Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Cobalt
This is the 26th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Label: Profound Lore
Favorite Song: "Arsonry"
The Bare Bones: Gin is the third full-length album from Colorado duo Cobalt, founded by multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder and Phil McSorley. It would also be the last recording including McSorley, who was made to leave the band in 2015 following derogatory comments made in the wake of an interview with Caina's Andy Curtis-Brignell with Kim Kelly in late 2014 (more on that here). He would later be replaced by Charlie Fell (Lord Mantis).
The Beating Heart: With my hyperbole meter at a reasonable level, Gin is easily one of the most important metal and/or rock albums of the twenty-first century. And a big part of what makes it such a significant album is its bringing together of black metal, Americana, psychedelia, and what could be called the "Neurosis school of emotional catharsis" into one intense, spacey, and crushing amalgam. Along with bands like Weakling, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Krallice, Cobalt's Gin shifted the American black metal scene away from an attempt at imitating the Scandinavian tradition and into a firm sense of a uniquely American flavor to a notoriously European genre. And while the album did come out in 2009, and isn't technically a part of the same decade as most of the albums that take part in this series, I felt it necessarily to include it and one other 2009 album (namely my interview with Aaron Turner about ISIS' Wavering Radiant) for two reasons: a) its influence on the contemporary metal scene of the last ten years, and b) for its influence on this blog and, in some ways, being part of the kind of new wave of metal that made me start this website (almost) ten years ago.
Before proceeding to my lovely, in-depth conversation with Erik Wunder (Cobalt, Man's Gin, as well as a long-time touring musician for Jarboe) about Gin, I would like, as always, 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 our compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 1 of amazing local black metal, death metal, grindcore, folk, and more. To the interview. Enjoy!
So, basically I wanted to talk about Gin. And the reason I want to talk about Gin is that I physically remember Gin shocking the shit out of me. Now, in context, I'll get to my first question in a moment, but in context, I quit listening to metal by the time Gin came out. I had a half a decade period of being fed up. And 2009 found me coming slowly out of it. And as I was slowly re-engaging with metal I did it through things that were convenient to re-engage with, like Pelican or ISIS or Neurosis, basically the stuff I was listening in the early 2000s before I was fed up. And then I just looked at the Gin album cover, And I was like: “Yeah, that looks like something along that vein.” It didn't look like it would surprise me, and I wasn't ready a full-on return to Emperor and stuff like that. I was like: “This looks like a chill metal album cover, there's a nice young gentleman there.” I didn't recognize the fact it was Ernest Hemingway at first, and so I put it on, and it just assaulted my brain and in a very positive way. And so when I thought about the kind of the albums that still affect me now that was an easy choice, along with the fact, obviously, that in the 10 years since it came out, I think it’s safe to say it’s considered considered a milestone of American metal. I’m sure you're happy about that.
Yeah! it's awesome.
So it's not just me. But before we get to Gin, en route to Gin, I wanted to ask a question, which is, do you remember as a kid or as a younger person, like an encounter with a song or an album that just completely blew your mind?
Yeah, I got a couple.
Well, one of them is Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung.”
I love that album. When was that?
This was when I was maybe six [laughs]. Like, really young. When I was a kid, my dad was really into music and he had a giant record collection. And he told me: “This is how you put the record on, and this is how you put the needle on, and if mom's still home and stuff, you can listen to it through these big old headphones that you have to hook into the record player.” So, I just remember hearing “Aqualung” and going: “Whoa, this kind of dangerous, he has snot running down his nose, oh, that's like rebellious.” There’s something about the grit to it I thought was really awesome, because before that, I'd never really heard anything that was like “Oh, can you say that?” in a six-year-old’s mind [laughs]. And I just remember thinking that was so cool, and he's a kind of sarcastic tone in his voice, and it goes from rocking out for a while to these really cool minor-key acoustic guitar parts.
So, wait, you’re talking about the song “Aqualung,” not the album?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, the whole album is awesome. I like the album, but the song itself. It's funny. I was just singing it to myself today and thinking about this very thing, just the synchronicity.
But would you say that the appeal for you was mostly lyrical? So I mean, other than the musical dynamics, you were fascinated by what and how he was talking about things?
Yeah, definitely, I think that was the larger part of it. In terms of the instrumental, I loved going from like the straight rock to the soft, depressing guitar interlude thing. But mostly I liked the way he was singing, that it was sarcastic and in-your-face and dirty. It wasn't apologetic about it, and I just thought that was so cool for some reason. And it only got fueled by the fact that my first tape, which my dad, after seeing how much I loved that, he gave me a best of Jethro Tull cassette tape, and that was my first tape that was mine. And so, I have my old dusty Walkman with that one tape that I eventually wore out. And then my mother, who's a sweet lady and very, very Catholic, and very proper and religious, she was always against it. And she would always take that tape from me and tell me I couldn't have it anymore because of the lyrical content. And then she would hide it. And then I talked to my dad and then he and her had a conversation and they would decide – they actually got more conservative over the years, rather than less. But over time I would get the tape back and then my mother would hide it again. But I somehow find it. So this happened like, over the next decade, I would find the tape and have it for a few months and then it would go missing again [laughs].
Yeah, it just became this thing. But, “Aqualung” was great. I just loved that you could hear the sarcasm in Ian Anderson's voice. I guess I'm a big fan of sarcasm [laughs].
I mean, you say that but what does that mean? Where else do you appreciate sarcasm? Like, do you think your own music is sarcastic, to an extent?
Sure, yeah. I like phrasing things in an indirect way that's really like a straight death punch when it's kind of unclear, but you still know what it's about. I was a pretty sensitive kid, I feel a lot, I'm a Pisces, and I have a lot of emotion. So, especially as a kid, you know, you're brand new to the world, and I'd see a lot of things wrong with the world and how people treat each other, trying to figure out who made the rules and what those rules were. And sometimes it didn't make sense to me. But to throw a fit about it, that didn't do anything, you know, that just got you in trouble. But, if you got clever about it, then you could do that in music, and then you could say whatever the fuck you wanted. And so that really interested me.
