Friday, March 19, 2010

Asunder Interview

At times, Asunder's funeral doom drifts toward something tenderly elegiac. Funerals obviously evoke (and enact) elegies, but Asunder's graceful, surprisingly uplifting last rites occur above ground and amid various fall colors. Slow, dark, heavy, vaporous, and anthemic, Works Will Come Undone, the Oakland/Bay Area quintet's second full length since 1998 is out via Canadian label Profound Lore. It's comprised of two bohemoths-- "A Famine" and "The Rite of Finality"-- that for more than an hour glide between rich collisions of gruff vocals/double guitars/bass/drums to nearly silent passages of throat-clearing drone. Jackie Perez-Gratz's cello dusts everything with a fragile melancholia. Many of Dino Sommese's drum movements swivel infectiously (as the dual guitars soar).

Works Will Come Undone follows the sonic map of 2004's full-length debut, A Clarion Call, but exhibits additional staying power and restraint, inching even more incrementally toward its valleys and peaks. Asked about influences, guitarist and co-vocalist John Gossard listed Thergothon, Burzum, Wino, Black Sabbath, Mighty Sphincter, Black Flag, Ved Buens Ende, Voivod, Unholy, Merciful Fate, Moevot, Dark Throne, Nuclear Death, and the Cure, among others. Dig around and you'll find these traces hiding out with Disembowelment, OM, and Neurosis.

Asunder's a veritable self-contained West Coast metal family tree, showcasing a history as lengthy as their songs: Gossard played in the Gault and founded/fronted Weakling; guitarist Geoff Evans was a member of Skaven and Lachrymose; and vocalist/drummer, Sommese, one of the founding members along with Evans and ex-guitarist Seth Baker (also of Lachrymose), is 1/3 of Dystopia, plays in Ghoul, and was a part of Lachrymose, Insidious (with Baker), and Carcinogen.

Since receiving Works Will Come Undone a couple of weeks ago, it hasn't left my stereo. That's a critical cliché, but I'm not talking shit-- the fucker's addictive. Wanting to meet the folks behind one of my recent favorites, I contacted the band and spoke with the two guitarists, Evans and Gossard. We first corresponded in depth via e-mail on All Saints' Day, following their Halloween show at the Elbo Room. We continued the conversation a few days later, also via e-mail.

Pitchfork: How was the Halloween show?

Geoff Evans: Excellent. A great lineup: Aldebaran were excellent-- very, very heavy. Keen of the Crow were great as well. Of course, Ludicra are always impressive. We had a very good turnout for a Tuesday evening.

John Gossard: It was sort of our unofficial record release show: It was the day the album was issued, but we didn't advertise as a "record release" so people were just surprised to find a new LP. Only complaint was the PA didn't allow for everything to be as loud as I like. But there were lots of drunk freaks dressed up as ghouls, nuns, and whores.

Geoff Evans: One of the most classic, there was a dude dressed as Jesus passed out in the corner. Priceless.

Pitchfork: I really love the new album. I've always been into longer compositions, whether it's Sleep, La Monte Young, or Spacemen 3. These things have always been out there-- and you guys have been around for nine years-- but these days, it seems like more folks are enjoying epics, which conflicts with notions/theories of what television and the internet are doing to attention spans. Specifically, why the increased interest in drone, doom, and funeral doom?

JG: I've always been into long tracks myself. I think a lot of the reason funeral doom is becoming more popular is because people are alienated and depressed, so darker music in general is more consumed. The internet-- with its message-boards, e-mails, mp3 sharing-- has allowed a lot more people to discover funeral doom. Funeral doom is fairly easy to play compared to something like, say, death/grind, so we see many more bands forming.

As for the internet and short-attention spans, people are getting tired of being forced to absorb so much information, but they lack the ability to break away entirely and meditate on their own. Music takes a listener on a journey, and slow music takes a listener to a place that is becoming less and less common in the "real" world; a place where there is calm, where grief and sadness create great power, where death and the decaying world are not shocking but accepted as a natural part of the universe. That's a guess anyway. Also, I think the combining of the sort of ancient meditative style of chant/drone with more modern instrumentation of distorted guitars/bass and drums create a feeling that connects today's seemingly unnatural world with the older traditions that seem to hold some mystical truth.

