Sandstone – Welcome the Cultural Dissonance

Sunday, 31st March 2013

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When you think of Irish heavy music, artists like Thin Lizzy, Therapy?, and Primordial come to mind. Progressive metal may not be a genre associated with this small country, but Sandstone aim to put their sound on the worldwide map. Releasing their third album Cultural Dissonance, the four-piece produce a type of sound that rivals many of their European brethren with a sense of tightness and compact arrangement knowledge that usually reserves itself with the veterans in the business.

After enjoying numerous spins of the latest record, I reached out to guitarist Stevie Mclaughlin who was very happy to fill us in on the thought process behind the album, future plans, as well as what it’s like to play with his brother in such a potent metal outfit. How do you feel about your new album Cultural Dissonance at this point? Can you give the readers a little insight into how the songwriting and recording process went for this effort – were they any surprises or difficulties in terms of particular songs?

Stevie Mclaughlin: Overall I’m happy with it: I feel it’s the best and most complete album we’ve made so far. Nothing is ever perfect and I always feel that maybe one more take on the guitar solo or just a little extra tweak on the snare EQ and we’d be there. But that could go on for an eternity, and at some point you need to draw a line under it and move on. I’ve no regrets; it’s the best music we could’ve made at the time.

Myself and Sean [McBay, vocals] are the songwriters of the band and we usually would write our own songs, everyone learns their parts and that’s what we’d record. This way of doing things led to some people thinking our music was eclectic or had no clear direction. In an attempt to address this, we tried a different approach for this album: Sean wrote all the lyrics and I wrote all the music. We have lots of different styles that we like from hard rock to metal to power to prog and we used to write songs in these different styles, but this time the challenge was to try and write songs that contained all these approaches within the individual song structures. Of course, as the album started to take shape we relaxed these rules and Sean contributed some riffs and I wrote some lyrics, but this approach did help us to create a more coherent album I think. At what point did Limb Music enter the picture for the band? You re-released your second album Purging the Past through them, cutting off three tracks from the original release. Any particular reasons why this happened?

Mclaughlin: Shortly after we released Purging the Past with Casket Music, Limb approached us with an offer to re-release the CD for Europe and worldwide and we jumped at this. It was a no-brainer for me since some of the bands on his roster are personal favorites. Our previous label had served us well, but were pretty much specializing in more extreme metal, with Limb we felt we were moving in to a more “like-minded” club.

Straight away Limb wanted us to cut down the length of PTP and pointed out there were five ballads on it. We went with his advice and held “Sleep” back forCultural Dissonance, “Skulkadin” was retained for the Japanese release and we’ll likely use “Critical” in a future release. I think Limb was right as, PTP flows better and, having fewer ballads on there, makes them stand out more powerfully than before. Your brother Dave plays bass in the band with you. Who had the interest in metal first, and how is it to perform side by side with your brother in Sandstone?

Mclaughlin: I’m the eldest so I guess I’ve been into music the longest, Dave has wider tastes in music than me: He likes dance, pop, indie as well as metal – he’s pretty open-minded. He actually produces underground progressive house music under the moniker of Audio Dropouts as one of his side projects. With me, it’s prog-metal and that’s it. Dave is the music technology guru of the band and is always updating us on new toys and approaches in the studio. I tend to be more traditional in my approach to recording, but we find common ground in the middle and I think that works for us.

As far as the brother thing goes, I think being in a band is a pretty intense experience to share with anyone and most people are going to come out of that feeling like brothers or enemies. I guess what I’m trying to say is that all the guys in the band are like brothers to me – maybe that sounds a bit cheesy but that’s how it is. One thing I really enjoy about Cultural Dissonance is the balance between writing progressive parts within songs like “Little Forgeries” and “Trick of Mind” and yet the emphasis remains within an arrangement that has compact sensibilities. Is this something consciously driving the band – to not become too long-winded and overstay your welcome so to speak, like other technically-minded progressive metal acts?

Mclaughlin: I’m very pleased you said that, sometimes the aesthetic in prog metal seems to be the more virtuosic and the longer the better and there’s little appreciation for how difficult it can be to be more concise. I do love a progressive approach, but at the same time my hard rock influence filters the prog. Lots of our songs were at one point longer than they appear on the album. We like to live with the songs for a while and maybe abstain for listening to them for a while so you can experience them with fresh ears. That way it becomes easier to identify what is working and what is confusing the flow or distracting from the main theme. I do like a nice indulgent guitar solo, but like the rest of the song I’m always trying to drill down to the essence and find the soul of the song. Then everything else is decoration. You admit in your bio that Ireland is still far behind the rest of the world when it comes to producing its fair share of metal acts. Why do you think this is?

Mclaughlin: Wow, if we did say that I retract: I know some great metal bands from Ireland and I think for such a tiny country, we punch well above our weight. But it is hard for Irish metal bands; we have a die-hard core community of metal fans here but it’s hard to find places to play and touring can be a logistical nightmare which involves paying for ferries or flights when our mainland European buddies can do a tour for a lot less money in a clapped-out transit van. Maybe that’s why few bands make it out of Ireland to a larger audience but they certainly deserve to. How would you describe Sandstone in a live setting? Do you sometimes extend certain tracks in a live setting or are you a band who prefer to keep the songs exactly the same from studio to stage?

Mclaughlin: We try to get the message of our songs across live and this doesn’t always mean playing them as we recorded them. Sometimes we put back in parts that were deleted on the album version and sometimes it works better live when we strip the track down to just guitar, bass, and drums. On some songs there’s layered guitar textures and keyboard parts and we trigger samples and there’s a lot of tap dancing on pedal boards- other times we keep it simple and just rock out. It just depends on what we feel the song is calling for and the context. Quite often we open for other bands and then we’re very time-conscious and try to stay to the point but when it’s our own gig we’re a lot more indulgent and I’ll like to go off on one with the guitar solo and improvise. This is when having my psychic brother backing me on bass comes in handy. Where do you see the metal scene heading over the next three-to-five years? Do you believe it’s even more important these days for the band to be involved in all aspects of promotion and publicity than ever before?

Mclaughlin: Absolutely! I’m loving metal at the moment, there’s lots of stunning releases coming out all the time particularly on the prog metal side of things. Bands are just getting better and, as a musician, it would be easy to just get overwhelmed by it all and disappear in the sea of competition. We’re learning to get better at promoting our band at the moment but it’s not easy to drag yourself away from making music and look after all the things that need attention if you want a career. With so much quality music flooding the market it’s getting harder to stand out. I’m not sure what the answer is but at the moment we’re building our fan-base one fan at a time and maybe that’s right… I don’t know. Do any of the members of Sandstone share any special hobbies or interests outside of your music time together?

Mclaughlin: It would probably be more interesting if I had a good answer for this question but I don’t: The only thing I care about is music and Sandstone, and any time I have, is dedicated to that. What types of short term or long term goals do you set for Sandstone?

Mclaughlin: Touring! We’d like to get out of Ireland and spread the Sandstone gospel. Maybe a good support slot for an established German band. In the meantime we’re concentrating on getting match fit with local gigs. Have you already begun the process of writing material for album four? If so, do you believe it will be a natural extension ofCultural Dissonance or do you think Sandstone will always add new spices of your melodic progressive/power style?

Mclaughlin: Yes, that’s well under way. I think at the last count, we had 14 demo songs recorded. We’ll probably demo twice that many and do a fair bit of working and re-working of the songs before we select the final songs and start proper recording sessions for the new album. We’re not planning anything radically new; we just want to continue doing what we do and get better at it and fine tune our style. What are three bands that you believe all members of Sandstone share in common in terms of likeability? And what would be your favorite concert going memory in your life?

Mclaughlin: We all have our own personal favorite bands and none of us agree on these. But when we’re together, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, there are several bands that will appear again and again on the turntable: Guns ‘n’ Roses, Killswitch Engage, and Pagan’s Mind.

One of my favorite concert experiences would be Slayer in the Ulster Hall in Belfast during their Seasons in the Abyss tour. The venue was a big creepy, Gothic concert hall and the stage was dominated by a massive real pipe organ. The atmosphere was so dark it was spine-chilling. I’ve seen Slayer live many times and they’re always amazing but this one was special. What do you think is the best piece of advice you ever received- regarding music or life in general?

Mclaughlin: Draw inspiration from your heroes but don’t copy them or you’ll end up in a tribute act, better to try and be the best version of yourself that you can be.

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