IRIS DIVINE – An Alternate Take on Progressive Karma
We can certainly debate the tag ‘progressive’ in 2015 more so than ever before. Thanks to modern technology, djent influences, and different schools of thought, what artists like Yes, Genesis, and Rush started in 1960’s and 1970’s may have taken things into a Dream Theater, Fates Warning, or Queensrÿche direction during the 1980’s and early 90’s for progressive heavy metal – but now artists as diverse as Tool and Periphery expand the horizons like never before.
Northern Virginia’s Iris Divine are one of those newer bands that willingly take influences from the 90’s alternative metal scene (Alice in Chains, Deftones) and also still admit a strong affinity for the classic progressive metal masters (Dream Theater, Rush). Somehow, the power trio format has given the listener a veritable sonic buffet to dine on, the band always making sure to keep things very ear pleasing and melodic as to not float on overtly technical skylines.
After ingesting copious amounts of their latest album "Karma Sown", I felt it was necessary for guitarist/vocalist Navid Rashid to discuss a host of topics relating to the band, his thoughts on technology versus the human element, and how being a power trio appeals to these musicians. Be adventurous and take a risk on Iris Divine…
(© Rob Fortenberry Photography)
Where does your personal journey begin – I’d love to find out about your initial memories surrounding music, favorite artists/ records, and when you felt the need to pick up an instrument to start banging out some hard rock/ heavy metal?
That’s a good question. So I was introduced to music at a very early age. My ethnic background is that I’m from India- my parents are from India and I was born in the states, so there was always a lot of Bollywood music playing in the house so I learned a lot of those songs at a very early age. Both of my parents have pretty good voices so there was a lot of that music in the house. Subsequently I got into the pop music of the 1980’s- Culture Club, Madonna, and whatever happened to be on the radio. The first heavy band I got into was Van Halen- I got a copy of "1984" on cassette and that was my first exposure to aggressive, guitar-based music. That started my interest in more guitar-based things like AC/DC and Mötley Crüe. When I first heard "The Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden, I was pulled into being a heavy metal convert, that was a life-changing experience.
As far as taking up an instrument, I played clarinet for a couple of years in elementary school, hated it and quit. And then around the same time I am getting into heavier music I started playing the guitar when I was about 13, took lessons for a year and half to learn some basic skills and chords, but I’ve been self-taught ever since then. Not long after, I was already starting to experiment with writing things.
Iris Divine has been around for quite a while – can you let us know about the early years as far as how you got together, and how long did it take to come to an agreement on the brand of progressive, alternative metal you play?
Basically what happened was, I was in a different band and the other original member of Iris Divine as singer/guitarist (Farhad Hossain) was in another band, and we had been friends for years. Our bands broke up around the same time, and he was ready to take a break at that point. I was the one who wanted to get something going with him, and one of the bands I was really getting into at the time was Porcupine Tree. I have been interested in progressive metal for years, but all the years prior to that I was playing in bands in more of a punk/post-hardcore thing. I did everything but metal even though I loved metal the most. At that time I was starting to get into things that were on the alternative side of the progressive metal spectrum, like Porcupine Tree, that have influences from other bands like Alice in Chains. When I reached out to my friend, the concept initially was progressive metal and it really didn’t gel because it was a little too aggressive and technical along the lines of a Nevermore. It didn’t feel right and authentic. We decided to pull back a little more and look at different influences, feel a little more free to use melody, pop, alternative, and use colors to our music. We started the band in 2008 and within six month we had figured out a basic direction for the band. We hit upon that dropped tune, alternative influence but still keeping it heavy within the first year I’d say.
"Karma Sown" is a very impressive, cohesive record. How long did the writing and recording take, where there any particular obstacles or surprises that came about, and what made Sensory Records the obvious choice to sign with for the band?
So "Karma Sown" came out after our greatest obstacle, which was half the band leaving. We were a quartet from 2008-2012, and in 2012 the other guitarist/vocalist left as did the drummer (Tanvir Tomal) as well. We were steps away from disintegrating, and I was sad and bummed about the whole thing. Myself and my bass player Brian (Dobbs) decided we weren’t ready to give up on the whole thing, so the biggest obstacle was rebuilding prior to writing all the material for "Karma Sown". We had set out to stay as a four piece, thankfully we found a drummer Kris (Combs) after auditioning several. We worked with one guitarist for a while, but the interesting thing is we discovered that our chemistry as a three-piece just felt better. There’s something about the way my writing was going, it sounded fun and exciting. Once we figured out the drummer, this was a huge first step. Kris came on board in late 2012, early 2013. We basically wrote several songs from the time he got on board until last year. We road tested the songs, played multiple shows and got the feel for them. We then started the tracking last year in the spring and it’s a long process. We took a while finding someone who was going to mix it and record all the parts, and we fell on Drew Mazurek. He gets a lot of big natural drum sounds and we wanted it more organic sounding and not as processed as a lot of current modern metal may sound like.
The Sensory Records thing happened via the management. I had reached out to Claus from IntroMental Management when the band was in a previous incarnation at the time and he passed on us. He said that if we record anything in the future, keep me in mind. He liked what he heard, and he has a good relationship with Sensory Records. They have a lot of good bands on the label that have either been with the label before or are on it now, like Circus Maximus, Haken, and Kingcrow.
Who handles the lyrical content in the group, and do you draw from personal experience or use outside world events for inspiration?
That would be me, I’m the lyricist of the band. It’s mostly personal experience. I think there’s a running theme on "Karma Sown", one of conflict. Duality and resolving this duality. You can speak of conflict within yourself, you can speak of conflict within two people, or interpersonal relationships, plus a broader world level. I tend to write a lot about known experiences, soul searching who I am and who I want to be. A lot of the struggles tend to find their way into the lyrics, struggle and regret or finding your way from point A to point B. "In the Wake of Martyrs" has more to do with broader conflict and world events.
Now is it a challenge to handle both the guitars and the vocals in this band?
You know what’s funny? This is one of my favorite things about this particular configuration. I’m a really big fan of – particular from the thrash era- of the singer/guitarist front man. James Hetfield, Dave Mustaine, Max Cavalera, Chuck Schuldiner, those are some of my favorite musicians as far as inspirations go. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of trying to play and sing and integrate the two simultaneously. Especially when you listen to a lot of the rhythms in Megadeth. There is only so much you can do because of the music to run around while you are executing your parts.
Where do you stand on songwriting philosophy- because playing in the sub-genre of progressive alternative metal, there are times where you potentially could become too technical in parts to make things difficult for the non-musician to fully absorb, is this a delicate balancing act you maintain?
I think this is very critical balancing act for anybody who wants to be more musically adventurous or progressive. There were a lot of conversations about this. I tend to be very vocally driven when it comes to songwriting- the structures, the chord progressions, the rhythms, they need to support the vocals. For instance in verses and choruses I try to be mindful of that. In a band like ours you try to pick your spots. I love the era of Rush where they were writing the more concise songs like "Freewill" or "Tom Sawyer". The songs were only 4-5 minutes in length, and you were hearing a catchy rock song, but if you are a musician and you pull those songs apart, there is a lot of detail and interesting rhythmic things happening that you wouldn’t know if you weren’t looking.
(© Rob Fortenberry Photography)
The lineup is currently a power trio – and yet the sound that you get on "Karma Sown" is such that I feel there could be 5-6 musicians on hand. How much has Rush and King’s X been an influence as far as establishing a wide array of dynamics for Iris Divine, while also keeping you on your toes for pulling this material off in a live setting?
I would say a lot. I really dig the power trio approach because it really puts a strong emphasis on musical chemistry and interaction between musicians. The way the three musicians play off each other and the parts interlock, it’s important. One thing about the guitar players from both of those bands that’s been an influence on me is that when you are playing in a trio you want to be conscious of filling space and complimenting things that are happening in the rhythm section. For instance I think a lot about extended chord voicings, I think a lot about ways to make things sound bigger, I think about octaves and arpeggios. There are other times where you want to drop into a really heavy riff, we balance out the two. If you think about Pantera without the singer, or Alice in Chains, that’s where we try to balance out those two approaches.
How would you describe your scene in VA as far as support – are there particular facets that are better than others, and what are some of the other bands that you can relate to?
I think the scene in VA- northern VA to be specific because Richmond has their own thing. We are closer to D.C. so we relate more to that area. The interesting thing about Iris Divine coming up – when we started to integrate with the metal crowd and play those shows, we are invariable the lightest band on the bill. We have played so many shows with thrash and death bands, and it’s a testament to the open-mindedness of the northern VA community that they like us. We would be playing this melodic metal with keyboards after all these heavy bands and we were well received. It was great to build confidence in a home base. There are several bands that we are friends with and have played a lot of shows together. Division, who has been around for many years, A Sound of Thunder who are doing a lot of great things on a D.I.Y. basis, a talented band. Mike from Division is a really good friend of mine. When I first started playing in the area, I didn’t have a lot of band experience and playing shows with them they exposed us to being a great, professional act. We’ve been friends with MindMaze, their last album in particular I really love a lot, "Back from the Edge". Silence the Blind, Cab Ride Home – I could go on.
Do you consider friendship and chemistry an important part of a band’s success and longevity?
Absolutely. Especially when you are playing at the local level. I can understand if you are a band making money, a professional entity, this is your livelihood, you may need a business arrangement that works for you even if you aren’t the best of friends. Opeth is a good example, when they had some of their lineup changes I remember reading an interview with Mikael Akerfeldt where he said they were friendly, but they aren’t friends where they hang out all the time. He said he needs people to play music with, that are professional and he can write and record with, they need to be good working partners. For a local band or a just signed band, if you are doing it for the love of it, the personal chemistry accounts for a lot. You feel more connected sharing ideas and playing off of each other, so I consider it a really big deal.
(© Rob Fortenberry Photography)
Where do you stand on the use of technology versus human technique when it comes to the brand of heavy metal Iris Divine delivers?
I’m not opposed to technology as such, we have a lot of tools at our disposal in 2015 and I don’t have a problem with any as such. I think it’s a fine line. I think my problem with a lot of modern metal- whether it’s in the progressive genre or not- I think a lot of it sounds too clinical and computerized. A little bit sterile maybe. You have a lot of modern metal records that are a little harder to tell apart. When we were growing up in the 80’s and 90’s you could really tell bands apart from one another. More of an individual sound- and even bands that had imperfect productions, the production really becomes part of the record. When you hear "Reign in Blood" for instance, it’s dry and in your face, it’s such a part of the record itself. That’s something that is missing nowadays. If you really struggle to stay in tune, we have tools now to help you with that, but I think when those tools are not used judiciously, it sounds robotic and then the band can’t really deliver live. I fall more to the human side than the technology side, but we do have to use Pro Tools at times and did edit this material. We didn’t do "Karma Sown" to a grid, there were a lot of spots where we had the push and pull to help the human dynamic.
What types of short term and long term goals do you set for Iris Divine? Are there particular bucket list items that keep you going?
Short term, I want to see this grow to the point where maybe we can do some small scale touring and get our name out there more. Ideally there is enough interest in "Karma Sown" and Iris Divine to want to do another record. Slow and steady growth for us would be fine with us. Long term goals- I would love to be able to have another conversation about Iris Divine ten years down the road, have a number of well-regarded releases. I don’t have any bucket list items where I have to tour with anyone in particular. We would love to play ProgPower one day- either in the USA or Europe. That would be a dream, or land a solid opening slot for a more prominent band, that would be really exciting. You do one off weekends here and there, but we haven’t done any extended touring.