An Interview with While Heaven Wept – A Look at the Oceans With Tom Phillips

Usually, this is the part where I’d write the intro to the article. This time, I’ll let this conversation between myself and Tom Phillips, one of the founding members of While Heaven Wept, speak for itself.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading this as much as I did co-writing it, and that this will serve as a worthy look inside the band, the music, and the man that has been making it for the past 25+ years. It may be a long read, but well worth it, friends.

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I. THE BAND

LR: WHW is a band that has been making music for over twenty years now. That is some serious experience under your belt, but I would like to revisit your first years. How did the band come into formation? Where did you rehearse and what were the band’s dreams when you were just starting out?

TP: Almost 26 years to be precise! While Heaven Wept formed following the dissolution of another band called Polaris. I wasn’t a founding member of that band, rather I ultimately stepped in as a second guitarist replacing one of the original guys, then the other founding guitarist returned in place of the other! That was Chris Galvan by the way… Needless to say, we all went to high school together or the same high school anyway (some had graduated the previous year)… this was my first serious band – though there were others prior, dating back to grade school, but it fell apart after one demo that was tracked as a project for Jim Chappell’s recording class at college. The band broke up just as I was starting to contribute ideas – the original sound was more along the lines of Metal ChurchAttackerPriestMaiden… with a touch of Metallica… and while I was certainly a fan of these bands too, I was also very in tune with the thrash scene and the early death metal that was starting to develop at this time (we’re talking 1987-88 here) and I wanted to incorporate some of those other elements into the music, whereas Chris Galvan was also interested in some fusion and 20th Century classical… so that’s where WHW comes from really, our desire to explore different territories musically, in addition to the aforementioned influences, and the dissolution of Polaris allowed us to forge our own kind of fusion. We brought in Chris’ younger brother Brendan “Ber” Galvan on vocals almost right away, but it took some time to find the right drummer… eventually Jim Chappell joined us, and later bassist Chad Peevy whom I met in my neighborhood…that was the first line-up of WHW, then called Dream Wÿtch. All rehearsals took place at my parents’ house initially, and later at Jim’s… and we recorded almost every single one of them; there are hundreds of cassette tape recordings (from 1989-1995) featuring songs that would later surface on early WHW releases – and several others that remain in the archives to this day! And of course there were dreams of stardom but really, that was always secondary to doing something new and unique musically within the world of heavy metal.

About a year and a half after inception, when I was the sole founding member remaining – and following a wave of personal traumas – the name While Heaven Wept was instructed… and the premise from then on was different. Since then, it has strictly been a vehicle for coping with the tribulations of life and expressing the things I did not otherwise have the words to say.

LR: WHW has sure had its share of musicians coming and going, and for a time there was that revolving door thing going on. Looking at the band nowadays, the current line-up seems to be strong and steady. Hanging out with you guys and following the band’s activities, statements, Facebook updates etc., it really feels you’re more of a family than just a band. How does WHW, the band today, breathe?

TP: You know, since the beginning, it’s mostly involved people that grew up together – and that’s still the case today for the most part… also literally family considering Scott [Loose, guitars] and Michelle [Loose-Schrotz, keyboards] are siblings, Trevor [Schrotz, drums] is Michelle’s husband… plus, Rain [Irving, vocals] and Jason Lingle [keyboards] spent time together in the band Altura, so for a long time now, it has been vital that we involve people with whom we get along with on a personal level, who we enjoy hanging out with in non-musical situations – but who are also of a very high caliber in terms of their musical abilities. However, the personal relationships come first, and I think that’s the reason the current line-up has held together for as long as it has… we’ve only been adding members, no one has been “fired” or has quit in a long, long time – and I think we’re way past that even being necessary, even if – like all families – we don’t see eye to eye about everything and even have our falling outs… The key here is we always try to resolve those before we do anything else. And though we are spread out over 5 States these days, we still will gather for holidays and BBQs, etc. We’ve put in a lot of miles together… literally… so many shared experiences… good and bad… we’ve done all of this together. And though there are scenarios where we do have to bring in some surrogate members from time to time, this is all done after every other option involving the actual band personnel has been exhausted (aside from “specialized” guests), with their blessings.

LR: What would you say was the most challenging time with WHW? How did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?

