Sunday, November 8, 2015

Band Interview: URN

Interview with Dominic St. Charles of URN

URN recently released your fifth full length Epiphany, and recently began collaborating with the fledgling underground label Dark Moon Records. Is Epiphany available on this label? How did you hook up with them?
Our new album “Epiphany” is being released and distributed worldwide by Dark Moon Records both in physical and digital formats. Dark Moon Records is part of the larger Dark Moon Productions, a film production company. Corvis Nocturnum, the company CEO, has been a long-time friend and fan of the band and he approached us about two years ago encouraging us to put out a new album as we hadn’t released one since our 2009 release “Scribings Of A Forgotten Soul”.

Can you give the readers information about Dark Moon Records, such as where they’re based, some of the bands they promote and how wide their distribution is? How long has Corvis Nocturnum been a friend of the band?
Dark Moon Records is a satellite company where Dark Moon Productions wants to venture into the music side of the entertainment industry. The only other artist on the label at this time is Ligeia Ressurected, the solo project of Adrienne who is a cast member of “Eerie America”. Since the label is in its initial stage, it is currently in talks for bigger distribution with some other firms.

Why was there such a long delay between the release of Scribings Of A Forgotten Soul and the release of Epiphany? How much encouragement did Corvis Nocturnum give the band to record a new full length?
We toured extensively for “Scribings” for the first two years after we released it, so we didn’t start the writing process for this album until 2011. However, in that time frame we all on an individual level made so many major life changes; I moved from Chicago to Florida that fall. So instead of constantly doing 150-200 shows a year, we elected do more outside of URN and got together for two two-week tours a year, one in the fall and one in the spring. Corvis came to us in 2013 and he like many others were hoping there was going to be another album from us. However, at the time, we were more focused on our families who had sacrificed so much for us to pursue this amazing journey of music that we’ve been on, that we weren’t really sure if we wanted to do another album. But Corvis spoke of how much our music helped him on a personal level and he wanted to give back to us what we gave to him. After hearing that we sat with and he outlined his vision for Dark Moon Records and how he needed URN to be part of it.

Discuss the first two full lengths of the band’s and how URN progressed over the processes of recording them.
Our first major release was our EP Desecrated Ashes released in 2003. In full transparency, the reason it ended up being an EP is that we ran out of funding during the recording process. So we made the decision to just finish the six songs and have a viable product. We took them to Sean Sutton at the Chicago Recording Company for post-production and mastering. In those early years we didn’t know what the future was going to have in store for us as we never take anything for granted. We couldn’t be sure that another opportunity was ever going to present itself again. One of the most memorable aspects of this recording was I brought my old friend and singer from my former band Sacrosanct, Michelle Belanger back into the studio for a song we did called “Angels Are Weeping”. For the next two years we toured relentlessly in support of that album and at certain points we teamed up with Michelle was doing a book signing tour for her book Psychic Vampyre Codex. So we would do book signings in the afternoons and perform as URN in night clubs or concert halls in the evening. Due to the modicum of success from Desecrated Ashes, in late 2005 we were ready to start work on the follow up full-length which we called Dancing With The Demigods. Through a good friend of ours that works in radio, we were introduced to Grammy-award winning producer Neil Kernon of Auslander Studios in Chicago. Neil was interested in taking us on as a client to produce us, but as most things in life, we did not have the financial means to afford his services. It was heart-breaking to put it mildly, but for a band to be truly successful, you have to treat it as a business most of the time and sometimes you have to make fiscally responsible decisions that won’t affect the rest of your life. Shortly after we ended up signing with Rotting Corpse Records and we met Dan Precision, so things did work out for us. We brought Michelle back to more of an expanded role as a guest vocalist including her on several songs. Rotting Corpse released the album through Synergy Distribution and Azure Green which places in many major chain stores such as Best Buy, FYE and the like.

