April 23, 2009
When I joined local power groove metal act Gradeight for a recent jam session, frontman Sam Meyer was quick to offer me earplugs. "Believe me," he said. "You're going to need them."
And I did. This four-piece from New Haven named themselves after the hardest American metal there is, and when they get together to rehearse in lead guitarist "Mitch" Mitchell's basement it's easy to hear why.
"We play in-your-face power metal," said Meyer, "but we're not just about being loud like a lot of other metal bands are. We pride ourselves on the fact that our music has a beat you can groove to."
Gradeight are Meyer on vocals, Mitchell on lead guitar, Max Castaneda on bass and "Psycho" Pete Schenklel on drums. Originally the band included Mitchell's cousin, Nick Keck (who also penned most of the band's current song catalogue), but when Keck moved to Bloomington Mitchell recruited Meyer as vocalist. Castaneda, the band's newest member, has been with Gradeight for about a year.
"Metal's not really my thing," said Castaneda. "I'm more a jazz and blues guy, but it's been really cool being a part of this band, and I just love to play."
Loving to play is one of the main things keeping Gradeight together. That, and a passion for their original songs with maybe a few covers thrown in. The band never plays the same setlist twice, and they usually wait until they get to the club to decide what they're playing that night. Some of the band's more popular songs include "100 Proof," "Kill or Be Killed," "Everyone Pays in Blood" and "From the Mill." Meyer said he is a little weary of playing "100 Proof" - it's become the band's "Freebird" - but at the same time Gradeight want to keep their fanbase happy.
"We enjoy playing together and rocking out at the clubs," Meyer said. "We're going to rock as hard and as long as we can for people who like whatever we do."
Gradeight played their first show in April 2006 and since then have been taking the stage at local hangouts Miss Q's, Piere's and CS3. They've also been regulars at whatzup's Battle of the Bands the past two years. Their most recent show was Friday, April 17 at Miss Q's where they headlined an all-metal evening with By All Means Necessary and Terminate All Rational Thought.
All graduates of North Side High School, the members of Gradeight range in age from 26 to 24 and, despite their youth, have lots of music training under their belts. Mitchell learned guitar from local legend George Ogg and gained much of his musical knowledge from his father - a sound guy - and his dad's friends, Dave Todoran and Kenny Taylor, who used to rehearse in the very studio space Gradeight use today. The other members benefited from some rather big local names as well. Schenkel took loads of lessons from jazz drummer Steve Smeltzer, and Castaneda mastered the bass with the help of area journeyman Tim Beeler.
As for Meyer, he's largely self-taught and admits he hasn't done a great deal to preserve his vocal health, something that could become a concern since his vocal style consists of a kind of melodic, lower register scream. The night I sat in on rehearsal, he kept a water bottle nearby and sipped from it between songs.
"I don't smoke and I try not to drink much when we've got gigs," he said. "Pent-up aggression helps. I get pissed off about a lot of things and I get it out when we go on stage."
With such a firm grasp of the hard core, the band's influences might strike fans as a little strange. Meyer was raised on a steady diet of Van Halen and the Allman Brothers. Mitchell was a devout fan of Bad Company, and Castaneda grew up listening mostly to funk and jazz. Schenkel's the only life-long metal fan of the group.
"I really loved me some old school Megadeath and Metallica," he said. "It's been me and metal since I was a kid."
When they're not rehearsing at Mitchell's New Haven home or treating audiences to some serious steel, the guys have their day jobs that keep them in good sound equipment and quality instruments. Meyer is a heating and air conditioning man, Mitchell works at B.F. Goodrich, Schenkel writes computer software and Castaneda is a self-employed musician.
The dream would be to shove these day jobs and head out on tour like heavy metal heavyweights Pantera, Slayer or Lamb of God, but for now the guys in Gradeight are looking forward to two summer shows sure to garner the kind of recognition they need to break on to the scene in a big way. The first is opening for national act PsychoStick at Miss Q's July 18, and the second is playing Bodigon's Burnout Party alongside other local favorites later that same month.
"A lot about how successful a band becomes is due to dumb luck," Meyer said as the rehearsal was beginning to wind down. "We went to Detroit a while back and Dope was playing, and he said it all really comes down to luck and who you know and being at the right place at the right time. A lot of horrible bands get signed while a lot of tight, kick-ass bands never see the light of day. We're just hoping we get some luck, and in the meantime we'll keep doing what we're doing."
With that, the band launched into "Straight Hatin'" - a song Gradeight wrote about a band they met on the road that hadn't yet hit it big but acted as if they had, throwing their weight around and looking down on everyone else. In other words, the polar opposite of what Gradeight are all about. I sat back to listen. And I finally took out my earplugs.