TP: You know, I actually believe the most challenging time is right now, and we are only now beginning to address the ways we can navigate through it. I mean, we’ve been through numerous lineup changes before as you’ve intimated, been signed to labels that have gone bankrupt/dissolved, faced times of creative and financial drought, weathered countless dramas legal and personal – but we survived all of that. Right now though, things are tougher, the industry has changed… no one buys albums anymore, everyone is touring because there is no income otherwise – meaning it’s harder and harder to book tours without conflicts, there’s no artist development, and beyond all of this – it’s our particular circumstances that present the biggest quandary. We’re all in our late 30s/early 40s now… people have careers, families, houses, responsibilities… as much as I’d like to pursue every opportunity that we’re offered, the fact is, we can’t always do this because of other things going on in our lives. And that’s really frustrating for me, as I’m the one who never crossed those bridges and thus I don’t have the security that some of the others do – WHW has been my life for 25 years now… and I have fuck all to show for it… no wife, no kids, no house, no insurance… so I actually need us to get out there and tour, for both spiritual reasons and otherwise. But, it seems that lately, we are having to cancel more opportunities than we can follow through with them, and it’s not as if anyone in the band is to blame. I understand… we all understand each others’ circumstances, but what’s best for the individual isn’t always what is best for the band. In fact, that is seldom the case really. But one must ask oneself what is most important? My answer would be different from everyone else’s obviously, but I’m the minority here now. And I don’t think at this point people out there would accept a completely different lineup – would it even be WHW at all if Rain, Jim, Scott, Michelle, Trevor, or Jason weren’t there? I know some people – even within the band – would say that as long as I’m involved, WHW can exist, and while that’s true to some extent, and it couldn’t exist at all without me… that doesn’t mean it should without them either. Anyway, time will tell how things pan out ultimately, but after all these years – more than half of my life – I don’t see us stopping anytime soon. I think we all feel as though we could walk away after Suspended At Aphelion, I don’t think we will as there is still more music to realize, both pre “SAA” and since.

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II. THE MUSIC

LR: When one listens to your discography, it’s clear that there was a progression path in your music. From a point when people labeled you as Candlemass worshipers, through artistic, strongly individualized highs like Vast Oceans Lachrymose, to the strongly mature phase you’re in now. When would you say, you’ve reached a turning point in your music and said “I need a different direction”?

TP: I’d just like to mention that while of course Candlemass was a huge influence, they were never as profound of one as Arch-era Fates Warning, and though that may not have been as obvious on the earlier releases, it’s still in there…and they don’t really sound THAT much like Candlemass either!

Also, while there’s no question that we have truly progressed naturally over the years, it’s important to note that material found on more recent albums like Vast Oceans Lachrymose or Fear Of Infinity actually pre-dates some of the material found on Lovesongs Of The Forsaken and Sorrow Of The Angels! Considering we haven’t released many albums, there’s always been an archive or backlog of material – some of which just didn’t belong on the other albums. We listen very intently to what the music itself is telling us to do, and the albums have all been arranged as such… where we are just following the map of the music for each journey. Sometimes this only makes sense to us, but I think most longtime musicians experience similar things, right?

With all of that said, there has never been a conscious decision to do anything other than tour in support of X album or to record during X dates – everything else just unfolds. The music is channeled from some unknown origin, often on the heels of some emotional catalyst… in fact, almost always… it just happens, and we let it be. There’s exactly zero force involved – lyrically or musically – as far as the basic structures… everything just “comes out” the way it does. The only time we ever sit down and think something through is when it comes to the arranging.  Otherwise, it’s all directly channeled from the heart and soul “as is”… and we don’t meddle with divine inspiration. Ever.

LR: – There are two albums that I come back to most often: 1998’s Sorrow of the Angels and 2009’s Vast Oceans Lachrymose. Is there a correlation between those two albums, on any level?

TP: Not nearly as much of a correlation as there is between Fear Of Infinity and Sorrow Of The Angels, because in that case, the songs “Unplenitude” and “To Grieve Forever” were originally intended for SoTA and even recorded in the late 90s but never released officially until 2011. Those songs do have the exact same emotional content as expressed on SoTA.

There are a few things all of the albums have in common: musically, they are all melodic, orchestrated, heavy, often dark and melancholic – but not impenetrably dark… there’s always some beacon of light somewhere in there… that’s the aural paradox of WHW: where it’s simultaneously uplifting and gutting, the primary examples being “The Drowning Years,” “Finality,” “Lifelines Lost.” And of course, lyrically, the entire discography is derived from actual people, events, and circumstances in my life… setting aside the metaphors (fallen angels, desolate wastelands, etc), yeah… every single emotion has been felt sincerely and every story contained therein actually happened. Most of these songs are A-B conversations that the world happens to be privy to.

In hindsight… it wasn’t until after Fear Of Infinity was completed that I realized what had transpired… in fact, it was Rain who put it into perspective for me… combined, these two albums are the stages of bereavement expressed through music. I didn’t realize this because I was living it… I was consumed by it… however, now, I clearly recognize thatVOL represents shock/disbelief and denial, whereas FOI continues the healing process through rage, deep sadness, and finally reaches acceptance at the end of “Finality”. And I felt it… the burdens lifted, the sense of relief… the first time I heard the FOI master… I was overcome…and then liberated. And I don’t care if anyone “gets” that album or not… it was obviously something that I needed to do for myself, and I don’t know if I’d have ever healed had it not been realized.

LR: Speaking of VOL, I’ve often wondered how such a musical monument comes into creation, and, for years now, I’ve wanted to hear your story behind it. Could you please share it with me and the readers?

TP: Oh you don’t really want to know all of that Mire! I know you! We’ve talked about this before, and you stopped me from answering those questions before. Perhaps we can find a median here… to answer some of the questions.

Musically, nearly all of VOL existed prior to even Empires. In fact, plans for VOL existed as early as 1996 before there even was an Empires, albeit in a different form. Only the title track and parts of “The Furthest Shore” were even remotely “new” at the time of the recording – and many passages existed while we were tracking the Empires album. Songs like “Vessel” and “To Wander The Void” date back to 1992-1993, but as aforementioned, didn’t “fit” with the other material being released at the time – at least as far as our intuition and understanding at the time… despite being “in house” favorites since they were first channeled.

Lyrically, it picks up where Empires left off, beginning with everything that had transpired since. “The Furthest Shore” speaks of journeys, ambitions, possibilities that were pursued with vigor… and that is quite literal… I did traverse oceans with high hopes, only to find that reality had other plans for me. I did find myself in the wastelands described in “To Wander The Void” – where even the muse had abandoned me… and this refers to a time of great drought… when I wasn’t sure if I would ever channel anything of significance ever again.
It’s no secret that my personal life has often been filled with turmoil, as reflected in the lyrics in general… and there have been times when I felt that WHW itself was more of a curse than it was a blessing. So when fate intervened in the middle of recording VOL (we started it in late 2004 but work on it ceased from mid 2006-2008), and someone came into my life that I believed was “the one,” I did everything within my power to make them the priority – even setting aside the band until we were able to be in the same place… so as to avoid a repeat of any past failures. And then one day, she just vanished… like a ghost… as if I never existed, as if we never existed. This resulted in my sinking to a point darker than anything I’d known in 20 years – and everything was swallowed in a haze of alcohol, depression, madness… a depth so deep, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever find my way back again. I spiraled around for months… sinking further and further… trying to figure out how to live again. When it finally dawned on me that I needed to do WHW again… that this was the only thing that saved me from the hell of myself in the past… and I was right… Though, as I said before, it actually took VOL and FOI to complete the healing process, to reach acceptance and find equilibrium again. But once the album sessions recommenced, with Rain in tow, I put everything I had into VOLand I have no doubt that has a lot to do with how it turned out, much like Suspended at Aphelion – which we all gave everything we had to realize, as if it were the last statement we’d ever make.

Anyway, it took years to realize VOL the way we all hear it now, and likewise, years to recover from that which I just described as well. It all goes hand in hand because it’s all interrelated. And always has been. It’s the story of my life.

LR: I sometimes feel music is my lifeline, but it also sometimes overwhelms me. That’s how I get at times when I listen to WHW – this is too much, too intense, too pure, so to speak. Is that what you want to project to the listener?

TP: I’m sure you’ve seen many artists say that their music isn’t for everybody – or even seen me saying this – and that’s the truth… but just how true in this case is what counts: it’s actually for nobody other than myself and one other person (which varies depending upon the song/album/era) or in a few rare cases a handful of specific people. So, beyond that very small circle, I have zero ambitions or intentions as far as anyone else out there “getting” this or something out of it. WHW is solely a personal vehicle, and hasn’t been about worldly ambitions in any capacity since 1990 or so! I know this sounds selfish, and perhaps it is, but this exists for me – for my sanity, peace, ventilation, expression… so I can heal, so I can live an otherwise relatively “normal” existence. I never set out to wear my heart on my sleeve in front of the entire world, but that’s exactly what has transpired since we started releasing albums – but even then, I think that was more about admitting things in public without fear for the perspective of an individual more so than anything else. Hell, recently, albeit absurdly late in this game, I’ve realized that I don’t have to release anything in public anymore to achieve that equilibrium I was on about, to feel that sense of peace.

That said, it’s not lost on me that there are countless individuals out there who have lived through similar things or have had experiences resulting in emotions and circumstances that are parallel to my own. This is a shocking and powerful thing… to know that my misfortunes and struggles actually have, if naught else, helped people who have otherwise felt as isolated, alone, misunderstood as I have myself. To make a difference in even one life is huge, for even one person to feel less alone, like someone understands and cares… well, that’s more important than anything else after personal survival isn’t it? That’s one of the reasons we have continued to release albums up until now. WHW may not matter to many people, but to those for whom it does, it’s vitally important.

