Bloodied, shirtless, and lashed to a wooden cross, Cane Hill frontman Elijah Witt plays the role of a modern messiah. His eyes look upwards, while half-naked women lay their hands on him…
“I’m fervently anti-religion,” he says today in a Southern drawl, explaining why he posed like Christ in the band’s controversial video, (The New) Jesus. We are in a photo studio recreating the look for our shoot, trying to get inside the mind of a man who has led his band to the forefront of the modern metal scene, becoming one of our world’s most fascinating – and confusing – young figureheads in the process. He continues: “The books were written centuries ago by people in power to help maintain their power, as well as promote a way of living that would sustain life, right? But if you look at the 10 Commandments, or all of the weird rules in the Old Testament, it’s all just survival in a world that humankind wasn’t really prepared for. If you died at 30, that was an old age.”
This afternoon, 22-year-old Elijah is stoned. As he talks about his views, he sometimes forgets what he’s saying mid-sentence, massaging his forehead as if to help the thoughts flow. In line with his God complex, his band have been tweeting their own 10 Commandments for our current society. They’re neatly designed in black squares with photos of Elijah in the background, in the style of inspirational memes.
“We’re just trying to get people to think,” he explains. “Just think at all. It’s 2016, and you can access anything, but we’re all addicted to narcissistic, ego-bloating social media. So fill it with something challenging. And it has to be dumbed down.”
He fails to see the contradiction in this, or the irony – a frontman seeking favour by pushing his own worldview on people.
Biblical even in name, Elijah was exposed to religion from a young age. He was raised in the “podunk, backwards town” of Folsom, Louisiana, until he was 12, when his dad left the family. He and his mum moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he attended a school called Liberty Christian Academy.
“They taught us that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, that homosexuality is actually caused by demons, that dinosaur bones were put in the ground by the Devil to confuse you… it’s all pretty sick stuff,” he says, unable to conceal his disgust.
“My grandma believes that, my uncles believe that, and I’m sitting there as a 12-year-old learning this. It sounds
worse than Cinderella.”
Though nominally Christian, he retained a healthy scepticism for creationism, and at 14 he moved to another area of Louisiana. When he went to college in New Orleans at 18, he took the opportunity to reinvent himself, letting go of any residual religious beliefs and becoming a caricature of a jock. He drank heavily, flaked out on his friends, and had damaging one-night stands, saying offensive things and bailing after he’d got what he wanted.
“I was never cool as a kid; I didn’t really have any friends,” he confesses. “So when I got to college, I started acting a different way, thinking it would make me more friends. I was a disgusting human being, a piece of shit. I was obnoxious, rude, loud… it didn’t work out the way I thought it would.”
He was also in an unhealthy, harmful on-off relationship with his high school girlfriend. “She would break up with me, then call me when she wanted someone to be emotional with, or threaten suicide and tell me if I didn’t come and see her, she would kill herself,” he remembers. “So she put this weird weight on my shoulders where I felt like I had to be there, but at the same time it was making me physically and mentally very sick. I lost a lot of weight, my hair was falling out – the whole nine yards.”
Did Elijah feel like he had been abused in that relationship?
“Ahh, whatever. No. Maybe. I don’t know…” he trails off, glancing down. It’s hard to tell how he feels, because he looks high. “[She was] a little manipulative, maybe, but I’m also not a fucking saint. I’m a manipulative person and I’m aware of it. With exes, I’ve pretended to have mental breakdowns in fights, and that way I win.”
It was another girlfriend, his latest ex, who he credits with changing him during the past three years. She would point out his flaws, and challenge his opinions on male and female roles.
“She was a very, very, well-read feminist,” he explains. “As a guy, I can’t even begin to understand it. It’s called intersectional feminism. Clearly my opinions are only based off what I could possibly know from being told. That’s why the biggest problem is that nobody tells guys. Because we’re never going to experience it, we’re never going to feel that way.”
Debut album Smile is the sound of Elijah reacting to his past, all wrapped up in slick, catchy nu metal. His voice often wavers like his musical hero, Jonathan Davis – indeed, last month Hammer’s Luke Morton noted in a mixed review that the album feels like a “saunter down memory lane”. The centrepiece is (The New) Jesus, which rolls along like Marilyn Manson’s Mobscene, Elijah urging listeners to follow him instead of the old God.
But who is The New Jesus? Elijah smirks like a naughty kid, points at himself, and throws the peace sign. Do you see yourself as a preacher? “No.” But you’re telling people how to live their lives. “Hmm.”
He’s uncomfortable with being interrogated. When asked why his band should be telling people what to do, he becomes frustrated and spells out his thoughts slowly.
“We are trying to offer suggestions to people about how they could live their lives, that would be in resemblance to how we feel they should live their lives, to make the world a better place,” he emphasises. “I’m clearly fucking not God. I’m flesh, bones, blood, and when I die, I turn to dust, like everybody else. I’m not a very special person. But whatever.”
