The crowd at 2019’s Lollapalooza festival are primed with a remix of Korn’s Freak On A Leash, before Eric Whitney runs onstage. Corpsepainted and wearing a dress and fishnets, he starts rapping and jumping in front of a flashing black metal logo that spells out the name of his alter ego: Ghostemane. Before long, a fan is paraded out by an executioner and chained to a stretcher, where he will remain for the duration of the set, getting his face tattooed with their lyrics.
Eric might be at the forefront of what’s been dubbed trap metal, mixing beats and bars with industrial noise and aggressive vocals, but make no mistake – he’s one of us. Blending the sounds of his idol, Trent Reznor, with the aesthetics of Marilyn Manson and a love of hip hop, he’s bringing 90s metal culture into the 2020s, repackaging it for a new generation and blurring its boundaries. He’s supported fellow genre disruptors Code Orange, been mentored by Slipknot’s Clown, and recorded with legendary producer Ross Robinson. In short, he’s this decade’s king of the misfits.
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“It’s no secret that 90s nu metal stuff is a huge inspiration, because I feel like that’s when music was the Wild Wild West, and all these bands were experimenting and demonstrating their style to the fullest, and there were no real rules,” he explains, while he gets ready for a photoshoot today. He’s wearing pale make-up, so his eyes look “tired and sunken in as usual”, and a suit from a designer friend. “That was the pinnacle of the mixture of rap and rock, so to speak. There was Rage Against The Machine, Korn, Slipknot, you name it. The Golden Age is never gonna happen again, but it doesn’t hurt to show the kids who like my stuff what I came up on.”
Eric’s music education was initially patchy. He was raised in Florida and had what he terms “a bizarre upbringing”. When he was four years old, his father was in a car accident, leading to long-term back injuries that ended his career as a phlebotomist. His mum, who was pregnant with Eric’s brother at the time, became his dad’s full-time carer. With his parents always at home, there was little privacy for Eric, and his dad ruled the roost; he had to get straight A grades or risk his wrath, and there was no access to the internet.
At school, Eric aced tests but struggled with the social aspect. “I didn’t really have a lot of friends because I always found relating to other people to be sort of like this game that I wasn’t good at,” he recalls. “Something where there’s rules and there’s things to say and things you don’t say, and a way you’re supposed to act, and I just couldn’t figure it out. And it got to be really frustrating, and I ended up giving up, especially when I was in high school. I kept to myself most of the time.”
He did find escapism, though. When he was 13, he got into Green Day, NOFX, MxPx, Pennywise and the Warped Tour compilations. Then it was the output of Victory Records and metalcore. “I’d hear screaming in certain songs and think, ‘Damn, I wanna hear more of that stuff!’” At age 14 he picked up a guitar, and soon discovered In Flames via the Tony Hawk’s Underground soundtrack. But he had to be careful; bands with extreme imagery on their CD covers, like Slipknot, were banned by his dad. “Metal was taboo in my house, because it was too heavy,” he explains. “In the back of my mind, I knew one day that I’d fall in love with it truly.”
Eric was 17 when his dad passed away. Both of them had come down with pneumonia and, from what he can glean from family members, his dad took an accidental overdose of pain medication and became unresponsive. For Eric, it was a tumultuous time of conflicting emotions, as he’d lost someone who had been a constant presence in his life, yet a source of oppression. He stopped “giving a shit about making friends so much, and caring more about figuring myself out and cutting loose”, dying his hair and getting tattoos. The first, across his chest, was for his dad: words from a poem he used to read to Eric.
“It’s about this angel carrying a child, and then he hits a point where he’s coming of age, and he basically tells the child that he has to take it from here. And it always stuck with me, because I felt like until that point where he died, he was sort of… guiding, for lack of a better word… but really just controlling every bit of my life, actually. Once he was gone, I had to grow up, really quick.”
The poem is intended to be positive, but for Eric the meaning was bittersweet. “I didn’t really know how to feel,” he explains. “I obviously missed him to an extent, but I didn’t want him back. I was glad that he wasn’t there anymore. And I wouldn’t change that at all, because if it didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
What Eric is doing now is Ghostemane – a project designed to alchemise his diverse influences into something bleeding edge. Forthcoming eighth album Anti-Icon is the culmination of the identity he’s spent the last decade or so working out.
Following his transformation into a teenage alternative kid, Eric found hardcore via his musician cousin from New York, getting into the likes of Cold World, Trapped Under Ice and Turnstile, before connecting with people in his local scene. After leaving school he worked in telephone sales, but by 21 he was also in hardcore band Nemesis and their doom metal side-project, Seven Serpents, as well as being immersed in hip hop, death metal and black metal. While experimenting with solo music, he came up with a song called Ghostemane. The ‘Ghoste’ part came from an inside joke with his friends; due to social anxiety, he would often pull out of plans at the last minute, ghosting them. The other half references the 90s Southern phonk subgenre.
“It came from me being antisocial, basically. I thought it had a nice ring to it, and once I was able to talk more about myself, I had the plan to let it be known how antisocial I was and anxious,” he explains. “Kind of wearing the name as a badge of honour, basically, and not being ashamed of it.”
Early attempts to fuse rap with hardcore in 2014 were not good. “It felt too Frankensteined together, and too done just for the sake of doing it to sound cool, as opposed to making it a true expression,” he admits. But he slowly progressed, even moving to California and becoming part of a collective called Schemaposse with late rapper Lil Peep, until they disbanded in 2017. That year, he released a song called Hades, featuring the line, ‘95 Marilyn with less regard for my actions’, and it’s not much of a stretch to link new album title ‘Anti-Icon’ to Antichrist Superstar. “He’s obviously the godfather,” Eric smiles.
It wasn’t just the way Manson championed the world’s outsiders, exposing American society as the real sickness, but the way he transitioned from journalist to musician, essentially faking it to make it.
“It says in his book that even when he was younger and writing about his band in the local paper, the band didn’t even exist yet. I relate to that on a lot of levels, where you are trying to show somebody that you’re capable of something,” he says. “I took that energy, even before I did music. Some of the best jobs I got were because I said I had done something before, when I hadn’t. I just knew that I could.”
If Manson’s the godfather, then Trent Reznor’s a straight-up God. In 2018’s Ball Gag, Eric quotes Nine Inch Nails’ hip-grinding dancefloor-filler, Closer, rapping ‘Fuck You Like An Animal’ bumpin’ in the background.’ “He’s my number one icon,” confesses Eric. “I produce and write, and track all of my own stuff, and he obviously does too. He’s one of my biggest inspirations to start doing that and not rely on other people so much.”
But there’s more. After the infamous drug- fuelled pain of Closer’s parent record, The Downward Spiral, and its follow-up, The Fragile, Trent kicked his habits, got married and settled down, while reaching new creative peaks in his career and garnering mainstream success. “I think Trent Reznor is a huge inspiration, more so than anyone can be. I see myself with a family, obviously, and getting older, and not having any sort of substance abuse problems.”
Trent’s experiences strike a particular chord with Eric, who was addicted to opiates while he was making Anti-Icon. Acoustic album closer Falling Down is his most vulnerable and autobiographical song to date, and was made all the more challenging by the involvement of super-producer Ross Robinson, known for using controversial techniques to push his subjects into their most broken emotional states to get the best take possible.
“He’s really good at making you a headcase,” reveals Eric. “Just amplifying all the good things and all the bad things about yourself simultaneously, to where you have no choice but to give him what he wants. When we first starting tracking, I was feeling really terrible, physically. I was getting clean and going through withdrawals, and he was just getting in my head. I’ve got this guy trying to dig deeper and deeper and deeper, and trying to get me to spill out why I wrote this word instead of this other word. But, it ended up being the greatest recording experience I’ve ever had. I came out a better person.”
It’s because of this respect for music’s heritage and key players, and years spent in a state of self-examination and artistic development, writing songs and recording instruments, that the label ‘trap metal’ rankles with Eric. To him, it’s associated with Soundcloud rappers who get beats from YouTube, or merely scream over a distorted 808. He does, however, see the value in having a new scene like nu metal, to get people hyped about heavy music again. And if it has to be called trap metal? He’ll live with it.
“Regardless of whether I like it or not, it’s a thing that people are gonna say,” he admits. “When I talk to the Slipknot dudes, they tell me the exact same thing. Like, when they came out, and they busted their ass on all this music, people were calling it nu metal, and they were like, ‘What the fuck?!’ And I can see at the time, that would suck. People are gonna say what they’re gonna say I guess, and all that really matters is who’s actually listening.”
Even though Anti-Icon is Ghostemane’s eighth album, and he’s done a slew of side-projects and guest appearances, he’s content with the fact some metallers are only discovering him now. This is the perfect time, he insists. It’s his heaviest record yet, and the first time he feels fully himself. He’s even dropped the black metal logo style; as proud as he is of his influences – today he gushes over a test pressing of Darkthrone’s A Blaze In The Northern Sky, which has pride of place in his LA home studio – he feels established enough to move beyond borrowed signifiers. With another touch of Manson, he talks of how the gap between Eric and Ghostemane has narrowed, resulting in greater authenticity. In other words, what you’re getting is the real deal.
“I think I’ve subconsciously spent the last few years trying to integrate Eric with Ghostemane more to where they’re both the same person, and it doesn’t have to be this thing that I switch back and forth on,” he says. “It’s now become this thing where it’s the same guy.”