Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Rivers of Nihil

This is the 20th (!) installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]

Artist: Rivers of Nihil

Album: Where Owls Know My Name

Year: 2018

Label: Metal Blade Records

Favorite Song: "The Silent Life"

The Bare Bones: Where Owls Know My Name is the third full length from genre-bending American death metal act Rivers of Nihil, one that saw an increased emphasis on progressive song structures, some surprising instrumentation (yup, you know what I'm talking about), resulting in the most ambitious set of songs in the band's young life.

The Beating Heart: There something about Rivers of Nihil that seems to make it an easy target, or at the very least make it quite to not take them seriously: their riffing tone seems always on the verge of breaking into a full-fledged djent; their production seems to take a note or two from the Cattle Decapitation school of "everything triggered, all the time," which, it should be said, Cattle Decap have turned into an effective aesthetic tool, but one that draws the ire of metal, for the lack of a better terms, "bros" when it comes to any other band; and, worst of all, they seem like decent guys, a fatal personality flaw in a metal sphere arranged, like the Platonic world of Ideas, around the ideal of the "douchebag." So, a lot of things not going their way, at least on a very superficial level. And yet to not take Rivers of Nihil seriously would be a grave mistake. If anything because their discography shows them slowly moving away from the aggro-not-quite-deathcore-but-close attitude of yore into greater and greater exploration of musicianship and songwriting, resulting in what I believe to be their best album and one of the defining death metal albums of the 2010s, which is the topic of this article.

But the main reason to take Rivers of Nihil seriously is that they are not ashamed at the very least in their identity as a band, nor are they afraid in away way to constantly evolve that identity into whatever it is they feel like doing. And that's a very rare thing, I think, to stand behind who you are and to find within that identify the path into metamorphosis. Hence the difficulty to pin down whatever subgenre of metal Rivers of Nihil occupies: they're obviously influenced by technical aspects, but they are not a techdeath band. They are explicit about their progressive fascinations, but they are not a prog metal band, and they have drifted far enough from their somewhat "core" background to miss that mark as well. And most of all, their music seems entrenched in melancholy, whether lyrically or musically, that would seem almost out of place in contemporary death metal. They are, it seems, a band all their own, a world of their making the cornerstone of which is the astounding artistic and emotional feat of Where Owls Know My Name. The kind of record that comes from within a genre, whatever that genre may be, and leaves it looking very different, all while laying the tracks for a very exciting future.

As always, before proceeding to my correspondence with RoN (nice name) bass player Adam Biggs I would like to encourage you to read the rest of this ongoing interview project, which will be running until the end of the year (and probably spilling into the beginning of 2020), with a lot more exciting conversations to be published. You can follow us on any one of our social media outlets (FacebookInstagramSpotify) and also, if so inclined, support us on Patreon. My aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, focusing on the art and life of that art, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 1 of amazing local, post-metal, hardcore, noise, and more. Thank you all for being here, and enjoy.

Was there a moment you remember as a younger person or as a kid that you would call a watershed or eureka moment you had with music? A song, an album cover, a performance that completely changed how you viewed music and its role in your life?

There are a few instances that come to mind. However, I think the most crucial one happened when I was 14. I was deeply entrenched into early 00’s metalcore culture and wasn’t interested in pretty much anything else musically, until one day my dad forced me to stay home from hanging out with my friends so I could listen to Dark Side of the Moon with him. I was so resistant, the thought of missing time with my friends to listen to some old-guy band that my dad would nerd out over felt like a fate worse than death for teenage me. But, as is the power of a truly classic piece of art, Dark Side changed my mind immediately. It seemed to completely re-contextualize music as I knew it up to that point in one listen, it just clicked immediately. I knew from then on that I always wanted to make music that feels like it’s going somewhere, albums that tie together not only in sound but in themes that bridge songs together across the record. Not only did this experience lead me to be a now lifetime fan of Pink Floyd, but it also lead to a closer musical relationship with my father – we spent a lot of time after this analyzing things like song structure and lyrics, and all of the things generally makes music great. It’s those conversations that really shaped me as a songwriter and an appreciator of music overall.

Looking back as an adult artist, he gravitated as much as he did to Dark Side of the Moon? What was it about that album?

I mean, the album is widely regarded as a timeless classic for good reason. There are so many individual elements that come together to make it what it is: production, songcraft, storytelling, the performances. Not to mention the entire tracklist is a parade of absolutely holy musical moments. But I think what really struck me was how it felt just as important as a whole album as it did as a list of individual songs. I was so used to listening to albums that just felt like a loose collection of tracks, that the journey that Dark Side takes you on had a really profound impact on me. The way the songs mingle and progress into one another felt like both an extremely creative and an extremely natural move. I've always wanted make music that takes the listener on a journey with a clear beginning and ending like Dark Side did for me.

Could you speak a bit about what were some of the things that led to the band coming together? Did you have any musical framework in mind or obvious influences coming it, or did you just figure something out together (or any combination of the two)?

We all knew each other from crossing paths in the local scene and respected one another as musicians. Starting in 2007 Brody [Uttley] and I were in a thrash band together while Jon Kunz, Ron Nelson and Jake [Dieffenbach] were part of a popular local deathcore band. Around 2009 both of the aforementioned bands kind of fell apart and the most dedicated members of each decided to come together to form Rivers of Nihil. When Brody and I joined to complete the lineup there were already a handful of songs that the other guys had ready to go, and they were much more focused on brutality than we are today, you can hear most of them on our first EP Hierarchy.

I think Brody and I immediately aimed to add a more progressive flare to the sound and it shows in our early material in bits and pieces. But it all had like a hundred riffs in each song, it was really kind of obtuse, and I think it’s basically the sound of us trying to figure out what we were good at doing and exploring what types of musical ideas suit us. So I guess you could say a lot of our musical framework came from us narrowing down that field of ideas within our songs down over a long time, trying to find the best formula for what we do, so to speak.

Your first album sounds like you guys were just exploding everything you had, a very violent, sometimes anxious, outpouring of inspiration, influences, riffs, ideas, everything. But already by Monarchy, as heavy as that album still is, things are much more spaced out, maybe even thought out. What was the difference for you? Was there a sense of less pressure on the second go around? More time? A different process?

There are plenty of factors that make the differences between our first two LPs so stark, a change of studio/producers is a pretty major factor, but I think it really comes down to Monarchy being the first thing we ever had to do with a new lineup. Jon and Ron were the founders of the band and even though they had become less involved in writing over the years, they were still always important to the decisions we made about what we were playing. But now, we had to decide what the band would be without them, and I think we both already knew it was going to be something like Monarchy. Like I said earlier, Brody and I were always looking to push the band in a more progressive direction and now we felt like we had free reign to pursue that idea. We were actually surprised by how heavy the finished product turned out, it had felt like we had done something that was decidedly more progressive and less death metal than the previous record, but I think it really was only that way by comparison.

As a follow up to that last question, and getting to Where Owls Know My Name, that albums seems like an even more extreme version of that first transition. More space, more, I don’t know, patience. Was this a conscious attempt to try and create more breathing room or variety in your compositions?

It was definitely a goal during writing, yes. Because even though Monarchy was a big step away from the tech and clutter of Conscious Seed, it’s still decidedly a tech death record. But by the time we started writing for Owls we had had enough of the rat race of trying to out-shred the next band in line. We were tired of feeling like we were in a competition with every other technical death metal band out there, so in a lot of ways Owls is us bowing out of a game we felt like we’d been playing for a long time. Once we took that expectation off of our shoulders I think it freed us up to experiment more and more. We really wanted to focus on writing cohesive songs that felt like they had a story to tell or had a lot of distinct movements instead of just trying to impress constantly. We basically wanted to flex our songwriting muscles more and our tech muscles a little less. Everything we had written up to this point felt like it was in a hurry to get somewhere, but Owls is the first time I think it makes it to its destination.

Within all this change between the various recording processes, growing up as both human beings and musicians (if those are separate categories) what would you say was something new you learned about the relationship between melody, space and heaviness? Put otherwise, are there more than one way to be heavy?

I think that more than anything what we’ve learned, or more accurately, what we’ve worked towards, is to rely on heaviness less and less. The more dynamics we’ve added over the years tends to, in my opinion, make the heavy stuff feel even heavier than it did when that was all we were going for. I think this is a result of us branching out more and more as musicians and music fans in general. When we first started we were all very focused on the metal genre almost exclusively, and as we’ve gotten older we’ve started to appreciate more and more styles of music and how they make you feel. To put it more simply: blast beats and double bass are great, but they’re even better when you don’t hear them for 45 minutes at a time.

And, well, you knew there was going to be a question about this: the sax. Where did that idea originate, and what do you feel it added to your music?

We had this big open space in an early demo for "The Silent Life" that felt like it needed some action, but it didn’t feel right for vocals or a guitar solo or anything like that. So we had our friend (the very talented Zach Strouse) take a look at the part almost for the hell of it and see what he could come up with. We were blown away by what he sent us and were excited to see what other texture it could add to the record. At the end of the day I think it adds just that, texture, and a smack of unpredictability. To be perfectly honest, I felt like it was a natural choice for the material. We were really influenced by bands like King Crimson and Pink Floyd during the making of the record, and both of those bands incorporate sax pretty seamlessly into their music, so we figured why not us?

I some ways Rivers of Nihil came up and broke out all within what we might called the Bandcamp/internet age. Bands are not only everywhere, but acutely aware of other bands – influences, competition, cross-influences. I know you’ve stated how to an extent oblivious you are of all this noise when making music, so I guess my question would be – how? What enables you to tune out the 24/7 nature of the new global metal scene and just focus on your music?

I think it might be an exaggeration to say that we completely ignore the metal scene, but like I said, our focus drifts more and more away from it all the time. We still recognize and appreciate good work in the genre when we come across it (bands like Warforged and Conjurer come to mind), and we have to stay current on the scene to an extent because we have to know what bands we should tour with, etc. But it just doesn’t take up the headspace that it used to for us. We’ve explored what we can do with what we know about the metal genre pretty thoroughly and the idea now is to branch out and find new ways to express ourselves musically.

I know that the Where Owls Know My Name experience is still very much at the present, and that you’re still processing the response to it, and touring and all that. But, as hard as it is sometimes to see things as they happen, is there anything that you’re especially proud of when you look back at that album?

I’m proud of how open-minded we all remained throughout the making of the record above anything else. A lot of what we tried to do was pretty adventurous by our standards and I’m always very pleased that everyone involved not only appreciated that, but added to it in a way that I can still hear every time I listen back to the record. It’s a great feeling to know that you can make something that you truly connect with, and challenges your limits, and people can recognize it and respond to it in such a loving way. This record changed all of our lives in ways we never expected and things are still developing all the time, it constantly makes me proud, and excited for what could come next.