Q&A With Matt Tuck of Bullet For My Valentine
In the States, the music of Bullet For My Valentine – the subject of a profile in the February 28 Westword – is typically lumped into the modern rock, hard rock or screamo categories. But as lead singer/guitarist Matt Tuck makes clear in the following Q&A, he considers his band to be part of the U.K. metal tradition. Moreover, he hopes that its success will usher in a new era of British steel.
Speaking from his hometown in Wales, Tuck discusses reports about assorted health issues, including throat problems and exhaustion; the difficulties the band had in getting signed; the pros and cons of sticking to a musical formula; the decision to move away from minor keys on the outfit’s new CD, Scream Aim Fire, and the subsequent backlash from some fans and critics; a straight-forward attack on the way Axl Rose treats his audience, based on personal observation; a contrasting tribute to Metallica, another Bullet tourmate; and his revelation that, as a kid, he used to put himself to sleep listening to Pantera and Machine Head albums.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you at right now?
Matt Tuck: Actually, I’m in Cardiff, where I live. I’ve got a little intimate radio show tonight. It’s like a day off from the tour, so we’re doing a little show in our hometown in Cardiff, Wales… There’s a new radio station that’s opened up, called Xfm, which is kind of a national radio station, but they’ve got a regional version here in Wales. And we’re playing a show for them tonight.
WW: Electric or acoustic?
MT: Full on.
WW: Do you play acoustic? Or is that against your philosophy?
MT: No, I love acoustic. I can do acoustic versions of all our stuff. But that’s something I don’t tend to want to be a part of live. That’s mostly just for myself.
WW: Do you write on acoustic?
MT: I used to, a lot, years ago. But now, I don’t get that luxury of time, of just sitting in my house strumming along. Mostly, the new songs get written on the back of the bus on a little electric guitar and amplifier.
WW: Well, these days, a lot of articles about you are filled with Matt Tuck health news – stuff about throat problems and hospitalization for exhaustion. Are you generally a healthy guy? Are these kinds of things out of the ordinary?
MT: I used to be very, very healthy, until I got into a band (laughs). No, those are just moments, and they get a little bit exaggerated when you read about them and you’re not part of it. I just had the tonsils removed. They were causing me to be ill a lot. They were getting infected. And the exhaustion thing was just touring too much. Too many shows, and our shows are very physical, especially with us having to deal with all the traveling and the jet lag. All that stuff at the same time, it kind of gets to you. There’s only so much you can take.
WW: After you had your tonsils removed, did you have to learn to sing in a way that wouldn’t damage your voice? Or are you doing pretty much what you’ve always done?
MT: The voice was never a problem, and the vocal cords are fine as well. But once I had the tonsils out, I’ve gone through vocal coaching, yes, but even before that, speech therapy. So I’ve learned to do it properly rather than just naturally, which I did for years and years and years. But now I’ve gotten coaching from the best in the business, my voice is sounding better than ever, really.
WW: So it’s improved instead of changed in a way that took you by surprise?
MT: Yeah. Initially, when it first started to come back, it was sounding a little different, but I think that was just breaking it in again. I kind of got up to a level, especially stamina-wise, where I’m doing the shows every night, and it’s not a problem. It’s settled down and is sounding like it should
WW: In terms of exhaustion, it seems like only famous people get that – not the average person. But what happened? Did you actually collapse? And how did they treat it?
MT: It never got to the point where I was hospitalized. It just get to the point where your body kind of packs it in, and it goes from one thing to another and snowballs into a big deal. It is hard for the majority of people to know what it is, but it sucks big-time, physically and mentally as well. It gets into your head a little bit and then it goes round and round. It’s just rest, is what you need, really. Just time away from everything and everybody, so you can just recharge.
WW: For you, is it difficult to tell yourself, I need to shut down for a few days? Are you naturally the type of person who keeps going and going and going?
MT: Yeah, I always have been. I can’t sit still for two seconds, and I get bored really easily. I was just trying to ride the wave of success, really. We were in so much demand two years ago, which we still are. But we’ve learned now, because of what happened with the cancellations – everyone knows that they have to make allowances. I have a big part in especially the touring schedule now. They always check with me before they book anything to make sure that there’s not more than three shows in a row and that kind of thing. We’re in a position where we can kind of call the shots, which is good. I think that will be more productive in the long run.
