An Interview with Mike Justin of UNEARTH

Interview by Ray Van Horn, Jr. - March 2005

What else to say about Unearth if you're already familiar with their hardcore abrasiveness that has found their latest disc, "The Oncoming Storm," blinking like a beacon on the metal radar? Onstage you'll find this Massachusetts quintet to be explosive and dead-on, even with a random beer bong hit or two administered by their tour manager. What you see there is what you'll discover offstage as well -- a fun-loving crew that appreciates the status that has been bestowed upon them in a fiercely competitive metal market.  If you're as fortunate as I was to be their guest, you will run a gamut of lighthearted jokery, genuineness and absolute hospitality.  I was lucky to escape with my Beatles shirt still on my back, that's how down-to-earth Unearth is!  My interview with drummer Mike Justin (or Justice on the tour bus) was more like a hangout session filled with intellect and memorable jaunts down a few old school roads.  A special note of thanks to these guys for the warmth they showed me.

RoughEdge.com: Well, bro, I really appreciate the hospitality you've given me …

Mike Justin: Sure!

RoughEdge.com: Seems like you guys have a real good spirit amongst each other. So what's going on in Massachusetts that's made it a hotbed for metal and hardcore? You have Shadows Fall, All That Remains, Seemless and you guys. It's like LA or New York City Jr. there right now!

Mike Justin: Well, you know, I think Boston's always been pretty notorious for its music and its subtle innovations, if you will, to whatever genre or sub-genre it's a part of. I don't really know what it is; I think it's all just a coincidence. It's a major city so it's this big, bustling metropolis and you've got lots of cultures and lots of backgrounds and invariably you have a lot of types of music happening at once. I don't really know why it's gone in such a metallic direction. I mean, in the early days there were bands like Eye for an Eye, Maelstrom …

RoughEdge.com: Meliah Rage.

Mike Justin: Meliah Rage, that's very good! Even SSD has very metallic stuff. I mean, there's always been a history of metallic hardcore. You've got Converge …Converge, I think, is really the band that brought a lot of it to where we are now with metallic hardcore.

RoughEdge.com: Right. I grew up in the eighties, so when I think of Boston, I think of Slapshot.

Mike Justin: Oh yeah!

RoughEdge.com: Gang Green, all the …

Mike Justin: Skate punks.

RoughEdge.com: Exactly! All the skate punk bands who eventually went metal. It's like, between them and Meliah Rage they're like paving stones.

Mike Justin: Yeah! Yeah, I'm not ashamed to say that. I think there's a great tradition of metal in the northeast region, so we're keeping it alive and it continues to grow and develop and we're happy to have some seniority and to some degree be harbingers of that, you know, to be doing it and then have it catch on. 

RoughEdge.com: Are you a Bruins fan?

Mike Justin: You know, I don't really get too heavily involved in any sport.

RoughEdge.com: I wanted to tee off on the NHL! (laughs) It's all good, though! I'm a hockey freak, so naturally…

Mike Justin: You know, I'm a sore loser. It's something that I've come to realize about myself and I think that a lot of sports fans haven't come to realize that about themselves, so I just stay away from sports. Anything that I can feel … putting myself in any situation where I feel cheated or gypped or that makes me feel at a loss is not a good thing. 

RoughEdge.com: I know where you're coming from.

Mike Justin: Especially with the old elixir, if you know what I mean!

RoughEdge.com: Mmm hmm, absolutely! So instead you focus your energies … instead of smashing things in frustration, you go up there and belt out some tunes to get out your aggression. 

Mike Justin: Yeah, and I think that it's a lot healthier than a lot of forms of outreach and expressions that people partake in and feed off of. It's an art form and anything artistic: expressions, caliber and body, you know, some deep, cathartic, emotional, visceral experiences … and when it happens within the artistic connotation, I think it gets a little more natural and it's a little more justifiable when you just kind of lose your shit at a show, you know, versus 'AHH, THE BRUINS GAVE UP A GOAL AND I'M GONNA START A RIOT!'

RoughEdge.com: (laughs)

Mike Justin: You know what I mean? That's pretty petty. There's a lot of that petty stuff like 'OH, I'M AT A SHOW AND THIS GUY STEPPED ON MY SHOE … I'M GONNA KNOCK HIS TEETH OUT!' So it's just anything where there's a heightened degree of emotion and you kind of align yourself with something that's so incredibly emotional. Intensity overwhelms people. Instead of utilizing that energy and harnessing it to do something really positive, they revert back to the negative, you know, the primal instinct. 

RoughEdge.com: Right. Now, the artwork for "The Oncoming Storm" kind of reminds me of a second-gen Nuclear Assault album cover …

Mike Justin: (laughs) Sweet! Like "Game Over"?

RoughEdge.com: Right. The one I'm thinking of is … ah, shit, the one with skull's head atop the nuclear facility …

Mike Justin: Yeah, yeah! That's not "Game Over"?

RoughEdge.com: No, that one has the crowd running for their lives in the streets with the city crumbling behind them. The album I'm thinking of came between "Game Over" and "Handle With Care"…

Mike Justin: Yeah. 

    (**Writer's note: the album Mike and I were trying to come up with is entitled "Survive.")

RoughEdge.com: Anyway, that's what I pulled off of your album's artwork immediately. 

Mike Justin: Yeah, I'll take that as a serious compliment! Nuclear Assault is a severely underrated band. 

RoughEdge.com: Amen to that.

Mike Justin: John Connelly …

RoughEdge.com: Dan Lilker …

Mike Justin: Danny Lilker, he was the original bass player, I mean, they're back together now and kicking ass, you know? That's just phenomenal. I'm glad that you can still go and see the real thing and so can I, but it's unfortunate that not as many other people these days can recognize that and respect that. Regardless I'm glad that they're still doing it. Glenn Evans …

RoughEdge.com: Right!

Mike Justin: Unbelievable drummer, I mean, I feel like he's really one of the guys that set the standard for metal drummers. I mean, you have Dave Lombardo, he's obviously …

RoughEdge.com: One of my heroes. I'm a hack drummer, but he's who I've tried to emulate. 

Mike Justin: Yeah! But I mean, Glenn Evans, he's one of the unsung heroes in the shadows of it all.

RoughEdge.com: Absolutely.

Mike Justin: Despite all that, he's still one of the greats and he still shreds. As really bombastic as he was … Yeah.

RoughEdge.com: Now, this leads me to the song "The Great Dividers," which, to me, is like a commentary on this bullshit war. The lyrics "Divide our home, does hate mean freedom?" I say right on to that! Your thoughts?

Mike Justin: I think Trevor (Phipps) really nailed it with that. I mean, I have my own interpretation and my own thoughts and philosophies on "Does hate mean freedom," but that statement can be construed in a lot of different ways. To me, it really depends upon the situation. If you're just living in a completely oppressed, economically depleted country that's run with an iron fist, whatever the oppressive component is to that country, then hate is definitely an instrument that can be used to … hate can make you brave. It can make people incredibly brave and develop these unthought-of feats of empowerment and righteousness. Because the thing a lot of people don't understand about hate is that you have to care before you can hate something, you know?

RoughEdge.com: Agreed.

Mike Justin: If you really don't like something, the best thing to do is not care about it, you know? Be completely apathetic to it. Dismiss it and turn an eye to it, forget about it. But if you really care about something, then you're either going to love it or you're going to hate it. Basically what I'm trying to say and I'm saying it very cryptically, is I think Trevor is a very good lyricist and for me that song is about what most people feel that it's about, and I think it's a great song. I think it really hits home with people. It's incredibly evocative and it does its job. 

RoughEdge.com: I want to take a song like "Bloodlust of the Human Condition," with its heavy, heavy breakdown that opens it, then moves into more of a hardcore jam and then it drifts towards a speed metal side with melodic guitars and the thrash attack. There's like three segments to the song that convey different emotions as the song goes on. I guess, if you would, give me a bit of your guys' songwriting mentality to construct something intricate like that.

Mike Justin: That's not a terribly good song to use as an example of how we write songs because that song was just something we kind of slaved over and dwelled on for hours upon hours. It's a good song, but I think that song isn't kind of testament to the notion that you write your best stuff when you just let it happen and let it flow naturally and don't put any pretenses or prerequisites or too much into the writing. 

RoughEdge.com: With that being said, which song in your mind makes an easy transition for you?

Mike Justin: I think "Dividers" was a song that really just kind of happened, and I really do believe that's one of the best songs on the record. I think some of the later tracks are really good too. We don't really play them too much, but I think they're good songs. I don't think there are any weak songs on the record, per se, but there are definitely some songs on the record that, you know, just kind of hurt to have to keep writing, to keep going over it and backtrack it.

RoughEdge.com: Right.

Mike Justin: And you walk away from it with kind of a sour taste in your mouth. Maybe somebody who's not familiar with what we went through to write the songs, you know, just thinks it's a great song regardless, but I think your point-of-view tends to be a little …

RoughEdge.com: One-dimensional?

Mike Justin: Corroded, yeah. A little skewed when you've spent so much time on it. It's like, if you've already spent that much time on it, then nothing in the world is going to make it feel right. 

