Who is and isn’t in the band is kind of blurry, we’re kind of just a big group of musicians who will work on each other’s projects a lot. I knew that I wanted to write for a traditional band plus some other bits and pieces, but when it came to making the record, it was just like “I’m making new songs and they need these instruments so who do I know who can play them?"
Since the release of their album, Hostile Architecture, I have become a massive fan of Scottish, maximalist pulverisers Ashenspire. You may have seen my review of the album but, if not check it out here.
This collective has easily become one of my favourite musical discoveries in recent years and are certainly the band I’m currently most excited about. So, I arranged an interview with head honcho Alasdair Dunn to try and get more info about the album and Ashenspire themselves.
E&D: Could you start by talking us through the line-up and how it came together?
AD: I suppose with regards to the line-up, the fact that we ended up with so many people, is kind of just a product of me writing for too many instruments. Who is and isn’t in the band is kind of blurry, we’re kind of just a big group of musicians who will work on each other’s projects a lot. I knew that I wanted to write for a traditional band plus some other bits and pieces, but when it came to making the record, it was just like “I’m making new songs and they need these instruments so who do I know who can play them?” It’s pretty fluid who plays at the gigs and so on. In fact, the band who are in the photos haven’t played a gig together. There’s me and Fraser, who’ve been in the band since the beginning; there’s James, who plays violin; he’s been in since the beginning as well, Rylan does live vocals and wrote ‘How The Mighty Have Vision’, he’s a professional composer and very prolific, so it was great to have him involved as well. Scott McLean is another crucial figure – he’s been on every Ashenspire recording in some way and on this last album, he was producing, mixing and recording it. He did some stuff with Rhodes and Prepared Piano and plays guitar live. Ben is playing bass, he’s an interesting one because with 6 days of recording left on the album, without a bassist, Ben stepped in and made the album happen without having heard it before. Ben, Scott and I did a few shows together a while back as Falloch and obviously, they’re still doing that project, so it’s really cool to have them be a part of this as well. Matthew, the sax player is James’ brother, so he was eager, able, and they have a great dynamic already. Amaya is a friend who has her own super cool darkwave project, Maud the Moth. When we were trying to make a vocal quartet for ‘How the Mighty Have Vision’ where Amaya was gonna be soprano and Rylan was gonna be tenor, but the alto and the bass pulled out at the last minute because of covid, so we had to make do and they became the entire quartet! Is there anyone I’m missing? There’s so many people! I love working with all my friends though. It’s wonderful to have some many competent and professional and creative people around you to make music with…
E&D: I totally understand that. I love the contrast of making something that is extremely fucking bleak and intense but, very cathartic and at the same time having this massive wholesome energy in the project where everyone is just really lovely friends who are very nice.
AD: Well, it’s because you’re all feeling something earnest, and you’re feeling it together and that group catharsis is really quite powerful and profound.
E&D: When you talk about writing the album, are you writing the core of each song and then bringing people in to play a part that you direct or did they just bring a part and you sign off on it if it fits or are you writing a part in their style and they’re finessing it?
AD: All but two songs on the album I wrote alone. With a couple of them, we were able to play them a little bit before the pandemic hit, but for most of it, it was like: “here’s the music, go away and learn it cause then we’re going into the studio, so hopefully you’ll have learned it”. Rylan composed ‘How the Mighty Have Vision’, and as a professional in that field he does so in a very academic fashion. He’ll engrave the whole thing on Sibelius, then you go away and learn your part. Scott wrote ‘Béton Brut’; he played it, demoed it and filmed it and then people learned their parts from that. I learnt mine through ear. With everything else, I recognise that my expertise lies in drums and beyond that I have to rely on my musicians to bring to the table what is the best way to play or interpret what I’ve written in a physically sensible way. I’ve written parts that are not possible to play and that’s purely because I’m not a guitarist. My bass writing could probably use a bit of work, but that wasn’t a problem on this album at all, as Ben created it on the spot for the most part; it’s brilliant that he just responded to the song and it all fits. A lot of the bits that I love are bits that I didn’t write with people – just bringing their expertise to the fore. I suppose, in the studio, I’ve given the music over and people are going in to work with Scott on their own, and they’ll work together to create the best thing for the music. When I come in to listen to what’s been done at the end of the day, it’s almost always better than what I’d had written. It’s perfect. I think it’s really important to have the conversational relationship between performers and elements of the music when you’re working with an ensemble or group because otherwise it’s really boring. I don’t want them to be performance robots, I want them to be human beings. Ideally, everyone brings something to the table.
E&D: So, when you talk about Rylan writing using Sibelius, using software to compose like someone would have on a piece of parchment hundreds of years ago and Scott’s making videos. Are you doing it on paper or Sibelius or using a DAW like Ableton or Logic, how are you doing it?
AD: I use a free version of GuitarPro called TuxGuitar.
E&D: I actually know that software! When I first started learning to play guitar, I had a big collection of Joy Division songs I learnt on there!
AD: It’s remarkable, it’s so limited, but I’m so used to it that it works. With our next record, I’d like to work more between TG and Reaper because I’ve gotten better with that, and the textural component of the next record of all the sounds of everything are gonna be very important, I think. I’m expanding in the way I write but yeah, historically it’s always been TuxGuitar.
E&D: So, when you say you’ve written something that’s impossible to play is that like basically black midi where you’ve written parts that obviously cannot be played, have you ever spread that across multiple guitarists instead?
AD: Not quite, where things become impossible for me is, for example, transitioning between chords. I’m writing the guitar as numbers on the screen, it’s not always possible to make that playable for a guitarist moving up and down the guitar, maybe there’s an easier way of achieving the same thing. My writing also has a number of complex counting patterns which can prove awkward or unintuitive because it doesn’t always follow a particularly obvious pattern. It’s a pattern that makes sense to me, particularly the end of ‘Tragic Heroin’ or ‘Apathy’, the counting at the end of those is odd, more annoying than impossible. I don’t go with the black midi of notes upon notes. Although it’s something that is still being refined, at its core the music that I write is a form of communication with the musicians. So, throwing them into a mess would be really unhelpful. That said, Rylan is experimenting with graphic scores and I think that might be a useful tool when working, for example, with saxophones – “Follow this line and interpret it as you see fit!”
E&D: I love the pacing of the record because it feels very natural and I think when you break free of these conventions you’re able to connect closer with a more instinctive and emotional form of expression. Whereas, a lot of the time people think it needs to be in a three or a four or perhaps, it needs to be regimented even if it’s unusual so, that it’s more logical or easier to follow. Sometimes what we’re trying to express is not logical or easy to follow. Sometimes, it’s chaotic and reckless but, I understand how it complicates the performance. Back on topic, how long did it take you to get the album together as a written piece of music before you went into the studio?
AD: It was a slow process. I only write when the inclination takes me. Rylan and Scott got their stuff together pretty quickly but, for me… the first song I wrote was ‘Persephone’ and that was back in 2018 or maybe 2019…Then after that was ‘Tragic Heroin’, which was summer 2019. Then I started getting them together pretty sharpish after that.
E&D: So after we went into lockdown? How did that effect your process?
AD: Well, I wrote a lot after that. I’m a teacher, so my time is constrained to certain hours and usually come home pretty exhausted; writing is not usually the sort of thing that happens when you’re low on energy. So, I was able to set up the work for the kids at the start of the week and have tutorials with them at the end of the week and the rest of the time I was able to focus on music. That initial period of lockdown was good for making music but after that less so; the various lockdowns ended up slowing the production and preventing us from playing anything bar ‘Persephone’ and ‘Tragic Heroin’ together. It was a gamble to proceed with the record, but I think it paid off. The songs probably would have benefitted from being able to play them together, but I can’t complain.
E&D: As a lyricist, do you write to the music or do you attach what you have written to the music you’re working on at the time?
AD: It’s definitely a symbiotic process. Usually words come to me out of the blue, usually on walks at night. I write down words and phrases when they appear and then later I’ll go “that’ll be a song”. Then eventually, I find where they fit the music and sometimes the music will get changed to fit the lyrics, sometimes the lyrics will get changed to fit the music – usually it’s the latter because where the lyrics fit can be quite flexible. With the style I approach things with, as a drummer, I love the rhythm of words so, they often automatically fit somewhere in the music I’ve been writing. I don’t specifically set the lyrics to the music or the music to the words. They’re both just there, and I know what sections of the song which words will go in and it’s a case of listening to the songs a lot and talking the words through to myself and then going to the studio with it.
E&D: Do you have somewhere a bunch of different sets of lyrics and do you have an instrumental version of the song and you figure out which fits the music the best and you adjust to make the chosen words fit the song?
