Opening up this latest night in the attic of Manchester’s ‘Old Lady’, the UK’s biggest Doom secret laid waste to a criminally small gathering. DownloadFestival sadly took the country’s photographers away from the crushing, hypnotic groove that is Leeds’ Corinth;Ben Corkhill and Tom Clayton roaring out, the former painting Post-Black leads through a titanic swamp of bludgeoning power and monolithic rhythms, his fellow protagonists looking out laconically as if they had no idea of the monstrous effect of their sound. One day, and it’s coming, these will be the new darlings of the Low-end. They are THAT good.
With a laptop centre-stage, and cavernous crashes of bass and distorted riffs either side, Birmingham’s Khost held court between those who didn’t understand it, and the majority who were mesmerised by the cacophonous, spectral sounds. The duo appeared like a hooded, homeless Godflesh, boys from the gutters of Piccadilly, but their crashing ambient power was impossible to ignore. The intermittent entry of bass notes over the cascading squall was positively bowel-clearing. A staggering, imploding feedback of Industrial noise, I could have walked away at this point knowing I’d seen the most important metal gig in Manchester for years.
Picking up my shattered nerves, I predicted that the occasionally more pedestrian Psych-Doom of Stoke’s Space Witch would be dull in comparison. Sequencer Peter Callaghan is often the sole focal point yet they turned out to be the most animated band of the evening; their booming, spaced-out grooves maintaining interest without the spark of the previous two bands. More powerful than I’ve seen them before however, the crowd were bewitched and, loving the pounding oscillations, seemingly forgot everything that had gone before.
Conan is the most crushing experience you’ll ever have live. Jon Davis delivered screams from a small stage that may as well have been the tip of Everest, his pulverising riffs threatening to destroy part of the city. Latest drummer Rich Lewis was mobile, frighteningly powerful, eviscerating his kit with unfettered ferocity whilst the building buckled under the titanic mass of ‘Total Conquest’. Captivating, oppressive, yet hypnotic, it’s impossible to convey the effect this band have in a live setting. The whole night was one obliterating, skin-itching, unfathomable blow to the soul after another; but with closer ‘Satsumo’, the headliners proved themselves an indescribable, barrelling monstrosity. In a Mancunian attic, a church for support musicians and fans alike, sometimes weight is everything.
Conan at Maryland Deathfest 2015, by Hillarie Jason Photography
Jon Davis, guitarist and sole founder member of crushing Doom behemoth Conan, is one of the UK’s most hard-working, beloved and respected musicians; a man of both modesty and determination. Before their recent show in Manchester Ghost Cult quizzed him about their latest tours, their new set-up, and the forthcoming recording of their third album.
This is the penultimate date of an extensive UK tour – the first since your first ever trek to the US. How has this one compared to others?
There aren’t actually that many good places to play in the UK. We’ve had some amazing shows, but a couple of shit ones also – not naming names! There is a difference between playing in the UK & the US, and in Europe. The latter is very professional and business-like; the UK and the US slightly less formal. Over here we tend to drive home every night; we will tomorrow from Glasgow. It’s only four and a half hours so it’s not so bad.
There speaks a man who’s just driven across America! And then it’s straight to the studio?
We’re booked in around July / August time. We’ve a couple of standalone festival shows before then, plus shows in Sheffield, Nottingham and Oxford. Aside from that we’re just going to concentrate on writing the album, getting it finished and trying to get it to the label by September.
With such big international tours, it shows your profile has grown since second album Blood Eagle (Napalm). Does this increase the pressure on the new album?
I haven’t really noticed a difference. As we’re playing live more often we have to make more of the time we’ve got. What we’ll tend to do is get together in the studio and write a song every day or two, then record it in basic fashion. So we’ve got a demo of songs for the album by the time we hit the studio proper.
Things have really taken off since Blood Eagle, with much critical acclaim. Have the last couple of years seemed a bit of a whirlwind?
It seemed that way after Monnos (Burning World Records), our first album, and last year was our busiest year so far: we did over 80 shows, and must have been away from home for at least 100 days. So yes, but we’ve been in control of it. We really enjoy the touring, it’s tiring but rewarding and leaves us with a positive balance in our minds. We’re more in demand, and that’s what you want. I promised myself when I was fifteen or sixteen that I’d play guitar on stage. This venue [Manchester’s Star and Garter] is really important to me, because it’s the first place I played outside of Liverpool – we played here with Charger back in 2010. It was a big turning point for me, and ever since that gig we’ve embraced that energy.
Since Blood Eagle Conan has a new drummer and bassist. How has that affected the writing process?
The writing’s really good as all three of us are in the same room. Chris (Fielding, bass) and Rich (Lewis, drums) are both really good writers, but I don’t think they could write a Conan song yet without me being there. I don’t class myself as a good guitarist but I do have a certain style, which is to focus more on the drums and with the three of us in the room it works more easily. Chris has been our producer since day one, so he understands exactly where we’re coming from and if I write something, he can imagine just how it should sound and move it on. The core Conan sound won’t change; we’re just getting better.
