WORDS: Perran Helyes
Liverpool’s CONAN‘s doom driven noise has caused quite a stir in metal’s underground. As doom metal’s resurgence gains momentum, CONAN are exploding in the metal world. We caught up with Jon Davis to talk about the band’s upcoming third studio record, Revengeance, the resurgence of doom metal, whether the new generation of bands can live up to the old-guard and the band’s stage image of wearing hoodies on stage!
First things first, you’ve got your new record Revengeance coming on the 29th January.
Jon: Yeah 29th January, I don’t think the release is staggered in any way, when they released Blood Eagle I think they did Europe first and then the US and everywhere else but they’re doing it all the same time. Nowadays in the internet age it’s all one market as they’d call it, seems a bit weird when they stagger it.
How do you think it squares up in the rest of the CONAN back catalogue?
Jon: It’s compliment to what we’ve already got and it’s got enough new bits on there to make it stand out on its own. One of the things we were concerned about when we wrote the album, which has been a concern for all of our albums, is trying not to make it sound too different to what we’ve already got, we don’t want a wholesale change in our style, but at the same time you need to evolve a little bit and this definitely is an evolution from Blood Eagle, Monnos and Horseback Battle Hammer. You can see that the songwriting is getting a little bit better as we go along, and we’ve definitely improved the structure of the songs. On the older albums you can see that the songs are quite repetitive, although I really love that and I’ll never lose that because I think it’s important for our style, but we wanted to get a little bit more aggressive in parts as well which we’ve been able to manage quite well I think.
The title track you’ve released off the album is very fast for CONAN standards, almost blast beats. Was choosing to release that first a conscious decision to show that off and try and turn some heads?
Jon: Oh yeah for sure. That song was actually gonna be the first track on the album but we decided not to put it there because it would be for anyone pressing play for the first time maybe too much of a shock. The opening track now Throne of Fire is also quite upbeat but that’s more in the range of Foehammer. Because we didn’t put the title track at the beginning of the album we thought it might be a good one to use as a lyric video because it’s quite catchy and snappy. Where it’s placed on the album now is kinda strategic, in the middle to refresh people a bit after a couple of songs. We’ve always thought about the ebb and flow of an album. We’ve played Blood Eagle in full live for that reason if we’ve got enough time in the set. We tend not to plan our sets too far ahead, it depends on where we are and what the occasion is. It’s almost harder to write a setlist now we have more material and certain songs have to be left out, but I think it’ll benefit now from a couple more fast songs in there. We don’t want to leave behind our slow and low reputation but at the same time, we need to mix things up or people are gonna get bored of us.
Three albums in now, do you feel more pressure to deliver?
Jon: Not at all really, we always get asked that but no. I certainly don’t and I’m sure the other two don’t, maybe because they’ve not been in the band as long as I have. Every now and then you ask yourself “Am I still capable of writing interesting songs?” and then as you soon as you come up with a riff, it’s “yeah of course I fucking am”. It’s never really a worry. We’ve just stuck to our guns really, nothing about what we do is complicated or difficult but we just really enjoy it. I know a lot of bands say that and it probably just sounds really conceited but it’s true. You have to be in it because you love it, it’s like a really rewarding part of a balanced diet if you like. If you commit your whole life to being in the band maybe you could pretty soon get sick of that so my life is a balance. I’ve got a lot of different things I do, I’ve got a label and a studio so I don’t rely upon the band as my sole outlet, although it is getting busier and busier.
You’ve become somewhat more established now, at any extreme festival in the UK there’s always a few CONAN patches, does it feel any different to back when you started?
Jon: Well I suppose so, yeah. The only thing I ever really wanted out of being in a band was to be able to get up on stage and play my music, and the same goes for Chris and Rich too, it’s their music too, but it’s not like we expect to make it big or anything. I promised myself that’d be all I’d want when I was sixteen or seventeen so in a way it’s fulfilling that to myself. You’re quite right, we do have quite a lot of merch going around and whenever I’m out at shows I always see a few and I’m not surprised because I handle the CONAN merch myself online and I know how busy it is. I’m constantly sending merch out and ordering it in and that’s a lot of fun. But apart from being busier, it feels the same as when we brought out Horseback Battle Hammer. Still have that hunger, and that element of fun enjoying being on the road and having a good laugh, and I guess it’s just a little more rewarding now because you’re getting feedback from a crowd of four hundred instead of at the Bradford 1 in 12 to three people who don’t clap at the end. Those are the sort of shows you need to do to earn the right to play at Hellfest or Roadburn, and I’m really proud that we did this right way. We didn’t immediately sign to a big label and get shoehorned onto huge shows, and I think people respect bands like us. We’re kind of self-contained in a way.
