Sleestak, not the humanoid lizard creature from The Land Of The Lost, nor a particular potent strain of dank, they are in fact a Wisconsin based 4 piece of dynamic proportions, laying down heavy doom atmospherics coupled with a science fiction outlook. 2011 also saw the band release their concept album ‘The Fall Of Altrusia’ which was based around the ancestors of, well it could only be the infamous Sleestak, so read on to see what makes guitarist & vocalist Matt tick when I fired some questions over to him.
Hey Matt, hope all is well with you and Sleestak at the moment, so let’s get this interview off the ground with a brief rundown of the bands history, how you formed and your current members?
Our lineup has remained intact since our official formation in November of 2003 and is as follows: Matt Schmitz on guitar and vocals, Dan Bell on bass, Brian Gresser on guitar, and Marcus Bartell on drums. The other guys had already been jamming together for a period of time before I joined in 2003.
Marcus and I had previously played together in a hard rock band called Atomic Number 9 and we had crossed paths several times throughout that year and each time asked if I was hip on coming down to the practice spot. I was fairly busy with my other band Planet Delirium at the time so I kept putting it off until I gave in and was looking for a low pressure gig to have some fun with. I showed up with a few riffs and we ended up with a focused direction and goals we decided to follow.
It was, I think, going to be a band in the vein of Clutch, Corrosion Of Conformity, and Fu Manchu mixed with some Entombed and other heavier stuff. Well, in the early months our rehearsals became long jam sessions, just making stuff up as we went, and it was a conscious decision to embrace this element as we felt that was a strong aspect of our chemistry. We threw out the rulebook when it came to writing and arranging songs and I wanted to pull in more of my psychedelic and doom influences to round out our sound. With those ideals, we’ve kept a low pressure schedule and attitude ever since.
When reading about your band, similar names always seem to crop up as a listening reference, namely Pink Floyd, Sleep & Clutch, is this something you’d agree have been an influence on Sleestak, and who else has been an influence on your sound over the years?
I think those influences you’ve mentioned have been staples for us and many other bands out there. We do have a multitude of other influences – and let me preface this by saying that the following is my own personal preference and taste – including Cathedral, Esoteric, Napalm Death, Godflesh, Black Sabbath, The Doors, My Dying Bride, Earth, Bardo Pond, USX, Neurosis, Yob, Isis, Red Sparowes, etc. I myself can hear the influence those bands have had on me in most of the stuff I write. If I have a writer’s block, I tend to go and listen to some of my favorite material from those bands, see what they did in a similar situation, maybe the way they did a transition or ended a song, take those ideas and work them into my own.
I have an upbringing in thrash/speed/death metal but have always been drawn to doom and I think that‘s at the very core of it all. I also have a great fondness for 60’s psych and garage rock – the more obscure and wild it is the better. Those songs are like potent magick rituals for me, a private indulgence, knowing that I may be the only one on the planet listening to this band or song in that moment. Almost like a time machine I would say, but definitely containing a degree of mysticism in that regard.
Why the name Sleestak? As it’s been previously documented, you got your name from the reptilian humanoid creature from the cult 70’s TV series ‘The Land Of The Lost’ but why did you chose a Sleestak specifically? Also considering the hazy sonics the band delivers, when you decided on the moniker, were you aware there is also a potent strain of marijuana of the same name, albeit with a slightly different spelling, or was this purely coincidence?
The name really just entered my mind one night during a practice. We were in the middle of a song and I literally just stopped playing and said “Sleestak”. It really embodied a nostalgic feeling for me, it carried with it a weight of childhood sentiment. It also conjured dark and prehistoric imagery which was perfect for the type of music we were creating. I was a fan of the show as a kid and it was always something that dwelled in the back of my mind, stayed with me, swam around in half-forgotten memories. I wasn’t aware of the marijuana strain until a few years ago but I would like to think a few hits of that and our music goes quite well together.
While on the subject of ‘The Land Of The Lost’, what is the fascination with the series? Fond childhood memories or just a love for cheesy 70’s cult TV?
It’s a bit of both. The storylines are fairly deep and still hold up today even if the special effects don’t, though I think because of that it remains a very trippy show. I own the whole dvd collection and religiously watched it several times over. I am all about immersion.
