“Anger and frustration can be really great vehicles to propel momentum and energy in music,” confesses Erik Wunder. He’s done precisely that with his two seemingly dissimilar projects. The sprawling progressive black metal of Cobalt and the potent dark Americana of Man’s Gin may occupy two different sonic spheres, yet they share the same sense of authentic, if bleak intensity. Erik’s latest accomplishment as Man’s Gin is aptly titled Rebellion Hymns. Adroitly elaborating on the outfit’s previous output, the album represents another resounding triumph for the Colorado native, ranking among the most powerful artistic statements in music this year. Here’s an in-depth interview that not only sheds light on the oeuvre of this immensely talented artist, but also depicts him as a fulfilled musician who’s genuinely committed to every endeavor he’s involved in.
I’ve always admired musicians who are able to divide their time between different projects. What was the reason behind forming Cobalt, and what motivated you to form Man’s Gin?
Well, Cobalt started out when Phil and I got back together and started working on new music after our previous band had broken up. We are both pretty intense, angry people. Especially in those days.
We had already been playing in bands together since we were young teenagers, playing punk/crust and metal music, so we already had a working relationship and obviously a friendship. Our prior projects had dissolved, with members going by the wayside, and we were still very focused and ready to keep expressing ourselves artistically and sonically. Phil had written some music for his solo project Grimness Enshroud, and we started hanging out and writing together.
We changed the band name to Cobalt to move things forward as a dual project, rather than keeping the name Phil was using for his material before we started collaborating again. The first Cobalt EP Hammerfight came together very quickly, and shortly afterward we went in and recorded War Metal.
As far as the entire history of Cobalt, I could write you a lengthy book on how each of us held the band together at different times. After War Metal was released, I was still very much in tune with the ideas we were coming up with, and personally I was in a truly creative mode. Phil decided he was going to join the army, and at that time he was focused on making that life change and leaving behind some bad situations that seemed to be really tearing him apart.
So for him, he wasn’t really on the same page as I was with wanting to incorporate new ideas and really expand our sound and create another Cobalt album. Phil went off to the army, and I was still living in Colorado spending most of my time in my head. I had a storage unit outside of town where I had my drums set up in this sort of ghetto rehearsal studio. And at that time I was taking a lot of psychedelic drugs and getting really into the new material I was coming up with. I was listening to a lot of Neurosis, Tool and Swans and really wanted to bridge the gap between the brutal black metal stuff and the more tribal, hypnotic/rhythmic approach.
That’s when I recorded Eater of Birds by myself with Dave Otero in Denver. I went in there and tracked all of these songs that I had written and pieced together in my head. I had no means to demo songs at the time, so I would play the drums by myself and have the guitar parts going through my head. Sometimes I would have a drum pattern and write a guitar part to it, and other times I would have riffs written, and I would run the song that way. Going into the studio for Eater of Birds, I was a little nervous about how it would come out because I had never heard the songs all together. It was a real personal achievement when it was finally all on tape and finished as one giant movement.
Phil got back from boot camp not really even knowing that I had recorded a new album, and we had a big heathen party up at my house in Fort Collins. I played the new album for him, just the music, and he was immediately back into it. I think he didn’t know that I had it in me to put together something like that all by myself. So we spent the next couple of weeks going through lyrics that he had written, as well as lyrics I was writing, and he went in to the studio and recorded the vocals for that album in one single day with a bottle of Bushmills, a pack of Marlboros, and a ton of intensity. It all sort of came together like magic.
So since then we have moved forward with that format, with me playing all the instruments on the albums, and then him coming back on army leave from South Korea and Iraq, and we worked with that dynamic. We wrote and recorded Gin 2 years later, and the ball has just been rolling since. We certainly feel from the artistic standpoint that it is important to move at your own pace with writing and releasing, so it’s been a slower process with the next Cobalt album that we’re working on. It will be called Slow Forever, and hence it will be coming together as we get it together.
As far as Man’s Gin goes, I started the project with my friend Clint Kamerzell during the period that I was working on Eater of Birds. I was writing a lot of lyrics and melodies, as well as broadening what I was listening to. I was getting into Deadboy, the Elephantmen/Dax Riggs, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and guys like that, so I wanted to do a band where I could allow those elements to come through. So with Man’s Gin I concentrate on the interactions between voice, lyrics, and harmonies as they relate to a song, whereas with Cobalt my writing and playing is focused on building these big, awesome epic pieces with guitars and drums, and then having Phil come in and do his thing.
