Thursday, March 17, 2016

Engaging in Ritual - A Conversation with Blood Ceremony

Blood Ceremony, perhaps more than any doom-based band working today, combines more elements and integrates more distinctive tastes than any of their contemporaries on the market.  As their new album "Lord of Misrule" stands poised to transfix listeners the world over, we sat down with vocalist Alia O'Brien to talk music, gender bias and a few others odds and ends.

D.M: Tell me about “Lord of Misrule.”  Where does this find your band, and what do you want people to take away from it?

ALIA O’BRIEN: I feel like it continues where “The Eldritch Dark” left off, first of all.  We again wanted to record analog, we wanted to record to tape.  This has some cohesive songwriting, I think.  Like “The Eldritch Dark,” I feel like our song length has diminished a little bit [laughs].  There is a degree of continuity between “The Eldritch Dark” and “Lord of Misrule,” but I do think this one is a little bit of a departure because we took more risks stylistically.  It’s also our first time working with producer Liam Watson at Toe Rag Studios in London, who’s known for his, well people call it the ‘Liam Watson Wall of Sound,’ but he records to eight track tape and really has his own very specific process that he uses.  I think this album does sound different than our last album because it has that Liam Watson sound.  Our vocal sounds are different on this album, for instance.  I think sound-wise, that’s where “Lord of Misrule” sits.
Thematically, it’s not a concept album, I think if anything we imagined it like a musical Feast of Fools, I guess the title implies that a little bit.  Just because everything is so incredibly varied, you know, a mysterious, buffet-style offering of musical tidbits or something [laughs].

D.M: You mentioned that there were a few places where you made adjustments to your sound for this album.  What kind of adjustments did you make and what made now the time?

AO: I think we made adjustments to, not the sound of the band, but the styles that we’re going to tackle.  Our lineup has been pretty solid for the last four years, which means I think we’ve developed a pretty consistent sound between the four of us.  There’s the musical dynamic that’s gelled into something that’s solid, basically.  I think perhaps because of that we feel confident tackling something like a northern soul style song like “Flower Phantoms” or a stark folk track like “The Weird of Finistere.”  I think probably because the band has become an entity unto itself, we can branch out in these directions and, I hope, still sound like ourselves.

D.M: This is a layman’s opinion, I’m not all that well-schooled in music theory, but it sounds like this album isn’t quite as dire as “The Eldritch Dark,” like you branched into some brighter musical directions.  Was that something you wanted to do, or did that just happen?

AO: I think that’s a product of some songs we had written trying a few things.  We wanted the production to stay pretty low key, so like, “Flower Phantoms” is an upbeat song, but it’s in a minor key and Liam Watson stripped a lot of things away to make it sound pretty stark, which I love.  Even in our happier numbers there’s an air of melancholy or unrest lurking beneath them.  In some cases, I think it’s a product of really crafty production on Liam’s part.

D.M: What was it about the Festival of Fools as a historical event that drew you to it?

AO: That was Sean [Kennedy,] that was Sean’s concept.  Initially I think what he imagined for the album once upon a time ages ago is that we would have between the songs a sort of Lord of Misrule figure introducing them or something like that.  Kind of in a “Sgt. Pepper’s” kind of way, like between the first and second song on “Sgt. Pepper’s” you have ‘one and only Billy Shears’ being introduced.  We were thinking we could be playful and do something like that, but then we decided that wasn’t really us.  But, the idea still influenced the order of the tracks, and we have a title track called “The Lord of Misrule.”  I think the thing that’s so compelling and tragic about the Lord of Misrule is that you have this temporary, in some tellings of saturnine practices, the appointment of someone to lord of saturnalia, and at the end of the festivities when the social order is reversed or inverted of muddled, the lord is sacrificed in Saturn’s name.  And this idea of a sacrificial lord being placed in a position of power and then killed is so heavy [laughs].  Our album ends with the song “Things Present, Things Past,” which is about death, basically.  We have these moments of strange festivity and this bit of revelry on the album, but it ends with quite a downer track.  That could be the arc of the lord’s trajectory.