This brings us neatly onto your latest album ‘The Fall Of Altrusia’ which is a concept album, split into 7 chapters and based around the ancestors of the Sleestak, the Altrusians, so what was the inspiration to use this subject to write a concept album and why did you think it needed an epic psychedelic doom soundtrack?
This was an area of the show’s fiction that was only touched upon and provided a great basis to elaborate on with my own ideas. The lyrics were the last thing to get written as the music itself is a medley of sorts, combining some of our jam sessions with some of our older material and finding a natural way to combine them and develop a narrative type flow. It has been rewritten several times with different parts and the studio version is the final culmination of five years of experimentation and refinement. It really only became “epic” as it was just natural to keep going, kind of like a journey for us as we played. Funny thing is, it’s shorter than I planned. I think I originally wanted a full 80 minute song. But again, the whole lyrical concept and storyline came as a final thought when the recording was done.
And how has the album/concept been received by the press, did they ‘get it’?
I think for the most part the feedback has been pretty awesome. I had always wanted to do a concept album, something which I think is rarely taken on. The most criticized aspects for us have been our long jam sections and my vocals. But regardless, we stick to doing whatever we want to do and if people don’t like it then so be it. As long as we are doing what we like, that’s important. I have faith that most will be open minded to our experimentation in the future.
How did the recording process differ from laying down ‘The Fall Of Altrusia’ to your debut ‘Skylon Express’ and is it the intention for ‘The Fall Of Altrusia’ to be listened to as one piece of music as opposed to individual songs?
The earlier stuff was recorded over a four year period, so we had some parts done, then would come back and record some more. It was very sporadic but it became evident as we finished that stuff that we had also kind of outgrew it. “Altrusia” was more focused yet was still recorded in sections over a period of about eight months. It was stressful and frustrating at times wanting things to sound right but we pulled through. Individually, the chapters of “Altrusia” don’t really hold up as songs for me. It’s really one piece of music, that’s what is intended, and for me personally I find it hard to just listen to any one part of it. I tend to want to start at the beginning and I just get lost in the whole thing. The idea of “chapters” is there only to outline the flow of the story, otherwise I would not have included them and forced listeners to wait for each part, entice them to be involved with the listening process.
Will the theme of ‘The Land Of The Lost’ be continued to be used in future material you write, be it another concept album or individual tracks?
I can’t say for sure but we started with it and it’s stuck with us over the years. There are some areas of the fiction I have been wanting to use as the basis for future music but we are also exploring other topics. We have talked about doing another epic-type concept relating to “The Fall Of Altrusia”, either a sequel or prequel kind of thing but I feel at this point, our future is an open book and anything is fair game.
Your music has ,at times, a lose/jam feel to proceedings, so is getting into the rehearsal room and jamming out ideas a crucial part to the creative output of Sleestak?
Absolutely, in fact, most of what we do when we practice is just jam on a part. Someone will have a riff and it will go on for 10-15 minutes. We use that as a basis for trying out ideas, how we can change and morph into alternate dynamics. We’ve had some fairly incredible psychedelic jams that have sadly been lost forever to the memory of the rehearsal space walls. So, in another aspect it has also been a hindrance of sorts as where we should have been focusing on laying down something solid and “working” we usually tend to enjoy just playing and being creative. This of course slows down our recorded output.
Can you also give us a rundown of the equipment you use, both live and in a recording environment?
Off hand, in the studio, I can only say we record with Pro Tools. I let Shane do his studio thing when we go in. Equipment specifics is not my strong point! I‘ve never been a gear-head. As for our instruments, both Brian and I play Gibson SG guitars and we both use Line 6 heads. Line 6 is the economical way to embrace the psychedelic sounds and the space rock aspect of Sleestak. I for one can’t afford a slew of pedals and Orange amps. I know people in the “scene” will probably give us slack for using Line 6 because it’s digital or whatever but I don’t care as long as I can get the sound my ears are wanting to hear. I’m not into this to impress anyone with how large my amp is or what brand it is. I need versatility in my equipment if I feel like recording at home, in the studio, at the rehearsal spot, or touring. You’d have to ask the other guys about their gear, though!
Being based in Wisconsin, how do you find it for gigs? Are they well supported? Do you get many touring bands? Also how easy do you find it to get gigs outside of your ‘local’ area especially considering the geographical vastness of the USA compared to the UK?
