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The Fire Itself: An Interview with Phinehas
NRT's Ryan Adams talks to lead singer Sean McCulloch about new music, songwriting, and faith

AN NRT EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, The Fire Itself: An Interview with Phinehas
Posted: September 22, 2021 | By: RyanAdams_NRT
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Phinehas has established itself as one of the hardest-working and most talented Christian-based metalcore bands in recent memory. They've won the hearts of many fans from their groundbreaking 10-year-old debut album Thegodmachine, their melodic second album, The Last Word Is Yours To Speak, their anthemic third album, Till The End, to their conceptual fourth album Dark Flag. Now, Phinehas has dropped their fifth studio album, The Fire Itself. 

The Fire Itself is a very deep record lyrically and incredibly intense musically. The main source of songwriting comes from the band's lead singer Sean McCulloch. His personal life experiences formed the foundation for many of the album's new songs, more so than any music on their previous records.

I had the pleasure to speak with Sean about the new record, as well as some of the experiences that led to the album's songs. I also talked to him about faith in the music scene.

Describe the songwriting process for Pinehas' new album, The Fire Itself?
The writing process was extremely personal. In 2020, I had to take a hard look at myself, my family, and my life. I was struggling a lot. I wrote the new songs about what I was (some of them I still am and struggling with). A lot more in-depth details can be found in my new mini-book, Notes In The Ashes, which I wrote to accompany the record (it's available in the digital deluxe pre-order package).
Additionally, I don't want to repeat myself as an artist. Many modern worship songs sound contrived to me. It's like they're trying to say certain words to sound good and say the right thing. That's not me with this record. I struggled with my faith during this time. It's not always easy to just say, "God's got me" and move on. Sometimes, it's hard to see that. Sometimes, we go through hard stuff to work out our faith.

I want to be real about my struggles; I shouldn't feel guilt or shame for not writing songs that aren't as hopeful as some of our past songs on previous albums. I knew God was with me all the time cognitively. But, it can be hard to feel Him present sometimes
and that's part of this journey. 

Is there an overarching themeor themeson the new album? 
The phrase, "the Fire itself," is taken from author Mark Twain. He talks about the difference between the heat of a fire versus the fire itself. It's a journey to get to the point of being the fire itself. There's a lot to experience and to go through in order to become like a firerefined. This album is a journey of me trying to find my true self, as cliché as it sounds. 2020 brought a lot out of everyone—positive and negative. For me, I wanted to find out who I was and who I wanted to be as I had the time to do go through this process. 
Which song was the most difficult or most personal for you to write on the new album? How did you overcome that difficulty?
The very personal "The Storm in Me" is the record's main ballad. I was put in a position with the people I love who were very angry at each other and with me. I almost lost my family over this. Like we've heard before, problems that existed before 2020 often got worse because of how lives changed that year. I fell into a state of numbness and maybe depression - I'd call it my own hell. I felt helpless, worthless, and angry. I'm personally going through therapy and recovering to a degree since then, but there are still hard parts. 

You've written several EPs with stripped-back songs and the occasional original music. You haven't released one since 2016. Do you have any plans for another EP in the future?
You know what, these songs would be perfect in an acoustic format. I feel like they're written for that purpose. We've always had fun recording our EPs. Daniel Gailey, our guitarist, and I always have leftover riffs. 
Phinehas is a respected band among faith-based metal groups. Why do you think groups and artists deny being a Christian band or leaving that association vague? 
I think there are a lot of factors. And, it's hard for me and the guys because we care about these artists and have developed relationships with them. If you look back at Phinehas' first record, Thegodmachine, you'll find a fair amount of anti-church sentiments.

We've found that many peers relate to us in that they've been hurt and have had negative experiences with the church (most specifically the Americanized church). Every human is looking for something real. And, when the church fails to give something real, it's usually because it's too wrapped up in politics, legalism, and blame. There are more examples I could give. 
We've had positive and negative experiences at Christian festivals. One negative is that a fan was asked to leave after giving me a hug. Parental hypocrisy is another negative: parents will let their kids go to a party, but not permit them to listen to Christian metal bands because they play "devil music." 
Anything else you want to share?
With our approach to songwriting, we want people to feel something real. That's the most important thing right now, I think. We're not trying to one-up ourselves for heaviness' sake. After the year we all went through, and the times in our lives, people are hurting to feel something real. 
How can we be praying for you? 
I have a long list of prayers. But for now, please pray that COVID-19 would disappear so people can have their livelihoods back. It's been hard for many people, not just physical health, but mental health as well. Please pray for our families. We all need the help we can get. 

Ryan Adams has been NRT's rock reporter since 2019. He graduated Boise Bible College in 2018. He lives with family in Montana.

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