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Interview: Immolation

Photos by Metastazis

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Majesty and Decay may be the best record of Immolation‘s career. (See review here.) That’s saying a lot, since Immolation has notched some of death metal’s all-time highs, like 1996’s Here in After and 2000’s Close to a World Below. I believe history will also look kindly upon Majesty‘s predecessors, Harnessing Ruin and Shadows in the Light, which stripped down the band’s approach towards a purer essence. Before a fiery show at the Whisky in Los Angeles recently, I talked to vocalist/bassist Ross Dolan and guitarist Bob Vigna. Immolation is currently touring Europe alongside Napalm Death, Macabre and Waking the Cadaver – see dates below.

— Cosmo Lee

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Immolation has lasted for over 20 years. To what do you attribute your longevity?

RD: We still enjoy it. It was never like a career for us. We don’t make a living off of it. We still have jobs. So this is the fun thing in our lives, something that we’ve always been passionate about. You have your good nights, you have your bad nights, but it’s all about the whole journey. It’s about the experience, traveling, meeting people, spreading new music, and doing what you love to do.

During your time in Immolation, what’s the most significant change you’ve seen in metal?

RD: There’s a lot more emphasis nowadays, I think, on technicality and how things are played. Which is cool, [but] I was always more in the feeling camp. Technicality is cool, but the song’s gotta speak to me here [points to his heart]. That goes for all types of music. As a musician, I can look at players and go, “Wow, that guy’s fucking amazing”. But the song has also got to touch my soul. You’ve got to feel the music. I was always about that because I’m old-school. That’s how things were back then. It’s a big difference from when we started until now – in everything.

We started pre-Internet. We started pre- all the stuff you see today. We actually had to work hard to get our music out there. We had to write letters to bands around the world. We had to record cassette demo tapes and photocopy the covers and get them together to sell at shows. Kids today – boom, you click a button, and you have access to a whole band’s library you can download or listen to. You can see shit online immediately on YouTube; you can watch bands performing [there]. So it’s not like back then, when kids came out to shows because that was the only chance you got to see the band.

Do you find that that reduces participation at gigs?

RD: Absolutely. It doesn’t feel the same anymore. The last ten years have felt very different. It doesn’t feel like there’s that passion anymore. It’s not just me. I’ve talked about it with Piotr from Vader and all the guys. It’s very different today. The younger kids – it’s new and fresh for them, and they have that passion. But overall, it seems a little weird. I hope it changes.

Do you think that the older fans have lost the passion?

RD: No, because the older fans remember it. They know what it’s about. Obviously they have families now and kids, so they’re not out attending the shows as much. But when they come out, they’re into it.

It’s very hard now to get people to come out. There’s too much going on – a lot of tours, a lot of big packages. When a kid’s gotta pick and choose, that’s not good, you know what I’m saying? It’s so easy that the kids are jaded very quickly. They have too much at their immediate disposal. We live in the now generation, where everything is instant gratification. You want everything now, you go on YouTube now, you download stuff now, you can order stuff now. You don’t even have to leave your house. And that affects that passion.

When you have to work for something, you appreciate it more. If someone hands you a brand new car, you don’t appreciate it. If you have to work two jobs to earn the money to buy that car, that’s your car, you take care of it, that’s your baby. Same thing with music. We had to write bands. You wrote a letter. And you waited. And you got your demo, and, man, you [were excited]. You listened to it over and over and over. And then you wrote back, and you ordered the shirt. You couldn’t wait until you got your shirt. And you wore your shirt, and you were like, “Yeah, I fucking love this band”. Today it’s not like that.

One thing that I’ve noticed that’s different in metal over the years is the phone. You go to shows, and people are on their phones. Some band is up there kicking ass, and people are texting.

BV: Well, the good thing about it is they also sit there and they [record] video, and then it is on YouTube. Although we were talking about how some people don’t come out to the shows because it’s easier to watch on YouTube, at the same time it also helps promote the band. There’s plenty of kids that aren’t old enough to go to shows, or maybe they just can’t. There’s a lot of people that live in cities most tours don’t go anywhere near. So at least they get to see some of the stuff [through YouTube]. Sometimes technology does help as well.

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“Majesty and Decay”

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. . .

Has your conception of Immolation changed during the time you’ve been in it?

BV: Now it’s a little bit more about what’s going on in the world today, the things around us – things that are more relevant, really. We put that in a little bit in the early days as well, but now we do it more straightforwardedly. I think we’ve gotten better with the way we do our lyrics, and the way we express ourselves, and the messages we’re trying to convey. They’re getting clearer. Musically, we’re always trying to advance as well. With everything, we always aim to make things better and improve upon what we’ve done and take it to the next level. And I think we’ve done that, in all aspects of the band. It’s more meaningful, it’s darker musically, it’s much better.

