That Was Then/This Is Yesterday

Interview: Aaron Turner of Isis (2003)

Posted in Interviews by wwyork on September 25, 2014

For the time being, this blog is serving as an archive for a bunch of old interviews from the early-to-mid 2000s. However, it’s always nice to have a tie-in to current events, which a recent ABC News article offers in this case:

The name of the militant Islamic group ISIS is probably one of the most reviled names in the country at the moment. It is also the name of a defunct post-metal rock band with the same name that is getting “off color comments” on its Facebook page.

[…]

“It is an unfortunate situation and of course a few less than enlightened people are not seeing the distinction between an inactive band of musicians and a band of terrorists involved in current world affairs,” a representative from Ipecac, the band’s label, told ABC News.

It is also an unfortunate situation that the Islamic State couldn’t have chosen another band name to sully, like Pelican, for example.

Anyway, this interview dates back to 2003, during the period in between the Isis albums Oceanic (2002) and Panopticon (2004). In those simpler times, they only had to worry about being confused with other bands named Isis.


The first time I saw you guys play was a few years ago at 924 Gilman Street with Candiria and Dillinger Escape Plan. Like a lot of the other hardcore-metal bands you’re often associated with, those bands are known for being really “technical,” with all these complicated parts and fast-paced changes. But you guys have always been an exception to that.

Yeah, we’re sort of the antithesis of that. I think that there are, not necessarily “technical” aspects of our music—I mean, we’re not virtuoso players by any means—but the interaction of our parts and the way we put things together is sort of orchestral in a way. So it is complex in the sense that you have a lot of different layers interacting with each other and also trying to fit in with each other. There’s a certain simplicity to our sound, but if you get past that—if you really listen closely—you realize that everything is thought out and is there for a reason, and that the actual interaction between the instruments is fairly complex. Especially with the guitars—we’re not constantly doubling each other and it’s not like everybody’s playing the same riff together.

So what is the situation with Isis now? Are you working on a new album?

Honestly, we haven’t even started work on the next studio album, but we are starting to collect tracks for a remix album that we’re doing. Basically, we’re just picking people that we’ve toured with or get along with and whose music we admire, or just people whose music that we’ve admired from afar but who we feel like can add something to the aesthetic that we’ve already got going. That’ll probably be the next full length. And we’re also working on a split with Agoraphobic Nosebleed, which is just live stuff and remixes. It takes us so long to write songs that I guess we just figured we’d try something else that didn’t require us writing material, but that did require us doing some conceptual work and curating what we see as a coherent group of people to work with.

Do you know who’s going to be on it?

So far we’ve got James Plotkin, Mike Patton, Buzz Osbourne, Christian Fennesz, Venetian Snares, Justin Broadrick, our friend Ayl from the band 27, and we’ll probably end up doing some remixes or reinterpretations of our own material as well. Then there’s a couple of other people who are sort of tentative on their involvement. But it looks like it’s gonna be a pretty good, as well as eclectic, group of people.

You say it takes a long time when you guys write songs. Do you write them as a group?

Generally, the songs are completed as a group and the individual parts are written by the members separately. I think what happens more often than not is that someone just brings a collection of riffs into practice, and we all hash ’em out together and work on the arrangements, and decide what works and what doesn’t work. But I think what takes us so long is the fact that we’re very meticulous about each and every part of every song. And not only that, but every time we start writing, we have to figure out—not necessarily an entirely new direction, but we don’t want to repeat ourselves or repeat an album. So we have a hard time figuring out where we’re gonna go when we first get started. Then usually once we get the ball rolling, it starts to come together pretty quickly.

Yeah, it seems like with the last album it wasn’t just every riff or every song, but the whole album that was pretty meticulous. It’s rare for an entire album to be that long and that “in place.”

Yeah, that’s another aspect of it. It takes a long time to fit the pieces together. And we do like to really write songs that are cohesive as a whole. Every time we do an album, the order of the tracks and the dynamic flow of the thing from beginning to end is a big focus for us. The way that the songs work, not only individually, but together, is definitely crucial. I wouldn’t say that we’re perfectionists, but we definitely like to take our time and make sure that we’re happy with every aspect of the song and our individual parts.

I haven’t seen you guys in about a year, but are you still doing stuff with three guitars?

