Angled to Amaze
CoC chats with Chris Smith from Keelhaul
by: Paul Schwarz
Though Akercocke's _The Goat of Mendes_ may be likely to deserve the overall accolade of "extreme music album of the year", Keelhaul's _II_ has distinguished itself as my favourite record of the year so far. And about three months since I first got it, its appeal hasn't waned. I think that only listening will really give you a proper idea of whether or not _II_ [reviewed in this issue] will be to your liking, but if you dug the band's first album -- _Keelhaul_, re-released last year on Escape Artist [CoC #48] -- you'll definitely want to check it out. If you've never heard Keelhaul before, I'd say _II_ is well worth taking a risk on, especially if you enjoy music-making which is almost entirely undiluted by non-musical concerns, and extreme to boot. Lovers of the work of Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch, Converge and others in a similar field, you will very probably dig Keelhaul. I hope this interview with guitarist and vocalist Chris Smith will help sway you towards checking out _II_. Interview conducted by e-mail in May.

CoC: How would you say _II_ has moved on from _Keelhaul_? What has stayed the same, what has changed in your music?

Chris Smith: Well, obviously the production has improved dramatically, due a great deal in part to the fact that we have less of a budget constraint now that we are on HydraHead. The first album was all out of our pockets, so we actually ran out of money long before we finished the record. As far as the songwriting goes, this album was a lot more of a group effort than the first. As far as what has "changed" in our music, I would leave that up to you to tell me.

CoC: I find Keelhaul has the strange combination of sounding very jam-like and natural, while also being very complex and, at times, tightly structured. What would say about the way you created the music for _II_ in light of that comment?

CS: What you have just said is exactly what I've always tried to do with the music that we write, to always be able to have a warm earthy jam-type quality in the midst of harsh structure. The key is to be able to purvey the two qualities equally together without making the songs sound too bolted together. I like it when a band can do that really well, like a musical paradox.

CoC: Why did you choose Bill Korecky (Integrity, Incantation, Withered Earth) to produce _II_? How do you think his work as producer affected this record compared to the last one?

CS: Bill Korecky has been a friend of mine and most of the people in the band for a long time. I first began recording with Bill in 1988. I have always felt really comfortable in his studios and he has always been very honest about his opinions of the material as we record and mix it. He lends a good ear and he gives us a lot of free reign over his studio, lets us on the board and try things that a lot of other guys would probably tell us are stupid and not even worth the time, even if they really are stupid and not worth the time. He helped us equally on the first album and also in everything I've ever recorded with him, he has lent some really good ideas and insights to the mixing of production. In the future if we end up bringing in a producer, we will probably still end up working at Bill's studio because of all those reasons.

CoC: Since Keelhaul does not provide you with money to live, why do you give up so much of your time to the band? What does it give you to be in Keelhaul -- since it is not currently a living, and from the sounds of your music, is not intended to ever be?

CS: It's funny that you would say our music sounds like we would never make a living at it. A lot of times people are blown away to find out that we make so little money being in a band and spending so much of our time and money doing it. The other night I was having a conversation with a guy about playing in bands, him being a sax player. For some reason he assumed that I was making a good living at it, being that we spend so much time and money on it. He asked, "So what do you guys make, $1000 bucks a night?" When I told him its more like 100 bucks he looked perplexed and just said, "Wow". I think that in many ways being in a band is almost the same as having some kind of hobby that takes up time and money that only you get the real value out of. Some guys work on their hot rods, some guys collect stamps, I play in a band. It's my main therapeutic outlet, its one of the things that keeps me sane. I think I can speak for most of us on that. If we were really trying to make a living at it, we would have to learn how to write really gay songs, spend a lot of money on clothes and I would have to loose a lot of weight. I don't think I could write a commercially palatable song to save my life. Really, its just about writing the kind of music you want to hear, and hopefully someone else digs it too.

CoC: Why is the title simply _II_? Will the next album be _III_?

CS: "II" was the only title we could all agree on. I opted for no title at all, and different cover art on every pressing. That got shot down. I won't even go into any of the titles that were tossed around. I hope to god the next album is not called "III".

CoC: What bands or musical movements would you say most influenced the sound of Keelhaul?

