(Comrade Aleks brings us this interview with guitarist Mat Davis of the North American heavy doom band Castle.)
Castle is one of the most powerful bands of the States’ heavy scene. They’ve combined doom and heavy metal since 2009, and each of their four albums is an impressive and focused work filled with concentrated energy.
The recording lineup hasn’t changed since the band’s founding: Elizabeth Blackwell on vocals and bass, Mat Davis on guitars, and Al McCartney on drums. Liz’s voice is thick and charged; each line she sings and each chord Mat produces really count.
Their latest album Welcome to the Graveyard was released in July 2016 by Ván Records and since then Castle has played a damn lot of shows, so I wondered if they’ve had time to compose some new tunes. Are you wondering this too? Okay, then this interview with Mat will shed some light on the band’s past, present, and a bit of future.
Hello Mat! How are you? What’s the Castle’s current status?
Hi Aleks, things are very busy, currently writing for the new album and also in the middle of another few US tours plus some festival appearances here in the US.
Nearly one year ago Ván Records released Castle’s fourth full-length Welcome to the Graveyard. What kind of graveyard did you mean back then?
We thought that was a great title. It summed up the vision we had for the record. It was also a metaphor for us for Los Angeles, where we were living while we wrote the record. As a city it’s kind of the best and the worst at the same time and was a great source of inspiration, and still is.
The album was recorded in Everything Hz studio with Billy Anderson. How long did you spend there? And what are the features of the work with Mr. Anderson?
We spent about two weeks on the record altogether. Ten or 12 days recording and mixing with some extra days to finish up the masters. We’ve worked with Billy many times over the years, so we have some history of success in getting the sound we’re after with him at the helm.
How do you cooperate with Billy in the studio? You produced the Blacklands album, so who usually had the last word during the last recording session?
Yes, we are always in the co-production of our records, in the simple way that the songs are very much finished products before we record them for the album. Almost all of it is worked out in advance through demos. The instrumentation, arrangements, vocal harmonies, etc… we do this because the music is very layered and it saves a lot of time in the studio.
Castle – Hammer and the Cross
And how do you usually work with Elizabeth? Did she agree with all the ideas you put forth for Welcome to the Graveyard?
Liz and I are partners 100% with the music and vocals at this point. She is there every step of the way during the writing. Even though most of the music starts on the guitar, some does start with vocal melodies, especially on the last record, and either way, the ideas for vocals parts and melodies get quickly intertwined with the music and guitar parts at this point.
The artworks for Blacklands and Under Siege were done by Denis Forkas, and it is one of Castle’s features, as both artworks are really expressive and artistic. Why did you switch to such minimalistic artwork with Welcome to the Graveyard?
The cover was exactly what fit the music in our minds. We aren’t trying to fit into what you or someone else might think Castle is or has been or could be. We are only concerned with staying true to that particular idea we are creating at the moment.
Back when we recorded Blacklands and Under Siege, we were working with Dennis throughout the demo period of each of those records and he was working alongside us creating those record covers from the lyrics and music as we wrote them – so each record cover is just a different reflection of what’s happening at that moment.
How do you usually compose the songs’ lyrics? What kind of stories did you want to express through Welcome to the Graveyard?
There are a lot of different ways the lyrics or ideas come to us. Sometimes before even the music I will have an idea of something to write about, and then that lends itself to how we compose the track. For instance, “Sleeping Giant” on the first record was this way. I like to write about things that are interesting to me, especially if they can take on different layers of meaning – that way other people can usually find a way to relate to it even if they have no idea what the hell we are writing or singing about, haha.
From the debut album In Witch Order and ’til Welcome to the Graveyard you remained true to yourself, and the band’s sound has changed slowly and naturally. How would you comment about the fourth album in comparison with the debut?
I think it has a lot of similarities. We were very much in a good place when we wrote Welcome to the Graveyard and I think there is a freedom that shows in the songwriting. We had no expectations on the music and let things go where they needed to, so in this way it was very similar to In Witch Order. But the major difference was In Witch Order was written over many years, from 2005 until 2010, and Welcome to the Graveyard was written over the course of one year, so there is more continuity to the sound. We were very deliberate in creating the sound that you hear on Welcome, so we’re happy with the mood we were able to get from start to finish – when I hear it, it holds true to that vision.
Did you try something new when you were recording the songs for Welcome to the Graveyard?
Yes, and I think I may have answered it in the previous question, haha. New in the way that we tried to create a cohesive mood, like a movie, and stay true to that for the entire album. A lot of other things stay very in line with the way we have written and recorded over the years.
Castle – A Killing Pace
I remember that there was the song “Alcatraz” on the Blacklands album; how often do you write about non-fictional topics? And how much of you are in these songs?
That is a difficult question because it’s hard to see where the fiction starts and stops when you consider songwriting and lyrics – even when we are writing about something fictionalized or telling some story, there is always an element of the personal, or at least our view on it, that makes it personalized. Plus, we like to have some meaning behind the lyrics and will twist them in such a way. I don’t think it’s ever straight fiction.
Castle was formed in 2009 and you have recorded four full-length albums since then. Have you ever felt some kind of artistic crisis or a lack of inspiration?
No, never. It is always with some huge relief that I sit with a guitar and write, haha. It’s like therapy. Even when I am on the road I am writing in my mind, which can be very frustrating to get ideas down or record them, so at home it’s a lot easier and you get a flow happening.
What makes it worth it to spend so much time with Castle? Do you feel that you made the right choice when you created the band?
Yes of course, what else is there?
You shot a video for the killer song “A Killing Pace” from Under Siege and now there are three videos for Welcome to the Graveyard songs. What made you do this? Do you see it as a necessary part of being in Castle or is it just some sort of bonus?
It’s another way to express the music for us. A lot of the original ideas for the songs and lyrics are very visual to me. I’m inspired by film, photography, paintings – all these visual forms — so any way that we can add to the layers that you are hearing with a visual element, artwork, photography, videos etc… we will try to do that. We are also friends with several great video artists and it is a beneficial way for us and them to work together.
Castle tour pretty often. What are your rules for surviving on tour? What is most difficult when you’re on the road?
We take a lot of care to stay healthy and focused on the road – it’s easy to do when you are not partying every day. We tour because we love to travel, play music, and meet fans, it’s very simple.
You even played in Romania and Japan, but which gigs would you note as the most remarkable ones?
Both of those places you mentioned were incredible experiences. Very passionate people and a great love of music that we felt in their appreciation.
Your music is always on the border between genres — heavy metal, doom, thrash sometimes; what are you preparing for your listeners with the next album?
Well, I think you said it best that we are between genres, haha, so I will leave it at that. It’s definitely Castle but also new for us, what would be the point otherwise?