As hard to describe as East Of The Wall’s music is, their chaotic brand of progressive sludge metal is way easier to define than their history. Even when guitarist/vocalist Kevin Conway discusses the band’s lineup, he sheepishly admits, “It’s kind of weird and complicated, as is everything that goes along with the history of this band.” Weird and complicated are both words that could easily be used to describe East Of The Wall’s latest record, The Apologist [Translation Loss, 2011], or the one before that, 2010’s industry wave-making Ressentiment. And definitely bassist/vocalist Brett Bamberger.
But genre labels don’t adequately convey the depth of EOTW’s music. For example, they have three guitarists and a bassist, all of whom use a variety of effects, textures and distortions. Their entire string section performs vocals at one point or another and their mixes… They are thick. Even from a sludge metal standpoint.
In the interview below, Conway says he’s seen their music described as a “melting pot,” referring to the wealth of influences and styles that materialize in the band’s music. It’s an appropriate description. But when I visualize that pot—no, that cauldron—there’s not soup in there, more like stew.
The cauldron is cast iron. It’s sitting on a gas burner, turned to full power, in a dank, dark, filthy kitchen. It’s filling the room with meaty, beefy smog, and boiling over; spilling its scalding, grimy contents all over the stovetop and it’s congealing in between the floor tiles. But goddamn, that stew is tasty.
The music itself is technical, inspired by jazz, fusion and prog, yet grounded in the blue-collar attitude of hardcore punk. They can be noisey, but not without melody, and they are schizophrenic without being spastic. East Of The Wall’s atmospheres can be suffocating at times, but it’s only to make the payoff that much more rewarding.
Below, Conway talks about the themes of his band’s last two releases, new guitarist Ray Suhy, and how to sound good.
I first interviewed East Of The Wall at WSOU this summer, and I asked about the lyrics of the new record. I remember not really understanding what [guitarist/vocalist Chris Alfano aka Alfie] was talking about. Could you elaborate on that subject again for me?
(Laughs) That’s a pretty common problem. Alfie tends to kind of speak in riddles, which I think also comes through in his lyrics.
For me—and I think there’s definitely room for interpretation in our lyrics, so I don’t want this to seem too concrete—the record, lyrically, looks at the different ways people interact with each other. So it’s kind of like a larger metta concept of sorts, not anything super specific. There’s songs on the record—like the song “The Apologist”—that song deals with how everything has become football, like how the argument has become more important than the result. You look at the 24-hour news cycle, political coverage, things of that nature. There’s other songs that deal with more interpersonal communications and relationships.
To me, it’s not a concept record in the traditional sense. It’s just a loose lyrical theme that runs throughout the record.
Was that the case with Ressentiment as well?
Yes, absolutely. That record is very similar in the sense that there’s a larger metta concept that’s looked at from different angles throughout the course of the record. That one had more to do with, I guess, coming to grips with your own mediocrity. Like, dealing with the frustration of your lot in life, not being able to accomplish things you want to accomplish and be in the situations you want to be in. But, again, those songs were all approached from different angles.
So you discuss themes before writing?
Yeah, we usually try to have a theme right when we start writing vocals for the record. The Apologist was weird in the sense that the music for the record was 100 percent done before we started demoing vocals. The record was about 99 percent finished before we even talked about what the themes were. Ressentiment was a little different; I think we had an idea of what we were doing vocally as we went along. But generally speaking, yeah, we try and figure out what that theme is going to be fairly early in the process.
We like there to be some cohesion, we like there to be some sort of narrative thread, even if it’s not super strict, so there’s some relation between the songs, because musically, our songs tend to exist in a pretty big range. Having that lyrical concept that ties everything together is helpful for us.
I hate asking what an artist’s influences are, but East Of The Wall has so many unique aspects, I do find myself wondering where you guys are coming from. So could you narrow it down to a few artists who are most important to the group or who you discuss or listen to most often while practicing or in the van?
Yeah, that’s always a complicated question because I think all of us have some pretty radically different tastes in music. That’s not to say that there aren’t some places where those disparate influences meet up—there certainly are and that’s why it works—but it’s tough to say. I think, in terms of the whole band, everybody in the band loves Converge, we all love Dysrhythmia, those bands have all been important to us.
For me, personally, I’m more of a jazz guy. I tend to draw a lot of influence from Charles Mingus records and John Coltrane and stuff like that. I’ve always been interested in trying to find ways to apply what those guys did melodically to a heavier context.
For the whole band, in general, it’s very all over the place. It’s not, “This band influenced the band.” It’s more, “This band influenced one guy in the band, who brought that influence into the room.” And that’s why, I think, I’ve seen our music described as a kind of a melting pot. And I think that’s fairly accurate. When we’re on tour in the van, shuffling through various people’s iPods, it’s a pretty schizophrenic atmosphere.
What were you listening to before I called you?
I actually did not have music on, but I was about to put on the new Hull record. I absolutely fucking love that band. We’re really excited to be doing some shows with them coming up. Are you familiar with them at all?
Yeah, but I haven’t subjected them to heavy listening.
They’re a tough band to describe. I always think of them as East Of The Wall’s less-dorky cousins. They’re kind of what our band would be if we went a little less progressive and a little more epic doom. I’ve been listening to that record a lot.
A lot of the stuff I listen to, I don’t really have the vocabulary to describe. And I think that’s why I’m gravitating to stuff like that. I like listening to stuff that I don’t really have a frame of reference for.
I think East Of The Wall is that for some people.
That’s good to hear. I take that as a compliment, for sure.
I tend to describe you to people in a sentence.
(Laughs) Right, well that’s good. I don’t want to make music that’s really easy to pin down. It’s challenging to make that kind of music. A lot of our rehearsals are not real pleasant, in terms of writing sessions; they’re very arduous and there’s a lot of debate and a lot of trial and error. But at the end of the day, I think the finishing product is a lot stronger for it.
What do you think is the biggest difference or the biggest sign of growth—if you want to go there—between Ressentiment and The Apologist?
I think the biggest thing is just learning how to use the vocals properly. I think on Ressentiment we were just trying to figure out how we would go about adding vocals to our repertoire. I don’t think they’re necessarily bad, but I just think there was too much vocals on that record. I think on The Apologist we did a much better job of letting the music breathe a little bit. That, to me, is a big thing.
Ressentiment was, at times, kind of intentionally atonal. I think we did a better job of using melody on this record without making it less heavy. To me, those are the big things. It’s very much the same people making the music; it’s just a little bit refined.
I see on your Facebook page, there is a fourth guitarist listed as a member.
Yes, Matt [Lupo], who plays guitar for us, doesn’t tour with us. So the guy, Ray, who’s listed on the website now, started out as a fill-in guy for Matt on the last tour we did [in Fall 2011]. He was basically there to play Matt’s parts so we could actually tour as a five-piece, finally. And after that tour, it just became very obvious—and of course there’s some logistical hurtles to clear—but it was very clear to us that Ray needed to be 100 percent a part of what we were doing, the writing process and all that.
It’s weird, we never made an official announcement or anything like that, per se, but Ray is very much a part of the band, we’re writing with him for the next record, he’s brought some really great songs in that we’re working on. He’s a really incredible musician; he’s a really huge addition to what we do. He’s probably the best guitar player I’ve ever seen in person; he’s completely unbelievable. It’s really a treat to get to share a stage with him every night.
To be honest with you, it’s so new that I’m not 100 percent sure exactly what all this is going to mean ultimately… But there’s some logistical issues to work out. We’re not going to write as a six-piece or a four-guitar band. It’s just not going to happen. There’s still some discussion and debate to be had as to how that’s going to work out exactly. But given everything he’s brought to the table already, we thought it was important to make him officially a part of the band, then wait to figure out all the minute details of it.
How do you achieve such a balanced mix live, having three guitars and all?
We spend a lot of time working on balancing the guitars. To an extent, it resolves itself naturally. We all have different tastes when it comes to guitar tone, and luckily for us, those tones that we individually prefer tend to blend pretty well. The other part of that is the core of the band has been playing together for about 15 years now. Brett, Alfie and Matt have all been playing together in bands since like 1996. Seth [Rheam, drums] has been playing with them since 2004/2005, something like that. I’ve been playing with them since 2006/2007.
A lot of it has to do with the fact that there’s such familiarity with the players, it’s a lot easier to blend because everyone knows what everyone else is going to be doing. We were very lucky when Ray came onboard because, though his guitar tone is very different from Matt’s, it ended up occupying the same space. It was just very seamless.
Honestly, though, the other thing is just the fact that we’re aware of it. A lot of bands who do three guitars, or even just two guitars, say, “To hell with it, I’m gonna make my guitar sound exactly the way I want it to sound, I’m going to turn it up to the volume I want it to be turned up to,” and that’s the end of it. There’s got to be other considerations than your tone meeting 100 percent of your criteria for what you want it to be.
You have to be aware of those things and be willing to be flexible and adjust; compromise to an extent, to make it work within the larger context. I don’t think anything we do is so magical that other bands couldn’t do it as well; I just don’t think they’re as cognizant, really.
East Of The Wall will perform at Brighton Bar in Long Branch, NJ, on March 7 with Hull and Hammerfight. For more information, go to facebook.com/eastofthewall or eastofthewall.com.