It is Not Heresy, and I Will Not Repent - a Conversation with Nathan Gray of I Am Heresy

Formerly an innovator in the world of hardcore, Boysetsfire frontman and general humanist Nathan Gray is dipping his toes into the pool of heavy metal. He's banded together with musicians of varied talents and backgrounds to create I Am Heresy, a band that is nearly certain to raise eyebrows with their ideology and unique blend of musical concepts. With their brand new record "Thy Will" bursting for release, Nathan took some time out of his schedule to sit down and talk about his band, his record, his passions, organized religion and social change as we know it. Equal parts thoughtful and provocative, read the transcript below:
M. DREW: How did I Am Heresy come together? How did this project get rolling?
NATHAN GRAY: Basically how it got started was, I wanted to do something new, wanted to do what we’re doing with this band. I had had a bad experience with starting other bands, just finding members and all that kind of stuff. It was a fucking tragic mess. It’s hard to say why or how you start a band sometimes, because it’s such a shit show most of the time [laughs]. I guess I just said I wanted to do this band and went around looking for people who I thought would be good for it. It’s a very non-exciting story.
M.D: What made now the right time to get started with this band?
NG: Mostly just because I thought it was the right time. My other band, Boysetsfire has been around for twenty years, I wanted to do something new. That band also isn’t touring as much, isn’t doing as much anymore. Also, just the ideology behind this band I wanted to, made it seem like the time to do it. I’d had ideas on trying to do a solo project, but it felt like giving up, so I said let’s do a heavy band instead [laughs].
M.D: Fans are going to want to know – if I Am Heresy is the new project, does this mean the end of Boysetsfire?
NG: I don’t think there’s every really an end there. But it’s definitely different now. With Boysetsfire, it’s very laid back, everybody in the band has other jobs and families and stuff that they’re doing….it’s weird because at one point he had an end to that band, then we brought it back, so now I feel like we don’t want to say that it’s all over. It’s hard to explain a laid-back band to people, people don’t seem to understand that, especially when it’s a band they love. We’re at a point with that band where when we want to we will, when we don’t, we don’t. With I Am Heresy, we need to get out there and prove ourselves, show people what we’ve got.
M.D: Inevitably, there’s going to be a perception that I Am Heresy is a side project for you, is it?
NG: Oh yeah, that’s obviously the perception. But it’s absolutely not. I would say that to an extent, without making it seem weird, Boysetsfire is more the side project. It’s obviously a project that I’ve been doing longer, but we’re at a point where we’re doing it for fun. We’ve established ourselves and put in the work and want to do it when we can do it. I Am Heresy is a full on band and for me, takes priority.
M.D: So there will be more I Am Heresy down the line, then.
NG: Oh, absolutely. I would say if you wanted to put it in no uncertain terms, this is my main project, this is my band. I’m also the type of person who doesn’t want to be known for just one thing. When this is all said and done, I would hate to be just the dude from Boysetsfire. I have other things to do and I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I understand people wanting to say it’s a side project, but that’s just not the case.
M.D: Getting into the nuts and bolts – I Am Heresy blends some black and death metal into your usual hardcore base in an odd sort of peanut butter and chocolate mix…how do you combine all those elements when writing? Most people would think of those ideas as very separate.
NG: I’m glad you see it as a peanut butter and chocolate situation, it could have come out like a fish and chocolate [laughs]. The blending of all those things, and I’m glad it comes off as it does, to some people I think they’ll think it’s too much. But for the majority, they seem to enjoy it. For us, it came very naturally, it wasn’t like we were trying to do anything weird or trying to make things different or anything. It was just that everybody in the band had a different take on music, different styles. When we come together, it all just comes down like that. You’ve got a mix of people in this band who come from black metal and stoner metal and more chaotic, mid-90s metalcore stuff, to hardcore to even some folk-ish background at times. Fortunately, I feel it’s come together quite nicely and it really goes together. I lot of bands can try to do that and it feels confused.
M.D: Because people love to categorize their music and possess it in that way, there’s going to be a discussion of what I Am Heresy is or what genre it should belong to. In your mind, what is your band and do those labels mean anything to you at all?
