Metal is a very powerful form of music; it’s one of the greatest things in the world. It’s what led me to one of my favourite bands, who, in my eyes, have remained a force to be reckoned with, from the very beginning. Delivering some of the most skull-crushing death metal tunes since 1999, Tasmanian band Psycroptic, is undeniably a favourite and they have come a long way, not just on home ground in Australia but on the world metal stage as well. While I love their music more than words can explain, it’s the people who make up the band, that I’m constantly in awe of.
Having been a fan of them for as long as I can remember, I was very happy to catch up with Todd Stern, bassist of Psycroptic and a very dear friend of mine. A man of many talents and skills, he is arguably one of the most passionate and intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Speaking to me from his home in New Jersey, we sat down to have a very interesting and in-depth conversation about new music,the importance of band chemistry and the world of touring as a professional band. We also spoke about his love for hip-hop, dessert and more!
While having played and toured in bands for most of his life, he only joined Psycroptic in 2015 when he was requested to fill in for a tour and that’s where it all began.
“It’s still crazy to me that I’ve been with this band for five years. That’s what it’s all about. I know exactly what I was doing, where I was standing and where I got the invitation to fill in on the first tour. I know exactly where I was when Dave Haley told me he wanted to keep me around. It was in 2015, sometime in September while I was on tour with Revocation as their tour manager. We were in a venue called Walters Downtown in Houston. Dave Haley had hit up Brett Bamberger who plays bass for Revocation, who also happens to be a long time friend of mine and asked him if he could fill in for a US Tour that was coming up in November of that year. Since it was such short notice, Brett couldn’t do it so he asked me if I could. Even though Dave and I had never met or spoken to each other, he trusted Brett so much and that’s where I accepted the first fill-in gig.”
It was only a matter of time before the pace picked up and he became a more permanent figure in the band which eventually led to him becoming an official member in 2018, while on tour with Psycroptic in Australia. He remembers it like it was yesterday and just how significant a moment it was for him and the band.
“At the Dirty Dog in Austin, Texas at the end of that tour was when Dave asked me if I’d do it again if the opportunity presented itself every time to which I was like, of course I would! Then at the Little Devil in Tilburg, the Netherlands on the first European tour that I did with them with Gorguts in 2016, Dave and I got hammered together and he said ‘dude I want you in this band, you’re the guy’. At the time, he told me he wanted me to do all the tours because Cam still had his spot of being a bass player. Cam passed the torch in 2018 when we were in Tasmania. It’s something that I guess very few people would appreciate but the guys always tell me how I remind them of Cam and it’s weird how me and that dude have a similar style, in terms of jokes we make, dressing the same. We’re the same dude! He’s a legend! Those are important memories because usually I can’t fucking remember anything!”
As we reflected on this change, I wondered out loud as to whether it was a nerve-racking process for him in any way, a question which was met, unsurprisingly with the utmost honesty and humility.
“It was sheer terror the first time I had to play with them, I was sweating to death but whatever; you have to do it. That's what life is. It was one of those moments where I had to step up to the plate and you know, I played that first show and I loved it. But the other dudes make it easy - they don’t think that they’re the Gods that they are. They’re just humble dudes who like playing in a band. Especially in the beginning when I was playing shows and rehearsing with them; they couldn't have made it easier for me. I’ve been in many situations where you feel like an audition is full of pressure, they did not make it that way at all. They were just like ‘ah whatever’ and ‘honestly if you want to change the parts and do your own thing, that’s cool too’. They were super fucking easy. I did feel intimidated, of course because they’re the best! I always felt that I do not belong in a band playing with musicians who are this f*cking good.”
I’ve had the honour of going on a few tours with Psycroptic, learning so much from them along the way and something that has always been extremely inspiring to see is how they carry themselves. Not only are they one of the best metal acts in the country but they set the bar very high when it comes to being one of the most down-to-earth bands to be around. The fact that they have remained a tight unit for the last two decades is testament to this and how hard-working every member is and Todd has nothing but praise for his bandmates.
“Honestly, I think that’s the number one thing that keeps the band going, there is zero drama and bullshit. It’s the greatest group of individuals I’ve ever been together with. There’s never a problem, and never any complaining! I mean, listen, the Haley brothers are a bit quiet on the road, everybody knows that but that’s them. Joe lets his talents speak for himself; he’s the type of person that will just get a task done. He doesn't talk about doing shit, he just does it. Pep is the most fun-loving I would say but he likes to work just as much as he likes to goof around and Dave just doesn’t let any problem ever get to him.”
