Of Mice & Men: Game of War

“You prepare for your whole life to make a record,” reflects Of Mice & Men frontman Austin Carlile. “You think about it, you dream about it, you can’t wait to do it. But then life happens while you’re doing it, and you have to deal with it.”

Musicians love to talk about how hard it was to make their latest album, about how much blood, sweat and tears were shed in the studio while painstakingly bringing their new music to life. But after what Austin Carlile went through during the making of Cold World, Of Mice & Men’s stunning new album, there should probably be an enforced moratorium on all further hyperbole about “grueling” recording sessions. Because unless you’ve made a record while recovering from three major surgeries and kicking heavy-duty prescription painkillers, you’ve probably had a much easier time in the recording studio than Carlile did this past spring.

Not that there’s anything remotely arduous about the music of Cold World. Recorded with producer David Bendeth at his House of Loud studio in Elmwood Park, New Jersey—the same place they and Bendeth recorded Restoring Force, its 2014 breakthrough—Cold World is a major artistic step forward for the Southern California-based metal quintet, one which sees the band’s flair for nuance, melody and dynamics evolving considerably since its last record. “Game of War,” the album’s opening track, is like a dark lullaby that quietly lures listeners inside before pummeling them with the cathartic fury of “The Lie.” From there, the record delivers an enticing array of twists, turns and surprises (including two orchestral interludes) before finally coming to a dramatic close with the cathartic “Transfigured.”

“The way that we laid out the songs, the way that we wrote them and the content that we put into them, it was all really well thought-out,” explains drummer Valentino “Tino” Arteaga. “It’s not a concept album, but it’s definitely of a piece from the first song to the last. We wanted to take our listeners on a sonic journey.”

The band, which also includes bassist/vocalist Aaron Pauley and guitarists Alan Ashby and Phil Manansala, took an all-hands-on-deck approach to the creation of Cold World. “Everyone brought their ideas to the table,” Arteaga recalls. “Some of us had whole songs, some of us had riffs, some of us just had ideas, and we did our best to try and develop all of them. It was a great ‘working together’ atmosphere, and we were able to bring forth everybody’s ideas, and even tread into some new territories.”

“We’re finally stepping into the realm of being able to make the music that we hear in our heads,” adds Carlile. “We really wanted to take the songwriting knowledge that we learned when we were doing Restoring Force, and use it for this record. We came into the studio this time with a lot of the material already prepared, and we really stood our ground on a lot of different songs, ideas and vocal melodies, instead of just following our producer’s lead. I wanted to make this record as much as possible about who we really are. A lot of this record is us in our rawest form.”

For Carlile, staying true to “who we really are” also meant referencing and channeling elements of some of the artists that have inspired and influenced him since his adolescence, a diverse list that includes Alice in Chains, Linkin Park, Collective Soul, Tool, and French nu-metal heroes Pleymo. “That’s what’s in my heart, so that’s what’s gonna come out in the music,” he says.

Carlile makes no apologies for his expansive musical tastes, which range from Norah Jones to Meshuggah and well beyond. During a Nashville stop on the band’s recent tour with Slipknot, the singer even ducked into a local bar and enjoyed a set of twangy classics delivered by a trucker-hatted, plaid-shirted cover band. “I was singing along to all this country music,” he laughs, “and the person I was with was like, ‘You know this stuff?'”

To hear the chirpy laughter that peppers his conversation, or witness the unbridled energy that he brings to his stage performances to tens of thousands of fans, you would never guess that Austin Carlile has spent his entire life suffering from Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the body’s fibrous connective tissue. Because of Marfan’s, Carlile has endured enormous pain in his back, hips and limbs since childhood, and has had to undergo multiple heart surgeries over the last half decade. But 2015 was even more trying than usual for the tall, heavily tattooed singer; he began the year by breaking a rib while on tour, then had had to undergo surgeries for his hip, his heart, and a torn dural sac in his head that was causing fluid from his brain to leak into his spine. The fact that Cold World’s pummeling lead single is called “Pain” is no coincidence. “We have issues with a lot of things going on, whether they’re internal or external with the world, and we wanted to touch on those with this album,” Carlile says.

But it’s only recently that Carlile has opened up about his physical woes, however, whether in his music or in his interviews. “I spent so many years trying to deny that I actually had something wrong with me,” he explains. “I was trying to act normal and be normal and be like everybody else, and it didn’t work. But after all the stuff that I’ve been going through in this past year, I really wanted to make other people aware of what’s going on. I felt like it was time to step up and really just accept who I am.

“There are so many other people that are going through the same thing,” he continues. “Or it might not be Marfan syndrome, it might be something worse like cystic fibrosis, or cancer. My mom also suffered from Marfan’s, and I lost her at a hospital, because the doctors there didn’t know what Marfan syndrome was. She was only 38, and things might be a lot different today if they had known more about it. So I think it’s kind of my responsibility to share my story; I think bringing some awareness to something like that is important.”

Carlile also wants to make people aware of the frustrating state of U.S. healthcare, something he’s had plenty of first-hand experience dealing with. “Our song ‘The Lie’ is about how terrible our healthcare system is,” he explains. “It’s about how the ‘one percent’ in this country has the money, the power and the ability to help so many people, but they use their power negatively. It disgusts me how people that have money and power think they can treat people who don’t. It’s not right, and it’s not fair, and people need to wake up to that—just like they need to wake up to how the pharmaceutical industry is shoving prescriptions down people’s throats.”

For nearly a decade, Carlile tried to manage his physical pain with multiple daily doses of OxyContin, a highly addictive narcotic that’s often prescribed to chronic pain sufferers. But this past January, deciding that he wanted to make Cold World with “a clear head and a clear heart,” Carlile stopped taking the drug, and promptly opened the door to a personal hell.

“To be perfectly honest, it was the hardest four months of my life,” he says of making the record while withdrawing from OxyContin. “I think I’d rather have heart surgery again than do that! I had to work with a lot of specialists; I was doing physical therapy three or four days a week and going to see my pain specialist once a week, and taking all these special medications because I was having seizures and foaming at the mouth, and all this crazy stuff. The band had to be there with me and help me through it, and they did, even though a lot of times they didn’t know what to do.

“So I was dealing with all that, and then having to record vocals on an hour of sleep after puking over the toilet all night. I feel like a lot of this record comes from the demons I was dealing with while we were recording it, and the pain and withdrawal I was fighting during it.

“OxyContin is basically like heroin. If you do enough of it for a long time, and you stop taking it, your brain chemistry freezes. It was a months-long process to finally get back to normal; but now that I’m on the other side of it, I feel better than ever.”

Which is not to say that Carlile is at all pain-free these days. No longer reliant on OxyContin, he now takes the less powerful (and thankfully less addictive) nerve-blocker Tramadol to deal with his aches, along with hefty doses of turmeric root and devil’s claw root, both of which are natural anti-inflammatories. “I’m a really firm believer in juicing and raw vegetables, and a raw, organic, clean diet,” he says. “I think processed foods and GMO foods are terrible for you. You are what you eat; you are what you put in your body. You have to make sure you get enough water every day; little things like that really count…

But he admits with a laugh, “My body hurts a lot worse than it ever has. I’m feeling things that I haven’t ever felt before, and it sucks. It sucks having my wrist hurt from arthritis, and it sucks having charley horses, and pain every night in my back and my hips and my shoulders. But I have a clear head, and I’d rather feel the pain than feel nothing at all. So getting off OxyContin is something I’m glad I did, but it’s also something I wouldn’t have been able to do without my faith and without my friends.”

“We’re like a family,” says Arteaga. “Austin has a hard time dealing with all of that stuff, but I know he knows that we’re here for him, just as we’re here for each other. If you all share the same beliefs and the same goals, then you carry everyone with you, no matter what.

“With the album title, Cold World, we’re not saying that our world is cold,” Arteaga continues. “We just mean that in this cold world, you need the love of the people around you to help you through it. And during this entire recording process, we were living that, straight-up. No one can look out for the five of us better than the five of us. We’re the ones that are around each other 24 hours a day in the studio; we’re the ones that are bunk buddies in ‘Bunk Alley’ on the bus. We’re literally inches away from each other, all day long. And I think we’re realizing that we’re all we have out here, and that we have to take care of each other.”

“We’re definitely a unit,” says Carlile. “Maybe I’m the quarterback, but I still need my offensive line, I still need my wide receivers. I’m not going to score a touchdown if I don’t have someone blocking for me, and I don’t have someone to throw or hand off the ball to.”

And like any self-respecting football team, Of Mice & Men continue to grind it out, even if doing so means that Carlile will have to keep folding his slender, tall frame into a tour bus bunk on a nightly basis for the foreseeable future.

“I just take it day by day,” he says. “It sucks being on the road and sleeping in a bunk when you have back issues and other things going wrong with your body. But this is what I want to do, and it’s what my heart wants to do, so I just make do; I do what I can with what I can, and I just kind of tough out the rest.”

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