(Comrade Aleks brings us this extensive interview with Vanessa Nocera, vocalist and bassist of Wooden Stake and a central figure in other bands such as Cauldron Burial and Vaultwraith.)
Originally born in Kentucky, this project was raised by Vanessa Nocera, who has performed in a half -dozen of more extreme bands, such as black death outfit Cauldron Burial. In Wooden Stake she has mixed old school death doom with traditional doom metal since 2010.
From the very beginning she has handled bass and performed all sorts of vocals, from clean ones to hungry and savage harsh ones. She recorded the debut full-length Dungeon Prayers & Tombyard Serenades with Wayne Sarantopoulos (guitars, drums, keyboards), and the second album A Feast Of Virgin Souls was done with William Wardlaw (guitars, drums). Three years have passed, so what’s happening now? Where are the new stories of gore and horror? Where are new tunes from the gloom of the basement?
I approached Vanessa to clarify the current status of Wooden Stake and to learn about its origin.
Hi Vanessa! Thanks for your time, and let’s reveal a few more things about Wooden Stake for our readers. How did you meet Wayne Sarantopoulos and what made you unite your energies in one direction?
Thanks for the interview! I met Wayne through my husband Billy who had been working with him, mainly with Wayne’s band DECREPITAPH, whose releases were on Razorback Recordings before (and after) I joined the label. From there, Billy was encouraging me to start writing music again. I hadn’t recorded anything in two years after my black metal band WOLFHOLLOW broke up, so it felt great to work on something new. Before I knew it, Billy had asked Wayne to be our drummer for a band that we were putting together called SCAREMAKER, and we were already planning on flying to Texas to record at Wayne’s house. By the time we were ready to record we had an album’s worth of material plus some extra songs.
Thanks to SCAREMAKER, this is how WOODEN STAKE was born. We did a very tongue-in-cheek cover of the D.C. LACROIX song “Devil’s Son” for the album and I did clean vocals. Wayne took notice of this talent of mine and suggested we do a band where I would do more clean singing, so he sent me what became our first song, “Forbidden Oath”. I think it was a song he already had recorded for something else. I recorded the bass, wrote the lyrics, and then recorded the vocals. From there we put together the first release, Vampire Plague Exorcism.
You worked with Wayne for almost 8 years, how did you share your duties in the band? How were those first songs for the Vampire Plague Exorcism and Invoke The Ageless Witch EPs born?
It was easy to work with Wayne; he would basically say, “Hey, I’m working on a new song.” Then Billy would get a text, “Check your email”, and then just like that I would have a new song to work on. I would start with my bass parts and then I would get to know the song quite well, so by the time it was ready to write lyrics and do vocals, it was a breeze; everything falls into place when you work like that. So much fun.
As I mentioned before, Vampire Plague Exorcism came together quickly and it was evident Wayne and I worked well together. We released the demo, pressing only 100 copies, but they sold damn fast. Then we pressed another 100 and those went fast too. After that created some buzz, we started getting offers from different labels to do 7” releases. The first being Invoke the Ageless Witch from Sarlacc Productions – still my favorite WOODEN STAKE release simply because of how much I love the songs on it, and the packaging was badass, and Fenriz took notice of Invoke…, which still floors me to this day, that a musical influence would even promote my band on his “Band of the Week” feature.
Next was the split album with BLIZARO, who we were working with on Razorback, then our split 7″ with DRUID LORD (Altsphere Productions), and then Black Caped Carnivore (Sorcerer’s Pledge Records). Between the two albums we released the compilation CD At the Stroke of Midnight on Razorback with an exclusive new song for the release.
The year 2010 was pretty busy for both of you, as you’ve noted that Wooden Stake managed to record three EPs and took part in two split-albums. What made you work at such a good pace?
We were really inspired and had a great work ethic. I became obsessed with doing the band because it was such a unique outlet for me, considering my other bands were death/thrash metal with harsh vocals. When I was asked by Rogga Johansson to join SKELETAL SPECTRE as the vocalist, a band my husband created for him and I was a part of since the first release, Rogga pushed for me to do clean vocals. At first I liked the idea, probably because I enjoyed doing them for WOODEN STAKE so much, but sometimes I wish I hadn’t because it didn’t seem right and it almost doesn’t fit the vibe of that band. But, I regret nothing honestly.
Wooden Stake – Hanging From The Inverted Cross
Vanessa, how did you work up the Wooden Stake concept? What is it all about? The band’s name, the songs’ lyrics, the artworks – everything looks like a continuation of your other bands. What’s the difference between them and Wooden Stake, besides the bands’ genres?
