Can you tell us how Usnea came to be, and the story so far?
Justin: I was playing in a stoner metal band that called it quits right after recording and playing a solid year of shows. I knew Joel from his post as one of the best sound engineers in Portland (he’s worked at Satyricon, Plan B, Branx, Rotture, Tonic Lounge, Slabtown, etc…) and his mutual love of grotesque heavy music, so I asked him about starting a new darker and heavier project. Right around that time, Zeke was moving to Portland from Chico, CA, and was looking to start a new project even though he was still playing in Amarok down there. He hit me up and the three of us started writing, and it worked out really well. Zeke and I wrote the majority of three of the songs from the first record on guitar together, but we had a hard time finding the right drummer, so he decided to switch to drums right around the time he was leaving Amarok. I knew the perfect guitarist to ask after seeing him play in an Iron Maiden cover band for Halloween that year, and so I hit him (Johnny) up. Within one practice with him, we knew we’d found our boy. From there, we just played as many good shows as we could in Portland, finished writing the first record and recorded it.
We’ve toured the full West Coast two times and done many more short trips down to Oakland and up to Seattle and the surrounding PNW places around us. CVLT Nation asked us to record a Black Sabbath cover for a free downloadable compilation they did, so we did that, and then we recorded a shorter song (for us haha) for our split with Germany’s RUINS that didn’t fit with the material we were writing for the full length.
We recorded demos for Random Cosmic Violence to fine-tune the songs and to see if anyone would be interested in releasing it, and through a friend of ours, Orion at Relapse heard and loved our demos and they made us an offer for releasing it. We negotiated with them and a lawyer (a weird experience, being a bunch of punks) and signed on. The rest of this story is waiting to be written…
Who are your primary sources of inspiration?
Justin: If I were to speak for the whole band, I’d say we all have a mutual love of Neurosis and Yob. Those two bands in particular are immensely inspirational as musicians, artists and people. Joel and I write all of the lyrics and perform the vocals and for that our influences are mainly literature: sci-fi, scientific and skeptic writers, anarchist/leftist social commentators/agitators, etc… Many bands influence us, though, from Asunder, Ahab, Weakling, Noothgrush, Thergothon, Evoken, Slowdive, Khanate, Bathory and on and on. Too many to list.
Johnny: Well, I started out playing violin in an orchestra at nine, so my earliest experience playing music was with composers like Bach or Bartok, and musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and Phantom of the Opera. This definitely informed my tastes as I got older, and branched out on my own musically. Anything that invokes an emotional reaction for me is what I gravitate towards. Sonic Youth and Black Sabbath remain at the top of the heap for me, but I appreciate everything in the world of music, and draw inspiration from all of it. Nick Drake, Elliot Smith, Doc Watson, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Gil Scott Heron, John Hurt, Willie McTell, Earth, Jeff Lynne, Heart, Simon and Garfunkel, Blind Faith, Groundhogs, Howlin Wolf and countless others have all affected me deeply.
What would you say have been the peak and lowest point of your band history so far?
Johnny: In my mind, we haven’t had any low points as a band. We’ve played a few shows that didn’t work out as well as we would’ve liked, but outside of that, it has been great so far. The last tour we did with Augurs and Fórn was an amazing time, and I count that among the greatest experiences in my life. Writing “Detritus” was a great experience as well. Everything came together so effortlessly, and the whole process was very organic. On a more personal level, it’s been great to play music and become close with these guys over the last few years.
Only four years in existence, but you’ve already done two albums, one split, signed to a big label and done many tours. How do you make this happen and how has the ride been so far?
Justin: Well, the Relapse thing wasn’t expected or planned, and we are still humbled by their interest in and love of our music. As for our productivity, we all came into this as veterans of other bands. Most of us have toured extensively before, booked shows as promoters in various cities we’ve lived in, released records, run labels, etc. so the DIY punk work ethic is a big motivator in all of us. I’d also say that we all had a feeling of urgency coming in to the band that we really wanted to write, record and get our art out there. So far, we have been very fortunate, and we are really looking forward to the next year of touring, going to Europe and writing/recording/releasing more records.
What would you say was the turning point in the band’s career?
Justin: It’s hard to visualize that… I know we all loved the honor of sharing a stage with Yob right after the first record came out. We’ve just had great fortune all along the west coast. We have amazing friends in bands who book us awesome shows from San Diego all the way up to Seattle, and they’ve all been huge for us. CVLT Nation were also early proponents of hyping us and we were really surprised by how well and how widely the first record was received. Being with Relapse is a game-changer in terms of visibility, so I’d have to say the most prolific change is yet to come, but it involved being affiliated with them and the larger audience we reach as a result of that.
How did the deal with Relapse happen, and what would you say are the major pros and cons of signing with such a big label?
Justin: A friend of ours got our demo recordings for the new record and he showed them to Orion. It was really just a surprise, and they were really enthusiastic when they contacted us. As far as working with them goes – they’ve been amazing to us. They really believe in our band and the songs we write. They even said we should have hit them up about releasing the first S/T record! We had the record written already and studio time booked before things happened with them, and they just loved everything we brought them when it was done. They’ve also been really amazing at getting our record written about and distributed. That is one of the hardest things about doing things on a smaller scale like we did for the first LP. Oh – and they were able to help us realize our vision of having the new record come out in the format we most coveted, a double LP with an art-loaded gatefold sleeve.
