The mathematicians and madmen who from Asbury Park, New Jersey’s Toothgrinder have arrived in a big way. After years on the road, Nocturnal Masquerade, their debut full-length has been spinning heads throughout the worlds of rock and metal. With dizzying riffs interspersed with moments of floating melody, these dudes have crafted themselves a niche in which they reign. On his lunch break, I got a phone call from Wills Weller, someone as energetic and enthusiastic as you might expect from someone who hits the skins for an act such as Toothgrinder.
Interview by Matt Bacon
From March 2016 Vandala Magazine
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I wanted to start with kind of a weird question: have you ever seen a movie called Haze?
Wills: Haze, no.
I only ask because there’s a scene of a dude with his head tied to a pipe in such a way that he has to slide across grinding his teeth against it.
Wills: Really? Oh, that’s gnarly, dude.
Yeah, I guess I assumed there was some connection there.
Wills: The band name is kind of interesting. We kind of look at Toothgrinder as a feeling, like that feeling when you’re grinding your teeth or you’re trying to do something, you’re right in the thick of things, and you’re gonna make it through even if you don’t think you’re gonna. It’s just that feeling of pushing through and getting it done.
When I was listening to this album, it reminded me of – I don’t know how old you guys are – back in 2003, I was twelve –
Wills: I’m 26, so –
Okay, I’m 24. It kind of takes me back to when bands like Deftones, Nothingface, and Slipknot were all over fm radio, inexplicably. Was that a time when you were all kind of starting out?
Wills: Oh, yeah, dude. Like, Deftones, and – I know it’s kind of corny – Limp Bizkit. Honestly, man, but even to Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. It’s cool that you make that connection, man, because we grew up the same time; we were definitely listening to that stuff, listening to Chino [Moreno, Deftones] yell and scream and just loving it ‘cause your parents didn’t like it, like “Aw, this rules!”.
Yeah, it was a weird time when you could hear Tool or Lamb of God on the airwaves. It was a pretty magical time to get into metal.
Wills: Agreed. I think maybe that’s probably why it so easy to get into, because it was easy to find; it wasn’t that hidden genre of metal, or the hidden genre where you find out when you’re older, like “Oh, wow! There’s this band, or this style of music that I didn’t even know was a thing, but I’ve always wanted to hear,” so I feel ya on that. But I feel like it’s – I mean, maybe it’s not radio-acceptable – but we’ve been played on some shows that I didn’t think we would get played on. I know Music Choice has a metal thing, but it has a rock side as well and we’ve been on some rock stations, where I was like, “Really? If you know that Between the Buried and Me was my favorite band, you might double think about [putting us on there]” [laughter]
I’m glad you mentioned Between the Buried and Me, because I hear a lot of that too, a lot of the more modern metal sound represented there.
Wills: Totally. Big fan of that. I’ve gotten to meet the drummer, I’m a big fan of the drummer. I’ve only met him in passing and he knows a couple of mutual friends of mine, but I would love to play with those dudes. That would be so sweet.
It says on your facebook page that you’ve been banned from several venues. How do you manage that?
Wills: Well, you know, sometimes it’s just our live performance. We tend to get a little crazy, and for the sole fact that we believe in the music that we’re playing, and sometimes it takes ya into a different place, and sometimes your emotions get the best of you. We’ve never hurt anyone or anything.
One time, we were playing in Brooklyn and we like to climb on stuff, jump on stuff, give a show. I can’t just stand there and – well, I play the drums – if I was the guitar player, I couldn’t just stand there and play, especially because the music we play’s fun and energetic, so the singer was climbing up on one of our amps – and it was a small place – but, like, went to grab the truss for the lights, and it literally, as soon as he touched it – it’s like it was up there with bubblegum and tape – it literally just ripped right out of the wall and fell behind me – I didn’t even realize it – smashed into the snake that all the mics were plugged into on the stage, and ripped out all the cables that were in the back of our amps. No sound, the lights were down, and I didn’t realize ‘cause I have a click-track in my ear, so I didn’t really know what was goin’ on; I’m going apeshit and for the last thirty seconds of our set, it’s one guitar, the guitar player took his guitar off, threw it on the ground and started doing vocals, completely ignoring the fact that we ripped the lights out of the wall, just continued playing.
As soon as that song was done, all the lights went on, and the guy came onstage. He was like “Alright. Show’s over. Everyone get the fuck out.” We helped pay for it and everything, but, sometimes, y’know. things happen. [laughter]
I’m seeing the album everywhere, just reading the blogs that I read, which is surprising for a debut album.
Wills: Yeah, it’s been wild man. With anyone that’s trying to put out a piece of art into the world, you always know that you’re gonna get judged. You can’t create something without someone else judging it for what they think, and you have to be open-minded to the negative and the positive, and keep in mind to yourself that it’s okay if someone doesn’t like it, because it’s just not for them. Surprisingly, the response – and I don’t even mean to say surprisingly to downplay the record because I’m very proud of it, but I’m very overwhelmed by the response that it’s been getting, how positive people have been reacting to, y’know, just some songs that we put together as friends in our rehearsal space in Asbury, never thinking “Someone’s gonna need to call me on Wednesday and talk about this” [laughter]. It’s so cool. It feels surreal; it doesn’t even feel like it’s real, y’know?
You plan on touring?
Wills: Oh, yeah, definitely. We were hoping that some tours lined up with the release, but they unfortunately didn’t, but that’s okay. I’m just excited that the album’s out. We’re just lucky that we did a lot of touring up to the record. Even though we didn’t get on a tour for the release of the record, all the touring we did for that whole year and the year before, it was almost like that helped so much, because people were like “Alright, you only have an EP and I can’t wait to hear this”, and now, finally, after all that, we’re like “Here ya go; here’s a full-length.” People were just excited. We had a lot of people always scoping us out, checking us out, always coming back, a lot of repeat customers.
From the Periphery tour in 2014, which was our first tour ever, we literally haven’t taken more that two or three months off since then. We really haven’t. We would go on tour, we could come home, we’d be home for a month or two months, we’d go on another month’s tour, we’d be home for three weeks, then we recorded a record, and we were gone for forty-five days, then we were home for two weeks, went on another tour, came back a month, went on another tour, went home again, did another full U.S. tour for a month and a half, and that led into December, and it was, like, dude, that year was done, already gone.
It was so crazy to play in front of that many people, and now to just kind of be like “Cool. Full-length.” Now we’re still fresh in people’s minds. They haven’t forgot about that time with Periphery, ‘cause it’s still pretty there with them. It works in ways that we didn’t expect it to work.
What’re your plans for going out again?
Wills: The only thing that we have solidified absolutely is South by Southwest; we’re actually playing a really cool show, the Metal Sucks/Metal Injection showcase. We’re playing their show on 6th street, and that’s, I hear, just stupid-crazy every year, so – really excited for that.
Back to Periphery, is that tour how you got their vocalist to do a guest spot on this album?
Wills: Yeah, I’ll give you the quick background story with our relationship with Periphery. It started in 2013, when the drummer, Matt Halpern, did a clinic at this music store where I work at, where I’m on break from right now [laughter]. He did a drum clinic, and it’s about him; it’s not about me or my band. All I did all day was tune his drums, if he was hungry get him some food, get him some water, because he’s in my spot. I wanna make sure he’s comfortable, y’know, and I respected him as a drummer.
So the day goes by, and he says “What goes on around here?” He saw a flier for Whitechapel, and my band was opening up for them. He’s like “Dude, Whitechapel’s playing around here?” ‘Cause he likes them, he’s known about them, and someone chimed in “Wills’ opening”, and he goes “You’re in a band?” I was like, “Yeah, I play the drums. I tuned your drums today.” So, whatever, we got talkin’, back and forth, so we switched numbers, and kept in touch.
A year later – literally a year later – we booked a show in California, a d.i.y. tour. No idea why we did that, no idea why we thought it was a good idea. We weren’t signed, didn’t have management, nothing. Just figured, “Well that’s what you do. You go on tour, and you tour places you’ve never been…so, let’s go to California.” So we went to California, came back, and I called Matt and said, “Dude. What am I doing wrong? What am I missing? We just booked this west coast tour, like, I dunno, never been there, playing for people,” and he goes, “Holy shit. Dude, hold on. Give me ten minutes.”
And literally ten minutes later, Mike Mowery, who’s the owner of Outerloop, our manager, calls me. “Yeah, so Matt says you’re in a band and says I should really talk to you.” So Matt just vouched for me, just from that, that one day we hung out and shot the shit, he vouched for me to his manager like “Yo, you should talk to Wills. His band’s a local band, but you should talk to him.”
And, so, I talked to Mowery for like two hours in the first conversation, and we kind of just clicked. It was so exciting to talk to someone who actually gave a shit about the music that we were making, and kind of just encouraging me to be like “Yeah, you should keep writing these songs.”
We hashed out a deal with Outerloop. Outerloop kind of brought us on, got us in to record our first EP, and the day we went to record our EP was – it was in Bethesda, Maryland – it was the same place that Periphery did P2, which was their second record. We walk in the first day and Spencer’s hanging out with Taylor, because they’re both also in From First To Last – Spencer’s the singer of From First To Last now, and Taylor’s the guitar player – they’re hanging out. So Spencer walks in, really doesn’t know that I know Halpern too well, but we’re on the same management, so he kind of gets wind of a new band coming in. We don’t sound like Periphery, we’re not trying to sound like Periphery, so, immediately, Spencer was like, “Hell yeah. This rules,” ‘cause we just kind of went in and did our own thing and didn’t treat ‘em – the same way I didn’t treat Matt like he was the superstar drummer that he is; I just treated him like a peer, like a normal person – and so Spencer was just immediately attached, and just really liked our songs.
So, we finish the record, we shop it around, we get picked up by a label, and as soon as we get picked up by a label, Matt Halpern gets wind of it, and Spencer gets wind of it, and were so excited they’re like “Dude, we wanna take you guys on your first tour. I saw you make your first record, and now you’re getting picked up by a label, and we were the ones who showed you Outerloop, and now you’re actually taking advantage of it and running with it.” So they took us out on our first tour, and them giving us a shot, again, a local band that has nothing, no online sales, no this, no that; we print our own merch, we design our own merch. A band like Periphery who is so good and so good and so respected to stick their neck our and be like, “Yeah, we want Toothgrinder, the kids who get high and go crazy all the time. We want them, we wanna hang out with them.” They just enjoyed us as people, so they brought us out, and we got to play the coolest shows and it was so badass. What a great first real tour. Literally, we just got signed, and we got that tour, the EP got delivered to us during that tour. It was just really, what an incredible couple of months. It just felt so cool.
And not just any label, but Spinefarm.
Wills: Yeah, when we were doing the EP, of course we were joking back and forth, “We’re gonna get signed,” like any kid does who just likes to be in a band, and then offers started coming through and we’re like, “Holy shit, this is crazy. People actually like this,” and then that offer came through. It’s kind of like when you go fishing, and you’re having a really good day catching whatever, and then you get the five or six pound bass and that made the whole day worth it. That’s kind of what it felt like, just like “I can’t believe we’re getting this right now; this is crazy.” We looked at our manager who just kind of looked at us like, “Dude! This is super-respectable!” Not to downplay it, but I didn’t expect to get this, and sure as hell the dudes in the band didn’t expect to get this, so we just kind of looked at each other like “I think this is one of those opportunities where, even if you crash and burn, let’s put up the good fight; let’s see if we can do this.”
Spinefarm has been amazing. They’ve been the most encouraging, respectful bunch of people. They’re our friends as well as our partners in business, which has just been so incredible – to be so new to the industry and have these guys who have worked with incredible artists just kind of take us under they’re wing and be “You’re our guys. We’re gonna do this, but we’re gonna do this together.” Down to the artwork, song titles, the way the songs sounded, the names of the songs, they didn’t put their hands in anything. They literally would just be like, “That’s awesome. That’s what you guys want?” “Yep.” “Cool, let’s get this done. Looking great, guys.” They were just encouraging. It was really crazy. It all felt surreal.
Normally I like to read through lyrics before doing this, but I couldn’t find yours online. What sort of things are touched on here?
Wills: It’s a lot. The record is supposed to be a dream sequence. When you think about being in a dream, you can be anything, anyone and do anything. Anything can happen. A lot of Justin [Matthews]’s lyrics are dark, they’re really moody, they’re sometimes sexual, they’re angry, they’re happy. It’s things he sees, it’s things in life. It’s just interesting, and I feel like he touches on things that people don’t write about, and he’s not afraid to say things.
There’s one lyric specific in Blue, it’s “Bound, naked, and force fed by government/familiarity rapes the sublime/don’t lose grip just yet/one more sip, forget” and then it says “I ain’t nothin’ but a goddamned monster”, so it’s like “Woah”. That’s a little deeper than “Alright, so my girlfriend left, and I’m bummed,” so it’s like “Holy shit, okay.” He kind of digs deep and he’s not afraid to either take a shot or just really speak what’s on his mind. It’s kind of cool. He takes lyrics from his own personal life, from things he reads, this and that, really from all different aspects. I think that’s why the songs have their own specific little universe-feel, which is kind of cool.
The whole album’s a dream sequence?
Wills: In a way. Everything can just be linked to a different dream. There’s a song called Dance of Damsels, very sexual. There’s a lot of metaphors for stuff like that, and there’s another one that’s Waltz of Madmen. Dance of Damsels, if you think of a girl dancing, she could either be a stripper, she could be a ballerina, she could just be slutty, and that could be the metaphor for dancing around. Waltz of Madmen could just be the seven a.m. grind out the train, up the stairs, into your forty-story office building, and walk out. That’s like a dance, it’s syncopated and happens every Monday through Friday. The Waltz of Madmen could just be a really crazy guy who kind of just sleeps with a bunch of ladies and is getting around. it could really go in any direction, and it’s cool that we kind of lay it out and you have to figure out how it makes you feel. It could make us feel differently, but there needs to be a meaning for you. How does that song make you feel? What do you get when he says “Under sheets/ Become one” in Dance of Damsels? What do you think about? Are you having sex? Are you sleeping? What’s going on? It goes all over the place. I like leaving it open like that, because I read into things and I feel emotionally attached to different things that might not even be there.
For instance, our album art derives from something we’ve already done, an album we’ve already done, but we bought back the same animal head, but we added feathers to it, which is adding another animal, and the weird part about that is we’ve been traveling a lot, and I feel like birds migrate to different places. We added another piece to the puzzle. The elephant head has longer hair. It’s matured; it got a little older. The horns grew out and kind of changed direction; it’s no longer a young thing; it’s now older. It matures, and so does the band, and so does everything that we do. It’s funny to kind of incorporate those little things you might have never even realized, but to me it means so much, but that’s just me, that’s on a personal level. I like to read into things like that, so little things like that we like to add in, here and there.
The first EP we named Schizophrenic Jubilee, so we took that title and now we worked it as one of the songs, and then we named the animal head as a character, it’s now called Jubilee. It’s something that we’ve taken, we’ve referenced things from the EP in Justin’s vocals. He references Jubilee a lot. In the first song that we released, The House (That Fear Built), he says – and it almost sounds like a demonic, schizophrenic voice – “What will it be, what will it be, queen bee/ what will it be, what will it be, Jubilee?”, and it’s almost like he’s speaking to this crazy animal and trying to figure out what it needs or what it wants, almost like a god or like a deity in a way. That’s just a whole side of it that you could get into if you really wanted to. It’s like a religion; if you really wanna dig deep, you can find some cool things, or you can just be “Yeah, no, I’m not into it.” [laughter]
It’s fun to do stuff like that, and it makes it interesting for us as – and I use this term loosely, but – as artists. We’re creating a piece of art. We might as well hit all bases of music, artwork, y’know, sonically, how it sounds, to everything.
Will Jubilee ever be joining you on stage like Exhumed’s chainsaw guy, running around and amping up the crowd?
Wills: Dude, I would love that. I would either love that or just have it like a deer on someone’s fireplace, just have this huge monster, like, Iron Maiden-style thing. I feel like, if the budget increases a little bit, yeah, maybe we’ll have room for some crazy shit like that, ‘cause, dude, that would be like watching Slipknot play and, yeah, their dude’s running around in a mask, but when you’ve got fire, and crazy devil things popping out, that is a show. I mean, I can rip down the lights and that’s memorable, but so is fire. [laughter] So yeah, that would just come with playing more, and, like I said, that budget, so I think we just gotta get a little better at everything and that’ll come in time, unless you’re really good at paper mache, then you can come hang out and we’ll make one.
Be sure to grab Toothgrinders release ‘Nocturnal Masquerade’ available on iTunes and all the regular places. Also you can keep up to date with the band online.