Inter Arma's T.J. Childers on 'New Heaven,' Hard Work, and Hallucinogens

The Inter Arma drummer and songwriter tells Salvo all about their ambitious new album, his rock'n'roll childhood, and his best George Jones story.

Inter Arma's T.J. Childers on 'New Heaven,' Hard Work, and Hallucinogens
Inter Arma / Photo by Jonah Livingston

T.J. Childers paints houses. Right now, he works for a property rental company, but he's been using a paintbrush to make ends meet for the past 25 years. It's not the most glamorous pastime, but it keeps the lights on. "I just go into apartment units and Jackson Pollock the fuckin' place and leave," he told me one balmy spring day. "It's the least fulfilling type of this work I could possibly be doing. But it's better than when I was painting houses for a guy who was working for a contractor and I wasn't getting paid for like six months at a time. At least the paychecks are steady."

He'd just gotten home from work when I called him up to talk about his other, far more exciting (and somewhat less stable) occupation: serving as the drummer and principal songwriter for Richmond, VA's Inter Arma, one of the most challenging and beloved extreme metal bands going. Childers and a couple of his best pals—Mike Paparo and Steven Russell, better known as Dirt—founded the band back in 2006. Almost twenty years later, those three original members plus long-serving guitarist Trey Dalton have been joined by their latest bassist, Joel Moore (more on that saga later) and are preparing to release a real shitkicker of a new album.

Inter Arma is challenging because they refuse to adhere to any set genre or sound, and are just as happy tearing through a bloody car crash of death metal and noise as they are floating through a haunting Neil Young cover or channeling Paparo's inner Pete Steele atop a sonic tapestry of psychedelic folk. They are maddeningly good at being weird and catching their listeners off guard, and their new album, New Heaven, is no exception to the rule (more on that later, too).

Inter Arma is beloved not just because they are delightful fellas (though they very much are) or because the audience can tell exactly how much fun they're having together on an offstage (though it's always obvious) or because they've become an essential part of Richmond's heavy music legacy (though they have).

T.J. Childers at work / Photo by Alyssa Lorenzon

Inter Arma is beloved because they pour so much of themselves into their music, hold absolutely nothing back, and reliably resurface every once in a while with another spectacularly great album that catches us all by surprise yet again.

T.J. Childers is a big reason for that. As the drummer, he quite literally holds it all together, but his talents as a songwriter eclipse his formidable skills behind the kit. Childers was raised in a musical household and his rock'n'roll education began as early as it could have; since then, he's become a veritable encyclopedia of musical techniques, sounds, songs, and stories. Oh, and he has plenty of thoughts to share, too—as Childers himself readily offers, "I've only been playing drums since I was three years old, so yeah, I have some fucking opinions on things. I will talk shit."

He's earned it. I first met the Inter Arma boys over 15 years ago, probably at one of their shows with Bastard Sapling or Balaclava in The Charleston's basement, and we've been friends ever since. As a result, I've been lucky enough to watch them grow over the years, to shed their early "sludge/doom" genre tag, start playing bigger and bigger stages, and evolve into something truly special. I try not to get too sappy here in Salvo, but I really am so very proud of them—and I'm thrilled to be able to share the following conversation with y'all.

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Album art for 'New Heaven' / Click here to stream!


TJ: CHILDERS: Hello, Kimberly.

Thank you for talking to me for my little zine. I know you're gonna have to do a billion of these, since you guys are all fancy now.

Yeah, that's us, fancy.

Well, you know, you just played the new record at Roadburn. That's pretty fancy.

Yeah, that was cool. You're right. It's a long way from playing a basement show in Philadelphia. I miss that shit, though. I really do. I mean, I think about that all the time. I was talking about the first inter Arma van the other day; it was a 77 E-150. Ford, and it was forest green. When we got it, it had shag carpeting, and we ripped all that shit out and we put all of our shit in there, plus all five of us, in a van that had like 250,000 miles on it. It had no business running up and down the fucking East Coast, down to Texas and Chicago, all the fucking places we took it. I miss the old punk days.

Speaking of the new record, it's taking you guys a little while to get to this point.

Well, I don't know if you know about the bass player saga or not.

I read a bit about it—how you kind of Spinal Tapped your way through a few of them.

We Spinal Tapped the shit out of that one! So we didn't practice from March until August of 2020, just because of, you know, everything. And our first practice back in August, at the end of the practice, Andrew the bass player quit. And then we had Brantley, who plays drums in Earthling. I more or less taught him how to play bass and it worked out for a while until things kind of went into a tailspin for him, and then he had to go. And then we were bass player-less for like six months, and we had a couple people fill in.

And then Steven asked Joel if he would be interested in doing it, which was funny because out of everybody in the band, I know Joel the best; I knew that he was a fucking ripping guitar player and engineer who records bands and writes his own solo records and shit. I just never considered that he would want to play bass for us. Talk about having a weight taken off of your shoulders. Holy shit.

How did having him around change the way you wrote the record?

Well, we've never had a bass player who really contributed anything musically in the past. By that, I mean, we've never had a bass player who contributed anything musically. I didn't mean that to sound indefinite, because it's a definite statement. He was contributing ideas and riffs and little transitions in between the verse and the chorus, and he's just great to bounce off of. It upped the songwriting dynamic by a very large percentage.

And now you've got this new record, which, obviously it's good. You know it's good. You guys took enough time on it. You're good at doing this.

Oh, see, I never I never know if it's good. I feel confident that it is, let's say passable. It's very rare—maybe on a song or two, I'll be like, alright, this kicks ass—but like "Gardens in the Dark," that's totally fucking different for us. So I'm thinking, you know, this is a new kind of thing we're doing. Is this good? I'm not really 100% sure. 

You guys are always doing a new thing, though.

Yeah, and that uncertainty is there. The death metal songs and the black metal psychedelic blah blah blah, okay, yeah, I know we got those, we can churn those out. But when there's something that's a bit outside of our already kind of fucked up box. It's like, is this good? I don't know!

Forest Service Road Blues, by Inter Arma
from the album New Heaven

I think so. The one that gave me the most chills was the last track, "Forest Service Blues," and that's not metal at all.

Yeah, I'm really happy with how that turned out. I've had the music since probably 2010 or 11. It was going to be a bigger thing, where it would like get fast and go into a black metal thing or whatever. And I was playing it on my acoustic guitar signed by George Jones like a year ago, and I was thinking, 'I think this could be a thing by itself.' I gave it to Mike and he's like, 'I think I got something for it.' It wasn't until we got into the studio and we were recording that I actually heard the melody and lyrics, and I was like 'Fuck yeah, fucking knocked it out of the park.'