It’s been a great creative outlet for me to have the intense heavy music of Cobalt and then be able to explore all sorts of other things with Man’s Gin.
Cobalt is a more popular project of yours. How does it help your career as Man’s Gin? Does it have any detrimental influence on it?
Well, I guess once you’re established already as an accomplished musician, it will be easier to get attention toward what you’re involved in. Through writing and recording the Cobalt albums I’ve done so much creatively, as well as creating strong friendships with people in music itself. Chris Bruni from Profound Lore records has been a major factor in getting our music out there, and my long time friend Jarboe (Swans) initially brought me out to New York 5 years ago to tour Europe, and just all kinds of things have stemmed from starting out as Cobalt. So it helps to be established.
On the other hand, there are a lot of people who might dismiss Man’s Gin because it’s not Cobalt’s music. Some young metal fans might not be at the point in their lives where they want to listen to singing, or really think about lyrics, or writing, or different textures other than pure heaviness. So I think Man’s Gin is a bit more omnidirectional in that sense. It can appeal to metal fans, but it reaches and touches on other levels that I could see audiences of all kinds connecting with. I mean the attitude, content and angry nature of my writing with Cobalt is still there, it’s just harnessed and directed in a different way.
Rebellion Hymns is a much more expansive and diverse effort than Smiling Dogs. What exactly dictated this change?
Evolution, I suppose. When I first moved out to NY, I had already written most of the songs on Smiling Dogs in Colorado, so I was working pretty much with just voice and acoustic guitar. When I got to NY, I started working with my friends Josh Lozano and Scott Edward on the songs I had already finished. Just adding different elements, with upright bass, piano and some lead guitar. We also added a lot of harmonies going back and forth and just sort of embellished the songs.
Once Smiling Dogs was out, and we were touring and playing shows all around New York City all of the time, we started to gel as a band. We started working together more, and with that evolution the new songs we were writing started getting much bigger, boasting bigger orchestrations and structures, more intricate playing and nuances.
I play the drums (for the most part) on the albums, so we have steadily had different live drummers come and go over the years, but the core of Man’s Gin has been myself, Josh, and Scott for the last couple of records.
Rebellion Hymns is a tremendous monument to moving the music forward and pushing our personal boundaries. Playing songs that are more difficult, adding new instruments to the recording, like accordions, bongo drums and various experimental percussion, guest saxophone, vocal and guitar parts, etc… We just went all out on this record to make it as expansive as we could and cover as much ground as possible. I’m very proud of this album.
On top of the record itself being a powerful statement, the cover art and layout that we did with our friend Jimmy Hubbard is stunning. So I feel like this is one album that I would want to own in my personal record collection, purely from a fan’s point of view.
Smiling Dogs was inspired by the prose of Ernest Hemingway and Hunter Thompson. What were your inspirations this time around?
Hemingway and Thompson are still two of my literary heroes, so their influence is always in there somewhere. I seem to live and write from the perspective of the Noble Savage. I see life as this big, unexplainable journey that we experience, explain, and express as it comes and goes. So lyrically I’m always writing about my journey using either literal metaphors, or just by painting a picture, or scenario with a certain feeling.
Many songs on Rebellion Hymns seem deeply personal. Do you feel it’s necessary for folk, rock and metal music these days to have this sort of connection with actual events in the life of an artist?
I’ve always connected to music that I can personally relate to, so as far as that goes my favorite artists tend to be people who express themselves in an authentic, honest way. I love the classics just like anyone else. I mean I love Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead and all of the classic bands that sing about kicking ass and rocking hard, but when I draw inspiration for my own music it’s from people who are writing from a more in-depth, philosophical personal place.
Rebellion Hymns is loaded with lyrics about my personal life, as well as the lives of Josh and Scott, at the time we were working together on these songs. “Sirens” is about myself when I was going through a rough patch of whisky drinking, and feeling paranoid and angry in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. “Old House (Bark at the Moonwalk)” is a song about Scott’s upbringing as a kid and adolescent. And “Inspiration” was all written from the aspect of simply creating something beautiful and powerful. A great big movement that puts you in a better place once you’ve listened to it. Wiping the blood off of your face and pressing forward. The power of music to move the individual is a phenomenal thing.
Other songs like “Deer Head and the Rain” and “Off the Coast of Sicily” are examples of songs we’ve written from a ‘feeling’ point of view. More along the lines of painting a picture, as I said above, rather than being topical or about a specific thing. I like to go in between the literal and the metaphorical. It’s a very effective way to present ideas.
Even though it has some positive undertones, the music of Man’s Gin sounds predominantly bleak, which links it to Cobalt’s output in some way. Do you think the darkness is an inherent part of the music you compose?
Yeah definitely. I don’t try to pull any punches by being bleak or ominous on purpose. It’s just what comes out when I start writing. I’ve found music to be the best way to filter my mind and get certain things out that are festering inside. A catharsis process if you will. It’s a lot better to take hold of negative feelings and put them to use rather than letting them build up inside. Anger and frustration can be really great vehicles to propel momentum and energy in music. Venting your ideas on a record or on a stage is good medicine for the soul.
That said, I like to add a lot of black humor in the way the lyrics go, and there are all kinds of positive undercurrents going on. I’m sort of a brooding type of guy, so that inevitably finds its way into my song writing. But overall, I like to present bleak, raw themes in a tasteful kind of way.
Take “Never do the Neon Lights” for example. The melody is a nice, harmonious sing-along, while the lyrics are bleak as hell, all about never finding any kind of solid truth. “I never found that truth I was searching for- Instead I just got older.”
Which songs of Man’s Gin are you especially proud of and why?
I’m proud of everything Man’s Gin has done. Each song has a personal meaning to me. They are all authentic.
The songs we’ve kept in the live set list from the first album have been “Smiling Dogs,” “Nuclear Ambition parts 1 & 2,” and “Doggamn.” Those are probably my favorites from Smiling Dogs. But as a whole, I love all of those songs. People seem to love the Money song (“Hate.Money.Love.Woman”), “Solid Gold Telephone” is a really unique tune, and “Jimmy Sturgis” was the expansive murder ballad from that record. I don’t know. I guess I won’t allow a song on an album unless it’s good, so the songs that end up on Man’s Gin records are always the way I intend them to be.
Rebellion Hymns is the same way. I believe that it’s a solid record all the way through, and I like to look at full albums as one comprehensive piece of music, rather than individual tracks. An album should pick you up at the beginning and bring you on a journey until the end. It’s a full movement.
“Inspiration” is a very triumphant achievement from the new record. We worked on that arrangement for the better part of two years, and it was such a good feeling to finish that song up and have it officially done and recorded. That epic singing part of mine that comes at the climax of the song shredded the hell out of my vocal chords, haha. And we waited until the end of the vocal tracking day in the studio to track that part, so it sounds like I just swallowed a handful of rusty nails and some whiskey. I love that part.
And “Hibernation Time” was a real achievement, for the first time doing a full-on Neurosis/Swans type of song. That song is massive.
But Rebellion Hymns is just a thorough and great album, beginning with “Inspiration” and leaving you with “Hibernation Time” an hour later.
I know it’s hard to make ends meet when you’re a musician these days. What is it like to be an independent artist in the US?
It’s extremely difficult to do. All of us have day jobs to pay the bills, and the music business is dog eat dog, all of the time. So it’s a Darwinian survival of the fittest game. But as long as I can keep making records and creating new, envelope-pushing music I’m happy. I bartend to make ends meet, and I’m actually working my way into some video production work as well. I’m trying to integrate myself more into a career setting rather than working random jobs simply because I have rent to pay.
If Cobalt was a fully functioning touring machine, we could easily be making a living off of live shows, but with Phil’s army career that’s not going to happen.
You never know I guess. I mean as far as a music career I’m extremely successful, but I’m far from rich. Maybe someday.
What do you think the future holds for Cobalt and Man’s Gin respectively?
More music is always coming. I’m working on music for the next Cobalt record, I am writing some really awesome new Man’s Gin material that I think will surprise some people with its intensity, and I have some plans collaborating with Jarboe coming up as well. So I’m always working on something.
I’m just putting one foot ahead of the other and trudging forward.