The One Man Band(s): An Exclusive Interview with Justin Bruce
From Angleton Texas comes Justin Bruce. Leader and mainly the sole member of three bands of different genres, "Shame the Masses," "Galvladi Oglaigh," and his namesake, "Justin Bruce." Stef from The MIC sits down with Justin Bruce to talk about his twenty years creating music, how his influences affect his songwriting, and his new single "Kill Zone" by Shame the Masses.
SJ: Welcome to The MIC, Justin! We're so excited to sit down and chat and learn more about you and your new single!
JB: Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview Stef! I am so excited to be chatting as well!
SJ: So, you've been playing music for over 20 years spanning many genres. Tell us a little about how you started playing music and what that journey has looked like for you.
JB: Yes, I have been playing music in a professional nature for well over 20 years at this point. I grew up in a very music-loving household and I can vividly recall my family listening to all kinds of music from a very early age. My first exposure to learning to play an instrument came when I was probably somewhere around age 7 or 8. I didn't take formal lessons, but my mother played piano very well, and she began teaching me to play. I never became extremely proficient at keyboards or piano, but it was a great introduction to music theory and to playing an instrument. When I began playing guitar, I instantly fell in love and felt right at home. I am basically self-taught, as I never took lessons for any instruments. In fact, the only lessons I have ever taken were a few times with a professional vocal instructor to help me with developing my singing voice. Although I love almost all music genres, I feel like I have always been particularly drawn to rock and blues music, as it just resonates more with me. When I first began my "recording artist" career, I started out mainly playing and recording instrumental guitar music early on because I felt that my singing voice was not that great. Over time, I feel that I have been able to develop my voice enough to gradually add more and more vocals to the songs.
SJ: So you're from Texas. How do you think growing up in Angleton affected your songwriting and perspective on music?
JB: I can't really say with any certainty that my geographic location has affected my songwriting or music. Angleton is only about 40 miles from Houston, which has a pretty decent rock music scene, but to be honest, most Texans tend to be drawn more to "Nashville country" and "red dirt" music than rock. Austin has a really thriving live music scene…one of the best in the US, but it's primarily centered around indie bands and again, the country and "red dirt" thing. There are some incredibly talented musicians in the greater Houston area, but in my opinion, the scene is still kind of underground in the sense that the general public is not that aware of the musical talent that exists in this area.
SJ: You've released commercially between three bands, Justin Bruce Band, Shame the Masses, and Galvladi Oglaigh. What is the purpose behind having three different collectives when you're mainly the sole member?
JB: That is actually a great question and one that I have struggled with for some time…for years really. I've often wondered if it would make more sense to the public to just use my given name, Justin Bruce, to release ALL of my music under commercially instead of breaking things up into separate "bands ."The reason that it makes sense in my mind to use different and separate "band names," even if I am mainly the sole member, is that 1) I generally record and release different genres of music for each "band." For instance, I generally use my own name for "soft rock" songs, songs that have a "country-ish" sound to them, Christian songs, or cover songs. Then several years ago, I began using the name "Shame the Masses" to release hard rock or modern metal songs. Even more recently than that, I began to get very interested in ethnic world music and folk metal bands, so I created "Galvladi Oglaigh" to explore that realm of music and release commercially. And 2) by the very nature of my music being so varied and different from one genre to the other, I do occasionally work with other musicians in the studio to create the very complex musical textures. I end up working with different people in the studio as "Justin Bruce" than I do as "Shame the Masses," so that's another reason for keeping things separated with different "band names." However, as you mentioned, the primary musical direction is mine, and I play probably 95% of the instruments throughout the bands.
SJ: In 2000, you published a volume of poetry and song lyrics. Does your affinity with poetry help shape your lyrics? If so, how?
JB: I think it does, but I guess in my mind, I see it as one and the same. I do enjoy writing poetry, but the vast majority of songs are basically just poetry set to music, so the creative outlet is probably the same either way.
SJ: Throughout the years, you have played in various bands and crafted your own solo music within multiple styles. Do you prefer releasing music as a solo act with more control? Or collaborating more as a band?
JB: I think there are certainly advantages and disadvantages either way. If I had to choose, I would probably say that I prefer working solo more often because you definitely have the freedom to go any direction you want to go…no rules and no restrictions. The disadvantage to going solo is that it's sometimes easier to get stuck in the creative ruts of repeating yourself. When you are working with other artists, you have feedback from everyone else and a melding of different musical styles coming together at the intersection. That can lead to some really cool outcomes. Sometimes really unexpectedly beautiful outcomes.
SJ: How does your writing process differ from band material to solo projects? Are you still active in any of those bands?
