Six Dumb Questions with The Midnight Ghost Train

Posted in Six Dumb Questions on July 19th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

the midnight ghost train

There’s always been a certain restlessness in The Midnight Ghost Train. Definitely anyone who’s ever seen them play live would concur, but even beyond their gripping, kinetic performances, whether it was early lineup changes, moving from Buffalo, New York, to Topeka, Kansas, or touring as incessantly as they have for the better part of the last decade — they’ve been a band on “go” for about as long as they’ve been a band.

At the same time, their material has followed a steady trajectory up to this point. From their 2008 The Johnny Boy EP (review here) through the subsequent ’09 self-titled long-play debut (review here), 2012’s Buffalo (review here) and their first outing for Napalm Records in 2015’s Cold was the Ground (review here), the power trio led by founding guitarist/vocalist Steve Moss have developed along a path blending supercharged heavy rock and roll with classic blues vibes and rhythms. With his distinct, gruff vocals as a hallmark of their approach, the propulsive, classy drum work of Brandon Burghart as a core to build from and the final piece added in bassist Mike BoyneThe Midnight Ghost Train became one of the most immediately identifiable bands in the US heavy underground. When you were listening to The Midnight Ghost Train, you knew who was on. Every time.

That’s still the case, but the scope of what that means has changed, and the restlessness that’s always been at play elsewhere seems to have extended itself to their creative process more now than ever before. To wit, their fourth full-length and second for Napalm is Cypress Ave. (review here), and while it largely holds firm to the underlying energy of the band and never feels staid, it also marks a special moment in that Moss and company seem more willing to take chances in the songwriting, to pull back on the aforementioned “go” in favor of a more diverse sonic take. Whether that’s showing itself in the drifting “Lemon Trees,” the funk-fortified “The Boogie Down” (with guest rapper Sonny Cheeba) or the acoustic “Break My Love,” it’s representative of a level of maturity previously unknown from The Midnight Ghost Train, and it makes Cypress Ave. their most fully realized and their boldest offering to-date.

It’s the kind of record that, if you thought you knew the band — as I did — can make you rethink your expectations. In the interview that follows, Moss talks about how some of the twists in the plot came about, how touring has shaped the group over the longer term of their time together, where Cypress Ave. actually is, and more. As I happen to know him to be a longtime Yankees fan, I couldn’t resist throwing in a question about baseball as well, and I thank him for the indulgence.

Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:

the-midnight-ghost-train-cypress-ave

Six Dumb Questions with The Midnight Ghost Train

Talk to me about writing Cypress Ave. At what point coming off of Cold was the Ground did you know you wanted to do something different with The Midnight Ghost Train, and how did that come to fruition in the songwriting? Was it something conscious or something that you noticed later in the material? What was behind the shift in direction?

We have wanted to get out of doing the crazy fast heavy stuff way before Cold was the Ground. None of us actually enjoy listening to heavy music. It’s fun to play, but that’s really our only connection with music as heavy as we used to play. We could have very easily written another Cold was the Ground without even thinking twice. That’s why we have defaulted to such heavy music for our previous albums, it was really easy to write, and fun to play live, plus we had already built a following of people in the heavy music genre, so it just made sense to keep riding that wave and keep the fans we had. For this album we wanted to challenge ourselves artistically, and challenge our audience. We wanted to do something that felt right to us, and not necessarily what the following we have built wanted or expected. There was no reason for us to make the same album over and over again, especially since it didn’t feel right to us. So it was time to say goodbye and move on to something more challenging, and unexpected for our fans. Plus, we wanted to branch out to a wider fanbase than just the “stoner rock” fans. We never really felt like we fit in that group anyways so it just made sense to do something that was more us. Plus, the songs on this album are just a hell of a lot better than our previous stuff.

Tell me about Cypress Avenue itself. Where is it? What is it like? Set the scene for those of us who’ve never been there. What was behind the choice to name the album after it?

Cypress Ave. is a stop on the 6 train in the Bronx, it’s a small local neighborhood, no attractions or anything like that, just an area for the locals. My family is from Parkchester which is a few stops more uptown, so we would pass Cypress Ave. on our way up to Parkchester. Since this album is so different musically we decided to go a different route with the album photos, and the title than usual. All of our albums have had that Midwestern, Kansas, country, feel to them, which actually only one of us (our drummer) is from Kansas. So instead we decided to go more personal to mine and my family’s upbringing in the Bronx. Give people a look at where I’m actually from. So we wanted to keep with the Bronx theme throughout the album. Since Parkchester is kind of a lame album title, we basically just went through all the names of the subway stops in the Bronx, and Cypress Ave. was just the best sounding one. Plus, it reminded me of the Van Morrison song off of one of my favorite albums, Astral Weeks, (although it’s spelled differently).

The Midnight Ghost Train turns 10 next year and you’ve put in so much time on the road over the last decade. How do you think touring has shaped the band? How do you feel it has worked to develop the chemistry between you, Mike and Brandon?

Aigh god, that seems like a lot longer than it feels. Feels like we’re still just getting started. Touring has definitely been the most rewarding part to this band. Despite all the bullshit and hard times we have gone through, when we step on stage it makes it all worthwhile. We have always believed that the live show is the most important expression of who a band is, and we have worked tirelessly on always making our show better. What better way to learn about the stage that we love so much than touring as much as possible? Touring has definitely made us realize who we are as a band and what we feel is most important to the existence of TMGT. Getting on stage is the only piece that no matter what always feels like the right choice to make. Bands that don’t play a lot of shows can’t ever find their true musical selves. Plus, if you never do it how could you possibly be that good at it?

How did “The Boogie Down” come about?

Very simply, I love hip-hop, and our bass player and drummer love to play funk. So we decided to mix the two together. The riff that the bass player and drummer play in that song is what they have always done on stage when my amp or pedalboard breaks and I have to fix shit. They would just break out into a funk jam, then when I got back up and running I would chime in. It was always fun to do live, so we decided to record it. Sonny Cheeba (the artist on that track) is also a Bronx native. I grew up listening to his group Camp Lo. So it was awesome to get to work with him in the studio. We recorded the album in Athens, GA, and he happened to be living in Atlanta at the time we recorded, so it just worked out nicely. We let him do his thing, while we did ours, it was fun to mix the two styles, and challenging for us. Something new and fun to do. Why not?

What was your time in the studio like making the album? It seems like you specifically varied the guitar tone more throughout the songs this time around. How important was it for you for Cypress Ave. to show multiple sides of the band?

Oh yes, different sounds on all the instruments as well as vocally, was very important for this album. The tones and vocals we used for Cold was the Ground or Buffalo would not work for these songs. I used probably 30 different amps throughout this album, plus I added a Gibson 335 to my arsenal, which was my main guitar on this album, instead of the Les Pauls I [have] normally used. Our previous albums just had one tone through the entire album: HEAVY. This album is just so dynamic throughout the record, with so many different style songs. Not one song sounds the same, so we wanted to make sure that neither did the instruments.

You’ve got the US tour coming up in August and September. Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?

Oh yes, we will also be touring the USA in October as well. We’re in the works of putting together a European tour which will be from the end of January through March. So keep an eye out for tour dates, ‘cause we’re going everywhere. Might even be paying a visit to South America, if things pan out. Our album is available for preorder right now at our website www.themidnightghosttrain.com. Enjoy the new album, I know we do.

Bonus question (asked before the Major League Baseball All-Star break): Do you think the Yankees actually have a shot at the division? Boston’s been coming on strong. Is the NYY collapse of the last couple weeks the true face of the team or just a temporary injury setback? What do you think of Judge and Sanchez in the Home Run Derby?

Absolutely they still have a chance, they have been plagued with injuries lately which is inevitable but still costly when you lose guys like Castro, Bird, Holliday, Hicks, Warren, and Sabbathia (who was on a fantastic roll). Boston is making a big push, they have great starting pitching, but hopefully at the trade deadline we get rid of Chris Carter and get someone like Eric Hosmer at first base, and pick up one more locked starter, because we can’t rely on Tanaka’s inconsistency to bring us the entire way. I’m stoked to see what Judge and Sanchez do, I think they will be fine, and they are good enough hitters that the myth of screwing up their swing won’t affect them. Judge is going to be the Rookie of the year, AL MVP, and triple crown winner. He’s taking it all. I haven’t seen the city buzz on anyone since Derek Jeter breaking in. Loving it.

