Darkest Hour’s
Mike Schleibaum,
The TVD Interview

For close to 20 years, Northern Virginia’s Darkest Hour has been toiling away just under the surface to the mainstream metal scene. At the center of it all, founding guitarist Mike Schleibaum has guided the band through the tough waters of the ever-changing music scene, navigating them to their latest release, 2014’s self-titled album with new label Sumerian Records.

The band has honed their sound, and the metal masses responded with open arms, pushing their latest toward being their most successful release to date. This interview hit even more close to home—both of us going to the same high school mere minutes from Empire in Springfield, VA, where the band headlined a festive homecoming show before embarking on their European tour.

We stood outside the van, talking amongst friends, family, and bandmates. We toasted a beer, shared some whiskey, and a haze of herbal magic was in the air as we discussed Darkest Hour and pondered the current state of heavy metal and the validity of twerking in metal videos.

Welcome home! Feel good to be playing the hometown?

I guess we could call Springfield, Virginia our hometown. It is the closest to Burke, Virginia, which is where we first had band practice. It’s interesting to me to come back, because what happens out here in the suburbs is that you grow up and you usually leave. We haven’t played here in over a decade, which is nuts to me to think that there could be some kind of continuing…I don’t want to say “legacy,” but lingering thing about the band that’s existed. This isn’t a major city, it’s outside of Washington, D.C. This is kind of weird.

It’s suburbia.

Yeah. They have a lot of metal shows here, this club has been good for the metal scene.

Oh yeah, there have been metal shows here since we were in high school.

Exactly. This is where they buy the metal shows. I think it’s cool. I really like what they’ve done with the place, how they’ve changed it. All the people who work there now are younger people who are excited and into the music that’s now. It doesn’t feel like you’re in a museum.

It gave the club a little burst of energy?

Yeah, it has. I’m excited. When I got up on that stage to soundcheck, it was so fuckin’ weird. I was telling these dudes as we were loading in, I said, “When I was a kid, and we would try to play Jaxx [Empire’s former name] before anybody knew who any of our bands were, this is what I would have thought about all week. Nothing but the show, the show, the show.” I remember when being in a band was so new, that you would really love everything about it. It was cool. I hung out with some of the local bands that played today for a little bit.

Did you see a bit of a mirror of yourself back then?

Yeah, sort of. It’s hard, because things are so different. The way kids are and what they’re into and how they are exposed to stuff is so different from me, it’s hard to see similarities at times. Then other times, it’s cool to learn from them. The things that they are exposed to, the access to music and the learning tools, it’s awesome to learn from the kids too.

Oh, yeah. Well, you’ve been in the game long enough to remember the days of passing out flyers. Now, it’s making sure that you’re all over Facebook.

Dude, I posted flyers, and I still think handbills are a good thing. I post pictures of flyers, and I always say, “Before the internet, we used to go to Kinko’s, and make these things.” You know how you used to go to hardcore shows, and they had these cards. The cards were basically like pirated Kinko’s card, and they were used for flyers. Some dude who worked at Kinko’s would make like $100 cards and sell them to everybody for $10. There was just an underground of promotion. You had to meet somebody to get a flyer so you were interacting with people in a different way.

Absolutely.

That’s what I really like about it. I guess, to circle back, I miss something about that analog kind of interaction, bit there’s something to be said for passing communication around fast.

Definitely. One-hundred and forty characters and the click of a button, and people in Europe are reading about your show.

We have like 150,000 people on Facebook, and I’m thinking, “That’s a city.” You know?

It really is. What do you think it was about this area that helped shape you as a musician?

First, you had access to the city. You were able to go and see all types of shit in D.C. Also, you were in kind of a safe place. Kids can get away with a lot more in the suburbs. I was able to jam, be loud with my friends. We could have parties. We were able to develop as a small, little local band without having to deal with clubs. We would play V.F.W. halls.

