Interview: Damian Master (A Pregnant Light)
When we last spoke with A Pregnant Light mainman Damian Master, he was in the middle of a string of releases for the project, the best of which was the damn near perfect Domination Harmony. As a collection of three ridiculously catchy songs, the EP stood tall amongst releases more than twice its length in a year packed with magnificent tunes. As a statement for the band, however, Domination Harmony meant much more. It was a turning point for APL and Damian himself. It saw him drop the Deathless Maranatha pseudonym and embrace his real identity. Another EP, a single and a killer compilation later, and Master is finally ready to unveil A Pregnant Light's first full-length album, My Game Doesn't Have a Name. As the title suggests, it's the most personal of APL's releases thus far, reaching an intimacy Master has been working towards since last year. It's an album rich with imagery, almost all of which is real, explicit and steadfastly honest. Master speaks in metaphor only when words fail him, and they rarely do, as you'll see in this interview about the making of the album.
In the years since The Feast of Clipped Wings, A Pregnant Light has become a little less mysterious with each release. The camera lens has sharpened, so to speak. What has prompted your moving from the raw, distanced atmosphere of those earlier recordings to the more personal, intimate quality starting with Domination Harmony to the two new songs on Before I Came, leading to the "Purple Pain" single and now My Game Doesn't Have a Name? Those last two even feature photos of you as their cover art instead of the movie stills that defined your previous work.
I desire to be transparent. That doesn't mean there isn't some work to be done by the listener in digesting the music. There is nothing worse than being embarrassed for someone. It's pretty obvious throughout APL's trajectory that I do what I want; I'm steadfast in what I believe in. I say humbly, I believe in myself. Not in wild, boisterous way, but in a way makes me believe that I shouldn't adhere to the program set by others just so they can digest what I do more easily. If you listen to the music and read the lyrics, the image is clear. I'm singing about my life. It seems outrageous to put anything else on the cover.
Regarding the sound quality of your recordings themselves, they have be steadily increasing in clarity, most recently in the last year from the Domination Harmony/Stars Will Fall sequence to where it is now on My Games Doesn't Have a Name. Did you use different recording techniques for the full-length? For example, the drum sound has a much more "studio" quality than your previous work. It seems like you really went all out in terms of the scope of overall production and mastering. What were some lessons you learned from recording so many shorter releases before doing an album?
Yeah, I went into an actual studio for this release, and enlisted the help of my friends Jake and Tim to play drums and bass respectively. I wanted total execution of vision and clarity. I think when people talk about "atmosphere" that means there is a haze of that associated with lo-fi recordings. It's easy to hide under fizz and reverb. I wanted to make something clear, and stark. This is the most immediate, honest and naked APL recording to date. So, I had my friend Joel help me record, and used some friends to execute the instruments I'm not as competent on. They followed my roadmap but they really added some flourishes all their own. I'm so proud of them. Having done a dozen or something shorter releases you learn that people have short attention spans, so if you're going to give them something, it needs to be worthwhile. With a demo or EP, you can't have any weak links. The temptation to make an album has been there for a long time but I wanted to make something that was stellar front to back. Every riff, every lyric is meaningful. I actually cut over 20 minutes of music and one complete song from the record. Only the best survives.
What was the general timeline for recording My Game Doesn't Have a Name? Were you always writing for the album in between your singles and EPs?
I actually wrote and recorded all the guitar May through September of 2013, so “Ringfinger,” “Lilajugend,” “Purple Pain” and “Ultraviolet” were actually written and recorded long after the album was. So, the timeline is skewed. I'm always writing. Always. One thing I've learned the hard way is the importance of editing. In my case, self-editing, since I don't really have any producers or anything around. I wrote the LP across five months last year. Each song took a couple of weeks. There are like five or six guitar tracks on every song. Lots of parts. My goal was to have the record out last year, but I had 13-hour reconstructive spinal surgery last November and that derailed me for six months. The prospect of finishing this record seemed way too large and terrifying. Not to mention, I had some major complications and died on the table briefly. I had a lot to work through. When I wrote for the record, I didn't write anything else. I just focused on making a coherent grouping of songs that flowed and have movement as a whole piece. Not just an extended demo. The drums, bass, and vocals were recorded this summer after I had already written four new songs and sent them to press. The record stands on its own as a definitive statement to my career thus far. It's the most cohesive work I've done to date.
You haven't been shy about your love for melody, and your ear for it on this album is stronger than it's ever been. When composting a song like "Fresh Flower Offering (Purple Night)" where that sliding riff hits first and the lead/hook follows, do you compose the chord progression first and pattern the lead after it, or is it not as straightforward as that?
I can't say that there is an order to the process. Sometimes it's just an idea in my mind. An idea of how a song should feel, and I play until I capture it. Sometimes I hear the riff or melody in my mind and I have to work with my hands to make it happen. I think the band that's closest to the guitar-playing and structure of APL is probably The Smiths. Certainly a huge (understatement) influence. The songs aren't just chords then melody over the top. There is a lot of interplay. Of course, I'm nowhere near as good at it as Johnny Marr. Someday maybe. Although, he was doing better work than I am when he was my age, so the light dims slightly now....
Traveling further down the subject of riffs, you mentioned you composed all the guitars for this album from May to September 2013. Does this mean all guitars on the album were written for the album? Or do you have a stockpile of riff tapes you add to when you write something and pull from them as you find places? Jamie from Midnight was quoted in a recent Decibel feature that he "wakes up and writes a riff during his morning leak." Is yours a similar process, where you're always thinking of new melodies?
At any given point, I'm writing music for Aksumite, Known Abuser, All Wave, Choker, Secret Creation, Purple Light, Ornamental Headpiece, Quincunx, Vestal Virgin, Bodystocking, Diamond Mare, etc. There's actually more. What I do with my day is manage the label and make music. As with anything you do a lot of, you hopefully find a workflow that improves productivity. Because I'm dealing with an intangible like "creativity" rather than if I built furniture for example, I find myself one day, inspired for Aksumite, one day for Purple Light, one day for APL. It's very challenging and draining and frustrating, because work is nothing unless you have a finished product. I have so many half-finished things. So, this last year has been focusing on narrowing down and excluding and working on one thing at a time, until finished. For that period of time, I only worked on APL. I wrote and recorded so many parts and even some songs not included on the record. I had a lot of riffs to choose from because I had some riffs I'd written that were set aside as "album riffs" rather than stuff that would be good on a demo. I wanted the album to have a cohesive feeling in the music. I didn't want a full-length style demo. Like, my last 7". It's a single for a reason. The two songs have nothing to do with each other. Just two good songs. I wanted the record to be a solid unit, with each song acting as a chapter in a story. I think if you read the lyrics from the start to finish of the record, you will probably know more about me than people that I've personally known for years. I'm always recording melodies and riff ideas. I know Demonaz said one time he thinks of a melody when he's out walking around and then if it sticks in his head, that means it's meant to be. Some of my best stuff has been found on weird tapes, or by leaving myself a voicemail or something. It makes the process challenging sometimes. "My Days In Nights and You" was written straight through in a moment of inspiration. "Circle of Crying Women" was put together from stuff almost 10 years old. That bouncy riff at 2:01 has been kicking around for as long as I can remember. It just needed to find a home. It finally did.
You've been steadily incorporating clean vocals in A Pregnant Light since Domination Harmony, but My Game Doesn't Have a Name uses them prominently in a few songs. The most notable being later in the album on the bridges for "My Days and Nights In You," "Fresh Flower Offering (Purple Night)" and "Circle of Crying Women" and in the intro to "You Cut Me From a Magazine I Didn't Know That I Was In." The sequencing in this case is fascinating, choosing to deploy clean vocals—something you've been slowly adding to APL's sound—in the latter half of the album.
Excellent observation, and it's totally that way on purpose. I wanted the album, since I was doing an LP to have two distinctive sides. Two feelings, but have them be cohesive. I think APL, regardless of how flowery and pretty it can be at times, it's very masculine. So, I wanted to come out swinging and lighten up and take people somewhere emotionally powerful, and then leave them with a sense of completion and hope. APL is very hopeful music, in a strange way. It's not positive, but it always hopes for better days. APL remembers the moments that matter most, and I think the sequence leads the listener to lie down in bed. The release of the last song is totally blissful. It's forceful but peaceful.
Contrary to the tight composition and performances on the songs, many of the lyrics exhibit a youthful recklessness about facing death head-on. "Unreachable Arc" and "Endless // Infinite // Eternal" both reference driving at night/driving fast. "Circle of Crying Women" specifically reflects on the events after you are gone. You adopted the mantra "Too Tough to Die" after your back surgery and the complications surrounding it, nearly dying on the operating table. I can imagine that experience left an impact that will last the rest of your life. Was this your way of dealing with something so traumatic?
There are people on this planet who say they don't care if they die. Most of them are lying. I'm not suicidal, and I believe this life is not the end. I'll work and keep going as long as I can, or want to. Then, it's over. Everything in my lyrics is true. There is very little metaphor on the record. The things that sound like metaphor, for the most part are real. They're actual things or events. I'm not a poet, and I'm so disgusted by all these piss-poor lyrics and attempts by people, especially metal people, to make this convoluted, bloated, verbose lyrics. I'm just going to sing about what I know. About what happened to me. Literally. I'm not going to cloak it in a metaphor that can be dissected, if I mention a sprig of lavender, that's a real thing. That really happened. I have that sprig, still. I wouldn't trade it for anything. When I talk about hitting someone, that's something I did. Like, in "Circle" even though the last half is conjecture about what will happen after I die, the first part is very true. People don't like me. I try to play nice with people, but there are people that just don't like me.
People can think I'm a brash asshole, and maybe five years ago, I was louder about it, now I'm just shaking my damn head at everyone. Let me be very clear—music is not a way for me to deal with personal demons. It's not a way by which I process life experience. It's a thing that I do. That's why I wanted to strip away as many masking elements as possible. When I say I'm too tough to die, I am too tough to die, until I die. Then, it's over. It doesn't matter. It's a lifestyle. I am separating myself from everyone. I don't want to be spoken of in the same breath as people I find to be lame. And we all know, no one is actually too tough to die—but I'm saying until I go down, I'm up.
We've discussed the lyrical thread to the album and you mentioned a song like "Purple Light" is the sort of music you like to listen to. That final song seems to be a summation of sorts for the album as a whole. My Game Doesn't Have a Name hints at religious themes throughout, but this last spoken word track makes those themes explicit, outlined in full paragraph form in the liner notes. References to the "the gift of holy knowledge" and mentions of heaven appear numerous times. You also end your credits with "Highest thanks to God." Is this track a declaration of your faith? How did your near death experience during surgery impact your faith?
I'll be very clear; my faith is my faith and I've had it since I was a child, and my near-death, or truly, my actual death (I was revived, obviously!) experience had no bearing on my faith. In fact, it merely strengthened what I already know. If you look at the very first APL to now, the themes of love, passion and religion are present. They always have and will be. To me, it's like the beam on a MagLite getting focused. Musically and lyrically. Everything on this record had to be clear. A straight, strong, bright beam of light. I don't worship Satan. I don't advocate a partnership with the Devil. I think that evil is a destructive force. Evil and darkness are two very separate things. They're often confused. Please understand; I have a darkness that I cannot shake. Death is my reward. I will be free of the darkness of this life. I don't seek out the dark. I don't want to be evil. I'm not evil. I'm good. I'm on the side of the good guys; but don't for one single second think that I can be bulldozed into anything. I will stand tall and fight strong. I will be pissed off and angry until the day I die. My love is for God. Wholly. My utter contempt belongs to this garbage chute of a fucking ruined planet and every worthless, weakling, spineless asshole that breathes the same air as me.
You hired two studio musicians to record drums and bass, but the guitar tracks and recording itself are as complex as anything you have done in the past. Are you any closer to making A Pregnant Light a live act, or are the arrangements too demanding to be performed onstage?
Let's not use the word "hire" as that has connotations of payment... I asked two of my good friends, Tim, a bassist, and Jake, a drummer, if they could perform some parts that I had written for the album. They both ended up throwing in an extra 5% of their own flare, but really, I gave them skeletons and demos to work from. I felt that the guitar tracks were as good as I could be, and I'm very proud of them, so I didn't want to sully the record with mediocre bass and drum performance. I felt like that would have been the most egotistical. I asked a friend to help record as well, hence the increase in fidelity. While I think the songs are intricate, I look to The Smiths (always!), and Johnny Marr was doing what I do on a much more sophisticated level and playing live, so I think it's totally possible. The only reason APL hasn't performed live is hilariously simple: no one has ever asked. Therefore, there has been no need to enter into "problem solving mode" to figure out arrangements. Life is a complex, multifaceted, intricate dance of body, mind and spirit. These songs are just songs, and I can figure them out no problem. Life is hard, music is easy.