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Eagle Twin Interview: The Unkindness Of Crows
Toby Cook , October 14th, 2009 12:23

Gentry Densley of Iceburn and Ascend talks to Toby Cook about his new avant metal project

“Who satisfies your years with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle?”

Frankly, I don’t know. Does Eagle Twin’s Gentry Densley? I don’t know that either – I never though to ask, and chances are he would have thought me more than a little odd had I posed the question in the first place.

Or possibly not – one thing you realise the instant Gentry Densley starts talking, in his slow, husky, central American drawl, is that this is a man for whom nothing is beyond consideration. Whether discussing the technical merits of colossal levels guitar amplification or ornithological based poetry, each word seems to escape as much as it is spoken; far from being phlegmatic though, each layer of meaning is peeled back and reduced to its baser fundamental parts. Yet perhaps we should expect no less from a man who, whilst a member of the criminally overlooked Iceburn, took his hardcore roots and with each album slowly transmuted them into vicissitudes of free jazz, culminating in epic, 70 minute musical palindromes.

So it was with some trepidation then that, after several failed attempts, The Quietus finally caught up with the man himself for a brief, cross continental chat...

Hi Gentry – How are you, where are you, what are you up to right now?

Gentry Densley: Hey! I’m pretty good. I’m just at home is Salt Lake City [Utah], relaxing between legs of the tour. We just did the mid-west and the west, then we do the east coast in a month and then Europe a couple of weeks after that.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Genesis of Eagle Twin?

GD: Well, I’ve know Tyler [Smith, drums] for a long time – we’ve been playing together for about the last 10 years, on and off. We initially did Furious Fire which was this power trio thing and I wanted us to cast our chops at some sort of Hendrix like, guitar insanity – we were younger back then, you know! But we’ve kept in touch, and actually played a lot together since then, so I just started involving him with the idea for this duo.

Then recently I learned from a friend of mine about this technology where he’d found a way to get a bass signal and a guitar signal at the same time – so I incorporated that and we started to get our sound.

So is that how you produce the Baritone guitar sound in Eagle Twin?

GD: Yeah, basically what I do is I run the low strings through a bass amp, and EQ them a little differently; but my guitar is tuned lower too – in fact, the low end is tuned lower than standard bass tuning! The high end isn’t as low though, so it spreads the sound out and gives you a full range to work with. Actually, to make the sound you have to do a lot of re-wiring too – route out new pickup holes and everything – it can become a bit of a hassle. But for me, it’s almost as fun as playing; fixing up the gear, making pedals that will work for us – I really dig all that.

A lot of our readers will probably know you from Iceburn, or Ascend – your recent collaboration with Sunn 0)))’s Greg Anderson. Why Eagle Twin as opposed to returning to a previous venture?

GD: Well Eagle Twin was actually going before we started the Ascend project, we just hadn’t released any material! The thing with Ascend, though, is that everybody is far away and we have to do a lot of travelling so there are a lot of logistical problems. But with Eagle Twin we have this practice space, and we live within a few miles of each other and it’s a lot more low maintenance so I can actualise my ideas pretty quick – plus I only have one other person to get on the same page with. We actually did a couple of Iceburn reunions a couple of years ago though. They turned out pretty cool – we actually did a lot of older material from the first couple of records, and those shows went pretty well too. The problem was that a lot of the people are heading in a lot of different places - so some of those guys are still in music, and some have large families and other commitments.

Although there are certainly jazz elements to Eagle Twin, the record seem to be more strongly rooted in metal – was that a conscious decision from the start?

It happened pretty organically, but it just reflects how our tastes have changed. I studied jazz quite heavily, and of course Iceburn slowly evolved; we were doing more and more jazz to the point where the last record was just full-on jazz. Once it went all the way to total improvised free jazz I started wanting to introduce more structure, we were even doing a lot of – I think the word is – ‘microvising’, where you’re doing very subtle, small sounds, similar to the whole eastern European, Derek Bailey thing. After a while I felt like I didn’t fit on that road so I wanted to get off it and find my true voice. I started playing metal so I just cycled back around.

So we shouldn’t expect to hear any woodwind based EPs anytime soon then?

GD: [Laughs!] No, we’ll save that for Ascend!

Oddly, there’s a very accessible element to Eagle Twin – was that ever a consideration that the LP would be too polished?

GD: Well we had a lot of early stuff, that no one’s ever heard, that was a lot more lo-fi basically because we couldn’t really afford to properly capture the sound. But I’d worked with Randall on Ascend, and he’d worked with Sunn O))) and Earth and he was able to get it to sound as good as our talents actually are – but, I mean it’s not even that polished to me, it just sounds like we sound!

We hear that you employed an obscene number of amplifiers during the recording of TUOC – is that right? What was the thinking behind that?