There’s actually an intersection up there. [Points east down Old Keene Mill Road] There’s this dentist’s office, and we used to get a generator from Home Depot and go play the dentist office parking lot. There’s this one plug that was for hoses on the outside, and we would run off of it. Everybody would be playing in the parking lot. The cops would come, but dude, I’m telling you, there was no crazy Ferguson shit. The cops would be all nice, like “Well, we’re glad you guys aren’t destroying the fucking place, but you can’t really be here, you have no permit to be here.”

You don’t see that happening a lot nowadays.

Yeah, but I do think at the time, Fairfax and Burke, particularly, was a great place to grow up. You had access to things, you had safety, and I think that allowed us to learn how to be a band on a small level.

Tell us a bit about the new album.

The new album is thirteen tracks, unless you get the bonus version, then it’s fifteen track of pure rock and roll, that was made from misery, blood, sweat and tears, a bunch of people trying to make the best possible Darkest Hour album that they could make. Also, stretch what the band’ about, and what the band has to say.

In a strange way, and we were talking about this when we got here today, we haven’t played here in forever. It’s kind of like we’re starting over sometimes. I show up, and we were walking out of the club, and there’s these sixteen and seventeen year-old kids, just going “Fuck yeah!” and wearing the new Darkest Hour shirt from the new album, and they could give a shit about Undoing Ruin, or Deliver Us, or whatever in the past. I mean, I like it when people celebrate the whole catalog don’t get me wrong, but I just think it’s cool to know that the band can continue to infect people.

Those guys are gonna go and discover all the old DH albums, and they’ll be exposed to a whole different type of metal than is around now. I think it’s cool to just kind of wave that flag of progressive, sort of intelligent, pissed off heavy metal that is of the underground but is a little professional. There’s a niche for it. I’ve been seeing all this stuff about the end of the music industry everywhere.

I don’t believe it.

There’s still a niche for art.

I listen to songs like “Wasteland,” and the riffs are just brutal.

That’s the one that stuck out to you?

At first.

Well right, ‘cause that’s the first one, and you have to go through this whole emotional thing, like “Oooh god, can Darkest Hour sound like this? Wait, this is a groovy jam, this isn’t melodic thrash…” A lot of people have to go through this awakening of are they ok with it, and other people, they don’t define music so specifically. It all sounds like heavy metal to me.

I think certain bands, you know, you’ve got bands like Slayer and Motorhead, where every one sounds the same, but you accept that, and that’s cool. Other bands, you want to grow your sound, you want to let that develop and see where it goes.

To me, Slayer albums grow. Slayer albums are different. If you look at World Painted Blood, and then were to look at God Hates Us All, those are two different albums. Look at Seasons in the Abyss

Very true.

God Hates Us All is a very new, very super-produced sounding album. World Painted Blood, their other new album, I mean…

It was pretty raw.

That was like a fake punk album. I know they didn’t record that the way they’re trying to make it sound. They didn’t record it on a budget, they recorded it in a nice studio, but trying to make it sound blown out. To me, I just think that every band does kind of evolve, and the crazy thing is that I always loved bands that didn’t. I loved AC/DC, man. I can get into every album. I loved all the Black Sabbath albums with Ozzy. They didn’t change that much. I guess towards the end it got a little bit different, but my point is that they still had that sound. Nowadays, the way music is and the way people hear stuff, I do think it’s important to innovate and change, because people are looking, and there’s so much access to stuff. It’s almost option paralysis.

Attention spans have vastly decreased.

It’s insane to see, when you’re playing, to look down and see someone looking at their phone, they can’t do anything but look at their phone in the middle of the fucking show!

It’s a strange new phenomena.

They want to see the whole show while filming it through their phone! It’s like, “Dude, I’m right here. Do you see me here on the stage, in real life? I know you’re trying to get a video, but dude, why don’t we enjoy this experience together?” I don’t know.

Some bands are starting to call people out for it more and more.

We’re not gonna do that. We did all sorts of calling out of people for all sorts of shit back in the day. For moshing too hard, for heckling us, or having an opinion about us. All it does is draw attention away from the jams and what you’re there to do. It’s such a slippery slope. These phones are so ingrained into who we are now, I just don’t know if it’s a good idea to get up on a pedestal about them when all of us are so heavily dependent on them.