It’s like a very good cheat. You get to say it, but no one else knows you're saying it.
Yeah, exactly. Like, a few people will eventually get it, and the rest of them won’t hear it, but the thing is that you got to say it.
So, I don’t know if this is going to be too much of a stretch, but given that…. This is gonna be a weird interview, but fuck it. When you and Phil got together, there was no way in hell that you knew what would happen with the music you are making together. But, maybe not at first, but by the time you Eater of Birds and then Gin, you may have gotten that you were onto something quite special, but there's no way you knew the magnitude that music is going to have. And in that way it is kind of like a sarcastic statement – you're making something that you know that not a lot of people will be into, it's not popular music. So I guess my question is: how do you bring yourself to do it? Without knowing what will come of it?
I guess I've always created records that I believed would blow my mind, to an extent. And whether or not it sold millions or tens, it was okay, as long as I felt it was a pure statement and that it moved, and that you could listen to it and it would take you from wherever you started, wherever your mood was, and it would carry you on a journey with high peaks and low lows, and some unexpected things to surprise you. So, almost like a film. I always like to craft the album with that in mind, and it has never occurred to me to, to change a song or to go in a certain way because I thought more people would like it.
But, why didn't it occur to you? I mean, obviously it shouldn't occur to you, but being the person that I am, anxious, I can see how reception and fear of reception could change what I do. So, I guess I'm asking how do you prevent that thought from taking over?
I think what happened was that we started out with with the black metal thing, and we were doing straight, in-your-face, war-metal stuff. Phil would get drunk and go: “Let's go to the cemetery and shave our heads!” [Laughs]. Phil’s a maniac [laughs]. We’d bring the boombox and play Conqueror or something like that, and he would be shaving his head over a grave [laughs]. I'd always be there, hanging out and I did whatever, but Phil was always real hardcore like that. That’s how he was, driving like that, like: “It has to be in your face, go go go!” And that’s cool, it’s a good origin. And so when we did our first few songs that became Hammerfight and War Metal, that was kind of the beginning and the catalyst of the whole thing. It was like our Kill Em All.
And what sparked me really was that during that time after War Metal I started doing psychedelic drugs and I started realizing that some of these bands that I already liked, but didn't know quite why, started to become apparent to me. And so the more cerebral stuff like Neurosis and Tool. I know people kind of get down on them, and they got big
I was big on Tool in the 90s, I have no beef.
Yeah, I mean up to Ænima they were dark and weird, and subliminal, and pounding, just so many layers.
My introduction to them was through the videos, they creeped me out.
Yeah, you know, Adam Jones makes the videos himself. And so there was a period where I was discovering music again. Because up until that point I had not really done anything with drugs or opening different parts of my mind. It was like “Beer party? Sure!” and I’d get drunk, fun times. But I remember the first time I smoked weed with Phil, actually. And he was like “We’ve gotta watch the ‘Sober’ video.”
That sounds like a horrible idea!
[Laughs] It was crazy dark, yeah, but I loved it. That video was made for people on drugs. And I was like: “Holy shit!” It just seemed so genius, I was like: “Oh my God! it's like a secret key!” [Laughs]. So that and Neurosis’ A Sun That Never Sets, which was cool, the way the made the movie go with the album. And so I guess I was beginning to notice the people who were making it more expansive and doing more with it than just the straight up, album-single-tour, you know? They were like: “I'll make a movie with it or have something weird in the packaging.” I guess I loved the artsy stuff, or at least the kind that wasn’t overly trying to be art. And it actually revolutionized my playing as well, because up until that point I was writing more metal riffs. I guess it did help that I grew up in the early 90s with Grunge and stuff, because I did start playing guitar by learning Nirvana songs and stuff like that, so that did help. But for the years before [the band] black metal was the thing, in the late 90s. And so that's what we sounded like. And then we got to War Metal, which had ever more noise.
But then that hit, and I started making recordings of my riffs while I was high, just on weed. And I would come up with stuff that I never would have thought of before. And what I would do is I just hit record and started playing. Before that I may have gotten high a couple times, but I didn't have anything to record with, and there were a couple of riffs that made me go: “Oh my god, this is so cool!” and then I couldn't remember those, it was a tragedy for me. So I started always having recording equipment. I had blank cassettes and a cassette recorder, so that I could record at any moment and capture anything. And that's really the thing that makes everything special for Cobalt and Man's Gin, and anything I do. It’s the peripheral things you’re trying to capture, because when you're trying to write a song and it starts getting repetitive, it becomes more and more uniform and less inspired. Unless you bring in a tangent, like throwing a wrench in it. So I think my secret power has always just been: “Always have something to record with,” especially with guitar parts. You can come up with a guitar part, play it the next day, but it just slightly different. And it's like: “No, no, that's not it. What was it?” And it's almost it, but it was just missing a little part that made it what it is. And that just happened to me so many times that I just started always having recording equipment around me. And I mean, I if I didn't have a guitar, I would sing [the guitar part] with my voice into the recorder so that I could mimic that and go: “Oh, yeah, that's how it was.”
I don't remember who it was. I think it may have been – I'm going to get shit for this because I always bring them up because I'm a big fan – but I think it's a Dave Mustaine quote. I think that he always records his own riffs and lyrical ideas, and the quote is something to the extent of what his wife thinks in the middle of the night when he's like whispering weird shit into a tape recorder.
[Laughs] I know what he means.
I can see how you would need drugs for that breakthrough, but did you need drugs to sustain that in the future also, or is that more of a skill you gained for yourself?
