Slomatics are a heavy doom band from Belfast, Northern Ireland who have been building a strong reputation in the Irish and British doom scenes. They will release their latest album Estron next month (see our review here), so John Dickie asked the band a bunch of questions in the lead up to the release.
(((o))): How's it going lads?
David: Great thanks. Just sitting here mapping out our plans for 2014 as it happens.
(((o))): Estron will be out soon, how are you all feeling about its release?
David: Really excited. I’m sure all bands say that, but we really think this record is a step up for the band, and is probably the first release we’ll have put out where there’s literally nothing we’d like to change. Also, I can’t deny that holding that slab of vinyl with the artwork and all is a pretty good feeling, and definitely a real reward. We’ll be interested to see how it’s received too, we’re not a new band at all so it’s always interesting to see if other folk get where we’re trying to go. Feedback so far has been great.
(((o))): What did you guys want Estron to sound like and were you happy/surprised with the end product?
David: We wanted it to sound as big as possible, and to be something that had layers to the sound. I always like it when I hear different things the more I listen to a record and hopefully there’s a bit of that on Estron. We definitely wanted to keep the heaviness of the guitars, but to be able to have enough clarity that the melodies were still there. We use synths live, but with Marty being a singer/drummer/synth player it’s harder for him to do it all at once, so in the studio we were able to indulge that side of things way more. There was a piano in the studio which we ended up using a lot too. We spent a lot of time mixing it, and made quite a few changes to the original mix which isn’t like us, but hopefully it has paid off. We’re really happy with the end result – this is probably the first recording we’ve been completely satisfied with, although I’m sure in a few months we’ll spot bits we’d like to change.
(((o))): Estron is a concept album, could you tell us about the story the album follows?
Yes, it most certainly is a concept album! We have the story clearly and completely mapped out, in fact we’ve planned this one since A Hocht. The aim was to write three records in a row which were linked thematically and were like three chapters of the same concept. The lyrics and the structure of the record are hopefully pretty clear, but the thing is we don’t want to spell anything out for the listener. I know that sounds like a cop out, but the sequencing of the album was really important and deliberate, in order to tell the story. We really want people to take their own interpretation from it, or at least hopefully feel like it takes them on a journey. The narrative of the record is an analogy for the wider theme of where we are now as a race, and the questions which we have to address as a result of the way we’ve chosen to be. Even as I write this I’m aware of how pretentious it sounds, but as a band it’s something we felt we wanted to do. A couple of the reviews have picked up what we were getting at, so hopefully it works on some levels at least. Estron is meant to be listened to as one piece, it’s not a random collection of songs – we’d toyed with the idea of mastering it as one 40 minute song actually. I know this isn’t really answering your question, sorry!
(((o))): The artwork again is mind blowing. Tell us about the artist and your working relationship with him.
David: The art was handled again by Tony Roberts, who has done two of our last three, dating back to the Conan split. We hooked up with him through Jon and the Conan lads, although I was aware of his work with Electric Wizard in the past. Tony’s great to work with. All the communication is online which was initially a bit weird for us, but it actually works really well. We sent him ideas as the record was being written, and explained the concept behind the songs, and what we hoped to capture. Marty sent him all the lyrics, and we sent some very rough demos of basic sketches of the songs too. He’s an interesting guy because he doesn’t say much, he just sort of gets on with it, and works really quickly too. He’ll send us a first sketch, just to make sure we’re into the concept, but from there on it’s really all about his interpretation of the ideas. He had the unmastered recording, and in about a week had produced the final artwork. Honestly, when we saw the art we were floored, it just perfectly encapsulates what we were going for, which felt really great. We’re very much into collaboration, and like that Tony has his own approach in there – we definitely wouldn’t want to tell him exactly what we want or anything, which would feel like insulting him. Artwork is a really important part of the whole thing too, not only from an artistic perspective, but also for the consumer – vinyl in particular isn’t cheap so we want to come up with something that’s interesting to look at and is part of the whole package.
(((o))): Is it true The Dubliners were Ireland's first doom band?
David: I think that they could have been – the beards, age/social demographic, alcohol intake and general demeanour would have been a big advantage, but I think the problem came with trying to detune the banjos. Or plugging them into a fuzzbox. So really, it was just equipment that let those lads down, shame.
