For many bands, the immediate-interest factor is brought on by pedigree. “Former members of,” and so forth. Not so in the case of Portland, Oregon¸ trio Lamprey. What most excited me about their Ancient Secrets release wasn’t what they’d done before, but what they’re doing now, and more specifically, how they’re doing it.
The pursuit of clean, thick low end has been a mainstay of heavy sounds since Sabbath, and though Lamprey aren’t the first act out there to feature bass instead of guitar (they count Om as a principal inspiration), their use of two bass players to do it stands them out right away. Bassists Justin Brown and Blaine Burnham, who also handles vocals, work off a riff-based and grooving ethic – underscored by Spencer Norman‘s heavy-landing drums – but in terms of methodology and how they get there, Lamprey are more unique than they give themselves credit for.
Their recently-reviewed Ancient Secrets release is rough around the edges, but there’s no denying that Brown, Burnham, and Norman have their influences in order, taking Sleep’s stonerly fixations to new aural valleys without the songs coming out of it sounding like a mash of muddy bass fuzz. The idea behind hitting up Brown for this interview was to get some introduction to how the band came to be and came to cast off the notion of being guitar-led in their riffs, how Brown and Burnham developed two distinct tones (you can hear a difference on Ancient Secrets) and how they can separate themselves from the pack in a crowded Portland scene.
Brown was honest, humble and entertaining in his answers. Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions.
1. Tell me about how the band got together. Where did the idea for two bassists come from? It seems like you cut out the middleman of having ultra-low-tuned guitars, but were you worried at all about capturing more than just bottom end in the recording of the album?
Blaine, Spencer and I all got to know each other working at a glass factory, where we basically shoveled hot lava in a 100-plus degree industrial hell. For a brief period during that time, Blaine and I were in a band called Glaciers, in which he played bass and I was the rhythm guitarist (I never played bass before Lamprey). It was a side-project for both of us, as we were in other bands and neither of us were writing any of the material, so it didn’t last long.
Fast-forward a few years, and a fairly serendipitous chain of events took place. Blaine and Spencer went to a show, I believe it was The Abominable Iron Sloth, and they were so inspired they walked out of there with what they referred to as “metal boners.” They were intent on starting the heaviest band in the land. At that same time, I had my own epiphany about what I wanted to do musically. I was playing baritone guitar in a band called Bruxing, and it just wasn’t doing it for me. I couldn’t seem to make it sound massive enough – when I turn on my amp and pull a string I want it to raze cities, you know? Those low tones just invoke this incredible physiological response in me, like I’m riding a horse at full gallop or something. And so I thought about some of my favorite tones, such as those of Om and Karp or Big Business, and realized I’d been trying to make my guitar sound like a bass.
I cashed out my 401k and bought a Rickenbacker, and as I was leaving the store with it I bumped into Blaine in the street. He told me about his and Spencer‘s quest for heaviness, and it just hit us — what could be more crushing than two basses? We weren’t necessarily convinced it would work, tonally, but we met up about a week later at my practice space and went for it. I remember that at this first practice, Spencer hadn’t played his drums in several years and I was new at bass. Before plugging in, I made a disclaimer that the riffs I had been working on were more stonery than straight up metal. I mentioned the almighty Sleep as an influence, and the boys just got these wild ravenous looks on their faces, grinning in anticipation.
I started in on the riff that would later become “Oiwa” and we just blasted off. The tones worked, we locked into each other. It was the sound we’d all been after. As far as the delivery of that sound, we are first and foremost a live band. We never thought about how Lamprey would sound pouring out of some shitty car stereo. Our intention is to fill the air in a room with so much pressure it feels like you’re standing at the bottom of the ocean. That’s another great thing about low tones at massive volumes; it envelopes you, it pounds on your sternum — but without the piercing treble of a guitar that make your teeth want to explode. I like to think of our sound as brutal yet smooth: a soothing punishment.
2. What is the interplay like between the two basses on stage? It sounds on the record like there’s lead and rhythm bass, but is that the way it actually works out?
I suppose, generally speaking, you could say that Blaine plays rhythm bass and I play lead, but that’s not a strict rule or anything. He handles all the vocals (except for a few spoken passages, which on the recordings are done by Spencer, who writes most of our lyrics as well), so he’ll tend to play a more traditional bass line, root notes and such.
Being a reformed guitar player, I play lots of chords and harmonizing melodies. We’ll often play the exact same part, or just at different octaves, for a kind of doubling effect. And no matter which of us is playing what, we’re ultimately a beefed-up rhythm section; occasional flurries and bursts aside, the basses do their thing in whatever pocket the drums carve out for them.
3. Talk about the amps and equipment used on the album. There are separate distinguished tones between the bass and, well, the bass. Did you and Blaine develop your tones separately or together as part of the same band, and was there work involved in making them mesh together?
When Lamprey began, we had already established the basic foundations for our respective tones. I played my Rickenbacker through an Orange Rockerverb 100 and matching 4×12 cab. The Rick has this fast growly tone with lots of mids, and playing it through a guitar amp really helps fill that sonic niche that we might otherwise lack by not having a guitar. Blaine is a bassist’s bassist. Wielding a Gibson Thunderbird for ultimate thump, he started out with a Sunn Sorado through an old 2×15 cab.
The earliest days of the band are what we refer to as a kind of amplifier cold war — Blaine added a vintage Ampeg to the mix, as the Sorado was no match for the Orange in terms of volume. Then I would add another head, and Blaine would have to catch up to me again, in terms of wattage. We began collecting cabs, pondering the tonal possibilities an array of assorted speaker sizes might hold in store for us. It became a sickness; we couldn’t even fit it all in the practice room!
We finally called a truce when he found this weird, one of a kind monster amp made by a guy here in town. It’s called the Big Black, and all I know about it is that I have to really push my hot-rodded Orange to keep up. As far as cabs go, we’re always tweaking and experimenting. I’m currently running my Orange through two Orange/Matamp 4×12 cabs, along with a Sunn Concert Bass through a 2×15, but only because there’s not room in the van for anything more than that. The 12′s give me a crisper, snarlier sound that sits right on top of Blaine‘s smooth boominess, which is our overall plan.
He’s running the Big Black through some old Fender cabs, dual 12s and 15s, that project with surprising depth. Our eventual goal is a backline consisting entirely of Monolith Loudspeaker cabinets, which are based on old Sunn and Acoustic designs and made in Portland. Beyond all that, we sculpt the finishing touches with a few select fuzz pedals, some vintage Electro-Harmonix effects, some wah and our finger attack.
4. What’s the story with Ancient Secrets? Do you consider it a full-length or an EP? Was there a self-released version before the Captain Couch one, and if so, was it different somehow?
Actually, we consider it more or less a demo. We went into Ghost Town Studios, run by our friend David Pulliam, as a very young band with a very small budget. I think we’d been together about three months and had four songs. We just wanted something better than a practice space recording to give out at shows. We did it live in a day, with one more day for vocals and mixing.
Shortly thereafter, Blaine founded Captain Couch Records, and now I help him run it. The idea behind the label was to record and put out into the world music from all these amazing bands in Portland that no one knows about. The house Blaine lives in hosts these epic shows about once a month, and it seemed like a natural progression to begin recording and distributing music from our favorite bands to help launch them up to the next tier.
Obviously, Lamprey is a priority for us, so we went back to Ghost Town to record a song for a 7” release, the label’s first official offering. We then also recorded “Cylenos Crassidens,” a newer song, and redid “Thulsa” (as the original take was embarrassingly sloppy), and added them to the EP. We felt better about the revamped version, and put that out through Captain Couch (which, by the way, rhymes with “pooch” — it’s a Portland thing).
5. The Portland scene is so multifaceted and it seems like every week there’s another band putting out an album. How do you distinguish yourselves among such a glut of bands, and do you have any favorite acts to share the stage with you care to recommend to those on the outside?
This city is unreal; a veritable cache of undying energy and uniquely talented musicians. The thing is, it’s been that way for a long time, only no one has been paying any attention until recently. Obviously, bands like Red Fang, Witch Mountain and Grails have put us all on the map and inspired hordes of Portlanders (ourselves included) to craft their own oblation to heavy music – often yielding truly epic results.
Honestly, I’m not at all sure that we do stand out yet – I still think of us as a young band, cutting our teeth and working the bugs out. But the three of us have a shared vision, musically speaking, and we believe in the sound we’ve conjured. It moves us, and I think that kind of fervor can be very contagious, especially at full volume in a small room.
I’m sure the very same can be said about a slew of other bands in this town, and we’re lucky enough to be friends with them and play out with them. I would strongly urge anyone interested in Portland‘s stoner/doom/metal scene to explore a few of my favorites: Zmoke, Heavy Voodoo, Diesto, Avi Dei, Rabbits, Lord Dying, Purple Rhinestone Eagle and pretty much anyone that any of these bands might share a stage with.
6. Do you know when you’ll be back in the studio for more recording? Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?
As I alluded to earlier, we’ve just released a 7” split release with Zmoke, which can be found at any of our shows or at CDBaby. We’re constantly working on new material, and when we have enough ready to warrant some studio time, we really want to work with Adam Pike at Toadhouse Studios, as he’s recorded quite a bit of our favorite music.
In the interim, we want to do some traveling and test the waters outside of our hometown — hopefully a West Coast tour will happen next spring. We’d like to reach new ears here at home, too, by opening for bigger bands. We’re actually opening for Karma to Burn in October — which we still can’t quite believe is really happening — and hope to get together with Rabbits in the near future. For now, though, we just want to keep playing shows with all the killer bands in this town, and work as hard as we can to feel worthy of the incredibly supportive response we’ve been receiving.
On that note, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that Blaine, Spencer and I would not be fulfilling any of our 16-year-old selves’ rock ‘n’ roll fantasies if not for the infinite support and encouragement of our collective better halves, the Lamprey Ladies. Ellie, Sarah, and Kim help finance our gear habit, design our art, work our merch table, tolerate us practicing in the basement, and don’t seem to mind our beards smelling like beer. We think that rocks.
Tags: Captain Couch Records, Lamprey, Oregon, Portland