Karl Simon (above right) is the vocalist, guitarist and primary songwriter for the Indianapolis, Indiana-based band The Gates of Slumber. The group plays doom metal, a style heavily indebted to Black Sabbath, Saint Vitus, and other ultra-heavy, occasionally ploddingly slow bands. Doom feels like it’s having a little moment right now, with a new album by the legendary cult act Pentagram that’s their best in, well, ever, and a new Saint Vitus record reportedly on the way. The Gates of Slumber have been at it for over a decade, and their fifth and most recent album, The Wretch, comes out next week in the US via Metal Blade. (It’s been out for a month or so in Europe on the Rise Above imprint.) It’s an excellent album—slower, more depressive and a little more bare-bones than their last two discs. Simon discusses that and much more in the interview below.
You made two albums in a row [2008’s Conqueror and 2009’s Hymns of Blood and Thunder] with Sanford Parker. What led you to record in London with Jaime Arellano this time?
Well, Rise Above was keen on having us go over to England to do the record, and we were pretty much entranced at the idea of being able to spend what ended up being three weeks living in London. And also we’d heard the Ghost record and found it decent. It wasn’t our sound, but it sounded decent, and we were like, ‘Well, this guy knows what he’s doing.’ It all kinda came together, and not the least of it was that we knew this record was very different from Conqueror or Hymns, and we’d made some changes, so it just kinda made sense. Everything just kind of came together.
What did you do differently on this record?
With Bob Foust having departed the band, we got Clyde [Paradis] in, and his style of drumming is completely different from Bob’s. Bob is a double kick player, Clyde is a single kick player. Clyde is more akin to a Phil Rudd or somebody along those lines, where Bob is a much more Mikkey Dee-style drummer, so obviously there’s a gulf of difference between the two. So stylistically, what the drums were going to be doing and as a result the bass is doing, it’s very different from the previous two records. And aside from that, me personally, I was kind of over the subject matter that we’d been exploring since Suffer No Guilt, which we recorded in 2006, where we sort of started to wed the more fantasy elements that traditionally would be more of a power metal thing in with the doom metal sound. I mean, the real inspiration of bands like Scald and Solstice and whatnot that came at this sort of sword-and-sorcery approach from a more epic metal standpoint, with us being more rooted in the Saint Vitus sound, the more gritty, raw sound. No one doing our particular musical style was exploring that side lyrically. And back in ’06, we were all, “This is cool, we’re all Conan fans, we can work with this and do something different.” And to be frank, we just kinda felt the well was running dry on that, and we just weren’t interested in doing Suffer No Guilt Part III: The Slightly Different Version, you know? Not to say that we were trying to do that with Conqueror and Hymns, it was just that it didn’t feel like the record that we wanted to make. 2010 was a really shitty year for us, on personal levels, and we wanted to explore different things lyrically, and since Bob had left, it opened a door for us to explore things differently, more the way we used to in the early days of the band. So it just kind of all came together.
On the last album, the average song was about four and a half minutes long. This time out, the average song is about seven minutes long. Was that a conscious choice, or did it just shake out that way during the writing process?
I think it just kinda happened. This is a much slower paced record, but it’s still—it’s kind of the reverse of, I don’t know if you’ve seen The Decline of Western Civilization, where the guy’s sort of dissecting Black Flag songs into verse-chorus-verse-chorus and what would be a three-minute pop song, but because of the speed they’re playing at it comes out in a minute and a half. I think that’s maybe what’s going on with this record, only in reverse. It’s the same number of verses and choruses that generally feel right for what we write. We’ve got a definite idea of what we wanna do when we sit down and write songs, but these are just—some of the tempos are literally 20-30 beats per minute, on average, slower than what they were on Hymns. Even slower in some cases. So it’s really more of a proper doom metal record in some respects, I guess. I don’t know. I think it’s just sort of a function of the way that we’re playing and the way it kinda came out. It wasn’t conscious, I wouldn’t say.
Has there ever been a time when you thought a second guitar would add something to the group’s sound, or is the trio format something you’re particularly committed to?
I really don’t like two-guitar bands, to be quite honest. Now, that being said, I love Trouble, but I think that two guitars often muddies the sound, and it really restricts what the bass can do. I mean, if you’ve got two guitars, unless they’re literally playing in unison, there’s no ambiguity in the chord structures of the songs. Most heavy metal, the classic heavy metal power chord riff is what you think about, and it really leaves the bass guitar a lot of room to breathe. They can go in and out of major-minor runs and all this stuff, and it opens up what the bass player can do. Whereas if you have, you know, the Judas Priest style or the Iron Maiden style of things, the bass is very restricted in what it can play because the chords are very clearly defined by two guitars, one riffing, one playing a counterpoint melody. You know where you’re at. And also, it’s just not—I don’t know, Black Sabbath managed to get by with one guitar, and they’re heavier than everybody. It’s just one thing that—the idea of doing two-guitar harmonies and stuff like that would be cool, but ultimately it’s never really occurred to me. I’ve always enjoyed power trios. All my favorite, favorite bands are, like Saint Vitus, the Obsessed, Cream, power trios with singers like Black Sabbath. I would entertain a keyboard player, someone playing a Hammond or something like that, before I would get a second guitar player.
Are cymbals secretly the most important instrument in doom metal?
Cymbals? I don’t know. Actually, when we did Hymns, Bob had a massive amount of cymbals. He had I think maybe eight or ten, whereas Clyde had—let’s see, there was the china, three crashes, his ride and his hi-hat. Bob had way more stuff going on than Clyde did. I think the real secret to doom is what you don’t do. It’s what you leave out. It’s where you put the accents, it’s in the smaller details and, you know, maybe the reason the cymbals jump out is because of the way that the drums were done. [Engineer] Guy Gomez is a drummer, and they spent a lot of time putting together the drum sound, he and Clyde. They kne what they wanted to do, they wanted to have that big, [John] Bonham-esque sound, and he just really is in tune with how to get that firmly in place. Whereas Sanford Parker is a bass player and I think that he got a good drum sound, but it was also a different kind of drummer that he was working with to get those sounds. Bob was very interested in making sure that his double kick had the attack and his snare had the sound that he wanted, which is a little more modern, a little more percussive, and I think that it loses some of the nuances.
The sort of downbeat tone of songs like “The Wretch” and lines like “I sold my soul and got nothing on the deal” make me wonder if this is the final Gates of Slumber album?
Well, I mean, a lot of these songs, they’re very personal. They’re not necessarily about the band, they’re about things that were happening in our personal lives throughout 2010. We spent a lot of time on the road. There are bands that are far more roadworn than we are. We really didn’t do that many dates compared to some bands, but in our previous history—you know, we’re guys in our 30s, [bassist] Jason [McCash]’s married with children, Bob’s married with children, I’m struggling to try and maintain some kind of adult existence in a game where a lot of the people are fucking ten years younger than I am at least, if not more. There’s a lot of younger people out there who don’t have as much to lose, and it’s difficult to keep going. Point being anyway, a lot of these songs aren’t about the band, they’re about realizing that we are selfish pricks, you know, and realizing that other people—“The Wretch” in particular, it’s a song I swore I would never write. It’s a breakup song. I swore I would never write one, but we were throwing out all of our old—I’m a big proponent of throwing out rule books. We all have our list of shoulds, and we shouldn’t have. I have a mental health background professionally outside of music, so I’m used to all these goofy terms, but we all have these personal rule books, and I threw mine out the window on this one. There are things I swore I would never do. I wrote the lyrics and was like, Man, these go against everything I believe, but they’re good lyrics, so I’m gonna use ’em. What are we gonna do? After all this time? I’ve been in this band for twelve years, I can’t really quit. You know what I mean? That’s a third of my life right now that I’ve invested in doing this. So it’s probably always gonna be there.
Yeah, I’m kinda fascinated with lifer acts. When I was in Texas for South by Southwest, I interviewed the singer for the grindcore band Kill the Client, and I remember being amazed that someone would devote ten years of their life to something guaranteed to never make them a dime.
I know the feeling. Once you’ve put so much time in—I like what Jus Oborn had to say about Electric Wizard after the split with [bassist Tim] Bagshaw and [drummer Mark] Greening. He’s like, “What am I gonna do? I’ve put all this time into Electric Wizard; this is the kind of band you either die or go to an insane asylum to get out of.” Because if I look back at it, and everything I fucked up to do this, if you start tallying up the butcher’s bill, you will just say “Oh, my God,” and crawl inside a bottle, or throw yourself off the nearest bridge. It’s not been—Bon Scott didn’t know the half of it when he was talking about a long way to the top.
It’s an even longer way to just above the bottom, it seems.
Exactly. That might be the next record—“It’s A Long Way To Just About The Bottom.”
This record’s been out for a month or more in the UK and Europe…
I think it’s been on sale through Rise Above’s website for a while, and we finally got some copies. We just came off the road with Place of Skulls over there, and we were sort of hoping we’d get copies—every gig we showed up to, we hoped they’d been drop shipped. We finally got ’em at Roadburn. And all through the tour, people were asking about ’em.
Does it make any kind of sense in 2011 for albums to have different release dates in different territories? How can that be avoided?
