Pt.1 – Premonition
Musk Ox are the real deal. Yet, only one month ago I had no prior knowledge of their existence. It was only through Sputnikmusic’s Album of the Month feature that I came to hear of this Canadian trio – their latest album Inheritance had won best album for July which encouraged me to check it out. In short, Inheritance is a truly spellbinding peregrination; a creation that feels perfectly attuned to nature. It’s an idiosyncratic ambient experience that has some of the most rewarding songwriting heard thus far in 2021. Palpable, lucid songwriting that carves impeccable detail into Inheritance’s tracks. Vivid soundscapes, gigantic crescendos, and a perfect harmony with beauty and melancholy. As such, it left a lasting impression on me. I approached the band’s guitarist, Nathanael, for an interview. The result is a two-part epic detailing a lot of what makes Musk Ox’s members the inimitable pioneers they are today – as we talk about the importance of production, what it’s like being in a band in Canada, Tool, their artwork and influences, and what the future holds for Musk Ox. It goes without saying that you should check out their latest triumph, but if nothing else, this is a good place to start and get to know the band.
For those who don’t know, could you give us a bit of background on the band and how it all came together? Musk Ox’s European folk style sounded really authentic to me, to the point where I thought you guys were actually Scandinavian, so it’s a bit of a surprise that you guys are actually Canadian.
Nathanael: Yeah, it’s influenced by a lot of European and Scandinavian folk music, so the sound is kind of there, but basically it started as a solo thing. I released our first record unofficially in 2007, and then officially in 2009 as Musk Ox, but it was just kind of a solo instrumental acoustic album. I had never really planned on doing any shows or anything like that. But then, shortly after I had made Musk Ox, I connected with Raph and we started working together, and he eventually joined the band, and then Evan joined a few years after that.
The project started off with me being very influenced by the acoustic side of metal albums, discovering early Ulver, Empyrium and Tenhi, and this kind of dark-acoustic-metal-adjacent style of music. At the same time, I was really into post-rock, so I was kind of curious about mixing early Ulver with Mogwai and seeing what happens with that, and that was sort of the beginning of it. Once Raph joined the project, he added his influences into it, and we were getting more into progressive and black metal and these kinds of things evolved, and then Evan joined, and he put his spirit into it. But basically, it was influenced by the second Ulver album – so that Scandinavian folk sound is a big part of the music’s DNA.
Raphael: I don’t think we really have any – or very few – Canadian influences in what we do. I think it was mostly European music to begin with. It’s just what we’ve listened to, and it’s in the roots of our music, but on different levels, you know, regardless of what we’re respectively bringing to the table. So, yeah, I think it has just come about very naturally. At the same time, I think that because we aren’t from those cultures directly, we’re bringing something that is kind of uniquely Canadian in terms of the type of landscape that the music is evoking. I think that there’s something about what we do, it has those roots, but then it’s also commenting on it from a different place.
For those listening or reading, can you tell them what chamber folk is and how it has influenced you guys as musicians?
Raphael: Well, I think chamber music is more of a technical term when you think about it, because it’s just describing musicians who are playing acoustic music in a smaller space, and it’s a smaller ensemble. And we are exactly that, right? We’re an acoustic trio. I think that the folk element comes more from the fact that there’s a guitar instead of a piano for example, because normally this configuration would be like a piano trio. But I think having a guitar lends itself more to that folk style. And it’s something that uses diatonic melodies, and chord progressions and repeated structures, and there’s a kind of reverence for nature in the work that you can hear in the atmosphere; it sort of evokes nature and these different landscapes in a very abstract way, so it feels kind of rustic, too. So, I’d say those elements kind of feed into what makes our music chamber folk. I mean, to be able to describe it in a more general way, it would be harder, just because everyone has their own take on it, and I think that groups that play that type of music do it differently.
Nathanael: I think it’s like Raph was saying; a lot of the structures and the imagery, too, is more of a folk-kind of imagery. We were talking about this in other interviews where people say “oh, it’s hard to describe what you’re doing” and I think that’s a great compliment, you know? Because, with there being so much music out there these days, all the streams are there, so it’s like “do you want to be this kind of band or that kind of band?” It’s hard to sort of find the little gaps in between genres, and I think with this record especially [Inheritance], we’re able to find a path that is unique to us.
To me, I feel like The Night Watch sounds like a busier version of Musk Ox. It feels like a distant relative within a bustling town, as opposed to Musk Ox, which resides in the wilderness. What made you want to move towards Musk Ox’s exclusive acoustic sound?
