The future of metal is now: an interview with HOWLING GIANT.

Written by Interview

While the entire metal community is still reeling from the return of $layer, announced between a few well-placed scuds from its founding members, some bands are constantly trying to move the lines to give us an idea of what the metal genre will look like in the future. No soap operas or thundering declarations. No metal masses that are only accessible to a happy few with fat bank accounts. No studio edits or AI for artwork. No filters, no posers or clever hashtags. Only inspired music. A proven DIY philosophy. Using all available networks to get closer to the fans. Inventing a new relationship between the artist and its audience without any intermediary. Music everywhere, all the time, broadcasted live. No concealment, no simulation, just show everything, even the rehearsals. Howling Giant uses this responsible and consistent approach daily. Yet, they aren’t just a 3.0 band: as fine songwriters, these remarkable musicians stand out with their triumphant hybridization of styles and ability to craft songs that don’t lose us in prog labyrinths. As true heavy psychedelic goldsmiths, the band perfectly masters its identity, from the imagery to the powerful, crystal-clear production. Our recent discovery of their live performances — a true heavy communion — made us want to chat and find out more about the makers of “Glass Future”, their latest LP and one of 2023’s best metal albums.

Howling Giant has been around for 10 years. You started out with a series of EPs. How did the idea for the band come about?

Tom Polzine (guitar): Zach and I originally started jamming back in college, and at the time we were called Skulldozer. It was dope. We moved to Nashville and decided to rename this thing, and I would say that was the beginning of the focused effort that became Howling Giant. Shortly after that, we met Seabass (Sebastian Baltes, bass). That was during the creation of « The Space Between Worlds”. So yeah, early days, it was just jamming and writing music about our Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. Very nerdy, riff-heavy stuff. You could say not much has changed since then (laughs).

What are you? The actual Hellfire Club from “Stranger Things”?

Tom Polzine: Pretty much yeah (laughs).

You’re probably the most connected band in the scene. You’ve got your own Discord channel, you’re on Twitch. I consider myself an old-school guy – I’m from the Facebook generation and that’s pretty much it – but you guys are hyperactive on social networks. Tell us more about that.

Zach Wheeler (drums): None of us would consider ourselves good at social media by any means. It came out of necessity, like a lot of things with the band, and through that you just find your voice and how to talk to people. Making posts and all that stuff was intimidating for a long time. Now it is just the way we are. We’re just having conversations with fans and especially doing the Discord. We even have a cooking channel. So everyone’s just chatting about what they’re making in the kitchen or what games we are playing… I think that’s a nice way to just hang out with your fans.

“You don’t need to have a perfect social media presence. (…) We just started using it with a low bar of expectation and we now find a way to have fun with it. That’s the most direct way we talk to a lot of the hardcore fans.”

Some bands see social networking as a necessity for greater visibility, to be trendy or simply to exist. But you don’t.

Zach Wheeler: Considering the algorithm, when we’re putting something up, we’re just letting people know what we’re up to. We’re not trying to crack the code and have the perfect hashtag combination to get the most views for anything. We’re just putting up what we think is cool.

Sebastian Baltes (bass): The big thing about it, too, is that before COVID, we had hit the road a lot. Then COVID came and nobody could see us anymore. Our Twitch channel was our way of trying to connect with fans and create a community while doing it out of the safety of our own home.

Tom Polzine: You don’t need to have a perfect social media presence. There is a misconception with bands that think there’s a heavy strategy that goes into running Facebook and Instagram and using Twitch and Discord. We just started using it with a low bar of expectation and we now find a way to have fun with it, even though it can feel like work. That’s the most direct way we talk to a lot of the hardcore fans. We just didn’t really overthink it.

You also do a lot of live streams. You guys put out sessions like every week, don’t you?

Zach Wheeler: During the pandemic, we were doing it a lot more often, multiple times a week. These days, when we’re not on the road, we try to do one full band stream a week. Everyone can kind of peek in and see what we’re working on for our set list and stuff like that. It’s easy to see what’s going on behind the scenes.

Tom Polzine: It’s easy for me to think of it like it’s a performance, but once we’re in there, we’re going to jam on weird tunes and just mess around. It’s what it actually looks like in the practice room for us, finding where there are mistakes, highlighting them and working on it. It is almost more vulnerable in that way, but that’s what it actually looks like to be a band.

Zach Wheeler: Sometimes, we’ll play the same song four or five times over the course of the whole thing, trying little things different to see how it hits. And you get very real feedback from people in those moments, which is very useful.