AD: That sounds about right but, it’s fluid and they’re in conversation. Sometimes you need to add bits or take bits away.
E&D: Your lyrics are excellent. I love them. It’s a brilliant part of the album. Every time I listen to the album with someone, cause I’ve showed it to a few people now, especially sitting down with people and I will say “how great are the vocals?” Cause the delivery is excellent, a particular excerpt from ‘Plattenbau’ when you say “fists dropping with blood” – the delivery on that line that might otherwise be a kind of throwaway sentence give it this richness and colour and depth that makes that line come to life where it might otherwise pass the listener by and every time I say to people how great are the vocals? I love the lyrics and this guy is the fucking drummer! So, one thing I wanted to ask in this interview is how do you these incredible drums, lyrics and vocals live?
AD: I don’t! That’s the key component. Rylan is doing the vocals live, which is amazing because he’s a totally singular vocalist, Ashenspire really underutilises his talent. I do the drumming live because it’s really difficult to find drummers that are available and can do the style of drumming. Drumming is part of the expression for me, I consider myself a drummer first and vocalist second, so I’m writing drum parts that I love to play. I’ve done live vocals once for Ashenspire when we had another drummer, George Henry from Gendo Ikari play with us, he’s absolutely insane. It was really fun, it was really exhilarating. I’d love to be able to do the drums and the vocals live, but as both are such intense, full-body experiences, I’d have to compromise on one of them to do them both justice live and they’re both too important to compromise. I feel bad for Rylan sometimes that I’m wasting his talents just being angry and shouty!
E&D: At least if you know something is underutilised it gives you a possible direction for the future and it means the audience doesn’t necessarily ever know what they’re gonna do live. Personally, I hate seeing a band I love playing the same songs and the same line-ups over and over again. Groundhog Daying. I like the idea that roles, members, songs can all vary in a live experience for a band. It means the quality will be there without the fatigue of a band being too rigid with what they’re about.
AD: One of the things that I was frustrated with early on, with the “band” format is that the associations between members become wrapped up in an emotional attachment between people and when people leave a band it can feel like a break-up; that’s not all that healthy or helpful. It means that if you want to play a show and one person can’t make it, you can’t play the show, so what we decided to do is book shows and it can be that whoever can make it will play the show. We’ve had some really wild shows come from that mindset. We played a show with a band called Liongeist; most people couldn’t make it so it was just drums, violins, guitars and vocals, which is how Dawn Ray’d operate as well. It was fun and totally weird. We played one of the songs from the last album as a kind of post-rock/crescendocore piece. So, it was cool. I get to go in other people’s bands and go on and take a backseat role, which is great because it means that when you get to be in control for one thing and work with someone on their thing for another project then it helps you detach your ego more from the work that you’re creating. It might be that you’re doing something this month and then next month, you’re not doing it. You have the opportunity to avoid anyone being a permanent authority figure. To circle back round, I have a lot of amazing musician friends, I love playing with all of them and it’s really nice to be able to keep it fluid and not attach huge amounts of personal stake for anyone in Ashenspire. Those boundaries are kind of blurry and that’s good. I will keep making music as Ashenspire for as long as I want to keep making music and hopefully, there will always people who want to help and I’ll help make them make their music.
E&D: How did the recording process come about, working with your producer, I’ve not heard any of your other stuff yet, I’ve just heard Hostile Architecture so, can you tell us about that?
AD: The first album, Speak Not of The Laudanum Quandary, came out in 2017. We worked at Priory Studios in Birmingham with Greg Chandler for a lot of that. We recorded the drums, vocals and the violin and then we re-amped the guitar and bass there after recording it Glasgow. The issue with that is that it took about a year to do between starting the drums and finishing the mix. It was a really long and arduous process. Comparing that with this album, we decided we were gonna do in about two weeks in total. We were originally gonna record drums in Germany and then lockdown happened, so that was cancelled, but Scott was able to come over to Scotland after, and we recorded the whole thing at La Chunky studios in Glasgow. I feel like the best way to do an album is to have a clear limit on the amount of time you spend on it, set a deadline and say “nothing else can be done after that time”. It was amazing, the whole thing was super fun; I was able to do the drums over a few days, same with guitar and bass. By the time, I recorded vocals, I could only do the evenings as I was working, so I would come away and be screaming late at night.