Did Sean Sutton do a good job mastering the six tracks on Desecrated Ashes? How well did it do upon its release?
Sean was one of top engineers in one of the world’s most prolific recording studios, and he re-mixed our “Embrace” track, so his standard of excellence was profound on the quality of the recording. We made a business decision with the limited resources we had available, it was better to put out a six song EP and get something on the market as we didn’t know if the necessary funds would ever come in to put out a full album. The strong and surprising success of Desecrated Ashes allowed us to continue with our career as URN opened a great many doors. With the touring it allowed us to get in touch with many independent record stores. Myspace and the internet wasn’t a widely used tool in those days. Songs from this EP also made it onto some documentaries on major networks such as A&E and Syfy and it exposed us to greater audiences which made for great opportunities.

What was Sutton’s recording studio like. What equipment did the band have to record with there?

His primary role at the time was a mastering engineer, and he worked on many high file projects such as DVDs for major motion pictures. He made extensive use of Nuemann and Sennheiser microphones and had every recording software platform imaginable.  

You managed to remain on good terms with Michelle Belanger since you left Sacrosanct. Why did you part company with that band? When you approached her with the idea of contributing vocals to Angels Are Weeping and songs for your next album, how much was she into it? How would you describe her style as a vocalist?
Michelle and I were very good friends before even starting the band, so when the decision was made to end Sacrosanct it was a personal decision. There were other priorities in life and time wasn’t able to be devoted to further pursuit. Having said that, Sacrosanct recorded a three song demo which never got released. Later on I think several of us felt that maybe something should have happened with the group. We did develop a large following in the Cleveland area at the time as the goth scene was much stronger. So, when it came time for URN to record our first official album, I asked her about it and she was extremely excited and willing. Michelle is a classically trained opera singer and I would best describe her as a “Wagnerian soprano”. The woman could literally out-sing the PA system most nights.

Would you ever consider releasing Sacrosanct’s demo in a limited release of some sort? Just so people can hear it?
We never discussed it as four of Sacrosanct’s songs made manifestations as URN songs, “Hero Worship” and “Solemn In A Prostrate Prose” from the Scribings of a Forgotten Soul album, and “Angels Are Weeping” and “One Last Day” from Desecrated Ashes.

Did those four songs undergo any particular changes when URN adapted them from Sacrosanct?
First and foremost, Sacrosanct used a drum machine which tended to be standard for goth bands, so with URN using live drums and keyboards, they took on different arrangements to accommodate. The vocal melodies and harmonies did tend to be for the most part similar, but the songs themselves took on new life.

What new dimensions did Michelle’s classical training as a vocalist bring to URN’s compositions? How much input did she have into your debut recording?

For the couple songs she did with us, I did write with her powerful vocal range in mind. The best example of this would have been “Cry Freedom” on Dancing With The Demigods. Much as in Sacrosanct, sometimes I would come up with a song and she would develop lyrics and melodies for them. Or vice versa, she had a melody in her head and I’d reverse-engineer and build the arrangement around it. She didn’t have a great deal of input on Desecrated Ashes, but with her expanded role for Dancing With The Demigods, I much welcomed her counsel on vocal and compositional arrangements.

How much potential do you see for URN and Michelle to continue working and developing together?
Michelle and I are still the best of friends over twenty years later, so the potential is always there. Currently, she just released her first fiction work Conspiracy Of Angels and is doing an extensive book tour at this time. I wager we will collaborate on another musical endeavor at some point, just nothing concrete at this time as we’re both blessed enough to be extremely busy with our art.

Describe the album Scribings Of A Forgotten Soul and how it represents URN’s evolution at the time of its release.
Our third album "Scribings Of A Forgotten Soul" was a concept album that was based on two individuals that I knew growing up that, from completely opposite ends of a spectrum, survived a gruesome prison riot in Pennsylvania back in 1989. Around this same time Budd Dywer committed suicide on live television and my mother was working for the PA State Government and was in the building at the time the tragedy occurred. These profound events left a lasting impression upon in a pivotal time in my life and I wrote a couple of the songs at the time to help me better process the stimuli that we were being exposed to. Hence, when it came time to the third URN album, I put forth this concept album. It was vastly heavier and darker in terms of tone and music from our previous releases. Many would describe the album as a "death/doom metal" album, which the influence of touring with bands such as Virgin Black had an indelible impression on us. We knew we were taking a risk putting out such an album, but a band doesn't really grow if it doesn't take chances.

