Feb 162014

Last July I wrote about a crowd-funding campaign that had been launched by Conquering Dystopia — the band created by guitarists Jeff Loomis of Seattle and Keith Merrow of Portland, which also includes bassist Alex Webster (Cannibal Corpse) and drummer Alex Rüdinger (The FacelessOrdinance). That campaign was wildly successful. I splurged on it myself, with a donation that offered a very enticing perk — a meal in Seattle with Loomis and Merrow. And yesterday that happened.

We met at the Hard Rock Cafe at 3:00, and what followed was an extremely enjoyable 2 1/2-hour conversation that ended only when the two needed to hit the road for the drive to Portland, where Jeff is helping Keith and his wife move into a new house (I think we can all agree that there are few truer measures of friendship than one dude helping another one move).

It wasn’t intended to be an interview, but I can’t resist sharing some impressions of the people and some news about both Conquering Dystopia and the future plans of both men. First, the news…

The Conquering Dystopia album is nearly ready for release — perhaps a matter of two or three more weeks. But the guys want to be definite before announcing an official date, and they’re not quite to that point. They are both clearly delighted with the way it turned out and excited for people to hear it. Jeff described it as a “guitar roller coaster, with hills and valleys, cinematic soundscapes, and some experimentation”, and he said it’s very heavy.

Conquering Dystopia

He and Keith recorded the guitars at Keith’s studio in Portland, with Jeff writing and performing almost all of the lead guitar parts and Keith handling most of the rhythm work — though it was clearly a collaborative effort, and one that both of them thoroughly enjoyed. Because this was a DIY effort, without any label-imposed deadlines, they took their time — not rushing the process, and dedicating the time they needed to get the results they wanted.

They both praised the contributions of “the two Alex’s” as well.  For example, wanting to be a part of every aspect of the album’s creation, they traveled to Mark Lewis‘ Audiohammer Studios in Florida for the drum tracking. They were amazed and impressed by Alex Rüdinger’s dedication, focus, and skill. They described laughing in bewilderment from the sound room while listening to his smoking double-bass kicks and watching the consistent precision of the timing as the beats rolled across the computer screen during the recording process.

Keith said this is “an honest album” with no studio tricks or gimmicks — e.g., no quantizing of the drums and no software manipulation of the guitar and bass tracks to change what was actually played. What they actually did is what you will actually hear. Keith explained that although the performances are very tight, there is also a kind of “loose”, natural quality in the sound that is exactly what they were seeking. Almost every step in the creation of the music was filmed, and the duo have plans for a DVD about the making of the album in the not too distant future.

There aren’t any current plans for touring, but Conquering Dystopia did perform songs from the album at the recently concluded NAMM 2014 in Anaheim, CA. It was the band’s first performance together as a foursome, before what turned out to be an enthusiastic audience of 2,500 – 3,000 people. I’ve got a few YouTube clips of that show which you can see at the end of this piece. If you haven’t seen them before, I’m pretty sure they’ll make you hungry for this album. I’m also throwing in video of just Jeff and Keith playing a Conquering Dystopia song at the Schecter guitar booth at NAMM.

Conquering Dystopia at NAMM 2014

Jeff and Keith will be spending time in the near future fulfilling all of the perks promised to the many people who contributed to the Conquering Dystopia indiegogo campaign (Keith spoke of all the work his wife is doing on that effort, creating massive spreadsheets of shipping addresses and email lists). The success of that campaign was a revelation to both of them — they had no idea whether it would succeed, and were stunned at how fast it succeeded. They have become true believers in DIY crowd-funding, and are incredibly grateful to everyone who supported it. They both stressed repeatedly that the album never would have happened except for the tremendous support of fans.

In March, the duo will travel to Europe to attend Musikmesse in Frankfurt, German (which they described as a European counterpart of NAMM), followed by appearances at musical instrument shows in Italy and London. This will be Keith’s first trip to Europe, and needless to say, he’s stoked — and Jeff is excited to return to places where he has toured in the past. Sounds like there are plans in the works for similar appearances this September in Japan and possibly China.

As for future creative endeavors this year, Jeff will be working on a new solo album for Century Media, Keith plans to devote time to his Demisery project with Gord Olson and a solo release of his own (possibly a full-length), and the two have so enjoyed working together that they are talking about collaborating on new Conquering Dystopia music before the year ends. We all agreed: it’s nice to be busy.

Jeff Loomis and Keith Merrow at the Hard Rock Cafe, Seattle

Apart from all those newsy topics, we talked about a lot of other things, too, such as:

Jeff and Keith sitting next to Dolly Parton during NAMM while all three were being fitted for custom in-ear monitors — but unable to talk with her because all three had material in their ears for the making of molds and something wedged into their mouths to keep the ear canals open while the material was congealing. (I’d give a lot to see a photo of that scene.)

A shared interest among the three of us in documentaries about bands — regardless of genre. Among those discussed: History of the Eagles, Pearl Jam Twenty, Sound City, and Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone.

The support Jeff received as a budding guitarist from his parents (both of them teachers) while growing up in Wisconsin — even to the point of letting him skip school on those days when Jeff was particularly immersed in practicing. (They also took him to his first live concert — John Denver.)

Keith’s childhood in California’s San Fernando Valley — and his preference for the much more laid-back lifestyle of the Pacific Northwest as compared to the more frenetic vibe of L.A.

“Gear nerd” stuff. These two are so bursting with musical ideas that at completely random times, they would go off on tangents about things they wanted to try in the future. To your humble observer, who plays no musical instruments, it was if they had suddenly started speaking Hungarian. But they were so polite to me that these digressions didn’t last long.

The fact that Jeff and I are both planning to be at Seattle’s El Corazon on Tuesday night when Dark Tranquillity, Omnium Gatherum, Exmortus, and Seattle’s Shaded Enmity will be performing (Shaded Enmity’s guitarist Joe Nurre has also been a guitarist in Jeff Loomis’ live band),

Jeff’s guest guitar solo for “The Voyager”, a song on the new album by Hannes GrossmanThe Radial Covenant. I brought this up, because I had just heard the song — and it’s amazing. Among other things, the same song also includes a solo by Ron Jarzombek (Blotted Science). Hell, I might as well just put it right here:

 

We talked about other things, too, but rather than try to remember all of it, I think I’ll wrap this up with a final observation: Based on my afternoon with them, I would say that Jeff Loomis and Keith Merrow are two of the nicest, most gracious people you could ever want to meet. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them. I tried to thank them for their hospitality — but they were too busy thanking me for my indiegogo contribution.

And they agreed to pose for a photo with me, too:

 

me, flanked by two dudes who can play some guitar

 

And now, here are those Conquering Dystopia videos I mentioned earlier:

https://www.facebook.com/ConqueringDystopia

 

 

 

 

15 Responses to “MY AFTERNOON WITH JEFF LOOMIS AND KEITH MERROW (CONQUERING DYSTOPIA)”

  1. Rob Liz says:

    Were you able to avoid talking about Nevermore during the whole time? You are a stronger man than I if you were:) Looking forward to this when it does release.

    • Islander says:

      Though it was difficult, I tried to stay focused on current musical endeavors, though at some point Jeff told some funny Nevermore tour stories (including one about being stopped by immigration agents somewhere in the Southwest, who searched the trailer, only to be surprised by finding another one of the touring bands sitting inside the trailer). And when he found out I was originally from Texas he also reminisced fondly about recording at a studio at a ranch in the west Texas border town of Tornillo.

  2. Leperkahn says:

    Pretty sure there’s a club/bar down here called The Merrow (used to be called The Ruby Room). Keith Merrow should play at The Merrow sometime, if only for shites and giggles.

  3. iShred says:

    This band will cap your brains out fo sho!

  4. Doug says:

    How many bands do quantizing of the drums and software manipulation of the guitar and bass tracks to sound better? I’d sure like to know that what I’m hearing is genuine.
    That’s what I love about extreme metal is how genuine it really is.
    I bought the Sound City documentary after it came out. The recordings there are of bands playing, and laying the tracks down. That’s what’ I’m saying. No pro tools.

    • Islander says:

      Dang, I forgot about Sound City — that’s one of the films that Jeff and Keith brought up (so I’ve added it to the post). I don’t know the answer to your question for sure, but based on what I read and what I’ve heard, lots of bands (usually the not-so-good ones) do use accessible software tools to make the recorded music sound much better than it did when the tracks were laid down. But some problems can’t be fixed, and no amount of computer gimmickry can substitute for talent.

      • Doug says:

        I’ve bought some CDs from bands that made recordings at Sound City.
        The sound from the bands are really good.
        I’d recommend that documentary to anyone. I saw it on amazon prime streaming video a few weeks ago.

        • Booker says:

          I agree, even though I’m not much of a fan of any of the bands on the documentary, it is a great piece of musical documentarianism (I don’t if that’s a word, the art of documentary making was what I was aiming for). This is probably the fifth time I’ve commented about Sound City on NCS, so maybe I’ll just shut up now 🙂

  5. Booker says:

    You know what they say – friends will help you move, but good friends will help you move bodies.

  6. djneibarger says:

    wow, that sounds like an awesome afternoon! it must have been surreal sitting there talking to them in such a casual, relaxed manner. i’m envious!

    • Islander says:

      “Surreal” was definitely the word for it at first, but as time passed, they were just such laid-back, unpretentious, NICE people that I got very comfortable and almost forgot who I was talking with. 🙂

  7. Eddrums says:

    If you’re a fan of music/band documentaries you should check out Standing In The Shadows Of Motown – it’s about the backing band who recorded all the motown classics, and when I say all the motown classics I mean ALL the motown classics…

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