Why Cypher16 ditched the UK music industry

Name a British metal band who can regularly pull in crowds of 5,000 for headline shows, have shared a stage with the likes of Children Of Bodom, Lacuna Coil and In This Moment, consider members of Metallica their friends, and yet have only just released their debut album. Admit it – you’re stumped!

Despite forming in 2007, London-based quartet Cypher16 have yet to make a sizeable splash in their homeland. But, due to the borderless exposure that the internet can bring in the modern era, they’ve instead been building their reputation in some of metal’s less obvious outposts. “I started writing our first EP, The Man Of The Black Abyss, in 2008, and there was obviously no support or no interest,” vocalist and guitarist Jack Doolan tells us. “Then suddenly, these more remote parts of the world started hearing our demos and taking an interest in us, from India to America. We thought, ‘Why do we have to wait to get big in the UK before we start branching out and hitting these places?’ Just because we’re from the UK, it doesn’t mean that we can’t start creating music and going to the people that actually want to see what we’re doing from the get-go.”

It was a huge leap of faith to play India

Which is certainly taking a huge gamble, and the members of Cypher16 had no way of knowing whether it was going to pay off. On one hand you could call it brave, on the other you could say… “We’re completely stupid!” laughs Jack, cutting us off. “Yeah, early on we had this offer from India, and at that point no other metal bands had even been out there, with the exception of Iron Maiden. We honestly thought that it might be a scam. But we worked out that it wasn’t going to cost us that much money to get out there, and the rest of costs were taken care of out in India. So we thought, ‘Why not?’ Why not go out there just to see this place that you might never have a chance to see again as a human being? Let alone going out there with your friends as a musician and getting to play these venues that were totally unknown to you at that time. We weighed it up, and the reasons for going seemed to outweigh the ones to not go.”

As luck would have it, Cypher16 were hitting the Indian music scene at just the right time. Now, thanks to the strides made by the likes of New Delhi’s Skyharbor and their shimmering tech metal, or the blackened death metal of Mumbai’s Demonic Resurrection, we know more about the strength and passion of the fans from that part of the world. But as the band travelled out to dates in Goa, Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune in late 2009, as one of the first British metal bands to hit India, this was something Cypher16 weren’t aware of.

“We got there and it was like we had been thrust into the forefront of this amazing movement,” Jack says. “It became a really big base for us. The gigs on those tours were a real eye-opener, the venues were… different! Ha ha ha! And shows would get cancelled or moved, because they were just learning how to put that kind of infrastructure together. But we were greeted so kindly, and people were so amazed to see us, that you can’t help but want to be the best you can possibly be for them. And that helped us at home, and it helped us get offers from other parts of the world. Which gave us the confidence to think, ‘Well… we’ve done India. Why not here? Or there? Or…’ you know? It seems funny to think of it now, as it has worked out so well, but it was a huge leap of faith taking that first tour. It was a huge risk.”

Cypher16 have now toured in 16 different countries, from Norway to the USA and back multiple times to India, where they can pull in crowds of thousands for a headlining show. They have a career most bands would be satisfied with after releasing four or five albums on an established label. And they’ve seen things you wouldn’t see by sticking to the UK circuit. In 2014, they toured China for the first time, as well as playing the 30,000-capacity MIDI festival in Shanghai, headlined by Fear Factory. The crowds welcomed them with open arms.

“It was amazing,” Jack remembers. “You think you’re going to be an unknown quantity, but all these people turn up, and at first everyone just stares at you with complete bemusement. Then, after a couple of songs, they absolutely lose their shit and the rooms end up completely trashed. You walk offstage at the end and you feel like conquering heroes. It’s a bizarre feeling…”

Few bands from our world extensively tour China. Censorship is still a concern when it comes to high-profile acts; when Metallica played in 2013, they were unable to perform Master Of Puppets. When Cypher16 went back in 2015, they clashed with the authorities.

“We ran into a few issues with the police, who decided to shut down a number of our shows and throw us out of a hotel in the politically unstable region of Xinjiang,” he says. “Foreign bands are unfortunately not always welcome in some parts of the country. When there’s a language barrier and very little information coming out about a situation that’s potentially quite dangerous, it’s important to keep your head and work out the best solution.”

