Today on Sludgelord I am interviewing ALTARUS. The brilliant powerhouse trio who blew me away with their superb debut album - As Above, So Below.
I had to find out more from these hugely talented sludge rockers. They kindly agreed to do an interview with me. And it's an epic read just like their excellent new album.
So lets get down to business with ALTARUS
Q1 - Hi Guys, Thanks for doing this. How are things with you Today.
J.P.: No Problem. Things are great.
Tyler: Hail Sludgelord! Things are better all the time.
Karol: Doomy. Thanks for giving us this opportunity.
Q2 - For people not in the know can you give them a brief history of the band and how it came about.
J.P.: I suppose the genesis of the band was an opportune meeting between myself and Shawn Fisk (the original vocalist) at a friend's wedding in 2009. We talked about previous musical projects that we'd been involved with, as well as Black Sabbath, and I expressed an interest in playing heavy music with him at some point. A few months later Shawn phoned me up saying he wanted to start a doom band with Tyler Martin and Jay Swinnerton (former bass player), who he worked with at the time. We met up for beers, and Shawn lent me a copy of Dopesmoker by Sleep, and the rest is history.
Karol: I joined the band in early 2012. We immediately started bringing me up to speed on older material (which took a little while!). We played a few shows in mid-2012, and in October 2012, we started recording the songs that make up As Above, So Below. We released that album on the auspicious date of December 21, 2012, and played our first official show as a three-person group that evening, and that brings us pretty much to present day.
J.P.: I believe we first called it hermetic esoteric doom. However, we're constantly bringing all sorts of outside influences into the music, and so it seems to be evolving constantly.
Tyler: I think those terms are as good as any. We’re definitely rooted in doom. Whenever I’ve try to define what our sound is, it kind of feels like I’m putting limits on what we’re allowed to do. “Is this too bluesy? Is it too major key?” As soon as I stop trying to figure out if the pieces fit a certain mould, then it becomes a lot easier to just play what feels right in the moment. I guess that doesn’t really answer your question at all…
Karol: I think all of the words thrown down are good ones. I would add "progressive", as we generally tend to have song structures that evolve and eschew easy-to-decipher formulas. When we are actually playing the songs live or in rehearsal, I alternate between feeling aggressive, depressed, like a God, like someone being crushed by a God, or just fucking into it.
Q4 - Which bands and artists influenced you directly as musicians.
J.P.: I used to be heavy into 60s jazz drummers like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes and jazz fusion drummers from the 70s like Jack Dejohnette and Billy Cobham. Lately its been the Melvins, Sleep,Yob, Sabbath, Cream, Magma, Rush, King Crimson. I really just like really heavy, or really complex music, or both these days. These are the things that directly affect the way I play in Altarus. Indirectly, I'm influenced by all sorts of electronic music, 19th and 20th century classical music, as well as Tabla and West African drumming. And really indirectly, epic natural wonders are always an influence for heavy music, like a glacier crashing into the ocean, or volcanoes erupting.
Tyler: Well there are the obvious influences that most people could pick out just by listening: Sleep, Tool, Yob, Black Sabbath, old 70’s prog, etc. Outside of that sort of stuff though, I listen to a fair amount of world music and Indian classical. L. Shankar’s Raga Aberi is one of my all time favourite albums. I’ve also been listening to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians for the last week or so straight. I tend to move in cycles. Sometimes it’s Bach for a week, then the next week it’s an Anthrax marathon, then after that it’s Wu-Tang. To be honest, my iPod playlist probably looks like someone made a horrible mistake…
Karol: I would say our tastes are fairly eclectic, and vary wildly from member to member. I've been listening to a lot of Death Grips the past couple of years, and have had the song "Pineola" by Lucinda Williams on repeat this week. As a band, I'd say we're very much influenced by a whole range of doomy and heavy stuff, but also a whole bunch more.
Q5 - Are you all full time musicians or do you have regular jobs to pay the bills.
J.P.: Yeah I work at an assembly job. I have the opportunity to do critical listening while there, so I am able to work on compositions while doing menial labour, which works out well for the band, to be honest.
Tyler: Who says the bills are getting paid? Seriously though, I know J.P. works his ass off and, well… I don’t really know how Karol survives, but I assume it’s through Magickal arts. Myself, I’m in school right now, so at this point I’m actually just trying to accumulate as much debt as possible. Send bread and water!
Karol: Doom don't pay at this point. I'm surviving through an odd reliance on mental alchemy.
Q7 - What was the song-writing process in the band. Is it a group collective or is just down to one individual.
Tyler: It’s definitely a collective thing. It’s a fine balance between a democracy and a three way dictatorship. Everyone’s voice gets heard equally, but we also all have veto power. Altarus is a different band than I’ve ever been in, largely because J.P. is far more engaged in the writing process than most drummers. I’d guess that around half of the riffs on the album were written by him, and he comes up with a lot of the vocal arrangements and lyrics as well.
Karol: With any of the songs, even the songs that are already "done" or close to "done," we are constantly refining them and taking them to higher and higher levels. If something feels too conventional or comfortable, we will figure out a way to make it more interesting and challenging, while still retaining groove and feel. It can take months for a song to go from a seed to a fully grown piece.
Tyler: For me it’s either about dismantling poisonous social and political structures, or it’s a statement about spiritual growth, or both. Either way it’s alchemy; you start with the radically impure, reduce it to nothing by stripping away all of its features, and then build it back up in the image of perfection and harmony. To be honest, we never discussed a concrete theme to the album, we all just contributed lyrics independently of each other and it came out a certain way. I think we’re each still interpreting the meaning of it for ourselves.
Karol: I personally would love for people to pick up their own meaning from it. For myself, it feels loosely based around ideas of construction and destruction, in both a godless and a devotional sense. Human history is - in many ways - a history of vast monuments built to imaginary and real idols, and the dismantling of those same monuments in both intellectual and physical ways. It's a beautiful and wretched cycle. Makes me think of Sisyphus… If the stone never rolled down the hill, what would he have to push against?
J.P.: Shhhhhh guys! You're ruining everything! But seriously, it is very much up to interpretation, even within the band, as well as the listener. Really the music and lyrics are meant to stimulate whatever is already running around in your crazy and unique mind.
Q9 – Was it an easy album to write and record for. Did the final result meet your original expectations.
J.P.: Yeah the writing was definitely the most time consuming, as arrangements are decided on democratically. Recording was a bit of an experiment that ended up working out well. I definitely learned a lot about the recording process this time around, and hope to bring that knowledge to future projects.
Tyler: Well, some of the songs we’ve been writing since the beginning of the band. G.A.T.U. is the third song we ever wrote, and that was one vocalist and three bass players ago. Templum Dirutum, on the other hand, is the youngest song on the album, and we were still working out details of the arrangement as we were recording it. The recording process itself was very smooth actually. We tracked all four songs live off the floor in one day, and then spent probably about another week doing overdubs, vocals, solos, stuff like that. J.P. mixed the whole thing by himself, so he put in the most work by far. But yeah, I’d have to say that the final product exceeded my expectations in every category.
Karol: JP did an amazing job of bringing out the live edge of the band. Plus, we recorded the main tracks in the storage space of the biggest classical music distributor in Canada. It was weird and cool.
Q10 – The album cover is very cool. Simple but very atmospheric and gives you an impression what to expect on the album. Who came up with the album cover.
J.P.: After bouncing some ideas back and forth with Karol about the album's themes, I thought about the title "as above, so below", and the idea of a mirror imaged structure came to mind. And what better 'structure' than the Pyramids at Giza? I threw this idea at John Ellis, and he came up with what you see today. It really highlights the idea that with great light comes great darkness, and vice versa.
Q11 – Now your album is full of 4 long drawn out epic tracks. Was that always the plan to write only long tracks opposed to short regular tracks.
J.P.: The tracks themselves are standalone, and weren't adjusted for the sake of the album. However, we did pair up the first two and the last two, as they shared common themes of creation (Lazarus/G.A.T.U.) and destruction (Templum Diritum/Leviathan).
Tyler: We don’t really work that sort of thing out ahead of time. We just start writing, and let the songs stretch out until they feel ‘done.’ A song has a life of its own, a place it wants to go, and you sort of have to let it do that, or you wind up with something that’s either overblown completely, or something that feels jerky and incomplete. Besides, I feel like doom lends itself to song structures and song lengths that stretch out. The riffs do, so why not everything else?
Q12 - Do you guys perform lots of gigs in your home town or do you have to travel further a field.
Tyler: Mostly hometown gigs, but that’s changing now. This album is really the beginning of us pushing forward as a band, so expect to see a lot more from us in the near future.
Karol: Since 2009 the band has gone through a few lineup changes, mainly with a revolving door of bass players. A lot of shows happened locally, and a couple of mini tours happened. Now that there's a solid lineup and an album out, we expect to be starting a pretty balanced regimen of playing locally and touring as we build the legions.
Q14 – You have released your début album on Cassette Tape. Why that format. Was it due to cost or are just a fan of old-school formats.
