Two weeks ago, Indianapolis doom rockers Devil to Pay hit the road for a handful of dates alongside Ohio-based cohorts Lo-Pan. It was Devil to Pay‘s first real road time since issuing their fourth album and Ripple Music debut, Fate is Your Muse (review here), earlier this year, and Fate is Your Muse is the first Devil to Pay album since 2009’s Heavily Ever After. Much of the material on the record had been tested at East Coast gigs last fall leading up to a performance at Stoner Hands of Doom XII, but still, for it having been so long since their last outing, the quality of the songs on Fate is Your Muse was all the more startling.
With tracks like “Already Dead,” “This Train Won’t Stop,” “Ten Lizardmen and One Pocketknife” and the eerily proggy “Black Black Heart,” Devil to Pay showed growth in what was already an engaging songwriting methodology. Strong choruses backed by the thick but not overdone riffing of guitarists Steve Janiak (also vocals) and Rob Hough lent a slick feel throughout, but a natural vibe persisted and won out, bassist Matt Stokes and drummer Chad Profigle holding down a straightforward foundation of organic groove from which tracks branched out in varying but consistent directions — the whole process both unpretentious and flowing over the course of the album as a whole. There was, in short, very little not to like.
As Janiak‘s vocals were a particular point of growth — he doubles as guitarist/backing vocalist in Indy trad doomers Apostle of Solitude — it seemed all the more appropriate to ring him up for a quick interview about Fate is Your Muse, what went into making it and if splitting his time as he does had any effect on the songwriting process for these tracks. Janiak has a keen, critical and self-aware eye, so to hear him turn those impulses inward to discuss putting the record together was especially fascinating. We spoke just prior to their starting the gigs with Lo-Pan and you’ll find the complete Q&A with pictures from last year’s SHoD after the jump.
I should have brought my notes. Probably within a year of Heavily Ever After being out. Even in DIY circles there’s a promotional period where you’re spending all your time performing that album and pushing that album. I’m guessing a year after that we started jamming. I could look it up to be sure. We’d have intermittent jams and I’d try to record everything we do. I started to make jam albums of the improvs that we were doing. So, everything gets cataloged and named by me so when I give the guys recordings, I’d give each riff a little name. Some of the jams would be longer and more redundant than others.
Some were just little bits and pieces. Some come from me playing by myself. I think we did three hours’ worth, three separate ones and I made these little fake covers with ridiculous booties on them and stuff. That was our template, “Go through these and listen to some of these jams and pick out what you guys like.” From that, we had been working on it, it would be 2010-ish? We weren’t steady workers. Intermittently bare down and finish a song then once it got closer and closer, it kind of crystallized. “Okay, these songs are going to be the ones we go with.” We definitely have more material from that period. But those are the ones we were going to focus on and kind of flesh out.
You must have had a ton of material to go through.
Yes and no. We don’t always jam or improv. You’d have a ton of riffs and stuff then I would pick the ones I liked the best and put them on a compilation and give everyone a CD. Make little covers for it and everyone puts it in their little player. Now technology is pretty fantastic. It’s all practice recordings. Generally you can’t tell what’s happening vocally. There’s definitely a lot of material. I wish we had the time and foresight to finish more songs and kind of record all of it, but everybody’s commitments being what they are already, we’re glad things ended up the way that they did.
How much would you say you have left over?
I don’t know. Hard to say, when a song is on there, it’s either a yes or no for me off the bat. If it’s a no I normally give it a silly name to give me a reminder later on. I don’t know why but that’s how I kind of define that the riff wasn’t all that great but I’ll put it in here anyway. Then I go back and go, “’Cheeseburger?’ That’s stupid, I don’t think I’m going to…” I don’t know how much material there is. Frankly, some of the stuff is hard to gauge. We never got to the point of making songs out of it. So it’s hard to guess about how much time there is but I would guess there’s at least another album, easily. But now we’ve already moved on to the next phase.
Would you use that leftover material?
We’ve forged ahead. We’ve had two sessions plus the odd jams here and there. Everybody has copies. It’s just kind of off in the distance. We’re not really even ready to do that yet. I think that’s my favorite part of being a musician. The creative part of it. I like to improv. Even if sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere or it falls apart, it sounds really bizarre. That’s the whole reason I keep playing music. I’ve read interviews with people who say, Oh man, I wanted to meet chicks or whatever.” I never thought that for whatever reason. I always thought I needed to be more creative.
I think the other end of it is the “I love performing live, put me on a stage” attitude.
I’ve had moments where I’ve enjoyed it. There was probably a period of time where I didn’t enjoy it as much as creating songs. I don’t know if that just because of my own internal pressure of performing well, or maybe the nerves that would come with that. Yeah.
Do you get stage fright? Is there anxiety in getting on stage?
No. I kind of did in the beginning. I’ve been doing it a long time so, I don’t really remember that. Even when we have a show that’s a bigger deal, I don’t feel physically nervous. There may be a little more time trying to get into the groove on stage. That’s the ideal situation, to jump on stage and be locked in. I think that bands that get to tour all the time, they have that built in from doing it every day. For me, two to three songs in, now I am ready. I envy that. Playing every day.
With Devil To Pay, you guys have been at it long enough now. The chemistry you guys have as a band is pretty set.
Yeah. The band I was in before — we had gotten to the point where it was almost all improv. All of our songs sprang directly out of that. The best songs came almost with out changes out of improvs. We had a tendency to ramble, musically on stage. When Devil to Pay started, we had a direct focus of playing this particular kind of underground heavy stuff. There was a lean towards song structures and trying to find an identity within that genre, I guess.
Fate is Your Muse is still pretty structured. Would you want work with Devil To Pay toward that sort of more open-ended feel?
Yes and no. We’ve talked about it. We do a little bit right now. Those Queens of the Stone Age dudes will go out and do something, take a section of a song and do something different live. They won’t do it to all the songs but they’ll do it to some of the songs and I really like that. I see us trying to have more of an open-ended thing from that kind of perspective. Nothing to crazy drastic, Frank Zappa. The drawback to doing a lot of improv live is when it’s not coming or when the spirits aren’t there to guide you it’s just a bunch of crap. No one likes it and you’re not enjoying yourself.
We had gotten most of the songs arranged and then booked the studio time. We went in and laid down all of the rhythm and drums first. Then go back and add some guitar here or there, solos. Then I finish the lyrics and then lay those down and the mix is ready to start. I don’t prefer to wait until everything is done to finish the lyrics, but I’m more of a melody person. I’ll sing a melody and play it live without lyrics for a while. They’ll be different features of lyrics in that. But until it’s time to finish the lyrics, I don’t know if it makes me feel like I can make it more cohesive or if I’m just that much more lazier than other songwriters. In a certain way it does give me a chance to put a bow on it. Doing a lot of lyrics that kind of come in the same kind of time frame. This will happen too, when you have songs that are from 2009, actually — one song on this record before we wrote Heavily Ever After.
“Savonarola.” We never could agree on the final version of it. It kind of got put on the shelf. I think when we got around to saying, “Okay, what songs do we want to do?” Some old songs would pop out and we’d play it. So that song popped out. We added some different riffs to it and put it in the form that it’s in today. I think if you — at least when I hear it; I’ve been listening to it longer — I hear that little bit of an older sound in it as opposed to some of the other stuff on there. I wish we would do two albums a year like early KISS and Alice Cooper. Really put the pressure on. It’s taken three to four years between albums. It’s too long. We’ve always complained about it but that’s how we end up doing it.
What is it that’s holding you back?
The DIY thing, mostly. I look back at those bands pumping those records out they were all quality songs for the most part. I don’t think anyone does that anymore, at all. Then, it was a matter of survival. You had to had another album out because your label is like, “Hey, you owe too much money. We need income. Get back out there on the road.”
You have to get the Ripple guys to start playing hardball.
Oh you know, maybe. We’ll see.
Your time in Apostle of Solitude, has that affected the way you approach vocals or songwriting?
I’m not really sure. I’m sure it has subconsciously. It’s totally a different beast to come into Apostle. In Apostle, Chuck [Brown, guitar/vocals] was the principal songwriter and still is. To be in that role of suggesting stuff and trying to add stuff and work on vocal harmonies as opposed to the main riffs, that’s definitely been a good experience for me. I’m used to just flying by the seat of my pants with Devil to Pay, nobody comes in and says, “Okay, here’s a song.” I’ll go check these two riffs out and we’ll go from there. Then arranging is like this back and forth process. Apostle it’s just a little different. The songs are kind of there and it’s the final arrangement as the back and forth process. I guess I enjoy singing backups and complementing another singer. Devil to Pay, it’s mostly me complementing myself, which is fine.
Probably not. I think with this record, I just kind of went for it vocally. Everything kind of benefiting from the brighter, more positive outlook on my part, but I didn’t really hold back as far as working on vocal harmonies. In the past, there weren’t as many opportunities on those older records. The last record had more than the predecessors. This time I just went through. I spent the time and listened to everything, listened to whatever ideas popped up. I’d go in the studio and talk to the engineer, “Check the timing out and let me know what you think.” Pretty much kept most of it. There’s quite a bit of vocal harmony on the record.
I guess that’s what sort of stood out to me. I wanted to ask if that’s where it came from. Especially compared to the last Devil to Pay and the albums before that.
I don’t know if it — I think mainly was just from the attitude that was already kind of going, performance-wise. Taking a stab at it and saying, “Well, if I could do whatever I want how would I do it? Oh, I can do whatever I want.” Almost like letting go of anyone else’s preconceived notions of what it should sound like. In my own head, “Oh I’m going to be this kind of band. I have to write this kind of vocal with this kind of effect.” Screw that I’m going to do this because I like that because I like that too.
Where did the story for “Ten Lizard Men and One Pocketknife” come from?
Every riff gets a title, like I said earlier. Sometimes entertaining, sometimes dumbed down. That riff, it always had that title. Basically if you imagine me popping into work and putting on my headphones and listening to the riffs and jotting down the ideas to name them so that I can name them something that are half way memorable that have something of the feel of the music in my mind. Sort of creative connection. When I think “Ten Lizard Men,” I’ll be, “Oh yeah, that riff.” That was the name that I wrote down. I think they all were kind of ridiculous at first.
The more we worked on that song, the more everyone really kind of filled their riffs in and stuff into when we would practice it and when we were arranging it I had this idea in my head for these two verses where you’re playing dungeons and dragons and one and there’s Lizard men and verse two is being abducted by these reptilian aliens or whatever. It’s kind of the odd man out on the album, lyric-wise.
It definitely stands out.
There will probably be people who… where it’s not their favorite. It’s a little piece of sci-fi fantasy, which suits me just fine. We want to make t-shirts up with lizard heads on the back of it but not really say that, just have the lizard heads and be like, the lizards are coming.
For those in the know.
Totally, underground and top secret.
What was behind the decision of building the album in side A and B even on the CD come from? Did you know from the start that you’d be doing vinyl?
I think there was hope that we would be. We’d been wanting to do vinyl for a long time and — we actually talked to the Ripple guys before we went into the studio. So there was anticipation that something cool would happen with those guys. I’m one of those people that like to daydream about that kind of stuff. I would listen to the recordings that we had in all these different orders and kind of get the guys to help me make this killer album track order. One that flowed and had some starts and stops wasn’t too redundant. “What keys are these songs in?” We do a lot of stuff in different keys. Even though we tune to C, I don’t really want the whole album to be drop C songs.
Having things that sound the same is not my favorite thing so we’ll write things in an off-key as well and it just make it more tricky if you haven’t played the guitar for a week or so. I guess I enjoy putting those tracklists together, making comps and trying to — there is such a thing as an ideal tracklisting for an album. Some of the greatest albums ever probably wouldn’t be what they are today without their running orders.
Yeah. It’s a huge part of it. That’s why I asked.
Do you think it worked well?
It’s different on the CD right? You have the other tracks on there.
Yes, there are two songs added to the CD that didn’t fit on the record.
Even listening to it that way I think you can hear the divide on where one side ends and where the other one starts. I think that usually is a great form for an album. It sort of not necessarily accommodates but at least it accounts for a listener in a lot of ways CDs that come out and here’s front to back 50 min of music don’t. I’m all about the traditional structure.
I think we learned the hard way on our second record.
How do you mean?
That album is 74 min long, as much as you can fit on a CD for one thing. That wasn’t by our choice, it was because we switched guitar players at the time we probably would have been going to record another album. So songs began to pile up as the process was shifting over. And by the time we got into a position to where we could record, we didn’t want to let go of some of those other songs. So we made this monster 74-minute record. I’ve thought many times, how would we have done it differently? That’s enough for two LPs.
At one point I had it all mapped out, not sure if I saved that file. I was like, “I’ll take all the songs from one period and make one record” — all hypothetical, of course – “then take all the songs from the later period and make another record.” Then you’ve got two records that shows more of a progression of the songwriting as opposed to having all those songs one one giant CD. If we ever get around to putting those out on vinyl, we may package them in such a way.
I think that makes sense.
I think fans would benefit more. It’s a totally different vibe because we’d move all the shit onto two different records. You’d be able to tell where we were in our headspace when we were both writing that material.
As far as advice I could give to young kids out there, don’t make your CD 74 minutes. It’s harder to listen to it all. Stay in school don’t make 74-minute records. It’s much harder to find the beginning of side A than the beginning of side C. Just too much.
I’m with you. The shows with Lo-Pan coming up. I know you guys have been out before together. Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to this time around?
We’re big fans of those guys. I wish every tour could be with them because we have a lot of fun together. It’s quite the cast of characters. They’re all unique individuals as it is. Throw our bunch of knuckleheads together, it’s like a sitcom or something. A lot of shenanigans happening. Nothing bad, more or less harmless fun. I wish it were longer.
Those guys went on that High on Fire tour and we all watched as their star shot into the sky. Then they did the Torche tour, we just sat home and looked at our computer screens. If I had a chance to go out on the road for any length of time I’d definitely want to go out with a band I love, basically. Dudes I can hang with. They’re awesome fellas.
Do you guy have anything in the works for when those shows are done?
We don’t have everything fleshed out. There are some things in the works. We have tentative plans to come to the East Coast. We just haven’t picked the dates yet and started working it. I think we have high hopes of going back to Texas and getting to play with some awesome bands down there. Everything is kind of in flux right now. Some opportunities may be opening up so we’re kind of keeping the ledger open at this point. We’re doing that ZZ Top show, which is actually billed as Kid Rock but I won’t tell anyone about Kid Rock if you don’t.
When are you playing with ZZ Top?
Aug. 25, I think? We won a contest that Klipsch Music — they make speakers — they put together some sort of contest and part of the prize was to get your band’s music on these new KMC 3 players, which are like bluetooth speakers. Every model that went to stores would have a sample of different kind of music and your band would be on it. For whatever reason, the technology never held up so they offered a spot on the side stage at Klipsch, which is basically when people are coming into the venue. It’s one of those big outdoor amphitheaters. We’ll get them some downtuned heavy metal. We’ve got the Soulfly gig, that comes up on Aug. 11. That’ll be cool.
Lots of metal.
Yeah, opening up for Soulfly and the other two bands featuring Max Cavelera‘s son. It’s a cool opportunity. Getting to open up for national bands when they come through. All the other tour dates are a nebulous realm of probabilities. Right now it’s kind of wait and see. As time crawls on, we’ll be like, “Okay, we’re going back to New York; we’ll stay a week. Let’s go to the East Coast and play with bands and our friends,” then go do it.