A Conversation With Electric Wizard’s Liz Buckingham
It's one week before Halloween as I prepare this interview, and the conditions here in New England have taken a particularly spooky tone. The trees are moving from warm golden yellows into dark ochres and reds, and the warm sun of early fall days has been replaced by dark clouds sputtering out chill rain. Pass a church on a country road and you'll start to hear "Black Sabbath" in your head. It's the Season of the Witch...or rather, the Wizard, for Electric Wizard has chosen this appropriately spooky time of year (November 13) to grace us with their latest record, Wizard Bloody Wizard. It's their ninth studio album, and advance tracks have made it clear that the Wizard's Witchcult of drugs, murder, and fuzz is as craven and heavy as ever. Mixing the crush of modern doom metal with the musty crypticism of late '60s/early '70s psych-rock, Electric Wizard are masters of riffs and of the night, the soundtrack to the devil riding out on a big-ass bike with a head warped by LSD. To commemorate this grim occasion, we had the pleasure of speaking with the Wizard's legendary guitarist and doom scene veteran Liz Buckingham, wife of band founder Jus Oborn and one-half of Electric Wizard's songwriting team since 2003. We talked gear, writing, the advantages and disadvantages of home recording, and classic metal and rock tracks to get the uninitiated in the proper mood to come to the Wizard's Sabbath. Come, my fanatics!
Let’s talk tone. Electric Wizard is renowned for its thick, fuzzy guitar tones: what is your current rig? What’s your preferred guitar, preferred pickups, and preferred amp setup?
I’ve been playing the same set up for a number of years now and I haven’t found anything I like more. It’s an early Laney AOR Pro-Tube 100-watt Lead amp, and I put it through whichever cabs are working! But that's usually a Laney 4x12 and a Marshall 4x12. [The Laney is] the best amp I have ever owned: incredibly loud and very reliable on the road. Of course, I have managed to completely fry it a few times, because I play it at max volume all of the time! It's based on the Marshall JCM 800, which is what I usually play at fly out gigs. I don’t use any pedals, so I am very particular about what amp I use.
My guitar is the same guitar I have always played, which is a 1967 Gibson SG with humbuckers. It has a different neck then most SGs: its nut width is narrow and neck thicker. I've been trying to find a replacement for it, but it's hard to find SGs with that neck and I really don’t like the newer, fatter necks.
How has your guitar tone changed over the years, starting with 13, then Sourvein and finally at Electric Wizard?
When I started with 13, I was just learning how to play guitar, and just learning about everything, really. It was total experimentation. I knew exactly what sound I wanted, but it took a number of years before I was able to achieve it. My first amp was a really nice amp, actually: at the time, nobody really wanted '70’s amps. It was a 1971 Marshall Super Bass: it had an amazing tone, but it was nowhere near loud enough for me and it was always breaking. I used a Turbo Rat pedal that had insanely uncontrollable feedback which I eventually became accustomed to and learned to use as an effect. Then I got the dreaded Boss "Metal Zone"! I was thrilled with that: proper death metal sound! After 13, I started to learn a lot more about equipment, having used other people's, so I thought getting a bass set up would get me that heavier low end sound I really wanted. I started using a Sunn Beta Bass amp, an old '60s Ampeg 2x15 cab, and a Big Muff. I used this set up with Sourvein in the beginning, but again, still not loud enough! Then I got the Laney and I never looked back. Keep in mind I could never afford the amps I really wanted, like an original Orange or Sunn Model T. I just got what I happened to find that I could afford. I've always played the same SG with all 3 bands, except at the very beginning with 13 when I played a Gibson Les Paul for a little bit.
Roughly speaking, what proportion of Electric Wizard’s riffs are yours and which are Jus’? What does the songwriting process look like when you’re in the room?
It changes from album to album. Some albums I write more of the riffs, sometimes he does. It generally evens out to about 50/50 overall, though it's hard to separate it like that because we do almost all the songwriting together. Since we live together, it's like a constant thing. One of us might come up with an idea for a song, not even a riff especially, and the other will be like, “how’s this, then?” and then it starts to turn into a song or at least the basis for a song. Rarely is a song solely and completely written by just one of us.
How does the dual guitar setup affect live performance, as opposed to songwriting?
All the songs are written with two guitars in mind, whether or not it's supposed to have a part that we want to accentuate by both playing the same thing or two different guitar parts to create a harmony or different sound.
How did the songwriting/composition process differ on Wizard Bloody Wizard from previous albums, if at all?
The process is a little different on every album: this time the music was written before the vocals, which we have never done before. Justin usually has the vocals fairly worked out with the music when we are writing the songs. He never has the lyrics done, he always leaves that to the last minute, but he always has an idea about the melody and how he wants the vocals to fit in. This time, though, he didn’t do that, and to be honest it was a bit of a nightmare and we will never do it again! Getting the vocals right after we had laid down all the tracks was really hard work, especially since we recorded everything live to tape. There was no way to extend a part if needed for the vocals to fit.
Do you have a “riff bank” where you come up with ideas and phrases to use later? When you sit down to write, is it a conscious process, like “I’m going to write a Saint Vitus-sounding riff” or “this one is going to sound more like Blue Cheer,” or something?
I have recordings of riffs and I have a notebook with ideas. Whenever I have an idea or a riff I record it somehow, because I have a terrible memory with that stuff. Always have. Justin has even stolen some of my riffs and tried to claim they were his because he knows I will forget! I've been like “ yeah that sounds cool--wait a minute,wasn’t that my riff?” He loves stealing my good ideas for his own. I think he thinks it's funny. But yeah, I’ll listen to something, could even be something from a movie, and then want to write something like it. But it's never copying the riff particularly, more just trying to create the same vibe.
How much of the production do you have a say in, apart from your specific guitar tone? When working in the studio, what are some elements you look for the producer to capture?
It depends on the studio. We always want to capture our actual live sound; we don’t want anything changed. I generally have a say in all of it, but there have been times where I didn’t feel I needed to give much input. Other times I have had to keep on top of it the whole way and even still, it didn’t really come out how we wanted. We’ve definitely had productions in the past where we were like “oh God, what happened?” It's always a learning curve. That's why we built our own studio this time.
On Wizard Bloody Wizard, you’re listed as producer: what extra responsibilities does that entail?
This time, there wasn’t anybody else there when it came to mixing and the recording of vocals and overdubs, just Justin and I, so I had to work rather intensely with Justin getting his vocals right. It's always hard work, but this time it was just me doing it with him, when previously there was someone else making him re-do lines and I would decide either yay or nay. It was quite daunting at first when I realised what was on my shoulders, but I guess I learned a lot from working with the previous producers because I knew exactly what Justin was capable of and when he needed to be pushed. Same with the general mixing, it was just the two of us, so the mixing was just the usual “this needs to be louder, that instrument isn’t sitting well in the mix, this solo is making things too muddled, lets add some organ there," et cetera. I mean, it was in our house, so we were doing it 24/7. I just had to do a lot more than usual this time.
What aesthetic elements of the band do you often weigh in on (i.e. album art, lyrical content, et cetera) and which are you less concerned with?
The aesthetic side of it is a major part of it for me. I really enjoy coming up with new ideas and am really passionate about creating the whole Electric Wizard world. Justin and I do it all together, it's our life. When we first met, we bonded over the movies we were both into, the type of weird stuff we liked. I have been an exploitation and underground movie fanatic since I was a teenager, as has Justin, and we obsess and collect all the stuff that goes into the band. We both do the album art: we’ll separate certain responsibilities, like he generally does the poster art and I do the t-shirts, but we will give each other input on each other's creations. Mind you, we do disagree and argue a lot, but the end result is always worth the hassle. For us, the music goes hand in hand with the aesthetic. It's a whole lifestyle.
Electric Wizard is known for not touring extensively, as opposed to other prominent metal bands who seem to live on the road. Is there a conscious reason for this, or is it simply a matter of touring being too inconvenient, particularly in coordinating North American tours for a band based in Britain?
We do a lot more than we used to, but yeah, we don’t do as much as other bands. That’s for a number of reasons, but mostly because we want every show to be like a special occasion and we don’t want to over-expose ourselves in this world of over-exposure. We never want to become bored or feel like we are going through the motions, and with our personality types, there is definite risk of that happening if we over did-it. Everybody is different, that's just how we are.
If you had to pick five doom metal albums for the uninitiated to listen to in order to prepare for Wizard Bloody Wizard, what would they be?
Okay, for the strictly uninitiated, and not necessarily doom metal, I think these albums would get the listener in "the mood":
1. The Stooges: Fun House
2. Jerusalem: S/T
3. Alice Cooper: Love It To Death
4. Pentagram: Relentless
5. Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath
Do you feel a need to push the envelope past current doom bands? Given doom metal’s exponential increase in popularity over the past decade, largely as a result of bands like Electric Wizard, do you find yourself listening to newer doom bands or sticking more with the classics?
I really like the classics, but I do listen to some new bands because I like hearing new stuff, particularly nowadays when there seem to be a lot of bands that are experimenting with combining different influences and not just strictly adhering to one genre. I find that really interesting and exciting. It's more like when I first started playing, before this whole "genre" thing got out of hand and you got a million bands all sounding the same and playing by a rulebook of what is and isn’t "doom". Currently, there seems to be a lot more open mindedness going on and that's really cool. We don’t ever concern ourselves on a competitive level with what other current bands are doing, though. We always try and do our own thing. We have our own goals which usually have nothing to do with what is currently popular. In fact, I think we get off on doing the opposite. I think Electric Wizard has always tried to explore all facets of heaviness. With every album we always try and push ourselves to try and find a new way to interpret doom and heaviness.
What sort of “feeling” was the band and you in particularly going for on Wizard Bloody Wizard?
A return to basics and early, original influences. We wanted to make a timeless album, something that couldn’t be dated because it didn’t have any idea of current trends or sounds, inspired instead by classic heavy bands that are still relevant today. We wanted to strip it back to what we consider the real elements of heaviness and doom without all these modern-day rules about what is considered “heavy.”
How far out does Electric Wizard plan, as a band? At what point does the conversation become “let’s start writing the new album?”
It’s always pretty random, just whenever we feel is right. We like to live in the moment. Planning too far ahead these days is a bad idea considering how fast things go and how rapidly things can change. We like to follow our instincts as to when the time is right. Whenever we’ve tried to plan ahead, or adhere to some schedule or deadline, it’s all gone wrong.