Interview: Heart Attack Man

Posted: by The Editor

Photo by Olivia Keasling

Nature calls, and the freaks of Heart Attack Man have arrived to answer. Poised to release their third LP, Freak of Nature, as well as embark on two aptly named headlining tours (“Freak of Na-tour” in the US, and the “Fre-UK of Nature” tour in the United Kingdom), the band is doing what they’ve always done best and subverting the expectations of fans and critics alike. Ahead of the release, I got the chance to speak to guitarist Tyler Sickels, and separately with vocalist/primary songwriter Eric Egan while he drove for NY hip-hop group City Morgue’s recent tour.

My conversation with Tyler was exciting for me because I’d spoken to Eric before, but never had the opportunity to pick the brain of a fellow Heart Attack Man member. We started by discussing Tyler’s perspective and role in Heart Attack Man from the beginning of his involvement. He told me, “I’d been with a small band at the time and was really pushing for touring. My first tour with H.A.M. was right after The Manson Family had finished recording in about 2016, and it was only maybe 8 days. In early 2017, when that record came out, we went on a longer tour, and by the summer I had joined full time. After my previous experiences, I was definitely anxious to go out and tour, but doing a full U.S. felt realistic with H.A.M. I felt like I had grown from a ‘fill-in’ position to a permanent member by then. The evolution of that role has really developed in the production and tones, which I think is the real influence I’ve come to have on the music.”

From what I understood about previous Heart Attack Man projects, Eric had always been the primary songwriter, with the others having their own touches on things as production went along. I asked Tyler if that process had changed or differed over the band’s lifetime, and if he felt more or less involved in that process with each release. His answer was surprisingly varied. He explained that “after Manson Family, we started working on the follow-up, Fake Blood. That album was the most collaborative between us. Eric had structure for songs, but not much else at that point, so we each really filled in the space. We jammed it together a ton before actually going into the studio; I mean, some songs had, like, a year of pre-work, at least. We lived at the studio (The Barber Shop in NJ) for maybe 2 weeks and really immersed ourselves in the recording process. Thoughtz & Prayerz, the EP, was very different from that. It was a two-part process because of a few things: I was facing a layoff from work, and the COVID-19 pandemic had just begun. I ended up recording remotely from everyone, so it was a big departure from Fake Blood.

Knowing the difficulties that can arise when the writing dynamic has to change like that, and given the public perception of Eric as the face of Heart Attack Man, I was curious how Tyler had felt about this drastic change in the process. He shared that he “had to be okay with having less influence than before. I sort of swallowed my pride and had to be the Scottie Pippen of the team, but I was okay with that because I was so psyched about the end product that it didn’t bother me. It was like, anything I add is just going to make this great project even better. So Freak of Nature had a very similar process with Eric going out to L.A. to work with Lil’ Aaron on pre-production. He’s grown so much as a writer since Manson Family, and the stuff he was sending back ruled, so I had to put my ego aside and step into my role, playing with pedals and tonal effects. It’s like I got to just sit there and play with my toys! I think that’s the thing I’m most proud of with this record too, besides Eric’s lyrics & melodies; the lead tones are crazy and layered, but they feel so consistent, like the album has one cohesive sound even though it’s made out of so many different styles.”

Heart Attack Man fans have always been a wide variety of people, many of whom likely identify themselves as outsiders, but somehow the nature of the band always unites them together–without compromising that identity. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who has heard the title track and lead single that this outsider perspective is very central to the theme of the record. I asked Tyler how he relates to that theme and perspective. He gave me a wonderful alternate take on the theme of the album from what I was expecting, saying, “I take Freak of Nature to embody that idea of, like, the ‘two wolves inside you’ meme, which shows up in the artwork. There’s many different aspects of your personality, and it takes a lot of growth and reflection to see the best parts of those two dogs, or those four dogs, or however many. Being in Heart Attack Man has taken my life to a whole new place, so I’ve had to come to terms with that ‘shy dog’ in me, or remind the, like, ‘depressed dog’ in me that I’ve got so much to be grateful for. The record shows me there’s a lot to grow towards without compromising who I am–or who those dogs are–and that even if my role is not the star, I can be the star of my role.”

The day after my talk with Tyler, I picked up the phone and dialed up Eric while he had a break supporting City Morgue. This was our second conversation together, and it felt just as natural to dive into as the first had. Sometimes I think fans have this built perception of Eric because of the way he portrays himself on the internet (which we talked about to great extent in our previous interview), or because of the content of the music he creates. At the root, I think he’s a very down-to-earth person with a lot of insight, and I think that the music isn’t always the best depiction of the artist, which is something we discussed at length on this call in between my many questions about the new release.

My first question had to do with the independent nature of this release compared to the previous albums, specifically about the “Evil Doer” brand name. Releasing this album through their own “incorporation,” this production is the most DIY of any Heart Attack Man project since their debut EP Acid Rain (on the now-defunct Mayfly Records), despite the band being increasingly popular and previously releasing LPs through Triple Crown Records. Eric explained that, “Since the inception of Evil Doer, we’ve just been deciding what works best for us. We’ve always known that DIY is the real way to go for us all along. We like to be as hands on as possible, and if we can’t do something ourselves, we find a friend who can do it that we can elevate in return. We’ve seen the best of both worlds at this point, so now we’re just taking what we’ve learned and putting it into practice. The way I see it, this release is more ‘independent’ than ‘DIY.’ You don’t really see any rap or pop artists who aren’t mainstream call themselves DIY. They might do it themselves, but they’re still professional about it. Evil Doer is our shot at that; it may have started as, like, our own print shop, but it’s more like our own realm. It’s our brand, not just about our record or merch.”

