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An Interview With While Heaven Wept Guitarist Tom Phillips

For the past 20 years, While Heaven Wept has kept some sort of presence in the metal underground. The mastermind behind the band is guitarist/songwriter Tom Phillips, who also used to do vocals and keyboard work on the previous albums. The band just recently released their third studio album, “Vast Oceans Lachrymose,” which has the band embracing their thrash roots and pushing themselves further away from the doom metal moniker that was stamped on the band in their early years. In a recent interview with Metal Underground, Phillips discussed the band’s new album, his negative views of the band being labeled power metal, the hardships that have been caused by illegal downloading, and much more.

Heavytothebone2: Could you tell me a little bit about the band, for those unaware?

Tom Phillips: Twenty years ago, we kicked this off with the intention to expand past some of the boundaries of our previous project. At this time, of course, thrash was in full swing and we (the music scene) were about to make the transition into death metal as far as the whole trends scenario was concerned. But of course, we were coming from a whole different place than that. We were playing classic metal, as they would call it now, doom and progressive metal, kind of all blended together. We were kind of going against the grain, but we were still very aware of things happening in the world of thrash and extreme metal.

Over this last two decades, I think we’ve gone through more people than any band in history. I’ve lost tracked, but last time I checked Metal Archives, it said it was 63 people. We’ve released three full-length albums during this time and a plethora of EP’s, 7’, double vinyl compilations from the first decade; it’s really a lot to keep track of, to be honest with you.

Heavytothebone2: The band just released their latest album “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” (VOL). What makes the album so significant to the band’s history?

Tom: There were some big changes that kind of came out of nowhere, as far as the line-up is concerned. I started singing for the band in 1992 and after about 16 or 17 years, I stepped aside and brought in another vocalist, which is a huge thing. I don’t know how familiar you are with the back catalog, but for most of our existence, people have referred to us as epic doom. In fact, pretty much since we started, it’s only been us and Solitude (Solitude Aeturnus) from the United States that took up that flag. The irony about this whole album is that this is supposedly an epic doom metal band that just released an album that has no doom metal on it, so that’s significant. This is spearheading the whole celebration of our 20th anniversary and there are all sorts of crazy facts about this album. The fact is, it goes back to about 1994 when we were first were even talking about this album. Some of this material that’s included on the album was always intended to be part of that album and of course, over the years, some things have changed and evolved.

Our last album (“Of Empires Forlorn”) came out six years ago and that one did very well for us. What a lot of people don’t realize is all the material you’re hearing on “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” was written before that album was even recorded. Most of the material dates back quite a ways, but this is a testament to some people sticking to their guns and following through no matter what fate throws at us. There are a lot of things that are pretty interesting about the album and I think it’s really misunderstood, especially here in the United States, but pretty much universally I think as well.

Heavytothebone2: Ok…

Tom: What I mean by that, just to clarify, is for some reason, in the United States, people hear it and say it sounds like power metal. The fact is we hate that stuff; we’ve always hated it. Where the fast and melodic stuff comes from is Holy Terror and Forbidden and melodic thrash like Artillery. We’re not into that happy metal at all and I think it’s a misnomer, but I think people that are familiar with power metal equate it with power metal and those that are familiar with us all these years that are coming from the doom metal scene, they hear doom metal. People who are coming from a more progressive scene are hearing progressive metal. The fact is it’s all of that and none of that. It’s been interesting, the reaction, because basically in the states we’ve been panned, like usual, but in Europe, it’s one of the biggest albums of last year.

Heavytothebone2: You said “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” was written before “Of Empires Forlorn.” So looking at the band’s current direction, where do you see yourselves heading; more with the former or the latter?

Tom: Neither. Musically, the situation is that there’s always been a key set of influences and elements to While Heaven Wept that made it what it is. It’s always had a strong neo-classical/neo-romantic aspect, very orchestrated, heavy, epic, some space elements in there and some progressive aspects, but the fact is that every album is basically a different ratio of all those elements and aspects. I was actually scared with this album because I figured that basically we would alienate our entire audience, because the majority of it comes from the doom metal scene for years and here’s an album that’s predominately thrashing, mid-tempo classic metal with very little doom at all. I guess I should have had more faith in our audience because they stood by us.

