Maryland trio Chowder are one band whose pedigree and lineage give you absolutely no context for what they sound like. Some bands, you know what you’re getting just by who they hang out with, but when you consider that guitarist Josh Hart cut his teeth playing in early incarnations of Revelation and Unorthodox — both names of formidable contribution to Maryland’s doom scene — and that he’s currently a member of Earthride, well, that kind of sets you up to think doom, or at very least some derivation thereof. On their long-in-arriving debut full-length, Passion Rift, Chowder defy almost every expectation you could put on them while still also using guitars.
The album, released by I, Voidhanger Records, is entirely instrumental and blindingly varied musically, bouncing hardcore rhythms off wild off-time changes and the kind of progressive technicalities that only true fans of Rush seem to be able to make gospel. There are elements of heavy riffing to be found here and there, but not enough to really ally the band to one genre or another. They never rest that long, and even ambient pieces like “Mazuku” or the opening “Mysterioid” have more to them than they might at first seem to, with Hart adding layers of synth, mellotron and even theremin to the mix of effects and drones.
Comprised of Hart alongside bassist Doug Williams (also cello) and drummer Chad Rush, Chowder began in 1992. It wasn’t until 2006 that the band released a demo through Revelation guitarist/vocalist John Brenner‘s Bland Hand Records, and Passion Rift has been another six years coming beyond that, so when it came time for listening to the album (streaming a couple tracks here), I had plenty of questions about how it was made, when and what were the band’s motivations.
As you can see in the following Six Dumb Questions, Hart had plenty of answers. Please enjoy:
1. Take me through the history of the band. It seems like Chowder was always in the background while other projects were the main focus. How has working with Chad changed over the years? Did you always know you wanted to keep the band instrumental?
Chad and I started writing music together while I was still in Revelation, back in 1992 I guess. A mutual friend thought we might be on the same page and it clicked pretty early. We wrote a few songs around that time but just sort of always considered it a sort of side-project as I was busy playing bass with Revelation and then Unorthodox soon after. In 1994 we managed to get into a studio and record four of the tunes we’d been screwing around with over those couple of years under the name Spectre that I clipped from my favorite Revelation song. Our friend Rich Newberger sang on three of those songs and his brother Steve played bass. It was pretty exciting to hear that stuff recorded because it was so weird for the time period. I don’t think many people we played it for really knew what to make of it then. That lineup kind of fizzled out and Chad and I continued to write a ton of music after I split with Unorthodox. It was one of those periods when you’re just spilling over with ideas, like every time I picked up my guitar I was writing a keeper riff or something. Sadly, we could never flesh out a lineup to play live and just kind of floundered over the years.
Back then I thought we wanted a singer as well and that was really tough because I was super-picky and there weren’t many people around that really fit what I expected. So we just hammered away as a three piece, Chad, myself and Joe Ruthvin on bass who left to form Earthride with [Dave] Sherman and Eric Little. It was always easy to write with Chad though, we both had a somewhat eclectic tastes so nothing was ever really a contention idea-wise. I’d bring something to the table and we’d both get really excited about it and try out best to form it into something unique. I remember laughing our asses off at some weird riff that just seemed so ridiculous but by the time we’d evolved it into a song it felt really, really cool and fresh. That was even before we started to implement synths and other post-rock effects. Chad‘s talent for irrational timing was really exceptional and allowed me to just go with whatever crazy thing came up. As far as being instrumental goes, like I said that wasn’t the plan but I was always into that kind of thing from the early math rock bands like Buzzard and King Sour to the obvious Rush and ‘70s prog tracks where the bands just busted loose for a song or two.
I think the thing that made me say, “Screw it, we don’t even need a singer,” was this Asylum tape I used to just play constantly that was a whole 45-minute side of songs without vocals. That was my favorite thing out of all the Maryland “doom” bands and it was funny because when I started playing with Unorthodox, Dale [Flood] and I used to joke about him not singing anymore and just going that route. By 2006, when John Brenner and I were booking the Doom or be Doomed fest in Baltimore and the idea of Chowder playing was on the table, I was comfortable with the idea of just playing the music and started to write with more self-indulgence and less conventional structure. I felt the addition of all the synths and mellotrons could keep things interesting enough that some kind of vocal wouldn’t be missed. Ultimately, I really don’t have anything to say to these people listening that they haven’t heard 1,000 times before anyway. I know as I get older I get kind of burned out on hearing the screaming guy wailing at me about his inner tumoils and emotions or whatever book he/she just read.
2. When was the material on Passion Rift written? What’s the writing process like?
The album is all over the place. “Mazuku,” “Salt Creep,” “The Innsmouth Look” and “Head Full of Rats” all go back to the ‘90s. The rest of it was written for the album between 2007-2008. I think it’s a good mix and some of our best material. I purposely kept it off the 2007 EP we did with Bland Hand Records to save for a full-length if it ever happened. I’ll usually bring riffs or whole songs to the other guys and we build on it from there. Sometimes I’ll have specific ideas about what the drums or bass do, but mostly it’s very loose and we just sort of design the song together based on a rough outline I’ve come up with. Playing with guys who really know their chops is a huge comfort when coming up with ideas. We developed a kind of language over time to communicate ideas back and forth. Like, “Try one of those sizzle drop, slap runs” and Doug would know what I was referring to. Most of the descriptions aren’t really words though and are just sounds. DUN DUN DUN dee doo DUN dddeeeeiin!!
