Saturday 16 August 2014

Interview with Ancient Altar

Ancient Altar's début release – S/T – album is currently kicking up a mega-destructive shit-storm within the Sludge/Stoner Metal world with it's punishing and brutal portrayal of different riffs to destroy your entire world.

They are being tipped as one of the best upcoming Sludge/Doom/Stoner Metal bands to keep an eye on for over the next few years.

I described their album as: “Ancient Altar's début release is an heavy mix of Sludge, Doom, Hard Rock, Stoner Metal all held together with a thick crusted Post-Metal groove to awaken your senses to. It may only last 27 mins or so but it more than makes it up with some heavy as fuck pounding gigantic riffs to crush your senses to.

Ancient Altar are being tipped for great things and on this form who are we to argue. Ancient Altar are on the verge of greatness. These guys will be one of the most talked about bands in the years to come. Watch these guys soar!!!”

I had to catch up with these guys as I wanted to find out more about them. And they have kindly agreed to talk to us here at Sludgelord HQ.

Q1 – Hi guys. Thanks for doing this. How are things with you today.

Scott: Great! Thanks for asking. We’ll be on tour in a little less than two weeks, and we’re just dealing with the last minute details such as merch, van rental, etc. We can’t wait to hit the road.

Barry: Yeah, beyond the stress of the last minute stuff, things are going great.

Q2 – Can you tell our readers a brief history of how the band came about and where it is today.

Scott: Ancient Altar started at the end of the previous band that Barry and I were in called Iron Mtn, which also featured Bill, who’s on the recording but no longer in the band. We felt that after seven years of working at Iron Mtn it was time for a change in the form of vocals, more concise songs, a new philosophy, etc. With this change, we figured that it would be best for a fresh start, thus the new name. After the recording, Bill ended up quitting, but I’d say he’s still an honorary member. Since then Jesse came into the fold and fit in perfectly in a ridiculously short time.

Q3 – How would you describe your music. As I have seen it called a lot of things. Doom, Post-Metal, Crust, Stoner Rock, Sludge Metal, Hard Rock. Which I sort of see but you guys still have a brutal edge to your music. So how would yourselves call it.

Scott: I kind of don’t know what to call it. When friends that aren’t familiar with this type of music ask, I simply say that we’re heavy and slow. I guess the Doom thing is the easiest identifier, but I think we pull from lots of types of music, and I think that will be clearer as people hear the newer material.

Barry: It’s actually kind of funny because (especially in the reviews we’ve been getting on the new album) we’ve been classified as quite a few different genres, that we sometimes don’t even hear in the music. I actually think it’s kind of a good thing though because you might have someone who views Doom in one way and wouldn’t check us out, but as soon as they hear Sludge, they might take a listen.

Q4 – Why did you choose the name Ancient Altar.

Scott: We were trying to come up with a name, and it popped in my head, so I sent out a “What do you guys think of this?” text and there you have it. Once it was agreed upon, lots of thematic concepts were brainstormed and it just seemed to make sense and fit.

Q5 – You're début S/T album has been released. Can you tell us what the album is all about.

Scott: The album’s about a lot of things, but I think we always have a few dominant themes: Distrust of the powerful, the timelessness of humanity’s less desirable aspects, and the overwhelming power of nature.

Q6 – Was it an easy or hard album to write and record for. And are you happy with the final result.

Scott: I’d say both. Some aspects just seemed to make sense and lock in, and some took a lot of work. At this point Barry and I have been playing in bands together for about five years, so that helps, but I sometimes have a hard time figuring out if a song is done or if it should be refined a little more.

Barry: There where a couple moments during the writing process where we knew “this is it!”, but for the most part it was adding parts, removing parts, and restructuring. I’d have to say the hardest part (which has come easier at this point) was the vocals. I’ve been signing in bands for 20 years, but after being in Iron Mtn and being purely instrumental, it was sort of like having to learn how to do it again.

Scott: In terms of the recording, It was overall pretty easy. Etay Levy (Lana Dagales, Gallows of Sedition, …Of the Dead), who played drums with Iron Mtn at one point, did a great job, and he’s so easy to work with and patient. Gary Griffith (Morgion), who recorded the vocals and mixed the recording, was a breeze as well and though this was the first time we had met and worked with him, was one of those people you feel like you’re instantly friends with. Both guys’ expertise was indispensable. Then James Plotkin really did some great work on the mastering as well. He’s super easygoing, and when you have a question, he’ll give you a very clear and comprehensive answer, and he works really quick.

Barry: We did run into technical difficulties with some of our gear, but other than that it all went really smoothly. The process of recording to tape was exciting, I’m really glad we decided to go that direction.

Q7 – What influenced you when writing and recording the album.

Scott: Speaking for the songs that I more or less wrote (though they’re all collaborations), Ek Balam is me trying to evoke the feelings that I had visiting Mayan ruins earlier this year, Pulled Out is abstractly about a time when I nearly drowned in the ocean, and Feed is about self destruction through what a person chooses to eat and the factors that cause that phenomena.

Everything influences me; My life, current events, books I read, music I listen to, hiking, trying to cut through the din of nonsense and disinformation that a person sees on a daily basis, etc. I try to bring influence beyond other heavy music into my part of things, and I hope it shows. For instance, the intro of Ek Balam to me sounds kind of like a segment from a 4AD band, but I think I was also trying in my own way to ape Steve Reich’s music. If you listen to his work, there is usually repetition with tons of variations on top of that. Though limited by two guitars and bass, I think I was trying to recreate that in a roundabout way.

Barry: I wrote the main structure and lyrics for Tidal over the course of a week while camping up at San Simeon. Hearing the crash of the waves while sitting around the campfire, and experiencing it’s beauty and brutality was my inspiration.

I’m the same way as Scott when it comes to writing in general. What surrounds me is what influences me. Whether it be what I’m personally dealing with, something I’ve read or watched, or even the currenty state of the world/humanity, everything is fair game. For example, a new song that we’ll be playing on this upcoming tour is about some extremely personal things that I’m dealing with…but singing about it is therapy for me.

Q8 – Was is it always your original intention to release something as dark and brutal as your début release.

Scott: I’d say that we were definitely attempting something heavy, but I think it just came out the way it did. We didn’t over-think it at first. I guess from the outside maybe the vocals pump up the darkness, but ideally I wouldn’t want the peacefulness to go unnoticed as well.

Barry: To be honest, I was actually caught off guard when the first couple of reviews talked about how dark it is. During the writing process, our goal was just to write something heavy yet emotional, and I guess the end product turned out to be darker than we imagined. We’re all really light-hearted guys, yet there is a seriousness about our themes and imagery. I do think it’s great when people can listen to our music and walk away with a different take than someone else though.

Q9 – How did you guys hook-up with James Plotkin to master your album. Huge fan of his work here at Sludgelord HQ.

Scott: Basically a buddy of mine had gone through him previously. I’ve always been a big fan of both his mastering and his music, so when I found out that he works really quickly and has really fair rates, I knew that he was the only choice. It was really just a matter of emailing him and talking details and I’m so glad we had him master this recording, as it brought it to the next level.

Q10 – What is the song-writing dynamic in the band. Is it a group collective or down to one individual.

Scott: It varies. Sometimes someone will have a song more or less written that they’ll present to the group, other times there’s maybe a riff or two and we’ll build on that. Generally there’s always a bit of refining and input from everyone though.

Barry: Scott, Jesse, and I always have either a handful of riffs, partial songs, or complete songs in our back pocket at all times. We’ll usually record them on our own and send them out to the other guys and see what sticks and what doesn’t. No matter how complete a song is, everyone adds their fingerprints to it though. During the initial writing process, we will say “Scott’s song” or “Jesse’s song” but ultimately it becomes an Ancient Altar song and it belongs to all of us.

Q11 – I have to ask about the vocal(s) aspect of the album. They have a very raw and live feel to them. It gives your sound a very unsettling edge. Do you always record your vocals that way.

Scott: Thanks! That’s great to hear as, for my part, this is the first time I’ve ever sang in a band, and my first time recording vocals. I’ve heard a few terms such as unsettling and haunting applied to them. Shit, I’m just glad they don’t sound terrible. I ‘ve been playing guitar and bass for 20 years and I never though I’d be a vocalist.

A great deal of the sound of the vocals is definitely thanks to Gary though. He really captured the vocals perfectly. I think they sound kind of raw, thin and dry, which I really like.

Barry: Like Scott said, Gary did a fantastic job on the vocals. He was really easy to work with, and if I remember correctly, I only did two takes on Tidal. Initially the opening vocals were screamed (like they were at the end of the song) but Bill had the idea for me to almost chant them, and I think in the end, that was the perfect thing to do to add weight to the song.

Q12 – How did you hookup with Midnite Collective to release your début album. A great label releasing some fantastic releases.

Scott: Ryan Avery from Midnite Collective is a good friend, and at this point we go way back. Iron Mtn played a few of Ryan’s shows, and as soon as he heard the Ancient Altar material he was enthusiastic to the point of putting his stamp on it in terms of a release, which is obviously flattering. Yeah, through Midnite Ryan now does show promoting, booking for tours, artwork, a label, and also is in the band Pigeonwing and his workmanship across all of this is pretty impeccable. A bunch of us kind of decided to be under the Midnite umbrella and stick together for many reasons, one being the struggle to make a go of being in an underground heavy band in Los Angeles, which is pretty far from the ideal city to be doing this type of music. The other bands that are a part of the Collective are Bloodmoon, Deathkings, Destroy Judas, Funerary, Sutratma and Trapped Within Burning Machinery. Ryan’s a beast and I don’t know how he does it.

Barry: I think Scott pretty much said it all, but I’d like to reiterate how amazing it’s been being a part of the Collective. I really look forward to seeing what happens in the future for all of us involved.

Q13 – Your début album is being acclaimed all over the place. Has the response surprised you in a big way. Or did you know you had something special on your hands.

Scott: I think that I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting it out there if I didn’t feel it was special, but you never know how it’ll be received. I think we’re shocked by all the positive reviews and feedback we’ve been getting. There are plenty of great bands that go unnoticed for one reason or another, so to get such positive feedback is a blessing.

