By Avinash Mittur
Cormorant are a San Francisco black metal act with influences all across the heavy metal spectrum. Blast beats, harmonies, shrieked vocals and bluesy guitar solos are all fair game for Cormorant. The band features Arthur Von Nagel on bass and vocals, Nick Cohon and Matt Solis on guitar and Brennan Kunkel on drums. They released their second album, Dwellings, last year to great acclaim- the album made many end of the year lists and was even declared the number one metal record of the 2011 by NPR. Last Saturday I finally got to see Cormorant play a set at Slim’s in San Francisco, and I had the opportunity to talk with them about their famous D.I.Y. attitude, the recording of Dwellings and their upcoming tours with Primordial and YOB among other topics. Read our conversation below, check out the song “Unearthly Dreamings” off of the album using the YouTube player embedded near the bottom of this page, and be sure to interact with the band on their facebook and twitter pages.
To start off, a lot of Metal Assault’s readers are in Los Angeles where Cormorant may not be as well known as other parts of the country. Do your best to describe yourselves to everyone who don’t know your music!
Matt: Well first and foremost, we are a heavy metal band. We try to keep it heavy with everything we do, but there are a lot of influences from everything from classic rock to progressive rock to jazz and all sorts of other shit. If you had to tag us, I guess it would be progressive black metal with a folk influence. Progressive blackened folk metal I guess.
Arthur: Tiberian-ass bastard folk!
Matt: Yes, tiberian-ass bastard folk. But yeah, a lot of progressive elements coming together in a black metal stir-fry.
You guys are pretty famous for remaining completely independent and your D.I.Y. work ethic. From what I know though, demand has been very high for your music to the point of selling out of CDs.
Arthur: Yes, we did sell out of copies of Dwellings at one point, we had to print another run.
Is major distribution something that the band would want to consider?
Arthur: It might be a good idea in the future perhaps.
Brennan: We have a small distributor don’t we?
Arthur: Yeah, we do have a few distributors. We have one guy in Japan, one dude in Europe and another guy here in the United States that do their own distribution. CD Baby does distribution as well.
Brennan: Digital downloads have been wonderful as well. It’s instant distribution without any work from our end.
Nick: There are a lot of great benefits to doing stuff D.I.Y. but distribution is definitely the biggest pain in the ass. For Dwellings, we pretty much turned Arthur’s mom’s house into an assembly line sweatshop for several days. There was a lot of going to the post office.
Arthur: It was three straight days of being at the post office for the entire day. We all have full time jobs, so it got rough.
Matt: There’s good things and bad things about being D.I.Y. though, distribution is definitely the number one thing that we want on our side.
Brennan: It’s more rewarding shipping things yourself because of things like being able to add a little thank-you note. It’s more personal than having someone else send it off in whatever timeline they’re working at, you know?
Nick: People feel kind of connected to you when you send it yourself. Even just a hand-written note can make them feel like they’re part of the band. It’s pretty cool in that way, but it’s still a giant pain in the ass to ship stuff all over the world!
Brennan: It’s interesting because you can track where things go. You see the packages go to small little countries here and there all across the map. How many countries have we shipped to?
Arthur: Thirty five different countries.
Nick: I think just last week I shipped to Saudi Arabia, Germany, New Zealand, Mexico and Luxembourg.
More than a lot of other bands, Cormorant are really great about keeping in touch with the fans. I don’t know who runs your Facebook page, but someone is always commenting on everyone’s posts.
Matt: Arthur does a lot of that, but we all kind of split duties with Twitter, Facebook and all the social media. It’s super important, especially for an unsigned band like us, to be out there as much as possible. It’s also cool for fans to feel like they can talk directly to us. It gives a cool little aspect to being a fan of the band. You can comment on something on Facebook and you’ll know that one of us is gonna respond because we have nothing else to do!
Except the full time jobs and all.
Brennan: Yeah, except working all the time!
You guys really went all out for the artwork of Dwellings, it’s a full eight panel fold out if I remember right?
Arthur: It’s three full panels on the exterior and then there’s three more panels on the inside and a full booklet with sketches.
