People have picked up a multitude of hobbies and distractions since the beginning of the pandemic. And The Wildfires Projekt also known as Johnny Zirkel picked up reading and the book was “Malleus Maleficarum” a historical guide to witch hunting, an interesting read and at first just a healthy consumption of curiosity to Zirkel. But the purification ritual of burning witches stirred Zirkel and propelled his third project this year- an EP written and recorded in lawn chairs in a garage with The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus’ John Espy.
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Zirkel under The Wildfires Projekt moniker was on tour with The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, who Espy plays drums for, earlier this year until halted by the pandemic. Espy and Zirkel had also collaborated on The Wildfires Projekt’s previous two EP’s, From Which We Came and Garden Statement Pt. 1 that was also co-produced with The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus frontman Ronnie Winter. With an established friendship and in an itch to stay busy, Espy and Zirkel recorded “Set Me on Fire” the first song to introduce The Wildfires Projekt’s latest EP, Through Fear and Fighting, and the most collaborative effort between the pair thus far.
“John and I have a great dynamic,” Zirkel told American Songwriter. “And what’s great is I’ll bring in some ideas that might be stuck in that ‘00s vibe and he has the ability to pull them out and make them sound modern.”
“Set Me on Fire” drafts lyrical parallels and similarities between the colonial practice of witch burning and the persecutory nature of the world as it stands today. And the song offered up a hardcore take on an otherwise dynamic sounding EP.
“That was the first song written,” Zirkel said about ‘Set Me on Fire.’ “At that point there wasn’t even an EP in the work. We were just bored and started working on a song and that one came out. And there’s a book called the Malleus Maleficarum, which is a guide to witch hunting and somehow I started reading about it and thought it was a cool topic, but It wasn’t relevant to now. So I kind of turned it in to this idea of religious persecution and someone wanting to be who they want to be and society not liking it, which is where the ‘set me on fire’ thing came from, because that was how they used to purify witches. So it’s a kind of dark, deep song.”
Zirkel’s pull to writing dark, thematic songs is nothing new and he has continuously made stances in his songs regarding bullying, mental illness, and addiction most recently. Zirkel has personally dealt with these issues and knew a lot of others did as well and the notion pushed him to consistently place those ideas into each of his releases. And the focus to addiction on Through Fear and Fighting was an issue that was equally important to Zirkel and intertwined with the previously explored ideas of mental illness and bullying.
“Everything I write about is firsthand,” he said. “So, a lot of has to do with mental illness and addiction. Previously I focused more on mental illness and more recently it’s more about addiction. For me the mental illness came first with depression, anxiety, OCD and addiction came later as a self-medicating technique that I’m passed now, but it was easier to look back on after I was out of it instead of stuck in it, so this album deals with both ideas heavily.”
Zirkel’s experiences with mental illness and closeness to suicide prevention led him to create the Non-Profit, Reversing the Trend, which advocates for anti-bullying and allows Zirkel to tour and speak to school-age kids all over the US. And after nine months of speaking at over 400 schools, Zirkel realized a new way to connect with his listeners.
“We had been doing some stuff locally in schools in New Jersey and we had done a televised thing that received good reviews but the internet tore us apart and some schools hired us to come and talk about it and anti-bullying and suicide prevention. Next thing you know we’re on the road doing this. It was and still is very rewarding. It allowed us to be there in person in a more focused environment and speak to people and answer questions, for people who needed that.”
Using his own experiences, Zirkel expanded upon more than just concept and message in his music however, and fused some of his old and new style together for a hybrid song of sorts for the single, “Wasting Time”. With the heavy personality and hardcore emphasis of The Wildfires Projekt’s previous EP, From Which We Came, Zirkel wanted to introduce Through Fear and Fighting with something lighter and more pop-punk leaning.
“The last EP was more heavy so we wanted to be more diverse and show a different side with ‘Wasting Time’ for the people who have only heard the heavier side but it will also give the best of both worlds to people who do know us,” Zirkel said.
Off tour with The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus Zirkel and Espy remain hard at work on The Wildfires Projekt and though Zirkel is uncertain if there will a fourth EP between he and Espy this year, he says there will certainly be another single.
“I’m sure top of next year we will have something else and there’s something pretty cool that I’m looking forward to soon,” Zirkel said.
Through Fear and Fighting EP is out now on streaming platforms and you can also check out the other two releases produced with Espy and Winter here on Spotify.