Thrash Hits

January 15th, 2015

Interview: Dissecting Dormant Heart with Josh Middleton from Sylosis

Sylosis 2015 promo photo A Thrash Hits

Sylosis are taking the fight to 2015 – they’ve got a new drummer, a new album in the shape of the quite frankly magnificent Dormant Heart, and they’ve got a renewed sense of purpose. We sat down with their guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter, Josh Middleton, to dissect what the Reading-based foursome are getting up to next.

This time you recorded the record in Reading and Ipswich. Previously, obviously, you’ve worked over in studios in Wales and a few other places; why the decision to split it into two studios this time?
We recorded the drums out in Ipswich, but everything else was Reading, yeah. Just ‘cause it’s easier. The drums are really important to us, to capture really sort of live and roomy sounding drums. So, getting a good studio and a big room is really important, but for the guitars and stuff you can just do it in any studio really, as along as you can crank the amps as loud as possible. It’s got to a point where I’ve been recording for so long – I’ve recorded other bands and I recorded our first two EPs myself – I’ve come a long way since then – but just getting that confidence to be able to say “right, I’m going to be able to do this album.”

We know exactly what we want in terms of tones and in terms of like the performances and everything. I’m not as confident recording drums, so for those we worked with Scott Atkins, who did our first two albums. I did everything else and then gave it back to Scott to mix it. I’ve sort of said that we co-mixed it, but he was the one mixing it and I was sort of like the annoying back seat driver telling him what to do.

Was it a financial necessity for you to be the producer on this one,?
I mean, you know, it helps that it saves money, but we didn’t need to do that by any means. It doesn’t make sense, these days, going to someone else when we know that we can do it ourselves. It’s about just getting to that level of confidence. It’s actually sort of what we did on Monolith as well, when I did a lot of the guitar tracking and engineering.

It just comes a time and after a while you just sort of think: “Oh, OK, actually I do know what I’m doing here, I do know what I’m after.” It means we can things done a lot quicker and easier as well. Instead of travelling somewhere else, staying in hotels and dealing with that, we can just go down the road to the studio and hash it out really quickly.

Was there a particular moment where you decided: “Yeah, I’m ready to take the production by the horns” as it were?
I guess it was before Monolith to be honest. I did quite a lot of the tracking on that one and then with [Dormant Heart], even more so. You learn from mistakes and you learn from the past as well. I’d imagine that in the future we’ll keep on working this way.

Like I said: drums are really important to get done in, like, a big, proper studio and that sort of thing. And it’s great to work with a proper engineer for that. When it comes to working with a producer in terms of them having ideas for songs and stuff, it’s when you’re tracking the drums that’s usually when you change arrangements – before the drummer lays it all down and everything’s set in stone. So, it still means you can get an outside ear for adding a different section here and there or taking one out or, you know, the tempo of the song. This way you still can get an outsider’s input but – at the same time – we can just go off and do the rest of it really quickly, which is just convenient really.

Would you say that, I mean, is production something that you’d be looking to do more of in the future? Not just for, like you say, for Sylosis, but for other bands as well?
I do enjoy it, but it can be quite stressful recording other bands when they haven’t rehearsed. I’ve had experience before of tracking musicians and they just…let’s just say it’s quite painstaking. Any producer will tell you, so…

I’m the sort of person that spends a lot of time on my own; I’m somewhat of a hermit, which means I enjoy mixing. I love to mix other band’s stuff because you can be really creative and you can just get on with it on your own. But with the full production thing, it’s tough. Even people like Scott [Atkins] say “It can fry your brains a bit.” So I’m not looking to branch out into it, other than the Sylosis stuff really.

On the issue of drums, did Rob Callard record the drums before he left the band or was Ali Richardson doing that?
It was all Rob. We began tracking back in March, so that’s quite a long time but we kept it secret because we knew that it was just going to take forever to finish (as usual!). For some reason, the mixing [process] of all of our albums ends up going on way too long, or the artwork goes on forever and gets delayed. So this time we figured we’d just keep it secret and then, when we were ready to tell people, we could condense people’s excitement. Anyway, the drums were recorded in March, then we went on tour with Devildriver, did the guitars, then we did some festivals, then we did the vocals. So it’s all been quite a split-up recording process.

With such a drawn out recording process, was the end result very much what you’d envisaged from the start, or was it one of those albums that you did sort of chop-and-change and work on during that extended process?
There was no real fixed goal and, production-wise, you know, specifically what we wanted it to sound like. Just sort of, like, happy accidents really. The main thing was we wanted it to sound big and heavy and to, obviously, be able to stand up next to any other modern metal album. But we also want it to be very raw and organic and lively and human sounding. That was the main focus, but in terms of specific tones and that sort of stuff, it wasn’t too, yeah, thought out in advance really.

