In the first installment of SfB’s interview feature with Andrew Hock, the guitar mastermind talked about his background in rigorous music theory and free form jazz as well his perspective on what defines experimentation. For this concluding installment of the feature, Hock talks at length about the various misconceptions within heavy music, what he values most about improvisation, and more. Psalm Zero’s debut full-length The Drain is released tomorrow by Profound Lore.
When you talk about extreme music being covered by what’s considered the more mainstream press, couldn’t that kind of exposure combined with the amount of immediate information provided by social media be seen as a positive just in regards to the fact that it offers a listening context that’s inevitably more eclectic and ultimately a creative vision that’s more diverse for the people inspired by it?
It’s interesting because the post black metal thing has been coming up in every interview I’ve done over the last two weeks, but it’s relevant, and it needs to be discussed. To me, though, that’s boring. I’d much rather listen to a third rate Cannibal Corpse rip-off than someone being like ‘Let’s take two genres that are both harmonically accessible,’ and let’s face it – black metal’s harmony generally is one that’s epic and within key centers. I guess when you go into the more Deathspell stuff, that kind of leave that, but if you’re talking about that classic Norse black metal sound, it’s pretty tonal. It’s accessible. If you play that on an acoustic guitar, those riffs wouldn’t sound crazy. It would sound pretty.
I’ve always taken issue with bands that say ‘We’re gonna combine these two genres and just lump them on top of each other and have that be a new thing.’ That doesn’t sound new. To me it just sounds like screamo. And screamo happened. But now you market it differently, and it’s something else all of a sudden because you found some kind of common ground between the two things in the way the harmony’s approached? There are a lot of black metal bands that I think if you just changed a couple of things around, it would sound like classic screamo bands.
I’m far less interested in this ‘We’re opening up the idea of black metal to these kids’ because what they’re getting exposed to is just a watered down palatable version of genres that have already existed and been played to death. There isn’t a true synthesis or anything that’s truly original. It’s watered down, palatable music with no enigmatic qualities, no ambiguity, no suggestion. It’s just easy listening. It’s essentially elevator music to me. It sounds like background music. There’s nothing particularly engaging about the harmonies, the composition, the structures, and that, to me, is where experimentation exists.
It’s all in how you deal with form, how you deal with proportion, how you deal with structure, with how you deal with harmony, with how you deal with timbre. These things are not being experimented with. What’s getting experimented with, again, is marketing. What if we call this that? Or make the album cover not black with upside down crosses? Is that something different? Yeah, I guess it is, but it’s something boring.
When you talk about structure and timbre and the idea of experimentation, do you see any value compositionally with free form or improvisational techniques?
Oh man, that’s an important part of what I do outside of the metal thing. I play tons of free improv gigs. I actually just did an interview with Hank Shteamer for Heavy Metal Bebop about the cross section between my love of metal and free jazz and free improv music. Derek Bailey is probably one of my favorite musicians ever. It’s a large portion of the music I listen to and what I go see when I see live music, and the music community that I’m involved with. What’s cool about what’s happening in New York right now is that there are a lot of dudes like Mick Barr and Mike Pride incorporating metal influences, and these other guys or someone like Craig Taborn who’s an amazing jazz pianist and keyboardist and dropping bands like Gorguts and Voivod in his influences.
My desire to bring a dark kind of metal thread to improv, when I was in Boston it was kind of frowned upon and people weren’t totally cool with it, although I had some people who were into it, but in New York it’s really become part of the improvisational landscape here. The reason I love improv so much is because it deals with the idea of music as language at its most base level. Everyone has a way that they speak – a dialogue that comes from a list of factors – who their parents are, what schools they went to, who they hung out with, what cultural things they were into, and everybody speaks in their own kind of recognizable way hopefully if you’re an interesting person.
As a musician, that’s what’s so interesting about imrpov. Everyone is bringing this totality of experience to this thing, and you’re forced to deal with just interacting with someone else with a completely different experience. It’s about finding those meeting places and having to do it in a rapid fire, on the spot way. It doesn’t always result in the music I’d want to listen to the most, but the sociological aspect of it to me is so engaging and so interesting. Improvised music has played a huge role, and it’s mostly what I studied in college. It’s played a huge role in how I perceive music, and how I deal with forms and how nebulous you can get with harmony.
Do you find yourself employing improvisation in your roles with Castevet or Psalm Zero, or are those wholly structured?
There’s no hint of improvisation in either of those bands. With both of those bands we want to deal with composition at its most intensive level. With those songs the focus is more on the idea of songwriting. The idea of a band like Alice in Chains or that period of Katatonia right after they lost the death metal vocals – that kind of serves more as the influence and inspiration for Psalm Zero. With Castevet, it’s more about using these kind of tropes and ideas that come from our love of extreme metal and various kinds of extreme metal. I find that songwriting is really only dealt with in traditional heavy metal stuff which is great and more songwriting stuff like verse-chorus structure.
