Photo by Frank Schmitt

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Heavy Metal Be-Bop is moving to its own home: There you can see the complete body of Hank Shteamer's fantastic interview series connecting heavy metal and jazz. His latest interview is with Gentry Densley of Southern Lord duo Eagle Twin. Below is a cruelly abridged version. Head to the full version to read about Branford Marsalis, Cecil Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, Densley's previous band Iceburn, and much much more. - C.L.

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Heavy Metal Be-Bop #5: Gentry Densley
Interview by Hank Shteamer
Abridged version

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Which came first for you, jazz or hardcore?

I started out playing hardcore, kind of in the pre–straight edge world, before things went too nuts with that stuff. We tried to distance ourselves from that pretty quickly. And I guess the philosophy was always about pushing yourself and progressing, or trying to push the music beyond yourself so you got better. It was almost a self-competition.

Then I started going to college and was studying electrical engineering and not really digging it too much. I started taking some music-theory classes and talking to the professors and realizing that I could get a degree in that pretty easily. I started checking out different things at that point, like the modal Miles stuff, and actually the local punk record-store guy—Brad Collins at Raunch Records—told me I should pick up Mahavishnu Orchestra. I think the first one was Birds of Fire, and that of course led to all sorts of things.

Was there a moment, and maybe this would have been inspired by Mahavishnu, where you realized you could do both these things, hardcore and improvised music, simultaneously?

Yeah, it probably just happened with learning some Miles and playing it at practice with distortion, and I'm like, "Oh, 'Milestones' could be a heavy riff if you play it down on the E string through your half-stack". I guess there was that moment where I saw the parallels in the sound and the energy at least, maybe even the philosophy behind it, the vibe. Because jazz was kind of punk in its own way, more than punk was. And I was learning about all the musicians and their crazy lives.

Who were some of the jazz musicians that struck you as particularly punk?

Well, I was thinking way back, like Monk and Bud Powell and Charlie Parker and Miles, like reading the Miles Davis autobiography. And Monk was definitely a pretty amazing, eclectic personality, so people like that stuck with me. They seemed more genuinely real and awesome than a lot of the hardcore bands or punk bands that I had been totally into up until that point.

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Mahavishnu Orchestra
"On the Way Home to Earth"

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How did you get into free jazz and start incorporating it into your music?

It seems natural because growing up with hardcore, I wasn't grounded in jazz as a traditional thing, so anything seemed possible. And when I started hearing some of the freer stuff, I was like, “This is badass." It's way more punk than any hardcore; it has a purpose behind the freeness and the velocity. And it has that same kind of energy that a lot of the early hardcore stuff did. One of my first favorite hardcore bands was Die Kreuzen, that kind of speedy, caustic hardcore. His voice is so guttural, and I loved the guttural, screaming sax.

Coltrane is a little gateway, and then you hear Interstellar Space with the freer drumming of Rashied Ali and you start wanting to search out more of that stuff. Luckily, I had good record stores and people telling me about stuff. I was in L.A. for a while, and the Alligator Lounge had New Music Mondays that Nels Cline ran, and he'd always have amazing free players, so it just evolved from there. To me, it seemed logical to push the music in that way. I was way more into the nontraditional kinds of structures, and the next logical step is totally intuitive playing.

You were talking about zeroing in on certain sounds you achieved when improvising and trying to repeat them. That reminds me a bit of Anthony Braxton's ideas about language music, where he catalogues various types of sounds. Did you get some of those ideas from Braxton?

Probably. I was immersed in that and I was pretty into martial-arts movies and stuff, the physicality of the instrument. That's a huge part of Eagle Twin and our current thing: using riffs as a language. With metal, there's certain notes you can use, and it becomes a language. And you use certain cadences, and with me not having a bass player to line up with, you can totally exaggerate those things and accentuate, and take the riff where you want it to go. It becomes this unconscious thing, where you're improvising in a style, almost.

As far as what you were saying before about improvising in a style, I really like that about Eagle Twin. It's like taking the jazz or improv potential in Sabbath and really amplifying it. As you said, with only two people, you can make it a lot more elastic.

For sure, and live is where it really works. It may piss people off, but we'll start in the middle of a song and move it around backwards, or throw in a total other piece, or a little part where it fits logically tempo-wise, key-wise. Me and the drummer always have to keep on our toes, and that's really fun, so we can shape a little story and take things totally different directions every night. I can even grab some riffs with this one pedal that I have and get some bass tone happening and just go nuts if I want. I really enjoy the freedom of it. We've ended up playing quite a lot of live stuff in the past couple years, touring with Sunn O))) and on our own, so it's really had the chance to come into its own.

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Does the drummer in Eagle Twin have a jazz or improv background as well?

No, not at all (laughs). I always turn him on to stuff, and he loves Elvin Jones, but he's not from that school. He's this little tree trunk of a human being with massive forearms, just crushing. He's the hardest hitter I've ever known in my life, and a great drummer. Actually we started playing together in '97—I had a solo project, Furious Fire, that was definitely on the Caspar Brötzmann/Hendrix kind of trip—a power trio. Because Iceburn was going more into the free stuff, and with that, it was more riff-based structures. I've always dabbled on both sides there.

Do you think that Eagle Twin will be the kind of project that, as with Iceburn, you're going to want to gradually abstract it, or do you think you're going to want to keep it grounded more?

No, I think for me, it has the elements of everything I like. For the past few years, it's pretty much felt like the perfect vehicle, and all my other projects have dropped away. Ascend brought some different challenges and was interesting. You're definitely considering who you're playing with, and Ascend brought a whole different world and ultimately influenced Eagle Twin a lot, just trying to merge the world of Sunn O))) and the drone with our other tendencies. It was a definite challenge, but I thought it was a fun as hell and turned out great. We have a bunch more Ascend we recorded that hasn't quite come into fruition; I don't know if it will or not.

I've heard Greg Anderson talk a little bit about jazz, and I know the trombonist Julian Priester was on Monoliths and Dimensions. What is his interest in that type of music? Have you guys shared that for a while?

Yeah, definitely. He was way into the Headhunters and Herbie, and Miles and stuff, and we all looked for those records when we were shopping around. He has tons of records, and he's definitely a collector of jazz and all those things. He's turned me on to different things, like Bill Connors and stuff, like "You gotta get this record". He's a huge jazz fan, and people would always say, "You're the metal guy who wears jazz T-shirts", because he always had Coltrane or Miles on his shirt.

For him, it didn't seem to seep into his playing as much, but when we did Ascend, he definitely wanted it to go that direction a little more. And maybe a week after we recorded Ascend is when they started the last Sunn O))) record, and they had Eyvind Kang do a lot of the arrangements on that one. They were definitely drawing from Seattle's pool of cool musicians, all those trombone players—Steve Moore plays tpretty amazingly, and Stuart Dempster from the Deep Listening Band and Julian Priester. And Greg was way into Alice Coltrane more than me; I came to her later. So yeah, those guys were huge music-philes and could tell you tons of things. I think they finally found a way to bring some of those things into the Sunn O))).

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Was Greg Ginn an influence on your playing?

Oh, for sure. That was a big early Iceburn influence. I was huge into Flag. I don't know if we tried to emulate too much, but I definitely got into Gone and some of his other, more improvised things. Still for me, side B of My War is the most amazing music ever. And I was huge into Bl'ast as well, who were taking directly from that period of Black Flag and extending it in their own little ways. I'm sure it all inspired me to get the Dan Armstrong, that I had for many years—the see-through guitar. I had the same guitar as Greg Ginn. His style was pretty mindblowing to me. I remember trying to wrap my head around some of his solo ideas, how he could make them sound so out. I was like, "He must know what he's doing". He would've had to occasionally hit a right note if he was just fucking around. It always boggled my mind how he could do that.

Were you interested in traditional jazz guitar, like Wes Montgomery and things like that?

I definitely was influenced by Wes Montgomery, just in terms of a way to develop your solos, with single notes and then octaves, then chords. And the idea of developing a solo or an arc of something always stuck with me. Because a lot of improvisers or jazz guitarists don't necessarily have that development. People like Tal Farlow had some techniques I thought were cool. I was always into Django, just because he's badass. There's definitely nonfusion, more jazz-oriented guitarists that I checked out.

Do you make a living from music?

No, I'm a librarian in the county jail, so I give books out. It's a flexible enough thing that I can tour when I want and take off time when I want. It's with Salt Lake County, and actually, a lot of people know me from the jail. It's a really cool gig. It lets me be around lots of books, and that's always awesome. And on the side, the drummer from Eagle Twin and I make speaker cabinets, and that's been blowing up a lot lately a little more: Hex Cabs. We just take orders from people and build them in our free time. It's something we both love. I used to buy amps like crazy and take them apart or sell them, but now, we're building them, so I haven't bought any for a while. I just build them, and they're much better. It's much better when you build your own weapons.

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