My point is, all of the albums are completely different from each other, but at the same time, they totally are interrelated because of the fact that it’s the same influences that have always been there. I can tell you already because the next album is already written and it’s completely different. We’re not a Motörhead or AC/DC by any means and very few bands can get away with releasing the same thing over and over again. In some cases, that’s what we want. We would be pretty upset universally if Motörhead did a concept progressive album with an orchestra or something, but we’re not coming from that perspective. We’re coming more from your Voivod’s and Fates Warning’s where with every album, you don’t know what you’re doing to get. At least in our case, you know it’s going to be epic and heavy and melodic; probably not very cheerful either, but you never know.

Heavytothebone2: “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” is quite an epic-sounding title. Where did the idea for the title and concept come from?

Tom: That basically goes back 16 or 17 years. When this band started, the one thing that was always assured is that I knew the first album was “Sorrow Of The Angels” and this was kind of an elaboration on some concepts from that and from the early songs. In fact, the first song we ever wrote back in 1989, there was a line, “each day sinking further into a sea of tears.” It’s from that line that “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” came from, if I recall correctly. That’s really what it literally translate to; an endless sea of tears.

That all relates back to the whole concept of the band. I’m sure that you’ve noticed the lyrics are pretty personal and in fact, all of our albums and everything we’ve ever done is basically real life. It’s not some fantasy thing; we’re not telling stories that are fictional. It’s all real-life experiences, so it’s deep and this is why we kind of stay under the radar a lot because it’s not all that comfortable to talk about those things. When it’s all said and done, “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” represents a time frame of experiences since “Empires” in a lyrical sense. It’s all the things that have transpired since then and kind of an overview of this whole journey.

Heavytothebone2: A lot of the lyrics are personal, so do you have to be in a certain creative mindset? Do you find yourself writing in blocks and does that have a part in the long waits between albums?

Tom: There’s no real rhyme or reason to the way that the songs come together, but I would say that I do need to be in a certain state of mind. If nothing else, there needs to be some kind of catalyst or life experience that influences what comes out of my fingers or comes out of my head. I don’t sit at a table to write music or forcefully write lyrics; they come when they do. So, it’s really is a matter of revelation. I’ll be sitting there playing music and something will just come from nowhere and that’s all its basis for everything we do. It’s never, “hey dudes, I’ve got this riff.” It’s a lot different from that and it’s the same thing with the lyrics.

I could be anywhere; I could be driving down the road or in a bar. I mean, half the lyrics on this album are collected from bar napkins and empty packs of cigarettes or scribbled pieces of paper torn out of books. Sometimes, it does take years for songs to come together, and they kind of tell me when it’s ready. It’s clear to me when something belongs to something else, musically or lyrically. Other times, it’s a complete statement; it comes out all at once.

Nothing is every contrived, nothing is ever forced into being. It just comes out when it does. Once that exoskeleton is established and it seems to be complete in terms of what I’m hearing or what is being channeled through me, at that point, I sit down and start arranging it, orchestrating. That’s the only time that I ever put thought behind it. The rest of the time, it’s purely emotional; it has nothing to do with thinking until we start thinking about counterpoint, orchestration and the instrumentation involved.

Heavytothebone2: I want to discuss Rain Irving coming in as the new vocalist. With him doing the vocals, did it give you more of a chance to focus on the guitar?

Tom: There’s a whole bunch of aspects as far as Rain coming in. There wasn’t a lot in the way of experimentation in a vocal sense because those melodies have been stuck in my head for years. It took a lot of weight off my shoulders in the long run. It’s not that I couldn’t have sung this album or something of that nature, but there are several things at play here. There was a period, “Sorrow Of The Angels” and “Of Empires Forlorn,” to a lesser extent, where these albums were definitely not as progressive or aggressive; more lush and doom-metal oriented. Therefore, it was easier to play and sing at the same time, whereas, this material is much more like some of the earlier material from 1989 and 1990. Ultimately, it’s just more demanding instrumentally. So, part of it is going back full circle to the original vision of the band, where I was just the guitar player and songwriter and not wearing all these different hats. The music is also kind of come full circle, but also the other aspect is that I’m thinking more about the live setting than anything else.

I’m always so torn between two instruments in a live setting; I guess I’m not a multi-tasker. The point of having a singer is that I can now focus entirely on my guitar playing. I’ve been playing guitar for about 30 years, so obviously, that’s more comfortable for me. I only started singing because I had to. We couldn’t find a singer that wasn’t nuts or a complete ego-manic or someone that was into what we were doing. You have to remember; doom metal wasn’t cool in 1990 or anything melodic whatsoever, because everyone was all about thrashing and getting more aggressive. For us to be doing something that is more in the vein of Fates Warning and Crimson Glory, it just wasn’t cool.

