“We went through the ‘…what are even doing this for?’ thing. Being kicked out of a band is very different to someone dying. Life just dealt us that card,” – James May, Black Tusk.
Black Tusk isn’t a sentimental band. They live rough on the road, enjoy a drink and have overcome more shit situations than you can possibly imagine. But when key member and best mate, bassist Jonathan Athon, suddenly passed away in a tragic motorcycle accident in 2014—the lives of this Savannah-based outfit changed forever.
With a few big tours and the release of a new album—Pillars Of Ash—looming, the decision to move forward was not taken lightly, according to drummer James May. “Athon lived for the road,” May explains. “We’ve always been the type of band that knows how to deal with pressure, because we’ve been in every bad scenario you can possibly think of. But this was different. We are a family and we knew he would have wanted us to keep going. So it was as much about that, as it was about keeping his spirit alive through the music.
“We also had a new album coming out, and some really big tours lined up, so we needed to make a decision. Of course, they would have understood if we couldn’t do it—one of our band members died. But we still needed to let them know; you need to let Zakk Wylde know if you can’t make a tour.”
Originally, the plan was to just get through the band’s contractual agreements and see how it felt playing without Athon by their side. Corey Barhorst, of former Kylesa fame, was brought in to help them through this period. As time went on, and ties with their fill-in bassist grew, they knew it was time to make things more official. “I know with the first couple of tours we did, we had an understanding that Corey wasn’t ‘in’ the band—he was helping us,” May says. “He helped us get to the tours we already had booked. Then, from there, he needed to decide if he really wanted to be in the band.
“It worked out; we didn’t really kill each other. After the third tour, he came to us to have a talk because he really wanted to be a part of this band. He didn’t want to be a fill-in anymore. It was cool because he really showed that he wanted to be with us. He really loves us and loves playing with us. So we made it a marriage.”
And their new bassist has always been vehement about playing Black Tusk material true to how his predecessor wrote it. With Athon going out of his way to tab the entire back catalogue’s bass lines before his death, Barhorst knew it was only fair to respect his wishes. “Athon got to finish everything on Pillars Of Ash,” May says. “Thankfully, we didn’t have to have anyone come in and finish any parts or anything. We were really happy he got through the whole album.
“But we have been writing with Corey. We’re already in the midst of writing the next album and it’s coming together really good. It’s fun to write with him. He’s a well, well-seasoned musician that can pretty much play any style. He’s one of those people that just lives and breathes music. His suggestions are awesome and it’s been working out great.”
Pillars Of Ash has definitely taken on a new meaning for the band, May says. Not only stemming from the title itself, but also the lyrical content and how they actually wrote the album. For the first time, Black Tusk had reached a point where they felt comfortable expressing themselves, and what they wanted musically, in the studio. The result makes this their fifth full-length the most interesting release to date.
“Everything came out really organically; it didn’t really feel like we were making an album,” May ponders. “That vibe makes this album come across so much better. I think it definitely reminds me of some of the B-sides—the early stuff we did. It’s like we were doing an early album, but we’re better musicians now. It didn’t matter how long the songs were. We let them just come together; there weren’t any rules or anything. And it came out as a solid album. I think it’s a great album—if Athon had to die—for him to go on.
“I think everything—the whole album period—has just taken on a completely different meaning. God's On Vacation, that song right there, took on a different meaning. I remember when this all happened, when Athon died, I just looked at Andrew (Fidler; guitar) and said ‘…if there definitely is a God, then he’s gone on vacation’. Everything took on a new meaning—down to the name of it and the lyrics.”
And, as much as they have welcomed the addition of their new bassist, both May and Fidler pay homage to Athon the only way they know how. Apart from continuously progressing with Black Tusk, they also continue his hard-touring legacy—bringing their music to as many fans around the world as possible.
“Of course things are probably going to be a little different,” May says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. Me and Andrew, going through this whole thing, it brought us together. Even though we were just three members before, we were like a tripod—if one leg goes, we fall over. It made Andrew and I’s relationship a lot stronger than it was before. Yeah, now Corey is in the band. But he’s still a new member, and Andrew and I have been through the whole life in this band—and we’ve gotten really, really tight.
“Athon would have loved to come to Australia and New Zealand. He wouldn’t stop talking about it; he really wanted to go there. So we’re just continuing as he would have wanted.”
Now, for the first time, you can catch Black Tusk playing Pillars Of Ash live (along with a lot of their back catalogue).
See them at any of these dates:
Auckland - Kings Arms - August 3
Melbourne - Reverence Hotel - August 4
Melbourne - Ding Dong Lounge - August 5
Sydney - Bald Faced Stag - August 6
Brisbane - Crowbar - August 7
Tickets from lifeisnoise.com, Oztix, the venues, and undertheradar.co.nz for Auckland.