Battlecross: Will to Win

BattlecrossSome bands make waves; Battlecross makes tsunamis. Over the last year-and-a-half, the Canton, Michigan group has taken the metal world by storm by combining slabs-of-steel riffing, machine-gun drumming and larynx-shredding vocals to create its signature brand of death-infused thrash.

August was action-packed for the group, including a two-week headlining tour of the United States and Canada, an appearance in Mexico City with Black Label Society and a short South American trek with Killswitch Engage and Memphis May Fire. Hardly ones to let moss grow under their feet, the road dogs now have an ever-brief respite during which they hope to bang out some tunes for a new album, slated for a 2015 release, before heading out again with Machine Head, Children of Bodom and Epica in early October.

Sounds like every bedroom shredder’s wet dream. But lest anyone mistake the band’s good fortune for an overnight success, guitarist Hiran Deraniyagala is quick to point out that various Battlecross incarnations have been kicking around since 2003, at which point they bore far more similarity to Kill ‘Em All­-era Metallica than a Randy Blythe-fronted Slayer. Eight years, thousands of tour miles and a handful of lineup changes later, the group signed with Metal Blade in 2011 and released their first official album, Pursuit of Honor (originally released independently in 2010 under the name Push Pull Destroy, but later re-recorded with new vocalist Kyle “Gumby” Gunther).

Since then, the band has maintained a balls-to-the-wall schedule, with a list of tour mates running the gamut from Five Finger Death Punch to In Flames to Trivium to Rob Zombie, with plenty in between. This grassroots approach has cultivated a devout and ever-growing fan base for “The ‘Cross,” as Chad Nicefield, frontman of fellow Michigan party-metallers Wilson, lovingly referred to them.

The proof is in the numbers: in July 2013, their sophomore effort, War of Will, cracked the bottom half of the Billboard 200 and reached No. 2 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart.

Guitarist Hiran Deraniyagala acknowledges the benefits of positive press and increased airplay on satellite radio, but he still attributes most of the band’s success to simply going out and meeting new fans and friends every night. “When we’re at shows, we hang out. We’re not the band that hangs out in the backstage or hangs out on the bus or van and doesn’t come out,” he elaborates. “We go to our merch table, we go and hang out at the show and just meet people, meet the fans, and take time to take pictures after the show and sign stuff and really give fans the appreciation that they’re there to see you, and they’re there to support you.”

It’s this positive attitude and genuine love for performing that sustains the group when they’re out on the road for months at a time, even when attendance is sparse or they’ve been run completely ragged.  “Once you’re up there, it’s like, fuck everything else, fuck all your problems, fuck what you’re feeling,” Deraniyagala says. “We gotta go and make these people happy, and that’s gonna make us happy. If they walk away saying, ‘That was a fucking awesome show,’ then we know we did our job, we know that it was well worth it.”

Battlecross aren’t content pandering to a close-minded or niche audience either. The group has made some bold, unexpected moves in the past in efforts to expand its fan base – namely, bypassing a Metal Alliance Tour in order to be direct support for progressive metal act Protest the Hero last spring. While the decision left many fans scratching their heads in confusion, Deraniyagala explains that the band didn’t want to get lost amidst the bigger names on a seemingly more appropriate tour, and instead jumped at the opportunity to expand and diversify its fan base.

“We want to turn heads. We want to do what we do, and we want to expand our crowd,” he continues. “We don’t want to just play to just one type of audience. We want to play for everybody.”

Of course, this flies directly in the face of the elitist attitude prevalent in so many subcultures today.  Not that Deraniyagala minds. “It’s like, who cares? I mean, what, you’re selfish and you don’t want to share your band with everybody? Bands play music to be heard, and that’s the whole point of being in a band and touring,” he says.

The band’s reach doesn’t stop with fans of different metal subgenres either. “We seem to be ‘music-friendly,’ I guess in a way for some people,” Deraniyagala muses, citing the band’s lyrical positivity (particularly in songs like “Flesh & Bone”) and sincerity both onstage and off as key factors in attracting a non-metalhead audience. “There’s something genuine about what we do… something that I feel like can cross genres and not just be just a metal band, even though we are a metal band.”

This willingness to please listeners of all backgrounds simply re-emphasizes the group’s unrelenting work ethic, which Deraniyagala says is crucial for all aspiring musicians. “You just gotta put in the work. You gotta believe in what you do. It’s not gonna be easy. People are gonna come and go… There were guys that were from the original lineup that are now no longer in the band. I mean, Tony [Asta, guitarist] and I are technically the only original guys in the band,” he states.

Bon Scott said it first with his signature banshee wail back in 1975: “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll.” And over the last 11 years, Battlecross seem to have adopted his words as their mantra. So what’s next on the thrash metal juggernaut’s radar? A headlining slot at Wacken? Gold and platinum discs? World domination?

Maybe not quite. In fact, Deraniyagala gets his kicks in a much simpler way. “Once we’re onstage, for me, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a small room or a big stage. That’s where I have the most fun. Whether it’s eight people watching us or a thousand, it’s always a good time.”