DOWNPOUR Interview: Derek Kerswill and Matt LeBreton talk debut album

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It is not everyday you get to interview an extremely talented musician, but also someone you consider a friend. I met drummer Derek Kerswill over a decade ago with his band Seemless when they performed alongside The Sword. Since then, he has played with Unearth,and managed a few other bands. His new band is Downpour, which physically releases its self-titled debut on December 7, (digital copies available now). Derek and I recently caught up to chat about Downpour, and fortuitously he looped in guitarist Matt LeBreton which made for a highly informative, crazy, funny, good time.

Joining Derek and Matt in Downpour are Shadows Fall and Overcast vocalist, Brian Fair, and bassist Pete Gelles. The road to releasing their debut album has been fraught with hurdles and heartache, but their friends and fans have stood by them for which they are eternally grateful. These are four naturally funny and good-hearted dudes, and Downpour is a beast of an album! Bringing the metal out of Worcester, MA, Derek and Matt talk about how Downpour began, favorite songs, and difficulties of touring.

How did you and Matt meet, and how did Downpour come together?

Derek Kerswsill: Matt played guitar in a band that I absolutely loved called Frozen that was in my area while I was in Seemless and transitioning to Unearth. I had been managing Frozen briefly. I could not get enough of his guitar playing and I didn’t realize what a monumental presence he was in the band in terms of the writing. We started a friendship, and at one point in time he said ‘dude, I just really want to play with somebody like you, more rock and roll’. Matt definitely pushes the technical envelope a lot and I push the kind of polished production element and that’s why things are the way they are with us. We wear our influences on our sleeve, yet it’s a new style that we have. Then Brian on top of it makes it feel like it is something so new. We love Anthrax. We have a song that is the Anthrax song right now, it’s a new one, and we just say ‘Hey, do you want to play that Anthrax song?’ Just wait for that! Him and I just got along great. Okay, fast forward, I leave Unearth, and within days, him and I were playing together. We were both going through a really really tough time. Matt’s marriage was on the fritz and I was still trying to reconcile my split with Unearth. I didn’t know if I wanted to be in a touring band, I just want to play music I love. And then all of the sudden, we wrote a song together. Then we wrote another one in another couple of minutes. Then when we walked out of the room that day, we had written multiple songs.

Matt LeBreton: Yeah it went pretty quick. We went down to our old jam spot in Fitchburg because we were having a birthday party for Derek. So all the bands, we have a big group of friends that are all musicians, were all hanging out drinking and listening to vinyl down at the jam spot. Derek and I started talking and we decided, you know what fuck it, let’s jam, let’s have some fun, see what happens. The first time we jammed it was like, what the hell, alright, let’s keep doing this. Before you know it, we pounded out four or five songs completely written. It went really smoothly. The first couple of songs we wrote were way more rock than we are now.

DK: I agree. ‘Astral Projection’ was one of the first songs we ever wrote together, and it never changed with the exception of maybe cutting a couple things out that were running a little long.

I can actually see that with that track because it is a little bit less heavy than the others, but it still fits perfectly on the album.

DK: Oh she’s right dude, yeah it’s a little bit of a rock and roll vibe.

ML: Right, I remember writing the meat and potatoes of that song down in my old basement. When I wrote it, I wasn’t sure if it was going to go over well. I can remember bringing it to Derek and just being like ‘eh I got this and maybe?’ he loved it and saw the potential of it. We ended up turning it into what it is now.

DK: You have to understand, Matt and I, we don’t know how it works, we don’t even speak to each other, we just talk to each other musically. I am not trying to be this Zen weirdo or anything, but we always know where each other are going. We balance each other out so well. We are very much into having an element of hope and projecting hope within the music. That frustration from the initial inspiration was when we were going through rough times, but ultimately hopeful and that’s what you got from the track order. We wanted to come out of the gates pissed off, then kind of get moody, and then take it out as hopeful as possible, so that people felt good.

