It’s taken five years of writing in pockets of off-the-road opportunity, but Killer Be Killed’s second album has materialised with no less immediate energy than its much-loved predecessor. Troy Sanders tells Knotfest how they got there.
Killer Be Killed have more classic albums per member than arguably any metal band you could throw at them on Earth. Formed by Greg Puciato (then of The Dillinger Escape Plan) and Max Cavalera (Soulfly/ex-Sepultura) before being rounded out by Troy Sanders (Mastodon) and Dave Elitch (The Mars Volta), they looked too good to be true. More importantly though, with their first self-titled album they achieved the rare feat of making something that left fans demanding more instead of feeling short-changed.
This band feel all about fulfilling promises, and with Converge’s Ben Koller taking to the drum stool this time around, those calls have been answered with second album, Reluctant Hero, finally arriving next month. Sanders is one third of the band’s enviable vocal trifecta, and tells us that the purity of enthusiasm for Killer Be Killed has not dimmed in any one of them.
The first Killer Be Killed album was initiated by Max and Greg, with yourself joining the band a little later. With you all here together from the start with this album, do you feel the band has gelled more in the studio for this?
It definitely gelled much, much more for two main reasons. For one, we were slowly but consistently working on this album over the last five years. We roughly had three writing sessions from 2016 to 2018, we recorded the music in 2019 and recorded the vocals in 2020. We had a lot of time in between each jam session where everything we had created we had time to sit on and really hone in on which parts were great. We had plenty of time to soak it all in so that all four of us were very stoked and very happy with everything we had created. That only lends itself to being a stronger album that shows off what a cohesive effort it is in comparison to the first one. The second reason is just that we knew what worked on the first record so we knew what we should be expanding on. Our first record and the new one, besides just being six years apart, I can hear the growth as individual musicians and songwriters as well as the elevated confidence. To me, this sounds so much bigger, better, more cohesive and powerful, like a real band.
You guys all have your primary projects that take up so much of your time that the creative process for Killer Be Killed is very different coming together for short periods over a long period of time. Is it strange to write something protracted like that, compared to how you would write with your main band?
In 2015 we did our one and only short tour, in Australia. When we left Australia, we were on a high. We enjoy each other’s friendship very much, Australia is beautiful, and the crowds across that tour were mindblowing, far better than we had imagined. When we left Australia and went our separate ways, we vowed to continue this band and move forward, no matter how long it took. At the time and still, Killer Be Killed did take a back seat to our main bands which travel the world and have brought us our livelihoods, but it became a matter of not will there be another Killer Be Killed record but when will there be another Killer Be Killed record. We knew it would take several years, but we didn’t care. In hindsight, that makes me happy, because it shows the true colours of Greg, Ben, Max and myself that we had that persistence and dedication to the idea that no matter how long it takes, we were all gonna do it together. We’d all be in the same room when we write and record, nothing done remotely, no file-sharing, just old school getting in a room together and writing and recording like a real, proper band.
With this record then there must be seeds in these songs that go back several years. What’s the oldest song on the record?
It’s actually a song called “From a Crowded Wound”, which Greg wrote shortly after high school. That was one of the demos that he let me hear when we did the first record, and I fell in love with it. I think because it was his and something he had written so long ago, he was kinda on the fence and not sure if it was great, so we didn’t focus on it then and spend much time on it. Fast forward five years though from that first writing session for the first album, I said “dude, we have to spend some time on this one, it has amazing potential”. That then became a seven minute song where the original concept of it was formed decades ago.
It seems like the project is driven purely by goodwill and there’s nothing cynical or dominated by any kind of pressures from anyone else. Is that just a refreshing environment to do something like this in?
Very refreshing, and that was the premise that was given by Greg and Max when they first got together to make this band. This band was going to be reminiscent of your very first band ever, where you get together with a group of friends that you like to hang out with, you’re gonna create some sounds that you really enjoy hearing, and there’s no bullshit. Only fun, good vibes, and that’s the way it’s been ever since, which is a wonderful thing to be a part of.
You play now across your bands with some of the all time best drummers in heavy music. With this being Ben Koller’s first album with the band, how did that impact what you’ve done this time around?
Ben joined us on that short tour of Australia. We’ve of course crossed path before with all of the years of touring with our own bands, as all of us had. We knew that he was a very warm and humble human being, but also a very tasteful and artistic drummer. He can go from simple to bombastic in a matter of seconds. He’s very eager to move forward and he wants to jam, he wants to create, he wants to be in the same room as you making music. He checks off all of the boxes to want to be in a band with. He was very much a part of the song-craft and arrangements, the entire sequencing of the album. He’s not just sitting back there beating on the skins, he’s a full-on member.
When the very first announcements for Killer Be Killed’s existence were made, a lot of people might have expected something really progressive and elaborate from the calibre of musicians involved, before it arrived and was so much more pedal to the metal and instantaneous. Is that a side of you that is particularly enjoyable to get out when your main band is as musically dexterous and as lyrically and thematically intensive as they are?
Yeah, very much so. Greg straight away explained that he didn’t want to have anything here that was Dillinger, The Mars Volta, or Mastodon-ish, as far as the intricacies go. Let’s throw some meat and potatoes in a slow cooker and get in the car and go. Collectively that suited our creative desires for this band and was the obvious direction to go. We didn’t want to spend three months straight working on intricate, layered, math-driven insanity. We’ve got our fill of that.
