Spawning from the bay area, the band Cormorant broke forth into the metal scene by creating two unique releases titled The Last Tree (an EP) and Metazoa. With a fusion of talent, diverse influences, minds, and immense passion the band Cormorant have gained love and fans across oceans without ever playing outside of their native California. In a few moments, you’ll be reading my attempt at picking the brain of Arthur von Nagel, the long winded, kind, and very intelligent bassist and vocalist of the band.
The teeth of lions sown by the wind,
Spurned by the salt of the
Earth’s fallow and barren skin,
Find fertile ground in me.
Rains of red poppies
Burst from the blue.
Fireflies and harpies
Beat their wings anew.
The wine from man’s fountains
Imparts courage to implore:
“Gods, step down from your mountains.
Fish, rise up from the shore.”
[wpaudio url=”http://www.heavyblogisheavy.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Salt-of-the-Earth.mp3″ text=”Cormorant – Salt of the Earth” dl=”0″]
MW: How old were you when you first got into music, and how did the interest come about?
AvN: My first musical memory was my mother taking me to see Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I was 3 or 4. Looking back on it now, the whole production was very metal. Huge sets, bombastic music, crushing drums, horses, betrayal, myth, swords, blood. All it needed was Manowar. I regret that I fell asleep halfway through, but then again the damn thing was four hours long. I still love opera. I’m looking forward to the San Francisco Opera’s take on Faust later this year.
Growing up there was always music. My father was into lots of late 60s counter-culture stuff like Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan, and King Crimson. My mother always had me listening to classical, lots of Tchaikovsky, Handel and Bach. We had a beautiful old jukebox stacked with French traditionals and classic rock songs. When I was a kid, I would fall in and out of love with different genres. I had a hip-hop stage, a jazz stage, a folk stage, and I even recall not being interested in music at all sometime in my early teens. I don’t know what I was thinking. Probably rebelling against nothing.
How did you decide you wanted to make Cormorant a band?
Brennan Kunkel (drums) and I met playing in a thrash/punk band when I was 16. It was fun but a bit limiting. We got bored. So we started creating quirky, poorly produced progressive black metal demos as a two-piece. While the sound quality was garbage and we had no idea what we were doing, there were some cool ideas there and a lot of those early riffs went on to become parts of Cormorant songs. We brought in Nick Cohon (guitars), a friend of Brennan’s from high school, and his style immediately clicked with ours. We recorded our EP The Last Tree as a three-piece. Apart from the song Ballad of the Beast, I don’t think we had quite discovered our sound yet. It was when we met Matt Solis (guitars/vocals) at an Enslaved gig that we were really able to fully realize that expansive, progressive style the EP hints at, and Metazoa embraces.
How do you go about mixing the influence from other genres in your music? Or does it just come naturally?
We don’t really think about it. It’s a natural thing. We’re just writing what we enjoy listening to. I don’t know what genre Cormorant falls into anymore anyway. That’s why we laugh along with the silly “Tiberian Ass Bastard Folk” tag fans have given us: it’s just as accurate as any of the more convoluted descriptions of our sound. “Progressive blackened death-folk NWOBHM?” I’ll pass.
What is your writing process like as a band?
Usually one person brings in a bunch of riffs in a loose structure, and then the rest of the band rips everything apart and it turns it into something completely different. That process sounds really destructive on paper but we tend to be diplomatic about everything. Other times a song emerges organically from jams. “Hole in the Sea,” track 7 on Metazoa, was actually improvised in the studio. Essentially all the music we write is a collaborative process. We tend to record all of our rehearsals just in case something amazing happens by accident and we need to remember it later. For the lyrics, I hide in my little hermit cave for a few days and come up with strange ramblings.
[wpaudio url=”http://www.heavyblogisheavy.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Hole-in-the-Sea.mp3″ text=”Cormorant – Hole in the Sea” dl=”0″]
What do you think it takes to be a successful artist, and what is a successful artist to you?
A successful artist has left a legacy that inspires others. It doesn’t matter how many people you’ve inspired, just that you’ve improved one person’s life in a small way. I think success results from hard work, talent, ingenuity, artistic honesty, clever marketing, and luck. I don’t believe money falls into the equation. If it did, everyone from Nietzsche to Van Gogh to Mozart would be considered failures.
You’ve cited many “post-black” bands such as Fleurety, Ved Buens Ende, Solefald, In the Woods…, and Celtic Frost, and many non metal groups like Cocteau Twins, Air, and Rome as some of your favorites (all of which I thoroughly enjoy), how much do other artists like these, influence your music? More so for non-metal acts.
I can’t imagine being a director and exclusively watching suspense films, or a novelist who reads nothing but 19th century Russian literature. Limiting your scope of artistic appreciation to a single genre, like metal, makes no sense to me at all, so I don’t consider it strange that we don’t. It’s not so much that non-metal bands influence us in particular, simply that our varied listening habits allow us a wide scope of moods and styles to call upon. A thrash band tends to invoke anger, a doom-death band sorrow, a power metal band heroism, and that’s all well and good. But that’s not how we operate.
I like to think that we function like how bands in early 70s did, when everything was just blanketed with a generic “rock” tag and that was that. It’s no coincidence that we draw a lot of our style from the sound of that era. Barring the harsh vocals and use of metal drumming and strumming techniques, I don’t notice a lot of riffing and chords in our music that would be particularly out of place on a Pink Floyd, Thin Lizzy, Allman Brothers, King Crimson, or Led Zeppelin album. Not to dare put us in the same league with any of those legendary groups, but somewhere in our makeup there is an element of reinterpreting those classics in an extreme metal context. It’s not intentional, but the more I listen to Metazoa the more I catch those reference points ran through the prisms of black metal or death metal.
Any music you’d like to name-drop for people?
I wouldn’t know where to start. I could go on for days so I guess I’ll just rep the Bay Area metal scene. Hammers of Misfortune are my favorite active prog metal band. I mean prog in the grimy old-school sense, like Voivod and early Fates Warning. None of this twinkly, over-triggered, over-produced weedly-weedly stuff. Get The Locust Years or The August Engine. Slough Feg slay falses with face-melting Thin Lizzy-meets-Sabbath-meets-Brocas-Helm-meets-Maiden riffs and the ballsiest power metal vocalist of all time. My favorite albums of theirs are Traveller and Down Among the Deadmen. Ludicra are one of the best representations of the US black metal movement along with legendary locals Weakling. It’s hard to pick a best Ludicra album, perhaps Fex Urbis Lex Orbis, but I’m really looking forward to their upcoming release The Tenant. We’re good friends with the Giant Squid crew, and frontman Aaron Gregory was kind enough to lay down those chilling drunken sailor vocals on Hole in the Sea. The Ichthyologist is likely my favorite album of 2009, and we share a certain kinship in the sense that both our albums were self-released. If you’re feeling Giant Squid, absolutely do look into Grayceon, which has a heavier focus on Jackie Perez-Gratz’s beautiful cello lines, complimented perfectly by Max Doyle’s unique fingerstyle guitar playing and Zack Farwell’s anvil-crushing drumming. The haunting chamber music atmospheres of Worm Ouroboros and Amber Asylum fit my mood perfectly when I’m in the mood to relax or zone out. So many great bands from around here I can rant for days… Saros, Orchid, La Fin Du Monde, Asunder, Laudanum, Atomic Bomb Audition, Acid King, Walken, Black Cobra, Judgement Day. We feel very lucky to be a part of such a vibrant local scene.
How was the experience of recording an album? It’s something I’d like to accomplish some day.
I absolutely loved it. I hear a lot of musicians dislike the studio, but for me it felt so creative. Our producer Billy Anderson made us all feel really at ease, and it’s a good thing, because we were cooped up at Sharkbite Studios recording Metazoa for almost two weeks straight, and we didn’t murder each other. I loved that we recorded all the songs live in the same room, without the benefit of a click track. To me that old-school method feels so much more organic, with tempos that swing depending on our collective mood, the little errors caught on tape. I like those mistakes: they provide a more accurate snapshot of band’s real sound. If there’s something I’d change for the next album, it’s not diving into mixing so soon after tracking. I’d like to have a bit more distance from that process to foster a more objective ear.
How much do you practice playing bass?
When I was first starting on bass, I’d practice a good 3 hours a day or more, learning new scales, improvising over drum loops. Now most of my practice consists of chromatic run warm-ups to a metronome and then straight to writing bass lines. Sometimes I’ll compose a riff in my head that’s too difficult for me to play right off the bat, so I’ll repeat it over and over again for a couple hours until it’s perfect. A real challenge has been learning to sing and play complicated bass lines at the same time, so that’s a significant chunk of my practice time right there. It basically consists of rote repetition until the bass line becomes muscle memory.
As a fellow bass player, I’ve been training myself to play simply by playing and using song tabs. I want to develop a really jazzy kinda style, how much would you suggest actually getting lessons? What qualities would be good for in a bass instructor?
I’ve never really used song tabs or learned material from other bands so I can’t comment on that. I took two years of lessons from a classical and jazz-fusion guy by the name of Clarence Stephens. He’s a great contrabass player, taught me a ton about improvisation and proper technique. I recommend lessons, but it all depends on the teacher. If you’re looking for a more jazzy style, then that’s the type of teacher you should study with to help foster that tendency. A bass instructor should be able to tailor the lessons to your individual strengths and weaknesses and not just plop you down with the same generic lesson plan he forces on all his students. For me though, the best learning experience is simply to jam with a full band, but I understand that’s not feasible for many people.
Since I’m a pretty big gearfag, what can you tell me about your gorgeous basses and amps? I’ve only seen what types of wood have been used.
My basses all come courtesy of a brilliant luthier named Greg Nelson. He crafts everything by hand in his garage in Novato, CA. I can’t recommend his work enough. His mission as an instrument builder is really to deliver the musician’s vision. He had me submit several sketches of different body and headstock shapes, and I was offered the chance to pick out everything from the electronics, to the fingerboard inlays, to even the individual pieces of wood. The whole process was very creative and fulfilling. Now I have instruments that are not only expertly built, but that I have a personal connection to. I’m sure this sounds like an advertisement for Greg’s shop, but I really couldn’t be happier with the results.
You can geek out over his instruments here:
On our EP The Last Tree, I’m playing a Greg Nelson 5-string fretless bass. The top is out of cocobolo, and the body is lacewood. Pick-ups are Carvins and the active electronics are from Aguilar. That’s a real nautilus shell in the headstock. On Metazoa, the fretless makes some appearances, but otherwise I’m using a Greg Nelson 6-string fanfret. Fanned stringed instruments have a special staggered bridge system that helps maintain even string tension across the whole fretboard. It looks and feels a little strange at first but after a few weeks of practice I didn’t want to play anything else. The instrument seems like it would be heavy, but the body is actually made out of redwood, so it’s shockingly light.
As to amplification I just splurged on an Aguilar DB 751 and DB 212 cab. They form an ungodly powerful combination that reminds me of the sound of the classic 70s Ampeg SVT + fridge combo, minus all the mud. I keep the gain and master volume settings at around 3 or the bass starts to overpower the whole mix. The brown leather casing is damn beautiful as well. The amp you were hearing on Metazoa was a quirky solid-state Roland mega-combo with four 10s on the front and two 12s on the side. But while we did mic the cab, it seems to me that most of the Metazoa bass tone was from the DI.
How did you develop your vocal skill, as a guttural vocalist? Any reason why you have such a bassy tone in what I’d consider for the most part, black metal band, or is that just how it comes out?
At first I didn’t really consciously develop my vocal “skill.” Honestly I started doing the vocals because we couldn’t find anyone else. I had the lyrics ready, and I knew what phrasing would work, so for the demo stages of our EP I just started singing and it stuck. When we recorded The Last Tree I ended up shredding my throat pretty badly. So for Metazoa I did a lot of practicing on my own time and developed a significant amount of stamina, not to mention more tonal diversity. I recorded all my vocals for that album in two days, in blocks of 3-4 hours. I chugged a lot of honey and tea and my throat felt fine, so I guess I was doing something right. I’m always striving to experiment and improve. I think a lot of what makes for good vocals is not really skill, per se, but really selling the lyrics emotionally. Most of my favorite vocalists are not technically gifted, but they deliver the material so convincingly it doesn’t matter.
As to my bassy black metal rasp, it’s simply that my regular speaking voice is very deep. Like Peter Steele-deep depending on how I’m feeling. That and I absolutely love Abbath’s croaks, so I think they’ve rubbed off on me. There are some pretty higher-pitched Burzum screams on Metazoa though. The last “Was Christ not crucified” scream in Blood on the Cornfields stands out for me. The different vocal styles are a bit of a balancing act, because you don’t want to randomly switch from gutturals to shrieks just because you can. It’s all a question of proper context and storytelling.
[wpaudio url=”http://www.heavyblogisheavy.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Blood-on-the-Cornfields.mp3″ text=”Cormorant – Blood on the Cornfields” dl=”0″]
What are some video games you’ve been playing, and looking forward to? Also, wanna play TF2 with me?
My favorite games from last year were Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure for the DS and Dragon Age: Origins on the PC. Hatsworth is essentially an unholy fusion of Tetris Attack and the old side-scrolling Mega Man games I loved as a kid. It’s brutally difficult and oh-so-satisfying. Unfortunately it didn’t sell very well, probably because of just how damn hard it is. Dragon Age is a WRPG from BioWare in the vein of Baldur’s Gate. Really addicting open-ended battle system, great voice acting, clever ally-centered morality compass, lots of story options, awesome modding community. If you buy a copy, make sure it’s for the PC for the full experience. I’m looking forward to the Dragon Age expansion and the newest installment of the Phoenix Wright adventure games. I haven’t been following gaming very closely lately, so I’m sure there’s some brilliant stuff coming out soon that has flown past my radar.
I’d be happy to play Team Fortress 2 with you, but I haven’t been on that game in several months. I think I started getting turned off when Valve began adding all these silly cosmetic elements like hats, which only sent the quality of the user base into a downward spiral in a mad capitalist drive to collect pretty shiny objects. I liked the elegant simplicity of the original gameplay. I tended to play Spy because of how fragile and tactical the character was, but then the class was massively buffed, new players flocked to it in droves, and it just wasn’t as much fun.
Best fast food? Now that I live in Texas, I have to say Whataburger.
I live in California, so I’m supposed to say In-N-Out Burger, but my favorite fast food place actually only has one location. It’s a little greasy spoon in Petaluma, CA called Fourth and Sea. They have this incredible pulled pork and coleslaw sandwich that comes with homemade wedge fries and a drink with free refills. The whole thing is only five bucks. The food is delicious and they have shockingly great service. It’s right next to my work so I’m there once or twice a week. I don’t even order when I go there anymore. I just sit down and my usual shows up in within a few a minutes. Life is good.
How do you spend your free time besides forums, video games, and false slaying?
Hahaha, now I sound like a real geek. What’s this free time you’re talking about? I’m at work 9-10 hours a day, and then most of my evenings are spent taking care of Cormorant business and being with my girlfriend. Video game time has been sporadic, and forum posting usually happens between answering interview questions or when I need a break from writi ng articles. My girlfriend and I are addicted to Netflix, which according to the website Things White People Like is merely a side effect of our melanin levels. We try to hit the gym as much as possible but we’re not very consistent, since our jobs are pretty exhausting. I’d like to read more. When I was a teenager I’d go through a book a day. Right now I’m working on Robert Crumb’s imagining of the Book of Genesis. Slowly.
