James Kelly (Altar of Plagues) interviewed

At what point to you feel a song has been completed? I typically ask this question of bands who write long songs to see if there’s a threshold and if there is when to they feel it’s been reached.James Kelly: For us, it is when it has climaxed in terms of the energy we intend to communicate with a particular track. When we are developing a track, the structure is created somewhat instinctively. It’s all about what feels right for us and it’s perhaps one of those subconscious things that cannot be put into words. When we are developing a track, we just play it the note over and over until we feel ready to move on. I genuinely do not believe we would be able to create the type of songs we feel a representative of our band in a five minute template. I think that the concept of time within music makes it more of a form of entertainment.

Repetition plays a part in Altar of Plagues’s music. What importance is repetition to you as songwriters?
James Kelly: We do not ever want to exhaust a track, but for us repetition plays an important part in allowing us to become far more engaged with the music, to get lost in the moment. With every repetition, we go deeper into the intent of the track. For me, this is something that stems from the very physical nature of this type of music. The physical movement the music incites coupled with repetitive notation creates what is almost a form of meditation. I become physically engaged with this music more and more as it repeats itself.

There’s a lot of dynamism in Altar of Plagues. How important is dynamism in Altar of Plagues? The build-up in “When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean” is pretty epic.
James Kelly: The music we create comes primarily from black metal, as that is what I find most inspirational within the realm of metal music. Its intensity and notation are channels towards that sort of meditation I described. I was never interested in being in a straight-up metal band, as that sound lacks the sort of dynamic that appeals to me. The music and its dynamic is written as an accompaniment to the lyrical themes, with the intention being that they together form something whole. Sometimes it is necessary for us to build towards this from very little notation while other times, such as with Mammal, the lyrical energy is quite intense and subsequently the music is also.

What do you think of sound economy? Less is more. Letting a few notes occupy space.
James Kelly: Very much so, but sometimes full-on intensity is perfect. Music is so appealing to me as it defies convention. It is a sort of ancient magic that comes from our inner person. We are all unique and have our own ways of seeing, hearing, communicating. Simply put, we just do what feels right. The key word for me is feeling. Such music has always been my greatest inspiration and it is what we strive to create.

Black metal has changed a lot over the years. Do think black metal has the potential to grow given all types of black metal currently out there?
James Kelly: Much music is categorized based on a person’s perception. Does it take for some sort of a general consensus for a band to be regarded as being a certain genre? Many bands today are clearly demonstrating that there is still some very interesting sounds to be developed within black metal music. It will no doubt constantly shift and grow, reverting and progressing. But it has a very definite sound and aesthetic that may be manipulated, but equally it may inspire acts bands of other separate genres. Just as jazz and hip-hop found their way into metal, metal will also inspire those outside.

What is Mammal about? White Tomb concerned the Earth.
James Kelly: Mammal is concerned with the subject of death. The lyrics are entirely derived from a period of my life in which I sought to understand what is an integral part of my being, and of those who are most important to me. I am beginning to realize as a consequence of recent interviews that I cannot accurately put into word why this actually happened. It was the first time in my life that I took time to contemplate death’s meaning and significance and I did so by taking time to write, read and reflect. Works such as those by Damien Hirst and Emily Dickinson were very inspiring.

Death is a popular subject in extreme metal. It’s an intriguing concept, death. Things may not be born, but if they are they must perish. There’s a chilling inevitability to death. Explain your thoughts on this.
James Kelly: For me, it was an extremely personal endeavor and it meant a great deal to me. For that reason I would hope that the subject is not perceived as generic within the context of such music. Death is the other half of our existence, the yang. I am sure that everyone one of us has, or will, at some point contemplated its significance and inevitability. Mammal is, in many ways, a document of that. There were no true answers in exploring the subject, but I think it is important to consider and value its inevitability.

Musically, how did you work around the concept of death? To realize it sonically.
James Kelly: The music was written once the lyrics had been developed. Lyrics were for the most part written before any music was written and certain verses and phrases had a very specific emotional intent. When I began to write the music, I would play the same notes over and over and recite the lyrics so as to create something coherent. The music naturally became quite intense due to the intensity subject matter. The lyrics are urgent and desperate, and in many ways hopeless.

How do you feel you’ve grown as songwriters in the time between White Tomb and Mammal?
James Kelly: The amount of live shows performed over the past two years have very much shaped how we feel about our music. I feel as if we have found a middle ground that feels right, understanding the different between live and recorded music. It also helped us to better understand the technical aspects of our sound, which I think is extremely important. Why share music at all if you cannot sculpt the sound into the way that you feel best represents your music. The sonic aspects of our tracks are as important as any other part of the writing process. I think that any changes stylistically have been natural and our tastes and inspirations may have changed somewhat between both albums.

I think the new material sounds more formulated yet still very adventurous sonically. Did Mammal come about naturally?
James Kelly: Yes it did. The actual music was written over quite a short period of time, but the music had existed on paper for some time. I will often write down musical ideas before ever touching an instrument, which often happens in transit gazing out a window. Other times, the music just comes out of you unexpectedly when rehearsing. It is as if you sort of accidentally find it. We took a few different approach to the recording this time. In place of synths, all of the additional sound in the album was constructed from field recordings and some homemade instruments. The field records were collected over the past year or so, with a variety recordings, such as wild monkeys and lightening storms to name two. For us, this adds a very personal connection beyond the music as each field recording may be linked to a time and place (although they are quite manipulated on the album). Another choice we made when in the studio was to record all of our vocals in one take. Given how personal the lyrics are, we did not want to do multiple takes and lose connection with the lyrical intent. We opted to read the lyrics repeatedly, focusing on the meaning and intent in order to get into the desired emotional mindset. Anything else would have been simply reciting words from a sheet of paper.

What do you think is the hardest part about being in an active band? Demands, creative lapses, economic conditions, etc.?
James Kelly: Creative lapses are actually quite enjoyable and when I feel creatively exhausted I know to completely step away from music for a period of time. I think committing time and ultimately finance toward touring is the most difficult aspect. I am not in any way driven by money, but I need to be able to afford basic necessities. Committing to lengthy tours can make this more difficult.

What do you hope people walk away with after listening to Altar of Plagues?
James Kelly: I hope that our music and words can communicate to them in a way that goes beyond entertainment value. However, if a person takes nothing more than the music at the surface level and enjoys it then that is not a problem for me.

** Altar of Plagues’s new album, Mammal, is out May 2nd, 2011 on Profound Lore Records. Order it here.