You are one of the rare metal musicians then who is two different bands of this nature, with both Killer Be Killed and Gone is Gone. Have those two projects and the different things they represent advanced you as a musician in your playing across everything you do.
I have always recognised that any time you go and collaborate or jam with anybody else, even if it’s just learning a song from somebody or joining a cover band, you’re gonna advance yourself a little bit at a time. You’re gonna learn something from them, an interesting pattern you might not have thought of by yourself, a cool chord change or a different vocal direction. I have always thought then that it is very healthy to jam with lots of different people. Killer Be Killed and Gone is Gone were both incredible opportunities that were brought my way. I’m fuelled by those opportunities, and I always want to say yes when it is something I think can be very rewarding and therapeutic. These are people I have had admiration and respect for before I befriended them, and now that we are friends and they give me the call to come and join this band, that’s an incredible compliment. These two opportunities have worked out great, and I am still excited to be a part of them because they bring me more rewards than sacrifices. I am proud to be a part of them. They’re two different atmospheres, two different energies, and two different overall experiences. They allow me personally to unleash some material that I have been wanting to create and have been wanting to get out, and all of it is being done for the right reasons.
Something distinctive about the first Killer Be Killed album was hearing these vocalists whose voices you know very well if you have been following their careers prior over passages that you wouldn’t normally place them on, and seeing the different stamp vocally they would put over material perhaps contributed by other members of the band. Is that something consciously furthered at all on this album?
From the get-go, for better or worse, the idea was that all three of Greg, Max and myself would contribute vocals to every single song. It’s not guaranteed to work just because you have three voices that work in their own respective touring bands, but it’s part of the challenge we set for ourself. After those sessions for the first album, we were pleasantly reassured that it did work, and with this album going in it had to be the same approach but only going in with more confidence. Whoever takes that part vocally is gonna own it. I can tell when I listen to the new record that we’ve spent more time and more energy on achieving a cohesive result.
Is that maybe easier for you coming from a band like Mastodon that has multiple vocalists anyway compared to your peers in Killer Be Killed?
Maybe, but I think with Killer Be Killed there was just no over-thinking it. Whoever gravitates towards a vocal part would go in there and take it. If you had an idea for a verse that you loved, you can go in there and try it out and boom, that part’s yours. Someone else might take a stab at the chorus and so the third guy says “no problem, I’ll take the bridge”. It’s very selfless. Go in there and own it. Again, this band was created with the idea of no drama, no egos, no stress.
Is that representative of increased musical variety on this album also?
Yeah, no pre-conceived notions of what type of songs should be had, just letting it all be authentic. If we’re all digging the vibe of something we pursue it. There’s a song “Animus” which was written while Greg and I were on a quick lunch break. Max and Ben had an idea and bashed it out in like twenty minutes before we’d even come back, and that song is fun as hell to play. A song like “Reluctant Hero” meanwhile, I had these specific ideas of lyrics I wanted to write and parts that would suit them, but I didn’t want it to be overly sappy and overly cheesy. Putting it together allowed me to play guitar and to play piano, and that was something I had never done before on a record either.
Watching all of your careers unfold in real time release upon release, all of you individually are arguably in even stronger form now with your primary bands than you were around the time of the first album. What do you make of the musicians in Killer Be Killed now compared to six or seven years ago?
The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that all four of us still have this inextinguishable flame inside of us to desire to create. We all still want to outdo ourselves and mature as songwriters, and to learn to be a better band-mate, a better person. I think we all share that drive to just be better. No one’s phoning it in or writing something mediocre and saying “hey, that’s good enough”. Screw that. We’re in it because we mean it, and we know what we’re putting into it and getting out of it. When it’s all said and done, this album took us five years to find the time to get together and create it, so it’s got to hold some very strong feeling for us. We’re not out to prove anything to anyone else but ourselves, but I’m impressed by ourselves that we continue to do this for the sake of betterment.
When a band like Killer Be Killed arrives that has a group of musicians who all individually have their pre-existing fanbases, you of course get the initial excitement from people, but with this band more than many similar there’s still an existing demand and enthusiasm from people for more of it.
That’s always wonderful to hear because when you put music out into the world, you want people to like it, but it’s out of your control. Those few shows that we played, the crowds turning up and singing all the songs was mind-blowing. It’s more than just being a fan of Max Cavalera or Greg Puciato, from what I’ve seen firsthand there’s a group of people who truly embrace everything that Killer Be Killed is. I rarely expect much but everything great that has come our way is incredible. The fact that we sold 5000 vinyl copies or whatever that number was, that blew me away, because I don’t think that just putting these four names together makes it worthy of selling on its own. Fans of ours individually, they can see right through us if we just put out bullshit.
Releasing the album now after such a long process of creating it, does the current climate dampen plans of supporting it or does the casual nature of the band itself lend itself more to not having to make year-long schedules?
We briefly discussed putting the album out some time next year whenever we’d be able to tour behind it, but we’ve been sitting on it for five years already, we were just anxious to get it out into the world. That was more important than holding onto it for an undetermined amount of time for industry reasons. We’re happy to hopefully put something out at the end of the year that will put a smile on a handful of faces.
With 2021 around the corner then and attention primarily turning to new Mastodon, how often can we expect Killer Be Killed slipping out here and there where you can?
We’ve all agreed to attempt to put some time aside when the time presents itself, because we’re all very much in love with this. We completed the record early this year and while we’re excited for the release, all four of us are in studios right now working on other albums, but we’re still very much unified.
Reluctant Hero arrives November 20th on Nuclear Blast Records and can be pre-ordered – HERE