If You Buy One Thing This Week, make it Dormant Heart by Sylosis

A couple of minutes ago you touched very briefly on artwork. Bonfire [the album artist] has done some stuff for you guys in the past – were you not ever tempted to take that aspect on yourself as well? Because I know that you do illustration as well.
Not really. It was never really I never really though of it too much. I knew that I’d end up stressing over it. You never, like, want to focus on something that’s finished; you always want to keep going. It’s a lot easier when you can get someone else to do it, in that respect. Coupled with doing all the production, I would have stressed myself out too much.

It’s great working other artists and Bonfire’s amazing, he did a much better job than I would have done, anyway. I don’t think I’ll be doing any Sylosis stuff in the future – maybe some t-shirt designs – but I’m probably too much of a perfectionist to do those album covers.

Now, the artwork itself – and the sort of video for ‘Leech’ – have both got a kind of a cult/sacrificial vibe to it; I wanted to talk about how/whether or not you think that is mirrored by some of the lyrical themes the album touches on or whether or how that feeds into them.
I guess it’s sort of symbolic, in terms of the album cover. But in terms of the video, that’s sort of a collaboration with us and the guy Ollie [Jones of Better Feeling Films] who did it. It’s just about making something that sort of looks cool and having a story and making it engaging and interesting, about just trying to capture the sort of darkness of the music and trying to match that with the video

In term of ‘Leech’, like, it’s quite a straight-forward and melodic song for us that we wanted to able to sort of appreciate the sort of darker edger to it and get that vibe from it. And just having visual that back that up helped. But, in terms of the album cover, yeah, there’s a bit more sort of meaning in that. It’s more of a symbolic representation of sacrifice, nothing quite literal or anything like that. The lyrics on the album touch upon things like the pressures in society to stick to certain things out of tradition or, you know, not really thinking for yourself just because they feel that’s how society, you know, deems itself to be and not questioning it. So it’s got that ominous figure in the background that’s meant to be sort of forcing this women into doing something that isn’t really her own choice. But for the video? It’s just a bit of fun.

On that sort of topic of themes, with both Edge Of The Earth and Monolith – while I wouldn’t say they were “concept albums” – there were definitely narrative ideas underpinning each record. There doesn’t seem to be so much of that on this album or, at least, in such an obvious way. Was that a conscious decision or did the album themes come together in some other way?
I always like to try and come up with a concept in my head, as it always makes writing lyrics easier. To have a starting point and to know where to begin means you can sort of map out like an idea of a story or concept in your head first. For t[Dormant Heart] I didn’t do that so much as more getting a basic idea for a concept or themes, as opposed to it being a concept album with a story and that sort of thing.

What was the instigating factor behind this being the sort of theme you went for this time round?
When you’re a teenager, you’re full of teenage angst and you’re into really heavy music; when you get a bit older and you chill out a bit. But I’ve found that is the case with getting older, but at the same time getting a bit more disillusioned with the world, I’m paying more attention to things that you don’t pay attention to when you’re younger. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m, you know, really clued up on my politics or anything like that, but certain things to do with politics or in society, or even to do with the environment and stuff that I just have more and more of an interest in.

I stay away from crackpot conspiracy theories and stuff and focus on facts, but there’s still so much stuff to really get angry about. I guess saying an increased interest politically would be the easiest way of summing it up. We’re definitely not turning into Rage Against The Machine by any means and getting all political on people, but just taking more of a look at what’s going on in the world as opposed to just living in, you know, your own little bubble. It’s just like a slow process really, just slowly becoming more, you know, aware socially I guess.

I think it’s quite interesting because metal as a genre can quite often can exemplify the most different extremes within human concepts. On the one hand, metal music and metal fandom can be quite reactionary and set in their ways, but at the other end of the spectrum, metal is arguably one of the most progressive music mediums there is. Were you ever worried that dealing with ideas that might challenge a metal audience might have a negative reaction from fans or was that just never a concern when you’re writing an album?
I do tend to “cover my tracks” a lot of the time, lyrically, and dress things up – either with concepts or just imagery or just metaphors or something like that. Not that I’m saying I’m the best in the, the world’s best lyricist or anything by any means, but I try and… More in the past I used to do it, just…I’d talk about personal stuff, and I’d rather not just talk about about my personal life too much, and so it’s sort of good to dress it up with a concept and not really have to go into too much detail about it.

