"I think we’ve got a reputation locally as having done something pretty awesome." From taking over hospital wards to setting pianos on fire, While She Sleeps are still doing things their way

While She Sleeps
(Image credit: Future (Derek Bremner))

It’s 6pm in a field in South Yorkshire, and Mat Welsh – guitarist, vocalist and band manager of UK metalcore stalwarts While She Sleeps – has just set a piano on fire. "Let’s have a ritual!” he screeches, like a member of a black metal band, eyes bulging as he jumps up and down with unadulterated glee. Bassist Aaran McKenzie sternly motions for Mat to step away from the blaze. He grabs a video camera, and addresses a male actor the band have hired for the day: “Get as close to it as you can and scream at it – really let me feel the heartache. Really scream!”

Frontman Loz Taylor, probably the calmest person within a 20-mile radius, turns to us in the pitch black, face illuminated solely by the fire a few feet away. He smiles. “This looks fucking mint.” He’s not wrong. It’s also completely terrifying. We’ve travelled to Chesterfield, 15 miles south of While She Sleeps’ hometown of Sheffield, to see the band make a music video for a new song called To The Flowers. Like everything they do in their career, they’re giving it 100%. Today’s flaming piano scene is part of a high-concept story involving the breakdown of a relationship, which will feature everything from cars submerged in lakes to a sodden actor walking through the streets of the Steel City. The shoot will take two months to complete.

When we arrive at the field, Mat is the first to turn up, in a van with the ill-fated piano in the back. “Two months to make a music video,” he cackles, as he jumps out and shakes our hand. “People might wonder why we bother. ‘Who does that?’ Well... we like to have complete control.” In 2016, While She Sleeps – completed by drummer Adam Savage and guitarist Sean Long (today accompanied on location by his dog, Nova) – decided to ditch their major label deal with Sony and become a fully fledged DIY act. They took on all management decisions, created their own warehouse studio complex, and formed the Sleeps Brothers record label to release their music.

It was a huge risk, but it’s paid off. A UK Top 10 album for 2017’s You Are We and a show-stealing Main Stage slot at 2021’s Download Pilot are just two of the highlights that led to last year’s 10,000-capacity headline show at London’s Alexandra Palace. Now in their eighth year of going it alone, While She Sleeps are preparing to release their fourth album on Sleeps Brothers and sixth overall, titled Self Hell. It’s been a satisfying journey, but certainly not easy.

“You’d get to a point where you would go, ‘Oh, we need someone to do that?” Mat says, reflecting on the hidden, endless, tedious admin of being in a band. “If you don’t do your accounts, fuck, you can’t put the record out. Then your fucking ship’s going to crash. I definitely under- acknowledged how much management did, once upon a time. ‘Where are your visas? Are you insured?’ All that shit, it’s not rock’n’roll at all. But it is really important if you want to still be doing this at a certain level.”

Mat Welsh is unquestionably the most openly excitable member of While She Sleeps. As the rest of his band and a few local helpers arrive in the field, he cajoles everyone into dragging the piano, that he sourced, out of the back of the van, and then sets it up meticulously and eagerly douses it in petrol. In a couple of days, he’ll be cutting the roof off a car and filling it full of water for another scene. You can’t imagine Gene Simmons doing that. He’s clearly a hands-on kind of guy, telling us how he designed the front cover of Self Hell by creating a glass logo of the band, shattering it, and then painstakingly rearranging the pieces and photographing them. When someone pointed out to him that it could have been done quicker and cheaper with computer images and no one would have known, his response is that, “I’d have known. You don’t win a Heavy Music Award for all the shit people don’t see [Sleeps won the Innovation category in 2022], but it would bother me, it would eat away at me.”

The rest of Sleeps are stepping up their efforts, too. For the first time, every member has a crew role on this music video – alongside Mat as production manager, Loz is the director/stylist, Aaran is director of photography, Sean is the director and Adam is the first assistant director. The band have just come from a derelict house without heating, where they’ve been shooting scenes featuring their protagonist in happier times.

