Nostalgist feat. Aesop Dekker Cut Deep Into Metal and Post-Punk’s Past

Asa Eisenhardt of Nostalgist Photo by Shane Williams

“The pendulum cuts both ways,” sings Asa Eisenhardt on the finale of “Pendulums”, the opening track from Nostalgist’s new mini-album Disaffection. While Eisenhardt is singing about the mutual damage that comes with a parting of the ways (maybe) he could just as easily be talking about the way his band looks to the future by recapturing and recasting elements of the past—as if the band’s title wasn’t a dead giveaway. Nostalgist plays a metal-tinged variant of post-punk that adds a sharp modern edge to the sounds of, say, The Chameleons or the ubiquitous Joy Division.

Nostalgist’s connection to metal stems not only from Esienhardt’s admiration for classic death metal, but from his choice in creative partners as well. Aesop Dekker took time out from his double-duty drum schedule with Khorada and Extremity to play session drums on Dissaffection, and his surgical hi-hat work adds a spit-polish to “Pendulums” and other tunes. Monte McCleery of funeral doom outfit Un currently plays live bass for Nostalgist also.

Eisenhardt and I talked one another’s ears off about his creative process in the interview below. Read it while you pump up the volume on “Pendulums”, exclusively premiered below.

This is probably going to be most Decibel readers’ first impressions of your music, so for their benefit could you outline some of your histories as a recording artist?

Absolutely. In 2012, then-drummer Martin Berg and I recorded the Monochromantic 7″ in our practice space with Carl Larsson. Jack Shirley engineered and mastered it, and Adam of Katorga Works pressed the record even though it’s not a KW release proper. Thanks again, Adam.

Jeff Spencer later joined on bass and cemented the lineup. We played a bunch locally and began recording the Of Loves and Days Ago album in early 2014. He and Martin amicably departed after tracking their parts, and the next lineup coalesced around Mark Knowles, Connor Keogh and myself. In addition to a slew of local gigs throughout 2015, we also toured the West Coast. We ultimately were going in different musical directions and subsequently split. That led me to knuckle down on my own and write new material in the last third of 2016.

So how and when did you decide that you wanted to begin a project like this, a sort of metallic post-punk project, and then what was the writing process like? I know that some “bedroom” artists just operate on a first-take basis, and mostly embellish their original ideas, but Nostalgist is pretty structured, which implies to me that it may have gone through a pretty lengthy drafting and rewriting process.

The stylistic influences just snowballed over time. I came up in metal and rock, continued that love while obsessing over old Creation Records and 4AD bands (among many others) in college, and dived headlong into ’80s wave/post-punk in the years since. I’ve long had a love for noir aesthetics as well, even though I feel like I channel those in a less-strict fashion than before.

Initially, Nostalgist was a more electronically-involved collaboration with my longtime friend Zach Goist. As time went on (and his grad school studies proved prohibitive), I realized I definitely wanted to do something with a full-on band. Most of my songwriting is done sans effects (and often, unplugged) at home. I’m always transcribing parts or taking video of riffs to log everything, and usually don’t fully demo until it’s necessary for preproduction. You’re correct– I’m definitely one for honing initial ideas. It’s like any other editorial process in that respect.

Lyrically, I look up and catalog words I find evocative, and keep a running list of title ideas. I’m also diligent about writing down phrases that pop into my head and often build on those. Some of the lines I dig the most came to me when I was in the shower or almost asleep.

In my experience, many projects that I would group as sort-of similar to Nostalgist opt for drum machines, but you opted for live drums by Aesop Dekker (Extremity, Ex-Agalloch, Ex- Ludicra). So that leads me to a two-part question. How did you decide that live drums were the way for ‘Disaffection‘ to go, and also how did you come to know Aesop and get him to work with you on this project?

Aside from the aforementioned, very early days of this band, live drums have always been my desire. I love plenty of artists that use drum machines, but I guess I’ve never been interested in getting that strobing, automated rhythm in Nostalgist. My favorite drummers (for instance, Jimmy Chamberlin or Martin Lopez) have a push-and-pull to their playing and add tasteful embellishments to songs without losing sight of the bigger picture. That’s that’s absolutely the kind of drummer both Aesop and Alex (Entrekin, newer full-time member) are.

I was on my semester abroad in England met Aesop and the rest of Agalloch after they played Camden Underground in April 2009. I’d already been a huge fan both Agalloch and his old blog, but somehow never put together until a couple weeks beforehand that he had joined the band. We really hit it off arguing over Martin Van Drunen’s early Pestilence and Asphyx records and have been friends since.

I initially planned to hire a session drummer for Disaffection, but as the songs took their final form it occurred to me to contact Aesop. On top of possessing a crisp, distinct musical voice, he also fundamentally understood the nature of all the influences I was trying to incorporate and easily adjusted his playing accordingly. I sent him the demos, he flew up, we rehearsed for two days, and he absolutely killed it on the first day of drum tracking. We thusly had extra time to lay down his tracks for “Threshed at Dusk, Winnowed at Dawn” on the second and final day. All in all, he imbued these tunes with the percussive power they needed and I am forever grateful.

Selfish question, here, but I know you were very insistent that the bass in Nostalgist be played with a pick, which just sort of rustles my jimmies as a bassist who was told at a young age that only finger picking is real. What went into that decisions?

It’s all about the necessary tools and approach for the desired end result. I’ll be the first to say that I once had a similar disinterest in pick style playing– I spent many hours in high school and college attempting to learn Ron Royce/Roger Patterson/Tony Choy/Steve Digiorgio bass parts. But while I’d never rule out future, occasional fingerstyle moments, the attack of a pick is really fundamental to the clanky, chorused post-punk bass sound I really adore and find most fitting for our music. The liquid, metallic top end you get playing with a pick through a chorus effect fits stylistically and has an easier time cutting through a downtuned, heavy mix.

Talking with you about Nostalgist is sort-of setting up a pattern of coverage for me. A few weeks ago I interviewed the singer from Actors about the relationship between metal and post-punk. You and I have had more than a few heated discussions about Morbid Angel and other such classic death metal bands before. Do you take that metal part of you and sort-of box it up when you’re appreciating or writing music that’s more like Nostalgist, or are those two pieces of yourself entwined? If they’re entwined, how does that Trey Azagthoth-loving piece of you relate to the kind of music you’ve been writing.

I don’t really know– I guess I would say they’re entwined? Nothing gets me quite amped or cathartically gratified or in an otherworldly state like death metal does, but, with rare exceptions, its emotional resonance for me personally doesn’t usually overlap with that of the topics I write about in Nostalgist. Namely, love and heartache and so forth. Extreme bands that cover those subjects and/or mix in goth/wave/post-punk influences like My Dying Bride largely don’t do it for me. Simply put, I’m just not looking for the same things when spinning Script of the Bridge or Sleep No More as I would with Formulas Fatal to the Flesh or The IVth Crusade, and vice versa.

In terms of composition, I can’t say I draw much directly from death metal. Many of those bands write atonally, and I stick to pretty hard to basic theory when I write Nostalgist tunes. Just knowing which key I’m in is pretty crucial to my workflow. I do, however, love stealing Opeth chords–granted, they’re hardly traditional death metal– and we do play in D standard tuning. Regarding Trey Azagthoth, I find his self-described soloing style to be pretty inspirational. That “flow” is totally audible when he tears into his Ironbird.

At the same time, there does seem to be this acknowledgment that this metal and post-punk crossover is happening more. I’m thinking about bands like Rope Sect and Grave Pleasures, but also I know there’s some metalhead fan component to the people that enjoy Drab Majesty or a group like She Past Away. Where do you see yourself fitting into that phenomena right now?

Any sort of trend or event that increases musical open-mindedness is something I’m for, that’s for sure. In terms of my own music, I would say the outrightly metallic side of our sound is a newer development. The previous record, Of Loves and Days Ago, definitely has loud guitars, but not quite the same heft or darkness as the newer stuff. I think that progression is an even mix of my roots in heavy music and my desire to aurally convey the emotions of the lyrics. If the result invites a comparison to any of the bands mentioned, I’m truly flattered.

I’m not especially knowledgeable about newer post-punk/wave/goth bands, but shooting from the hip I’d say the fan overlap with metal folks is just dark recognizing dark. As for where I stand personally—I don’t identify as a metalhead or a goth. But at this point, I don’t exactly bristle if someone calls me the latter. Everything about my band makes it inevitable. I just love music, as clichéd and broad as that is to say.

When you think about songwriting, what presents the greatest challenge for you? Licks, rhythm, lyrics, what?

