Kirk Windstein of Crowbar Says The Band Looked to Early Material to Inspire New Record
Band Photo: Crowbar (?)
Doom and sludge metal bands weren’t as common in the late eighties as today. Back then bands most often looked to hair metal and thrash for inspiration. New Orleans, Louisiana was no different. When the saints go marching in, they were doing it to the cadence of Exhorder. After a few years, every music genre becomes oversaturated. Thrash was no longer a novelty to friends Kirk Windstein and Jimmy Bower. Instead of worshipping speed, the two went the other direction, one treaded by bands such as Trouble, Saint Vitus, and of course, Black Sabbath.
Down tempos were a major facet of Crowbar’s sound, but they also liked to push the pace with circle-pit inducing hardcore rhythms. You get hit with a bass bomb and then a machine gun blast. Windstein’s vocals were cast from the same cinder blocks as his guitar grooves, resulting in a more aggressive take than any doom band. Crowbar is a band about fighting, but not in the sense of punching some one in the mouth. Their lyrics are about inner conflict, about fighting to overcome adversity. As hard as the band hits, though, melody is also a major tool to express these ideas.
The mix of hardcore, doom and southern rock became known as sludge. Just like many scenes the NOLA scene was built on friends influencing friends, sharing stages and sharing bands. Bower played drums for Crowbar in the early days. Windstein and Bower both also played together in Down. Add Bower’s other band, Eyehategod, and you have the scene that propagated sludge to the world’s masses. If not for bands like these three, sludge wouldn’t experience its current popularity. The sound has evolved into more of a stoner tag, but at the roots were NOLA bands.
In 1993, Down band mate Phil Anselmo helped NOLA sludge climb into the light. Anselmo had made a name for himself singing for Pantera, so the masses noticed when he produced Crowbar’s self-titled album and brought them on tour. He also sported Eyehategod shirts and took them on tour as well. Animated morons Beavis and Butthead watched “Existence is Punishment” and made fun of Crowbar’s weight. The dimwitted duo made fun of a lot of great metal videos—Death “The Philosopher” and Morbid Angel “God of Emptiness” for example. But even negative exposure is still exposure, especially on MTV.
Nearly three decades after they struck their first chord, Crowbar has looked to the past for inspiration. “The Serpent Only Lies” (due October 28th) is a throwback to the band’s early years. Often a band’s early records are fan favorites because those records are fresh and novel. Even though Windstein wrote the way he wanted to write the album, it’s still cool that he did something fans ask for but never get. Bands cringe at the idea of revisiting early records. In the following interview, singer/guitarist/lyricist Kirk Windstein talks about what inspired him to make this record and how their influences help define the band as a whole.
Rex_84: You said that you went back and listened to early albums like the self-titled record (1993) and “Broken Glass” (1996). How did you make this album familiar while still retaining a sense of contemporary Crowbar?
Kirk Windstein: It was a conscious thing. For whatever reason, the bands that influenced Crowbar in the beginning I’ve been listening to a lot the last year or so. If I’m out at the bar sometimes they play some old Crowbar and I’ll be like, “Wow, I forgot about that song. That’s badass. I haven’t heard it in twenty fucking years.” So I went back and listened to a lot of the stuff just to see where my head was at. I still wanted it to be fresh, new and not try to rip ourselves or myself off. It came out exactly how I wanted. It’s what we had in mind, so it worked.
Rex_84: What were some of the bands you were listening to? You’re wearing a Trouble shirt right now.
Windstein: Trouble, the first Type O Negative record, early Iron Maiden with Paul Di’anno. I listened to ‘70s classic rock like Thin Lizzy mixed in with some more aggressive stuff like Carnivore—Melvins, those bands have always been a big influence on us.
Rex_84: Do you like Saint Vitus?
Windstein: I love them. Absolutely. I see you’re wearing an The Obsessed shirt. I love anything with Wino in it. We toured with Saint Vitus with Wino, so I’ve seen them quite a few times.
Rex_84: Did the return of bassist Todd Strange, a member who helped start the band, influence you to return to your older sound and ideas?
Windstein: We didn’t know he was going to come back at the time. He didn’t play on the record. I actually played bass on the record. It’s kind of ironic that he came back and we went back to our roots. We had no idea at the time of the writing that he was going to be coming back. Things just didn’t work out with Jeff [Okoneski]. That happens in life. Things don’t always work out, but having Todd back is awesome. It works out well as the new record is more of an old school feel and we do have an original member back who's been gone for almost seventeen years.
