Heavier than hell

Ethan McCarthy of Denver doom-metal trio Primitive Man talks new Full of Hell collab, 10 years of ‘Scorn’ and the state of the Front Range metal scene

Credit: Alvino Salcedo

Before it was a common stop on most major touring schedules, Ethan McCarthy had a hard time convincing heavy bands to come play the Front Range cow town he called home. The local scene was healthy enough, but Denver was far from a destination when it came to extreme music. 

Now the Mile High City is a mecca for metalheads like McCarthy. That’s thanks in no small part to his own efforts over the past two decades booking shows and fronting bands like Primitive Man, whose somber and suffocating brand of super-slow doom metal has earned an international reputation in the decade since the trio’s 2013 debut album Scorn dropped into the world via Relapse Records.

But slow and smothering isn’t McCarthy’s only mode. His grindcore band Vermin Womb stakes out the other end of the spectrum with relentless breakneck blast beats and songs that rarely stretch past the two-minute mark. He also explores dark ambient soundscapes with solo projects Spiritual Poison and Many Blessings, and creates art prints and apparel through his brand Hell Simulation

McCarthy’s most recent project is Suffocating Hallucination, a collaborative album between Primitive Man and shapeshifting metal mainstay Full of Hell. From the opening wail of “Trepanation for Future Joys” to the sorrowful lurch of “Tunnels to God,” the five-track offering released March 3 on Closed Casket Activities is a towering and tragic collection of songs that cut the best qualities of both bands into sharp new relief. 

Boulder Weekly spoke with McCarthy about the new record, the Denver metal scene and more ahead of Primitive Man’s upcoming gig with Full of Hell, The Acacia Strain and Fit for an Autopsy at the Gothic Theatre in Englewood on March 14. 

Editor’s note: The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.   

Courtesy Closed Casket Activities

Can we start by talking a little about how this collaboration with Full of Hell came together in the first place? 

We’ve been friends with those dudes for many years and [had] talked about doing some stuff together. Then in 2019, we did a tour together and started to make it a reality. We scheduled some studio time [with Andy Nelson at Bricktop Studios], and then the pandemic came. We moved that studio time around about three times; then we made it happen, and just kind of sat on it. Now we’re here. Actually, the week we were out recording in Chicago is when they lifted the mask mandate, so it was super fucking crazy. People were partying in the streets. It was cool — a really unique experience and time.

What was the recording process like once you got in the studio? 

We all had some soft initial ideas on both sides and started jamming off each other’s ideas. Then after that, we just kind of wrote the songs together. We probably jammed and all that for three days or something, and then recorded for the next couple.

Was there anything about the experience or the final product that surprised you? 

Yeah. A lot of these songs sound way different than I was expecting. And because we’re used to operating as a three piece, it was really interesting to have four other people in on the creative process. There’s obviously going to be four different people’s worth of shit on the tracks. It was really cool. But I was skeptical at first — when the idea of two drummers originally got brought up, I was like, “That shit is dumb.” [Laughs.] But it came out in a way I thought was cool. So I don’t know, man — it didn’t come out how I thought it would, but I’m really proud of what we did together.

You’re more than doubling the size of the band, but it doesn’t feel crowded or overstuffed. It feels very natural. 

It came together that way, and it felt like we’d done it before. It just felt just a little bit too easy. 

Does that make you nervous, when it feels too easy?

I mean, I like that. [Laughs]. I’ve learned to appreciate when you have easy moments of creativity, because I have a lot of difficult moments where I don’t feel that way.

What do you think is the biggest difference sonically between Suffocating Hallucination and a straight-up Primitive Man record? 

Primitive Man is really focused on being smothering at all times. We don’t relent. This Full of Hell record is probably the prettiest thing we have ever been involved with. It has all the crushing shit, but there are moments that are different from what we normally do. Some of the stuff [Full of Hell’s] Spencer [Hazard] does sounds real tragic. I guess that made me play in a certain way, too. It made us all go for the same feeling, and a different vibe. 

I guess this is also the most sad and tragic-sounding record we’ve done. I think that’s the difference. Primitive Man on its own is sad and tragic, but it also sounds like you’re on fire. This record is also full of uplifting moments — I guess that’s how I would explain it. Which is weird for me to say, but I think it just has lots of highs and lows. It’s kind of a crazy-ass journey, you know?

I’d like to shift gears and talk about the Denver metal scene. What’s your read on the state of things here, and why do you think the area has produced so many great bands?

Courtesy Ethan McCarthy

The scene is really healthy and thriving in all different forms of extreme and experimental music. I think the influx of people from out of town has made it bigger than it’s ever been. 

I was born and raised here. I’ve been involved in the music thing since I was a kid, and we’ve always had a cool community here. But everybody used to know everybody. Now there are bands and people who come to shows and I have no fucking idea who they are. And there’s a whole section of Denver metal bands I don’t know. And that is so different from the first 30 years of my life here. I think the city growing, and the rapid influx of people from other places, just kind of made it all blow up. 

Did you get the sense that people are moving here specifically for the scene?

I have heard that, which is crazy. Because when I was coming up and trying to bring bands to Denver for shows and shit, I was emailing and begging them to come out here to the middle of nowhere. Now everybody comes here it seems, and we don’t miss out on a lot of shit. 

