Talking Death: Tomb Mold’s Guitarists Derrick Vella and Payson Power Discuss “Planetary Clairvoyance” and More
In the space of only two albums, Tomb Mold went from a Canadian curiosity with a love for Finnish death metal to one of the genre’s leading young bands. Drummer/vocalist Max Klebanoff and guitarist Derrick Vella added guitarist Payson Power and bassist Steve Musgrave after the Primordial Malignity debut and follow-up Manor of Infinite Forms set the death metal community on its ears with a bludgeoning, suffocatingly claustrophobic sound that twisted the early Demilich and Convulse inclinations into something unique and exciting.
Striking while the iron is hot, the Toronto troupe took barely more than a year to release Planetary Clairvoyance which released last Friday (check out Langdon’s full review). There is already no shortage of metal critics who are falling over themselves with praise.
Tomb Mold played a show at Kung Fu Necktie in Philadelphia on the day Planetary Clairvoyance was released. The concert sold out in advance, packing the venue on a day the outside temperature reached 95 degrees. Between the heat and cramped corners and volume from labelmates Superstition, Tomb Mold’s two guitarists decided the best place to discuss Planetary Clairvoyance was my Chevy Sonic: it was parked across the street and most importantly had air conditioning. This led to goofy pictures like the one you see here and a lengthy chat about how Tomb Mold got to this point and where they go from here.
In the space of two albums up until the new one today, you’ve kind of emerged and become one of the most critically and commercially very hotly tipped death metal bands. What’s the ride been like?
Power: It’s been crazy!
Vella: It’s weird, because I feel like our expectations have just exceeded even from day one. When Max and I put out the first tape, The Bottomless Perdition, we didn’t think anything of it. Our whole plan was just make two tapes and get out. No big deal, it was just something fun to do.
From there, I don’t know, people just really warmed up to it, they just liked it. That’s cool. We weren’t going to do an LP, but then Blood Harvest asked, and it was just like, “Okay.” Even that exceeded our expectations.
So it’s been from Manor onward, or wait — the first thing we did as a four-piece recording wise was the tape right before Manor, Cryptic Transmissions. After we did that we did our first tour, which even that was just full of surprises for us. Certain shows were just like, “Holy smokes, who are these people?”
Anywhere in particular stand out?
Vella: Philly, DC, Pittsburgh… It was just like, why do these people care?
Power: At that point, DC was the craziest show I had ever played in 15, 16 years of playing shows. We were like, “Whoa. People are really feeling this.” At that point we were playing two new songs and Steve and I had learned a couple of the old songs that were just Derrick and Max, and that was the set.
That run of dates, was that kind of an epiphany for you guys? Like oh, something’s happening here?
Vella: A little bit. I think it really came into focus after Manor of Infinite Forms came out, though.
Power: People dug it, but everything changed after Manor came out. The first run of shows, it was like, “Oh, this is cool, people dig this.” There’s always going to be total metal lifers that are going to come up to you and be like, “I listen to your tape before breakfast every day.” But after Manor came out there was a huge shift, and we’re like, “Holy shit, people fucking love this.”
Vella: That and right after we put it out, we went on tour with Of Feather and Bone. I think that whole sequence, from the pre-order of Manor selling out in like two days, to just going on tour and seeing the responses we got — but even now, fuck, we played Boston last night and 300 people came. We’re just like, “Who are these people? This is amazing.”
If we have expectations, they’re not high. It’s not anything against anyone, it’s just us being like, “We can’t gauge this,” because this isn’t something where we’re we should expect these big things. We’re just grateful for anything. So it’s surreal a little bit. It’s kind of bizarre. But it’s also amazing. We’re super appreciative. I think we get a rush off it, for sure.
Planetary Clairvoyance coming out today means that in less than two and a half years, you’ve released three full length albums and the new one comes barely a year after the last one. How come you are so prolific and what’s enabling you to churn these albums out so quickly?
Power: I think predominantly it’s because Derrick and Max are both insanely good songwriters. Derrick just churns out these songs, and then Max puts the drums on them, which is a huge part of them, right? Derrick will write these four, five minute songs. Max will put it through the Kleban-ator [laughs], and then it’ll just be this fucking instant great death metal song, and then me and Steve just come in and do our parts and kind of fill in the cracks and try to make it sound burly or whatever, whatever we want to do, whatever the feel of the song is.
Plus knowing Derrick for so long and knowing Max for a long time, Derrick’s a “what’s next” guy. This LP [just came] out and I guarantee you, I haven’t even talked to him about it, but he’s probably like, “what’s next?”
Vella: I’m not allowed to talk about it!
