Interview with drummer James Stewart
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: May 9, 2020
Polish Death Metal troops Vader are about to release their thirteenth studio album, Solitude in Madness, on May 1st, via Nuclear Blast Records. The album title is fitting, describing the surreal times we are living through at the moment; the dark and sorrowful times that feel like the worst fuckin' nightmare. Mother Nature is angry — and we humans pay the price.
Due to the Covid-19 virus, the music industry has completely shut down and prevented bands from playing live, but one thing is certain; the Polish kings of unadultered Death Metal, Vader are in shape to kick our asses with this new record. Here at the headquarters of The Metal Crypt, we wanted to know more about it, how the band is able to make consistent albums one after another and what kind of things they have hidden deep in their pockets as a plan B if the world is stuck in this tragic stillness for many more months to come (which hopefully won't be the case).
The band's drummer James Stewart kindly gave us some of his time to answer our curious questions, shedding light on some puzzling things that will remain open until the world gets back on track again.
Luxi: Hi James! Thanks for calling me. How are you doing now we have been hit by this ugly and invisible killer known as Coronavirus?
James: I'm doing okay, man. I'm doing okay... I have a good situation here. Everything's fine.
THE GRINDSTONE STUDIO EXPERIENCE
Luxi: We are living in serious times indeed, but we can surely tackle this pandemic eventually and continue our lives, hopefully as it was before the virus brought the whole world to its knees. And why we are here, of course, is to talk about Vader's forthcoming album, titled Solitude in Madness, to be released on Nuclear Blast on May 1st. First of all, this new album was recorded at Grindstone Studio in Suffolk, England, which makes me ask why you opted to record the album there and not at Hertz Studio where you have recorded so many of your previous albums?
James: It was always planned to have a change of scenery. We didn't want to do this album at Hertz, not because of any problem or any issues with the guys. You just need to try something new, shake everything up a little bit. We had a few other studios in mind, but we opted for Scott because I've worked a lot with him over the last 10 years, but never with Vader, so he knows it was a safe option for us because I know how everything works there. I'm comfortable there. It was an easy fit.
Luxi: Did he already know what kind of sound you were after for this new album? Did you learn something new from him when you were working at his studio?
James: When you record with Scott, it's always an experience. He really pushes you to get the best take and that's very important. He made everybody work a lot harder. Again, I'm used to it, but for Pete and Spider, he made them work a lot harder than I think they were expecting. That was good and has an impact on the sound as well. He's making sure that with the drums everything's been played as heavily and as accurately as possible so that there is no need for obsessive editing. He did the same with the guitars playing heavy. That's why it sounds clean, but also very raw at the same time.
Luxi: That all sounds good to me. Based on the experience you had recording this album at Grindstone, do you believe you might go back and record some of your future releases there as well?
James: I think it would be good to do the next Vader album there because everybody's familiar with it. That makes a difference. First time everything was new for Pete. Next time he'll be more prepared with what to expect from Scott. That would be good. The results will be even better than this time. It will be much more refined, so I think that would be good, but I will certainly be going back for albums in the future because it's one of my favorite studios to work in. Scott's one of my favorite people to record with because we just work together in a very good way.
HEAVIEST OF THE HEAVIEST?
Luxi: When Vader visited Finland in September 2019, Peter mentioned to me that this new album might well be the heaviest thing the band has ever recorded. Do you think the album turned out to be your heaviest sounding album thus far?
James: I think sound-wise, yes. Scott's got a really good ear for tone. He has a very good ear for the frequencies of everything. He knows how to make everything sound separate but still clear but very heavy. It's not muddy. He really wanted to get as much driving low-end as possible out of the mix so that you really feel that power. When it comes to the actual performances themselves, he asks a lot from the musicians that record with him. It gives the sound a lot more character than some people might imagine. If you have a killer performance, then it makes everything much easier. If everything sounds good at the beginning, then it's so much easier to get everything sounding the way you want in the final result.
Luxi: I have only heard the opening track, "Shock and Awe", which is a very fast, brutal and nicely blasting track all in all. Does this song basically set the tone for the rest of the album?
James: It definitely sets the tone. It's a very typical Vader track, that one. We wanted to present something familiar for old fans and a good mission statement for maybe people that haven't heard us that much or haven't heard us before. It's part of the picture. It's not the whole picture. There's a lot more diversity on this record. There's some slower, groovier tracks too and so that song doesn't reveal everything on the record but it presents a familiar song in a totally new way. It shows off everything else, the new production, the new sound, better, more polished performances, etc. It shows off something that maybe people already are familiar with but in a totally new way for us.