I think it was just a window or a door that was opened. And I didn't necessarily need it after that. I mean, I do drugs pretty regularly, recreationally. There were periods, like a couple years ago, when I was sober for a couple years because I went too far, and just tried to put it down and stop. So I did have to kind of come out on the other end of it to where it's getting too much and I had to relearn how not to do it, just like I had to learn how to do it. But I think it totally opened up my connection with my own subconscious, and that realization of: “Oh, that's why I like that song so much!” or: “Oh shit, he says that there.” Like you've been listening to a song for 20 years never having noticed that part, and all of a sudden it's clear.
So I had a question about that. Because, I mean, just from the way things appear in interviews and the musical output and all that…. So I'll just say it: Phil seems like a pretty intense dude.
And the whole military thing and also the kind of music that he's been making after he left Cobalt. So seeing that he is the way he is, intense and earnest and very clear about the kind of music he wants to make, how did he respond to you coming up with “I think this part needs to be like an acoustic interlude” or “I think we need to draw out this riff”? Was he forthcoming to this did he go “What the fuck is this?”
He actually was mostly supportive of it. You know, it did take some convincing sometimes, for sure. But Phil was the type of dude that…. When I met Phil I was like 13 or 14, and he was already taking acid and going to school and stuff, and that's something I had never done. And in high school Phil had this big ole spiked Mohawk and he was a good skateboarder, and he didn't give a fuck and he put safety pins in his eyebrow, and, you know, say “Fuck you!” to cops, right to their face, things like that. To where it's like: “Wow, this guy's crazy!” But he’s solid, he knows exactly what he thinks. He knows that if he doesn’t like something then he can just go “Fuck you” and get away with it. I guess he was a lot more experienced in those ways of life than I was. But he has always been into the trippier, more psychedelic things also.
So, I guess putting some of that into Cobalt…. He was he was pessimistic at first, but it sort of just all came together with Gin. We had just recorded War Metal, and we're putting it out, and we were putting together the artwork. And that's when we started kind of smoking weed consistently together and like when we're working on this stuff, and it really influences the artwork on War Metal. Like that photo on the front of that horse, that's a picture that Phil took in the woods by himself in the middle of the night. Because during the period we made War Metal Phil's began experiencing hardship in his personal life. He was having a tough time, and he would go…. He's like a lone wolf type dude, as you could tell. He would go into the woods and just sit there at night by himself and go and hang out in the woods, in nature. He's Irish and he’s really into the old Celtic religion and things like that, it was always something that had interested him. But he said he was sitting there this one night, and he had smoked a little bit of weed, sitting under a tree, and he looked up and there was this small group of wild horses just came up and just like walked up to him. At first he didn't know whether or not it was real, because he’s done so much acid that he would have flashbacks. So he didn't know if it was real or not, and took a couple of pictures, later realizing it was real.
But just like the circumstances of that, he told me that story, the new record company’s like: “What's on the cover?” And we're like: “Well, we could do what 500 other bands did and do do something brutal and bloody on the cover, or we can kind of just go with that weird tangent and do something that’s off the wall.” And so we used that horse and put it on the cover, and, I don't know if you've ever seen the booklet for War Metal, Okay, yeah. And it's like, we don't even have the pictures anymore. We're actually, and this is another side note, we're releasing a remastered version of war metal in the next year .
Yeah. So we are working on that, but the actual files to the original, we don’t have them. So we're forced to make a new layout. Because it was still back in the day where if you lost the CD with the information, then it's gone [laughs]. When we were recording War Metal I hadn’t yet hit that opening of the door, but when we were working on the art, that's when it clicked. The inside booklet is five or six images, and there’s me and Phil and the picture is taken behind us and we’re looking up this naked hill. There were rocks here and there, but no trees, it almost looks like a Golgotha type of deal. And it's me and him standing next to each other or walking, and with each page you turn we get further up the hill, and more in the distance. And then the second to last picture, there’s this crazy weird figure standing on the top of the hill that we were both are looking at and it's all weird looking. And then the next page is just the hill. With nothing on it like we disappeared. And it's like: “Well what happened to those guys?” [laughs]. It’s funny, the actual figure on the hill is our friend Tommy who was wearing a hoodie, but we put a mannequin head inside of his hood so his head appears twice as long, but also it gives you like no shoulders and so it just gives you a really strange shape. And then with the right lighting from the bottom of the hill, it looks like some kind of weird alien creature or something like that.
And so we turned something like a joke into something really weird, and that really got me going in terms of the album’s layout and how it was presented. I'm a big fan of having a theme, like a vein that runs through the whole thing, and tying that all in. It's always been important to me to just be totally different from the genre that I'm part of, at least in certain aspects.
I guess that ties into where you guys met on the psychedelic trail, I if you could say it that way, that the experience in the woods and the horses seems kind of trippy, combined with whatever door was opened for you when you were doing the artwork. But a lot of the stuff that it seems to me that Cobalt gradually introduced into the music up until and including Gin reflected this need to be different than the rest of the genre. And I think that what happened, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is that, to me, Cobalt, as a band, and Gin, as an album, came to represent what American black metal sounds like.
Now, there were other examples of American black metal. But not all of them sounded like American black metal. Some bands tried to be the American version of European black metal, and some of that still exists, that's fine. But I'm pretty sure Cobalt is a very important shift away from that and toward American culture – the folk psychedelic experiences, what American nature looks like, as opposed to like a Norwegian, snowy hill and so on. And so it seems like every time that door was opened, and you made a choice to be different, it led, again, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to a localized version of what black metal is.
Yeah, that's a great way to put it.
So, were you guys thinking about these things at the time? Were you just saying: “Fuck it, we just wanted to be different”?
I think it's just what seemed like the right thing to do next, really. Once you start overtly trying to be different that’s when you might make some missteps. The real key is allowing certain elements that might go over badly, but that you like, into the music, because you believe in it enough. Just allowing certain things to seep through that are not of that genre or are not acceptable, but you think they're awesome. So, just putting that in the music to where, in the end, when you listen to the album, it has all those elements you wanted. And some people will like it, most people probably won't, but it’s just having the utmost respect for the art of it, and not having the audience directly in mind throughout the creation process. You're not trying to write this so that it sounds like something, or that it can be like the third song on the album and then more people will like it, and then you can get on a tour with like, some big band that kind of sucks. That whole drill.
And we had also grown up on bands that we loved that were very small, and it kind of makes it more special that way. Same with film. We were always into independent film – We just thought Gummo was like the most interesting movie ever. It’s by Harmony Korine, and it’s a weird one from the 90s about this inbred town in Ohio, and it’s bizarre and really strange. But we were always into off-the-wall stuff like, so it was also important to weird people out.
I guess in different ways [laughs]. But to put it into perspective, it used to be Phil’s favorite idea – actually I think he still thinks it’s his favorite idea – to do a show, and the place is packed, like a smaller venue, 200 people or whatever. And what he wants to do is have everyone rockin’, play a few songs – normal show, everything’s intense, and then releases 5,000 crickets into the crowd [laughs].
[Laughs] You know, I think someone actually did that. Or maybe I just heard it mentioned in some movie. But, crickets? Specifically crickets?
Crickets are these small, harmless bugs, but en masse it’s just weird. So people would rock out and then suddenly feel a bug and just casually swipe it off. But suddenly there’s two, and then it’s: “AHH! I’m covered with bugs!” [laughs].
[Laughs] That’s crazy.
And the crowd goes nuts [laughs], feels a little maniacal to do something like that, I’m more, ahh, conceptual [laughs].
So let's let's go down the conceptual road. How do you freak people out with the music? How do you surprise people with the music?
I think it’s with the various elements that you put in a row. Say like the first Alien movie. What makes jump-scare crazy is that it's quiet for the two minutes leading up to it. And that silence, with steam shooting out randomly here and there you know, building the suspense. And then you don't know if you're going to jump or scream or be like “Whoa!” You know something's coming, just because you can feel it in the air. And I like to build like that. I like to create a huge build and do something that's totally awesome next that people are not expecting. So I have this really cool jam I've been working on, but it kind of sounds like something different. And I'll splice that jam, and, like with some Neurosis songs, I’ll add something right in the middle of it to where it just blows your mind when you hear it all together for the first time.
Yeah, makes me makes me think of ”Through Silver and Blood,” where everything is just builds into this creepy cacophony, with that thumping drums sound and that weird sample comes in with the screaming
Yeah, and the feedback noise and the video loop. I guess it’s that immersive or cinematic – I guess I like be cinematic about it. For example, like the song Charlie does when we're on tour, especially in Europe, because nobody in Europe has old American country music at all. So when we're setting up and a few minutes before the show he likes to have Hank Williams playing over the PA. It's not something you necessarily notice, unless you've seen the band a couple times, and you're like “Oh, they did this last time.” It sets the mood before people even know it kind of thing. And then we start the show. But even before that, just the five minutes leading up to it, it's different, and it sets a different mood it – people turn their heads and start wondering what's going on with the country music. Same way with having a video projector, or any random way to really put your stamp on it, you know?
Yeah. So, this may not be the most productive line of questioning, but here goes.It's almost a truism at this point that Scandinavian black metal bands, especially specifically Norwegian black metal, are interested in this pre-European pagan thing and the return to nature, and this idea that nature is the true God of sorts in the pagan systems. That you didn't need like a transparent, invisible, metaphysical, Judeo-Christian entity, you could go into the woods and have your spirituality that way, right?
But it seems to me that the American variant on that is different. Because the space is different. Speaking of Colorado, you don't always step out and see this snowy wilderness, or sometimes you do, but sometimes you just see a lot of open space. And sometimes it's an empty, Moon-like open space. And in the American context, the lack of God isn't necessarily immediately remedied by ideas of a pagan order and stuff like that. Sometimes it's just: “Oh shit, there is no God, I’m kind of sad about that,” or a sense of void and melancholy. It doesn’t feel celebratory in the same way, at least not to me, a person who is neither American nor Scandinavian, in that “Yes, the old system is back” way.
Yeah, it doesn’t immediately replace it.
Exactly. There's a void that stays. And so I think the reason I often in my head associate Cobalt with a kind of definition of American black metal is something along these lines, that it somehow sounds American. Maybe in a way Panopticon does that also, and another band like Inter Arma, who are not black metal but are influenced by it, I guess. And so there's a sense of melancholy when you talk about a song like, say, “Dry Body,” right? Everything is stripped away, but no one's super happy about it. So there's an atmosphere that isn’t even necessarily bittersweet, it's just like “What do we do next?” It's like an open question.
Yah, that's a good point. That's a good way to say it. I think that “Dry Body”…. And it’s funny you mentioned the religion thing, because that song was the only song that I wrote at that point in my life, where it was like: “The prophet is dead,” and I can see it’s directly about “I don't believe in God.” I mean, I say it repeatedly. And at the time it gave me a lot of strength. There’s a lot of strength in that, you know? Finding a connection in that spirit, I guess the depressive state can be positive like, finding a way to be empowered by those depressive thoughts and those feelings can turn into something that maybe doesn't necessarily make you happy but it carries you through, and it takes you one foot after the other down the path and it gives you strength along the way.
So would that empowerment be the music itself?
Yeah, in that instance I'm talking about the music itself, because it’s a ten-minute song, “Dry Body,” and it just builds and builds and builds, and it gives you chills by at the end, just by getting so big that the roof might come down on you. Maybe in a way it’s like a Kubrick movie, where you don’t get a happy ending, but that was rad!” [laughs]. And also about being OK to celebrate that stuff because whenever you’re writing music you’re writing from the viewpoint of where you are at that time. And if you're not in tune with that and not afraid to do it, whatever it might be, then it may sound inauthentic. So, it's important to embrace that stuff and represent it to the point of: “This is my weakness? I'll put it on the cover and make it ten times bigger than it is, and I'll celebrate that weakness,” and that's the best way to get over it and not give a fuck about it or to process it or whatever, is not not hide it but to present it as even bigger than it is.
And that’s what “Dry Body” is? A presentation of weakness, of a moment of instability?
Yeah, exactly. And that's a theme that still…. I mean, looking back at my work, I celebrate instability. Because life is so unpredictable and at times it can be so dark and sad. I mean, it can be awesome and happy too, but I guess I've created away to just ride through the storm. I'm making a new Man’s Gin album right now, finishing up the mastering and actually we recorded it last spring so almost a year ago, and it's great. But that theme is still there, and when I look back at Rebellion Hymns it’s still there. There's a song on Rebellion Hymns that goes: “I never found the truth I was looking for instead I just got older,” but accompanied by a really cool-sounding, catchy melody so there are going to be people who won't even notice it, so they won’t notice what words they’re singing. So they might go “Oh, that’s kind of depressing, but that’s a rad song!” [laughs].
I mean, I guess it is depressing but there but like given in context of what you've been saying maybe not that depressing because survival is no small feat.
And if there is a storm to ride through, and if you find a way of riding through, which I guess in your case would be music, then that's that's quite an accomplishment. I mean, it's meant to sound kind of sardonic, I get that, something like: “I didn't get the shit I came for I just got older from searching,” but there is a way in which, you know, getting older isn't that bad of a thing.
Right, absolutely. And sometimes it takes the form of “wherever we are currently is just like a step along the way.” It's like sometimes you write an album that’s in the middle between strong places, that’s a passageway, and that’s what makes it a unique album. But, you’re right. Especially nowadays with everything that's happening in the world. It's a crazy time, catastrophes and shit, as well as just how fragile life is and how hard it is to get through it. And if you can find something to be a medium to carry through that, then yeah, it's no small feat, as you said.
Yeah. I mean, at what point did Phil join the army? Like what year this and we're talking about?
2003, or 2004.
So quite early on.
Yeah, and this’ll come back to your favorite question, but I’m still trying to find a way to say that, but you go on first.
No, no, go on! What were you going to say?
So when that door opened, as far as “Wow, music has like all these different levels that I had not even thought about before, and that's really fucking awesome!” I would start exploring that. And no matter which way I’d go, it was totally new and exciting to me. So I started going down that path and that was right when Phil said “I’m joining the army, and I’m quitting the band” [laughs].
Yeah. It was like these two crazy-powerful energies kind of hitting. And so I think what made Cobalt go on, and what made me carry on solo, is that I was just so inspired by the path I was on, those new ideas that were coming. And I was writing songs, and it was like: “Oh shit, I can write these more “American,” Nirvana-type riffs, or like Tool riffs, and Neurosis, and stuff like that, and I can add that and I don’t even give a fuck if it’s black metal, it's heavier than black metal! I want the hair on the back of your neck to raise up, like: “What the hell was that!?” I want to take you on a journey, and if something does that, don't mess with it, just leave it. And so Phil had for years worked at the Kodak film factory in Greeley, Colorado, where we started the band. And he worked the night shift, and it was manual labor. And his marriage was breaking up, it was a depressing time for him. And did the first album, and I think what happened was, he just saw that he continued doing exactly that job and where he was, and that he’d never get out of it, and he saw that it was a trap. And the army was a way to change his life and get it on a different trajectory.
So I think I understood that, and it was a bummer. But at the same time, Phil is more of a primal in his approach as far as like his tools to work on anything. It's like: “A nail and a hammer, and just smack it, smack it until it ends up kind of like you want it to.” I have a little more finesse, as far as guitar playing, and also in that time period I started to really study [the work of Tool drummer) Danny Carey, spending a lot of time trying to figure out these seemingly simple drum parts that are in a lot of songs that are monumentally difficult, and those techniques. And I was opening doorways left to right, and I was writing guitar riffs in what would be in Eater of Birds. I just wrote that just like “boom, boom, boom” during that period, and it was almost like it was better that Phil joined the military. Because if he had been there, he would have just kind of been conflicting with it. Phil would get mad if too much of it was stuff that I had made. And the guitar parts, they were not something that he could play. He can only play black-metal type riffs and some of his acoustic-type stuff. He can't play anything that's not that. And that's cool, that's what he does, and he does a crazy amount of things with that simplistic thing, which I think is great. But I was onto something at that time, and I was like: “No, I got this.” So I hadn't really considered how I would deal with that when it came to working together, with me going: “I’m this part I want to play the guitar and the drums” because Phil, he’s got an ego. Same way I do, but you don't want to step on his toes too much otherwise he gets pissed off. He's got a hair trigger for anger.
But everything happened naturally. I remember the night like I went down to Greeley, he lived in Greeley, and I was to college up here in Fort Collins, where I live now. Funnily enough I did I move to New York for five years and all that, but I finally came back to Colorado, and that's where I met my wife. We got married last year. So I'm actually living in Fort Collins again, which is just north of Greeley. But I remember I went down there and me and Phil had dinner. And he said he had something he wanted to tell me but that he was struggling with it, and I was like: “What is he talking about?” And he's like: “I’m joining the army,” and I was like: “Oh, okay. Weird.” As a side note, when Phil was in high school, like a punk rocker type of dude, he would harass the recruiters for the army to no end. He would go up the table and dishevel their papers and just loved being as disrespectful as possible. So it was really funny, but also very telling, that they would come and try to recruit highschoolers in his high school, which is still kind of, I don't know, it's kind of fucked up. Like: “Here come join the war that rich people made up. Sacrifice yourself!” And he would be walking by their table going “Baby killer, baby killer!” and being really antagonistic, and just in general always acting anti establishment and into anarchy.
And so I was kind of taken aback when he said he was joining the army. But there was nothing else I could do but support him. And I remember he said: “I guess Cobalt’s gone, and I said: “No, I think I’m going to keep doing Cobalt.” And he sat back for a minute, and then he went: “Okay, I guess, that’s cool.” You could tell he was feeling like I was taking it, although he was the one leaving it [laughs].
But he did eventually have to come to terms with the fact that you were writing music when he wasn't there, right? So he eventually came back and listen to all that, and what happened?
Yeah, exactly. So during the inspirational period he left for the army, and we actually had, right he left, he had this little thing for about two weeks where he decided he wasn't going to join the army. And this was after I'd been, you know, pretty much ready to go. And he kind of attempted to come back to his old spot. And I told him: “Well, on the album I think I'm gonna play the guitar,” and like he got really mad and slammed the door of the storage unit, this big garage door, and screamed into the sky like: “Fuck!” and drove off.
That sounds bad.
[Laughs] Yeah, he’s an intense guy. And he drove off and I didn’t see him for months, he left for the army after that, so that was our departure. He was not happy at that point, and I think he didn't know that I had magic up my sleeve. So he went to do the army thing, and I made Eater of Birds.
And that was the biggest milestone for me, I think, in Cobalt in the music. It was a big point in my life, to redeem myself, because I had put so much into being able to play everything, and then as we got closer to it it became: “Well, can I?” Just bouts of self doubt and things like that, and I had to shut that voice up, the one that says: “You might not be able to.” I had to breathe and process it and go: “You can, you can do this.” And I drove down to Denver, this was around 2005, and I made that album with Dave Otero and played every instrument on it. And by the time Phil came back, in about August, September of that year, I had recorded all the music, guitars, bass, drums, so we had the skeleton and the muscles.
And he comes back from boot camp over Christmas time, and I was throwing this big party at our house at Fort Collins, everybody's hanging out, drinking and falling and throwing things like, you know, wild times, good times. And halfway through the night Phil and I end up in the same room, just us. And it was slightly awkward for a second. And I went: “Do you want to hear the new Cobalt?” and he was like: “You made it?!” and I said “Yeah, I wasn’t joking, I didn’t say I wanted to play everything jout of an ego thing, it was how I wanted to do it.” And he said: “OK,” and I put the outline on and he was like: “Holy shit! This is the greatest thing in the world! Dude! You did it! This is great!”
“I could never play this!” So he totally had the realization and came in sync. Yeah, you're right, it was Amazing. That was the best outcome possible. And it was funny because I guess I'm good at predicting certain things, because I had already scheduled him vocal time in the studio during his leave time, and he didn't even know it. Just predicting that he's gonna like it and I don't want to do.
That seems like good producing there, Erik.
[Laughs] Yeah. So I had scheduled time and he was like: “Oh my God this is great!” and Phil's the type of guy who is very cerebral to, as far as he has a backlog of lyrics, and he's very, very much into reading, and he collects old books and thoughts and philosophies. So he had a backlog of lyrics already. So I said: “Let's do the album,” and we sort of talked about some of the themes and it was just a continuation of a kind of psychedeli-American-tinged black metal we've been doing earlier. And he basically went into the studio and recorded all of the vocals for Eater of Birds in one day.
Yeah, it’s wild. He a bottle of Bushmills and his notebook of crazy-deep lyrics. The references in his stuff go back to Dante's Inferno and Dostoyevsky and all kinds of stuff. It was wild. But it was great, you know? We kind of synchronize then and we did Eater of Birds and after that we were on the same page. And that's where we have Gin.
So Gin is pretty much you guys knowing that this is the direction the band is going in and you're okay with it. But isn't he's still in the army? So, how does that happen?
Yes. So we just made sure to keep our correspondence. After Eater of Birds he was like: “I trust you with whatever you want to do next, let's do another album.” And on Gin I was really on fire, even thinking back, on fire. I’ve never been that on fire, as far as like my writing. I'm sure as I get older, I'll look back and there's different periods of that, but that period was just extreme, extreme passion. The juices were flowing, everything was synchronized. I had been really on a Hunter S Thompson binge, and it was, an exciting time for me. But it was after college I was living in Denver, and at the beginning, when we moved down there, I was working shit jobs, like working at like the Pepsi factory, putting decals on Pepsi machines, and working with like ex cons in a shitty part of town, just because I didn't find a job immediately, like in my field. And so where I was in my mind was that I had to get bigger with each move, at least as far as that next decade goes.
So I moved from Fort Collins, which is a smaller city, a college city, to Denver. And I was like: “Okay, Denver is the next step.” There was less of an opportunity in Denver, but it was like: “I'm just going to go to Denver, because that's what you do next.” So I moved there, and I was there for two or three years, and It was when I was living in Denver that we did Gin. And then my next step was Jarboe asked me to go to New York and go and tour Europe and stuff. So I went to New York next. I was in this focused plane of vision. But that was also the thing: don’t focus too hard, just kind of know, and pay attention.
What does it mean to not focus too hard? “Don’t force it”?
Yeah, that's what I mean, don't force the screw into the spot where it doesn't fit, kind of deal. But just be aware and put it in and up to where it stays there, and then 5-10 minutes later you're going to find the right screw, and you're going to be glad that you left that last one there, because you would have forgotten where that one was. You know?
It kind of sounds like half the work is not working, knowing when to restrain yourself.
Yeah. Hemingway said that what makes a good writer is knowing what to leave out. Knowing what not to say. Yeah, restraint.
I had a question about the New York thing because I got a sense from reading your guys's interviews over the years, that you were never willingly entrenched in specific musical scenes. But you were in New York at a time where I think at this point is safe to say you were a very influential American black metal band. You put out Gin, if I remember correctly, upon impact had a huge effect. And you're in New York, which is at the time, a hotbed, if you will, of American black metal, some of which is involved in Jarboe has been people like Colin Martsen and so on. So I guess maybe I want to ask: were people interested in you? As maybe that dude who came from out west? Who just dropped this crazy album that everyone's talking about? Were you interested in the type of music that was being created around you? Or were you just, you know, in Jarboe’s band, doing that and not caring about anything?
I was actually surprised when I first moved to New York that people knew me because of the band. Because when I lived in Denver, nobody knew who I was – at that point in time there wasn't even a metal scene in Denver. So there was nothing there. I was doing Man’s Gin, playing playing shows here and there, but nothing big. And then I moved to New York, and it just so happens that Gin had come out, and that one did get bigger than weight than I thought, or Phil thought it would it. That one really did kind of blow up. And it happened to be right when I moved to New York. So it's funny,, on various nights I’d be hanging out and people would be like: “Wow, you're different than I thought you would be” [laughs] and things like that. I guess people had a preconception of what I would be like. So New York was definitely different like that, and I was just along for the ride, really.
But did you feel at all like you were a part of what was happening at the time, say the Brooklyn black metal scene?
That’s a good question. I think there was some there was some of that that I liked, but I was truthfully more interested in some of the other aspects of the New York heavy music scene, which was something that had drawn me there to begin with. Like there were some cool black metal bands, such as…. I think Michael [Dimmitt] is still doing Mutilation Rites. Like, if you showed me a list of the New York bands at the time I would say “Yeah, I liked those.” But what I was more interested in was the noise, Swans era bands, like Swans and Cop Shoot Cop, and of course all those bands were gone by then. But I went to New York to be able to authentically add that flavor to do what I do
To add that noisy, no-wave New York flavor to what you do?
Uh huh, yeah, and not that it was like a notch on the belt, but I wanted to toughen up a bit, to get gritty, in every aspect. And I thought that was a good thing for me to do.
I mean, maybe this is not how you feel, but Slow Forever feels kind of gritty.
Yeah, Slow Forever is. I think New York definitely gave me that. It’s where what I wanted to be and where I was was almost lining up. So New York was definitely important for me, in a lot of ways. It's a place to where like, either you make it or you have to leave, because it's just so competitive and there’s so much you have to line up in order to be able to live there, and I wanted to see if I could. So even just living there, aside from the music, was something like a test, like the Indian braves solo soul journey into the woods where he comes back with a spirit animal.
Yeah I know it sounds… [laughs]
No, no. I’m sorry for laughing. I was just trying to figure out what the New York spirit animal would be.
[Laughs] Exactly! But that’s the kind of experience it was. It had that psychedelic nature of a vision-quest type of deal, and then, like, street fights [laughs].
But I mean, it's safe to say that if that was the test, and you passed that test, and then once you felt you didn't need it anymore, you came back to Colorado. But that was also kind of, I guess, the period that led up to Phil leaving the band eventually. So that was a huge change. But I guess once that dynamic was set, that you're in charge of music and and then Charlie could come in and just do the vocals, so while not having Phil is huge, obviously, I guess once that dynamic is set then that makes the transition easier.
Yeah, it definitely does. It’s funny when I looked back at the journey and the road, that at most of the points I had what I needed for that moment. Even if it's barely anything, I still had the right thing. But when I had to split Phil from the band….. Which was rough. He was dealing with PTSD and a lot of internal demons just spewing out of him and destroying things around him while there were things he needed to process. And I was trying to have him at least publicly to keep it under control, and he would go: “OK, OK, yeah.” But it happened enough times, and big enough times, to where it was like: “Okay, I'm piecing together something and you're trying to break things. That doesn't work.”
So, that happened. And then what happened was that we had toured with Lord Mantis, who are obviously awesome. And I met Charlie, actually, back when Jarboe was doing a tour with Nachtmystium in Europe in 2010. And we became friends, and I would ride on their bus and across Europe because the guys in the Jarboe band, two of them were sober and Jarboe was older, so it was much quieter, and I was ready to rage and stuff. So I was mostly on the Nachtmystium bus and became friends with those guys. And when the Phil thing happened I was like: “Well, who could fill that spot?” and I went: “There’s only one candidate, and it’s Charlie.” And I called him up and he was like: “Yeah. OK. I knew you were going to ask me!” [laughs].
That’s fucked up [laughs].
[Laughs] I think he said it in a way that he just sensed it.
I know, it’s fucked up because, in a really weird way, that I can't necessarily put my finger on, what makes it what it is, all of this makes sense. You know, Phil was huge in the band, and that made sense for him. It's kind of, if you want to think about it that way, a small miracle that he was able to even stay in the band for as long as he did, considering the fact that he was out of the country for most of the time. And so eventually something was going to happen, and he went out and – and this is me just talking for myself – when I heard Phil was out, I was like: “Oh, that sucks.” And then I heard Charlie was in Cobalt and I just went: “Okay, it's all good.” It was just the perfect fit.
Exactly. Yeah. As far as the Cobalt role, the person leading the band needs to actually be an extreme person. Yeah, like it's a part. It's a part you can't act. So it’s not like you could have Cobalt vocal tryouts [laughs].
A Some Kind of Monster-style audition.
Exactly [laughs]. And actually during that time I had various singers from metal bands who would contact me and go: “I'll take the spot,” and I was getting emails left to right from different people who wanted to do it. And I appreciated that, it's cool, but for me it was more of an organic, “it just happens” type of deal. Cobalt is not a band that has tryouts, it just sort of lumbers along, slow forever [laughs]. Really. I guess.
