Karnivool: Progress Beyond Sound

It’s been three years since Australia’s Karnivool released their debut album, Themata in the United States. After touring our great country several times over, the whispers about them have reached a deafening crescendo. It’s really not enough to say that Karnivool are good. They are the present and future of prog.

These Aussies play music that is heavy through and through, but at the same time terrifically beautiful. Mammoth-sized rhythms and riffs combine with blinding melodies and abstract, but memorable, vocal lines, as if they are leading the listener up a ladder of light and sound to some cosmic Nirvana, all the while teetering on the edge of total collapse. It isn’t the destination that is important, though. It is the journey—artful, suspenseful and stunning.

Just as Pink Floyd ushered in a new era of progressive music with Dark Side Of The Moon, just as Tool blew minds with Lateralus, Sound Awake is a timeless opus and a classic for the prog canon.

Guitarist and founding member Andrew Goddard has won awards in Australia for his work on the six-string, just as the group’s vocalist, Ian Kenny, has for his performance on their first record. Karnivool, however, is more than the sum of its parts and a few individual awards. When the band plays, be it live or on record, they are one entity, one pulse, one spellbinding experience.

While en route to a show in Phoenix, fighting the “cabin fever,” that comes with long bus rides across continents, Goddard took time to talk to The Aquarian Weekly about procrastination, pride and getting “cosmic.”

You’ve headlined in New York City before. Is there an added significance for the bigger room at the Bowery?

I guess so. We kind of consider that last New York show [in the Spring] the biggest show of the tour and one of the best shows we’d played in a while, actually. It was a good turnout so we thought we would step it up to the Bowery and give that a crack.

In the past couple years both your albums have really caught on here in the States, do you find that you get the biggest reactions to the same songs when you play them live, at home, in Australia as you do in a place like New York?

It kind of varies from place to place, but I think the song that got the biggest reaction in New York was a song called “New Day,” off our latest record. And that’s kind of the one that gets the biggest reaction as well. It’s usually pretty consistent but depending on place to place, some of the longer, more experimental tracks get lost on some people, whereas they go down better in other places, whereas the heavier, king of grittier old stuff goes down better in other places.

You mentioned some of the longer, experimental tracks on the new record. Was there a conscious effort to explore what you guys could do musically on the new one?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, the big thing that happened—the biggest change that happened between the records, was the fact that we had a full band for Sound Awake, you know. Themata was just myself and [singer Ian] Kenny and it was the first album that we’d really ever written and it was predominantly us. So, you know, when we started writing for Sound Awake we jumped in the jam room together and we were just, sort of instantly, just gelling together.

Especially, Steve [Judd, drums] and Jon [Stockman, bass], cause I had played drums previously, so this was the first time we’d ever written together in a room. Sort of, feeding off each other’s energy and that kind of shit. So, it seemed like the right thing, to do to sort of base our songwriting on the kind of jam aspect. So it was kind of consciously subconscious, if you know what I mean.

Do you prefer the way you did the new one, where you had the whole band together and were just sort of jamming? Or do you find it easier to write with just a couple of guys?

Both albums weren’t easy. They both had their fair share of hurtles. I think it’s more rewarding, as a full band. I think Sound Awake is bigger than anything.

There’s certainly a big sound to it.

Yeah, the collective vibe is there. We were all just throwing a bit of ourselves into the pot. When you come up with something in the jam room, there’s no better feeling—to me, when you all just look at each other and just have that moment of magic.

When you’re by yourself, you’re coming up with a riff sitting there just sort of patting yourself on the back and like, “yeah, well done Drew, that’s awesome?” When you’ve got other people to get excited with—that just sort of spurs you on to keep going. I thought I enjoyed the band thing a little bit more, but we’re definitely still kind of learning when it comes to writing as a full unit.

And I’ve got to ask you about the cover art for Sound Awake. First of all, what is it?

Well, it’s actually an image that was sort of manipulated from [Mark] Hosking’s—the other guitarist’s eye. And it was sort of made into that image that it is now.

Everyone sort of takes their own thing from it, but the whole idea was to represent sound emanating from a central point. And that ties in with the whole Sound Awake title. There’s a face value sound awake thing, which is the opposite of sound asleep. But, there was also the idea that sound is its own, kind of living and breathing entity. You know, that it’s alive and that there’s more to sound that meets the ear.

So, without getting too full on into it, there’s this thing called cymatics and it’s really just fascinated the shit out of all of us. There are all these experiments being done where you can put sand or water or oil on a plate and run a pure harmonic frequency through it and it arranges itself in all these different kinds of shapes. Just that sort of set all our imaginations going about sound and how it shapes us as individuals and collectively and all that. So, that’s kind of what it means to me.

You mentioned that everyone takes their own thing from artwork. When I listen to Karnivool I sort of picture this very expansive—kind of outer space, environment. Today when I was looking at the album cover, I just sort of assumed that it was a picture of a nebula or something that was taken with a telescope.

Well, it’s definitely got that kind of cosmic vibe; like maybe it’s something in outer space. But it comes back to that sound thing, man. That it’s just kind of something in space, just a sort of sound. Maybe we’re all created from sound, you never know. We just like to let our imaginations go a bit and sometimes it gets a bit cosmic (laughs).

When did you and Ian Kenny meet?

We went through primary school together. He was best friends with my older brother so, he used to come around with his guitar and a little practice amp and we’d play Slayer and Metallica and Nirvana songs.

That’s always one of the things that I’ve wondered about Karnivool, because you have a very eclectic sound. Sometimes I’ll hear Sevendust when I’m listening to you, sometimes I’ll hear A Perfect Circle, sometimes I’ll hear Meshuggah. I’ve always wondered how you guys see yourselves in that regard.

I definitely know we’ve got an eclectic taste in music between the five members. In the van there’s anything from Donny Hathaway and Sam Cook and, right there to Meshuggah, like you said. Even folk music and shit like Queen and our drummer is really into hip-hop. Y’know jazz, everything, man. We’re just music lovers and we’ll play with you, or talk to you about music. Just anything, as long and it’s good and it’s got soul.

That’s great that you guys have that dynamic within the group.

Yeah, the main thing that we’ve got in common is the music and I think that as long as we keep that we’ll be getting along just fine.

There was about four years between Themata and the new record. Why so long?

(Laughs) It’s a few things man, but we procrastinate a lot, I won’t lie. I don’t know. It’s just the nature of what we do as well. I don’t think Sound Awake would sound anything like it does if we didn’t take four years to write it. The songs kind of gestate. We’ll write a part and just kind of sit on it for a while and start to see it in a new light and it will start to take shape and come a little forward. We just try to let the songs grow on their own accord, you know? Sometimes some songs just come together like that, but others—you just hit that brick wall. Or you don’t hit a brick wall and just get bored with it and something else more exciting—some new riff will come up. That’s kind of why it took four years.

Can you give me an example of a song that took a really long time to come together?

The longest song—probably the longest time that it’s taken any band to write is the song called “Change.”

That was one of the things that came to mind when you said procrastinate. I guess it was 2007 when I first heard Themata and there’s “Change Pt. 1” at the end of that and I was like, ‘well, when is Part Two coming along?’

Well, we wrote part one, but that was never the plan to have a part one, it was just going to be “Change,” as a whole song. But, when we were writing Themata, we had like three weeks left in pre-production, and pre-production—that’s a fancy name for us like, “fuck, we’ve got to write the rest of the album really quickly, cause we’ve run out of time.” (Laughs) But “Change” just looked like it was going to sprawl out and be this kind of opus—so we just thought we’d cut it in that section and continue.

“Change pt. 1” was sort of signaling the change that was going to come for the next record. And when we finally finished, “Change” was one of the biggest achievements of the band, it was such a long, arduous process. The whole thing took about six years, from its conception—not that we were working on it all the time, but we’d just be jamming and come up with a new part and just stick it in the “Change” folder.

But, as a musician myself, this procrastination thing is great news to me—the fact that you can’t just do this in your sleep. It actually takes you a while.

We have such an interesting process. Sometimes it’s rewarding, and other times it’s like we’re beating our heads against the wall. But, we do it because we want to create something that we’re not going to be sick of, because we’re going to have to play it for the rest of our lives and we want to create something that we’re proud of.

And, it is something to be proud of. Sound Awake is available now on Sony Music. Karnivool will be performing Aug. 27 at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC.