Anchored by a host of Greencastle natives, metalcore band From Cities Above has steadily been garnering the respect of a genre of musicians and fans often hidden from the mainstream, enjoying their distinctive sound in the shadows of the Midwestern music scene.
by Donovan Wheeler
primary photos by Matthew Taylor Morgan
with Jeremy Keeney
photos granted courtesy of From Cities Above
By the time Jon had shown me an Amon Amarth video, metal music—as I knew it—had changed. Jon was a high school student. He drummed the edge of the desk with his pencils while the band’s music video flashed across the computer screen in front of him. Amon Amarth, a European “death-metal” band which often uses Viking themes to comment on modern society, sounded a little bit like the “heaviest” of the heavy metal bands I’d heard. That is to say I thought more of…say…Megadeth than I did Def Leppard. It wasn’t anything like the mainstream stuff we listened to in the 80’s (when we thought joining the heavy metal underground meant buying a Dokken tape), but it wasn’t terribly far removed, either. Those vocals however, Johan Hegg’s breathy, hoarse, endless screams bore zero resemblance to the attempted-harmony I remembered from a Judas Priest record…or Quiet Riot…or any version of Van Halen.
In the decade since that high school kid showed me how much I had missed, the genre has continued to evolve. It was an evolution still blossoming in early 2011, when a group of soon-to-be Greencastle High School graduates formed the first incarnation of western Indiana’s From Cities Above. They were inspired by the bands they had listened to as they ground out the final months of K-12. One of them, As I Lay Dying, I had heard about, but never listened to (turns out they’re pretty damned good). The others, Killswitch Engage (really good) and Under Oath (meh), I didn’t know existed. This, of course, is not a new theme by now.
“I had been playing the guitar a few years before [bandmate] Caleb [Stodghill] started playing,” says founding member Aaron Hunter. “We were often hanging around and listening to the same music. We were playing the same songs that our favorite bands wrote, and at some point we both decided that we should try to write our own songs.”
They began like so many young bands do: enjoying the experience of fumbling around, lavishing in the wonder of their naiveté, scrounging any gigs they could find, thinking big, moving forward slowly. Their turning point happened two years later, when Tyler Vance assumed the lead microphone and started fronting the group out of the garage and onto the road. In traditional music circles, From Cities Above is one of those local entities people have “heard of.” A Facebook post underneath a lazy thumb or a poster tucked into a cluttered bulletin board. But in regional metal circles, the band is building its credibility and scoring local fans one gig at a time.
Legitimizing their claim to authenticity are a string of videos with dazzling high-end production value, and a newly minted full-length record, the group’s first after previously releasing a pair of EP’s.
Donovan Wheeler: Other than the word “metal,” I don’t know how to describe what you do.
Hunter: “People in the genre like to know the specific name of the music we do, but anymore…especially the places we go and the people we’ve talked to…I just call it ‘metal.’ Just like any other genre—pop, country, what have you—there are multiple sub-genres. I try not to specify much anymore, because when you say ‘We’re Thrash-Metal,’ it either confuses people or they know exactly what that is and expect you to play it all night.”
DW: At this point—six years in—two of the original five remain. You’ve changed your lead singer and drummer once each, and your bassist two or three times. How were you able to work through those lineup setbacks?
Hunter: “That’s the most sobering part about being in the band. You get used to it. When [original drummer] Seth [Miller] quit, we didn’t do anything for three or four months. For me…that made me wonder, ‘Maybe he’s making the right call. Maybe whatever he’s off to is the smarter decision.’”
Stodghill: “It’s bittersweet whenever you lose somebody. Personally, losing someone sucks, right off the bat. Then you have to either go through the process of finding someone new or taking those breaks which follow.”
DW: That has to rattle you, I suppose.
Hunter: “There’s a lot of peer pressure with everything. The biggest problem with that is that, now that we’re midway through our 20’s, we see others our age having kids, getting married, and that sort of thing.”
Stodghill: “It was hard for me when we lost Seth because he was one of the original dudes and one of the best drummers. You build that bond with a person like him. You’re in a family…or even like a relationship with somebody, and then they’re gone.”
