This is from the February 2014 issue of Guitar World. For the rest of this story, plus our "Van Halen 1984 Revisited" interview with Eddie Van Halen and features on Zakk Wylde & Ozzy Osbourne, Jake E. Lee, Tosin Abasi, Steel Panther, Five Finger Death Punch and John Petrucci's monthly column — check out the February 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.
They’ve made it to the top, but A Day to Remember keep in touch with their devoted fan base on the road and on their latest record, Common Courtesy.
In the 10 years that they’ve been together, A Day to Remember have worked their way up from low-rent DIY van tours to major arena outings. Their 2013 House Party Tour required three buses and five semis to haul the five-member-band and its crew, gear and elaborate stage sets from venue to venue. For each show, the group’s small army of roadies erected a full-size house on the stage every night. Not even Alice Cooper did that.
“It was really cool,” says lead guitarist Kevin Skaff. “At the beginning of the night, the garage door on the house would open up and we’d come out of the garage for our intro—because we gotta pay homage to the garage band that we were when we started out. And the house was built so that you could walk upstairs and go play on the roof. It was a lot of fun to play guitar from that high up. And it was cool having a big production like that, with pyro and shit. We’ve come a long way.”
But on a recent winter night, the members of A Day to Remember found themselves crammed into a van rolling down a North Carolina back road en route to a small club gig. It was quite a step down from the giddy heights of big-bang arena touring, but as Skaff says, you gotta honor your roots. A Day to Remember were doing the one-off gig as a favor to a local radio station that had given heavy airplay to their music. And they loved every lowball minute of it.
“We were gonna fly in,” says rhythm guitarist Neil Westfall. “But the airport was closed due to fog, and our flight got canceled. So we rented a van at 11 o’clock at night, jumped in, drove five hours and got there. It felt like we were back where we started, playing 500-capacity rooms. It was awesome!”
“It felt good to do that again,” Skaff adds. “Neil drove, and I just sat shotgun. We blasted music, and everyone else was passed out in the back. It was just like back in the day.”
“I started doing regional touring when I was 15,” Westfall reflects, “and it was just the most exciting thing to be out on the road with your friends. I mean there were no parents around! You could do whatever you wanted. It was crazy. We slept on a lot of people’s floors. Met a lot of cool people. Learned a lot about the world in general. That’s where I learned to be me.”
A Day to Remember are hardly the first band to meld pop-punk melodicism with thrashy metalcore Sturm und Drang. But their unique “Children of the Warped Tour” blend of these styles has earned them a devoted following, enabling them to sell more than a million copies of the five albums they’ve recorded to date. Their latest, Common Courtesy, debuted at Number 11 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart.
The lockstep juggernaut assault of Skaff and Westfall’s heavily down-tuned guitars plays no small role in Common Courtesy’s appeal. Westfall is the kind of rhythm guitarist who can turn on a dime from chuggy metal aggression to punk rock frenzy. And Skaff can squeal, chime and twang in all the right ways and places. He commands a wider tonal palette than guitarists in either metalcore or pop punk. He even throws down some very credible vintage clean tones on more acoustic guitar–driven tracks, like “I’m Already Gone,” “I Surrender” and “End of Me.”
“I grew up listening to southern rock and blues, like the Allman Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and all that good stuff,” Skaff says. “And then Neil is very modern. He loves his Blink-182 and Bury Your Dead.” With the muscular support of Joshua Woodard on bass and Alex Shelnutt on drums, the guitar work is all in the service of singer Jeremy McKinnon’s inspired yowling. An able switch hitter in his own right, he handles the band’s extreme metal “Cookie Monster gets gastritis” vocal growls and the more tuneful “drunk jock sing-along” anthemic punk melodies.
But there were moments when A Day to Remember weren’t sure if Common Courtesy would ever see the light of day. Shortly after the release of their previous album, What Separates Me from You, the band became embroiled in a contractual lawsuit with Victory Records, its label at the time. A Day to Remember would eventually win the case, free themselves from their former label and strike an advantageous distribution deal with SKH Music for the release of Common Courtesy.