“I think Dave is definitely a motivational force behind everybody in this band; he just gets it done. He’s so good at it, especially when it comes to getting us to do work, nobody wants to disappoint him is what I think it is. I don’t know how he does it. He takes everything in his stride and that’s what it really all comes down to; the equilibrium of life is such that you can’t enjoy the good if you don’t endure the bad. I mean, we do make fun of a lot of shit but that’s just what it is, we just enjoy each other’s company and that is definitely one of the main reasons the band has kept going all these years. I remember this one time, we sold out a show in Hobart and I said something like, ‘dude, you should be proud of yourself’ but he doesn’t have time for that. He doesn’t even think on those terms' because he’s onto the next hustle in his brain. He really is the greatest guy in the whole world, I don’t know how to keep up with him!”
”From the beginning of their career in 1999 in Tasmania, releasing the classic ‘Isle of Disenchantment’ two years later, 2019 saw Psycroptic achieve quite a milestone, celebrating their 20th anniversary. They toured extensively, performing in over 30 countries, released a couple of music videos and even released a playthrough that was filmed in various locations. Todd narrows it all down to how close they are on and off stage; there is more to being in a band, than one’s ability to play an instrument.
“Being able to travel around the world with these dudes and play shows is still very surreal to me. Exactly what you were saying before about chemistry - those guys wanted me to tour with the band because they like having me around and we all laugh at the same shit and we just enjoy each other’s company. I think that’s a way more important ingredient when you’re replacing a band member than just their ability to play the songs. Pep is amazing, and the Haley boys - f*cking guitar and drums is what got me into the game in the first place! They’re just as sick as anyone could ever be as far as what I’m after in a death metal performance. We’re a really simple band as far it comes to cutting out the bullshit.”
Given just how much Todd has travelled over the last few years, there’s quite a few memorable places that he’d loved playing shows in and exploring.
“I like the type of phenomenon of when you’re in a place, you kind of know where you are just by looking around you. India was that way for sure! Everything is interesting about that country because it’s so different to what we do here. The most shocking thing was probably some of the f*cking wiring that you see on the poles. I mean, there were dudes wearing flip-flops but also wearing hard-hats and swinging sledge hammers while standing on scaffolds; it’s insane. But there was that Mosque in Hyderabad I think where we went to the market and got those coconut drinks, you remember that? When you look around there, you know for a fact that you’re definitely in India. I love that.”
“I love the places that kind of blow your mind a bit; the kind where you’ve never seen anything quite like it before. A good example would be Dubai - I wouldn’t want to live in a place that’s 50 degrees celsius in the middle of the desert. But if you go there, your mind is blown at what the engineers and architects have done over there. It’s absolutely mental! Japan as well; next level you never shit anywhere like the things you see in Japan. Honestly, the more we’ve done it, the more I realised that I love all of it. I mean I could do without certain places in France, I don’t get excited about every single place that we go but going to a museum on the waterfront in New Zealand is the coolest f*cking thing in the world! Who gets to do that? It’s amazing! I love checking places off the map but I also love re-visiting places that I already know. Australia is like that; every single city there has a place that I love going to even if it’s just a cafe. I think I did Australia four times in one year!”
Let me tell you, no Psycroptic tour is complete without a few, top-notch desserts!
“You know what it is? Before I started touring with Psycroptic, I was never into the sweets, only the savoury shit. Then I started touring with these guys, and now I’m a fiend for sugar, it bums me out. I mean, carrot cakes with Dave Haley - one of my top three for sure, if it’s done right. Anything that has peanut butter in it, I’m a massive fan of. I don’t even know the names of any of them. I just choose what Dave does and it’s always f*cking delicious! It’s either those caramel slices, those custard tarts. Always with the custard tarts!”
If you’ve ever seen Psycroptic play live, you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say they are one of the finest, ridiculously heavy death metal acts. Not only are they just an incredible band live, but there is so much passion that emanates from each member. However, now that touring is currently off the table for the foreseeable future, it was cool to hear his thoughts on how it feels to not be playing shows and how important it is, as a band, to remain relevant.
