When Jadran “Conan” Gonzalez sings, “Bow to your master for Metal is the king,” on the song “Metal Is King” from 2014’s Slave to the Sword, his eyes wide and the words blasting out of his snarling grill, one could be forgiven for thinking that he’s wallowing in the sort of ma”cheese”mo and bravado that metal music is often associated with. Cynics may accuse him of chest-beating, of dealing in rhetoric.
In fact, the guy really believes that metal music is “king.” Exmortus lives this stuff, as Gonzalez has done since he formed the band in 2002 with his cousin and, until recently, Exmortus’ drummer, Mario Mortus.
“We started jamming together at a very early age,” Gonzalez says. “At first, it was just for fun. Hanging out and jamming with friends. There was no mission, but little by little we started building a fan base. We wanted to do it more seriously. Make a career out of it. It’s a business, but we still have our fun. It’s important to keep it rocking out, keeping true to what we intended. Have a good time.”
In conversation, Gonzalez is soft-spoken and razor-sharp. He speaks about the “war and glory”–esque lyrical content knowingly, referring to the metaphors for betrayal, sadness and depression that might not be clear to those listening on a superficial level.
“The stuff I like to write about is honestly personal experiences,” he says. “How I view the world, and how it still pertains to modern times. You see violence all the time and experience a bunch of things. You have ups and downs, and our lyrics have that. I don’t like to be too in-your-face about that because, to me, that takes away from the magic. Government sucks. There’s shit that happens in the world — so much injustice. But I’m not gonna write a chorus that says that over and over again. I’m not dissing bands that do that, but for me personally, I like to be a little mystical.”
In the 16 years that Exmortus have been a bludgeoning thrash metal unit, 12 members have exited the ranks. While Gonzalez is the main songwriter, he admits that the constantly shifting lineup has naturally led to evolution.
“I like to jam with people when we ‘get’ each other,” he says. “Groove with each other. Every lineup change has brought something a little different — particularly to the way I approached it. I like to help people play at their best, whatever comes more naturally. Of course, we push ourselves too. A lot of songs, you may have heard, are ridiculously over the top, in technicality and guitar-wise. But I also like to keep it simple — rocking riffs that are fun to play.”
That’s not just lip service; the Exmortus arsenal — from 2008’s In Hatred’s Flame to 2016’s Ride Forth — is a monstrous set of rage-fueled anthems spread over four albums. Tales of heroes, villains, death and victory have rarely been roared with such unrestrained joy. And the great news is, there’s a new opus on the way.
“We just recorded and are very proud of this one,” Gonzalez says. “I’m proud of my other work as well. But this time I was a little more prepared going into the studio. My vision was more clear, and everything went well. It was smooth sailing from the beginning of the recording session. Everyone had their parts down well and were very confident about the whole thing. I’m stoked about it. I’m not sure about the release date just yet — everything was just sent for mix and master, all that fancy stuff. We’re expecting a late spring/early summer release. That’s what I’m looking forward to, that’s what we’re shooting for, and yeah, I’m really stoked.”
Los Angeles is, of course, one of the world’s great hotbeds of metal talent and, thanks to the likes of Slayer and Brian Slagel at Metal Blade Records in the early 1980s, extreme metal has blossomed here, too. There still is a hell of a lot going on, covering the many, many subgenres that exist within the metal world, something that Gonzalez finds both amazing and annoying.
“It’s so competitive,” he says. “You have a bunch of bands playing every single weekend. For any band, they have to sacrifice going to that show because another band’s playing who hardly comes in town. I don’t want to hear thrash bands all night long. It’ll be boring to me. I find it interesting when shows mix up the bill. We play with a bunch of bands that are not even thrash. [They’re] death metal, or perhaps more mainstream-sounding. Maybe because I’m from here, but playing outside of L.A. we tend to do pretty good because we don’t play as often in Oregon or the East Coast. It’s a lot more fresh for us.”
On Thursday, Exmortus plays at the Whisky with Canadian death metallers Kataklysym. Gonzalez says he’s always excited to perform on the Sunset Strip, an area with a storied metal past.
“A bunch of bands played there — Guns N’ Roses, even The Doors,” he says. The Whisky is “a legendary venue. Honestly, it’s kind of a small place if you think about it — the stage is in the corner and it’s a little awkward. Even so, the sound is great. It has its own quirkiness. It’s special to me and I like playing it. I enjoy every time we get booked for that. I know it’s going to be a good time and we’ll have a great experience there. From the first time we played, selling tickets to play there. Now we’re getting paid to play there.”
They certainly are. And, despite some recent lineup changes, Gonzalez is promising a cool set.
“We’ve been going through lineup changes recently,” he says. “There have been some personal issues — nothing bad. The drummer doesn’t want to play this kind of thing anymore. So for those shows, I’ll have Carlos Cruz, and Chase Becker. They recorded the [forthcoming] album because the other members were unable to do it. So you can expect that lineup, and we’ll be playing those new songs. We’ll be pushing more new stuff. Why not? We’re able to play it and showcase, and it’ll be good. I’m looking forward to jamming a lot of new stuff.”
New music from one of Los Angeles’ top metal bands, on the Strip? Sold.
Exmortus play with Kataklysym, Son Absence, Ophiuchus, Anti-Hero and Disrupted Euphoria at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, at the Whisky A Go Go.