MACHINE MUSIC'S ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: AN INTERVIEW WITH LOSS

This is the fourth installment of my The Albums of the Decade series of posts and interviews. For more information go here.]

Artist: Loss

Album: Despond

Year: 2011

Label: Profound Lore Records

Favorite Song: "Cut Up, Depressed, and Alone"

The Bare Bones: The debut album of Tennessee doom titans (the alliteration was right there) Loss, coming after years of shows, demos, revisions, and just general chaos. An immediate standout, the album has become a classic of modern doom and a foundational element in the rise of modern funeral doom.

The Beating Heart: To be creative, dynamic, heartfelt, and, yes, bright in doom metal has never been a very easy task. For those less versed or even interested in the slow drudge of downtuned guitars and hardly active drummers it all sounds like the same drawn-out dirge. Things can get quite worse in the funeral doom subgenre, where those same qualities seem to be taken to their logical and depressing extreme. Which is precisely what makes Despond stand out amid all the depression. Despond is as raw, heartfelt, and, well, heartbroken as it gets, all while providing an always-shifting dynamic, full, sometimes operatic musical experience.

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While doom can and perhaps even often is taken to task with being too big for its own good, too slow-paced to even seem human, Despond is that rare find – a human masterpiece. An album that seems to bleed its riffs and melodies, and in which every growl borders on animalistic pain. And despite all that, despite the seriousness, sometimes melodrama, of its subject matter and scoundscapes, Despond is, somehow, one of the most listenable albums in recent memory. One that invites the listener to partake in an ever escalating loop of beautiful misery.

So in honor of including Despond in this blog’s “Albums of the Decade” series I had an appropriately heartfelt and at times heartbreaking conversation with Loss guitarist Tim Lewis. When one takes on onself the strange task of talking to musicians about music one (me) has to prepare for anything. I’m not sure I was prepared for how meaningful a conversation Tim and I would have, and I am ever grateful that we did. Here it is.

Was there a moment you remember with a song or an album that has really changed you view of music?

Yeah, for sure. I’ve been playing live as a musician since I was 14, and so starting so young and playing music so young, and being surrounded by music by everyone in my family. And over all the years and then coming into Loss, Despond being the first full-length record to come out from that…. I really knew that we had something different just from when we walked out of the room after…. I had brought “Conceptual Funeralism” into the band as the very first song that the band ever worked on, ever. And we we were writing different pieces of it and trying to get the thing together.

But then Mike brought in parts of “Cut Up, Depressed, and Alone,” and it was just like the basic foundation of what was to be “Cut Up.” And so he and I were working back and forth and then we worked together as a band, trying to work that together. And when we finally finished “Cut Up, Depressed, and Alone,” when we finally had that product, I can remember walking out of the rehearsal space just feeling horrible, absolutely horrible. And we felt ill towards one another. Nothing was necessarily wrong, nobody was mad at anyone, it wasn’t like that. But it was just the feeling of this illness for even being around one another after writing that. That song to me was the one that I knew we had something really special in this band. that this is not like anything I have ever done, not with being a teenager with thrash, in my later twenties with death metal and then coming into this, it was definitely a defining factor.

That’s interesting because that’s my favorite song from the album…

But, it’s a human song. That’s the only way I can describe it. It is really a song that defines the core of humankind, and its sickness and its loneliness, and when you really get to the core of what can go wrong with someone. It’s a beautiful definition of that. And I think that, for me, and we’ve said this countless times before about how we found our music to be cathartic, but it really is. That song is just great medicine.

I had a question about that, and it’s kind of a double question. So, the first part is that it’s interesting that the feeling of artistic achievement that you’re describing, that you walked out of that space and said “Yes, that’s it,” is also feeling really shitty. So, you don’t come out of that studio elated because you just wrote the best song or whatever, but you feel like shit. How does that make sense?

Right. And just looking at each other, it felt miserable. But, at the same time, it was like “there’s definitely something very special here.”

But that special is defined by almost like creating a poison. Distilling an essence that’s not a positive essence. It’s not like you channeled your feelings and came out of the studio feeling better, you channeled your feelings and came out of the studio feelling worse.

Right. It’s like drinking vegetable juice, you know? You know it’s good for you but it feels like shit [Laughs].

[Laughs] There are many things that I thought about Despond over the years, I have never thought of it as vegetable juice. Actually I want to ask a question about something that led up to Despond. It never occurred to me to think of Nashville as a very metal place, at least not traditionally. Did you feel isolated as someone who was interested in metal in Nashville?

No, no. But, like I said, I’ve been playing music since I was a young teenager, I was in my first band when I was about 14. And I grew up here in Tennessee, although not in Nashville. My father was a bluegrass/gospel musician. And it was just wild growing up in surroundings like that, and then later on discovering beautiful bands like Black Sabbath at a very very young age, and realizing “Oh shit, this is what I want to do!” And here in Nashville there obviously is country music, there’s a lot of bluegrass, and in the latter 2000s, going into 2020, there’s just so much stuff. There's’ RnB, pop, rock, metal, you name it. There really is a lot here now, just because Nashville as a city has turned into something that never was ten years ago.

Yeah, but I am asking about ten years ago, because ten years ago that wasn’t necessarily the case, right?

Ten years ago, like when Loss was first starting, it was just the country music Mecca that it has always been. And of course there were other artists around, and there was a scene, but that scene was just never defined by its excellence. There was just a lack of quality amongst the quantity. And it felt good, to have Loss and to have this band and to feel that I knew this was a strong band, this was going to be a very strong band. And it had very strong opinions as well. We never played Nashville hardly ever [laughs].

But if you’re in a city where, at least ten years ago, that doesn’t have a lot of metal and when the metal is there it’s not that great, doesn't that make Loss out to be a very isolated unit? A world unto itself trying to make something different?

I think we’ve always been an isolated unit, just by being us. We could have lived anywhere in the world and we would have been isolated. It’s just how we were and how we are. For the most part we’re very private people, we’re a very private band. I mean, a band that takes six years to release each one of its records, there’s a lot reflected there. I mean, we’re no different than anyone else, everyone has shit in their lives, everyone. But, being in this band, it can very taxing, to say the least.

Because you’re all so private? Even amongst yourselves?

Very much so, very much so. I mean, it’s not that we don’t call one another friends or that we don’t talk to each other, it’s not like that at all. We do. But, we’re all just fucking weird [Laughs]. We’ve got our own pocket, our own world for what we are. So, it took that very long explanation to say that we weren’t an isolated band for where we are. I just think we would be [isolated] no matter where we are. I feel more sorry for how Nashville feels towards us than how we feel toward them [Laugs].

So, you did touch on it just now, but this is a part of why it takes so long for you guys to put out full albums? Because company isn’t something you exactly run towards?

Especially towards Despond, and why it took six years for Despond to come out – life happened, plain and simple. For every single one of us, just life happened. We started writing Despond, and of course we’ve gotten pushback for including songs like “Cut Up, Depressed and Alone,” for including “An Ill Body Seats My Sinking Sight,” for including “Conceptual Funeralism,” because all these appeared on previous releases, on what we consider the first demo, Life Without Hope, Death Without Reason, and we got backlash from that.

Meaning what?

We wanted to give people the true representation of how we really saw these songs be, and we didn’t feel like what we have done previously had met the mark. So in the six years of making Despond, a lot of the songs we just completely wiped clean, there were things that were on that record that we just, cleaned the slate. Got rid of it all together. And this was after over a year of playing these songs [laughs] and going “it’s not fitting, it doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit with the mood, it’s misrepresenting what we’re doing with this record.”

And so that happened. And my father who was very ill with cancer and I was taking care of him, and he eventually died during that time.

Sorry to hear that.

My grandmother, who was very close to me, passed away during that time, and throughout the course…. There’s just so much sickness. There was the sickness that I went through just at the end of Despond and that put me out for a year. And it just happened, life just happened. And the same thing happened when we were trying to write for Horizonless, life got in the way. It happens to everybody in some fashion.

It’s interesting because I just randomly found an old tweet by Chris Bruni [the head of Profound Lore Records] from 2013 where he said that he just got an email from Tim Lewis with clean guitar parts for the next Loss album. And this is four years before Horizonless comes out!

