Manipulating Conventions: A Conversation with Joshua Strawn

Photo by Kate Stone

Over the course of about three weeks, you've got three records coming out from three different projects: Vaura, Vain Warr, and Azar Swan. For those who may be unfamiliar with your work, can you briefly describe each of them?

Sure. I've come to enjoy referring to Vaura as a metal band that uses metal techniques and motifs to make music that's not exactly metal anymore. It's a band where I'm the only musician who isn't a virtuoso. It's atmospheric, melodic dark music, basically.  

Vain Warr is a new project. I had a postpunk-influenced band on Wierd Records years ago called Blacklist. The band broke up after our first LP, but I had written a ton of songs for our second record which was much bleaker and heavier than the first. Vain Warr is kind of an umbrella, a project with a band name because I prefer that to using my own name, but in ways it has the same dynamics as a solo project. Right now I'm recording and playing the music I wrote for a second Blacklist record in Vain Warr.  

Azar Swan is Zohra Atash and myself doing a sort of industrial pop thing. We dissolved Religious to Damn and started working with heavy electronics.  

Photo by Kristen Sollee

You refer to your bandmates in Vaura – Kevin Hufnagel of Dysrhythmia/Byla/Gorguts, Toby Driver of maudlin of the Well/Kayo Dot/Secret Chiefs 3, and Charlie Schmid of Religious to Damn – as virtuosos. How did they end up in Vaura, and has working them had any effect on your writing process?

Well, Charlie had heard me discuss possibly doing something more metal-influenced and he'd mentioned that if I actually did that that he'd love to play. He'd grown up playing a lot of the same metal I had but in years since he'd been doing all kinds of stuff, classical percussion and new music type stuff. He played in whatever ensemble uses all the original Harry Partch instruments. The first conversation I ever had with Kevin we discussed stuff like The Chameleons and 4AD and it turned out we had a lot of common ground so it was Kevin I first sent the demos to. He was down to play, so I got him and Charlie together and things clicked. Kevin was friends with Toby and he felt like the aesthetic we were developing would be something Toby would both enjoy and be well suited to. So he brought Toby on-board.     

As far as how it effects my writing, it's very liberating. I can always be sure that anything I write, they can not only play but can probably play better than me. That's not always how it is in bands.  But also, the thing with this band is, we don't write bad songs. And I don't mean that in some kind of arrogant blind way like because I'm in the band I just think everything we do is great. It's just that the writing is always very smooth, fast, and the results are always very high quality. So I guess if that effects the process in any way it means that lately I feel more and more excited by just having us try things. Like we wrote a song in the studio in a couple hours just cause I had the idea, "Hey all these guys basically shit gold, what if we try to work under a time constraint and do something very sort of spontaneous and punk rock." I feel like in other bands I have almost stressed out, micromanaging because I felt like I had to, like that if-I-don't-do-it-nobody-else-will feeling.  That's absent with Vaura. That creates lot of trust, and so I feel a bit more free to step back and let things take shape.  Like on this new record, there are two tracks in particular – "Passage to Vice" and "Pleasure Blind" – that, even though I added plenty by the time we were done writing, in the early stages I was just standing there, singing, letting those three guys develop the basics of the track.     

Artwork by Terence Hannum

Vaura’s first album, Selenelion, was released on CD and vinyl by Pieter Schoolwerth’s Wierd Records, who had previously released an album, a single and some Wierd Compilation tracks from Blacklist. For The Missing, you’re working with Profound Lore on the CD version and The Flenser on the vinyl edition. How did the band’s relationship with these labels begin? Are there any bands you’re particularly excited to be labelmates with?

Pieter and I became fast and close friends around when Blacklist was getting going. Wierd was a small party at a bar called Southside Lounge back then and Glenn, the drummer from Blacklist, was one of the main figures along with Pieter. Glenn and Pieter both turned me on to tons of great music. Pieter and I had a common interest in philosophy, both as an intellectual pursuit as well as a means to action. We also had a similar approach to it, which was not very bookish.  More booze-ish than bookish. Pieter's decision to start a record label came around the time that Blacklist was building up steam. So in a sense, my music ending up on Wierd seemed as natural as breathing -- everything I was doing was bound up in the ideas we were so preoccupied with and I was influenced by the music Wierd was bringing to light (although Blacklist never did get a vinyl release, only CD). With Profound Lore, of course Dysrhythmia was doing a record with them and so Kevin had a rapport with Chris Bruni, who liked our stuff and was very receptive to doing our second release. Jonathan from The Flenser had hit us up just to say he liked the band and the first record.  

As far as bands I'm excited to be labelmates with, that'd be a long list. Wierd Records, Profound Lore, The Flenser, then Azar Swan is on Handmade Birds, and Vain Warr is on Sacrament Music – all home to so many unbelievably amazing bands. Blut aus Nord is one of the hugest influences of the last several years of my musical existence, so I guess that stands out as a major thing, seeing a band I'm in on the same label roster.