But for a while, the going was tough. “The only real goal we had was, ‘How the hell are we going to get this record out?’ ” Skaff says. “Because we were tied up in litigation.”
Now sure when, or if, Common Courtesy would come out, the band released a teaser single, the hyper-thrashy “Violence (Enough Is Enough)” as a stopgap measure. “With every album, we’ve always released a heavy song first,” Skaff explains. “But this time, because of the lawsuit and all, we just wanted to get anything out there—give people some new music to listen to. And, to be honest, ‘Violence’ was the only track that was done at the time, and it’s definitely a heavy track. But that song wasn’t even mixed when we let people hear it on the internet. It was pre-mixing.”
One positive aspect of the delayed album release is that it gave the band plenty of time to work on Common Courtesy. “I’ve never been completely happy with the guitar sounds on our previous records,” Westfall says. “It’s always been kinda rushed and not exactly what I would hope for. But this time we got to go in and get really great tones not only for the guitars but for all aspects of our band. We were paying for everything ourselves anyway. So we just built a studio in Jeremy’s house, and we were able to do everything exactly as we thought it should be done. If something wasn’t right, we’d go back and change it. If we didn’t like the way something was played, we’d go back and play it different, harder or whatever. The first part is the tone. Once we got that set, we’d go back and re-amp several tones, trying different heads and cabs. We tried different guitars and different pickups for different songs. We literally had time to do whatever we wanted. I’m pretty stoked on how it turned out.”
One of the main guitars used, especially for rhythm parts, was a Fender Jim Root Stratocaster loaded with an EMG-81 bridge pickup. “We were going to use my Les Paul Supreme,” Westfall says, “but it didn’t really cut. It didn’t have EMGs in it. The way our engineer records, he feels he can get the best sound with EMGs.”
The pickups have long been a key ingredient in A Day to Remember’s sound. “It’s just a constant sound I can depend on, no matter what guitar I’m playing, what wood it’s made from or any of that. I use one basic tone, and to get other tones I will cut my volume. I have EMG-81s in the bridge position, and I unwire all the other stuff in my guitars: the neck pickups, the pickup switch and other knobs. I think it gives a more direct signal. It just seems hotter when I do that.”
Another stalwart ingredient in Westfall’s tone is a hand-wired Ibanez Tube Screamer. It lends some knife-edge definition to his super-chunk rhythms. “I’ll put the Tube Screamer on top of an already distorted amp sound,” he says. “Keep the amp distortion midway up, like five or six. And then you add just a little distortion from the overdrive pedal. But it’s a different kind of distortion.”
The main amps that both Westfall and Skaff used to record Common Courtesy were a Bogner Ecstasy 20th Anniversary and an Engl Powerball (both running through a Mesa 4x12 cab loaded with Celestion G30s) as well as a Bludotone. “That amp is incredible,” Westfall says of the Bludotone. “It’s really nice for the pop-punk songs.”
As for Skaff, he also relied heavily on a Fender Jim Root Stratocaster for leads, but he additionally wielded a Gibson Les Paul Supreme and, for more vintage clean tones, a Fender Custom Shop ’69 Strat. For Common Courtesy ballads such as “End of Me” and “I Surrender,” Skaff played a Martin D-42 acoustic. Common Courtesy is only Skaff’s second album with A Day to Remember. He replaced the band’s original lead guitarist Tom Denney in 2009. “It took a little maneuvering for me to fit in on the last record, What Separates Me from You,” Skaff notes. “Just feeling things out. It was a lot easier on this new record. It felt way more natural and everything was way smoother this time.”
But Denney continues to play a role in the studio, and on Common Courtesy he served as auxiliary guitarist and co-producer, along with McKinnon, producer Andrew Wade (Motionless in White) and Newfound Glory guitarist Chad Gilbert. A Day to Remember tend to favor producers who are good guitarists in their own right. It was Wade, for instance, who handled acoustic guitar on the ballad “Already Gone,” while Denney had a hand in creating the harmony guitar lead in the bridge to “Dead & Buried.”
Low alternate tunings and heavy-gauge strings are another key to A Day to Remember’s eminently chuggy guitar sound. One of their main strategies is to take standard tuning down a half step, whole step or more, and then drop the lowest string an additional whole step. It’s all about taking traditional dropped D tuning—low to high, D A D G B E—even lower. The main tunings employed by A Day to Remember are dropped C (C G C F A D), dropped B (B Fs B E Gs Cs) and dropped As (As F As Ds G C).
Released during the year of A Day to Remember’s 10th anniversary, Common Courtesy has something of a retrospective feel. The band looks back to its roots on songs like the opening track, “City of Ocala,” which name-checks the group’s hometown in Florida. The hot, humid Florida environs have long been a breeding ground for any number of extreme metal subgenres. The guys in A Day to Remember absorbed much of this during their formative years, but they also came of age during the mid-Nineties pop-punk explosion, which played an equally important role in forging their musical approach.
“I grew up listening to all the punk bands like Blink-182, Pennywise, Screeching Weasel and NOFX,” Westfall says. “And then I found out about hardcore. Ocala was very hardcore-influenced and all those bands would come through—Poison the Well, Evergreen Terrace, Remembering Never and Until the End, who were a huge influence on us. And on top of that, I still like the Tampa metal scene, like Cannibal Corpse and Six Feet Under. It all blends down there. And I’m just a product of my environment.”
But for all their devotion to heavy music, pop is by no means a dirty word to the members of A Day to Remember. They once released a cover of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and gleefully admit to a common fondness for Garth Brooks. “When I was younger,” Westfall recollects, “my mom would wake me up in the morning by blasting Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey and all that kind of stuff. She’d just blare it to get me up for school. And after you hear that stuff so many times, it gets stuck in your brain.”
As a result, A Day to Remember enjoy more of a mixed-gender fan base than many of their metal brethren. Girls go for the pop-punk melodicism, while guys relate to the heavy aggro thrum. “Well, that’s why they all come initially,” Skaff qualifies. “But after the concert, they might buy a few of our CDs and get a little deeper into the music. So with the live shows, we’re kind of a gateway to our own band. It gets to where the younger girls will start liking the more aggressive music and the guys will start to like the more pop-oriented melody songs. They come for one thing and they end up liking everything after a while.”
The sense of a band looking back at the road it has traveled threads throughout Common Courtesy, on tracks like “Life Lessons Learned the Hard Way” and “I Remember,” which ends with a four-minute audio snippet of the band members reminiscing about their early touring days, recalling everything from lousy fast food joints to first excited glimpses of New York City. It’s one of several snippets of candid studio chatter on the Common Courtesy.
“It’s just a way to make listeners feel like they’re in there with you when you’re making the record,” Skaff explains. “We felt like that made sense, because the record is so real already. Lyrically, it’s very honest. So we had all these clips from accidentally leaving the microphone on and stuff like that. And on a few songs, we decided to leave that stuff in there. It kinda fools you. You feel like you’re in the room with us.”
Forging a close connection with their fans is a cardinal virtue for A Day to Remember. And with their record label lawsuit behind them, they feel they’re in more of a position to do so than ever before. “We don’t care about making money,” Westfall boldly declares. “We want to do things in a way that makes the fans happy. Like, we were advised not to put out our new album in October, because our new business relationship hadn’t been fully formalized. But we don’t care. We wanted to put the album out. We couldn’t wait to play it for the people. It’s for them. That’s what it is. There’s no business running us. So that will never influence our decisions. We can do whatever we want, no matter if it’s profitable or whether it hits a certain margin or not. That doesn’t matter to us. That’s not going to affect any decision we make from here on out.”
For this story, plus our "Van Halen 1984 Revisited" interview with Eddie Van Halen and features on Zakk Wylde & Ozzy Osbourne, Jake E. Lee, Tosin Abasi, Steel Panther, Five Finger Death Punch and John Petrucci's monthly column — check out the February 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.
Photo: Justin Borucki