Interview: Andrew Hock of Psalm Zero
How did Psalm Zero come together?
I was finishing up college at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and I've been a huge fan of Charlie Looker's music for a long time. Extra Life is one of my favorite New York bands – one of my favorite bands in the world. When I was 17 or 18, I had followed him in Zs and stuff. Extra Life's music was very academically minded musicians playing heavy music, that to me was rad because I was in that education and I was struggling with it because I grew listening to black and death metal mostly, and that was kind of frowned upon. So I had that kind of music with Extra Life, where it was still very complex, and in that way was refreshing. So I was finishing up school, and Charlie had hit me up like “Hey man, I really like Castevet,” and I started playing in a band Feast of the Epiphany with the drummer of Extra Life, Nick Podgurski. When I moved to New York, Charlie just asked me if I wanted to do something with him, and obviously I said yes. We starting writing with no real gameplan in mind except we wanted to make heavy music that had a lot of electronic elements. It just kinda fell into place, it fell naturally from there.
Were Charlie's vocals a key factor in making you want to work with him?
I've been wanting to play something more songwriting-oriented for a while. From years and years of being in bands and screaming, I can't sing very well. That was something I was looking forward to, and I've always loved his sense of melody and his vocal timbre and his lyrics.
Was it a conscious decision to have him do more of the vocals on the record?
That was something that was dealt with naturally, I think. We kinda went off working with these bass lines and lyrics and vocal melodies, and that was what we used as a platform for the first two songs that we wrote. I think there was the always the idea that the melodic thing would take the forefront.
Was the fact that you wanted to do something more songwriting-oriented from that your previous projects were quite brutal and not accessible?
In metal, the riff is always the dominating factor. Songs are determined by riffs, and the idea of the riff is really important in Psalm Zero, but listening to a lot of whatever it be – Leonard Cohen or Thin Lizzy Uriah Heep and bands that I really love that the songs become about vocal melodies moreso. If I could sing well, I probably would have been doing something more along those lines a long time ago. I remember when the first Jesu record came out and just being totally floored by that, just something so heavy and melodic and poppy in a way. It's something that I've always wanted to do, but just never really had to vehicle to do it. It's that my love for music with a heavier focus on songwriting that was a major pull for me to want to work with Charlie and do this project.
“In The Dead” focuses heavily on Charlie's melodies and is kind of the “single” of the record, if you want to look at it that way. What went into making that song?
That was probably the first song where I came in with a bunch of riffs, and giving it Charlie and letting him writing vocal parts over it. And also, a major influence for us is the Katatonia record Discouraged Ones. That's another band that's huge for me. In my mind, two bands for that song that inspired me were Katatonia and Shudder to Think, which has been one of mine and Charlie's favorite bands. I came in with these riffs that weren't gonna work with Castevet or any of my other things, and it was just like, “write your vocal part over it,” and it was a new way of working for us. It's probably my favorite song on the record.
Speaking of Katatonia, I hear a lot of that on the guitars of this record, especially that song, as well as Paradise Lost, Anathema, and older Amorphis. It's kind of funny because certain metal styles come back, but that stuff hasn't. Why do you think that might be?
You know, I don't really know. I feel like the metal bands that focus on songwriting do the revival of the doomy stoner kind of thing or traditional heavy metal or stuff like The Devil's Blood that got really popular – a Fleetwood Mac kind of thing, which I think is awesome. But yeah, I don't really know, I guess there's nothing particularly hip, in the sense of what's popular right now. To me, they're just great songwriters of dark, beautiful music. For us, it was the combination the way we write and what we've been listening to, it's just very honest music. There's no sense of digging into the past or reviving anything, it's just good, honest melancholy songwriting. And that's what guides our creative impulse – for me in general, and I could say the same for Charlie. There was a conscious decision to not really do anything genre-specific, and I think that's the beauty of Katatonia – that period of Katatonia, Discouraged Ones, where they broke away from death metal vocals, it brought heaviness you couldn't place in a specific subgenre. I've never written any music that was driven by “oh, it's like this band, and I'm gonna make it” – it feels totally honest and an actual synergy of all my influences, which are really broad. It never made sense for me to start a band that was like “oh, it's that type of band, and I have another band that's this type of band.”
When Stereogum did that article about “In The Dead,” the author wasn't sure if Psalm Zero was metal or not. Do you share that ambivalence?
The whole thing going on right now where metal's becoming hip, it's like these bands are going in a popular direction, but they're taking these hardcore sounds – black metal, doom, whatever it is – and make it really palatable and emotionally assessable. If you're going to make heavy music, you don't need to take black metal and make it sound like emo. Why not make heavy music that combines a love of pop or whatever it is that you're into, and that it's actually natural, not bumping two things together. Which is kind of what the trend is these days. When I make music, I want people to hear it and be like “what is it?” and actually question the actual nature of what I am listening to and whether they've heard anything like it before. I don't think that thing comes up enough in modern heavy music. Comfortable zones in comfortable boxes and very comfortable emotional places that are familiar to a listener. I don't have an interest in perpetuating that all.
Do you see conservatism in metal as a problem?
It depends what band – it's a case by case basis. I think it's novel when a band comes out and is heralded that they're doing something new, when they're really not, they're really bumping one genre on top of another. The bands I really love, like Voivod, were out of the box from the get-go, or Gorguts. Stuff that inspired me a lot when I first heard it because it was so original. There are these landmark and original bands that exist, that to me are extremely important, who all broke the mold, but then there are these bands who copy those bands a lot of the time, and they're seen as original because they're copying something that at one time, was really new. I don't know if I see it as a problem, people can do whatever they want with music, but it's certainly not my intention to make music that people have already heard. I want to be involved in music that's new, in the real sense of that word.
I remember Adrian Begrand writing an essay about how there is nothing new in metal, that a lot bands take from other forms. What do you make of that claim?
I kind of disagree of that. You can create something new, it's just a matter of how fluid the synthesis is and how well you're able to mask the fact. There has to be a certain amount of ambiguity and mystery to the creative process. In any of genre of music, you're always pulling from the past in some form or another.
Is mystery what got you into metal in the first place?
I remember in elementary school, I was super into Marilyn Manson, because it was what was on the radio, and I heard it and I was like “this is so dark and twisted, oh my god” and I picked up an issue of Metal Maniacs that had Manson on the cover, and then a small article about Norwegian Black Metal. This was about 1998 or 1999, it was right around when Anthems to Welkin at Dusk came out, that was one of the first records I got. I remember being fascinated that something like this even existed, and I immediately bonded to it before I even heard anything. Just looking at a picture of Emperor, I knew I was into it. The mystery thing I was talking about – I like music that's emotionally complex. I tend to gravitate, in my own music, to suggest the actual complexity of a feeling, not just “this is fast” or “this is angry.” The hues are richer, and not suggestive of one specific feeling or vibe, it encompasses the actual complexity of human experience. Maybe that sounds a little pretentious, but...
A lot of bands speak in fantasy, but most don't speak to the human experience.
I've always taken that, unless you're talking about Summoning or Blind Guardian, where it's about Tolkien, I think that stuff is about symbolism. When a band is saying they hate Jesus, I don't usually think they really hate Jesus. It's using satanic symbolism as metaphor, maybe sometimes without even realizing it.
Going back to the record, I know for the first song, “The Drain,” you got Josh Strawn (Vaura, Azar Swan) and some other folks to do gang vocals at the end. Where did that come from?
We're from New York, there was a vibe of being really into classic New York Hardcore when we were making the record. Charlie's a little bit older than I am, hardcore's a big part of his background. We have a community of musicians that are really original, and we just wanted them to be involved on the record, and that would be a cool way to do it, and tip our hat to New York in general.
The interlude on the record reminds me of Ildjarn's ambient work. Is that an influence for y'all?
Charlie's pretty into Burzum's ambient stuff. I love that music. Some of my favorite records are not black metal records made by black metal bands, like Beherit's Electric Doom Synthesis. I don't think that was a direct influence on the track. Charlie's really into medieval and mid-century vocal music and counterpoints. He composed that one himself, I had nothing to do with it.
How did the “Willpower” cover on the 7” come about? Will listeners be thrown in for a loop because there's nothing like it on the full-length?
When we were talking about what to do for a B-side for the single, we knew we wanted to do a cover. Take something heavy and do something completely different with it. We had gone through a list of bands that we were interested in covering, everything from Queensryche to Pantera to all sorts of shit. Today is the Day is a band we both love, and that song and record in particular. It felt right, the riffing is really dissonant and we likened it to – taking those themes and reworking them on guitar, with a lot of counterpoint. Also the idea of taking that was screams and chanting it vocally was appealing to us. Using a texture that was more akin to Gregorian chant or something. We're gonna definitely in between records be doing more stuff like that, like one-off covers and acoustic tracks. A band that really inspires us is Ulver and how they've managed to evolve. They kind of put out EPs and everything that are all different – that to me is appealing – in between records. We're constantly working and writing. There's no stagnation. It's not necessarily for records, for EPs or stuff that we post online or whatever.
That works, because the full-length is really cohesive, and I don't think something like “Willpower” would have fit on there.
We definitely had the idea when we made the record, we wanted to have a narrative. That's another thing I feel is lacking in metal a lot is records that aren't just collections of songs. I love the record as a piece of music in and of itself.
Psalm Zero's debut record, The Drain, is out now on Profound Lore. They are set to tour with Pyrrhon. Dates below: