In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
In the late 90s, Virginia was a hotbed for bands stretching the boundaries of extreme music. Bands like pg. 99 were effectively building scenes unto themselves, while acts like AVAIL were bringing a Southern tinge into punk rock. It was in this landscape that vocalist J.R. Hayes and guitarist Scott Hull would form Pig Destroyer, a band that took what they’d each done in Enemy Soil and Agoraphobic Nosebleed, respectively, and cooked up their own chaotic brand of grindcore.
Over the past 20 years, Pig Destroyer has worked at their own pace, never rushing records out the door but instead letting them gestate until they’re the most impactful. Hayes uses the albums to draw out bigger concepts and weaves deeply detailed stories in his lyrics. On this year’s Head Cage, the band has once again shown their ability to reframe their sound, taking the primal aggression of their early-2000s material and adding the beefed up production of 2012’s Book Burner to it. The result is a record that’s cacophonous yet strangely catchy, showing that Pig Destroyer isn’t content to rest on their laurels and are still taking huge strides forward.
While fans are deeply passionate about Pig Destroyer’s catalog, Hayes is his own harshest critic. “I can be super negative about anything,” he says, noting that on every album, he could find a moment he dislikes, even if fans would call it nitpicking. But as we talked, he revealed Pig Destroyer’s ethos, which is to turn music into a weapon, the kind that scares people even years after they release a record. And if that’s the ultimate goal, they’ve yet to fail.
J.R. Hayes: I feel like we were just still cutting our teeth at that point and were trying to figure out what we were doing. My lyrics at that point were half-political, and you kind of see me start to get into where I would be with Prowler, but it’s not quite there yet, and the cover art we just yanked from a David Cronenberg movie. I like it, there’s some killer tunes on it, but the production wasn’t quite as good as our demo. I just think there are a few reasons why it doesn’t feel fully realized.
Noisey: Though it definitely wasn’t as realized as Prowler In The Yard, for it to be coming out on Clean Plate, it definitely felt like a pretty big statement. Do you remember how it went over with people?
It’s difficult for me to say how it went over, because we had the internet but it wasn’t like it is now. We were just kind of isolated. I feel like all the bands that were doing the sorts of things we were doing were mostly on the West Coast. We ended up playing with a lot of screamo bands, we did a split with Orchid, and Will [Killingsworth] from Orchid is the guy who runs Clean Plate. We were just kind of a band that didn’t really have a scene yet. We were a local band that played shows with our friends, like pg.99 and Frodus and stuff like that, but there wasn’t really a grind scene like that back then. It was sort of the same for the doom scene then. I remember I would go see Grief and they would be playing with hardcore bands and people wouldn’t just try to “boo” them off the stage. They didn’t really have anybody who they could play with then because there wasn’t really a scene for super slow shit.
And also, us in the band itself, we all had influences from all over the place. Some bands, like the band X, they arrived as a fully-formed entity. They put out their first album and it was perfection, and that’s what the band sounds like. We had to kick around a little bit and figure out where we were before it happened to us.
Do you think there’s any benefit to that? A lot of times in punk, people love the first record and then nothing else. Looking back, does it feel kind of nice that you aren’t always having to try to measure up to that first album from 20 years ago?
You know, that might be the only record of ours that I haven’t heard somebody say is their favorite, but I’m sure there’s gotta be somebody out there. Because sometimes your favorite record is the one that you heard first or maybe you heard it at a very specific time in your life, there’s all kind of different reasons. But I think sometimes bands get doomed when their first record is their best record. It’s like, where do you go after that? You kind of paint yourself into a corner.
But looking back, what things on this record do you think hold up? Are there any things you still really like about it?
To be honest, I don’t listen to my own stuff very often. I’m a super critical person, so when I hear myself I’m like, “Oh my God, I sound like shit. I have to turn this off.” That’s just how I am. I wish I was one of those people who could sit around and listen to their own record all day, so I haven’t actually revisited that record in a long time. It’s funny because Andy Low [of Robotic Empire] sent me a repress of Painter Of Dead Girls, and he sent me the test pressings so that I could approve of the new remaster, and I don’t think I had listened to that music since we had made it. I was like, “Wow. This is actually kind of cool.” I was into it at first, then after a while, I started to get uncomfortable about being so into it, so I had to turn it off. But honestly, we have songs from Explosions that we used to play that I kind of wish we still played.
