of the cornball, and a fun fact about the eagle call, that’s actually not how eagles sound. That’s a hawk scream and there are so many times in 80s movies where an eagle flies over or something and people think that’s the sound they make, but eagles make this weird weak sound and I found that out while typing in “eagle noises” to use and seeing all these people saying “This isn’t an eagle, this is a hawk sound!”
Is that a space shuttle countdown in Instinct that the hook is laid against?
Yeah that’s a Saturn V rocket taking off in 1967 or something, and the idea being that song is questioning the idea of instinct, because mankind starts with sticks and stones to pull ants out of anthills and then you evolve all the way through to making rocket thrusters to take you to the moon. There’s this curious instinctual mentality we have to grow and search and progress, and that was a nice representation of that.
Summer Lightning is a desperately emotional song but somehow what sounds like a cowbell break doesn’t pierce that melancholy at all. How careful have you got to be in toeing these lines between really committed to the mood and the more playful streak that exists in your band?
Well you’ve got to think about it this way, a cowbell is just a percussion instrument, and when you think about the most famous cowbell song, in my opinion it’s Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper. The only reason that instrument is a joke is that Saturday Night Live made it into a joke with Will Ferrell slamming that thing, but Don’t Fear the Reaper is extremely emotional and that cowbell in the intro doesn’t ruin the vibe for you. I think it was 80s bands that made it more corny, and what we have here is more of a Don’t Fear the Reaper cowbell in there and pretty much directly influenced by that. I said to Arthur that we needed to add a cowbell in there and he’s like “are you fucking kidding me?” but I just heard a cowbell in that part of Summer Lightning.
It must be conscious that on both albums there is a part where you directly drop your own, two different band names of course, into the lyrics?
It’s totally conscious. That always reminds me of that Family Guy skit with characters in some dumb movie saying the movie title and everyone freaking out cause he said it, and now even when I’m writing these I think it! I felt like the lyrics also worked there though, because part of the Unto Others name is that it’s the golden rule, it’s supposed to be a nice thing with doing unto others as you would have done unto you, but the vibe here is more of a vengeful, evil, metal one. Put in the context of that song and you have a kid who misunderstands what they’re supposed to be doing, they think that doing unto others is a revenge because everyone has treated them this way and so they must treat them the same, and so in the context of that song throwing that lyric in there might shed a little bit of light to the listener on what the name is more about.
When you released When Will Gods Work Be Done as the lead single it was undeniably attention-grabbing that the vocal howls and enunciations that peppered Mana had here been promoted to lead hook. With these kind of vocal bursts and that primal side of the music, do you feel like there’s more to be made of the animalistic side of goth rather than purely downcast?
For sure, that’s obviously influenced by metal too but goth really did the kind of desperate cry. I’m bringing it up to a bit more of a metal level without destroying the goth side of it I hope.
How much of your song-writing is character play getting inside different heads compared to more of your own viewpoint? Stuff like the drudgery in Why or social anxiety of Downtown comes across so raw.
I’d say 99% of my writing is me playing a character. In fact when I was in the studio with Arthur, at one point we were doing the section of Gods Work at the end where I’m reading off the lines that the commander in the song is saying as he is going to infiltrate this town and kill everybody, and I said to Arthur “Let me redo that, I said one of his lines wrong” and Arthur started laughing his ass off at me saying “his” lines because I’m saying it. This is a character, Arthur! That’s kinda what I do with the songs, almost everything is written from a character first person point of view but it’s through my filter, so of course the emotional part is not complete fiction. They’re things that I feel and I think a lot of people feel and I’m manifesting the things into the character. All of the evil songs too are cautionary tales. I don’t want people to listen to No Children Laughing Now and think I’m endorsing school shootings or something, it’s not about that, it’s about how such a misstep and tragedy can keep happening. It’s the same with Gods Work, with this ridiculous embodiment of wrath having this power and using it for complete hatred and destruction. These emotional extremes are a warning message, because all the songs end badly. There’s not a lot of happy endings.
One of the most striking things about Unto Others is how the worlds of heavy metal and goth rock are in really equal standing in your music with no clear dividing lines at times. How much work when it came to finding that sound went into making sure that you wouldn’t be able to feel the seams?
Really almost nothing. It’s just what comes out, I like melody and I like style and dynamics. I’ve heard enough heavy metal and I’ve heard quite a bit of goth and new wave now at this point, and to me I was just wondering why we weren’t mixing these two styles. I don’t even necessarily mean goth there, but just, I play guitar. I have my acoustic that is generally what I play when I’m sat on my porch strumming away on that thing, and when I’m out there arpeggiating a G chord, why should it be that when I go inside with my band all I’m playing is power chords? There’s no reason why those shouldn’t be mixed and so it comes from my heavy metal background mixed with just writing style. Everything should be as musically interesting as it possibly can be, and this was just the happy outcome.
You come from a background playing in underground traditional heavy metal bands, and with Mana you were touring with black metal artists and putting it out on a smaller EU black metal label. Have you found it at all surreal to be now on a label like Roadrunner getting these larger positions? Roadrunner has got a history of bands who are musically kindred spirits to yours but a lot of musicians in underground metal circles have their own barometers for success, and those larger names usually don’t come knocking.
For sure, and I was complete surprised when they did. When I started this band my dreams were small because I had been dreaming small for so many years, and what the past couple years have done is open my eyes as to why you should never aim low. I thought that I’d be touring for five years in a shitty van before I even reach the level of being able to open for national tours. I thought it was going to be just as hard as my previous band where we spent seven years trying to make a name for ourselves, and within one year of releasing our first EP on Bandcamp we were slotted to open for King Diamond and we had Roadrunner knocking at the door, not to mention a slew of other labels that wanted to sign us. We were working with 5B management who have Slipknot, Megadeth, King Diamond, Behemoth, all these bands, and this is in one year! What the fuck happened? I think it was just a little bit of luck, and they say luck is when preparation meets opportunity, and I will say that I fucking prepared. I spent a year prior to that first EP coming out getting all the pieces in place, and the opportunity came. Life has its own plans though, and of course now I’ve spent more time sitting around waiting to get back to playing music than that initial growth period. Half of our band career at this point has been waiting to get back to being a band, and it was kinda tough to deal with at first because the action happening was so exciting. Every day something massive was coming up. We were slotted to be main support for Danzig in Europe in summer 2020, we had slots at festivals like Bloodstock, all these offers were coming in, and then bam, hard stop. I can’t complain too much though because if it had happened a year prior in the beginning of 2019 I might not be talking to you today.
With Mana making a name for itself despite the lockdowns making it impossible for you to support it how you’d have liked, and now Strength making the graduation to a bigger platform like this, as a musician with your feet in underground heavy metal but now as you say not aiming low what are your next aims with where you want to take this band?
I wanna get us back on the road first and foremost. I want to play as many weird, odd places as I can before we get old, but as far as concrete, business growth schedule goes, I don’t know. I had those plans before but with the pandemic it’s very hard to set things up like that. That being said though, I’m already working on the next record and musically I think it’s going to be just as surprising to people as this record was. Like I said before, you’re always going to get a natural progression of where I’m at at that time in my life, and as long as I continue to remain true to myself it will be expressed in the music. That’s the idea.
Strength from Unto Others is currently available via Roadrunner Records – Order the album – HERE