The ArcTanGent Interview: Sam Chetan-Welsh (Ithaca)


Indicative of the exciting new direction in which metal is travelling, London’s Ithaca are making waves with their explosive live show and their critically acclaimed sophomore album, They Fear Us (reviewed here). Fresh from tearing up the Bixler stage at this year’s ArcTanGent festival, The Midlands Rocks caught up with the band’s guitarist Sam Chetan-Welsh.

Your fresh of the Bixler stage at ArcTanGent. How was it?

It was amazing. It was very special, very, very meaningful. It really felt like a step up to a new level. I don’t think we were really prepared for how many people were going to be there. It feels like the culmination from a whole lot of hard work.

It was a special performance, and it looked like you should have been on a bigger stage. Hopefully, we’ll see you on the main stage soon?

Thank you, that’s really kind. I hope so. That’s the ambition we have, to keep pushing. It is very validating because we were booked long before the new album came out, so I think it made sense to put us there, but hopefully, this album has taken us up to the next level.

Your set was highly energetic. You look pretty chilled now, so how do you bring yourself down?

I was commenting on this when we were driving the gear back from the stage; being in the band is such a surreal thing, particularly when we built up a bit of momentum, and we were all quite nervous before we went on, you’ve got that energy, you’ve got a crazy adrenaline hit because you’ve played the set, and then you have to get in the van and drive back. I think I’m still coming down but I’m just trying to be mindful about the experience and capture the moment.

I imagine it can be strange when you get home after a tour or a festival date?

It is. People who live in the “normal” world think you’re a rock star. I’m like “No!”, I’ve literally dragged a cabinet up a pub stairwell the other week, but on the other hand I played to a mass of people, so it’s hard to communicate the dichotomy to people.

The band is currently in its 10th year. How do you rate your progress over the last decade?

On the one hand, I feel that were doing really well, but it’s also come a great cost over the years. We’ve learnt a huge amount, and we’ve changed a huge amount as people, we’ve all been through extraordinary things, and I also think that the pandemic was a crystallising moment when the veil between this world and the next felt very thin. Life felt very fragile then, so these days we conduct ourselves in a way which reflects that; do what you want because life is very short. I think these days we’re very good at focusing on the important stuff.

I never thought the pandemic would end.

Exactly, because we were off and on, off and on, and it was a very tough thing for mental health. I’ve seen many people in my life re-evaluate their priorities and think what is life for, and not to trivialise it, but that’s how we felt as a band, for sure.

The band all come from different backgrounds, so how did you all meet?

Myself, Will [Sweet] and [James] Lewis, we all went to school together, we had all been friends for a long time, and we were some of the early grebos in our school, hanging out in the music block, playing Lamb Of God and stuff. After university, I though I really want to give this band thing a go, to have a heavy band has been my dream, but I had no idea where to start. So, I just put an advert online, and got really lucky finding Drew and Djamila [Boden Azzouz]. I put some really specific bands like Converge in the advert to filter it out, and we just got lucky. Don [Moss], whose been our bass player for a few years has always been a friend, and in his words, he’s joined his favourite band, he’s always been a fan. So, we’ve been really lucky.

Ithaca have a genre defying sound. Would you say that’s due to the band’s diversity?

For sure, I think that’s a big part of it. We all come from different places, I feel that being mixed race Asian, that I’m caught between two different worlds, and this new album is the first time that I’ve started to bring that context into it. The environment in which we raised helps, and it’s also what we listen to also helps, we all love heavy music but when were in the van we’re listening to Prince, jazz, hip hop, and a lot of pop music. To expand the scene and make it more healthy you have to push the boundaries, and that’s what we are trying to do.

I imagine people mention the band’s diversity quite a lot. Do you mind, or would you rather people focused on the music?

I’m really happy to talk about it because I’m on a mission with this record where I’m preaching from the gospel about making our scene more diverse and inclusive. I think we’re pushing at a slightly more open door now, than we were five years ago. People in heavy music are now starting to twig that if we keep putting camping chair music on the bill, then we’re not going to bring in a new generation of fans, and the music is going to go the way of jazz and become the concern of a small group of older men. And to me that’s not good enough, I’m not going to accept that, because the music is better when you get more women, and people of colour, and people from working class backgrounds. Music gets better when you’ve got something to say. When we started this band I thought that was lacking, people had nothing to say.

When I look at Festivals like Download and Bloodstock, I often worry that there’s no new bands coming through who could be future headliners.

Exactly. It’s one thing to have metal tradition and to say it should never change, and that’s cool, tradition metal is amazing, but it is just one shade. I don’t think we’re looking at the big picture about the health of our music. We are living in an era where people listen to everything, people aren’t just into metal any more, and our music should reflect that.

I can really relate to your band because you challenge preconceived ideas. However, people don’t like it when you step outside of a box and fight against stereotypes. Have you face much hostility for your beliefs?

Over the years we have. Recently it’s got less and less because culture is changing, our scene is changing, there is more diversity. But if you look at our YouTube videos, a lot of comments are lovely, but there are always a raft of comments that are misogynistic, homophobic, racist, and you’d never see those comments if it was Conjurer’s video, for example, or another amazing UK band that’s all men, you’d just never see it. Yes, it used to be worse, but there’s still a contingent that want things to stay as they are, and it was ever thus.

What is your songwriting process? Do all the band contribute to the songs?

Yes. It’s be evolving a lot recently. During the pandemic we had to learn to write together digitally. But the way it normally works is, I usually bring a fully formed riff or a basic song structure, Lewis either gives me drums to write to or he writes to the riff, then we all get together and co-build it, but we’re very ruthless. I think one of the reasons our albums are so short is because in our minds if it’s not at least a 9 out of 10 segment, or if it is not hitting, it is gone. So I think that’s the most important thing the other guys do, is the editing process. Djamila will come in and will give us really good feedback about song structure, based on her vocal lines. It is all collaborative, although I write much of the music initially, I feel very strongly that it wouldn’t be what it is without the input of the other guys.

They Fear Us is like an old school album which ebb and flowed as a complete listen. For the last 10 years bands seemed to focus on singles. Do you think the idea of a full-length album is making a comeback.

When we were writing about these things we didn’t think people were going to care, but we were going to do them anyway. With this album we’ve got a lot of themes and ideas, and we want to take the listener on a journey, and we don’t think that’s possible with one single, or if you’re streaming it as part of a playlist. I’ve no idea what the future is with the album, but we just did what we wanted to do. There are other ways you can take people on the journey, but I do think there is something to be said for the album format.

As They Fear Us progressed, it seemed to shed weight and become less condensed. Would you say that’s a fair observation?

Absolutely. The arc of the album is to try to take you down in the depths, and it gets as heavy as it gets in the middle, and then to bring you up at the end. That mirrors a lot of themes of the album which are about the process of healing, and what it takes to rebuild yourself after some traumatic experience. I wanted to offer people a sense of optimism as the album finished, because I think that nihilism is incredibly cheap currency in metal music, and for me it was really important to take the listener to that heavy place, but crest towards recovery as we reach the end.

So it was almost like a concept album.

For me, I love prog rock, and I love the idea of concept albums, but for us we don’t want to faff about and be bloated, we edit very heavily, but an album for me should be a complete package, like a film, book, or an essay.

After ArcTanGent the band is off to Europe for some dates.

Yes, we’ve just finished our UK tour, which was lovely, and we’re off to Europe next week; Belgium, Netherlands and Germany with a band called Respire from Canada, who are really fabulous. They’re great people, a great band.

Do you approach festival and club dates differently?

We put a lot of thought into our headline show, and we would love to have brought some of that headline show to ArcTanGent. But we only had 30 minutes, so it was a case of go in, burn the building down, and leave is what the objective was today. Approaching today it was a case of thinking that there would be people who’ve heard about us, but had never seen us, so it was give them as full an Ithaca experience as we could. With a club headline show there’s more space to breathe, the stage raps will be longer, and we’ll talk about other things.

How are things on the tour bus? Is it all quite harmonious?

It’s pretty good. We’re fairly a conflict adverse by nature, and because some of us are into therapy, we have the tools for getting through conflict situations.

It seems like you fully booked up for this year. So what are your plans for 2023?

I wish I could tell you because a couple of things planned are really, really exciting. We’ve got a couple of festival bookings in next year that we’re really excited about. It’s festival bookings next year, and we’re in talks about potential support slots.

Finally, I imagine when you were a young metalhead in your bedroom, you’d never thought you’d be playing ArcTanGent.

Never in a million years would I imagine I’d be playing in a tent to 1200 people, people singing along to the words, moshing, headbanging. Never would I have imagined it, but it is incredible.