I think, especially now seeing the new record, I look at Book Burner as more of a transitional thing. We had lost our drummer and brought in a new one, and there was a while there where we didn’t know if we were gonna be a band anymore. And then we didn’t know who was gonna be in the band. And then we didn’t know what kind of music we wanted to do. We wrote some of the songs with Brian [Harvey, drummer], and then we wrote some of the songs at a different point, and it feels like the whole project was kind of a mish-mash. I really like all the individual components of it, like the cover art, and the layout, and the story, and the lyrics, but from an artistic perspective, I don’t think I tied things together as well as I could. It’s all a little too disparate.
It’s interesting, because the two at the bottom kind of have that similar thing of them not being as anchored to one larger idea. How important is having that kind of consistency in the lyrics for you?
To me, and I’ve said this before, the album as an artform, you have these three different components: You have the visual art, you have the audio part, and you have the literary part. You have these three different elements that, if you can get them all to sync up, you can create something very special. I feel like we always try to do that, but I feel like, maybe on Book Burner, I was going in too many directions at once. I came up with the atheist story kind of at the end, that was sort of a last-minute addition. I wasn’t even trying to write it for the record, I just happened to write it around that time, and then it kind of became part of the record. I’m just not sure that it all really jived with each other. And I’m going a lot of different directions lyrically, and not necessarily in a good way. It was a very chaotic time for us as a band, and as people, and we were just kind of searching. I think you can see that in the finished product.
Was there any external pressure given how Phantom Limb was received?
I don’t think we ever have pressure about what somebody else is gonna think about it. If we’re gonna put something out, then we believe in it enough that people will dig it if we can get it out. The biggest challenge is just trying to satisfy ourselves and just not make the same record twice. You don’t want to be that band that completely disenfranchises your fanbase by doing a reggae album or something, but at the same time you don’t want to keep repeating yourself. You want to give people a reason to keep checking out your band. It’s kind of a tightrope act in that way. You’re trying to gain some new ground while keeping a flag where you’ve always been.
After this record, you added a bassist for the first time in the band’s career. How did that change the approach moving forward?
I don’t think it really changed our approach as much as, Scott writes most of the music and comes up with most of the drum parts. He’s kind of a self-contained unit in that way. I think there was an aura of uncertainty around the band. Because we didn’t know if we were gonna find a good enough drummer, and even if you do, you don’t know if their personality is gonna mesh with everybody. Being a band is so much more than just making records and playing live. You have to have a rapport with people and build relationships with people. We were lucky to find Adam [Jarvis, drummer] and he was the guy who basically demanded the job. He stepped in and he just killed it. And not just as a drummer, as a bandmate. And that’s what gave us the shot of adrenaline to move forward. Usually being in Pig Destroyer is a lot of fun, but that era of Pig Destroyer was not very much fun—until Adam showed up and kind of loosened things up a bit.
That’s a record where everything came together. I kind of wish that, in retrospect, I had brought in some guest vocalists on that record. I kind of wish that I maybe had written a story for that one. But I’m really happy with how I wrote the lyrics for that one, it’s got some of my favorite Pig Destroyer jams on it, like “The Machete Twins” and “Jupiter’s Eye.” We’re proud of that record, but I guess just not as proud of it as the other two. Something’s gotta be number three. [Laughs]
This record brought a lot of attention to the band from people outside of the world of extreme metal. How did it feel to have a lot of people come to the band out of nowhere?
