Interview: Miss May I on Their New Album, 'At Heart'
Miss May I have had it pretty easy compared to the countless metal bands that play local gigs for years and send out demo after demo in the desperate hope of getting signed. The Troy, Ohio, metalcore quintet formed in 2006 when its members were in high school, and within two years, they had attracted the attention of local music hero, the Devil Wears Prada’s guitarist Chris Rubey, who happened to be looking for a band to manage. A few phone calls later, Rubey hooked Miss May I up with TDWP’s former label, Rise Records, and before the guys in Miss May I knew it, they were working on their 2009 debut album, Apologies Are for the Weak, with esteemed producer Joey Sturgis (TDWP, Asking Alexandria).
“We couldn’t do much when were first signed because we were still in school, but we had all these songs,” guitarist Justin Aufdemkampe explains. “So Rise said, ‘Go into the studio and record the album. When you graduate, we’ll start touring on it.’ Six days after my graduation, I left for California on my first-ever tour. I had never ever been west of the Mississippi before.”
“It was funny doing the first record, because when those guys were still in school they’d get out of class and come over to the studio to check things out,” recalls guitarist B.J. Stead, who graduated a year before his bandmates. “Then they’d have to go home to do homework. I’m a year older than them and had already graduated, so I recorded all the guitars for that album.”
Since then, Miss May I—which also includes lead vocalist Levi Benton, clean vocalist Ryan Neff and drummer Jerod Boyd—have been on a rapid upward career slope. Their second record, 2010’s Monument, which featured a traditional blend of speedy riffs, melodic fills and stomping breakdowns, entered Billboard’s album chart at Number 76, and their fanbase rapidly grew from tours with TDWP, Carnifex, Impending Doom and Blessthefall. Even when their music veered on generic, Miss May I delivered it with a confidence and enthusiasm that belied their inexperience.
“They have a certain snowball quality to them that’s infectious,” says As I Lay Dying vocalist Tim Lambesis, whose band is one of Miss May I’s greatest influences, along with Avenged Sevenfold and the Black Dahlia Murder. “Being that they’re so young, it’s natural for them to add their own energy and their own twist to the music that they listened to growing up.”
Miss May I’s first two records fit snugly into the metalcore/deathcore mold and were each recorded and produced by Sturgis in just a few weeks. But while the songs were powerful and exuberant, many of them lacked a coherent structure. For their new, third album, At Heart, however, Miss May I have developed as musicians, writing songs that build and dip in intensity through distinct verses, choruses and midsections. Instead of composing songs on the fly in the studio as they had done with Sturgis, they started writing the album together on their tour bus on the 2010 Warped Tour and spent another six months building songs. Then they entered the studio with Machine (Lamb of God, Suicide Silence), who produced on analog tape and was unforgiving of sloppy playing and lackluster compositions.
“Machine sat down with us and critiqued all of the songs, which no one had ever done before,” Aufdemkampe says. “We redid them three or four times in preproduction before we recorded anything for the album.”
Often, the producer kept Aufdemkampe and Stead in his New Jersey Studio for 12 hours at a stretch, working with them on their playing styles and helping to build their endurance. “Machine really showed us that we couldn’t be lazy if we wanted to be a real band,” Stead says. “We liked the albums we did with Joey, but there was so much editing done to make them sound computer-perfect. And then when we got onstage we weren’t like that. We wanted the songs on this album to be more like the way we sound live, so we had to learn to play them that way from start to finish.”
When they take the stage, Aufdemkampe and Stead both play Signature Jim Root Fender Stratocasters with GHS strings through Peavey 6505+ amps and Orange full stacks. In the past, they tuned to drop C, but most of At Heart is in Bf. “It makes the guitars sound even heavier, plus it helps [clean vocalist] Ryan [Neff] sing in a range that’s better for him.”
With such a deep, visceral tone, Miss May I have to set their amp levels so the guitars cut through the bass and drums and the rhythms don’t sound too muddy. “We really focus on our mids, but we don’t like to oversaturate,” Aufdemkampe says. “We control our tone with EQ pedals and we dial back a little bit on the gain. When you have a lot of gain, you can’t hear the articulation and the picking.”
Aufdemkampe started playing guitar at age 12 with the help of his father, a longtime hobbyist. He learned basic blues shuffle patterns, then emulated pop-punk groups like Green Day and Blink-182. He picked up lead guitar by listening to and copying his dad’s Stevie Ray Vaughan records.
In 10th grade, he started jamming with Boyd, a classmate, and the two learned songs by Taking Back Sunday, Underoath and Avenged Sevenfold. But when Aufdemkampe saw Atreyu at Warped, his taste in music abruptly shifted. He discovered As I Lay Dying, All That Remains and Darkest Hour, and began writing fast, aggressive originals. Around that time, Miss May I hired Benton, because he could scream without losing his voice, and recruited Stead to thicken their rhythms and add faster leads, even though he didn’t have a solid metal background.
“I was 17 when I joined,” Stead says. “I had been playing guitar for years, but not much metal. I was mostly listening to Pink Floyd and straight rock. The thing is, I really wanted to play in a band, so when the opportunity arose, I delved more into the genre and listened to lots of Lamb of God and Black Dahlia Murder. That’s pretty much where my lead style comes from.”
The band’s first gig was at a decent Dayton venue, the Attic, but the club was mostly empty, except for 10 of their classmates. They also played a homecoming party and a show in a friend’s driveway. Despite such small-time engagements, Miss May I began to get a little notice. Then Rubey heard about them and decided to have a look. Impressed by the band’s confidence and exuberance—which reminded him of a younger TDWP—he asked if they would let him manage them.
“Once Chris came in, everything changed,” Aufdemkampe admits. “He helped us record and worked with us. He set us up with Rise and got us gigs. We owe a lot of our original success to him, for sure.”
The only hitch came when bassist Ryan Neff quit in 2007 to join death metal band Rose Funeral, long before Miss May I landed a record deal. The band replaced him with Josh Gillespie, who recorded on Apologies Are for the Weak but bailed soon after. “Three dates into our first tour Josh freaked out,” Aufdemkampe says. “We were in the middle of Arizona, and suddenly he just quit. Fortunately, Ryan had just left Rose Funeral and wanted to come back. So we flew him out and he started right away.”
Since then, thing have been on the upswing for Miss May I. They have released the first song from At Heart, “Hey Mister,” and recently played Europe with Parkway Drive and toured the Far East for the first time. Starting June 17, they’ll be one of the highlights of this year’s Warped Tour, along with the Used, Taking Back Sunday, New Found Glory, Every Time I Die, Born of Osiris and dozens more.
“We can tour with a lot more different bands now because we have a lot of styles in our music,” Aufdemkampe says. “I don’t think you could put us in a hole within one genre of music anymore, and that’s something I’m really proud of.”