A while back, I had the pleasure of an in-depth conversation with Ben Shanbrom, drummer with Earthside, a new band on the block that threatens to become the hottest new prospect in the progressive music world. You think I’m being overly hyperbolic? Listen to this for starters:
Now I have your attention, you may like to check out Part 1 of this interview, which can be accessed via the following Link: Earthside – Interview Part 1 – “it will defy a lot of expectations in a good way”
However, without further ado, here’s Part 2, where Ben and I delve further into the intriguing world of Earthside…
A thought occurs to me at this point and not for the first time when I find myself chatting with musicians more within the progressive mould. I often worry that, in a world where the human attention span is shortening by the day it seems, music that requires effort from the audience is in real danger. Of course it is never going to be mainstream by its very nature but in playing devil’s advocate, I hypothesise aloud to Ben that maybe bands like Earthside are not so suited to the modern era.
“I think it depends on who the audience is”, Ben counters after a considerable pause before effectively and gratifyingly shooting my hypothesis down in flames .“There’s a lot of passive listening going on in this day and age. I think that a lot of these passive listeners will not really dig us or get what we are trying to do. In other areas though, I think people are more tuned in and more active in their music listening, sharing and conversing than at any other time in history. People we’ve never met chat to us and send us messages, people in India for example and I think we have a couple of die-hard fans in the republic of Georgia. I think this is really cool, we’re happy to interact with these people for sure. We want to invite these people back after the show to hang out with us and talk about music. I don’t think this happens enough.”
When I then suggest that Earthside are likely, from what we’ve heard so far, to be a band that requires effort from the listener, Ben agrees and admits to a certain extent that this was deliberate on their part.
“Yeah, I think that we will be a band that people won’t get totally on a first listen. It will take recurring listens to get all the different nuances and intricacies out of it. For me, those are my favourite albums and are the records that I come back to frequently, sometimes even noticing something new several years later. There’s a lot of that here I think and that’s good for the people who really want to dig in to our music. It might be a challenge, like you said earlier, with the mile-a-minute music consumption that takes place these days. I guess we’re hoping that with what we’ve put into this and the way we’ve gone about it all, we’ll manage to push people into digging a little deeper and actively listening and getting into the music. But not just to us only; to music in general.”
By now, most of you will have heard the track, ‘Mob Mentality’ and will know that Earthside are joined by Sevendust’s Lajon Witherspoon. It’s an absolute behemoth of a track that also features the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra. It’s epic in scope and the depth of atmosphere, emotion and drama is breath-taking. A few eyebrows may have been raised when the name of Lajon Witherspoon was announced but personally, I think the voice fits the composition like a glove. I put this to Ben before inviting him to put flesh on bone and explain how and why this particular collaboration came together.
“We had a couple of singers in mind but he wasn’t the first on the list. Not because we didn’t think he could do it but because he was such a huge guy in our minds that the idea of getting him involved maybe didn’t seem possible at the start. We love music where there’s an orchestral element to it, so long as it’s not done in a hackneyed manner where it’s just a wash of fake strings or something. With a lot of these bands who do it, there seems to be a typical assumption about the kind of singer they’re supposed to have, like a power metal vocalist or a Lacuna Coil-type female singer. It works well for those bands but if you’re going to add something meaningful to the conversation, so to speak, bands today need to come at things from a different angle and break the rules.”
“For us, Sevendust is a band that we listened to in those transformative years. It’s funny because some people didn’t think they were metal enough but if you listen to djent now half their grooves and riffs are Sevendust; they did this fifteen years ago and no-one gave them credit. But as well as Sevendust being an important band in heavy music, Lajon is such an unbelievable singer. He straddles the ground between rock music and more of a soulful dimension. He is very versatile so having him on this song which is more dramatic and very dynamic, was perfect. He really adds a cool dimension to the song that’s unexpected.”
“I think that’s another one of our things too”, Ben offers on a slight tangent brought about seemingly by a sudden thought on his part. “We try to use unusual instruments in songs that you wouldn’t normally expect and which kinda throw you off balance and force you to hear something from a different perspective. We take the same approach to the vocalists that we work with. To whatever degree we can, we try to put them into a different context to challenge them and challenge ourselves. In many ways, it has come together beautifully with Lajon and we couldn’t be happier.”
And the inclusion of the full-on orchestra?
“It was definitely challenging logistically and in many other ways”, Ben responds. “They’re a great orchestra but the reason why we went with the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra was because we were already in Sweden. I didn’t personally go on that sojourn though; it was our guitarist who composed and arranged the whole thing that travelled over there with the keyboardist. As far as the song is concerned, it wouldn’t be the same thing if we didn’t have that real human element everywhere. It would be a knock-off of what it truly is. The orchestra breathes and ebbs and flows really nicely with the Lajon emoting over it all and me as the drummer struggling to play these crazy parts that Jamie wrote. We’re really pleased with how it all worked out.”
Having alluded to it in the preceding answer and fleetingly elsewhere during the conversation, I tackle the issue of song writing within Earthside head on. In light of the variety that we’re told to expect, I’m intrigued to find out whether it’s the work of one, a couple or the whole band collectively. As you might expect by now, Earthside do things a little differently.
“I’m glad you brought that up”, Ben answers kindly, “because I think in this regard, we’re different from many other bands. I think this reinforces what I was saying earlier about albums sounding like the same song reinforced ten times over; in a lot of bands today it’s commonplace for there to be a dominant songwriter. It doesn’t work that way with us. We’ve always operated as an absolute democracy and there’s no ‘Mr 51%’ or anything. Every member of the band has capabilities that go beyond their immediate instrument and every member hears music, has ideas and contributes. So there are two ways that we write. One is in practice and these tend to be the instrumental tracks that we do, the kind of thing that’ll begin with me playing a weird beat or Jamie or Frank experimenting with an unusual sound or something. The others will then come in and 25 practices later, we’ll have a song. All the parts for ‘The Closest I’ve Come’ were written in one practice but the song was finished after several more practices of us arguing about where things go and how many times ideas needed to come back within the song.”
“We’re not”, Ben ploughs on with barely a breath, “one of those bands that say ‘we wrote like 50 songs for this record and we arbitrarily think these are the best ten songs; enjoy’. We worked with very few ideas; we probably had ten or eleven songs on the table, some of which weren’t even finished. We kinda knew that if we had an idea that was worth working on, we’d play around with it and make it happen because we want it on the record and we’ll do what we have to do to make it great.”
“The other way we write is as individuals, as with ‘Mob Mentality’ for example, which was Jamie’s main contribution on the album. I think the individuality of some of the tracks really contributes to the diversity of the sound on the record. On that song, Jamie had me play some ridiculous drum beats, stuff that I’d not necessarily come up with but it works and when things don’t, we’re free to offer suggestions and open it up more democratically. So as I said before, there’s no ‘Mr 51%’ with Earthside and that’s definitely a strength.”
Not content with incorporating several notable guest singers, multiple musical ideas and a full blown orchestra, Earthside decided to enlist the help of highly regarded producer David Castillo (Katatonia, Opeth) to twiddle those knobs and make the album sound as good as possible. Living in a world where Katatonia occupy almost God-like status, I feel compelled to find out more about this eye-catching collaboration.
“He probably said yes because he’s a masochist”, laughs Ben heartily. “But seriously, we had a small handful of producers that we really admired and respected. It wasn’t that we wanted to deliberately go crazy and throw Sweden on the map because we had several American producers in the frame as well. It was like a dating process where we talked to a bunch of them to feel them out. There were hundreds of emails and skype chats, but there was a kind of comfort in talking to David, this kind of quiet admiration and dedication that we could sense from him talking with us. He’s mostly associated with Katatonia, Opeth and Bloodbath but, like us, he has very diverse music tastes. We still message each other very frequently and he’ll be like ‘you gotta listen to this band’ and vice versa. Like us, he was very open minded and isn’t concerned about something sounding sissy or not metal enough. He’s very tuned in to the balance of beauty, heaviness and atmosphere. He commands a mastery over those dynamics and that diversity of sound that we were going for. We were very excited to work with him.”
“His willingness to work with us to overcome what could have been a logistical nightmare and make it work was very telling”, Ben continues. “We knew that he was the right guy for the job. He’s insane as far as the work that he does and his dedication to it. We showed the album to a handful of close friends who are in production or mixing and they’re like ‘man, there’s no way you could pay me enough to do this project’. The sheer number of hours that he put into this project was humungous. We couldn’t be happier with the job he’s done and, more than that, he has become a close friend and we’re thankful to have him on the team.”
In closing, I have to ask Ben to look a little further into the future and perhaps unfairly ask him to consider what Earthside may sound like on discs two, three and maybe even four. The response is pretty much as I expected too.
“It’ll sound like Earthside as far as the sonic imprint that we make with the first record but it will probably explore totally different areas because that’s the whole goal of this, to not limit ourselves. The whole reason why we did this crazy and insane record was to enable us to have no ceiling to what we do next.”
And, with that, the best part of 45 minutes of interesting, intense and thoroughly enjoyable chat comes to an end. I may have only heard two songs, just like all of you who are reading this article. However, I cannot stress just how excited I am to hear more of Earthside’s material. More so having got an insight into the way the band operates and the way the band thinks. One thing’s for sure; the Blog Of Much Metal will be keeping a beady eye on every twist and turn in the Earthside evolution and I’m just pleased to have been there from the beginning to maybe help in a small way.
Keep an eye open for ‘A Dream In Static’ when it’s released later in 2015.
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please check out some others that I have conducted:
Kingcrow – ‘Eidos’ Track-by-Track Part 2
Kingcrow – ‘Eidos’ Track-by-Track Part 1
Wisdom Of Crowds – Bruce Soord & Jonas Renkse