Wow. I remember that. We had played that live. We were playing Maryland Deathfest in Baltimore, and at the very end of the show I believe I just sat down on the drum riser and started playing that. And the rest of the band walked away, and I played the opening, actually, it was the middle part of what’s on Horizonless, the classical acoustic piece. And I played that, and it ended, and I got up and the entire crowd just went crazy [laughs]. So I just walked up the stage and walked off, and I remember walking back and I walked past Karl Willetts from Bolt Thrower, and then I walked straight into Joe and Brett from Pallbearer. And Brett looks straight at me and says “What WAS that!?” And I was like: “That’s the new title track for the new record.” And I was literally standing there with tears in my eyes, and he said: “That was the most intense thing I have ever heard come out of you. I cannot wait to hear this record.” And I was like “Oh, that’s awesome” [laughs].

What a moment.

Moments like that, when you look back, it’s cool that you actually have that.

That’s unbelievable. I mean, I wanted to ask you, and I don’t know how in touch you are with metal right now, but there seems to be in the last couple of years a return to the performative aspect of metal, the costumes and the makeup and everything. And it seems like a lot of the talk about metal as a kind of rhetoric. That it’s about expressing something that isn’t necessarily related to what you’re actually feeling but to what kind of effect it has on the audience. And I think Loss has never been in that space. I mean obviously Loss writes music for audiences and so they have audiences in mind, but it seems to me that you chose metal because metal is the best way to express who you are already. That doom metal is personal to you.

In a way you’re absolutely correct and also…. I think what you put into music, regardless of what genre…. You can put a dark heart inside of anything, and that’s what we do in Loss. And in metal, what you’re pointing out, so how do I feel about modern metal. I hate it, to be honest. I despise it with every fiber of my being. Just because, for me, it’s unlistenable. And this is obviously not every single artist, but, once again, we’re getting back into quantity over quality. And when you’re saying “new metal” and you’re looking at the quantity and the huge machine that it is, it’s just terrible. It’s terrible what’s being put out and what’s being accepted. And that goes for songwriting, that goes for production, everything. It’s just like “What happened? What went wrong down the road? This is the shiny new car? This is it? This is what we get?” I will never subscribe to that.

But do you feel that you connect to metal because it’s a useful tool to express your emotions?

Absolutely it is.

And do you find inspiration also in non-musical art? Reading a book? Paintings?

I mean, when we say something like “Wounds as deep as any burial, sorrow deeper than any wound I gave myself,” that’s basically literature. I mean, yeah, it’s a lyric, but to me it’s just one of those things that’s so inspiring. You know, when Mike wrote that, that just sits so hard inside of me, I was like “Wow.” And to this day I live with it, you know? And I carry that and I remember that. In a lifetime I will never forget those words.

But are there other forms of art as trying to achieve that level of raw emotion?

We all, every one of us, read heavily. And, growing up and reading something, say, from Franz Kafka…. I think that some of the books that I have read and that were an absolute challenge to read, like Finnegans Wake from James Joyce. You try to read it, and see what happens in the fifth time you try to read it. Stuff like that, things that are actually painful and so challenging and so hard to get a key, the code for what it’s really trying to say. That to me is the best read, something – like you’ve said, in comparison to Loss, something that’s painful, something that may not be easy, it’s difficult. But the berry’s worth the juice, you know?

Even us having this conversation is like Loss’ music, it’s excruciating, it’s about pain, which is a tough topic. But is there a way in which you think, with all this difficulty,  you may have been much worse if it wasn’t for the music? That it does something for you that alleviates some of that suffering?

Definitely, definitely. I mean there’s no way for me to know how I would do without it, but I do know that I felt, but when I felt at my lowest, and even when at my lowest I didn't feel like I had music, even though I did, points where even listening to music didn’t help, and the finally coming out of it, and the first thing that I did reach for, coming out of that place, is music, and my music, and my being able to write. It was the very first thing that I came to. So that just goes to show how precious just being a musical person in general can be. Because your darkest places, when you come out of them ,it is that first thing you go to, music, and you begin to heal.

I had a question that was a little more technical, but maybe it isn’t. In the absence of full-length albums Loss does put out quite few splits. And splits are a funny thing because I imagine they’re not as lucrative for the labels, and they’re a funny release, I guess, people don’t always buy splits. And so I was wondering whether the choice to do splits as much as you have, is that just a mundane decision of something like “it’s taking a while to put out an album, let’s put out a split,” or does it have more of a social or ethical meaning to it, putting out music with people you like?

It’s definitely the latter. It is for pure love of the music and out of just a respect for the other artists…. Like getting to do the splits with Necros Christos, the splits with Worship. Those guys in Worship, they’re just some of our dearest – still are – friends to this day. I mean, just the relationships we’ve built over these splits, and when we toured through Europe, we toured Europe with Worship and I’ve had members of the band come over here in the U.S. and stay with me here in my home, and we’ve seen each other in other occasions where they were able to come to the U.S. The four-way split we did with Mournful Congregation [along with Otesanek and Orthodox]…. All of these relationships with people that we think are just wonderful people and we’re happy to do it, we’re happy to share that, and we’re just doing it for the love of the music.

I mean, sure somebody will just say “Hey you’re just trying to buy yourselves some time” and we’re like “No, not really” [laughs] It’s a song. We can make a song and put that out, we can get that done. But writing an album [when compared to] doing a split…. You can make a song and throw that song out there, but when you’re writing an album, I think that the main thing there is when you write a full-length record every single song has its certain place, even when it’s its placement on the record, song two, or four, or whatever. That record makes a statement, so it’s definitely very different than something like splits. But I do wish people would look more into purchasing splits as much as they do records because there are some real gems that are out there that people are missing out on by not getting into that market.

Maybe I’m speaking out of turn here, but it has always seemed to me that splits were more of a punk thing, and that in the context of punk it was an expression of the punk ethos of community. And maybe that value doesn’t have as much currency in metal as it does elsewhere. Almost as if in metal you’re not supposed to share space you’re supposed to beat the competition. And splits can be an expression of a different mindset, where you don’t have to beat the competition and you can express something about community. A very closed perhaps small community, but I choose to share my space with that community. If that make sense.

Very much so.

Which is why I love them. I mean, I don’t buy records as much, but I like the idea of the split. One last thing before we culminate is that it’s been talked of quite a bit, but even if you didn’t read interviews, it’s quite obvious that the band took a turn after Despond and into Horizonless. It’s the same band, the same aesthetic, but you were not interested in doing a Despond II. And I don’t know if you’re already writing for your next project, but I assume you would like that to be different than Horizonless. But even in this state of mind of always revising your path, looking back at Despond, aside from what you just said about “Cut Up, Depressed, and Alone,” is there something you’re especially proud of when you look back at that record?

I mean, again, “Cut Up” was, like I said earlier, one of those songs that I just said “Wow!” There’s such an intensity in that. But, of course I’m going to look at a song like “Silent and Completely Overcome.” Number one, my friend Brett [Campbell, lead singer and guitarist of Pallbearer]. No one even knew who Pallbearer was then, at all, as far as the larger scene, because they’ve never really put out a record or anything. We just found them and heard his voice and we were like “Wow!” And Mike was the one who asked Brett if he’d be interested in laying down a vocal track, and he said “Oh my God! I saw you guys when I was in high school!” [laughs] “And we were literally in high school when we saw you, and we would love to do something with you guys!” And it was just a little odd, because all of the times that we had played we never had somebody go like “Ah! Since we were in school! You guys mean so much to us!” It was weird. And him laying vocals down on that song, it just ran chills down my spine. Hearing Loss with sung vocals and realizing we are very melodic for…. People can call us a funeral-doom band, but from what funeral doom really is and has been, we’re, and especially going into Horizonless, definitely a more dynamic band.

But hearing those clean vocals for the first time that’s when, once again, it was “Wow.״ This song, and also what’s being said, those lyrics are just, once again, beautiful beautiful words that Mike wrote. And they just hit so deep, and they’re so personal. And for them to come from Mike and hit me as deep as I can only imagine they hit mike, for a person who writes something like that….. The Despond lifetime-achievement award [laughs]. That one, and “Cut Up, Depressed, and Alone” equally. Just because they’re two different viruses, they’re two different poisons, like you said, and there’s a different look to them, there’s a different aesthetic to what they are. But the overall outcome is, you know, miserable. And that’s beautiful.