This June 21 profile of Cephalic Carnage only scratches the surface of Westword's wide-ranging interview with the band's guitarist, Zac Joe. The Q&A below expands on virtually every topic in the article, and adds plenty more.
Subjects include the studio Cephalic built in "an undisclosed location within the Denver area," and the assorted obstacles Mother Nature tossed out to slow the recording of the group's first-rate new disc, Xenosapien; the process utilized in laying down the tracks, as well as the group's envelope-pushing foray into technical riffology; Carnage's preference for tune individuality rather than death-metal formula; comments about how a previous single that was intended to be tongue-in-cheek was taken all too seriously by the act's fans; an injury that happened amid a wild video shoot; Stephen Hawking's alleged love of Cookie Monster vocals; the influence of bands ranging from Kreator and Thin Lizzy to Frank Zappa and Mr. Bungle; the group's current tour (Zac was in South Carolina during the interview); the question of whether extreme metal's growing popularity has anything to do with the state of the world today; and day jobs versus making a living solely from music.
Let the Carnage begin:
Westword (Michael Roberts): You built your own studio for this project?
Zac Joe: Yeah. We didn’t know if it was going to be ambitious or foolish. We thought the end product would let us know how it was coming about. But we just thought it was time for us to take some of the advance money and put it into a long-term effort – something we can either fall back on or just have that creativity at our fingertips at any time, either for Cephalic or for various side projects or for friends’ bands. Whatever, because I don’t care who you are: You’re not going to be a touring band for the rest of your life, and if you want to continue to play music, I think it’s wise to do something like that if the money’s there. So we decided to do that, and we decided to break ground on December 4. Not all the songs had been written yet. Leonard [also known as Lenzig Leal] and I and Nick [Schendzielos] all had songs in our back pockets that we knew we had to show to John [Merryman] during the recording, and we knew we could do it as long as [producer/engineer] Dave [Otero] was there during the drum portions to kind of make it simpler. And Dave brought a lot of his stuff down, so we could do scratch guitars and drums. And that went perfect.
WW: Let me slow you down a little bit to ask more about the studio. When you say “break ground,” did you actually construct the building the studio’s in?
ZJ: No, we’ve been practicing at this property that belongs to our guitar player Steve [Goldberg]’s family. It used to be an old lumber store, and they made it into a storage facility, and they haven’t been using the second story for a while. So they’ve been very generous to allow us up there to kind of do our thing.
WW: Where’s it at?
ZJ: It’s at an undisclosed location within the Denver area. (Laughs.) We do a t-shirt print shop there as well – stickers and t-shirts. So that’s there. We rehearse there as well. And with technology, you really don’t need the big 64-channel studio anymore with all the separation rooms. Thanks to all the computer programs and good mikes and condensers and power amps and whatever, you can do a lot. And I think showcased by the MySpace boom, there are kids who are recording killer demos on their laptops in their room… So we put up a bunch of screens and a bunch of microphones and stuff like that, and that’s where the problems started.
WW: The problems?
ZJ: As you know, we got hit by a tremendous number of snowstorms, and that ended up crippling us completely. Our goal was to have Dave come in and do the drum effects with some of his gear, and we brought all of our own gear, and we would record the guitars and bass ourselves, as long as we needed to do that. So we had ordered these parts from some friends of ours in San Francisco, and then things just got held up. Either it was UPS or we had the wrong pieces or the pieces weren’t compatible with the motherboard. So we had three weeks where we weren’t doing anything, and that ended up holding up the whole album by two months.
WW: What was the original release date of the album?
ZJ: We were supposed to hand it to them in January, and then it became February, and I think they actually got it in March. The release date jumped around a little bit, and it finally came out May 29. I don’t remember what the original release date was. I just remember there was a whole lot of stress and frustration involved in the initial part until we finally got things up and going again.
WW: Obviously, that’s not the best-case scenario – but sometimes that sort of pent-up aggression can help the project as a whole. Is that how it turned out – that when you guys finally got to record, you were on fire?
ZJ: I think so to a certain extent. But you’re so focused in on the little details that it’s hard to pull out and tell whether what you’re doing is genius or crap. You know? You don’t know, because you’re so focused on the minor details that it’s hard to focus on the big picture. My whole thing was, I almost wish something had happened before drums, because then we would have had that three weeks to put some more songs together, put some more ideas together. Because once the drums were done, that was it. That’s all we had to work with. And we had to make sure we worked within those constraints, and there were twelve and fourteen hour days. Working during the day time for myself and my family, so I had to do it at night, and I’d be there until four or five o’clock in the morning all the time, and so would Steve and Nick. Just pounding it as hard as we could, and then getting a little ADD and getting totally bored, or just frustrated because the part isn’t coming out, or you just can’t get it. We did everything to metronomes mostly without listening to John’s drums and with mostly no distortion – just clean guitars, and then doubling them all up. That was a new technique for us. It was a pain. I just wanted to hit my head against the wall so many times, thinking, “Why the hell did we write technical riffs like this?”
WW: It may have been a pain, but one of the best things about the disc is the unbelievably technical nature of a lot of the guitar parts. Was that one of the concepts you had going in? That you wanted to really push the envelope technically?
ZJ: Not that we concern ourselves with what’s going on around us, but the level of musicianship within our genre has just stepped up the last two or three years. These kids are learning how to play arpeggios and solos and technicalities like crazy, and we’ve always been technical, but I knew we had to step it up without throwing in a lot of the cheesy, trendy stuff – without trying to sound like all the newer bands that have come out, because that’s not what we’re interested in. We are who we are, and we make no apologies about it… I was the guy who’d come home after a shift at three o’clock in the morning and plug in the Micro-Cube and start noodling around until I came up with something. I never set out to write kooky time signatures or be super-technical. Just kind of whatever the vibe was that took us there. I love 4-4 and the Beatles more than anything, but the key is talent, I think.
WW: So you wanted to use that technical guitar style in an expressive way, instead of saying to yourself, “We’ve got to play this way to make it seem like we’re keeping up”?
ZJ: It’s tough keeping up. Once you start concerning yourself with that, then your music is crap. It’s not true, it’s not honest. We never set out to be technical for technical’s sake. That’s just not for us. But I’ll tell you, a lot of times in the past, you’d see the floor and our little chalkboard covered with numbers because that was how we were counting. That’s where the frets were. We did a lot of that. But we didn’t have to do that this time. It was more natural.
WW: Is there a song on the album where you thought, “This is the key. This is the direction we want to follow”?
ZJ: I think the big thing for us is we always wanted the songs to have individuality – to sound different from one another. Now, for someone who’s not into the genre, they might listen to the album and think, “It all sounds the same to me…”
WW: I don’t think so…
ZJ: Good, because we always set out to make each song individual. Not to write the perfect song, but to make sure that every song wasn’t doing the same thing. There are some bands that have two riffs in their whole set. And the kids eat it up; they love it. But I don’t see why people would want to rewrite the perfect song over and over again. In death metal, it seems like everything’s got to be formulaic. But for us, we really want the songs to be individual.
WW: What’s the first song you came up with?
ZJ: The first song on the album, “Endless Cycle of Violence.” We had that song for about a year, and then the second and third song popped up slowly. But it wasn’t really until we decided to record that the songs started coming up more quickly, where everyone started having ideas. Everyone in the band writes, so it comes together quickly when you know you’ve got a fire under your ass – that you told the label, “We’re ready to record” when you’re really not, so you’ve really got to bust ass. You start digging out all those old riffs and song ideas. But you’re always going to have kids who come to shows that only want to hear songs from your second album, and everything else is crap to them. They’ll be like, “I hated that fucking record.” But we’ve got to be happy when we walk away from something. We don’t want to walk away thinking that things sound half-baked. You’re always trying to better yourself.
WW: And for guys, having done it for as long as you have, if you’re not interested in what you’re doing, that’s going to come through to the listener.
ZJ: I think so. I totally think so. Writing music is a very selfish thing, and I think that’s the way it should remain. In our case, you’ve got to make sure that the five guys walk out of that rehearsal room happy and stoked about what’s going on. If not, can the song or can the riff: get rid of it. If you’re writing for them, it shows. If they’re along for the ride, cool. If not, move along to the next band.
WW: It certainly seems that more people have come along for the ride lately, and that’s interesting, since it doesn’t seem like you guys have been compromising. Is that proof to you that if you push things as hard as you can, listeners will follow you where you’re going, and want you to go into new areas?
ZJ: Totally. Just from talking to kids at shows, that seems to be the case. And we felt that the scene is coming closer to us. We had a song on our last album, “Dying Will Be the Death of Me,” that’s a tongue-in-cheek track for us to comment on the way scene is going, with all of what we call the Boston breakdown laser-gun riffs. We wanted to do that, but we also wanted to step it up. The song had a sing-along chorus and it was very tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time, we wanted the musicianship to kind of step it up over all these bands that have been doing it all the time. It has that sort of Meshuggah-esque odd time signature breakdown riff in the middle. But where I think we messed up is, we put that out as the first single on the record, and the kids on the Internet thought it was our new style, it was totally how we were going to be, we were selling out. Johnny Carson once said, “If you have to explain a joke, it wasn’t worth telling.” So we just said, “Fuck it.” If you don’t get it, whatever, but we had fun with it. And since then we’ve seen this explosion of tech-metal bands, and we feel they’ve been coming closer to us. So if they’re along for the ride, cool, and if they’re not, we’ve had a good run, and there’s still a lot out there to be had.
WW: I’m assuming you’ve been getting really good feedback on the new disc…
ZJ: Yeah, and we didn’t expect it. The last time, with “Dying,” people didn’t even give the rest of the album a chance. It suffered some lackluster reviews here and there, even though some people absolutely loved it. But this album, the response has been very, very good. And we’re really happy.
WW: What’s the lead single this time around?
ZJ: “Endless Cycle of Violence.” That’s the one the video was made for. We had world-renowned Soren came to Denver, in our back lot. He filmed a hundred of our closest friends. We got everyone really super-drunk on, like, thirteen cases of beer. And they got drum kits and guitars and stuff that could be completely destroyed. One of our close friends was actually injured, which we felt really bad about.
WW: What kind of injury?
ZJ: She had to get a CAT scan, and she got staples in her head. People were swinging guitars around and somebody accidentally hit her. So that wasn’t a laughing matter. But the label picked up the medical bill, and she’s okay now. We were really concerned about her; we didn’t want that to happen. But if you watch the video, you’ll see how extremely violent the whole thing came out. It’s funny, though, too.
WW: I wanted to ask about some specific songs on the album. On “The Omega Point,” it sounds like Stephen Hawking. Is it?
ZJ: Yeah, apparently Stephen Hawking is really into technical death metal. He says that’s the next evolutionary step of humanity, not just of music alone. We’re all going to walk around talking in a Cookie Monster voice doing arpeggios and blasting. That’s the new form of communicating. So he’s really into it, he’s a big fan, and I think if you see A Brief History of Time, you’ll see that he’s got a Cephalic hoodie on, which is really cool. He was cool to do it.
WW: Okay, now that we’ve gotten the Paul Lynde answer out of the way, what’s the real story?
ZJ: Nick actually wrote all the lyrics to that song, and there’s the program called Say It Now! online, and you can get all these things where you program them in to sound like whatever. He really thought Stephen Hawking was the appropriate voice, and we fucking love it. I mean, how many times has Stephen Hawking been on a metal record? Or anybody’s record. And the whole song is about man’s existential quest to discover who he truly is and what it’s all about, so I think Stephen Hawking’s was very much the appropriate voice.
WW: For me, “Divination & Volition” is the track where the twin-guitar approach is at its height. How did that come together?
ZJ: I wrote the music for that song just noodling along on my guitar one day, and we had a song on Lucid Interval called “Pseudo,” and it was one of my favorite songs we’ve ever had, and it was a big fan favorite. And I kind of wanted to take that back again – do a little bit of a noodling thing, but also round it out in the end, so the end was a heavy riff that was the antithesis of how the song started out. It’s really not that technical of a riff, but you can get away with making it sound crazier if it’s faster. But even though we’re into that stuff, we didn’t want the whole record to be plagued with that stuff. If you listen to some bands that are technical, they do that through the whole album, and I think that has no dynamics to it, and it has no substance.
WW: So that it’s just showing off, and it doesn’t have any feeling behind it?
ZJ: Yeah – and there is feeling behind what we’re doing. It’s the erratic nature of us, and what the song is about, and what the vocals do, too. Again, being technical for technical’s sake is just kind of boring. I think it becomes more impressive and maybe more awe-inspiring if we just kind of pepper it along in different parts of the record. Like, “Wow, that part was crazy!” But if you do that 24-7, you’ll get this numbing effect. It’ll be oversaturated.
WW: Another song that jumped out to me was “Touched By an Angel,” in part because it has so many different collisions of style. Did that come together in the studio, with you guys throwing in bits and pieces from all over the place?
ZJ: The way it happened, the first riff was Leonard’s riff. He came in one day and said, “I have this riff,” and we were like, “Fuck, that’s awesome. Let’s do that.” So we black-metalled it out. I think the whole thing has this black-metal, Kreator, Thin Lizzy thing going on – and those three things probably should never have been involved in one song. But it’s very streamlined, too. The chorus comes together really well, and most of the time, Cephalic kids aren’t really used to having us do that. But it goes over really well every night, and it’s fun as fuck to play. I love it when that Thin Lizzy part comes up in the middle of the song.
WW: You’re right that the parts don’t seem that they should work together, but they do. Is that something you discovered on this record – how fun it is to play mix and match with different genres, instead of thinking, this song is going to be this style, and that song is going to be that style?
ZJ: We did that on Anomalies. We said, “These songs are going to be their own style. We’re going to have a stoner rock song and this is going to be the techie song.” We did that on purpose. But we’re into Mr. Bungle and Frank Zappa and all that kind of stuff. And unless you just want to go totally retro, you’ve got to go on your own path. And if you want to do that, the only option is to incorporate different genres and different styles, in my opinion. Otherwise, it’s just going to be cutting the same ground that everyone else is on, and I’m just not into that. I get so bored when people are hashing out the same shit over and over and over again. If they’re wanting to do the retro thing, that’s one thing. But if they think they’re coming up with something really new and original, they’re not.
WW: You mentioned that you’re on tour in South Carolina right now. How’s the tour going?
ZJ: All the shows have been very, very big. 500 is a minimum a night. South Carolina has never been known for big shows, so we’ll see. But this tour’s been packing them in like crazy. It’s awesome. I love it when half the kids know who you are and half of them have no idea. They’re buying merchandise like crazy, they’re beating each other up out in the pit area. That’s all we can hope for. This tour is very big…
WW: It seems like your genre is growing right now. To what do you attribute that? The state of the world?
ZJ: Yeah. Look at the Reagan era, when punk rock and metal were big, and death metal was big because cock rock was big. I’m not going to get into a Republican or Democrat thing, but in war time, aggressive music sells. The anti-culture is always bigger. If you look at the Bill Clinton era, fucking Hootie and the Blowfish and pot smokers were everywhere. Now you’ve got Lamb of God and My Chemical Romance selling really well. So honest to God, it is the state of the world. But I will gladly give up my metal career for peace. If my kids can grow up with peace, I’m okay with that.
WW: I wish it was that simple. But I think you guys are reflecting people’s moods…
ZJ: Well, we were pissed off during the Clinton era, too. (Laughs.) But I think what’s going on now totally has to do with the climate, and a certain aspect of these kids that are biting off the Swedish death metal. A lot of that is fashion, you know. A lot of those big MySpace metal bands now, they’re fifteen, sixteen, and they’re really into it, which is a good thing. But every trend and fad won’t last. There’ll be ones that will. If you look at the death-metal genre, Cannibal Corpse plowed through the whole thing and still sell 100,000 records, and they haven’t lost their crowds one iota. Same thing with Slayer. But a lot of that stuff is going to come and go. Always does. Whether it’s the baggy-pantsed jerk-offs or whoever – and now they’re back wearing jeans and sleeve tattoos again. But at least this version of it, they actually learned to play guitar, instead of playing that same power chord over and over again. These kids can actually play a guitar solo, so therein lies the difference. It’ll come and go, but we’ll take it right now.
WW: You mentioned earlier having to work a shift and then go into the studio. What’s the day job?
ZJ: I work at Breckenridge Brewery part time, and they’ve been amazing to me. I’ll be like, “I’ve got to go on tour for two months,” and they’ll be like, “Give us a call when you get back, and the job will be waiting for you.” And they’re just amazing people to work with. I have a great time over there. And the same thing with our drummer and everyone else. Our guitar player, Steve, works at the Ogden and the Bluebird, Leonard pretty much runs the print shop.
WW: Do you think with the success of this disc, will the day jobs become part of the past?
ZJ: What I’m looking to move into is engineering and doing the print shop fulltime, and the fact that I’m not doing that says that I’m just fucking lazy. Because there’s enough career and money sitting there for all of us to take. We just haven’t been working hard enough to do it. If we’d all done as much as Leonard has to do the t-shirt thing, we’d all be living off it fulltime. But I’m married with two kids, so I have a lot of expenses. So if I can walk into Breckenridge Brewery during a baseball game and clear $200, it’s easy, quick money, and I don’t mind doing it. But I’ll tell you this. I know bands that are on a much bigger level than us that still have to go home and work day jobs. And that’s just the reality of it. I’m not looking to be a rich rock star off this, because that would just be delusional.
WW: So what it’s about for you is self-expression and creativity?
ZJ: Yeah. I make enough money to pay bills and stuff when I come back, but that’s about it. There’s a lot of money at the end of the night, but the payouts are crazy. Paybacks to the label and the merchandise we took and whatever. There’s lots of expenses, as everybody knows – especially with gas prices the way they are. But that’s why we purchased the studio and the print shop – so those can be our jobs, and we can be working for ourselves, and take whatever success the band has brought on to allow us to do that.