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Trivium frontman Matt Heafy reflects on the band's explosion and resulting backlash, and how that has shaped him today
On the morning of June 11 2005, Matt Heafy stepped out of his tour bus and into the uniform grey of the British summer. Two nights earlier, his band, Trivium, had appeared onstage at the Melkweg Oude Zaal club in Amsterdam; after this the touring party spent 48-hours travelling to a racetrack in the Leicestershire countryside for the occasion of that year’s Download Festival. Rising and shining, Matt was hungover, and he smelled.
Trivium were fast emerging as the most talked-about metal act of the season. Believing the hype, the event’s organisers offered to upgrade the band’s first appearance at the festival from a slot on its distant shores to a berth on the main stage, albeit at 11am. What Matt describes as “a whole bunch of 18- and 19-year olds on a bus with endless amounts of booze” meant that the early start posed something of a problem.
“I remember rolling out of my bunk looking like shit,” he says. “My voice sounded like shit. We were cold. We weren’t warmed up. We’d never played a show that big before and there we were standing by the side of the stage with me not even sure that my guitar was in tune. I’m not sure if our amps are going to work. No-one’s out there in the field. It’s cold, and it feels very much like a British festival as I now know them. But I didn’t know that back then.”
Matt Heafy “looked out and said, ‘This sucks, there’s nobody out there.’ It was 10:55 and we were on in five minutes. At 10:59 I hear the intro music and we walk up the steps to the stage. And that’s when I saw a sea of 40,000 people running towards us.
“And then I blacked out,” he says. “Everything just went black. The next thing I knew, I was walking off the stage.”
Fifteen years on from the morning that first defined his band’s career, Matt Heafy is standing in a bedroom in the home he shares with his wife, Ashley, and their twin children Mia and Akira. Outside, the Orlando sunshine casts glorious light on a back garden littered with children’s toys; out front, a looming tree casts a shadow over the Heafys’ lawn. As he speaks, his eyes drift to a framed painting of a reaper holding a banner on which are written the words ‘God knows I tried’.
Matt is today here to discuss What The Dead Men Say, Trivium’s ninth studio album, set for release this week. Recorded in a little over two weeks, the 10-song set combines the preferred blend of major-key melodies, technical complexity, and occasionally manic tempos with which the band have made their name, and their career. If today the musicians’ seamless melding of styles sounds more mainstream than once it did, it is only because Trivium have played their part in helping to drag metal’s centre-of-gravity in ever heavier, and stranger, directions.
“For me, my goals are the same as they always were, which is to be the best metal band that we can be,” Matt says.
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What The Dead Men Say was produced by Josh Wilbur, and recorded at Studio 606 in Los Angeles, the facility owned by the Foo Fighters. Clocking in at a blush over 45 minutes, the album prioritises economy where other bands might prefer to linger. In keeping with this, the release was brought together with a ruthless efficiency. Seeking a “fifth member who would operate as part as a democratic unit” rather than someone who planned to “step in as a leader”, Trivium ensured that the songs on which they were working were “99-to-100 per cent complete” before allowing them to be heard by their producer. By this stage, the Floridians’ were a crack-unit of musical preparedness. For his part, Matt – who on the day of one of the two interviews for this article spent six hours practicing vocals – had been perfecting for a year every phrase and nuance that he planned to sing into the microphones at Studio 606.
“The reason we’re so quick in the studio is because we practice so damn much,” he says. “It’s to the point where I don’t think other musicians would want to practice that much. We enjoy being over-prepared. I don’t want to do anything in front of other people, in front of an audience, until I’ve rehearsed it to death. It needs to be something I have done thousands and thousands of times.”
For Matt Heafy, What The Dead Men Say is merely the latest instalment in a body of work that has consumed his life to an uncommon degree. As a child, he watched a performance by Metallica filmed at the Seattle Coliseum, in 1989; turning away from the television, he looked at his mother and said, ‘Hey mom, this is what I want to do.’ After joining Trivium at age 12 – the group’s other members were at least three years his senior – in 2006 the band, off the back of their critically acclaimed second album Ascendancy, were invited to support Metallica at festival dates around Europe. At the first, Lars Ulrich walked into their dressing room and told them that he loved their band. In Amsterdam, Kirk Hammett took the musicians out for dinner at what Matt describes as “the fanciest sushi restaurant I’ve ever seen in my entire life” before gracefully picking up the tab.
Trivium regarded their good fortune as the reward for working as hard as they knew how on their craft. Even after the band’s pivotal performance at their first Download, Matt remembers leaving the stage and thinking. ‘I need to take this more seriously now.’ Today, he practices for up to six hours a day, five days a week; as well as this, he broadcasts 10 individual performances each week (and three per day when on tour) on the live-streaming service Twitch, from which he derives a second income.
“I don’t get in shape to go on tour,” he says. “I don’t get in shape to make a record. Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year, I’m ready to go on tour if I have to. I’m ready to make an album if I have to. I don’t think of it like a musician, I think of it like an athlete. They need to be in shape all year round; they don’t have periods when they’re not in shape. And neither do I.”
“Even during my childhood, I was not the kind of kid for whom my parents had to set up strict rules,” the singer continues. “My dad’s a marine and my mom is Japanese; those are very disciplined cultures. They never had to set a curfew for me. They never had to worry about me being out partying because they knew that I was in the house playing guitar or working on Trivium lyrics. They knew that’s all I ever did.”
Yet out on tour, at least at first, Matt Heafy went nuts. Presumably equipped with a well-thumbed copy of The Dirt, and an approach to sexual relations that might charitably be described as ‘old-fashioned’, Trivium hit the road like a rock band as imagined by Viz magazine. In an astonishing interview with Kerrang!, from 2006, the singer spoke of – among other things – enjoying “twosomes, threesome, foursomes – whatever” and of having sex with “two [or] three people in public places, with all the windows open”.
Back in Orlando, Matt headed out to buy the magazine on which his face adorned the cover and brought it back to the family home. He then proceeded to read the article in the company of his mother, his father, and a girlfriend who, miraculously given such material, is today his wife. The printed revelation that “I have a girlfriend so I’m a good boy now” went only so far in restoring order, as Ashley placed down the magazine and said to her partner, “Yeah, you sound really fucking cool, don’t you?”
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“Having been strict my entire life, we did go a bit nuts,” recalls Matt. “We got it out of our system very quickly, within a year, which is a pretty short time. But within that year, our band went from absolutely nothing to dominating every single magazine cover, to winning every single award, to being a band that were spoken of as being the next biggest band in the world. We had every move we made, and every word we said, watched by everyone.
“In the meantime, we were encouraged to play up this insane thing,” he says. “Do it! Go for it! Be nuts! So we were a bunch of 18- and 19-year olds that were being told to go nuts, and we did. And, yeah, [the stuff] is gross and disgusting.”
“No-one was victimised or abused,” says Matt. “And I do know of bands that want to hurt people, who want to victimise people, and who have victimised people. There are bands that want to kill people, who have tried to kill people, and who have killed people. What we were doing was never that. What we were doing was the kind of thing that 18- and 19-year olds do when they’re being idiotic… but I do remember that stupid interview. And I do actually need to be reminded of those things. I don’t like messing up, I don’t like failures, but it is important to recognise where you messed up, and not just to evade it and ignore it.”
But if parts of Matt Heafy’s conversation with Kerrang! in 2006 can be discounted as so much regrettable flim-flam, elsewhere there are more telling, and more revealing, moments. Asked whether Trivium’s boundless self-confidence – arrogance, even – was viewed as a threat by other bands, the singer replied that, “I think what scares people is that we say we want to be the biggest band in the world. And we’ve been saying that since I was 12, and we’ve been working for that every single day since we said that. I think the 40,000 people who saw us today [at Download] know that’s true. People try to drag us down, but it doesn’t matter.”
Such comments did not go down well with Matt’s peers. With the rock collapsing over itself to garland Trivium with uniform adoration of a kind that is rare for an emerging act, other bands pursed their lips in irritation. Matt is keen to point out that the truly global groups never misbehaved in his direction - Metallica and Iron Maiden, with whom the Floridians toured, are mentioned as being especially kind – but when it came to other performers, he feels that Trivium suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
“We’re not a band’s band,” Matt says. “When we play a festival, you don’t see the wings of the stage packed with other bands watching us. But what you do see is the crowd becoming bigger. We are built by our fans. And our fans are the ones who have stayed with us.
“At the time, I didn’t talk about this stuff much, but I think it’s important that people know that we were not embraced by other bands,” he says. “Very few bands took care of us. And these were bands I grew up listening to, who I grew up worshipping, who were just really shitty to us, either directly or by just talking shit about us even though we hadn’t done anything specific. It sucked.”
There aren’t many groups whose fans go to see them hoping that they’ll play songs from their ninth album. Why will What The Dead Man Say be different?
“Well, the way we make our best music is when we don’t think whether or not people are going to like it,” comes the answer. “We just make what we want to make. With our last record [2017’s The Sin And The Sentence] in the UK – and everyone knows about Trivium’s relationship with the UK – when we played Download for that record, and when we played Brixton [Academy, in London], that was the first time in history that a record had topped the material from Ascendancy. The stuff we played off Sin… had a better reaction than the stuff we played off Ascendancy. So the growth is definitely there. That’s the reason I can absolutely see people wanting to hear several different songs off this record.”
Matt Heafy’s very public disclosure about wanting to become the biggest band in the world combined two qualities: it was both fabulously and admirably brazen, and it was naively stupid. In a quantitative sense, Trivium did not become the thing they claimed they wanted to be. They do not headline arenas. Their appearances at summer festivals – not this summer, obviously – occur during daylight hours.
“[In 2005] we weren’t ready to step through that door and become an arena band,” he says. “We wanted that, and I still want it, but we weren’t ready… So if we become that arena band, awesome; and if we don’t, awesome.”
But Trivium are a tremendous success in a way that its leader is now wise enough to appreciate. The band – today comprising Matt, guitarist Corey Beaulieu, bassist Paolo Gregoletto and drummer Alex Bent – enjoy a career of which to be proud. The group play music not as a hobby, but for a living; and their commercial achievements are significant. The Sin And The Sentence debuted in the Top 40 in no fewer than 14 countries. The biggest metal band in the world they may not be, but when it comes to units and numbers, Trivium are in the top 10 per cent.
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“Success for me means not having to worry,” says Matt. “There are so many people in the States and elsewhere who don’t know where they’re getting their next meal from. They have to worry about their grocery bill. They have to worry about whether or not they can make rent. They have to worry about feeding their kids… [For me] success is not having to worry about where I’m going to sleep tonight, or how I’m going to eat tonight, or how I’m going to pay my power bill. I feel for people who do have to worry about that, especially right now.
“And there are people who think that success means excess,” he adds. “The word ‘success’ has been bastardised. Success means doing what you love.”
You can blame it all on a personality that runs to extremes. When Matt decided he wanted to learn how to cook, the first dish he attempted was one that took three days to prepare. When he decided to take up a martial art, the discipline he chose was Brazilian jiu-jitsu, widely recognised as the hardest of them all. And when he decided to join a band, then naturally, inevitably, he wanted that band to be the biggest in all the world.
“My mom and my wife say it best when they say that I’m always either extremely hungry or extremely full,” he says. “And that’s the way to sum up my personality… It’s always going to be extreme. And whatever I might have chosen to do with my life, whatever it might have been, I would have gone into it just as hard as I have with music. I recognise that I have that extreme personality where everything has to be done to the fullest.
“I want the things that I do to be worth a damn,” he says. “I don’t just want them to be standard-issue.”
It is an impulse that he has learned to harness. In 2020, Matt Heafy undergoes therapy, a process about which he speaks highly; he does yoga and jiu-jitsu; he live-streams and plays video games like an obsessive. He now recognises “that I need many outlets in order to feel balanced, and even then I need more”.
Inevitably, it is from martial arts that he believes he has learned the most about his inner self. In one instance, the lesson was hard-learned. After being awarded a blue belt, the rank at which students are permitted to compete, Matt immediately scheduled a bout with an opponent. Squaring up against a rival that had held the ranking for five years, the two-week novice was beaten by a score of 12 to nil – and as the football cliché has it, he was lucky to get nil. As if this weren’t quite enough, the beat-down took place in front of an audience of fellow students from Matt’s gym, not to mention his friends.
“I think a lot of people in bands should do something like jiu-jitsu,” he reasons. “Because people in bands – and we’ve seen the type, and I’ve briefly acted like the type – can be rock star characters who decide that they don’t need to practice, don’t need to do the hard work. They have demands, and they have an ego. But if you put them in something like a martial arts situation, or a boxing ring, and have them stick at it, it will change their character because they will lose. And people need to lose. You can’t just win. You can’t just have things good. You have to fall. That stuff has to happen to you in order for you to grow.
“There’s so many bands out there just doing manufactured stuff to try to hit a quota, to try to hit a number, to try to be big,” Matt says. “I know I was a kid who said that I wanted us to be big, but at the same time I wanted to be big making my music. And I had ethics and an ethos about what I wanted that to sound like. It may have shifted and evolved, but I believe the core of who I am has always been within me; it was just a matter of shedding some skin and going through some stuff in order that I could become that person that I now am.”
Trivium's new album What The Dead Men Say is out April 24 via Roadrunner. Click here for all your album pre-order and streaming options.
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