Of Mice & Men Shares Blistering New Song, Aaron Pauley Opens Up About Replacing Ailing Frontman Austin Carlile

Lindsey Byrnes
Of Mice and Men

“We’ve played three shows so far and I look to my left where he typically was and I don’t see him there.”

Of Mice & Men have traveled to hell and back to be where they are now. 

The SoCal metalcore outfit has seen more lineup changes in five years than most bands do in a lifetime -- most famously over the tragic condition of former frontman Austin Carlile. The vocalist originally departed in 2010 after his doctor forbade him from touring to undergo heart surgery tied to complications with Marfan Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that afflicts the connective tissue holding the body’s cells, organs and tissue together. In Carlile's case it caused damage to his spine and nervous system. He returned in 2011, but his ailments didn’t cease. 

“I had three tears in my dual sac surrounding my spinal cord,” Carlile wrote in a Facebook confessional during the final days of 2016. ‘We discovered that every time I would push down to scream, spinal fluid would rush through the tears which was causing me the violent pain every time I’d perform. It was causing my muscles to seize up and my body to contort onstage.” In that same open letter, he announced he’d once again be leaving Of Mice & Men.

But with heavy hearts, the band fought on. Bassist Aaron Pauley assumed the role of lead vocalist, a position he previously held with the post hardcore band Jamie's Elsewhere before joining OM&M to handle bass and backing vocals, filling in the clean parts behind Carlile’s screams. He joins drummer Valentino Arteaga and guitarists Alan Ashby and Philip Manansala as the band’s latest alignment, one that’s been quick to flex its muscles with new music. Their debut post-Carlile single “Unbreakable” swiftly passed one million YouTube plays following its April 23 release and “Back to Me” -- out today -- hopes to up the ante even more. 

Watch the music video for the new track, which was recorded with producer Howard Benson, mixed by Chris Lord-Alge and mastered by Chris Athens:

Billboard chatted with Pauley about the band’s decision to carry on as a quartet, learning to live in the moment, and what’s next for Of Mice & Men.

First off, I want to congratulate you on the success of “Unbreakable.” It hit a million views incredibly fast, which is especially exciting since it’s a bit different from past releases. How did that change in sound come about?

I think that song took us all kind of by surprise with how it’s doing and the impact it’s had because for us, we just really wanted to write something that was fun and exciting and true to our sound. But then at the same time, we have a lot of festivals coming up this summer so we wanted it to be a festival song, y’know? We really focused in on all the elements of our past releases that excited us and excited our fans so I think for us, this song is built around the excitement factor rather than “is this moving the needle?”

Absolutely. And now along with the recent changes, you’re also pulling double duty for both vocal roles. Now that you’ve had your first three festival performances of the year, how do you see that affecting or changing the live show?

Y’know what? It’s been awesome. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been getting a lot of praise for it but at the same time, I feel kind of guilty because it’s not adding too much more to my plate than I had before. But I think everybody stepped up. We knew that we were going to be down a guy. We knew that we had to maintain not just a certain level of sound but a certain level of excitement and crowd interaction, which is hard to do if I’m stuck behind a mic and playing. But everybody stepped up to give 110% and I feel like a lot of the reaction and reception that we’ve been getting back is positive and people are having a great time.

The band has had a lot of different lineups over the years. This isn’t the first time it’s happened, there have been people that left, people that left, returned and left again, new people coming on board, people switching instruments… how have you seen the fans reacting to this era?

The important thing for us when we decided that we were going to continue the band post-Austin was the songs. It wasn’t necessarily the band name or the business or the branding. It’s the songs that we’ve written together, It’s the songs that fans have lyrics tattooed on their bodies from. It’s something that we create, but then it becomes way more important than any of us or even all of us put together. So for us when we decided to keep going, it was all about, “How do we still deliver these songs that we’ve made in the past to our fans, but at the same time pave the way for us to create new material in the future?” And everything that we’ve been trying to do has been from the heart - and I know that sounds cliché but we’ve really been trying to just enjoy it day by day, show by show, song by song.

I feel like fans nowadays in music can appreciate when something is genuine and they have an amazing ability to smell when something is contrived. Nothing about what we’re trying to do anymore is contrived. Not that it was in the past, but it would be really easy for us to go “Okay, well, we gotta step it up so we need to be more excited and we need to jump more.” I guess the short answer is that we’re just trying to be very genuine, very true to ourselves and very true to our fans. We’re just trying to write songs that we feel like our fans need and that we need.

Because it is a transition period, there is room for change and experimentation. Is there anything new that you’ve wanted to test out?

It’s actually funny because I feel like there are probably too many things to even list. I think that the four of us being on the music side of things in the past - we were always very much about experimenting, whether it’s with a new pedal or a different chord structure or “What if we try writing a song backwards?” I think that we highly value creativity and also we’re not afraid to dive down some rabbit holes. Some of them lead to nowhere; you spend hours working on something bizarre and at the end of it, it’s just something bizarre that you made.