Journeying across China can be long and arduous at the best of times, and the band had to stay focused as they made their way across the vast country.

“It was the most mental month of my life,” chips in guitarist Will Cass. “Sometimes we had to travel 1,000 miles between gigs; we were getting on trains and on planes, then stepping straight onstage and leaving straight afterwards. We travelled 25,000 miles while we were out there. We were welcomed and treated so warmly, though, and it’s not something many people can say they’ve done. It’s such a different place to how we behave here in the West.”

Cypher16’s overseas adventures have given them the confidence to believe in their music, and the time to nurture it. Following their first EP in 2008, they released 2011’s The Metaphorical Apocalypse and 2013’s Determine, before unleashing debut album The Great Surveyor at the end of last year. It’s a stunning mixture of old-school heavy metal bombast and brain-dominating melodic vocal and guitar lines, with a contemporary sheen boosted by sterling production work from Romesh Dodangoda (Motörhead, Sylosis and Bring Me The Horizon). Not only do they sound more comfortable in their own skin than you’d expect from a band on their first album, they sound more cutting-edge than many of their peers. Untouched by the pressures of record label deadlines or interference, they’ve had eight years to perfect their sound.

Making new friends at the Rendezvous Festival in Delhi, India

Making new friends at the Rendezvous Festival in Delhi, India

“We wanted to have the right album with the right production on the right budget,” says Jack. “You get one shot at making your debut record – why blow it? And now the music industry is starting to sit up and take notice. Would we have that if we’d just released the first thing we recorded? Would we have that if we didn’t have a CV behind us showing that we’ve achieved these other things? I’d say it’s doubtful. For example, Romesh was just someone we approached for advice about another producer. But he turned around to us and said that he loved our sound and wanted to do the album. It was proof that the hard work we had put in was working.”

Working it may be, but Cypher16 are still a DIY band. From booking those early forays abroad to releasing The Great Surveyor themselves, they’ve created a career outside of the usual music industry machine. Talking to Jack, it’s immediately obvious he exudes ambition. Can he achieve those ambitions without the help of the traditional side of the music business?

“Oh, when I was a kid, I looked at Iron Maiden and Metallica and that’s where I dreamt to be!” he exclaims. “I think things are different now and it is harder to emulate those people, especially on your own. [But] metal people are loyal – they’ll stick with you if you stick with them and stay true to who you are.”

Through their management, they’ve also been lucky enough to meet their heroes in Metallica, and watch their shows side of stage. “I got to know Kirk. They always take good care of us and it’s great to observe the machine at work,” he says. “Lars is passionate about younger bands, and that has helped us move forward.”

With all this global success, you’d forgive Cypher16 for shunning their own country altogether, but they remain buoyant about it. “I don’t feel any bitterness or resentment to the UK,” Jack smiles. “In this country you can go out every night and see a band. You can go and see Maiden or Metallica… or Lady Gaga, if you like! And I’d be annoyed that you wouldn’t come and see me? Not at all. Of course, we want to achieve success that our family and friends can see. And if it happens, great. If it doesn’t, it won’t be the end of this band.”

Cypher16 might be new to you, but they’ve nothing to prove to anyone.

Hardened Globe Trotters

Frontman Jack Doolan’s guide to following in Cypher16’s DIY footsteps

“Travelling in China and India means flying or taking the train, so be mentally prepared for a rough ride with very little sleep. It’s vital to take personal space from the rest of the band, and get sleep wherever and whenever you can.”

“Would you eat Indian food three times a day for two weeks? Probably not! Try and get some familiar and healthy foods into your body. In India, drink bottled water. Check the seal on the bottle when it’s served to you in a bar or restaurant – it’s often refilled from the tap. Avoid ice, and fruit or salad that may have been washed in tap water.”

“When flying from England to China, your long-haul carrier gives you a weight limit. When you travel from one side of China to the other, your short-haul carrier gives you a limit, and it’s a lot less than the first carrier. The fines can be crippling, so it’s worth thinking ahead.”

“Things are often ‘laidback’ in certain parts of the world. In India, there’s a sense of ‘it’ll all work out in the end”, and it usually does, but not before our stress levels have risen to the top of the scale. No electricity on the stage? No problem. No amplifiers? No problem. We’re running two hours behind? No problem. You learn to have faith.”

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.