Creeping Death's Trey Pemberton: “It used to be, ‘Let’s write a bunch of riffs, throw ‘em together, and go hard.’ Now we think about how it flows together”

Creeping Death
(Image credit: Melissa Suarez)

Though not without its share of shred, rising Texan death metal force Creeping Death put on a particularly devastating rhythmic riff clinic throughout their just-released The Edge of Existence EP. 

The lead-off title track, for instance, runs nasty with a from-the-gut groove, building off both the band’s love for old-school death metal and their time in the Texas hardcore scene alongside the likes of Power Trip and Iron Age.

On Relics From the Past, guitarists Trey Pemberton and A.J. Ross III upend precision triplet galloping by punching through a percussively potent, pinch squeal mosh. As it stands, Pemberton explains to Guitar World that he’ll often think up the beats before crafting sinewy, gore-splattered licks on his LTD EX. It’s only natural, having started his musical journey all the way back at the age of 12 while sitting behind a drum kit.

“Full disclosure, my natural instrument is the drums,” Pemberton confirms from a tour stop in Norfolk, Virginia. “My mom is a drummer; I did drumline in high school. That’s helped tremendously [with playing guitar], especially with my right hand. I picked up on timing quickly. It was more getting my left hand onboard, and the hand-eye coordination.”

Pemberton made the shift towards guitar at the tail end of his teens, and has been developing an OSDM-centered style since forming Creeping Death in 2015. The act issued a handful of EPs and 2019’s venomous, high-velocity Wretched Illusions LP before current co-guitarist Ross joined the fold. 

With The Edge of Existence, they’ve offered up three brand new tunes as a taste of what’s to come, while also saluting their past via a trio of re-recorded tracks from 2016’s Sacrament of Death EP. 

Speaking with Guitar World, Pemberton gets into leveling up old favorites, spur-of-the-moment lead techniques, and how Muay Thai kickboxing classes have jumped up Creeping Death’s already energetic stage show.

In general, your tones seem to be warmer and more off the bone on this EP than the mid-heavy crush of Wretched Illusions. Were you consciously seeking out a different kind of sound?

“We really like to tinker and play around with things [in the studio], [but] honestly, we never really go into any recording like, ‘This is exactly what it should sound like.’ We got in there with the gear we have – our Peavey 6505s and regular pedals – and we were able to use more boutique, expensive gear that the studio had. We blended a lot of things; I think it turned out sick.”

The Edge of Existence’s title track has got this different kind of a roiling groove up front, a bit more down-low and brutal than the high-speed Wretched Illusions

“We don’t think about it too deeply; it’s just a progression. But we added another guitar player [for The Edge of Existence]. It was our first time writing with A.J., that’s brought a new flavor to it.”

Our gear is a little different – A.J. brings that low end crunch; mine is more on the high end

On that point, you each have your own solo sections on The Edge of Existence –you’ve got that series of dives and hammer-ons; A.J. has arguably a more classical approach to his sweeps. How would you describe your respective lead styles?

“I fly by the seat of my pants! I figure it out as I go. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there – whatever euphemism you want to use [laughs]. A.J. is more thoughtful; he knows more about chords. He’s able to piece it together a little more [ahead of time].”

What’s your general setup?

“On this tour I’ve been using a 6505. For my pedals, I have a regular Boss DS-1; an [Ibanez] TS9 Tube Screamer; a Boss Noise Suppressor… my tuner broke, so I’m using one of A.J.’s. I also have a Boss Dimension C chorus and an MXR digital delay on my 'board for various effects.

“On A.J.’s side, he has an ENGL Fireball. I’m pretty sure he has a DS-1 as well; he has a different overdrive. Our gear is a little different – he brings that low-end crunch; mine is more on the high end. They blend nicely, especially with Eric [Mejia]’s bass tone.”

What are you and A.J. running with, guitar-wise?

“Live I use an LTD EX-401FR with no neck pickup and an EMG-81 in the bridge. In the studio, I used a Snow White LTD EX-401 with the same pickup. Recorded and live, A.J. uses an Epiphone Explorer with a Valhalla Predator in the bridge, and a Gibson SGX with the stock Gibson pickup in the bridge.”

On this latest EP’s re-recorded version of Skinned Alive, there’s an octaver-type flair to the lead section that hadn’t been there on the original recording. Was that coming out of one of the boutique pedals at the studio?

“That was honestly just a spur of the moment decision. We recorded with Ryan Bram at Homewrecker Recording Studio in Tucson, Arizona – he’s recorded Gatecreeper and some other bands. He’s got crazy stuff lying around. I think that was a Foxrox Octron, but I’m not fully sure. It was definitely an octave/fuzz type pedal. 

Releasing this EP was a pandemic-related decision. We wanted to have new music out, but we also didn’t want to put out an LP and not be able to tour

“We were having a flippant conversation about how we like Pantera and Slayer, and Ryan was like, ‘They use a pedal similar to this; you guys want to try it?’ We already had the solo at the end that A.J. wanted to lay down, and once Ryan clicked the pedal on, it was like, ‘Yeah we’re keeping that!’”

What led you to re-record the three songs from the Sacrament of Death EP, and what had you wanted to bring to them that you perhaps hadn’t captured the first time out in 2016?

“It was a pandemic-related decision. We didn’t get to tour the full cycle of Wretched Illusions. We wanted to have new music out, but we also didn’t want to put out an LP and not be able to tour. So we wrote for this EP – actually, we wrote for an LP, but we’ll continue to pick and choose songs to release before we release a new album – and we had the bright idea to re-record some old tracks to fill it out. 

“You know, we just have better gear [now]; I’m much better at guitar. Lincoln [Mullins], our current drummer, wasn’t drumming for us back then. Also, this is [vocalist] Reece [Alavi]’s first band, ever. They’d never done vocals before Creeping Death, so the progression on all fronts is so great that, yeah, the songs sound completely different. And it gives us an excuse to play them live again. It worked out real nice.”

Were you working on your technique throughout the pandemic?

“I’ve learned so much from A.J. and Eric. I’ve been playing for less than a decade, so I’m still trying to learn things about tone, gear, technique – all sorts of stuff. For example, A.J. has taught me all these different scale patterns that I can play when I’m just trying to speedball it. 

“Like, ‘You can put your fingers in this position and it’ll make this scale, pretty much no matter where you’re at.’ I incorporate that in my playing, which may seem rudimentary to [some] people.”

Do you sense a difference in how you went about writing songs back then compared to now?

“For sure. I was still in college when we were writing Sacrament of Death. We were just hardcore kids wanting to jam something new to us [death metal]. It was just, ‘Let’s write a bunch of riffs, throw ‘em together, and go hard.’ Now I feel like we think about how it flows together. That’s really the main thing. We try not to do as much riff salad, but sometimes a good, hearty riff salad is pretty sick [laughs]. We still have those tendencies.”

The kicks are more of a recent thing. I started taking Muay Thai kicking classes after I got vaccinated. I needed to get out of the house and exercise

On that point, you said you’ve been writing for another full-length?

“We basically have an album in the bank. We’re trying to record sometime in the first couple months of 2022.”

You pull off this impressive spin kick between riffs in the music video for The Edge of Existence. Do you incorporate that in your stage show, too? 

“I do kicks like that and jump around. I feel like that’s a product of being hardcore kid, where everybody’s going crazy at the shows. I really like an energetic stage presence. You’re there to perform, you know? 

“But with the kicks and stuff, that’s more of a recent thing. I started taking Muay Thai kicking classes after I got vaccinated. I needed to get out of the house and exercise. I got real flexible; I’ve got balance; I know how to do techniques. I’m not saying I can do them well, but I do them onstage and people clap and cheer.”

What’s your estimate on your vert?

“The last time I measured my vertical, I was in high school doing football. Obviously this was 10 years ago, but back then it was 34 inches. There’s maybe been a bit of drop off [since then], but 32 inches is my guess. I’m still in decent shape; I’ve never stopped exercising. I can still dunk!”

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Gregory Adams

Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling. This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.