Smoulder – Epic Empowerment

Sunday, 16th June 2019

When it comes to epic doom metal, ardent followers know the masters. Candlemass. Solitude Aeturnus. Solstice. There appears to be a new wave of musicians willing to push their take on their favored genre, aiming to keep the purity and magnificence alive. Add Smoulder to that watch list – a five-piece split between Toronto, Canada and Illinois for membership, and quickly grabbing a boatload of global attention through their DIY ethics and brilliant understanding of the riffs, hooks, and imaginative lyrical content necessary to capture the hearts of audiences everywhere. Their debut full-length Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring came out on Cruz Del Sur Music recently – its six songs transporting the listener to an analog quality where the guitars crush, the rhythm section pummels, and Sarah Dee’s melodic vocals rise like a phoenix.

Reaching out to vocalist Sarah Ann, guitarist S. Vincent, and bassist Adam Blake on Skype while fulfilling more mail order sales for the band, you’ll gain the opportunity to hear their thoughts on their surprising rise through the underground – their sense of gratitude for their followers, and so much metal talk about other bands, festivals, and business acumen that its easy to see that these musicians are as much metal fans as they are delivering the goods on their own epic doom terms.

Dead Rhetoric: Smoulder began with an impromptu jam session between Sarah on drums and Shon Vincent on guitar/vocals in 2013. Discuss the initial struggles in those early years in Calgary to find the right members – and what gave you the push to relocate to Toronto in 2017?

Sarah Ann: (laughs) When S. Vincent and I started the band, obviously it was in a different formation than it is now. We wanted to do an epic doom band, but there just wasn’t a scene for it in Calgary. Not only that, it’s just hard to find musicians that you are on the same wavelength with sometimes. None of us drink a lot or do drugs so it was kind of like, ‘ok cool- how do we find people that are into this that are reliable?’ We did go through a couple of people, and it just never really worked out.

When it came to relocating to Toronto, Calgary is just in a bad economic situation. We both had been having troubles pulling down a full-time job, the company I was at was very close to closing, S. Vincent was having a tough time with that as well. Where can we go that has a stronger metal scene that we have ties to- we both have a lot of friends in Toronto, my sister lives here with her husband. We ended up moving, and we talked quite a bit about what we wanted the band to look like. More and more I had been singing more parts, and writing more of the lyrics, and S. Vincent was singing them- and I was writing from the perspective of female warriors, it seemed kind of disingenuous to keep him on the vocal lines when they were all coming from a woman’s perspective. So we decided to shift everything around, and here we are now! (laughs).

Dead Rhetoric: How did you finally reach out to Collin and Kevin on second guitar and drums across the border in Illinois to join Shoulder? Did you feel like at this point you were starting to gain some momentum as a band?

Sarah: We had no momentum (laughs).

S. Vincent: We went to the Frost and Fire Festival in Ventura, California for the reunion of Cirith Ungol, and Collin came with us on that trip. We had told him about the band, and he expressed interest in possibly playing with us. He told us he had a drummer friend Kevin, who we later met in Chicago the following year at the Legions of Metal Festival.

Sarah: So all of our musical tastes were obviously very congruent with each other.

S. Vincent: After we met Kevin and pretty much talked to both of them we solidified them to play with us.

Sarah: Yeah, and with the demo – we wrote the demo ourselves, and when we relocated we had a bit of a plan. We wanted to put out a demo within two years of moving to Toronto, so we had the tracks that we wrote and the cover- and it was time to do this thing. We drove down to Illinois to record with the guys in one of their friend’s studios, which was in a converted church. It was super cheap, a super fun time- we had a weekend of partying with these dudes. When the demo actually came out, the interest was just so much higher than what we would have ever anticipated. I don’t think we would have released a full-length as quickly if we didn’t have so much momentum. Just having people all over the world interested in your band is a strange phenomenon that very few people get to experience. It’s been a little bit of a trip.

Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell us about the initial recordings for the debut demo The Sword Woman? Were there any specific challenges, obstacles, or surprises that came up during the development of the material and the recording sessions?

S. Vincent: I don’t think so. Like we said the material was already written. The biggest challenge was we had to record all three tracks in one eight-hour session.

