If you’re filthy rich, live in New York and think the Hamptons have become a bit too Jersey Shore, you probably have a mansion on New Jersey’s Lake Hopatcong, an enormous stretch of water that buzzes with the sound of jet-skis each summer. In the off-season, however, it’s a ghost town. Literally.
“It sounded like someone was scratching on the window in the lounge,” says Northlane guitarist Josh Smith, sipping beer in bandmate Jonathon Deiley’s Melbourne apartment. Smith may be 16,000 kilometres away from Lake Hopatcong, but he’s still spooked by the “demon” that haunted the mansion the Australian progressive metal act called home for a fortnight last October. Each night it’d make its nightly journey across the house and into Deiley’s upstairs bedroom. The guitarist remembers being in the studio — a short kayak trip across the lake — when the panicked texts started coming through.
“These were adults that were genuinely terrified about what was up there,” he says. “They were fully petrified.”
Deiley may be laughing now, but at the time he didn’t see the funny side.
“I was even more scared to sleep in my bed that night. The way they described it, I was like, ‘Yep, there’s definitely a demon in my room.'”
It’s a sunny Melbourne afternoon and Deiley, Smith and singer Marcus Bridge are enjoying a rare moment together at a time when there’s no album to record, no venue to get to, no video to shoot. Bridge — red flannel, black beanie, skinny frame — flies home to Sydney tonight, but he’ll be back Friday. For rehearsals? “For a lady,” he coolly shoots back. Smith, also based in Sydney, is contemplating a more permanent move. “There must be something in the water here,” he jokes.
Split between cities for the past few years, Northlane are a band with no fixed address. And that’s how it’s been since day one, when Deiley and bassist Alex Milovic (who everyone calls Milo) started trading riffs on the internet back in 2009. Smith — a champion triathlete in high school — joined after finding the pair on MySpace. His audition clip is hiding somewhere in the back alleys of YouTube.
“You should absolutely go look for it,” says Deiley. “He’s in this room with all these sports trophies. He’s got his arm on the computer chair and he’s head-banging along to the song.”
The band continued to be built online from the ground up, with Adrian Fitipaldes joining on vocals and Brendan Derby on drums (he was replaced in 2010 by Nic Pettersen). With their unique arrangements and an OCD attention to detail, they quickly rose above a crowded and fairly homogenous metalcore scene formulating around Sydney’s outer-western suburbs. They were one of the flagship signings of Australia’s premiere heavy music label UNFD, releasing debut album Discoveries in 2011.
Though the band wouldn’t exist without it, Northlane have always had an uneasy relationship with the internet and the “awesome constructive criticism” they continue to receive in YouTube comments and on forums. “Back in the day we used to get vaginas photoshopped on our faces,” Deiley says, laughing.
So what provokes such a strong reaction?
“I don’t know what it is,” says Deiley, “but it’s definitely not going to stop me from exploring new territory. People have always tried to confine us to a particular style, or have an image in their head of what we are to them. I don’t think people intentionally do it. People just project what they want to see, or what they want to hear.”
Which brings us to Mesmer, Northlane’s fourth full-length recording, and yet another evolutionary step for a band that seems intent on forging their own path, no matter how isolating that feels at times. Though it opens with the crushing riff of “Citizen” — featuring Smith’s cautionary lyrics about surveillance and Bridge’s dexterous vocals — there’s a lightness to this record and a willingness to explore other textures that 2015 predecessor Node only hinted at.
“It was the record we had to release,” Smith says of Node. “It was a valuable learning tool for us. We explored a lot of different directions and learned what worked and didn’t work, but also how weird we could get and still retain who we are as a band.”
Bridge — who had joined Northlane just months before they entered the studio to record Node — agrees.
“There were restrictions when we were doing [that album] because we weren’t sure how far left we could take it.”
Smith says part of that was working out how to integrate their new singer into the band. “On Node we thought there was a precedent that we had to follow to an extent and adapt to Marcus. [On Mesmer] we used what we had as best we could.”
Contemplative and quietly spoken, Bridge was the final piece of the Northlane jigsaw when he joined the band following Fitipaldes’ departure in September 2014. His audition clip was selected from more than 2000 other hopefuls when the band put a call out for a new singer on social media. “We didn’t really know who we wanted,” says Smith. “We just wanted to find someone that’s special and adapt what we do to them… We didn’t want to leave any stone unturned, and it turned into a great marketing exercise for our band.”
