A little while ago, a band from Champaign got in touch with us, contemplating the idea of streaming their new album in our dinky little website. That happened, then we fell head over heels over the album. Now, to get a trifecta, we got in touch with Isaac Arms from Withershins for an email interview. Space Rock, cartoon naughty bits and the state of art are talked about. No mention of Throat Warbler Mangrove though.
- Let’s break the ice with an easy one: where does the name come from and how did y’all agreed to name yourselves like this?
We first started playing together around the time I was finishing up university. I’d taken a graduate class on Goídelc—Old Irish—and one word that stuck out was a borrowed one: withershins. It’s Germanic/Scots, and basically means “against the sun,” as in anti-sunwise or counter-clockwise. It’s an adverb. It was found at the beginning of every death tale that we had to translate. Throughout the course of any death tale, heroes would commit taboos called geasa, which would doom them. One of my favourite Irish heroes, Cúchulainn, had a geis to never eat dog meat, but he also had one that said he had to always accept food offered by a woman. So, when a woman offered him dog meat, his fate was sealed. It’s a convenient way for the Irish to basically posit that their heroes didn’t die due to any fault of their own, thus they remain immortally potent. At any rate, in the beginnings of those old Irish tales, heroes would often take their dog-chariots out; and it was considered good luck to take the chariot in sunwise turns before heading off to battle. To take one’s dog-chariot in counter-clockwise turns—i.e., withershins—meant that no matter what else they did in the rest of this story, you already knew, right there, from that one word…that this person was already dead. So, starting out as we did with me dropping out of school and ending a long-term relationship, I suppose that was just how I felt. Doomed. It’s really a shame we’re not a proper doom metal band, really.
- Another icebreaker one: what are your influences?
Our influences vary greatly from member to member. We’re often pegged with Braid and HUM as influences, which is a fair cop seeing as I grew up listening to that stuff. In terms of non-traditional song structure, dirty jazzy chords, that sense of math, and attack; and all around noodly guitar stuff, I would admit I draw heavily from Braid. And even though I’m a die-hard shoegaze fan, I suppose a lot of my guitar sound comes from loving that huge and heavy sound I first fell in love with when I heard HUM. One of my favourite things about this band, though, is finding out what the others do with what I bring to the table.
- We usually like to pick the brains of the musicians in the bands, so, individually, what made you choose your current instrument of choice? Ever felt you should’ve picked a different instrument?
I didn’t have loads of friends who were all playing instruments and writing songs when I was young, so I suppose I chose guitar because it was self-sufficient. Drums or bass were more difficult, and I could play guitar by myself just fine. I’ve played bass in other bands, as many guitarists are wont to do, but I am pretty happy being a guitarist.
- What was your recording experience with the fine folks of The Life and Times? I would’ve folded like a house of cards.
Working with Allen and Eric was wonderful. They really helped us achieve the tones we were searching for, and helped us get those takes. We had to do a lot of work in not a lot of time, so their knowledge and support were invaluable. I wish I had loads of stories to share but in reality I have a shit memory and most of what my brain conjures is just a shared focus, some great discussions about what we wanted and what we were doing, and loads and loads of coffee. There was one particular moment where Allen re-wrote a vocal melody. I was very prideful about it, but after a sterntalkin-to, I gave in. And now, of course, it’s my favourite vocal melody on the album. It’s the bit in the middle of ‘Chronic.’ Whenever I listen, I still hear him singing that back to me from the talk-back.
- Mt. Fuji in blue is a gorgeous album but I wondered throughout: is there a major concept tying the songs together?
Thanks very much! This album is the least like a concept album that we’ve done. The first one (Aeriel, 2009)was indeed a concept album with characters and plot and such. Then Silver Cities had an insistent theme of nightlife and cityscape. I think the subject matter on this one is more varied; there’s only three love songs, for one. If there’s any over-arching theme to this one it’s the sense that everything’s fucked, but, somehow, everything will be OK.
- There’s a clear love to posthardcore (the distortions), math rock (the noodling and rhythm changes) and space rock (the lush atmospheres) in Mt. Fuji in blue. How much do you take from a band you love and how much do you distil it to make it yours?
It’s pretty rare we overtly reference a band in the creation of a song, or riff, or whatever. Usually that comes after, such as we’ll refer to a song as sounding like Interpol, Appleseed Cast, or Pedro the Lion. Everything’s been done, so everything’s fair game. I think having five people with strong taste making the music, there’s enough going on that even if I’d been insistent, like “this needs to be a goddamn My Bloody Valentine song,” by the end of it, it would still be a Withershins song.
- For the record: is the song ‘How not to be seen’ a Monty Python reference?
Yes. Absolutely. The song title, anyways. Good catch.
- How much do you play with your songs in a live setting? I imagine ‘All you Need’ lends itself to droning and jamming out.
It’s not often that we “jam out” live, honestly. We certainly get silly in the practice space, but we’ve not yet explored extending parts much live. It’s happened, but likely under the influence of chemicals, and not planning. ‘All You Need’ gets pretty droney live in the sense that what Bryce plays varies, and sometimes we certainly slow the tempos of songs to an almost silly low bpm.
- With the way the economy is punishing art everywhere, what pushed you towards going all out for a double vinyl?
The fact that we tracked this to tape. The drums sounded so good, and we were so enamoured of the tones coming out of the monitors in the control room, we just wanted folks to hear what we heard. After reissuing Silver Cities on vinyl, and hearing that sound that I hadn’t heard since we first recorded the thing, I knew that I would do whatever it took to release all our stuff on vinyl henceforth. And to be clear—the economy is punishing virtually everyone. But the 1%.
- About the cover being the photo of a Smurf dick (or so a tweet said), would any other releases feature cartoon genitalia? It seemed to work for Death Grips!
I guess Zach Hill is a cartoon, I dunno. That was just a joke. The album cover is actually an image of the cyan colour family, all blurred to hell.
- I keep hearing “guitar music is dead” since, shit, 2004, so as a band that feeds from the genre, what do you think? Walking wounded, Russell Crowe in Gladiator style, gone beyond salvation like Hans Gruber or just playing possum?
I remember hearing that “rock n roll was back” when The White Stripes albums hit big. Which I found odd, because I’d never stopped listening to guitar music. I try to actively seek out a wide variety of music to not be so stuck-in, but I’ll never stop listening to it. It’s my first love. I’d like to think even if I weren’t a guitarist, it would still be huge guitars that did it for me; hopefully it’s not some dire self-obsession. But maybe. I do like those images you’ve painted, though. I wouldn’t comment on genre or the musical climate as a whole. I think there’s enough people in rock bands with just enough money to buy records once a month, that there will always be support for the community. And possibly there are people out there who aren’t in bands themselves that buy records; it might happen.
- With Failure back and the promise of a re-issue (or several) from Hum and current bands like Ovlov and Cloakroom getting some love, do you think Space Rock will finally get a little bit more of recognition from the media?
Space Rock hasn’t gotten the press that Shoegaze has. I think it’s more difficult to pin-down. I’ve called us a shoegaze band partially because that’s what I listen to most, even if we aren’t proper shoegaze. But who is anymore? My biggest influences are shoegaze and emo, two genres whose tags originated as insults. But oddly, combining the two, we’re really Space Rock, I suppose. There doesn’t seem to be as much of a community behind space rock. Failure and HUM, those are gigantic bands, though. They’re the kind of bands that if someone’s heard of them, they’re quite possibly their favourite bands. Jesu is my favourite group, so of course I would recommend a bit of crushing guitar, hard-hitting drums, buried vocals, and dark melody…to everyone.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López