Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Yellow Eyes
This is the 23rd installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Artist: Yellow Eyes
Album: Sick with Bloom
Label: Gilead Media
Favorite Song: "Mangrove, The Preserver"
The Bare Bones: Sick with Bloom is third full-length album from New York-based black metal band Yellow Eyes, formed in 2010 by brothers Will and Sam Skarstad, and the first to feature bass player Alexander DeMaria (Anicon) and drummer Mike Rekevics (Ruin Lust, Vanum, et al).
The Beating Heart: Yellow Eyes is a very important band for this blog of mine for basically, along with the work of Charlie Looker and Krallice, introducing me to what is now known somewhat posthumously as the Brooklyn scene. And among that scene Yellow Eyes seemed always to side with tradition. Not traditional in a conservative way, they were and still are a mind-bendingly forward-thinking band, but traditional in the sense that out of all the bands that made up that quirky scene Yellow Eyes always struck me as producing music that was the most attached to the Northern European roots of black metal. They were, to put it more bluntly, the most Norwegian (with an added dash of some Eastern European melancholy) of that bunch. Sick with Bloom, however, was the moment where that sense of an "old country" brand of aggression and artfulness clashed with filthy, open, broad-chested, and somewhat inebriated American classic rock of the mid-to-late 1970s. A smashing together of the old, the traditional, with the free, rebellious, and, yeah, somewhat inebriated. The result is, in my mind, one of the defining American black metal album of the decade, an album that crystallizes the complex and, at times, unfettered relationship American black metal has with its European origin. The kind of album you could listen to with your headphones on, wandering the bleak wilderness of a Norwegian winter (or the even greater wilderness of the suburban vacuum) and the kind of album you could blast in your imaginary 1976 drop-top as the wind blasts your sun-burnt face. A black, rotten drop-top, to be sure, filled with nagging self-doubt and soaring artistic ambition, but a drop-top nonetheless. On a personal note, not only is this one of my absolute favorite albums of the last 10 years or so, this interview has been and is a personal highlight, and I hope you can find the time to read it all while blasting Yellow Eyes in the background.
However, before proceeding to my wonderful, intimate, hilarious, and life-affirming conversation with Sam and Will 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 (Facebook, Instagram, Spotify) 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 black metal, death metal, grindcore, folk, and more. To the interview. Enjoy!
I want to start with a question I always ask, which is to ask both of you if you remember a moment, maybe as kids or his younger adult or whatever, where you were just hit by a song or an album, or album artwork. And you were like: “What the fuck is this that I'm listening to? This is completely different than anything that I've listened to before” and kind of set you on a path of either strange music or heavy music or anything like that.
Sam: First of all I have to say that Will was into metal way earlier than I was. So, all of the early music that ever hit me had nothing to do with metal. For a long time I was into melody more than approach or concept or something. I think some of the earliest albums in my life are like the Beach Boys or something.
Will: Me too. I mean, we’re brothers, we shared a bedroom. So I think the first record we ever had was the Beach Boys [laughs]. And we both had that, because we shared everything back then.
Sam: So yeah, there are a lot of different first albums that we had, and strangely enough, they were all good enough albums that blew my little mind again and again I think another one was Lou Reed’s Berlin. That's one I remember hearing as probably a child, I don't even know what age, and thinking there's some strange, dark magic in there. And realizing that there was something about certain types of music that was intangible and extreme in ways that I didn't understand yet. But had to do with place and some bizarre sense of anger, and abstractness. So yeah, for me it was maybe hearing Berlin or, or any of the early Reed stuff.
Will: As far as metal goes, we're Norwegian, half Norwegian, by blood. And when I was 18, I went to Norway after high school to milk cows on the farm. And I bought so many records all the time, just buying metal records on my days off, going to some bar in Norway and looking at people's patches and just kind of thinking: “Oh, what's that? What's that?” Matching the logo and buying all these records. But yeah, one of the early black metal records that totally clicked, and it helped being in Norway on a farm, was Darkthrone’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky. I remember that just totally clicked. I was walking around in the snowy woods around the farm by myself, didn't have any friends. And that was the right situation to have that really click. I had been into metal for a few years before that. But I feel like I found the better stuff around that time. That was a big record.
I think Will kind of referenced it, and also Sam, but can you look back now at that moment and kind of understand why it had that impact on you? Knowing your sensibilities now as artists?
Sam: That's a good question, and the answer is “definitely yes.” It's hard to talk about albums, because when you're young you might fall in love with just a moment, or you might just fall in love with something about a song that you don't even understand. But for me, I think I was just attracted to anything that felt unknowable, or anything that felt slippery in some way. But I guess I was still entranced by melody, no matter what. I can't say I was into abstract noise ever as a kid. It wasn’t until I was way older that I realized what that meant, conceptually, to make something really just pummeling and noisy. I didn't understand that until I was into my 20s or something. But, for me it was anything that was beautiful, but also something you had to overcome a speed bump or an obstacle to get to. Not always, you know, the Beach Boys are just candy. But that was as a child, I was probably seven or something. But I guess a little later, when I was discovering certain other things. Anything that was beautiful, but also tough.
Will: This still happens to us.
Will: I mean, we still find things that surprise us and stick with us. I'd say that most recently, most notably, right before we recorded Immersion Trench Reverie, we were up in the woods, driving around listening to a local country radio station, and some Emerson Lake and Palmer, an insane rock band from the 70s, came on the radio, and it just completely blew our minds. And then I went on to buy the vinyl, just sitting there and analyzing this totally crazy cover art. And I felt like a child discovering something special for the first time. And we both did, we were both just so psyched about it.
Sam: Yeah! We had a 48-hour period, just before recording Immersion Trench Reverie where we suddenly realized we might be a prog rock band.
Sam: It really blew our minds. Like: “Is this what we were trying to do the whole time?” And I think that after that 48-hour period, we were like: “Of course not.”
Will: When you get into stuff like that and you start thinking: “Wait, is it possible that’s what we are” but then you go: “No, we're trying to make black metal.” But that stuff is very inspiring. And that can still happen. It happens all the time.
Sam: It's funny. We never like to say too much about the influences, because it's so random, it could be anything. But the truth is we're actually very open to influences. And so that and that could be anything. It can be walking by a church and hearing some scrap of a choral piece that everyone knows, but hearing it from a different angle and saying: “Oh my god, that melody, listen to that!” I think one time, Will didn’t you start writing a song based on some country's national anthem?
Will: [Laughs] From somewhere, I can’t remember which anthem it was, some Eastern-European country.
Sam: To me, any band in our category, I don't even know what category we are, but I think we're all very attracted to large-scale melodies. So, national anthems are perfect for the kind of large-scale sound that a lot of metal bands are going for, and all sorts of choral music can be very in line with that. I mean, another one that I remember listening to, as a kid. Our mom who was a composer and a very good musician, and she always loved playing us crazy music from around the world when we were kids, geez, she used to play us the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who writes these very weird close harmonies, and just gorgeous, very minimal, sparse choral music. And I forgot that she had played that for us. And many years later, I rediscovered Arvo Pärt and realized that there are sections of some of our songs that are just right next to Arvo Pärt-type melodies. And suddenly we were like: “Why are we trying to do this? We have failed, and he succeeded!” You know, you realize these things just stick with you for your whole life, and you spend your life trying to find them again.
It's interesting that a lot of times when you describe encountering these new musical discoveries, that one of the first thoughts that come to your mind is “Oh, shit, this is how you’re supposed to do it, we failed!” There seems to be a pattern there.
Sam: That’s a great point. I think any musician in the world feels a level of disappointment that they're not closer to what they love. Of course, you don't think about that too hard, because you are your own entity. But there's a sadness whenever you make anything that it's never as good as you want it to be, ever. And that's just part of making any art in the world.
I understand that there's a basic level in which discussions about art are nonsense. Like, if I asked you “What part of Arvo Pärt influenced you the most?” then your brain would shut down. That answer would become nonsense, right? So there's a lot of randomness, there's a lot of putting stuff together just because it feels right. And one of those discussions that seem to be moot points are discussions of genre, right? Does it really matter whether or not you're playing black metal or a very distorted Eastern European folk music.
Sam: I really hope so! [Laughs]
Yeah, but black metal, at least, part of it, is about “I'm making things difficult for you, as a listener.” Literary modernism was kind like that, as in: “I'm an author, I don't care about you the reader, I want it to be difficult for you, and I want you to understand that this is an inside joke, and you're on the outside.” And so, given that approach, melody is almost subversive….
Sam: You nailed it, that’s a great way of putting it. When I realized, relatively late in my life, the beauty of black metal, it included the realization that part of the joy is crossing the bridge, to kind of dig for the melody or to just enjoy the lack screen between you and the gleaming jewels behind it. You need to go through that, and, as it turns out, it's an incredible experience, for some strange human reason, that probably has to do with finding meaning through hardship. And I would say that we have both written all sorts of music in our lives, I spent many years playing in other bands, writing different types of music. And for whatever reason it was an absolute relief to suddenly realize that playing in a metal band could focus my very disparate ideas and make them almost more infinite that way, or at least reach farther. That, basically, you need to limit the rainbow because every color at once is not a compelling music project a lot of the times, and it can be confusing and muddy. And it really helps, if you have this tendency. A lot of people just find their genre and dig deep into it, but there's something about metal that's very narrow and very focused…
Will: And also very freeing.
Will: Because you can do anything. We understand what black metal is, what this band is. So when we make a record, we want to make a song with a few riffs that just, you know, make us laugh at first, just like you can't do a riff like that, and then we do, we double down on that riff. So, I personally love the limitations that black metal provides us. It allows us to be so creative, but at the same time, I feel like we can do anything [laughs].
Sam: Yeah, it's like why does a black-and-white movie feel more colorful, sometimes? How can black-and-white film feel more colorful?
I actually have an example for that. It's not the same thing, because it's not a color thing. But it's a depth perception thing. Like in Psycho, there’s a character falling down a flight of stairs, and the falling isn't just a shot of someone falling, its this collage that creates the illusion of that fall’s depth, or its horror. So you actually feel like you're falling precisely because you can't see the fall as one continuous shot. You're taking two images and you're smashing them together. And that smashing, when done well, creates a third thing, which isn't really there, which is like the experience of that. I don't know.
Sam: I like that. Definitely. That's exactly the same concept. It’s a leap, and the brain enjoys taking the leap, enjoys not seeing everything. All of this is the same conversation as why a limited production sound on a record can be more appealing than a full spectrum of sound. It's the same concept. It just feels better for some reason. You like not knowing everything, you like not hearing everything.
So, I'd like to get technical with this. One of my one of my fascinations with Yellow Eyes has always been a technical fascination. And, similarly to the discussion that we've been having right now, that there are two forces at work in Yellow Eyes eyes that don't seem to fit together, and which make the song great. And now, those two forces, and I am perhaps falsely identifying them, are: whatever the fuck you're doing with a guitar…
… and the drums. So the drums are super upfront, huge rock-band drums, they're not slight. They're not, you know, “making way for the guitars,” they're a huge presence in every song, I think, since the beginning, in every song you do. And then you have these super high-pitched guitars, kind of fighting each other, which I assume is a little piece of brotherly competition there.
Sam: That’s right, that’s right [laughs].
But like two guitars dueling way up here, like way up high, and the drums just pummeling under them. And I wonder if that's a conscious decision or if that's something that you've caught on to – that part of your aesthetic is clashing these things together and seeing if they work?
Sam: Well, that's a great question. It’s so boring when people who are being interviewed always say “That’s a great question.” But that’s a great question.
I love it. I'm not bored by it at all.
Will: Well, this is the first time we've ever actually spoken to somebody in an interview, we usually do it through email. So, that’s why we might not know what to do with these things.
Sam: I’m just surprised that it's a very good question. When you're the producer and a part of the band and also one of the writers… Will and I spend so much time writing together, and then I spend so much time producing alone, [then] I really split into two people. I'm a different person during the writing than I am during the production. So, the writing is one thing, and there's plenty to say about that. But I will say that for the production, that’s a crazy process for me, because as any producer in any band, especially an extreme music band, I feel like it's just a very lonely thing, because often it's just a month of wondering: “Why isn't it working for me? Did I screw it up? Did I screw up the recording? Did I put the mics in the wrong place? Why doesn't it work?” So it's just trying different things for a long time.
Will: I mean, you know what you want. That's why you're thinking that, because you are so close to it. Somebody else might just say it's good enough. But you have that vision somewhere.
Sam: Yeah. The vision is there. And I know how good it can be. And it often drives me crazy to get that exact…
Will: You know! You know how many hours we spent rehearsing and writing and everything, hundreds and hundreds of hours, you don't want to screw it up at the very last moment.
Sam: Exactly. And, first of all, the important part is that we do recording so fast, and a lot of the writing happens so fast. So there's all these strange areas that are fast and slow, fast and slow. And the recording, I don't even think too hard about putting up mics, it's kind of just off the cuff. We just drink a ton of whiskey and have a good time. And then I go alone into my cave and work on the mixing, and that's where the real self torture begins. I think “How do I get this right.” And incidentally, you realized again, and again…. For the 10 years we've been doing this band, I've produced every record. And the deepest truth that comes out is in the mixing, when you realize what needs to be the right contrast. And some albums are different, but in the last three albums, I just realized this, that with Mike as our drummer, who's been our drummer for the last three, we really need that pummeling, we need that kind of cardboard-box, rubber-band, helicopter-blade low end. Something that sounds very punchy and strong to balance out the screeching roar of the guitars. And it's the only way that makes sense. And I've tried so many different types of mixing, I've tried mixing it more like a classic rock record, and it never sounds right until it sounds like this, the way you hear it. And suddenly, I just realized this, and I say: “What have I been wasting my time on this whole time? This is I would have to sound!”
Will: And that time can be a full week, all day, every day. A lot of time.
So I wanted to ask about Mike. Because, essentially, this interview is about Sick with Bloom. And seems to me like a cliche. You don't know this, because you haven't been around all the interviews I do. But I am cliche to myself right now. Because it always just happens to be that the album I like is a turning point in the band's career. And that’s bullshit. But Sick with Bloom does feel like a turning point.
Will: It is!
The reason why I feel like it's a turning point is double. One being Mike. Because he's just amazing, and in a way he's given reign over the low end, but he does much more than just keep the low, doing a lot of crazy, creative things in that space. So that's a big difference. But the biggest difference for me is the production. And I think in a way it's a production that you haven't repeated. There's just that album that has that production.
And I'm very curious as to why. So I'm curious how you got to that production, and I'm curious why you didn't do it again.
Sam: I would say that even if we wanted to do that again…
Will: We would have no idea how to do it.
Will: We don’t have that much control.
Sam: And that's part of the torture of mixing, is that you just go in and just do it, and the only way I can get to a sound like that again is if I put all the mics in the same place. I mean, the crazy thing is that you realize with with guitars, as any engineer could probably tell you, you move the mic one inch to the right and it's a different record. You move the mic one inch to the left and it's like it's a different record. It's more screechy, or it's….
Will: We don't have guitar pedals, we don't use any thing. So we just kind of plug in and just turn the knobs to something, I don't even know where, treble, bass, mid.
You really don’t know?
Will: No. We just go “Yeah that sounds good, and then we just do it.”
Sam: Honestly, part of the fun of this whole life of Yellow Eye has been not to fuss over the sound. And whenever we play shows, we don't care what amps we use, we don't really care about anything. It's like “Make sure it has high gain, you crank it a bit, and it's probably fine.” And we'll see how it works. And sometimes it doesn't work that well, but that’s part of the fun.
Will: I will say with that record, though, you are right. It's a turning point. And I think that's because…. When we had Mike come in, and we knew Mike pretty, we knew what he was good at. Our first drummer was a guy he had gone to high school with, an old friend. But he was a jazz drummer, he was not a metal drummer at all. And when we started this band, the three of us were living together, and we just said: “Can you do this kind of blast beat?” And he's a good drummer, so of course he could. But when we had Mike coming in, we knew what Mike’s strengths were. And actually Mike even comments on this now, he says :”Yeah, Sick with Bloom is probably one of our most simple records riff wise and maybe structurally.” But I think we probably subconsciously did that. Because we knew Mike likes to do long stretches of double bass and he's good at building momentum with the drums, and not tons of little sharp changes or anything like that. I think we subconsciously wrote that with him in mind. And I think once we got used to playing with him it's fun for us now to write crazy things and just say: “Mike, you gotta do that.”
Sam and I, we keep a pretty tight lid on how the songs are created. We’re writing the guitar parts, and in a lot of cases we’re writing the drum parts and the bass parts, we write everything. And one thing about Mike coming in, Mike is a big personality, and it turns out he’s frustratingly right most of the time, as we’ve come to learn. So I think we learned pretty quickly that he's not the type of person to just do what exactly what we tell him. He's an artist. And I think we realized pretty early on: “Listen to him.” I think we listened to him more than we've ever listened to anybody else in this band. I think that's why Sick with Bloom probably sounded different, in some ways. I don't even know how, but I know that there were moments where we said: “Hey Mike do this” and I know that there were moments when he said: “No, I'm going to do this.” And we said “Okay.” So I think that also had an effect.
Sam: Also, we didn't know each other that well. I mean, that was when we had just met Mike.
Will: We knew him, but we did not know how we were going to play together.
Sam: We never played a show together, which changes everything. We've never done a record together. We just started practicing. Mike has very strong opinions. So, you know, we were just trying to work together, we're trying to be open to his suggestions. And we quickly realized that our sound, the types of riffs that Will and I write naturally, really benefited from a caveman approach on the drums. Somehow it just suddenly struck us that we had been trying to write drum parts that were adapted to the guitar.
Will: We just said: “Hey Mike, how about you play this change up?” And he said “No, I'm just gonna play this blast beat the entire time.”
Sam: We realized it’s better to hang the guitars on the drums than it is to hang the drums on the guitar. Like a tree you’re hanging lights on. You need some structure there. Because we realized that just the way we write riffs naturally, it’s not really heavy music, it’s not chugging, it’s now low. They’re weird riffs and they're full of all sorts of melancholy and shadow and all that stuff. But they’re not beefy. And somehow it really helps to have us be the ornamentation and Mike be the engine, the motor. And that's how a lot of bands work, a lot of people hang their stuff on the drummer, but we had never done that before. This is the first band we had ever played like this. So we realized that the drums are kind of the main event and we’re just the ornament.
Will: Even when we do shows, we can finish a very exhausting set, and people will come up to us and say: “Hey, where’s your drummer?” They just want to go and talk with him. He’s the star of the show, but we’re cool with that.
[Laughs] So I wanted to say two things. One is a is an embarrassingly bad example and the other is an embarrassingly bad hot take. And so I'll begin with the embarrassingly bad example. I've been married, I should say, I've been with my wife for the last 13 years. And about two weeks into knowing her, all we did was fight. And all that time I was asking myself: “Why is this person resisting me, everywhere?” and then something in my mind went: “She’s the one.” And that weird combination is still, to a degree, why I think we have a successful relationship.
Because we're different people. And I meet people who are single, maybe my age or younger, and single in this day and age, where everything goes on in Tinder or whatever. And they keep looking for people who are like them. And I keep telling them that it doesn't work like that. And so, and please don’t take this the wrong way because I love Hammer of Night, but maybe Hammer of night was a relationship of people who are like each other.
Will: Yup. That’s so true.
And Sick with Bloom is that real relationship where someone is not like you but you're clicking?
Will and Sam: Yeah, yeah.
Will: If everybody listened to our records the way you did we’d be set!
Not set financially, but yeah.
Sam: It mirrors our relationship with Mike too. I mean, Mike, if you ever meet him one day, and I hope we can go over there and play a show one day….
Sam: He’s got very strong opinions, he’s very firm about what he believes. And, and when I first met him, in all honesty, I found that occasionally frustrating, since I'm also a person with strong opinions. And it was tough. It was tough to concede points to Mike just because he was kind of being more, not even forceful, because he's a sweetheart, but he would say things with this definiteness that could be frustrating, as someone who doesn't usually think that way. I'm more of a person who likes to talk things through. But over the years it’s exactly that that I have found so affecting about Mike. And it's exactly that that I think so many people are drawn to in him. You see it again and again, we go on tour with other bands, and by the end of the tour people are acting like Mike.
Everybody’s acting like Mike, people change the way they behave.
Will: He walks around with his shirt off, suddenly people start taking their shirts off. He knows we won’t do that.
Sam: He’s a force of nature.
Will: It’s what we needed personally, but it’s also what the music needed.
I think it just complements everything. Those kind of high-pitched, weird, almost modern classical music riffs you guys play, that are dissonant in a high pitched way, not Portal, where everything is low, but everything is high, and screechy. And then you have this man-animal, pummeling in the middle. And then it enables me to hear your riffs better. And I do want to say one last thing, that when I say the production of that album…. Well, the production point that has to do with the hot take. Alright, so the hot take is I overthink things and reach weird conclusions, as, I think, we have all gathered by now. And one of the things that I have over thought is: “Why am I attracted to black metal Made in America more than I am to black metal made in Europe?” It's a random question, it's arbitrary, it's much too broad. But I like asking those kinds of questions. So I asked myself that question over and over again, and Sick with Bloom was a touchstone in me trying to understand that. So there are a few albums I'll set them before you, if you will. So Sick with Bloom is one, Gin by Cobalt is another, Celestial Lineage by Wolves in the Throne Room is another, and maybe something by Panopticon, like Roads to the North or something like that. And so I was looking at that assembly and trying to say: “What the fuck do these things have to do with another? They obviously don’t have anything to do with another, you're imagining, stop obsessing over things that don't exist.”
And then I came up with the hot take. The hot take is that the bands I like who do American black metal, which means not all the bands, this more about my taste than it is about the nature of the American metal scene, is that the drums are the star of the show. And not only are the drums the star of the show, but there are unbridled cavemen in all of those bands who play the drums. And I tried to think about influences. I tried to think maybe Neurosis had to do with this, and maybe this is a kind of like a tribal thing, I don't know, I have no idea. But the hot take is that the production of Sick with Bloom is the perfect example of that. Because it sounds like an American rock album. It has this sheen that isn’t the static of a black metal album. It's good. It sounds good. It's pleasing to the ear. You know, I'm saying the instruments sound good.
Sam: That's interesting, and it’s so funny to hear that because at the time, I remember…. You know, that was a total experiment, the Sick with Bloom production, because it was, it was the first time I'd ever tried recording to a real-to-reel.
Sam: And so I found one, I drove out to Long Island to go pick it up. It was like a week to go before we started to record with this thing I'd never used before. I used plenty of cassette machines, but never a reel-to-reel. I had to get it fixed. It was just all last minute, and I brought it up to the country, never used it before, ordered a bunch of reels from from the Netherlands, which is the only place that makes reels now, apparently, and was learning how to do it on the fly. And I had to string together a bunch of mixers, small mixers, to blend different microphones together, it's only four channels. It's hard to record a detailed recording with four mics. So the way I'm doing it was just kind of mixing things together on the channels. And I thought I ruined the album when I listened back, on that lonely road of mixing. I was like: “Is this even gonna be usable?” I wasn't sure. But, you know, I had to figure it out. But I realized that the drums did have this beautiful mellowness about them, it’s hard to explain.
There's something that I really love about dark-sounding drums. I don't like it when the symbols are too trebly and sharp, and I also don't like it when it's too compressed. I don't like it when the snare has that pop-indie sound?
I hate that sound. The sound of a snare that's too produced is a very ugly sound to me. I just decided that I wanted it to feel like objects being smacked in a room, almost like, you're just you're hitting a textbook with a drumstick, like something very flat-sounding, and it was a very resonant room. So I think that what you hear in those drums became the formula for the next recordings, because I like the way that sounded. The formula was basically a really crazy drummer in a very resonant room recorded in a very flat way.
The first thing that came to mind when you were talking, and this is an associative thing, is that that kind of sound reminds me of a 70s drum sound. So it’s as if you’ve said: “I have a black metal drummer, who can blastbeat and double bass, but he's stoned at the moment.” You know what I’m saying?
Sam: Yeah, yeah.
The Edge is off of everything, but everything. Everything is super precise, fast when it needs to be, pummeling when it needs to be, but it's not too urgent. I don't know how to say it.
Sam: Right. It is the difference between a vintage drum sound a modern drums. When I was trying to figure out how to even record a full band like this, because any engineer can tell you recording a metal band is so different than recording anything else. It's just picking through these giant frequencies of noise for the right frequencies. It's all subtraction, it's all removing things. And I love the way 70s rock sounds, like Thin Lizzy is the perfect-sounding band, to me, just in terms of recording or or like, you know, Black Sabbath sounds incredible to me sometimes.
I can live with a definition of Sick with Bloom as the Thin Lizzy black metal album.
Will: I can live with that too!
Sam: That’s the kind of music we listen to on the road, that’s what makes us happy. So, basically, it is that flat seventies rock sound that I was originally trying to go for.
Will: And it’s why we got that reel-to-reel.
Sam: It's debatable whether or not it sounds like that. But the other thing, which actually I just remembered and in all the interviews we've ever given, I have never mentioned. To me, the formative moment, I just remember this, during Sick with Bloom, we went up to the country and there was a thunderstorm. It I think this was before we started recording. We were sitting out on this stone…
Will: Oh yeah! That’s right, that was before we did Sick with Bloom.
Sam: We’re sitting down on this stone platform, this weird little kind of like thing that looks out over a meadow. And it was pouring rain…
Will: There was lightning everywhere.
Sam: There was lightning everywhere, and Mike said: “I know the perfect thing to listen to right now,” and it was Pentagram.
Will: Yeah, what was it? “Last Days Here?”
Sam: “Last Days Here.”
Will: And this was probably the first or second time we were up there with Mike. We knew each other, we had known each other, but it was the first time spending the night together in a house, or something.
Sam: It was the night that we all felt really like unified for the first time as a band. And I remember listening to Pentagram and thinking: “This is this is perfect. Perfect.” Just sitting there. We're just silently sitting there looking at the rain, listening to Pentagram and just thinking: “This is perfect. These drums sound perfect, everything's perfect. Why would they ever want to make music that sounded any better than this?” And to me that the moment I realized that I never wanted to make the drum sound any better than a reel to reel four track recorder. It's like that. Like: “That's perfect. Why would you improve? There's no improvement.”
Will: To me that’s just our style, it has always been our style. But it gave me confidence that once we wake up there and we're testing the drum sounds to go: “Hey, how does this sound?” I mean, Mike has been in many bands and recorded in many studies with many people, it was nice to have him just there, hearing the same raw drum sounds that we can get in the cabin. And he was just like: “Sounds awesome.” So I thought: “Okay, I'm glad.” I'm glad because we already knew that we were all on the same page, especially after listening to the demo and just loving that sound.
I feel bad about you guys talking about your drummer for this long, because he's not here.
Sam: He’d love it.
But was about to ask. I mean, you kind of already answered this, why you even wanted to go down that reel-to-reel path when, you know, we’re in the 21st century and you're not obligated to do that. But you already said that you were looking for that sound. But in a way, it also comes, I'm not going to say full circle, because that's bullshit, but it also kind of touches on what you spoke about in the beginning, that you are the type of person who enjoys limitation, because if you don't have a limitation, she goes weird everywhere.
So, in a way, the does the reel-to-reel do that for you as well? It's a very, very narrow funnel through which, you know, whatever comes in, comes in and whatever gets squeezed, then gets squeezed, and that's it.
Sam: Yes, because it removes all sorts of luxuries.
Will: There’s no screen! You didn’t have to look at the screen! We’re all playing together on these takes. Once those things start spinning, there are no screens.
Sam: I’ve seen the way bands act in a studio when they can see the computer screen. And it's different. It's not good to be able to look over and see the waveforms in Pro Tools. It's not good, spiritually, on some level, it's just wrong. It's like, you know, we shouldn't be seeing that. There are all these temptations in the recording process. One of them is to look at the screen, another is to say “Oh, don't worry, we'll do that over again.” Another one is to say “Let's not use four tracks, let's use eight because that way we have more flexibility.” All these things are temptations. And you have to remind yourself not to succumb to them. Because when you know that you have to get it right, then you're on your toes, and you get it right. When when you know you don't have to get it right, you won't get it right. So there's something beautiful about sitting in a cabin with the reels going, we only have four reels, so we only have about two takes per song, and that's it. And then we're screwed if we don't get it, because that means we have to order new reels. And to me, I just love that moment, when we’re all kind of taking a deep breath, and I look at everybody and I say: “Are we are we ready?” And everyone's like “Yes, we're ready.” And then I press record, you hear the mechanical gears clicking in. And it's a it's a beautiful moment, and you know that whatever you play next is going to be on the album. And you don't get that no matter what your setup is. You don't get that if you're doing digital recording.
So, I'm really enjoying this conversation, and I haven't ruined yet. So maybe I'll try. I mean, I tried to ruin it in various forms. But now now it's really like the mother load.
Because one fault or flaw I have as a human, among many, many faults, is that I am a huge, unabashed, idiotic Megadeth fan. And the reason I'm inserting that into this conversation is because it’s a very well known fact in Megadeth lore that when they when they made their 1992 album Countdown to Extinction they were super anal in producing that. That album – everyone was in a separate room, actually one famous story was that when Marty Friedman was doing his solos Dave Mustaine was like in front of the screen checking if the bends are in tune, like everything was super regulated. And it's a good album, but it sounds like shit. It sounds empty. It's a hollow, like a hollow shell of a band. And then the album that comes next is Youthanasia. And not a lot of people like that album. I do, because it was the first metal album I really loved when I was 13. I'm disclosing my age now.
Sam: We’ll go figure that out, do some research [laughs].
Go ahead, I’ll get a lot of weird notifications from Connecticut. Anyway, so Youthanasia, whatever anyone feels about that album, the drums on that album are beautiful. And the sound of that album is beautiful. One of the things that are noteworthy about that album is that it was almost the opposite of what happened before, everything was happening as a band in the recording studio. “We're going to fight, you're going to hate me,” and obviously, there's a lot of people to hate there. And I think so I'm not gonna say Sick with Bloom was your Youthanasia, since that's a weird comparison.
Will: I’ll take it!
But there's something to giving in, even to the limitations that other human beings have on you. Right, that they place on you. Right? “It's not you and the screen, it's you and me. Look at my face. I'm the one who's annoying you right now, not the computer. Deal with me.”
Sam: Yes! It’s such a negotiation, it’s negotiating.
Will: I should have sent you our new record [Rare Field Ceiling] before we had this conversation, because now I’m curious to hear what you would think of that, but I’ll send it after. But I'm very curious, because I wonder what we think about the drums on that new one, Sam.
Sam: in a weird way the drums are probably closer to Sick with Bloom than they are to Immersion Trench Reverie. They feel more punchy. It’s still that 70s rock feel, maybe more so.
Will: I'm just fascinated. You're very good listener. So, the only thing I would request is just your opinion on the drum sound.
I think you just made my life. One of my favorite bands is asking my opinion on their drum sound.
Sam: It’s so interesting hearing you talk about Sick with Bloom, because the larger issue for me is, anytime a band manages to make something truly good, it's a miracle, it's a miracle for the band. So many things have to work for a band to produce a good album, it's so hard to do, and I will live and die by that sentiment. We go on these tours all the time, and you meet all these bands. And, and one of the amazing things about being in a room with three bands that you admire, just hanging out drinking beer, is that all of these people have managed to create something at least very good, or maybe good or maybe great. And, to me, it's sort of miraculous, because there were so many ways for us to screw up. And and I guess…
Will: Maybe we did screw up?
Sam: Maybe we did, and maybe we would have made a better album if we had done something differently. But it's such a high-wire act that all you can do is throw your resources into a big pool and see what biologically forms you know, see what bubbles up.
Will: You can’t think too hard about it. It'll just drive you nuts. I mean, we're probably getting off topic now, but, like I said before, Sam and I are very controlling about the process. The writing is meticulous, every note we’re just writing it, rewriting it, writing and recording a demo, demo, demo, demo. But on this last record, for the first time ever, I think we just let that go a little bit in a very couple key moments. And in fact, one entire song. It's not like a song, you'll see the last song in this new record. But, that entire thing came into place in 10 Minutes with us sitting in the room, playing the guitar, nothing was written before, and that’s the first time that’s ever happened. And I know it can just drive you nuts thinking about: “What if we do it this way? Why don't we do it that way.” But that was a very good way to do it. Just like try to not be too attached to anything and just let things happen.
Sam: Yeah, and, to me, one of the things we never acknowledged in any interview and probably haven't even talked that much about is that, in a way, it would be exciting to us if everyone hated something we did. It would be exciting.
Will: If we felt good about it, yeah.
Sam: It's been fun for all these years not to really be pushing to be any bigger than we are, to sort of you just let it happen. I like the idea that people refer to us as the “new Brooklyn band Yellow Eyes.” We've been doing this for 10 years.
It’s like we have this underdog status.I think that's a direct result of not doing anything in a PR way. And yet, in the long run, it just ends up fitting your band better than if you had pushed harder.
Will: We push hard on the songs, I don’t see any other way to really push, that’s where it should be.
Sam: It would just be the most exciting thing if we made an album that we loved more than anything and everybody hated it, it would be like the biggest mysterious, fascinating thing. Like: “Wow, look at that, it finally happened. So it's sort of this fun, this adventurousness.
Will: It’s in our nature to do that, though. You know, Ron, it’s funny because we're brothers and we just talked on the phone all the time about this stuff, but literally this morning we were talking on the phone like: “I want to make a record that's all just acoustic guitars and strange instruments, not acoustic guitars, but like no distortion, all strange instruments. And just write it, in person, very quickly, and put it out as a Yellow Eyes record.
That sounds amazing.
Sam: We did kind of a cheeky move on the final song. We've always done, usually, six songs to an album. And the last song on this new record is entirely eight minutes of this Russian group of people singing, and then it’s this sort of long, flowing narrative thing. And it ends with just us playing this strange clean guitar loop for like two minutes while it fades out.
Will: It was so fun to do that! I always say that each record, we have one song that serves as the goal for the next one. “I like that song, we should do more stuff like that.” On this one [Rare Field Ceiling] that song is the song for me. It's just so fun to not have drums and not have electric guitars. I mean, I'm not saying that's what the band will sound like from now on, but I just want to experiment with that.
Sam: I just don't feel very attached to the idea that we need to make metal by a template. I love metal, I want to keep making metal, but I don't care if it doesn't sound like what people want it to sound like, I don't care.
So, everything you're saying makes complete sense to me on, I guess, a personal level. I always have to think if I want to resist speaking about my personal level, because no one gives a fuck about me. But you do now, we're all friends!
So, what Will was saying before, about trying something new and “let's let loose, let's not over engineer everything.” And I think there's a part in anyone who is creatively inclined to think “This new method that I have just thought of will unleash the best work I've ever done.” But really the effect of that, the long-term effect is that you've created, if you're successful – and this by no means means financial success or headlining tours, but your success as an artist is in collecting states of mind that are all of that moment. And so there was the Hammer of Night state of mind, there was the Sick with Bloom one, none of them is better than the others. And then when you're looking back, you just have a collection of versions of yourself that are well executed…
… and in the end that's a huge success. That's amazing. So, it's not, you know, “I pushed myself further,” because that's an illusion, you're not pushing yourself further. You're working just as hard as you did last time. Only it's from a different angle this time.
Will: Yes, exactly. We know when something is going to work for this band. And I think that we're, at least the two of us, are very, very hard on ourselves. I convinced myself that something is pretty cool, and I'll play it Sam, like: “Man, I’ve got the next song.” And Sam will listen to it and just be like: “No.” And suddenly I realize: “Oh, yeah, I knew that, this whole time I knew that! It just sounds like some like other dumb metal band or something. So the number of riffs we throw out, it's like, it's like 80%.