D.M: There’s a common conception when people first hear Blood Ceremony that they listen for a few minutes and say ‘well, this is Black Sabbath with a flute,” but it’s not, really, is it?  What else is in there, who else inspires you?

AO: At this point, it’s funny, I think we listen to each other a lot.  I think in the early days, we were really looking to Italian prog for sure, some other places where that was common.  You know, some heavy rock.  For this album, I think our other influences may have bled in a little.  I was going through a pretty heavy Harry Nilsson phase, not that it’s my first time going through a Harry Nilsson phase, just revisiting it around the time of the album.  I think that’s seen on a couple of tracks.  I listen to a lot of soul, so when I wrote “Flower Phantoms” that was in there.  These things happen, I guess [laughs].  We all listen to so much stuff it all bubbles up in the music we write.  I think you write songs that you want to listen to.

D.M: Maybe this is a loaded question.  The identifier of Blood Ceremony, above everything else, is the flute.  What’s the deal with the flute?  How did you decide you were going to include that into the mix?

AO: For me, it was no decision because it’s my instrument [laughs].  It wasn’t something I picked up, I’ve played it for twenty years.  It’s my instrument of choice, although I did not initially choose it, it was forced upon me in a school band.  I quickly learned to do what I wanted with it.  I played a lot of jazz and I would transcribe guitar solos and stuff on flute.  It became my entry point into understanding all different types of music.  When Sean started Blood Ceremony in the early days and brought me on, I think he wanted flute on like, one song.  And it’s not unprecedented, Sabbath had, I think it’s “Solitude” they had flute on, Witchcraft had a song with flute on it, and we can name plenty of others, the Mamas and the Papas and so on.  He wanted to do something like that with a flute solo.  Soon as I showed up for practice, I think maybe he had never heard me play flute before, maybe he just knew I played flute, and I started playing along with the riff, getting into the song material and it just worked.  It was a little bit of a coincidence that it worked out that way.  I came in to play one song and ended up joining the band [laughs].

D.M: Now, most kids who have an instrument forced on them in a school band grow up to resent that instrument.  How long did it take you to enjoy playing the flute?

AO: It didn’t take me too long.  I was very disappointed, I wanted to play saxophone, but there weren’t enough to go around.  I came home and my dad asked me if I’d ever listened to Jethro Tull and I said ‘no.’  So he said I should go out and get some Jethro Tull, so I went out and bought “Thick as a Brick,” and I was like ‘oh, cool!’  There are many possibilities of flute playing, I don’t know what I had in my head, but it wasn’t Ian Anderson’s playing.  I started getting into Jethro Tull and I just learned flute alongside learning in band, I learned by listening to those records and playing along with them.  Then I started to enjoy it.

D.M: A few years ago when I was first listening to “The Eldritch Dark,” I critiqued it to a friend of mine, and I said it sounds almost like if Jethro Tull had deserved to beat Metallica for the Grammy in the ‘80s.  Is that fair?

AO: [Laughs].  That was really weird.  Genre’s a weird thing, right?  I think people in those decision-making positions can be out of touch at times.  I don’t want to say Jethro Tull didn’t deserve it just because I love them so much, but I think it’s a very interesting and confused moment in music history where there’s obviously a severe misunderstanding about what the genre of metal was, which is really funny.  I think the coolest thing was following that, Jethro Tull published an ad in a magazine or paper that said ‘the flute is a heavy metal instrument.’

D.M: As a woman growing up in heavier music, both in metal and rock, who were your role models?  Who did you look to?