GE: I'm really into cultivating patience-- probably as a kind of antidote to contemporary culture. It's a weird phenomenon that so many people are interested in drone, funeral doom, and generally epic, slow-moving music at the moment. I am sure that it is reflective of a kind of deep dissatisfaction with a throwaway culture...maybe indicative of some kind of search for meaning, something that requires some kind of attention or discipline to understand or really experience fully. As for funeral doom as an example of a very extreme, bleak expression-- it surely also reflects a hopelessness, a deep void in people at this time and place...a monument to the failures of our modern philosophies and institutions to provide any meaning or connection to life at all...the result of secular humanism and the paradigms of science...of understanding everything around you as separate, distinct objects, machines that can be manipulated to your own ends without consequence.

Pitchfork: How do you go about writing your songs? I'm interested in duration-- for example, when do you know something's done?

GE: Generally we have huge amounts of music that we've written or jammed-- we never use all of it. We have a core part/direction of a song, but spend the vast majority of the time developing themes, transitions, mood.

JG: Usually we spend a long time writing only riffs.

GE: We'll often play the same riff in various ways for months-- different tempos, feelings...

JG: We then take the riffs to rehearsal and play them as a band while improvising over them, changing time signatures, slowing them down, experimenting. We listen to tapes of this material and try out transitions from one idea to another and see what kind of feeling they create. Once we have a few ideas that conjure a very solid atmosphere we begin crafting a song. We use a lot of the material we came up in earlier jams, but also write new specific riffs/harmonies/transitions to fit the path we want to follow. There is usually a vague theme/concept to the song, but most of the vocal parts are written toward the end of the process. We usually end our songs based on an intuitive feeling that we are at the end. On occasion we have heated arguments over this issue.

GE: The song seems "done" when we no longer have separate individual conceptions of the song; when it seems clear which permutations are the most appropriate. It takes a great deal of time to hear what the song sounds like, outside of our individual desires/intentions.

Pitchfork: Asunder's had quite a few lineup changes. Do certain players lack the stamina?

JG: The band's ever evolving and shifting its focus based on a collective will. As the music has become more and more demanding not everyone has been dedicated or interested enough in the general direction.

GE: Original second guitarist Seth Baker left for personal reasons, yet we still see him around a bit and is still a part of our extended family. The original bass player, Britt Hallett, left due to personal and philosophical differences of perspective. Alex Bale-Glickman, played cello on A Clarion Call and performed live with us a few times, but was never a permanent member.

JG: As for the most recent new additions, Salvador was the first person we asked as he had already played together in the band Insidious (along with Seth) so they already had a solid musical connection. Jackie Perez-Gratz is an old friend and had always said she would be interested in playing with us but she is very busy, so rather than have her join the band full time, we asked if she could write some cello parts to embellish the songs based on demo versions. We hope to play with her live as well soon, but at the moment she is just a session member.

Pitchfork: Live, do you ever improvise?

JG: All our material is written very much on improvisation, but by the time we get to recording the stuff, it is all pretty much set in stone. The one exception for me is that my solos are never completely written. I usually try and stay within a template for that, but I like to leave a tiny bit of room to be able to express how I'm feeling in the moment and playing a completely written solo makes me feel awkward. I would love it if we could find a way to pull off more improvisation live (I used to do tons more of it in the Gault) but with our sound it is harder to pull off well, at least thus far.

GE: Aside from the guitar solos, which are never exactly the same, there are certain parts of the songs that are less strict than others, and there can be slight alterations according the tempo or mood that seems right for that particular show. Sometimes we play the songs extra-slow if the atmosphere/mood allows it. Occasionally will play them a bit faster, although this is never intentional.

Pitchfork: You've done a couple splits. What do you like about that format?

JG: For one, it forces me away from thinking about writing an entire album's length of cohesive material. When writing on a split I know I have less time to work with, and there can't be one complete sound picture because the album's sharing the stage with someone else. Since we normally take a very long time to write songs, only having to complete one song before going in to record is sort of refreshing. I hope in the future we do more splits-- possibly using the format to explore weirder experimentation.

Pitchfork: On Works Will Come Undone, there are moments of intense minimalism-- barely audible electronics, etc. That restraint's admirable. I feel like I ask folks this all the time, but are you interested in the work of the early minimalists, say Tony Conrad and La Monte Young? I'm interested in those links. Who are some of your musical, or otherwise, inspirations?

GE: The development of a song, dynamically is difficult and requires alot of patience; but at least for myself, the most important aspect of my experience of playing with Asunder is learning and relearning and relearning patience, to allow enough time to develop these songs, both in writing and the song itself to express a mood/idea as deeply as possible. I am not too familiar with Tony Conrad or La Monte Young's stuff, although I do understand that they were pioneers of minimalist drone, from jazz/classical backgrounds.

