Novembers Doom Vocalist Paul Kuhr Talks Songwriting and Staying Alive in The Music Industry
As a father, digital artist, and vocalist of one of America’s most influential dark and heavy bands, Paul Kuhr of Novembers Doom wears many hats. Currently, he’s putting a new album in gear as a follow up to last year’s full-length from the Chicago-based quintet, Hamartia.
With a recent signature to Prophecy Productions and a performance at the first annual U.S. Prophecy Fest under his belt, Kuhr is keeping the momentum going after nearly three decades of carving out a novel vision of extreme music. But like with all good things, keeping the pulse of a driving force alive has not come without mastering the art of hard work, paying dues, and taking matters in stride. Through the squeaks of his screen-printing machine, Kuhr spills the proverbial tea on the rewards and tradeoffs of dedicating your life to what you love.
Novembers Doom is obviously wasting no time coming back with a new record. Are there any concepts from it you can tease?
I’m going back and forth. I haven’t written any lyrics or any concepts for it yet. Like in every album, I concept everything. Like the last album Hamartia, the word translates into human flaw that leads to downfall. I kind of called that love and relationships. I describe it in a lot of different ways. I was considering taking a step further with that and this would be an angrier record focusing on the downfall being more of a physical form, but I don’t know yet. I’m still toying with the idea. I have an idea for the artwork. I know I just need to start. The guys are all on me going "when are you going to have something?" so I know I need to do it very, very soon.
So you tend to write the instrumentals first and then go back and add the color?
You know, it depends. I can’t force my writing. Last album, we had the date ready to record and I had two weeks before I had to start recording vocals and I had not one lyric written. The first week I had to write all my lyrics and the second week I had to write all my harmonies and melodies, so that album, for me, came together very quickly. I was really happy with it, but it took me a long time to get into that writing place to be able to do that. I’m getting there. The ideas are starting to grow in my head. I’ve given myself more time on this album.
It’ll be exciting to see what you end up coming up with.
So far it’s not a tremendous departure from Novembers Doom. When it’s all done you’ll recognize it as us. But, the one thing we try to do on every record, and I know every band says this, but if you look at our catalog, we try to keep our roots and incorporate new things into the music, so we’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what we can get away with. Everyone [in the band] has such a wide spectrum of tastes and influences in music, and I want to pull in as much as that stuff as possible. That’s why I don’t think any two records of ours sound alike. Just by hearing the music, I can already tell you it is different than Hamartia but it’s kind of in the same vein.
I asked Rigor Sardonicus a similar question recently and I’m interested in getting your take: since you guys are considered to be one of the founders of American death-doom, what’s your relationship with that label? Is it a fusion that you sought out or was it something that just happened accidentally?
That’s a really interesting question because we’ve been a band for almost 30 years and when we first started out we had a completely different mindset than what we do now. Over the years things have changed. We tried very hard for a long time to get away from the doom metal tag and after a while you try to run from it and you can’t. It doesn’t matter what you do or what you try to market yourself as. We’ve always called what we do “dark metal” because that’s all it is. We have some albums that have no death metal in it at all. So, it’s really hard to put is in a category. We tried really hard for a long time to shed that tag and it’s impossible to do.
As we got older, we embraced it, and as arrogant and as cocky as it sounds, if you’re going to call as doom-death, then we’re the bar. We’re going to try to set the bar for that genre. There are much better bands than we are -- I’m not trying to say we’re the best by any means. But if you’re going to force us in that category then I want to hear other bands doing what we’re doing. If you’re putting us there and you think that’s where we belong, then we’re going to own it. It’s difficult. There are so many of these tags. There’s so many it gets ridiculous.
Perhaps part of the problem too is that music is becoming more of an enigma genre-wise. It’s this big melting pot, but the media is still trying to grasp at whatever labels it can to the point where it does get ridiculous.
Because labeling things makes it easy to be lazy. For years and years, and believe me, this is no knock to any of the bands that I will name, but it got to a point where, with everything that we put out, we were victims of our place in the world. We formed at the same time as My Dying Bride, Anathema, and Paradise Lost. They were the European big-three and all eyes were there. Bands like us got overlooked for a long time just because we were [from] Chicago and must be copying the European bands, which is so not true. It just happened because we’re all of the same age, so we drew from the same influences in music. Every album we put out [the response was] "oh, it sounds like these three bands." Then later in our career it turned into, "oh, this sounds like Opeth" at a time when half my band didn’t even know what that band sounded like. Then you get the "oh, they sound like Moonspell, Katatonia, Opeth, and My Dying Bride" --
how do we sound like all of those bands when those bands don’t even sound like each other? That’s lazy journalism. That’s where the tags come in handy.
Think about it: now there’s a lot of credible sources, but back in the day, every kid who lived in his mom’s basement had an online zine. I think they did so basically to just get free CDs from labels. It became very easy to just use the typical tags of genres and then the typical names of other bands to get some views and justify your free CD. That always destroyed us. As a band, more in the past, we took reviews a bit more personally than we probably should have. It’s hard not to when you work as hard as you do on an album for almost two years of your life, refining it to try to make the best thing you can. But then the kid in his basement who got a free CD because he’s got some website he put together dismisses it quickly saying, "this sounds like Opeth and My Dying Bride and it’s good doom-death: 8/10."
Wow, that’s how much time you gave something I put two years into?
There are very thoughtful reviews and thoughtful reviewers out there and we’re thankful for any press, but on a personal level, sometimes it can be discouraging. That’s my very long way of saying we don’t like genre labels.
I think what your candidness points to is that while we still struggle with the over-use of genre labels, some of the integrity that we take for granted in music journalism now comes from trails that had to be blazed back in the seedier era of the zine.
Yeah, it was bad. But I think people got wise to what was going on. When CDs weren’t really the thing anymore and labels started sending out streaming links, I think a lot of people lost interest [in journalism]. Now they don’t have to beg for something for free. They can just steal it anyway. I never cared about downloading. If you’re listening to our music, then I don’t care about how you got it. I know the label doesn’t want to hear me say that, but I know I’m not going to make a living off my band, so the more people who can hear what I do, the happier I am.
You’re playing Forever Deaf Fest in Chicago this December. What do you like most about playing on your home turf?
We haven’t played at home in about a year. We don’t play Chicago very often and I know we catch a lot of crap from that from other bands and scenes saying "oh, you guys are rockstars and you forget about your local roots." That’s not true at all. The difference today is that the only way that bands make money now is through touring and playing shows. They all know that. You’re not going to make anything off your album sales because they almost don’t exist anymore. So, what does that mean? That means every band must go out on the road. Any given month in Chicago, there’s about 30 shows. Not everybody has the money to go see every show they want to see, so your fans have to pick and choose between all kinds of options. If they see you’re a local band and you play three/four times a year, your crowd starts to diminish. While you were drawing 450, you’re now drawing 300, then 200, and now you’re down to 75 people. People say "oh, I can go see this show instead and I’ll be able to just see Novembers Doom in two months." We kind of make Chicago a bit more of an exclusive thing now just to get the most draw out the show instead of thinning out the audience.
That reminds me of how the rap duo $uicideboy$ didn’t play a hometown show in New Orleans until just recently. It was at one of the bigger venues and completely sold out. Sometimes it’s more special when you don’t oversaturate the market
Absolutely. Plus, we filmed a live DVD in Belgium. We didn’t even do it here in our hometown. The style of music we play is much more popular in Europe, so we tend to put more of a focus on where our fanbase is rather than forcing anything. For almost 30 years we’ve been playing our styles of heavy metal and doing what we’re doing, and what we’re doing hasn’t always been at the forefront of what’s popular. We had to go through nu-metal and so many different genres. Why would we try to convert those people into liking what we’re doing when we could go to the place where the people who like what we’re doing are? That place happened to be Europe. So, we’ve gone there and toured a bunch of times. We can go and play Chicago for 100 of our closest friends or we can go to Belgium and play Graspop in front of 15,000 people.
Sure. Sometimes there’s no use trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Really, it all comes down to time. We don’t have the time like we used to when we were younger. We need to go for the biggest bang for our buck, as well as the record label’s. Your record label certainly wants you to play for 15,000 people more than they do 75. But certain record labels, like some of the others we used to be on, are happy if you go out and have no money and no support and you’re in a van. They’ll actually tell you "save your pennies." They don’t give a shit about you. As long as you’re out there, even if it’s just in front of five people, that’s five people who might buy a record and give them money, even if we’re going not going to make shit on it. Unfortunately, that’s the music industry these days unless you’re one of the lucky ones to sell 100,000 copies or more. In this style of music, that’s just not going to happen. Even the biggest bands in the genre have day jobs.
We’ve always viewed Novembers Doom as a glorified hobby, and that’s why we’ve been doing it for this long. We never had delusions of grandeur that we’d be rockstars like Metallica and would be able to live off of this. We do it for the love, we do it for the fun, and we do it for each other. The guys in the band, we’re almost family and it’s like an excuse for us to get together and be with friends once a week.
Wrapping up on the topic of music for enjoyment, you recently offered a list of what you’re listening to right now. I was excited to see that you’re feeling Consider Suicide. Are you a big Kim Carlsson fan?
I’ll be totally honest with you. There was a video going around of a guy in a vocal booth and everybody was just making fun of him and laughing at this guy. I looked at it and went "man, that’s not to be laughed at." I was kind of impressed by it, so I looked him up. Then I started seeing all of the things that he does and Consider Suicide was one of them. I listened to it and it reminded me of This Will Destroy You, who I really like, so I was blown away by it. Ever since then I’ve defended him and told people to listen to what he does because he’s very talented.
It’s funny how a clip that was circulated to poke fun of him actually ended up earning him a fan. Joke’s on the haters.
Absolutely it did. Good on him. Even publicity like that can be good publicity.
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