Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: FEVER 333 Tackle The Tough Issues
FEVER 333 are studying the January 2019 cover of Kerrang! Magazine, which prominently features the band. "You look great," frontman Jason Aalon Butler tells guitarist Stephen "Stevis" Harrison, who, in the photo, has his arms folded and is wearing a firm expression.
"It’s 'cause I’m not smiling for them,” he responds. Butler, meanwhile, is amused at how he appears on the cover, which is considerably less stone-faced. OK, he's actually bent all the way back, upside down, in mid-hysterics. "I knew they'd be waiting for it," laughs Butler, who by "it" means his ear-to-ear joker grin. He's definitely not mad, but one gets the impression that in a perfect world Butler would've liked for his expression to emulate Harrison's.
The trio, who perform a modern hybrid of punk and hip-hop, actually do have a lot to feel upbeat about—it's been only days since they found out about their first GRAMMY nomination, which is in the Best Rock Performance category for their confrontational, fist-pumping anthem "Made An America."
Formed in collaboration with punk-rock figureheads Travis Barker (Blink-182) and John Feldmann (Goldfinger), FEVER 333 also comprises drummer Aric Improta (also of Night Verses), with whom Butler, formerly of post-hardcore act letlive., had worked with in the past. All together, Butler, Improta, and Harrison (who also plays in metalcore outfit The Chariot) are on a mission to promote awareness around racial and gender inequality, among other things, and their music doesn’t so much address those issues as it does come at them with a sledgehammer.
"Made An America," a Rage Against The Machine-sounding chant, furiously calls the country out on its inherent inequalities, which Butler, who is biracial, has experienced firsthand growing up in Los Angeles’ Inglewood neighborhood. And to that end, the group's just-released debut album, STRENGTH IN NUMB333RS, is a full-length, all-caps call to arms.
During a visit to Butler's L.A. home, we sat down with the members of FEVER 333 to talk about their very first GRAMMY nomination, working with rapper Vic Mensa on the "Made An America" remix, tackling the issues many working artists are afraid to touch, and how Butler first met Barker while attempting to—of all un-punk things—sell cookies to a grocery store.
Congrats on the GRAMMY nomination! Where were you when you heard the news?
Stephen "Stevis" Harrison: I was in Atlanta in my room. It was like, seven in the morning.
I was like, “What?” It was way too early for me to [process the news]. I was like, “If this isn't true or you're joking, or if there's any chance that this could not be true, please don't do this to me right now."
Jason Aalon Butler: I was in Sicily at the time. I was driving from Venganza to Cefalù. I was [driving] on a different side of the road, [and] I don't want to answer the phone at that moment, so I was like, alright, when we get there I'll answer. And then I got a call from management and I got a call from our A&R and I got a call from the president of the label and a text from our attorney, so all these people... I was like, oh, we've been dropped, like from the label. I was like, “It’s a wrap, it’s a wrap.”
We were in a lot of disbelief. We weren't aiming for it by any means really, we're just trying to create.
FEVER 333 is a relatively new project. Can you tell me about how the band came together?
Butler: Yeah, we were all in bands before. Aric is still in another band, and we’d done music together from my other band [letlive.]. We had written together, we had done some solo stuff together. Stephen and I had toured together, we basically shared a lot of the same ideals and understanding of this specific genre of music, like, guitar-based music being people of color and trying to find your place in all of this. The three of us ideologically already shared a lot of the same ideas, and we always kind of discuss playing music together at some point.
Then, a year before FEVER happened, I went to speak with [A&R rep] John Feldmann one day about my future and he just said, “You always got to believe. You make it happen.” He’s a “if you build it, they will come” kind of guy.
Then my wife got pregnant, and I was still in letlive. I needed a job to make sure that I could afford insurance and having a baby, 'cause that s**t's mad expensive.
So I was working for this cookie company through a family friend and I was selling these accounts for the cookies to these grocery stores and I was in one of the grocery stores, like, hustling these cookies, and this young woman came up to me and was talking about letlive. Then she left and then Travis Barker walks in, also talking about letlive. He had been watching videos of my performances, this, that and the other. And we talked about having a mutual friend, John Feldmann, and we decided we should maybe get together and make music.
I didn't really think it was going to happen, and then it did on Superbowl Sunday of 2017. We got together and wrote this song called “We're Coming In.” its like this nexus manifesto of what this project is going to be and then Stephen, Aric and I got together and said, “All right, this is what we’re going to do.”
That's crazy, all of this happened because you just happened to run into Travis Barker?
Butler: Yeah, it just sort of happened. I had this idea a while ago, about offering a larger sense of representation. Being biracial, I was always struggling to find an identity in the world, but then in a subset of music which was supposed to be more alternative but then it was kind of like a heteronormative white boys’ club. [John and Travis] were very, very interested in the idea. They agreed that it was time to create a space for people just to exist and to have the discussion that needs to be had.
So by having a conversation in your music about representation, what void are you hoping to fill in the rock genre at large?
Harrison: I feel like we grew up with a rock generation where people were trying new things constantly and no bands sounded the same. Lately, it just seems like people are kind of repeating things that have been done and all of the exploration is happening in other genres. I feel like different types of people just gravitate towards indie and hip-hop because it just seems like rock has become such a specific audience and everybody has this specific goal that we create things that feel kind of dated at this point. Since we grew up on [rock] and didn't want to give up on it, I feel like we tried our best to integrate all of our influences and not limit ourselves to what I guess was expected of the genre at this point in time.
As an artist today, you can literally get just about anything aside from authenticity, which is what we hope to provide. We hope to really explain ourselves for who we are and in doing so, offer representation. I think that's our lane: This is who we are, this is why we say what we say, and we're very open to have the conversation but ultimately, you can't really tell somebody "no" to their truth.
The song "Made An America" describes a violent reality for a lot of Americans, especially those of color, who are promised an American Dream that ultimately never arrives. To what extent does this song describe your experience?
Butler: The double-edged sword was education for me. I learned about all these things from the books that we were told, but I never saw my own face, really. I never saw my father's face, I never really saw women, and I was raised by basically my sister and my mother. The idea of identifying with things that I'm familiar with in our history as a country, I didn't really have that. Any time that I did see black faces or women they were subjugated. They were relegated into these submissive positions, which I found to be very interesting because the black culture I knew was strong and was full of love and full of a rich, deep history.
Harrison: I grew up in Georgia, and ignorantly I grew up thinking that when I got older and when I could move outside of Georgia that some of the ignorance and racism that I had experienced would just go away or settle down or wouldn't be as harsh, and it’s not true at all. As I got older, I just realized that [racism] takes different forms, and depending on where you are and what's happening.
I just thought it was like a kid thing. Like a young person's kind of ignorance, or an old-person, Southern kind of ignorance, but that's not really the case. Especially touring the world, you realize it’s everywhere.
Aric Improta: For me, I grew up in Southern California, and both my parents are really into art. My dad designed for television, my mom's a drama teacher. Even the school I grew up in was predominantly Asian, so I just had no perspective of [racism]. Then when you start to travel you just see the different degrees of it everywhere. I think that was the biggest change for me growing up, which is that I wasn't in a position to see how apparent that stuff was. I mean, I heard people say, like, “Oh, well, if you go to the deep South this stuff happens, but it wasn't something that was ever [in my worldview]. I was just fortunate with my upbringing that it wasn't in front of me. And then as you get older and you start to travel, like I said, it starts becoming a lot clearer.
Who did you all listen to when you were growing up? Who would you say informs your sound?
Butler: I think we have a common ground with Rage Against The Machine.
Harrison: That was the first band where I was like “Wait, what does he mean?” 'Cause other bands I listened to weren't making me like look back in history.
Butler: Yeah, we have to put that out there on the forefront, 'cause they paved the road for a band like us to be successful in music and society.
Me personally, as far as like, subverting and challenging the status, N.W.A and Public Enemy were huge for me. And then all punk rock, 'cause I'm from L.A., so we have Circle Jerks, Black Flag. And the bands from the east, obviously Minor Threat was huge. The idea of straightedge to me was so interesting when it was explained as an effort to challenge normalcy.
Nina Simone is huge for me too. I think she was like one of the most punk, most in-your-face artists.
You partnered with Travis and Vic Mensa on the "Made An America" remix. How did you guys connect with Vic?
Butler: [We connected with him] through Travis. Travis has done stuff with him before, at the time that Vic was, for better or for worse, being very vocal about some pretty hot-button issues. He was getting more and more involved in sociopolitical [issues] and even the gender discussion. It seemed like good alignment.
Sometimes it can be hard for us to find someone who will openly discuss certain issues, and the issues that we discuss are pretty challenging and confrontational.
Travis had shown him the “Made An America” record and he felt it, and we linked up one night and he dropped the verse. What a wild night… And then he continued on his path of f**king saying what he felt.
That's the thing, it’s like, the fact that this man feels as though his voice can be used to shed light on something that he thinks is wrong… That's why we can't have these discussions, 'cause people aren't really looking at the facts. I understand when to separate legacy from personal history, 'cause like, to be fair, some of my greatest idols as far as even politics, were pretty unsavory people in their personal lives. But I do think that the bigger thing here, the point I'm trying to make is, we should be able to have those discussions without being berated.
Speaking of encouraging conversation around the issues, you founded a charity, the Walking In My Shoes foundation. Could you tell me a little bit about its mission?
Butler: The Walking In My Shoes foundation is essentially a launch pad for people to participate in the change that they want to see. We try to do it tri-yearly. We're going to hold these events where we highlight issues that we think need to be brought to attention or that are dear to us. Currently we’re with the Man to Support committee, the Black Women Lawyers Foundation, and United For A Fair Economy.
A lot of language for change can be really convoluted. What we’re trying to do is break down the idea of being able to help and being able to be a part of change. By simply buying a shirt, an album, going to a demonstration of ours, or just going to our website, you can look a brief statement that gives you information on the issues, and you can choose which one you would like to support. Since we have a platform, since we have people's attention with the music and the art, we try to offer a component if they want to learn about what it is we're actually talking about.