Regal and Thunderous Ideas: An Interview With Czar About Their Music
Chomping at the bit with energy, Chicago three-piece Czar has released an impressive EP and one album, titled "Vertical Mass Grave." Defining Czar's sound is a bit like searching for a black shirt in a dark room, although one thing is certain: It has a trail-blazing quality to it. Czar's Brian Elza, Dan Brill, and Jason Novak explain their craft, their songs, and themselves.
Frank Serafine (Progressivity_In_All): What made the band choose the name "Czar"?
Jason Novak: There were many regal and thunderous ideas tossed about. Originally, we were heading in a more nautical-god-underwater-terror kind of thing, but then the word 'czar' caught our eye, and it just looked so iconic, sounded powerful, and, frankly, we couldn't find anyone really using the name. Also loved how the word's original Russian usage and current connotations are different, yet still evoke the same imperial, commanding feelings.
FS: Who writes most of the music?
Jason Novak: It's a very collaborative process. Many of the songs start out with an odd beat from our drummer, Dan, and after a few head scratches, Brian and I will kind of see who comes up with something that works, feels right, and can be built upon. Most times that turns out to be a rhythm or bass line. Once that gets locked in, the accompaniment gets added, allowing us to bridge into something new, and then it starts to build itself.
Also, Brian and I have tons of odds and ends in our melodic arsenal, and many times it's just one of us saying, "How do you like this riff?" If it strikes a chord in another member, we run with it.
FS: Is the music largely written before the band gets together to play it? How much of it is found through playing together, if any?
Jason Novak: For a handful of our tunes, I would sketch out melodies on guitar, arrange them, and map out some simple drum machine patterns, then send the sketch recording to the others. If everyone is on board, Brian usually begins deconstructing the root melodies and writing different accompaniments that take everything in a new direction. In these cases, Dan writes drum parts that are far more engaging, and the song really takes flight.
In other instances, Brian has been riffing while tuning up or just messing around, and both Dan and I will look at each other and instantly turn and say, "Whoa…play that again, what was THAT?" and that is really inspiring because it happens so naturally. And then there are the rest of the songs, which find Dan presenting us with something super challenging, and then we work at finding ways to count it, absorb it, create melodies, and help mold it into something more accessible without losing its unique quality.
I think it's worth noting that very rarely do the three us build a tune at the same time, that the key is for two people to work on an element or riff and then present it to the third who can then build on top of that. I can't tell you how many times the 3 of us try to build at the same time and it just devolves into chaos.
FS: How long has each band member been playing their instrument for?
Jason Novak: Brian started playing guitar around age 12. There were no lessons, and no serious steps towards writing music until around 16, when he started his first band. Dan has been been playing drums a little more every day for the past 18 years or so peppered with formal training here and there. He started playing drums in intermediate school in the King Cobra school band in Kaneohe, Hawaii. After 8th grade, he finally scored a drum set and began jamming with anyone in his small neighborhood. Hardcore, Punk, Metal and the inescapable Reggae styles is what Dan found himself learning as he played with other local musicians. He discovered Primus and Mr.Bungle at that time as well as S.O.D., M.O.D., D.R.I., Gorillas Biscuits, Sick of it All and other East Coast Hardcore influences along with Ministry, RUN DMC, Metallica and Slayer.
After relocating to San Diego, Dan played all through HIgh School in some great local bands. Now, back in Chicago for the past 16 years, CZAR is the culmination of all these years of playing drums. Novak is self-taught, and began playing guitar and writing music at the age of 15. After countless bands and albums and projects that have taken him from industrial to shoegazer or from drum n bass to metal, Czar is his landing pad of choice.
FS: Was the shift to more energy and movement on the debut album from the synth-backed and more spacious EP conscious or just coincidental?
Jason Novak: I think that the main reason for that was for most of the EP, the basis of the tracks was pure instrumental jamming and free construction between Dan and me. Brian joined us after the EP's main structure had been conceived, and added all the alternate melodies and layers. Then some vocals were added, so it was kind of built in the ether. For the LP, it was the three of us writing together from scratch. We had been playing live a lot, collaborating on the spot, and writing vocal melodies as songs were being written, so the song structures and the energy became more organic. Personally, I can't wait to find a way to fuse the two approaches for our next offering.
FS: What are the inspirations behind the lyrics on the EP? On "Vertical Mass Grave"?
Jason Novak: A lot of times, the writing process pushes me to start barking out syllables after we have written some musical passages, and in those instances, you really say what you feel…and it can be pretty stupid. However, there is a message that just comes out without you "writing" it, and that can be very personal. The melody and your idea are then kind of bonded, and it's hard to separate them and say, "No, this song should really be about carjacking" or something.
So, you re-write, but with the original theme intact. For me, that turns out to be about negative relationship situations or dealing with short-sighted idiots and assholes! What can I say? I was told by a close friend, after reading the lyrics to the new album, that it offered very little hope or chances for redemption. For the EP, it was a little easier to write about things like the Donner party or mad generals, but the deeper we get into the writing and commitment to Czar, I guess the more personal it has become.
FS: How long did the album take to put together, both writing- and studio-wise?
Brian Elza: After the EP was released in mid-2009, we revisited some older tunes that didn't make the cut, but found the fresh ideas were coming together faster. We spent the better part of 2010 writing what became the album. There was no rush, and that leisurely pace might explain why some reviewers are finding it hard to pin down our style. The songwriting evolved as we evolved, so if we were jamming on BAND X or GENRE Y at the time, a little seeped into our basic formula.
By the fall of 2010, we knew we had an album. Whereas the EP was totally DIY, we wanted a bigger room and an outsider's perspective for the LP. After comparing the output and overall value of studios in the area, Matt Talbott's Great Western Record Recorders (now Earth Analog) was the answer, not to mention the bonus of working with someone who understands the balance of heavy bluster and dynamic air.
We spent December fine-tuning the songs at our space, and traveled down to GWRR for a short weekend in January 2011. We arrived as they were calling it a day, took advantage of a late-night jam, spent the next day recording basic tracks to 2" tape, and the next afternoon laying down additional takes to make a stereo mix. Matt was impressed by the amount of music we recorded in 1.5 days, but if we had to do it over again, we'd spend more time tracking and less time mixing.
FS: With the record being self-produced, do you recommend that bands pursue their own production?
Jason Novak: That's a good question. I have written and produced a ton of albums, and it has been mostly a positive experience. For Czar, however, there was a lot more to strive for and live up to and there were many instances where I would have done anything for someone else to come in and take the album away from me. I got to obsessing over bits and pieces, and the band would sit down and take notes and we would build mixes, only to pick away at them until they got "over-mixed" and we lost what was so awesome a few days prior. This went on for months!
It was stressful and I would say as a warning, if you are so close to a recording, the over-analyzing can be very detrimental. If we had paid someone to mix it in a week, we would have had a great record much earlier from someone not married to the material. I love the outcome, treasure it, but would definitely be open to hiring someone to mix the record next time out. I also want to add that having Matt Talbott recording and engineering was a treat, having someone interested in the best tones possible, changing mics, taking time to capture the best take, I would never record without a proper engineer at the helm again and would record again with him in a second.
FS: Is Czar playing nationally or just locally?
Brian Elza: Up to this point, Czar has been a Chicago band. We've toured in other bands over the years, but the desire for us to tour took a backseat to our album. And without the record, there wasn't a huge demand for us to, you know, hit Wichita. But we've been in talks with promoters, and a primary goal of 2012 is to take this beast on the road and make more friends.
FS: What sort of gear does the band use?
Brian Elza: I play a tuned-up Gibson SG Standard into old Japanese Boss pedals into an older Ampeg V4 head and out of two Marshall 4x12 speaker cabs. Jason plays a down-tuned Schecter Scorpion into a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, but with the power tubes removed and set to use the solid state power amp instead. That comes out of a Marshall 4x12, also. For "bass," Jason's guitar goes through a Boss Super Octave pedal, which sends a bass signal to an old Randal solid state head and into an Emperor 2x15. He also uses a midi footswitch to trigger samples in Ableton Live. Dan plays a DW kit, Zildjian cymbals. A new drum set is in the works for future CZAR endeavors which will be from C and C Custom Drums. Trick pedals keep Brill's feet ever articulate on the kick drum and he oft enjoys Vic Firth sticks.
FS: What are some of Czar's biggest influences?
Brian Elza: Bandwise, we all listen to really different music, so I can only speak to our common musical influences. There are seminal bands like The Cure and Ministry, noisy metal like Godflesh and Helmet, more melodic "post-hardcore" bands like Hum and Shiner, but also the prog metal of Tool and calc of Meshuggah. And we're fans of more contemporary metal bands like Gojira and Mastodon, and newer bands that keep pushing the genre further, such as Black Breath or Trap Them.
Dan Brill: Geometry, patterns in nature and meditation is what drives my ideas. Expressing those ideas aurally, rhythmically and musically is always the aim of this particular drummer. Thankfully, Jason and Brian are great band mates as they complete these ideas while offering their own which results in CZAR's music. Otherwise, I would be in a cave somewhere drumming with no one aware of it except myself, albeit such.
Jason Novak: In my previous band, “Acumen Nation,” we had a reputation for being "industrial rock" which was cool to a point, but somewhere along the way I lost the desire to make that kind of music as far as being labeled as such. As my writing and playing began to break from that, Acumen got some flack in the process and I am sure we lost some fans as we got heavier. So for me, starting Czar was a way to break from the past and embrace only what I wanted to play and write 100% with no genre preconceptions from a potential listener.
Even now, accepting the "metal" tag is fine with me, as long as it doesn't stop us from one day writing a piece of music that deviates or challenges what people associate us with. We just want to play music we like, that challenges us in the process, and that never EVER repeats anything resembling a chorus more than once.
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