Yakuza Interview with Bruce Lamont: A Call to Observe Something Beyond Ourselves and a Call to Scare Yuppies

When Yakuza vocalist/saxophonist Bruce Lamont talks about a great change and “something beyond ourselves” imminently about to occur, I don’t think he means apocalypse in the traditional sense, like he pictures some kind of catastrophic societal collapse nightmare scenario à la Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, because, as he notes in our interview, it’s happened before. If you don’t think World War I was the end of the world, go back and read up.

Yakuza‘s fifth album (first for Profound Lore), Of Seismic Consequence, deals with these issues and has a sense of dread throughout, fully conscious of the impending but aware of the inevitability too. It’s a striking record for a number of reasons, its themes among them, but musically progressive as ever, Yakuza continue to be one of America‘s most unique and driven bands. Even a casual listen to Of Seismic Consequence from someone familiar with its predecessor, Transmutations (Prosthetic Records, 2007), will reveal a host of areas where the band has moved forward, Lamont‘s increased use of melodic singing being the most obvious.

But Yakuza has never just been about Lamont, however much his sundry guest appearances elsewhere, side-projects and solo work might make him the most recognizable figure in the band. Guitarist/vocalist Matt McClelland, bassist/vocalist Ivan Cruz and drummer/keyboardist James Staffel each play a central role in making Yakuza what they are in 2010. Sanford Parker‘s production work on Of Seismic Consequence didn’t hurt either.

After the jump, Lamont discusses his visions of the changes the world is about to undergo, how Yakuza came to work with Profound Lore, and just how great it is to scare the crap out of yuppies, which, no matter how you feel about the music, is something I think we can all agree on. Enjoy the Q&A.

Give me some background on the meaning of the album title. Is there a narrative or a theme running through the songs that the title Of Seismic Consequence represents?

Yeah, a variety of themes. It seems there are a similar number of coincidences occurring the past couple of years, loose interpretations of end of the world scenarios. Just with the whole Mayan calendar thing, 2012 and all that, amongst a lot of recent environmental catastrophes and whatnot, it all seems to be happening within the last couple of years, more so now than ever before, and there’s all these warnings within history saying we’re in this period where something’s going to occur. So a lot of the lyric themes and topics revolve around that, but I was thinking more of it as metaphorical, in a sense, more where we’re entering into an age of epic transformation, into something beyond ourselves. Something I don’t think we can fully comprehend yet. Something is going to occur in this lifetime that’s gonna be a big change, in history. Something bigger than even, say, the cultural shift in the 1960s. I think that was a burp in regards to what is going to happen with evolution. I can’t really pinpoint it either, there’s just hints of what that may consist of. The advancement of technology, the way the earth has been reacting to us and what we’ve done in the last 100 years. All that combined. That’s what was running through all our minds collectively as a band when writing the music, when working with the lyrical themes and everything like that. That title, which Jim texted me one night, very late, and said, Of Seismic Consequence, and I said, “Perfect. Perfect. Yes.” That’s where it comes from.

What do you think it is about the present that’s different from past eras that would allow these events or this cataclysmic thing to occur?

Good question. It just seems like everything’s happening all at once, or it’s building up to something. It’s a culmination of things. Like I said, it’s environmental, it’s social, it’s political, it’s everything. Technology. All these things are coming to a point, and I think something’s gonna happen. I’m leaning more towards a positive transformation, as opposed to something terribly wrong and negative and catastrophic. We’re already seeing, in the grand scheme of things, catastrophes. I obviously don’t consider the Gulf Oil Spill a small catastrophe — because it’s not, it’s very big – but on a worldly scale, there’s this belief that maybe half of some sort of landmass is going to fall into the sea and millions of people are going to die. I’m not quite of that mindset. I think all of this that’s happening now is going to come to a head and with that, we’re going to either move onto some sort of enlightenment thing. I’m not trying to get into some spiritual thing, but something beyond ourselves may occur sooner than later.

It’s funny, I was watching tv the other night and they were talking about selling million-dollar luxury bunkers to people. Colbert had it on, and there’s a company selling these things.

