Always our favourite drop-F-tuned superstars here at The Sleeping Shaman, Liverpool’s caveman battle doom supremos Conan have been busy of late. Very very busy indeed. Shaman scribe Pete Green caught up with vocalist/guitarist Jon Davis to shoot the shit about: building a recording studio, being nominated for the Scouse Mercury Prize, their new “more aggressive” album and accidently seeing Bongripper turn into Bogripper…
Hey Jon! Always a pleasure to have you with us here on The Sleeping Shaman! How are things with you and the guys in Conan?
Hi Pete, things are good thanks! Right now we’re concentrating on writing some new stuff after quite a busy start to the year. We’ve had quite a few offers for tours and shows and are trying to keep the next few months quite clear so we can write and record the new album. We’re looking forward to our practice place being finished off (I’m ordering stuff for plastering as we speak here) and we can enjoy having our own space to play in then.
On a personal level the last 6 months have been particularly chaotic. My day job has been mental as we’re in the midst of steady growth at work which means that I have a lot of work to do. Add into this the fact that we bought our new house in December 2012, moved into it in February 2013 (two weeks before our two week European tour), fully renovated the house and built a recording studio and you can imagine just how mad my life has been this year!
There was a time where we flew home from playing in Finland in March, we landed at around 6pm then I had to drop Paul (O’Neil, drums) and Phil (Coumbe, bass) off at home. I then travelled to Liverpool to sell a Marshall 4×12 to Chris from Iron Witch. He gave me some cash plus a Sunn lead amp head. I then went to Knutsford services to sell the amp to James from Moghul. With this cash I bought a Matamp 2×15 off Adam from the same band. I got the cab back in the car and headed home. At this point in time the house had no heating, no carpets and no internal doors. The whole of the back of the house had been knocked down for an extension and I had snow, wind, rain and ice in the hallway due to the awful weather we had at that time. I crawled into bed and realised I had no alarm clock as my iPhone external speaker had bust on the tour. This was a problem as I needed to wake myself up at 04.20 to go and catch a flight to Spain and meet up with the family on holiday. So I had to sit up, in bed, listening to music for 5 hours just so that I didn’t oversleep and miss my taxi. I actually fell asleep anyway and woke up at 04.00 without an alarm. Fuck knows how I managed that as we’d had no sleep the previous night on a 10-hour trip from Northern Finland to Helsinki after a gig there. When I got off the plane at the other end, I could have cried – it felt so nice to be warm again! I slept all day.
You’ve just finished a goliath tour across the UK with the almighty Bongripper and Humanfly – how did everything go from your point-of-view?
It was really great actually, and it seems like YEARS ago now. The whole tour was just cool as fuck. The lads in Bongripper and Humanfly are really solid and we all got along great. I saw Bongripper at Roadburn 2012 so to get to see them again but in smaller venues was a real treat. All the dates went really smoothly, with no issues and it seemed to be a resounding success all round. I picked up the Bongripper lads on the Saturday morning and then they stayed at my house with Humanfly for a few nights. We love touring, and it felt really good to have Bongripper over to join us. I think we complimented each other really well and Humanfly fitted in nicely and showed us all how to actually play our instruments properly!
Did you get a good turnout on each of the dates or were they all very varied experiences?
Actually yeah, the turnout at each show was really good. I think almost all of the shows were sold out on the night with strong pre-sales. We’re now starting to see bigger crowds at Conan shows anyway but clearly the presence of Humanfly and Bongripper on the tour posters attracted some really big turnouts. We got to play in Liverpool right at the start of the tour and the turnout there took me by surprise, and it just went from there really. You may have seen the Youtube footage from the Star and Garter on the second night and the crowds there were just great – amongst the best shows we’ve played in the UK. As I write this I can’t think of any poor show on that tour, it was just really well attended and more importantly everyone seemed to enjoy it.
Any hilarious/bizarre tour moments? I heard something about a £200 taxi ride to Edinburgh…
There were a couple of funny episodes yeah. I walked in on Nick from Bongripper while he was having a shit at my house – he didn’t even flinch!
In Basingstoke we played at this place next to a Chinese or an Indian Restaurant. Apparently the people eating there complained and the guy who ran our venue had to offer him some money to shut him up. The guy who put on the show said he is now struggling for a venue should he put on similar shows again.
