Head Cage: An Interview with John Jarvis
John Jarvis has been tearing it up on the bass in Pig Destroyer for five years, but Head Cage is the first album to feature his bass playing. That’s no big deal for some bands, but Jarvis is also the only bassist they’ve ever had.
Fitting his sound into the already intense band was tricky at first, but Jarvis is a seasoned player that can hang with just about any heavy band. He also plays in Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Fulgora, All Will Fall, and Scour, which features former Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo.
We caught up with Jarvis to get the scoop on his introduction to metal, how he keeps up with all his projects, and how an old budget bass was the right ax for Head Cage.
You’re based in Baltimore, right? Are you from there?
I grew up just outside the St. Louis area and moved to St. Louis proper when I was 21. What brought me to Baltimore was the Pig Destroyer gig. They decided they wanted to get a bass player and luckily my cousin [Pig Destroyer drummer Adam Jarvis] was there and brought my name up. Somehow I got lucky enough to get picked. It’s taken me a little while to get situated out here, but I’m starting to get comfortable.
What is the metal scene like?
It’s great. It’s a major difference from St. Louis because, unfortunately, a lot of bands fly over St. Louis. The promoters there can’t afford to bring the big acts in because there’s not a big enough crowd. In Baltimore, if they don’t come here it’s safe to say a band will come to DC or to Philadelphia. Even New York is not too far away. With St. Louis, if you’re talking about going to Chicago to see a show, you’re talking about a five-hour drive. So there’s always something to do. Last night Sumac played and the night before Killing Joke played. So I get to see a lot more acts.
Did you and Adam grow up close together?
Yeah, we lived in the same city and started jamming together at a very young age. We’d prepare concerts for our Christmas gatherings and there’s some old VHS footage of us playing Metallica’s “One” when we were 10 years old.
We’ve been jamming together our entire lives, even before we knew how to play. We’d play with the instruments in his dad’s jam room. He had a country rock band called Boulderdash. They played all the homecoming shows and played all the good ’80s rock stuff. When they finished band practice, they’d step outside to smoke. That’s when they wanted us to be occupied, so they’d say, “Go ahead and jam.” I’d get behind the drums and try to play. It’s when we got to pick up our first instruments. We’ve been doing it our whole lives, really.
So you’ve got a musical family background?
Yeah. My dad played guitar in a band. He claims he wasn’t very good, but he taught me how to play “Day Tripper” by the Beatles. Everyone has a little bit of music. You can always learn, too, even if you don’t think you have it in you. It’s nice to have family that encourages creativity in any way, whether it’s art or music. Adam’s dad was in a heavy metal band back in the ’70s called Medusa. They were the first heavy metal band in the area, so there’s even a heavy metal background in our family.
Is that where the metal influence came from?
For me it came from MTV. The Ozzy Osbourne video for “Bark at the Moon” scared the crap out of me. From that point on I’d like that song, then I had an older cousin that said, “Well you have to hear Black Sabbath and Metallica’s Master of Puppets.” I’d have all these cassettes from my cousin that I’d listen to in my dad’s car. When he drove to Adam’s house, Adam would steal the cassettes and get the metal, too, so we handed it down through the family. I got a lot of metal from my older cousin and Adam got a lot of it from me. Then Adam took it to the next level and said, “Oh, there’s heavier bands! You gotta hear Slayer and Malevolent Creation.”
You joined the band five years ago and you’re the first bass player they’ve ever had. How did you go about adding bass lines to their existing songs?
That was kind of strange and difficult because there was nothing there in the first place. There are a lot of points where I just mirror exactly what [guitarist Scott Hull] is playing, but there are also a lot of parts where he’d say, “Dude, you should play this” or “Do whatever you want.” Anything works because there was no bass there so there were no rules. There were a few parts where I did what I thought I would have done at the time [the song was written] or what should have been there. That’s what I did with the old stuff: take his riffs and do what I think the bass would have done, tastefully.
Is that the same process you used for Head Cage?
Yeah, really it’s all him. He writes everything down and will send it over for our approval, basically. We might say, “Hey, that riff sounds like Helmet – you gotta change that.” I wrote maybe three or four bass riffs throughout the whole thing. That’s because there were parts where the guitar drops out and I could do whatever I wanted. Luckily in the studio, it all sounded good because I didn’t have any backup plans. 100% of the riffs were all him, and I got to do the sprinkle on top. Towards the end of the record on “House of Snakes,” there are a few parts where it’s just bass and drums.
