Elliott’s Keep Interview with Jonathan Bates: “Music is an Essential Part of Our Lives. It is Not a Passive Thing.”
After reporting on their album progress, debuting a track, reviewing the record and including them in the latest podcast, short of going to their house (dudes in bands all live in the same house, right?) and standing outside of their window holding up a boombox playing Bathory, an interview is the only means I have left of showing Dallas metal doomers Elliott’s Keep the love. So we’ll go with that.
The trio’s second full-length, Sine Qua Non, continues the mission of paying tribute to fallen band comrade Glenn Riley Elliott, and what Elliott’s Keep do through this collection of songs is basically establish themselves as a band with a distinct sound within the world of doom. By upping the level of black and death metal influence from 2008′s In Medias Res debut, they carve a niche for themselves in a crowded Texas scene by brazenly taking on forms of extremity most bands wouldn’t dare touch. Oh yeah, and it’s heavy too.
More than it being simply heavy, though, what I enjoy most about Elliott’s Keep is the spirit behind the music and the obvious passion in playing it. Sure, they’re skilled songwriters, but the band strikes me more as friends who enjoy playing together than career-driven musicians looking to get as big as possible in the music industry. And isn’t that what doom is all about? Getting together with your buddies, playing killer heavy tunes and having a good time? How could it be anything else?
Guitarist Jonathan, bassist/vocalist Kenneth and drummer Joel have refined and intensified their approach, showing growth in both musicianship and consciousness, but honestly, given all the links above, I’ve probably said enough about Sine Qua Non. It’s time to give someone else a turn. Jonathan takes the conch in the interview to follow, providing answers as sincere as Elliott’s Keep‘s music to questions about their writing process (unlike most bands, the riffs do not necessarily come first), recording the album, working with Brainticket Records head John Perez of Solitude Aeturnus, who also provides a guest solo on Sine Qua Non, and much more.
Q&A is after the jump, as ever. Please enjoy.
Take me through the Elliott’s Keep writing process. Where do the song ideas come from and how much is everyone involved? At what stage do the lyrics come into the arrangement?
Our writing process is a group effort. We always start with the lyrics. They supply the mood of the song and are a roadmap for the various song sections. Often, the vocal melodies come early in the process as well.
Usually, one of us brings a guitar riff or drum part and then the others build on it. With the input from the other band members and the sounds of the other instruments, the original idea evolves and we record the end result. We have many different sections in each song, so this process is repeated many times – usually over several months.
We keep the best parts and discard the weak ones. If we like a part, but it ends up not fitting a given song, we move it to another working song project or bank it for later use. In “Fearless,” for example, there is a section that we loved but that did not fit into a prior song. With patience, it found its proper place and it is a core section of “Fearless.”
The arrangement process is ongoing from the beginning. When we recognize that we need a part of a certain mood to fit between two developed parts, we set about writing a part of the needed style, such as a fast double-bass part or an old-school doom riff, to meet the needs of the song.
Our lyrics are usually based on stories that we create. The subject matters are things that are interesting to us, such as history and fantasy. Often the protagonist faces a life challenge that we all experience, such as dealing with fear or loss or questions about the meaning of life. Strong emotions are a significant part of our lyrical approach.
We really enjoy the writing process and look forward to entering that phase again soon.
How was it working with J.T. Longoria again? Was there something in particular that made you want to go back to Nomad Studios?
We had a great experience with J.T. and Nomad in recording In Medias Res. Our plan all along was to return to Nomad to record the new album.
J.T. is a real pro. He has excellent musical and technical skills, and a great ear. Although our songs are locked-down when we hit the recording studio, J.T. has always been a great resource for us in the recording process. It is always fun working with him and we had many laughs together along the way.
You guys really seemed to up the intensity level this time around, especially in Ken’s vocals. Is that just what came out of the songwriting, or was there a conscious decision to play up that side of the band?
The intensity came about naturally. We learned a great deal in the writing and recording of the last record. From the beginning, we had a clear idea of what we wanted to accomplish.
Tell me about putting together the album’s art. The design for Sine Qua Non has a lot in common with In Medias Res in terms of font, the layout/alignment of the text on the back cover, etc. How much was the direction of the artwork meant as an extension of the last album?
Joel gets the credit for the artwork. We are of the “old-school” mindset that an album should have cool accompanying art. As to the consistency of the overall layout, that is a reflection of our personalities. We like that. We want all of our albums to have consistency — like matching volumes in a set of books.
Even the album titles are similar, both being three-word Latin sayings. What does Sine Qua Non mean to the band?
Sine qua non means “without this, (there is) nothing.” For everyone who really loves music, music is an essential part of our lives. It is not a passive thing. It is a dominant part of life. Without it, life would not be nearly as meaningful. For us, our band and songs have that same significance. They are a dominant part of our lives.
Is Sine Qua Non intended as a sequel musically to In Medias Res? If so, what do you think about the growth that’s evident between the two albums?
Yes, our intent was to progress and advance the same elements that comprise our musical core. I expect that will always be our mindset. From the beginning of writing Sine Qua Non, we set about to raise the bar and write even better songs. We will continue to push ourselves that way going forward. We are very proud of the end result of Sine Qua Non.
How has it been working with John Perez at Brainticket, and how was it bringing him into the studio to record on “Shades of Disgrace?”
John is great. Obviously, he is doom royalty and Solitude Aeturnus is the gold standard. John is a very genuine person, with a great passion for music. He has been a friend for two decades and I have greatly appreciated being able to talk him about band and music industry subjects. We appreciate his support and are greatly honored to have him play on the record. The day he recorded his solo is another great memory for us.
It seems like every year the Texas heavy underground gets more vibrant. What’s your assessment of the scene down there? Are bands too spread out to really come together, or is there a community of like-minded acts?
Texas is a very big place and I can only intelligently comment about the Dallas/Fort Worth area. There are a number of great doom/stoner bands here and there is great camaraderie amongst us. However, I can give one recent example of the “coming together” of “like-minded acts” across the state. Our friends in Project Armageddon from Houston came up to play a show with us and Orthodox Fuzz this past weekend. It was a killer show and a time of doom-brotherhood that really embodies what the underground is all about. That sense of music community, whatever the geographic region, really makes it all worthwhile.
How was Dallas Doom Daze this year?
Dallas Doom Daze is always a great time for the doom music community to come together to embrace the music that we all love. We were honored to play again and to be with old friends and meet new ones. Our good friend, Justin [“Jötun”] Delord, of Kin of Ettins, is the man behind the festival and he deserves many accolades for carrying the standard of doom.
Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?
We thank everyone who has sent a kind word our way. That support is very meaningful to us. We create our music because we love doing so, but knowing that it resonates with others is extremely satisfying. We encourage everyone out there to let us hear from you.
Tags: Brainticket, Dallas, Elliott's Keep, Texas