Nashville, Tennessee’s Voltagehawk harnesses a sound comprising rich songcraft, crunchy riffage, and a cheeky sense of humor. Since forming in 2014, the quartet has forged a solid path, keeping boundless experimentation at the forefront of their ideology. After releasing a metal-inspired cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” in 2017, they would expand their output with a reasonably received self-titled debut album the next year. Now, as 2020 wraps up, the band revisits their initial single with a grotesquely sincere accompanying music video, fitting with Christmas Day on the horizon.
I caught up with singer/guitarist Dan Fenton to discuss the band’s current situation amidst Covid-19, their formative days, the concept behind their music video, as well as what they have learned to implement on their upcoming album, Electric Thunder.
How’s everything with the band these days?
Well, the situation with Covid has been a surprise kick in the butt. We had just finished recording our first big, 13-song record – mixed it, mastered it, and everything – and our plan was to release it in 2020, and suddenly, we were like, “This is a bad time; we shouldn’t do this yet,” because we couldn’t tour on it or do anything. But yeah, man, it’s been a little weird. I’m actually the only dude in the band who hasn’t had Covid yet. Even though everybody had taken precautions, it’s fairly unavoidable, to some degree, at the moment, especially here in Tennessee, but we’re doing well. Everybody’s on the mend, and we’re just working and writing.
That’s really good to hear. One thing that stuck out to me about you was that the word ‘no’ does not exist in your creative space. Can you tell me more about your original goal of getting the band together?
So, originally, Jarrad James, our drummer, and I were in two different bands that had notoriety, and I’ve been playing music my whole life. Jarrod and I felt disillusioned by the Nashville music scene in the sense of it having a stringent way to do things, and that doesn’t account for everywhere here, but a lot of here. We wanted to get back into the garage and bring back the fun of what it was like playing music as kids, not necessarily write hit songs that someone needs to decide whether or not they’ll be licensed. It just started out as a bunch of dudes getting stoned and jamming, and once we started writing songs, we were like, “Well, I guess we’re a band (laughs)!” Eventually, we met Jason Tyler, our bass player, and it became important that everyone’s opinion in the band mattered. We could vote on it and veto it if we felt like something wasn’t going to work, but we didn’t want to solely favor one person’s ideas. It was about creating art and seeing how far we could push it.
With the new material you’d planned to release, did you feel that you still held true to that principle?
100 percent, man, and I think we took what we learned from our first album with Geoff Piller from Electric Thunder studios, who had become instant family to us, and had the same type of ethos of “Let’s jump off the cliff and pull ourselves back up; let’s not just say, ‘Oh, we can’t do this because it’s not done.’” I have a silhouette of Tom Waits tattooed on the side of my neck, not because I want to sound like or be him, but because I’m inspired by him. If you know anything about Tom Waits, his history of creating music involves just doing what he wants, and that’s kind of our thing, too.
When we went into the studio, I had a lot of songs come to me from the time of the first record to this one. I had a vision of this space odyssey, shared it with the guys, and we’d run it through what we call the “hawk filter.” I’ll present an idea that I recorded in prior production at my house, and then we may implement the bare bones of that while everyone else adds in what they’re doing. A really important thing for us to do in the studio is to track everything live. We layer into it here in there, but don’t rely on plugins and such. On the new album, we do everything, from banging on water bottles to running vocals through guitar pedals. It’s a totally Daniel Day-Lewis approach, where I’d use things I’d keep in my pockets that remind me of what I’m writing about.
That’s an interesting way to implement relevant objects to the lyrics, as a means of enhancing the atmosphere. Earlier, you mentioned Tom Waits as one of your big musical influences. When you were growing up, what were you listening to at that point?
Growing up, my father was a minister, so I heard church music before anything else. But I remember the first rock n’ roll songs I ever heard were Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Pinball Wizard” by The Who. So, if you could think about those being your first songs, you’d be like, “Holy crap, this is insane!” You’d have this hunger, and with my dad’s work at the church, if anyone suspected the kids of parents to be defiant or devil worshippers, they would store those suspected records in the garage at my house. At night, I’d go down there, put on headphones and listen to Pantera, Slayer, and all these bands that were extremely unacceptable (laughs). Even though these records were in the garage to protect people from listening to them, they ended up giving me a musical education. I grew up listening to a combination of heavy stuff, choir-based, and symphony music, and when we were home sick from school, my mom would make us watch musicals with her as a weird form of punishment. But those taught me a lot about composition and how to create a score. It’s a weird bunch of influences from Hans Zimmer to Static-X, but we let it all seep into our sound in the form of inspiration, rather than imitation.
It’s cool that you mention the contrasts of styles. Similarly, my mom is into classical music and musicals, while my dad is into psychedelic and heavy rock. I think it’s something many of us can relate to.
Yeah, you get it for sure!
On another note, Christmas is coming. Are you excited?
To a degree. I think this is the weirdest Christmas in recent history that I know of. It’s like figuring out if you see family or you don’t, if we all get tested before we see family, or if it’s better to stay home and do a video call with them. But I’m always excited. I think Christmas can either be the commercial thing that it is, or based on religious beliefs, but I’d like to think, most of the time, people are trying to do better for one another. I like to see that people are giving more to those who are less fortunate. We have a big homeless community in Nashville, and we try to help however we can. We’ve worked with Toys For Tots, and have actually contributed with some our buddies who are in our music video.
Speaking of your cover, I noticed that while the video for it is recent, the song was actually released a while back.
Yeah, so back on our old label, we had to release a Christmas song as part of our contract. However, they just gave us the keys to create what we’d want to create, and didn’t expect us to break all the rules. They didn’t understand that we all grew up on Troma films and were all fantasy nerds (laughs). But we shot the video with Perry Bean, who is a well-known director down here, and who also does Rig Rundown on YouTube. When we originally released the song, there was not a lot of label support behind it. But recently, with all the craziness happening in the industry because of Covid, we were actually able to buy all of our content that they have owned – the first album, and the Christmas song, all things paid to Mariah. We decided this year that we were going to do a bigger push and give it a fair shake.
That’s awesome! Now that you mention the video being influenced by Troma films, I can totally see that. Were you always influenced by that genre?
You know, I think independent art, whether it’s done comedically or seriously, is massively influential. With the Troma stuff, I remember this guy from upstate New York, Nate Ray, who was super into movies like Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD and Toxic Avenger, so we showed Perry a bunch of clips of those films to give him an idea of what we wanted to do. Our friend, Hunter Prewett, who’s a barber in Nashville, appears in our video, does his own makeup, and dresses up every year as what he calls “Satan Claus.” Normally, he sits on the throne, and when families come and take pictures with him, he uses that money toward Toys for Tots. Then, our friend Mackenzie Gregg is an actress and a makeup artist as well, is also in the video. She’ll also be featured in the work we’re doing when we release the new record.
That extent of involvement from your friends really speaks to your creativity, and especially for capping 2020. Where do you see your music going, as well as heavy music in general, in the 2020s?
I think we have a pretty laid-out plan going into next year. We’ve recorded 13 songs for our new album, which is called Electric Thunder. While we were recording, I was obsessed with Hans Zimmer and Vangelis film scores, and both are incredible writers and creators – just listening to them in constant. So, they had a big influence on me for this record. When I watch a movie like Inception, it has a phenomenal score, and you feel so much when you have that visual aid. It can reach a point of emotional transcendence, and I want records to do this for people’s ears. I want people to feel all these moments, but I want them to be organic. In terms of our direction, I can’t speak for anybody else, but our policy has always been to do what’s best for the song. At certain points, I won’t do a solo, so our other guitarist Chase Arocha, can play something bigger, and that cuts out the ego. I listen to all my kinds of music, and Jarrad is obsessed with his 80s hair metal. We have friends in other bands that also play heavy blues rock, or thrash. Everybody is just trying to pull from whatever they can, but I imagine that whether it draws from themes from the health crisis or something else on the news, a lot of bands seem to be heading in that direction. Every Time I Die’s new stuff is incredible, and I like how it goes back to that screaming heaviness in a metalcore kind of way. We’ve had 35 work tapes since the 13-song record, and we’re just going to start tracking it and giving music to the people, since we’ve sat on it for a minute.
Do you feel like your chemistry with one another is a lot stronger?
Absolutely, man. With this band, we have such an openness with one another. I’ll give you a miniature exclusive on something. Three years ago, I had a drinking problem, and unfortunately, I died for nine minutes. The reason why I’m three years sober is because these guys didn’t leave me; they were there for me. Being able to talk to each other, and having all of these different influences, we’ve all been there for one another through these strange and tough times as we create more music. I think it also goes back to what we were talking about before – the ethos of not having ‘no’ in the creative process. You can come in an it’s a safe space to try different things. What we’re doing a lot of now is emailing riffs back and forth, and we each have home studios. Chase just sent me this riff the other day, so I’d put it in my system, and then write whatever else comes to my mind and send it back to him. Sometimes it’s a song, and sometimes it’s just something really gnarly to listen to, but it keeps you working. I’m a huge proponent of happy accidents. If you’re in a creative space and feeling that muse, so much is possible every day; just show up and see what you can create.
I can understand that totally. Putting this all together, what have you learned about yourself, both as a musician, and as a person?
Having played music my whole life, and being in Voltagehawk, I learned that you can create the music you want to create in a band of human beings that you find commonality with. For the most part, all of our core opinions on things are part of something we don’t allow to interfere. Some believe this, and some believe that, but we find unity. Our friendship is the most important thing. Confucius said that the most functional form of community is friendship. That also plays a role in our new record; we feature three or four different vocalists from bands that people either have or haven’t heard of, and it’s because of what’s best for the songs. What I learned is that to grow is one of the most important things that humans can do, because if they stagnate, they’re losing another of the most important things they have, which is their life. If you can identify with what someone else is doing, you can learn to incorporate that into your ethos. I’ll always learn from other people, and I find the most gratification and satisfaction in just creating music, whether or not our songs and albums do well. Maybe it’s just me getting old, too, but the process is the joy (laughs).
Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?
Check us out on Facebook, Instagram, and voltagehawk.com. For Electric Thunder, we’re aiming to have the first single out at the top of March. Thank you to the people who listen to our music, and those who attended our shows before Covid. Be safe, and we love you.