The UK’s Hacktivist have been perfecting their unique combination of tech-metal and grime- inflected hip-hop since 2011. It hasn’t always been an easy road, but they’re about to drop their debut album, outside the box. Australian Guitar caught up with the band’s guitarist, clean vocalist and songwriter Timfy James to get the lowdown. By Alex Wilson.
Let’s face it — according to most guitarists, nu metal’s combination of rap and metal aesthetics should be avoided like the plague.
While the unquestionable ferocity and chops of Rage Against The Machine and the uniqueness of Deftones earn grudging respect, we unfairly treat the style with blanket contempt.
It’s no surprise, then, that Timfy James describes the formation of Hacktivist as “a real fluke”. Rapper J Hurley [vocals] was hanging out at James’ studio laying down some vocals. On a whim, James, who cut his teeth on extreme metal and hardcore, showed J some of his demos, influenced by the then-emerging “djent” sound.
J was in strange territory stylistically, but he was impressed and game to spit over James’ brutal and technical guitar work. When both heard the rhymes on top of the riffs, they knew they were onto something.
“We’re not really bothered with rules,” says James, who sees Hacktivist as the unity of music and ideas. “Our whole message is about not needing to conform. What we do, musically and lyrically, we do because it’s something that comes naturally.”
Unafraid of pushing boundaries, there’s a real darkness in Hacktivist that sets them apart from the cookie-cutter rap-rock forefathers. James’ eight-string riffs deliver absolutely brutal low-end, and his considerable right hand chops provide a shifting soundscape of chugs underneath the furious flows of the band’s two MCs. He’s also unafraid to explore softer sounds — the outro breakdown of latest single “Buszy” marries a queasy, dissonant ambience over lockstepping, palm-muted gallops. It’s a harrowing but compelling sound, matching the lyrical depth of J and his co-frontman Ben Marvin.
Their words, dealing with surveillance, social control and the suffocation of individual freedom, are informed by their origin in Milton Keynes, one of the UK’s most misunderstood working-class cities. “Buszy” is named after a community space in their hometown that is getting shut down, the song an angry tribute to the band’s musical past and a shout-out to their extended family.
Gearwise, James uses an RG2228 tuned to his own unique version of Drop-E in order to get the combination of earth-shattering lows and crystalline highs he needs. “I’ve tried quite a few pickups over the years,” he says. “I’ve settled on passives. They give me the sound and definition that I need.” He favours DiMarzios and Seymour Duncans.
Using an Axe-FX for modulation, delay and other effects, he runs his rig into Blackstar amp gear, namely a Blackfire 200 head and a Series One 412 cab. “The Blackstar has really good MIDI functionality so it does the patch- switching with my Axe-FX really well. And it just handles both my dirty riffs and spacey clean patches really well.”
It’s been five years since Hacktivist formed and the release of Outside The Box marks the band’s first full-length. While they’ve toured a lot and released a successful EP in that time, James sees their creative journey as a difficult one.
“We experienced success early on and started touring, which made it hard for us to stay focused on creating the music,” he recalls. “J hadn’t fronted a band before and needed some time to find his element on stage. And I went through some anxiety about making this record. Because what we did with the first singles and the EP was so different, I felt like we had to work really hard to keep things fresh, which was hard with all the touring.”
What has kept James on the path has been his love of the music and the response of the fans. People from around the world have contacted the band, explaining that their music has inspired them to look more closely at the world around them, or given them some extra strength to stay committed to their values. For James, this is the most important thing music can do.
“For me, it’s not about getting fame, money or big house,” he muses. “Success for me is bringing people together that you wouldn’t expect and eradicating hate, discrimination and negativity towards each other. We want to promote diversity and individuality and stop people blindly following everyone else into a black hole just because they’ve been told to. We strive to be different and will continue to spread that message.”