During his time away from Thy Art Is Murder, vocalist CJ McMahon would get up at the crack of dawn. Instead of heading to a venue or a studio, he would get stuck into a day’s graft as a stonemason in his native Sydney, putting in the hours to build the kitchens and bathrooms of suburban dreams. He made the surprise career move after realising he was on a downward spiral – and it wasn’t easy.
“It’s hard work lifting heavy, fucking brutal stone,” he says. “I just needed to clean my life up, get off the drugs, detox my body, sort my fucking brain out, and be happy that I’m alive again.”
CJ announced his departure from Thy Art Is Murder via Facebook in December 2015, citing financial ruin and homesickness as key reasons. It was one of the year’s most shocking moments; following the release of the savage, religion-bating Holy War in June, the band had been riding the crest of a wave. But offstage, things hadn’t been right for a while.
“It had been coming for years,” CJ sighs. “I’d be touring so much that I wouldn’t see my family for 10 months. Money was always the main issue; we live in the most expensive city in the world, so when I was there I couldn’t pay for anything. I couldn’t afford health insurance. I recently had an impacted wisdom tooth removed and it cost me a thousand dollars. It’s been killing me for years, but I just had to put up with it.”
With the weight of the world on his shoulders, CJ turned to drugs to block out his frustrations, becoming a user and a dealer. He shut himself off from everyone, including his bandmates, who were forced to suffer in silence as he “just refused to engage” with them.
“I was trying to get that high I had onstage, and to repress the feeling of missing my family and having no money,” he remembers. “It was a vicious circle that I was spiralling in. I pretty much OD’d twice in that time, and one day I woke up in LA after a massive drink and coke bender feeling angry and frustrated, and I just went, ‘That’s it… I’m not doing this anymore.’ And I went home.”
It’s obvious from CJ’s tone, just as it was obvious from his statement, that he was craving a normal life: job security, financial stability, a social support network. When he quit the band, he took Xmas off and then got straight to work as a stonemason with his father-in-law and brother-in-law. The strict routine not only gave him the above, but allowed him to block out his destructive thoughts.
“I was feeling completely physically wrecked, getting up at half five and finishing at seven, but it was good that I could support me and my wife,” he says. “I’d be so tired that I’d just sleep, so it was helping me mentally, too. I was too exhausted to dwell on things or to engage with the people who’d be a negative influence on me.”
With a more regimented lifestyle in place, CJ used willpower to get clean, but soon began to miss Thy Art. In February 2016, the band headed to Europe in support of Parkway Drive, with interim singer Nick Arthur filling in, for some of the biggest shows of their career – including one at London’s 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy. It was a huge opportunity, yet CJ was on the other side of the world.
“I had a mate in London who sent me footage of the crowd chanting ‘CJ’ before they came out,” he remembers. “That made me feel good, but it also made me feel really bad that I left the boys in that situation. Every time I saw them on Instagram doing these crazy shows… it was like breaking up with a girl and being fine with it, then seeing she had a new boyfriend and being like, ‘He’s not fucking good enough for her!’ I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t happening.”
With frustrations growing, it was a chance meeting with an old bandmate that sowed the seeds for his return. CJ went to a house party, and Sean [Delander, guitar] happened to be there. The pair hadn’t seen each other for six months, and had lots to catch up on.
“I couldn’t sleep that night, just thinking about the band. I messaged him the next day and said, ‘I wish things were different, I wish I hadn’t gone, my life sucks – I don’t even have time to spend the money I make because I’m working so much.’ And he replied, ‘Fuck it, it’s easy. Just come back.’”
He joined Thy Art Is Murder at practice and his return was made official in January, followed by the single No Absolution. It inadvertently sparked a war of words with Suicide Silence’s Eddie Hermida, who accused Thy Art of being stuck in a deathcore rut, while his own band had shunned the genre for their new single, Doris.
Thy Art responded by making a set of Trump- style ‘Make Deathcore Great Again’ baseball caps, seemingly mocking both Eddie’s comments and his music. After Suicide Silence released their polarising, self-titled album, the beef escalated to the point where Eddie called CJ a sellout. “A person who is looking for money and talks about money and focuses on money when they’re making music is a complete sellout,” he told the website Live Metal. “They’re literally going, ‘Hey, we’re not sellouts, but please buy this hat.’”
“He’s trying to drag us down, because the king of the mountain has lost his throne. And the new young prince has risen to be the supreme leader,” responds CJ. “He’s like, ‘Fuck this. If I’m going down, I’m taking these cunts with me!’ And it’s worked out the opposite. If I didn’t come back and I joined 5 Seconds Of Summer or became an EDM DJ then, yeah, I get it. But I’m cleaner and stronger. I really don’t give a fuck what those salty fuckers have to say about me.”
But he is hoping that upcoming album, Dear Desolation, which leans less heavily on the ‘core’ and focuses more on barbaric death metal and hulking arena grooves, will propel them beyond the deathcore scene and to bigger stages.
“We want to be able to play shows with bands like Lamb Of God, and maybe look toward being one of those bands in the future,” CJ says. “People like to pin the whole deathcore thing on us, but we’re more than that on this record. We’re pushing into wider metal territories, because we want to be a big band, and I believe that if we work hard that’s a realistic goal for us.”
With a more focused CJ McMahon back, they might have a chance.
Dear Desolation is out now via Nuclear Blast