- Hello, Steve! Well, let's start from the beginning. Do you remember how and when did you first get interested in metal music? What were the bands that actually influenced your whole life?
- I grew up with a lot of the classic rock bands from the late 60's through the early 70's playing in our house. There were plenty of other things as well, but having music that was raw and edgy for its time playing in the room was very common. When I was beginning to branch out a bit in high school bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and The Scorpions were the rebellious bands that appealed to me. It was the "smoking court metal" from a time when students could actually smoke on campus. It seemed a logical progression. I liked the aggression. I was pretty introverted as a kid and there was a part of me that felt like metal gave me my first glimpse of something even remotely "dangerous" I could identify with and get wrapped up in, even if it was mostly with headphones in my own room. That's pretty dangerous, right? Playing music on your headphones until your mom calls you down for dinner? I can proudly say that I didn't have a night light. That's pretty badass.
Eventually a good friend of mine turned me onto punk rock. It had an energy that really turned my head. Though much of it was whiny, obnoxious crap, it all felt inspired in a way that excited me. I ended up seeing Corrosion of Conformity when they were still a legitimate hardcore band and I was completely blown away. I went all in for about a year. It provided my first big social circle that extended beyond kids from school. Then one day that same friend turned me onto the first Slayer album and the first Trouble album. At that moment I knew I had found my home! This 'underground' metal was so much darker and more focused than the smoking court metal bands! I loved it! It shared a similar energy with punk rock but with a dark seriousness that I found captivating. Punk made me want to scream, but this darker metal made me want to drive through brick walls. I was hooked right away.
I put all of my punk albums down to immerse myself in a handful of those mid to late 80's underground metal bands. The ones that really spoke to me never left my turntable. Why get take a chance on crappy pizza when your favorite pizza place kicks ass every time? I still enjoy a lot of that original handful of bands, but in smaller doses. Believe it or not I am a lifelong Beatles fan, first and foremost. I ignored them for a few years as my collection grew darker and the band logos became harder and harder to discern, but the druggy Beatles years have had as big an impact on me as a fan of music as anything else. They are probably also largely responsible for music being a way for me to express myself. The band that made me want to play drums though, was Rush. I was fourteen when 'Moving Pictures' came out, and I knew I wanted to be a drummer the very first time I heard the intro to "Limelight". Me and a million other nerds.
- When did you get your first drum-kit? What were your first steps of learning different techniques? How often were you able to practice?
- I got my first drum set around the time I turned seventeen. Late for most people, but thirty years later it feels like I have always played drums. I did have a kit when I was three but the only reason I know that is because I have seen it in pictures. I was always interested in and inspired by music, but I didn't even consider playing anything until the guy who turned me onto punk rock and underground metal urged me to get a drum kit and start a band with him. The introvert in me would never allow for such a bold expression, so I'm glad someone without those inhibitions pressed me to do it.
The idea that I was learning "different techniques" way back then, or even now, is pretty funny. If you consider "Me pick up stick; me hit drum with stick: me try not to hurt self in process" a technique then yeah, I was on my own path to discovery from the beginning. I was just a nerdy kid banging away on his mix matched drum set for the first couple of years. I was only able to play my drums if no one else was in the house, so every day after school I'd fumble around the kit for about thirty minutes until my younger brother got home from school. As soon as I saw the hallway lights flashing I knew someone had come home and it was time to stop. I moved out of the house right before I turned nineteen but I still had to work around other people's schedules. I have never been able to play drums any time I wanted. I'd say roughly 98% of my drumming time is band related. It's rare that I work on things without other band members playing with me.
My style developed as Confessor wrote more and more songs. I kept playing around with different things trying to find anything that would change the way a riff sounded. By emphasizing one note instead of another one it was possible to shift what your ear noticed. If I could change the riff enough it would sound like we were doing a lot more than we really were, and if the band liked that feel I'd keep the change. It was exciting to us, so after I learned a few effective changes I began to develop a "bag of tricks". People often associate cymbal grabs with my style of playing, and rightly so. I always liked the punchy accents in metal. Rush used more than most bands as well, and they were the band I kept on the turntable when I first got my kit. After awhile I realized I could use a cymbal grab the same way a drummer uses a closing hi hat to accent a beat. It was on after that! Every now and then I'll watch different drummer videos, and I am surprised that they almost never use cymbal grabs. Maybe an accent here or there will have one, but it's like the thought never entered their heads. It's a really interesting sound to me and if I stand out because of how often I use them, well that's fine.
- At that time, what was the local underground like? Did you have there any big bands or fanzines? What was the way for you to discover new music?
