They say travel broadens the mind, but it’s also a killer way to stoke the creative fires. In November 2017, Beartooth’s Caleb Shomo embarked on a solo, global journey to make the band’s third album Disease. Over several weeks, the frontman hopped between New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo, soaking up the energy and bright lights and drawing inspiration from the unfamiliar.
The trip was a leap into the unknown, pushing him resolutely out of his comfort zone, namely the Ohio basement where he had always written the band’s music. Furthermore, it marked the first time he had recorded a Beartooth album in a proper, bells and whistles studio. It’s an experience the vocalist describes today, back at home and taking a break from mixing B-sides to chat with Hammer, as “nerve-wracking.”
“I wanted to get a different vibe on this record,” he explains, recalling the moment his label, Red Bull Records, suggested sticking him on a plane and packing him off across the world, along with a videographer to record the process for social media. “Obviously writing at home is very comfortable and very safe. I love writing in my basement, but I had this opportunity and access to some incredible studios throughout the world. I chose LA and New York City just because I really love spending time there, but I rarely get to. And then Tokyo was this whole different animal. There was this rock bar that I’d been to with Crossfaith before; I went for a drink and the bartender started asking what I do. I told him who I was and he was like, ‘Cool. My friend is DJ’ing down the road, do you want to go?’ So we went and it was just the craziest thing I’d ever seen, 400-500 people packed into this little club all just dancing and going ballistic.”
Caleb will freely admit that Disease is the most difficult record he’s ever made – but the challenge wasn’t just limited to a change of scenery. As with Beartooth’s previous albums, 2014’s Disgusting and 2016’s Aggressive, he wrote every track, recorded vocals, guitars, bass and drums, and produced the album, alongside executive producer Nick Raskulinecz (Alice In Chains, Korn, Deftones). However, in order to create the raw, nervy tension that roars throughout Disease, he headed to Blackbird studio in Nashville, renowned for its huge collection of vintage gear, choosing to record everything for real with minimal digital interference. It wasn’t long until he wondered whether he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
“I hadn’t tracked drums in forever. I’d gone into some of these studios and was playing for a while, and I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, I am not as tight as I need to be,’” he admits. “Same with guitar. I got beat down and it put me in my place. The amps would be buzzing too much and I was like, ‘Fuck me, I can’t fix this afterwards, I need to fix it now.’ It was definitely more of an analogue, raw process, how people would make records 20 years ago. It meant I had to perform and really play way better than I have on the other records. I really think I stepped up to the challenge at the end of the day, but it took me a while to get in the headspace.”
Fans are only just reaping the aural rewards of Caleb’s efforts, but the truth is the seeds for Disease were sown years before Caleb landed at his first stop, NYC. The last time Hammer caught up with the band, it was mid-2017 and Beartooth were in the midst of a USA tour. All seemed well: they were still on a massive high following debut Disgusting (an album which Caleb states was “exactly what I’d wanted to make”), and playing sold-out shows off the back of 2016’s follow-up Aggressive. And yet, behind the scenes, cracks were beginning to show. Caleb alluded to a period of depression that had taken hold while on the road, but only now does he reveal just how far down that downward spiral he had fallen.
A few months prior in Europe, the mental health problems that had plagued him since he was seven years old had slowly started to creep back in. One night in Finland in December 2016, in the peak of the polar winter, he suddenly realised his demons were right back in the room with him. “This culmination of shit really hit me at once, kind of like a train,” he remembers. “It was really late at night, I couldn’t sleep and it truly was the first time I’d felt suicidal since… God knows how long. I was like, ‘Holy shit I gotta figure this out and I got to deal with this.’ I don’t want that to ever be in my mind as an option again.”
Right there, in the most desperate of moments, the concept for Disease came to him; the importance of acknowledging the black dog and confronting it head-on. Two months later, he was in the studio recording the album’s title track, a song which includes the lyric: ‘If I fall again, will it be the end?’ Clearly, however painful and frightening, that despair had sparked a light bulb of reflection and self-realisation, resulting in some of Beartooth’s darkest lyrics to date.
“I realised I’m always going to deal with these feelings,” he explains. “They just do not go away, no matter what I do. It’s all about learning to manage them. Disease is me being done with ignoring and going to those places in my mind that I hate to go to, in the hope I can figure out more about myself. I felt very lost after the last record cycle. I’m not trying to hate on my own record, but it felt like that whole process was so fucking fast. I enjoy Aggressive, but I think there were some things that slipped through the cracks in the recording process. I had just come off two years plus of touring and went straight into the studio. I didn’t really have a minute to breathe.”
The phrase ‘travel to find yourself’ is the ultimate cliché, but it’s somewhat true for Caleb – when we ask him what he’s learnt about himself during his travel experience, his answer is emphatic. “I just need to be OK with who I am as a person and accept all the things that make me fucked up,” he replies. “I am a person that is unsure and a person who is unhappy a lot of the time.”
On the other hand, despite the challenges he’s faced, today Beartooth’s founding father is incredibly positive and excited for what the future holds. “Whatever it takes for us to get more pyro onstage, that’s what I want!” he laughs. “We did a show with pyro on our last record cycle and now I’m addicted to it. Look at Parkway Drive, the most kick-ass show ever. I feel like ours would be a lot less organised, though – just pyro everywhere. There would be bottles of lighter fluid and we’d just light each other up and run around until someone puts us out with an extinguisher.”
Jokes aside, though, there’s no mistaking the pride in Caleb’s voice when he talks about Disease. “I set out to do something very specific and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to pull it off,” he admits. “The record ended up being exactly what I wanted. Now that might not mean it’s a masterpiece to the rest of the world, but to me, it’s the best record I can make at the moment. I don’t think I have anything else in the tank – this is everything I’ve fucking got.”
Disease is out now on Red Bull Records.