The metal world has been infested with a so-called nu metal revival in recent years Whilst a lot of these bands are little more than Slipknot worshippers, there are a select few bands that break that mould and are steadily releasing some ground breaking work. One such band is Pennsylvania newcomers Tallah.
The band have already got a lot going for them, with an impressive EP released 2 years ago. The band features Max Portnoy, the son of progressive metal prodigy Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Transatlantic, Flying Colors), on drums, as well as vocalist Justin Bonitz who is known mostly for his Youtube vocal tutorials and erratic vocal style. With their debut full-length Matriphagy just around the corner, we caught up with Portnoy to see how the band started, the main inspirations behind their debut full-length and what their future plans are.
Tell us a bit about the early days of this band. How did it start and who were the first members to get involved?
Max: "I formed Tallah after taking a break from my previous band. I had been in the prog world for years and wanted to break out and play more of the music that I had enjoyed listening to my whole life, which was metal. Derrick (Schneider) was the guitarist in my previous band, and I know he wanted to do something new as well, so he was on board when I started telling him about the new band I wanted to form. I wanted this new band to have crazy energy and a chaotic vibe, so when thinking about that, I reached out to (Andrew) Cooper to be the bassist. I had known Cooper just from playing around the Philly scene and he always gave the most energetic performance out of any of the other bassists I knew, which was perfect for Tallah. After we got Coop in it, we went through many different line ups, jamming with different people and trying people out but it just didn't stick. We decided to record our EP No One Should Read This instrumentally, and then use the recordings to audition vocalists, that's what we did when I linked up with Justin. I had known of him for a while but never considered I'd be in a band with him till I was actually searching around for vocalists. The main thing I was looking for was someone with a unique voice, and with a tone that didn't sound like anyone else, and that's exactly what Justin had. We eventually linked up, he dug the demos and seven days later we were playing on stage together."
A lot of people categorize Tallah as a nu metal/metalcore band, and whilst I can see the similarities, you have plenty of elements of other styles of metal in your sound. You must have quite a wide range of influences. Are there any particularly prominent ones?
Max: "I don't like labelling our band and putting it in a box. After we do that, people listen to our music with certain expectations and it just doesn't make any sense to do that since we don't fit directly into one specific "sub-genre". We're obviously metal when it comes down to it, and if I had to pinpoint direct influences, I'd say we draw a lot from nu-metal and hardcore, but that doesn't mean that's exactly what we are. Tallah isn't a nu-metal band, nor is it a hardcore band, we just have that sound mixed into what we do. We try to do things our way, and not keep the sound to a specific sub-genre, and rather just make sure we sound like "Tallah"."
A very distinctive part of your sound is your vocalist Justin Bonitz. How did you first meet him and when did you know that he was the right person for the band?
Max: "Like I said in the first question, the main thing I was looking for in a vocalist was a unique voice. The vocals are a huge part of music for people, and I think it's important that you have that voice standing out as an individual rather than blending in with the rest of the crowd. That's how I look at Tallah as a whole. We can draw influences from other popular styles and sounds, and incorporate it in our music, but what's the point of copying someone else when they are already doing it better? Everyones better when you speak in your own voice rather than copying what someone else is saying."
Your new album Matriphagy is due to drop through Earache Records, quite an established label for such a young band to be on. What does that mean for you as a band?
Max: Earache reached out to us essentially one year since the band became official. That's a short amount of time for a band to be offered a record contract and we're immensely grateful for it. It was really reassuring to hear that someone else understood what we were doing and believed in us from such an early stage. We're honoured to be a part of the Earache family and are stoked to be working with them for our first release!
What is your writing process like?
Max: "I'll start writing in my home studio, getting ideas on my guitar and typically programming drums. At the time of writing for Matriphagy, I didn't have a way of recording drums, so i'd bounce between writing riffs on my guitar and grooves on my drums until I get something, then I program the beats out on EZdrummer and track the guitars and bass over it. I spend a ton of time on my own rewriting and revisiting the songs until I feel they are in the perfect place. There are probably 10 versions of each song that I've deleted after completing them just because I felt like they could be stronger. I typically write from start to end as well. I've written songs starting at the end or in the middle, but I feel like that hurts the flow of the song as you sort of start thinking backwards instead of listening to what feels natural."