None of the aforementioned come easily very often, but I would say rhythm and structure. I’ve always struggled with keeping rhythm. I also have a handful of different strumming/picking rhythms I’m drawn to, so I try to challenge myself to change things up without making the part impossible to sing over.

Structure, though, seems to be the constant stumbling block. Even if I don’t know what rhythm I want to use for a given section, I might at least have chords in mind. But trying to figure out what piece of the song goes next is rough, especially when the composition just needs one last piece to complete the proverbial puzzle. Some of the best songwriting advice I’ve ever received was to keep the number of parts to a handful or so. Naturally, this isn’t a hard and fast rule whatsoever, but we’re not exactly attempting 2112 here.

Your songs aren’t linear, they cycle back around and have repeating hooks. That made me think of aa recent AMA on Reddit with Athenar from Midnight. He also writes very traditional songs, and he made a point that he doesn’t hear a lot of “Songs” in modern metal. You mentioned Opeth, that’s a band that almost always has songs and choruses and hooks. They’re not a typical death metal band as you say, but still. What do you listen to in the metal realm that is maybe modern, but has memorable songs? Any ideas?

I definitely would agree with Athenar’s words there. With metal songs, as with any other work, I just want some memorability. That doesn’t necessarily mean pop structure or clean vocals; one of the most instantly memorable things I can think of is that first riff in Gorguts’ “Inverted,” which largely consists of pick scrape noises.

Anyway: Suffering Hour seems to be really taking off as more and more people realize how impeccable their debut album In Passing Ascension is. But it’s not simply Josh’s ability to write riffs, it’s their spindly, trippy, catchy nature and how he orders them. Similarly, Leila and Shelby of Vastum are really masterful writers. Their structures have such an incredible ebb and flow.

I think Planning for Burial took a huge step up in his composition with his most recent full-length. Thom always had conviction in spades, he long ago honed his distinct sonic blend, and damn if he couldn’t express powerful emotion through just building up loops (Desideratum came into my life at exactly the right, heartbroken time). His newer material clearly carries an emphasis on more dynamic structures, though, and to a degree, hooks as well. That he’s performing as a one-person ensemble is all the more impressive. Sure, there’s no bandmates to worry about and the drum machine isn’t gonna go off-tempo, but in the hands of a lesser talent, that absolute creative freedom could lead to everything-but-the-kitchen-sink incoherence.

So, your lyrics on ‘Disaffection‘ seem pretty fixated on the idea of lost interpersonal connections with people, sometimes romantic or sexual relationships. That suits not only the genre you’re looking at but the name Nostalgist, which is a play on “nostalgia” of course. This is a question I don’t think I’ve ever asked anyone before, but I got to wondering: what came to you first, the lyrics or the genre bent. Because I could see this project forming both ways, as a sound that called for these sorts of romantic poems, or that these words were what you needed to express and so you crafted a sound that suits them.

Now that I think about it, it was a singular word– “Illusory.” I wrote it down sometime towards the end of my final year in college with this sort of Quicksand vibe in my head, like how the first word of “Delusional” is the title. That eventually became the first Nostalgist song, and it’s obvious, very simple My Bloody Valentine worship is really an indicator of my meager abilities at that point. I started as a bass player in my teens. I’ve only been playing guitar since late 2011.

Also, it must be said: the band name was picked when I had moved home across the country after graduating college and was completely devoid of that level of friendships and social interaction. I was nostalgic for all of that. These days, I find myself entirely focused on the future, not dwelling on the past. As such, I see the name more in the context of my lyrical focus on love and lack thereof, as well as the dreamy, brooding noir sort of imagery I’m trying to evoke. This doesn’t mean I’m not writing about previous events, it just means I’m not yearning for any of them anymore. Upward and onward, or at least straight through, I guess.

Onward and upward, sure, but what does that mean. What are your ambitions for Nostalgist in the future?

Item one, getting a full-time bass player. Our dear friend Monte McCleery of Un has been filling in but doesn’t have the time to play in both bands in the long term. We love him and are hellbent on finding a permanent replacement of equal personal and musical compatibility. After that, beyond local gigs, I’d really like to do a fly-in East Coast tour. Drive times would be way better than the West Coast, and so many of my friends from my Baltimore years live out there.

And in general, I’m always taking down ideas for our next release. It’ll be an album proper, that much I can say for sure: 40-45ish minutes, 8-10 songs and focused, as with Disaffection, on further refinement, not outright “reinvention.”

Order Disaffection here.