Primitive Man's Ethan Lee McCarthy on the Brutality of 2020

Primitive Man's new album, Immersion, will be released August 14 on Relapse Records.
Primitive Man's new album, Immersion, will be released August 14 on Relapse Records. Alvino Salcedo
During the week of March 10, the members of Denver doom-metal trio Primitive Man went into Juggernaut Audio to record songs for their new album, Immersion. Around the same time, people were panic-buying at grocery stores as the coronavirus spread nationwide.

Primitive Man singer and guitarist Ethan Lee McCarthy says that he, bassist Jonathan Campos and drummer Joe Linen were panicked themselves while making the brutal and visceral record, which drops August 14 on Pennsylvania metal label Relapse Records. There were times that McCarthy even cried while recording vocals.

“We were all scared, making plans with one another, calling on our friends, saying, ‘If shit gets bad in the streets and we lose power, this is where we’re going to meet,’” McCarthy says. “I mean, this shit is fucking crazy, man, because I'm sitting here trying to think about my community, my close people. And because people were panic-buying and being maniacs to one another and all this kind of shit, it was just looking bad. My dad is an older dude with health problems, and I’d go over and take care of him. Just a lot of panicking — and I think that comes out on the record.”

McCarthy, who says making the album was “as raw as it gets,” also penned the track “Consumption” during the session. As he explains it, it's about how “in America, you can't trust anything you read or hear or the food you're eating or the air you're breathing or the people next door to you. There's this general air of mistrust and unease and disinformation.”

In the song, McCarthy dramatically poses this question: “Are we living on the planet as a society, or are we living in a fucking garbage dump like vermin? Because we're certainly hitting the road of garbage dumps.”

It’s a sentiment reminiscent of the scene in the 1987 Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket — one of McCarthy’s favorite movies — when Vincent D’Onofrio’s character says, “I am in a world of shit,” just before sticking a rifle in his mouth.

“I keep thinking about that,” McCarthy says. “I don't want America to turn into Vietnam, a civil war.”

McCarthy, a person of color, supports the Black Lives Matter protests.

“I’m seriously down for that, but I also feel like, man, it'd be a lot easier on us if we weren't getting tear-gassed and worrying about coronavirus, getting your ass beat, and worrying about if the cop beating your ass has coronavirus. And then going to jail and getting coronavirus. It’s like coronavirus is this overreaching blanket that just soils everything.”

Echoes of the virus also appear in the video for “Menacing,” directed by Neil C. Barrett in Lubbock, Texas.

“The idea of the song is that I’m in the asylum, and I'm asking the unhinged whirlwind of chaos that controls life to guide me directly while I’m trying to follow my dreams and do all the things that I want to do and just achieve my goals...get through life as good as I can with the aid of this chaos that pervades everything,” McCarthy says.

The song is also about how the places you go and the people you meet shape your character, he adds. The gritty black-and-white video about the horror of coronavirus-era retail focuses on a guy who works at a secondhand store and has to deal with inconsiderate customers, like people who refuse to wear masks.

“This man is dealing with inconsiderate shithead people and shitty-ass bosses, and he just snaps and just becomes this monster that he's been trying to hold inside for who knows how long,” McCarthy says. “And that's bad. And, you know, the masks are in there just because of the times that we're living in.”

McCarthy says the song and video are essentially saying “Don’t let the world ruin you and turn you into a villain.”

Over the past year, even before the virus started spreading around the world, the members of Primitive Man were dealing with deaths of family members, some of whom died while the band was touring overseas. In addition, McCarthy says, the bandmates toured so much over the past four years that they started to lose touch with other family and friends, which was stressful.

Although writing, recording and touring have all helped McCarthy get through dark periods in his life, making Immersion — which deals with themes such as existential crises, a general distrust of one another, and the current state of the world — was different because he’d walk out of the studio and into a pandemic, which led to the cancellation of American tour dates and big festivals in Europe into 2021, including the Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, in the Netherlands.

“It was probably going to be the best year of our lives,” he says. “At first that was what was bumming me the most, but now I just want everyone that I know to get out of this shit alive.”

While touring in support of previous albums, he says, he could scream about all the shit, get it out and come out the other end better.

“But because all of this happened, all the way up to the minute we recorded it — and then when we recorded it — we walked out to an even worse situation,” he says. “I just feel like I've been in, like, a professional nightmare for the last twelve months. But the thing that I also know is that it's bad for other people, too, so you have to think about them and yourself.”

McCarthy says he feels a lot of guilt about releasing Immersion during a time of a pandemic and protests, but things were already in motion before both of them hit.

“The people that I'm working with didn’t want to pump the brakes,” he says. “They've already spent the money. I felt bad about it, but then some bands that I love released some things, and that's helped me get through this. For that 30 or 45 minutes, it’s nice to have an escape. So I'm hoping that this can do that for people and be positive in that way.”

McCarthy, who’s lost family members over the past year and deals with depression, says he has no choice but to try to stay positive.

“The one thing I'm looking forward to when this shit is over is the level of celebration and partying and reuniting,” McCarthy says. "It's going be like some shit I have never seen. And that's what's keeping me going every day. Despite all this depressing shit, I'm holding on to seeing everybody and getting back to it.”

Hear more from Primitive Man at
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon