Interview: Twelve Foot Ninja

Written by Anthony Toto

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This past January, I went through a music drought where none of my favorite artists or songs seemed to hold my attention or invoke inspiration. Despite my undying loyalty to heavy metal, I felt this urge to discover something innovative just to get away from the conformity plaguing the genre. Strictly at the time, something about metalcore and death metal didn’t strike the right chord. During this quest, I randomly stumbled onto a MetalSucks article praising this Australian band called ‘Twelve Foot Ninja.’ Anyone who reads MetalSucks knows how the writers hold nothing back when it comes to giving their opinion.

Immediately, the name ‘Twelve Foot Ninja’ caught my attention so I searched for the band on YouTube and clicked on the music video for their single “Coming For You.” As I wiped away the tears of laughter pouring from eyes, the video’s sense of humor took a backseat as this enormous sound poured out of my speakers. In fact, I felt shocked to hear such a flowing mixture of down tuned metal, Latin flavored acoustic rhythms, and extremely catchy funk-laden grooves. The musical arrangements sounded so natural, yet so eclectic considering its brilliant use of jazz chords and bouncing riffs. When vocalist Kin Etik shouts “Be ready/ I am coming for you,” I envisioned myself going berserk in the middle of a circle pit, yet I felt like carelessly dancing away when the song transitioned into the funk verse, “You buried their heart/ Buried their soul.”

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Needless to say, Twelve Foot Ninja’s debut LP Silent Machine is one of my favorite albums to come around in a very long time. Twelve Foot Ninja managed to strike the same chord I once felt after I first heard System of a Down’s Toxicity in the early 2000s. Just like System of a Down, this band’s spontaneous combination of different genres separates itself from its contemporaries. As someone also compulsively obsessed with comic books and martial arts based pop culture, I totally applaud this group’s effort to associate itself with a warrior-like mascot and original comic book series reminiscent of Eddie from Iron Maiden.

Just a couple weeks ago, I attended Twelve Foot Ninja’s headlining show at the Studio Room in Webster Hall. As the recent winners for Best New Artist at the Revolver Golden Gods Awards (Hard Rock’s Grammy Awards), A&R representatives from different major labels were in attendance scouting the band. From my perspective, the moment represented the film Almost Famous where I witnessed a legion of kids lash out every ounce of energy while going absolutely insane in this tiny club. Picture a crowd moshing away and stage diving before coming to a complete halt as the band transitioned from the heavy to mellow parts. The smell of sweat in the air represented the purest moments in music when you witness a band primed to take its sound to the next level. For the lucky few in the crowd, cherish those memories, as I confidently believe that Twelve Foot Ninja will play much larger venues in the near future.

In an exclusive interview with Pop-Break, I sat down with Twelve Foot Ninja’s founding member and guitarist Steve ‘Stevic’ MacKay for an in-depth conversation about the band’s creative process and international breakthrough following its debut Silent Machine.

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Pop-Break: Headlining a tour in America as the recipients for “Best New Talent” at the Golden God Awards, could you describe the feeling of earning that recognition before going out on the road? I imagine the experience provided a major boost of inspiration…

Stevic MacKay: It was an awesome experience! It was great exposure for us to reach a new audience. We definitely noticed a tangible change where people heard about us and came to check us out live because of our award. It was a great validation.

PB: How did it feel to earn that recognition while being surrounded by notable musicians in metal like Alice Cooper or Kerry King at the Golden Gods?

SM: I had a brief but great chat with Max Cavalera from Sepultura. I told him that I loved both Sepultura and Soulfly and he told me how he loves Twelve Foot Ninja. That was so rad! I also spoke to Munky from Korn during a festival and he heard us on Sirius XM. That’s so wild when you come from Australia and to have these guys know our band and know our music exists is awesome!

PB: You could hear the Korn and Deftones influence your band’s sound.

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SM: We grew up listening to Korn. We love what they did in the past and we love what they’re doing now. The first time I discovered Korn, I had never heard anything like that before. Life Is Peachy and the self-titled debut, those two albums were so different considering the time they came out and they still stand up. We heard them live and it was sick to see them shredding up there!

PB: For the listener unfamiliar with your music, can you talk about the formation of Twelve Foot Ninja and where the idea behind the character (The Twelve Foot Ninja) originated?

SM: The idea behind the band originated because I had always written songs that jumped across different genres. I had a band before this called Flow and we had an album called The Parallel Development. The music covered two different worlds; one side being heavy and the other side was a mixture of all sorts of sounds. I wanted to create a new project and that’s where Twelve Foot Ninja began. The concept behind Twelve Foot Ninja came from the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. Robert Wedlow, the tallest man in recorded history was 8’11 and he was still growing when he died. I read a story where a sailor tried to pull his leg off because he thought he was just a regular guy on stilts, and Robert swatted him away like a fly. I started to imagine, ‘What if he was really coordinated and a kickass fighter?’ I came up with this hypothetical game when I was doing a clinic tour for Line 6 in Australia, ‘Would you rather be a 12-foot ninja or the only dude in the middle ages with a machine gun?’ That’s because you could smash everyone and my friend was like, ‘If you’re a 12-foot ninja, would you have more stealth or be more ambidextrous?’ The more we talked about it, this character just jumped out of nowhere. I wrote a novella, a 6-chapter fable about those concepts and based the songs around those concepts. It’s sort of an allegory for life based on different principles and that’s how it began.

