Skeletonwitch Devours All Light
I spent several years in Columbus, Ohio. Most of that time, I was working at Magnolia Thunderpussy, a semi-legendary independent record store, the kind of which every town once had and, frankly, still should. The timing was perfect for witnessing Skeletonwitch right when they were starting out.
The band would come into town from nearby Athens for shows, and Columbus became their second home. The store sold their self-released debut At One with the Shadows for $5 (it last sold on eBay for $85, but I’m keeping my copy), and it was a pleasure to see the band go on to get signed, release a handful of acclaimed albums, and tour the world several times over while never losing the spark that made them special – even after roster changes.
The most notable lineup shakeup was vocalist Chance Garnette's relief of his duties in October 2014. Devouring Radiant Light, which released last Friday via Prosthetic Records, is the first Skeletonwitch full-length to feature his replacement, Adam Clemans. Although the Wolvhammer frontman did collaborate with the band on The Apothic Gloom EP, it is bound to be the first experience with the current lineup for many fans.
Devouring Radiant Light is musically much more guitarist Scott Hedrick’s baby than any of their previous releases. This was obvious with the first single “Fen of Shadows,” which at first glance seems like a movement away from the band’s energetic chugging style -- one so catchy and riff-heavy that people (erroneously) pegged them as part of the thrash revival. Even for a band that always had black metal influences (see "Erased and Forgotten" from 2011’s Forever Abomination or “Limb From Limb” off the band’s Prosthetic Records debut Beyond the Permafrost), it is a perceptible departure.
Skeletonwitch has spent the past month on tour in Europe, including spots at the Bang Your Head Festival in Germany and the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. Although the band is doing a trio of West Coast dates opening for System of a Down in October, the rest of the US will have to wait until next year to see them live. Hedrick called in just before leaving the continent to tide Invisible Oranges readers over until then.
In reality you changed singers four years ago. But for even though you put out the EP, for a lot of fans this is the first exposure to the new lineup. It must be strange dredging up all of that history now.
You know what's funny is that obviously we get the copy and we see the comments on social media, things like that, about Chance. But it's been so long for us that until you actually said that I didn't really think about it. I didn't really think about it in the context of how somebody else would view it. It's funny to think about it that way, but it’s been so fucking long and so much has happened in my life personally, professionally, and creatively. For me that's just so far behind; for anybody else, their perception is maybe just based completely on our output. I completely see why for them it doesn't seem that long ago, but I've still not really given it much thought.
I'm just happy that what we put out turned out the way that it did. I think that that speaks for itself. As far as people wishing for the past or wanting to dredge up the past, you know, wish in one hand, shit the other, however you want to spend your time is fine by me. I'm busy doing other shit over here.
Don’t want to completely rehash all of that drama but you are in the unique position where your guitarist is his brother. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t completely cut him out of your lives. How is he doing?
He and Nate still hang out, shoot the shit, and do what brothers do. By all accounts he's doing just fine. He’s getting on with his life, doing his own thing. He’s not playing music, he’s just working and doing his thing and he’s moved on. He seems okay, just living life as a civilian.
Adam is splitting time between both bands. Interestingly, Wolvhammer just released an album a couple months ago. Were you hesitant to bring Adam on as the full-time Skeletonwitch vocalist knowing he was going to stay in Wolvhammer?
We weren’t hesitant because he was the right fit. When you get that close to the edge – by edge I mean Nate and I deciding if we want this to continue – we took a step back. We parted ways with Chance and then we took a little bit of time off to reflect and decide if we wanted to continue, if we had something to say and do, if we still wanted to live this life and do this band. Ultimately of course the obvious answer is yes, that’s why we’re here talking right now.
But coming back from the edge of the cliff like that, you really don't give a fuck about all this other things. You know, I have nothing to lose. I don't care. So that also goes to finding the right guy in Adam. I didn't give a shit about his other schedule. Not that I didn't respect it, but I didn't care if there was a conflict. We'll make it work, we'll figure it out. If he's the guy, then he just needs to be the guy to be in the band and then we'll just figure everything out afterwards.
I've changed significantly professionally, personally, and creatively even since we parted ways with Chance. One of the things is not giving a shit about those types of things, all the little minutiae used to drive me insane. Every day on tour I was worried about moving the band further and all the eggs were in this basket. It was just so stressful and I just sort of let go when I realized like, you know what, I don't need this, I dislike this, I want to do this the way I want. We all liked Adam so we were going to make it work.
