Interview: Justin McCain of Emphatic Discusses Their New Album, 'Damage'
On July 12, Emphatic, a hard-rocking Midwest six-piece band currently tearing through the United States as part of the 2011 Carnival of Madness tour -- released their major-label debut, Damage, on Atlantic Records.
The album, which was produced by Howard Benson (Three Days Grace, Daughtry, 10 Years, Theory Of A Deadman, Halestorm, Skillet), cements their reputation as a hard-working unit that lives up to fans' tough expectations.
Guitar World caught up with lead guitarist and primary songwriter Justin McCain amid an ongoing road trip that finds them performing on the bill with Alter Bridge, Theory of a Deadman, Black Stone Cherry and Adelita’s Way.
GUITAR WORLD: How old were you when you first picked up a guitar?
Well, I have a picture of me when I was 2 holding a guitar -- but I didn’t start playing until I was 12.
How did growing up in the Midwest shape your views on rock music?
The band is from Omaha, Nebraska. I'm actually from Iowa. I guess the scene has always been great; it’s been strong for rock in general, so I mean I’ve been exposed to lots of different venues and radio stations that play rock. I’ve been raised on rock, so it’s great for me.
Who has been your idol in terms of playing guitar?
I’ve never really had one specific person. In general, I just love to write songs. I’m the songwriter for the band. Growing up, like I said, I listened to rock, but I also listened to pop and other kinds of music, so I think I’ve just been influenced by so many different things, and I think that’s just kind of created who I am as a musician and as a writer.
Clearly you are multi-faceted in your musical endeavors. What other tricks do you have up your sleeve? Do you play any other instruments?
I play keyboards, drums, bass and guitar. When we go in to do the demos and stuff for the record, I’ll literally write the songs and play all the instruments and do everything. I love playing everything in the band. I’m not better than the drummer, but I can play!
Being the primary songwriter in the group, what motivates you to write, and what are some of your methods for staying focused?
What motivates me is everyday life. I could walk out my front door and something could just hit me and it would become a song. Whether it’s a car driving or it’s down the street, for some reason that may spark something in my head. Whatever the case may be. I always tend to kind of write real life. Some of it might be fiction, some of it might be made up, but for the most part it’s experiences, or if I know someone that’s going through something, it may be my perspective of how I’m interpreting their experiences.
So it’s always relative, you know what I mean? It’s not nothing. It always means something — at least to me. And then I feel as though as long as you’re honest and you write in a way that people can relate it’s obviously gonna hit home.
Really, it’s pretty much me in my head — me in a basement or something. If I start writing, it usually just flows and comes naturally. I’ve never taken any sort of classes or anything like that. It’s coming from the heart. And even if it’s a fun and sexual song like “Bounce,” I want to focus on creating something that will hit both spectrums. Every song hits a target.
One of my methods is to not always write the same thing. Sometimes it starts with the lyrics, sometimes it starts with a melody. Sometimes, it's the guitar riff. I could not read music to save my life. I actually took lessons for about a month when I was 13, I believe. I couldn’t do it. I wanted to know how to play something besides “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and I didn’t have the patience to sit there and go through all the steps and really be focused enough to learn. I was really more of a creative type of person and didn’t really want that structure. I wanted to be “all the way” before I put in the work to get there.
So I just sat down with a guitar in my bedroom and played some cassette tapes and whatever I could find around the house and just started teaching myself and thought, “Wow. I can actually listen to a song and be able to play it.” Eventually, the more you do something, you get better at it.
What was the first song you taught yourself how to play?
The first song I ever learned how to play by myself and just went all the way with was “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers.
As for the recent release of Damage, what has the crowd reaction been so far on the Carnival of Madness Tour?
It’s been amazing. We’re very fortunate to be up there opening the show every night, and it just seems like everyone is really into the band. The response has been very positive. Everyone’s just very supportive — very interested in what we’re doing, so we couldn’t really ask for more.
Describe your current setup -- effects, guitar, amp, etc.
Definitely PRS. It’s my favorite guitar, period. PRS Custom 24. I have two of those, and I actually have a deal with PRS, so they sent me a guitar, but I rarely play it. The one I do typically play has duct tape all over it and the headstock’s broken off, but it’s my favorite guitar of all time. It’s been with me through everything, and it’s just a beautiful instrument even though it’s a little damaged at this point. I also play through a Peavey head and cab. It’s pretty simple. I have a couple little delay pedals and chorus pedals, and that’s about it.
Which song has generated the most hype so far on tour?
Well “Bounce” is our single, so as we’re going around the country we’ll see faces in the crowd that recognize the lyrics to that song. But I think the song “Get Paid,” for never hearing some of these songs when we go to new places and see new faces, I really think it hits them right away and is kind of instantaneous. There are always people out there singing that track even if they’ve never seen us before. “Put Down the Drink” is another one we’ve had that the audience seems to like.
Touring can be the make or breaking point for a lot of bands. Are there any rituals you guys have to help you stay pumped and get you through the tough times? Any pre-show traditions?
We take stage about five minutes before we are set to go on every night, and we all huddle up and put in our hands and say a prayer. We remember to thank everyone for the support. We remember to thank our families and friends back home. We throw down “3-2-1-EMPHATIC,” and that’s what we do every night. We’re just very grateful and very honored to be up there, and that’s something we can do as a band that really unites us before each show. It’s really a reminder to stay humble and really remember why we’re up there.
I understand that your vocalist, Patrick, suffered a throat injury. What’s it been like having a temporary vocalist on tour?
We love him. His name is Grant Kendrick. He’s actually a guy that I’ve worked with for a while as far as building a band. I actually found Grant about a year ago in Omaha, and I started writing him some songs and building a band around him. I was managing and producing the band and positioned them for some showcases for some record labels, and then everything kind of happened with Patrick’s injury, and it was just kind of ironic that we had someone ready to go. He’s doing absolutely phenomenal. The crowd loves him, the girls love him, and we’re just very fortunate that he could just step in like that with a few days’ notice and be as good as he is. His band that I’ve produced is called The Wreckage.
How are your relationships with the other bands on tour?
Great! You never know what’s gonna happen when we hit the road. Fortunately, for us, I can’t think of one band that we haven’t gotten along with, even on the first couple of tours. With the Carnival tour, it’s just this huge family. It’s awesome that it’s like that because it just makes everything so much easier. For example, Theory of a Deadman is obviously massively successful. Some people may assume that they wouldn’t step off their bus and talk to anyone—assholes, maybe. But they are the nicest people ever. They’ll come up to you, sit next to you, eat the catering with you and just bullshit with you.
Same with Alter Bridge. I actually sat down with Mark Tremonti in the dressing room before the Missouri show and just watched him play, and he was like, “Hey! Pick up a guitar and let’s jam!” It’s just like a big family. It’s absolutely amazing and very comfortable. We couldn’t ask for more. Everything about this tour is just incredible, through and through.
Any monumental band pranks?
Band pranks. I don’t know if there are any that you could print… that’s the thing. There may have been one or two. What happens on the road stays on the road! I’m not a part of that, but that’s the rule!
Do you continue to write while on the road?
Absolutely. It’s definitely something that is a part of me no matter what I do or where I go. It’s just who I am. I am constantly writing whether it’s on a piece of paper or my Blackberry or in my head. It’s a sickness, I think. A good sickness.
Can we expect any future collaboration?
I guess you never know. Never say “never” is the rule of thumb. It’s definitely possible. I would be honored to get the shot to do a collaboration with Mark Tremonti. I guess I could have thrown his name out when asked about inspiring guitarists. He’s had an influence on me. We look up to every band that’s on the road. We’re the baby band. We’re the new guys on the block. We’re just getting out there and enjoying ourselves.
What has been your most memorable date on the Carnival of Madness Tour?
There’s always something amazing to be said about every place, but Sedalia, Missouri, was absolutely insane. It was so amazing. That’s the first time we’d ever been there, so it was an incredible experience for us. It’s definitely a tour I’ll never forget, but all the shows have been great so far. I have a feeling the whole tour’s gonna be like that. It’s absolutely insane. If it continues like this, it’s just gonna be awesome.
We love Omaha shows because we’re from Omaha. It’s what built Emphatic. Our hometown shows are always our favorite, because we are very loyal. The truth is every night is memorable. At least for me. It never gets old and never will. Each moment is the best moment because we’re up there doing what we want to do. We’re living our dream.
For more about Emphatic and the band's new album, Damage, visit EmphaticRock.com.