As far as any cons go, the only one I can think of is just the small amount of flack one gets for working with a bigger label from the more staunch entrenchments of the DIY punk and metal community. We expected a little bit of this, and even so, many of those same folks are still our friends and supporters, and I hope they can see that we did not and will not change one iota of our artistic vision, our integrity, or forsake our DIY and punk roots. And Relapse is run by a bunch of rad passionate people who don’t want that to happen either.
You seem like a “political” band or a doom band with social awareness, which outside of bands like Thou and a few others is something quite unusual to encounter – can you tell us more please?
Justin: I wouldn’t say we are an overtly “political” band per se. We have a certain social and political perspective that informs the songwriting, and we are all punks hailing from leftist ideals, so it’s fair to say that we are a band with social awareness, that is for certain. We don’t necessarily want the band, or doom metal for for that matter, to be a forum for railing on about our politics. It’s a funny juxtaposition because, much like Thou, political thoughts and our anger and frustration with the world and society around us are massively influential on the lyrics and the overall despondent aesthetic of the music. However, a metal show is not the kind of place where a political diatribe is going to really get across, people come to it from all kinds of different backgrounds and primarily as an outlet for the darker and heavier feelings that they have. I can’t speak for the whole band on personal politics, but I am definitely the most “political” person in the band, being an anarchist and vegan, so those ideas are going to come out whether I mean them to or not. Being socially conscious and taking a stand when and where it matters is important to all of us, and we are happy to see that metal is becoming a more level playing field. Usnea will not tolerate sexism, racism, homophobia or transphobia, and we are not afraid to say so. There are some elements in metal that want it to stay exclusive to men, and particularly straight white men, but they are on the wrong side of history and they will be swept away, because this dark and aggressive art is for anyone who truly relates to it, not just that small-minded little bigoted sect afraid to mingle outside of their comfort zone, and for whom irrelevance is imminent.
Do you think doom metal is a good vehicle to express social and political concerns?
Justin: I think that many bands have said profound political things in many genres. For some folks, the anger and frustration just feels good as a rallying point. For others, the content of the lyrics may have an impact upon them, or even just show that they aren’t alone in their thoughts. I know with bands like Thou, Dystopia, Noothgrush, etc. that for me, their message is just another awesome element of the totality of their art and I relate to them even more through it. Black Sabbath are responsible for all metal, and certainly all doom, and they were pretty political, singing about the threat of nuclear war and war profiteers, so metal has some dose of politics in it’s very essence if you think about it. But at the same time, metal does not have an inherent leftist political identity the way that punk does, so would I enjoy the doom metal equivalent of CRASS? Maybe not. I do love me some CRASS though.
Johnny: I think metal and politics are inexorably linked. The inspiration to create heavy music in general seems to come from growing up in a social environment that fosters the need to create it. If it weren’t for the social and political inequities that are thrust upon us, we would probably be writing a much more uplifting brand of music. The frustration that comes from our social climate in general has to be vented, and it stands to reason that it’s going to come across in the musical and lyrical themes.
Random Cosmic Violence – why this title and what are the lyrics about or the album’s themes?
Justin: It’s a line from one of Joel and my favorite writers (and human beings in general), Carl Sagan, specifically from his seminal book, The Demon-Haunted World. The influence of cosmological thinking and humanity’s minuscule understanding of the cosmos, as well as our even more minuscule relevance in the grand scope and span of the known cosmos was the general lyrical theme. The songs all explore different human feelings and interpretations of ourselves as a species, as individuals, as cosmic players, as self-annointed dominators of all life on earth, etc. The title speaks to a humbling and interesting paradox of existence as humans with cosmic curiosity and some level of cognition: we are the unplanned result of random cosmic violence. Celestial bodies colliding, gases intertwining… and in spite of our anthropocentric view of the universe and our notions of grandeur and importance within it, the universe does not “exist for us,” was not “created” by some benevolent figure watching over us, and our importance here is measurable only by ourselves in relation to one another and our impact on the known life and ecosystems around us. Religious thinking and anthropocentrism has definitely served to obstruct this essential truth leading to our arrogant destruction of life on our planet, human and otherwise, and our failure to really explore the possibilities of cognition and the cosmos sooner.
Random Cosmic Violence also has some pretty interesting artwork, what’s the story there?
Justin: Thank you. Well I am an art school drop-out, hahaha. I drew the cover and back cover and label art, and I had also painted the piece in the center of the gatefold. The band have been really appreciative and supportive of my visual aesthetics for the band from the first record and on, so in a way, this band has gotten me back into actively making two-dimensional visual artwork again. The cover was inspired by this strange Eastern European statuary that Johnny showed me.