Nathanael: I mean, Musk Ox always started off acoustic, so it’s almost the other way around, because Musk Ox started first.
Oh, did it? Right, sorry, I thought The Night Watch came first.
Nathanael: Yeah, the history goes back even before that, because when I started doing Musk Ox demos, I was playing with Evan in this project called the Butternuts.
Evan: The Butternuts started, I guess it was back in 2006, and me and Nathanael and a harmonica player used to get together and perform in little bars late at night, and it was a lot of fun. The project only lasted for about a year, but from there, Nathanael connected with Daniel, who we used to know from university, and they started jamming together and they invited me to a session, and we used some of the Butternut songs that we had because they fit so well into that heavier kind of setting. I had an electric violin that I took out, and it all came together and formed what would become The Night Watch. Obviously it isn’t quite as chamber folk as Musk Ox, in the sense that it’s much more electric and using amplified instruments gives you a whole other plethora of sounds and opportunities – it opens up a lot of different soundscapes.
Nathanael: Yeah, and at first – for the history – when I was recording the first Musk Ox record, that same summer myself and Evan and our friend Miles who plays harmonica, we were recording the Butternuts album, which was sort of like chamber folk but with more jazz and blues. So like Evan was saying, that spawned The Night Watch. It’s almost like Musk Ox and The Night Watch kind of did happen at the same time. So I would say they’re less distant relatives and more like siblings. The thing is, some Musk Ox songs ended up as The Night Watch songs, so there’s a little bit of cross pollination in there.
Given the unique sound Musk Ox has, are there other bands that are like-minded where you live, and what’s the music scene like where you are?
Raphael: Well, I don’t think there are any bands like us here. It’s like, other projects that we all have, either individually or with other people are similar in some respects, but otherwise, I mean, I can’t really think of any groups. There’s a group from Nova Scotia that’s kind of similar, I mean, Nova Scotia is so far away though. There are different things happening in Canada, but if it’s Ontario or Quebec, I would consider it a different region, you know? Because when you’re talking about local scenes and things like that, it’s no longer applicable. And in Ottawa specifically, hip hop is big right now. That’s sort of what’s popular and what a lot of people are doing.
A couple of decades ago, I feel like in the noughties metal was big here, but now I feel like metal has really subsided. Ottawa is a funny city because it doesn’t really have the infrastructure to support a music scene properly. So these bands kind of appear, hit a crest and then they either move somewhere else or they just go back into a sort of hibernation, because it’s like an animal trying to survive in an ecosystem that can’t really support it. I think we try to exist independently of the place where we live. I don’t think it affects us; it’s more that we try and make the best music that we can, and we all happen to be in this area so we can get together and do it.
Nathanael: I think Ottawa is in an interesting place because we’re five hours east of Toronto and two hours West of Montreal, so those two cities are the biggest Metropolis cities in Canada. Montreal has Constellation Records and Godspeed You! Black Emperor; and Toronto has Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene, and all of these bands, they’ve created these scenes. I’ve always been very proud to be creating something here that’s our own thing, though. I think like you were asking about scenes, and what we sort of hinted at earlier, is that you know for me, this scene is us. We each have our own solo stuff: Raph has The Visit, and we do The Night Watch, so it’s like we’ve kind of created our own chamber-metal, acoustic, ambient, post kind of scene. And every time we release new things, certain journalists take notice and say, “oh, okay, yeah, Raph plays with Leprous, and Nathaniel played with Agalloch and, oh, there’s The Night Watch with Evan”. So we’re slowly building this catalogue of what we want to hear, and what’s unique to us. Not thinking like “okay, we need to go to Montreal and make it there, ready to go to Toronto and find something else”. We’ve always been more like, “Let’s do something great that people around the world will love” and then eventually people will care about it here, maybe [laugh].
Raphael: You’re more positive about things, you talk about all the selling points. I’ll just talk about the shitty things [laughs]. You know, Canada is not supportive of its artists, and generally, it’s like a boomerang effect where you get big elsewhere and then Canada follows the lead of other countries like the US and the UK. So it’s like “oh, okay, you know this artist is doing well here. Okay, so now we can like them?” you know what I mean? So, I’m not going to wait around for that. We’re just gonna do our thing and we’ll still be here. I think the important thing is longevity. Some people might, for example, get signed early on and they have a lot of opportunities coming to them, but where are they in 20 years? If they’re still doing it, then good on them, but if not, why didn’t it work out for them? You know, you must ask those questions.
