It is rare that I undertake an interview with a band about which I know very little. Normally, I have been fortunate enough to hear the album in advance of the interview or, if it’s an established band, I can do my homework and be prepared. In the case of Earthside, they are a new name in heavy metal circles. As such, they have yet to release their debut album and to date, I have only heard two tracks from the impending release. I say ‘impending’, although as far as I’m aware, no release date has even been divulged.
Shrouded in secrecy they may be but there seems to be a buzz growing on the Internet about the band, a quartet hailing from New Haven, Connecticut, comprised of guitarist Jamie Van Dyck, keyboardist Frank Sacramone, bassist Ryan Griffin and drummer Ben Shanbrom. Hardly surprising really because if you’ve heard the track ‘The Closest I’ve Come’, you’ll already know that there’s something special about to be unleashed. Huge riffs, odd and complex time signatures, tempo changes aplenty, gargantuan melodies and a whole lot more collide to create a song that, within seconds of it finishing, had me busily emailing the band’s PR people asking for more information.
The result of my endeavours is this, an interview with drummer Ben Shanbrom to find out a little more about Earthside; what makes them tick and what we can realistically expect from the debut full-length upon its release. After the initial pleasantries, I ask a very friendly yet focused, driven and extremely articulate Ben to provide a little background to Earthside.
“As far as the world is concerned”, he begins in eager fashion, “we’re a very new band; not a lot of people are familiar with us. But as far as the group is concerned, we’ve been together for a very long time, over a decade this year. We’ve gone through some different names and it took us a while to find that exact sound and way of doing things that we were happy with, that really reflected what we ultimately love about music and the kind of band that we wanted to be. We used to do a lot of things for the sake of shock value, like ‘people aren’t going to see this coming’ or ‘let’s write this really weird part that has nothing to do with anything, just to throw people off’, he chuckles.
“People were saying ‘why don’t you just be an instrumental band because that makes more sense’ or ‘why don’t you get a singer already?’ None of that hit for us. We like so many different kinds of music and have so many different inspirations, so to settle for one of those things because it’s easier for a PR company or a label to sum up in six words or something is not us. ‘For fans of Dream Theater, King Crimson, blah, blah, blah’ – that’s not us. It was finding the right balance, the way of doing things that we were happy with. And that”, he chuckles again with real warmth and self-deprecating humour, “took close to a decade.”
“The nucleus of the band, myself, the guitarist Jamie and the keyboardist Frank have been playing together in a basement since we were 15-16 years old. Our bass player we met a little later in the process and he’s been with us for four-five years now. It has taken this time to get the core established and now people are beginning to see and hear us for the first time.”
A decade or more is a very long time for a band to emerge from an embryonic state but based on the quality of their output, I suggest that it has perhaps been time well spent. Ben agrees before admitting that it wasn’t just the formation of the band and the overall sound that took a long time. As he explains, the recording of the debut, titled ‘A Dream In Static’, was no whistle stop exercise either.
“It certainly has taken a lot of time”, Ben confirms. “Not just coming together as a group, but from when we decided close to four or five years ago to make this record and reach out to the producers that we love. It has been very time intensive. From the time we set foot into the studio to now it’s been almost 2 and a half years. It has taken a lot of time to get the right production people involved, the exact singers we wanted to work with, and the right additional musicians. In this era, one of the biggest things that people say is that all these bands sound the same and they ask why bands aren’t taking any risks. The answer is simple – the demand is there but a lot of people in the industry say that these kinds of projects aren’t the cheapest, most efficient, and safe way of doing things and there’s a constant give and take on each side. But if you really want to try to do something different, it is about as inconvenient and as much of an uphill battle as you can imagine.”
I suggest to Ben that this is what music is all about though, creating something that means something to the band and that conveys feelings and is driven by other motivation other than dreams of fame and riches. The details surrounding how it all comes together is, to some extent, a hurdle to be navigated at a later time.
“I fully agree with you.” Ben laughs heartily in response to my rather blasé assertion, a classic comment for someone who is not a musician in any shape or form. “This album, if I had to synthesise it into any root motivation, it was totally for us. It was not for what this or that website or taste-maker would think of it. It was totally for us, what we love about music, what we miss in music today and it is ultimately about us making a mark. But the details you mention, they can be a real killer. It’s all part of the process and at the end of the day, we’re all going to have our little nit-picks but we’re really proud of the record. We think people are going to be surprised by it. It will defy a lot of expectations in a good way and I’m just stoked for people to be able to hear it.”
Stoked Ben may be for us all to hear the record, but the band are not in any rush it seems to share the fruits of Earthside’s considerable labours; in fact, the secrecy surrounding the material is intense, as if the music is to be treated as a state secret. Not so, counters Ben.
“There is some secrecy as you picked up”, he admits honestly. “But it’s not to be overly clandestine or anything, it’s more because we’re trying to keep things simple. Even until recently we had nothing out and people were like ‘can we at least hear some music?’ But when you’re dealing with labels it can be tricky because everyone wants you to release the record, but if we just release the record they’ll tell us to go right back into the studio again after being in there for over two years. And if we do that, we’ll lose our minds”, he laughs with a slightly nervous edge before continuing apace.
“But as far as your question is concerned, I can tell you that the whole album is not in the key of C. I think they (the two songs released so far – ‘The Closest I’ve Come’ and more recently ‘Mob Mentality’) are a good baseline explanation of what you’ll be hearing. It’s funny because some places who have covered us have only heard ‘The Closest I’ve Come’ and they refer to us as an instrumental progressive metal band, for people who like Animals As Leaders or Explosions In The Sky. People are going to be surprised when more music from us comes out because they’ve not picked up on a lot of the other stuff that we’re doing.”
Throughout the interview, Ben has alluded to a great deal of variety within the compositions, something that’s evident from the two tracks aired. As Ben explains, there’s a demonstrable and tangible reason for this.
“One thing we’re bummed about with a lot albums that have come out recently”, he admits candidly, “ is there’s been a movement from creating a full record experience that captures so many dimensions of a band’s sound towards more of a ‘here’s our album, here are ten tracks of the same sort of song done ten slightly different ways’. For us, that was never an option. We knew that we wanted every song to really show a very different part of who we are and what we love about music.”
“Half the record is instrumental, half the songs have vocals”, Ben counters when I ask him to enlighten us just a little on what the album as a whole has in store for listeners. He doesn’t enlighten me as to the remaining guest vocalists but his descriptions nonetheless paint vivid pictures in my mind. “The vocal songs contain three more guest singers and every song is very different. There are the two songs you’ve heard but in addition, one of the tracks has no orchestration and hardly any keyboards, it is almost an orchestra of guitar sounds and is one of the most layered guitar songs I’ve heard recently. In fact, our keyboardist has to play guitar live because there are three lead guitar lines going on at the same time. Another track is more atmospheric and is perhaps Australian alternative-influenced.”
“There’s another which is crushing”, Ben continues, really warming to this subject, underlining his eagerness for people to hear the material. “It has string players on it and it is the most depressing, soul shattering eleven minute song. One of the other tracks is more visceral, like a punch to the face which is constant intensity and movement for five minutes. There’s one that’s more expansive and atmospheric and there’s one track that’s not even a rock band song; it’s more like a modern new-age composition which acts like a palette cleanser on the record. So it’s incredibly diverse and I’m sure that there will be some people who will turn their heads sideways and won’t be sure what to make of it. But to others, I hope that it will be a refreshing listen for them.”
I think you’ll agree that this brief overview sounds mouth-watering to say the least. The intensity and excitement with which Ben describes the music is infectious and only adds to the anticipation that an increasing number of us are experiencing. I pause for a moment to consider just how lucky we are to be fans of an overall genre of music that can offer so much, before back-tracking slightly. I want to find out more about the diverse influences that have played a part in the quartet’s life, helping to shape Earthside into the band they are today. Overall, it’s not the answer I was expecting, I can tell you.
“It’s a tricky question”, Ben replies cautiously at first, “because none of us want to be pigeon-holed. An older band that we were in was certifiably prog and I found it funny because we were in our late teens and people assumed that we listened to “our parent’s King Crimson, Rush and Yes albums.” We laughed because we weren’t into any of that stuff. It wasn’t our era; we grew up listening to Linkin Park, Incubus, and System Of A Down. Our parents didn’t even have those records. The first music that I listened to was funk music and I liked that before rock. My dad had Tower Of Power, Average White Man and really intense horn funk groups.”
“That was one of my biggest early rhythmic influences, all that syncopation and groove. That’s really filtered into everything in my musical development; whether it is funk, metal or prog, it has to have a real groove and a rhythmic pulse that drives everything. That’s definitely at the root of a lot of the writing that we do, particularly the instrumental tracks that tend to be more collaborative. A lot of them will start with me farting around on the drum set and the guitarist or bass player will be like ‘wait, what was that? Play that again.’ And then the whole song will stem from an initial idea like that.”
“Our guitarist and keyboardist have, in various ways come from a classical background”, Ben returns to the question via his slight detour. “Jamie, our guitarist studied music composition at Yale and he is very deep into music theory. He’s into Stravinsky and a lot of these more adventurous 20th Century classical composers that did all this really crazy harmonic and rhythmic stuff.”
“On the keyboard end, Frank is kinda funny because he’s not really a prog keyboardist in the way that a lot of people think about it. You don’t hear big synths or Hammond organs because a lot of his influences don’t come from prog. He has much more of a cinematic background and his favourite soundtrack ever is Hans Zimmer’s ‘Gladiator’. He’ll use the name ‘Textures Frank’ for himself sometimes as he’s more about creating epic walls of sound or textures within the music. It’s the same for us all actually; we have some more technical sections but it’s more about creating that overall expansive sound and intense atmosphere rather than shredding your face off for ten minutes.”
“But there’s also all kinds of other weird stuff in there”, Ben concludes with something of a curveball. “This will get us good press with metal sites”, he chuckles, “but Frank and Jamie like Coldplay. It’s not so much my thing but we’re just very open-minded. We’re music snobs, no doubt about it but we’ll listen to anything that has strong musical ideas, whatever it is. Even ‘ET’ by Katy Perry has a really nice minor key chord progression and its good until Kanye comes in. At the other end, it could be Gojira or Hacride, or the craziest French esoteric avant-garde stuff.”
End of Part 1…keep an eye open for Part 2, coming very soon, where Ben and I delve ever further into the intriguing and exciting world of Earthside.
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please check out some others that I have conducted: