They’re doom, for sure, but there’s more at work behind the sound of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, foursome Sleestak than just heavy riffs and slow cymbals. The band’s self-released sophomore album, 2011’s The Fall of Altrusia (review here), was raw on the one hand, but sublimely progressive on the other, showing melodic range and a tendency to wander into lengthy jams. That impulse was even more highlighted on Altrusian Moon, which Sleestak posted online in January.
Altrusian Moon was essentially a practice-room recording — the band subtitled the release A Lo-Fi Collection of Psychedelia and Space Rock — but it was also a fascinating insight into the creative process that drove the writing for The Fall of Altrusia. As complex as the material on that full-length was, its organic roots nonetheless shone through the finished product. Listening, you still knew you were hearing jams.
When it came time to do it, there was plenty to talk about with Sleestak guitarist/vocalist Matt Schmitz, from the band’s participation in Wisconsin’s Days of the Doomed fest to the fact that they’ve been a band since 2003, to their penchant for making references to the tv show Land of the Lost, from which their moniker and album title are both derived and from which the lyrics of The Fall of Altrusia draw thematically. It was a long time coming, but Schmitz took great care in his answers (I think it’s the cleanest copy I’ve ever gotten back on an email interview), and you’ll find the results below.
Sleestak is Schmitz alongside guitarist Brian Gresser, bassist Dan Bell and drummer Marcus Bartell. Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions.
Marcus, Dan, and Brian had already been jamming together for a while, at least a year I think, before I came into the picture. Marcus and I had been in a previous band together so I would see him at shows and he would always try and get me to come down and hang out, an open jam-type vibe. I always kind of just passed it up. Well, finally I gave in and what do you know? It was cool and there was for sure potential there. As for the name of the band and the LOTL references, it came about while we were jamming one night and I had just stopped playing and threw the name out there. I knew everyone in the band had at least heard of the show. Myself, yes, I was very into it as a kid and then forever it was just a hazy memory. How awesome it was that they released it on DVD not long after we were a solid band. That really gave us a treasure trove of conceptual material to work with, as I found how much depth the show really had. It could easily appeal to children, sure — that‘s who the show was for — but there were many more grown-up themes interlaced, things kids wouldn’t necessarily understand. Despite the now very corny effects and such, it has proven to be quite dark and psychedelic and I guess that’s the direction we try to go in.
2. How would you describe the concept of Fall of Altrusia? What’s the story you’re telling in the lyrics and music?
I guess it helps to know some of the source material, but I tried writing most of it lyrically to appeal to anyone with imagination, who digs post-apocalyptic themes, fantasy, and sci-fi, and I did take some creative liberties with the actual fiction to develop my own story. Basically (or not so basically), there is this immensely advanced civilization, their city being Altrusia. They are scientists, statesmen, philosophers, etc. and have recently developed the technology of time travel. For the first time in history, their debates over this technology lead to war. Factions develop, fighting erupts among everyone, and eventually the losing group of Altrusians are exiled into the jungles. It is there that they discover an ancient temple with a room containing the skulls of their ancestors. The skulls speak through hallucinatory visions and telepathy and warn this group of impending doom by the rising of a triple lunar eclipse. This group goes into a hibernation as this warning plays out in the form of a meteor storm that causes mass devastation. The city is destroyed, yet the temple remains unharmed and those who were victorious in the war are all wiped out. During the hibernation, the surviving Altrusians go into a de-evolution, a fall from grace if you will. Their intelligence, memory, and even speech is lost due to the barbarism and cruel acts of war inflicted upon each other. This is the transformation into Sleestak. As they awake, they encounter a creature similar in appearance but with high intellect and speech. This is Enik (please reference the television show or wiki for the background of this character). While he walks among them, the Sleestak conspire to kill him — but not yet. He is much too powerful of a being. In the story of the song, Enik does not die but the wheels are set into motion for his murder. Here we are left with the final prophecy of the arrival of the Marshall family. I do not wish to elaborate on this area of the story’s timeline as I leave it to the show. They come, change and affect the Sleestak world, and then they either leave the dimension, die, or just become caught in a time loop. My story then picks up after them…
3. The transitions between the tracks are so smooth. Was the album written as one long piece, or separate songs that were then joined together? Do you see yourselves keeping to narrative concepts for future releases?