Evan: I agree. It’s hard to make a career out of the scenes around here, especially Ottawa. You play small venues where you get a handful of people coming out, and where you can make a handful of fans, but mostly people come out here for the Blues Festival. You see thousands of people coming out for that. But like Raph was saying, hip hop has become very popular amongst the youth, and you see that reflected in the bands that perform at Blues Fest and so forth. Outside of these big festivals, the music scene is quite, I don’t know how to say it, cult?
Raphael: It’s a lot of underground stuff and very small pockets of stuff. Unfortunately, those pockets don’t cross pollinate very often, but what we do have here which is extremely advantageous to us, is we have a very affluent population that can afford to go see concerts, and they have time and extra spending money, and they’re open minded. Many people, actually, if you can get them in the room, if you can get them interested, there’s a lot of potential audience.
I also think, you guys saying that there, you’re building a foundation, so anyone that is interested – if the scene is averse to you – the ones that get what you’re doing, there’s more chance of them being loyal, so the whole thing is probably catch 22. It’s better to have loyal fans that help you sustain than to be a fad that fades out after only a couple of years.
Nathanael: Yeah, I think it is. There’s a lot of factors. For me, and I’m sure it’s the same for the other guys; when I was starting out, I just heard these records that I thought were incredible and wondered if I could make a record that could give somebody else this “wow this is amazing” feeling. It wasn’t like, “can I be welcomed into this room with these people?” or “will they accept me?” I think we all have a high standard, right? We work hard to make the music that we make and we’re not thinking “is it good enough here?” I think about the bands that influenced me and whether this music can stand alongside them, and that’s not for us to decide, it’s for us to strive towards, and when people review it and say all these kind words and “oh, this makes me think of this”, that’s the icing on the cake for us. Ultimately, you have to try and create the best work possible and put it out there so that people can hear it, and the reactions and where it fits, that’s out of your hands.
Raphael: I think one of the big factors in what we do is that, because we’re not living in a big music centre, instead of trying to get into the big building, we just built our own, you know what I mean? Because that’s what we’re kind of left with, essentially. It’s like, okay, well let’s just build something over time and over a long period that has longevity and is meaningful, hopefully, to other people. And that means something to us, because when you spend as much time as you do on albums – like on our latest album, it took several years to finally get it all completed, and you have to really care about something like that to see it through all the way. I think it’s a miraculous thing to be able to finish a record and put it out there; there’s a lot that goes into that and everyone has to be a finisher, you can’t be someone who starts something and then abandons it, and that’s really difficult and it requires people to overcome a lot of mental barriers to get there and to negotiate so many factors along the way.
I’m going to hazard a guess and say you’re all multi-instrumentalists anyway, but what drew you guys to playing instruments like the cello and the violin?
Evan: Well, it was just a coincidence my mom signed me up for violin lessons, and I just took to it and discovered I had an appreciation for the music; I had a talent for it, so I followed it. I pursued classical training, conservatory, and then I discovered that I really enjoyed improvising, which is not necessarily common for a lot of classical musicians. So it all just blended well into joining these other bands (such as Musk Ox and The Night Watch), where your creative output is very important to the development and creation of the music. So I consider myself more than just a classical musician, you know? I embody all styles and I’m out to make new music, and that’s part of who I am as a musician. As a classical musician, we’re playing what’s on the page, we’re trying to convey what the composer was trying to convey, but personally I feel that as a musician, I’m trying to express my own personal feelings, my own expression, which I find very interesting to be able to express myself in a way that flows naturally – I feel very lucky to be able to do that.
Raphael: Yeah, and similarly, there are a lot of classical instrumentalists out there who are, you know, they’re taking all the gigs and they’re playing what’s in front of them and that’s just what they do. But you could replace that person with someone else with the same qualifications and it would pretty much work out the same, but with minor variations, of course. And for me, I’ve never wanted to get lost in the shuffle of that. I always wanted to have my own voice and be a creative artist. The cello is my main instrument, but I feel like that’s by happenstance; things just sort of ended up that way, but for me, I feel more like a composer and improviser and that’s just what I am good at. The cello is just something I had to work hard at to be good enough to express my ideas and articulate them well. In my case, just starting out, I was asked as a kid if I wanted to take piano lessons, but I said I wanted to take cello lessons because it was just something different from the usual and I liked the instrument. I heard it on recordings, and I thought it was pretty cool, so that’s how I got into it.
