Now You Know: Olÿphant

Saturday, 29th October 2016

Formation: 2009
Location: Salem, MA
Style: Traditional heavy metal with aspects of stoner, progressive, and thrash influences.
Personnel: Andy Small (vocals, keyboards); Scott Randall (guitar); Brett Hess (guitar); Jeff Clarkson (bass); Steve Dowsett (drums)
Latest Release: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, 2016 (Self-Released)

We all know at this point performing and writing heavy metal music is a labor of love- especially on a self-financed, underground local level. Add in the affinity for craft beer, role-playing games, and infamous authors like H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien, and you have the makings of why Olÿphant hit my radar screen with their latest full-length Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Gary Gygax, Judas Priest, Megadeth, and Mastadon would be proud of the influences that come through in songs like “Before the Fall” and “The Grey Havens (To the Sea)” – striding gallantly into a world of fantasy and adventure in a powerful way.

Handling these questions would be three members of the band: Andy, Jeff, and Steve – although the quintet would answer one question individually that gives insight into their diverse musical outlook. In the meantime, seek out their discography or take in a live show when they are able to play in your area – and hope the twenty-sided die rolls in your favor.

Dead Rhetoric: Olÿphant started in 2009 – what can you tell us about the formative years of the band, how those first songwriting and rehearsal sessions went, and did you know right away the type of direction you wanted to go in or did the process evolve over time?

Andy Small: I went to see a metal tribute band one night—can’t remember which one. Anyway, I drunkenly called Scott when I got home, and said that we could do better. Scott knew I could sing, as evidenced by an affinity for Halford-esque falsetto screams, and Axl Rose impressions when drunk at parties. I was familiar with Scott’s previous band Storms Approach, so I knew he was a good player. I was friends with our bass player Jeff and our original drummer Brian Neri, who were playing in a band called God Awful with Jeff on guitar. We convinced Jeff to switch to bass, and recruited them for this project. The rest as they say is history. Style-wise, we were initially aiming at old-school, melodic metal, but the other influences crept in fairly quickly.

Jeff Clarkson: We first got together intending to jam a few Judas Priest covers, and starting throwing a few original ideas around. While we had a general idea of the sound we were going for, everyone was coming into the project with some overlap in terms of influences but pulling the overall sound in different directions. It took a bit of time to evolve into a consistent sound, ‘our’ sound, without jumping all over the place – something you might hear in some of our earlier recordings.

Dead Rhetoric: You mention a host of influences beyond music for the band, including Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, H.P. Lovecraft, and J.R.R. Tolkien. When did your interest in fantasy and horror begin, and are you guys still avid role play gamers either in the physical board medium or through video games?

Small: Don’t forget craft beer! We run on the stuff. We’re all Lovecraft fan boys, and Tolkien and AD&D and metal go together like, well… dungeons AND dragons. At this point I don’t think any of us are actively playing AD&D, but Scott and I have both played within the last 2-3 years. We all play video games to various degrees, and I know that Scott, Jeff, and I are all currently playing the Witcher III. Horror-wise, we’re all big fans of the genre, as evidenced by various sound-bites sprinkled across our recordings. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of story-telling in lyrics, especially in metal. While I have a background in writing, lyrics don’t come naturally to me, so I take an almost academic approach to writing them. I definitely prefer to dwell on the darker and more fantastical side of things—horror, political unrest, post-apocalyptical themes, etc. Also, I think the best metal bands embrace the over-the-top nature of the genre, and I’ve always admired bands that have a sense of humor about what they’re doing. I think that good metal bands can be sincere and tongue-and-cheek in tandem—for example I love Manowar, and find them utterly ridiculous at the same time.

Clarkson: Some of us are more active than others in role playing games, but yeah a lot of that is drawing on earlier times. Literature is a big influence as well – we’ve got a few botched English majors. That’s brought a lot in terms of lyrical influence, composition structure and subject matter – Poe, Bukowski, Kafka, Anne Rice, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, George RR Martin have provided a wealth of inspiration as well as filmmakers like Tarkovsky, Kubrick, David Lynch and early horror works of Wes Craven, Romero, Friedkin and others.

Dead Rhetoric: The band released two previous EP’s in 2011 and 2013. What can you tell us about these recordings as far as the pluses and minuses, and how do you feel about these efforts now given a few years of reflection upon them?

Small: Each recording has been a building block for the next. I think we’ve all grown as songwriters, and we’ve developed a unique style that isn’t hemmed-in by any specific genre/sub-genre. Additionally, we’ve self-recorded, mixed, etc. all of our albums. To that end, our comfort-level with home recording, and the skills required to put together a decent sounding product have gotten better over time. We all have full-time jobs, houses, families, etc., so being able to collaborate remotely on top of weekly practice is a huge plus.

Clarkson: Our 2011 release we recorded, mixed and mastered ourselves, while for the 2013 release we recorded and mixed, and worked with New Alliance in Cambridge MA to master. We’d had recording experience but it was definitely a challenge – I think we were challenging ourselves to see what we could produce. We learned a lot about creative control and what we were willing to take on, but also the limits of our equipment, time and energy.

Dead Rhetoric: The latest Olÿphant record is your first full-length Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Did you go in with a special mindset regarding the songwriting and performances – and what special outcomes/ takeaways occurred? Were there any particular challenges or obstacles that came up that had to be overcome?

Small: It took us awhile to put this one together. Obstacle-wise, there were a couple hiatuses, as my daughter was born immediate following drum tracking, and later in the process, Jeff bought a house. Also, we all have extremely busy lives—Brett and I are parents, Steve is a marathon runner, Jeff is neck deep in home improvement, and Scott is constantly traveling for work. We are, however, very proud of the writing for this one. We put a lot into the writing and recording of these tunes—this band is definitely a labor of love, and we have no interest in spitting out formulaic tunes. Also, I think this time around, the writing was more collaborative than it’s ever been. We’re already looking forward to the next one. We’re close to having written 3 full songs, including one that was born out of a demo that Brett brought in.

Dead Rhetoric: Musically you guys incorporate a wide variety of styles, from progressive to 80’s thrash, stoner to classic metal as well. Does this make the process of coming up with dynamic material easier or difficult – or do you enjoy the variety that you can develop as a result of not boxing yourselves into one particular sub-genre?

Small: We definitely draw from a wide-array of metal-sub-genres and non-metal influences, and we each bring the love of a specific sub-genre to the band–I’m the NWOBHM/traditional-metal guy, Scott’s the thrash/death metal guy, Jeff leans more towards classic rock and stoner/sludge, Steve’s the hardcore/post-hardcore guy, and our new guitarist Brett (who joined after most of the tracking for this album was complete) brings the doom. It seems like people put anything with melodic vocals in the hard-rock and traditional-metal categories, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear elements of more extreme influences lurking (like a sonic Cthulhu) beneath the surface.

Steve Dowsett: The songs seem to come somewhat naturally due to diverse tastes of the band. We don’t go out of our way to combine so many genres. Someone will present an idea and someone else will combine an idea they had with it and see how it works, a lot of the time that seems to be how we come up with the range of genres we cover.

Clarkson: It’s definitely a great thing to have so many influences in the band, allowing us to jump from one style to another quickly. It can be a bit of challenge though keeping it all in check and not feeling like we have to fit all styles into one piece, but it allows us to give the song the sound that it demands, i.e. a heavier doom/stoner section or a straight up old-style classic metal sound.

Dead Rhetoric: Who came up with the cover art for the new record, and was it a back and forth process between the band and artist to develop the final work? Do you believe artwork is as important in metal as the music itself?

Small: We collaborated with an artist named Bill Collins on the artwork. We gave him a general idea of what we were looking for, and we sent some rough ideas back and forth. Jeff and I both work with Bill, and Scott and I have some mutual friends. He also did some cover art for Scott’s old band Storms Approach. Bill is a big metal guy, and he’s a fantastic painter, so we knew we wanted to work with him. The oil painting of the cover art is proudly displayed in my man-cave, as my wife wouldn’t let me put it up in the living room. Anyway, Bill is looking to get into designing album art, so anyone looking should contact him (www.walkercreek.com/thamber, fineartamerica.com/profiles/5-william-collins.html).

Dowsett: I don’t feel like artwork applies to all genres, but I think it does have a place in metal. I think it’s important to give a full presentation. Metal fans are some of the most dedicated fans of any genre and you can sound great on an album, but you also want to have merchandise that your fans will want to wear and a live show that they will want to go see.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you describe the band in terms of your live performances? What have been some of your favorite venues and shows through the career that you’ve played?

Small: We need to get out to play more. Our work and home lives have prevented us from really getting into the scene. When we do get out to play, we give it everything we’ve got, and have won over many crowds. Genre-wise, I don’t think promoters know what to do with us, so we end up on some fairly diverse bills. You’re just as likely to find us on a bill with rock bands, as you are with death metal and other extreme metal bands. Some of the best places that we’ve played are Ralph’s Diner in Worcester, Sammy’s Patio in Revere, and Opus and Koto in Salem. Opus is one of the cooler venues we’ve played–the one time we played there, it was packed on a Monday night, and there was a giant screen behind us playing clips from horror films, etc. I was psyched to turn around during a performance of “The Grey Havens” to see Ralph Bashki’s LOTR playing. Very metal moment. Also, a few days prior to last Halloween we donned full wizard costumes for a very successful show. We’ve considered adding the wizard costumes permanently.

Dowsett: As I described with the artwork, I think the live performance is a big part of a bands appeal. I tend to play a bit heavier live and keep good energy that the crowd seems to respond well to.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on the metal scene and music business as a whole currently? Do you believe the internet and instant communication technology has made things simpler or harder for a band of your independent stature and size to stand out against the bigger bands?

Small: Definitely two sides to that coin. It’s great to be able to get our stuff out there via Facebook, Bandcamp, etc., but I feel like a lot of clubs and promoters don’t take the time to listen to a band, and instead rely on how many “likes” you have. Kudos to the promoters that we’ve worked with, that have given us opportunities to play for larger crowds than we’d have drawn on our own, and kudos to websites like Dead Rhetoric that take the time to find the diamonds in the rough.

Dowsett: I think the internet helps things as I have seen with this release its very easy and quick to get the album out to a huge range of people. People are constantly connected to some device. If we send a link to a promoter on Facebook, it seems like they will listen immediately and give some feedback. In that regard it makes it easier for someone like us.

Clarkson: Technology has definitely made it cheaper, easier to produce a record, and the creative control is a big piece for us. Sure publicity and backing and such is a factor with label-backed groups, but we’re not really looking to land a world tour – in truth I don’t think all of us would survive! The internet has definitely helped spread the word – we’re really big in Norway!

Dead Rhetoric: What have been some of your favorite albums of all time in the metal genre, and what have been standout moments in terms of concerts purely from a fan perspective?

Small: This is fun question. Seeing Iron Maiden for the first time is high on my list. Also, my first show ever was Pink Floyd on the Momentary Lapse of Reason tour, which was a great introduction to live music. The first time I ever saw Metallica was also pretty great (Van Halen’s Monsters of Rock Tour in 1987).

For favorite albums, let’s limit to top 4-5 per band member (minus dupes) for brevity. Also, we’re including non-metal albums as that’s a big part of the push-and-pull of our overall sound:

Small: Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time, Metallica – Master of Puppets, Queen – II, and Judas Priest – Sad Wings of Destiny, Guns n Roses – Appetite for Destruction.

Scott Randall: Exodus – Bonded by Blood, Possessed – Seven Churches, Nocturnus – The Key, Solotude Aeturnus – Beyond the Crimson Horizon, Heathen – Breaking the Silence

Dowsett: Swervedriver – Mezcal Head, The Black Crowes – Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Cave In – Jupiter, Black Sabbath – Sabotage

Brett Hess: Iron Maiden – Number of the Beast, The Cult – Love, Black Sabbath – Mob Rules, Pink Floyd – Animals, Alice in Chains – Dirt

Clarkson: Black Sabbath – Paranoid, Mastodon – Crack the Skye, Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night, Queens of the Stone Age – Songs for the Deaf, High on Fire – Snakes for the Devine

Dead Rhetoric: Where would you like to see Olÿphant develop over the next 12-18 months? Are you hopeful of moving up the ladder and gaining a record deal, or content to maintain things on your own terms?

Dowsett: I would definitely like to see us move up the ladder and it seems it’s already happening. A record deal would be great, but it’s not something I see in the immediate future. I hope this record can get our name and sound out to more people and hopefully lead to some bigger gigs.

Clarkson: (I) think we’re in a good place to explore our sound and space and push our songwriting limits. At this point a record would be great but we’re not aiming for that, more looking to realize our own vision on our own terms, and in the end, be happy with a great record that fans can enjoy.

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