Playlist: Colin Stetson

Andrew Parks

By Andrew Parks

on 05.02.13 in Interviews

“People still assume I’m a saxophonist firmly footed in the free-jazz world, and that I suddenly tried to do ‘the rock thing’ with these records,” says Colin Stetson, after being asked about the heavier side of his New History Warfare series. “What [critics] don’t realize is we’re often cranking bands like Liturgy in the back of the bus on Bon Iver tours, or bonding over how we used to listen to [Iron] Maiden when we were in our teens.”

That explains why guest vocalist Justin Vernon ventures down paths both familiar (the harmonies that carry “And in Truth” to such great heights) and freakish (the guttural agony of “Brute,” which could double as a Pig Destroyer scratch track) on the trilogy’s third and final installment, To See More Light. Meanwhile, the record itself revolves around Stetson’s strictly analog — no overdubs, no loop pedals, nothing — approach to attacking his alto sax. In many ways, it’s not all that different from the devotion he had for a year-round sports regiment in high school.

“Wrestling encapsulates most of my physical discipline,” explains Stetson. “Ultimately, I had to quit the sport because it was so destructive — dropping 12 pounds in water weight before you go in and compete, then competing well [Laughs]. It was extreme, but it was one of the things that made me.”

Speaking of extremes, we asked Stetson to discuss some of his favorite metal songs down below. Sure enough, they’re all about as dizzying and dynamic as Stetson’s own records.

Metallica, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”

Why were you drawn to Metallica’s early records? Because they were thrash-y but still had a strong melodic sense to them?

Exactly. It’s such powerful music — angst-ridden, but educated. These are guys who did their homework, and are contextualizing what they learned in the world that they see. So you’ve got all of that youthful rage and aggression, but there’s also a nuance to it. And compositionally, I feel like a lot of that was coming from classical traditions in that it was very symphonic.

So you had this convergence of all these strains of music. Metallica was the first one to bring in a pop sense, in terms of how they delivered vocals. Not how the songs were structured though, because they were still doing things their own way. Because of the age I was and the background I had — largely in melodic music — I latched onto them. In my early teens, there was a lot of gaming with my shop friends, and so we would listen to those records. I remember Ride the Lightning was huge with my wrestling team when I was 12, too.

You used it to psyche you up then?

Oh god yeah. I still do that shit.

Before shows?

Yeah, it depends on what I feel I need before a show. Sometimes I need to be very peaceful and level out feelings, and other times I need to conjure up more of that aggression so that’s something that’s been with me since I was a kid. Like, I remember listening to Tool before I’d compete [in wrestling].

Why did you pick “For Whom the Bell Tolls”?

I was running the other day and listening to that record. When it got to that song, it was as if I was listening to the lyrics for the very first time. It was really crazy realizing that, thematically and image wise, there’s this whole thing in the new record with an eagle that’s basically the angel, or spectre, of death. It has these cracked eyes that prevent it from seeing in the light of day or the dark of night, so it can only hunt at the break of dawn or as the sun sets [Laughs].

There’s this death imagery with the main character in my narrative, and so “Who the Waves Are Roaring For” is really “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” There are a lot of weird parallels to the lyrics of that song, and I did not notice that until now. Which is always interesting to me — how things can be filtered through the creative process.

You mentioned gaming before. What kind of games are you talking about?

Oh, when I say “gaming,” I assume everyone knows I’m talking about role-playing games. This was back in the days of Dungeons & Dragons, before everything got complex. This was the mid-to-late-’80s [Laughs].

Were you hanging out with the jocks just so you wouldn’t get beat up for playing Dungeons & Dragons?

I was never a fighter, but I got bigger and more physically imposing by the time I was 11 or 12. It all happened kinda quickly, so no one fucked with me or my friends after that. I guess if you intimidate the jocks, they’ll leave you alone, no matter how many games you play.

Slayer, “Angel of Death”

So this song makes perfect sense now that you mentioned that storyline with the eagle.

Yep. They were working in broad, archetypal stuff too; they were all drinking from the same fountain.

Slayer was obviously a part of thrash’s Big Four, along with Metallica, but what sets them apart?

The scales are tipped towards the thrash, towards the speed and aggression. It’s, I don’t want to say “messier,” but the edges are definitely frayed and it’s more rooted in punk than rock. I don’t know; they’re extremely similar, yet completely different — worlds, in a way. Back then, and still now, I’ve always been driven and excited by songs with such an impassioned, aggressive delivery of something that’s so immaculately structured and precise. It’s riding the fine line between control and oblivion. I feel like that’s what bands like Slayer are all about.

Did you realize what “Angel of Death” was about Josef Mengele when you were a kid?

I’ve lived my life almost entirely oblivious to words. In music, especially. Not that I’m not a reader; I’ve always read a lot. But I’ve never really focused on the language aspect of music. It’s as if I’ve viewed the lyrics and vocals as shapes rather than delivering language and poetry.

That’s something that’s changed for me over the years. It’s one of the bigger shifts I’ve found as I’ve gotten older. At some point in the past five years, I found myself wondering, “When did I start listening to NPR a lot?” Because when I was in my 20s, I’d listen to music a lot in the car, but I wouldn’t sit and listen to the news or want to hear the language that they’re speaking. It made me wonder if my father experienced the same shift as he got older. Because I remember he always wanted to listen to some form of talk radio when I was a kid. And I kept thinking, “Why the fuck does he want to listen to more people talking?” I could never understand it. There must be something to how our brains intellectually relate to words as we get older. I don’t know if that makes sense, but they get brought into play more over time.

It makes sense; as people get older, they basically find peace in NPR or sitcoms. It’s all about having that sound of voices around. It’s comforting in a way.

Yes! Why is that?

Rainbow, “Man on the Silver Mountain”

So let’s talk Dio…

Oh man, I always wanted there to be a compilation of “castle rock” in the same way there used to be ones for things like ’80s rock ballads. Like there’d be Rush with all of those wizard voices…

And Zeppelin!

In a huge way, yeah. If we expanded what we are talking about here, Zeppelin was definitely a huge influence on me in high school. They just fit seamlessly into what I’d been listening to, particularly because of those elf and magic references.

But yeah, Dio — he was a big one for me.

So if you had to choose between hearing Black Sabbath with Dio or Ozzy, you’d choose Dio?

Oh, I don’t know if I’d do that! They’re two different beasts, and I’ve had much more exposure to the Ozzy Sabbath. I don’t know why that was, but Ozzy Sabbath…it fucking had Ozzy’s voice, in the same that Morrissey only has Morrissey’s voice. There’s something about the timbre, and the color of the vocal chords coming out of his mouth that shifts the space in a way. It’s so unique. I could never disparage Ozzy.

Why did you pick this Rainbow song in particular?

“Man on the Silver Mountain”? There’s some overlap in the imagery of [that song] and this record — something shining on top of this mountain, and we’re in search of it, trying to find our way up to that point. What’s up there is this fortress that’s old and made of mirrors. And there’s a man up there, so [laughs]…

Meshuggah, “Soul Burn”

Meshuggah was very much a “thinking man’s metal band” in the ’90s. Is that how you got into them — through how technical they are? Did Destroy Erase Improve blow your mind?

Blew my mind, yeah. And I came to them late. The mid ’90s was college for me, and I wasn’t doing an enormous amount of metal listening then. I was learning so much about so many different things in music school instead — things like European folk music, minimalist composers, jazz, funk, soul and R&B. It wasn’t a hiatus, but it was definitely a point where I wasn’t keeping up with what was popular in the world of rock.

But in ’99, or maybe it was 2000, a friend gave me that record and it rekindled my love for all of that. Now I listen to Meshuggah almost exclusively when I run. I find the way they write incredibly meditative. No matter how odd and intricate the forms are, everything is driving around that [drummer's] pulse.

Did you pick “Soul Burn” for any reason in particular?

“Soul Burn” is one of the ones I landed on when I was writing “Brute.” I gave it to Justin when he asked me, “Where in metal am I looking for inspiration?” He sent me a “Fuck, yeah” back.

Wolves in the Throne Room, “Dia Artio”

What elements of Wolves in the Throne Room’s music are you most attracted to — the black-metal elements, the ambient ones, or the more operatic?

The black metal thing is something I’ve only had a relationship with over the past few years. They’re one of the ones I gravitated toward immediately, probably because of all the elements you just touched upon. There’s something that’s so gorgeous about the way they write, almost this clichéd longing to all of the chord progressions. And there’s a multiplicity in the way they deliver the music. It’s not just one singular voice or style; it’s more symphonic, at least in terms of the sounds and structures they use. But overall, there’s a beauty to it that’s pretty undeniable.

What’s up with this song?

“Dia Artio” is one of their more ambient songs, with a slower pulse. I could recommend any song on this record, but I thought I’d pick this one to set it apart from the other songs on this list. There’s a real patience in this piece, like there is with Sunn O))) or something. Everything is able to breathe, which is something I tried to explore on this record with pieces like “To See More Light” and “Part of Me Apart From You.” There’s this stasis of forcibly slowed down progressions so you can wander through the minutiae.

Krallice, “The Clearing”

In some ways, Krallice is the total opposite of the Wolves track you picked; they’re both capable of really long songs, but Krallice is much more relentless about it.

I find that density very satisfying, the fact that so much can stimulate your mind within it. A lot of different layers are happening sonically. It is very relentless and exact, and it’s surgical, but it has this thick, dense atmosphere around it. They also juxtapose the super low bark-metal man with the Skeletor voice, which I like [laughs].

What do you get out of a newer band like Krallice that you maybe didn’t get out of Metallica when you were younger? Or do they both provide you with the same thing?

Well they’re doing what Metallica was doing then, now — forging new ground. You almost never hear something like that. Like, the first time I heard Liturgy, everything just stopped. A lot of the black metal bands I’m into are not traditional ones. There’s crossover elements to what they’re doing, and that’s what brought me to have such affection for it. There’s a parallel between what I wanted to do with my music and what they were doing with theirs that almost made me say ‘Eureka!’ the first time I heard it. Here’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and these guys are doing it already. It was inspiring, but it also made me buck up and get back into the game. There’s moments where I hit brick walls and wonder if I can push it much farther. But then, when I hear bands like this, I think I can push it much farther.

Don’t you feel like you’ve pushed things as far as they can go sometimes, especially since you perform in such a physical way, without pedals or overdubbing?

Well I haven’t reached a breaking point yet. That said, I went on vacation for a week in March, and when I got back, the chances of pulling off most of the music I’d normally play were absolutely nil. It goes away in a second — the endurance of face muscles, and the fluidity of the tendons in my hands and arms. When there’s a lack of discernible progress in something, I can get pretty sad, so you just have to turn it up. It’s not like you have to play more and more hours; you just have to push things further and further within those hours.

Liturgy, “Generation”

You already talked about Liturgy a bit. To someone who’s maybe not so familiar with them and Krallice, what are some main differences between the two?

That’s a good question. Shit. There’s something about the way Hunter [Hunt-Hendrix] sings that is melodic in a similar way as to how I used to relate to Metallica. Something about the color and timbre of his voice puts that Skeletor thing into a place that, for me at least, is filled with such longing and beauty. At the same time, there’s this churning, aggressive, Wagnerian density happening through all the guitars and drums. The key difference between any band and Liturgy is that they don’t have [drummer] Greg Fox in it — and now Liturgy doesn’t either, which is fucking tragic. But yeah, sometimes there’s these key combinations of players and personalities that are maybe fleeting, but when they combine, it’s something intangible that no one can replicate.

You’re someone who actually has a classical background, so when Hunter says he’s inspired by someone like, say, Steve Reich, can you actually hear that in the music?

[Laughs] I wouldn’t be surprised if he said that. So much of that is happening in music and art these days — this grand, obvious swipe back at the hyper-paced life we’re all living. Everything’s back to the earth and out of the city, a return to the contemplative and meditation. So you could find your way to Liturgy through something other than musical means.

Before you go, can you explain the notion of “ambient grindcore” that supposedly inspired one song on your album?

[Laughs] In all honesty, that was Ian over at Constellation [Records]. I won’t take credit for that one. But “Hunted” was my attempt at, after hearing Aesthetica specifically, dealing with things…I remember I wrote the song “The End of Your Suffering” because I was going to cover a song from Aesthetica but realized I wanted to do something that was more of a nod to that and went so much further. I did think about how blast beats and that density would relate to the bass, so basically it is taking those textures and that sentiment and slowing it down, filtering it through this other medium. I probably would have called it something a lot less awesome. But in the end, his description was apt [laughs].