Interview: Owen Rundquist (Anicon, Trenchgrinder)
It’s officially awards season in the metal world—the year-end top 40 lists for both Revolver and Decibel magazines have been released (for what it’s worth I’m not feeling too rosy on either affair, though one’s clearly superior; I’ll let you guess which). As I get older, I care less and less for press awards, because they frequently fall into a sort of industry twilight zone where, in moments of weakness, I feel that band turnout correlates too closely with ad space. It’s probably just me though.
However, one award this season struck me as particularly uncanny. Owen Rundquist of NYC black metal group Anicon, as well as aggro outfit Trenchgrinder, recently was honored with the title of best male vocalist of 2014 by The Village Voice. For the unfamiliar—the Voice is the largest alternative weekly news magazine in New York City. While, as a veteran of the alt weekly game, I assume year-end lists take shock factor as actual taste into account, it still felt unexpected enough for Owen to win that I decided to ask him a few questions. Not that he doesn’t deserve it; Owen packs a fair bit of range and expressiveness into his rasps. Owen’s taking Anicon on the road with fellow New York black metal group Yellow Eyes at the end of the week. We chatted about those subjects and more following his award.
The Village Voice named you Best Male Vocalist in their 2014 Best Of Awards. Your thoughts on the matter?
It's really flattering. Surprising too. It seems like a strange place to receive recognition for this kind of vocal work.
Your female counterpart in the contest is Jen Goma from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart? have you two met or are you familiar with her music?
We've never met. I wasn't familiar with her work previous to the Voice thing but I checked it out.
What are your impressions of her stuff?
The music doesn't really resonate with me but she has a nice sounding voice and is clearly a talented person. It's just not my thing, I don't really feel like I'm able to critique it effectively.
The awards, then, clearly included both harsh and clean singing vocals. Can you sing cleanly? Also do you have a preference between the two, screaming or singing?
I used to be able to sing more traditionally but haven't in a long time. When I was younger I learned to sing in a choir and my dad sang a lot and still does, so it used to be something I did with some regularity. It's not something I've practiced for years though so realistically I'm probably kind of bad at it by now. Just given the kind of music I like to perform and listen to I would have to say my preference is for screaming, though I don't like to call it that.
What makes a good vocalist to you?
It really varies from one to the next, but I usually like to hear people that have control and range, interesting phrasing, and that can compliment the music. Often times the vocalist is kind of the first point of entry for the listener when you're dealing with harder music so it's important for the vocals to convey what the rest of the music is getting at. Not lyrically but as another instrument to work with. No matter how weird or harsh a voice sounds the listener still recognizes it as human and latches onto it, especially when you get into music that's really dense. So I think a good vocalist is someone that recognizes their role and is able to approach it in a dynamic way. Plus, y'know, you gotta have the pipes.
Is there anything specifically you do with your voice to prepare to scream? It must be hard to find a place to practice in NYC.
I do some diaphragm exercises to kind of loosen things up and to make sure I'm breathing from the right place. I also do stretches, like full body stretches, and then stretch out my throat to make sure it doesn't seize up while playing and I try to stay hydrated. Both bands I'm in have committed practice spaces and between the two I rehearse three of four times a week. If I end up alone in either space I like to play songs on the PA and sing along. Usually either Suffocation's “Thrones of Blood” for lows or “Night's Blood” by Dissection for highs and mids.
What's the personal difference you experience between working in Trenchgrinder and Anicon?
My contribution to the two is different. I write all the lyrics and do all the vocals in Trenchgrinder (though Robert did some backing vocals on the Skullshitter split). Whereas I'm one of two guitarists/vocalists in Anicon where Nolan and I split the riff and lyric writing roughly 50/50 (though we just finished a song that our bassist, Alex, wrote). Trenchgrinder and Anicon are pretty different bands so I would say my experience in each is fairly distinct from the other.
Trenchgrinder writing usually starts with Bill bringing a few riffs to the space and jamming on them with Robert. They start to flesh it out writing more parts and figuring out the structure. Bill usually has a pretty strong idea about how the dynamics of the song should work from the get go, so sometimes it's just a matter of figuring out what riffs are going to achieve the desired effect. Once Denis learns his parts and I get a feel for it I usually get a rough recording on my phone and jot down ideas for phrasing, then work on lyrics at home.
Anicon songs usually start with either Nolan or I having maybe 80% of a song written and then getting together and demoing everything to a click track on a laptop as a reference. Once that's done we'll bring it to practice and start learning it all as a band. Depending on how developed the initial recording is Lev and Alex will write their parts and usually some second guitar lines get written. We don't really have any system for lyrics though thus far we've kind of just felt out the phrasing during the recording sessions. We've recently started further demoing songs live in the space then listening back to those and making adjustments. It's been really helpful.
You're a Spokane native. The Pacific Northwest has a vibrant metal scene currently. What inspired you to move to NYC?
Yes! I grew up in Spokane. It's a really beautiful place but it's also very isolated geographically and I wanted more access to things a larger city has to offer. I played with a band for a long time out there and when it broke up I felt like I needed a change of scenery and lifestyle. Initially I moved to Boston for school and once I finished there the next logical move was to come here to New York. The Northwest does have a good metal scene right now and really it has for a quite a while. Seattle and Portland have always had a lot coming out of them, but there are a lot of smaller cities that have stuff going on too like Richland, Eugene, Boise, and Spokane. The Northwest will always be my home and it would be nice to be more plugged in to what's going on there now, but it's difficult being so far away.
Anicon seems to be more of 'your' project than Trenchgrinder. What inspires that music, and what direction do you want to take it in the future?
I'm not sure it's more mine, but my contribution is maybe more personal in a way because I have a more active role in the writing process. I'm not sure how to talk about inspiration. We get together and set out to make music and Anicon is what we end up with. There's never been any kind of discussion about what we should sound like or what parameters we want to work within. I see music as a way to communicate with things that aren't able to be understood any other way. I also just really like big dramatic riffs and melody. We're finishing up writing a full length right now and I don't really want to talk about how I see the music developing, I'd rather let people encounter it and have a fresh listen. I will say it's some of the best stuff we've written and I'm very excited about recording it. If you want to hear it for yourself we'll be playing a bunch of the new material on Halloween here in New York at The Acheron and then more of it on the upcoming tour which ends in Brooklyn at Union Pool.
You're about to tour the east coast and Midwest with Yellow Eyes, I believe it's the first tour of this size for both bands. What do you anticipate from the tour?
It's hard to know what to anticipate but I know that we have some really good shows booked with some great bands. In that regard I anticipate getting my face shredded by some cool bands and doing my best to reciprocate. We'll be playing some new places on this tour which is always exciting and it'll be good to play the new material out. I'm also really looking forward to hanging out with my band mates and the dudes in Yellow Eyes for a couple weeks.
What's your aim as a musician in a live setting, is it different from as a recording artist?
I try to give as much as I can to the performance and to make it a visceral experience. A live performance and a recording session are different things and I think it only makes sense to approach them that way. Trying to recreate a live performance in a studio setting will just give you a caricature of a live performance and vice versa. When making a recording I think you should be trying to make it the best recording possible and when performing you should strive for the best performance possible. They're different things.
You're also known as a visual artist. What's the relationship, in your mind, between music and visual art? If you had to pick one, which would you pick?
I see them as different extensions of the same creative impulse, at least for me personally. Really they're both different ways of communicating; different languages. Just like you can describe something with verbal or written language you can describe something visually or musically. That's why we have literature, music, and visual art. Each one has its own specific attributes and each one will have the ability to do something the others don't. Having to pick between the two doesn't make sense to me. It's really a matter of approaching the world as a person who creates things. I may concentrate on one thing more predominantly for a period of time, but choosing one over the other isn't really possible because they're the same thing.
Anicon will hit the road with Yellow Eyes this Friday, November 28. Tour dates are as follows.
November 28 – THE SIDEBAR, Baltimore, MD
November 29 – MAGNOLIA HOUSE, Charlottesville, VA
November 30 – THE MILESTONE, Charlotte, NC
December 01 – THE ODDITORIUM, Asheville, NC
December 02 – FORT ROOKSCARE, Greenville, SC
December 03 – THE BASEMENT, Atlanta, GA
December 04 – THE END, Nashville, TN *with Forest of Tygers
December 05 – MAG BAR, Louisville, KY *with Forest of Tygers
December 06 – HARRISON HOUSE, Fort Wayne, IN
December 07 – QUARTERS ROCK & ROLL PALACE, Milwaukee, WI
December 08 — FRANK'S POWER PLANT, Milwaukee, WI
December 09 – OLD MT. HAPPY, Chicago, IL
December 10 – CARABAR, Columbus, OH
December 11 – HOWLER’S COYOTE CAFE, Pittsburgh, PA
December 12 – STAMPS BAR, Buffalo, NY
December 13 – UNION POOL, Brooklyn, NY