Usnea shares basic traits with its namesake. The lichen is neither fungus nor alga. Usnea is neither doom metal nor black metal. The grey-green plant grows its branches slowly. Usnea’s protracted songs tell wandering stories that veer off the funerary path. Juxtaposing abrasiveness with gentleness, their dirges profess a full scale of emotion; their most delicate introductions are followed by remorseless climaxes that build and shift between styles. A few months away from releasing their third album, the Portland-based band talked to us about evolving, Carl Sagan and creating their aggregated sound.
There seems to be a theme of dense, heavy doom music in the PNW. Do you think that’s a product of your environment? The actual nature and weather?
Joel Williams: That’s a deep question.
Justin Cory: Zeke played doom metal in California. When he was in Chico, he was in Amarok and they’re super dark and heavy.
Zeke Rogers: I think if a scene grows around a particular style of music, it encourages other people. I think having a pretty vibrant doom scene here has just helped more new bands.
I ask that because Eyehategod kind of made New Orleans the “sludge” center and it seems like this area is that for doom metal.
Justin: I mean, the weather does affect it to an extent. There’s a lot of dark music from Portland period, whether it’s doom or not. The Wipers. Poison Idea. A lot of dark, depressive music has come out of the Northwest for sure. When it rains all of the time, what else are you going to do? You’re going to go into your basement and play music and it’s probably going to be angry or sad. [Laughs] Not a lot of happy bands in Portland.
Your new album – how does it differ from your past releases?
Justin: Double bass. [Laughs]
Joel: I would say we’ve matured, as in we kind of know more about what we want to do. Each record I feel like we go in more of a direction that we want to go and it gels together better.
Zeke: I’d say so. I feel like our first record was a little all over the place. Random Cosmic Violence, I felt, was pretty cohesive. I feel the same about the new one. I think we’re growing as a band and trying out different ideas. There are some different singing styles on it. There’s more double bass. By more, I mean some double bass because there’s no double bass on previous albums. It exists! Some things like that. We went back and were so focused on working on the new album and playing the songs to record them that when we finally got back to playing some of our older stuff we were like, “Some of these older songs are so much easier to play!” I think we made some of them a little more complicated. A little more intricate.
Justin: The newer stuff is more challenging for us. It also could partially be that we played those old ones so many fuckin’ times! When you get up there you’re like, “Oh, this song again.” [Laughs]
Zeke: Exactly. Yeah, I’m excited for people to hear it and see what they think about it.
Justin: Joel and I write the lyrics. It was mostly science fiction that we love. Joel and I usually read a lot – he’s in college, so maybe he’s been reading less because of that.
Joel: I still read! I still read quite a bit.
Justin: But less than you’d want to read. Anyway, I’ve been pretty bad lately about reading, but I like to read. I’m an avid reader, usually. After the last album, we conceptually wanted to go somewhere different. The last album was this concept of random cosmic violence, coming out of Carl Sagan, and being about human anthropocentrism. This album, we were like, let’s take some of our favorite novels that are sort of about dystopian, future human decay and crumbling and write a cohesive album based on some of our favorite novels in that vein.
Joel: But there’s still Carl Sagan! We have a Carl Sagan song.
Justin: There is a Carl Sagan song. Every song, lyrically, is inspired by a book. One of them is The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe. It’s a dark, weird, weird novel. And then Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, which we just straight-up plagiarized the name of the book for the name of the song because we couldn’t think of anything better than that name. Ursula K. Le Guin is such an unsung writer. She’s so amazing. We wanted to show our love of our favorite writers and also be inspired lyrically.
What do you guys do differently than other bands of the same genre?
Zeke: I think a lot of the bands playing now are all pretty influenced by each other. There are different sorts of styles. I think that we mix a few different styles together – we definitely mix funeral doom and some death doom. A little bit of blackened doom.
Joel: In my opinion. I’m on the mic now. MC Joel. [Laughs] I think that what makes us different is our weird mix of things. We got billed as a blackened funeral doom band, and then they see us and are like, “What the fuck was that? That wasn’t really either of those things, but it still kind of is at the same time.” Our mixture is what makes us interesting, in my opinion.
Justin: We have a lot of melodicism. You know what I mean? Obviously, I love super gnarly, droned-out doom metal. I love Thor’s Hammer. I love fuckin’ Burning Witch, but those bands aren’t as melodic. Maybe a band like Ahab is more melodic. Bell Witch is pretty melodic. What makes us different is that our music is nasty and bleak and ugly, but also melodic. There’s a pretty melody in there; it’s just sad. There’s a melody, it’s just also ugly. Pretty and ugly at the same time.
How have you evolved since the beginning?
Justin: A lot.
Joel: A lot.
Zeke: A lot.
Justin: That’s the answer. Just “a lot.” [Laughs]
Joel: Just a lot. I think that our influences have changed around.
Justin: A lot. Sorry Joel, go. I thought it was funny that we all said a lot.
Joel: A lot. Next question. [Laughs] That is pretty good.
And I’m writing all of that down. It lets people get to know you!
Joel: Yay! That we’re goofballs.
Justin: Well, duh.
Joel: I forgot what I was going to say.