Moving on from the business aspect of the album, we started cracking into the real musical stylings of Freak of Nature. I feel that with this album, sonically, the band has really leaned into the major tones and recognizable pop-punk sound they’ve skirted in the past. In our last talk, we discussed the influence of the hardcore music community on Thoughtz & Prayerz; the difference between that EP and this LP is very palpable, with Eric having worked with both Lil’ Aaron and All-American Rejects guitarist Nick Wheeler for the single “Freak of Nature.” I asked him to elaborate on the differences between the releases, where he said, “Production-wise, T&P was definitely heavy and darker, so people assumed that the next thing we released would be a fully hardcore album. But Heart Attack Man isn’t a hardcore band, and it didn’t start there, either. I honestly think it would be disingenuous to lean into that. Similarly, we don’t want to be predictable, but we do want to be more polished. During production, I kept saying, ‘The vocals need to go up in this.’ I really want to push that poppy, ’90s alt flavor, like Beck or The Flaming Lips, for tones, but I need the melodies to cut through all that. Writing that first song with Nick Wheeler was like the catalyst for building the whole album that way.”

As unpredictable as Heart Attack Man, one very consistent aspect of the band is the seemingly “controversial” lyrical content. Though the album has all the pop-punk flavoring, it leaves behind the stereotypical posturing of the genre’s predecessors. Just like T&P and Fake Blood, Freak of Nature discusses heavy, descript topics, which are unapologetic and appropriate to the theme of the album as a whole. When I asked him to describe the dichotomy of pairing poppy melodies and riffs with violent and off-putting lyricism, Eric said, “It’s absolutely what sets us apart from our contemporaries. There are plenty of good songs out there that just feel kind of empty. Our music is also very specific to what I love: fun, upbeat tracks with dark context. It’s palatable musically and plays to the strengths of the genre, but lyrically, it’s like you’re off-kilter. Contextually, the album is kind of taboo, but it’s also real–I’m very drawn to that. I love pop-punk as a music genre, but to be honest, getting your heart broken can’t be the worst feeling or experience you’ve ever heard of. Real shit happens in the world all the time, so why not talk about it?”

Building on the blocks of our talk here about pop-punk (its strengths, its flaws, its purpose, its presence), I couldn’t help but be reminded of my last talk with Eric when H.A.M. was supporting pop-punk juggernauts Neck Deep on tour. We had discussed how their style seemed a bit out of place on that lineup with the release of Thoughtz & Prayers. Now, the band is headlining a tour with an album that sounds like it would fit perfectly on that Neck Deep lineup. I asked Eric what, if anything, felt different this time around. He described the succession and evolution of Heart Attack Man: “It doesn’t feel too different at all, honestly. It’s all a continuation of the same feeling. Bringing in new influences the whole way and integrating them makes it feel cohesive and smooth. From the inside, Freak of Nature feels like the logical step forward after T&P, and just a better feeling personally from The Manson Family, despite them all being so sonically different. The common thread of H.A.M. is to subvert expectations, or challenge the old audience to stay with us while bringing in new fans at the same time. We’re never pinned down, which gives me so much room to work with.”

That challenge to older fans has rarely been failed, as the Heart Attack Man audience is regularly known for banding together and creating an influx community where the old guard welcomes in the new blood. The “Baby Carrot Gang” gives way to the “Worsties” and the “Secret Beans Stash,” all of which are organically gathered and supportive of each other. The more I hear it, the more Freak of Nature comes across to me as a love letter to those fans, the people who flocked around Heart Attack Man because they feel like outcasts. Eric spoke on this sense of community, sharing that “it boils down to the fact that fans gravitate the way they do because they resonate with us–not just the music we make. I don’t think we’ve all lived the same lives, but we’ve all struggled with belonging. As I got older, I realized who my people are and that we’ve found each other because we’re all weird and freaky. Existing on the fringes, we’re not quite a cookie-cutter pop-punk band, but instead, we’re dodging those labels. Sometimes that can be uncomfortable, but it becomes a real strength. The people who have found and love Heart Attack Man are freaks, and I love them.”

Before closing out our conversation, I had to mention my love for the album artwork of Freak of Nature. I’m a big fan of classic hardcore covers that are often gritty, black & white, high contrast images and drawings that give off a real tense, powerful energy. The blend of that energy with that has become a bit of an iconic orange color on this record’s cover really hypes me up. I asked Eric to quickly give me a run down of the artistic choices at play. He told me that “traditionally, we’d do photographs for the album covers. I knew for this record I wanted some collage elements, but then connected with an old friend of mine that has this great style that I really resonated with. What’s crazy is that our album is super tame compared to his usual work. He was so excited to work with me on this, too, because he told me that me growing up down the street from him is what really got him into that world of hardcore music and that kind of expression. It was very full circle. Anyway, I wanted this one to be different from past covers, but still feel like Heart Attack Man at the root, the same way the music does. Whether it’s the artwork or the music, you can tell that Freak of Nature is us, even if it’s stylistically different.”

Make sure you pre-order Freak of Nature here before its release on May 26th, and catch Heart Attack Man on tour with Arm’s Length, Super American, and Photocopy from 5/26 to 7/2 in the US–or the UK from 7/9 to 7/14 with Thick.


Luciano Ferrara | @lucianorferrara

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