It’s the last night of the 2014 Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, Netherlands, and psychedelic doom trio YOB have just finished a triumphant performance in a packed main room for the second time that weekend. As he’s prone to do, vocalist/guitarist Mike Scheidt steps to the edge of the stage, and acknowledges the crowd’s wild applause with his fists high in the air, cheering right back at them before finally bringing his hands together and performing a namaste bow. “It’s meant to be a gesture of gratitude and respect, and to bring myself back [to earth], too,” Scheidt tells me months after the fest, when we catch up to speak about the band’s new album, Clearing the Path to Ascend. “It’s acknowledging that people just gave us their energy, support and love, and we did our best to rise and be good for it and we created something together. It’s meant to connect and be grateful. There are other things, too, but they are too fragile to say.”
And that, dear friend, is quintessential YOB. Founded by Scheidt in the mid ’90s, the Oregon-based band (the present lineup includes drummer Travis Foster and bassist Aaron Rieseberg) are celebrated kings of underground metal, having architected new sounds and shapes of heavy music over the course of seven albums. They’re arguably at their best live, building dynamic and atmospheric sounds to epic proportions. It is the kind of music that could move mountains or make planets collide. You’d never know any of this when speaking with them, though. In YOB there is no pretense, glamour or reward outside of writing music they love and connecting with others, while touring the world.
Each of YOB’s albums charts a different path and Clearing the Path to Ascend, is no exception. Where the band’s previous full-length, 2011′s Atma, contained some of their rawest moments and coupled them with lyrics influenced by Scheidt’s continued interests in Eastern mysticism. Clearing harnesses that energy and brings it down to Earth. It’s the heaviest, darkest and most emotional journey the band has taken, paced in a way that starts by conjuring feelings of life’s bleakest, most spiritually despairing moments, and resolving into new hope and beginning in the majestic serenity of the sprawling, nearly 20-minute epic album closer “Marrow.”
Along with his commitments to YOB, family and work, Scheidt is also a member of VHÖL, a black metal/crust hybrid featuring members of Hammers of Misfortune and Agalloch; he’s also got an upcoming, not-yet-named “brutal death metal” venture; and he has plans for a second solo record, the follow-up to his 2012 acoustic outing, Stay Awake. From his home base of Eugene, Oregon, he spoke with Wondering Sound about his creative process, the give-and-take between audience and artist and his thoughts on the ever-changing landscape of modern metal.
This album seems heavy in a different way than Atma. Atma seems to reach outward and beyond, into the cosmos, and Clearing the Path to Ascend seems to look inward and bear the weight of the human condition. How did things turn from one time period to the next?
It’s hard stuff to talk about without getting a little T.M.I., but when I’m writing I’m not thinking about how it is going to be received, I’m just writing what I want to get out. To me, the cosmic, far-out, mystic and the in-the-trenches pain of the human experience are two sides of the same coin. I’m going to be 44 in a couple of months and, if I’m lucky, I’m solidly halfway through my life. Maybe. That might be pushing it. I’ve done a lot of sitting meditation, I’ve read a lot, I’ve done a lot of reaching into the cosmos, and as time goes on I find there are still things I get hung up on and things that get in the way. I find that I can’t get any more clarity or be any more comfortable in my skin until I deal with [those issues]. Not in the sense of going to a psychotherapist or psychologist, but in being able to get a fresh perspective and being able to be more present.
The new record still climbs into mysticism, but it’s a much more “feet in the earth” [approach] instead of “hands in the heavens.” It’s trying to get lasting clarity. It might be a little messy, it might not be for everybody or be what everybody wants to hear about.
There’s something about the way you put your heart on your sleeve that resonates with people. Do you find that by putting yourself out there you’re allowing others to explore these emotions through you on stage?
God, I hope so. I really do. In the best-case scenario, we’re giving each other permission. So it’s a safe place to go and to dig and be on the same page, though I certainly don’t turn down anyone’s experience, including folks who don’t like it. Like I said, maybe it’s a little too messy for them and that’s OK. I just know what feels the best for me, and I have to be present and open the wound — not in a melodramatic way, but more as, “This is the work. This is what we do.” There are transcendental, spiritual moments and then there are just fun, kickass, rockin’ moments, and then it’s quiet or really heavy and loud. When I get the feeling the connection in the room is shared, that is the best experience by far.
What do you take away from the audience at that point? Do you feel any responsibility to your audience — not to write songs for them, but to give yourself artistically?
Yeah, I do. I think it’s my own personal trip. I feel like I have to give everything I have, and I have to be so in it and throw myself at it so hard that a lot of calories are burned. I’m exhausted at the end. I’m drenched in sweat, tired, hungry. I don’t think I can play another song but, “OK, we’re going to play another one. Fuck. OK, deep breath. Here we go…”
That’s been modeled to me. I’ve seen punk shows where the passion and energy are so over the top and you can see the people can barely hold their instruments at the end of it. Or you see people perform and they are so exposed and so human that you almost feel that they have something to lose. That’s the stuff that hits me the hardest. Occasionally, you’ll see performers go somewhere else entirely, and you’ll marvel at what you just saw. I’m not saying we’re that kind of band, but when I see that it inspires me like nothing else. When I’m on stage as a performer, as a soul, I want to dig as deep as I can.
The first track of the new album starts with a sample of a man saying, “Time to wake up,” followed by these ideas of reality and spirituality. What is the sample and why did you decide to choose to use it to kick off your record?
