Snail Interview with Mark Johnson and Matt Lynch: Death Denied at the Hands of Ritual (Plus Video Premiere!)
Three years after marking their return with 2009’s Blood (review here), their first outing since their 1993 self-titled debut, Snail return May 1 with Terminus, an album as severely heavy as the name might imply. It’s a logical extension of the tones found on Blood, but as guitarist, vocalist and principle songwriter Mark Johnson explains in the interview that follows, it’s also a departure in its base of influence, taking cues from early-’80s metal instead of mid-’90s stoner rock.
Snail aren’t covering Venom or anything like that (yet), but Johnson makes a sound point when he argues for early thrash and bands like Voivod‘s position as the proto-stoner metal. Terminus grooves as heavily as the album that preceded it, but driven by both these musical ideas and by personal tribulations, especially the earlier songs are more directly crushing, and — in part because of the geographically-spread recording process overseen by bassist Matt Lynch at Mysterious Mammal Studios — more exacting than was Blood or certainly Snail before that.
And while they say that they’re going to look to do the opposite next time out and record live rather than send parts in individually, the recording process for Terminus serves the material well. Songs like “Galaxy’s Lament” and the ultra-grooving “Burn the Flesh” benefit from the crisp execution, as do later, more psychedelic excursions like “Circles” and “Try to Make It,” and thanks in large part to Lynch‘s careful mix, the album doesn’t come out sounding unnatural or cold. As the lines between genres continue to blur, Snail stand ready to add to the eternal debate about what is or isn’t “metal” by its nature.
Whatever your position on that, you might find fodder for consideration in Snail‘s brand new video for the song “Ritual” from Terminus, which you can see immediately following the jump to the interview itself — I left it up top because it’s a premiere, rather than stick it at the bottom — as it seems to filter its stonerly ways through a denim and leather, smoking-on-the-loading-dock early metal sensibility. In the discussion that follows the clip, Johnson and Lynch talk about the process of making Terminus after doing Blood, the themes behind the song and the video, and much, much more.
The band is completed by drummer Marty Dodson and guitarist Eric Clausen. “Ritual” video premiere and full Q&A are after the jump. Please enjoy.
When did you guys start writing Terminus?
Mark: I was writing during the recording of Blood. I think the first fresh one I came up with might have been “Galaxy,” and then it just seemed like a whole lot of different ideas started happening. It was all sort of within the realm of sort of early-‘80s proto metal, sort of along the lines of early Dio, real early Metallica and stuff like that, is kind of where my songwriting head was at for the album. It was during Blood, when it started.
How long from then until you started recording?
Mark: It was a long time. Personally, I went through a divorce right about at the end of Blood, and so it was just like the name Terminus sort of implies – it literally means “a boundary stone” – I’d reached the end of one sort of life and was starting a new one. And so it was taking a really long time because of the personal things that were going on, to collaborate and move things forward.
Matt: The nature of the band, too, is that we’re all spread out. Mark’s the principle songwriter, but if anybody else has ideas, we all separately demo our ideas and send them around, and if that sparks interest in the other band members, then we pursue that. Eric is really prolific, so he had – what was it, Mark, like 20 pieces that we sifted through?
Matt: And we’re all older too and we have families and stuff like that, so it takes a little longer instead of being in the rehearsal space two or three times a week. Just the nature of the band takes longer, and then Mark was going through all that. And I was still finishing up the record too – the Blood record. We had the tour in there, so it’s nothing that dramatically different from most bands, except for we’re spread out.
Mark: Yeah. One part of my personal process, too, for songwriting, is I like to really demo things out and then listen to it over, and over, and over, and over again, and sort of identify what things are the cool things about a tune, and then really try to expound on those when we do a final recording or whatever. I do a lot of listening, which takes time too. So all that together, I think it took, what, three years for us to finally get going? Long time.
Matt: Two years. Two years. We started last April. It’s been a year now since we started recording, and the record’s been done since October.