CS: This will be a tough one. I can for the most part speak for myself, but I would imagine that I can do a pretty good job of summing it up for all of us. Will [Scharf, drums] brings a lot of jazz-type experience to the table. Dana [Embrose, guitars], Aaron [Dallison, bass and vocals] and I bring a lot of hardcore and metal influence. For me personally, some of the most formidable influences in my career as a musician would be people like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefhart, Angus Young, Black Sabbath, Celtic Frost, Slayer, COC, Varese, and about a million other people. I'm also really partial to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. We all like crazy riffs with lots of numbers and kick back space out jams.

CoC: Are the lyrics you write for the band important? I am assuming y theare not, or possibly are personal, since you regret to print them.

CS: Most of the lyrics are just a bunch of random crap. Sometimes I can find some personal meaning in them, but usually they are written only with the intent of sounding interesting and vague. I think I can speak for Aaron on that as well. The lyrics are representative of places and times, but are not meant to be blatantly descriptive. When I was younger, I always thought it was so important for the lyrics of your songs to convey philosophies and politics and stuff like that. I have eventually decided that music is not always the best vehicle to make statements of political and social opinions, that's what writers are for. I think that our music conveys enough emotion by itself that having real "messages" in lyrics is really secondary to me. We find ourselves writing most of the lyrics in the studio as the songs are recorded, so that tells you how much thought really goes into them. We don't print them in the records, because they're really not that important. Maybe eventually, but right now, a lyric sheet for us would consist of maybe five paragraphs.

CoC: Is the music of Keelhaul constructed while in a sober state? If not, do you think it could be?

CS: I would say half the music is conceived, written and arranged in a sober state by at least one or two members. We are not a band that makes any point of being loaded when we write, or sober. Dana and I are stoners, Aaron's the drinker, and Will is just plain weird.

CoC: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of touring?

CS: Favorite things: Not having to punch a clock, sustaining ourselves from the merits of our music, being able to eat and drink and drive with money that we make doing something we love to do. Meeting cool people, seeing cool places, and experiencing things we would only experience because of being in a band. Least favorite things: Breaking down on the side of the highway, shitty clubs with shitty promoters, getting pinned into conversations with stupid people about stupid things when you're stuck at the merch table and nobody will come and save you. Having to practically threaten bodily harm just to get paid our measly guarantee.

CoC: How did Keelhaul come together, and what keeps the band together?

CS: Will and I had been trying to put a band together for years, but our schedules with the other bands we were in made that less than possible. I had played with Dana in high school some fifteen years ago. He moved to Boston, where he spent years playing in some local heavy hitters up there. About four years ago, Dana moved back to Cleveland. We stared jamming and worked out a set of tunes with a guy named Jim Redford who was a drummer I worked with in a restaurant. We played our first gig in the fall of '97. It would be our only gig, as Jim soon left for school. That night, who shows up, but Will Scharf. We told him that we were going to be out a drummer and he said that he for some bizarre reason was actually not in a band at the moment. So we began playing with Will. Dana on guitar, Will on drums and myself on bass. I had put down the guitar in exchange for the bass because I was getting bored with the guitar. But when we started jamming with Will, his style opened up a lot of our songs to where they screamed for more instrumentation, I could hear these guitar parts in my head, and I knew that between Dana and I that we could come up with some pretty interesting interplay between the two of us on guitar. So here comes Aaron Dallison, he originally hails from Virginia, but had been living Cleveland for a few years now playing in local bands as a guitarist. We all agreed that he was a pretty brutal bad ass mother fucker and so we asked him if he would like to tear some shit up with us, so now he's a bass player. And that all came together in the Fall of '97. As far as what keeps us together, the fact that we enjoy the music that we write together, that we are able to work together despite differences that we know we will have when it comes to writing music. The conflicting aspects of our personalities and the differences between us are prevalent in the dynamics of some of our material. We all bring good stuff to the table and between us all we manage to write material that we can all groove on. For the most part, we all feel that this is the best band any of us have ever been in.

CoC: I hope those questions suit you and bring out some interesting points about the band. Any other thoughts or ideas, just write them as well, they don't need to be the answer to a specific question.

CS: Hopefully I don't sound like too much of an idiot and you are able to write this article without us seeming like total dorks.

(article submitted 12/8/2001)


ALBUMS
9/3/2009 N Oxford 5 Keelhaul - Keelhaul's Triumphant Return to Obscurity
8/12/2001 P Schwarz 10 Keelhaul - II
8/12/2000 P Schwarz 9 Keelhaul - Keelhaul
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