New Music

Conan's Jon Davis: "I’m Not Scared of Dying— I’m Scared of Living Badly"

Interviews

By Cat Jones

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Photo by Matt Thomas

If a band describes itself as “caveman battle doom,” they’d better have a sound—and philosophy—to match. Since the Northern English metal trio Conan began writing music in 2006, their mission has been refreshing, if not genius: to gather themes from Conan The Barbarian, Hyperborean-age mythology, and various sword-and-sorcery B-movies, tweak them a bit, and turn them into gargantuan, lumbering, doom-metal battle marches fit for Mad Max with Arnold Schwarzenegger at the helm. The final result is primitive, adrenaline-filled fun that leaves the average posturing doom band still scrambling to find an unused amalgamation of Black Weed Bong Acid Wizard under a pile of decibel-induced rubble. This is a band that, while opening for Sleep in Oslo back in 2014, sounded so heavy that their set actually made Matt Pike have to take a shit.

Jon Davis, guitarist and leader of Conan, is home at his property in the country near Liverpool where he runs a recording studio called Skyhammer Studios, a record label called Black Bow Records, and the UK half of a band merch company he started with Renata Castagna of Samothrace called Atlantean Merch. It’s there, too, that Conan spent a great deal of 2015, writing and recording their fourth full-length record, Revengeance, which will be out January 29 via Napalm Records.

But when he’s not wielding a Flying V, screaming tales of bloody battlefields, or busying himself with every corner of the metal business, the man on the other end of the phone—who laughs heartily at his own jokes and apologizes for having mouthfuls of apple pie and ice cream while he answers my questions—is a mere mortal who lives by the mantra, “Don’t be afraid of dying, be afraid of living badly." He also speaks openly to Noisey about his past with panic attacks and depression, and how starting Conan just might have turned that all around.

Noisey: The new record, Revengeance, still finds itself within the theme of “caveman battle doom” like the previous three albums, but it feels so much faster, like you just took the metronome and cranked it up. Were you just changing things up a bit, or was that an intentional move to escape the doom pigeonhole?
Jon Davis
: A bit of both, I suppose. Rich joined and enabled us to play some faster bits and it kind of happened without trying, or making any conscious effort…We didn’t want to totally change style—we didn’t want people to think we’re trying to be something we’re not, you know? We’re still going to be that heavy, slow, low thing. But we wanted to prove that we’re capable of being a bit more than that. We can definitely hold our own against the heavy metal bands; maybe we can show them what “heavy” actually means. [laughs]

On the new record, the songs certainly still tie into Conan’s sword-and-sorcery thing, but a lot of the lyrics seem to be hopeless, where they used to be victorious. “Throneless rule of nothing / Blade cracked in defeat / This is nothing / You are nothing / We are all nothing/ All this is infinite.” Are you feeling particularly nihilistic these days?
No, not really, but I definitely was when I wrote the lyrics to that song…I had already leaned quite heavily on my normal, triumphant sword-in-the-air victory type songs—that’s where I normally get my inspiration for the lyrics. But something about that song, something about the fact that it was aggressive, I just thought, why don’t I make the lyrics sound a bit darker? Instead of relating it to be something out of a Conan story, why don’t I make it as if I am in that world myself, and I’m singing about how brutal it is, or about how difficult life is? And in a roundabout way, the lyrics came out of that.

One of Blur’s album titles was Modern Life Is Rubbish. I think, in a way, I was alluding to those sorts of thoughts in that track. But I didn’t want to make it sound like I was singing about the modern world, because I never want us to do that. That was something I thought might be kind of cool, sort of transposing dissatisfaction with the modern world and make it sound like I’m singing about the Hyperborean age of Conan The Barbarian. It was a clumsy attempt at trying to blend the two things together, because obviously I am aware of the modern situation. I’m not going to write songs about it—I’ll let U2 do that. I’m not a political figure or anything, and I certainly wouldn’t use Conan as a vehicle for that.

Do you think the occasional gore and violence in music—like in Conan’s primitive, life-or-death world—helps us deal with our own mortality?
They see me shouting my head off about a barbarian or a minotaur or whatever, and they see how enjoyable that is. I guess that makes them forget themselves for awhile at one of our shows. They can close their eyes and lose their breath because the volume is so high. In a trance-like state, hopefully. I know I do. I don’t feel like Jon Davis when I’m onstage. I almost become a different person in a way. I’m actually quite a shy person off stage, I’m not very good at people I don’t know. I certainly couldn’t do karaoke. But I get up onstage and sing daft songs about swords and stuff in front of thousands or hundreds of people depending on the venue or event and that definitely lets me forget the human side. I reckon that rubs off on people when they watch you from the crowd as well.

I reckon our songs are pretty easy to relate to, too. Who doesn’t like Conan The Barbarian, or the sort of movies that we quote as being influence? Certainly people of my generation—I’m 39. I’m not old or young, really, but I see a lot of people my age who may have seen the sort of movies I used to watch growing up. I see them and I hope they understand where I’m coming from, singing these things.

Can you remember a time in life when you felt your own mortality staring you in the face?
Yes. My grandmother died in 1999. I hope I’ve got that right—sorry, Mom, if I haven’t! She died in the street of a heart attack. Someone was there for her, they helped her and took her to a hospital, but sadly she passed away. After that I became quite depressed. I mean, in addition to that, I was having a hard time at university, and I was an unhappy young man, but my Nan dying at that age was something I had been nervous about for quite awhile.

Not a lot of people know this, but ever since I was a child, I had this unwarranted anxiety about dying. To the point where, when I was a really young kid, it would stop me sleeping. And I’d be terrified I was going to die. Just a generalized anxiety about death. And when my Nan died—her name was Harriet Fitzsimmons; we used to call her Dolly—that kicked off a period of several years of depression. I was diagnosed with depression and prescribed anti-depressants, which I didn’t take. I decided to deal with it on my own. I remember going home to Mom and telling her I’d been having some problems, and she said, “Oh no, don’t [take medication]. Work through it yourself.” So I did. So for several years after that, it was pretty intense.

I was convinced that I was about to die of a heart-related issue at any point. I’d wake up in the night—that’s if I got to sleep—convinced something was going to happen to me. Of course it never did, because I didn’t and never did have heart issues, but that was a really difficult time, specifically related to my own mortality; I was getting palpitations and panic attacks while I was at work. I remember going to the hospital, I was in the gown and everything, waiting around to be seen, and the guy comes down and said, “There’s nothing wrong with your heart. You’re absolutely fine.” He explained to me what anxiety meant. After that, I started coping with it on my own.

That’s probably the only time I’ve been close to being scared of my own mortality, or scared of dying or anything, and it doesn’t really affect me now. I’m not scared of dying— I’m scared of living badly. So I’m determined to live a good life now, and have fun.

Do you think starting Conan helped you cope with your anxiety and depression?
Yeah, I think so. It was only really a few years ago when I stopped having the panic attacks. That was right around when Conan started writing songs, about 2006. I was still going through that then, so maybe that had some influence on the writing style. I think maybe Conan, or being active in a band, has definitely been helpful. It gave me something else to focus on. It gave me something I could pour my energy into and stop being destructive by myself, without realizing it. But now that I’m thinking about it, you’re probably spot on with that.  

It was almost like I was getting rid of a load of emotional shit to set me up to focus on being in this band and being emotionally stable enough to do this. It’s quite challenging sometimes, being in a band. It’s almost like because I was able to cope with that situation without any sort of external help, I can definitely be in a tour van with two guys farting all the time with no problem.

With the deaths of Lemmy, David Bowie, and Alan Rickman, all in the course of weeks, it seems like a dangerous time to be a British man in the public eye. How did their deaths affect you?
If I was in my late 60s, I’d be worried about my heart! [laughs] Well, to be honest with you, I don’t mourn them because I didn’t know them. In a way, the deaths haven’t affected me at all. Similar to the story I told you about my grandmother, I have this thing now with death where I literally don’t let it affect me anymore because of how much it affected me growing up. I used to be terrified of dying. And now that these guys have died, it’s sad for their families and their fans, of course, but I kind of have a bullish attitude toward it. I don’t think of them as dying; I think of them as their lives being complete. They certainly lived lives that were full by all accounts. So I can’t be sad about it. I lost a very good friend, Robert Evans—Ted, a school friend—and that’s as real as it gets for me. The longer you’re on earth, the more you hear about people you love and like dying. It’s sad, but I try not to get too upset about people dying now.

I think of my grandfather when he was 70, and the thought of him getting up onstage and playing “Ace Of Spades,” and there’s literally no way on Earth he could have done that. So seeing Lemmy do that at 70, it’s like, wow, to be able to play at that age. And I know his health was failing at that point, but look at the life he had. He lived a life ten men struggle to do. I think that should be celebrated. That’s worth more than him passing on, because he was always going to. And so was David Bowie. And so will you, and so will I. It sounds a bit cold now that I’m saying it out loud, but I’ve always thought of it that way. I kind of don’t let death in.

Did any of the social media mourning around those deaths make you think about what might happen when you die, as a musician that means a great deal to a lot of people?
Hopefully, if I died tomorrow, they’d think of me as someone who put his heart into an area that perhaps doesn’t give back what you put in. Someone who tried his hardest to make a difference in a musical sense, and always helped those who needed help from him, someone who perhaps didn’t have the greatest social skills, but who was fearless onstage and lived for heavy music. Hopefully they enjoyed the music. But I have a long way to go before I’m thought of a legend or anything like that. I guess we’ll just have to see how long I can last. If I’m still playing when I’m 70, then I hope people name a drink after me. But then, I guess chamomile tea won’t be that trendy by then.
 

CONAN North American tour w/Serial Hawk:

3/3: Chicago, IL @ Beat Kitchen
3/4: Detroit, MI @ Berserker Fest
3/5: Toronto, ON @ Hard Luck
3/6: Cleveland, OH @ Now That’s Class
3/8: Brooklyn, NY @ Saint Vitus
3/9: Philadelphia, PA @ Kung Fu Necktie
3/10: Baltimore, MD @ Ottobar
3/11: Raleigh, NC @ King’s
3/12: Knoxville, TN @ Pilot Light
3/13: Atlanta, GA @ Drunken Unicorn
3/16: Austin, TX @ SXSW
3/18: Albuquerque, NM @ Sister Tavern (Free Show)
3/19: Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge
3/20: Glendale, CA @ Complex
3/21: Oakland, CA @ Metro
3/22: Sacramento, CA @ Press Club
3/24: Portland, OR @ Star Theater
3/25: Boise, ID @ Treefort Fest
3/26: Seattle, WA @ Highline w/ Bell Witch, Mitochondrian 

 
Cat Jones is tuning low on Twitter.