It’s awesome and beautiful artwork, but I feel like it would be better appreciated on vinyl.
The band collectively groans.
Arthur: We know, we know!
Nick: We absolutely agree, but for us to independently produce it we would spend all of our savings on a pressing. We might get rid of a quarter of that within the first rush, then we’re sitting on a shit ton of inventory. It’s something that we were talking to a label about.
Matt: It was a go at the time, but then the floor fell through!
Brennan: We signed some contracts and all. Shipping records independently though…
Arthur: Shipping vinyl is hell on earth.
Matt: We’re with you though man, we want it out.
Nick: We want both Dwellings and Metazoa on vinyl. It’ll be a double LP with the full spread.
Matt: It’s definitely a goal, it’ll happen one day. Arthur printed a poster of the artwork and it looks so much more glamorous.
Arthur: What was the price quote that we got? It was like three hundred units for five thousand dollars for the vinyl. It would have the triple gatefold, double colored vinyl, the whole shebang.
Nick: Exactly, it would be a colored splatter or swirl design.
Arthur: We can’t half-ass anything, it’s got to be fuckin’ good.
What about the posters?
Brennan: It’s more expensive than the vinyl!
Arthur: I paid seventy bucks for that poster I had printed!
Brennan: And then it was another three to four hundred to frame it.
Nick: It costs seven to eight dollars per square foot.
Arthur: The full Dwellings dimensions are two feet by four and a half to five feet.
Nick: That’s ten square feet for each poster- seventy dollars. That’s at Kinko’s/FedEx though.
Brennan: We could do an order to print, but who’s gonna pay seventy dollars for a poster?
Arthur: We’d love to do all this cool stuff, but we can’t afford it!
In a way, my question about the vinyl was on behalf of Dwellings’ engineer, Justin Weis. I believe he sent you guys the high-res masters at one point.
Brennan: Oh yeah, he did! If he can front us the money then we’d totally do it!
Matt: Yeah, it was all ready to go. The label we were in talks with paid for Justin to remaster Dwellings for vinyl, we had the layout all set up but it just fell through unfortunately. It doesn’t mean that it won’t happen in the future, we still have the masters.
Justin Weis’ Trakworx Studio, where Dwellings was recorded, has had so many amazing bands come through like Ludicra, Hammers of Misfortune and Slough Feg. Cormorant are could be considered among a first generation of metal groups that have worked at that studio to not share any members with those aforementioned bands. Were those groups an influence on Cormorant’s sound? You all would have been at the age when they were at their most active and playing lots of shows.
Matt: Ludicra especially were an influence for all four of us. We don’t sound like Ludicra, but we do a lot of the same kind of styles that they touched upon. They were kind of like a rockin’ black metal band. They had a lot of rockin’ riffs because John Cobbett just wrote and played guitar like that. Ludicra definitely heavily influenced us, at least for me growing up listening to their old records.
John Cobbett is an ex-member of Slough Feg and Ludicra, and currently plays guitar in Hammers of Misfortune.
Brennan: Aesop Dekker’s drumming had more of a hardcore raw punkiness to it, a more powerful way of playing.
Aesop Dekker is an ex-member of Ludicra and currently plays drums in Agalloch.
Matt: But yeah, we’ve played with Slough Feg and Hammers of Misfortune and they’re definitely an influence on us.
Arthur: Brennan, you actually ran into Mike Scalzi on a ferry right?
Mike Scalzi is an ex-member of Hammers of Misfortune and currently is the lead vocalist and guitarist of Slough Feg.
Brennan: Yeah, so we were mulling over where to record Dwellings since we had done our first album, Metazoa, with Billy Anderson the previous time. We heard all these albums being cranked out by Justin Weis and he had actually mastered Metazoa earlier- he really scrubbed up the album and made it shine. It took a ferry one day and saw Mike Scalzi- we talked and I picked his brain a little bit for information on Justin. He told me “do it, do it! This guy is a total pro and I would never go to anyone else.” He spoke super highly of Justin and how efficiently he mixes, which we later found absolutely incredible. The second we deviate from something, he catches it. Whether it’s vocals or some other part, he’ll tell us “we’re not gonna use that, don’t burn out your voice, let’s redo it.” He has such a good ear for quality control and even what we’re going for. He can really put himself in the band’s shoes and say “I see what you guys are doing. This works, this doesn’t work” etc. He can kind of become like a fifth member of the band.
