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INTERVIEW: Josh Smith – Northlane

As March drew to a close, Australian metallers NORTHLANE dropped their fourth album, Mesmer, as a complete surprise that shook the metal world to its core. The secretive marketing and planned surprise release has worked wonders for the band as they became a hot talking point across the web. Now that the album has had time to embed itself into the ears of listeners and the dust has settled, it is interesting to see what is next for NORTHLANE. We caught up with guitarist Josh Smith to talk about the marketing and secrecy behind Mesmer, the record’s themes, messages and recording process alongside what the rest of the year has in store for the band.

Wow. So here you are: it’s the year 2017 and NORTHLANE are now four albums down the line. This must have been quite the week for you guys, surely?

Josh: It’s been absolutely crazy. We’ve always been a very polarising band, we’re always innovating what we do and thus every time we release music it’s usually met with equal parts praise and criticism. This time it’s different though, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive and we seem to have gained a lot of new fans from Mesmer. We really couldn’t be happier with the response.

So to set the scene: it’s been four years since the release of your sophomore album, Singularity, and two years since your previous record, Node, and much to the surprise of everyone, you’ve just released your newest album, Mesmer, totally out of the blue. How does it feel to finally get that new music out there after keeping the details of it under wraps for so long?

Josh: It’s super exciting. We started working on this album about 18 months ago, we spent more time writing it than ever before and had to try so hard to keep it confidential. It was frustrating because we were so excited about what we were sitting on but had to keep it under lock and key. The best part is it’s been so well received so it feels like all that hard work and clandestine secrecy paid off.

You said at the time of release that you had decided to drop the album so immediately as a means of giving back to your fans and rewarding them for everything that they’ve given you over the course of the band’s career. Was releasing it in this way always the plan from the very beginning of the album process, or was it a more spontaneous decision further along the timeline once you could reflect on the finished product?

Josh: We decided we’d release the album as a surprise very early in the writing process, at least a year ago. We did it for a number of reasons, mostly for the one mentioned. Giving back to our fans and giving them the gift of a new record with instant gratification was of upmost importance. One of the best aspects as well was the fact that we felt no pressure, no anticipation, very little stress and there was a lower risk of a leak because people weren’t out looking for the album.

Understandably, you had your reservations about releasing the album in such a way – potentially losing out on media coverage and holding concerns about how this would impact its performance in the charts, for example – but now that the dust has begun to settle and you’ve had a few days to let it all sink in, how have you perceived the reaction from press and fans alike, and most importantly, was it worth it?

Josh: Like I mentioned earlier the response to Mesmer has been absolutely astounding. I think that releasing the record as a surprise was a huge risk. There was no overt promotion for a record prior to announce, just a lot of conjecture from our fanbase based on things we did to give clues like our chat bot, the Mesmer video we released and two singles. If the record had not stood up to the hype at the moment of release it would have been an astounding failure and faded into instant anonymity. We backed ourselves though, we were confident in what we created and it absolutely paid off. I think the hype surrounding the surprise release has by far outstripped anything we could have drummed up with a conventional release plan.

Now then, I feel as though it would be rude to talk any further about the album without first addressing the impressive social media campaign that actually led up to this point. NORTHLANE certainly not strangers to more thoughtful ways of teasing your audience and keeping the hype machine in full swing, and with Mesmer it was no different. Encouraging fans to engage with a chatbot directly through your Facebook channel and being faced with all sorts of cryptic messaging, it was certainly unique and helped play into the experience of the whole album. Who was responsible for that idea, and what was the thought process behind it?

Josh: Whenever we release new music we’ll always brainstorm with our label UNFD about what creative ways we can use to promote what we are trying to do. This particular idea was something I was introduced to by our social media manager, Kate. She did an awesome job of developing the bot and it turned out to be the biggest talking point of the whole campaign.

It’s incredibly surprising that, given the immense quality of the album, Mesmer was written, recorded, and released within two years of your previous full release, especially with extensive touring and the NORTHLANE and IN HEARTS WAKE collaboration sandwiched somewhere in-between. How quickly from the release of Node did you actually begin writing the material that would eventually become Mesmer?

Josh: We started writing Mesmer literally a month after Node came out. While I think it’s important to wait until you’re inspired to write (and this takes time). We allocated about six months total time off the road to write Mesmer, and this was broken up by about 10 days at Ghost City Recordings in Germany where we compiled all the ideas we had prior and really mapped out exactly what direction we were going to take all the songs and the record as a whole. We were much more conscientious about writing this time, we worked on it nonstop when we were off the road and really went to the nth degree refining the songs before we got to the studio to record the real thing. Some songs had as much as 8 full versions recorded as pre production before we’d even shown them to our producer David Bendeth.

You’ve mentioned that this album involved the most difficult recording process to date. What made it so difficult this time around, especially when compared to the process of creating Node, an album that saw you not just entering a different direction musically, but introducing current vocalist, Marcus Bridge, into the mix for the first time?

Josh: There’s two reasons as to why it was so difficult for us. Firstly, our producer David Bendeth made it his mission to completely dissect us all psychologically and point out each one of our weaknesses, reservations and grievances both personally and in the sense of the band. He pushed us as hard as he could to deliver the most emotion-filled performances possible, questioned all the decisions we made and was brutally honest with us about every detail of the record. Secondly, during the writing process we faced a huge amount of personal hardship, experiencing deaths of people close to us, loss of relationships and a few other roadblocks too. It was hard to push through but gave us the emotional ammunition we needed to deliver a heart filled record. Once we’d addressed these issues with songs it became therapeutic for us.

Much in the same way that Singularity built upon the foundations of the previous album, Discoveries, Mesmer does the same with the foundations cemented by 2015’s Node. Introducing further vocal melody, delving further into progressive territory, and ramping up the spacey, ambient trappings of that record, how did you decide on this being the right sound to pursue? Did you head into this album with a specific mission statement, or was this just how the pieces fell once you were in the studio and writing?

Josh: We had about six months to write the record. After the first three months we had a European festival tour and in the middle of that tour we spent about 10 days at a studio in Germany called Ghost City Recordings. When we arrived we had a wealth of parts and ideas but no real clear perception about where we wanted to take the album, and in a lot of cases what we needed to do with the ideas to turn them into songs. During this 10 days we collaborated to refine what we had in way of ideas, and define the direction we wanted to take Mesmer in artistically.

The songs here deal with global, social, and personal issues ranging from the ever-increasing presence of CCTV and ‘Big Brother’ style surveillance on the track Citizen, to what are lyrics that appear to address the dying earth and the environmental impact of man on the album’s fourth track, Solar. With this style of content running deeply throughout the album, what does the title Mesmer actually mean, or rather, how does it relate thematically to the lyrical content displayed within the album?

Josh: When I write lyrics I like to read about things I consider to be consciousness expanding, things that make me ponder the fabric of reality. One of the people I stumbled across was Franz Mesmer, famous for his debunked theory of animal magnetism and his fascination with hypnotism. I use yoga and meditation to focus myself in order to reach the higher perspective I need to write lyrics that fully reflect my inner thoughts, hypnotism is another way to access this state of stillness. In addition to this, There is a running thread of loss through the album that connects it all. While these points are quite removed, albeit slightly relatable to Franz Mesmer, my bandmates found the topic fascinating and we loved the sound of the name and the feelings it invoked.

To touch on one particular track on the album, more specifically the album’s closing track, Paragon, it’s clear from reading and understanding the lyrics that it holds a very special place in the hearts and minds of the entire band. Written as your tribute to the late ARCHITECTS guitarist, Tom Searle – a band long established as one of your biggest influences – lyrically it holds a lot of emotional weight underneath its incredibly heavy surface. How did the song come to be, and how did you decide that this song was the right one to dedicate to his memory?

Josh: Jon, the other guitarist in my band was very close with Tom. Both with an eclectic streak in their personalities they found a lot of common ground between each other when we toured with ARCHITECTS back in 2013. When Tom passed away, Jon was deeply distraught and upset. We’d only planned on writing 10 tracks for this record but to cope with the grief he began writing an 11th track. He called me after about a week and told me he wanted the song to be about Tom, I obliged and began working on lyrical ideas. Tom was a poet with a real knack for writing what he wanted to express with beautiful metaphor and I felt the only real way to do him justice was to repurpose some of his lines that moved me, and write the entire song with nods to his lyrics. This was the heaviest, darkest song we’d written so far so musically it couldn’t be better suited, and Jon included lots of musical ideas which showed influence to ARCHITECTS for it.

Each song that builds up this album demonstrates an impressive range of influences and covers a cohesive selection of styles (both old and new) that really makes this album your most varied release to date. If you were able to select just one song from this album that demonstrates exactly where NORTHLANE is right now, what track would it be and why?

Josh: This is a real tough question, because I think we explore every song as deep as we can when we write. We hardly throw ideas away after inception because we thrive on going further and further until we have something we love. I really think Savage is a track that displays all of the aspects we wanted to include in this record, and it’s more on the progressive side.

And lastly, to round things off, I figured I’d end with a bit of a tough one: With such an extensive line-up of tour dates already planned over the course of the year in support of this new album, including an appearance on the main stage at Download Festival 2017, which of these new songs are you the most excited about bringing to a live environment?

Josh: I feel like by the end of this record cycle, the selection off Mesmer is going to make up the bulk of our setlists. Citizen is an easy song to get into, and the lead single off the record so I’m definitely most excited about that. It’s got a lot of bounce!

Mesmer is out now via UNFD.

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