I want I wanted to ask you, I have kind of deserted my notes, but I'm returning to them because there's one thing I always ask at the end of these interviews, just like there's one thing I always asked in the beginning and since it's 1:20am around here seems like a good time to spring this one.
So Gin is ten years old, which is crazy to me. And it’s crazy to me because that album feels like the kind of album that if it came out today, it would still be as impactful as it was 10 years ago. Because I truly do weirdly think it kind of began a new phase of people feeling confident about inserting Americanisms into their metal, especially really extreme metal. So I think you know, Gin is super important for that.
Yeah, and also literature.
Yeah, that’s also a part of it, because there is a kind of tradition in European metal of introducing, you know, the sagas and just in general, inserting literature into the music, sometimes not all the bands obviously, and Gin felt like an American counter to that as well. Something like: “These are our authors.”
Which, whether coincidentally or not, are very rebellious figures, larger-than-life. So that too is kind of like an American thing. You're not talking about tradition, or, you know, the mythological figure we must return to, you're talking about guys who got drunk and shot their typewriters.
So there's something very American about that as well – “These are my cultural heroes, not the other ones.” But this is not the question, that’s just me talking.
Sure, but it’s cool you say that because that's kind of an afterthought that I had as well, that that was something we had subconsciously brought in. But also, we both like to read books, and we have heroes in that regard. But afterwards, it was like: ”Oh, yeah! This is our version, where we're talking about our American heroes and what happened on our side of the ocean,” whereas as any given local band was tying to sing about Thor or whatever, and I was like “Come on” [laughs].
I mean, the Thor is nice, but he's not from there.
Exactly, that's what I'm saying. It's like it's been done by people from there.
Exactly. So what I wanted to ask you specifically about that album is what was one thing you're especially happy about. Aside from the reception and being happy that people like it, and that's been influential and so on. But what is one thing that you when you think back on either the writing or the production, and to say “I'm proud that I did that”?
I think knowing that I could trust my instincts, that something was going to be meaningful and importantת and allowing that to be the fire that keeps the fuel pushing. Because during that period, and for a lot of other periods, I was working jobs that I didn't really care about, to make money I was working these things were not me. And my saving grace was that I was able to do something that was very close to exactly what I thought at that time. And so looking back I’m just thankful and I'm happy that I made something that was so close to perfect.
Perfect for you?
Yeah, in as far as just the synchronicities that allowed it to happen. You know, when I think about Gin I think about me playing an electric guitar not plugged in, playing riffs at 4am, high and drunk, and just coming up with something so important, like: “Holy shit! I just created the knife or something, oh my god” [laughs]. I was just flying through me, and I just remember my pulse quickening and just looking over to make sure the tape was recording. Just playing these riffs and being amazed by the things I was coming up with. That fueled me to continue doing that. I just remember being on fire.
And you know, during that time, when Phil came back and were working on the lyrics, we were, in our weird American way, doing our religious rituals. So, we had that EP that came out Landfill Breastmilk Beast, which came out between Eater of Birds and Gin, and during that week Phil was back to Colorado from Baghdad – he was in Iraq in those times for two or three years. That was definitely monumental, for good and for bad, for him, certainly helped him grow. But, anyway, we burned most of those during the process. So we would we be working on lyrics and things and ideas, and then we'd hang out listening to records. A lot of times there was drugs and alcohol. I've kind of come away from directly promoting that stuff, but it's always been there, you know? So we would, we'd be rockin and then you know, come three, four AM we would go out to my backyard and we would put lighter fluid on this pile of like our own EPs and then we set it on fire, so the creation and the destruction of your own art, I guess. So, yeah, kind of like Hunter S. Thompson shooting his typewriter. And actually, in the liner notes for Gin, all that fire? That’s that EP burning.
[Laughs]. Yeah, I just remember that we, the both of us, were at very good point in parts of our lives, and we knew it. And my being self aware was the key. I think a lot of people just kind of let that pass and maybe only slightly recognize it. And we fully knew it. And I don't know, I guess I keep saying “on fire,” but we were just firing on all cylinders. I started Man’s Gin during that time too, so I opened up another part of my brain with writing lyrics. I really hadn't done that much, and so I was writing words as well. I was getting into a flow of how that works too, and that would inform the drums and the guitar, and then it just all came together.
And the cherry on top was that I think it was made through a year and a half, since Phil came back three different times, once every six months. He would say hello to everybody, do all that, and then we mostly would work on Cobalt. And he recorded the vocals on his second time back, and then by the third time, everything was mixed. And so we got to listen to it. And it was at that point where I had finally added that chain-gang song variant. Which, I think, is definitely an American element. Because like we were both in awe after “A Starved Horror,” that last proper song on Gin, I still get goosebumps when I listen to that song, it’s an intense song. And “A Starved Horror” is actually a reference Dante's Inferno like he's describing this starved demon thing. It was only mentioned in the editions that came out before 1960, because they changed the wording. And so that song was finished, and we're listening to it. And I didn't tell him anything was coming next, because I wanted to surprise him. And we were sitting there, it was like: “Wow, dude, we fucking did it! This shit’s awesome!”
And then that chain-gang song started playing, slowly. And Phil was like: “What's this!?” and I was like: “It's the end, and he said: “No fucking way.” I remember this was like 7am because we'd been up all night the night before, and he was walking in circles in the room like: “Holy shit, we made something that’s untouchable.” Like, if you get a chance to make even a little impact on history, that’s pretty exciting to just experience that. And I think a lot of people would hear that and attach it to ego or that I want to be famous, or anything like that. And that was not the thing at all. We wanted to make something as awesome as the things that inspired us. And the people that inspired us. I still think of it as almost you pass the torch down the line and each has to hold it for a while, only to pass it on. And it's your job, it's your responsibility to carry on people's flame and toto tell the next generation: “Hey, this is important.”