Oceans of Slumber's Cammie Gilbert's Voice Proves Everything Really Is Bigger in Texas
For anyone crying out for a female-fronted Opeth, look no further. We spoke to Gilbert ahead of the band's new album 'Winter.'
Photo by Aaron "Jefe" Michulka
"Solitude" by Candlemass is, hands down, the touchpaper of doom metal as we know it. The first song from their 1986 debut album Epicus Doomicus Metallicus it was filled with regret and desolation that cast a long shadow over the genre. The music plummeted the listener into depths of despair with funereal poetry backed by off-kilter organs and acoustic guitar before launching into a horror-invoking march of the damned. It remains one of the most evocative and heart-draining songs of all time. So, how, when then-unknown Texans Oceans of Slumber released their cover of the song in March 2015, did they manage to make it sound just so uplifting and almost wilful.
Singer Cammie Gilbert is almost daring Death to a stand-off. Dobber Beverley (ex-Insect Warfare) is a beast of blastbeats while guitarists Sean Gary and Anthony Contreras swap solos like they were no big deal. The band are rounded by Keegan Kelly on bass and that all important synth man Beau Beasley, who swapped singing in grindcore bands for doing a good John Lord impression. What a way to introduce yourself. And on a EP that comprised of covers of no less than Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," Pink Floyd's "On The Turning Away," and Emperor's "The Wanderer." OK, you've got our attention!
For anyone crying out for a female-fronted Opeth, look no further. With The Gathering on what seems to be a hiatus, Houston's Oceans of Slumber are filling the void. Being this precociously ambitious can oftentimes backfire, but they collectively have the musicianship to match their boldness, and then some. As they release their second album Winter, we spoke to the ever so modest and true Southern belle Gilbert about growing up in a musical family, being one of the boys, and how soul and metal is a marriage made in heaven.
Noisey: Congratulations on your new album, Cammie. It's your first with the band right?
Cammie Gilbert: Yes, my previous band opened for Oceans of Slumber at a benefit show and they liked what they heard and they asked me to be a part of the album coming up. Dobber and I had been friends for some time and actually, originally, the vision for Oceans was to be female-fronted and so given the opportunity he asked me to join.
The original singer was doing that typical death growl mixed with clean vocals that is everywhere and anywhere in the progressive doom genre, was it an interesting switch for both band and you to join and take it in a more soulful direction?
Well, like I said, Oceans was already formed with having a female lead in mind, like The Gathering. We're big fans of Anneke van Giersbergen, and those styles, you can hear they lend themselves to the songs that Oceans does. When they heard my voice, it was like “OK, you're right, we can expand in this direction.” We're progressive through and through, so it was definitely an evolution of sorts but it's not for the sake of doing something different. This is our expression now.
There is so much going on, on Winter, so your “expression” works—how did you come to be fans of weaving together Zeppelin, Moody Blues, The Gathering, Emperor and Candlemass into one big technical, progressive musical cauldron?
I've got a big spread of friends with influences and so from a young age I got turned on to a lot of bands where I thought they were popular when actually they were just popular in my little circuit of people. The Gathering, that was my first taste of that style of female vocals being over such heavy metal that it was like, "OK, there's some options for me and there's some room to explore this.” Houston's a big melting pot so there's a lot of overlapping of genres out here and there's a great mix of people within the metal scene so there's nothing stopping the right people from meeting up.
I've gotten turned onto Chelsea Wolfe lately, and everyone in the band comes from a very extensive musical background. You have Dobber and Beau who were in the grindcore scene, and there's Anthony who is a Masters level jazz guitarist and so everyone's underpinning this as far as their own personal preference. You bring these inflections and influences and they merge together quite nicely.
You must have been a bit shocked to have been asked to join this band and for it then to explode so immediately. You got signed to Century Media pretty much straight away, what were your expectation?
[Laughs] I guess I didn't have any. I'm one of those people, and we all are in Oceans, where if we're gonna do something we're gonna do it 100 percent and it was always meant for this to be a career band and to see it to its highest point, personally. I try not to think about where we're going as much as just do what needs to be done on a day-to-day basis and getting better, learning songs and expanding all of my musical knowledge because now I have five new teachers. It's a wonderful, brilliant surprise and I can't express how excited and gracious I am that we have been championed so strongly by people with such high influence. It means a lot that something we're doing, that is such a personal expression for ourselves, is also helping other people and touching other people and it connects with other people. That's my primary goal.
You have an incredible voice, so soulful and rich, so it's not surprise you joining took the band to the next level, are you classically trained?
[Laughs] No, but I definitely have taken my voice and musicianship for granted. I grew up in a very musical household, my dad was a local musician in the upcoming Houston jazz and R&B scene. He was a choir director for the church and mum was in choir and that's how they met. I grew up being sung to. We had a studio in our house and all sorts would come through because he worked with everybody. We had all sorts from country to gospel to rock musicians come to our house so I had a lot of exposure, which I took for granted. Everything became a song, doing chores to going to bed, and I was encouraged to sing and be expressive. It just became such a staple to my own self-expression that I sing to the dog. When I got older was when the feedback shifted and I realized everyone doesn't sing, so it was a little bit overwhelming. I went through choir at school and then I got into the more serious, more rebellious side of it as I got older and moved downtown and found that there is this amazing scene and so much to do that it transitioned from there.
It's rare that a metal musician will admit to learning to sing in church, but it's such a common story for so many singers from other genres.
It's a cultural thing where music is a big foundation across the board. I say it's cultural in me and it depends on your family, but there was always an album on, or some old school Etta James or Shirley Bassey or something my dad was playing on piano or guitar or my mum singing to me or I'm singing to my brother, there was rarely ever quiet. It's strange for other people when I say 'Oh you guys don't sing while you wash the dishes?' It was great, it's something that, as I've gotten older, I have to keep because it's like food or water to me. There has to be some element of music, it's very obvious to me.
Photo courtesy of Century Media
Do you parents like Oceans of Slumber?
My dad played keyboard and guitar and was at the forefront of moving into synth sounds. He passed away a few years ago and I'll listen to some of his recording and they fit in so great now with this whole movement of EDM, and house, and it's so funny because he played around with sounds and I remember some of the feedback when I was younger, people were like 'What is this?' He was a little ahead of his time. But mum's not surprised at all about Oceans of Slumber. Sometimes they're a little late or a little rowdy, but she comes out to as many shows as she can. She loves it and she doesn't listen to a lot of metal. She definitely likes Oceans because it has something for everyone. She liked it when I sang softer and a little airier but there's elements of that across the board in Oceans and then it dives into the heavier, smash your head kind of thing.
"Lullaby" is one of the interlude songs on Winter and it's a family lullaby, one that my dad had written from as far back as I can remember. We included it on the album so that was really exciting and I think she got a bit teary-eyed when I showed it to her. She is very proud, she adores what I'm doing. The band is an expansion of family for us now and I think my dad would have loved it. He definitely had a respect for rock. I think he would be a little apprehensive of the nightlife but he would be very proud. He always wanted me to pursue singing.
That's also not common, so many parents would rather their child do anything than be off on tour in a rock band
With him being a musician, I guess that was something my grandparents were very adamant about him not pursuing. I think that's why he fell for my mom so hard because she said if this is your dream then we're in this together. It was always great that she allowed him that outlet and to incorporate that. It played down into the structure of our family, and my life, my brother's life, my sister's. I feel like people don't have that same respect for artistic career goals and so it is nice she helps me put the band first and that's as much as I could ask for.
Growing up with Etta James records on the turntable must have inspired you vocally, right? Do you think soul and metal is an odd marriage?
I always think, why isn't there more of that soulful sound. I feel like opera singers are very strong singers but it has certain inflections that are just not the same and when you think of female-fronted metal it gets pushed to being symphonic metal and that gets to be the comparison. I may be the bridge between the two, but I don't understand why more women don't do more soulful styles. I think they blend so good with metal. It brings out the heart and adds that emotional heaviness that I feel that oftentimes the music alludes to anyway. It's so gripping and soul-crushing. Tom Englund from Evergrey sounds very soulful, and heavy and strong and I think it blends so well that I don't often understand that premise of “No, you can't do that”. It's like having your favorite food, you go back to it, it's going to be satisfying but every now and then you try something new and you may find it's just as tasty and fulfilling. I feel it takes people out of their comfort zone but I think they realize there is something fulfilling, and some catharsis and something to be gained there. I love the idea of mixing my styles with the music. It's extremely satisfying to be able to sing with the full range, as light as I want to and as heavy and as gritty as I want to.
Looking at your YouTube videos, there are so many compliments, but sadly there is also the damn stupidity of people commenting negatively on the fact that you are a black woman fronting a heavy metal band. How do you deal with attacks like that?
I know it's there, I don't have to ignore it. Ignoring things don't make them go away. As far as I guess my take on it, this is the body I was born in and I can't do a cross-comparison... I mean I can tell you what my experience is like but it's not going to be a comparison to something else because I haven't had that, right? Here, within our close network and how we expand, we look to surround ourselves with likeminded people and we look to appeal to likeminded people and in that perspective and that premise we don't have a lot of room for the bullshit, to put it frankly. It's about music and it's about what we're trying to do and what we're trying to provide people and that's what is a priority. As far as any of the feelings of tension or animosity of minorities being in the scene, I haven't personally experienced that. I've gotten a warm welcome and it hasn't been an issue for me. On the grander scheme of YouTube comments and whatnot, like sure, but everyone gets trolled for whatever reason. I could have red hair and everyone would hate me, so I take that with a grain of salt and that as far as being a woman, you have to give things time, you have to give people the time to see where things go, to not be afraid of things changing and get on board. It's more about the culture than it is about the look. I happen to be black and be in this band, it's not something we were going for, or something that was done on purpose, it just fell together.
I don't necessarily try to champion any cause in particular as much as I'm doing what I'm doing and if people want to gain from that or use that, that's what I'm here to do. I'm not purposely going out of my way to be a poster child of anything, just to provide an example, that yes, this can be achieved by a woman of color or a woman, or a person of color. I feel like in my actions that can be the full message that I need to convey. I don't feel like I need to go out of my way to say things or point things out, I'll do what I've been doing. I've never been the person that can be told no. I'm not going to let people tell me what's acceptable or what's not because that's how you keep yourself closed in. Innovation comes from pushing boundaries, from pushing rules and pushing comfort levels. Maybe it's an attitude. Southern women, they are a lot like me, there's a lot of attitude.
Good for you, and now you have the opportunity to get that attitude seen around the world, Oceans of Slumber are off on tour, right?
Yes, we went on tour in Canada last year with Evergrey last year, that was my first time there. My aunt on my dad's side growing up, she lived in Germany and so it's surprising how much of a big German underpinning of influences there is. It's funny to be on a German label, I can say a few things and it's probably adorable, my German accent's not very good. So yes, we're definitely planning and preparing to debut ourselves and get on the road and on some airplanes.
I've always wanted to ask a female musician this—touring, it must suck, right? Few showers, no privacy, nasty venue toilets... it seems like male musicians don't care about that kind of stuff.
They don't. They don't seem to care, it's mind-boggling how little they pack. It gives me a panic attack. Like why do you only have socks? I'm so confused. I guess I've always been a tomboy though, a low maintenance kind of girl. I don't really care for make-up and dresses. But touring, it's not easy at all but it's fun. It's a very tiring, exhausting fun where it's fun because you're doing what you love to do and you get to be out there. It's incredibly grueling and dirty and smelly and in tight spaces and losing things and just never feeling clean. In Canada we had a van and we got to stop in a hotel every other day or so, so we showered probably more than most, but yeah, it's just as smelly as you think it is and it's just as dirty and gross. We stopped for fast food and then we show up to the venue and everyone is running late so everyone leaves their food in there, the van sits outside all night, that night you just drive to a hotel, still forget it's in there, the next day you're still in a rush and then something starts to smell and you're like what is that? Then you clean out the van and you realize we've been growing a small habitat for these aliens and underground creatures and it's living, it's breathing, it knows our names. There's definitely that element but the guys are amazing, they all have wives and daughters so they know how to accommodate a woman being around them and not just completely gross me out, but I'm worse than them, not in being gross but in a “Oh, we don't have to watch our mouth around Cammie” way. I can handle myself. I have all that attitude.
That's such a Southern attitude.
[Laughs] They are Southern gentlemen. They'll apologize all the time. “Wait, Cammie's here, don't say that”, but now that's gone out of the window. I guess in the band, it's like a marriage. The way I was presented with it was like a marriage proposal because this is a lifetime commitment and I would not have wanted to tether myself to anyone else because this band gives me the full spectrum of where my voice physically can go and the full spectrum of emotions that if I were to have been in any other band or any other genre I would have gotten very closed in. It's like a relationship. I'm just glad other people are enjoying this relationship.