Dark Flag is the latest album from the California metalcore outfit Phinehas, a concept record about North Korea. Frontman Sean McCulloch gives us the lowdown on the album, signing with a new record label, life on the road and other subjects.
What’s your current drummer situation?
Sean McCulloch: Currently we are having our good friend Isaiah Perez fill in for us. He’s been absolutely crushing it and we are so pumped that he’s with us. We should have more news on that soon.
How did the songwriting process for Dark Flag compare to previous albums?
We were really able to take our time with Dark Flag. Each song was approached with specific care for what it needed. There wasn’t a rush to try and force any parts or songs, so we ended up with a zero-filler album that I believe strongly represents where we are going as a band. Having Dan (our guitarist) track and mix almost the entire album gave us so many advantages to making this our favorite album to date.
What will be your strongest memory of the recording of the album?
I have a couple very strong memories. When we were recording vocals in Atlanta, GA at Glow in the Dark with Matt Goldman, I learned so much about my voice. Goldman pushed me during the vocal tracking process in so many detail oriented ways, that I really believe that these are the best vocals I’ve ever recorded.
Also, flying out to California multiple times to write and record with Dan was a ton of fun. He and I work really well together and typically balance each other out writing-wise. If one of us hits a rut, the other is there to keep the song moving forward in a fresh way.
What inspired the lyrical concept of the situation in North Korea?
I have some long time friends who worked as interns at an organization called LiNK (Liberty in North Korea). Although that was years back, I still remember them talking about the types of things that happen over there. Fast forward to March 2017 while driving overnight on tour and having a conversation with our buddy Sam Kirby. We were talking about how the Kim dynasty’s grip on North Korea and the various rumors we had heard about events over there.
I felt something in my heart move after the conversation and I became determined to research further. I was terrified of what I might find, and what I did find was even worse than what I had expected. Dark Flag became a collection of stories from the North. It isn’t a conservative or liberal agenda, it’s a fight for the value of human life and human rights in general.
What do you think will be the ultimate outcome there?
It’s hard to say. With so many variables and layers upon layers of intricacy (nuclear threats, attempted government control via a constant military state, and attempted control through food rations and the threat of execution or political camps), I have no idea what the ultimate outcome will be. I just hope and pray that the North Korean people see liberty come to pass.
How has the band’s sound evolved on this one?
We pushed ourselves to write extremely technical and aggressive music while balancing vocal patterns and hooks to optimize every song into it’s own memorable experience. This also being a concept album gives the album a perspective, not only lyrically, but dynamically with the music as well.
How did you come to sign with Solid State?
We had been in talks with them for a long while. We’ve known Adam, their A&R, for years and have always had interest in joining the Solid State family, but things had just never aligned until recently. It just felt right this time around and we are glad that it worked out. We love being a part of the Solid State roster.
Does that change your goals and expectations for the album?
As far as resources and getting things done, yes it changes a good bit. I don’t think it changes anything for us as far as our mindset goes, though. We have always been very determined no matter what our circumstances/affiliations have been. It definitely does, however, give us a lot more room to breathe knowing that Dark Flag will be released properly, whereas in the past it seems that labels have dropped the ball.
You have an extensive tour coming up. Do you planning on doing mostly support slots during this album cycle, or will you try to schedule headlining runs as well?
We love doing support runs because we feel that it grows us more than doing headlining runs. Having headlined for years and years in our early and formative years, I feel that support runs have done best for us.
With four albums of material now, how do you go about constructing set list, and does it change from show to show?
We pick one to two sets per tour and have them both prepared so we can adjust accordingly. Changing things show to show tends to lead to inconsistency and more of a chance of messing up. We want to be in a groove and not have to think about what song comes next so we can connect with the audience more. We all feel like we need to take a step forward in our career with building these upcoming sets. We love our old music, but we’ve played it all for years and years across the world. We want more of an opportunity to play the new material because we believe in where we are going musically.
What’s your favorite way to kill time on the road?
Talking to my wife. Playing Kan Jam. Heckling Bryce, our bass player. Vaping in the free world. Listening to audiobooks. Drinking caffeine. Hanging out with the other bands that we are out with.
What’s the most unusual venue you’ve played?
A Mennonite church in the mountains of North Carolina, or a bar called Lips Lounge in El Paso, Texas. They both were awesome shows.
After regaining the rights to some of your older material, do you have plans to reissue those albums at some point?
We will see what happens with those. We would love to do a special edition of some sort, but it’ll be a bit in the future before we get around to it. For now, having them for sale or on streaming sites like Spotify and Apple Music, and actually seeing money from them for the first time in six years is pretty cool.
Seen any good movies/DVDs lately?
No, but reading the book “Escape From Camp 14” by Blaine Harden was insane and I’d recommend it to anyone.
What’s in your current heavy musical rotation?
Veil of Maya, After the Burial, and James Vincent McMorrow.
Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
Every year, thousands of North Koreans risk their lives to escape their country. They must journey through China, where many are captured and exploited along the way. “Sleep Well, My Baby” follows the incredible journey of a North Korean refugee who’s had everything taken from her and will go to desperate measures to find freedom. Warning: scenes of physical and sexual abuse.
(interview published November 17, 2017)
Watch Phinehas – “Sleep Well, My Baby”