Brandon Kellum is the self-proclaimed Clark Kent of hardcore.
By day, he works with a team of analytic consultants and project managers for a large financial company. His “alter ego” is the vocalist of Phoenix metalcore band American Standards.
“I take off the tie and turn into Superman,” he jokes.
Kellum, 31, is no stranger to balancing work and play. He has been a musician in Arizona bands for nearly half his life.
American Standards formed in 2011 and quickly became a staple in the local hardcore scene, accruing steadfast fans in Phoenix and rapidly garnering national and international attention. They signed to a subset of Victory Records shortly after their first self-titled EP. Since then, they have released four albums, including their newest full-length, Anti-Melody. The band, who returns to town to play The Nile on Saturday, June 24, has kept things fresh with lyrics that oscillate between politics and personal struggle.
“I’ve seen the cycles over time where music starts off… it progressively gets heavier and heavier into hardcore and metal and people get burnt out from all the noise and it just recycles right back to the beginning,” Kellum says. “I think we’ve always paralleled the popular style of music and we’re never exactly the model for what fits into hardcore or punk rock or metal, we’re just somewhere on the side of it and because of that, I think promoters and venues don’t know what to do with us.”
Kellum says they have been put on bills with bands that range from death metal to indie rock to pop punk, which has helped expose them to a variety of different crowds.
“It also kind of hurts us because we go in as the underdog where we don’t fit in with the four other bands that sound very similar to each other, so it’s a lot of people scratching their heads at first and they either really love it because we’re completely different or they hate it because it just doesn’t fit the mold,” he says.
The album’s heaviness in sound is underscored by the heavy topics explored throughout each track. Kellum says it is, by far, the band’s most personal album, written in the wake of the loss of his father to cancer and the unexpected suicide of the band’s lead guitarist, Cody Conrad, in 2015.
“I almost hesitated to write such a personal album but I felt like I needed to. When those two big things happened, they made me rethink how I wanted the lyrics,” Kellum explains. “I definitely wanted to include some of the stuff that we had talked about in the past, especially in our political climate now… but at the same time I needed to talk about the experience with my dad and the experience with Cody… and that’s something I just never really did.”
Prior to Anti-Melody, Kellum avoided including extreme emotions like love and hate in his music.
“I felt like they were cliché and I didn’t really have a lot to add to those conversations,” he says. “I’m not belting out love ballads and I’m not writing these really angry, hateful songs. We’re doing something musically that’s so different and out-of-the-box, and then if I make it personal, when someone takes a jab and says, ‘I don’t like this,’ it’s going to be even harder to take that jab if someone’s hating something that’s so personal to you, so that’s kind of what I struggled with for quite awhile.”
According to Kellum, writing and recording Anti-Melody was therapeutic and helped him cope with and overcome the tragic events. Kellum explains that the album also serves as a snapshot in time, documenting his emotional evolution and maturation, both musically and personally.
“I think back to some of my first bands and all we talked about was, ‘My girlfriend broke up with me’ and then you get a little bit older and some real shit starts happening and you’re like, ‘Damn, that stuff meant nothing,’” he says. “That stuff passed in a week, but you’re so stuck in the moment and it’s good and bad. If you had all ups, you would never appreciate the ups. One makes you appreciate the other.”
The album’s first single, “Writer’s Block Party,” amassed widespread exposure and acclaim, but it also gave way to a fair share of criticism. However, the vocalist never lost his humility or ability to laugh things off.
“We had slowly grown for five years as a band, and most people either liked us or they loved us… we never really had a lot of people that overtly went out of their way to hate us a lot,” he says.
“With this last song we put out though, we got exposed to such a big crowd of people that hadn’t heard us before, and we get all these comments from people that are really loving it and really connecting to the message, but then we get a lot of hate comments too and we’ve got so many people that are bashing us, but not like ‘I hate this song’ or ‘I hate this message, it’s just like, ‘You guys look real dumb’ or ‘You guys are a bunch of nerds,’ so that to me is funny… they’re not bashing on me, they’re just hating on the way I look. Most people tell me if people are really going out of their way to creatively hate you, that means you’re doing something right.”
Kellum says “Writer’s Block Party” is the most lighthearted and tongue-and-cheek song on the album.
“I almost wonder if we’re completely throwing people off putting that out as the first single because there’s a lot of heavy topics on this album,” he says.
“In a way I see it as a preface or a prelude to the album. What it’s kind of morphed into is almost looking at the album as a whole piece of art. ‘Writer’s Block Party’ was me determining, ‘Do I want to write with a very personal narrative and if so, how are people going to receive that personal narrative knowing that our music is kind of polarizing in some ways where people either love it or hate it?’ That’s what the song is about, the idea of us writing what we want on our own terms and putting it out there regardless of the fact that it might not fit into the mold that people are used to.”
For Kellum, art imitates life. He acknowledges that American Standards aren’t the fastest, heaviest or most technical band in the hardcore scene, but their message is authentic and unwavering.
“We didn’t want to compete with being the most of something. We just wanted to be what we enjoyed,” he says. “We have parts that are fast and slow and technical and not technical, but I think those parts make you appreciate them, whereas you have one band that’s shredding non-stop and you say, ‘What’s your favorite riff?’ and you can’t even pull out one because it’s all crazy. So that’s kind of life too, right? You have to have the ups and downs to make it stand out.”
For American Standards, the music has always been about the message.
“Hardcore made me realize you don’t have to be so musically talented you just have to have something good to say.”
Zao w/Colombian Necktie, Seizures, Flying Scorpion and American Standards, The Nile, 105 W. Main Street, Mesa, 480.559.5859, niletheater.com, 7 p.m. Saturday, June 24, $15.