DW [To Pearson]: This is where you come in. How did you find your way into this band?
Pearson: “After I got kicked out of my previous band, I was upset and took it to heart really bad. So I started practicing drum covers performed by heavier bands. Not long after, when a mutual friend was giving me a haircut, he told me that Seth had quit. He put in a good word for me. Then Tyler checked out my videos and messaged me. He gave me a couple of songs and told me I had two days to learn them. I had them down in half-a-day, and not long after he picked me up from soccer practice, drove me out to their place, and I played for my spot.”
DW [To Vance]: Tell me a little bit about your entry into the group.
Vance: “From my perspective: When FCA was just a root of an idea, I was involved from the get go. The original lineup was going to be with me on vocals. Long story short…I got an offer from a more established band and most of FCA understood why I wanted to test the waters with a Bloomington-based band. The FCA guys were kind of going through some weird lineup changes around the same time that my band ended. There was always talk of me ‘coming back,’ but not everyone was on board. After a few vocalists came and went, it seemed that the whole band finally realized it was hard to find a dedicated dude, especially locally. It all kind of worked itself out the best way it could.”
This is not a new story line in the music world. The persistent tug between the demands of real life versus the appeal of life on stage sooner or later pushes most musicians to the moment of truth Hunter alludes to. Such was the case for Miller, who left to pursue a personal relationship. Such was also the case for Stodghill, who stayed on and lost a long-term relationship as a result. Even young Nate Person, the baby-cheeked drummer less than two years out of high school, has struggled to balance his pursuit of music with the wishes of his family.
Hunter: “I have to work a job that lets me leave weeks out of the year. Most of the time that’s not going to be a job that will allow me to buy a really nice house or own a nice car. It’s hard to convince a significant-other that what you’re doing makes you happy, so they should be happy for you. Most of the reasons for our turnover have stemmed from those sort of issues. It’s hard to convince people to tell their girlfriends ‘no’ and come to the recording studio or travel for a week to a set of gigs. If this is something that’s important to you, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”
DW: That has to lead to some soul-searching at times.
Hunter: “Caleb and I have had many, many discussions where we asked ourselves: ‘Are [the guys who left the band] right? Are we right? Are they doing it right? Are we doing it wrong? Every now and then I go through those phases where I think, ‘You know…I could just get a nice job, have a girlfriend who I could stay at home with all the time.’”
Hunter: “There isn’t a ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ It all depends on what each man likes and what he lives for. For us…the fact that we’re six years in and we still get giddy like 16-year-olds after a tour…after a show…after we’ve recorded a song…that’s all the convincing I need.”
DW: But the perception from the outside is one of “Why do you take this so seriously?”
Hunter: “A lot of people perceive it as a hobby, and it takes a while before they realize, ‘Oh, this hobby takes up most of your time?’”
DW: In other words, if you’re not internationally famous then why do it? Right?
Hunter: “There’s this notion people have that you go out and play show after show after show and then eventually get discovered. But in this genre, that doesn’t really happen. We run into people from high school, tell them what we’re doing, and they’re confused because we’re not playing in big festivals in front of 80,000 people.”
DW: So it’s just a small scene thing, then?
Hunter: “Well…I will say that one of the first things we were told is that it’s all about who you know…and that’s true. We know of bands in our circles who knew a guy who knew a guy and landed management, labels, and all of that.”
DW: What do you say to people not familiar with your genre of metal? Especially when it comes to the vocal element?
Hunter: [Laughs] “Six years later, my dad still says, ‘I just can’t get over that screaming.’ I approach it like people approach rap. When rap began critics said, ‘They’re not even singing! They’re just talking!’ It took years to convince people that that’s not what they’re doing. Now, of course, you look at rap and see how it’s become mainstream…that’s not to say that what we’re doing is going to be on 100.7 FM [laughs].”
