Interview with vocalist and guitarist Jadran "Conan" Gonzalez
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: June 17, 2017
Californian technical Death/Thrash Metallers Exmortus have come a long way since starting out back in 2002. With their 4th studio, titled Ride Forth, Exmortus are more popular than ever if record sales are anything to go by.
Exmortus arrived in Europe for the first time at the beginning of April with fellow thrashers Warbringer and Havok as well as French tech-Death Metallers Gorod to keep them company. The caravan reached Helsinki, Finland on April 11, 2017 and yours truly was there to meet main songwriter Jadran "Conan" Gonzalez.
In this interview Conan talks about his first experience touring in Europe, the difficulty of songwriting and getting inspired by great composers, the old days of Exmortus and so on and even throws in some words of wisdom for younger musicians about to start their own bands.
Luxi: Welcome to Finland, Conan. This is your first time in Finland, right? What do you know about our country?
Conan: Oh well, thank you.
Luxi: Is it your first time in Finland?
Conan: Yes indeed. It's a first for the band. It's awesome here, it's pretty cool. I didn't get to do any sightseeing just yet but the weather is a lot better than I expected. Granted, we're in April right now so I assume it's really crazy in January or February, right?
Luxi: Yes. Those months are normally the coldest months in Finland
Conan: Really cold. Oh, shit, well, maybe on another tour we'll come in winter and I'll bring more jackets, haha!!
Luxi: Today the weather isn't that bad...
Conan: Yes. It's cool. It's a really nice day today and I'm loving it. There's a good crowd coming in right now too.
INVADING EUROPE - ACT ONE
Luxi: You are not even halfway through your European tour but how has it been going so far?
Conan: It's been going really well. Like I said, I was telling you earlier before we started the interview that we play early. We play at seven o'clock, 7:30 average and it's still good. There's a crowd showing up early enough to check us out. I guess the people that are into Havok have probably heard of us or something and they show up early enough and they seem to enjoy it. It's been pretty well received so far. It makes me happy because I've always dreamed of coming over here ever since I started playing guitar. It's been pretty good and I'm really excited about that [*laughs*]. It's awesome!!
Luxi: I can tell.
Conan: Yes, totally [*laughs*].
Luxi: You mentioned it's your first time in Europe as well.
Conan: And we're grateful that Havok brought us on board. We've known them for about 10 years, along with Warbringer. It's our first time meeting Gorod and they're fucking awesome guys. Everyone's getting along great. We're all peers. We're all joking around and having fun. Drinking a lot and just making good memorable times. Yes, we have been getting along and are grateful that they got us on board for this tour.
Luxi: Had you heard of Gorod before they joined this tour?
Conan No, no. I heard that they were a technical kind of prog band and it's like, "Okay cool." I figured, "Well, I won't listen to the music. I'm just gonna wait until we tour with them and get that live feel from the get go."
The first night I heard them in Manchester, UK I was really impressed. They're really good instrumentalists, good vocalists and they blew me away. I'm a new fan of theirs. It's really good shit, yes. It was a good surprise. And they're awesome guys to top it off. Awesome people.
Luxi: The end of April will mark the last date on this European tour. What will happen after that in the Exmortus camp?
Conan: Well, we've toured a lot since Ride Forth came out last year in January. I think the longest break we've taken since then was last autumn. It was about three months but even then we would do local shows and stuff. We're just keeping busy and haven't really had time to write an album. We figured we should spend time this summer to get one done. At least write it all out and then figure out what we're going to do about recording it.
We might go to the same guy that did Slave to the Sword and Ride Forth. That producer or that sound engineer...he somewhat produces too. I'm pretty sure we gave him that credit [*laughs*] because he helps out. He knows exactly what we want and we like the same kind of music. He's always helpful. He's always getting the best out of us. When we mess up or we do a take and we think it's all right he's like, "No, do it again, that was shit. You could do it." He said it's shit which is, "Oh, fuck." He's very encouraging. He's like, "I know you can do it. I've seen you fucking play better so come on." It's good to have someone critical but also encouraging. We might go to the same guy and I'm pretty sure we will. I think that's pretty much what we want to do.
We'll see if we get offers for another awesome tour. If we do, we will put writing on hold again because I love to tour. All of us do. We love to be on the road and visit new places. This is our first time in Europe and it's fucking amazing. It's so different from the States. I mean, first thing is the catering. We feel so welcome here. They give us a lot of beer. Too many that I can't drink it all. There's a lot of us; 22 on the bus on this tour. We still have a lot leftover beer from the previous shows.
Luxi: The first thing organizers ask when you come over to Finland is if a couple of 24 packs will be enough. We are used to consuming tons of beer here in Finland...
Conan: Hahah! That's good to know, that's good. I like that, I like that. I thought I was a big drinker but you guys party hard and I'm like, "Hey, I like this I like this." Not just that but the food is great. We just got fed right now, it was awesome. Damn, it's amazing. We don't get that back home in the United States.
Conan: Yes. Well, it depends on the venue. A big venue will do something similar but usually not much. The catering may be good on the big venues, the bigger tours. On this kind of tour back home, no. They hardly do anything for us. Maybe a 24 pack of beer or some shit. It's awesome, I'm having a great fucking time [*laughs*] Can't stress that enough.
Luxi: That's awesome. All this is to welcome you guys to Europe.
Conan: Thank you, thank you. Thank you for having us, right? Hell, yes!
Luxi: Ride Forth, released in January last year, has been getting rave reviews everywhere in the media and among the fans of the band. What was it like creating the songs for this album, keeping in mind that your previous album, Slave to the Sword, was a highly praised album all over the world. Obviously you paid attention to the little details, right?
Conan: Yes we did. I want to really be tedious with little intricate details and make sure everything is as perfect as it can be. I don't want to overdo it to where we can't perform it live. We want the record to be exactly how it will sound live. We record with our metronome so we are on time and have everything lined up. It's easier to record.
Live, we don't do that. That makes a difference because live you can feel certain things breathe a little better. We might speed up or slow down or whatever. Regardless, we like to have a live feeling so that we can actually pull it off live and be sloppy and mess up all the time.
Granted, I miss notes here and there but we strive for the best performance. I don't know, it depends on the piece. I'm the main writer but everyone helps out and I'll get ideas from everyone. We try to go with whatever sounds good right away and whatever and everyone's like, "Oh, I get it, get it down." We go with that and if we're trying to force it too much we discard the idea or put it off to the side for a while. Some songs took a week or two to figure out, some were a few days. I write them like that. It depends on the feeling and how inspired we are and how much time we have back home. We spend a lot of time to perfect it. It's a combination of feeling natural and also planning it out. In the end, I don't know, we don't take too long.
Luxi: Do you use the internet to send ideas to one another?
Conan: Well, the thing is we don't live far from each other. We all live in the same town: Whittier, California.
Luxi: So you just gather together and practice?
Conan: Exactly. We practice as much as possible. I mean granted, we don't practice for eight hours a day together. We see each other a lot throughout the week, almost every day. I see these fucking guys all the time. Fuck. Kill me, already. No, kidding. I love them very much. I love them all very much. I've known them forever.
The drummer is my cousin and I've known him forever. It's easy to get together because we all live five minutes away from each other.
OF MASTER COMPOSER BEETHOVEN
Luxi: How did you end up covering "Appassionata", Ludwig van Beethoven's 23rd piano sonata, for Ride Forth?
Conan: That was a fun one. The thing is, I recorded the bass because the bassist told me he wasn't ready to learn it or perform it. That's another issue and it's probably negative so I shouldn't say anything [*laughter*]. He couldn't get it down and he's not in the band anymore. The new guy is learning but it's very hard. I just really wanted to push. See that's another example of what I was talking about. I was really pushing it hard. Most of the piece isn't too hard. There is one section where the bass does the arpeggio thu-gu-du-gu-du fucking pretty much what guitars do.
It's harder on bass because of the thicker strings and bigger frets. It's a little rough but our new guy, he has big hands so he can pull it off. He's a good guitarist himself. We're just trying to perfect that because like what I was saying, we want to make it sound good. We don't want it to sound too sloppy on stage. But yeah, that's a great piece. I love that piece. I love Beethoven. I'm wearing a Beethoven shirt now [*laughs*].
Luxi: Yes, I noticed that while I was watching you guys during the soundcheck today.
Conan: With Metallica font [*laughs*].
Luxi: It actually looks very much like Metallica's logo.
Conan: Yeah, it does. Oh shit this is Beeth... METALLICA?!! [*laughter*] I found it online. It's awesome to play that kind of stuff because it's easy. We just added drums and that's it, really. Orchestrated the parts, you do this, do this that. Blah blah. It's heavy as fuck. Hopefully we can play that soon.
Luxi: Ah, so you haven't played "Appasionata" live yet?
Conan: We haven't played it live, no. We could "Moonlight Sonata (Act 3)" for now. I think "Moonlight's" a little more memorable because "Appassionata" is more obscure. I don't think many people would recognize that tune. They probably hardly recognize "Moonlight (the Third Movement)." We do the arpeggio of that stuff. It's probably good we continue to do "Moonlight" since it's our first time here in Europe. I think people will recognize that more. We'll see maybe next year we'll do "Appassionata" or both. I don't know. It's good to do instrumentals. It gives my voice a break [*laughs*].
Luxi: The production on Ride Forth is top-notch. Every instrument has room to breathe and one is able to hear every instrument clearly. Is this is always something that you find very important to the band's sound?
Conan: First off, I'd like to say thank you for your kind words. I appreciate that.
We're going to see about the next one. We want to make it sound better. We spend a day perfecting guitar tone, drum tone, whatever. We want to make it sound as awesome as possible. The guy we worked with has an awesome ear for what we want. He understands our vision that's why we'll go with him again. He seems to know what he's doing [*laughs*].
DURING THE CRUNCH TIME SOME MAGIC IS MEANT TO HAPPEN
Luxi: Do you overall find it challenging to write new songs for the band that make each record a step forward?
Conan: Yes, of course. Definitely, yes.
Luxi: Does it put extra weight on your shoulders?
Conan: Totally. Lots of pressure. I try to think of it as, "Maybe I shouldn't feel so pressured. I shouldn't try to make everything more complicated or I shouldn't write that hit single kind of structure." I tell myself, "Yes, I shouldn't be doing that." I should just go with whatever feels natural but then again, I feel that that's a little too, you know, going in blindfolded and it might be sloppy in structure. Yes, I try not to stress about it but of course I like to think that the best comes out of working in crunch time. You have a deadline and you're focusing all your energy to get it done.
That's what we did on Ride Forth. We had a lot of ideas that were scattered and we had about a month to finish everything. It's kind of rushed in that sense. I was like, "Fuck it, okay." We wrote everything at the last minute. We had a vision of what it would be like and we filled in the gaps, perfecting every little detail. I think it came out great. We're happy with both albums, they were similar in approach. Crunch time, "Oh, shit we got to get it done." It came out great.
For the next album, we don't really want to play faster or make more complicated pieces or whatever. We just want to try and make whatever is going to be good for us and for everyone else. I like to feel, "Oh, fuck everyone. I'll do what I want." In the end, I think people like that. There are so many things, too many approaches we can do. So far, it's been the same and we're going to go with the same attitude; just have a good time.
Luxi: Combining elements from Thrash Metal to Death Metal to Neoclassical stuff and everything in between must be tricky. Is it hard to decide what direction you want this or that song to go musically?
