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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Interview - Hesper Payne's Brooke Johnson

I recently was granted the opportunity to interview Brooke Johnson, the mainbrain behind one of the UK's most up-and-coming doom metal projects. This interview was conducted via email since we both live on different continents. This was my first interview and I hope it turned out well and that you enjoy reading it.

Ian: I guess the first question would be how you are doing after releasing Unclean Rituals?

Brooke: We're doing great thanks, Unclean Rituals is slowly spreading its tendrils through the internets and we are starting to recieve reviews, most of which are positive. We are also popping up in a lot of 'currently listening too' and 'cool bands i just discoverd' threads on forums, it doesnt sound like much but its realy exciting to read that people on the other side of the world are digging our music.

Ian: That's good to hear, I really enjoyed the debut album and found it quite interesting. Compared to a lot of other doom metal releases, and bands, the riffs and playing on this album feel a bit more abstract than usual, how did you come to approach playing slower music this way and who are some of the bands and influences that made you want to start playing doom?

Brooke: Celtic Frost, Morbid Angel and Cathedral were probably the most obvious influences early on, especially MA's slow stuff. There is a particular chord that Trey Azagthoth uses that just sounds really cool and sinister and always gives me a kick to play. Pretty much all of my musical works follow a similar pattern that I have jokingly referred to this as 'the rule of three', having a core trio of musical influences to inform the sound and only using something outside that triumvirate as an occasional accent. I like to paint when I'm not making music and using a limited palate always results in a more coherent work than just throwing everything at the canvas. The abstraction you mention probably comes from trying to illustrate environments and the more other worldly elements in the lyrics. It's difficult to suggest windswept heather and bleak alum stained cliffs, for example, with typical metal riffs and arrangments. Doubly so when trying to suggest something preternatural or lovecraftian, so the playing tends to become somewhat obtuse in an effort to create subtly unsettling tensions.

I would say music was more of a secondary influence on us, both lyrically and musically our inspiration comes from living in the North East of England. The North Yorkshire and Northumbrian coasts are bleakly spectacular and both areas have been inhabited by humans for hundreds of thousands of years. There are rich seams of folklore to be mined and I really can't believe there are not more local bands digging into this sort of thing.

I got into doom when I was a teenager after hearing a compliation cassette that had My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost and Cathedral on it, (The Cry of Mankind, Hallowed Land and a demo of Vampire Sun) and started digging from there. I don't know why it grabbed me so much but I suspect that it's because of my interest in paleo sciences and all things lovecraftian. Even the most prominent doom bands are the tip of the iceberg and it's extremely rewarding to dig into the underground and excavate these arcane, eldritch artefacts. Aside from dark ambient it's really the only appropriate way to musically create the atmospheres and world that exists in my head. I like that doom has yet to break the mainstream, its perhaps the last frontier of the traditional metal forms. Because there is no fortune and glory to be had the people creating this kind of music do so out of their love for the art alone.

Ian: The album really contains a lot of different styles, apart from classic doom, including sludge, funeral doom, stoner, and a bit of death and black metal, was this intentional?

Brooke: The music and lyrics are working together to create a specific atmosphere which requires different playing approaches to each particular part. A consequence of this is that we tend to dip into other facets of doom and metal to achieve this goal. Each song is a story so the music and lyrics need to progress the narrative, as long as the music conveys the required aesthetic then it gets used regardless of style. Because everything is working towards the single unifying theme and returns to the core sound influenced by the trio mentioned above I like to think we manage to avoid the 'style salad' trap a lot of bands encounter. Of course that makes the process sound a lot more calculated than it really is, we work much more instinctively and the songs come together in an organic fashion. The music still has to give us chills or make us want to throw the horns to make the cut. That said its still about finding the right balance between the killer riff and the right emotional response and we have amassed quite the library of music whose time is yet to come.

Ian: How did you first start Hesper Payne and did you think you would still be creating music under this name when you started it?

Brooke: Quite by accident really, I had wanted to do a doom/death project for years but never been able to write any thing I considered good enough. Then in 2003 I purchased a seven string guitar from the local music shop and because I had no experience of floating trem systems I asked the shop to set it up for me. They where used to servicing indie bands and the like in standard tuning so the baritone seven string really foxed them. They ended up putting super heavy gauge strings on it and I could not tune it any higher than G. I plugged it in and hit a G chord and thought it was the coolest thing I had ever heard. I could feel it physically churning my guts and I could do these really nauseating low string bends. All the riffs I had been messing with suddenly made sense and I set about spending the rest of the year writing and then in 2004 recording what would be 'Unspoken Kults' and 'The Black Witch' demos. I didnt start refering to it as Hesper Payne until I was writing 'Dreamer in the Deep' when the name was brought to my attention in several unrelated instances. There was already a song called Hesper Payne so I took these coincidences as a portent. After that point I figured that it was something that was going to stay with me for a long time. I've tried to give up on it many times over the years out of sheer frustration of not being able to find members ect. but she wont stay dead! SHE CANNOT BE KILLED!

Ian: I know you perform most of the instruments in the studio yourself, was this intentional or did you have trouble finding other members in the beginning?

Brooke: It's been incredibly hard to find players, I don’t know weather its the underground nature of doom or even the super low tuning but in six years of existence we have only managed to play two shows. I poached Ian from one of my other bands and the details surrounding Richard shall remain untold, suffice to say by necessity he can only ever be a studio member. We now have Alexandra playing keyboards, she played on the album and is now actively contributing to the writing, she is much more talented than her restrained work on the album would suggest and I have some friends from one of my other bands (a death metal band called Today The Sun Dies) who are helping out on rhythm guitar and drums. It's got to the point now where I think when it comes to writing and recording the band will remain the core trio of myself, Ian and Alex and we will use session players for shows, and in the Studio. When Richard is... otherwise engaged of course.

Ian: You released a demo, EP, and compilation before releasing Unclean Rituals, what made you want to release a full-length debut at that time instead of another EP or demo?

Brooke: Just kind of worked out that way. Over the years I’ve learned to trust my gut over this sort of thing and not to try and force things before its time. The first two demos were in my eyes at that time, good but not good enough for public consumption. They did not capture the atmosphere or emotions that I was looking for. So I put them to one side. Then 'Dreamer...' happened and I knew that it was the right material to release to the wider world. We actually started writing the songs that would eventually become 'Unclean Rituals' around 2007 and things have came together very slowly, it is doom after all. During 2008 we realised that three of the songs had a slightly different tone to the rest and worked together quite well so these became 'Titans...' Then whilst working on the album I rediscovered the Demo tracks and some other odds and ends. Like a loathsome Lovecraftian entity, the music sounded decrepit and arcane so we put these out with two other unreleased demos as 'Relics...' I think the EP is a great format, a band can take side steps out of its natural evolution and experiment with things that would not work in the album context. By this time the Unclean songs where ripe and working as a coherent whole and there seemed little point in trimming them down to an EP to canvas to labels so we decided to release in conjunction with Works of Ein.

Ian: Your vocals on the album are quite varied and really add a lot of personality to the songs, but I would say the style most used is your clean crooning which makes me think of Nick Holmes a bit, did you have to practice to sing the way you did or did it just naturally come out this way?

Brooke: Thanks that’s cool, I was really into Paradise Lost when I was a teenager and still really dig them now. I really wish I could sing like Warrel Dane or Devin Townsend but I can't so I have to try and use what’s available. The real trick has been learning what kind of voice goes with which part and works towards the atmosphere and feeling we are trying to achieve in each passage and this time round the crooning was the best way. Also it gets boring for me as the vocalist if I'm just doing the same monotone growl or scream all the time. I recently read an article about how vocals on classic metal albums always have good diction regardless of delivery, I want to be able to hear the lyrics and sing along, to get to know the story. The narrative element that is prevalent in classic metal is something that drew me to the music initially and that’s something I try to deliver as the vocalist in Hesper Payne.

Ian: On the track Hesper Payne, you used more of a black metal style of vocals, why were these used so sparingly on the rest of the album?

Brooke: That voice is generally used to portray spite, bitterness and hatred so fits the lyrical content of the passages that use it perfectly. When used out of that context it just sounds wrong and the other songs needed different vocal textures to create different emotional atmospheres. I also look at those wretched kind of vocals as being something special that has more effect when its underused.

Ian: What made you want to give your music away for free on your Bandcamp page? What are your opinions of download culture and how it has impacted the music industry and your personal creation of music?

Brooke: The music wants to be heard and this is the best way for us to distribute it. I do this because there is something inside that compels me to create and then want to share that with others with no thought of reward other than the enjoyment of doing it. I really can't think of making music any other way. We really get a kick out of seeing people all over the world digging our work, even when we get negative comments its cool that we connected with some ones emotions to the extent that they had to share it with other people. Realistically a band like Hesper Payne has little hope of any kind of traditional success, we inhabit a niche within a niche, so we have a lot of freedom to do as we please, such as free releases. We still plan to make physical releases and merch when funds permit, if only for ourselves, but everything will always be given away free digitally. I personally would love to have a release out on vinyl but at present that is well outside our resources. We have just released a limited digipak of Unclean Riturals that features a bonus track and is available now via the Works of Ein and our own website.

Downloading and the internet has completely opened the field, we could not do what we do now if it was not for the rapid development of information technology and the proliferation of cheap recording gear so naturally we are all for it. I can understand why certain parties are upset over it but trying to stem the tide is like trying to mop up a sea fret with a dish cloth, utterly futile. Brighter people than I have discussed and dissected this topic so I would suggest that any folks wanting to dig into possible solutions for the future head on over to some where like www.newmusicstrategies.com or www.musicthinktank.com

As I mentioned above cheap recording gear is one of the reasons a bands like Hesper Payne is able to exist. I have a modest home studio in my attic and have invested time and money over the last ten years figuring out how to record, mix and master extreme metal specifically so I can produce my own music to a fairly good standard and I often forget how incredible this would seem just those ten years ago. Regardless of how you feel on the subject we live in interesting times!

Ian: I know that you are involved in many other projects and bands (The Axis of Perdition, Halo of The Sun, Mine[thorn], Void of Silence) what is the status of those projects and any future plans with them.

Brooke: I think I counted recently that I am involved with about 15 active projects with at least another three or four currently being planned and yet another three or four defunct. I have no idea where the time or inspiration comes from and most of them never get heard outside my small circle of friends, I just enjoy being creative. TAOP is currently recording its latest album, Tenements, due out next year on Code666 records. HOTS are working on various projects including a début album due out next year on Works of Ein. Mine[thorn] are currently demoing material for a second album and will be putting out an EP towards the end of the year. And VOS is an unknown as I'm just the vocalist rather than a core creative member though if they want me to sing on another album I would love to do it. I’m also currently playing bass in a modern death metal band called Today The Sun Dies which is a lot of fun, as much as I love Hesper Payne sometimes it's great to just blast out some pure brutality.

Ian: What are your plans for Hesper Payne at this point? Are you already writing for another release?

Brooke: We are already working on another EP (Currently with the title 'Dreaming The Doom Of Man') and if all goes to plan (as if it ever does!) we should have a total of four new releases in the next 18 months. We have also finally managed to put together a live line up after all these years and just played our second ever show which went really well and was a lot of fun so we are looking forward to playing more shows around the UK and hopefully further abroad

Ian: Thank you for the interview, it has been a pleasure. Any last words?

Brooke: Thanks for your time and support!
Stay clear of the forgotten path but if you can hear them coming its already too late.

Once again I would like to thank Brooke for allowing me the privilage of interviewing him, it was truely a pleasure.

Check out Hesper Payne if you haven't already:

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