3. One thing the album seems to do is balance different styles. The songs have a lot from prog, more than a bit of hardcore and some doom in them. When you started putting together the demo in 2006, how clear of an idea did you have of what you wanted to do stylistically? When you’re writing when does something start to take shape as a Chowder song?
I know that no matter what I write that these guys can play it and they’re up for trying it out which is the beauty of this band in my eyes. There’s never been a conversation about what we should sound like or, “is this new song really us?” I know we’re not breaking any new ground here but the idea has always been to just write what sounds good, what feels right. The demo was actually recorded in 1997. John Brenner released it for download on his Bland Hand Records label around 2006. No, it’s never been clear. I’m so heavily influenced and have been by so many different kinds of music and bands that it’s nearly impossible to write within a style on purpose, if that makes any sense. Like if you were to tell me to write a straight doom metal song, I would have trouble. Same goes for anything else, punk, hardcore, rock. Everything seems to channel through some screwy filter and come out all twisted up. If I’m writing, it’s a Chowder song. If I start playing something on the guitar and it sounds like it could be a potential Earthride riff, for example, I usually have to change some element about it to make it fit. Music loses its power when it tries too hard to capture a certain vibe or sound. If you can easily stuff my band into a genre then I’m probably not living up to my full potential as a musician.
4. When in the recording process for Passion Rift were the samples, keyboards, mellotrons, theremin added? How much of that stuff comes from experimenting in the studio and how much is thought out beforehand?
Most of those things were recorded after the basic guitar, bass and drum tracks. There are a few parts in the there that were recorded with me on synth with the bass and drums at the same time though. Any part like that was written and rehearsed long before we booked recording time. The track “Mysterioid” was written almost entirely in studio with only the main synth notes worked out before. It and “Mazuku” were both intended to be production pieces only so we had some room to mess around with them in there. Adding a bunch of different things, getting out of hand with it. Everything else is written. Anything you hear in the other songs was worked out ahead of time at home and at rehearsal. We were very lucky to meet Jim Rezek through our engineer Mike Potter. Jim has the nicest vintage synthesizer and keyboard collection I’ve ever seen and was entirely open to the idea of us coming to his house and recording some tracks on his equipment.
5. What are some of the differences for you between playing guitar in Chowder and playing bass in Earthride? Are there things the two bands have in common, or is it a totally different experience?
Laziness. In Earthride, I’m able to lay back a good bit and stay in the pocket with Eric, which was something I missed while playing all this wacko, technical music for so long. I can just live out my Geezer Butler fantasy while relaxing up there and groove to the massive heaviness. With Chowder something is coming down the pipe at all times. A chord or key change, a solo, something to trigger on the pedals. It requires a shitload of concentration and I’m going to go so far as to say it isn’t much fun. When we’re playing that material live and we nail it, it’s very rewarding but I’m not so sure it’s worth the panic attack I’m about to have about every 30 seconds attempting it. I totally get why bands like Rush and Genesis simmered down on that shit over the years. It wasn’t just for the sake of selling records! And those guys are WAY better at that stuff than we’ll ever be. I gained a hell of a lot more respect for what bands like that accomplish in a live setting trying to be fancy like them. Ultimately, it’s two different experiences, both rewarding though. I have loved playing other people’s music because each one taught me something new that I’ve taken with me and implemented in writing my own songs or how to behave (or not). Joining Earthride was almost a no brainer anyway because I went to high school with those guys. We’ve been friends a long, long time. Hell, Eric and I were in our first band together with Kelly Carmichael from Internal Void back in 1985. So it feels like home. Chowder feels like a draconian P.O.W. camp in Siberia…only less smiling.
6. What’s next for Chowder? Will you guys do shows, and would you be able to recreate all those layers of keys and effects in a live setting?
Well, things are a little weird these days for us. Chad moved to the West Coast a couple years ago and seems to be happy doing what he’s doing out there. I have however started rehearsing and writing some material with Ronnie Kalimon from Asylum/Unorthodox/Internal Void and things are going nicely. Doug has expressed interest so I’m hoping he’ll be available to join us soon and we can start moving forward. I’m not sure what will actually come out of it. My desire would be to play some shows, maybe a fest or two and most importantly record something new. I’d pretty much given up on anything happening at all as it was a true struggle to get this record onto a label and released and then with Chad moving it was looking pretty grim. Anything at all is a bonus. Everything we’ve recorded is done so in a way that it can be reproduced live aside from the obvious production tracks. There are parts on “Passion Rift” and “Custody” where the guitar drops out and I take over on the keyboards which we were also doing live. Anything that plays concurrent with the guitar is done by Doug on the Taurus pedals or triggered by me on Roland PK-5 midi pedals from an E-MU Vintage Keys synth. It’s a nightmare, let me tell you. I look like a fat, dancing idiot up there trying to nail all that stuff at the right times. During our last few shows I would be thinking, “Never again, never again,” but somehow we always ended up there doing it again. Must be the loads of girls that come out to see us.