Having discovered Newport’s Spider Kitten supporting Yob last year I instantly became a fan. Having got the chance to review their extended three track Behold Mountain. Hail Sea. Venerate Sky. Bow Before Tree, I had intended to interview the band about that piece of work, but in the land of the Spider Kitten things never remain still for very long, and no sooner had I gotten round to sending them questions, the band had moved on in terms of line up and releases. Having penned a few words to accompany their latest release, the six track Toker EP, I caught up with them as they found themselves back in the studio, yet again, in order to give me an insight into the tireless minds behind the band.
I was originally going to talk to you guys about the excellent Nordic 3 track album you released last year, Behold Mountain, Hail Sea, Venerate Sky, Bow Before Tree, which was by all accounts a happy accident that morphed into something different and was released as a stop gap before the next album… Then you released the surprise 6 track EP Toker and seemingly before I can ask you about that it turns out you are squared away in the Studio recording a 40+ minute concept album called Ark Of Octofelis, which isn’t even the concept album that was originally talked about last year!
Can you talk us through how this came about and how did you come to deviate so far from the originally planned album?
Chi – I came up with the concept for Yakbone Wolftooth (the working title for the album we’ve been referring to in the press recently) about 18 months ago. Basically it’s the story of a Welshman with mental health problems who goes off his meds and begins a new life in the California desert. Some stuff happens and it doesn’t end well for him. We wrote most of the music, but kept putting off recording as we knew how much work was going to be involved. So we recorded Behold Mountain… which was supposed to be a quick Sludge EP but ended up turning into something quite different.
Then, again as an act of procrastination, we decided to actually record the intended Sludge EP, which mutated into Toker. We play it pretty fast and loose as far as ideas go. Never be afraid to spontaneously scrap your entire album and just record something else. So, after Toker was done I really got to thinking about the concept behind Yakbone Wolftooth and the fact it’s set in mid 70s California. I had an idea that maybe there was a planet somewhere, where it was always mid-70s California across the entire surface. From there came Ark Of Octofelis, which started as a 20 minute jam and has more than doubled in length.
There is quite a variety of material being produced (from Norse folklore to Americana). What has sparked this (extremely prolific) creative period and how have you tried to coherently collect these ideas and shape them into something that makes sense?
Chi – There’s a great deal of conceptual continuity in our music that I’m not sure a lot of people pick up on. All of our “concept albums”, with the exception of Behold Mountain… exist in a single universe. The story of Ark Of Octofelis takes place at the same time as Yakbone Wolftooth. The characters within each are unrelated in any other way, but it’s the same timeline. The idea is that in 10 or 20 album’s time there’ll be a sort of story arc you can follow that describes this universe we’ve created. The reason we’ve been so prolific recently is down to me opening a recording studio in my hometown of Newport, South Wales. (Pentastar Studios). Having access to pretty much unlimited studio time means we don’t have to condense the process into a week like other bands have to. We can work on multiple projects simultaneously and over months and months until they’re just how we want them. We’re definitely an “album band” rather than a live act in my opinion.
I was convinced that Toker was a transitional lead in to the previously talked about concept album that has been going under the working title Yakbone Wolftooth as to me it has a distinctly Americana feel to it. What was the mindset behind that blending of the Doom sound with Country and Folk?
Chi – Don’t get me wrong, I love Doom, and I love playing it. But nowadays I find myself listening to less and less heavy music and more and more Country and Folk. I’m a huge Hank Williams fan, and through him I got really into Jimmy Rodgers. Those guys were living that Rock N Roll lifestyle before it became a cliché. And there’s no reason why music like that can’t also be really heavy. I’ve nothing against singing about witches and wizards etc, but there’s something really sincere and unpretentious about all that old timey stuff.
Toker obviously features covers by a number of artists including David Allen Coe, T Rex and Lynyrd Skynyrd, what made you choose these songs and artists?