The origin of WOODEN STAKE stemmed from Stevo (IMPETIGO/SURGIKILL) throwing the band name around to Billy. Billy got the logo made by Milovan (who also did the logo for my bands CAULDRON BURIAL and VAULTWRAITH) and sat on it for a while. When Wayne and I started working on the music we were trying our damnedest to come up with a name, but nothing stuck. Finally, Billy suggested we use WOODEN STAKE and from there concepts started falling into place. I saw the name as an open opportunity to write about witches being burned at the stake, and vampires getting impaled with stakes. Of course, the occult and ‘70s culture became a driving force in my lyrics and concepts.
I guess the difference for me between my other bands and WOODEN STAKE was WOODEN STAKE had lyrics easier to sing rather than growl. I used different phrasings and words to allow cadences and vocal patterns to better suit clean vocals. Also, I was including more folklore into these lyrics and concepts than in my other bands, which were pretty much all inspired by horror films and comics. That element was definitely rolling through WOODEN STAKE’s veins as well, but I was branching out into more mature territory, I guess you could say.
The band’s first full-length Dungeon Prayers & Tombyard Serenades was released in 2011. How did you form these old school sounds that you imprinted in the album? What are your memories of this recording session?
Wayne was adamant, as was I, to get an authentic, heavy as fuck guitar sound. He used tube amps and tuned low to achieve the crushing sound the album has. My memories with that album are just having so much fun waiting for Wayne to send songs my way to work on. I remember waiting and looking at my lyric book at titles and ideas and wondering what was going to be next to work on. When he would send a song, then I would pick what the song would be about, and if it was about a movie, I would watch the movie and write in my lyric book all throughout the movie. It’s like I allowed automatic writing to happen.
I would write my bass parts, record them, and as I mentioned before, that would get me acquainted with the song so well that by the time I wrote lyrics, I already had the vocal arrangement in my mind, so it was easy. I remember being a little depressed when the album was finished. I always feel a wave of sadness when an album is done – almost like a strange post-partum depression in some ways, not that I would know what that’s like, but I do get depressed. I was ready right away to start on a second album.
Though Wooden Stake is tagged as a death doom band, there’s a lot of pretty traditional-sounding songs in Dungeon Prayers & Tombyard Serenades. And of course there’re enough moments when you sing with a clean voice. What were your main influences back then?
I have many influences, and so does Wayne. I can tell you around that time I was cliché and listening to a lot of BLACK SABBATH, BLUE OYSTER CULT, and classic METALLICA but also bands like EMPEROR. I remember the soundtrack for The Wicker Man was in the back of my mind too while working on the album. Strange, I know, but I love that movie and the music. I’m of Scots-Irish descent and grew up in Kentucky, so dark folk music was always something I had in my life. I guess I was also summoning muses from my past and incorporating BAUHAUS influence in my singing, as well as Siouxsie Sioux, Stevie Nicks, and Kate Bush (who Wayne was also a fan of). It was like music I had recorded as a teenager under the name RED HARLOW meets BLACK SABBATH or something.
Ha-ha, well, really I wanted to ask a question about Kentucky – how much of it is in Wooden Stake’s songs?
A lot actually. I grew up listening to folklore storytellers and I read a ton of books about Kentucky written by Kentucky authors. It’s a crazy place when you think about it. All the energy here is conflicted. Kentucky was neutral during the Civil War, so many stories are centered around the “bloody land” and so on. Hearing all these stories as a child was embedded in me. I was born in Kentucky, and though it’s not a place for me now in my life, I was glad I had the childhood I did there around all the nature and urban legends.
A little side note, in the song “Stalking in the Shadowlands” on Vampire Plague Exorcism you can hear my voice distantly reading from a book called Haunted Houses and Family Ghosts of Kentucky about a place I frequently visited nicknamed Hell’s Half Acre. The place was the inspiration behind the song. It’s the only place I’ve gone to several times and always have a bizarre, memorable experience. I could write a book about it honestly, haha!
By the way, it looks like death doom influences got into Wooden Stake’s music almost by accident. Is it something like that?
It was there pretty much from the beginning. I knew I wanted to do a mix of clean vocals and death growls to give it haunting atmospheric uniqueness. Not that we were re-inventing the wheel or anything, but I think we had something dark and heavy going on.
Wooden Stake – Die Rache Der Hexen
How did you work with Patrick Bruss, who mixed and mastered the album? Did you have some special recommendations for him that he should fulfill through his work?
Working with Patrick has always been great and I continue to work with him to this day. I don’t really remember telling him anything specific for the album. I think he and Wayne did more back-and-forth work because Wayne was particular on the drum sound. In the end, we were all happy with how everything came out.
The album was released on your own label Razorback Recordings. Did you try to find a bigger label? Or do you prefer to control each stage of the album’s production by yourself?
We shopped the album around, but it was painful in some ways because I just wanted the album out so people could hear it. I remember talking on the phone with someone from some label and not feeling a good rapport at all. That was pretty much when I knew I wanted to release it under Razorback. Plus, by releasing it myself I could see who was ordering and how well it was doing. I feel like in some ways it could have made it onto a bigger label, but either it wasn’t reaching the right ones, or it just had audience appeal and was not seen as having potential with certain labels. Who knows.
What are your label’s plans for 2018? And forgive my curiosity – how does the label survive now when CD sales are low?
Razorback is pretty inactive right now. Doing books and shirts under the Evilspeak Magazine name has been more successful for us, so that’s where our focus has been, as well as doing our own music.
We have plans for a label in the future when we make our move back to New York, but nothing to announce just yet. CDs still sell, but not as much as they used to, which is kind of crazy to me and to a lot of people around my age, but I understand the vinyl thing. I was heavy into vinyl in the late ’90s/early ’00s when no one gave a shit about it. I was buying $1 classic records from thrift stores, used book stores, and pawn shops left and right and was made fun of. Anyway, I get the vinyl thing. Kinda get the tape craze going on too right now, kinda don’t. I remember being a kid and praising the day I bought a CD player thinking, “Now I can skip songs! It will sound clearer! The tape deck sometimes eats the tape, well NOT NOW! Bigger art and a lyric BOOK! Still convenient!” Ah…those were the days.
Vanessa, it seems that not only Wooden Stake but all of your bands heavily deal with bloody and violent themes. What attracts your attention to these topics? What makes you sing again and again about these horrors?
I’ve been a fan of horror movies since…no joke…TWO years old. My dad had a tape of A Nightmare on Elm St., and Freddy was enthralling to me. Like I had a crush on him or something, haha! I also loved Children of the Corn and The Shining. My parents taped over their copy of The Shining because I apparently watched it every day. But I also loved The Wizard of Oz, which had some dark moments with the witch. I loved her. I guess it was inevitable for me to take on movies and books like that as my main influences, as well as horror comics. My dad had quite a collection and would still sometimes find gems to add to his cornucopia of carnage. I loved looking at those comics and listening to METALLICA when I was REALLY young. I was about 7 or 8 years old. When I discovered death metal, CANNIBAL CORPSE in particular, when I was about 9 or 10, that was my calling. I knew from then on what I wanted to do.
By the way, do you have some songs strictly based on horror movies?
About 90% of what I write is either about a horror movie, or just takes influence from a film, whether it be content of the story or just what I see in the imagery.
Can you name a few of the Dungeon Prayers… inspirations? I’m asking ‘cause it seems that death doom bands prefer movies like Blind Dead and other bloody tales, just as traditional doom bands love witch-abusing stuff from the ’70s or some Hammer films and even Italian giallo.
The opening track “Cadaverum Caecorum Liber” (lyrics by Doc Holocausto) is a blaring nod to The Blind Dead series; “Salem, 1692” was written by Wayne and inspired by the Salem witch trials; “Tortured into Eternal Repose” was inspired by the film Mark of the Devil; “Die Rache der Hexen” is inspired by the original ending to Mark of the Devil which was never released but I’ve seen movie stills of it and read about what it was intended to be; “Six Feet of Earth…And All that it Contains” is about the first segment of the Night Gallery pilot movie called The Cemetery; “Skullcoven” is about Blood on Satan’s Claw; “Anguished Atonement” is about the segment in the Mario Bava film Black Sabbath called The Drop of Water; and lastly, “Bleeding Coffin” is about Blood Spattered Bride.
It took four more years to finish the second full-length, A Feast Of Virgin Souls. What slowed down the writing process?
The biggest, most obvious reason for the delay was Wayne no longer working with the band. At one point another member was going to join, but it didn’t feel right to any of us and that quickly dissipated. Then I asked Wayne if he could send me drum tracks and I would write all the music, but nothing came from that either. I can’t really speak for him, but I think it was a mix of him not being inspired to do it anymore, and also doing this style of music was a little bit of a challenge for him in some ways. I honestly did not want to continue the band without him, but I didn’t want it to die either.
Billy suggested that Willie Wardlaw join and we move on, so that’s how A Feast of Virgin Souls came together. When I found that working with Willie was just as easy as working with Wayne, it was a fresh reinvention of the band and it felt great to work on new WOODEN STAKE material.
Again, I didn’t want to continue without Wayne, but I felt like if he didn’t care anymore then I should have no qualms about moving on with someone else. I still had passion for this band and NEEDED to do it. We didn’t have a falling out at all, but things just disbanded. He had passions for his other band, and I can’t fault him for that. I would rather him drop the band than phone shit in, you know? I still worked with him in some ways after we stopped doing WOODEN STAKE together when I recorded the debut CAULDRON BURIAL album. Those were drum tracks he sent sometime in 2011 and I finally wrote and recorded the music in 2015. I asked him if he would continue the band CAULDRON BURIAL with me and he said yes and that he would have drum tracks sent to me by October of 2016, but nothing ever came about. He was doing other bands and disappeared. I haven’t spoken to him since 2016.
As I understand, A Feast Of Virgin Souls mixes in its songs both historical and fictional stories. Can we say that it’s a conceptual album?
Yes! I mixed the legend of Elizabeth Bathory with Sheridan Le Fanu’s story Carmilla. The first album ends with the song “The Bleeding Coffin” inspired by the film The Blood Spattered Bride based on Carmilla, and A Feast of Virgin Souls begins with “Rise from the Bleeding Coffin” – a continuation with the lesbian vampires retreating into Elizabeth Bathory’s castle and meeting face to face with the Scarlet Countess. Definitely a concept album and totally inspired by King Diamond/MERCYFUL FATE. After I did the SKELETAL SPECTRE album Voodoo Dawn I swore up and down I would never do another concept album, but I did and I’m very happy with the result. The second CAULDRON BURIAL album is also a concept album and I didn’t go into it meaning that to be, but that’s how it happened.
Really? How soon do you plan to release it? I hope things go smoother with Cauldron Burial than with Wooden Stake?
I have two more drum tracks to write music to and then once those are recorded I’ll start getting all the lyrics organized so I can record the vocals. I’m looking to have it completely recorded by summer.
Cauldron Burial – I Killed In Ecstasy
What are the core differences between A Feast Of Virgin Souls and Dungeon Prayers & Tombyard Serenades from your point of view? Did you set the task before yourself and Wayne before entering the studio? And was the goal to keep again this ’80s vibe as one of your main priorities?
The core difference is definitely Willie’s entrance into the band, and the first time I wrote some music for WOODEN STAKE, as Wayne always wrote the material before. Also, Willie didn’t tune down like Wayne so the album has a crisper sound in many ways. I remember letting Willie know to just do his thing and then I would add my touch and keep it as close to the original impetus of WOODEN STAKE as possible. A Feast… has more of an ‘80s vibe than the debut because Willie’s style brought that aspect in. He was inspired by MERCYFUL FATE, King Diamond, CANDLEMASS, etc.
What kind of feedback did you get with this album? What do people usually see in this material behind the gore and nudity of its cover art?
The feedback was very good. I remember one review said something along the lines of, “Normally I would think the cover is sexist, but there’s a woman in the band, so…”, and I was thinking, “I came up with the concept!” haha! I wanted an explicit album cover because I had never gone that far before and I thought, “fuck, this album is about lesbian vampires and bloodsucking babes, why not have over-exaggerated gore and nudity?”
Mario E. Lopez came through BIG TIME on that cover, as he always does (speaking of, just before this interview I was sent the cover he did for the second VAULTWRAITH album. Goddamn…!)
A Feast Of Virgin Souls was released two years ago, what’s now going on in Wooden Stake’s life?
Unfortunately, at this time WOODEN STAKE is on the back burner. Willie and I along with my husband Billy and our drummer are content doing VAULTWRAITH, which has been very successful and quite popular these days. Billy and I are also doing SURGIKILL with Stevo (IMPETIGO), Ash Thomas (FAITHXTRACTOR, ESTUARY), Zdenka Prado (FAITHXTRACTOR, ESTUARY), and our good friend William Sievers (FIENDISH, VICIOUS BITCH). I’m also working on the second album for my black metal band CAULDRON BURIAL with my new drummer Gregg Swine (SWINE INFECTION, LLL). I have some other ideas up my sleeve I’ll be working on soon. Nothing to officially announce yet, but look for some more doom to come your way…
Do you mean that you so easily put Wooden Stake out of your head? Though I guess that you have enough space for self-expression with other bands and projects. How do you manage to spare your time and energy for anything you’re involved in?
No, it’s not easy for me to drop the WOODEN STAKE name as if I am abandoning it. I want it to keep going, but the powers that be aren’t working in my favor. I always thought if Wayne didn’t want to do it I would find a drummer and I would do the music and it would be just as heavy and dark, but maybe even more heavy and dark. I wanted it to go into a direction that it didn’t go into on the second album, but I love and am very proud of A Feast of Virgin Souls, and I wouldn’t change a thing. The greatest thing out of it was getting to know Willie and finding that I can work with him easily, and we’ve been doing VAULTWRAITH since. Who knows what could happen with the WOODEN STAKE name in the future though.
Vanessa, however I wish you all the best with all your projects, just don’t forget to let me know when you have a new Wooden Stake album done! Any parting words of horror and blood for our readers?
Thanks to all who took the time to read this. I have many announcements to make with music I’m doing and books that I’ll be releasing soon, so look me up. I’m easy to find. Cheers to you all!