“An artistic expression that is honest and crystalline clear in its intention is fundamental…”
– Davide Tiso
Interview by Jason Guest
Jason: Hi Davide. I’ve been a fan of the band since seeing you support Fantomas Melvins Big Band in London in May 2006 so thank you very much for taking time out for this interview and congratulations on Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness (Ed: reviewed here).
Davide Tiso: Hi Jason, thank you for the great support. May 2006, London. That might be the most important show ED have ever played. Mike Patton personally invited us to play there, we booked a small tour around that gig. If I’m not mistaken, that might be also one of the very last show that Fantomas Melvins Big Band played, it was later released as a DVD. I’m glad we were able to be part of that event. I remember staring at Dave Lombardo while he was doing the drum sound check, the very first tom fill he performed was worth the show’s ticket.
Jason: Can you tell us about what you set out to achieve with the album? Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted for this record or did that evolve with the writing?
With Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness I wanted to put together a collection of very architectural and layered pieces of music. I wanted each song to be intense and boldly ambitious in terms of structure and arrangements. I wanted each piece to reach specific peaks of intensity through a journey-like structure. Finally, I wanted the song to reveal themselves little by little, listening after listening. There are so many nuances and details to be captured and hopefully appreciated. This music demands the listener attention and it’s not shy about it.
Jason: When did you start writing? Is there material that was written for On Death and Cosmos on the album or is it all new?
Davide: After we recorded and mixed On Death and Cosmos I never let my guitar go and I kept composing. During the promotion of the EP I was already hard at work on the new album. I remember that as a moment of great musical inspiration for me: at that time music was pouring out of me at very fast pace. Without a home studio it would have been impossible to contain and put in order all the musical ideas and riff that passed through my head and my hands during that time. Composing the music for Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness took me approximately 6 months. Writing the lyrics for it and placing the vocal patterns took almost the same amount of time. Finally, recording, mixing and mastering spanned through almost a 7 months period: this wasn’t a simple album to record; it had its own will and a pretty bad temperament.
Jason: Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness has a holistic feel to it, in that all of the tracks complement each other and nothing feels out of place. Was this a decision you made early on in the creative process?
Davide: Absolutely. I actually try to achieve this component for every ED albums I compose: each of ED releases aren’t supposed to be collection of songs but statements that 100% represent me as a musician and that are able to freeze what the band stands for at that specific time. I would say that for this new album the holistic feel has a specific weight and importance that I haven’t quite reached before. Since the very early stages of composition, this album seemed to have his own specific personality that I somehow managed to go along with, without forcing my hand but just letting go, leaving the song be free to revealing themselves to me. Each of them finished depending on the others but at the same time they stand proud on their own. I’m particular captured by the two closing songs, whose titles put together reveal the album’s one. I wanted to close the album with something very deep and dramatic and I managed to put together what I consider to be the band’s manifesto.
Jason: Ephel Duath’s music has always been incredibly dense and complex. How do you approach composition?
Davide: I approach music composition with a great deal of respect and humbleness. Every time I take my guitar with the intention of composing for ED I try to make those moments as important as a ritual process. Those, above all, are the most intimate and precious aspect of being a musician for me. Every song I compose is born from two or three notes that show me the path to take. I usually close myself in very small places with my guitar, a closet, a bathroom, a tiny room, and without any amplification I move my fingers on the fretboard. I gently do that for a while freeing my mind from expectations or useless daily routine thoughts. Sooner or later my fingers get to that specific combination of two, three notes that speak to me. At that point I nail those notes to the wall and I don’t let them go. I start building a speech around them. I first make them talk, the goal is to make them sing and when it happen it feels like magic. Once I have a riff, I create the one that follows on the mood dictated by the first and so on, riff after riff, song after song.
The fire that ignites my composition process brings me to a state that is very close to a trance. I guess I don’t completely control my modus operandi because I usually can’t recall anything about those moments. It feels like I’m channelling more than actively putting together music notes on a guitar.
Jason: Can you tell us about the album title, what it means to you and what inspired it? Is there a lyrical or conceptual theme across the album? Where does lyrical inspiration come from?
Davide: Ephel Duath has always been a band that feeds itself with opposites: lightness and heaviness, empty and full spaces, colours and darkness. The new album pushes this dichotomy even more, and I felt like marking the title itself with it.
There’s a constant search for dark sounds in my songs but there’s no real darkness without light. Lightness plays an important role in Ephel Duath just because it is in direct function and symbiotic correlation with heaviness.
All the songs are tied together by metaphysical topics, even if there it isn’t a proper set concept to be followed. Out-of-body walks, self empowerment through openness of mind, spirit awareness and communication, mental cleansing and grounding are some of the themes I have touched in the lyrics, all express through a pretty visual and sometime gory approach. Going inside your own head, taking those paths that aim to the dark side of each of us could be a pretty painful experience, physically speaking too. My lyrics try to emulate that process, combining aery element with brutal and down to earth consequences. Guts, puke, blood, broken bones included.
Jason: Artistic expression is clearly more important to you than commercial success. How important is this to music? What does the act of creating music mean to you?
Davide: An artistic expression that is honest and crystalline clear in its intention is fundamental to me. I feel that music let me share the very best part of myself.
Everyday I’m forced to put a lot of masks on my face in order to keep being part of this society I don’t really understand. The least amount of personal questions I get, the better I feel. Do you remember the lyrics from ‘Can’t Decide’ from Black Flag? “I always wear a smile, because anything but a smile would make me have to explain, and they wouldn’t understand anyway”. I feel that way most of the time, but when I play, record and offer ED music out there I feel one with myself and at peace.
It seems my music doesn’t necessary have the quality to be commercial successful or even hip. This factor bothers me more than one could think but there’s not much I can do about it. I keep going, being true to myself and, above all, paving my own path. ED proudly sounds like no one, this is a matter of great accomplishment for me and probably the only reward I should really go after.
Jason: The artwork for the album is a very intriguing. Who’s the artist? Why did you choose to work with him/her? How much direction did you give him/her in its creation?
Davide: One morning while navigating the web I came across that incredible image that eventually became the album’s cover. I remember that when I saw it I was floored. I first wondered how old the image was and then I frantically started to look for information about it. I expected having to deal with a museum or something and I finished getting in contact with the artist himself. A guy my age. A metal head too! Aeron Alfrey. I immediately asked him if he was interested in collaborating with ED and I finished buying the rights to use the piece.
Jason: How does it relate to the music?
The cover perfectly represents not just the album and its mood but the band itself, being so contorted, dark, detailed, cerebral, beautiful and appealing but disturbing at the same time. The rest of the artwork, layout and booklet have been created and put together thanks to the talent of Dehn Sora, Ephel Duath’s official graphic artist, following the cryptic and slightly religious mood of the cover itself.
Jason: As with On Death and Cosmos, you worked with Erik Rutan again who mostly works with extreme metal bands. What does he bring to Ephel Duath? Why choose to work with him?
Davide: Since I live in the US I keep choosing Erik Rutan for my productions because of his talent, dedication and military work ethic. Erik expect nothing but the best in terms of performances by the musicians he chooses to work with and he’s not that shy to let you know when you are playing sloppy. His perfect pitch hears and his attention for detail is absolutely out of the ordinary and the results of such hard work pays back profusely. My music needs a producer that is ready to commit 100% to the songs and is ready to take the music to the next level: Rutan is giving me that, plus the drive of an extra band member and the support of a great friend.
Jason: Marco Minneman returns on drums. What is it that he brings to Ephel Duath?
Davide: As a songwriter, it is extremely refreshing and liberating to have such strong collaborators at my side. When I send the preproduction of my songs to Marco Minnemann, I know that he will promptly send me back the files with ideas to listen to. It is incredible how professional, fast and efficient Marco is. I feel that he’s able to adapt his drumming to my guitar style in such an elegant and eclectic way. Every guitar’s accent is interpreted and enchanted by the drums and there is definitely a good, magic at times, alchemy between us two.
Jason: Bryan Beller played bass on the album. He’s played with Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa, Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, James LaBrie and what seems to be an unending list of musicians. What was it that drew you to him for the album? And what did he bring to the writing/recording of the album?
Davide: Working with Bryan Beller for the bass parts has been absolutely great. His parts are literally locking guitars and drums to each other and they add power, attack and heaviness to each and every riff. Bryan’s bass lines are very rock music oriented and his tone is so warm, rounded and well balanced: it perfectly complements my guitar ones.
Jason: Karyn Crisis gives another outstanding performance. How do you two work to bring the music, the lyrics, and the vocal together?
Davide: Karyn and I are two very different artists that somehow didn’t have to change their approach to work musically well together. I’m very protective of Karyn’s peculiar way to interpreting music and having the chance to compose for her on a daily basis I learned which aspect of my music palette let her shine as a singer more. Karyn’s voice adds intensity and power to my music but also fragility, desperation and wildness. Karyn’s unique vocal tone creates a very odd balance with the meticulous and cerebral music I write and the combination of these two aspects mark Ephel Duath today.
I usually go to the forest or at the park to write lyrics for ED. I take very long walks listening to some specific pieces of music with a mantra-like cadence. I get into a meditative kind of trance and I write. Once I get home I enunciate the lyrics to Karyn listening to the instrumental version of the song and we discuss if the mood the music and words create works. Once we find an agreement I record a vocal pre-production with the patterns and rhythms I would like her to work on. Finally, Karyn starts a long rearranging process to adapt my parts to her specific vocal timbre.
Jason: Ephel Duath has had numerous line-up changes throughout its existence, a factor that you seem to have embraced more so in recent years. Does this position give you more control over the writing/recording?
Davide: This band is my own personal outlet since many years, line ups change because for every album I need specific musicians to give life to the sound I’m going after. I’m in complete control of ED’s music since 2001, few years ago I opted to work with exceptional session musicians as rhythmic section to make the composing process smoother and faster. Since I live in the US I never found a full line up for Ephel Duath: I can’t keep dedicating too much time looking for musician to jam, I prefer to spend my energy composing the best songs I can and hire professionals to record with me. This specific choice is making each release more economically demanding but in terms of musicianship, well, these new songs are reaching extremely high level of musicianship being so dynamic, expressive and with character. This is so rewarding for me, I’m investing all I have in this band and I want the best for this band. My goal is to keep putting out albums that are strong statements and will stand the test of time: these great names I’m involving in my band are helping me achieving this and also taking off my shoulder a big deal of weight.
Jason: How much input in the writing do you give the musicians that you work with?
Davide: I write music and lyrics for ED, the other musicians I involve in the albums’ recording sessions follow my suggestions for what concern their contributions. In Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness Karyn Crisis re-arranged the vocal lines I presented to her, Marco Minnemann composed his own drums parts based on the guitars and song structures that I provided to him and Bryan Beller took care of his own bass parts balancing my guitar’s tones and complementing Marco’s parts. I strongly believe that the process of arranging a song should be a band operation, preferably something to be done in communion, only this way the peculiar characteristics that different musicians bring to the table could have the chance to shine. Even if the last ED albums are played by musicians that are not necessary jamming in the same room, I trust and believe in my collaborators really a lot and I try my best to give each of them as much artistic freedom as possible. At the same time, I know well that ED needs my direction. This music is very meticulous and need a strong and well-defined vision in order to not get the musicians loosing themselves too much while evaluating all the different kind of arrangements solutions available.
Jason: Ephel Duath is signed to Agonia Records. How do you find working with them? How is it different to previous labels?
Davide: I signed with Agonia Records in 2011 after they kept writing to me about how much they liked ED for a whole year. In 2012 we had the chance to successfully collaborate together releasing the EP On Death and Cosmos. Agonia is betting a lot on Ephel Duath. We are one of the label’s top priorities and they are doing everything in their possibilities, both economically and personally, to promoting and pushing my band out there. I’m very grateful to have such dedicated people working for me and it is refreshing for me to be with a label that gives me 100% control on anything band related. Everything about ED is carefully planned together but needs my OK to be finalized. I believe we developed the necessary conditions and trust to make this band grow and finally get the recognitions I think it deserves.
Regarding the previous label, well, I think it was time to part ways. Earache was not the right label for Ephel Duath and Ephel Duath was not the right band for Earache, especially in that time frame: we were right in the middle of that trash metal revival the label was investing so much money into. When we got signed with Earache we were under the sub-label Elitist Records run by Lee Barrett, the ex-Candlelight co-owner who discovered Emperor, Opeth and Enslaved, and he strongly believed in the band. When, after three releases together, Elitist closed, all the bands got dropped except for us and Biomechanical, and from that moment on I felt there was no one at Earache that knew what to do with Ephel Duath. We released another album with them, 2009’s Through My Dog’s Eyes, and I asked them to let me go. They seemed relieved about it; I should have done it before, like when Mike Patton asked me to sign for Ipecac in 2004. At the time I wanted to keep the word I gave to Lee Barrett and I declined the offer: absolutely the biggest mistake of my entire music career. What a fool, I will never get over that.
Jason: Do you have any plans to tour in support of the album? Will we be seeing you in the UK?
Davide: I would love to return playing live in the UK and I’m doing my best to make this happen soon.
Jason: Again, thank you very much for taking time out for this interview. Do you have any closing words for our readers?
Davide: Thank you so much for the interview and the support Midlands Rocks keeps offering to Ephel Duath. I invite all of you to listen to Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness at our label’s bandcamp here and feel free to share your thoughts about it with me on ED’s Facebook page. Thank you for reading.