An Interview With Woe – A Treatise On The Elite

Originally written by Jordan Campbell.

At long last, the perpetually nascent USBM scene seems to be coming to a boil. In stark contrast to the late 90’s, when the words ‘United States’ and ‘black metal’ typically triggered nothing but derision and half-hearted references to Wind of the Black Mountains, it’s a surprisingly good time to be red, white, and blasting. Upstart acts such as Krallice and Cobalt have been garnering a ton of attention, and the shiny sexiness of these relatively new acts has indirectly raised the profiles of stalwarts such as Inquisition and Averse Sefira. Trouble is, most of these new-school purveyors deal more in headline-grabbing gimmickry than the actual dyed-in-the-wool vicousness of the old-school. (Witness the nonsensical double talk of the riffless Northwestern hippies, the rockstar-ego-driven experimentalist failures coming out of Illinois, and the sycophantic press gremlins that slobber at their bootheels.)

The lack of bullshit surrounding Philadelphia’s Woe sets them apart from the pack; their unrelenting attack separates them even further. Woe’s initial offering, A Spell For the Death of Man, was a complete shock to the system, made even more potent by the stoic, no-nonsense approach of linchpin Chris Grigg. Rather than envelope his music in a swath of assorted extracurriculars (subtly alluded to in the title of the band’s latest offering, Quietly, Undramatically), Grigg lets his songs stand on their own, because he fucking can. Woe’s strength speaks for itself. However, the relatively laconic status of the band has left them somewhat unheralded and underrated, and Grigg took some time with Jordan Campbell to bleed some old wounds and shed some light on Woe’s skeleton.

Many were introduced to Woe via the visceral debut, A Spell for the Death of Man, in 2008. Quietly, Undramatically‘s release on Candlelight will (hopefully) bring Woe to a much wider audience. To give the neophytes some insight, talk about what inspired the creation of Woe in the first place, and the circumstances that led to the conception of the Absinthe Invocation demo.

In 2007, I was sort of between bands. I was drumming for a hardcore/punk band called Near Dark but progress was very, very slow. The black metal band I had been in for a few years, Algol, was pretty much done. I was frustrated with the collaborative music experience, the democratic nightmare, the bullshit of basically dating two or three or four other men and juggling their feelings and ideas and egos and all that crap that goes into making a band work! I wanted something that was mine, something that couldn’t be devalued by negative experiences with other people. So I wrote a song, “Hunter Unholy.” It was a dumb song about a nameless person or creature hunting a believer of God to their death through the woods. Inspired, right? It ended up sounding the way I hoped it would, though. Feedback was positive but I still thought I’d just let it go.

Jump forward a few weeks. My girlfriend and I imported a bottle of absinthe from France and drank it one night. At the height of the experience, I rushed into the other room, grabbed my guitar, and furiously started writing. When I woke up in the morning, I found that I had recorded all of the music to three more songs plus an intro. I put down drums, bass, and vocals a few days later. I didn’t really have much experience expressing myself through song, so I started with what was on my mind at the time: Satanism. I go through periods where I feel particularly tied to it and this happened to be one of them. Satanism is also an easy thing to write about because you don’t have to show much of yourself. You can be dramatic and intense without exposing anything human that might make you feel too naked. And with that, Absinthe Invocation: Five Spells Against God was born.

Was the utilization of the Satanic approach a “safe” (for lack of a better term) way to test the waters? This being your first outing, was it natural to establish your footing by exploring what was simultaneously a serious interest and a longtime tenet of the genre? 

I certainly think so. I really wanted to create something authentic. Not “authentic sounding,” but a legitimate contribution to the black metal underground. I wasn’t trying to change anything or create anything new. So… yeah, Satanism, something that I’ve been into since, like, age thirteen, made perfect sense since it was also the classic black metal theme! It took some time before I really felt comfortable with breaking some of the rules, brushing off some of that old dust…

…and did some of that old dust come off with A Spell…? 

Yeah, it definitely did. I realized that I had to write black metal as I felt it instead of trying to recreate how others felt it.

That personal bleedthrough is blindingly apparent on that record; it’s the intangible factor that makes Woe such a compelling unit. Two songs on that record are particularly vital: “Longing is All That Will Remain” for its tearjerking riffery, and “I See No Civilization” for it’s vocal vitriol. Talk about the conception of the riff work that climaxes the former.

I’m glad you think so! It’s been a few years so remembering specifics will be tough but I’ll do my best.

Where “Longing…” is concerned, it’s probably easiest to go through the song’s creation one step at a time. It came together very, very slowly. The basis of the first riff was written by my friend Steve, with whom I play in a grindcore band called Unrest, and then I reworked it a bit to make it more Woe-y. About half of the song was actually taken from another song that just wasn’t feeling right. The closing riff, the “this is a light in the sky that blinds those who foolishly look” part, and a lot of the more technical riffing that’s sort of obscured by the buzzy guitar tone — these came from that.