It shows how myopic my viewpoint is, because my mentality was “I’ll learn bass guitar because there’s not many people that want to play bass”, but you don’t really see people, especially where I live, go “oh, I’m going to learn the cello”, and it’s a shame really, because I think the violin and the cello in particular are such emotive instruments, if you like that sort of thing, you can get far more from them than you can from a bass guitar. So I think it’s great you saw things like that before playing it.
Nathanael: Yeah, and it’s very interesting too, because for me I feel so lucky to play with Evan and Raph and I almost feel I have a hard time listening to other string players sometimes because they’ve ruined it for me, because they’ve set the bar so high. But also, it’s not just how technically proficient or how beautiful the sound is – that’s just one facet of it. Like, the spirit that they bring to their instruments and the creativity. Raph and Evan are unique musicians because they have this rigid, strict classical training, so they’ve learned those tools, but then you marry that with this creative energy and spirit and then the magic really comes through on that. Another thing that’s great playing with Evan in The Night Watch is that, Evan didn’t necessarily grow up listening to metal or prog which I think is fantastic, because with The Night Watch, myself and Dan the drummer, we have a lot of similar influences from metal and prog, but then when we write something and bring it to Evan, Evan doesn’t think like a violinist who likes metal, he just goes “what does my spirit want to bring to this music?” It’s not like, “okay, I need to sound like a heavy metal violinist”, and I think that’s wonderful.
I think that as a music fan, if I discover a band that’s fantastic, I’ll just analyse them and study them and try to get to the essence of why they’re so special, and pretty much every time it’s because you have these personalities coming together that’s as such, the music can only be made by those individuals. Obviously, they have to be skilled and that kind of thing, but when you see something come together, that’s what makes it so unique. With Musk Ox and The Night Watch, we have our own unique creative identities, and we have the space to express ourselves.
Yeah, there’s a connection that you won’t find anywhere else.
Nathanael: It’s like if you listen to a band like Tool; those guys together, you hear each of their personalities come together and the way that it all fits. There are tons of examples, but that to me has always been the most exciting thing and that is what elevates music beyond just, “we’re going to get together and make some sounds that are good”. I think that’s what connects with people too.
Raphael: There’s something to be said for bringing influences to music that isn’t already native to the format you’re working in. So, for example, The Night Watch, it’s like playing metal music that at certain times is influenced by like jazz and swing. That kind of thing brings a freshness to the table; or with Musk Ox playing chamber music that’s often influenced by metal. Whereas if you’re just playing metal that’s influenced by metal or classical that’s influenced by classical, then it’s probably not going to be as interesting. When you’re taking an idea from one place and then you’re filtering it through a different sort of medium then you’re bound to get these new combinations and results that are exciting to the ear. And as much as some people would deny it, I think that what the ear really gravitates towards is a new stimulus.
When I was doing research for this interview, I noticed your EPs. When I saw the EPs, they brought a smile to my face because when my band did their first EP years and years ago, I made some special physical copies that had paintings and they were seasonal paintings based on the elements, because I had a bit of an obsession with that sort of thing at the time. What Spurred you on to make those seasonal EPs?
Nathanael: I think at that point, this was 2005, right? There were no smartphones, no social media. I think at that point when I started playing classical and taking it seriously, something about the sound of the classical guitar just evokes that imagery. I don’t know what it is, but for me at least, ambient-plucked classical just evoked nature. I grew up on the East Coast of Canada and in a small town, right by the ocean. So I spent a lot of time in nature. I didn’t really plan the EPs that way, it just kind of happened. Once I started listening to Empyrium and more of these nature-focused bands with that kind of imagery, it just resonated with me.
Which is funny because, years before that I was doing heavy metal journalism and I moved to Ottawa to go to journalism school, because I wanted to be a heavy metal journalist. But then I met a professor and I wanted to learn guitar from him, but then I thought, “well, if I want to be a metal guitarist, I’ve got to learn classical first, because that’s a good foundation”. At that point as well, I was taking some long bus trips; I took long bus trips across Canada to visit my mom who lives on the other side of Ontario, and so, I wasn’t on the bus just scrolling on my phone. I was just looking out of the window observing the Canadian landscape, because when I was growing up in Nova Scotia, we had done some road trips, but I had never seen the rest of the country. So you know, all that influenced Musk Ox. And because musk ox is a Canadian creature, a very ancient creature, representing the natural world, that also resonated with this project. Because, again, I didn’t want to pretend like we were from a country that we’re not. I wanted to represent Canada. I loved that acoustic Ulver album, but I thought all the songs were too short; I wanted something big and expansive, because that’s how Canada feels to me, and this is, you know, it’s folk music and I wanted it to represent the landscape. When I sat down to play and I plucked, I was just imagining those kinds of landscapes, so it just kind of came through in the artwork and in the music.