The Edinburgh incident was probably more of an ordeal than a joke for the Bongripper lads. On the way up their van burst a tyre near Lancaster. They then had to drive to Wigan for a new tyre. But then when they were on their way up the M6 again their engine started rattling! Fucking nightmare! I got a call from Dave in Humanfly who told me all this and we didn’t get any good news all the way to Edinburgh. When we got to the venue we told Chris the promoter and he was obviously a little bit worried about it. I called them again and they said that the recovery people were there and the van was fucked, and they were all going back to Leeds! I thought that I’d better hand it over to the promoter and let him take it from there. Fortunately he was able to turn the situation round by getting them to travel up in a taxi – they were still 2.5 hours away at this point! I think it cost them about £220! In the end they walked in just as we were turning our amps off at the end of our set – they couldn’t have timed it better.
Another funny one, Dennis (Pleckham, Bongripper guitarist) is only a little guy – big hearted though! Outside the Sheffield venue the side door of the van wouldn’t open and because it was all racked out and stuff we couldn’t climb in. Us fat fuckers would have broken the parcel shelves at the back so we called Dennis over and he was able to snake in through a little crack into the middle section and prise the door open. High-5s all round!
Bongripper are a younger band overall than Conan. Did you find yourself learning anything new from them and their approach or were you entirely the masters and they the apprentices?
Ha haaaa, yeah they are a bit younger than us in age but they’ve been going for quite a lot longer as a band. They look older than us though – they must have hard lives (just joking lads!). One thing I found really interesting about them is that they self-release everything. It’s not an avenue we’ve gone down, but I see that they really believe in that and more power to them. I don’t think we learned anything new from them particularly, aside from how to be cooler guys, but they were definitely very professional in everything they did and it was a pleasure to be around them on the tour.
How has the reaction to the stupidly heavy split release with Bongripper been? Any plans to work with your Chicago doom brethren again?
The reaction was great actually. It’s always funny when you release a split because you are never quite sure how it will go down, but fortunately both of us chose decent songs and recorded them really well. We’re always pretty keen to do the best we can with our recordings and were able to get a day with Chris Fielding at a studio close to my house (Chris has left Foel Studios now). ‘Beheaded’ was recorded in that one day, and Chris sent us the finished product a few days later. We’re really grateful to John McNulty and Andy Freen for letting us use the track (I played in HORN with them both, where John wrote the basis for ‘Beheaded’). We recorded that song whilst I was in the worst phase of having Bells Palsy, what a horrible illness that was. I couldn’t open the right hand side of my mouth so I had to stretch that part of my face manually with my hand to sound certain words out properly. Fortunately you can’t tell the difference now. So to be able to get that track recorded was really important. It seems now that Conan have finally released, in one way or another, all the useable songs that we had from the past (‘Dying Giant’, ‘Battle In The Swamp’, ‘Beheaded’) that we’ll now have to write some more! We can’t keep delving into the past for old tracks to use but I think it was important to give these songs a voice.
You’ve got a couple of new tracks up online via some live Youtube videos – ‘Foehammer’ and ‘Gravity Chasm’. Are there any plans to release these tracks via an EP/record/split?
Yes, these tracks were actually originally recorded as demos at Full Stack Studios back in December, with one other track. These tracks are set to be on the new album so yes, they’ll be getting released. We decided to freshen up our live set a bit as we were playing quite a few shows in the first part of this year and figured that these tracks worked quite well already. Plus it helps to test them out on people and see which bits work best and worst for the recording process. We’ve watched the videos of them recorded at both Desertfest and the Star and Garter and they do seem to work well live.
Those two newbies are very up-tempo sludgy numbers – much more so than any of your older material on ‘Horseback Battle Hammer’ or even some of the recent ‘Monnos’ stuff. Is this a deliberate change of direction to speed up your traditionally snail-slow, balls-heavy sound?
Yeah, I was going to mention that in the previous answer but they do seem more upbeat (the Desertfest version is faster than the Star and Garter version if you compare them side by side). We actually believe that the Star and Garter versions are more like the pace that we would record them at. I think we must have had too much caffeine at Desertfest! We do tend to play tracks slightly quicker live than we do when we record them; this is certainly true for ‘Satsumo’ and ‘Dying Giant’. Saying that though, ‘Krull’ is much faster on Horseback Battle Hammer than it is in our current live set so I guess we’re just a bit random in that way – ah fuck it either way! If you look at ‘Foehammer’ and ‘Gravity Chasm’, they do mix up some slower bits with quicker parts, and we think that works quite well.
I hear you’re also in the process of writing a new record? Can you give us an update of how that’s going? What can we expect from the next album? Power ballads? Acoustic lullabies?
Yeah, we’re currently busy writing the new album to be released on Napalm / Spinning Goblin Records. The new songs are there already in basic form, while some are pretty much done. We’re just going through now working on various bits here and there – the regular ‘writing’ process. It’s going really well, the people at Napalm have not set a strict deadline or anything like that – they are more interested in us writing a good album, so we appreciate that flexibility. Saying all that though, we still like to set ourselves goals, and we aim to have the new album recorded by the end of November so we can release in the Spring. The new stuff is sounding slightly more aggressive than the older stuff. We haven’t changed the structures of the tracks too much, we’re not going to get all clever and technical with anyone, but we’re just probably voicing the songs differently – “a natural progression” as so many people say. There is a looser feel to the tracks, a bit more earthy and a bit more in your face I guess. Not sure why this has happened but I am thinking that because we have toured quite a bit, we have just got a bit better at what we do, and have trimmed the fat a little bit.
You were recently nominated for a GIT Award (Liverpool’s Get Into This Award for music and performance) and even played live at the ceremony! Was that cool as an experience or was it all a bit weird?
Well, on the one hand it was kind of funny because there were some people there who wanted to see us but then on the other hand it was a bit weird because it was a ‘celebration’ of the local music scene. The only scene I know in Liverpool is all the other likeminded metal bands there. At this celemony most of the bands were playing regular pop music. They were all cool, but not really my thing. To be the only ‘heavy’ band on the bill was a bit odd. Nevertheless we went along and played the new tracks, and it was a decent warm up for the start of the Bongripper tour. We are very grateful for the invite though, so thank you to whoever nominated us.
In many respects it must be quite an honour to be nominated for the “Scouse Mercury Prize” by your hometown music scene?
I guess so yeah, but I don’t think we’ll be doing anything like that again. We’re happy they asked us to join in and we are very proud that we come from the area, but I don’t think it’s the sort of thing we would consider normally. We stood out like a sore thumb to be honest, but nevertheless we are still grateful that they asked us.
You’re building your own recording studio! Wow, that must be some undertaking? How are things developing with Skyhammer Studios at your home in Cheshire?
Yeah, my wife and I were looking for a new house and were sent the details of this one near where we lived at the time. The new house is further out into the rural areas and when I saw the plans I saw that it had a couple of extra buildings. One of which was a two-storey coach house. I immediately thought that it would be a great place to have a practice room for us and then from there I thought that maybe I would like to build a place there that we could record in. Once we decided this we realised that we may as well go all out and have it designed by a studio design company and so on and so forth… I got to a point where I had bought my own mixing desk, recording software and had spoken to a few producer friends for advice; one of those was Chris Fielding.
Things snowballed pretty quickly and back in Feb (I think) Chris called me and asked if I’d be interested in him working at the studio, I quickly said yes – then sold the shitty old desk I had.
Since then the studio itself has taken shape really nicely. We have a website set up already – www.skyhammerstudio.com and have quite a few bands booked in for some recordings already – people can book through email@example.com. Chris is great at what he does, and I am able to provide some really nice facilities so I guess it’s a match made in heaven for people wanting to record somewhere nice with someone who has top recording skills. I’ll also be learning my chops with Mr Fielding’s guidance so he can have the off break here and there. My inspiration has been Foel Studios – I fell in love with the place the first time we recorded there, and I want people to feel the same way about Skyhammer. The studio itself is being worked upon by a professional studio design company and will be ready by the middle of August.
Once the studio is complete Conan will go in and record some demos of the songs we wish to use on the new album. We’ll then continue to work on them in the studio around the bookings that are already in. Around October / November we will record the new album with Chris.
Outside of the band, in the long term Chris and I will run the studio as a residential recording studio, which has been a dream of mine since we saw the house. I’ve been a little unhappy in my day job for some time now and Conan has been pretty busy with touring in the first part of the year, so the possibility of running a recording studio and spending less time behind my desk dealing with my day job is very appealing to me. The added benefit is that of course I can spend more time at home with the family, which is very important to me.
You recently signed on the dotted line with Napalm Records/Spinning Goblin and I hear they weren’t the only major label interested in working with you. Congratulations! What was it that made them the right fit for Conan?
To be totally honest, it just felt right. We did have a couple of labels express an interest in us, and they would have been excellent choices too. The Napalm offer came out the blue after we played with Ahab in Liepzig and at this point in time we had no intention of moving away from Burning World Records, who we really loved being involved with. Ahab are signed to Napalm and when Seb from the label approached us it was something that we considered very seriously once we got back from tour. We did have a couple of other labels interested once word got out that we had been made an offer or two, but I won’t name them. It really was a very difficult decision, but I believe we have made the right one. They are really cool, enthusiastic and down to earth guys and everything seems to be done extremely professionally. We think they will be a great home for us. We are sad to not be on Burning World as we see them as great friends, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude for putting ‘Monnos’ out for us. However, when Napalm approached us we just couldn’t turn them down.
You’ve played the Roadburn Festival, opened for Sleep at their personal invitation, toured all over Europe and can barely produce enough merch before it’s all sold out again. What’s next for Conan? How far do you realistically think things can go?
Well yeah, it’s been a very busy 12 months to put it mildly, but we have enjoyed every single second of it. So much so that now we have a relatively quiet diary it feels pretty weird. Just this week we’ve turned down trips to St Petersburg and Moscow, and recently said no to various UK shows and some shows in Spain and Portugal so that we can concentrate on writing the new album. Normally we’d have said yes to these shows but we felt that what with the new studio on the horizon and with us already having a busy start to 2013 that we should maybe put the brakes on for any shows for a little while and get the songs worked on some more.
What’s next for Conan? Definitely working on the new album. We’re really enjoying the writing process for the tracks we have so far. We want to get these tracks recorded and then concentrate on the release of the album which as I said should be Spring 2014 if all goes to plan. It still feels weird talking in these terms, but I guess we now can’t just fuck around and go and record like we did with Horseback Battle Hammer as a bit more is expected of us now – we have to be a bit more structured about it and that means booking time in the studio, carrying on with the rehearsals we are doing currently and seeing what comes out when we record later in the year. I was jamming with the lads this week and commented on how calm everything seems right now, like we’re just patiently making this album with no pressure – it feels good.
How far do I think things can go? I guess the word is how ‘long’ can things go for. The answer to that question is even harder to answer but we are carrying on as normal really, we write almost constantly. Slow, creeping progress towards the new album is the aim of the game currently and we’ll just see what happens. We’ll keep going for as long as all this feels good and I guess whatever comes our way will be out of our control really. We are becoming a bit more organised behind the scenes so that we don’t reach a choking point and fuck everything up. There is only so much that we can do on our own and what has become clear to me is that sometimes you need someone outside the band to help you along.
We had ‘management’ based in Leeds for a short while but we decided to walk away from it when some changes were forced upon us and since then we thought we’d carry on without any help. Then out the blue we were put in contact with someone in Germany that we’re now working with for the new album and beyond. Because our label is in Austria, it helps us to have someone in Europe who can work with us on those ‘off the pitch’ things that might be beyond our capabilities and a bit of local knowledge can certainly help a lot. It also really helps that we are working with a guy who was already a fan of the band before we contacted each other; he’s someone who really believes in what we are doing.
Do bands like us ‘make it big’? I really don’t know. What would satisfy us is that we are respected by our peers, enjoyed by our fans and that Paul, Phil and I stay as close as we are now and just enjoy this for as long as we can – the rest will just happen as the universe decides. We are loving writing, recording and playing and we all get a lot of personal satisfaction out of the fact that people believe we are doing things right. It’s important that we are seen as contributing positively to the metal scene overall – we don’t just want to make up the numbers.
One thing we will be doing is touring the UK again this year, and I guess that might be it for shows this year aside from our annual pilgrimage to worship Slomatics on the Emerald Isle. We want to save our energy up for the new album and when it comes out we’ll set up some more dates in both the UK and in Europe. One thing we’ve learned is that it works much better if you can do a run of shows rather than one show here and there every weekend. Early on we would play any show that came our way and it started to become a bit too much, every weekend we were away from home. For me personally that was a problem because of the kids but I do feel that it is necessary for any band starting out to just play all the shows they can to just get their name out there and we definitely did that early on. We will still play as often as we can but we have deliberately slowed that down so we can concentrate on writing like I said earlier.
Any plans for US domination?
We’d certainly like to get over to the US, and we’ve had a few people make tentative enquiries about it but so far nothing concrete has come our way. We were all set to go over to the US as part of the Roadburn/Scion Rock showcase but I think there were some wires crossed and Enslaved went over instead. Them’s the breaks I guess and we can’t argue with that.
I’m a massive fan of Tony Roberts’ incredible artwork which adorns your ‘Monnos’ and ‘Mount Wrath’ releases and I genuinely believe that an inspiring cover adds a lot to the overall experience of a record for the listener. How does your relationship with Tony work? Do you brief him in and give him exposure to the music before he begins a piece or is it painted as a separate entity entirely from your deafening riffs?
Tony Roberts is a great artist. How he doesn’t get pissed off with me and tell us all to fuck off is beyond me as I can be quite annoying I reckon! When we released Horseback Battle Hammer we had a couple of guys attempt the artwork but it didn’t work out with them. John McNulty (our bass player at the time) introduced Tony to us and we haven’t looked back since then. He really gets what we’re about – escapism, fantasy, heaviness, great imagery. His artwork feeds our writing like our music possibly feeds the artwork he does for us. I’d be looking at the artwork for the Slomatics split and the lyrics for ‘Invincible Throne’ just came to me… After looking at the artwork for Monnos, the lyrics for ‘Foehammer’ came to me. Up to now we work by sending Tony demos and basically let him do whatever he wants.
I’m no artist, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how to put together an album cover. It’s not as simple as just “drawing something cool”. It has to fit with the music, it has to fit with the band itself, it has to ‘work’ with the whole vibe of what we’re about and we really enjoy the understanding we have with Tony so far. We’ve seen the artwork he has started for the new album and it has totally blown us away. I can’t wait for it to take shape a bit more.
Which other bands are pushing your buttons right now? Which records would I find on your car stereo at the moment?
Well, believe it or not, but I’ve been getting into Van Halen a lot recently. Deep Purple is another band that gets played a lot in the van. Other than that, our regular spins are High on Fire, Soundgarden, Black Sabbath, Kyuss, Iron Maiden. We always say this but a tour doesn’t really start until we play the album ‘Piece of Mind’, one bar of that intro and we’re immediately in tour mode! I’m a huge fan of Coffins, and have been listening to Buried Death, March of Despair and The Other Side of Blasphemy – I just love how brutal they are and some of those riffs give me goosebumps. Also, I bought a Wizard Fight cap the other day and it came with a free demo – I’ve been listening to that in the van and it’s cool.
I know you’re a big time gear-head. Any recent new additions to the arsenal that we should be scared about?
Ummmmmmmm, I buy and sell so much stuff that I don’t know what to consider new to be honest. I bought a Budda Bud Wah on the Bongripper tour that is a really cool pedal, I’m happy with that purchase. I just had a new fuzz pedal made for me too by Dunwich Amplification. It’s called the Fuzz Throne and it has some nice artwork on it. It’s a little bit like a Fuzz Face circuit but with a ton more gain and volume, it makes my amps almost explode and it sounds absolutely awesome. Other than that I did a bit of swapping around with my delay pedal. I don’t use delay very often but I sold off an Echobase clone I had made by Moose Electronics and replaced it with a Boss RE20 space echo. That thing is just awesome, it’s like every cool echo / delay pedal in existence all in one pedal.
I always ask this, and this time I think I already know the answer: Sleep or Kyuss? And why?
Hard choice as I love both bands. But I think Sleep currently, I just love that guitar tone on ‘Dopesmoker’ and their songs are heavier in ways that I value. Of course I have an extra edge on it now because we watched them from the side of the stage at our show in Oslo, drank with them backstage, talked about amps and women and record labels and all that stuff. They told us that they watched us from the side of the stage too. I’m still really happy about that – but I’m glad I didn’t notice at the time as I would have shat my kecks! If I only remember two gigs when I’m old and forgetful please make it that show and Roadburn!
Touring with the band, recording, building a studio, more touring… Do you ever get any down time? What do you enjoy spending it on when you do?
Currently I enjoy spending time with the family and reading. Not very exciting in other people’s eyes I guess but to me there is nothing nicer than being a Dad and I guess other Dads will say the same. In August I’ll be scaling back my day job in favour of more time at home with the family. The kids are growing up fast and I don’t want to spend time stuck in an office when I could be running a recording studio with Chris and being at home more.
Thanks a ton Jon! It’s always great to hear from you and best of luck to you, Phil, Paul and the Conan family with everything over the next few months. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thanks Pete. Thanks to Lee and to yourself for all the help so far, we really appreciate the support from guys like yourself and the other guys at The Sleeping Shaman (and other likeminded people) so best wishes to you all.
Interviewed by: Pete Green