How did you hear about those two events, and in what ways did they leave a lasting impression on you? How did you express the impact those events had on you on your third full length?

Well, back in those times it was the local news broadcast and newspapers. This was an era where the internet wasn’t a part of daily life and most homes didn’t have computers. Social media was still over a decade-plus away and most families I knew of used their home phones via land lines. Cell phones were around but only the wealthy had them and they were cumbersome to say the least. These events really brought to light the darker side of humanity and I was dealing with some troubling times in my home life. I took the “Law & Order” approach in terms of telling this story as I didn’t want to use the specifics that my friend’s father and former teammate went through respecting their privacy. Truman Capote’s “The Glass House” was good reference for me to be able to tell the narrative in a fictional sense.

Why did you present the narrative as fiction? How would you say The Glass House was reference to assist your writing?
The reason would be two-fold. At the time I wanted to protect my friend’s identities and still do this day. Also the legalities of it. We didn’t have permission to use any names or likenesses and truth be told, we really didn’t need to. Law & Order made a career of telling stories that usually were based on true cases, and The Glass House was really nothing more than a reference that stories like these get told, despite the unpopularity of the subject.

What are the finer and not so finer points of cell phones and social media in the modern information age? Do you personally prefer getting your information through print or the internet?
I wouldn’t say it’s a preference it’s more of an availability. I tend to get information from electronic media as there is more access to it and preferences aside, there are more people being reached by it.

What do you consider the pros and cons of electronic media? What effort do you make to include it in your lyrical content?
Simply, I feel that the blessing and curse of electronic media is that it allows you to stay in better contact with more people and reach more people. The biggest drawback is it also takes much away from human interaction which to me is a major spice of life. It doesn’t consume my life as a whole, so I don’t incorporate it into my lyrical content. It isn’t a muse of mine.

How important do you deem taking chances as a musician? Besides URN, who was the last band to really go out on a limb with their music? That is since death and black metal bands began making new ground in the early 90s.
For me, it is of critical importance to take chances as a musician if you ever expect to have any kind of growth or development. Sometimes it’s listening to new music with a different perspective. Now, not everyone would agree. Some people are content with knowing what they know and there is nothing wrong with that, but I would wager that if you asked any aspiring musician they wish to always better themselves and most times to do that you have to go outside of your own box. I don’t know about bands going out on a limb, so much, but you have seen bands such as Paradise Lost, Theater Of Tragedy, Katatonia and Enslaved. They all started out primarily as death or black metal bands and over time evolved into the groups they are now.

What I always appreciated about black metal was that it evolved into several subgenres, with bands from specific countries incorporating traditional music into their material, and certain musicians taking it into their own directions. And death metal bands like Nile progressed by writing Egyptian themes into their music, without losing their heaviness and brutality.
I would say that we’ve already been doing that over the past several years. Integrating the traditional Celtic music and incorporating non-traditional rock instruments such as violin and 36-lever harp on several songs on this new album. We also made use of woodwind instruments on previous albums such as flute and piccolo, so since at least 2004, we’ve been evolving in our sound as we are a band that isn’t afraid to take risks in order to grow. I feel that bands to do try to find ways to evolve are the ones that will enjoy a greater longevity and success. Now, are we the first band to integrate Celtic and Persian music into metal? Obviously not. Again, the internet wasn’t a mainstream tool back when we started so we can’t really say, but all we do know is in that time, precious few bands were doing it. I felt it was sad when people came up to us after a show and say they never saw a flute in a metal band before. Now don’t get me wrong; I was deeply appreciative of their compliment and enthusiasm for us as artists. But we didn’t re-invent the wheel either.

How do you create a balance between your influences in metal and your influences in Celtic and Persian traditional music?
I don’t know if there really is a “balance”; it’s really based on my mood or where I am in a spiritual sense in that given moment. Am I acting or reacting to a situation in my life where I feel music needs to help me process? It is day-by-day, if not, hour-by-hour thing. I guess really don’t see them as separate, as music is music regardless of its form. I’ve had critics say to me that URN can be “schizophrenic” in these regards and that I should just really separate the two. We did give it some consideration, but to really just create two bands goes back to, at least in my opinion, the limited view of music in North America where somehow diversity is a detriment. With Epiphany we put a great amount of effort into the transitions from song to song and we do believe in our deepest of hearts that there is consistency with the material blending all of our influences into one cohesive sound, that many of the same critics have at least given us the credit of being very unique. I’ve been pursuing a solo acoustic career a bit more this past year with a focus on the Celtic acoustic material just to see how it plays out. I’ve been enjoying it quite a bit and have been getting a great reception thus far with it. So, it’s been a great year for me musically.

In what ways was Dancing With The Demigods an improvement over Desecrated Ashes?
The biggest difference was that it was a full-length album as opposed to an EP. Also, we had become much more comfortable and confident with each other as a band as with our signing with then-Rotting Corpse Records and working with Dan Precision we had gained a lot of experience that we could draw on to produce a better album.

How did you arriving at choosing the title Scribings Of A Forgotten Soul for your third full length?
Initially I was going to use the word “Chronicle”, but being a student of literature and history I felt that “Scribings” articulated more what I was trying to convey with this story. I did realize at the time, that some folks may confuse it for the word “scriblings”, but I am not one who of the many whom feel that people who listen to metal music are completely uneducated.

Quote some of the most meaningful lyrics on Scribings Of A Forgotten Soul and what they mean to you personally?
Unlike Epiphany, we were telling someone else’s story, so the narrative is very different from the other albums. However, my favorite lyrics on the album come from the song “No Man’s Land”: “Forgotten Souls are nothing other than the damned, for the memories are haunting and the nightmares are grand.” We even ended up using that on the back of our shirts for when we toured with Tarja Turunen (formerly of Nightwish).

Describe your experiences touring with Tarja Turunen to promote your current full length. Where did the tour take the band?

Nightwish was an influence on our sound after Dancing With The Demigods and Tarja is much lauded as the most beautiful female voice in metal. So to have been a direct support on her first solo tour was a high honor as well as a dream come true. Our good friends from Australia, The Eternal, also came on the tour and we did the tour sort of as one band, sharing  gear and the van with them and it made all the more enjoyable. It was only for very select dates in North America, such as New York, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. So it wasn’t our first major level tour, but it really allowed us to come to the forefront of the metal scene and reach a level that very few bands ever achieve.

What material by Tarja Turunen would you most suggest people check out if they were just hearing of her?
We toured with her for her My Winter Storm album which was her first after leaving Nightwish. It was a solid album and I would direct people to start there.

Where was Scribings recorded? Did you produce it independently or work with professionals? How many studios exist in your area where local bands can record their material?
We once again worked with our producer Dan Precision of Bombshelter Recording Studios in Chicago, who is the architect behind great bands such as Rise Against, Naked Raygun, and 88 Fingers Louie. Dan worked with us on our previous two full lengths and with that familiarity he knows how to get the best out of us in the studio. The difference this time is that we flew him to Orlando from Chicago and we recorded in EmotionTech Studios in Orlando as opposed to recording in Chicago. There are quite a number of studios here in central Florida, but the one we like working with best is Studio 101 in Melbourne with Brenden of Spinnit Records.

How did you hook up with Dan Precision to begin with? Tell the readers about the studio in Chicago where you worked with him. How does the club scene in Chicago compare to the Orlando scene?
We came into contact with him with a band we were actually sharing rehearsal space with, that Dan had also produced on their album. I was immediately blown away with the clarity and crispness of the quality of the recordings and immediately knew that is what I needed for URN’s music. One of the many blessings that this band has encountered in our odyssey are the many places we’ve been as part of our touring. The one thing we’ve noticed is that club scenes tend to really be the same overall regardless if of culture or language. We found that the scenes in many Latin American countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras are much more open-minded about music as a whole, they love all forms of rock/metal as long as it’s good. Canada, although maybe as not as open-minded as say Mexico, but a still incredibly supportive and passionate about music and even metal specifically. The United States, some markets tend to be more supportive than others, but it appears that an “elitism” has overtaken the mindset over the past several years and diversity now seems to be a detriment and so many bands sound exactly the same from each other.

Canada did give us Voivod whose unconventional style was important to the evolution of extreme metal. I’ve also noticed a certain amount of dedication from bands in South American countries when it comes to metal.

Central and South America have given us amazing reception the couple of times that we’ve been there. Later in 2016, we look to tour again with our good friends The Fallacy from Chile and a lot of what I love about touring abroad is how I feel it enriches me on a personal level. The good people of those countries are very open-minded, similar to Europe, and to my personal experience just show a greater appreciation for music and artistry in general. The “elitism” doesn’t exist with these folks as it is such a narrow minded way of thinking.  So as a result, I do feel you are going to get bands that are going to help bring metal into the next generation as opposed to the same homogenized metal bands that aren’t doing anything that Pantera and Hatebreed already did better. Pioneering bands such as Voivod typically enjoy a great cult status, but never really gaining the commercial success they observe as “it’s not trendy and won’t sell as well”. I mean, I get it. We’ve been courted by a couple of major labels and have distribution through these labels for our back catalog as it is a business and money need to made so the bills get paid. What is encouraging is that you’re starting to see more of these pioneering bands started to get noticed more by the “mainstream” of metal.

In some ways, it is elitism to pretend to be “open-minded” since some musicians are more concerned with putting on a show of how "versatile" they are, rather than playing what they feel and seeing where it takes them.
It’s hard for me to say, as I am always encouraged when I see musicians going outside of their safety zone and pushing their boundary in the name of being a better musician. However, I can agree that there has been a high level of hypocrisy as musicians and fans alike in these genres will say that they’re “open-minded” and it’s nothing more than lip service as they really are not open minded. I actually have more respect for someone who is blunt and truthful about their limited scope of artistry as opposed to someone who is more concerned with what people think of them as opposed as to what they think of themselves and tell you what they think you want to hear. Scott Clendenin of Death had filled in for us on bass for a little bit before his untimely passing earlier this year. He was reminiscing one night after a rehearsal about how when he was in Death. Chuck and he had a conversation on how they would listen to bands like Led Zeppelin while they were on tour to gain inspiration. It was a disappointment to them how some of the younger bands that they were on tour with would almost ridicule them as I guess it didn’t meet their perception of what an iconic death metal band should listen to. Scott would say how they personally didn’t care what people thought, but felt even back then, he felt what a sorrowful state of affairs the genres where heading to as people were not giving other forms of music a chance. This coming from one of the most successful death metal bands in history. Perhaps it is of a generation gone by, who is to say. Sometimes as elder statesmen, it is our responsibility to at least attempt to educate those coming after us, or you will see the extinction of a genre of music such a goth rock did as it truly barely exists anymore as there was no fusion of young blood into it. I do feel the rock and metal music as a good future ahead of it overall, but as the word evolves, music will evolve with it and it would be interesting to see in fifty years what it will be like, as I’m sure if you ask Black Sabbath now, they probably didn’t see all this happening back then.

What does URN have in mind for their next recording? What steps will the band be taking to expand their range?
With Epiphany just coming out we’ve been focused on the support that we need to give to this release that we are so proud of. We have internally discussed an acoustic album and we have been writing some more material in that direction. All the more I can tell you now is that it won’t be six years before the next release.

Dominic St. Charles
URN

-Dave Wolff

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