Plagues released “Miracle Worker,” a sludgy, chaotic EP, equal parts melodic and abrasive, in August of 2016. Since then they have become a cornerstone of the Charleston hardcore scene, known for their collaborative ethos and physically taxing live performances. Their lyrics might recall isolation and frustration, but sonically Plagues creates a dense atmosphere that doesn’t leave the listener feeling alone or stuck: rather the dynamic guitar riffs and combination of steady drum patterns and blast beats carry the gut-wrenching vocals and hold the listener upright. The best hardcore bands are the ones that challenge you to confront your own personal hell but don’t leave you hanging—Plagues is a band that carries you through.
I caught a performance at Cory’s Grilled Cheese on Sunday, March 5th, and as promised Plagues delivered an abrasive and energizing set, with vocalist Stephen Otto thrashing and lurching into the audience, seamlessly alternating between a scream and a growl. A word to the wise: don’t scoff at the idea of earplugs—those five foot tall amps are no joke and neither is TJ Sizemore’s confrontational, heavily distorted guitar. I spoke with Stephen Otto before the show about his songwriting process, surprising history of stage fright and Plagues’ upcoming EP.
Bethany: How did Plagues come together?
Stephen: It’s actually been reincarnated a few times. Originally it was me and our original drummer Mike. Mike and I met each other on Craigslist. We ended up with some random people—we brought in TJ, who plays guitar for us, we brought in Robert, our bass player who was in some bands in the area before then. I had been playing with Mike for about a year before Plagues began… He’s no longer with the band but he was the drummer on the [Miracle Worker] EP.
B: You were a vocalist in a number of bands prior to Plagues?
S: I’ve had a number of solo projects, a number of bands that didn’t get off the ground. The best band I was in before Plagues was probably Let Sleepers Lie, that was in California before I moved here. It was a much different style, we were basically a heavier version of Chevelle. It was fun but Plagues is definitely the most successful and most enjoyable band I’ve been in.
B: Where did you record this EP?
S: With Landis from Jynzo. At that point he was still mixing and recording out of his house, he works at a studio now which is where our next EP will be done.
B: So is there another EP underway right now?
S: Yes, we’ve written about two and a half of the five or six songs that will be on it… We’re hoping to record it by the end of May.
B: Is there anything you can say stylistically or in terms of content about how it relates to Miracle Worker? Or how it’s different?
S: It doesn’t directly relate to Miracle Worker. I would say the new stuff is a little more dark, a bit more heavy, perhaps not as chaotic as the first EP was. Lyrically it has a follow up to the actual song “Miracle Worker” as far as that sort of that reference, other than that it’s in a different realm.
B: We can talk about that reference a little more, that being the religious imagery and the religious metaphors that permeate the EP. Does that stem from something personal for you?
S: It’s probably a little bit personal, especially when we still had Mike in the band, all four of us at that point in time were, I don’t want to say coming off of a religion, but we all had religious backgrounds, to where there had been really high points and really low points dealing with religion. I don’t want to speak for all four of us but my personal standpoint is that I’m a firm believer in personal religion and spirituality and faith but I’m not really a fan of any sort of church. I don’t need someone to tell me how to understand a book. That’s what started the idea for the actual single Miracle Worker. It’s based on people that use people’s blind faith to basically extract money from them.
B: Four of the five songs on the EP are collaborations, including one with Landis from Jynzo, and that definitely contributes to the chaos and diversity we hear throughout the EP. How did those collaborations come about?
S: Landis and Jacob Peters—Jacob is from Favela—are both vocalists… Landis is from Jynzo, of course, and Jynzo is in my opinion probably the best heavy band in all of South Carolina. We met each other, he expressed interest in recording us, we have a lot of mutual respect and I consider him a close friend. Jacob is in Favela, Jacob I met [when] they played their first show in Downtown Charleston. We played with them on that show and our bands have been best friends ever since. We do a lot of stuff together, I’ve slept on the floor at his house a few times [laughs]. John, on “Miracle Worker,” is from Circle Back, which is a hardcore band from right here in Charleston as well. They’re a very talented band and they’ve been around for a long time. John has played with tons of bands since before moving here and since he’s moved here. He’s played with some big influences on me in fact, alongside ZAO and bands like that. And the last one is Brandon Byers from the band Remembrance. It’s more of a melodic hardcore band, but they are also one of the best hardcore bands in the Carolinas. Brandon has a pretty similar [vocal] style to me, just a little more refined. Our song together is probably the hardest to identify where the guest vocalist is [laughs]… But yeah, they’re all four from really great bands in the Carolinas.
