Recently, I had the pleasure of catching up with Early Man's Mike Conte, who was kind enough to take time out of his recording schedule to hang with ThrashHead.
From New York to L.A., Early Man has produced some outstanding albums; paying his dues and overcoming every hurdle thrown at him, Mike Conte is as outspoken as he is a survivor.
With a new album on a way, European-U.S. tour in the works and, since 2012 is the year of the Dragon, it may very well prove to be the year of Early Man.
ThrashHead: Early Man is based in L.A. now, but where did you begin? Take our readers back to those early years, how did you get into metal? What was your upbringing like and when did you first pick up the guitar?
Mike: I grew up in the small town of Marion Ohio. I was raised by an extremely religious family to say the least so, I wasn't introduced to a wide spectrum of music until a bit later than the average kid.
You get a lot of Jesus and sports crammed down your throat in these areas of the country. The power of heavy guitar riffage gripped me in my late teens. I started playing guitar almost immediately after hearing the basics like Pantera, Metallica and Megadeth.
ThrashHead: Who would you say most influenced you as a musician and why?
Mike: That's a tough question because it's an ongoing process until you're in the grave. I continue to find new influences almost daily across all genres of music.
From the start I've always been into good songwriters in what some might consider to be the classic sense. Bands like Sabbath, Dio, Metallica and Megadeth wrote songs. You know, like verse, chorus, singing, I can hear the lyrics clearly, etc. I can relate to that and am influenced by it more so than learning to wank off guitar scales all day long and growl and scream bullshit into a mic.
ThrashHead: Where did you pick up your Vocal style? It's so damn refreshing to hear clarity hittin' those high notes again.
Mike: To be honest, I've always just written songs and sang to them. It's just a natural reaction to a song I've written. I don't think much about it. It never occurred to me to do anything vocally in a song except sing it.
There's a lot of growling and screaming in metal these days. I think, unfortunately, it's done to cover the fact that people can't sing. It's difficult to sing in key to a song. So dudes scream and grunt and snarl their way through a record so they sound exactly like everyone else and can be part of the club. Don't get me wrong, I think that scream growly shit has its place in certain situations. But it's become the dominant style in metal across the board and to me it rarely sounds good. Occasionally, you will get someone who can do both styles well and not abuse either one. Opeth comes to mind as a band who has an extremely versatile vocal approach that works very well. But I think actual singing is a natural human reaction to music. It's pleasing to the ear, too bad no one does it anymore in heavy music.
ThrashHead: How long was it between the founding of Early Man and the release of your self-titled EP? Tell us about the formation of the band and what you guys went through before unleashing the EP.
Mike: I was writing Early Man songs in the late 90's with an Alesis SR-16 drum machine and recording them to a Tascam Portasudio 4 track. For a few years it was just me and I'd float a tape or recording out to a friend here or there in NYC. I had a clear vision for what I wanted the band to be right from the start. In fact, the song "Fight" which is on the first EP and the rerecorded version is on Death Potion was written in that era on a drum machine. I started playing with a real drummer , Rich Muller is his name, in the early 2000's. He and I recorded a 4-song demo in 2002 and circulated it around NYC. A friend of ours who is an extremely talented musician played bass then. We played 5 or 6 very small shows that year but things weren't happening at the level I wanted them to be so that lineup kind of fizzled.
In 2003 a friend of mine from Ohio, Adam Bennati, moved to NYC and I built him a loft bed in my Brooklyn apartment to help get him started in New York, we became roommates and good friends and started jamming the EM songs. We were very serious at that time about turning it into something that we took seriously so it kind of bloomed from there. Lots of NYC shows happened before the EP came out. We actually self released the EP in 2004 before it was picked up by a label. Pressed 500 CD's and sold them in record stores, etc. They sold like hot cakes (blueberry hot cakes mind you) and the buzz built from there.
We used to play at a club called The Hole in the lower east side of NYC which is gone now. I can't really explain to anyone how amazing those Hole shows were. If you were there, you know. 1,000 people would show up to see us in a club that holds maybe 300. Those were good times.