I read about that about six months ago. I laughed. I was like, “Come on…” Especially in the last 100 years, this happened a number of times, whether it was a world war or some kind of crisis, people take advantage of this kind of situation and try and dupe morons into buying this sort of stuff. Come on. Million-dollar bunkers. Give me a fucking break. You’ve got a million dollars to waste on that shit, you should be out doing something good for your community or something like that. Don’t piss it away on your, “Oh save me and my children, I’ll put us all in this bunker and we’ll be safe. It’s gonna be great!” You’re gonna run out of food eventually, you fucking asshole. If it’s really gonna go down like that, you’re gonna die too, you’re just gonna die a little later than everyone else (laughs). Print that or not, I don’t care. I’m just saying, you have that kind of money, don’t be so selfish, pump that stuff back into your community and do something for everybody, including yourself. That’s just me. I don’t have a million dollars (laughs).

What inspired “Good Riddance (Knuckle Walkers)”? Was that that same mindset?

Oh yeah. Chaos. People are just out for themselves, and aren’t really gonna give a fuck about anyone else. You know, we have riots, people just end up becoming animals, resorting back to their true selves. I think rational thought is going out the window in major situations like that, for a lot of people. So I wrote about knuckle draggers, pillage and pirate with ape-like fury, and they’re not kidding around.

Can you talk about leaving Prosthetic, signing to Profound Lore and how all that came about?

Sure. Our time was done with Prosthetic, and we’ve known Chris [Bruni] for a number of years. He’s written about us and I really respect how he does things and what types of bands he associates himself with. I think the music is all great. A lot of bands have a unique personality to them, so I just started talking to him, he was always there, championing us as far as press goes, so we just got to talking. It was around the time he picked up YOB, another band we really like, and I was like, “What do you think about putting out a Yakuza record?” and he was like, “What? You’re not on Prosthetic anymore?” and I was like, “Nope,” and he was like, “Yeah!” He didn’t even question it. He was like, “Absolutely!” I’m like, “Amazing, alright.” It’s been beyond the most positive experience with a label we’ve ever had, and no diss on Prosthetic or Century Media, because those are some good folks that work for both companies, but this is a one-man operation, and what he’s been able to pull off by himself is really, really amazing. He’s so dedicated it’s ridiculous. He sticks with a handful of them, and he gets behind them 100 percent. He’s out working it. He doesn’t want to have shit. Every band he has he loves. Truly. It’s great. Can’t even tell you. And like I said, not that Prosthetic didn’t show us love, or Century Media didn’t show us love, but they’ve also got 50 other bands at the same time, so things get prioritized and whatnot, and that’s fine. Well, his priority is only the records that he puts out, and he’s only gonna do three or four a year and be behind all of them. With his own money. He’s not a big company. He hires out PR and all that stuff. It’s been great. I know how this whole thing goes down, how the whole label thing works, and we pow-wow about things and I give him ideas or advice and he’ll come back with some stuff too, and it’s a very positive experience. I can’t even tell you. And the record’s only been out for a week (laughs)! I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like a year from now.

The album hadn’t been recorded yet when you signed with him, then, right?

Yeah. We discussed a few things. We had been working on some of the songs, and I gave him a general idea of what approach we were gonna take, but it was pretty vague, and he wasn’t worried. He was like, “Great.” He didn’t want to hear any roughs. We demoed material. He was like, “I don’t want to hear the demo, I want to hear the record when it’s done and mastered.” I was like, “Okay.” We recorded last November, had it mastered in January, and I sent him a copy, and within six hours, he had gotten back to me and was like, “I just went through the first four tracks, this is fucking amazing.” Then he called me the next day and was like, “I had faith in you guys all the way through, but you never know. I’m so fucking happy.” He really just loved it. I was like, “Fuck.” Those words were very moving. I really appreciated that. It was like, “Okay, let’s get to work.” He was like, “You guys have to play the SXSW showcase,” and we’re like, “Okay.” So we went down there and it went off without a hitch. We played all our new stuff and people were really receptive, and it’s been off and going. We’ve got a tour pending, a really good one. I can’t say what it is yet, but we’re going out in October for four weeks with a really awesome band, so we’re really stoked. And we’re gonna go out and play all our new stuff and do it up. Go back to Europe next year. We tried to go this year, but unfortunately we ran into a volcano that kept us from getting across the pond. We were supposed to play Roadburn, the Asymmetry Music Festival and a few other things. The positive out of that was that immediately all festival promoters contacted us right back and said, “Look, you guys have to come back next year, same time, let’s just book it right now.” So the good thing is we’re booked already for 2011, which is a relief, to not even have to think about that. Told the band, “We’re going back to Europe next year, same time,” and we’re going to leave a few weeks before those fests, because I don’t want this to happen again (laughs). I would much rather have been trapped. People were like, “Well you’re lucky you didn’t get trapped in Europe,” and I’m like, “Trapped in Europe? Are you kidding me?” Oh, boo hoo, I’d have rented a van and started booking shows. It wouldn’t have been a problem. Yeah, oh what a drag. I’ll be in Europe. We actually missed it by one day. The volcano went off the day we were leaving. It wasn’t just us, too. Shrinebuilder didn’t get out. Scott Kelly and I were on the phone every five seconds trying to figure out some way to get over there. I forget who they were touring with, but he was like, “Okay, let’s just get both our bands over there, we’ll get some vans together and we’ll finish these dates, you guys can jump on with us,” so I’m like pumped we’re gonna play with Shrinebuilder in Europe, we gotta get this thing happening. But they couldn’t get over either. Candlemass couldn’t either. The whole thing. It sucked. I know Roadburn did fine regardless. You see a couple extra sets from Eyehategod and YOB and everybody else, which is amazing.

Yeah, everybody who was there, who made it, pitched in. It was pretty nuts. It would have been nice to see you guys, Shrinebuilder, all these other bands, but it’s a volcano, what the hell are you gonna do?

Yeah. Another catastrophe. There’s been 52 recorded earthquakes since we recorded in November. I was scared after the first 20, like, “Son of a bitch.” We had one in Illinois for the first time since like 1860-something, and it happened, a friend of ours has a farm in Sycamore that’s sort of our sanctuary. Espeically in the summer time, we go out there, bonfires and cook, and our friend is amazing, and it hit the Yakuza compound, the earthquake occurred a half-mile from his house, and we’re like, “Wayne, we’re sorry,” and he’s like, “You sons of bitches! What have you unleashed?” (Laughs) We’ve also had these crazy rainstorms the last week or two. First off, tornadoes touched down again in the city of Chicago, which had never occurred in my entire lifetime and has now happened two summers in a row. We had 75 mile an hour winds just completely ripped through the city and tore tons of shit apart. The storms are absolutely insane. And it’s beginning to rain every day too, which is not how Chicago is normally. It’s crazy. Lots of very intense weather-related occurrences.

There was a tornado in Queens a couple weeks ago, and there had been one three years ago, then before that it was 200 years.

It doesn’t happen in major cities, usually. Usually they just break up before they get to [touch down] by the water and things like that. Crazy.

You mentioned before that in talking to Chris you had some idea of the direction you wanted to go with the album. Is that normally how it goes for you guys, knowing what you want before you get into the studio?

It has been, yeah. The last couple records. We take our time with writing, and the one thing that was a little different was there were parts in some of the songs that we wanted to go in the studio and – we had a general idea of how we wanted things to go – but we wanted to keep some spontaneity there, as opposed to being really meticulous, tracking this way, that way or whatever. Let things breathe a little bit. So what we’ve done, we did this with Transmutations as well, is we go in and demo the entire record about a week and a half before we go into the studio studio, and it’s just a general run-through. We did this with Transmutations, and it worked really well, so we did it again. Then we’ll go back, we’ll sit, and we’ll decide exactly how things are gonna go, so we can keep tabs on how much time we spend in the studio, because it’s costly and all that kind of thing. We just want to be efficient as well. We want to still keep some looseness there. We recorded a bunch of stuff at Electrical Audio, which is Steve Albini’s studio. We usually just do the drums there. There are two studios, and we went in the A studio, which is amazing, by the way, and we ended up being able to track drums, bass and some guitar there. Normally we just do drums, but things were rolling so well we were able to do all that, and we finished up the rest at Semaphore, which is Sanford Parker’s studio. Took a different approach than any of the records we’ve done before. I didn’t have vocal patterns written for any of the songs until we went in the studio. We were demoing and the band was like, “What’re you gonna sing?” and I wanted to let the music speak to me, in a sense, so we demoed and I tried a few things, and I got two copies of the record, one with no vocals at all and one with some of the ideas. There was a song or two we were playing live, so I already had that set, but for the rest of the record, didn’t have any of that stuff written until actually going in. I worked it all out ahead of time to a certain degree, then went in and tracked it and the band didn’t know until I did it right then, and they were like, “Whoa, what the hell?” They were totally fine with it. They were like, “Dude, you’re doing all this singing,” and it worked out great, everyone was really pleased. I was satisfied.

That was something I wanted to ask you about, the development of your vocals and the change in approach on this record, because it is strikingly different.

Last couple years I’ve been doing some different projects outside Yakuza. I have this band with Sanford Parker called Circle of Animals that’ll be out on Relapse later this year. It’s sort of like our nod to Chicago industrial music, but I actually sing quite a lot on that record too. We started recording that right after Transmutations. We started working on that in 2008, and at the same time I was also doing solo stuff, where I do a lot more singing. I was just experimenting with different vocal stylings, Native American chanting, working as much of the dynamic range as humanly possible. Throat singing to Rob Halford-y kind of stuff. With all that, I started to take it into consideration with Yakuza stuff, and there’s some tasty melodies on that album that the band was writing, and I just wanted to complement them. I just felt compelled to sing more than anything else. Like I said, you kind of let the music speak to you, then react or complement or whatever.

Has the band’s approach to songwriting changed at all? There seems like so much progression from one album to the next. Does the process ever change, or is it just what you guys are coming up with?

What we’re coming up with. The process isn’t very different. We still write the way we write. It’s become a little easier. We’ve been a band for 10 years, we’re pretty comfortable with each other as far as what’s going to work, what’s not going to work. It’s pretty effortless. We just take our time, don’t rush anything. No reason to.

Is it any different for you working with Sanford in Yakuza as opposed to these different projects?

Not really. Working with him as a songwriting partner – he’s so easy to work with him on every level it’s ridiculous, and he’s one of my best friends too. As a songwriting partner, it’s ridiculous. He’s like buttah! Like buttah! Really easy. I play with Minsk sometimes too, and we toured together, and literally, we’ll be on tour together for three weeks and not once even raise a voice at each other. We hang out all the time. So working with him, the band, we trust him implicitly. He breaks up a lot of ties when voting on things – not that that happens very often, because like I said, we pretty much have things worked out ahead of time – but his opinion is as valid as any band member’s opinion. That’s why we work with him. We feel that comfortable.

What are you doing between now and November?

The only thing, we have a festival date booked here in Chicago, it’s called the Wicker Park Music Festival, and we’re actually doing a special one-off unique performance. We’re calling ourselves The Yakuza Arkestra, like a nod to Sun Ra, and some jazz horn players are going to be sitting in with us. Ken Vandermark, Mars Williams, Dave Rempis, all improv guys from Chicago. My sister Kelly – she sang on the record – she’s also sitting in. Helen Money, aka Alison Chesley, she plays cello. If she is not playing this festival in Sweden which she now thinks – I don’t know what’s going on – she’ll be there as well. We’re going to have like a 10-piece band, percussionists and all, doing the new songs. I just sat down with Dave Rempis last night to transpose out the parts for those guys. It should be pretty massive. Baroness and Torche are headlining, it’s outdoors, we’re playing right before them. I played last year with another one of my bands and there was 10,000 people there. It’s really cool. And it’s a ton of yuppies, I can’t wait to scare the shit out of them (laughs). That’s what I live for. It’s half the reason why I play this stuff.

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