I hate to say it but I don’t believe there is much support locally for what we do. Beside some local “haters” (something I won’t elaborate on but which I don’t really understand as I’ve tried to be cool and on the level with every band I know) there are a few hipster cliques of doom/sludge/whatnot, some of them with a respectable DIY attitude, but overall we don’t have a good fit with any local bands to share gigs with. It’s come down to me trying to work with booking agents and route good touring bands into the area to give us a reason to play live here. Milwaukee and Wisconsin in general tends to get overlooked because although we are a good sized city we are also so close to the Chicago market. All I can say is thank the gods for Mike Smith and Days Of The Doomed festival. Wisconsin now has something to be proud of. As for playing the US field, we’ve had a great time outside of our home town, though we’ve only done one actual tour throughout the Midwest but that may change very soon in 2012. We’d love to spread out both east and west but everything all has to fall in place with our day jobs and families.
What about heading over to the UK/Europe for a string of dates? I know it’s been talked about in passing, so have there been any further developments on this?
We were starting to plan on coming over but instead decided to focus our funds towards recording. While I know it would be great for us to finally go international, it’s not financially viable. All we can hope for really is that someone eventually likes us enough to invite us over and if we put out some great music with those allocated funds to get their attention then it will have been worth the wait.
What else does Sleestak have on the horizon?
Well, currently there is talk of doing a vinyl split with Italy’s Ivy Garden Of The Desert. It may seem like a strange pairing but they approached us and we were honoured to have been recognized and to make some cool friends. We are going to try something musically different for this and are anxious to hear what folks have to say. Hopefully we will be able to get a solid release date in the first quarter of 2012. Aside from that we are working on other new material but we’re not sure yet whether it will be for a full length or EP. What I can say is that some of it is magnificently heavy and we are trying out new transitional dynamics and tempo changes.
Acoustic music is also something we are venturing into, mixing new melodies and alternating guitar parts. A 12-string acoustic guitar can carry some serious full-sounding heaviness. It would be great to have some label support to help us with distribution and production for future releases but we’ve come this far without it so we are prepared now to venture further on our own.
Putting Sleestak to one side for the moment, you recently started offering your services as an illustrator to design artwork for Albums, T-Shirts, Posters etc under the name Altrusian Grace Design, so has creative drawing always something you’ve dabbled in? Do you have a portfolio the shaman readership could look at and can you name drop some of the folk you’ve done or will be doing artwork for?
I’ve always been involved in art, attending both the Milwaukee High School of Arts and Milwauke Institute of Art and Design. Doing stuff for bands was a more regular thing years ago before I was married and had a family but the kids are older now and I really want to be involved with the visual side of things again. I’m starting off slow, getting my feet wet in a way and hope I can work with some of the bands I like and respect. I have done posters for our shows with Yob, Ocean, Middian, Totimoshi, and a few others, along with some shirt designs including the new Sleeping Shaman shirts! I am currently working on a shirt design for Doommantia.com and a poster for Days Of The Doomed II festival. As for any type of portfolio, you can visit my DeviantArt site which has some of my past work. I intend to rename this aspect though from Altrusian Grace and have an actual website. Just keep an eye on the Sleestak blog for any updates on this and when the time is right, it will happen.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Matt, and please use this space for any final words…
Huge thanks to you guys, Lee and Mark, and the Shaman for the support and for everyone interested enough to read this. I will leave the interview with my top 11 albums for 2011 in no particular order:
1. Graveyard – Hisingen Blues
2. Generation Of Vipers – Howl And Filth
3. Septicflesh – The Great Mass
4. Elder – Dead Roots Stirring
5. Yob – Atma
6. Esoteric – Paragon Of Dissonance
7. U.S. Christmas – The Valley Path
8. Raveonettes – Raven In The Grave
9. A Storm Of Light – As The Valley Of Death Becomes Us, Our Silver Memories Fade
10. Ethereal Riffian – Shaman’s Visions
11. Anathema – Falling Deeper
(BONUS! – 12. The Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim Official Soundtrack)
(DOUBLE BONUS! – My favorite concert of the year: Swans w/Sir Richard Bishop at Turner Hall Ballroom, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 9/21/2011)
Interviewed by: Lee Edwards