Aside from yourself the whole lineup has changed since Blood Eagle, what kind of effect has that had on the band?
Jon: It’s because I’m really hard to be around! The dynamic hasn’t really changed though, or the writing process.CONAN was just me for a while, then I started practicing with a friend who played drums badly and we wrote a demo back in 2006. He couldn’t play shows so I brought Paul in, who then pissed me off and we couldn’t afford to record somewhere which pissed me off so we packed the band in. Then we resurrected the band in early 2009, invited Paul back in, we got John McNulty in who now plays bass in COLTSBLOOD and has been a friend of mine for years and we recorded Horseback Battle Hammer. I’ve gone off track a bit but as you can see we’ve changed members all the way through. Chris is something like our fourth bass player andRich our second or third drummer. Chris has been in and around the band since day one, because he produced Horseback Battle Hammer and we’ve worked with him on literally everything we’ve ever recorded ever. We have a recording studio together, out the back of my house between Liverpool and Chester. Chris is the main guy there, I just pay the bills and open the gate sometimes. Having Chris join the band then was really an obvious thing which is a benefit because he’s got input now right from the very first riff rather than being presented with half completed songs, and I think you can see that on Revengeance. Decibel Magazine said that the songs have more of a lived in, all round feel, which I think is true because up until this album I’ve done most of the writing on my own, I can’t play drums but certainly in the riffs, but here it’s all three of us jamming.
CONAN are a band quite renowned in the live environment. Do you feel you’ve been able to capture that with studio recordings up to this point?
Jon: It’s hard to. You’ll never get a set of headphones or even a decent stereo at home, no matter how loud, that’ll sound like a 2000W PA at a five hundred person venue. You’ll never capture the exhilaration you feel when you can’t get your breath because it’s so loud. You don’t usually sit in your living room with three hundred people headbanging. It’s more than the sound you’re trying to recreate, it’s the vibe. That’s the producer’s challenge, how to make songs sound exhilarating on record. I get recordings from bands for my label and you can tell when some of them have cut corners or gone to the wrong place. It’ll never match the live performance so you have to make sure the recordings stand up on their own two feet. It’s gotta sound authentic though so you don’t come across as phoney on stage, can’t add a load of awesome solos if you can’t play them live. Getting it to sound right though is more Chris’ side as the master of the studio with all the wizardry. You can tell the difference though in how Revengeance sounds to Blood Eagle and Monnos, it’s a little bit wider and more expansive, a bigger recording in a way, and to be honest I haven’t got a clue what Chris did but he made it sound awesome.
Without being in your face about it CONAN have managed to craft something of an identifiable aesthetic and art style which the Tony Roberts cover for the new album continues as well as the whole stage appearance with the hoodies. Is that something you aimed to achieve and have you ever considered changing that up or is it a part of your band now?
Jon: It happened slowly really over a time. Before CONAN played our first ever show we were practicing and I’d get really bad ringing in my ears, and one day I put my hood up and the ringing wasn’t quite as bad. So rather than getting earplugs like any sensible person I just put my hood up.
That’s like the ultimate doom reason for the hoods.
Jon: Slightly less tinnitus! It’s not so much the volume of the amplifier, it’s the cymbals that get me which are really hissy. I do use earplugs now but initially that’s where the hoodies came from. Looking back at the gig photos I thought to myself that it actually looked pretty cool so it stuck. Chris wears the hoodie too though Rich being quite an animated drummer would get a bit tied up. As for the album covers, we don’t tell Tonywhat to do but we like his aesthetic. You can spot our albums now a mile off and it almost makes albums and merch sort of collectible because they’ve all come from the same place. That wasn’t deliberate at first but Tony’s been our art guy since day one. We’ve met him once when we played in Oklahoma last year and he’s a lovely guy, a professional, an awesome artist, we love dealing with him on a business level and on a personal level he’s really cool too. We’ll never be interested in working with another artist as long as Tony can put up with my stupid messages.
A few years ago when CONAN first started getting noticed doom was arguably going through something of a boom. Do you think that’s still the case in 2016?