Would you have done all this, would you be in the same frame of mind today if it weren’t for the pandemic?

Tom Polzine: At the end of 2019, I reached out to some friends and bands like Toke and Forming the Void, whom we were really tight with. I was kicking around the idea of making a virtual show. They thought it was cool but didn’t have time to set something like this up. And then months later, COVID became a reality. It was weird how we were almost about to do it already, months before it became that reality, like a premonition. So who knows? Maybe we would have done it.

When we pay attention to your lyrics, it’s obvious that we listen to a soundtrack for Magic The Gathering or D&D games. We have the Frazetta or Ken Kelly imagery in mind. To what extent is heroic Fantasy an inspiration to you?

Sebastian Baltes: Before anybody answers, I just want to say that just before this interview started, I was playing Magic the Gathering and listening to a D&D podcast. (Everybody laughing)

Zach Wheeler: When we were Skulldozer, our D&D campaigns was the main inspiration for our lyrics. These days, we’re consuming all sorts of media, like other D&D podcasts, all sorts of movies… We sit down, write a song and go, “okay, what’s this about specifically? What does it make you feel?” If Sebastian goes, « hey, this makes me think of what my character did in a D&D campaign », maybe that’s the bouncing off point. Or Tom goes, « I was reading this graphic novel », anything like that. But D&D still pokes its head in there every once in a while.

Tom Polzine: I think that we use fantasy or fiction, and it’s not just D&D. Disco Elysium was a great game that inspired us some songs. Fictional or sci-fi or fantastic worlds tend to be what we draw inspiration from. Sometimes that’s the video game, sometimes the movie… Fantasy of some kind is usually the starting point.

Isn’t this a roundabout way of talking about your own feelings through fictional characters… without revealing too much personally?

Tom Polzine: Yeah, it’s a way to hide a bit of yourself in it, but also express how you’re feeling in a way that’s maybe… more cool.

Zach Wheeler: …it’s the songwriting equivalent of « my friend has this problem… ». They happen to be riding a dragon with a sword that’s on fire, but you know, they still have feelings. (laughs)

“The benefits of existing in Nashville is that we are surrounded by musicians of a really high caliber. Nashville is really the cool place to be from.”

You guys come from Nashville, the city of countless Honky Tonks on Broadway. There must be music everywhere seven days a week. Has this helped or influenced the way you make music? Does it make a difference? The pressure must be high. I mean, isn’t everyone a musician in Nashville?

Sebastian Baltes: Personally, it moves me to be a better musician. I work at a bar and most nights I’m out there seeing country music, pop music, jazz, funk, everything. There’s way more than just country music in Nashville. It just pushes you to be that much better, practice more and be that more focused on your instrument.

Tom Polzine: I don’t really feel the pressure too much because what we do is not representative of the majority of musicians that exist in Nashville. The benefits of existing in Nashville is that we are surrounded by musicians of a really high caliber. We have great insights if we have questions, how to record something, or what gear to use… but there isn’t a pressure to perform like they do. We are Howling Giant and we play music the way we do. And in our field, you know, we’re pretty rad. There is a few bands that we really respect, and more than a rivalry, it’s a really cool subculture in the music scene in Nashville. There is inspiration to try things and learn from other musicians that have a really high level of skill and expertise. Nashville is really the cool place to be from. There’s also, I’d say, a focus on writing a song here. Rather than some bands focusing on shred, or riff, or making this really unique… In Nashville, it’s about how you make a song with a really good HOOK, a strong melody, a tight song form. Being in close proximity with this many songwriters, we’ve maybe focused our craft in a little different way some bands would.

Some bands forget the power of the hook. That’s what makes you hold the music and whistle it in the shower. There’s no shame in that! Nowadays we focus on the riff and forget about the melody…

Tom Polzine: I think both are important. Some bands do really well in creating a vibe, a feeling, and a riff. And I think that can be important. But I would say our focus mainly has been trying to write melodies and really tight songs.

Zach Wheeler: A vocal melody doesn’t have to be the hook at all times. Sometimes the riff IS the hook. There are plenty of bands who their vocalists are screaming the entire time, but they still have hooks within their song. They just find it, whether it’s a rhythm that everyone latches onto or like a guitar lead line… Something memorable.

Sebastian, your father plays bass in the famous German heavy metal band Accept. Is he one of your mentors? Is the comparison flattering but hard to bear?