Matt: It’s been mastered since October and done, but we were sending it out to labels to see if we got any interesting offers or anything. Ultimately, we just decided it made more sense for us to put it out, so that’s what we’re doing. But like Mark said, there’s a lot of listening that goes on. He’ll be listening to it for a long time, then he’ll send it to us, I’ll put my little arranger hat on and say, “Well, this is cool, but maybe this could be fleshed out, or whatever. You know. The steps that would maybe happen in a practice or two with a band that’s playing together all the time, for us might take longer.
Mark: But everything ends up very deliberate that way too.
Matt: Well, that’s what’s cool about it. This is actually our most collaborative record to date, so that’s cool, too.
Do you feel like after taking the experience from Blood, the process for Terminus was smoother?
Mark: I feel like it was, because we already had the network in place for completing this. We kind of were already familiar with the channels and how to get stuff back and forth, how to work together… Yeah, it was definitely a lot smoother, because now we’ve sort of got everything set as far as methodology of how we demo everything and record it and so forth. However, I will say, the next time we’re recording, we’re throwing out everything and we’re gonna record everything live to sort of get more of a vibe back.
Matt: Yeah. This one was the first time we’ve done just, like, had the drums by themselves. Last time we had everybody but Mark track basics together, except for one song I think I waited to track bass. But this time, all the demos were done to a click, so Mark sent them out, and a lot of them had keeper stuff – that we wanted to keep, for vocals and things – so Marty, the drummer, just tracked to that and we layered over that. With the exception of, I think, “Love Theme.” Eric and Marty played together and I was just the producer. So this time, we want to go to the other extreme. We explored that avenue. We got the “perfect-sounding” record or whatever, and now we just want to go punk-rock style and do it all in a room and be done with it and know what we have and mix it more analog, on the fly, kind of deal. We’re kind of getting ahead of ourselves (laughs).
Mark: Just like we did last time (laughs).
Did you guys ever get together in writing and the recording process?
Mark: Actually, when I was recording, I did some tracks for Blood up here, near Seattle, with Eric. He was living here for a short time. And we sort of did some jamming together on some of the new riffs and stuff that would end up being Terminus, but other than that, not really. It was pretty much just a very demoed-out and tracked separately, total metal album, I would say. In the sense of the recording as well. It was very precise and so forth. But it still has all the sort of soul behind it too. It’s not a cold album, by any means. There’s meaning in every single part of that album, and collectively, too.
Matt: Yeah. I actually wrote the main riff to “Burden of Flesh” at Mark’s house on tour for Blood.
Mark: That’s right!
Matt: On an acoustic guitar. But I never knew if it would become a song at that point. I was just screwing around, killing time, and with him, it blossomed into something.
Terminus being the second album since you guys got back together, since you started writing and recording again as Snail, is it strange to move past the “reunion,” to just being an active band? Or did you maybe not think of it that way?
Mark: Personally, I thought that when we did Blood, I thought, “If we can just get this completed, and 50 people hear it, I’m totally satisfied.” So in that sense, everything is completely way more than I expected. Even with only like less than 600 people on our Facebook page and so forth, it far exceeds what my expectations were, so yeah. Now, it’s kind of settling back in to being an actual band, putting out consistent albums, and not having to worry about the commercial aspects too is kind of nice. Now I feel like we’re a lot more creative than we were back in the day. And it was nice for this album – since we started, I’ve always wanted to do just a super-heavy album – so we kind of scratched that itch, which was nice.
Matt: It’s like Mark said. It’s all kind of gravy at this point. I guess there’s a little bit of thought in my mind, “Is this the sophomore album that never happened?” Because the last record was really… The music’s always for us, but the last record particularly was created just for us, because we always wanted to hear what it would’ve sounded like – what it should’ve sounded like – and yeah, there was new material, but the majority of it was old material that we never heard fully realized, and there was a point doing Blood, because it was for us, that after I sent you, what, “Blacklight,” Mark? Both of us are listening back to this thing, getting kind of emotional, listening for the first time. It’s like, “This is Snail. It’s 15 years in the making, and finally we get to hear it the way it was supposed to be, instead of a four-track cassette demo.”
Mark: And without the limit of just having, say, a 10-hour block in the studio, or a 60-hour block in the studio, where you have to sort of cram it all in. We had the luxury of being able to execute everything exactly the way we wanted to have it end up.
Matt: Yeah. For better or for worse (laughs). For the new record, for Terminus – you always get to a point where it’s hard to be objective anymore when you’re working on your own stuff, but it’s really satisfying that way.
And you’re thinking next time you want to move away from that and do more live? You’d get together to do that?
Mark: Oh yes. Definitely. And utilize as much analog as seems appropriate and so forth. Yeah, just all get together and sort of learn the tunes together. They’ll be demoed, obviously, ahead of time, but learn them together, play them until they get good, have them gel, and then record it. I cannot wait to do that.
Matt: There’s been talk of doing it to eight-track tape, one-inch tape, and then mix it analog. My studio’s got a new board coming in, so that would be awesome too. To do it on that and do it all old school. And the material will kind of be focused around that as well. At least that’s where we’re at now, where the headspace is at. Back to the fuzz and all that.
That stuff is still there on Terminus. The fuzz and the heavy riffing and all that. But it does have a little more crunch to it than Blood did, at least in the earlier tracks. I guess that’s that early metal influence that you were talking about, Mark. Is that what that came out as?
Mark: Yes, it is. And the way I was thinking about it – when we were recording Blood, I was thinking, “Man, we can just go as heavy as we want. Who gives a fuck? We can do full-blown whatever.” It was kind of an epiphany. And I figured we were doing stoner rock sort of stuff, and when I think of “stoner,” it’s early-‘80s metal. For me, anyway. And so this’ll be like, the next progression for us, making those heavy stoner riffs and whatever. It’s sort of like, early-‘80s, Camaro, Ozzy shit. Or, like, Dio. And so it’s still a progression in that sense, for me.
I know Matt has Mysterious Mammal. What’s your home setup like for recording?
Matt: Yeah, it’s the original Mbox, I think. It’s just some gear that I had that I wasn’t using, and Mark’s putting it to good use. I’d rather have it get used, you know.
Mark: And now it’s so old. It won’t run on the new Windows, so I have a tower that’s dedicated to just recording with this Mbox. It’s got Windows XP and so forth. So that’s basically the system. I use ProTools, and then just put my amp – I turn it almost all the way up in the bathroom or whatever (laughs) – and mic it just like it’s in the studio, and that’s it. Pretty homegrown, I guess.
Matt, working with everyone spread out, was it hard to mix the record that way, or was it the same process, getting everyone’s tracks in and putting them where you thought they should go? I’m thinking of making notes back and forth, like you would in a studio when everyone’s there and has the notes they’re bringing in. Is it just that over a longer period of time exchanging emails?
Matt: A little bit, but that’s one nice thing about ProTools. Everything’s saved and recalled, so it’s not like I have to leave a mix up on the board while I talk to somebody. But it’s pretty minimal, because Mark and I have worked together for so long, and all of us have worked together for so long over the years, that we just kind of have the same vocabulary. In some ways, it’s easier, because sometimes when you have a band in the room while you’re mixing, you’re getting the comments constantly but you’re not really ready for review yet. It’s not even in a shape where somebody should be listening, but the band’s there. You know, they should be there, but then this way, I can get it fully-developed and send it to Mark and the guys, and they can just respond to that, instead of maybe losing… Everybody can be more objective about it, really, because they’re hearing it in a completed form or a close to completed form, and then they can say, “Oh, this isn’t right,” or, “I had this in mind.” And also, keep in mind, that we’ve all demoed these really, really tight at this point. So I’ve got all the original demo mixes and we’re even using some of the vocals and stuff off the demos, so it’s not really any harder to do this way. It’s maybe not as emotionally satisfying as a band member – you don’t get that camaraderie that comes from being a band and being in the studio together – so that’s kind of a drag. And that’s why we want to go back and do the next one all in the same room, and do it in two weeks or whatever, a week in the studio. But from a producer/engineer, it’s about the same.
Keeping vocals from the demo tracks – is that something you do to offset that lack of a live feel? Things would naturally be a little rawer on a demo.
Mark: I wonder if we should tell the truth on this, Matt (laughs).
Matt: It’s because, uh… It’s actually… It’s because we’re lazy, honestly (laughs). Not lazy. Mark takes a long time to do his vocals, and he’s self-conscious about his vocals – which most singers are – so usually for the demos, he’s gotten it pretty close before he sends it to us, because he doesn’t want to send us something he’s not proud of, even as a demo. And so at that point, it’s already pretty close, unless there’s some kind of sonic mistake or something that needs to be fixed.
Mark: Typically the demos have the same signal chain and the same everything – same mics – as I use to do final tracks. I think at the beginning, I was really dragging my feet because of those things that were happening in my life, and Matt was really itching to get the ball rolling, because it was past time to do it. So he got the ball rolling by doing a couple demos just using tracks that we already had, and then bringing in Marty to record with him, and then it just kind of got things rolling, and it wasn’t so much reliance on the demos after that.
Matt: And you know, sometimes he’ll track demos and the words aren’t finished and it’s the same lyric three times for the verses or the choruses or whatever. So there’s that that would have to be redone. But it’s really only a couple [demo vocals] that we kept.
Mark: Shit, I can’t even remember. “Galaxy?” I think “Galaxy” was one that we kept some. And maybe “Recursion?”
Matt: No, you redid “Recursion.”
Mark: Oh, that’s right.
Matt: “Ritual,” I know, because “Ritual” actually has the same verse twice.
Mark: Yeah, that’s right! “Ritual” is definitely one.
Matt: And we just decided that – first of all, I thought it kicked ass and it kind of fit in with the whole cyclical nature of the song anyway, about rituals and these repetitions, so it didn’t really need another verse.
Tell me about writing “Ritual.”
Mark: “Ritual” is sort of about… I read this book, I think it was by Ernest Becker, called The Denial of Death, and I realized that most people engage in rituals in different ways to sort of deal with the problem of death. And essentially, that’s what the tune is about (laughs). It’s about all the different work, family, different things you do ritualistically and symbolically, to escape death. And so the video is kind of on that thing too. The guy doing his drug ritual.
Where is that footage from?
Mark: Let’s see. It was from an old public service announcement ad or something. It was called A Day in the Death of Donny B. That’s what it was. It just fit perfectly, when I lined it up. There’s no rights problems, so it was just a perfect expression (laughs). Totally fit.
What’s the plan for the album release at this point?
Mark: May 1 is the official release date, and I’m gonna be in support of the Mayday protests – the Occupy Mayday protests – so we’ll take orders that day, but we’ll fulfill them 24 hours later. That’s the release date. And it’s CD. We’ve already got them all printed, and we’ve got posters. We’re making t-shirts. As soon as we get enough to cover it – actually, no. There’s a guy in France that Matt’s talking to that’s gonna put it out on vinyl. Maybe Matt can tell you about that.
Matt: Vinyl is definitely in the works, but I think it’s all gonna be delayed for financial reasons. Even the guy in France – he doesn’t have the funds to do it right now. He proposed a dual release, split release, where we would pay for half and he’d pay for half, we’d cover the US distribution and he’d cover over there, but we’re just tapped right now trying to get everything that is already in the works paid for. It will be out, though. I just can’t give you an exact timeline.
Mark: If somebody’s not gonna back it, the plan is to rollover whatever we make or use our own funds eventually to press vinyl and release it that way, but it’s probably gonna be a few months, or as soon as we can afford to (laughs).
Matt: Yeah. But as far as other formats, there’ll be a download. I think Mark, were you able to work out the pay-what-you-want download system?
Mark: Yeah. It’ll be some variation of free or pay-what-you-want. Probably free download. Our shopping cart does handle donations, so that would work. The download’s in high-quality mp3, and we’ll be on iTunes, Amazon.com, CDBaby, All That is Heavy will carry it. So it’ll be definitely out there.
Will you guys tour for Terminus? A week, couple weeks, whatever?
Mark: Yeah. We’ll try to, probably sometime after maybe mid-to-late summer. Probably late summer, it’s looking now. Again, for financial reasons. But absolutely, yeah. We’re already talking about when we’re going to start playing and booking shows and so forth.California, Seattle, Snail, Washington