Of Mice & Men: The Man Who Could Be King

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Basking in the sunshine on a blazing afternoon in Hollywood, Austin Carlile removes his designer sunglasses and tells a short story which offers an illuminating glimpse into his character. Of Mice & Men’s frontman was contacted recently by one of his 700,000+ Instagram followers, a young lady who was having a hard time dealing with the passing of her mother just one week earlier. “I don’t know what to do,” the heartbroken teenager wrote. “I don’t think I can handle this.”

Having lost his own mother in 2005, when he was 17 years old, Austin could relate. The singer tapped out a reply.

“I wrote, ‘You can’t hold it in, you have to let yourself feel these emotions and then let it out,’” he recalls. “I said: ‘Run. Play basketball. Go for a hike. Go do boxing. Write. Read. Run into the middle of the street and scream your head off. Yell at the sky and cry your heart out. Do whatever you need to do. But you need to release it, because if you hold it in, this will feel so much worse down the road.’”

When Austin’s own mother passed away, suffering a heart attack related to a genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome, the young man was, by his own admission, disconsolate – lost, frightened and bitterly angry. He remembers pulling out a sketchbook and inking a picture of a knotted noose hanging from a workbench: in stark type the words beneath read: “I wish I could join her.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that,” he says quietly. “My whole life had been turned upside down. I hated God, I hated my family, I hated my mum for leaving me… and I hated myself. It felt like I had literally nothing. So I just wanted to go see my mom and say, ‘Fuck all this bullshit.’”/o:p

When it came time to pen the lyrics for his band’s current album, Restoring Force, Austin chose to revisit this bleak period in his life, to consider words that may have helped draw his teenage self back from the abyss. He recalled being back in his bedroom, curtains drawn, the volume control on his stereo cranked hard as Jonathan Davis, Chester Bennington and Corey Taylor spat words of defiance and rage, drawn from their own darkest hours, that mirrored how he felt.

Soon enough, thoughts and feelings, dormant for so long, began to coalesce into phrases in his notebooks, began to form lyrics such as the centrepiece of the album’s penultimate track, You’re Not Alone: “When it feels like all is lost and there’s no guide that’s left to prove it, take a look inside, cherish your life and live before you lose it…”

“At the toughest times in my life music said, ‘It’s OK to feel this way,’ and it made me see that I wasn’t alone,” he explains. “It gave me hope. If it wasn’t for me relating to those songs, as dark and grotesque as some of them were, I wouldn’t be here now.”/o:p

You might look at Austin now – with his expensive ink and chiselled features, his Hollywood smile and easy charm, with his stunning girlfriend, rock star mates and fast-rising band – and conclude that here is a young man with the world at his feet. But his journey to this point has been fraught. Which is why when Of Mice & Men step onto concert stages, for Austin this isn’t about ego or showboating but making a difference; about uniting, empowering and elevating, about throwing two tattooed arms around the world and drawing his audience close. For Austin Carlile, this shit is personal./o:p

Austin shouldn’t actually be in Los Angeles today. According to Of Mice & Men’s tour schedule, this afternoon he and his bandmates – vocalist/bassist Aaron Pauley, guitarists Alan Ashby and Phil Manansala and drummer Valentino Arteaga – should be in New York, sitting backstage in Brooklyn’s state-of-the-art sports and entertainment arena the Barclays Center, getting ready to warm up 18,000 rock fans for a headline appearance by his good friends Linkin Park. That itinerary, however, has now been torn up, as Linkin Park were forced to cancel the latest leg of their Hunting Party tour so that frontman Chester Bennington could undergo immediate surgery on an ankle injury. You may be familiar with the expression ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry…’

“We’ll tour with Linkin Park again,” says Austin sanguinely. “It’s going to happen. Everything messes up for everyone, sometime, somehow, somewhere, some way. It’s how you deal with it that matters, how you go on from that. We’ve always been good at negotiating the obstacles thrown in our path.”