With Musk Ox’s debut album, there’s an obvious disparity with the production quality from the initial 2007 release and the 2009 re-release. What made you want to re-release the album a couple of years later?
Nathanael: I found a label who was willing to help release the album and actually promote it, because I had just printed a CDR – you know, like, 50 CDR’s for the initial release. And then a journalist had heard it and he wanted to help me release it, so that’s sort of where that happened, and it helped a lot.
What made you want to expand on the tracklisting for the 2009 re-release?
Nathanael: It was just said that if we’re re-releasing it, we should add a bonus track. Also, for the 2007 version that is on Bandcamp, that one is the unmastered version, the original master I wasn’t quite happy with and so that’s partly why it sounds so different.
On Musk Ox, there’s a peppering of vocal chants and stuff that adds an extra layer of emotion to the soundscape. What made you omit that from the writing process in future works?
Nathanael: I don’t know really, even when Raph joined the band, we would do those vocal parts live. It wasn’t even a conversation we had. I think we just decided we wanted our stuff to be instrumental. It’s funny looking back at the debut because I think at that point, I had less knowledge about music and composing and it was easier for me to be intuitive back then, because that’s mostly what I had to rely on, whereas now I know theory and technique and these kinds of things, so sometimes it can be a barrier to get to the more intuitive playing. When I listen back to that first album, even I ask myself why I did that. But I don’t remember making that decision, it just happened that way, and I think it’s important to remember that, because I think as you get better and as you build up your catalogue, people become more susceptible to things and go “oh, I love Woodfall” – that makes you become a bit more calculated. But yeah, I think the best stuff is more intuitive.
Raphael: I think your first record is always going to be intuitive in a way, because then, especially if you don’t really have an existing audience, you have no expectations to fulfil except your own. But even then, if you’re going about it for the first time, then there’s this feeling of just following your instincts fully. I mean, when we made this last record, we made it almost in response to Woodfall. Otherwise, we might not have done it, or we’d have done a very different record , but the goal is very much “okay, we’re going to make a better version of this type of format” and improve on all the aspects of that style of writing – the configuration, the length of the songs and the way they’re structured, and the production and the playing. So I think it’s just a different mindset that you’re in. It’s like the question, “why are there no growls anymore?” “why no screaming vocals?” “why are there no nature sounds?” [laughs]
And that’s something, too. There’s no nature sounds on the new record, whereas there are on the previous ones. But we had a year’s worth of playing together as a trio with a different violinist right before Evan joined. And that was sort of the end of that old period. Once Evan came into the band, it became a new period and we were operating a bit differently, we were focused on the Woodfall material and we’re playing trio music that’s very technical, so there was no place for any singing. It was just like: okay, we’re instrumentalists and we’re very serious about playing complicated stuff with a lot of time signatures, and the songs are long, and we’re going to play, like, an hour straight for you without stopping. So it’s a very different ethos in terms of the whole approach to the music and how we perform it. Whereas in the earlier days, especially in the first year that I was in the band – which was circa 2009 to 2010 – it was a lot folkier and a little bit freer in a way, so it had a very different feel to it.
Nathanael: I still feel like I may go and do another solo record that maybe builds off of what that first album did. But then again, who knows, maybe that approach will find its way into Musk Ox again.
Evan: We also still play those old songs as a trio.
Raphael: Yeah, we still play some of that old stuff from the first album. And actually, some songs that never really got performed from the first album, we do as a trio, and we’ve even played the whole first album in its entirety, which was really fun actually – to go back and rearrange some of it. I think the most satisfying thing is being able to mix and match some of those older pieces with the newer ones; to have a smattering of songs from all three albums. I think it’s cool to see them lined up against each other, and I think it makes for a good ebb and flow because you have some pieces – like “Windswept” on Woodfall is really dense and busy, so it’s good to have some other ones scattered in between to give the set a bit more space. Which, I think, it’s good for the audience.
Nathanael: It’s good for us too because it gives us a chance to relax a little bit. [laughs] When we did the anniversary show, we did the first track on the debut album, and we rearranged the intro, because on the album it’s got piano on it, so we arranged that for all of us to play, and it was really slow and it felt nice that we were all playing that together, sharing those moments. I think with Woodfall we were busy [instrumentally] all the time, whereas with Inheritance we were able to find a balance; like the intro track, “Premonition”, which is almost harkening back to the debut album with all that space. I think that’s one of my favourite parts about the new album is the flow of it, and I think it has the biggest peaks and valleys from our entire catalogue.