In my mind, the symbolism is all over the place, but essentially, there is a human form, decaying and mortal, reaching towards the cosmos. The birds are dressing the figure in a shawl in a gesture of humanity’s anthropocentric view of the world around us. The architectural forms around the figure are influenced by masonic and occult art, as is our symbol that repeats from the first record, the all seeing eye in a darkened star/sun. More than just enjoying the dark and “evil” aesthetic of those occult elements (though I most certainly do, haha), they also represent the perversion in our thinking as a species of there being some grand designer, some special purpose for us and all of creation. Magical thinking has been the result of so much pain and suffering, and this album is an excoriation of all of the futility and dead-ends that have been the result of mass organized religion, the silencing of inquiry, dissent, advancement and intellectual progress.
Now that it’s out, are there anythings about Random Cosmic Violence you would go back and change if you could? Or no second thoughts?
Justin: Of course, there are always ideas unrealized that come to us both before and after the recordings are finished, but nothing major. Those ideas that didn’t make it to this record may manifest on the next one anyhow.
How do you see Random Cosmic Violence if compared to your self-titled debut album?
Johnny: It’s more cohesive than our first record. I really appreciate it when bands write an album that flows from start to finish, and I feel like we achieved that with Random Cosmic Violence. The fact that the songs were written in the order they appear on the record may be more incidental than anything else, but I think it speaks to the chemistry we have as a band that it all came together that way. Musically, I feel it is a natural progression from our previous work, maybe a bit more refined.
Can you tell us the genesis of the album from writing all the way to recording, and how you guys pulled it off so well?
Justin: This could be a long response hahaha… I will try to summarize this briefly.
Going in to this record, we wanted it follow a theme and concept, so lyrically and sonically we kept that in mind. We had already written and were playing “Lying in Ruin” and “Healing Through Death” by the time the first record dropped and on the subsequent tours. The death/doom and death metal influence of those two songs pushed us down a path that the rest of the record seems to really diverge from the first LP. I wrote most of Random Cosmic Violence on the acoustic guitar and then the band filter and group mind made it the strange behemoth that it is. “Detritus” came last, and was just a really organic song and everyone really came together to write that one in our rehearsals together. When we recorded, we went back to Fester who has done all of our recorded output so far. He really knows what we are going for and is a wizard at the board, so he took our ideas and our performances and pushed them as hard as possible in the mixing. It was a fun record to make, so if it was pulled off well, I am sure a huge part of that is that it was cathartic as hell to perform, to write and to experiment with, and we all had a lot of creative fun with it.
Which were your favorite albums of 2014? And your favorite bands these days?
Justin: Yob Clearing the Path to Ascend, Agalloch The Serpent and the Sphere, Thou Heathen, Augurs Old Ways, Fórn The Departure of Consciousness, Hell/Amarok Split LP, Nightfell The Ever Living Mourn, Mournful Congregation Concrescence of the Sophia, The Estranged S/T, Dead Congregation Promulgation of the Fall – I am sure I am missing a few, but these stand out to me for 2014.
Lately, I have been listening to lots of Slowdive, Nothing, True Widow, Ahab, Evoken and Mournful Congregation.
Johnny: Lumbar The First and Last Days of Unwelcome is hands down my favorite record right now. I know it came out in late 2013, but I didn’t pick it up until January of 2014, so I think it still counts! I’m not exactly hip to what’s come out recently, but I’ve picked up a lot of good music in 2014. The Damnation of Adam Blessing S/T, Moody Blues On the Threshold of a Dream, Billy Joel Piano Man, The Saints Eternally Yours, Donovan Barabajagal and Aardvark S/T stand out the most for me. I really enjoy learning new songs to further my guitar playing, so lately I’ve been listening to a lot of music that is fun to play. Rush, At the Gates, Megadeth… I’ve been listening to a lot of bluegrass lately too – Doc Watson, The Tillers and The Stanley Brothers.
What plans do you have for the future?
Justin: We are supporting Italy’s own Ufomammut for a full US tour in May/June, and working on new songs for the next record. We are also hoping to get over to Europe by Spring 2016.
How would you describe the Portland extreme underground and music scene?
Justin: Portland is a very close-knit community. There are a bunch of micro-scenes here, from the Salem Hell/Mania/Will O’ the Wisp folks, to the Parasitic Records bands, to the Ephemeros/Bastard Feast/Stoneburner/Burials family to the Blackwater Records crew, and on and on. There are similar undercurrents within the punk scene; I only described a fraction of the underground metal scene. The best thing is that all of these tribes of folks support the others, and what might seem like division on the surface is only really just specialization. Portland has so many amazing heavy bands, and so much fucking talent. It is a great place to live and a great place to make music.
Johnny: The Pacific Northwest in general is overflowing with amazing bands lately. It must the 13 months of rain we get every year that gives everyone enough time to write some seriously incredible music. Bell Witch, Yob, Hell and Eight Bells all stand out for me. With the rapid changes going on in Portland, a lot of people are being pushed out, and a lot of venues are closing their doors. It’s hard to say what this town will look like in a few years, but a few places are holding fast. Musicians seem to flock to this place and new bands are forming all the time, so I’d imagine there are great things on the horizon!
Thanks for talking with us guys!
Thanks for the thoughtful interview Mattia!