Paying the Devil His Due: A Conversation with Steve Janiak

It's been a long career with some personal twits and turns for Steve Janiak, lead singer and hype man for Indianapolis-based metal band Devil to Pay. Over the years, there have been lineup changes, legitimate health scares, and all the other common machinations that prey on bands the world over. Coming through all that stronger than ever, Devil to Pay returns with a fresh deal with Ripple Music and a punchy new album with a new outlook in "Fate Is Your Muse." Steve sat down with me to talk about his band, his life-changing episodes, medically induced comas and the Indianapolis Colts. Read on:
M.DREW: You have a new album out, “Fate Is Your Muse.” Describe how this effort is different from other Devil to Pay records?
STEVE JANIAK: I guess first, it’s coming from a more developed and mature space musically and lyrically. I think also that we had been communicating with Ripple Music, so there was some anticipation of something good happening with them at the time we went to record. So, I believe that attitude of performance and overall vibe was very high. Otherwise, we’ve always kind of done the same thing. Work on a bunch of new jams, put ‘em together, sort through them and pick the ones we like the most. It was business as usual on that end.
M.D: The accompanying press releases talk about this album coming after a mind-expanding epiphany. Can you elaborate on that?
SJ: I can try. Basically, I had an experience where I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. I was watching TV and I had the laptop and I was organizing files or doing whatever I was doing, and there was a voice in my head. It basically told me that everything was connected and had a strange, positive spiritual message. At the time, I jokingly responded to it and it didn’t really occur to me until later that it wasn’t a figment of my imagination. Normally, when you talk to yourself, there’s not any sort of response. The way that happened, I was overwhelmed with it, like a ‘why did this happen to me?’ kind of thing. It set me on a path, searching for the meaning of life, I guess, though that’s a cliché way to put it. I had been listening to Radiolab probably two months before that, they had a podcast on the placebo effect. In that, there was a doctor who had hypnotized a young boy and he cleared up a skin condition on his arm overnight. So I was enraptured with this podcast, and after my epiphany I went back and listened to all of their podcasts, found some other interviews and got into quantum theory reading and everything came together at once and it was a process, like metaphysical bread crumbs for me. I think I went from being ‘midlife crisis guy’ to ‘open to the universe guy’ in a matter of months. It changed my outlook and it bled into the lyrics and the themes and everything that was happening in my life, including all the band stuff.
M.D: Prior to that experience, would you have called yourself a spiritual person?
SJ: Not exactly. I was raised Catholic, but I kinda fell out of that in high school. My interest in religion was very low. I didn’t have sort of fundamental theory about theology or the universe or my place in it. I was lost in those directions at that point. Though, I did have a strong belief in intuition and voices within, so there was that. At that point, it was almost like I’d been waiting to be on that search, ‘what is the meaning of everything,’ it was a blip, it was really quick, and it nudged me into this other area. I could talk for hours about the things I’ve discovered, but it really just gave me a grounding place and a different, more positive outlook on the world.
M.D: Considering that, if the legend is true, Devil to Pay began after you emerged from a coma, and now you have this epiphany, do you ever start to feel like something off-the-wall has to happen for your music to evolve?
SJ: [laughs]. No, not really. First of all, the biography briefly tells the story of what happened when we started the band, but it’s kinda gotten a little bit twisted. We had started the band in early 2002, and I had a blood clot that summer in my leg which went into my lungs and that was a pulmonary embolism. So I spent like, eleven days in the hospital and started taking blood thinners. The whole time, the band had been playing. And then the next spring, I stopped taking the blood thinners without consulting my doctor and I got another blood clot in my intestine but I didn’t know it. By the time I figured it out, I had to go to emergency surgery. And during that process, I guess after the surgery I pulled all the wires and stuff that was hooked up to me and got out of the bed. They freaked out and put me in a drug-induced coma so I didn’t hurt myself, because I had a giant hole in my abdomen. When I came out of that, there was a lot of hallucinations and weird dreams and stuff, that was kinda cool at the time. Main thing was, they didn’t know if I was gonna make it, and I never imagined that I wasn’t gonna make it. When I came back out of all the hospital stuff, the band was still waiting to get rolling, man. This is what I do. Some of the articles I’ve read twisted it around that I took a bunch of drugs and was in a coma and started the band after that, but that’s not actually true. It sounds more interesting that way, though.
M.D: Listening to this new record, I’ll cite “This Train Won’t Stop,” which is very different from your previous catalogue. It’s faster, it’s got more of a, if you don’t mind my saying so, ZZ Top swing in it, but it sounds very natural. What made you guys decide to experiment going that way?
SJ: Well honestly, we don’t really think that much ahead, and sometimes that’s hurt us, in a few ways. Lot of people have ideas of what a band is supposed to sound like when you tell ‘em you’re in a stoner rock band or a doom metal band. I admit I don’t pay attention to the labels as much as I should. In ten years I’ve learned a lot about music so I can tell the difference between a doom metal song and a stoner rock song and a traditional rock song. But all through the time we’re doing the band we’ve had influences that we liked who were a specific style of music and we wrote what we wrote, and that ended the way it was. We weren’t necessarily experimenting, we were just jamming and that riff popped out. Everyone was into it. The weird thing about that song is, that’s an anti-apocalypse song. The whole 2012 thing got really big with the movie, talking about the end of the world and stuff. Some people were really serious and some thought it was stupid, and I was really annoyed with it. My wife and I have been to all kinds of Mayan sites in the Yucatan, and most of that stuff wasn’t even true! There was no actual ‘end of the world’ prediction by them, so most people saying it was the Mayans was even more annoying. So all that bled into the lyrics. However, on previous albums, I sang about the end of the world before. I don’t know if that makes me a hypocrite [laughs]. I just try to go where the vibe of the music takes me. The lyrics kinda stem from that.
M.D: Speaking of previous albums, I want to back in time for just a second. For “Heavily Ever After,” you did the video for “Megistotherium” by presenting your band playing “Rock Band” to your song. How did that all come together, because that song was not in “Rock Band.”
SJ: No. No, we actually tried to get our song in “Rock Band” but by the time we had figured it out, “Rock Band” was on the decline. That concept came pretty fast, and trying to pull it off, it didn’t work out how I had it in my head. There’s a TV in front of us, but you can’t tell it’s a TV because we’re facing the other direction. So the hardest part was to put all the chords and guitar necks and lyrics on the screen in a believable fashion. It was fun. I found some clips online of guys demoing the new “Rock Band,” and I took them into a video editing program and made the magic happen.

M.D: Aside from your recent life-affirming epiphany, how would you say your perspective is different musically after all these years as a band? What lessons have you learned along the way?
SJ: Hm. I think the main thing for us and for me is to follow your instinct. Make sure you’re having fun with what you’re doing. Because at some point in time, it’s stressful to try to promote your band and be successful, whatever that means to you. If and when you lose sight of that, and you’re not having fun, that’s when you have to step back and take a look at it. I think if I’ve learned anything over all the years in the band, it’s most important that we’re having fun, getting along, and doing it for the reasons we picked up the instruments in the first place. That feeds into having fun when you’re writing songs as well. We tried to make an album was all we set out to do, and we have tons of songs we didn’t finish all the way through. We wanted to paint a broad picture because we all have influences that we’re proud of.
M.D: You mentioned that there were some times in the past when a lack of foresight hurt your band, can you cite a couple examples?
SJ: Just in general, there were times people disagreed about plans or what to do or what’s our next step. Sometimes life gets in the way or you have to take a break. If you don’t get along that can be another issue. We’ve had guitar players come and go. There’s all of that. It’s not all roses, but that’s the way it goes, I guess. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass, and sometimes other people suck the fun out of what you’re doing. At some point in time, I remember telling these guys that no matter what happens, I still want to write a record. I don’t want to disagree to the point of ‘let’s all do something else.’ Let’s focus on the music. Any other decisions about how much you’re going out and touring or how much time you have to spend, or what do we really need…if you can get to the good part, the making music part, the rest of that stuff should take care of itself, in theory.
M.D: Do you feel like being in a band from Indianapolis, which is not traditionally thought of as a metal or stoner scene, hurt your band? Corollary to that, did you ever think of relocating?
SJ: I don’t think we ever thought of relocating, because we were all over thirty with homes and significant others at the time the band formed. I do think that it’s not always in everybody’s best interest to stay in the Midwest if they have big dreams because it’s not taken that seriously here. On the other hand, the guys from Gates Of Slumber have done great things and been to Europe many times, they’re still based here. I wish there was a way bands could highlight what they’re doing when towns aren’t supporting them like they should. I can’t complain about our support, though. We’ve always been pretty fortunate.
M.D: Do you feel like the emergence of a digital marketplace has made it easier to get your music out there to a wider audience?
SJ: Yeah, I think so. If we had to do the old physical mailing list and didn’t have the network of the Internet or Facebook kind of thing, it would be really difficult to reach the amount of people that we reach at this point. Thinking about that guy from South Korea and that ridiculous song that’s been viewed eight million times, pretty good example of making a mountain out of a molehill. But it’s so much easier to do something with people who’ve checked us out over the last ten years and we’re pretty grateful for that.
M.D: For those who haven’t been, what is the music scene like in Indianapolis, metal or otherwise?
SJ: There’s a diverse group of bands and musicians. Indiana in general is pretty flat and a spread out place. Indianapolis is also pretty flat and spread out, so there’s different neighborhoods and different kinds of bands popping up in different neighborhoods. There’s a few venues that are really responsible for these bands having a chance to play. It’s kind of a small town feel, with big city population, if that makes sense.
M.D: Confirm or deny the stereotype…everyone in Indiana plays basketball?
SJ: [laughs]. I don’t know. I gave up basketball in fifth grade because I sucked at it. I have spent time watching a lot of basketball. I’m just not a good shot. I used to be able to defend okay. I have played it, but I was never good enough to make any of the teams, and I got my first guitar at age eleven. After that, there was no reason to be running back and forth.
M.D: How good in Andrew Luck, and can he be better than Peyton Manning?
SJ: I think Andrew Luck is very good, and I definitely think the potential is there for him to be better than Peyton Manning. I had my moments of frustration…as good as Peyton was, he seemed to get flustered sometimes, and I don’t see that with Andrew Luck. I know he was just a rookie, but I see a little more outright confidence in what he does, and I think that may be the x-factor. We’ll have to see, a lot of high hopes on that young man in Indianapolis. I think we got very lucky, not to be punny about it, the way that happened.
M.D: Living in Indiana, what was that moment like, when everyone found Manning wasn’t going to be playing for the Colts anymore?
SJ: I would say it was pretty bleak. There were a lot of people complaining about it. For a long time it was up in the air, people were mumbling about ‘oh, he’s done, he’s done.’ It was more surprising that he was gonna be in another town. That was hard to deal with because he wasn’t supposed to retire anywhere else. If it hadn’t gone that way, if he hadn’t the neck thing, he could have just played it out for another couple years and after we would have been pretty terrible for another five to ten years depending on how lucky they got draft wise. It’s not easy to find a quarterback that can take that kind of punishment and play at a high level all the time.
M.D: Last thing, we’ll get you out of here on this…recently, I was standing in a crowd watching Clutch and Orange Goblin, and I thought to myself ‘I’m taking to Steve soon, and Devil to Pay not only would fit in, but belongs on this bill.’ So I’ll ask you, if you were putting together a dream tour to go out on, who would be on it?
SJ: Oh gosh, there’s so many great choices. That would be ideal for us, definitely. Those two bands have been huge influences on me and the other guys. I can’t even fathom having the options be that wide. Definitely would love to play with ZZ Top or Deep Purple in their prime. Of course, Black Sabbath is supposed to be coming around soon, that would be a dream. We’re doing some dates around the Midwest with our buddies from Lo-Pan, that’s looking to be pretty awesome for us as well.

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