(Yesterday, BadWolf revealed 19 of his Top 20 albums of 2011. Today, he unveils his No. 1 album of 2011 and interviews the top band’s vocalist/bassist/lyricist, Arthur Von Nagel.)
Cormorant’s Dwellings secured my Album of the Year status on the first listen. It’s a staggering achievement, one I’ve already covered in depth on this site [here].
In the following celebratory interview, Cormorant bassist/lyricist/vocalist Arthur Von Nagel broke down a few of Dwellings’ tracks, talked about Cormorant’s future, dished about his recent engagement (congratulations!), hinted to Cormorant’s touring(ish) future, and even dropped some super-kvlt metal recommendations.
BW: How are you, my man?
Cormorant: I’m doing very well, yourself? I’m on cloud nine this whole week.
BW: I bet you are, you lucky dog. Successful engagement, oodles of critical acclaim. You’re having ‘the best week ever.’
Cormorant: The engagement was beautiful. And yeah I’m really glad that so many people are enjoying the album. The band Timeghoul just wrote to us to congratulate us on the album and then I died happy. These dudes are my heroes, you know? It’s really an honor. And then NPR list us with all these bands we look up to and have been influenced by. It’s just fantastic and I can’t thank everyone enough for the kind words and support. This album was a labor of love.
BW: You can totally hear that. On both of them, I think. Well, know not think.
Cormorant: Haha, well Metazoa was a different animal. It was a more hopeful and excited record. Dwellings is just bleak in comparison.
BW: Absolutely. I was actually going to bring the engagement up later (congratulations!)
Cormorant: Sure thing. And thank you.
BW: Well, the interesting thing about the engagement besides being heart-melting is that your interpersonal self mirrors your musical self. Let me clarify: Cormorant was birthed into the ‘real’ world via the electronic medium, more so than most other bands. The first album deals with animals and has an aquatic aesthetic, the second album deals with structures and has an aerial aesthetic. And here your fiancée has broadcast this part of your life electronically, from a lighthouse (meeting point of sea and sky), complete with pictures of a whale skull.
Cormorant: Wow, that’s an extremely poetic way of looking at it. I proposed atop the lighthouse actually because Amber is writing a book of poetry exclusively about California lighthouses. She knows everything about them. I feel an engagement should be at a place where your girlfriend feels really special, you know? And the setting was just gorgeous. We got the whole top of the tower to ourselves, and it was magic.
The music does have certain elemental properties as you point out. There’s a sky aesthetic in Dwellings only in the sense that it features men reaching for the heavens and failing miserably.
It’s classic Greek tragedy tropes. I’m an Atheist but the specter of God is always there in the songs. Raised Catholic, you know. It never leaves you.
BW: I was as well.
Cormorant: I think it’s a fascinating religion. I love the architecture and the history, the art… it’s really beautiful stuff. I did catechism, altar boy, the whole nine yards.
And then when I was around 12-13 I started asking questions the priest couldn’t answer, I read some Camus and Nietzsche (like every pompous teenager) and that was that.
BW: You mention all of that and suddenly I can hear it in the music. Or rather an aspect of the catholic character; a sense of sorrow toward life but a joy in that there is life at all. And also, if I may be bold, a sense of overachievement.
Cormorant: We’re certainly ambitious, perhaps overly so. I don’t know if we always hit the mark but we damn well try. I think in our own different ways all four of us are fanatical perfectionists.
And yeah, there’s always that Catholic guilt hanging over everything.
BW: It’s a curse and a gift.
Cormorant: To make it more complicated, my whole father’s side of the family is Jewish, so that’s a whole other cultural identity. I have respect for the history of religion but not so much the practice. It’s more an academic interest.
I spoke a bit through Aguirre in “The Purest Land.” I was most surprised to learn in my research just how devoutly religious he was. It’s a big contrast from the Kinski character in Wrath of God. Or perhaps he was pretending to be pious in his letters because he had a messiah complex. Hard to say if he was trying to do PR for himself. He paints himself as a freedom fighter rather than a tyrant.
BW: But there’s also that specter of self-delusion. It’s almost more tragic if he really thought of his acts as purifying. That’s another very catholic thing: let us redeem sins through more bloodshed, against others and ourselves.
Cormorant: That would be much more interesting. Villains are always more interesting when they feel they’re doing good.
BW: You have a way in your lyrics of making your villains interesting. How do you get inside these people’s minds in that way?
