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Self-proclaimed caveman battle-doomers Conan are currently marauding their way through the US in promotion of their third release, Revengeance, which sees the UK band on their finest and heaviest form yet. A few weeks ago Peter Meinertzhagen caught up with singer, guitarist, and founder, Jon Davis in the run up to Revengeance’s release and before they hit the road.
(((o))): How are you feeling about the release of your new album, Revengeance?
Jon: I’m really excited. We’re in that phase now where there’s press happening all the time and you’re seeing people’s reviews of the album. That’s cool because you get a bit of feedback off everyone. It’s all online and the frustrating thing is that you can’t go play it yet because we’re not touring until March and we’re really keen to get out on the road and tour and that’s when the real pay off is because we get to play these songs live.
(((o))): How are you finding the press coverage this time around compared to your previous two releases?
Jon: We’re definitely getting more attention. If you go back to Monnos, that was released on Burning World Records, and obviously, as these things go, your first releases tend not to get so much attention. We got a few interviews and a few reviews, but not too much orchestrated press. This time around, and with Blood Eagle actually, we had moved over to Napalm Records who have three different teams looking after the press worldwide. So naturally, there’s going to be more press. Blood Eagle press coverage was intense, I expected the same off this one and I’ve not been disappointed.
(((o))): It’s fair to say that Conan’s name is well established in the UK. How are you finding it worldwide, in the US and beyond?
Jon: Well it’s really awesome. It’s kind of like, not surprising, but at the same time it makes me feel bit “wow, people know about us right across the world”. It’s crazy to think about really, especially considering how we started out. I guess that’s because we’re pretty modest, we don’t consider ourselves to be worthy of playing on the international stage but at the same time we’re going to grab the opportunity with both hands and give it everything that we’ve got. It’s really enjoyable playing live and touring especially when you get the opportunity to go to America or Australia or Europe.
(((o))): You’ve got a few US dates coming up this year, haven’t you?
Jon: Yeah, in March, we go over to America for almost a whole month and we’re really excited about that, it’s going to be a very good time. We went there in May last year, and we may be going to Australia this year. So we’re really getting to tour a lot and that’s definitely how we like it. We want to be getting on tour which allows us to get this album out there and promote it as best we can.
(((o))): What about the UK?
Jon: We’ve got a UK tour booked for April, about 10 or 11 shows. At the end of April we’ve got Desertfest in London and in June we’re playing in Leicester, so yeah we’ve got a handful. There aren’t that many places you can play in England, good venues worth playing. We just want to play as many places as we can and make sure that we get out there. We’ll have people that are into us and if they live in a small town you still need to go and play for them, it doesn’t matter if they don’t live in London. It’s important to keep spreading it to those hard to reach places.
(((o))): Are you finding that the size of venue you’re playing in is getting bigger too?
Jon: In some places, yeah, I’d say so. Like in London we headlined The Underworld. It wasn’t sold out by any means, but the next stage after that, we can start thinking about bigger venues in London. In Glasgow there’s Ivory Blacks or Audio, and in Edinburgh Bannerman’s. So we’re already playing in decent places in the cities that we play. It’s also about playing the venues that you want to play in so in Manchester there are maybe venus bigger than the The Star & Garter, but I don’t want to play anywhere else apart from The Star & Garter because I think it’s a great venue.
(((o))): The reviews have been coming in and they’ve been overwhelming positive so far. Are you pleased with the response you’ve been getting?
Jon: Oh yeah totally, the reviews have been universally positive so thats good. I don’t really like it when people score your album out of ten, I’d rather they just reviewed it and say what they liked or didn’t like – I like that style of review, rather than saying “it’s a 9, but it could have been a 10 if they’d have done this”. We’ve not had any stinkers, but I’m sure we’ll get one or two, there’s bound to be someone who doesn’t like us. Because occasionally, they’ll give the review to the wrong person and they’ll be like “I totally hate this sort of music”, but they’ll still do the review, and I find that a bit silly. But, we’re ready for that.
I think part of being in a band, one side of it, is if you’re going to be excited about good reviews you’ve got to accept some bad ones too. I try and look at both types of review with the same mind set and think “that’s your opinion”. But, I don’t believe I’ve ever checked a band out after reading the review and thinking “oh, I must get that”. I always tend to find out about bands through word of mouth. So I don’t think reading a review is automatically the best way to find out about new bands. I always look at it from word of mouth and if people are talking about you. Because a lot of the time, people are reviewing your album because they’ve been sent it by the record label, so of course they have to review it, so sometimes their opinion of the album won’t necessarily be 100% impartial, though always well meant. So I always go off mouth of mouth when listening to new music. I find that a much more reliable way to judge a band’s worth.