GD: Well Sunn O))) of course does it, so when we tour with them I get to use a bunch of their amps – only about half of them though! In the studio I use just a few very large amps, mainly our sound is because of a special pedal I use. A friend of mine made this pedal – we call it the ‘phase-waver’ – I’ve no idea how he though of it, but Sunn O))) uses them now, and Boris just bought one, and with it you can control multiple amps and you can adjust the phase so that all the speakers are pushing together; you’re not getting any cancellations with your waves, because the speakers are different and the heads are different. The thing is, if you use more than one amp you can lose low-end and lose a lot of the sound, so there’s a little switch on the pedal and you flip it into phase and it creates a huge sound. So with that I only try to use what’s necessary amplifier wise. But Tyler... He is about the hardest hitting drummer I’ve ever seen in my life! Actually he has a specially built bass pedal – it’s reinforced because he just breaks them like right in the middle; He goes through so many – he’s just a behemoth on the drums so I have to have enough amps. But then he has to hit harder, and it never ends – it becomes a crazy cycle.

Technical aspects aside, what other element have helped shape Eagle Twins sound?

GD: Well, a lot of it comes from ‘the riff’ and the whole tradition of ‘the riff’. It’s something that I’ve become more conscious of – from Page and Iommi, down through people like Wino – the whole idea of people channelling ‘the riff’. I’m also interested in myths and mythology and the creation of myths, the scale of the universal consciousness and how these same stories pop up over the years – the whole idea of collective memory and looking at riffs the same way; the real language of ‘the riff’. I also wanted to do more story telling so there are probably influences from a lot of blues artists and also a lot of Mahavishnu influences; harmonically, I just started thinking about putting some more of that in, and there are elements of fusion Jazz as well.

I keep reading articles that, vocally, compare you to Tom Waits – where you aware of these comparisons? What do you think of them?

GD: Well I’ve listened to him for decades! I’ve always been a huge [Captain] Beefheart fan too, and the Tom Waits stuff that I got into initially was the stuff that he had kind of taken of from Beefheart. I was also in to Howling Wolf as well so I guess I learned the vocal pain barrier from them. Back in Iceburn though, I was a young puppy and I didn’t quite have a voice that sounded like those guys. But, that’s good to be compared to... well... greatness!

Speaking of singing – that ‘throat singing’ thing you do is bloody impressive – where do you summon that from?

GD: Well, I’d heard about it in the mid 90’s, I remember we’d been to see the Tibetan monks perform in Utah, and after hearing those guys I started getting into music from other cultures – things were a little bit different back then though: we didn’t have the internet so you had to seek that stuff out, mainly by visiting libraries, and luckily I had access to some good libraries. Through friends I heard about other things too, Like this guy David Sykes; He had this choir that would do harmonic singing and really hit the lower tones, so I started just playing with it myself, because I though it was so cool, and eventually I learned how to control it. I have this buddy though – who’s a tabla drummer actually – but he had learned how to hit the higher register, and he plays with a lot of Indian musicians around the area – he’s kind of a world dude – so we would teach each other what we knew. Since then though it’s just something that I’ve been working on; something you do in the car and have fun with – almost like whistling or humming or something! I don’t really know how to explain it, but you end up getting an octave lower that your normal voice when you grind it like that and it just sort of kicks in like it’s a distortion pedal or something!

It must put one hell of a strain on your voice though?

GD: Yeah, right now, after doing it on the road every night it does get a little thrashed, but I think I’m building up a bit of a tolerance – I guess those Tuvan guys do it everyday though. It is a pretty natural thing in a way, I think if you scream too much that’s probably a little worse, I guess you’ve just got to warm up into it. I do think it probably makes your voice a little deeper in real life too!

With yourselves, Sunn 0))), Burial Hex et al, Doom/Drone seem to be undergoing somewhat of a renaissance – why do you think this is? Does it surprise you?

GD: Well I think as a genre it allows you a certain amount of creativity and there are certain labels – thought I mostly know how Sothern Lord works – that really help. Greg [Anderson] has his own tastes and his own ways of putting stuff out there; not putting out what he thinks is crap, but giving some creative people an opportunity. But I don’t know, maybe this ‘new hope’ with Obama is good for it too!?

I’d love to see Obama dropping the Claw to Sunn O)))!

GD: Yeah, that would be awesome!

There are a lot of bird references throughout the album – are the two of you keen ornithologists?

GD: [Laughs] No, not really! The twin of the eagle is the crow though, and I had actually written a lot of crow songs before Eagle Twin even existed. A lot of it came from reading a lot of [Ted] Hughes – he was the British poet laureate for a while before his death and wrote a lot about crows so I took a lot from that. We actually wrote a lot of the songs straight from the text, but then we had alter things so his skeleton doesn’t rise up and sue me! [laughs manically] The ideas just really resonated with me and he had a way of taking different ideas and myths and personifying them, or ‘animafying’ them I guess with the crow. But his poetry has a certain rhythm and that to me almost suggests the riffs, so that’s really the genesis of it. I think the next album will be more about snakes though. Birds came from reptiles so it’s all the same family!

So what’s your favourite bird of prey!?

GD: I don’t know, I guess probably a Merlin!

So what’s next for Eagle Twin?

GD: Well we’re going to try and recover from this small tour first! After that though? Me and Tyler are going to work, go back to the day jobs and practicing at night, and then we’ll hit the road again here in a little while. After that we’re going to tour the east coast and then Europe in October – all with Sunn O))). Actually, we were talking about recording some new Ascend stuff, maybe and EP or something, we’ve already got a couple of songs ready – We’ll just keep it going; it’s good to have an outlet you know!

Eagle Twin’s ‘The Unkindness Of Crows’ is out now via Southern Lord