This resilience was instilled in the singer from an early age. Born on September 27, 1987, Austin had an itinerant upbringing, shunted from state to state – Ohio, Texas, Colorado, Florida – as his parents chased work and their own life plans. At one point the youngster lived in an Arkansas orphanage, as his parents, committed Christians, played mom and pop to seven kids in state care. Austin recalls his parents being loving but strict (“I’d get my mouth washed out with soap – literally; I was spanked, the whole nine yards”) with a strong work ethic and an unshakeable faith in a higher power, even as their own blessed union began to slowly disintegrate.

“They showed me tough love, and at times I despised them for it, but that made me who I am today,” he muses. “Now that I’m an adult I respect them for it and I appreciate it: they were doing it out of love and so their son didn’t grow up to become a P.O.S. [Piece Of Shit]”/o:p

Religion gave the Carlile family a sense of stability and continuity as they flitted across state lines. Old man Carlile led worship in church assemblies and mentored church choir groups. Running in tandem with these activities, Austin’s father hosted a classic rock radio show, and the youngster would join his dad in the DJ booth each week, picking out songs by Queen, Rush, Pink Floyd and Zeppelin from well-worn vinyl. It gave Austin a great musical education, but – still trying to find himself amid the turbulence of adolescence – it also fostered in him a desire to find artists who spoke for his own generation.

“I got kinda misquoted recently when it was reported that I said that bands like Metallica and Pantera were my dad’s music,” explains the singer, who wasn’t even born when genre-defining albums such as Reign In Blood, Master Of Puppets and Appetite For Destruction were released. “That made it sound like a negative thing, but I meant it literally. I’d wake up in the morning and see him headbanging along to P.O.D. Hard rock and metal was the soundtrack to our lives, but at the same time, not all these bands spoke directly to my life.”

When Austin speaks of his teenage years, it’s hard not to wince at his recollections. Because he was forever the new kid at school, he was forced time and time again to face down the bullies and jocks who viewed his befriending of school misfits as a betrayal of the promise he displayed on the baseball diamond. Looking back at that time now, he can list his myriad injuries (“I had my arm broken, my cheek broken, my wrist broken…”) dispassionately, but the mental scars clearly lingered long after physical ones had healed.

“It’s really hard to find friends when you’re trying to find yourself,” he says with a shrug. “I was picked on a lot, and I did my fair share of fighting back. I’d come home from school and write when I was sad and pissed off after getting beat up, writing the most violent, angry, hateful lyrics: ‘Take your collar from around your shirt, put a noose on it, beat the shit out of you and hang you in the locker so everybody can see…’”

And then, scouring the racks in a Walmart store near his home in Buena Vista, Colorado on a shopping trip with his mother, the teenager discovered bands such as Linkin Park, Korn and Slipknot, giants of 21st-century metal, and found a new musical language to call his own.

“I’d hear the hurt and anger in bands like Korn and Slipknot, and I’d connect with it,” he explains. “I’ve been a victim of self-harm, of addiction, of not wanting to live any more… and seeing a way out. I’ve been there. I’ve had the times when I’ve thought, ‘No one will miss me,’ or ‘No one will even know I’m gone.’ So that music was my ‘fuck you’ to everyone. To the bullies, to my family, to God, to myself… It was everything to me.”/o:p

In the wake of his parents’ divorce, and his mother’s passing, Austin too was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, ending his dreams of making it as a professional baseball player. Music became his refuge, and he began to seek out new blood on the underground circuit, a Sepultura/Throwdown show in Denver delivering his first proper taste of mosh pit culture. Punk bands such as Anti-Flag, Poison The Well and Bouncing Souls rolled into town on the Warped tour, while heavier acts such as Tool, Mudvayne and Deftones broadened his horizons still further.

Asked to nominate who he sees as his comrades-in-arms on this new campaign, Austin pauses. “I’d rather not pigeonhole it,” he finally begins, “and I don’t want to leave anyone out. But you can see bands like Bring Me The Horizon and A Day To Remember and even poppier bands, like Pierce The Veil and Sleeping With Sirens, and we’re all here and supporting each other. If there’s a load of rock bands coming together to say, ‘What can we do to take this next step?’ then we have a chance. I mean, Eminem, Avenged Sevenfold and Katy Perry were on Warped.”