Chi – I’m a huge David Allen Coe fan. I have to qualify this fact by stating that whilst I love his music and his voice I’m not a fan of some of the more questionable lyrical choices in some of his music. I think it’s OK to enjoy someone’s music and not share their politics. His album Texas Moon is possibly the best Country record ever released, I urge you to check it out. The T Rex song I just thought would sound cool if it was played with a ton of distortion, I was right. Covering Skynyrd is a bit like covering Sabbath or Zeppelin, they’re sacred cows that can’t be improved upon. But I just thought, fuck it, I love the song. Anyone who disapproves can go fuck themselves.
As previously mentioned you are currently recording Ark Of Octofelis, which is not the long talked about concept album, but in fact a different one. What can you tell us about it? The concept? The sound?
Chi – In a nutshell the concept is that an awful Psychedelic Rock Group who are getting no love for their music hatch a Machiavellian scheme to brainwash a load of teenagers into joining a cult. They use the kids as slave labourers to build a huge wooden space ark in the middle of the desert in which is installed a state of the art recording studio. The plan is that, upon the ark’s completion, the whole cult will take off and travel the universe, documenting their adventures by recording music and beaming it back down to their home planet’s surface. The plan goes a little awry, as these things often do. You’ll have to pick up the album to find out how they get on. Musically it’s pretty varied. It sounds like us, in that it’s pretty slow and downtuned, but there’s elements of prog and folk. It’s the most adventurous thing we’ve ever done, but I think we’ve pulled it off. I guess we’ll see.
I understand that you have recorded a ‘hymn’ written by the ‘most Welsh member of the band’. What with the theme of Behold… and now this, it seems that it is important to the band to inject some cultural heritage into the music. Is this the case and how does it affect your approach to song writing?
Chi – Haha. Yeah, we joke that Rob is the most Welsh member of the band. We’re all pretty Welsh. Chris has Danish heritage, which influenced Behold… I’ve been very influenced by growing up in the South Wales Valleys, both by the landscape and the attitudes of the people. Living in such a dark, hilly area can be quite oppressive. I don’t think I have an “approach” to song writing though. I tend to come up with an idea for the sound and feel for a song, maybe even an arrangement, but as far as the actual notes go, it tends to be the first thing I think of when I come to actually record. Chris and Rob have a very different approach because they’re both much better musicians than I am. The riff that I write at home and labour over for weeks will inevitably be not as good as the riff I make up on the spot. It’s just the way my brain works.
Rob – The history and atmosphere of the South Wales valleys is definitely a huge influence on me personally. Like Chi said, it can be oppressive, but I think that there’s this really rich, varied heritage here that can be tapped into and it’s something I want us to use more in future releases. I don’t know if an interest in my cultural heritage affects my approach to songwriting in any way – I probably have a greater interest in the choral music than any other Welsh music, so I haven’t really tried to translate what I love about that into a riff or a rhythm or anything. What I would love to do one day is write something for a male voice choir… I love the sound of those choirs and I think especially with the more secular stuff, there’s something powerful and unsettling that sometimes comes though in both the music and the vocals, and that kind of thing would work really well with the band.
I understand you have recently parted ways with your bass player of ten years, Al. Spider Kitten seems to have been through several line up changes (as most bands do) which has morphed the sound into a unique style. This can’t have been without its frustrations surely? What do you feel that each member now brings to the table?
Chi – It can be very frustrating, but you work through it. I don’t understand it when bands split up because a member leaves. Losing Al was hard because he used to be such a key part of the sound, but it’s been about 10 years since he first joined and people change and their tastes change. It was pretty obvious that his heart hadn’t been in it for a while. I think it was probably inevitable.
There’s a very strong bond between the 3 of us remaining. We have different musical tastes but a very similar common vision for the band. I daresay more people will join and leave, and we’ll just carry on as best we can through it all.
