INTERVIEW: Jackson Heath of Lycus

Lycus’ debut was one of the best doom albums to leak long-form misery over 2013. A disconsolate epic, Tempest is an album that was thrown up around the desolate heart of a funeral doom sound so dense that it has its own bleak gravity hauling influences from black and death metal, drone and krautrock into its orbit. Never mind doom, Tempest was one of the best metal records of the year; certainly, it’s one of the most interesting. And difficult, too. It seems fitting, then, that Tempest took such a long time coming.
Lycus date back to 2008 yet was only in the past few years since relocating from Sacramento to Oakland that the quartet’s sound started to come together, their line-up settled. A few months ago we caught up with guitarist/vocalist Jackson Heath and talked Tempest and Lycus’ story so far for our September issue; for fear of anyone sleeping on an awesome band, here is the interview for those of you who might have missed it, unabridged for those who didn’t.

How did Lycus get together?
Jackson Heath: “Me and the other founding member, Trevor [Deschryver], went to high school together, and we formed the band in 2008 in the greater Sacramento area. Obviously there was not a lot of doom over there at all; we just knew we couldn’t contain a lineup after about a year.”

Where did you get the name?
“My honest answer is that we looked it up! It’s from Greek mythology. It’s the son of Poseidon. But we really just liked the ring to it; it’s a simple name. It rolls off the tongue. It’s easy to say and we went with it as soon as we saw it.”

You took a break, moved to Oakland. Did your sound change much over that period of downtime?
JH: “I think the time definitely benefited us, because I think the demo reflects a lot more maturity; for the most part it’s a similar sound, but for the individual parts, the songwriting is better.”

And on the evidence of Tempest, your songwriting is getting more eclectic. . .
“We strive for a more varied sound because all of our influences are all over the place and don’t just encompass metal. For this album, there’s definitely a lot more of the blackened element. We consider it less melodic than the demo; it’s still melodic but in a darker way . . . I guess gothic. We all listen to doom, but we all listen to other genres, pretty much every subgenre of metal. Our other guitarist [Dylan Burton] is really into death metal—that’s pretty much all he listens to. Personally, I am all over the place, so is Trevor. We just draw from all of these influences and combine them into something that we would want to listen to. We don’t wanna play straight doom. That would get boring. I am, personally, into progressive rock in general, weird time signatures, and there are a couple of parts on the album where you could almost say that there was a krautrock, or prog influence, particularly on the song “Coma Burn”. Towards the end, there’s a part where the guitar is just kinda droning out and doing a weird melody and the drums and bass are doing a really weird time signature. We have a little bit of that.”

And of course at the center of it all are these huge, slow-motion riffs; is it a conscious decision to write something as big as possible?
“It comes from our influences, personally. I am Finnish, so I am into a lot of old-school Finnish death-doom, and bands like early Amorphis, all have elements of melody as well, and they incorporate beauty as well as still being heavy and crushing. Personally, those are the parts I like to write when I write guitar riffs. I just think they sound majestic and still heavy at the same time.”

What is your writing process like? Is it communal or do you work out your parts separately?
“Our songwriting process for the demo was a lot different from the songwriting process for the full-length. The demo started when I was sitting by myself in the bedroom, and I had a really productive streak of songwriting. I came up with all the parts for the demo in three weeks, took them to Trevor, and we cranked it out in three weeks and recorded it. The full-length, on the other hand, was more like . . . I dunno, I think it took us two years to write it because we had several lineup changes, we were jamming on stuff. I would come to the table with a riff and we’d write songs and scrap songs. Usually I write a couple of guitar parts and bring them to practice and we jam on it and see what happens after that. It’s usually a collaborative process. Like I’ll write the guitar parts then Trevor will bring his ideas to the table, add some vocal ideas—‘cos he does all the growls—and then if our other guitarist or bassist have any parts they want to add they can. There is a lot of cooperation with the songwriting process but it usually starts with a few guitar parts. We’ll start with one part and then sorta play on it, then another will come to mind and we’ll jam to it. If we’re having trouble with the transition or something, really the best thing to do is to jam it out and something will come.”

Does jamming it out help extend the songs from what could be four or five minute songs into 10 and 20 minute songs? Do you have trouble knowing when the song is done?
“I usually end up writing a lot of riffs that sound like ending riffs, like if you were listening to them on their own you’d think that they’re really epic, that they can’t be the beginning or even the middle. The ending is never the problem; it’s how to get to the end that’s the problem. I guess the biggest challenge in the songwriting is coming up with the transitions, bits that sound good in the middle of the song and something that creates a build-up to the climax at the end.”

Doom is a tough-sell to a lot of audiences, and even within underground metal funeral doom will always be a niche interest. But to what extent do you think doom is a music of our times? There is this over-arching sense of doom and fatalism in today’s society—there is very little optimism, and your sound is very much in tune with that.
“Doom requires some sort of patience to listen to, and for the listener to understand what the music’s about. A lot of people, when they first listen to it, the music is just kinda over their heads. There are a lot of people who think, ‘This is too boring. I don’t understand it. This is just noise to me.’ It takes some sort of background in metal to really appreciate doom. As far as the morals, I think there are people who realize that things aren’t going too well with capitalism, at least in America, and they take solace in the fact that a lot of doom bands are really outspoken about things that are going on in modern times. Our lyrics reflect that, and I think that also has some appeal to people. I mean our lyrics reflect both personal and political themes.”

Is Tempest more political or more personal?
“The lyrics on this record are a bit more personal; the lyrics on the demo were purely political. We’ve kinda combined both, just the helplessness and general sorrow about things are and feeling powerless in the face of the great beast. The mood is created through our response to how life makes us feel, to suffering, the sorrow we feel. When I first played I draw back on those sorrowful moments of life that provoked the creation of these songs, and there is a great deal of emotion that goes into our live performances and band practices. It takes a great deal of emotion to pull it off. It’s more therapeutic, having a way to release those bad feelings and get it out there is way better. It’s just a way to release those feelings and it’s really rewarding when people can identify with those themes in your music and have it appeal to them.”

You recorded Tempest with Greg Wilkinson from Brainoil. What was he like to work with?
JH: “He recorded our demo, Demo MMXI, and we went back because we were so happy with that. He is just a really good engineer, who has been in some heavy bands for pretty much his whole life and knows what bands want. He is a master at creating really heavy guitar tones, making the drums sound a lot more punchy—a lot of that is just in the wizardry that he does. The environment of Earhammer Studios might also have contributed a little bit because it’s in a really sketchy area of Oakland. They dub it the Dirty 30s. You leave to go get a beer at the corner store while you’re recording and there are all these crack-heads running around. It’s a sketchy area. And the studio itself is nothing special; it’s like a rented-out warehouse and super-sparse—a hallway, kitchen and the main engineering room. It’s just a bare-bones studio and what Greg does with it is amazing.”

What’s Oakland’s metal scene like?
JH: “Oakland is cool. It has always been known for having a really good metal and punk scene. There is not only the ‘official venues’ but there is a thriving house and warehouse show scene. Our shows are always pretty successful. It’s good to be a metal band in Oakland. But Oakland is becoming more like San Francisco, and San Francisco has no metal scene whatsoever. The only music that’s in demand is hip music like indie. Oakland is increasingly becoming gentrified, and a lot of the DIY spots are being bought out and torn down, and condos are being built. With all this happening it is worrisome; I don’t know what the future is going to hold for the scene. But right now it’s good.”

**Order Tempest here
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