We haven’t done that on the last couple of tours, but there has been at least one song on the last few albums that’s had three guitars, and I think that’s something we’ll continue to play with in the future. It just gives you more depth and more room to spread the parts out and make an arrangement more interesting. Also, obviously, the heaviness is an aspect of our sound, and when you have three guitars together, it just creates a density that, especially in the live setting, is pretty amazing. To play, at least.

What is it like doing those vocals every night—physically and emotionally?

I’d say it is definitely straining, and when we play, I try to put everything that I’ve got into the performance—not just the singing, but the guitar playing, too. I think that everybody in the band is pretty physically and emotionally exhausted after a set, just ’cause that’s the time we really get to vent. And it’s also the time when we really try to play our hardest to give the people that are watching it some pure entertainment. [Laughs].

Is your voice holding up?

Yeah, it’s fine, actually. I get used to it. I mean, sometimes the first couple nights of the tour it’s a little ragged, but I’ve been doing it for a number of years now and it’s pretty much—I don’t know if I’ve broken in my vocal chords or what the story is, but I don’t really have a problem.

I interviewed [Cave-In singer] Stephen Brodsky a few months ago and he said he was gonna lose his voice if he kept singing that way … but I guess people are different. I have no idea what it’s like to do that.

He’s also got an incredible singing voice, which I do not [have]. And he’s trying to preserve the quality and the range of his voice in that sense, which is not something that’s as big a concern to me.

I’m trying to think if there are examples on record of you doing “clean-voiced” singing. Do you ever do that?

There are little bit and parts that could maybe be construed as singing in some of the Isis stuff, and I’ve done it here and there on some of the other records that I’ve been involved with—non-Isis projects. But I’m not confident about my singing voice, and I also know that I’m not really capable of it in a way that a Steve Brodsky is. But it may be something that I experiment more with in the future of Isis. But one of the major problems that I find is that we’re so fuckin’ loud, I have to scream to hear myself. And I don’t really mind that, necessarily, but it does make something like more delicate singing a harder thing to accomplish.

It worked well on the album, with the background parts, but I guess that would be hard to pull off live.

Well, actually [Oceanic background vocalist] Maria [Christopher] has performed live with us. We toured with her band, 27, and actually she and the guitar player in that band, Ayl, both played on the record as well as playing live with us. I feel like it can be done, it’s just that maybe I don’t have enough practice or enough experience doing it. Isis’s music has gotten more subdued as time has gone on. We’re still very heavy, I feel, but there’s a lot of parts that are more melodic and more quiet now. So I think there might be a bit more singing the next go around.

Another thing I’m amazed at is how much stuff you have going on: the Lotus Eaters, House of Low Culture, Old Man Gloom, Isis, Hydra Head. What is it like to do all of that at more or less the same time?

Well, Isis is not a full-on professional band in the sense that we don’t tour six to eight months out of the year, and though we do practice two-to-three times a week when we’re all around and can do it, it’s not like a full-time daily job that I do. I guess Hydra Head is probably the thing that I consider my full-time job, the thing that I spend the most time on. But basically whenever I’ve got time to do something musical, I do, and it’s just a matter of who’s around that I can wrangle into playing with me, or who I can jump in with who’s already got something going on. So when Isis isn’t going on tour, Old Man Gloom writes and records, which is exactly what I did a couple of weeks ago while I was waiting for the rest of the Isis guys to move out here to L.A.

Oh, you moved to L.A.?

I live in L.A. now, yeah. And all the other guys are moving out here, actually, in the next week or two.

Was that a matter of…

It was a matter of being sick of crappy New England weather, and also wanting to move somewhere on the West Coast but not being able to afford San Francisco.

Ha, I know what you mean. I’ve got a pretty amazing rent deal—$300—but that’s a fluke.

That is. It’s amazing for anywhere.

If you saw the place, you might not be so impressed. Anyway, has Hydra Head slowed down its release schedule recently, or is that just my imagination?

No, we have. And the reason we did that is because we got ourselves in over our heads, and we had too many records and we couldn’t focus on what we were doing. And also, financially it was becoming a problem. Not because the records weren’t selling, but just because we were manufacturing such a vast amount of stuff that we couldn’t keep up with the pace. We were putting money out, and it wasn’t coming back in as quickly as it was going out. So we had to trim it down. And I think it’s actually for the best, because like I said, we were having a problem focusing on each release the way we should, and now we have the time to do that.

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