Long established at the head of their scene, it’s time for Employed To Serve to plant their flag. And haven’t they just? With their new album ‘Conquering’, nothing more needs to be said. But let’s try anyway…
Words: Steven Loftin.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Ambition is the order of the day for Employed To Serve. Having made waves as a chaotic blend of hardcore and metal, now that pulverising blend is being tuned in on their fourth outing, ‘Conquering’, the five-piece are striking their flag into the ground. The dial on the figurative radio is meticulously focused, hellbent on finding the definitive Employed to Serve sound.
Certainly, the a-word is no stranger to the groups of 2021. Everyone wants to go big or go home, especially after waiting so long to prove themselves. However, Employed To Serve were already more ambitious than they realised.
Going from being a simple two-piece of Justine Jones and partner (now husband) guitarist Sammy Urwin to a band nearly a decade old takes more than drive: it takes passion and a love of the game. Already having three albums under their belts, only now deciding to harness their chaotic undertow means, really, no one stands a chance.
“We made a concerted effort to make this our statement record,” starts vocalist Justine. “It’s our fourth album now, and during this cycle, we’ll hit our tenth year as a band. And by that point, when you spend every waking moment working on something, you want it to succeed and get bigger. So, that’s what we tried to do with this record, and I feel like it’s definitely our best material. It’s definitely my favourite album that we’ve done.”
In the past, when bands have focused upon trying to go for glory, they were often tarred and feathered with two words: selling out. It’s less of a problem during a time when it can be more challenging than ever for bands to be viable.
“That’s a thing of the past now because it’s cool to care about your art. I hate the whole, ‘I’m punk I don’t care about my gear. Everything breaks, but it’s cool’,” Justine says, her eyes rolling.
“We like to spend time and effort on getting good gear. We like to spend time on our songs; we like to spend time promoting ourselves because we spend so much of our time on this. It’d be rubbish to be like, ‘No, we don’t want that many people to listen to it because it’s not cool’.”
There’s a difference between trying to reach your potential than say, taking a look at the charts and pivoting to whatever’s hot. It’s all about staying true to yourself, no matter how cliche that may sound.
‘Conquering’, Justine explains, is a combination of everything they love about music and wanting to be the best band they can be. Inherently music nerds – Justine and Sammy, along with guitarist Davi Porter, bassist Nathan Pryor, and drummer Casey McHale – it’s their special bond with the wondrous beast that means they’re able to harness their own wild-eyed fury. Insisting that they’re “still very much us”, one of the biggest inspirations for ‘Conquering’, musically at least, stems from the hallowed Roadrunner Records roster of the early 00s: Machine Head, Slipknot et al. Touchstones sparkling like diamonds amongst the vicious rough, on what it was about these bands, and this time, that imprinted heavily on Justine and the rest of ETS, it’s one word that often applies to the band itself: “rawness.”
“It was just so weird. It was really heavy, aggressive, raw but at the same time really catchy and at some points bouncing in terms of groove,” Justine reckons. “It was something that always pulled you in just because it’s really heavy but still has that song structure where the chorus has the hook that you’re like, ‘Oh, I know this bit I can participate’. Like loads of Slipknot songs, immediately on my first listen, I want to listen to it again. That’s really hard to do in heavy music because you don’t have the luxury of being a pop artist with a nice sounding synth. It’s quite an art for bands like that to do it, to be honest.”
Written during the height of summertime lockdown, those endless hazy days of naivety and fear, and recorded during the even longer winter lockdown, these dualities are the perfect colliding metaphor for ‘Conquering’ and its intentions – especially given its oddly positive birth.
Emphasising that they were “so prepared” thanks to the bittersweet notion of no touring, this extra focus and all the waiting around leaned into their meticulous plan of attack. Though, all that time off also came with a downside.
“I had the typical vocalist thing where I blew my voice out!” she laughs. “Going from not doing vocals for like a year to five or six hours of vocals in a day is just a recipe for disaster. I ended up going back during January each weekend, and that was quite nice, actually. I quite enjoyed it. The motorways were absolutely dead, which is quite weird.”
Eventually, they emerged from the success of their lockdown amidst those dystopian times we lived through, holding their trophy ‘Conquering’ aloft. There’s a fraught, fractious ferocity but also an embracing of metal’s intricacies, not to mention singalong moments meant to rouse and rile (‘Exist’). Even Sammy is stepping up to the mic for some clean and studious vocals on ‘Mark of The Grave’.
These singalong moments and war cry call-and-responses feel even more prevalent, and it makes total sense. When you’re readying the cavalry to roll out, you need to give the people something to get involved in.
“As a performance, that’s actually my favourite thing in the world,” Justine smiles. “I love all of our scattered stuff, and I feel like it is still present in this new record. We have blast beats and deep beats, we have all of that, but it’s just a bit more polished.”
In this new chapter, they’re going for gold. They know that keeping the troops inspired is most important, so letting some of that older, more frenzied material make way for this richer, focused output is key.
“Our more mathy stuff on the first record just won’t sound good in a big venue. It’s just all over the place, and there’s no punching through,” she says, eyes focusing on their upcoming tour with Gojira, which sees them take on arenas around the UK and Europe. “That’s just not the kind of band we are anymore.”
Mentioning that the older stuff still works well when “playing floor shows and things like that”, it’ll always hold a special place in their hearts. But, to borrow the title of their third outing, it’s all about eternal forward motion. “The first album is always the tester, really. We just found what clicks, and for us, it’s the more swervy, groovy vessel that we do now.”
Employed To Serve is just one part of Justine and Sammy’s story. Following the closure of Holy Roar Records last year, they signed several of the label’s previous acts to what was once a small side-project for the pair, their own Church Road Records. Inking speedy deals with the likes of Svalbard and Palm Reader, even though the world slowed down for a hot minute, things haven’t stopped for Justine.
“It’s been a real nice positive thing to focus on. I’m really stoked on all the bands we have coming out. I feel very confident. A lot of them will be a part of the next wave. That’s what I really like about being a small independent label; you get them when they’re playing to 20 to 50 people and help put them in front of more people.”
Continuing, she says: “It’s just really nice helping other people achieve their dreams. When they win, you win as well because you’re doing it together. I’ve been working for labels since I left uni, so for eight years now. I was part of those people’s beginnings, and now I can see them play the Main Stage at Bloodstock. So, when I’m in my late 30s, in 10 years, I could hopefully see that new wave I’m working on now.”
Being both a part of an exciting wave of British metal themselves, as well as nurturing the one now blossoming, does Justine see enough space being created for this all to happen?
“There’s a space now,” she lightly nods. “I think the press, festivals, and gig promoters have realised that the more legacy acts aren’t going to be around forever because you’re gonna have to retire at some point. There’s gonna be a huge vacuum, so they’re trying to cultivate growth in the smaller bands, which is good because I think I could totally see bands like Architects and Bullet For My Valentine being the next festival headliners.”
Given the pop penchant for baptising itself in the dark and dingy water, and the sheer talent rising through, that space is being filled rapidly akin to the early-00s influx. Employed To Serve even wound up helping out alt-pop icon Ashnikko on a remix of ‘Cry’ last year. Undoubtedly, heavy music is growing in strength.
“It absolutely is having a second wind,” Justine agrees. “I feel like that’s the right way to put it because I think the 2010s was quite a low, and it was quite slow, but since about 2017ish onwards, it’s been straight up.”
Legacy is a big word, but it’s what ambition is constantly driving towards. Generally, the ambitious have no finish line. It’s a constant burning fire of passion, and with the two facets of Justine’s life both setting the stage, it’s undeniable that’s where this is all leading to. Employed To Serve are fast becoming a beast of their own, which is where all great bands end up, but it’s the hustle and bustle required that keeps it on the straight and narrow.
“There are obviously days where I get complacent and can be like, ‘Oh, today I just want to tour all the time’, but it’s really nice having the two towers, I guess, with my life,” Justine says, pondering on her current state of play. “It keeps you grounded and working hard, and because obviously, things are a bit easier with ETS now, they’re sort of more self-sustaining, you just kind of go with it.”
In addition to ambition, you need that special something to get people to care. Something that sets you apart from the rest of the belligerent crowd. Much like those Roadrunner bands of old, there’s something about Employed To Serve that just sticks with you; the feeling that you’re witnessing something of note happen.
“I like to think we’re quite personable,” Justine considers. “I feel like we’ve always been music fans first, so we’ve always been going to festivals, and going to shows, and always been present in the scene. From that, we’ve got to know people who’ve followed us since day one. We’ve always made an effort to go out front and say hello because the thing is, this whole Slipknot persona works really well for that, but it’s just not really our personalities, so we’ve never gone for the behind-the-scenes approach. We’ve always been around and available to chat. And I feel like our lyrics are quite relatable. A lot of them are metaphorical, so it’s quite easy to put yourself in those shoes, basically.”
Personable is a good word for it, with Justine currently sipping from a can of the latest US craze to hit our UK shores, hard seltzer White Claw (“I’m slightly obsessed with these!”) as if it’s a summer’s day in the park.
In an age where bands are available all day, every day via social media, it can often be the opposite when they end up at shows, disappearing backstage and then slipping out the door. Saying she’s “more of a fan of the old fashioned way”, meeting fans in person, that 24/7 online churn isn’t something that’s entirely within Justine’s wheelhouse.
“I really struggle to keep on top of messages and stuff just because I hate spending too much time on my phone; it stresses me out. It’s interesting how there are almost two kinds of divisions; they’re available at the show or replies every single comment, and they’re on Twitch all the time, or they’re on YouTube all the time.”
“There are loads of bands who are doing awesome on Twitch, and it really suits their personality because they have an extroverted way of talking to big crowds, but for me, I’ve always been better one on one, or in smaller groups, because I hate talking on stage. I have to literally pre-think what I’m saying just so I don’t stumble or anything like that because it’s hard to address an entire audience.”
Building her confidence up has very much been a trial by fire, with Justine remembering that in the very early days of Employed To Serve, it was very much a case of struggling to make eye contact. “I was quite a quiet person, and now I’m the complete opposite.”
Her best advice for wanting to grow your own confidence? It’s quite simple, really. “It’s quite funny; if you want to build your confidence, put yourself in front of people and let them judge you. It makes your skin thicker, and you tend to care a little less,” she says, a chuckle breaking out. “Obviously, people have been really nice as well – not just the negatives, you know!”
An integral spearheading piece of a new British metal convoy, Employed To Serve are leading the way. This sits alright with Justine. “It’s an absolute blessing being a band at this time. There are so many of our peers and friends who are doing really well, like Svalbard, Venom Prison, Conjurer, Palm Reader – there are so many of our friends’ bands who started roughly around the same time as us, and we’ve had the privilege to see everyone grow.”
There’s no band more humble yet ready to take to the top than Employed To Serve. Growing into this duality, and their own way of being, while also offering ladders for their pals to climb has been seamless.
“I feel like everyone’s really supportive of each other, which is good, so it’s quite exciting,” Justine smiles sincerely, closing with a sentiment that digs beneath the focus into why they’re proving unstoppable. “Every Friday, I just know there’s gonna be a good album out. As a music fan, it’s brilliant.”
Employed To Serve’s album ‘Conquering’ is out now.