I have no idea. That’s not my sphere of influence. I’m assuming it’s just that Rise Above has their release schedule, they’ve got the exclusivity deal with Metal Blade and Metal Blade has to fit it around their business model. The only thing I can hope is that—I know that days after it came out it was on like 50 blogs for download, so I can only hope that people buy it. I think they will. At the same time, it’s like, any band today, you kinda have to feel like a vulture sitting around a corpse, cause the writing’s on the wall. Record stores are closing up, and big box stores are reducing their music sections. It’s a wholesale free-for-all of people downloading, and it’s hurting the underground and the mainstream and it’s just the old story, why by the cow if you’re getting the milk for free? And sadly, it’s kinda true. We’ll see what happens. I hope people buy it. I stand by it, I think it’s a great record, the best thing we’ve done, and I just hope people want to buy it.
You’ve done a lot of EPs, splits, and super deluxe limited editions of some of your earlier albums. Is there going to be some kind of ultra-fancy vinyl version of this record that comes in a box with a poster and a hat and a coupon for a free dozen donuts, or whatever?
Yeah, there was a big boxed set that Rise Above did for Hymns. And actually, Lee [Dorrian, head of Rise Above] and I were talking about that, and for me it’s almost reached the point where those diehard edition things, it’s almost gone too far. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the band Lord Vicar, they’re kind of a supergroup. They’ve got ex-members of Saint Vitus and Reverend Bizarre, spread over three countries, Finland, Sweden and England. They’re a really good band, but I think they kinda trumped everybody with the deluxe packaging. It’s in my collection, I’m sitting here looking at it—it’s a book, a hardbound book with pictures and all this stuff. It’s a beautiful thing, and they kinda trumped everybody. So Lee and I talked, and it might be a picture disc. Just to keep costs down so people will want to buy the vinyl. Because that’s actually the one thing—you know, you go to Best Buy and they’re actually stocking vinyl again. It’s crazy. It was written off. Ten years ago, if you’d said they were gonna be carrying vinyl in big box stores, people would have told you you were friggin’ crazy. It’s one of the few things people are actually buying. So I don’t know what the exact plans are for the vinyl edition. I know that there will be something, and it’s sort of still in the discussion phases, really, I don’t know what it’ll be. I really hope that it’s something a little bit unique or at the very least understated, just because we’ve had two boxed sets now and for me, I just really think the hoopla about packaging and stuff like that sometimes gets in the way of the actual music on the record, and that’s what I want people to focus on this time out. I’m very, very proud of what we’ve done. We cut through our own bullshit a bit as people and as musicians and really came to the nub of what we’re trying to do.
Are there any plans to reissue the first two records?
It would be nice. There’s always a lot of talk about it, but so far that’s all I’ve heard is a lot of talk about it. Rise Above has expressed passing interest, but it’s never gotten past “Hmm, that would be interesting, we should talk more about this.” And there have been some other labels that have spoken about it, but ultimately it just never seems to go anywhere. Hopefully someone will reissue them.
Do you have the rights?
We have the rights to the first one, and I would have to get in touch with I Hate Records out of Sweden to find out exactly what the deal is with the second one. I can’t imagine the license would be that extravagant—they’ve let it go out of print, and I can’t imagine—they’re very much an underground label and are more interested in whatever band they’re working with now than in keeping their back catalog up.
There’s a new Pentagram album, Saint Vitus are touring and planning a record—do you feel like doom is having a moment right now, and are you positioned to take advantage of it in any way?
You know, it’s easy to fall into that, and there have been several times through the years where people have been like, “Doom is rising.” I think maybe it’s as big as it’s ever been, maybe not. I remember back in the early ’90s, when Cathedral was on Columbia and the Obsessed was on Columbia, they were doing things where Earache and Hellhound were licensing things to major labels, and Columbia was trying to position itself as the label for this style of music that fit sort of with the grunge trend and was acceptable and marketable and whatever. People can point to that and be like, “Oh, it was massive back then,” but I think it’s just never going to go away. I don’t know if anybody’s gonna break big and become huge. I don’t know if anybody’s positioned to do that. But I do know that it’s never gonna go away. I think it’s definitely not unlike grindcore or crust punk. It’s one of those subcultures of underground music that is here to stay. There was a time in the late ’90s where it seemed to grind to a halt, but it just didn’t. Cathedral was still making records, Warning had just done a record, it was always here. It’s never going away. It’s got a higher profile now, but is that because it’s really more popular, or is it because we have the internet, and there’s instant access and it’s not restricted to ten small fanzines spread across the whole world? I don’t know. I hazard a guess on that; I honestly know that ten years from now there’ll be a Gates of Slumber, I know that, but what will be happening, I can’t guess. I’m just happy that Pentagram’s done a new record, I’m really excited about a new Saint Vitus album. I saw them in London, and checked out the new tune, and it’s vintage Vitus. It’s right up the middle, boom, Saint Vitus, and I’m really excited to hear their new record. As a fan, I’m just really stoked to hear all this stuff. I talked with Robert Lowe at Roadburn, and Solitude Aeturnus is getting ready to do a new record. They’re putting things together. It’s never going away, much to the chagrin of people who derided it as nothing more than Black Sabbath clones, it’s here to stay, I think.