Yeah, definitely. The crescendos on that album are incredible. The first two tracks, parts one and two, make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Raphael: Thanks. We chiselled away at that for a long time, but even on a composition level, it’s purposefully built-in a little bit more, where there was more room to build up to higher climaxes. And then there’s moments of sparseness to contrast that, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it more dynamic. It’s by far the most dynamic sound we’ve produced on a record.
You and I have already spoken a little bit Nathanael, and I was open in saying to you that I hadn’t heard of the band or listened to any of your work until Inheritance won the Album of the Month feature that we do on Sputnikmusic – which, obviously, you guys won in July – and that’s what spurred me on to check it out. When I heard the album, it blew my socks off, it really did, and that got me thinking about music: it’s a powerful agent, and that album got right into my soul. So, the question is, what albums connected with you in the same way Inheritance connected with me?
Nathanael: Many of them. [laughs] There’s so many of them. A big one I always talk about is Agalloch’s The Mantle. I remember as a teenager, recently dumped, hearing a song online on The End Records’ website and I was like “Oh yeah, this sounds cool, it’s got acoustic guitars”. It didn’t floor me, but I wanted to check it out. And then I got the CD and I remember putting it in my Discman with my headphones on, and I was going for a huge walk through the city on a grey day in this trance, and it was just a moment that really resonated with me and it hit me deeply. I talked about this earlier, but the fact that you can say the music touched you in that way, that is the best feedback you can get because it’s just continuing the flow of energy; we receive it from this and then you continue it to that, and then you can express it in your life in your own creative way, it doesn’t have to be through music. So, for me, The Mantle is one of those albums that came into my life. Every time I listen to it, it really takes me back to Nova Scotia, which is by the ocean, so it’s always overcast and rainy, and the trees have a certain kind of feel and colour to them.
Raphael: Yeah, we’ve just been doing a couple of interviews where we’ve spoken about what has influenced us, and favourite albums we listened to growing up. I mean, there’s so many of them, it’s hard to name just one. For me, I guess, there’s this album called Cello by David Darling, and it’s from the early ‘90s from ECM records, and it’s this really dark, atmospheric album, obviously 100% cello. It’s very elemental and very austere. I think it’s really bleak and beautiful, and, you know, you think about this kind of November weather and overcast skies and it kind of evokes this world without humans that I really like, and I sometimes try to capture that in the music I record. And it’s that single record that inspired me to layer cello recordings. So when I was 17 or 18, I started doing that on my own stuff, and I started doing it as a session musician, doing all of these stacked layers of cello, and it kind of came from that David Darling record, because he was creating these huge, dense chords, and it felt like this wave washing over me. It was very soothing, but also kind of oppressive in a way too. Also, because I know so little about how it was made, it’s just a mystery to me. It being from that period where they weren’t documenting in the same way that we do today. There are no interviews that I know about, so it just means something to me in a very singular and opaque way. So, that’s a standout I think has influenced me ever since.
Cool, I think I’ll check it out. Where was the composer from?
Raphael: He was from the states. He just died at the beginning of this year, actually.
Evan: I’m the same as the other guys, there’s a lot of albums that you can choose from, but generally I get my inspiration from other violinists that I follow online and so forth. I’m a big lover of classical music and I really enjoy listening to other violinists play through classical music, or there’s a lot of new music that’s being played during these international violin competitions and some of this new music that’s introduced is really, really cool and impressive. So yeah, I just find my inspiration from that sort of ilk and find what connects with me the most.
Do you not really listen to metal albums then. Are you primarily just into classical?
Evan: I listen to some metal albums, but I don’t go out of my way to look for new metal albums. When it comes to listening to music, I tend to get introduced to it by friends or colleagues, and so I take to liking stuff that way. That’s mostly how I discovered music when I was a teenager – through friends and going to parties, and I discovered all this new music, and I could also share stuff with my friends. There was a social aspect to it as well. So, I’m not necessarily at my computer looking for it, but metal is such a broad genre; there’s a lot out there that I haven’t yet discovered, but I do appreciate metal.
In my opinion, I think instrumental albums are probably the most difficult albums to make, because you don’t have the luxury of hiding behind the singer and carrying some of the burden. The music has to be on point to subsist and to keep the listener engaged. How do you approach an album compositionally and when do you stop and think, “yeah, that track’s finished?”