"Once I finally feel like a song is in its last form and I can call it final, I'll send a demo off to Justin for him to write his vocals over. I'll usually give him a vocal map that's just time stamps of where he should be placing the vocals, like verse here, chorus here, bridge here, etc. I don't give him much more direction than that. Justin writes all his vocals and lyrics on his own, like I do with the music. Once he has a first draft of the song with vocals, we will talk about it together. Sometimes I might want him to try a different approach to test out, or I might want to change the instrumental based on what he sent me vocally, so we collaborate on those final details till we consider the song completed. Last step is learning the songs as a band. I'll send it out to everyone to listen to and learn the riffs. Then once we're all together, we can start performing it live and adding any extra details. Derrick will usually add in some textures to the background, or me and him will get some ideas for leads, and Coop will work in some bass fills if it calls for it. Final step is tracking out full demos at my place, with live drums and everyone on their instruments. It's a good way to help get the songs tighter and locked in for when we need to play them live or for when we actually record them."
Matriphagy’s lyrical themes and overall concept is pretty dark. What was the inspiration for the concept?
Max: "I can't speak much on the lyrical content of the album, since Justin handles that and I wouldn't want to be putting words in his mouth, but when he first began writing vocals for Tallah he asked me if he could do a concept, and the only thing I told him to do was "make it dark", so he took that and ran with it to the extreme, which I love. I've always had a love for dark concepts or stories, and I felt like it matched the tone of our music well. The general concept for Matriphagy is about a guy who has been locked in his house for his entire life by his overprotective mother. You get to follow his story as he goes crazy, I'd go more into detail but It's probably better to hear it from Justin himself. We have a series on our Youtube channel right now where he walks through each song and explains what's happening in each track. It's a really good series for anyone who's looking to hear a very detailed runthrough of the concept!"
Your music videos are pretty distinctive too, it’s quite refreshing compared to the music videos from a lot of your contemporaries. What’s the process like for coming up with an idea for a music video?
Max: Coming up with ideas for music videos is a lot of fun. Justin and I have almost like an unlimited supply of ideas for videos that we're always excited to put together. Once a song is chosen for a video, we usually go off of two things when picking a concept, what visuals we get just from listening to the song, and what the lyrical content is suggesting. We like to combine what's going on in the song and the story, with whatever vibe we're getting from the song itself, whether it be a more slick and clean look, a more dirty, grungy, horror look, a trippy, psychedelic look, etc. We also want to keep our videos connected, with recurring themes and imagery. It opens up your mind to more creative ideas when you have a pool of Tallah-esque imagery to pull from and to tie together. It's a lot of fun and makes our videos look as cohesive as we can make them. We already have ideas for every other song on the album, and songs for future albums. When you get to work this closely with every aspect of your band and your image, it really helps to make it look more true to what you're trying to be.
It’s obviously no secret that COVID-19 has brought live music to a complete halt. Where would you like to play first once shows start up again?
Max: "A huge part of what Tallah is, is our live show. We love giving our all at shows and giving people something that's more than just a couple dudes on stage playing music, so not being able to play shows really sucks. The second we can get out there and play again we will be stoked, doesn't matter where it is, but I will say, we were really looking forward to playing some festivals."
It’s no doubt been a tough year mentally for a lot of bands this year. How have you and the rest of the band been managing during this very difficult time?
Max: "Personally, I'm doing okay with what's going on. When I'm not on the road touring or playing shows, I'm sitting in my room anyway, so I know how to keep myself occupied during these times. But as far as the band goes, it's pretty tricky to stay busy without being able to perform. We've done some cool behind the scenes stuff though, like we played a VR show a couple months back which was an interesting experience. We tracked a set live and filmed ourselves in front of greenscreens that we're played in this VR festival online. I've also kept myself busy editing videos for the band. I make plenty of teasers and interactive clips for the band, and I even directed and edited a music video for our song 'The Silo'. I made a cool interactive scavenger hunt as well for the release of that song, which sent our fans through a series of puzzles hidden all over the internet to find clips of the song early. It's all about finding new and creative ways to promote your music online and I think we've done a fairly good job of that so far."
Finally, when touring starts again, what bands do you most want to play with?
Max: "We're down to play with anyone if it makes for a cool line up. People keep talking about the "Nu-metal revival" thing that's happening right now, so it would be pretty fun to get a tour together with some of those bands, like Tetrarch, Fire From The Gods, Omerta, etc. Would even be dope to play with some rappers if the opportunity came around."