I spoke with Miss May I vocalist Levi Benton on the phone a few days ago, after chewing on their fantastic upcoming record, Rise of The Lion. We speak about touring, the record, and more. Be sure and catch them when they come to your city, they've certainly made me a believer over the last few years.
-- First off, lately you’ve been going on tours that have thrown your fans off a little bit. For example, there was the Five Finger Death Punch tour that you recently went on – what was your experience touring with bands like that?
It’s actually awesome, because it was another world for us. We did the main stage on Warped Tour, and we’ve done other big tours, and it’s crazy to go into a whole different world and you’re like a small fish in the sea. And that’s all we wanted to do - we’ve done everything that we can in the world we were in and we just wanted to go to the next level and we started to do tours like that. Last summer before last we were main stage on Warped Tour and everything’s awesome, and then doing that [tour] thinking “Wow, there’s so much more to do”. It was inspiring, being able to see there’s so much more.
Did you learn anything from Ivan Moody as a frontman?
The biggest thing I learned from him was to make it a show, their big thing is every night is so special, and we’ve always thought of it like that, but just the way he said everything and his mindset.
One of the biggest things to me about that tour was that it conflicted with A Day To Remember’s “House Party” tour. Was that frustrating for you guys?
No, it was another world. A majority of the fans that we were touring with [sic] doesn’t even know that world. It was crazy to do the meet and greets, and meet kids who have never even heard of Warped Tour or don’t even go to Hot Topic. It was a crazy mind explosion. It was nice, because those are kids that would have never been exposed to us if it wasn’t for doing that tour.
Touring wise, do you see yourselves continuing down that “mainstream” side of things, where you’re touring with bands like Five Finger, Trivium, and Battlecross? Or do you yourselves doing a mix of both those tours and then ones with bands like Memphis May Fire, We Came As Romans, etc.?
Yeah, we’re trying to jump back and forth at the moment. But it’s nice to be a band that’s able to do that because I feel right now all of our peers wouldn’t be able to jump back and forth, at least not yet. We definitely want to favor one over the other. We’re looking forward to jumping back and forth.
Do you feel like bands like Of Mice & Men who just put out a bit of a different record are going to be able to do that in the near future?
Yeah, I think that’s their plan as well. Granted, they’re doing the same things over again like the Bring Me tour, and main stage at Warped Tour. There’s a whole other tier and there’s nothing wrong with it, but for a band to keep growing you have to upgrade to the next tier. And like you said, with Mice’s new record I feel maybe like 2014-early 2015 we’re going to see them on more mainstream tours.
So it’s safe to say that you’re not doing Warped Tour this year then.
No, we’re not doing Warped Tour.
In our “Most Anticipated” feature we ran earlier this year, I had mentioned that this record is a really big deal for you guys, especially since At Heart was a really big transition for the band. Did you feel any pressure to deliver a huge record this time?
Yeah, I felt like there was not as much pressure as At Heart, because how it was a super left field transition for us. This one was a lot of pressure just to follow through with it and I guess not being scared and jump back to our first record, because I feel like that’s what a lot of people thought we were going to do – wuss out, and say “screw it” and go back to the original sound. And I know a lot of bands do, they’ll do a transition record, not like the outcome, and they’ll back out and try to go back to the original sound, which confuses fans.
Was it difficult putting out a record like At Heart where fans universally didn’t get it at first?
Oh yeah, but we knew when we released it that it was going to be stressful like that.
Have you noticed over time people have warmed up to it?
Oh yeah, for sure, and I thought that’s what was going to happen. And I’ll be the first one to admit when we released it, we knew At Heart wasn’t a fantastic record, but it was something that needed to be done for the career of the band. It was that transition record that needed to be released. It was all anticipated on our end, we knew the backlash we were going to get, but we knew people would warm up to it.
You recorded did your first two records with Joey Sturgis. Do you kind of entertain the idea of what it would’ve been like had you not recorded Monument with him?
No, I always love recording with Joey, we just wanted to change things up, that really the main reason. If we didn’t want to change things up, we would’ve kept recording with Joey, because he’s amazing.
One of the biggest differences with this new album is that you had actual time to sit and write and record, nothing was rushed. How refreshing was that for you?
Oh my gosh, it was crazy to be able to re-write a song, that was new to us. To actually delete parts that we weren’t crazy about, we’ve never had time to do that. It’s always been “Well, we’ll deal with it”, and that’s how At Heart was, it was the most we’ve gotten to write. All our records have been “Let’s deal with it, we don’t have time to fix it right now” and with this record by the time we did vocals, we re-wrote songs 5 to 6 times. So it was definitely crazy for sure.
With that extra time, did you take the opportunity to do something new in the studio that you haven’t done before?
