Black Tusk drummer James May was pulling pints in Savannah rock bar The Jinx when he got the call. The band’s bassist, Jonathan Athon, had been involved in a motorcycle crash, and was in a coma.
“I took the call from Andrew [Fidler, Black Tusk guitarist] and then I dipped the fuck out, of course. I didn’t know how serious it was, you know? Not everyone that gets involved in an automobile accident or a motorcycle accident dies. You don’t think that’s gonna happen. I knew he was in the hospital, but I didn’t know how bad it was until I got there. Before I got to the hospital, Andrew told me, ‘Man, it’s bad… be prepared for what you’re about to see.’ And then I saw him, and I was like, ‘Holy fuck…’”
Unless you are among the fortunate ones selling out arenas, the life of a hard-working heavy metal band is seldom a smooth ride. James knows this better than most. Along with buddies Andrew and Athon (known by his surname), he dedicated the last 10 years to pushing his band’s music, spending months on the road each year as Black Tusk steadily built a reputation as the next great band to emerge from Savannah, Georgia – home to the mighty Baroness and Kylesa, among many other underground notables. With a sound they jokingly refer to as “swamp metal” (actually a supremely energetic hybrid of stoner rock, primitive thrash and nuts-out hardcore punk), they have been growing in stature for some time now, particularly since signing with Relapse for 2010’s widely acclaimed Taste The Sin album. Athon’s tragic accident is not the only shitty break the band have experienced, but it was certainly the most devastating.
The grotesque irony of the situation is hard to ignore: Black Tusk had just finished work on their fifth studio album, Pillars Of Ash, barely a month before Athon’s accident. Tour offers were coming in and the future looked rosy.
But the extent of their comrade’s injuries would prove too devastating and, following Athon’s own wishes, life support was duly switched off after it became clear his brain damage was irreparable. He died on November 9, 2014, at the age of 32. James and Andrew closed ranks and supported each other through a traumatic time. For now, the band was the furthest thing from their minds.
But then the news about Athon’s passing hit the internet, and Black Tusk found themselves the subject of a huge wave of support, as messages of love and appreciation reached them from all over the world.
“It really did blow us away,” James says. “People started sending us all these pictures of tattoos they’d got and all this other shit, and that really helped with deciding to carry on with the band. I guess we didn’t realise what we had until we got that big response. The fans definitely made us decide to continue with this shit, that’s for sure.”
James and Andrew already knew in their hearts that quitting was not an option. Having weathered more than a decade as a trio, touring relentlessly, enduring all the hardships, enjoying every small victory and steadily building a fanbase and a formidable reputation, Black Tusk had the wind in their sails when their bass-playing brother was cruelly taken from them. Not unusually for a three-piece, the bond between the musicians was deep and unwavering, a shared vision.
We would’ve been like The X-Men until the end
“When we were in our early 20s, we wound up living on the same street. As the story goes, I was in a band and Andrew and Athon were in a band together, and both bands ended up breaking up in pretty much the same week, and for the same reasons,” James explains. “People just weren’t serious about really doing it right. So the guys came down to my house and said, ‘Hey, you wanna start something? Shall we actually do this?’ We made a pact right there, that if we were gonna start this shit then we were gonna run it to the end.”
Fast-forward to 2016, and Black Tusk are finally releasing _Pillars Of _Ash. It is, as James notes, “Athon’s last album”, and a more fitting or furious tribute to their fallen brother would be hard to imagine. Harder, sharper and more distinctive than previous records, its songs are full of vitality and venom; a heartening last hurrah for Athon, whose arse-rattling bass riffs play an equal part alongside James’s clattering drums, Andrew’s serrated-edge riffing and the various bellows and roars that all three contributed. As a way to remember their friend, Pillars Of Ash is hard to beat.
“Well, he had that heavy-ass bass sound!” James grins. “He was my bro, you know? He had a look to him and a work ethic that was really great. We knew how to write songs with him. It got to the point that I’d worked with him for so damn long that I could hear a riff and be like, ‘Athon wrote that!’ or hear some lyrics and think, ‘Athon wrote that shit!’ We were all like that about each other. But actually, we didn’t really care for each other too much when we first met. I just felt that he wanted to be the centre of attention and he kinda felt the same way about me! But he was my main dude on tour, man. We did a lot of partying, coming up with crazy ideas at three in the morning.”
It’s cheering to hear James speak so fondly about Athon today. It seems that no one had anything but affection and praise for the big, bearded bassist, but the full extent of his – and his band’s – popularity didn’t fully dawn on James and Andrew until Athon’s memorial in Savannah on November 15, 2014.
“Shit, man, this city nearly shut the fuck down that night!” James laughs. “There were so many people coming out of the woodwork. There was so much support, it was outrageous. We live in our own bubble and we’re away from the city so much, you don’t realise how big it all is. People we’d never met before were getting hold of us and saying, ‘I love your band and I’m always at your shows!’ and it was amazing.”
We did a lot of partying. That’s how I’ll remember him
As Black Tusk click back into gear, now with former Kylesa alumnus and longtime friend Corey Barhorst completing the lineup, the future is looking bright once more, if also bittersweet. As James states with just a hint of upset in his voice, this band was only ever meant to exist in its original form.
“I like it when bands stay together and with the same people throughout time,” he shrugs. “When you got to know the band, you always saw those same characters, like something from the X-Men! If the accident hadn’t happened we would’ve rode together, us three, until the end. But we had this fuckin’ album on deck and we were so proud of it. Then we had a tour lined up for a few months later, so we had to decide to either carry on or cancel everything right then. So we decided to carry on. We didn’t want to go to the practice space. It was weird the first time without Athon, but it was good that Corey was helping us.”
From the jaws of defeat, Black Tusk have plucked another little victory. Not even death can stop this band from doing what they do, and deafening a steadily growing horde of admirers. James talks excitedly about the fact that he, Andrew and Corey have already begun writing new material together and that, so far, “It’s sounding fucking excellent!” This is, unquestionably, what Athon would’ve wanted. Life in a heavy metal band has thrown everything at Black Tusk, but they’re still here, and still 100% down for life.
“We’re not the first band that had someone die, you know?” James chuckles. “We weren’t going to let that stop us. With all the shit that’s happened to us, it was just another thing, like, ‘Of course! Now someone’s fucking died!’ But you take the good with the bad. In the end, we just thought, ‘Why the fuck did we go through all this shit, have all this bad shit happen to us as well as all the good, to stop?’ Nah, man. We love this fucking band too much.
Pillars Of Ash is out now via Relapse