“Touring really was most of my life. Just like with anything, you don’t realise how much time you spend doing something until you have no choice but to stop doing it. I look back at it now, and last year, we did so many shows and now we’re at the end of an album cycle. These guys had me really getting used to getting on a plane every couple of weeks, no matter what. Even though touring’s gone for the moment, I still talk to the guys all the time. They just want to write more music and put out more content, keep it going because everybody knows that if you don’t stay active, you sort of disappear which is easy because there are a million artists. There’s endless content on every streaming service so it’s hard enough to stay relevant if you are putting shit out. If you don’t write and record music, then you’re just dead. Dave and I work a lot on planning the marketing strategies for the next release. I’ve been spending time with him chatting about that rather than the songs themselves while Joe has just been in the lab cooking up new riff ideas.”
Based in the United States, he would fly down to Australia for every tour as well as to other countries. However, given that travelling isn’t a possibility at the moment, we talked about what the challenging aspects are of being in a band but living on different continents. While there may be some minor issues, it’s nothing that the Psycroptic boys don’t handle with ease.
“I think, now the only problem with distance is the time difference. I have a very short window of time on a regular day to communicate with people and a lot of times that short window of time that I have, when I don’t have my hands full is usually a time when Dave isn’t available. But we always get back to each other. When I started playing in bands, I remember sitting in a room and working out song ideas together but now you have to do it through WeTransfer files, go back and forth so I’m not that into the digital side of things. Virtually writing songs is good now because the tools are there so it makes things easier. Even a dinosaur like me can figure it out so we just figure it out, we go back and forth - Joe teaches me how to play his parts which are all pretty crazy and that's it. The guitars are f*cking crazy in this band, you know what I mean? They’re just so sick.”
So, to those of you who have been wondering what exactly the band is up to at this very moment? Well, the answer is, quite a lot. Psycroptic is currently working on new music, looking and Todd explained how they're going about the writing process this time around.
“Joe Haley is a song-writing super genius right? So, the way we’ve been working it out is Dave always suggests I write and record guitar parts completely out of context with no themes or motives. We have a google drive folder and I send all my shit to joe who treats it like a word bag and when he wants a certain type of thing to fit in with what he’s already working on, he just picks. I think Joe is about four or five songs deep into the next project but he and I haven’t even been writing together. I’ve just been sending him my ideas and he throws it in the mix. I’m hearing these demo versions as he sends them back to me and he’ll say something to me like “I took that part you sent me but I changed it a bunch, let me know if you aren’t into it or something’ but everything he does is perfect, it’s Joe. So eventually we’ll start compiling and sequencing things, putting it in the format that we want. Sometimes you’ll have 17 songs but only put out 11. Psycroptic usually does a nine song album because our songs are a little bit longer most times.”
With a new Psycroptic album not too far out of sight, this will also be the first album to feature Todd as a contributing member of the band, something that he is very excited about but equally focused on. I asked if there was any pressure he felt, as he stepped into this new role.
“I think that part of me is slightly worried because I don’t want Joe’s formula to be not what it normally is. But I think the material that I’m contributing to the band will fit with the style that Joe’s going for. What’s important is that I know my role in the situation. Even though I'm a bit apprehensive as always because I have no faith in myself whatsoever, I think if I just stay within the guidelines, what's the worst that could happen? We write a record and nobody cares about it, boo hoo. Write another one. There’s a lot of records in the Psycroptic catalogue that we don’t play any songs off of anymore by choice and again so what happens is, you play your strongest material and everybody has to come to an agreement on what that is.”
“I think our last release was a really strong release but again it's the matter of, like you said, this is the first time I’m actually contributing with some material on the record, I guess I’m just saying - every record is its own separate entity. I treat it as a case-by case scenario. But you’ve still got it in the back of your head that this band has been around for 20 years, don’t f*cking desecrate their music. A lot of times I don’t even wanna send my shit because I don’t believe in it. All it takes is for someone else to tell you that's perfect, we could really use that here.”
He also talked about his preference and personal writing style, which he has been able to use during this time and how it has been working alongside Joe Haley.
“If you pay close enough attention, Psycroptic has a lot of regular, old, primitive, caveman riffs and they’re awesome, heavy and fun! So that’s what I want to be involved in the most! All the wiggly, fucking noodley shit that Joe does, he’s gonna do that no matter what, whatever chance he gets because that’s just what his hands do, even if his brain is going in a different direction. That’s what’s fucking beautiful about Joe; he writes in a way that demonstrates his guitar style throughout a track. So when we put those together, I think there’s a lot of room for cool shit to happen.”
