Saturday, May 22, 2010

Interview: Sculptured

I have read almost all of your bio material, and I think I have most of the details (the most obvious, in any case) of your band's personal history firmly in my memory now, but would you mind filling in a few gaps? I know that Sculptured progressed very quickly from the time you released your first demo to the point where you were signed and pressed your first album - in retrospect, did it happen too fast for you? Are you still satisfied with that first album? What would you change, if anything? How was that album received - not on a critical level, but by the people around you and the people whose opinions you respect? Was there any kind of backlash against you for the speed at which you progressed to the level where you are a widely-distributed band? Did you, or do you now, have problems in relations with the 'underground'? I get the feeling that Sculptured doesn't really place that high of a priority on fitting into any certain scene - could you elaborate on that?

The progression of Sculptured was very fast. I do think it happened too fast, I often ask myself how do I deserve all of this? I have never played live. I hardly had a demo and I really didn't send that many out, probably only 100. I think the one single detrimental result of this was that I signed to a label too quick, and this was Mad Lion Records out of Poland. I was just excited to have a contract offered so quickly! I won't get too caught up in the specifics of the contract, but it was not very good. I have The End to thank in getting me out of it. They licensed the album from Mad Lion and in my mind completely saved the album from obscurity. Mad Lion did a good job with promotion in some parts of Europe, but it just wasn't good enough. The Spear Of The Lily Is Aureoled is very old to me, both lyrically and musically. I would never write lyrics like that now. I do not disown the album, but it is behind me for good and I have no desire to think about it or listen to it. Sure there are things I would change, but I would rather leave it the way it is; a sonic reflection of where I was between 1996-1997. The album was very well received and the critics who were important to me like Marco Barbieri, Marty from Worm Gear and Lance from Ultima Comparatio all really liked it. But, I think the album was relatively safe and I have to kind of laugh when people called me "avant-garde", because there really was nothing "avant-garde" about The Spear. As for response to how fast, there were comments but nothing negative. There was no jealousy on the part of other bands, just a lot of support from close friends. I think this is a result of my not being completely submerged in the underground metal scene. There are a number of bands that I write and keep in contact with, but as a whole, I have a vague idea about what is going on with Metal these days in the underground. By reading magazines I see that there is a real flood of bands lately; an over-saturation. I think this is why I have become slightly burnt out. There are just too many bands and too many labels releasing too many bands. I suppose I can't talk, because I am one of these bands. But, hopefully I have something new to present, thus justifying my existence. "Fitting in" is not a priority at all. I think the desire to want to fit in is very dangerous to the artist. Thinking about the audience is the last thing in my mind. I do obviously want to please my fellow bandmates because their thoughts and ideas are important to me and I respect them as human beings and artists. But when it comes down to it, art is a very selfish and indulgent thing.

In what ways does your new album differ from the first, in terms of the approach you took this time to the songwriting, the level of 'technicality' involved, and the success which you have had in translating your desires, emotions, and wishes into musical expression? Are you finding that it's becoming easier for you to convert the music you hear in your head to realistic patterns on disc or tape, or as you push the progression of your band, does it stay just as difficult to realize, in reality, what you want to hear? Is this an ethic of Sculptured - that the music remains challenging both to you and the listener? If so, why?

Yes! It is vital that the music remains a challenge to both me and the listener. I think it is the challenge that pushes me to move. It is like a shark, it has to keep moving or it will die. I also want the music to be challenging, because this then involves the listener more. It forces the listener to become more involved and to sacrifice a piece of themselves. It is a kind of two-way, give and take situation. While the creation of the music is a selfish and solitary act, the result is essentially a group activity between the band and the listener. Sometimes this means war, sometimes love. I find it harder with each album, because I am not easy on myself. If something I write sounds like it could have been on the last album, I throw it away! If it sounds like another band...its gone! I may become a better guitarist or songwriter, but this just means that I have much higher expectations of myself. The thing about change is that it basically means death of the old. There is an eroding of the past in order to make room for the new. I think some people are afraid of change because it means an inevitable death. But, I try to embrace this death and create with it something new and better than what was originally there. This way I am also honoring the original by making it's death something more grand and profound. The Spear to me is long dead, and Apollo Ends is its re-birth. Eventually, Apollo Ends will die too and something far greater will emerge. That is the goal anyhow.

Andreas from your label, The End, told me to be sure to ask you about any line-up changes you have had over the past few months, and to ask how the band is progressing towards becoming a live or touring act. Do you want to address that now? I remember reading in another interview with you that you don't really consider Sculptured to be a 'live' band at this time, mostly because of problems you have with other commitments or with the fact that it just might not be possible, in a live situation, to completely reproduce the songs from the recordings in an adequate way. Is this still your position? Has there been much of a demand to see Sculptured tour - perhaps sharing the stage with Agalloch? Has Sculptured played live in the past? If so, what was the reaction of the audience like - how was the feedback?

Sculptured has never played live, and not totally by our own choice. When Sculptured began it was just me, Brian and a drummer with a guest trumpet. I played almost all of the instruments because there was not many musicians here who want to do music like this and I have a strong desire to be completely in control. With this album we have a new drummer, a bass player and a new trombone player. Many of these musicians live in other parts of the state and country at the moment. So we cannot play live. I have thought a lot about if I would want to play live if we could. And I have some ambivalent feelings about this. Part of me wants to perform and experience making music "live" and being in that magical element. The other part of me fears large crowds and I often get filled with panic when I am in large, sociable groups of people. And I think there is an inherent, natural feeling of war between the musicians and the audience. This could stem from trying to force them to listen, to open their damn ears. Also I don't like feeling like an object on the stage as if I am some sort of circus animal doing tricks for the audience. I think in order for Sculptured to feel a closeness with the audience we would have to be already very popular and well respected so that we wouldn't have to fight for the audiences attention.

Being from Texas (those of you reading this from countries other than the US, think: dry, dusty desert littered with concrete), I have evolved, over the years, this state of mind where the atmosphere and environment that I have been placed in doesn't really inspire me, in my own music, in either a positive or negative direction. You are from a completely different part of the country, where there are unique landscapes and a much more varied range of terrain to find yourself wandering through. Going from the pictures inside 'Apollo Ends', and the lyrics as well, I know that your immediate surroundings seem to have a very positive influence on you in terms of inspiring your music - either through a direct channel to your sympathies, or by causing you to imagine a completely different environment. Can you comment on this? Do you find that your environment readily offers you metaphors for the description of inner emotional states? Is this a link you hope to foster or support in the future with your music? Do you think it's one of the functions of an artist to immediately be able to reflect (instinctively, really) his or her environment in a way that facilitates emotional expression?

I don't know how an artist could help but instinctively reflect his or her surroundings. I am definitely influenced by my surroundings, or more accurately my response to them. I am very sensitive to my environment. In Apollo Ends there is much written about the early morning atmosphere which is something that can frighten me, sicken me or comfort me. To me the early morning hours are naturally apocalyptic. The beginning of a day resets the clock. It wipes the slate clean. Anything could happen because the day has yet to be tarnished or destroyed. It is young and vulnerable. I have a peculiar interest in the beginning of a day tricking humanity. Within its innocence there may lurk possible destruction, the end of the world. The sun's first rays could be the reflection of an atomic explosion. If I walk out onto the grass outside of my house, the air refreshes me and the grass is wet and more youthful because of the moisture. There is tremendous beauty in the world at that time, right before most people wake up. There is an unexplainable solitude that is peaceful. This is when I feel comfort. If I stay up late and do not go to bed, and the morning approaches I feel out of place and physically and mentally mixed up. I feel I have lost my balance with nature and the Earth. I don't know how to explain it, but it is dreadful. Also, the pictures in the layout were actually taken in Finland by a friend of ours.

What exactly is your method (if you feel like divulging it) when it comes to writing the guitar music for Sculptured? I have been assured by several people now that you have very a well-defined and rigorous system for composition, equal in complexity to the music you are trying to put out. Is this true, or something of an exaggeration? Is the method that you use something you developed as a way to guarantee certain results in the 'progressive' field, or is it just a natural way for you to write, suited to your own personality? Something else I was wondering about - is the name of your band suggestive of your methods of composition? With Sculptured's music, I have always had the impression that the end justifies the means: in other words, you will use whatever sounds, effects, or methods of playing that you need in order to reach a certain result or satisfy your vision. Does this ever get tiring for you, or have you found that there has never been a reason for changing your methods? How deeply do you feel the impetus to keep Sculptured's music fresh by incorporating elements that are often disparate or atypical to 'traditional metal' aesthetics?

Well, the name Sculptured is definitely inspired by the way I look at composition. One way I sometimes like to think about composition is imagining a thick block of sound which is slowly chipped away into a song. Its like sculpting a human figure, just remove what doesn't look like a human being. There are a handful of systems I like to employ - some of which work, some of which don't. But I always have them at my disposal. One system is what is referred to as Serialism. This was developed by composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky. What I do is make a pattern of 3 or 4 notes and then develop a matrix out of it. So, I will take the notes E - G# - D - G and line the inversion of these notes on the left hand side like this:

E G# D G

C

F#

C#

This way I have the original row at the top, and the inversion on the side. Then I will fill in the spaces, adhering to the interval relationships of the original row... (ex. E-G# Maj. 3rd, next row: C-E Maj. 3rd etc...):

E G# D G

C E Bb Eb

F#A# E A

C# E# B E

Once I have this matrix the music I write has to follow these patterns of notes. So, what we have in this matrix is the original row, its inversion and its 3 transpositions which can all be played forward or backward. I make chords and melodies out of these patterns. I can also use more than one matrix. I have a new song that uses C#-A-G#-E which obviously spells Cage, as a homage to the composer John Cage. Many people criticize this as being limiting. They say "you are putting restrictions on yourself". Yes I am, but this system is no more restricting then writing something in the key of Cmaj, or Bmin or whatever. Once you choose a key, you have predetermined your harmonic relationships, your possible modulations etc. Its the same way as choosing a row of 3-4 notes. You have predetermined everything, but at least it is different then writing in a key. Freedom can be scary, and while I write some things "freely" it is very difficult. It is easier to have some rules to follow. This also means of course that if you don't like what is coming out of the matrix, you don't have to use it. I always use my emotion as a guide...how do I feel about this melody, this chord etc. Writing with a matrix is also fun since you can develop hidden codes like using peoples names and such. Some of the riffs you hear on Apollo Ends are just the same ones played backwards or inverted. It is all strewn together somehow. I will always use whatever sounds I can find to make Sculptured what it is. I will use many methods, instruments and different musicians to make the music the best I can. The music must always be fresh and above all exciting. Using a matrix is one way, of course writing in a desired key is another, inverting riffs and melodies is another, superimposing time signatures or key signatures on top of one another is something I want to explore more. There is always something new to try.

Progressing from the above question - what are your thoughts, if any, on maintaining a level of creativity in music that is both always pertinent to your time or surroundings and flexible enough to allow the exploration of your own talent? Should musicians always be trying out new influences or methods of playing in order to keep their art viable and/or original - or does this only apply to certain types of artists? Which musicians have been the biggest influence on your playing and your approach to composition? Are there any artists or specific works which you would recommend to your audience if they were interested in gaining some insight into the influences at work behind Sculptured? Can you expound, for a moment, on the ways in which jazz influences, for example, can be successfully incorporated into extreme metal? What would you say to people who constantly reiterate that metal music must be 'kept pure', free from outside influences or genre cross-pollination?

People who think like that can keep listening to the same damn death metal all their life...I don't care, I don't write music for them. As far as Jazz goes, I think it can be great in enriching the chords bands use. For such a long time the root-5th "power chord" has been the chord for Metal. I think Jazz can be helpful in expanding on that by adding a 7th to the power chord or a 9th, a 6th whatever. I use a lot of chords like that, and that definitely comes from my appreciation for Jazz. This then lead to the Matrix method which is really just a downsized version of 12 tone composition. I think it is vital for musicians to always experiment. Artists should lead us as a civilization into the 21st century. If art stagnates, how is life worth living? That may sound dramatic, but I think it is true. The musicians and composers I have taken ideas from are people like Anton Webern, Charles Ives, John Zorn, Ennio Morricone and obviously metal groups like Iron Maiden as well as bands like Mr. Bungle and Pink Floyd. But, I also find film to be extremely influential on me. I love the works of David Cronenberg, Sergio Leone, Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, Federico Fellini and Woody Allen. I think Cronenberg especially is a big influence on my lyrical writing. A lot of his concepts I find inspirational, frightening and they often touch a nerve with me. For example the whole biotechnology side of his films. A lot of my lyrics are centered around combining the flesh with nature as a way of escaping technology which I think when meshed with the human body could be disastrous and Cronenberg shows this in films like Shivers, Videodrome and many others. I think for people to really understand Sculptured they should watch Videodrome and then listen to Webern's Symphony op.21.

Were there any distinct events that inspired the lyrics and themes on 'Apollo Ends'? For example, in the song 'Washing My Hands Of It' there seems to be thinly veiled references to actions that could or could not have actually happened. Are these reflections on things that transpired in your own life, or stories made from all kinds of different experiences? Do you find that writing music is an effective method of catharsis for you - that it helps you to come to realizations concerning events in your own life, or deal with things that you could not handle in any other way?

Yes, there were events. The sickness element is very true. I feel sick a lot, and it is especially terrible for me late at night. Things seem so hopeless then. I have thought and psycho-analyzed why I feel sick. I don't think I am an unhealthy person. I think a lot of it is created mentally. I am really obsessed with the digestive process and I think when I dwell on it, I become paranoid. I also have trouble sleeping after I eat and this causes me to feel sick. In the lyrics I wanted to link this feeling ill as a warning of the coming apocalypse. Some animals can sense in their bones when a storm is approaching. I wanted to create a similar situation. I don't think it has been a terribly effective cathartic process, I still feel sick. I hate being sick, it's claustrophobic. Its helpless. What can you do? You have to exist in your body, you can't leave and wait for the sickness to pass and then come back. I wish I could. But, I am bound to get sick. Everyone is. Like David Cronenberg says, "Why should the body die if the mind is in perfect shape?"

If you think your music is a powerful form of emotional release, how do you feel about the fact that other people are listening to your music and drawing forth completely different lessons or feelings from it? Is this just one of the flexible characteristics of abstract music, and something that must be embraced? Have you ever found yourself writing music as a sort of 'revenge' against experiences or people in your own life (much like your label-mates Scholomance) - in order to gain some measure of power over what may have happened to you?

I think the fact that many people develop their own interpretations of the music is great, and I have no trouble with that. I have my own interpretation ideally because I wrote Apollo Ends, and I hope that some of the original feelings that I put into the lyrics and music do successfully communicate and aren't completely lost on someone. But, if people take those feelings and relate it to themselves and create a different, customized interpretation that is wonderful and is certainly one of the rewards of complex art. I have my own interpretations of songs from bands like SWANS, Current 93, Devil Doll and so on and they are personal because I relate them to myself. But they may be completely different from what the songwriter is trying to communicate. This whole ordeal could be seen as tragic or enlightening from the point of the artist. I choose to look at it more positively. As far as revenge, yes definitely. One of the reasons I like to write with such dissonant chords is to make people uncomfortable. I like it when people review Apollo Ends and have said, "I just don't get it, this is senseless and the notes sound wrong". I hope the next album makes them deaf! (exactly! - ed.)

What, to you, are the most important elements for a 'progressive' band to emphasize when it comes to the music itself? Is the overriding ethic of 'progressive' music the fact that a large priority must be placed on remaining original, no matter what the cost to the integrity of the music? Are there other ways to ensure 'originality' in music? It always seemed to me that as long as musicians played from the heart, and were true to themselves, they couldn't help but be original and successful in their own right. In the race to stay original often musicians find themselves lost in uncharted territories where they are supporting a vision that has become alien even to themselves - is this a danger of unlimited progression? Isn't true progression really just the ability or desire to keep exploring your own personal well of expression, and not settling for music that has become 'comfortable' on an inner, unconscious level?

I think all people are different. Thinking this, I would think that any artist who follows his/her own feelings and is confident will be able to produce something different and worthwhile that will contribute to the development of their craft. Experimenting should never spoil the integrity of the artist or music. I always believe that the song comes first. Everything should be done with the song in mind. Once music becomes a vehicle for simply experimenting or becomes something you base philosophical concepts on then I think the artist has clearly lost sight of what music is really about. I think someone like the composer John Cage is guilty of this. Some of his works are fantastic as ideas, philosophy, but he communicates these ideas musically and I think there is something lost there. For example, his famous composition 4'33 is a great idea, it's very enlightening. The concept of music being perpetually made by sounds from nature, industry, natural ambiance and the importance of silence as a viable means of musical communication is enlightening, but I don't think the work is all that great to listen to. It's a philosophical statement using music as a vehicle and I think that is just plain foolish. John Cage made some great music and was an important innovator and I like his works very much, but sometimes I think he is the perfect example of someone who got so caught up with experimenting that the music suffered. I would agree that progression is simply exploring yourself, because in the end music and all art is a reflection of the artist. As long as you explore yourself and use yourself to write music, what comes out should sound like you and no one else. The only dangers are being foolish about it.

And the last question: what can we expect from Sculptured in the future? Are you working on new material right now? Will there be any radical changes in the direction that you are on with your music? Is there anything else you would like to add for our readers to see?

I do have some new material and it is too early to say how different it will be from Apollo Ends. I hope the next album will be different enough to stand on its own...to have it's existence justified. We have just finished recording a cover by the band Goblin from the film Suspiria directed by Dario Argento. It is the main theme of the film. This will be on a forthcoming Goblin tribute album and will probably appear on the next End Records comp. I plan to use film as a big inspiration for the next album. The new song I have written is based on The Brood, directed by David Cronenberg. Other than that, I just want to thank you for a fantastic interview and for the support. Thanks!