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Interview

John Frum Talks Cargo Cults, Dynamic Mixing, And The Perfect Way To Hear "A Stirring In The Noos"

Darkly psychedelic and utterly devastating death metal troupe John Frum has come out of nowhere to offer an incredibly offbeat musical excursion you can't possibly be prepared for.

Press releases for the impending debut album "A Stirring In The Noos" have described it as the "backdrop of a bad trip," and that's perhaps not too far off, but there's a lot more to this group than meets the eye.

For starters, John Frum features no one by that name, instead including the likes of Liam Wilson (Dillinger Escape Plan) and Derek Rydquist (Bereft, ex-The Faceless), who I got in contact with to discover more about this mysterious project.

In the interview below, they discussed the John Frum mentality of the world being a "cargo cult" always waiting for new cargo to arrive that seems magical or personally meaningful but is actually just outside our current understanding. From there we jumped from a preference for not jumping on the lyric video craze, to the very specific kind of production sought for this album ("We didn’t want something that seemed too modern, cold or antiseptic") and finally the duo left me with little nuggets of wisdom like "thrash hard or the terrorists win."

xFiruath Your just had your first shows as a band. How stoked / nervous were you and what has the band been doing to prep?

Liam: I was and still am both stoked and nervous and dozens of other emotions all steeped together. I know we know how to play our songs - we’ve rehearsed enough over the weeks leading up to the shows to know we know the material, but that doesn’t account for the infinite number of variables that prevent you from playing them well during any given performance - and a few of those symptoms were present that weekend. We have an extra layer of visual aesthetics to consider as well, and we were up all night at a Philadelphia-local artist studios called Space 1026 constructing that before that first performance, trying to push that agenda across some sort of acceptable finish line felt downright Herculean, not to mention just getting comfortable within that personal transformation onstage. I’m proud of what we pulled off for our first shows ever, but I’m not really contented or satisfied yet...Hopefully never will be.

xFiruath: Following those shows, where will John Frum be headed to take this new material out on the live circuit?

Liam: We’re just going to follow the riverbank and see where it leads. Everyone’s personal and professional schedules prevent us from committing to longer tours at the moment, but we intend to support the release and keep the fires stoked as much as possible, but for the foreseeable future it will likely be long weekends in and around major cities, hopefully some overseas stuff included after we cover some of North America; hopefully we’ll get some invitations to do some festivals?! The material may be new for fans, but its already showing its age to us. I’m eager to continue our dialogue with the muse.

xFiruath: Tell me a bit about how the band came together and how you got signed onto Relapse Records.

Liam: It started in a few different places. I knew Eli from his former band (Knife The Glitter) opening for my band The Dillinger Escape Plan back around 2008, while out on that run we realized we were basically neighbors - same neighborhood in Philly, same street, just a few blocks away. We had jammed a few times and some musical chemistry was definitely present. He wrote me early 2012 with a few ideas he recorded with Matt at the end of 2011 (although Matt was also a Philly-local, I didn’t know before this project came up).

We started jamming as a trio, wrote about 4 songs, and demo’d them in late 2013, which is around when the “John Frum” namesake was adopted. This is also around when Matt started working with John Zorn - contrary to popular belief we didn’t reach out to Matt because of his working with Zorn, although it certainly had a strong influence over how we wrote the later batch of songs. We worked with a few vocalists in our area, but nothing clicked until we met Derek, who lives in LA, through mutual friends in early 2014. We spent the next 18 months or so writing 3 more songs while he worked out his vocals for the first 4. Late 2015 we wrapped up all the recording in a few sessions and then things started coming into clearer focus.

Having made most of my introductions to certain staff members over at Relapse from back in the early DEP days, and after casually seeing most of them out at shows in the area for the better part of the last 17 years, it seemed like a fitting nest to hibernate the John Frum eggs in if they were interested. We first spoke to Relapse about working on this record together in early 2016, and negotiated a deal to license the record shortly after. When we finally finished the mix/master as well as layout it only made sense in their release schedule to put it out now, almost a year later.

xFiruath: As you've mentioned, the band has people from Dillinger Escape Plan, The Faceless, and other pretty big name metal bands. How does this project differ from those base bands and what sort of overall sound can the audience expect coming into “A Stirring In The Noos?”

Liam: I guess in some ways you can take the man out of the band, but you can’t take the band out of the man. One obvious reason is we’ve never all worked together, so at the end of any day, it’s always going to sound like us and hopefully no one else if we’re doing this right. One thing about that is there is no "main" songwriter here. The music was arranged and composed as a trio in the same room at the same time, with everyone always open-minded, contributing equally and fully open to the direction the muse seemed to lead us. Other than one or two sections certain individuals heavy-handed, I can confidently say “we” wrote everything and I have no idea whose input was more valuable at any given time.

That said, what came out was some really aggressive, mean, almost bullying sounding music that leans into the wind with its teeth showing. By the time we wrote the music for “Memory Palace” we knew that we wanted some really deplorable sounding vocals, that’s all we could imagine fitting. Matt’s work with John Zorn also had a strong cross-contamination effect. We naturally gravitated towards a more free jazz approach whereas it seems like a lot of contemporary metal acts are stuck in a neo-classical rabbit hole (no judgement, simply observation/opinion as a fan of the genre.)

xFiruath: If I'm not mistaken, Derek was also involved with that experimental doom project Bereft, which has always stuck with me because the “Leichenhaus” album ended by using a voice over of Satan from that incredibly disturbing claymation children's cartoon about Mark Twain. Is Bereft still active at this point? I haven't heard anything about the band in years.

Derek: Bereft has been inactive for some time. Everyone is busy with their primary bands and other avenues of business. This doesn't mean we've disbanded, but we haven't done, or thought about, anything Bereft related in a while.

xFiruath: Of course I've read the press releases about John Frum's distinctive name and the odd story behind it, but I kind of like to get your own words on why the band is named John Frum and how that story impacts the sort of music you are creating.

Liam: Well, there is a bit of tongue in cheek humor to naming a (for lack of a better term) death metal band a name that on the surface sounds like a singer songwriter/solo artist, and to have it also be a fictional alias for a plethora of interesting characters on top of that just seemed too ripe not try to riff on it conceptually. I heard of the concept of Cargo Cults because it was the art theme of Burning Man in 2013. The idea of John Frum, this ‘god like’ yet materialistic savior, comprised of many figures (as opposed to most religions based around 1 prophet etc.) simply fascinated me. The more I read into it, the deeper the metaphor goes. My awareness of this phenomena makes me feel like I’m witnessing a genuine religion forming in its early stages - I’m fascinated at how easy the narrative begins and how fluidly it adapts to include convenient explanations for whatever needs explaining.

For me the next level of how this applies is to our rituals and beliefs. In a spiritual sense, although at one time or another I may have considered myself closer to atheist than anything else, currently, I don’t understand pure atheism, for me I can’t get past the idea that, at most everyone’s core, there is a personal set of opinions or beliefs, and perhaps figuratively, a morality-motivated rulebook one consciously or unconsciously follows. This is essentially the task John Frum serves for me - a place to play out my beliefs and feelings on tradition, superstition, intoxication and ritual especially as these themes apply to one’s personal creative process.

The writing and performance of these songs is drama therapy. Any ritual, however small and meaningless quickly takes on meaning simply by its repetition, and often the ones with the least amount of artificial scaffolding around them, are the most personally transformative.
Even the Ouija board started as a lowly board game, but over time its meaning, function and agency has transcended into something quite remarkable in pedestrian terms and hard to silence in those of the occult.

There’s also a bit of socio-political slant in the sense that not unlike these remote tribes, we as a westernized culture constantly wait for Cargo too - the new iPhone 8, the next season of Game Of Thrones... Especially in the cases of technology, I have very little actual understanding of how it works, and if you took it away from me, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of how to replicate it for myself.

Increasingly more ideas I would call ‘dangerous’ are being absorbed into modern society. Physicist Richard Feynman’s term “cargo cult science” - the idea that something can have the semblance of being scientific, but does not in fact follow the scientific method - seems to be truer and more prevalent now than ever. I also felt like in some ways most artists wait until their “muse” comes to them to them, in our case, it was practically invited and I feel like our creative juices were spiked by John Frum himself.

xFiruath: What are some of the specific lyrical themes found across the album?

Derek: The album focuses on the idea of the deification of things, and how simple it is for one to create something god-like by just speaking it into existence. There is power in words that can give way to belief. For example, John Frum is a modern deity that some people just pulled out of thin air and worship to this day. The concept of a new God in this day and age is one that I found intriguing and took inspiration from. Lyrically, a goal was to write of every day objects, characters, beings, concepts, that could lend themselves to deification, perhaps even worship, if presented in a proper way.

xFiruath: Who handled the artwork on this release and what's going on with the imagery there?

Liam: Grady Gordon did all of the monotype prints. The idea behind the cover was actually sparked from Cezanne’s ‘Large Bathers’ which is housed locally in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It shows some trees and bathers in the foreground, but when you pull away, a woman’s face and hair comes into focus within the larger composition. Something about that painting has always been attractive to me as a regular visitor of the museum my whole life, so I suggested it as a starting point for Grady to work from. The reference is certainly alive in the cover image, but it’s not overt and this is the first time I’m even mentioning it.