So there’s more energy?
I’d say so. There’s more spontaneity; we’re able to use more of what we come up with so we don’t waste as much now. Rich is no stranger to bands, he’s a very accomplished musician, so having him in the band has been really beneficial. I’m really happy to have both guys in.
So what stage is the album at?
Four songs are demoed, and a release date penned in for January next year. So we’ll be quietish for the rest of this year, then next year we’ll get touring again properly. When we’re in the studio Chris is always the boss, and that’s the way it will stay this time. It must be a little different in his mind, now he’s actually playing bass also, but he doesn’t show it. Chris is actually a great guitar player, better than me by far, and he’s taken to the bass with ease.
And it’ll be out on Napalm, rather than your own label Black Bow?
Yeah. Napalm have a contract for our next two albums and, to be honest, I’m not sure it would be such a good thing to have Conan on my label as I need to separate the two. I also don’t think my operation’s big enough to sell the kind of amount that Blood Eagle did. I’d rather Black Bow was my business, and Conan my enjoyment.
The underground music scene in the UK is now so diverse, so rich and so productive, that it is sometimes pretty hard to keep up with what’s going on half the time. It was therefore with a mixed sense of excited anticipation and a small amount of “I’m not all that familiar with their work” nervousness that your humble scribe arrived at the Camden Underworld, keen to see out the drab grey month of October with some ferocious band watching. However, thanks to a combination of bad food and bad planning on my part, I only arrived at the Camden Underworld at around 9pm but just in time to see 11 Paranoias hit the stage.
11 Paranoias have a brilliant collective intelligence and their approach to music making reflects this in spades. With interests that veer across supernaturally slow doom, stoner and psychedelia, 11 Paranoias treated a knowledgeable and discerning audience to an exercise in music-making that thrilled the head as much as the heart. What impressed about 11 Paranoias were three things: the crediting of their audience with intelligence, their air of mystery but, above all, the ability to shift gear and tenor at the drop of a – ahem – hi-hat. This was a set of rich, powerful tunes, held together by some exemplary playing and occasionally breathtakingly thrilling music. Rarely can the impending coming of Armageddon have sounded so ethereal or quite so odd.
Having not really known what to expect, aside from my Twitter feed telling me they’d been awesome at Roadburn Festival earlier this year, this was one of those gigs that could have gone either way. I should have had more faith; they were absolutely, unequivocally excellent and I’m a fool for having doubted them.
By the time Conan actually hit the stage at the absurdly late (says he showing his considerable age) time of 10.10pm you got the sense that this was going to be a show about validation. 2014 has been a good year for Conan and this show reinforced and reconfirmed exactly why. That brief moment in early March when every hipster in the land decided that this sludgy doom stuff was for them seems to have (thankfully) passed and this was an audience of the dedicated, the informed and the passionate. Pretty much every journalist will tell you how a band hit the ground running but, honestly, opening your set with a pounding and relentless Crown of Talons is just what the music doctor ordered. To follow it up with an equally brutal Total Conquest and Foehammer had everyone grinning from ear to ear whilst the band casually get down to the business of pounding you some more.
Particular mention should be given to new sticksman, Rich Lewis, who hits his drums as hard as anyone I’ve seen since that little old masked band from Iowa. It is an education and revelation to listen to him; he’s definitely added something to the band’s live power and the band’s cohesion is markedly improved.
As you might expect with latest album Blood Eagle (Napalm) still fresh in the mind, most of the set comes from those glorious grooves, but long-time fans will have welcomed the addition of an epic rendition of ‘Krull’ from Horseback Battle Hammer (Throne) and a seemingly neverending ‘Monnos’, which closed a set that was everything and more that you hoped it would be – irascible, irreverent, inimitable.
For a man who has quite literally spent the last few months travelling around the globe, Conan’s Jon Davis looks pretty sprightly and relaxed. 2014 has been a year of critical acclaim, growth and progress for Conan. Ghost Cult caught up with Conan’s principal driving force in the middle of their UK tour to reflect on the year to date, the band’s development over the year, wax lyrical on the UK underground music scene and ruminate on the decisions, choices and sacrifices that artists need to make today to make something like a “living”. When we met, Jon was, despite having done interview after interview that day, in a chirpy and exuberant mood.
How has your year been?
“It’s been a crazy year. The album (Blood Eagle – Napalm) came out end of February, or beginning of March, dependent on where you live, and we did a UK tour of nine shows at that time. We then did our first European run of shows – three weeks in April, starting at Roadburn Festival and then we went all through the middle of Europe, venturing North through Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway and back down over those three weeks. We often do our own driving on tour and on this tour I did ALL the driving I was fucking cross eyed by the end of it!”
That must have been exhausting…
“It was, but it was brilliant. We then went and did two weeks in Switzerland and Austria in April and May and places like that. In June, we did Hellfest and a few smaller shows around that and then in July we played a festival in Pozniac where we went on just after Hawkwind who were headlining. That was a beautiful experience. We played to around 1500 people under the stars in a beautiful valley. It was a great crowd – it was a proper metal festival – and although Hawkwind were headlining and as legendary as they are, you probably wouldn’t describe them as metal by today’s standards. I think that maybe the people there were expecting a different sort of metal than they got with Hawkwind, so by the time we came on we had an incredible reception. It was a complete privilege.”