WW: Are there times when you sense, I need to slow down or I could be headed down that exhaustion road again? Or does the schedule take care of that?
MT: Yeah, the schedule is in place for the summer and the rest of 2008 as well, and everything looks okay. I’m not getting worried about the schedule. It is very, very busy, but it’s nothing as extreme as it was two years ago. You know, the bigger you get, the less gigs you can do, but you’re in bigger venues. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do, really.
WW: Here in the States, there are a lot of bands that don’t want to be called metal. They prefer screamo or screamo-core or whatever other label is trendy that week. But you guys seem to relish being called a metal band. Is that true?
MT: Yeah. If anybody wants to put us into some category, that’s the one we think we fall into. That’s the one we’d like people to put us in instead of all these subgenres and combinations of genres and stuff like that. I just don’t get that, really.
WW: Do you feel that you’re part of a tradition – following in the footsteps of your heroes?
MT: I never really thought about it at first, to be honest. But as time has gone on and we’ve gotten more successful, we look around us and we’re about the only band that’s doing it as well, and getting somewhere with it. It’s something that we think about and are aware of – that we could be the next big British metal act. There’s no one else even competing with us for the moment, which is good with us.
WW: It’s interesting that you say that, because once upon a time, British metal acts basically ruled the metal world – but you guys are the first in a long time to get as big as you have internationally. Do you have any theories about why that’s the case?
MT: I just think it’s because we’ve been ambitious and we’ve been hungry for it and passionate about it and we’ve never done anything else: We’ve always done it our way. And I think if you do it long enough and you’re good enough, it’s only a matter of time before someone acknowledges it and it can’t be ignored anymore. And that’s what happened four years ago, I think. We were getting rejected by record companies every week, but the potential was there. It’s just that no one could see it. Whether they were scared of it because we were a metal band, I don’t know. But finally someone saw it for what it was, and all the potential, and snapped us up pretty quick. And the rest is history.
WW: Have you heard from any representatives of labels that rejected you, saying, “Man, we screwed that up”?
MT: Not really. They kind of know the score. They know they missed out on something that’s potentially massive. So that’s good enough for me (laughs).
WW: Are there other British metal acts coming up in your wake that you see as blatantly imitating you? Or do you see yourselves as more or less the only game in town?
MT: At the moment, we still kind of are, which is mad. I’m sure there are potentially loads of bands following in our wake, using the formula we use or whatever. But there’s not. And it’s something that works to our advantage every day. As long as we’re the only ones doing it, we’re at the forefront. I’m sure in the next couple of years, there’ll be a few bands coming through. But at the moment, we’re the only ones doing it.
WW: The word “formula” – I’ve heard you use it before in terms of songwriting. For some critics, that’s like waving a red cape in front of a bull. They think anything that uses a formula is bad. But do you feel you have to have a formula in order to be productive and to make the most of what you’ve got?
MT: I think so. The word “formula” to me describes how we right a song rather than something we stick to permanently. Because on this album, we stepped out of our comfort zone and done things we haven’t done before. But we’ve kept the same formula. We’ve always tried to incorporate what makes us what we are. Our identity was a very important thing for us to keep. But we didn’t want to play it safe. We wanted to throw a couple of curve balls in there and make people go, “Wow – didn’t expect that.” But at the same time, hopefully they like it.
WW: So when you’re talking about formula, you’re using it in regard to the approach you take, as opposed to feeling that you have to have a verse that sounds this way and a chorus that sounds that way.
MT: Yeah, definitely. When I say formula, it’s more about keeping the identity and what makes us who we are and what we are. Because that’s what’s gotten us to where we are today.
WW: What do you see as the biggest departure on the disc? Something you’d never done before?
