CONAN: Caspian Yurisich Questions Guitarist/Vocalist Jon Davis

Much props to Conan frontman Jon Davis for being willing to sit down with me over skype and answer some questions! We’ll skip the introductions (me trying to heckle him over the ashes, him dead batting it and saying he only cares for Everton) and get right into the interview.

Conan - Photo by Matt Thomas

Your new album, it’s pretty freaking good. I remember thinking that Monnos was a bit more restrained than Horseback, but Blood Eagle is just huge riffs all the time. You must be pretty chuffed with it?

Yeah, when we started writing these songs we knew we wanted to make it different to ‘Monnos’.  We want to get back to the real old school heavy metal aggression of some of the tracks on Horseback Battle Hammer. Stuff like ‘Satsumo’, parts of ‘Dying Giant’, the end of ‘Krull’ where it kinda picks up the pace; we wanted to make an album with more of those bits. It just came together really nicely and we’re really happy with it. It took us a while because we started it really early, just dipping in and out of the writing process for some time, but we’re really happy that we took our time.

With the writing process it seems like this new album is your most complex one yet. Everything seems a bit more thoroughly composed, planned out, stuff like that. So was it a very different writing process to ‘Monnos’?

Nope, to be honest with you, a few other people have asked this question as well, but it was pretty much the same methods that we employed. Basically I’d be sitting at home, sitting at work or driving somewhere, something would come into my head. Like a lot of people who write songs, it’d just be a five second bit, part of a riff or something, I’ll think “Oh yeah” and if I have my phone on me at the time, I’ll just record it on my voice recorder, I’ve got so many clips on my phone. Next time we’re practising I might remember to get my phone out and play the bit that I was thinking about during the week.

Or we might play something totally new! So that’s basically how we wrote it. So the same as ‘Monnos’. You are right though, the songs have a lot more going on. There are a few more twists and turns. I think we’re just better at writing the songs. If you’d go on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of how well we’ve written these songs, I guess we’re just a fair bit better now than we were in the past.

Oh yeah, you guys have your own studio now, Black Bow Studios?

Black Bow’s my record label.

Dammit! Skyhammer.

Skyhammer, that’s the one.

Yeah! So how’d that change things? Less budget concerns but a whole lot more faffing about?

About ten steps outside my kitchen door is the studio!  Once we got the studio built, we had Chris Fielding in there full time. He’s done all of our stuff and done a lot of bigger bands. He’s in there full time, he’s in there right now. And yeah, we actually paid the going rate in the studio, we just thought that was the right way to do it, otherwise we’d just end up wasting time and money, so we thought we’d pay our way, and Chris doesn’t want to work for free. We took ten days rather than the 4 or 5 that we normally did.  And it worked perfect, it was great, basically we could practice in there. When there’s no one in the studio we could just set up our stuff and record, which was great.

Conan 'Blood Eagle' Artwork

Let’s do some boring gear talk. With the whole recording thing, you guys tune down to F, right? That would put the bass down to 22 hertz or something ridiculous. What was the approach to recording that? That’s barely audible, right at the edge of human hearing.

Yeah, the low F on the bass, it’s pretty close to not sounding very good. In terms of the recording I’m not sure how Chris went about it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he used a kick drum microphone, and probably some room mics to capture the mid-level frequencies as well. On guitar it’s fine to record with standard techniques, but a lot of that real low end is redone when we’re doing the mastering. Any low end that may get lost in the recording process, James Plotkin can just fatten it right out again when he’s putting his magic on it.

So yeah, to be honest with you I’m not really sure about the recording process, even though I own a recording studio I just let Chris get on with it. But he did a great job, I mean the low end on ‘Blood Eagle’, depending on what system you’ve got, the bass on there is unbelievable.

Yeah, it’s huge. Staying on this theme, can we have in general a quick description of your gear set up? All the way from picks to the amps would be awesome.

Dunlop nylon picks, the plain black ones, 1mm.

Guitar – A German made Travis Bean standard – a German guy bought the copyright and he started making them. Plain back with a rosewood fret, mahogany body and neck.

Strings – 0.80 (!!), it’s like the third string on a bass, D’Addario make them for guitar. From then on it’s the first five strings on a GHS boomer set. 0.7, 0.55 and so on to the end of the set.

Leads – Planet Waves like most people. Some custom leads with a silent jack so there’s no pop on it when you unplug it.

Pedals – Pedal Train Junior, Fuzzthrone – like a meathead deluxe with an extra gain stage, like a Big Muff. Huge loud raging sound, really love it. Big Muff clone, Moon Phaser, BUDDHA BUDD Wah wah pedal – that’s really good, Ned Clayton built ABY pedal so I can I run three different amps at the same time if I want.

Amps – My main rig up until recording was an old MatAmp, a GT120 into a Soundcity and an Orange 4×12. My other amplifier is a 70’s Orange, 120 again, almost exactly the same amp really. Into… well for a while there I had two 4x12s, I bought a Matamp 2×15, like a tall fronted cab, and I ran the Orange into that. But I’m changing the set up at the moment; I just sold the Orange amplifier, I’ve sold the Matamp 2×15 and I’ve sold the Orange 4×12. So now what I’m going to be running is a 6×12 custom made and I’m having a 4×15 custom made. So I’m going to run the Matamp into the 6×12 and I’ve got a Soundcity 200w bass head, and I’m going to use that to run the 4×15. So that’s about it.

Conan @ The Roadhouse, Manchester 08/10/2013

Man, being a roadie for you guys, they must all have really sore backs.

Nah, we do it on our own! To look at us you wouldn’t think we were particularly strong but obviously we’ve been able to lift them in and out for a number of years. But the last few years, well, the bigger you get the more people know your name and the more people are willing to give you a hand.

Yep yep. Is there a rule, as a Conan member, that you must wear a hoodie all the time?

Yeah, yeah there is. It’s just that we’re not very good looking. Obviously all the girls at the shows, you know, we don’t want them leaving and going to watch another band, so we have to try to look mysterious and sexy. Hoodies are the best way of doing that really, plus you don’t look quite as fat in a black hoodie. It’s very slimming. We just try to look our best for the girls and that works for us.

But seriously like, when we started playing, I’d just wear a t-shirt and a cap or something like that, and just looking at those old photos of us playing live I’d just look like a bit of a tool. So I thought, I’d rather put a hoodie on and since those first couple of shows it’s just felt more comfortable, and it kinda looks cool, I suppose, but more importantly it just looks a bit nicer.

I hate seeing band photos where each band has got a brand new t-shirt on of their favourite band and you look at the band photo and you’re all “Well, he’s into them, he’s into them”.  I remember we played a show, and before the show I had an old high on fire t-shirt on that I’ve had since 2006. It’s fallen to pieces, my favourite shirt, we were just soundchecking. And in the review the guy was saying  “They’re obviously really influenced by High on Fire”. And I thought, I’ll just wear plain black hoodies most of the time and people won’t know what bands I’m into, people can’t just second guess you all the time.

In terms of influences, there is that, you know, that Sabbath groove, that sort of stuff, but are you guys a fan of noise, or stuff like The Swans? There is that real blown out sort of noisy edge to the band, which a lot of doom bands don’t really have.

I suppose we are fans of that music but it’s not something that I listen to much of. I mean, if you looked at my ipod I’d be listening to a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t expect of me. A French band called Air, I love Neil Young, I love the first Cardigan album believe it or not, that one’s really cool. I love Nirvana, I love Pearl Jam, Soundgarden.  If you’re looking at the heavier stuff which I suppose would be a much more obvious influence for us then I listen Sunn quite a bit, I love their guitar tone.

What about The Angelic Process? I Always felt they were a real contemporary in terms of guitar tone.

I’ve heard the name but I don’t think I’ve listened to them before.

You’ll have to check them out! One of the few bands with a noisier guitar tone than you.

I’ll have to check them out then. But yeah, when we’re on tour, we’re listening to the older stuff, stuff like Rainbow, Iron Maiden –  Piece of Mind, Powerslave, Seventh Son, that sorta thing- or, er, Slayer or Sepultura or some of the early Metallica albums. More modern stuff is like SLomatics, High on Fire, obviously Sabbath are an old school  influence. But yeah stuff like The Swans, I like them but I wouldn’t listen to them a lot. Couldn’t say they’ve been a big influence.

Conan @ The Roadhouse, Manchester 08/10/2013

Going back to the live thing, I’ve heard talk about Japan and Oz coming up, potentially?

Yeah that’s right, as it stands right now we are having a tour booked for us in September in Australia. And a few of the venues are locked down and sorted, just waiting on some of the smaller venues to confirm it. So that’s going to be September if that all happens.

We are also in the middle of booking some dates in Japan for December. We were going to do Australia on that tour but obviously we’ve split them up. So we’re just waiting; get Australia sorted then get Japan sorted in December with a little trip to Greece along the way.

Cool. That must be pretty exciting right? The whole playing Japan thing. That’s one of those “You’ve made it as a musician” things, playing on the other side of the world!

Yeah, for sure. It is nice being asked to travel over there, someone from a totally different part of the world thinks it’s worthwhile bringing you over. It’s a good thing, it’s like a more big time version of being asked to play in London or somewhere. Things like that have happened to us here and there, we got asked to play in Oslo with Sleep, just for a one-off support slot, and all that sort of stuff is cool. We love travelling, we love going on tour, we love playing. Plus Japan and Australia, you know, it’s not an easy thing to do, it’s almost as difficult as going to America in some ways, so to be able to go and do it when a lot of our peers haven’t been able to, It’s pretty cool and you feel as though you’re pretty lucky.  We got some good backline over there so I’m sure we’ll be able to play as loud as we do normally.

A hypothetical question: Nickelback invite you a support slot on their massive America-wide stadium tour, do you accept it?

(No hesitation whatsoever) Uh, yeah. Not that we’d expect our fans to love us, but it would be really cool to be able to play our stuff through the biggest PA possible, and see if we can kill some of them.

I don’t think we’d be allowed near their dressing room so it’d probably be quite a sterile tour. We’re better looking than them though so we’d probably get all the girls.

(Disorganized looking for next question)  One thing I love about Conan is that you don’t try to rip off Ozzy. What inspired you to take your chanting/yelling approach to the music?

Well, when I first started I would just literally scream my head off, just try to shout in tune as loud as possible.  Really the style I employ now is just a bit more refined than it was at the beginning, I can’t really do the whole gravelly growled thing, plus I think our music sounds better without that. There’s a lot of bands who do that really well and do we want to sound the same as them? Not really.

It just kinda happened. It was just “well what can I actually do?” and shouting in tune was about it really. But it sounds good you know, you put some echo on it, some delay, some reverb, and it is if I actually am screaming in panic, which is the sorta vibe we’re trying to get across in the songs and the lyrics, there’s just an urgency to it. Whereas if you’re growling it just sounds like you’re trying to be scary, which just doesn’t work for me.

Sonically it works well too, you’re not competing with the guitars?

Yeah, it makes it all sound a lot bigger. You have the really low bass, then my guitar that’s an octave above, then my vocals that are somewhere above that, and the drums are in there as well, the drums are quite snappy. If every single instrument was tuned as low as possible, including my voice, it would just sound a bit… samey.  We just kinda stumbled upon this little thing and somehow it works.

Conan @ The Roadhouse, Manchester 08/10/2013

Yep yep. You mentioned your drummer, I don’t really have a question about him but would you care to do a shout out for him or talk about him a bit in general? For me he’s one of the big plus points about your band, unique style, creative, often really busy lines, he’s a big part of what makes you guys sound so unique.

I’ve known Paul since 2007, we’ve had bass players come and go but he’s been the constant presence on drums throughout. He’s a great lad, similar sort of age to me, we drive each other mad sometimes. He’s a Liverpool fan, and I’m an Everton fan, so we have some big arguments about football. But we get along great. He’s just got an endorsement deal with Ludwig, and yeah, he’s a great drummer.

In this sort of music the temptation is to a ploddy kind of 4/4 drumbeat and whatever. And a lot of drummers who are capable of much better tend to just do that one when they play this sort of music, whereas they might play a different style in their other bands. I think what Paul does is. I think traditionally this sort of music isn’t what he’d have in his collection. So what he’s done is make our sort of music by using his drumming style, it’s kinda made our music into the kind of music that he’d listen to. Bridges the gap between droney, slow, metal, doom, whatever you call it and the more technical stuff that’s in his musical collection. Playing the sort of guitar lines that I do, with the drums Paul does gives it this real sort of fluidity that it really needs.

There are loads of loads of bands that play really heavy music. But the ones that stand out are the ones that do it a bit differently. I think somehow with Paul’s drumming and my vocals perhaps, they are two of the things that help us stand out in the crowd a bit. But yeah, Paul’s a really good drummer and he really enjoys it as well. We get a massive buzz out of this, we really enjoy playing shows together.

Most of the writing we do was mainly me and Paul. Phil joined in here and there but he wasn’t at every practice as he had some personal stuff. Like, me and Paul basically carried the album through and wrote most of it ourselves. And I think that lends itself to possibly why the album has the sound that is has; kinda raw, we’re almost like a two piece punk band. It worked really well. ‘Monnos’ was a bit more lumbering, a bit more slow, but we wrote all that as a three piece.

We’re out of questions! Finally then – any good live anecdotes to share? The more bodily fluids the better, I’m always up for a stupid live story…

Stupid live stories… This may or may not be funny but we played in February last year, and I had Bell’s Palsy. It’s like, you get a cold, and you can get so run down that the chicken pox virus comes back and it can attack the facial nerve – not the feeling, but the movement. One half of your face can just get trapped.

Basically I had to do the whole tour in February with half my face paralysed and it was fuckin horrible. Every show, having to explain …

“I haven’t had a stroke!”

Yeah, I haven’t had a stroke, just a trapped nerve, but having to explain that in French or German or whatever was pretty difficult. We played the first show in Lahav (???), and I thought, cos my eye was watering a lot because I couldn’t close it properly, I’ll wear an eye patch to the show. I’ve looked at the photographs of that show since and yeah, don’t think I can do that again, looks pretty stupid!

Another one… there’s nothing particularly exciting but every gig we do, Paul drinks so much that he falls asleep where he stands, and I’ll always end up losing him. I’ll find him in the room where like, everyone’s partying and he’ll just be on the couch asleep with a can in his hand. He’s your typical drummer. But yeah, we don’t have many wild stories because we don’t go mad, really. We’re in our 30s now, we just enjoy playing these shows and then finishing them with a few beers and a pizza. Nothing particularly exciting about us, unfortunately.

All good man. That’s the end of my questions, so if there’s any final words or shout outs then go for it:

Thanks to you, thanks to Lee- me and Lee from the Sleeping Shaman, we’re good friends, he looks after a couple of our websites and we are good mates so thanks again to the Sleeping Shaman for wanting to have a chat to us.

The interview concluded there, after I made a joke about hoodie recommendations which Jon took earnestly and talked about for a fair while. He’s a top bloke, Conan are an awesome band who make some ridiculously good music and who are probably playing a show near you at some point! (Unless you live in America). ‘Blood Eagle’ is coming out soon – make sure you get onto that stuff pronto so you can say you were there when it all happened.

Blood Eagle’ is set to be released via Napalm Records on Gatefold Vinyl, Digipack CD and Digital formats and you can also read Kevin’s recent review here.

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Interviewed by: Caspian Yurisich