To start, can you tell us a little bit about the start of the band? Why are these members the perfect members for Howling Sycamore?
Howling Sycamore is a project that started in June 2016 when I was asked to write guitars for the extreme metal band of an acquaintance. The drum parts for the project were already recorded with defined structures and accents. I was used to writing songs starting from guitar ideas, having only drums to rely on forced me to use a completely different point of view when writing my parts. The material composed pleased both parties but it didn't really fit with the project it was intended for. I felt that the songs could have grown into a much more ambitious project and I decided to use those guitars to start my own band. Reconfiguring the band based on the guitars that I had already written, I thought it was necessary to keep the extreme metal drumming angle but strongly felt that the singing was not supposed to be a screaming or growling style but closer to old school heavy metal. Having the guitar ready, at first it was a matter of finding the right drummer to lay down solid foundations for the songs. After few weeks of scouting, I approached the amazing Hannes Grossmann to play drums on the album. The first time I saw him in action it was 2003 when Ephel Duath shared the stage with Necrophagist at Brutal Assault Festival in Czech Republic. When contacted, Grossmann was excited about the project and ready to learn the material. After a few weeks he started recording at his own studio, Mordor Sounds, in Nuremberg, Germany. Once I got the final drums I wrote the bass parts based on the drums' feel and re-arranged some of the guitar parts. Scott Evans (Antisleep Recording, Oakland, CA) had the idea to contact the ex-Watchtower singer Jason McMaster. I saw McMaster in action years before, when Watchtower and Ephel Duath were in the same bill at the 2004 edition of Holland's Headway Festival. McMaster accepted to sing for the band after listening to a guitar and drums preproduction and recorded his parts at his own home studio. It took approximately a year to record the voice, re-record guitar and bass and mix the album. During this time some special guest musicians had the chance to contribute to the songs: Bruce Lamont (Yakuza, Brain Tentacles) on baritone saxophone, Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia, Gorguts) on guitars, Fester (Burials, Humorous) on guitars.
What kind of bands were you into when you started listening to metal? And what is it that makes metal important to you?
When I started I was into Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera, Sepultura, then I moved towards black and death metal, after that towards prog and experimental music. I guess I'm a fan of metal because I recognize the benefits that listening to it does for me and most of the people that I know are into it. The release that one can easily get listening to metal is not just mental it's also physical. So much aggression gets a way out in a typical circle pit. Even the smallest one. This aggression turns into sweat, laughs and a few bruises. I think it should be prescribed to some people. No need to take an anti- depression pill today, go into a Gojira circle pit for a whole set and let's see how you feel afterwards. People at work can't believe I play such extreme music because I'm, quoting here, "so soft hearted". My answer to them is always the same: "do you think I could be so chill without that music in my life?".
Progressive Metal is a genre that should be limitless in its creativity, but does it really have the bands that really explore the possibilities and expand the boundaries of extreme music? Or is it all a marketing strategy?
Progressive metal music should have bands that push their creativity as further as they feel like. I'm not sure that is happening in recent years, since the media choose Dream Theater to define what is expected from a progressive metal band. As a band Dream Theater evolved adding nuances to their sound, new influences album after album, but a whole genre of music can't have the chance to breathe freely being in the shadow of a single band. If I ask you to tell me which band represents Progressive Rock music at its best, there is such a wider pool of phenomenal bands to choose from. Progressive metal has been a bit stale in comparison. To me what Opeth did with ‘Heritage’ very well represent a progressive mindset. They did what they felt like, changing drastically a sound that was working artistically and economically, without thinking about the possible consequences. They pushed the band to progress, they found a new path and they went for it full force. The result? Well, in recent years I don't remember an album that got so many people upset. Eventually they had the chance to do two follow up albums that got people more comfortable towards their new direction. Kudos to them for going places and trying new approaches.
Where do you get ideas for the lyrics?
Since a few years my lyrics' inspiration comes from shamanism, Buddhist principles and meditation techniques. Often times my lyrics are nothing else but symbolic images that I get through channeling in meditative states. I find the process of writing lyrics extremely liberating: it feels like purging out a part of me on paper. I like my vulnerability to be exposed when I write. I like to look inward and spit out my fears and traces of my subconscious using very graphic images. Here is an example, from the opening song ‘Upended’:
I'm surrounded by ancient memories
Chocked by all the time I let slip away from me
My mouth forced open at the hourglass' bottom
While my feet nervously dig this soil
Stepping on lessons unlearned
In a horrifying spiral of power
That gets stronger the weaker I get
Here is another one, from the song ‘Midway’:
Let me live again my tortures one by one
Till the thought of them will leave me cold
Sing to me the chant of purging
Till my fears will fall like rain
Show me the mountain I walked away from
Bring me in the forest I'm scared of
Chop my fingers and leave me there
I spend a good amount of time writing lyrics, sometime the process takes longer than writing the music itself. I love to write while in nature: in the forest or at the ocean. I push myself to find the words that best express my ideas but also sound the most raw and obscure. I usually start the process of writing lyrics right after having the music done and to write I listen to mantra- like music to get me into an altered/meditative state
How did you get in touch with your label? And do you really need a label these days (with internet and social media) to release your music?
Once I received the album master from the studio I uploaded a few songs in a private SoundCloud link and sent it to few labels I like. Prosthetic Records wrote right away and I ended up signing a three album record deal few days after that. I'm not sure all bands need a label these days. Some people seem to be doing fine independently and when that happens it is just precious to witness. Total control! Kudos to them. My band still needs a label simply because I would not able to deal with the manufacturing, distribution and promotion costs by myself. Without even considering the additional expenses for recording, mixing, mastering and graphic art.
What goals did you set yourself when you started this new band and did you already reach any of them?
The goals I'm setting for the band are little reachable steps that get me going day after day. That mindset is making the whole experience such an exciting ride for me. Nothing too crazy, nothing too far out there: organic growth is what I want for this band. The main goal I had when I started Howling Sycamore was to figure out if the sound that I had in mind for the band (extreme metal drumming, prog/power metal vocals and my low tuned layers guitars) was possible to turn into reality. I checked that off during the preproduction stages: to my ears the songs were working. The next step was to get an album recorded with such a natural vibe to make the songs sounding out of any specific trend from the past years. I wanted the recording to have both an old school vibe and a more modern approach. I think we have achieved that. I wanted to get signed with a good label. Checked that off. I wanted a vinyl release: checked that off too and so on, little steps one after the other. The merchandise with that specific soft t-shirt that I always wanted, this or that design etc...
How do you write your songs? Does it always start with a riff?
As I was saying before, the Howling Sycamore debut started from pre- existing drums parts but generally my music starts from guitar. Sometimes a song can start from as little as three guitar notes. I like to keep my guitar at close distance. Any chance I get I pick it up and let my fingers go. Sometimes I put a good movie on and play guitar while watching. 90% of the time I have to stop the movie to record a new idea that could develop into something interesting. My songs are born from the relationship I have with my instrument, a relationship that I nurture daily. Having my phone around while noodling with my guitar is becoming something quite important. I have the chance to record on the spot my idea and create a second layer of guitar on the fly. Putting riffs together, creating bridges between parts born at different times with different moods, is probably one of the most important ability to have as a songwriter. That specific challenge, to be the best arranger for your own songs, is one of the most rewarding aspect of being a musician to me.
How does the writing compare to your other projects like Ephel Duath? Are there comparisons to be made between the two?
I think both bands were bold in terms of direction and ambition. Structure wise both bands are pretty free, I'd say that few Ephel Duath albums are more frantic than Howling Sycamore but more mid paced in terms of tempo. Howling Sycamore reaches speed and intensity I never got to before. In terms of writing, well, it's still me and it's still is guitar oriented material. I started Howling Sycamore with twenty years of experience being in bands. These days I'm way more into making great songs rather than making a heady guitar part, and I guess you can hear that. My music today is still all over the place and a melting pot of different influences like Ephel Duath's was but it's somehow more approachable. I guess that aging made my mindset changed a bit: I feel more focused and centered and I don't feel anymore the need to prove something, I just play and let go.
With vocalist Jason MacMaster you have a guy with a very specific sound. What makes him the best choice for Howling Sycamore and can you describe the influence Watchtower had on the progressive metal scene?
I feel that Jason's timbre match perfectly with the adventurous spirit of Howling Sycamore. His twisted parts showcase such passion, intensity and grit: they speak straight to the heart to me. He can go from a mellow chant to a full high pitched freak out so effortlessly. Jason is a rock metal warrior. His voice's attitude and commanding presence was gained performing on stage for the past few decades: Jason vocals are the result of a life dedicated to heavy metal music. Watchtower have so much talent and potential, it's heartbreaking that they never reached the success they deserved. I consider Ron Jarzombek one of the best (and craziest) guitar player in metal music. Ever. Few years back I considered flying to Texas to get lessons from him. I have so much respect for his humble but bizarre approach to guitar. He's a real underground legend and a great guitar teacher too I've heard. I like the last EP they recently released, I wish they were more active. So many great bands were influenced by Watchtower!
Who would be your main five musical influences?
I guess some of my influences nowadays are not that easy to detect in the music I make. The heavy bands that I listen right now, the one that I'm crazy for, are Eyehategod, Sumac, YOB and Pallbearer. I feel that my guitar style born from a combination of King Crimson, Death, early Katatonia and post rock as a genre on itself.
If you could call in any one collaborator to do a song with, dead or alive, who would it be?
I would love to do a soundtrack together with composer Gustavo Santaolalla. He's able to melt my heart using only four notes on a broken sounding guitar. Not even David Gilmour has the same effect on me.
Nowadays, metal is always produced in a more or less clinical way with ProTools and other programs helping bands to create a slick sound. On the other hand you see that about every band releases vinyl again. Where do you see music go in the near future? Will vinyl take over again, including a more organic production?
I like the point you are making. The digital element in today's metal production is getting more and more evident, at the same time we are returning to more analogue solutions in terms of formats.
I surely hope that vinyl will take over and I hope that it would push musicians to opt for a more organic production, especially for what concerning drums: not just in terms of sound, which could be a matter of taste, but for what concern dynamics and quantization too. Most popular albums today have drums so very compressed that the lack of dynamic in it ruins the whole listening experience for me.
I would love for huge bands to start to break this pattern. Take that new Megadeth record for example. Musically there is a clear return to some trash metal roots, the new album reminds me in some elements of ‘Rust In Peace’, but I feel that that drum sound couldn't be any further from the spirit that a trash metal drummer's sound should have. What if those drums where more natural sounding and mixed a tiny bit more into the music? Maybe that would influence a thousand young band that look up to Megadeth to do the same.
What makes music progressive? Is it just combining different styles of music or from different periods in time or is there more to it?
Progressive music to me is a melting pot of different influences, featuring wide open song structure, no rules to follow and no boundaries of any kind. Forcing a band to fit in a unique genre could feel limiting for some. Progressive music gives to a musician the chance to go with the flow and exhaust any artistic itch one may have.
Are there any non-metal bands that you like and can recommend?
I'll limit my answer to active bands: Zu, Swans, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Wardruna, Om. All these bands are paving their own path, they have their own sound and they are pushing themselves release after release. I look up to band like these, listening to them is inspiring and push me to be adventurous in my compositions.
How would you convince the pope to listen to your music?
I would try to get him tipsy and only then I'd press play.
When will you be playing live shows to promote the new album?
I'm working on it. Due to logistic reasons it's a big investment to play live for a band like Howling Sycamore, whose members are so spread out. At the moment, we can consider to play live only for special events or situations that offer us the right economic conditions to put up a great show.