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Interviews While Heaven Wept

Interview with Tom Phillips

Interview conducted by Sargon the Terrible

Date online: October 28, 2009

After six years of waiting, the great While Heaven Wept have finally re-emerged with a new singer and an amazing new album in the long-awaited Vast Oceans Lachrymose. It was a real pleasure to catch up with Tom Phillips again and catch up on what's been happening.

Sargon: So to ask the question on every fan's mind: What the hell took so long?

Tom: Was it that long? It seems like we just released Empires… yesterday…At any rate, there were many factors delaying the release of the Vast Oceans Lachrymose beginning with the building up of a new line-up after the "Empires" tour, though that came together relatively swiftly – apart from the addition of new vocalist Rain Irving, which wasn't official until mid-2008. Being that the entire album was written musically even before we recorded Of Empires Forlorn, we actually started recording in 2005 and continued to do so throughout 2006. During this time, our label Rage Of Achilles folded, we entertained various offers, signed with Black Lotus Records, and everything seemed to be lining up perfectly, until that label also came to an end. Ultimately, we reached an agreement with Cruz Del Sur Music in 2007, but by then a plethora of circumstances changed, primarily in the band members' personal lives (marriages, births, deaths, unforeseen familial crisis', etc.), but also our related bands were finishing up new albums or had live commitments, so WHW was temporarily put on hold. I took the opportunity to purchase, test, design and redesign new equipment for the entire backline, in an effort to insure whatever we tracked on this album was up to my personal standards tonally/sonically (I've been known to obsess, record, and re-record entire albums of material that I felt was lacking…this mission was to avoid that with the "VOL" album). From that point forward, it was primarily a financial deficit that prevented us from resuming work on the album, although there was a time after the whole "tone quest" that I was so burnt out and detached from the material, that I questioned whether I had the "heart" to continue – as I won't do WHW unless it's genuinely felt. After the most tumultuous relationship experience of my life, finding myself in the darkest place I'd been in 20 years, it became clear that WHW was truly necessary for me again. Earlier this year, we intended to "test the waters" with one specific new song, completely unrelated to the "VOL" album as it was the exact embodiment of where I was emotionally at the time…then see if that lead to the full reactivation necessary to complete the "VOL" album. It was…but not just that alone…the most powerful catalyst was the results of the vocal demos done at Rain's house for the album. Immediately afterwards, the fire turned into an inferno, and I think every one of us has a passion for this music that wasn't there during all the downtime. Despite the fact that I'm also known to be something of a perfectionist, we've actually done an incredible job in completing the album in 5 months of virtually non-stop work, and I hope anyone who hears it will feel like it was worth the wait…while I could've easily spent another 6 months on it, I am very pleased with the result as far as translation of what I heard in my head to actual audio – in terms of production, performance, and emotional clarity.

Sargon: What were some of the things you definitely wanted to do differently this time, both compositionally and recording-wise?

Tom: Compositionally, Vast Oceans Lachrymose was completed before the Empires… album apart from the lyrics – which came in a flood after the aforementioned tribulations, so all that really matters in that regard is that it was genuine, without pretense, and we just let it be. There was no thought whatsoever behind the writing…just pure emotion…I was feeling angry about various dramas within the metal scene and personal circumstances, and that aggression came through in the music…that's about the only difference I'm aware of…it's still very much WHW – epic, melodic, powerful, emotive…just a wider range of emotion and no musical boundaries. I always said that we'd never do anything for the sake of just doing it, and I'm proud to say we have not.

In terms of the recording itself, we've always been pretty meticulous – at least since the rushed release of the Sorrow Of The Angels album in 1998, which to this day haunts me…but this time things were even more intensely scrutinized because engineer and co-producer Chris Salamone is as much of a perfectionist as I am. The singular goal was to insure that all instruments were given their own space, and that the balance between them was correct. This has proved quite a challenge in the last couple months because there are so many layers, and I didn't want to neuter the album or have one frequency range dominating the landscape. The only other thing that we were all adamant about was being the antithesis of what apparently is now the norm of Pro-Tooled, triggered, digital albums…we took the time to experiment with different microphones and compressors….if a take was lacking, it was done again….the amount of editing involved was far less because of this, and the end result more "live" and "organic." The way it should be, in my opinion.

Sargon: Tell us about the decision to recruit Rain Irving as lead vocalist: how did you meet him, how has it been working with him, and what led you to the decision to add him to the lineup?

Tom: Rain contacted us through our MySpace page, just to say how he felt about the Empires album, and that led to the exchange of a few emails, which in turn led me to the realization that "Man, Rain has a great voice, he's not an asshole or diva, and he's right here in Virginia? Maybe this is the guy I've been looking for all these years." So, I threw the idea of a collaboration on the table, which I think took him by surprise – and I imagine it would anyone that has only known me to be the singer of WHW, but the fact is, I wasn't the first singer (or even the second), and I've been trying to find someone to handle the vocals for years. Anyway, Rain sent a few demo ideas my way via Email, and even though the melodic ideas weren't what I envisioned, there was a quality to his voice that both Jim Hunter and I recognized as spot-on for the material at hand…it was just a matter of sitting down with him, talking about my vocal approach, and honing in on the melodies that the songs themselves dictated. In the end, my intuition that Rain was perfect for WHW in terms of chemistry AND ability was proven right time and time again, and we couldn't be happier. Expect an ongoing collaboration for sure…Rain is world-class in my opinion, and we haven't done much material in his true "comfort zone" – this album really pushed him into so many different places vocally, that what he's most known for is the LEAST utilized…that will change in the future, at least in the respect that there will be more of a balance of approaches.

Sargon: I've heard that your relations with Rage of Achilles were less than amicable, is that so?

Tom: That isn't true whatsoever. We had a great relationship with Duncan, and appreciate what he managed to do for WHW. It was a shame the label folded, but I understood the parameters that lead to its demise. And I swear it wasn't our fault! Spiritus Mortis signed on after us! (Inside joke…see, WHW would sign to a label, then SM, then the label folded….that happened both with ROA and Black Lotus….but in truth its not our Finnish brothers' fault either…rather the turbulent industry and bad business moves, that weren't necessarily even the fault of the labels themselves). I'd love to catch up with Duncan for a pint at some point – I hope there isn't any animosity that I'm unaware of!

Sargon: How did the deal with Cruz Del Sur come about?

Tom: Enrico had expressed interest in WHW for many years, and in fact had helped to distribute the Sorrow Of The Angels album long ago when he was still based in Argentina. The bottom line is he never gave up pursuing us, we've talked for years and have developed a great working relationship, and ultimately, he gave us the space necessary to do this album right. Further, he was willing to work with us the most as far as contractual parameters as well. I hope this album yields good results for Cruz Del Sur, and it's an honor to be part of such a strong roster which includes many of our close friends.

Sargon: I'd like your opinion of the Stoner/Sludge trend that seems to have overtaken the US Doom scene. It seems like all the Doom bands now are either direct Sabbath-worship or Sludge/Hardcore, and more traditional bands get left out.

Tom: Has the Stoner/Sludge trend blown up in the US? Honestly, I'm a bit out-of-the-loop, but somehow I find that hard to believe, especially considering the positive response to recent releases from Solitude and Gates Of Slumber – among others. Beyond that, having just participated in this year's Born Too Late festival, it seems to me the pure doom scene is stronger than ever. All I know is that in MY world, all of my mates are listening to The Lamp Of Thoth, Warning, Cirith Ungol, Orodruin, Manilla Road, Falcon, Argus, Pale Divine, Lord Vicar, Revelation, etc.

Sargon: What does the scene look like to you now, as opposed to when Of Empires Forlorn came out?

Tom: Again, I'm not really "hip" to what's happening out there right now…I've been so embroiled in the making of this album that I'm not really aware of everything that is going on. I've been told that Doom has become more trendy, but that just sounds absurd to me…I remember when we started 20 years ago, there were literally only a handful of bands, and since then, only a couple have ever even made it close to a major label level…not compared to the Opeths, Mastodons, or Lamb Of Gods of this world. That being said, the pure doom scene (and closely-related bands that evolved from it) sounds stronger than ever to me, and there are some really fucking great bands out there now.

Sargon: There's definitely a sorrowful feel to the music, and the lyrics are depressive, but it seems that WHW have moved out of the arena of straight Doom into a broader style. How did that come about?

Tom: Natural evolution? Coming full circle? Let me just say that I haven't really viewed WHW as a doom band proper since Empires… – which to me was more of a modern take on a 70's symphonic rock album (albeit more emotive and perhaps darker). Really, based upon the common definition of pure doom, that I myself have fought in the past to help clarify, WHW should only be considered true doom between 1993-1999…and that is primarily because we didn't release a lot of the other songs in the archives, as each album is a concise statement, mirroring where we are at the time, emotionally/spiritually in real life. When this band started, there were no real musical boundaries and now that we've grown as individuals/musicians/etc. we're kind of back to where we started. This isn't to say that if the general mood were gloomy that we wouldn't do an album that is pure doom, but musically we generally need "more" – and there are plenty of bands coming out everyday to fill any voids we leave behind in stretching a bit. I'd like to think that the music we play is simply "WHW music" – something of a universal metal, without boundaries and consistent in quality. I mean, once you procure and actual copy of the "VOL" album, you'll notice that many of the songs have origins dating back to the early 90's, so really we're just only now revealing other facets of WHW that we've always known to exist, but never shed light upon…again, because our albums have a certain "flow" …a complete "vision" that the music itself paves.

Sargon: What bands/artists are you listening to these days?

Tom: Frankly, I haven't been listening to much of anything besides the 8 zillion rough mixes of the "VOL" album, but I'm certainly looking forward to the new Immortal, curious about the Slayer, imagine that the Katatonia will be great…and there are quite a few releases forthcoming from the true doom front that I'm sure will be astounding. Prior to immersing myself in the WHW album, I was listening to primarily live recordings from the 70s and 80s….you know, King Crimson, Floyd, Magma, etc. The only other recent obsession is Mono, but typically, I fall back to all of my classic thrash, doom, death, black, and pure metal albums from the past 3 decades.

Sargon: Are you looking forward to returning to the stage? I'm guessing it's been a while since WHW played live.

Tom: It HAS been awhile, but as I mentioned earlier, we did perform at the Born Too Late II Doom Metal Festival in Rochester this August, and while we were a bit rusty (it's been 5 years since the last concerts we did), it's only stoked the fires higher. One of the main reasons for bringing Rain into the band was to free me up on guitar in a live setting, and the chemistry this line-up has is the best it has ever been, period…so I'd like to think our performances will be much more consistent than in the past, and we're very much looking forward to playing the new material live. Actually, the big picture is the way the "VOL" material weaves together with the Empires… and Sorrow… songs…making for a very diverse, rollercoaster of a setlist that is extremely gratifying to perform, and hopefully exciting to hear.

Sargon: Tell us something about Vast Oceans Lachrymose that you love more than anything else.

Tom: There are so many suitable answers for that…it could be the quality of the performances, the depth of the arrangements, the production level…the fact that we've once again raised the bar compared to the previous album, or how personal this release is down to the actual packaging…but probably the single most important thing to me is that we have remained true to who we are as people and musicians currently, have not concerned ourselves with trends or living up to some preconceived notion of what WHW is…"VOL" IS WHW as of 2009, and in the end, that is really all that matters.

Other information about While Heaven Wept on this site
Review: Of Empires Forlorn
Review: Of Empires Forlorn
Review: Vast Oceans Lachrymose
Review: Of Empires Forlorn
Review: Lovesongs of the Forsaken
Review: Triumph:Tragedy:Transcendence
Review: Fear of Infinity
Review: Fear of Infinity
Review: Suspended at Aphelion
Interview with Tom Philips on July 3, 2003 (Interviewed by Sargon the Terrible)
Interview with Tom Phillips (guitar) on April 30, 2011 (Interviewed by MetalMike)
Interview with guitarist and songwriter Tom Phillips on December 13, 2014 (Interviewed by MetalMike)

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