RoughEdge.com: I brought that last question up because it seems to me like you guys have a sound right now where it's right in terms of mass acceptance and nu-metal is thankfully a thing of the past, you know … Head's left Korn, Fred Durst's been accused of leaving desperate messages on Paris Hilton's phone, Tripp of Static-X unfortunately being accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old …

Mike Justin: What was this?

RoughEdge.com: Tripp Rexx Eisen of Static-X was picked up and accused of having sex with a 14-year-old girl.

Mike Justin: Oh! What a serious charge!

RoughEdge.com: I'm not going to pass judgment until the facts are facts, but it's messed up.

Mike Justin: Of course! And something like that … it's an even more dreadful thought to me to think that … I mean, it's a no-win situation. It either happened and it's just a terrible, terrible situation or it didn't happen and it's still a terrible situation because now this person regardless still has that guilt, you know, that burden hanging over his head. You never really escape something like that, regardless of whether you're guilty or innocent. 

RoughEdge.com: Yeah.

Mike Justin: Obviously it just sucks all around.

RoughEdge.com: For sure. I guess to finish that thought, since the hardcore-metal hybrid has become fully accepted right now, what do you feel accounts for the death of one style, being nu-metal, and the acceptance of the current style you guys play in?

Mike Justin: Just urgency and sincerity. I feel like most of the people that came up together with this kind of music are still really honest and sincere people for the most part in what they're doing and I don't think it's at the point now where it's deviated from its initial purpose. Yet it's totally contrived and packaged and sold like any other commoditized piece of tripe that you find on the radio or on MTV. So that's really it, the urgency, the immediacy of going to the show and really being pulled in by it. It still has that emotional empathetic quality to it, or at least I'd to think so. 

RoughEdge.com: Good deal. I caught the video for "Zombie Autopilot" over the weekend and to me—I could be off-base—but it reminds in some ways in feel in certain spots, particularly the night scenes, of old Accept and Priest videos.

Mike Justin: (laughs)

RoughEdge.com: Don't ask me where I'm getting that from. I have a twisted mind sometimes. (laughs) Was that filmed on a rooftop in New York? The water towers might be what's triggering it.

Mike Justin: Absolutely was, you're right on with that.

RoughEdge.com: Cool. So the overall concept I'm drawing from the video is a suit-and-tie-guy running around in his pathetic life, and it seems to me the message is, if you follow the rat race you're compelling yourself to beat your head against the wall in a futile effort. 

Mike Justin: That's definitely a cool interpretation. Generally I think the whole concept, in terms of following the lyrics, and from what I've seen of the video—I've only seen it a two or three times—but I think the general premise is there's this guy who starts out in a normal pair of shoes and he's kind of just going through the motions, and maybe he's a little wet under the nose or confused and even disenfranchised, that sort of thing. He turns into this, you know … feeling that everybody around him appears … that everything he's living for and working for you know … everybody else is just going through the motions as well and before they know it they've completely sold themselves out and given in to the lukewarm ideologies and status quo and that's where the whole zombie thing comes in, you know what I mean?

RoughEdge.com: Right.

Mike Justin: It's the living dead, you know?

RoughEdge.com: Yeah.

Mike Justin: A lot of these people that work their 9-5 jobs and live for the weekends, they're staggering around every day with question marks in their eyes without any real direction or any real sense of self-worth or place or importance or significance. I think that's a feeling we can all relate to, but it's still something a lot of us have regardless our backgrounds, that feeling of entrapment. We can't really escape it; you've got to grease somebody's machine to survive here, you know? There's no other way. The only way is to do it for yourself and hopefully be one of the few fortunate people that can do it on their own terms and not on somebody else's. Otherwise you spend life scurrying the planet with a blue or white missile over your head. Nobody really wants that, it's not a very glorifiable thing. So that's really what the song is about and the video is what this synonymous character goes through, you know, he sees how everything unfolds and his frustration just grows and grows and grows and as the video continues on, everybody starts to become a little less human, or a little less fully living, breathing person. 

RoughEdge.com: Right.

Mike Justin: You know, all the embodiments of individuality. 

RoughEdge.com: It definitely seems like a catharsis at the end where, I guess that's his boss, where he throws …

Mike Justin: Throws the book at him.

RoughEdge.com: That seems to be his catharsis of coming out of the shell, so to speak. Waking up, I guess.

Mike Justin: Yeah, like he wanted to break away from it and escape it, you know, make a stand against it. 

RoughEdge.com: Right on. Now, on your previous tour with Slipknot and Killswitch Engage, I'd like to talk about how Trevor filled in for Howard (Jones) in that one spot in Ontario.

Mike Justin: Oh, yeah. 

RoughEdge.com: Did all or some of you help fill in with Killswitch on that show?

Mike Justin: It was just Trevor, and Howard ended up getting really really sick. I don't know the details of it, but he just became really sick and he couldn't perform. It was not a viable thing, so Trevor went out and he did it. I don't think Trevor really did any of the singing parts, you know, the melody stuff.

RoughEdge.com: Right.

Mike Justin: But he did all the screaming stuff and I think he pulled it off really well. The crowd definitely seemed sympathetic to Killswitch's predicament and they lent their voices. 

RoughEdge.com: That's cool.

Mike Justin: Yeah, it was kinda cool to hear everybody coming together.

RoughEdge.com: That's how I took it. I mean, there's already unity between your bands and then unity with the crowd, and …

Mike Justin: Yeah, yeah.

RoughEdge.com: And the show goes on.

Mike Justin: Yeah, it was a pretty captivating thing. It just shows that this music pulls people in and it makes everybody feel involved and like they have a real place in it. 

RoughEdge.com: Obviously you guys have landed some high-profile gigs, even this one with Atreyu, but I want to ask your perspective of Ozzfest. Since you guys have done it and reality TV seems to have to cash in on it, I'm sure it's more strenuous than even what TV shows like on Battle for Ozzfest think they're presenting. But at least there's a payoff at the end from having reached so many people. I think what I'm trying to say is that so many people have the image of bands as being multimillionaires. But getting through something as grueling as Ozzfest, what are your perspectives of the whole thing?

Mike Justin: Yeah. Yeah, there's some pretty drastic glorifications and we're not millionaires, you know what I mean? Some of the bands had to take out personal loans to be able to play the Ozzfest! Obviously there's something to gain from it, otherwise nobody would take such a gamble to do it.

RoughEdge.com: Right.

Mike Justin: It's a serious credential, you play to a lot of people; even if you play at 9:30 in the morning and you're the first band on, you still play for about 2000 people. So it's great for exposure and notoriety, but it's really not larger-than-life. Anybody can believe … and MTV obviously is kind of manipulating the situation a bit. I don't know, a lot of the bands on the second stage are bands that we grew up with, bands that just worked hard and had a steadfast approach to playing and getting out there and touring as much as possible, which is what got them there. That, and a lot of fronted money. That's just the reality of the whole thing. It's not free. You spend a lot of money to do that and you just hope that you can at least cover your overhead at the end of it all. 

RoughEdge.com: Yeah.

Mike Justin: But the Ozzfest was a great experience, you know? It was like a summer camp on tour with all of our friends and we just had a great time and that part of it, if any, a glimmer of that is touched on The Battle for Ozzfest. That part's totally authentic, but I don't really like how MTV just made us out to be like a bunch of big rock 'n roll watered-down jackoffs.

RoughEdge.com: (laughs)

Mike Justin: Honestly, I haven't really paid attention to it.

RoughEdge.com: I only caught three episodes myself. The whole reality TV thing is fucking pissing me off.

Mike Justin: I'm so, so over it! 

RoughEdge.com: Hell, I'm watching old Twilight Zone DVDs just to cope. I hardly watch TV at all anymore.

Mike Justin: Yeah, I don't want my reality being other people's fantasy, you know? It's nothing to fantasize over! Create your own reality! Don't live your life based on my reality and most of those shows aren't even reality! 

RoughEdge.com: They're all scripted!

Mike Justin: Yeah, it's all scripted and again, it's all manipulated. They bring in all these producers to hire and bring in these other people that will fit the parts psychologically so that it'll make for interesting TV. That's not reality, that's TV. That's as good as any sitcom you watch or any drama or whatever. It's just that the situations are real, but everything else is completely contrived. Totally contrived.

RoughEdge.com: I'm with you, bro. Now for my last question, after four albums, high praise from the fans and press, noteworthy sales figures on Soundscan, sold out shows, how do you put all of this into perspective at night's end when it's time to move on to the next city?

Mike Justin: I mean, none of that stuff really registers. I think we're all pretty humble people. We just hope that we can continue to do it and hopefully sustain ourselves in the process. We constantly reflect on how lucky we are to be here and we just have to thank everybody for supporting us and believing in us over the years and years that they have. We can only hope to keep people supporting us and hopefully broaden the sense of support that we get. I mean, we look like a bunch of old, haggard longhaired assholes, you know, and we probably are …

RoughEdge.com: (laughs)

Mike Justin: For the most part, because we are still human. But we really are thankful to be here and to be doing what we do. 

RoughEdge.com: Sounds good, man. Thanks again for having me here.

Mike Justin: Not a problem, man.

Photo of Mike Justin by Ray Horn Jr. 

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