2019 has already been an incredible year for modern music, and we’re only in the middle of March. With that in mind, we’re honored to premiere the latest single from Vaura, the strikingly melodic, lush “The Lightless Ones.”
We’re hesitant to use the word supergroup, but for those unfamiliar, Vaura combines the formidable talents of Azar Swan/Vain Warr/Blacklist’s Josh Strawn, Dysrhythmia/Gorguts’ Kevin Hufnagel, Kayo Dot’s Toby Driver, and Tombs/Del Judas’ Charlie Schmid. Since their inception in 2012, the band has carved out a unique space in the metal spectrum, drawing heavily upon black metal, Peter Gabriel, Gene Loves Jezebel, and Fields of the Nephilim, just to name a few (but not limiting ourselves to these) touchstones.
What continues to drive the band is their ever-expanding sonic palette – while some artists choose to create genre pieces that are borderline pastiche, Vaura has always explored new territory and challenged perceptions, while at the same time creating some of the most interesting, ear-catching records this side of the spectrum. “The Lightless Ones” continues this trend, with all members channeling the emotion and atmosphere of The Church’s Seance in the span of five minutes. The track is the latest single from Sables, due out on 4/26 via Profound Lore, with pre-orders currently available via Bandcamp.
Listen to the track below:
We also had the chance to catch up with frontman Josh Strawn about the record’s synthesis, the band’s ever-changing sphere of influence, and the importance of having amazing musicians in your corner.
In many circles, you’re known for being a progressive metal band, but the new record treads heavily on synth and post-punk territory. Can you speak to everyone’s doorway into these genres? Was it a conscious decision to carve out new territory for Vaura?
It was a conscious decision to push into different territory but the place it ended up wasn’t the place originally intended. Not for me at least. This is the first record we made as a band scattered across cities. I mapped out my vision for the third record before I moved to New Orleans, and it was meant to be a very sharp departure into more avant-garde stuff. Prepared guitars, industrial percussion, very Glenn Branca. That was just too hard to do from a distance. Once I was in New Orleans and no longer under the oppressive rent regime of New York, I was finally able to get some of the synthesizers I had lusted after for years. And my listening became really oriented simultaneously towards German artists like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Harmonia, Cluster, Roedelius, La Dusseldorf, etc. and UK stuff like Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Japan, and Talk Talk. So if there’s a post-punk feeling to this record at all, that’s just coming from something really deeply rooted in my approach and background because to me this was all coming out of proggy European “art rock” (for lack of better term).
Once I realized it wasn’t going to work to do something so grandiose and weird as a band working from a distance, I started messing with my synthesizers. I literally had no guitars in the house at the time. So I started to get weird ideas like “what would happen if I played a black metal chord progression on synth pads, then approached the song like something off of Tin Drum by Japan. That was how I found my “way in” to the writing approach for this record, and how the genres intersect.
There’s a certain romanticism rooted in these bands, a more European aesthetic. That’s not something often considered by bands coming from your roots, in my experience. Is that a difficult space to navigate or has it been natural?
That’s actually something I struggled with at an almost ethical level when making this record. Because the lyrics are the bleakest I’ve ever written, they’re mostly preoccupied with the idea that something human is leaving from our humanity. By the last song on the record, I’m speaking as a voice that’s at the very end of the human timeline, maybe even afterward. So I was conflicted as to how romantic this should sound. Because it’s not a political record, it does retain some of the imaginative elements of the first album (I’d actually call it a companion to the first record) but I do feel as if I’m writing at a time when horror has collapsed into reality. So I think it’s incoherent to imagine you can live on one or the other side of the divide between true political reality and horrific apocalyptic imagination. So in that way, I think it makes a lot of sense to be coming from the metal world, which has always been home to that kind of grim apocalyptic imagination.
How did the tracks come together? Was the long distance collaboration process smooth or did it take some time to carve out the sessions?
The collaboration was interesting. I wrote the demos for “Zwischen” and “The Ruins” and it was at that point that I felt like I finally had some direction. Some collaborations were unconventional. For instance Kevin and I had written this very punky acoustic song, somewhere between New Model Army and Lucie Cries, and we’d demoed it at his place in Queens. In an effort to bring it into the universe of the other songs, I transcribed the guitar parts to synths. Then added a motorik beat, and it became “The Lightless Ones.” So there were some interesting approaches, a lot of happy discoveries in the process of translation.
Something I did with the demos, though, was I’d leave a lot of space. The version of “Zwischen” I sent Toby had no bass guitar on it. I would leave these long segments for Kevin to put solos. So whereas in the past with demos, I might write and record a super simple bass part, but then give Toby carte blanche to completely rewrite it, I was just leaving tons of spaces. And with Charlie I was really operating off of the way I love how Tears for Fears, Talk Talk, and Japan, all make brilliant use of both drum kit and programmed drums. So I’d program a part, but instead of wanting it re-written, I’d ask him to write something to play with it.
Do you feel the metal community is open to such a genre-bending, explorative record? Art should never be strictly as fan service, but does that ever factor in?
In my experience there is far more openness to post-punk and goth in the metal scene than there is openness to metal in the goth scene. But also I think the music this record is influenced by was made by impeccable musicians. There’s not much punk about Tears For Fears or Talk Talk. And I feel like that’s really where the metal scene’s tendency to embrace musicianship puts it in a position to appreciate what we’re doing. The musicians in Vaura are up to the task of writing and playing at that level, and a lot of post-punk and goth bands just aren’t. I don’t think that’s a value judgment or an insult to that community or those musicians. It’s just a different skill set that yields different results.
The average bass player in the average post-punk band can’t play like Mick Karn. Someone like Toby Driver can.
Frankly, I am all for a revolution in impeccable musicianship in modern post-punk and synth bands. Anyone can play arpeggios and copy the tried-and-true style, but more often than not, it takes mastery (and carefully considered songwriting) to move me.
Exactly! And again that’s not to put down simpler more stripped down playing. That’s it’s own very important very fantastic thing.
For me having been around this music for so long I’m hungry for something extra. I love the traditional thing done right, or with a slightly new spin. But I’m interested in some of the more specialized nooks in musical history. I spend a lot of time, for instance, with synthy records by classic rock musicians. Believe it or not a huge influence on this record was the Joni Mitchell record Thomas Dolby produced, Dog Eat Dog. There’s a track on one of Robert Plant’s early solo records called “Horizontal Departure” that evokes The Cure to me. I’m always searching out those odd moments of confluence and trying to build off of them. I think that’s why some people have described this as familiar but fresh. Those are sounds everyone knows but they’re out together in a way that hasn’t been overdone. Often, I suspect, because when someone like Robert Plant made a synth-heavy record it fell between all the cracks. Classic rock people felt it was cheesy because synths signified something negative to them—but the hard synth heads didn’t think they had any reason to listen to a Robert Plant solo album. I feel like so much of what I do, even with Blacklist, has to do with not being bound by those social boundaries.
With Blacklist it was that in 1983 your average Chameleons fan probably wasn’t into Iron Maiden. Certainly sometimes but not enough to bring those things together the way we did. This is a way, to me, of making old things new again. Something more, hopefully, than pure nostalgia. Finding complimentary nodes that were kept separate before, and smashing them together.
These in between spaces are so important and very seldom explored. I feel like people are finally more open to it than ever. Perhaps there’s unrest. Then again, I know you’re not one to shy away from modern pop music over the years. Does that inform what Vaura does in any way?
Not really, and in fact I’ve really fallen off the contemporary hip-hop and pop wave I was riding for a while there. I still sometimes hear something I like but it’s rare. If anything this record came out far more hook-laden than I’d even expected. A lot of my affection for pop always came from a desire to develop an ear for song craft that wasn’t academic. You cultivate a joy for melody and composition that just comes out naturally when you write. I think I’ve said this before but I almost feel sometimes like it’s a weakness because I haven’t ever been able to make weirder records. Azar Swan has almost gone more weird than Vaura and this point which if you’d told me five or six years ago, I’d never have believed.
Are you putting together a tour? With everyone in Vaura involved in several projects, I imagine it’s difficult to get together to prepare and plan.
Yes we are. We haven’t managed to play as a live band nearly as much as we’ve wanted and we discussed beforehand that we’d change that this time around. I’m hoping to play quite a lot in the coming year promoting this record and also just finally playing material from the first two for an audience outside of NYC.
Strictly new material on the set list, or are you planning on playing older material as well? Are there any songs that you feel could sit nicely along a new set, or benefit from being played with different gear?
We’ll definitely play songs from the other records, but yeah stuff that’s more similar to this. We haven’t discussed what that’ll be yet, but just shooting from the hip, songs like “Drachma” from the first album and “Incomplete Burning” from the second aren’t going to stand out that much played alongside songs from “Sables.”
Lastly, let’s talk about producer Peter Walsh. His resume is impressive and many of the artist he worked have manifested throughout this record: Scott Walker, Simple Minds, Peter Gabriel, Gene Loves Jezebel, Kissing the Pink, The Church, etc. How did he help the record come to life?
Working with Peter has been a dream of mine for many years. I remember looking at the credits to Xymox’s Twist of Shadows and The Church’s Heyday and thinking “wow this guy is behind so many records I love.” When I got into Scott Walker’s later stuff–some of my most favorite music of all time–I remember seeing his name on the credits, assuming it couldn’t be the same guy. When I found out it was, my mind was blown. But it also made some cosmically weird sense.
After I wrote the first two demos, I got this crazy intense notion that this was the Peter Walsh record, that this was the time to reach out to him. I had been listening to almost nothing but Climate of Hunter by Scott Walker and New Gold Dream by Simple Minds at the time. Turns out, apparently it was Scott’s appreciation for New Gold Dream that led him to contact Peter, which is one of my favorite bits of musical trivia I’ve ever learned. I wrote him a very gushing, but very honest email about how many records he’d made that had influenced me and asked if he’d be interested in working with us. He said he heard the connection, said he liked the songs, and agreed to mix the record.
Photo by Zorah Atash