Nathan Johnson and his brother Griffith have played heavy music since they were teenagers and their emo band started using the basement of their church to practice in 2009. After cycling through a few handfuls of bands and reaching varying levels of success, they started Fox Lake in 2017 to play their own brand of hip-hop-infused metal.
It would be a misnomer to call Fox Lake a rap-metal band, however (and that genre, along with terms like nu-metal, is often used in a pejorative sense). Nathan Johnson’s vocals, although they owe a debt to hip-hop's golden era, forgo the jarring rap-then-yell nonsense of bands like Limp Bizkit. The hip-hop vibe Johnson brings is part of the sound rather than a silly sideshow in between screamy choruses.
“We're a heavy band first,” he says. “But we still wanted to add in elements that we thought were different and we thought were fun.”
Fox Lake played a holiday charity show last year that included other heavy Denver bands, and covered a Linkin Park track for the occasion. Johnson says the band takes some of its sonic inspiration from that band, though he sees Fox Lake’s current sound as being heavier. Rage Against the Machine and Body Count also play a role. Johnson also credits rappers like Notorious B.I.G. (his personal favorite) as influential to his vocal stylings.
“As far as the heavy parts and the overall song structure, there’s a lot of other straight-up hardcore bands like Trapped Under Ice and Kublai Khan and Gideon,” he says. “[We're] throwing that kind of songwriting in with something that has more accessible parts.”
The band, which also includes Zach Swafford and Brandon Kemp, inked a one-album deal earlier this year with the Modern Empire record label. Silence & Violence, Fox Lake’s first album, drops on October 23.
“It’s kind of a good deal for both sides,” Johnson says. “There’s no real risk. We’re not in it for a long term. They’re only in it for one album if things don’t work out.”
True to the hip-hop albums of yesteryear, guest vocalists appear on the eight-song record, and Johnson included a short quasi-instrumental interlude, “deKoevend Park,” that he composed. The track wouldn’t feel out of place on a late-’90s indie-rap mixtape.
“We all love hip-hop in the band, but especially me,” he says. “I love ’90s rap. I wanted a real Biggie type of vibe to it. I wanted a real boom-bap New York cassette beat.”
The album’s premiere single, “Tunnel Vision,” best represents the band’s sound, according to Johnson, because it’s not the group's heaviest song nor the most accessible. The lyrics offer classic hip-hop bravado; the bandmembers don’t care whether or not you like the music, because they know it’s good.
“We feel like this one is the perfect mix,” Johnson says. “It’s pretty dark. But there’s a solid hip-hop type of groove in the verses. It’s still aggressive. Musically, we thought, this is the blueprint. This is right down the middle of what we want to be.”
He adds that he wanted people to hear that message first, because the members of Fox Lake have been busting their asses in a Denver basement for three years.
“If you don’t like it, that’s okay, but we grinded for it,” he says. “I think we deserve it. I think we deserve to be signed, because the product is good. The music is good.”
Aside from the victory of getting signed and releasing a new album, the future is uncertain, mostly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson says that in a normal year, they would have gone on tour to promote the new record. He would like to see the band go to Europe if it could play a festival or get on a tour of the continent in the near future.
“If we can’t, we're writing right now,” he says. “If COVID gets worse in the winter, like some people say it might, we're ready to go full digital and try to possibly release an EP and release something else in early winter or early next year.”
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