- There was a punk rock scene in Raleigh that was well established by the time I started playing music. Our hometown heroes were Corrosion of Conformity, and they were very linked in to the underground and tape trading scene on the East Coast, which probably meant mostly Washington D.C. and New York, though they played all over the place and had friends everywhere. Metal was just beginning to pop up around here back then. I don't remember any local fanzines in those days. You could get Maximum Rock and Roll at the record stores, but I don't recall any others. The free weekly periodical would let us know about shows and there would be occasional write ups if Black Flag or Suicidal Tendencies came through, but it was bought by another local weekly from Chapel Hill, so for years the only scene that got much attention was the college, "alt" scene that Chapel Hill was famous for. I was so immersed in more aggressive, precise music that I had no time for shoe gazers blathering on about their insecurities. Any new bands I found out about were presented to me by other friends. In the late 80's underground metal was just beginning to spread its leather wings and the local scene was small enough that we all found out about bands together as a family. I have always been pickier than most people, so I didn't spend a lot of time with new bands unless there was something that really stood out about them.
- In 1987 you joined Confessor and changed everything. How did it happen? Have you heard of them by that moment? Was there any audition for you?
- I was at home one afternoon when I still lived with my parents when someone came to the door. As soon as I saw the long, bleached blond hair and metal tee shirt I knew who it was. Scott Jeffreys and I attended the same high school the year before though we didn't know each other. He sang for a metal band and I played drums in a punk band. Even though we were becoming a "crossover" band, protocol didn't allow for such mingling back then. By the time Scott rang my doorbell I was a full fledged metal fan, so it was okay to be seen with him. He was searching for a drummer who could bring a little more to his new band than the guy they already had. That new band was Confessor. He had heard me playing from the street once or twice as he was driving to his girlfriend's house and on that particular day he decided to take a chance and meet whoever the mystery drummer might be.
We spoke for a bit and he gave me a tape of his band. I thought there was some real potential there, but they had a more laid back approach to their music. I wondered what they might sound like with a more aggressive drummer, so I learned their songs and made some changes. I had developed my ear even before playing drums by learning all of Rush' music with headphones up in my room. I was by no means a "natural", but I was determined to learn all of that stuff. The reward was in getting it right. There is a real physical connection between you and the music you're playing when you are behind a drum kit. I can't say I was very good, but I was motivated and I wanted a chance to play in a band that reflected where my musical tastes were at that point. The punk rock band I had been in had dissolved and this was a chance to step out beyond my comfort zone, which in hindsight was a critical point not only in my development as a musician, but as a person. I could easily have become more introverted at that point. Instead, I took the challenge and grew as a result.
Confessor were a pretty tightly knit group of guys, and they actually practiced at their drummer's parents' house. He and his brother, Brian Shoaf, founded the band. Their lead guitarist and I hit it off really well and we spent a lot of time together, devouring food and talking about music. I went to see them every time they played around here. It took awhile, but I eventually talked him into bringing his rig over to the room I was renting at the time and we played some Black Sabbath and Trouble songs, and maybe even some Confessor songs. After that night he talked to the other guys in the band and soon they all came over to watch the two of us play. I wish I could remember that more than I do. They were interested enough to have me play with them one afternoon back at their drummer's room with all of their own equipment. I remember Graham, the lead guitarist, telling them not to focus too much on what I was doing because the changes I made were disorienting. There was palpable excitement in the room, and probably some guilt, too. I wonder if that's what an affair with a married woman feels like.
After I sat in with them that day they decided to give their drummer a couple of months to show that he was motivated to do more behind the kit, but ultimately he chose to let the band go on without him. We continued to practice in his room for a bit. I think he must have been out with friends all the time, or maybe even at college. Soon though, we rented a storage space and were beginning to write our own brand of metal, which began to revolve around trying to create something new. Our parameters were defined as much by what we never wanted to do than by what we thought we could do. Once we established that we would never allow ourselves to do this thing or that thing, we looked at what was left as unexplored space and were eager to see what we might discover. Our rule was simple; stay heavy, stay interesting.
- The same year you recorded your first demo, "The Secret". Where did you record it? How many tapes copies did you have and how did you distribute it?
- We recorded "The Secret" at a small studio here in town for about five or six hundred dollars, if memory serves. I think we may have ended up with a couple of different batches, so let's say there were four to five hundred ordered. The tape trading aspect of getting the word out happened organically once people got copies at shows. We had very little to do with getting our tapes into people's hands beyond that. Our fans, like so many others, moved the tapes around as a way of showing the world what was going on in our local scene.
There is a radio station at N.C. State ( WKNC 88.1 FM ) that had a metal show on Friday nights back then called "Chainsaw Rock" which played a lot of underground metal bands. We were interviewed a few times and played live on the radio one night. Between the local exposure we got there, the fact that the underground metal scene was all about sharing its discoveries, and the fact that we were such a metal oddity in the region, we were able to develop a curious fan base. I can't emphasize enough how devoted metal fans were back then to their bands. They were loyal and very supportive. There was a communal sense of ownership in what was going on because it was a "pure" movement. It was new, subversive and cutting edge. It was fresh enough that no one had tried to tame it yet for commercialization, so as an art form it was still all about seeing what was possible. Musicianship was more important than being marketable. It was a genuine counter-culture scene that wanted to push things as far as it could. That's the essence of rock, but it was even more true in underground metal up until the point when it popped its devil horns through the earth and people realized there was money to be made. Once something new becomes marketable thousands of people try to replicate it without really understanding what was unique about it in the first place. It's what happens to all movements.
- How involved were you in the tape-trading? Those days, how could you describe it? Which bands were you in contact with? Do you remember some of the first European bands you exchanged the tapes with?
- None of us were big tape traders, but undoubtedly some of our fans were. That was a huge part of the scene. Our relationships with bands came more from playing out within a few hundred miles of home. We played shows with F.U.C.T. from Nashville, Stinking Lizaveta from Phillidelphia, Nosferatu from Norfolk (?) and occasionally we would end up opening for bigger metal bands ( bigger hair, too ) here in Raleigh like Vinnie Vincent Invasion and Helix. We even opened for Queensryche at a small local club once. We all got calls one afternoon back in the days of land line only phone service, and were miraculously able to get our gear, and our act together to assemble before the biggest crowd we had ever seen at that point. Queensryche had been touring with Metallica but had a few days off while Metallica went to perform at the Grammys for the first presentation of the Hard Rock/Metal award. Everything about the show was last minute and we ended up being the band asked to open. Like I said, there weren't too many metal bands to call back then. So while Metallica were losing that first, historic Metal award to Jethro Tull ( see Top Ten Grammy Blunders ) I was walking on stage in front of eight hundred people who were not only yelling "Confessor... Confessor" but were also calling out my name, "Shelton... Shelton". Totally surreal! I was taken aback. Maybe I missed the prompter that had our names up in lights.
Our first couple of out of town shows were with Corrosion of Conformity but we were too metal for most of their fans. There were some people who were turned on by us, but C.O.C. were still drawing a punk crowd that were not as keen on long haired, mathy metal dudes. We aren't metal in its purist form, so some people found our own unique brand of riffing inspiring at those shows, but punk and metal hadn't joined forces yet. We have never found the perfect label to apply to what we do, but I think most bands find that to be true. Our music was just weird enough to stand out from everything else. It was something people either loved or hated. There was very little in between.
- I always wanted to ask you about the live performance at Fame City in Houston, in 1988, as it's still one of my favourite live recordings. That was a bands competition, wasn't it? How did you join that contest? What other bands were involved? And how was it to play there?
- Ah yes, the infamous "waterpark show"! I never would have guessed that would be a stand out day for us. Someone just recently told me that he had two different conversations with people who didn't know about Confessor specifically, but did know about "...the metal band at the waterpark". Life can be very strange. That show came about as a result of tape trading. The organizer was a big time tape trader and had discovered us through his tape circuit. He convinced us that the event would be a big deal. It had local radio station support and was supposedly well attended the previous year. Thousands of people were expected to show up. It sounded fun to us, so we did it. What I remember about that show was finding it strange to have a floating audience who seemed completely unmoved by everything we were about. That, and my shorts sliding off at the bottom of one of the giant slides. I don't remember any of the other bands, but those all day affairs usually offered a chance to walk around instead of trapping you in a club. I tended to wander at those events. After unloading gear and waiting around for any kind of soundcheck, I was usually ready for a change of scenery.
We actually played pretty well that day and miraculously, the video sounds good. All florescent green swim trunks aside, it's fun to watch a bunch of young metal dudes blazing through a set which only three people can relate to at a place where families take their kids hoping they might go home with the wrong family. We all got really sun burned during our set. We must have been thirty feet up on top of the wave pool building. I remember that my forehead had already blistered by the time we stopped playing. The two guys we stayed with were fun enough. They were both big Led Zeppelin tape traders. That was the first time I saw them as a "heavy" band watching some of that video from 1969 (?) on some small soundstage for a live television broadcast. It was a fun weekend, and a lifetime later it has become part of cultural permanence on the internet.
- Within next few years you recorded 2 more demos, "Uncontrolled" and "Collapse", and after that you were ready to enter the studio for your first full-length, "Condemned". First of all, why did Graham Fry leave the band? And how did you find Ivan Colon as his replacement?
- I began to sense that Graham might leave as we were recording the 'Condemned' demo. He had been listening to a lot of John McLaughlin, Mahavishnu Orchestra and other 70's prog rock bands and he had less interest in metal's take on prog. He simply wasn't feeling it anymore and he stayed true to his inspirations. Better to quit than to drag something out and risk making it miserable for everyone else. Graham has played music in bands around town ever since and has done some touring. He even added a sort ambient, chaotic guitar track to a song another band of mine, Loincloth, recorded for our first album, 'Iron Balls of Steel'.