How is the new album coming along? Will there be any special appearances, or any of that amazing fretless? You have said there will be more riffage, what does this mean to you?
The new album is coming along great! We’re excited for it. We’d like to have it recorded before the end of this year. We haven’t decided on the details of the recording process for this one, but I’m sure as the general mood of the songs starts to crystallize we’ll have some more concrete ideas. I do definitely want to bring back Julie Dillon for the artwork if she’s interested, because it was a joy working with her on Metazoa. Special appearances are a definite possibility but I’ll keep mum on those details for now. I’ve pretty much switched over to the fanned fret bass, but I do hear a few parts where the fretless would work wonders. I have a unique idea for a pre-order package that I think fans will really love, and it’s something we could only pull off as an unsigned act.
More riffage? Well some of the songs are overflowing with old-school trad metal riffs that I can only hope are as fun to listen to as they are to play. I’d say the whole vibe so far is notably more progressive than Metazoa. At the same time, the compositions seem more mature and the transitions more focused. There’s a nice amount of atmospheric material as well. I feel all the elements of prog, trad, doom, black metal, and folk are gelling together very nicely. Lyrically and conceptually, let’s just say I’m hoping to make the natural conceptual progression from vegetation (The Last Tree) to animals (Metazoa) to… something a little closer to home, haha. I’ll leave you with that. Sorry for all the secrets.
[wpaudio url=”http://www.heavyblogisheavy.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/The-Crossing.mp3″ text=”Cormorant – The Crossing” dl=”0″]
Will you be touring out very far any time soon? I want to see you guys here in Houston.
I can’t say for sure. We’d like to tour but I don’t know if we can quite afford anything national right now. If a juicy package tour or festival date falls from the sky we’d certainly jump on it, but I don’t want to promise something and then not be able to deliver for logistical or financial reasons. As an unsigned band, we aren’t in the best position to negotiate guarantees from clubs (these insure at least enough gas money to make the next gig). I wouldn’t want to end up like our friends in Hatchet who were stranded penniless halfway across the country… while signed to Metal Blade Records! In regards to Texas, that would certainly be the state to hit, since along with New York and California, we’ve sold the most albums there. And there’s a San Antonio band named Hexlust we’ve wanted to gig with for ages. Touring will come with time. On the short term, on April 17th we’re headlining this crazy little outdoor festival up in the mountains of Weaverville, CA, near California’s Oregon border.
When will Metazoa be available on vinyl?
When we can afford it! Metazoa is 70 minutes long, which means it doesn’t fit on a single piece of vinyl. It turns out double-gatefold LPs are extremely expensive to print. We’re talking $4000 for 300 units based on some quotes. We just purchased a demo-recording studio, and of course we need to cover the costs for the album to follow Metazoa. And we still need to get a hold of a tour-capable van… basically there are a lot of things we’d like to do that will take significant amounts of time and money. The long wait for vinyl is disappointing to our fans and to us, but it’s something that’s still on the radar. Kim Kelly over at Catharsis PR / Saturnine Media has been scouring through the bowels of the Internet for the best prices, but if anyone has a tip for a great vinyl press, we’re all ears. This is the flipside of all the creative and financial freedom that comes with being an independent band.
Thanks a bunch for your time. Any last words you want to throw out?
Thank you kindly for your questions, and for helping support underground music. We owe a lot to blogs like yours spreading the word about bands like ours. I hope your readers will give Metazoa a listen, and keep our next album on their radars for early 2011.
I would like to thank Arthur dearly for the time he spent on this, and the opportunity for me to even do this. Thanks also go out to everyone that has helped Cormorant along the way, because goddamn do I love this band. So, go out and buy their merchandise, and keep an eye out for the next album coming up quick.