That’s an interesting counterpoint to what many see as a problem.

Hopefully someone will read this enough to get to this part, where we tell them that when they come to a show, be conscious. Take a photo or two, take a video of a part, steal a piece of our soul forever, indian tribe style, and then enjoy the moment.

Couldn’t agree more. So, on the new album, was the more melodic sound an organic growth or something you set out to do from the start?

There’s a few things going on. One, you have songs that are mid-tempo, occasionally. I think this gives the idea of “more melody,” when it’s just not blasting in your face. Also, John’s [Henry, vocalist] approach, which is way more melodic, and he’s singing a bunch more on top of some of those other changes. I think it mixes in, and you start to go, “Whoa.” The reason it took us so long to make the album was that you write things in drafts. The first draft or two of the album, we would play it for everybody in the inner circle, and they would just be like, “Oh. Cool. It’s a Darkest Hour album.” It just didn’t hit.

They were a little lukewarm about it?

It wasn’t even that, it’s that everybody kept thinking, “This is good, but where is this going?” Where is it going to go? So, to get there, we had to beat it up, change shit, try new things, live with things, then eventually you can find something new. It’s funny, because how do you know you got to somewhere new? You can tell by people commenting on how much they like some other song on another album, where you can say that the riff is in the same key, it’s pretty much the same time signature…what is that person talking about? Well, whatever we did, we scratched the surface of re-evolving the sound a little bit.

You then tried to just build on that path?

Yeah, and I don’t want to say it in a negative way, like the old sound was bad. You’ve got to keep continuing to add more. Metallica did it, and it’s a shame, because where they went, a lot of us don’t like.

True.

I feel like where we went is a little more of a reflection of where modern metal is. You look at Gojira. They scream, they play all types of weird rhythms and beats. They are the reigning kings of metal because it’s just straight imagination.

They are an amazing band.

It doesn’t fit into boxes. Just like where Mastodon goes. Certain bands are not afraid to just get out of whatever box, and once you do that, that’s when everybody follows you.

So, will there be twerking in the next Darkest Hour video?

I do really like the asses in the Mastodon video, and I do also think that…I do understand the comments about the sexism. This is a complex, broad issue that people have a lot of opinions on. I lost my mind when I watched the video.

In the big picture, mission accomplished. Everyone is talking about it.

To me, there is a weird racial thing happening here. They’re from Atlanta, tweaking is huge there. This is hip-hop style dancing in a metal video. They actually crossed lines.

Which is exactly why they did what they did.

Yeah! They crossed a lot of bridges, and I think that is something that people aren’t talking about, which is positive. I know for a fact, the way that those women think, like professional dancers, what they think, they’re proud of what they do. They’re empowered by having that ability to make people feel that lust, or whatever it is. It’s a tricky thing to handle on the internet, on a tweet. The whole thing got treated a little unfairly by everybody, but dude. When I watched it? My first impression was, “This is awesome.” Had you ever thought to put twerking in slow-motion? Ever? No!

It worked.

It had never occurred to me. It did work, it’s a good video. I will say, the one big girl at the end, I wanted it to tie in more with the séance shit. You know? I wanted her to come in and end up slaughtering all the weird devil worshipping people. But whatever, you know?

It would be a good addition for a director’s cut.

A good music video doesn’t leave you with a lot of actual detail, you just make up your own plot.

What kind of impact has the addition of Aaron and Travis had to the band?

Well, they both kind of bring different things. Aaron is, for lack of a better term, he’s like the wise old man. He’s been through a lot, he’s been playing in bands for a while, and he’s been living the hustle of being a musician for a really long time. He has a calm, stable kind of outlook on things. He thinks, he doesn’t get super emotional.

Travis is very meticulous, he’s a planner. He’s very much about discipline. We never really had any discipline in the band before. We never had anybody who had a system for how he liked to practice, and how the band could practice together. He’s a lot straighter a type of dude, he doesn’t party as hard as the rest of us, and he’s not as overtly as colorful, if you will, with his language.

Kind of balances the scales a little bit?

It’s just nice, because he’s serious, he’s not fuckin’ around. When he gets up there onstage, everybody pays attention because he brings something to the table that is unique. That is impressive.

Do you feel like you’ve hit a pretty good stride with this lineup?

It’s hard to tell, because we just started. We haven’t played that many shows together. We did a Killswitch tour, Mayhem Fest, then this. I feel like probably after this Machine Head tour we’re about to do, it’s gonna be firing on all cylinders. After six weeks in Europe, either everybody will want to kill each other, or we’ll have it down.

You mentioned touring on the Mayhem Fest this year. You were on the sidestage alongside bands like Cannibal Corpse and Body Count, and it seemed like the side stage ruled the show this year. What was that like for you?

I didn’t really grow up loving Korn or anything, so the main stage wasn’t my bag, really. It was great to be able to hang with all those dudes. Let me break it down for you: Upon a Burning Body, Suicide Silence, Body Count, Cannibal Corpse, Miss May I…um, fuck. I’m trying to think if I left anybody out that I partied with…I don’t know.

Wretched?

Yeah, Wretched, Ill Niño.

It was a great time out there at the side stage.

Pretty much everyone on this lineup brought something unique and special to what was happening. Also, the cool thing about it was that the beginning, there was a little bit of a competition vibe. Everybody had to puff out their chest.

Sure.

A few days in, it was just full on partying. [We take a brief whiskey pause.] What was cool about Mayhem was that people in the audience are, most of the time, your average heavy metal listener. They don’t really identify themselves as a “melodic thrash metal fan,” or a “death metal fan,” or a “black metal fan.” They’re sort of getting into all the subcultures at once, and are kind of moldable. I know some of my punk contemporaries, and some of the bands that we’ve toured with in the past. Dillinger, Converge, even Mastodon. Maybe that crowd isn’t where they wanna be, because they want to be in a place where they feel like, “if you don’t know, then you weren’t meant to.”

What I really like is going straight to that middle-of-the-mall type dude, going, “Yo, check out this motherfucking song,” and just blowing their minds wide open. We did a tour with Anti-Flag, and I’ll never forget how many times people would come up afterward, and go, “Dude, I’ve never seen anybody play drums like that.” It was like they’d never seen a kick pedal. Music is so fragmented now because of the option paralysis out there. People don’t even know what to look at.

In years’ past, it used to be that you were a “heavy metal band.” Now, there’s so many genres within metal. I think it goes back to what you said that you can still be a metal fan and listen to many different subgenres of metal, but many years ago, it was never this divided.

Yeah, and it’s weird. You think it would go the opposite way, because everything is influencing everything else. You think people wouldn’t hold onto those subgenres so hard, but it’s almost like in their inability to grasp what’s happening, they grasp some things even harder.

Did the new album get a vinyl release?

It’s coming out. Here’s the thing, the new album vinyl release got pushed back a little bit because we realized that it’s not going to fit on one album. We were trying to fit it on one record, to make the price point of the album a little cheaper, but the quality of the last couple of songs just sucked, because you get the grooves so close.

Just had to be spread out over two?

Yeah, so it’s going to be a two-disc vinyl jammer, it’s going to be the first one that actually needs to be a two-disc, and it’s gonna be awesome.

When that coming out?

It’s coming out probably by the end of the year. We also have a Mark of the Judas reissue that’s coming out on vinyl and CD.

Sumerian is releasing both of those?

Oh yeah, Sumerian is doing it all.

How has your time with Sumerian Records been for you?

Sumerian’s been awesome, because they gave us kind of an avenue to younger kids. It’s weird, you can’t quantify what it takes for somebody to think you’ve cool, but Sumerian gave us a road, after almost twenty years, to kind of get in front of that world. That was nice, and I think that the owner, Ash’s, passion for the band is unmatched. He’s been a fan forever, and he was there from the early days. Having that guy on your team, he had the balls to let us fuck around with the recipe. He’s a fan, and that’s what we needed. A lot of the people, they want to sign the band, and then they’re afraid to take risks. Because he is a fan of the band, he wanted to take risks because that’s where we were at.

That’s good to have that kind of support.

They did good by that, and a lot of people will say this or that, you know, “Oh Sumerian, whatever, your sound changed because of Sumerian.” Dude. Our sound changed because of the times. Our situation allows for us to do whatever we want, which is really the type of label you need to find, when you’re trying to create art.

Touching back on vinyl, are you personally into vinyl?

No. I have some vinyl, but I do not have a record player. I’ve drank the digital kool-aid. I’m so pissed my 160 Gb iPod got stolen a while back.

Mine too!

They fuckin’ discontinued that! Now all these iPods only have 16 Gb or 20 Gb, that’s nothing dude! I need my albums! I’m a fan of the digital collection of music in every way, just because I need the immediate. There’s a little bit of new-school going on here. [Laughs]

[From the front seat of the band’s van, Mike’s wife Sari adds:] You run around so much, when you listen to a record, you’ve got to sit still and listen to it.

Absolutely.

That’s the subjection from the old lady [Laughs] I like to run around a lot. Can you imagine, you can have…I don’t know, but it’s a lot of albums on 160 Gb. All on this little thing that fits in your pocket. That’s insane.

Oh yeah. My 160 Gb iPod had about 18,000 songs on it.

I know! And you put that motherfucker on random, and it was your personal radio. I know, I miss her, you miss her too. One day, they’ll make another one for us.

I hope so. I loved going from the theme to the Banana Splits to Mercyful Fate.

Exactly! Mercyful Fate, to Danzig, to the theme from Starsky and Hutch.

Exactly! [We both are laughing.] I recent years, you began producing as well. What do you personally get out of producing, and do you plan on doing more?

Yeah, I do a little bit of it still. I record bands when I’m at home, I’ve done some television production work. The thing that’s interesting when you produce a band, is that you learn something about what you’re doing. You have to teach a kid things like, “Dude, the way you’re gripping the guitar, you’re fuckin’ pushing it out of tune.” Then you start to understand that everything you do affects the way the guitar sits in tune, now all of a sudden you become more of a, I don’t want to say “expert,” but you have more expertise in that sort of situation. Being a producer allows you to fuck around with everybody else’s problems, and learn how to solve them before they hit you.

That’s rewarding, helping someone else grow and you grow at the same time.

Yeah, and that’s what I like about it. After you spend all your time to almost selfishly fight for your one little artistic nook, it’s kind of cool to help somebody else do it. You don’t have to be emotionally involved the way the people who are doing it are. You can just enjoy helping them try to get their dream going.

Absolutely.

It’s cool.

You have been involved with two side projects—Beasts of No Nation and Man and Wasp. Are these on hold, in the past, or still active?

Beasts of No Nation has a new album that we’re gonna record. Man and Wasp, those guys live in Sweden, so no, that was just an album we made.

That’s a little tough.

Oh yeah. Those are cool dudes, but that was just more to create. I have another old-school hardcore band that I’m trying to do. The funny thing is that outside of Darkest Hour, most of the stuff is pretty far from Darkest Hour. It’s more raw, more fucked up. I don’t know, a little more lo-fi, but I think it’s just a reaction to what it takes to make something as clean and sheen as this band. You just really don’t have the heart to want to do it again, because it’s a labor of love that is unmatched.

What’s down the road for Darkest Hour, what’s next?

Well, we’re gonna go on this tour with Machine Head. Next year, we need to do a proper American headline run. I want to put together a small package of bands that everybody loves, and go out there and just play a really nice, long set. Sure, there are a lot of games that go into headlining, you know, this or that, but I think it’s time that we focus on that after this Machine Head tour.

Then we’re gonna go do the summer festivals. We also have a whole part of the world we’ve got to go to. Places like Australia, Japan, we just want to give the album at least once around the world, then we’ll relax and either write another one, or continue playing concerts on that one. It really just depends on where it takes you.

Either way, it’s nice to have another installment in the discography of the band.

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