Miss May I: The Lion Kings
Much like the king of the jungle that features in their emblem, Miss May I prefer things raw.
Before we could begin our chat with Miss May I’s Levi Benton, there was something we had to clarify: is their choice of a lion for their symbol/general spirit animal in any way related to the vocalist’s own luscious feline mane?
“No, but they definitely work together!” laughs Benton good-naturedly. “I get that question left and right actually. I’m starting to think maybe I should just go with it.”
We agree. But now that we’ve got that off our chest, it’s down to business, and with the band on the verge of releasing Rise Of The Lion out of the den, there’s a lot to chat about. For Miss May I, record number four is about taking it back to where it all began.
“We just want to be five guys on our instruments,” says Benton. “We’ve never been a band to use lots of orchestras or keyboards. We want to do things like an old school metal band, even though we’re one of the younger bands out there touring. That’s one of the biggest things that maintains our sound.
“It’s so hard to stand out when every record at the moment sounds 100 percent perfect, so it’s nice to show that people do mess up and that guitars and amps don’t always sound perfect from the beginning to the end of the song. We loved that about records in the
‘90s and early 2000s and the bands we grew up with.”
It’s that approach that sums up the sound of Rise Of The Lion as a whole. One listen to the record reveals Miss May I stripping metalcore back to its rawest roots, eschewing the trends of the digital movement and letting their original influences shine through. No surprise really, when you realise that the man in the producer’s chair was the same man who brought out the best in some of their heroes – the legendary Terry Date. Given his formidable roster, the band is still in disbelief that they managed to nail him down for
“It was actually while we were in Australia last year on Soundwave that we were talking to our label about producers,” explains Benton. “They said he had been chatting to them, and he had actually brought us up. After we heard his name we just said, ‘That’s it, drop everything, no matter what else we were thinking let’s work with Terry.’ He was someone we would have always wanted to go to but had never thought we would be able to, so he was never really on our radar. It just seems like all the bands he does are these monster bands, and we don’t really see ourselves as a big band!”
It’s no exaggeration – the “monsters” to which Benton refers form a who’s-who of hard-hitting, genre-defining tyrants spanning several decades. From modern-day heroes Bring Me The Horizon to KoRn, Slipknot and Deftones (and did we mention not one, not two, but four Pantera albums?), Terry Date’s impact on the sound of heavy music as we know it is undeniable. But as Benton explains, sometimes the key to a good producer is more in what they don’t do than in what they do.
“It’s funny because he’s such a big name, and people would think there must be all these big magical things he does, but in reality he was really hands off,” he recalls. “We’ve never had a producer do that. And what’s crazy is that I’ve read all these Pantera interviews about working with Terry, and Phil Anselmo was saying the exact same thing: that he’s so hands-off. It’s funny that 20 years later he still works the same way; he just oversees the project. He let us be us, and it was the coolest thing that could have happened because we found out how to sound like us.
“The biggest thing he brought to it was the rawness of it. When we were doing the vocals he didn’t want to remove breaths or have me do punch-in lines. He wanted me to do it like I was performing live, so instead of doing it line-by-line I would do a whole verse at a time. That was new for us too, but it means you get all that fatigue and stuff on the record and I think it sounds awesome.”
A retrospective listen to the band’s back catalogue shows an obvious sonic arc. While their 2010 debut Apologies Are For The Weak was a fast’n’furious display of dark but blistering riffs and impressively dexterous drumming, with a high-gloss production, 2011’s Monuments and 2012’s At Heart saw the band dropping the tempos slightly and exploring their more anthemic side. Although the original ferocity was still present, there was a definite sense of steering away from the hyper-technical.
“I think that was a natural change for us, but on At Heart I think we cut down on those fast elements a little too much,” admits Benton. “I think that alienated a certain section of our fanbase who dig that style, and we felt kind of bad about that. So this time we made sure to include a few of those fast-paced songs and show people that we’re not getting old, we still can and like to play fast! It’s hard to fit everything into a record and please everybody.”
Benton contemplates that the stylistic shift might also be a product of the increasingly busy touring schedule the band has kept over the years.
“On our first record, we had never really played most of those songs for people, we had only played them together in a basement. It sounded cool to us at the time but we were playing out of crappy cardboard-box amps. We weren’t really thinking about what it would be like to be playing nights in a row, sleeping in a van, getting fatigued. For the new stuff, we think more about the live feel, especially the sing-alongs and stuff. It’s crazy now that we’ve played probably over a thousand shows on tour and yet every tour we finish we realise something new about how that stuff works.”
At the same time, Benton insists that, even if given the chance, he wouldn’t change the way any of their previous work was done.
“I don’t think we could have done this kind of record at another time. Our last record was a transitional record and we knew it wasn’t gonna be a huge number one hit, but it was something that needed to happen. So this transition to the older sound, where we wanted to be, and the tours that we’re doing now, that’s something we had to build up to. It’s been a plan in the back of our heads for a while, but it couldn’t happen overnight. The fans that we have now might not have taken the time to look at us if we had come out with a record that sounded like this first.”
But with several of Miss May I’s contemporaries following suit and choosing to do things more au naturel than they had before, could we be on the verge of a full-scale metalcore revolution? Are we about to see the genre go full-circle, with the digitally-oriented headbangers of today going back to doing it the way their musical forefathers did?
“I feel like every genre eventually has that time,” he muses, “and I think that’s why we’ve been so strong, because we’ve never gone with the fads, and when metalcore is no longer the hottest thing we’re still gonna have to be out here touring. I think it will go full circle and I think it’s cool that when it does, our band’s stuff will last through that.”