When Spencer Charnas started a band, he kept hearing that in order to make it, he would need to find something to set his band apart from all the others. Does growling songs from the perspective of Freddy Krueger or the clown from “It,” often while dressed like them, count?
Turns out it does. The Swampscott native’s horror-inspired metalcore band Ice Nine Kills has developed a large and devoted following and performed to sold-out shows around the world. Their most recent album rose to number 29 on the Billboard 200 Chart.
The band’s theatric performances and eclectic influences – from Freddy Krueger to Adele and “Les Misérables” – may account for their popularity. “We used to be more of a traditional metalcore band, a sound that combines the energy of hardcore with the technicality of heavy metal,” said Charnas. “But as my tastes expanded, I began to include lyrical imagery from horror movies and the melodic sensibilities that I picked up from Broadway shows. I would describe INK’s current sound as ‘horror-influenced theatrical metal’ or ‘theatricore.’”
Of course there’s a little bit of Broadway when Jews are involved. Charnas grew up in an observant Jewish family that went to the former Temple Israel in Swampscott, where he was bar mitzvahed. (Incidentally, Swampscott is also the hometown of David Lee Roth, another famous Jewish rocker with the rock band Van Halen.)
Charnas attended the Tower School in Marblehead and Swampscott High School. He began his path to horror-influenced theatrical metal by playing covers of songs of ’90s rock bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains during Tower talent shows with his friend Jeremy Schwartz.
At the same time, he went to see Broadway shows with his family, and found himself drawn to the horror section of the video store that was once inside the Vinnin Square Stop & Shop. Charnas also said he was inspired by hearing the cantor at his synagogue sing, and that Jewish religious music has influenced his melodies, which include many minor cadences.
When Charnas was a freshman at Swampscott High School, he went to the Worcester Palladium to see Goldfinger, a punk rock band from Los Angeles. The lead singer pulled Charnas and other audience members up to the stage, and unexpectedly handed him the microphone to sing part of a song. On that night almost 20 years ago, he started Ice Nine Kills.
The band’s name comes from ice-nine, a type of water in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s 1963 novel “Cat’s Cradle.” Ice-nine freezes at room temperature, and therefore has the potential to destroy the world. Yet Charnas said metal is an often-misunderstood genre that can serve as a healthy outlet for inner pain. “It lets you forget about the trials and tribulations of everyday life, and puts you in an alternate universe,” he said. “So much of the time people say, ‘your music has helped me through a rough time, and you’re what I put on to get away from it all.’ ”
For years Ice Nine Kills played venues including North Shore locations like Swampscott High School and the Marblehead Community Center, and opened for other bands. They even tried what Charnas dubbed “guerilla-style marketing,” attending concerts and selling their music to people in line. They found mainstream success with their 2015 concept album “Every Trick in the Book,” in which each song was inspired by a different work of literature, including “Dracula” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
They cemented their star status in 2018 with the release of “The Silver Scream,” which based each song on a different horror movie. Some songs take the perspective of different characters in a movie, giving Charnas the opportunity to play several different people in one song. Other times, they incorporate elements of the soundtrack into their music.
The band goes to a whole new level when performing songs live. “We give the fans a real theatrical show, where there’s a number of different costume changes, we have actors on stage playing characters from those various franchises. … [We] really try to embrace the whole feeling of being at the movies,” he said. They also feature special guest performers: Stanley Kubrick’s grandson helped them perform a song based on “The Shining.”
Offstage, the bandmates are much nicer than the villains they portray. They performed in Australia, where wildfires have destroyed more than 14.8 million acres and killed hundreds of millions of animals. They raised $40,000 selling t-shirts of a kangaroo wearing a Freddy Krueger sweater and glove, and donated the money to the Australian Red Cross and Australian Zoo Wildlife Warriors, an animal aid foundation started by the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin.
“I was thinking, ‘it’s so easy – we already have the shirt design,’ ” said Charnas. “All we have to do is put up a few posts saying that we’re raising money’ – how could we not do it?”
Turns out Ice Nine saves.