Signal 99 frontman Chuck Haven confronts the pain of his recent past
FARMINGTON — For as long as he can remember, music — specifically heavy metal music — has provided Chuck Haven with a means of dealing with the despair and anger that too often seemed to go hand in hand with growing up on the Navajo reservation.
Metal music, he said, represents a healthy outlet, a calculated response to the challenges of growing up in an environment where alcoholism, poverty, and physical and mental abuse are common.
"How do you react to that? Naturally, it's with a lot of anger," he said. "But metal music is not violent. It's a way to express yourself without being violent."
Over the past two years, Haven found himself retreating into his music for solace more than ever. In June 2013, his older brother Alonzo died of health complications related to alcoholism. A little more than a year later, in October 2014, Haven's younger brother Hank succumbed to multiple sclerosis.
The deep grief he felt over the passing of his brothers easily could have caused his life to go off the rails, Haven acknowledged. Instead, it served as the impetus for him to explore new territory in his songwriting, prompting him to tap into feelings that may have been painful but needed to come spilling out. It was a catharsis that allowed Haven to begin moving forward again, even as he continues to hold the memories of his brothers close.
"When I look back at our other music, I see that a lot of it is angry, that I was writing about situations in life most people can relate to — relationships, work," the soft-spoken Signal 99 frontman and guitarist said last week as the release of his band's long-anticipated new album approached. "But this time, I was writing from a very personal place, and I'm not sure how people are going to react to that."
The trepidation Haven feels is tempered by considerable excitement — despite the two tragedies Haven has lived through, his band, which has been around for almost a decade and is the heavyweight champion of the highly competitive Four Corners metal scene, is breaking new ground and may very well reach new heights of popularity over the next several months, depending on how the new disc is received. So Haven understands he's taking a bit of a risk by laying such a heavy trip on the band's loyal fans.
It's a risk he's prepared to take.
"I feel obligated to put it out there — not only for me, but for my brothers," he said.
That as-yet untitled new album — Haven said he's kicking around some ideas, but isn't prepared to reveal them — is targeted for a Sept. 1 release. It would have been out sooner, but the band has been busy negotiating with an independent record label, and Haven said that has drawn his focus. He plans to make a decision about whether to accept the deal quickly, perhaps as soon as this week, and then turn his attention back to the new recording.
Sonically, Haven said the disc is likely to remind listeners of much of the band's earlier music, which was heavily influenced by such acts as Korn and Cold Chamber, so it will have somewhat of a retro feel.
But Haven, who wrote each of the nine songs on the disc and who is producing the recording, views it very much as a step forward for the band, explaining that it will showcase all the things he's learned about being a musician. Most of all, it will help him open up, in a very public way, about the loss of his brothers.
Their legacy haunts Signal 99's sound, Haven believes. Hank Haven was the group's original bassist, and Chuck said he can still hear his brother's thumping bass line in all the new songs. And it was Alonzo Haven who taught Chuck to play the guitar when he was a 16-year-old neophyte trying to find his way up and down the frets.
"I couldn't play at all," Chuck Haven said, laughing at the memory. "I was very intimidated trying to play in front of him. I was self-taught the first year, then my older brother sat down with me and said, 'Chuck, you're doing it all wrong.' He was classically trained; he took all the lessons. But he really sat down and worked with me that first couple of years."
In retrospect, Haven would come to regard that as a special time in his life. He was blessed and honored, he said, to have a musically gifted older brother with the patience and time to teach him the guitar, and Haven tried to repay the favor by introducing Alonzo to the joys of playing metal — something he later passed down to younger brother Hank, as well.
Haven would eventually go off to the University of Arizona in Tucson and earn his bachelor's degree while continuing to sharpen his musical chops. But when he returned home in 2000, unable to find a job and broke, he found himself drinking more and feeling tempted to give in to the anger that always seemed to be percolating just beneath the surface.
Haven recognized the path he was on, having seen it many times before. He mustered the wherewithal to get off it, plugging away in a determined fashion at the job market and venting his anger and disappointment through music. His efforts eventually paid off — Haven would find work as a human relations staffer at a local health care facility, and by 2006, he had decided to put together a metal trio. Its name, Signal 99, is emergency responder-speak, code for a subject in respiratory distress — a moniker Haven found symbolic of so much of what he saw on the rez. It also reflects why the band chooses to perform while wearing gas masks.
Signal 99 has had its ups and downs over the years, Haven noted, occasionally sharing the stage with some of metal's biggest names, earning two Native American Music Award nominations and building a solid following across the Southwest, but also hitting those plateaus that are inevitable among any group that remains together for so long. If they last long enough, those plateaus decay into long, slow declines or outright endings — a hazard that bands of all musical genres come to face at some point.
Haven worried that's where Signal 99 was by 2012 when Hank's health problems forced him to quit the band. By the time he died in late 2014, that malaise had almost become institutionalized — the group hadn't put out a new recording in two years and Haven felt only desolation in his heart. It was probably the lowest point in the band's history, maybe the lowest point in Haven's life.
So, as he had so many other times, he turned back to music. What else could he do?
With drummer Brandon Tsosie and new bass player Brandon Curley at Haven's side, the trio got back to work, later adding another guitarist, former roadie Gabe Peters, and becoming a quartet for the first time in its history. Haven penned nine new songs, and Signal 99 juggled visits to the studio with an increasingly busy tour schedule that included a headlining gig at the inaugural first Navajo Nation Metal Fest in April and three showcases at the annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, in March.
While playing one of those SXSW gigs, the Heart of Texas Rockfest, the band's biggest gig since Hank's death, Haven realized he had managed to regain his bearings. The support he and his band drew from the event's organizers made him realize that metal is as much a community as it is a musical genre, he said, and Haven realized he was doing exactly what he was meant to do.
"Talking to the organizers of the event we were on, they knew my brother, and they reached out to me and the band to express their condolences," he said, explaining that that degree of personal interaction with a promoter is highly unusual, especially for a relatively unknown Four Corners band performing in the shadow of the biggest musical gathering in the world. "It really touched me. I realized we're not just a band that had been given a slot to play in ... They knew it was a personal visit for me, too. They didn't have to be there for the whole event, but they were, and they offered a lot of advice and support. It was important for me, but I think it was important for the band to hear it, too."
Soon enough, Signal 99 was on an upward trajectory again. Its song "Zombie Star" was chosen for inclusion in a project billed as "the world's first e-novel with music," a book called "How an Atomic Fart Changed the World" that features the work of noted illustrator Bill Sienkiewicz, whose work has been associated with such characters as Batman, Aquaman, the Green Lantern, Superman, the X-Men, the Hulk and Captain America.
Haven described the experience as nothing short of a career highlight.
"To be part of a project where I have some of his comic books in my collection, that somebody of that stature would have our music in his collection is mind boggling," he said excitedly.
Haven said Signal 99 has drawn a great deal of positive reaction from its involvement in the project, including a recent feature on the band that aired on KOB-TV in Albuquerque. He said, as of last week, "Atomic Fart" was approaching the 1 million mark in downloads, drawing unprecedented attention to Signal 99's music.
Then, after a recent gig in Durango, Colo., the band was approached by representatives of that aforementioned indie record label. Haven said the group has fielded such offers before, so that kind of attention is nothing new, and he said he's learned a lot from those experiences. Haven said he once signed a deal he shouldn't have, and later passed on a deal that, in retrospect, he should have signed. He declined to discuss the specifics of the current offer and said he was still trying to determine whether it was in the band's best interest, given the fact that technological advances in recent years have made a label affiliation much less important for bands than it used to be.
Haven does most, if not all, of the band's heavy lifting, including songwriting, arranging, producing, publicity, marketing and distribution, publishing, management and booking, so having a little support is very attractive, on one hand.
On the other, he said, the members of that tight-knit metal community are used to doing things for themselves, and each other — a trait he said they share with the hip hop community, though not the popular music community as a whole. In many cases, booking a show in a town that Signal 99 has never played before is as simple as picking up the phone and reaching out to one of the dozens of bands across the country that Haven has built a friendship with over the last nine years. Why pay a booking agent when you can easily handle that yourself, he asked rhetorically.
Haven hopes to parlay all that recent momentum and the anticipated buzz over the new album into a breakout tour to the West Coast in the months ahead, a foray that will include stops in such major markets as San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
"It'll be our first time to play there," he said. "We do get a lot of requests to play out that way, and this seems like a good time to do that. It seems like we always go east from here."
Haven said he's always excited to get back on the road, and with new cities to play and a new disc to promote, he's feeling good about things again, maybe for the first time in a long time. He thinks his brothers would be proud of the new work, and he recalled how, even as he was dying, Hank made a point of encouraging him to continue playing and performing.
The spirit of his departed brothers remains an almost palpable presence in Haven's life, it seems.
"The funny thing is, my older brother, even though he was not in the band, he told me one time he wanted to be," Haven said, his voice growing soft again as he struggled with his emotions. "This is my way of honoring his wish."
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