In-depth Interview With Yakuza Frontman Bruce Lamont

By Andrew Bansal

Chicago-based avant-garde metal band Yakuza released their sixth studio album ‘Beyul’ on October 16th 2012 via Profound Lore Records, and after exploring it through a couple of listens, I found myself enjoying what the album has to offer. Yesterday, I spoke to frontman Bruce Lamont to discuss the making of this album amongst a variety of other topics in this extremely detailed interview. Enjoy the conversation below, and if you’re completely unfamiliar with the band, check out my review of ‘Beyul’, where I’ve given a thorough introduction of what Yakuza is all about. Also visit Yakuza’s facebook and twitter pages for more info on ordering the album and to stay up to date with them.

First of all, tell me about the shows you did last weekend. I believe you did a couple of album release shows, one in your hometown Chicago and the other one in New York.

Yeah, they went great! Chicago was awesome. We played at this venue called Empty Bottle. It’s nice to play at home because we can share the stage with a lot of our friends and family from the scene. We had a couple of extra horn players play with us. Alison Chesley, known as Helen Money, sat in for most of the set, and my sister Kelly who is a vocalist came in for a few things. So it was a really expanded lineup of eight or nine people. We had some video production from our guy in town, this guy Joe Carsello who’s really awesome. We made an event out of it, and it was really badass. It was packed and we’re super happy. And then we jumped in the car and went straight to New York (laughs), and played the following night with a really awesome line-up of bands, Royal Thunder, Fight Amp, Enabler, and it went awesome. We got an hour’s worth of sleep so that made things interesting, but regardless, it was great. New York has become a second home for me personally. I’ve been out there a lot. I’ve been playing there frequently with my various projects. It’s funny because we have to drive 800 miles between New York and Chicago, but it seems so familiar. It’s like driving down the street, you know.

So, what did you do exactly? Did you play the whole of the new album?

We played the new album from beginning to end at both shows, and at the Chicago show we played a couple of the older songs and we did only one or two in New York. It was the first time we played the new songs live.

Musically, where would you put ‘Beyul’, in comparison to your other albums? I personally feel there’s less of the jazz element this time.

It’s the never-ending saga known as Yakuza, but it’s funny, because when we were done with it and we all sat back while we were mixing the album, we heard elements of every record we’ve ever done before, which has never been the case. Usually, not that we try, but it happens to be the case where we kind of redefine ourselves with each record. With this one, we actually hear elements of everything, from the time we started out as a band. As far as stylistically, there was no intention of it being less jazz or more this or more that. We don’t really go about things like that. The only thing is, the jazz tag has always been weird. It happens only because of the saxophone, I think. There are more angular moments in our music, but it’s only for a brief period of time. It’s not like we’re cutting the rug and doing a Bebop tune or anything of that nature. There are elements or moments that occur, and may be that hasn’t happened in this record, I don’t know. We’re just so involved in it that it’s difficult to step back and say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s right. There’s no jazz parts.’ So I couldn’t tell you if there’s more or less of it, to be honest with you.

When I saw the title, I was very interested in it and I studied that a little bit. After listening to the music I felt that it fits. Would you say that the music is a story-based thing this time, or was it more a case of writing the music first and then finding a title and lyrical theme?

There is a general theme lyrically to this whole record, not super-intentional. It’s just this idea of ‘Beyul’ and this place which is not just physical but also a mental place you need to be at. You can’t experience a place fully unless you’re prepared, with your body and mind. Musically, that’s kind of always where we’ve wanted to be at. It’s not just physically playing the music, it’s getting inside of it in a way like nothing else. It’s something beyond us, you know. I think that’s a lifelong journey as far as how we want to go about creating, working together and things like that, and that’s where it all comes from. So, our drummer Jim Staffel threw out the title at us, and we all did our research on it. When I was writing lyrics for that record, I was thinking about those things. I was thinking about Beyul and the idea of that, and there’s other things too. There’s not so much despair on this record as opposed to the ones in the past (laughs). There’s a little shimmering ray of hope, I guess. I’d hate to think that we’re all going to fucking hell in a hand-basket. Or we could, I don’t know. It might even end tomorrow. Actually it’s December 21st 2012.

I know, right? So you must be planning to throw everything in before it all comes down on that date, do everything you want to.

Exactly. And then do a facebook post saying, ‘Joke’s on you!’ with a picture of me in a Hawaiian t-shirt, a Mai Tai, a straw hat and sunglasses, just waiting for the end to wash over us. Totally kidding, by the way (laughs).

Yeah, I know this a little off-topic, but since you mentioned it, I don’t think I’ve come across anyone truly believing in that doomsday thing. I don’t see anybody trying to finish their bucket list before ‘doomsday’.

