Exmortus – Dance with the Dead

Thursday, 17th August 2023

Long-time followers of Dead Rhetoric are aware of our affinity for this California band Exmortus. Intertwining sophisticated riffs and shredding leads in a neoclassical meets thrash/death context, they’ve been road warriors in bringing their sound to metal audiences domestically and abroad. Moving up to Nuclear Blast for this sixth studio album Necrophony, the faithful can expect some darker twists in subject matter, tone, and approach compared to the heroic battles plus powerful musical components of the past. We felt it was time to get guitarist/vocalist Jardan ‘Conan’ Gonzalez on Zoom for a talk about joining with Nuclear Blast, the songwriting/recording of the new record, how producer Zach Ohren gets the best out of these musicians, favorite memories with tours of Death Angel and Amon Amarth, how Russian neoclassical composers influenced new approaches for songwriting, as well as what’s in store for the future of the band.

Dead Rhetoric: After being a part of the Prosthetic Records roster for three albums, Exmortus issued the Legions of the Undead EP in 2019 through M-Theory Audio before signing to Nuclear Blast for this latest full-length Necrophony. How does it feel to be on such a legendary label at this point in the career of Exmortus – and do you believe their professionalism, staff, and promotional knowledge will keep the band going on the best trajectory forward?

Jadran ‘Conan’ Gonzalez: Yeah, I would like to think so. So far so good, we are really honored to be on this label with such an awesome roster. It’s surreal when we first got the notification that there was interest – okay, cool! (laughs). Let’s just go for it! We had to read the contract and everything at first, do it the right way. It was a standard approach for the contract, it will be awesome. We are really happy with how everyone is treating us there. We are stoked about this, it’s a step up from the Prosthetic Records days. Regardless, it was an interesting journey along the way, because of that we decided to push this album Necrophony to have another aspect of our sound.

The three albums we did with Prosthetic are very closely related in a way, so we are trying to do something different with Nuclear Blast now. It came out with a much darker sound and with a darker tone. We decided to do a fresh take for the debut on the new record label.

Dead Rhetoric: How did the songwriting and recording sessions go for Nercophony? Do you believe the extra downtime from the pandemic allowed the band to really drill deeper into the key signature ingredients you wanted to get across this time around?

Gonzalez: Yes and no. We can’t ignore what happened, but we didn’t really write a lot during this time. We were very depressed and had no hope. Through this time, we did have a lot of time to reflect and pick ourselves up to get out of that to finish the album eventually. I think at the same time, we were pushing this direction with Legions of the Undead, as that’s a good transition to this new aspect we are pushing on our album. It’s still us, we very much still showcase the same ideas – fast guitar riffs, shreddy guitar parts, a lot of crazy stuff. The same thing you would expect from us, maybe just a slightly different edge if you will. We were already planning that musically in a way, but it was more emphasized with how down on ourselves we were during the pandemic. A lot of the themes and lyrics are a little more introspective, about tragic heroes instead of heroic deeds done in battle on previous records.

Dead Rhetoric: And when it comes to working with Zach Ohren as the producer, you’ve worked with him for years now. What do you think he is able to bring out that gets the best out of the band?

Gonzalez: We all like the same music, and we all grew up with the same bands that continue to inspire us to this day. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, The Scorpions, Metallica, the big four. We all have the same approach in solo writing too. Zach is a great guitarist, and he is a drummer too. He knows what it takes to get the best take, and how to get the best out of us because we’ve known him for a long time by now – ten years already. We’ve developed a good relationship, we can mess around and joke around a lot, but when it comes to getting down to business, he will tell us when things suck, and to do it again. Sometimes I will do a take and think it sucks, and he’ll be like ‘dude- that was perfect!’. He knows exactly what to get out of us in certain situations just to make it fit the big picture if you will. For the sake of variety, we will see if we will work with someone else in the future, but I would always love to work with Zach, he is the man for sure.

Dead Rhetoric: When it comes to the material on the album, you have a couple of songs like “Darkest of Knights” and “Children of the Night” that are longer versus the others. Is it a challenge to create an epic track that remains interesting to yourselves and the listeners versus the shorter songs?

