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I believe that writers should get out of the way of their subject matter. The best writers are not only great stylists, but also clean conduits for ideas. When presenting interviews, I prefer the straight Q&A format instead of the "feature story" format of text laced with quotes from interviews. People want to read what my interviewees say, not my artificial narrative based on talking to them on the phone (in most cases).
Surely that's the case with my Intronaut feature in Decibel #74 (December '10, Phil Anselmo cover, order here). That was the blandest feature I've ever written. (Which, sadly, is saying a lot. But there's plenty of good stuff in the rest of that issue.) To remedy that, here are the original interviews that spawned that feature. The setting was Intronaut's van; they were direct support on Cynic's last tour. I talked to guitarist/vocalist Sacha Dunable, then bassist Joe Lester. Fire up "Vernon" - the smokin' European bonus track from Intronaut's new album Valley of Smoke - and enjoy. (The track is named after the band's practice space in Vernon, CA, pictured above.)
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(European bonus track)
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What have you learned from watching Cynic play?
What did I learn? (Laughs) I learned that you can do a lot with lights and have a big, cool stage production. Yeah, I don't know. I don't know what there is to learn. (Lester pipes up in background.) Joe says there's a lot to learn.
What's your musical background?
I started playing guitar when I was 10 years old and took lessons for a few years. I took maybe a couple music theory classes in high school and city college. But most of the musical knowledge that I have comes from playing with Joe and Dave, who have definitely taken a lot more time to immerse themselves in all things music. But as far as influences go, the first genre I attached myself to was punk in early high school. I moved on to metal and death metal and stuff. Around age 20, 21, I branched out and since then I've pretty much been into anything that's interesting.
Do you guys compose music with theory in mind?
We're definitely writing with theory in mind, but we don't write anything out on staff paper or anything. But if someone has a riff or a chord progression, we'll definitely sit down and analyze it and figure out exactly what we're working with and then build around that, based on everybody's knowledge of theory and rhythm.
What inspires you lyrically?
For this record, everything has to do with Los Angeles in one way or another. That's the theme for this record. So the lyrics are pretty abstract, but if we went down the list and pointed out what each song is about or referring to, it could all make sense. It probably wouldn't be too abstract after that.
We had just talked about it for a long time. It's where we're all from. We're all LA natives, and we thought it would be kind of interesting to do a record that's based on Los Angeles and historic events having to do with LA.
So you've lived in LA for all your life.
More or less, yeah. I was sort of split between San Diego and Los Angeles for most of my childhood. But since I was 14, I've lived in LA exclusively.
Why have you stayed?
I really have nowhere else to move to. I've had no reason to move, really. LA's not like the Midwest or something, where you're trying to move somewhere else because there's nothing going on. It's a big city with a lot happening, a lot to offer.
If the album's about LA, why make the lyrics abstract?
'Cause then you sound like an Iron Maiden record, where they're singing about Alexander the Great, and it's just historical facts. I think that there's some sort of aesthetic that lends itself to our music, where you can't just be stating everything super-bluntly and matter-of-fact. There should still be something about the lyrics that makes people want to know what they're about, and maybe they'll look into it. [Abstraction] just makes it more interesting.
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One of the biggest changes on the album is singing. Was this an element the band consciously decided to add?
Yeah. It's something we've always thought about adding. But honestly we were probably just afraid to, because we started out as a metal band. Obviously if you start throwing in some pitched vocals, then you might alienate some people. But we decided that we were just going to do it rather than just screaming over this music that we spend so much time putting together. The music's so rich with melody - to just scream over it honestly just felt like a waste. There's still the screaming in there, obviously. But Dave and I had always fooled around [with] singing in the van and whatnot, so we were pretty confident that we could pull off harmonizing our vocals and adding them in there as another instrument.
What have you guys been playing in the van?
We were just listening to Roy Hargrove, an album called Hard Groove. It's on Joe's iPod. I don't know what else we've been listening to, honestly. We only have one power deck in this [van], which mostly [is used by] the GPS. So we just sort of skip through the radio a lot.
What do you guys like on the radio?
I wouldn't say we like any of it, to be honest. We just sort of flip through it, and there's songs that have been forced on you for years that you can be silly and sing along with.
What do you sing along with?
(Laughs) Well, last night, actually, we were at a bar with the Cynic and Dysrhythmia guys. And after the bar, we all crammed into the van, and we had a big singalong to Candlebox.
Ooh, that's bad.
It was really bad. It was horrible.
This indicates some knowledge of the lyrics.
Believe me, I don't think I any of us enjoyed it. We were just being silly. Sean Reinert was threatening to throw himself out of the moving vehicle. He had his hand on the door handle. He was ready to jump.
What does Intronaut mean to you?
I think for everybody in this band, it's what we've spent a good part of the last five or six years doing. It's pretty much all any of think about, and it's what we plan around. We plan our lives around the band. It's like a really immature, dysfunctional family that we all have no choice but to be a part of at this point.
Is there any specific message you want to get across with the music?
No. At this point, personally I've stopped thinking about things in that way. We just kind of get together and are just letting it flow out. There's no real thought behind what we're trying to do or anything that we're trying to prove. At this point, it's just an extension of us. We're just doing it.
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What have you learned from watching Cynic play?
Cynic are a band that were unflinchingly true with their own creative vision back then and now. A lot of time has passed in between, but here they are, all these years later, doing a headlining tour and having the response be really amazing. And they're doing all this original material that some would argue is even softer and less metal than their old stuff. One might be concerned that these metal fans would not be receptive to something like that. And, sure, you have people in the audience going, like, "Play Human!" - like that's really what they're going to do. But Paul [Masvidal] doesn't even miss a beat. They play an acoustic song and everything. I think that they have taught me a lot about integrity and musical confidence - playing what you would play, no matter what the response is.
On a more technical musical level - how much jazz is an influence for them. They constantly are saying in the [Decibel "Hall of Fame"] article that by the time they recorded Focus, none of them were even listening to metal. They were all listening to jazz. It's funny, because I almost end up saying that exact same phrase all the time when people ask me what metal bands I listen to. I say, "I don't, I listen to jazz".
If you don't listen to any metal, why do you play metal?
There's some slight hyperbole there. It's not that I don't listen to any metal. It's really more of a comparison. There's an extremely long time period in my life where I listened to so much metal that it was unavoidably part of how I defined myself. All of that music that I ever listened to and loved is still completely a part of who I am, and I still love all that music, and I still totally take interest in hearing new bands. But I don't buy new death metal albums and listen to them over and over in my car the way that I did when I was in high school. Part of it, I'm sure, is just a change in taste and a change in what stimulates me.
So in a more direct response to your question, why do I play metal when I don't listen to metal hardly at all like I used to? It's because Intronaut is a unique circumstance for me to be in where I can write the exact metal music I would want to hear and actually have it smacking of all the other musical influences that are meaningful to me. And often times I get my mission statement validated, because I love hanging out in a crowd after shows and being approached by high school kids, lots of bass players that want to shoot the shit with me and talk about bass. And they're like, "Dude, you must really like Jaco Pastorius, you must really like Return to Forever!" And I'm like, "Fuck yeah, that's exactly what I like". So it's pleasing to see these young kids that kind of remind me of myself being real nerdy and into the music and not worrying about any kind of scene telling me, "Hey man, I hear all these non-metal things in your playing". That's exactly what I'm going for.
Do you ever wish Intronaut were less metal? In one Intronaut song, the bass line is almost like a bossa nova. When you're up on stage, do you ever wish you were playing a full-on bossa nova?
No, I wouldn't. Again, all those years of being into heavy music and seeing Neurosis live as many times as I have - that's a total part of my being. Crushing, heavy guitars - that's a part of my being, too. Me and Sacha used to go see Bongzilla and Grief and shit in high school all the time. So as much as bossa nova and Latin jazz and fusion are things that really move me, the power of a truly devastating, heavy riff is just as much a part of the mix that makes Intronaut what it is.
It's not so much that I would want to be playing bossa nova instead, it's that I take great pleasure from artfully integrating things - even things as conspicuously cultural-specific as a bossa nova - into an Intronaut song. I wouldn't do it just to do it, but a lot of times when we're writing music, and Sacha or Dave provide some kind of dreamy groove that's in a wide-open cycle of sevens or something, Danny and I will crunch the numbers and be like, "Hey, we could superimpose a 12-feel for this many beats, and then pop back out". Those rhythm games that Danny and I have been developing over all the years that we've been in Intronaut - that's just part of what gives us pleasure.
But I will concede to you that I love Latin bass lines. I love bossa nova and Afro-Cuban music and stuff like that, particularly what they refer to as the "swing" of the Latin bass, in that notes are falling in front of or behind the one, instead of right on the beat. And I just love that shit. I always have. For me, even in a metal band, you don't hear that kind of muscular rhythmic independence in the bass. And that's something that I really dig about Latin music and often comes into my mind when I'm writing bass parts.
What's it like playing with Danny? His background is very different from yours - more pure metal. Is it weird playing with him as opposed to a jazz drummer?
Not really. Danny is a savant. He's really a specimen of incredible natural talent, and anybody that ever listened to Uphill Battle - he was in fucking high school - knew that he really was a natural. It takes more than just fast hands; it takes a musical mind to be able to do that shit. He's got the ears to do whatever needs to be done. While there perhaps were some growing pains and learning curve in the early years of Intronaut, Danny has been catching the curveballs that we've been throwing him for almost six years now. I'm sure that all of us have improved in ways that we might not have practiced so much on our own, just simply by being in the band together. So, yeah, Danny's background is more conspicuously metal, and mine is less so, but we both are of a level where we attack new ideas and don't get defensive.
Another thing that's interesting about Danny is that, yeah, his professional music background is very metal, but his taste in music is just as diverse as anybody else's in the band. It's just different. Danny loves tons of ambient music or electronic types of music or '80s artists that I personally would never listen to. A lot of people might not have realized when Danny took on that gig playing drums for Jesu, that he worships Jesu and Justin Broadrick.
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Why dedicate an entire album to Los Angeles?
It's about writing about what we actually know about. Los Angeles is a location that defines us. Our whole lives are stories that are told in the backdrop of Los Angeles. There are bands that write about Asgard, where the Norse gods live, or the Ninth Ring of Malebolge, where Satan's minions dwell. But those aren't places that are relevant to Intronaut. We eat tacos and work in restaurants downtown. It sounds not mysterious when I reveal it like this, but we're just trying to write from the heart about what we know.
Do you feel affinity with music about LA? I can think of two big examples, '80s hair metal and '90s gangsta rap.
No and yes. You've probably already detected that I'm sort of an odd duck as far as influences go in this band. But I'd say that practically everybody in Intronaut at least has a 50% if not a 90% love of hair metal, whether it's ironic or not. For instance, Danny grew up with that shit. His parents were totally into that shit. So he really loves it. I think that Sacha and Dave are closer to the 50% mark. They really do love Guns N' Roses and Aerosmith, but some of the other stuff is more of a joke to them. I personally could never stand that shit. I never had a single person in my life that was any kind of role model to turn me onto that kind of music. By the time that I was old enough to be aware of rock music, I was already into grunge, and [hair metal] seemed unbearably gay to me, with the teased hair and the spandex and stuff. I never had a chance to be into it.
But I actually love gangsta rap. I really do. And practically everybody in Intronaut does, too. I know it sounds funny, but I'm sure that there are lot of guys in a lot of metal bands that love gangsta rap, and I don't know if there's a particular rhyme or reason on how to explain something like that, especially because a lot of rock musicians go through phases of saying, "I would never listen to rap, I would never be caught dead listening to rap." But I just love it, and there's a lot of great hip-hop music from LA that I've loved since I was 13 or 14.
Brutal metal and gangsta rap are almost race-specific sides of the same coin. They're both very male-dominated, very aggressive, with some very dark imagery. One side uses guitars, and the other uses samples. There's sort of the same excess of testosterone on both sides.
I definitely see that point, for sure.
How did you feel when Dave and Sacha started to sing?
I was very stoked about it. There was a time during the Challenger and maybe Prehistoricisms writing time period when we had all kind of thought about the idea of having clean vocals, but dismissed it for a couple reasons. One, that we weren't necessarily sure that we could pull it off, and two, a little bit of apprehension about how people would respond to that in terms of not being tr00 or kvlt or metal or whatever the fuck. But the fact of the matter is, even with our decision to only scream for as long as we have, the music evolved a great deal anyways. It got to a point when we were working on the music for Valley of Smoke, where to have continued to only scream would have been spiting our own creative evolution out of some ideal about what people are going to think. We all listen to music like Yes and King Crimson and Camel and stuff that's epic, glorious rock 'n' roll that's very technical and free to be progressive from one musical territory to another, but has all these rich vocal harmonies.
Plus there had been some other good bands out there that have integrated pitched singing into heavy music in a way that isn't whiny, that's more reminiscent of classic rock. And I think that helped us realize that it could be done. Baroness is a good example. Some of the newer Mastodon stuff is a good example. Torche, that kind of thing. We're all revolted by what I call sing-songy vocals, pop-punk-influenced vocal stylings that you hear all the time. I won't name names, but there's a lot of that kind of good cop/bad cop vocal shit that you hear in a lot of metalcore bands. The clean singing they have is hideously whining and vibrato-laden. So something that we were really conscious about with the writing of these clean vocals was to never have these over-ripe vocal melodies twisting around, but instead to have pure, two-note vocal harmonies that complement everything else that's going on.
The two-note vocal harmonies remind me a little of Alice in Chains.
I think that's a fair comparison, although none of us would ever be the kind of singularly talented vocalist that Layne Staley was, to get away with that kind of vocal acrobatics. [But] you're absolutely right about their type of vocal harmonies - we are absolutely inspired by that. Alice in Chains is one band of only so many that all members of Intronaut love. [It is] truly one of my first favorite bands. Earlier when you were asking me about glam metal, I was like, "Naw, man, I never got into that shit". But you'd better believe I heard "Man in a Box" when I was in sixth grade, and I was like, "Whoa, this is awesome". Even to this day, we all swear by Alice in Chains. We're so excited to see them come around with Mastodon this year. The sound guy has been spinning Dirt when we're setting up, and I swear to god, I get fucking pumped. I'm singing along to every song while I'm setting up my amp onstage.
What does Intronaut mean to you?
Intronaut is just a place where me and my best friends that I've known for so long - and we've always completely dedicated ourselves to appreciating music of all different styles and genres - can just get together and test out anything that we want to try. The songwriting process in Intronaut is completely democratic. And while Sacha may bring in a little bit more material than anybody else, we all get to test out anything we want and propose variations until we find something that we all like. And so to me, Intronaut is the most comfortable thing in the world for me, like my favorite pair of shoes. I'm writing the very music that I'd want to hear with the friends that I've known in my life for the longest. Intronaut's a lot of things to me, but to simply put it, it's the most honest expression of what is musically inside of me and my bandmates.
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HEAR VALLEY OF SMOKE
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BUY VALLEY OF SMOKE
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