It really is a mixture of both ideas as Altrusia has some of our original plans which were to have a way to play our songs set with transitions and without stopping. Since then, of course, that has almost all but been rewritten with the only remnant being “The Marshall Prophecy” which is a variation from “Plan” on our earlier album. For the next studio album we do plan on continuing this form of songwriting, having recently decided that we are going to do the next act of the “Altrusian” story and that it may even be a trilogy. In fact, we’ve been doing A LOT of conceptualizing lately and the story and music is flowing quite nicely and coming together faster than anything we’ve tried writing before. But of course writing an hour-long song and making it sound like a singular cohesive piece takes some time. We are really trying not to make it sound like “riff A” goes into “riff B” goes into “riff C” and so on, we want there to be a pace to the music with lots of atmosphere. If we have a part or a riff there should be a purpose for it.
4. Talk about the contrast between jamming and heavy parts. There are these stretches that feel very open, and then you play off that with really gritty sounding doom metal. Are your roots more on the metal end than rock? Is there any influence from European death/doom?
Doing these long jam sections is just a part of the band’s identity now. We used to, in the beginning, do it to mess around, make noise, or work out a song idea, but they started taking on a more serious side, realizing that we were really able to express something through this, almost like sculpting while continually marching forward on a blank slate of time. If that makes any sense? Anyways it just seemed a natural thing to have these jams work their way into a structured song, with our songs primarily in a metal style. Personally, my roots are in punk, thrash, death, and grind and there is definitely a European influence there. I am a big fan of My Dying Bride, Anathema, Paradise Lost, Amorphis, etc. along with stuff like Napalm Death, Entombed, and Carcass. I don’t keep up on that stuff as much as I used to as you can probably tell by the band names I dropped, but the influence is still there for sure.
5. You guys played the Days of the Doomed Fest this past year. How was the show? Any highlights you’d like to share? How is doom received in Wisconsin in general? Is there a scene of bands?
The fest was amazing. Hands down, Mike Smith is the man for putting that together. It’s only going to get bigger and better and this year Sleestak are going to be curators for the official pre-party show on June 21, 2012. I think the highlight at the fest for me this past year personally was getting to meet Eric Wagner and hang with him a bit as he was one of my favorite vocalists growing up. The fest is definitely putting Wisconsin on the map for fans of doom.
As far as a scene goes, bands have come and gone, some good, some not so good. We’ve been here watching it change and evolve. For a few of the early years we felt like we were the only doom band this city had and to be honest it’s been a lonely ride in Milwaukee. For us it seemed like we were too heavy to play with any of the indie kids as we don’t even have that heavy sludgy “indie” sound and on the other hand we weren’t heavy enough and didn’t fit in with a lot of the generic death metal and hair bands that plague the area. We actively avoided doing anything locally for a few years unless we were helping route some good touring bands through town giving us a reason, a justification for us to play a show. We were jaded from both a lack of fan response and from reaching out to bands and clubs who either ignored our desire to connect and network or just flat out dicked us around and were assholes to us. Just this last year, though, we decided to try again and stir up interest here because it’s much easier for us to play local shows than it is for us to get out and tour all the time. But, let me tell you, because of Days of the Doomed fest and a small handful of bands like Northless, I see a glimmer of hope. I think there’s going to be something wonderful and important happening with the scene here given a little time and nurturing.
6. Any other plans or closing words you’d like to mention?
THANK YOU — to everyone who has been supporting us through the years and to all our new friends we’ve made in the past several months. It’s getting crazy with how things are picking up. Even though we’ve been going since 2003 it seems like the start of an amazing journey… Cheers!Milwaukee, Sleestak, Unsigned bands, Wisconsin