(((o))): Now that we’re able to access almost every album imaginable through streaming services like Spotify, do you think this helps or hinders word of mouth recommendations?
Jon: I think it’s better now because social media enables music, good and bad, to get out there and thats healthy because whether a band is good or not I think it’s really healthy for people to create something. I think too many people in this world don’t create anything and go through life consuming stuff. You can’t say anything negative about a band who are having a go, even if people don’t think that they’re that good. I think it’s good for the human spirit to just try things like that.
I’m only 39, it’s not like I’m an expert on music history or anything, but when I was younger, I would discover bands through magazines like Metal Hammer or Kerrang. Or I’d be going to my local record store and I’d pick up a tape or something and show my friends in school and say “have you heard this Iron Maidon album Power Slave, it’s amazing!”. Thats how I discovered bands growing up. The internet now and social media is a much broader way of learning about new bands.
(((o))): Did you try and approach Revengeance any differently from your previous releases?
Jon: Well, it was a little bit different this time because we had a whole new band. Paul, our drummer, we had to let him go in September 2014 so of course it seems like ages ago for us, but this is our first release since the he left and Chris joined us in January that same year. So yeah, we did do things slightly differently to what we did on Blood Eagle, but by the time we came to record these songs it didn’t feel like it was any big new thing because Chris, Rich and I had been touring together several times already. We’d done a US tour, we’ve been over to Europe a few times, played a few UK dates. So really, even though to people buying the album it looks like a whole new lineup it didn’t feel like that to us at all. We recorded this in September 2015 and we’d already been together as band for 12 months by that point. We already had the chemistry. So writing the album came naturally.
(((o))): What’s your approach to songwriting?
Jon: A tiny fraction of it is being on tour and coming up with ideas and jotting them down or recording them through a voice recorder on our phones. But, generally speaking, it’ll be when we’re in the studio together as it was on this album. The title track off the album actually came together when we played in the first ever writing session that we had in the studio. We started playing that song and carried on with it and ended up writing that song, more or less, in the first hour or two. In the past I would record stuff with my guitar amplifier at home, coming up with demos in one of the rooms in my house, but for this new album it was almost entirely written in the studio while we were jamming or having proper structured writing sessions. A totally new approach in that respect. It was really rewarding and productive, we didn’t waste much time.
(((o))): How do you approach the theme and subject matter for the songs and lyrics?
Jon: Well really I’ve always had this bottomless pit of influences and material, basically the themes on this album are pretty much the same as on Blood Eagle. I’d just delve into my mind and just think about computer games that I like or themes in movies.
Maybe there’s a couple of slight differences on this album. We don’t normally write about the real world, but we sort of half did on a couple of songs like ‘Thunderhoof’ and, as any who knows us, that was the name that we gave to our first tour bus. That might sound really childish, but it was just a little joke we gave our first bus, this big old Mercedes Sprinter and we thought it’d be cool to use the analogy of a warhorse carrying us into battle. And the song ‘Thunderhoof’, if you read into the lyrics, you can draw some parallels with this big majestic tour bus. And the track ‘Revengeance’ is a bit like just how empty the world can look sometimes if you look at it in a certain way and just about how little we all actually count for in the whole scheme of things. There was one day, just sat in a coffee shop, I thought I could write something really despondent on this track, but kind of make it about this really dark era and dark time in the dim and distant past. Really it’s probably about the current state of affairs. But again, I never will write about politics so I’d never make that obvious but you can draw some parallels with the lyrics in that song to modern day politics. I’d never want to ever force my opinion on people because I’m the last person to talk to about that sort of thing.
The rest of it is almost classic Conan lyrically. Writing about fantasy and sword and sorcery and sci-fi.
(((o))): I guess no matter what you try, you can’t keep what’s going on around you from seeping into your lyrics.
Jon: That’s true. Just because you’re in a band that writes about swords and minotaurs and barbarians doesn’t mean I haven’t got one eye on the real world. I’m not really interested in writing songs about the real world, but it just kind of happened that the lyrics of ‘Revengeance’ came out, and they rhymed well and flowed well, and they felt good while singing it, so I thought “okay, I’ll just let that stick” and it worked. But we try not to write about the real world – we’re not Eyehategod, Coldplay, U2, or anything like that. We’ll just keep doing what we do.