As far what each of brings to the table, I’d say Rob brings the ability to play the guitar really well (something I can’t do), and he’s starting to contribute more and more to the songwriting process too. We share a love of noisy stuff like The Birthday Party and also soul and funk. Chris, again brings musical talent to the band that was lacking before he joined. He can pretty much play anything you put in front of him. His influence can be heard in the more complicated arrangements that we’re doing at the moment. If a riff’s got 2 notes in it, it’s probably mine, if it’s got 22 it’ll be one of Chris’s. I think my role is kind of a default leader. Stuff just works better if one person is “in charge”. I formed the band in 2001 and so that role falls on me. In reality we all contribute equally, but I kind of get a final say. I tend to come up with the concepts and lyrics and then we try to figure out how to realise my ideas as a band. It’s very much a collaborative effort.
Why did you choose Undergroove as a label?
Chris – I’d known Darren Sadler (Undergroove owner) for years from back when I was in Taint. We were actually considering releasing something back in the day with them, we respected what Undergroove were doing and the very varied mix of bands on the label. Darren also worked for Rock Sound magazine, back in the day when it was a respectable mag, which covered a wide range of heavy underground music. He was very supportive of Taint, as were the mag as a whole. Not sure what happened exactly but we ended up signing with Rise Above instead.
Anyway, I’d got back in touch with Darren a few years back telling him I was in Spider Kitten and he dug what we were doing. I learned last year that he was starting Undergroove again and we sent him the unmastered version of Behold Mountain… and he was every interested in releasing it which we were obviously stoked about. He’s been very helpful and supports the band on a very personable level, that’s the beauty of independent labels! We are hopefully getting a limited cassette release for it too via Darren, which will have different artwork by the awesome Bvrzerk who did the CD version, then of course the aim is to get it released on vinyl, hopefully through Ampullae Audio, another awesome label who have just started. They handled the re-release of Cougar Club on vinyl which, along with a pressing of Ulver’s old EP’s, was their 1st releases as a label, check them both out, they rule hard!
How did the label take the news of these deviations? Is that understanding and creative freedom part of their attraction?
Chi – Definitely. We’re gonna make the music we want to regardless of whether anyone wants to release it or not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that Undergroove, Ampullae Audio and all our fans love our music, it genuinely warms my heart, but if we record something that nobody likes (probability would dictate that it’s quite likely) then, that’s no big deal. We just release it for free online and move on to the next project. We’re not making a penny out of the music so our mortgages don’t rely on us having a “hit”. I think as soon as your next meal is riding on how successful your next record is, there’s going to be an element of compromise unless you try really hard to resist.
Do you think this will have an influence on the albums at all as you evolve sonically?
Chi – Yes, it means that we can do literally anything we want. I’d really like to do something totally high art, like record an album in the same room as 100 pairs of scissors and then release those instead of the record. What’s stopping us?
So aside from this new album what are the current plans for 2015? Will we get to see you out on the road?
Chi – We’re going to be recording constantly this year with a few breaks for gigs. I hope Ark Of Octofelis will be released by the summer, I want to release another short EP of covers, we’ve been talking about filming another music video, and even turning some of Ark Of Octofelis into an animated film. We’re certainly not getting bored. We will be playing some shows as well. Metal Hammer’s Hammerfest in March and we’re playing with Acid Witch in London in April. Our buddy Matt from Dead Existence is filling in on bass for those. If we get time we’ll put on our annual Loserpalooza festival somewhere in Wales as well. It’s going to be a busy year.
Lastly I’m sure you have been asked this before but the name Spider Kitten?
Chi – You’re driving along an empty highway at night. The car is warm, the rhythm of the engine soothing. As you relax and begin to drift off to sleep you hear a sickening shriek of metal impacting upon metal. Time slows down. Your mind races. An icy shard of terror shoots from your lower back, up your spine and into base of your skull. That terror, that infinite moment of dread, that cold panic you feel just before you die, that is Spider Kitten.
Interviewed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden