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Adam Smith is the guitarist and main composer in Deadsea, a band whose music defies any of the traditional subgenres of heavy metal. Smith lives through music as both a master of and a slave to the art. While in Ohio visiting family, I had the chance to sit down with him and pick his brain. Amongst stacks of vintage audio gear in his living room, he spoke to me about recording sessions, music philosophy, and the vital link between one's personal experiences and the artistic expressions that result from them. The chat ended with a spin of Alice Coltrane's Infinity and a discussion of the importance of the avant-garde in today's musical climate. Smith embodies everything that he wishes to see more of in metal. As such, he and the rest of Deadsea are a force to be reckoned with.
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Deadsea's sound can be both sinister and uplifting - sometimes simultaneously. Is there an underlying philosophy behind that mix?
Absolutely. I like things to be multi-dimensional, so it's really about a balance for me. Sometimes I look at our arrangements as a landscape. Songs come, and I hear them, and I see them. It's strange, especially in the more sinister aspects, because in the songs with lyrics, those lyrics generally come first and the music will score them like a film.
That's interesting. A lot of bands choose to do it the other way around.
Yeah, it's mostly done around the guitar riffs and the drum beats. That stuff's cool, but I don't make music that way. It's very conceptual and thematic for me. The music isn't something that I own, you know? It comes through me, and this is what needs to happen. So if it needs to have a moment where it isn't dark, then that's going to happen.
The music is very much a socio-demographic thing, and I don't expect for a lot of people to "get" what Deadsea is, although it's not intended to be an information overload. That being said, I have to be aware of each room we play in, and I'll plan out my set right before a show. When we're touring, sometimes we'll wait until we walk in and check it out, until we hear about what other bands are playing. I'll tell the guys, "Let’s rearrange some stuff, let's draw these listeners in". Because that's the goal. I hate bands that look at their shoes and shit like that.
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Most people who know about Deadsea know about you through either word of mouth or from going to your shows. It's genuine promotion from person to person, simply because they love the music. Do you like it this way, or would you prefer to be on a label that might end up shoving it down people's throats?
That's a good question. I'd say it's a 50/50 thing. I am grateful that no matter what, no matter our struggles, we still have people coming up to us after shows and emailing us. For how not known we are, it's really intense. I just love it when people come up to us, and they're so excited, you know: "Your music did this" or "it made me think about this". I mean, when we do some of the more intense numbers like "Alabaster Meadows" - it's a real requiem; it's long, and it's dark, and it doesn't end for a long time -when we get done with that song, man, there's a big release at the end. I've had people come up, and they're focused, and they tell me all these things about people passing away, or that they went out with their wife camping, and it was the only album they listened to, and it was beautiful. I wouldn't trade that for anything.
But at the same time, I'd love to share this music with a lot more people. A lot of labels have checked us out. But deep down. I think they don't know what to do with us. It isn't copycat music. A lot of stuff that's out there is just too much carbon copy. At some point, you just gotta write your own fuckin' music. The lowest common denominator is gonna make people interested; it's gonna satisfy. They're going to want to buy merch and do all the stuff that makes tangible sense. But where are the fuckin' classic bands? Where are your [new] Led Zeppelins and Black Sabbaths? Judas Priests? Those motherfuckers came on the scene and didn't sound like anybody else. They might've loved Elvis and the Beatles, but they didn't sound like them!
I hear a lot of people say, "I like this band because they sound like this other band". It's interesting sociology. With Deadsea, that might be something that's against us. We don't really consider ourselves anything except for… just a good band. We experiment. Yeah, the core of what we do is heavy metal, but I like freedom in music. A lot of labels might not want anything to do with that.
But that certainly won't stop you.
Absolutely not. As long as we can hold great relationships within the band, I think the best is yet to come.
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What's going on with the new record you recorded?
Its going to be two 20-minute songs. The title hasn't come to us yet, and it's been a slow process with a lot of technical problems. We recorded it originally out in this awesome studio way out in the mountains. I'm talkin' awesome. It was one of the best weeks for this band ever. We went out with our colleague Scott Robinson, who's been with the band doing live sound and helped us mix and record the last record. He and his wife got this place out in West Virginia, and we went out there and laid that record down. It was beautiful. When you get up in the morning, there's nothing but trees around you. When I'm cutting the guitar tracks, I'm outside. And then Jeremy's [Spears, drummer] in this garage that’s been converted, and I can hear him through the walls.
It was something I really wanted to do, because the music on this record is… I don't want to say elemental, and not pastoral, either, but there are some really pastoral sections. It's not all pretty, though. Some of it's really brutal. And some of it's really rockin'! There's some black metal in there, death metal, straight-up jazz fusion. It's what we do. It's all over the place. Very well-recorded, and I think it's going to be a very unique record.
So it will be out soon?
Well, there have been a bunch of problems, almost like a curse. Long story short, we ended up not being able to finish it at that place and had to move. We came here and had problems getting into a studio. At a certain point, I became frustrated and was almost ready to start over. But the guys didn't really want to do that, and that's okay. Now we're just waiting, and we have a really killer guest vocalist that's on the album. We're waiting for them to get done with their tracks, and then we just have to finish mixing it. Alex [Conley, bassist] does half the vocals on the album, and I do half. Jeremy does a lot more arranging with us. It won't be as straightforward of a record as the last one. It's honest music, and it's epic as fuck. The lyrics will have some more astral projection themes, which are a big part of my life, or they have been.
That's a good segue into my next question. What influences you musically?
Life. That goes back to your very first question about Deadsea being this sort of polymorph of things. You know, if I get up, and I'm looking at the sky, or if I'm sitting on my back porch at night in silence, there's music waiting there. It's about being open and allowing it to come through. In terms of the lyrics, they're more personal things. I haven't had them for awhile, but I once had a long series of astral projections - not under the influence of drugs or anything like that. It definitely changes your awareness about your subconscious and your conscious self. Why are you here, and all those billion-dollar questions. I do like the mysterious and the dark. I've lived in places and been in some pretty far-out environments with ghosts and just… evil presences. Not paranoia, but passing voids. That's where the name came from, really. And when it comes to lyrics, for me, they need to be totally honest - even if they're really far out.
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Tell me about the band's label, Chrome Leaf Records.
Well, that's Alex’ label that he started. He put a few things out before he put out Deadsea. That's really all him. Pretty much how it's been with Deadsea as a business, I guess, is that I'm the guy who takes care of all the recording and engineering and production side of things. I invest and take care of that. And then Alex is the guy who's Johnny-on-the-spot about knowing where to get the record, good pressing plants and things like that. It's a good relationship in that regard. I've put out some things, and I have a small label that I'm trying to build up called Backroads, but it's more jazz and avant-garde oriented. It's more tape-based and anti-digital. But yeah, Chrome Leaf is all Alex' thing.
What are your goals with this new record and with Deadsea in the next few years?
Those new goals are in motion. I'm pretty much taking back over the recording and engineering myself. I want to do more things, I want us to be more prolific. I mean, these last two projects have been cool, but the problem is there's no budget. It's about making that happen faster. I want to get the band to write more and get more things out. One of the things I'd like to do is a tape release on my label of all covers. And I really want to do a live record. I've worked really hard these last few years with the jazz stuff to reinvest in my studio more and get that ready so I don't have to take that step when we want to do a project. That'll do us favors. If we wait for a label at this point, it's just kind of silly. But I would love to work with a good label that would understand us. It would be great. I've toured in Europe as a jazz musician, but if Deadsea can get over there, it would be great. [Europeans] can feel American heritage in music even if they don't necessarily come from that. That's something that we like about European music.
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What would you like to see more of in metal?
More of or less of? (Laughs) It's hard for me to answer, because I'm not great with keeping up with things. Alex and Jeremy, they are more in the scene than I am. To be simple about it, I'd like to hear some more vocals - some singing again. And fewer copycats, because that's just a big letdown. All this talent, but apparently it takes too much time to do stuff yourself, I guess.
Or it's getting caught in the trap of trying to sound just like your influences instead of building off them.
Yeah, I think it's a human condition. We all take influences, but at a certain point you gotta take those ingredients and you gotta mix it. I mean just listen to Mercyful Fate, one of my favorites. A lot of their arrangements are just like, "What? What was THAT?" I want more of that. Bands shouldn't think so much, and they should spend some more time in isolation. Get your own sound, you know? Take a vacation. Don't take your iPod, don't take your computer, and go write some music. Who are you? Who the fuck are YOU?
It is important to have chops and to be marketable and all that, because that's what gets you heard, you know? But I love when I see a band and I walk out of there, and I'm not thinking about them anymore. I'm thinking about how it kicked my ass, or how stoked I am about it. I'm inspired by life, and I don't think metal has to be this hum-drum, stylistic thing. There's so much prejudice and bullshit attached to the style, as much as I love it. I'd just love for it to be less of a style and more of a music again. Do whatever tickles your fancy, but just write good fuckin' music. I mean, bands like Portal. Now there's a band that's being themselves, and it's almost like a middle finger. That's what I want from metal. That attitude. Here's lookin' at you, man! Standing behind that is more metal than what you're wearing or what band you're sounding like.
That's the fuck off attitude that the genre was founded on. It seems like that's been forgotten in a lot of ways.
Yeah. Sometimes I'm singing, sometimes I look like I'm gonna jump off the stage and stab you. That's the music working and allowing me to do that - it's a possession. I'm a vessel to that, and I let it come through. That's what music is about. It's not some catalog, or, you know, "I wish that band didn't sing", or "I wish that band didn't do death metal vocals". Who cares? Just fuckin' listen to the shit, and if more bands did their own thing, we wouldn't have to wade through these parameters. Metal is not sifting through fucking parameters. There should be passion, there should be fire.
You can't take yourself so seriously, but you can take the music more seriously. What are you going to leave the earth with? Music is being a part of your past, present and future lives. No one can take that away, no matter what. I've had people be super-stoked to see a show, and then as soon as it was over, they "couldn't like it" because we did something that their "format" doesn't allow. Do what you want to do. I just want to live in music. I will spend zero time figuring out if it fits or if it doesn't belong, because it doesn't belong to me, anyways. I'm just a vessel through which it leads, just like any other spirit.
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Ed. note: If Invisible Oranges had the resources to have a label, Deadsea would be the first band signed.
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