Sam: Yeah, maybe more.
Will: Or more. And I think that the whole process of getting this ready is just getting the mindset in a place where suddenly after a couple of meetings, it'll just click and then suddenly it's: “I know what's right, and I know it's not right. And that becomes very harsh, we get very harsh.
Sam: Yeah, you kind of start abiding…. It's a weird balance, because you have the sense of personal progression in your life that you want to reflect in the music. Because that's what's exciting about making music, is that you're exhibiting some hard-to-express part of your life, maybe. But at the same time you're almost at the altar of the idea of this band, which has an assembly of work, which has a bunch of records out. And you start being influenced by yourself, at some point.
Will: I will say, one trick that we've employed over these past few years is, I have this solo project called Ustalost that’s, you know, black metal stuff and also on Gilead [Media]. But it's so funny, I just have this one record out another one coming soon. I'm working on it now. But for maybe the past four or five years, if I look on Pro Tools, I have all these files saved, you know, “Ustalost 2015,” all throughout the months, “Ustalost 2016,” all throughout the month, “2017.” And it turns out, and we just started laughing about this recently, that I truly convince myself when I sit down to record music that I'm recording for this new project. And in all of those cases, that project didn't exist yet, it was just an idea. And I would say nearly 100% of those riffs were stolen and turned into Yellow Eyes riffs.
I was finally mentally free, unbound from the chains of our past, just “Do whatever you want, get as crazy as you can be….”
Sam: Yeah, it’s like this idea of being stuck with writer's block on anything, and then in a moment of anger you do a parody of something, and it turns out to be the best thing you ever did. Sometimes you need another way to unlock the river. And for Will I think I was this was this shell company. It was like he was laundering his ideas through Ustalost, and then we would steal them for Yellow Eyes.
Will: Now I’m working on the Ustalost record and in so many ways it sounds like the new Yellow Eyes record, so now I'm just like back and forth.
Sam: So now we have to write for a new Yellow Eyes album and you steal the riffs from Ustalost.
Will: We might be way off topic, I have no idea what we’re talking about anymore.
[Laughs] You’re good, there are no topics anyway.
Sam: at this point we’re writing the next album on the phone [laughs].
That's great. I feel a part of it. I'm honored. So, I write. I mean, obviously I write, because I'm interviewing you guys. And that's kind of the essence of what we're doing right now.
Will: You’re a journalist, right?
I am not in fact, a journalist. I am like an adjunct lecturer at a university. I teach English literature.
Sam: In what area?
So my, my PhD was on contemporary online American soldier poetry. So a lot of stuff coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq and stuff like that. People writing online.
Will: That is way cooler than our band.
That’s probably not true. Yet equally lucrative!
Sam: We should be interviewing you!
No, no. Believe me, that’s the last thing my ego needs. But, basically I write about these guys who are writing poems, and the whole argument, I guess, if you want to interview me for a moment,
the whole argument was this idea that life puts you in a position sometimes where you go through experiences, which are magnified in war, but this also happens in much more mundane everyday life, where you find that language is failing you in trying to describe them. And that sets off a very, very profound problem. Because when you can't describe your experiences to others, you become isolated with your experiences. And so, in a way, writing poetry or making art in general is, where I'm coming from, breaking through that wall. And one major step in trying to break through that wall is to understand that one of the things that was preventing you from being able to describe your experiences is that you're trying to do it using the kind of language you used to have, and don't have that anymore. You need to invent new ways that make you feel good about what you're saying, and that may or may not be communicable to others. Because you keep trying to describe war in a way others will understand, but that's a very frustrating experience, because they can't understand and you have a problem. And then you end up writing things that are seem less communicable, but do the work for you. You're describing something that you've been through. Um, and so that that that was my, my PhD, and I obviously suck at it, because no one wants to hire me. But that's a whole other issue.
Sam: That’s such a beautiful idea, but my question would be: is the relief a person feels in exhibiting some part of themselves through this art – is that based at all, I mean, obviously, it's based a bit, but how much of that is related to how it hits others. And how much of it is just the fact that it's
I'd say about 15% has to do with how it hits others.
Sam: Interesting. I love that!
But this is where it comes into personal experience, because I finished my PhD. And sometime during the writing of it, I kind of understood: “Wait, my PhD, is me trying to break my own wall.” I'm talking about other people and and their walls and being all superior, but basically, this is me trying to pierce my through my own wall.
Sam: That sounds like a great final chapter.
It’s a good final chapter if you’re not an academic, and I have a gripe about that, so let’s not go there.
So I wrote a PhD, a very complicated theoretical thing, like 200 pages. And the only person I wanted to read my PhD was my wife, who has nothing to do with any of this. Because I felt like it was a letter to her explaining what I went through, through me explaining what others went through. And so I understood it was a form of self therapy. But when I ended it, I felt like, and then my first daughter was about to be born. I was like, wait, wait, wait. And she's about to be born, and I have this PhD, and everything's cool. But I haven't written my thing. I haven't really pierced through anything. I haven't written my poem, so to speak. And I've been trying to write and maybe successfully somewhat my entire life, but I always end up throwing it away, for reasons that I think are similar to that soldier throwing away his false descriptions that I was trying to explain myself. And that's not what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to express yourself. And, and so I felt the pressure of her being born. And I didn't want to be a deadbeat dad, who is disgruntled about never making the art he wanted to make. And I just forced it out of me. And the way it came out, and then this is going back to what we discussed, I found that when I write the way I want to write, I get bored after three lines. Like if something has a trajectory, and I can see where that trajectory is taking me I don't want that trajectory anymore. I had to change something. As a turning into a fairy tale. The time have to change, the present needs to be the past, I need to be a baby. Something needs to happen for it to not bore me.
Will: I love that.
Sam: Incidentally, one of my favorite writers ie Etgar Keret, the Israeli author. You know him?
No shit! Yeah I know him, I mean, not personally.
Sam: And mostly I love him because that's his way of writing. His best work is short stories, and they’re surrealist, totally unpredictable. Things can change in size and shape, and it's a sort of these odd moods are explored through unpredictability, and I can see why it's boring to know what you're going to write.
What I was about to say that, and I'm not going to include myself in the same reference group as you guys, because you guys are great and I suck ass.
[Both laugh in protest, which is total bullshit because they know I’m right]
But the point being that when you're not an artist, and you hear someone else's describe someone else as being a surrealist, what you think is: “That guy’s just trying to be weird for weirdness’ sake, there's no reason to be weird, like that guys is being weird right now.” But when you kind of see how it works from within, you know you see that this is how it has to be for this person.
Sam: Yes, it’s very personal, it’s not very cerebral at all. The idea of surreality is, to me, the key, to all of this, the key to being a good writer, the key to being a good composer. You need to allow for the surreal to exist. That, in a way, is the expression, the surreal. And, like you said, a lot of people think “What is that person smoking? What are you doing?” They’ve hit the motherload, is what they’re doing! Once you’ve got a hit of that surreal there’s no going back, you can’t get back from that.
But, you see, after talking to you guys, I kind of wish I had a drummer.
Will: He will gladly come to Israel in a heartbeat.
Sam: He’ll help you write your book!
Hell yeah! [laughs]
But you know, what I'm saying I feel like I need someone to ground me because I'm writing all these riffs that are super weird. But I don't have Mike! I need to invent Mike.
Will: Or Sam! Sam was the one that grounded…. At the end of the day it’s funny that we even come across as a drum-heavy band. I mean I get it, but we know the songs are going to be OK before the drums are even there. There’s some cool guitar? It’s going to be fine, no matter what.
Sam: Yeah, I mean, the funny thing is we spent a lot of time talking about what Mike has done to the band, mostly because that's the more recent development. But the original sin, so to speak, the original idea of the band, the original mechanism of the band, that showed us some bizarre portal into creativity that neither of us had seen before, is that you can take two people who have similar ideas about results, about what the results should be, but totally different ways of getting there, and through through incompatibility you come up with something way greater. And both Will and I, even having grown up in the same room, listening to the same music, we went pretty far apart for a few years after high school. I mean, during college, we were not even seeing each other very often, we were completely apart and liking different types of music.
Will: That's when I was a total metalhead, and you were definitely not [laughs].
Sam: I was definitely not. I was into electronic music and orchestral music and all this weird stuff. And I thought Will was being a fool for throwing all of his chips into one style of music. I was like “Okay, what is this?”
Will: That's true, that is foolish. I was doing it for a long time.
Sam: But I didn’t realize what an unlimited world it could be. And I didn't realize what could happen when you kind of link your boat to someone else's boat. Weird things happen when you start trusting someone else with a project.
But that goes both ways, because he's hitched to your boat as well. Right?
Will: Yes, oh yeah.
So it's not like will open the door and you step into the metal world. You both came together as the huge robot that pulls that both directions, right?
Will: Yeah, I mean, early on in this band I would write most of the riffs and just teach them to Sam and that was kind of a given for a while. It's was basically: “Okay, I'm coming up with metal riffs and Sam can fill in the gaps or whatever.” But on these last few records, it's just so funny when push comes to shove, and then even on this last record, there are big sections that Sam wrote completely on his own. Or when comes a time, like this last song, we can just sit down and go: “Okay, we need to write some new music right now. And we can just do it, almost in real time. We're both just sitting there scratching our heads going “How are we writing these competing guitar parts that fit perfectly?” I think we wrote the final three minutes of the music on this new record in, realistically, about 10 minutes. And that doesn't happen all the time, it was something that just clicked at that point, but I definitely think that's a genetic. That's brother magic right there.
Sam: It’s kind of mysterious.
Will: That’s not to say we work fast, it could take me a month to come up with ten seconds of something cool. That’s usually what happens.
Everything you just said now made me think of a concept that I'm very happy with. With which is a magical incompatibility, right?
So a lot of people are incompatible in a very non magical way. So, more of a “Fuck you, and fuck you too” kind of incompatible. And I think most people are incompatible that way. And it's very rare that you're incompatible in a productive way.
Will: Like you and your wife, like you said in the beginning. And when you said that – me and my wife! My wife is from Siberia! We could not be any further apart. That’s why everyday is exciting. Sam’s wife is half Spain, half West Coast.
Sam: She’s from California, which is farther away than Spain
My wife hates this that I say these types of things. She doesn't think this isn’t very romantic. What I should be saying that I love her because she's a wonderfully beautiful person. And she is, obviously. But I keep giving the honest answer, which is, I don't know what the fuck I'm doing with you. I have no idea what is happening here. But I know that you are my life. You sustain me.
Sam: I think it all comes down to examining yourself, and what happens when, say your wife goes on a business trip. Yeah, you know, sometimes my wife goes traveling and I won't see her for a week. And you're sitting alone in your apartment. And you start to see, you know, you're “alone self” creep up like moss or something and you just see suddenly what your life looks like without being cut by another ingredient. And you realize how important it is to have some other way of thinking and in your surroundings. The most depressed I ever feel is when I just haven't spoken to anyone else for two days. I am too much for myself. I need someone else to fill in my life somehow.
So, two things and they will be the last things because this is going to be a 24-hour thing.
Sam: We’re down!
I'm down too, don't worry about it, but I feel bad.
Will: We should do a podcast!
Sam: We can do a weekly interview show.
I'm taking all of these suggestions very seriously, so, watch yourselves! Anyway, maybe what you just said explains why Will keeps giving his riffs the Yellow Eyes. Maybe he's like: “Fuck this guy, I can do it on my own” which then turns into “I love him. I don't want to do it on my own.”
Sam: We both tried. I do solo music on my own too. And while sometimes it's something I'm really happy with, about 80% of is way too unleavened. It’s too uncut.
Will: You should send him that record too.
Sam: I will, at some point [the record in question is Sam’s solo project, Pelted Shell, that was released in August 2019].
I want everything I want everything I want your entire hard drive to transfer itself.
Sam: [Laughs] I’ll send the actual thing, that way I won’t have to look at it anymore.
Yeah, I want complete creative control. You'll send it over and then like a year later, under the name Yellow Eyes, I'll release a trap rap record with samples from that.