August Burns Red
August Burns Red is a beloved mainstay in the world of metal and metalcore music. Forming in Lancaster, PA in 2003, ABR are now celebrating 20 years as a band with the release of their new album Death Below last month on March 24th. We were lucky enough to sit down backstage with guitarist JB Brubaker and drummer Matt Greiner over a few glasses of wine before their soundcheck at SOMA. We discussed the band’s long career, the ups and downs of life on the road, and what advice they have for the new generation of musicians, business owners, or anyone working towards their dream.
Photo: AJ Peacox
1. First off, congrats. You guys have had a long run. 20 years. That’s a success in itself. Not Many people can say that. To have that tenacity and that long of a career, that’s impressive.
JB Brubaker: It’s been a long run for sure. We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished in 20 years, and I feel like it almost is surprising to think that it’s been 20 years because it doesn’t really feel that way to me. And then we go do these meet and greets every day with our fans and stuff. They’re like, “yeah, I’ve been listening to you guys since 2007.” Or like, “I last saw you in 2013, and this is my first show since.” It’s like pulling people out of the woodwork. I don’t know. There’s a lot of support right now around the band, which is cool.
2. So, tell me about that moment. There’s that point where you’re doing something more on the hobby level, and then there’s that jump. Is there a moment you can recall where you said, “we’re doing this?”
Matt Greiner: I can remember a time. So, we started the band on my farm, and we started the band with my friend Jordan who played bass. We had always wanted to do music, but it felt like such an impossible thing that we could do with our lives. And I remember walking in the stone parking lot of our farm after getting the Solid State contract, which was the label we were on, and we were just kicking stones and we were looking at each other going, “oh my gosh. I can’t believe we could actually do this.” This might actually work. This is the label we wanted to be on. This label has all of our favorite bands. And he’s like, “we’re actually gonna go on tour and, like, play music professionally. I don’t know if we’re going to get paid for it, but we’re on this label. It seems like it could actually happen.” And we left on the tour. Had just the time of our lives playing these clubs with real PA systems and decent crowds. We felt like we were really doing this, and what happened to me was, the band has just been chapters. So, it’s like that was the first chapter. That was a pretty big jump from a local band to now we’re playing nationally. And then it’s like, “oh, we’re going to Europe. Oh my gosh. Mom and dad, we’re going to Europe.” That was more surprising to them than what it was for us, because it was just another place to play. Then you get nominated for a Grammy, and then you’re celebrating 20 years before you know it. I’m 37, so this has been happening for more than half my life. I think that’s the thing that’s the most surprising.
JB: That’s crazy.
Matt: Because you think, “yeah we’ve been doing this a while.” But then you look at your life. What have you done with your life? Well, for more than half of our lives, all of our adult lives, we’ve been doing this one thing.
JB: I can’t even believe you were 17 when we started. I was 21 when we signed that deal Matt was talking about, and started touring on a national level. That’s kind of when the wheel started turning a little bit more going from local band to national band, but we did start when we were teenagers. You couldn’t even buy a pack of cigarettes when we started.
Matt: I wasn’t even allowed in the venues we were playing.
3. Some people may look at a career that’s gone on this long, and they may see the highlights. People often forget the struggle, and the hard work, and everything it took to get to that point. Are there a couple of moments you can recall that were tough? Are there any big hurdles you’ve overcome?
Matt: My first thought is just the sacrifices you make. Sometimes it hurts to think about what you gave up to do this, and you can’t dwell on it too long because it kind of bums you out. But there are some serious things you have to give up to have a lifestyle like this. It also takes a really special spouse or kid to put up with this lifestyle. People obviously don’t see that. And it’s not anything like being in the military, it’s not a 9 month deployment, but it’s something consistently over the course of a long time. So, I think it’s obviously just so amazing that we get to do this, but it’s equally as amazing that there are people in our lives who have been supportive for so long. To stand with us and be like, “I’m with you for the long haul. It sucks to be at home alone. I’m eating dinner by myself.” My wife says that sometimes: “it just gets old eating dinner by yourself.”
4. Has that made any changes in your business strategy in terms of touring and shows?
JB: Just recently we just started trying not to do such long runs of tours. We’re trying to be a little bit more about how long we’re out at a time because we’ve grinded long tours forever. Typically the tour run now, which is 46 shows, we would’ve done in one go over 7 to 8 weeks. It was the most cost effective way to do it, but it was hard on our loved ones back home. It’s hard on us and it was hard on our crew. And we’re all getting older. So this tour we’re on now, we broke up into two long legs. It’s the first time we’ve ever done that. We’re taking off a month of time in between the two, which I think does feel good right now. This tour wasn’t feel long and we only have 15 days left. I think if we were to continue just going out for those 2 month stretches at a time, it was gonna get to a point where it would burn us out. Especially with now there are some kids in the mix, and stuff like that. You gotta work a little bit harder to find the work-life balance.
Matt: The other side of that same coin is that you don’t take things for granted when you’re at home. I see some of my friends take things for granted because they never leave. They don’t have to go away. And when you have to do this, you don’t take those things lightly. You don’t take relationships lightly. They mean a lot to you, because you remember what it was like to be in San Diego and your wife’s not feeling well. It sucks that you can’t just be there for them, so you don’t take it for granted. When you’re home, you really take care of things, and you really take care of people. I think that’s a huge plus to this whole experience. There’s not luke warmness about it. When you’re home, you’re home. You really mean it when you say things. You really mean it when you’re with people. It’s a very meaningful thing.
JB: It’s definitely not 2 weeks off, and then working the other 50. When we’re home, we’re home. Not that we don’t have things to do but, we’re gonna be home for 3 months this summer, which is unheard of. We’re taking the summer off, which will be really cool. I guess that’s a pro of our job. When we’re gone we’re gone, and it’s really hard. But when we’re home we can just be present moreso than people who have to work a typical 9-5 sort of thing. I’m sure with what you’re doing, your hours are completely erratic and you work way more than a 40 hour to week to try to get everything done. We’ve been there as well as a young band doing 9 months a year on the road. Like, we had a bunch of years early on as we were starting to come up that we just took every single tour, and we were on the road constantly. And we wanted to be, and it was great, but we were working constantly. Like, 3 months on the road. Tour after tour in to the next, and the next. You take the opportunities that come up when you’re trying to get your footing established.
5. What keeps you guys at your best when you’re on tour. Are there any routines or things you have to have when you’re on tour that just help keep you grounded and focused.
JB: Matt, you have a lot of routines.
Matt: Yeah, I like to stay busy. So, I come from a farming family where you work a lot and you don’t sit around a lot. So, for years it took me a long time on tour to figure that that’s how I work the best. This is something I started on this tour. I run before I play. Put on my jacket. Put on my beanie and just go for like a 10 minute run. This set is pretty challenging for me on drums because it’s so long, and it’s a lot of bangers that are fast and just cruising. It’s kind of intimidating to get up there and just be cold because you don’t stop once you’re up there. It’s like 0 to 100. I tried playing on my practice pad. That didn’t go great. I tried jump roping. That didn’t go great. So, I just started running. What happens is, I put my jacket on. Put my beanie on. Go for a run. It’s almost like I’m getting ready for a boxing match. Like, I’ll even kind of fake box when I’m out there, and I’ll just pray out loud and be like, “God, tonight’s yours. You got me here. You can use me for this. Whatever happens, I’m not gonna be afraid of anything.” And make it a meaningful thing. I go back in. I’m pretty sweaty. I’m ready to go. Take off my jacket, and I just go right into the show. That’s been really effective for me because it puts me in the right headspace to play the show mentally, and then physically I’m ready. My heart rate is up a little bit. I feel sweaty, which makes me feel comfortable, and I’m also not thinking about people. Like, I’m not thinking about impressing people as much as I’m here to do my best, and I know why I’m here. That’s by far the most important routine for me on tour. It’s only like 8 minutes or 10 minutes. It’s real short, but it’s important.
JB: I guess for pre-show stuff, I don’t do anything particularly interesting. I like to warm up on my instrument and play guitar beforehand, and drill stuff that I’m bad at. There are parts that I struggle with, and I try to hit those before we go on, but I don’t have anything that’s as exciting as what Matt just said.
6. What are some of the pinnacles that maybe you thought you’d never achieve, but you have?
JB: Some cool ones for me would be like the first time we played Hawaii was pretty special. That was a pretty big deal. Ya know, we got paid to play Hawaii. We got to hang out there, and some of us flew in our significant others and stuff, and made a little vacation out of it. That was really cool. We’ve gotten to go to a lot of place that we never would’ve dreamed that we’d get to go to, or that most people have to plan long in advance to do a trip to. We’ve been all over Asia and stuff, but I wouldn’t consider our Asian tour a high note.
Matt: No. Hell week.
JB: We did a week of 6 countries in 7 days, and it was just exhausting. We barely slept. It was miserable. We didn’t’ get to enjoy it at all. That was the hardest week of tour I’ve ever done in my life. For all of us, I’m certain. But we got to go play a lot of places. We don’t do a lot of exotic touring these days. We gotta do what makes sense for us as business, because time at home is more precious than it was when we were single and in our mid-20s. Another thing I feel is a highlight, and this is a steady one. It’s always really special to come out of the studio with a new album finished, and be able to listen to it, and enjoy it as a fan almost. We made this. We love this. We put all of our blood, sweat, and tears into this. And to have that finished product is really cool. I love that feeling.
7. Speaking of, you’ve got a new one coming out. How is this one different from the rest in terms of the process or sound, with this being number album number 10?
JB: We do. Yeah, March 24th. The album’s called Death Below, and we made it during the pandemic. We worked on it a lot in a lot of different recording sessions. Right out the gates during lockdown, we wrote a bunch of stuff and then we just keep chipping away at it as things started to pick up with touring again. We finally finished it last May, and it’s finally coming out. It took a long time because vinyl production is so slow right now, and we wanted the LPs to be ready when the album actually comes out. The lead up has been fine. We have 3 singles that we’ve released from it that people can hear. It’s our 10th full length.
Matt: We’re old.
JB: I think given the circumstances in which the album was written, and some of the things that have happened to us on a personal level, various experiences that people had, the album is a little bit darker than stuff we’ve done in the past. It was written during a dark time. The pandemic was hard for everyone, and I think that some of that anxiety and worry and pain and everything is kind of felt in the music. We’re a metal band, but we have a lot of really uplifting, triumphant sounding stuff. There’s elements of that on this record too, but it’s just a little bit darker for ABR, and I think it’s just more metal in general. That’s not a great descriptor for a metal band, but it’s a little bit more pure metal and less metal-core maybe.
8. What’s up next? What are some goals that you’re still trying to achieve?
JB: I think that the goals of the band at this point are sustainability and kind of building a legacy in the metal world. There’s not a lot of bands that started around the same time as us that are still doing it. We’ve kind of become a household name if you’re into this kind of music. Like, if you know metal then you’ve heard of our band, which is really cool. We want to just cement ourselves in metal history as being one of those legacy acts that continually have been consistent, and put out good albums, and put on a good show. I feel like we have that reputation now within the metal community. It’s just about sustaining that and, like I said, sustaining that. Keeping us relevant without bending to the trends, which is something we’ve been pretty good about doing. Like, we’ve stayed true to our band and what we want to do. There’s been a lot of fleeting fads and sounds and styles, and things come and go, but ABR has been pretty consistent and true to what we do, which I think a lot of our fans really love us for. I know as a fan of music there’s not a lot of bands I like that have stayed consistent over 10 records.
Matt: A fan came up to me the other day at the Baracade after the show, and he goes, “thank you for staying true to your sound.” It kind of took me off guard. The implication is that’s not what everyone else is doing, which is something I hadn’t thought a lot about. I don’t listen to a lot of metal in general because of what I do for work. At home I mostly listen to the radio, but it is true I listen to stuff I started off with mostly for nostalgic reasons. And also I don’t really like the way that bands have gone sometimes since. It was really cool just to be staring this kind in the face. As we celebrate 20 years we’ve evolved quite a bit because we’ve grown up, and we’ve gotten better at our instruments, so we have more potential to do more. But we stay true to what we think is us and what we sound like.
9. If there was someone who was on the fence about going after their big dream, what would you say to those people?
JB: You know never know til you try. Don’t count yourself out because we never thought we’d be here. Set your goals realistically at first. Set your goals at something you can accomplish and then build on that. That’s something we did. We always had early goals like, “play a show with this band. Play a show at that venue. Write an EP.” These little attainable things we could work towards. There’s a lot of steps to getting from the beginning to whatever your ultimate goal might be.
Matt: I would say it’s better to be consistent in what you’re doing than to put everything into one day, or one week, or one month. It’s better to practice for 15 minutes a day 5 days a week than to practice for an hour a day once a week. If you can be consistent over the course of time, you can probably be successful at it if you’re working hard and you’re in it for the right reason. We just kept pushing and pushing and pushing, and eventually just kept finding success in areas. Had we said, “you know what? It’s all or nothing” and we didn’t get the all, then we would’ve just been done. It was just small little baby steps to accomplish the goal.
JB: You gotta remember, there will be challenges along the way. You have to persevere in those moments. Everyone can problem solve. There’s solutions. It might be two steps forward one step back the whole time. We talked about how being in a band was such a vicious cycle for the first how many years? There’s was no money. It was all just “re-invest everything.” We made a little bit of money on this merch, but now we need to buy more merch, and we have to buy this equipment, and we need to buy a van. The overhead doesn’t go away for a long time. You got to play that long game. Take your little wins along the way, but it’s a long game.
Matt: I tell my drum students that 99% of people are not willing to work hard. So, if you are willing to work hard, you’re in the 1%. There’s not a whole lot of competition, but you have to work really hard. I think today it’s uniquely challenging unlike when we started. Now it’s all about likes and follows and what are people thinking, and that’s in the back of everyone’s mind now. But if you can get away from that and shut the door. Who are you really when no one’s watching? Are you really putting in the work? Because you love it? Then that’s gonna carry you far because it’s not about the highs, or even the lows, it’s just about the fact that you like doing this, and you’re willing to be one of the hardest working people. You will seem some success. Whether or not you’ll make it, there’re so many factors. But at least you can control that one.