It’s early afternoon and we’re winding through the blinking neon monoliths of Las Vegas’s legendary Fremont Street for a photoshoot with Of Mice & Men, one of this decade’s most popular metal bands. Today is a day of firsts. It’s the first day of the first annual Las Rageous music festival – a two-day line-up of rock and metal acts, this year featuring Godsmack and Avenged Sevenfold as the respective headliners. This is also OM&M’s first show after the December, 2016 departure of their wildly beloved frontman, Austin Carlile. As such, with tonight’s set, the band will write the first line of the latest chapter of their story.
Chatting among themselves, the guys betray no hint of nerves in the lead-up to the show. In fact, the band are joking, relaxed and generally having one hell of a day. “Vegas has treated us really well,” says drummer Valentino ‘Tino’ Arteaga with a triumphant grin. “I’m up a couple hundred bucks from the tables and Aaron went onto one with only five dollars and walked away with over 100!”
In the glitzy buzz of Sin City and the frantic pace of a music festival, hours pass like minutes. The photoshoot ends and as the band chill backstage before their set, longtime bassist – and now frontman – Aaron Pauley beams as he shows his parents the video for their new song, Unbreakable, on his phone. Then it’s time for OM&M to take the stage, officially inaugurating their new era. They open with Bones Exposed and proceed to administer an unrelenting 12-song beatdown that sees Aaron step confidently into his new role as the band’s focal new point. Behind Tino’s propulsive timekeeping and the unerring fretwork of guitarists Phil Manansala and Alan Ashby, they elicit a cacophonous roar from the Vegas crowd. As the final note still rings, the sweaty, ecstatic faces of both band and audience squarely establish that the new era of OM&M has begun on a high note.
A couple of days later, we circle back with Aaron and Tino, who are still buzzing in the afterglow. “I’m just relishing in the excitement of new music,” Tino tells us. “This is a new era for the band and we want to play as many festivals and get out in front of as many people as we possibly can.
“I won’t say I wasn’t nervous; I definitely felt the butterflies,” he adds. “But you always do. We hadn’t played a show in well over six months, so it was a super-cathartic release of everything we’ve spent the last five months working towards.” Placing it all in context, he then offers by way of afterthought: “There were certain times last year when we were looking at the prospect of not playing another show together.”
Indeed, it was about six months ago when Austin gathered his bandmates and revealed that he could no longer carry on in Of Mice & Men. The news wasn’t entirely surprising. The singer has always been vocal about having Marfan Syndrome, a gruelling genetic disorder that leaves him in excruciating chronic pain. He’d also sustained a slate of incomprehensibly brutal injuries on the road in the past year, leading to the cancellation of a tour – the latest of many stumbling blocks for a band who haven’t fully capitalised on their potential to become one of modern metal’s biggest names.
“We had to cancel that tour because he could no longer perform,” Tino explains. “That’s terrifying for us too, because why would we ever want to put our friend through that? The truth is that his life is put on the line every time he screams.”
The understanding that Austin would one day need to step down from his role didn’t diminish the pulverising effect on his bandmates. “For a lot of fans, this is an event in the history of the band,” Aaron explains. “For us, these are life events. We formed a family – a brotherhood. I’ll never forget the night that he told us that he wasn’t going to be able to continue. We all just hugged each other and tears were shed,” says Aaron. “He had to make a decision to better his life and we stood 110% behind that,” Tino continues. “You should never have to put your life at risk for this.”
Austin has since relocated to Costa Rica, and in the past few months he’s posted a series of comments from his Instagram account that some might interpret as implying that his departure was not entirely health-related. In one post he wrote: “No, I will no longer be writing with them, one of the reasons I left. They weren’t going to let me write what I wanted on [the] next record. That’s not gonna happen. I will write what I want despite what that means giving up.” As rumours swirled that the singer might have been silenced due to his deeply held Christian beliefs, Alan replied on Twitter: “Guys. Nobody kicked anybody out. Austin has always used religious influences in his lyrics. Stop making shit up! #AlternativeFacts”.
For his part, Aaron points out: “We had just put out a record that we all poured our hearts and souls into, and we put that out in the fall. Three or four months later he had to leave the band. At the time he left, we hadn’t even really discussed writing new stuff because we had just put out Cold World.” “We’re still here for him,” Tino says, “and we’re still here for each other. We did all of this together. People try and make stuff up and think one thing or another but the actuality of the situation is that we still support him.”
