You get thrash grass, which is exactly what Michigan-based band The Native Howl is bringing to the music scene. The band is the brainchild of lead vocalists and guitarists Alex Holycross and Jake Sawicki. In the fall of 2013, they released a six-song EP, The Revolution’s Dead, and were soon joined by Josh LeMieux on drums and Mark Chandler on bass. This evolved the band’s sound into a unique blend of rock, folk, bluegrass, alternative and thrash metal genres – one which is being coined as “thrash grass.”
The Native Howl looks to encapsulate the best of both bluegrass and thrash metal with a blend of piano, harmonica, banjo, djembe, and guitar– constructing its own brand of music. “Thrash grass, in itself, is our combination of the aggressiveness and intensity of thrash metal with the melodicism and beauty of bluegrass,” Holycross explained. “If I had to put it in words, what makes us unique, it would be how we’re able to bring fans of different music together. We’re bringing bluegrass fans and metal fans together. We’re bringing people out of mosh pits and into bluegrass shows and we’re bringing people out of bluegrass shows into mosh pits. We’re trying to not only marry the genres but bring different types of people together to enjoy a new style of music.”
The word “bluegrass” often calls to mind images of banjo picking and certainly wouldn’t be associated with mosh pits. But The Native Howl lets us know, in an in-your-face kind of way, that even banjos can be heavy and they don’t have to be played by drunken, barefoot hillbillies wearing overalls. “It’s funny… you see so many comments on our videos where people say ‘These guys must be in the backwoods of Tennessee or the shores of South Carolina,” Holycross said with a laugh. “When I tell them we’re 45 minutes north of Detroit they’re always very surprised. People don’t realize that Detroit and Michigan has a thriving Bluegrass and metal communities. Some of the most proficient bluegrass musicians I’ve ever met are coming out of Michigan.”
According to Holycross, the band has drawn from a variety of influences— ranging from heavy metal/rock front-runners like Metallica, Black Sabbath and Dave Matthews Band to Americana-string band Old Crow Medicine Show. Because they wanted to play music their way, they created their own independent label, Clean as Dirt Records, and through it released their 2015 album Inukshuk and their latest EP, Thrash Grass. “We are completely self-funded, self-managed. We do everything ourselves which makes for very, very long workweeks. But we get to do things exactly how we want to do them,” said Holycross. “We trust everyone we work with because it’s just us, which makes everything worth it.”
So far, the long hours and hard work have been paying off for The Native Howl, which has enjoyed a lot of success over the years– especially since its music video for Thunderhead went viral in December 2016. The music video currently has garnered over 800,000 views on YouTube.
It was this moment that served as a catalyst in the band’s realization of who they are as a band and what they want to be. As The Native Howl continued to rise in popularity, Holycross said the band was approached by several major record companies which were hoping to cash in on the band’s success. Once negotiations with these labels began, Holycross said it quickly became clear to he and his band-mates that ‘signing big’ would mean an even bigger loss of freedom for the band and would result in a suppression of creativity. It was this realization which inspired the band’s latest single and music video, Into the Darkness.
“We wrote Into the Darkness after Thunderhead had blown up… We were on the Billboard charts pretty much on our own accord, having done everything ourselves… We were really excited. We were getting calls from big record labels across the country, from record executives that wanted to work with us and bring us into the ‘music industry.’ They had asked for another Thunderhead. It’s like the classic rock star music movie. The band releases the single and then the record executive, the ‘Hollywood types,’ say ‘We want new material,’ but they wanted something just like Thunderhead,” Holycross recalled. “That struck a chord with me and made me real angry that we were even thinking of negotiating with these suits. ‘Into the darkness we ride…’ those lyrics were my way of basically taking a stab at the music industry. We were riding into the uncharted territory, the dark waters, heading into the belly of the beast of the music industry. We’re very happy to say that, since then, we’ve made the decision to stay independent and stick to our guns.”
In the modern era of music, The Native Howl serves as testament that bands no longer need to be backed by a major label to “make it.” Holycross, who described the band’s choice to remain independent as “the best decision they’ve ever made,” said The Native Howl hasn’t missed a beat since choosing to blaze its own trail. What was once just a ‘local’ band from Michigan has come to be recognized by fans nationwide as so much more.
“I’m 27 and I’ve been playing shows in Detroit since I was 14. I’d be leaving high school and playing shows in between classes, playing wherever I could… but I’ve always been a ‘local’ musician,” Holycross recalled. “Any of the million bands I’ve been in I had never played outside of the Midwest. But I remember we had a three-day run from Philadelphia, South Carolina, and West Virginia last fall. It was our first big out of town three-day run. That first show in Philly, it was an 11-hour drive from home… I remember we went down to Philly and started playing and we had a crowd there for us and people were singing my lyrics back to me. I’m supposed to be this crazy looking guy that they saw in our music video and I was tearing up on stage. We were 11 hours from home and people were singing my lyrics back to me from Thunderhead and Hurricane. People knew our lyrics ten hours from home. I was absolutely awestruck and taken aback. That was a crystallizing moment for us.”
The four-piece band from Michigan is crashing through barriers— posed by both genre and region—and has shown no signs of slowing down. While Holycross affirmed that the band enjoys their time in the studio, he insisted the best way to see what the band is truly capable of is to see a live show. The Native Howl is set to embarked on its nationwide “Into the Darkness” tour in April 2018. During that tour that Holycross said he’s looking forward to forging new connections with people and fans along the way. “One thing that has been sadly lost in music and art in general is just the artist connection with their audience… The emotional and spiritual connection between the artist and audience,” Holycross said. “If you see how we run our social media, we do our absolute damndest to try and answer every fan that reaches out to us… We try to connect and at least answer in some way every person who reaches out to us. It’s the same thing when we go to shows. We want people to feel connected with us at shows and we just want people to have a good time. For some of our metal fans… how people were happy at that show was jumping around and throwing beer cans at the ceiling. When we played in Austin, Texas, it was more of a bluegrass crowd. They were happy was standing and diligently watching and listening and getting that connection with the lyrics. We want people to come to our show and do whatever they need to do to feel connected… We will literally be limping off stage sometimes because we really try to give it our all to the audience. That can become tough when we’re playing 12 shows in a row but we really do try at every show to give it every last drop of energy and I think the fans connect with that.”
The Native Howl is expected to release a new dual-disc album on June 1, 2018. Despite all of the success The Native Howl has found in its self-made genre, the band won’t soon be resting on its laurels. Holycross says the band plans to keep creating and trying new things. “We’re just going to keep experimenting and doing whatever feels natural and is organic. We’re definitely not going to stop with thrash grass,” Holycross said.