JB: I think my personal writing process is similar either way. When working on solo projects, you really end up hearing my mind poured out into lyrics and music. It's very raw a lot of the time. What I'm hearing in my head is what I try to put into the studio recording. If, on the other hand, we are working on band material, it's that process of "we all throw what's in our minds out onto the table and see what happens" sort of thing. It's actually really interesting to see how a project turns out in the end when working with other people because it isn't always how you thought it might sound initially. I am not currently active with "The Screaming Eagles" or "Doubletap." The only "bands" that I am active with currently are Justin Bruce, StM, and Galvladi, although I do occasionally work on "one-off" or "two-off" collaborations with other artists. For example, I have a duo project with an artist named Bill Daniels called "God Inside," and we are working on new material.
SJ: What does that writing process look like? Music before lyrics? Record voice notes on your phone or demos?
JB: The writing process for me is almost always writing the music first and then adding lyrics to fit that music afterward. I have written a few songs where I will write lyrics first and then try to write the music to fit those lyrics, but it always seems a little more difficult. The exceptions to that rule however are the songs that I have written with my old friend Bryant Sutton, who is more or less a member of Shame the Masses these days as a sort of "creative director." Bryant doesn't consider himself a musician per se, but he writes very detailed and amazing lyrics. After he has written lyrics, he will pass those to me and I will build the music to those lyrics. Everything we have done so far has turned out beautifully. So far, we've been working on 8 songs together - 2 released, 1 about to be released, and 5 more either not released yet or still in the works.
SJ: Where do you pull inspiration from? Does it change over time?
JB: I would definitely say that my inspiration changes over time. I have loved almost every genre of music for my entire life, which really affects my own music. I think that also takes us back to why I have 3 "band names" too. Because a lot of my music is so different from one project to the other. I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, and I feel like a lot of my music, especially my guitar playing, really draws from that. Early on, my inspiration for lyrics would come from the typical "love and heartbreak" kind of thing that happens when you are young. Now, I feel like lyrical inspiration can come from nearly anything. It depends on my mood or frame of mind.
SJ: You can sing and play a variety of instruments, including 6,7,8,8,10, and 12-string guitar, slide guitar, bass, piano, harmonica, and mandolin. Out of all of those, which was the hardest to learn? Do you have a favorite?
JB: Yes, I definitely enjoy playing many different musical instruments! :) I kind of take it as a personal challenge to learn a new instrument whenever possible. So far, fretless instruments, like the oud or wind instruments, have been the hardest to learn. After I was able to proficiently play guitar, almost any other fretted string instrument doesn't feel much different than a guitar and doesn't take long to develop the basics for. However, something that doesn't feel as intuitive, like a fretless instrument, is really difficult to start getting a handle on. Of course, as the voice itself is also an instrument, I had quite a lot of difficulty in developing my singing voice as well. I wasn't born with a naturally incredible singing voice and it has required a great deal of effort to develop to this point. I feel like I am still a work in progress as far as singing goes. As far as a favorite, it would probably have to be the guitar. It was the first instrument that I really fell in love with and I still love the beautiful sounds that can come out of the guitar.
SJ: You have a wide range of influences from Def Leppard and Avenged Sevenfold to Garth Brooks and The Eagles. Who do you draw the most influence from? Does it depend on which project you're working on?
JB: It definitely does depend on which project I am working on, but as a whole, I draw far more influence from rock and metal than I do "soft rock" and country. Def Leppard was what I grew up on from a very early age, so they and Van Halen were probably the two earliest influences I had. One thing that I like to do is even if I am working on a cover of a country song or writing an original country-sounding song, I always add a rock twist on it. I had always thought that "The Thunder Rolls" would sound awesome as a rock or metal song, and obviously several other bands have thought the same, but when I covered it, I decided that it had to be more of a rock song than just another country cover. These days, if I absolutely had to choose a favorite band, I would have to say Dream Theater and Avenged Sevenfold would be the two biggest influences right now. It really comes down to the fact that my own guitar playing style feels similar to a blending of John Petrucci and Synyster Gates. That's not to say by any means that we are on the same level of proficiency. It's just that I feel like the style of playing that I approach the guitar with is very much a blending of those two influences.
SJ: Rumor has it that you have a new single from Shame the Masses on the way! Can you tell us anything about that?
JB: Yes, absolutely!!! We have a "brand new" song called "Kill Zone" that we are officially releasing on Veteran's Day this year. I put the "brand new" in quotes because, yes, it is a brand new release, but it's been a work in progress for a while now. This song is in what I would call my "wheelhouse" because this is exactly the style of song that I most prefer to create. It is very heavy, in true StM style.
SJ: "Kill Zone" was a very long time in the making. You developed the track over one year with a three-month-long series of interviews with a US Marine veteran. How did the idea develop, wanting to create a song based on interviews with a veteran?