Yeah! From as far back as I can remember, there has been some sort of doomsday theory since the 80s. Some person or some group laid claim and said that we’re going to end on this one particular day. I think the Mayans got a lot of things right, and they could very well be the ones that could nail this sort of thing on its head, but on the exact day, we’ll see. I think the Mayans got it right, but unfortunately the Westerners came in and fucked up the whole calendar thing, so I think the Mayans kind of missed the date by a couple of hundred years in some way, shape or form (laughs). So I’m not really banking on it all going up in flames on December 21st. But if it does, hey, I’ll send you a quick message saying ‘Huh? Look at that! Who would have thought? See you on the other side!’

Exactly! Coming back to this album title, are you actually into the spiritual stuff or is this the first time you looked it up because of your drummer’s idea?

I was a philosophy student in college years ago, and I focussed on these kinds of religions, mainly because I had such a bad taste in my mouth on any sort of Western-based religions. I was just trying to seek out something else beyond that. Not that it was necessary for life or anything like that, but I just wanted to see how other people in the world incorporated these things or what it meant to them. So I did some extensive research back then. In Buddhism I found elements that I could appreciate more so than anything than Catholicism has to offer, which I’m not into at all. But generally speaking, no I’m into the subject. There are some energy forces out there, and we’re all tied into something and connected in ways that we don’t quite understand. But as far as believing in that to exist on a daily basis, naah.

As far as writing the music is concerned, what does it take for you to get into that headspace? Do you have to move away from daily life in Chicago, or do anything of that sort?

It would help, because sometimes things in Chicago get a little chaotic just because it’s home, and there’s lots of things going on, just the daily life outside of music. But we don’t really have that luxury so much, so we try to dedicate some time during the week just to work on things and bounce ideas off each other. Jim and Ivan wrote a lot of the, if not all of the basis for the record and then they were open enough to let Matt and I come in and work with it, and find our own voices within the initial framework. It takes time. At times there are a lot of hours with nothing going on, just repetitively listening and doing things here and there. But yeah, I would love to take off and go somewhere to create, but I just don’t have that luxury right now, nor does the band, for that matter.

Interesting. So, this album is 39 minutes in total duration. I feel that, with a theme such as this, may be you could have explored it a little more, with another tune or two.

Yeah, we could have, but for us it didn’t call for that. It’s funny, because I read that a couple of times. We had a couple other pieces of music that we were kind of kicking around, but they just didn’t seem to fit, so we didn’t use them. For us, this is it. There’s a lot going on in 39 minutes. To forcibly just add stuff just for the sake of having a longer record was just not a mindset at all. There’s a point in the record where stylistically it’s super-intense. Track #2 through 4 has a lot going on, emotionally too (laughs), so it’s like we all agreed that it’s just perfect the way it is. There’s Black Sabbath records that are like that. How long is ‘Master Of Reality’? I don’t think it’s more than 40 minutes. So yeah, we could have, but we said no.

In general, I feel that the band’s music is an acquired taste. Have you always been OK with the fact that Yakuza is not going to become a super-popular band at any time?

Yeah, that’s not why do this. To be honest with you, I don’t hear that a lot anymore. People say it’s an acquired taste because it’s unique and different, but it [the music] doesn’t sound foreign to me. May be I’m too close to it. But I almost feel that because this gets repeated so often, even folks that don’t know who we are, already have this pre-conceived notion that we’re weird, even if we’re not weird. I’m always curious how people react to our music, and a couple of folks that are out there writing stuff have said about this record, for the first time ever, ‘You know what, they’re not that weird.’ And I was like, there you go! (laughs) But like I said, I’m too close to the music to really be able to tell. I don’t think the music is that strange, but then again, our musical tastes are all over the board, so if you’re coming from one place, whether it be metal or something that’s not metal, for example garage rock or whatever, you hear this music and go, ‘Oh shit! Where’s the reference point? This is kind of insane.’

Yeah, that’s exactly what I meant to say. I was talking particularly about the metal crowd, people who would be checking out my website, for example. I wasn’t speaking on behalf of all music listeners.

Right, right. But even talking about bands that inspired us early on, like Voivod, I was a huge fan of theirs and back in the day I remember they weren’t really taken in by the community because in a sense it was something that just didn’t ‘fly’. And now you listen to them and think, ‘How the hell would you not include Voivod?’ (Laughs) But it’s true, and it happened at one point. There’s a bunch of bands that were like that. You have a band like Acid Bath. They were playing with some of the most brutal death metal bands back in the day, and for death metal fans they were like, ‘What is this shit?!’ I think they’re fucking brilliant. Atheist, Cynic and bands like that, and even Pestilence I think weren’t readily embraced and loved. It took a long time for people to really get into that kind of stuff. So it’s cool. We’re not looking for anything any time soon, or ever (laughs). We just play music and that’s it.

