Dark Castle Interview with Stevie Floyd: The Ritual of Renewal

Four years later, I remember getting Dark Castle‘s Flight of the Pegasus demo in the mail after hitting them up via MySpace to review it. The disc was a labeled CDR that came packaged between two taped-together pieces of cardboard. Its front cover was a sticker by guitarist/lead vocalist Stevie Floyd with the band’s logo on top and the name of the EP below. And the music was a live-recorded half-hour that boasted a Led Zeppelin cover and raw sounds that only gave the faintest hint of what was to come.

And when Dark Castle released Spirited Migration on At a Loss in 2009, the Floridian duo outdid themselves in terms of growth over the course of their time together. Floyd and drummer, sampler and vocalist Rob Shaffer arrived with a coherent vision of what they wanted their band to be, incorporating influences from world music and managing to balance the varying elements in their approach in such a way as to maximize both the aural brutality and atmospheric weight.

They toured hard for Spirited Migration, and that work is evident in their 2011 Profound Lore label debut, Surrender to all Life Beyond Form. It’s a record densely-packed with turns and musical twists — this second doomed to the point of cruelty and the next embroiled in ritualistic chanting or industrial beats — but what’s most staggering about it is Dark Castle has managed to take all of these things and turn them into one coherent statement of purpose. Teamed with Sanford Parker and seamlessly incorporating guest appearances from next-gen-heavy luminaries such as Nate Hall (U.S. Christmas), Mike Scheidt (YOB) and Blake Judd (Nachtmystium), Floyd and Shaffer proved able to maintain consistency in the face of a devastating creative scope.

Away in the mountains from her new home in the Pacific Northwest, when I talked to Floyd for the interview that follows, she was working on several art projects, including a Dark Castle shirt and finalizing the cover art for the new YOB record. Nonetheless, she took time out to discuss the breadth of Surrender to all Life Beyond Form, working closely with Parker in the studio, some of the musical concepts behind the writing for the album and a lot more. Her passion and existential connection to her work shone through in her honesty and openness regarding these processes, and I hope you get a sense of that reading.

Full 3,750-word Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.

Can you talk about the process of branching out sonically? There’s so much going on with the record – was it just studio experimentation?

We had a lot of preconceived ideas as far as where we want to go with it and the writing, but at the same time, I like to let things just sort of happen naturally. We don’t just set a date to record and write everything a couple months before. We write things over the course of… Since the last album, we had some songs that were written even before we recorded the last album. We had some parts that weren’t used. But I feel like it’s important to write when you’re inspired, whether it’s when you’re outside, or you’re just feeling a moment and you need to write. I don’t like to force things last minute, you know? We both were just trying to bring together all of the different kinds of music that we’re into lately. We listen to everything. It’s kind of hard to write just one form of music. We were listen to lots of eclectic, multi-cultural music. Ancient sitar music, ukulele, ancient music from India, Japan, tradition kabuki music. That’s really apparent in our writing, and we listen to a lot of grunge, industrial, black metal, so it’s easy to have too much going on, and it’s chaotic and all over the place, and so we were just trying to have the most natural way of all those influences coming about in our music as possible, without forcing it. One thing that I did, I guess, as we were writing – when we got really intense with putting the songs together – because we both write separately when we’re inspired, lyrics or music or whatever, and when we start to think about recording, we start to put everything together, and once it gets to that point, I try to just separate myself from heavy metal for a little bit and just listen to music that was around long before, whether it’s classical music, or like I was saying before, we have a lot of records of sitar players and kabuki music from Japan. That’s a huge influence for me. It kind of happened more naturally that way. I’m not trying to force it. We don’t sit down and say, “Okay, this song’s going to have a black metal part, then it’s going to have a little Japanese scale here and then a doom part here.” We don’t really do that. It just sort of happens how it happens, and I don’t know what to think about it. It is kind of a lot going on on that album. It feels really good for us. It’s hard to talk about music. It’s something you feel. It’s hard to put it into words.

The one thing that really struck me about the record in listening to it, though, is that you do have all this stuff going on – in a way it’s hard to believe it’s a 34-minute album because there are so many turns happening – but at the same time, it’s all really cohesive. Like you say, the record with the black metal part and the industrial part, you’d almost expect it to be choppy and haphazard sounding, but it’s not.

