In Search Of Tone: Dalton And Ben Of Smoke

Smoke is a band I discovered through the Doom Charts and instantly the music clicked with me. I’d listen to Temple and The Son Of Man on repeat often, mixing in the rest of the album along the way because each song is unique and worth every second of listening. I was fortunate to see Smoke live and it was a mind-blowing experience.

Smoke
Smoke

Watching them unload the trailer, I was soaking in the awesome vintage gear they were hauling in! In hindsight, I probably should have asked if they needed help, but I was too busy inspecting each piece of gear like the nerd I am. Getting the opportunity to discuss this gear and the songwriting with Dalton and Ben was a fantastic experience and I learned quite a bit.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about how you create your music and the gear you use. I usually start these interviews with a rig rundown so can you guys tell me what gear you use starting with guitars?

Dalton: Let me go grab mine, I feel like I can describe it better when I’m holding it [Laughs]. You got yours there and yours is way prettier than mine.

Ben: [Laughs] I found this one-off Reverb but it’s from a Canadian shop and it’s a 2008 Gibson Les Paul.

Dalton: He’s always been a Les Paul player. I’ve always played SG. Mine is a 2019 standard Gibson SG Tribute.

My guitar goes into the Big Muff and the signal splits to a Marshall head and a Hilbish Design head…

Ben: My guitar is nothing fancy. I know the pedal boards can get complicated but when you break it down. Its guitar, Big Muff and Amp. I have a Black Russian Big Muff which I found in a local pawnshop. It’s really cool. I did a double take when I saw it and said I’m coming back to that one! It’s a pawnshop not even known for music. My guitar goes into the Big Muff and the signal splits to a Marshall head and a Hilbish Design head. My clean tone mostly comes from the Hilbish head, then I kick on the Big Muff for heavier parts, and I’ll work in delay for solos and that’s basically my tone.

Dalton: That breaks it all down.

Ben: Any sounds you hear on the album come from that.

Dalton: [Laughs] Yeah, its pedals and stereo guitar heads. If we have an ambient part, we will play around with an Earthquaker Devices pedal or another pedal. My slide part for instance uses a Sea Machine. It’s just about being creative but it all comes back to a simple Big Muff rig [Laughs].

Ben / Smoke - Amp Rig
Ben / Smoke – Amp Rig

Well, it sounds fantastic on the record and even better live.

Dalton: I think our big thing was lugging around so much gear all the time, it began to be a pain in the ass. But we feel it’s worth it. Maybe after unloading everything we will talk about getting 2×12’s but then we’re like ‘fuck it… we’re using the 6×12’s!’ [Laughs]. We are going to keep rocking the big rigs.

Ben: There’s no wrong answer with gear which is pretty cool. Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats for example just use two Fender 1×12’s and just mic those up and it sounds amazing.

Oh, that’s interesting. They played here not too long ago. I’ve never really been into them, but I thought seeing them live would change that for me. I, unfortunately, was unable to go, and King Buffalo opened for them!

Dalton: Yeah! I remember seeing that tour. They are great live, but I was unable to go too.

Can’t catch them all.

Dalton: Yeah, doom metal shows are the opposite of Pokémon [Laughs].

Ben: [Laughs] That’s pretty much my rig. Dalton uses a Big Muff also, but his is the green one.

Dalton: I found that Green Russian Nano and I fell in love with that sound. Big Muff in my mind is doom. Some people may disagree, but I feel it is. It’s a thicker and heavier sound.

Ben: We both use Big Muff’s, but we talk more about complimenting each other vs copying each other. With two guitar players we want to sound like there are two guitar players.

We both use Big Muff’s, but we talk more about complimenting each other vs copying each other…

Dalton: A lot of his rig focuses more on the mid-high frequency range while mine focuses more on the mid-low end. Even my solos are more in the mid-range, whereas yours are more in the high range and that’s how we have broken up our tones.

I’m interested in the Green Russian Nano you mentioned. It’s not the Big Box Green Russian it’s the reissue you are using?

Dalton: Yes, it’s the reissue. Even if I were able to get an old Green Russian, I’d never use it because I would be so scared I would spill a beer on it or something [Laughs]. I would definitely recommend the Nano however, it sounds great. The Russian Big Muff’s have that natural thickness and doom/sludge tone. Some of the pedals handle more high end and reach into RAT territory.

Ben: Go on YouTube and check out the Big Muff pedal videos that play all the soundbites back-to-back.

** Tangent #1 of the rabbit hole of YouTube gear videos and how dangerous for the wallet they can be **

Ben / Smoke - Amp, Guitar & Pedalboard Rig
Ben / Smoke – Amp, Guitar & Pedalboard Rig

What else is on your pedalboard Dalton?

