DJ Jet has brought us the following extensive interview of John McEntee (and Chuck Sherwood) of death metal legends Incantation, whose latest album (their eleventh), Sect of Vile Divinities, was released in August of this year by Relapse Records. Settle in, and prepare for a wide-ranging discussion of the band’s past, present, and future, and the new album (with lots of details that will appeal to gear-heads as well as listeners).
John you formed Incantation back in 1989 in NYC back when Death Metal was relatively in its first stages. What influenced you to want to start incantation and what death metal bands were you listening to at that time?
In the mid ’80s I really started diving deeper into the underground metal world of tape trading and fanzines. In 1986 I joined my first real original underground band called Revenant. That time really had a big impact on me as a musician and person. I learned so much from my time in Revenant about underground music and also on how to promote a band worldwide and locally. With all this promotion I started to learn about new bands, more extreme bands from around the world that I couldn’t find in the local music store.
In 1988 Immolation and us booked shows in the NY/NJ area for Morbid Angel. After watching Morbid Angel play live, I pretty much knew my destiny was in more extreme death metal. I was into a lot of extreme bands at the time but that was the first band I saw that played in the new way of brutality live. It was like looking into the future of death metal.
So by the early summer of 1989 I realized that I just didn’t see eye to eye with the Revenant guys anymore. They were kinda going in a more mainstream and technical style, while I wanted to play more dirty and heavy. I just started to feel that the songs they were writing were too safe. There was just something inside of me that realized I needed to move on and start a new band.
By around June 1989 John Regan, our drummer for Revenant, left the band. I was really bummed out because I really liked jamming with him and I felt he brought a real great aggression to the songs. So our hunt for a new drummer was on. Then there was a crossroads when Henry “Veg” wanted to go with Will Corcoran, the drummer for the thrash band Lacerated. But I wanted to go with Paul Ledney from Toten and Blood Thirsty Death. This was the tipping point. We both put our foot down on who we wanted to work with.
So after a lot of thinking and talking it over with the Immolation guys and Paul Ledney. I then decided to say fuck it and move on to do something that was really mine and would be able to be used as a true way of expressing myself with Death Metal. It sounds like a no-brainer decision now but at the time Revenant was on the verge of getting a record deal with new upstart Nuclear Blast Records. It was no certainty that my new band would ever do anything.
When I started Incantation, I was really listening to a lot of demos. like Incubus (Mike Browning’s band, not the commercial band), Morbid Angel demos, live bootlegs and the unreleased album Abomination of Desolation, the Sarcofago INRI album I was really digging. Also Sepultura’s Morbid Visions, Schizophrenia, and Bestial Devastation. Blasphemy‘s Blood upon the Altar demo had also just came out and Paul and I were really big fans of it. Also the Nihilist Premature Autopsy, Only Shreds Remain, and Drowned demos were in heavy rotation along with the Rigor Mortis (NY) and Immolation demos.
We were also really into stuff like Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Kreator, Sodom, Bathory, Dark Angel, Sacrifice, VoiVod, stuff like that. It was an incredible time for extreme music.
What was it like for the band when you first started out? What shows were you playing and what were people’s reactions to your music?
John: We started in the summer of 1989, but we didn’t play our first show until January 1990. Early on we just made flyers telling people we had a band and that a demo was coming out soon. These were mostly for mail. We gave them out to our friends in Immolation to put in their mail along with other penpal friends around the world.
When it came around to playing our first show it was an open-mic night at a club called Cheers in East Nyack NY. The show was with Mortician. We just told a bunch of our friends about it. It was just kinda a warm-up show. Just something to get our live feet wet. It was a small club and it was not an official show, so we really didn’t make fliers or anything because we didn’t even know if they were going to let us play. But we showed up with like 50 or 60 friends and they pretty much had to let us play, the bar wanted all the beer sales. Haha…
Our first official show was in June 1990 at a club called the 308 Bar in NYC right outside Penn Station. For that show we flyered the crap out of every record store in the area, also all the cars at other death and thrash shows. We were just a flying onslaught. I always had a strong work ethic and know that the only way really to get our name out there was to put in the promo work. That show was also with Mortician along with a local band called Snag. Both shows were absolutely insane. we went over real well from day one live. It was like the Death Metal scene was ready for us. We were lucky because the Death Metal scene was just getting its legs. More and more venues started booking shows and there was becoming a pretty good-size fan base in the NY/NJ/PA area. We quickly got a reputation of being one of the darkest, more brutal death metal bands in the NYC area.
Throughout the years you have established an underground vibe with many loyal fans. How did this underground vibe come about along with playing major shows?
John: We are a band with a very punk rock attitude. From day one we decided that we were going to do things the way we wanted and not give a crap about trends. I think our supporters and fans really appreciate the honesty of our music. When people listen to our albums or see us live they are getting something very honest! The most important thing is no matter what the turnout is to a gig, we always play our best and treat a small show with the same enthusiasm as a big fest!
Also in the band’s 30-year existence you underwent many line-up changes. How did that affect the dynamic of the band and your music (if at all)?
John: No doubt lineup changes affect the music. How can they not? Different members bring different attributes to the band. Also, people have different mindsets at different times when they were in a band, so that has a big effect on the music. It’s very difficult to re-create these kinds of things. I can only speak for myself but I have learned a lot of good and bad things from working with so many musicians. It’s like a well of information you can only learn from working closely with so many different people. You kinda learn what to do and not do. Also each new member brings in a slightly different flavor to the band, which is a good thing and helps keep us from getting stale.
To be fair, we have had mostly the same lineup for over 12 years with the addition of Chuck into the band. It’s been Chuck, Kyle, and myself for a very long time and we have an amazing respect and dynamic in the band that is very inspiring to be around. Our new guitarist is really awesome — Luke is a great guy and an amazing player and songwriter. Just a super-cool guy to be around. So things are at a really great place with the band at the moment.
You have just released your 11th studio album, Sect of Vile Divinities. When it comes to writing and recording albums, what are some of the lessons you have learned along the way on what to and not to do?
John: There are a lot. Each album is a new experience and you kinda learn something or relearn something we forgot. Haha… From Profane Nexus we learned to do things in more of an old school way. We felt the drums on Profane Nexus were a little too stiff. We played a lot of that album to click tracks, something we were really reluctant to do in the past. So on Sect of Vile Divinities we wanted a real rehearsal/live show kind of vibe. So we played all the songs a bunch of times like we normally do and just pick the best takes and build the song from that. More like we did back in the early days. I would say probably the biggest lesson we learned over the years recording is to trust our own instinct, and not let technology ruin the natural vibe of the music.
A lot of touring has gone on for you. Have you had any tour disasters along the way?
John: Yes definitely, more than you can imagine. Haha, most of the tour funnels are small but seem big at the time. Only a few are really big deals. We have had lots of promoters and booking agents rip us off while out on the road and not having enough money to get to the next gig. Kind of all the normal stuff bands deal with, sadly.
One really sad disaster we had recently was on our last tour of South America. The promoter in Peru didn’t get us a work visa so when we left the country to go to our next show in Paraguay, we got stopped at customs for playing Peru with the wrong visa. Basically, we were breaking Peruvian federal law. We did not know anything about it. We played South America all the time and we never had visa problems. So we got held up at the border and the promoter got a big fine. We had to get an expedited visa that took a full day and was very expensive. But the worst thing about the problem is we had to cancel our show in Paraguay. To pour salt on the wound, it was going to be our first time playing Paraguay. So we really look forward to doing a make-up show there.
We don’t blame the great fans of Peru. They were absolutely amazing and we can’t thank them enough for the warm welcome each time we have played there. Just next time we need to make sure the promoter does not cut corners and gets us the proper visas.
How has the pandemic affected the band?
John: Overall not too much as far as the Sect of Vile Divinities album goes. We finished the album in January 2020. We just needed to wait to see what Relapse wanted to do as far as releasing it. The release date was going to be June but they needed to delay it until August. That gave us a little extra time after the lock-down opened in June to get some of the video stuff we needed done to help promote it. Normally after we finish recording an album, we get right back into writing mode and that was no different this time. We just kinda had a little extra time to write. Also I took a little time to go through some of the Incantation archives. And settle down in my new home in North Carolina. So that was really cool.
The pandemic really screwed things up with the touring schedule for 2020. We hope to tour in 2021 but as of now it’s not looking good until the second half of 2021. Fingers crossed.
Turning again to your album, Sect of Vile Divinities, exactly what Vile Divinities are we talking about here?
Chuck: The first song on Sect of Vile Divinities is about an Akkadian incantation and ritual against Lamashtu. It is styled as an “incantation to dispel lasting fever and Lamashtu”. A sacrifice of bread must be placed before a Lamashtu figurine, water poured over it, then a black dog must be made to carry the figurine. Placed near the head of a sick child for three days, with the heart of a piglet placed in its mouth. An incantation must be recited three times a day, with further food sacrifices. At dusk on the third day, the figurine is taken outdoors and buried. Lamashtu has seven names. Hence the subtitle “(Seven of the Sky is One)”. “Lamashtu, “daughter of Anu”, “sister of the gods of the streets”, “sword which strikes the head”, “the one who causes inflammation”, “the goddess whose face is horrible”, “the caretaker”, lastly “taken by Irnina”.
In addition “Black Fathom’s Fire” is a dedication to my rabid fanaticism with H.P. Lovecraft. The song tells of human and animal sacrifices, falling to the “Hadal” depths where Cthulhu and the bioluminescent creatures surrounding him treat this as their moment of “the stars being right” to infect madness into the minds of humanity as a means to usher our own extinction, for the ancient ones to return to the surface of earth.
What was your mindset when creating this album, and what can those who haven’t heard it expect musically from this?
John: The music was written by the whole band just like really all our other albums. Personally for myself I wanted to concentrate on some of the evil sounding mid-tempos and some more double-guitar work like we did on some of our earlier albums. Everyone really added some great riffs and songs to it. It’s a well-balanced album. We have fast and slow. All the barbaric stuff you would expect to hear with an Incantation album. The response has been truly overwhelming, which is totally awesome since we have been doing this for so long.
What goes through your mind when writing lyrics, especially for this album, and do you write the lyrics before the music or vice versa?
Chuck: For this album in particular I drew upon my typical muses, but adding topics unfamiliar to myself. A way to research interests, and explore my subconscious with death metal as a catalyst. Folklore, mythology, history, occultism and my dreams are within, like everything I’ve ever contributed lyrically. Can’t say I have one particular mindset while writing… I’m like this all the time.
Music comes first, then a contouring of the story told lyrically is blended into it, through editing, repeating lines, even matching per syllable on occasion. End result is the changes musically/lyrically flow in a more homogeneous way.
So as a whole what can the listener expect when hearing this album for the first time?
John: Probably the biggest thing is the production is kinda cleaner and more open to letting you hear all the instruments better. Dan Swanö really killed it this time. It’s heavy as fuck but you can also hear all the minutia. I really feel that the songs are well-crafted, and it just makes for a real disturbing and brutal listening experience. I feel this is one of those albums you need to listen to a few times to really understand it. Well, I guess that is pretty much in step with our other albums as well.
Tell us a little about the cover art and artist.
Chuck: The cover is as if the very events, entities, and deities mentioned in the album are assembled in a sort of forgotten temple as a common “sect”. All of them sharing the same “vile” nature against opposing religions (or religious ethics) and humanity.
The vision in my head was so very difficult and elaborate to convey every aspect of the songs that I have to commend Eliran Kantor again for bringing it to reality. I’m not an artist — to that extent, I’d be lucky to even draw a stick figure let alone be able to do what he does. Wasn’t an easy task to be sure, mock-ups, file trading, reference material, and tons of correspondence. We in the band all remain seriously impressed by his translation of it, couldn’t be more pleased. He is an amazing artist and person to work with. Understanding and open to suggestions. This being his third cover created for us, he excels where we come short in the nature of his medium.
So John let’s talk about guitars!!! How many do you have and when did you first start playing?
John: Right now I have 7 guitars and one bass. Seven are BC Rich Mockingbirds including the bass. Then I have the SP Custom guitar I’m building with Scott Pivarnick which I think we will talk more about later in the interview.
I started playing around 1984. I got my first guitar after saving money from a paper route.
What was the first guitar you ever owned?
John: I got an Ibanez Roadstar II guitar and a little 10” Peavey practice amp and a Ratt distortion pedal (that was mandatory.) Hahaha. It was an ok guitar for a beginner, I really didn’t know much about guitars and you have to start somewhere.
What were some of the things you disliked in any factory-issued guitar you have owned in the past?
John: Yes there are a few things that really bugged me about factory-issued guitars. For one, I only use a bridge pickup and it’s almost impossible to find a mass-produced guitar with one Humbucker pickup. I don’t get it, it’s much easier to add a pickup to a guitar than patch up a pickup whole in a new guitar. Next thing that drives me crazy is that it’s so difficult to get a new factory-built guitar with a Kahler tremolo. It’s absolutely ridiculous to think that all guitarists like to use the same kind of tremolo. I will not conform to the status quo. There are other things, but those are my big pet peeves that I think some of the big guitar companies missed the mark on.
So right now you are having a custom guitar built by SP Custom guitars and you happen to also be present and assisting in building that guitar. What did you tell Scott that you wanted in this custom guitar?
John: Basically I wanted that late ’70s, early ’80s BC Rich feeling to the guitar. That was the heyday for BC Rich and I really love the vibe of my old B.C. Rico (the name before they changed it to Rich). It had to have one Fishman Fluence Humbucker Pickup and Kahler tremolo. I also wanted to make sure I can use Curt Mangan strings 13 to 65 and still have the feeling of a more traditional string size. I wanted a real solid guitar that I can use on tour and feel proud of. I want it to be a well-oiled machine. Something roadworthy and dependable. And he has done that, and he went above and beyond my expectations.
And now the long part — tell us the process of making this guitar (choosing the wood and why you chose it, choosing pickup, cutting out the design — we want it all!!!!) and how far along you are now?
John: Like I said in the last answer, I really wanted that early BC Rich feel to the body and that is not something you really find anymore. I pretty much listened to Scott on what he thought would give me the sound and feeling I’ve been describing. So we went with a 3-piece flamed maple neck through body, with mahogany wings which looks totally badass too. Then we added a really nice flamed maple top to it. It has a 24-fret fretboard with X-Jumbo frets on an ebony fingerboard. It also has some awesome cutaways for easy high-fret access and just an overall comfortable feel while playing. So it’s really a badass guitar!!!
It has a Kahler tremolo which is very important to me. I have been using them since about 1987 and it just feels so right. I also put in a Fishman Fluence Humbucker Pickup which I think are just amazing, they really have a great cut and it handles the low end so well. I also have a Fishman rechargeable battery installed, which is so nice. It rules to not have to deal with changing out batteries every so often.
I set up the pickup to just work with on volume pot because I like that for live. I want the guitar to be built for easy live uses. I never use the tone control so it’s useless to have it. It just gets in the way or can accidentally get moved while playing. So to bypass it, that makes the problem solved.
The shape is kind of a hybrid of a mockingbird and a wave with an original touch to it. The shape is so comfortable for me to play. I can’t wait to play it out on the road.
How important was it for you to be present in this?
John: Well of course it’s great to be there and be involved with the making of the guitar. Scott had me do a lot of the process myself, which was cool. It’s awesome to have a part in making my own guitar. But let’s be honest, Scott is the mastermind behind it. I’m mostly just following his lead. Really he can do it all himself and I’m sure I would be more than happy with it. But he really likes the person he is building a guitar for to be a part of the process. He puts a lot of care into making sure he is making a guitar that is of high quality and exactly what the person wants.
Are you driving the guitar builder crazy by being there or do you work pretty well together?
John: Hahaha, we get along real good, Scott is a very cool guy. We kinda make a pretty good team. I just wish I knew more about building so I didn’t have to ask so many questions. But even after this guitar is built, I will be stopping by the shop and I will be more than happy to help him out if he allows me to.
What do you have left to do, and tell us about why you chose the custom components, etc.
John: We are at the painting stage of the guitar at the moment. We are getting it painted at GMW Guitar Works by master guitar painter Lee Garver. It will be so badass when it’s done.
I think I explained why I picked the components in my previous answers. Haha.
Do you always go with things like the same pickup and strings from guitar to guitar, and why?
John: I like all my touring guitars to be set up the same way. Live I only play with full force. So when I want to switch from one guitar to another I want the least amount of tonal and feeling change possible… So all my touring guitars have a Fishman Fluence Humbucker Pickup and Curt Mangan strings 13 to 65 strings.
When you are live do you use the same guitars as you do when recording?
John: Sometimes, I will be using the SP Custom for the recording of the next album for sure, and live. On previous albums I really either used my BC Rico or BC Rich special X. Both have real good tone and feeling. I retired my BC Rico from touring but the special X I have been using a lot over the last few years on tour.
What is your live set up (you know, guitar amps, pedals, amps etc, when playing live)?
John: I use an AMM Amplified Barbarian X head with a full Omega Ampworks stack. I also have a Shure glxd16 digital wireless guitar pedal system. I sometimes use a Morley wah pedal. I try to keep things as simple as possible. The AMM Amp sounds amazing, and between that and the Omega Cabs it has such an amazing sound. It holds all the low end perfectly, it also has just amazing mids too. I never sounded better live than with this setup. I’m so happy with it. It just sounds awesome.
What do you do to warm up before a show?
John: I pretty much just do some scale runs and basic picking patterns just to kinda get the fingers moving. Maybe I’ll run through a riff that I need work on a few times. For me the most important thing is just to get nice and warmed up so I don’t feel stiff while playing. Because I also do vocals, my fingers need to be going on autopilot.
Do you have certain practice methods you use?
John: I should, but when I start playing guitar I end up getting bored playing practice runs and I kinda prefer to just jam, do whatever, just have fun with it. At times I will write riffs while practicing so I like to have something to record with in case I come up with something good.
In your experience what can you express through your playing ?
John: For me it’s everything that needs to get out of me. All the hate in the world, the aggression, I really just like to play and tell the world to fuck off. Playing guitar has become a really important way of letting my feelings out, good or bad. I’m a pretty chill person but when I play guitar that is where I really get to let loose.
And what do you enjoy most about playing?
John: I really enjoy creating songs. Using the guitar in a way to express my inner feelings. But playing live too is a really fun way to express myself with a guitar. It’s like you can go off and just let everything go and people seem to like it, haha. Overall, guitar has become a very important way of expressing my inner feelings. It’s like an extra sense. I feel lost without it.
For people just starting out with guitar and wanting to play metal, what would you say to them?
John: I will say, do it for yourself and not for the fame and money. In my opinion the best music comes from people who really enjoy what they are doing. Be true to yourself and don’t concern yourself with what is big or about trends. Those things will only screw up your goals and vision.
So John, what’s in store for the rest of the year for the band?
John: We will be writing and recording some new material. We also have some rehearsal videos in the works for release at some point. But the new music ideas have really been flowing, so we are just going to go with it! Strike while the iron is hot!
And what would you like to say to all the fans who have stuck with Incantation for all these years?
John: Thanks, we are so honored to have had such a long and rewarding musical career. I can never explain how amazing it is to have our music mean so much to so many people. We truly play from our souls, so when people enjoy it, it really means a lot to us. Thanks and we will continue to play Death Metal for many years to come. So hopefully you will take the ride with us. But honestly we can’t thank you enough to the years of support!!!
John (and Chuck) thank you so much for the interview and we wish you all the best!
John: Thanks and we wish you all the best as well. We appreciate all your support over the years. Also thanks to everyone out there who has checked out the Sect of Vile Divinities album. The response has been amazing. Check out our social media pages and website: www.incantation.com. And we really hope to see all you guys out on the road in 2021. Fingers crossed!!!