Gatecreeper: “If we’re an entry point for someone who’s never heard death metal then that’s awesome!”

Gatecreeper are one of the most exciting death metal bands on the planet. Everyone from Lamb Of God to billion-streaming rap superstars love them. As they continue their rise, frontman Chase Mason reveals how desert heat, hardcore house shows and getting off heroin played a part in getting them here…

Gatecreeper: “If we’re an entry point for someone who’s never heard death metal then that’s awesome!”
Nick Ruskell

A week after we speak to Chase Mason, he received a chip to celebrate a landmark. Ten years ago, aged 25, Gatecreeper’s frontman realised he needed to get his life back on track. Having first smoked weed when he was “about 13”, he soon found himself “drinking a lot and taking a lot of fucking drugs. I got heavily into drugs.”

One of those drugs was heroin, black tar, the thick, choking carcinogens of which he would smoke using a piece of foil. Growing up in the desert climes of Arizona, such vices aren’t uncommon. Fellow desert-dweller Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age and Kyuss once described what can happen to a person when the drugs stop being fun in such an isolated and physically challenging environment: “You can see the desert in their eyes.” And here was Chase, on his way to becoming one of them.

“My life was a mess,” he reflects. “I am a drug addict. I had to stop because I liked it too much, you know?”

Eventually, realising he was on a dangerous path and squandering his musical talents, Chase got clean with the help of a 12-step program. Then, what would become as much a life-focus as a musical outlet, Chase formed the band he’s now helmed for a decade.

“I ended up starting Gatekeeper after I got sober,” he says. “Because after years and years of playing music, I was still never able to do anything with it. I had my own personal problems because of drugs that always got in the way. So, starting the band after I got sober, it gave me something I needed to do.”

Gatecreeper have since become one of the most killer death metal bands on the planet. Through their two excellent albums – 2016’s Sonoran Depravation and 2019’s Deserted – and last year’s surprise-dropped An Unexpected Reality EP, the Arizona quintet are at the front of a wave of bands giving death metal an energetic reanimation. Their summer European festival run was their biggest to date, and their name was cheered loudly when it was announced on Bloodstock’s jumbotron that they’d be appearing at next year’s event. In a rare turn of fortune for such a heavy band, they’re also at a point now where death metal is paying the bills. Considering where they came from, things could be worse.

“I’ve built up all these things that I don’t think I’d be able to do – actually, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do them – if I was still drinking or doing drugs or whatever,” admits Chase. “It’s motivating. If I’m ever tempted about going back to that, I just remember that everything that I have now would be gone pretty quickly if I didn’t keep doing what I’m doing.”

Still, Gatecreeper had their work cut out in the beginning. “Arizona’s not really a place that’s known for death metal bands,” Chase explains. “It’s definitely not a hotspot.”

In a literal sense, it really, really is. Home to a swathe of the vast Sonoran Desert, in high summer the mercury in the Grand Canyon State can reach as much as 50 degrees and still not stop. Go outside unprepared and the sun will start to turn you into human jerky before it’s even finished killing you. In Phoenix, the state capital that half of Gatecreeper call home, Chase details how they’ve “planted trees and lawns to make it feel more like California”. Even so, he says, this is to “put lipstick on it. It’s a desert. It’s hot.”

But as far as a music scene goes, Chase calls the place Gatecreeper grew up “a mixed bag”. It was populous enough, but not so much that lines could exist too easily between genres.

“It’s not big enough that things can really be separated,” he explains. “If you’re into underground music, you go to metal shows, you go to punk shows, you go to hardcore shows, you go to everything.

“The scene we came up in, there wasn’t these lines being drawn of, ‘Oh, I only like this very specific type of metal,’” he continues. “We’ve always had our toes in different worlds, and we all like different types of music.”

Replying in the affirmative when asked if he’s a music nerd, this state of affairs suited Chase just fine.

“Music is definitely my biggest interest,” he says. “I have other interests, like skateboarding, different art stuff. But in the end, my main interest is music, and the things that I like are all kind of connected to music. I like art stuff, I do graphic design a little bit, but it’s mostly for music – flyers or T-shirt designs. It all comes back to music.”

It was Chase’s father who got him into music. In particular, it was The Beatles, one of hundreds of bands in Mason Snr’s record collection, who first struck a chord. “My dad took me to see Paul McCartney when I was, like, three years old,” he recalls. “And I remember watching that The Beatles movie Help! a lot. We had it on VHS and I would sing along, and make my parents come in so I could do a concert for them.”