And, and you know, he's had to make a lot of sacrifices. I commend him for doing that. Wolvhammer has actually done tours where they had somebody else fill in on vocals. I know that's far from ideal! But we're trying to work together with those guys, with Jeff Wilson and the rest of the guys in Wolvhammer and of course with Adam.
Adam actually recorded the EP with you before playing live with you.
Yeah, that's why it was really, really unfair of us! I feel like Adam was a trooper. Aside from this scheduling business conflicting with Wolvhammer, when we first bought him in we said, ‘You want to replace this guy who was in the band for so long, the first thing you're going to write some lyrics and sing on these songs, but we’re not going to play any shows!’
We didn't give him a chance to get his footing and find comfortability with the band, really. I think he did a fantastic job all things considered.
Much more recently you had a drummer change. I guess it was in March when Dustin Boltjes left the band?
Yeah. It's funny the things people write online, the way things get categorized. He had some personal stuff he needed to take care of and sort of get his shit together. It wasn't acrimonious.
The scuttlebutt online was that he left to concentrate on Sacred Leather but I guess there was more to it than that.
Yeah there is but it’s not anything terribly scandalous. He just had personal shit to take care of.
He did drum on the album and then you recruited John Rice to replace him. Is he just playing live like he did with Behemoth or is he a full-time Skeletonwitch member at this point?
You know what? Nothing’s official yet but I would categorize it as Skeletonwitch and John Rice are dating and it's growing incredibly well! We definitely did discuss it when we were on this last tour and we’re about to do five weeks of Europe which he’s doing with us as well.
We’ve known him for a very long time and he almost drummed for us in the past. The writing has been on the wall for us and John for a long time. He’s a Midwest guy like we all are and he’s a nice guy. Not only did he fill in for Behemoth on their last tour when their drummer’s wife was having a baby, so he’s capable of doing that level of technical death metal, but he also drums with Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats. That’s equally as important to me personally because I want a guy who knows how to properly play a Stooges song as well as ridiculous technical death metal stuff because I’ve always felt like our band was sort of a rock and roll band playing blackish, thrashing stuff.
It looks very likely but nothing is official yet. We’re both just enjoying our honeymoon phase!
Did the writing process change at all for Devouring Radiant Light?
It changed from Serpents Unleashed to this one. The obvious thing would be that there was a different singer, but what that meant writing-wise was that Adam and I were able to have a lot of back and forth, a lot of constructive criticism. That wasn't something that was done in the past just due to temperament or egos. It just wasn’t done in a constructive way or at all really. With Adam, he would come in and say, “I think this is too noodly, can you cut this solo out here?”
He used my ideas for some vocal patterns and he was receptive to some things. Not everything but it was good natured and kind of refreshing to have that, because I was never able to do that before. It made the album so much better to be able to really scrutinize things and go over it.
I’m not trying to say anything negative about Chance, but he was very set in his ways. Most people fear change; some people fear it more than others. But in the past there was a lot of “that's too long, that's too weird, how are we going to play that live?”
I also asserted myself a little bit more creatively. In the past Nate was the main songwriter. Nate jokingly said to me, “If this does really well, we did a great job. If this flops, you fucked it up!”
I think I bought myself a little creative capital so on this record I was able to push things a little further. Remember I talked about the ego for this record, but there was a willingness to go deeper down the rabbit hole. I know it's not that crazy. It's not that out there. But in the world of Skeletonwitch, it definitely stands out quite a bit in many ways – the layers of guitars, the long songs and the different structures.
Although many are calling this your black metal departure, Skeletonwitch was incorporating that as far back as Beyond the Permafrost. More than that, this sounds like the darkest record that the band has made to date.
The irony there is that I, having written more for this record, am the guy who smiles too much and is too happy for metal! I know what you’re saying, that just happens to be more of my style. Nate’s style is the thrashier, fast, groovy, rhythmic stuff. There are a handful of songs on the record that sound more like – if you would – classic, old school Skeletonwitch. That’s Nate’s area. Mine is the more drawn-out, layered, somber, melodic sort of black metal-y stuff.
I listen to too much other music besides metal to just keep it one style or one sort of tone, I guess. In the last couple years I’ve really gotten into all kinds of crazy free jazz music, and lots of ambient, world music and stuff. It's not like our record’s going to sound like any of those things directly, but there are elements creeping in from my love of Brian Eno, my love of Pharoah Sanders or Don Cherry where I come up with ideas that are pretty wacky when jamming.
It took a lot of work honestly, to make it feel cohesive. I really tried to structure his record. Each song I hope has some kind of arc to it, a little bit of a journey. But at the same time as I was writing songs and when Nate was sending me stuff that he was writing, I was trying to sequence it as I was writing it. [I knew] what was definitely opening the album, definitely closing the album, and piecing it together. I like to think that even though there are a lot of disparate elements, everything but the kitchen sink, I believe we were able to pull it together and make it work and still sound like a cohesive piece of art.
So it’s not a coincidence that the title track and “Sacred Soil,” two of the most atmospheric tracks Skeletonwitch ever attempted, end side one on the vinyl and side two. They’re the last things the listener hears before flipping it over and when it is over.
Yeah, absolutely, and that's right up my alley. I started composing more modern classical type stuff. The ultimate goal here is film and television, but I started to do some with production companies for some ads and stuff like that as well.
There's another creative/professional sides of myself that has developed in the last couple of years that I’m working on. I've been listening to so much soundtrack work, a lot of modern classical composers, ambient artists – people such as Ryuichi Sakamoto the Japanese composer or somebody like Max Richter or this guy Luke Howard from Australia. I love, I absolutely love it. I’ve gone way down the rabbit hole listening to piano and string music. Some of that probably crept in from my love of that world and my endeavors in that world as well.
It also made me realize how fucking terrible so much of the interlude-type music is on metal records. Like, here comes the Lord of the Rings intro with the really bad fake synths. Or here’s some really bad neoclassical piece that’s either some bad dungeon synth troll crap or “look how much I can shred” neoclassical guitar thing, which I can't stand either.
Some reactions to “Fen of Shadows,” the first single released, accused the band of going prog!
I guess if you compare it to something we did in the past, maybe it is a Yes album! Compared to our catalogue it’s more proggish and I do love me some Camel, I’ll tell you what. That’s one of my bands, and I’m a huge King Crimson fan of course; I love Fripp and all the Eno stuff too. I know exactly what they’re talking about, which parts of the song tick the prog box. But I think that people who genuinely like prog will listen to the song and say, “this is not prog” and somebody who doesn’t like prog will want to avoid it at all costs – it seems like a lose-lose situation! But I get what they’re saying.
If nothing else, nobody lump you in with the next generation of thrash metal anymore. You seem to have outlived that revival, probably because you were never a perfect fit to begin with.
Yeah, we got saddled hard with that term! Not that we didn’t have a much more distinct thrash influence on the earlier stuff when we were younger, but I would argue that even our earliest records had a lot more than intentionally one dimensional, just straight ahead, thrash metal that absolutely wanted nothing to do with death metal and black metal and just wanted to thrash. We got saddled with that term and lumped in with a lot of bands that I felt were one dimensional – and that’s not a dig, that's what they wanted. I felt like there was a little more to our sound and as we developed more and more, the thrash kept getting less and less and less. So I think we can stick a fork in calling us a thrash band and I don’t foresee it coming back.
This is your last album on Prosthetic, at least on your five-album deal you signed. Obviously you could resign with them or you can explore free agency. In some ways the album is a new beginning for Skeletonwitch but the end of an era as well.
It feels wonderful to have to have options to do whatever we want. I like Prosthetic; we’ve known Prosthetic for a long time. They took a chance on us, they got us out there, they put us on tour, they did a lot of hard work and we wouldn’t be anywhere without them. So if anything that stands out it’s that we will always be grateful to Prosthetic.
But by the time this record comes out, I think all of us are like family. We love each other and have known each other for so long, but there have been ups and downs. But it’s time for us to grow and move on and see what else is out there.
People are hitting us up, a lot of people are actually, and asking us what we're doing and what’s happening after Prosthetic. It feels good! It’s nice to be wanted. We’ve been doing the same thing with the same people for a very, very long time. Just like the band lineup has changed and the sound is changing, a label change I think would be a good thing. Maybe we could self-release. Just the fact that we can do whatever he fuck we want is wonderful. We’ve never had that before.
So even with fifteen years behind you, you’re optimistic that future is bright.
Oh yeah! I’ve already started writing stuff for the next record and I can't wait! I had too many ideas for this one that didn’t all fit together; I have material that I think is solid and it hasn't even been put to use yet. I really found my creative self and asserted myself as a writer and a guitarist, so I'm chomping at the bit to do more. This is exciting again.
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