Sebastian Baltes: When I was little, he and the band were on hiatus. So he was always there when I was younger. He just started touring again in 2011 when I was leaving school. It really feels kind of crazy, but it’s also his job. I’ve always loved his playing and he’s always been like, obviously inspirational to me. On our last European tour, we were actually both on tour in Europe at the same time. And that was a pretty legendary moment for me.

As someone with a foot in both continents, do you see any difference in the way heavy metal is played in Europe and the USA?

Sebastian Baltes: I think that the metal scene in Europe is just stronger in general than the metal scene in America. There always tends to be more people coming out to shows and supporting local scenes, and that was the case for us with our first European tour. We just had never been there before and had people coming out to our shows, that means a lot. There’s definitely a ton of differences, and the food and the catering is probably the biggest (laughs).

Tom Polzine: I want to bring up that this was our first time in Europe and we have a few shows that were really solid, so it was impressive to see. And there were some that were a lighter turnout. This was like us really developing a foundation that we want to build on, so it’s hard to compare Europe to the United States. Even though it’s a common thing to say Europe is better for underground music or rock bands, I don’t necessarily know if I agree with that right now. For me, I think that we’ve seen a really strong showing building in the United States, at least for us where we’ve gone. So I just want to go back for the United States underground scene. And then I think people are really trying to support that and we’re seeing it build and grow.

Zach Wheeler: This scene starts to get recognized here. They’re a great example of what’s happening right now. It’s Elder opening up for Tool all across the states. That’s huge. That’s one of the biggest things to have happened to this scene. And like outside of that, the last time that happened is when the Foo Fighters brought Cave in on a couple of European dates. It’s kind of these mainstream rock and metal bands recognizing the « little guys ». What Tom said was right. We’ve been at it for a while here, so it’s almost a hard comparison. Our first tour in Europe was as any first tour is going to be, where you’re going to have some amazing shows and clubs that are just okay. But at least we were fed in Europe (laughs).

Last autumn you tested your popularity in European cities. I saw you at Desertfest. I was overwhelmed by your energy and the fervor of your audience! People knew your lyrics like the back of their hands. For guys coming to Europe for the first time, hats off to you!

Tom Polzine: Desertfest was great. I feel like we knew it was going to be good. But for me, I think it surpassed expectations in that it was a very interactive audience. I could feel that people were tuned in and really listening and engaging. So not only was it a good turnout, but it felt like there was a strong energy and connection in that room. That was very cool.

Zach Wheeler: It was also special because it was the last show of the tour, so it felt like a celebration, us completing our first European tour. It was very cool to wrap up in such an iconic festival.

“What we can say is we’re working hard, we are writing a lot and we are recording a lot. There’s going to be some amazing stuff.”.

There’s a debate going on within The Heavy Chronicles team. What’s the best cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Godzilla”? The Fu Manchu version, or the one you did with Bob Balch for the BÖC tribute on Ripple Music? In which team are you?

Tom Polzine: Well, the bar was set pretty high because there are really good versions of it that exist. Fu Manchu’s is one of the best in the business. We started playing « Working Man » by Rush for fun during our streams, then we’re thinking about recording it. And next thing, there’s Fu Manchu playing the cover of “Working Man” by Rush. I’m like, damn! They’re just two steps ahead of us at all. (laughs) But maybe our next step is to just learn some Fu Manchu tracks, like doing a cover of « Evil Eye ».

Sebastian Baltes: Either way, Bob Balch wins, you know, he’s on both tracks!

Zach Wheeler: That’s right, he’s insured victory either way ! (laughs)

You just said you’re in the studio right now. Are you working on your next album? Are we in for more surprises?

Zach Wheeler:  We are working on new music. As for when it will be released, definitely not at any time this year. My guess would be 2025 sometime, the project is a pretty big undertaking, so we just want to make sure that everything is right. We’re just spending as much time as we can in the studio and in the right room and trying to get new music out. I think the space between the last couple albums was just about four years. We did some small EPs in between, but we’re shooting to have releases a little closer together, at least the major full-length releases.

Tom Polzine: What we can say is we’re working hard, we are writing a lot and we are recording a lot. There’s going to be some amazing stuff. We just can’t really say much about it now, and we can’t really put a timeline on the exact « when ».

Thank you for this interview. See you soon on the roads of Europe.

Find Howling Giant on their website, Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and much more! New album “Glass Future” out now on Magentic Eye Records.

Last modified: 1 May 2024