Nick Hipa from As I Lay Dying is calling but he's a bit unsure why. "Uh, I think someone is interviewing me or something?" he says over the phone. At first blush the guitarist sounds like he's a bit confused and that the ensuing interview is going to follow his less-than-focused thought patterns. But nothing is further from the truth. Hipa is a very smart dude with a keen understanding of his role in the band and the band's position in the metal cosmos. The San Diego-based group has just released Decas, an album celebrating their 10th anniversary. It includes three new songs "Paralyzed," "From Shapeless to Breakable" and "Moving Forward" as well as covers and even remixes.
"We were planning on putting out three new songs and then it became three new songs with the covers and then it was like, Let's just throw some remixes on it. It's a 10th anniversary release and let's have content for everyone on there.'"
What you do hear on this mashup of songs is Hipa's razorblade guitar riffs slashing through the music. By his own admission, he digs channeling the styles of older players and mixing it with his own very modern approach. When the guitarist joined the band around 2005 and recorded Shadows Are Security, he didn't so much change the band as he did point it in the right direction.
Here, the very insightful Nick Hipa holds court on Decas, joining the band and as their new song title suggests, moving forward.
UG: The Decas record is a celebration of As I Lay Dying's 10-year anniversary. What does that mean to you?
Nick Hipa: It means a lot. I think it's an accomplishment that we never actually expected to obtain. It's something you'd like to think is in your future but to actually realize that is pretty awesome. I know I haven't been in the band since the very beginning but I'm coming up on eight years now with the band. I was actually there when it started; I was in another band and we had toured with As I Lay Dying back in those early years. I was very familiar with the struggle because I was there for a lot of it.
A lot of guitar players came from your hometown of San Diego including Warren DeMartini and Jake E. Lee. Did you know about these guys at all?
It's actually funny that you say that right now. Warren recently has become a huge influence on me. I've always liked Jake E. Lee and I know those guys were friends and they actually had a history together. I kinda just missed out on Ratt when I was younger cause I was busy listening to more extreme metal. But I recently went to go see a Ratt show with my fianc. She said, We're gonna go and I said, Alright. I ended up going and I was blown away by his tone and his phrasing. Like his tone was so sharp and so accurate and just the way he played around in a pentatonic scale totally redeemed it for me. I just kinda got over it but I was like, Holy crap, he's doing some insanely sick stuff here. And so, yeah, Warren was a huge influence on some of the stuff that I've been doing lately.
Where can we hear Warren's influence?
On the Moving Forward solo on Decas, that starts off pretty pentatonic with a little string skipping in and that's something I got from just learning some of his solos like from Nobody Rides For Free. He does some crazy things in that and I'm just like, Man, that's awesome. How can I incorporate it in what I'm doing? That's something that I picked up from him.
It's interesting to hear you talk about giving a nod to some of those players from back in the day because your solo on Moving Forward was really sick.
Oh, cool. Well thank you. At the same time there's also George Lynch who actually influenced Warren. What I started picking up from them by being exposed to their playing a lot is just the way they make their guitar sound. There's just this fierce attack in the playing and I loved it. When I heard it I was like, Man, how do I make my guitar sound that sharp? And how do you take like a normal phrase and kind of make it scream? And that's something I paid a lot of attention to. Like at the end of that Moving Forward solo, it's just a pretty simple melodic phrase but I threw some harmonies on there and just tried to put a little attitude on the end and I think that's the reason why it came out like that. And yeah it is because of those older guys. I think they all come from kinda the same place. I think they were either peers or kind of competing against each other but learning from each other at the same time. Guys like Michael Schenker, George, Warren and all of them. Whether I intentionally meant to or not, I think I grabbed a lot from those players.
You call out players like Schenker, George Lynch and Warren DeMartini who are still playing decades after they started. Who are the modern metal guitar players around you who we'll be talking about in years to come?
Yeah. My quick thought on a lot of the younger guitar players is so many dudes coming out just rip and it's kinda crazy. I'm stoked that everyone is practicing their instrument but I'll be on tours with guys who are like, Man, you can play pretty much anything you want. But there's some dudes who just stand out; they just have their own unique style. You hear them just lay into a guitar unplugged and you're like, Oh, that's so and so playing. One of those guys is Emil Werstler who I think all the guitar nerds out there know who he is now from Daath. Both guitar players are really good but Emil is the shredder of the two in the sense that he does all the solos and stuff. But he's got that approach where he just plays a PRS through a very dry-sounding Mesa or something. Nothing buttering it up, just the real deal. He has like a Paul Gilbert alternate picking attack that's super deliberate and ever note is loud and clear. So I would recommend a lot of people check him out. You can YouTube him and have your mind blown.
