All Bells Ringing: A conversation with Dylan Walker of Full of Hell
The grindcore genre is chock-full of prolific bands that cough up a huge multitude of releases every year. It’s not uncommon to find bands that, with only a few years of existence, have managed to establish themselves within the genre with up to 20 or 30 releases, and Full of Hell are one such band. Founded in 2009, Full of Hell are distinctive to many others in the grind scene in that they aren’t afraid to experiment with their own sound, constantly finding creative ways to add new dimensions to their incredibly hellish soundscape. Each of their records and collaborative releases are testaments and living proof of the tremendous ability of each of the band’s members, from guitarist Specer Hazard and bassist Sam DiGristine to vocalist and noisemaker Dylan Walker and drummer Dave Bland.
Later this week, Full of Hell will be releasing their own fifth full-length record, Garden of Burning Apparitions, a genre-bending onslaught of hardcore, grind, noise rock and death metal that expands upon the very elements that have propelled the band to the forefront of extreme music over the last decade. It stands as both a culmination of the band’s work since the release of their first demo and as a taste of even more insane things to come. Together with frontman Dylan Walker, we navigated a bit through the decade-long history of Full of Hell, from their early beginnings and influences to their collaboration records with Merzbow and The Body, as well as the band’s aforementioned upcoming fifth record, Garden of Burning Apparitions.
What was your first contact with heavy music and what was about it that made you want to invest in a musical career?
My parents were really into punk and they gave me a lot of my first punk CDs. I’d say my first introduction into extreme music, I went to a local show when I was thirteen years old and I saw this band in a basement that sounded like… I think they were going for a Cryptopsy type of thing, like None So Vile, pretty psycho sounding shit. And I didn’t know a kid my age could sing like that, you know? This kid is still one of my best friends, he just had the craziest voice and the music was so fucked up to me, it flattened me. I was obsessed. I think I just was always wanting the most extreme sound I could get and I didn’t really know where the end point was for so long. So, every time I found something new like that, it just kind of blew my mind. And even more specifically, a couple of years after that, I was pretty into death metal, metalcore and all that stuff, but I hadn’t heard a proper grindcore band and I saw this band play in an elementary school gym – they were like a really speedy grindcore band from Pennsylvania called Robinson from back in the day. And I just couldn’t believe it. I was like, I have to do this, this is the coolest shit I’ve ever heard. So yeah, I got pretty lucky. I mean, I live pretty rural, there’s not a lot going on, but at that time, there were a lot smaller shows in small areas. I don’t know what it’s like in Portugal, but in the United States nowadays, it seems like the small town scenes aren’t as much of a thing, which is kind of a disappointment to me.
Here in Portugal, it’s more in the big cities. I mean, you do get some shows here and there in the interior of Portugal, some major festivals too, but it’s definitely more like a major city thing.
Yeah, that’s a disadvantage as a kid in the country. I still live in the country and I love it, but I don’t know where my life would have gone if there weren’t kids booking shows in like, dog kettle basements, school gyms and stuff. That was really important to me, I don’t see that shit so much anymore. Even the town I live in now is like a 3000 people population and my wife grew up here. There were shows here and there is nothing here now. You know, I’m 30, I’m not going to book shows for teenagers, it kind of creeps me out. [laughs]
“I think I just was always wanting the most extreme sound I could get
and I didn’t really know where the end point was for so long.”
Tell me a bit about the formation of Full of Hell – how did you guys meet, where did the decision to form a band come from and what were some of the initial ideas and goals you guys had for the band?
So, Spencer [Hazard] formed Full of Hell without me; he was always extremely dedicated as well, we just didn’t know each other. He played guitar in some bands that had come up here in the past, so I knew of him and I knew of Full of Hell when they had first formed. His goal was to just go on tour; tour has hard as he could and play music that he wanted to play. Unfortunately for him, it was a completely different lineup, all friends of ours still, but people that weren’t interested in what he was interested in. And for me, I hadn’t met a lot of people in my time and music that were also interested in these things. So, I was filling in on guitar right out of high school for this local hardcore band and they had crossed paths with Full of Hell, and it took Spencer days to even talk to me because he is kind of a quiet person. And when we finally talked, I was totally blown away to find out that he liked all the same grind I liked. He liked Pg. 99 style screamo and stuff, and he really liked noise music. And I was just really blown away by that.
Right after that, their singer quit, which was so perfect for me. I immediately messaged them and was like, “look, I will come down there”. We live six hours apart, but I was like, “I’ll do this”. You know, doing the touring thing full time, it was like a pipe dream of mine. I just didn’t have the means because I didn’t know anybody else that was so dedicated. Spencer blew my mind before I was even in the band because Full of Hell had only been around for a few months, but he was so relentless with emailing and booking these DIY tours. I was trying to be doing that, I didn’t know how to do that and to me, he was like a big brother. Like, holy shit, this guy is so driven. He really just wants to get in the van, I haven’t met anybody like this. And the band I had been even before that got some traction in my home area and had played some regional shows, and I was like, “when are we going on tour”, and they were like, “fuck that, why would we go on tour”. So, I quit immediately and found Full of Hell. And Spencer found Dave [Bland], I think he found Dave on Myspace. Dave was maybe thirteen years old at the time and Spencer needed a drummer, so he grabbed Dave and was like, “here’s a stack of CDs, check all this shit out”. It was all over the place; a lot of powerviolence, grind, death metal, noise and drony stuff. Dave was a really talented drummer as well, but was such a young kid that he hadn’t seen a whole lot of shit. So, Spencer kind of took him under his wing in the early days. But yeah, that’s how we started. I guess how normal bands start, you know?
In those early days, what were some of the major influences for the band?
Oh man, so, we actually have this really old promo picture of us, where everybody has these Photoshopped-on masks. We thought it was cool because we wanted everybody to know what we were into. One was a Pg. 99 mask, it was like the pig or something, one was a Darkthrone guy… Fuck, I’m forgetting the other two, but basically, Spencer and I had this vision that didn’t really get to come into full freedom until all the members left besides Dave. We wanted to combine our love of old-school screamo and grindcore – both real grind and shit like Daughters and stuff -, with death metal influence and hardcore influence. And we wanted to lace all those songs together with noise – we were really into this band, The Endless Blockade, at the time. Oh, obviously one of the masks was a Man Is The Bastard skull too, that was always an influence from moment one. Another big influence at the time, and still to this day, is this lesser-known band called Gasp. They’re from Southern California and they were a part of that really sick wave of powerviolence bands and it was really like, psychedelic sort of powerviolence, and they had a lot of weird tape loops and stuff. So, I think our goal in the beginning, we just wanted a wall of sound. That was our idea, you know? Because it was our first serious band, it was always a work in progress, to this day.
Have those influences changed over the years or have they remained largely the same?
I think they’ve changed. I think nowadays, it’s hard to say what Spencer’s into. I mean, he’s definitely really stoked on stuff like Butthole Surfers, Cop Shoot Cop, Shellac and Unsane. The influences have definitely changed; I can’t say I am still listening to as much Pg. 99 and Orchid as I was when I was that age. I still think those bands are unbelievably sick but, I mean, it’s been like eleven years, taste changes. I don’t think that stuff has carried with us but you could also say none of that stuff ever gets abandoned, you know? It’s kind of part of our DNA.
After the release of your first two records, Roots of Earth Are Consuming My Home and Rudiments of Mutilation, the band started to invest time in collaborative projects, most notably those with Merzbow and The Body. Starting with the former, how was the experience like recording and collaborating with such a brilliant noise artist?
Oh man, it was so much pressure, it was kind of scary! We never planned to do collaborations, you know? At the time, I think the only band in our sort of general area that was doing collaborations was The Body; they had done something with Braveyoung and their records always had a ton of guests on them. And we were really into Swans, so we understood the idea of having auxiliary members, rotating lineups and all that shit. We still didn’t know what we were doing, so we did our best at the time to try and create what we felt was a cohesive experience, like something that felt natural, not just like slamming two things together. Masami [Akita] being on the other side of the world made it maybe extra difficult for us. It didn’t feel frustrating at all at the time or anything like that, it was definitely a positive experience for us, but it was daunting and felt like we were putting on shoes that were three sizes too big for us, you know what I mean? And it was a mixed result. I’m stoked that we did it and we got to play with him a couple times, and he is happy with how it turned out and we made a lot of friends through it. But it was a huge learning experience and I think, had he been in the room with us, it might have been a bit easier just because of how green we were at the time. But that’s another thing, I’m glad it happened the way it did, it was like a baptism by fire.
Do you feel like that whole experience would have been different now than all those years ago?
Oh, night and day, absolutely. I don’t know what it would sound like. I’m glad it turned out the way it did because I think the people that connected with that record, it was maybe even a gateway for them to listen to more Merzbow stuff or maybe try other noise out because it was almost like a soft entry for people. And that was the idea. like, what would it be like if Masami was our noise guy and our noise ratio was always 70-30 or 80-20? So, I’m glad it happened the way it did but if it happened nowadays, I think it would be much different, for sure.
And as for The Body, what was your approach when it came to those collaborations? Was there a set of goals or ideas you guys wanted to achieve?
That one was way different and really important to us, I think. It was actually really fucking weird for us because we usually go into the studio 100% dialled in if possible, we don’t want any mystery. And The Body wants to create it in the studio and figure it out while they’re there. It’s like a totally different real, visceral type of experience because while you are building this record, no one person has any idea what it’s going to sound like, at all. Even our attempts at songs changed so dramatically while we were building them and everybody adds their own part and comes up with their own ideas for structuring, it was such an alien thing for us. But we were with them, so it was alien but you had people taking care of you and being like, “it’s alright, we got this”. It was just really natural. It was the first time we were like, wow, so this is really what a collaboration feels like when everybody is in the room together. And since then, we learned so much from The Body and from Machines With Magnets that it has changed our approach to music entirely and just given us a whole new set of tools. After those collaborations, every record we do, the wisdom that we gleaned from those guys and from Seth Manchester has impacted everything we’ve done. I can’t understate it; it was really important, for me especially. It kind of opened the box for us, I think, in terms of how we approach everything.
“We learned so much from The Body and from Machines With Magnets that it has changed our approach to music entirely and just given us a whole new set of tools.”
Are there any other artists you would like to collaborate with in the future?
Yeah, for sure. It would be really fun to do something big with Justin Broadrick. I’d love to do a record with Nothing, we talk about that all the time too. We do have a bunch of collaborations finished and in the works at various stages, so some of the stuff I wanted to work on is done. But yeah, sky is the limit really, I think there is a lot of people that would be fun to collaborate with. These kind of things, it has always just kind of fallen onto our laps too, through circumstance. You know, we toured with The Body and became friends, and that’s why we did that collaboration. We met Balázs Pándi and did the Merzbow thing. So, I think the idea now is to just see what happens, you know? Because we travel with all of our friends and we talk to our friends all the time. If it comes up and it feels good, we are just going to do it.
In between those collaborations with Merzbow and The Body, Full of Hell performed for the first time in Portugal at Amplifest 2015, and then a year later with The Body in your collaborative tour. Do you have fond memories of those shows?
Oh my god, absolutely! Amplifest was so fun; they treated us so well. That was one of the first times where someone was like, “yeah, we’ll fly you down here to play this”. Like, I know European flights are cheaper, so it’s maybe not so much a big deal to get a little hopper down to Portugal from Heathrow or something. But for us, it was such a big deal, it felt like this rocker moment. [laughs] Like, wow, we get to fly down to this festival? And then the lineup was so crazy. Porto is such a beautiful city; I was thunderstruck when I was in the center city, I just couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. The venue was beautiful, all the kids were so fucking cool and warm. It was kind of my first experience in the Iberian region, I felt like it was hospitable and warm and cool, I could get down with everybody there. It was such an awesome experience and we hung out with Converge and Stephen O’Malley, and it was sick and the set was pretty fun. Yeah, couldn’t complain. And then we came back down and it was the same experience. And we actually came down with Immolation like a few years later. I like it down there; it is just nice. That’s a place I actually want to walk around and breathe it in. Any city in America, I don’t really give a fuck. Like, I go to the venue, get some Wi-Fi or something. Portugal and Spain, I want to walk around, it is just nice.
With the release of Trumpeting Ecstasy and Weeping Choir, the band got its well-deserved breakthrough in the underground scene. Being that both records bear a lot of similarities in art style, themes and sound, would you consider them to be two parts of a whole, sort of like sister records?
Oh yeah, absolutely. And it’s funny, I don’t think necessarily it was intentional; we didn’t write Trumpeting thinking there would be anything connected beyond that. The connectivity in my music, or at least from my role in our music, has been a thing I just always kind of wanted and been into, so I’ve always tried, in my own way, to link all these things together in a way that feels cohesive to me on a personal level. Early on, I was always making attempts. One reason it is easier for me to do these things that I’ve realized, especially in the last two years when I was working on this newest one, is that instead of trying to write about something different or trying to push myself into a zone that is not genuinely me, these things that I’m writing about, they have just kind of never changed. There is like a human experience that I’m trying to analyze and talk about, that I’ve been trying to talk about since I was a kid. And knowing that all of these things are kind of related, makes it easier for me to tie things together thematically. And working with someone like Mark McCoy, who is like, straight up my favourite living artist, I think he is so brilliant and it was such a treat for me that he actually wanted to work with us in the first place. He is such an essential part for me nowadays, at least in the era that we are in right now. I’ll give him all my lyrics before we go record the record most likely and sometimes the lyrics won’t be 100% tuned up and maybe the songs don’t have titles, but after he produces some imagery, it always rockets me forward in a way where it just really focuses me. He has shown me what this band is actually about in a weird way.
It’s like, back to that collaboration thing, it’s so organic and wild to me that you can have this band and it’s not entirely incumbent upon you controlling every detail. It’s almost like the sum of the people’s parts makes the band and no single person can really identify this band. And then, at a certain point, you are like, “oh, this is what this band is”, and it’s not what I intended it to be necessarily. It became its own thing through our collective creativity or whatever. So now, I’m trying to embrace that more but with Trumpeting and Weeping, that’s when it really started to flesh out. When we were writing Weeping, I was really thinking that it just made sense to kind of give an extension to this rage record, you know? Write this mourning record after the explosion kind of record. And it was just easy and it has continued on, and Mark’s pretty essential to that.
Moving on to your upcoming record, how was the creative and recording process like for Garden of Burning Apparitions? In what ways did you guys want to expand on the sound of Full of Hell?
You know, I think as we get older, I don’t want to say we are dated because we are definitely not dated; I’m more excited about the band now than I ever have been and everybody’s been really just feeling grateful and excited and absorbed by what we’re doing. But I think as the years go by, we get to see things and experience things that maybe demystify just being a band and what it means and what actually matters. I think we are getting more comfortable with what we’re okay at and what we’re good at, and we are just seeking to expand on that. And I think Spencer has a really good plan for us in terms of where he wants our sound to go and what feels fresh to us. I think because we’ve been touring for so long and because we’ve been watching bands and listening to music like this for so long, I’m appreciating the perspective that we’ve gained in feeling a burnout on metal. It’s like, I’m glad, it feels good. I’m still excited in watching other bands, but for us, I think new avenues are keeping things interesting for us.
The creative process was pretty organic on this one. I never really felt like we were trying super hard to be something, but I really feel like on this one, we were really not trying to be anything. We were just being ourselves and trying to excel in what we like and what we appreciate in music. It really feels like the least gimmicky record to me and I don’t know how people are going to digest it either, I really don’t, and I’m really curious about that. It’s just a weird feeling; I don’t know what people want it to be or what people like. It doesn’t matter to us, you know what I mean? It’s important not to care about that stuff.
On that note, do you feel like this record is the truest representation of Full of Hell’s sound as you intended?
I think so, for sure. It’s funny though, I feel like I’ve said that like… It’s the kind of thing, I’m really into making sure I’m progressing and I want to see progress every time, so it’s a thing I’ve said over and over, I feel like. But again, as you get older, you realize what tiny steps are and what big steps are, and this one just feels really natural. I feel like this one is a crystallizing time for us. The cool part is that it’s kind of like setting a table, in a way, for what’s to come. I feel like there is so much more to do, that’s the best part to me. It seems like for a band, you are going to run out of ammo or you are going to repeat yourself over and over. And at least for us, personally, I don’t feel we’re there yet, we are not repeating ourselves, you know?
“I never really felt like we were trying super hard to be something, but I really feel like on this one, we were really not trying to be anything. We were just being ourselves and trying to excel in what we like and what we appreciate in music.”
Earlier you mentioned Seth Manchester, who also produced this new record at Machines With Magnets. How was it working with Seth and what do you feel he brought to the table in terms of recording and production?
He is a genius; I think he has a lot of insight because he is not a metal guy. Working with Kurt Ballou was fucking awesome; he is a genius and he really knows how to produce records, how to get great sounds and everything. But working with Seth on The Body collaborations, we knew he was the good place for us to go, because we did want someone maybe outside of the aggressive music spectrum. Obviously, he does The Body, Daughters, Lightning Bolt and whatever else, and that music can be loud and progressive, but Seth doesn’t come from a metal place and I think his insight outside of that just gives it a fresh perspective, you know? Because sometimes you can just get swamped and surrounded by all this stuff, and you just don’t want to repeat yourself. And I think some of the biggest things he brought to the table were just these little nudges to try and maybe give a little more space here and there or provide more ear candy here and there, and the way he EQ’d all of our stuff, I really liked dynamically how it sounds. As we finished, he said, “next time, let’s make a weird Full of Hell record”. It’s exciting because this was like us getting used to work with him, so next time I’m sure it will be an absolute freak show.
It will be even crazier than it already is.
Yeah, I think he gives a new scale to what crazy is. This one feels relatively safe to me and the old ones feel super safe, so I’m just excited, you know? Every time we go there, it’s a learning experience. I’m going there next week for this Sightless Pit project that I do and every time I go up there, especially for non-Full of Hell stuff, I feel so out of my element and stupid; I’m just like a kid sitting at the big people table. [laughs] And I do it because I love being there, obviously, but it’s such a valuable experience for me too. Every time I go, I learn things and it kind of dents your ego a little bit to know that you know nothing, but it’s good too. I think everybody needs their ego smashed a little bit.
Going back to Mark McCoy who, as was previously mentioned, did the artwork for Trumpeting Ecstasy and Weeping Choir, as well as this new record, and considering the usage of this style of imagery in your records and merch in recent years, do you view it as a trademark of the visual style that represents Full of Hell’s music?
I mean, I want to say yes but at the same time, I’m not sure if it will always be like that. It’s another thing, my opinion is not necessarily fact, so to me, I would say yes, it’s synonymous to Full of Hell. Even though I might not want it to be, it’s become synonymous with us. I think it’s the trademark of Mark McCoy. Thankfully, he has allowed us to work with him on that level where his work becomes synonymous with Full of Hell. You know, when we talk, sometimes I’ll just be like, “dude, I’m sorry if you get hit up by a bunch of whack ass bands to do art for you, that all want some weird ass, stupid looking, anti-religious bullshit, I’m really sorry”. And he’s just like, “no, man, this is a fulfilling relationship for me”, and that’s a big deal for me. We always called it armour, in a way that, when you meet someone that you really look up to and they appreciate your art and they meet you on that level, it’s like armour for the world because there is a lot of people out there that will just shit on your art. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but that kind of stuff bothers me less when someone like Mark McCoy, who I look up to since I was a teenager, is a collaborative member of this band, essentially. Yeah, I would say that is a fair assessment, it’s pretty emblematic of who we are as a band, that kind of imagery.
Do you always seek to create that connection between the cover of a record and the music within it?
It’s completely essential, I guess it always was like that. From the beginning, I always wanted that, you know? I think the physical aesthetic of a band’s record and the artwork in that medium is so important, and I think it’s undervalued with a lot of bands, which is fine. But the band that always comes to mind, for me, that has a lot of aesthetic value is Godspeed You! Black Emperor or A Silver Mt. Zion, that whole Montreal scene. I feel like a lot goes into the themes and the aesthetic, and I just really appreciate that as a listener, you know? I just want it on all levels to feel cohesive. And it’s a work in progress thing too, we’re still working on it.
After the release of this new record, what does the future of Full of Hell look like? You mentioned those two collaborations, but are there any touring plans in the works? Any other releases you guys thinking on?
So, this is like, our thing, it’s all we think about. I’d say the whole of next year is entirely laid out; if Europe is open, we’ll be there twice. And then, the next year we have stuff planned too, and counting those couple of collaborations, we probably have like four or five records that we are planning at the moment. I’m so fucking excited about it. It’s just cool because you think, maybe as you get older and you do something for so long, you might get jaded and feel worn out and burnt, and I felt burned out in a minor way in the past, but only temporarily. And now, I’m just super juiced and I think the pandemic was really life-affirming in that sense, you know? Because we are so fucking lucky that we are just in this position where we get to make this music and share this experience with anyone. This band has made our lives, it’s all we care about. Ever since we were little, all four of us, just lifers in our heads, it’s all we gave a fuck about. It just feels like a very lucky blessing that we get to do it at all. So, we’re just going to be really busy. I mean, that’s the idea, to fill our time as much as we can with Full of Hell and our side projects.
“This band has made our lives, it’s all we care about. Ever since we were little, all four of us, just lifers in our heads, it’s all we gave a fuck about. It just feels like a very lucky blessing that we get to do it at all.”
Interview by Filipe Silva
Photo by Jess Dankmeyer, courtesy of Full of Hell