RD: The essence of the band is the same from when we started. It’s just that as people we’ve grown throughout the years. As musicians, we’ve gotten better. We’ve learned how to write better songs. We’ve learned how to trim some of the fat and make it more straightforward. As Bob said, lyrically we’ve [changed] – purposefully. You can only write so much about how you feel about religion. People get it. There’s only so much you can write about a certain subject without being redundant.

Tell that to Glen Benton!

RD: Well, you know! We were there, too (laughs).

The last few records have had a lot more rhythmic interest. There’s more space and groove. Was this a conscious decision?

BV: It wasn’t a conscious decision to make things more groove-oriented. We’ve just learned how to make songs flow a little bit better and how to tighten things up. As much as I love the older stuff, some of it had a little too much going on. This is more streamlined. You just get that [inclination] when you play tours and live shows. It’s about being more powerful, more to-the-point. Instead of having 80 riffs in one song, sometimes less is more. That’s what we’re doing nowadays. Let’s make a point; we don’t need to do 18 million things to get to that point.

RD: And the parts have room to breathe. They have their moment in the sun. They don’t just come in for four measures, and you [never] hear them again. There were so many good parts on some of the older records that you only saw briefly, and they could have been developed into something that had more impact.

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Bob Vigna live

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Bob, where did you get your extremely physical style of playing?

BV: It just naturally came out. You do this stuff for so many years – you play, and you find your niche. Let’s face it – after I cut my hair, I couldn’t bang my head too much anymore (laughs). So I had to figure something out. We’ve been playing shows for over 20 years. Through all those tours and playing, I developed a style.

Ross, did you ever look over one day at a show and go, “Wow, Bob has turned into a madman”?

RD: Oh, I see him every day. He does a little crouch thing, and he’s going nuts. And I look over at Bill [Taylor, second guitarist] sometimes, and Bill’s got his own moves.

BV: Bill’s stamping the floor; there’s all sorts of things going on (laughs).

RD: We do our thing. But I’m usually not aware [of my bandmates] because you’re kind of in your own little zone live, and I’m not aware of anything around me, except for what I’m doing and where the mic is (laughs). That’s my area right there. And I’m aware of the crowd, but only just as a whole, not individually.

Tom Araya said that when he goes onstage, he turns into a different person.

RD: Same with us. Absolutely.

BV: You go with the music. You channel the music. You get into that mode, and you just go for it. And don’t get me wrong – there’s times when you’re doing it, and you see somebody you know in the crowd, and you [acknowledge them]. You go in and out of [the zone]. But for the most part, once you get into that mode, it’s “go time”: now it’s time to be metal. You can see how we are – off-stage, we’re sitting here fuckin’ eating cookies and [drinking] soda, you know what I’m saying? That’s about the extent of our partying.

RD: We’re pretty low-key. But on the stage is different. You become like that beast onstage. You channel all that feeling and emotion that you get from the music, and you remember why you were attracted to this music originally.

Bob, who are your influences as a guitarist?

BV: In the early days, I was a big Iron Maiden fan. I was big into Priest and Ronnie Jamies Dio and Possessed and obviously Slayer and all those bands. Metallica was a big influence on me. You start at one point, and you build it up from there, and you listen to heavier stuff. Ever since I started really listening to this music, I was also playing it. So I was trying to do original stuff from the beginning as well. And I like a lot of different kinds of music.

When it comes to the metal stuff, I definitely have big influences from those early days. Bands like Maiden and Metallica always did things where it wasn’t always [one way] the whole time. Some songs went one way, some songs went another way – there was a lot of diversity, a lot of dimensions to the music. A lot of bands heavier than that have done that, too. That was something I always enjoyed. To me, when we do a record, it’s like one big, long song, almost. You want all these different elements to make things complete.

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Majesty and Decay, making-of video #2

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How did you come to use Ableton Live [software most commonly used by electronic music DJ’s and producers] to write the new album?

BV: I work for a small DJ production company in Brooklyn. It just happened to be a program I was able to get my hands on. I just figured, it’s something that we’re using at work, I might as well see how it works with [Immolation’s] music. And it worked out fine. All I needed was something to do multi-track recording, and something [with which] to create drum lines. It opened the doors to a lot of different things for us. Not only were we able to make songs before we even learned them, I was also able to do the intro stuff and other things I never had the means to do before.

Immolation historically has been quite mysterious for me. Maybe you guys cultivated that mystery, or maybe you guys were on labels that didn’t promote you that well. Then Nuclear Blast had you do making-of videos for this new album, and suddenly I could see into your studio and observe the recording process. So the mystery was gone. How do you feel about that?

BV: To us, there was no mystery, so we never really looked at it that way. We figured everyone knew the dorks we were anyway, so it didn’t matter. For the most part, it was kind of interesting. [Nuclear Blast] made the suggestion, and I think they didn’t really think they were going to get what they got. They just wanted something to throw up [on YouTube] to promote the album. But like most of the stuff that we do, we didn’t really want to do that. We went all-out. I sat there and worked on those videos for hours.

RD: Hours.

BV: I figured that if we’re going to give our fans a look into what we’re doing, at least we’ll try to do it the best we can and be as informative as possible. I didn’t want to show two minutes of us in a studio just bullshitting around. It was more like, “This is what we’re really doing”. There are plenty of kids out there that are working on music or just starting bands, and they’ve never done that stuff before. So that’s really who it was more geared for.

When you guys were younger, would you have wanted that [glimpse] from Iron Maiden or Metallica?

RD: Oh, hell yeah!

BV: I remember going to the Maiden concert for Powerslave, and you got the tourbook, and inside the tourbook they had the whole list of gear. And you were, like, “Wow, this is what they use!”

RD: If you’re a fan, you’re interested. You’re always curious. You want to know more.

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Majesty and Decay, making-of video #1

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. . .

I think it might depend on the band. Take, say, Deathspell Omega…

RD: Say who?

Deathspell Omega, from France. They’re this black metal band that’s really mysterious. I kind of don’t ever want to see them, because they’d probably ruin whatever image I have of them in my head.

RD: Yeah, you build up this thing in your head, and you don’t ever want to be let down, so it’s better just to have that and keep that in your head (laughs).

BV: But we’re pretty straightforward with everything, anyway. When we’re out at shows, we’re on the sidewalk hanging out. It’s not like we’re somewhere else, and then show up at the show to play. We’re always around. We’re easily accessible. We’ve always been that way. So [making the making-of videos] wasn’t a far cry for us. We didn’t even think twice about it.

That’s what we’re about. We’re just fans of music that just wanted to do this, and we’re still doing it. We might not be the most successful band in the world, but we’re having a good time, and we’re still out here. And after 20-some-odd years, to be still out here and still getting ready to go to places we’ve never been before – it’s great. I have no complaints.

RD: It’s about the journey more than anything else. We were always realistic, too, which I think helped. We never got into this with any kind of false ideas. We knew what it was we were getting into. We knew we weren’t going to make a living off of this. We just do it because we like to do it. It was something that individually each of us found that we were that passionate about that we would make the sacrifices we’ve made throughout our lives to continue to do it.

What does death metal mean to you?

RD: Death metal – it’s our lives. It really is. It’s a lifestyle. It’s everything we’ve done over the last 23 years to allow ourselves to continue doing it. It’s more than just music. It’s like a movement. It’s like a brotherhood. It’s something worldwide. It’s more than what it appears to be. It really truly is a lifestyle. Anybody in this business who’s been doing it even half as long as us has had to make sacrifices. You’ve had to go up on stage in front of five kids in some fucking town in the middle of nowhere. And you’ve also gone up there in front of 1000 kids and had the kids just go crazy. You’ve had to live in a van for weeks on end. You’ve had to come home with no money. You’ve had to skip getting a good job because it won’t allow you to tour. We’ve really molded our lives to accommodate this. It’s everything. It’s not just music. It is music, but it’s more than that for us. It’s kind of like the rollercoaster. Once you get to the crest of that hill and you go down, that’s it, man. You’re on that ride.

BV: There’s no going back.

RD: And no regrets. We love it.

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. . .

IMMOLATION – EUROPEAN TOUR 2010
w/ Napalm Death, Macabre, Waking the Cadaver

12.11. Rennes – Antipode (France)
13.11. Pamplona – Sala Totem (Spain)
14.11. Santiago Di Compostela – Sala Capitol (Spain)
15.11. Madrid – Sala Live (Spain)
16.11. Badalona – Estraperlo Club (Spain)
18.11. Bologna – Estragon (Italy)
19.11. Geneva – Usine (Switzerland)
20.11. Nimes – Xtrem R akan Fest (France)
21.11. Basel – Sommercasino (Switzerland)
22.11. Stuttgart – Universum (Germany)
23.11. Klagenfurt – Stereo Club (Austria)
24.11. Ljublijana – Menza Pri Koritu (Slovenia)
25.11. München – Backstage (Germany)
26.11. Kufstein – Kulturfabrik (Austria)
27.11. Eindhoven – Dynamo (Netherlands)
28.11. Wrexham – Central Station (Great Britain)
30.11. Cardiff – Millenium Music Hall (Great Britain)
02.12. Derby – Old Bell (Great Britian)
04.12. La Ferme du Bièreau – Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium)
05.12. Aachen – Musik Bunker (Germany)
07.12. Rostock – Alte Zuckerfabrik (Germany)
08.12. Kassel – Kulturfabrik Salzmann (Germany)
09.12. Leipzig – Conne Island (Germany)
10.12. Prague – KC Vltavska (Czech Republic)
11.12. Krakow – Klub Studio (Poland)
12.12. Bratislava – Majesic (Slovakia)
13.12. Würzburg – Postbahnhof (Germany)

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