Power: Yeah, we need to chill for a sec! But yeah, it’s like I remember when Manor came out and we played it live. We wrote two new songs, and Derrick’s like, “I’m sick of the Manor songs.”
I’m like, “Dude, they’re four months old! What do you mean you’re sick of it?” If Depeche Mode can play “Personal Jesus” every night, we can certainly play “Abysswalker” for six months.
Vella: I just get these bursts where I just start writing a bunch of stuff and then I don’t really like sitting on material. I don’t wave my finger at people who can, I just couldn’t fathom if we wrote Planetary Clairvoyance and then waited two years to record it… I wouldn’t want to. By that point, it would be like, “No, I want to do something different.” It’s a combination of just having these bursts of writing, but also having bandmates [who] are willing to put up with this what some people might consider insanity. We don’t get time to rest. I’m like, “All right, so we’re going to write another record, right? I have songs. We’re going to learn them. We can book recording time next month.” It’s just like, “What?”
Power: We didn’t receive our copies of Manor and listen to them once and say, “All right, next LP.” The LP was a slow genesis out of something else. “Hey, let’s write some new songs, maybe write some songs for a split… The split’s not going to work, maybe let’s have a 12-inch, four songs, and then all of a sudden…”
Vella: I think we were going to do a mini-LP to start.
Power: I think by the fall it was established, “yeah, this album’s probably going to be 35 plus minutes.” That’s a full length in the death metal world, so it’s like, “Okay, I guess we’re doing it on a full length.” It’s kind of like, whatever, why question it, right? If people want to hear it, they’ll want to listen to it.
You talk about how quickly everything comes around. Bands always talk about how the second they turn in something they wish something was different. That doesn’t seem like a Tomb Mold problem.
Power: The thing is, and I think all four of us know this too, nothing’s perfect, ever. We’ve all made records before, there’s records I hate that I made and there’s records I still kinda like but I don’t look back on anything and go, “Wow, I nailed it.” It’s like, yeah, that was cool, but this part kind of sucks, but that part kind of sucks.
I’ll also say, I know people, artists, who are in the process of making records and I’ve seen people spend two years mixing and mastering. You know, it’s just like, you’re never going to get anything done. Just put it out, learn from your mistakes, and then fix them on the next record, because if you spend five years making your debut, then I don’t know, I just think that’s a silly way to do things. Coming from somebody who’s OCD, a total perfectionist usually, but it’s not realistic to be a complete perfectionist. Not to mention a lot of those “mistakes” you’re going to make will probably be the things you end up liking.
There [are] things on Manor that I didn’t love at first, and now I really like a lot. I made a mistake in “Abysswalker” when I was playing with Derrick, and I went to fix it and then we played it back and I was like, “Oh, I’m not going to say anything.”
Vella: You have “Heat Death” paused [on the car stereo] and I ripped a minute long solo in it. It’s funny; originally it was only half of that, and I was like, “Okay, fuck, I’m done. This is great. I’m all finished.” Then we played it at practice, and Payson was like, “Are you going to write more?” I was like, no, and he was like, “Oh, you should just keep going.” I thought I was done!
Power: Once your solo is over 30 seconds, you might as well just fucking go for it! Just go full Satriani!
Vella: And he was right and I’m glad I did. It’s funny listening to the rehearsal recordings of these songs. If you heard them, you’d be like, “This record’s going to be a mess.” And then we get in there and we killed it.
Power: I would go as far as to say I was really concerned. Derrick is really clever with his parts the way he writes them, so it wasn’t that I doubted Derrick, but when we played “Heat Death,” I was like, “I don’t know if this is going to click. I think this is going to sound like Portal or something, totally chaotic.” But when it was done and we played it back, I was like, “Wow, this really levels together quite well.” And a lot of that can be attributed to Max as well, because the drums are super tasteful and leave a lot of room for the guitar, bass and lead guitar with Derrick on that song to sort of click together.
But until Sean [Pearson] at Boxcar [Sound Recording] pressed play and played it back, I was like, I don’t know! I don’t know if it’s going to work! And then I was like, “Shit! All right, good!”
The layman’s thing that I threw out there about the record is the varied tempos. “Infinite Resurrection” sounds turbocharged compared to what you guys are known for, that mid-paced chug.
Vella: I think I just wanted to play harder stuff. I wanted to write harder stuff.
Harder as in heavier, or harder to play?
Vella: Harder to play. And I think that’s why songs like that one for sure are that.
Power: A lot of this album is like, in our bedrooms practicing along. A lot of the tempo stuff has to do also with Max is probably the best musician — not probably, he is the best musician I’ve ever played in a band with. He’s a genius. He’s a death metal encyclopedia, and it’s hard to balance sheer technicality and drumming prowess, instrument prowess, with tastefulness.
You hear with so many tech bands, where people are like, “this band’s very good at what they do, but this is muscle reflex gobbledygook nonsense.” Max can do all that stuff, but he knows when not to play, and his parts, even when his parts sound simple, they’re fucking hard. But when they sound hard, they’re really fucking hard! There are parts [on stage] where I have to stand statue still. It’s not because I’m bored. That’s because if I move, I’m going to fuck up!
I have some hard parts, but Max, I think to his credit, is very good at knowing exactly what to do. There are parts where at practice he would make a slight change and we would all stop and he would say, like, “Hey, do that from now on.” If we didn’t have Max in the band, it would take a lot longer to work these songs out.
The early reviews of the album are making note of the increased technicality, though not quite going so far as to say you embraced tech-death this time out.
Vella: It’s technical in the way that the first Brutality record or Disincarnate is technical, where it’s clever and it’s hard, but it’s not overly flashy. It has personality. I feel like a lot of more technical stuff can just fall into the feel of you’re hearing a scale being played.
Power: Not to mention, it’s like, in 2019 I think tech death has more to do with the finished sound of the recording than it does the actual song. I think a lot of these overly contrasted technical recordings sound like computers playing. I think if you have room to breathe and maybe the notes are played at a lower octave where it’s a little less obvious what’s going on, it stops being tech death and just sounds like technical death metal.
We’re splitting hairs here with genre stuff, but if you play something an octave higher and compress the shit out of it, you’re going to sound like a tech death band, and if you play it two octaves lower and it sounds raw, it’s going to sound like death metal. A band like Portal, I wouldn’t call that tech death at all but you would be hard-pressed to find a more technical band.
You guys put out the Cerulean Salvation limited cassette with that and “Planetary Clairvoyance (They Grow Inside II).” Is that the same versions that are on the album?
Vella: Payson changed a solo in the title track, “Planetary Clairvoyance,” so really it’s more or less the same. I can’t tell if it’s a little slower or not in the taped version. Max records all our tapes. We like doing the tapes in between records because it keeps us engaged. Max just loves making tapes. That’s his thing. He has a side label that he does himself [Summer Isle] that’s just a tape label of not metal stuff, and he just loves the whole process of it.
Every time we record a tape with him, he just gets better at it, so it’s fun. It’s a learning experience for all of us, and then also, it just goes back to this whole, we just like making stuff, and we just like making tapes. We like recording records and we like fucking making shirts. We don’t get anything from it except just the satisfaction of doing it.
Power: Not to mention, also, if you like raw recordings, there have been people out there that were like, when Manor came out, “I miss the old sound. I miss the tape sound, more raw death metal sound.” Okay. Max does another tape, it’s a more raw death metal sound, and it’s also not a 40 minute album. If you don’t want to hear a 40-minute death metal album but you still enjoy death metal, take an 11-minute cassette. I’ve had people tell me that, especially some of my punk friends that are dabbling and dipping their toes into death metal, “I don’t know, an LP’s a lot, but I love that tape.”
In terms of the writing the lyrics, as I understand, you [Derrick] and Max basically lyrically split things down the middle 50/50 on this record, which is kind of unique.
Vella: Normally before we start writing, lyrics always come last. We’ve never even practiced a song with vocals until after we’ve recorded it. Before the album came out, we played “Planetary” and we played “Cerulean,” but we knew how the vocals worked. We’ve never written a song and been like, “All right, I’m going to figure out the vocals while we play.” It always comes when we record.
Max and I have never had issues splitting the lyrics. It was a thing at the beginning. I asked him, “How do you want to do this?” He was like, “Let’s just share it. I don’t want to do all of it.” I was like, “Cool, ’cause I don’t want to do all of it,” but we’ll talk about the subject matter beforehand, how we want to do it.
Manor came out more as a concept record. It felt like the narrative structure from start to finish tells a story, and Max helps fill that in in the middle. This one, it’s a little bit more singular, but all pertaining to this idea of everything ending.
Power: Not to mention it’s two-sided, too, so you don’t take turns on songs; you have Derrick on Side A, Max on Side B, so you have an overlying theme, but then you also have two large chunks, which have a more cohesive writing style.
Vella: Yeah, and his lyrical approach is a little bit more abstract than mine, which is cool, because it gives you a couple different flavors on the record.
And yours are more direct.
Vella: A little bit. More direct in they’re telling a story, so to speak, whereas Max’s read more like poetry to me, which is, like… I like that a lot. I love his lyrics.
You mentioned a theme. How would you lay the theme out? If this album was a novel, what would be the theme that you’d put on the book blurb?
Vella: Just the annihilation of the universe, of this entire existence, I guess. But not in a depressing way! For me I think it’s more of a rebirth out of death. Songs like “Beg for Life,” they come off as this very darkened tone and very serious song about essentially being obliterated, but really it’s about growth to me. In real life, you can create new things out of what’s destroyed. That can be physically, personally, emotionally, whatever you want it to be. I feel like in life sometimes, you’ve got to go through a lot of shit, but when you get to the other side, something great is waiting. Songs like “Beg for Life” are about that. “Infinite Resurrection” is about grand scale destruction not just of what’s being destroyed but also the person destroying it or the creature destroying it and whatnot.
When people are writing sci-fi, horror, fantasy lyrics, usually there’s one of two motivations. One is escapism. This is art, we’re using our art to escape. I don’t want to talk about band practice; I want to talk about wizards. But then there’s also allegory. It’s very easy to take a theme of chaos, world ending, and doomsday apocalyptic stuff and apply it directly towards current events. Where does Tomb Mold fall on that spectrum?
Vella: Probably a mix. I can’t speak for Max’s lyrics, obviously, cause I didn’t write them. I think for me, not just the lyrics but even this whole process of making this record just felt like a huge weight off my shoulders. I went through some intense changes in life over the past year that were hard and difficult and still are, and I think making this record felt kind of like the weight of the world falling off my shoulders for a moment. It felt really good. This is a very freeing record for me.
As claustrophobic as [the record] sounds, for me, we played this intense, brutal thing and for me it just feels like, “Oh my God, I feel so good right now.” I just feel like I’m weightless. So for me, the lyrics are about all these sci-fi horror things for sure, but for me they’re about, yeah, intense change.
Would some of that change be about the expectations on the band? How much pressure did you feel going into Planetary Clairvoyance?
Power: I felt none. I do not fucking care.
Vella: I felt some, but not so much from the fan perspective, cause if we made this record the exact way we made it and we loved it and it came out and everyone was like, “This sucks,” I’d be like, “Whatever.” I don’t care about that.
I care more so about Dave [Adelson, owner] at 20 Buck Spin who takes a huge chance with us. I don’t know if we completely fucked up his schedule, but when were like, “Hey, so we’re going to do an LP,” he was just like, “Already? All right, man, I’m obviously going to put it out. As long as you’re ready to do it, go for it.” I just want to make sure that everybody’s good, like everybody’s happy with it. I wanted to make sure that whatever we gave to Dave, he felt good about, and I think he did and that everybody involved in it felt good. Sean felt good recording it, everybody playing on the record felt good. Arthur [Rizk], who mixed and mastered it, loved it. So everybody that I wanted to make sure was taken care of, was taken care of.
Power: The only pressure I felt was from a recording standpoint, I wanted to outdo in the last record. I wanted to do everything better than the last record, all that stuff. But as far as how is it going to be received or whatever, it’s like, zero interest.
Aside from critical success, Manor of Infinite Forms also saw the band reaching a bigger audience. Most of the death metal bands playing the really big theaters are old school bands. Can you imagine being the first of the newer bands flying the death metal flag to make that jump in popularity?
Vella: I don’t know. I don’t know if we want it. This is cool, but at the end of the day, this is a cool thing that we do as friends. If this became our life, do we turn from friends to co-workers? I don’t want that.
Power: Being in a band is hard, period, even if you just play in a garage once a month. Being in a band that jams every week, has put out three records in three years, and has done a bunch of tours… we all have jobs. It gets stressful, even when it’s going really good. This band’s going really good, but there are still a lot of things that are very stressful. So the idea of doing this full time is like, I just see the fun evaporating mentally.
Vella: Also, we’re not that young, man. I’m 30. You’re 34 or 33? Steve’s 40, Max is 25. So for us, we’re not thinking about, “Oh, how sick would it be to go on the road.” We’re kind of thinking about more like, “what’s our life right now?” Steve got married last year. Some of us are looking at that down the road. I think our mind goes there more, so this is this fun thing that we get to do, but it feels like we’re on the clock, so to speak. We don’t have forever.
Power: Not to mention, also, we’ve been on a very hectic schedule for the duration that Steve and I have been in the band, and before that, Max and Derrick were really busy doing an LP very quickly. We’ve been very busy is what I’m saying, but we haven’t really scheduled any time off.
It’s hard when you put out three albums in two and a half years.
Power: Lots of bands put four years before a record. That’s normal. So for us, it’d be like, maybe we should just take a year off and chill. That would be cool, cause then maybe we’ll get our motivation. Not that we’re not motivated, but maybe we’ll be raring to go after a year or two. It’s certainly not a death sentence for the band to take a little bit of time.
So it’s not impossible that when you’re done touring Planetary that you might actually take the first extended break as a band.
Vella: I’ll still write. I just won’t show them anything.