Indianapolis’ Coffinworm are essential listening for those who like their extreme metal to open up wide and drown any extant optimism in a genre non-specific swamp of sunken riffs and black metal noise ‘n’ hiss. 2010’s debut LP When All Became None was a loose-limbed doom record that was too anxious and fidgety to plant itself in the doom’s slow lane tempo-wise, and scratched around on the coffin lid of underground metal’s dark arts, attracting elements of black metal, sludge, and old-school death metal to the party.
Its successor, IV.I.VIII, is evidence writ large that the Coffinworm sound has been feeding well in recent years, bulking up to support a beyond-heavy sound that’s not at all unlike Today is the Day jamming out Monotheist-era Celtic Frost, that seasick sense of dissonance always lapping against the sheer physicality of bass/drum/guitars at the band’s core. A good few weeks back, we had the pleasure of speaking to drummer-turned-guitarist Carl Byers and he told us how the Coffinworm has turned, and how their sound’s dark evolution can only be healthy for those who created it.
Since the release of When All Became None, you’ve swapped your drum-kit for guitars and shifted the lineup about; how did that come about?
Carl Byers: “Basically, we got the first record recorded and after its release in April 2010, we had a couple of months when we were pretty steady and then one of the guitar players, Tony [McGuire] had left the band. I have played guitar longer than I have played drums, and I already was writing songs and riffs for the band, contributing in the practice room that way in addition to playing drums, so we all talked about it and thought, well, might as well move me to guitar and then bring in somebody else to play drums. We got our friend Josh [Shrontz], who was the one who did the cover art for When All Became None. He was already a friend. That was sort of the beginning of the writing process for the new record.”
Was that all part of why it took so long to get another record out? I heard you scrapped a whole bunch of songs before getting these together.
Carl Byers: “Part of that was getting up to speed with Josh, finding our groove for being able to play together, because even though it wasn’t a huge change, not like having a completely different lineup, it was still very different for me to be playing guitar, playing those parts and trying to write from that perspective. Plus, having Josh come in . . . He and I definitely have a different playing style. Part of us scrapping the songs was us trying to find our voice with that lineup, and then a lot of it was also that everybody had to be onboard with the songs before it would be approved. There were quite a few songs that we would work on for a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months; we would bounce back and forth between several different songs, working on bits and pieces for each one simultaneously, and would get to a place where they were finished or there wasn’t anything we thought we could add, and we just felt that it wasn’t strong enough, or gave us the feeling that we wanted out of any of the songs we do create. There wasn’t really a time where had to have a second record ready, prepared and out, so it was sorta like we just want to make the best possible record that we can to follow-up the first album. We definitely wanted to out-do it. We definitely wanted to have more of our own voice—not that the first record sounds like anyone in particular, but it definitely has influences written all over it. They weren’t intentional but I think we were still trying to find our own writing style, and specifically what Coffinworm sounds like.”
You talk about the feel of the songs, and how that’s got to be right; how do you want your songs to make you feel?
Carl Byers: “It all depends on the mood and the situation; in practice, a lot of it is very clinical, not that it doesn’t mean anything but we are looking to fine-tune and be able to get the songs to the point where, when we do go out and play in a live setting you have enough of a basis to just let go and just kinda get into what is actually happening in the room, the feeling that the song brings out, and what you’re getting back from the audience. Yeah, I mean it’s definitely a catharsis. Any musician, through what he does, playing live or just playing for themselves, feels something that they can’t get out of the world, or on a day-to-day basis through any other means. Everybody has an extension of how they emotionally release or connect, whether that’s through writing poetry or playing metal, or painting or whatever. For us it’s personal but it’s also a way for us to connect with each other and share this really powerful thing that has been a huge part of all of our lives, for a long time since we were kids. Which is sorta basic to say, but, and I can’t speak for anybody else in the band, for me it has always been this great feeling of having this really loud amplifier smashing me in the back with big sound waves, and just raging, just feeling it.”
It feels like there is a lot of tension between the bleak and abstract, and the powerful, physical quality your sound has. It leaves the audience acutely aware of that tension; was that on purpose?
Carl Byers: “Sure, definitely. A lot of what went into the new record was a few years of shit luck for most of us. And not to a degree where it’s like out of the ordinary, but just shitty things happening to all of us, that in some way formed what went into that record. There were a lot of frustrations about the writing process, some weeks we only had two days to get into the practice room and work on it, other weeks it was only one day, and there was a lot of personal stuff on everybody’s end, and especially last year, a lot of stuff happened to Dave, our singer, and a lot of stuff happened in my life that was really fucked up or just really challenging. It was coming to head by the time we were supposed to go into the studio. It was nice because we had something to look forward to at that time. [The record] is really noisy, but that was intentional. It definitely fits everything that went into the record and where we are as a band and what we are trying to do now. It definitely has more of a death metal feel, which was intentional too. That was something that we wanted to pull into the songs more than we were able to previously, but, as a drummer I wasn’t able to play a lot of that stuff the way that Josh does. He’s a madman. He can play blast-beats like nobody’s business, he can play a double-kick like nobody’s business. He’s an amazing drummer.”
As hostile as IV.I.VIII sounds, it still feels human, organic. Is that something that Sanford Parker is able to tease out of you in the production?
Carl Byers: “He definitely had a large hand in creating what we wanted in the end. Even when we walked into the studio, we had the same songs, but the intent was that we basically wanted to go as crazy as we could on this record, with overdubs, or any idea that anyone had. Fuck it, let’s try it. If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. Sanford is all about doing stuff like that. He understands us as a band. He’s a friend. We feel really comfortable with him. And he came up with ideas; I sent him pre-production demos that we recorded in our practice space and he knew what the songs sounded like, he knew the structure, and he gave us some ideas up-front, sorta like, let’s knock out all these basic tracks and then let’s get to the good shit. It was a really collaborative process with him to sort of fine-tune all the layering. It was a really natural thing too. It was like saying that we wanted to do something specific it was about being able to play around and have fun, and if it works it works and if it didn’t work then we didn’t use it. It was pretty rare that something didn’t work, so it was fun, just grabbing a bunch of pedals and some gear that was already in the studio and just kinda going wild.”
Is that part of the reward of being in the underground? You’ve got your lives, your jobs, and things take time, line-up changes and so on. Does that add to the excitement and the energy when you actually come down to cut a record?
Carl Byers: “ Definitely. It was the reward at the end of that couple of years, on a personal level and on a collaborative band level. We liked the songs going in. We knew that they were good as far as we were concerned, but it is always crazy to hear it through somebody else’s filter, like when we did the first record; we had been playing most of those songs for a couple of years, whether it was in a shitty basement or in practice, so we had some life behind them and some history. And then going into record the first record, it was one of those things where, ‘I don’t wanna hear these songs again!’ I’ve had to play these songs so many times and then we’ve got to come in and play multiple takes, over and over again. I got sick of it, but would go out and Sanford mixes the song and when we came back in to listen to it it sounds completely new. It is always nice to have that filter because it’s like you get to hear it the way that anybody else would get to hear it. Even though you’ve played that song a million times or whatever. Even just to have somebody like Chris Bruni from Profound Lore believing in what you are doing, providing support, ‘You wanna use Sanford again? Okay, here’s your budget.’ All that stuff. It’s really nice in this day and age and it’s rare that that stuff happens. It was nice to be able to go into a really awesome studio, because this studio that we recorded in is like my favorite studio that I have ever been in. It has got a really nice vibe to it, great sound as far as the room goes.
What studio did you use?
Carl Byers: “It’s called Earth Analog. It’s owned by Matt Talbott who was the guitar player/singer from that band Hum, from the ‘90s. Sanford’s done a couple of records there, like that band Gigan, and Sweet Cobra might’ve done one there. A lot of it has to do with the board that’s there, which is why Sanford suggested this studio—other than the fact that it is really nice and the room’s great. The board is an old 1970s Sphere, and they are pretty interesting as far in the way that they are built but they have a really unique sound to them. It used to be at the studio where Sanford was before, this place called Engine Studios, but they got it . . . After Sanford had worked on it for a while he told me that it was basically like, ‘Wherever that board goes, I go.’ It was nice to be outside of the city, too. Earth Analog is like 15 minutes outside of a small college town, so we were pretty much isolated, which is nice, and it was just work. There weren’t any distractions. There were no people dropping by.”
Is there any particular theme to the record, lyrically?
Carl Byers: “Dave had said that it was sort of like, I don’t know how to put it. I don’t wanna misspeak. A lot of it has to do with this realizing cognitive dissonance. Like when the band started, it did its first record, a lot of the lyrics that he had written for that were not like untrue but he became more of the person that he was writing about, as it was pretty much written from the perspective of somebody, a protagonist just unraveling as a person. He had said to me that he sort of became that person, whether it was through whatever means, things happening over time once the record came out, so a lot of the lyrics on this new record are like realizing that that person isn’t necessarily who he might be deep down—it’s trying to make sense of all that . . .”
Is the black metal element more of an aesthetic to you to dip into than an ethic informing the music? It’s like lyrically you seem to be tapping into personal experience more than a worldview.
Carl Byers: “That’s definitely the truth. I mean, I like a lot of that music but a lot of it is such a bunch of bullshit. I think it is different when you are coming from an angle where you can truly identify with it, but I think a lot of people just assimilate the idea of being evil and necro, and all this shit. It’s just tired. Everybody has like and darkness in them, and I think that to say that one person is all this or all that is pretty fake, and I think from where we have come from as far as our musical background, what we came up in as far as playing in different types of bands or who we are as people, we’ve always tried to maintain a sense of honesty. Whether that is like you talking to us at a show or in the songs that we write, and whether or not people like it . . . Whatever. It is what it is. I know that there is an entire contingent of people who probably think that it is false and fake or whatever you want to call it. I mean, that’s dumb anyway, but it doesn’t make any sense to me to have a job, and do all the same shit as everybody else does, and then make some declarative statement about hating humanity. I mean, we all hate humanity on some level, but you wouldn’t make music, you wouldn’t be around people whatsoever if you really took on that attitude. For us, everyone can identify with negative feelings, everybody has negative feelings, but it is also a balance. I think as far as where it comes in musically for us, the band has always been this cathartic element in our lives. Not to compartmentalize it, but it’s a place to put those feelings, to do something constructive with them, and to share something between the five of us, where we have this special thing for us. And it’s cool that some other people like it.”
**Coffinworm’s IV.I.VIII is out now on Profound Lore Records. Order it here