The sentence is left hanging, but Austin’s ambitions are all too clear. But it’s what the singer says next that illustrates that, for him, this crusade is about much more than personal glory.

“Music got me to the other side,” he continues. “It may have been a bumpy ride, and I may have made a lot of mistakes, but I got out on the other side. And it’s because of music which meant everything to a 17-year-old kid. That’s what I want to be for these kids. Because I know that what people go through sucks. There’s a new song we have called Broken Generation, and it touches upon that, telling kids that they’re going to be OK.”

As his bandmates fool around for the cameras in the studio behind him, Austin wipes beads of sweat from his forehead. “I’m here for the ride, man,” he smiles. “Everything that happens from now on, I’m ready for, and we’re ready for. I don’t see a ceiling for this band. I think we’re only just beginning to hit our stride.”

RESTORING FORCE: FULL CIRCLE IS OUT NOW VIA RISE. OF MICE & MEN TOUR THE UK WITH THE AMITY AFFLICTION AND VOLUMES THIS MONTH/o:p

Austin picks the albums that made him the man he is today…

A PERFECT CIRCLE: THIRTEENTH STEP (Virgin, 2003)

The Nurse Who Loved Me, Lullaby, Pet, Noose…. that whole album! I love A Perfect Circle. Finding this in Walmart as a teenager was definitely a moment that changed me.”

LINKIN PARK: HYBRID THEORY (Warners, 2000)

“When I first heard of Hybrid Theory it was just before Meteora came out so I’d kinda put the two albums together for this, but man, once I heard this I was a fan for life. That we hang out with them now, and that they invite me and Aaron onstage with them every night on tour still blows my mind.”

MARILYN MANSON: ANTICHRIST SUPERSTAR (Nothing/Interscope, 1996)

“I don’t listen to this that regularly now, but when I was a kid I was so into it. It was a great album for a teenager.”

POISON THE WELL: YOU COME BEFORE YOU (Atlantic, 2003)

“They were such a great band. I used to listen to this and the album before it, Tear From The Red, religiously. I loved how real it was, and how heavy… though perhaps it’s a little softer compared to some of the metal bands that I listened to at the time.”

NO WARNING: ILL BLOOD (Bridge 9 Records, 2002)

“This is a great punk rock/hardcore record. I loved this record, it’s kinda Agnostic Front/Ceremony-style fast-paced punk. My old band actually covered the song Short Fuse off it.”

Of Mice And Men aren’t the only stateside band tapping on metal’s glass ceiling right now…

A DAY TO REMEMBER

The Floridian hook-merchants’ penchant for pop punk-skewed choruses may leave a sickly taste upon many metal diehards’ palates, but with each UK tour heading to bigger and bigger venues and a third-from-top spot secured on Download’s main stage this year, don’t count against them taking on arenas on these shores very soon.

BEARTOOTH

While Beartooth may be a relatively new name amongst these bands, What Caleb Did Next has proven to hit the mark both Stateside and on these shores, with last year’s Disgusting proving to be one of 2014’s best debuts. Consider this space watched.

MOTIONLESS IN WHITE

Their image and goth/industrial-hijacking take on modern metalcore has made them a unique proposition in today’s scene, and after a UK co-headline tour with Italian metal mainstays Lacuna Coil wrapping up a hugely successful album cycle for Reincarnate, they look ready and able to make a significant step up into metal’s big leagues from hereon in.

PIERCE THE VEIL

These Californians have become poster children for the rather divisive breed of scene-splicing, Warped Tour-nurtured bands that inhabit our world, but their knack for a killer ear worm is undeniable, and recent stints supporting the like of Bring Me The Horizon have them nailed-on as a band to do big, big things.

WE CAME AS ROMANS

Another metalcore middleweight punching their way towards superweight status, 2013’s Tracing Back Roots saw the Michigan crew land a not-too-shabby number eight spot on the Billboard 200, ensuring that the follow-up, anticipated this year, should make waves.