(((o))): You guys seem to still be pretty underground, like one of those secret bands people cherish; do you see Estron elevating you guys higher in the metal scene?
David: In a word, no! The longer we do this, the more apparent it becomes that there’s a lot more to being bigger than just the music, and to be honest, we’re not interested in any of that stuff. I mean, of course it’d be great to play to bigger venues, and sell more shirts, but really we’re pretty content with where we are, and we do ok. I like going to small gigs, and I like playing them too. We’re extremely grateful to be where we are, and considering how many bands never survive beyond the practice room or a couple of gigs I think we’ve achieved a lot. Our roots are firmly in the DIY scene, and those values are too ingrained at this point to be lost. We’ve been recommended to use PR people and stuff like that (which I understand folk who do this full time probably need to do), but for us that just seems weird. I think this sort of music probably has a limited appeal, and that the “scene” is very much saturated already, so I’m not sure it’s really possible anyway. We’d certainly like to be playing some of the festivals, and getting overseas more, but we’re not about to start begging people to put us on. When the band started the aim was to write a good set, play some shows and record a 7 inch. Everything we’ve done since has just been a huge bonus. The fact that anyone at all is interested in our stuff still blows us away to be honest, we sent stuff to Japan last week which is absolutely mad, some guy on the other side of the world wanted to hear something we recorded in Belfast.
All that being said, if the heavy rock world suddenly shows a demand for three 40 year olds playing down-tuned Hawkwind worship at unnecessarily high volume, then we’re right here!! If more folk got into it through Estron that would be great of course, anyone who puts out music and pretends not to care whether anyone hears it or not is fooling themselves. Plus, there’s no denying it’s a good thing to be able to sell records, particularly when labels are putting their money into it!
(((o))): Plotkin produces again, how did you feel after hearing the finished master?
Actually James mastered the recording, but the actual engineering was done here in Belfast by Rocky O’Reilly at Start Together studios. We’re always quick workers on the recording part, a couple of days does the actual playing, but this time we spent longer mixing than usual, and were really painstaking in getting the details just right. We were really happy with the unmastered recordings, but of course James adds a gloss to the whole thing which really lifts it all up. He’s a real perfectionist and incredibly good at what he does. Nice guy too. There were a few slight changes this time, like having the vocals slightly higher, and we’re dead happy with how it sounds. We always try to listen to it on different systems to make sure it’s spot on, and this one passed the test everywhere we tried it, so that was good. I only started playing music quite late, after years of not being able to get beyond two chords, so it’s still a class feeling to listen back to a “proper” studio recording and think “ I did that” – I guess everyone who plays in a band feels the same.
Photo by Sandy Carson
(((o))): What is the alternative music scene in Belfast like?
It’s good, and to be honest always has been. There’s quite a lot going on, and given the size of the city I think there’s more than our fair share of great bands. Stuff like Hornets, Maw, Pigs as People, the Bonnevilles and Zlatanera, all very different bands but all really great. There’s a really surprising amount of doom/sludge/whatever coming through too, with bands like Nomadic Rituals and Tome playing great shows. It’s funny, we’re now the older generation of heavy stuff, dinosaurs already! In the industrial estate where we practice, you hear an amazing amount of heavy riffs coming from just about every unit. I guess there’s the usual complaints, we could do with more smaller venues, there’s not as much mixing between scenes as would be possible, and there’s no real link between music and the wider art scene, but overall if I want to see a gig any weekend there are usually a few good things going on. We’ve a great studio here with Start Together, and the Oh Yeah centre does a lot to promote local, young bands. There are a couple of rock solid promoters who do a great job. Belfast has always been like that though, I’ve been going to shows for over 20 years and although it’s been a bit up and down, there’s never been a shortage of good stuff to see.
(((o))): What kind of gear did you guys use while making Estron?
We’ve used the same gear for quite a while now. We’re definitely gear-freaks, when it comes to guitars Chris and I spend too much of our time discussing the merits of different types of strings/valves/pickups and all that, but it’s half the fun for us. Marty’s as bad, he custom ordered his kit from England to be built to the exact specification of the kit John Bonham used at Madison Square Gardens, which says it all really. This time round we used our Matamp 120s for pretty much everything, although Chris used an old Ampeg 8x10 too, after seeing Tobin from Ommadon use one in the summer. I used a Mesa in a couple of places too to add some high end stuff, the Matamps tend to be really bassy so we’re careful to try and balance that a bit. We use a variety of fuzz boxes, stuff like DAM, Dunwich, Eldritch, and a combination of analog and digital delays on guitar too. Chris plays a Les Paul, I use an SG, but both guitars have been completely rebuilt with different stuff, the only original parts are the wood. Obviously we know more about this guitar business than Gibson, ha! Marty has started using synths more live too, and we got to use really cool stuff in the studio like Moog Voyagers and Farfisa organs. We like to improvise where we can too, and Marty found a piano in the studio which we ended up using quite a lot. Overall though I think we used less gear than last time, we just knew exactly what we were doing before we hit the studio.
(((o))): I love that word, Estron. It's pure sci fi. What does it mean? Who came up with it?
David: It’s actually a Welsh word, and means stranger, alien or foreigner. Our guitarist is Welsh, and I think he was getting tired of the Irish titles! We had planned out the record and were talking about how it would be for humans to be the outsiders, or to be newly introduced somewhere and be trying to become established. A sort of the reversal of the food chain or whatever. My wife actually had the idea for the title, and we liked the sound of the word, it’s not specific or cliché, and doesn’t have any particular connotation. And yeah, having grown up as sci-fi nerds it definitely fulfilled our inner space travel fantasies! It became an integral part of the concept, a real focus. We started talking about it as if it was real. Seriously, the conversations we as three middle aged men were getting into were not ones we’d want anyone outside of the practice room to have to endure!
David: Not as such. We’re all working full time, and have young families, so as much fun as a couple of weeks on the road would be, it’s just not possible. We’ll get away and play two/three night runs though. At the moment we’re arranging Scottish dates with the Headless Kross guys, shows around Ireland in places we’ve not played in a while, and we’re looking at English shows too. Chris is Welsh and has always wanted to play Cardiff, so that might happen this year too. We’d wanted to get across to mainland Europe again, so hopefully we’ll work something out. This aim is definitely to play places we’ve not been before.
(((o))): Where can the readers buy Estron?
David: Vinyl is direct from Head of Crom records. We’ll have copies ourselves but they’re spoken for already. CD is on Burning World Records, so it’s available direct from them, they also have great distribution so it’ll be on Amazon and all the mainstream outlets too. There’s a limited cassette release this time too which we’re dead excited about, it’s direct from Tartarus Records. We’ll have CD copies and shirts at shows and through our Bandcamp too.
(((o))): What bands inspired Estron?
David: That’s a long list alright. I wouldn’t say we ever sit down and think “we’ll write one that sounds like Harvey Milk”, but of course we’re a product of the stuff we like. So I guess the usual diet of Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, Amon Duul II, the Melvins, Floor, Gore, Black Flag, all that stuff. I was listening to a lot of Kraftwerk and Neu, and electronic stuff like the Drokk soundtrack quite a bit when we were writing, so maybe some of the monotony/simplicity of those records rubbed off a bit too. Bands we play with are always an inspiration too, stuff like Ommadon, Headless Kross and Wild Rocket really blew us away last year so we probably stole a few tricks there too.
(((o))): What are your thoughts on the lack of females or ethnic doom bands in the whole scene?
David: I think it’s a shame, as anything which brings a bit of variety in terms of approach is going to be a good thing. I mean, of course a woman can have the same musical approach as a man, but I think there are probably subtleties which can only add something different. That’s a dissertation in itself, I mean it’s down to the whole range of social/cultural/historical factors, there’s no straight answer. There’s definitely a degree of sexism, or at least gender inequality, in doom which is less apparent in indie rock or whatever. I think that’s partly as doom is a sub-genre of metal, which of course has a dodgy enough record when it comes to sexism. The ethnic thing is harder to pin down, I suppose it’s linked to cultural factors but still a bit hard to understand. It is encouraging to see bands like Boris though, where Wata being a Japanese female is barely even remarked upon, or newer bands like Windhand where the female element is actually seen as a strength. It would be nice to see things change, but I’m not sure they will, and it’s encouraging that when women or people from different backgrounds do attend shows, there doesn’t seem to be any issue.