ZT INTERROGATION: LOOKING THROUGH THE EYES OF CANYON OF THE SKULL
ZT’s Paul Castles speaks to Texan instrumental duo Canyon Of The Skull about their highly impressive eponymous debut album, consisting of just two tormented-tracks of deliberate dense doom from the American Southwest.
Zero Tolerance: I’ve been listening to your debut EP which I’m reviewing for ZT. Really enjoying it. What can you tell me about it?
Erik Ogershok (guitar): I’m glad you find it interesting. The record features one of the first songs I wrote for this project, Canyon Of The Skull and our latest one, The Path (Of Bear And Wolf). I wanted to release something many moons ago, but circumstances such as the lack of a drummer and my brewing career conspired to delay this debut. I am very pleased to finally have this album out.
Adrian Voorhies (drums): Well, this record was special for us in a number of ways. It’s our first recording venture since I joined the band close to two years ago now. We chose the two compositions we did because we felt they captured the sound of the group. They are a nice introduction to our musical style which definitely shifted once I joined the band, both due to my natural interpretation of the music and Erik’s reaction to that so to speak. The tunes revolve around a myriad of subject matter, however we try to keep things purposefully subjective for the listener so that they can lend their own interpretation. One reoccurring theme of the band in general that continually stands out is that of the American Southwest. Towering rock formations, high desert plains, shrub land, ocotillo and Sonoran cacti, arches of stone, unending heat of day and the unique stillness of star-blanketed night in that region are never far from mind when performing or recording this music.
ZT:How long did you take with this EP and where was it recorded?
EO: The album was recorded in four days in July 2015 at WoodenHorse Studios in Garland, Texas. Zawicizuz served as engineer and co-producer. Since we live in different cities, the mixing was done remotely over the course of two months. The mastering was completed in about two weeks by Proscriptor McGovern of Nox Luna Inlustris Music. Both mixing and mastering were very collaborative and we are definitely pleased with the result.
ZT:Have you been pleased with the interest it has generated?
EO: We realise that we are a niche within a sub-genre so the amount of positive feedback we have received about the record has been great. AV: I’ll be honest, the reception has really surprised me in terms of positivity and encouragement we’ve received from friends, fans and our colleagues alike. When I first came on board with this project, I was coming from a mainly black metal background from my other long-time project, aleatoric BM outfit Humut Tabal. The vastness of the sonic landscape with the drone elements, the inherent space in the Doom genre in general, and Erik’s compositional style all threw me for quite the loop at first. It took me a significant time to find where my particular style as a player fitted in. Once that happened though, it all came together rather quickly and I just dived in headfirst. In the end, we were left with a product that, in my eyes at least, is identifiable and relatable yet unique in itself, with the rhythmic aspects of the music almost trading places with the melodic ones at times. This exchange of energy is one of the pillars of our style I feel, and it’s served us quite well so far. It’s flattering hearing the positive remarks and encouragements since we released the record.
ZT:Was the decision to record two instrumental tracks an obvious one. Is there no singer?
EO: We are an instrumental band so the only real decisions we had were the running time of the album and if we were going to remain a duo. In the end, we opted to record only two tracks and we remain a two-piece. Canyon Of The Skull was conceived as metal instrumental music, but with no limitations, and it will remain so. I won’t say that there will never be any vocal elements in our music, but there will never be a singer in the band. Never.
ZT:What are the challenges involved with writing such lengthy compositions?
EO: I don’t want to use the word ‘challenge’, but one of the things that I am very conscious of is to not make a song long just because I am working with what I feel are a lot of cool riffs. Every one of our compositions tells a story. Sometimes that story is very personal. I try to let the song tell me how long it needs to be and only incorporate parts that are necessary to tell that story. The process of arrangement actually helps with that. If there is a true challenge I would have to say focus. I usually have many ideas that I am working on at any given time and that sometimes makes finishing a piece difficult. AV: I’m not sure I necessarily think of the length of the songs as a challenge in the compositional process so much as the natural demands of any truly engaging piece of music, regardless of the minimum time required to perform it. Evocation of proper tonal atmosphere, both in the way my drums literally sound during the initial tracking process (which, by the way, is where we try to get it right) and the emotional or societal reactions/recognitions we illicit from the listener in a more archetypical, abstract sense (will these shakers or talking-drum over this particular chord progression invite a comparison perhaps? And of what?), now that is a challenge. In other words, I feel as if the length of any given piece is established in the same manner as the rest of its functions. It is what the composer felt was the best way to present the idea, or non-idea. Performing is a different story entirely. I sweat more than most people and at any given show my eyes are burning about half-way through. And before I get any headband recommendations, might I point out it was Miles Davis who originally stated that the more uncomfortable a player is, the better [the] night they will have.