JB: The long time span of development was partially the process of interviewing our Marine veteran and getting the story we wanted and then following that up with me putting together the music that was fitting for the subject matter. Even after the song was mostly done, we had to wait for the timing to be right to plan a release for it as well. As far as how the idea developed, "Kill Zone" is one piece of a larger puzzle that we have been gradually working on over quite some time. "Punk Enough to Die Young" and "One More Good Time" are also pieces of this same puzzle. The credit for the idea goes to Bryant, as he had the vision for such an undertaking, and I really can't wait for the world to be able to see the finished product of not just the individual song "Kill Zone" but also eventually the entire completed "puzzle" of how all of the songs fit together. The ones that we have completed and the ones that we are still working on. The idea of getting a very personal story from a Marine veteran and then turning that into a hard rock song just seemed like a very deep and fun project.
SJ: For this track, you also collaborated with one of your old friends, Bryant Sutton, who wrote the lyrics. What was this collaborative process like? Did you both work on the interviews and the music?
JB: Yes, Bryant did a wonderful job with the "Kill Zone" lyrics. We were both present for the series of interviews, but Bryant wrote all of the lyrics himself. Bryant has a lot of "life experiences," and he has a knack for putting together very interesting lyrics and storylines. He doesn't consider himself a musician, per se, but he writes lyrics that are complex and yet still very relatable for people. I wrote and played the music for the song. Bryant also gives very good feedback and creative direction on how the sounds are developing and a sort of "keep this and change that" sort of thing. Again, even though he doesn't consider himself a musician, he is very well-listened and knows music. He knows what he is hearing and whether something fits or should change. Of course, it kind of goes without saying that as the musician who is writing and creating the music, I have creative control over it as well, but it's a collaborative process where we keep tweaking until we hit the sound that captures what we are going for. In many cases, I have a certain sound in my head that I am trying to "capture on tape," and then Bryant and I both approach it from our respective positions and shape it until we have a finished product.
SJ: Can you tell us a little bit about what this track will sound like?
JB: Absolutely, so when you have a song called "Kill Zone" that is based on the true story of a US Marine's experiences on a battlefield, we know it's going to be pretty "action-packed ."I wanted it to be heavy, but not in a thrash metal kind of way. I really tried to create the "sounds of war" in musical format, if you will. I wanted anyone to be able to listen to the story that the lyrics are telling, listen to the music itself, and be transported to the war zone. I used a 6-string baritone guitar tuned down to A and a 9-string tuned to A an octave below that. There's a lot of "sludge, chug, and thump" going on in this song. It's not really djent, although some people may call it that. It's just heavy. There's a main clean baritone riff throughout most of the song that acts as a basis. Then, the 9-string notes and power chords are interspersed and built upon the drums and baritone riff. The whole idea is for the song to gradually and inexorably builds tension as it progresses, just like a soldier experiencing more tension, stress, and chaos as the battle progresses. Then, you hit the last 3 minutes, and it's just pure sonic chaos, but in a good way musically. In that respect, I've been told that it is also a great workout song due to the adrenaline rush!
SJ: What do you hope to achieve with the release of this song?
JB: What we really always try to achieve with any song release is just bringing more attention to us and our music. I feel like we are still very underground and not that many people know about us yet on a grand scale, even though I've been around for a long time. We are trying to build a following. Along with that, I feel that a song like "Kill Zone" has a lot of inherent potential for bringing attention to PTSD for veterans. PTSD is a very real thing and even listening to the song can put you into that "Kill Zone" so that you have a basic idea of the chaos that's going on on a battlefield and the experiences that soldiers have.
SJ: When can we expect to finally be able to listen to this track?
JB: We are officially releasing "Kill Zone" on Veteran's Day this year or on November 11. We felt that was a fitting date to release the song. It will be available worldwide on all platforms.
SJ: What's next for Justin Bruce?
JB: That's a great question. I think, looking out at the musical horizon right now, I have a lot of material that I am still working on with Bryant as "Shame the Masses" that will probably carry us into 2023 at least, if not further. I'm really excited about the world finally getting a chance to see that music. Also, I am always working on the "ethnic" or "folk" music as Galvladi Oglaigh. I have so much of that material that I am working on that needs to come out too. There's a lot of material still there with all of my "bands ."I can easily see being super busy for at least the next 5 years just trying to complete and release all of the material that we still have in the works.
SJ: Thank you so much for sitting down with us! This was so fun, and we're excited for "Kill Zone" and what else is in store from you!
JB: Thank you so much, Stef! I really appreciate you taking the time to sit down for this interview! It was a lot of fun, and I hope you enjoy "Kill Zone"!
LONG STORY SHORT: Stream Justin Bruce's music from his solo work to Shame the Masses, and Galvladi Oglaigh. And get ready for his release, "Kill Zone" from Shame the Masses on November 11th!
Stream Justin Bruce's music below!
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Vocals, Guitars - Justin Bruce
Drums - Zeljko Despic
Lyrics - Bryant Sutton
Mixing/ Mastering - Zeljko Despic
Produced by: Justin Bruce and Zeljko Despic
©℗ 2022 Justin Bruce and Bryant Sutton