You mentioned booking bands, which I didn’t know about until I talked to Andrew [Hawkins of Baring Teeth] who said you booked their last tour. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Yeah, I book tours for bands from all over the world. I cut my teeth learning how to book shows by starting out here in Denver, and it kind of went from there. But I booked hundreds of shows here. I’ve been a part of the Denver music scene forever, dude. That’s what got me into booking tours. I was bringing bands here and hosting them, and then taking my bands on tour and meeting people, and then I’ve just kind of turned it into a thing.

I’m curious about those early bookings — what kinds of bands, and what kinds of venues? 

I used to do a lot of warehouse stuff and DIY spaces when I got started. I lived in this place called Monkey Mania, which is an old famous Denver DIY venue that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s called Seventh Circle [Music Collective] now. But I had like a decade of booking all kinds of shows in that garage. 

So I come from punk and from DIY stuff, and then it kind of moved into booking in clubs and whatever else. But I still do book DIY places to this day if it’s appropriate. I’m always going to be connected to the underground, no matter what high-profile shit I end up doing. I’ve not lost my connection to that.

You’re also a visual artist and designer. Will you tell me a bit about that part of your life?

I fell into doing visual art when Primitive Man first took off. When we started, we just didn’t have a lot of money. So I was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna start doing this.’ I just kind of started out doing collage stuff and trying to make original images by fumbling around on Photoshop, and then it became something I really liked to do. People started wanting me to do stuff for them and it just kind of turned into this thing I do all the time now. 

What kinds of considerations are you making when it comes to putting visuals to your own music? 

As far as making art for my own bands, it’s the last thing that happens. We do the songs and get everything together, and then I sit there and listen to it when it’s complete and think about the things I’m saying and just really try to come up with a series of images that sums up all the feelings of the project. There’s a lot of deep thinking when it comes to picking out visuals. But what’s funny about that: With the first Primitive Man record [Scorn], I put up the [album artwork] as a placeholder on our Bandcamp, back when we had no one putting out the record and I was just shopping it around. And the record label was like ‘Yeah, this is what we’re using. You can’t use anything else.’

Courtesy Relapse Records

The cover art is so hard.

It was thrust upon us. When I made it, I was like, “I don’t know if this is too fucked up. Are people gonna get mad at me?” [Laughs.

That record came out 10 years ago last month. How is Primitive Man a different band now than you were then?

Well, it has lasted a lot longer than we thought it was going to. Because originally when we recorded and made Scorn, I was going to move away. I had a grindcore band from here [Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire] that was around a long time that broke up. My heart was broken over that. So I wanted to make this doom record as just a thing to do, I guess, to kind of say goodbye to the city. 

Then the record kind of — I don’t want to say “took off” — but it started to receive more recognition than anything I’d ever done. Jon and I just kind of talked about it and wanted to keep it going … so we found someone who was able to tour, and here we are today. 

It started out just kind of like any band in the punk realm: playing warehouses and doing punk shit. And now we play in clubs and travel. We’re fortunate to be doing the things I used to watch my hero bands do. So I guess I’m just really thankful for what we’ve accomplished and where we’re at. I’m happy to be able to keep doing it, and I’m happy that people care. 

And how are you a different band sonically?

I feel like you can hear our youth in those earlier recordings. Now you can hear that we’re not young men anymore. The newer material sounds more serious. Scorn has got a lot of D-beats in it, fun parts and all this shit, and now the music is just dreadful. 

Do you feel more dreadful now than you did back then?

Yeah, baby. [Laughs]. Oh yeah. I mean, there’s just so much more to worry about. We all have collectively experienced so many things. It’s not the way it was in 2010, you know? We fucking hate each other so much here in America — all this culture war stuff. It’s always been around, but I feel like now decisions are being made based on the culture war. It’s affecting people’s lives in a real big way. 

Fox News host Tucker Carlson promotes racist “replacement theory” to his 3.5 million viewers. Courtesy: Tucker Carlson Tonight/Fox News

I’m not an expert at shit. But I do pay attention and read a lot, and I care about what’s going on in the world. I just don’t think we’ve seen a time like this, the way things are socially with the internet and all this shit. We’re dealing with problems our parents can’t even comprehend. They’re poisoned by YouTube and fucking Fox News and whatever insane Epoch Times shit they’re reading.

I was born in ’84, and not to get all whatever on you, but I remember a time before the mass surveillance after September 11 — a time before the Panopticon. That ramped up through the Obama era, and then we hit the Trump era and things just exploded. Now we’re still living through that explosion.

OK, last question: What can people expect from the upcoming tour — and what, generally, do you hope people walk away with when the lights come up after a Primitive Man show? 

This is a different tour for Primitive Man because of the bands we’re touring with — Full of Hell, obviously, [plus] The Acacia Strain and Fit for an Autopsy. They’re from a different corner of metal, or extreme music, whatever you want to say. We’re opening, so I hope people come early. 

And for the people who do come early, if they’re not already familiar with the genre, I’m cool with being baby’s first doom band. I’m about it. I hope we bring some kids over to this side of the culture. I hope they walk away like, “That’s the heaviest shit I’ve ever seen.” 

ON THE BILL: Full of Hell with The Acacia Strain, Fit For An Autopsy and Primitive Man. 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, Gothic Theatre, 3263 S Broadway, Englewood. Tickets here