Melbourne metal fusion iconoclasts Twelve Foot Ninja kept us waiting five years for a successor to 2016’s internationally acclaimed, Outlier. But with the release of their third album, VENGEANCE, the foursome, led by creative visionary and guitarist Stevic MacKay, have delivered in spades. (Or should that be swords?)
In conjunction with the new LP, the band are releasing the high fantasy novel, The Wyvern and the Wolf. The book was written by Melbourne author Nicholas Snelling and based on an original concept by MacKay and his partner, Fiona Permezel.
The Wyvern and the Wolf arrives hot on the heels of MacKay’s own graphic novel, VENGEANCE, which came out in July and features illustrations by George Evangelista. MacKay also conceived the multi-level, 2D platformer videogame, Uncle Brusnik’s Long Way Home, to accompany the record’s first single, ‘Long Way Home’.
But in case you’re thinking the band must be compensating for something, the record alone is enough to justify the five year gestation period. MacKay and his band mates—singer Kin Etik, drummer Shane Russell and guitarist Rohan Hayes—paid especial attention to the nuts and bolts of the songwriting this time around, making sure to equip each song with as much substance as style.
In fact, while VENGEANCEcontains no shortage of robust and technically complex heaviness, riff-porn it ain’t. The band consistently shake things up with injections of electronic instrumentation, mariachi, eighties synth-pop and Mr. Bungle-esque jazz punk. The record also features string orchestration and a guest vocal contribution from Jinjer’s Tatiana Shmayluk.
Watch the official video for ‘START THE FIRE’
Tone Deaf spoke to MacKay about the new album, book and Twelve Foot Ninja backstory, as well as the band’s creative independence.
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Tone Deaf: This is an explosion of content. Is it fair to assume these are passion projects rather than strategic branding ploys?
Stevic MacKay: It definitely is a passion project and I have to tell myself it’s a passion project, because if it’s anything else than that I’d be severely questioning my own sanity. The amount of work that’s gone into it is kind of ridiculous.
TD: The novel and the graphic novel centre on the character, Kiyoshi, who’s nicknamed the “Twelve Foot Ninja.” The character pre-dates the band, yeah?
SM: We formed in late 2007 and I had this idea of this twelve foot ninja character and wrote a little novella and it had a story arc and a point to it. And it was never meant to be as quirky as it’s turned out, and I’ve been reflecting on why that is.
I think it’s largely due to the music videos being quite tongue in cheek, but that’s my reaction to the music video format—I just find it really pretentious and irresistible to take the piss out of. Also, we could never afford to create the kind of serious content that reflects the story that we would want without falling massively short, like Be Kind Rewind style.
TD: So, the band has become quirkier than in your original vision, but the story of the Twelve Foot Ninja is something you’ve always planned on sharing?
SM: Really what this is is the culmination of over a decade of work to tell this tale of who is Twelve Foot Ninja. We’re not Twelve Foot Ninja. The band is called Twelve Foot Ninja, but the name comes from the protagonist of our story, whose real name is Kiyoshi, and Twelve Foot Ninja is the title given to him by someone else.
TD: On that point about your music videos—I’d argue they’re no less filmic for how light-hearted they are. It seems like you’re still taking them seriously, even if they’re tongue in cheek.
SM: Yeah, that’s a good distinction to make. I definitely put the work in. It’s fragile territory to try and pull something off that’s a little bit humorous and fail. And I look back on earlier clips and cringe a little bit at some of the things that we did that we could’ve done better.
TD: A few years ago, Corey Taylor of Slipknot described Twelve Foot Ninja as a metal Flight of the Conchords on Triple J. This quote is now included in your band bio. Did it sting at all?
SM: It actually galvanises my contrarianism. I’ve got a few working theories about metal. I like metal as a dynamic; I don’t like it as an identity. And I think there’s too many people wrapped up in the masculine machismo of metal and they sort of see it as an extension of themselves. And to mess with that format is somehow like we’re running up and slipping our pinky up their bum.
TD: So there’s no fear on your part of being deemed heavy metal shysters?
SM: I think the writing’s already on the wall with that. We don’t have a posse, we don’t fit in with a lot of the other metal bands. Jinjer are probably the closest thing—we just like each other and there’s no weirdness. I’m not into the cliques and scenes and all that kind of shit.
There’s definitely part of me that’s like, “If we just tried to keep this normal, maybe it would reach a lot more people.”
TD: Would you ever do that?
SM: We had the opportunity with this album to work with a really high profile producer and I ended up offending him accidentally, because he did something and I’m like, “It sounds like Five Finger Death Punch are pouring Monster Energy drinks on my coffin.”
He was carving it into something that would work better commercially and something jumped out of me that was like, “Nah.” I don’t want to do it unless I can do it on my terms, which is commercially stupid, but life’s too short.