Interview with musician JASON AARON WOOD
You are planning to release your sixth solo effort Emanations in November 2017. You have stated it’s to be your heaviest and darkest album yet. Describe how it stands apart from your previous efforts and what new directions it’s heading in?
I think between having used only eight-string guitars on this album, the new things I've learned about mixing and production since last time, and just the material itself, this album came out sounding heavier than anything I've done yet! Honestly, I kind of wish my previous Ol Sonuf albums sounded this heavy!
As far as being darker, I'd say it's the darkest "Jason Aaron Wood" release for sure, although the two Ol Sonuf albums are potentially as dark. (In a way this is the Jason Aaron Wood album that easily could've been an Ol Sonuf album.)
But on this album in particular, lyrically, I really embraced the concept of darkness as a necessary element of existence -- not some "evil" that can be eradicated -- but simply the unseen side of everything and everyone.
A lot of people try to look away and "shun" things that are dark in real life (although not quite as much in metal); but I'm more about "No, let's look directly at that, and closer!" Something is only "dark" because it's never been brought OUT of the darkness so we can get a better look at it. And it will stay that way to our perception if we just keep hiding from it. And if in the end we don't like what we're looking at, well.... too bad! The universe is mostly dark; it's not there to please our delicate constitutions.
So in that spirit, I really tried to create a very dark listening experience and paint a detailed soundscape throughout the album, both sonically and lyrically, dealing with mystical topics like the Sephiroth and Qliphoth, but also with things like losing your sense of identity, needing to be seen as a hero so much you'd kill someone for not praising you enough, and trying to comfort your child through the Black Death with what little explanation you can come up with when it's 1347 AD.
On Emanations do you explore the concept of “evil” as an integral part of existence from a spiritual viewpoint or one grounded in realism? How do you account for metal bands exploring it closely while most others don’t?
When I think of "darkness" I don't necessarily equate that with "evil," although I do recognize people's strong tendency to equate the two. But yes I do see darkness as a natural, permanent, and necessary part of existence, both literally and figuratively, and I have sort of chosen language that speaks to both the spiritual and physical side of things in the same statement.
Aleister Crowley put it like this: "It is because space is dark that we can see the Sun." I love that quote because it demonstrates so easily how light needs darkness to even be perceived. Light is the rare exception; darkness is the default.
So on one hand I understand why people like light and equate it with goodness, and to some extent that obviously holds up. But just because something is dark, hidden, unseen, or unknown doesn't make it automatically bad. Plus, every light, every flame, every star, will eventually burn out and return to the default — darkness. And that scares the shit out of us, because we can see that also applies to life (light) and death (darkness), and people have been trying to cheat death for millennia. I know that kind of talk scares some people, but to me it just seems oversimplified to brand something so natural as evil, rather than as just another facet of what light is and how it works, like there's a lack of honest curiosity. Plus I think it also scares people to not only not have the answers but to not be ABLE to have the answers — and darkness sort of encapsulates the "unknown" and the "unknowable." I think without darkness, there would be no curiosity, no reason for it.
So in a way I guess I'm speaking both literally and metaphorically, and both spiritually and realistically. To me, embracing darkness as just a part of existence is a necessary first step toward truly understanding the world around us as well as the worlds within us — we as a species are obviously FASCINATED by ourselves, but society mostly favors the traits on the "approved" list of things that let us pretend we're "above" the other animal species. I feel like that's mostly an ego boost (a popular one), one that blinds a lot of people to what humans are really capable of. In a way, that "animal" side of humans' animal nature IS a form of darkness: a side of ourselves that most of us try to hide from others and keep stashed away in the dark.
When you hear bands talking about "dark" topics, I think what happens is that there are so many ways that the overall topic of darkness have been made into a gimmick, not just from bands but also largely thanks to Hollywood and tabloids, that a lot of the takes on "darkness" that you hear in metal are kinda just following the "formula" unfortunately. Slayer, Behemoth, Ghost, a million black metal bands... there's nothing real under there, philosophy-wise. But as music it works great!
And ultimately music is mostly for entertainment so in most people's eyes it's not like there needs to be a philosophy that's got to hold up or that's gonna be peer reviewed, so just "sounding dark" usually gets a pass. Some really great bands even do this, some of my own favorite bands, even. I think they're just trying to get fans, and paint a certain picture, and/or play with morally risqué territory for the shock value it might provide or just for theatrical purposes. I think all of those things take priority over treating the topic with any degree of seriousness, like 99.999% of the time. But oh well, you know?! That's why we have books I guess.
Is Ol Sonuf something you were involved in before founding Jason Aaron Wood? In what ways did it explore darkness in their music and lyrics? When did Ol Sonuf release material, and is said material still available?
Ol Sonuf is sort of a concept project of its own, and it's a separate concurrent solo project of mine. Ol Sonuf has been my more "extreme metal" project since I released the first album "Glass Idols" in 2013, with its follow up "Iconoclast" in 2015 (both of which are available on https://jasonaaronwood.bandcamp.com), while the albums I've created under "Jason Aaron Wood" have been a bit more diverse, ranging from instrumental acoustic music to classic metal to atmospheric doom metal, with pretty much only clean vocals if/when there were vocals at all.
Up until this newest album "Emanations" I had kind of reserved the death metal and black metal elements for Ol Sonuf. But with what I have planned next for Ol Sonuf, it gives the stuff I release as Jason Aaron Wood more room to expand into some of that sonic territory.
In terms of topics, Ol Sonuf would usually focus on magic/sorcery, philosophy, mythology, religion, historical perspective, human nature, and always with a hefty dose of mockery and sarcasm (although I think the humor probably gets lost on people with the "serious" sound of the music). So by not only having death vocals and blast beats on this new album, but also venturing into occult territory and even with the mocking approach I took in the song "Hero's Plight," in a way I've kind of started blurring the lines between what separates Ol Sonuf as a project from Jason Aaron Wood, at least for now.
So while I do count the Ol Sonuf albums among my solo discography, as I said Ol Sonuf is really a concept project — all of the albums for this project will eventually be seen to link together.
I've also known for a few years what the next Ol Sonuf album is going to be (and which two albums will come after that one), so once Emanations started coming together this year, it became clear to me right away, "this isn't it.”
Did the directions taken by Jason Aaron Wood and Ol Sonuf develop naturally from the beginning of those projects?
I think that was more the case with Ol Sonuf. The idea for that project hasn't really changed from the beginning, except for it being less "symphonic" than I originally envisioned it. Whereas Jason Aaron Wood as a project sort of began as "not Ol Sonuf." So I guess it sort of makes sense that the JAW albums are all so much more different from each other. But I think over the course of these albums, both projects' styles will inevitably evolve, and maybe even become intertwined to some extent.
Discuss the full lengths released prior to Emanations and how JAW progressed and grew over the years.
In a way I feel JAW has progressed fairly sporadically over the years. To a degree it is still the project where all the other music I create outside of Ol Sonuf or Todesbonden goes. I mean, every JAW album does have a concept behind it, so it's not like it operates as the junk bin for the music I can't find a place for. It's just that every time I create an album, the last thing I want to do is make another album that sounds like what I've already done.
The first JAW album "Reflections" came together almost by accident over a span of about two weeks back in 2011, at a time when I was still sort of stalling and not releasing anything because I felt my musicianship just wasn't there yet. In fact, even once I had all the music for that album fully recorded, I actually still sat on it for another year.
I just had this sudden inspiration to create all this acoustic guitar music after completing what later became the title track "Reflections" for this songwriting competition I never ended up actually entering. So I just accumulated these nine songs just to listen to, as sort of a songwriting experimentation project.
Also, after having been in Todesbonden, and getting some small amount of attention for my early Ol Sonuf demo, this felt like a weird album for me, a "metal" guitarist, to release — just purely acoustic guitar music, without even a hint of metal anywhere on it.
But eventually in late 2012, after about a year of sitting on this completed album and thanks to some reassurance and nudging from my wife (and Todesbonden bandmate) Laurie Ann Haus, I figured "what the hell..." and decided to just release it. And I figured it can't hurt to stop pigeon-holing myself as just a metal guitarist.
That kind of got the ball rolling. After playing guitar for twenty years by that point and being too scared to release anything official, releasing "Reflections" sort of made me think "Well that's one album... now I'm going to do another one next year, and every year from now on!" I felt like I had wasted so much time, and it was time to start cranking out albums, and even if I find flaws when I nitpick my own music, other people might not even notice them. So I figured "pretty good" is good enough for now, and I'll just keep putting out better albums each time.
So the next year I finally dug in and made the Ol Sonuf album "Glass Idols" (which I had originally planned since 2005), and actually one thing did change about that project from the original idea — I suddenly decided to give vocals a shot — and all of a sudden this project I had thought up in 1997 as completely instrumental was now very vocal-centric. I even mustered the courage to try clean vocals on one track — which actually was the catalyst for the next JAW album "Labyrinth of Dreams" the following year.
Now, after so much time working on "Glass Idols," I didn't want to make another album that sounded like that. I was just burned out on death metal for a bit, and throughout 2014 I had once again begun focusing a lot more on improving my songwriting, even creating a new songwriting course for my ShredMentor guitar students. In fact three of the songs on "Labyrinth Of Dreams" started out as sessions in those classes I taught. Also that year, I really felt inspired to return to my roots and create an eighties-inspired classic metal album, since bands like Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Ozzy, and Helloween were my earliest inspirations to begin playing guitar.
Concept-wise, the idea for Labyrinth Of Dreams sort of just hit me one day — to create a little world out of my own dreams, with each song dedicated to and representing a certain theme I've had in my dreams throughout my life. The idea of it being a "labyrinth" is really a metaphor for those long dreams that seem to have gone on forever when you remember them, but where you could never find your way back to an earlier point. I also had songs representing my dreams of lost loved ones, dreams of flying, and of course my nightmares.
Throughout that year, I had been working on a few songs that would eventually find their way onto the next Ol Sonuf album "Iconoclast" — an album that began as an idea for a couple of bonus tracks for "Glass Idols," and for a while there almost didn't happen at all, until mid-way into that year when the full concept for Ol Sonuf suddenly came together on a whole new level. At which point "Iconoclast" came together as the Ol Sonuf album representing anger and the element of Fire.
The following year, I really felt inspired to create an album of epic, melodic doom metal, but with clean vocals, which ultimately became the JAW album "Escape." Despite the difference in style, I decided to make that album a sequel to "Labyrinth of Dreams" and continue the concept from that album, where I was now trapped in a nightmare within the same dreamscape where I had left off.
Where does Todesbonden fit your endeavors as a musician? How well do you and Laurie Ann Haus balance married life and working together?
Todesbonden is the only full time project that I'm a part of with other musicians, so I see it as a really important part of my career. It has unfortunately taken a backseat over the years with the other things we've been working on (Laurie's soundtrack work and my solo albums). So it would appear we disappeared after our 2008 LP "Sleep Now, Quiet Forest," although we have been slowly writing the next album "Mythos" as our availability permits. In fact, we're about to dig in again in November and finally finish this album by the end of the year.
As far as balancing Todesbonden and our relationship, it definitely has introduced a bit of frustration into our personal lives, but I think that's natural when you have people who really care about the band and are passionate about manifesting our shared vision.
I think we had some kinks to work out over these past several years in the way we approached the band and writing, and I think we have really grown in that time and had a chance to return to our roots and hone the band's sound to match the original vision a lot more than the last album. With those things sorted out there's less disagreement that can seep into our relationship. Overall I would say the band has seeped into our relationship far more than our relationship has interfered with the workings of the band, though, since we were already together since before we started Todesbonden.
Often people who preach about open-mindedness are the least tolerant of less popular opinions, and most likely to condescend those who are not like them. Is this an example of an ego boost or fear of one’s own darkness?
Well it's probably a bit of both. I think there's definitely a built-in ego boost whenever you're right and everyone else is wrong. It's "listen up everybody, I have the right answer!" So of course they want other people to be open-minded to what they have to say. But since they're convinced they have THE right answer, they're excused from having to consider anyone else's input once they get to say their piece, since it would undermine their infallible position to have to hear someone else out and potentially have to be held up to scrutiny.
The level of intellectual dishonesty in doing that is astonishing to me. I mean, I've seen it happen over and over, but it's just hard to understand how so many people invariably cast themselves as the hero in their own narrative, while everyone else is automatically lesser or wrong somehow, and they're actually okay adopting such a convenient viewpoint.
I think you make a really good point about fear too; I think there's definitely an element of fear there as well. There is so much to fear, though. Some of that may be the fear of their own darkness, or of not living on beyond death, or especially not getting to see their loved ones again. To someone who's never believed in any of that or felt attached to those ideas, it can seem silly to be afraid of any of that, like "what's the big deal?"
But when it defines your whole conception of existence for your entire life, the prospect of being wrong means having the "tablecloth" yanked out from under you and a big part of your identity is just gone. And that really can be a terrifying experience. Because to a lot of people their very idea of "who they are" is derived from those answers. I actually referred back to that feeling (losing one's faith, and with it, oneself) for the song "Identity" on the new album, in fact.
Regarding your mention of Aleister Crowley, in what ways were his writings an inspiration?
There is really only a small handful of relevant points that I took away from reading Aleister Crowley's work. He was obviously such a prolific writer, but honestly that man could babble on for thousands of pages like few others. Finding an occasional gem is like finding a needle in a haystack.
But his book "777 and Other Qabalistic Writings" was a huge influence on my thinking from an early age. The Table of Correspondences, comparing hundreds of different systems with each other, just completely broke down a lot of the supposed barriers between different belief systems for me.
It caused me to start recognizing multiple deities as the same deity and to see how a lot of the conflicts in history have arisen from different people speaking different languages, arguing over which name to call their god(s), not even recognizing they're both worshiping the same god(s). I mean, everyone was looking at the same Sun... how many different sun gods would there really be?
It also sort of caused me (indirectly) to come to view the advent of monotheism as the source of so much religious conflict in the world. Because EVERYONE swears they have the one right God and that means everyone else got it wrong. And before you know it people are getting stoned to death, hanged, and burned alive over it.
Ultimately one man's god is another man's devil. If only people were more open to just not knowing some things!
Between people who claim to be open minded, and people who claim their religious beliefs are the only right ones, in what ways are their attitudes one and the same? How do Identity and other songs by JAW reflect on those attitudes?
Well it's probably safe to say that most people see themselves as open-minded, whether that's really the case or not. So there's probably a lot of overlap between those two groups of people.
Since society currently sees open-mindedness as something you are supposed to be, if you just ask someone "are you open minded?" they're going to answer "yes" without really thinking too deeply into it because that's supposed to be the right answer.
Of course, how they react when faced with ideas that conflict with their own is the true test. Which sometimes depends on how attached they are to already being right. But it also depends on how much they care about having a firm grasp on the actual reality of the situation — how willing are they to become right and correct their misconceptions in the face of enough compelling evidence?
It's easy to be "open-minded" when there's no cognitive dissonance. We're all fine with hearing reinforcements of our own thoughts and opinions. But with someone who's hanging onto their faith by a thread for the sake of the reward at the end, hearing a mere criticism feels like being attacked. That's jeopardizing their shot at eternal life, you know? They're not gonna part with that willingly.
In the song "Identity," this is sort of dealt with as the lost and aimless feeling of someone who's just been utterly disproved; a certain despair. While on "Hero's Plight," I paint a sort of caricature of someone who always needs to be recognized as a good guy, a hero, or a savior. Because I think that's a big part of what people who have to be right all the time are feeling: a need for recognition. Not just being right but being SEEN being right. It's a need for validation.
In the song "Emanations" I think I'm aiming more to provoke thought and inject an element of doubt in those with black and white thinking. On that note, on the album "Escape," I actually aimed to do the same thing in the song "Doubt," which was the one song on that album that was not part of the "Labyrinth Of Dreams" concept. Instead, that song is like a rebuttal to the saying "the truth will set you free," since any old bullshit can be labeled as "the truth." That doesn't make it so.
In reality, only doubt can set you free from popular lies. And all too often, the one thing that a lot of arrogant, closed-minded people need the most is a bit more doubt, especially in themselves and the supposed "truths" that they take for granted.
Overall this is more the type of topic I addressed in the first two Ol Sonuf albums though... man's unawareness of himself, and his tendency to adopt and act out second-hand, flawed logic.
How extensively does Crowley influence the lyrics of your projects? Do writings by other occult authors speak to you?
I think the Crowley influence does make its way into the "mystical" songs I do. In fact, even though it wasn't in any way occult related, I was inspired by some of his imagery from "The Vision And The Voice" for my song "The Abyss of My Subconscious" on the Escape album, where I superimposed that idea of sailing alone on a sea of total blackness onto my dreamscape storyline. For the song "Emanations," that Crowley quote I mentioned did play into the lyrical theme, but I was much more influenced by Dion Fortune's "The Mystical Qabalah" with that song, especially the chapter on the Qliphoth. Although admittedly that's the only book of his that I've read. Outside of those authors, Anton LaVey would be the only other "occult" author who has influenced my music, if you can really even consider him "occult." I have definitely adapted quite a few of his philosophical points into Ol Sonuf songs and lyrics. Even still, I think it's safe to say that the dark side of human nature and behavior throughout history is even more of a central topic for me than the occult. Even mythology, another favorite lyrical topic of mine, ultimately boils down to a story by humans about what we love, hate, and fear about humans, and our gods and heroes are just idealized human traits (while we give our devils and demons animal traits).
Anton LaVey had a lot of commentary to offer about human nature and man’s inability (or unwillingness) to see the divine in himself. Whether accepting yourself as your own god or just believing in yourself first. Does this aspect of his philosophy speak to you, or is it his showman’s way of putting this idea across?
Yeah that aspect of his philosophy definitely rings true to me. He was definitely a showman, too, and sometimes that would show in the presentation of his ideas, but I don't think that detracts from the validity of what he was saying. And actually, while his philosophy was constructed to intentionally make the self the godhead, I've always seen it as merely embracing the natural tendency toward self-interest that would be happening either way. Like even the desire to help others offers personal rewards; people do it because it makes THEM feel better, makes them feel like they make a difference in the world. And in my eyes that's totally fine, and MORE honest, really, than people who act like they're not getting anything out of it.
I think acknowledging that people always act in their own self-interest by default SHOULD take some of the stigma away from "selfishness" — how can you fault someone for doing what they do naturally? But of course it doesn't take that stigma away because the majority of the world prefers to subscribe to the fairy tale that our nature is other than it is: animal nature. And animals are obviously selfish, although they're quite capable of love, empathy, and loyalty as well.
So for all of LaVey's showmanship I'd still say he was right on the money when it comes to a healthier way regarding oneself, especially in the context of religions and the cycle of emotional abuse that many adherents are subjected to, being told their whole lives that they're flawed from birth.
An adage I thought of after reading LaVey’s writings was, “True selfishness is unselfish.” In what ways does this speak to you?
That rings true to me. I mean, selfishness a survival trait that makes us hard wired to think of ourselves. At its root, that impulse isn't even malicious — it's just neutral, and natural — it should just be expected. It isn't entered into specifically to deprive others of anything; others aren't even a consideration. It's an inner need, and it's just part of how the machine works.
By that adage I mean that you have to accept yourself before you can accept others, and believing in yourself doesn’t mean you are out to gain at others’ expense. Only that you are guarding against people who seek to gain at yours.
I can see that side of it too. And it's interesting and a bit ironic how all too often, we think of selfish people as those who do try to use other people and then discard them, when that's ultimately not even working to their own advantage. That kind of behavior always comes back to bite people in the ass. It's one of the signature moves of the classic narcissist. I think any reasonable interaction should be a win-win. But we each need to safeguard ourselves against entering recklessly into interactions with people who ONLY mean to aggrandize themselves at our expense, and at the same time we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones not to sow the seeds of self-destruction in our manner of benefitting from others.
People who seek to gain at others’ expense are far more self-destructive for blaming who they gain from without taking responsibility for their actions. Are such people most likely to be bit in the ass?
It’s definitely a foolhardy pattern of behavior, so I'd like to think so. But deserving retribution doesn't necessarily make it likely to happen, at least not on its own. So I'm inclined to say yes, but I am more of an advocate of what I guess you would call "assisted karma." Because sometimes people really do get away with doing bad shit, scot-free. And sure, something unfortunate will undoubtedly happen to them, eventually. But it's not like they're going to actually be "paying" for what they've done, or even connect the dots, because usually they've gotten away with it for so long that there really is no connection. By that point, it's just some other bad shit happening to them. Revenge, on the other hand, is direct, guided karma. Cause-and-effect: you shit on someone, and they fuck you up as a result. So much more satisfying and targeted than unguided karma. And of course, that means its taboo. Taboo, right along with all of our other natural inclinations.
Which of your songs reflect the Satanic Bible and other writings by LaVey?
To an extent the JAW song "Doubt" is in the vein of his philosophy, although in general I haven't really gone in that direction with the JAW music. Ol Sonuf's music has made quite a few references to his writings, often right in the song titles, like "Wilderness of Steel and Stone" and "Monoliths of Wrath." The song "Glass Idols" isn't really based on his writings but I did reference the Age of Fire in the lyrics (and incidentally, the pillars of Fire and Ice on the album cover for "Emanations" are a partial reference to that as well). The song "Iconoclast" probably draws the most influence from LaVey's writings out of all of my songs. The thing with LaVey is that in formulating his system, he also used the work of others, sometimes directly in his writings, ranging from selected excerpts from "Might Is Right" by Ragnar Redbeard, to Crowley's English translations of the Enochian Keys, from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. So those sources also became influential to my thinking as well to an extent.
