Interview with Joel from Thrawsunblat
Last week I sat down with Joel’s hologram and got to talk to him about his projects newest release, Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings. I previously reviewed this majestic piece of folkened black metal for Metal Bandcamp, but I wanted to find out a bit more about the album’s creation and epic lyrical imagery.
Let’s start off simple: how do you pronounce your band’s name and what does it mean?
Pretty much just like it looks, Thraw-sun-blat. Dave [Gold, RIP] came up with it when we were getting the project ready. We wanted something that was both catch and edgy, so we looked at bands like Borknagar and stuff like that; it’s a made-up word. We play a bastardized European metal here in Canada, so it’s like a bastardized version of some old Germanic word. And it kind of sounds like Thrash and Blast! So I thought that was pretty clever, it’s got a meaning to it. Dave and I both like words that are loaded with meaning, and the name has the word “raw,” “sun” and almost the word “blast” in it so that’s kinda cool.
What’s the history of the project? Was it meant to be a Woods of Ypres side-project or was it always your thing?
In the beginning Woods never entered the picture at all, except for the fact that Dave was in Woods. I bought one of his albums via mailorder back in 2004 and we started trading demos. Then all of a sudden in 2009 he asked if he could drum on the album and my head just exploded! I said “Of course, that would be great!” That was right as they were going into the studio to record IV so Dave actually booked the same studio a few weeks ahead of time and did the drums for Canada 2010. I did all the guitars, vocals and bass here then sent it to all to get it mixed. And that was going to be it, just me writing the songs and Dave drumming his face off. He then asked me to join Woods the next year, so that’s how that all came to be.
So before that Thrawsunblat was just something you did on your own?
Yeah, it didn’t even have a name until Dave came along with that. It’s basically the music I’ve been writing since around 2004.
Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings has a pretty dense, epic story to it. Can you explain it and how you came up with the idea?
Well that’s cool that you’ve listened to it enough to get that density, because I really wanted to write something that had some lyrical substance. I wanted it all to be cohesive. The first album was essentially eight different songs that had the same color, the same environment or atmosphere. As far as lyrics go they were all separate things though, and with this one I wanted to something else. I drew a lot from Joseph Campbell. I wanted to do a story since that made the most sense for a concept. I came up with the phrase “Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings” when I was on tour with Woods. We were somewhere in the Rocky Mountains and whenever I wasn’t driving I would put on my big isolation headphones and pull out a pad of paper.
I was able to fit that wanderer theme into Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, which is the basis for pretty much every myth. There’s a structure to all the world’s big myths that is common to pretty much every story; things that humans find innately appealing. Star Wars is a great example because George Lucas used the Joseph Campbell stuff to a T, basically. There are different archetypes represented by different characters and Campbell talked about how these archetypes exist in all of us. For example, the mentor archetype would obviously be Obi-Wan, the hero is Luke and there’s also tricksters and helpers and all sorts of things. The hero always starts in his world, where he’s comfortable and has to cross the threshold, which is a big plot point. An example of that is when Luke enters the Cantina, and it represents the edge of his comfortable world and once he leaves his home planet he has crossed the threshold into a strange new environment and that’s where the bulk of the story takes place. So anyway, I was reading a lot of that template and used it to make a story line for this.
So was each song based on a particular part of the hero’s cycle?
I’ll give you the rundown: “Lifelore Revelation” is more of an overture, it resides outside the story. It kind of gives Campbell’s point-of-view on myth and what the whole thing is about. “Once Fireveined” is sort of in the home and it provides an impetus to want to leave, same with “We, The Torchbearers.” That might be considered… there are reasons why the hero wants to leave and that’s what that song provides. Same with “Goose River.” “Bones in the Undertow” is the big crossing the threshold one. A lot of the time in these stories a river is the big symbol for the threshold so I wanted to make that explicit in that song. Some of the others are about trials along the way. In “Borea” there’s a bit of death and rebirth that happens to the wanderer, that’s also a big theme. Like before Luke uses the force he’s kind of a kid and not very powerful, but then there’s the death of Luke as a child and he’s able to grow. So “Borea” and “View of a Million Trees” are based upon that. “Song of the Nihilist” is kind of the boss battle, if that makes sense, where they have this big dialogue. Song twelve is the triumph, where you’ve gained a prize or power and you now want to return to your home and do something with that.
How did you end up recruiting Rae Amity and Brendan Hayter for the rhythm section?
Again, it’s the Woods connection. They were going be the touring bass and drum players for the 2012 European tour but obviously that didn’t happen. Rae and I did the Ypres Fest, the David Gold tribute concert, together. With Brendan, we had played with his band Obsidian Tongue before. You should check them out, it’s really good stuff. So yeah, after seeing them I asked Brendan if he wanted to record some stuff so he sent me some demos and he just nailed it. Same with Rae, I got them both to do some audition type things and it went well and they already knew each other so it was pretty painless, really.
Was that an easy transition? Doing basically everything yourself to working with these two musicians?
When I write I like to have a melody with the root notes that are really connected; the root notes really matter to me. That was tough to let go of because the bass usually dictates what root notes you’re playing, but on Brendan’s demos he just nailed them so I let him do his thing. When you’re a writer you have a sense of what the pulse is and when you give it to someone to add their pulse to it… he added stuff I never could have done, and that’s the important thing when you’re giving a job to someone else in music. And Rae did a great job on the drums too, so it was easy.
Why do you think folk and metal so well? And where do you get your personal folk influences?
They work together so well because folk provides a lot of the atmosphere and great content, just riffs that really resonate down to my fucking bones. And metal provides a harsh or aggressive medium to give it legs and to give it life. Easily some of the most spiritual moments I’ve had in my life have been sprinting through the woods while blasting some sort of folk-ish metal. I don’t know what it is, but folk melodies or patterns are passed down through cultures, and the stuff that gets passed down is the stuff that we really like. So these folk sensibilities have stood the test of generations and it’s great to add it to this powerful, aggressive medium. And for me, I love history and maritime/Irish music so it’s just a no-brainer.
I’ve always associated your music, both in Thrawsunblat and in Woods of Ypres, as deeply Canadian. How does your national identity affect how you approach your music?
A goal I had, a really lofty one – but I guess those are the only ones to have… you know when you listen to Finntroll it takes you right to Finland or Enslaved takes you to Norway? You have all these bands that take you all over the world, but in my opinion there haven’t been many bands that bring you to Canada. I guess with North America you have the Cascadian stuff near you that does that a little bit, but I really wanted to put Canada or New Brunswick on the map or at least get you there musically.
You don’t have a label or any PR, you’re totally promoting this stuff yourselves and yet I’ve seen your new album mentioned on just about every metal blog I read. Were you expecting so much press?
I had the sole goal of giving the people who donated to our fundraiser something they were happy with. I didn’t really expect it at all either but the response has really been amazing, I mean I’m speechless about it.
Because there’s you guys who have fundraisers and post studio updates to Facebook, and on the other end of the spectrum there are bands that shun social media and try to stay away from having an online presence. It’s really refreshing to see a black metal band that’s actually interested in talking with their fans.
It was easy for this release, because Rae is great with social media stuff.
Oh right, wasn’t she involved in a metal review website?
Yeah, she used to do a lot of reviews and PR as well. That made it the icing of the cake for her being the drummer. Personally it’s not something I’m super interested in, at least making press releases and things like that. I love interacting with the fans, that’s a lot of fun. But with two people it’s a lot easier to come up with interesting content to have out there, it sparked some interesting discussions. And I think it’s just part of where we live, being in North America in 2013. It’s really the only way we can do what we do, as much as I want to say I hate Facebook, which I do! [laughs] But every time I say that… at the same time we couldn’t do any of this without it.
Is there any sort of metal scene in New Brunswick?
There’s small ones around, like a local club has Metal Mondays and stuff like that. A buddy of mine in Halifax has Metal Shirt Mondays at his work which is pretty cool. But no, there’s not really much of a scene. People are super cool here but there’s only 40,000 or so in Fredericton so whatever percent of people are generally metalheads…
Can you tell me a bit about your recording process, and how it works when you live away from the other members?
It ended up working pretty well. I sent all the demos to Rae and Brendan, then Rae recorded along to the click-track version outside of Boston. Went sent those to Siegfried Meier, who also did Woods V, and he edited them and made them all crisp and sent them to me. I recorded the guitars here in Fredericton then sent it to Brendan for the bass and sent it back to Siegfried and he put it all together. Then I did the vocals, solos, fiddles and tin flute here. I think the only time two of us where in the same spot was when Brendan went to Rae’s drum recording section to check it out and get some pictures. The only reason it worked was because they were fantastic to work with; all professional and super positive. When there’s something shitty that happens they would come together and ask how to fix it. The biggest hassle was the drum engineer trying to send Siegfried the drums, which took like three weeks because Dropbox kept losing the connection. So I was supposed to be done with the drum tracks at the end of August, but didn’t end up getting them until September. And by then I had started going back to school and working 20 hours a week on top of it, so I could only squeeze in five hours a week of recording instead of having three 60-hour weeks. But we all rolled with it and it was all great!
If somehow the three of you were in the same place would you consider playing live?
Definitely. We have great chemistry, Rae and I played together once and it was fantastic and Brendan is such a great musician, yeah it would be great.
What’s next for Thrawsunblat?
More promoting of this album. Then I have a few acoustic tracks from the first album that I’ll be sending to some of the bigger donors to the project and those turned out kinda cool. Maybe an EP of those tracks, so it would be like a “Maritime Shores” vibe. But definitely another in-your-face black metal album eventually, I already have some demos going. I bought a copy of ProTools and I’ve been working basically since June recording stuff and that was taking every ounce of musical energy I had going towards this. So when it was done I had all this energy to spread around, so just for fun a buddy of mine are putting together a little RPG and I’ve been writing 8-bit sort of music for that, and that’s been a lot of fun.