Interview: Badr Vogu
It’s easy to take Oakland, California’s Bädr Vogu for granted. Among the hardest working live bands on the West Coast, it’s easy to assume that they’ll play another date in your home town in a couple months. A Bädr Vogu set is both a choking and cutting experience, where Bryce Shelton and Leo Buckley’s lurching riffs are sharply punctuated by Justin Wonder’s snare stabs.
Wonder suffered a horrific accident one month before the release of the band’s phenomenal new double LP, Wroth. The night before they left for tour with fill-in drummer Justin Ennis of Ulthar and Void Omnia, I caught up with Shelton and vocalist Sean Sokol to chat about the making of the album, Wonder’s accident and the unending importance of owning the rights to your music.
It’s been like four years since the last official release, that split with Wilt. You’ve got some explaining to do.
Sean: Oh god, where do we start?
Bryce: Well, there were lineup changes in that time. We lost our original guitar player Joe. He moved down to Southern California. Then we had a falling out with our bass player, so we had to train two other people. We also had a buddy of ours fill in during the interim – Wyatt [Culbertson] from Larvae and Born/Dead. It was just getting our chemistry back together, teaching people songs and getting comfortable enough to write new material. It’s taken a little bit of time to get back on our feet. We started writing new songs, and they just kind of became epic in length. So it took us a while to get all the songs down, we had over an hour of new music.
S: And the touring too. We kept touring the whole time. That kind of throws a wrench in the works when it comes to writing music.
You’re not one of those bands that writes music on tour?
B: No, there’s no time and space to do that.
S: We’re all alcoholics, so no. We’re either hungover and driving, or drunk and playing. [Laughs]
Bryce, you played in Hollow Mirrors as well as Hedersleben and Nik Turner’s Hawkwind over the last few years. Those bands were more much rooted in psychedelic rock, do you think you might have brought elements from them to Badr Vogu?
B: Um, not necessarily…
S: I would say he did. That stuff on “Anathema of Time,” those kinds of leads. I think he brought that in from his psychedelic bands.
B: Sure. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a direct influence though, that’s just me growing as a musician. I try to make things more interesting for the listener to try and pad out the sound a bit more. What I did get from that experience from those bands is utilizing the studio as a creative tool unto itself. I guess in a way, that’s what I brought from them.
Were you acting more experimentally in the studio on Wroth compared to the other Badr Vogu albums?
B: Maybe? On “Of Misanthropy and Malaise,” that was a really interesting group effort creatively. It just kind of started off as a jam based on an intro to the second to last track, “Deadweight.” Then it just became longer and we added samples and violins too. That was definitely more experimental, there were no regular vocals on that song. We had our good friends Katy Egan and Christa Schmid come in to do the violins. I don’t know, it was definitely different for us. In all of our releases, we’ve had some little element of bluesy, acoustic music thrown in. Not that we ever play that live, but for the album.
S: We really wanted to do the violins at our record release show, but it just didn’t work out with Justin [Wonder]’s accident. Then Christa moved to New Orleans, so it just wasn’t feasible. Not to mention, we were just slamming to learn the set in time.
What exactly happened to Justin?
B: He was just riding his bike late at night and he got hit by a car. It was an intentional hit and run. This person sideswiped Justin, he fell off and messed up the whole left side of his body. He had to have surgery on his elbow and hip.
S: His femur was broken. They had to have a plate put in his elbow and have his muscle reattached to his arm.
B: No witnesses or anything, but luckily a car came by and found him bleeding in the street.
S: Of course, him being an underground musician, he had no health insurance. He just started a new job like three days before.
B: He’s had a lot of support from friends and family, so he’s on the mend. There’s been a GoFundMe set up for him as well.
So I know you’ve been jamming with Justin Ennis (Ulthar, Void Omnia, ex-Mutilation Rites) in his place. They’re two very different players.
B: Justin Wonder has such a distinct style. I’m not a drummer, so I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, but one thing that Ennis was realizing was, “Oh man, I never would’ve thought to play that drum part for that part of the song”, so it’s been a lot of homework for him just to learn Wonder’s parts.
S: Justin [Wonder] actually got kind of excited about it, “I always wanted an understudy!” [Laughs] We could have never done it without his blessing. He is a songwriter and such a huge part of the band. If he was permanently injured, we’d have to change the name or something. We couldn’t continue this band without him.
B: It is surreal not having him.
You think this injury has made you guys more appreciative of his role in Bädr Vogu?
B: Yeah. I’d say so.
S: It’s like that any time someone’s taken away from you. Any time you get dumped by a girl, you fall back in love a little bit. It’s like that for a band too, it’s a lot like a relationship. When you have a member ripped away from us like what happened with Justin [Wonder], it becomes more obvious what they brought to the table.
B: When Joe left the band—me and him originally wrote a lot of the riffs—I felt this huge weight on my shoulders to pick things up and I was not ready to fulfill that role. It’s a different situation.
Leo [Buckley] joining in Joe’s place was one of the lineup changes that you guys referenced earlier. Bryce, you two have a bit of history, right?
B: Right. We used to play in a band called Hotblack Desiato in the early 2000s. We were bandmates for five years and he’s been one of my best friends since. When the time came to get a new guitar player, we had some people in mind and he was one of them.
S: Leo was originally supposed to just fill in temporarily for a guitar player that moved. [That player] was only supposed to be gone for nine months in a training program for building acoustic instruments. That just turned into him never coming back. That’s also another reason it took us so long to write the music too, we kept waiting for Joe to come back.
Who is the “us” here? Who are the primary writers in Badr Vogu?
B: We all contribute, it’s pretty democratic. We don’t come in with a full song written, one of us will come in with a riff or a drum beat or something. Then we’ll work off of that, then it just keeps growing.
S: It’s the only band I’ve ever been in where we actually write stuff off of drum parts.
I’m a drummer, so I’m always curious about the process. How thought out are his beats? Is coming in with them demoed?
B: [Laughs] No, oftentimes he’ll think of a drum part and will be eager to get behind his kit and try it out. Every practice, he’ll come up with something—all of us will really—not because we’re trying to but it just happens.
How precise do you tend to get with the tempos when writing?
S: It’s almost always “slow down,” it’s rare that we’ll say “play that part a little faster.” [Laughs]
Does that always translate in the studio though? I’ve seen some bands try and alter arrangements or tempos as they’re recording.
B: The basic songs are all there, but what I did was add a lot of guitar overdubs just to kind of fill out the sound a bit more. I’m not able to do that live or even when we’re rehearsing. The studio can be a whole creative process, so might as well take advantage of that. On this album, we added a lot more guitar layers, overdubs, more leads, more samples…
S: A lot of those samples were pre-composed, and we’d go into the studio and find out they didn’t work. Sometimes just because there’s background music bleeding into the sample that we can’t get rid of. There was supposed to be a minute-long sample on the sixth track “Narcotically Opaque” that we couldn’t get in there. It just didn’t fit in.
I know a lot of bands take a very DIY approach around here in the Bay Area. You see that with Hazzard’s Cure, Cormorant, ION and so many others. What made you guys want to hunt for a label?
S: The fact that it was a double LP, those cost a lot! [Laughs] That was honestly probably one of the biggest motivators, we had a very specific checklist that we wanted for this record: a poster, a download card, double-vinyl, gatefold, and I don’t think that would have been within our financial means as a band.
B: We didn’t want to cut any corners. We’d been working on this material for a while and we just luckily found someone who I actually know, Craig from Tribunal of the Axe Records. He was totally stoked to work with us and he’s been nothing but positive and supportive.
S: He did such a great job with the Swamp Witch record too.
B: That’s how we found out about the label, it’s because our friend Jimmy from Swamp Witch posted something on Facebook about his test presses. At the time Sean and I were looking for labels, so we reached out. At the time, I didn’t even know that the person behind the label was someone I knew.
S: He responded within two minutes. “Whoa, a label isn’t ignoring my email for once!” [Laughs] We did one round of emails to labels and we were also trying to investigate these guys, make sure they stood by our DIY ethics and that we would still own the rights to our music. We sent a batch of emails to maybe ten labels, and we either didn’t hear back or were outright rejected. Some were interested but they’d have to release in 2017, which was just way too long for us to want to wait. The second round we did, we were getting despondent about the lack of response but then we found Tribunal of the Axe and it was an instant fit.
You mentioned DIY ethics and retaining rights to the music as criteria for a label. What other kind of practices make for a good label to you?
S: Just knowing the people essentially! Having a conversation with someone rather than just internet communiqué. Or even when it is like that, like with Memento Mori who released our music in Europe, he sent us a spiel about how he grew up as a punk and that he wanted us to retain our rights. We were looking for someone like that, where the emphasis was on fostering an artist rather than exploitation.
In an era when music is constantly pirated—let’s face it, most people straight up steal this stuff—what value does having rights to the music still have?
S: Honestly, just being able to repress it again if we wanted. If we were on one of the larger labels, they’d own the right to do that. Once they put out the record and let’s say it doesn’t sell, that’s it. Whereas now if things don’t sell well and Tribunal of the Axe doesn’t want to press it again, we can still have someone in the future press more vinyl for us. There will always be a demand for physical media I think. I’m guilty of downloading a lot of stuff, but I also spend all my disposable income on this stuff too. [Laughs]
B: And it’s just having creative control too. If someone else owns the rights to the music, they can do whatever the hell they want with it. They can put it on a commercial if they wanted to.
S: We learned that from some of our “elders” from around here, if you want to call them that. Look at when Impaled had that issue where they had to go back and re-record their entire first album because they lost the rights to it. Those guys are all our friends, and we’ve learned a lot just by talking to them.
B: Sleep and Holy Mountain too. You don’t have look far to see this stuff. There are different contracts that one can sign where the label might not own the music, but they own the recording.
s: Basically, we didn’t want to have to hire a lawyer just to put a record out. [Laughs] We didn’t bother to hit up any of those labels that we knew would put us in that situation. That’s ultimately what we were researching when I said “DIY ethics,” doing this stuff on a handshake rather than a signed contract.
B: Knowing Craig, being able to meet with him and talking about it face to face was a big help. He’s been nothing but a pleasure to work with.
I want to talk about the album artwork very quick. I was more or less raised Hindu, and the image of a blue multi-armed creature holding weapons and a severed head is bringing back a lot of memories for me.
B: I was taking a lot of influence from a lot Tibetan Buddhism. The themes and imagery also related to Hinduism. The name of the album is Wroth and that’s a word that essentially means “very angry” so I figured a wrathful deity would be a good starting point for the album. I did a lot of research on religious figures and warped it into something for ourselves. On all of our records, we have this figure with a skull on its head, our Iron Maiden Eddie in a way. It morphs on each release.