Sarah: And I was sick as a dog. I had some sort of disgusting pneumonia at the time, I was so sick. When we got to Illinois, it was at the end of travelling a lot.

S. Vincent: It was the end of October and Warning was playing in Chicago.

Sarah: We set it up so that would work. I contracted something, and I remember getting to Collin’s and being like I almost entirely lost my voice. I was so stressed out, I was having these anxiety stomach aches, and I had been chugging tea and taking American cough medicine – which is substantially stronger than Canadian cough medicine (laughs). We got it done. It didn’t necessarily sound as good as I wanted it to – but it’s a demo.

S. Vincent: There wasn’t very much time to do second or third guitar takes.

Sarah: It took some time to get it mixed and mastered, a bit longer than we would have preferred. It came out five months later.

Dead Rhetoric: And then Adam, how did you end up joining Smoulder?

Adam Blake: Sarah texted me one day and asked if I knew anyone that plays bass and likes epic doom. We had been hanging out since they moved to Toronto, I went to a lot of the metal shows in the city. We were hanging out in the same scene and became friends. When Sarah asked, I jumped at the chance to be in a more old-school metal band than I’d ever been in before.

Dead Rhetoric: How does it work with the two sets of musicians spread out between Canada and the United States – do you end up having to bunch things together to make things work as best as possible in shorter bursts of time?

Sarah: Well, there’s the three of us here. We jam generally once or twice a week. Of course like every other band in the world, we have a ridiculous Facebook group chat where we chat all day, every day about band stuff. Collin and Kevin are both about an hour to an hour and a half away from each other. We all practice on our own a lot, and Collin and Kevin get together for rehearsals. When it comes to a show, we make sure that we’ve rehearsed as much possible, we will meet up in whatever city we are playing at, we’ll rent a rehearsal space and go jam. We have a gig in Chicago soon, and we get to spend four nights together so we’ll be jamming twice before the show – which is the most we’ve ever jammed together, the five of us in the same room.

Adam: I had a fun experience the first time I played a show- that was the demo release party in Chicago. I got to meet Kevin and Collin in person, two hours before we played the show. I met them, we jammed the setlist exactly one time together- and then it was another band’s turn to use the space. Then we got into the venue, got on stage and played. It was a whirlwind thing, and it just goes to show you how professional those guys are. It went pretty smoothly, about as smoothly as I could ever imagine that it could go. All the parts are written down, there’s no questions when we get to the rehearsal space. Now that we have a bunch of songs recorded, we play those songs with the drum track that was laid down by Kevin – he never messes it up. (laughs).

Sarah: Yeah, I’m the one who messes it up. (laughs) That reminds me- when we went in to record the demo, when we did “The Queen Is Gone”, we hadn’t practiced that song enough, and there was an extra full bar.

S. Vincent: Yeah, before the second verse. I don’t think anyone noticed.

Adam: It made things fun for rehearsing. That was the one thing, how many times does that part actually go, so we can make sure we were on the same page.

Dead Rhetoric: You signed with Cruz Del Sur Music from Italy and set about to work on your debut album Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring. Where do you see the major differences in recordings and performances for this effort compared to the debut demo?

Sarah: To clarify, we actually recorded the album before we got signed. We were going to put it out no matter who picked us up or who didn’t pick us up. We didn’t like the production of the demo – I think everyone who was involved in the demo did a good job. We wanted the album to sound much bigger and more robust and epic. All of this had this benchmark of what we wanted the band to sound like. For me I wanted it to sound like Dautha, everyone was mentioning like Candlemass, Eternal Champion, all these bands that have this really good production – Crescent Shield is another band. When it came to actually booking the studio time, we had three days just for the three of us. Which was better, we could do a lot more takes. We really practiced, we flew to Germany two weeks after the album was complete to play Hammer of Doom. It forced us to rehearse as much as we possibly could before we were going to play to over a thousand people. We were really tight, and ready – and going into a studio with somebody who had a lot of experience in different genres of music meant we could take our time, do a lot of takes, and be hypercritical of each other in the kindest way possible.

When it was done, we weren’t really worried about the recording being the complicated thing. We wanted the production to be great- so we went to Arthur Rizk, and I told him, I was pretty hyper-specific about what we wanted. Ultimately, he did a fantastic job, I can’t be excited enough about how awesome Arthur was to work with.

Dead Rhetoric: How did you set about securing Michael Whelan to design the fantastic cover for the new record- and how did the process evolve? Can you also discuss the importance for artwork not just in the epic doom metal genre – but for heavy metal in general?

Sarah: We licensed that image- it’s a secondary rights image. It was originally used on a pulp fiction, swords and sorcery book that came out in the 80’s called Well of Shiuan. Essentially one day S. Vincent and I were walking in Toronto, and we went into this bookstore that we both frequently shop at – he found this Michael Whelan art book. It was beautiful, it was five dollars, really cheap. When S. Vincent bought that book, I was just looking at it, I saw that page – and that was going to be our album cover. I didn’t really care how unrealistic that was, that was irrelevant to me because I tend to be a little bit forceful when it comes to the things that I want.

In the history of heavy metal, the things that Michael Whelan has done – he did the Cirith Ungol covers, which were originally the covers of the Eternal Champion books. Sepultura as well…

S. Vincent: Demolition Hammer, and Obituary, Sepultura as well.

Sarah: There’s a whole history of using old school pulp fiction book covers on heavy metal albums. If you look at bands like Gates of Slumber, Cirith Ungol, hundreds more. Sacred Rite. We are all big vinyl collectors- for myself I have a thousand records, a hundred cassettes, a couple hundred CD’s, tons of books – a big sword and sorcery collection as well. That was a huge priority, to have a piece of artwork that when you pick it up and every single person in the metal scene is going to look at it and know what this is- this is warrior heavy metal. And that’s what it is. It was important for me to have that kind of artwork that just punched you in the face.

Dead Rhetoric: What came first for the members of Smoulder – the interest in mythology, fantasy, and outer realm lyrical content through books, movies, etc. – or your interest in epic, doom metal? And what makes both intertwine so well in this sub-genre?

Adam: For me, it was the fantasy books first. I was huge into the Dragonlance series throughout high school.

Sarah: My first introduction to heavy metal was when I was 13, and I was reading Brave New World. Post-apocalyptic science fiction is also a huge inspiration for me – so when I was reading that book that I had taken out from the library, one of my friends came over and he told me about a band that released an album today based on that book. It was Iron Maiden – I feel like those two things have been intertwined for me. As a kid I loved The Hobbit, Never-Ending Story, the Bridge to Terabithia, Island of the Blue Dolphins – strong woman books with strong male characters who are going out on adventures. I’ve always identified with people that want to forge their own path and come up against obstacles.

Epic doom, that came later than 13 obviously. My real introduction was around the time I was 20 years old. I went to the United States to go to Maryland Deathfest. Two of my close friends came with me, and we ended up taking some train rides around the US- Chicago, Boston, and New York, some other cities after MDF. I ended up finding the reissue of Candlemass – Epicus Doomicus Metallicus and as soon as I picked it up in the store, I knew I was going to buy this. It’s badass- and that was over ten years ago. It’s been a really important genre to me since my early twenties. To merge it all together was just nice.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you describe the outlook of Smoulder when it comes to performing live? What do you hope the audience is able to take away from your performances?

Adam: I always feel like heavy metal is best experienced live. For me, it’s one of the most important things that we can do, is put on a really good, tight live show. Even just echoing what Sarah was saying, how you got into metal- the fantasy and sort of that thing. The more I went to see live shows, the more into heavy metal I got and this music in general. I had a similar experience going to Maryland Deathfest and being overwhelmed with how much stuff there was and to see so many bands that I had loved but never seeing live all at once, kicked me into high gear and going to more shows and playing in bands. I try to have a lot of energy, stage presence, look people in the eye when we are playing, instead of standing there and playing my instrument. It has to be a little theatrical to match our music.

Sarah: I personally feel really empowered on stage, and hope people feel empowered. We sound fun, our music is fun – we want people to come to our shows and pump their fists, yell along, dance, mosh, do whatever they want. I want them to feel comfortable with whatever the music makes them feel, that’s fine by me.

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