Cormorant are embarking on a national tour pretty soon, I believe with Primordial?
Arthur: Yes, well there are actually two tours, one with Primordial and While Heaven Wept and the other with YOB and Norska.
You also just recently completely a west coast tour, going up through Oregon I think?
Arthur: We actually went up to Washington! All the way up to Bellingham, almost to Canada.
That’s the most extensive tour activity I’ve seen from Cormorant yet.
Matt: Everything else has been local. We went to Santa Cruz once. We’ve also been to Petaluma and Weaverville. Just California pretty much.
Is more extensive touring something fans can expect from Cormorant in the future?
Nick: Yeah, we’re always hoping to play more shows. When the Primordial tour was offered to us it was like “uh, yeah.”
Matt: The biggest obstacle obviously is that all four of us work full time and it’s hard to get that much time off work and not be broke when we come home. It’s a matter of figuring out which tour to do, and we knew with this one that we had to do it. The last one was testing the waters as far as touring goes. We’d love to tour, assuming the right bill comes along. If it’s the right situation, we’re ready to play.
You mentioned local shows earlier. San Francisco has so many great bands, but you all play 21+ shows. What would you guys think about kids coming to the shows?
Arthur: We wish everyone could come to our shows!
Matt: It’s out of your hands when you’re in a band, we pretty much just play where we can. Unfortunately a lot of places have to sell booze to keep afloat and make a profit. There are places to play like the Phoenix in Petaluma, Thee Parkside and Slim’s here in SF that are all ages. It just kind of happens that way that we play bars a lot because those are the places that are booking shows.
Arthur: We don’t have any control over that, which is really unfortunate.
As some bands get more popular, they start to lose touch with their fans a little bit. How big do you all want Cormorant to be considering how important fan interaction is for you guys in particular?
Matt: The thing about being in this band is that we’re all in our late twenties. We all know the deal, it’s not like we’re expecting to be a huge fuckin’ band that sells out stadiums. If that happens that’s cool, but don’t have any huge aspirations that are beyond our means. As far as falling out of touch with our fans, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. We’re always manning Facebook and Twitter, responding to emails and whatnot.
Nick: That, and we’re still fans ourselves! We’re always at shows and we’re always talking about new music and new bands.
Matt: We’re just normal dudes who play music that people like, so it’s cool that we’re happy to make records, tour and do all that stuff. Whatever happens will happen.
Brennan: It’s kind of what keeps it going you know? Who wouldn’t want to hear from a fan that says “hey, I love your album” and telling you what they like about it. Everyone receives it a little differently, so it’s interesting to hear people’s perspective on how it sounds. We create and it’s open to interpretation for anybody.
Well, you guys are normal dudes who made the number one metal album of 2011 according to NPR.
Brennan: Yeah, that was a trip!
Arthur: That was amazing. We were surprised to say the least.
Matt: That was really about getting the right person to hear it. Lars Gotrich, NPR’s metal guy, was given a copy of Dwellings by our publicist, Kim, just like she does for everyone else. He really liked it and he’s in a position to make something like that happen. We were just fortunate that he liked our album, and that happens with other websites like Metal Sucks, No Clean Singing and Yahoo who have all written a lot of stuff about us. It’s getting the music into the ears of the right people I guess.
Cormorant has a ton of different sounds and influences going on in the music. Has it made it difficult for you guys to play shows with other bands? It’s automatically a varied bill when Cormorant’s involved.
Brennan: It’s cool, we’ll probably play a slightly different setlist on the tour with YOB than the one with Primordial. We really get a choice with what we decide to play. Even when we play with bands that are outside of our genre- we once played a show with a blues band that had a harmonica player! We came and played and it was totally different, but people liked it.