Discuss how the songs appearing on Emanations were written and composed, and recorded in the studio.
I spent the first four months of 2017 just trying to figure out what kind of album I even wanted to make this year, and I was strongly leaning toward doing something non-metal, in the vein of my first album "Reflections." And the idea came to me to do something like that but mix the acoustic guitars with clean 8-string guitar, and maybe some "rock" style soloing on the 8-string.
But by around late April, I thought "Ok, you know what? I'll go with all 8-string, but it's definitely going to be metal. Let's see what happens if I ONLY use my 8-string and don't even use any alternate tunings." And at first I almost took a JS Bach "Inventions" approach and started trying to write twelve songs, one in each minor key.
One other thing I really knew I wanted to do this time was use more symphonic and atmospheric elements in the music, and I did stick with that up to the end, although in the process of cutting the songs that weren't up to par, the "one song in every key" idea went out the window.
But off and on between April and early September, I wrote thirteen different songs instrumentally (between writing & self-publishing two books), recording as I went along. For each song the process was a bit different, but in general I program a basic version of the drums first and record/improvise the rhythm guitars through one section of the song at a time, adding solos as I go.
Once there was a structure in place I mixed down the "complete" instrumental versions and listened to them on loop until things in the recording bothered me and I could hear in my head what I'd rather have happen. I also always do that (loop the songs over and over) so that they sort of sink in and I become so familiar with the songs that I could hum them in my head, because otherwise it would be just as unfamiliar to me as to anyone else who's never heard it.
Once the guitar and drums versions were done, I added bass, and sometimes used either synth or lead guitar to flesh out possible vocal lines, and then listened to those versions and tried singing along. I have to see what I'm signing myself up for vocally. Hahaha! Sometimes I misjudge and write the vocal lines way too high and forget my range.
So after a while of that, I actually did a lot of the mixing prior to recording the vocals, just to get the songs close to how I wanted them to sound and get the 8-string to snarl just right. Then during the end of September I started recording the vocals.
It was a more interesting experience with the vocals on this album — the medieval setting of the song "The Great Pestilence" led me to try to create the sound of a medieval choir, which I liked so much I actually used it again in one other song, "Enchanter, Destroyer."
Then once the vocals were done it was back to mixing, and that took a few days to make room for the vocals. Definitely not the way things are normally done but it helped me know what I'd be singing over and I'm really happy with how it turned out, especially after the killer job Evan Sarli did with mastering.
Are reviewers perceiving the statement you set out to make with Emanations? How many writers reviewed you who “get it”?
At the moment, it's still really early, so I haven't seen any of the reviews yet, but I am waiting on quite a few of them. I am wondering how many of them will pick up on the underlying themes in what I'm saying throughout the album. If not, that's perfectly fine, since I realized going into this that most people are not going to even be familiar with some of these topics. I sort of like to embed these little nuggets with a wink and a nod, like a little bonus for those who do recognize what I'm talking about, and the rest, hopefully, will just enjoy the music.
Is Emanations available for pre-order? If so, where can the appropriate information be found?
It is, both for the digital release as well as the CD. The CD also includes 2 instrumental bonus tracks that are not part of the digital release. But both versions can be pre-ordered at Bandcamp.
What’s this you mentioned about the books you are independently publishing?
I actually wrote and self-published two books, one in early August and one on September 1, so that sort of cut into my focus on completing the album. The first book was called The Book of Sequences, which I wrote between late June and early August, and it is an educational book primarily for guitarists but useful for any musician. The Book of Sequences is focused on making it really easy to write powerful melodies in a formulaic way, which makes it a lot easier to shred on the guitar or any other instrument, and to generally compose complex melodies and harmonies very quickly. I wrote and published that book to coincide with my "Sequences of Shred" guitar clinic I performed earlier this year at the Guitar and Bass Expo, although the concept for that book has been in the works for a little over four years. The other book that I wrote was actually just a humor book, a book of puns, really, called Fictionary. It's been in the works for about 2 1/2 years, and for the most part, I had already completed an earlier PDF version of it nearly a year ago. Between that PDF, and an enormous list of emails I had sent to myself in that time containing new words I also made up, I was actually able to put this book together in one day and print it the next. With both of those out of the way, I suddenly realized, "Holy shit! It's already September!" and got back to work on completing the Emanations album. Fortunately, I had already composed the instrumental versions of all the songs I was going to release, so I mostly had to edit and mix, and of course write the lyrics and sing them. So it's definitely been a pretty busy year for me, my busiest yet really. But it's really, really satisfying to finally see so many projects come to fruition. (Both of those books are available at http://jasonaaronwood.com/products.