AO: I have a smattering – I did look up to a lot of men, I wasn’t super limited to female role models, though I certainly had them along the way.  Any human who inspired me was helpful in guiding me along the way, I suppose, regardless of gender.  Ian Anderson, obviously.  I used to love the Beatles, I was quite obsessed.  I say ‘I used to,’ I love the Beatles [laughs] but at a young age I grew quite obsessed with them.  I love Bobby Liebling a lot, I think he’s a great performer, and I think I find him fun and frightening, which is a very difficult thing to be.  Another performer who is an absolute inspiration to me on many levels is Tina Turner, I think she’s incredible.  [Going back] from the Ike and Tina days, I love music from that era.  Also, she’s my multi-tasking hero because she’s paying a lot of attention to performance, she’s delivering these incredibly persuasive vocals and dance and choreography.  On stage I play the flute, keyboard and sing.  I look to her in those moments of transitions when she’s moving between vocals and dance just to see how she navigated that and I studied that a bit to see how to make my performance and my transitions between instruments look as smooth as possible and effortless.  Which it’s not, but there’s a way to make it look that way [laughs].

D.M: As a quick sidebar, you mentioned Bobby Liebling and I know you guys toured with Pentagram somewhat recently, how cool was that?

AO: It was great!  It was really great.  There was one night, I think it was when we were playing Burlington, and Bobby was taking a rest or gathering his energy before the show, and we were sound checking.  And he was standing right in front of us, watching.  I think we were all probably a little nervous, because he has amazing taste in music and he’d be able to exact where we pulled different ideas from or drew inspiration from.  I don’t know, it was Bobby Liebling, watching us!  That was a really great experience, and they were a really nice band and we only played a couple shows with them but they were really good.

D.M: Circling back for just a moment, as a woman in metal, do you find you are held to a different standard than your male contemporaries?  Either in how you appear or sound or present yourself?

AO: I’m sure, but that’s just being a woman in life, right?  Metal aside, definitely, there’s the notion of the male gaze and women are scrutinized.  I have been critiqued for not having a virtuoso voice, whereas I haven’t heard the same critique leveled at men who are just singing in various styles.  So, these sorts of things happen, but this is something that happens day to day on such a small scale that you stop noticing.  But I do generally feel that I’ve received a lot of support and been welcomed into the fold.  I’ve heard of other stories of individuals and women in metal having harder times, or encountering difficulties that I’ve never encountered.  My friend Laina Dawes, she wrote a book called “What Are You Doing Here?” about being a black woman in metal.  She talks about acts of targeted violence against people that she interviewed [for the book.]  She also included some of her own personal story.  None of that has happened to me, for example, but it happens.  So perhaps I’ve been lucky, I haven’t heard a lot of super sexist slurs, nobody has said ‘you’re good for a woman,’ or any of that kind of stuff.  I also step up on stage and I’m a classically trained flutist, so to some degree, I don’t think people are going to critique my skills as a flute player, for example.  I have this barrage of instruments that I can hit people over the head with [laughs] and maybe avoid some of the critiques that would otherwise be leveled at me.

D.M: Last thing – in reading other interviews that you’ve done previously, I picked up on something and I want you to know you’re not alone; among the various records that my dad played at the house when I was growing up, there was a lot of Boston and Doobie Brothers and The Who and all those wonderful things, but he also had a couple of Arthur Brown records.  What is it about Arthur Brown that so appeals, what is it about his particular brand of insanity that draws people to him?

AO: Man, I don’t know, but he’s just awesome.  It’s quite theatrical and melodramatic.  I think he has that voice, I can think of a few people – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Arthur Brown – that voice that sort of haunts you in your dreams.  And his monkey dancing!  You know what I’m talking about, with his waving arms, the moves are quite magnetic, you can’t forget him.  Once you see him dance, you’ll never forget the wonder that is Arthur Brown.

D.M: It always struck me that his were the rantings of a crazy person, but that whatever he was ranting about, he felt great conviction about.

AO: And maybe you should, too, yeah.  The doomsday prophesize-r who you don’t want to believe but maybe you should, because they’re so convincing.  There’s something about someone being so compelling and convincing that’s really attractive.

Find more about Blood Ceremony here

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