Last year, my interest was piqued by a surprise release from Woodsplitter, an instrumental solo project from Ben McLeod, guitar player of one of my favorite “new” bands, Nashville’s All Them Witches. Inflamed examines metal guitar through a variety of lenses: post, prog, death, stoner, doom, and even krautrock; showcasing an impressive variety and a refined level of comfort as each track seems to pare down to the core of what makes these sounds appeal to so many. His newest venture, Egyptian Overload, explores an even wider swath of sounds and textures, plus the addition of saxophone. I asked Ben a few questions about the project, the rawness of his latest record, and future plans.
Tell us about how the project started.
Ben: Woodsplitter started in 2013 because I was getting into recording. I had always messed around with recording, but really took the time to learn multitrack recording, EQ, and mixing techniques. I also wanted a project that was just my own for fun, then I would send my friends the songs. The project started as a guitar orchestra. (Guitorchestra!) It was nothing but the blending of classical guitars and electric guitars. A lot of finger picking, and almost nothing like what it is today. I guess the closest thing to what it was is [Egyptian Overload’s] “Sing The Birds To Sleep.”
Have you always been a multi-instrumentalist, or did starting this incite some aspirations you had to try playing other instruments?
Ben: Yes. My first instrument is piano, then guitar. I can play bass because it is basically guitar, only groovier. Bass is sick, people react to bass more than any other instrument without even knowing.
What’s it like to be working alone? What do you feel are the advantages/disadvantages?
Ben: It’s incredible…complete freedom and satisfaction. I have the best of both worlds though. I play with All Them Witches and vibe real hard on stage with the guys, we feed off each other. Then I get to go home and enter my head alone. The disadvantage is it will never be as good as four guys ripping in a room together. That is magic.
How has working in All Them Witches influenced your work in Woodsplitter? On one hand, I feel like this stuff is a foil for your work in All Them Witches, but on the other hand, you bring so many non-metal things into the fold, it’s not intimidatingly heavy or off-putting with guttural vocals or anything way out there.
Ben: I do not get any influence from All Them Witches for Woodsplitter, or vice versa. It is not a bad thing, I just love keeping the two as separate musically as possible. But, as no All Them Witches song is the same… I take that same approach with Woodsplitter. One song will be extremely heavy metal, then the next will be krautrock.
What’s the inspiration behind your work? You pull from so many different influences.
Ben: Explosions In The Sky, System Of A Down, Cloudkicker, Deafheaven, Liturgy, CAN. I also get a lot of inspiration from instrumental tracks of Limp Bizkit you can find on Youtube. Listen to all those songs without vocals and the band is so sick. One of the sickest bands. Then, Fred Durst comes in and ruins everything. But yeah, you can find most of ‘em instrumental. Do it!
Does this stuff stem from leftover material you had, or is Woodsplitter material more spontaneously created? I ask because these songs feel different from most other instrumental projects, like there’s an attention put on songwriting structure that “wanky” projects sometimes seem to ignore, and it’s rhythmically catchy as opposed to being intimidating or flashy. It feels like you’re putting energy toward making digestible compositions instead of trying to impress listeners.
Ben: Everything is spontaneous. It all starts with the guitar riff. Every song. Even as the song becomes more about the drums or bass, I have a platform. I usually record myself riffing with a click track when working on a new song, then I go back and cut and paste parts I like. I may redo them, or just drag and drop a bunch of those riffs in place. This is how each song goes through many changes, but still has structure…I love how Explosions in the Sky make instrumental music. Their songs have such great melodies and parts, you forget there is no one singing.
That being said, you seem to have found a desirable balance between progressive instrumental metal and so many other places but you find a way to make your releases as a whole, cohesive. What’s the connection that you’re able to find to make these sounds work with each other as opposed to against one another?
Ben: Once I get the masters back, I play around with the sequence of the songs to find the best flow. I love balance on records. Like if the first one has crazy metal riffing, the next one has gonna be a bit slower and sludgier, then maybe a jazz thing after. When you start to have a bunch of the same sounding songs in a row, you lose flow. Our ears like balance, and more importantly, they need a break.
I’m always curious how instrumental projects decide upon labelling the art that doesn’t use words itself. Talk about the album titles. What are those all about? And what about the song titles?
Ben: Inflamed is based on a quote from Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History Of The United States of America” where he is describing a procession of the Loyal Nine during the Stamp Act crisis as “amazingly inflamed people.” That quote was almost the album name… but I shortened it obviously. Egyptian Overload is a nod to one of my favorite bands, Pharaoh Overlord. [Titles] are the hardest part. I normally write things down I like, either on the road or in everyday life. Phrases or words that catch my eye, but they have to make sense to the feeling of the song.
Is there an intentional effort to bring together so many different textures, or do you just play what you feel?
Ben: None of it is intentional. I start with a platform of riffs, I just don’t stop or limit myself to anything. I will hear a melody and decide whether it is fitted for a mellotron, piano, guitar or sax.
I have to ask since it’s something that I found particularly interesting on Inflamed – the programmed a drum solo on “Shipwreck’d” – how did that come about?
Ben: It took about four hours. I was literally drawing in every note on it via MIDI. Originally the song ended where it starts… then I got the idea in my head to lead it into this other song I had, then the solo linked em and it became one song. The toms sound so amazing on that solo. I am proud.
Despite Egyptian Overload being a heavier record, you’ve also brought into the fold some more experimentation. I mean, this thing is saxy. Many of us here at the blog have been delving into more jazz, so it’s a timely coincidence that there’s prominent sax features on this record. Where does this come from?
Ben: I thought it would be sweet to have really heavy riffs, then completely change directions, go clean with the guitar and bass, and insert a beautiful sax solo. My friend Caleb came over one day and crushed it. I didn’t even let him listen back to them.
Generally, it feels like there’s more diversity instrument and effect-wise, too.
Ben: Yeah, that was the goal. I wanted to experiment with different aspects of “heavy.” Like can a sax bring the same heaviness as a distorted guitar when put in the right part of a song… same with mellotron and strings.
“Red Level” is a bass-driven track, and it’s not really what I’d expect from a guitar player. Was this just a means of challenging yourself or was this just satisfying what the song necessitated?
Ben: I love playing bass. Bass is normally the last thing I record, and I only give myself one or two passes at it to keep it flowy and raw. It really glues the song together that way. On “Red Level,” that is just what I played. I had everything in the song already, then came up with the bass line and decided it needed to start and end the song. The clean bass in the end is SO HEAVY.
You’ve also incorporated more acoustic guitar. “Sing the Birds to Sleep” is an acoustic composition that lends some of the multifacetedness of a Sir Richard Bishop album or something. How do you reconcile including some decidedly non-metal material in among the rest of the record?
Ben: Again, I needed a chill song to balance the heavy songs on the record. Without that song, the heavy stuff may not feel as heavy. This is also the kinda stuff Woodsplitter used to be.
How do you see the growth between your two releases? What did you learn from Inflamed that can be heard on Egyptian Overload?
Ben: I learned how to be more organized in the recording process. Also my cousin Grant taught me some amazing mixing techniques.
Do you have plans to assemble some players to perform this material live?
Ben: I would love that. I see it happening in 2018. Just need to find people.
What’s next for Woodsplitter?
Ben: I am about to start recording a country western album. So my next release will not be metal.
And because we ask everyone this… How do you like your eggs?
I’d like to thank Ben for taking some time out of his day to answer some questions. If you dig what you hear, Egyptian Overload is available for free (as is the rest of his material) now via bandcamp, and looks to see a physical release on vinyl and CD later this year.