Zeke: A lot. [Laughs]
Justin: Well, when we started, like Zeke said about how the albums are different, the first album was kind of less cohesive. We had a song that started with a stock Sabbath-y riff – surprisingly people really liked that song. We didn’t know exactly where we wanted to take it. We were just figuring out who we were. On the second album, it got more cohesive, but we still stuck to the “four songs, long, one’s on each side” formula. On this new record we threw the rules out a little bit. We have a song where we sing. The blog No Clean Singing might not even review it. [Laughs] We took some chances on the new stuff. I think, as a band, that we’re just not really willing – we never have been – to let genre be a box that we have to stay in. We’re going to do something different.
Zeke: Also, we do this band as a passion. Music is a passion of ours. This isn’t our job. We do one or two big tours a year. I think we enjoy growing and trying new things and just trying the next thing. Figuring out what else we want to do. What do we want to do for our new song? Trying out different things. Musically, on every album we’ve definitely added new elements, changed elements and tried different things. Kept it interesting for us, too.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Zeke: We’re playing this festival (Northwest Terror Fest). Then we’re playing Psycho Las Vegas.
Joel: Which you should totally buy tickets to.
Zeke: Buy tickets to this festival [Northwest Terror Fest] that’s today. We’re playing today. We’re playing Psycho Las Vegas, which should be a lot of fun. We’re just hanging out all weekend and partying and seeing all of the bands. Then we’re releasing our album. It should come out in September. We’re not sure when. We’re going to book an album release show in Portland and then pretty much immediately go to Europe to tour with Ufomammut for a month. That’s the whole year, really.
Justin: After that we’ll probably need to relax.
Zeke: Other than these two festivals, we’re not doing a lot this summer. We’re playing the two festivals, gearing up. We’re waiting for the album to come out. Early next year we’ll maybe do a little West Coast run.
What new music should we listen to (other than your upcoming record)?
Joel: I pretty much only listen to synthwave and coldwave, so I don’t have anything to say about metal.
It doesn’t have to be metal!
Joel: Justin’s new band Over is really good. They are probably one of my favorite Portland bands. I just listen to a lot of 80s stuff, so I probably shouldn’t plug it.
Justin: Thanks Joel. I’d say Vice/Device are one of my favorite Portland bands. They’re super good. They’re not metal, but they’re really good dark, minimalist, dancey, post-punk inspired shit. Metal-wise, Bell Witch are one of my favorite doom bands in the American doom metal scene. I always love Evoken, but they don’t have a new record out. Ahab. Ahab is fuckin’ rad. I don’t know. I kind of took a break from listening to metal for a while, even though I love metal. We toured Europe last year. We toured the US the year before that. We hear a lot of metal just being in a metal band and playing metal shows.
It seems to be a common thing. When I ask that question most people say that they don’t listen to metal off-tour.
Justin: Yeah, you need a break from it. I love metal a lot. I love metal. I don’t need to hear aggressive, screamy music all the time.
Zeke: And it’s good to be inspired by other stuff, too.
Justin: Totally! I mean, I love Townes Van Zandt. Townes Van Zandt is my go-to when I’m feeling mellow. But newer bands that are good – there are a lot of them and they’re at this fest, actually. A lot of the bands playing this fest are fuckin’ rad. Burials, our Portland homies, are fuckin’ amazing, Underrated band. Should be more well-known. I’ll leave it at that.
Zeke: Some of the other awesome bands playing this festival – I think CHRCH are really fucking killer. We just played with John Haughm’s new band Pillorian and they were really good. Their first album is really killer.
Zeke: Oh yeah, Yob. They’re probably one of my favorite bands.
Justin: A huge influence on our music.
Zeke: Top 5. Other than that I’ve been listening to a lot of hip-hop lately.
Anything else you want to say?
Justin: Thanks for liking our band. We’ve been a band for 5 or 6 years now and it feels good to still be playing music with these guys. It feels good to have anybody care about it. To have anybody wearing our patch outside of the venue like earlier, that feels nice. It’s always nice to meet people who like the art you make. It’s humbling.
‘Portals Into Futility’ is due out September 8th on CD/2xLP/Digital pre-order HERE!
Aug 18 Las Vegas, NV Psycho Las Vegas
— All dates Sep 30 – Oct 22 With Ufomammut —
Sep 30 Paris, FR La Boule Noire
Oct 01 Nantes, FR Le Ferrailleur
Oct 03 London, UK Borderline
Oct 04 Brussels, BE Magasin 4
Oct 05 Wiesbaden, DE Schlachthof
Oct 06 Pratteln, CH Up In Smoke
Oct 07 Nijmegen, NL Soulcrusher Festival @ Doornroosje Festival
Oct 08 Bielefed, DE Forum
Oct 10 Oslo, NO Blitz
Oct 11 Stockholm, SE Klub Undergangen
Oct 13 Helsinki, FI Korjaamo Blowup VOL 3
Oct 14 Tampere, FI Olympia-Kortelli
Oct 16 Copenhagen, DK KB 18
Oct 17 Berlin, DE Lido
Oct 18 Hamburg, DE Markthalle
Oct 19 Leipzig, DE Werk 2
Oct 20 Wroclaw, PL Firley
Oct 21 Prag Checkt, DE 007
Oct 22 Munich, DE Keep It Doom