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Incensed Honesty: Ethan McCarthy of PRIMITIVE MAN Discusses His Artwork and the Personal Strife That Fueled Immersion

Photo by Alvino Salcedo

I will adamantly attest that Denver’s Primitive Man is the heaviest band on the planet. The sludge-ridden doom trio expertly blankets their compositions in dense walls of noise and reverb crafting and measuring out an oppressive, soul-crushing atmosphere. Their sound—coupled with an utterly visceral take on socioeconomic, political, individual, and internal conflict—has made the band a pivotal soundtrack and coping mechanism for existential crises.

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Though Primitive Man’s music presents in such a nihilistic manner, the final product is quite the opposite for the band. Their music is a canvas of emotions and a ledger for past personal strife. Ethan McCarthy (guitar/vocals) hopes one day the band can dispel the misnomer that they do not care about anything. “It’s been the hardest thing for me is to try to explain,” McCarthy states. “We’re never going to be able to shake that ‘we believe in nothing’ shit. Like, no, dude. I am so fucking sensitive. I have so many opinions.”

He explains, “With Scorn, it was a super angry record and I understand how that happens. When we recorded I didn’t think Primitive Man was going to be a band beyond that release. So, I was really trying to blow off some steam. If I would have known that it was going to go the way it was I would have talked about different things!”

Photo by Alvino Salcedo

On Immersion, he, along with Jonathan Campos (bass) and Joe Linden (drums), is a long way away from the anger and hate on Scorn. McCarthy describes the album as a means to embed himself in the world around him and to help tackle the mental illness he grapples with. Musically, the trio crafts their most incisive and efficient full-length record to date. McCarthy, Campos, and Linden fit all of the existential anguish that Primitive Man has historically fleshed out or around the hour mark into about 36 minutes—nearly half the length of their previous full-length, Caustic.

Moments like “The Lifer,” “Menacing,” and “Foul” stretch to the seven- or eight-minute mark and showcase the band’s knack for calculated tension, but Immersion as a whole is more complete and much more furious than any previous Primitive Man release. There is not a wasted moment. Every towering cymbal crash and bass line, every riff, every ounce of feedback, and bellowed word molds one of the year’s most honest and brutal releases.

Metal Injection caught up with McCarthy around the release date of their newest album, Immersion. It’s been a busy time for McCarthy. This has been the largest press cycle for Primitive Man as a band and he’s been wrapped up in his visual art—which he creates under the moniker of Hell Simulation—as well as his noise project, Many Blessings. He’s additionally a third of the grind band, Vermin Womb. However, he was kind enough to take the time to talk to us about his visual art, the process behind Immersion, and the personal experiences that influenced the record

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Buy Immersion now from Relapse Records.

Primitive Man is on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Ethan McCarthy is on Twitter and Instagram.

Cody Davis is on Twitter and Instagram.

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You’ve really been creating some powerful artwork lately. Especially since the lead up to launching Hell Simulation and Many Blessings’ Emanation Body. I remember towards the tail end of last year, you destroyed all of your previous art and chose to start over. What was the end of 2019 like for you and what prompted this decision to hit the reset button on your visual art?

McCarthy: I just had a really chaotic and bad year. I was dissatisfied with the way things were looking and dissatisfied with what I was putting out there. I felt like I needed to take some time and rethink my approach and have a little bit more direction. I was very directionless and just doing whatever. So maybe it was a little bit more quality control too. I want to make it count when I make something.

What really did it for me is when people would ask me to do things, they would be like, “I dunno, man? Just give me some skulls and graves.” And I would be like, “…fuck.” I just felt like I was the skulls and graves guy. I love skulls and graves, but I want to do more with it. Even if I do include that, I want to include other things too. I’m refining it a bit with different ideas.

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You initially started doing visual art when you had some knee problems years back before Scorn came out. It seems like from that time to now, it’s been an evolution in your process.

McCarthy: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like in the beginning I was just trying to make cool punk collages but with that dark vibe I had, you know. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t quite know how to do it. Now, I still do collage art and cut and paste or photoshop. I bought an Apple Pencil and do a little bit more with that.

What does quality control or your decision process look like for some of the stuff you’re doing now? Some of the posters you’re doing, in particular, are way different than the other stuff you’ve done in the past.