Raphael: That’s actually a really good question. I don’t believe that it’s harder to make instrumental music though. I think personally, from my own standpoint, the other guys may agree, it’s harder to write music with vocals because people relate to vocals on a much more personal level, with a higher degree of subjectivity. When you’re hearing music that has vocals in it, you’re relating to that person’s voice in the way that you would relate to any of us speaking, right? We have some strong opinions about the quality of people voices. So, if I hear a song and I’m like “oh, cool intro”, and then the vocals come in and I don’t like the vocals after less than five seconds, I turn the volume down. And for me, often the vocals just ruin it. I’m like, “oh, I wish this was instrumental”, you know? And that’s very personal, but again, maybe that’s me being a little bit of a snob or having my own very strong opinions – which we all have.
At the same time, I think it’s true that if a singer is really good, or they connect with the audience in a very particular way, then of course it makes it easier, there’s less of a barrier to entry. However, I think it goes either way. Whereas with instrumental music, it’s not going to be as polarizing in a sense, but you have to create an atmosphere that is interesting and tells a story and communicates it in a way without words. The different episodes and the evolution of the narrative, whatever it is, you have to be able to convey something like that with music so that it makes sense to the listener. And you have to create emotion, and emotion isn’t just technique, it’s technique at the service of creating imagery, sensations and ideas; there’s so many layers to the process. Initially, when you get a cool idea and then you start playing it, how do you know it’s a cool idea? It’s usually because you have this visceral feeling in your body telling you it’s cool. It’s not enough to just have the piece; it may be good in itself, in terms of the structure and the way it has been created, but you still have to play it in a way that’s evocative, and the sound and the timbres and the mix of the instruments, all of those variables have to lie in such a way that you’re going to have something that’s emotionally captivating and makes sense when it is put together.
Nathanael: I think it depends on the person. For us, it’s easier to make instrumentals because we’ve done it for so long, but I pretty much exclusively listen to instrumental music, that’s sort of the vibe that I’ve been on for a few years now. I’m just so fascinated with those arrangements. But I can tell that in a moment’s notice, I’m gonna become obsessed with vocals and I’m just gonna dive into that world. It’s interesting because I think a human voice can reach you emotionally so quickly – probably faster than an instrument – but I think the challenge of writing vocal over instrumental music is…. I don’t like forcing an emotion onto someone or forcing an idea, I like keeping things open and I think people may be a little more open to receiving what you’re giving if it’s instrumental. For us, there’s emotion there, but we try to keep things slightly ambiguous and vague, because I want people to listen and to have the space to explore and tell us what it feels like, you know? And that’s what I love about music: it gives me space to feel what I want to feel, whereas there’s beauty in somebody saying “this is my lived experience and I’m gonna say it in a few words and hope that you feel what I felt” – that’s incredible, you know? That’s so powerful. And that to me is the ultimate challenge. So I think with lyrics and vocals, how do you say something that’s meaningful without sounding like you’re trying to say something that’s meaningful. It’s like, this is so meaningful to me, but I don’t want it to be like I’m forcing my meaning onto you, right? And I think that’s what great lyrics do: you can feel what they feel, but you still have space.
With instrumental music, the challenge is “how do you make music with individuals just playing instruments without sounding like you’re just individuals playing instruments?” How do you elevate beyond that? And I feel that with some instrumental music, I’m so aware of what’s happening. It’s like, there’s a bassist and there’s a drummer and there’s a guitarist and they’re doing these things together. And I want to be taken away, I want to forget what’s happening, and to me, that’s the goal. And I think that with this new record, there are moments where – even as somebody who has worked on it – you forget that there’s a celloist, violinist, and guitarist. There are moments where it becomes this greater cloud of energy that you’re navigating. And that’s the ultimate challenge of instrumental music. I don’t want people to be too aware it’s just instruments; I want to create a whole other world, and I think that we were able to do that at moments, hopefully. [laughs]
Evan: A lot of times when there’s a band with vocals, the vocals carry the emotion a lot of the time, and the instrumentals are accompanying the vocalist in a way, right? So with the emotion, we turn towards the lyrics and towards the singer and we use that as the primary focus. But when you take the singer away… like The Night Watch is a good example of that. We don’t even think about having a singer in the band, but somehow, I think, it makes interesting music.
Raphael: [With instrumental music] The default focus doesn’t have to be “it’s going to be this right now”, it has to be because of the configuration. It’s like when you have an instrumental combination, it can turn itself inside out so quickly and then go somewhere else. It has this kind of flexibility about it that I like, where you can really focus on the combinations of the instruments, the arrangement, and giving everyone the spotlight at different points, sort of like passing the baton around. I find that – I mean, it can be done in any format of music – but I think that lends itself more to this sort of music.
Nathanael: Yeah, and I have a lot of thoughts on this, because I listen to so much instrumental music. I look at it like the music is sort of an engine, and you want that engine to take you somewhere, you don’t want it to be in the garage, watching it run, you want it to take you places. I think that’s the best metaphor I could think of and I know that some music can make you feel like that. It can feel like you’re just absorbed, looking at the engine sat in the garage, but some bands have the power where you get on it, and it’s a rocket ship, and it just takes you to another world.
It’s also a personality thing, too. With The Night Watch, it works really well because I love playing rhythm. I love being in the background and filling in the space as a guitarist. The electric guitar is under-utilised as just a background instrument, it can do so much and fill out so much space. Satisfying guitar licks for instance – today I was listening to the band Tortoise, they’re a band from Chicago and a legendary instrumental band, and their guitarist is Jeff Parker. They’ll do a song with all these layers of vibraphone, but Jeff will just come in with these interesting guitar parts that are so satisfying. Like, he steps in at just the right moment to paint his part of the room. And with The Night Watch, we did a record called Boundaries, which is a 36-minute-straight instrumental metal song, and I’m so proud that there’s zero shredding on it. To me, progressive metal album with zero shredding – I love that challenge. Like when you listen to old prog like Yes and their song “You and I”, it starts off with these strummy chords and the bass is complementing it, and there are all these little things in the background that become the greater sum of their parts, and before you realise it, you’re surrounded by all of these different sounds and details, and they all work in unison together without any one thing stepping out to try and steal the spotlight.
Yeah, I mean going a bit off topic from the question, you could argue, with a band like Tool, even though they’re a vocal band, that last album [Fear Inoculum], as you said before Nathanael, they’re all working together and there are bits where Maynard drops out for, like, 8 minutes so that the other guys can connect and build this world they’re trying to create.
Nathanael: Yeah, and that’s why the band is so good, because you’ve got Danny Carey who’s doing all of this really intricate stuff, and then you’ve got Adam Jones, who’s a very understated but very meticulous guitar player – and I’m really influenced by his style of playing because he fits in just where he needs to and, basically, everything has its space, right? So when you’re listening, you can look at all the individual parts, but then it comes together, and you’ve got the drumming and Justin Chancellor doing all this atmospheric, very punchy bass stuff, and then Maynard’s like the icing on the cake. They each have their own personalities and they’re all working together to create something that’s bigger than just the individuals.
Raphael: The last record is pretty unusual, too, when you think about the way it’s mixed. If you compare that to another band with the same configuration, to have the bass so prominent and the vocals that understated, that’s extremely rare. When you think about it, it’s a ballsy move. I think it’s great, I love it. The bass is huge on that record and it’s such an integral part of the music and it’s a big focal point, and then you have the vocals which are, you know, when you think about a traditional rock mix, they’re really low, and they work. I don’t think they should be louder; the band operate as a collective, as opposed to a band that has a frontman and the eyes are all on that person. And even there – the way they perform onstage, obviously Maynard is in the back, not because of that stuff, but for acoustic reasons, but it plays into that circular energy instead of a linear one.
Nathanael: Also, just to build on one more thing, Ralph talking about the mix – that is the other half when it comes to music and how you’re able to transport people. You create that world, right, how is it mixed? Me and Ralph talk a lot about this. To me, I think about music as food and it’s no wonder that we say “oh, I have musical tastes”, because you think about a dish where all the spices work together, and you’ve got the pickled thing here and the bread there, etc, etc, and I think that a good album is like that. It’s like a meal where you’re very satisfied and you get a little bit of everything. I mean, sometimes you just want bread and cheese, but I think Raph talking about the mix, that’s important. You can write the song but how you present it sonically to the listener? That’s what makes a huge difference, you know? With Inheritance, when we mixed it, we worked so hard on the mix because of how we wanted everything to appear.
Raphael: Yeah, it makes a different impression. I think it’s pretty crazy that you can take stems from something that was recorded and give them to different people to mix or have a different process. It’s like looking at a painting or something under different filters or from a different angle. You know, the actual strokes are the same, but the brush and the paints are different. It’s crazy how much of a drastic impact it has on the result, and how people view it and how people view the music. So I think often, people have a sense of what those songs are like, but the song is coloured by the mix they’re hearing and what that brings out, and the overall atmosphere that it creates.
Pt.2 – Hindsight coming soon.
Inheritance is out now via bandcamp, where you can find their other works.