Alan’s definitely stepped up to do a lot of the background vocals. Before, I was doing a lot of the singing and some of the backup screaming… but now I’m doing the lead screaming stuff and the lead singing stuff, and Alan’s stepped up to do the background screaming parts that I used to do. It’s cool to see anybody in any field go, “Okay cool, well if there’s a place for me to maneuver into doing something new, I’m willing to put in the work to ensure that it’s good.” Everybody’s really stepped up to try and deliver more.

It’s funny you mention the backup vocals because on the next track, “Back To Me”, I specifically love the layering on the vocals. Is there anything you can share about the creation process?

With “Back To Me”, we worked with a guy named Stevie Aiello. He plays in Thirty Seconds To Mars and does songwriting and producing. We were getting together with random creative people - we’re a very collaborative band. Not just musically; with our videos it’s like, find a director who’s very talented -- Max Moore did our “Unbreakable” video -- find a guy or girl like that, the actors and actresses, and give them creative freedom. Then you collaborate and they can share their brilliance. For us, music is kind of the same thing. We love working with different producers and different writers, just to bounce ideas off of. Somebody who can kind of be somebody in the room who’s not necessarily on the inside looking out but who’s on the outside looking in.

And that song, we rented an Airbnb in L.A. and we got together and started jamming. Alan came up with guitar riffs… almost immediately once that was out, the vocal melodies just poured out. I want to say that I toiled over them, but I didn’t. It went from humming a melody to “Let’s write some words down, let’s figure out what we really want to say.” It was cool because at the same time, Stevie was there like, “Cool, this is awesome.” It wasn’t one of those writing scenarios where people think it’s like “No that’s not good, we need to say this.”  He was literally there to be the barometer for excitement because for us, that was the big thing. If there’s five people in a room and you come up with an idea and five people get excited, well then it’s cool! And if maybe only two or three like it, then maybe it’s not so cool. And if everybody’s just like “Yeah, that’s good”, then it’s just not that exciting. It was such a fun, cool, creative process. I think we did that song in like a day.

You’ve played the O2 Arena with Linkin Park, you’ve toured with Marilyn Manson and Slipknot... you’ve done some pretty big things. Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you’d love to cross off your band bucket list?

You know what’s funny is that I should have an answer for this by now because I think I’ve been asked this before, but I don’t have an answer and I’ll explain why. I think for us, with Austin having left the band after having very severe medical problems in the last six to eight months, and with us having to figure out if we’re going to continue the band... we got close to the precipice of “We might never play a show again, Of Mice & Men might not be a thing anymore, maybe the road stops here,” so I think that we’re very fortunate and we’ve worked very hard to pave a new one. And I think having come so close to that ledge where you think “man, maybe this is over,” we’re really just appreciating it day by day, show by show.

We were always so hugely goal-oriented in the past, and for the most part we achieved those goals. I think if you have a two-year plan and at the end you get where you want to be, you celebrate and you’re like “yes!” But I know for me, I would get to those milestones that we set in our meetings like, “A year and a half from now we want to be headlining Brixton” and it’s a year and a half later and we’re in Brixton and the last year and a half’s a blur. The hundreds of shows you played, the interviews, everything... because if you’re just focused miles ahead of you, you’re going to miss the road that you’re walking on. So I think for us we’re just really trying to enjoy it. But I think us headlining the O2 Arena in London, that would be something up there! But for now we’re just focused on enjoying the ride and not focusing so much on the destination or where we want to end up. And I think that’s what we did with “Unbreakable” and “Back To Me”, and maybe that’s what we need to be doing. Maybe if we just listen to the songs, what are the songs trying to tell us? Maybe they’re telling us to not be so lofty but just focus on the here and now.

That’s kind of beautiful.

Wow thank you, I was like “Man, I think I just got a little too esoteric there”, I haven’t even had my morning coffee yet. I just love talking about this. This is real for us. For a lot of people, we’re a band. To a lot of people, Austin leaving the band is something they read on Wikipedia and the chronology of the band. For us, this is our life. These happenings are life happenings, so I enjoy being able to talk about them with people who can understand the humanity behind all of this. 

Well I can imagine it’s obviously not an easy choice on his part and it definitely isn’t easy on you guys. So just the fact that you’re still continuing on is awesome in itself. I can imagine it would be difficult to even make that choice.

Oh yeah, and it still is. We’ve played three shows so far and I look to my left where he typically was and I don’t see him there. And I get emotional about it sometimes and uh... but that’s life. You just gotta deal with what you’re dealt. It’s not been easy. It’s been a scary, emotional time period but if you want to do anything great, at some point you’ve gotta just take the leap. Close your eyes and jump... and we did. Thankfully, our fans caught us.