Rock

Metal’s Hottest Band Spiritbox Talks Surprise Success, Recording in a Kitchen and Doja Cat

Spiritbox
Travis Shinn*

Spiritbox

What’s the least-metal occupation you can possibly imagine? How about data entry for a Canadian hospital, ensuring doctors and nurses’ paychecks are appropriately tabulated?

For Michael Stringer and Courtney LaPlante, that was the banal day job that paid their bills for years, especially after their long-running mathcore outfit Iwrestledabearonce disbanded in 2016.  After more than a decade spent grinding as touring musicians, the husband and wife had become anonymous office workers, quietly plugging away at their computer stations.

But between crunching numbers, Stringer and LaPlante were constantly Skype-messaging each other about a new project they hoped would revamp their careers and get them back on the road: a band they’d call Spiritbox. 

Flash forward five years, and Spiritbox is the hottest name in heavy metal, courtesy of a No. 13 debut on the Billboard 200 last week, for the band’s blistering first LP Eternal Blue. The album, released Sept. 17 on Rise Records, marks the genre’s highest-charting release this year -- from a band not named Metallica or Iron Maiden -- and also bowed atop Billboard’s Top Rock Albums and Hard Rock Albums listings, an eye-opening showing for any band on their debut album.

“This just completely exceeded expectations beyond belief,” Stringer tells Billboard. “It's just so wild. We're still buzzing about it. It still doesn't make sense.” 

The four-piece has not yet toured, as twice they were thwarted by the pandemic -- once when they were supposed to open for turn-of-the-century stars Limp Bizkit, who canceled their tour dates out of “an abundance of caution.” But they’ve still managed to build a large following online through a list of singles and a self-titled EP in 2017, amassing 59 million U.S. streams to date, according to MRC Data. 

“They focused on creating the best content, visuals and music,” says Sean Heydorn, Vice President of Rise Records. “They took to social media, Discord, and more to create and grow everything from scratch. We all worked really hard to develop the project and insert them into the right situations. From the incredible visuals, to a methodical press campaign (seeing four magazine covers before their debut album came out!), and a meticulous direct to consumer campaign with fantastic merch, we worked on connecting directly with fans.” 

Marketing strategies aside, the new record is a throttling introduction; an electro-fueled marvel of modern metalcore, led by LaPlante’s guttural yells and soulful clean vocals, plus brutal riffs and rhythms from Stringer, bassist Bill Crook and drummer Zev Rose. The aesthetic ranges widely, from atmospheric to industrial, hooky to progressive: Imagine metalcore vets Architects and industrial greats Nine Inch Nails linked up to rewrite the metal playbook — then recruited (a much screamier) SZA to front the band. Not too shabby for an album recorded in the kitchen of an Airbnb in Joshua Tree National Park. 

Eternal Blue, which has received near-universal acclaim from metal publications, is a banner success for the new group, who plan to finally hit the road in February, opening for Underoath across the U.S. They’ll perform at sea later this month, for Coheed and Cambria’s S.S. Neverender cruise, out of Miami Oct. 26.  But for now, they’ll sit with their big win just a little longer. 

Last week, we caught up with Stringer and LaPlante, via Zoom from their home in Victoria, Canada, to discuss the surprise success, recording in the desert and how Doja Cat fits into all of this. 

While we're talking, Eternal Blue sits at No. 13 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. What’s it been like processing the debut’s immediate success?

Mike Stringer: This is my 13th year of trying to pursue music. And it's always that carrot dangling in front of you. And you never think you're going to grab it. I told myself that if this album even came close to, like, top 50, I would've finally grabbed that carrot. So the fact that we're No. 13 -- it just doesn't feel real. It's super-validating, but at the same time you almost don't know what to do. Because you're kind of like, “Well, this is more than anything I've ever worked toward or what I thought was possible.”

Courtney LaPlante: Our community is very self-isolating, and isolated from the mainstream. And so it's just one of those weird things -- it's not that we don't want to come sit at the table. It's just that we didn't know that there was a seat for us at the table. Or that anyone cared to... move over, and give us room to sit down. It's just mind-blowing. 

There's just something that happens when you see your name or another metal band's name amongst all those other names of artists that you respect. And that you know how much power they have, and how much influence on the world they have. And just to see your name there -- even if it's for one week -- it really kind of lifts things for me, to be like, "Oh my God. Any of our bands can do this. Metal bands can do this."

Most rock and metal “overnight success” stories actually stem from years of touring. How has Spiritbox built such a following so quickly, especially when most fans have never seen you perform?

MS: It's just been showing restraint and saying no to a lot. We owe a lot to our management for just basically turning down every tour, every show, whatever. And it felt very, very weird. But their mentality was like, "We have to build an audience, to build this online. What's the point in going out when you guys are in your late 20s and early 30s? You're adults, and you have bills to pay. There's no point in slumming it. You've already done it for the last 10 years. Why don't we try to build a demand -- so that when you do go out and do it, maybe people are there that already know you and already know the words?” 

CL: And when you remove having disposable income of any sort from your life, it's very easy to make those financial decisions to not go out and play to the 50 kids at a pizza shop every night. Because we're always one bad tour away from not being able to do this band anymore. It just made so much more sense to invest that money into making fans, by putting out cool music videos and stuff that Michael would make himself. That's where we’ve invested our money, rather than buying a van and a trailer and stuff.

In the early stages of Spiritbox, was there a concerted effort to veer away from the sound of Iwrestledabearonce? Or were you open to whatever came out and that happened to be Eternal Blue?

MS: It's a bit of both. Honestly in my previous bands, all I had ever done was that kind of dissonant, spastic, crazy, “How many notes can you fit in a riff?" style of music. So going into Spiritbox, I don't know if it was just getting older, being in my later 20s or whatever, and just being so over what I had done before. And I think it might have been just challenging myself to actually create a memorable song, as opposed to a crazy part or whatever. 

The whole point of Spiritbox is that we can come out with [a more atmospheric] song, like “We Live in a Strange World.” But then we can come out with a [heavier] song like “Holy Roller.” And people aren't going to really be that bothered by it. It was very important for us to have diverse songs, and diverse genres within the band.

How does the electronic influence fit in?

MS: We just really appreciate and love pop music. We really appreciate the ‘80s, The Cure, stuff like that.

CL: And Nine Inch Nails.

MS: I've dabbled in that [sound], but I'm not well-versed in how to create all of it. So working with Dan [Braunstein], we can tell him, "We need to have this type of vibe on this," or whatever. And the guy's just got just such an intense library of sounds and stuff that he can grab from. And that's kind of where that comes in. It's finally being able to work with someone that understands our language.

CL: And it makes things so much more efficient. It's a very special line of communication. So we learn so much from him, because he's like the synth lord.

Eternal Blue is named for a computer program, but is there deeper meaning?

CL: It's kind of the chicken or the egg. I was listening to a podcast, and they were talking about the computer program, Eternal Blue. The second I heard that phrase, a spark went off in my head. I messaged Michael and I was like, "Eternal Blue. That's what the album's going to be called." And that just kind of gave me a writing prompt that became my mantra. And I've now projected all this meaning of the vibe of the album onto that phrase. And just made it my own thing.

Lyrically, is there a common thread that weaves this album together?

CL: I guess what I've taken from this album is that I'm sad. [Laughs.] And that's something that I've dealt with my whole life. And a lot of these songs are completely selfish. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I feel we normally use selfish with a negative connotation. But I just mean that in a neutral connotation. It's completely selfish writing. It's just me. These little things are just me having a bit of body armor. Because I'm hiding in metaphors and imagery, to kind of just express myself, and the anger and frustration and sadness that I feel.

There’s a clear influence from metalcore favorites Architects on this album, especially as singer Sam Carter is featured on the song “Yellowjacket.” Who would fans be surprised to learn influence your music?

MS: There's a lot of Tears for Fears. There's a lot of Depeche Mode influence.

CL: The ‘80s dark rock and pop bands really influenced a lot of our writing. Because it just was really airy. And there's so much room in those songs. But there's something very dark and heavy about them, even though they're predominantly made with synthesizers and stuff. 

I get a lot of vocal inspiration from The Weeknd, SZA, H.E.R. and honestly Doja Cat. I find that those artists, because their songs are so beautifully produced, there's so much space for them to finish their sentence in a song. Where in the music that we are a part of, predominantly as a vocalist, it's like you're having a big argument, and you have to really aggressively get your sentence out. So I really look to those artists, because their songs are so open, and have so much flow to them. And each part of the song is memorable.

And what would fans be surprised to know about the making of Eternal Blue?

CL: It was all made in either our old condo where we used to live, and since we couldn't afford any furniture, we literally went and borrowed lawn chairs from my parents, so that all of us could sit behind Michael and Dan [Braunstein] while they were writing. And then when we recorded in an AirBnb in Joshua Tree. It was like “well, I guess the dining room and kitchen is where we're going to record.” And we just pushed the old dining room table back. That's now the studio desk. And we recorded the album in a kitchen.

MS: We recorded it in February of this year, and obviously things weren't that great in America. And we were just like, "Well, if we're going to go down there, let's go in the middle of nowhere. And let's just make sure we're separated from the world." We rented a house on a 20-acre property where the average coffee run would take over an hour.

CL: I also want people to know that... yes, we were working with Dan, who's a professional mixer and engineer, and producer. And he did bring as much gear as he could fit in his tiny electric car. But other than that, it's plug-ins.

MS: Yeah. We had a preamp, a compressor and an interface. And that's what we made the record with.

CL: So anyone can do that. Anyone can use those plug-ins. And I just want people to know that. This isn't some big, fancy operation. 

What other advice would you give to bands like yours, looking to be the next out-of-nowhere act to make a splash on the chart? 

MS: Just don't quit. Honestly, we're living proof. I mean, we still have a lot of goals. We still have a lot of things we want to do in our career.

CL: We're just starting out.

MS: But at the same time -- the reason why we're here is because we haven't quit after 13, 14 years. And I have a lot of friends that hold onto material because it's not "perfect," or they are waiting to go to the right studio, or whatever. But time is so precious, and you just have to do anything you can to just get your music out there and start building. If you're just holding out, you're just wasting time.

Where does Spiritbox go from here? What’s the plan to build on this chart success and people loving the album?

MS: We have to go out on the road and complete a full tour.

CL: We've never done that.

MS: It's such an extreme circumstance. We've had a couple moments now where we played for a big crowd, and people are actually saying the words back to us. And it's shocking. It's like, "Whoa, when did this happen?" So next year especially is just going to be learning how to be the real thing, and actually see everybody yelling the words back at us, and getting used to that. Because it's really extreme for us at the moment, because it's just been all online.

CL: It's such a huge absence for us to not have that [live experience] with our people that listen to our band. Or the connection of being with them and playing to them.

MS: So we're excited to get on the road and do it for real.