Dalton: I have a EHX Holy Grail pedal that is always on just to fill it out. For more spacey sounds I use an Earthquaker Devices Afterneath. I use that at the beginning of One Eyed King. That pedal has so many knobs that you can always get a new reverb sound. I also have an Electro Harmonix Soul Food that I use to color my clean tone and its always on. I use an Electro Harmonix Electric Mistress for the stereo ports to run both amps. I kick it on once in a while because it moves nicely through the cabinets, but not very often.

I haven’t dabbled into the stereo world yet.

Dalton: I always say the reason I started stereo, and fell in love with it, is because I have so much gear. I would have a conversation with myself to sell some of it. Now I can keep all my gear and tell everyone I NEED every piece of it [Laughs].

Ben: It makes sense to have stereo gear because if I’m covering the high tones and he is covering the low tones, then break the two in four. We can do more that way.

Dalton: Exactly. Between my amps, one will be the high spectrum of the lower frequencies and the other amp handles the low end. For Ben it’s the same but on the higher frequencies and that allows us to color our sound.

Between my amps, one will be the high spectrum of the lower frequencies and the other amp handles the low end…

That’s a cool way to fill the spectrum! Moving on to songwriting, what is your writing process like?

Dalton: I do a good majority of the structure songwriting and write the lyrics. I get stuck in the idea of concept albums. I think that comes from my love of concept albums and they tend to be what I will sit down and listen to all the way through. Every idea we have started with a central theme, and we know we want a certain number of songs. From there it’s just jamming until we find the riffs we like.

When we did Groupthink, we had that album 100% done and polished note for note when we went into the studio. Part of that comes from the DIY band and having to pay for the nicest studio we could afford. So, we thought let’s get this album done so we can spend less time in the studio.

That makes a lot of sense. Going in prepared vs spending time and money experimenting on creating the album in the studio.

Dalton: Yes, that isn’t something we could really afford and it’s also nice because we have a really great practice space where we can hang out and write without blowing anyone’s eardrums out.

Ben: It’s also cool to think about gear on top of songwriting because a lot of times, it will come down to having a few riffs that we haven’t strung together yet. We know we want this part to be huge, and that will make us want to change the tone a bit. So, we’re writing songs before becoming a gear head, but as the song progresses, we dial in tones and experiment with pedals and such.

Dalton / Smoke
Dalton / Smoke

That’s interesting. I usually play with gear getting a cool tone and then try and write something from that, but it hasn’t worked out too well. Maybe I should rethink this [Laughs]. Do you write your riffs on an electric guitar or do you tend to just pick up an acoustic and write a song?

Ben: Dalton jokes about the lawnmower method [Laughs], he will hum his ideas while riding a lawnmower.

Dalton: [Laughs] Yeah, the guys probably get mad at me, but when I’m at work I’ll come up with an idea, sing it into a voice memo and send them to the guys screaming ‘I’m at work but what do you think of this idea’ with a lawnmower in the background.

I heard this theory a few times now. The droning noise will spark ideas. Nick from Elder had his ideas vacuuming in a pharmacy he worked in, and Ryan from Valley Of The Sun goes for a drive and the humming of the car helps.

Dalton: It’s true. I think all of Groupthink is written in the key of my motor [Laughs].

That’s amazing. Speaking of keys, if there a few chord progressions you like writing with or do you write by ear?

Dalton: I don’t really think about that. What I think we try, and do it a lot, is going back to the central theme idea, then as long as we have that central theme, then we can play along in any style and have it all sound like one big idea lyrically. Groupthink, for instance, each song is about a different cult and avoiding the dangers. I would write the song from the perspective of different cult leaders. If a cult was a little more violent, then it would naturally take on a heavier part to match the lyrics and I would bring out a riff we wrote and tie it in.

each song is about a different cult and avoiding the dangers…

One Eyed King was about Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult from Japan. That turned into a nineteen-minute-long epic because it was written about what I thought was happening in Japan in the ‘90s, that led to a power vacuum in the religious structure that let the cults rise to power. So, I had a lot of words to say, and I said sorry guys we have to make a nineteen-minute song so I can put this all down on paper [Laughs]. So, I don’t really write in chord progressions but more matching the style of the lyrics for the central theme.

Ben: How we wrote the songs for Groupthink was based on the emotion of the leader or what was happening. If it was angry, an angry riff would come out vs a sad part, where it would have sad music to match.

Dalton: Davidian is another example of this. The acoustic riffs came first, but when I started writing lyrics about Waco, the acoustic style just made sense for the song/cult.

That’s really interesting and a unique twist to writing songs. This is why I love asking this question!

Ben: Yes, it has always impressed me how Dalton writes these poems and then matches riffs up to the poem creating these songs.

Dalton: For our next album, we have a concept, riffs and it’s being pieced together in a similar way. Not to give anything away but it’s along the lines of As Above, So Below. As Above contains the more ethereal sounds while the second half of the album is So Below and we bring the heavy shit. I just write better this way.

