Of Mice & Men
They’ve hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Rock and Independent Charts and No. 4 on the genre-spanning Top 200. They’ve racked up over 153 million Spotify streams, 20 million YouTube views and close to 5 million social media followers. They’ve shared stages with artists such as Metallica, Linkin Park and Queens of the Stone Age and not only held their own, but won over new fans in the process. They’ve played hundreds of shows for packed-house-crowds around the world, released three studio albums to critical acclaim, and recorded tracks that have blanketed rock radio airwaves. Their sound has broken through obstacles of language, distance and culture. For most bands, such achievements usually mark the summation of a long career– if they’re lucky.
But Of Mice & Men have accomplished all that and more over the course of a mere five years. And while those feats make for one helluva resume, what makes this band really matter is that they’ve never stopped pushing themselves to go further. As a result they continue to reach dizzying new heights, the latest being Cold World, an album that raises the stakes of what a modern day heavy rock band is supposed to sound like.
The band’s most bravely vulnerable album to date, Cold World marks the first time vocalist Austin Carlile has ever written candidly about his experience with Marfan syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder can affect everything from the heart and blood vessels to bones and joints.
The condition demanded Carlile undergo three major surgeries in the past year—an ordeal he followed up by quitting all pain-relieving and mood-stabilizing medications in the midst of making the new album. “It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever gone through in my life,” Carlile says. “But when I came out the other side, I had such clarity and energy and spirit, it opened up a whole new world. It made the album mean that much more to me.”
The Southern California-based quintet (Carlile, vocalist/bassist Aaron Pauley, guitarist Alan Ashby, drummer Valentino Arteaga and guitarist Phil Manansala) recorded Cold World with producer David Bendeth, who they worked with on 2014’s Restoring Force, which hit No. 4 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart and No. 1 on both the Billboard Top Independent and Top Rock Albums Charts.
Working in Bendeth’s studio, the band began recording while Carlile was still recovering from his recent surgeries—including reconstructive hip surgery, the removal of cartilage from his rib cage, and “having a dural sac in my brain repaired because fluid from my head was leaking into my spine.” To their credit, the band held it together, not just surviving, but thriving in the studio as they channeled their emotions into a sound that cut through the darkness like a light on the road ahead.
“Writing the album, there were a lot of days when we’d jam for seven or eight cathartic hours,” recalls Pauley. “There was a sense of getting back to what music felt like when we were kids and falling in love with that all over again.”
On Cold World’s first track “Pain”—whose beautifully twisted video instantly generated more than 2 million YouTube views upon posting—Of Mice & Men merge blistering riffs and barbed rhythms with the brutal reality of Carlile’s condition. “People who have Marfan syndrome and similar disorders—it’s a very painful beast for them,” says the vocalist. Adding that “everyone you come in contact with is going through some type of pain,” Carlile asserts that “Pain” is meant to encourage compassion and empathy. “The next time you feel yourself judging someone, remember that person could be going through something worse than you,” he says of the song’s message. “Instead of being hateful or projecting something negative, maybe you can think about doing something to help them.”
Another intensely personal track, “Like a Ghost” finds Carlile and Pauley trading off vocals in a soulful exploration of desperation and redemption. “Whether it’s because of addiction, depression or something else, there are a lot of people in this world today who don’t know how to take love,” says Pauley. “The song’s about how important it is not to give up on those people, and to remind them that it’s okay to feel loved.” With its ethereal guitar tones and graceful melody, “Real” reflects on what Pauley refers to as “staying strong when people are trying to turn you into something you’re not.”
At the album’s emotional core is “The Lie,” which features an appearance by Cassy, a 14-year-old fan diagnosed with brain cancer. The band first connected with Cassy through the Living the Dream Foundation, and arranged for a visit upon hearing the news that her condition had worsened. They spent the day with Cassy and her family, then brought her to the studio for a preview of the new album (she was the first person outside of the band, producer and engineer to hear the record). They asked if they could record her handclaps and added them to “The Lie,” an epic track that finds Carlile venting his frustrations about the medical system and “calling out the 1% for not taking care of the people they should be,” he explains. “Now Cassy’s name and the sound of her clapping hands are on the record,” says Carlile. “It’s something that captures that moment and that relationship forever. When we think about everything we went through to make this record, that’s something that we’ll never forget.”
When it came time to select album art for Cold World, drummer Tino Arteaga came across the stunning black and white imagery of 68-year-old Italian photographer Roberto Kusterle and in particular, a stark, hypnotic image of stone-like bodies huddled together. Within days, the band was granted permission to use the photo. “I was studying the image and realized there was a third person in it, who you can barely see because the other two are sheltering him (or her),” says Pauley. “That’s really what this record is all about—that we live in a cold world, but we can find warmth by sheltering each other.”
The band shares an intense bond with their fans, which they chalk up to an insistence on bringing straight-from-the-gut honesty to each and every track. “There’s a magic element to music that you can’t ever gauge or quantify but that everyone can understand,” says Pauley. “Even the most extreme music will bring people together.” And with Carlile’s “becoming so sober and getting to the point of feeling everything” during the production of Cold World, the band ended up creating their most uncompromising and ultimately most cathartic album yet.
“It’s hard to feel these things, and it sucks waking up in pain every day, and it sucks when the only energy you have all day is to play a show,” says Carlile. “But I prefer it that way. I’d rather feel the pain than feel nothing at all.”