“Get in a metal band and try to book a tour,” sneers Illuminati vocalist Josh Gill. “Holy fuck. It’s the hardest thing in the world these days.”
“Unless you’ve got a good name and a good label behind you,” corrects bassist Per Carlson.
“Yeah,” Gill concedes, “but even then. Especially because metal is so popular right now.”
Wait a minute—what? Interviewing Illuminati is like doing battle with a hydra: Ask one question and two or three contradictions pop up almost every time. Members of the Missoula four-piece say they weren’t nervous the time they played in front of 4,000 people. Then, two sentences later, they say they were. They say they might never get signed because they’re too stubborn. Then they say they aren’t stubborn. They talk defiantly about their refusal to relinquish total creative control to be on a major label, but no one’s asked them to be on a major label yet—they still put out their own records. And I still can’t figure out why it’s harder to book metal bands now that, as Illuminati members say, metal is getting so popular.
Band members present at the interview—Gill, Carlson and drummer Brian Besel—seem determined to let the music speak for itself. So far in their career, circumstance has nicely accommodated this strategy: It eventually comes out that this is the band’s first interview in three years together, and that they’d decided beforehand that the most prudent strategy would be to guard their answers, and guard them closely.
Actually, the interview hasn’t felt like it’s been going very well at all so far. Illuminati seem to have positioned themselves to vet the facts of certain matters, steer clear of others, and elaborate very little on most of the subjects I thought they’d be keenest to talk about.
Or at least willing to talk about. Like the glory days of Saint Rage—Gill and Carlson’s band before Illuminati. But Gill and Carlson are less than eager to trot out memories from those days—days which I’d always thought would be halcyon times for young metalheads with a decent following of crazy metal chicks, before kids and house payments, before one band member, as Carlson puts it, “had a bad marriage accident and we couldn’t revive him.” Far from being eager to spin some old Saint Rage yarns, Carlson reacts with mock horror, rolling his eyes and groaning.
“Oh, gawwwd,” he grimaces, “I don’t know what to say. It was fun, I guess, but I mean, the Saint Rage days are something we’d like to forget about.”
Man, you know you’re in trouble when you can’t get a metal band to regale you with tales of their partying exploits. It’s hard to tell how much of this is theatrical—unrehearsed attempts at cultivating their own band mythology, in this case, oddly, by trying to purge certain chapters of it—and how much is just exasperation with me as an interviewer. I feel like I’m not getting any answers; they feel like I’m not asking the right questions. It’s almost like Illuminati decided long ago that this fight, this struggle to keep the regimental colors of the metal militia aloft in Missoula was going to be a long and lonely one, and assumed that no one was ever going to come along and ask them about the particulars. It all stays cordial enough, but I never really feel like they’ve allowed me into their confidence, or for that matter that I’ve earned my admission. I feel like I’ve landed on a desert island where the only inhabitants are Japanese soldiers who think World War II is still on. In a rare burst of loquacity, Gill succinctly sums up the band’s siege mentality: “We don’t fit in with what’s going on. We just don’t. Anywhere.”
That underdog determination to chart their own course, though, with all its overtones of sacrifice and fatalism, is exactly what keeps the fight alive in isolated pockets of resistance like Missoula. And in some ways, isolation—mental and geographical—has served Illuminati well. In three years, they’ve forged themselves into a metal cudgel that smashes through the usual drop-D aggro FM bullshit and weak nü-metal covers of George Michael like a bowling ball through a tray of jelly doughnuts. Last year’s debut CD, Illuminati, is a snarling mass of technical prowess, obliterating riffs and bludgeoning drums. To hear Gill, Carlson and Besel tell it, they’re already light-years past their debut in terms of tightness and heaviness, with tons of killer new stuff to show for those long winter nights practicing. And don’t even bring up Stressed, the 1997 Saint Rage album. I tell Carlson and Gill that some of those songs on Stressed still find their way into my air-guitar rotation (and my five-disc changer) from time to time, and they scoff derisively. Again, the message is clear: Dude, we’re not even going to go there. It apparently hasn’t helped that we’ve scheduled this interview at Saint Rage’s old stomping grounds: Buck’s Club.
Some time later, when the interview breaks up and we all go next door to check out an amateur “Girls Gone Wild”-type event in progress at The Other Side, it occurs to me that hip-hop is the new rock. It’s not just that you don’t hear “Girls, Girls, Girls” blasting out of muscle cars on the main drag much any more. It’s that hip-hop has increasingly come to replace hard rock and metal as the default soundtrack for suburban rowdiness in general. Fifteen years ago, these girls would have writhing around on the stage to Ratt or Mötley Crüe. Now it’s Outkast, that “Hey Ya” song that you can’t get away from no matter where you go.
But the Illuminati guys wince at the idea of restoring the butt-rock realm to its past glory, too. When the conversation returns to metal’s supposed new popularity—particularly as practiced by unapologetic Spandex throwbacks like British band The Darkness—Carlson groans again. Wait a sec, this is where I got confused the first time. Might it not be advantageous for Illuminati’s career if this metal comeback...
“No, no, no, no, no, no,” he heads me off. “Not like that! I kind of like metal how it is now. Underground. Dark—not The Darkness. Does this mean we’re headed back to Cinderella and Ratt? I know shit comes back around, but...”
Amazingly, Illuminati members also neglect to mention their upcoming video shoot until right before we call it quits on the interview. It’s a video calling card they intend to mail out to labels. If there’s one thing that I do get straight from Illuminati, it’s that they know that the hard work isn’t going to stop anytime soon, even if they land the big label deal that most bands hope to snag someday. They doubt a record deal would change them much. Members talk about sacrifice and dedication with the weary determination of people who didn’t just figure these things out yesterday. Hard work is one of the few things they seem comfortable talking about, something they do well together.
“When we write,” says Gill, “it’s 25 percent. We split it four ways. When one guy comes in with a riff, everybody adds his two cents. Some shit gets taken, some gets dropped, and you know that anytime you come to a practice with an idea, it could get dumped. But if it does get dumped, it’s probably going to be elaborated on to the point where it’s way cooler than you ever imagined.”
“We’ve sacrificed college, careers, time with kids, a lot of shit to do this,” says Besel. “From my experience with this band, it’s the music first.”
So has it been worth it?
“Well, yeah,” he replies. “I’ll do this or I’ll die trying. This is my mission in life.”
How will you know when it’s no longer worth it?
“It’ll always be worth it.”
And what if Missoula turns out to be the extent of the dream?
“I would be happy with that,” muses Besel. “I would not be as happy as I would be if we...actually, no, I’d be unhappy with it.”
Gill, for his part, thinks the self-imposed siege will be lifted—someday.
“It’s a gem,” he says. “And somebody will see that. I know they will.” Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org