“I like to keep it simple, a lot of my favourite bands keep it simple. But I also do love being in a band with a dude that can do anything you tell him to do with a guitar in his hand. All of my favourite bands weren’t exactly reinventing the wheel, they just did what they did in a way that was memorable and awesome and I love it. I love when bands turn the death metal genre into really songy types of shit, like Cannibal Corpse and Deicide, which is why I like them. They weren’t just heavy and awesome, they had songs that you get really excited by when they play live!”
The music and arts industries have been affected in more ways than one by the current state of the world which, while unfortunate, has seen bands like Psycroptic work hard on releasing their next record, as well as coming up with new ways to get their music out there to more people. We discussed whether this could pose a problem in terms of bands releasing music at the same time and what Psycroptic is doing to work around it.
“The best I think we can do in a situation like that, is keep our ear to the ground as much as we can. I mean, we’re friends with a lot of the bands in the circuit, and keeping up with what they’re doing, what their ideas are etc and it would be mutually beneficial for both parties to not release something at the same time in the same genre. Even though Dave Haley manages Psycroptic, E.J, the gentleman who manages Black Dahlia, Fallujah and a bunch of other bands has been working closely with Dave in order to level up Psycroptic’s next release to newer platforms. I think it helps to have somebody in your corner that's been in the business for a long time.
“Streaming I guess helps see which songs are getting more traction. I gotta be honest with you, I don’t even like looking at that shit, but you have to. Dave and I are focusing on what to release and when, where the merchandise should go along with it and shit like that. We want to do a couple of singles before we put out a full LP. We also want to have two records written at the same time and space out the release dates appropriately so that they both can pick up as much steam as possible while we’re not playing shows. The only downside I can really see in all this, is that lets say it’s another 18 months at least before we go back on the road, then it’s going to be really hard to make a setlist if you’ve just put out two new albums and nobody’s ever heard these songs live yet. But you only have half an hour or forty minutes and people still want to hear some classics. It’s weird because you don’t want to put music out that you can’t promote by touring but again, if you’re not doing anything, nobody’s going to pay attention to your band!”
‘As The Kingdom Drowns’ which was released in November of 2018 saw the Tasmanian death metal band step into a new realm, while simultaneously keeping one foot planted in familiar crushing tech death territory. There were a lot of interesting new elements, such as a guest feature by Joe Haley’s wife Amy who contributed with her captivating voice, that were woven into their signature sound. I was curious to know what fans could expect from the new material.
“Amy will definitely be doing more singing on Psycroptic records! I think that formula that Joe has kinda been locked in on, on the last couple of albums isn’t really going anywhere, it’s a classic rock ‘n’ roll song template; intro, verse, chorus, verse, bridge - there’s a lot of familiarity.
Like I know how this song is gonna end but that’s not a bad thing because I like when those riffs come back. I’ve discussed this with Joe many times because in the beginning, Psycroptic would make songs where the riffs wouldn’t repeat at all and I’m like, ‘yo, I get it but it’s too ADD for people!’ I’m not just thinking about the consumer here but I do want songs where there’s a theme you know? So, I think you’re definitely gonna be hearing shit like that on the new record where ideas get replayed. Amy will be there for the big choruses and shit like that which is also a huge part of the direction Joe’s trying to take this in - it’s all because he likes f*cking 80’s arena rock and shit like that!”
Todd Stern has been a dedicated guitarist for the last two decades, a passion that eventually led him towards the world of bass. While initially not interested in playing bass, he realised later how playing bass made sense to him,
“I’ve been playing for 22 years now and I started playing guitar in bands because I thought Metallica was the coolest thing in the world. I had never picked up a bass ever in my life until I joined Psycroptic; it just wasn’t interesting to me. But I found that there’s a lot about it that fits my style and personality way more than I ever realised. It sounds thick, heavy and massive, you can move around a ton and not lose your place but the guitar needs way more finesse and is very precise. I’m more of a caveman and I didn’t realise that until I started playing bass. Practicing guitar at home and then switching to bass never bugged me but getting used to playing bass on tour and then coming home and picking up a guitar again always freaks me out because everything is so puttered together with tiny little string spacing and the frets etc, it sucks sometimes! But it’s a cycle; I never ever pick up a bass when I’m trying to write music, only when I’m on tour or trying to figure out parts. The bass has a job to do and I love that job. That's what makes it fun.”
