Lose your sanity while listening to the Portland crust band's song about sanity.
It's hard to believe it's been almost five years since Nux Vomica released its watershed second album, Asleep in the Ashes. I’ll defend to the death my opinion that it’s one of the best albums ever recorded, and in a refreshing change of pace, it seems like plenty of others agree with me. It’s hard not to, given the masterful blend of melodic death metal, crust, doom, and dark atmospheric hardcore that these unassuming punk dudes served up, combining the best bits of His Hero Is Gone, Dystopia, and Neurosis into something so good you could feel it in your bones. Luckily for me and everyone else, they’re finally—finally!—back, following 2011’s more experimental Embrace the Cycles EP with a full-blown full-length.
The dynamic crust outfit currently calls Portland home, landing there by way of Baltimore. Ditching Charm City’s gunshot soundtrack for the damper, gentler climes of the Pacific Northwest in all its organic, composted glory has probably worked wonders for their blood pressure but hasn’t softened their razor-edged sound a bit. The self-described “old fucks” have been knocking around since 2003, and have finally nabbed what some might call a “break,” moving from longtime allies Aborted Society Records to the sprawling metal megaframe that is Portland’s own Relapse. The label will release Nux Vomica’s self-titled third album on April 1st on CD, LP, and digital formats (and someone will probably do a tape, too, because for some reason that happens in 2014).
Check out an in-depth Q&A with a pair of band members (drummer Zacrilege and vocalist/percussionist Just Dave) and a new song, “Sanity Is for the Passive,” below.
Your innovative approach to combining crust, melody, and extreme metal sounded revolutionary when I first stumbled across it, and feels just as fresh now. Have you noticed more bands embracing this kind of melting pot approach since you first started? More recent albums from bands like Agrimonia, Morne, and Downfall of Gaia definitely bear your mark.
Zacrilege: Those are great bands. Don’t forget about Fall of Efrafa! Anyways, we are all old fucks that came mostly from the crust scene in the mid-to-late 90s when a LOT of bands were doing dynamic moody stuff kind of like this (ABC Diablo, Counterblast, Christdriver, Dystopia, Remains Of The Day), and it was generally kind of encouraged to build off what you inherited when you came into punk and to give back something creative, wholesome, and genuine. But sometime in the early 2000s, the punk scene went through a lot of changes, and for better or worse, it got a lot more conservative as far as what people were playing, buying, selling. It was more encouraged to go back to the roots of punk and play its old school genres in only their purest forms. This was probably the result of a backlash to all the terrible recordings and nonsense that came out in the 90s, because there was a lot. I think a lot of people wanted to strip it down, keep it simple, and return punk back to its roots. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, because all the bands to come out of this have ruled pretty hard. But it did seem like it was generally discouraged to be different and weird, and then there was this sort of dry spell for dark, heavy, or moody crust or whatever.
I think lately there’s been a small resurgence in bands experimenting and blending with other genres, trying to do something different, but the music is also markedly influenced by the more recent big bands that have since had a huge impact on the scene (Tragedy, Isis). You hear a lot more D-beat and post-rock influence than you did back in the day. I also think it was entirely organic in its own resurgence, I mean, not initiated by any one single band’s influence. When we were in Europe in 2011, I was approached by a lot of people asking, “Who came first, you or Fall of Efrafa?” The truth is neither one of us knew who each other were for a long time. We just both started out doing something at the same time that was different than what the scene was propping up, and not based on principle, but just because we were feeling it. But we were on opposite sides of the world and completely unaware of each other.
From Deafheaven to Cloud Rat, extreme metal as a whole has become far more accepting of genre-bending and the widespread incorporation of outside elements. You've been doing this since day one, and seems like everyone else is finally catching up. Why do you think this is? Do you think people are getting bored with metal, or that the genre is stagnating?