That’s perfect, I’m big on the positive lyrics and I think it’s awesome you did it in that order. It makes it very real and very raw.

ML: Brian’s perfect at that, he’s always been like that though. His lyrics always kick ass and what he did with that record, he really brought it to life for me. We had a lot of those songs done and had been jamming them. We were used to playing them without vocals and then he comes along and adds all of that into it and it really pops.

DK: He transformed the songs, to be honest with you.

Well I think you all did in your own respects, and the magic that’s happening between you guys is very rare. I think it’s amazing that you are able to find people that you can have that magic with.

DK: Awe thanks. He’s one of my best friends in the world, I love him so much. This band means a lot to both of us. We went through a lot this last year. If we didn’t have this, I don’t know where we would be, I honestly mean that. He’s a special guy.

ML: Yeah, we definitely went through a lot writing that record. You know Pete always says, ‘Tuesday night therapy sessions’, because we always used to practice on Tuesday nights. Go down, rock out, get all bad feelings out, and feel good by the end of the night.

And what a way to do it, music is always so healing and when you have a way to create it, that’s a whole other aspect of it.

DK: Absolutely. We forget about that sometimes. It takes fans and people like you that appreciate it to remind us. We are just doing what we want to do, nobody’s pushing us, nobody’s making us do anything. Everything about it is exactly what we want. For the first time in my life. I am not discrediting anything I have ever done, but I have never been able to just have so much creative freedom.

That’s awesome, that’s what makes albums like Downpour. You mentioned Anthrax as being one of your influences, who are some of your other influences?

DK: Great question for us to answer together. I will say collectively, Pantera. Would you say Pantera is our probably our favorite metal band?

ML: Well its hard to me to say what my favorite metal band is. Yeah, you always talk about ‘what would Vinnie Paul do?’ we always kind of think back to what would Pantera do in this situation, but there is so many other vibes that we go through too. Gojira.

DK: Gojira is a huge one, Neeka. Him and I love love love Gojira.

How can you not? They are incredible.

DK: My favorite modern metal band, period. We try to take an atmospheric approach, that nobody does. Which is another thing we have that I feel is a little different. We only do what is right for the songs. Literally, Matt wasn’t kidding, I said ‘WWVD’ He asks, ‘what’s that mean?’ What would Vinnie do? And he said, ‘that’s going to be our new philosophy.’ If Vinnie doesn’t do it, we are not doing it.

I don’t think that leaves a lot of things out though.

DK: (laughs)  Hanging out at strip clubs, drinking a lot, oh wait wait what??

ML: I’m a huge Dream Theater fan. I love a lot of bands like that. Being a guitar player, I am always attracted to people that can really push it, like Jeff Loomis, but I also love a lot of the old school death metal that came out of the 90’s, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, that kind of stuff. Also, Metallica, Sepultura, Megadeth, In Flames, Dark Tranquility, At The Gates, Soilwork, Opeth.

DK: We have a great friend Jimmy Phelps, who is our guitar tech, but fills in on bass when Pete cannot. He is a great asset and helps out so much, which we really appreciate. It is difficult for Pete to get to us. Pete adds such an incredible element to the band though because, a lot of bass players are formally guitar players that just want to be in a band, so they end up playing bass, but he is specifically a bass player.

Jeffery Fultz right?

DK: Yes, perfect example, Jeffery Fultz is a bitching guitar player, but he just wanted to be in Seemless, so he played bass. Pete is a bass player, and an incredible bass player. He is the first bass player I have worked with that is actually a bass player. Slo (John Maggard) from Unearth was a piano player, but just ended up playing bass in Unearth and he is great. Pete is awesome.

DKAnders Friden (In Flames) said he had been wanting to work with me on a project. I said, ‘I’m writing with a guy, I think you’re going to love it’, and sent him all the demos. He responded, ‘come to the In Flames show, I’ll talk to you after.’ So, Matt and I went and saw them. After the show Anders said, ‘I want this stuff to kick me in the fucking chest’. Matt and I looked at each other and said, no problem. I also had been talking to Mike Inez (Alice in Chains) about playing bass. He had mentioned he wanted to play in a more metal band. Then he joined a little band called Heart, and I said, ‘oh don’t worry about my side project man, you go and do what you need to do.’ (laughs) We had Pete jamming with us thinking Mike Inez was going to track and play and then it just didn’t happen. Then Anders ended up having another child and he said, ‘Guys I can’t join, I’m in Sweden, you guys are in the States, I really wanted to but its not going to work.’ At this point, I told Matt, ‘I know all the singers, Randy, Jesse, Brian, lets send them each a song and do like a Probot kind of thing and let them each pick a song.’ Brian was the first one, I sent three songs to him and he called me back before I could send any to anyone else and said ‘I don’t want to sing on one of these, I want to sing on all of them, and by the way, can I join your band?’ and that’s how that happened.

How do you say no, right?

ML: You don’t say no to Brian Fair. He’s the greatest.

DK: I just sent him a text the other day and said, ‘Thank you.’ He replied, ‘For what?’ I said, ‘You took our band and not only gave us a message, but an intelligently written one and I can’t thank you enough.’ We’ve all said it, it’s the single greatest work that he has done, period. I’ve never heard him sound so confident and particularly in the more melodic ideas, he’s never sounded that strong. I listen to the record as a fan of the guys, but I also think it’s the best record I’ve done. That is because Matt and I made sure it was the best record we ever did. I remember saying at one point, ‘lets pretend this is the last record we are ever going to make.’

What’s your favorite song on the album?

DK: Matt you answer that first, I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

ML: Favorite song on the album? Might be ‘Beautiful Nothing.’ That song is a lot of fun to play because it has so many different vibes within it, but I don’t know, I think they are all different. That one is probably my favorite to play.

I can see why, it has a lot of changes in it, which has to keep it fun.

DK: It’s a journey for sure.

What about you Derek?

DK: Ok, I am going to explain a couple of things. First of all, the last track “Mountain”, you may not know, and a lot of people don’t, is a cover of a band called Great Northern. We transformed the song from the original,  to more of a marching-esque drum vibe. It has really heavy staccato guitars and bass and it’s really heavy but transitions into a beautiful chorus. That one I love as an outro to the record, just because it is its own thing. I’m partial to ‘Still Waiting’ and ‘Without the Fear’, which is a two-part song. ‘Still Waiting’ just came to be. Matt had come up with this acoustic idea which was just absolutely beautiful, then Brian said ‘I want to come up with a mantra for over it.’ I said, “I wrote two lines while I was in the hospital room watching my grandfather die, and I don’t know if you want them, but you can have them, because I just feel like they are really powerful.’ I sent it over, ‘we are waiting for your last breath, so you can find peace in the light of death.’ I wrote that watching my grandfather die, he died that day. Brian said, ‘I want to use that.’ While he was here, recording vocals, we had a conversation between him and I about dying. I told him ‘I’m just really afraid to die, I really love living, and I’m afraid to die.’ Brian said, ‘well without the fear of losing everything, would you ever really live your life?’ That really hit me. Now I’m taking more of a Hindu perspective and having am more hopeful. It’s an internal peace. This is what drove the record, real life stuff. And Tuesday nights was when we would get together, hug it out, have a few drinks, maybe.

ML: I would never do something like that (laughs) I would never drink a lot of whiskey.

DK: It’s a really really deep record.

Going forward, what are your plans to evolve?

ML: We have a ton of material we have written. We actually have a few songs that we have already recorded, and for the most part mixed down and we just need to add vocals and finalize the mix. I’m definitely prepared to just keep pumping out tunes as long as we can.

DK: Matt and I started taking the business end of this, I was somewhat managing us like I had with Seemless, but Matt was not too experienced in terms of the business side of what we were doing.

ML: Course not, I knew how to write riffs. (laughs)

DK: That’s why I had managed a band he had been in before, because they didn’t know what they were doing, and I wanted to help them because I loved what he was doing. Him and I are an institution now, we are in each other’s lives permanently for something that is near and dear to us. At first I was doing everything business wise, then I started talking to him and explaining all of it because we had some things going on. We had labels coming at us and we were doing a pledge music campaign. Then I got a job where I couldn’t do anything anymore, and he ended up getting hurt at work and needed something to do, so he took it over. And he’s been running the ship every since, to the point that he took care of everything in terms of the label we are signed to now, Noize in the Attic. From there, he has been dealing with everybody.

ML: Well Brian put me in tough with Jay Reason from Noize in the Attic. As soon as that connection was made, things started looking good for us. Those guys have been nothing but fantastic to us. They have really helped out in a lot of arenas with all the social media stuff. The way everything is now with all the streaming platforms, the game has definitely changed. We do have certain plans, and I don’t know how much I can really say, but we are definitely looking to expand and move forward and keep people’s heads banging. We got some great stuff written, and if anybody is a fan of this record, wait until you hear the other stuff that is yet to come.

Are you guys planning on touring?

DK: That’s a tough one. I would love to end up doing something. Matt has toured before, but not with his own project, and I think that would be important for him. For me, I want to do anything that is comfortable and won’t make us lose money, and that is going to be hard until this goes a little further. For now, I am happy to be the Steely Dan of metal, just writing records and pumping them out. I want people to really just need us to come to them. I think it is going to happen.

ML: The thing is, we would all love to tour, but wanting to and being able to are two different things. Bands usually end up losing a lot of money on tour. You are going from show to show, and they say they will give you a couple of drink tickets and order you food. When we ask if we are going to get paid our guarantee, they come back saying ‘sorry, I know it was a guarantee, but it doesn’t matter.’

DK: (Derek hysterically laughs) Neeka, I told you this was going to be great.

ML: It is a lot different to be able to handle that kind of stuff when you’re in your mid-twenties, you don’t have a family depending on you or a mortgage, you don’t have all these bills. It is another thing entirely to put yourself in that situation. I’m not going to tell my kid, ‘hey good luck. I know you don’t get to eat tonight, but daddy is going to go live his dream so’ (Derek continually hysterically laughing in the background). You know what I mean?

Yeah and I appreciate the honesty, because that’s what people need to hear, that’s what it has become and that’s okay you want to make it worthwhile.

ML: We want to tour, we just are not quite there yet, but I am not closing the book on that. I’m still hopeful.

DK: Likewise here

Any last things you want to add or share?

ML: I want to thank everyone that has ever liked anything on our social media or has taken the time to listen to us. Anybody that has somehow supported us, really thank you. We have had quite the difficult time getting this music out. Every possible scenario that could have gone bad, did and has, and its been a long road. I know people wanted this album a long time ago, we did too, but we appreciate everybody that is actually giving a shit right now.

DK: He couldn’t have said it any better, we are proud of this stuff, even today with little things like this, they are big things to be honest with you. I had a kid I hadn’t talk to since fifth grade hit me up on Facebook and say ‘astral projection is my favorite song, is this band active? What’s your deal, how you been?’ I said, ‘oh my god! Benji McGinnis?’ I haven’t talked to him in forever! I would have never thought he was listening to our record, but that is the kind of stuff I care about more than anything. That people are affected by it and moved by it in some emotional way. I just want people to feel something. We wrote it because we needed hope, and that is all we are trying to do is give people that hope, that we needed.

Downpour is wreaking havoc in the metal world, in a positive way, and will continue to. As a music fan, nothing pleases me more than hearing how much heart and soul goes into an album. You can clearly hear with this album, all the emotion and heavy rawness. It is an unbelievably, beautifully done album that should make it to everyone’s lists.

 

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