Cult Leader: God’s Lonely Children Emerge From the Shadows

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Photo: Talyn Sherer

There is an old archetype in the stories that humans have passed through the generations, which literary and cultural nerds refer to as the “Descent into Hell.” If you’ve seen a superhero movie in the last decade, then you know the beat of its redemptive heart: After reaching the heights of success and power, the hero is forced into a darkness that they have heretofore never encountered—one that threatens to drown everything they’ve built and fought for. The end seems nigh, but victory is achieved and the hero—not without loss—ascends again out of the pit. Cult Leader guitarist Mike Mason perfectly expresses the spirit of this ascension that he, Anthony Lucero and Casey Hansen have kept burning in the blackness. Discussing the moment the group was faced with an uncertain future for their past project, Gaza, Mason says, simply: “It can’t end like that.” So, from ashes, Cult Leader was born in Salt Lake City. Within less than a year, Mason, Hansen and Lucero faced the end of a successful band, the creation of a new one, and became part of the Deathwish Inc. record-label family: a redemptive myth in the music world, if ever there was one.

Lucero, Hansen and Mason are pragmatic men, and have long kept in the backs of their heads a battle plan for a bandless outcome they hoped would never appear. When it did, they were ready. “I was fully prepared to go full-bore DIY, like, nobody would want to touch us. I think that’s a good way to look at the opportunities in life—what happens when you don’t get the opportunity anymore? It’s always useful to know what you’re doing without anyone else around,” says Hansen. They recorded a new EP, Nothing For Us Here, independently with engineer Wes Johnson, ready and willing to cradle this creation themselves, unsure of how the industry was going to react to this sudden upheaval. They sent copies out to several sources, including longtime friend Jacob Bannon of Converge, owner of Deathwish Inc. In less than 24 hours, Bannon had messaged Lucero on Facebook, welcoming the group with open arms. “Magic is the best way to describe it,” says Lucero. “We had already built a relationship with Jacob—we were already friends … but none of us expected to actually get picked up. We hoped for it, of course.” Just like that, Cult Leader had a solid foundation beneath their feet and a springboard from which to launch this new project onto the national stage.

Starting out, the band first had to decide to whom the role of vocalist would be given, and his bandmates, without question, nominated Lucero in full faith of his abilities. Lucero, who long ago had seeds of ideas for vocals planted in the back of his mind, came to the job ready to explore those concepts, and with them, the band built the foundations of their sound and their soon-to-be-released EP.

Nothing For Us Here is a short but powerful EP, full of gnashing dread and sick despair: a frenzied mix of hardcore and punk, along with an occasional spice of something heavier—hints of black and death metal lurk in the furious beats, the layered, harsh vocals and the discordant guitar wails. The tracks are brief but full of varied character, ranging from the thick and chaotic “Flightless Birds” to the six-minute barren dirge, “Driftwood,” which began as a mess-around jam track and evolved into a unique, gloomy flow that ends the album in a sorrowful yet somehow calm place. It’s not technical in its heaviness, but ruthless and viscous; primitive in structure but far from simple. The band is thrilled to have a vocalist as proactive in the creation process as Lucero has become. Bassist Sam Richards says, “For the first time, in a band I’ve been in, a vocalist came [up] with an idea for a song, for a vocal-driven song, which is exciting.” More than that, Lucero brings a thundering, gravel-thick voice, which occasionally makes it sound as if his jaw is coming unhinged. It’s a brutal symphony that is hard to squeeze into a predetermined genre, something the band appreciates.

While Mason and Hansen kept their roles as guitarist and drummer, respectively, Lucero took this new opportunity to put down his bass, which he played in previous bands. Mason’s and Hansen’s trust in Lucero is already reaping rewards: The guttural, fierce bellow of his creative input has allowed Cult Leader to explore a wide variation in their sound, writing songs that are vocally driven, like the low and fierce “Mongrel.” “I like being able to bring that approach,” says Lucero. “Now I get to think in two separate modes. I always had vocal ideas before, but I was not going to impose because it’s not my full instrument, so I could suggest, but it was never full-blown writing. With [Cult Leader], it’s really refreshing to be able to do that.” Lucero’s mother, an English teacher, introduced him to the morbid beauty of Edgar Allan Poe early in his childhood, an inspiration that has certainly followed him into his new role of lyric writing. It is helping Cult Leader create a twisted, pagan undertone to their sound through his invocation of animalistic, first-person perspectives in contrast to past themes of overt political and social ills.

With Lucero choosing to forego playing bass to work exclusively on vocals, the trio decided to reach out for a bass player, and Hansen suggested the number one choice on his backup list: Richards of Heartless Breakers and several other local projects. “On the topic of always preparing for whatever, I feel like I’m always scouting people,” says Hansen. “In a perfect world, I’d have enough time to play with everyone I thought was a good musician and I could get along with. Sam was always someone who seemed to not just like playing music, but knew music. I always got along with him—he always seemed very dedicated, [and] he seemed to hit all the things [on my list].”

Richards says that, at first, the guys were very hush-hush in their approach to him, but that he was eager to accept as soon as the offer was put down. “I’ve known these guys for a while, and one day I got a message that was like, ‘Hey man, hypothetically …’ just super vague-like… ‘If the three of us were to do a band, would you want to play bass?’ It was just kind of feeling out. But we jammed, and it worked,” says Richards. He has no intentions of quitting Heartless Breakers, who are latching to their own rising star recently. However, since he is not a primary songwriter he can maintain a lessened role in Heartless Breakers without them suffering for it. Richards is stoked to be part of a band that is, as Hansen puts it, “in ‘go-for-it’ mode.” He got a taste of touring with his old band, Reviver, and has wanted another opportunity for it. “I really wanted to tour more, but I hit a wall, and had to be a homebody and play catch-up and play it slow with all my music,” says Richardson. “But to have an opportunity with three other people who really want to go hard at this, and have a shot to do something cool … Worst-case scenario, if we were to go DIY, we know we could do that.”

Lucero is finding in his new role a pantheon of emotional reactions. He is grateful for the opportunity to front Cult Leader as an outlet for his own dismal emotions by screaming like a monster in front of a wild crowd of people. So far, he doesn’t miss his bass onstage. The experience is so new that it feels, for him, both energizing and exhausting. “Playing music in general, when I have that outlet, frees me up in the rest of my life,” he says. “I can dump all the negative shit into that. Then, in my day-to-day life, I can feel more free, more light.”

Already, the group is finding rejuvenation in their new roles and continue to approach their songwriting organically by writing and jamming together. This creates a supportive environment where every member can contribute ideas for any instrument. It’s the kind of environment that can grow only in a place of mutual trust and appreciation.

The band, as a whole, sees nothing but brightness for the future, a reality that wasn’t always the case in the last year. But through their solidarity and their willingness to expand horizons, to slide into new roles and see what they find, they’ve achieved a survival that many bands have failed to achieve. They have brought with them out of the shadows an unnerving, emotional record that hints at the greatness to follow its release. It speaks to the determination of these musicians who use their music as true expression, as a revelation of both strength and misery, that old see-saw of human experience. Cult Leader are raw in their honesty and resolve.

Nothing For Us Here will be making its debut on April 15. The band says it already has two complete songs waiting in the wings for the next EP, and is writing a full-length that may come out later this year. They will be a part of Salt Lake’s growing Crucial Fest in June, after coming back from a two-leg tour with Nashville’s Yautja across the US.

Do not miss their EP-release show on April 4 at The Shred Shed, and be sure to pick up the Nothing For Us Here 7”. Preview the exclusive stream on slugmag.com here.