Death metal bands and fans crave gore — so long as it’s fictional or abstracted. Put an actual dead body in front of most of them, though, and it’s likely their blood lust would turn into disgust, and they’d turn and run as fast as anyone else. That’s not the case for Justin Stubbs, guitarist and vocalist in death metal duo Encoffination who, when he’s not onstage, works as a funeral director. Most of his clients are unaware that he plays death metal, but considering the genre is obsessively focused on the macabre, he’s not exactly leading a double life. While Stubbs plays in a variety of bands, Encoffination is the one that’s most directly influenced by his day job. III — Hear Me, O’ Death (Sing Thou Wretched Choirs), their third album, stretches out the already-slow tempos of Stubbs and drummer Wayne Sarantopoulos.
Their 2011 record, O’ Hell, Shine in Thy Whited Sepulchres focused on death rituals, while this year’s III — Hear Me, O’ Death (Sing Thou Wretched Choirs) contemplates eternity. Despite his grim professions, Stubbs is highly approachable, matter-of-fact about the nature of his music and the profession that drives it. In our interview, we talked about musicians as gods, his initial hesitation with the funeral industry, and what he wants to see change in it.
In what ways is O’Hell similar to your previous albums?
Everything about Encoffination is death. That’s the ultimate theme. The first record focused on occult themes, but I was basically writing shit that sounded cool. The second record was strictly about death practices and death rituals. It was kind of a textbook look at what I do for a living. Not like Carcass or The County Medical Examiners, and not gross pathology, it’s more like the psychology of death, and why we memorialize the dead the way we do — why we embalm. With this record, it’s more about life after death. It’s an homage to death, and us singing to Death, the personal entity that is Death. It’s death metal in its purest form.
The last song, “Mould of Abandonment,” ends with a deep voice croaking, “Forever.” It’s the clearest vocal on the record, and it’s haunting, because death is…forever, there’s no better way to put it.
Death is the only guarantee. I don’t believe in anything else. I understand death everyday; I work with death and I write about it.
Did your desire to work with death come first, or did your fascination with metal come first?
Metal definitely came first. I got into death metal when I was 12 years old, and I’m 33 now. I got interested in funeral service when I was probably 18 or 19, it was suggested by a family member. They said, “What are you going to do with your life?” I was like, “Fuck, I don’t know.” I worked in a kitchen, I had no ambition. “Why don’t you come meet the local funeral director, he’s a friend of mine, and he’ll tell you about the job. You like these gory horror movies and you like this metal stuff, you don’t seem to be bothered by gore.”
I’d always been comfortable with grieving. I sat down with this funeral director, and he told me about the job. I was like, “I’m a kid, I don’t wanna do that. That’s some serious adult shit. I just want to listen to death metal and skateboard.” Ten years later, when I was almost 30, I had pretty much done nothing with my life. I had worked periodic jobs, everything from being a cable guy to managing retail stores to selling cell phones, selling life insurance, being a telecom person — all kinds of shit. Something sparked an interest in me, and I did some research. There’s a school in Atlanta for mortuary science. I told my wife this is what I want to do. It’s very interesting, it’s a profession that’s always gonna be needed. I moved to Atlanta and went to school and got a job, and I’m still doing it. It clicked with me, right from the get-go.
The only kind of weird thing is that funeral service is very conservative, and I’m not. There’s a ministry, which I don’t do. I’m atheist. I have to keep my thoughts to myself sometimes. I’m a very moral person, I have very high standards for myself and my family and friends, and I like to help people. There’s something very fulfilling in what I do, whether it’s holding a body or making arrangements with a family.
When someone’s going through that, it’s the worst time in their life, and I have to be the one to sit them down and talk to them. I’m a guiding hand through this difficult time, when people don’t know what to fucking do. On the other hand, when a body comes in, after the doctors, after a car wreck or something tragic, I have to put it back together. I get to be the one to make them whole again so they can be laid to rest. That’s really personally fulfilling and interesting because of the science behind it, and I really enjoy what I do. No one who I work with has any idea who I am personally or what I do in my spare time, but I get lots of inspiration for what I write about in what I see.
It is pretty hard to keep separate, I imagine, but I also feel like if a death metal fan actually saw a dead body, they’d flip out.
I hear people say stupid shit all the time, and I wanna go, “If you even knew.” If you had any idea what I deal with and what I see and what I fucking smell on a regular basis, you would not be able to handle it.
What are your opinions on natural burial? Do you think it’s something that can gain wider acceptance?
I think it’s very interesting. There’s a monastery here in the Atlanta area, and they offer natural burial. They’re very strict about what they consider to be natural — the body’s not allowed to be embalmed, it can’t be placed in a container that contains metal or moving parts, it has to be all wood construction, or wicker, or a sheet. I’ve only personally handled one natural burial service. I really like the idea of dust to dust — conventionally, you bury a body in the ground with nothing covering it, and it’s going to completely decompose in a few years. You can dig it up and not find anything. I like it, [but] I don’t see it gaining a very wide audience or growing the way cremation has — cremation is 40% of my business.
I want to educate people about what we do. A lot of people think funeral directors are crooks, that we’re just money hungry and we’re robbing people at their weakest point. But what a lot of people don’t understand is that it’s a business. We have to make money to provide these services.
I’ve heard people complaining when we’re showing them all these caskets, and they act like I’m talking about them like they’re used cars. Well, it’s a major purchase. Some people, they don’t care what they do — “Throw me in the ground, put me in a cardboard box, I don’t give a shit.” And then some people will spend the last dime they have to memorialize their loved ones for their own peace of mind.
A lot of bigger metal musicians are portrayed as these larger than life figures, almost immortal, in a way. But they’re not. We lost Dio and Jeff Hanneman recently, Tony Iommi has gone through cancer treatment, King Diamond had bypass surgery not too long ago. Our “gods” are very much mortal. Is that something you ever think about, in your art or life?
No one I’ve ever met in the music industry has been larger than life once you get to know them. There are very few people, even in the biggest bands out there, that don’t have day jobs when they’re not on the road, because there’s no celebrity that comes from metal anymore. When I was a kid, I looked up to musicians. The older I got — and it really came about with the internet — you can connect with these people one-on-one. I’ve befriended so many people in bands, and they’re just normal fucking people! They have jobs and they have families and they like dumb shit that’s not metal. In a way, it’s demystifying.
It’s weird to worship these people when they’re just trying to get by, like the rest of us. But it feels like it clashes with the part of metal that relies on mystique.
I like the mystique in metal, to a certain extent. Sometimes it can get really fucking silly. It’s art. It’s an escape, there’s always been an escape. It’s a catharsis — a way out of my normal life.