Cormorant: The lyrics are that way because I’m channeling all my worst qualities into those characters. They’re a sort of purging. So they have to be because they’re all me.
BW: I only half buy that. I think a lot of metal musicians do the same sort of thing, not all of them find these great historical or anecdotal identities to embody.
Cormorant: Perhaps I’m a megalomaniac?
BW: You’d have no business doing art if you were not.
Cormorant: Fair enough. But really what it comes to is I like a good story. Beginning, middle, end. So that demands conflict. And nice guys don’t create conflict. A few songs don’t have protagonists and those are the ones where human nature itself is the villain. It’s more general.
The exception is “Unearthly Dreamings.” Komarov by most accounts was a very kind and humble man. He was thrust into horrible circumstances because of national pride and he went on with it. I’m in awe of that. I couldn’t do it I don’t think.
BW: That suits the subject matter in a way. Dwellings is much darker than Metazoa, but Metazoa ends with a kind of resignation unto mourning. Somehow Komarov bursting into ozone flame comes across as bright musically. A paradox.
Cormorant: That’s exactly why I wrote the song backwards. The lyrics rather. The story starts with his death and ends with his childhood. There’s some hope there, however misplaced. If there’s zero hope then art is pretty worthless. There has to be something to hold on to. Nihilism is boring.
BW: I think Nihilism as contemporary (what a laugh!) black metal interprets it is boring.
There’s a freedom in the belief in nothing, and that’s sort of integral to “Unearthly Dreamings.”
Cormorant: But that’s the thing though, the players in that song very deeply do believe in something. The idea of conquering space. It’s the same thing as Petit in “Funambulist,” but from a communist rather than auteur standpoint. And it really contrasts the viewpoints of the French and the Russians. I say that with love. My whole schooling was in French. K-12. Or rather, 11, since I dropped out of high school.
BW: What is your relationship with French, both as a language and as a people?
Cormorant: OK so the French… The French are a difficult people. I hated my Lycée. Loathed it. It was brutal. I was having a nervous breakdown my whole high school years from all the pressure. However, they’re also an intelligent and exacting people. They call it “l’esprit cartésien.” French education really forces you to think. It’s a different mindset than Americans because American education is 100% focused on results. The French are interested in process. They like the act of creation. And the country is simply gorgeous, my appreciation for art and history stems from that background for sure. I miss it sometimes. There’s a very different mindset, you have to treat everyone there as a person. Americans go there and assume the French are all rude but they’re misinterpreting a lot of the time, because when you go into a shop in France, you greet the person behind the counter with “bonjour Monsieur/Madame.” You treat them like a human being instead of a goods dispenser. If you look at them as most people treat retail folk in the States, they’ll be offended. Like it would be perceived as a very crass, hyper-capitalist mindset. So a lot of the rudeness is in reaction to that.
BW: So you guys self-publish. That sounds hard enough, but self-editing is suicide.
Cormorant: Oh god, tell me about it. The agony I go through with the lyrics.
BW: You work in a collective: you have 3 editors at all times.
Cormorant: Yeah the music is totally democratic. Everyone brings something unique and interesting to the table. We all look at things differently and sometimes we want to murder each other for it, but I think that tension makes for better music. Not to speak for them, but I see everyone bringing unique talents to the whole.
Brennan has a unique harmonic sensibility. He writes a lot of those clean vocal parts, and he’s really tuned toward “ear bugs.” He has a knack for the catchiness, I feel. And his drumming in unconventional. I think a lot of his style stems from his background in hip-hop, reggae, funk, jazz…. it’s very subtle. He doesn’t get enough props for his drum work because he does all these tiny little accents that are really impressive but they they’re subtle. He’s not showy.
OK, so Nick I see as a grounding presence. His solos are earthy and improvised. His riffs are deceptively simple but his right hand is just a monster of precision. A lot of the classic rock parts of the band bleed through him. He comes from that old-time country music and bluegrass background, and in some ways he relates to songs in that context. He’ll call a riff “crooked,” when it has an off-time tag, and that’s a very bluegrass expression. His solos are extremely expressive. In person he’s very quite and understated, but all his feelings come through his fingers.
And Matt is a riff machine. He really kicked us into shape as musicians when he joined. Technically proficient as hell. His solos, to contrast with Nick’s, are all meticulously crafted. It makes for a good balance. He also has a hell of a voice and really put it to good use on Dwellings.