NG: Not necessarily. But not only do you get the argument where people want to categorize things, but you get the argument where people want to categorize things so that they can put them down as not being in that category. That’s my favorite one. People just wait for you to call it metal so they can say ‘that’s not metal!’ Fucking shut up [laughs]. It gets so boring and old when you’ve got internet jockeys just waiting to talk shit. For the most part, I know Century Media has labelled us as being metal. I know we come from a definite metal-style background, but it’s funny how some blogs and magazines that say ‘oh, this doesn’t sound like a fucking garbage truck full of Cookie Monsters hitting a wall at three thousand miles an hour, so it’s not metal.’ [laughs]. It’s funny because I think it’s very hard for artists and musicians to define things like that, unless they’re going for a certain genre. We’ve sort of given up to an extent, because it’s hard for us to keep saying ‘well, it’s metal and it’s also this,’ and have people say it’s not those things. Well, shut up, it’s whatever you want, then. We create art, and if that sounds too pretentious for you, then fuck off, I don’t care [laughs].
M.D: My friend and I laugh about that sometimes, that metal started off with the idea that anything that wasn’t popular was good enough, and now it’s become so underground that it’s an exclusionary genre, which is the opposite of how it started.
NG: Yeah, that’s what happens when hipsters take over. You can welcome hardcore for that. That was hardcore’s problem. It started out as something that was so open – the Promise Ring and Damnation could play the same goddamn show. That would blow people’s minds now, to have basically a pop band play with a metal band, but at the time it was under the umbrella of hardcore. That’s what blows me away in metal, is that people listen to our album who are used to Cookie monster vocals and hear us and say ‘what’s all that singing? Well, that’s not metal.’ Really? I’m pretty sure “Master of Puppets” is a metal record. We can pull up a lot of metal that has singing on it, and what’s more is that it’s not defined by that. I feel like Metal is more defined by talent and merit. That’s why I love it! There’s something to metal, that even as a hardcore kid, attracted me to it. Because with hardcore punk, it wasn’t always about the talent, it was more about the heart. But with metal, it’s all about the talent and merit. You’ve got to have heart, too, but you’re not going to get up there and play four chords and fool anybody. I love that about metal, and it’s why I’m stoked we’re in that category. I also like that there are black metal bands now who put out albums that are atmospheric pop to an extent, but it’s metal. Metal has deep potential, but if we allow these labelers to deny it, we’re going to destroy it. Metal’s the last great hope for underground music.

M.D: Bring it back around – what’s the central theme of this record, what do you want listeners to take away?
NG: I think that the basic theme, the slogan that we’ve used that’s caught on with people is ‘the death of God is the birth of human potential.’ The purpose behind that is that I think it has a more intellectual context than the more typical Cradle of Filth ‘fuck God’ idea. It’s the idea that humankind has for too long relied on made-up fantasies to protect themselves from evolving. We use terms like good and evil, which are vague and unreliable for anything. What’s good for some people can be evil for another – what’s good for the lion is terrible for the antelope. When we start calling things evil or good, we come up with very simple answer to complex questions. It’s the same reason why calling someone like Stalin or Hitler evil completely misses the point and fucks up any way to stop that kind of thing from happening. It’s the lazy mentality that I feel like religion has brought not just to our country but our world. It’s something that we challenge in the album, I hope in a more poetic sense, and not just putting out another black metal album that’s just weak. We’re trying to give some form of alternative, and that alternative is you. That alternative is the person that doesn’t need a made-up deity, doesn’t need made-up constructs. Good or evil is all based in our natural urges or desires that help us as human beings. They help us to evolve and progress, science, things that we can know, tangible objects are what moves society forward.
M.D: So then, is it the mere concept of a higher power that concerns you, or the potential of organized religion to manipulate that concept that bothers you more?
NG: Obviously it bothers me more that people use it to manipulate others, but it also bothers me that people use it to manipulate themselves. I can say that I believe in a pluralistic society, where governments and everything are run by what we can know, and at that same time, everyone is free to believe whatever they want to so long as they don’t push it on anyone else. I don’t really give two shits if people want to believe in a purple unicorn that tells them to brush their teeth with a nine iron as long as they’re only doing it to themselves and don’t push it on anyone else or make my kids learn it in school. On a more theoretical level, I do believe that religion and a belief in something that doesn’t exist is harmful. It’s can be a judgment call because there are people who use spirituality to help themselves, but at the same time it does bother me that people think they need that. Why do you need to come up with something that you can’t prove when you can do it all yourself? You basically are doing it all yourself, anyway, so why not cut out the middle man? I feel like that mindset in general creates a harmful mindset in our society, where we’re always looking for someone else to save us. Always looking for an authority figure to tell us what to do. How are we going to stand up to tangible authority figures if we’re busy sitting around inventing new authority figures to tell us what to do? We are very capable of doing this, and we’re so capable of doing it, that we’ve created all these things to do it for us with our own hands. People use these things to feed the hungry and help the poor, shelter the homeless, create all kinds of wonderful things in the world, but they were doing it the whole time. I feel like I’m in a weird M. Night Shyamalan movie – ‘it was always you.’ [laughs]. I don’t want to be a dick, but if your religion is pervasive in my society to the point where it influences laws that are made, I’m going to have to fight against that and tell you why.

M.D: I’m curious then, knowing that’s your position – I’m curious if you’ve been watching the new Pope, who seems to be shifting the church’s focus away from social issues and more toward a life of serving others and less opulence. Friends of mine, be they atheist or Buddhist or Jewish or Christian or whatever their beliefs are, have said that Pope Francis may not be their guy, but he might be the right guy. Your thoughts?

NG: I just had a very lengthy debate with Chad from Boysetsfire on this very idea. He said that he felt what your friends were saying – chill out, let the guy do his thing, it’s a move in a positive direction. I’m a little more skeptical. I feel that if that’s what he’s doing, awesome. If that’s what he’s going to be allowed to do, then great. My concern is, this could be a way of putting a friendly face on some real fucked-up shit. It reeks a little bit of a media play and I guess my fear is that certain things will be brushed under the table. There are still pedophiles out there in the church being moved around. If they’re going to bring themselves out of the spotlight, that’s a little scary. It also covers up what they’re doing in Africa, which is abusive and horrible and it’s genocide. If you’re telling people that they’ll burn in hell if they use condoms, because apparently AIDS is better, you’re committing genocide at that point. These people are not being fired, not being kicked out, not being arrested or getting help. They’re just being moved to other places. As their putting this new face on it, the problem comes when people go ‘wait, but this is still happening,’ and other people go ‘why don’t you leave the guy alone, he’s going what he can.’ Now, they’re getting all this support from people saying he’s doing the right thing – sort of. When are they going to clean up the mess? Let’s be honest, I’d love for Vatican City to be turned into a fucking museum and this whole thing to be eradicated, but when it comes down to it, if you’re going to do it, do it away from laws or schools or anything like that. If you want to focus on the poor, or what you think Jesus said, that’s awesome, but you still have to clean up your mess. That’s my fear, that they’re going to get away with murder. We should be happy that we’re coming into a new age where religion feels that it sort of has to step back and are moving toward things accepting things like evolution, which is a fucking fact. I’m torn. This turned into an all-night debate, but that’s my take.

M.D: To your mind, what’s the number one social cause that’s most critically in need of support?
NG: This may be somewhat obvious, but the number one social cause that needs support is education in the truth. I’m not just saying about religion, but what’s scary is that it all comes out of that. Things like sex education, things like that are very grounded in religious repression. So education in and of itself, which sounds like a happy-go-lucky thing to say, but let’s be a little more in depth with that. That means removing religion bias from education. Evolution needs to be taught as a fact. There’s no controversy unless it’s within the fact of evolution.
M.D: Like a Darwinian evolution versus the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium sort of thing.
NG: Absolutely. Or if you want to debate theoretical things like string theory, great, hang out and do that. But as soon as you bring in this completely made up world of fairy tales, you’re not helping anybody, you’re just dumbing shit down and giving people simple answers to complex questions. I very strongly believed that no one should ever be forced to either believe or not believe. I feel like it should definitely be an educational process. That’s why I believe we need to keep this shit out of education. There are too many kids coming out of school with wacky ideas about birth control and things that make them puppets. How we educate ourselves and our children affects everything in our society. You have to teach people to use their minds and not look for the easy way out.
M.D: To that end, obviously social change starts with a groundswell of the people and then falls uphill slowly. Once it reaches the top, can a government or social institution be a proper steward of social change?
