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When Karl Simon and Jason McCash began writing The Wretch (review), they shelved their love of fantasy and turned to real-world concerns. Instead of thumbing through Robert E. Howard paperbacks for inspiration, they thought about their part-time jobs, what they saw in bars, and their difficult lives on tour. The resulting album - the first to feature new drummer "Cool" Clyde Paradis - is perhaps their most heartfelt. It's packed with tales of life far away from their home in Indianapolis, the perils of drink, and strained relationships. Guitarist and vocalist Simon spoke to us about these challenges, but how he also feels enormously fortunate.

— Justin M. Norton

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The Wretch moves away from fantasy. But I remember talking to you years ago about how many of your songs have multiple meanings. Is this a new approach, or are you trying to be more deliberate?

There's very little ambiguity in the lyrics this time. You can look at a lot of earlier songs in many ways. You can view them how you want. On The Wretch, we shed any ambiguity. It's all about what I'm going through, and how I feel about it. We didn't use allegory.

Why the change?

We were tired of working in the milieu of fantasy. We started doing more fantasy-based lyrics on Suffer No Guilt. It became a "thing". There was nobody doing fantasy-based songs in our Vitus style. There were bands like Solstice or Skull doing more epic things with ancient warriors, but no one with one guitar and a dirty, low-fi sound. No one did it. So it became our thing.

We did three albums that way. As I look back on Hymns of Blood and Thunder, I almost felt like I was reaching to get out of it, like [on] "Chaos Calling". I was trying to get into other things but still make it work. On this record, we had a total shift in sound and many tough things happen in our personal lives, not the least of which was Bob [Fouts, drummer] departing. Maybe we will do something like [fantasy] again, but I think for right now, the things I'm scribbling are real world, personal and political lyrics. We explored everything we could fantasy-based for three records. It would have been dishonest to go further because our hearts weren't in it.

Were you ever worried of being pigeonholed even though all those albums were well-received?

To be honest, yes. I wondered if people got the allegory or were just looking at it like we put on wolf's skins in the morning. People can get strange opinions about you. I have nothing against that stuff. I love early Manowar records, but I'm not Joey DeMaio. I'm a normal dude with issues and have a 9-to-5 job. I'm not a heroic barbarian (laughs).

I wondered if people thought of us as this strange breed of doomy war metal. And I worried that two records down the line, we wouldn't be able to explore anything else. Ultimately, if we'd written eight or nine awesome songs that were about Conan and Elric, and our hearts were into it, we would have released that album. But we weren't feeling it. We were tired of it musically and lyrically.

Does that mean you've taken your Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock paperbacks to a used bookstore?

Oh hell, no (laughs). I'm looking forward to the new Conan movie. I recently went to Borders and picked up the Tor Books reissue of the Elric stories. I love all that stuff. I still have my comic books. It's a lifelong love affair. If I ever decided to do an acoustic record, I wouldn't throw away Sabotage.

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Simon on why he loves Sabotage

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You alluded earlier to personal difficulties in 2010. Do you care to elaborate?

Touring sets up things to fail. You're gone and in a bubble. Your family and friends keep moving. When you come back, you are in a different place, and they are in a different place, and things don't mesh. I've had experiences where I've been out for 30 days at a clip, and then I see really good friends and can't hold a conversation with them because I'm lost in the ether. It creates a lot of friction that can blow up on you. The lyrics I wrote here are an exploration of the damage you do to yourself and others just by doing what you want. The bad habits also get to you on the road.

Why did Bob leave?

He quit. We'd been very busy, and he was busier than we were. He'd done two U.S. tours with Nachtmystium and a European tour and two US tours with us. His calendar was very full, and he has a teenage son and a wife. He had to step out.

It's not an easy life, the decision to do this. Most people who are doing this are 10 years younger than we are or more. When you don't have a wife, mortgage, and sewer drains backing up, you can just take off. You can be gone all the time. I'm amazed Bob held up as long as he did. He's still drumming and playing bass with Apostle of Solitude, and I hope he's happy. I'm not going to lie; we went at it all the time. But ultimately I have nothing but love for the guy. Absence has made the heart grow fonder.

Is the reason bands like Goatwhore stay on the road so long what you mentioned, the difficulty of readjusting to life when you get back home?

I think there's an element of that. Judas Priest lived on the road in the 1980s. Ozzy's children were basically born on a tour bus. I bounce at a bar in town called the Melody Inn. If I'm home, I work three or four nights a week and I see 15 bands come through. Most of the professional acts that come through small clubs like this are performing 200 gigs a year. They are living a gypsy life. I can't speak for Goatwhore, but if you are trying to do this, that's what you do. You are on the road. There is no time for other things in life. If you have a 9-to-5 job, you just can't disappear for a month. If you are a professional musician, you live in a one-bedroom apartment for the little time you are home.

Do you get depressed when you get off the road?

Sometimes yes, other times no. I used to get more depressed getting off tour. But I've been trying to just be happy with whatever I get to do in this life. We don't do 200 shows a year. We might do half of that. We aren't living out there. The rest of the time I have some very decent part-time jobs. And I get to do a lot of things with music that people who are much better players don't get to do. I was spitting distance from the Arctic Circle recently. I wouldn't have been there without my music. Life's been pretty good so far, you know - the old Joe Walsh thing (laughs).

There are so many super-talented people working in guitar shops that haven't done this. I feel very lucky. I had drinks with Leif Edling, for god's sake. I do miss good times when I'm off the road, but I know I'll get back out there.

Was it tough to think of continuing when Bob left?

No. We needed a fill-in drummer immediately for a tour. We did that and tried to carry on with him, but it was obvious it wouldn't be fruitful. Bob actually gave Clyde a heads-up that we needed a new drummer. We immediately thought it could work out.

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Did the change in approach and aesthetic extend to the cover? In the past, you've used more Frazetta-styled images, but this cover is starker.

I love [cover artist] Arik Roper because he's a mixture of Frazetta and Arthur Rackham. Hopefully, we get to work with him again. I believe the old maxim, "Never trust a book by the cover". At the same time, I also think what's inside should reflect the book. When we did Suffer No Guilt, the cover made sense. We always made sure our cover art reflected what was going on, because it's part of the experience. You want something visually appealing. I think part of the experience of a record is looking at the cover. I grew up doing that. Sabotage is my favorite Sabbath album, and I love the cover. I'm not sure that red tights are the best fashion statement, but I still stared at it. We're visual creatures, and I think it's important.

We'd done three warrior covers back-to-back. There's no warrior songs here. The closest we have is Jason's apology for Nero ["Iron and Fire"]. And that's about an infamous historical figure. Nero never wanted to be the ruler of the world. He wanted to be an artist. Nero had no choice. He couldn't sculpt and paint. He had to become Emperor.

On The Wretch you don't seem afraid to let songs breathe or pause.

That was one of the facets of playing with Bob that was tough. He is super-proficient but comes from a school of thought that is all about driving. I'd rather be loose and open and jammy. I like to have notes decay and leave negative space. Clyde comes from the same school - bluesier, less is more. So there is a lot of feedback and space and spillovers on The Wretch.

Your vocals are improved. Were you unhappy with your past singing?

I was very unhappy with my singing on Conqueror and Suffer No Guilt. It was a painful process. For a long time, I was fighting against sounding the way I sound, using my natural voice. I was trying to reach higher places and be more melodic. I listen to "Trapped in the Web" and some of the high notes are so pitchy they make me want to puke. And I really love that song. It's one of my proudest moments as a songwriter. But I feel like I ruined it by pushing myself to my limits.

When it came to The Wretch, I decided I didn't want to listen to it down the road and think, "God, why did I try to do that?" So I tried to accept myself. No one is going to think we're better if I get a half-octave higher. I knew this time I would work with vocals that fit like a glove. And I don't care if people think it sounds like Wino.

That's not a bad comparison.

No, it's not (laughs). At the same time, you want to be yourself. You want to have your voice. I don't want to be thought of as a Wino clone. If people want to think that, fuck 'em. I can't be bothered. I just know I need to give the strongest performance I can.

The same is true with guitar. There are runs I can't do. My hands aren't that fast. So a lot of the soloing is a more slow hand style. I try to shy away from shredding because my hands don't move like that. I could sit there for a decade and try to make it work, but I'd rather just play music. I play to my strong points now, not emphasize my weaknesses.

When you were younger, did you think of yourself as a guitarist or singer first?

I was a singer first. I played in punk bands and stupid cover bands. I did a lot of bad Danzig covers (laughs) because I have a baritone voice. I didn't pick up a stringed instrument until the mid-'90s when I tried to put together a doom band called The Keep. We couldn't keep a lineup together or get a good bassist. So I picked up bass, but I wasn't good. I couldn't fill things out like Geezer Butler. The bass does a lot of the movement in doom. I was about 27 when I picked up the guitar, maybe a little younger. I was certainly not a teenager.

Despite getting plaudits, you often seem very critical of your singing and playing. Does that drive you to work harder?

Some people say I'm a great player. I tell them to go to a Guitar Center, and you'll find 15 or 20 players who blow me away. I am very honest. There are people in my life that will check me, too. The only thing I give myself is that I'm tenacious and don't quit. I hold on and fight. Hard work is the reason I've been able to do these things. The raw, natural talent - I don't have it. I'm a work-in-progress. I have no pretenses of being anything else. I'm no guitar slinging badass. I've had to work to not suck. I just got off tour with Victor Griffin [of Pentagram], and there's a badass. He's just a really good player.

You keep mentioning the guys at Guitar Center, but a lot of them only get to plug in at the store and play for people there to buy gear.

Well, there are even customers that come off the streets that are just blazing. I believe the work you put in will yield some rewards. I've been able to go to Rome and make a record. That's the payoff, and it's been worth it. Occasionally, I'll do something on guitar where I will pat myself on the back. But, again, I'm no badass.

Is honesty the most important thing in your music?

I try to be honest in everything and let people know what I'm thinking. That's not just in music, but [also] in life. Things have to come from the heart. I'm a horrible liar. I can't play poker to save my life.

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"To the Rack with Them"

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"Iron and Fire"

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Amazon (CD)
Relapse (CD)
CM Distro (CD)
Rise Above (CD)
Metal Blade (CD)
"To the Rack with Them" shirt (Abyss)

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Remaining dates

June 3 Austin, TX - The Scott Inn
June 4 Albuquerque, NM - The Launchpad
June 5 Tempe, AZ - The Clubhouse
June 6 Hollywood, CA - The Troubadour
June 7 San Francisco, CA - Bottom of the Hill
June 9 Portland, OR - Dante's
June 10 Seattle, WA - Studio Seven
June 11 Chicago, IL - Double Door

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