WILLS WELLER | JUSTIN MATTHEWS | MATT ARENSDORF | JASON GOSS | JOHNUEL HASNEY
It all boils down to a mantra. The final gasp of Toothgrinder’s third full-length album, I Am [Spinefarm Records], sums up everything before it. On the album's concluding title track, and first radio single, “I Am,” vocalist Justin Matthews meditatively sings out, “I will make peace with all I am,” over the seesawing snap of distorted guitars, a driving beat, and orchestral bells. This simple phrase serves as both a victory lap and an assessment of the band’s current place personally and creatively.
“I feel like that line is the mission statement or the theme of the entire record,” he affirms. “For me, I’m finally making peace with myself. So, the mantra just seemed very fitting for the title as it’s a guided meditation I’ve used to get me through a lot.” A turbulent two-year journey built towards that important realization.
Challenging convention, existing independent of genre expectations, and delivering a hypnotic, haunting, and hard-hitting alchemy of rock, alternative, and metal, Toothgrinder - Justin [vocals], Jason Goss [rhythm guitar], Matt Arensdorf [bass, backing vocals], Wills Weller [drums], and Johnuel Hasney [lead guitar, backing vocals] - set a precedent as outliers. On the heels of 2016’s debut Nocturnal Masquerade, they ascended to new creative heights on Phantom Amour a year later. Not only did the latter yield three million cumulative streams on Spotify, but it also garnered widespread acclaim from Revolver, AXS, Metal Injection, and Metal Hammer, who dubbed it “impossible to pigeonhole.” Following tours with the likes of Meshuggah and Code Orange, they capped off 2018 with a surprise cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” amassing over 1.8 million Spotify streams for it.
Along the way, they dove into writing what would become I Am as Justin faced down personal demons. The result of his journey impacted the direction of the music. “My alcohol and drug use were pretty prominent on the last two albums and on tour,” he admits. “I resolved those issues in the last year-and-a-half. I’ve cleared the vines, got over resentments, let go of hatred, and tried to live a more balanced life. Afterwards, I was in a better state of mind writing the lyrics. On Phantom Amour, I was talking about my problems. On the latest album, it’s like I’m solving them. I’m more comfortable in my own skin and aiming to be a better person in society instead of trying to dig my way out. It’s more uplifting.” “On the sonic side, every song is a little different adventure,” adds Wills. “There are surprises throughout. Tonally, it’s more positive and exciting. It continues the ever-changing style as we try to push ourselves to the next level and hone our songwriting.”
In order to elevate the craft, they recorded with producer Matt Squire [Underoath, Panic! At The Disco] in Maryland. Over the course of five weeks, the band zeroed in on eleven tracks and leveraged the producer’s “ear for song structure and melody” to tighten the sound like never before. “Song structure was what we really concentrated on this time,” Wills continues. “Some of the records Matt has made changed my view of music. He did an amazing job of helping us sharpen everything.” They fittingly introduce the record with “I Am” as the first single. Conceived in Wills’s kitchen, hummable guitars underscore the overarching message. According to Wills, it “stems from the enjoyment of making music together.”
In the end, Toothgrinder’s mantra exhibits the power to resonate.
“I hope people feel a sense of community, when they listen to this,” Wills leaves off. “You have a place and a voice.” Justin adds, “If fans are struggling with depression, addiction, or alcoholism, I hope they reach out. We’re always here. I Am is a reminder for everyone.”