(((o))): Where did the “Conan” idea come from initially?
Jon: I’ve been in bands since I was 17/18, and I’d always written songs about the pain of a girl not fancying you anymore, basically all the songs I used to write were the same sort of stuff Ash would write or the Foo Fighters or Nirvana. Over time, the music I was listening to started to become a little bit more heavy, more riffy, and a bit more like Fu Manchu. And then I discovered fuzz pedals, Slomatics, Fudge Tunnels, High on Fire, and started thinking I could change my approach by starting to write these slow, heavy songs that didn’t really focus on the real world and I could just shout my head off about any old rubbish and that’s how it was at first.
The very first song we ever wrote, ‘Krull’, had lyrics that were just the most simple thing ever and ‘Battle in the Swamp’ had lyrics that were so bad, but so good at the same time, and it just kind of came from there. Those first three songs – ‘Satsumo’, ‘Krull’, and ‘Battle in the Swamp’ – they were the first songs we ever wrote as Conan and I just wanted to continue that trend of writing simple heavy music that isn’t trying to pass on some sort of message. I’m not trying to think about myself or even anyone else, I just wanted to sing about cool things like computer games and sword fights and, alright, it’s gotten a little bit more sophisticated since then I’m glad to say but that’s basically how it is. I just wanted to get all these things off my chest. I’ve still got the desire to do that now and it’s really fun to write this stuff.
(((o))): There’s been something of a resurgence in the popularity of doom metal over the past few years. What do you think’s contributed to this and what do you think of the current doom scene?
Jon: Well, I think it’s relatively easy to play. If you look at most of the underground bands in the UK, ourselves included, the music that we play isn’t hard to play therefore it’s quite accessible for other people to get into. Bands who are starting out will naturally gravitate towards this sort of music and it’s quite a cathartic experience to turn your amps up really loud and just play one note for an hour. It’s an easy passage into the world of playing in bands.
Compared to when I started, there’s lots of opportunities for this sort of music because it is popular and people are putting on shows for it so there’s lots and lots of opportunities for bands to play. You’ve got more bands touring so you’ve got more smaller bands wanting to support these bigger bands. Some of those smaller bands will gain momentum and make it big themselves and start headlining their own tours, and it’s just a very active scene at the moment.
When Conan started it was 2005/2006 and I didn’t know anything about this scene. I didn’t know who YOB were, I didn’t know who High on Fire or Sleep were, I didn’t know any of these bands, Slomatics included. But then I discovered Slomatics through a friend who sells fuzz pedals and fell in love with their sound, wanted to sound just like them, and got a similar fuzz pedal and away I went, and I think a lot of people have a similar story. They stumbled upon a cool band and went with it. I think there s a lot of organic growth within this sort of music. I think it’s really healthy. I drive bands for a living so I see how inorganic, if that’s the right word, other types of music are.
(((o))): What would you say you’re most proud of with this new release?
Jon: I’m particularly please with Rich’s drumming. He’s brought an aggression to the band which I think [before] wasn’t there in the same way. He has contributed a lot to the songwriting process which perhaps hasn’t happened in the past. Him, Chris and myself have really complemented each other well in the studio. The writing for this album was really cohesive, a real team effort, which perhaps hasn’t been the case in the past. As a result, the songs feel more lived in even though we haven’t toured yet.
I can’t stop listening to the album which is always a big plus, I am really enjoying it. If I was a fan of Conan, I mean I am, but if I were just a fan of Conan then I’d really enjoy listening to this. I think there’s enough there to attract new people to this sort of music and our music in particular. There’s a few more twists and turns on this album, more tempo changes.
I like Chris’s bass sound and the production overall has been really good, it sounds a lot bigger, a lot more of a wider sonic palette. The vocals sound a lot cooler, and this has been mentioned in a couple of reviews, the vocals do have a bigger impact on this album. They sound a lot more like they do live where as in the past my voice has sounded a little bit thin and a little bit like a girl shouting. Now, they’ve taken on a bit more muscle and they’re a bit more front and centre which I was hoping for and that’s been a really pleasing aspect of it. I think the fact we wrote it all together as a team of three was really good this time.
(((o))): Thanks Jon for your time. See you at Desertfest!
Upcoming Conan UK tour poster and dates: