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Earthen Grave Members Retell Recording Self-Titled Debut

Earthen Grave guitarist Jason Muxlow explains that his band mates, “all love Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath.’ That’s the first song on the first record by the first heavy metal band.” It indeed was the first heavy metal song. It was also the track that laid the floor plans for what would become doom metal. Those diabolic trichords first picked and hammered by Toni Iommi comprise much of Earthen Grave’s spirit, but unlike many genre-specific bands, those notes only comprise, to quote Holzner, a piece of the pie.

There is no mistaking the imprint left by bassist Ron Holzner’s former band, Trouble, but Muxlow adamantly stated Earthen Grave doesn’t share Trouble’s stoner rock tendencies. Still, there is an element of that hard rocking swagger on the track “Titled World.” In the end, Earthen Grave is about six musicians coming together to infuse their own influences and inspirations—including the classical violin virtuosity of Rachel Barton Pine and the epic, blackened doom metal progressions of Muxlow’s The Living Fields—in a superbly written album of myriad moods.

After giving their fans a few months to digest their album, Earthen Grave drove south to play a couple shows just to find out one the shows, the New Orleans show, got canceled. Seeking out another place to play, the group booked a show in Austin, Texas. Metal Underground.com gathered all its members, minus Pine, to talk about these shows, writing and recording their album and how they brought unique visions to covers of Witchfinder General and Pentagram songs.

Darren Cowan (Rex_84): Earthen Grave is currently on tour. You’re New Orleans date got canceled. What did your original tour look like?

Ron Holzner” It wasn’t a tour. We were just getting the hell out of Chicago to go do a few shows. It started with the Metroplex Heavy Fest in Dallas. We thought we would do another one or two shows before we got to Dallas. The rest of the guys in the band—Jason, Mark [Weiner] and Tony [Spillman] have never played New Orleans. I have played there many times, so I said, “Ok, let’s go play New Orleans.” Basically, we had the show booked on Friday and it was officially canceled when we were about half-way down, we were in Blytheville, Arkansas. Actually, our van blew up on a Trouble tour. We almost broke up on another tour I was on. It’s a wonderful town, but every time it comes up, something bad happens. The people are wonderful in that town. It’s just a horrible place to be a band at.

We decided to go to Dallas and figure it out. I always loved playing Austin so I said let’s give it a try. Jason, Mark, myself—we all reached out to everybody we know in the Internet world. We asked them to help us get a show in Texas. Texas needs to hear Earthen Grave. We need to play Texas, and we need to make some money. [Laughs] No, we need to play here. Otherwise, we’re just going to Dallas to drink and have a good time. So I’m thinking let’s go to Austin, have a good time but play. To me, this is one of the best music cities in the world. That’s why we really wanted to come here. We just wanted to hit Texas at least once and then New Orleans. Now, we’re hitting Texas twice. It’s going to be the start of a beautiful relationship. Hopefully, we come back very soon.

Cowan: What can we expect from an Earthen Grave performance?

Holzner: Us guys getting our ya-yas out, big time! We want to rock and have fun! We’ve been cooped up in a van. Chicago has been…it’s good to get away. [Laughs]

Tony Spillman: You’re going to get an energetic, exciting show down here in Texas. A Texas tornado is going to touch down here, tonight!

Cowan: I have seen pictures of Mark with his head shaved and clothed in a monk’s robe.

Mark Weiner: That was called a Shanghai. That’s a traditional outfit that’s worn by the Chinese for burial rites, for funerals. We were playing at Millennium Park. It’s very artsy, so I thought it was fitting.

Holzner: Plus, Ronnie James Dio passed away recently before that. We were doing the song “Stargazer” as a tribute. We honored him with the show, and that’s when the thunder and lightning storm came through. It started blasting the trees when we were playing “Stargazer.”

Weiner: He was a huge influence on me as a vocalist. I had difficulty singing that song without wanting to cry.

Cowan: Your self-titled, debut full-length recording hit retail outlets in April. Five of the songs were originally released on your “Dismal Times” demo. Did you do anything special to those songs—mixing, mastering, etc?

Holzner: We reworked them. When we did those five songs the first time it was a demo we sent out to labels. We were trying to get signed. As we played songs live, we progressed. The songs progressed with us. People demanded to hear something, so we were forced to release it. We didn’t really want to, but it ended up being a good thing. All those songs had already been heard, but by the time we had all the songs ready for a full-length record. To us, it was a full project, the full piece of the pie. Those five songs were part of it. We didn’t want to release one without those songs because those songs progressed into what they should be.

Cowan: Did you write those songs between 2009, the year of your demo release, and now? When did you finish those songs?

Jason Muxlow: We wrote the first three in December of 2008. They were more or less written and arranged by January when we played our first show. We were a band with three completed songs in thirty days. It was quick.

Holzner: The last song before we before we recorded the record, I think, was written two days before we went in the studio. We didn’t even finish a couple of the arraignments until we were in the studio. I changed the intro on “Beneath a Shovel Load” on the way to the studio. It worked out really well. A lot of times, you finish writing the record in the studio. Once you record it, some things don’t come out the way you want. You hear everything better in the studio, and you fix certain things and they become better. The studio gives you the option to really hear what you’re doing. The songs progress in the studio, naturally. It’s funny because when you put the record out and you play the songs live, a lot of times you have to relearn them because you changed them in the studio. A lot of bands do that.

Cowan: The title track is one of the new songs. How does it fit into the theme of your band/album? You named your band before you named the song.

Holzner: The song came out later. It fit the whole band feel. The earth is going to hell in a hand basket. We wanted to represent that and open people’s eyes. Jason came up with the name. It’s the perfect name.

Muxlow: We had the band name. We all love Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath.” That’s the first song on the first record by the first heavy metal band. That’s it! We wanted to have an Earthen Grave song. We knew we were going to call it “Earthen Grave.” We had been around for a year or a year and a half. I think I came up with that. It was one of the first tunes that we completely wrote as a group. Instead of someone coming up with ideas, we chop them up and then change them, I had one part and then we fleshed it. Then I had another part and we fleshed it out.

Holzner: We started from the beginning, finished it and it was done. It was the first one that felt like it was entirely ours. That’s Earthen Grave right there.

Cowan: “Burning a Sinner” is another new song. This is a cover of the Witchfinder General song. How did you approach this song? Did you try to keep your version true to the original?

Muxlow: It’s more or less true in that it’s the same arraignment and more or less the same riffs. We did do the 7-inch version, not the album version. Other than that, I don’t know.

Holzner: Scotty [Davidson] heard the drums and said, “Please, let me change it.”

Davidson: The drums weren’t in time at all, so I wanted to do my own drums. I think I made it sound better.

Holzner: I told him, “Scotty, play what you want.” He tore it up, man. He did a good job.

Muxlow: It’s a classic track. It’s definitive doom, U.K. doom, so we had to do it.

Holzner: When we first started the band, Jason picked a cover song that we all wanted to play. He wanted to do that. That’s why I picked “Relentless” (Pentagram). That song will be personal to me forever. We tried both of these. You always add cover songs into what you’re doing so you can play more songs live. That song evolved with us. Most people say, “Those songs are your songs.” They hear them as Earthen Grave songs. That is a big honor because we are paying tribute to these great bands that we like. That’s the ultimate honor when they say we’re doing it so well that we categorize that as an Earthen Grave song. We must be doing something right.

Cowan: Did you get feedback from the bands that you covered?

Holzner: Victor [Griffin, Pentagram] was fine with it. He loved it. He and Bobby [Liebling] loved hearing the violin. Bobby sang with us once. Joe Hasselvander played drums live with us one time.

Davidson: That was the heaviest he had ever played. Bobby loved it.

Holzner: We haven’t talked to Witchfinder General yet. I’m hoping they play Roadburn. I’ll be there, meet him and talk to him. We need to reach out to them. We’re paying them royalties, so they’ve got to be happy. [Laughs]

Cowan: You mentioned the violin. Rachel Barton Pine’s violin brings a new dimension to the song, dramatics that the original songs didn’t have. Were you trying to add a touch of drama to these songs?

Holzner: No, we played it how we felt it should be played, how we play it. Everybody just grabbed a piece of it. Rachel would say, “I’m going to try this. I’ll put a melody here.” Whoa, that was creepy and cool. When you have a one-guitar band who all of a sudden has two guitars and a violin it’s like how are we going to do this? Are we doing three-part harmonies or just do heavy and atmospheric stuff? We have a lot of ways we can approach doing a song. Everybody seems to find their part really easy. We’re a very natural band.

Cowan: One thing I really like about her playing is she can play soft and sorrow-filled, sometimes like My Dying Bride. She also has that virtuoso aspect to her playing.

Holzner: Unlike My Dying Bride, and she plays rhythms unlike My Dying Bride.

Cowan: Right, but I notice you’ll trade off leads with her. I have never heard a metal band do that with a violinist.

Muxlow: You could take Rachel as the lead player, always. All we are is the guitar.

Holzner: I knew she wasn’t going to be around all the time, so we had to have an identity with her and without her. She made it nice to be in two bands at the same time because we have more of an edge. We’re more of a rocking, heavy, doom band without her. When you go to a wedding you wear a tie and an outfit. You look really good. Us five are looking great together. Then comes the reception. You take your tie off, start boogieing and get some drinks. Picture it like that. One or the other, we’re both.

Spillman: We also approach the song differently when Rachel is playing with us, as opposed to when she is not. When we’re playing her parts, we tend to step back in our ambiance, in our attack in how we’re playing. When she is not playing, Jason and I will fill her solo spots. We’ll put guitar solos over that and we’ll change our harmonies. We seem to have a heavier edge. With Rachel performing with us, we are focusing more on the ambiance of the song. The ambiance is important because it alters the mood. It’s how music should be played.

Cowan: One of the moodier songs on the album is “Blood Drunk.” Did she provide the backing vocals?

Holzner: No, that’s another song we dicked around with at rehearsal with different parts. Jason created this beautiful part, and I said we could do a song around it. We recorded it at the studio of our engineer, Jay Walsh. His wife is a lovely singer. We were playing with the vocals. I could sing but not really because it wasn’t good enough for what the song demanded. I was going to have Mark do a bunch of melodies and harmonies. I said that we needed something different. I knew that she sang and I asked her to come up with something. She did that. This is a very special song that Mark wrote, love and lust, and her voice—back and forth with his—hit the point of what the song is about.

Cowan: Does it create a dialogue?

Holzner: Yes. I asked her to come up with something. We got together the next day and I was like “damn!” All I could say is “damn!”

Cowan: Your lyrics say “It’s a long day with a loaded gun.” Can you talk a little about this song’s story?

Weiner: We’ve been labeling it as a murder ballad. I don’t go out of my way to convey messages, but that’s one song where it’s obvious. It’s about a relationship gone bad. I think everyone has experienced that once or twice. When you hear the music and then you get to that chorus “It’s a long day with a loaded gun.” Do these lyrics say he killed himself, killed the girl or the girl killed him. Nobody really knows. It kind of paints a picture, and then our listeners can pinpoint what they think it means or how it ends. That, for me, feels good.

Cowan: “Titled World” is another track with a memorable chorus. Did you pen that song as an attempt to make a more accessible track?

Weiner: That was the last song written before we went in the studio.

Holzner: We needed one more song. We tried to eliminate one of the covers, so we would have just one cover, so we decided to write a song that was similar to one or the other. Of course, as Earthen Grave goes, it evolved into something totally different. We thought the song was awesome! We broke it down and tried different things. The week before we went into the studio we were putting it together. It evolved into what it was. We had no plan of what to do. It just came out that way. We finished it in the studio, too. Then we said let’s put both covers on the album. Fuck it. [Laughs]

Muxlow: From day one, I was adamant that Earthen Grave is not a stoner rock band because of Trouble’s history—we all love that stuff—but it could not be (imitates stoner rock rhythm). One day we were like (mouths the song’s rhythm). Ron fucked it all up and made it crazy. It’s awesome! It’s a stoner rock song without being stoner rock.

Cowan: What does “living in a titled world” mean? Is this song about not being centered in life?

Weiner: That song doesn’t have a direct meaning. When you read the lyrics you can summarize it as the coming of the end—the end for that person, being or time. Maybe one day I’ll sit down and explain what they all mean.

Holzner: I think you hit on the meaning, about being off kilter. The world is just not right.

Cowan: “Death on the High Seas” is your longest track, clocking in at over ten minutes. It’s also your most diverse song. It has a bit of a thrash-y vibe. It’s a fast song. Were you going for a thrash song?

Holzner: That was our first song written. It kept growing and growing as we were righting together. We tried a bunch of things. We didn’t know what was right and what was wrong because it was our first song. I said we needed to let it go because they kept trying to edit it. I said no, let’s not edit. Let’s write new songs, keep it the way it is, and don’t fuck with it. We needed to let it evolve when we play live, instead of trying to make something different from what it already is. I’m glad we did that. I hate playing the whole song live. We do it on special occasions.

Muxlow: We do an edited version.

Holzner: We do it once a year at the most, but we’ve got different edited versions that we throw at you. You’ll hear one of them tonight. We edited that and I think we may have edited another one (“Fall in.”)

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