You described Vaura as “music that's not exactly metal anymore.How has the band’s sound changed between Selenelion and The Missing?

Well, I guess I didn't think the first record was really even properly metal. Maybe there were more connotations of heaviness, but on the new record there are more traditional aspects of black metal, instrumentally – more blast beats and tremolo picking and stuff like that. It still doesn't really come off quite like metal I don't think.  The term black metal has been brought up in relation to our music at times, but I'd say there's much more black metal in the worldview that underpins my lyrics – which is deeply antitheist – than there is in the actual music. Four of the tracks on The Missing came from the sessions we did for Selenelion. They were put aside because they didn't really fit with the more psychedelic, otherworldly aspects of the concept behind Selenelion. The way I delineate the two records is that The Missing is much more immediate and terrestrial. It's less of a hallucination and more of an introspection. I sort of imagine Selenelion as a headphones and drugs record, and The Missing is more of a driving record. Selenelion was sort of meant to disorient the listener, whereas The Missing is meant to cut into you, to go underneath all the layers of protective distance we put between ourselves and what we feel, between ourselves and other people.  

Artwork by A.J. Annunziata

The two tracks from Vain Warr's Deadline Season single are somewhat disorienting, given the combination of post-punk psychedelia in the guitars, doomy bass grooves, baritone vocals, and drum machines samples that wouldn’t be out of place on a dance record. Even though it is a continuation of sorts, it is considerably different from the work you had done with Blacklist. What are some of the things that influenced the first Vain Warr release?

Vain Warr came about pretty strangely. I had these demos that I'd written for a second Blacklist record that I had always been saying I hoped would see the light of day someday. Blacklist songs didn't only evolve out of my demo writing – some did, and some were band compositions that grew out of jams. When I demoed for Blacklist I'd always use programmed drums knowing they'd be eventually played live. Once I knew I wasn't going to use a live drummer, the drums ceased being placeholders for live drums and I let myself go totally electronic with it. That grew out of my love for stuff like early Clan of Xymox, Sisters of Mercy and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.  

This is a difficult thing to describe but I guess sometimes music can take on such a distinct life in your mind that when you go back and listen to the records themselves after some distance, you realize the records don't actually sound like this ideal image you've created. So for me these tracks grew a lot out of listening to early Sisters records and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and thinking that, while I love that music as it stands on those recordings, there was something it had grown into in my imagination that hadn't really been done. Maybe those bands sounded that way live to see those bands in a small club their heyday, but I had always imagined this rumbling, cavernous noise that you don't exactly get on the records. I wanted to go to that place but send that sound off the rails a bit, make it harsher and noisier and more beastly.  In almost everything I do with Vaura and Azar Swan, I'm trying to confront and manipulate conventions. With these first two Vain Warr tracks, I let myself be less worried with some of that and just single-mindedly pursue this idea. Sonically, these songs are sort of an unabashed shoutout to the Leeds sound, something that in my view has never been attempted with any success by any band that wasn't a dreadful capital 'G' goth band. Because the Sisters had a groove, it wasn't this stiff, tinny crap that Sisters of Mercy fanboy bands churned out.

It's a new level of self-discovery, honestly, to have a couple of years of distance from a band and go back and record tracks I'd written for that band with complete control. The connections to Blacklist are very clear in my mind, but most people hear it and find it's much different. That makes me happy, although there was never going to be a Midnight of the Century part 2. This is where things were headed. A different musical spirit, a different lyrical spirit. That being said, Blacklist was always a didactic band. You were meant to hear the lyrics, it was always inspired by The Clash and The Manic Street Preachers. It was meant to deal with political matters, and all that is true of this. The difference is that where Blacklist was globally-minded and cosmopolitan, this is a domestic war. This is a direct attack on homegrown American Christian theocracy, with a Miltonian Lucifer presiding. 

Photo by Jason Akira Somma

You’re playing your first Vain Warr show on October 30th. Do you see Vain Warr becoming an active live band, or will your attention be focused on studio recordings?

That will probably just be determined by circumstances. I don't have goals like that with Vain Warr. What started out as a means to avoid complications with using the Blacklist name sort of evolved into something else in my mind. I think of Vain Warr now as sort of the space where I call all the shots, like a solo project. If I wanna drop a lo-fi electronic track on Soundcloud and call it Vain Warr, I can. I don't have to consult with anyone or worry about how it will fit with the band's other plans or how much it sounds like the last thing I did. Whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it. I have too many ideas for music and I don't exactly want to put a new band name on every single one of them. I have minimal electronic music I've written, sort of postindustrial sinister pop, I have ideas for some more brutal and harsh stuff. But other times I think about how interesting it could be to pursue my love for stuff like Massive Attack and Kanye West and The Weeknd and see what sort of a weird, dark pop record I would make. I'm so inherently incapable of doing rap and R&B properly that I think it would be fascinating to see what might happen if I set out with those ideas and influences in mind.  Like I sort of see Death Grips as a contemporary Joy Division or Kraftwerk. I think it's completely acceptable to be openly engaged with them as influences in the here-and-now. I can't make what they make, I don't know how, but I'm an advocate of that sort of passion for music that's not in the history books. The sounds they create make me want to create sounds. That's inspiration in a very pure form.  

Photo by Kate Stone

These days, Kanye West is making the darkest, noisiest, most schizophrenic music of his career thus far, with producers that have acknowledged the influence of 90s industrial music on his album, Yeezus. The Weeknd references acts like Portishead, Cocteau Twins, and Siouxsie and the Banshees as inspiration for his uniquely dark take on R&B. Whereas they are reaching into the past to find new sounds, you already have a history with that music and are responding to contemporary pop, hip-hop, and electronic music, especially with Azar Swan. How exactly did the transition from the traditional instrumentation of Religious to Damn to the heavy electronics of Azar Swan occur?

The transition had a lot of components. First off, we had really been happy with the way "Lovely Day" came out. It was our first straight-ahead foray into more electronic instrumentation. We worked a bit with my friend Shawn O'Sullivan of Led Er Est on that track he helped us get some of the synth sounds we wanted. Around that time the lineup of Religious to Damn was going through one of its routine change-ups, and Zohra and I were just becoming exhausted with that process. A rarely remarked upon aspect of the Religious to Damn record is that Jesse Krakow of Time of Orchids played bass on more than half the record. Time of Orchids was another one of those bands on the extreme fringe of experimentalism, a band of virtuosos. It was hard to find players who could play his parts, it was also hard to get so many musicians together to rehearse, it was hard fitting that many people on-stage in New York. So everything converged and we just kinda decided to go all in with the electronics. 

As far as my production responding to things like The Weeknd and Kanye's new stuff, I think it's a mixed bag. I despised Kanye West for years – not at all uncommon. I started hearing all this dreamy electronic production in hip-hop like Drake and got curious so I asked a friend of mine, Insanul Ahmed, who writes for Complex Magazine, about it. He basically schooled me on Kanye West in a really astute way that at least made me interested to give his body of work a fair listen. I was surprised to find myself utterly blown away. So I sympathize with people who hate Kanye West, but his accomplishments run so deep that I do sort of find it's usually safe to assume that there's a strong correlation between hating him and not knowing his work.  

I've mentioned before I think how the vibe of Azar Swan production came for me less from certain artists and more from certain songs: "We Want War" by These New Puritans, "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" by Miami Sound Machine, "Love Lockdown" by Kanye West, "The Gathering" by Killing Joke, and there's this remix of "The Big Sky" by Kate Bush with these massive tom drums towards the end. So while it's true that I was inspired in some degree by Kanye, by the time I started doing what I was doing with it, all of my background in industrial started seeping in, certain synth lines sounded like Front Line Assembly and Haujobb, I was using gothic choir sounds that could've come off the first two Clan of Xymox records. The end result had certain Kanye-isms, but it was a bit heavier, dancier, and more distorted. When Yeezus came out it was a mixed bag of emotions for me. I love that record. But I also felt a bit screwed over, because the music industry press, labels, etc. – it's all a nightmare of delays and waiting. We've had this music written for a while now, and the record still doesn't drop until November 12th. So if people write about it and say it sounds at times like Yeezus, I'll be simultaneously OK with it, but also it will feel a bit frustrating--it was a weird feeling watching the press suddenly talk about industrial music in relation to hip-hop.  A friend who has heard the record the other day remarked that one of the tracks reminded him of "Backseat Freestyle" by Kendrick Lamar, my favorite song off of good kid, m.A.A.d. city – that track came from a beat I made before Section.80 even came out. That's why you can only trust music writing so much, there's a sequential narrative that writers abide by and create that isn't necessarily reflective of the way things really are. Those producers just got their music out first.

Artwork by Shaun Durkan

Besides the tribal percussion of those tracks and the electro-industrial elements that have seeped into your production, what else has influenced the sound of Dance Before The War?

You can talk about the influences in a couple of ways. First would be the individual influences: Zohra's listened to a lot more Marianne Faithful and Lydia Lunch than I have, and I've listened to a lot more Wax Trax bands and Aphex Twin and recent pop and hip hop than she has. But we really converge on things like well-produced (for lack of better term) art rock: Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Japan, Roxy Music, Talk Talk. Talking about influences can be weird, like it actually sounds more premeditated than it is, it gives the impression that you set out to do this or that. But in a very legit way, this is just what happens when we sit down and start beating on the MPC and the synths. When it comes time for the mix, we want it to sound contemporary. It's funny to me how independent bands consciously avoid contemporary production techniques and mix choices. When you go back and listen to so much of some of the strangest and most innovative and progressive music from past decades, it was very often produced according to the production and mix standards of that time. The music that Zohra and I converge the most equally on is stuff like "More Than This" by Roxy Music or "Mama" by Genesis. And I think that's what makes the record what it is in a lot of ways, we're allowing music that doesn't usually get this kind of production to get it. But at the end of the day it's just what comes out of us when we approach our individual ends of the process – I think it has plenty to do with the instruments themselves, Zohra is drawn to warm pads and big synth stabs, I'm fulfilling my lifelong fantasy of being good at the drums by pounding on this drum pad, getting off on it like a kid.          

Photo by Joseph Roberman

Prior the announcement of Dance Before the War’s release, the album’s opening tracks debuted as singles on SoundCloud, and additional album tracks were released as a digital single via Pendu Sound. Two covers were also posted: Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer,” and a reinterpretation of Ace Hood’s “Bugatti,” with new witchy lyrics to match the original track’s ominous production. After Dance Before the War sees the vinyl treatment, what’s next for Azar Swan?

I always thought the new Bugatti lyrics were sort of Kafka-like. We actually have the second record mostly written and partially recorded. We're also going to be working with Mike Dextro who mixed Dance Before the War on this, he's awesome. That's slated for a Summer 2014 release via Zoo Music which is a cool label run by Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls and Brandon of Crocodiles known for putting out bands like Dirty Beaches. We'll be getting across the ocean to Europe in the summer, those dates will be announced soon. Zohra will be hitting some East coast cities this winter as well – unfortunately since I have an eight month old daughter, I won't be traveling with the live lineup for that.

Photo by Jason Akira Somma

When you contributed a Playlist to HSS last year, your most listened/noteworthy releases of 2012 included albums by Scott Walker, Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Ke$ha, and Kiss The Anus Of A Black Cat. Sade, Teena Marie, Whitney Houston, Miami Sound Machine, and Dalbello were mentioned as discoveries or acts that you discovered a new appreciation for. With two months left in the year and plenty of records yet to be released, what are your most listened/noteworthy records of 2013 so far? Have you made any new (re)discoveries this year?

It's been an interesting year. Kinda awful for pop and hip-hop, I've barely enjoyed anything from that realm except the new Kanye West and the new one by The Weeknd. I rediscovered all my old industrial records thanks to Spotify this year, records that I've lost, sold, or that are packed away somewhere. I listened to a lot of Front Line Assembly, particularly Gashed Senses & Crossfire. I read the Al Jourgensen book and listened to a lot of Ministry, especially the guitar heavy stuff that I failed to appreciate when I was a teenage "nothing after Rape & Honey" Ministry fan. It's not that uncommon now for people to extoll the virtue of Filth Pig, which I despised on release. I enjoyed that when I listened again, but it was Dark Side of The Spoon that honestly blew my mind.  I have to say my 2013 goes to Dominick Fernow and Haus Arafna. I hadn't ever listened to much of the more noise-oriented Prurient stuff, but this year the only records I listened to as much as Through the Window and Bermuda Drain were You and New York Rhapsody by Haus Arafna. The reissue of Deathpile's G.R. got some airtime, as did several of the Sleep Museum EPs that went up for purchase on Bandcamp this year. I love the new Pinkish Black record, the new Vatican Shadow LP is great. Alberich, Youth Code, Corrections House, Locrian. Castevet and Gorguts killed it this year, and Andrew from Castevet turned me on to this band Vemod. I listened to a shitload of freestyle this summer: Trinere, Shannon, etc. The Mary Onettes and HAIM both made some amazing records that remind me of everything that was great about 80s Fleetwood Mac. Right after my daughter was born I listened to a lot of instrumental synth and ambient, Tim Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972 and some selected Oneohtrix Point Never tracks, and lots of Cocteau Twins. It's always good to listen to lots of Cocteau Twins. 

Vaura’s The Missing will be out on CD from Profound Lore on November 12 and vinyl from The Flenser in early 2014. Vain Warr’s Deadline Season cassette single will be out October 30 via Sacrament Music. Azar Swan’s Dance Before The War will be released digitally by Handmade Birds on November 12, with a Handmade Birds vinyl release to be announced at a later date.

Vain Warr’s live debut and record release show is October 30 at The Acheron in Brooklyn, NY, with Psalm Zero and Body Stuff. 


Anonymous said...

How many band names can this dude drop in one interview?

Anonymous said...

^^ Not enough, shut the fuck up.