Watching Bridge’s audition on YouTube, it’s not hard to see why they picked him. He cuts a powerful and captivating presence, putting his own spin on “Dream Awake”, one of Fitipaldes’ signature cuts from 2013’s breakthrough record Singularity. But a YouTube clip doesn’t tell you the full story. Like whether a person can perform outside their bedroom, or whether you can live with their relentless nose-picking on the road.
“It’s funny how quickly Marcus slotted in,” says Smith, recalling their first rehearsal together, which mostly consisted of beer and backyard cricket. “Once we saw Marcus’ all-rounder skills we thought he was perfect,” he says.
Though the transition appeared seamless — Bridge’s first gig was in front of 2,500 Swedish fans on a European tour — there were some nerves during that whirlwind induction. Bridge, who was a member of Sydney alt-rock outfit Sound of Seasons, had to adapt his voice to cope with the brutal template Fitipaldes had set. Incidentally, it was that style of singing that contributed to Fitipaldes’ decision to leave the band.
“I was pretty nervous,” Bridge says of that first practice session. “I had never really done that heavy screaming consistently before. There was a lot of pressure, but it was a matter of just doing it. Even in those first rehearsals I learnt some little tricks on how to perform.”
Though writing began in a similar fashion to Node — with Deiley hunched over a sea of pedals in the soundproofed room behind us — the process was more collaborative this time around. Riffs bounced back and forth between Deiley, Smith and Bridge, who really comes into his own as a vocalist and songwriter, especially on the self-penned “Heartmachine” and “Fade”. Those two songs came out of a particularly intense and personal session with David Bendeth, the English producer known for his unorthodox methods and a resumé that includes Bring Me the Horizon, A Day To Remember and Paramore. Northlane spent what was supposed to be their first day in Barber Shop Studios out on Lake Hopatcong, getting sunburnt on a speedboat and drinking beers “until we were sick”.
“One of the other things with Dave is that he wouldn’t let us work on Sundays,” recalls Smith. “I don’t know if it was a Sabbath thing, but it was cool because you would have a day to reflect and relax… You’d come in and you’d be excited to keep going.”
So what did the band get up to on those days off?
“They were lazy Sundays,” says Deiley. “We’d have coffee, chill out on the balcony for a bit. We had a fire pit, we’d stoke it.”
“It was chill,” adds Bridge, “a good vibe. We’d just hang out and watch Westworld.”
But things weren’t always so chill. On their first proper day in the studio — the actual studio, not the lake — Bendeth decided to undertake some pretty confronting psychological experiments. He’d randomly throw an item on the floor, for example, and ask the band to pick it up without using their hands.
“Two hours into that first day he had figured out all the power dynamics in our band,” recalls Smith. “He told us stuff about ourselves that we didn’t even know.”
For Bridge, the ghosts weren’t just confined to the mansion — Bendeth had summoned some pretty serious demons in the studio as well. “Fade”, which could well be Bridge’s best vocal performance to date, deals with the death of his father. It was emotional territory neither Bridge nor the band had properly explored.
“There were moments when it got a bit emotional,” he says, “but it enabled us to be more open with each other. It was terrifying at first. We were all opening up… On the first day I got real upset about something.”
Smith: “You got exposed. He brought up a couple of deep-seated things you weren’t happy with.”
“I just broke,” the singer concedes.
For Smith, whose lyrics have usually focused on universal themes, the sessions pushed him outside his comfort zone as well. “Veridian” deals with the death and gradual decay of his great-grandmother, who was kept alive artificially for the last few months of her life.
“It was so upsetting because you could see how much pain she was in and how her mind was unravelling too,” says Smith. “You’d be lucky to have a conversation with her when she was making sense. Those moments became really fleeting. I remember one thing she said to me — which is what inspired the song — was her just saying how she never wanted to live so long, and how she didn’t want to be alive anymore. It was horrible.”
Though the band explore more inward-looking material on Mesmer, Smith says he’ll never shirk his responsibilities as a songwriter. Tracks like “Intuition” and “Citizen”, with its allusions to the presence of big brother, don’t shy away from heavy political themes or a sense of global responsibility that’s intrinsic to Northlane’s purpose as a band.
“I’ve been given this platform and it’s my responsibly to do something meaningful with it and shed light on things that aren’t addressed enough,” Smith says. “If I can ignite a spark in someone’s head to start recognising that this is something important… then that gives me the satisfaction I need as a songwriter. If I didn’t have this outlet, I’d probably go on Twitter rants.”
From issue #786 (May 2017), available now.