“Being a musician is all I have ever wanted to do.“
One of the most important guys in extreme music in the past decade, ETHAN LEE MCCARTHY is an imposing figure you’ve surely come across if you’re in any way into nasty, aggressive music. Whether during his beginnings in grindcore, with Clinging To The Trees Of A Forest Fire or Death Of Self, or with the soul-destroying entity he currently leads, the fearsome Primitive Man, who have a crushing new album called ‘Caustic’ out now, Ethan has proved to be a remarkable musician and frontman, evolving and growing with each new release. He is also very active within the underground, namely in his hometown of Denver where he regularly puts shows together and helps promote new local bands, and he even does solo noise/drone shows. Plenty to talk about, and so we did.
What were your first steps in music?
I’ve been playing guitar since I was eight years old. My older brother is a bass player, and really what started it for me is that I wanted to be like him. I chose the guitar because I didn’t want to be exactly like him… [laughs] I was into, like, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and shit like that, just being a younger kid, you know? My older brother was also into heavy metal, so at the same time I was listening to Slayer and all those bands, from a really early age. It’s just kind of always been a part of my life. Being a musician is all I have ever wanted to do. But then you become an adult, you get a regular job, and then you think “okay, maybe I’ll still be able to do this…“, you know? And sometimes you can, and sometimes you can’t. So I think I’ve been pretty fortunate that I’ve been able to put out records for a decent amount of time now, with the bands that I’ve been in.
Is there any unknown band in your past, or were the ones we know your first serious bands too?
Clinging To The Trees Of A Forest Fire was probably the first band I was in that was pretty serious, so yeah. Then I started Death Of Self while that was still a band, and that was important because I didn’t play guitar in Clinging at first, so Death Of Self was the first one in which I actually played guitar. That’s mostly the reason why I’ve started that band, so I could play guitar. To clarify, though, I’ve always played guitar, but when Clinging started I was “just” a vocalist, although I wrote music with the guitar, we just did it that way because we thought it’d be better to have a frontman. Then after the guitar player we had for that band left, I ended up picking up the guitar and playing it for Clinging as well.
I loved that band, although I only discovered you guys towards the end of your career. I heard you on a podcast the other day and you said the name of that band was probably the main reason why it didn’t get many fans. I actually think once you get used to it, it really works.
But it does take getting used to, and not a lot of people take the time to get used to things like that. That was the issue with that, I think. I mean… that’s not the only reason, of course, we were also a hotchpotch of styles in a way, and I think that didn’t really help us in terms of people giving a shit. A lot of it came basically from everyone wanting their voice heard in that band. Then, when the guitar player left and I took over on the guitar, those last releases were pretty much how I had wanted the band to sound from the beginning.
How does Primitive Man then appear?
At first, I just wanted to put out a doom record for fun. I sang in a doom band, but once again I wanted to play guitar in a doom band. [laughs] So I just got some people together, wrote those songs and recorded them for fun, and then it kind of became… well, Clinging broke up, Death Of Self broke up, I was going to move out of Colorado and I didn’t end up leaving, and at the end of all that Primitive Man became a more serious thing. But originally, I really just wanted to write some songs along the lines of the stuff that I was into. Stuff that I couldn’t express with the other bands I was in.
“I definitely don’t want to sound like the bands I draw influence from, that’s just the stuff I listen to. I can’t play like those people, I can only play like myself!”
You’ve done doom/sludge bands and grind bands, do you have a genre of choice?
Grindcore is still really important to me, I just don’t think there’s a lot of it that comes out that catches my ear as much as it used to. I feel that the way grindcore sounds now is a little bit different from the way it sounded when I was playing it. You just don’t have bands like Insect Warfare, In Disgust or Internal Rot anymore, people aren’t putting that kind of stuff out. There are some good fast bands for sure, but I think that a lot of them are going towards the death/grind spectrum of stuff.
What about the slower bands, which of them would you count as an inspiration?
I love Corrupted, that’s probably my favourite doom band of all time. Then I love Unearthly Trance, Winter or diSEMBOWELMENT. I also absolutely love Evoken. Those are just the first really important ones off the top of my head. Oh, Grief! And Eyehategod too, all that kind of sludge, I loved all that growing up. But sonically I think I’m more on the Corrupted side of stuff, more than others.
I’ve always thought Primitive Man didn’t really sound like anyone else, already on ‘Scorn’ even.
I appreciate that! I definitely don’t want to sound like the bands I draw influence from, that’s just the stuff I listen to. I can’t play like those people, I can only play like myself! [laughs]
Technically, your new album ‘Caustic’ is only your second full-length, but in between ‘Scorn’ and this one, you’ve put out a bunch of smaller releases, like splits and demos and an EP. Is that in any way a reflection of how you’ve worked these past few years?
Well, more or less… It’s just how it happened, basically. The splits, they’re things that we had agreed to do with bands and we wanted to follow through with that. The EP, we wanted to put those songs out because we had a line-up change between ‘Scorn’ and that record, we just had those ideas and we wanted to get them out quickly because of that. But now, I don’t think we’re going to put out as many smaller releases before the next full-length record. I don’t want to put out seven splits again. [laughs] Those were just the circumstances we were in at the time. And I think they also gave us the chance to explore what we really wanted to become. We’ve had a line-up change again, in terms of the drummer, since those splits – we’ve had three drummers since the start of the band – and all those other guys that have played with us definitely had a part in the way the band sounded. But I think that with Joe now, and with everything Jonathan and I have done together, we know how we want to be at this point. A lot of that other stuff was a lot of exploring that we needed to do.
So hopefully less time will go by until you have another proper album out, now.
Maybe, but man, I don’t know. We do have a split coming out! [laughs] Just one that we’ve been planning for a while, after this. Then we have a small batch of songs that we thought of doing as an EP, but I don’t know if that’s going to end up happening. Then the touring and everything else, it can end up being four or five years again. But I hope it isn’t!
Since you were experimenting so much, can you actually trace the evolution of the band throughout those smaller releases?
I think so, most definitely. Especially if you hear the songs from the splits according to when they were written, I think you can really hear us kind of changing into this… thing. There’s stuff we’ve done on some of them that I will never do again. [laughs] But that’s important too. We got to try some stuff on all those splits, some of it was good ideas, some of it was not necessarily good ideas, but we’re happy to have evolved like we have.
And you seem quite happy with ‘Caustic’, which is terrifyingly amazing.
Man, I really am. I wish this was the first thing we had ever put out, but that’s not how it works.
(however it works, this is crushing!)
You still have Vermin Womb, who’ve finally put out a proper album last year. What do you get from that band?
I get to be fast all the time! You know what I mean? It’s the same guys who have played with me at the very end of Clinging, so that band is essentially us playing together again and stripping out all the bullshit and trying to be the heaviest version that these three individuals can be. Just really fast, because I already play in a slow band.
Unfortunately, you’ve left Withered in the meantime.
I’ve been friends with Mike and Beau for a long time, even before I played in the band. They were also some of the main supporters of Clinging. Those guys will always be my friends. It’s unfortunate that we can’t play together anymore, but I had such a great time doing it. I’m glad I got to be on the last record, and I’m always going to support them, whether I’m playing with them or not.
“When you see the businesses, the mom and pop places you’ve been going to your whole life being pushed out in the name of progress, but it’s just a money grab scenario, that’s hard to watch.”
You seem to be very involved in your local Denver scene, just following you on social media is a great way to keep informed about what’s going on and discovering new bands from the area. Is it a good feeling for you to to “give back” to that scene by being so active in it?
Oh yeah, man. I definitely feel like that. I’ve thrown shows for so long, it’s done so much for me in terms of meeting people, being able to do DIY tours and things like that, that I definitely feel like I need to stay in this scene. I don’t do as much as I used to, I used to live in house venues and stuff, so sometimes I’d twenty shows a month and stuff like that. Now I try to do one or two shows a month, stay in the mix, still try to find out about new bands, just really give back, as you’ve said. That’s really the feeling.
I think Denver isn’t one of those cities that people outside the US have a clear image of what it’s like. How would you describe living there, and being a part of that artistic scene?
I’m from here, so my perspective isn’t going to be the same as someone who moves here fresh… I do like many things about it, still, but the influx of people has really affected the DIY music scene, the cost of living… there’s a lot of overcrowding, and things like that are hard for people who grew up here, who see this happening. You’re getting pushed out of the neighbourhoods you used to spend most of your time in, you know? You can’t afford it anymore, and you have to move 40 minutes outside the city, like my wife and I had to do. So that sucks. But more people means a better music scene, and right now Denver is really lucky to have a great heavy music scene. There’s something for everybody. I like legal marijuana too, because I don’t have to fear the police over that shit anymore, and that’s a big part of my life. So yeah, it has its ups and downs. I don’t want to stand in the way of progress, but as a local, it’s sometimes hard to swallow certain things. When you see the businesses, the mom and pop places you’ve been going to your whole life being pushed out in the name of progress, but it’s just a money grab scenario, that’s hard to watch.
And unfortunately, you could well be describing Lisboa, or anywhere else right now, basically. It’s not really a local problem.
That’s the thing today – if you live anywhere that isn’t fucking terrible, you’re probably witnessing that. If you want to live anywhere with a thriving music scene, a thriving artistic scene, this is the kind of shit that you’re going to have to deal with. That’s everywhere, it’s not exclusive to Denver, I hear that everywhere I go when travelling.
Would you like to recommend any local bands?
There’s so many and I don’t want to leave anybody out! But Spectral Voice and Blood Incantation, of course. Khemmis, obviously, too. There’s a band called Urn, they’re really good too… let me think… Oryx and In The Company Of Serpents are great, there’s also Nothing Positive Only Negative, Swells, Wayfarer, Of Feather And Bone, Casket Huffer, 908… there’s so many bands!
Last time I interviewed you, you told me you work in education, mostly with little kids. How do you manage that part of your life alongside your enormous dedication to music?
I would say that 70% of my life is dedicated to music, and the remaining 30% to being married and everything else I have to do. [laughs] But when it comes to my job, I definitely try not to let the two worlds cross into each other. I can talk about that I do it and whatever, but I don’t really talk about it at the school, I don’t tell anyone about the bands I’m in… It’s a little different now that I’m a substitute, but when I was in the same classroom every year, all year, it was definitely more important that I kept it a secret. But because I’ve been doing more stuff with music and I switched over to being a sub, it’s more relaxed, in every way. I can tell people that I’ll not be able to sub at their school for 30 days because I’m going on tour, and stuff like that. But I just try to keep the two professional worlds separate, basically.
“We like getting together, smoking, laughing, making jokes, and then we write some riffs and sit around for 30 minutes, and then maybe write some more riffs.”
Have you ever had any awkward exchanges when the two worlds have indeed met?
I worked in a high school, and I had some kids know about Clinging, because that was the main band I was in at the time, and that was pretty weird. Because that means they might have been at a Clinging show, and they might have seen me smoking weed or something. Also, we played with Eyehategod a couple of weeks ago, and I had a guy say to me “hey! You’re Mr. Ethan! You were my library in school!” I was a librarian’s assistant back then, so I was like, “yeah, I was…” The guy’s now drinking age and everything, so it’s okay, but it still feels pretty weird. But no one’s ever pulled me aside and told me that they see what I do, or anything like that. Usually only a few people know about it, I really don’t talk about it in the school. They don’t need to know. [laughs]
I noticed you did a solo show the other day, are you exploring yet another side of your artistic output with those shows?
Yeah, Primitive Man put out a double record of noise and drone stuff at one point, and I did all of that, and all those elements on ‘Caustic’ are all stuff that I wrote also. I’ve been doing it for a long time, way before Primitive Man was even a thing, actually. I’ve been putting out some material like that under a name called Many Blessings, so I’m definitely pursuing that. I’ve been trying to put out a record for a while, but things haven’t come together yet in that sense. But I’ll keep exploring it, it’s just taken a back seat to all the “bands”, but it’s something I always like to do and will keep doing.
Has Primitive Man kept you busier than you might have expected in these past few years?
Yeah, we’ve been really busy over the last few years, and I wouldn’t have expected that, to be honest, no. [laughs] Didn’t think we’d have so many great opportunities with this band. Nothing’s really changed between us, we still get along really well, we’re friends and we like getting together, smoking, laughing, making jokes, and then we write some riffs and sit around for 30 minutes, and then maybe write some more riffs. It’s exactly the same as it’s always been! [laughs] I guess we’re more serious about it because people are listening. Before, we didn’t know if anyone would give a shit. Here I am, being interviewed by you – five years ago, that might not have been a thing that happened.
[you never know, Ethan – you can always run into some dude who was into your bands seven years ago]
Find Clinging To The Trees Of A Forest Fire:
Find Death Of Self: