Ashes to ashes + An interview with haarp
Like a beast let loose from a cage, haarp came tearing out of the swamps of NOLA with their debut album, The Filth. Propelled by beer, bourbon and a searing, feral intensity, it immediately elicited a strong response from the metal underground. Being signed to Phil Anselmo‘s Housecore Records certainly helped to catapult them into the public consciousness, but the haarp clearly stood on their own two feet and made it clear that they were ready to face the world — tooth and nail.
Poised in the eve of their follow up release entitled Husks, TBR tears into a meaty discussion with haarp‘s demolition man, Keith Sierra Jr.
TBR: First off, congratulations on Husks! I’ve been listening all night and it’s fucking KILLER!!
TBR: Before getting into the album itself, what were some of the key differences between where you guys were as a band when you started recording The Filth and where you were when you started recording Husks? How did the experience of the previous album make this one different?
KSJ: When we put The Filth together we used some of the earliest songs we wrote as well as some of the newer songs we were working on at the time. When songs were written during that time, we knew which songs were going to be used for that album and what songs would go on our EPs and the split.
We were looking for a specific, oppressive, heavy, and suffocating feel with The Filth so we used the songs that had that vibe. When we started writing Husks, we knew we wanted to have a different feel to the album and to make it more versatile. We didn’t want to write a similar album and we didn’t want the listen to be as long, hard, and tiring as The Filth.
TBR: The first thing that jumps out at you is that Husks is composed of three individual songs: “deadman/rabbit”, “bear” and “fox”. Obviously, there’s a thematic aspect to Husks… Is there an actual storyline running through the album or is it more abstract?
KSJ: There is an abstract concept that ties all of the songs together and also connects them with a short story and a poem, which should be easy to figure out once the album and artwork comes out. All of the characters in the songs are dealing with the repercussions that follow an awakening of some sort. The songs explore how each character deals with this awakening. They all deal with it in different ways and have different outcomes in the end.
TBR: From a songwriting perspective, was there a lot of discussion beforehand about different ideas other than the things that grew into Husks? Or did you guys all come together and settle pretty quickly on the ideas behind this album?
KSJ: Musically, we just wrote what we felt was the next step in the band’s evolution, if you want to call it that. We knew we wanted to show some different influences so we added some faster parts, some more technical parts. The process wasn’t necessarily quick because we are pretty particular and we take our time tweaking parts and rewriting to make sure everyone is happy with every part.
Lyrically, we had the basic ideas behind the songs and what characters we wanted to use but once we started going over the connections in the poem, the short story, and the lyrical ideas we had to make some changes with things like point of view- so it required some more writing and editing. Once those small changes were agreed upon it went relatively fast.
TBR: Were there any sort of external things that inspired you guys in making this album? Things you might have read or seen or been talked about with people?
KSJ: Sure, there were a lot of things. Everything from personal issues for everyone involved to band related issues to books to just good old fashioned conversations about the songs and characters.
Personally, I know reading and watching people and seeing how they interact with others played a large part. Noticing how some people were happy and just had a sense of self while others were bitter, mean, and self serving played a large part in the process this time for me.
TBR: What sorts of things do the lyrics deal with?
KSJ: Typical metal themes: death, despair, war, loneliness, loss of self, striving to be part of something, mockery, standing up for one’s true self, freedom. …the usual. Hahaha!
I know the answers for lyrics and themes questions are vague but I am really big into reader/listener response. I don’t want to spell things out for people – I like for people to look into it and think about it if they want to know and are interested. I’m not trying to be mysterious, just letting people read and decide if it is just a little story or if it’s something they can relate to.
TBR: Obviously, there are some pretty major structural differences between the songs on the two albums: How was the songwriting process different between Husks and The Filth? Was it more work this time around to pull everything together into three tunes?
KSJ: The process was the same just with different riffs and different parts. Write, rewrite, arrange, listen back, improve it if you can. Some parts came together very easily, other parts we’d write and throw away. We didn’t care about song length or how many songs we just wanted to write what felt right. The thing with having 3 songs is that we just knew when it was done. As cliché as that sounds, it is true. We finished arranging the end of fox and the way it decomposes and just falls apart, we knew it was the end.
TBR: As a producer, what was Phil’s involvement during pre-production as the songs we’re being written?
KSJ: His involvement when we write is limited to listening to the finished tracks/demos and telling us he likes them. Haha! That’s all.
TBR: Word is that the album was recorded in part at the University of New Orleans Performing Arts Center, (Fountainbleau Room 7011). How did that come about and what was the reasoning behind it? What was it like working in that sort of environment?
KSJ: The drums were recorded at UNO. Nathan (the engineer) works at the university and had access to the room, which is big, open, and gets good drum sounds. We decided to go with a bigger room and record the drums there in order to have a different drum sound than last time. The environment was OK if not a little… clinical? Big, concrete walls, cold feel to it, professional equipment in super nice and high tech cases, air lock doors, etc. It’s a big room so you’re a little isolated and in the middle of nowhere but it was fine. We recorded there at night after the school was closed so the only issue was one very overzealous security guard who thought we looked out of place.
TBR: From there, things shifted over to Nodferatu’s Lair. I imagine that it was a much different feel… Can you give us an idea what it was like once things moved over there?
KSJ: Recording at the Lair is just like hanging out at someone’s house. Small, cozy atmosphere, lots of joking, beers, Shirley the dog sitting on the sofa. People are in and out, you have no time constraints or pressure. It’s a nice, laid back comfortable place to record.
TBR: Once you guys got into the studio, what’s Phil’s involvement like? Is he very hands on or does he take more of an “Executive Producer” type role? Give us some examples of the sorts of ideas that he’d kick out while you were working.
KSJ: He gets involved as far as drawing the best out of our performances, making sure the tracking feels right, and letting us know when to kick it in the ass versus when to take a break. He trusts us and our music enough to know that we’re ready when we come in and all he has to do is listen and make sure we nail our parts. With the vocals and the strings he is a little more involved but you’d have to ask the other guys about that.
TBR: Did you guys ever disagree with him on anything major? How did that work out?
KSJ: Hahaha! Yes we have. We say how we feel about something and he disagrees or vice versa. The thing is neither Phil nor us would ever try to do something we didn’t think would help us and once that initial “MY WAY!!!!!” feeling clears we discuss things and make the decision that works the best. We never let it linger and stay irritated or mad. That would be a disservice to our friendship.
TBR: If you’d boil everything down that you’ve learned from working with Phil into a single thought, what would it be?
KSJ: Relax and do what you KNOW you can do.
TBR: I can’t imagine that you guys were all work and no play while it was being recorded. What sort of crazy hijinx did you guys get into to take the edge off?
KSJ: Well, there are chemicals involved in writing and recording, I will say that. Nothing too crazy though. We’ll indulge a bit but usually we’re pretty serious business while recording. When it’s time to work we work and when we’re done we’ll BBQ, get into some drinks, and act foolish. That’s the reason it’s nice to record drums first, finish early, drink while they work, and mock them for having to wait!
TBR: Being that you guys are signed with Housecore, do you guys ever feel like there’s a different level of scrutiny or pressure to live up to? Or do you feel like the band gets more respect and that it opens doors?
KSJ: I think being on Housecore works both ways. The label is very good to us and gives us the opportunity to reach a lot of fans that would never hear of us as well as opportunities for some excellent shows and tours. There are people who have interest in us because the Phil likes us and wears the shirt. That said, not all of them like us and that is fine, our music is not for everyone.
On the other side of the equation are people who dislike him and they’ll write us off for that fact. At the end of the day you hope people can separate things and listen to the music and decide what they feel about it based on what they hear.
TBR: Shifting gears a bit, everyone always wants to know more and talk about New Orleans. How would you say that things are doing there over the last couple of years – both in terms of the “scene” for heavy music as well as the actual city itself.
KSJ: Things are doing fine and the things that aren’t quite right are getting better. There are still some problems but I am sure they are present in every city. We have good people, bad people, good areas, bad areas, and everything in between. I think the main difference is that we throw a LOT of parties, festivals, and things like that so when people visit, it’s this awesome fun time. Living here? Same as anywhere else. You have your moments of “I love this place!” and your moments of “Why am I still here?”
As for the scene, it’s the same as it has been since I started playing music here many years ago – you have the bigger bands that a lot of people know about and a lot of bands flying under the radar. The scene is full of lesser known acts that make up a good group and that people should really look into, some new, some that have been around for a long while. I don’t want to name specific names because I might miss some bands but they are out there, easy to find with the computer.
TBR: In the big picture, what are the best and worst things about New Orleans? Or the things that you like best and dislike the most?
KSJ: The best thing is crawfish boils. I love them. It only comes at a specific time of year and that makes them special. The act of getting together, making something delicious to eat, and hanging, talking, drinking a few beers is just a really good time. As for things I dislike? Let’s just say the city could be a much, much better place and it irritates me that the potential is there but not realized.
TBR: No doubt you guys are gonna hit the road in support of the new release. Any specific tour plans shaping up?
KSJ: We hit the road with Down and Warbeast in September which works out nicely because it coincides with our album release date. We’re playing 8 shows on that run then we’ll return home to do a CD release show in New Orleans. After that we’ll hit some areas in the deep South on the weekends and keep going from there.
TBR: Any last words before signing off?
KSJ: Husks comes out on September 18th so give it a spin. And look for us on the road, come say hello!
Keith Sierra Jr. – drums
Shaun Emmons – vocals
Grant Tom – guitars
Bret Davis – bass
haarp on the Book of Faces: https://www.facebook.com/haarpnola