He also did vocals and guitar for a thrash metal band in his hometown, called Hammer Fight. The band has been around for the last ten years, have released two full-length records and managed to play a wild show just before the world stopped as well as record a video that was a cover of a Joe Pesci song!
“We did do a show and it was f*cking awesome! It was a packed, local show about forty minutes from where I live. We’re all kinda close to the area so this town is near by and does a lot of cool, punk rock shows and stuff. If the band kept doing things like that, I could manage to be in it but it got to the point where I didn’t have time to be in more than one band and it. I did try to quit that band in 2018 but they never replaced me. Then a show offer came up and I’m like ‘yeah, I’ll do it!’. Then, I had to go back and relearn all those songs because I forgot how to f*cking play them, my brain’s cooked! But it was a sick time; and we recorded a video at that last show. As a goof, we did a cover of a Joe Pesci song and we wanted to do a video with it. So what happened was we did a cover album, an EP which I wasn’t even around for because I was touring so much. I only came home and did some vocal parts on it. But when we did play that Pesci song live, a dude who is a friend of ours showed up and filmed it!”
While it is fun, it’s not always easy spreading your time between too many things and the New Jersey based metal musician really stresses on honouring any commitment that you make, especially when it comes to musical projects based on his own experiences.
“I totally would consider doing other projects if it fits in. I just always have a lot of other shit going on all the time so I try and take only what I can really handle. I don’t want to take up something and then just have it fall to the side, I wouldn’t want to do that to somebody who wants to be in a professional band. It’s different where if I’m just doing my work and I overbook myself in my line of work, it’s never the end of the world. But in the business of rock ‘n’ roll, I never want to be in a band where someone needs work from me and I don’t get it done, because that’s totally f*cked. I know how bad that is because for years, I played in bands with dudes who could never get anything done that I asked for and they all sucked, it was a nightmare and I never want to be that guy! So if I’m not doing other projects, it’s because I can’t commit to them. But I always want to do something musically, no matter what.”
“What’s cool about this whole pandemic situation is I feel like a lot of dudes are getting together with their friends and just making records because that’s a fun productive awesome thing to do. I mean, you may never tour on it or play a show, you’ll probably never even remember how to play those songs but it’s a moment in time and that’s the important thing about making records. You look back and say ‘I can’t believe we did this’ or ‘I forgot we even did this!’ ”
There are a few things I’ve always admired about my friend Todd Stern, one of which is just how hard-working he is. Working very long weeks, and touring in a professional band isn’t the easiest thing in the world at all, but it’s what he does best.
“Yo, I don’t know about having a life, I’m pretty sure I was a disappointment to any woman that I was dating. All I do is work! I had the attitude that if there’s no job waiting for me when I come back from tour then I’m just going to have to figure it out. I never wanted to feel like I didn’t go after the shit that I’ve always wanted to do and what’s important so I just did it. What ended up happening was the same thing every time, I would have a moment where I was all bummed out or scared or panicked about what I’m gonna do; I’m gonna come back from tour and my boss is gonna tell me to get the f*ck out of his face. But I would come home, and I would get my job back, every time!”
“I was talking to Dave about this recently and he said it’s my work ethic; never in my life have I been fired from a job. I think it’s the attitude so when I’m home and I dedicate myself to an employer, I have to go above and beyond the call of duty, just to prove to people that I want this gig, but there’s just other shit in life too. I think that’s where balance comes in, you really have to know what you want because you can’t really have that much of a life if you travel as much as we were. I mean, Pep’s got two kids and I look at my life and go ‘what the f*ck is my problem!’ It’s all about keeping that balance. I missed out on a lot of opportunities in the business that I’m in because I was touring but that’s the life I chose. I love it. I love touring. I never wanted to be a weekend warrior when it came to playing live; I wanted to tour around the world and play shows."
Not only does he love metal and touring, but if you’ve ever been around this wonderful human being, you’ll know just how much he enjoys good, old school hip-hop. Here are his top ten!
“I live for that shit! It’s my favourite genre, it’s so obnoxious you know? Like Method Man’s first solo album is f*cking unreal! It’s such a legitimate form of music, I don’t know why more people don’t think like that. I think my top ten albums, in no particular order, would be;
Nas - It Was Written
Onyx - Shut em Down
Big L - The Big Picture
Cypress Hill - Black Sunday
GZA - Liquid Swords
Eminem - Recovery
Ganksta Nip - South Park Psycho
Big Pun - Capital Punishment
Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Method Man - Tical
They’re all amazing.”