Primitive Man is one of the filthiest, meanest sounding bands active in North America. Metal usually strives for an extreme aesthetic, but few succeed with the same clarity as drummer Joe Linden, bassist Jonathan Campos, and guitarist/vocalist Ethan Lee McCarthy. On their latest record Immersion, the trio has forced forth from the Earth another harrowing blast a fury. A geyser of caustic emotions and sound that blots out the sun like a volcanic eruption. An extinction-level event that fills the air with ash and flies. SPB was able to catch up with Ethan in the lead-up to the release of Immersion and he was generous enough to speak about the new album, why the metal community is so important, and his wish list for future split EPs. Ethan is a warm-hearted and passionate guy. But he doesn’t take shit from anyone and he's also nobody's fool. Ethan is resistant to making assumptions about people and reading grand narratives in a way that is both pragmatic and thoroughly punk rock.
Interview was conducted August 11, 2020 via phone. The conversation below has been edited from the original transcript for the purposes of brevity and clarity.
Scene Point Blank: First off, you guys have a new record out, Immersion. Some of the themes you state on your Bandcamp are: existential crisis, general distrust of others, and the current state of the world. Can you give us an idea of how you are presenting some of these themes on the album?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: The song "Consumption" is about how there is not a lot of clear information about what's going on in the world. As well as, you know, conflict and division, and a lot of stuff we've been dealing with over the past four years.
Scene Point Blank: Like how information is produced and disseminated?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Yeah, pretty much, and just how there is a lot of bullshit out there.
Scene Point Blank: That seems to be a huge issue right now, with the government's contradictory assessments of how the pandemic is being handled and why we can't just extend unemployment benefits to people. There seems to be a lot of counter-narratives and no one seems like they are is being upfront with us.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Yeah, these fucking people will say whatever they want without giving you any kind of real results.
Scene Point Blank: And then you have a song that is just the infinity symbol. How does that play into the themes of existential crisis?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Pain is forever. Turmoil is forever. It's all looped into the fabric of what life is, you know.
Scene Point Blank: Did you see the film Annihilation a few years back?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: No, I'm not familiar with it.
Scene Point Blank: It came out a few years ago. It stars Padmé, Natalie Portman and was directed by Alex Garland. It's a lot like Stalker except it takes place in Florida after a meteorite has struck. What happens is that a sphere forms around the impact site and all of the organisms in that area are starting to merge and swap DNA. So you get alligator-shark hybrids and plants that look like people.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Dude that sounds fucking nuts.
Scene Point Blank: Oh it is, and what happens as the movie progresses is that the plants and animals start taking on the characteristics of the scientists led by Natalie Portman, who went in to investigate the phenomena. And their traumas and life experiences start becoming reflected in the environment. And even after characters start dying all of the things that hurt them in life are still suffuse in the environment. It's like an examination of trauma and how it can manipulate you and even outlive you in some cases.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Yeah, that sounds like something I need to watch while in quarantine. You know we recorded "Consumption" the week that the pandemic started. The whole album was recorded that week. I already had a specific feeling about the way things were going, but I changed some of the lyrics to amplify my feelings I was having at the start of all this.
Scene Point Blank: How long did it take you to write your new album?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: We've been writing it in chunks in between tours since the end of 2017. The majority of it was written at the end of 2018, through 2019 in between tours so that we could go into the studio in March 2020.
Scene Point Blank: So you wrote, recorded, and toured for Caustic, and then there was a hard stop, and then you started writing exclusively new material for Immersion?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Yeah. We were doing a lot of touring so when we would come home we would just write songs because we're playing like 180 days a year. So there is always just a lot of writing going on unless we're about to leave on tour. We released a split with a band called Hell last year that was written in kind of the same sessions, but the songs you'll hear on the album are the ones that ended up making the cut.
Scene Point Blank: And you had no idea while you were writing that the world was about to change.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Yeah I had my mind on the same old problems. I wasn't ready for a new one.
Scene Point Blank: Do you feel like the problems that you were writing about on Immersion are persistent in the world still, or do you feel like this is a completely different game now?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: The pandemic has amplified the existing problems we've had. That shit is fucked up. Especially considering the general mistrust of one and other. And you can't trust anything you read or hear. All those things are worse.
Scene Point Blank: You've touched on something that I've had to reckon with in my own life. The feeling that I can't trust other people. That feeling of alienation was something that I felt when I was younger. Then as I grew up I realized that literally, everyone feels that way. No one really feels like they're part of society. And now I wonder, why the hell do we have a society where everyone feels like they can't trust each other?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Yeah, that shit is fucked up. And you hit the nail on the head. It is a feeling that everyone feels but we shouldn't all feel that way. It's part of a clear problem we have as a society.
Scene Point Blank: Where do you think that sense of alienation comes from?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: There is a culture in America that is less community-minded and more me me me. We'll do anything to step on others. When we see others, if they don't fit into our idea of what's right we'll alienate them. This could just be a human problem, but I'm from here, so I'm when I write about this problem, I'm writing from the perspective that I have from living here. Most of the stuff I'm writing about is always from the perspective of someone growing up in America. We've been all over the world. We've seen all sorts of shit. But I'm writing about problems here.