Rex_84: How did he get involved again?
Windstein: When he parted ways, we were friends. He left on good terms. We just lost touch for quite a few years, and little by little he started coming around a bit, hanging out with everybody at the bar, going to see shows. He picked up the bass again a couple of years ago and wanted to get back into music. When things didn’t work out with Jeff, I had spoken to Todd and it was kind of an obvious decision. I asked if he wanted to do this and he said ok, so I said “come on.”
Rex_84: What’s the concept of the album title, “The Serpent Only Lies?”
Windstein: In a sense it’s a Biblical term, the serpent being Satan.
Rex_84: I hear a lot of references to the Bible.
Windstein: Funny thing is I don’t read the Bible. I am a spiritual person and am a Christian in that I believe in God and Jesus, but I don’t follow the Bible or any religion. That’s just my own thing. It’s really anything dark and evil in your life. In the Biblical sense, the serpent is Satan, but it can be anything. It can be drugs, alcohol, gambling addiction.
Windstein: You’re right. A bad relationship. Anything dark and evil and bad is what the serpent represents.
Rex_84: The chorus on the title track sounds has an excellent harmony. Talk a little about recording the vocals during these parts? Who sang backing vocals?
Rex_84: Did you layer it?
Windstein: Yeah. It’s eight layers. It’s two of each in a four-part harmony. I have a gravelly voice, but I can sing, so I have to do multiple tracks to make my voice sound smoother. Live it’s ok if it’s more raw, but on the record I do that to make it sound better. Every part of the vocals on the record is me.
Rex_84: This track has a really thrashy riff. Are you trying something different or do you see that as something that is genuinely Crowbar?
Windstein: It’s genuinely Crowbar. We get labeled sometimes as a doom band or a stoner band—they call us sludge. To me, it’s just heavy music. We’ve been influenced by so many bands that it’s ok to throw in something that is upbeat here and there. Our faster stuff has more of a hardcore type of feel.
Rex_84: “I Am The Storm,” “Embrace The Light” and the title track explore the themes of life, loss and spirituality. Are you able to conjure up these feelings when it’s time to write songs or is this something that comes to you out of nowhere?
Windstein: It’s more spontaneous. It’s whatever I’m feeling. I might just come up with a line like I saw something someone had posted on Facebook and it simply said, “Can you weather the storm because I am the storm?” It was just a quote. I didn’t even know where it came from. I liked it, so that’s the opening thing and it’s actually about me and my career and my fight and determination to keep doing what I do. “Can you weather the storm?” not to be narcissistic or something but the storm is about me, my struggles in the music industry to keep it alive and keep it rolling.
Rex_84: “The Enemy Beside You” is about people bitching and complaining, but doing nothing to solve the problem? Why do you think people are this way?
Windstein: To me it’s about the kind of person that no matter how good everything is going they are just eternally pessimistic. It’s the kind of person who would win the lottery and bitch about paying taxes. I try, it’s not easy, to be optimistic. I try to find a positive in everything and be upbeat about things. It doesn’t always work, of course life is not easy. It’s really about the people who do the opposite. They’re just a downer kind of person. You hang out with them and they seem “doomed up” all the time, as I like to call it. I’m not talking about anyone in particular. There are just people like that. I don’t prefer to associate with them.
Rex_84: A lot of your songs could be construed as negative, yet at the same time, there is this will inside of you that says, “I’m not going to let that get me down.”
Windstein: Totally. Really that’s what a lot of them are about. There are very few songs that are a story, it’s more just thoughts. It’s a lot of metaphors and thoughts that I write down. It can mean whatever it means to the listener. As long as they get something out of it, it’s good. A lot of people will mention a certain song and tell me what it means to them. I’ll say, “To me, it means something different, but that’s ok because you got something positive out of it, so that’s great.”
Rex_84: On “Surviving the Abyss,” you question if the pain will ever go away and then say it’s a lesson we must learn. Is this a lesson key to survival?
Windstein: It’s key to one’s self survival. It’s talking about things, like you mentioned, depression. Once again, it’s just thoughts. It’s the old adage, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “Only the strong survive.” I’m fifty-one-years old now and you learn from everything you’ve been through in life—the ups and downs, the dark and the light through life. It’s a lesson you learn, but hopefully it’s a lesson that changes something for you for the positive.
Rex_84: “Falling While Rising” could be a positive thing, like you fall but you still rise. It could be a negative thing that you can’t even rise, you can’t get on your feet without falling, without failing. What were you thinking when you wrote this song?