B: Did you have those collaborations in mind when you were writing the songs? How did you decide who was suited for what?
S: The only song I wrote with a collaboration in mind was “Miracle Worker,” having John on it. “Decade Defined,” the song that Brandon is on, is actually the very first [song] we ever wrote as Plagues, and the section that he’s on is a little more melodic driven and an emotional style that I figured, after recording it, Brandon would fit in with perfectly. To be honest on the day of recording we actually figured out where Jacob was going to be. I didn’t even know until then—I just knew he was one of my best friends and I wanted to have him there. So we decided as we were recording the vocals. It turned out really cool though, he’s definitely one of my favorite parts of the EP.
B: How long have you been a vocalist in hardcore bands?
S: Oh God. I’ve been a vocalist for probably 12 or 13 years, I’ve been doing it seriously for about 6 or 7. I really started focusing on it after high school, which, I’m going to show my age but was 10 or 11 years ago.
B: Was there something specifically that inspired you to pursue vocals?
S: I had always been into music, but I played sports in high school. After high school I stopped the focus on sports and got a lot more into music. I started to do it a lot more seriously as I got older and realized I didn’t have as much stage fright as I thought I did, which, when I first started I had a ton of, believe it or not [laughs]. The very first show—there are actually pictures of me playing my very first show—none of them show me facing the crowd. I had my back facing the crowd in every single picture. I was scared but, yeah, once I got over all of that I was able to take it more seriously. That’s thanks to the last band I was in, Let Sleepers Lie… My first time on an actual stage was performing with them and that got me into playing live, so, it was kind of their fault [laughs].
B: At least that first audience probably thought it was a conceptual decision to stand with your back to them—
S: —Probably not, no, I was scared shitless [laughs].
B: Now your performances are super involved, physical and even mutilating. And that relates to the themes of suicide in your lyrics.
S: Yeah, they aren’t meant to be necessarily suicidal so much as apathetic, I think. It’s sort of just self-deprecating in general. It’s not necessarily suicidal because I don’t think I’ve ever been down that road exactly. There’s a lot of depression in it…but I think it’s more of me tapping into the darker side of my actual personality… It’s not fake for me, so much as I just let it happen. You’ll see me right before we play sets just sitting alone in a corner doing some weird shit off to the side, somewhere where no one is bothering me. I kind of just let myself go into that place before we play. So it is a little bit more real for me than it is for a lot of people that do “stage characters” or whatever the case may be. I don’t really plan anything, it just happens. So the times where people have seen me bash my own face in with microphones and things like that are all just sort of spur of the moment… [laughs] It’s not always good the next morning but it’s fun in the moment.
B: Does that at all relate to your songwriting process? Are you accessing a similar space?
S: I think so, it actually takes me a really long time. I’ll rewrite lyrics maybe at least half a dozen times for certain songs mainly because I’ll think I’m going with a theme I really like then I’ll play it live and it won’t necessarily vibe as well as I want it to, so I’ll go back and rewrite it. A lot of times I’ll start with rhythm structures and I won’t necessarily put in words. With words and rhythm, I don’t want to force either one of them so my writing process is a little bit weird and is probably convoluted to most people [laughs] but I think it works out, it just takes a long time. It is definitely a similar mindset… I will plunge myself in when I’m writing because I want it to be thought-provoking, not just me blurbing stuff and then forcing it into songs.
B: Are there any upcoming shows you’re excited about? Besides this one tonight.
This will actually be the last local show we play for a while. There is one a few months out that we haven’t announced yet. That one has a pretty big headliner that I can’t tell you about yet, but that one will be pretty awesome. That one will be in May. Then we have a couple shows in Columbia at the Sludge Gutter, which is run by the guys in Favela. We have one this Friday with Second Death and then one I believe on the 25th with Abhorrent Deformity. So those are both drastic ends of the spectrum of music but they’re both good bands. So we’ll be the most death metal band at the hardcore show and the most hardcore band at the death metal show [laughs]…I like being able to play both sides of it. I like being the bridge between this and that and it makes it easier for us to be sort of plopped into any genre of music… Jynzo, Favela, bands like Beshiba, Naomi, bands like that are our “best band friends” and if you put all of us in the same show none of us would be the same genre. I kind of like the diversity.
Written by Bethany Fincher