With a stylistic blend almost unto itself of classic heavy rock, prog and metal’s dual-guitar theatrics, Corsair‘s Corsair is not a record up for trifling. The band, native to Charlottesville, Virginia, self-released their first full-length earlier this year (review here) in what has become their standard format of a screenprinted folded box called an arigato pak (nice to finally have a name for it) with original art by guitarist/vocalist Marie Landragin, also seen on their prior 2011 Ghosts of Proxima Centauri EP (review here) and 2010′s Alpha Centauri debut (review here).
Could have been any number of the sides of their sound that did the job — from the rife Thin Lizzy-style guitarmonies of Landragin and Paul Sebring to Jordan Brunk‘s smooth basslines and the bounce in Aaron Lipscombe‘s drumming — but the album caught the attention of Shadow Kingdom Records, who have overseen a reissue of Corsair‘s self-titled on CD, with reworked art (still Landragin‘s design) in a full jewel case. If we were betting on motives, however, I might place my coin on it being the underlying human-ness of the album’s eight tracks, such that as proggy as Corsair might get, they never sound cold or staid, so that as Brunk and Sebring and Landragin trade off vocals or come together for effective layering and veer musically into more metallic thrust on a track like “Gryphon Wing,” the feeling is natural and nothing seems out of place.
Shadow Kingdom has gotten behind the band in a big way, and it’s understandable why. Over the four-plus years since they got together and with a minimum of lineup changes, Corsair have emerged as an act with marked potential, not necessarily for commercial interests (though the songs are accessible), but for creating something unique in their resonant progressive rock. With the label’s version of the record en route and having followed their evolution over the last couple years, it seemed the perfect opportunity to hit up the band for an interview. Brunk, writing from France, recently took some time out to reflect on Corsair‘s origins and where they’re headed in his answers to the Six Dumb Questions that follow below.
1. The self-titled is the first Corsair album to reach the public with a label backing it. How do you feel about the album being the first impression many people will have of the band? How did Shadow Kingdom get involved in the release?
Our self-titled album, as a whole, best represents to date the artistic vision of the band, so we are proud to have it be the first impression of a larger audience. Opening with “Agathyrsi,” an instrumental track, makes clear what we are all about; that the music, with guitar riffs as the focal point, comes first. Following suit, the rest of the album is indicative of the shared writing process with its rotating lead vocals, honed guitar harmonies, and trading solos. Listening to the album nearly a year after starting the process, there are details that could be improved, whether sonically in the mix or minor changes we’ve made in a live setting as afterthoughts. I feel most musicians will find minor flaws in their own material, being indicative of the desire to grow and improve.
Tim McGrogan (aka Shadow Kingdom) contacted us and told us that he’d been really digging our music and wanted to know if we were interested in signing to a record label. Initially, he bought five copies of each of our self-releases to sell on his website, but soon thereafter, his interest peaked and he scheduled a conference call with us to establish the grounds for a mechanical distribution contract.
2. For anyone who may have picked up the album previously, how does the Shadow Kingdom version differ? Is it a jewel case release? Was the mix or master changed at all for the new edition? Will you do a vinyl run?
The Shadow Kingdom release will be in a jewel case with an insert including lyrics and pictures of the band. The artwork and layout were reworked by Marie and tweaked by Tim from Shadow Kingdom. The mix and master remain the same from the original release. It’s too soon to say for certain whether or not we will do a vinyl run, but if it makes sense later on, we would love to press to vinyl, not only for the sonic quality, but to give the artwork room to shine.
3. How would you chart the band’s growth along the releases so far? How has Corsair’s sound developed between Alpha Centauri, Ghosts of Proxima Centauri and the self-titled? How was your time recording for the self-titled, and were there experiences you drew on from the prior two that went into the making of this album?
Alpha Centauri was initially meant by the band to be a demo of songs we had ready to record in a weekend session with producer Lance Brenner. We were collectively inexperienced in the studio and were hesitant to believe that what we had was worthy of more. We loved playing together, but had no goals other than having something to give to people. Lance took the material to another level and gave us a finished product beyond what we expected, thus encouraging us to release it as an EP rather than a demo.
From the beginning, the guitar work was our ace-in-the-hole and showed promise to grow as our songwriting matured. There are some killer solos in there by Paul and Marie, and the rhythm section was tight and simple. In the studio Paul‘s ability to write guitar harmonies (listen to the riff post-chorus in “Last Night on Earth”) and Marie‘s affinity for delay and guitar effects (listen to the intro of “Space is a Lonely Place”), blossomed and gave the songs greater depth and layers of sound. Leigh Ann Leary played solid beats at Corsair‘s beginning and I (Jordan) either locked in with her, sometimes joined in with the guitars to beef up the riffs, or sometimes played somewhere in between the two.
I was keen to learn all I could on the engineering and production side and so paid attention to things like microphone placement and mixing techniques. We worked together with Lance on the production and ended up with a sound that was part ‘70s, dialing back the overall high frequencies (particularly the cymbals), and part ‘80s, evident on “Beware the Black Fleet” with its crowd vocals. Alpha Centauri plays like a collection of short stories, combining the subjects of space travel and mythology with an affinity for adventure.
We walked away with a nice little EP, which was then sent by mail to reviewers. Marie‘s craftiness may well be what initially gained the band any attention outside of Charlottesville because not only did she put much time, effort and care into the design and artwork, but she had the idea of screen printing onto arigato packs from Stumptown printers, then folding them up into little boxes to house the CDs. The icing on the cake was the colorful collaged kraft paper, wrapping the package like a present, that caught Ray Dorsey‘s eye at Ray’s Realm, and from his review, others in the online metal community (like The Obelisk, Metal Review and Hellride Music) took notice.
As we approached the process of recording Ghosts of Proxima Centauri, Corsair saw a shift with Aaron Lipscombe on drums. He brought greater versatility to our songwriting, adapting to ideas quickly and owning them from that point forward. This made possible more ambitious transitions and dynamic changes as the new material took form. I think the transitions and rhythmic changes in “Centurion” were especially challenging and reflected our eagerness to push the boundaries.
On Ghosts, we began sharing the vocal duties, and I say “duties” because they are always the last thing we write, often in the studio while working on the album. The guitar work comes relatively easy when compared to getting a vocal track that is up to par. Of the six songs, Paul sang lead on two (“Warrior Women” and “Eyes of the Gods”), Marie sang lead on one (“Orca”) and backup on two (“Centurion” and “Eyes…”), and I sang lead on two (“Burnish the Blades” and “Centurion”) and backup on two (“Warrior Woman” and “Eyes of the Gods”). A hodge-podge, yes, but it assembled something that reflects the shared nature of our songwriting.
We also chose to invest in studio gear rather than studio time to gain the luxury of recording at our leisure. When you want to make a record well, you can either take the fast and expensive route by paying an experienced producer, or the slow cheaper route in which the producer is relatively new to the game. However, we knew that getting a good drum sound was important and sought help at the beginning. We teamed up with Lance again, got the drums and rhythm guitars finished in a weekend, and left to record the solos, additional guitars, and vocals at our house.
We had time on this record to do multiple takes of solos and wait for the right one to sink in, and if we didn’t get it the first time, then we tried again without having to go to a studio. We could just meet up at the practice house and record. Some of the orchestrated parts with multiple harmonies may not have happened given our low budget if we were paying by the hour. There is more of ourselves on this album, all the way through the production. We had freedom to work, while performing best under our own pressure and artists control. It felt more like our own record in the end despite whatever shortcomings there might have been sonically. I know what I think is that it could be improved, but it’s an insider’s perspective that is highly critical. Parts of the session were messy because we were learning along the way, but we did our best to tidy up and make it feel cohesive.
A high point in the process was bringing in Gabe Cooper to play violin on “Eyes of the Gods.” We plugged his preamp into a Marshall stack and it gave the effect of music coming from a gramophone, like in an old recording. One of my favorite sounds on the record comes during the quiet build in the middle of “Eyes…” I added a Big Muff and an Akai Head Rush into the signal chain and when he gave the bow a stroke, it sounded like a UFO was landing. So we took the next logical step and doubled it! You can hear it dancing around when the song hangs just before the rollercoaster arpeggios kick in.
Ghosts was an incredible learning experience for the band and we gained much more confidence going forward with a new batch of songs that had people taking notice when we played them live. We learned by being hands-on throughout the process and were ready to do it all over again.
In the beginning of 2012, we decided to record once more but this time, really push ourselves to produce enough material to do an album instead of an EP. Start to finish, it was a whirlwind effort beginning in February and finishing with the product in hand for a release show on April 21. The deadline was self-imposed and we worked hard to be efficient within a strict budget. I am very proud of the quality we achieved in the tightness of our playing, the careful engineering, and the clarity of the mix. This time, we recorded drums with our friend and peer, Nate Bolling, in three separate sessions spread out over a couple of weeks. Again, the guitars, bass, solos, vocals, and overdubs came afterwards in our home recording studio, and with a better working knowledge from the onset, we finished with a fine record. In other words, we didn’t mess around.
This time, we found the beefy guitar tone we were searching for on the last album by correcting a slight phasing issue caused by using two microphones on the cabinet. The songwriting was a bit more concise and hard-hitting. Overall, it felt less complicated, like the mystery of the studio was gone and in its place was a cozy little home. To get deep into the studio knowledge and tweaks that made this effort better would be to open a whole other bag of worms, delving into gear-nerd-land.
As a side note (to escape the aforementioned g-n-l), for Halloween in 2011, we played a show as Thin Lizzy for a 45-minute set, mainly from their Live and Dangerous album. For a month and a half before showtime, we learned their material, which we all love, and it helped us once again to learn and grow. “Chaemera” is definitely a nod to Thin Lizzy as a strong influence. It could be a reason why the major scale started to emerge in our songwriting, so if the metal heads out there find some of our songs to be too happy, I suggest going back and giving Thin Lizzy a listen.
All three of our releases begin with an instrumental track, so I find the best way to chart our progress is to Listen to (in order), “Skykrakken,” “Wolfrider” and “Agathyrsi.” By just looking at the titles, you can infer that Corsair emerged from darkness with its tentacles full of guitars (“Skykrakken”), we seized the reins and tried to control the beast (“Wolfrider”), and after studying its ways, we gained access to ancient knowledge (“Agathyrsi”). (You might have to Google “agathyrsi” to get the last one… It’s a stretch, I know.)
4. How do you see yourselves developing going forward? The span between the three outings so far was pretty short. Have you started writing for another album or EP yet? Any plans for when you might next record?
Currently, Marie and I are living in Marseille, France, and are using the time to write new material until we return to Charlottesville in January. We brought recording equipment and all the while, we’ll send ideas back to the States for Paul and Aaron to contribute. Likewise, Paul will send any new ideas and we’ll be working together through the internet and our friend Nate Bolling‘s home studio. Once we return to Charlottesville, VA, in January, the next step is then to do our best to lay down the tracks and make another record.
5. Do you have any interest in hitting the road as a touring act? How does the Corsair experience live compare to listening on the album?
Corsair live is much sweatier. It took time to rehearse the material and get it tight, but then it took a little while longer until we got comfortable enough with the material to open up and actually perform. When we started, we were guilty of shoegazing because it took great concentration to play the parts well. Except for Paul… He’s always been an animated and skillful guitar player with his flying V and killer stage moves. Now, we’ve all opened up and try to put on a show to amp up the experience of hearing the songs live.
I think a turning point for the band was about two years ago when we did another Halloween show as Spinal Tap. To pull it off, not only did we have to play the songs well, but get into character and put on a performance. Having a good laugh at ourselves was a great lesson to learn and made us a better band on stage; more comfortable. I mean, once you’ve put on a wig and some shiny tights in front of a 300-plus crowd and owned it, you can pretty much pull off your own material in your own clothes anytime.
Now, I don’t mean to say that we ham it up, but we try to bring a high level of energy to get the crowd going, so that when the pockets of space open up in our songs, the effect is strong. Aaron does a great job controlling the dynamics of the band, and we all can feed off each other easily after playing together for a while.
Vocals have always been the most challenging part of our performance and until recently, it was consistently hard to hear ourselves singing atop the guitar stacks. In the last year, we upgraded our PA, which can finally compete with guitars, and have been working on the three part harmonies that are on some of the studio recordings to surprising success. Many musicians spend a lot of their time and money searching for the right guitar and amp, but to pull off a consistently good live performance, you need to invest into a decent PA as well.
As for touring, we never have been much of a touring band, playing about six shows a year in Charlottesville with a handful of jaunts up the Northeast to NYC, Philadelphia, and D.C., Richmond, and Harrisonburg, VA. I think our interest in touring is dependent on the potential for growing interest outside of our hometown. If we have good reason to travel, besides taking a mini-vacation and having fun, then we’re happy to do so. We’ve put in the time in our hometown amongst high-caliber musicians to hone our skills and stand out amongst the rest, so despite not having toured much, we’re ready for whatever is to come.
6. Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?
I think the underlying tide that keeps this band moving is the sense of adventure that we feel in our music. Somewhere along the line, we called our material “adventure rock” and it stuck because whenever we play the songs, despite whatever else is going on in our lives, there’s always a moment when we look up at each other and smile. There’s an escape from reality into our own world, which we shape with all the courage we can muster.