Friday 29 January 2016

"Entering the Throne of Fire" - Amped & Doomed with Jon Davis (Conan)

By: Aaron Pickford & Jon Davis

The subject of today’s interview at The Sludgelord, needs little if no introduction, indeed followers of the doom scene will no doubt be familiar with Jon Davis.  Founded in 2006 Conan initially started as a two piece, taking inspiration from power duos such as Oxford based Winnebago Deal, the first incarnation of Conan would release ‘Battle in the Swamp’ a year later, a track that would go on to be a stable tune of their live set for years to come.

Releasing the brilliantly monikerd ‘Horseback Battle Hammer’ in 2010, the band slowly began to garner increasing praise amongst the underground, featuring in Metal Hammer’s “Subterranean,” indeed this was the first time the band came to my attention, reading a review which lauded the band’s down tuned and droning approach to doom, I promptly bought the cd and was blown away by the dense nature of their music.  Subsequently with the release of ‘Monnos’ in 2012, the praise began to broaden further still, due in no small part to their crushing track ‘Hawk As Weapon’ and for many remains their ‘hit’, in much the same way as ‘Enter Sandman’ for Metallica, not in terms of records sold obviously, but a piece of music that fans can most readily latch onto.  I mean, man that groove is just crushing and you can’t fail to bang your head to the track

Band members would leave and be replaced, a studio would be built ‘Skyhammer’ and eventually Conan, do the unthinkable and ‘out doom themselves’ (if that’s not a thing, I want copyright) to produce a more progressive and emphatic statement with ‘Blood Eagle’ in 2014.  After relentless touring, covering the UK, Europe and their first trip across the pond, releasing a succession of critically lauded music on his own Black Bow Records imprint, you could be forgiven for thinking Jon Davis would take some time off, but no. On 15th October 2015 there was an announcement that Conan’s third record was ready for release entitled ‘Revengeance’ and with release on the record today, excitement levels are reaching fever pitch, if our social media pages are anything to do by.  . 

Ostensibly with a full year of touring ahead of themselves in 2016, there is likely to be very little downtime for Jon and his hooded menaces, however  today, we take some time to get the low down on band activities and what fans can anticipate from this heavyweight band 

SL). Jon, first of all, welcome back to The Sludgelord.  I think the last time we talked, you played Sheffield at an intimate little gig, and at time ‘Blood Eagle’ had or was due to be released. (NB it was actually when we spoke at The Star and Garter, supporting Church of Misery) Anyway I remember you talking about Black Bow Records, indeed what I garnered from our chat was your enthusiasm for what you do, whether it’s the band, the label etc.  Certainly the last 12 – 18 months has been a busy time for you, with little signs of slowing down and with the release of ‘Revengeance’  literally a few weeks away, your enthusiasm for what you do seems to be steadfast and unwavering, what’s your secret? 

Hey Aaron. I always throw myself 100% into those things I am most interested in. The label has certainly grown since we started out and I’m glad to say that it has exceeded my expectations so far. It’s hard work, certainly to balance everything out over the year, but I’m having fun discovering new bands so it’s definitely worth it. There’s no secret really, I guess just being lucky enough to do what I want to do is all that matters.

SL) I’d be lying if I didn’t want to stray onto matters relating to ‘Revengeance’, straight away so perhaps we can touch upon it briefly.  Track listing confirmed, artwork looks awesome, but what many fans want to know, what can folks expect from the new record?  Certainly, having listened to it repeatedly and digested it for a couple of weeks now, what is apparent is the increase in intensity and the song writing has developed,  it is an exciting record but remains unmistakably Conan,  give us your impressions of the record. 

You summed it up in your last couple of sentences really. We want to keep progressing from release to release, naturally, but at the same time we do not want to shed too much skin. Our sound is, in some people’s opinion, pretty distinctive and we don’t want to jeopardise that by changing too much. However, that being said, we do not deliberately write any certain way…. We just do what comes naturally and our music kind of speaks for itself. “Revengeance” is definitely more complete than our other releases; it is more aggressive and more complex. You can see that we have been touring and playing a lot, the songs are more diverse and more interesting and I think people who like us already will love it. People who don’t know us yet will also find it engaging and will hopefully come and check out a show.

SL) With each album your sound has strayed away from the earlier, perhaps more drone based nature of “Horseback Battle Hammer’, adding dynamics and yet you always retain that overwhelming heaviness.  Was the record forged upon a strict blueprint or was there a natural progression, given that 2/3 of the band were new.  For example your new drummer, also plays in a more progressive almost Meshuggah esque band, did that influence the song writing?

The writing process for “Revengeance” was as natural as it could be. Our very first rehearsal yielded the title track “Revengeance” and this kind of set the tone for the rest of the record. Every time the three of us got in a practice room we were able to produce new music and the whole album came together really easily, more easily perhaps than we expected. I did write the odd riff on my own, like I used to on previous releases, but this time it felt like everyone in the room was on the same wavelength and it just clicked, it was the most fun I’ve had in the studio by far. In the past I have had to work hard to convince others in the band that the ideas were right, which sometimes became a drag, but with Chris and Rich (two very accomplished and open minded musicians) communication was very clear and very open.

SL).  Switching back to you as a guitarist, Can you remember who are what inspired you to pick up the guitar? Are there any bands, guitarists, currently on the scene that continue to inspire you and push you to try new things?

I was inspired to pick up the guitar in my mid teens, I watched Nirvana play “Smells Like Teen Spiri”t on The Word (Channel 4) and was trying to learn basic chords at the time, seeing them play such awesome music and only using bar chords was quite an inspiration for me, it made me realise that you didn’t need to be Scott Ian or Dave Mustaine to make cool music and I got pretty serious after that, learning as much as I could from bands such as Altered Beast and Black Sabbath. There are lots of guitarists out there that inspire me, I remember being inspired watching Samothrace when we toured with them in the USA in May 2015 and Renata Castagna and Bryan Spinks, their interplay on the guitar was truly mesmerising and I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Then you have Dave and Chris from Slomatics, two guys who inspired me when I first heard them in 2005 on their “Flooding The Weir” cd. They have always had awesome tone and write great songs, what they don’t know about tone and pedals isn’t worth knowing. Another great guitarist is George from Gonga, I remember writing to him when I heard them play on Radio 1 in (I think 2005 - they had just released their debut) he told me to find my own tone, my own ‘path’ and so I did. His advice was good advice. I saw them play in Liverpool in 2006 and had them all sign my cd…. Proper fanboy.

SL). Whilst we’re on the subject of inspiration or heroes for example, do you have 5 records that stand out as favourites, what influence did they have upon you and what is it about those record that particular resonates amongst others? 

1). Nirvana - Nevermind” - a classic now in most people’s minds. Taught me that heavy didn’t necessarily mean Slayer or Megadeth.
2). Slomatics - everything they have ever released. Tone and great song writing equals awesomeness.
3). High on Fire – “Surrounded By Thieves”. Dark sounding metal without any of the annoying muscle flexing. A true head turner and just listen to that guitar tone. “Matamp”.
4). Sepultura – “Beneath The Remains”. Furious chugging.
5). Weezer – “Pinkerton”. An ugly unwanted mutt of an album, but with the best song writing ever. Weezer are such a great band who can write pop music and still make it sound awesome and cool.

SL) We digressed slightly, but because you’re involved in so many things, I wanted to resist the urge to talk exclusively about the record, so I hope you can forgive me.  Anyway, You’re a singleton on your first speed dating experience, you got 3 minutes.  Atlantean Merch Co is something else you branched out on, gives us the low down? 

Atlantean merch started out as a way for me to sell band merch in the USA for bands who wouldn’t usually be able to print and distribute out there. I started this little venture with Renata Castagna of Samothrace (who lives in Seattle) and it is ticking along nicely. We have shirts for sale in the USA for bands such as Slomatics, Serpent Venom and more. In the UK I handle shirts for bands such as Primitive Man, Worship, Samothrace and Khemmis. Can I have a blow job now please?

SL) Interestingly, when we first discussed doing this interview, I took to social media to pose the question. ‘What was your first band shirt you bought?’  What I failed to say, was that mine wasn’t actually a band shirt but a Michael Jackson shirt off the back of the ‘Bad’ album, (I was young folks), next it was the Civil War shirt by Guns n Roses way back in ‘92.   Can you remember the first band shirt you bought with your own money; was it at a gig and what are thoughts about that time looking back?  How has the scene changed since your teenage days? 

I think I bought it out of Kerrang and it was a shirt by the band Destruction, I remember buying a studded wristband too. I didn’t wear either for very long for some reason. After that I remember buying an AnthraxPersistence Of Time’ shirt in Majorca off a tourist shirt shop, that was a weird place to find it. Maybe these were the inspiration behind Atlantean :)!!!! I honestly don’t know about how the scene has changed since I was a teenager as I had no real part of it then, but now you can see that with the current abundance of awesome festivals and the never ending stream of touring bands, we have a very awesome and supportive scene. It’s cool to be part of it for sure, although I never really knew it was here until we released “Horseback battle Hammer”.  

SL) I guess for me, buying a ‘band’ shirt, represents my love/dedication for the band and still does to this day and as I nearly push 40, that dedication is stronger than ever.  Speaking as a music fan, what is the significance of buying your shirt?  What does it represent to you?  Are you wishing to covey a message or when you get down to the nuts and bolts is wearing a shirt simply because you love the band? 

Buying a band’s shirt should be a statement of ‘I love this band and you should too - go check them out’. It’s cool seeing people wearing band merch for big and small bands, I love discovering new bands by seeing their merch on people. For Conan, who have quite a busy merch operation, it has always been important to get our message across through our music, and also through our merch. You can look at a Conan shirt and immediately tell what the music is all about and I think that cannot be said for a lot of bands.

SL) I remember watching the ‘I’m Broken’ video by Pantera way back in 94.  Phil Anselmo alternates between wearing a Crowbar and an Eyehategod shirt and immediately I went out and bought music by those bands.  So a shirt can also be a powerful advert for a band.  As a band member yourself, does stuff like that matter and I guess it would seem obvious to say, but you must be stoked seeing a sea of people wearing Conan shirts? 

Yeah man, I love to see people wearing our merch but I always tend to shy away from wearing band shirts openly when I’m playing as very early on we always got compared to whatever band shirt I had on…… Usually High on Fire. Now I tend to wear a black hooded top instead. I like seeing our merch on people because I appreciate that they have showed their support in buying it and promoting us by displaying it. We’re a hard working band and it means a lot that people get us and understand what we are trying to do.

SL).  Getting back to the band and specifically for all the gear nerds out there, lets talk about your current set.  First of all, what guitar(s) are you using today and how did you gravitate towards the guitar you currently use? 

I currently use an EGC Flying V. I always wanted one of the aluminium neck guitars but could never afford one, and then I declared on Facebook that I was going to order one and all of a sudden a friend messaged me saying he had one for sale, and did I want to buy it. He gave me a great price and I bought it without delay. It’s quite a heavy guitar but sits really nicely on my shoulders, I love using it. It’s sound is quite brittle, quite ‘sharp’ sounding and so you have to tame that a little but with my tuning it retains a clarity that I haven’t found in other guitars.

SL). What amps and pedals do you currently use?  Do you use a combination of amps, or a full half stack? Talk us through your set up both in the studio and in the live environment

I currently use three amplifiers (not always on at the same time). I have a Matamp Gt120 (newly made master volume version), a Matamp ‘GTL’ from 2005 that was originally made for a Wishbone Ash world tour and a 70’s Matamp 120 watt slave amplifier that I have had rehoused by Matamp.

SL).  What one pedal could not live without and why? 

My tuner pedal. Without it Chris would be forever tuning my guitar up for me on stage as I can’t seem to play in tune very well.

SL). What are your amp/ pedal settings?

I haven’t a clue :). Usually pretty bass heavy but with mids too, and loud. My fuzz pedal has three knobs - Conan (volume), Girth (tone) and Grief (fuzz).

SL).  You might not be one for giving away trade secrets, but ill ask the question anyway. What tunings do you use and why, and as a result is there a specific brand / gauge of string you prefer ?   

I play in dropped F so my guitar is tuned F C F A* D G. I use GHS boomer strings (70 gauge) as my second string and on but my bottom string is a 0.8 D’Addario string that I buy individually.

SL). Do you personally think, there is any deeply help misconceptions about being in a band? 

Yes, there is a misconception that somehow touring and being in a band equals not working hard or not contributing to the world, when in fact it is one of the most challenging ways to live and is one of the most rewarding and valuable things that a person can do. Not many people can say they make a whole room smile, or a whole room sing songs or entertain hundreds / thousands of people at a time…. You certainly can’t do that sitting behind a desk or talking about music. Musicians should be treasured and should be the MOST rewarded in the industry, not those who talk about music or do the admin behind the scenes.

SL). Moving back to “Revengeance” then, what/if anything  immediately springs to mind when you think about the completion of the record and how is the mood in the camp at present?  Presumably there’s a busy year ahead of you? 

Sadness really, I always feel slightly miserable when we finish recording as I really love being around the lads making music. When we finish recording, it usually signals a quiet period for the band while we submit the masters and deal with press and wait for the build up and the touring for the album, which is where we are now. We’re on the cusp of a very busy year with lots of touring and shows and all that fun stuff, I just love playing music and now our year is more structured around release dates and press commitments the touring has to be slightly more planned out… No more ‘want to play next Friday?’ style shows, so everything seems to be in the future until you get out on the road. We’re looking forward to loading the van and getting out there - the more the better.

SL).  Well sir, as ever, it has been a real pleasure talking you, but before we go I would personally like to express my excitement for the new record, I’m sure it is going to take you guys to the next level and I’m sure you’re gonna have a busy and successful 12 months ahead of you, do you have any final words before we bring this edition of Amped & Doomed to an end?

Cheers Aaron, glad you liked it. Thanks to all your readers who happen to support us and we hope to see some packed venues this year.

The End

You can read our review of “Revengeance” here, which is out now

Band info: facebook | bandcamp