Wales-based Godsticks is one of the best new progressive rock groups. The trio’s unique symbiosis of jazz fusion, rock and pop is in a class by itself. Their second full length The Envisage Conundrum continues to expand on the outfit’s style, embracing a heavier sonic approach while retaining the distinctly melodic qualities of their excellent debut. I’ve approached Darran Charles (vocals, guitars, keys) and the new member of the band, Dan Nelson (bass) to discuss the process of putting the new album together, their inspirations, future plans, and more.
– As most SputnikMusic users may not be familiar with Godsticks, could you tell us how your musical path started? What inspired you to play progressive rock in the first place?
Darran: I don’t think we ever had a plan to play a specific kind of music, and even today we never attempt to write in any particular style. I think categories are forced upon bands for marketing purposes which, to be honest, can be quite helpful to the potential listener.
We formed around 2006 after I placed in an advert around the local music shops, advertising for musicians who were interested in playing some 70s-inspired fusion music. As you can imagine, the response was a little underwhelming but eventually a local bass player by the name of Jason Marsh (the co-founding member of Godsticks) answered the ad and, 15 drummers later, we began recording an EP!
– Your music is difficult to pin down, and tracing all your influences is nearly impossible. How would you describe Godsticks’ style? What distinguishes you guys from a plethora of bands working today?
Darran: Personally, I would describe it as progressive pop/rock: pop because of the prominent melodies; rock because of the distorted guitars; and progressive because of the presence of odd-time signatures. Having said that, I don’t really mind how our style is interpreted.
I think that possibly what distinguishes us from other bands is that we do have our own style which incorporates many different styles of music. We also experiment with different song structures, which I don’t think happens a lot in present day music.
– The Envisage Conundrum boasts a heavier and more guitar-driven sound than your full-length debut. Why did you decide to venture into a metallic direction on certain tracks?
Darran: We never really made a conscious decision to venture into heavier territories; that path was followed because we found that we were enjoying listening to and playing a heavier style of music at that time.
From a personal point of view, I’ve always had the – unfounded – belief that the ‘chugga-chugga’ approach to guitar-playing was a sort of ‘kop-out’. If was only from listening to artists like Devin Townsend that I realized that this type of playing could still sound great as long as it sounded like you meant it, and we do actually mean it on this album.
We’re still in that kind of mood at the moment, and I fully expect the next album to be similar in feel/attitude to this latest one.
– What did your creative process for The Envisage Conundrum look like? Did it differ in any way from your previous releases?
Darran: Unfortunately not! I say unfortunately, because the writing process is very, very long and intricate. It’s rewarding of course, but a lot of time and effort is expended because we’re so difficult to please!
The rehearsals prior to recording were definitely different this time around, though. The bass parts were recorded remotely by Bryan Beller on the last album, so we were unable to rehearse the songs as a whole. Obviously, with Dan now a permanent member of the band, the songs could be rehearsed in their entirety and I think that had a positive effect on the overall sound of the album. It’s a real band effort this time around.
– I can imagine that putting out a record can be a rather mundane process that requires a lot of patience. What was the most difficult aspect of recording your new album?
Darran: The mixing, definitely. You can have finely written songs and immaculately tracked parts, but if it doesn’t sound how you imagined it as a whole, then all those things become irrelevant. We all had a very definite idea of the sound we wanted for the album which in retrospect was very difficult to achieve. I think we managed it in the end though, but we worked incredibly hard to get what we wanted. It took far too long though, and at the time I found the process quite depressing!
– While heavier at times, your material remains distinctly melodic on your new record. How important are melodies in your music?
Darran: Strong melodies are paramount to the song, and I think that’s where the pop influence is at its most apparent. I also enjoy harmonising with myself, and I suppose there’s a country influence in my harmonies.
– Another aspect of your style that I find impressive is how complex you guys tend to sound. It always takes me some time to fully decipher your songs. Do you think it’s necessary for progressive rock to be so cerebral?
Darran: I think it’s more than cerebral music that tends to be classed as progressive rock. To me, Rufus Wainwright and Steely Dan are texturally more complex than our music, but neither of those artists would be classed as progressive rock. I would reluctantly agree however, that our arrangements can be very difficult to decipher on the first listen, but it isn’t our intention to be awkward for the sake of it! It’s probably due to the fact that each song takes a long time to write, so consequently we’re always listening to it and making changes in order to retain our own interest on repeated listens.
Dan: In my own experience the music I like the most always takes me time to digest it properly. All my current favorite albums are ones that after their first play I didn’t particularly want to play again, just because I couldn’t take in all the musical information in one listen. Complex music takes repetitive listening until you can just hear everything without being distracted. I need to play albums in a variety of different environments until I can sing the songs in my head without listening to the record. Then you can make your mind up whether you like something or not!
Obviously with more pop based music it is easier and quicker to digest, I can normally only listen to pop music in short bursts before it becomes too predictable.
– Borderstomp is your most ambitious piece to date. It’s certainly way darker than your other songs sporting some really bitter lyrics. What inspired you to come up with this epic?
Darran: The three songs emerged from one particular writing session, and as such always felt like they were related. For the sake of convenience I’m not a big fan of 20-minute compositions, and I’ve always wished that the bands who performed such lengthy tracks would treat the listener a little more kindly by separating the composition to different track numbers on the CD. I may be on my own there though!
– Which songs of yours are you particularly happy about? Which ones do you find the most representative and fun to play live?
Darran: I think the Borderstomp trilogy is the most representative of our current style, and they are definitely my personal favourites to play live. ‘Borderstomp Part 2’ is my favourite track on the album; it goes through a lot of changes and encapsulates the mood I was in at the time of writing it. I really enjoy ‘A Brief Foray’ too; I’m particularly happy with the guitar solo at the end.
Dan: My two favourites are ‘A Brief Foray’ & ‘Borderstomp Part 2’. ‘A brief foray’ on the surface is a very simple track for us, but it has so many layers of instruments on the recording that it’s only when you start to take them away you realize what impact they are having on the mix. If you were to chart this song out on paper it would look ridiculous, as there are a lot of odd bars all over the place. It’s refreshing to say that odd bars are there for musical reasons and not just to be ‘clever’, and unless you’re counting you probably won’t realize. ‘Borderstomp Pt 2’ is my favourite to play live. It’s just full-on from start to finish, and for me it’s always the most enjoyable when playing live.
– What kind of music inspires you these days? Which new artists are you fond of?
Darran: I will listen to absolutely anything, as will Steve and Dan. I always spend time listening to Rufus Wainwright who has become one of my favourite artists of all time. I’ve also been listening to Norah Jones a lot, and the soon-to-be-released Mike Keneally album, You Must Be This Tall, which is wonderful. There’s a new band called Knifeworld who I’ve also recently discovered, and we’ll hopefully be doing a UK tour with them later this year.
I’ve also recently bought many of the albums that I grew up listening to such as Living Colour, Faith No More, Extreme, and Sepultura. Some of this music truly does stand the test of time.
Dan: Well in the last few months I have really enjoyed: Bruno Mars – Unorthodox Jukebox; Mastodon – Crack the Sky; Hurts – Exile; Janek Gwizdala – The Space Inbetween; Avishai Cohen – Seven Seas.
While on tour with ‘The Mike Keneally band’ Rick Musallam gave me a load of albums to listen to. So, I have found a lot of new music that I didn’t know about via him in recent weeks. My favorite being the Chaka Khan album Naughty which just doesn’t seem to have a bad song on it.
– Nowadays such websites as spotify, bandcamp and facebook are playing a major part in the promotion process. Are you pleased with the changes that have recently been taking place in the music industry?
Darran: Those are important parts of promotion no doubt, but I think they better serve as a global interaction between a band and their followers. If all you had was a Facebook page and no press for example, then it would be a very lonely page! From talking with promoters, the traditional methods of promotion like flyers and local newspaper listings are still the best for live work at least.
One of the most pleasing changes that has taken place over the last 10 years or so is the plethora of online magazines and communities that have emerged, and who are willing to review and promote your work. This is vital for bands like us as the long-established print magazines very rarely publish reviews for independent artists.
Dan: For me, I have never known the music industry any different, so I have no nostalgia for how things used be! So, my own attitude is go with it or get left behind. You just need to look at the positives and use these tools to your advantage. Regarding Spotify, of course it can be frustrating that your work is there free for anyone to listen to, but at the end of the day we didn’t record this album just to sit on a shelf: we want people to listen to it, so having it on as many platforms as possible is important.
– What do you think the future holds for Godsticks? Have you got any ideas for the new album?
Darran: Well, we’re currently in the process of arranging a mini UK tour with Knifeworld, which we’re very much looking forward to. There’s also the prospect of a European tour at the beginning of next year with The Aristocrats, followed by a US tour with the Mike Keneally band in the summer.
We’re also writing for the next album which, as mentioned earlier, is likely to be similar in feel to The Envisage Conundrum. We’re hoping that it will be ready for release in mid-2014. It may seem that there is only a small gap between this current album and the next one, but we finished recording our parts for this album at the beginning of May 2012. It was the mixing that absorbed the bulk of the time between recording and release.