Photos courtesy of Horrendous
Heavy music contains a long and proud tradition of brothers in bands. The list of fraternally fortified hard rock and heavy metal outfits is as long as it is luminous: AC/DC, Van Halen, Sepultura, Pantera, Tank, Obituary, Nifelheim, At The Gates, blah blah blah. As of 2009, you can add Philly death metal wizards Horrendous to that lineage. Fronted by guitarist/vocalists Matt Knox and Damian Herring (who also records, mixes and masters their albums), the band also features Knox’s older brother Jamie on drums. Just three albums into their career, Horrendous are already being hailed as one of death metal’s leading lights: Their latest, Anareta, was recently named Album Of The Year by Decibel magazine and has been almost universally acclaimed in every corner of the metal press.
When Noisey catches up with Knox the Younger, the 25-year old musician has just returned home from his job as a 10th grade English teacher at a high school in Philadelphia. (“For the first ten minutes of class, it’s complete lunacy,” he laughs. “But it quiets down after that.”) His excitement about the band’s critical acclaim is tempered by the fact that they don’t have a ton of stage experience. Knox estimates that Horrendous have only played between 40 and 50 shows since their inception nearly seven years ago. “It’s been great to get all the positive reviews,” he enthuses. “It validates what we’re doing, because we did have a pretty strange rise to getting that type of attention. Most bands really test their mettle on the road, so for us it was a shock to get that kind of attention because we haven’t really played that much.”
Then again, a large part of Horrendous’ appeal is in the band’s seamless suturing of old school death metal with a more modern, progressive songwriting approach. “It’s not a conscious decision, but it’s kind of like the band Death in a way,” Knox offers. “I just don’t see us putting out the same album twice. I don’t think I could, really. Our albums are very much a product of what’s going on with us in the moment. Every time, we’re chasing a new idea.”
Who got into metal first: You or your brother?
Matt Knox: It was definitely me. I started playing guitar when I was 12, and at the time he and I were into punk stuff like NOFX, Bad Religion, and a lot of the Philly bands like Kid Dynamite and Paint It Black. I’m not sure how we got into that music, but I think my brother bought Enema Of The State, that blink-182 album, and we just found other band names in the thank-you list. When I started playing guitar, I took lessons, and I had this crazy-ass guitar teacher guy—he looked like a biker or something. His favorite band was definitely Black Label Society, and he looked the part. He was way into classic metal, so on my first or second lesson he gave me a list of albums to buy. The first one I got was Iron Maiden’s Piece Of Mind, so that was my introduction to metal in general.
What else was on the list?
Dio’s Holy Diver; I think Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell—he really loved Dio. Oh, and [Megadeth’s] Rust In Peace. I still love that album. It’s one of my favorites. So I fell into the rabbit hole from there.
Did you start playing guitar before your brother started playing drums?
He didn’t start playing drums until many years after. He started with bass. We played in a punk band with our neighbor up the street who played drums. We still jam with him today, actually. So my brother played bass and guitar for a long time, until we stopped playing with the kid in our neighborhood for a while. I think he stopped hanging out with us for a year in high school and we got pissed at him for it. [Laughs] So that band broke up and my brother decided to switch to drums so we could keep playing. He picked it up really quickly.
What was the name of the punk band you had with your neighbor?
Oh my god. [Laughs] The drummer’s last name is Benson, so for most of the band we went by TRFB, which stood for The Raunchy Fucking Bensons. We never played a show or anything. I think we were too afraid or shy. It was a hybrid of punk and Megadeth riffs, basically. We go back and listen to it now, and pretty much every one of us are like, “I can’t play that fast anymore.” [Laughs] We were definitely in our prime in a lot of ways.
Did you go right from TRFB into Horrendous, or was there something in between?
For a while it was just my brother and I messing around. It was a little more metallic than TRFB, but it was still fairly punk. We were listening to a lot of Pig Destroyer and stuff like that at the time. So the riffs were kind of ridiculous and thrashy, but still in the punk world. We did that up until my brother went to college in South Carolina. When he was gone for those two years while I was still in high school, I didn’t really play with anybody.
What was your gateway band for death metal?
Hmm… that’s a good question. The same neighbor who played drums with us—he’s still one of our best friends now—would make these mystery mix CDs that he’d just play without telling us what was on it. One of them had a few songs from [At The Gates’] Slaughter Of The Soul on it. Maybe a month before that, as embarrassing as it is to say, he’d played us that Avenged Sevenfold album, Waking The Fallen. [Laughs] So as far as more aggressive stuff, it started with those two. After At The Gates, I got into Death, Morbid Angel, and then into more the melodic side of things—Soilwork, In Flames, Arch Enemy—that kind of thing.
I knew there had to be some Sweden in there somewhere. You can hear it on your records.
Oh, totally. [Arch Enemy’s] Burning Bridges was one of my favorite albums for a very long time.
When you got out of high school, you followed your brother to the same college.
Yeah, we both went to the University Of South Carolina. Half the reason I went there was because I wanted to play again. It didn’t feel right to play with anyone other than my brother. And that’s where we met Damian. Actually, my brother and Damian were friends before I got there. I think we rented a storage unit to practice in. This was 2009, I guess. The first time all three of us played together, we played some of the stuff my brother and I had been working on. It was very thrashy and very hard to play. Some of that stuff, I wouldn’t be able to play it now. We tried it with Damian and it wasn’t really working. But that very day Damian played the first riff on what would become the first song on our demo. So we just took that sound and ran with it.
So playing with Damian led you and your brother in a slightly different direction…
The funny part about the band is that Jamie and I didn’t really listen to the classic old-school Swedish stuff at all until we met Damian. I’d probably heard Entombed and Dismember like once when I was looking for other bands and didn’t pursue them for some reason. So he’s the one who got us into the old-school stuff. That’s how our sound came to be, I guess, because my brother and I were always approaching it from a more melodic, progressive sense and Damian has always been old-school to the bone. So we just mix those two things when we’re writing songs.
Do you feel like there’s a deeper musical connection between you and your brother than other musicians you’ve played with?
Yeah, I’d say so. Jamie would be the first one to tell you that he’s not the most technically proficient drummer out there, but he has an understanding of what the two of us want to hear. If I have a riff, nine out of ten times he knows what kind of rhythm I’m looking for. And if it’s not what I’m looking for, it’s something I didn’t think of that’s way better. He just seems to know how I want things to sound—and vice versa.
Obviously, there’s a long history of brothers in metal bands. More often than not, one of them is the drummer. Do you have a theory on that?
You don’t get the feeling of being a band if you’re not playing with a drummer. You can sit at home and write riffs all day, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere if you’re not playing with an actual beat. Even if you just have a drummer and one other instrument, you can still get that band feeling. So if I had to guess, I’d say that’s what it is: Someone’s gotta be the drummer. That’s what happened with us.
Both you and Damian play guitar and bass on your records. How does it work live?
Because we’ve mostly done one-offs and random appearances, we’ve played with two guitars and drums—no bass.
It seems like being in a band with your brother could be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’ve got all the musical advantages you mentioned—and presumably, nobody’s got your back like your brother. But I’m guessing no one can press your buttons like your brother, either.
Yeah, that’s true. [Laughs] But we’ve been friends with Damian for so long now that he’s almost like a third brother. That kind of goes along with the playing, too: When he and I are writing material, we have that almost telepathic connection that I don’t have with other people. I’m not sure why that developed. But as far as pressing buttons—as funny as it sounds, my brother and Damian are the ones who fight all the time. [Laughs] It’s not my brother and I.
Why do you think that is?
They both have very strong personalities and a sense of what should be done about certain things, whereas I just kind of go with the flow. The funny thing is, I lived with Damian for four years in South Carolina because I stayed there for a couple of years after school. By that time, my brother had already moved back to Philly. Whenever he’d come down to visit us, he and Damian would be bickering with each other within 20 minutes. [Laughs] But now my brother and I are in Philly and Damian lives in D.C. We all managed to get out of South Carolina.
Where do you practice?
My parents live kind of halfway between here and D.C., so we usually just meet up there and practice. We just head down to my parents’ basement like the old days.
They must love that.
Oh, yeah. [Laughs] They’ve been loving it for about twelve years now—twelve years of being extremely loud. You should interview them about how long it took them to get used to the incessant noise.
J. Bennett also has a brother, which makes him an expert on the subject.