Reverence to Stone, the second album from Samothrace, is not short on crash and rumble. The two-song outing arrives on 20 Buck Spin four years after Samothrace‘s debut, Life’s Trade, and in the time since that record was released, the band relocated from its original home in Lawrence, Kansas, to Seattle — where one imagines, if nothing else, the coffee is better — and re-acquired guitarist Reneta Castagna.
She’d played on the first album, but as drummer Joe Axler explains in the interview that follows here, Castagna would prove an essential piece of the puzzle in making Reverence to Stone (review here) happen. As well as dealing with substance abuse issues, it wasn’t until Castagna moved north from New Mexico to rejoin the band that Samothrace was able to finish the writing of the 20-minute landmark track, “A Horse of Our Own,” which, when coupled with a reworked version of “When We Emerged” from the band’s original 2007 demo (topping out at 14:17), makes up the total runtime of the album.
Though the two songs are individually long — and they more than justify their length, each playing out in epic progressions of loud/quiet back and forths and builds — the album as a whole is pretty short, and in talking to Axler, I wanted to find out if that was on purpose. The drummer, who also plays in Skarp and Theories and is a veteran of Iamthethorn, Book of Black Earth as well as a slew of others, joined Samothrace after guitarist Bryan Spinks and bassist Dylan Desmond relocated in 2009 — he replaced Joe Noel, who played on Life’s Trade — and had a unique perspective to offer on stepping into the already established writing process between Spinks, Desmond and then Castagna too, working with the three original members to create Reverence to Stone over the course of the last three years.
And in discussing that, Axler revealed that part of the process adjusting to Samothrace’s craft came in figuring out how to play slow — something which any drummer who’s ever done it will tell you is not as easy as it seems — and how to fill the spaces when the push drops out and he’s accompanying the more ambient stretches. I’m not a percussionist unless you count tapping on my desk, but it was a fascinating take anyway and something you might not immediately think of when listening to Reverence to Stone, and particularly “A Horse of Our Own,” on which the drums are far back in the mix, holding the track together while Spinks, Castagna and Desmond add to the seemingly infinite sonic space.
It was a relatively quick conversation, but as well as discussion of recording techniques — Reverence to Stone was produced by Brandon Fitzsimons at the famed Soundhouse Studios (High on Fire, Skin Yard, Camarosmith, etc.) — and the fact that he’s going to miss the East Coast run that will follow Samothrace‘s handful of West Coast dates that start a week from today, Axlerwas forthcoming on a range of subjects. I hope you’ll agree as you read through.
Please find the complete Q&A with Joe Axler of Samothrace, who’d just gotten out of band practice, after the jump, and please enjoy.
How was practice?
It was good. It wasn’t with Samothrace. It was with a different band. It was with a band called Theories. It’s me and one of the other dudes from Book of Black Earth that are no longer in Book of Black Earth. Kind of like a grindy, death/grind kind of band.
With Samothrace, you’re getting ready to hit up the West Coast and then the East Coast. How are the preparations going?
Well, actually they’re taking a fill-in drummer on the East Coast. I’m gonna be in Mexico with Skarp those exact two weeks, so they’re taking a different drummer on that one. I don’t exactly know how the preparation for that one’s going (laughs). The West Coast one’s going good. We’re doing a collaboration shirt for that tour with CVLTNation. We’re doing a CVLTNation/Samothrace shirt for that tour that we just got the artwork for last week, it’s fucking awesome. They had one of their artists do the artwork and those are just getting printed right now. They’re pretty rad.
And how long will you be in Mexico?
I play in Skarp and we’re doing two weeks in Southern Mexico. It just happened to be like, we had literally agreed to that tour and just got our plane tickets to go out there when we got offered the East Coast tour, and that East Coast tour isn’t really something Samothrace can turn down – it’s a really good tour – so they’re going with a different drummer for that one.
Kind of a rock and a hard place there. On the one hand, Southern Mexico, on the other, Pallbearer and Royal Thunder.
Well, yeah. It would’ve been an easier choice if we didn’t have those tickets paid for. I couldn’t choose between those dudes doing the Mexico tour, having plane tickets for Mexico.
I guess that would kind of make decision for you.
What was the timeline on your joining Samothrace and the band moving to Seattle and getting situated there?
Basically they had planned on moving to Seattle, and they had talked to me about if they moved out here, playing with them. Their drummer, I believe he was planning on staying in Kansas. At the time, he was playing with The Atlas Moth. Or he was tour managing with them and doing extra percussion at shows. Their decision was to get out of the Midwest. We all met in I think 2006. Skarp, the band I’m going to Mexico with, took their old band, Oroku, on a West Coast tour, and two of the members of Oroku are in Samothrace, so that’s how we all met and started talking. I got the call from Spinks and they’d planned on coming out to the West Coast, and he asked if I’d play with them when they came out. That was basically after Life’s Trade came out, and they did the US tour,a dn one of the last shows on the tour was in L.A. at Murderfest, and Samothrace and Skarp played together at Murderfest, and pretty much they finished the tour, went home, packed up, moved to Seattle and we started playing.
Had they written anything for Reverence to Stone? I know “When We Emerged” is from the demo.
Yeah, “When We Emerged” is from the demo. When they came out here, we all had persomal shit going on in our lives, so shit was going real slow, but once we all got past some of the shit we were going through, we started writing. “When We Emerged,” maybe about a year and a half ago we decided to rewrite that one. They had it on their demo, and the demo version was twice as fast. It was kind of a mid-paced song, and they kind of rewrote it to fit what we’re doing now. “A Horse of Our Own,” we spent about three years writing that song. We started first playing it live, only about half of it, because we had half written and we’d written it to a point where it could’ve been played live and stopped and it didn’t sound like half a song. We kind of announced it as, “This is part one of ‘A Horse of Our Own.” And then, we had a lineup change again. We used to have Daniel playing guitar, and he left, and Spinks called Renata, who was down in New Mexico at the time. She was the original guitar player in Samothrace. She was on the first record, and he asked her to move back up, and she came up and whipped us back into shape. When she came back, we finished up writing “A Horse of Our Own.” We had a third song in the works that was about halfway done, but every time we’d come to practice, we’d rearrange it and change it a little bit, so we decided to scrap it and save the riffs that we liked for the next record.
What was it that Renata brought when she came up?
Ambition. Spinks and I were having a little personal problems in our lives with substance abuse and shit like that that we pretty much overcame right around the time that Renata came up. Besides the fact that she’s a great musician and that her, Dylan and Spinks started that band, she came up and just was like, “Alright, I’m back in town, this is how it is. I came back here for this band, let’s get to work.” And we all buckled down and started writing. Her and Spinks and Dylan have a long history of writing music together, so with her being back up here, it’s kind of like them starting over again the way they started.
Was it odd for you to step into that process?
Well, luckily I had already been in the band for over a year at the time, so I’d kind of got the gist of it, but joining the band was hard. I mean, I knew those dudes, and we were good buddies, and that wasn’t the problem, but with the exception of Iamthethorn, I’d never played in a slow band before. And Iamthethorn was slow, but not Samothrace slow. Even though it was slow, it still had a hardcore vibe like I was used to playing. Samothrace was like throwing away everything I knew about drums and starting fresh, learning a whole new vibe where it wasn’t just about playing hard and fast all the time, but playing to a feel. And also kind of stepping back. Instead of being super-technical and playing like it was the lead, kind of letting the guitars do the work and just being a behind-the-scene – I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. It’s a guitar-oriented band, and when it comes to percussion, me and Dylan do that, but Dylan plays bass like a guitar player. He shreds. So the drums, I’m there to keep a beat, basically.
I think one of the things you do really well on the record though is you ground those ambient parts. Especially on “A Horse of Our Own,” you have those breaks, and even though the drums are pretty far back, you’re kind of the one holding that song together.
Ah, well thanks. I think basically learning more about empty space, instead of all-go, all the time, learning about the power of empty space…if that makes sense.
With a lot of doom, you get the drums acting as the punctuation or the accent on what the guitars are doing, and the bass filling in that space as well.
I can imagine going from playing faster stuff, that’s got to be an adjustment, because like you say, you’re not hard and fast all the time. I guess it’s hard to get “mood” out of drums if you’re not used to doing it.
Well, yeah. Also, going from fast to slow definitely makes you pay attention to timing and makes you realize you might not be as great at timing as you thought you were. When it’s like, a quarter of the amount of hits as you’re playing when you’re playing fast, you realize that every mistake is obviously, that you’ve got to stop making mistakes (laughs).
On that note, tell me about the recording process.
We went in. We kind of did like pre-pro, just in the studio, a lot of recording ourselves and listening. But we went in with Brandon Fitzsimons, because he’s a good friend of ours, and he was in that band Wormwood, who were also from Lawrence, Kansas, which is where Samothrace is originally from. We went to Soundhouse Studios, in Seattle, which is a legendary place. It’s where a lot of old grunge and heavy Seattle bands recorded. Basically, we went in, we started out with drums, and spent a lot of time with mic placing. There was three room mics, and then we had a mic that was placed in the room next door to the drum room, with the door left open, which pretty much picked up, as you think it would sound, it sounds like it was recorded in a different room, like natural reverb.
Is that what you have in those quiet parts?
Yeah, we used a lot of room mic in the quiet parts. We turned it down and turned it up. We went through a lot of reverb boxes. On the quiet part you’re talking about in “A Horse of Our Own,” there’s the initial drum track, and then there’s five extra tracks of just percussion, floor toms, on it that we mixed in. But yeah, we spent two days doing drums, and got those down pretty quickly, luckily. We couldn’t use click track, because that takes away from the feel, and we couldn’t do much punching in and punching out, so basically those two drum tracks we done in one take. Then we did bass, which took two days and was pretty crazy. There’s a lot of tremolo picking going on, and Dylan was busting his ass and got through it. Most of the guitar basic tracks were done in Soundhouse. We only had five days in Soundhouse, and when we were done, we went to Airport Grocery Studioss, which is Brandon Fitzsimons’ personal studio, and that’s where the last of the guitar tracks and all of the leads and solos were recorded and where vocals were done. I believe the last day of tracking, Renata and Spinks and myself, did all the noise that’s at the end of the two tracks. We know kind of what we wanted to sound like, but had never really practiced it, so I played on the synth and we went through all of Renata and Spinks’ pedal boards and they just kind of turned knobs until it sounded good. It was relatively long, but very fun and easy, stressless recording.
Were you at all rushed to get through what you had to do at Soundhouse?
There wasn’t much of a rush. It went pretty smooth. It was just trying to get through all of the stud that we wanted that room for. That room itself just sounds great, so it wasn’t a rush, but we definitely knew that we had this certain amount of time, because we were working with a pretty small budget. Soundhouse also costs a lot more than Airport Grocery. Basically we made a point to get through everything that had to be in that room to sound good.
Everything you need a high ceiling for, is that it?
Definitely. The high ceilings, the big rooms and the good mics. But we knew how much time we had. We ended up having to buy one more day there, but it didn’t feel rushed at all. Right next door to Soundhouse was a dispensary, and I don’t know how it is where you’re from, but medical marijuana’s legal here, so the fact that there’s a dispensary right next door made it even less stressful. There were constant breaks to go over and go shopping (laughs).
You guys have done some of this material live. How has the response been?
It’s been really good. I think especially with the completion of the song “A Horse of Our Own.” Basically, in the almost four years since Samothrace has been in Seattle, we haven’t really done much touring at all. Basically, we played Washington and Oregon and that’s about it, so the people that have been seeing us around here, we don’t play often, but when we do, I know the people are definitely waiting to hear a new track, and by the time we finish “A Horse of Our Own,” there’s definitely a good response. We’ve played some shows that we didn’t quite fit on, bill-wise, and they still turned out awesome. We didn’t stray too far. We did one show where we were all a little bit worried about the reaction, and that was the Decibel tour. They’d asked us to play the Seattle show. It was In Solitude, The Devil’s Blood, Watain and Behemoth. Those bands are all great, but they all have a way faster, more aggressive style, and we were a little bit worried about, number one, when you open a tour like that, people are there to see the package and not to see you, and especially when you consider we were the opening band and we were playing 30 minutes of extremely slow music, but we played and it actually went over really well. I think times are changing back to the way they were when I first got into heavy music, which is where not every band on the bill has to be the same. People may be into more of a certain style of metal, but people like music, so if you go to a band with a mixed bill, people are still stoked because regardless of the exact style they like, they’re open to more in aggressive music. I think pretty much the feedback’s been great on those songs.
Part of the thing with that bill too was it was diverse in itself, so you’re going to get more of an open-minded crowd that you would playing with three death metal bands.
It’s diverse in its own, in the sense that all those bands have in some way a death/black/thrash feel. It’s diverse in that, but I think what made it an easier feel going into it, was pretty much all the bands that Decibel picked to open the show, there were eight bands – they had Stoneburner in Portland, and they had Evoken on the East Coast shows – pretty much all the bands they picked to open were slow and funeral doom-ish. It went great. We were very happy to play it.
Do you know what you’ll do after these tours are done?
I’m not sure. Right now those two tours are the only ones we have. We’re not able to tour as much as we’d like to. We have a member that owns a business and because of that, can’t tour too much. But these two tours are set and they’re definitely happening. We’re open to as much touring as we’re able to do after that. We’d definitely like to do a more extensive tour all over the US, and we would love to get out to Europe. We’re just waiting to see if we can find the right thing. Besides that, I know Spinks has a lot of riffs under his belt that he’s ready to work on, so I’m guessing any time that’s spent home not touring, we’re just going to spend working on the new record so there’s no four-year wait between this one and the next one. The plan we’ve been talking about is having the next record out within a year and a couple seasons. Basically a little over a year from now, you should expect another record from us.
The riffs, definitely. They will be. Pretty much all the riffs for that song, we liked. We just spent so much time trying ot make them work together in one song, and they weren’t working, so we scrapped that song, but all of those riffs and a bunch of new ones Spinks has are ready to be put together. We’re not coming out of this record with nothing. We’re coming out of this record with a lot put together. There’s nothing set structure-wise, but we have a lot of riffs to work with.
And you’ll start really putting it together after the tours?
Yeah, after the East Coast tours for sure. Spinks spends a lot of his off-time from Samothrace in Oklahoma with his family and working out there, but when he gets home this week, we’ll be practicing these songs, plus – were’ going to have a three-song set for these tours – the two songs from Reverence to Stone we’ll be playing and one more from Life’s Trade. But after this West Coast tour and the East Coast tour, when we’re all back in town, we’re going to settle down and start working on the next record, and at the same time keeping our ears open for more tours to do this year. I know that definitely one of the goals is to get out to Europe. In the lifetime of Samothrace, they haven’t been out of the country. I think the plan is trying to find festivals all over to play and use the festival as an excuse to do a tour in each country around that.
Tags: 20 Buck Spin, Reverence to Stone, Samothrace, Samothrace 20 Buck Spin, Samothrace a Horse of Our Own, Samothrace Interview, Samothrace Joe Axler, Samothrace Reverence to Stone, Samothrace Seattle, Samothrace When We Emerged, Seattle, Washington