It was kind of a weird time. I don’t really pay a lot of attention, as I’m a very insulated person, so the exposure thing doesn’t get to me. To me, the band’s kind of always felt the same because I try not to get wrapped up in all that noise. But yeah, you obviously get more opportunities, and one of the things about music that I love is that good music always wins out. If somebody likes something, they’re going to tell other people about it. And sometimes that takes time. By the time that Phantom Limb came out, I think that people had sat with Prowler and Terrifyer long enough that the buzz kind of started. Even when we did Prowler, which a lot of people would say is their favorite album by us, it takes a while sometimes. There were people who were right on it, but other people, they could have been like, “Fuck grindcore. I don’t like grindcore.” And you’ve got to win them over a little bit.
One of the things I think we did a particularly good job of in that era was playing shows with other bands that weren’t like us. That’s something that we’ve always tried to do. I feel like if you just play shows with grindcore bands, then you’re only going to have grindcore fans. If you want to get out there and make new fans, you have to get out there in front of new faces. That’s one of the reasons we play with noise bands and doom bands and any weird-ass show we figure out how to get on. I remember one show we played in Philly that was us and Thrones and Camera Obscura and Karate. It was just a weird-ass show in a punk space, and that’s how we rolled back then. We were always trying to get out in front of people who wouldn’t normally see that kind of thing. And sometimes that goes terribly. Sometimes you play in front of an emo audience and they’re just like, “Fuck you guys.” But maybe there’s somebody in the back of the room who is like, “Hey, this is pretty cool.” And if you can get that one person, that makes a show worth it to me.
That’s kind of fitting, because these sessions spawned Mass & Volume, which was another long doom song from you guys. How important is it to keep making these strides outside of the sound you’re known for?
I think it has to be like that. Anything can have a tendency to stagnate, and that’s why you always have to be trying to make new fans. And not just new fans, young fans. That’s where the energy comes from. If you’re just one of those bands that’s playing to the same 40-year-old dudes that you’ve been playing to for 20 years, that’s not a good way to get ahead as a band or to keep yourself inspired. You gotta constantly have that new influx of energy, whether it’s listening to new music or playing with different kinds of bands, or going to different places that we’ve never been. If you’re not keeping yourself interested, it’s going to reflect in the music. It’s why I never try to speculate on what other people want, I just focus on what me and my bandmates want and let the chips fall where they may.
I’m sure a lot of people would say that’s our best record, and I definitely think that’s a valid argument. That’s kind of the first moment where everything crystallized for us and we figured out what our sound was going to be. That was a really important step.
It’s a fan-favorite for a reason, but it’s also a pretty big achievement in terms of telling an album-length story. How did you get to the point where you felt like you could pull that off?
It just kind of happened, really. Scott is kind of responsible for getting me into a lot of the things I am into. When we first started doing the band, I was reading a lot of anarchist literature and the Communist Manifesto and Noam Chomsky, and I was just hyper-political about everything. And it was kind of wild when Scott was like, “Check out this William Burroughs book.” He kind of fed me. He could see I was young and I was hungry for knowledge, so he kind of just kept feeding me stuff and created a monster. He knew I was always writing stuff, and the only reason I wrote anything was because I had a band and it needed lyrics and nobody else was gonna write ’em. It was sort of a weird hammerlock kind of thing. I was like, “I don’t really want to do this, and I don’t have any confidence doing it, but I guess I’m gonna try it.” And it just kind of worked out. I remember Scott asked what else I had lying around, and I had that weird “Jennifer” story, that I honestly don’t even remember writing. It was just one of those moments where everything sort of comes together. Figuring out the album title, Scott coming up with the digitized voice to read the story at the beginning, it kind of all fell together.
Speaking of the political side of things, that’s always been a part of grindcore since the beginning. How did it feel putting out something that was so far removed from that? Were you worried people were going to misread it?
I feel like, as an artist, you’re always going to have that nervousness. Because even if you think what you did was good, somebody else isn’t going to. You just have to be ready to take your lumps. But I think, at the time, I was so angry and full of so much hate, I didn’t care what anybody else thought. I just wanted to make something that was just indigestible to people and I would laugh at them while they choked on it. That was sort of my attitude at the time.
How has it been watching this record become this kind of huge record, and for a lot of people, maybe their entry point into the genre?
