Interview: The Sequence of Prime
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When Stanley Kubrick created the groundbreaking special effects required to believably send Dr. David Bowman into hyperspace in 2001: A Space Odyssey, grindcore wasn’t even a word yet, let alone a thriving, decades-old subgenre. The disturbing images and mood he conjured for the sequence were not only trippy, but “metal” before that term became a catch-all for anything batshit insane. If you were to take a time machine back to 1968 and tell Kubrick that almost 45 years after his Oscar winning masterpiece first blew minds, a graphic artist from Kansas City would craft a cybergrind album that provides as appropriate an aural equivalent of tumbling down the rabbit hole as the epic classical music used in the original soundtrack did, his first question would probably be, “What the hell is cybergrind?” If only Brandon Duncan had been around to piece together his disorienting mania for celluloid. Well, he’s here now, laying down blazing fast tunes to whirring hard-drives, and that’s what matters. If ever a courageous astronaut does find himself speeding through a wormhole, he better have The Sequence of Prime’s latest document of space hysteria blasting on his pod’s hi-fi. The following is an email interview we conducted with Duncan about his most recent work, his high-tech recording process, and Morgan Freeman’s brilliance.
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Your new album, Inter-, focuses on theoretical physics and space. Specifically, much of the concept attempts to describe the experience of being sucked into a black hole. Why is space so metal?
Hahaha, oh man! Everything about space, scientifically, aesthetically and metaphorically, is pure metal. First of all, it more than likely all began with an explosion. It is also overwhelming and constantly expanding. To stare into outer space, the actual “space” itself, is to stare into a void. Infinitely black, cold and empty. Go lay out in an empty field with a clear view of the night sky and it is impossible to not be humbled, or even feel pointless. It is both enlightening and oppressive. It is one of the primary inspirations for humanity to want to explore and become educated. All of these things are also very much what metal is to me.
I’m fascinated with the endless void and the insignificance that comes with pondering it all. That being said, most of what I know about space and physics I learned from Morgan Freeman on Through the Wormhole. Reading through the lyrics to Inter-, you actually know what you’re talking about. The liner notes even feature recommended reading for those who want to learn more. When did you become interested in the topic and how much do you research before writing your lyrics?
Yes! Through the Wormhole is an astounding series, through and through! Man I’m so glad you brought that up. I highly recommend it to anyone that’s interested in the subject matter of Inter-.
I was fortunate to grow up with very open minded parents and was basically allowed and encouraged to watch anything growing up. So I saw movies like The Terminator, Predator, RoboCop and Alien at a very young age. I was only like 5 or 6 years old, tops. Of course I thought The Terminator himself was cool . . . and frightening. But what really stuck with me and got under my skin was the whole idea of time travel. That entire concept just really got my brain turning into all sorts of different directions, leading me to later become interested in black holes, alternate dimensions and the cosmos in general.
Another thing I’d like to mention is that I have tons of old memories of going on these late night fishing trips with my parents. When we were driving to and from wherever we were going in the middle of the night, my dad would always make up all these incredible stories. Just completely out of the blue. We’d be driving on empty stretches of highway in this shitty little Toyota truck that was barely big enough for us, and I would stare out into the stars as he made up all sorts of random stories about aliens and exploring other planets!
As far as how much research I do before writing my lyrics, I’d say . . . tons. I don’t mean that in a pretentious way either. I just mean that these aren’t exactly the type of lyrics that you write overnight when you’re drunk and depressed because your girlfriend cheated on you, you know? I often feel that I am not much more than a speck of cosmic dust, so lyrically I prefer to dig deeper than myself. At the same time, I can’t deny that my own experiences form who I am as a person, and therefore influence what I write, so that periodically comes through in my lyrics.
I knew a couple years ago, not long after I released Virion, that I wanted my next album to deal heavily with alternate dimensions and the potential horrors of traveling between them. So for roughly two years I was constantly reading, taking notes and building my own library of inspiration and resources. All that research was soaked up into this big sponge, which was eventually squeezed and condensed into Inter-.
You did a ton of research for Inter-, yet the album itself is under a half hour. How do you condense that much information on such a heady topic into such a short runtime? I know The Sequence of Prime has roots in grindcore, but why not make it a little more expansive?
There are several reasons behind why I chose to keep the album so short. One reason is that yes, I’m mostly influenced by thrash, grind, and the more relentless styles of black metal, which are all styles that I’ve always felt are best when they are short and to the point. Naturally, I aim to write the type of music that I would want to listen to.
Another reason: I don’t think that conceptually it would make sense or benefit the album if Inter- were any longer than it is. I would like to think that it is actually just as “expansive” as many releases that are twice its length or longer. Take a recurring theme of the album and our conversation, a black hole. A black hole is something that becomes compacted so heavily that its gravitational pull becomes so insanely powerful that not even fucking light traveling at almost 300 million meters per second can escape it. It still has all the mass of the object it was before it collapsed into itself, and actually gains even more as it pulls in nearby objects.
I wanted to write an album that sucks people in and throws them in every direction possible before they ever even knew what happened. And beyond the music, I wanted to create a whole other dimension where the listeners’ imaginations can run wild and possibly even inspire them to read or learn about something new.
What is your usual writing process, and how did that differ for Inter-compared to your older material?
With Virion and some of my earlier music, I always took a very methodical, scientific approach to everything. That’s probably why a lot of my older music sounds very mechanical. My initial vision was to have Inter- actually be half electronic. I don’t mean metal with synths layered in either, I mean I was planning on having a bunch of songs that were purely electronic, haha! So for a long time I was working on the album with that mindset. But along the way I kept getting frustrated and wasn’t very happy with the way the album was going at all.
Eventually, I decided to scrap most of what I had and just re-wrote all the music in a little less than a month or so! I said fuck everything and just abused the hell out of my guitar and out came Inter-. It’s weird, sometimes something inside of me just snaps and I go insane and violently make art for a short period of time. This was the first time that has happened with my music, though!
That’s a hell of a creative process! How did you go about writing the riffs for Inter-? They’re fast, but also really groovy. Sort of reminds me of Scott Hull at times.
Riffs just sort of come to me whenever I pick up my guitar. I don’t have any formal music training or anything like that. Whenever I’m playing and come up with a riff that I like, I record a video of myself playing it on my computer. I’ll play it several times at different speeds, and if it’s crazy complicated I’ll also record myself individually playing every note so I can easily see how to play it. That’s a habit I got in to several years ago and I’m really glad I’ve stuck with it.
You write and record everything by yourself. Take us through the technological aspect of your creative process. What programs and equipment do you use? The liner notes for Inter- say it was recorded at Stull Studio. Is that your home studio?
Yeah, Stull Studio is simply a nickname I have for my home recording setup. I named it after the infamous “gateway to hell” at the old cemetery in Stull, Kansas!
The most crucial element is of course the guitar, which I used a 2011 Gibson Explorer with Seymour Duncan SH-1 ’59 and Custom SH-5 pickups. I play through an Electro-Harmonix Metal Muff pedal into a solid state Marshall MDFX 100 combo amp. Many guitarists will probably laugh at that, but it’s always worked for me and I’ve recorded 3 albums with it now! I mic the amp up with a Shure SM58 that runs into a Line6 Toneport UX2 and then record into my MacBook Pro running Ableton Live. Ableton is typically used by electronic musicians for live performance, but I use it mostly as a DAW.
The first thing I did was record quick scratch tracks of the guitars for each song, so that I could figure out all the time signatures and tempos in the Ableton timeline. I did this so that I could program the drums. The drum programming is the most time consuming part, but I love it! For the sound of the drums I use a custom kit I built with the plugin BFD2, but do the actual sequencing in Ableton.
Once I had the drums pretty well in place, I went back and re-recorded the guitars. I played straight through twice for each song, so that I could have separate guitars for each channel to give that thick, full sound. If I made a major mistake or didn’t like the way something came out I started from the top. I wanted to keep everything raw and not spliced together perfectly like so much music is these days.
Once I had all the guitars finished, I made some improvements to the drums and then recorded the bass. My bass is an Ibanez SRX390, which was recorded direct through the TonePort into Ableton.
Then came time for the vocals, which I actually recorded at this little sound stage here in downtown Kansas City. I couldn’t really do the vocals at my home studio on this album because I now live in an apartment. I recorded all the vocals in four 1-hour sessions, and then did the final mixing. The last step of the whole process was mastering, which I did with iZotope Ozone and Logic Pro. Whew!
Your vocals have been compared to Steve Austin’s of Today Is the Day, which I definitely agree with. By all accounts, Steve is a pretty intense person, which is reflected in his performances. You look like a pretty reserved, calm dude from the photos on your site and liner notes. How did you get into the mindset to deliver the unhinged vocals on Inter-?
I’ve heard the Steve Austin comparison before from several people too, which is totally cool with me. I’m a HUGE Today is the Day fan and hold Mr. Austin in very high respect.
Regarding me being a calm dude, I’d say that’s a definite yes for the most part, but only on the exterior. I have a pretty stressful job sometimes and everyone I work with always tells me they never have any idea if I’m upset or stressed about anything. One thing my brother, who is also my best friend, once told me is that the difference between us is that his intensity is immediate and reactive, whereas mine is constantly burning and brooding. Everything I write about is very much what I am interested in, and have been interested in for most of my life.
How does your graphic design influence your music and vice versa? And is that your day job you mentioned?
I’ve been working in motion graphics for about 3 years now and I love it! I absolutely love my job and I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to work with. Everyone rocks. But in this line of work, deadlines and workloads can be absolutely nuts. There have been numerous times where I have worked 80 to 100 hours a week to get shit done and out the door on time! But I kind of get a bit of a rush from it; I like being pushed.
If you want to get a feel for what it is I do that puts food on my plate I just finished up a new reel a few days ago, which is now at the top of my website (corporatedemon.com). I used to also do freelance illustration and design on top of the job, but I decided to scale that back and have become very selective of the work I take on outside of the day job. I have lots of things that I want to do personally, and after years of working my ass off for other people around the clock, I decided to just allot as much of my free time for my own projects as possible.
My art and music are like twins conjoined at the head. Slightly different qualities in their bodies but sharing all the same thoughts!
One of the pages of Inter-‘s liner notes reads: “Inter- is available free of charge. If you like it, please share it with your friends, review it, mention it on your blog, tweet about it, etc. That is the best payment you could possibly give. If you would like to financially support The Sequence of Prime, you can send a PayPal donation to firstname.lastname@example.org, or purchase the album on Bandcamp. Thank you for listening.” I think that’s a really great summary of the new way artists create and listeners consume music. Did you ever set out to form a full band with The Sequence of Prime or did you always intend for it to be a solo project you would work on in your free time?
I’ve never had any intent to turn TSOP into a full band. I view it much like an art project. It’s a very personal thing to me and I put everything I have into it. I also really enjoy doing every single aspect of the music and production myself from the ground up. So TSOP will always just be me. I do have fantasies of starting something separate though, something collaborative that can be performed . . . we’ll see!