Yeah, I think you went through something similar to what you were just mentioning about Acid Bath, on your 2010 US tour with Triptykon and 1349. They’re extreme bands and you’re different. Did you get a weird reaction from some of the crowds on that tour?

Early in the tour we did. We were in New York, we were getting heckled and what not, and then about three or four days into the tour, Tom Warrior not only came to us, but he was super stoked that it wasn’t the same old kind of lineup. He really enjoyed that all three bands on that tour were very unique and yet very intense and heavy. And then he went out and wrote this long blog that I saw on Blabbermouth a couple of days later. He talked about us a ton. He gave us some really kind and wonderful words. After Warrior had spoke, there was definitely a change in the attitude of the fans that came to see Triptykon. They were at least giving us the time of day. And it was pretty awesome. By the time we got to San Francisco, there was a big old-school crew of the Satanic Hispanics, and they were really fucking cool guys (laughs). I didn’t expect them to embrace us in any way, shape or form, but they did and we talked to a bunch of them after the show. It was pretty cool.

Yeah, I have to be thankful to Tom and Triptykon for having you on that tour, because that’s how I found out about your music, and then I went back and listened to it.

Absolutely. He is an amazing man, and obviously I’ve been a fan since I was 15 years old. So it’s great, and now I can consider him a dear friend, so even better.

One thing that I think about when I listen to Yakuza’s music is, you’ve been doing the Led Zeppelin tribute band for a while, and I feel there’s a bit of a link somewhere. Zeppelin had this world music element in some of their later albums. Do you think even subconsciously you might have picked up on that, and some of it shows on Yakuza?

It may be true on a subconscious level. I’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin since I was four years old, performing with the Led Zeppelin tribute band for 12 years now, since the beginning of Yakuza. It’s very possible, just through performing often and getting into their music more often, that it has made some sort of impact in that regard, but I don’t think of Zeppelin when we are working on material, you know.

A lot of bands coming from Chicago have become national touring acts, and some of them have broken through in Europe as well. But in Chicago itself, do you still get good local shows?

Oh yeah, definitely. It’s awesome. I’ve been saying this for the past 8 or 9 years, but the Chicago scene has become this place where there’s an awesome exchange of ideas from genres across the board, folks mingling and doing different things, so there’s always great shows happening here. Everything knows each other and we get along super-well. There’s a lot of respect and it’s pretty badass. It’s taken a lot of years, and I can’t comprehend why all of a sudden it sort of just happened. It could be the fact that there’s not really an ‘industry’ anymore that would play a role at all in anyone’s mind as far as trying to be the ‘big band on the block’ kind of stuff. There’s not any of that going on. I’m just theorizing, of course. I can’t say for sure. But it started 8 or 9 years ago, it’s been growing ever since and now it’s a fact of life, it’s great and I’m glad it’s happening here. Because of that, we get some really awesome shows.

One final question I have for you: I read another interview that you did for Invisible Oranges where you talked about some documentary that you were supposed to do, and you did a Kickstarter campaign for it. What do you think of Kickstarter in regards to the metal industry? Do you think it has really helped?

Well, the guy filming us for a couple of years, it was his thing. But I knew what Kickstarter was. I never thought of using it for anything at all, but his friends had some luck with it and so he was telling me about it. So I was like, OK I would follow it while this film was being made. I got some very interesting response from some folks that I knew in Europe, who felt like it wasn’t the right thing to do, because in their minds you were like begging for money. So there’s that general sense, at least there, that folks were kind of turned off by it when they saw that. Not me per se, we were just having a conversation about it. They were saying they don’t respect it a whole lot. Whereas I think in the US it’s not even a second thought. I don’t know about the metal community, but I’ve seen some pretty important types of projects that needed funding. So here’s one way to do it, and I’d chip in 50 bucks if it’s something worthwhile, even in the metal community of course. So yeah, it’s not even a like or dislike thing, and I don’t know if it’s helping. Can you give me an example of some sort of metal project that got funded?

No, that’s what I was trying to say. I can’t think of anything that was really successful using Kickstarter. So may be it hasn’t really helped metal as such.

Yeah, from our experience, the money wasn’t made for our film, but it didn’t derail the project by any means. I don’t know of anything in the metal community that’s been done well enough, where it has worked out. May be metal folk also think that it’s pandering in the sense that you’re out begging for money.