Inter Arma continues down a dark path

Mike Paparo and Co. recently resumed touring following a 20-month freeze that obliterated a promising 2020 and likely delayed a new record until 2023

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Inter Arma

For Inter Arma, like many bands, 2020 essentially served as a lost year.

In addition to having a full slate of concerts obliterated, including a handful of European festivals and a long tour opening for Deafheaven, the musically adventurous, atmospherically heavy Virginia rockers were unable to write new material, since the band’s dynamic requires the members to be together in a room when creating, which proved an impossibility in the early months of the pandemic.

“We are definitely a band that writes together in our practice space, so it’s hard when that’s not happening,” singer Mike Paparo said by phone in late November from his home outside of Richmond, Virginia. “We’re not one of those bands where one guy comes up with an entire song on his own and then sends it to everyone on the computer. … Some bands went out and recorded three albums [during the shutdown], and more power to them, but we just don’t work that way.”

To make matters worse, when the band finally regrouped, gathering for rehearsals toward the end of 2020, its bassist departed, forcing the musicians to shift their focus from writing new tunes to relearning past material with a rejiggered lineup. “We’ve written a couple of new songs here and there, but a lot of this past year has been spent teaching [our new bass player] the back catalog,” said Paparo, who will join his Inter Arma bandmates in concert at Spacebar on Sunday, Dec. 5 (proof of vaccination required). “Don’t get me wrong, I’m always thinking of ideas, and I have lines and concepts and all of that stuff, but I need to hear the song and feel the vibe from it first. If the song’s not there, I just have volumes of what at this point amounts to chicken scratch.” 

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In revisiting the band’s past catalog, Paparo was initially struck by how many songs he’d forgotten, particularly on early albums such as Sundown, from 2010. “I mean, I wrote the lyrics for them, and I couldn’t remember anything,” Paparo said, and laughed, going on to admit that he visited online lyric sites to remind himself precisely what he had written. “It’s funny. What does say the lyrics are here? OK, cool.”

Inter Arma did manage one release during the pandemic, however, issuing the cover record Garber Days Revisited in July 2020, which finds the band reimagining songs by everyone from Prince (“Purple Rain”) and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (“Runnin’ Down a Dream”) to Neil Young, whose “Southern Man” serves as the record's spiritual and emotional anchor, owing in part to Paparo’s long connection to Young, as well as the way the song reflects his own experiences moving from New England to Richmond.

“My mom loves Neil Young and played his [music] all the time, so the first time I heard that song was as a kid,” said Paparo, adding that, while the song has been a profoundly meaningful part of Inter Arma’s set list for more than a decade, it recently gained added resonance as Richmond started to grapple more openly with its history amid a resurgent Black lives matter movement. “It did [reiterate the song’s importance for us], especially after what happened in the summer of 2020, when they finally tore down these goddamn [Confederate] statues that litter our city."

Paparo has never shied from writing about politics in Inter Arma, though it was more veiled on early albums, coming through more cleanly on Sulphur English, from 2019, a meaner, nastier, uglier record shaped in part by the social and political turmoil the songwriter watched ripping through the U.S. in the months the album started to take shape. “I think the disgust about certain aspects of what was going on in our country at the time took over, and it was like, [forget] it, this is what it’s all going to be about,” he said.

Don’t expect a brighter turn when a new record finally surfaces, likely in 2023, with Paparo careful to note that whether he’s exploring internal strife or global collapse, he tends to take a darker view.

“I don’t like happy music. I don’t like happy art. I don’t like happy books. I don’t like pop music, for the most part,” he said. “The kind of stuff I’ve been putting together for whatever the new Inter Arma becomes, it’s bleak. … I’ve tried to remain positive in recent years, and personally I’ve done an OK job at that. But, man, the world is messed up, and when I’m writing I can’t put on a happy face and be like, well, it’s bleak right now but it’s going to get better. I don’t know if it’s gonna. It’s like, OK, cool, can’t wait for climate change to kick our ass and the water wars to happen. The injustices keep piling up, but, OK, cool, great. Let me remain hopeful here. I wish I could write something upbeat, like, ‘Hey, we’re in a dark time but we’re going to get through it!’ But I just don’t think it’s in me.”