Having already established themselves as one of the best prog-rock bands going around, Karnivool‘s recently released third album, Asymmetry, appears to have taken some fans off guard with its challenging sound and more progressively dense composition. However, as anyone who has read my review will know, this is an album that has intrigued and intoxicated me with its multitude of musical and thematic layers, ripe for exploration, so I was certainly excited by the opportunity to speak with bassist, Jon Stockman, on the day after their first of two shows in Melbourne earlier this month, and gain some further insight into the conceptual basis of Asymmetry. Despite being a bit dusty, the very congenial Mr Stockman also shared with me his thoughts regarding the band’s writing and recording process, and just what it means to go ‘number one’ on the mainstream charts.
Mate, I’m sorry for waking you up and disturbing you after what I imagine could have been a big night last night.
JS: It was pretty big actually, but I set my alarm so it’s all good.
Well, I really appreciate it mate, as speaking to me at this time of the day is probably the last thing you want to be doing, so thanks for that!
Well firstly, I wanted to congratulate you on Asymmetry, as it’s a wonderful achievement for you and the guys, as is reaching number 1 on the ARIA charts, which I imagine came as bit of a surprise for you.
JS: Yeah, the number one on the charts came as a really big shock to us, but we were really stoked when we found out, as it was a bit of a milestone for us. We always wanted to have a number one debuting record in Australia and it’s a great feeling. It really blew us away.
What do you think it could mean for independent and progressive music in this country?
JS: Well I’m not sure what it could mean, but considering where we come from and what we stand for, I think it’s a great achievement in that sense just to have a record as obscure as this one is for commercial popularity debuting at number one. It’s a very big sign for the diversity of music in this country to have that happen.
And it’s fantastic too when considering that of the three albums you’ve released thus far, this is the one that you would perhaps consider to be the least commercially attractive, as opposed to Themata or even Sound Awake.
JS: Yeah I think that if you look across this record, it probably has the least commercial songs if you look at it on a case by case basis, but in that sense it just makes the whole thing stronger.
Now that it’s released, you’ve obviously embarked on this national tour to launch it, and as far as I know, you’ve done two shows so far, and I am especially interested in last night at the Melbourne Town Hall which is a bit of an unusual venue for a rock band to play. How did that all go?
JS: Yeah it seems to be the tour of theatres at the moment. We did the the Melbourne Town Hall last night and we’ve got it again tonight, and we did the Thebarton Theatre in Adelaide a couple of nights ago, but they’ve gone really well, surprisingly without any technical problems considering this is the first time we are playing some of these songs, so we’re really happy. It’s great to be able to get out there and perform some new stuff, because for us it’s not that often that we have new material. It takes a while for us to write new stuff so it’s a great and fresh feeling for us, and the venue’s amazing; the Town Hall is such a great place and the sound in there was phenomenal last night.
A different ambiance in the Town Hall as opposed to say, Download or Sonisphere!
JS: A different beast altogether really.
How do you find moving back from the big festivals to a more intimate theatre show?
JS: I’m okay with that, in fact I’m okay doing even smaller shows, I mean, they all have a different vibe. There’s nothing like a tiny pub rock show with 300 people there, but at the other end you’ve got the festival shows, and they’re all different. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other, it’s all just apples and oranges really.
Moving on to Asymmetry, and from a musical perspective, I think it’s certainly the most challenging album you’ve produced so far, and it is also much more thematically dense than your previous efforts.
When I first saw the video for ‘We Are’ I had the sense that I was watching something quite conceptual, something that was part of some greater narrative perhaps, and as I listened to it more and more I was able to identify a number of very strong lyrical themes running throughout, such as, for example, this notion of opening the mind.
Can you give us some insight into what Asymmetry is about, the ideas it explores, and what is tying these songs together conceptually.
JS: Well when you look at the reality we live in and the way that human kind has attempted to make sense of the world around it, I think that there seems to be more of a trend towards not trying to find a perfectly symmetrical fit for everything, and I think that’s what we were exploring, especially with the shape of the record. In the beginning. it’s looking at creation itself, and then at the end of the record it’s more about death, and those two processes themselves are asymmetric, yet they are very very closely linked. The other thing about Asymmetry is that the first half of the record is quite different to the second half as well, and there are actually quite a lot of different themes in amongst all of that; it’s not just one global theme that all the songs apply, but I think that’s sort of the general thing that we were thinking with the record.
I think in that first half of the record there are some darker lyrical themes than I have detected from you before, and some references to disease and so on. How does that tie in to this notion of the life cycle?
JS: Well I guess it’s more about the turbulence of entropy, and I guess that there are so many things that you can’t help but you just have to deal with in life. They’re not aimed at you and it’s not a personal attack, it’s just life. Shit happens!
It does indeed!
So, in terms of this concept, for want of a better way of putting it, was this something you guys had discussed prior to writing the album, from which the music flowed, or was it more so that the music inspired the lyrical and thematic content, when you stepped back and saw what it was that you were creating?
JS: It was definitely the latter, and the further we got into the writing, that became more prevalent, for sure.
So musically, then, I think the album retains many of the band’s hallmarks, but I think it’s fair to say that it is somewhat of a departure from the previous two albums in the sense that it lacks the obvious hooks you guys have become famous for, and is far more progressive structurally than even Sound Awake was. As I said, too, not only lyrically, but musically I think it is noticeably darker, and the first half in particular is quite abrasive in its production aesthetic.
I know you were heavily involved in writing the album with Drew, so can you tell me a little bit about the writing process, and what your compositional mindset was following the success of Sound Awake and when it came to writing the new one.