Zacrilege: I think that one possible answer to that is that nowadays, people have a lot easier access to better recording technology tied in with widespread social media and downloading freedom. That pushes what everybody is doing out into the open, from big bands to something some kid recorded in his closet, and suddenly people have easy access to the once-obscure genres right at their fingertips. I love it. I think this makes all the styles kind of have an impact on everybody’s influences, whereas back in the day you had to hang out in certain scenes or exclusive music circles to get exposed to some shit that you might otherwise not have. That could be why there is so much more genre bending and boundary-pushing. Because everybody is listening to what everybody else is doing. Also, the crust scene in the 90s got so huge that eventually it popped in the early 2000s and a lot of people crossed over completely into the metal scene, often ditching punk completely, but a lot probably also took their earlier influences and backgrounds over with them and all that shit was sort of absorbed by the metal scene, willingly or not. A lot of people don’t even know how many of their favorite metal bands originally played for and came from the crust/punk scene.
Just Dave: To quote our very good friend Dave Tedder (R.I.P.): "All the best metal bands are people that came from punk." Couldn't agree more.
Metal and punk have drawn ever closer together, which seems to still come as a shock to old timers from either genres. What has your experience been as a band loved by both metalheads and punks?
Just Dave: I think when people talk about the two worlds being separate, they're really talking about the fans/consumers, not the musicians. The kinship between punk and metal runs very deep and goes way back. Lemmy Kilmister was friends with Sid Vicious; Slayer and Metallica were always reppin’ The Misfits; Dead Kennedys with shirts and stickers; Anthrax covered a Discharge song; the Dickies covered Black Sabbath; and Bad Brains are virtually worshipped by lots of metalheads. When bands like Amebix, Nausea, Anti Cimex, Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror and Assück started combining the two genres, it made perfect sense. The big difference is, if you’re metal you can wear your own band’s shirt, if you’re punk it’s not cool. And holy crap, I’m 45 now. Doesn’t that make ME an old timer?
Zacrilege: Let them stay at war forever.
One of Nux Vomica's biggest strengths is your uncanny ability to balance melody and aggression; the same talent was evident in your previous band, Wake Up On Fire, too. When writing these intense, brutal songs, how do you decide what goes where?
Just Dave: We usually try a lot of different things and record what we're doing and listen to it. If it sounds good to us, we figure it'll sound good to other people too. We think about whether we would start getting bored watching us play this, maybe head over to the bar for another beer during this part. We try to keep it interesting and hold people’s attention. We've also put a lot of time into blending different parts together instead of having one end and the next start. That definitely goes back to the WUOF days. Both bands also have had a sort of "they'll never see this coming" approach to songwriting. It's just in our nature to try to be different and to stand out from the pack. And thanks for compliment! "Balancing melody and aggression"... sounds like life in general.
The band members' backgrounds are clearly rooted in heavy metal and punk, so where do the gorgeous melodic passages in songs like "Reeling" come from?
Zacrilege: That’s pretty much (guitarist/vocalist) Chris Control’s song, although at the end of the day we all had our say on it. And we just kind of stumbled upon certain parts. Chris presented something to us that had a lot of post-rock as well as some Rapture influence going on, it was a skeleton of a song recorded on cassette by Chris, playing riff after riff, and then he’d pause in between riffs and talk into the recorder to explain what he was hearing in his head with the drums and such. It was pretty funny but awesome. It worked out great.
Just Dave: I forgot all about that tape! I see a hidden track in our future.
How have your lives changed since Asleep in the Ashes came out? How have those changed informed the writing on Nux Vomica?
Zacrilege: Well, our lives have certainly changed since Asleep in the Ashes (it's been 5 years!), but the songs on Nux Vomica were written back from 2008 to 2010. We were still riding the same creative streak we were on with Asleep in the Ashes that started shortly after moving to Portland in 2006. The most notable difference on this LP is probably our bassist Danny's songwriting contributions. He joined in late 2007. In 2013 we decided to take a hiatus and put more time into our other projects and personal lives. Now that this LP is coming out we're gonna meet up and talk about what we want to do. The biggest change in anyone's life though, is that Chris has become a father to a baby girl. We are stoked for him!
Tell me about the new album. What was the creative process like?
Zacrilege: We started writing "Choked At The Roots" in early 2008 with our old bass player, and we put together a skeleton from beginning to end but we were unsure about certain parts. After Ben left, we threw some other riffs around (which wouldn’t become a song until 2012, called “Archaic”) but finally later in 2008, we grabbed Danny and he wrote some shit to help us finish that song. Then, we cranked out “Sanity Is For The Passive” in mid-2009, which was mostly Danny’s riffs, I think. Then in early 2010, Chris brought in “Reeling.” Both of those last two songs I think were presentations of riffage or skeletons of songs by one member to the rest of the band. So, I’d say the creative process has been all of us just expanding and re-working on and sorting out ideas by the band as a whole that were originally brought to the table by one dude. When an idea gets shot down, we call it “chalk me up for another loss.” Everybody usually gets to try their idea, but we try to make it through learning the whole skeleton of someone's song idea before people start jumping in with all their own ideas.
The album sounds huge, and even more cohesive and self-assured than Asleep in the Ashes. It sounds like you've toned down the melodic death elements and focused more on atmosphere and doom riffs, too, as well as an epic dark crust feel. What were you going for on Nux Vomica?
Zacrilege: There’s never really been much of an agenda for an album. Everything just kind of fits on a record or it doesn’t, based on length or mood. We never really have long-term plans. EPs and LPs just end up happening. That is, we have some new songs and we’ll be sitting around Chris’ house like, “So… we have these songs, I guess we should record them?” Then we all talk a little and eventually, around two years later, some form of a record comes out. So what I think I’m trying to say is that we never set out with these specific songs on Nux Vomica intended to be the new LP. For us, songs just come along, slowly, and then we decide what to do with them after we have a bunch of new ones. But we never sit down with the agenda to write a new record.
Just Dave: Yeah that was my house too, asshole. And Danny's and Tim's at different times!
What is happening in "Sanity is for the Passive"? I don't have a lyric sheet, but would love to know what's going on beneath the surface of the album's triad.
Just Dave: The inspiration for the lyrics in “Sanity…” came from the idea that being "sane" means having the capacity to cope and exist in the insane world we've created. Basically, if you're considered sane, it means you're passive enough to accept this fucked up word full of unfairness and death and war and insanity. To me, being labeled "insane" in this world is like being told that you actually are reacting appropriately to your surroundings. The rest of us who get up and work every day are the fucking crazy ones. “Reeling” is about a guy I knew who almost drank himself to death. I think he’s still kickin it somewhere, pretty sure he’s drinking again too. “Choked at the Roots” is a pretty epic overview of how and why human beings act the way they do, as if I’m some expert on it. Just my take on it, really. The general theme on this LP seems to be that shit’s fucked up, but all of us who know shit’s fucked up have each other, so our shit’s slightly less fucked up.
What prompted the leap from Aborted Society to Relapse? What are your expectations for your partnership with them?
Zacrilege: I don’t think we have any expectations from them, and neither do they from us. It was just a one-album deal. Some of us wanted to try something different, and Relapse wanted to put it out. Done.
Just Dave: I expect one free slice of Sizzle Pie. Still waiting.
Is Portland really that brilliant a place to live if you want to pursue a career in music?
Zacrilege:You should have no problem finding someone that wants to play the same shit as you, and a practice space within easy biking distance. If you don't mind riding in the rain…
Just Dave: It’s an awesome place to start a band for sure. If you want a career it can be good for that too, but you better bust your ass and put yourself out there. Kinda like anything else really.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? Please say you'll be touring on this record.
Just Dave: It’s totally up in the air right now, but we’ll be making some decisions soon. We will let you know as soon as we know!
Zacrilege: I really want ZZ Top to come back to Portland.
Witness Kim Kelly losing her sanity in real time on Twitter - @KimKelly