“It was colder there than it was out here!” Mat laughs. The To The Flowers video is not only a testament to the band’s dedication, it’s a testament to the local community’s emotional investment in them, and to the power of asking for help. Mat sounds incredulous as he explains that Doncaster council gave them permission to drag an actor from a lake, while Doncaster hospital lent them a room to film in.

“All the nurses and the staff were coming in to see if we were alright and if we needed anything,” smiles Mat. “I think it was exciting for them. But we’ve found that everywhere, people are really supportive. I think we’ve got a reputation locally as having done something pretty awesome with our band, and people are kind of willing us on to do well. There’s actually a great community spirit up here.”

As the rest of the band amble over to say hello, we remark to Loz that it’s a lot of effort to put into making a video. Couldn’t they have mimed playing the song in an empty warehouse? Or got someone else to shoot it? “When you’re getting someone else to make your music videos for you, they can end up not being an honest representation of what you wanted them to feel like and look like,” replies the chilled Loz, who’s constantly smiley and unusually softly spoken for a man who screams his guts up for a living. “So I think the reason why we’re all so involved in every little aspect is because we all give so much of a shit about the art that we make.”

In a mirroring of their teamwork on this video, Loz will later describe Self Hell as the record While She Sleeps have “most trusted” each other on, resulting in the most collaborative songs of their career. Self Hell still sounds like While She Sleeps, but listen to it after spending a day in their company, and you can hear each member’s personality come through. Mat will happily recommend a variety of ambient, electro DJs he’s currently discovering; Loz confesses to being a “massive emo kid”, while also speaking about his love for vocalists such as The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft and The Stone Roses’ Ian Brown; Sean will have an enthusiastic conversation about discovering Radiohead’s landmark Kid A album; all of them still talk fervently about the early 2000s metalcore of Darkest Hour, Converge and Every Time I Die.

Lyrically, Self Hell alludes to periods of mental health difficulties for the band members. Thankfully, Loz explains that it’s more of a reflection of former problems than current ones. “A lot of this record has been inspired by not everyone in the band having the best time,” he delicately puts it. “Self Hell being the title might suggest that. The record before this one [2021’s Sleeps Society], we were all a mess. People in the band were going through mental break-ups and we’re still talking about things that have impacted us. But the actual process was probably one of my clearer headspaces to talk about bad times.”

So, was Self Hell fun to make? “Yeah, this process has been nice actually,” Loz nods. “We’ve been through actual therapy, but I think some of the therapy came from us playing live. We just used to o completely batshit, and let it all out and bleed and sweat, and then come off and feel a stone lighter for expelling all that negative energy.”

While we’ve been chatting to Loz, Aaran – bassist and director of photography – has taken the lead, buzzing around with hyper-focused intensity, camera in hand. He shoots the piano from afar, he cajoles the actor to scream, to drop to his knees, to angrily splash a jerry can full of petrol over the piano. If there’s one person here who seems to be driving things, it’s Aaran. It’s understandable, given he’s got serious designs on making a full-blown movie.

“I had always made little videos and social media things for us from the start,” he explains. “I started realising that I had a flair for it. I got a bit of work from other sources – you get a bit more confident every time. Now I’ve written a feature, getting that made is the next challenge for me. But doing stuff like this is so important. I feel like so few bands really care about videos anymore, but for us, everything has to be right.” He then goes back to telling the actor to smash his frozen, gloveless hands down on the piano’s keys, like a Yorkshire, metalcore Stanley Kubrick.

As the sun begins to set, it’s finally time to light up the piano. This is where Mat goes feral. Aaran grabs his camera, knowing there’s only a finite amount of time to shoot the blazing structure, and busily spins round it, capturing every angle. The rest of us stand transfixed as the instrument turns to ashes. Mat, having calmed down now, tells us how he procured it.

“It’s quite a sad story, actually,” he says. “I found it from this old lady locally. Her husband had just passed away and he loved the piano. She was so nice and so happy to have someone who wanted it as much as we did.” He pauses. “I didn’t tell her we were going to do this to it. But I’m trying to tell myself that we’re taking it and making something beautiful and meaningful with it. Immortalising it, in a way.” If While She Sleeps are to be immortalised, it will be on their terms and their terms alone.

Self Hell is out now via Sleeps Brothers. This feature was originally published in Metal Hammer #385

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.