Behind Northlane’s ‘Negative Energy’

Last week, Northlane revealed their documentary, “Negative Energy”.  The 31 and a half minute video took an unexpectedly intimate look at the internal workings of the Sydney band, through line-up shifts, concerns about their future, and personal struggles.  A breathtaking experience that’s bookended by renditions of the beautiful “Sleepless”, it has left a meaningful impression upon us since its premiere on YouTube.

Northlane’s critically acclaimed album Alien released on 2nd August 2019, and centres around the lyrical exploration of an extremely challenging upbringing through addiction and uncertainty… and managing to rise above that.  The album’s success saw Northlane win an ARIA award as well as rejuvenated the band after some uncertainty, seeing them sell out shows in Europe and UK.

“Negative Energy” sets the dark and intimate tone with vocalist Marcus Bridge playing “Sleepless” in dusky evening light, before showing guitarist Josh Smith standing roadside of Electric Brixton in London.  Josh is talking about the show ahead of the band that evening (at the 1,500 capacity venue), and it’s an important moment that captures a distinct change:

“Why this is a really big deal? Because last time we were in the UK headlining, a bunch of the venues got downgraded, no one came to the shows. And this time round, we’ve been packing rooms out across the whole country, and it feels fucking awesome.” – Josh Smith

It’s a moment of success that sets a solid point of reflection in “Negative Energy” as to where they’ve come. And much like the theme that runs behind Alien, it’s soon apparent that the Northlane experience has been one of overcoming challenges as a band as well as personally.  In 2014, the well-established band saw the departure of their frontman Adrian Fitipaldes.  This shift led to some professional uncertainty about the band, and it’s a tough moment of the documentary to take in when Josh describes it, saying “It was so obvious to me that they thought we were done.”

With an admirable focus on finding opportunity inside a challenge, Northlane continued.  Drummer Nic Pettersen expressed the nervousness the band collectively carried, taking in the 2000+ auditions for a new vocalist.  When it came to Marcus’ audition (a rendition of “Dream Awake”), Nic felt that he stood out to the band at the time, saying that “He had something that none of the other people had.”  And Josh reiterated that Marcus was “The clear winner to us”.  There was still some doubt though, with guitarist Jon Deiley admitting he didn’t fully come on board until a year or so into the experience, despite believing in Marcus’ ability.

Though it was daunting to come into a well-established project, and adapting to the band’s style, Marcus jumped into the role immediately. Both Node and Mesmer won ARIA awards for the band. It was the experience of making Mesmer with producer David Bendeth in New Jersey that had sparked a sense of there being more to be said by Marcus. I remember David saying in our interview about Northlane that “They all come from great families except for Marcus.”  I’d wondered at the time what he meant and even whether I should have edited that particular highly personal comment out.

The immediateness and desire to keep “the Northlane train going” meant that there wasn’t much time to reflect upon what Marcus had personally wanted to bring to the band. Working with David allowed some room for this, but Marcus still felt there was more he could personally put into the music, but he just didn’t have the confidence to do so. Already needing to prove his worth in the band, it seemed too risky for him to add something else potentially left-of-field to the mix.  He contributed lyrics on “Heartmachine” and “Fade” though, with subject matter to be later returned to.

Further upheaval came in 2018, when bassist Alex Milovic left, and Josh assumed the role of managing the band.  Nic had temporarily seen the departure as potentially inspiring him to make the same choice, given the mindsets of the band members were similar at the time. It had seemed like a solution to their difficulty.  Jon described things around that time as being the lowest ever for the band, and a conflict between himself and Josh at a show inspired a much-needed outpouring of honesty.  Jon feels that it was a turning point for the band, and important for “building the next step, building the next evolution of Northlane” – something that would come from a genuinely dark place.

“I just didn’t want to be on the planet anymore. I didn’t want to be alive.” – Jon Deiley

Marcus was questioning his position in the band too, and wanted to find a way to be happy; enjoying what he was doing, while not letting down his band members. He said “Everything was in limbo for awhile.”  The arrival of bassist Brendon Padjasek seemed to be a remedy to many things, with his fresh energy for the band, as well as his connection with the band members.

Curiously, Brendon had had a dream about joining Northlane, the night before he’d been contacted by Jon. It was an immediate no-brainer decision for him to go for it. An “all night slumber party” had bonded the band members, and it was a GO. This injection of energy is not only apparent through moments of “Negative Energy”, but also when you see the band on stage in comparison to how they seemed previously.

In March 2018, I’d reviewed Northlane’s set at Download Festival in Melbourne, saying it was limited in crowd connection, and flat by way of vibe and sound; that “it wouldn’t matter if we were there or not”.  In contrast, their set at the 2020 Unify Gathering festival inspired reactions from me like “full of energy and heart to lose yourself in”, and the set was a stand out experience over the entire weekend.  The pre- and post-Brendon effect as well as the metamorphosis of the band was obvious.  On Brendon, Marcus says “It really changed everything, really, from the point he joined the band, the whole energy of our band was so much more positive and a lot more friendly than it had ever been before.”

It explains a lot to hear that 2018 was a complicated time for Northlane. Josh described finding that people around them professionally and personally weren’t completely invested in them during uncertain times. He said “As soon as things start to not go as well as they expected, those friends you thought you had take a step back and the relationships start to fizzle.” Not doing as well as was expected, a financial downturn was not only impacting the band, but impacting its wider support.  Recouping costs was the immediate focus for Josh in the manager role, to get “our heads above water”.

It was also Josh that drove the existence of “Negative Energy”.  He had spoken with the documentary’s director and videographer Neal Walters about wanting to capture the Northlane story, especially going in to Alien. Neal shared with me “The initial idea came from a meeting with Josh before Alien was recorded. We sat down and worked out how we wanted the full cycle to be documented. The first idea we had turned out to be very different to how the finished product looks, mainly because of how Marcus’s story came to be told.”  Neal says there was “SO much to tell” about the five years prior to Alien, as well as about the album itself, but he adds that “once the album was finished, it became much more simple though, as we had a massive story to tell just with what had happened recently”.

Jon’s music that was created in his personal period of darkness had formed the roots of Alien. In “Negative Energy”, he touched upon his journey of seeking help for his state of mind. Even as a band member of an internationally touring, ARIA award winning band, this share reiterates the fact that success doesn’t make anyone immune to mental health challenges. To Jon, there was a lot riding on the album, with it seeming like a make or break attempt for Northlane.

“It has to do well.” – Jon Deiley

This darkness opened up the potential for the album’s subject matter to match it, and Marcus’ upbringing was spoken about, in all of its multiple angles of impact.  Mostly looking away from the camera while speaking upon it in “Negative Energy”, Marcus talked about his family members and also the importance of getting out what he needed to say.  These were things that he’d not even been candidly open with his band brothers of Northlane at the time.  The desire for the album to be heart-driven was important, and this is what would be happening through Alien.

“I never got to really talk to her again.” – Marcus Bridge

In white lettering on a black background, we learn that Marcus’ mother had died ahead of the band’s US tour.  The quiet moment hits hard. As both manager and friend, Josh had immediately cancelled publicity around the tour, intent on protecting Marcus.  Describing him as “the most resilient and hardest person I’ve ever met in my life”, Josh learned from Marcus’ choice that the tour would continue.

I’d asked Neal about the way he’d filmed these moments with Marcus; with him speaking about his mother, as it was done respectfully as well as intimately.  There was a lot more to this than I realised. Describing it as “more difficult than you could believe”, Neal shared that his own mother had died two months prior to that moment. He says “Marcus and I had a very deep connection over this, and it made filming those scenes very difficult. We worked so closely on the whole project, but I think ultimately it made the whole vision come to life better than we ever thought.”

With a simple black and white style throughout, “Negative Energy” was also stylishly understated yet impactful too; leaving the attention to go to the story being shared. Neal says that he always tries to work with a very simplistic style, which he says is why he feels that he works so well with Northlane. He adds “We also worked with Pat Galvin [of Hollow Bones Studio] on the titles, who is the absolute guru when it comes to that stuff.”

It took roughly three months after the end of the UK and Europe tour for Alien for “Negative Energy” to be finished.  No smooth sailing in its creation, Neal describes “disagreements aplenty, and times that I really thought no one would see this ever.”  But he adds “I guess when you have footage that is an intense as this, and so much content [Neal has terabytes worth of footage that never got used], there’s always going to be butting of heads. Josh and myself are very passionate people, but we worked hard and made sure that what everyone sees is the best possible product.”

It’s clear that the vulnerable nature of the documentary is due to the strong bond between Neal and the band. He has worked with Northlane since just after Marcus joined, and feels that the time and experiences they’ve had have contributed to this connection. He says “There’s been many a long night spend with each member of Northlane, that has bought us all to be closer than the work entails. We are all brothers, simple as that. I’ve never really been known as the “photo guy”, it’s more of a touring with my friends around the world kind of deal.”

Watch “Negative Energy” below.


[Photo of Marcus Bridge courtesy of Neal Walters]
Kel Burch

Creator and caretaker of Depth Mag, Kel uses her superpowers of empathy, word-weaving, and feeling everything deeply, to immerse herself in music before returning to reality to write about her experience with it. [Loved the read? Shout Kel a latte.]

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