Their music is creepier than Christopher Lee overseeing an island of naked ‘70s pagan hippies, and for U.K. doomers Electric Wizard, that’s just how they want it. For nigh on 18 years, guitarist/vocalist Jus Oborn has refined one of the most individual and distinctive sounds in heavy metal, and that continues on Electric Wizard’s latest opus, the gleefully heathen Black Masses. Joined by guitarist Liz Buckingham, bassist Tas Danazoglou and drummer Shaun Rutter, Electric Wizard may be at their most powerful yet, weaving darkly lysergic anthems with disturbing potency.
No word on a U.S. tour, but Black Masses got its American release a couple weeks ago, and I was thrilled to have the chance to talk to Oborn for the following interview.
I was watching some clips of shows online, people chanting along to “Black Mass.” It’s got to feel good to get that kind of response to the new material right away.
Yeah, definitely. We wrote the songs on this album to be really catchy anyway. We worked a lot on choruses being pretty instant. It’s like our pop album (laughs). We were getting nostalgic for our childhood and a lot of the music we listened to when we were rehearsing was old Priest, Maiden, Sabbath. Those old songs you sing along to. You remember the words. We made a conscious decision there to have a strong emphasis on the lyrics and choruses and shit. It’s cool when the audience is singing along. That’s awesome.
I wanted to ask about the lyrics. They’re even more stripped down on these songs than on 2007’s Witchcult Today.
The entire idea of Black Masses is that it’s all very in-your-face this time. We’re not hiding anything even if we’re being somewhat mystical. This is a statement of intent.
Was there something driving the band in that direction?
There’s a number of reasons for these things. I think in some ways we thought doom was just getting a bit pedestrian, so we wanted to be more fiery sounding. And we’ve been playing live a lot. We’ve done [a lot] of gigs in the last few years and that always affects your songwriting. And getting Tas in the band as well. He’s been pushing us in the direction (laughs) of heavy metal.
What happened with Rob Al-Issa and bringing Tas in?
Rob was just not into it anymore, so we started auditioning bass players. The band has to work on many levels. Even just hanging out with each other on tour, it has to work. He didn’t enjoy it that much. Tas was playing in a band in London and I was going to produce their demo, so we just ended up hooking up that way. Right place, right time, and he’s really into Wizard, so it wasn’t too hard to train him.
So you knew going into recording this album what you wanted it to sound like. Did you go into Toe Rag Studios and tell Liam Watson, “This is what we’re thinking, this is what we want the album to be?”
Kind of. I think we probably went in with a kind of Yardbirds-meets-Judas Priest sort of idea (laughs). Just meditating on twin guitars. Liz and I wanted to capitalize on the two guitars more, trading off leads and having different guitar sections. Yardbirds are one of the first examples of that, and Judas Priest perfected it, and Slayer obviously as well. Just bringing that into the Electric Wizard sound. Because we always sound like ourselves, really. It’s the same shitty amps and the same out-of-tune guitars (laughs).
You say that, though, and yet every Electric Wizard album sounds different. Even Black Masses, which sounds like an offshoot of Witchcult Today, or maybe a growth from it, has a different feel.
Yeah. I’ve been doing this for a while now. I want each album to sound different. I’d like them in some ways to sound timeless, not of any particular era. There was a deliberate attempt to strip down the production, to force you to listen to the music and not date it from the sound. Music from today, a lot of it, you can tell just by the production. In the modern age.
Was getting that timeless sound part of what made you go back to Liam in the first place?
Yeah. It’s like classic rock. People still listen to Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Hendrix. Those records are perfect.
In terms of writing the lyrics, you’ve always been referential to movies and things outside the band, but was it any different for you to be referencing other Electric Wizard songs in these new ones?
It’s not always conscious at first, but the references slip themselves in. We’ve created a few of our own elements anyway—“Drugula” and stuff like that, and “We Hate You.” It’s easy to become self-referential at this point—we’ve got seven albums for fuck’s sake. Not many bands do that, to a degree. It’s inevitable, possibly. I’ve hopefully created a sort of iconography for Electric Wizard. That’s more important than the band sometimes, than the lineup or the instruments (laughs).
Do you think that’s something you’re going to continue to do?
Oh definitely. Electric Wizard’s an entity. It’s separate from whoever did it now. It has its own history, its own symbols, its own iconography.
I noticed on your MySpace page there’s a list of recommended movies. Any chance you put that up there just because you were tired of people asking you what to watch?
Yeah, to a certain degree (laughs). It’s just a primer. Everyone’s got access to a computer now, so they can just type it in. The thanks list is like that to a certain degree as well, sort of a “check it out,” but years ago, that’s how you got into stuff. I used to troll the thanks list of certain obscure bands for some sort of clue as to why they created this noise (laughs). And there were clues there most of the time. I just took it one step further and name-dropped obscure shit. It leads into a labyrinth, hopefully. Things’ll make a lot more sense once you get deeper into the references and the subculture behind it. Or so people tell me. There’s a method to the madness, you know (laughs).
What is it about Electric Wizard that’s allowed that horror subculture to become part of doom?
It’s enjoying it. Being part of celebrating the dark side, sleazier movies and evil currents in our world. You can either be angry about it or enjoy it. Enjoy the end of the world. Enjoy it with Electric Wizard.
How important was it to you in recording the album to keep the balance between the heavy guitars, heavy bass and that catchier songwriting? Did you have a hard time bringing those elements together?
It’s always a hard time (laughs). Usually, this kind of music, it’s a bit of hit-or-miss thing, because everything has to be louder than everything else. That’s the order and you’re up against a wall with it. Even the drums are recorded in the red. We’re just trying to rein in the chaos to a certain degree, and in a sense, it’s going to cut through whatever. Liam prefers to take the overall view, because he’s not swayed either way. He’s not a drum man or a guitar man, he’s a song man. He listens to the song, how that sounds. And yeah, we concentrate on how we should sound, and hopefully it works out. It’s not a conventional sound, but you’ve got to approach it for what it is.
It’s hard to write a good verse, a good chorus.
It’s sort of sophisticated, actually (laughs). I think we’re starting to realize that. In the beginning, we just wanted to shock people, but doing it for a while, you get interested in creating effects and playing with people’s emotions. That’s part of what it’s all about, really. Making people into our zombie slaves.
How has your songwriting process changed to get you to that point?
It’s a lot more intensive, but that’s what it’s all about. The more you put into it, I figure, the more you get out of it. It’s easy to write an album with two riffs in it that goes on for hours and play in the dark, but anyone can do that. It’s fucking easy as long as you do it in the right way. But it’s a challenge to write complex arrangements and shit. You’ve got to challenge yourself, and not just with technical playing, because then you’ve got your head up your own ass.
What are the tour plans?
We’ve got some stuff lined up for March, and then a few festival gigs in the summer. There’s been talk of [a US tour], but I can’t promise anything. There’s big demand for us to play there, it’s just sorting out visas and all that shit. It’s a pain in the ass, actually. Once you get all that legal crap out of the way, it should be easy. I know people want us to play, so it’s definitely cool. I could see it happening pretty soon.
Black Masses is available now through Rise Above/Metal Blade. For more info, check out myspace.com/electricwizarddorsetdoom.
JJ Koczan also hopes you enjoy the end of the world. firstname.lastname@example.org.