Elijah is self-deprecating and struggles with “wicked anxiety”, which he tries to control with weed and Xanax, but admits he also has an ego and would love to lead a cult. While it’s hard to argue with the liberal sentiments of his ‘suggestions’, dig deeper into his views and problems emerge. On St. Veronica, he puts himself in the shoes of a girl stuck in a controlling relationship, and the message is clear: treating women as inferior is wrong. But that leads into Cream Pie, written to condemn sexual censorship, which includes a sample from an adult movie.
“It’s of a very, very, very large woman, which was something we did on purpose,” he says. “With a large woman that you’re not interested in, you’re not attracted to, the idea of them having sex isn’t even a thing to you. They probably don’t have sex, as far as you’re concerned, just based on how they look. But everybody likes sex.”
What he sees as worthy and subversive reveals a wrong-headed attitude; it hasn’t occurred to him that people are attracted to bodies of all types, or that plus-size women might not need defending, or that her pleasure could have been a performance for camera. Though in a conversation about porn, he does complain that it’s geared towards male pleasure.
At the heart of the record is a streak of nihilism. On Fountain Of Youth, he advocates a “live fast, die young” philosophy of pushing yourself to the limit before you get too old. Onstage, he lets out all his aggression against a backdrop of downtuned guitars. Label Cane Hill nu metal, however, and you will be met with a defiant smile.
“It’s not nu metal!” he protests. “Nu metal is so fucking angry, but, like, dude-bro angry, like macho man. And I’m fucking not. It’s hard rock, goddamn!”
He may not feel dude-bro angry, but the few shows they’ve played in the UK have seen ripped guys from the nu metal generation colliding with teenagers who’ve never heard anything like it. If people are only out for the moshpits, there is a danger their messaging will get lost.
“That’s fine,” Elijah says. “They walk away from it with something. And if they pick up the album, they’ll hear the lyrics. I don’t know if it’ll make them think about anything, but what it boils down to is I do genuinely enjoy just making music people enjoy. If they have the same mindset as me, fine. If they don’t, still fine. Everybody’s gonna think what they want in the end.”
What if those people have horrible political views or treat women badly?
“That question sucks,” he says, shaking his head. “Because I don’t like them as people, but they have great taste in music, so I don’t know. Any Trump supporter can suck my fucking dick, and a wife-beater can suck my fucking dick, too.”
What would you do if someone assaulted a woman at one of your shows, as happened to a female journalist at a Baroness gig recently?
“I’d throw a beer bottle at his face,” he glares. “I wouldn’t hesitate to do that, and I hope no one else would.”
Elijah Witt is not the saviour of humanity. He’s a self-professed “shitty person” with a strong sense of autonomy, who’s still working out how to see past his own sphere of experience. And while opening discussions about religious freedom, gender equality and sexual liberation is certainly commendable, his ego prevents him from delving into the complexities of the issues. He’s perceptive enough, though, to understand he might not have got everything right yet.
“I don’t think people who are good enough as is should be alive,” he says. “People who are complacent with how they are. I’m aware that my thoughts aren’t always OK, and I’m always very happy to fix that.”
In a time of political division and social uncertainty, metal needs bands who can make people think. If Cane Hill can keep evolving their brand of evangelism, they might one day have a shot.
Smile is out now via Rise. Cane Hill will tour the UK in November and December
Cane Hill’s new Commandments laid bare
“Being sexual shouldn’t be a taboo or looked down upon for being enjoyed. It should be embraced and explored without shame.”
“Keep your faith if you want, but be open-minded when facts are presented to you, even if it challenges what you’ve been taught to believe.”
Be Happy With Yourself
“If you think something is wrong with you, it’s because you’ve been conditioned to do so. Remember, without ideological manipulation, concepts such as sexuality, appearance and race would not exist.”
“Somewhere along the way, people decided that hoarding material objects and money were more important than human life. If you have excess and someone has nothing, share!”
“Stop demonising women who have sex with multiple partners and glorifying men who do the same thing. Women and men both enjoy sex.”
Give A Fuck
“If something bothers you, make an effort to change it. Use your words and actions in every aspect of life without wavering, because one person can make a big difference.”
“Your mind is a beautiful thing. It has the capacity to be ever expanding, so never close it off. Embrace new ideas and explore them daily.”
“If you have not been a part of an afflicted or discriminated group, you can’t truly understand their hardships. Listen to them, understand their experiences, and then work positively with them to improve their lives.”
Live For Now
“The minute you stop banking on an afterlife is the moment you will understand how vital every moment you have is. Spend time with loved ones as much as you can.”
“You’re not always right. You’re probably wrong a lot of the time. Accept it. Grow from it. Move on as a better person.”
To see the full commandments, visit @Cane_Hill on Twitter