Karol: I pushed us to release the album on cassette, mostly because past projects I've had very limited success with selling CDs. I also don't seek out or buy CDs myself, so it would feel weird to put out our music in a format that I don't buy. I would love for us to be able to put out some vinyl in the near future (As Above, So Below would fit perfectly as a 2x10" album, if any labels are listening…). Basically, cassettes were a way to put out a physical copy of the album, in a cool sounding analog format, without relying on CDs. If a label wanted to put out a CD of As Above, So Below, that would be great, but I don't see us doing it. The tapes have been selling very well. We give a free download with each copy, so it's win/win.
Q15 - How was the blogging community helpful in getting your music across.
Karol: So far, places like SludgeLord and a few others have been the *only* way of getting our music out to people outside of places that we have physically played. We plan to continue to push our stuff through blogs and independent channels as much as possible.
Q16 - What are your views of blogs such as Sludgelord featuring and reviewing your records, as opposed to mainstream music magazines?
Tyler: I’m just happy that there are people out there who love this kind of music as much as we do. If people are enjoying our music and want to talk about it and spread the word then that’s even better.
Karol: With no "mainstream" attention in sight, it's hard to really have a view on it per se. I'm in no way opposed to having our work reviewed by bigger magazines, but it's not something we're too worried about at the present time. We are concentrating on making music that we're happy with, and that moves us, and getting that out in the ways that feel best for us at the time. One foot in front of the other...
Q17 - What are your favourite bands around at the moment. Do you listen to modern day rock/metal or do you just listen to the classic era of Stoner/Sludge/Doom Metal.
Tyler: Yob, Pallbearer, High on Fire, Om, Electric Wizard, Meshuggah. Sleep’s Dopesmoker is probably the greatest single album ever recorded. I first got into doom when I was in highschool, listening to the doom/death bands on Peaceville records like Anathema, Katatonia, My Dying Bride and stuff like that, though I’m not as much into those sounds these days. I like the old school stuff like St. Vitus, Candlemass, Pentagram, and obviously Sabbath too. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool doom fan, so I pretty much like it all.
Karol: As far as doomy and sludgy bands, I have been listening to a fuck of a lot of Pallbearer and Witch Mountain lately. I've also been rediscovering the first 5 Black Sabbath albums, which has been really fruitful. I have also been listening to Celtic Frost's Monotheist pretty consistently for months…
J.P.: What they said.
Q18 - What are the most and least rewarding aspects of participating with the band.
J.P.: Least Rewarding: Gig Payments. I wish it was the 70s. Most Rewarding: Getting your ideas out, no matter how small the crowd. If one person enjoys a show, I'm super happy about it.
Tyler: I don’t know if I could say there is a least rewarding, or even an unrewarding aspect to doing this. I’m not going to lie, playing in a band is a lot of work at times, but you do it because you love it and believe in what you’re doing. Really, making music you love is its own reward (I sound like such a fucking hippie), but when someone else gets excited about what you’re doing too, well that is the ultimate.
Karol: For me, the most rewarding part of being in the band is playing with two other musicians who push me fucking hard to be a better player. Their technical expertise far outweighs mine, so I try to make up for it with a bit more attitude. But really, hearing a song go from a simple riff to a spiralling ripple of devastation is so fucking cool. And the shows we've played together have been really special moments.
Q19 – Can you give advice to bands/musicians who are thinking in starting their own Sludge/Stoner/Doom Metal Band.
Tyler: Don’t water it down, and play from your heart, not your wallet. Make the music you want to hear, and not what you think other people will like. That probably sums it up.
Karol: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.
Q20 – Do you have anything exciting plans within the next 12 months or so.
J.P.: Touring is definitely a priority. It would be cool at some point to play internationally. When I heard that Om played at Giza, I thought that would be a cool gig. I think somehow doom could do very well in the Middle East.
Karol: Working on a new handful of songs, recording those songs, and a few tours are in the works. We are also trying to push As Above, So Below as much as possible, so if folks haven't heard it, please check it out. We'll also be releasing at least one music video for that album this year.
Q21 - Finally, Do you have anything to say your fans
J.P.: Thanks, and don't be afraid to share your thoughts about the music and music in general. I like all sorts of feedback.
Tyler: A very sincere thank you to anyone who has heard our music and gotten some enjoyment out of it. Please spread the word!
Karol: Things seem to be gaining momentum for us and 2013 looks like it's going to be a really good one for Altarus. We're still at the level where we're on a first name basis with most of our fans (especially the locals!), so next time we see them, we'll say hello in person.
Well guys thanks for doing this. I hope you do get to play in the Middle East one day and hopefully Europe/UK in general. All the best from Sludglord as we are big fans of your music here.