Interview: Mike Scheidt (YOB)
With the release of last years’ Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot Records), Oregon doom trio YOB have continued to gain a new audience while smashing the boundaries and expectations of their chosen genre. They've put out six albums before this, each one a lesson in patience and power, and have built a reputation as a pummeling, unstoppable live entity. One listen to their new effort proves that they are not done carving out a unique path inside the sphere of extreme music. Beginning with the Alan Watts-narrated “In Our Blood,” the new album retains their concoction of crawling passages of crushing riffs mixed with ambient tones and drones. Singer/guitarist/main man Mike Scheidt pulls out every voice from inside his head to tell wailing, roaring tales of introspection and loss, ending with the incredible closer “Marrow.” Anchored by bassist Aaron Rieseberg and drummer Travis Foster, the whole affair is both powerful and at times incredibly fragile.
During a short stint of acoustic dates opening for Karma To Burn and The Road Home, Scheidt filled me in on what he thinks about YOB gaining widespread praise, being sick on the road, and his work on the new VHOL album. VHOL, a conglomerate consisting of Scheidt, guitarist/songwriter John Cobbett (Hammers of Misfortune/Ludicra) bassist Sigrid Sheie (Hammers of Misfortune) and drummer Aesop Dekker (Agalloch/Ludicra), is releasing a follow up to their debut album in a few months, and from the unmixed copy I heard, it is going to blow the first one out of the water. The band keeps their mix of power metal/punk/hardcore fury but adds dashes of jazz (I think?) as well, which, along with Scheidts arm-hair-raising vocals, makes me think "Transmissions From Planet Cobbett" would be a good album title. Brutal stuff. YOB kicks off a massive US tour with Enslaved, Ecstatic Vision, and Witch Mountain this month.
What goes through your head when major publications like Rolling Stone and NY Times put your band in the eye of the "mainstream" music culture?
Different things. We're honored, of course, we all grew up with Rolling Stone, it's one of those mags that, whatever critiques one might throw at it, is still pretty relevant. it's definitely a part of music history, so, along with the NY Times and others, we're surprised and honored. We're also distrustful of it, and don't put a lot of weight on it either. It's one of those weird things, especially for us being an underground band for so long, the whole genre for that matter, for it to be so out in the open it can be a little confusing. So we feel grateful, but we need to keep working, is how I look at it. We were never looking for a big trend or anything like that, this isn't music for everybody by any shape of the imagination. It might be a trend now, but I've been listening to this type of music for 30 years. Starting with Candlemass, Trouble, and Sabbath in the mid Eighties, so for people who think it's great and want to get into it and get blown away by it, I've been doing the same for three decades and I understand, it's great and I can see why it's big. It's a trip. Maybe we're benefiting from that partially from longevity, we've been around while all this has been happening after all. But the message at the end is the same. Keep our heads down, keep moving, and do what we do. We haven't changed anything that we do. We tour a little more but that's about it. It's still all about four songs, sixty minute records, just like it was 12 years ago.
Can you describe the songwriting process for the new album?
Some of the songs on the album took a lot longer to write, I've been working on “In Our Blood” for almost two years. But there's definitely a process when it comes to writing. I can kind of tell when one is coming, and I know I have to write it. It's a moment in time, and it just becomes apparent that it needs to get done. Up until that point, I'm never sure if there's even going to be another record, and I'm still not. I don't know how many records we have in us, I just have to wait for the time when I'm inspired to write. The process is, I usually slave away at that first tune, and it's always more the vibe than the riffs. Riffs are really important, of course, but if there's not a cohesive magic in there that ties it all together, then that's all it is, just riffs. So it's waiting for that, and then once that comes it moves pretty quickly because the momentum is there. After that it's just looking for vibes, tensions and releases in songs that fit together, and individual songs that sound like their own thing but are cohesive to the whole. “Marrow” was the last song I wrote for the album, and you can feel the arc in it from everything that came before it. It all went pretty quick.
The new album again features samples of late philosopher Alan Watts? What is it about his work that grabbed you?
He just had a great way with words. He was really able to get across some pretty complex philosophical ideas in a way that just seems so "of course,” almost like you already knew it and he was just reminding you. I've been listening to him and reading him since I was 19 or 20 years old, and he's always just kind of stuck with me. He was equal parts of a theologian, a scholar, a professor and practitioner and a rascal. There was nothing saccharine about him, or tame. He was a wild man, and yet was able to balance all those realities. Just listening to him speak it's hard not be entranced by him. I'm sure there's folks out there on the more puritanical side of things that probably have all sorts of problems with what he did, but he was a real human being asking a lot of the questions that I'm asking, who got farther with it than I ever will, so every word of his matters to me.
The theme of being "awake" is addressed in your work quite a bit. What does the term mean to you?
I'm sure it's different for everyone, but to me, it's not being caught up in my mind all the time. Being able to actually see what's in front of me, and actually hearing what the words are saying.Not being lost in illusion, caught up in some storyline like "This is my life and I'm Mike and blah blah blah." Parts of that are useful, and parts are a real bummer and a hassle. I feel a lot freer when I don't feel like I'm dreaming in my thoughts, or at least having enough distance from them to see them, for what they are. It's a constant practice. Nothing about it is spiritual, or at least not in the way that word is often used now. It just basically means "Don't get caught up in your own shit, as much as possible."
When you play places like Europe, what are some major differences you see audience wise that you might not see here in the States?
Well there's certainly differences as far as the flavor and culture of different countries, but that's one of the great things about punk, and metal, and music in general, is that it really does transcend language, and country and flags. It really does bring people together. In that regard, whether we're playing for a chunk of people in the States, or a chunk of people in Europe, there is always the common thread of love for heavy music. Some places are rowdier than others, Scotland is pretty rowdy. [Laughs] But then Norway not so much, even though they're just as into it, they're kind of stoic and listening very intently. The passion, I think, is identical, it's just expressed in a different way. I can only really speak from my experience, but the States have always been pretty good to us and we've been really lucky. It's only been recently that large groups of people have been coming out to our shows, but I feel like it carries over from a previous time. When we used to play shows, nobody was there by accident. If you saw Electric Wizard in 2002, pretty much everybody knew what they were walking into and were there for that show, so you immediately had a receptive crowd. We've always been lucky enough to play with like minded bands and for crowds that understood what we were doing. We're just rocking to human beings that are there. Sometimes they're French humans, sometimes German, sometimes American, doesn't matter to us. Certainly to go that far away from home and have a big chunk of people show up in a country where no one really knows you is a trip and an honor, no doubt.
You did a short stint opening for Tool last year. How did that come about, and how did it go?
We have very old friends that are a part of their camp who turned them on to YOB a while ago, and I met Danny Carey in 2002 or 2003 as well, so there was a little history. They don't invite bands on tour with them that they don't like, and they don't really care what their crowd thinks exactly about who they invite. They don't really have to invite anybody to sell out an arena, they could do that just by themselves, so they're really being pretty charitable as far as having opening bands. The thing that made it great for us was that they were completely respectful of us and what we do. They didn't ask us to turn down, they didn't ask us to change anything really about what we did. They let us use their gear, we had our own soundboard with our own settings that they provided. They really just took fantastic care of us, and gave us the opportunity to show up in that kind of situation and be ourselves. That's kind of hard to beat. Playing to a giant crowd, that's not our crowd, it's a little nerve wracking for sure. But we didn't have any hope in our heads of 'getting somewhere' or using it as a stepping stone, or any illusions like that. We just all agreed that we all liked/loved this band and it was an opportunity that we can't say no to, based on what they had laid out for us. We just had to show up and be the band that made them want to invite us in the first place. We just have to be us.
What comes more naturally for you, vocals or guitar?
I don't really think I'm that great at either, to be 100 percent honest. I've done things for long enough musically that I sound like me. Most musicians want their own voice or sound, and I know I have that, but as far as being a good guitar player, or a good singer, I think I've had to work pretty hard on both of those things. The guitar playing came a little easier once I discovered how to play country blues, because I've never been some incredible shredmaster, I'm just not that good at that. But when I started playing country blues, all of a sudden I started incorporating finger picking and movable chords and stuff into my metal playing. I started having my own sound after a while that sounded like a bastardized version of a few different things, and that right hand work I learned makes it sound like there's a lot more going on.
As far as vocals go, I've always liked variety. I love bands that have one style of vocal of course, there's lots of death metal like that, but I like the dynamics of different styles. For me, I kind of have to have all of those influences there, using certain voices for certain parts expresses want I want to say, and it creates tension in the song as well as releasing it. I've just grown up on it all, from Halford and Steely Dan to Suffocation, Von, and Darkthrone. I feel like I have to have that all at least available to sing with. It makes it more interesting to me, and it makes me feel more creative at the same time. More paints to play with. None of this is right or wrong for anyone, either, I get a lot of criticism for my voice. I just do what feels good, and the past couple years I've started taking vocal lessons because I wanted to get consistently better, instead of having good times in the studio to get the right take or waiting for the moment, or being on the road and having some days be great but some be bad, and not knowing why. As I've trained it's helped me a lot. I have bad days of course. In fact, our first set at Roadburn this year was one of the worst times I've ever had on stage singing in a long time, just being sick and running myself too ragged, and my voice really suffered that first night. But if I didn't have that voice training I never would have made it through, I wouldn't have. I've been pretty bent on getting both more guitar and vocal training here real soon, I'm getting tired of my tricks. I need new ones.
Is there a point on the road where you get so sick that you know it'll affect your performance, and just call it a day?
"Can't" isn't an option. When you've got a gig, you have to do it. I've never cancelled a gig for being sick. You've gotta play. Maybe people will be disappointed or upset, I know people criticize great singers, world class singers like "he sounded really pitchy tonight." Well, guess what? The human voice isn't like a guitar, there's a lot things that go into a human voice actually being an instrument, to be able to be in tune and in pitch. It's not like fretted or fingered instruments that can be tuned or can be put on a tuner, that can be repaired by a repairman, that don't need food and water and air. It's a whole other world, and people who are great consistently to me are freaking magicians. But even when I'm feeling sick and really bad, thanks to the training I know what to do, and how to prepare. Maybe I'll hide backstage if I'm sick so I don't talk as much, or stay away from the merch table so I don't talk my face off. It can be a bummer, because I'm very community minded, and I love being in the crowd watching the show, but if I want to sing well I have to be careful when I'm sick. Again, there's no "can't". King Diamond was playing one night, and he had completely blown his voice, it was gone. They had a big gig in LA, and he said "I'm not gonna be able to sing anything tonight, however I'm here, and you're here. Do you want to just do this and party?" Everyone said yes, and he did his best. People tore him apart after because he couldn't sing well, it's just silly.
Which is more challenging for you live, acoustic or YOB?
To me they're equally complex, but solo is infinitely harder. It's every kind of extreme experience, y'know, you're so exposed up there. I can't think of what would be harder. Maybe stand up comedy? It's acoustic, so every pitch issue, every plunked note is heard. People talking loud enough that they're competing with you for sound. There's all sorts of things that go into it. I approach my solo shows like if people want to listen then they will, and if they don't they won't. Those that don't aren't going to be paying attention, they'll start talking to their friends in the corner, and it's not about that. It's about the work put into making the music and sharing it with those that want to listen. If I miss notes it's much more painful than with YOB. I'm still a student at it, I'm not that good. The heroes that I have doing this are up there on such a high pedestal to me that I'm just happy to be lucky enough to do it.
Brent Monson makes your custom guitars. What do you like about them, and what do you look for in a guitar?
I like heavier weight guitars typically, like physically heavier, they seem to hold the low tuning better, and they seem to have more resonance to them. I like really fat necks, like 40's/50's style Gibsons, so my guitar necks are all huge. There's more resonance and I like the string spacing, so when I'm doing chord melody it's a lot easier to hit that stuff. The guitars that Monson made for me, it's not something I'm thinking about when I'm playing, it doesn't get in my way, and I don't have to mess with my guitar. It's just there. For guitar players, if you put a new guitar in their hands, they'll play it but grapple with the new guitar feel at first too. The ones I have from Monson, I don't even think about while I'm playing, and that's awesome.
Can you describe how you develop your tone, to a non-guitar player like myself?
It's complex, depending on what your goals are. If you're listening as a fan, you'll hear tones that you like, and then when you start your tone quest you look at that artist and wonder what they used to get that sound. But the player himself is a huge factor in tone as well. If you put Matt Pike in front of a Matamp, or an Orange, or a Hi Watt, or a Marshall, sure there's going to be differences in the tone, but it's always gonna sound like Matt. So part of it is the players style, part is the gear and guitar and pedals. It's like going to school; you put in your time and it costs a lot of money, and you probably change your major a number of times. You have a tone in your head that you're trying to make real, and it requires a lot of time and patience and money.
I've never met a guitar player who's completely, 100 percent satisfied, you're always tweaking something or trying a new pedal, or a new pickup, or something. Part of the reason I write on practice amps is that I don't want to rely just on tone. The music has to come across. If you have this awesome eargasm-inducing tone, that can go a long way for a band that maybe doesn't have great songs. I love great tone, but I need songs first, so a little 50 dollar, 10 watt solid state practice amp is what I've written probably 90 percent of every YOB record on. Sure, maybe I'll put my pedal board in front of it, dial in a clean tone with that guy, but it's not the Tone of the Gods. When I have good ideas, when I'm just sitting in my bedroom just losing it to what I'm writing, then I know it's good enough to bring to practice. Travis and Aaron and I will go through it with our 'real' gear then, and that's how I've always done it. I can write with my rig gear, but sometimes good gear can lie.
You stopped taking anti-depressants awhile ago, has that been positive for you in the time since?
I go back and forth whether I should be back on them or not. It's different for everybody, and I think especially in the year 2015 lots have some kind of depression, whether it be having some bad luck, some problems, plus the atrocities that happen in the world. I'll berate myself sometimes and think "It must be pretty nice to have a cushy life and be depressed, I have food, I have a roof over my head, I'm not dodging bombs", and that's when clinical depression becomes so unruly, like an 800 pound gorilla swinging Samsonite around. You can't reason with it, and it doesn't make sense. I'm very happy for people who don't have that going on inside them, because things can get better even though there's the usual bumps in the road. For me, no matter what the situation is, happy or sad, it just takes over and wreaks havoc on me. It doesn't matter what's happening on the outside. I really have learned just to not dwell on it, to throw it into the music, and work hard on being a good dad and a good person. I'm trying to stay healthy, exercise and workout, stay active in the community and go to shows, and just not let it be a deciding factor in anything anymore. Some days, that's much harder to do than others.
You've been working on new VHOL, can you talk about how the album is coming along, and how it was written?
John Cobbett is a very prolific songwriter. He sits in his room, in front of his computer, and writes and writes and writes. When he's doing this, he's also writing the bass lines, and using a drum program to construct all the drums for every single movement. So when he presents it to Sigrid, Aesop, and myself, he'll say "This is what I've been working on", and it'll have super nice sounding sampled drums on it, wicked bass lines, and it's just incredible. And that becomes our springboard. Because of our distance, me from them, they'll have the demos, and they'll get a rehearsal space and hammer it all out. We'll all have things we want to throw into it, and we just go from there. But a lot of times I'll show, and it's all already written, and my input will be more towards how the vocals might go in one part or something. John is really the mastermind behind all that. I write 90 percent of the lyrics, he might write some.
One of the most fun parts for me working with them, other than being around insanely talented people that rock my world, is that I'll have these harmonies I'll want to do or something, and John and Sigrid are both classically trained musicians, so they'll pull out a keyboard and figure out different things to do with it. So the things that we build with it are amazing. The things John comes up with are so melodically sound, it's a challenge to keep up with it. He'll write these crazy melodies and counterpoint them with stuff that's just very sound theory wise. Sigrid teaches classical piano at USF, so she is a truly classically trained musician. She and John communicate in sheet music, literally. They'll be sitting around reading each others sheet music that they wrote, and then John will come up with some insane idea. He's brilliant. They all are. John has the drum parts written as a starting point, he has a good sense of rhythm and for how things move in a song, and Aesop will come in and they'll work with each others ideas until they've got it done.
I've probably been holding them up since YOB has been so busy, but we've been having a lot of fun, and it definitely all comes together. We're all on the same page as far as having a high quality standard. It's going to be something that might be familiar yet not at the same time, lots of curveballs, but John is able to make those curveballs seem classic. We're mixing it right now, so hopefully it'll be out by June or July. John and Sigrid just had a baby, so we won't tour that much, but we came together for the music anyway, so it's all been worth it.