LIAM WILSON of Azusa – interview
Not long ago I received some promo emails saying that members of The Dillinger Escape Plan, Extol, and Sea + Air have formed anew project called Azus, they are releasing an album soon and here’s a video for you to get an idea. Not long into the video I knew I like it. The had a very nice honest vibeto it, and I found even more of that honesty and power once I got to listen to the whole debut album, Heavy Yoke, already out via Indie Recordings. Being offered to have a chat with bass player Liam Wilson, which some of you might have heard or seen with The Dillinger Escape Plan, I got to ask about how they got to this kind of sound,a bit of thestory behind how this project came to life and what keeps him motivated to continue doing new music in such a new scenery. Below you’ll find the transcript of a rather long chat, but luckily Liam is a kind enough to take his time and talk endleslly about each subject, trying to give you the best picture of what he actually means. I hope it’s an enjoyable lecture, at least as enjoyable as it was to spend the time to record it on a Sunday afternoon.
Me: What does Azusa’s name actually mean? Is it related to this even, Azusa Street Revival event?
L.W.: It’s related in a way. We were aware of it. But I think the Azusa Street Revival it’s called that because it happened in Azusa, California. And I think Azusa, California, got its name from a faith healer, a native girl who was a healer who healed the Indian chief or something like that, and the name that was given to her by the chief was Azusa. So I think that’s more or less the story, but I think our awareness of it came from David’s pentecostal background. But it’s interesting to know why this was called Azusa in the first place.
Me: So there was not this kind of process where you sit down, go through a bunch of names and pick one?
L.W.: It’s actually hard to remember where these conversations start, because when they’re happening, you’re so into it. You don’t really think ‘an interviewer is gonna ask me this in six months’. But I also remember talking about the name having a Japanese context too. It is a common Japanese name and I know David is very interested in Japanese culture, so if you would make a Venn Diagram, it would probably be Japanes culture, Azuza Street Revival and the faith healer. But I would say we’re leaning harder towards the faith healer part of it. I guess the cover art was supposed to lead in that direction with the female figure
Me: I guess in like ten interviews from now you’ll have to settle for a shorter story.
L.W.: I guess so. Or I’ll pass the question to someone else who actually came up with this. I just said ‘Ok, sounds good. It has symmetry, I like it’
Me: It’s a catchy name, sounds different
L.W.: They usually just joke with me and say you can’t spell Azusa without USA. So that’s my role in the band I guess.
Me: That question comes up later. I did actually how you guys started. As far as I understand the story goes like: you contacted the guys in Extol, because you were really impressed by their technique and wanted to know more about that. Nothing happened back then, but back in something like 2014 you’ve been contacted by David and Christer because they had this idea that you could work together and they sent you some demos. What has attracted you in those demos then?
L.W.: That’s pretty much accurate. I had written to one of them to ask about some studio sounds, I wanted to know about if there was a pedal used on Synergy. And then, moving forward, I guess similar to a lot of Extol fans, I am always interested in hearing another Extol record. I am a musician but I am a musician because I am a fan of music and I am trying to create that record that I haven’t heard yet. So considering that a new Extol isn’t necessarily in the books and they reached out with ‘Hey, these are some ideas that have some of the song seeds that started during the Synergy era, would you be interested?’ ‘Yea, that’s exactly one of my favorite Extol eras’. Plus Dillinger (Escape Plan) was kinda winding down so I was looking for something more to do and this could be a nice transition. Plus the idea of working internationally,.
Altogether I am always interested in doing something that I am not so typecast for. I would say I am kind of typecast for this fast technical music, I’m pretty good at that. But when they reached out and I heard the songs, I thought ‘wow, these are great’. Even if my heart is kinda saying to me ‘maybe you should do something else’, my hands are twitching and go like ‘nonono, we wanna play this!’. I think the other thing was that, as a fan, to be able to get under the hood and what I like about Extol and absorb a little bit of what I liked about them. You know, try to figure out if there was a secret code to the music or something.
Me: Did you find it?
L.W.: I realized it’s David.
Me: So that’s where all the answers lie
L.W.: I mean no discredit to Christer, but I guess I spent most of the time with David and got under his hood and realised what a mind and a fountain that guy is. And a gentleman too, he’s just a great human being and we both talk very romantically about getting in the studio again just because how much fun we had together.
Me: So basically the planets just got the right alignment for this to happen. Do you know if they had contacted any another bass players or you were the first choice?
L.W.: That’s a good question, I actually don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if they talked to some local people for example. But the story I heard is that he thought about me, and he wrote to me and I guess I was the first to say yes. I could ask that, I guess I just assumed I was the only one but I don’t really know. NOW I need to know. Now you’re triggering my jealousy for sure.
Me: Sorry about that. What about Eleni. So, they first selected you, you guys started making the music and then you went for the vocalist, right?
Me: And Eleni was the first choice or?
L.W.: I would say she’s the first choice in that it wasn’t like we agreed on any other ideas or they said yes. I think Eleni was the first one where all three of us were like ‘Let’s see where this is going’. We had talked about asking any of the men vocals that we know, and to me it seemed a little stale. Kinda mono syllabic. I wasn’t willing to go on record with anything, nothing was very significant. We talked about a bunch of people and thought ‘maybe somebody would like this or somebody could do this’, but nobody really tickled us in any way or really showed much interest. We had some demos where David had done some screaming vocals over the songs and some of those more or less what Eleni did.
I’m not sure where David or Christer’s versions of the story would go, but for me, I’ve done like two weeks with Myrkur at some point. She came to play in the US and her bass player had to go home like the second day of the tour. A friend of mine, who was tour managing them, called me and asked if I could come out and learn the set, be on the tour for two weeks. I got that together and this is more or less when Azusa was trying to find a vocalist. When I came home from that I was just very affected being on stage with a female front woman and especially a female front woman who was very strong and confident with what she was doing. So I just asked David if he’s open to that idea and if he knew anybody. Because I thought that was really refreshing and I could totally hear it over the music. There had to be more people out there, a whole untapped well of women who would probably be interested in this.
Plus, I was also thinking that I heard a lot of melody into the music and based on my experience with the years in Dillinger where we kinda introducing more and more melodies and singing to the music, I just really thought that we would be doing the Azusa music a disservice to just have someone screaming over the whole thing. But when we heard Eleni’s demos for what it was ‘Interstellar Islands’ and ‘Eternal Echo’, we were just like ‘Ok, yes, sold! These are great, this is exactly what I want, this is awesome!’
Me: For me, one who only hears the final product, it sounds like the perfect fit, so I’m happy for the choice
L.W.: I’ve done a few albums by now and they all feel good and they’re all exciting and that’s partially because I’ve been lucky enough to be playing with great people. But this one definitely had a certain sparkle to it and I feel kinda jealous of myself right know
Me: When you sent out the demos, were the songs more or less ready or have the vocal parts shaped the result?
L.W.: A little bit of both. The demos that I received originally are probably ninety percent like accurate to what they became. There’s little things here and there, subtles change that make a lot of sense. Or ‘Heavy Yoke’ started differently for example. We took out about twenty seconds out of the beginning and made it start where it does today. So it’s little structural changes like that, thinking that this or that is now stronger once all the instruments were in place it was easier to decide whether it sounded better with this or that change.
With the vocals though, there were certain songs like ‘Programmed to Distress’, there’s that kind of little break where it says ‘Are you trying to kill my dreams in a heartbeat’, where you have that soaring chorus part and originally that was a screaming part. And I heard that and I kinda felt like Eleni should be singing through this whole song, since it’s ok to have a whole song where she sings the whole time. And then we re-did that, they kinda humored me and asked her to redo that part and in the end I think everybody was in agreement that it was better.
There’s also some fine lines, like this piano break, a short bridge in the middle. That wasn’t there, but when I heard what Eleni could do and knew that she could play a little bit of piano, I thought we could ask her to do a piano break. It fit, and even if the song didn’t need to be long at all, but it was ok with the extra section, just to kinda break it open a little bit. So even if the results were not minor, the results actually had a major effect, but I think the amount of shifting that we did to work with her vocals or vice versa was minimal. We are already pretty deep into what will be our second album and I think this one is responding more to all of our strengths. And that’s kind of a testament to Eleni too, that she came in and she was just like ‘I’m gonna make it work’. There was nothing like ‘I can’t do this, that doesn’t fit with my style’. She was very much like ‘I’m gonna be a chameleon and adapt to this’.
Me: One can hear that she breathes out confidence. She’s natural
L.W.: Yea, dripping confidence
Me: So this is a new experience for you, like you said, working internationally, female vocals and so on. What were the biggest challenges you think in putting together this album?
L.W.: At least for me, I really enjoy the personal connection and that kind of feedback that happens in the way that ideas can catch fire when you’re in the room with somebody. I think the fact that I’d probably only spent about like two and a half to three weeks total, working on this and all I can think is imagine what we could do if we all lived in the same place or we all got together once a week. This applies both from a musical standpoint or just running the band like a business, making sure the things don’t fall through the cracks or that we’re prepared for everything.
Me: Do you think you’ve learned any big lessons that stuck with you and you’re gonna apply them into making this new album?
L.W.: There’s definitely personal things about my musicianship that I wanna work on. I look at David and Christer and see that David’s ear is unbelievable when it comes to accuracy and the pitch. Things like that I realized that it’s more of a weakness for me, more than I previously thought of it. Maybe compared to him it’s a weakness for everybody.
But in terms of more of a holistic or an open ended thing, I’m not sure. I feel like I could come up with an answer but nothing is coming off top of my head.
Me: I don’t want a force an answer. Do you think this kind of music would have stood a chance like twenty years ago?
L.W.: I definitely think there’s elements of this that sound like throwback twenty years ago. Some of the riffing is definitely very thrashy. One of the funniest things that I found while recording with these guys, specifically David and Christer, is the amount of things that we don’t think of from the same background. When I’m working with Americans, the things that we reference are pretty universal, be it Whitesnake or something else that anyone close to their forties would get the reference to. And their connection to these songs, these bands, the humor or whatever it is, is just way more on the sleeve.
When I was talking to David and Christer, whether it is because of their religious background that they didn’t listen to certain music or it is just being in Norway, where such stuff didn’t catch there, I think it’s really funny to have a minimum amount of mutual references. Of course we have Slayer, Death, or Metallica, some of the bigger things. But the devil is kinda in the details and that was sort of the funny and really revealing thing for me. When you hear the music, you’re like ‘Oh man, we’re on the same page’. But when you hear us talking in the studio and I’m like ‘I kind hear it like a this’ and they’re wondering ‘like a WHAT???’. And so we step back , go to Spotify or Youtube and I show them what I’m talking about. That goes on for a few days, next thing you know it’s two AM in the morning, you had a couple of holiday beers and you’re cracking up listening to all this stuff that nobody knows. And they’ve been showing me stuff to which I was like ‘What the hell is this? This is ridiculous or this is awesome’.
Anyway, to answer the question if I could imagine this twenty years ago, I think it some ways, the demos are very much sounded like a throwback but in a kinda fresh way. I don’t think David’s drumming goes full thrash and there’s things about his drumming when sometimes he’d drop in blastbeats or other references that I think sound a little bit more modern. Or maybe his playing doesn’t sound modern, but some of the ideas he’s doing are referencing more modern sounds. But he’s also referencing stuff like seventies prog. But I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I really think that it’s kind of a wide summation of everything that has happened from mid eighties to now. For Eleni’s vocal parts in ‘Heart of Stone’ or ‘Heavy Yoke’ we reference that like ‘The Joni Mitchell part’ and that happened in the seventies or so.
But I think the record as a whole would probably throw some people for a loop. For me persnally songs like ‘Fine Lines’ or ‘Programmed to Distress’ on a record like this, I maybe wouldn’t have been brave enough to try have I not gone through eighteen years of Dillinger, learning how to not make it exactly what everyone else wants it to be, but make a record it what it should be or what it naturally is. So I think some of the variety would have been odd twenty, thirty years ago.
But for example, the melodic thrashy part, if you look at Anthrax, those vocals were always really like melodic. Joey Belladonna could sing his ass off and the riffs were heavy. I think that part of it has been lost a bit and this is a general step back. Everything today is like ‘the most brutal’ and ‘as fast as it can be’, the drumming is almost like athletic. Everybody is just trying to be the best at practising and everybody has to be really fast and brutal and aggressive. I think we’re going in the opposite direction there. On the guitar part that sounds like lightest, David would do a double bass and a blast beast underneath it. Or a riff that’s really heavy, Eleni would sing over. So we’re kinda playing with that stuff more.
Me: I’m gonna pay more attention to it now that you’re mentioning it, but from the memories I have of listenting to the album, I have to agree with you
L.W.: There’s definitely things that fall into the convention of ‘there’s heavy riffs and there’s heavy drumming’, but a lot of the times when we keep the drum really busy, is because everything else isn’t. Or the guitars are really aggressive and fast and then at least for the first half of it the drums would be like really basic. But it sounds a certain way and I think that gives it a lot of room. I have received a couple of question where people are like ‘oh, I can really hear your bass’ and I’m like ‘Yea, it’s because the drums don’t overplay and there is a lot of room in here’. It sounds busy because everybody has room but I don’t think anybody is being particularly busy for any extended period of time.
Me: That’s exactly one of my other questions. What I enjoy about this album is that I can hear the instruments. It’s a pleasant listening. Is this production related or the way you made the songs?
L.W.: I think it’s a lot of things. I don’t know how conscious it was. When they were writing the songs, it wasn’t like they were writing for me. I don’t like being too flashy, I’m not into like slapping and other weird techniques. I can do them, but I’ve never found a place for them. And with Dillinger I walked into the studio once with a kinda flashy bass part and the engineer, with whom I am good friends, would look at me ‘what were you thinking? That’s terrible, don’t do that!’. Usually that’s a part that only serves your ego and not the song. So I’ve kinda taken a real critical look at how I play and how I approach this stuff and realizing that it’s more interesting to just lock everything together and just look for the groove and make these songs kinda bounce a little bit, even though they’re aggressive.
Me: There’s no egos on these songs, I think that’s the good thing
L.W.: I think that it’s also just a bunch of almost forty years olds who have already experienced some sort of success or we’ve kinda been applauded for things that we’ve done. And this time around it’s been like ‘who cares about that? the songs are inherently kinda difficult so let’s just make sure these songs are enjoyable and listenable’. I feel that with this project everything, whether it’s the music or the lyrics everything was very deliberate and also very much like from the gut. Going back to that question about what did I learn or what would be my take-away, some of it is definitely just that gut feeling. I found myself not having to think so hard about these songs and what the song needed. I could just close my eyes and tell to myself ‘Yes, yes, this part just gives me this feeling and that’s where I have to follow it’ I could take my hands behind my back and just hum what I’d think that part needed, instead of trying to find it on my instrument.
Me: So like a summary in my head: you reached a level where your technique is good, so you no longer need to think ‘I need to make something technically extraordinary’ and then all of a sudden the feeling stands out. That what it sounds like to me.
L.W.: Totally. It’s kinda like I feel myself getting older in a good way
L.W.: I have gray hairs and my hair might be receding and all that, but at the same time I have this different sense of the creating process. I think getting ego out of art is never a bad thing. I think that some ego is good or else we wouldn’t have some of the great really astounding work, especially in the younger days when you try to prove something. Having some of that ego is sort of a motivation factor or at least a momentum. But the older you get, the easier it is to say ‘I’ve already done the show-offy’, or like you said, ‘I’ve already proven this, now let me see if i can prove that I can write just a good song’.
Me: That’s an interesting evolution. I noticed it when talking to other artists, but I don’t knw if this applies to all aspects of life. Guess I’l find out in some twenty years.
L.W.: Back to the question ‘would this have survived twenty years ago’, I’m more interested in ‘will this survive twenty years from now’. I’m way more interested in smashing a genre. I’m way more interested in trying to create a subgenre than just stoically holding my ground in metal or death metal black metal or whatever that is. We jokingly our stuff avant-thrash.
Me: I heard that
L.W.: It’s a little bit cheeky but it’s also just that our point is that we’re not trying to fit. If anything, I’m trying not to fit. Going back to my experience in Dillinger, we got way further by just giving the middle finger to everything, that every time someone tried to put us in a box we just got the box cut open and went through the bottom. I enjoy that kind of challenge as an artist ‘How can we keep them interested but take them somewhere else?’
Me: Interesting approach. For me it’s simply ‘I like it, I don’t like it’, irregardless of genre. If it appeals to me..
L.W.: My year end records are definitely not all metal. It’s again my hands are like ‘I wanna play metal’, but my brain is like ‘I wanna listen to the new Low record or so’.
Me: Speaking of gray hairs and I know you also got a baby. What keep you motivated to travel to Norway, to probably now planning tours and take so much of your personal time for this. What’s there?
L.W.: I guess part of it must be like a muse. I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but at some point I went to the crossroads and I sold a part of my soul to the devil
Me: Got a good price for that?
L.W.: Yeah, hehe. That little piece inside of me it’s tellng me ‘You have a responsibility to your family and you have a responsibility to take care of you and your daughter, but you also have this gift’. I think for me too it’s complicated because I met my wife on the road. She was our tour manager in Dillinger for a while and we conceived our daughter on tour in Australia, so music has always been such a, I don’t know, it’s kinda it has absorbed everything. It’s like a river that just keeps eating its own riverbanks and getting wider. So for me to get my canoe out of that river feels kinda weird at times. There’s definitely times where I have to walk down around the rapids, but ultimately I put my canoe back in the water and that’s where it wants to go. And I feel that’s leading me to my ocean or however you wanna say.
Me: Still, it’s the feeling
L.W.: Yea, I guess it’s going back to that feeling. When Dillinger ended I had a lot of time to lick my wounds and figure out what I wanted to do and if I wanted to have a complete career shift. I’m an art school dropout and I have a lot of other things in my life that I’m interested in. Even though I’m committed to music, it was not the only horse I had in the race. So now I had more time than in the past eighteen years to think about that. And I keep coming back to music. I’m also working in a metal sculpture factory, my yoga practises are a little bit more regular now and these other things are still interested to me. But I guess I get the most satisfaction, and in a very pragmatic way, I’ve gone the deepest and furthest with music so far.
When I have a midlife crisis and I think about what’s that I’m supposed to be doing, I close my eyes and I meditate and I still feel like that little muse or devil is inside me saying ‘Yea, You’re a musician dude, why do you even bother questioning. YOU are a musician. Just do that! Deal with it’. Sometimes it’s not fun, like you said, the idea of leaving my family and going on tour, especially with a new band…By the end, with Dillinger, when I was leaving my family and going on tour it was because that was daddy’s job and that was how I came home to afford to send my daughter to a good day care or get a nanny when we needed one. Now I’m not even sure if Azusa would come home with any money for a couple of years. So there is a very pragmatic part of me going ‘I don’t know why I do this because it’s downright stupid’. But it’s also just my calling. But when you hear Azusa, when I heard those demos and I heard no bass on it, my hands were like ‘Ooooooh, let me in there’. I needed to get in there and do my thing and fill in that gap that I heard.
Me: They pulled the right string when they sent you the demos
L.W.: Yea, it just pulls me in. It’s very much like and undertow kind of feeling
Me: Actually this kinda relates to another question of mine. You guys must have had some balls because it seemed like the news and the album came pretty much together. It was not a very long term thingy, with a lot of publicity, and you were not knowing for sure that you’re gonna get money out of it. How did you decide to invest in it? Sounds like a lot of costs with the travels and such
L.W.: For example, once I went to Norway I piggybacked it on another trip that was already covered. I got flown to Germany for a bass related thing. So I just took a flight to Oslo and spent a week there. Another time I think Dillinger played a show in Oslo and I happened to have the next day off. So I stayed overnight in Oslo, worked on some music and just flew to Finland afterwards. We were able to patch in little things, but you’re right, if I were to put a dollar value for all the hours I’ve spent, I’d begetting paid literally like negative everything per hour. I definitely put more money into this than I’d ever see from it, at least at this point.
Me: And probably everybody did the same
L.W.: Absolutely. I think it’s just a labor of love, like most artists do. When you’re a sculptor, more often than not, you kinda create the thing and just hope it gets bought. So I guess it’s just another way of being a parent to your art and realizing you just have to raise this thing. I used to feel like the arrow and now I feel like the bow. This thing has to get out. It’s bigger than me, I like it, I think other people will like it and I like giving a lot more than I like receiving, and I also kinda trust that if you do it with a pure heart and spirit, it will benefit you. Maybe it’s not gonna benefit me financially, but the relationship that I have with those three humans is really deep and awesome.
Me: It has no price I guess
L.W.: Like I said, I am a fan of Extol and to just be able to get on the phone and just chat with David and talk about life, is nice. And without getting too much into the religious part, I am not necessarily coming from the same places they are, but when we sit down and talk about our beliefs and how we want to treat people and what we want this band to represent, we’re all absolutely on the same page. And meeting Eleni, it’s really cool to watch somebody who’s virtually unknown to turn into a very small time rockstar. And watching that blossom and so many reviews being ‘yea,yea, yea, Christer, David, Liam, BUT ELENI….where did she come from’. Taking my ego out of it, I can only be like ‘YES, yes, give her all the spotlight’. She killed it and she was amazing.
Me: It sounds very rewarding for the inner self, without knowing what will happen with your pockets
L.W.: I guess it’s that I’m investing for the future. Maybe the next couple of years will be a little funky. I have a kid, Christer has two, probably more kids on the way collectively, but at the same time I think that getting our foot in the door. Maybe we’ll make five records altogether and maybe it won’t really start making money until the third. I don’t know.
Me: And you’re willing to take that chance.
L.W.: Yea. I mean, with Dillinger, I did that thing for like eighteen years but it was probably in the past eight that it was really worth it. The first ten years were not ringing us much financial reward, but there was all this traveling, which I also liked. But it was difficult. You’re living in one bedroom rolling apartment with people that you can’t always get away from, tensions can run high.
L.W.: Yea, very rock’n’roll’. I guess you just do it because you have the faith or maybe you’re just kinda stupid. I think there’s a little bit of blind stupidity that goes into every musical outpouring. Especially nowadays, it’s really not worth it. Financially speaking. You have to work so hard to make it worth it, and be away from your life in a way. I’ve missed so many birthdays and funerals and important events in my family and friends’ lives, when doing Dillinger. I’m not sure I wanna do that part again. But I understand that might be the sacrifice needed to make this work, so we’ll see how everybody feels and what kind of offers we get and until then we’ll just keep making a lot of music.
Me: From my selfish point of view, I do gain something from people who are that kind of stupid.
L.W.: Yea, and I think it’s funny that I’m realizing more and more and I keep telling people that most of the new music you hear it’s already like two years old to the artists that are putting it out. It gets so long to get the stuff out. You’re like ‘Wow, new record’. But it’s already old to me.
Me: One last question: do you have anything booked as live shows yet?
L.W.: We are currently confirming, and this sounds so ridiculous, but we have two things that we’re confirming in August. It seems like forever away, but that’s the way marketing goes these days. We’re already looking six months ahead of ourselves just to book anything and have time for promo. And it seems like European festivals make the most sense right now so that’s what we’re aiming towards. I won’t say what or where yet, but we’re in the final stages of booking two weekends and trying to feel the week in between. Then, hopefully, some stuff will build around that. We definitely have a lot of rehearsal to do, because it’s not gonna be smooth. And by the way, back to that question on what do I miss, I definitely miss being in the room together with the people and being able to play a show like tomorrow.
Me: But this needs live experience…
L.W.: Yes, it needs the live chemistry. We haven’t figured out that part yet. We have the in studio chemistry, but the live stage things, that would be our heavy yolk, as corny as that sounds.
Me: Nice one. But you made a song called that, so you’re free to use it.