Matt: We even receive compliments from people who aren’t into metal. Often we’ll hear “you know, I don’t listen to metal but I liked these parts…” Like you said, we have a lot of different sounds and influences. We have softer parts that people who aren’t into abrasive music can get into. We haven’t really run into anything weird where a crowd has hated us. As long as you’re heavy and you play with heavy bands, it seems like things work out pretty well.
Speaking of a more prolific amount of styles, the vocals going from Metazoa to Dwellings were a total quantum leap with new sounds and styles of singing being introduced. What prompted that change? Was it a result of the songwriting or maybe the recording process?
Arthur: Well, Matt and Brennan really worked their asses off on their clean vocals. They sound incredible on Dwellings. On Dwellings, we just kind of wanted to do more black metal, a little bit more harsh. I felt like the vocals on Metazoa were almost too accessible, not extreme and crazed enough. With Dwellings, I wanted to just die doing those vocals. I even fainted in the vocal booth a couple times during recording! I lost my voice for a week, but I wanted something to translate that emotion.
Brennan: With Dwellings, the lyrics are more audible. You can understand what we’re saying a lot more.
Arthur: That was another thing, we definitely wanted to make the lyrics a lot more understandable. It was like a weird mix of it having to be more harsh and also more discernable. It was a difficult balance.
With black metal bands, they tend to sing about topics as random as animals in the forests or Satan and killing Christians and whatnot. Cormorant’s lyrics are really intelligent though- what kind of influences and sources are you drawing from for those lyrics?
Arthur: I don’t know, I just read a lot of newspapers and follow the news. There isn’t much of a musical influence apart from ’60s folk music. Nikolai Gogol, Kafka, and Albert Camus are all poets and writers that I love.
Matt: The lyrics that Arthur writes all tell stories, so it’s kind of non-traditional in the sense that many metal bands go line-by-line about a theme. Arthur’s lyrics are all about a tale or a story, which lends itself to the music that we write. There are lots of peaks and valleys, so it’s kind of like an immersive audio story experience.
Brennan: There isn’t a lot of verse-chorus structure.
Arthur: Almost none. The music that the band writes totally creates lyrics- they come after the music. We do a demo, I listen to it and match it up with random syllables like “ooh-ah-eeh-ah.” It sounds totally ridiculous, but that’s how we find out how the rhyme scheme will go. We have that kind of skeleton and then we can plug in words.
Brennan: We can even plug in styles, like “we can put in a shout or a scream here, or a death metal growl here.”
Matt: Also, a lot of the music that we write inform the lyrics in terms of theme. We had a song, “Howling Dust,” that we would call “the western song” because of the western-y feel at the beginning. Arthur took that idea and wrote lyrics way after we had practiced it and were ready to record it. He wrote a story about a ghost town, so in that situation the music informed the entire lyrical content.
Arthur: During the empty space in the middle of “Funambulist,” it sounds like you’re at the top of a wire, which is what the song is about.
I’ve seen some updates from the band about writing new material. Dwellings has only been out for nine months or so, but is a new record already in the works?
Matt: Yeah, we’ve been writing stuff. Preparing for this upcoming tour has been a couple month-long process and the last tour in June kind of stopped it a little bit, but we’ve been writing songs. We’ve got five songs that are at least skeletons if not various stages of development. We’ve been plugging away, we practice a couple times a week.
Brennan: By the time we release an album, we’ve been working on the material for a year and a half to two years. Once we record it, it’s nice to take a breath, take a step back and come out with new ideas. That’s what we did with both Metazoa and Dwellings, when we were done we’d go to practice and start throwing new ideas out there until the next show or tour.
Matt: We don’t know when it’ll be done or ready to record, but another album is definitely on the horizon.
This tour has you guys on an opening slot, but are there any upcoming Cormorant headlining shows?
Arthur: Well, our tour in June was a headlining run.
Matt: We headlined most of the shows on the last tour we did, but all of the shows we have booked are opening slots. There’s always something that comes up.
Brennan: We’ll take an opening tour with bands like Primordial and YOB any day of the week!
Matt: We’ll headline one of these days and play for an hour or so.
Thanks for chatting with me, and best of luck with the upcoming tour!