Pearson: “When I first started listening to this kind of music, I listened to similar stuff, but it didn’t scream. Then I got away from it for a while. When I got back to it—when they did scream—I found myself actually listening to the lyrics. People tell me that they don’t understand it, but I tell them they have to be optimistic about it. This music has some of the best lyrics. Sure there are some bands selling depressing messages, but there are many others that are tying to send a different message…it just happens to be through vocal screaming. It’s a message so powerful that you can’t just sing it…you have to get it out. I’ve gotten so comfortable with it that I can recognize tone and can tell the difference between good singers and bad ones.”
Stodghill: “I often tell people that we play ‘Heavy Metal,’ because they know what that is and then don’t ask about the screaming. But if we’re going to get technical I’d say what we do is more of a Metalcore. There are aspects of it that are heavy and thrashy, and there are aspects that call for really clean singing.”
DW: [To Vance]: And what is the screaming experience like? How do you keep your voice and vocal cords healthy? How often do people ask you about that? How do you feel when people ask you about it?
Vance: “The questions I get asked most–without a doubt: ‘Doesn’t it hurt? How do you do it?’ I’m guilty of (not) taking excellent care of my vocal cords while we are on any short break, but I try to drink a lot of honey green tea and water when we are on tour or leading up to a batch of shows. I don’t like the stress of focusing on my cords a lot, so I try to not think about it and just vibe it out. I think I know my body well enough now to know what works and what doesn’t. When we are recording I tend to drink a lot of Yoohoo. It is really random but a nice little tip I got back in the day from multiple people I knew and/or idolized.”
DW: I’m wondering how all of this translates in this part of the country…especially when you’re playing in “non-metal” venues?
Hunter: “Any venue can be a metal venue, but sometimes that doesn’t work out. One time we played a cancer benefit at the Greencastle Moose Lodge. There were probably 150-200 people there, and we thought, ‘Damn, this is cool!’ And THE SECOND we started playing, it was a display of the clichéd, middle-aged reaction: horrified expressions, ‘You’re too loud,’ ‘I don’t like the screaming…’ Ever since then, we’ve been more selective when it comes to local gigs.”
DW: How much of that set did you play?
Stodghill [Laughing] “All of it.”
Hunter: [Laughing] “We weren’t going to stop.”
Stodghill: “We raised them money, so we were going to get our fill.”
Hunter: “Tyler’s girlfriend works with Relay for Life, and she’s tried to get us to play at that event. [Laughing] We told her, ‘We’ve been there and done that, and hasn’t worked out that well.’”
Hunter: “I mean I get it. Greencastle’s vibe is the First Friday thing, and that’s great. You want to walk around town, grab some drinks, mingle with people, and also listen to music on the side. But metal is so attention-grabbing. It’s not only the volume, but it’s also a visual experience. There’s so much going on.”
When we cut through the vocal uniqueness of FCA’s art form and listen to the content of their work, what do we hear? In the earliest work, we hear the frustrations of young men, encountering that most ubiquitous of hurdles: teammates walking away. Early tracks, such as “Exhaustion” vent the frustrations surviving band members feel about those who hung up their instruments and joined the 9-to-5 world. But latter tracks, especially those featured in the group’s new album, Crown of Bones, address much larger, much more-worldly fish. Here the political themes seep out between the chord changes and bass lines. Here, these would-be, reckless, impulsive, hedonistic 20-somethings are letting the world know that—whether you agree with them or not—they are actually growing up.
DW: I know that Tyler handles much of the lyrical writing for the band, but how does that mesh with the group’s overall songwriting process?
Hunter: “It’s changed some in the last year. In the past I would write all the music and then explain to everyone what their parts were. But now I come up with guitar parts, which I take to Nate…and he comes up with drum sequences. Then we work on leads and bass, and finally add vocals.”
DW: What about musically. I’ve never thought about or wondered about this, but does metal work the same basic chords as traditional guitar?
Hunter: “Honestly, since everything is lower and you down-tune your guitar…I think chords are much easier. There are a lot of bar-chords. In fact, when I started playing guitar, I played stuff like blues—stuff that I love but don’t really know anything about. I still find myself messing with it from time to time.”
DW: Well, no matter how you play what you play, you are good at it. And those videos have legitimized you in ways that other bands dream of.