It’s crazy. It’s really hard to wrap my head around. The only thing that I ever wanted to do when I was a kid was be in a band. I would sit and study albums the way that other people studied textbooks. I would immerse myself in them. The idea of being in a band, much less putting out a good record, I couldn’t comprehend that at the time. Next month I’m going to go to the West Coast and play a show with Dark Angel. I’m 40 years old and I don’t even know how to wrap my head around that. It’s kind of a mindfuck, really. I really don’t know what else to say about it.
You talked about great albums having three distinct elements that all need to come together. Do you feel that Terrifyer does that?
The reason that I picked this one is because of that, but also because I worked really closely with every aspect of that record. It’s the first record where I arranged all the vocals by myself without Scott’s help, I wrote all the lyrics, I worked with Chris [Taylor] on the art, I went to Philly and worked with Relapse on the layout, almost every aspect of that record I had my fingerprints in. I think that’s why it’s the most special to me.
What made you want to take such an active role in this one?
My only requirement for the Prowler cover when Scott was working on it was that it wasn’t gory. Then when I saw it I was like, “Holy fuck, there’s gore all over the place on this fuckin’ cover.” I think that was my impetus, like, “This one I’m gonna do. I’m gonna make it the way I want to look.” I think of myself as the art director for that record. Nowadays I’m better at delegating things, where I’ll just trust an artist to do what they want to do. But on that record I was very controlling and meticulous about what I wanted, even down to trying to find that exact color red, which I stole from the cover of The Cure’s Pornography. I took it up to Relapse and was like, “You scan in this red and it has to be this red.” That was how particular I was about everything at that point.
That certainly applies to the lyrics on the record, too. Were you going over everything with a fine-toothed comb, or was it all just happening naturally for you at that time?
I have to rework everything. Even the cover, we did a photoshoot and it just didn’t work. Chris and I would spend hours in Kinko’s just fucking with copy machines. The cover is actually kind of an accident. We had this picture, and Chris is kind of just an artist on the copy machine, which is kind of weird, but he’d put the darkness all the way down then re-scan it and put it all the way up and re-scan it. So we had this picture of this girl and he did something that made the face disappear. And as soon as that happened we looked at it and were like, “Holy fuck, that’s the cover.” Then it was just a matter of him getting the colors right and doing everything that needed to be done. Sometimes you have to search around for things. Sometimes I know exactly what I want from the very beginning, but that’s not an ordinary thing for me.
From the outside looking in, this always looked like a really creatively fertile time for the band. You made Terrifyer and Natasha at the same time, and Natasha would be packaged with certain versions of the album. Was that kind of the plan, to have that piece packaged with it, and what was driving you to experiment with those longer forms?
The first Boris album, Absolutego, is like a 60-minute song, and we were listening to a lot of Corrupted, and they have a lot of long, 39-or-40 minute songs. Scott was kind of in love with that idea, but also with the idea of doing something in surround sound. That was kind of his passion, and that just happened to be going on at the same time that we were doing Terrifyer. It all just kind of happened simultaneously by accident, but then I tried to tie everything together artwork-wise and lyrically as best I could. It was kind of weird that the song came on a DVD that didn’t have any images on it. I think that kind of fucked with a lot of people's’ heads and they didn’t know what to make of it. I still don’t like the fact that it’s its own release, because, to me, it’s always been part of the Terrifyer record and kind of always will be.
Was there a reason those things were broken up into their own pieces at the end?
I think it was mostly just Scott. Much like the Prowler record, he wanted to remix it, but he wasn’t ready to remix the Terrifyer record. He wanted to put it out there was its own release so it could be out there on a CD so people didn’t have to have the DVD to listen to it. That’s one of the things that we clash on all the time. I don’t like remixes. I didn’t want to remix Prowler, I thought it was fine the way it was, that’s the record people like, why are you fucking with it? But I lost that battle. I spoke my peace, I didn’t win.
But with Terrifyer, I think it’s the closest thing to weaponized sound that we’ve come up with. I’ve seen people get the shit scared out of them just by the sample at the beginning. It’s just so aggressive, and I think it’s our boldest artistic statement.