That climax riff, though… Well, most of the riffs that I think of as being particularly cool come from mistakes. It started with the riff that opens that section, the rhythm guitar track. I recorded that and looped it so I could write a second guitar part. I was planning on something straight forward, something similar to the rhythm part. The specifics are blurry but I seem to remember trying to find a few notes that worked together and hit a wrong note that just kind of clicked. There was a mad dash to get the idea out before I lost it and then… there it was. I remember that when the idea came to me, I realized I could do a very unexpected post-hardcore kind of breakdown. The whole goal with that album was to be 100% black metal so I was a bit nervous about bending my rules but it worked so well that I just had to do it. That melody line, the higher chord progression that ends up closing out the song as an arpeggio — that’s one of my favorite Woe riffs, one of those riffs that I don’t think I could ever top, better than even the best part of the new album.

I guess the point is that while I certainly put a lot of thought and effort into my music, there isn’t much intellect driving it. I take a Thomas Edison approach to it: try different shit until something good happens and then milk it for all it’s worth!

Your drumming was a highlight, too, but you stepped away from the kit for Quietly, Undramatically. Was that a calculated, long-term goal for Woe, or was or something that naturally developed from playing live? Was Woe always intended to be a full-on band?

It was actually the exact opposite of the goal, which was to keep it a solo project, no live shows, no other members, just me and my music and my rules. Then a few things happened.

First and foremost, we started playing live and it was obvious that Evan [Madden] was so much better than me. He played my own songs better, he played the new stuff I was writing better. He’s a very musical drummer whereas I kinda just hit shit really hard and really fast, there isn’t much finesse to my playing. We also put in a lot of time playing shows together. He was already learning the new material for us to play it live, so not playing on the recording would have been kind of weird, kind of rude of me to not involve him. Live shows are great, it’s awesome to really feel the music and share the energy and experience things, but a recording lives forever. We all put in the time up to that point and it culminated with the recording of Quietly, Undramatically. So that was the biggest part.

Secondary to that, though, was the fact that I was simply incapable of playing the material when it came time to record. Because I was so focused on guitar and composition, I had basically given up drumming a year before we were set to record. I couldn’t have made it through a single song on that album without half a dozen punch-ins.

One could argue that “Full Circle” is Quietly, Undramatically‘s shining moment–at the very least, it’s the track were Woe’s rhythm section really stakes their claim as a serious force. How the hell did the twelve-plus minutes of that song take shape?

You know, this is kind of weird to say but… I don’t really remember. The writing of that album is so blurry. With the first album, I remember weird little things about how it came together. I sat on the floor of my bedroom in my parents’ house when I wrote “Solitude” and recorded demo guitars. It was done in one sitting. “Condemned As Prey” was written while sitting at the kitchen table of my old apartment, I was drinking Miller Lite. I warmed up by playing Ulver songs to help me write my homage to them. “Full Circle,” though? I can’t remember little things like that, but I’ll take you through what I do recall and I bet that more details will pop up as I go. This is a long song so I hope that this very long description is understandable!

I wanted to write a really, really long song. Right away, I knew that I wanted something very epic. I wanted to incorporate all of the different aspects of Woe as it existed in my head at the time. The first riff was deliberately rockin’ — I wanted to start it with something melodic, something with a kinda Failure chord progression and a Nirvana feel. There’s a motif that pops up throughout this song. It’s the progression of notes right after the slow part, the ones that are played on their own. I feel so ignorant, not being able to say the actual notes or chords… Anyway, this was developed very early on and I worked a number of variations of it into the song. I agonized over the second riff of the song, playing it again and again, different versions and tempos, little notes different… It took a very long time for it to feel right. I think that it was on the recorded demo that I finally found versions that worked.

The slow part in the middle… I started with the arpeggio that opens, plays throughout, and closes it. This is one of the only areas of the entire album that follows a verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure. Because the verses were so pretty and had such feeling, I wanted the chorus to be a really straightforward, almost generic, stupid black metal riff, and I’m very pleased with how it came out. This whole section of the song was meant to feel oppressive, bleak, hopeless. The simple chorus riff and very straightforward lyrics, delivered by way of three vocal tracks to give it a bolder, more anthemic feel — it was all very deliberate. To me, the most interesting and powerful part of this section is the quiet half-verse, where the distorted guitars fade out and we’re left with the clean arpeggio underneath, followed by the abrupt return of the heavy guitars with that soaring lead — this was a decision made at the very end of the recording process. Matt Moore, longtime Woe guitarist and collaborator, came in at the very end, a week or two after we had an almost-final mix, to spice things up a bit. He had the idea for the lead part and we worked on it together in my home studio. He recorded that and all the stuff at the end. What’s interesting about this slow section is that it was recorded with the heavy guitars playing straight through that verse, no fade, no abrupt return. The idea of playing with the dynamics came to me a few days later and those fading guitars are actually a copied version of the guitars fading at the end of that section, as it’s the same chord, carefully edited together.

With a song as long as this, dynamics are extremely important if you are to keep it interesting and listenable. Well, at least as far as I’m concerned. One of my driving philosophies on this album was that to reach maximum intensity, the really powerful parts should be bookended by quieter moments. My gripe with A Spell for the Death of Man is that the lack of dynamics, while making the album quite energetic and ferocious, made it a bit samey, so the new album would go for the heart more than the throat. “Full Circle” exemplified this.

The writing of the end of the song is a bit of a blur. I try to recycle riffs in a song as little as possible which is why the first few riffs of the song reappear in a modified manner. I played with dynamics, starting quiet, bringing it as loud and intense as possible, then back down as low as we can possibly get, and then the strong ending. It was written to be the last song on the album and on the demo, it ends with that last riff fading slowly. While it goes down, the opening riff to “Solitude” starts fading in, a metaphor expressing the cyclic nature of things — full circle, get it? Then that riff turns into this really crushing, bleak breakdown that ends with feedback. Not a breakdown in a metalcore sense, but the way “Solitude” ends, but slower and heavier. I decided that this was way too self-indulgent and made the song drag, so the plan was then to fade that last riff and end with bass. I was toying around with the idea of an acoustic outro and Matt Moore jumped on the idea. He came up with the guitar part, I kind of acted as producer there. We recorded it at my place, and there it was.

Is it part of your setlist? (And, if not, will it be?)

It hasn’t been so far but I’d like it to be. Along with being one of my favorites on the album, it and the title track are the two that got mentioned in nearly every review, the ones that people bring up when they talk or write to me about the album, the ones that seem to really define the album the most. Still, thirteen minutes of music on a CD is one thing, but watching it live… it might be a bit rough. We’re mulling it over.

As someone that has seen both sides of the black metal coin–solo project and touring unit–how do you view the importance of the live show? Not just for Woe, but for black metal as a whole?

It’s hard to say. I think that the importance of the live show differs from band to band, listener to listener. For me, the live show is about energy and feeling. Everything else is secondary. As long as the intensity is there, as long as the audience can really feel what’s happening, that is all that matters, so a band needs to only be tight enough to not detract from the experience. A drummer who just can’t keep up is a deal breaker, but a guitarist who flubs some notes or transitions to chords sloppily? If this is a fast black metal or punk or hardcore band, what does it matter? Nobody will remember how I played, they’ll just remember what the experience felt like.

Recordings are a different story. For me, recording demands that the musicians act in service of the music. Ego isn’t important — use whatever studio magic you must to make the songs sound and feel the way they should. The music dictates what is necessary, the creative team has to figure out how to get there. That means doing everything right: right playing, right production, right songs. Of course, recordings have energy and feeling, but the right energy and feeling is the natural result of doing everything else correctly. That means that just putting in a lot of effort might not be enough because when you have nothing to look at, every single aspect of your recording demands careful attention. One piece in the wrong place can throw it entirely off balance. Recordings are unforgiving and rigid, live shows are far more forgiving.

In both cases, a successful attempt results in something with which the listener can really feel connected. As I said earlier, the recording lives forever. The live show, however, takes the ideas expressed by the recording and makes them more human and therefore more relatable. Relatable music becomes more relevant in our daily lives. Creating art that transcends the original product — isn’t that what it’s all about? So how is the live show important to black metal? When the music allows, it makes it more real. It makes it more human and dangerous and powerful. It helps the performers and the listeners form a deeper, more meaningful connection with the music.

It’s 3:51 a.m. If none of that makes sense, I apologize.

Woe is free of pretense; it’s very much four dudes and their songs, sans bullshit. Do you think the onstage theatrics and press-release bravado of a band like Watain are becoming passe?

I really, really hope so. (But from what I hear about Watain, those guys are as close to the real deal as you can possibly find…) I do think that this new generation of black metal has shown that the art has substance and doesn’t require shock tactics to make it stick. We can peel back all the layers, lay it plainly out on the table, and it still hits you right in the chest. That is power.

And what of the state of USBM, especially in the Northeast? Does the “I Am The Graves of the 80’s” assertion (‘There’s way too much black and too little metal‘) apply? Is the hipster plague really the threat that most message boards would have you believe?

Eeeeeehhh… I have no idea. Trends come and go. Black metal is particularly popular right now and has somehow found an audience outside of the traditional metal crowd. When the trend fades, it will trim some fat and those remaining will be there because they think it matters. What other people do really doesn’t bother me, though. Everyone should focus more on the things that make them happy, less on the meaningless things that they can’t change and don’t really matter. I’ll be at the front of the line, torch and pitchfork in hand when a Christian un-black metal band tries to pass off their dogma as being no different than any other black metal band and tries to infiltrate the Philadelphia metal scene — those people want to change us, that is an attack. But if they keep to themselves, if they have their own scene or want to appreciate my music and aren’t going out of their way to get in my way, why invest any energy whatsoever? If poorly-dressed yuppies think it’s funny to like black metal and do it in some sarcastic way… whatever, man.

Posted by Old Guard

The retired elite of LastRites/MetalReview.

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