But what we’re trying to do is take our love of more obtuse forms of metal and turning that into a way to write melodic, almost pop songs. With Castevet, our process is so slow and so involved. A few of the songs for Psalm Zero are too, but every detail is so heavily scrutinized and there’s so much editing. I think for Obsian we didn’t have a single rehearsal as a band before going into the studio. It was all done in pre-production just sitting at a computer pulling our hairs out over every note, every rhythm, and every little thing. I don’t think my guitar playing with Castevet sounds that much different from the kind of harmony I use when I improvise.
I feel like I’ve built a language on the guitar for myself that’s evolving over time like anything, but if you were to hear a solo improvisation of mine – while you could tell it was improvised, you’d probably say ‘Wait, that doesn’t sound too far from a Castevet song or a Psalm Zero part’ or something like that. In that sense, a lot of the way I improvise and a lot of the improvisational stuff that I’ve transcribed and studied informs the way I write riffs and in terms of how I write harmonies and stuff like that. But the actual process of improvisation has nothing do with the compositional process.
With Psalm Zero, a large portion of the discussion with fans and critics has concerned, for lack of a better word, just how different the album sounds. It’s genuinely singular yet obviously draws from a number of those goth rock and industrial influences. What was the thought process for you both going into the record?
I’d been a huge fan of Charlie Looker since I was in high school. From his stuff with Zs to his band Extra Life. When I moved back to New York after I graduated college last summer, he asked me to do a project with him, and I said absolutely. I’d always wanted to do something with, and I hate to use this term, but clean singing. I can’t sing. I have a terrible singing voice, and I think that’s from years of screaming in bands. I’ve just fucked it up. I guess with Psalm Zero we really didn’t have a game plan going into it.
We had a couple of parameters for this record at least – I can’t speak for the future – that we wanted to use drum machine. Charlie and I both wanted to work with just the two of us, and finding a drummer who was down to just play parts that were taught to them seemed a little unfair, so we just said ‘Let’s do the drum machine.’ We both loved Godflesh. We both love a lot of music that employs that, so let’s see what we can do that, and then we knew that we wanted it to be heavy, so to speak. Other than that, we really didn’t have any concrete ideas.
I can talk about our shared influences, but for us the idea was to make a record that sounds like nothing else but at the same time does have a familiar quality that you can’t really place what’s familiar about it. It’s really just us working together and coming up with music with no real set idea of genre or subgenre. When I make a record, I don’t want to deal subgenre or genre. I mean, you’re always dealing with it to some extent, but I just want to try to make something that only me and the musician sitting next to me or musicians can make together, so that’s the only goal.
Charlie sings the way he does. I play the guitar the way I do, and he’s also an amazing guitar player. So we just wrote music together, and the vibe just ended up coming on its own naturally. It was a real fluid kind of thing. There wasn’t much digging or discussion beforehand. We were both like ‘Let’s just get in a room and start making music,’ and that’s what came out.
photo credit: Greg Cristman
Psalm Zero has a few tour dates coming up. Are there any plans beyond that?
I think we’re going to Europe in June. We’re working out the details of that. Castevet isn’t a heavily touring band. We’re doing Maryland Deathfest and a couple of Canadian dates and two East Coast shows before Deathfest. I definitely want to do more touring with Psalm Zero than I have with Castevet. With Castevet, it’s tough for us to find bands to really play with that I’m interested in. I’m totally picky about who we perform with, and I wasn’t at first because the first few years we were playing shows all the time, but I got burnt on it.
Playing metal shows all the time, especially with a lot of bands I really wasn’t interested in playing with, and then that leading to audiences that I really didn’t feel like I was connecting with – the whole thing felt really disengaged from the reason I was doing it in the first place a lot of the time. Castevet got lumped into this Brooklyn black metal thing that people think or thought was happening with bands like Krallice, Liturgy, and others, and our intention wasn’t to be part of the scene or something. It was to be completely its own thing, so there was some frustration when that happened.
We also got labeled as a post-hardcore band which I never understood personally, because I didn’t grow up listening to hardcore at all. But with Psalm Zero, I don’t mind playing with bands I don’t necessarily like because the way it’s presented is that it’s just music. I don’t think anyone could hear it and say ‘That’s a hipster black metal record’ or us get lumped into any group of bands I might find distasteful, because it doesn’t sound like anything. That gives us the freedom where we can play with a lot of different kinds of bands and however the audiences react is how they react.
I just don’t think it can be lumped into any trend or category that’s going on right now in music. I don’t think Psalm Zero has anything in common with those bands. There’s really no worry on my end about ‘Oh fuck, we’re gonna have to play with that band?’ Because if they hear our music it can’t be construed as anything else besides what it is.
Which is really refreshing for me, it’s freeing, because I just focus on playing live and touring and seeing what kind of audience develops without having to worry about what bands we’re getting lumped into or who we’re catering to. There won’t be any frustration because people who are into it will be into it, and that will be it. That frees up worrying about anything besides the music and just getting it out there.
Thanks to Andrew for his time.
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