Whilst undoubtedly arduous, it appears that putting in the hard miles and doing the graft has paid dividends for Conan, both in terms of recognition but also in terms of breaking new territory?
“Definitely. At the end of July I had a message fromHigh on Fire asking if we wanted to tour with them! They were on the road in Germany, France and Belgium. It was one of those tours that wasn’t planned but ended up working out brilliantly. One show that sticks in the mind was playing in a practice room at a lad’s birthday to, like, eight people! It was an amazing gig! This lad was like “Can you play at my birthday? I can sort you guys with a hotel and I can make a small contribution to the band and…” We were like: “Let’s do this!” So there’s us three, this lad and seven mates in one room. It was an amazing gig!”
You also spent some time this year in Australia. How was that for you?
“Oh man, it was amazing! We flew into Perth – that was a weird show. The people were cool as fuck but the place was quite strange. I can’t quite put my finger on it but, you know, a great place, although strange. We then flew on to Brisbane and that show was absolutely incredible. From there we went down to Sydney and we did two shows in one day and, to be honest, I was nearly fucked from the jet lag by that time. To be honest, part of it was my own fault. When we arrived in Perth, rather than get some sleep, we stayed up past 1am and then there was a fire alarm in the hotel so when we needed to get some sleep we couldn’t get it, so it was no wonder it all caught up with us come the time we got to Sydney.
“Australia is great though. To me, Australia seems like a cooler version of the UK. People seem similar and there is a similar sense of humour and outlook on life. There’s a similar culture and when we got there, we were just coming into their Spring so the weather was like the weather in the UK….”
How does their underground scene compare to the UK do you think?
“Oh, I think it’s really cool, man. The crowds might be a bit smaller but they are totally crazy (and) everyone appears to be really grateful that you have travelled over to see them. There are some great bands knocking around the scene as well, bands likeCement Pig, Yanomamo, Horsehunter – all of whom are really good. There’s a lot going on and in the strangest places too. In Sydney we were asked to play an illegal squat show which was a bit random; I think the guy who had arranged it was disappointed with the numbers that had turned up but it was during the day and those that came were crazy for it. The show in the evening was equally good so the experience has been a positive one. In Melbourne, we played a little warehouse as big as this dressing room (imagine a room 8ft x 8ft, readers) and it was fucking crazy – everyone getting their tits out and going mad for it.”
Despite the progress and the constant opportunity to work in support of the record, it is now fairly well documented that not everything in the Conan garden was as rosy as one might have expected. Jon is understandably cautious about overstating the band’s issues but equally it is clear that decisions around the band’s personnel were coming to a head.
Jon explains: “It was the tour with High on Fire that we decided that we needed to replace Paul (O’Neil, Drums). It was a decision that we knew we had to make. Equally it was a decision that we didn’t want to make so it was something that we discussed and then decided that we would take our time over it and not rush into things. We agreed that we would discuss the matter again after the tour of Australia to see whether we all felt the same way. After the tour it was clear that there were still issues and we decided to part ways.”
It’s clear that the detail of this will respectfully remain between the protagonists. Whilst this was obviously a difficult decision for the band, the arrival of Rich Lewis has given them another fillip. There’s a genuine sense of the last-gang-in-town camaraderie with these guys.
In listening to Jon, you could be forgiven for thinking that this life as a professional musician is all a bit of an easy ride, though the harsh realities of today’s music business suggest that it is anything but. Having now given up his day job from the family business where he earned his keep as an HR Manager, Davis now devotes all of his time to the Conan crusade, either in terms of recording, playing live or selling merchandise. “Everything I do with Conan goes back into my home and my family” he says and you’re left with a very real sense that his love for his art is matched by his love and dedication for his family.
A brief sojourn to Metal Hammer Paradise on the Baltic coast awaits the trio and then it’s back into the studio for more recording. “We are going to do some new material in November” says Jon, “it’s likely to be an EP ready for June next year. We have FudgeTunnel’s blessing for covering one of their tracks which is brilliant. Our next album is scheduled for 2016 – we want to be busy but we don’t want to kill ourselves!”
In talking with Jon it is clear that he is a man who is massively driven but equally self-aware enough to know that this lifestyle may not last. His passion for his art shines throughout our discussion; he has as good a knowledge of the underground scene as anyone I have met and still has that childlike glint in the eye when talking about his own music, music that excites him and the possibilities for the future. “Deciding to go full time with Conan was one of the best decisions I have made. I get so much more out of doing this than I used to do with my day job but I know I’m a very lucky man.”
From across the international underground, titanic darlings of doom Conan and Bongripper have collected in glorious exaltation of distortion to deliver a merciless barrage of sludge and stone, with a head-splitting synergy sure to send shock waves throughout their respective scenes. Continue reading →