JG: I think our minimalism comes from a much more utilitarian source. Simply put: We like our songs to build and collapse. If we want to get complex harmonically it only makes sense to start from something very minimal, and vice versa when simplifying. We're aware of lots of music outside of doom and allow it to influence our playing when it seems appropriate. I myself am influenced by just about all obscure metal-- be it black, doom, thrash, death, dark ambient drone. Also, Top 10 pop music, various ethnic folk musics, a small amount of crappy classical music, 1980s rap, 80s punk, 80s death rock, 60s/70s psych and prog. I studied a bit about music theory long ago, but now I try and forget all that intellectualism and simply channel my natural instincs into doom or other musical creations.

GE: Most of the world's spiritual/religious musical traditions have a strong emphasis on drone, whether that be Gregorian/Byzantine chant, Tibetan/Chinese/Korean/Japanese Buddhist chant, Indian raga, etc. There's some core human response to these sounds, an emotional/psychological state that is very helpful to cultivate certain states of mind/being. I'm very interested in this dimension. I like some of the minimalist classical stuff-- Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Gavin Bryars. As for drone, besides the metal side of it-- Sunn0)), early Boris-- I like Stars of the Lid, Surface of the Earth, Growing.

I'm into/influenced by all kinds of music, although lately I have been listening to a lot of 70s proto-heavy metal/rock and progressive rock, as it seems that before there were clear standards of how to play "heavy" music, people were doing much more interesting things without as much concern for it being defined as some particular style/genre of music. I've also been into a lot of instrumental epic post-rock, stuff that is much closer to being some kind of film score or something than rock. But, for whatever reason, I have always been inclined towards liking melancholic minor scale music. I don't know if this is something that is primarily in context of this time and place, or whether this is something independent of circumstances. Ultimately though, the best riffs/musical ideas that I contribute to Asunder seem to just come to me, not something I think about much at all. When I do, it seems to be more forced and requires much more tweaking over time to arrive at something that seems right...but of course, everything that I have ever heard has somehow contributed to my understanding/experience of music.

Pitchfork: In the future, do you think you can extend things or play even slower, heavier? Aesthetically, do you imagine future Asunder recordings being denser or do you want to remove elements?

JG: I don't know where we will go from here. Of course we can play slower, heavier, denser but I am not certain if that is what we will do. I love the density of a live Sunn show, or the simplicity of despair you find in something like Tyranny or Worship. I would enjoy playing music like these, but I don't know that is where Asunder is traveling. We all pull and push in different directions and when we don't all like where one or two of us are taking an idea, the result is shit. I personally am always on a quest to make the music darker, more discordant, and slower, but that said, I also enjoy a sad melody or harmony, or moving uptempo so we can slow it down again. I can only hope we just go where it seems natural. Wherever we go next I can only expect it will be a slight shift from where we are now, a few things added, and few things subtracted. The next album will most likely feature more vocals like Tom Petty and a few non-traditional instruments like bongos and steel drums.

GE: Asunder work within certain parameters, of which our equipment obviously has a huge part in. Tonally, it is a very delicate balance, between our respective amplifiers/cabinets, instruments, drums, vocal idea/abilities. I can't see us ever doing anything fast though, I would probably refuse-- ha ha. I would hope that we could continue to elaborate on the dynamics that we have already worked with...probably try and experiment with more complex vocal harmony/tones at some point. I think the more varied the tonal quality of long songs, the more interesting they become, and this can be very minimal and still have a big effect on how you hear it.

Pitchfork: There's heightened language and a romantic naturalism in your lyrics but the sentiments are very much of this time and place. Is this a political record?

JG: The lyrics on the new album were written collaboratively and were based on some loose and some concrete concepts that developed and morphed as the music [did]. There are points and themes we are speaking about, but there is also an intentional vagueness to allow a listener to create his own image and world around the ideas we're offering. In a very simple way the songs are about birth, death, and spirit-- an endless cycle, the central concepts to which mankind seeks answers.

GE: The lyrics are primarily concerned with the self. One thing that I would like to point out is that this album is conceptual, and the two songs are linked conceptually. They work in linear order on the album from beginning to end and express a certain cosmology of self, but also work cyclically, meaning the order could be reversed. I think the best way to think about it is to put the album on repeat...and this expresses a different concept of self.

Of the stuff that I wrote, I wanted to express some non-Western ideas of the self, life, and death. I was very much inspired by certain Buddhist meditations/prayers on impermanence and doctrines of no(t)-self, yet understanding that this genre/tradition of doom metal has it's own cosmology rooted in western conceptions of death. So, a lot of this comes across as being annihilationist at first, which I don't necessarily think is sufficient, but is appropriate in response to both the secular and the Judeo-Islamic-Christian worldview.