MT: The main thing we’ve done on this one was write songs in major keys, which automatically makes them a bit poppier, or happier at least. And it’s something I was aware of when I was writing, but I was like, “Fuck it. This is a great-sounding song.” People can call it what they want. As soon as you step into that zone, people start yelling, “Sell out!” and “You’re not a metal band anymore!” But I’m not the type of person afraid of trying something different. So when we started writing songs in major keys, it was more about “Is the song good?” And if the answer’s “yes,” then it stays.
WW: The early reception to the disc – well, there are definitely some haters out there…
WW: Does that connect with you at all? Or do you feel these people so obviously have an ax to grind that their opinions don’t really matter?
MT: It comes with the territory, especially being in the genre we’re in, and today’s accessibility over the Internet for people to voice their opinions. But it is something that really doesn’t bother me, especially nowadays. We’ve proved what we’re capable of, and what we’ve achieved. Not a lot of bands on the planet have done what we’ve done in the last couple of years, so these people’s opinions don’t really matter. I take it on board and consider it, especially if it’s constructive. But when it’s just negative, people hating us, well, whatever.
WW: Over the years, classic metal bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden never got good reviews – but years later, a lot of critics would have a complete change of heart and pretend that they liked them in the first place. Do you see that kind of thing happening with you? That the critics will appreciate you more ten years from now than today?
MT: Well, everything until this new album has been really positive. But the backlash was bound to happen. Poison was picked up to such a degree by the media that there was only one direction they could have gone on this new record – to hate it. There’s lots and lots of reviews that have been really, really positive and amazing. But especially here in the U.K., the big publications and rock magazines, they’ve definitely done the predictable thing and slagged it a little bit. But at the same time, they’re still putting on the covers every week. It’s weird. It’s just kind of how it works. It’s the only way they can keep articles about us fresh, because we’re in there so often, I guess. It’s a classic thing. Hype them up, drag them down, build them back up.
WW: And by you guys moving in a more accessible direction, that made you easy targets?
MT: Yeah, totally. It was something very aware when I was writing it. I knew there were people who were going to be absolutely hating it because of that. But being a songwriter, for me the most important thing is having great songs on the album, regardless of how heavy it is or how fast it is, etc., etc. It’s definitely an easy target, but it’s good when they’re talking about us, isn’t it? (Laughs.)
WW: You’re known for being very outspoken. I’m thinking of that blog posting you put up about Rob Zombie that got you kicked off his tour a year or two ago. But I don’t sense you have any regret about speaking your mind. Am I right about that?
MT: Yeah, you’re spot on. The reason I don’t regret it is because I didn’t lie. Why should I regret speaking the truth?
WW: Do you think that kind of attitude pays off with the fans? Do they like knowing you’re going to give it to them straight?
MT: Yeah, I think so. Again, it’s kind of that thing where people love and respect you or they fucking hate you because of it. Me, I’m not the person to sit on the fence. I’ll say what I say, either good or negative. I’ll never slag off anyone unless there’s a big reason to. It’s not what I’m about at all, because I get it done about me. So there has to be someone who really pushes me buttons for me to get riled up about it.
WW: I came across one piece where you talked about opening for Guns N’ Roses, and you said they’d shown how not to act on a tour – but you didn’t really elaborate. What did they do that you didn’t respect?
MT: First of all, when I said “they,” I meant “Axl.” I didn’t mean the band. I must make that clear. But that was something I got a lot of stick for on Internet forums. People saying, “Who the fuck does he think he is? Axl’s a legend!” Well, how would you fucking feel if you were standing on an arena floor for fucking six hours waiting for your idol to come on, and then he plays half an hour and fucks off? You know what I mean? The guy just had no respect for the people who were coming to his shows. We were the support band, we’re doing our thing, which is cool – that’s what we were there for. But he’d make people who may have traveled hundreds of miles and paid ridiculous amounts of money to see a band that wasn’t even the band it was – it’s just because Axl’s there. And after we come off, there’s three hours to wait until he’s ready to decide to go on stage. Or he won’t go on stage because his lamb hasn’t been cooked that night, and he’s not going to go on stage until he gets it. And I get stick for saying that? Well, fuck you, man. We’re learning from these people, and all we learned from them was how not to do it. That’s all I meant by that.
WW: So it wasn’t anything that he did to you guys personally? It was more the disrespect he had for the audience?
MT: Definitely. We were treated very well. We couldn’t ask for anything more. We had really good catering everyday and everything. There was no interaction with us and the bandmembers and Axl. We were totally segregated, but that’s the way it rolls sometimes, and that’s cool. But we were never treated badly, no. It’s just being the band we are, we’re very aware of what’s going on around us, and we take the good and the bad in and try to use it to our benefit.
WW: In contrast, you’ve had nothing but good things to say about Metallica, who you got the chance to open for, too. Are they a role model for you? Would you like to see your career develop the way theirs has?
MT: Yeah, they’ve always been the number-one role model for me when I was a kid. They were the reason I picked up a guitar, etc. The first day on this little tour we had with them, it was like, fuck, this is weird. We knew we were in the presence of rock royalty. And ten seconds later, there was a knock on the dressing room door and there was Lars [Ulrich] introducing himself and saying how much he likes the band. We did a “Sanitarium” cover from Master of Puppets for a remake and he said how much he enjoyed our version of it. And he said, if there was anything we needed, we should let him and the guys know, and there was no segregation. And we were like, “Fuck, man, this is definitely how it should have been on all the other tours.” It was just a total inspiration. Him and the rest of the band and the crew made us so welcome. Anything they could do for us, they would, and they’d hang out in our dressing room, talk as friends. It was totally a bizarre, surreal experience, but at the same time, it showed us that was definitely the route we want to go in the future. Regardless of how big or successfully, potentially, that a band can be, they’re totally grounded as human beings, which is amazing.
WW: Is that the approach you take when you’re the headliner on a lot of shows toward the bands that are supporting you?
MT: Yeah, even when we started doing headlining shows two or three years ago at smaller European venues: Every time we take a band out on support, it’s usually because we’ve personally requested them. We’re on tour right now with a couple of bands, and every night, everyone’s in each other’s dressing rooms, hanging out, drinking, having a laugh, jamming on guitar. There’s just no bullshit, you know. We treat people who we’d want to be treated. Simple as that.
WW: People used to talk about rock and metal as being a young man’s game, and yet groups like Metallica show that you can keep going and going. Do you see yourself still doing this when you’re in your fifties or sixties?
MT: To be honest, I don’t know. It’s a lot different these days than it was twenty years ago to have that status, especially with what’s going on in the music industry and digital music and stuff like that. I think potentially we could be around for a long time if we wanted to be. I think we definitely have the talent and the songwriting capability to be around for a long time. But us, fifty years old, being on a stage? I don’t think I could do that (laughs). I’m in my twenties now, and I find it hard enough.
WW: Well, I have to ask about my daughter’s favorite song of yours, “All These Things I Hate (Revolve Around Me).” Every time she’s pissed off, she cranks it up to about 110 decibels. Is that something you like hearing: That people use your music to vent to?
MT: Yeah. If people love the music for whatever reason, whether it’s a positive thing or an outlet of aggression, it’s something I still find really weird. I just write songs, or the band writes them together, and I usually don’t think about them affecting people in a certain way, or that people might look into it or read it differently from what I might write about. It’s just a weird thing. If people love the band, love the songs, to me that’s amazing. It’s something I can’t really get my head around because, I mean, that’s my job. It’s an amazing, amazing thing.
WW: What’s the music you play for yourself when you have to vent?
MT: Just stuff I’ve always listened to. I don’t stray too far away from the rock world, basically. But I’m not really the kind of guy who gets wound up or pissed off. I’m a very easy going, chilled-out kind of guy. I never really get pissed off. It takes something really, really big to get me going, and I’ve never really lost my temper in my life, to be honest. But I usually listen to the stuff I’ve listened to all my life. Metallica, Machine Head, Pantera, Slayer, Iron Maiden. All the stuff I grew up loving has stuck with me.
WW: If you’ve never lost your temper, that’s a pretty good argument for becoming a metal musician…
MT: Yeah. I used to put on Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power and Machine Head’s Burn My Eyes when I was a kid going to sleep. I’d turn on the stereo and just get into bed and it’d really chill me out and relax me.
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