In the end, WHW may be too pure, intense, emotional for most people… there are plenty who even scoff or belittle it, but first of all, fuck them, and secondly, as I said it’s not for them anyway. But it is for those who need it. And I do believe the world could do with more honesty/sincerity/purity of heart more often than not as well.

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III. TOM

LR: Tom, I’ve had the privilege of hanging out with you (both physically and virtually) for years now so I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you how you, personally, evolved and grew through and with the help of your music.

TP: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t be here still if it weren’t for WHW and music in general. There have been at least a couple occasions over the past 20+ years where I lost everything – where I was lost too, and giving in, giving up seemed like the only option left. With hindsight and wisdom, I know that is just a matter of perception – but it’s hard to see any other options when there is nothing but pain, chaos, emptiness… and this music has given me the ability to express exactly what I felt in a cathartic way, thus buying me time to find another option, or simply the will to have another go.

When I was younger, I explored philosophy, religion, drugs/alcohol, decadence, geographic “solutions”… only to find none of them resolved a fucking thing, and in the end, the answer was always in front of me: music. In the music of others, I’ve found there is an answer to every question, empathy to every emotion and circumstance – however specific or microcosmic… and music itself could never abandon nor betray me like people can and do. Through my own music I have expressed everything I could not otherwise convey – despite being highly educated, despite reading dictionaries and thesaurus’ to find the words… for some things, there are no words. Through my music I have healed and learned to live again. Hence, it truly is my religion, higher power, the love of my life. Like Nietzsche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake”… and I understand this about as well as anyone ever could.

LR: I know that you, as well as I, love the greats of the music world, bands such as Rush. Would you say there are greats such as those in music today? Furthermore, how did they influence you? Was it them that pushed you into a musical career, or was it something else?

TP: I cannot off the top of my head think of anyone contemporary that is doing something so groundbreaking or life-altering in the same capacity as The BeatlesLed ZeppelinBlack SabbathJimi HendrixPink Floyd, or even Rush. We don’t have “superstars” anymore, not since the 80s really, I mean bands with multiple platinum records who are also consistently changing the entire landscape of popular music as we know it. I’ve seen people talk about Metallica being the last of the “giants” like this, and when I think about it, that is probably true… as U2MadonnaSpringsteen, etc pre-dated them. Some might say Nirvana, but I would not concur other than that they drove the coffin nail into cock rock. No, I’m afraid that modern music is nothing more than a series of trends, regurgitations/repackaging (not unlike the movie industry recently), and quick, corporate cash-ins, with very little substance, innovation, or lasting value. We’ve heard it all before, done better. Just because technology now enables virtually anyone to recreate Dark Side Of The Moon in their bedrooms, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be “better,” more innovative, or have the same impact. Back in the 70’s, there was still mystery – there was no Internet – you had to read the handful of rock magazines or buy an album based on the cover alone. Now everything is out there, transparent, and nothing new comes out under the sun. I think the best we can hope for is quality songwriting – there’s still nothing more valuable than a truly memorable song, one that resonates, that moves you in a profound way. And there are certainly writers like Sarah McLachlan who are remarkably consistent, but more often than not, one-offs like Gotye or something. But that’s still one song more than 99 percent of the populace is going to pen themselves, right? Still, the days of the monoliths and forefathers are definitely behind us, and soon we will see all of our heroes dying off sooner than later, literally. It’s a shame, but also inevitable. Video did kill the radio star… and illegal downloading has killed the industry. There are generations guilty of killing the very things they loved by their own hands.

As for the other part of your question, yes, absolutely… I grew up with rock and roll radio, then MTV (when it played music). I was flipping through the bins at the record store and the pages of Kerrang, Creem, Hit Parader, Circus… music was in my bloodline – with siblings, cousins, parents, uncles who were fans and musicians, it was probably inevitable I’d take a similar path. But it was Journey who really set it in motion for me – that’s what started me down the path of these dreams, and Yngwie that lead directly to me picking up a guitar to begin with back in 1983. That’s what I wanted to do from as far back as I can remember. And to this day, I still just would like to be able to record albums and tour non-stop, but if no one is buying them anymore, and there’s no support coming from anywhere, I’m afraid that all it will ever be is a dream. But we’ve come closer than many I suppose, and as I said, I know now that I don’t need to do all that to heal and transcend through music… I can just do that for myself, at home.

LR: If there is anything else you’d like to add, or share, please feel free, my friend.

TP: Thank you for the opportunity Mire! Always a pleasure to talk to you! Thanks also to everyone who has supported WHW along the way!

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And there you have it, dearest reader. An insight into a great man, and hopefully, a beginning of your journey into vast oceans… Stay metal.

Posted by Mirela Travar

Passionately want to do everything.

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