That was why it was chosen to start the promotional campaign because if we started with one of the more diverse tracks on the album, then I'm not sure people would necessarily get it without the context of an album behind it.
Luxi: There's also an official lyric video made for this song, but I bet you have more videos coming up to promote your new album. Am I correct with my assumption?
James: Yes, you are. We have one proper music video coming very soon. I'm not entirely sure when that's dropping, but it will be dropping in a couple of weeks because we're coming up to release day.
Luxi: Can I ask if the whole band is performing in this video?
James: Yes. It was done by a very good company, a group called Grupa 13. They do a lot of videos for Behemoth. They've done videos for Vader back in the day, and they have actually done plenty of other stuff as well. It'll be a good video. I'm sure.
TRIBUTE TO ACID DRINKERS
Luxi: That's nice to hear. Looking forward to seeing that one for sure. There's one song off the forthcoming album with a title that really caught my attention, "Dancing in the Slaughterhouse". The song title sounds pretty interesting, so can you tell what is it all about lyrically?
James: "Dancing the Slaughterhouse" is actually a cover.
Luxi: Oh, really? I didn't know that...
James: Yes. It's a cover from a Polish band called Acid Drinkers. I'm not entirely sure what the lyrics are in regard to. You'd need to ask Peter or the lyricist or one of the guys from Acid Drinkers a little bit more about what's going on there. They celebrated the 30th anniversary and asked quite a few bands to record a song. Instead of them recording their old shit and releasing it again, they asked other bands to do it. It's a whole load of different Polish artists covering Acid Drinkers songs. We decided to use it also for the album because it's a cool song, it fits the sound of the album. It's got a more Punk sound to it, but it works where it is in the record. That means we can also maybe bring Acid Drinkers to a wider audience in the rest of Europe.
Luxi: WWII has always been a great source of inspiration for Vader to some extent, at least for Peter. Are there some songs on this new album that are also related to WWII?
James: Not so much this time, not like in the way you had with Litany, with tracks like "Cold Demons" and stuff. There's less of that going on. It's more related to what's going on right now. Before the pandemic that we couldn't have predicted, it was more related to what's going on politically and that kind of thing. That'll be hidden behind more abstract stuff. More Lovecraft stuff, I think, is in the record this time and you can tell by the cover, if you've seen it. It's more back to the first couple albums which were a lot more abstract using Lovecraft, that kind of stuff, to feed into the lyrics.
EVERY ALBUM IS A CHALLENGE
Luxi: If you compare this new album's songwriting process to some of your previous albums, would you say this one was easier to get done or did it take more time?
James: Yes. I would it was a bit easier for us to get the album done. I mean, because we've been touring ever since The Empire record came out and even a while before, we're all in good shape. That helps. We've played, I don't know, must be around 300 shows or something, certainly, since The Empire was recorded. We played around 300 shows, maybe more and that obviously makes things much easier. Every album is its own challenges. I don't think it's fair to say that one is harder than another. I think the hardest one for this lineup was Tibi et Igni because I was only in the band for a couple years at that point. It was my first time at Hertz Studio. It was my first time actually working on an album with Pete and Spider and with the Hertz guys. That was probably the most challenging because of all the external factors and the fact that I didn't have the years of experience that I do now.
Every single album is a challenge because I think there needs to be an element of challenge in there, especially with this kind of music because then you know you're pushing a boundary, you're doing something maybe you haven't done before. It forces you to grow.
I can't really answer your question if this album was the hardest or not. It's the challenges that you set for yourself that make the album easy or difficult. Of course, the process is refined with every album that we do. A lot of the things are easier, but then you just focus on the takes and getting the best out of what you can do at the time, so you're always pushing yourself to 100%.
They're all equally as hard, I suppose.
ABOUT PUSHING YOUR LIMITS FURTHER
Luxi: Were some of the songs on this new album more demanding for you, drumming-wise?
James: Yes. Again, it's going back to everything I was just talking about, really. The more you do, the more you grow as a musician. I've also been doing a lot of session work, working with some other bands and that's helped me develop skills that I haven't necessarily used or needed in Vader before, so there's always a chance to bring something in. That's one of the reasons why I really like doing session work and extra stuff on the side because it means that I can think in a totally different way and help me find some creativity for our albums. Also, I had Scott there who knows me very well.
We were trying to find things to make the songs more interesting, a little more creative. The songs in their raw form with rough outlines sometimes make it hard to know exactly what parts to write. I had Scott on hand to give me a second opinion, to say, "no, that part doesn't quite work", or "it's the same part as the rest of the song, so maybe change something". I was able to come up with a lot of drumming patterns and ideas that I haven't used in Vader before and also, some of the songs are just much faster than they have been on previous records. We wanted to make sure that there was no funny business, not dropping in, not doing five seconds and then taking a break and doing another five seconds and stuff.
We wanted to make it as fast as possible but human so we are able to play it live. Right now, "Shock and Awe" has a 280 bpm, so that was a challenge. That's a very fast song, but we are playing it live still. It's intense, but it's possible.
Luxi: Can you tell us a little about the deeper symbolism in the album cover for Solitude in Madness?
James: When it comes to the album cover, I've got no idea. It's just a cool-looking Metal cover. When I was a kid, I would buy those kinds of albums because of the cover, so it totally appeals to me. It's got an almost Scream Bloody Gore thing going on with it, but obviously, still totally different, but it's really saturated with colors and all these grim things going on. It appeals to my inner 15-year-old Death Metal fan. That's all I really care about.
Luxi: Peter was telling me when I met him in September, the only thing that you guys were missing at that time was the album cover and that's why there was no name for this album. That was the last piece of the puzzle, I believe.
James: Wes did the Thy Messenger EP and he did De Profundis. Pete and Wes go back around 25 years now or something, so it's much easier to let Wes do his thing. There's more trust there, so it makes sense that Pete would wait to name the album once he's seen the cover because it's all part of the process. Letting Wes off the leash a little bit is good for everyone because he's a killer artist and he's made some killer covers for Vader in the past.
IMPORTANCE OF THE RIGHT ALBUM COVER ART
Luxi: How important is album cover art? Do you think they should go hand-in-hand with the music?
James: Yes, totally. There's a lot of albums that are let down by terrible covers and there's a lot of albums with cool covers that are shit records. So, it does all have to work together. I really like Black Metal aesthetics. There are bands that have generally very good album covers and you know what the album's about before you even heard it. The new Black Dahlia artwork is really fucking cool. You can see the bands that pay attention to it versus the bands that don't. The aesthetic has to be there because it has to look good. Especially on the vinyl print, it has to look killer. It has to be something that draws your attention, that fits hand-in-hand with the music.
The best example I think is King Crimson's first record, In the Court of the Crimson King. The album looks amazing and the artist who drew that the cover, was an artist named Barry Godber. He basically was listening to the album. I think he was looking in the mirror, as well, and he just painted this crazy artwork that just totally represents the album. I think that's one of the best cases of music and artwork going hand-in-hand. It was totally based off the music. So, of course, it makes sense. For me, it's super important.
ROUGH TIMES AHEAD — AND HOW TO OVERCOME THEM
Luxi: On a sadder note, for many bands playing live is currently impossible due to the prevailing coronavirus situation and financial losses are huge. That's why many bands have chosen to stream their live concerts for the fans for a small fee, just to cover a small portion of their income that would have otherwise come from playing gigs. Have you guys been thinking of the same, playing a show or two by using these types of streaming services because no one really knows how long this pandemic will last?
James: We were supposed to have a release show and for sure that won't happen now. It's been on my mind a lot recently, not really about the income type of thing. We've managed to get some tours and unfortunately, we did have to cancel a tour, but we are in a better situation than a lot of bands that I know. When we canceled our tour, we were already in Europe, so we only had to drive home. That wasn't as bad as some bands had to fly places or been stuck further away. It's tough, of course, but we're not in as devastating a position as other bands and friends of ours. So, for financial reasons it's not that big. It's more about trying to do something for the fans on that special day.
We've been looking at it, but it's also we all live spread out over Poland. Our crew also lives spread out across Poland. So, it's not the simplest thing to arrange, unfortunately. We have to find a suitable venue and then also find the live-streaming equipment so we can do it properly. That also may push us over the limit when it comes to how many people we're allowed to have in one space because there's a ban on these mass gatherings. So, it's not as simple as just getting a camera and putting the band together.
There are a lot of challenges that, frankly, we didn't know anything about until a couple of weeks ago. Doing a live stream is something that some clubs did just for some extra cash or publicity and now it's the only way bands can play. Really, it flipped on its head overnight and that's a lot of new technology and things to come to grips with. There'll probably be a lot of people saying, "It's really easy" and I'm sure it is, but none of us are big into that stuff. We never thought about doing that stuff ourselves before now. It's a lot to catch up on last minute.
Luxi: It's not only the bands that are suffering from this situation but everyone else who's somehow involved with the background teams of bands; soundmen, drum technics, guitar technics, gig agencies and so on. This list of people is endless.
James: It's going to be millions, if not billions a day. The whole music industry, basically worldwide, is shut down.
Luxi: ... and nobody has an answer to this tough question when this is going to end really.
James: Yes, that's very true. The touring side of it and a lot of the recording, as well, has slowed. It hasn't stopped completely in the same way as touring, but it has slowed massively. You're looking at insane levels of loss for the industry. It's a big blow. Whatever happens, it's going to be a lot of small-time promoters who maybe have smaller festivals. They're going to potentially go under and things like that. There's always a chance that this thing can fucking come back, this Corona-thing, or the next pandemic or whatever. Now we have one, which we just have to live with as long as it's on.
Luxi: Indeed. The whole world is stopped, stopped for everyone, so it's better for all of us to stay at home and just wait a little bit longer...
James: It's really hard to tell what shape live playing is going to take. All we can do now is really isolate and stay safe and hopefully, we can all get back to playing some live shows soon.
CAN THERE BE A "PLAN B"?
Luxi: What other plan Bs do you have if playing live is restricted for several more months?
James: I'm prepared for this to last until around September or October. I'm not sure how long this could last. It could even last longer. I think almost all the festivals will be canceled this year, if not all of them. Already, the major ones are canceled. I think it's all postponed until next year. Already it's looking like the smaller ones will follow. It's horrible, but really it's for everybody's good. It means that hopefully, we can kill this or start the process of recovering, going in waves, and slowing the curve and all those buzzwords that are going on.
Hopefully, we can minimize and contain the outbreaks later on. If we start doing festivals this year, then this pandemic shit is just going to go on and more people are going to die and that's all you can say about it, really. Everybody just has to wait.
Luxi: As you are also an active member in such bands as Bloodshot Dawn, Berzerker Legion and Deny the Urge, does your own plan B include keeping yourself active with some of those bands over this period when the whole world has basically been shut down, at least on the songwriting level?
James: The good news is writing can continue. I'm going to record an album or two in this period. I'm hoping that traveling restrictions will be lifted a little bit in the coming months so I can actually record in May without as many problems as we're facing right now. The good thing about recording is that it's only two, three people in a room. So, I'm holding out hope for that to be quite straightforward still. It's still possible. In the meantime, there's plenty of writing going on with Berzerker Legion. We've been sitting on some bonus material that we are going to try and turn into an EP now so that we can't do our original plan which was to start touring. We had to start with the festivals and work our way up to touring this year but that looks like now that could be difficult.
We'll monitor the situation and see, but in the meantime, we're going to try and get an EP done and slowly start getting things together for album two.
As for Bloodshot Dawn, our album's actually been recorded mostly. I've done the draft list and we're just in the final stages of tracking. The plan for Bloodshot Dawn was to remain pretty much dormant for this year anyway, as the writing process has been done, but I'm sure the rest of the guys will be working on the rest of the ideas in the meantime.
Deny the Urge is really just Hendrik's (Osterloh, guitarist and vocalist in the band) project on his own. We'll see, but now it would be a good time. If he has something, now would be a good time to work on another album.
Recording stuff and behind-the-scenes stuff, that doesn't stop and it's good as well, because everybody needs to keep their skills sharp. Otherwise, it's three years of touring work just gone, really. For now, it's only been a week and a half for me since my last show, I think, or something like that, so I'm still okay. I'm enjoying my little break from playing, but probably from next week onwards, it will be time to start getting the practice part out and focusing much harder.
Luxi: Well. I guess that was it from me. Thanks very much for your time, James.
James: No problem. You're welcome.
Luxi: I appreciate this interview with you. It was really nice talking to you about the current situation of the band where you are at right now and all this other stuff, too. Take care and remember to wash your hands and be safe.
James: Absolutely. You, too. You look after yourself. Kiitos!
Luxi: I surely will... bye-bye!
|Other information about Vader on this site|
|Review: Reign Forever World|
|Review: The Ultimate Incantation|
|Review: More Vision And The Voice|
|Review: The Beast|
|Review: Impressions in Blood|
|Review: Lead Us!!!|
|Review: Welcome to the Morbid Reich|
|Review: The Empire|
|Review: Thy Messenger|
|Review: Solitude in Madness|
|Review: Solitude in Madness|
|Review: Tibi et Igni|
|Interview with Piotr "Peter" Wiwczarek on June 15, 2018 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
|Interview with vocalist and guitarist Piotr "Peter" Wiwczarek on November 7, 2019 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
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