ThrashHead: It was released via Monitor Records right in '05? How did you get hooked up with that label?
Mike: That label was based out of Baltimore. A friend knew the dude who ran the label and we sent him the recording. He loved it and offered us $2,000. At that time it was our first offer and we jumped all over it. I was so broke, I couldn't afford a winter coat. For real. And Adam was in the same boat. So we made the deal immediately and could eat for a month or 2 and I could stay warm when outdoors. Worked nicely.
ThrashHead: By the time of the second release, "Closing In" You guys were picked up by Matador Records and you begin touring with bands like Mastadon, 3 Inches Blood and Venom. Tell me about that time.
Mike: Those were interesting times. Looking back on it I think things happened way too quickly. We signed with Matador literally a month after the Monitor deal happened. As far as being a buzz band within the "industry", we were on fire; red fucking hot.
Something I wasn't used to and really didn't know how to deal with. Matador snatched us up and made a really good offer because pretty much every label was breathing down our throat to sign us, mainly majors, which is funny to think about looking back.
We were beyond fucked financially because all we were doing was playing music, shows, getting wasted and chasing girls or being chased by girls. We needed cash badly to keep the party going. So we were right where every label wants musicians to be; easy prey.
Matador ended up being a great group of people to work with and they hooked us up into bigger tours and took the band from local legend status to an international act. But it happened quickly, too fast. We didn't have a bass player because we couldn't find a person as nuts as we were about touring, playing constantly, practicing and partying.
With Early Man records I do everything, except play the live drums. So it was easy to record "Closing In" without a full band. But, kicking that into 3 dimensions when touring and playing live was a different story. We did some tours as a 2 piece not because we wanted to, but, out of necessity. We opened for Mastodon as a 2 piece. Everyone thought we were trying to be the metal White Stripes but we hated the idea more than anyone. But with things moving so fast and the "industry" people pushing us down the throats of everyone on the planet we didn't have much of a choice but to keep playing shows. I have good memories of those times but they were also stressful and damaged my creative process immensely. It took a lot of time to get that part of me back in order.
ThrashHead: You also did a video for "Death Is The Answer" at this time too?
Mike: Yeah. First video. Hungover as fuck when we filmed it. When I watch it I can't believe I was standing up.
ThrashHead: 2008 is a big year for you, you decide to go west...what helped you make the decision to go to L.A.?
Mike: First off, we parted ways with Matador. The party was over. We weren't the flavor of the week anymore. Didn't really phase me since I never wanted the attention in the first place. But, it did mean I needed a new plan of attack for Early Man into the future.
And then, to kick the new year off, I lost my apartment in a much publicized incident in Brooklyn where the city came in and threw all 400 people out of our building overnight for no apparent reason. Literally, like police officer knocking on the door telling me I have 4 hours to vacate. I had lived there for 10 years; Brutal!
To make a long story short, Brooklyn was and is being massively gentrified by douchebags who's parents are filthy rich. That place sucks. It's a bunch of pretentious fuck ups making soulless art. They should drop a nuclear bomb on that place to restore the balance of the earth. And it was really starting to take a turn towards higher levels of douchery right around that time. It was no longer fun to live there, at least for me. I saw it go from a true artists community in the 90's to a neighborhood full of condos being built that look like they belong in Miami Beach. I was couch surfing, homeless and broke. I was near the end of my line to say the least. But, I saw it as an opportunity to fight my way out of a shitty situation rather than fold up and quit. I have relatives in LA. They said come out here and start over. I went to JFK with a backpack, got on a JetBlue flight and here we are. Best decision of my life.
ThrashHead: What did you think of the scene out there?
Mike: Tons of young bands playing heavy metal in and around LA right from the start when I came out here. I loved it right away.
ThrashHead: Later that year "Beware The Circling Fin" was released, but those tracks were actually recorded in 2007 and you also switched labels? Was it a real hectic time for Early Man?