Over the years, on one hand vocally, it was probably more appropriate for me to sing at a lot of songs since it comes from my life. In terms of emotional transmission through the lyrics, there’s probably nobody who can sing them, but that doesn’t mean I technically the best person to sing the songs. Rain is a world class singer, first of all, so I know I can rely upon him to go out there and do what he does best. I can do what I do best and now we’re able to give 110%, where as before, I would feel stretched thin. That’s for me was unacceptable because I want to go out and kill on stage, so that’s part of this.

Another aspect is that I’ve never been a fan of my own vocals (laughs). I totally have only done it because that was the only option there was at the time. I know that there are plenty of people out there that disagree with me. In fact, there is a certain contingent of our audience that doesn’t want anything to do with Rain, but I still believe it was the right thing to do. I think it was the right move to bring him in because he is a world-class singer along the lines of the people that I consider to be world-class singers. I’m talking about Dio, Dickinson, Geoff Tate, John Arch, Ray Alder, Steve Perry, Freddie Mercury. When I think about singers, I think about those guys, not just your average Joe like myself. Rain is much more equipped to roll out and deliver the goods in that capacity, for my ears. I do appreciate that there are people who still insist they rather have me singing. I keep that in mind. I miss it in some capacity, but I’m far more comfortable and happy on my primary instrument.

Heavytothebone2: You said on the band’s MySpace page that “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” is meant to be heard as a singular album, but you can download track-by-track on iTunes. Do you think the idea of listening to an album from front to back is a dying trend?

Tom: God, I hope not man (laughs). This whole concept is just mind boggling to me. If you can go back to the 80s and 90s, there was this whole trend in the industry where more and more, you saw these single-oriented artists where there would be this one amazing track and the rest of the album was absolutely terrible. That to me is just criminal, basically. Yeah, there are some disturbing trends these days. Sometimes, in the past, for a really good album, you had to work for it. You had to really sit there and invest yourself and the rewards you would get for experiencing an album in its entirety and looking at that LP jacket and just immersing yourself completely in it is a very different thing from the instant gratification of downloading track 6 to your iPod within 10 seconds.

For me, that’s not how my music is supposed to be heard. Now, we offered it because we want to give people the option. I strongly recommend against going for single items, but you know, that’s more for people who don’t give a shit about you. People that are generally into it and especially people who have been around long enough to know where we are coming from, they know by now that every album is continuous sound from start to finish, except in the case of “Vast Oceans Lachrymose.” There are some key periods of silence that are there at a very specific amount, like two seconds of silence between the end of “The Furthest Shore” and going into side B with “To Wander The Void.” All of that is very much intentional. There is nothing random whatsoever about it.

Heavytothebone2: When listening to the album, it seemed to me that “The Furthest Shore” was such a grandiose masterpiece that the other songs didn’t live up to that standard. Was that the original idea to put the most epic song right in the beginning?

Tom: Oh yeah, it’s kind of obnoxious. You have to think about it from a couple of different perspectives. One, people have been waiting for six years since the last album, and I figured that we better have a damn good reason for taking so long between albums, and that pretty much sums it up right off the bat. I wanted to give those who have been waiting patiently something that they can really say, “Ok, I can understand why these guys were gone off in some tangent for six years.” I’ve listened to plenty of albums throughout the years, like “2112” and so forth, that’s the way it was. We hadn’t done a long-form composition like that since our first album. On the first album, the whole first side is another epic, while “Empires” was mostly shorter songs. We needed that and it kind of grew on its own, more than anything else.

There were another eight songs (that were supposed to be) on this album, which are very diverse and all over the place. They are some of the best songs, in my opinion, that are the most enjoyable to play for all of us. However, we didn’t want anything else to overshadow or take away from what “The Furthest Shore” represents and what it is. Now that being said, I can understand the perspective of the album being a bit top heavy, but the fact is that songs like “To Wander The Void” do is fill another purpose. If there was a whole album of “The Furthest Shore,” it would be so overwhelming and suffocating; it would be too much. There needs to be some kind of variation and something like “To Wander The Void” makes it clear that this is a heavy metal album and not some kind of symphonic thing. This is still classic, old-school metal played by people that were playing old-school metal when it was new.

Heavytothebone2: Speaking of these eight unreleased tracks, I have to ask; are we going to have to wait six years to hear the new material?