NG: Yes. Absolutely. I’m not personally a big anarchist. I believe that there are systems that work, and when kept in correct checks and balances, they do work. It’s when those get unbalanced that’s it stops working. As weird as it sounds being the guy from Boysetsfire, I believe it can work and that it’s necessary to a certain extent to not fall into chaos. If we’re talking small little communes, absolutely, have your little anarchist party and that’s awesome. On a worldwide scale, I believe that certain institutions, governments, maybe even religious institutions, but I don’t feel like they need to be religious. I don’t feel like In order to be a caring person or someone that can affect change, rather than pointing to yourself or others, always pointing up. If you want to not take any of the credit and give it to someone else or some made up deity, that’s fine as long as you’re doing something good for somebody, I guess. We’re always going to need some form of laws, or rules and regulations made by human beings to protect and help other human beings if we feel it’s necessary to do so, which I do. It’s funny, I don’t feel like we have a responsibility to help others, but I think it’s in our best interest, and I think that we should. That’s my opinion and what weirds me out about these sort of right-wing Tea Party people like ‘no, all mine. I worked for this and it’s mine.’ Well, no, that’s not how you progress. I have a feeling a lot of that strangely stems in religion even though their religion tells them to give freely. They have this thing where the apocalypse is coming soon, God is coming back anyway and everyone’s going to be okay anyway, so we don’t need to do anything good now. Things like climate change and stuff doesn’t matter to them because we have a finite amount of time before we go to paradise. And/or, their enemies are all burned in a lake of fire for eternity, for doing some weird bizarre sin that no one should be punished that long for.
M.D: Which doesn’t seem very New Testament of them.
NG: No, absolutely not. I guess in a way, even though the New Testament is supposed to be the happier book of the two, it still has this fucked up ideology where Jesus is telling people ‘don’t worry about tomorrow, just worry about right here and now because I’m going to take care of tomorrow.’ He was telling people this thousands of years ago, and it’s terrifying. Leave your family and follow me, don’t save any money, just believe in me and starve to death, I guess, I’ll be back soon.
M.D: My dad told me once when I was about fourteen that the church can do a lot of great things, but there are people who take it far too literally.
NG: That’s what attracted me to when I was reading Anton LaVey and the whole put on that he was doing. He had that ritual that people craved, but it’s an atheistic viewpoint. So you’re helping yourself, but it’s a psychological experiment to an extent where you notice that people need a ritual. There’s something in us, and I don’t know what it is, I’m not a scientist or a behavioral specialist, but there’s something in us that needs that ritual, needs that consistency, needs something to feel a part of, that draws us to religion. But we can do that, and we can have that without needing to submit to something that doesn’t exist, and we can do it without submitting to any authority but our own.
M.D: Well, hey, hadn’t you heard? According to L. Ron Hubbard, we’ve all been trying to get free ever since Xenu the Warlord took us to the volcano in his Douglas DC-8.
NG: [laughs] That just blows my mind, the Scientology stuff. Number one, good on him. If you can rip off movie stars for that much fucking money, way to go. [laughs] Between that shit and the Mormons, that shit is easily traceable, man! That didn’t happen thousands of years ago, you can just look back and see the whole shit, you know? I have to applaud those two, good of you, somehow. You tapped into something that stupid people just cling to.
M.D: There is a certain amount of carnival barking in Scientology that’s admirable, in its own way.
NG: Exactly. It’s almost like when you meet somebody who’s just so wildly racist, like ‘well, good on you man, sticking to your guns there, aren’t you? Wow.’
M.D: I don’t know if you’re a hockey fan, but I feel that way about Don Cherry and his passive hatred of Europeans at this point.
NG: Yeah. There’s a point where you have to sit back sometimes and really appreciate the levels people can go to, and the ways people can cling to the most inane and bizarre shit.
M.D: As a last horribly nerdy note, I don’t know if you’re a comic book fan or not, but when I got the press release that said ‘speak to Nathan Gray’ I thought, ‘hey, that’s Cable!’
NG: Yeah, Cyclops’ son. You’re only the second interviewer I’ve gotten that from. I used to have, someone bought it for me, a Nathan Grey X-Men figurine. ‘X-Men’ was always a big one for me. Daredevil and Batman were always my favorites growing up, and it’s funny how I grew up and starting believing the way I do, because I was always sort of a humanist and I always loved Daredevil and Batman the people. Not these superhuman people that got powers out of nowhere, it was always these people that something terrible happened to them and through their own strength they turned themselves into this a machine of a fucking superhero and started kicking the shit out of bad guys. Through their own intelligence and their own power. Those were the superheroes I really identified with.

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