Dear Guitar Hero: As I Lay Dying’s Phil Sgrosso and Nick Hipa Talk Gear, Tattoos, Sandwich Punching and More

They’re the six-string duo behind one of metalcore’s biggest bands, and they used to like to punch each other’s sandwiches. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is …

The guitar work on your new album, Awakened, is awesome. What was the hardest song for you guys to write, guitar-wise? — Viking Nilsson

PHIL SGROSSO It was probably “Wasted Words.” [Bassist] Josh [Gilbert] came up with the original song idea, and then Nick, Josh and I revised it. It was the one song where we all really came together and gave it a collective effort.

NICK HIPA That was also the song we were the least prepared for, going into the studio. A lot of the guitar parts and arrangements were in question. We weren’t even sure if it was gonna make the record. Then when we finally hashed it out, it was like, This song is sick! But of all the songs, it was the most cumbersome to pull together.

You guys have some awesome tattoos. Who did your work and what’s your favorite piece? — Charlotte M.

SGROSSO Several of us have tattoos by Tod Bain from San Diego. Actually he’s in Fort Worth, Texas, now. [Vocalist] Tim [Lambesis] has the most tattoos, and he goes to 454 Tattoo in San Diego.

HIPA I pretty much only go to Tod, and Jasmine Wright from Buju Tattoo. I don’t know about Phil, but my favorite tattoo is the [Iron Maiden] “The Trooper” album artwork that Phil has on his calf. It’s not my tattoo, but I’m proud of it! [laughs] It looks so good.

SGROSSO Tod Bain did that one. “The Trooper” was the first Iron Maiden song I ever heard, and I instantly knew they were gonna be one of my favorite bands for the rest of my life.

I’m an atheist, and I really like how you’re honest about your Christian beliefs without pushing them on people. But I’m wondering, would you ever not play with a certain band because of their beliefs—say a satanic black metal band? — John Freeman

HIPA I don’t think we would ever not play with bands because of what we think they believe or what they think we believe. Everyone’s entitled to their opinions and beliefs. What I’ve come to find is that no matter who we’re touring with, we end up getting along fine because we have a lot in common. We love metal, and we also end up liking the same shows and hanging out and drinking beer or whatever. I’ve found it’s more about focusing on what you have in common rather than what you don’t. I think it’s a testament to the openness of the metal community that we’ve gotten along great with the majority of bands we’ve ever toured with.

Random question: What’s on your bucket list? Swimming with sharks? Playing onstage with Slayer? — Jessica Dykstra

HIPA Hmm… I’m pretty sure I’ve already done both! [laughs] Well, I’m sure I’ve played with Slayer a bunch. And unfortunately I’ve probably been swimming with sharks without knowing it. I surf a lot, and I sometimes wonder, What’s going on down there? What’s that swimming past my feet? [laughs]

SGROSSO For me, it’s probably just seeing bands that I’ve grown up listening to. Like we just went to see Roger Waters perform The Wall. We were in the studio in Colorado, but had tickets for his show in San Diego. So we flew down for a night to see it. It was incredible and very inspiring. It was perfect timing to help get our own creative juices flowing.

HIPA Oh, I wanna add one to my bucket list, in case there’s someone out there that wants to make my wildest dreams come true. I really want be on that show Wipeout! [laughs] Actually, I don’t even have to be on the show; I just want be able to run through all the obstacle courses with the bouncy soapy rubber balls, pools of water and foamy things swinging around. It looks like the best time ever! I’ve actually submitted an online application to be on the show, but I never heard back. So if anyone knows anyone, help me hook it up!

My band and I are having the hardest time finding legitimate booking agents and management. Most we find are scams. Do you have any experience with shady industry stuff? — Mike Fitzpatrick

SGROSSO We’re fortunate, because we all think a lot about the decisions we make and who we want to work with. We’ve seen other bands have a lot of issues, but we’ve been fortunate to find people that we’re all comfortable working with.

HIPA When this band was starting out, nobody was willing to do the work for us. Everyone in the band had to play the role of the management team. Our bass player was tour managing, Tim was taking calls, and everyone played a roll. There is something to be said for creating your own success and making things happen for yourself. If you think a certain person is gonna make everyone like your band and make you bigger, you’re really just giving a lot of control to someone. And a lot of times people can take advantage of that. Just be as creative and hardworking as you can be, and I think it will pay off and be more rewarding than just hoping that someone will show up and do it all for you.

Nick, I read you’re an avid surfer. What are some of your favorite breaks, and do you take any boards on tour with you? — Jack Shea

HIPA I never brought a board with me on tour, because we don’t really have time to surf. But once we got to surf in Australia, which was really cool. When we’re home, our favorite breaks are in Oceanside: the harbor, the pier and the secret spots in South Oceanside. Phil surfs, too, out in Carlsbad. That’s one of the perks of living by the coast: our local breaks are our favorite breaks.

Do you still play the “Sandwich Game,” where you punch each other’s unattended sandwiches? — Brendan Van Wichen

HIPA We actually retired from playing the Sandwich Game in 2009. We were in Philly, and Phil punched my cheesesteak, and I got super bent because I’m like, “A cheesesteak isn’t a sandwich!” Because it wasn’t fully open; it was scooped out, like a pita or something. So we got into this argument that lasted an hour and led to genuine aggression and swearing. [laughs] All the other guys in the band could not believe we were getting so heated. It was a miserable time, and we both decided the Sandwich Game wasn’t fun anymore.

SGROSSO We still like to play pranks, but it depends on who our crew is. We had this tour manager, and we would zip-tie his shoes together or zip-tie him to a pole. [laughs]

HIPA Oh, here’s another example of our immature humor. We were on tour and staying at the home of a friend who had these gross, really graphic porn mags. We were flying home the next day, so Phil took a Coke can and taped a few of the pages from the porno mag around the can. At the airport, we distracted our friend and slipped the can of Coke into his carry-on bag. So he goes through security and we’re all on the other side laughing at him while the security guys ask him, “Sir, do you have any liquids or gels in your bag?” Then they open up his bag and find the can with the most foul, vulgar pictures ever. [laughs] Our friend was instantly humiliated and red in the face. Luckily for him, and us, TSA had a sense of humor that day.

Nick, it seems like you and Tim have really gotten into working out. Do you think it helps you be a better guitarist? — Jeremy

HIPA We started getting pretty serious about health and fitness about two years ago. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two oldest guys in the band are also the ones that decided to start taking care of themselves. [laughs] Tim does more of a bodybuilding-type workout, where I do more of a CrossFit-style [core strength and conditioning] thing. I’ve found it really helps my headspace. The CrossFit stuff is so miserable and physically challenging that when you push yourself through it, everything else in life seems easier.

I saw you guys at Mayhem Fest, and you sounded amazing! Can you tell me what your guitar and amp setups were? — Tyné Diek

HIPA My setup is pretty minimal. It’s a [Fractal Audio] Axe-Fx II [guitar processor] and a Matrix GT1000 power amp through a Mesa cab. You can really create any sound you can imagine with that setup. I played an arsenal of custom Ibanez ARTs with Edge Pro bridges, and Ibanez Destroyers and RGs with Seymour Duncan pickups. I also use DR Strings and the small jazz-style In Tune guitar picks.

SGROSSO I also use the Axe-Fx with the 5150 setting. I usually run it through an EVH power amp. I play PRS guitars with EMG-81 pickups and DR Strings, but lately I’ve been checking out Charvel. They’ve got some nice guitars and they’re local to Southern California, which is closer to home.

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Brad Angle

Brad is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and video producer. He is the former content director of Revolver magazine and executive editor of Guitar World. His work has appeared in Vice, Guitar Aficionado, Inked and more. He’s also a die-hard Les Paul player who wishes he never sold his 1987 Marshall Silver Jubilee half stack.