Who else do you dig?
On this tour we're on right now, there's a band called Sylosis from the UK and Josh Middleton, their singer and guitar player, is another one of those kind of riffers. When you hear him you're just like, Man, that dude is clean.
You play guitar alongside Phil Sgrossohow does that work?
We just sit there and noodle around until both of us are happy. The song structure for Paralyzed, for example, was actually brought to the table by Josh Gilbert, our bass player cause he plays guitar too and writes a lot of stuff. Phil and I just kinda mess around with the riffs until it's something we both liked. Josh was good at arrangements but maybe there was some guitar stuff and we'd go, Ah, that could probably be better and we'd just sit there in the practice room and come up with something. We'd go, Ah, well that wasn't good except the tail end of that one part was awesome. And so we'd work around that tail end and just go back and forth. That's pretty much how we do it. I think it's a pretty old-school way but I think we just work on it til we're both stoked. If we're both happy being like super nerds of music and guitar, then we know that it's probably pretty good and we move on from there. Sometimes we'll have parts just already good to go. Phil will bring tons of riffs and it's just like, Well, yeah, these riffs are sick. Awesome. And we'll kinda piece around and work with that. I think that's ultimately our approach is just making sure everyone is happy and if everyone is happy with what's going on then we're good to go.
Is there also a democratic approach to guitar solos?
That might be something I'm doing by myself; no one else is gonna do it. But if Jordan chimes in and says, I don't know that just kinda feels weird to me, then we'll talk about it and discuss it. And actually it's funny about that Moving Forward solo because Tim [Lambesis, singer] hadn't heard anything of what Phil and I were planning to do with that bridge section and he just had something completely different in mind. So when we were done with it he was like, I don't knowit's kinda just too random and you need to do something else [laughs]. I was like, Dude, you kidding me? No, this is sick. But we tried and we thought about it and tried experimenting what we could do and nothing else fit. I think that's really important when it comes to writing is willing to be flexible and accommodating.
You also need to know when a part is right.
Yeah, you need to know when it's right but you also need to be willing to work on something else. You can't just be super stubborn and say, No, this is the part and I'm not gonna change it. I think that's something that helps the quality of our songs be better is that if someone's not completely stoked then we all try and figure out something else. And if nothing else works out then at least we have the original version and at least we went for it.
Your first record with AILD was Shadows Are Security back in 2005. How would you compare your playing on that album versus what you did on Decas?
When we did that record that was us doing the absolute best with what we had. We were only so good and we brought in a basic level of songwriting. What we came out with was good and we're all proud of it but we have since all grown a lot as players and as a band together. Jordan is a way better drummer than he was on that record and that's not to put him down at all; I think we've all just grown. I think something that we're stoked on is we don't just take anything for granted and expect a new record to just come to us and be better than the one before it. We're all sitting around practicing all the time whether we're at home or on tour and we're just thinking of new ways to expand the sound of the band while keeping it in that framework of what I think people like about us in the first place. The band is always gonna be an intense, fast, energetic band and there's always gonna be melody within the band. I think that's kind of what we started out doing and what we like doing together and what our fans like. And I think moving forward we're gonna expand on ways to do thatsee how many different ways you can do something without it sounding the same or repeating yourself.
The band recorded Beneath the Encasing of Ashes and Frail Words Collapse before you joined. How would you characterize those two albums?
There was kind of a direction like, This is what our sound is like. I think it's important when you join a new group to kind of be considerate of that. Phil and I both joined about the same time and like I said the framework of the band was kinda there: it was very intense and kind of brutal and there was a very strong melodic sense. And I think we both wanted to see how far we could take that instead of trying to completely change it based on our own tastes. The band I was in before As I Lay Dying was not like that at all; it was more spastic and extremely aggressive but not very melodic in any sort of way. I don't think it would have been a smart move if I would have been intent on making the band sound like that. You just have to be able to work with other people and understand other people's visions. I think we all kind of got on the same vision or on the same page and adopted the same goals. Over time that just became what we wanted to write, I think.
One of the cover songs on Decas was War Ensemble. Why did you choose that specific Slayer song?
It's funny that you ask why specifically because we originally recorded that song per the request of a video gamer. It was called Homefront and they had reached out to all these bands [Misery Signals, Acacia Strain, Periphery, The Ghost Inside] to do war themes covers and we were one of the bands they reached out to. And they're like, Yeah, anything that's war-themed. We could have done Helter Skelter by the Beatles or a Bob Dylan song but we were like, You know what? We might as well just do Slayer because it fits. You don't want to do a cover that's that random.
"You need to know when it's right but you also need to be willing to work on something else."
You were a Slayer fan?
Slayer is for any metal band the ultimate purveyor of the fast and pissed off riff and we have a lot of those in our band. That was one of my favorite Slayer songs just based on the riffs and the aggression alone and I think we all felt that way. So we recorded it for that and when we were putting Decas together, we just thought like, Hey, why don't we just do a few more covers and throw the Slayer on in there? If Slayer represents the brutal and more aggressive side of the band, let's do something that represents the melodic twin-guitar vibe of the band.
You're referring to the Judas Priest cover, Hellion/Electric Eye?
Priest was one of those names that came up and we're like, Yeah, let's do that.
Where did the Descendents' Coffee Mug come from?
The Descendents represents the punk and hardcore background that some of the guys have.
Stephen Egerton, the Descendents' guitar player, was pretty interesting for a punk guitarist.
You know what's funny? I wasn't one of the punk dudes. I never really listened to the Descendents so I was just like, Oh, OK, if this is what you guys wanna do. At least I got Hellion/Electric Eye, you know?
When you were working out the parts for Hellion/Electric Eye did you learn anything about how Judas Priests orchestrated their guitars?
I think it does with anything you learn. I come from the school of learning a lot of stuff by ear and I think that's the most beneficial thing any guitar player can do for their playing. It forces you to hear things and it sharpens your ear and enhances your creativity too because you have to sit there and figure it out. And when you figure out what a dude's doing, you do essentially kind of take a little bit from that. The Electric Eye chorus and the bridge after the solo, that was really interesting. You can kind of hear what chords they're playing but where they're playing it and the voicings they're using are voicings we would never use. I don't even know the technical term, I'm sorry, but I know where it's at. Playing just the 5th and the octave of a chord instead of the root, 5th and octave. Doing it like that creates this different vibe. It's almost more rocky but it sounds cool. I've always loved learning things like that. Even Hellion and what they do with the harmonies and how they do it. I was wracking my brain trying to listen to it and I was like, What is going on?
Really trying to understand what the guitars were doing.
Yeah, like What kind of harmonies are going on here? and then the high bend at the end that kinda bends up into it. All that stuff was like, Oh, that's really cool. Maybe I'll use that sometime as a cool trick. Every time I talk to a guitar player, I always tell em that the best thing they can do is learn songs by ear because it will improve your playing more than they expect. Even when it comes to writing cause then you'll be able to hear riffs and know how to put it on your guitar.
Did K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton sway what you and Phil Sgrosso do as tandem guitar players?
We're fans of all the usual suspects. I think it started with Thin Lizzy and then you've Priest and Maiden and for us a lot of the Swedes like In Flames. They were a huge, huge influence on us and even bands like Soilwork and Arch Enemy. You name it and we were into them and everyone kind of did things a different way. When you first start learning harmonies and two-guitar things, you just think in terms of 3rds. But you take some guys like even the Scorpions stuff and you hear them mix it up with 4ths and 3rds and different phrasing of the harmonies and that's all stuff that rubbed off on me. So all the usual suspects are guys we're more than likely fans of.
You did some remixes on the Decas album. What made you reach out to these remix guys?
Well, you know what's interesting about that is in the same way we had that Slayer cover from doing the video game soundtrack, we also had a few remixes. Innerpartysystem had reached out to us about doing a remix and we were like, Sure if you want. We're always down to hearing different interpretations of our music and so we had too. There were a couple guys out there that we know and we'd love to hear what they would do and one of those guys was Ben Weinman from the Dillinger Escape Plan. We're all fans of the Dillinger Escape Plan and they were like my favorite band for years when I was younger. We had him do a remix [Wrath Upon Ourselves from An Ocean Between Us] and he did one off of a different record and we were like, Let's have a few more guys to round it out.
Would you pursue more remixes in the future ala what Korn did on The Path to Totality?
I don't think that's any indication of what we'll do in the future. It was more in fun and it's not something we across-the-board were over the moon about. We weren't just like, Oh yeah, this is the best idea ever but we were really stoked on putting stuff out for that group of our fans who likes that sort of thing.
How did Ben Weinman happen to choose Wrath Upon Ourselves to remix?
It just made sense because Wrath Upon Ourselves is by far the most spastic and the most Dillingery-type sound we have in our catalog. We were like, Man, this is right up Ben's alley. We should give this one to him. That was one of our jams and I remember when we wrote this and I remember how it came together. I would love to see what somebody does with this.
Wrath Upon Ourselves was from the An Ocean Between Us album that Adam Kutkiewicz produced. When you look back at that song and that album what comes to mind?
I'm always gonna be proud of that record but it was one of the first records where I think we started to expand. We started to do more stuff: the songs structures were getting a little bit more creative; we were incorporating more layering; we were doing more guitar solos. I think that was the record where we started to just move a little bit outside of the box whereas Shadows Are Security was just a really straightforward record. I think that sort of spirit we developed with An Ocean Between Us is something that I think is just gonna be a staple of the band because The Powerless Rise was even a progression of that.
"It means a lot. I think it's an accomplishment that we never actually expected to obtain."
How did Big Chocolate end up doing Elegy?
With Big Chocolate it was one of those things where it was like, Man, we want to do a song off of Frail Words Collapse but some of these songs would be too obvious. So let's just do this oneit's collectively one of our favorite songs off the album and let's see what he does with it. So that one wasn't as calculated but for Ben it definitely was.
Elegy was a song recorded before you joined the band. What did it feel like working on a track you didn't originally play on?
Really I don't have any sort of feelings on it all. It was just like, Oh, well, if we're doing a song off each album, let's do Elegy' cause I played that song for years Phil and I joined during the touring cycle for Frail Words Collapse and that was one of our favorite songs to play back then. I was like, That was a fun one; let's just do that. I wasn't too concerned about it as opposed to stuff that we did like Wrath Upon Ourselves.
Kelly Cairns from Austrian Death Machine and War of Ages remixed Confined. Was he chosen because Tim Lambesis was involved in those bands?
War of Ages recorded at Tim's studio and I think he might have had something to do on the production end of it but that's really it. And Austrian Death Machine is just like Tim's side project and he has some other guys in it. I don't have anything to do with it; it's just kinda Tim's thing.
Will the three new songsParalyzed, From Shapeless to Breakable and Moving Forwardbe pointing the band in that kind of direction down the road?
I don't think so. I mean I think those are all good songs but I think we had Paralyzed left over from The Powerless Rise and that song was heavy and melodic and we always pay attention to adding dynamicstrack order dynamics with new songs. Like, If this was in the middle, let's just write a really brutal one and a really melodic one. But I think if you really want to see what direction the band is going to, I would just listen to The Powerless Rise and kind of take from that cause I feel that is actually the more creative and forward-thinking release of ours. Whereas Decas is great and the new songs are really good but I think we've got some way better ones in the vault.
On December 16th, As I Lay Dying played a hometown gig in San Diego. Did it feel like the conquering heroes return?
Oh, yeah, we're all really excited to play at home and have our friends and our family and everyone come out to the show. It's a special kind of magic when you play at home. We're proud to be playing a hometown show and then kids are proud that we're showing em some love and like, Hey, this band is from here and they're making it a point to come back here on their 10th anniversary run. And acknowledging the importance of that city for us.
You're out on the A Decade of Destruction with iwrestledabearonce, Of Mice and Men and some other bands. Are there a lot of cool metal bands out on the road these days?
I think definitely. There are so many bands coming out and sometimes I have a really hard time keeping track of them. I find the ones that I like and like you do when you're a kid, you love them, you support them and you tell all your friends about them. Yeah, for me those bands still exist. To what scale they're revered, that might be different. I don't know if bands will be as universally praised across the board or if anything just acknowledged like Metallica or something like that. It might be a little smaller but I think the bands that are good that are around are the ones that will get the same sort of treatment from me and my friends.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"Slayer is for any metal band the ultimate purveyor of the fast and pissed off riff and we have a lot of those in our band."