Conan: I would say it may seem hard but it depends. We'll start with the riff. We could feel as though it sounds little Black Metal or maybe it's just Death Metal because it has a certain character about it. We don't try to make the whole song sound a certain way and we usually say "Okay, the next part should be somewhat of a contrast". If we make them stand apart from each other, they stick with you a little more. Even a subtle change can make it sound like a different style. Maybe it's traditional on one part then the next part is a little more extreme. Naturally, at the end you can pick out, "Oh, that sounds a little Death Metal, Black Metal, somewhat Neoclassical there somewhere." We don't say "Oh, we should have this song like blah blah blah. This part should be that way." It's just whatever the music needs. It rights itself. It wants to go a certain way and we'll decide how to make the drums and how the vocal should be. It's more natural, I think. I'd like to think that is so. Not as hard as you may think [*laughs*].
FROM PRIEST AND OZZY TO YNGWIE AND OTHER SHREDDERS
Luxi: How much have classic shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen, Tony McAlpine, Vinnie Moore, Jason Becker and Marty Friedman influenced your playing style?
Conan: A lot! At first, I never really got into that stuff because I wasn't exposed to that kind of music until high school. I heard Yngwie and then all the other guys like Jason Becker and Marty Friedman. I was blown away. I didn't think you could play guitar that crazy. Before that, I was into like Judas Priest but then again, Painkiller is shredding. There's a lot of that with Ozzy Osbourne. His guitarist is awesome. That's what I started off with.
It was a little more tame, a little more structured. I'm not saying that the other guys aren't very structured but in a sense where it's more singable maybe. You could sing the melodies whereas I guess Yngwie Malmsteen's solos are more like old school baroque/classical music. It changed my life in a certain way. All those guitarists you mentioned definitely pushed me to be better on my instrument.
At the same time, I don't always do that because I like to make a good melody here and there. That's more memorable than a scale all the way up and down [*laughter*]. I think that it was in high school where the shredder thing changed my world. That's when I incorporated it into the music.
Luxi: Do you still find your guitar challenges you to try out new things?
Conan: Yes. I'm not very much of a tapper. I don't like to tap a lot. Reece (Scruggs) from Havok is really good at it. I should do that. I like to continue to learn. I don't think I'll ever stop because there's so much to do and so many different things you can accomplish. I'm still learning and I will forever.
Luxi: I believe Classical music is a source of inspiration that feeds your songwriting...
Conan: Totally. I study scores on my own. I try to see how everything is orchestrated, how each part plays a certain thing and how together it sounds like a whole big symphony. Yes, I definitely study a lot of classical music.
Luxi: I assume that you have some new stuff in the works. What's your strategy regarding this?
Conan: We were thinking about doing something before the year ends. Considering all the touring we're still doing we might just record the album. Maybe, maybe not. We'll probably have a single from the album like one of the songs and a cover. We tend to do that.
Luxi: I read somewhere that there's an Exmortus bootleg floating around that contains 2 of your early demos and some live recordings from those days.
Conan: Yes, there's some stuff. I forget what they were called. The first one we had was in 2003 and was called Onward to Battle. I was 13 years old. We were kids. We just fucked around. I think it shows that we were still learning how to play our instruments. It was very raw and a little bit different. It's more Black Metal, I think. Most of the members at the time were into that style and therefore it came out that way.
The next one was... I forget. I think it was called The Reign of the War Gods. There were other things I think we had released unofficially, just to pass out, and maybe sell if someone wanted to buy it. That was a long time ago and I was not doing vocals. I was just guitar, lead guitar or whatever. Yes, that was so long ago [*laughs*].
Luxi: I'm sure that some people have asked for this early material. Do you have any plans to release your early demo stuff officially?
Conan: I don't know. A lot of those songs made it to the first album In Hatred's Flame. I think Earache still owns the rights to that one. Once the contract is up we will figure out how to repress it or re-record it or something. We might just repress it because right now you could buy it for like $30 on eBay or something. We're not seeing any of that money, so I don't know. I would say that's kind of messed up for someone that wants to buy the CD to pay that much because I would say it's not worth that much [*laughter*] but that's just me.
Luxi: Well, all I know is there are many die-hard music collectors out there that are even willing to sell their souls to get something really collectible for their money, so...
Conan: Hahah... yes, that's all true. If they think it's worth that much, then that's cool, I'm honored. We'll see what happens. I'm pretty sure in a little bit we'll figure out what to do with that first record and the second album before Slave to the Sword.
