The return of Black Sheep Wall in 2020 definitely comes with auspicious timing. I mean, who else is as appropriately equipped to lay down a fresh batch of songs that will undoubtedly straddle the unrelenting mayhem and melancholy of one of the most unsympathetic years in a generation? Indeed, without an ounce of hyperbole coming from my stern sentiment, Black Sheep Wall are true veterans of the sludgy, doom-dirge sound – palpable legends at this point who wield nihilism and anguish with an atypical bravado. Similarly, their works – even the less favourable ones – exhume a raw honesty seldom felt with a good portion of other bands. New music aside, the long-awaited announcement of their flawless, nihilistic masterpiece I Am God Songs getting its very first vinyl release back in June was a joyous revelation for fans – a fitting re-release, eighteen years on, that is certainly qualified to be 2020’s soundtrack – but more to the point, it became the starting posts for a band with a bright future ahead of itself. Here we deep-dive into the band’s long, esoteric history, analyse I Am God Songs, discuss the imminent new album, and talk a little about what the future holds – so hold onto your butts.
Let’s start by giving out a little backstory on the band. You guys have been at this a very long time now and all things considered, Black Sheep Wall is somewhat of an enigma. Can you give us the framework for how the band started out?
Jackson: Sure. So, I first met Scott in kindergarten, we were in the same kindergarten class together, and my first experience with him was outside of school at a friend’s house who lived on his street. Scott came over and I realised he was in my class. Next thing I know we’re in the backyard and Scott’s doing these pro-wrestling moves on this kid, and he had like a beach ball and ended up knocking this kid out, and the kid’s mam was like “Scott, you need to go home right now”, and I just thought “wow, this Scott guy is crazy”. Then in middle-school Scott and I became friends and we started playing music together. Brandon was one year older than us and he was playing in a band called Admiral Angry. We had such a cool heavy music scene where we were from – I kid you not, I say this completely sincerely, we had the best slam-dancers in the world [laughs], which is such a weird merit to have but I have never seen the kind of slam-dancing we used to see – people were really into this kind of breakdown culture. We would watch Admiral Angry play, which was almost the antithesis of that – but it was still obviously extremely heavy music – and I really looked up to Admiral so much, even though I didn’t really know or understand their music so much yet.
Scott: I think it’s worth mentioning that the incarnation of Admiral he’s speaking of at the time was very different to the Admiral that put out Buster. The scene we grew up in, I think that the first introduction to that kind of counterculture of heavy music – the hardcore bands and the more extreme metal bands – the impetus of if it was a very militant and straight-edged scene. Like Jackson said, it was very beatdown-heavy music that people liked to slam-dance to, but then on the other end of the spectrum, in spite of that scene, Admiral Angry existed. I think Brandon will say it best because he was actually in the fucking band, but that was, I believe, what led to this sort of open, forward thinking look to heavy music; people like Brandon and Daniel – who was the guitar player for Admiral – started drip-feeding Meshuggah, The Cult of Luna and Will Haven into their sound where it was like “oh, there is heavy music out there that doesn’t have to be tied to one particular scene.”
All of that doesn’t really answer your question though [laughs]. The short version is that we played in a band in high school and that was sort of like the precursor to what Black Sheep Wall would be. Once that band broke up, we still got together to practice with the same line-up, only we had a different guitar player, and the difference was that we started to think “what would happen if we dropped our guitar tuning as low as it could go?” I don’t even think we planned on tuning to drop G like we ended up playing in, but we hit a note in G and we all thought it sounded good, so that’s sort of where Black Sheep Wall started and we took it from there, right?
Jackson: Absolutely, and I mean, we never really saw ourselves as a quote on quote “real band” in any way, we just played in bands in high school for fun, and we would play in these rec centres which was our way of getting together after school and doing something creative. I think the most forward thinking we had was like “oh, we get to play this show in a month” and hopefully there will be some people there, and some people will love it and some people will hate it. It was never really about having any kind of legacy, or even recording an album, it was just taking it a day at a time where we ended up making something that we thought was cool, so we just stuck with it.
So, correct me if I’m wrong, was Jeff [Ventimiglia] the vocalist for I Am God Songs?
Black Sheep Wall: Yes, he was.
How did the making of I Am God Songs come about then?