That quote is from the immortal Alan Watts, the British-born theologian, teacher, lecturer and rascal. He just had amazing abilities to impart knowledge and wisdom with a sharp wit and sense of humor. I’ve listened to him and read his books for maybe 25 years. His stuff continuously pops up on our records, all with permission because I want to be respectful. He sat with everyone, all of the great spiritual masters of the 20th century, all walks of religion, not just eastern mysticism. It is my calling card to myself to stay focused, stay on my path and keep my eyes open. There’s no message in it for anyone else, other than if it resonates with them, we can have a conversation about it and we’ll probably have a lot in common.
It seemed to set the tone for what was coming.
We wanted the album to be real. Real as in, “Shit is real, life is real, life is hard.” It isn’t an escape, it’s climbing into it.
It comes full circle by the end. Did you intentionally pace it to feel like a journey from start to finish?
Absolutely. The pace is important; how to make each song have its own universe so that each song is complete from top to bottom in tension and release. Then, to have each song flow into the next to create a journey where the songs aren’t stepping on each other’s toes. I really agonized over all the little pieces — we all did — to make sure everything really fit, and it’s really close. There are maybe a couple of things I would change, but as far as what we intended to do, which was to have an emotionally heavy album where the emotion was bigger than the riffs, it is what we wanted. It also has to be a piece of music that tickles my brain. It all has to be there for it to be interesting and have a life that goes beyond a few spins.
You’re sort of known for having a number of different approaches vocally.
I love all kinds of vocals, and over the years my philosophy has been, “The more colors I have, the cooler paintings I can potentially do.” Whatever voice I use has to be the right one and fit into the overall momentum of where the song is going. If I’m doing screams or death roars, there has to be something worth screaming about. Otherwise it just becomes monotony. It’s not a choice, it’s a style of vocal and it’s there for the whole record. That’s OK. A lot of bands do that.
Like Joy Division.
Sure, with a group like Joy Division — a beautiful example with Ian Curtis — a character, single-style voice can have a lot of dynamics too. The way he expressed himself was total, top to bottom, there was no other way it could have been for him. That makes it extraordinarily powerful. The dude was not on autopilot.
2005-06 was around when the tide started turning in terms of the media’s attention to underground metal and its audience expanding. You hadn’t stopped playing music during those years, but what was it like coming back as YOB?
We didn’t realize the band had grown in our absence, or that the climate had changed, but it didn’t take long to figure out that we had a growing group of fans that were there and ready. When we were touring and putting out records on Metal Blade — arguably the biggest experience we’ve ever had as a band — there wasn’t near the attention that there was in 2009, 2011 and onward. It has changed drastically. It has enabled us and many other bands to do things we never thought we could do, or had even considered, especially coming from the doom and stoner scene, which was so underground and so precious, and everyone who was into it was so into it. It was something we fought for. You couldn’t just go down to the store and buy the new Electric Wizard. That didn’t exist. You had to go through mail order or get it imported. The fact that there’s a bigger crowd for it has really enabled us to do things like go to Roadburn and be able to tour and things like that.
The flipside is as YOB we still have to be true to what started us to begin with. Whatever we write we have to be super stoked, super happy, pumped to be hanging out and cracking jokes. As long as we’re still doing that, we can rule out whatever the climate is in the outside world and have a great time, do our best and make the most of it and have reasonable ambitions.
Since the climate has changed so much over the years, in 2014 do you think terms like “metal” and “doom” are doing a disservice to the music and music lovers in terms of bringing in new listeners, or is it good to keep it a little separate?
I come from an era where metal and punk were so much more rigidly stereotyped than they are now. In a lot of ways metal is becoming part of popular culture. It’s not just this deviant, extreme thing — 30 years ago, it was rebel music. It was not accepted or acceptable. I got my ass kicked all through high school for having long hair or having a Mohawk or wearing a band T-shirt. It was not freaking OK at all. Now, people don’t even blink an eye. If people have the viewpoint of metalheads being meatheads or whatever, that would be pretty outdated. Most of the metal shows I go to are full of very smart, in-touch people who are there for the music. You rarely see fights or things that you might see at concerts of other genres of music. I’d be much more worried for my personal safety at a Garth Brooks concert than at a Suffocation concert.
Just when that perception seems totally outdated, though, you see things like Internet memes of metal guys holding cats and you’re like, “Of course they are. Those are their pets,” and you realize these stereotypes still exist.
I live in a world of metal and music, and with my experience of growing up versus now, it seems so much more accepted across the board, but I see all those things too, those metal-cat-dudes things. With putting a record on Thrill Jockey [and playing to] to a crowd where some people are YOB fans and some aren’t metal fans at all, I’ve seen a piece of the world where it became obvious I was sailing in different water.
Maybe this is oversimplifying it, but part of the reason the metal audience has grown is that for a long time metal existed in its many forms without any kind of hope of having a larger audience. It was trying to be true and sincere, and bands really pushed themselves, and there was a lot of passion, authenticity and sincerity. For any style of music or any great artist, that’s key. So people come to it and start to realize that, “Wow, there’s this amazing music from these really passionate people who are doing things that didn’t exist 30 years ago.” It’s a different style of music, it’s a whole different approach, the way guitars are played, the way the drums are played. It’s pretty fresh. Non-metal people come into it and see that, and to me it makes all the sense in the world. I’ve been pretty turned on to it for a long time now, but it’s still a story being written, and it will be interesting to see how it continues to unfold.