That’s so good to hear. Probably one of the most important things to us is transitions. I feel like with any album or any band or any music, it’s not the riff you’re playing, and it’s not the actual songwriting. Well, it is the songwriting, but it’s not the actual verse/chorus/verse/chorus, it’s the transitions in between. What you’re not playing is just as important as what you are playing. Just the spaces in between and letting things breathe and not going overboard with playing something too often, but then not leaving people hanging either. That songwriting part is definitely the most important, and it has nothing to do with the riffs you’re playing, just the composition of it. It’s hard to add all that in, because we’re so enamored with music. We’re just pulling in music all day long and drawing inspiration from anything. It’s hard to translate it all into your own. But it’s cool that you said for being a 34-minute album – you’re saying it seems a little bit longer because of everything going on?

Yeah, listening, you feel like it’s longer than it is because it’s all so densely packed in the songs.

That’s so cool to hear, because we planned on having it be a lot longer, and we were a little insecure about it, and Sanford said, “Man, you have so much going on here, I think we need to end it right here. If you keep making this longer, it’s gonna be too much.” And I was like, “Alright, cool,” and we just went with that. I guess I’m glad we did, because it felt like we accomplished what we wanted.

So there’s material you left off the record, or you just condensed the songs?

There’s definitely always material that we don’t put on the album. We both just have songbooks and lyric books and tab books full of stuff, that whenever we’re feeling, we write stuff down, but sometimes it just doesn’t fit, or sometimes it’s not what the other person is… At this point, me and Rob, we’ve totally locked in on how we write and how we compose music. I don’t even bring riffs to him unless I know he’s going to be 100 percent about them. I don’t ever believe in anyone just being like, “Okay, that riff’s alright, I guess we’ll make it work.” And when you’re dealing with more than one person – most bands are dealing with four or five and not just two, so I guess we’re lucky when it comes to that – it’s hard to compromise because there’s always riffs that maybe one person doesn’t feel entirely, or a drumbeat that every time you play it, you’re like, “Ugh,” and it starts irking you. It’s important to make sure that every single last note that you’re playing and beat and lyric and every part, you feel from the depths of your being, because otherwise, you’re not going to convey that through your music live or on the album. People can feel that. They can feel the vibe that you’re in. Especially live, because you’re right in front of them, but even on an album. When you think of some of your favorite albums, it’s the music, but a lot of times, you feel a connection to it just because of where they were coming from, or that place. You can just tell that they are so drenched in their riffs and their writing. It comes across. I feel like the vibe and the atmosphere that you’re writing in and recording in is just as important as what you’re playing.

In terms of putting the album together, then, is it hard for you to pull back from that?

When we’re putting songs together, it’s kind of the same. Rob is an incredible guitar player. He blows me out of the water. He’s an amazing guitar player – and I’m not the greatest drummer by any means, but I’m super-obsessed with drums, and I pay attention to drum beats on everything, and I’m really particular – so we both bring things together that we know each other will like. When we’re working it out as songwriting, we don’t try to put pressure on it. We play around with the riffs and the beats until it just feels right, and then however many times, as you’re putting stuff together, other things come into play. I have a whole book of lyrics, but half the time, they change and morph differently into the music than what I was thinking. I try not to be attached to anything when we’re writing, because it just sort of comes together and has a mind of its own. I’m all about the atmosphere in that situation too. When we’re doing this, and practicing, we just zone into the music and try to let it – you have moments where you’re like, “This doesn’t really work here,” or you disagree and stuff, everybody does – but we get the songs together and practice them as much as possible so we’re ready to record, because we like to record live and have that warmth and feeling be continuous as we’re recording. As live as possible. But we’ll also allow, in the studio, for things changing. There’s so much on this album that was completely changed when we went into the studio. And so that’s a whole other thing: being open to things morphing and changing in that vibe. Especially with Sanford. Being particular on who you choose to record with, and someone that you trust. Sanford. I want him to be just as important on that album, and for him to have the freedom to do what he wants, because I admire and respect his talent for what he does so much. I don’t want to put any barriers on him, and I told him when we first went in there. There’s some albums that he does a lot on and some albums that he’s stepped back on that he’s recorded, and when we first got there, he was like, “You know, if you really want me to, I can totally dance all over this album.” I don’t know exactly what he said, but I was like, “Yes, man, do anything you want.” And it’s just cool, because then he’s just as much a part of it as we are, and it’s something that’s really important to me. Without him, our album wouldn’t have sounded like that at all.

That was actually my next question, about bringing him into the dynamic with you and Rob. I noticed in the liner notes you credit him as being a band member on the record, and he does seem to do a lot. You can hear the samples and the synth and Moog. How much of that was just born of being in the studio with him? Did you know you wanted those sounds beforehand?

Yeah, and that’s another thing. We definitely talked about that. Sanford’s a really good friend of ours too, and when it comes to music, there’s a handful of people that I trust 100 percent. He’s definitely one of the first ones. He’s shown me so many bands that are my favorite bands, and we connect and hear things in music – I just trust that dude. I would feel comfortable with recording tracks and walking out of the room the rest of the time and letting him do whatever he wants. I wouldn’t do that, but I trust that guy so much, because I really admire his talent and where it comes from and the way that he sees music. He sees it visually, kind of like I do, the layers and contrasting this part with this part, rather than just doing the guitar tracks and then overdubbing them all and being done with it. He hears little nuances and he pays attention to detail. He hears things that need to happen in between parts to maybe build up this mountain of sound and then let it down, or have this super-compressed guitar tone next to this huge, warm tube amp guitar tone, just to give you different feelings with sound waves. It’s definitely something that I trusted him 100 percent, and he really went crazy. I love that. I loved letting him do that. There were moments where we had 30 or 40 pedals all over the floor and different keyboards attached and stacks of amplifiers, and we were just hooking all this stuff up to each other. There was one point where we hooked up – I don’t even know – 10 or 15 different things, pedals and keyboards and Moogs, and we hooked them all up to this foot pedal and just hit the foot pedal at random times. Stuff like that is really fun. We’ve always used samples and a little bit of synth, since we started, so a few of the things we had ahead of time. Rob’s really into that, so he’s pre-recorded some samples that we’ve used live in between songs. So a few of those were preconceived, but I really wanted Sanford to just go crazy, and when it comes to synth and Moog, I’m really into very old synth. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Tangerine Dream, but they’re a big influence of ours when it comes to that. More old synths, and then also industrial-sounding maybe samples or synths, or compression like what you’d hear in Ministry. And he’s into those same exact things when it comes to that, so it’s pretty cool just letting him do his thing.

What about bringing the other guests in – Mike and Blake and Nate? How did that all come about?

Well, I just had this idea that I really wanted a few of my favorite singers and favorite people to just sing a little on the album, but I didn’t have anything specific figured out. Actually, there was two other people that didn’t wind up working out, it kind of bummed me out. It was Bruce Lamont from Yakuza and CT from Rwake. And they’re all good friends, but they’re also just some of my favorite singers right now as far as playing heavy music. I just wanted to have people that inspire me on this album. Close friends that are super-inspiring. It was just sort of a little fantasy and I didn’t know if it would happen or not. The song that Mike sang on, that’s a separate recording that we did together. It’s called “Spirit Ritual.” It’s like a side-project that we do. We’ve only recorded a demo EP little thing. So we used some of that, and Nate from U.S. Christmas, I sent him the track and I was like, “Do whatever you want over it,” and he just sang with me, and it’s cool because more than being a separate part, our voices just morph together on that song, and it was cool. I just let whatever happened happen, and the song with Blake, I can’t remember if I asked him ahead of time. I think I did mention something to him when we were in Chicago, and he was like, “Yeah, cool.” But then I never really said anything again, and when we were recording that last song on the album, it was the last vocals to do and I was in there and belting them all out, and that whole last song was so weird anyway. I wrote that piano part on an out of tune piano one night, real late, in the studio, and Rob already had that drum beat, and we just sort of wrote that in the studio. It just sort of happened. And then I had this song about being buried alive and looking towards the light, and I went in and just yelled that in one motion and came back in the board room and Blake was sitting there, and he was like, “Dude, this song sounds so weird and awesome,” and I was like, “Really? You think so?” and he was like, “Yeah, definitely,” and I was like, “You wanna sing on it?” (laughs), and he was, “Yeah, okay.” I handed him my lyrics and he just sang over it with me. It was pretty cool.

That piano part is pretty insane in that song. It’s there the whole time, right?

Yeah. It’s weird, because it’s pretty buried, but yeah, it is. I think there was another part that we didn’t use, but it’s cool. That’s what the studio is all about for me, is things just happening like that. That song, and the song, “To Hide is to Die.” They were all in the studio. Both of those just happened, and were very out of the box for us and just weird and different, but that’s what music is all about to me. Just opening your mind more and more, and things just happen, and letting them happen. After we did “To Hide is to Die,” I was like, “What in the world is that song?” I didn’t even know where that came from or how it happened. It was a weird feeling doing a song like that, but I love it now. It kind of grows on you (laughs).

That’s a crazy stretch of the record. You have “Spirit Ritual” and “To Hide is to Die” right in a row, and there’s so much crushing and heaviness, and then it goes into this ambient movement that’s a crazy turn, but again, there’s so much that by then you just roll with it.

(Laughs) That’s what I was hoping for. I don’t even know what I was hoping for, but I remember feeling really weird when this was done. I was like, “Oh my god.” It feels good, but not being able to place it in any category is awesome to me, but whenever you’re doing something like that, there’s people who love it and there’s people who hate it. That’s okay with me. I’m totally fine with that. No one can help what they write. You just write what feels good, and it doesn’t matter if five people like it or five million. It’s not really about that. You can only write what comes out of you based on your life experience musically. We both felt so good about this album, because it felt so weird and totally abstract, and I was coming from a different place vocally, too. And Sanford had a lot to do with all of that.

Vocally, you mean?

Everything. He just hears things that we don’t hear, and he would say things like, for certain parts, “Why don’t you do this spoken word?” “Why don’t you pretend like you’re whispering into a baby’s ear on this part?” He’d say things like that while I’m doing vocals and make me think a little differently than I normally would. And normally I do a lot more low screams, more death metal yells and stuff, and when we were going, it just felt really good. I love playing it live more than ever, which is really the most important thing to me.

Clearly, given how much you guys tour. You’re not exactly keeping a secret on that one.

(Laughs) Yeah. We’ve kind of been chilling out a little on it lately.

Well, you made a record.

Yeah, but last time we did that, we took a couple months off and recorded and went back on tour (laughs). This time, we were really taking a break for a lot of reasons. We’ve needed it. I was moving out west, and I’ve been wanting to move out west for years, and I just needed to do it. Rob’s got so many other things going on with his life in music and stuff, so it was time, and it was a good time, too. Especially, we did a ton of awesome tours last year, and we had time to write and really give it time, not just try to write everything in a couple months and record. It was awesome how it all came together. We had tons of space to do what we need to do, and now the album’s coming out and we’re about to go on tour with YOB, and we’re way excited about that. YOB has a new album coming out, and it’s gonna be awesome, because we’re not only good friends with them, but they’re huge, and Mike is one of my biggest inspirations. He’s also like my best friend and more, but he’s a huge inspiration to me, so it’s pretty cool that we were actually working on albums at the same time. As he was writing stuff for YOB, I was writing stuff for Dark Castle, and we would hang out and ask each other what we think. It’s pretty rad here.

Do you know what you’re doing after that tour?

I’m really not sure. We try not to plan too far ahead – as far as we have to. Certain deadlines happen with tour and recording and writing or whatever, but we try not to plan too far ahead. I really don’t know. Probably take a little bit of break after those two tours, because it’s gonna be pretty intense, and then there’s a couple other tours that have been mentioned to us, but I’m really not sure. It’s hard for me to say no. That’s kind of our problem in the past. I guess it’s a good problem, but we hate saying no to anything, because anytime someone’s like, “Hey, you wanna go on tour?” it’s like, “Fuck yeah!” You get so excited about it and I hate saying no to anything, because it’s so much fun playing with these different bands. We’ve gone on tour with such different kinds of bands, and a lot of them are such talented, amazing bands. I love just getting pumped up and inspired every night watching them. It’s cool being able to watch them night after night for so many nights and get inspiration from them. I’m sure we’ll go on tour again (laughs).

The last thing I wanted to ask you about was the visual artwork for Surrender to all Life Beyond Form, if you could tell me about that for a bit. Even just looking through the CD booklet, the illustrations are really striking.

I went pretty crazy on it. The CD is awesome, but the vinyl is gonna be just so intense. It’s that booklet, but it’s actually 11″ x 11″, the book, and then I did a painting for the gatefold on the inside, and yeah. It’s gonna be pretty elaborate, the vinyl, but I just wanted to really give as much of the five senses as I could on this. Having a painting for each song and the lyrics that sort of, in some weird way, visually shows the lyrics, and the music – it’s all just one thing for me. I’m sure that other people might not get what I’m conveying, but that’s the beauty of music, just putting out there how you feel through the music and the art and people take what they want from it. I love that.

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