Interview by Jason Guest
Jason: Hi. Thanks for taking time out for this interview. Your debut, I, is a great album (Ed: Jason’s review is here). To begin, can you tell us about how the band formed and what it was that drew you together to form a band and start writing?
Aaron Roemig: Scheid and I meet in college at the University of Iowa back in 2000 something. He is from the Chicagoland area, and when I moved to the city in 2006 we reconnected. He invited me to go to a mastodon show with him and some of his co-workers. One of those co-workers I met that night was our drummer Mike Rataj. We had a great time and within a year I found myself briefly working at the same company as both of them. At that point it seemed like a good fit. We all had similar tastes in music. I played bass, Scheid guitar and Rataj drums. We were hanging out drinking beers anyway so just decided that we might as well be making some noise while we drank. It pretty much flowed from there. I don’t think there was ever a point where we tried to learn a cover or anything like that. Basically, Scheid or I would have a riff and Rataj would freak out on the drums and we would refine from there. In my opinion all that we were going for was keeping it heavy and interesting for us.
Jason: How has the band developed since it started?
Aaron: From the beginning we knew we wanted something original and something heavy. We didn’t really give a shit about playing shows or if anyone else liked it. In fact no one heard it for the first year or so. We only wrote, recorded and played in our practice space. It was just a chance for us to hang out every week or so and drink some beers and let off some steam. After we put some tracks up online it wasn’t long before shows were being offered. We played our first show in February 2009 at Metal Shaker in Chicago. Our friends in Aseethe and Shores of the Tundra were on tour and asked if we could join them for a show. We had a blast playing live. After that first show it really motivated us to get in a studio as soon as possible and get down what we had written. We recorded our 5 song EP with Bob Popp at Gunpoint Studios about a month later. At the time Gunpoint was in the same building where we practiced which made things really convenient. From there we just kept playing shows that were offered.
Jason: Who are the band’s influences and how much impact have they had on your sound?
Aaron: Converge, Mastodon, Battles, Boris, Torche, COC, Cephalic Carnage, Thou, Shellac, Wolves In The Throne Room, Today Is The Day, Jesus Lizard. We have a lot of influences ranging from old school metal, hardcore, thrash and punk, to more contemporary stuff like doom, black metal, sludge and noise rock. We also all have our own little niches that define each of us. I know Rataj is a big jazz guy and you can tell a lot of his drumming has a free jazz “fuck it” kind of feel to it. Scheid definitely has some old school Chicago blues running through his veins. He has been known to bring a blues riff to the table that we ultimately warp into our own thing. I think also a lot of people we’ve meet and played shows with along the way have greatly influenced us. Playing with really talented bands like East of the Wall, Goes Cube, Rollo Tomasi, Bison BC, Like Rats and Czar have pushed us to keep our music tight. In my opinion everything and everyone around us have an impact on our sound.
Jason: How does the band work to write songs? Do you bring individual ideas or songs to the band or is it a collaborative process?
Aaron: Mainly we write songs together. Either Scheid or I will have a riff or two put together and we start from there. We all contribute our own ideas for how our instruments should be handled. I’m not going to pretend I know more about drums than Rataj. I may suggest this or that to him such as, “this is what I hear; can you play more of a downbeat?” or something along those lines but that’s the extent of it. There are a few tunes that Scheid or I bring to the table that are for the most part already written. But even on those tunes everyone gets to put in their own ideas. Usually things get arranged a few times over before we have the finished product. arbogast would not be the same if we didn’t all contribute own ideas. Scheid will come up with melodies over bass lines that I would have never thought of and vice versa. I think the best stuff we write is when we are all together just improvising on a riff and then tighten from there.
Scheid and I pretty much share the duties as far as writing vocals. If there is ever something that either of us feel passionate about writing lyrically or that we think works for the vocal line we are good about letting each other do their own thing. A lot of times we will independently write vocals for a song and get together and listen to each of our takes on it. Then we decide what sounds best for each part. It’s pretty cool how it comes together. I really dig it when I write a riff and he throws some vocals on it and I’m like, “that rules, I never would have thought of doing it that way.” Also our process is ever changing with new technologies. I really like the point we are at now. We record every practice digitally and share all the mp3s via dropbox. All of the art, lyrics and business documents are shared via google docs. These new technologies really allow us to be more productive at practice. We can meet up once a week and not waste time on collaborating lyrics or reviewing practice tapes. It’s all done virtually now, which gives us more time to create new material and tighten up the old stuff.
Mike Scheid: We operate in both modes to come out with a wide variety of results. Aaron and I both write riffs, chunks of music or full songs and bring those in to be worked on by us all to sculpt edit and finalize. Some songs are written in full for the most part once we start work on them so it’s a matter of teaching and tweaking on those. Others are created off the cuff spontaneously between all three of us while we jam. Usually it takes a lot of practice and listening to our jam recordings to get things to where they need to be but we keep up the repetition and cut anything that just won’t work in. Rataj is instrumental in arranging and establishing dynamics and feel. Aaron and I may come up with melodies, riffs and harmony but he really ties it all together and has probably more input on the order and time of things than we do. Overall, with all of the varying methods we approach music with the common ground and final product is something no single one of us would achieve solo.
Jason: What did you set out to achieve with the album?
Aaron: I think we just wanted to create a quality piece of original music. Hopefully it will lead to us playing more shows with more killer bands.
Mike Scheid: First and foremost to make the BEST full length concept record we could that flows as one body of music more so than a collection of songs. I’m happy with the end result and feel we accomplished that. The rest will just be the rest.
Jason: The opening track, ‘Black With Birds’, is an ambient / atmospheric instrumental that’s very different musically to the rest of the album. What’s its significance?
Aaron: It was actually a riff that we were all working on together that wasn’t quite locking in. So we cut it and mangled it until the riff became interesting to us again. We completely dropped it for a minute then Scheid brought it back as a half time keys intro. The Hammond just happened to be at the studio so we started to mess around with sounds and that’s what came out.
Mike Scheid:How it came about was exactly how Aaron described it, a riff intro that just wasn’t working timing wise. It made the rest of the song drag. I sat down on a piano at home and mapped it out half time of the rest of the song to make an erie, moody intro to serve as the prequel to the record. I’m happy it didn’t work as a band noise part in the end. The significance to me resembles a mother’s cry in a war torn place over a lost or deceased child. The build and pump up is the moment the angry father takes to reflect and meditate on this while hearing the sound of her voice in his head just before he sets out to battle. I lived on a nature preserve that was an old American Indian settlement and then battle ground and potentially a burial area too. I can say there was some intense energy there that brought some things unexplainable to the music as that’s where I primarily wrote. It’s depressing I know but the realities that we’re dealing with are the potential for far worse conflicts here in the states or abroad amongst those who really don’t think it possible that their communities could be battlegrounds. It’s the risk taken if things keep going the way they are. And it’s very general. It can relate to anyone with a personal struggle or ‘war to be waged’ in moving forward in life.
Jason: Who’s responsible for the artwork? And how much direction did you give him/her in its production? And how does it relate to the music?
Aaron: The artwork was designed by Aaron Block of the Chicago band Shifting Totem. Block has done the last three releases for us. He’s an amazing artist and has worked with legendary bands Suicidal Tendencies and DRI and just illustrated a book called Poised To Pummel: An Unauthorized Biography Of Bruce Lee. Scheid came up with the whole desert littered with birds idea. We just gave Block the idea and he went from there. He had a couple prototypes for us and we refined things from those. We try not to give Block too much direction because he is such a great artist that we know the idea he has will ultimately turn out much cooler than we could have imagined. Our main approach to the whole album was to let the people we were working with do their job with us interfering as little as possible. There was only one day that I can remember going to his place, drinking beer and sitting behind him telling him about placement and album credits.
Mike Scheid: The cover itself is modeled after the recurring theme of a world gone not so right and the fall of the flock mentality. The idea more specifically came from the odd instances of thousands of birds falling out of the sky and being found dead throughout the US and world.
Jason: Who writes the lyrics? And what is the main source of inspiration for them?
Mike Scheid: Both Aaron and I write lyrics. They most typically stem from the concept of the song or group of songs as the flowing story and actually were derived from working titles. The songs begin instrumental, develop a working title / concept then the lyrics and final title are coined.
Jason: In an interview elsewhere online, you said that the members of arbogast, in working for a major financial institution, “were directly responsible for destroying the American economy”. What did you mean by that?
Aaron: It was an unfunny inside joke that I made. It was based on all of us briefly working together at a major financial institution. Really nothing was meant by it except to be a funny quote. Although I think I’m the only one who laughed. The only thing we have destroyed in this band is our livers, our instruments and our own bank accounts. I don’t consider us a political band.
Mike Scheid: That was mainly a sarcastic statement gone wrong. We formed the band at a time where we were all working in an area of the financial industry that had a lot to do with the issues of the US housing market. To address that directly the crash was a perfect storm facilitated by all involved between wall street, government regulators, banks and lending institutions, 3rd parties and buyers/borrowers, most of which ignorant and acting within guidelines set forth. I personally lost my ass in this recession but have clung to my blessings which are my children, my health and this music to push on. We truly aren’t anti-system because anyone who takes a US dollar and buys food with it can’t really claim to be. Once I have 100 acres in the middle of nowhere and live off the grid self-sufficiently then maybe I’ll start preaching.
Jason: Thethemes of your album are based around moral decline and the greed of the privileged few that continue to oppress the lower class. What’s your view on capitalism and its effect on the world (globalisation, for instance) and on the individual?
Mike Rataj (drums): I think capitalism is in too deep to go away. If something comes along that’s better I’d assume people are interested to hear about it.
Jason: What’s your view on the Occupy movement? Does its spread around the world indicate the end of global capitalism or is it more a case of false hope?
Aaron: It’s definitely false hope at this point. Stand outside as long as you want. Nothing is going to change.
Mike Rataj: Occupy are a bunch of people that are frustrated with the last few years, you can’t blame them either. This should be an opportunity for ‘moral financial companies’ to start up. Here’s your market, 99% of the people are asking for it. It’s definitely something of a contradiction but if you’re hoping to better things than accept how they are you have to be hopeful. Try not to support the companies whose policies and special interests you don’t agree with. It’s good for us to be conscious about what we support.
Jason: A lot of bands are writing protest songs concerning the state of the world, the environment and the economy in particular and rock music has long been the music of protest. Do you think music has the power to affect a significant change, particularly in relation to the themes of your album?
Aaron: No. Not at all.
Mike Schied: I surely do think the music has the power to spark significant change in the way that any ‘revolution’ starts with one person in their mind, heart and soul and the rest carries on from there. If one mind can be changed, one life can be saved, one person ripped from darkness all off my reasons for doing this have been validated.
Mike Rataj: It’d be cool if rock music could impact change but at the very least I think it’s a place to educate listeners on stuff that isn’t being talked about in mainstream media. Stay curious.
Jason: In interviews, a lot of musicians are being asked their opinion on government and politics and there are a number of controversial statements being made as well as unfounded rhetoric. Is it the place of the musician to comment on such things?
Aaron: Sure, anybody should be able to comment on whatever they want to. Except Ted Nugent, he’s a God dam idiot and should shut the fuck up already.
Mike Scheid: I believe it is the musicians place and duty really to comment, portray and paint the scene they see honestly and accurately without fear of backlash or opinion. So absolutely it is they’re place to share any unique insight to anyone who gives a shit to listen and try to understand. These songs will have to speak for themselves as far as our unique position and we’ll probably not do more than post the lyrics as far as making political statements or preaching any ideology. I just hope those who get it know their not alone and that better days will be seen.
Mike Rataj: Back to the capitalism vote yes there’s a place for politics in music; maybe not on a soapbox but to present what you see in the world and express it. When you’re younger you don’t realize what’s going on around you so it’s nice to have someone inform you who is seeing or has seen what’s happening. If you like the information they’re spreading give them your money to help spread the message to a broader audience.
Jason: What’s does the future hold for arbogast? How do you see the band progressing?
Aaron: New songs, more recordings, vinyl and a hell of a lot of shows. We are just gonna keep at it – focusing on producing quality music. Keep working with likeminded people we meet along the way.
Jason: Will you be touring in support of the album? If so, any plans to visit the UK?
Aaron: Yeah, we are starting with a tour to the East Coast the first week of April. We plan on hitting Philly, Jersey, Brooklyn and a few more. Things are just getting sorted out now with some help from our label Nefarious Industries, who have been very kind to us. We also plan on a Midwest tour for early summer, playing Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Saint Louis and Iowa. And of course we have more shows planned for Chicago. Monday, January 14, 2013 we are playing a show at the Ultra Lounge in Chicago. We are stoked because this will be the first show we’ve done with our label mates A Fucking Elephant. We put out a split 7”record with them back in 2010; very limited edition only 200 pressed on coloured vinyl. Local heavies Taken By The Sun are also on the bill.
We would love to play the UK. You are the first person to ask us about that so if you have any suggestions on where to get started let us know. Let’s make this happen.
Jason: Again, thanks for taking time out for this interview. Do you have any final words for our readers?
Aaron: Thanks for taking the time to write about us.
And you can find more on arbogast here