Interview with Tom Philips
Interview conducted by Sargon the Terrible
Date online: July 3, 2003
For years now, there has been a byword for class music within the Doom Metal cognoscenti, and that was While Heaven Wept. This most underground of bands has labored through obstacles undreamed of by most bands to finally produce the album fans had been hoping for. "Of Empires Forlorn" is an epic doom feast filled with mournful and soulful hymns to the muse of pure Epic Doom Metal. I was fortunate enough to get a few words from founder and mainman Tom Philips about this great but little-known band and their new album.
While Heaven Wept have been through a lot, tell us about the beginnings of the band and something of its history.
We first formed under the moniker of Dream Wytch in November 1989. Co-founder, guitarist Chris Galvan and I had both spent time in a power metal band called Polaris, and upon the demise of that band we decided to do something more diverse musically. At the time our music was very much a hybrid of neo-classical thrash, doom, and progressive metal, and strictly musically based; there weren’t really any other motives, and lyrically, although personal, the songs were more fantasy oriented. Line-up changes incurred virtually immediately with various members of Polaris and other local bands spending some time with us during that formative stage. By 1991, I was the sole founding member remaining and the music became much more introspective – much more of a vehicle for my personal expression than anything else, primarily because of tragic events in my life the previous year. It was at this time the moniker While Heaven Wept was insurrected, but we continued to perform music that had been prior to the name change, as well as newer songs developed afterwards. It was an extremely depressing time for me and therefore the more aggressive elements of our sound were usurped by more atmospheric and funereal sounds. In 1993, the most productive line-up came together with the addition of Jon Paquin on the drums, and Gabe Funston handling the bass parts (since the beginning I played guitar and keyboards for the band, but did not really assume the vocalist position until late 1992). This trio produced our first 7" "Into The Wells Of Sorrow," the debut MCD "Lovesongs Of The Forsaken," and a track for a local compilation called "The Mourning" (which would later resurface in 1997 in a slightly evolved form on our split 7" with Cold Mourning). The line-up changes continued for the next couple of years, and during that time I also had a stint with both Solstice (UK) and I co-founded Twisted Tower Dire, but WHW was still actively writing and recording material for our debut album. By 1997, I’d left all the other bands to focus strictly on WHW, and with the addition of (current Dysrythmia) bassist Danny Ingerson we began recording (for a third time) our debut album "Sorrow Of The Angels," which was released on Eibon Records from Italy in the fall of 1998. Shortly thereafter, the performing line-up of the band came together (Danny Ingerson was already living in Philadelphia, 3 hours away from us) with the addition of bassist Jim Hunter (of Doomstone/Revelation fame), guitarist Scott Loose (who was involved with an earlier incarnation of WHW around 1994-95), and his sister Michelle on keyboards, the latter two both coming from the band Arise From Thorns (who later evolved into Brave). Throughout 1999, we performed a handful of shows in support of the album (prior to this we’d only done a couple private parties between 1992-1998), and I became involved with Arise From Thorns on a consultant/production level, who were recording their second full-length "Before An Audience Of Stars." After the last WHW show that year, I joined AFT full-time as a second guitarist, and we began playing concerts locally. Following a brief relocation, I returned in early 2000 to rejoin AFT onstage, but once we started collaborating on new music together, it was clear that we’d become a different entity, hence the establishment of Brave – a band that combined the songwriting of AFT and WHW. Together we produced a MCD called "Waist Deep In Dark Waters," a recording we are all still proud of to this day, as all of us were involved with the songwriting process, and it ended up being the most professional sounding recording any of us had done up to that point in time. Between the end of 1999 and early 2001, Brave had played over 100 gigs in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US, and we were developing into tight unit, at least from an outsider’s perspective. The truth is we were fracturing apart musically and personally after coming off the high of the MCD, and problems in my personal life did not help matters any. Since I was spiraling downward once again, the need to do WHW full-time again became paramount, and relations within Brave hit an all-time low, so we parted ways not so amicably. At the beginning of 2001, I’d already pieced WHW back together with members returning from the 1999 line-up, but the drum and keyboard positions were rather fluid for a time until we brought in former Forty Days Longing drummer Jason Gray and keyboardist Jake Bodnar. By the time these two cam on board, we’d already spent the majority of the year developing the material for "Of Empires Forlorn," (which was initially going to be another MCD, but gradually developed into another full-length) and within three months we were tracking at Assembly Line Studios. The sessions were peppered throughout 2002, and in the middle of them we parted ways with Jake Bodnar, completing the album as a four piece. In February 2003 "Of Empires Forlorn" was once again released on Eibon Records, hot on the heels of a double vinyl anthology entitled "Chapter One: 1989-1999" (which was released by Germany’s Metal Supremacy Records). For the subsequent shows, including the first all-doom festival in the US (the Born Too Late Festival), Michelle Loose returned to the fold on keyboards, and we also had some additional help from (now-ex) Brave guitarist Juan Somarriba. Shortly after these performances we signed a licensing deal with the UK label Rage Of Achilles, who will re-release "Of Empires Forlorn" in an unlimited capacity in September 2003 (the Eibon pressing, just like all of the other previous WHW releases is an extremely limited edition). Currently, we are developing plans for the European tour that will take place in the spring of 2004, and will include several festival appearances. Additional line-up changes are imminent considering some of the current members other commitments (which include: Twisted Tower Dire, Brave, October 31, Solstice, and Revelation among others), and this is nothing new considering the fact that in 14 years there have been over 65 line-up changes. We are also preparing for several vinyl and CD releases that will be appearing over the course of the next couple years.
What other bands or music have inspired the music of While Heaven Wept?
Almost everything I hear affects the music I compose – some things are inspirational in a positive way, other things encourage me to write in as opposite an approach as possible. In the very beginning we were influenced by Candlemass, Trouble, Black Sabbath, Fates Warning, Queensryche, Yngwie Malmsteen, Rush, Coroner, Voivod, Slayer, Bathory, Dark Angel, Kitaro, plus a lot of classical music and fusion jazz as well. Most of those influences remain intact to this day, but I definitely keep up with all the new artists and new releases, which contribute to our ever-evolving sound. These days, besides the aforementioned bands, I also listen to Immortal, Devin Townsend, Ulver, Arcturus, Saviour Machine, and lots of obscure 70’s progressive rock, particularly of German, French, and Scandinavian origin. We’re definitely progressive minded, and will continue to push the boundaries of our music. I don’t think we can be called pure epic doom metal anymore, and I am happy to describe our music as simply "While Heaven Wept music."
How did things finally come together for the recording of "Of Empires Forlorn"?
Once we resolved the line-up issues everything moved along rather quickly, and as I said, we were in the studio tracking within three months time. The material on the other hand developed over the course of several years, as with all of our releases, so the songs had already matured quite a bit. We thought we’d had everything planned out when we entered the studio to begin recording, but it became apparent very quickly that this album would blossom into something far beyond what we’d initially conceived. During a break over the summer, Jim Hunter and I continued developing denser arrangements and blueprinted every last nuance over the course of 3 months. When we returned to the studio in November, the album totally took on a life of its own, and we allowed it to develop into whatever it would become. It was a very exciting, but anxious time as we’d already spent a lot more money on this album than we had anticipated; we knew there was work to be done, sat down to do it, and eventually decided that we’d complete it exactly the way we heard it in our heads, regardless of the studio bill. When all is said and done, "Of Empires Forlorn" exceeded all of our expectations, and was as much of a surprise for us as it was for our fans and the media who’d been waiting 4 years for a new release. As I’ve said in numerous interviews, I tend to view our first decade of WHW as "developmental," and "Of Empires Forlorn" is the realization of the distinctive WHW sound that we were honing all these years. The beginning of "Chapter Two."
Can you talk about the lyrical themes and their genesis? What, for you, is the impetus to write such bleak songs?
Lyrically, all of our songs are entirely based upon my own life experiences, as they have been since day one. Even though fantastic imagery and metaphors has been a staple since the beginning, WHW has always been brutally honest lyrically. As with the accompanying music, everything comes through revelation initially – I never force music or lyrics into being. Once the basic structure of a song is complete, I will then take it to the table, flesh out the arrangements and finalize the lyrics. So, in essence, the lyrics and music are both resultant of extremely emotional events in my life and the subsequent need for cathartic expression. For the first decade, the lyrical theme revolved around the demise of a specific relationship – what I was feeling and thinking immediately in the wake of its passing, shortly thereafter, and on into the succeeding years. Beginning with "Of Empires Forlorn," I’ve moved onto other subjects – relationships and events that occurred throughout that decade which I’d previously ignored lyrically. When all is said and done, the lyrics are indeed brutally honest and as important as the music itself. I’ve never sought pity or sympathy in wearing my heart on my sleeve and admitting to weaknesses – singing about death, suicide, addiction, betrayal, isolation, depression, darkness, and sadness is what I needed to do to be honest with myself, complete various circles, and ultimately heal in some capacity. While some things may never truly fade away inside, I’ve at least come to a point in my life where I have come to terms with the cards I’ve been dealt, I’ve accepted my lot, and stand stronger today from having lived through what I sing about. For those who detect an element of triumph in the music on "Of Empires Forlorn," this is surely the reason for that. But to conquer one’s demons does not make the pain hurt any less, thus there is still a very bleak aspect to WHW, even if there are clearly aural paradoxes. However, don't expect WHW to perform doom for the sake of doom; it will always be brutally honest with regards to where we are as people at the time.
Tell us what you think of the doom scene in general. What doom bands do you like, which ones do you hate? Why do you think the doom genre has always been so small?
When we first started, there were literally only a handful of bands that were active, along with a few forefathers who'd fallen by the wayside. Since then, I've watched the scene expand at a phenomenal rate, but also fragment into other distinctive variations; when we started, there wasn't really anything widely defined as death/doom for example – you had bands like Saint Vitus, Count Raven, Trouble, Cathedral, Penance, Revelation, Candlemass, the infantile Solitude Aeternus and not much more (of course there were all the predecessors like Witchfinder General, Pagan Altar, Black Sabbath, Pentagram, etc. as well). Within a couple years of our inception, a new hybrid of doom developed…what I call the "Peaceville sound," defined by the music of Autopsy, Paradise Lost, Anathema, and My Dying Bride…otherwise known as death/doom. From the advent of that style, there was dissention amongst the ranks and the traditional True Doom bands and fanzines did NOT embrace this new hybrid at all. I personally enjoyed those early Peaceville albums because I felt like they were darker, heavier, and more atmospherically doom than anything on the famous Hellhound doom label (home to bands like Vitus, The Obsessed, Wretched, Iron Man, etc.), who were, to me, more of a doom/biker rock kind of thing…but most of my peers totally disagreed. Whilst both genres continued to develop, with more and more new bands coming along, suddenly we found ourselves being lumped into the stoner rock movement popularized by Sabbathy, Blue Cheer sounding bands like Kyuss or Fu Manchu by the media and labels, which was even more blasphemous to us than being compared to the death/doom scene, as these stoner bands had NOTHING to do with doom. Thus, for many years an underground war has been raging, and recently has come to a head with actual attacks on bands, websites, and various forums. Mind you, within the True Doom scene, the atmosphere has always been very familial, (and I imagine the same is true for the death/doom scene), but once people started defining doom as the Peaceville sound or stoner rock things got pretty turbulent. WHW have always maintained some degree of neutrality between the scenes, but ultimately our strongest ties are within the True Doom circle, even if we are not as vocal or militant about some issues. My perspective is if you don't like something – don't listen to it; agree to disagree, and leave it at that. As far as bands that I like, there are so many…from our contemporaries like Solstice, Dawn Of Winter, Mirror Of Deception, Revelation, and Penance to newcomers such as Orodruin, The Doomsday Cult, Thunderstorm, Doomshine, Pale Divine…and I also like this new wave of funeral doom epitomized by its founders Thergothon and Skepticism that includes bands like Pantheist, Until Death Overtakes Me, and Shape Of Despair. While I can't really say there are bands that I absolutely hate, I am definitely not a fan of the tired emulations of the Peaceville sound, and even though I loved those early albums, I can't say I really like what any of those bands developed into (Anathema being a notable exception). I'm definitely not into the stoner rock bands or the noise/drone/industrial doom projects, although as with anything there are always a couple exceptions. For me True Doom is dark, deep, emotional, ominous, slow music epitomized by the opening sequence of Black Sabbath's namesake, and the mellotron elegies of early King Crimson. Regarding the relatively small size of the doom scene in general (even with all the sub-genres and hundreds of bands that have developed), I would say this is predominantly the result of people choosing to escape the sometimes-harsh realities of life through "lighter" or fantastic music, rather than facing their demons, admitting their weaknesses, and acknowledging their negative feelings. Additionally, it is clear that from a musical point of view, in terms of a career, doom is not a very lucrative form of music, and generally those who do perform it only do so out of necessity. It's a lot easier to start a band in a more popular vein, be it underground music or otherwise. Doom will never be popular, never be trendy, and will never be profitable for 99% of the bands. The predominantly apathetic media and industry insure this will be the fate of many a doom band, thus the label is indeed quite fitting.
How hard has it been, being the sole carrier of an entire band? What motivates you too keep going?
It's quite overwhelming at times being the primary composer, performer, and businessman, because over the years, I've had relatively little input from other members and therefore had no one to rely upon as far as band matters are concerned. Things have changed a lot in the past couple years, and we are much more of a band proper now, in that, for example Jim will help finalize the arrangements of songs and design/maintain our website or Jason and Scott will network and share the promotional work. Mind you, since the inception of the band, there's always been an "open door" policy, where anyone is more than welcome to contribute as much or as little as they choose to – it's just that no one has really ever brought much of anything to the table besides myself. Being more of a democratic entity these days, we do try out every idea that anyone brings up, and attempt to collectively decide what is best for any given song or business arrangement, but people still tend to look to me for the final answers/decisions, which is fine by me; there is a high degree of quality control within the schematics, and someone has to cast the weighted vote inevitably. As for what keeps me motivated…first and foremost, it's the need for personal expression and brutal self-honesty within a creative setting. Beyond that, it is the stories and support from people all over the world that truly empathize with the music and lyrics – for me it means a lot to know that for even one person out there, this music helps them to not feel so alone anymore.
What is your musical background? Do you have any formal training in voice or guitar?
I come from a fairly musical family – my dad, uncle, brother, and cousin all played music, and several other relatives were listening to a lot of music if they did not play it. I grew up with AOR and heavy metal all around me. I was completely enraptured with the music of Journey, Rush, Yes, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and Ozzy. In the summer after 3rd grade, I got my first guitar, and started writing songs immediately – although they were of course dreadful. I studied guitar privately and in school for about 9 years before shifting my focus onto theory and composition exclusively. I started taking voice lessons in 1992, and supplemented them by singing in the school choir for 4 years. I now have a degree in classical composition/theory, and its definitely affected the songwriting process of WHW; most of the songs released in the first decade were composed when I was 16-17 years old – ten years later, with all the tools I gained from my studies and college, I've been able to better express myself, and pen more mature compositions.
Have you been able to play live? Do you have any plans for touring for the new album?
Over the years, While Heaven Wept have played very few live shows considering the personal nature of the material, and the often complicated line-up issues, but as mentioned previously, we did perform occasionally throughout the first decade, primarily following the recording of the "Sorrow Of The Angels" album. We've already performed a few times since the release of "Empires…" and we will definitely be doing a few more shows Stateside before the end of the year. There will not be a US tour at this point in time, but we are already in the process of booking a European tour around a handful of festival appearances. While Heaven Wept live is long overdue in Europe, which has always been our strongest market, so the time has finally come for us to take our fans into the wells of sorrow.
I know you played with Brave and Twisted Tower Dire for a number of years. Do you plan on working with other bands or on other projects in the future?
Right now, While Heaven Wept is my main priority so I don't really have any plans to be involved with any other projects at this time – at least not until we fulfill some contractual obligations and personal ambitions but, there is always the need to explore other facets of my personality or paint with a different palette, so I don't rule out the possibility of other projects in the future. I am however already involved with another band, as I have rejoined Solstice (UK) as the vocalist, but currently we are on a hiatus while all of the members work on their other projects (Isen Torr, WHW, Twisted Tower Dire, The Lord Weird Slough Feg, Revelation, and October 31). I would anticipate rehearsals and recording to commence sometime mid-2004.
What do you plan and hope for the future of While Heaven Wept?
My only intention is to continue to strive for the accurate realization of what I hear in my head, and the honest expression of what I feel. If ever there comes a time when I feel that we are becoming redundant or risking self-parody by simply going through the motions, the band will come to an end, or at least an indefinite hiatus. As far as actual plans, aside from the aforementioned European tour, there will be several releases coming in the relatively near future including: the unlimited pressing of "Of Empires Forlorn" on Rage Of Achilles, a split 7" with The Doomsday Cult from Sweden, a second 7" single from the album (the first being "The Drowning Years," 7" which preceded the Eibon pressing of the album), a vinyl pressing of "Empires," the re-release of "Sorrow Of The Angels" as a definitive, unlimited edition, more split releases, and ultimately the next all-new album "Vast Oceans Lachrymose," which is almost complete compositionally (and has been since we entered the studio for "Empires…"). After all that we'll probably take a break, assess where we are, and take it from there. Or just take a vacation (laughing).
Was this what you always wanted to do?
Since about 2nd grade I wanted to be a professional musician, so in that respect, yes, I suppose you could say that. I don't think I envisioned it as being something this emotionally intense or spiritually wracking, but yes this is my path, and I've known it for a long time. I don't think I would be any happier doing anything else.
And the traditional final question: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Paul…thank you for giving me the opportunity to express myself and allowing me the chance to offer your readers some insight into the world of While Heaven Wept. I'd also like to thank our fans for their fanatical and undying support – we would not be where we are today without you, nor would we be anything more than a private confession. For more information about or to hear samples of While Heaven Wept, please peruse our websites: www.whileheavenwept.net and www.mp3.com/whw. Watch for updates on the September 2003 release of the unlimited edition of "Of Empires Forlorn" coming on Rage Of Achilles (www.rageofachilles.com), as well as the forthcoming European invasion. For band contact, we are available through email via email@example.com or snail mail at: While Heaven Wept, c/o Tom Phillips, 4809 Lockwood Lane, Dale City, Va. 22193, USA. Epicus…Doomicus…Aeternus…
|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: Fear of Infinity
|Review: Fear of Infinity
|Review: Suspended at Aphelion
|Interview with Tom Phillips on October 28, 2009 (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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