As he got older, he would “listen to whatever was on the radio”, before discovering punk rock. At the same time, and equally important, he began getting into skateboarding.

“Skateboarding was my entry into a lot of underground music,” Chase enthuses. “Skateboarding itself is a subculture, you know, it’s a thing. That opened my world up to things that weren’t mainstream – things that weren’t on the radio, things that weren’t presented to the general population. I feel like skateboarding was my entryway into going, ‘Let me see what else is out there that not everybody’s into.’ I think I heard Slayer for the first time in a skateboarding video.”

Aged 12, he joined his first band, a punk outfit in which he played drums, followed by a succession of bands in which he would play guitar, bass or sing, eventually joining his first metal band aged 18. For all of them, if you wanted to play anywhere in Phoenix, you had to make things happen yourself.

“For a long time Phoenix had a lot of DIY show spots,” Chase says. “There were practice spaces that had shows, and lots of house shows. They were pretty wild. You would literally just be playing in someone’s living room or the yard, and people would go crazy. But that was just the scene, unless a bigger band was coming through.”

It was at one such show that Gatecreeper made their debut. Quickly they became a name around town, and then outside it as well. Arizona may not exactly be largely represented on death metal’s map, but Gatecreeper have given it a very good name. Titling their albums as they have, while referring to themselves proudly as Sonoran Desert Death Metal on their shirts (as seen on the chest of Glassjaw singer Daryl Palumbo), their home is as much where they’re at as where they’re from.

“A lot of extreme music comes from extreme climates,” ponders the frontman. “Like, black metal that comes from Norway. A period of the year there you have to stay inside because it’s snowing and so cold. It’s kind of like that for us, but the opposite – we’re literally melting as soon as we step outside. So you’re kind of cooped up inside, and whether you’re a kid or an adult, you’re gonna have to figure out how to entertain yourself. Maybe that sparks some creativity, maybe artists thrive in that sort of condition. I think that the climate plays into everything that we do.”

Notably, like the late, great Power Trip, with whom the band were friends, Gatecreeper’s energised, street-smart heaviness is finding favour with plenty of people who otherwise would give death metal the big swerve, doing for it a similar thing to what Turnstile have for hardcore.

An example: a couple of years ago, Chase got a call from an old pal. He’d been playing Gatecreeper to a friend, a music guy he’d been working for, who was into Power Trip and some other metal bands. He was apparently really into what he heard. He’s going to be coming through Arizona soon, Chase’s mate said, so wanna hang out? Oh, the friend’s name is Post Malone.

“I was like, ‘Fuck yeah!’” recalls Chase today. “The first time I met him we were backstage playing beer pong. He was doing it with beer and I had cups of water. But other times I’ve met up with him, it was like hanging out with friends that I’ve known for a long time that are really into music, recommending bands, pulling albums up on our phones. He’s a genuine person who’s genuinely into music and doing his thing. He’s cool. He’s a good guy.”

In fact, the loveable biro-faced rap king dug Gatecreeper so much he invited them to come and play his Posty Fest bash last year. “I’m sure a lot of people saw our name for the first time on that flyer and were like, ‘What is this?’” laughs Chase.

In the event, the whole thing was cancelled due to COVID. But the very fact it was down to happen underlines exactly what Gatecreeper are doing. Their name would have been the only one on the poster to also have shared stages with Dying Fetus, Incantation and Carcass, but it’s also easy to see such a fixture working.

“If we get to be the entry point for someone to be like, ‘I’ve never heard a death metal band, but now I’m going to check out Morbid Angel,’ then that’s cool,” he grins. “I’m definitely not gonna be mad about it – it’s awesome!

“I remember discovering this kind of music myself,” Chase continues. “My dad was pretty up on technology – we got the internet pretty early on – so I’d spend time finding albums online, you know, illegally. You’d see Black Dahlia Murder referencing At The Gates, and that’s how I checked out [ATG classic responsible for most metalcore bands’ riffs] Slaughter Of The Soul. That was my entryway into going deep into all that old Swedish stuff.

“If someone hears us and has a similar thing,” he finishes with a proud beam, “then our job is done.”

This interview was originally published in the autumn 2022 issue of the magazine.

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