And this time it’s a similar thing really, only this time it’s what angers me. I definitely don’t want to try and force my opinions and my views on anyone else, which is why I don’t think people will really get a specific idea of what the lyrics are about unless they sort of quiz me on it. I don’t think that it was out of that concern though really why I choose to hide the lyrics or cover them up in a sort of conceptual way…

I don’t really like singing about, you know, ‘these city streets’ and all that sort of stuff. I like to write lyrics that are more…I don’t want to say “fantasy”, ’cause that sounds like cheesy power metal. Take a band like Mastodon. You’ll never really hear them talking about, cars or something. I like dressing lyrics as a bit more fantastical, I guess. But using them to talk about real issues and sort of hide them, I guess.

Going back a step, with recruiting Ali to the band – how did it go about from him standing in on a few live dates to being a full-time member of the band? That’s not the most easy conversation to have with someone.
We recorded the album with Rob in March, then we went on tour – and Rob had a few interviews for jobs in something like ‘biosciences’ or ‘bioengineering’, I don’t know for sure. Something clever, anyway – he’s a clever guy. That was sort of a surprise to us: “Oh, OK. He’s got a job interview – that’s a bit weird.” So two days before the tour he told us that.

Bleed From Within were on the tour anyway, so we asked Ali to fill in and he fully nailed it, just learned the whole set in two days – didn’t need to rehearse with him, it was great. We’d kind of figured it was coming, but when Rob decided to leave, it was sort of a no-brainer really. It was just like “Ali, can you do it?” We didn’t really need to audition him. It was a very like easy, mutual – well, maybe not mutual – but with Rob leaving, it was completely on good terms. Asking Ali was quite easy as well. The whole thing was very smooth.

Are you worried at all about the difficulties of sharing a drummer with another band?
We, obviously, we spoke about that sort of stuff and those guys are, I don’t think they’re up to much this year – I think they’re writing [a new album]. Us and our managersat down with Ali and spoke about it. We’ll find a way to make it work. We’re not too worried, to be honest.

Now, the album itself, on a more sort of songwriting aspect. I don’t wanna say Dormant Heart a felt like a new band band, but it definitely feels beefier, more muscular. It felt like it had a bigger fist to punch me with, if that makes sense?
That was sort of an aim with this one. You know, big songs and stuff but still retaining what we do and everything. No matter how technical or fast we might have been in the past – we have always focussed on writing good songs and songwriting is an important thing to us. I’m a huge fan of a band like Foo Fighters and I appreciate good rock songs.

I think ‘Leech’ is probably the most ‘single-y’ sort of track we’ve done and it’s by no means some radio-friendly anthem or anything. I think we’ve done it in a way that’s still retained all of our integrity as a band an it’s definitely not like we we’re trying to sellout or anything like that.

There’s also, you know, there’s more variation in terms of tempos. With Edge Of The Earth, the whole album’s really fast and given as how we write quite long albums (we can’t help that) it was good to sort of try and mix it up with this one. Dormant Heart is just as fast – actually, there’s one song that’s the fastest we’ve ever done by far that was a nightmare to record – but it’s got a lot more variation in tempos, there’s more groove in there, and some of the doomier influences have come out even more .

It’s definitely, deliberately meant to have like a very dark and sinister vibe to it. I think we established what we do on Edge Of The Earth and Monolith; we’re always gonna be a fast, thrashy band and with those two albums we can show that we can be consistent in that. But I think we can now do slightly different things with each album without it meaning that this is the direction we’re heading in from now on. For example, if there’s a bit more ‘doomier’ vibes coming through on this one, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to continue to keep going down that road and get slower and slower and slower. It just means that this album has a certain vibe to it. Maybe the next album will be more progressive or it will sound like a Slayer album. We wanted [Dormant Heart] to just have its own sort of vibe to it and concentrate on making it really dark and sick.

Do you feel that Sylosis is now seen as an established voice within British metal or do you feel that you’ve still got – I wouldn’t say a stigma – but the idea of being still a young band? Or do you think that’s gone now?
I think the ‘young band’ thing has probably gone now. We feel established within the metal community and we’ve proven to be consistent with our music and touring and everything. We’re definitely not an overnight-hype band that’s just blown up, but we still seem to be building and building up a solid, real sort of grassroots fanbase.

There is still the sort of British stigma to I think, like, without sounding really negative or saying anything bad about the British press, but I think, even sometimes, sometimes they aren’t too supportive of British music. Or, in our case, there’s not much of a story in terms of us as people, or anything like that – we haven’t come from the ghetto or haven’t killed anyone and there’s not much to write about other than the music. And that’s not, I guess, what, you know, the magazines and stuff really wanna write a whole article about song structures and stuff ‘cause kids don’t wanna read that.

At the same time, I completely understand the situation I definitely will never be like: “Oh, we don’t get enough publicity.” We’re not getting loads of attention ‘cause we haven’t got cool haircuts, we’re not particularly good looking, and there’s no real story – we’re not King 810 whatever. We definitely have nothing to complain about in that respect, by all means.

I think that’s an interesting point of view to take. I did find it interesting looking at – and apologies if this an unpleasant topic to touch upon – but the bus crash you guys were in when you were on tour. Now that’s the kind of event that for some bands is written into a big, era-defining moment. I think Baroness’ bus crash…

Yeah, they beat us to it!

…is an example of where an incident like that has just become a hook that the press have dangled the band off for a significant amount of time. That definitely didn’t seem to happen with you guys, it just to be, you know, “Thank God no-one’s hurt” and then the story wrapped itself up.
Yeah, exactly. At the end of the day it was a very, very serious crash. It was a totalled RV – that thing was a pile of mush in the middle. We were just insanely lucky just to get out without any broken bones. So, definitely not a touchy subject by any means – it’s fine – but because, I guess, we were all fine and we didn’t have to undergo any crazy surgery or anything, it just got forgotten about. But at the same time that’s fine because we’d rather not try and milk it, you know, and make it out to be worse than it was.

Do you feel that overall that that sort of de-focus on musicianship and songwriting extends beyond the British press and is also shared by music fans, or do you think that that sort of myopic ‘what’s the story’ angle is purely a press problem?
I don’t wanna make out like I have some problem with the press I just think that’s er…

I was gonna say, I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to honey trap you into some kind of sensationalist headline.
Well, I do think it’s more just to do with the press. I don’t think that fans, or musically fans generally – especially metal fans – care too much about all that. I think that fans of heavy music and stuff just focus on the music, they’re not really into what’s trendy and what’s cool for the most part. Especially the people that listen to our music. [They] are fans of the music.

But I think it’s fair enough, to be honest, what I was saying about with the press: if there’s nothing to talk about other than, you know, your album and the music and how you recorded it… and you don’t have nothing too crazy happen to you then what’s the whole article going to be about? The crash was a big deal and it’s definitely effected us. It affects how we tour like how we decide to be driven – who’s driving us, what the transport is – we’re all very nervous passengers. But that’s not that interesting, I guess. Yeah, there wasn’t much to dwell on in terms of that, either.

On a slight parallel to that – we talked earlier a bit about how while this album is in many ways quite a “catchy” album for Sylosis – do you think that your music is possibly a bit more oblique and a bit more difficult for a casual listener to get into? Do you think that might be a consequence?
I mean, it depends – how do you define the casual listener? If you mean just somebody who’s into heavy music in general, it’s probably easier to get into musically, than I reckon for some of our earlier stuff which is really fast and technical, but we still have a lot of fast and technical stuff on the album but I guess there are certain songs that will be an easier gateway. I think it’s a lot bleaker, definitely and that’s quite deliberate – I just happen to gravitate towards that sort of thing and dark music and dark imagery and films and everything like that. A lot of people are finding the ‘Leech’ video quite bleak and sinister, and everyone was like: “Oh, this is cool.” So it’s not too much of a worry, to be honest.

What did you think about cartoon ‘you’ in the video?
It’s actually a traced me. SWe performed as we would for a music video and even all the storyline, the narrative stuff was all filmed with an actress or actors and then [Oliver Jones of Better Feeling Films] drew over every frame. It took him months. I really liked it; I just like animated stuff. For a band of our size – we don’t have the crazy budgets for videos – animated stuff means you can do things like have a woman walk through a cathedral with like a river of blood running through it and it doesn’t cost you thousands of pounds.

I’d honestly like to do more kind of animated stuff, and we’re definitely not like a poser-y band that likes doing music videos or like, being in them so it definitely makes them more interesting to watch. I mean, I find it hard to watch videos where a band aren’t in it and it’s just a storyline, whereas when it’s animated it’s – to me – just a bit more visually interesting.

Well, it also has the benefit of not being a lyric video.
Yeah, I’m glad we didn’t do one of them.

No-one in the world likes lyric videos.
No, bands don’t like them, but I think it’s just…they’re so common now that everyone feels pressured into doing them.

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Dormant Heart, the new album from Sylosis, is out now on Nuclear Blast. It’s definitely worth shelling out for.

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