E&D: Did you ever find yourself trying to teach a class the next day with your voice half-melted?
AD: I do remember a couple of moments teaching chemistry, saying “I was recording vocals late last night so, take it easy on me guys”. As an aside, I actually got an e-mail from a fan in New York, who realised that there was a chemist at the other end of the pen, writing the lyrics, and they were saying “I really relate to some of this stuff!” The vocals are pretty much all the first take, but the flip side is that because I’m going so hard, they’re not sustainable. I couldn’t do a three month tour for example because I’d probably lose my vocals by day three! So, if I was a touring vocals, I’d need to find a new way of singing the songs.
E&D: Personally, I really don’t like it when I hear screaming on an album and they’re not really screaming. If you’re gonna scream, please actually scream. There’s a certain amount of screaming your voice will allow. There’s plenty of environments where humans do scream often. It is feasible to do but, only for as long as their body allows through whatever training they can achieve and I genuinely think vocals should accept the limitations that come with that. I think a lot of modern metal bands, don’t understand the mindset that produced the music that they love and why their favourite singers scream and what the costs of that are, it comes from a lot of pain and adrenaline. On that note, I’d like to talk about what influenced the album?
AD: In terms of writing, the closest musical touchstones were like mid 2010s post-black metal; Altar of Plagues’ Teethed Glory and Injury is a really important one because it was such an aggressive and transgressive album. Noise rock was a really useful thing to keep in mind, there’s a band called Civil Elegies which I really love, they’re my favourite band in Scotland quite handily. In terms of the more avant-garde moments, I’m really inspired by first of all Edward Scissortongue who works with a guy called Lamplighter in Glasgow. They have done a few albums that have been really inspiring to me – Chavassian Striking Distance and Tell Them It’s Winter – both of those have been really influential on how I write and perform texts, and some of the vibes on the album were heavily inspired by that. I really love that kind of noir-hop, like dark, gritty hip-hop. Bands like BADBADNOTGOOD and Sun Ra and other kinds of jazz and fusion music are big influences. There’s a variety of influences across the board. I know that Scott was influenced by Altar of Plagues too in terms of production; we really wanted to maintain that intensity and brightness across the board, we wanted it to sound overwhelming and like it was almost breaking or on the edge of falling apart. The amps that are being played are small amps turned up really, really loud so you have this edge of break-up from the speaker cones themselves. You can hear that attitude carrying over to the violin and the vocals; I know Matthew was worried that his saxophone wasn’t going to sound good, because he comes from this jazz background but, we were like “no, we want it to sound really ugly!” Everything was driven to the point of being overwhelmingly intense and maintaining that intensity was the goal. If it wasn’t contributing to the energy of the album then it got binned. There was supposed to be another ten minute song and it got binned because it just… wasn’t happening. That song has now been cannibalised for parts so, it might be used again in the future.
E&D: A band I always think of when I think of you guys is Oranssi Pazuzu, have you listened to them yet?
AD: I have been listening to Oranssi Pazuzu for years!
E&D: Did you hear Mystarin Kynsi yet, it’s fucking brilliant! I loved that. When you were talking about Glaswegian bands, another band I loved was The Amazing Snakeheads and their frontman Dale Barclays was also in a band called And Yet It Moves tragically died of a brain tumour. I saw them twice totally by accident one time opening for Cerebral Ballzy and the other time supporting The Jesus and Mary Chain and both times they blew the headliners out of the water! He was a fantastic frontman, one of the best I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend checking them out. He screams like a demon, he’s amazing. He got fed up of the snakeheads partying and made And Yet It Moves and they did this one track called ‘Ketamine Ma’am’ which I loved and whilst the album they did after seemed like they were still finding their feet, I truly believe they would have gone on to be an extremely important band… but, I digress. So, the future….after the huge gaps of covid, do you think you’ll be doing some new sooner?
AD: At the moment, I’m kind of doing what you might call research and development. I already have an idea of where I want to take things musically. I’m looking into some of the sounds I want to explore. I have a project called Joule Thief, which is mostly me working with tape – I find tape really interesting musically and philosophically, as a medium that changes the music on it as it ages, that captures all the experiences that the physical tape does in sound, it’s fascinating. For Ashenspire, we’re gonna try to capitalise on Hostile Architecture and the momentum it’s got going and the next goal is to get out of the UK and play Europe. Hopefully, play some festivals and when we’re ready, we’ll make another record.