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As singer/guitarist for the New York quartet Early Man, Mike Conte has been fortunate enough to witness firsthand the power metal possesses to bring people together. But one such moment, which came toward the tail end of the band's last U.S. tour, stands out in his mind above all the others.
"I looked down and there was this guy in the front row with a plunger in his hand that he'd taken out of the bathroom, and he was smashing the rubber part against the top of somebody's head. Everyone's in the pit going crazy, and this guy's totally beating the shit out of this other dude with a plunger to one of our songs. I don't think they even knew each other, but it was a total connection they were making, and that's what it's all about, you know?
"What's fucked up is that I met that guy later on at some bar," Conte -- speaking over his cell phone as the Early Man tour van approaches the outskirts of Philadelphia, where in a few hours the foursome will launch its latest (and lengthiest) national excursion -- continues, laughing. "I did shots with him, and he was absolutely as genius as his earlier plunging led us to believe. He was bald, he had a goatee, he was pushing 300 pounds ... the quintessential dude you wanna hang out with at a metal show. I'm not even sure he had any idea who I was or anything, but I had an Obituary shirt on and he came over and was like, 'I'm getting my picture taken next to the guy in the Obituary shirt, I don't give a fuck,' and then he yanks his shirt off right there at the bar and grabs me and we got our picture taken together. I mean, I don't know how much more real it gets than that."
The same can be said of Early Man's full-length debut album. Closing In worships at the altar of the Almighty Riff: riffs that gallop and wallop like Kill 'Em All-era Metallica; riffs that crunch low and sinister in a manner usually associated with Tony Iommi's prosthetic fingertips; riffs that really do make you want to thrash your head around, unleash your inner air-guitarist, or spray-paint the band's logo on all your furniture. (Guess what? Closing In even comes with a cardboard Early Man stencil!) The 42-minute disc is like one of those bootleg hockey-fights tapes you can get off of eBay -- on those compilations there's none of that pesky puck handling or nimble skating, just bloodied, toothless goons pummeling the holy hell out of each other. Likewise, there's no masturbatory guitar shredding, experimental noise, or nine-minute journeys through 17 weird time signatures on Closing In, just 180-proof whiplash riffage, pithy solos, and clobbering drums jammed into memorable three- and four-minute songs.
Conte's voice, meanwhile, has two basic settings: Ozzy howl and Hetfield growl (although he occasionally punctuates either with Halford-worthy shrieks). Lyrically, he's just as doom-obsessed as his forebears -- suicide, death, disease, and madness are the primary themes here -- and sometimes he's completely over-the-top, in classic metal fashion. Take "War Eagle," for instance: "I am an eagle made of steel/ Silver bullets cannot pierce my skin/ I am not afraid of mortal men/ Bring them on, bring them on/ I'm cruising at the speed of light/ I'm hunting for your soul tonight/ You're in the cross hairs of my eyes/ Turning mankind's masses into clay/ Crushing all opponents in my way."
But if Early Man's throwback style isn't as grave or artsy as that of some of the underground "thinking man's metal" acts that've been getting loads of press the past couple of years, nor is it the jokey metal of, say, the Darkness. Still, the fact that the group is the first metal band signed to Matador Records -- the renowned indie label that brought us Pavement, Belle & Sebastian, and Interpol -- has led some to question whether Early Man is, indeed, the real deal.
"The thing is, you can do something completely sincerely these days and some people still aren't gonna get it," Conte says. "I think that some people who know we're on Matador or are into the music the label usually puts out are extremely confused by us, and maybe wanna read a bunch of things into it that aren't there. So initially I heard, 'Oh, this is like a wink-wink fuckin' hipster thing, right?' But I think as we go along we're getting beyond that and most people are getting it. But now I still get stuff from interviewers like, 'Don't you think it's so weird that you and Cat Power are on the same label?' Like, OK dude, you think I didn't hear that, like, every day for the first three months that we signed?!"
Yet, he adds, nothing can tarnish the fact that he's getting his music out to the masses after the strange journey that's brought him to this point. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Conte grew up in an extremely religious household that shielded him from virtually all music until he was nearly out of high school. But when he was 17, his 14-year-old uncle (Conte's now-departed grandmother had a child later in life) started a band with some junior high pals, and Conte would sit in the basement watching while they covered Pantera and Megadeth songs.
"I was listening to them [thinking], 'You gotta be kidding me!' It was totally amazing. That was the first exposure I had to the real shit, and then I did what a lot of kids do -- I started on the surface and then backtracked to find out what's the story here. Like, if I liked Megadeth, where did they come from and on and on and on. And then I picked up the guitar, and I never put it down."
In the late '90s, Conte moved to New York, where he worked shitty day jobs and spent his nights recording hundreds of riffs, accompanied by a drum machine, on his four-track. A few years later, his Columbus drummer-friend Adam Bennati moved to the city, and the two formed Early Man in 2003. At first they played live as a three-piece with a number of bassists who came and went, although the lineup seemed solidified when post-rock icon David Pajo, best known for his guitar work in Slint, Tortoise, and Zwan, came on board in the fall of 2004. At the time, Pajo wrote on his blog: "I really want to form a true metal band. a full on 'death-to-false-metal' kind of band. not that post-modern, nu-metal, ironic fluff. old school metal is the only truly sacrosanct, exciting, pure redneck music that still exists in every no name town on the planet. no sooner had I mentioned it than I was discussing rehearsal schedule with the best metal band in new york: EARLY MAN."
But with last year's Slint reunion and other projects beckoning, Pajo bailed a couple of months later, and Conte and Bennati set about recording Closing In by themselves (with Conte overdubbing guitar and bass parts and producer Matt Sweeney contributing some guitar as well). They were still officially a duo when Atlanta art-metal heavies Mastodon invited the pair to open for its tour last April -- Early Man's first major U.S. outing.
"We were a two-piece out of nothing but necessity because we hadn't found anyone that fit right," Conte explains, "and what are you gonna do when Mastodon's booking agent calls you and says, 'These guys want you to open their national tour,' you know? I mean, you don't say no, but you think, 'Oh yeah, this is gonna be great doing this as a two-piece for that kinda crowd.' It ended up working great, actually, but unfortunately since that was the tour everyone remembers us unveiling ourselves at, there was a lot of people after that going, 'Oh, it's the metal White Stripes,' which we obviously want nothing to do with."
Early Man has since beefed up to a four-piece that features Alex Conley, an old friend from Ohio, on bass, as well as Pete Macy on second guitar for maximum metalosity. And though he hopes his band will appeal to all kinds of music fans, Conte admits he's most excited to play for the people who already get it -- whether it's die-hard, plunger-wielding metalheads; 14-year-old kids excited by true metal; or the "40-year-old guys with three kids in Tampa, Florida," from whom, he says, he gets at least five to 10 e-mails a week saying how psyched they are "to hear the real thing for the first time in 20 years."
"It's blown me away the number of people, like, random dudes at shows, that come up to me and go, 'You guys saved metal, bro,'" Conte adds. So how does he respond to the burden of such a responsibility?
"I'm like, 'Ummm, I'll try?!' You don't go into a situation thinking like that. I mean, I don't, and nobody in our band does. But we'll take it. We'll save metal. Why the fuck not?"
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