Stodghill: “Those early videos were cool and everything: we played music, and they had a bit of a storyline. But the video we just released is beyond that. It strikes me as the type of video you would have seen back in the day on MTV. When I watched it I thought, ‘you could have seen that on Headbanger’s Ball’ or something like that. If I had seen it five or six years ago, I would have been blown away by it. Hopefully we will get that same reaction from people who see it for the first time.”
DW: [To Vance]: And what about your evolution as a songwriter? How did you move from personal themes to bigger, worldly matters in your work?
Vance: “I think it was just a natural progression with my mind. Four years ago when we were writing our album Meandering, it seemed that I had a lot more chaos going on in my life. I was also very much one of those people that tried to stray away from political matter and current events (mainly because I felt I had enough to worry about). I now see how crazy that sounds. It’s unfortunate, but also very hard to turn a blind eye to all of the horrible things going on in the world. The songs are still very personal to us, however, I wanted to focus more on our perception on current events and less on my life.”
DW: And what about your future? Is “metal” a realistic prospect for you guys when you’re 35 or even when your my age?
Hunter: “I kind of view it along the lines of ‘nerd culture.’ You know how nerd culture is more accepted now? Kind of in the mainstream? It’s cool to like superheroes and be into stuff like that. But twenty years ago, if you were in your 20’s and you liked that stuff, you were a fucking dweeb.”
DW: How does that relate?
Hunter: “Well, look at Metallica. When they were younger they all thought, ‘I’m not going to be doing this in my 40’s…we’re a damn metal band.’ But here they are in their 40’s and they’re the most commercialized band of all time. There’s still a stigma along the lines of: you’re 35 and still writing and playing metal music…you must be immature and you haven’t grasped reality. But if you can make a living off it, that’s the most important part. I think the only thing that would make me question this would be if I decided that I wanted to start a family, and music was not cutting it economically.”
DW: And where are you guys economically?
Hunter: “Right now we’re on the cusp of full-time. Meaning that I’m close to not having to work a day-job. We’re never going to be millionaires, but we’re making enough from our tours that we will be able to ask for more, go farther out, stay on the road longer, and be able to pay our bills when we get home.”
Stodghill: “This time of year we go into ‘hibernation mode,’ so we’re going to focus on sales and merchandise. So we will try to push this record as much as we can. And we’ll use this time to find those ‘right’ people we’re looking for…people who should be looking for us.”
Hunter: “We’ve always heard people say that ‘a band is a business.’ And now, more than ever, that’s true for us. We’ve developed a logo. We’ve designed 8-10 different kinds of shirts as well as multiple alubms and EP’s.”
DW: [To Vance]: And how does the business of running a band compare to the artistic side of running a band?
Vance: “The business side of the band is the worst thing ever. The cool part is seeing it grow first-hand and meeting lots of new people. I often feel bad because it’s hard to keep everyone in the band in the loop at all times, but I think we have a pretty good system set up as of now. The guys know that they need to speak up if [we’re pursing] something they don’t envision, and they seem to let Aaron and I handle things that they aren’t sure on or don’t know what to say. It seems to work out pretty well. Sometimes it’s a bit bittersweet getting to be so creative and write and record what we feel is a masterpiece to then realize ‘This album, these videos, and these tours don’t mean shit if no one cares.’ Getting people to care is the hardest thing we will ever have to do.”
They are a courageous bunch, pushing the boundaries in a part of the country willing to give a guy with a mandolin a chance to win them over…but not so much the guy wearing greasy rags who screams in the microphone. To what degree delivery outweighs content is always part of the post-concert debate. It has been since theatergoers walked out of Shakepeare’s Globe debating both the structure of the iambic pentameter and the coloration of Richard Burbage’s breeches. This will never change. For their part, the boys who comprise From Cities Above know this. For that reason, they’re more than fine leaving it up to you to take it or leave it. If you leave it…great. Thanks for giving them a listen. Don’t let the door smack you in the ass on the way out. If you take it…groovy. Grab a seat and listen to what’s next. Because we’ve only gotten started.
Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.
Matthew Taylor Morgan shoots many musicians and other subjects in the central Indiana region.