“Subtle” isn’t exactly a word one often associates with heavy music, but the adjective absolutely fits as the title for the fourth album by Ohio stoner metal group Lo-Pan. The Columbus-area quartet, fronted by astonishing singer Jeff Martin, were road dogs in the early part of the decade but took their time releasing Subtle with new guitarist Chris Thompson, and the effort absolutely shows. Subtle is a gem. Martin agreed to an interview with Decibel in support of an article in the print version of the magazine, but his thoughtful responses were so striking that we decided to print them in advance of Subtle’s release this Friday, May 17.
Lo-Pan was pumping out records very quickly for a while there, but Subtle is the first record in five years – why the long gap?
Subtle is indeed our first full length in five years. We released an EP in 2017 called In Tensions. The gap is mostly due to lineup changes. Prior to 2017, our method of writing was somewhat different than it is now. We used to write songs very quickly and let touring shape them and mold them for a year or so before recording them. This time with our new permanent guitarist Chris Thompson we did things very differently. We took our time becoming close friends with Chris. And in many ways, I think we used that time to re-establish a relationship amongst the rest of us too. Years of mindlessly touring had left us a little haggard. I think we needed this time to sit back and decide what direction we wanted to take as a sort of re-launched band. It feels like a rededication now. It feels exciting again.
Working with James Brown is pretty impressive for an indie band – how did you come to work with such an esteemed producer for Subtle?
The guys from our record label, Aqualamb, had an established friendship with James. Internally we were already considering some pretty awesome choices for recording location and producer for the new record. But at Aqualamb’s request, we had a Skype call with James. It was an instant connection. We could tell he was a laid back guy with a sense of humor that matched ours. And even more importantly his work ethic was similar to ours. Get good base level sounds. Do it right or do it twice. Have fun with it. Experiment where it makes sense and otherwise just trust your gut with the material. After an hour-long call with James, we knew we found our guy. Working with him was one of the great thrills of my creative life. He works smart. He knows how to get the sounds you want. He was an outstanding collaborator and made insightful suggestions. And dynamics-wise he fit right in. I actually missed him when we were done recording. We really couldn’t have had a better person behind the controls.
To what does the “subtle” in the title of the album refer?
Honestly it’s just a comment on how very Un-subtle this band is. We play loud. We play hard. Everyone but Chris is a total asshole. We swear more than we need to. We say what’s on our minds and it’s not always nice. So, basically our gruff personalities led to a tongue in cheek title like Subtle.
Subtle comes across as a pretty uplifting record, to me, but I also detect some discontent, and an underlying theme of class struggle in the lyrics – am I off-base there? And if the class struggle is part of the lyrical message, how did that come to enter the music?
You aren’t too far off base. I think musically and lyrically most of these songs come from a viewpoint of frustration with the status quo. But with a side of “all is not lost.” I always write from my point of view with Lo-Pan. And I think my general outlook on life is “wow, shit is totally fucked up in the world at large.” But there has to be a way out of the swirling cauldron of shit. And that way comes from within myself. I grew up in a poor family. My mother worked as a teacher and made very little money. And she had two kids that refused to make anything easy. But I grew up happy. Because she made it that way. And she taught me to make it that way. So yes, there is an underlying class resentment that exists in this music somewhere. But there is hope to be found in the way you choose to live your life. And that is the uplifting side for me. The TL;DR answer to that is: Don’t let the bastards keep you down.
Speaking as an Ohio native myself (I was born and raised in Toledo) the Buckeye state doesn’t get a lot of love, nationally, as a heavy metal or hard rock state, even though bands like The Black Keys and such have come from there. Has Lo-Pan experienced any flyover state opprobrium? What is your relationship to Ohio and its culture?
I think people overlook Ohio for art and music at their own peril. Some of the best heavy bands I have ever seen have come from this state. Bands like Rebreather from Youngstown. Fuck You Pay Me from Cleveland. EYE is another band from Columbus that will set your whole world on fire. Ohio will never be that Mecca for art or culture like LA or NYC. But in many ways, the fact that we are overlooked or ignored just informs the music. We have definitely had experiences where people underestimated us. But I sort of enjoy being underestimated. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if Columbus starting acting like cities where people backstab one another to get ahead. There are assholes everywhere, but I think there is a genuine spirit that exists in places like this. When you talk to people here you can immediately tell who is full of shit and who isn’t. That’s my style all day.
The song “Ascension Day” shares a title with a Talk Talk song — was that intentional?
Yes and no. I am a huge Talk Talk fan (RIP Mark Hollis). When I wrote the song, I thought that would be a naturally good name for it. I was going to change it, but I figured they are such a great band that I don’t mind sharing a song title with them.
Similarly “Everything Burns” reminds me of a quote from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. That song also seems to be something of an emotional core to the record — can you tell me more about that song?
That is exactly where the title comes from. That is one of my favorite scenes in any movie. It just embodies my view of the world so perfectly. “Everything Burns” is exactly what I was talking about before with regard to finding a way out of the bullshit. In a nutshell, this song is me saying, “I am not getting rich from this. I am not a rock star. I am a regular guy with a better than average singing voice and I have some super dope musicians with me. We don’t expect to get famous, or make a million dollars, or win a Grammy doing this. We may end up losing money doing this. But so fucking what? This is what we want to do. We want to make this music. We want to play this music live. We are holding this line. And it touches our lives.” That’s all we can ask. And if you want to see four guys pour their hearts out on stage every night… that’s what you will get with us.
“It’s not about money… it’s about sending a message…”
What is Lo-Pan’s goal for Subtle? What are you hoping to get out of the record? what do you want your listeners to get out of it
Our goal was the make the best record we have ever made. I think we did that. I am hoping that this music reaches more listeners than anything we have done. I think we can do that. As for what I am hoping to get out of it… I am hoping to get more of what I’ve always gotten out of this band. Experience. Friends. I want to do stuff some people only read about. I want to play in every city on this Earth. I want to meet someone in each one of those cities and connect with them. I want to maintain a friendship with those people. That is what I have done and that is what I would like to continue to do with this album. Everything else is just the icing on the cake.
Pre-order Subtle here.