Scene Point Blank: It's hard to extrapolate from either good things that happen in this country or bad things, and say "Yes, this here is universal of the human experience."
Ethan Lee McCarthy: For Americans who never get to leave, they never think that it's a possibility that it could be different somewhere else. They think that this is it. That this is the way and it's the best way. But I don't know about that.
"When I was going through the struggles that inspired a lot of the lyrics, I remembered that I kept saying to myself that I have to immerse myself in it, because that shit is not going away."
Scene Point Blank: One of the other songs that jumped out at me off Immersion was "Foul." It seems perfectly titled for your band. It also has this crushing groove to it and the overall impact of the album really was driven home for me while listening to that specific track.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: The song is about being betrayed and used by someone who I once held dear and respected. And blanketly, it's about anyone who does that to you. Someone who uses you for things. Like if there is not a genuine friendship there but just an excuse to use you. Or they use friendship as a weapon and they use it to manipulate you. I say in the song that human nature is poisonous and foul because this happens to everybody and it happens all the time. It's not just me. There are other people with these types of stories. Compositionally… It's just us doing our thing, you know.
Scene Point Blank: You're known for having a rough and savage sound but there is definitely more going on underneath it. I can name a lot of bands whose sound is also savage, and you guys can really grind people into the earth when you want to, but it feels like there is more than just the punishment going on as well.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Well we're trying to convey a vibe and a feeling to our audience. We want the music to be heavy and crushing, and all the good things that metal should be, but I also really just want you to feel what's going on. When we write music the state of mind we're in is really important. Maybe I feel that way because I both sing and play guitar, but my bandmates are also really good at understanding this as well.
Scene Point Blank: Yeah you guys really jell.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: They're the tightest group of people I've ever played with. I've never bonded stronger with a group of musicians in my life.
Scene Point Blank: The thesis that you are attempting to convey an emotional state while writing and recording these songs is something that you really succeed at.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: It would be easy to say that we're just disgusting for disgusting sake, and it's like "Well sort of." We definitely want to be the heaviest thing possible, but I don't think I could convey the emotions that I have without it just sounding horrid. I want people to feel what it's like to have them. It's for fun, but it isn't.
Scene Point Blank: Your music really does have a forceful emotional energy about it. I really don't think you could convey these feelings in the same kind of way if you were to just say them out loud while talking with someone.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Absolutely not. Saying these things through music affords you certain liberties that you don't have in a normal conversation.
Scene Point Blank: Right, you can be a little more ambiguous about what you're saying too. Even though I can definitely pinpoint moments in my life where I felt exactly the way your music also makes me feel.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Yeah, it's definitely for that. All of my favorite bands make me feel that way. It's a kind of emotional release that I get from them. I want the same thing for the people who check us out.
Scene Point Blank: Who are some of the bands who inspire that energy in Primitive Man?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Hmmmmm… Godflesh, Crowbar, Neurosis, Corrupted, Disembowelment, just to name a few. There are faster bands, but those are the ones who really have something to do with us going in the direction we have.
Scene Point Blank: Do you mind if I ask about your other band Vermin Womb? I saw on Twitter that you get kind of frustrated with people asking when you plan to do another record with them. I'm wondering what people don't understand about you and your relationship with that band that could make that line of questioning offensive.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: People usually ask me about Vermin Womb in a context that I feel is inappropriate. In Vermin Womb there are two other people helping to make it who aren't in Primitive Man, so when you come at Primitive Man and start saying shit about how we need to be doing Vermin Womb stuff, you're completely discounting 2/3 of both bands. I don't want to hear that. I understand that's how these things roll, me being in both bands, but without the other people in each scenario, I wouldn't be able to accomplish a fucking thing. I cannot stand it. It's disrespectful to my fucking bandmates is really what it is. I can't be like "Oh yeah, bro…" No. It's shitty to the other artists involved.
Scene Point Blank: Something that's really coming out during this conversation is the level of respect you have for the people you collaborate with and the sense of community that these collaboration forms.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: I couldn't do shit without these guys. It's more than just playing. There is a whole bunch of stuff that goes into trying to make a band function. I'm well aware of that and I don't want my bandmates to feel like they're less important.
Scene Point Blank: How important is it for there to be a community around metal?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: I think it's super important. At least for me, and my experience growing up. Playing, throwing shows, going to shows… I wouldn't have half the things that I have in my life without metal and the community that helped me achieve those things. Also metal is generally for people who feel alienated, or who have some fucked up feelings, and it's a place where they can come and be around other people who might have a little bit of baggage. Sometimes things will get a little fucked up, but it’s like, "Hey man, we all got our fucking problems." [Laughs.]
Scene Point Blank: Right. And metal people aren't necessary prone to judging you for your issues. It's a place where people who have embraced their alienation can go and potentially flourish.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: [Laughs.] Yeah, I'm going to find people like me. I'm going to cling on to them and feel like I have a place where I do belong. That's the way it was for me.