Mike: Very hectic. I was homeless for the first year and a half that I lived in LA. And the rest of the band was still living in NYC. We signed a deal with The End Records. Again, this was another move done somewhat out of desperation. We needed money and momentum. We were talking to all of the metal labels and they made the first move so we took it. That EP was a demo recorded for Matador actually. Since it was recorded, we used it when we signed with The End.
ThrashHead: You did some touring with Iced Earth after the release? What was that tour like?
Mike: It was great. Their fans embraced us. Straight up true blue metal fans, no bullshit. They loved the music and the live shows and we made a lot of new fans and friends.
ThrashHead: Then Comes "Death Potion" and you re-record classic tracks from the first EP like "Fight and "Undertaker", tell us about that album and how it all came together.
Mike: We recorded Death Potion with Jack Endino in Seattle. The way I like to do it is to get the drums and one guitar track locked in which usually takes about 3 or 4 days and then sort of take over myself and start sculpting the songs from there, laying in guitar and bass ideas and building it up into something that will be ready for vocals. I record my own vocals for all Early Man stuff myself, meaning I take the songs when most of the music is done, or near done, and go into a studio alone and start the process of singing and recording the vocals.
All I care about is that the song is what I personally envisioned it to be from the start. The only way to make that happen is to lock myself into a space with my lyrics for a few weeks and bang it out. I recorded the vocals for Death Potion in LA for the whole month of December 2008 and then took them back up to Seattle to have Endino mix the entire songs.
ThrashHead: You actually do a lot in the band, not only are you doing Vocals, but also play both Guitar and Bass; how does that work live? Do you stick with the bass and leave axe duties to Pete?
Mike: I play guitar live. Pete plays guitar also. Two guitar attack. We've had a rotating bass player situation for years. Not out of choice, it's just happened that way.
ThrashHead: As you mentioned earlier, Adam Bennati was the main drummer for Early Man, but Trevor Martin has since taken over those duties, why did Adam leave?
Mike: Shit gets crazy in a band. You're essentially in a marriage with your bandmates. You spend more time with them than your wife/girlfriend/family/etc. Especially, when you're in a cycle of doing non-stop touring. My relationship with Adam was slowly deteriorating over the years. If you have differences with many things on pretty much every level the relationship will go in the shitter and it will begin to greatly affect the momentum of the band. My creativity was suffering. No one was talking or communicating enough and it just got to a breaking point.
I made the decision to part ways with Adam for various reasons I don't need to get into but it wasn't easy. It sucked but it also had to happen. There's no big dramatic thing to report, it just wasn't working. That's not to say I didn't enjoy my time in the band with him because I did. We had a good fun run together but it was time for me to move in a different direction.
I met Trevor through a friend this past fall and we hit it off instantly. First practice he showed up and pretty much knew every song and was nailing them like he had been playing with me for 20 years. Trevor takes a very professional approach to playing drums. He builds his own kits. It's been great playing with him and writing this upcoming record. I'm looking forward to touring with him in the band and having our fans see him rip it up every night.
ThrashHead: Looking back at the four albums, what are favorite tracks and why?
Mike: Tough question. I have no favorites. They all mean something different and of equal importance to me. Each song reminds me of wherever my head was at the time of its writing, how my life was going, where I lived, what time of year it was, the day it was recorded or written, etc.
Lots of good memories really for each and every song.
ThrashHead: I've noticed that you've decided to go DIY and Early Man is going to put out the next album yourselves, what made you decide to throw labels out the door and take this route?
You're laying down the tracks now for the new album as we speak right?
Mike: Yeah we're recording right now. The first part of that question I could take 5 months answering but I'll try to be quicker than that. I've lived it, so I speak from experience. Musicians should avoid at all cost the "music industry" and anyone involved in it. Music has nothing to do with industry. But as musicians, we've all been programmed to think we're supposed to get involved with these scumbags so we can "make it". You're told you need a label, you need a manager, you need a booking agent, you gotta meet my friend who knows a guy who works for this or that blah, blah, blah, etc.; you are brainwashed to think that being on the cover of a magazine and playing arena's is success.