Graham was always great to work with and the two of us really tried to push ourselves when we were writing music for Confessor. It wouldn't be right to say that we were the spirit of the band because Confessor represented the eclectic mix of inspirations and musical comfort zones that we all brought to the table. But it would be fair to say that what Graham and I were coming up with made everyone stay on top of their game. Things were never quite the same after he left but unless one person has a true 'leader' role, a band should be a reflection of all its members. When we decided to change our name from Confessor to Fly Machine it had as much to do with the fact that we weren't writing the same material as anything else.
Once Graham left the band we really wanted to keep the tight knit family unit feel we had created. That was more important than having lots of guys try out. Ivan had been around from the beginnings of the band, travelling with us, hanging out... he was a natural selection. He filmed a lot of the video from the Fame City waterpark show. Ivan was more worried about us finding someone who could really light up a fretboard and worried he might not be able to pull it off, but we had faith in his abilities as a guitarist. We were concerned about being able to find someone we could accept as a 'brother', and he was already that. He joined within a few months of the recording of 'Condemned'.
- How did you end up by signing the contract with Earache Records? Did you consider any other labels or offers?
- We had talked to Hammy at Peaceville Records first about putting out an album before we were ready to record. As I recall he was very open with us about feeling he might not be able to push it as much as he would have liked. We did have a song on one of his Vile Vibes compilation before 'Condemned' came out. I think someone from Earache actually contacted us about signing a contract. It seemed like a pretty big deal for us at the time. Who am I kidding? It was a big deal! They were beginning to really blow up then, and they definitely had the ability to push a band like us. They were known for their grindcore bands, but no label was a perfect fit for our music anyway. Since they had a lot of extreme bands on their roster we were happy to be a part of the Earache family.
- Tell us about the recording sessions, how did it go? How long did it take you to record and accomplish everything? What was your biggest challenge while those sessions?
- Confessor had recorded all of our demos in smaller studios here in town. Twice in a studio that may have consisted of three small rooms and once in the lobby of a store that sold and rented sound equipment. It never felt like we were "slumming it", but the studio we recorded 'Condemned' in was a dream by comparison. Reflections was a studio in Charlotte, about three hours from where we all lived. We all took days off from work and we rented a condo for however many days we had to do the album. I think we had four days to record, and later on three days to mix down. We kept playing a track until the drums were right and would redo the guitars and bass later. That is the way I have recorded every time I have ever been in the studio. Scott came in at night to lay down his vocals and we had to make ourselves scarce so his mojo went undisturbed.
We felt like rock stars throughout the entire process. It seemed like the beginning of a dream life style. The studio was amazing! The control room at Reflections looked like the bridge on the U.S.S. Enterprise, and the playback system was a behemoth! We couldn't believe how everything sounded through the enormous monitors. The main recording room was about thirty five to forty feet deep with a ceiling roughly twenty five feet tall and lots of wood. I don't know how many of you may have noticed at live shows that the rooms that have a lot of wood in them tend to sound really good. The natural reverb in there was fantastic.
I never felt totally comfortable in studios back then. I could never relax. There were many reasons for it. I can hear how uncomfortable I was whenever I listen to that album, which has a lot to do with why I never listen to it. I was so accustomed to our own room back in Raleigh and all its mood lighting that the bright studio lights and cables draped across my back were major distractions. It kept me from opening up during those sessions, so my playing was more conservative than usual. That had to be the biggest challenge for me during those sessions. I have been in studios enough since then that those kinds of things aren't distractions anymore, but they sure were then. I have a lot more confidence in my abilities now, which has a lot to do with it as well. I don't remember which song required the most takes. I would guess either "Suffer" or "The Stain". "The Stain" was the newest song at the time and I had written parts I wasn't able to play yet, which was something I did frequently to make sure I kept expanding as a drummer. Believe it or not, "Condemned" went the quickest. There were either three or four takes of that song. Sometimes our faster songs are easier because there isn't enough time to second guess your playing. I had to practice that song so much that it was deeply ingrained by then.
- After the release, you had a big European tour together with Carcass, Entombed and Cathedral. Was it your first EU visit? What impressed you the most? Do you have any road stories to tell?
- It was the first time the band traveled to Europe, and we were pumped! We had played regionally in the U.S. but other than the trip to the waterpark in Houston and a show in New Orleans we had only been as far away as New York. We felt like there would end up being many more opportunities to travel, but we really enjoyed and appreciated what we were involved in as it was happening. The Gods of Grind tour was a big deal and we were fortunate to have things happen at the right time to be able to take advantage of it. That tour was fantastic! An unbelievable experience for us, especially as it was our first time out of the gate.
I have always liked to travel, but I have to tell you that it's even better when other people do all the driving and your meals are free! We'd roll into the club and lunch would be ready as soon as we found our dressing room. Since Carcass and Entombed always got soundchecks we had a few hours to check out the city. I tended to go towards whatever the tallest spire was since there aren't any examples of gothic architecture in the States. A lot of times that meant that I was pretty high up in the city, so I had plenty of great vistas. Sometimes someone would accompany me but many times I was by myself. I have never enjoyed hanging around clubs all day long. I'm always happy to engage fans, but before shows there isn't much to do at a club except wait. I much prefer to get an eyeful of sights that I may never have an opportunity to see again.
Most of the Gods of Grind tour was catered, so the meals were really damned good. There was a group of cooks who followed the tour. In the States we were lucky to find pizza close by and we had to pay for our meals most of the time. Real food was a treat! We always played first, so after dinner we'd rock our 30 minute set, go take showers, scavenge the kitchen for any food that remained and then find the best spot to check out Entombed and Carcass. Both bands were great and sometimes you'd get a clear sense of the crowd being more into one band or the other but for me, Carcass were the highlight every night. They were so heavy, time after time! They were a lot tighter live than they were on the record, which probably meant that they recorded those songs not long after they learned them. We felt like we were much better at playing the songs on 'Condemned' six months after we left the studio, so I could relate to that phenomenon. Man! Every night, they were the heaviest band I had ever seen. We would sometimes find spots up in the rafters to see them and the entire audience. With all of the head banging it looked like they were playing to fields of wheat swaying in the breeze, fists and leather jackets! We never saw anything like that in the States!
We shared a bus with Entombed, who were super nice guys and apparently, professional consumers of alcohol. I think they even had cards proving as much! No matter how drunk they got, or how many shoes they filled with pee, which is no small feat ( pun intended ) on a moving bus, they always managed to get up the next day and shake it off. Fortunately they kept their drunken pranks to their own ranks. I never once put my shoes on only to wonder whose bodily fluids were sloshing around in them.
The sights, the food and seeing just how devoted the fans were to their favorite metal bands were the big takeaways for me. There were times where people confused Michael Amott for me and vice versa. He did admit to telling a fan who thought he was talking to me that all the other drummers on the tour were crap and that "he" ( meaning me ) was the only drummer worth paying attention to at all. I thought that was hilarious. I got surrounded once in Jena by about fifteen or twenty people demanding that I sign jackets, body parts, babies... you name it, and there was no way I could have forced my way out. I had to sign my way through the masses and the whole time I was thinking "How bummed are these people going to be when they realize it was my signature permanently inked on their leather jacket and not that of their favorite guitarist?" I tried to tell them all I was not Michael Amott, but it was about as worthless as a store owner trying to tell "peaceful protesters" that they might want to pay for the flat screen televisions they are leaving with through the opening where the window used to be.
- And straight after that you went on the tour with Nocturnus. How did it go? Did you play in Paris? What are the highlights of that one?
- There were a few cities we played on the Nocturnus tour that we had just visited a few months earlier with Gods of Grind. Those shows went pretty well, but there were far more shows in smaller markets. I was prepared for the drop in attendance at the shows, but not everyone took it in stride. We certainly missed the catering! There was a funny moment towards the end of the tour in which one of us tried to act as though the canned food we got at the show, which I swear to this day looked and smelled exactly like dog food, was actually not bad in an attempt to prove a point to someone who was less than satisfied with how things were going. There were no fireworks or anything, but let's just say that our guitarist was not convinced that things were fine, and the guy trying to prove a point ended up eating two cans of dog food for his effort.
We did play Paris, and I remember it being one of the better shows. I think it was an old theater that held maybe four to five hundred people. The old tour itinerary is laying around the house somewhere. Someone at the show gave me a tiny pair of drumsticks that were made to go on a key ring. I had them on my key ring for years until one of them broke off. The other one is still around. Those are the little things you collect in life that take you back whenever you see them. Paris and Rome were the two best shows on that Nocturnus tour once we left the cities we had played earlier with Gods of Grind. If anyone who reads this was around back then, I'm pretty sure we had a day off in Paris because I remember Ivan being torn between going to see The Beastie Boys or Mr. Bungle. Seems like a win win to me. I'm sure the Beastie Boys were smokin' back then, and the best show I ever saw was Mr. Bungle on their 'California' tour a few years later in 2000.
- In 1992 you released your self-titled EP, with some Trouble covers. Where did you record and how could comment the choice of those Trouble songs?
- We went back to Reflections in Charlotte to record those Trouble songs, along with Black Sabbath's "Hole in the Sky" which was used for the 'Masters of Misery' tribute album Earache released. Both bands had a lot to do with the kind of music we created. Black Sabbath were influential in that they inspired so many of the bands we all liked, but Trouble were a huge source of inspiration for us as a band, and as individual musicians. Their first two albums are so heavy. They bacame a rock band with their fourth release, 'Trouble', but the three albums before that have great material on them. I have always thought of my own drumming style as a mix of Jeff Olson's natural power ( he played on the first two Trouble albums ) and Terry Bozzio's abstract angularity. I mentioned that to Jeff Olson a couple of years ago and he thought it made perfect sense.
Confessor used to play different Trouble covers live, and the two we recorded were the two we were most comfortable playing. Trouble wrote an instrumental called "Endtime" which is on their first album, 'Psalm 9'. It's a wonderful mix of heavy riffing and mood changes. We owe a lot to that song, and it's a hell of a lot of fun to play live. Their guitarist's were really emotive, and their version of heavy was my favorite. Trouble's "Last Judgement" was the other track we recorded and was originally on an early Metal Blade anthology, 'Metal Massacre lV'. I think the band had played the song before I joined and since we were all Trouble fans, and that song was a harder one to find, it felt like an interesting selection. I would have been happy to play most anything off of their first two records, honestly. I'll play "Revelation: Life or Death", "Victim of the Insane" or "Wickedness of Man" with anyone! I've had two different dreams about having to fill in for their drummer on the spot just before they went on stage. That's a pretty good sign that I was into them.
- So, later in 1994 you split-up, why did it happen? You were going to record your second album, weren't you? Did you have already any songs prepared? Did you have a title in mind?
- Our momentum began to slow down within a few months of the two tours in 1992. It began to seem like what we had experienced was more of a fluke than the beginnings of something enduring. We were supposed to be on the US equivalent of Gods of Grind but label politics changed everything. Earache had just partnered with Columbia Records, so one of Columbia's bands, Brutal Truth, took our slot on that tour. We were really bummed out by that because we had never played much further than our own back yard here in the States. We were so eager to take our own brand of weird metal on the road and show the country what we were about. Instead what we got were whatever shows we could scrape up around here on our own. Traveling bands already had opening acts, so we got odd shows here and there that never really amounted to much. Also, Earache insisted we send another demo before negotiating a second album, so we threw one together for them and they sent back a form letter saying we were not the kind of band they were interested in pursuing. After what had seemed like the beginning of a long, wonderful ride we found ourselves at square one again.
Ivan was the first member to leave the band. Once it became clear that the days of struggling had returned he enrolled in college and moved to the mountains. It took us a little while to find a replacement and to be ready for shows. It wasn't as though people were beating our door down trying to audition. During that slow down, Scott began to sing for another band he had formed with some local guys that was more vocal friendly than Confessor. By the time we were ready to play our first show, Scott was ready to call it quits. About a year and a half had passed since things had been busier for us, and like Ivan, he didn't feel like starting over again. Scott announced he was leaving the band at our first show with Chris Nolan as our lead guitarist, so we had another huge setback right out of the gate. By the time we found another singer and were ready to play out it was clear that our newer members' influences and personalities had affected the music enough that we didn't feel right continuing as Confessor. There was a desire to rid ourselves of all the baggage as well, but it was fair to say our direction had changed and we didn't want to be held to Confessor's standards if we weren't going to focus on the same kinds of things in our music.
Of the three songs we submitted to Earache, one survived and became "Until Tomorrow" which made it onto our second album, 'Unraveled'. We were not so far along in the songwriting process when things began to fall apart back in '94 that we knew what we wanted to call the album. Finding appropriate titles can be daunting, and we work at such a slow, glacial pace that we were far from needing to think about that. Finding the right title for an album is almost as unpleasant as posing for band pictures. You can come up with funny or silly titles all day long but finding a "serious" name that reflects your essence and that everyone agrees upon is a real chore.
- In 2002 you re-united to play a concert in memory of Ivan Colon. Whose idea was it? And how did it feel to be together again? What was the venue you played?
I believe that the idea for a benefit for Ivan's family was originally brought up by a local musician named Abe Quinn who had been booking shows for a bit and had been playing in a band called "Man Will Destroy Himself" with Reed Mullin of Corrosion of Conformity. Abe and Ivan had known each other for a long time and Raleigh has always been small enough that there has been a sort of familial bond among its musicians, especially for those of us who played in the dark recesses of Raleigh's underground scene.
Graham was more than happy to come back for Ivan's benefit show. I wasn't sure how things would go at first since it had been about ten years since he had played with us. While there were some rusty spots, and some things he had forgotten, I do remember the first time we played Trouble's 'Endtime' as we were preparing for the show. It sounded better than it ever had, and for those four or five minutes it felt like Graham had never left. It felt so "right" that it was actually a little emotional. Just the slightest thing can change how a band sounds, so having our original guitarist back in the lineup even for one show made everything sound the way I always thought of us sounding. More important, everything "felt" right. It's not as though I thought we were really missing much when Ivan was our lead guitarist, but it took bringing Graham into the room with us to make me realize how much things could change without noticing. It was a unique moment in the band's story, and one that I hope I never forget.
The venue was a place called "The Lincoln Theater" downtown, which still has shows and is still a great place to see bands. It was an old movie theater and probably holds about 500 though legal limits are often less than you might think. The night of the benefit the place was completely packed. We have played plenty of great shows and had many wonderful experiences on stage but that night was by far the most satisfying and moving show I have ever played.
It is not uncommon for our shows here in Raleigh over the last several years to feel like a high school reunion. There are so many people you have known for nearly thirty years who come out of the woodwork to check us out. I realized that it's like an extended family. When you have your holiday dinners with your real family you see people who you may not see even once a year, and you talk about how life is and what you've done, and it can be really nice. Shows for us are very similar, but it's the "family" that knows your metal side, and who has known about all the band stories and understands the counter culture side of metal. I never talk about that stuff with my own family, so it's nice to feel like I have two big families. On the night of the benefit show there was every member of that extended, metal family in the audience. People staked their claim to the same spot in front of the stage that they used to occupy so many years before. Everyone was ear to ear smiles and singing along to every lyric. I felt like I had the best seat in the house! I could see everything going on on stage and I could see just how much everyone in the crowd was enjoying themselves. It was amazing, and was exactly the kind of celebration Ivan would have wanted for such a gathering.
- After that you released 2 more EPs, got the contract with Season of Mist, and were ready to enter the studio to record your second full-length. When did you first start thinking of the new album?
- When we played the benefit show we were not thinking of it as being the beginning of Confessor's second coming. It was really just something we wanted to do to help out with Ivan's hospital bills and for his memory, and the band's memory. But about six months later we were asked to get together again to play a metal festival not far from here. We were a little hesitant at first because we felt like our dedication was to Fly Machine ( the band we morphed into from 1996 - 2001 ) and it felt wrong to put so much energy into something we felt had lived its life. Fly Machine wasn't very active at the time though, so we talked about it and decided we'd do the festival.
The festival ended up being a hell of a lot of fun! So much fun that we decided to abandon Fly Machine and do something with more vitality. Fly Machine had become as much of a habit as anything else. Any of you who have been in bands might know what I'm talking about. It felt like we were just going through the motions and that we had no real purpose anymore. We still liked what we were doing musically and we still enjoyed spending time together, but it felt like we had no desire anymore. Confessor offered us a chance to actually do something meaningful again. We began writing songs for 'Unraveled' immediately after deciding to drop Fly Machine.
- Tell us a bit about the "Unraveled" album's production. Where did you record it and how long did you spend there? What was your main goal to achieve with it? How could you evaluate this work now?
- I have mixed feelings about 'Unraveled', from its production to the actual songwriting and everything in between. One thing that becomes abundantly clear when writing music is that different people bring different talents, different priorities in songwriting, different inspirations and more specifically in our case, different ideas of what "heavy" means. Once the lineup changed, the balance of personalities changed with it. Unless you are in a band in which one person has near total control, there is no way to avoid sounding different. There was a substantial difference in the interests of the individual band members during the writing of 'Unraveled' that was clearly reflected in the music.
During Confessor's earlier days the stronger personalities in the band were most interested in pushing themselves to see what they could do and how far they could take their individual playing. We meant first and foremost to be a heavy band, but we also enjoyed being a weird band. We never wanted to become predictable. Fast forward several years and one of the key riff writers was considerably less interested in pushing things. The musical interest balance shifted from leaning towards progressive, abstract metal to leaning towards heavy rock. The newest guitarist at the time was inspired by Confessor, but his take on abstract metal was not totally congruent with what we had always focused on before, so there were attempts to pull the band in different directions without there being strong unanimity for any one direction. Eventually we ended up writing a song for this person, then a song for that person and trying to find a way to tweak things so there was some kind of binding factor that could make everything sound coherent.
There are definitely moments on 'Unraveled' that shine, but I was uncomfortable with how much of that record felt like we were "taking a breather". I happen to feel that Scott's vocals saved the day. His approach was less abstract than it had been in the past, but more palatable to most. His vocals sounded more connected to the music, which was probably because of the accessibility of the music. I have an instrumental version of the album that I listened to as we were breaking in our newest guitarist a couple of years ago. Returning to it in that form I could hear that we were working towards something as a band during the writing of the first few songs. For years all I could hear when I tried to listen to the album was the conflict in personalities and styles. It was very difficult for me to stay in the band towards the end of that experience.
The production on 'Unraveled' is weird to me. We had the same kind of recording schedule we had with 'Condemned'; maybe three days to record and four days to mix down. I don't recall anymore. I think it sounds good compared to other albums when I play them side by side, but I'm not crazy about the mix overall. The same guitarist who leaned towards a more rock approach to writing also leaned towards a guitar sound that in my own opinion, was better suited for a rock band. For metal guitars to enhance their heaviness you have to take a lot of the mid range frequencies out, but that's where a lot of the "soul" is for guitarists. Those mids cover up the lower tones and soften the edge of a guitar sound, so the two defining components of a truly brutal guitar sound are compromised. A lot of times it's the difference between a guitarist having the sound that makes them sound good as a solo guitarist, and a sound that makes the whole band sound good. Thrash bands use a lot of mids, but we were heavy and punchy, not thrashy. For maximum punch we would have needed a different guitar sound. I do think that 'Unraveled' is a decent album overall, with some great moments here and there, but it also falls below what our standards had been in the past in a few spots. I felt like we were trying to do something that other bands were better suited for instead of refining what we did that set us apart from everyone else.
The only thing we had in mind collectively when writing 'Unraveled' was to get the second album out that should have come out several years earlier. It was tough on some of us to have things fall apart the way they did, and we had a lot more to say as a band. It wasn't until we were about a third of the way through writing the new songs that I realized we weren't really speaking the same language anymore. Trying to relive an experience is a natural part of life, but it's rare that it works the way you think it will. One of the key riff writers basically didn't understand why anyone would want to be heavier than Tool or Alice in Chains, and certainly wasn't interested in being any trickier than either of those bands. While those bands have their moments and have their place, my response to that is this; Tool and Alice in Chains just aren't that heavy, that's why we need to be heavier than them.
- What are you up to now? Is there a chance for a new album from you? What are your plans for the near future?
- Confessor are writing a third album right now with a concerted effort to stay true to our original mission: writing heavy, weird metal that isn't afraid to venture into new territory while adhering to the creative brutality that makes metal such a wild ride. There is a new confluence of styles but the newest member is a product of metal, not of rock. There will be differences still between what we do now and what we did in the past, but it won't be a laid back release as our second album was. Having a young blood in the band ( Marcus was born after my first show with Confessor! ) has been great for me because his willingness to stay in the room until we get things right is more closely aligned with my own drive. It has been fun returning to a more aggressive form of metal, and a form that better reflects the kinds of things that I have always sought out as a musician. We are really looking forward to seeing what we can come up with, and we feel like there are no limits on what we can try as a band. We will never be a Spastic Ink, but we never wanted to be that. We prefer a touch of the weird punctuated with knuckle dragging heaviness, filled with interesting transitions and breaks. That is precisely what we are shooting for with this lineup.
For the last several years I have also been in an instrumental band called 'Loincloth' and we happen to be working on our second album right now. Loincloth are a band in the same vein as Confessor without the kinds of restrictions that having a singer automatically brings to the songwriting. If you took all of the transitions and accents in Confessor and compressed them into several two and three minute songs you would have something that resembles Loincloth. We are a very 'short attention span' band. I am scheduled to record the drums at the end of October, and I am eager to get back into the studio. We threw everything we had into our first album, but this one will be more focused. When we recorded the first time we didn't think we'd ever do anything else, so everything that was finished made it onto the album. This time we have used a little more discretion in shaping the album. It's a lot of information for a listener to absorb, even more than a Confessor album, so we have done the gentlemanly thing and made it a little easier to take all at once.
For me personally, I am ecstatic to be going into the studio again with Loincloth, and maybe even a little more thrilled about doing the next Confessor album. I think that's because I feel as though Confessor will be able to redeem itself. I never wanted 'Unraveled' to be our last album, and for years it appeared as though it would be. It will still take some time before we are ready to record. Our process is a slow one, to put it mildly. Scott lives in China, which has complicated things but we are figuring out how to work around that. With three wives in the mix, five kids and a member literally halfway around the world, Confessor have many things that can change an attack plan. Everyone is on board, but life gets in the way sometimes. Fortunately we are a patient lot, and thankfully our wives are even more patient!
- Thank you for this interview, Steve! Would you like to say a few words to your fans and our readers?
- Dima, thank you so much for this opportunity to talk about Confessor's long, disjointed history with you and your readers! It's always an honor to be considered for valuable fanzine or webzine "ink". For fans of creative metal, thank you for years of support and devoted fandome! There is no music that satisfies like metal when it's done right, and we have tried to do what we are driven to do to pass along the inspiration that motivates us all as individual musicians, and as fans of the genre. For those of you who are die hard Confessor or Loincloth fans and want a peek into the inner workings of what we do, I maintain a blog called "The Poundry". I have left it alone for awhile but am planning to get back into the mix with it right away. I have missed writing, and this interview has made me want to do more of it. Things are about to pick up with both bands and I want to step back into the captain's chair. Where else should one be when taking over the world? I hope to hear from some of you there.
Here's to metal, horror movies and friends! The world is a better place because of them. Thanks again, Dima! I hope to see you at a Confessor show one day!