…at Metal High. Joel Graham of thrash metal monsters Evile says hello
“Beer and heavy metal, what could be better?” reasons Joel Graham, when we ask him how his job as a thrash metal bass player complements the bar work he does when his band Evile are off the road. We chuckle and raise a glass to sentiments like this one, of course, but it’s important to note that while thrash metal has always been a genre of music infused with beers, bongs and banging (of the head) and a lot of fun as a result, Evile take what they do very seriously.
The Huddersfield quartet – Graham plus Matt Drake (vocals, guitar), his brother Ol (guitar) and Ben Carter (drums) – have just released their fifth album, Skull. A mesmerisingly powerful set of tunes that focus on withering speed and stomach-churning heaviness, the album features precise but crushing bass parts. Listening to the synergy Graham enjoys with the other musicians, you’d never know that it’s only his second album with Evile: as fans of the band will know, he stepped up to replace the group’s late original bassist Mike Alexander in 2009.
“This album was a lot easier than my first one, Five Serpent’s Teeth (2011),” explains Graham. “The nerves were gone this time, because I knew I could do it. It was like hanging around with mates: we just knew what needed to be done.”
Ask about the technique required to play Evile’s songs, many of which are ridiculously fast, and Graham explains that – unlike most metal bass players – he alternates between pick and fingerstyle. “I’ve always been a fingers player, but originally Mike played all his songs with a pick, and I wanted to play Mike’s songs exactly like he did, so I switch to pick for those. Also, some songs just sound better with a pick, especially in the studio. I’m quite heavy with my fingers, so when I switch to them from a pick there isn’t too much of a tone change. I use a Sansamp just to get a bit of crunch. You can’t beat it.”
Bass-wise, Graham recently made a change, he says. “I’m playing ESP now. I’d never really looked at them before, but they sent me a couple to try out. I usually like old-school basses, which is why I was with Fender for so long, but the ESPs sounded so good, with such a grunt to their sound. I don’t have to do anything with the tone: I just plug in and they sound good. We tune down half a step, with four or five strings, although I prefer four. They feel more comfortable, just through habit. I do have a five at home, but I only use it in the studio.”
The million-dollar question for anyone interested in playing thrash metal bass is, of course, how the hell does anyone pick that fast while remaining accurate? “I put my little finger across the bridge, which acts as a support,” Graham reveals. “It keeps your hand stable when you’re picking fast. It’s a bit strange, almost like a vibrating technique. I just did it by accident and it felt comfortable. I usually use three fingers if I’m not using a pick: I just go 3-2-1, 3-2-1 or 3-2-1-2, 3-2-1-2. Or I can just use two fingers: either way is fine for me.”
Ask him about his influences, and he says: “Frank Bello of Anthrax, and Steve Harris of course. I used to love watching Bello’s performance. Cliff Burton too, of course. Watching that guy play on the Cliff ’Em All video was so amazing when I was a kid. I think he aspired to be the best, and what he did for the bass guitar in metal was so important.”
Finally, is playing thrash as much fun as it looks? Resoundingly so, he explains. “It’s one of the best kinds of music to play! There’s more space to move around with the bass parts than I originally thought there would be, actually, because I always played more rocky, groove-based music before Evile. Coming back to thrash metal was really exciting: the adrenaline is totally uplifting!”