Baby, it’s cold outside
Of Mice & Men have been through a lot to get here, but with their new album ‘Cold World’ a triumph, and a UK run this month, it’s been worth the fight.
Words: Heather McDaid.
Of Mice & Men are real. ‘Cold World’ has had a little time to seep into consciousness, unfurling its intricacies bit by bit with each listen – they’re only four albums in, but their sights are set, holding themselves to the highest account, and then looking for more. They’re always fighting.
The year is in one sense almost over, but for the band, it’s just starting. “At the beginning of the year I was doing a bunch of physical therapy and recovering from a couple of surgeries that I had,” explains frontman Austin Carlile. “We literally moved to an apartment in New Jersey for three and a half months, and kept doing my physical therapy and aqua therapy there, all while recording the record.”
After dotting all over, then having a few weeks to lay low, they topped off their summer opening for Slipknot and Marilyn Manson, playing to audiences who often hadn’t heard them before. It was a challenge they thrived on. “It’s been a pretty busy year so far and we’re really just now getting into it,” he laughs. But now they enter their newest, and arguably biggest, era.
‘Cold World’ pushes them into places they’ve yet to tread as a band, and does so with a confidence many could only hope to have. It’s a game-changing album, and in the midst of Austin’s battles with Marfan syndrome, the surgeries and recoveries that come with it, it’s even more of a triumph.
“It made it difficult,” he admits. “It’s hard enough to record an album healthy. When you’re recording it feeling like I did, going through what I was going through, you know, I technically shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. But we had a time schedule, we had stuff to do and I didn’t want to hold up the band any more than I had. We were actually scheduled to go into record before that and we pushed it back because I had to continue to heal – I’m really grateful that the band stood by me for that. They stood by me through a lot when I was in the studio, and that was a big part of this record.
“A lot of this record is what it is because of that, whether it would have been that I was in pain or because I was gone that day or because I didn’t feel well, whatever it may have been – that’s why ‘Cold World’ is another chapter in Of Mice & Men’s book, and we always leave room to do more, we’re always thinking about the next step.”
That next step for Of Mice & Men was letting multiple stories seep into the album as they toyed around in new styles. “We had to let each song tell the story itself,” says Austin. “They’re all about different things – it’s almost a concept album in a way. It’s the ‘Cold World’ – the imagery, talking about pain physically and mentally and emotionally and spiritually, that’s touched on in ‘Like a Ghost’ and in ‘Real’ and ‘The Hunger’ and stuff. There’s political issues, from the 1% to the wealthy Americans to the pharmaceutical companies like ‘The Lie’. ‘Transfigured’ is the inner battle that you deal with every day. ‘Away’ and ‘Down the Road’ is missing someone and trying to replace someone who you’ve lost before.
“You know, each song has its own purpose for the record and its own story. It’s for the listener to take what they would or what they will from each song and personalise it to themselves.”
These stories, personal to political, are woven through Of Mice & Men old and new, newly fearless and familiar all at once. “When we were writing the record, a lot of it revolved around what I clicked with and what I vibed with the most,” he notes. “The guys would come with demos and we’d write demos in the studio and write demos in the rehearsal space, but at the end of the day if I’m not inspired by the instruments alone to write something to it then we kind of have to scrap it.
“So the songs that we have were either creations by Aaron [Pauley, bass] that he had, or Tino [Arteaga, drums] coming to the table with some of the heavier songs like ‘Contagious’ and ‘Relentless’ and I was really shaping ‘The Lie’ which Alan [Ashby, guitar] kind of brought to the table. The songs ended up writing themselves – that’s what we really liked about this album, why the record sounds so different – we don’t want to write the same record twice. We don’t want to perform the same songs over and over again, you know, we want to be able to build musically and branch out and to pursue more of us as people and as musicians.”
All albums are exciting in their own way, but this one has caused almost Christmas Eve-like excitement on repeat. “I couldn’t fall asleep last night because I was excited to wake up today and go to rehearsals,” he beams. “It’s like the first day of school, it’s really exciting when you get to play new music and practice and perform what you’ve spent so much time working on. The songs mean a lot to us, and a lot to me especially because of the stories that are behind them and it’s really cool for me to be able to see what our fans, our listeners, really take from the record.”
No matter how deep you delve into Of Mice & Men’s world, there’s no getting away from the greatest bond of all, inseparable. “Our fans,” he says simply. “They’re our lifeline.” It’s something that shines clearly from the band in all that they do, but there’s no finer example than their video for ‘Real’, in which they simply asked people “What makes your real?” One question, many answers, a strong unifying bond of fandom that weaves into a hell of an uplifting video.
“We wouldn’t be able to tour without them,” continues Austin. “I wouldn’t be able to eat without them. I mean, just five years ago I was on food stamps and now because we have a fanbase and because of a band that I started back by myself in Ohio, seven, eight years ago, just to do it because I liked music… Now it’s become a job, it’s become a career. Being a rock band, it’s not like it was in the 90s or the early 2000s, but I’m not on food stamps anymore and I’m not having to eat Jack in the Box all the time because I don’t have the money.
“And our fans have a lot to do with that. You know our dream and our passion is to play music every day and to do that – it’s very possible to do that – but it makes it a lot easier when you have fans that care about you and your music. They mean a lot to us and we wanted to make them part of the video. They’re part of the story as it is and we really wanted to let their voices be heard on the song.
“It was really cool for us because the first time we saw it all was on the video screen behind us when we went to go record it. We kept stopping during the video and looking at the screen and talking about the different fans, and we recognised some, we’d talk about the last time we saw them. We actually got to the point where the director was like ‘Alright, everybody turn around, we’re going to watch the whole video once and then not look at it again’.” He pauses to laugh at the constant stop-starting of the video in awe of the montage. “We love our fans, the stories that we get to make with them and the friendships and the relationships that we forged with them, they’re very strong. They’re very real and that’s exactly what that song is about to us, and that’s exactly what we wanted them to be a part of.”
It might be a little philosophical, but what, really, makes Of Mice & Men real? He thinks for a moment. “Being able to still do this,” he replies. “To play every day and still love it. I see a lot of bands that don’t enjoy playing, that don’t enjoy doing what they do and everybody in Of Mice & Men loves being here, we love playing music and this is our lives.
“We’ve all given up some kind of personal sacrifice to be where we are today and to have the opportunity that we do today, and that weighs a lot on us because it’s what we love and we take this very, very seriously. It’s such an honour for us to know that something that brings us so much joy and something that we do is a cathartic release for ourselves is…
“I make music for me, and I make music because I enjoy making music, so the fact that we have people that can relate to it, relate to my story, and grow and maybe even be inspired by those stories, it means a lot to us. We’re fans of music ourselves so we see ourselves in our fans and being able to do this every day is what keeps it real for us.”
Austin’s story is indeed one that inspires people, and it’s one that’s breaking down barriers in music. In the last few months, he spoke about the true scale of his struggles with Marfan syndrome, and the response has defied genre. People who have never even heard of the band before are hearing his story, amplifying his story and battles – he, in his late twenties, has the back of a 70-year-old, arthritis, chronic pain, he even suffered a collapsed lung at an American show earlier this year, but completed the set before getting it dealt with. Despite the endless troubles he faces through ill-health, Austin inspires through the dedication to his course in music, never straying, never even considering forgoing his dream.
“I really wanted to start being open about my situation and my disease and what’s going on with me,” explains Austin. “I think it’s my responsibility to bring awareness. My own mother passed away because of misinformation, and that’s something that I don’t want to see anyone go through, let alone one of our fans, let alone somebody who’s a part of our family. I think the more awareness I can bring to that, the more people I can share my story with, whether they’re dealing with the same thing or something different, or something not even physical at all – people are still in pain emotionally and spiritually and it doesn’t always have to be physical. It’s something that I really feel compelled to share my story and share what I’ve been through and where I’ve been and where I am now and how I got here.”
The latest instalment of sharing this story is the album in which the band really stamp their intent unlike ever before. On ‘Cold World’, Austin says, “I’m finally okay with who I am today,” and that about sums it up. It’s been a journey, but Of Mice & Men have made it. They’re doing what makes them feel alive, feel real, and with their fans in tow, a bond unbreakable, this is going to be one hell of an era to be a part of.