It's funny, I noticed this week that people were losing their minds over the fact that Van Halen was playing in a super small club in NYC. You know why? Because as a fan that's a much better way to be a part of a show. If they were playing Madison Square Garden you wouldn't have heard anything about it. But, for some reason, everyone is focused on being "big time". And these people putting this shit into your mind aren't your friends. They're money hungry leeches. You are a number to them, bottom line. If they cared so much about music, they'd be making music, not taking money from musicians under the guise of "furthering their careers". Taking a complete DIY approach as a band makes you extremely powerful, more so than you'll ever be when signed to McMetal Records.
It's important to me to concentrate on making good music that I love, not becoming famous and I think all bands should consider that. I don't give a flying fuck about being in a magazine or blog or MTV or what my soundscan numbers are or how many downloads I have on iTunes or any of that bullshit that is controlled by the leeches.
They invented all that shit so musicians will hand over all of their power to the labels/managers/etc. in return for what bands hope will be recognition within that realm. All that is happening, is that you are being massively raped for cash, your soul and anything else you have that might be of value. Bands need to wise up and take control of their music. If your music is good people will take interest and you'll be up and running simply by word of mouth. If your music sucks so bad that you need a team of people pumping it up everyone's ass 24/7 then you shouldn't be making music in the first place.
Quitting that race or never getting involved in the first place is very empowering. I pretty much do all business stuff now for Early Man and it's never run smoother. You can figure it all out yourself as a band, it's not even remotely difficult. Do it yourself. Be smart about the business aspect of the band and within no time you'll be light years ahead of where you'd be if signed with a label and were being managed by whatever fuckup flavor of the month "management teams" are out there right now. The last label we were on took 2 years to release our record after it was finished. 2 FUCKING YEARS! It would've taken me 2 days; I think you get my point.
ThrashHead: Is there a tour in the works to support the release? And If so, is it going to be from coast to coast?
Mike: Yes. We're doing Europe in May/June/July. U.S. dates will be announced soon after we have a release date for the new record.
ThrashHead: What's the best way for fans to hook up with Early Man to show their support?
Mike: We have a Facecock page that I chime in on frequently. Twitter too. I love interacting with fans, all of this shit is impossible without them. We have a website, you can support us by buying music and merch there, email us, we try to be easily accessible.
ThrashHead: Gettin' bit off of the subject here, but with all the gigging and recording you've done, touring with everyone from Toxic Holocaust to aforementioned Iced Earth, what's the craziest story you've got...well at least one which you can share with us without incriminating yourself of course.
Mike: Brent from Mastodon pulled a shotgun on me and Pete once (mainly Pete) at his house. And fired it. That was fun. But I think everyone has a crazy story about that nutcase. I actually think "zany band stories from being on the road" kind of suck. It's all been done. If people are into that kind of thing they should read a book like " Motley Crue: The Dirt ". It'll be much more interesting.
ThrashHead: You're a rock n roll veteran, are there any words of wisdom which you can share with readers who are thinking about dedicating their lives to the pursuit of music?
Mike: Yes, don't do it! Ha, ha. But seriously, there are so many things I could say in response to that question I could go on for days. I think it's important to ask yourself why you're pursuing it. You can pursue music by doing nothing other than playing a piano in your basement every day after work for your whole life and be much happier than someone who plays rock songs in front of 20,000 people a night.
There are amazing musicians in every country around the world that you'll never know about that have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of music. Are they failures because they aren't household names? Hardly. Quite the opposite actually. It's much more important when you don't need validation from the outside world, you do it because you love it. Playing music should be fun whether it's Death Metal or Mariachi. You should be having fun and tapping into an energy that you can only feel when playing that makes you happy.
Now, if you are interested in being in a band in the conventional sense of releasing records and touring, etc. my advice would be to become a good business person first. Do not sign to a label. Dedicate yourself to your artwork and music by not handing it all over to someone else right from the start. Be smart about your choices. Good luck.