Justin McCain is riding a wave of success with his band Through Fire, with a single climbing the charts and licensing deals getting the group’s tunes played for massive international audiences. It hasn’t always been easy though, as McCain has had to put in years of work to get to this point.
Through Fire is signed to Sumerian Records and released its debut album, Breathe, in 2016. The band has been touring with acts like Nonpoint and Black Stone Cherry and has scored licensing deals with the WWE and NBC. In the case of the WWE, the band’s single “Stronger” was the theme song for the company’s 2016 “Backlash Event,” which exposed the band to millions of wrestling fans.
When we spoke to Justin on the phone, he was at his Iowa home and the sounds of rambunctious children came through loud and clear. His wife runs a daycare at home, he explained, which was the jumping off point for the interview.
Courtesy New Ocean Media – Through Fire
A press photo for Through Fire.
So you have two kids of your own?
Yes! My daughter is 17, my son is 12.
Great, so you’re into the teenage years now.
Yeah, we started pretty early. You know, my wife and I have been together since high school. We had our daughter when we were seniors and now she’s a teenager.
Wow. So you’ve been doing music while raising a family!
Oh yeah, 100 percent. That’s really all my kids know, growing up around music and this lifestyle. But it’s difficult man. There are a lot of musicians I meet and they say “Oh, I wish we could do what you do, but we have kids man,” and I just look at them and I tell them, “So do I.” It’s not easy, but you can make anything work.
But I attribute a lot of that to my wife because she’s so supportive. I’ve just got a really strong support system here at home and it’s been good.
You think having the family environment has been a help in your career?
Absolutely. I think there’s just different situations in life. For someone who is single and doesn’t have any responsibilities, it’s really easy to get up and go. But for me, it’s not as easy to get up, but the reward is much greater because I do what I do for my family. With their support, we’ve ventured through everything and we’re on this journey together. I couldn’t do this without them, and like I said, with them the reward is much greater. I can teach my kids that they can do anything they want in life. And that’s one of my biggest goals, not to give up.
That’s interesting because the rockstar stereotype is of a young single guy.
That lifestyle definitely exists for some people. Not everyone has a wife and kids and responsibilities, like I said. The environment is there if that’s what you’re looking for, but that’s not by any means why I do what I do. I just have different motives and different goals.
It’s pretty awesome to be in this position, to have these opportunities. It’s also incredible to have a family that’s so supportive, and [who are] part of it with me. Without my wife this band would be nowhere. It’s like I have my own business, and I write the songs. It’s a lot of time invested. … She’s not in the band, but I couldn’t be in this band without her.
I imagine those early years when you were teenagers were really challenging.
Yeah, there’s definitely been ups and downs, but I think that comes along with anything in life. This is not a traditional line of work by any means, but like I said, there’s ups and downs with anything in life. The common denominator is what you’re willing to put into it, and how far you’re willing to go to make things happen.
So you really are a believer that anything is possible with hard work.
I am living proof. And I don’t mean that in a cocky way; I say it humbly.
Anyone can do anything, you just gotta put your mind to it. That’s what’s rewarding about what I do. We live in a small town, there might be maybe 500 people in our town in the middle of Iowa. Flying all over, having a record deal, playing in front of thousands of people, on the verge of having a top [hit]. It’s not like I came up in the music business in L.A.; it’s absolutely something that we’ve worked for, we’ve worked hard from day one. That’s proof right there that anyone can achieve whatever they set their mind to.
Did you guys come up playing the local market in Omaha a lot?
We’ve actually only played there as Through Fire a couple times. We kinda took the approach of immediately, out of the gates, hitting the road touring, and really building the fanbase on a large scale and just putting a lot of time on the road to do that.
We’re playing at home next week. We’re playing Rockfest [May 12 in Council Bluffs, Iowa] with Soundgarden and Papa Roach. We have a lot of support here, both radio stations, 89.7 The River, and Z92 play the band and it’s just really cool, everyone is behind us.
It seems like licensing and radio have gone well for you recently.
Yeah, we’ve got a lot of stations across the board behind it now. We’re on the verge of having our first top 10 single at radio. That’s literally a lifelong dream of mine; it’s not easy to do. Not that a chart position really determines success necessarily … but it’s a goal I’ve always had, you know. It’s just really cool that we’re in the position we are, because that just shows how many people are supporting us, from the different radio stations and fans calling in to request us. It’s almost surreal. You know, it’s like you hear the stories of overnight success. But when you dig deep, it really took a lifetime to get to that point. Now we’re starting to see a lot of success and we’re definitely gonna keep working hard and pushing forward. I’m not saying we’ve reached all our goals, but we’re really blessed in many ways and a lot of great things are happening, but it’s taken a lifetime to get to his point.
How’d you get those licensing deals? With WWE Backlash specifically, was that through your label?
Yeah, the label kinda put that together. They’re always working with some of the people at WWE and I’ve landed some placements with them in the past. I know Jim Johnston and Neil Lawi. It was just one of those things where the label submitted and I submitted and it just ended up being the right fit for what we were looking for. But that one, I’d say, was the label pulling it off. They’ve kicked ass for us. I’ve had multiple record deals in my life and Sumerian, I consider them family, it’s an awesome label to be on.
… I feel like Sumerian has a lockdown on what it’s like to be a label in today’s world. They’re all younger, they all know what’s going on in the music business. They’re artist-friendly. I don’t feel like I’m walking on pins and needles when I go to the offices.
… [And with] regards to licensing there’s been quite a bit. … And we have a real big one we are close to landing, so fingers crossed on that, but I can’t tell you what it is yet.
You founded Through Fire in 2015 and you also played with Emphatic before that. What are your career goals going forward?
Just to keep growing. Just to keep doing what we do and get to the point where its larger and larger and larger. Right now we’re making all the right moves and we’re happy out there touring and meeting all the fans. But for any band, I think the goal is to grow. Just keep doing it, have a career. Right now, it all looks good, but it’s all about perseverance and sustaining what we have right now.
What do you think about the state of the music industry today?
In general, it’s a different world. It’s not a world where people are running out to buy CDs anymore. Obviously things are changing. It went to downloads, now streaming is the hot thing. I think there are still some things that need to be figured out within the industry: New trends and what’s gonna stay for awhile, how to capitalize on that financially.
It’s definitely an exciting time. I think we’re in a new era. I think the state of the rock community is just awesome, because I don’t think there are any boundaries right now. Mastodon has a top five record right now. That’s pretty badass. It’s not the same world where every band that gets in the top five or gets number one, those are gonna be the only bands that do it. Bands like us, who are newer, have the ability to go out there and do what we love and have a real chance. And I think that’s kind of awesome.
I would think as a rock band it’s gotta be tough, because you’re competing with so many bands from the ’90s and 2000s.
Well Metallica jumped us this week on the charts, so yeah, it’s a little frustrating. I almost sent them a tweet saying “Hey, let the little guys have a chance!” (laughs)
So there’s a flip side. If you look at the top 10 you have Metallica, you have Korn. You have some of these bands that literally inspired me to do what I do. And now we’re right next to them on the charts. It’s pretty crazy in that sense. And it’s crowded up there. A lot of those bands, they drop albums or singles, they already have that built-in fanbase, and it came from a time when the music industry was different. They have loyal fans and loyal followers. We’re in the stage where we’re trying to build that.
It’s a little bit different today. We have a chance to get there. What’s cool is that not every band is going to break and get to the point where they want to be, but there is that opportunity. Maybe not a clear path, you can make some detours, but you can do it. That’s what I’m seeing with newer bands and its pretty exciting. And if something was easy, I don’t want it. We want to work for it. We want to earn it.
So the “Breathe” video is about homelessness? What made you want to discuss that issue?
We did the video about the homeless community. We wanted to highlight what’s going on within the community and put some focus on our homeless vets.
With this band, one thing we all want to do is have some sort of positive influence or positive impact. I think that’s really what the greatest thing is about what we do. Every band, every artist, everyone who creates music has that ability, and it’s a very important one in my mind. We chose to make the video that way to try to create some awareness. We provided some links, we did a lot of research on different companies and nonprofits. We hoped to maybe get some donations for them and do what we could, do our part for that specific situation
One thing about music is that it’s very universal but it’s very personal. Someone may hear a song that I write and it will completely speak to them and what’s going on in their life and that may not have anything to do with what I wrote the song about. It’s pretty cool because people can interpret songs how they want.
I actually wrote the song about my sister, who was going through a rough time in life. That was basically me screaming out to God, saying, “If you are there, please help my family.” That’s where that song really stems from. In general, the song is about positivity, about not giving up. Even if you’re in a dark place, even if you feel lost, or if you feel like it’s the end, it’s not. Don’t forget you can always reach out your hand and ask for help. That’s what the song is about. I think it can scratch the surface of many different situations in life and have the ability to help in many ways, if that makes sense.
Are things better with your sister now?
Yeah, she’s doing fantastic, actually. She just had a baby and life is great. It’s pretty cool to see all that turn around. What’s actually pretty crazy, my brother passed away about 12 years ago. That’s really what the main issue was. We’ve all grieved over that. … Every year on April 17, that’s a hard day for our family, because that’s the day our brother passed. Well, that day, when I was writing “Breathe,” it was literally me, screaming, “Please help my family, because we’ve all done everything we can and I don’t know where else to turn.”
Fast forward a year and half and my sister is having a baby. The baby was born on April 17, at the exact moment my brother passed away. They sent me a picture. When I went outside and turned around and the first thing I saw was a single brick on a wall and it said “Breathe.”
It’s crazy how things come full circle. I believe it was all meant to be. I believe my voice was heard and I know that things can turn around in life. And I know that people are watching over us. That’s the story of “Breathe.”
I believe it was all meant to be. I know that things can turn around life.
… And I’m not a religious person. I’m not saying I don’t believe in God, but as far as religion in general. But I know my voice was heard by someone. That’s definitely not a coincidence.
We’re hitting the road with All That Remains for several dates in May. We’re out with Seether for several dates, then we’re out with Otherwise for a month and a half. Come see us, hang out. We’ll be putting out a single at some point, we just shot a video in L.A.
For more on Through Fire, check out its Pollstar artist page.