Barry: Exactly!

Q14 - What is your musical set-up when playing live or recording your music. Any hints and tips would you like to give to the budding musicians out there.

Live we have the “Go big or go home” philosophy. I play out of two 2x15 cabs, Jesse and Barry use full stacks, and Tom’s drumset is really fucking loud. When recording all of that isn’t necessary, so we generally use about half of what we play through live aside from the drums, which don’t change. The only recording tips I’d give would be to practice a bunch, know your songs backwards and forwards, and to relax and think of how amazing it is to be able afford to put your creativity down on tape. Also, if you’re recording harsh vocals, eat a little milk chocolate to keep your throat from drying out.

Barry: Yeah, we actually paired down our gear for tour we did in Iron Mtn and we regretted it. Don’t compromise on what you’re hoping to achieve or you’ll end up disappointing yourself. Also, don’t settle for cheap gear or you’ll end

Q15 – Do you perform a lot of gigs in your home town or do you have to travel further afield to perform regularly.

Scott: So far we’ve only performed a few times in town. We did a weekender in March and then began writing leading up to our August tour. In the fall and going forward, we plan on playing in town a lot more often.

Q16 – If you could change anything within the Hard Rock/Metal scene. What would it be and why.

Scott: I’d change the divisions that exist within the subgenres of music. I see no problem with Crust, Grind, Doom, Death Metal, Black Metal, Noise, Punk, or whatever other types of bands being on bills together, but that doesn’t happen nearly enough for my tastes. Sometimes it’s a drain to go to a show and see seven Grindcore bands in a row, and mixing it up always makes it more interesting.

Barry: I agree, those barriers need to be knocked down so that our small communities can come together and create something bigger. That’s why I love what Midnite Collective is doing; they’re building a community within the underground that really supportive heavy music in general.

Ancient Altar cover art

Q17 – We have to talk about the excellent album cover. Who designed the cover and how much input did you have into it.

Scott: Our friend David Jasso of the killer punk/psych/I-don’t-know-what-to-call-it band OGOD (Over-Gain Optimal Death) did the cover. He’s a great artist, and a really creative and unique person so I was really happy to rope him into doing the cover. I had a few vague guidelines for him, but he took my nebulous concepts and turned them into something really evocative that stands out, and I think he did an amazing job.

Q18 – If you could give any advice to someone wanting to start a band. What would it be.

Scott: I’d say to practice as much as you can, both on your own and with the band, and keep working at it. Also, try to be as helpful as you can to other bands, as it will most likely come back around at some point.

Barry: Practice is the key. We practice twice a week and that isn’t nearly as much as we’d like. If you’re able to get together as often as possible, it’ll definitely benefit you in the long run. Also, be respectful of the other bands you play with. Set up and tear down quick, don’t be a dick, and most importantly make friends. If you do that, you’re more than likely to get on more shows.

Q19 – What are your thoughts of the entire crowd-funding scene. It seems to have it's defenders and people think it's a waste of time. Would yourselves ever participate in a crowd-funding project.

Scott: I have no problems whatsoever with crowd-funding. Here’s the thing: Everyone wants vinyl, but it’s prohibitively expensive. If you can get people to give you some money upfront to be able to press up some vinyl, without any need for someone else to get involved and potentially compromise your vision, I have trouble seeing a downside to that.

Barry: Yeah, I’d definitely do it if we needed to. Luckily, up to this point we haven’t needed to, but I could see us doing it in the future if the need arises.

Q20 – So what is in store for Ancient Altar over the next 12 months or so. Anything exciting you like to share with our readers.

Scott: After the West Coast tour we plan on recording again as soon as possible. We have about an album’s worth of songs written, plus a few more that are in different stages of the writing process. We’re planning on doing some splits/comp tracks, plus a follow-up album as quickly as is possible. Besides that, we’re planning some shows and weekender-type tours, and also another extended tour for next year as early as the weather permits.

Q21 – The last thing before you go, Do you have anything else to say to your fans.

Scott: Yeah, I’d like to say thank you so much to anyone who has given us a listen, positively reviewed our album, come to see us live, bought merch, let us crash at their place, played a show with us, or anyone else who has supported us in any way. It’s a really good feeling to see positive results from what can at times seem like a thankless slog, so it’s all appreciated more than words can say.

Barry: The response we’ve gotten so far has been overwhelming, and I’m extremely grateful that we’ve been able to this ting we love and have people love it as well. Speaking for all of us, we NEED to play music and it’s amazing and encouraging when people are digging what we’re doing. Thank you to all!

Well guys thanks for doing this. All the best with the new album.

Scott: And thank you so much, not only for the review and the interview, but for the high quality work on The Sludgelord. What you do makes a huge difference and countless people (both musicians and fans) are better off due to your site.

Barry: Yeah, thank you for this opportunity! I’ve been following The Sludgelord since it’s inception, and I love the direction you guys have gone over the years. 

Thanks to Scott and Barry for talking to us here at Sludgelord HQ and for the wonderful comments. Much appreciated guys.

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Written by Steve Howe