McCarthy: I’m spending 30 hours on one thing whereas before I might knock out one in eight hours. Now, I’m trying to sit with them and spend a lot more time and make sure it’s as clean as possible. I’ve still missed things and still fucked up—that’s going to happen—but I’m paying more attention to detail.

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Do you find that given this new direction you’re in a better headspace or position to work creatively—whether it’s visual art or music?

McCarthy: Yeah, it’s just that there is so much fucked up shit going on that sometimes you just work your best when things are bad. I feel like I’m going through that thing now where I feel hopeless in a lot of things and this is something I can do.

I can’t even really play right now. We [bandmates, Jon Campos and Joe Linden] saw each other for the first time yesterday. It was cool, but we haven’t seen each other for so long. We’re not really getting together. It’s another way for me to scream at the void right now.

Having a creative outlet during this time is almost imperative, I suppose.

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McCarthy: Yeah, definitely. So, it’s doing a bunch of noise and a bunch of visual art.

In addition to Hell Simulation and other commissions, you do the artwork for Primitive Man’s music. Immersion’s cover brandishes this large eye surrounded by what looks like dismembered limbs, snakes, and other items. What was the process in creating the artwork and how does it convey the tone of Immersion?

McCarthy: It’s this open eye that symbolizes taking a look at all of the horror around and really soaking it in. I made it while we were in the studio which was the week of March 10 when all of this pandemic shit started popping off. It was a really chaotic and bad time that week. People were panic-buying things.

The record is really about me examining things in myself that I’ve pushed down for a long time—for many years—and confronting that. It’s an introspective album and that eye is being honest about what’s happening.

Artwork by Ethan McCarthy

The eye loosely can be seen as your eye—your examinations, your view of the world.

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McCarthy: Yeah. So, last year was really hard. I was going through a bunch of shit. I remember when I was going through a lot of things, I would say, “You just need to immerse yourself in what’s going on. Don’t try to fight the chaos, just immerse yourself in it. That’s where the album title kind of came from. I’m trying to face my shit.

For sure. I can imagine there’s a cathartic element to it or a reprieve to it when you take a different approach. A bit more of a personal perspective versus some of the socioeconomic or political things you’ve talked about in Primitive Man’s music in the past.

McCarthy: I mean I’ve always talked about personal stuff but this for me is the most honest. On other records, I’d speak a lot about issues I had with other people or the other things you mentioned. There’s a lot of, “I’m in a lot of pain because of these events simultaneously, and this how they’re framing my life. This is what I’m doing while these things are going on. This is the country I live in and this is what that country looks like while all of that is happening.” It’s like a Russian doll of problems.

This is what I wish I would have said in all of these interviews because I’ve been having such a hard time explaining the content because there is so much there.

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It’s layers and layers that get peeled back and you take a glimpse through each layer. For me personally, you guys have been my soundtrack to these crises that I have, and I know that’s a focus on Immersion as well. I’ve always felt your music as a powerful vehicle for this concept.

In my life, there is this pervading self-doubt and malaise—this realization that a lot of the things I’ve pumped my heart and soul into and that I’ve viewed as pristine are actually really dirty and perverse. Working in healthcare is a fucking cesspool of privatized insurances.

McCarthy: I talk about that kind of idea too with music when I started booking tours and stepped away from education. I’ve encountered some terrible fucking people along the way. This thing that I loved and dedicated my life to—it’s full of just dark shit. That’s not even to mention what comes from touring.
So, I know it’s not the same industry, but I totally know what you’re saying.

It is. You get this crazy hollow pit when you realize this thing you wanted is poisoned.

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McCarthy: There’s a song on the new record, “Foul,” where I say that human nature is poisonous and fucking foul. I’m thinking about how we literally can’t have shit [laughs].

This is why we can’t have nice things [laughs].

McCarthy: [laughs] Can’t have shit. Things are always fucking ruined.

You mentioned “Foul” and the poisoned human nature. “The Lifer” sounds autobiographical based on how you described it in the press and knowing you personally and how hard you work for Denver’s underground music.