Gonzalez: I would say there is a delicate balance that you have to approach in any songwriting. Even with the short ones, they are a little easier in the sense of not having to make up as many parts. You can go straightforward, the old school templates that can still be as effective as hell. We have that on this album too, but for the longer songs it’s a challenge in a way. Sometimes you think is this too boring, are we repeating the same theme too many times, we need variation, a new idea here. It depends on the riffs within the song already present, we treat them differently every time. The two long songs on this album both came out differently. One was planned to be that way, and another one wasn’t. You need to have another variation and fresh ideas, but not too much to lose the listener. If I feel lost already, I’m pretty sure the listener is also going to feel lost. We try to make those judgments early on before I get too obsessed with the riffs and stuff that I make.

Dead Rhetoric: Can you discuss the balance between movies, literature, video games and real-life events/experiences that comprised much of the lyrical content for this album? I would imagine that the events surrounding the world between wars and the pandemic also gave fuel to the creative fire for topics this time, correct?

Gonzalez: Oh yeah. And again, we didn’t plan it that way. We weren’t sure what the album would be called, we’ve been sitting on the name Necrophony for a while. It was perfect this time, naturally the lyrics were darker and introspective. We felt like we were dead inside, so this is our symphony of ourselves. A lot of the stuff is inspired by the darker writing in Tolkien’s stuff – “Oathbreaker” is about the undead, the dead men of Dunharrow and pretty much the story of redemption after ages of being cursed in immortality. Seeking the sweet release of death is another topic in another song. Other songs have aspects of relishing in immortality, “Children of the Night” is inspired by the beginning of the old Dracula movie. Evil Dead horror movie stuff is in “Beyond the Grave”, the idea of being possessed, what it would feel like. Video games too – “Darkest of Knights” is inspired by the video game Bloodborne, which has a lot to do with a plague that infects everyone in the city, and it’s what we kind of experienced in real life at the time. “Mask of Red Death” is Edgar Allan Poe’s weird story, I love that story, very interesting in how we could do that in a song. Granted I couldn’t express the different colors of each room in the story, it’s very complex. I just did it to reflect the times. There are fewer battle scenes like on previous albums.

Dead Rhetoric: How did the idea to track “Moonchild” from Iron Maiden come about – as Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is one of the last classic Maiden records from that unparalleled 80’s-period when they seemingly could do little wrong on the studio front…

Gonzalez: That was very last minute. Things were going very well during the recording sessions, so let’s throw in another one. A cover or something – because there were other tracks that we were working on, originals, but they were not completed, and it would have felt a bit too much. What if we do a Maiden song? Seventh Son is probably their darkest album, especially at that time. Let’s do “Moonchild”, it’s evil sounding and fits best. I would have loved to do the title track, but that’s really long as well (laughs). We opted for “Moonchild”, and Cody, our bassist, his brother sang on that track. I don’t sound like Bruce, but he has the pipes and he nailed it. We are pretty excited how this came out.

Dead Rhetoric: Now that the current lineup of Exmortus has been together for a few years, what do you think of the importance of proper band chemistry and friendships in keeping things interesting and sane for Exmortus – especially given the type of touring runs you’ve done over the years?

Gonzalez: It’s very important. I’ve heard a lot of people say this, and I totally agree with this – you are pretty much married to your bandmates. You have to treat it that way, learn to respect each other, learn to love each other, be cool with each other. Know when to have a good time, and also know when to take care of business. It’s an interesting dynamic with every band, everyone has different things going on, their own strengths and weaknesses. All that fun stuff. It’s important to share the same vision and get there, make it work. We’ve known each other for a long time, so that helps too.

Dead Rhetoric: When looking at the career of Exmortus, what do you consider some of the highlights and special moments?

Gonzalez: We just talked about being offered the Nuclear Blast deal was one for sure. A highlight coming up will be the Metal Injection fest in September. Before all this, the last one was touring with Death Angel. A tour with Amon Amarth, Children of Bodom, Abbath. These tours were really eye-opening in many different ways. Especially with the Amon Amarth tour, that’s when they were really blowing up and their tour manager was really hard and strict on everyone. He’s German, so I was really scared! (laughs). I’m playing with you. I liked that, I could work with that, he was taking care of shit, let’s just do what he asks for and there will be no problems. That was more for us to stop being so chill, as we are from California, so we are little more relaxed. Typical stoner/surfer attitude. Those things keep us on our toes and stay in shape with a lot of stuff.