How often do you perform guitar clinics? Describe your experience teaching one at the Guitar and Bass Expo.
Well this was my second clinic ever. In fact the one I did before that was at last year's Guitar and Bass Expo, which was about Rapid Songwriting/Songwriting in One Hour. I do plan on doing events like this more frequently in the future. Each time I've had my own reserved area where I could set up my amp and a table for my laptop and recording interface, with any other gear that I need, and I've found the people pretty receptive to my clinics so far, even with the Guitar and Bass Expo being more of a trade show than an educational event. In both of the clinics that I've done, I've had between sixty and ninety minutes to give my presentation. In a way it's been like giving a class to a small group of strangers in the same way that I give classes to my Shred Mentor students, with a huge focus on practical, real-life use. It's important to me that people can clearly see how they can use the stuff I'm talking about, so I demonstrate each concept in different ways. This year was even better, I think. Having a book on the topic I was teaching helped me give the audience visual representations, and there was more to talk about afterwards. And a few people went home with their own copy of The Book of Sequences.
Is the Guitar and Bass Expo a regular event in your area? Describe it to the readers who haven’t attended one.
The Guitar and Bass Expo has been an annual boutique gear trade show, held in Wyomissing, PA (near Reading, PA) since 2014. It's almost like having a small NAMM show on the east coast, specifically for boutique gear and builders. It's a refreshing experience, seeing all these guitars, basses, and amps, pretty much all handcrafted and incredibly high quality, and it's all outside the extremely limited scope of what you would see at a Guitar Center. So far pretty much all of the luthiers and amp builders that I met there were just really cool people too. Even if I wasn't performing there, I would still take the two and a half hour drive from Washington, DC. To me it's worth it.
I take it you’re planning to attend the next Guitar and Bass Expo to continue instructing new musicians? What sort of reception do you anticipate?
We haven't really discussed next year's show yet, actually. I know I'd definitely be happy to hold another clinic there, but I'm not sure if they'd want a Shred Mentor clinic every year. We have discussed there being a D.C. area Guitar and Bass Expo, so I guess we'll see. If the D.C. edition does come next year and I do end up doing a clinic there, I'm not sure how the overall show turnout will be, but I think the turnout to the clinic will be better since I'll have an easier time convincing people in this area to attend and I think my promotional efforts will have more impact.
Do you have any plans at present to record material for a new full length?
Quite a few albums are in my queue right now. First comes Todesbonden "Mythos," which we'll be finishing up throughout the remainder of 2017. After that, for JAW I'm planning to record an acoustic instrumental album, in the vein of my first album "Reflections." So far I have a few songs in the works that may appear on that album, but who knows whether they'll ultimately make it to the final album? Beyond that, I'm also planning the next Ol Sonuf album, a concept album called "While Rome Burns." Quite a few songs have already begun over the past two years and I have a general idea of where they'll fit in the timeline, but I'm still working out how I'm going to present certain parts of this story that spans over thirty years, from 37 AD when Nero was born during his uncle Caligula's reign, up to 69 AD, the year after Nero died and the end of the "Year of the Four Emperors." I'm both extremely excited and honestly, scared shitless about that album.
As far as you know has there been another band to attempt a concept album similar to what you’re planning for Ol Sonuf?
The closest one that I can think of would be King Diamond, at least in terms of the storytelling and overall concept album approach. But the big difference is, these events happened in real life, in a linear timeline over 31 years. And the cast of characters is a lot more complex than on King Diamond's albums.
Is there a title you have in mind for the new album? What exactly is it about the material you’re working on that is scaring you shitless?
For the acoustic album I don't have a name in mind yet, but the Ol Sonuf album will definitely be called "While Rome Burns."
Almost everything about doing this album is intimidating. First of all, like I said, this isn't some story that I'm making up; these events really happened, and I'm really a stickler for portraying history accurately. I think the story itself is extremely fascinating, but it is intimidating to do it justice. And as I mentioned, the cast of characters involved is far more complex than any concept album I've ever heard before. So the task of having the listener not lose track of who's who is in the front of my mind constantly for this.
I'm also not finished reading everything I need to read for the research part of this, so that puts pressure on me because there's only so much time in the day. And I'm already speed-reading (laughs)
I guess one other thing that's intimidating is that the way that characters like Caligula and Nero are popularly known is derived mostly from one sensationalist writer called Suetonius. It would be like people 2,000 years from now referring to a collection of tabloid newspapers to learn about the American Presidents. His accounts were meant to entertain, not be factual, so unfortunately that makes for good TV but then you have people thinking they know what happened because they watched a documentary based on Suetonius's highly detailed bullshit. And I'm not trying to tell that story.
I'm trying to tell a story about a child who was thrust — against his wishes — into the dangerous position of Emperor at age 16 by his scheming mother, and the unimaginable pressures pulling at him from every direction. The flawed yet entirely human side, as opposed to the cheap, gimmicky and one-dimensional "monster" that TV and Hollywood love to show us.
So I guess in a way I'm approaching this album in my head more like a cable TV series like Game of Thrones more than like an album. Which I think would intimidate anyone.
How much historical research has gone into the lyrical development of When Rome Burns?
So far, I've read three different books on Caligula, all three extant historical accounts of Nero's life (Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and even Suetonius), The Twelve Caesars by Matthew Dennison, The Year of the Four Emperors by Kenneth Wellesley, and Nero: The Man Behind the Myth by Richard Holland which I'm rereading now. Which is almost halfway through my reading list! Hahaha
One of the authors of one of the Caligula books, Anthony Barrett, also wrote a book on Caligula's sister Agrippina the Younger, who was Nero's mother (who Nero infamously later had killed to stop her from controlling him), so I'm really looking forward to that book in particular since Agrippina is going to be a major character in the story. I also have another book on the Year of the Four Emperors, one on the Great Fire of Rome (from which the album takes its name), and one book on the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who was Nero's tutor and later his advisor as emperor.
I have also watched a huge number of documentaries and period dramas on the time period from Augustus through Vespasian as well, which despite heavily relying on Suetonius's lurid accounts, have provided quite a bit of inspiration.
Where did you find the documentaries covering the time from Augustus to Vespasian? How much information did they provide?
I think they were all on YouTube, actually. Having read so much about the Julio-Claudian dynasty beforehand, they didn't really provide a huge amount of new information, but it did help me realize just how much documentaries like to solely rely upon Suetonius's account. Which is also often the case with period dramas too, although it's more often a mishmash of the three historical records in the case of dramas.
I actually found the period dramas I watched more insightful than the documentaries I've seen in the topic, especially this one 6-part series from the 1960s called "The Caesars." While still very Suetonius-influenced, I liked how it portrayed the transfer of power throughout the dynasty, and I really especially enjoyed the portrayal of Claudius throughout the series for both the historical accuracy as well as the charm that Freddie Jones brought to the screen when playing Claudius. So that is definitely going to influence how I portray Claudius in While Rome Burns.
I found the extremely long 2004 film Imperium: Nerone similarly intriguing, even despite a few liberties they took with things like Nero's age & practically omitting his role in actually fighting the Great Fire of Rome. Primarily I thought they did a great job with their portrayal of Agrippina and surprisingly even to an extent, Caligula, who they made slightly less one-dimensional since he had a little bit of charisma.
If you saw the 1980 film Caligula (with Malcolm McDowell in the lead role), did you find it accurate based on your research?
No, not at all really. That movie is basically "Suetonius: The Porno." It's entertaining, but that's the full extent of its value. And sadly, that's what people think of if they've even heard of Caligula at all. Which is kind of what's so annoying that supposed "documentaries" keep driving those same misconceptions home.
The History Channel and other cable TV stations have aired shows about ancient Rome. Did you see any about Caligula or Nero?
I definitely did watch as many of those as I could find too, but unfortunately as expected they almost always regurgitate the Suetonius account, which I have to assume is for ratings. Honestly most films and documentaries I've watched on that period make me want to just say "fuck this!" and make my own film. Maybe While Rome Burns should be a movie instead! Haha
How do you expect your listeners will respond to the material you are working on for When Rome Burns?
I am hoping they'll appreciate the new approach for this album. I've always liked concept albums and what I'm at least aiming to do here is epically huge, so hopefully they'll feel the same!