Windstein: My wife, Robin, doesn’t sit down and write lyrics with me. We don’t write songs together, and of course, she doesn’t play an instrument, but a lot of times I’ll get stuck on something and she just writes a lot of stuff. She writes her own stuff. I happened to grab her notebook one night when she was cooking or something, and I’m going through it and I’m seeing lyrics like, “dying while living in a light from last rites, I’m falling while rising. I’ve grown too tired to fight.” I thought this was perfect. It actually fits the phrasing I wanted for the music, so I kind of stole if from her a bit, which I do on a few songs.
Rex_84: Do you credit her?
Windstein: Actually, I do. I’ll say all lyrics by me except for “Falling While Rising,” “Plasmic and Pure” and “On Holy Ground,” which was mainly her. But I’ve taken and twisted them. A lot of times I’ll just take one liners and write something around them. To me, it’s whatever you interpret it as. It’s about the ups and downs, the ebb and flow in life.
Rex_84: What was the scene in NOLA like when you started in 1990? I heard that due to Exhorder being a big band a lot of groups played thrash.
Windstein: It was. Exhorder was the biggest band in the city at the time. In my opinion, they were outdoing Slayer. The musicianship was unbelievable. It was one of those things. We were already doing different stuff. Jimmy Bower and I were kind of burned out on thrash because we were into it from the beginning. We were looking for something different, so we discovered Saint Vitus, Trouble, Melvins and we were like, “ You know what, we are never going to keep up with Exhorder, so let’s do something completely different.” Carnivore “Retaliation” is one of my favorite records of all time. It’s more hardcore aggression and then it will break into a Sabbath part, a doom riff. We took that as an outline for what we wanted to do, so to speak. The first Type O record, “Slow, Deep and Hard,” which is my favorite, is basically a Carnivore record with keyboards. There is a little bit of industrial and keyboards thrown in and it’s Carnivore.
Rex_84: Everybody knew black Sabbath back then, but doom was relatively unknown. Now, doom and sludge are very popular styles. How do you feel about how popular these styles have become?
Windstein: I think it’s great. I prefer that type of music as far as heavy music. I play it. It’s one of those things that at the time there wasn’t really anything going on. There were a few underground bands doing it and it took a long time for the general music listeners to catch on and see it is a very cool style of music. There are so many bands that sound exactly the same and play a million miles an hour. It’s great, but it’s not really my thing. I think there is more to distinguish bands like Trouble, Saint Vitus or whatever—they are all in the same genre, but they all have their own sound. It’s a lot easier to distinguish one band from another in this genre.
Rex_84: It’s getting to the point, though, where everybody wants to sound like Electric Wizard.
Windstein: It’s getting oversaturated. We see it, especially, in Europe. Every opening local band, for the most part, is like Electric Wizard, Eyehategod. It’s the droning/stoner-type thing. Everybody’s got the oldest vintage gear they can possibly get and get as much on stage as they possibly can. There are some good bands, some cool shit that I hear, but in all honesty and I’m not being an asshole, but it is very oversaturated now. That happens to every genre when it becomes popular. It happened, for god’s sake, to ‘80s hair metal. You had your Motley Crues and your Skid Rows, Warrant and Dokken and toward the tail end you had bands like Trixter and Danger Danger that had one video before that whole style went out.
Rex_84: I don’t even know what the new sub-genre is today? Everything came out in the ‘80s.
Windstein: That’s true. Everything is being rehashed. For us, we are an older band. Love us or hate us, you know it’s Crowbar. We sound like Crowbar. We don’t sound like anyone else. You can hear influences, but we aren’t a rip off of another band. Some of the younger bands I find sound exactly like other bands. Bottom line: it’s just oversaturated.
Rex_84: Phil Anselmo produced your self-titled record. What was it like working with him? What did that do for your career?
Windstein: I’m sure it helped us out. How could it not? Since day one, Phil has been a huge supporter of Crowbar. Working with him was easy as can be. People have a preconceived notion or misconception that Phil is a certain way and he’s really not. When I was in Down he was one of the easiest guys to work with in the band. He’s open to ideas. He’s a great song arranger. He hears things and brings things to your attention that you learn from, so it makes you better. I always tell people he’s the best arranger, song wise, that I’ve ever worked with in any band. I’ve tried to learn as much as possible from him. He had so much more experience in the studio, even though he was younger than me, so he was able to teach us all. It came out great. It was a classic record. It was awesome.
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