Reading, PA’s Black Crown Initiate have very quickly become blog favourites with the release of their stunning debut The Wreckage of Stars last year, and they have rocketed to fame within the death metal scene astonishingly fast soon after, bolstered by both their musical creativity and relentless touring schedule. The recognition is well deserved — both Wreckage and preceding EP Song of the Crippled Bull are easily some of the finest releases in progressive death metal in the past several years, and yet it’s plainly apparent that the band clearly has more great things in store. Fellow Heavy Blog staffer Elizabeth Wood and I got to sit down and have a conversation over nachos with Black Crown Initiate vocalist James Dorton and guitarist/vocalist Andy Thomas after a stellar set (here’s a taste of what that’s like) supporting Cattle Decapitation at Toronto’s Hard Luck Bar, and we talked about the current state of things, what’s in store for the band, their influences, growing as a touring band, and — of course — beards!
Ahmed Hasan: So how far along are you on the tour?
Andy Thomas: We’re about two weeks maybe. It’s been awhile. It kinda all blends together. All the crowds, too.
AH: You’re getting some really good reception this time.
AT: For sure. Definitely the best we’ve ever had.
AH: You guys deserve it! How are you feeling about the songs? Do you feel like they’re coming together more, so to speak? Or are you getting more tired of them as the tour goes on?
AT: No, I don’t really get tired of the songs. Do you?
James Dorton: No, no. I think that it never gets old.
AW: But new material is still on the cards, right?
AT: Absolutely! I guess we’ll record December, January, and it should be out by the summer!
Elizabeth Wood: How did the IndieGoGo campaign end up going, with the van? You got a new van, correct?
AT: Yeah, it didn’t go according to plan. It’s kinda all a blur, how it actually all went down. Basically we raised enough money to buy another van, and we bought another van, but that van was also shit.
JD: That van almost killed us, actually.
AT: That van died. So basically what happened was we spent all the money we raised on the IndieGoGo, and then we had to buy another van immediately afterwards. So now, we still have to ship all the IndieGogo stuff out, but there’s been tours, and financial issues and all kinds of shit. But it’ll all get done. People are understandably upset that it’s taking longer than it should. I would never do that again. [laughs]
EW: You would never consider an IndieGogo campaign for an album?
AT: Absolutely not.
AH: So you’re not crowdfunding the new album then. But about the new album: the EP [Song of the Crippled Bull] was really concept-based, with lots of themes and motifs that were repeated, whereas Wreckage is a really song-by-song record. For the third album, will there be a mix, will there be more straight songs, or are you thinking of a big concept?
AT: I’d have to say it’ll probably be a mix of both. I can’t really tell you too much. But, it seems that people really enjoyed the EP, because of the way we structured the EP. I mean, we’re not gonna do that again, but there’s something to be said for why people enjoy it so much.
AH: Also, in terms of lyrical content, that’s more you, James.
JD: [Gesturing to Andy] This guy actually writes most of the lyrics.
AH: He writes all the lyrics for you, and you’re okay with that? That’s trust! [laughs]
JD: Yeah! I do plan to help with it in the future, but this is his project that he started. So he started it with the lyrics based on, or at least inspired by the music that he wrote. For me, I identify with what he writes, so I still feel like I’m speaking my mind.
AH: [To Andy] So you’re in charge of the writing, musically and lyrically.
AT: The EP, musically, was all Nick, the bass player, and I. Now Rik helps out with the writing as well.
JD: He wrote a substantial portion of The Wreckage of Stars.
AT: Yeah, there’s a lot of Rik on that album.
AH: Usually, when there’s two writers, you can tell their distinct styles, but you mesh real well.
AT: Rik and I grew up playing guitar together, so we have very similar styles.
AH: About your guitars — you guys have been rocking ESP guitars for awhile. How’s that going for you?
AT: It’s great! ESP has been – especially Chris Canella – has really been generous with us. He hit us up, and was like, “Hey, would you like to try ESP?” And we said, “Of course!” The thing about them that we like is that they’re very durable on the road. You know, the ones we had, you might as well have pissed on them after each show.
AH: Stay tech, also piss?
AT: [laughs] Yeah. They’re great guitars, they’re a great company to work with, and they really take care of us. As far as I am, with people like that, there’s a good amount of loyalty, when somebody takes care of you. We’ll play ESP guitars for as long as we have that relationship.
AH: So they approached you after Crippled Bull?
AT: It was after The Wreckage of Stars, because the reason they approached us in the first place was because Rik always played ESP. So when we shot the videos, they’d see him playing ESP.
AH: For the recording of the album, did you guys use something else?
AT: Yeah, but actually, we used a lot of ESP on Wreckage because Rik already had his.
AH: Also on that record, that was Jesse’s first record with the band, right?
AT: We wrote the EP with Jesse, but he left for Rings of Saturn. The drums on the EP that were programmed were basically what Jesse had written. Jesse’s been with us from the beginning. It just took awhile for it to work out.
AH: But you did have another drummer for a little while.
AT: Yeah, Jeff. Jeff’s a great drummer, too, but he couldn’t commit to the touring.
AH: So Jesse’s been writing your drum lines since the start?
AT: We write everything out with notation software. A lot of times the drums are written that way, too. But Jesse kinda goes back and forth with playing what we write, with what we have in mind, but also plays variations of it. He puts a lot of himself into mainly the cleaner parts – that’s where he can really show off what he’s good at. He’ll tell you he’s just a blast beat drummer, but he’s not.
AH: Well he’s good at that, too!
AT: He’s great at that. He’s a great drummer in general.
AH: So what was the transition like, for him to go from Rings of Saturn to more like, prog-death metal?
AT: I think this band is more along the lines of what he wanted to do. He could put more of himself into it, into this kind of sound.
AH: Well, about your sound — I hear a bit of Opeth in it, but what else would make up, say, the anatomy of Black Crown Initiate?
JD: There are obvious influences, but we kind of go for the approach of certain bands.
AH: Like the ‘aesthetic’?
JD: Yeah, the aesthetic. So bands that set themselves apart as being something that is a different thing.
AH: By aesthetic would you say in terms of music and lyrics and concept art altogether, or just the approach to songwriting?
AT: When we started out, we kind of had in mind that we wanted to be a ‘big band’. Now no offense to the music, but with death metal there’s only so far you can go lyrically. So we kept in mind that we wanted to be able to expand in the future the way we wanted — and I do think we’ve gone there — and that’s what I think [James] means by the aesthetic of the band.
AH: Ah. See, when you said aesthetic, what I mostly thought of was the title track on Wreckage. Just the buildup of that, how it comes together-
AT: Our bass player wrote that!
AH: Entirely?! Wow! How do you think it came together in the context of the album, given that having a song like that was kind of out of left field?
AT: Honestly, the stuff on the next album doesn’t even sound like anything on this record. We’ll see, but I think there’ll be a lot of surprises, cause we wouldn’t want to do the same album twice.
EW: Are you experimenting with new styles then, would you say?
AT: I don’t know about new styles, cause I mean it couldn’t work like ‘I wanna write something that sounds like whatever’. It’s more like ‘this thing sounds different from what we’ve done before’ and some of it is stuff I wouldn’t even know how to classify — but I don’t really care.
AH: Now off this one album you have out, you’re touring with all these big bands, like Origin and Cattle Decapitation and what have you. The touring has been sort of diverse, with the Summer Slaughter lineup last year in Canada among others — how much has being exposed to all these diverse bands influenced your sound, if at all, and also how you approach touring?
AT: Sonically, I don’t know how much that’s — I mean the way we write is kind of insular. Like, your influences are obviously there, but it’s more of a subconscious type thing. I think touring with all the bands that we have has inspired us and shown us how to do what they do, as in how to tour, how to perform in front of people, how to entertain a crowd. It’s things like that you learn from touring, and I think that’s influenced us in that regard more than anything else.
AH: Absolutely! Crowd interaction is a really big thing. You guys were doing that tonight — I totally believed the ex-wife thing at first. [Before performing “The Malignant” in Toronto earlier that day, Andy told the crowd it was about his ‘third ex-wife’. Laughter appropriately ensued.]
AT: [laughs] No, I don’t have a third ex-wife. I say dumb shit sometimes. I’ve told crowds that “To The Eye That Leads You” is about my first pair of reading glasses. [pauses] It’s not, by the way.
AH: And if you lose those glasses… there is a consequence.
AT: [nods] There is a consequence!
AH: I love that line. But yeah, if you guys have seen Devin Townsend live, he’s an absolute dad up there with all his jokes.
AT: Oh man, I’ve seen him so many times. I grew up with his music.
JD: Last time we saw him, he was bouncing balloons over the crowd.
AH: Did he make you guys do jazz hands?
JD: All kinds of shit.
EW: He’s adorable!
JD: We’ve been hoping to see him in Vancouver sometime.
AT: That would be so cool. I totally geek out whenever we’re in that area.
AH: Oh man, my girlfriend was in Vancouver for an entire semester last year, and I would constantly go, “So did you see Devin Townsend today? Did you? Huh?”
AT: [laughs] Right?
Ahmed: Him or the guys in Archspire. Both from Vancouver. You guys toured with them, right?
AT: They’re great dudes. Great sense of humour. And they do that whole ‘stay tech’ thing.
AH: Also piss! But back to Devin — it’s funny, cause I don’t think I’ve actually met a metal musician who isn’t at least somewhat influenced by him.
AT: Yep. He’s got the best pipes out there.
AH: Absolutely. [to James] On the topic of vocals, you do a lot of voice acting on the side. A lot of metal people have day jobs and the like, but I doubt any of them are as cool as that! Has that played into your vocals at all?
JD: Well, I kind of see those things as separate, although I think that the fact that I do the vocals regularly makes me better at it in itself? It affects my way in such a way that if I try to sound more [puts on a radio announcer voice] more announcer-y! Like that! I can talk like this! [switches back to speaking voice] Whereas music is a different place to go, and it’s hard if I don’t sing every day, or stuff like that.
AH: I imagine that to really develop your technique for vocals, you’re using your voice, and that affects your day job in a sense.
JD: Yeah. I would call it more of an endeavour, since I haven’t been able to go all that far with it.
AH: I recall one of your IndieGoGo perks involved you doing voice acting? Did anyone pick that up?
JD: Ah, no, unfortunately. I think we set the price too high. But that’s alright.
AH: Maybe some beard hairs would have made a good perk! Speaking of, honestly — how tired are you of the whole ‘Beard Crown Initiate’ thing?
Andy: Honestly? My entire life has been people asking me about my beard.
EW: I mean, it is extremely impressive.
AT: Thank you! But I just… didn’t shave it. That’s all I had to do. I mean I am kind of tired of it. I don’t mean to sound like a dick — but sometimes it’s just like, “Dude, come on, really?”
AH: One of my best friends is also named Ahmed and we’ve been getting “Haha, Ahmed squared!” jokes for ten years. I get it. Now, this might be a weird question, but I’ve seen pictures of you performing with your beard actually right on your fretboard. Has that ever genuinely been a problem when playing live?
AT: Only time it’s a problem is when some of it gets ripped out cause it’s stuck somewhere. But you just learn to tuck it underneath the guitar to begin with, and it stays out of the way.
AH: [laughs] That makes sense. Liz, you got anything to add?
EW: Nope! Except — eggs!
AH: So how do you guys like your eggs? This is a serious question.
JD: I always get mine over medium.
EW: Over medium?!
AT: And I always get pissed off at my bandmates for wanting to eat breakfast foods.
AH: It’s a Heavy Blog staple. We gotta ask it, or we lose our jobs.
EW: Thanks for chatting with us, guys!
Black Crown Initiate have just wrapped up 2015’s touring following the Cattle Decapitation tour, and — as the interview would suggest — are expected to hit the studio soon, so keep your eyes peeled!
-EW & AH