Brandon: In the previous band that the three of us played in [Coyote], we actually played a lot of shows with a band that Jeff was singing for called I Got Shot in the Face, and we just kinda made friends with him at shows and just started hanging out and whatnot. And I believe it was Scott who reached out to him after I Got Shot in the Face had broken up, letting him know about this new project we had going where he could potentially do vocals for it.
Scott: He was also the singer of The Faceless at the time, for a little bit, before The Faceless put out any albums and blew up; they did a two-song demo that Jeff was actually the vocalist on. And, I don’t know, we were like kindred spirits very early on and we met and just connected. He’s not like ten years older than me or anything, but he’s quite a bit older than me and I looked up to him as a young kid because he was playing in The Faceless. I Got Shot in the Face, for all intents and purposes at the time, were pretty forward thinking and a cool band. We were actually talking about doing a project on the side while Jackson and Brandon and I were still in Coyote – which never came into fruition – and Jeff was still in I Got Shot in the Face, and I think that’s what led to his involvement with Black Sheep Wall.
I Am God Songs is twelve years old in October, which is crazy when you think about it. What made you want to go back to it and release it on vinyl for the very first time?
Brandon: The opportunity [laughs].
Jackson: Yeah, I wish we had a really good reason. I think we’ve always wanted to and we’ve talked about it here and there at different times, but it just never quite came together and this time it did. So, we’re super excited.
Yeah, me too [laughs].
From what information I’ve been able to gather over the years, I Am God Songs was made under innocent, almost naïve circumstances. Looking back on it now, what are your overall impressions of the album?
Scott: I mean, that’s sort of true, just through the sheer virtue of us being between seventeen and eighteen years old, and Jeff was a bit older, but I was still in high school when we recorded the album. I mean, I look back on the album now and I think it’s an album that one I’m proud of but two, it’s obvious to me that it was bred out of contempt. The part of the city that we grew up in was super boring, nothing else to do, and I used to hang up my hat on that album personifying despair, but when I listen to it now – twelve years removed – I feel like I can hear my youth in it, and being bored and smoking pot and playing video games, and I can hear that better now than when I was much closer to it at its creation.
Jackson: A similar point for me is that I was the person in the band who was like “Jackson can play the drums, so he can play on this music”, but I didn’t listen to very much good music at all in high school; a lot of my interests were in pop punk and then I was playing in a church band – I was all over the place. At the time I was basically just trying to get good at the drums, so I looked up to Scott, Brandon and Jeff who had good tastes in music, which was something I didn’t quite have yet. I think it’s weird understanding music that I made twelve years ago, because I understand it better now than when I made it. And in truth there are parts for me that are not feelings of embarrassment, but it’s more like “man, I can’t believe I made that choice”. One instance is that there’s so much of the double-kick, I totally overplay that on the album, and I kind of think that that’s part of the charm, you know? It’s interesting because, I do feel like I would handle it much more intentionally today if we were to write that album now, but at the same time I think there’s something to the youth – there’s something so free-flowing about it – of like “let’s just do it” that comes across on the album and gives it its charm.
Brandon: I think my answer is much simpler, in the sense that any of the projects that I’ve been a part of and whatnot is to always create music that I want to listen to and that I want to hear. And especially if I’m not hearing it out in the world, if we can do something that I can reflect on and actually jam, as stupid as it sounds, by myself in my car, then I’m totally for that. That’s kinda what that album personifies – any of the albums, really, that I’ve put together with these guys and with other guys.
What kind of influences did you have in mind when you were writing I Am God Songs?
Scott: Well, it was a very different place and time. Speaking for myself a lot of the influences I had at that time, while I can go back and listen to them now and appreciate them for what they are, they probably don’t apply to what I consider to be my taste anymore. But there was a lot of Messugah, Cult of Luna – if I remember correctly, there were even bands like The Acacia Strain that were pretty influential at the time, and Will Haven was another big one. Those were the really big ones for me at the time. I mean, I’ve always really liked bands like Converge, but back at that time Converge were like this unattainable thing as a seventeen-year-old where you’re like “I’m never going to be as good as fucking Converge” [laughs], so I don’t even think I tried to let that influence me in terms of what we sounded like.
Brandon: Yeah, I would agree with Scott, all the influences that he has put down are pretty much the same for me.
Jackson: At the time, I was listening to bands like Avenged Sevenfold and stuff like that, so I was at this, like, entry level for heavy music, but what we were doing was nothing like that. I would hear bands like Neurosis and Isis being thrown around and I would listen to them. I wasn’t really a fan of that kind of music yet, but I would listen to it and I’d be like “okay, so it’s heavy music but the songs are way longer and the riffs go on forever” [laughs]. So, there was this misunderstanding on what the music was, but for whatever was needed on the drums I was able to make it work. And I should also say, my tastes have improved since then, but that’s where I was coming from at seventeen.
Like Scott said there, you’re all in a very different place now, so when you listen back to it, is there a moment where you think “I wish I could change that” or “I wish I could make that better or different”. Do you ever get that kind of thought process when you listen back to it?
Scott: No I don’t, and actually, out of all of our albums that is the one I feel is probably the least susceptible to that train of thought – for me, who was involved in the creative process. I can go back to, especially, No Matter Where It Ends and get these thoughts where I could change so much about the album. But I think, like Jackson mentioned earlier, whether that’s down to being naïve and young or just purposefully youthful and transposing it to that album [I Am God Songs], it has a charm that I think holds up to this day.
Jackson: It’s hard for me to hear all those double-kick parts and not feel like I overdid it. It’s like, I wouldn’t change it but I would; if I could go back in time, I know that I would definitely play it differently, but I also know that part of the charm is its naivety and that it just worked out the way it did. So yeah, I feel both ways about it: I would change everything and nothing.
Brandon: I don’t really have anything I would change about it, I mean, maybe tweak the symbol level a little bit because they are pretty buried in the mix, but overall I don’t have anything to pinpoint where I could say “change this or I wish I did this or Scott did this” or anything like that.
Scott: In all honesty, I wish we could take things from that album and put them into our newer things. The bass tone on that album is still among my favourites.
I was just about to bring that up; one of the things that blows my mind about I Am God Songs is its production. To me, I am not joking with you, it is one of the heaviest albums I’ve ever heard. Did you guys have any prior knowledge of production back then – like a preconceived map-out of how you wanted it to sound – or was it all sort of incidental?
Scott: I think it was incidental, yeah. I think the first time we heard it we were like “what the fuck?” [laugh]
Brandon: I remember hearing the rough mixes and thinking “this sucks, this sounds horrible”. Then I came back off vacation and I heard it fully mixed and mastered and I ended up going “holy shit!”
Scott: The final day of mixing and mastering was just me and Jeff in the studio, and when we were driving back home with the CD, Jeff had to stop off somewhere for a doctor’s appointment or something. So I was stuck in the car and his CD player wasn’t working so all I had to play it on was a laptop – but even through those shitty laptop speakers, I remember thinking I couldn’t wait to get back home to hear it properly because it sounded fucking nuts! When I did get home, I put it on the stereo and I couldn’t believe me – this seventeen-year-old kid – and my friends had made this thing.
Jackson: Yeah, it was definitely incidental. Especially since we didn’t give it much thought on where we wanted to record. Love Juice was just the studio you went to if you wanted a quality-sounding recording from where we were from. We didn’t do much research; we just took it that this was where you go to record music. We met this guy called Dave there, who we later built a relationship with, and he was a wizard with a very specific sound. And I think he tuned I Am God Songs and really made it his own thing. We knew that we wanted to sound a certain way, but all the things that we love about it just came to fruition without us putting much thought into it.
Did you stick with the same studio going forward or did you mix it up for future works?
Brandon: No Matter Where It Ends was recorded there.
Jackson: Yeah, Admiral Angry’s album Buster was recorded there, Black Sheep Wall’s I Am God Songs, No Matter Where It Ends and It Begins Again, and Scott and I’s hardcore band Benoit recorded there – so yeah, we developed a relationship with that studio and went back several times.
Scott: Rowsdower recorded there too.
Brandon: Yeah – we went back there specifically because we had such great experiences and success there with sound.
Each one of your albums has a very distinct sound and feel to it, is that primarily down to the change in vocalists or is artistic exploration?
Scott: Ooph, probably both.
Well, obviously, changing vocalists definitely has a really big shift in sound anyway, but do you always want to push and challenge yourself into doing completely different things?
Brandon: I remember when we were doing No Matter Where It Ends and approaching it with the mindset of “we don’t want to do I Am God Songs 2”, we wanted to try something that was new and fresh versus re-treading the same waters and the same ideas and song structures that we had already done.