We are deeply uncomfortable with death, and either reduce it to the inevitable failure of a machine that needs to be replaced, or promise ourselves eternal, unchanging life after death. Neither of these seem to reflect reality to me. All things seem to be interdependent, have no distinct boundaries, and most certainly never remain unchanged. So the first song is really about how a self, or rather one's concept of one's self, comes to be, and the resulting conflicts and suffering that this particular self experiences as it tries to maintain this self or identity in an ever changing reality. The title "A Famine" was intended to cryptically express this hunger or desire to achieve or maintain something that can never be satisfied.

JG: "A Famine" is based around a sort of fantasy creation myth. It begins being about something eternal, enveloping the physical and spiritual energies from the beginning of time. Only one thing does not exist, the finite. The despair of eternity leads to the creation of something finite, an "other"..a life with a start and an end. This other begins life knowing nothing and spends its time trying to comprehend and make sense of the universe, the concrete, and the divine. But trapped in the finite it is incapable of seeing far enough forward or backward to comprehend the whole. The "living" join together to make "temples to exalt the divine" but the foundations of their beliefs and traditions are always misunderstood because they are built on an unsteady foundation "the shifting sands of time." Desire drives them to seek understanding, but in the end their finite existence they cannot fill their desire for knowledge and die alone and hungry. The song isn't intended to make any kind of statement about creation myth really, which is something I myself don't believe in, but rather a fantasy for me and a vehicle to conjure ideas about the cyclic nature of the universe and the sadness i feel thinking about the inability to answer the great questions of life within a lifetime, and finding nothing satisfying about the concept of becoming eternal either. There is just learning to take patience in things.

GE: "Rite of Finality" was intended to evoke some kind of funeral rite, some meditation on transience and impermanence. That in observance of this reality, there is beauty, there is liberation. Freedom from the terror of your own ultimate death. Both of these songs have aspects to them that could be taken as having some political context, as this terror of the loss of our selves, our ways of life, cultures, are obviously at the core of the current conflicts in the middle east. But primarily, the lyrics/conceptual aspect of the album were intended to be broader in scope, maybe philosophical and spiritual rather than political or religious.

JG: It's a different kind of song, but connected to the first. It is a sort of ode and prayer to the end of things. Death of course being the end we all think of as the finality of our lives, but beyond that there is the end of the works we achieved in life, which eventually degrade and become undone. One's end is not the end to all, and without one thing ending other things would not begin. Life and death are a cyclical part of the world, but it seems the western world primarily fears death and doesn't connect to its positive elements of renewal and rebirth. This is sort of a recurring theme in our music, where musically even when we write music that's very sad and apocalyptic, there is a sense of beauty beneath it.

Pitchfork: A more mundane question: Any tours planned?

JG: No tour plans at the moment. Some talk about heading to the pacific northwest for a few days in winter. Something short and easy. We just did our first ever tour outside of the west coast in Japan with Corrupted, which I would love to do again, but in this situation we didn't have to do any work at all booking shows or making travel arrangements as Corrupted set it all up. We are pretty bad at making long term plans like this, so unless someone makes it real easy for us we may never make it to the east coast or Europe or elsewhere. Hopefully we will get out somewhere some day, but I make no promises.

Pitchfork: How was Japan?

GE: It was an amazing experience. I cannot give enough respect and thanks to Corrupted, as a band and as people-- they are truly dedicated to what they do, to the music and the culture. Japan is an amazing country, simultaneously ancient and ultra-modern, with a very strong, rich culture and traditions. I have a strong in interest in Japanese culture, religion, and history, so it was an unheard of opportunity to tour the country, see so many different cities, meet so many interesting, great people, enjoy excellent food/parties, see all kinds of great bands, beautiful scenery, temples.

JG: It was interesting playing alongside lots of fast bands like Disgust, Disclose, Effigy, ABC Butcher and find that their audience still stuck around for us. Also playing after Corrupted every night was difficult, as they are so massively heavy, loud, slow and mesmerizing in a much more minimal way. Still, their crowd stuck around for us and were really supportive. I was also amazed by how healthy and clean everything is there. I arrived with bronchitis and still was 'forced' to party just about every night until 5 a.m., but by drinking these little energy drinks, tons of sushi and udon, pocari sweat, and "deepresso"coffee I managed to get well. Then I came home and got horribly sick again. Fuck, the USA is a dirty shit-hole! I have to say though, the cats in Japan are assholes...totally unfriendly.

(From's now defunct Show No Mercy column)

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