Tom: Well, you know, it’s all written. It exists; it’s just a matter of tracking it. Everything that we have ever done has been paid for out of our pockets. We invested heavily in “Vast Oceans Lachrymose,” not that we didn’t with “Empires” either, but we basically spent double the amount of money that we did on “Empires.” That’s because we wanted the best absolute sound quality, period. No cutting corners, despite the fact that we knew that everybody was going to steal it anyway. The fact is that the music itself deserved to be done justice. Also, for our audience, after waiting this long, I’m not going to turn an album out that sounds like Darkthrone.

Even if there is nothing wrong with that…I appreciate things like that myself, but not in this case. It would be wrong on so many levels. My point is that I don’t even know how we’re going to pay off this record, to be honest with you. “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” was so expensive that most people would lose their minds just thinking that we would spent this out of pocket. Let me put it to you this way, I could have bought a nice sports car or a house in the Mid-West with the amount of money I spent on this album. There is a very significant debt to the studio at this point that…until we pay it, there’s no way we can go and start on the other album.

We need to roll with the same studio and same engineer, because there is something to that connection right there and that partnership between While Heaven Wept and Chris Salamone. That’s part of what makes this album, the audio quality. It sounds good on any system, whether it’s a boom box or a $50,000 stereo. To achieve that was not cheap and it was very time-consuming, but it was totally gratifying. It does sound different on everything, but you can still hear all the instruments and parts.

Unless we come up with a hefty amount of cash through merchandise sales and album sales, I don’t know how long it would be until we record it. I would love to start recording it this year and we certainly could in terms of preparedness, but financially, that’s a whole other story. We’re looking into options, but some of it is also way I’ve even conceited to the whole iTunes thing. We need to bring it in wherever we can and this is where the illegal downloading really hurts a band like us. We do get a huge advance from a record company; this isn’t some corporation’s money. We work paycheck to paycheck just like everybody else. There’s nobody rich or even close to being wealthy in While Heaven Wept, but we have very high production values and we don’t cut corners for ourselves. We’re not going to betray ourselves or what we hear or what this music deserves in terms of amount of heart and soul that went into it.

Heavytothebone2: Is there any name or album title to the unreleased tracks?

Tom: “Fear Of Infinity” is the next album. That’s basically the eight songs that would have been on “VOL” if “The Furthest Shore” hadn’t grown and another epic that’s probably about 12 or 13 minutes. Not quite as long as “Furthest Shore,” but what it delivers and what it does is the greatest musical moment of the 20 years of While Heaven Wept. That’s what we’re looking to the most…it’s a much darker album than VOL. Half of the album is extremely aggressive, in the way that can best be described as Viking-era Bathory or latter-day Immortal. They won’t be any of this mistaking of it for power metal. Half of those songs date back to the “Sorrow Of The Angels” era, so they are very moody, intense, brooding, deep, and dark. I don’t want to say it is doom; there are certainly doom aspects, but it’s very melancholic.

Heavytothebone2: The band’s first two albums are being re-released. Is there any bonus material or features on them?

Tom: Here’s the situation with those releases. 2009-2010 marks our 20th anniversary and there’s some debate going around about how to commemorate that in addition to “Vast Oceans Lachrymose” coming out and we have a festival coming up here in Germany in a few weeks and we want to do something special for them. For years now, I’ve been getting e-mails every single day from people who wanted “Sorrow Of The Angels” because they missed it back in 1998. With “Empires,” our old label, Rage Of Achilles, disappeared. It was one of those labels that were victim to industry scenarios and right there, that album died. It’s unfortunate because there was a lot of potential with that one which would had made it possible for VOL to come out sooner.

Anyway, because of the fact that I’ve been constantly getting e-mails and requests for those albums and because I’ve seen totally ridiculous prices on eBay and Amazon for these albums, I wanted to give people one more chance to get them as is in terms of contents of the album. These literally are the original albums we pressed, but with some updated packaging, some new linear notes, some photos for the appropriate eras that weren’t there previously. That’s it, apart from being hand numbed. They are limited to 1,000 copies each on CD and there are literally 250 copies of each one in the United States in my possession only. There’s no wholesale, no stories involved. It’s strictly direct from us. 500 copies went to our distributor in Germany and Cruz Del Sur kept the balance…the bottom line is that this is it. This is the last opportunity to get these albums as is because the next time they resurface, it’s going to be a very different situation.

It’s been no secret that I’ve never been entirely happy with “Sorrow Of The Angels” and even “Empires,” in my opinion, could be improved upon. So my ultimate intention is to go back and properly remix, remaster, and even re-record some things as needed. There are some other aspects to these future versions that will be 2 CD sets, but they will not contain the original mix or mastering. They will sound different from what you hear now, but they will in fact be definitive, as far as I am concerned. The only thing is that obviously, these are not as high of a priority as “Fear Of Infinity.” By the time those things surface, that could be five, ten years from now.

For the die-hards that have been around with us for a long time, that’s where the Iron Codex LP version comes into play. These are very close to my heart because “Sorrow Of The Angels” originally was part of the chapter one double vinyl anthology in 2002, but there was a flaw in the pressing plant. They put these cuts between the songs that aren’t supposed to be there. Side two and side three should have been continuous music, but they put these blackouts in-between the tracks that totally destroyed that release for me. This is a chance for me to correct that with “Sorrow Of The Angels.”

“Empires” was never on vinyl and we really done this one up. It’s got all the bonus tracks from all the various versions of “Empires.” It’s a double LP, 45 rpm, 180-gm vinyl, audio file top of the line, with a 12 page LP size booklet that comes with it an also the same treatment for VOL. We did a vinyl pressing of that in the states through Maniacal Records, but it sold out before it even left the pressing plant, which was a single LP. This Iron Codex version is a double LP like “Empires” and 180 gm vinyl, 350 gram Gatefold sleeve, also with a 12-inch booklet. That’s the best that VOL and “Empires” will sound….and we’re not quite done yet. There’s going to be some more things from WHW before the end of the year because there’s a lot of material that dates back before “Sorrow Of The Angels,” 1989-1996, that was never released.

Heavytothebone2: When do the re-releases come out?

Tom: The CD’s came out on the 29th of January…and the vinyl’s from Iron Codex are scheduled to be released on February 6th, which is also the same day as the Hammer of Doom festival in Würzburg, Germany, where we are co-headlining with St. Vitus and Asphyx.

Heavytothebone2: What kind of touring will be in support of “Vast Oceans Lachrymose?”

Tom: At this time, we’re only confirmed for Hammer Of Doom III because we signed an exclusive agreement for that event. We did a couple of shows with Argus from Pennsylvania weeks back, which was a good blend of music between Argus and WHW. I have some connection with Butch, the singer, because of Penance and because WHW played with Penance a lot in the past. We get along so well and musically, it just makes so much sense, that we’re going to go ahead and do some more dates in the future here in the states. I’m thinking its most likely going to be spread out over a weekend here and there…most of the band is married with kids and careers and all sorts of stuff like that. It isn’t always so easy for us to do some situation where we pile into a band and drive away. Plus with Michelle (Loose-Schrotz, keyboardist), that’s not too cool (laughs).

We’re looking at some East Coast action after we get past Hammer Of Doom. There some talks to doing some Iron Man/WHW/Argus shows from New York down to Raleigh. Our audience predominately is in Europe, Germany and Greece especially. They embraced us 17 years ago when our demo first came out and it hasn’t changed. Obviously, that is our focus point in the long run…if there is a tour scenario, it’s going to be predominately Germany and Western Europe in general because that’s where our strongest bastion of support.

We got some offers on the table. We got some other things that are big that I’m not at liberty to speak of at the moment, but basically, we’re going to have to make some decisions pretty soon. There are some legitimate offers from high above that we need to consider. That’ll make sense in due time or its totally irrelevant now. Again, I don’t do this for fame, fortune, money, power, notoriety, or any of that. We don’t need to, that’s the thing. We all have jobs and careers and responsibilities and commitment; that would be enough to fulfill a life, but the music is a need and a necessity. Just doing it and completing an album successfully is enough, but it’s worth considering some things.

Heavytothebone2: If you could tour with one band, past or present, who would it be and why?

Tom: (Pauses) That’s a tough one, man. In terms of musical compatibility, or just because it would be fucking cool, it would probably be King Crimson circa 1973, 1974. They are just at that threshold going into the “Red Album” where John Wetton and Bill Bruford are this powerhouse rhythm machine and the height of what people call “Crim-metal.” If not that man, I would have to say Pink Floyd around 1971, probably towards Oct/Nov 1971, when they are just coming out of “Atom Heart Mother” and going into “Meddle.” Long space-out jams, but pre “Dark Side,” so it’s a darker era. I think either of those bands, because at those specific time frames, those bands had darkness to me…but they were still beautiful from orchestral aspects and melancholy too. It would really make sense against a lot of WHW material, but it would be different enough…I think those would be killer shows.

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1. Invisible Oranges writes:

This answered a lot of questions - so thank you for asking them, and getting such considered responses.

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