JS: Well I think the beginning of this record really started during the Sound Awake period when we were touring, but we didn’t have a great opportunity to sit down or get together and write, and to start work on Asymmetry straight away because of the touring schedule, so a lot of it began in hotel rooms and band rooms for gigs in Europe and around the world. For example, I think I started writing ‘Sky Machine’ in a hotel room in New Zealand on our way over to the States, and a few songs began like that, as little audio memos, and then when we went into the studio and began writing, it took a little bit of time to get our creative juices flowing again as a band, but then we started to get these ideas and flesh them out a lot more, and then we brought in drums with Steve coming in and also Hoss coming in and those guys doing their thing. So this began the process by which we started to compose the music, and then it was a case of going back and trying to organise it in a fashion that made sense to us, and it’s that part of the process that takes by far the longest amount of time for us. I mean, we even tried to do things different this time by trying to streamline our process, because we came to the understanding that there’s a certain amount of digestion time that, in our minds, some things needed, so we went and tried to parallel work on other things when we hit roadblocks, and that seemed to be a bit more effective. I think the thing is with this record that even though it took four years to come out, and that has been the same ever since we released Persona, the actual writing process for this was only two years, which is probably the fastest we’ve ever written anything, but in terms of the logistics that made it difficult to start that process it became four years.
Did you have an idea as to want you wanted, or was it more of a matter that you were in disparate places throughout the world creating various different ideas which may or may not initially have seemed to have any relationship to each other, and then piecing them together and trying to find the connections between them?
JS: I think it’s always been that process, in that we’ve never really looked back retrospectively on what we’ve done in order to see where we should go with our music, it’s more something that synthesises itself in real time for whatever process we’re going through or whatever is inspiring us. It’s not really a conscious thing.
So it’s more of an organic progression in that respect.
JS: Yeah, definitely.
And do you think that progression has much to do with the familiarity and perhaps the deeper understanding you now have of each other, say by comparison to just after Themata?
JS: Oh I think we’ve gotten a lot better at understanding each others’ processes which I think is even more important than the compatibility that we have, which I think is a given, but it’s the process by which we all attack things, and we all need our time and space to be able to have that exercised I think.
And then bring that back to the group.
JS: Yeah, and it’s about everyone having their chance to get things off their chest or have their ideas heard on things, because if they don’t, I think they are still going to want to until they do, and so we need to work that out and give everyone their opportunity to work at their best capacity.
Now Jon, I can’t interview you mate and not ask you about ‘The Refusal’ and those screams. They certainly fit really well with the song, but was it just that you drew the short straw, or is this something you have wanted to integrate into the Karnivool sound for some time?
JS: Well it was actually something that we were doing when we were demoing the song in the band room, and it was Kenny’s idea to have us all involved, and he thought it might be cool to have some sort of shouted vocal behind that verse, and there was actually a few of us doing it together, but then he just turned to me and said, “You sound really good, why don’t you just do it, and is that something you’d be prepared to do in this Karnivool 3.0 manifestion?”, and I said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll give it a crack.” I was nervous as hell when I first did it because it was the first time I had done anything on the mic since…
Yeah I wasn’t sure whether you had a vocal background at all.
JS: Nah mate, not really. I can’t sing for shit, although I did used to try to sing in a band a long time ago, but it’s probably been about 16 years since I’ve done anything on the mic, so …
And it really adds to that mathy sound that that song and some of the other tracks in the first half of the record have.
JS: It really does. I mean, for me that song is really punky. It’s not punk, but it’s got a punk edge that I feel we were coming from with that song, so it sort of helps with that as well.
And I think that also ties in to the production aesthetic that I alluded to previously, and it is obviously the case with this album that you decided to not work with Forry (Forrester Savell), your long-time friend, collaborator and producer…
JS: Yeah we just wanted to try something different. It was actually something that we had discussed when we were doing Sound Awake as well. You know, invariably we just needed to expand our sound and that always meant that we were going to have to choose someone else apart from Forry at some stage.
Going into the studio, did you think that the songs you had written required something different, or was it more that you were unsure of what you were looking for but that you just wanted to see how far you could push your sound in some sort of different direction?
JS: I think that it would have been stellar if we had have used Forry, but the decision wasn’t based on music and was independent of what we’d written.
And so what you ended up doing with Nick (DiDia) was this much rawer and abrasive sound as I called it before, and was it his idea that that would work well with these math rock songs you had written…
JS: Yeah it definitely was.
And how did you guys feel about that? I mean, you guys are known for that really crisp, crystal clear sound.
JS: It was definitely new and unfamiliar territory for us, but I kind of like treading there as well.
How does that translate into the live setting? Are there any adjustments that you have to make for that or do you just play it as it is?
JS: Well it’s actually very similar to the way we would be playing it live, that’s the way we tracked it, with the whole band playing live, and Kenny singing for the drum tracks to give Steve the energy of us playing live when we did a take which was really important from Nick’s perspective.
Well, mate, I haven’t seen you guys play now for quite some years now, so I am really looking forward to seeing you tonight, but before I let you go, can you tell us what your touring plans are for when you finish up here, because you’re obviously heading over to the UK later in the year, but I know we have many many American readers who are just dying for you to travel back to the States as soon as possible.
JS: Well, we’d like to get back there as soon as possible but we don’t have anything locked in just yet. It all depends on what the next year kind of presents to us. Apart from that, we’re actually going to try and make a beginning on new material as soon as possible, just because…
You’re not going to make us wait another four years, mate?!
JS: We’re going to try and not! Every time we try and minimise the time, but it invariably spills out to four for some reason, so we’re going to try once again to narrow that gap.
Well I think I can speak for most people when I say that if it takes four years to produce an album as brilliant as Asymmetry, then there’s no problem with that! Anyway mate I’ll let you go, but it’s been great to talk with you, good luck for tonight and I’m looking forward to seeing you there!
JS: Thanks mate, cheers.