Howling Sycamore – Seasonal GhostsSunday, 14th January 2018
Anything that Davide Tiso puts his hands into tends to be along more creative, avant-garde lines. You’ll never get the ‘norm,’ so to speak. As an artist, he has always come across as genuinely honest in his work – whatever you hear from him directly resonates from his persona. Be it Ephel Duath, Gospel of the Witches, or now, Howling Sycamore – you can get a true sense of him as you listen to his works.
Howling Sycamore is a unique entity, in and of itself. In addition to Tiso, the band sports Hannes Grossmann on drums and Jason McMaster on vocals. A powerful combination of musical talent that melds extreme with tradition, metal with jazz, and layers itself into the progressive. Much like Tiso’s other works, there’s nothing out there quite like it. Fascinated as we were with the record, we were able to talk to Tiso himself about the rich qualities of their debut, as well as some updates for Gospel of the Witches fans, and his perseverance as an artist.
Dead Rhetoric: How did the band itself come together? There’s some pretty high-profile names in there.
Davide Tiso: What technically started the band was an invitation I received from a guy I knew, back in April 2016. He asked me to play on a side-project of his, and the drums were already done. It was an extreme metal project. It was a beautiful challenge that kicked my ass for two weeks. Eventually I found my way in, and the material started to pour out of me – about one song and a half per day. In two weeks, I did the whole album. We met again and figured out that the material was great, we both agreed, but it wasn’t right for the project it was intended for. So he kept his drums, and I kept my guitar. I realized that the material was so good that I wanted to create my own band.
I talked with people I knew in the scene and tried to find one of the best extreme metal drummers I could to work with. Erik Rutan suggested Hannes [Grossmann], who is playing for Hate Eternal. Hannes had some time off, so he agreed. In less than a month’s time, I had all of the drums recorded. Then I composed the bass on top of his drums, and re-arranged my guitars. My producer, Scott Evans of Antisleep Recordings, suggested trying Jason McMaster. At the beginning, when the project started, I didn’t have any idea about how the voice was going to come out. The initial project, from the guy I knew, imagined the voice being screamed, but as soon as I had my guitars, I thought it would be perfect for an old-school metal voice. When Scott suggested Jason, I thought, “Let’s see if he’s crazy enough to jump in on this,” and he did.
It took us a year to put together the voice and re-record everything – guitars, bass, and add some other sounds. It was easier somehow [after that] – it was the first time when signing with a label and putting the record out took less time than mixing the album [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: When you were doing the initial work for this other project – did you end up keeping most of what you had done and just carried it over?
Tiso: There were more layers added than when I started, but the structure…pretty much the bulk of the recording, yes. It’s really strange to play on top of extreme metal drums, without knowing harmonically, what is going on. It’s an experience! I will try again…I am intending to try again for the next one. It’s very peculiar – first of all, you don’t know where the riff should stop even though you can hear the accents. It was an unusual way for me to go through the songs – I really enjoyed it a lot, even if it seemed impossible at the beginning.
Dead Rhetoric: Could you talk about some of the lyrical content for the album?
Tiso: I wrote the lyrics – Jason asked me to do so and I was happy to write them. I’ve been writing my own lyrics since the beginning of my career. I really enjoy writing them. In this particular album, the lyrics are starting from Buddhist concepts, and I turned those concepts into a surreal atmosphere and I added some gore. This is the mindset I had for the last two Ephel Duath albums. I wanted to develop that concept even more with this new band. Jason changed maybe two words in the whole album, just for phonetic reasons.
The songs are very personal, very introspective, and they are bleak. As usual, I am just pouring myself out there. I’m using a lot of images, but I think you can have that attitude that ‘the guy is who is writing the lyrics is pouring himself out’ too. Even if there are so many images – it’s like puking out feelings for me. They are very personal and emotional, as well as powerful things for me to write.
Dead Rhetoric: In the same manner, could you also discuss your interest in the sycamore tree and how it plays into the band as a whole?
Tiso: The sycamore tree is one of those elements in nature that can change itself so much during seasons. It almost becomes another entity. I’m a Gemini, and I am strongly Gemini. I often realize how split I am – I’m attracted to opposites. Before it was jazz and metal together – forcing two things that, on paper, should not go together. The sycamore tree is an entity that in the winter, becomes like a ghost. The bark becomes white and reflects light in a way that is surreal – ghost-like to me. I always felt a strong connection to anything that David Lynch did with the sycamore. The connection to another world and this world. I found myself resonating – I saw something human about how the sycamore tree changed towards the winter, and I imagined the tree being a painful being. A being that is suffering, and I imagine that he is howling. It’s similar to what Jason does in many of the songs. It’s not just singing in a way, it’s something that’s primal. I think it fits so well with what I want to express with this project.
Howling Sycamore, apart from the fact that it sounds so…somehow me, it’s also very connected to the music itself. The artwork is nothing else but a collection of images that I got through meditation. The six cloaked figures are my spirit guide that is connected to my chakras. The tree represents the crown chakra, that is oozing a black liquid which is awareness, and I am the strange dog on the cover, so everything is connected.
Dead Rhetoric: Looking at the press release, it seems like you were a bit surprised that the band was signed to a more prominent label so quickly.
Tiso: I had a feeling since the beginning that this project was going to start as a self-released record. I didn’t see a big label signing me immediately. It was such as pleasant surprise. They [Prosthetic] wrote me back in less than two days after I sent the master. I received the master, sent it on a soundcloud link, and sent it to labels. After Prosthetic said they were interested, they sent me a deal for three albums. That was great, because I imagined much more humble beginnings for the band. I guess I’m aging, so I expect less from things [laughs], but it was a beautiful surprise, and it made everything so simple.
I was already planning out who I would use to print the albums, where to store them, and how I was going to ship them out to whoever ordered them. I was really going to do an underground thing. But it’s still always good to reach out, because you never know the potential of what you are working on. You need some feedback after a while. I had been working on this for a year. At that point, I gave myself a few months [off]. I needed feedback – apart from my producer, and the people involved in the album, I didn’t know what potential it held.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve done work, like you said, with jazz and metal fusing together in the past. Saxophone use is something that’s becoming more accepted in metal nowadays. What can you say of Bruce Lamont’s contributions to the album?
Tiso: I always loved to use brass instruments when they were needed. I started in 2003 and it was a taboo…today it’s a little more accepted. If you think about it, it’s not that difficult to find great sax players. But to find sax players who are into extreme music, it’s another game. I think Bruce is one of the best, because he gets the heavy music side of it first, and then he’s able to make the instrument scream, like another member in the band. He’s playing saxophone with a metal mindset, but he’s a jazz musician. It’s really the best combination that we could hope for. He’s a pro, and an awesome guy. He sent me back all his parts in a few days – it was awesome. We will probably do it again in the future.
Dead Rhetoric: When listening to it, it’s like you said. A lot of times the saxophone use in a metal song is not quite the same feeling. This has more of a ‘metal’ sound to it.
Tiso: Yeah – and also, if you think about it. It’s a matter of frequencies. The saxophone is reaching some frequency peaks that we cannot get to with an electric instrument like a bass or guitar, or even vocals. So there is plenty of space for the saxophone to come out in the mix easily. It’s easy to deal with. It’s an instrument that can open up the spectrum of what a heavy metal album can do. It gives you the chance to make the music sound crazier, and crazy is good for metal, I think. The sound can get more layered, and add more colors.
The important thing was to alternate the saxophone screaming with the voice – there’s a connection between the way that the saxophone and voice are going back and forth. Like on the first song, “Upended,” it’s a beautiful thing for me to hear. I was honored to have these musicians on top of my guitar. It’s really emotional and hit me right in the face. When I heard it for the first time – the combination between voice and saxophone – I was floored. Bruce had the vocals when he recorded, so I’m sure he took the voice as a reference point.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve always been involved with bands that don’t stick to a straight formula. Do you think that those who follow your music expect something outside the box?
Tiso: At this point, yes I think so. It’s safe to say that when people hear my name they say, “Oh, it’s that weirdo,” [laughs]. It’s a positive thing in my opinion. I create my own things. So far, I’ve had projects where the material is not really what’s going on in more mainstream rock/metal.
Dead Rhetoric: It’s funny that you say it that way – your writing style is often viewed as something that’s unique and honest – are you more proud of that than someone who is looked at for just being “really good at guitar?”
Tiso: Everything that I have released is as sincere as possible. There are some that may not have been as good as they could have been, but everything is always sincere. I really want to think that people feel that way about me. That’s the biggest achievement to me – to know that people know that what I put out is a real representation of who I am at that moment. That’s my biggest goal.
I have a feeling that people do get that from me. I feel really lucky about that. I have made compromises – compromises like finding a job [to support the music]. I didn’t push myself into the music business, like “I have to do this or that,” because that would have meant that to make a living I would have to play music that my heart wasn’t in. So I said, fuck it – I can’t do that. I have to be honest to myself. For those four people that listen to my album [laughs], I want to be real. It was a smart move I think.
Dead Rhetoric: There’s always a portion of the metal fanbase that is looking for that in a nutshell. No one is playing metal to get rich or be in the in-crowd.
Tiso: You know, when I signed my first record deal I was just a kid…I was so young. I had to drop school. I didn’t do much about my studies, so I became blue-collar immediately. That was not what I intended to do with my life. I didn’t think that I was going to drop my studies. I signed with Earache Records for four albums, and I started making albums and touring. For the first few years, I didn’t have a plan B. I thought my band was going to get bigger and bigger, and I was going to live off music. Then I realized that was not going to happen – it was a difficult process.
I realized that everything I was doing was not enough to make me reach what I had set my whole life up for. Friendships, relationships, everything came second…my family. My God, those poor people. They helped me a lot but at the end of the day they lost me. At the end of the day, as soon as I picked up my guitar, I went away – I did everything I could possibly could to make that band succeed. When I took a step back, I realized that it was not going to happen. I had the chance to take my life back in my own hands, and it was a positive realization. I’ve been thankful.
Dead Rhetoric: So what made you decide to persevere and make music once you hit that realization that you couldn’t live off of it?
Tiso: If I don’t play music, I get sick. If I don’t compose music, I get depressed. It’s as easy as that. It’s really healing for me to play music. It feels like the right thing for me to do. It’s my shelter. There’s been a few times in my life where I took a break from it and I went downhill. I went to places that I don’t want, or need, to go there. Let’s say that Prosthetic Records was not involved and none of this was happening – I would have kept going. I would have done the album, and saved up for a second album – I could probably put together a live band to do something on my own. I have to play music. I don’t see myself stopping. Or I will go back to that state of mind that isn’t so good.
Dead Rhetoric: Veering off a bit, in terms of Gospel of the Witches…any news? I believe I saw somewhere that there was some writing going on at some point.
Tiso: Karyn [Crisis] wrote a book, and she is promoting the book [Italy’s Witches and Medicine Women]. She is busy doing that right now. The guitar for the second Gospel of the Witches album has been ready for a year now [laughs]. She is a very interesting artist, and when she sets up for something, she goes for it. This book was very important to her, so she finally released it, and now she’s promoting it. So that’s why the band had to take a step to the side. Whenever she is ready to restart, we will be putting out the album. It’s beautiful.
Dead Rhetoric: Gospel is label-less at this point, due to the Century Media – Sony situation?
Tiso: Century Media was bought and they dropped us, unfortunately. I think that Karyn wants to go independently. She has a following on her own, and she likes to make things with her own hands. The idea of making a package for each album sold is something that interests her.
Basically what happened, was Gospel of the Witches got signed to Century Media because the main A&R of the label was an old friend and fan of the band [Crisis], whom she was in contact with for years. Right before Century Media was sold, he left, so we didn’t even have the person there that signed us. The connection was not there. There were some very nice people working there at the time, but he was the main engine.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you have planned for 2018 at this point? I know you mentioned something about a second Howling Sycamore album already…
Tiso: Actually I have a lot of material for a second one. I’m also putting together a live line-up. I’m going to start jamming with my drummer in a few weeks. We will do the next album the same way that I did the first one – starting with drums. The positive thing is that we live close. I have secured a rehearsal place for us, so the material is going to come out very organically for us together. For a bass player, I’m still looking, as well as a sax player that can play live. And of course, there’s Jason. If the offers are good, we will play live soon. But I am also planning on working a new album – it’s a long process. It’s a different thing to start with drums. We are sharing ideas daily now, so it will be fun. A half an hour before you just called me, we bought the drums that we are going to use to record. He’s very happy. The material is going to be more prog, and more experimental than the first one.