A lot of times when I do this review shit, I do a lot of stumbling around when looking for new music. It was especially clear in my earlier days doing this, and one day I got an email from a PR that I liked and the band in question was Canyon of the Skull. I vividly remember the band description having the words “dry, instrumental drone/doom metal of the desert”, and that was a very specific image that quite literally made me gravitate towards this two-man band. Little did I know, I found a group that I’d follow closely for years, and that still rings true!
Canyon of the Skull is one of my favorite underground acts as their long-winded instrumentalism is a unique experience that I can’t get enough of! Their latest opus, “The Desert Winter”, was one of my favorite albums of last year, and I recently had the opportunity to pick at the brains of the two men behind it all!
- For the most part, Canyon of the Skull has been a group that really knows how to embody the harsh environment of the desert. What’s the original inspiration that brought a tasteful theme to life?
Erik Ogershok (guitarist): When I first started playing the guitar I had the desire to make music that was like the soundtrack of a film, but the listener would have to provide the images conjured by the music they heard. A kind of inverse soundtrack if you will. The theme sprung from the fact that I am Apache and I wanted to write music inspired by native peoples and environments, in particular, those of the American Southwest. I do draw directly from my own personal experiences, but the majority of my inspiration comes from the experiences and environments of the native peoples of North America and their environments as a whole.
- Sadly, I’ve never been to one of your live shows as I’m stuck on the east coast of the US, but I’ve always wanted to attend! How do you guys perform? Do you do snippets of your publicly available songs, play mammoths like “The Desert Winter” in their entirety, or do you mix it up?
EO (guitarist): While I don’t mind when a band plays a medley of their material, it isn’t ideal in my opinion. All of our compositions are stories and we tell them from beginning to end. When booking a show we ask a venue exactly how much time we are allotted and then choose our set accordingly. Since our songs are long that means a set of either one or two. I don’t see that changing as the pieces we are working on now are in excess of 20 minutes.
Adrian Voorhies (drummer): I think every group that works with lengthy, thematic compositions, aside from chamber orchestras & the like, are presented this question pretty early in their performance careers. Some take an interwoven approach, as Erik mentioned, and play themes from certain compositions into others. Some simply omit however many bars in the song & trim it down. I’ve seen this used to great effect, notably with our colleagues in Bell Witch (Seattle) that have several very popular themes that are absolute show stoppers buried within very long compositions. You can’t rightly go on for 3 hours so you take pieces and switch them around. I think the sparser & more barren your accompaniment is, the easier it is to do this sort of thing. Within Canyon’s music, we could certainly do this, but it isn’t our performance style. We are analog & organic to a T with our shows. So that makes it a very different experience from the records, which we think is ultimately healthy and beneficial. There exists an air of improvisational within our live performances so even though you might not hear double-tracked guitars or Erik banging away on an E-Bow live, you will hear a performance that is inherently different from any other.
- Since the revival of Canyon of the Skull, it’s been a constant stream of material from a demo in 2013 to your eponymous debut in 2015 to “The Desert Winter” last year, and from what I know you already have a new record slated for this year possibly after all the studio madness. Do you guys plan to ramp up the output of content or are you content with the pace of everything now?
EO (guitarist)- Due to the nature of our music, my style of composition, and the demands of my career, our songs take quite awhile to put together which makes releasing records an inherently slow process. In addition, I oftentimes start something but then hate it upon completion and toss it away. Sometimes I may just set it aside and revisit it years later. I don’t think Adrian is fully aware how often that happens because I don’t bring things in for him to hear unless they pass that stage. Even then it takes a while from there because the version he learns is what we play live and may be very different from what ends up on a record. A new development that will certainly impact us is I recently moved to Chicago for work. The effects of this remain to be seen, but in the end, I will be content with whatever pace is required because that is the path currently before us and we still continue with our art.
AV (drummer): And yet somehow, despite all of those very real facts, Erik still manages to dedicate a pretty astonishing amount of time to the music. Of course it goes without saying that if we had all the time in the world to put towards Canyon that we might be on the record-every-six-months train, but the funny thing is that through all of the chaos this band has had to endure over the last year or so, the pace lumbers forward, steady and sure-footed as ever. If everything goes our way this year, yes, we will be looking at a release for 2018, the bands fourth overall. Because of this I’m now convinced we could live halfway around the world as opposed to the country and it wouldn’t mean much of a change for us besides rehearsal logistics.
- Indulge me for a moment with a bit of sidetracking, congratulations to Erik for becoming a brewmaster! It sounds like a very interesting profession to a peon such as I. How did this come about and is it what you’d expected or not quite?
EO- Thanks! I have actually been brewing professionally for over twenty years, but I recently accepted the position of Brewmaster for WarPigs Brewing USA. I don’t really consider myself a master as I learn something new about brewing every day and that is one of the things that has enabled me to stay in this career for so long. I never once thought I would ever be a brewer because I studied psychology and classical civilization in college and thought I might become a professor of classical archaeology. The frustration of failed bands is really what led me to brewing. I was living in New York City and working a job that I was only partially passionate about while trying to make music. I wanted to find a career that would not only pay the bills, but that would satisfy both my creative and analytical sides. Brewing has provided just that. Funny how things work out.
AV: Chiming in- I’ve been drinking Erik’s beer since, well, just about as long as I’ve been drinking beer period and it is a great pleasure to see him back at work. Texas craft brewing likely wouldn’t be what it is today without the work that Erik has done and while it was sad for us as a state to lose him to one with so much talent (Chicago & the Midwest generally) brewing wise, it’s a fantastic new addition to the scene up there and will likely work in the favor of Canyon as well, creatively and practically. When one is satisfied in one’s everyday work, the other areas of life benefit from that. Not to mention the fact that War Pigs beers are being made and distributed daily and I can tell you from experience – they are quite delicious.
- To Adrian specifically – does playing in Canyon of the Skull influence any of your work in other projects or vice versa?
AV: Oh, absolutely. I think when composing accompaniment parts for any piece of music, it is extremely difficult to separate the things that make any given player who they are, musically, and the idea being composed. For instance, one could listen to Dio sing The Star Spangled Banner. Now, it’s still very obviously The Star Spangled Banner – you recognize the melody, the flow of the syllables, etc. Yet it’s still very much recognizably Dio – the vocal timbre, the range of his (incredible) voice and so on. The pacing, the inflection – these things change arrangement to arrangement, but the “signature” so to speak of the artist performing the piece remains intact. That is part of what makes listening to your favorite musicians so fun no matter what material they’re performing. That being said, one could listen to almost anything I do and, assuming they’re familiar with my technique and approach, instantly recognize – “that’s AV!”. I recently did a session up in Dallas with experimental composer Dutch Rall for his project Nocturne Blue. That music is a complete and total 180 from what Canyon does, yet you can still hear a little bit of Canyon present, however subtle. That’s getting closer, I feel, to the true definition of style – beyond technique, beyond knowledge almost. The archetype of the player is there.
- Back on track – “The Desert Winter” was released with an Apache Proverb; “It is better to have less thunder in the mouth and more lightning in the hand”. Personally, I feel that translates very well to the album as a whole. Do you think that will translate to future releases as well or will you try to approach other pieces differently?
EO: Each record and each piece of music has something unique that we hope to convey and the approach we choose to convey it. That quote is really the modus operandi of this band and could be on every album. It is an overarching philosophy and it will be a thread woven through all of our music. On a personal note, it is also how I try to carry myself in real life. Sometimes more successfully than others. On the lighter side, it is also a cheeky way of acknowledging that we are instrumental.
AV: We’re glad it translated well, as being an instrumental band that doesn’t employ talkback microphones at our shows, any written or spoken word presented is extremely relevant to the idea at hand. That entire concept is not likely to change. As for the lightning, we only plan to cull more as time goes on.
- Canyon of the Skull, as you know, consists of only a drummer, guitars, and bass across two people. Would you ever consider bringing another person aboard or do you think the band is perfectly efficient with only two people?
EO- This band was conceived as a three-piece, but the music as it is written requires more than that as is evidenced by our records. The reality is that we would never be able to truly replicate our records live as a three-piece. That is why we approach the studio and live shows with a different mindset. Both experiences require living in the moment, but the records are more meditative while the live show is more visceral. There was a brief period where I attempted Canyon of the Skull as a one-man band and the early stuff on Bandcamp only featured me. Meeting Adrian was the catalyst for exiting this stage and while we played as a three-piece for a brief time, Adrian and I agreed that our chemistry would focus the band artistically and it would also simplify things logistically and we have been a two-piece ever since. I would never rule out bringing in more musicians if it makes sense, but that isn’t something we are actively pursuing.
AV: Exactly. I wouldn’t say that the two-piece is ever “perfectly efficient” in any manner besides maybe traveling, but it does simplify a lot of things and lays an exceptionally open & solid framework for Erik and I to work. When making a record in a controlled environment such as the studio, there’s never really been any time where we’ve had to go “ok, neither of us can play this particular part or theme, let’s get what’s his name in here to lay this down.” That’s partly because we don’t compose out of our means, we’re both pretty practical people, but also partly because the creative arena in which we do compose is pretty vast for two people who, for the most part, play their respective instruments and that’s it. I mean, I’m not plucking out Beethoven sonatas on a Steinway in my spare time when I’m not drumming & neither is Erik. Yet we still have an extremely wide palette of colors to work with. Therein lies the magick and the compatibility, which I think is encouraging to true creativity. We challenge each other in that way and so while we may not go into the situation actively thinking about the tar drum or the E-bow overdub, we find those ideas as we move along and we try whatever decides to rear its head. Of course, this is not ambivalent or hostile to the potential idea of bringing additional personnel in, it’s just not immediately needed, the music doesn’t immediately demand it, and we try to fit the needs of that first.
- With a style as specific and interesting as yours, do you turn to any other sort of bands for creative influence when it comes to expanding your material? Or do you find comfort in charging the path ahead all on your own to create something unique?
EO- We are huge fans of music from a wide variety of genres and I feel all of them exert an influence at one time or another. We don’t actively set out to sound like someone/something else, but we also don’t have a problem embracing an idea that is reminiscent of something we both are into. I mentioned this before, every single piece of music we write has something different about it that we are trying to accomplish. That can be dynamics, instrumentation, tempo, or something else. It is important for us to progress, but we are not obsessed with progress for progress’ sake. In the end, everything we do has to serve the music, not our egos.
AV: That can be a slippery slope at times as well because personal development as a musician doesn’t always coincide with ensemble development. What you’re really into at the time doesn’t always, in fact pretty rarely actually, run parallel to what the group is looking at. We’ve gotten pretty lucky with this so far and again I think that also speaks as a testament to the compatibility of this band. Erik is great to work with because even though we’re a generation apart, he is still growing vividly as a guitar player and composer and continues to challenge himself. I respond in kind and that’s how we eventually wind up fitting that progress in while still serving the composition at hand. Our colleagues will always influence us, naturally, but I think we’re just as likely to find a slice of the muse in the new Mizmor record as we are the Zambian tribal drumming field recording.
- Speaking in broad terms, Canyon of the Skull is undoubtedly an underground band but has still garnered a fair amount of praise. How do you guys feel about music as harsh, dry (in a good way), and challenging as yours becoming the focus of many people?
EO- One of the reasons I have the career I have is so I don’t have to make compromises concerning my art. Canyon of the Skull inhabits a niche within a niche of a subgenre which means it is inherently inaccessible. That may be a disadvantage as far as financial viability to labels, but that isn’t a consideration in our approach to writing. It is great to have Bandcamp and other avenues of exposure for independent artists and for the fans who seek out their art. I am extremely grateful whenever someone expresses appreciation for our music. It is always a great feeling when someone truly gets it, that said, I would still be making this music in a vacuum, because I am driven to.
AV: That’s a good question and one I’ve found myself asking as well (laughs). When Erik approached me about doing this project, I was full time with my old black metal ensemble Humut Tabal. We did a lot of unorthodox, whacky things in our music ranging from serial music performances to complete indeterminate and improvisational movements, but the composer for that band, Grimzaar, was a classically trained pianist that had to struggle, and I mean really struggle, to write something that wasn’t naturally appealing to the ear in some way. He had a fantastic command of western tonality and knew right where to put that suspended 5th to really get the audience going without ever even thinking about it, it was a completely natural thing. So sitting down with Erik for the first time, working through these monster compositions with heavy drone elements and repetitive themes, I was skeptical that we would ever really garner any sort of critical praise or acknowledgment. Fortunately, the chemistry began to show itself and by the release of our first record, I saw the beauty inherent in the music but I was still convinced it would fly completely under the radar. Not so. For that I think we have to thank the recent rise in popularity of slow, heavy, purposefully meditative music in the metal scene and beyond, our decision to stick to our guns in always serving the composition no matter how tempting it might be to throw other things in there and, of course, our wonderful press agent, Scott Alisoglu, who has somehow managed to package this beast with a pretty enough bow to get the attention of even the most derisive critics.
- To wrap this up, let’s look toward the future by looking at the past. According to the information on the 2007 demo on Metal-Archives, it’s clear to see two of your three officially released tracks on there with some others. The names definitely peak my interest, and at the end of a recent post on Facebook, it ended with “The Ghost Dance nears”, and that’s one of the songs on the 2007 demo. Does this mean you’ll be re-creating “The Ghost Dance” for the next release? I’d be intrigued greatly if it was also its own standalone song-album like “The Desert Winter” or accompanied by a brand new piece.
EO- I don’t want to divulge too much at this time because I like to follow through with what we say we will do. The new record is taking shape and we hope to have it released by the end of this year. I was hoping to have it released before we go on tour in June, but my relocation scuttled that plan. I anticipate playing new material on this tour and then heading into the studio to record it. Sorry to be so nebulous, but I won’t discuss titles and such until we get closer to a release date or at least have something recorded. Right now it only exists in the aether.
HBR: Thanks yet again for your time, and rest assured that I will continue to spread praises about Canyon of the Skull during the New Year and beyond as you have a loyal fan from me. Can’t wait to hear upcoming albums and I hope to make it out there very soon to see the chaos live!
EO: Thanks for your continued support. We really do appreciate it. I’m not sure when we will tour out east, but as I mentioned, we are touring this summer and it would be great to see you at one of the shows.
AV: Thanks very much for the thought-provoking questions and of course all the encouragement and support you’ve offered. Hopefully see you on the road soon!
Once again, a massive thanks to the awesome pair behind Canyon of the Skull! This act has long been one that I’ve sung praises about, and their recent activity has shown that they’re no fad whatsoever! “The Desert Winter” is an immaculate piece in my eyes, and I’ve no doubt that it still has yet to reach the ears of many who can fall in love with it. This year, as you read, might see the return of the Skull, but we must be patient. Until then, please visit the band’s Bandcamp page and offer your support. I and the band would greatly appreciate it beyond words. Canyon of the Skull is still far from over, and with their instruments, they’ve still plenty left to say for us who listen to their silent sermons.
LISTEN to Canyon of the Skull on Bandcamp here.
LIKE Canyon of the Skull on Facebook here.