IT'S BEEN a big few years for Black Tusk. The cherished local heroes pushed forward after the death of bassist and vocalist Jonathan Athon and just released T.C.B.T., their sixth full-length album.
The newest collection of songs retains the band’s signature sludge metal sound but also incorporates hardcore punk influences on a much larger scale than their previous albums. Ahead of their hometown performance at The Jinx this weekend, we talked to guitarist Andrew Fidler and bassist Corey Barhorst about all things Black Tusk.
- Photo by Geoff L. Johnson
This is your first album since Jonathan Athon’s passing, and I’d imagine it was a bizarre experience on some level just being in a studio without him?
Andrew: Honestly, it wasn't that bizarre. He passed away a couple years ago, and we've carried on. It's not the same band without him in it, because it wouldn't do us or his memory justice to try and copy that. But we'd been playing with Corey for a couple years and had been writing pretty much the whole time, so we got done with a tour cycle and took a couple years off of the road to make the record at home.
It’s always different with Athon not being in the band, but at the same time it’s kind of a different band now. The same but different, if that makes sense.
Did the hardcore punk influences that are prominent on the new record happen intentionally? How did that evolve?
Andrew: We set out to make a more punk rock record, for sure. With Corey writing, it changed the process. He has his own ideas, and the way this band writes everyone gets a say. There's no one songwriter in the band and there never has been.
Are you all bringing in little ideas and then arranging them together? Or does one person come in with something of a fully formed song and flesh it out from there?
Andrew: We definitely come up with riffs in our own time, and then we'll all take it, sit with it and play with it.
It seems like this record is a big step forward from a sonic standpoint. Talk about that part of the process. Were you striving for that?
Andrew: When we started working on this, we did a lot of pre-production because Corey is a bit of an audio wizard. So we were really able to work on the songs in our space, and then with the guys from The Garage came in and used their knowledge and room to capture our live sound in a sense.
Corey: When we actually went into the studio, we weren’t wasting any time. We already knew what was going on with the songs, which meant we could concentrate more on the tones. Andrew could have easily went in with his one amp and that could’ve been it, but we wanted to experiment. It’s the idea of looking at the studio as a separate instrument.
It’s very evident in the new record that there was a lot of thought and experimentation in terms of using the studio as an instrument. I’m curious about the intro track on the album. What was the impetus for a spoken word piece, and how did that come about?
Andrew: To get people's attention!
There you go!
Andrew: A couple months before we went into the studio, we worked with Matt and Colin on the first song and a couple of other things just to kind of get a demo together. We put an intro on that first song, so we wanted to elaborate more on that. We asked James to write something, and asked him to elaborate on some of the ideas [from the demo]. The way we work, the lyrics were all written in pretty close proximity, so there might not be a theme that ties everything – yet there is a theme that ties everything, if that makes sense. From the artistic way of looking at it, it's an overview of the entire record.
Corey: It sets the mood for the record.
- Photo by Geoff L. Johnson
So when you talk about writing all of the lyrics in the same time span, is it the kind of thing where you write all the music and then take it away and put vocals on? Often I’ll hear about how, say, David Bowie would make an entire record with no vocals and then go home with it for four months and come back with an album’s worth of lyrics. Was it similar for you guys?
Andrew: We wrote all the music with no vocals, so every song was finished instrumentally before we started writing vocals for them. So when studio time was upon us, someone would be tracking in the A room and the rest of us would be in the B room working on vocals for things that had just been recorded. So in that sense, all the lyrics kind of have the same theme and were written in the same time period. And that's honestly how every Black Tusk record has been done.
Corey: Each song, somebody would have an idea for the direction lyric-wise. We’d have discussions on it, but it was more or less to fill out the ideas and everyone would contribute.
What were some of the lyrical themes on the record? Is it current events?
Andrew: Some of the songs do touch on current events without singling out a subject or a certain orange-faced clown.
It's hard not to speak on that as an artist.
Andrew: You have to! Every Black Tusk record has songs that are about things that are happening in our lives, while not being specific. We definitely had a rough few years, so this album deals with a lot of loss. But at the same time, the world is not a complete and utter shit show. There are positive aspects and rays of hope thematically.
One thing I'm curious about – you guys are, for lack of a better term, lumped in with a specific group of Savannah bands that are generally in the same wheelhouse. How did that happen?
Andrew: You're taking about Baroness and Kylesa?
Andrew: There was this whole thing going through the music community called the "Savannah sound," which is the kind of sludge metal thing. So of course we were involved in that, because we all came up together and helped each other out. But those bands kind of gravitated in different directions. Baroness sort of went in a more prog rock direction.
Corey: Being that I played with Kylesa, it was definitely the more psychedelic kind of stuff. Baroness was more prog, and Black Tusk was always the more punk rock of that group of bands. These bands all grabbed on to their chosen thing. So surely there are differences, but I don’t see any differences. It’s still the same people.
Andrew: The “Savannah sound” thing was more about camaraderie. And of course the press took interest, because you had three bands all from the same town all doing great things. So they were like, what’s going on in Savannah?
I think of it along the same lines as grunge. There were all these Seattle bands being put under the same umbrella but they really weren’t musically.
Corey: Yeah. Look at L.A. in the late '70s, you know? Baroness could be the Chicago, and Kylesa could be Steely Dan, and then Black Tusk could be Van Halen. Same area, same time period, completely fucking different.
Do you think it's been a positive thing from the standpoint of what you do musically to have that stamp?
Andrew: I don't think it's a good thing that there's a label in terms of being from Savannah and having a certain sound. But I do think it's a good thing that you had three bands who were internationally touring and doing their own thing. There's a common thing that everyone was doing, but they were doing it in their own way. It was a moment in time that's now passed, and it's still cool to be associated with those bands. But people need to know now that musically, we're not that similar anymore.