ZT:Who came up with the name Canyon Of The Skull and does such a place exist?
EO: I have been thinking about a project like this since I first picked up the guitar. It may have not been this exact style of music, but it has always been instrumental metal with the mentality of no boundaries, and a dark spirit. I came up with the name and concept of Canyon Of The Skull back in 2002, but I was busy with my brewing career and other projects so it took me a while to begin working on this music. The name is a slight deviation of an actual place, Canyon de los Embudos, in the Northern Sierra Madre. I was going to name the band Canyon Of The Skeletons after this important place, but I ended up liking the sound of Skull better.
ZT:Although doom in style I didn’t find the EP as dark as, for instance, Bell Witch. Are you happy to have lighter shades within the sounds?
EO: Our music is predicated on doom, but I don’t feel obligated to limit our sound to the elements that are commonly expected of music of our genre. My philosophy for doom is that if you want to truly convey hopelessness and despair, you have to have some lighter moments for perspective. I think Bell Witch have their way of doing the same thing; I have to say that to be mentioned in the same sentence as them is a big deal for me. For the record, I absolutely love that band. We are playing our last show of 2015 with them in a few days and we are totally stoked.
ZT:Is touring an option at any point in the future?
EO: We just finished our first tour a few weeks ago and we would certainly like to go out again, but the timing has to be right. Adrian is busy with his other band Humut Tabal and I am in the process of opening a new brewery. At present we are focusing on trying to play some festivals and working on new material.
ZT:Does operating as a duo present additional challenges if playing live. Are there things you do in a studio that would be difficult to duplicate on stage?
EO: There are definitely things that we did in the studio that are impossible to do live as a two-piece so we approach the record and our live show as two different experiences. Both are about living in the moment, but in different ways. The record is like a painting. A moment fixed in time. We incorporate bass and other instrumentation as well as layered guitar parts that are impossible to replicate in the live-setting. We will use anything at our disposal to make each record an interesting piece of art. The live show is living art. What is happening in that club at that moment. This allows for improvisation or lengthening a certain part because it feels right. These are things that make each performance unique. We do talk about ways to bring in certain things from the studio to our live show, but we have not settled on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of those yet. AV: Absolutely, and we are currently in the process of working around those elements and figuring out what additions we can utilise to further the listening experience in the live performances. Performing as a duo is unique, but I feel as if it lends a certain amount of intimacy and rawness that is important to the live sound in our set. On this past tour, we finally figured out a stage plot we really liked, side-by-side, more or less. It’s very in the moment. We bounce things off of one another and react in-kind, which keeps the shows fresh. That process is evident even in the record, there’s always a slight air of improvisation afoot.
ZT:How closely are your musical influences joined, or do you both bring different tastes to the table?
EO: While we do have a significant amount of crossover, there are also some very significant differences. We both obviously like all kinds of metal, but we also have a love of classical music, prog rock and jazz fusion. I can’t stand bluegrass or some of the jammier stuff he thrives on. He’ll probably say that I listen to too much Neurosis, French black metal and requiem masses. AV: It’s honestly a little bit of both I feel. Erik has introduced me to some incredible music which I’m continually learning from and absorbing. I’ve introduced him to Tony Rice, although I’m not sure how he feels about it quite yet. We have our mutual loves, we’re both huge Yes fans and devout followers of John McGlaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra, as well as several other prog outfits. The French black metal scene holds a special place in both of our hearts. The aforementioned Bell Witch is a huge influence we both share, as are Neurosis, Om, and many others in the genre. Then there’s the split roads of course. Bebop and jazz are both incredibly important to me. I’m a huge Zappa freak and he tires of it easily. Then he’ll put on Alcest and Chelsea Wolfe, both of which I’m still getting a handle on. But it keeps the conversation interesting during a six-hour drive in the van if nothing else! Performance-wise I think it really meshes. My biggest drum heroes include Tony Williams, Vinnie Colaiuta, Pat Mastelotto and Billy Cobham. So if you can imagine Tony and Richie Blackmore getting into a 16-minute jam you kind of have an idea of what we bring to the table.
ZT: Finally, what plans have you got for 2016? A full-length album, perhaps?
EO: We have an ambitious plan to release at least two recordings next year. One will be an over 38-minute opus entitled The Desert Winter. We are in the beginnings of pre-production for this now. We also have a 24-minute song called The Ghost Dance that I would like to do as a split with someone. There are two more works in progress that could end up on another record out late in 2016, but only time will tell. AV: We plan to head back into the studio in the coming months, and we have quite an offering for you all. Hopefully a few tours and festival appearances for the year will manifest themselves. We’ll see what happens!