PB: Project 12 (Twelve Foot Ninja’s comic book series) is another outside the box proponent of your creativity; how did the Twelve Foot Ninja fable come to fruition? How would you summarize the story?

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SM: The idea for Project 12 originated when our manager Dave and I were having a friendly debate about the importance of making a full-length album. The cost of making an album is disproportionate to what you make back nowadays because of piracy and downloading. People will buy single tracks off iTunes so it raises the debate whether or not it’s better to release single tracks instead of writing a full-length album. I remember saying, ‘Well, if we treat each song as single than let’s release it with a comic book, so people have time to absorb each song and get a feel of what’s going on.’ Our mission became to release 12 comic books. The comics are based around the lyrics and the lyrics are inspired by the story. When you put it together as a compilation, it’s sort of abstract. Each song is obviously different so the story isn’t exactly linear. We actually haven’t released anything that tells the story in chronological order yet ,so that’s on the horizon.

PB: Describe your experience in discovering Keith Draws (Project 12’s artist) through deviantART. What were your expectations for Keith in terms of creating the visual component of your story?

SM: You did your research man! It’s hard to find people on the internet to work with because a huge component of any collaboration, whether it’s art or building a house, is having chemistry with the person. You need to get along with the person. There needs to be a certain ethos that both individuals subscribe too in terms of dealing with one another. Keith understood it right away and deviantART has a lot of talented artists doing all sorts of amazing stuff. We made it clear that this was paid gig and we understand how that’s very important to artists from the get-go. We chose the artist by asking a few people to draw something connected to the Twelve Foot Ninja. Keith’s drawing won so we gave him the gig and it turned out great. I think anyone who creates art appreciates being compensated for the time and effort.

PB: Are you starting to see your fanbase submit artwork and ideas for the storyline?

SM: We see it from time to time for sure. We haven’t released the full story yet so people aren’t quite familiar with the personalities of the character. People understand that it’s a Twelve Foot Ninja but there are also a lot people who think it’s just a band name. It’s actually a character in a story so I find that quite exciting. I like that the music came first and that people think the band name is arbitrary because they will find out soon that there’s a lot more going on.

PB: This band takes a very proactive approach in turning your ideas into reality by utilizing your web resources to your full advantage.

SM: I think we broke a world record for how much we raised to create our music video for “Ain’t That A Bitch.” That combined with the Golden Gods Award, it’s really a testament to our supporters. Our fans are heavily invested into what we’re doing and that’s not only from a financial sense. In terms of time and passion, the people who get what we’re trying to do really want to get behind us. Not everyone wants to hear metal mixed with Latin and all that kind of stuff. They see us diluting the sense of metal from a purist angle but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to bring heavy music to a different audience and vise versa. Social media is very important for us. We always try to make an effort to talk to people if they make an effort to talk to us.

PB: Could you describe the initial reaction to your band’s sound? In terms of mixing metal with the unconventional components of Latin, jazz, and funk, how did the audience respond?

SM: I always approach things with a toe in the water type of mindset. I didn’t want to waste my time on something that people will think is crap. We started out slowly. We released a few tracks on Myspace back in the day and that received a positive response. I was rehearsing hardcore with my bandmates for over a year before we played our first show. We had to figure out how we were going to execute this stuff live. Since then, unbiased strangers have appreciated our music. It’s easy to fall in the trap of believing what your friends and family say. Your mates will always tell you ‘Oh, we love it,’ which is great. When you get an unbiased stranger that happens to like your music, that’s the most encouraging feeling. There’s no biased opinion, they have a choice to decide whether they like it or not. Along the way, we achieved small milestones. We waited to get a response to see whether we should continue with the band or not. It’s literally a fan fed beast and it’s mostly been amazing. You get some pretty crazy blog comments but that’s just internet trolling.

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PB: And that’s where the idea of beating up internet trolls for the music video for “Ain’t That A Bitch” came about?

SM: I find trolling quite funny sometimes. One comment that sticks out in my head because we all laughed when we first read it, ‘How did you five fuckheads survive your abortions (Laughs)?’ That’s quite creative, blunt, and pretty awesome really (Laughs). That kind of hatred loses all meaning though because we’re talking about music. We’re not talking about some genocidal dictators where a comment like that would be appropriate. The internet resorts to extremes and people have become morally desensitized to it. In order to make a loud noise, you have to say something so absurd.

PB: We laughed at the ridiculousness of the comment but that’s still such an awful thing to say…

SM: We find it humorous but there is a more serious issue at hand. If you’re talking about younger teens in high school that don’t have that self-assurance or positivity to counterbalance those vitriolic attacks, they could get depressed or possibly kill themselves. To raise the issue or discussion at least is worthwhile. The video is not suggesting that the solution is tracking down those mother fuckers and turning them into hamburgers for other bands to eat (Laughs). The idea for the video itself is a portrait of an internet troll. It starts off with a guy reflecting on his rejection, getting kicked out of the band he loved, and longing for a girl who really wants Spencer from Periphery (each member of Periphery appears in the video). He harnesses that hate and lashes it out at somebody else. I call it the see-saw ego where you elevate yourself by putting someone else down. There’s been some real critical scientific studies to analyze the personality disorders associated with internet trolling. To even write that shit on the internet, it’s almost self-admission to having a mental impairment. Some people take it lightly and see it as some pointless yapping or insignificant amoeba. We wanted to take the piss out if it and have a good joke.

PB: Talk about the songwriting process behind your debut Silent Machine. What were you looking to achieve in terms of musical vision? The album itself took two-years to make yet audiences are still discovering your music.

SM: During the making of Silent Machine, was a particularly difficult time because I decided to get a degree and build a house. Those circumstances weren’t necessarily conducive to being creative; I sort of felt swept of my creativity at the time. Adding to the long process, it was also trying to get to know the band and understand what kind of album we wanted to make. There is a lot of experimenting in this band and it’s like ‘Does this work? Is this working?’ We’ll often rework a song over ten-times until we get a formula that we like. The song “Silent Machine” was comprised of five different songs before we kept playing with the arrangements. I liken it to getting a massive jigsaw puzzle and throwing all the pieces on the floor and trying to piece it all together. I think this next album will be much quicker to make because we know our sound much better and understand the music we’re making much more. We know where we could enhance it and take it somewhere different as well.

PB: How are the song ideas coming along for your next album? Is there a specific direction that you will further explore after Silent Machine?

SM: We pretty much have the majority of tracks demoed and ready to go. We’re finalizing a lot of the vocal ideas, melodies, and lyrics. Even with the music arrangements, we’ll go over riffs that we consider somewhat weak and say ‘How could we improve this?’ In terms of sound, I think it’s heavier and sort of more technical but not technical at the detriment of the song or melody. Sometimes you get so technical and it becomes musician’s music. I think it has a bit more complexity and groove and we’re playing with different groove-based genres that aren’t metal like the Latin and bossanova stuff. We’re playing with heaps of different sounds. I think it’s a cliché that most bands will say they’re excited about the new material but I truly think it’s out strongest stuff yet.

PB: What’s your favorite genre to explore? Do you most enjoy writing metal or do you prefer writing the Latin and funk flavored parts?

SM: I love a lot of the Latin and funk stuff because there is so much you could do with it and the harmonies are very complex. You could play with a lot of jazz chords and there is this seemingly endless pool of resources. To write heavy metal, a lot of the time you don’t deviate from 3 or 4 notes. Like a lot of djenty stuff, it’s mostly 0 or 1 (note selection on the lowest stings of the guitar) and they make jokes about it on t-shirts that say ‘0-0-1-0-0.’ To achieve that tough sound, it’s mostly about the rhythm more than the melody. When you approach Latin or jazz styles, it’s more about the melody and the harmony. The rhythm is part of it but the melodies and harmonies are the strongest so it gives you so many more colors to play with.

PB: Going off what you mentioned about djent and its predictable rhythmic structures, is there a proponent of exploring all these different sounds in order to not confine yourselves to one genre? Are you trying to keep your palate as open as possible?

SM: I think of metal music as a dynamic, it’s the most powerful and aggressive style of music that exists. That’s just my opinion because everything is debatable when you’re talking about something subjective like music. I liken it to a movie; let’s say a horror film is about a dude with a chainsaw dismembering people left, right, and center. If you watched this film from start to finish and all it showed was this dude chainsawing people, you would eventually become desensitized to it. You could only see it so many times before it becomes predictable. If there is a storyline that takes you down a different path before it gets to the chainsaw scene, that scene becomes a lot more powerful than it was before. For me when it comes to metal, I love setting up the heavy moment because it’s so much harder when it hits. Nobody is really that aggressive the entire time. In different parts, it could be effective. I don’t know if that makes sense?

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PB: No, I totally understand how you want that moment to count and hit the listener.

SM: Tonight, we’re going to play a track called “Deluge.” I’ll make a joke at every gig about the heavy part at the end. The heavy part towards the end is significantly heavier because it’s juxtaposed by how light the sounds are that perceive it.

PB: How proud did you feel having your album debut at number four on the Australian charts? Did that accomplishment give you the confidence to take your sound worldwide?

SM: I think the only reason we’re in America is because of what we accomplished in Australia. You gotta make it in your backyard before you could go to someone else’s backyard. Australia has been great from that standpoint. Culturally, America is so different from Australia. We’re similar in many ways but we really embrace America for those cultural differences. One of those things is that the people over here are so supportive and quick to take on what we’re creating. We have guys behind us like Periphery or Jose Mangin from Liquid Metal; they get into it straight away. The support coming from the Golden Gods Awards and Sirius XM, it’s proof how American audiences are so great.

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