His leanings are towards the proggy and quirky, and he likes to lilt the songs just a touch left-of-center, so they’re just weird enough to be intriguing so you have to listen more. His chord work is tremendous, comes up with these crazy fretboard spanning shapes that are difficult to wrap your head around.
I wanted to get that in because I feel that especially of late I’m sort of the mouthpiece for the band and that’s not quite fair. Like I said, the music itself is totally an equal thing.
BW: I’ve noticed! Is everyone else… ok with that arrangement?
Cormorant: Yes and no, I can tell they want more into that process beyond the music. They’re opening up a bit to that. I’m a bit afraid that I come off as a despot or something but it was really just that I love writing and doing interviews so I went for them. There’s no grand plan, I just like chatting.
BW: So words. Tiberian. You drop it constantly, and yet what you mean by ‘tiberian’ is kind of obscure. Enlighten us?
Cormorant: Oh it’s a silly in-joke. I don’t actually know what it means. I frequent a bunch of metal message boards online (nerd), and one poster described our sounds as “Tiberian Ass Bastard Folk” because it was so hard to classify.
BW: I facepalm’ed.
Cormorant: I think it has something to do with Command & Conquer or something. It’s geeky, no matter what it is. You have to have a sense of humor about your music. Metal is silly when it comes down to it.
BW: Life is far too serious to be taken seriously.
Cormorant: Even though we’re extremely serious about our music, and I kill myself with these lyrics, we’re really just a bunch of nerds playing fast and screaming when you deconstruct it.
And I don’t think life is serious. It’s pretty absurd really. We’re all these little ants scrambling to leave a legacy, be it historical or biological. And then it’s brightened by these rare moments of love and joy. I’m not sure if those are part of our programming or a function of it. Or maybe they’re anomalies. I don’t know, I’m torn between a purely genetic interpretation of our actions, but I’m also a romantic.
BW: That’s your threshold. We all write from our thresholds.
Cormorant: That’s very astute. In a sense we’re trying to answer our own questions.
BW: But I think the real question is, when do we get the Cormorant dubstep remix album?
Cormorant: Man I’m totally down with people remixing our shit. That would be great. I was listening to Terry Gross’ NPR interview with Jay-Z and she asked him about Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. He was so into it. I think it’s fun. Sample away! Hell, perhaps we should do open-source Cormorant.
BW: It’s certainly a thought! I sort of expected you to hate on the idea, in all honesty.
Cormorant: I’ve never listened to dubstep so I have no idea what I’m for. I’m just all for people being creative.
BW: That’s what you’re NOT listening to. What ARE you spinning these days?
Cormorant: Right now I’m playing Catharsis – Samsara.
BW: They’re my kvlter-than-thou band.
Cormorant: Awesome, they rule. I took inspiration from them for some of the more hardcore vocals we included on Dwellings.
BW: You changed the vocals around quite a bit from Metazoa. Was that just more practice, or a conscious thing?
Cormorant: I didn’t really like my vocals on Metazoa for the most part. I thought they weren’t emotive enough. I wanted the vocals to sound like I was about to die, or lose my mind completely. I ended up just losing my voice but it was totally worth it.
BW: Do you use any particular technique, or are you self-taught, vocally?
Cormorant: People ask me that and I have no idea what I’m doing. I just try to embody the character and everything else is secondary. I get e-mails from people asking for my help regarding vocals, but I’m just as clueless as they are. It’s just a delivery thing. You have to die for it, you know? I blew my speaking voice for about a week after the recording of Dwellings. I fainted a couple times in the vocal booth. My technique is atrocious. No one follow my advice about vocal technique!
BW: I think people ask that because it’s refreshing. All this advice about proper technique pops up thanks to youtube, which is good i guess, but now all these vocalists sound 100% identical.
There’s no Attila Csihars left, let alone, say, a King Diamond.
Cormorant: Those were certainly inspirations for me. Also Tom Warrior, and the dude from In The Woods… I love love love In The Woods… Journalists cite inspirations for us in reviews all the time, and 99% they get it all wrong!
BW: You got me into In The Woods… through that Metalsucks post. And tons of bands I can’t get enough of.
Cormorant: Fantastic, glad to spread the wealth of weird black metal. Ved Buens Ende are just out of this world. Now I’m really into Czech black metal stuff like Master’s Hammer.
BW: I like black metal better weird—that post really helped unlock the style for me.
Cormorant: I like 80s trad/prog metal. We’re probably that at our core. And then we include some extreme metal trappings. I can’t get enough Manilla Road, Dark Quarterer, old Fates Warning.
BW: So that new Arch/Matheos record…
Cormorant: I’m afraid to listen to it lest it break my illusions. Awaken the Guardian is one of my favorite albums of all time. Am I missing out? Then again Celtic Frost came back and Monotheist was good.
BW: The Arch/Matheos record is just pure shred. It’s like they wanted to do Racer-X.
Cormorant: Goddamnit. I hate that when I talk about prog metal I have to qualify it with “not Dream Theater.” Wait, are Slauter Xstroyes active again?
BW: You out-kvlted me there.
Cormorant: Oh man you’re missing out. Get their album Winter Kill this instant. Insane stuff.
Prog metal from back when it meant something. They shouldn’t have made their band name so hard to spell.
BW: You say the genre’s lost meaning—I think this is a GREAT time for prog metal. Opeth just ended their golden era, so did Mastodon. Cynic is back.
Cormorant: I don’t really know what it means to be prog, honestly. I feel like everyone uses the term but it’s completely different to everyone. There’s a book that came out recently about the history of prog metal called Mean Deviation that addresses this issue.
BW: That book’s a really crucial text.
Cormorant: I prefer progressive when it serves as a compositional philosophy rather than a genre descriptor. I can’t really stand wanky albums. I think there’s maybe one proper shred band I really love and that’s Windham Hell. RIP.
BW: I heard somewhere that you’re sort of a newer metalhead—that your first love is folk.
Cormorant: Yeah I didn’t get into metal until I was in college. There was mostly classical music, jazz, folk, 60s rock, and French traditionals growing up. This is going to sound really dorky and head-up-my-own-ass, but the biggest influence on how I structure lyrics is Bob Dylan – Hurricane. I must have been 6-7 when I first heard it and never left me. The idea of complex, socially-conscious story-telling through music… that was something that metal very rarely explores. You know that Megadeth video where the kid is blasting metal and the dad wants to watch the news? And then the kid says “This IS the news?” I’d like that to be true.
BW: I think it is. Or was. Megadeth, Metallica, Lamb of God as well, were huge parts of me becoming a socio-political being. I think sometimes that metal is uniquely positioned for that kind of art, but most metal musicians choose not to for reasons I don’t understand.
Cormorant: I don’t get it either. Black Sabbath did it. Perhaps it has something to do with longstanding tension with punk. I don’t understand why metal is so averse to political discourse. Perhaps it’s just fear.
BW: I think that tension is pretty well erased at this point.
Cormorant: People are still pretty annoyed at modern deathcore/metalcore. But I don’t really know, I’m mostly ignorant about the whole scene. And djent. I don’t understand any of it. Kids get off my lawn.
BW: ok, well what contemporary bands DO you like.
Cormorant: One of the better recent bands I’ve heard is this group out of Arizona called Vektor. I thought the whole re-thrash movement was silly but they’re doing it right.
BW: Vektor is sick.
Cormorant: What else… Mitochondrion, Hades Archer, Subrosa, Disma, I can’t really keep track anymore. Still tons of good new stuff coming out. I’m not THAT cranky. Yet.
BW: Well time to wrap this up—here’s my money question. You never tour. I get it, day gig, yaddayadda… Fuck off, you have a responsibility to show this to people. You’re too good not to. So why not?
Cormorant: Honest answer? I have no college degree and I’m scared shitless of losing my job the way the economy is.
BW: What’s your job?
Cormorant: I’m the managing director of a recycling center.
BW: That is a cool job.
Cormorant: Yeah I have employees to think about. I haven’t taken a proper vacation in over four years. We recorded Dwellings over several weekends. I work 50-hour weeks. If I was still living in my mom’s basement like when I was 17 I would tour, you know?
BW: And the other guys?
Cormorant: They’re all in management too. Two of the guys have management jobs in the solar panel business, and one is editing director at a marketing company. We’re working on something. We’d love to play festivals. We can maybe take a week off to do a trek of each coast.
It’s funny, I get more orders from the North East than I do in California.
BW: Your music is cold. A good bitter—it suits our climate.
Cormorant: That’s a nice way of looking at it. I’m glad.