Scene Point Blank: What was the Colorado scene like growing up?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: From my perspective, there were always bands and shit. My older brother would play in bands so I was exposed to it really young, like since I was ten years old. I'd go to shows and play shows, but it was very small. It used to be that the only Colorado band anyone knew was Cephalic Carnage. Now that's changed and the scene has grown one hundred times larger than it was when I was a kid. You used to go to shows and know everyone there by name back in the day. It's not a cowtown anymore.
Scene Point Blank: So it was a tight-knit scene at one point?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Yeah, I'll throw a show now and I won't even know half the people who come. There's just a lot more people.
Scene Point Blank: Are you happy to see it expand?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Yeah, I'm happy to see it expand. When I was growing up I wanted Denver to be a bigger place. I used to beg bands to come here. I was like, "Just come here, I know it's in the middle of nowhere and that seems whack, but everyone will be cool, blah blah blah." All that shit. And now it's great to see it expand. It's good that it's growing. We deserve a thriving music scene like LA or fucking Brooklyn. I want it to be good here, definitely.
Scene Point Blank: It's really beautiful out there too. You'd think that would be enticing to people to come and play.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: I love Colorado. I've been all over the world but this is the place.
Scene Point Blank: How does the community aspect play into all the splits you've done? Is there an overlap between your sense of community and the motivation behind some of these splits?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Some of them were arranged by record labels, others were just because we were friends with the band.
It just depends on the situation. We usually try to do splits with bands we are friends with, and that's the way it will be forever going forward. We did a split with the band Hessian from the Netherlands and that was just because the label asked us to. It was part of a compilation. But the splits that we did with Fister, Hell, and Unearthly Trance, those are bands whose music we respect, people who we respect and know.
Scene Point Blank: Is there anyone who you'd want to do a split with who you haven't yet?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Oh yeah. I want to do something with Indian.
Scene Point Blank: Man, Indian are so good.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Yeah, I want to do something with Indian, Full of Hell, Bell Witch… fuck, I don't know. I just want Crowbar to notice us. And Neurosis. I just want Neurosis to notice us too. Really though, I want Justin Broadrick to produce one of our albums or do a remix of one of our songs. Those are just a few of my ideas. I would love to do something with Sumac too. I love those guys.
Scene Point Blank: How do you like Sumac's new album?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: I haven't gotten to hear it yet. I haven't been in a place where I can sit down and listen to it without being distracted, so I've been holding on to it for a little bit. But I'm going to hit that shit soon. I'm a big Aaron Turner fan.
Scene Point Blank: Beyond doing a deep dive into Sumac's new album, what other plans do you have for 2020?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Oh you know, just doing a lot of visual art and staying safe. The band has gotten together twice in the last two weeks, so we're writing songs and hanging out. All I can hope for is to stay healthy. We're not touring so I can't do anything else.
Scene Point Blank: It's hard to plan at this point because no one is sure what the future is going to be.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Shit is fucked. I really want to get out from under it. It's not just us who are suffering, everyone from the top down in this industry is going through something. I hope we can get some relief. I hope we can get back to work.
Scene Point Blank: How are the venues in Denver doing? Do you think they're going to make it?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: AEG and Live Nation are probably going to combine and buy up all of the independent places that I would be worried about.
Scene Point Blank: We're dealing with the same thing in Chicago. We have a couple of independent venues who had banded together to fight a huge Live Nation supported development in a former industrial district. Then COVID hit and made things all the more precarious for them.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Primitive Man has played like every rock club in Chicago. We love all those places and I hope none of them close down.
Scene Point Blank: Do you have a favorite rock club in Chicago?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: I have a complicated answer to that question. I really enjoyed when we played at Reggies last year with Full of Hell in the big room. That will have been the second time we've done that and I really enjoyed it. And then there is the Subterranean. I like that venue a lot too. But we played upstairs and the load in there is the worst fucking shit in North America.
Scene Point Blank: How many flights of stairs do you have to lug your gear up to get to the stage?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Oh fuck dude, it is so bad. We played there last time we were on tour with Spectral Voice. We arrived at the venue and saw the stairs leading up to the stage and we were all like… Jesus Christ. [Laughs.] But I really liked the vibe and it was a good show, sounded good. It's really a tie between Subterranean and Reggies. We played at Livewire too, that place is cool but we're too large for that now. Even though, when we played there last, nobody watched.
Scene Point Blank: One last thing, you do all the album art for Primitive Man. I feel like you really tapped into something on Immersion with that eye sticking out of the earth like it is. Usually when I listen to your band, I feel kind of buried so this image seems very literal to me. What's the story behind its composition?
Ethan Lee McCarthy: It's just like, "Look at this fucking horror show: you're in it, living it." When I was going through the struggles I was going through that inspired a lot of the lyrics, I remembered that I kept saying to myself that I have to immerse myself in it, because that shit is not going away. The whole scene is like, your eyes are fucking open now to all this horror. Looking at everything that is happening. And you're really taking it all in.
Scene Point Blank: Right, you're finally awakening to reality and all of its inglorious filth.
Ethan Lee McCarthy: Absolutely.