Dead Rhetoric: How did you end up working on the progressive metal meets folk act The Fae – and do you enjoy the differences stylistically between your work there and what you do with Exmortus?

Gonzalez: Oh yeah. I would even say that I hate heavy metal! (laughs). I am saying that jokingly. I tend to tell myself sometimes that I don’t like extreme metal because I take it in doses. I’m still expressing myself that way, but to the bone I’m just a rocker. I love rock ‘n’ roll, I grew up with all the 70’s and 80’s bands my dad listened to. All the records, I got into it that way, and that is music. There are a lot of great metal bands in the extreme realm, and the rock and roll stuff. I loved what Jeff Potts, the leader of the band was playing, he’s a very classical influenced player as well. I enjoyed his takes on using that for the rock, prog thing. The Fae is like Deep Purple and Symphony X at the same time, an interesting combination. I hope we really get to do more stuff with them, they are really cool guys.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your expectations for Exmortus getting things back into work mode after being on the sidelines due to the pandemic for a few years? Do you believe there’s more of an appreciation for live shows and music these days that may have been taken for granted prior to the pandemic?

Gonzalez: Yes. A lot of people are going to a lot of shows, everyone is touring again. It’s been really cool. I went out to see Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate, everyone is going and loving it. It’s been too long, three years of nothing like that. Because of that, it’s hard to join tours, there is a big influx in saturation but I’m sure it will settle down next year or so. People enjoy the shows. We had a show last month in Los Angeles, a great hometown show. People were stagediving, and that’s not really our thing. People usually listen more; we don’t have too many mosh pits. This time it was crazy, I love that. People are expressing their gratitude for being to experience live music again.

Dead Rhetoric: Would you say your approach to the guitar has evolved and grown from your early years picking up the instrument to today? And where do you stand on the technique versus feel aspect when it comes to your playing/songwriting?

Gonzalez: A good question. I’m a little back and forth with the whole technique and feel thing. I love to practice all these different techniques, but in the end if I don’t feel it, and I can’t make it work into a lick, then it’s like it doesn’t have the soul that it deserves. It may be out of place in a song or a solo. The balance of the two. I would argue that Yngwie Malmsteen, he’s a shredder and goes so fast, the solos may be all the same. He got comfortable – but to me that is passion. Speed can equal passion. If you overdo it, you have to balance that – you can’t be going one hundred miles per hour every song. I do agree with many sides of that spectrum to keep everyone happy. Playing at that speed can be very tiring and taxing to your energy.

As for myself, I do feel like I’ve been maturing and improving with my songwriting. I’m constantly learning new things. I’m a forever student of music. Beforehand I was more into Beethoven and other composers of that style. For this album, I was listening to more Russian composers. They are less predictable, Eastern European composers just to compare the sounds, the harmonies, the tonality. That shows in this album for sure.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you believe younger musicians are at an advantage to progress quicker with their playing abilities due to all the tutorials and tools available online?

Gonzalez: Oh yes. I think there is only one drawback with that. It doesn’t encourage jamming with someone else. I think it’s how I learned a very important skill – to follow along with someone else, groove with someone. Even if you are a little off, that doesn’t matter. It will sound better than hitting a wrong note here and there. I learned to do that with my cousin when we were ten years old. A couple of years later, we started the band. I wish I had these tools; it took me a long time to learn certain topics, music theory, tips and tricks. It took me until after high school to really understand these things. I watch the tutorials; it’s review for me, but it would have been so helpful back then. Chase and I, we’ve known each other for a long time, and we would trade licks, jam out together, before he was even in the band. That’s the best way to learn.

Dead Rhetoric: If you had the opportunity to create a high school or college level course about any subject outside of music, what would you like to teach and why?

Gonzalez: Outside of music? I have a huge interest in linguistics in general. I would probably do something like that. I took a course one time called Languages of the World, it compared the different grammars and sounds of different languages, the possibilities of how certain sentence structures work, to give insight into how our minds work. It came out logical and natural to me that way. Get people interested in different aspects of linguistics. To take German literature, and that could be your forte. Or become an ESL teacher. Just to give my students inspiration for different branches of the same kind of area.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the next twelve months shaping up for anything related to Exmortus as far as touring, promotion, or other activities?

Gonzalez: We will try to hit it hard, see how many tours we can do for this album. We will find time to write the next album as well, keep things going, keep the machine going. That’s pretty much it.

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