Jon: I don’t look at it from the angle of it being a renaissance but there’s certainly a lot of heavy bands who call themselves doom or whatever. The label and studio we have now is one of the main places a lot of bands come to if they want to sound as heavy as possible and I constantly get demos through from bands. It’s definitely more popular now. We’ll play festivals now full of bands like us, like Desertfest or Roadburn or Temples will have a few, Hellfest have a whole stage dedicated to this sort of music. I didn’t really know what we were back in 2006 or 2007 when we started, I just wanted to play the music. I’m not a great guitarist so I just wanted to play loud and a bit like SLOMATICS or HIGH ON FIRE. I think people need to be careful though. It won’t take you too long to find a handful of bands on established labels that sound just like IRON MONKEY or just like ELECTRIC WIZARD. It’s for a good reason though because they’re such awesome and influential bands, I’m not ashamed to say I’m influenced by HIGH ON FIRE or SLOMATICS and those bands are friends of mine now too. But it’s well and good having a popular scene but when that scene starts to be full of bands that all sound similar is when it’s gotten too big. Some bands you see and you feel sorry for because it’s gonna be difficult for them to make progress, because if I’ve noticed it promoters definitely will.
Apologies if this question gets a little high-minded so to speak, but recently with the death of Lemmy and while not a metal musician certainly someone who was influential David Bowie just earlier this week, along with various other pioneering figures over the last few years like Dio or Jeff Hanneman, this could potentially be seen as a period in which metal is beginning to lose its old guard somewhat. Do you feel that the current generation of artists springing up are doing enough to fill that gap, or indeed if they can?
Jon: I think the artists are, but sadly they’re not in control of who makes it big. You raise a good point about the old guard dying away, it’s almost like the genre itself is shedding skin. Lemmy and David Bowie, I can’t say I’m massive fans of their music and only because I’ve not taken the time to get into it, but of course they are to be respected for being leaders and shining lights within music in general, not just heavy stuff, and it makes you wonder who will fill those gaps. When you look though at someone like MOTÖRHEAD, you can draw comparisons with maybe HIGH ON FIRE. When they started out with The Art of Self Defense and Surrounded By Thieves, they wouldn’t have expected to be where they are now. They’ve stepped up to the mark and are the genuine article, a real band full of people who mean it. I think what you’ll find now is because music doesn’t pay the same way that it did, you’ll see bands who can’t fit things as hard because they can’t make the leap from having a day job. They won’t be driving in the van 365 days a year as perhaps they did in the 70s. Lemmy, god rest his soul, probably didn’t spend many days at home in the last however many years and certainly during MOTÖRHEAD‘s rise they would have been touring like crazy trying to get to where they needed to be. There aren’t many bands now able to commit that much time because of the pressures of modern life, they have to pay the bills. I was lucky in that I was able to give up my day job and only do music, but that comes from the label and studio and merch company, not all from CONAN.
Obviously CONAN aren’t the type of band who are gonna end up headlining Download festival or anything, but do you see yourselves as having a particular role within the scene?
Jon: You never know, we might do! No, I don’t think we have a role, all we do is write music and play shows. I guess if you’ve been around for a long time people might look up to you, and I’m always open to speak to other bands who are just starting out as long as the questions aren’t too silly and pass them on names of promoters or whatever. It’s part of just being part of the scene, we’d rather be that than having the responsibility of being frontrunners or leaders. That makes you feel old. Part of the fun of the band is the journey. I don’t wanna be in a band who have made it. You always want to make it and if “making it” means we get to open the odd festival stage here and there I’m not sure that’s quite right.
So what’s up next for CONAN following the release of the album?
Jon: Well just today we announced our US tour in March. After that we’ve then got a UK tour and some European shows in April and then in May we have a handful of shows. Basically just touring to promote the album. It looks like we’re going to Australia at some point. We played there September last year with a cool band calledYANOMAMO.
You guys not tiring out at all with all these tours?
Jon: Oh no, we get to sleep in between and apart from playing the shows you’re just sitting around doing nothing. Anyone who says they’re tired of touring is lying or just not doing it right because it’s not actually hard. It takes a lot of preparation and a certain sort of mindset but I really do enjoy it. It’s what I’ve wanted to do with my life, so for me it’s a lot of fun.
Well that about covers it, so thank you for your time!
Jon: Alright mate, no problem, good talking to you!
Revengeance is set for release on January 29th via Napalm Records.