Scott: For me, No Matter Where It Ends, when I listen back to that album in retrospect it’s just not my favourite, but I know that for I’m Going to Kill Myself we made a concerted effort for the theme to be “let’s try and make the best boring album we can” – or like, the best worst album. And that’s where songs like “Metallica” came from. I mean, that song is one note for thirty minutes. The vocalist change, again, for I’m Going to Kill Myself, Brandon took over the vocals for that album and we made a concerted effort to remove ourselves from the lower guttural, almost Cookie Monster if you will, vocals. I was super into bands like Envy and even the Blood Brothers, where I wanted the vocals to have this screechy tone to it where it sounds like it’s trying to piss you off.
Jackson: And I think what we’re writing and recording right now is even further into that territory. Like Scott, I remember you comparing Envy to Godflesh and trying to combine both of those essences together. I think that what we’re doing right now pulls that off even better.
Scott: With I’m Going to Kill Myself, I like that album but we were limited by the thought process of “let’s do a shitty, boring album”, which is why it’s sort of monotone and repetitive. Whereas if you were to remove those shackles, I think you would have ended up with something a little bit closer to what we’re about to be putting out. But that’s not to say I didn’t like what we were experimenting with for I’m Going to Kill Myself, because I liked what we did there.
So, you probably wouldn’t have got to where you are now, had it not been for I’m Going to Kill Myself?
Jackson: Yeah, I think so. I think we needed to see how far we could take it so we could be in the place we are now for writing, because it was such an arduous process and the restraints were so high, and we’re doing one note for thirty minutes and how much can we do with that? And like Scott said, some of it does feel limiting which is part of the point, but it also “feels limiting”.
Scott: God I remember being in the throes of recording the album and it was easy to catch yourself and be like “wow, shit, is this boring? because I’m bored” [laughs].
Brandon, you’re the vocalist now, but when Jeff and Trae were the vocalists as well, do you feel like each singer brings different themes and messages to the table or are you all like-minded in that sense?
Brandon: I think we all have our own way of approaching it. I feel like my thought process probably lines up more with Jeff’s, with the despair aspects. Some of the lyrics, especially on the new album, are pretty simple, which is something I kind of picked up from him – not trying to sound smarter than the audience that is listening to it, I definitely don’t want to do that. There’s a lot of emotion being put into it. I loved Jeff’s vocals and his vocal style, and a lot of the things he had to say on I Am God Songs really spoke out to me – they still do, to a degree: that sort of theme of loneliness and hopelessness, and I really wanted to recapture that theme a lot, with the new album especially.
I feel that with Black Sheep Wall’s music there’s an emotional transparency at the forefront of it all – the nihilism behind those albums feels very much real, which is great for the listener, but do you feel that having that kind of mindset as an artist and as someone who is creating that music, it has a detrimental effect on the band itself?
Jackson: I go back and forth on this a lot. For a long time, I was of the mindset that I would have simply answered this question as “no”, because the band is a place where I can let out a certain piece of myself and I do that so in the rest of my life I can be a fully functioning, normal person. The band does not reflect my personality to any degree; however, now that I’m a little bit older and I’ve given it a lot of thought, I think there might have been times where it started to influence me – not necessarily in a negative way, but in a way that was maybe too cerebral for my own good. Especially in recording I’m Going to Kill Myself with all those restraints, and playing on “Metallica” where I ended up in places I hadn’t gone before from working on one song. So, I do think it’s for the greater good. I would disagree with anybody who says that any of our lives have been worse off from choosing the kind of music that we make, but I’m becoming more open-minded to the notion that too much of something can be a bad thing. Especially with the kinds of things that we’re making, so it’s something that I’m more open-minded and careful about, I suppose.
Scott: I think that emotional transparency was definitely something we put on the table right at the very beginning, where we were almost too transparent. At the time, Myspace was the big social media platform and I would engage in conversations with our fans and just post updates on the band’s page that had nothing to do with the band, but they were there so we could connect, essentially. A lot of that was the connection between me or the band and whoever I was connecting with and that sort of nihilism and despair thing. I don’t know… negative? I can’t really put my thumb on that and say it was negative but it was definitely unique to us at the time.
Brandon: Speaking for myself, if it had a negative effect on the band, for me personally, no. That’s only because the stuff that we put out there isn’t put out there to be edgy or “hey, I have to go to this place” or where I have to write something that’s going to make me uncomfortable as much as it is channelling something that I’m already feeling.
The band has been quite silent over the last few years. When you’re on the outside looking in you obviously don’t know the real truths, but to me you guys write an album and then you leave it for a while. Is writing for Black Sheep Wall a strenuous task to the point where it takes everything out of you and you have to move on to other projects – because I know you guys have a lot of other projects on the side. Is that the reason why?
Scott: Huh, I’ve never really thought about it. I think more so to do with us taking breaks and disappearing for a bit isn’t putting us in the space to make the music, but more on what’s happening at different points in time: where like, maybe a singer didn’t get on with the drummer, or we all had a big blow-out so we have to go away for a little bit. Because at the core of this, especially now with me, Brandon and Jackson, we’ve known each other for a very long time and our other guitar player Andrew has known Jackson forever, so what’s more important than the band is our friendships, I think. Especially after I’m Going to Kill Myself – without getting into too much detail – there were some interpersonal issues where it was more important to be friends first and then we could continue the album after it. And I think things like that have stunted our output and our ability to stay at it for the long term after we release new music, more so than actually creating the music itself.
You guys have briefly touched upon this already, but you’ve posted some pictures recently of you in the studio – so there’s a new album in the works, yeah?
Black Sheep Wall: Yes, there is.
What can fans expect from the new project?
Scott: It’s different, yeah. It’s definitely different. It’s cool because it’s like, with No Matter Where It Ends there was this pressure to follow up on I Am God Songs, and we were young and I felt that pressure, and now I feel like we didn’t live up to those expectations. Like we mentioned earlier, I’m Going to Kill Myself was shackled by whatever the mindset was to get it written. And so, this is our first chance since, I don’t know, forever, to do a fully fleshed-out and dynamic full album. And it’s just that: I think it’s dynamic, it’s very emotional, and I think it sounds more mature. I know that at the time of recording it my chops were the best they had ever been, so while it still sounds like Black Sheep Wall there are actual elements that are more melodic or out of left-field. I think there’s a lot of that in there now. Like, we have a song on there that’s right around two-minutes, and it’s fast, so [laughs].
Jackson: It’s definitely the most musical album we’ve ever done before. Without any preconceived idea of how it should sound, it’s maybe the most natural and organic feeling album. Certain songs you’ll hear for the first time and think “wait, that’s Black Sheep Wall?” But on the whole, the album still sounds very much like us.
What about your vocal approach this time, Brandon? Are you going for it a bit differently?
Brandon: Yeah! I would say that it definitely has more range, it’s not just the high-pitched shrieks. It’s got a bit of that to it, but I really tried to be both mature and expand what I’m doing on the album in a way I think some people will be pleasantly surprised.
Scott: Brandon really let loose for the first time in the studio. Finishing the album has been a process: the music was recorded in 2016 and we’re finishing it now in 2020, so we’ve been on it for so long, and to get in the studio. So when Brandon first started recording his tracks I think we all double-took each other and went “holy shit, dude, this is fucking money” [laughs].
Brandon: I think if we’d have finished this up in 2016 you would have gotten vocals more in line with what you got on I’m Going to Kill Myself. Whereas with this I think you’re going to get something a little bit different.
Ahh, cool. So are you able to give us a date on when it will be coming out?
Scott: Hopefully soon. We don’t actually have a solid date yet, but there is definitely some wheels moving to get it out here, but I mean it’s hard to say – we’ve been sitting on the music for almost four years, so… [laughs] I want to say, hopefully, sometime before the end of the year or at the very latest the beginning of next year.
Extending the new album, do you have any other plans for Black Sheep Wall? I know with the way things are in America at the minute and with the Coronavirus crippling live music options are limited, but can fans look forward to plenty of BSW activities?
Brandon: We definitely have a few things in the works and some things that we’ve talked about doing on many different fronts, but the specifics of them I can’t really get into just yet.
Jackson: Yeah, it’s like how we’ve always approached the band. I don’t want to say spurts but we do things one moment at a time, and I think we’re in a moment right now where we’re all invested in it and we all care and love it again, so we’re going to ride it out until we, or if we ever, hit another roadblock again.
Well, that is it guys.
Black Sheep Wall: Alright! Well, thanks a lot Simon.
No, thank you. You guys are really nice, thanks for your time.
Black Sheep Wall: No problem, man.