Maintaining the Drone: In the Studio with Darryl Shepard of Blackwolfgoat

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The day started at 11AM. I’d told Darryl that I’d roll in sometime between one and two. I’ve done recording sessions before, seen how it goes, and figuring there’d be a long stretch at the start of getting set up and finding tones, etc., assumed that a delayed arrival would put me in line to catch most of the action — as much as recording a drone record can be considered action. Well, by the time I got to Amps vs. Ohms, the record was about half over. Shepard and engineer Glen Smith had apparently gotten down to business, and were moving along at a more than fair clip. The album, which I’d soon learn is to be titled Drone Maintenance, probably received its biggest interruption yet when I texted Shepard to let him know I’d arrived.

Nonetheless, the guitarist came out to walk me through the building, which was fortunate, since I don’t think I’d ever have made it otherwise. Imagine me, doomed to spend the rest of my days knocking on an endlessly winding succession of dark red doors. More likely I’d get there in time for the fifth album than the third. I was introduced to Smith and watched as the two resumed progress on the record. They played back a song called “Cyclopean Utopia” that Shepard noted was the heaviest track to be included. My head immediately went to “Dronolith,” the 15-minute closer from the last full-length, but “Cyclopean Utopia” was a different beast entirely. Shorter certainly at less than five minutes, it was less of a build and more a dark exploration. He’d add vocals to it later, but it was already plenty crushing; grim with the black metal undertones than have been present throughout Blackwolfgoat‘s first two outings, only more pronounced.

How to counter such a beast? I don’t even know where he pulled it out from, but Shepard grabbed this keyboard that looked like something I used to sell at KB Toys and played a pre-programmed beat for it that was to serve as the bed for a Krautrock-inspired track called “Notausgang” (German for “emergency exit”) that relied on a suitably progressive guitar line. It was the second of three songs I’d hear there — a series of interludes were also recorded, more on that in a bit — and each had a vastly different persona with a thread of experimentation running across them. Shepard said that one of the things he enjoyed most about working with Smith was that things just happened spontaneously that worked really well. He stopped short of calling them “happy accidents,” but that seemed to be the idea, and while one doesn’t often think of a drone album has having much room for spontaneity, watching Darryl stand up to layer a wah solo over the song, as inflexible as the beat was, it was clear that part of the excitement of the material was the process of constructing it.

Best case scenario is that bleeds into the record. It did last time. I obviously won’t pass judgment on Blackwolfgoat‘s third album based on half-finished or at very least unmixed recordings as they’re being captured — it just wouldn’t be fair — but as Shepard listened back to “Notausgang,” the level of enjoyment was clear and the good mood was infectious. It was warm in the control room, a mountain of amps stacked on the wall, an Echoplex on the floor either in working order or not, Shepard on the leopard-print couch and Smith at the board, but there was fun being had, a positive vibe. Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected otherwise. After “Notausgang” was completed to satisfaction, it was time to move onto the acoustic “Fahey,” named in honor of acoustic instrumentalist John Fahey, whose deft finger-work had obviously inspired it.

Shepard plucked engaging, noodling lines on a guitar he said had been loaned to him years ago from Roadsaw‘s Craig Riggs and explained some of the concept behind Drone Maintenance as a scenario concept as Smith set up the mics for him to record in the larger live room. With increasingly chaotic interludes at the beginning, middle and end topped with spoken word pieces written out, the songs will tie together around the idea of the drone itself breaking and needing to be restored. Shepard laughed at the idea of the drone repair man and soon set to work on “Fahey,” which was two smaller parts tied together with a chord between them but sweetly toned and flowing all the same. Two or three takes on the second part went fast — you could hear Darryl breathing on the recording through the studio monitors — and it became readily apparent why I’d missed so much early on. I guess things go quicker when you’re not getting drum sounds, bass sounds, etc. Maybe he should call the record Drone Efficiency instead. Or hell, if you wanted to be consistent with the second record, Dronefficiency.

Whatever Drone Maintenance winds up being in its final form — nothing’s done until it’s done — the material strikes immediately as adventurous. Shepard‘s acoustic foray was followed by the recording of the spoken word parts to complement the interludes. Using a guitar cable as an extension to avoid feedback, Smith hooked a CB-radio-type microphone to a tiny Fender amp for an ultra-blown out effect. Needless to say, much shenanigans ensued while Smith got the levels right to record. I didn’t hear the drones of the interludes themselves until after the fact, with the speech layered in, but when I did, it made even more sense. Shepard had it set up in three parts, each with a corresponding drone. Smith suggested moving the last of the three to the most chaotic instrumental accompaniment and it made a lot of sense with where the story such as it is wound up. I don’t know how it will all turn out or how it will fit in with the other material on the album, but at very least it sounded raw and fucked up, and that was obviously the idea.

Speaking of, after the spoken parts, Shepard went back to add some screams to “Cyclopean Utopia.” If the song is supposed to be about a utopia of or for cyclopses, then surely the layered-in, ambient, sustained screams of “no” indicate some trouble in paradise. I’d never hard his vocals so isolated before — every time I’ve encountered Darryl screaming, he’s had mountains of distortion to back him up — but his voice sounded strong and his throat held up as he tore through no after no. It just as easily could’ve been painful to watch, and in the playback afterwards, they went a long way in adding to the oppressive atmosphere of the track. I don’t know if Shepard‘s gotten more used to screaming owing to his time in Black Pyramid and The Scimitar or what, but the sound was vicious and he clearly knew what he was doing. The idea seemed to be to bury the screams low in the mix, again, for ambience. Easy to imagine the finished product will make for some disturbing audio.

From there, the session started to wind down. It was about 4PM. Darryl had one other guitar part he recorded twice, first dry and clean, and then with distortion, that worked off some similar ideas as “Fahey,” and then was going to take a break before coming back in to do a rough mix with Smith. The actual recording finished, I took it as my cue to split and asked Shepard if he’d be so kind as to guide me back out from whence I came. Daylight hit hard, very much the opposite of “Cyclopean Utopia,” and after shooting the shit for a couple minutes, I said thanks and was on my way. I don’t know what  the plans are for the release of the Blackwolfgoat album, who Darryl will release it through or when, but  I know already it’s one I’m looking forward to hearing when the time comes. If “Fahey,” “Notausgang,” “Cyclopean Utopia” and the other parts I heard are anything to go by, it could be his most expansive outing yet.

Thanks to Shepard and Smith for their time and to you for reading. More pics after the jump.

Blackwolfgoat at Amps vs. Ohms

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