Interview & Album Stream: Dimesland
Metal can be scary—It can conjure the most depraved and sick images with its words and music, though I admit to being desensitized to much of that these days. When a band causes a genuinely unsettling feeling in me, it’s something special. I’m pretty awful at deciphering lyrics without liner notes by my side, so the words that artists attempt to convey fly over my head more often than I’d like. I never need a lyric sheet for a great riff or melody to induce a shiver up my spine though.
Psychogenic Atrophy by Oakland’s Dimesland is the sonic nightmare of thrash. They’re a band that blends the instrumental ability of the nerdiest tech-bands around with the prog/jazz guitar stabs of Dimension Hatross-era Voivod. Perhaps the brief twin-solo at the 1:22 mark of “Bound in Stone” summarizes the band best: compact and efficient, boiling-hot in its instrumental rage, technical without losing musical context. Guitarist Drew Cook, drummer Harley Burkhart and bassist/vocalist Greg Brace also share time in Wild Hunt, a proggier outfit than Dimesland. Where Wild Hunt offers time for tracks to make their point, Dimesland’s moves and actions are borderline impatient, throwing new riffs practically every few seconds. Though both bands utilize ethereal soundscapes in their tracks, Wild Hunt moves at a more lethargic pace than Dimesland, whose tempo changes are nigh unpredictable.
Moments of comfort are rare on Psychogenic Atrophy. “Are They Cannibals?,” a deceptively welcoming opener, reels the listener in with its busy and ear-catching riffage, but the track is only a hint of the madness contained within. Just when “Xenolith” calms down to an ambient pause, the band quickly ascends into a thrashy freakout. “Malfunctioning Gears” never allows its riffs to resolve, letting them decay into cascaded cacophonies of noise. These songs drive me up the damn wall and I can’t get enough of it. The organic sound courtesy of Justin Weis somehow adds to the schizophrenic insanity at hand. This is home-brewed chaos right here.
I met with Burkhart and guitarist Nolan Cook at the latter’s Oakland home to chat about the album, which drops today. Check out the interview below. We’ve also got a full stream of Psychogenic Atrophy, ready to melt brains en masse.
Before now, I always characterized Dimesland to my friends as "brain-melt metal." I had no idea that the title would be so on-point. Psychogenic Atrophy, literal mental rotting.
Nolan: Well yeah, or possibly the mind decaying from lack of use or misuse, or from having been besieged from within or by external forces. It’s fun to create scenarios or stories of people who are embroiled in some type of mental distress or failure. Basically instead of railing against oppressive forces in the world, I like to imagine how they affect people, through invented characters. With the title, we were actually going to use the title of one of the tunes, "Malfunctioning Gears,” with the gears being those of somebody's mind. I just thought that was a little too literal and Psychogenic Atrophy is in the lyrics of one of the other tunes, “Bound in Stone.” We figured that it was a more elegant way of summarizing it.
Harley: And then the lyrics for "Dying Foretold" are by Drew [Cook, guitarist], and take a slightly different direction. It’s almost like a horror movie or something, with someone being chased and hunted.
N: Those lyrics fit the general theme too though, the paranoia of being stalked by a mysterious entity, with some hallucinatory stuff in there too.
It's unfortunate that Drew couldn't be here to elaborate.
N: Drew asked me to tell you that he wanted to be here, but he had to go to his telekinesis lesson. Personally, I don't believe it. I think he's still sneaking around taking helicopter lessons. He just doesn't want anybody to know.
H: That's kind of scary, but what's more scary-
N: Telekinesis lessons or helicopter lessons? I'm not even sure what a helicopter lesson is anyway. Is he flying them?
Well, what purpose would Drew have to fly a helicopter or be telekinetic?
H: Well, he always loses the parking space near his house when he comes to practice. It's easier to take a helicopter to practice instead.
N: I thought you were going to say that he uses his telekinesis to move cars out of the way so he can park.
H: Maybe it's a telecopter.
You guys started recording the album in December 2012, and finished sometime in early 2014. Why did the recording process take so long?
N: The reason for that was money. We paid for the whole thing, I don't know any other way really. I've played on stuff that's on major labels but I never really touched that part of the business. As far as doing our own stuff, we've always taken the attitude of... kind of like Hazzard's Cure said in your interview [http://www.invisibleoranges.com/2014/10/interview-hazzards-cure/], we didn't want to wait around for somebody to do something for us. As far as producing the thing, we simply waited until we could afford however many days we needed at Trakworx to record a given portion of the album; we did it in stages with time in between. That was a financial necessity.
Since the process was so long, did you ever want to go back and edit certain things after they were already recorded?
N: No, the thing is that we didn't begin to record until almost everything was written and developed. We weren't leaving anything to chance to be changed in the studio. Doing that can get expensive. I kind of started thinking about that when I watched the director's commentary to one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films.
H: The guy who made Delicatessen, City of Lost Children.
I can't say that I'm familiar with those movies.
N: Say what? He's a French director and an imagination machine. I was watching that movie with his commentary and he did the same kind of thing, though on a much larger scale. He storyboards the fuck out of his movies until he knows every frame. When it comes time to start production, there is no time or money wasted. This was almost like a micro-cosmic version of that, just have the whole thing thought out. Maybe there's a thing or two that got manipulated or ideas that popped up, but no big ideas were delayed to the last minute. That made each session go faster and smoother, there was no friction and no one was confused. It was very streamlined.
Somehow, we also managed to hit almost the exact amount of time that we needed. We tried to imagine how many hours each instrument would take to track- as you've heard, all eight tunes are full of information so it was something an undertaking. Somehow, every time we picked just the right amount of time to book. We'd always finish without hurry before the cut-off time for that day. For the drums, we actually overbooked the amount of time that we needed and Justin Weis was cool enough to not hold us to that. That guy's the best, not only at what he does technically but he was quick to come to an understanding of what we were after. He's able to contribute to the ideas, maybe not to the point of a production credit, but he does more than just turning knobs. He got to the bottom of aesthetic. He's just a very intuitive and smart guy. He provides a relaxed atmosphere; it was just a joy working with him again.
So were the soundscapes ready to go by the time you hit the studio then?
N: As for the in-between-song stuff, we decided before we started that the record would flow and be continuous. We had to build those textures.
H: A lot of that stuff was me just sitting up late at night at my pad, twisting sounds over and over again. We'd be doing things like sampling the actual playing, the takes with Justin or if I couldn't find the right tone that I wanted, I'd take some guitar feedback or something and have it reverberate everywhere. If it didn't have the right sound, I'd go back to some old practice recording or demos and twist that up to the point where you don't know what it was originally.
N: Yeah, lot of those abstract sounds were at one time just recordings of us playing the actual tune, and then were mutated into something else entirely.
H: There's some other stuff too. I took out the pan from my toaster and poured some water from the faucet onto it really slowly and stuck a stereo recorder underneath it. It was going blub-blub-blub-blub and then I would move the pan around and record it. It wasn't very loud, but then I'd stick it in the computer and put it through an amp simulator plugin like GuitarRig or something and add delay and panning, and then it would finally sound like a wooden dock falling into the ocean or something.
Nolan, I have a distinct memory of when I first saw you and Drew play together. You two had this really strange vocabulary that you exchanged when describing the songs and their parts. I remember "The Viking" and "The Puzzle" among others.
N: That came from the practice space when we were learning the songs. We had to name sections of songs so that we could refer to them quickly and easily. And Justin would pick up on these descriptors immediately, too.
H: "The Viking" was a riff from an old song from before I joined the band. It was extracted from that song and put into "Are They Cannibals?"
Nolan, barring the Creepmoon EP, this the first metal release that you've been involved with in a long time.
N: I don't know... what is metal anyway? I kind of had a whole separate band life when I was on the East Coast. Some of those groups were kind of metally, others were just really heavy, strange rock. I've been doing that all along. Occasionally, we'd even have cassette releases too. One of the things we made back there and then ended up being reviewed by Maximum Rock 'n Roll and Option and zines like that. Let's just say that this new record is definitely my favorite thing that I've done thus far. This group has great chemistry, and it's what me and Drew have been looking for for some time. This group of people that we put together five or six years ago is it.
Well wait, if the band as it exists has been around for five or six years, how old are these songs exactly?
N: Some of them have been around for a while. When you write material like this, it takes a while to get it under your belt as a group. Learning it is one thing, but becoming comfortable enough to inject your own personality into what you're playing takes time. We had to gel as a quartet.
H: The songs are so dense that I never get bored of this stuff, but the only thing is that I wish I could hear these songs more objectively. I just can't though, we have to practice this shit a lot to get it down. It's going to take some time to hear them differently. I know them as this part, that part, this part... I'm just in a completely different world than the normal listener.
N: You can't focus on something so thoroughly, go through so many repetitions of it, and wind up with any kind of objectivity toward it. That's just gone, particularly once you've recorded it. Those songs continue to evolve, there are always little changes happening and they're sort of like living things. The more we play them, the more comfortable we get, the more we can massage things and let them mutate.
H: It's crazy how an old song like "Trophy Wives Under the Influence" which is from Creepmoon... we're still doing different shit at practice. It's still evolving and still growing, which is pretty amazing. It's like a part of my body now or something [laughs]. We're not going to take too much time with those songs because we still have new material, but as we're playing them, why not let them evolve?
N: A lot of it just happens naturally. "I played this section eight hundred thousand times, today I'm going to play it differently." If I do something different and I like it, that's the new part. It's fun anyway, who wants to play it the same way if you have to play it so often? At some point we tire of following the original formula. Why not make new formulas? That’s why we try to make stuff that we haven't heard before, what's the point of doing stuff that you've already heard? There are certainly two sides to that coin, and maybe we suffer for it- it's harder to get across to people who are dug in and accustomed to this or that, when you're drawing outside the lines. Some of my favorite groups are those who pushed against the parameters of their sub-genre or whatever and that's what we're trying to do in a natural way, without forcing the issue.
How often have you written something and then realized that it was already done before?
N: That’ll always happen now and then, anyone who writes music can attest to that. I might be fooling around and have an idea, only to realize, "Oh, this is basically that thing from that Sabbath song.” I'm not going to use that, there's no point. I want to be entertained too. Doing stuff that maybe I haven't heard before makes it interesting art to me. It's not like we're against simple songs, we love all kinds of stuff, but it's just not where we tend go when we write.
Harley, as the drummer you have a lot more leniency in that area though. It's common and sometimes even encouraged for drummers to lift classic beats, patterns and fills from other songs.
H: Part of that is because I'm coming from a very, almost traditional, background. I took drum lessons when I was ten and had to learn stuff like "Proud Mary" and "Honky Tonk Woman" and shit, even though I didn't want to. So I had the regular kind of beats down, especially triplet kinds of things, but with Dimesland I've been trying to use some of the accents that I hear that come from Nolan and Drew's playing, and lately especially the lines that Greg [Brace, bassist] plays. These things are making me think of something completely different which is great. It's like now there's a loop in my head that came from what those guys played that I never would have thought of. I need to have some of these little things, like a guitar stab here or a buzz or a bap-bap-bap and there it is! I'd just model something around that, replace the kick with a snare instead. That stuff helps me get out of that rigid, regular rock beat territory. Sometimes that stuff's good too though. Sometimes those regular rock and metal beats work well because the other guys are doing something so weird that you need some of that normal stuff to help ground it. But either way I find that every part has a certain weight to it, and that’s what helps me decide what the downbeat or upbeat should be. That makes me hear Nolan and Drew's riffs differently, and then the parts that I come up with turn out way different.
N: Sometimes if he hears something different from the way I intended it, I'll try thinking of it from that perspective and gain an idea from that!
H: Right there is why these older songs are forever changing, because of shit like that.
N: Even when the songs are in the middle of being created, that stuff will happen. Maybe we've written an arrangement but it's loose, a first draft. Then I'll get ideas from Harley or Greg's playing. Even though me and Drew are the principal songwriters, everybody has a hand in how this material ends up sounding.
H: It's like I was saying before about not being able to look at these songs objectively, I know all their ins and outs now. It's in my veins you know? People and audiences are like, "What the fuck was that?" and that's what I thought when I heard the first demo that these guys gave me with Bil Bowman playing drums. I was like, "Oh my god, I'm gonna try out for this band but I don't know how to approach this," but then I did it and it worked out and then I realized, "Man, I can do anything I want really." If you just take some time with it, it's not that fuckin' weird. I love that, and now it has extended to all the projects I'm involved with... Dimesland has opened a door to understanding music differently.
N: I sort of think of this band as a big experiment. It's kind of cool to think of a band like that, like something you’re constantly at work on in a laboratory, whilst wearing plaid pants and safety goggles.
I have to ask, what on earth is up with the album art?
N: The front cover? I found it when a friend of mine, a Swiss gal, posted some work by a Swiss artist named Chantal Michel. I saw the photo in question and I instantly loved it, I couldn't stop looking at it. I thought, "Man, that would be a great album cover," but I never thought I could get permission to use it. So I told my friend and she was kind enough to act as an intermediary for me, she found Ms. Michel, who was amenable to us using the photo for the album cover, so I licensed it for single-use. It's eye-catching, ain't it? It's kind of the antithesis to a lot of your metal covers. And it's a jarring way to portray the idea of dissonance emanating from the dark addresses of the psyche. I like to think of Dimesland as non-standard fare, so why shouldn't our visuals follow the same path? I think it's one of those covers that if you saw it in a record store, you'd have to do a double-take.
Psychogenic Atrophy is available on iTunes today. Follow Dimseland on Facebook.