The texture of the music is so thick. How do you carve out your sound to get the bass to cut through?
We tried different types of bass guitars and fresh strings and old strings, different types of amps. It all came down to an old LTD bass that had been sitting in Scott’s room with old strings on it. It just happened to sound the best. We had an idea that we wanted it to sound like a Jesus Lizard type [of bass tone] so I went out and got the same type of GK amp that he had, I got the same guitar, too. Fender sent us a P-bass to use.
I’m telling you, we plugged it all in and it sounded great, but it didn’t sound as good as the LTD did. We had brand new LTDs and E-II’s and even ESP Horizons from the ’80s. Still, this old LTD that cost $300 at Guitar Center is the one we used because it sounded better than anything else. You never know until you plug everything in what you’re really gonna get. We had much better equipment lying around, but it just didn’t sound as good.
You get a lot of snarl out of that. Are you using effects?
I use an Amptweaker Tight Metal distortion pedal. It can handle guitar or bass, so I use that for my distortion. I’m also working with Darkglass Electronics, who sent me a B7K. It’s a mixture of that and the GK head I mentioned.
For some reason it makes me feel good to know you had all this great gear and it was a beat-up, old LTD that fit the ticket.
Yeah, and the thing is that I practiced a ton on my own bass thinking it’s what I’d use, then it didn’t sound right. So I had to use that one, which I’d never used before. You have to get used to it fast in that type of situation. It was a challenge, but it flat out sounded better.
Are you a pick guy or a fingers guy?
Pick, and that just comes from starting as a guitarist. I can play with my fingers, too. He asked what I did and when I said pick he said, “Good. I want you to be able to down pick with me.” I know it’s “against the rules” for most bass players, but Alex Webster told me that some of his favorite bass players use a pick. And who’s better than him with his fingers? Nobody. He’s the master, and if he says that, then I say I’ll just keep using a pick. Why do you have to pick a side?
You’re also singing on “Trap Door Man.” How did that come about?
I sing a little bit for Agoraphobic Nosebleed, so Scott was aware that I do vocals and Adam always knew. JR decided he wanted to do a bunch of backing vocals. He asked me to just do the second verse of that song. So I went to the studio and did it and thought I was done. Then they said, “Why don’t you go back in there and do the first one, too.” I said ok. It just went from him asking. It was just another tool for him and I’m excited about getting to do it on stage.
Do you have a lot of dates coming up?
We do. It’s a lot for Pig Destroyer. We have a couple shows this month, and you can’t say that every month for Pig Destroyer. We’re a little more active than normal, but there’s never going to be a full-scale tour. We’re never going to be the band that plays your city twice a year, unfortunately, because it’s just the way we are. That makes it more of an event that you’ll want to come out to see. If you’re in the area and Pig Destroyer is playing, you’d better make it.
It seems like you’re in five or six bands. How do you keep up with that?
Luckily, none of them are demanding enough that they are full-time and require complete attention. As I said, we work so far in advance that we know what we’re doing. If someone says, “We want Agoraphobic Nosebleed to play this festival,” and it’s in July, we know if we can do it already. We have a nice Google calendar that we keep up to date. There have only been a couple times where something we wanted to play didn’t work out. Everyone in the band has other things going on: Scott has got Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Blake has got the Tentacles of God, JR has Virginia Creep and Enemy Soil, Adam has Asthma Castle and a hundred other bands. Scour, Fulgora… We all have other things going on, so if Scour has a show then we pop it on the calendar so everyone knows what’s going on.
What’s going on with Scour?
We’re wrapping up recording on the EP right now. I’m done with all my bass. Phil [Anselmo] is on tour with The Illegals and I don’t know how much he has to go at this point. Hopefully, he’ll wrap it up sometime soon and then we’ll doing backing vocals and mixing and mastering. I’d imagine early sometime next year is the timeframe, but you never know with this kind of stuff. This is going to be the final EP of the trilogy we planned out. After that may be time to do the full-length. You have to work your way up, you know? We’re a new band. There are still a lot of people who flat out won’t give us a chance, but there are also a lot of people that get pumped when they hear us. Actually, we were playing some new material recently and our sound guy had never heard us. He was shocked and said, “Oh, this is good!” I was kind of offended, like, what is that supposed to mean? [laughs] It even takes a while for me to give a band a chance. There’s so much going on that I can’t listen to every new band that comes out, so I understand it for everyone else. It’s a never-ending struggle.