After absorbing Austin’s news, they took a few days to regroup individually. Eventually, Tino explains, they went back to what felt most familiar. “We gave each other a few days and even before talking about band stuff, we were like, ‘Hey, you guys wanna get together at our rehearsal space and just jam?’ Everyone was like, ‘Yeah, cool!’”
While the search for Austin’s replacement hadn’t even begun, somewhere in the middle of that jam session, it came to an end. “I remember that we just jammed for hours,” Aaron says. “Then we’re like, ‘Let’s play O.G. Loko or Bones Exposed or something. We started jamming through it and I started doing some vocals and I feel like we all had this moment where we looked at each other and we were all like, ‘Yeah, this has to keep going.’”
Aaron turned out to be a natural choice; after all, he’d been providing backup vocals for years and screamed in his old band, Jamie’s Elsewhere. “Aaron can adapt really well with his skills and talents,” says Tino. “It’s a situational thing with us – if we’ve gotta step up to the plate, we will. Aaron’s crushing it and he’s doing it with ease. It’s mind-blowing.” Their lineup questions settled, the band have wasted zero time getting down to writing new music. “There’s a lot of heavy songs that we’re working on that are either already written and demo’ed or that we’re in the process of writing,” says Aaron. For sonic reference points, Aaron describes the music as drawing from the heavier elements of Restoring Force, The Flood and their self-titled debut. “I think what we’re doing right now, which is the most important thing that we can, is really just honing in on the elements of what makes our music sound like our music,” he explains.
Earlier today, they released a well-received video for Unbreakable, their first new song as a quartet, and soon they’ll be playing a run of US festivals before jetting off to those in Europe, including a slot at Download. It’s hard to believe that just six months ago, they were wondering if their journey as a band had come to an end. Instead, they stand poised for the next chapter of their legacy and the limitless opportunities it holds. As always, they’re taking nothing for granted.
“It’s time to nut up or shut up,” grins Tino. “We’ve gotta rise to the occasion because our fans need the music. We need the music.”
In the face of seemingly insurmountable – and at times, deadly – challenges, Of Mice & Men have found ways to not just survive, but to thrive amid chaos, by leaning on one another, by putting in the work and by doubling down when others might cash out. Reflecting on it all, Aaron says, “A lot of bands don’t get a second lease on life when they lose somebody as impactful as Austin. We’ve got a new lease on life. You can spend so much time thinking about the future and then you’re finally there, and you don’t remember how you got there. We’re just taking a conscious approach to enjoying the here and now more than where we hope to be.”
With their first show as a quartet done and dusted, a new song in the bank and a few months of touring ahead to reconnect with their fans, the guys exude powerful senses of both optimism and gratitude. It’s taken years of hard work, some dark times and lots of soul searching to finally realise that all along, they’ve been sitting on four aces.
OF MICE & MEN PLAY DOWNLOAD ON SATURDAY, JUNE 10
Unbreakable director Max Moore on putting together the band’s most important video yet
How did you come up with the video’s post-apocalyptic concept?
Max: “Myself, the band, management and label got on a call and I heard the guys out on what general vibe they were trying to hit with the song. From there, I wrote up a treatment and sent it over. The guys loved it, and seven days later or something insane, we were all in the desert shooting it. For the concept itself, I wanted to play off of a dystopian kind of Mad Max vibe. Overall, I think the team came together to make something pretty successful and powerful.”
This is your fourth collaboration with OM&M. How are they to work with?
“Yeah, we go a few years back. My first video with them was Bones Exposed in 2014. So working with them was a breeze. Everyone, from the band to the crew and cast, was all super-chill and eager to make the best music video we could. A total team effort!”
What was your favourite part of the project?
“Honestly, my favourite part of the project was seeing it all done for the first time. I could lie and say I love shooting or writing or whatever. Really though, watching a video I make totally completed for the first time is always a magical moment, and this video was no exception. I also love release day. It’s super-cool to watch fans pour out love and support over a new video.”
Tino tells us you were working with a busted foot. What happened?
“God, ha ha! Yeah the day before I flew out for the shoot I dropped a weight on my toe and broke it. For sure not the most ideal situation when you’re expected to run around the desert with a heavy camera for 12 hours the next day. My tolerance for pain is very low, ha ha! But I got through it!”