There’s a lot of new stuff that we were doing on the record that was different, and that was exciting. Obviously not instrument-wise, I’ve always wanted not to bring in exterior instruments. We wanted to try some black metal stuff and we messed around with that…a lot of stuff got shot down; even if it got shot down, it was nice to try.
What kind of stuff got shot down?
Oh man, just some weird yelling stuff. There was some White Zombie sounds we were trying to make with our voices that was NOT happening, so we’re like “No way, delete that.”
Terry Date (Pantera, Deftones, Bring Me The Horizon) produced this record, what was it like working with him?
Other than us fan-boying out on him every two seconds, it was awesome. We kept asking him a bunch of questions about [other] bands he’s recorded with. He’s really awesome – it’s weird, he’s very hands offish and we’ve never had that experience before with a producer. He let us be us and he really wasn’t a third party ear, it was weird. I don’t know how he did it, but he did. You’d think going to a big producer, they’d have all these crazy ideas and all this stuff, but he was really hands off and that’s what I think was what made the record shine and make us find our sound. That was one of the reasons we went with him, because we wanted to find our sound as a band because he’s always been known for doing that.
Are there any other ways he specifically pushed you guys to move outside the box or think differently?
His biggest thing was the same as Machine – “If it can’t happen live, then it’s not happening at all”. Even if I was struggling on a line or someone would struggle on a guitar part or even if it was a perfect take he’d make you do it again just to see in that world of playing a live show you could do it again. If you couldn’t, you’d have to re-write it to where you could recreate it.
The new album is titled Rise of the Lion. For those who know who your band is, you guys have prominently displayed the lion symbol here and there in the past. For this record, it’s been pushed seemingly harder than ever – it’s actually the cover of the album. Can you explain why you named the record what it is?
Well, it’s a very fan based record. All the lyrics are letters back from letters we’ve gotten from fans and haven’t been able to write back. There’s some topics we haven’t faced, but things that have touched while reading letters in the past. We see many tattoos and crazy stuff with the lion and how much it means to fans. Basically the lion is a symbol for us and all of our fans, we just wanted to dedicate this to them. This is our follow-through record, and we think this is going to be a big one and a big fan-base growing album for us. This is the rise of the lion.
Who came up with the idea to have the lion symbol tattooed on a fan’s back?
That was my idea. For the first two records, we have a lion and there’s only so many ways you can draw it to where it’s just art, there’s nothing really special about it. Another idea is that we can take a picture of it, but then we had the crazy idea of “What if we had it tattooed on someone and THEN took a photo of it?” We wanted it to be a fan as well, coming back to original idea of how we came up with the album title.
How long did you guys look over fan letters? A month? Two months?
It was around a month, we actually did it over the Killswitch Engage tour. We started looking it over and just wanted to pick topics that we knew that were common denominators, such as someone passing away or kids having their parents divorce. It was mainly the most common ones we touched base on.
Were there any songs that touched on any particular person’s story, or was it all universal?
It’s mostly universal, there’s nothing specific.
The record generally deals with pain, such as divorce, mental struggles, etc. Was this a taxing record for you to write because of how dark it got?
Yeah, I know it was a dark record but it was also exciting because it wasn’t a world we’ve touched into personally and there was a lot of research to be done. We read a bunch of stories and how things were done, that’s what was exciting. Even though it was helpful, it was nice to have something new and fresh, because after At Heart it was just digging up old feelings, this was something fresh. So it was exciting and sad, I guess.
But the record ended on a really good note, with “Saints, Sinners, and Greats”. Can you explain the track and how it wraps up the album?
It was one where even though we get all these letters and all these people with tattoos and everything and are looked up to, we wrote the song for how so many people look up to all these great people, but then there’s all these great people that are horrible people and that they’re all going to be gone one day, and they don’t really matter, it’s mainly about yourself. And I felt like at the end that it was a perfect way to go out because granted we get these letters, and we appreciate the fans and all the tattoos and everything, it’s not all about us, it’s about the person listening to the music and the actual people. I feel like once people realize that all this stuff is going to be gone one day, they don’t need to idolize it so much and make it so important and they need to focus more on themselves.
Let’s talk about “Gone”, it’s the one track you’ve released so far, and it’s probably one of my favorite songs you’ve done as a band, period. Can you give the backstory on that one?
That song is the heartbreak one. And it’s so crazy because all the letters we get from fans that are touched in a way that the song wasn’t even written for and that’s what I think is amazing about it. We’ve had people say “My wife left me”, “My girlfriend left me” “and it’s helped me in this way.” We’ve never really written a heartbreak song before. We’ve written vague songs that could be about that, but you never really know. This one is straight forward. Boom.
I think other than “Gone”, I think “Lunatik” was my favorite song off the record, but it was also the most polarizing. The line “Dancing with the demons” stuck out in particular.
There’s a lot of outcast songs that I wrote because we get so many letters from people who get bullied at school, people feeling weird…even people’s parents make them feel bad. Just all these feeling people have, it makes them feel crazy. Obviously I feel that way too – I won’t be home for three months at a time and I’ll be stuck in a little square, and you just feel insane and you want to get out.
This song is about letting it all out, feeling a little crazy, and feeling like a lunatic sometimes…which I feel like everyone feels that, you just have those days where it’s not your day and you just want to snap and explode. That’s the voices at the beginning of the song – all this crap, all this stress is building up and you just let it go.
I was really impressed with Ryan [Neff, guitar]’s vocal parts throughout the record, particularly in “Echoes”. I think he does have more of a role vocally than he has in the past.
Yeah, we definitely pushed it for that. This was the first time where there weren’t so many computers and layers added to it. Terry’s thing was that he wanted the “real deal” this record and we were excited because we always wanted to do that and it was nice to be able to step into that world. Ryan doubled over, not really tuned or nothing, and if he screws up, he’ll do it again. I think that really got the angst out of him, as opposed to recording a mediocre track and letting the computer do it’s thing. Terry kicked his ass for hours and hours until he got it right.
What influenced the idea to bring him in more vocally?
It just came out like that, he wanted to start writing more with me and he helped with lyrics more. We just feel like this one is going to be our big one. Being off tour, he got more into the band and he got better at singing, and he wanted to show it off.
“Darker Days” has a really awesome guitar solo near the end. It really seems like guitar solos are going away, especially in the metalcore genre. Do you see that as a negative thing?
No, not as a negative…I think that’s a Miss May I thing, all the puppy and goat t-shirts that say “Stay Metal”, I think people are really forgetting about the 90’s and early 2000’s, all these metalcore bands are thrash. It’s so twangy now and focused on breakdowns…which is still METAL, I’m never going to say a breakdown isn’t metal, but there’s so many more roots that are getting lost in translation.
We’ve always wanted to do guitar solos but we felt like we weren’t at the point yet. Because obviously going from Apologies To The Weak to straight guitar solos…we would’ve lost so many people. We just felt like [now] is the time, and there’s so many more things up our sleeves we want to bring in that we haven’t done yet. We want to be the band that carries the torch.
What are your thoughts on language and how it’s used? I noticed you very rarely use profanity and At Heart had none whatsoever, but there were a few times where it popped up on this record.
Yes. This is the first record where I’ve been pissed off, I’ve never been in the past, I’ve said “Screw it, let’s let it go.” One reason why I’ve never really said it is because My parents, aunts, uncles, everyone buys my CD’s I feel like a piece of crap if I talk that way. And then with this one I was just mad and I said “screw it, I just need to get it out and it’ll get the point across.”
We’re you also reluctant because people look up to you as well?
Yeah, that too. But then at live shows, they know how we are. We’ve been touring so long, it’s not going to hurt.
When everyone finally gets to hear the record, what do you hope goes through their minds afterwards?
I hope they feel like you did and feel like it’s a big step up. It’s a diverse record, I hope it doesn’t get old and they can listen to it over and over again. That’s basically the goal, since we’re going to tour off it and need everyone singing along. And I think this is the first record where there’s not just one or two songs that are the big ones, a majority of the record are bangers and I’m real excited about that.
How do you think this record would’ve turned out had you have taken a more personal approach to the lyrics, writing about your own life instead?
Oh man, I feel like At Heart was so deep that it was a continuation of our last record, even though instrumentally wise it was written better and different, it would’ve still felt like a continuation lyrically. The last one we went so hard to write good songs that we had to pull the complete opposite to make it sound like it’s not the same record.
It was a fresh air for me and I learned a lot about writing [one this record] because I was doing research and writing on things that weren’t just in my head, it was stuff I had to read and think about, and consider other people’s perspectives. I feel like I wouldn’t have grown as a musician if it wasn’t for this record.
What is the next music video we’re going to see?
I can’t tell you that, you’re going to get me in trouble! It comes out soon, in like two weeks…
Can you give us a hint?
It’s the slow song on the record.
That’s fair, haha!
What’s something you want really badly for Miss May I that you haven’t experienced yet? Is it a headlining spot on a festival...
I want a good headlining tour, that’s all I want. Our last headliner was awesome, and it was a sponsored headliner, but we haven’t really done our own yet. I just want a good Rise of The Lion headliner.
Alright, if you could take out any three bands with you on this headliner, who would they be and why?
I’ll change the question a little bit…the bands I WANT to go on tour with after this record is released? I want to do an Avenged Sevenfold tour, a Lamb of God tour, and one with In Flames.
Wrapping up, what can we expect from you guys for the rest of the year? We’re not going to see you on Warped, are you taking the summer off?
We’re touring a lot. After March 31st, I don’t come home for like 9 months.