Ben / Smoke
Ben / Smoke

Well, that sounds amazing and can’t wait for that to be released. I’m all about central themes and if album art, songs or consecutive releases all somehow pair up, then take my money [Laughs].

Dalton: Yes, I love that too. Speaking of album art, I did the painting for the album cover as well.

Wow! Really?

Dalton: Yeah, and I actually painted it when we only had three songs written. I ended up writing the intro song Groupthink about the painting, so when you start the album you can hear the lyrics describing the scene you were looking at.

Oh shit man, that’s amazing and taking it even farther into the concept album than I would imagine.

** Tangent 2 about the importance of album art. After listening back, I didn’t realize how much I can talk about album art alone. **

What do you do if you’re having an off day and how do you get inspired to play again?

Ben: That’s a tough question. I can’t say I’m always stoked to play guitar, but I don’t have many off days because we are all very busy with work and life that we don’t get to play that often together. When we do, it’s very exciting. But, if one of us is having an off day, we are very good at encouraging each other. Also, after shows, we record them, sit down after, listen back and talk about it honestly, without negativity, our mess-ups and what we can do better next time.

Dalton: I think I have more off days when I’m by myself playing, but when I’m with the band on a Sunday, it’s been such a crazy busy week, it’s a nice release and we all enjoy what we are doing.

I am really proud of how it all came together though and I think a big part of that is Ben McLeod of All Them Witches…

Now, the opposite of off days, are there any songs you’re particularly proud of?

Ben: Personally, I love One Eyed King and we have a revised version we do live, but that song always gives me chills.

Dalton: Oddly enough, One Eyed King, I was so excited about recording it, but I don’t know if I put too much time into it because after it was done, I hated it. I said I can’t listen to this anymore [Laughs]. I am really proud of how it all came together though and I think a big part of that is Ben McLeod of All Them Witches. I gave him the recordings and said you mix and master these however you see fit.

Now, I’m the kind of person who finds relinquishing any kind of control of the songs I’ve written really hard, and this was a very good learning experience. When I got them back, the first time I heard them I thought ‘this isn’t what I pictured’. But after listening to it a few times I thought ‘No, this is better than what I pictured’. Hearing the whole album come together at the end was very fulfilling.

Ben: So, once you got the album back after mixing and mastering is when you were impressed… [Laughs].

Dalton: [Laughs] Well, yes. You always worry if anyone going to give a shit about what I just dumped ten years of my life into. Then, when someone says, ‘Hey man, this is actually good’, then it’s like ‘Oh, thank God’ [Laughs].

Smoke 'Groupthink'
Smoke ‘Groupthink’ Artwork

Well, Groupthink is on my list of albums that I listen to for enjoyment. What do you guys listen to for fun these days?

Ben: That’s an interesting question for us because I’m more of a blues guy.

** Uh oh me too, I feel a tangent coming up **

Ben: I listen to the classic Sleep, Uncle Acid, All Them Witches, of course. But, now it’s been more Philip Sayce, Gary Moore. Watching Jimi Hendrix breakdowns online is really interesting to me right now. Two or Three years ago I would have said I’m going through a blues phase but, I’ve surpassed the phase timeline [Laughs].

Dalton: If I feel like listening to blues, I’ll just ask Ben who I should listen to, and he will pull up three hours of live blues music [Laughs].

Ben: I’m always finding new artists. I found a YouTube community where I can always see what’s going on live in Nashville and I always have a fresh name to tell him. Recently I discovered King Solomon Hicks, and I can’t get enough of him right now.

** Yep, here’s that tangent of all things blues **

Dalton: For a doom metal band, I don’t really listen to a lot of doom metal on a regular basis. I dive more into the country genre. John Prine will be on pretty much every day of my life. Maybe it’s the singer songwriter part I like. I like a lot of old country. This is just what I’m listening to now. I still love old punk music. My Bad Brains album finds its way to the record player very often.

Dead Meadow brought me into this world through a skateboard video by Jon Minor…

Ben: We were just watching Pigs x7 and getting stoked about them.

Dalton: They sound cool, they look cool and maybe my favorite band in the doom genre. Them and Sons Of Arrakis because I’m a huge Dune fan and they were just on Doom Charts not too long ago. I wanted to do a Dune themed album, but I thought someone may do it better so decided against it. Then Sons Of Arrakis released their album, I was very very happy I didn’t because they did it right!

Ben: Our music tastes are all over the place. Dead Meadow brought me into this world through a skateboard video by Jon Minor who used Sleepy Silver Door as the soundtrack, I’m a skater at heart so the slow-motion skating of my favorite skater with the droning solos got me hooked.

Thanks Dalton and Ben for taking time to speak with me, Smoke’s current album Groupthink is out now and available on Bandcamp.

Label: Independent
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram

Interviewed by: Josh Schneider