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McCarthy: Yeah, it’s about being chained to playing and following through with this art and music shit. It’s a part of me and I have to do it, even now with all of this going on.

Photo by Alvino Salcedo

When you all wrote and recorded Caustic a few years ago, you mentioned the big difference between Caustic and your first full-length record, Scorn, was the time you all had to prep and write Caustic. What did the lead up to Immersion look like and how much time did you three spend writing the record?

McCarthy: We started writing songs at the end of 2017. It was in between touring in 2018 and a large portion of it in 2019 all the way up to March. Most of it 2019, but a couple of the songs’ skeletons were there over that time. Some of these were a lot longer and we chopped them up and took out stuff that we thought was unnecessary and tried to make every single riff count for every single song. That’s a lot of why this took so long—plus touring non-stop. We wrote those Hell songs at the same time as we were writing these.

Caustic was huge for me at the time, but with how Immersion presents itself—it’s compact, it’s to the point. I think you guys keep homing in on your sound and it becomes more and more powerful and impactful with each record.

McCarthy: Thank you, man. I appreciate that. I think this one is the most pissed off. Caustic is pretty depressing most of the time. Scorn is all over the place, so I just feel like this is the most pissed off record that we’ve done.

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I certainly agree with that. We’ve talked about “Foul” and “The Lifer,” where was your head at with some of these other tracks when you approached these lyrically?

McCarthy: “Entity,” I had this idea that I wanted something with a rising action like a classical song which I know sounds funny. I listen to a lot of ambient stuff and weird noise. I wanted to create that same idea with this band. We jammed on it a bunch and figured it out together. That one came from a jam. Lyrically though, it’s about mental illness.

Did you find that channeling some of this mental illness side of things came with its own personal or mental barriers?

McCarthy: I was super scared, and the lyrics are super honest. I say really crazy shit and I wrote from a manic-depressive state for every one of those lyrics and I just let it happen. In the past, I would go back and throw things away or I could change things or make it less revealing. For Immersion, I didn’t do that.

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Now when I sit down and read it, it’s really upsetting [laughs]. Because it’s honest and it was hard to do that. There was some stuff on Caustic that was hard but every one of these is that way. It was hard to open up about a lot of this shit but fuck it. I’m going through such a bad time, that’s what I had to write about.

Is this stuff you’d want to dive into a little bit? Are you comfortable sharing a little deeper about this? Whether it was the place you were at or the individual things that sparked these lyrics?

McCarthy: I was trying to face some things from my childhood, and I had some family relationships erode to shit—that will dig up all sorts of things from when you were younger. I had an issue with a couple of death threats, and I felt unsafe. That made the mental illness feel fucking crazy. I stepped away from the school district two years ago and I’m living this music thing for real now and that’s really scary and unstable and will also make you feel crazy if you’re already in a crazy place.

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On the side, my bandmates were going through their own things. It was a hard year for them. We felt like the band was going to break up a couple of times—it was the most tumultuous period of the band’s history. So, I’m kind of writing about that too.

It’s a record of total collapse in everything that you can think about. It was one of those years, but the thing is I can’t speak on any of those individual subjects if I don’t mention the mental illness part of it because it was really framing the time period for me. Anybody who would have uncontrollable spells of this knows what I’m saying.

I don’t think I’ve experienced anything to that extent, but it sounds like it can be a tough cycle to break. Does having these lyrics on paper and over arrangements present a snapshot to you of, say, a low point to you? A sort of backstop of, “Okay I had reached a low point in my life. I do not want to go back to this.”

McCarthy: Yeah, absolutely. For the last fucking time, this is how I see that shit. A lot of the things that I was dealing with, I had refused to deal with. I’m better now than I was at the time.

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I can imagine, man. That’s tough. Long before what’s going on now, society was already pretty isolating and aggravating and now as things unfold—it compounds. I really appreciate you sharing about that. It’s good to have some of that insight. Like you said though, it’s tough to share that in lyrics and tough to read. I bet it’s tough to talk to someone about that too.

McCarthy: It’s hard to admit that the band almost caved the fuck in. We’re better now for getting through it. We can make it through a lot at this point. So, there’s a positive side to it—which I don’t speak to on the record [laughs]. For me, I’m happy to be past the things I was talking about.

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