Luxi: Okay. I still have a couple of questions left and then I have to let you go because time is running out you have a show soon.
Conan: Oh shit. All right, I got time. Just shoot them!
Luxi: You have made your two previous albums for Prosthetic Records. Do you still have a deal with them and how satisfied have you been with how they have promoted Exmortus so far?
Conan: Yes, we still have a deal with them and they helped a lot. They have Kelly, their PR, Public Relations. She's done a great job and really pushed for more interviews and other public stuff than we have ever had before. It really helped a lot with our touring where we could do interviews or other things. There was a Guitar World release for something I did, teaching how to play one of our licks and debuted that on the website and other things and stuff like that. Yes, it's been a lot better than without it.
Luxi: As Exmortus has been around 15 years you can't be considered a new band any more. Time is running really fast...
Conan: Tell me about it. We've been around for a long time. We did change after Slave to the Sword. We can think of that as our rebirth because we managed to focus our sound, our style and our overall attitude. Beforehand, we weren't really serious at all. We just wanted to fuck around. We were still in high school, at least I was when In Hatred's Flame came out. We were just messing around but that was where we realized, "Hell, we could actually make money off this." That's when we did the first record deal. Slave to the Sword was when we said, "All right. We've done this our whole lives. At first to fuck around but now what are we going to do? We've done this for so long that we actually got pretty good at it I think. Let's do it. Let us write an album, let's hit it. Make it or break it." We felt like well this is it and we invested everything for the album. If it didn't make it, then we'll just do something else, I guess. It did well so we said, "All right. I guess that's it [*laughs*]. We'll continue."
It's been good so far and that's why we have the attitude with our lyrics about overcoming difficulties and being triumphant. We continue the whole battle oriented stuff because it's all about the struggles and the big picture. That's why we called it Slave to the Sword because we felt like slaves to our axes. You refer to your guitar as a weapon. That's why we called it that. Ride Forth is pretty much a continuation. We were slaves, but we are free men now. We've actually managed to get out of this. We continue to ride and conquer new lands. Here we are in that sense. It's been good. We like to reflect on that with our music.
... AND AT LAST, TIME FOR SOME WORDS OF WISDOM
Luxi: Do you have any advice for young metal heads that are dreaming of starting their own bands?
Conan: Well, sometimes it may come sooner than later. For us it's a little late in the sense where we get better opportunities, it seems. From the beginning until this day, it was all drive. That's like bottom line. You have to be driven to get things done and make sure everyone else is on the same page. Understand each other. Communication is very important. If someone involved in the band says "I don't really want to do this. I'm having my own life going on" unfortunately, you gotta let him go because you need a whole band that's going to be together to really make a difference. With that comes practice. Sloppy players never get better because they don't really want it, I guess. I would say drive. Be driven. Make sure everyone's just as driven. Not like ego but like a sense of community. Do it together. Be brothers. It's very important, that you have a brotherhood within your band.
Luxi: And I guess if you think of your band as "just a hobby band" it does not necessarily bring you anywhere...
Conan: I know [*laughs*]. Yes, that's the thing. You start off young, it's fun and it's good to retain that. To be friends and be cool with each other. Don't fight too much, because there will be fights no matter what. That's life. It's about getting along, finding some way to make it work like any relationship.
Luxi: Alright. We are done I guess. Thanks for your words of wisdom for this young generation of metal heads...
Conan: Thank you. If they're wise at all [*laughs*].
Luxi: And thank you a lot for your time. It's been a pleasure to speak with you. All the best for tonight's show as well.
Conan: Thank you, no problem. It was nice talking to you as well.
|Other information about Exmortus on this site|
|Review: In Hatred's Flame|
|Review: In Hatred's Flame|
|Review: Slave to the Sword|
|Review: Ride Forth|
|Review: The Sound of Steel|
|Interview with vocalist and guitarist Jadran "Conan" Gonzalez on June 10, 2014 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
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