I would always recommend the viewer seek to find an interpretation that speaks to themselves first and foremost, however, for myself, I imagine the abstract form at the top of the image to be representative of the Noosphere, or some sort of black hole of consciousness, and the foreground bathers / revelers / victims as some figurative representation of one’s ‘ego’ in some state of rapture, writhing or perhaps dissolving.

xFiruath: Fill me in on the recording process for “ A Stirring In The Noos.” Where did it go down, who did you work with, etc.?

Liam: We worked with a lot of people in a lot of different places, and from start to finish it took almost a year. We tracked all the drums at Kevin Antreassian’s (DEP/Knife The Glitter) Backroom Studio in N NJ. We’d take those sessions home, and Matt would come over to my house and we’d track guitars and bass at our leisure. We’d take those files back to Backroom, reamp them and drop a few guitar solos on the tracks while we were there. While this is happening, Derek was out in Los Angeles recording with Michael Keene (The Faceless). Matt, Eli and I did about 5 songs that way, and we were all usually present for everything. For the last few, I still tracked my bass in my basement, but we did all the drums, vocals, guitars and reamping at Backroom. We added a few auxiliary percussion parts to “He Come” at a local studio our friend Jeff Lucci runs and also did a few extra guitar layers, interludes, extra ear candy, Moog, ebow etc. in my basement.

We brought all the files together into a folder on the cloud and then sent links of those sessions to a few different mixers, my friend and rising star Arthur Rizk for example, to hear some tests. We ultimately chose Ryan Williams, who formerly played bass with as well as engineered some Black Dhalia Murder, and he also happens to be Derek’s neighbor. We wanted a dynamic mix that wasn’t fully rejecting or fully embracing a typical metal production. We didn’t want something that seemed too modern, cold or antiseptic. Ryan helped us achieve our vision of a mix that is confrontational, bullying and disorienting throughout.

xFiruath: What formats will the album be available on and do you have a preferred method for fans to hear and experience the album?

Liam: The album will be available on most popular formats: LP, CD anddDigital. For me I think the artwork looks best large, so vinyl is great in that sense, and holding a physical object certainly has its mojo. Paul Romano worked really hard on the layout, and the vinyl format is somewhat more limited in terms of how much room we had to explain ourselves, the CD booklet goes deeper into our subconscious. The only request I would make would be to give it a few listens in different settings and see if it affects your appreciation for it. Laying down with eyes closed in a nice pair of headphones on, driving in a car with a nice stereo...I would love to setup a bunch of Sonos speakers in an abandoned building somewhere and do a listening party for a future release.

xFiruath: That “Presage Of Emptiness” video was a non-stop assault of flashing lights and imagery! Who put that together, and are there plans for any other lyric or full music videos off the album?

Liam: We used a guy named Oleg Rooz who helped Dillinger put together some teaser videos for the "Dissociation" record. I had met him a few days before the John Frum announcement, which was a few days before Dillinger’s bus collision. The connection we made in a brief few days was enough to inspire me to ask him to work with us. We’re not a big band, we don’t have big budgets, and he was willing to work hard against a tight deadline to create something to continue simultaneously setting the stage and clearing the album for landing. We also did a video synthesis-centric composition for “Memory Palace” and are about to reveal an official video directed by Mitch Massie (Cattle Decapitation, Dying Fetus, the Dillinger Escape Plan) for the last track on the album “Wasting Subtle Body.” No judgment call on any of our peers that do them, but at present, I don’t think lyric videos are quite our vibe.

xFiruath: Outside your own album, what music are you jamming lately that's really speaking to you?

Liam: For me personally, although I’m sure there is some overlap with other members, I’ve been listening to a lot of Dead Can Dance, Kaytranada, Nightbringer, Artificial Brain, Neurosis, Plebeian Grandstand, Pathe Moloko, Phurpa... I always return to this one Trilok Gurtu/Robert Miles collaboration simply called “Miles_Gurtu”, Weather Report’s live in Japan stuff is pretty out there, Avashai Cohen’s "Gently Disturbed," almost anything by The Emerson String Quartet, Shora’s “Malval”, JDilla’s “Donuts”, Tom Waits, David Bowie and Nick Cave are always revealing. Other artists like Diamanda Galas, Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, Syd, Mind Over Mirrors, Bent Knee, Clap!Clap!, Drab Majesty and Dungen have all released powerful recordings somewhat recently.

xFiruath: Anything else you'd like to add?

Liam: Nothing is true everything is permitted. Thrash hard or the terrorists win.

xFiruath's avatar

Ty Arthur is a freelance writer who writes for both entertainment and technical instruction sites. An avid fan of many different forms of metal, he has been involved in reviewing music for several years and is currently a contributing editor for Metalunderground.com

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