The Midnight Ghost Train, “The Watchers Nest” lyric video

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Six Dumb Questions with Arduini / Balich

Posted in Six Dumb Questions on July 13th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

arduini balich

When I finally got to sit with it and give the respectful listen it deserved, I had the most powerful oh-shit-this-is-the-real-deal moment with Arduini / Balich‘s Dawn of Ages (review here) that I’ve have with any single record in 2017. Released by Cruz del Sur Music, the 78-minute full-length is rife with an energy born of classic and progressive metal, and while it earns immediate interest owing to the pedigree of its core duo of vocalist Brian “Butch” Balich (formerly of Penance, currently of Argus) and guitarist/composer Victor Arduini (formerly of Fates Warning and Freedoms Reign, currently of Entierro), it’s the poise and righteousness of the six originals and three bonus covers that make Dawn of Ages stand among 2017’s finest debuts and finest albums overall.

Granted, it’s an undertaking with the aforementioned 2LP runtime — even without the covers it tops an hour — but to listen to extended pieces like “The Wraith” (13:44) and “Beyond the Barricade” (17:27), one finds Arduini / Balich capturing the essence of a place somewhere between progressive and power metal, the Connecticut-based guitarist and Pennsylvania-based vocalist, as well as drummer Chris Judge (a bandmate of Arduini‘s in Freedoms Reign), bringing out highlight performances as crisp in their execution as they are complex in their construction as they are worthy of a neck-breaking headbang session on “Forever Fade.” There are flashes of traditional doom throughout “Into Exile,” opener “The Fallen” and the brief instrumental “The Gates of Acheron,” but while that darker side of the metal spectrum is acknowledged in a take on Black Sabbath‘s “After All (The Dead),” that cover is no less an appropriate inclusion on Dawn of Ages than Uriah Heep‘s “Sunrise” or The Beau Brummels‘ “Wolf of Velvet Fortune” in emphasizing the vast swath of ground Arduini / Balich traverse across their original material.

In terms of composition, recording process and the potential for Arduini / Balich to continue forward as an ongoing project, there was a lot of fodder for discussion here, and fortunately, Victor Arduini was happy to oblige, even going to far as to address each of the questions-within-the-questions individually, taking on the whole thing and leaving nothing out. That effort is deeply appreciated, to be sure, and as I dig in once again to Dawn of Ages (which you’ll also find streaming at the bottom of this post) for what I suspect won’t nearly be the last time, it’s great to know that at some point in the future there just might be a sophomore outing to come.

Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:

arduini balich dawn of ages

Six Dumb Questions with Arduini / Balich

Tell me how the Arduini / Balich project got started. What was the impetus behind writing these songs? How did they come together and when did Butch and Chris become involved? What was it you wanted to do differently coming off of Freedoms Reign?

I began writing new music towards the end of Freedoms Reign’s promotional tour. I was already moving on emotionally from what that band was about and had my “10 seconds as a singer” out of my system. I just wanted to get back to playing guitar and focusing on creating some riffs that would challenge me as a guitarist and musician. I told the guys I was going to do a solo-project where I could allow myself the freedom to produce an album where I could be free to let my ideas breath without any restrictions.

It was all an emotional connection to the music I was getting back into after some years away from my roots in Fates. With social media, YouTube and internet radio, I was like a sponge soaking up so much new music that I didn’t know existed. I was becoming inspired by learning there were so many great bands and artists out there still putting out some very cool music.

I would come up with riffs at home and present them to Chris to see how he would interpret them. Usually we would jam on them and other ideas would naturally follow. We spent about six months working stuff out and Chris was able to put down his drum tracks to the basic structure. I spent the next year writing and recording all the guitars and creating layer upon layer of music that transformed the songs into what became the music for the album. I found it difficult to find a singer who had the right voice and wound be into the music I created.

I originally was going to have a singer from Brazil but found it too difficult to work out. Brian and I knew each other from doing some shows together and he literally reached out the day I let the other singer go. We talked and he was really into the music I shared. It took some time with our schedules but Brian took the songs one by one and wrote some incredible lyrics along with some very emotional and power vocals which I think are the best he’s ever done.

I wanted to create music that spoke from my soul without worry or restrictions to style, length or sound. I knew it would be heavy and dark and as Chris and I worked them out it became progressive as well with the different time signatures and complexity of the arrangements.

What was the timeline like from start to finish on Dawn of Ages? How long were you recording the songs and how were they pieced together? How much did the material develop in the studio as opposed to being plotted out beforehand?

It took a little over two years from start to finish. There were times it had to be put on hold which helped me relook at things and make adjustments along the way. I don’t think it would have been as complex if it was completed sooner as I ended up adding a lot of ideas when there was nothing else to do with it.

The demo phase lasted about six months where I’d take home the ideas from rehearsal and piece things together until we had a rough structure from start to finish. Chris did his drum tracks pretty quickly but from there it was over a year of layering various sounds, solos, etc. “The Wraith”’s drums are actually from a rehearsal which I was able to piece together and utilize for the final album.

[The material developed in the studio] Quite a bit. I mean I’d create riffs which became the structure but from there I had no idea of all the layers that would end up over it. There were many nights of just messing around and every so often some magic would come out of it. Some stuff I still don’t know where it came from. I guess that’s a blessing from being in a creative moment which I’ve always admired from The Beatles in their later recordings.

Talk about self-producing in this new context. How was your working relationship with Nick Bellmore? How did it compare to your time in the studio with Entierro or Freedoms Reign?

To me [self-producing] was what made the album so personal. I took the time to work out the arrangements and trying out different sounds, approaches and ideas get what was in my head onto tape. I love working in my studio and would try out all kinds of mixes and reevaluating until I was happy. Producing your own music works if you have a strong idea of what you want from it and you don’t care to please anyone but yourself. Making music is a passion and having the ability to put together such a project was very special and rewarding to me.

Nick is so good at what he does. As a drummer he helped me get some great tracks down and always could create the sound and mood I was looking for. I did just about all the guitars at home including the sounds I wanted but he always was there as an extra ear and helped me ensure it was always sonically as good as it could be. He is just a great guy and teaches me along the way which ends up helping us both do bigger and better things together. Nick actually played drums on “Forever Fade,” and two of the bonus tracks, “Sunrise” and “After All (The Dead).”

When I recorded with FR it was the typical format of everyone laying down their individual tracks as they had worked them out for rehearsal. With A/B, it was mostly experimentation with no restrictions. I could make any decision without running it by others which is why one is called a band and this was a true solo-project.

Tell me about writing “Beyond the Barricade.”

That song took on a life of its own. There was no previous idea of writing such an epic. I just took the song piece by piece and it seemed to build upon itself at rehearsal. Week after week we would jam what we had and new riffs and ideas flowed which we always got onto tape. I’d take it home and work stuff out maybe writing something new and when we played again it just kept evolving. The cool thing is we were able to play the basic structure from start to finish. It was just all the layers and sounds which took it to another level. Again I was at a creative peak during that time and it was easier than you’d think.

What was behind the decision to include the three covers, and how were each of those tracks chosen?

We had the opportunity to do a 2LP vinyl but when laying it out we really had three sides so Brian and I started throwing ideas out to cover. “Sunrise” was something I wanted to do since I saw Brian earlier in the year and heard him sing to it in his car. “After All” was something I always felt Brian could nail and I love playing Sabbath. Brian brought “Wolf” to my attention and I was mesmerized by its beauty and ode to the trippy ‘60s vibe. It was one of the toughest songs to interpret and record.

Will you do more as Arduini / Balich? Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?

I think so. Brian and I are very proud of this album and thoroughly enjoyed the process of making it and working together which is first and foremost why we do it. We’ve discussed doing the next one which I hope will happen but there’s no timeline. What I enjoyed most about doing this one was the natural creativity that inspired it and the joy of its process. I became so emotionally attached to it and I need some time to move away for a bit. I just don’t want to force anything and would like to come back to it all when I feel there’s something new to say. Most likely by early next year I’ll messing around and we’ll go from there.

I just want to say to anyone who’s checked it out how thankful I am that you did so and appreciate your support and interest. We were both pretty floored by the response and it’s cool when someone breaks it down and you can tell they really listened and got what we were trying to achieve. Thanks so much.

Arduini / Balich, Dawn of Ages (2017)

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Six Dumb Questions with Demon Head

Posted in Six Dumb Questions on July 6th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

demon head

With the seven tracks/40 minutes of their second full-length, Thunder on the Fields (review here), Copenhagen-based five-piece Demon Head explored textures between cult rock, vintage heavy, the formative era of doom and its modern interpretations, tying these various elements together via memorable songcraft and a resonant sense of live performance in cuts like “We are Burning,” “Thunder on the Fields” and “Gallows Omen,” among others. Their efforts resulted in one of the best albums of 2017 so far, and with issue through The Sign Records and Caligari Records, the follow-up to the band’s 2015 debut, Ride the Wilderness (review here), took a decided forward step in aesthetic and overarching presentation.

The solidification of an approach is one thing, and Thunder on the Fields most definitely represents that for Demon Head — appropriately so for a sophomore outing after a potential-filled debut — but in the garage-esque jangle of centerpiece “Older Now,” one can hear the lineup of vocalist Marcus Ferreira Larsen, lead/slide guitarist Thor Nielsen, rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Birk Nielsen, bassist Mikkel Fuglsang and drummer Jeppe Wittus actively working toward a more individualized style. And while the pieces they’re using for construction may be familiar, to listen to Thunder on the Fields either in its more straight-ahead early cuts like opener “Menneskeæderen” or the later reaches of the proto-metallic “Hic Svnt Dracones” and the seemingly jammed-out finale “Untune the Sky,” Demon Head‘s success in their efforts to make them their own can only be called a success throughout.

In the interview that follows, Larson talks about making the new record in terms of writing and recording, but also the band’s recent experience getting robbed on tour, brewing their own beer, and future plans to hit the road. It’s a relatively quick check-in with a group who seem poised to continue to grow in positive and increasingly nuanced ways, and if you haven’t yet had the chance to dig into Thunder on the Fields, the full stream from Bandcamp is at the bottom of this post. Have at it.

Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:

demon head thunder on the fields

Six Dumb Questions with Demon Head

Tell me about writing Thunder on the Fields. Was there anything in particular you wanted to bring out in the material after Ride the Wilderness? How do you feel your sound has evolved from the first album to the second?

The songs on Thunder on the Fields came quickly after recording R.T.W. — and actually a good time before its release — so they’ve been underway for some years now. As writing, recording, and producing is mostly something we do ourselves, I guess we wanted to push ourselves further and take no easy ways out. The songs themselves have more sinister vibes to them, less boogie rock-feeling, and we gradually came to work more collectively on every riff and melody. Maybe that’s the natural way a band evolves, but I think the communal aspect has grown stronger and even if it makes it harder to finish something quick, the wicked demon baby that results from it is stronger. In terms of sound, we’ve learned a lot and become more picky this time around.

What was your time in the studio like? Set the scene for the place you recorded. What was the atmosphere there and how long were you in the studio? Did you record live? What kind of equipment was used and how much time went into capturing the tones in the guitar and bass?

When we felt that Thunder on the Fields was becoming a whole thing rather than individual parts, we planned for a long time how to record it. After an initial, very intense trip of three days and nights where we recorded demos of everything in my father’s studio, we took our time to listen and feel what was missing. Then in the middle of winter last year we went back to a cabin in the countryside of Northern Sealand, and had two weeks to record drums, guitar, and bass – the basic, live tracks that we always begin with. We bought an old mixing console and got it fixed for way more than we could afford, it seemed like a coincidence too good to be true that we had it offered some weeks before recording, and with the help of some friends we transported and mounted all our Chaos Island recording in the wooden house.

Everything went into a 16-track tape recorder, and we’d studied pretty obscure recording techniques from interviews, pictures and videos of sounds we ourselves like a lot. The sound of the instruments themselves we’ve spent a long time moulding, but how to reproduce these on a recorded media is every technician’s headache – not too noisy, but not artificially clear… Thinking back now, we always have very high expectations and put an enormous effort into following our ideals of sound, feeling, and expression. We didn’t sleep very much, worked from the morning all through the night and at times way beyond what’s healthy. But what can you do when you have a burning love?

Tell me about writing “Gallow’s Omen.” So much of the record has a tighter feel to its songwriting, but that song seems to jam a bit more. How did it come about? It was the first video you made for the album. What made you want to introduce people to the record with that track particularly?

Well, actually that is very carefully planned dynamics and tones… But I’m happy if it sounds loose in a way. It’s hard to plan how to lose control or let dreams and nightmares flow; that is part of what we wanted especially in the final part of the song. We felt it represented some general themes of the new record: a sinister feeling, a blend of faster and slow parts, loads of atmosphere, and it tends to get stuck in your head. At least that’s what I think it was now, looking back.

Has there been any word on recovering the gear stolen at the Northern Discomfort Festival? What happened there?

Unfortunately not! We don’t really know what happened. Our gear was in a room behind the stage, and although it is not locked, I usually recommend touring bands stashing their gear there when the sound room itself is full – nothing has been taken from there in years, at least to my knowledge. So either someone accidentally brought the things with them, or some shady entrepreneur visited the festival sometime in the early hours of after-party and saw their chance to score some neatly packed, expensive gear. Ungdomshuset is not normally a place where people go to steal, so it’s a shame that people are exploiting good DIY policy of open doors and anarchic trust…

You’ve now got your own Demon Head Thunder on the Fields IPA beer. How did that come about? Did someone in the band brew it or is it an outside collaboration? How does it taste? Are you guys big beer drinkers generally?

That’s right! At least we had some for the release shows. Now they’re mostly gone. That’s the work of Birk, Thor and their father, who’ve recently taken up brewing. So a family business, one might say. It’s awfully good, bitter and fresh – shame they’re through… A good portion were sold, the others we’ve given away to friends who’ve helped us on the road or bringing this album come to life. We appreciate good beer since it’s one of our few vices in terms of drugs.

You had dates in Finland and May and by the time this goes up, you’ll have played Muskelrock as well. Will you tour more for Thunder on the Fields before you start writing the next album? Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?

Yes, this spring has been excellent in Sweden, Finland and now Muskelrock this last weekend. We are once again humbled by the efforts and generosity of friends and strangers…

In August, we will travel Northern Europe for two weeks, invited to a couple of festivals and joined some of the road by the incredible musical entity that is Ill Wicker from Gothenburg. Keep an eye out if you’re somewhere around the Swedish desert and a forest on the German-Czech border!

Some plans for crossing waters to the UK, Ireland, and even across the Pacific are being hatched. Get in touch if you have some ideas, or let your local booking collective know…

Songs for what will be the next album are slowly coming. We’ve been so busy these months that it has been hard to find time to be really creative. Nonetheless, we do our best to prioritise it, and we can’t wait to disappear to a cabin somewhere again.

Finally there’s not much more to say than we appreciate you, the reader, taking your time to spell through these words. Oh, and there is one more piece of vinyl with some songs coming this year on The Sign Records. Keep your ears to the ground for more rumours on that.

Love and Thunder,

Marcus & D.H.

Demon Head, Thunder on the Fields (2017)

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Six Dumb Questions with Stoned Jesus

Posted in Six Dumb Questions on June 29th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

stoned jesus

Over the next couple months, Ukrainian heavy rockers Stoned Jesus will tour as they have been since earlier this year celebrating the fifth anniversary of their second album, 2012’s Seven Thunders Roar (review here). In August, they’ll head back to South America for shows presented by Abraxas, and upon their return to Europe for the Fall, they’ve already been confirmed to take part in Up in Smoke 2017, Desertfest Athens 2017 and Desertfest Belgium 2017 as part of a tour with support from Beastmaker — all as Stoned Jesus make ready to move past their 2015 third full-length, The Harvest (review here), and work on a follow-up fourth outing. There’s nothing quite like keeping busy.

It’s pretty clearly been a process for Stoned Jesus guitarist/vocalist Igor Sidorenko coming to terms with the lasting impact of Seven Thunders Roar in the months since he discovered the album’s massive playcounts on YouTube and began to hear from those affected by the record, but the response to playing it live and the swell of bookings for them to do so seem only to have bolstered his appreciation for the way it has steadily resonated, spreading through internet word-of-mouth where so many other releases have lived and died by all too quick album and touring cycles. It is a rare thing, after all, to create something that appreciates with time, even if it’s only been five years so far.

As to what it is about Seven Thunders Roar that’s let it do that, Sidorenko is poses an interesting theory that it’s nearly as much about the time and place as about the album itself. Maybe the record hit with just the right trippy, heavy vibe at just the right generational moment, with just the right kind of striking cover art to look perfect in a YouTube recommendation window. A confluence of factors, rather than any single, individual thing, song, or riff.

Either way, Stoned Jesus — which is Sidorenko, drummer Viktor Kondratov and bassist Sergii Sliusar — must and will press forward as a group, and even as they honor one release from the past, they’re keeping an eye on another for the future, which Sidorenko refers to in the Q&A below as “#StJFourthLP.” The guitarist talks about that coming album, giving Seven Thunders Roar the touring attention it didn’t get the first time around, and more.

Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:

stoned jesus tour dates

Six Dumb Questions with Stoned Jesus

Tell me about the continued impact of Seven Thunders Roar. What do you think it is that allowed that album to resonate so much with a YouTube audience, and how does it make you feel when you see those numbers?

Well, I discovered our YouTube fame about nine months ago, and as we speak “I’m the Mountain” hits 6,000,000 views mark! But way before that I’d seen those comments online, be it YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or numerous blogs and forums, that Seven Thunders Roar was someone’s first entry to psychedelic/stoner music… Every week I’m reading yet another revelation on how influential and important this record was for someone, either on StJ’s email account or friends share these posts with me or I even see those in my personal inbox. Of course I was flabbergasted the first time(s), but now I kinda see the bigger picture.

That is, Seven Thunders Roar might be the genre’s last great album – pardon my immodesty – along with Elder’s Lore, Samsara [Blues Experiment]’s Long Distance Trip and Mars Red Sky’s debut. These are the 100 percent DIY bands, with no major label backing, no heavy promotion, earning everything they have through hard work, charisma, talent and relentless touring.

Another fun fact is these bands are YOUNG, and they speak to a younger audience. I personally discovered stoner rock/metal through recommendations on a music forum — I haven’t seen Kyuss opening for Metallica, I haven’t seen Queens of the Stone Age or Clutch videos, I haven’t seen Electric Wizard shows back when they were a three-piece… You know what I mean? And when this younger, internet-friendly audience stumbles upon a more fresh-sounding, better version of the music their dads used to groove to, they might prefer it to the leather-and-flares revivalists’ muzak – which mainstream media calls “psychedelic rock” these days. We are the youngsters’ band, and I’m proud to admit that!

Five years out from making the record, how has its long-term reception changed how you feel about the album? How has the reception been to playing it live in its entirety this year?

It’s funny but we’d never felt the pressure of coming up with a follow-up to Seven Thunders Roar – until we made The Harvest, which was a significant departure from that sound, that style. It’s a natural process for me as a writer and the whole band as a creative unit to go somewhere else – that’s why it takes two-three years for us to come up with the next album. Of course we just could release a bunch of forgettable records in between the really good ones, but hey, there are million bands that do exactly this, so why should we, haha.

So when we decided to sort of look back and announced that we’re dedicating a few months of 2017 to playing Seven Thunders Roar in its entirety live, we never thought how many show requests we would get in the end! Basically our whole 2017 touring-wise is this “Five Thunders Roar Tour” now. And yes, I know how silly that sounds – what, a fifth anniversary? Couldn’t you guys wait for at least five years more? – but we played 14 shows in Europe in 2012, so virtually nobody heard the album LIVE back then. Now we’re headlining three-times-bigger venues packed with enthusiastic crowds, and we’ll have like 50 more shows this year after 25 already played. I think Seven Thunders Roar deserves this, 100 percent.

You moved forward with The Harvest and changed your sound again. What was it like making that record and how purposeful were the shifts in style coming off of Seven Thunders Roar? As you look to follow-up The Harvest, what direction to you see the new material heading in?

I’d say we’re trying to keep the balance between a purposeful shift and a natural one. The main influence for #StJFourthLP is our constant touring and the feelings you get (or more specifically, you lose) out of it. I mean we had almost a hundred shows in 2016 alone, and I’m the guy who does all the overseas logistics (with all due respect to local promoters efforts, of course) and some booking, manages merch and touring routine, SMMs the shit out of our social media profiles and sometimes plays guitar and writes these sweet-sweet songs. So yours truly is not a stranger to words like “exhaustion” or “burning out.”

But there’s also the struggle all of us face like trying to balance our personal lives with the life on the road. It’s basically this “John Rambo returning from Vietnam” kind of situation – you just don’t know anymore where’s real life. It messes with your head, hard. So this all is reflected in the lyrics, sometimes literally, sometimes more metaphorically. This is gonna be a pretty dark and intense record, I must say.

Musically…oh where should I even begin? First of all we’re really tired of guitar-oriented music, sharing the stage with genre bands all these years. I’m not saying we’re going electro but I seriously doubt a meat-and-potatoes stoner fan would adore #StJFourthLP. But on a brighter side, Elder’s experimental Lore was the biggest thing in the genre two years ago, so what do I know, right? Second, I was more focusing on rhythms than melodies this time around, so it’s gonna be pretty different to what we’ve done previously – think more Killing Joke, Swans or Can than Sabbath, Tool or Clutch. It’s like we’re skipping two or three albums of a gradual progression in between our actual albums, haha!

I was mostly listening to ‘70s prog and kraut, ‘80s noise rock/industrial/no wave stuff and ‘90s hip-hop and post-hardcore last year, but I’m not sure one would hear those things in #StJFourthLP. They could’ve influenced the way I’m thinking as a musician, but not the actual songs. Okay, maybe there’s an At the Drive-In riff or two, but everything else is pure Stoned Jesus version 4.0!

Will acknowledging the five-year anniversary of Seven Thunders Roar factor into the sound of the next record at all? Will that album be an influence, and is there a way to balance that with continuing to try new things?

Absolutely. When we were rehearsing the whole thing last Autumn, I couldn’t help but notice the way it flows, the tracks’ structures, the songs themselves… This is something that was missing with The Harvest — the Song. I mean there are complex pieces on Seven Thunders Roar too — “Electric Mistress,” obviously “I’m the Mountain” — but they don’t sound forced or overthought. So the new album is seven songs, 50-52 minutes long, but there’s not a single piece longer than 10 minutes. Actually Sergei made me throw away one section of a song to make it flow naturally!

Another thing is the way I’m working on the lyrics this time around. I’m accustomed to mumbling some gibberish while practicing the would-be song with a band and only THEN writing a set of lyrics. But for a non-English speaker it’s usually the ONLY way. So I decided I’ll be using what I’m singing during rehearsals, because this is how you figure what syllables and sounds you feel like singing at the moment. I mean it’s really hard to sing “oooh” for six months only to change it to “yeaaah” on the record – you’ll be struggling to drop this bloody “oooh” later anyway. So I’m kinda building my lyrics around the noise that I create with my throat when practicing these new songs with the band.

And finally, we’re less angry than we were three years ago, making The Harvest. Ukraine is still fucked due to 2014’s Russian invasion, but this is not the focus for our new record – unfortunately it has become something of a career-starting reference for many local pop and rock stars, and we don’t want any of that. So #StJFourthLP is not the occult haze of First Communion, the psychedelic bliss of Seven Thunders Roar or the metallic stomp of The Harvest — more like post-touring depression mixed with misanthropic apathy.

When will you hit the studio to record? What will the process be this time around?

See, the main problem with The Harvest was inconsistency, incoherence even. The album was a bold step for our band in many terms, but the material itself was too eclectic to sit together on the same piece of vinyl. I for one admire experimentation, but there were three alternative rock songs, two doom metal dirges and a prog metal epic (!). Three songs were written in 2012, one in 2014, and the other two songs date back to 2010, I mean c’mon! I’m not trying to write The Harvest off or something, I just want to say that there was this one thing that kept the album together – the anger, reflected in this heavier, cleaner sound… which was also an issue of sorts for some people. And finally, The Harvest took us 15 months (!) to record, because back then we were touring while also having day jobs and whatnot.

So now everything’s gonna be different because, first: we got all the songs well-rehearsed and we’re ready to get the record done in a matter of weeks, not YEARS. Second, all the songs were written around early 2015/late 2016, and musically they’re more or less on the same page BUT without being identical. I don’t really like those bands with indistinguishable tracks… and albums, too. Embrace the change!

You’re doing South America again and Desertfest Belgium and Athens and Up in Smoke this Fall already. Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?

I just feel extremely humbled to be able to do what I do, to have these crazy guys as my bandmates, to see those wonderful people under the stage and to exchange energy with them every night when we’re on tour, to share our experiences with the whole world. Long it may last! A huge thanks to you all.

Stoned Jesus, Seven Thunders Roar (2012)

Stoned Jesus, The Harvest (2015)

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Six Dumb Questions with Esben Willems

Posted in Six Dumb Questions on June 21st, 2017 by JJ Koczan

esben-willems-photo-Hank-Henrik-Oscarsson

Swedish tone-crushers Monolord recently finished work on their impending third album, which will be out later this year via RidingEasy Records. For drummer Esben Willems, the accomplishment is two-fold. In addition to playing, Willems also engineered — a credit he shares with guitarist/vocalist Thomas V. Jäger and bassist Mika Häkki — and mixed and mastered. This was done behind the board in the capacity of Berserk Audio, the nom de guerre under which Willems has helmed projects not only for his own outfits Monolord and formerly Marulk, but many others over the years including Långfinger, Vokonis and Cities of Mars.

Unsurprisingly, as Monolord‘s reputation has grown, that of Willems‘ capacity as an engineer has done likewise, and Berserk Audio has become more established as a result. Founded on principals of flexibility and passion — and coffee, of course — the studio is as mobile as the hard-touring Willems himself, and that’s fortunate, because as Monolord make ready to release the aforementioned new full-length, they’ve already announced a co-headlining Fall 2017 European tour with Conan (dates here) that will follow stops this summer at Stoned from the Underground in Germany, SonicBlast Moledo in Portugal, and so on.

A busy schedule, however, is the lifesblood of a recording engineer, and it would seem Willems‘ position is the more the merrier. Right on. Though he was interviewed here around the 2015 release of the second Monolord album, Vænir (review here), which was followed by the 2016 two-songer EP, Lord of Suffering / Die in Haze (review here), the work he’s done in bringing Berserk Audio to fruition isn’t to be underestimated, and it was high time to give due attention to this side of Willems‘ creative persona, which I hope the Q&A below does, at least in some measure.

Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:

berserk audio logo

Six Dumb Questions with Esben Willems

How did you get your start in recording? What were some of your early projects and how did your technique develop? Do you have a philosophy when it comes to tracking bands or is each project different in what it requires from the engineer?

My first steps in recording was when I moved out of my parents’ house and to a different town in the early ‘90s, where I soon spent all free time in a rehearsal complex. After spending most of my childhood caught in uninspiring music theory in the local municipal music school – I’ve forgotten almost all of that, haha – I finally met likeminded people who just played music with focus on the music, not the strict theory behind it. That was a real eye-opener for me; I’ve been fascinated with the band format since before I even knew how to phrase that, and to be in an environment that was based on constant curiosity, testing, jamming, constantly forming new bands and side-projects, was pure inspiration. I learned so much more about music during those years than all previous years confined inside the make-believe rules of how music should be executed. The latter is still very mechanic to me; I think that mediating a feeling, a mood, a story, is the essence of music, regardless of genre. That’s still always the base of everything music related I do.

Anyway, that rehearsal complex was where I first started playing around with recording. The place had a small and very basic recording studio. One tiny recording room and one even tinier control room. The equipment wasn’t much more than a handful of crusty SM57’s and 58’s and a 4-track cassette recorder (constant creative mixdowns to get the channels you wanted, haha). That was it. We had so much fun at that house, I’m equally happy and sad that all those endless recording sessions are long gone.

Regarding my technique – if I really have any – I think that developed by the boundless and playful atmosphere at that place. Trying to capture a death metal session properly with a half broken 4-track machine forces your mind to come up with creative solutions. I still like to work that way, I’ve always felt that a certain amount of limitations is a good thing. It forces inspiration.

That also applies when recording different bands. All bands and all musicians are of course very different, with different references and experiences. So I don’t believe much in having a work template, apart from always – always – having a reliable supply of fresh coffee where I work.

Tell me about Berserk Audio. Did you build the studio? How did it all come together? What is the atmosphere like, what’s the layout of the rooms and how do you feel like the studio has developed over the last couple years as you’ve been doing more and more work there?

When I first started working professionally with audio I was aiming at building my own studio, and I wanted to do it by first being an apprentice at one or more established studios. I got the dream chance at a place I don’t want to name here, but it was everything I could ever hope for as a newly-graduated sound tech – welcoming atmosphere, fully booked with professional bands, great acoustics and equipment; and, I got the offer very early on to work there part time. But, the majority of bands recording there played a genre I just couldn’t stand, or understand, which is even more important. Also, the recording method was everything I feel takes the music out of music; sound replacing and quantizing drums, autotuning vocals, cut-and-paste editing in the mix and so on. So, after some grueling soul searching I came to the conclusion that it would kill my passion for music over time and I also wouldn’t do a proper job, since I wouldn’t be able to judge when the material was what the bands wanted. “Is this mechanic and sterile enough for you guys?” might not be the question a band wants. But with that said, I’m fully aware of that’s how the main part of the recording industry works and that it makes things very hard to exclude those studios.

But, I finally made the decision that most aspiring sound techs would feel was stupid: I kindly quit the apprenticeship at that studio, got freelance audio work at intensely boring conferences and invested in a small but efficient portable studio rig. I felt that if recording music that would just make me bitter, I might as well have a boring and undemanding day job and focus on recording bands I liked and with that contribute to a relevant production. That was over a decade ago and I haven’t regretted it once.

Of course I’d love to have my own studio, but never at the expense of the passion for music. I currently have a collab with a really cool place here in Gothenburg called Studio Svavel, which I rent when needed.

What have been some of your favorite projects to work on? Do you have a preference between recording, mixing and mastering?

I think my favorite projects are the ones where I’m part of the entire process, all the way from the rehearsal space. As I see it, most of the work should be done before entering the studio. Writing and selecting material, arranging, pre-production, discussions about sound, mood and feel of the production and so on. Most bands don’t have the possibility to rent a studio for a few months and just enter it with a blank slate, so in order to make the most of the time bands pay me for, I always emphasize the importance of that. If you’re well prepared, you’re actually able to compete with the bands that have all the studio time in the world. And the listener will never know or care about your budget. They’re gonna compare you with any and all of their favorite bands regardless.

That’s where that true essence of music comes in again. If your band is well rehearsed with songs you stand behind and your band sounds like an unbreakable unit – as opposed to a collection of humans just playing correctly in time – you actually will be able to make an album that kicks ass in spite of the ever-limited budget and time.

How has it been for you to record your own band? Is there a difference in how you approach working with Monolord as opposed to other acts? How do you coax a great performance out of a bandmate as opposed to someone who has hired you to work as a producer?

It’s weird and great. It’s inevitable that there’s a difference, since I’m one of the band members. But when we record, we all produce it collectively. We’re all part of the entire recording process. So in some ways the recording part doesn’t differ that much from everything else we do in the band. And the coaxing, I guess that’s a mutual three-way process, haha. When I tell my drum kit to go fuck itself, I rely on Thomas and Mika to filter my anger. And that goes the other way around as well.

The only part where I work alone is during mixing and mastering. But I constantly update my bandmates online, so they’re very much part of that process as well.

Recording your own band makes it a bit harder to be objective and to kill your darlings. But I enjoy that challenge. I’ve learned a lot from it through the years.

You recently finished mixing the third Monolord album. What’s the status of that release now? When can fans expect it to come out and what’s in store this time around from the band? How does splitting your time with being on the road and in the studio affect your ability to take on more recording jobs?

I really wish I could tell you everything about, but we’ll announce all details shortly. What I can tell you is that musically it’s groovier and more dynamic, in all aspects. Still misanthropic and still rumbling, though. The humanity is broken and this is our safety valve, as always.

The mixing and mastering is done and the album will be released in all its glory later this year. Hope you’ll like it!

Being a touring musician and also a studio leprechaun is actually the perfect combo. When I can, I work from home, which means I only have a deadline to consider. I’m not a fan of daily routines when it comes to working hours, so that fits me and my family life just perfectly. And my world is a world without borders, so I can easily have clients all over the planet. And when it comes to mixing and mastering they can easily hire me without insane travel expenses. I’m old enough to have grown up in an internet-free world, so I love the possibilities that has opened up thanks to the online community culture. Borders and flags are war tools. I’d rather work past them.

Who’s next in the studio? Any other recordings coming up, closing words or other plans you want to mention?

Next up is always working on new stuff with Monolord. That’s an ongoing process, so we’re always fiddling with ideas, regardless of actual future plans.

But apart from that, I have a few mastering projects this week I’m gonna sink my teeth into. I break every rule possible when I master and I’m sure most audiophiles would like to subject me to public torture, but the clients I’ve worked with seem to hear things the way I do, so I keep getting requests to do the things I do with their music.

And, with some actual free time for the first time in forever, I’m gonna start working on some side solo stuff that’s been rattling in the back of my head for a while. I have no idea what will come of it.

Monolord, “Lord of Suffering” official video

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Six Dumb Questions with Abrams

Posted in Six Dumb Questions on June 16th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

abrams (photo chanelle leslie)

Denver progressive heavy rockers Abrams released their second album, Morning, exactly one week ago via Sailor Records, and immediately set about hitting the road to support it on a three-week West Coast tour. The remaining dates are below, and like what the trio have done with the videos for “Worlds Away” (posted here) and “Burned” (posted here), and even more than their 2015 debut, Lust. Love. Loss. (review here), the new collection seeks to capture the energy that Abrams bring to the stage. Recorded by Andy Patterson (SubRosa, Iota, etc.) and Dave Otero (Cephalic Carnage, Khemmis, etc.), Morning brims with sonic clarity, and balanced with a blistering performance from the three-piece, it not only emphasizes the development they’ve undertaken since getting together, but the varied approach to songwriting that’s been honed as a part of that.

One can readily hear progression in the vocals and the arrangements between bassist Taylor Iversen and guitarist Zachary Amster, who over the propulsive drumming of Geoffrey Cotton bring even more momentum as they trade back and forth in the lead role between tracks like “Rivers” and “Can’t Sleep,” shifting back and forth amid cleaner choruses and echoing shouts. Abrams credit this largely to working with Otero on vocal recording, and it’s an element they share with early-ish Mastodon that comes through more at some points than others, side B’s “Die in Love” taking this core influence and adding an edge of noise rock amid the winding riffery. Along with the clearheaded, crisp punch of the Patterson-tracked instrumentation, this is one more example of the underlying sense of purpose that drives every move Abrams make on Morning.

There isn’t a part that doesn’t serve the greater whole, or a change that doesn’t feed into making a given song better, and while I wouldn’t say they completely avoid indulgences — no one does in this style — Morning works fluidly to justify every turn it presents, and Abrams emerge from the atmospheric closing title-track having reached a new level in craft and delivery.

They’ve been on the road since June 9. Here are the remaining tour dates:

Abrams on tour:
Jun 16 – San Jose, CA @ The Caravan
Jun 17 – Santa Cruz, CA @ Caffe Pergolesi
Jun 18 – Sacramento, CA @ Starlite Lounge
Jun 19 – Reno, NV @ Shea’s Tavern
Jun 20 – Medford, OR @ Johnny B’s Tavern
Jun 21 – Eugene, OR @ Old Nick’s Pub
Jun 22 – Portland, OR @ The Kenton Club
Jun 23 – Seattle, WA @ Lo-Fi Performance Gallery
Jun 24 – Boise, ID @ The Shredder
Jun 25 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Club X
Jun 26 – Cheyenne, WY @ Ernie November
Jun 27 – Rapid City, SD @ West Dakota Improv
Jun 28 – Minneapolis, MN @ Triple Rock Social Club
Jun 29 – Chicago, IL @ Reggies
Jun 30 – Des Moines, IA @ The Fremont
Jul 1 – Denver, CO @ The Hi Dive

Iversen took time out to explain the band’s motives and writing methods. Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:

abrams morning

Six Dumb Questions with Abrams

What lessons were you able to take from the first album? Tell me about incorporating them into these songs. What did you want to build on from the debut and what did you want to do differently?

Well, we wrote about 50 percent of Lust. Love. Loss. in three weeks’ time after a substantial but amicable personnel change, essentially on the eve of our 2014 West Coast tour. So with Morning, we really wanted to take our time with it. In a way, we’ve been writing Morning, since July of 2015, when the first songs began to take shape. We all entered into the writing process with the desire to create a more dynamic album.

We wanted to be less furious and driving from start to finish, and kind of take people on an emotional journey, though that sounds cliché as fuck. Still, you will notice many more “quieter” passages on Morning, and there is a much wider range to our vocal approach. Vocals were one of the things we wanted to improve upon most. We’re actually, you know, singing.

Talk about the writing process for Morning. How do songs like “18 Weeks” and “Can’t Sleep” come about?

When we wrote the songs, the actual instrumentation, I don’t think we consciously had any idea what we would be singing about. Everything kind of developed naturally in that way. Zach brings in most of the riffs, but we all then work together to make these ideas adhere into an Abrams song. Vocally, Zach and I just shouted nothings for a while. Slowly these nothings coalesced into words and passages that we found dealt with a lot of the same things.

For instance: I went through something like two breakups during the writing of this record, Zach had just gone through a difficult and prolonged breakup of his own, and to top it all off, Geoff‘s mother had just died. We were in a really odd place mentally. Songs like “Can’t Sleep” and “At the End” highlight a lot of that. All of these interpersonal relationships and the pain they caused are lyrically peppered throughout the album. “18 Weeks” is about an experience I had being dragged along by somebody I thought I loved, only to find out 18 weeks later they did not share these feelings. That’s also why, “I can’t sleep in this silence.” What’s beautiful though is I think each of us have our own interpretation of what each song represents. We really needed each other when we wrote this record. We needed these songs. So we made them.

You’ve mentioned duality as a theme for the album, and that “Morning” and “Mourning” are meant to complement each other because of the titles. Expand on that. What are you saying about duality, and what drove you to explore the idea in the first place?

I guess I’m lucky in that I still wake up every morning with a lot of hope for how things are going to go. “I’m going to kick today’s ass.” More often than not though, I lay my head down at the end of the day only to find that it very rightly kicked MY ass. What could have been if I’d just tried harder? Done better? Both songs, “Morning” and “Mourning,” feature that back and forth within them. I forget who mentioned the idea to whom first, but we were very pleased to find that we had all come to the same thematic idea on our own.

So there’s all that emotional turmoil of losing somebody you once shared love with, it’s all over the album. But there’s also these snippets of joy. Life can only be beautiful because it’s so often very painful. So you’ll find in “Rivers” or “Morning” there’s this serenity, this peace, this bright, hopeful liveliness. Yeah there’s a lot of shit about breakups and going insane too, but then for instance, I met somebody right before hopping into the studio and we’re still together. She’s all over the album lyrically too. That’s what it’s all about, you know: Hope vs. Despair. A little bit of good. A little bit of bad.

How does Samantha Muljat’s cover art play into the theme for you?

We presented the idea to Samantha and she just ran with it in a big way. She went searching the woods one morning and found this lonely cabin, not abandoned, but far, far away from anything else. The lonely road leading up past the cabin evokes the thought of a journey. But to where? How far until we get there? The morning light playing through the mist sets such a beautiful scene, but there’s darkness there too. It’s a cold, lonely image, but there’s also warmth and peace throughout.

To me, on the back, the bread represents life, while the fallen leaves scattered around represents death. There is darkness surrounding everything, but at the center of it all there’s the candles casting light throughout.

Tell me about your time recording with Andy Patterson. How long were you in the studio, what was the atmosphere like, and since this was your second time working with him, did you feel more comfortable being more familiar with the process? You also worked with Dave Otero. Who recorded what and how did it all come together?

Recording with Andy for us was like fuckin’ summer camp! We were in the studio with Andy for about a week, and just like last time Andy and his wife Cindi opened their home to us. We’re such good buddies with them, it’s hard not to enjoy every single moment. It’s a full day of rigorous and focused recording in his studio, but we’re so in tune with each other it went slick as butter. As soon as we’re out, we go back to their place and just crush beers, take rips from the bong, make homemade pizzas and watch garbage television. Grey’s Anatomy was last time, and this time it was just dirty-ass reality shows. We all kind of teared up when we were getting ready to leave. It really felt like the last day of summer camp.

Andy recorded all of the instruments, and we laid down some scratch vocal ideas with him as well. We sent that to Dave, and we all ruminated on that from September to October when we entered the studio with him to track the finalized vocals. If Andy was summer camp, Dave was boot camp. The first day he gave us a lowdown just like,”no booze, no smoke, drink lots of water and tea, above all else get a good night sleep.” From there it was a literal nine-to-five job for seven days where our only responsibility was to sing, and sing, and sing. At the end of the day, we’d go home and go right to sleep; absolutely drained and exhausted. But, if anybody can get a good vocal performance out of you, it’s Dave Otero.

He’ll push you harder than you’ve ever been pushed, and he’ll throw in plenty of his own ideas, which are always amazing. That’s precisely why we went to him. We also had Dave do the final mixes and mastering, which he knocked out of the park. That guy is a monster of his craft.

It was great to get two really professional, really talented audio juggernauts like Andy and Dave to lend their ears to what we were trying to do.

I’ve heard Summer tour dates are in the works. Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?

Yeah! We’ll be doing two tours this summer. Three weeks on the West Coast, and two-ish weeks on the East. June and August respectively. In July we have hopes to get demos for our third album, for which we already have a lot of songs. We’re hoping to tour on Morning as much as possible, so there’s been tentative plans to hit the southern half of the country this winter. We’ll see what happens. Maybe we’ll finally find a booking agent, and they’ll put us the fuck to work.

Abrams, Morning (2017)

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Six Dumb Questions with Lee Van Cleef

Posted in Six Dumb Questions on June 14th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

lee van cleef

There’s not much mystery behind what makes a group like Lee Van Cleef work. The Italian instrumentalists debuted in 2016 with Holy Smoke (review here), releasing the album digitally at first and then on vinyl through Berlin’s White Dwarf Records, and the appeal came through loud and clear in the distorted fuzz of Marco Adamo‘s guitar, the warmth in Pietro Trinità La Tegola‘s bass and the rolling grooves propelled by Guido Minervini‘s drums. Without any of these, songs like the 13-minute “Banshee” or opener “Heckle Yuppies” wouldn’t have worked. Simple answer? Chemistry. It’s what makes the whole thing go.

Seems obvious, right?

Well, obvious it might be, but it’s also much easier said than done. At a time when Europe is awash in instrumental (or mostly instrumental) jam-based heavy psychedelic rock, for a three-piece like Lee Van Cleef to come along and manage to distinguish themselves from the pack on their first full-length is not insignificant. From the patient rollout in the aforementioned leadoff through the airy lead work that tops closer “Towelie” and the nod-ready Spring 2017 follow-up digital single Everyone Should Kill an Old Hippy (discussed here), on which watery wah borders on delivering a vocal line here and there, Lee Van Cleef emerge with a sense of spaciousness and a tonality of their own. They’ve only been around since 2015. Some bands barely pick up their instruments in their first two years of existence. Lee Van Cleef would seem to have clearly defined their aesthetic approach and already set about pushing it forward.

In light of that progression underway, it’s a great time to check in with Adamo and get a sense of the band’s origins, where they’re coming from, what was “the joke” that reportedly got them together, and what they have in store for the rest of 2017 and beyond. Before we get to the Q&A, let me just say I extra appreciate the guitarist taking the time for the interview considering the language barrier to do it in English. I know there’s no way my ignorant ass would fare nearly so well in Italian, so I am grateful for the effort.

Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:

Six Dumb Questions with Lee Van Cleef

You’ve said that Lee Van Cleef formed as a joke. Can you let us in on what initially got you together in 2015? What was the joke, and at what point did you realize you had something in the jams that was really worth pursuing on a more serious level?

Maybe more than a joke it’s been something unpretentious and unplanned. We all had other projects at the time and Lee Van Cleef was born to experiment and basically have fun doing what we liked the most. I called Guido and Pietro and even if I knew they both were guitarists, I also knew they could play drum and bass. In a city like ours it’s hard to think about a project like this and hope to receive any kind of feedback. I’m not saying there’s no people who listen to this kind of music, but clubs they don’t really give much space to this music. It’s not that cool to play 10-minute jams with neverending guitar solos and just a few major chords!

But we didn’t really care and we did it. For us, mainly. We underestimated the web power, but when we realized we had something that was working we recorded it at the best we could and we put it on Bandcamp. After a while, Olaf [Angermund] from White Dwarf got in touch with us after having listened to us at the radio. The rest is history (laughs). The most important thing is that we’re still doing all of this for us and even if we had a lot of positive feedbacks, and we are really grateful to those who spent some of their time to listen to us.

Tell me about putting together the Holy Smoke album. What was the recording like? How long were you in the studio for it and how many of the songs were born from those early jams from when the band was starting out?

We recorded the tracks in a studio here in Naples called Godfather. We locked ourselves up for two days and we recorded everything live… as if it was a live session. When Olaf got in touch with us, proposed us to release vinyls as soon as possible, but at the time we only had three tracks, but after a few months we composed “Hell Malo,” “Heckle Yuppies” and “Towelie.” So than we went to the studio to record Holy Smoke. Everything was fast cause as I said everything was live. Two days to record and three/four days for mixing.

How did you get hooked up with White Dwarf Records for the vinyl release of Holy Smoke? What did it mean to you to get your first record put out as an LP?

For us it was totally unexpected as I said. We will always be grateful to White Dwarf to bet on us because it would have never happened here in Italy. For Italian labels it would have been too risky. Olaf just texted us on Facebook. Thank you dude.

You released the “Everyone Should Kill an Old Hippy” single earlier this Spring. What’s wrong with old hippies? And more importantly, will this track feature on the next Lee Van Cleef album?

Ahahahahahah I was expecting it. Actually we have nothing against old hippies. My dad was an old hippie. It’s more a joke. A provocation. A way to detach from a deeply-rooted tradition, from some attitudes. Here in Naples, at least, old hippies are that radical chic dudes who live in million euros houses. They send their children to private schools and lock them up at home because in the street there are evil people. Are those who ask you to turn down the volume if you are listening Jimi Hendrix. It’s just a provocation. I don’t think we’re going to kill anybody. Anyway, probably we could record another version in the next album, as we did with “Banshee” and “Mahana”…we don’t know yet…

Have you started work on a second record? Any idea how the material might develop going forward from the debut, and is there anything specific you want to build on or change coming off of Holy Smoke? Where is Lee Van Cleef headed sound-wise?

We’re working on new tracks, we are also preparing a Creedence cover (spoiler) and thinking about doing some experiments, like using more voice, or some synth… We will see

Will you do any touring this year? Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?

We’ll be at Red Smoke Festival in July; we’re working also for other dates. Certainly we’ll be touring in Germany, France and maybe Spain on next Autumn. We’d like to play more here in Italy and we hope to do that. I don’t deny that is pretty hard because this kind of music is not too much listened, at least in some part of the country. By the way we have no booking right now. We try to do all this shit alone and this make the work more difficult… If you add to this that we are incredibly lazy, it is a mortal mix! Probably we’ll release some other track suddenly, as we love to do.

Lee Van Cleef, “Everyone Should Kill an Old Hippy”

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Six Dumb Questions with Godhunter

Posted in Six Dumb Questions on June 9th, 2017 by JJ Koczan

godhunter codex narco lineup

As a basic matter of course, I respect the hell out of Godhunter guitarist David Rodgers. Originally based in Tucson, Arizona, and relocated to Washington, the six-stringer does admirable, passionate work not only in his own band, but in promoting the output of others like CHRCH, Methra, Rozamov and Fuzz Evil (among others) through his label, Battleground Records, and has helmed impossibly righteous festivals in the form of the Southwest Terror Fest, the Austin Terror Fest at SXSW and the Northwest Terror Fest, which is next week in Seattle with Coven and Cephalic Carnage at the top of the bill. He’s someone who pulls no punches in letting you know what he thinks and someone who backs up his beliefs with genuine, real-world effort. The only reason I’ve never interviewed him before in this space is because I was kind of worried he’d tell me to fuck off and call me a lightweight, as he’d be well within his rights to do to at least 90 percent of everybody.

The occasion this time, however, was too much to let slip. Last month, through Battleground and Baby Tooth Records, Godhunter released their latest EP, Codex Narco (review here), a bold and ranging piece of stylistic experimentation and atmospheric post-sludge that it basically took the group falling apart after a 2015 tour alongside Destroyer of Light (live review here) to come up with. With Rodgers, guitarist/keyboardist Matthew Davis and drummer Andy Kratzenberg bringing in an array of guests including CHRCH vocalist Eva RoseJosh Thorne of Thorne on “Like Glass Under Black Fingernails” and “Cocaine Witches and Lysergic Dreams,” and Methra‘s Nick GenitalsDemon Lung‘s Adam Sage and Mountaineer‘s Clayton Bartholomew on the Tegan and Sara cover “Walking with a Ghost,” Godhunter construct a sound distinct from anything they’ve done before, whether it was on the 2015 Endsville split with Destroyer of Light (discussed here) or their 2014 LP, City of Dust (review here).

In the Q&A below, Rodgers describes the circumstances that brought Codex Narco to fruition and what the EP’s shift in sound may or may not mean for Godhunter going forward, as well as the possibility of future touring and the complexities of coordinating so many contributions outside the core members of the band. Thanks to him for taking the time when he’s no doubt swamped in Northwest Terror Fest business, and double-thanks for not telling me to fuck off, which again, he very easily could’ve done.

Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:

godhunter codex narco

Six Dumb Questions with Godhunter

What happened to the band after the tour with Destroyer of Light in 2015? What was the lineup situation and how did you come to realize you wanted Godhunter to continue and in this form?

Well, the simplest explanation is that life happened. Life is never that simple though. So Matt had moved to Georgia before Endsville even came out, because he works for a huge tech company so they moved him out there and set him up with a house and such, so with his family that was a no-brainer for him. The Endsville sessions was the last time Matt was actually in the same studio or jam room with us. I moved to Washington State before Endsville was released as well, so things were already splintering before we left for that tour. We basically put together a tour set of songs that we could do without Matt, which was harder than it sounds because he plays on every song we’ve ever released except the very first Methra split.

When we got home from tour, both Dick and Jake had family stuff staring them in the face. Dick had a new baby, so it was time to get serious about being a dad and Jake got engaged and got a real job and just decided that touring wasn’t in the picture for him anymore. Let’s be serious here, touring is expensive as fuck and it breaks bands all the time. I can’t blame anyone for wanting to keep their life on track. So we all amicably decided that was the end of that formation of Godhunter.

A couple of months go by, and we (Matt and myself, but mostly Matt) had started working on a couple songs for Josh Thorne. Originally they were going to be Thorne releases, with us doing the programming and such. Matt is a fucking wizard at computers and has done remixes (he did an amazing one for Lament Cityscape) and such before, so it was right up his alley. Once the songs started developing though, we kind of fell in love with them. We started tweaking them here and there. More guitars here. More bass here. It got to a point where they started sounding like electronic Godhunter songs, which is when the proverbial lights came on and we realized we were writing Codex Narco.

It seems like the interludes could have come from studio experiments, but in terms of “Like Glass Under Black Fingernails” and “Cocaine Witches and Lysergic Dreams,” how were those pieced together?

The writing process was very long, for us, because this was the first time we weren’t all in the same room writing together. We’ve never been a band that sends stuff to each other on the internet and shit. Always been more of a hands-on thing. But once we had a stable foundation for those two songs, we just started adding layers and depth using electronic drums and such until we had a “demo” version of them. That’s what we took to the studio and replaced everything electronic with real instruments. We re-amped all the guitars and bass as well.

Then while we were in the studio working on those two, we added all the other stuff around those two main songs. Andy (our drummer) is also in Methra with Nick, and they wrote the intro and outro songs and “Unarmed Combat” and recorded those parts while we were doing the drums and guitars on the other songs. We went into it with the idea of just recording a bunch of stuff we had and then piecing it together afterwards into the EP. I can’t say that we went into this recording process knowing exactly how everything would go. We really wanted to experiment and ignore a lot of the methods we had used on every release before this.

Tell me about assembling the lineup for Codex Narco, bringing in Josh Thorne and Nick Genitals and all the guest spots. When was the decision made to reach outside the core lineup of the band for contributions, what brought it on, and what went into it logistically in terms of making it happen?

This is where it gets really funny. At some point in the recording process, I picked up a serious Steely Dan habit. I have always loved that band, but for some reason I got reinterested and really dove into the band and some of their processes and was reading old interviews and such where they described how they would write the songs, but then get better musicians to play the parts on the album. Neither myself, Matt or Andy can sing like Eva or Josh can. And none of us can play bass anything like Adam does. We don’t have that ear to find those chimey post-rock chords and accents that Clay does. But what we can do is send each of them the songs and ask them to play on them, which is exactly what we did.

Reaching out was easy, as I’ve known Josh since he was a teenager, I grew up with Adam back in New York, Clay is one of my good friends and obviously Eva is on my record label. Nick was the first on board though, as he had already stepped into the bass position in the band, as at the time we were planning on doing some touring (more on that later though…) after the album release. Nick‘s always up for whatever crazy idea I give him anyway. From there it was just a matter of sending the individuals their parts and letting them record in their studios of choice. They sent us back the tracks, and we mixed them in. Pretty simple, all in all, just a timely process.

Where did the Tegan and Sara cover come from? Was there a particular reason that you picked “Walking with a Ghost” to take on?

We’ve always loved cover songs. We’ve covered The Beastie Boys and Nirvana in the past. Once we had the skeletons of this EP built, we needed one more song to round it out, so we figured a cover song would be good for that. For the longest time it was going to be “You Keep Me Hanging On” by The Supremes. That song just has an amazing downbeat push to it that we felt would translate really well to our style and we may still do it one day for the fuck of it. I was just driving down to work one day listening to Tegan and Sara, and I was playing So Jealous, which is one of their older albums, and “Walking with a Ghost” came on and it was like lightning striking. I knew that was going to be the cover song.

I sent it to Matt, who was building all the sound beds in Georgia and I honestly thought he would veto it since we were already elbow deep in the Supremes song but he totally agreed and said it was the right choice so we went with it. It’s a goddamn perfect pop song and so incredibly catchy, so the guitar parts are done in our tunings, but played in the actual key of the song, so it still has a super poppy feel to it. Kinda pop-punkish. We actually had no idea who was going to do the vocals until really late in the game when the Methra album came out and when I heard Nick do the clean vocals on that album, I knew he had to do the vocals on “Walking with a Ghost.” Again, I thought he would say no, but he was totally into it. I love it when my band does whatever silly shit I come up with. Usually turns out fucking great, like this cover.

Codex Narco as a whole represents a pretty significant shift in sound for Godhunter. Do you see the band continuing down this path, or will future releases head elsewhere? Can you talk about what drove you to explore different textures in sound with this material, what inspired you emotionally and sonically?

You know, I have no idea at all what we will do next, to be honest. We’ve never really stuck to a script. Each release is somewhat different than the previous one and we’ve done some really out there stuff before. I know what we are working on right now, and it’s nothing like Codex Narco and nothing like anything previous to that. I think at this point in the band’s evolution, it’s really turned into a vanity project if you will. We’re going to write a lot of weird shit that we’ve always wanted to do and put it out under the Godhunter name because we’re such a small band that it’s not like we’re going to lose a huge fanbase. We’re going to put out stuff that we like. We hope people like it too. If not, cool, there are a lot of other bands out there.

As far as what drives us to explore new sounds, well, that’s just us. At every point of Godhunter it’s always been filled with people with wildly varying likes and tastes as far as music. The more influences you mix up, the weirder shit you end up with. Does the world really need another band trying to sound like Master of Reality or Blues for the Red Sun? In my opinion, the answer to that is fuck no. What we do need is more bands willing to stretch some boundaries and wear their musical heart on their sleeve and show us what they really care about. I know way too many dudes with huge beards and full sleeves and leather vests that love Carly Rae Jepsen. It’s okay, boys. Come to the dork side.

But to the point at hand, Codex Narco is FFO: Jan Hammer soundtracks, Killing Joke, Late-‘90s/early-2000s alt-pop.

Will Godhunter tour again in any form? Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?

I really doubt Godhunter will tour again. We had a bunch of stuff lined up for this year, including a US tour and a couple festival appearances, but once we started adding up the costs of flying people to Tucson for rehearsals and extended absences from good jobs, reality struck and we all realized that this band is probably never going to make enough money for us to slog it out in a van anymore. We’re all really comfortable with where we are in life now too. So in that regard, Codex Narco is sort of an experiment for us. Can we release an album without touring and will people care? Jury is still out on that, but overall people seem stoked about the album so we’re not really feeling any pull to go back to old methods right now.

On a personal level, I run Battleground Records and because of that my outlook on touring has drastically changed over the last few years. I used to think that bands could release a good album, hit the road with it, and win the country over. I think that method is outdated now. The digital world has really changed everything. Now, I think you can release an album, then wait and see if it hits. If it does, and the money is there, then go out on tour without losing your ass on a whim. I think the days of bands coming home broke from tour should be over and if anyone is still doing that, you’re wasting your precious fucking time. Throw that shit on Bandcamp and send it to some blogs and if it’s worth it, you’ll know soon enough. If it doesn’t hit, go back and write something better. Does this mean less bands might be on tour? Yes, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing either.

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